My cell phone woke me early. It was the cops.
“Somebody bashed Doctor William Hubert over the head with a blunt instrument last night. They drilled his brains out of his skull with a surgical tool and piled them in a heap by his bloody skull. We need you, Annie. Hit the street.”
The call scared the pajamas off me, and I wanted to wake up Samir, shake him, make him see me, and help with the fear. Even the voices in my head didn't know what to say at first.
My size ten feet hit the floor in a hulk stomp.
My roommate, Samir, was in the next bed, huddled under his grey blankets with no sense of what was happening. His long black body looked lumpy like a dun toad. Samir was my first real boyfriend. Ain't that something? And me twenty-four years old and all, plus this mental problem.
I twirled the circle of cheap yellow metal on my left ring finger. Samir and I'd met in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class I volunteered to help teach a couple years ago on this island. We drifted together, two outcasts just able to afford this half-way house, and sharing for financial reasons. Only way Social Services would let us stay here together, in the same boarding room, was if they thought we were married. No questions asked.
The Powolskis were like a foster family to us.
Then the voices in my head started screaming. I covered my ears with my hands. Be careful. You didn't listen to the phone call close enough. Stupid. It's way over your head. It'll take you more than hard work to solve this case, Iron Head. It'll take brains and guts and you don't have that.
“Son of a brownie,” I said in response. “Go away.”
You're a homely girl, with kinky bleached-white hair and buck teeth. Good thing my personality more than made up for it. Yeah, at five foot nine I was a force to be reckoned with.
I yawned, trying to get air into my lungs. It's your heart, stupid, you're gonna die! No, it wasn't my heart, I was only twenty-four years old and solid as Twenty Mule Team. My psych in Campbell River told me that anxiety made me short of breath and I'd yawn.
I thought of the phone call a few minutes before. They need you, Annie. The Doc's dead as a salt cod. Grisly murder. Get on it. So I pulled on my jeans and shirt, and shook Samir.
“Kids,” Mrs. Powolski called up from the kitchen. “Breakfast's on, and the rent cheques are due.”
Samir and I paid the rent with my Justice Department's salary and his pension. I had a little money put away, too. His pension was a Canada Pension Plan draw for the severely handicapped—although Samir was only 21 years old, he could still get a pension 'cause of his bad legs.
Samir isn't handicapped in my opinion. He got a disability, like me, but that ain't handicapped unless you let it be.
“I got work to do today, right away!” I called downstairs. “I'll pay my share when I get home.”
Guess you're wondering what I do for a living, for the Justice Department. I'm not a cleaner and I don't work in a kitchen. I work part-time but it's a good job. After all, I got the G.E.D.—the General Equivalency Diploma, I earned my high school the hard way, at Central High in Vancouver, and also what the street people know as the Canadian Hard Knocks University. If it weren't for Constable Tom arresting me for shoplifting last year, and the court giving me a second chance, I don't know where I'd be.
I did Community Service work for Lorne O'Halloran, Private Investigator, for six months and after that, they hired me, casual like, to work on Serendipity Island for the Justice Department—I was that good. I also know a lot of the people on the street, comes in handy, and I don't mind saying the pay is good, and I enjoy my work.
I still report to Lorne, that was one of the stips in my contract. They thought I wouldn't work as well for anyone else but good ol' Lorne O'Halloran, Private Eye and slot machine enthusiast. That's when my voices took over, though.
The Island was just perfect for me to live and work on since my mom died, after we left Vancouver. Serendipity was big for a place in the Gulf Islands, with a flourishing population in the amount of twelve hundred sturdy souls; five street people that I knowed of; and a drug and alcohol problem amongst the general population. There was also an Indian nation down near the lighthouse on Modge Bay, near the float house Mom had left me. I couldn't live there permanent because of the court case fourteen months ago when the judge said I had to live in a group home with the Powolskis.
“What, rent due again? Blasted werewolves and vampires and landlords.” The grey toad in the next bed wriggled and morphed into my handsome dark companion of six months. Samir rubbed his eyes, which appeared bloodshot.
I pulled at the Canadian flag pinned to the window and squinted out at the yard. Only the old yeller dog was there, chained to a post in the middle of the yard, and he wasn't sleeping either.
Sometimes I saw the sun rising in the west, not the east, like a huge speckled orange and the sky was lit with fire. Those were the times God spoke to me. Or the Devil beckoned.
Samir said I hallucinate and hear voices because I'm a nut case and a private eye should not be a nut case. But I thought the voices and visions helped me a lot, they cleared my mind the visions did, and the voices made me think out of the cage. I knew the voices and the visions came from my own ego and sometimes from deep down under my subconscious. So in a way, I was talking to myself, and my unconscious mind was a powerful force. Jung would say that.
Samir had his jeans on already and an oversize nightshirt. He hobbled to the john. First thing I woulda done had I been his mom, was to get that boy some physiotherapy after the soldiers broke his legs. Or at least seen a doctor. Guess doctors and physios were scarce back there in the Sudan. Still—I woulda tried.
Now he was twenty-one and they'd have to break his bones again to splint them proper, some bone doctor in Campbell River or maybe off in Vancouver at some fancy clinic.
Samir grunted something in return. I didn't hear what. A blue butterfly, five feet long, hovered over the bathroom door. It was beautiful. Thank you, visions, and then Mrs. Powolski called again.
The toilet flushed. I could hear African curses from the next room. The cursing grew louder and my voices jittered in reply. I started to count the spots on the wall.
“I tripped on dem damn jeans.”
“Watch where you pull them down then, angel pie.”
“Legs are no freckin' good. I should just kill myself. Good morning.” I could hear the shower start up.
I let the flag curtain drop. “Okay,” I said when he was out of the shower. “So how are you going to kill yourself this time?”
Samir's smile flashed white-silver quick in his dark face. “Don't know. I'll think of something, Annie.”
“Why'd you take a shower this time of the morning? Mostly you wait till after brekky.”
“None of your business, angel pie.” He hugged me.
“You smell so good. You sure you're all right? You slept like a stone all night.”
I thought I should take my meds then, half of them at least, time to tippy-toe down to the kitchen and quiet the murmur of my voices for a couple of hours.
Samir pulled a shirt over his tall, lean frame. “How do you think I should do it?”
I didn't answer.
He stooped to tie his muddy Nikes. He looked real good.
“Coming?” I brushed a big piece of lint off my flannel shirt.
“Sure.” He grabbed his cane. “Ready when you are, Tin Pan Annie.”
I was afraid he would kill himself some day and I couldn't stop him. My voices got real quiet. I was thinking they were happy.
If only those darn voices would disappear. My doctor says I'm OCD, too, that's Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for those of you not educated in psych talk. It means I ruminate a lot and I count. I count just about everything, on my fingers, under the table if I can.
“Time to go downstairs for breakfast,” I said to Samir, who hobbled after me down the carpeted steps. “Time to meet the day.”
“Oh, shit,” he mumbled and thumped his cane. “Time to greet the Powolskis and watch them feed their goddarn animals before our muzzles are in the trough.”
“Mrs. Powolski is a good cook.”
“I want to kill myself.”
“This can be arranged.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny, Annie. I mean it this time.”
“You've got a hangover, Samir. You'll get over it.” I started whistling as we went downstairs. He groaned as we reached the bottom step.
Outside on the dun-colored lawn, dry leaves twisted and soared. The yeller dog bayed from out back. Coffee was on and bacon crackled in the pan. Mrs. Powolski stirred the greasy strips and cracked some eggs. Her heavyweight husband sat with thumbs hooked in his suspenders.
I smiled. “Give me my meds, please, Mrs. P.” She was supposed to keep an eye on us, and that included giving me my pills. Group home rules. I hated that.
Samir lurched into the room and sat on one of the truly vintage chairs that amazingly would hold Mr. Powolski's weight.
“Have to go out early this morning,” I said. “I feel so good and I got work.”
“Dress warm,” Mrs. Powolski said. “You'll catch your death of cold.”
“That's good.” Samir threw back his head and laughed. “Can I go, too? I'd like to catch my death.”
“He wants to kill himself,” I explained.
To finish my morning rituals, I counted to twenty on my fingers, twice, under the table before tackling breakfast.
“Somebody's done in,” Mr. Powolski boomed. “Somebody kicked the bucket. Else you wouldn't be so happy, missy. I heard your cell phone ring early this morning. Can only mean bad news for somebody.”
“It means our private eye here has work.” Samir licked his fingers. “More bacon, please.”
“Yeah, I got a phone call early this morning from the cops' office,” I said. “You're right, angel pie Samir, I got work.”
“I knew about it early like,” he said.
I can't help it, my analytic mind like goes into high gear and I just put things together that nobody else might think of, and I can't help it if maybe friends get all mixed up with foes.
He can't be trusted. He just sleeps in the same room with you because he wants the rent from Social Services, not your lousy body, babes, nobody would want that. He must have been talking to the coroner last night, they're in cahoots, just like the Justice Department's office, they know everything you do.
I started counting on my fingers again. Sure, I could trust Samir. He was the only person I could trust in this little hell-hole of a town. Why do you say that, you little witch? You know you love it here. It's just like you, small-minded and dirty.
“I ain't small,” I said to the voices. “I'm big boned and I'm tall.”
“What?” Mrs. Powolski beamed.
“I'm what they call an Amazon,” I said. I checked my cell phone to see if there were any more calls, and went upstairs to shower. Samir was there before me and out the door before I had my shoes on. He was always quick in his movements. Fluid-like, here and then gone.
Lordy, Samir was one good-looking Sudanese man. If we had babies they'd be cuter than me.
Samir was down at the Serendipity Hotel, already having his first argument of the morning, when my Vespa scooter and I put-putted down the street past the old white building, past the sign that said, Flapjacks and steaks, all you can eat Tuesdays. I noticed they'd torn up the sidewalks again and fresh asphalt smoked in the cold morning air. I was heck bent for velvet to Lorne O'Halloran's place, Private Investigator. He was my boss since I stole that swag and got sent to community service and probation under his supervision.
I'd met Samir and his Sudanese pals in an English as a Second Language class I'd volunteered to teach. It was serendipity, hee, hee. Then the court sent me to the Powolski's group home and Samir was there. Since my mom had died and left me her float house I was real ticked they wouldn't let me stay at the float house, but I had steeple sized hopes that I'd be let off soon, maybe eventually get a pardon from Erna at the Justice Department in Victoria. My probation was over and all, now I got paid to work for Lorne 'cause I was such a dang good Private Eye.
I parked the scooter and rocketed up the stairs, two at a time, to Lorne's office. He didn't seem surprised to see me. “The doctor,” he said. “You heard.” He rearranged some papers on his desk.
“Yeah. Tell me about it,” I said. Lorne took a gulp of black coffee and crushed out a cigar in an ashtray shaped like a horseshoe. Edmonton, Alberta was etched into the metal semicircle. Lorne's face was round, too. He was round, all around. Lorne was fat and bald and loud. He reminded me of Mr. Powolski.
“The Doc's dead as a crushed beetle. You got the call? Somebody's pretty sick, I'd say. Security, or maybe it was the caretaker, found the door open and called the cops. Doc was on the floor, no locks broken. The Justice Department in Victoria gave the case to us, said they needed somebody the street people trust. Constable Tom and the sergeant were working all night on this.”
“Ugh. I can think of one or two I know, if they were real high on somethin', but we don't have no psychos in this town besides me, far as I know. Would have to take a psycho to do that. This is a sick, sick case, you're right. Just a minute while I heave up my greasy eggs and bacon.”
I didn't puke, of course, but this case sure made me feel sick, thinking of Doc's slimy brains all over the floor and the hole in his cranium, who'd do that.
Doc wasn't my friend but I knew him. Everyone knew Doc, the high-end pill pusher, and even he didn't deserve this. I pulled my sturdy body up even straighter and smiled. On the other hand, it was work for Lorne and me. I had the stamina of a Peterbilt truck and loved to get my lily-white hands dirty. But a surgical drill into the skull? Gruesome.
Even my voices were quiet, probably shocked that somebody else had thought of this before they did. Wouldn't put it past them to suggest it, but they never had. I shuddered and counted the freckles on the back of Lorne's hands. Now what?