Happy January! I'm back with a short story, a Berkeley noir tale called "The Missing Pieces"
You can also find it on Kindle at Amazon for 99 cents.
But please enjoy it for free here.
I didn’t intend to wake up like this, wearing last night’s clothes and with no idea how I got here. I never intend for this to happen. It just does. Too often.
It’s morning, maybe sometime before six, judging by how much the fog is lifting across the bay and covering this part of the Marina. I can barely see the Bay Bridge, and The City beyond it. A jogger runs by on the path, doesn’t seem to notice me sprawled out against the rocks down here, my head a few feet from the water. Probably for the best. I know I must look like death right about now.
My phone’s gone. My watch, the one the old man left me when he croaked. The loss of that piece is gonna hurt later, once my head clears. My wallet stripped, too. So, I got rolled. Maybe I was drinking at the bar in Skates, right over there by the pier? Or Hs Lordships down the road? I hope my memory comes back to me, paints a clear picture of the bastards.
It’s actually been a while since I had a blackout. Been trying to keep a lid on things. I almost forgot how it felt, missing a stretch of time, all that memory of what I did and didn’t do just gone, like it seeped out of my ears or from the side of my mouth. What happened last night that made drinking past my limit such a hellbent priority?
My brain tells me to start walking, get the blood flowing. Maybe things will come back to me, out of the fog; from the literal one around me or the symbolic one filling the space in my head.
An image flickers behind my eyes. A girl. The origin of bad things happening to me: always a girl. But this isn’t my girl, my wife Terri. The one who bore me a beautiful son, with her open, trusting face and a laugh that restores all faith in humanity that I abandon every time I reach for the bottle. No, this girl is young, college-age. In my office. Hiring me to find someone. Her brother.
Like a dream, the images and the meaning suddenly evaporate. I’m walking, the wind at my back, the steady sound of waves moving in to the Marina, crashing against the rocks, still in my ears. Seagulls and clouds move with me as I follow the stretch of grass beside the road toward the freeway, the 80 and 580. And University Ave. beyond that point. Somewhere farther up, where I live. And where I work.
I guess what I do you’d call work, although it hardly seems that. I managed to squeak through at SF State, graduated with a business degree, which led to me becoming a CPA. (“Get yourself a trade, Tommy,” my old man told me, again and again. “It’ll be boring, sure, but you’ll stay on the straight and narrow. And you’ll always have money in your pocket.”) I worked for local folks, doing their books, until I ran into some other kinds of folks who wanted me to cook a different set of books. I quit for a while, tried to join the police, but they weren’t having me. Physically, I was pretty prime, but it was those pesky psychological problems: too many of them, even for the BPD. Anger issues. Judgment problems. An overreliance on imbibing. Definitely not rookie material.
After that fell through, I wandered a bit, found work here and there. Oakland. Richmond. Fresno. Bakersfield. San Diego. Then found my way back home when the old man passed. Met a woman, Terri. Renewed my CPA license, got back to work. Marriage. Then a kid. A family.
I’m approaching the train tracks already. I lost time again. That’s never happened when I haven’t been planted at a barstool or drinking with ‘a friend’ right before. But I was awake, walking and then …. now I’m here, a mile or two from where I started.
A train heads toward me, speeding southbound. I step away from the tracks, feel the muscular wind it generates as it passes me. My proximity to this giant beast—near enough I could easily reach out and touch each massive car as they whip by me, on their way to destinations I’ll never know—is not a familiar sensation. But the sounds … the wheels clacking over the steel rails, the lonely moan of the whistle as it passes through the station. Those are familiar.
When my little brother Richie and I were kids, in the south part of town where you could afford to rent a house even if your dad was a lousy drunk and your mom scrubbed other peoples’ toilets to support the family, we would listen to those sounds at night. The song of the passing trains found us in our rooms, the two of us curled up under the covers in the bed we shared, trying our best to fight sleep because the end of sleep meant morning, and morning meant no clean clothes, possibly breakfast, and definitely school. We listened for the random intervals of the sounds, always surprised when they arrived, and always crestfallen when they failed to visit us. I’m not sure what they meant to Richie, but to me they held the promise of peace, and safety, and security.
I started the investigative work as a fluke, something I had always romanticized but never pursued, prior to my attempt at joining the police force. Aside from doing tax stuff for the old-timers and shopkeepers in the neighborhood—that area around Adeline and Ashby, spitting distance from the BART station—there wasn’t a lot of work coming my way. I was good with numbers, but I never felt a spark for it. Hunting for answers to a mystery, something that defied a +b = c, now that’s what I craved. Numbers were exact, finite. People, their problems, were always messy and nothing was ever truly ‘solved.’ Given my upbringing, I carried a morbid and familial curiosity about the underside of human nature and life’s randomness of fortune.
So when one of my tax clients asked if I could help him track down a vendor who had skipped out owing him a goodly amount of money, I leapt at the challenge. He hired me without much faith that I’d locate the guy, but it was the principle of the thing that ate at him, being cheated out of what was owed him. I found the crook in Reno, managed to recoup most of the money he owed without having to strong-arm him, and collected a nice payday, plus expenses, from my client for a job well done.
After that, I did little jobs here and there when I could, which supplemented the CPA income and provided an excuse to avoid heavy drinking, so that I could keep my reasoning mind sharp and my instinctive nature from being dulled. I continued to drink, however, a gift from my father like the watch he left to me in his will. The watch that was swiped from me by assailants unknown at the edge of the bay sometime earlier this morning or last night.
“My brother,” the girl from my memory appeared again, talking at me in my small basement office, “he’s been missing now for almost two weeks. He hasn’t called home, and none of his roommates or friends from Cal have seen him.”
I looked at the picture she’d handed me, a boy in his high school graduation cap and gown, and tried to find the family resemblance. She was a few years older than the brother, with bleached white hair in a bob. On Louise Brooks that cut looked seductive and sexy as hell. On this girl, it was as severe as an icepick to the stomach.
“Have you already filed a report with the police?” I asked, anxious for the job but ethical enough to ask the obvious questions first.
“Yes, but they won’t do anything. They won’t even look for him. I just want to know if he’s still here in the area, and what’s happened to him.” Her face was distraught, but her eyes were steady. Calculating.
The whiff of distrust came at me with a potent stench, but I wanted the money. I needed the work. So I took the job.
Here we go again. A jump, a span of time just poof, gone. A leap from the edge of the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot to inside this bar.
Do I know this bar? Black leather stools surrounding the booze-filled island like an invading force, too much damn wood, and wide windows in desperate need of some blackout curtains? Sure I do. Brennan’s, a short stroll from the station. And there’s plenty of daylight trying to force its way inside. So maybe I haven’t been out for that long. No way to tell. No watch, no phone. Not even a goddamn clock on the wall in here.
But there’s a drink in front of me. Drained down to near-bottom. There’s a small taste left. Less than a gulp, but more than a sip. I obviously ordered it, probably a decent scotch, but how the hell do I pay for it?
I know this place because this is where my old man, the old man, would do his drinking sometimes. Not the one I’m in now, which used to be China Station Restaurant, but the original one when it was an old-style hofbrau, thick with atmosphere and a heady, lived-in presence to it, before it was bulldozed to make room for hipster housing.
Mom dressed me and Richie up nice, on those few occasions when she had more money than debts, and would drive the family down to Spenger’s for a meal. Crab Louie, that was my favorite. Richie, he loved shrimp.
One Sunday night, after Dad was finished with a plate of heavily battered fish and his fourth or fifth Whiskey Sour, he got that disgusted look on his face. He studied me, eyeballed Richie, then threw a hard glare at Mom.
“I’m not in there, Alice. Not a drop of me.”
We had heard this refrain before. Drink wasn’t always the catalyst to bring out his paranoia, but it was the most effective accelerant to ignite his fear of being a fool. A cuckold.
He stared at Richie and me again. Downed the last of his poison from the Old Fashioned glass, then chewed on the ice. “If only ya had some Irish in ya. Then I’d believe it.” He got to his feet, steadied himself. Leaned down to my mother. “But I always treat ’em like my own. Always! Even if they ain’t, Alice. Because I know my duty.”
Then he stormed out. Because this wasn’t the first time he’d left before the meal was done, and this wasn’t the first time he’d scuttled across the way to Brennan’s, we knew where we’d find him. But Mom didn’t rush us. Ordered me and Richie our own scoops of spumoni and watched us eat it. With a smile on her lips and sadness behind those eyes.
The bartender comes by, plucks my unfinished drink off the bar and wipes the moisture below it. He doesn’t acknowledge me, doesn’t ask if I want another. How long have I been here? How many have I already ordered and tossed back before this one?
I check all my pockets, come up empty. Not even a dime on me. I stumble off the bar, not feeling drunk but feeling lost, empty. I move toward the head near the front of the restaurant, like I’m taking a piss. When I see the door open and no hostess at the front desk, I saunter out, like a thief into the night.
But the sun is up, beginning to warm the air. I wasn’t in there for very long. Just long enough to lose time again. I wonder when it’ll happen next.
I keep walking and across the way is Spenger’s, looking exactly as it did when I was a kid. Same signs, same nautical theme decorating the outside, everything unchanged from the last time I ordered extra Thousand Island dressing for my enormous crab salad. I cross under the overpass, throw the weathered-green sculpture of a bird spreading its wings a little wink—I have no idea why—and climb up the street, the overpass and the bar and the train depot and the Marina now behind me.
The case comes back to me, with fresh details.
The sister paid me up front, not even flinching once I’d calculated my retainer for taking the case. Three days legwork minimum, plus any possible expenses. It was money I desperately needed, and money she didn’t hesitate to give me. In cash. “Unmarked bills” sounded from my suspicious mind. She left behind the high school picture, the boy’s full name, social, and a thorough description of him from the last time she’d seen him. And an address for the first place I’d look for leads: his apartment.
He’d lucked into a two-story Colonial on College Ave., a brisk ten-minute walk from campus. The kind of set-up Cal students can’t find anymore. Spacious houses that used to be rented out to multiple kids every school year have long been scooped up by the single-family buyers; they’ve managed not only to remodel the houses, but to tear down an entire student culture, resulting in the banishment of students to far-flung areas like Albany, Oakland, and beyond. Whereas the students used to populate the clubs, restaurants, and coffee hangouts on Telegraph and Shattuck, now they scuttle off to BART and packed buses after class, escaping certain long-held rituals of college life that vanish with every new sale by an adorable, well-financed nuclear family.
One of the roommates let me in, was expecting me. I asked him a few questions about the kid—Felix or Phillip, I can’t quite remember now—which didn’t yield anything worthwhile, then he showed me to a room. The inside was monk-like, with a mat on the floor, a sweat-stained pillow, and a thin blanket on top. Some cheap candles spread around the room, and lots of books. A few textbooks, a couple of used paperbacks, and an abundance of spiritually-themed books. I leafed through a few, mostly about Zen Buddhism and spiritual fulfillment. Loaded with nuggets of wisdom, philosophies about how to live life without need, without desire, without fun.
I don’t know why I had always knocked that spiritual approach, I guess I preferred to wallow in my own self-hatred and misery. It had been a godsend for Richie, helped him find true ‘enlightenment’ and propelled my brother onto a path which led him to a different, better place. Through meditation and prayer, Richie’s soul found escape from our rotten childhood, and he prospered in his adult life.
He was always a smart one, infinitely smarter than me, and he became one of those dot-commers over in Silicon Valley, creating apps or platforms or whatever it is he does. I guess I could have shown an interest, but I was too self-involved, too traumatized by my own life. Not really getting that he and I shared that same trauma.
Richie made his way upward and out. I toppled sideways, still glued to the spot.
I tried not to resent him for that, at least not outwardly, although I’m sure it showed. But despite my shitty attitude toward his success, he had always been giving and kind to Terri and me. We were stuck in our little apartment on 62nd Street, while he lived a much more glamorous life across the bay in The City, the owner of his very own Mediterranean-style mini-mansion in the Marina, with a top floor view of the Palace of Fine Arts. He’d visit our hovel, full of encouragement and profoundly interested in whatever was happening with us. And when my baby boy, my baby joy, came, Richie seemed to cherish his role as doting uncle.
In the missing kid’s room, I took a few snaps and scooped up some of the more emphatically titled books on the art of higher consciousness, convinced that I needed them for the case but maybe believing I could strip some wisdom from them for myself. With a toddler at home, and a small issue with the drinky-drink, perhaps a little self-realization and spiritual growth could turn out to be beneficial. It sure as hell couldn’t hurt.
As I headed out of the room, I saw a flyer—bright purple with white lettering—thumbtacked up high, near the door. The only thing visible on the stark white walls. It was so conspicuous, I had to wonder: was it up there like that so the kid wouldn’t forget about it, or so that I couldn’t miss it?
Back at the office, I did the normal search online for info on the kid. I checked for Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat accounts, all of which he had, but with no recent posts since a few days before he disappeared. I scoured the pages for something relevant, but the only thing that was consistent with all his social media was that each and every one of his accounts had been created within the past six months. The kid was nineteen, a sophomore at Cal, but only discovered the Internet less than a year ago? That spiked my curiosity … and my paranoia.
I tossed his name, D.O.B., and social into a few databases and didn’t come up with much. A single credit card, no debt, one address—in Ohio—and a whole lot of nothing else. I couldn’t find any evidence of him attending Cal, or any high school records. The fact that a teenage kid had zero presence on the web made me suspect that not only was he some kind of 21st century anomaly, but that this whole case had begun to feel like a con.
I had decided that this kid was created out of whole cloth, that his ‘sister’ had dropped a case on me that couldn’t ever be solved. But why? Who would go to all that trouble, and that expense, in order to get me to investigate a nobody? Why fake a person, all those newly-created online accounts, and even rent and decorate a room for someone who didn’t exist?
I spread out the handful of books I’d swiped from the monastic room and searched for a different kind of enlightenment. There were stickers on two of the books from a spiritual bookstore that was located on Telegraph, inside The Village where I once took a date to Fondue Fred as a gag, but ended up devouring everything they put on my plate. I figured it might be worth a visit, touch a couple of healing crystals, flash the kid’s high school picture at the bookstore owner, and see if anyone besides the sister and the roommate were in on this scam.
Then I saw the flyer, the one that had been tacked up on the kid’s empty wall. Was this a real lead, or was it planted there for me to find? Either way, I had taken the job, and my feelings of obligation to follow this thing to its eventual resolution were too strong to fight. No matter how blind I had become to the internal warnings, and despite all my own misgivings, I was in this to the end.
Time seems to be holding, as I leave Spenger’s behind and trudge east on University Avenue. The air is still cool, sunshine above battling with an army of clouds that line up their overcast warriors against the soldiers of heat and light. My mind is still a bit hazy, but I blame that on the hour of the day: I’m usually not at my thinking-best until at least noon. I’m unclear on when that affliction began, my cloudiness of brain power in the morning hours, but it probably has its roots in my teenage years, when the call of the drink howled first and loudest.
Richie, thankfully, didn’t feel the pull like I did. He avoided alcohol like the scourge it is, early to bed and early to rise, even when his friends tempted him toward the normal dark alleys of youth. Always a good kid, he learned from others’ mistakes in a near uncanny fashion. If only I had had those qualities.
Dad claimed it was the genes that set us apart, me and Richie. His paranoia around this one subject, his cuckolding at the hands of some unknown suitor to my mother, never abated. His diseased mind was filled with endless scenarios about Mom and her infidelities, which made a kind of sense given my father’s own history of affairs both hidden and exposed.
“You, maybe, Tommy,” he continued his suspicions from the kitchen. Alone with me, he spoke in a conspiratorial tone, like we were pals and in on the fix together. “But this other one – look at him.” He pointed with his highball into the living room, where my mother and little brother watched TV in silence. “That ain’t my blood coursing through his body. Not mine.”
I sat there, hands in my lap, nodding my head like he wanted. How old would Richie have to be, I thought, before my father would play this little game with him, conspiring against me and my true parentage? Or would he tire of torturing himself and just leave our family for good?
The stores and shops I pass on my way up the busy street keep my mind planted in the past. The One Hour Martinizing, which looks the same as it ever did; the Foster’s Freeze, where Richie and I bought our chocolate-dipped on summer bike rides; and the Ben Davis sign, with that eponymous ape, the mascot to the working man. Above 9th Street, the motels and the Baptist Church provoke an unfathomable sense of nostalgia in me, while the Berkeley Cross-Fit and Brittany Crepes place snap me back into the present like a bungee cord.
The glint of light at my feet stops me, a copper coin lying heads-up on the ancient sidewalk. See a penny, pick it up goes through my head. And all day long you’ll have worries about where that penny has been and if you didn’t make a catastrophic mistake by picking it up. I hurry past it, intent to get as far away from whatever luck—bad or good—it might have to offer. The paranoia of my father visits me again, and with it creeps in more details of the case I’ve been working, the one that had led me to the psychic bookshop.
The place smelled funny, like the smoke from a fire after it had ravaged a See’s Candies factory that rented its back area to a nursery. Sickly-sweet candy mixed with a floral barrage. I fought back a tiny bout of nausea and drew the picture from my pocket. Behind the counter, a fifty-something blonde wearing a sari and a red dot on her forehead smiled up at me. I wondered if she’d missed that drum circle meeting about the evils of cultural appropriation.
“Namaste,” she said, a lilt to her voice that smacked of hippie-attitude exhaustion combined with a desperate salesmanship. From the looks of her and the state of the stock in her shop, Buddha had abandoned her long ago, and she was surviving on fumes. I felt sorry for her, so I palmed the kid’s picture and reached for a book.
“Any good?” I asked, holding up a cover that sported a goat-like thing floating through a very crowded batch of multi-colored planets.
She pressed her hands together in a prayer pose, the smile broadening enough for me to clock her small overbite. “This choice is exquisite. Its goal is to guide you in expelling all of your negative energy in order to receive the abundance of love and positivity that all humans deserve.”
I looked at the back of the book. “All that for $14.95? Wow.” I placed the book on the counter, with the implied promise of a purchase. “What about Buddhism books? You sell a lot of those?”
“Are you a fellow traveler of truth?” she asked, and the more I searched her face for the put-on, the less I doubted her sincerity. I started to worry about a future combustion between us, when smart-ass cynicism rubs up against unwavering, devout belief. So I gently nodded my head, playing along with her spiritual shenanigans.
She floated from behind the counter and enclosed my hand in hers as she led me to a section at the rear of the tiny shop. Her fingertips were soft, her thumb strong. “There is a power to the journey, that lasts long after the destination has been reached.” She was spouting aphorisms now, and I wished I had shown her the picture while I still had my sanity in check. The dust motes in the air swirled around us as if we were alabaster statues of fertility and immortality. I felt like all of the burning incense was going to my head.
A little less than an hour later, she unlocked the door to the shop and gently ushered me out. I sucked in a deep breath of fragrance-free air and contemplated the weakness of my soul by way of my body. If there was a God, like my mother believed, then I would burn for my sins. There was no disputing or arguing against my wickedness. I had betrayed my wife, yet again, simply because the opportunity presented itself—nothing else—and even though I had a conscience, a healthy amount of guilt for my actions, it ultimately didn’t matter because my eternal fate had been sealed long, long before this latest encounter.
I turn off University and continue on Sacramento, walking south toward Oakland. I think of that woman in the bookstore, and all my indiscretions, which makes my stomach ache from the sickness that’s at the core of me. I crave a drink, a stiff one, wet and full with the promise of complete obliteration.
Instead I think on the case again, try to piece the jumble of small leads and inconsistencies into a puzzle that resembles something familiar. I showed Lily, Ms. Namaste, the picture of the kid as I reached for my pants, right before I headed out. She didn’t recognize him, and I actually wasn’t surprised. I got a hunch right then and asked about the ‘sister,’ describing her with as much precision as I could muster. The girl she remembered, because she’d been in only a few weeks before, and had bought so many books, all while displaying a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the purchases.
“She had no life, no curiosity behind her eyes,” Lily told me. “I’m always looking for the hungry, questioning soul when people enter my store. She wasn’t picking the books for any true journey of discovery. They were chosen as if she were decorating a house, instead of by a desire to read or experience them.”
After that I drove back to the office, my little basement dwelling on Adeline, a few steps from Black & White Liquor, where not only did the guy behind the counter, Omarr, know my name, but he knew my booze of choice. I had shown him a picture of my boy once, at about six months old, and Omarr gave it a deep, thoughtful look.
“That’s a good-looking boy, indeed. And you, the proud papa. Ha ha,” he said.
I thanked him, and right before he handed it back to me, he gave it another stare. And then gave me a once- and twice-over. “Don’t much look like his papa, though, does he? Must be he gets all those good genes from his mama. Ha ha,” he said and handed the picture back.
As he bagged up my purchase, I pored over the photo of my boy with a scrutiny that I hadn’t felt necessary before. It was true, he didn’t much look like me. And it was tough to find a whole lot of Terri in him either. He did look a lot like someone, but at that moment I couldn’t quite place who it was.
Then I realized where the resemblance came from: my brother Richie.
Back from the bookstore and inside my office, I was in a familiar state of self-disgust when I grudgingly decided to follow the only lead I hadn’t yet pursued. It was that flyer, from the pristine white walls of the missing kid—his name was Felton, I remember it now, a weird name for someone who probably didn’t even exist—and it took me down a rabbit hole. I opened a half-empty bottle of scotch and married its full, robust lip to my mouth as I searched online for the group advertised on the leaflet: “Sukha Life Center.”
I learned a few things quickly; Sukha is Japanese for “happiness” or “pleasure”; their motto “Satori to fill your shunyata” essentially meant they promised total enlightenment as a replacement for loneliness and despair; that the folks who ran this center had a definite air of a cult to it; and that all roads, those good and bad about the group, led directly to its leader, Abbot Kaisho. Known to his elementary and high school pals as “Buddy,” they remembered him as both a “sweet charmer” and a “master manipulator.” I was eager to meet Buddy and make up my own mind.
I arrived at their makeshift temple. It was conveniently located near a couple of banks on Solano, which allowed all of its ‘novices’ easy access to unloading their savings accounts or transferring funds directly to this professional team of worshippers. The building itself was old, but the current tenants had clearly not been here long. The shape of the sign over the door told me it had ushered in plenty of lost, wandering souls in multiple towns and cities before it landed in mine. I looked at the flyer again, on wild purple paper with angel white lettering, promising the moon but offering a ticket to being duped out of your money, your freedom, and maybe even your sanity.
I stared at the paper until all I saw was blur, and considered my next move. I had found a few more unsavory details about Abbot Kaisho and his former life as Ned “Buddy” Morgan once I’d deepened my internet search back at the office: he was an ex-con, served a four-year stint for embezzlement and fraud; he’d gone up on charges of kidnapping, child endangerment, and assault, but the prosecutors couldn’t prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt; and rumors were that he was apparently bankrolled by some heavy-duty folks with long criminal records. If the state could have put him away for his cult of personality, his charisma, and powers of persuasion, I’m sure he would’ve gotten life.
I didn’t believe any good would come from me confronting him. I had pretty much convinced myself that there wasn’t even a missing kid to find. So why the hell had I come here? A sense of duty prevailed, to finish what I had been paid to start, despite the slimmest possibility of a happy ending. Self-sabotage was also at work here, a yearning for punishment I so surely deserved.
I knocked on the door.
It opened, more quickly than I expected—like someone had been stationed at the door, just waiting for me—and what greeted me was a man much older and shorter than his online pictures: the Abbot. He was dressed in a loose-fitting beige robe, cinched above his waist with a thin white rope, the ends frayed and showing the first signs of yellowing.
“May I help you?” he asked, pleasantly enough, but I could tell by the way he met my eye that he knew exactly who I was.
I handed him the flyer, discolored finger smudges branded onto the paper where my sweaty pads couldn’t help themselves. When he stared at his temple’s manipulative calling card as if it was made of something alien and unfamiliar, I knew the game was afoot. But I wasn’t in a merry mood for bullshit, and I didn’t look the part of a novitiate, one of Guru Buddy’s faith-questioning loners out to embrace any new belief that was shoved under their nose. I looked like what I was: a drunk and a degenerate, beyond any spiritual rescue, here on his doorstep to ask questions and demand answers.
“Felton Connors, nineteen, a sweet-faced kid, but searching for something maybe you all are offering. Any chance he’s camped out here?”
Before I could try to jog his memory with the high school snap, he opened the door wider. “Please come inside. It’s rude of me to keep you standing out there.”
I looked both ways down the now-empty sidewalk with a heightened awareness to the lateness of the hour, the sun down and the sky a dirty splash of crimson. I sucked in a mental deep breath and accepted the invitation.
When I came to, lying prone on my belly in the trunk of a moving car, I gently reminded myself that I had known this whole thing was a semi-elaborate set-up. I had learned a lot once I started taking money to investigate the things that kept people up at night, and the first thing was to trust nobody. Especially not a girl with a bad bleach job and a wad of cash.
The car rolled along, my hands and feet bound. The back of my head ached from a blow I couldn’t remember. I could feel the spare tucked away in the tire well underneath me. I could hear the sound of slow-moving traffic around me.
Before I left for the makeshift temple, I had isolated a couple of frames from the video that had surreptitiously filmed ‘the sister’ as she laid out the story of the lost brother that day in my office. Then I ran a basic face-recognition search online. When I found her face, her name, and where she worked, all of my late-in-the-game suspicions were confirmed.
“You have no idea how lucky you are to be with Terri,” my brother Richie had said about my wife on more occasions than I can even count. It hadn’t phased me, hadn’t raised any red flags about my wealthy, successful, single little brother with more smarts and better looks than I had. But it should have. Of course it should have.
I rammed my body at the rear of the trunk, but it didn’t budge. I swung my feet at the center of the lid above me, which created a hollow thud without freeing me from the moving car. Then the car slowed. It stopped. The trunk opened. Buddy, standing beside someone considerably larger and more intimidating, stared down at me. Over their heads I saw faintly lit stars in the sky and trees swaying in the wind. I heard the lap of waves in the near distance.
I finish my long walk from the Marina by passing the Ashby BART station and then turning onto Adeline, my destination a few doors away. And the whole thing is clear to me now, like a water back that I finally take a sip from once I realize I’ve had my fill of poison, in the futile hope of avoiding a nasty hangover. I reach my office, the door wide open instead of locked, the floor littered with loose papers, an overturned file cabinet, the laptop computer, and my empty bottle of scotch.
It presents itself in a neat little package now, all the pieces I have struggled to fit together in order to explain why I woke up where I did, and how I find myself at this moment amid the ruins of my work and of my life. The ‘sister’ worked for Richie, was his goddamn assistant in fact, sent to do a dirty errand for my conniving sibling. The house on College Avenue where the imaginary brother lived like a monk and studied Buddhism out of a book was bought with cash as an investment property through an LLC called The Karlsson Group that, it turns out, happens to be my mother’s maiden name. This streak of familial sentimentality clearly did not extend to me, because waiting for me at the Sukha Life Center were the formerly incarcerated cult guru and his ex-con buddies, in all probability paid in full with bitcoin or some obscure cryptocurrency by my tech wiz brother.
I reach for one of the papers on the floor in my office, probably something that holds zero significance to the personal journey I’ve been thrust into these past few days, and when my fingers float through it, everything clicks into place. I know why my head has been full of holes since I first opened my eyes this morning. It’s clear to me what it all means, if I’m not completely sure of its full meaning.
I don’t lose time with this odd jump, but I’m no longer standing in my office. I’m back at the Marina, standing on the rocks at the edge of the bay where my whole day started. An ambulance is behind me, flashing lights swirling round in the early morning haze. A BPD patrol car is in the middle of the road, blocking traffic from the crime scene. An officer speaks to the jogger I saw earlier this morning, taking her statement. Two divers are in the water, pulling a body to the surface and onto the jagged rocks that kiss the small wake made by the motorboat idling close to the pier.
It’s my body. My face. Of course it is.
I try to take a breath of air but there’s nothing. I feel nothing. This is not my body. That form, that figure there below me, surrounded by dispassionate frogmen just doing their job, is me.
The feelings rush in and I miss my life suddenly, my mind or brain or whatever passes for thought-making now flashing images of my baby boy, my lovely Terri, my mom and dad, and the watch he gave me because I was his favorite son. The son who most looked like him, the son who inherited all of his worst traits but who still managed to start his own family. And the loss comes, the ache of never ever, the pain of loneliness and heartsickness.
I see an image of my little brother Richie, who I loved more than anyone.
All along, he wanted my wife.
And that watch.