The Man Who Risked His Partner : Sometimes we Gamble with the things we Love the most and sometimes we lose
WHAT WE RISKMick ""Brew"" Axbrewder is a P.I. who's seen better days. Once a full partner with investigator Ginny Fistoulari, now he works mostly as her hired muscle. They don't talk much since the time his screw-ups led to her losing a hand. But their latest client's story doesn't add up. He claims to be on the run from mobsters to whom he owes large gambling debts. But he seems almost determined to get into harm's way, and to drag Brew and Ginny into the line of fire beside him.Just to survive this case, much less solve it, Brew and Ginny are going to have to start working together better. And Brew's going to have to face up to his greatest fears. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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November 25, 2004
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Excerpt from The Man Who Risked His Partner by Stephen R. Donaldson
Six months after that bomb took Ginny's left hand off, she still hadn't gotten over it. I didn't need a degree in psychology or a message from God to figure out what was going on. I lived with her--I could see it.
And I was living with her for all the wrong reasons. Not because she liked having me around. Not because she thought I was a particularly nice person to share a bed with. And certainly not because I was so all-fired tidy that I made the mess in her apartment stand up and salute.
No, I was living with her because she couldn't live by herself anymore. She only had one hand. She needed somebody to take care of her.
If I'd said that to people who knew her, they would've laughed out loud. Sure, Axbrewder. She needs you. Tell us another one. She was Ginny Fistoulari, the boss and brains of Fistoulari Investigations. With her keen gray eyes and her attractive face and blond hair and the way her tall lean body moved in her clothes, she could've been a society doll, the wife of some big snort who owned a country club or two, or maybe just half the first-born children in Puerta del Sol. But her nose had been broken once when some clown had clipped her with a crowbar--to which she'd replied by shooting the sucker in the face. And she'd lost her hand by holding a bomb out the window of a hospital so that it wouldn't blow up in the building or on the people below. When things got tough, she had a way of looking like her features were molded over iron instead of bone.
As for me--at six foot five and too heavy, I was big enough that most people wouldn't ordinarily laugh at the idea I was needed. But I was only temporarily sober. I was known to be totally fubar, "fucked up beyond all repair," even before that wonderful day--the highlight of my life--when in a fit of civic righteousness and alcohol I'd tried to apprehend a purse-snatcher and ended up shooting my brother instead. Like they say, anybody who can't aim a .45 better than that ought to have his brains recalled for production defects. And I was never going to get my license back. The commission watched Ginny like a hawk because she insisted on hiring me when I didn't have a license.
Sure, Axbrewder. She needs you. Tell us another one.
Well, in this particular case, "temporarily sober" had been going on for six months. Almost every night I dreamed about the special amber peace you can only find somewhere near the bottom of a bottle, and woke up grinding my teeth. Almost every day, when I wasn't braced for it, my throat ached for the lovely burn of whiskey. I still had withdrawal flashes that made me sweat and tremble and hold my head like a junkie. The simple smell of scotch was enough to turn my guts inside out.
On bad days, when I got out of bed, I said to myself, Maybe today's the day. The day I get to take a drink. Just one. Or maybe two. Two drinks can't hurt me. I've earned two drinks.
But I didn't do it.
For a drunk like me, sobriety is like trying to push a brick wall down with your nose. Six months of it gets to be pretty painful. But I hadn't had a drink yesterday, or last week, or last month, and I wasn't going to have one today.
Because Ginny really did need me.
She wasn't actually helpless. In practice, she could've done just about anything she wanted. With her purse on a strap over her right shoulder, she could get what she needed out of it almost as fast as usual. And the doctors had fitted her with a prosthetic device--"the claw," she called it--that looked pretty handy to me. Sure, it was made of stainless steel, which isn't exactly one of the primary flesh tones. But it strapped over her stump and worked off the muscles of her forearm, so that she could open and close the pair of hooks just by acting like she still had fingers. Down at the base, they had sharp edges that came together like scissors--which I thought was a nice touch. And they were strong enough to punch in the tops of beer cans.
She refused to wear the damn thing.
It made her feel worse.
The problem was simple. She was Ginny Fistoulari, hotshot private investigator, smart, tough, give-me-a-running-start-and-I-can-do-anything. And she was maimed. Without her hand, she felt like a cripple, ugly, undesirable, and bitter. The claw made her hate herself.
I knew exactly how she felt. I was Mick Axbrewder, the drunk who killed his own brother. She never would've lost her hand if I'd had the brains God gave a spaniel--if, for example, I'd thought of using my belt to hold that bomb.
So I took care of her.
Yes sir, we were quite a pair. Leaning on each other because neither one of us had the bare guts to stand up alone. Me, I was used to it. But I hadn't expected it to happen to her. If I hadn't been so busy being dogged and useful, I would've gone out and become a drunk again just to forget the constant misery burning like a low-grade fever in her eyes. Those eyes used to be as sharp and alive as a hunter's. Now they just hurt.
Somebody should've locked the two of us away in a nursing home somewhere so we wouldn't get into any more trouble. But maybe that wouldn't have solved the problem. And maybe trouble comes to those who need it. We sure as hell needed something.
Monday morning we slept in later than usual because we were between cases and didn't have anything better to do. I got out of bed first, used the bathroom, and went to make the coffee. While the pot was perking, I cleaned up the mess she'd made in the apartment the night before.
Her apartment was in Turtleshell, a complex near what used to be the business center of town, before the banks moved. The building was at least middle-aged, but it was designed and furnished in the American Impersonal absence of style. She could've been living in Indianapolis. She stood it the same way she stood the clutter.
Which wasn't all that bad--her coat on the floor, clothes dropped wherever she happened to be when she took them off, coffee cups everywhere, case and tax records tossed down on the table so hard that a lot of them had splashed onto the carpet. Anyway, I couldn't really object to it. I knew why she did it. It was as close as she could come to expressing her resentment.
Before she lost her hand, of course, she'd been messy out of ordinary absentmindedness. Too many other things to think about. But now she cluttered the apartment because she knew that I was going to clean it up. She resented being dependent--so she resented me for helping her, for being the one she was dependent on--so she did little things to make my job harder.
We had a lot in common that way. I kept cleaning up after her for exactly the same reason.
In fact, we were spending more and more time playing that kind of game. When the coffee was ready, I took her a cup. But instead of drinking it, she let it get cold while she was in the shower. Then she had me pour her a fresh cup. Meanwhile I fixed her a breakfast she didn't want and could hardly choke down. If I'd been anybody else, I couldn't have made her eat breakfast by holding a gun to her head. By preference she lived on vitamin pills and coffee until at least noon.
It was a rotten way to live. If something didn't change soon, one of us was going to go off the deep end.
So after we slogged our way through another breakfast, I helped her get dressed. I buttoned her blouse--which should've been a whole lot more fun than it was--buckled her shoes, got her coat over her shoulders. I stuffed the papers she wanted into her briefcase. Then I held the door open for her, and we went out into Puerta del Sol's winter.
We hadn't had anything to say to each other for going on sixteen hours.
Puerta del Sol is far enough south so that we only get snow in alternate years. But the terrain around the city is high desert. The mountains east of us go up to ten thousand feet, which is only five thousand higher than the Flat Valley, where Puerta del Sol sprawls on either side of the river. So the winters are about as cold as I can stand--at least when the sun isn't shining. And the sun today had a bleached-out look, like it was overworked. But Ginny and I still could've talked to each other while we walked to her office. We just didn't. Instead, I huddled into my jacket, looking ridiculous the way somebody my size always does when he feels sorry for himself. And Ginny puffed at the cold while her broken nose turned red.
Her office is in the Murchison Building, on Paseo Grande. It's one of the three structures in Puerta del Sol that stand more than five stories tall, but that turned out to be misplaced optimism on the part of the developers when all the banks moved three miles farther down Paseo Grande, away from what the real estate speculators call "Chicano creep." As a result, space in the Murchison Building isn't as expensive as you'd expect. That suited me. It helped Ginny stay in business. But I wouldn't go to any doctor or insurance agent who had an office there.
Unfortunately the heat wasn't working, and Fistoulari Investigations was on the wrong side for the morning sun. You could've stored cadavers in there. I picked up the mail and newspapers from the empty waiting room and carried them into the actual office. I put the mail on Ginny's desk and dropped the newspapers on the sofa I used for a chair. Then I started up the electric coffeepot. We had to have something warm to keep us going until the sun reached the picture window looking out toward the Flat Valley.
Booze would've been warmer, but I tried not to think about that.
While Ginny scanned the mail and threw it into the wastebasket, I glanced around at the only things she had hanging on her walls--her diplomas and the display copy of her license. In this state, the commission wants private investigators to be "professional," like doctors and lawyers. So Ginny decorates her walls with the sort of stuff that makes the commission feel good. And she has a waiting room for all the people who never come to see her. As a rule, the clients who come to see a private investigator are the ones you don't want--divorce cases and loonies. Good clients call. They expect you to go see them.
After the mail, she pulled one of the phones closer to her and started dialing. To keep myself from watching her, I picked up the papers. When I heard her ask for the manager of the Murchison Building--she was calling to complain about the heat--I stopped listening.
Amazing what you can learn from newspapers. Monday morning's edition was on top, and the headline said:
Body Found in River
Murder Mob Related, Police Say
Do tell, I said. My, my.
At 11:09 last night, according to the story, the body of Roscoe Chavez was fished out of the Flat River, down in the south part of town where the warehouses and barrios are. He'd been shot six times in the chest. His pockets had been filled with rolls of pennies for weight, but the body bloated up enough to float.
Somewhere in the fourth paragraph, the Puerta del Sol Herald's keen-eyed and incisive reporter finally got around to using the word "alleged." Roscoe "Bambino" Chavez was "alleged" to have ties to organized crime. He was "alleged" to be responsible for illegal numbers gambling in our fair city. The cops didn't have any particular theory about why he was killed. They were just glad he was gone.
I gave this flash the respect it deserved. Actually, until this minute I hadn't believed that our fine and upstanding guardians of the law were even aware of the connection between the Bambino and Puerta del Sol's thriving numbers racket. As for why he was killed--I could've answered that with my eyes closed. He'd been killed for doing something el Se?or didn't like.
Being a good citizen myself, I applauded the demise of brother Chavez. But I still wished that he'd gotten away with whatever it was el Se?or didn't like. I had a small grudge against the man the Herald's reporter would've called Puerta del Sol's "crime czar"--if the cops had ever admitted that such a man existed, or if the reporter had been smart enough to figure it out. I was glad to hear that somebody had the guts to cross him.
On the other hand, there was nothing I could do to el Se?or myself. He was too strong for me to mess with. And I'd never had anything to do with the Bambino. Ginny'd finished complaining about the heat. Now she was talking to her answering service. I looked to see what else was in the paper.
Near the back of the city section, an item caught my eye. I don't know why--I could just as easily have missed it. But when I started reading it, it didn't have any trouble holding my attention.
Ginny went on using the phone. Part of my mind heard her explain we didn't do that kind of work, but I wasn't really listening. I was concentrating on this news item about Pablo Santiago.
He wasn't anybody special--not like Roscoe Chavez. Just a ten-year-old kid I happened to know. Ginny and I worked for his family a couple of yeras ago on a protection-racket case. the Santiagos ran a grungy little tiendita down in the old part of town--one of those places where toothless grandmothers bought beans and tortillas at prices that were actually reasonable, and kids stocked up on Coke and licorice--until some of the local muchachos decided to finance their hobbies by extorting "insurance" from small businesses. Since the muchachos were freelance, the Santiagos could have turned to el Se?or for help. But then they would've ended up paying him protection money. That they didn't want, partly because they were honest, and partly because they valued their independence. So they hired Fistoulari Investigations.
Which was how I met Pablo Santiago.
According to the paper, he'd been missing since Saturday night.
I opened my mouth to say something to Ginny, but she was already in the middle of another phone call. I don't know what hit me hardest, the fact that a kid I knew was missing--another kid! Or that a Chicano kid who'd been gone for less than forty-eight hours was suddenly considered news--which wasn't exactly normal behavior for the Herald. Or the sheer coincidence of it.
The combination felt like a gutful of rubbing alcohol. The last time I saw Pablo, he was running numbers. He was one of the errand boys who collected people's bets and distributed winnings.
I didn't bother telling myself that it wasn't any of my business. I have a thing about kids in trouble. And I didn't have to guess very hard to figure out why somebody as insignificant--or at least Chicano--as Pablo made the news. Because the cops were looking for him and wanted help. Because of Roscoe Chavez. On top of that, the Santiagos were good people. They deserved better than they were going to get.
I dropped the papers back on the sofa, hauled myself to my feet, and started for the door.
Before I got there, Ginny hung up the phone and demanded, "Where do you think your're going?"
"Grocery shopping," I muttered. Reflexive counterpunch. I didn't like her tone. When I looked at her, I saw that her resentment had moved right up to the front of her face. Not very nicely, I added, "I'm getting tired of sitting on my hands."
A masterstroke of tact. She loved it when I reminded her about her hand. But this time something more complicated was going on. She resented me for the same reason that she didn't snap back. Almost politely, she said, "That can wait. This is more important."
Always fast on my feet, I stared at her and wondered how she knew about Pablo.
But she didn't know about Pablo. "There's a man up in the Heights", she said. "A Mr. Haskell. I just talked to him. He wants to hire us. We need to go see him."
If she hadn't been Ginny Fistoulari--and if I hadn't understood why she resented me--I would've said, Tell him to stuff it. But she was, and I did, so I didn't. Instead I stood there and waited for her to finish.
Her eyes wandered away while she tried to get a handle on something that looked suspiciously like panic. "He says he needs protection. He says somebody's trying to kill him."
Well, at least we were talking to each other.