Lucy was halfway through her second cup of coffee when a blue car pulled up outside her daughter’s house. She watched with interest as two men in suits got out, climbed the front steps, and knocked. Suits were one thing she hadn’t seen very much of since coming in at the airport. One of them had a camera hanging on a strap around his neck. She expected them to go away when nobody was home, but instead, they went back to the car and sat waiting.
Presently, another man came up, in a brown car. He had a really expensive-looking suit and blonde hair. The two who’d been waiting got out, and the three of them walked up to the door together. The man who’d arrived in the brown car unlocked Rose’s door with a key. Lucy’s eyebrows rose as she watched them go in.
She set down her coffee cup, then got to her feet. Suddenly, she stopped, realizing that she had absolutely no idea what she’d ask these guys. Who could they be? They could be dangerous, they could be criminals, they could be kidnappers, they could be any kind of lunatics…. Her feet started moving again, the question still unresolved.
In a state of near-panic, she saw her own feet moving, taking her closer. Finally, she knocked on the door. There was a pause, then the door opened and she was facing the blonde man with the expensive suit.
“Uh,” she said, “I was wondering if I could borrow a cup of sugar?” As she said it, she was miserably thinking about how lame it sounded.
“I don’t think so, ma’am,” he said, staring at her with sharp, interested blue eyes.
Damn, she thought, no information about who these guys were…. “Is Rose here?”
His eyes flickered with recognition, but it wasn’t the recognition of someone who’d be a friend of Rose’s. It was the flicker of a hunter.
“Just a moment, Ma’am,” he said. “Can I say who’s asking?”
“Oh, sure. I’m Lucy Dee,” she said, thinking fast.
“Okay,” he said. “You want to step inside?” He raised his arm to wave at the interior, and as he did she caught sight of a bulge under the other arm of his suit.
“No, thanks,” she said with a smile, trying hard not to show any panic. “I need to get back.” She was getting a very bad feeling about this.
There was a moment when she felt the tension rising as he decided whether or not to insist…. but then he smiled, said “Okay,” and shut the door.
Lucy’s knees were almost too weak to hold her, but she walked back down the sidewalk and purposefully turned to the left to walk out of sight.
Agent Dover stepped back from the door and stared at the mandala on the kitchen ceiling. “Can you get a picture of this?” he said.
“Not a problem,” said Officer Atkins, the police photographer, gazing around the stacks and piles of stuff in apartment in frank amazement. “Ever see this sort of thing before?”
“A few times,” said Agent Dover. “I think I have some idea what she was doing.” He stared at the lithograph on her bedroom door, the kitchen full of stuff, the shelves full of books, the bits of art, the ugly old table, the hand-enameled stove, the wooden clock…. “She’s going to be very uncomfortable about it if she stays away from this stuff for very long,” he said. “It’s a type of obsessive behavior, consistent with a particular type of personality profile.”
“So you guys at the FBI have worked up a profile on the kind of victim this guy is after?” said Thomas. “We’re in trouble on this case because Flanagan, the lead investigator, has disappeared, and his partner Jackson had some kind of breakdown last night.”
“I got to talk to Jackson yesterday, ” said Agent Dover, picking up a tiny, beat-up, pocket-worn tin mint box from a stack of a dozen similar boxes. “I had been planning to talk to Flanagan, but I guess I missed him. Still, between the reports and the profile, I’d bet our killer is going to be trying for this DeCourtney woman next. There’s a pattern here, they’re connected somehow.”
Dover opened the tin, revealing a miniature shrine where a jade statue of Kuan Yin no more than half a centimeter tall was standing on a dias made from a penny and a circle of paper. She was attended by twelve equally tiny silk-robed human figures and six beautifully carved jade elephants. A tiny sedan chair carved from basswood lay to one side. On the floor of the miniature room inside the tin, perfectly fitted geometric patches of cut red silk made sidewalks on the green velvet of an ersatz lawn. Its lid was encrusted with tiny bits of blue-and-white glass that gave the impression of white clouds in the sky, and a jumble of coarser bits was glued in place to make a stream winding through the corner opposite the sedan chair. He paused, momentarily falling into the tiny shrine. Then he breathed again. “Get pictures of these too,” he said with a bored expression, gesturing at the stack of mint boxes he’d taken it from and holding up the one he’d opened.
“Any idea how she’s connected to the guy?” said Thomas, as Atkins busied himself with the camera. “We talked to her landlord when we got the key, and he says she moved into town from New Orleans just about eight months ago. The earliest cases in this file go back three years….” he trailed off, slowly coming to a halt as Agent Dover fixed him with a stare.
Agent Dover took out a silver hand-tooled cigarette lighter out of the pocket of his perfect, tailored suit, shook a cigarette out of an intricately carved ivory case, and smiled. “Good work, Officer Thomas,” he said. “Make sure that gets into the report, okay?”
He looked around, watery blue eyes sizing up the place. “Meantime, we’re going to want to find Ms. DeCourtney, to hold her for questioning and make sure she’s safe. I’m going to be setting up a temporary command post here, in case she returns. I found some coffee in that ceramic cookie-jar over there; See if you can find a coffeepot, okay?”
Atkins held up a hideous stainless steel monkey whose curling tail wrapped around one of its arms to form a handle. It had hand-blown glass ears and a silver beret on its head, a striped tee-shirt, and a ridiculous-looking velvet vest that showed scorch marks around the bottom. It looked as though its other arm should be a pour spout. Atkins pulled at the brim of the beret and it hinged back, along with the glass ears. “I’m not sure,” he said dubiously, staring at the seams left by a TIG welder inside the monkey, “but I think this is a percolator.”
Lucy walked down the street the wrong way. She was heading back to the McDonald’s, but she’d go around the block to get there. She didn’t want those guys to see her heading back to where she had left her luggage.
But in San Francisco, the blocks are huge. It took almost fifteen minutes to get back to the McDonald’s the wrong way round, and by the time she arrived back, there was a mime of indeterminate gender eyeing her bags with a speculative look.
She snatched them with a glare and set out on foot. The bundle rolled behind her on the sidewalk, tiny wheels making a steady rickety-clack, rickety-clack, as it went over the cracks.
Rose was in trouble. Rickety-clack, Rickety-clack. There were strange men in her house. Rickety-clack, Rickety-clack. With guns. Rickety-damnit-clack. And Rose was somewhere else. Rickety-clack. And those men were some kind of hunters. Rickety-clack, Rickety-clack. And Rose needed her house in a way most people didn’t need their houses, or the city would make her crazy. Damnity-clack, damnit, damnit. And if Rose couldn’t go home…. This was bad. This was officially bad. It would never matter how old Rose got, Lucy was Rose’s Mama and if something bad happened to Rose, Lucy was going to…. she didn’t know, damnit, but she was going to do something.
Damnit, Lucy was happier in Rose’s house too. She didn’t get hit with it the way Rose did, but she hated spending a lot of time in a crowded city; it was like a sort of constant pressure, constant movement, and she always felt restless and troubled and distracted and conflicted in a city. She’d been out to visit Rose before, and Rose’s house was the only place she’d been in San Francisco that she’d really been able to sleep okay. But if Rose wasn’t able to use the house, Lucy sure as hell couldn’t.
The sidewalks in San Francisco do one thing that sidewalks in her home town never did; In fact, the sidewalks in New Orleans don’t do it either. They go up. Now Lucy was climbing a hill, and the hill seemed to go on forever. Her legs were tired already, and the tall buildings were still a long way off. Locals were bouncing past her, apparently not bothered by tortured calf muscles; she gritted her teeth and marched on up the hill. But a diesel motor was laboring up the hill behind her, and when she turned she saw an orange and white bus.
She held up her arm, but the bus went straight past her. Damnit, again. She kept walking, and watched as the bus pulled in at a bus stop half a block ahead of her. Okay, she thought. So, that was where she needed to be. When she got to the bus stop there were seven other people already waiting there. Three different conversations were going on, in three different languages Lucy didn’t understand.
There were two hot Asian guys, but they took one look at Lucy and ignored her. It’s funny how women just quit existing for these guys around our thirty-fifth birthdays, she thought. Hell, they wouldn’t notice me if I was stark naked. One of the guys looked up sharply, with an an appraising expression. The conversation that was going in what she figured was probably Cantonese took a sharp turn and elicited some nervous laughter from his companion, who looked over at her with a smirk in his eyes. Damnit to hell, she thought. That’s even worse than being ignored.
The next bus seemed to take forever to get there, but she paid her money and it took her to a hotel in a place the driver called the “Western Addition” even though it was in the eastern half of the city. It was just a few blocks north of Fisherman’s Wharf and a few blocks west of Chinatown. She checked into the place after boggling for a moment or two at the room prices, and then she ran a deep tub full of hot, hot water and climbed into it to soak. For a long time. It helped. She still felt it, the buzz and mutter and twitch and turn of the city that affected her daughter so strongly — but to Lucy it was just buzz and mutter.
Thinking back, it had always been there whenever she was in a city, whenever she was around a whole lot of other people. She’d never really realized what it was until that day when five-year-old Rose had gotten nailed with it. Rose had gotten hit so hard by it that first day of kindergarten that she’d collapsed in hysterics… and because Rose was Rose, and Rose’s one thought of her own was that she wanted her mama, Lucy had gotten hit right along with her. She shook her head.
Well, there was that one other time before, a nasty part of her mind whispered… and Lucy quickly thought about something else.
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.