|Men Are Trouble|
Page 5 of 8
I didn't go to my office after I locked my bike to the rack on Market Street. Instead I went to find George. He was stripping varnish from the beadboard wainscoting in Donna Belasco's old office on the fifth floor. Donna's office had been vacant since last fall, when she had closed her law practice and gone south to count waves at Daytona Beach. At least, that's what I hoped she was doing; the last I'd heard from her was a Christmas card. I missed Donna; she was one of the few grannies who tried to understand what it was like to grow up the way we did. And she had been generous about steering work my way.
"Hey George," I said. "You can tell your boss that I found the ring."
"This one offers the congratulations." The arm holding the brush froze over the can of stripper as he swiveled his head to face me. "You have proved true superiority, Fay." George had done a good job maintaining our building since coming to us a year ago, although he had something against wood grain. We had to stop him from painting over the mahogany paneling in the foyer.
I hated to close the door but this conversation needed some privacy. "So I've set up a meeting." The stink of the varnish stripper was barbed wire up my nose. "Father Elaine Horváth will be here at six."
George said nothing. Trying to read a bot is like trying to read a refrigerator. I assumed that he was relaying this information to Seeren. Would the devil be displeased that I had booked its meeting into my office?
"Seeren is impressed by your speedy accomplishment," George said at last. "Credit has been allotted to this one for suggesting it task you."
"Great, take ten bucks a month off my rent. Just so you know, I promised Father Elaine she'd be safe here. Seeren is not going to make a liar out of me, is it?"
"Seeren rejects violence. It's a regrettable technique."
"Yeah, but if Seeren disappears her to wherever, does that count?"
George's head swiveled back toward the wainscoting. "Father Elaine Horváth will be invited to leave freely, if such is her intention." The brush dipped into the can. "Was Kate Vermeil also found?"
"No," I said. "I looked, but then Father Elaine found me. By the way, she didn't live at 465 12th Avenue."
"Seeren had otherwise information." The old varnish bubbled and sagged where George had applied stripper. "Such error makes a curiosity."
It was a little thing, but it pricked at me as I walked down to the third floor. Was I pleased to discover that the devils were neither omnipotent nor infallible? Not particularly. For all their crimes against humanity, the devils and their bots were pretty much running our world now. It had been a small if bitter comfort to imagine that they knew exactly what they were doing.
I passed crazy Martha's door, which was open, on the way to my office. "Yaga combany wading," she called.
I backtracked. My neighbor was at her desk, wearing her Technopro gas mask, which she claimed protected her from chlorine, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, bacteria, viruses, dust, pollen, cat dander, mold spores, nuclear fallout and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it also made her almost unintelligible.
"Try that again," I said.
"You've. Got. Company. Waiting."
"Who is it?"
She shook the mask and shrugged. The light of her desktop was reflected in the faceplate. I could see numbers swarming like black ants across the rows and columns of a spreadsheet.
"What's with the mask?"
"We. Had. A. Devil. In. The. Building."
"Really?" I said. "When?"
There was no reason why a devil shouldn't come into our building, no law against having one for a client. But there was an accusation in Martha's look that I couldn't deny. Had I betrayed us all by taking the case? She said, "Hate. Devils."
"Yeah," I said. "Me too."
I opened my door and saw that it was Sharifa who was waiting for me. She was trying on a smile that didn't fit. "Hi Fay," she said. She looked as elegant as always and as weary as I had ever seen her. She was wearing a peppered black linen dress and black dress sandals with thin crossover straps. Those weren't doctor shoes -- they were pull down the shades and turn up the music shoes. They made me very sad.
As I turned to close the door, she must have spotted the patch of blood that had dried in my hair. "You're hurt!" I had almost forgotten about it - there was no percentage in remembering that I was in pain. She shot out of her chair. "What happened?"
"I slipped in the shower," I said.
"Let me look."
I tilted my head toward her and she probed the lump gently. "You could have a concussion."
"PI's don't get concussions. Says so right on the license."
"Sit," she said. " Let me clean this up. I'll just run to the bathroom for some water."
I sat and watched her go. I thought about locking the door behind her but I deserved whatever I had coming. I opened the bottom drawer of the desk, slipped two plastic cups off the stack and brought Johnnie Walker in for a consultation.
Sharifa bustled through the doorway with a cup of water in one hand and a fistful of paper towels in the other but caught herself when she saw the bottle. "When did this start?"
"Just now." I picked up my cup and slugged two fingers of Black Label Scotch. "Want some?"
"I don't know," she said. "Are we having fun or are we self-medicating?"
I let that pass. She dabbed at the lump with a damp paper towel. I could smell her perfume, lemon blossoms on a summer breeze and just the smallest bead of sweat. Her scent got along nicely with the liquid smoke of the scotch. She brushed against me and I could feel her body beneath her dress. At that moment I wanted her more than I wanted to breathe.
"Sit down," I said.
"I'm not done yet," she said.
I pointed at a chair. "Sit, damn it."
She dropped the paper towel in my trash as she went by.
"You asked me a question this morning," I said. "I should've given you the answer. I had the abortion last week."
She studied her hands. I don't know why; they weren't doing anything. They were just sitting in her lap, minding their own business.
"I told you when we first got together, that's what I'd do when I got seeded," I said.
"I just didn't see any good choices," I said. "I know the world needs children, but I have a life to lead. Maybe it's a rude, pointless, dirty life but it's what I have. Being a mother ... that's someone else's life."
"I understand," said Sharifa. Her voice was so small it could have crawled under a thimble. "It's just ... it was all so sudden. You told me and then we were fighting and I didn't have time to think things through."
"I got tested in the morning. I told you that afternoon. I wasn't keeping anything a secret."
She folded her arms against her chest as if she were cold. "And when I get seeded, what then?"
"You'll do what's best for you."
She sighed. "Pour me some medication, would you?"
I poured scotch into both cups, came around the desk and handed Sharifa hers. She drank, held the whiskey in her mouth for a moment and then swallowed.
"Fay, I ..." The corners of her mouth were twitchy and she bit her lip. "Your mother told me once that when she realized she was pregnant with you, she was so happy. So happy. It was when everything was crashing around everyone. She said you were the gift she needed to ... not to ...."
"I got the gift lecture, Sharifa. Too many times. She made the devils sound like Santa Claus. Or the stork."
She glanced down as if surprised to discover that she was still holding the cup. She drained it at a gulp and set it on my desk. "I'm a doctor. I know they do this to us; I just wish I knew how. But it isn't a bad thing. Having you in the world can't be a bad thing."
I wasn't sure about that, but I kept my opinion to myself.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to carry water in my hands but it's all leaking out and there's nothing I can do to stop it." She started rubbing her right hand up and down her left forearm. "People keep killing themselves. Maybe it's not as bad as it used to be, but still. The birth rate is barely at replacement levels. Maybe we're doomed. Did you ever think that? That we might go extinct?"
Sharifa was silent for a long time. She kept rubbing her arm. "It should've been me doing your abortion," she said at last. "Then we'd both have to live with it."
I was one tough PI. I kept a bottle of scotch in the bottom drawer and had a devil for a client. Tommys whacked me with nightsticks and pumped knockout spray into my face. But even I had a breaking point, and Dr. Sharifa Ramirez was pushing me up against it hard. I wanted to pull her into my arms and kiss her forehead, her cheeks, her graceful neck. But I couldn't give in to her that way - not now anyway. Maybe never again. I had a case, and I needed to hold the best part of myself in reserve until it was finished. "I'll be in charge of the guilt, Sharifa." I said. "You be in charge of saving lives." I came around the desk. "I've got work to do, so you go home now, sweetheart." I kissed her on the forehead. "I'll see you there."
Easier to say than to believe.
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