by Jaye Maiman
As a bitter winter grips New York City, Private Investigator Robin Miller is catapulted on a bone-chilling quest to save a friend’s child from a horrifying death. With a vicious kidnapper on the loose and one child already presumed dead, Robin has no time to waste. The investigation rushes ahead at breakneck speed, propelling her on a collision course with a cold-hearted killer…and a former lover.
Robin Miller Mystery Book 5.
Originally published by Naiad Press 1996.
Most of the time I think of change as a gradual thing, an evolution that outsiders can witness if they’re sharp enough, like the way the sky clouds over and unfurls fists of rain on a day that started out so blue and clean it made waking up seem like a dream. But sometimes change is quick. By the time you get around to noticing it, the process is done. Finis.
You know those magic capsules they make for kids? You drop one into a glass of water and one blink later you’re staring at some foam-green sea monster. Well, sometimes change is that fast. Once the momentum’s on, you can’t stop it, can’t jump out of the way, can’t even predict where it’s rushing you to. You’re flat on your back on the biggest goddamn wave and just praying you can keep your mouth shut until you hit land.
The wave picked me up at ten after one, Monday afternoon. I was in a meeting with my partner, Tony. The two of us run the Serra Investigative Agency. If a less likely pair exists, drop me a postcard. About the only thing we have in common is our love of strong coffee and rich food. Tony’s an ex-cop with a penchant for quoting the Bible and sucking up to rich folk. Rich folk make me break out in hives. The odd part is, I’m rich. I used to be Laurel Carter, an author of highly florid and highly profitable romance novels with titles like Love’s Lost Flame and The Blazing Heart. Embarrassing stuff, but the royalties keep me flush in Twinkies and Yoo-Hoos so I don’t complain.
Further complicating matters between me and my partner is the fact that I’m a lesbian and he’s a recovering bigot who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion many moons ago. The kicker is we’ve grown to like each other.
Right then, Tony and I were arguing about a disgruntled client we had met at a neighborhood restaurant an hour before. The woman’s coat never even made it to the spare chair. She undid the top button of her coat, stabbed a finger at the new lesion on Tony’s neck, muttered something inane like, “I knew about her, but you? My God!” Then she pivoted on her elegant pencil-thin heels and clacked away. My attitude was screw her, but the lady had pumped a few grand into our modest business and had fully intended to spill several more, and Tony hated the idea of all that sweet green seeping into someone else’s back pocket.
The phone rang and I snapped it up. “SIA. Miller speaking.”
Tony and I stared at each other over my desk, hard and mean looks, like bulldogs facing off over a feverish bitch. The truth is I’d rather fight for seven days straight than face the facts. Death was sniffing at Tony’s heels, licking its greedy chops. And this was one fierce dog neither of us could beat back.
A familiar, inarticulate squeal on the other end of the phone announced the caller. I said, “Hey Bethala, is that my munchkin I hear?”
“Carol’s fine, just fine,” she said, answering a question I hadn’t asked. My eyebrows arched.
Beth, Dinah and I are housemates in Park Slope, Brooklyn —Mecca for lesbians and anachronistic progressives. Beth’s a nurse who works mornings at Methodist Hospital. Her partner’s a therapist who works out of the brownstone we jointly own. Carol’s their adopted daughter. Tony leaned forward suddenly and asked, “What’s wrong?” I waved him off and repeated his question to Beth.
“A baby’s missing from the drop-off center,” she said.
“Missing?” My brain immediately retrieved a Daily News headline from two months earlier: “Missing Baby Assumed Dead!”
She hesitated. “It’s Michael.”
I closed my eyes tight and rubbed my hand over my face. “Fuck. Does Phyl know?”
“Yeah. She just got here. She’s pretty stunned. She’s refusing to call the police. You know…”
I sure as hell did. Back in September, a baby had been kidnapped from a nearby Brooklyn day-care center. The feds pounced, the media snapped into sympathetic hysteria, and the parents kept every dime of the $100,000 ransom money. Only problem, the baby and the kidnapper were never found. The feds chased their tails until they tied the case into one impenetrable knot. There had been no more threatening phone calls since early October. No more heartbreaking tapes of the baby’s cries. Just utter, devastating silence.
I said, “I’ll be right there,” then hung up and quickly updated Tony. We never work a case together, but when he grabbed his coat this time I didn’t argue. Given my personal stake in the case, Tony’s presence would be welcome.
Phyllis and I have been dating for about eight weeks now. As Tony locked the office door, I remembered the way Michael had tried to swallow my nose when I put him to bed last night. I raced outside, Tony breathing hard behind me. My only thought was, damn Beth for setting me up with Phyllis. I should have listened to my instincts when I had the chance. Blind dates are today’s equivalent of the ancient Roman arena where gladiators engaged in mortal combat for the amusement of the untouched masses. The best way to survive the battle is to avoid getting trapped in the first place. Unfortunately, Beth had caught me when my shields were down.
* * *
We’d been skidding into the holiday season, ho-ho-ho, popping Champagne corks and all that heartbreaking merriment. My standard MO for coping was duck and cover. But Beth had other plans.
I dropped my jaw and said, “You want to set me up with a nouveau lesbo with an eleven-month-old son? Honey, motherhood’s done something frightening to your mind.”
“What’s unfair is expecting me to be interested in a woman who married her college sweetheart, spent a good nine years playing happy homemaker before dropping her bundle of joy, and then woke up one morning with a sinus headache and a hankering for women in uniform. Come on, Beth. She’s been with just one woman. For all you know, that affair with the Philly cop was just a nasty blip on her heterosexual radar.”
“It wasn’t a blip. She was crazy about Linda. Besides, these feelings aren’t new to her. Phyllis and Matthew married precisely because they knew they both had homosexual tendencies. They were scared, Robin, that’s all. It happens all the time. I give them credit for not wasting the rest of their lives play-acting.”
“Fine. Sign them up for Oprah, but I’m not interested. Jeez. She’d probably bore me to death with tales of diaper laundering and colicky nights. Give her a copy of Our Bodies, Our Selves, but leave me out of it.”
“She’s not an idiot, Rob. She’s socially conscious, volunteers at the crisis center on Ninth Street. Freelances as a real estate agent. The woman’s attractive and she has a brain. What else do you want?”
“How about no son? I’m not ready to be a step-mom.”
“God, you’re impossible. First of all, Phyllis isn’t interested in anything long-term. She and Matthew divorced over a year ago, amicably I might add, and she just wants to have some fun. Second, the holidays are coming, and she doesn’t want to be alone any more than you do…”
“I won’t be alone. I’ll be with you guys.”
Her pink lips went white.
Enunciating carefully, I said, “I will be with you, won’t I?”
Beth lifted Carol from her lap and placed her in the soft-sided playpen. Our eyes never met. “Well,” she said quietly. “This year we decided to visit my parents in Chicago. They haven’t seen Carol in six months…”
“You’re leaving me?” I asked. I couldn’t remember the last time the three of us hadn’t spent the holidays together.
“My dad’s not well, Robin.”
I felt small, petty and mighty peeved. Okay, so the man has Alzheimer’s. But what about me? A stupid move over the summer had destroyed the most promising relationship I had ever known, and I was feeling pretty damn pathetic.
Do you know what it’s like to lose a woman as amazing as K.T. Bellflower? Imagine a ship bound for glorious Hawaii that’s seized by an unexpected storm and battered by the Pacific surf until nothing’s left but a single, gnarled piece of driftwood. And not the picturesque kind, either, but the kind that’s coated with grimy seaweed and studded with tar and barnacles. The interior is rotted and the outside’s as pale as bone. Now, picture me. I was in worse shape. It was the kind of breakup where people I hardly knew felt compelled to search me out just to tell me what an asshole I’d been. As a result, I was feeling a wee bit needy and a little less than charitable. Never underestimate the power of loneliness to reduce a person to their basest instincts.
I rapidly scanned my mental data bank of alternatives. My friends Amy and Carly had already planned a vacation in Puerto Rico. My sister and brother traditionally spend the holidays with my mother in Florida, where I am the perpetual persona non grata. My partner, Tony, visits his sister. The conclusion was startling: without my housemates, I’d be alone. Alone during the holidays. Things could be worse, of course. I pictured myself slumped in the shadow of the Old Glory they left planted in the moon’s cold, thin crust, while back on distant Earth universal peace and harmony erupted and scientists announced that hot fudge could accelerate weight loss.
I asked, “Should I slash my wrists now, or is it better to wait until Dinah gets home?”
Beth smiled and shook her head indulgently. “So, do you want to meet Phyllis?”
The blind date suddenly sounded appealing. I took a deep breath. “Okay, does she have buck teeth, or what?”
I found out for myself just three nights later.
No buck teeth. No siree.
For some reason, probably because she had spent the last decade as a straight married woman and the last year as a breast-feeding slave to a mini-man, I assumed Phyllis would be matronly. I rang the doorbell reluctantly, fully expecting it to be opened by a dumpy, thick-waisted lady in a house dress and pink fuzzy slippers. And, of course, she’d have the requisite cheesy diaper draped over her shoulder. Boy, was I wrong.
It was a cold day in December. I wore an Eddie Bauer sweater, turtleneck, corduroy pants and thermal socks. Phyllis, on the other hand, wore a hunter green silk shell, no bra. A strand of tiny, luminescent pearls teased her cleavage. Her skirt was short and black and wrapped tightly around her hips. It may have been my imagination, but I would have sworn that she was emitting mini A-bombs of musk.
After a moment, I forced my eyes back to her face. The smile I found there told me my reaction had not gone unnoticed. Even her posture said, take your time. I continued my scrutiny. She had almond eyes that looked almost Oriental, a nice pouty mouth, high cheeks, a boyish haircut and a Katherine Hepburn chin. She did not look like a mother.
She reached out a long-fingered hand with recently clipped and clearly buffed nails and pulled me inside. There were no Tonka toys in sight. No crib. No unsightly diapers. The only evidence of a baby was the hint of talcum powder in the air.
“You’re a brave woman,” she said to my back.
Then she clasped onto the collar of my jacket and confidently tugged it down my arms.
I’d been single and suffering but by no means celibate since I broke up with K.T. in July. I enjoyed a convenient, emotionless arrangement with a performer who lives in Provincetown. The woman was very willing and able to scratch my occasional itch. Nevertheless, my hairs stood on end as Phyllis’s fingers lightly brushed my arms. There’s nothing like being undressed by a woman who means business. When she stopped at the jacket, I sighed.
She straightened the back of my turtleneck. “Do you realize that in the past year I haven’t had a single date? Not one. I’ve been to the bars, tried the personal ads, everything. You lesbians are a hard bunch.”
I flinched at the “you lesbians” and turned around. She had crossed the room and was hanging my jacket in the front closet. It was clear she had no intention to take this date out on the town. She closed the door, smoothed her skirt down over her attractive full butt and faced me. I had to disagree. Us lesbians weren’t a hard bunch. Not at all.
“I can’t imagine you going unnoticed at a bar.”
“I didn’t say unnoticed. They noticed all right. But apparently no one was interested in an observant, recent divorcÃ©e with an infant son.”
A faint alarm sounded. “Observant?”
She cocked her head, then said, “I see Beth omitted some details when she described me.”
“Details?” I repeated. I wanted to run for the phone.
“I come from a religious family…and I still keep a Kosher home. Is that a problem?”
Oh, Beth, I thought, you sure do have a queer sense of humor. My father was a holocaust survivor who viewed his Jewish heritage as a form of leprosy. Only at my mother’s insistence had we observed the major holidays at all, and always quietly, behind locked doors and heavily curtained windows. I asked, “Do you travel on the Sabbath?” in what sounded to my ears like a mousy squeal.
She shook her head in the negative. I was about to make a beeline for the door when she made a beeline for me. She came within six inches of me. Damn it if she didn’t smell good. Now, I hate when that happens. My mind said, run, but my body said, hold on, kid, let’s see where this bronco wants to roam.
Phyllis bit her bottom lip, took hold of my belt loops, then said, “Let me put it this way. I’ve made love with a woman exactly six times. Almost eighteen months ago. Before that, my husband and I went three years without sex. My favorite vibrator went on the fritz nine weeks ago, and you’re the first single lesbian I’ve had in my home since that tragic event. More to the point, I’m HIV negative, hungry, willing and interested in nothing more than the next twelve hours. You can walk out now or…”
I think she kissed me first. Not that it matters. The important part is that she wasn’t lying. Her mouth was greedy, her body a live wire. When I stroked her back, the moan she emitted was downright primal and one of the sexiest sounds I’d ever heard. I could have broken off the embrace, but by then I was convinced that I had a public service to perform.
She came so fast the first time I barely had time to blink. Things slowed down after that. We had sex on the coffee table, the staircase, and finally her bed. It wasn’t until nine the next morning that I remembered she had a kid.
We both heard the downstairs door at the same time. I propped myself up on one elbow, immediately alert. Phyllis jerked out of bed, grabbed a robe and scampered downstairs. No words were exchanged. I was naked and had to remain that way. The only item of clothing that had made it to the bedroom were my socks. I put those on and opened the door a crack.
I heard a man laugh. “Well, congrats, hon. Do you want me to keep Michael the rest of the weekend?”
Phyllis was quick to answer. “No way, Matt. My family’s coming by later. Michael has to be here.”
They said their good-byes quickly. The next thing I knew she was back upstairs, her son cradled in her arms. I hate to admit it, but it was like finding a snake in the garden. The bedroom suddenly seemed unsafe.
We stared at each other over his body. Phyl was no slouch in the mind-reading department. “You want your clothes?” she asked.
I nodded. She thrust Michael into my arms and left the room. The kid was unbelievably heavy and dense, like a sack of cat litter. Since I was still naked, I felt weird holding him against my body. I stood there, arms outstretched, feeling vaguely obscene and distinctly uncomfortable. Finally, my muscles gave in and I placed him on the bed. His eyelids flickered open as I tucked the blanket around his waist. He wiggled his little eyebrows, shot me a killer smile and it was all over. Phyllis was history. I had fallen in love.