1

Arriving Somewhere, But Not Here

 

IT WAS times like these Roan knew he’d made a big mistake becoming a private detective.

Of course, it was his fault. He’d lost his temper at that redneck shitbag. He was probably lucky he hadn’t been sued and the Seattle PD hadn’t decided to make an example of him. Which was probably why he was back in the PD’s evidence room, looking at a roadkill squirrel in a plastic bag. Even though the bag was sealed, Roan could still smell the blood, guts, and rot through the supposedly airtight closure.

As he rubbed his nose, doing his best not to gag, Kevin Robinson said, “I don’t suppose you want to take it out of the bag.”

“God no.”

Roan watched Kevin put the marked evidence bag full of squashed squirrel back in the cold-storage cooler. Yes, Kevin worked vice, but he was one of Roan’s biggest remaining allies on the force. Neither Dropkick nor Gordo would sneak him into the evidence room to peruse evidence from a scene (well, maybe he could wheedle Dropkick…) even though there was no way to contaminate said evidence. Oh, maybe you could, in theory, contaminate a dead squirrel, but it was just too disgusting to think about. “It’d be foolish of me to ask if you pulled any prints off of it, huh?”

Kevin stared at him in that hangdog way of his. “It’s a squirrel. No. All we know is whoever put it on your client’s car either ran over it or picked it up on the side of the road, as it was definitely killed hit-and-run style.”

“It’s old. My bet is he was just trolling for roadkill and scooped up the first thing he saw.”

His latest client was Emma Wills, a paralegal for the high-powered downtown law firm of Lawrence, Bailey, and McCall. She was being harassed by a stalker, someone who was constantly leaving disturbing messages on her phone, in her mailbox, in her e-mail, and now on her car, although the roadkill squirrel jammed under her windshield wiper was an obvious escalation of the situation. The problem was there was no shortage of men who could be harassing her.

Her first ex-husband was an example of the type of men Emma seemed to welcome into her life. Brody Dawes was a fairly recent ex-con, released from prison a couple of months ago in West Virginia, where he did a couple of years for a brutal barroom beating that left the victim partially paralyzed. At the time of the incident, Emma had a restraining order against Brody as she claimed he was violent (no shit!) and harassing her. He had supposedly been living with his mother since his release, but some cops bothered to check, and it turned out that she was lying and covering for him, and he’d never stayed there. She claimed not to know where he was, but that probably wasn’t true. Regardless, Brody was unaccounted for and could very easily be here, harassing Emma.

So could Nathan Forrester, a guy that she very briefly dated before realizing it was a mistake. They were paired up on a dating web site, and he was not only a local, but he was also involved in law, albeit as a bailiff at the courthouse. She decided he was too old for her (about ten years older) and just not her type, which he didn’t take well. Namely, he defaced her web page and started circulating photos of her head on the body of a woman having sex with a donkey, as well as sending abusive e-mails calling her a “dyke.” He’d been reprimanded, warned not to do it again, but he couldn’t be conclusively tied to any of it, although it was generally acknowledged he was behind it all.

And then there was Todd Bittner, a former client of the lawyer she worked for, Bill McCall. Bittner felt McCall had fucked up his case and had harassed him enough that McCall already had a restraining order against him. But Emma had no such order, and it was possible he was harassing her because he couldn’t get to her boss.

All three men were sketchy, and all could have done this. Two—Brody and Todd—were almost impossible to pinpoint. Todd had an address, so Roan knew where to find him (no one knew where Brody was), but he was unemployed, and he had lots of free time and few solid people to back his alibis. Nathan still had a job and therefore had some schedule he had to adhere to, but his off-hours often had him at various bars and strip joints, none of which were known for their high-class clientele or witnesses willing to talk.

Three suspects should have been enough. But an odd e-mail pointed to someone else, and a confrontation with Emma after this latest incident had made her admit a potential fourth possibility: Tucker McCall. Yes, the son of her boss, who also happened to be a junior lawyer at the firm and a married man. It seems he and Emma had carried on an “on and off” affair for six months, which Emma had broken off recently after a pregnancy scare. He thought they should get back together, and he wasn’t taking the answer “no” very well. He sent her violently pornographic images through e-mails and left messages with vague threats, worded so carefully he could actually say she was simply misinterpreting them (proving he was indeed a lawyer). As for the pornographic e-mails, they were “accidents.” He was just the kind of smug, rich white bastard Roan hated instinctively, making him hope he was the harasser, just so Roan could nail him.

But all these men were particularly loathsome, so he had no problem with nailing any of them. Still, all he had were suspects. Solid clues were lacking.

As it stood, Emma had ended up working late last night and had gone out to her car in front of the Lawrence, Bailey, and McCall building around 11:00 p.m. It was there she found the dead squirrel wedged beneath her windshield wiper. She called the cops, who had an open investigation going, but the problem was the cops were undermanned, overworked, and had too many bigger cases to worry about. In fact, they’d encouraged her to hire him in the first place, which made Roan wonder if some of the cops around here still held a grudge against him. Probably.

Once outside, Roan straddled his motorcycle and wondered what he was supposed to do with a case where he had oodles of suspects and few worthwhile clues. Usually good suspects were hard to find, but most of these suspects were too damn good. What he needed was one of these jackasses eliminating himself from the suspect pile.

Still, he’d only had the case for four days. Maybe he should give himself a week before becoming suicidally frustrated with it.

He put on his helmet and headed downtown to the Lawrence, Bailey, and McCall building. This was a fool’s errand, and he knew it, but Roan figured he could excuse his failure easier if he at least did all the basic groundwork.

The LBMC building was just one of the many mirror-finished skyscrapers downtown, but the area was interesting. It was right where the more or less good part of town gave way to the bad side of town. So it was in this weird area where, at eleven at night, all you’d find would be homeless people and maybe a hooker or junkie who got lost on their way to somewhere else. Sure, you’d get an occasional working stiff of some sort, but not often. The likelihood of any witnesses being around to see the planting of the squirrel and being willing to talk to him—or be a reliable witness at all—was miniscule.

Roan parked at the curb outside the building, roughly where Emma had parked the night before, and took off his helmet to have a good look around. He got some funny looks for having a motorcycle out here, but that was about it. The sidewalk was pretty busy with pedestrians, as it was just after one, and some people were returning from lunch hour, and some were just leaving for it. No one looked like they might have been the type to hang out after 11:00 p.m.

Roan walked over to the Chinese restaurant across the street and started there, but the guy behind the counter spoke little English, or at least pretended to speak little English so as to avoid talking to him. The dry cleaners was a little more helpful as the woman there admitted to leaving the shop at about 11:20, but she didn’t recall seeing anything unusual at all. Just what he expected but still depressing.

Looking around outside for security cameras that might have caught incidental footage, Roan caught a glimpse of the bumper of a car parked in the alley. It was an old car, a ’60s model at least (maybe ’70s—truth be told; he didn’t know his cars that well), and the windshield was blocked with cardboard inserts on the inside. Interesting. Usually such things indicated someone was living in a car or just too cheap to buy a sunshade, but the age of the car and the rust on the bumper seemed to suggest it wasn’t being driven much. Was someone living in the car? If so, if they were here last night, they were in prime position to see someone screwing around with Emma’s car. If they noticed, if they were sober, if they were sane. All pretty big ifs. But he was so desperate for any witness, Roan decided to take a chance.

He knocked on the hood of the car and said, “Hello? Anyone here?”

There was a subtle shifting of the car, and a back door opened. A man peered out cautiously from the gap between the door and the body. “If you’re trollin’ for shelters, I know already.”

The smell hit Roan so hard, he almost took a step back. The guy hadn’t showered in a while, but it wasn’t just body odor—it was the smell of infection. A kind of cat that smelled different, exotic… something he hadn’t encountered before. As he was trying to parse this, figure out what it could be, he realized the guy was looking at him kind of funny. He looked tired, but his blue eyes were bright with intelligence, not madness. Roan almost always expected madness or alcoholism (or both) with these guys. “That your real hair color?” the man asked.

Roan was kind of surprised that was still the question most people asked him when they first met him. “Yeah. You’re infected. What strain?”

Whatever humor was in his eyes before, they became suddenly hooded, guarded. He’d said the wrong thing. “How do you know?”

“I can smell it?”

“Smell it?”

“I’m a virus child with a heightened sense of smell. The virus has a scent. It’s just most people can’t pick it up.”

“Virus child?” he repeated, scratching his chin beneath his scraggly black beard. “I thought they were all born deformed and shit like that.”

Roan shrugged, which was really the only thing he could do. “All but me. And I’m not trolling for the shelters. I’m Roan McKichan, a private investigator.”

“Really?” The homeless guy gave him a half smile that was oddly heartbreaking. “I didn’t think you guys existed outside of ’70s television shows.”

“I know. We probably should have stayed there.” There was no subtle way to go about this, so he simply asked, “And you are?”

The young man thought about it for a moment, and Roan wondered if he was thinking up a lie or wondering if revealing his name could get him into further trouble. Finally, he said, “My name’s Paris, homeless sad sack.”

“Named after the city or myth?”

Paris gave him a genuine smile that was rather beautiful. “Hey! No one ever guesses myth. That’s awesome.”

“What can I say? I’m a nerd.” Roan realized he was trying to see through the man’s scraggly beard and messy hair and made himself stop. He didn’t seem like the typical homeless guys he ran into this far downtown, and it triggered his curiosity. “Were you here last night, around 11:00 p.m.?”

Once more, he seemed to weigh the consequences before he spoke. “Afraid so. The radiator sprung a leak, and it ain’t like I have the cash or the tools to fix it. Why?”

“Last night, at approximately that time, someone put a dead squirrel on a ’92 Nissan parked in front of that building.” He nodded his head back at the LBMC skyscraper behind him. “You didn’t see anyone around that time, did you?”

Paris stood, moving out from behind the relative safety of his open car door. “Is that what that guy was doing? I thought he was putting a menu or a flyer on the car. It was an animal?”

It came out with such genuine surprise Roan knew he was telling the truth. “Yeah. Can you describe the person who left it?”

He grimaced uncertainly. “It was a white guy who was bald. I remember he had quite a shine on his scalp. I think he was wearing a long coat. Otherwise, no, that’s all I can give you. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying that much attention.”

Bald? None of the men on his suspect list were bald! Holy shit, was there actually another suspect he was unaware of? Come to think of it, one of the guys on the suspect list could have outsourced the job. He couldn’t imagine any of them handling a dead squirrel besides Nathan. “No, that’s more than I had before. Thanks.” He was pretty sure he heard the guy’s stomach growling from here, and Roan found himself deeply curious about this man. The way he pronounced his vowels, he was clearly Canadian, and that made him wonder why he didn’t run into more homeless Canadians. “Hey, look, I was gonna go get some lunch. Wanna come with me?”

Paris’s expression became an interesting mix of eagerness and trepidation. “Why?”

He knew this part about street life, didn’t he? Nothing was free; it all had strings. Roan had to think up some plausible strings to get Paris to follow him. “Well, I’m hungry, and I thought it might give you some time to recount the entire story of what you saw. There may be some helpful details you’re unaware of.” Couching it as Roan’s own search for knowledge would make him seem selfish, but that was the easiest thing to believe about people. Most people were selfish—it was the human condition, so it was no great leap in logic.

Paris considered that, scratching his chin beneath his beard. “I told you everything, really.”

“So you think. But if you take a few minutes and tell the whole story, you’d be surprised at what comes up.” This was both true and a lie at the same time, one of those rare collisions of opposites that somehow makes sense.

He seemed very hesitant, but after a moment, Paris’s hunger seemed to get the better of him. “Okay. Most places won’t let me in, though.”

“Let me worry about that,” Roan assured him. Paris closed the car door, and Roan saw that, as a homeless guy went, he was dressed decently enough, wearing camouflage pants, a black sweatshirt, and an olive drab army jacket. All his clothes were baggy, and since he smelled due for a change, they’d just get baggier still. Although, at his current weight, there was a chance he wouldn’t survive it.

Roan was hoping to change that. And if his plan worked, he wouldn’t have to worry about a loose cat in town either.