Georgie Jobbs was an entire flight down the stairs from Lesley and Onions. He had always wanted to be a PI, but he didn’t have the patience to meet the standards and pass the test. He also didn’t like the idea of being able to carry only a licensed gun, or of giving anyone a legitimate reason to call him a dick.
To his credit, he was a reliable guy, as long as you didn’t ask him to do a piece of work that involved algebraic equations or, for that matter, any math at all.
While Lesley and Onions were on their way to the meet in the Mojave, Georgie had burglarized their places of business. Vernon Lesley’s place of business had been the crappy apartment in which he lived, and Bobby Onions Investigations occupied a backstairs room above a Thai restaurant.
Georgie had stolen the brains of their computers, their files-which were thin-appointment calendars, notebooks, Rolodex cards, and anything on which they had scribbled notes of any kind whatsoever. Together, he and Billy transferred everything from the Suburban to the cargo space of the Rover.
Because Georgie was as thorough as he was thick, Billy was confident that when authorities eventually began to investigate the disappearances of the two PIs, they would find nothing linking them to a client named Billy Pilgrim.
Billy Pilgrim wasn’t his true name, but he used it a lot, and he preferred to be able to go on using it because it had sentimental value to him. Besides, his boss-the wealthy heir turned successful criminal entrepreneur-was adamant about never leaving a loose end, and could not afford to leave one.
Georgie had also brought two rigid-wall Samsonite suitcases that Billy had requested, and he handled these with a respect bordering on awe.
“I’d never have thought I’d have so much at any one time, ever,” Georgie said.
“It’s a day you’ll remember,” Billy agreed.
“I gotta say, man, it makes me feel good, you trusted me with a delivery like that.”
“We go back a long way, Georgie.”
“So long I can’t count that far,” said Georgie, which was nearly true.
After he examined the contents, Billy closed the two suitcases, locked them, and put them not in the cargo space of the Rover, but on the floor in the backseat.
Billy paid Georgie in cash, and while Georgie tucked the money in a jacket pocket, Billy shot him three times point-blank with a silencer-equipped pistol.
He recovered the money and loaded Georgie’s body into the Rover with all the other crap. He arranged a blanket over it.
At fifty, he could not manhandle a corpse as easily as he’d done at thirty. He needed every trick he had learned over the years. If he hadn’t delighted in his work, he might not have gotten the job done.
After he closed the tailgate on the Rover, he did not bother to search the Suburban. He knew that Georgie Jobbs had not kept an appointment book and had not written any notes to himself, because Georgie couldn’t have spelled Jesus if that had been the one thing he’d been required to do to get into Heaven.
Georgie might one day have bragged to someone about sweeping the two private detectives’ offices on Billy’s behalf, but not now. The last tenuous connection between Billy Pilgrim and Amy Redwing had been erased-or soon would be.
Behind the wheel of the Rover, without headlights, Billy cruised the radiant concrete riverbed, happy that he had no agent problems, no publishing deadlines, no literary critics sharpening their knives for him.
Two e-mails from Pigkeeper were in the box when Brian and Amy returned with the dogs.
The first was succinct: It will be me.
Reading the screen over Brian’s shoulder, Amy said, “What’s it mean to you?”
He opened the second message: Did I say STAND BY?
Brian sent a reply: Standing by.
When Amy sat in the second office chair, Fred levered himself off the floor to come prop his chin on her thigh and roll his eyes up at her.
“Good Fred,” she said, rubbing his face. “Good, good Fred.”
Witness to this, Ethel roused herself from the brink of a nap and came to prop her chin on Amy’s other thigh.
“Oh, yes, yes, Ethel is good, too. Good, pretty, pretty Ethel.”
Nickie had not settled on the floor when they returned. She sat beside Brian, allowing him the honor of gently scratching her head, but staring at the computer with the intensity that she had brought to the study of a squirrel in the park.
He was looking down at her eyes, which met his directly, wondering why earlier they had driven him to draw obsessively and why they compelled his attention now as well, when the computer signaled the receipt of an e-mail.
He read it aloud to Amy: “’It will be me.’”
The telephone rang. The caller ID was blocked.
Brian didn’t reach for the receiver.
“It’s her,” Amy said.
“I haven’t spoken to her in ten years.”
No matter how much he wanted to spring Hope from her mother’s control, the prospect of taking another step back into Vanessa’s universe was daunting.
The phone rang again, then a third time, and when he picked it up, he said simply, “Yes?”
“Bry, have any of the buildings you designed fallen down yet?”
“Not yet,” he said, determined not to let her anger him or frustrate him into a response that might jeopardize his chance to recover Hope.
“It’s only a matter of time, Bry. We know what happens when you conceive something.”
He had forgotten the extraordinary quality of her voice, an instrument of smoke and steel.
“I think it’s time,” she said, “for you to take responsibility for the consequences of your funky sperm, don’t you?”
He glanced at Amy, but then he felt that somehow he sullied her merely by looking at her when he was on the phone with Vanessa, and he averted his eyes.
“Whatever you want is all right with me, Vanessa. No negotiating on my end. Full transparency of my savings, checking, investments-you’ll know I’m not holding back anything.”
“I don’t want your money, Bry. You live above your offices. If your folks weren’t dead, you’d probably be living with them. Whatever you’ve got, what would it buy me? A nice coat, some shoes?”
She couldn’t have inferred his living arrangements from anything he had said in the e-mails they had exchanged over the years.
“You said you wanted something from me,” he reminded her.
“I have this guy now, he’s got more money than God. He’s even richer than the creep your baby would have gotten me if she hadn’t been a freak. Money’s no problem. You know, Bry, there was a time when what I wanted was you dead.”
“I think I knew that.”
“And not slow by cancer. Since then, I’ve been with some guys who would’ve done it for me, and done it good. But I got over that pretty early.”
If his nerves had been piano wires, nothing but high notes could have been struck from them.
He had taken his left hand off Nickie. He returned it to the back of the dog’s neck-and was surprisingly calmed by the contact.
Vanessa said, “It’s been more satisfying to just leave you hanging out there all these years, taking pokes at you.”
“Nobody can play piñata with a man better than you.”
He had forgotten that she could laugh and that her laugh had a throaty and yet appealingly girlish quality.
“This guy I’m with now,” she said, “with all his money, when he has problems with people, he doesn’t punch their tickets, he just deals them out of his way. He’s got pockets so deep he can put his arms in up to his shoulders.”
“All I want is my daughter.”
“And my guy, he doesn’t want old Piggy. Other guys, they had fun watching me tweak her all the time, but not this one. She just turns his stomach, he wants her out of here.”
“So do I. Bring her to me. Or I’ll come get her. Whatever.”
“Thing is, my guy now, he plays everything by the rules. He’s a straight arrow. First one like that since you. Way too horny for his own good, which is why he’s so totally mine, the poor baby. You remember how that was, don’t you?”
“But he wants you and me to sign papers saying that old Piggy is ours, yours and mine, and you found Jesus or something and want full custody, and you don’t hold me liable for anything, I’ve been a really good mother, in fact morally you owe me ten years of child support and you’re grateful I’m forgiving you that responsibility, yada-yada-yada.”
“I’ll sign anything.”
“It’s like a foot-thick stack of documents, ’cause he doesn’t want you coming back on him someday or, worse, he doesn’t want to see in the newspaper how he somehow did wrong to a poor little freak girl. He’ll even set up a trust fund for her care.”
“I don’t need that. I don’t want money.”
“He insists on it, Bry. He worries about his reputation, so he covers his ass at all times. And since I am going to be Mrs. Deep Pockets, he’s covering my ass, too.”
This was a turn of events he didn’t like. On the other hand, if anything happened to him, the trust fund would guarantee Hope’s care.
He said, “A trust fund needs directors to manage it, invest the money, pay it out. That’ll put you in my life, Vanessa, in the girl’s life. How would that work?”
“Last thing I want is in your miserable life, Bry, and I’ve had what fun there was to have with the little freak, I don’t want to be in her life anymore, either. The trust needs two directors to start, to sign the documents, then those two can appoint a third later. You will be one director, Bry, and the Redwing bitch can be the other.”
He did not trust himself to speak.
After a silence, she let out that throaty, deceptively normal laugh. “I told you my guy covers his ass. He didn’t even want to make a deal with you till he knew all about you. He didn’t want to set up a trust fund, give you the girl, then it turns out you fondled some six-year-old on a playground. Bad publicity is cancer to him.”
“He invaded my privacy, turned loose private detectives on me, something like that?”
“Get the holier-than-thou tone out of your voice, Bry. You’re getting what you wanted, so you have to eat some dirt. Knowing what used to get your juices flowing, I have to say I’m surprised you’re with Amy. Yeah, she’s cute in a Sandra Bullock tomboy kind of way, but are you sure that she’s sure about her gender?”
“You leave her out of this.”
“Can’t leave her out of it, Bry. If we’re going to do this deal, my guy wants it done right away. You need two directors of the trust. And from what I know about your life-which is mostly everything-Miss Amy is the only candidate. Considering you used to bang anything with a sufficient bra size, she must be witchy, cast a monogamy spell on you. Is she ever going to accept your proposal? She doesn’t need to marry you to be a director of the trust. I’m just curious.”
He had put himself in this position by his actions as a young man, as he had put Hope where she was now. Actions have consequences. Vanessa was right: He had to eat dirt now, as much as she wanted to feed to him.
“You hate me, don’t you?” she asked.
“Come on, Bry. For this to work, I have to trust you.”
“You enrage me sometimes. You scare me. But I don’t hate you.”
“Bry, I’ve been blunt with you. I told you, years ago I wanted you dead. I still hate you. If you don’t hate me, something’s wrong with your head.”
He took a deep breath. “All right. I hate you. Why shouldn’t I? But it doesn’t matter if we get this done. Let’s get it done. When do we meet? Where are you?”
“Here’s the problem. For years I’ve been knocking around with our fat-faced little mutant, hooking up with one guy or another who knows how to take care of business, none of them the caliber of what I have now, and every damn time it gets half good, some child-welfare bitch shows up, she’s heard about Piggy not being in school and not being treated like the princess of the galaxy, and I have to quick move on, get new ID, find someone new to shack up with.”
Given what Hope must have endured, Brian wondered if he would ever be able to redeem himself.
He said, “Sorry to hear about the inconvenience. But what does it have to do with now?”
“So say I give you the address and we make an appointment all businesslike, and you show up with a pack of child-welfare bitches.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Why would I do that?”
“To embarrass Mr. Deep Pockets, to ruin things between me and him, to get your little freak back without me getting what I want.”
“I wouldn’t risk it,” he protested. “There’s no guarantee they’d give the girl to me. The deal you’ve laid out is good. I don’t hate you enough to risk the deal.”
“Here’s what I’d be risking, Bry. Not just all the money I’ll ever need. If some child-welfare bitch gets a chance to ask Piggy how does her mommy take care of her, Piggy won’t lie. She’ll fumble out the truth in her own stupid way, and those bitches won’t think what I did with her was as much fun as I thought it was.”
He dared not ask for details of the cruelties that she had visited upon their daughter. For the first time, Brian realized that, if he were privy to all the facts, he might be driven to kill this woman. An hour ago, he would have thought that he didn’t have the capacity for homicide. Now he was not so sure of that.
“So how do we do this?” he asked.
“You and Miss Amy come to us in baby steps. You don’t know the last step, the address, until right before we meet.”
“And each step of the way, I figure we’re being watched.”
She said, “What would really upset my horny rich fella is if you show up with a crew from some tabloid-TV show. He’s not a celebrity, but he’s a name a lot of people know. He’s got the reputation those sickos love to chew up and vomit out coast to coast. First step is, you go to Santa Barbara tonight.”
“Think about it one more time,” Brian said. “I have everything to lose and nothing to gain by trying to take you down. You have every reason to trust me.”
“Every reason? Is that right? Like I trusted you to knock me up with a fine little pink baby, and what you gave me was a freak and ten years of my life ruined. There’s nobody I’ve got less reason to trust, Bry.”