A blank is the only thing I draw well.
“A girl, a mocha latte, and a naked dead man walk into a bar,” I said, turning to the naked dead man sitting in my passenger’s seat. The elderly naked dead man who’d been riding shotgun in my cherry red Jeep Wrangler, aka Misery, for two days now. We were on a stakeout. Sort of. I was staking out a Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so I was definitely on a stakeout. No idea what Naked Dead Man was on. Considering the fact that he looked about 112, probably blood thinners. Cholesterol medication. And, judging from the state of his manhood, which I couldn’t stop seeing every single time I turned toward him, Viagra. If I were to hash-tag that moment, my status would read something like #impressed.
I gave him two thumbs up, then looked back at the house again, happy to be sitting in Misery. The Jeep, not the emotion. I’d just picked her up from the car hospital two days earlier. She’d had several surgeries to fix her broken girlie bits because a raving lunatic rammed into her. He’d knocked her into a state of mangled disrepair and me, as I was in the driver’s seat at the time, into a state of oblivion. I stayed in that state long enough for Mr. Raving Lunatic to cart me off to a deserted bridge to kill me. He failed and died in the process, but Misery had paid a high price for his nefarious machinations. Why did bad guys always try to hurt the ones I loved?
And this one had succeeded. Misery was hurt. Bad. No one wanted to work on her. Said she couldn’t be saved. Said to give her over to the scrap yard. Thankfully, a family friend with a body shop and a few incriminating photos, which just happened to have found their way into my possession, agreed with great reluctance to try.
Noni kept her for two long weeks before calling to tell me that he’d almost lost her a couple of times, but she’d pulled through with flying colors. When I got the green light to go pick her up, I tore out of my apartment so fast, I left a dust trail behind me, along with a flummoxed best friend, who’d been telling me about the couple in 3C. They were apparently newlyweds, if their energy to do it—her words—all night every night was any indication. I hurried back to her, however, because I didn’t have a car and I needed a ride.
When we picked up Misery, Noni tried to tell me everything he’d had to do to her to get her up and running, but I held up a hand to stop him, unable to bear it. This was Misery he was talking about. Not some random Wrangler off the streets. This was my Wrangler. My best friend. My baby.
Holy cow, I needed a life.
I had to hand it to Noni, though. Misery was good as new. Better than I was, anyway. Ever since that night, I’d been having problems sleeping. I suffered from debilitating nightmares that left me screaming into my pillow, and I jumped every time someone dropped a feather.
But at least Misery was okay. Like, really okay. It was weird. Her cough was gone. Her sluggish response time was no longer an issue. Her reluctance to wake up in the mornings as she sputtered in protest every time I tried to fire all engines was nonexistent. Now she started on the first try, no groaning or whining, and she purred like a newborn kitten. How Noni had managed to fix her insides as well as her outsides I’d never know, but the guy was good. And Noni was my new best friend. Well, after Misery. And Cookie, my real best friend. And Garrett, my kind of, sort of best friend. And Reyes, my . . . my . . .
What was Reyes? Besides the dark and sultry son of evil? My boy toy? My love slave? My 24/7 booty call?
He was all those things, but he was also my almost-fiancé. All I had to do was say yes to the proposal he’d written on a sticky note, and he would be my fiancé for reals. Until then, however, he was my almost fiancé.
No, my soon-to-be fiancé.
No! My nigh fiancé.
Yeah, that’d work.
I turned back to the naked dead man, stuffed a couple of Cheez-Its into my mouth, and confessed my latest sin.
“I’m just kidding,” I said through the crackers, regretting the fact that I’d tempted him and now had no follow-up. No punch line. “I don’t know any ‘girl, mocha latte, dead man’ jokes. Sorry to get your hopes up like that.” He didn’t seem to mind, however. He sat staring straight ahead as always, his gray eyes clouded and watery with age, oblivious of my charm, my clever repartee, and my intellectual wit. He was ignoring me!
“Cheez-It?” I offered him.
“Okay, but you have no idea what you’re missing here.”
I could only hope that one day he’d actually talk to me; otherwise, this was going to be a very one-sided relationship. I dusted Cheez-It gunk off my hands and went back to a drawing I’d been working on. Since he didn’t talk, I had no way of finding out his identity. And in my attempt to avoid eye contact with Naked Dead Man’s penis over the last couple of days, I’d also avoided several key clues as to said identity. First, he had a long scar that ran from under his left arm, over his rib cage, and down until it ended at his belly button. Whatever had caused it couldn’t be pleasant, but it could be vital in identifying him. Second, he had a tattoo on his left biceps that looked very old school military. It was faded and the ink had spread, but I could still make out an eagle with its talons gripping a United States flag. And third, right underneath his tattoo was a surname, presumably his: andrulis. I’d taken out my memo pad and pen and was drawing the tat, since I had yet to find a camera that could photograph the departed.
I did my darnedest to draw the tat while simultaneously balancing the Cheez-It box against the gearshift, within arm’s reach, and keeping an eye on the Fosters’ house. Sadly, I sucked at two out of three of those tasks. Mostly at drawing. I’d never gotten the hang of it. I failed finger painting in kindergarten, too. That should have been a clue, but I’d always wanted to be the next Vermeer or Picasso or, at the very least, the next Clyde Brewster, a boy I’d went to school with who drew exploding walls and houses and buildings. No idea why. Alas, my destiny did not lie within the lines of graphite or the strokes of a paintbrush, but at the whim of dead people with PTDD: posttraumatic death disorder.
Oh, well. It could have been worse. Clyde Brewster, for example, ended up in prison for trying to blow up a Sack-N-Save. Thankfully, he was better at art than at demolitions. He’d asked me out several times, too. #Dodgedabullet.
“I know you’re not really into baring your soul,” I said, eyeing Mr. Andrulis’s bare, naked soul, “figuratively speaking, but if there’s anything you want or need, I’m your girl. Mostly because not many people on Earth can see you.”
I added a shadow on the eagle’s face with my blue ink pen, trying to make it look noble. It didn’t help. It still looked cross-eyed.
“And those who can see the departed usually see only a gray mist where you might be. Or they’ll feel a rush of cold air when you walk past. But I can see you, touch you, hear you, pretty much anything you.”
Maybe if I added highlights on its beak, it would look more like an eagle and less like a duck.
“My name is Charley.”
But I was using a pen. I couldn’t erase. Damn it. I had to think ahead. Real artists thought ahead. I’d never get into the Louvre at this rate.
I tried to scratch off some of the ink, bracing the memo pad against my steering wheel. I tore a tiny hole in the paper instead and cursed under my breath.
“I’m the grim reaper,” I said from between gritted teeth, “but don’t let that bother you. It’s not as bad as it sounds. I’m also a private investigator. That’s not as bad as it sounds either. And I shouldn’t have given your eagle eyelashes. He looks like Daffy Duck in drag.”
Giving up, I wrote the name underneath the eagle-ish-type drawing, consoling myself with the fact that abstract art was all the rage before pulling out my phone and snapping a shot of my masterpiece. After angling it this way and that, trying to get the focus just right, I realized the eagle looked better when turned on its side. More masculine. Less . . . water fowl.
I saved the best one and deleted the rest as a car pulled up to the Foster house. A nervous thrill rushed up my spine. I put down my pen and memo pad and took a sip of my whipped mocha latte, forcing myself to calm as I waited to see who was driving the gold Prius. I was spying on the Fosters, who lived in a modest neighborhood in the Northeast Heights, because I’d been asked to by a friend of mine. She was a special agent with the FBI, like her father before her, and this had been his case, one of the few that went unsolved under his watch. I was trying to help her solve it, though solving might be a strong word. If my hunch was correct, and I liked to think it was, I had insider information that my friend’s father was never privy to. Mr. Foster owned an insurance company, and Mrs. Foster ran the office of a local pediatrician. And approximately thirty years ago, their first son was taken from them, never to be seen again. I was about 100 percent certain I knew what happened to him.
I eased forward and pressed against the steering wheel, angling for a better look at the driver when my aunt Lil’s voice wafted toward me from the backseat.
“Who’s the hottie?” she asked, her blue hair and floral muumuu solidifying around her as she materialized in my rearview.
I tossed a wink over my right shoulder. “Hey, Aunt Lil. How was your trip to Bangladesh?”
“Oh, the food!” She waved a hand extravagantly. “The people! I was in heaven, I tell ya. Not literally, though.” She cackled in delight at her joke.
Aunt Lil had died in the ’60s, a fact she’d only recently discovered. So, she couldn’t have actually eaten or interacted with the native population. At least, not the living native population. I’d never thought about her visiting the departed when she traveled. Now, that would be fascinating.
She hitched a thumb toward my newest friend and wriggled her penciled brows. “You gonna introduce us?”
The garage door rose and the driver pulled inside but didn’t close the door. It gave me hope. I just wanted a glimpse. A tiny peek.
“He’s not very talkative,” I said, squinting for a better view when the driver’s-side door opened, “but I think his last name is Andrulis. It’s on his tattoo.”
“He’s got some ink?” She leaned forward and spotted Mr. A’s package. It was hard to miss.
“Good heavens,” she said, her eyes rounding in appreciation.
Before I could get a look at the driver, the garage door started closing. “Darn,” I whispered, tilting my head in unison with the descending door until it completely blocked my view.
I’d seen a woman’s foot as she stepped out of the car before the door closed completely. That was about it.
“He’s certainly been blessed,” she said.
I laid my head against the steering wheel and expelled a loud breath as disappointment washed over me. I’d been handed a file that could hold many answers to the puzzle that was Reyes Alexander Farrow, my nigh fiancé, and the Fosters were a big piece of the puzzle. Their first son had been kidnapped while napping in his room. Because there was never a ransom demand and no witnesses, the trail went cold almost immediately despite a massive search and public pleas from the parents. But the FBI agent assigned to the case never gave up. He’d always believed there was more to the case than just a kidnapping. And so did his daughter, who followed in her father’s footsteps and became an FBI agent as well. She was also my friend and we’d worked a couple of cases together. She knew about my rep for solving difficult crimes, and she’d asked me to look at a cold case that had been the bane of her father’s existence.
And that was the day that Reyes Farrow’s kidnapping fell into my lap. He was the child who had been abducted almost thirty years prior. I glanced down at the file stuffed between my seat and the console. So much potential there. So much heartache.
“Don’t you think?”
I blinked back to Aunt Lil. “Think what?”
“That he’s been blessed.”
“Oh, yeah, I do.” I couldn’t help another glance. “But It’s just so . . . there. So unavoidable.” I tore my gaze away and pointed to his tat. “So, the name Andrulis. Does that ring any bells?”
“No, but I can do some investigating. See what turns up. Speaking of which, I have an idea I want to run past you.”
I shifted around so I could see her better. “Shoot.”
“I think we should work together.” She jammed a bony elbow into my side encouragingly, her arm passing through the seat to poke me.
“Ooooh-kay,” I said with a light chuckle.
“Ha! I knew it was a good idea.” Her face brightened, the grayish tones of life after death lightening just a little.
It could work. We could be the Dynamic Duo. Only without capes, sadly enough. I’d always wanted to do good deeds in a red cape. Or, at the very least, a mauve towel.
After taking another sip of my now lukewarm mocha latte—which was better than no mocha latte any day of the week—I asked, “Are you planning to draw a salary?”
“The way I see it, we should split the take fifty–fifty.”
I stifled a grin. “That’s the way you see it, huh?”
“Oh, and we probably need code names.”
Her suggestion made me choke on my next sip. “Code names?” I asked through the coughs.
“And code phrases like, ‘The sun never sets in the east.’ That could mean, ‘Switch to plan B.’ Or it could mean, ‘Let’s grab a bite to eat before the men come over.’”
“The men?” She’d really thought this through.
“Or it could mean, ‘How do you get blood out of silk?’ Because as PIs, we’ll need to know stuff like that.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” The file caught my attention again, and I turned back to the Foster house. “Blood can be stubborn.” Maybe I should just walk up and knock on the door. I could say I was helping a friend with an old case. I could ask if there were any new developments we hadn’t been informed of. I could ask if they knew that the man recently released from prison after doing ten years for a crime he didn’t commit was their son. I could ask if they knew what he’d been through, what he’d suffered at the hands of the man who raised him. But what good would adding guilt on top of guilt do anybody?
“Are you okay, pumpkin cheeks?”
I shook out of my thoughts. “Yeah, it’s just . . . well, two hours down the drain, and for what?” I gestured toward the Fosters’ house. “A foot in a sensible shoe driving a sensible car.”
She looked across the street toward the house. “What were you hoping to see?”
Her question took me by surprise. Even I wondered what I was really doing there. Did I simply want to see the woman who might have given birth to the man of my dreams? Did I want a glimpse of the man who may have been his human father?
Reyes was the son of Satan, forged in the fires of hell, but he’d been born on earth to be with me. To grow up with me. He’d done his homework and chose a steady, professional couple to be his human parents. He’d planned for us to go to the same schools, to shop at the same stores, and eat at the same restaurants. Sadly, even the best-laid plans go awry.
“I’m not really sure, Aunt Lil.” What had I been hoping to see? A glimpse of Reyes’s past? Of his future? What he would look like in the years to come? Since it had been only a few days since a crazy man tried to kill me, I was trying not to rush terribly headlong into any situation, no matter how innocuous it might seem on the surface. I’d decided to take the week off. Reckless behavior would just have to wait until I’d healed a tad more.
“Goodness, that won’t do. You can’t just call me Aunt Lil willy-nilly. We’ll definitely need code names. What do you think of Cleopatra?”
I chuckled softly. “I think it’s perfect.”
“Oh! Trench coats! We’ll need trench coats!”
Before I could question her further, she was gone. Vanished. Vamoosed. I loved that woman. She took eccentric to a whole new level. Still, I had work to do, and sitting at a stakeout just to catch a glimpse of the Fosters was ridiculous. I started Misery, then picked up the Cheez-Its and stuffed a handful into my mouth the very second the phone rang. Naturally. Because when else would it ring?
I hurried and chewed before answering my bestie’s ring. Cookie worked cheap, which made her the best receptionist in all of Albuquerque, in my humble opinion. But she was also very good at her job. I’d set her on the task of finding everything she could about the Fosters. She was as fascinated as I was.
After another quick sip to wash down the crumbs, I finally answered. “Do you think if I lived on Cheez-Its and coffee alone, I’d ultimately starve to death?”
“They had another son,” she said, her voice full of awe.
I had no idea what that had to do with my question. “Does he eat Cheez-Its?”
I bolted upright. “Can you repeat that?”
“The Fosters had another son.”
“Way.” I heard her fingernails clicking on the keyboard as she worked her magic. “Very much way.”
“Yes. Three years after the abduction.”
“Do you know what this means?” I asked, my awe matching her own.
“I certainly do.”
“—has a brother.”