The day after I got my investigator’s license, the church pastor, Father Drummond, asked me if I’d mind providing some security for the place. Some unfaithfuls were breaking in to steal chalices and candlesticks again, and in Pastor Drummond’s words: “This shit better stop.” He offered me three meals a day in the rectory, my very first case, and the thanks of God if I set up in the belfry and waited for the next break-in. I told him I didn’t come that cheap. I demanded use of the belfry until I found office space of my own. For a priest, he gave in pretty easy. When I saw the state of the room unused for nine years I knew why.
Angie and I managed to fit two desks in there. Two chairs too. When we realized there was no room for a file cabinet, I hauled all the old files back to my place. We splurged on a personal computer, put as much as we could on diskettes, and stowed a few current files in our desks. Impresses the clients almost enough to make them ignore the room. Almost.
Angie was sitting behind her desk when I reached the top step. She was busy investigating the latest Ann Landers column, so I stepped in quietly. She didn’t notice me at first Ann must have been dealing with a real headcase so I took the opportunity to watch her in a rare moment of repose.
She had her feet propped up on the desk, a pair of black suede Peter Pan boots covering them, the cuffs of her charcoal jeans tucked into the boots. I followed her long legs up to a loose white cotton T-shirt. The rest of her was hidden behind the newspaper except for a partial view of rich, thick hair, the color of rainswept tar, that fell to her olive arms. Behind that newsprint was a slim neck that trembled when she pretended not to be laughing at one of my jokes, an unyielding jaw with a near-microscopic brown beauty mark on the left side, an aristocratic nose that didn’t fit her personality at all, and eyes the color of melting caramel. Eyes you’d dive into without a look back.
I didn’t get a chance to see them, though. She put the paper down and looked at me through a pair of black Wayfarers. I doubted she’d be taking them off any time soon.
“Hey, Skid,” she said, reaching for a cigarette from the pack on her desk.
Angie is the only person who calls me “Skid.” Probably because she’s the only person who was in my father’s car with me the night I wrapped it around a light pole in Lower Mills thirteen years ago.
“Hey, gorgeous,” I said and slid into my chair. I don’t think I’m the only one who calls her gorgeous, but it’s force of habit. Or statement of fact. Take your pick. I nodded at the sunglasses. “Fun time last night?”
She shrugged and looked out the window. “Phil was drinking.”
Phil is Angie’s husband. Phil is an asshole.
I said as much.
“Yeah, well...” She lifted a corner of the curtain, flapped it back and forth in her hand. “What’re you gonna do, right?”
“What I did before,” I said. “Be only too happy to.”
She bent her head so the sunglasses slipped down to the slight bump at the bridge of her nose, revealing a dark discoloration that ran from the corner of her left eye to her temple. “And after you’re finished,” she said, “he’ll come home again, make this look like a love tap.” She pushed the sunglasses back up over her eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.” Her voice was bright, but hard like winter sunlight. I hate that voice.
“Have it your way,” I said.
Angie and Phil and I grew up together. Angie and I, best friends. Angie and Phil, best lovers. It goes that way sometimes. Not often in my experience, thank God, but sometimes. A few years ago, Angie came to the office with the sunglasses and two eight balls where her eyes should have been. She also had a nice collection of bruises on her arms and neck and an inch-tall bump on the back of her head. My face must have betrayed my intentions, because the first words out of her mouth were, “Patrick, be sensible.” Not like it was the first time, and it wasn’t. It was the worst time though, so when I found Phil in Jimmy’s Pub in Uphams Corner, we had a few sensible drinks, played a sensible game of pool or two, and shortly after I’d broached the subject and he responded with a “Whyn’t you fucking mind your own business, Patrick?” I beat him to within an inch of his life with a sensible pool stick.
I felt pretty pleased with myself for a few days there. It’s possible, though I don’t remember, that I engaged in a few fantasies of Angie and myself in some state of domestic bliss. Then Phil got out of the hospital and Angie didn’t come to work for a week. When she did, she moved very precisely and gasped every time she sat down or stood up. He’d left the face alone, but her body was black.
She didn’t talk to me for two weeks. A long time, two weeks.
I looked at her now as she stared out the window. Not for the first time, I wondered why a woman like this a woman who took shit from absolutely nobody, a woman who’d pumped two rounds into a hard case named Bobby Royce when he resisted our kind efforts to return him to his bail bondsman allowed her husband to treat her like an Everlast bag. Bobby Royce never got up, and I’d often wondered when Phil’s time would come. But so far it hadn’t.
And I could hear the answer to my question in the soft, tired voice she adopted when she talked about him. She loved him, plain and simple. Some part of him that I certainly can’t see anymore must still show itself to her in their private moments, some goodness he possesses that shines like the grail in her eyes. That has to be it, because nothing else about their relationship makes any sense to me or anyone else who knows her.
She opened the window and flicked her cigarette out. City girl to the core. I waited for a summer schooler to scream or a nun to come hauling ass up the staircase, the wrath of God in her eyes, a burning cigarette butt in her hand. Neither happened. Angie turned from the open window, and the cool summer breeze creased the room with the smell of exhaust fumes and freedom and the lilac petals which littered the schoolyard.
“So,” she said, leaning back in the chair, “we employed again?
“We’re employed again.”
“Ya-hoo,” she said. “Nice suit, by the way.”
“Makes you want to jump my bones on the spot, doesn’t it?”
She shook her head slowly. “Uh, no.”
“Don’t know where I’ve been. That it?”
She shook her head again. “I know exactly where you’ve been, Skid, which is most of the problem.”