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I've always thought I'd die by drowning.
I don't remember exactly when I started to believe this. I didn't grow up near the water, and my early swimming experiences were mostly in public pools. My foster- and group-home years had seldom included even this questionable luxury.
But from the first moment I saw the ocean, I knew I would never again live farther from the shore than the sound of crashing waves could travel. Air without the tang of salt and sea feels wrong to me, as if my lungs cannot truly extract what they need to nourish my bloodstream. And I don't actually fear drowning. I just have this odd certainty that it's somehow inevitable that, someday, the Pacific Ocean will claim me.
"Hey, Mercy. Penny for your thoughts." Sukey knelt on the blanket next to me, her red hair made even more brilliant by the reflection of the sun setting over Catalina Island. Salt air had caused her curls to coil into tight springs, and her freckled cheeks were pink from exertionshe'd taken Cupcake for a run along the firmer sand left by the waning tide. The one-hundred-and-thirty-five-pound rottweiler flopped on the sand in front of us, tongue lolling. He panted loudly enough to be heard over the waves.
"Just thinking how close the island looks." Although Catalina Island is only about forty-five nautical miles from the Balboa, California, shore, it's often invisible, hidden by the ubiquitous coastal haze. Then the prevailing winds change, and you wake up one morning able to make out the details of the cliffs and even see the tiny dot on the shore that is Avalon Harbor. Tonight, it looked like an easy swim.
"Wasn't a bonfire the best idea?" Sukey nodded over to a few figures standing near a concrete ring that designated where the city of Newport Beach allowed open fires. "I got Grant and Skip to make s'mores. I think there's still a couple left. Want one?"
I shook my head. "No, thanks." I turned to face her. "Sukey, before I forget, I need you to rearrange the office schedule next weekend to give me an extra day off. I I'm going to Tucson."
Her eyes widened. "Really? You decided to see them?"
"Yeah. It's not like I'll ever be more ready than I am now." I got to my feet, brushing some of the sand that had crept over the edge of the blanket from my knees. "I don't know whether a weekday or a weekend is better, so I figure if I go on Saturday and Sunday, and they're not home, I can try again on Monday before I head back."
"You haven't called? Was the phone number I found not working?" Sukey had just finished reading a book on private investigation, and she'd used a skip-tracing exercise to locate the unlisted number of Thomas and Roberta Hollings, the couple who had given me up to the tender mercies of the state of New Jersey. I refused to call them my parents, even mentally.
"I haven't tried it."
Sukey nodded. She knew me well enough to understand that my first conversation in over eighteen years with Tom and Bobbie wasn't going to take place over the telephone.
The Hollings weren't my birth parents. They had adopted me when I was only weeks old. They may not have been Ozzie and Harriet, but my life had been stable enough until late adolescence, when strange things had started to happen around me.
Very strange things.
Sukey got to her feet and shivered just as the last sliver of the sun dropped behind the island's central peaks. When the sun goes down in Southern California in November, it doesn't take long for the air temperature to drop. "I'm going to take Cupcake back to my apartment, then go to the bar. Do you want to get a beer?"
"Maybe in a while." I picked up the end of the leash from where it rested in the sand. "You go ahead. I'll take this stuff home first. Cupcake can stay at my house tonight."
"Are you sure?" On paper, Cupcake belonged to Sukey, but she didn't really have room for the pony-sized dog in her apartment, and he stayed with me at least half the time. My cat, Fred, was even starting to get used to the idea. On most days, anyway.
"You two packing it in?" Grant walked over from the fire, wiping his hands on a handkerchief that he stuffed back into his pocket. I wondered briefly if any men under the age of sixty still carried handkerchiefs. Could you still even buy them?
"I'm going to Jimbo's," Sukey told him unnecessarily. She probably hadn't missed a Friday night at the local dive bar in three years. Well, other than the time a few months before, when she'd been recuperating from a heroin overdose in my guest room. She hadn't taken the drug on purposeit had been given to her by an ex-boyfriend. Rocko wasn't likely to show up in Balboa again any time soon. I'd seen to that.
"I'll probably head over there myself." Grant reached over to scratch Cupcake's big head. "I'mhoping Tino will show up. He was supposed to come by my house today, but I didn't hear from him, and his cell phone is off."
The friendship that had sprung up between Grant, a retired millionaire, and Tino, a Chicano street gang leader, still seemed strange to me.
"Did you try Hilda's?" asked Sukey. It was no secret that the wealthy widow sometimes shared her bed with the much younger Tino. For some reason, this felt less odd to me than the Grant/Tino connection. Maybe because Hilda, perpetually in search of her lost youth, had always enjoyed the company of younger men.
"She's not answering the phone, either," said Grant.
Sukey shrugged. "Maybe they took off somewhere together."
Grant shook his head. "He would have told me. He's taking the real estate exam in less than a week, and we still have a lot of material to cover."
"Tino's getting his real estate license?" I don't know why I was surprised. Tino was about as predictable as an earthquake. And as hard to ignore. Just because he had a violent criminal record and had never finished high school, it didn't mean he wouldn't be running the planet next month.
"Yeah, it's the next step in his plan to go legit." Grant made a mock bow toward Sukey. "May I escort you to the bar? I like being seen in the company of sexy young redheads. Good for my image."
Sukey giggled and took the proffered arm. "Are you kidding? With all the women after you, I'll be the one getting a boost to my reputation." As they ambled off in the direction of the parking lot next to the Balboa Pier, Sukey turned to glance back over her shoulder.
See you later, then? She didn't have to shout over the sound of the surf. I could hear her voice as loud and clear as if she had spoken in my ear.
Maybe. I didn't really like telepathic conversations, even with my best friend. They made me feel too exposed. I watched Sukey nod ever so slightly and turn her attention to Grant.
I released Cupcake long enough to fold up the blanket, then retrieved the leash and waded through the softer sand, crossed the boardwalk and stepped onto the patio of my apartment. I lived in one of the upstairs/downstairs duplexes that lined the wide pedes-trian-and-bike path running along most of the Balboa peninsula's length. I knew my landlords were undercharging me for the rent, but I wasn't going to argue. The monthly lease payments for my hypnotherapy office were bad enough, even though business had been good in the months since I'd started my practice. Between Sukey's natural ability to make friends with everyone she met and my special talents, my success should have been guaranteed.
Except that I wasn't sure I knew what I was doing anymore.
It was less chilly on the sheltered patio than on the beach, and I sat down in the decaying lounge chair rather than enter the dark apartment. Cupcake nosed his way through the sliding glass doors, shouldering a panel aside easily, and I heard the slurping sounds that told me I would have to refill Fred's water dish. I wasn't ready to go inside. The boardwalk was postseason quiet, the hushed sounds of passing joggers, cyclists and dog-walkers a pleasant contrast to the cacophony of drunken summer revelers.
I loved this time of year in Southern California, especially when the days stayed warm, as they had this season. I knew many local business owners lamented the departure of tourists and day-trippers, but the rest of us were always happy to get our town back. I looked over to where the last remnants of the fire still winked and saw that all but a couple of the silhouetted figures were gone. Probably to Jimbo's, like Sukey and Grant.
I'd once heard one of the uninitiated question Sukey about spending so much time in a bar. She had replied, "I don't really think of Jimbo's as a bar. For locals, it's more like our living room annex." I'd laughed at the time, but it was a pretty good description.
Balboa is technically part of Newport Beach, but a narrow stretch of water separates the peninsula from the higher-priced environs of Corona del Mar and, farther south, the new and glittering Newport Coast. While there are plenty of multimillion-dollar homes, especially near the surfing Mecca known as the Wedge, there are still seedy apartment buildings and crumbling seasonal cottages interspersed with the mansions.
In an alley that I sometimes used as a shortcut on the way to the post office, I pass two often-open garages that sit no more than twelve feet apart. One holds a brand-new Rolls-Royce Phantom and the other a mostly paintless 1962 Ford Falcon. I've seen the respective owners sharing a pitcher of beer at Jimbo's bar, dressed in similar outfits: khaki pants, deck shoes and T-shirts advertising something to do with salt-water fishing or marine fuel. Hilda, always on the lookout for her next conquest, says the only way you can tell the rich men from the welfare recipients in Balboa is by their watches. And, according to her, the fakes are getting harder to spot. I'm not sure if she's talking about the watches or the men.
A random gust of wind swirled dust devils in the thin coating of sand on the boardwalk, and I decided I would join Sukey and Grant after all. It didn't have anything to do with reluctance to enter the empty apartment. Well, empty except for Cupcake and Fred. I was used to solitude and, in fact, preferred it. That's what I'd gotten used to believing, anyway. But, loner or not, I often found myself on the path that took me down a side street and through the alley that led to Jimbo's tiny parking lot, then through the back door into the dark, stale-beer-scented room with its single pool table.
I didn't bring Cupcake, although he would have sat placidly by the back door, accepting greetings from the regulars. Probably. His previous owner had trained him to attack, hold and, presumably, kill based on voice commands. The problem was, we didn't know all of the commands. As I entered the room, returning nods from a few familiar faces, I looked around for Sukey. I wanted to remind her that she was supposed to be researching canine obedience schools, to see if it was possible to un-train a dog. I spotted her at the opposite end of the bar, where she was perched on a stool, talking animatedly with a local real estate agent.
When she saw me, she stopped speaking abruptly and made what looked like a shushing gesture before smiling hugelyand falselyat me. Spots of color appeared on her cheeks.
I don't consider myself paranoid, but it was obvious that she had been talking about me, and also that she didn't want me to know it. As I pushed my way through the patrons along the bar, realization hit me.
"Hi, Mercy," she said brightly. "Maureen was just telling me about her daughter's wedding."
I nodded in Maureen's direction but didn't break eye contact with Sukey. I knew exactly what she had been talking about, and it wasn't a wedding.
"Sukey, I want you to look me in the eye and tell me you haven't planned a surprise birthday party. I mean it. Don't make me" I didn't finish the sentence, but I didn't have to. Sukey knew I could compel her to tell me the truth, even against her will. But she also knew that to do so would be against my principles. Which I almost never violated.
"Why are you so dead set against having a party, anyway? You were at my thirtieth. And you had a blast."
"You had a blast. I spent the night hiding in the corner."
This wasn't strictly true, either. While large drunken celebrations weren't my style, it had been fun to watch Sukey's unadulterated delight at the decorations, the presents and the stripper.
God, I hoped she hadn't hired a stripper for my birthday.
"I repeatthere will be no birthday party. No fucking birthday party. Am I making myself clear? Is any of this getting through?"
"Sure, Mercy." Sukey smiled even more brilliantly and took a sip of her margarita, leaving salt on her lip. "Whatever you say."
I looked at her critically. She was the picture of innocencered curls, cherub's mouth, gold-dust freckles. I didn't trust her as far as I could throw her.
No, that wasn't true. I trusted Sukey more than anyone in the world. Including myself. I just didn't think she believed me when I said that I had no intention of celebrating my thirtieth birthday.
She sighed, a tad theatrically. "Okay, you win. No party. But can we at least go out to dinner or something? I'll take you to the Villa Nova."
"You can't afford the Villa Nova." I knew what she earned, because I signed the paychecks.
"I can once a year," she replied. "And if we invite Hilda, you know she'll insist on paying."
"If we invite Hilda, we'll have to invite Tino and Grant, and we're right back to having a party."
"Fine," she said, in a tone that told me it wasn't. She got down from her bar stool and stalked ostentatiously to the chalkboard next to the pool table, then wrote her name on the list. She didn't ask me if I wanted to play.
I'd only been there about three minutes, and I was already regretting my decision to come. Would it be rude if I stepped out the back door and walked the three blocks home? Probably. But none of my friends would really be surprised if I left without saying goodbye.