Michael "Carrots" Maguire stood in a field by the river, his feet crushing blades of new growth as he staggered back. He tightened his gut, but it was no use against Rabovsky's sledgehammer right. Maguire felt it clear to his spine. His breath slammed out of him, tearing at his throat. Intense heat ripped through him like a bullet train.
A man in a fancy suit stood behind Rabovsky, just far enough back so Maguire's blood wouldn't splatter him. He watched as Rabovsky hauled the jockey up from behind and jerked his head back.
The man took a step forward, getting so close to Maguire's face, the jockey could smell the man's pimp aftershave through the meat-scent of his own blood. Maguire forced himself to look into the man's eyes. But he couldn't find anything to connect with. The man wasn't there to hear his excuses.
"You're a disappointment," the man said.
Words a father might say. It was a wry thought for a guy in Maguire's position--he'd heard those words from many people in his life.
Maguire tried to recall the rush he'd felt during the race when he'd given the horse its head with a mental "fuck you" to the man. His defiance was hardly a decision at all, with the wind washing his face, the crowd roaring, and the horse charging forward. Now, he felt the weight of circumspection. He picked his words cautiously.
"I told you I wanted out." The jockey's syllables were wet with the blood pooling hot and salty in his mouth.
"A shit-load of money was dumped on that race. You've compromised my reputation. Do you see how absurd that is? A little fuck like you? You blow another race and you're done."
The jockey knew he was out of options, but something inside wouldn't let him give the man what he wanted. He was sick of bending over. Resolve pulsed into every cell, solidifying. He spit blood onto the ground. "Get someone else to be your bitch."
The man took a step back, looked at Rabovsky, and the jockey knew what was coming. He braced, willing himself to take it.
But then the man turned, tipped back his head and smiled. His smile sickened Maguire, brought up bile.
"I tell you what," the man said, opening his arms, "you deliver on this last race, and--"
The remaining words of the man's proposition lost their way, swimming through Maguire's hatred. Hatred spawned by every slight he'd ever suffered from lesser men gifted with bigger, stronger bodies--or bigger, stronger bank accounts.
He gathered spit and blood onto his tongue and shot it like a missile. It caught the man on the side of his face. For a brief moment the jockey was satisfied.
The man's dark eyes widened and his lip pulled back.
Maguire knew then what he'd done.
The man's arm jack-knifed. His fist sped toward Maguire. Heat exploded in the jockey's head. He heard a sickening snap in his neck from the inside. He fell forward. He couldn't breathe. All he heard now were guttural animal noises deep in his throat.
He held tight to his hatred.
It was all he had left.
Sacramento, California, April 2008
"Henry! This room is disgusting!"
The booming voice assaulted Henry Andrew Jackson III's peaceful sleep like distant canon fire. Slowly turning over, his long legs tangling in the sheets and blankets, he cracked open an eye to see the blurry figure of his father bearing down on him, steadily navigating the rocky sea of discarded clothes, books, DVDs, and shoes littering the floor.
"How can you live like this?"
Henry reached for his glasses and fumbled them onto his face, bringing his father into focus. "Very comfortably," he muttered, struggling against the sheets to push himself upright.
What the hell time was it, anyway?
He peered through a lock of lank blond hair. His father's charcoal Armani suit hung smoothly on his stocky figure. Henry knew it was Armani because his father never referred to it without throwing in the designer's name, like "Beatrice, where's my charcoal Armani?" or "Bea, is my Armani suit back from the goddamned cleaners yet?'
God, he could be embarrassing. Everyone always told Henry he favored his mother--blonde hair, hazel eyes, lean build. But the resemblance was more than physical. Henry couldn't think of one thing he had in common with his father. And he was glad of it.
Henry Senior stopped at the edge of the bed and glared at him. "Twenty-two-years old and as useless to the world as the day you were born!" His hands clenched and unclenched. The blotched, sausage fingers gave Henry the creeps. Luca Brasi fingers. They made him think that he hadn't watched The Godfather trilogy in months. He'd have to put that on his to-do list.
"I told you yesterday to clean the garage. Half of the crap is still spread all over the place. You're lucky your mother didn't break her neck."
"I got distracted," Henry said through a loud yawn. He really had meant to finish, but then the Netflix shipment had arrived with a Thin Man collection, and, well, as he'd said, he'd gotten distracted.
"That's a hell of an explanation."
"I'll finish it today," Henry said, throwing his dad a bone in the hope it would send him trotting off.
But his father just shook his head.
"When are you going to get a job?"
"I'm still looking."
"You've been looking for nine months. You knew the rules when you dropped out of Santa Clara. You either go to school, go to work, or get out."
"I said I was looking."
"Looking isn't cutting it anymore. Today you will actually find a job. Because if you don't, you will not be allowed back in the front door."
"How about a window?"
"Don't be a smart-ass."
Henry fell back onto the bed and covered his eyes with a forearm. "Can't you just wait a few years?"
"So you can blow through your grandfather's money the same way you blew through sixty thousand dollars in tuition?"
Henry was fairly certain his brain would implode if he had to hear one more time how he'd pissed away the tuition.
"I'm not stupid."
A moment passed, and Henry peeked under his arm. His father regarded him with a butt-tired expression, like he'd been trudging uphill for miles, his shoes sucking mud the whole way.
"Look son, I know you're not stupid. But what good are brains if you can't find the motivation to use them? You could have had your degree this June. You could have been on your way."
"School wasn't working out."
"Going to that university was a privilege and an honor."
"I know, you've told me." Like a ga-freakin'-zillion times.
"And I'm going to keep telling you until I'm convinced you realize what you threw away. And for what? Some low-end girl that never looked back?'
"Don't," Henry replied with a warning glare. He didn't need anyone to tell him what an ass he'd been where Kate was concerned. Just the sound of her name still made him feel like Hell Boy had stuck a ham-sized fist through his chest.
Henry buried his head with the pillow and spoke.
His father snatched the pillow away, "What the hell did you say?"
"I said Mom's not going to let you throw me out."
"For God's sake, haven't you hidden behind your mother long enough?!"
True, but it had always been a lot less hazardous than facing the old man head on. Henry sat forward. "You can't just throw me out on the street. I've looked for work--I can't find anything. There’s a recession going on, and--"
"Christ! I can't believe what I'm hearing." His father flailed his arms like a fat brown pelican ready for take off. "Dope addicts and lunatics are flipping burgers at the local Jolly Cone. Why the hell can't you find a job?"
Henry knew exactly what his dad was thinking. After all, he'd heard it before from every angle possible. How had a Harvard-educated, high-achieving, workaholic lawyer fathered an unmotivated, mediocre son like Henry?
"Mutant genes, I guess."
Henry Jackson II looked like he wanted to spit his disgust onto the floor, but instead he compressed his fleshy lips until they resembled a swatch of Henry's wide-wale, skinny-legged corduroys in that color he never quite knew what to call.
"Today, Henry. Today," he said, turning. "Or don't come back." He tried to exit with a purposeful, dignified stride, but midway through, his foot shifted on an object hidden beneath the piles of dirty clothes and he stumbled the last few feet.
Henry watched his father disappear around the corner and listened for the slam of the front door.
Henry nodded, satisfied. He let out a deep breath and scavenged around in the sheets for the remote. Taking aim at the forty-two-inch plasma screen (last year's birthday present, orchestrated by his adoring mother), he tapped the buttons. The TV popped on, and Henry's comfort level elevated. Another couple of jabs activated the DVD, and John Travolta appeared, greasy-haired, soulful-eyed, with hypodermic needle in hand. Mesmerized, Henry smiled and slowly eased back down onto the bed.
"Holy heavens," Esther Humperstone said, eyeing the kitchen clock. She rinsed out her teacup, the one her mum had sent from England last month for her fiftieth birthday, and set it on the yellow-tiled counter to dry.
Turning, she tripped over Augusta, meowing at her feet, and stumbled a few steps through the kitchen door. "You're going to make me miss my bus, young lady.
"You'd think the prospect of being squished by a hundred and forty pounds would scare some manners into you."
The cat blinked at her.
"Oh, all right then," she admitted, "a hundred and fifty!" And really, what could one be expected to do with a five-foot-two frame? Eat yogurt and berries three times a day?
Esther slipped her shoulder bag over her head, settled it across her ample chest, and made a last check of her reflection in the dining room mirror. She smoothed a hand over the wayward auburn frizz that framed her face, but the hair sprang back in its wake. Pausing by the eight-by-ten, faded color photograph that sat on the antique buffet, she kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to the photo, just as she’d done every day for the past twenty-five years.
"Goodbye, luv," she said with a wistful smile. "I'll be back by five-thirty, as always."
She grabbed her purple lunch carrier and lured the three cats out the door with a treat to occupy them while she locked up. The screen door bumped closed behind her. Prinnie and Augusta circled back to rub against her leg, while Captain Singleton commenced a plaintive wailing.
"Absolutely not," she said firmly, "not another pet, not another treat, nothing more for any of you scoundrels."
She clomped down the porch steps, shaking her head. Myra would not be happy if the coffee wasn't ready when she arrived.
Adjusting the shoulder strap on her handbag and clutching the handle of her lunch carrier, she set off. The SOLD sign across the street was finally down, and she wondered whom she'd be getting for new neighbors. The young family who had moved out a month before had been such lovely people. How she missed seeing the children playing their games in the front yard.
She glanced at her watch. She'd missed the first bus. And she was undeniably close to missing the second. Yet, as she reached the corner of Thirty-sixth and C, the bus pulled up under the broad canopy of elm branches, emitting a song from its brakes and a concluding beat from the retracting doors. The driver returned Esther's cheerful, if breathless, greeting as she hauled herself up the steps and flashed him her bus pass. She allowed herself one steadying, restorative inhalation before walking with an uneven gait through the now-moving bus toward an empty seat.
Lifting the shoulder strap over her head, she settled into her seat and pulled her paperback from her handbag. With happy anticipation, she turned to where her bookmark held her place. Last night, she'd reluctantly left the spirited Lady Gwendolyn stuck in the lecherous grasp of the evil Lord Wallingford. Aidan, the lady's one true love, was battling insurmountable odds his reach her. Esther now felt duty-bound to read the dear, distressed young woman and her lover to safety.
Aidan lunged, his blade biting deep into the guard's side before the man could sound the alarm. The guard crumbled to the ground, and Aidan vaulted over him, wrenching open the chamber door. On the bed at the far side of the room Gwendolyn struggled wildly against Wallingford.
Rage surged through Aidan, collecting into a savage battle cry.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Esther felt the jarring rhythm up her back and into her head. She turned in her seat. Two teenaged boys, young men really, stared blankly back at her. The one directly behind her seat wore a baseball cap crammed down so far on his head that it caused the tops of his ears to flare on either side. The sullen look on his face challenged her as the thumping continued.
"Excuse me," she said, mustering a pleasant tone. "Could you please stop kicking my seat?' To emphasize her point, she raised her book. "I'm trying to read and it's very distracting."
His expression remained bland, but he ceased the annoying thumping.
Esther turned back around. If one acted in a pleasant, civilized manner, she brightly assured herself, others tended to elevate their own level of civility. With a little nod of self-approval, she returned to her book.
He rushed across the room and sank his fingers into Wallingford's shoulders. He yanked him from Gwendolyn's thrashing body, tossing him to the floor.
Wallingford's pale eyes shone wide and feral as he rose. "Guards!" he shouted, his gaze shifting quickly from side to side.
"Save your breath—your guards have been dispatched," Aidan's hand tightened on the hilt of his knife, and his body tensed, craving vengeance. "It is but you and me."
Thump, thump, thump. Esther wasn't sure what was more unnerving, the chair kicking or the boys' goading laughter. Yet, better to face an affront head-on than to allow discourteous conduct to escalate.
This time she selected a calm yet no-nonsense tone. "Please stop kicking my chair. It is annoying and unmannerly."
The thumping stopped. The boy looked back at her, his expression unreadable. "Sorry."
"Apology accepted," she replied. She reopened her book. Now where was she? Oh yes--
Wallingford's eyes stopped their manic movement and fixed on Aidan. "But how did you gain entry? Moments ago, you stood at the head of your cursed army. I saw you from this very window."
Aidan moved in, forcing Wallingford to step away. "What is impenetrable to an army, is not necessarily so to a man alone."
Wallingford bared his teeth, and Aidan heard Gwen's quick intake of breath as Wallingford slid a deadly blade from his boot--
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Esther closed her book with a snap and pivoted in her seat. "You two should be ashamed of yourselves, badgering people for your own amusement. Why, your mothers would be sick to tears--"
"Shut up, bitch."
It was the other one who had spoken. The one with the closely cropped hair and piercing blue eyes. The loathing in his voice permeated the space between them. Esther heard the uneasy shuffling and felt the furtive glances from the other passengers, but when she looked around, no one met her gaze. Were saviors only to be found between the pages of romance novels?
Esther glanced back to her tormentors. How could one help these young people when they were just plain mean-spirited? In some cases, it seemed even an entire village wasn't enough.
Esther felt herself deflating. She eased back around, scanning the bus for an open seat, but she found no place to retreat.
The boys' wicked laughter buffeted her every bit as much as their thumping. In a bit of a daze, she caught sight of the freeway overpass, and then Washington Park--her stop was still seven blocks away. The thumping relentlessly continued, jarring her back and collecting in her chest. Should she alert the driver? But then he would be compelled to stop the bus and take some sort of action, and the other passengers would be inconvenienced.
Her stop was close now. She slipped her book into her handbag. Raising trembling fingers, she tugged the signal cord.
When the bus squeaked to a stop, she grabbed her things and walked to the front. The boys' snickering faded behind her. Hooking her handbag on a squared shoulder, she clunked down the grooved metal steps and set off down the street for the three-block walk to her office.
Within a half-block her breathing calmed, and the solid sound of her pumps striking the concrete bolstered her confidence. She tried to concentrate on the beauty of the spring morning in an effort to force the memory of the horrid young men to the back of her mind.
White. Pink. Salmon. Plum. She ticked off in her head all the luscious azalea variations bordering the wide-porched homes. Watermelon red. She wished her friend Patricia were here to admire them with her. But Patricia had moved across the country to be with her daughter and grandchildren. How long had it been now? Six? Oh my, nearly eight months. Esther missed their evening walks around the neighborhood, their chats about work and family, and the latest news. Now she had to make do with a weekly phone call and an occasional--
A painful yank on Esther's shoulder stopped her in her tracks. She spun around. The brutes from the bus!
Instinctively, she clutched the strap of her handbag and planted her feet.
Flare Ears gripped her purse with grubby hands.
"Stop this!" she cried. "What are you doing?!" The purple lunch carrier, still dangling from her arm, crashed into her thigh as she struggled.
"Let go, bitch!" His hot breath assaulted her; his greasy fingernails raked her hand.
"Ow!" Esther hollered.
"Shut the fuck up!"
Her grasp was no match for the young man's wiry strength. He pried her fingers from the strap. With a nasty push, the other boy sent her tumbling headfirst into a privet hedge.
Esther crashed through the plant. The claws of the privet raked the tender skin of her hands and face. She frantically sought something to grasp as the network of branches snapped beneath her. With her toes unable to find purchase with the ground, and her eyelids clenched against the assault of tiny twigs, Esther despaired. How would she ever manage to free herself from such a tangle?
Rounding the corner, Henry was knocked from his skateboard by two guys racing past him. "Hey, watch out!"
"Assholes," he muttered, walking into the street to recover his board.
As he straightened up, he heard a faraway cry. No more than thirty feet ahead, he caught sight of a squirming, flower-printed backside upended in a hedge.
"What the . . .?
He edged closer, trying to make sense of it. The high-pitched cries of the backside's owner grew louder.
His mind flashed on the jerks that had knocked into him. Had they done this? He took a wary step toward the flailing, stocky-heeled shoes.
"Hold on," he called over the woman's thrashing. He set down his board. "Let me give you a hand."
"Thank you. Oh, thank you," came a plaintive reply. "I seem to be horribly stuck."
Henry reached in, took hold of the woman's arm, and righted her. It really didn't take much effort, her problem apparently being more one of balance than ensnarement.
"Holy heavens," the woman said, tugging a now-rumpled white blouse and snagged gray-green cardigan sweater into place as she turned around. Her frizzy auburn hair had sprouted leaves and a few small twigs, and ruddy lines marked her face.
"You okay?" Henry asked.
"Oh. Well. I don't know," she replied, breathless and shaky. She reached up to brush the leaves, twigs, and tangles from her hair. "Those horrid young men from the bus, they took my purse and shoved me into the bushes."
Henry noticed a slight accent. Scottish? English, maybe? She reminded him of Kate Winslet in Oscar interviews he'd seen—well, the voice anyway.
"Yeah, they rammed into me at the corner, but I didn't realize what they'd done until I saw you . . . uh . . ." Henry waved a hand toward the hedge and dropped his gaze to the toes of his ragged Converse tennis shoes.
"Oh dear." Her voice broke, and Henry thought she might cry, but she smiled apologetically and pressed an index finger against the inside corner of first one eye and then the other.
"That must have been a sight. I've never felt so helpless, flailing away like that to no avail." She took Henry's hand and shook it vigorously. "Thank you so much."
"No big deal." Henry watched a small dry leaf, suspended from a few renegade hairs at the top of her forehead, spin in the light breeze.
"It certainly was to me. Who knows how long I might have been there, bottoms up, before someone came along?"
"You should call the cops and tell them what happened."
"As soon as I get to the office," she said, nodding. "Oh, what a mess. My wallet and credit cards, my keys, my pocket calendar--they were all in my handbag."
Henry bent over to retrieve the fallen lunch carrier, and as he did, caught sight of something about thirty feet away, tucked under a shrub at the edge of the sidewalk.
"Hey, what's that?' He broke into a jog to check it out.
"Is it my handbag?" the woman called after him.
"Yeah, I think so." The wallet was a few feet beyond the purse, lying open on the lawn. Henry scooped them up, jogged back and handed them over.
She rifled through the contents of her purse, then inspected her wallet. "Well, it looks like they only took the money. All of my cards are here, my keys, calculator. Oh no," she said, her meager eyebrows pulling towards each other, "my book. I don't see my book."
She marched back to where the purse had been dropped and frantically searched the bushes.
Figuring that it must have been one hell of a story, Henry joined in the search, but the book was nowhere to be found.
The woman looked up. "Why would they take my book? What could they possibly want with a romance novel?"
Henry shrugged. It made no sense to him, but who knew why people took the crap they did. He and a friend once carted off a five-by-ten display of Napoleon Dynamite, complete with Pedro and Tina the llama, only to dump it later when they couldn't figure out where the heck they were going to keep it.
"Maybe it was the heat of the moment. You know, like they had to have some obscure token from the scene of the crime."
She didn't look like she was buying it.
"I was at a really good place in the story,” she said, sadly. “Very suspenseful."
They walked back to where the lunch carrier and Henry's skateboard lay. Henry picked up the bag and toed the back scoop of his board, grabbing the tip. He offered the bag to the woman, and as she reached out, Henry noticed her hand still shaking.
"Where you headed?' He pushed his glasses up with his index finger.
"To my office-it's just a couple of blocks up the street," she said, pointing a quivering finger.
"You want company?"
"You've been so kind already. I don't want to keep you."
"It's no problem. I'm headed that way."
"Oh. Well." She smiled and showed a row of small, even white teeth. "I'd like that then." She put out her hand. "Esther Humperstone."
Oh Christ. And he'd thought Henry Andrew Jackson III was a burden.
"Henry," he replied, taking her hand. She gave him a little squeeze.
"So where were you going, Henry, before you were waylaid by my little drama?" she asked as they began walking. "That is, if you don’t mind my asking."
"I don't mind--I was looking for a job."
She nodded slowly, digesting his answer. "Job hunting can be quite a challenge. What kind are you looking for?"
"Anything, really." Henry gave a small smile. "Anything that will get my dad off my back."
"I see." Esther slowed her pace and looked directly at him. "Anything?'
"Well, if it's illegal, the pay better be good."
Esther laughed. Or at least that's what Henry thought it was. It sounded like a Gatlin gun at the back of her throat loaded with little coughs.
"No, no. The position I'm thinking of isn't illegal. Just a bit . . . uninspiring."
"I'm easy to entertain. What is it?"
"I've been trying to hire someone to help me with this beast of a computer we had delivered a few months ago. Ms. Atkins wants me to put all of our client information onto it, and I don't know anything about computers. I've been meaning to advertise, but we've been so busy, I haven't gotten around to it. It's minimum wage, I'm afraid."
"Wow. Dull work and low pay--you really know how to sell it. Where do you work?"
"I'm the office manager at the Myra Atkins Agency."
"Is that a modeling agency or something?' Henry had a flash of Victoria Secret models hanging around the office. Minimum wage might not be bad with the right perks.
Esther laughed in her little coughs. "Oh my, no. Ms. Atkins is a private investigator."
Henry's mental vision shifted to Chinatown--Jake Gittes on the trail of corrupt land grabbers, or better yet, Phillip Marlowe in The Big Easy, mysterious women obscured by shadows.
"What, like missing persons, cheating husbands, that kind of stuff?"
"Oh yes. There are all kinds of things that people need a private investigator for. You can't imagine how curious people are about what other people are doing."
Actually, Henry could imagine it. Reality TV shows, tabloid journalism--being in other people's business was what it was all about. People were always looking for ways to get the goods on someone.
"Do you have any office experience?" she asked.
Henry squinted into the distance, searching for any possible thing that could count. Except for a two-week stint as a teacher's aide in middle school, he came up empty.
"Uh, not really."
"What type of work have you done? I'm sure there's something that would be applicable."
"I haven't actually had a real job before," he confessed. "I was enrolled in college and then . . . well . . . and then I wasn't."
A few moments passed, and his hopes of getting the job began to fade. He really couldn't blame her--after all, what did he have to offer?
Esther glanced up at him and smiled. "There's nothing that can't be learned. That's what I always say. And you've certainly shown your willingness to help a person out of a pickle. That says more than any résumé could," she added firmly.
She pointed ahead, her finger much steadier now. "Look, there's the office. The blue and white sign."
Henry's gaze followed her direction.
"So what do you think? Would you be interested?"
He gave her a hesitant smile. "Sure, why not."
Esther's little brown eyes lit up like a couple of hundred-watt soft-whites. "Brilliant! Of course, Ms. Atkins will have the final say. But I'm certain everything will be fine." She quickened her pace, and Henry followed suit.
"I've never had a co-worker before. Well, there's Ms. Atkins, but she's really the boss, which isn't the same thing. I can't wait till you meet her. And then there's Martin, but he doesn't really count, working next door, even if he is coming and going all the time. I'm sure you'll be meeting him soon, and--"
Henry smiled lamely, trying to focus as Esther rattled on. He should have been relieved by the offer, but the realization that his life was about to change constricted his stomach.
He was about to become a working stiff, an eight-to-fiver, five days a week. No more Nitro Circus marathons, no more TMC classic movies in the afternoon, and no more coffee runs to Java City with a Redbox chaser for a Scorsese fix. Henry's head spun with the ease of it all. He'd been offered a job with virtually no pavement pounding at all. Maybe that was the problem. He was being dragged up from the depths of unemployment without adequate time for mental decompression.
Jesus. What had he gotten himself into?