I smelled her perfume before I saw her. It was heady and sweet, like ripe peaches left out in the sun to rot. The lady sitting next to me at the funeral this morning had worn the same scent, and I’d wondered then what madness would drive a woman to wear something that smelled so bad. I guess if you tack a fancy enough name on a perfume, hype it big, sell it high, some poor soul will drench herself in it, even if it sends dogs howling into the night.
First came the perfume, then the tapping of heels and tinkling of bells as she sashayed her way to my office. She walked like somebody who knew where she was going, which surprised me since I’m the only tenant on the floor and didn’t have any appointments.
Business had been slow, as it always is in midsummer. Luckily, I’d scored some good-paying clients in the past two months along with the usual losers who darken my door and waste my time. A hotel chain had hired me in May to catch the light-fingered thief swiping money from the till, and they were keeping me on retainer. In June, a local she’s-all-that had set me on the trail of her no-good fiancé, who was doing the do with her father’s ex-girl. I had two assignments lined up for the end of the month. And this afternoon, I had an appointment with Treyman Barnes II, a big-time mover in my small-time town.
For once in my life, things were sweet. I had a nice man named Larry and money in my pocket. My son, Jamal, bless his heart, was plucking my nerves with teenage angst but was doing okay despite some recent traumas. Except for this morning’s funeral, the day was going fine.
I’d opened the door because my air conditioner was broken, and I’d grimly accepted the fact that a cracked window and an open door would be my only relief against the summer’s heat. But an open door is an open invitation—any old thing can come crawling through.
When I first smelled the perfume, I half expected to see this morning’s funeralgoer. The funeral had been for Wayne Peters, who had been Johnny’s mentor when he first joined the force. The woman was Molly Holiday, an old girlfriend of my long-dead brother. She was a gentle soul with a soft, aging face that reminded me how young he had been when he killed himself. I’d be the same age myself in a couple of years, and that thought choked me up bad when I saw her. We hugged like good friends and promised we’d meet for a drink sooner rather than later. I prayed she’d change that perfume before we met again.
But it wasn’t Molly Holiday who came through my door.
“Well, here we are, Miss Tamara Hayle with a y, you and me together again, just like them Delany sisters or somethin’. I know you remember me from all them years back. You spend all that money I gave you?”
If I were a smoking woman, I’d have lit a cigarette.
She had a pretty, nut brown face and a mop of fake red hair that screamed twenty-dollar hooker. Her build was slight yet muscular, and she rocked her compact body back and forth like a bantam fighter eager for a match. Except for her voice, which pops up in my nightmares, I might not have known her.
“It’s Lilah Love, isn’t it?” I said after a minute.
“In the flesh. You don’t look as happy to see me as I am to see you. What’d you do with all that money?”
“Do you want it back?”
She threw back her head and laughed, a cackle midway between a crazy old lady’s and a kid high on meth. When she was finished, she glanced back at the man in sneakers who had crept in behind her.
“This here is Turk,” she said, and the man lifted his head like a dog does when his master whistles. He was taller than Lilah by a foot, and thick, like he’d spent a few years working out in the gym at Rahway prison. His thin, sallow face was marked by a long, droopy mustache that crawled down to his chin—the source of his name, I assumed. His white armless muscleman fit him snugly, the better to show off biceps that were roughly the size of my fists.
She snatched out a chair and plopped down in front of my desk.
“You can go now,” she said to Turk. “I just wanted her to see you.” He nodded with a smirk, then skulked down the hall, obedient hound that he was.
When he’d gone, Lilah gave me a wide, crooked grin, revealing a gold crown in the back of her mouth. “I’m just wondering how you spent all that money I gave you, that’s all,” she said again.
I saw where she’d spent her money. A nice chunk of it hung around her neck in the shape of a chain sprinkled with emerald chips meant to match the ring on her finger. Her lime green silk suit sure wasn’t retail, and those Jimmy Choos were roughly the cost of a case of Moët. The one odd touch was a gold anklet adorned with tiny bells, the source of the tinkle when she walked down the hall.
When I’d met Lilah Love “all them years back,” she wore a cheap red swimsuit, pink-tinted sunglasses, and an innocent grin on her teenage face. We were staying at a run-down hotel called the Montego Bay about six miles from the nearest beach in Kingston. She seemed a clueless kid trapped between a husband who beat her and a lover who didn’t give a damn, and her vulnerability, along with my drunken boredom, had drawn me into her web.
I’d gotten the round-trip ticket to Kingston from Wyvetta Green, payment for keeping her baby sister Tasha out of the slammer. There wasn’t much to do except drink, and the rum punches were tasting pretty good. But things got hot quick. By the end of that week, five men were dead, a dear friend lay dying, and Lilah Love, suddenly a very rich woman, had bought herself a first-class ticket to Rio.
I never figured out the role she played in those deaths. She had an explanation for everything that happened: her lover had killed her husband; the bad guys had killed her lover; all that money “just fell” into her hands. Truth belongs to the person left to tell it, and, except for me, she was the only one standing. But one of her “truths” was actually true. That was the thirty grand “plus a little extra for my troubles” she left for me in a Cayman Islands bank account.
I didn’t touch that money for years, then, bit by bit, I dipped into it. The first dip was Jamal’s braces. Then Wyvetta Green, who owns Jan’s Beauty Biscuit downstairs, got into some trouble with the IRS and almost lost her shop. Naturally, I had to dip in to lend my girl some cash; she’d saved my butt more times than I care to remember. The dipping stopped for a while, then Jamal started spending more time on the street than he should, and I dipped in and sent him to a fancy computer camp in South Jersey. Only eighteen thousand dollars was left, and I was determined to save that for Jamal’s education. It meant the difference between sending him away to school and having him live at home. The streets of my hometown were turning bad, and I wanted my son gone while the going was good.
No doubt about it, Lilah Love’s money had come in handy. Yet every time I whispered the password “Montego Bay” to the banker in the Caymans, a chill went through me. I knew sooner or later the girl would show up looking for something I didn’t want to give. Now here she was, “in the flesh,” asking about those ill-gotten gains.
“Not talking? Well, that’s your choice, Tamara Hayle. You a woman who keeps her business to herself. I liked that about you from the get. You ain’t changed none.” Her grin told me she had; there was no innocence left, just sharp little teeth.
“What brings you to my office this afternoon?” I pulled out my professional voice.
“Don’t look like you spent too much of that money here, do it? How come you didn’t get yourself a big fancy office with some of them thousands I gave you?” She added a wink, as if it were a joke between us, but she was back to the money, and that worried me.
“Because I like my office the way it is,” I said, at best a half truth. Nothing has changed much over the years, and I’ve stopped apologizing for it. My walls remain the same dreary off-white color. The sun shining down on my intrepid orphan aloe still dims from the film on my windows. The red filing cabinet, despite the recent paint job, still looks as shoddy as homemade sin. The one recent addition is my brand-new computer with its wireless connection. I can be online in seconds, and I need to be able to do that in the business I’m in. I was as proud of it as I am of anything I’ve ever bought. I gave it a proud glance; Lilah’s eyes followed mine.
“Well, wait a minute! Just look at this,” she said. “You ain’t as backward as I thought. You part of my generation. Did you know you can find out anything you want about anybody you want on the Net? I go online and talk to all kinds of people any time of the day or night. That’s how I found out your office and address. I know where you live, too. Did you know I could do that, Miss Tamara Hayle?”
“When did you get back in town?” I said, ignoring her question.
“It was time to come back. I got some business to take care of.”
“May I ask what it is?”
“I got to get back something that belong to me. Something important. Stolen property, you might say. It’s mine, and I want it back.”
“And what brings you to my office, Lilah?” I kept my voice neutral.
She studied her long, sculptured nails tipped on the ends with tiny daisies. “I need your help, Tamara Hayle.”
“Tamara will do. We both know who I am.”
“I need your help, because there’s nobody else I can trust.”
I stared at her in amazement. What kind of a fool did this woman take me for? A thirty thousand–dollar one, I suddenly realized.
“Besides that, you owe me,” she added after a minute.
“You gave me that money no strings attached,” I said.
“Don’t you know by now there ain’t no such thing?”
“If I had the money, I’d give it back to you, that’s for damn sure.”
“I ain’t here about the money. That’s not why I came back,” she said.
“And I didn’t have a damn thing to do with that shit that went down in Jamaica. Don’t try to hang that anywhere near me.”
“Jamaica? I ain’t talking about Jamaica. I’m through with Jamaica,” she said with a shrug of her narrow shoulders, but I didn’t think she was.
“Then why don’t you tell me what this is about.”
“A lot has happened to me since I left you that day in that airport in Montego Bay. Some of it good, most of it bad. Bad thing is I don’t have no more money. Good thing is, I know how to get it back. Real quick. I hooked myself up with this smart-ass boy in Rio, and he told me about all kinds of ways to get back money you lost. Rich gets richer and poor gets poorer. Did you know that, Tamara Hayle?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Me? I don’t like being poor.”
“So are you still with Mr. Rio?” I tried to move her along.
“He long gone.”
I didn’t ask how long or how gone.
“Second good thing is my little girl. My sweet little girl. She’s gone now, too, and I want you to get her back for me.”
So the kid followed the money on Lilah’s list of good. “Your daughter was kidnapped?”
Her gaze shifted to a spot just above my left shoulder, always a bad sign in the telling of a tale. “You might say that, I guess, if you was inclined to put it that way. You might say that, if you was inclined. Somebody took her, that’s all.”
“Did you call the police?”
“You know I ain’t got shit to say to the cops.”
“You don’t seem too upset about the kidnapping.”
“I know who got her. I know why she did it. I know she won’t do nothing to her, but I want my baby back. That’s all. She mine, and they don’t have no right to her. No matter what they think. And my lying baby sister don’t got no right to nothing. What the hell do a teenager know?”
She reached into a lime green leather tote bag, pulled out a worn photograph, and gave it to me. The child in the picture was about eighteen months old, as color coordinated in pink and white as Mama was in green. She held a candy cane in her tiny hand, and her hair formed a soft halo around her plump face. Her dimpled grin made me smile.
“That’s my Baby Dal,” Lilah said.
“She really is adorable. I can certainly see why you call her your baby doll,” I said with an appreciative chuckle.
Lilah looked puzzled. “That’s her name, Baby Dal.”
“Like a doll?”
“No. Like that food you get in Indian restaurants. Dal. When I was doing all that traveling in the Islands, I lived in Trinidad for a spell, and I got to liking Indian food, especially that stuff they call dal. That’s my favorite food, so that’s what I call her—Baby Dal.”
Without comment, I gave her back the photo. “So your sister has taken your child, Baby Dal, and is holding her for ransom?”
“Something like that.”
“So when and where did all this happen?” I was curious for the child’s sake as much as anything else. (I’ve always been partial to dimples.)
“Well, I had my Baby Dal while the baby’s daddy was over there fighting in that Eye-rack-ie war. Damned fool was in them special forces. Trained killer was what he was. That’s what he told me anyway. Trained killer. What the hell do I need with a trained killer? I like my men tender.
“Well, I fell in love with somebody else, and when he came back, he wasn’t in no shape to keep the baby or me nohow, so I left him. Then his rich daddy decided he wanted her, my Baby Dal, too, but by then Thelma Lee, my lame-ass, no-count baby sister, was keeping her for me, and she won’t give her back. Claims I’m an unfit mother. Shows you what she know, don’t it? She’s probably going to try to get money from him herself, from my baby’s daddy’s daddy, who’s as big a fool as his son. And I want my baby back for my own self.”
“And what part do you expect me to play in this . . . situation?” Drama had been on the tip of my tongue, but I thought better of it.
“I want you to go over there to Jersey City and get my baby back. That’s all you got to do. One short trip. I’ll give you some money to give to my baby sister—that’s all she probably want anyway. You can drive over there in that pretty little red car I saw you get out of this morning and bring my Baby Dal back. I’m the baby’s mama, and ain’t nobody gonna say I can’t have her. She’s mine fair and square.”
As if to prove her point, she pulled out a birth certificate that stated “Baby Dal” had indeed been born to “Lilah Love Barnes” on April first. April Fools’ Day. That should have told me something.
I handed the paper back.
“Me and Turk went over there to talk to her and try to give her the money, and she slammed the door right in my face.”
“I thought you said you were broke?”
“Ain’t that broke.”
“So you went over with Turk, the guy who was just here?”
“He’s my new man. Younger than me. See them muscles in his hands and arms? He knows how to use them, too. Turk told me he used to work security for a big-time gangster who done gone legit, that’s what Turk told me. You know what security really do, don’t you? And them arms ain’t the only place Turk’s got muscles, if you know what I mean, but he’s about as dumb as he looks. That’s one thing I learned from them old-ass guys used to follow me around with their tongues hung out: the older you get, the younger you fuck them.”
I ignored that bit of wisdom and said, “So you and this Turk went to Jersey City and tried to reason with your sister, and she wouldn’t take the money you offered?”
“Ain’t no ‘this Turk.’ Just ‘Turk.’ ”
“What makes you think I would be any more successful than you and Turk?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Bitch don’t know you. You look official and shit, like maybe you a cop or something. Just go there, tell her you represent an interested party, and give her the cash.”
“So she’ll hand the baby over to me for a fistful of cash even though she doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground?”
“Believe me. Just act like you represent somebody important, somebody big-time, and she’ll do it.”
I shook my head in disbelief, but that didn’t discourage Lilah. “Why ain’t you putting this shit down? Ain’t that what private investigators do, write down what their clients tell them?”
I leaned back in my chair and took a breath. “Actually, Lilah, you’re not my client,” I said. This new song and dance had the same funky tune as the one she’d sung in Jamaica. Even the names—Thelma Lee and Turk—brought to mind Sammy Lee Love and Delaware Brown, the main players in the Jamaican fiasco. Jamaica had been a long time ago, so I didn’t think she could tie me to it. But this here was some new Lilah mess, and I sure didn’t want to get mixed up with her again.
“What you mean I’m not your client?” She narrowed her eyes.
“Well, Lilah, my schedule simply won’t permit me to give your case the attention it deserves,” I said with feigned regret.
“Won’t take no time, I told you that. All you got to do is take the girl the money and bring back my baby. What’s you doing that’s so important you can’t help a sister out?”
It was time for the truth, so I told it. “I’m going to tell it like it is, Lilah. There is no way in hell I’m working with you. I don’t know what part you played in that shit that went down in Kingston, but I’m willing to forgive and forget. You gave me that money with no obli- gation. That was then, this is now. And this is now. I wish you luck. I truly hope you get back your child. I think we’re finished here,” I added with a nod toward the door.
She stared at me hard for a moment, then reached across the desk and grabbed my wrist, her long fake nails digging deep into my flesh. “I ain’t finished yet,” she said.
It was at this moment that my son chose to stroll his lanky frame through that open door.
“Hey, Ma, what’s going on?” Jamal said, grinning his late uncle’s good-natured grin. Lilah let go of my arm and sank back into her chair. I checked my wrist to see if she’d drawn blood. He glanced at her, then at me, then back at her. “Wow, Ma! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“What the heck are you doing here?” There was no way he could miss the alarm in my voice.
“I tried to call you, but the phone must have been off the hook, and I was worried and—” He stopped midsentence, his eyes big with guilt.
“You don’t have to worry about me, Son. How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“God, Ma! I’m sorry. You don’t have to yell!” Those eyes were hurt and angry now.
I glanced back at Lilah, fingers now folded demurely in her lap. Slowly, she uncrossed her legs, and the soft, seductive tinkle of the anklet bells drew the attention of both me and my son.
“This can’t be your little boy!” she said, rising and approaching Jamal as if she were some long-lost relative. “He’s so tall and handsome, Tamara. How did you get such a tall, handsome boy? Honey, come and give your aunt Lilah a great big hug!”
In that instant, I saw my boy through this woman’s eyes, and I didn’t like what I saw. Jamal is well on his way to becoming a handsome man, with the good looks that have made my ex-husband, DeWayne Curtis, the incurable ladies’ man he’s aged into. But Jamal also has my late brother’s charm and my practical sense, although this past year has made me question that particular legacy.
Confused and unsure what to do next, Jamal scanned my face for an answer, which I was too stunned to give. Finally, grinning like my brother used to do when an invitation from a pretty woman came his way, Jamal took matters into his own hands and gave his “aunt Lilah” the “great big hug” she requested. She held him far longer than appropriate and giggled coquettishly.
“Strong, too. What you doing with such a big, strong, handsome boy?” she said, patting his shoulders and running her fingers up his arms.
I visibly flinched, and Jamal knew he had stumbled across a dangerous boundary. Lilah broke the tension with a flick of her silver-plated cell phone.
“I’m going to call Turk up here so he can meet you, honey. I hope he won’t be jealous of such a strong, tall, handsome boy,” she said, winking at Jamal.
“I better talk to you at home, right, Ma?” Worry topped with anxiety was in his voice.
“You got that right!”
He delivered a polite, jerky nod in Lilah’s direction, avoiding my eyes altogether as he headed out the door. When he was out of earshot, I turned to confront her.
“Put that goddamn phone down before I snatch it out your hand,” I said.
“What you so damned mad about?”
“If you don’t know, you’re a bigger fool than you look.”
“What you talking about?”
“Don’t even think about my son that way!”
“All I did was give your baby a hug. I’m a mama, too, so you must know how much I miss my Baby Dal.”
“You listen, and you listen good. Stay away from me and don’t come nowhere near my son. Do you understand me?”
She dropped the phone back into her bag, picked up a pen, and scribbled something on a slip of paper.
“This here is the address where my baby sister stays. She lives with my crazy aunt, Sweet Thing, and Jimson, that nasty old fool she took up with. Now you listen to me, and you listen good. If you want your baby staying safe like he is, you’d best put my Baby Dal back in my arms. And do it right quick—before this week end is good.”
With that she stood up and left, bells tinkling faintly as she strolled out of the room.
From the Hardcover edition.