One Door Away from Heaven

Page 63

Lately, Noah's preferred sources of sugar were all liquid and came with an alcohol component, but he felt the need for a metabolic kick-start to hold his own with this woman and to get his most urgent point across to her. He took another cookie from the plate.

Geneva said, "Have you found any record of Maddoc's marriage to Leilani's mother?"

"No. Even with Internet resources, it's a big country. In a few states, if you have a convincing reason and some friends in the right places, you could arrange an in-camera marriage, in the privacy of a judge's chambers, with the license issued and properly tiled but not published. That's not easy to track. More likely, they were hitched in another country that'll marry foreign nationals. Maybe Mexico. Or Guatemala's a good bet. A lot of resources could be saved if Leilani would tell us where the wedding took place."

"We were going to ask exactly that when she came to dinner the second time. But we didn't see her again. I guess the mother's real name and proof that the brother existed aren't any easier to track than the marriage license."

"Not impossible. But, again, it would help if I could speak to Leilani." Frustrated, he put down the unbitten second cookie. "I'm sitting here listening to myself talk like I'm completely on-board for this, and that's not the case, Geneva."

"I know it'll be expensive, and Micky didn't give you much-"

"That's not the problem."

"-but I have a little equity in this house that I could borrow against, and Micky's going to get a good job soon, I know she is."

"It's hard to get a good job and keep it when you're on the run from the FBI. Listen, that's the point. If I do any work for you, knowing that your niece intends to snatch this girl from her legal parents, then I'm aiding and abetting a kidnapping."

"That's ridiculous, dear."

"I'd be an accessory to a felony. It's the law."

"The law is ridiculous."

"In fact, to protect myself from any chance of being charged as an accessory, once I've given back your three hundred bucks, which I've brought with me, I have to go directly to the authorities and warn them what your niece is intending to do up there in Idaho."

Geneva cocked her head and favored him with a look of amused disbelief. "Don't tease me, dear."

"Tease? I'm dead serious here."

She winked at him. "No, you're not."

"Yes, I am."

"No, you're not." She punctuated her words with another wink. "You won't go to the police. And even if you give back the money, you'll still be on the case."

"I will not be on the case."

"I know how this works, dear. You've got to establish what do they call it?-plausible deniability. If everything goes bad, you can claim you weren't working on the case because you took no money."

Withdrawing the three hundred from a pocket of his chinos, he placed the cash on the table. "I'm not establishing anything. All I'm doing is quitting."

"No, you're not," she said.

"I never took the job in the first place."

She wagged one finger at him. "Yes, you did."

"I did not."

"Yes, you did, dear. Otherwise, where did the three hundred dollars come from?"

"I," he said firmly, "quit. Q-U-I-T. I'm resigning, I'm walking, I'm splitting this gig, gone, finito, out of here."

Geneva smiled broadly and winked at him again. This time it was a great, exaggerated wink of comic conspiracy. "Oh, whatever you say, Mr. Farrel, sir. If ever I have to testify in a court of ridiculous law, you can count on me telling the judge that you Q-U-I-T in no uncertain terms."

This woman had a smile that could charm birds out of the sky and into a cage. One of Noah's grandmothers had died before he was born, and his grandmother on the Farrel side had looked nothing like Geneva Davis; she had been a chisel-faced, chain-smoking, ferret-eyed crone with a voice burnt raw by a lifelong thirst for whiskey, and during the years that she and Grandfather Farrel had operated a pawnshop that fronted a bookie operation, she had routinely terrified even the toughest young punks with a mere look and a few snarled words in Gaelic, even though the punks didn't speak the language. Yet he felt that he was sitting here having cookies with his grandmother, his ideal grandmother rather than the real one, and beneath his frustration quivered a warm and fuzzy feeling that he had never known before, which had to be a dangerous feeling under the circumstances.

"Don't wink at me again, Geneva. You're trying to pretend we're in some sort of little conspiracy here, and we're not."

"Oh, dear, I know we're not. You have Q-U-I-T, resigned, finito, and that's perfectly clear to me." She smiled broadly and refrained from winking-but gave him a vigorous thumbs-up sign with both hands.

Noah picked up his unbitten second cookie and bit it. Twice. The cookie was big, but with just two bites, he crammed more than half of it in his mouth. Chewing ferociously, he glared across the table at Geneva Davis.

"More vanilla Coke, dear?" she asked.

He tried to say no, but his mouth was too full to permit speech, so he found himself nodding yes.

She refreshed his vanilla Coke with a drizzle of cherry syrup, more cola, and a couple ice cubes.

When Geneva sat at the table again, Noah said, "Let me try this one more time."

"Try what, sweetie?"

"Explaining the situation to you."

"Good heavens, I'm not dense, dear. I understand the situation perfectly. You've got your plausible deniability, and in court I'll testify that you didn't help us, even though you did. Or will." She scooped up the three hundred dollars. "And if everything goes well and no one ends up in court, then I'll give this back to you, and we'll pay anything else you bill us. We may need some time, may need to make monthly payments, but we honor our debts, Micky and me. And none of us will end up in court, anyway. I mean no disrespect, dear, but I'm sure your understanding of the law is weak in this instance."

"I was a police officer before I became a PI"

"Then you really should have a better grasp of the law," she admonished with one of those your-grandmother-thinks-you're-adorable smiles that exacerbated his case of the warm fuzzies.

Scowling, leaning across the kitchen table, resorting to a display of his dark side, he tried to jolt her out of this stubborn refusal to face facts. "I had a perfect grasp of the law, but I was stripped of my badge anyway because I severely beat a suspect. / beat the crap out of him."

She clucked her tongue. "That's nothing to be proud of, dear."

"I'm not proud of it. I'm lucky I didn't end up in prison."

"You certainly sounded proud of it."

Staring unblinkingly at her, he consumed the last third of the cookie. He washed ii down with cherry-flavored vanilla Coke.

She wasn't intimidated by his stare. She smiled as though she took pleasure from the sight of him enjoying her baked goods.

He said, "Actually, I am half proud of it. Shouldn't be, not even considering the circumstances. But I am. I was answering a domestic-disturbance call . This guy had really pounded on his wife. She's a mess when I get there, and now he's beating his daughter, just a little girl, like eight years old. He's knocked out some of her teeth. When he sees me, he lets her go, he doesn't resist arrest. I lost it anyway. Seeing that girl, I lost it."

Reaching across the table, Geneva squeezed his hand. "Good for you."

"No, it wasn't good. I would've kept going until I killed him-except the girl stopped me. In my report, I lied, claimed the creep resisted arrest. In the hearing, the wife testified against me … but the girl lied for me, and they believed the girl. Or pretended to. I made a deal to leave the force, and they agreed to give me severance pay and support my application for a PI license."

"What happened to the child?" Geneva asked.

"Turns out the abuse was long-term. The court removed her from her mother's custody, put her with her maternal grandparents. She'll graduate high school soon. She's okay. She's a good kid."

Geneva squeezed his hand again and then leaned back in her chair, beaming. "You're just like my gumshoe."

"What gumshoe?"

"The one I was in love with back when I was in my twenties. If I hadn't hidden my murdered husband's body in an oil-field sump, Philip might not have rejected me."

Noah didn't quite know how to respond to this. He blotted his damp brow again. Finally he said, "You killed your husband?"

"No, my sister, Carmen, shot him. I hid the body to protect her and to spare our father from the scandal. General Sternwood-that was our daddy-wasn't in good health. And he …"

Puzzlement crossed Geneva's face as her voice trailed away.

Noah encouraged her to continue: "And he . . . ?"

"Well, of course, that wasn't me, that was Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. The gumshoe was Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe."

Geneva clapped her hands and let out a musical laugh of delight.

Although he didn't know why he was smiling, Noah smiled.

Geneva said, "Well, it's a delicious memory even if it's a false memory. Honestly, I must admit, I'm something of a wimp when it comes to being naughty. I've never had it in me to be a bad girl, so if I hadn't been shot in the head, I'd never have had a memory like that."

The sugar content of cookies and cola provided sufficient mental lift to deal with a wide spectrum of intellectual challenges, but, by God, for some things you needed a beer. He didn't have a beer, so instead of making an attempt to deduce logically the meaning of what she'd said, he asked another question: "You were shot in the head?"

"A polite and well-dressed bandit held up our convenience store, killed my husband, shot me, and disappeared. I won't tell you that I tracked him to New Orleans and blew him away myself, because that was Alec Baldwin and not a part of my real life. But even wimp that I am, I'd have been capable of shooting him if I'd known how to track him down. I'd have shot him repeatedly, I think. Once in each leg, let him suffer, then twice in the gut, then once in the head. Do I sound terribly savage, dear?"

"Not savage. But more vindictive than I would have expected."

"That's a good honest answer. I'm impressed with you, Noah."

She turned on one of those ice-melting smiles.

He found himself smiling, too.

"I'm enjoying our little get-together," she said.

"Me too."

Chapter 61

SATURDAY: HAWTHORNE, Nevada, to Boise, Idaho. Four hundred forty-nine miles. Mostly wasteland, bright sun, but an easy haul.

A cloud of vultures circled something dead in the desert half an hour south of Lovelock, Nevada. Though intrigued, Preston Mad-doc decided against a side trip to investigate.

They stopped for lunch at a diner in Winnemucca.

On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, swarms of ants were feeding on the oozing body of a fat, crushed beetle. The bug juice had an interesting iridescent quality similar to oil on water.

Taking the Hand into a public place was risky these days. Her performance on Friday, in the coffee shop west of Vegas, had been unnerving. She might have gotten what she wanted if the waitress hadn't been stupid.

Most people were stupid. Preston Maddoc had made this judgment of humanity when he'd been eleven. In the past thirty-four years, he'd seen no reason to change his mind.

The diner smelled of sizzling hamburger patties. French fries roiling in hot oil. Bacon.

He wondered what the beetle ooze smelled like.

Several men were sitting side by side on stools at the lunch counter. Most were overweight. Chowing down jowl to jowl. Disgusting.

Maybe one of them would have a stroke or heart attack during lunch. The odds were good.

The Hand led them to a booth. She sat next to the window.

The Black Hole settled beside her daughter.

Preston sat across the table from them. His fair ladies.

The Hand was grotesque, of course, but the Black Hole actually was fair. After so many drugs, she ought to have been a withered hag.

When her looks finally started to go, they would slide away fast. Probably in two or three years.

Maybe he could squeeze two litters out of her before she'd be too repulsive to touch.

On the windowsill lay a dead fly. Ambience.

He consulted his menu. The owners ought to change the name of the establishment. Call it the Palace of Grease.

Naturally the Black Hole couldn't find many dishes to her taste. At least she didn't whine. The Hole was in a cheerful mood. Coherent, too, because she seldom used heavy chemicals before the afternoon.

The waitress arrived. An ugly wretch. The walleyed, pouchy-cheeked face of a fish.

She wore a neatly pressed pink uniform. Elaborately coiffed hair the color of rat fur, with a pink bow to match the uniform. Carefully applied makeup, eyeliner, lipstick. Fingernails manicured but clear-coated, as if they were something sweet to look at, as if her fingers weren't as stubby and ugly as the rest of her.

She was trying too hard to look nice. A hopeless cause.

Bridges were made for people like her. Bridges and high ledges. Car tailpipes and gas ovens. If she ever phoned a suicide hot line and some counselor talked her out of sucking on a shotgun, she'd have been done a disservice.

They ordered lunch.

Preston expected the Hand to appeal to Fish Face for help. She didn't. She seemed subdued.

Her performance the previous day had been unnerving, but he was disappointed that she didn't try again. He enjoyed the challenge posed by her recent rebellious mood.

While they waited for their food, the Hole chattered as inanely as always she did.

She was the Black Hole partly because her psychotic energy and her mindless babble together spun a powerful gravity that could pull you toward oblivion if you weren't a strong person.

He was strong. He never shied from any task. Never flinched from any truth.

Although he conversed with the Hole, he remained less than half involved with her. He always lived more inside himself than not.

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