"Nepal, I suppose," Joe Bashir said, aware that he'd taken too long to answer. He offered a smile to make up for it, pushed his wine glass in a slow circle. He appreciated that she was trying, and it was a perfectly fair question, after all—where one would choose to travel if time and money were no object—but it had caught him unawares nonetheless. Where would he go? Everywhere and nowhere. Besides, time and money were no object, not really, not when a person really wanted something. There was always a way. Always a path to bend the future to your will, at least the part that you could control, which Joe suspected was much larger than most people ever realized. "But I guess that's a little predictable—sorry."
Monica Derawal laughed, a light and distinctly feminine peal. She was distinctly feminine, with her sculpted and curved eyebrows, her shimmering eye makeup and the perfume he caught faint notice of when he'd shaken her hand and again when he helped her off with her coat. She was small, maybe five one, five two, with elegant slim hands and a long neck. Sort of a pinup girl look, in her clingy knit dress and suede high heels, hair curled and pinned in a style that seemed both old-fashioned and seductive. She'd dressed up for the date—maybe that was what had thrown him; despite the fact that she'd been dragged into this whole evening as well, she was making an effort.
Joe could not say as much. He was here to satisfy his family and perhaps, if he was lucky, to shut them up, at least for a while. To show that he was cooperating. But his expectations for the date had been low, and he hadn't bothered to change after work. At least he made a habit of dressing with care. Other detectives went casual on the weekends, but Joe wore light wool trousers, a jacket he'd spent more on than he should, and a shirt from the tailor on Sutter in the city where they still kept your measurements on file cards in an old tin box. Old school, in the most literal sense.
"Predictable?" Monica said. "Sure, every thirty-something man I meet wants nothing more than to trek within an inch of his life. I suppose you plan to tackle K2? Maybe scale some thousand-year-old ruins?"
She was teasing him, and it was nice. Monica Derawal was, against all odds, everything his mother had promised: smart and funny and pretty. Hardly what he expected from a setup orchestrated none too subtly by Mumtaz Bashir and her friends from the women's club.
"Well, I thought every guy secretly wanted to...you know. Climb mountains. Jump out of planes. I mean, we're all supposed to be in a state of arrested development, right?"
Monica shook her head. "Most of the guys I date got that sort of thing out of the way before they got their MBAs. Now all they want to do is Vegas, Aspen...Bali, if they're really adventurous."
Even her grimace was appealing.
"I guess I'm cut from different cloth," Joe said. Monica's eyes darkened slightly, and her smile smoothed out into a thoughtful expression. He wondered what she knew about him. Of course the mothers would have prepared her as well. "I don't have an advanced degree. In fact, I never got around to finishing my undergraduate degree, either."
"But you're a detective now," she said quietly, as if reading his thoughts. He liked that she didn't change the subject, didn't act like it was a topic to be avoided. "You do real things. I mean, you make a real difference in people's lives."
Her admiration seemed genuine, but it made Joe uncomfortable nevertheless. It wasn't that he had any trouble attracting women, no matter how sterling their pedigrees. He moved easily among society's strata, neither intimidated nor resentful, never covetous or discomfited. But Monica was probing at his motives, and that was a dark and murky subject that Joe generally avoided.
"As do you, of course," Joe said, taking a sip of his wine and giving the conversation a gentle but firm push in the other direction. "The way my mom tells it, you're the thread holding together the fragile lives of all the widows she knows."
Monica laughed again. "I'm a financial adviser, Joe, not a wizard. All I do is help women understand what they have and what to do with it. It's simple, really, it's just that most of my older clients never learned how to perform even the most basic financial tasks. Widowhood terrifies them, but once they find out that they really can pay their bills and renew their insurance and review a quarterly portfolio statement, many of them find that they enjoy it. Truth be told, many of them end up managing their finances better than their husbands ever did. They're the ones who change their own lives—not me."
"I'm sure you're being too modest." Mumtaz Bashir had called Monica "brilliant," had cited her Coyote Valley College education and her office in a cozy but dated downtown office complex as though she'd hung a diploma from Wharton in a penthouse office in San Francisco's financial district. "Mom seems to feel that you saved Shazia Jahangiri from certain ruin."
"Oh, Joe." Monica folded her hands on the white tablecloth in a gesture that was both prim and inviting. "Shazia came to me with a stack of statements that she'd been too frightened to open. I poured her a glass of sherry and we did it together. When I explained to her that Hamid left her almost two million dollars and a healthy income from high yield bonds, and that she could go see her grandchildren in Phoenix every single weekend if she wanted, we both ended up crying."
They spent a while talking about people they both knew in the Pakistani community where Joe had grown up, and where Monica's parents had settled in retirement. Ordinarily, Joe avoided the subject, not because he was ashamed of his background, or of having moved so far away from it, culturally. But the subject of his identity was complicated and, he felt intuitively, best left undisturbed. When he returned home—at least once a week, to visit his parents—he had no trouble slipping back into the rhythms of family life. But when he was away, he felt profoundly distant, and content to keep it that way.
Which was why he'd steadfastly resisted his family's attempts to get him to date the women they found for him within the Pakistani community—until now. And he certainly hadn't expected to enjoy the exercise.
He forced himself to push those thoughts aside. "Mom tells me you have a little girl."
"I do. She just turned two," she said, her smile softened into something sweet and genuine. "Her name is Devany. She is with her dad right now."
"Devany," Joe said. "That's—that's pretty. I don't think I've heard that before."
"Oh. Thank you. It's, um, a family name. I mean, not my family. Obviously." Monica fell silent, a blush creeping across her cheeks. "I'm sorry. This is so awkward. Do you know, my aunt called me twice this week to tell me all the ways that she's worried I'll screw this up. This, um, date with you. And one of the things she told me is that I need to call Devany by her middle name."
To Joe's alarm, Monica's eyes welled up. She seized her napkin off her lap and dabbed at them. Then she coughed—delicately—and drank more water. Joe was halfway out of his chair—to do what, he chastised himself, go demand Kleenex from the maître d'?—knock over a table to cause a diversion, to allay Monica's embarrassment?
But her cough turned into a hiccup, and suddenly she was laughing again. Joe sat down again.
"I'm ridiculous, aren't I?" Monica asked softly, but there was a faint hint of merriment in her voice. "Look, I can't make things any worse, so is it all right with you if I just tell you the whole thing? I don't do well with trying to put the best possible spin on things, the way my aunt wants me to. I'm used to doing things in a straightforward way."
"Of course," Joe said, hating the stilted tone of his voice. What he wanted to say was that seeing her cry, even though he'd known her less than an hour, made him want to make something, anything, better.
"Okay." She smoothed the napkin out on her lap, gazing down in thought. When she looked up her eyes shone brightly. "I got married eight years ago. I was twenty-four. I met Finn in college. We waited a while to have kids—we were both so into our careers. I was working for somebody else but I knew I wanted to start my own business. I think what was really going on was my mom had gotten sick, and she was becoming more and more dependent on my dad.
"She never learned to drive, and when her cancer got worse, she couldn't do much for herself. She was sick for almost two years before she died, and I wanted so much for those to be good years for her, you know?"
"I'm sorry," Joe said, sincerely. He wondered if Monica had heard about the near-fatal attack on his father, about Osman's long convalescence. Joe was no stranger to caregiving for a parent, and he knew the frustration of wishing he could do more.
"Thank you." Monica looked him directly in the eyes, something Joe appreciated in a woman. Her lips curved up in the faintest smile. She had a beautiful mouth—fuller on the bottom than the top, wide and expressive. "I tried to teach her to use a computer. I thought she could use it to keep in touch with her friends, our family...order groceries and join support groups, all kinds of things. But it was as though it was too much, after a whole lifetime of believing she couldn't do things for herself, that everything was too complicated for her. Or rather—that it wasn't her place to learn. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I think I do," Joe said. "My mom...she's a little like that. I mean, she can be formidable, and she was strict with me and my brother. But there are whole realms that she just won't touch. Like for instance, her and my dad's finances, which was why it was so funny when she was going on and on about how good you are at your job."
"I know! My mom was proud of me—I always knew she believed in me, that she wanted me to do well in school and in my job. But it was like she thought we were two entirely different species." Monica sighed. "I never even got her to learn to use Netflix so she could watch movies on the computer. She had a caregiver much of the time once she was bedridden, but if someone didn't come in and turn on one of her programs, Mom would just..."
Monica sighed, caught up in the memory. Then she shook her head. "Anyway. This is turning into a long story. I was going to tell you how my daughter got her name."
"Tell me anything," Joe said, and then immediately felt embarrassed. "I mean, whatever you feel like talking about."
"Okay. I'll make the rest of it quick. So there I was, having my little crisis of faith, trying to fix all these women and give them independence because I couldn't help my mom. Finn was trying to make partner—he's a lawyer—and I was working crazy hours and spending all my extra time with my mom, so he and I barely saw each other. When I found out I was expecting, it was kind of a shock, to say the least." This time her smile was crooked, sweet and genuine. "But I got used to the idea pretty quick. Finn thought I would stay home with the baby. To be fair to him, I thought I would too, at first. But now I had all these women depending on me...as I got closer to my due date, I was more and more sure I didn't want to quit, and it was putting a real strain on my relationship with Finn. When I went into the hospital, he told me he wanted to name the baby after his dad because he was so sure it would be a boy. I wanted to fix things between us so badly, I said yes. So we both thought we would have a little boy named Arden. Instead, I had a girl and we named her after his mom. Her middle name is my mom's name. When we came home from the hospital, I had a little girl named Devany Hajira Regan."
"I still think it's a lovely name," Joe said. "My given name is Jamshed, and I use it professionally, and it's what my family calls me. But to everyone else I've known since middle school, it's Joe." He thought for a moment. "And I guess deep down I don't think I've ever felt like Jamshed was my real name. Not since the first time some kid on the playground told me my name was stupid."
"That must have hurt," Monica said.
"Hurt him worse—I pushed him off the jungle gym, and then I climbed down and pinned him and kept hitting him. I got suspended." He grinned sheepishly. "It wasn't the first time. Or the last, either, I'm afraid."
"So you were a bad kid?" Monica raised one eyebrow; there was the barest hint of provocation in her expression. Joe let himself just enjoy it for a moment before answering.
"I guess that depends on your perspective," he finally said.
The waiter approached, carrying their dinner on plates covered with silver covers, which he removed with a flourish. Marchaud's was not the kind of place Joe would ordinarily choose for a date, with its ostentatious silk-tasseled menus and surfeit of silverware, but he was well aware that this, like every other aspect of the date, would be commented on and dissected by his mother and her friends.
"Thank you," Monica murmured. Her lamb chops had been stacked artfully on a bed of shredded something, which in turn rested in a pool of blood-red puree. It looked more like sculpture than dinner. "It's lovely."
The waiter was sliding Joe's plate onto the table when his phone rang, the distinctive tone that signaled work, the only one he never silenced.
"I'm so sorry," he said, already rising. Monica shook her head and smiled; he'd warned her this might happen—though he couldn't believe it had. "Please, start without me," he added, and then he was striding through the gilded dining room, past the row of wait staff, into the chill of the evening.
"This is bad." Bertrise, in those three syllables, magnified his concern. His colleague and frequent partner prided herself on her composure, and it was rare to hear emotion in her voice when she was working. "Seventeen-year-old girl, student at Montair High. Dead an hour at least. Back behind the SaveMore. Gervaise is on his way."
"Strangled, or throat cut—I can't really tell which. I think her neck might be broken, and there's a lot of blood. I want to see what Gervaise thinks."
"Oh..." Joe was caught up short by the description—or more precisely by Bertrise's tone. She had girls. Louise was eighteen now, Camille almost seventeen, and he could only imagine how difficult it was for her to see a victim who was their age. "Who's there with you now?"
"I'm fine," she snapped. Joe silently chastised himself. He had to tread very carefully with Bertrise, avoiding letting her know he was looking out for her. "Odell and Army have things pretty much under control. There's, there were kids here, in the parking lot, you know the way they come here at night. So there's all of them to process. And then once we got here with the flashers going..."
"On a Saturday night," Joe finished the thought. "I can only imagine." The SaveMore was only a block from the entrance to the Foothills, the huge gated community anchoring the base of Mount Diablo on the north edge of town. In the small strip mall were a sandwich shop, a dry cleaner and shoe repair and a Chinese takeout joint, a few other businesses besides the SaveMore. Everyone passing by would see the flashing lights, and many of the local residents would consider it their duty to come see what was going on. "I'll get there as soon as I can."
"Yes. I think that's best," Bertrise said coolly. Only because Joe had worked with her since the days when she was a uniform cop did he detect the faint tremor in her voice.
Back inside, Joe flagged down the waiter, and gave him his credit card while showing him his badge to impress on him the need for both speed and discretion. He could see Monica's glossy hair cascading around her shoulders, her back to him, her untouched meal in front of her.
She smiled when she he returned to the table. "I suppose I'll be eating alone, then?"
"I'm so sorry."
"Don't be! This way, I can eat yours as well." A dimple appeared at the corner of her mouth. Joe doubted whether she'd manage even her own dinner, given her figure.
"Will you let me make it up to you?" he asked. "If you don't, my mother will never speak to me again."
"I—I will, yes." Whatever glib response Monica had prepared seemed to have left her. Joe bent to kiss her cheek and found himself in the inviting cloud of her perfume again.
"I'll call you tomorrow."
But he was already turning away, churning the gears so that his own impulses and desires went deep and silent, buried beneath the cold and analytical frame of mind he summoned for crime scenes. Gone were the faint scent of Monica's perfume, his mother's admonitions, the pleasant calculation of how the evening might end—by the time he drove the three miles of winding road that would take him from here to the rot-smelling patch of asphalt behind the convenience store, he would have emptied his mind of everything but the dead girl.
© Sophie Littlefield