I REGAINED consciousness to a burning throb in my biceps and shoulders. My lungs pressed against battered ribs, shooting sharp bursts of pain through my chest with every breath I drew. I tasted copper inside a mouth lacerated raw, much like the wrists that chafed within handcuffs.
The bright light from a fluorescent beam struck me in the face and lingered, pulling me out of my fog. I took stock of my condition. Working my jaw sent a warm mouthful of blood and saliva dribbling down my chin. I opened my left eye slowly, painfully, my right too swollen to operate.
Dark shadows materialized in the light. The drug I’d been slipped still had such a distorting effect on my sight that my abductors morphed from one person to sometimes three. The knockout drug also screwed with my hearing, making it difficult to comprehend what they were saying.
Until my attention fixed on another threat.
“ . . . that Pocahontas bitch you run with can’t save you, or herself, now. We know she’s close to mounting a rescue. An assassin on our payroll will shred her to pieces.”
I tried to stall them. I moaned the opening chords of Come As You Are, the last thing I remembered hearing before I couldn’t defend myself in the ambush.
“This cat thinks he’s got lives left,” one of my attackers noted, laughing.
“You dumb son of a bitch,” an accomplice said. “I told you not to give him too strong a dose.”
“Would you both shut your mouths and relax,” a feminine, whiskey-soaked voice with a Dutch accent said. “He’s just pretending to be a vegetable to bide time. Zap him.”
My head snapped back and I screamed into wooden rafters as a charge of electricity coursed from my navel out through my muscles and nerve endings. The jolt stopped, leaving my naked body swinging back and forth like a metronome. The vibrations of my torment spooked a horse nearby, and it kicked anxiously at its stall a few times.
“Good,” the throaty-sounding dominatrix drawled in approval. “Next time he doesn’t answer correctly, hit him for a full minute. Matthew, can you hear me?”
I lifted my head long enough to nod, then grinned, more a snarl. “I’ve had tattoos hurt worse than anything you can do to me,” I said, spitting blood.
“Charming. Apart from Leslie, who else knows about my operation?”
“Operation?” I gurgled, a stream of snot oozing from my nostril. I mulled over my response for a minute. How the hell did a covered-up murder turn into an operation? I might survive long enough to find out, if I played it stubborn and pretended to know more than I actually did.
“Well? I’m waiting, Matthew.”
“You threatened a friend of mine,” I said. “An artist I’ve sworn to protect. Suck. My. Tattooed. Dick.”
I screamed some more as the electrodes were held against my genitals this time, for a full minute. My sweaty body sizzled like bacon frying. One of the fillings in my mouth snapped off and I swallowed it. I gagged and lost my bladder control.
“Ah, shit!" one lackey complained. “He pissed on my suit. May I be excused so I can clean up?”
“Yes, but come right back.”
I heard the flick of a lighter, then smelled the rich tobacco scent of a cigarette that couldn’t be domestic.
“There are infinite ways I can make you suffer,” the bitch said. “I can cut you a thousand times, but the last thing I want is to mutilate the artwork on your body. Maybe I’ll rip the piercings out of your face and nipples. You have until I finish this smoke to furnish the names, then I’m going to plug the juice in until your eyeballs pop.”
Shutting my left eye tight, I tried to block out the pain and the sound of the horse’s increasingly agitated neighs.
ALMOST THIRTY-two hours earlier, the police scanner mounted on the bookshelf behind my desk next to my camera gear and a dog-eared copy of In Cold Blood crackled. The dispatcher broadcasted a robbery homicide. Springing forward in the chair too fast, I scalded my hand with coffee.
I swung my feet off my desk with more care and tossed the report I’d been proofreading on the ring-stained oak surface. Setting the mug down (carefully this time), I dashed into the outer office.
Leslie had already pulled on her coat. She flung my worn-out jacket at my head. “Move it, Matt.”
She was halfway to the elevator when I paused to dead-bolt the frosted glass door emblazoned with Alternative Investigations—Matt Grudge & Leslie Crow.
“What’s your damn hurry?” I said, tightening my seatbelt as Leslie raced her midnight blue Saturn over the Morrison Bridge crossing the murky Willamette River. “The crime scene isn’t going anywhere.”
“Quit griping,” she told me. “You want firsthand information, or do you want to read about it? Hold on.”
Leslie threaded her way through traffic as if she were navigating a raceway. Horns blared and tooted. “What the hell are you doing?” I shouted over the motorists’ horns as she reached inside her jacket pocket, pulled out her cell phone, and balanced the handset at twelve o’clock on the steering wheel. “You’re gonna get us pulled over—or killed,” I complained, but her thumbs kept tapping out a text message.
The horn blaring behind us didn’t stop. Leslie’s eyes darted to the rearview mirror. She’d swerved into the right lane too quickly and hadn’t spotted the Thunderbird LX speeding up. Spinning the wheel, she floored the gas to pass a tow truck, then cut in front of it to let the T-bird shoot past.
“You crazy bitch,” the truck driver yelled out as the truck’s brakes squealed like pigs being butchered.
The light at Grand clicked to yellow. Leslie blasted through the intersection and a huge puddle of water from an overflowed drain. A guy outside the Dutch Brothers coffee stand got drenched.
The time on the stereo read twenty minutes past six as Daria O’ Neill’s sexy purr on the Buzz issued an evening news update. “Commuters in Southeast will want to avoid Morrison Street between Grand and Sixth Avenue,” the radio entertainer advised. “PPD has barricaded that area and detoured nighttime rush hour over to Stark.”
Leslie hung a left on Belmont into the Bank of America parking lot behind the Weatherly Building, a hop and a skip away from the crime scene.
“Any clues as to what’s happened?” Daria’s co-star, Mitch, asked in his deep, resonant voice.
She exuded Lauren Bacall over the airwaves. “I’ve made a few subtle inquiries. Apparently, several uniformed officers and plain clothes detectives have been sighted entering and exiting the Femme Ink Piercing and Tattoo Parlor at 611 Southeast Morrison.”
Their producer, Ted, commented that calls pouring into the studio had just become a flood. Listeners were offering or requesting more information about what'd happened.
“Thank you for your concern, folks. But even if we were privy to more details,” Mitch said, “we definitely wouldn’t release any without permission. It would sensationalize the crime and that’s the last thing we’d ever want—”
I switched the stereo off before Leslie pulled into a space and cranked the ignition off.
“Something’s going on,” she said, her half-blooded Lakota Sioux features brooding. “Dee answers my texts faster than this.” Pocketing her phone, she pulled her long, jet-black hair up underneath a Winterhawks baseball cap. The drizzling rain had turned into a downpour.
We climbed out of the Saturn. Slamming her door shut, Leslie activated the car alarm, then rushed off. I dashed after her, grabbed her shoulder, and turned her around.
“Take it easy. I’m sure nothing’s wrong,” I said in an undertone. “Dee-Dee’s probably just got her hands full, giving the cops a statement.”
Leslie’s lips curled in disdain. “Maybe I should punch you in the gut to show you how I’m feeling?”
The twelve-storey Weatherly Building loomed behind us, a symbol of the business world that would never assimilate two private detectives who did most of their investigating wearing piercings, tattoos, and vintage clothing from clearance racks. We always seemed like round pegs trying to fit into square holes. A frequent joke whispered behind our backs was that we were a pair of low-rent losers too lazy to reinvent our image beyond the nineties. Which always seemed funny to me, living in Portland, a town chock full of throwback fashions, including the nineties, eighties, seventies, and sixties. I mean, why pick on the nineties?
Point is, I knew exactly how she felt. Like shit. Underrated, unappreciated, disillusioned shit.
“Next time we’re at the gym, you’re on,” I said. “With pads or without?”
Leslie slugged me on the shoulder. “Keep up, wise-ass.”
At the intersection, a drenched, uniformed policewoman stood between a pair of sawhorses with twirling lights, redirecting traffic with her waving nightstick and harsh toots on her whistle. Passing behind the barricade, we stepped up onto the sidewalk in front of the Sixth Avenue Grocery and Deli’s barred windows.
Out of earshot from the horde of journalists and photographers huddled around Femme Ink, I voiced a fond memory to cheer up Leslie. “This is the joint where you dragged me to get my first tat.”
“Yeah,” she said, releasing a chuckle. “The only other time I heard you swear so much was the first time you got shot—”
“Hey!” a geeky voice shrilled. “It’s the Grunge Operatives. Have you been called in to consult on the investigation?”
It was Derek Sharp, a paparazzi infamous for scavenging on suspects and victims like a vulture. He maintained a monetized (porn site-financed) true-crime blog that fed a frenzied media scraps of false information. Sharp was clever, though, so a lawsuit for libel hadn’t shut him down.
“What aspects of this case has Chief Burden shared that require the attention of your specialized trade?” Sharp asked in a nasal voice caused by the nose splint he frequently wore. He thrust an MP3 recorder at our faces. “Comment,” the prick said. “People have a right to know.”
I shoved his fleshy shoulder lightly aside so we could squeeze around him. “Truth is, Sharp, Leslie and I are just hanging out to observe the activities of a certain blogger.”
“Yeah,” Leslie said, picking up on my comment as if via ESP. “We want to see whether his nose gets broken again for sniffing around where it doesn’t belong, or if we can gather proof to bust his ass for extortion and fraud.”
Ignoring the disparaging comment, Sharp tagged behind us like a leech. “I can see the post heading now: Grunge Ops Seek Femme Ink Killer,” he said, holding the MP3 recorder between my right shoulder and Leslie’s poker face.
I almost warned the prick that if I heard him say that nickname again, I’d put him through one of the nearby windows, but I didn’t need to; rage was building inside Leslie. Her breasts weren't rising and falling with even breathing.
As Sharp fired off more questions with the staccato rhythm of a machine gun, Leslie’s shoulders flinched. She was about to launch a fist, or an elbow, at Sharp’s mouth. I peered down at her hands. Leslie stuffed them into her skin-tight jean pockets and met my sideways glance with a yearning that said, I so much want to deck this asshole.
We reached the rearmost reporters in the gang that bordered the entrance to Femme Ink.
“Hey, Leslie,” Sharp said, “if I can’t gather enough details for a post about what’s gone down in this dump, maybe the picture I just took of your fine ass can splash a column about local female celebrities who could make a living as strippers. What would your stage name be?”
When Sharp thrust his MP3 out, I put a Greco-Roman wrestling hold on his wrist. He winced in pain. His fingers uncurled. The MP3 recorder fell to the asphalt. “Enough, jackass,” I said, letting him go. “Respect my partner’s space.”
“My bad,” he said with mock sincerity.
Massaging his aching wrist, Sharp bent over to retrieve his recorder, but Leslie’s riding boot kicked it under the trampling feet of the mob. “Oops,” she said, a wide grin parting her lips. The silver hoop in her upper lip glimmered above whitened teeth.
“You cunt,” Sharp hissed.
Leslie drove every muscular pound built by her free-weight training into an uppercut. Sharp’s jaw slammed his bottom lip into his teeth, and a trail of bloody spittle spewed across the parlor window, marring the display of poster boards showing flash—standard designs the artists in Femme Ink tattooed frequently. I watched Sharp’s blood run down the image of a Celtic cross tombstone on which a crow perched, wings spread, beak open.
Then I caught the unconscious paparazzi under his arms and lowered him to slump beneath the window. “Niiice shot. I think you were holding back, though. Go ahead, hit him again.”
“Shut up,” Leslie said, shaking her scuffed knuckles.
For some comic relief, I grabbed a discarded plastic cup and wrapped the news panhandler’s fingers around it. I even snatched a handful of change from my pocket and dumped it into the cup to get him started.
We rejoined the cluster of reporters and found a vantage point everyone else was avoiding, a space by a garbage can and a recycling bin that stank of rotting produce. I scanned the crowd, which was busy questioning patrol officers and detectives entering, exiting, or milling about. Hearing rummaging behind me, I turned as Leslie kicked a sturdy apple crate over and stepped up onto it so she could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me to study the crowd.
Besides newshounds nosing for a scoop, the crime scene had attracted cosmopolitan groups of people. My eyes drifted over the skirted business suits on a pair of bank tellers who’d forgotten to take off their name tags. Leslie cleared her throat and elbowed me to make sure I didn’t stare at their firm, nylon-clad legs too long.
I spotted a stout Hindustani man sporting an immaculate haircut underneath a blue and white beach umbrella he shared with a journalist scribbling notes. The Indian gentleman—Bob—released one hand from the umbrella he was clutching against the wind whirling around the Weatherly Building to wave politely. I nodded back, suppressing a grimace. Bob the barber had been cutting my hair since I was in junior high. His shop sat next door to the B of A. A gust of wind almost yanked the umbrella out of his grip. Rainwater spilled over the edge of the umbrella to douse the newspaperman’s notes.
Skaters in baggy, shredded jeans hung out next to him, their sleeveless denim jackets showing off their tats, their pierced baby faces solemn. A cameraman hefted a video camera on his shoulder and a reporter on Bob’s right was muttering into a mini-cassette recorder.
Three men in suits huddled between them, making me think of pallbearers for a funeral. Their features were eastern European, as were the expensive cuts and threads of their clothes. A bald-headed one mouthed words into a Bluetooth he could’ve purchased at Tiffany’s—the accessory was studded with diamonds. The words I watched him mumble needed subtitles. Bumps underneath their clothes revealed that they hadn’t provided their tailor with explicit firearm measurements.
Two patrolmen joined the two officers that’d been guarding the corridor of yellow and black Crime Scene—Do Not Cross tape leading up to the entrance of Femme Ink. The four enforcers walked both sides of the crowd back, firmly commanding, “Step back please, folks. Step back, or you’ll be ordered to disperse.”
I craned my head and shoulders around, careful not to knock Leslie from her perch, and sighted a ’57 Chevy pickup with peeling white paint driving through the maze of unmarked cars and cruisers. The back of the rig wreaked of fish. A rack mounted in the cab’s rear window was stocked with fishing poles.
The relic lurched to a hard stop. Martin Goldman hopped from the cab, dressed in faded black jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, his greasy salt-and-pepper hair under a blue baseball cap adorned with flies and lures and embroidered silver letters that read ME. His trademark ponytail dangling through the back of the cap flopped around like a horse’s tail.
He stopped near the entrance to sign a log one of the patrolmen held steady, then snapped on a pair of latex gloves over his filthy hands, and hunkered down to pull a pair of booties over his boots. When Goldman straightened to his full height to enter the parlor a couple of head lengths away, I didn’t need to shout.
“Interrupt your fishing trip, Marty?” I asked.
His head spun around, pointing a red, unshaven face and bulldog nose my way. “Don’t call me that,” he snapped automatically. “Who—oh, it’s you, Grudge. I almost didn’t see you. You blend in like a permanent fixture next to that trashcan. Perfect.”
I gave the ME a dumb smirk as he entered the crime scene. A wide stream of brown water and soggy leaves from a clogged gutter splashed my shoulder.
Leslie sniffled and wiped her runny nose with the back of her hand.
Going on two hours and about an inch of rainfall later, EMTs wheeled a gurney into Femme Ink. About thirty minutes after that, they wheeled the body out. The department’s supply of body bags must have been depleted; the victim was covered with a sheet.
How could transporting the body get any worse? None of the unmarked cars or cruisers were moved for the ambulance to park in closer.
The gurney wheels hit the street at an awkward angle. The sheet came untucked. One of the medics leapt to grab a corner of the cotton shroud and hold it in place, but wind from the gorge whipped it free, and the body jostled under his weight, allowing the victim’s hand to fall out into view.
Leslie squinted almond-shaped eyes, then jumped down off the apple box and trotted around the mob of news jackals the uniformed officers held back from the gurney. I followed closely, making sure no one knocked her down to get trampled as people thronged to envelop us.
A crowd this size was a cakewalk compared to the mosh pits in the clubs we frequented. When some guy tried to nudge her off her path, I grappled his arm, locked his elbow, then shoved him aside. Leslie ducked a microphone some female newscaster almost brained her with while launching questions.
Leslie reached the victim, pulled a latex glove out of her coat pocket, and gently touched the pale female hand, then curled the fingers inward. The long, square fingernails painted a stark red were pale in comparison to the oxidized, dark brown blood staining the sheet covering the head. “No, please God,” Leslie said, her breath gusting from her mouth to fog in the cool air.
Strobe lights flashed, highlighting flaming Olde English letters tattooed on the knuckles:
Leslie shut her eyes tight for a moment and bowed her head.
The woman’s right hand belonged to Dee-Dee Magnolia, a local celebrity tattoo artist. The bottled-blonde had taken third place at Bathing Beauties In Ink, a regional beauty contest for tattoo aficionados, last spring. The winner had to display the greatest number of tattoos visible in the skimpiest bikini or thong imaginable. Second went to Suicide Girl, first to Kat Von D.
“Oh shit,” I said, remembering she was also the proprietress of Femme Ink, and Leslie’s friend.
One of the paramedics slapped Leslie’s hand away. “Let her go,” he said, pulling the victim’s hand back to tuck it into the soaked sheet. The full-color tattoos on Dee-Dee’s arm showed through the sticky dampness.
Mouth sagging open, Leslie stuffed her hands into her jean pockets and stomped off through the sheets of rain. I followed after her.
The drain at the corner of the B of A was flooded. I leapt ungracefully over the swirling mess; she slogged right through up to her ankles. She increased her pace and stomped through another deep puddle in the parking lot to reach the Saturn. I jogged around to the passenger side. Wiping drops of water out of my eyes, I watched Leslie jerk at the car door handle, enraged.
“Fuck,” she yelled, releasing the handle, then turning her back to lean against the door, staring back the way we’d come.
Walking around to Leslie, I stood toe to toe with her, then pulled insistently on her shoulder to bring her slowly toward me. Her body trembled with shivers that didn’t come from the rain, and her eyes were hard, determined—the look I saw when she emptied her Glock on the pistol range.
“Leslie. What the hell’s going on? You know something about Dee-Dee’s death?”
“I’m fine,” she wheezed, holding her breath.
“Give me the keys. I’m driving us home.” As I reached for her jacket pocket, I saw her right shoulder pull back to throw the punch. I stepped quickly back and she only clipped my chin, then I lunged forward to wrap both arms around her.
Leslie bucked and thrashed. “Goddammit,” she shouted, the rain needling the asphalt drowning out the grief in her voice, but not the erratic beat of her heart. “Let me go.”
She yelled a little longer, smashing her fists against my back. The blows made me wince. I grasped the back of her neck in the bear hug and felt how frigid she was from going into shock. After about five minutes, she went limp and snuggled her face against my chest to let out a muffled wail.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “You’ll be my client for this case.”
Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I squinted at the time on my HP laptop. The faded display in the corner of the scraped fifteen-inch screen read half past eleven. The refurbished hand-me-down was burning through its third backlight in five years and giving me eye strain. A new computer would be nice, but the recession placed that way down the line.
I got up from the desk in my part of our spartan offices to stretch and get a coffee refill, doctoring the java with three heaping tablespoons of sugar and plenty of cream. I took a long pull, then eased down in one of the two plush, armless chairs that faced Leslie’s desk. I cradled the large mug in both hands. The warmth relaxed the tension in my fingers.
I’d spent the last three hours working the phone and the Internet, searching local newsgroups and contacting discreet sources inside the Portland Police Bureau for any details about Dee-Dee’s murder, but a total information blackout had been put into effect. Not even the local news at ten or eleven had reported the crime. What factors would convince the media to go to sleep on murder?
I took another sip of coffee to counteract a chill that penetrated my bones to travel along my spine, staring at the vacant chair where my partner should’ve been. I hoped Leslie was going to be alright. The brief discussion we had in her loft after I’d dropped her off had knocked my confidence down a couple of notches.
“Maybe you wouldn’t mind spending the night at the office. I need a little space,” she’d told me as she filled a kettle with water, then walked around me to get into the cupboard. She snatched a box of green tea and slammed the cherrywood door shut.
“Okay, sure,” I’d said. “I’ll call you tomorrow night.”
“Make it Sunday morning,” she’d mumbled while ripping a tea bag packet open with her teeth. “I don’t know what kind of mood I’ll be in if I’m unable to get ahold of Dee’s family.”
I wouldn’t go that long without reporting to a client. She knew our profession better than that. “Leslie, you’re my partner and my friend, so I’m prepared to give you as much time as you need to heal. But you’re also my client now, which means I will update you nightly. That means speaking to you. I won’t leave messages or send texts. And looking for you might keep the case from going forward.”
“Fine. Leave me the hell alone, Matt.”
Swinging my coat and rucksack full of extra clothes over my shoulder, I’d headed for the door, then turned slightly to give Leslie one last gaze of remorse.
“What? Get the fuck out of here,” she said before I’d left.
AFTER MATT finally stopped hovering and took a hike, I mounted a stool at the bar in the kitchen, leaned on my elbows, rubbed my temples, and breathed, so deeply that it sounded like the beat of ocean surf.
Last weekend I’d made a getaway to Newport, and Dee-Dee had accompanied me.
Grief drove blows into my stomach. I shut my eyes tight to block the pain. Tension coursed, burning through my veins and over my skin like a niacin rash. I felt my entire back itch and resisted the urge to scratch it.
Born on an Indian reservation, in and out of numerous foster homes after my mom’s murder, then surviving on skid row in my teens and early twenties, I had forged a complicated, lone wolf persona and allowed few people through that. I knew Matt was only trying to comfort me. My partner is a good investigator, and I trusted him with my life. But his compassion wasn’t capable of healing my wounds.
A spasm rolled from my shoulders down to my toes. I swore I’d just felt Dee’s palm massaging the skin of my back.
“Relax,” she’d said. “Okay. Here comes the sting.”
The tea kettle on the stove whistled. The concentrated steam briefly lifted my bitter mood from the realization that a personal expression Dee-Dee had started would never be finished. I filled the mug up to the brim and left the green tea to steep.
I barged through the French doors and crossed the living room to my computer desk, situated against the brick wall by the window. The soles of my wet riding boots squeaked on the hardwood floor. I needed to find an old address book that contained info on Dee-Dee’s family in San Francisco.
Being a self-admitted slob didn’t make the search easy. I plopped down in the plush high-back chair, then proceeded to shift assorted items and knick-knacks around, knocking over a tall energy drink can in the process. I grabbed the can, tipped it upright, then tossed it into the trash. I covered the flat, yellowish spill with wads of tissue.
My eye caught on a picture of Dee-Dee and me at Lollapalooza ’93, cheering, our arms draped over each other’s shoulders.
After that, corporate America had sunk its commercial claws into the grunge lifestyle.
Taunted by memories and lost choices, I grabbed the frame and slapped it face down, hard enough that I heard the glass pane crack.
I retreated to the kitchen and rummaged through a junk drawer, sliding a crumpled, coffee-stained crossword puzzle book aside to uncover a fifth of Jack Daniels I remembered splashing on Matt’s shoulder to clean a gunshot wound years ago. I paused, absently rubbing my lips, then slammed the drawer shut before the booze could lull my alcoholism into surrendering to just one drink. I picked up the mug from the bar and took a gulp, grimaced, and dumped the lukewarm tea in the kitchen sink.
Feeling my hands begin to shake from either adrenaline or shock, I grabbed my car keys off the hook by the door, locked my loft, and jogged down the stairs. My pounding feet probably woke up my neighbors, but I didn’t really give a shit. The burned-out lights in the courtyard main entrance didn’t slow me down. The red glow from a hunter’s moon illuminated the walkway. A stiff breeze rustled the shrubs lining both sides and whipped strands of my thick hair around my face. I disarmed my Saturn’s alarm, yanked the door open, and plopped down behind the wheel to crank the engine to life.
“Shut the hell up,” I told the shorted out Check Engine light; it stopped beeping and blinking as I peeled out from the curb.
A couple blocks uphill, I turned left off Irving. Revving up to just above forty, I steered with one hand and fastened my safety belt with the other; the shoulder strap locked, squeezing the wind out of me for a few seconds, when I stomped the brake at the intersection. The staggering transient using a shopping cart for a walker was oblivious. I flashed the brights at her. She walked slower. While I waited, I snatched up a mix CD and shoved it into the stereo. The driving beat of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life tuned up my pulse.
I spot-checked for oncoming vehicles. Seeing headlights approaching fast, I whipped left onto Burnside Avenue and sped eastward. When the light at Powell’s Books switched to yellow, I breezed through it at fifty. Traffic at Broadway began to thicken. I wove around cruisers and assholes.
I zipped across the Burnside Bridge. I needed to make a left onto Grand Avenue, but the Left Turn Prohibited sign swinging in the wind above the intersection gave me pause. Though following the rules of the road was the last thing on my mind, I didn’t want to fuck up any motorists to get where I was going. So I powered up a block and took a detour around like a good little Portlander. As I took the exit for I-84 East, fat raindrops splattered the windshield.
A driver in front of me took forever merging into sparse traffic. I leaned on my horn and flashed the brights. “What do you need?” I yelled. “An invitation?” I checked the right lane to ensure it was clear and left the PT Cruiser in a spray of mist.
When I passed the Hollywood District the sheets of rain pounding the top of my car sounded like buckets of nails. I switched the wipers on. Other vehicles, white oncoming headlights, and red brake lights blended like melting steel and wax. Squinting, I kept the road reflectors in focus.
The left lane seemed empty. I swerved there to go seventy and climbed up to seventy-five. Sleater-Kinney’s The Drama You’ve Been Craving was track two.
“A little rainfall,” I said, addressing the other motorists, “and you pussies drive like tourists.”
I could still smell the aroma of the joint Dee had smoked at a rest stop on the drive back from the coast. Her spinal injury allowed her a medical marijuana prescription. Cracking my window to vent the odor, I grinned at the memory of her lips pursed to suck in a long toke, and my own numbing euphoria, stoned on Dee’s homegrown weed. I’d sustained a contact high in our motel room, where the bittersweet scent had drifted out the balcony screen door, which Dee had insisted on leaving open so the pounding of the surf could relieve our tensions. The Mary Jane had still given me the customary junk food cravings.
Every muscle in my body coiled as red lights rushed toward the Saturn’s windshield. “Shit!” I almost mashed the brake pedal, a knee-jerk response that could’ve led to hydroplaning into an uncontrollable skid.
Spotting the sign reminding me the I-205 exit was a quarter mile away, I flashed a look into the rearview mirror and double-checked a blind spot. Cars were moving up, but their speeds weren’t high enough to stop me swerving into the left lane between two semis. The trucker behind me leaned on his horn, but decelerated to give me space. Once we cleared the curve of the exit onto 205 South, I moved to the far right, and propelled the Saturn at seventy-five again.
“Where the hell are you going anyway, you crazy bitch?” I asked myself. I didn’t know, really. I needed to drive fast and evade my feelings.
“This is going to be my masterpiece,” Dee had told me, the intense pride in her voice washing over me like a first-time experience. Her tone dropped. “When we take a break, I need to talk to you about another matter.”
“Ooh, that doesn’t sound like your average girl talk,” I’d said casually, my mind wrapped in endorphins.
Dee had paused to take a long, deep breath that told me whatever the topic was, it really pissed her off. “I might need to hire you for a case.”
We never took that break, though. Maybe we were too stoned. Maybe our brief vacation together had helped Dee work through what’d upset her so much.
Dee was killed for the job she’d forgotten to hire me for.
I leered at myself in the rearview mirror. “You’re so self-fucking-centered,” I screamed, banging the steering wheel with a fist.
I hung a sharp right on Highway 224 at the fruit stand before the Mount Hood exit. Beyond that point I gave my reflexes a lethal workout that would’ve made Dale Earnhardt Jr. turn white. I tore through the country backroads at speeds in excess of seventy-five, an ideal course of evasive maneuvers to purge my guilt.