The Perils of Panacea
JD Devereaux’s son has been raised to think his father is dead. But he’s not. At least, not yet.
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The three basic rules of private investigation, imparted to me early and often by my mentor Ralph, are as follows: first, don’t work for free, no matter how good the cause. Even the most appreciative client will eventually succumb to human nature and think he’s getting exactly what he’s paid for. Second, don’t work for family or friends. That’s pretty self-explanatory, at least to anyone who has family or friends. Third, don’t work for anyone you really don’t like. Come to think of it, if you really don’t like someone, you probably know that person well enough that he or she should fall under rule number two.
Strictly speaking, all of Ralph’s rules can be reduced to one rule applicable to both investigation and life in general. I’ve taped it, typed in twenty-eight point font all-caps, to my desk at the office and above my computer at home, and I probably should put it next to my bed. (Then again, I should be so lucky as to need it there.) I refer to it as Ralph’s Law: “DON’T BE A DUMB-ASS.”
When I agreed to help Renee Singer, not only did I violate Ralph’s (small “r”) rules, I acted in flagrant disregard of Ralph’s Law.
In short, I was a dumb-ass.
It all started with a late-night knock at my door. It was a pretty insistent sound, not pounding, or the kind of thing that precedes “Fire!” or “We have a warrant,” but neither was it a neighbor dropping off a borrowed casserole pan. At 1 a.m.
“Who the hell could that be at this time of night?”
I didn’t really expect Jackie and Bruce to answer—they were too busy doing goldfish things in their aquarium to notice someone knocking on the door—but I’d found myself speaking to them more often in recent months. At least I hadn’t heard them answer yet. The TV remote hit the hardwood floor with a clack, and I made a mental note (again) to buy a new end table. I tumbled from my chair, tucked a screwdriver in the back of my shorts, and went to answer the door.
“Ben, what the—” I rephrased once I’d had a moment to think, to see his anxiety in the glare of my porch light. “What’s up?”
“Hey, Syd, I, uh … Sorry, I know it’s kinda late, but I thought you’d still be up. And I need a favor.”
“That’s okay. Come on in.”
My teenaged neighbor and I gravitated to the kitchen table. We hadn’t been spending as much time together lately as we used to—I’d told myself it was because he was working a summer job—but when we did, this was where we always ended up now. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d sat out in the backyard and looked at the stars, or heckled professional wrestling on TV.
“I like the new TV, by the way,” I said. “I think you were right about the … doohickey thing and its ratio whatsit.”
Ben smiled indulgently—the old Ben smile—and I felt an easing of the pressure in my chest.
“What, do you work on commission?”
“No,” he said, “but Kelly does.”
“Ahh,” I nodded, and watched him blush. Kelly was the (slightly older) young woman he’d been dancing around the idea of dating for a few months now. I was pretty sure she didn’t know a cathode tube from a death ray, although that probably didn’t matter so much anymore.
“So what’s the favor? I’m afraid I can’t spare any organs right now, but maybe we can come to some sort of agreement. A time share? I’ve got dibs on the liver for the weekend.”
Ben’s smile had faded, and he didn’t respond to my teasing. Never a good sign. “I need to borrow your car.”
I crossed my arms and leaned back in my chair, unsure of what attitude to assume. I started with nonchalant, if one can maintain piercing looks while being nonchalant. Probably not. “Since when do you have a driver’s license?”
“Come on, Syd, I’ve got my learner’s permit. And you know I drive all the time.”
“True, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea. Especially after dark.”
“Look, I’d take the Ford, but it’s a manual, and my cast makes it a little awkward.”
Ben wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty (his teenaged deviousness didn’t yet rise to such heights), but I did anyway. His arm (and my TV) had been broken in my living room six weeks ago by a crazy ex-cop who had tried to kill both of us. I suspected the experience was never far from either of our thoughts, which is why I was awake to answer Ben’s knock. You can’t have nightmares if you don’t sleep.
“When does that thing come off?”
“Next week.” Ben scratched at his protruding hand absently. “Can’t wait. So what do you say?”
Despite being wide awake when Ben knocked on the door, it took me a ridiculously long time to ask the most obvious question. “Ben, where’s your mom?”
His eyes turned hard, angry, and he pushed his chair back from the table. “Forget it. I’ll drive the Ford.”
I got up and stood between Ben and the door. He’d grown even more over the summer. I had to look up to see his eyes, and even then it wasn’t easy. His brown hair had pulled free where he’d tried to tuck it behind his ears, falling into his face. He needed a haircut.
“Like hell you will. I’m driving.”
His lips tightened and he looked away. Had I crossed a line? Finally said something to remind him that I was an Adult, thus not to be trusted? God, I hoped not. I smacked Ben in the stomach with the back of my hand. It doesn’t take much force to make a good thwacking sound, so long as you stay in practice. He blinked and sucked his belly in, not that he had one. All of the considerable calories he consumed (many in my kitchen) went to vertical growth.
“Let’s go, doofus,” I said, hooking my arm through Ben’s.
He nodded and relaxed his shoulders, but still held his abs in check. “Okay.”
“Just let me lock up.”
I slid the bolt and twisted the gizmo on the front door, grabbing my wallet from my purse and the Red Sox hat hanging from the pegs next to the door. I didn’t need a mirror to feel the frizz infecting my hair. Plus I had a feeling I might not be coming back home tonight, and the hat would come in handy in the morning. We left through the side door to the carport, me tucking the screwdriver on top of the fridge on the way out. It wasn’t until we’d climbed into Cecil and started his engine that I spoke again.
“Seat belt.” He obeyed, and I started backing out of the driveway. “So, where is she this time?”
“Cooper’s.” Ben looked out the window into the dark as he spoke.
I’d suspected his mother was at a bar, and Cooper’s certainly qualified. It was one of the few places serving alcohol in Tallahassee where hordes of students with fake IDs didn’t bring the average age down to about nineteen. At least that meant she probably hadn’t been picking up underage kids. I also suspected that she’d been spending a lot of time at bars lately, and Ben’s voice with that single word was the only confirmation I needed. What I didn’t know was why. Ben’s mother and I weren’t exactly chummy, and certain minor details needed clarification.
“What’s your mom’s name again?”
“Renee.” I could hear a mix of sullenness and apprehension returning to Ben’s voice. “Look, Syd. Don’t start anything, okay? This is why I didn’t want you to come. I mean, really, it’s none of your damn business, is it?”
“Au contraire, mon frère.” I could feel the puckishness in me, my inner George Carlin, coming out. “In fact, it is my damn business. If you’ll remember, I saved your life, so it’s mine now.”
This was a bit of a running gag with us. I’m sure it would make some therapists cringe, but I tended to make a joke of our shared near-death experience to minimize it. Those same therapists might suggest that I was also trying to minimize my own guilt, but, as Ben said, it’d be none of their damn business, would it? Besides, trashing me was part of the gag as well.
“If you hadn’t watched too many episodes of Wonder Woman as a kid, I wouldn’t have been attacked by a psycho in your house and you wouldn’t have had to save me. Besides, Noel’s the one that shot him.”
“That’s because I softened him up first.” I took a slow turn into Cooper’s deep gravel parking lot and sighed. “I did love her golden lasso.”
The headlights of an exiting SUV seemed to show too much white in Ben’s eyes. I pulled into a spot, cut off the engine, and handed him my car keys.
“Here. I’m going in to get your mom. Don’t worry—I’ll be good; I promise. I don’t want to make a scene, so it’s going to take me a few minutes to get her out of there. Whatever happens, don’t come in after us. And clean up the backseat while I’m gone. Just put the stuff in the trunk so your mom has a place to crash.”
If Ben was offended that I had relegated his mother to the backseat, he didn’t comment. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have to speak with her on the way home. Well, it wasn’t just that anyway. Still drinking at this time of night, I doubted she’d stay upright for very long. I tucked my wallet into my back pocket, prayed it didn’t pull my shorts down, and crunched my way toward the entrance. The gravel thinned out near the door, where the foot traffic was constant, but I’d hate to have to walk to the car in girlie shoes after a couple of drinks. It must be the Cooper’s sobriety test—if you can make it to your car without skinning your knees, you’re sober enough to drive home. The splintered wooden threshold at the entrance, half an inch higher than you’d expect, was another test. I didn’t score as well on that one, even wearing my customary flip-flops. I concentrated on making it to the bar with my remaining dignity intact.
Cooper’s is a small neighborhood place, wood-paneled inside, with a few of the usual beer signs on the walls and in the windows. It was better lit than I’d expected, blazing with overhead and wall-mounted lighting, as well as the occasional table lamp. Maybe it was bright because they were getting ready to close up and wanted to see where to mop. There were a couple of high-backed booths in the corner, a pool table on the other side, and mismatched tables scattered around the edges, leaving an open path to the bar and its mostly unoccupied stools. That’s where I headed.
I hop-slid onto a stool, but the bartender held up a hand before I could order.
“Sorry, darlin’, but you just missed last call.”
I looked him over. About fifty, wearing a Yankees cap and a mustache showing more gray than the reddish-brown hair on his head. He pulled a bulk bag of wasabi peas from somewhere nearby and began popping them into his mouth. I love wasabi peas.
“May I?” I asked.
He held out the bag and I grabbed a handful. Before me was a true addict. The Tallahassee humidity works its way through those thin plastic bags quickly, robbing the peas of their crunch and some of their fire. These still tasted fresh, and the first one gave a skull-jarring crunch between my teeth. I was willing to bet they’d never have a chance to get stale. I added in a few more, until on the third or fourth one I felt the satisfying heat build in the center of the roof of my mouth—slowly, slowly. I closed my eyes to savor the feeling when the heat shot from there to my sinuses. I opened my eyes and he was watching me, smiling. My subsequent sniff wasn’t very ladylike, and my tongue still tingled along the sides where it met my teeth.
“Those wasabis sure can help you build up a thirst.” He didn’t bite, so I tried another tack. “You see the game tonight?”
“I sure did.” His eyes lit up, and it wasn’t from the wasabi.
I hadn’t seen it, but I knew the Red Sox and Yankees had played, and it was obvious who had won. At least their loss wouldn’t have been for nothing. I grabbed my own Red Sox cap, holding his gaze, and turned it slowly so the brim was guarding my back.
“Then you know why I need a drink. Come on, just one quickie. Make it a bottle and you won’t even have to clean up after me.”
He was almost there, so I pulled out my secret weapon, the one that required the reversed hat. Forearms flat on the bar, I nestled my chin on my hands and gave him puppy eyes. And a five dollar bill—enough for a tip on a cheap beer, but not so generous as to put his back up.
“Well, I guess you’ve had enough disappointment for tonight. But it’s a three-game series, so make sure you get in here earlier tomorrow night to drown your sorrows.”
When he turned, grinning, to get my drink, I began the slow process of peeling my arm skin from the sticky bar. I’d barely wiped the disgust from my face when he returned with the bottle. It was crappy beer too, watery and sour, but at least it was cold. I’m such a martyr for my friends. Or mothers of my friends.
“Is Renee in tonight?”
“Where else would she be?” He indicated one of the booths with a nod of his head.
I’d only seen her once, in bad hospital lighting and under considerable stress, but that was Ben’s mom all right. A very drunk Ben’s mom. Three men between the ages of thirty-five and fifty and all looking alike enough to be brothers sat in a booth. Renee sat on the table, her back to the room and her feet on the bench next to one of the men. Looking at her, I felt decidedly over- or under-dressed; I wasn’t sure which. I hadn’t taken the time to change from my PJs―sweats cut off into shorts and a faded taco stand T-shirt filched from some boyfriend or other. Renee was wearing heeled espadrilles, short white shorts made even shorter by sitting with raised knees, and a navy blue top stretched tight across her small, pointy breasts. I half-expected a matching sailor’s hat. Her top rode up and her shorts gapped to expose a fair-sized section of her back. No tattoo, but I was disheartened to see the top of her thong when she shifted, laughing at someone’s no doubt brilliant joke. Three rednecks walk into a bar … Ouch! The thong was blue to match her shirt, not her non-existent bra—not that I could talk in my current PJ’d state. I took a deep breath, trying to shake off the smart-ass before opening my mouth. At least the thong didn’t show through her white shorts.
“Renee, is that you? Renee—”
That’s when I realized I didn’t even know her last name. It took her eyes so long to focus in my general direction, there was no way she noticed the hesitation. The three men, on the other hand, turned to look at me immediately, and their gazes weren’t friendly. At close range, I could see the common denominator in their looks wasn’t genetics, but rather an inability to practice regular hygiene. All three needed to shave, and though there was some variation in tone (a little blond? a little gray?), each had hair that could be described as greasy. The alcohol they’d consumed hadn’t taken the predatory edge off their stares, but instead sharpened them. It was as if they were afraid I’d snuck in to take their prize, which just might be what I was doing.
I spoke with a relaxed voice and held my bottle carelessly, as if I’d already drunk so much, what did a little spill matter?
“It’s Sydney, from next door.” Renee’s mind didn’t seem to be making the connection, but I preferred not to mention her son, Ben. “I know I haven’t seen you in forever, but I live in that brick place, next door. With the trees …”
I let my voice trail off. That described almost every house on our block, but I’d given her enough time to pretend to recognize me.
“Oh yeah, right, next door. How’s it going?” Renee’s head tilted. She knew there was something about me, something not right with the picture of us as friends, but she couldn’t get her booze-baffled head around it. “I don’t usually see you here, do I?”
“Nope, this is my first time. I came here with a friend, but she ditched me a few minutes ago. Left with some guy.”
I leaned toward Renee, stage-whispering. “Not that I can blame her. God, he was a hottie. I’d ‘a done him in a minute, too. Well, hopefully a little longer than that.”
I bumped my shoulder against Renee’s and snorted, getting an answering giggle for my troubles. Then I leaned back over the table, arching my back and twisting my head to try to see all the men at once. “He wasn’t a friend of yours, was he?”
I hadn’t spoken to any one in particular, but of course each one thought I’d been speaking to him. I could see the calculations going on, the heavy glances and nods between the men as they tried to figure out how to divide two women among the three of them. I hated to think of the possibilities if Renee had been left alone. For the next ten minutes, I sat next to Renee and talked mostly with her, building a chick rapport. Occasionally, I’d throw out a flirting comment to the scruffy peanut gallery to allay their suspicions. Then came the blessed words I’d been waiting for.
“All right, everybody, we’re closing up.”
The bartender’s voice boomed through the mostly empty space over a few halfhearted groans of complaint. “I don’t care where you go, but the cops do their regular drive-by in fifteen minutes, so you’d best be gone from the parking lot by then.”
Renee nearly fell when she slipped off the edge of the table to stand precariously. Her head wobbled in my direction.
“Well, listen,” she slurred, putting both hands on my forearm, “this was really fun. Seriously. We’ll have to do it again sometime. But now …”
Her eyes slid to the three men gathering around us. They looked at Renee as though they were about to cut her from the herd. Time to act before the fanged beasts did.
“What are you talking about?” I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and hugged her against my side. “The night doesn’t have to be over yet. When’s the last time you had a girls’ night out? I know this place over toward Pensacola that has some of the hottest male strippers you’ve ever seen.”
Renee looked tempted, but the predators weren’t as drunk as she was. They’d never bothered to introduce themselves, but I distinguished the one who spoke next by his pudgy jawline. It had an almost fluid puffiness that made my skin crawl at the thought of touching his face. If he had lips, they’d disappeared in his stubbly, disapproving scowl. The thin line looked odd on his jowly face.
“I hate to rain on your little party, sweet thing, but they’ll be closed by the time you get there, if they’re not already.”
I schooled my face to look disappointed rather than angry. “Oh, damn, you’re right. You know, in New Orleans the bars don’t even have locks on the doors because they never close.”
I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it didn’t matter. It distracted them enough, telling their own stories of decadence and flexing their beer-holding biceps, to give me time to regroup. After a few moments, I went on speaking as if I hadn’t noticed the conversation had continued without me.
“And I was looking forward to hitting the beach afterwards. God, I love to swim naked in the ocean at night. The warm water on your skin in the cool breeze, waves trying to knock you over in the dark … And all the things you can’t see in the water, touching you …”
Eyes closed, I tried to make my weaving both drunken and suggestive without being overtly either. My beer migrated from my hand to a nearby table and I straightened suddenly, grabbing Renee with both arms.
“Oh my God, Renee—we should totally do it! We can be in Carrabelle in no time, or better yet, St. George. Come on, I’ll drive. I just bought a little Miata—” blatantly untrue, but it was the only two-seater convertible I could think of on short notice, “—and I’m dying to try it out. What better place to take the top down than on 98?”
U.S. 98 runs along the coast south of Tallahassee from Alligator Point to the St. George Island Bridge at Eastpoint and beyond. The narrow two-lane road is bracketed by gradually disappearing longleaf pines and increasing numbers of vacation rentals, but there’s still a nice view of the Gulf and bays, with long stretches of shallow water broken only by relics of long- and recently-gone piers and the occasional fisherman in rubber waders. I was so caught up in the fantasy, I could smell the salt in the air and see the moon reflecting off the glassy water. That is, until a hand squeezing my elbow hard enough to bruise brought me back to the sad funk of Cooper’s.
Instinct held my tongue. My head came to the man’s chest, and it wasn’t a pretty sight, his T-shirt stained and chest hair attempting to escape from the holes that speckled it like fat freckles.
“Easy there, Tex,” I said, turning to stroke his arm with my right hand until he released my other elbow. His forearm was tough-skinned, like the pad of a dog’s foot. It was the alpha Jowls; I should have known. “Unfortunately, someone of your considerable dimensions is not gonna fit in my tiny little car.”
I traced his arm from wrist to elbow one last time before casually reaching for the beer I’d left on the table. “But you can meet us there. We need someone to watch us while we swim, someone to protect us from sharks and the rest of the wildlife.”
The lipless line of his face was still rigid; I’d rather take my chances with the sharks. I tilted my head, looking at the dirtball with my eyes high beneath the lids, and tried not to shudder. When I spoke, my voice was breathy with a slight whine.
“Don’t you want to watch us? I thought all men liked to watch.”
His expression didn’t change. I thought I’d lost my touch, but a quick glance at his buddies told me I hadn’t. Mouths open slightly, they were clearly expecting to see more than swimming, but Jowls was the one calling the shots. The area where his lips should have been wrinkled into a lumpier shape as he looked me over from head to toe. He nodded to the other men, and one moved toward Renee. I doubt she’d heard a word we’d said. She was leaning against a chair for support, eyes on the floor, possibly picking her vomit target.
Jowls grabbed my elbow again, hard, and began propelling me toward the door. “That sounds like a good idea, but I think you’re both gonna ride with us. There’s plenty of room, and you’re really in no condition to drive.”
“That’s very sweet of you, but—”
The fingers of my left hand were going numb. He was hurting my arm, and he knew it. The bartender was nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t count on any of the stragglers for assistance. The way Jowls was manhandling me, he’d have no qualms about actually striking me. With a hundred-plus pounds of weight advantage, one good shot and I’d be down for the count. I adjusted my hand on the neck of my beer bottle.
Like any bar worth drinking in, Cooper’s had the occasional wet spot on the hardwood floor. I planted my foot in the middle of a big one, pushing forward and at an angle to ensure a good slide. Using my momentum and weight to turn counterclockwise, I twisted away from Jowls and out of his grip while swinging around to face him. As I went down, I swung my beer bottle as hard as I could to crack Jowls in the kneecap. The sound of glass on bone was almost as satisfying as his subsequent scream of pain, and nearly drowned out the hard thump of my own ass hitting the floor. Nearly.
Jowls jerked the injured knee up fast just as his other foot hit the wet spot. The same physics that had brought me down worked its magic on him. His good leg flew up in the air, kicked me in the temple and knocked my hat off. I rolled over on my hands and knees, waiting for my sight to clear and the world to stop spinning. Of course the asshole would be wearing boots. Never trust a man who wears boots to a bar in the Florida summer.
I pulled my hat on gingerly when I could see again. Jowls was still on his back, but I heard a shuddering gasp as he sucked wind. No time to lose. I crawled to my feet and found Renee giggling at Jowls. Not very compassionate of her, but we weren’t sticking around long enough for her lack of discretion to become an issue. I grabbed her wrist.
“Let’s go, Renee.”
She stood, rooted to the spot, and her eyes started to glaze again. The rest of the peanut gallery hadn’t moved, but when I spoke, their eyes gained the focus Renee’s lacked. Definitely no time to lose.
“C’mon, Renee, let’s go!” I gave her arm a jerk and pulled her toward the door.
“All right, already—take it easy,” Renee said in a petulant voice, feet shuffling along behind me as quickly as they were able.
Jowls finally filled his lungs enough to speak. And yell. “Don’t just stand there, help me up! And you—”
The last part was directed at my back because I wasn’t about to turn around. “You—come back here, you stupid, clumsy bitch!”
Yeah, like that would happen. At least he still thought I was clumsy, not wily. Wily Sydney. So wily that Renee nearly took both of us down when she tripped over the threshold on the way out the door. My back twinged as I caught myself on the steps. Renee giggled again, and I gave her a dirty look.
“Aren’t they coming with us?” she asked.
“Not if I can help it. Move!”