Frank and I had dropped into a greasy-looking diner on the edge of the Castro where an effusive and attentive gay actor/singer had served us two terrific-looking frittatas in complete defiance of the decor, and I was reminded what I liked about this town. Frank was a different animal than he'd been the night before. He had the distinct air of someone who was due back somewhere; he checked his watch reflexively each time he set his coffee down.
Dave's murder in Austin was being forgotten, he said. "There's no appetite for investigation. Austin's not the biggest town in the world. Murder's rare enough that I'm sure they'd move on it if something fell on them, but from the looks of it there's not much manpower behind it. It was reported as a burglary, even though nothing was taken."
"They weren't even robbed?" I asked.
"Report speculates the perpetrator didn't have time or panicked."
I put some more shalloted-and-chived egg into my mouth, and my mind drifted back to that walk-in at the Showdown, the intact front of Dave's shattered head grinning up at me. I thought about ordering a drink but didn't want Frank reporting that back to Laura. It's hard to stop keeping some secrets. "Anything on Kay?"
Frank's eyes lit up. "Yes, as a matter of fact. The scenery on that database cruise was much more interesting. Your Miss Kay grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and entered law enforcement radar at the ripe age of fourteen. Marijuana trafficking."
"Big surprise," I murmured, recalling how she could chain-smoke joints for hours.
He slid a picture across the retro formica tabletop. "The printer down the hall isn't the best but you get the idea." A young girl with dreadlocks and a sundress mugged for the camera at what looked to be some kind of outdoor music festival. Phish or the String Cheese Incident, I presumed, or maybe even the Dead, considering how young she looked in the photo. Nothing like the strung-out bartender I had known, even though there hadn't been that many years in between. The eyes had clouded, the skin had dried out... the artificial years of the hard life. I could see it in my own face when I looked too hard, which I worked hard not to do.
Frank pushed the picture towards me some more and I took the cue and took it, put it in my inside jacket pocket. "So how did she get to Austin?"
"There's always been a market in Austin for quality pot, with all the bohemians and musicians, just not much supply. Most of what circulates there is Mexican ditch, and the Texas Rangers seem to be really good at spotting and picking off grow operations," he said with a note of admiration in his voice.
"So they import?"
He checked his watch again. "As you may or may not know, a lot of the national forests in Oregon house some major grow operations. Climate and population levels are right. So Kay and a bunch of others in her network started moving the goods overland, mostly by van. But two DUIs led to two trafficking charges. By sheer luck on her part both of the busts happened while still in Oregon, so she evaded federal prosecution. Not everyone involved was so lucky."
He consulted a small notepad like the kind reporters use. I used to carry one myself because I liked the way they looked; finally I realized I never had anything to write in it except the occasional reminder to buy cat food. "There were six busts in all on this operation, but the troopers in Oregon took too long to figure out the connective tissue and so they never infiltrated the network. They picked off enough operatives that the whole thing seemed to lose juice, though."
The noise in the diner was starting to rise as early-lunch customers arrived. I didn't expect Frank to know the answer but the question found its way out of my mouth anyway. "You think there's a chance my father is tied into this network somehow?"
Frank shrugged helplessly. "You got me, man. It's a thread, and it's tenuous. Kay could've been working for anyone. There's no proof she's had any association with anyone in Eugene for years, but that doesn't mean she hasn't."
I remembered something, then, something coming up from that vast wasteland of brain cells where much of my memory was buried. Kay and I were in her car, mellowing out our cocaine highs by passing a pipe back and forth, and she had apologized for the quality of the pot, saying it wasn't what she usually got. I hadn't been listening, really, instead trying to talk myself down from the scatteredness and mania the drugs had wrought within me. But I remembered her saying something about scoring whenever she went home, and I realized that at the time I assumed that had meant some tiny shitkicker town on the Austin outskirts.
It sounded like I was going to Eugene, and I said so. Frank nodded. "It seems a logical next step, if only because you might be able to find out more about her. She may have gone anywhere, but the odds of someone in Eugene knowing are pretty good. Plus," he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a crisp white envelope and gesturing at me with it, "I know somebody there who might be able to give you a hand."
He nestled the enveloped down between the plates and cups. "Lane County sheriff. Dale McCurry. He's one of the good guys, I met him down here at a training session the DEA was doing a couple of years back, and we ended up drinking together almost every night afterwards. We've stayed in touch since. He's an old-fashioned type, though, responds best to respect until he gets to know you, so..."
"So lay off the smart ass?" I finished for him.
"A firm handshake, my name and a couple of 'yes sir's should get you in the saddle pretty quick."
I picked up the envelope. "Thanks."
A final check of the watch and a flick of his hand at the waiter told me our chat was all but over, which was good. I needed a drink and to walk off the jitters I felt, jitters that were half caffeine, half withdrawal and half anxiety. But I realized that Frank was still talking.
"If I were you, I'd get a stockpile of cash. Take out more than you need each day and save whatever you can. But don't always take out the same amount. Take out three hundred from one machine, two-twenty from another. By the time you leave California, I'd be off plastic entirely."
"Just in case?" I said.
Frank laughed into his coffee and set it down. "You don't seem like any stranger to paranoia. Well, for a while at least, indulge those impulses. At some point, I imagine you're going to come face to face with some less-than-upstanding characters, more so than you already have. If that happens, being off any radar could be helpful."
I nodded, and while I was digesting what he said (I seemed to have already digested the feather-light frittata; my stomach was grumbling with newfound hunger), he was gathering up his things and putting thirty dollars in cash on top of the bill, waving away my reach towards my wallet.
"Oh, that cashiers check your old man sent you," Frank said when we were back on the street. "The trail disappears pretty quickly. First Montana Bank, just a local place in Havre, with the money for the check coming from an account in the Cayman Islands--that shows some sophistication on your Dad's part. A transaction like that is supposed to trigger some disclosure, but that seems to have fallen through, unsurprisingly. Your Dad could have charmed or bribed someone at the bank. A bank that size, though, probably doesn't see that kind of thing every day, and so someone might remember something, but Eugene's probably a better bet, if you want my opinion."
We parted about three blocks south of his building, where I veered off to catch the Muni to the garage where my car was been worked on. Our handshake was warm, although I detected a hint of self-satisfaction on his face that I imagine came from feeling like the good guy in all this. The ex-husband comes into town with this terrible story and he's going to do everything he can to help. Blunts any possible ex-factor that I might have with Laura, puts him out on top. Not that he needed the extra effort, and whatever his motivations I couldn't refute the fact that now I had a plan whereas before I had nothing, just a random, vague dread.
I didn't even listen as they read off what they had done to my car. I had waived any price ceiling on the repairs and they seemed to take this as a challenge to find and fix everything they could imagine. Despite the fact that they seemed to be charging me to replace every last nut and bolt on the thing, I paid without a fuss. I'll be honest; I have never had the slightest interest or concern for the mechanical attributes of cars. Missing out on the culture of car-tinkering was perhaps just a result of a non-existent father, but I couldn't understand the appeal. It would be a useful and thrifty thing to know how to do, but no more so than plumbing or dentistry. Since I didn't know how to do those things, I quietly accepted that I had to pay through the nose to those who did so I could go on my way.
Stopping off at a grocery store, I bought a pint-sized bottle of Jack Daniel's, it being California after all, and took a few pulls to quiet my brain on the way back to Laura's. It was about a quarter to one, and I had called Laura from a pay phone and she'd agreed to meet me at the house during her lunch break. After that, I wanted to do some shopping--new clothes at last, a prepaid cell phone, ammo--and then make it out of town before the afternoon commute crippled my northbound journey.
I made it back to the house just before one o'clock, as Laura was about to leave. I could tell she was harried and a little annoyed but she smiled anyway. "I suppose I should find it charming that you don't change."
"I apologize. Really," I said.
She let out a low whistle. "An apology? Well, maybe you do change after all."
I gathered up my things, which was just a single trip from the guest room to the car, having bundled up the lot of it that morning before leaving. Then it was back into the house for the thing I was looking forward to least. It was time to say goodbye.
"Do you want to be alone?" Laura asked as I held Felicia like a baby in my arms and scratched the back of her neck while she vibrated with pleasure.
"That's all right. Thank you," I said.
"Not at all. It really is my pleasure. I've missed her."
"Just her?" I looked at her, not sure what answer I wanted or why I'd even asked the question.
Laura laughed dryly. "Mostly her, yeah."
After I set Felicia down, Laura and I hugged, and she kissed my cheek. My arms around her, I felt the familiar sensation that comes from holding someone you've held so often before, yet somehow her body seemed different, or my arms did, or something that was once familiar also now had a cast of difference about it. I suppose that was the nature of time. It can't erase the past but it can make it strange, like something viewed through rippling water. We released and didn't say a word. I got into my car and drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to think about the arc of my relationship with Laura and where it had led to now, acutely aware that there is only one real ending, the final one, and that until then each event just crashes from the past into the future like a steady surf that pounds away at us, on and on, until it's worn us down to the finest sand. Life's a beach, as the saying goes.