EVAN AUSTIN, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
It couldn't be simpler. All Evan Austin needed to do was find R.J. Gibson before his eighteenth birthday and the kid would inherit a huge trust fund. Everybody would go home happy: R.J. would be set for life, the mom would appease her guilt, and maybe Evan would finally be able to put a tragic case from his past behind him.
But nothing in life is ever that easy. Adding to the confusion are a young woman whose boyfriend liked to slap her around and the murder of an Assistant U.S. District Attorney, for which one of Evan's former clients is now a suspect. Throw in his growing attraction to R.J.'s guardian, artist Roman Cavanaugh, plus the Mariners having another really bad season, and Evan's got a bit more on his plate than he can handle.
Not that it's ever stopped him before.
Alternate payment methods (check, money order, or for a hard copy to be shipped outside of the US).
Purchase Brushback elsewhere: Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk (Kindle), Amazon.com, Amazon.com (Kindle), Amazon.de (Kindle), Barnes & Noble, Barnes & Noble (Nook), The Book Depository, Google Books, Indie Bound, The Tattered Cover, or Powell's Books.
For a single guy like me, a blind date is nothing less than a civic responsibility, right up there with voting and recycling. Only problem is that a blind date is far less satisfying and a lot more expensive—believe me, I'm an expert. A few of my friends thought it was time I started dating again, so every couple of weeks someone who knew someone who knew someone would give me a call, tell me they'd heard great things about me and how fascinating it was that I was a private eye. Right, like I didn't already know. I'd go out on one date so that I could report back to that well-meaning friend that it was wonderful of them to think of me but gosh, it didn't work out. They felt like they'd done their best, the date could say they'd had dinner with a private detective, and I could tell my mom that yes, I was trying.
The Cascade Grill wasn't my favorite Seattle restaurant. It didn't even make my top ten—too trendy, too loud, too self-aware. Located at the north end of Belltown, it attracted a strange mix of tourists, office workers, and art college students. It was also partially owned by a former Seattle Seahawk, so it had that unfathomable cachet that a pro athlete brings to things like this. People wanted to go there because it was the latest thing and because they might catch a glimpse of a B-list celebrity. It certainly wasn't for the soggy ginger shrimp and watered-down Lemon Drops.
I had a briefcase full of paperwork waiting for me, so I had my strategy planned. A drink at the bar, maybe an appetizer if this guy was at all intelligent, then an apology with the truthful explanation that I had work to do. I'd be sure to pay, and if he acted too disappointed, I'd invite him to stay and run a tab on my card. Only once had anyone taken me up on that offer and I guess he hadn't been too happy with me. When I saw the bill, I'd been amused to learn I'd also played host to a visiting Australian soccer team enjoying a night on the town. Damn, those guys could drink.
I had quite a record going, because I never went out on a second date.
This particular night I was meeting a friend of my assistant Jennifer's fiancé. I had a feeling she was pulling for this to work out so that we could double date. That didn't bode well for the poor guy I was meeting, since I resented the idea that unless I was with someone, I was a social outcast. I had enough of that in my life as it was, and no matter how many times I explained it, I could never get across to Jennifer that I'd rather be alone than with ninety-nine percent of the people I knew or would ever meet.
Typical for a new place with a trendy rep, the Grill was wall-to-wall people. I had a description of Drew and he had one of me, so I scanned the crowd from the door, waiting for that flash of eye contact that told me we'd connected. It took a few minutes, but we finally spotted each other and he waved his hand. I nodded back and started working my way through the crowd to the high bar table he'd managed to snag.
Deep down, I always wanted it to work out. Maybe that's why I kept doing this and telling myself it was to make the people who cared about me happy. There was just enough hope left inside me to think that it could happen, that I'd find what I'd been looking for.
One good look at Drew and I knew this wasn't going to be it. My record was intact.
He looked decent enough. Short brown hair and nice dark eyes, decent build beneath the blue cotton shirt and Dockers. High end loafers, a Gucci watch visible beneath rolled back cuffs—yeah, I could see why Jennifer thought this one might work. And yet—there was a weakness to his chin, a softness in his grip when we shook hands, and I was already checking the time.
Drew turned out to be a nice guy and he didn't pepper me with questions about my job beyond what was polite. New acquaintances tended to think I lived a glamorous life and wanted to know the dirty details, so I had a stable of sanitized stories that I trotted out, the amusing ones that made for good table conversation. I left out the ones like the man who took a tire iron to his eighty-year-old mother because she wouldn't give him money to support his crack habit, or the guy who ratted out his fellow gang members and ended up in pieces at the bottom of a quarry in McClendon. Drew was a public defender and he wasn't fascinated by life's seamier side since he spent most of his time representing it. Over a couple of microbrews and a plate of gummy calamari, we fell into easy conversation about people we both knew in the law enforcement community. Whatever I'd seen in him that made me discount him as anything other than a friend, he seemed to feel the same about me. There was no spark, no chemistry, but there was the kind of camaraderie that two professional gay men could share.
Another point in Drew's favor was that his eyes stayed on mine. Only when he'd first seen me close up did his gaze stray to the scar that sliced through my left eyebrow. There's nothing harder than trying to carry on a conversation with someone who can't look you in the eye because they're too busy wondering how crass it would be to ask how you got a two-inch scar on your forehead. Drew gave it an obvious once-over, then never looked at it again.
The game was on the bar TV and we watched as we talked. During a break in the action and our conversation, I realized that I was having such a good time that I was considering ordering another beer. I was about to wave down the cocktail waitress when my eye was caught by an odd movement near the hallway that led to the bathrooms. The crowd had thinned out, but the horseshoe-shaped bar was between me and what I thought I saw. I straightened up and looked closer before excusing myself from the table.
As I neared the hallway, I heard high-pitched crying interspersed with pleas for forgiveness. A lower voice, mean and alcohol-slurred, overrode her and then I heard the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh.
By the time I'd reached the threshold of the doorway, the party had moved all the way to the rear exit. I was too late to prevent the next slap but when he cocked back for another one, I grabbed him by the arm and twisted hard, using his body weight to hit the release bar that opened the door. Shoving him through, I let him go so that his momentum slammed him into the brick wall on the other side of the alley.
He bounced back fast despite being drunk, turning around and coming after me with a sloppy roundhouse swing. I caught his fist and pushed back hard, then slid my foot behind his ankle and yanked back so he'd lose his balance. He landed with a grunt but as he tried to raise himself, I kicked his arms out and pressed the sole of my shoe to his throat. I still had his fist in my hand and I pulled his arm as taut as I could, so that the pressure on his Adam's apple had him just this side of passing out.
"Stay down," I advised as I watched his other arm flop in the muck on the pavement.
I heard a soft sob and looked up to see the girl who'd been slapped around had followed us outside and was now pressed against the wall next to the door. She was a tiny thing, tightly wrapped in two yards of hot pink Lycra that barely covered the basics. There was a fine network of braided and beaded hair falling from its updo into scraggly strands, but even behind the fingers that she had her face buried in, I could see angry red bruising along her high cheekbones and into her temples. He'd put a lot of arm into those open-handed slaps.
"You okay?" She raised her gaze from the loser on the ground and nodded, her huge brown eyes filling with fresh tears. The alcohol and adrenaline were catching up to the slapper and the tension in his fist and arm begin to leach out. "This guy a friend of yours?"
She nodded and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. She didn't look more than eighteen. "That's my boyfriend, Jamal."
"Your boyfriend just assaulted you. Best thing we can do is call the cops."
"No!" She waved her hands at me, panic in her eyes. "I can't do Jamal like that!"
Hearing his name spoken jogged Jamal from his semi-cooperative state. "Shut the fuck up, Taneesha!" He pushed against my leg with his free arm but I had all the leverage. I shifted one hand from his fist to his forearm and twisted, simultaneously bending back his fingers and pressing down harder with my foot. Jamal let out a choked moan and held still, his eyes flashing up at me in venomous anger.
"I wasn't addressing you, Jamal." I gave the fingers another push. "You were saying?"
"Fuck you," he croaked. The overlong hems of his jeans had fallen over the heels of his two-hundred-dollar Air Jordans, hampering his efforts to get his feet beneath him. Taneesha was crying again and watching Jamal in horrified fascination, hopefully beginning to realize that he wasn't quite the stud she'd thought he was.
I thought about Drew, the briefcase full of work waiting for me, the leftover kung pao chicken sitting in my refrigerator next to the Riesling that would compliment it so well. Time to get on with my night.
"All right, Jamal, let's make a deal. I'll let you up if you promise to never hit Taneesha or anyone else ever again. Do that and you can walk out of this alley. Deal?"
Jamal looked up at me, a calculating gleam in his eye. "That it?"
I shrugged. "That's it."
Jamal swallowed and glanced at Taneesha. "Okay, man. I promise."
I twisted his arm forward, letting it bend at the elbow so I had something to grab, then shifted back. He was on the move and coming after me when he hit his feet, but before he could get his balance I had him slammed face forward against the brick wall. Sliding my knee up between his legs, I pinned his balls to the wall and flattened his cheek against its rough surface by bracing my forearm against his neck.
"You know, Jamal," I slipped his wallet out of his back pocket, "I'm not completely sold on your sincerity."
Sweat had broken out across Jamal's face. I lessened the pressure with my knee a little as I flipped open his billfold.
"So," I continued, "I'm going to take your driver's license. It's okay, you can tell the DOL you lost yours and they'll replace it. Now, provided the information here is current, I'll check in on you occasionally to make sure you're behaving yourself. If you are, then you and I will never see each other again. If not, we'll continue this conversation at a more convenient time. You clear on the rules or do I need to use smaller words?"
Jamal nodded, scraping his chin and cheek on the exposed brick. I kept him pinned while I worked the license out with one hand. I tucked his wallet back in his jeans and slid the license into my back pocket, palming one of my business cards as I pulled my hand out. Tilting my body so that Jamal couldn't see, I extended my hand behind me and wiggled the card. Taneesha got the hint and grabbed it.
"Taneesha, do you want to leave with this guy or do I need to call you a cab?"
There was a pause, then she spoke. "I'll take him home, okay? Is that okay?"
She had my card. That was as much as I could do right now.
"Hey, it's your life. You hear that, Jamal? She's willing to give you a second chance, which is more than you deserve. Now, I'm going to let you go." I leaned forward until my mouth was an inch away from his diamond-studded ear. "But listen up, you little son of a bitch. If I hear you've laid a hand on anyone—your girlfriend, your dog, your worst enemy—that conversation we're going to have will be one-sided and painful." I pressed my knee upwards and Jamal squeaked, then shut his eyes and nodded again.
"All right." I eased back, first with my knee and then my arm, but Jamal was done. He flipped around and leaned his shoulders against the wall, breathing heavily, his eyes shifting toward me before looking at Taneesha to see how much damage his rep had taken. I noticed with some admiration that my card was nowhere in sight.
Taneesha took charge of the situation. Tossing her braids out of her eyes, she sidled up to Jamal and slid an arm around his waist.
"C'mon, baby, let's get out of here."
I watched as Jamal, leaning heavily on a girl half his size, stumbled down the alley, a little more bow-legged than when he'd started the night. I was straightening my tie and wondering how to explain my prolonged absence to Drew when the man himself opened the back door and stuck his head out.
"Evan? Are you out—oh." He took in my slightly disheveled state and the pair limping down the alley, then looked back at me with a question in his eyes.
"Hey, there," I said with a smile. "So what's the score?"
It was after nine by the time I got home. The sun was beginning its final descent behind the Olympics, but I knew that by the time I got inside I'd miss the best part. Besides, tonight I was tired, hungry, and maybe a little too sad to enjoy anything beautiful.
I pushed through my front door and groaned. Some day, my house was going to be stunning. Right now, it was a disaster. Half of it was, anyway. Where once there'd been a modest living room right off the front door, now there was only a tarp-covered pit. A wide plank led from the small foyer to the little space next to the island that divided the living room from the kitchen, and there was just enough light coming through the west-facing kitchen window to get across without risking my neck.
I tossed my briefcase on the island and slipped off my jacket to wrap it around the arms of one of the high-backed stools. Next came the tie that slid off the counter from where I tossed it and onto the floor. The hell with it. It was growing darker by the minute but I poured a glass of the Riesling and headed out to the deck anyway.
I set my glass on the ledge of the cedar rail, then folded my arms and leaned against the railing. There were bats in the sky tonight, wheeling above me in their search for fat insects to dine on. Better a bug die a noble death out here than perish in ignominy in my bathroom drain, because I'm a tough guy. No catch and release in my house.
I grabbed my glass and was moving back inside when I heard the phone ring. Simultaneously answering the phone and opening the fridge to find the leftover kung pao chicken, I was unsurprised at my caller.
"You got into a fight? On a date?"
I tucked the phone between my cheek and shoulder so I could spoon my dinner onto a plate.
"Look, it wasn't a fight, okay?"
I probably could have heard her exasperated sigh without the phone. "What do you mean, it wasn't a fight? Drew told Web that he found you in the alley and there was somebody leaving and walking funny like he'd gotten kicked in the nuts."
"Does that sound like a fight to you?" Three minutes on high ought to do it.
"Was Drew pissed off about it? Upset? Disgusted?"
"You know he wasn't. He told Web you came back and you guys watched the game together. I got the feeling he thought it was cool." Her tone had changed considerably; now, instead of chewing me out, she was more interested in what I thought about Drew. "So?"
"So tell, already!"
"He was nice. I had a good time."
I leaned against the kitchen counter to watch my dinner revolve. "No 'and.' Like I said, nice guy. We may end up swapping some business in a couple of weeks. We've got that Federated Shipping—"
"Evan! Was it there? Did you feel anything?"
Ding. I popped open the microwave and stirred things up a little.
"Aw, Evan. When are you gonna let go of that romantic Sea of Love fantasy you keep carrying around?" There it was, right on schedule. Late one night after one martini too many, I'd quoted her the line Ellen Barkin said in that Pacino movie. A bunch of crap on my part. I wasn't really sure I believed in instant chemistry as much as I just really, really wanted to. "There is no perfect soul mate! For anyone!"
I restarted the oven and licked the spoon, hoping that Web wasn't around to hear her say that. "Maybe so."
"Well, something's flown up your butt. Tell me about the fight."
As I ate my dinner, I recounted the story of my encounter with Jamal Esquivez. I'd examined his license during the seventh inning stretch, after Drew left to make a call. Esquivez had a Rainier Valley address listed, somewhere near the lake if my memory was right. It was an urban area that could go either way. One side was strip malls, apartment complexes that looked like motels, and some light industry; the other, waterfront condos and lush parkland. Esquivez hadn't been wearing anything that said money, no jewelry except for the diamond stud, so I couldn't pin him down.
"God, you're gonna get the crap beat out of you again, you know that?" Her tone was more resigned than anything else, since this was another conversation we'd had before.
"I know, I know. Look, I'm just going to make sure he's behaving and then I'll let it drop."
"Right. Of course you will. You betcha."
"If you're going to mock me, I'm heading out for a run. See you in the morning."
"Okay. Be careful."
Be careful. Jennifer was ten years younger than me and treated me like her kid brother. Not many people are going to mess with a guy who's six two, especially in my neighborhood. Where I lived, the worst that could happen to me was being hit with somebody's automatic sprinkler or getting chased by Mrs. Goranson's lovesick goldendoodle.
As I headed out into the night, I felt a surge of contentment when I again realized how much I loved my neighborhood. Ballard had the rep of being where the little old Scandinavians lived, the ones who left their turn signals on while driving fifteen in a thirty-five zone. They had mutant butterfly ornaments stuck to the sides of their houses and ate lutefisk—which, if you've never had it, is an acquired taste. Civic minded I may be, but that's beyond the call of duty.
I returned around ten forty-five and moved straight upstairs to take a shower. The second floor add-on had been the first thing I'd remodeled. I don't know what it was originally intended to be used for, but one look convinced me it would make the perfect master bedroom suite. It took five months while I slept on a trundle bed downstairs in the only other bedroom in the place, a small room that I hoped some day to make into an office after the living room was finished. And the kitchen was gutted and rebuilt. And the garage was—oh, never mind. I watch too much HGTV.
But my bedroom was practically a wet dream. Jennifer had taken one look at it and patted me on the shoulder. "You really need to get laid."
It wasn't the first time she'd made that less than helpful comment but, as always, it had the ring of truth.
Okay, so maybe I did. Or maybe I wanted a room that lived up to my expectations of seduction and romance. Or, to misquote another movie, if I built it, would he come? See, that was too Freudian, even for me. You know you're in trouble when you start judging your psyche by your thread count.
The stairs from the kitchen hit the top floor at its southern edge. I'd knocked out all the walls and installed floor-to-ceiling windows on the west side, interrupted only by the stone fireplace that divided the wall in two. Facing the fireplace, on a raised pedestal carpeted in the same dark plum as the floor, was a low-mounted, king-sized bed. On the far side of the room was the bathroom, another place where I'd gone a little nuts with luxuries undreamed of only a few years ago.
I'd just stepped out of the shower when the phone rang again, so I grabbed a towel and reached for the extension on the nightstand. A quick glance at the clock told me it was just after eleven and past time for Jennifer to call me and harass me again. She'd reload and be ready to come after me in the morning.
"My God, Evan, did you see it?"
"No, see what?"
Neil Fiedler, best friend, multi-millionaire, and uncle to Danny, my office gofer, had a tone to his voice I'd only heard a few times before in my life, like when I'd awakened in the hospital after I'd come out of surgery.
"Turn on the TV."
Oh, Jesus. That was never good. I'd seen too many stories of cops killed in the line of duty make the top story block on the evening news. I swallowed hard and grabbed the remote, flipping the channel to a local station. There on the screen, next to the impeccably groomed and suitably sober-faced anchor, was a picture of David McNair, Assistant U.S. District Attorney. Beneath the head shot were the telltale numbers 1955--2009.
"In our other top story tonight, an accident on I-5 left a backup—" I muted the TV.
"Damn it, I didn't catch it. What happened?"
"Shot in his driveway."
"God. Anyone else?"
"Nope. Apparently his family's on vacation somewhere."
I sat down on the end of the bed, toweling my hair. "Jesus, Neil, I can't believe it."
"I know, me neither. Think that crazy guy Brinkerman's involved?"
I tossed the towel into the bathroom and flopped back on the bed to stare up through the skylight.
"Yeah, maybe. Brinkerman's nuts, but I can't believe he'd be involved in something like this. It's all ancient history, anyway. That was, what, two years ago?"
"About that, yeah."
"One thing's sure, you know this one's going to be in the hands of the Fibbies. Maybe Joe'll have an airtight alibi, like he was having tea with the archbishop or something."
"Yeah, right. And what color is the sky in your world again?"
"Pink," I said. "What'd you expect?"
"Ballet school reject."
"Oh, hey. Tess wants you to come over early for Amy's birthday party and help set up."
"Jesus, you're richer than God and you need me to blow up balloons?"
"Yep. Tess says you light-loafered guys are great at decorating."
I grinned up at the stars. "Screw you. What time?"
"Two. Party's at four, but if you're good, Tess said you can eat with the hired help in the stable."
"Your wife is a damn slave driver. Take, take, take, all the time. How do you put up with it?"
"You're just jealous, you freak. Call me tomorrow."
Joe Brinkerman was as unpleasant a man as I'd ever met, bombastic, bigoted, and paranoid. His lawyers had hired me back in '05 and it'd been that case that had brought me into contact with David McNair. He'd been investigating Brinkerman on interstate fraud charges and I'd been hired by defense counsel to do some background work. What I'd found had cleared Brinkerman and made me a cordial enemy of McNair's.
Since then, I'd done little things for Joe, mostly because he'd systematically alienated every friend he'd ever made. In fact, the only person who could still tolerate him besides me was his third ex-wife. I'm not sure why I kept helping Joe out of the scrapes he found himself in. There was just something in me that hated to see losers like him always come out on the short end of the stick just because they're losers.
McNair's murder wouldn't have been a blip on my radar if Joe hadn't recently gotten a bee in his bonnet about McNair being after him again. He'd mentioned it to me a few weeks ago and I'd blown it off as just another paranoid fantasy, right up there with the one he had about the Canadians training the RCMP to invade Alaska.
As I continued to stare into the night sky, I reasoned that a high-profile man like McNair probably made two enemies before breakfast every day, so the finger didn't automatically point to Joe. Besides, it just didn't strike me as Joe's style. Joe was the kind of guy who'd drink a little too much and take a swing at somebody. This sounded more like a hit.
Whatever it was, as shocking as it was, it was not my concern. I finally roused myself long enough to set the alarm and crawl into bed. When the sheets are 530 count Egyptian cotton, it's really best to sleep naked.
This story excerpt is copyright © Jamie Scofield and may not be reproduced elsewhere.