Five inches of duct tape stilled the air. This hadn’t been the plan—but the softness of her bare body flopping on the deck like fresh flounder had insisted. And why not? Why not use it before it was gone?
The Velcro strap of the headband opened with a quick tear and closed to affix a tiny camera to forehead. Both hands in front, rotated palms up, showed off smooth supple rubber gloves like a player in Blue Man Group. A few taps on the keys of a laptop, adjust camera position, and wait for the exact moment. Closer now, her flopping stopped, gazes met. Her wide blue-crystal eyes screamed a fear that didn’t seem so different from desire.
Kneeling, and smiling, as nakedness lowered towards nakedness.
The rocking of ocean waves superimposed on the floating softness of her belly felt like bathing in heroin. This should happen more often—escape drudgery, follow the calling. Closed eyes and long slow breaths, holding back like the dam built by Hoover. Holding. Holding.
Crashing in a long, long spasm. Again, again…fading.
Sweating face dropped to bare chest. She had stopped moving, but the soft warmth of her breast caressed a cheek. Eyes closed and mind drifting in the aftermath of a simple biological function. Yet the effect was beyond description.
And anything but simple.
Resting now. Resting. It was time. There was work to do.
Qigiq woke to the rumble of a V-twin. He dragged the phone to his face and touched the Answer Call button to his nose.
“Morning Qu. We have fingers,” Kandy said.
“Hi, partner. McDonald’s for breakfast?”
“Nope. From a hand.”
Qigiq rolled to his back and sat up. He blinked hard.
“Go ahead, Kandy. I’m awake.”
“We have the middle finger and thumb of a left hand. Nail length and purple polish says female. A guess from the skin puts the age at sixteen to twenty-two. No lab work yet.”
“Only one?” Qigiq said.
“Yeah. There’s no hand. The base of the finger has been stitched to the thumb to make one long digit. Looks likes a pale Cuban cigar.”
“And?” He waited for the punch line.
“And…the fingers showed up in a bag. At least that’s what Robina is telling us.”
“Came in a cardboard Amazon box bigger than a book. Inside she found a Ziploc. And the fingers.”
“Was there a packing slip, Kandy? Amazon always sends a packing slip.” He tried to laugh but failed.
“I’m humorless before seven. There’s a sticker on the outside of the baggie.”
A pause. She was going to make him ask.
“And the sticker says…”
“Under a crude Apple logo there’s lawyer mumbo: ‘This device is for legal or rights-holder copying only.’ Then it says in big letters, ‘Don’t Steal Music.’”
“Don’t steal music. On the sticker.”
“Is the baggie special?”
He heard crumpling plastic. “Not that I can see.”
“Would you check if that’s an official Apple sticker, and if they ship products in a baggie like the one you’re crumpling even though it’s evidence in—” he hesitated. In what?
“Got it,” she said.
His new partner was quick. He was lucky.
“I’m on my way,” he said.
“I’ll start checking…if anyone’s awake down in Cupertino. And I’ll locate some real Amazon boxes.”
He swung his feet to the hardwood floor and padded barefoot to the head. A tiny window over the sink let him see the sun’s warm red rays reflect from the water of San Francisco Bay. Kandy had been right, living on a houseboat in Marin County was indeed a new experience for a man from Alaska.
He dressed quickly.
As he ducked out the main door from the cabin—a small rectangular house that covered almost the entire hull beneath it—he noticed tall buildings across the bay protruding through floating gray mist. For a brief moment he imagined the piano harmonies of Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, wondering if he could ever grow accustomed to blue water, fog and concrete after decades of snow?
He crossed a weathered wooden dock supported by pillars the size of telephone poles. Ten steps up a bank brought him to a white and green Moto Guzzi motorcycle, police edition, missing its protective plastic fairing. He strapped on a helmet, swung a leg over the machine and instantly felt at home, though Fairbanks was three thousand miles to the north.
On the third try the sensual rumble of the Italian twin greeted the bay. Traffic on the Golden Gate was barely keeping up with tourists strolling the sidewalk, but California law allowed him to ride over the white Botts’ dots embedded in the pavement between lanes. Eighteen and a half minutes later he circled to the back of an eighty-year-old brick building. His parking spot between a green trash bin and the steel railing for the basement stairs was empty, except for a wrapper from a Mucho Grande burrito.
“About time,” Kandy said to his reflection in the two-way mirror where she stood watching a girl alone in the interrogation room sip from a big beige mug, her shoulders rolling in giant sobs.
He stopped beside her. “Traffic. Even with a bike and those fancy FasTrak toll booths you have down here.”
She turned to face him.
“Her name’s Robina. Came in less than an hour ago with the package. She was in hysterics then, swears she knows whose fingers they are. Want to see them?”
She twisted her right cheek into a smile and cocked her head. “This way.”
Kandy led him to a cubbyhole makeshift kitchen: drip machine, microwave, fridge. The fridge had yellow strips of “Crime Scene Do Not Cross” tape wrapped across the door. She started to peel them off.
“Lab’s on the way over, but I thought you would want to see this.”
She slipped on rubber gloves, withdrew an SFPD evidence bag from the top shelf, and tilted her head up to face him. Her auburn hair dropped left.
“Robina says this was in her mail yesterday, that would be Wednesday in case you’re not paying attention. Like I said on the phone, Amazon.com box, packed with dry ice, and this.”
Without opening the evidence bag she held back the flap of the box with the fingertip of her right hand. Qigiq peeked in at another plastic bag half covered with a white sticker. Protruding from behind the sticker he could see a fingertip with metallic purple polish. The polish was chipped. He wondered if they might be able to find that chip someplace. He sighed. Someplace in a city of over half a million if he didn’t count the sprawl. The finger looked like a very real mannequin pointing him in the right direction for good pancakes.
He visualized a girl’s hand missing two digits. Turned his eyes away from the mannequin, but it didn’t help. He swallowed hard, unclenched his jaw, pointed at the bag.
“Robina thinks she knows this person?”
“Yeah. Swears it’s a girl named Sally Bellowi. They play…um, played in a string quartet together. Call themselves Fourtunate: F-O-U-R.”
Qigiq glanced at Kandy’s face. No grin.
“First pass. We’ve only been touching it with these.” She produced a set of forceps about as long as his hand.
He clamped on the edge of the bag and lifted it from the box. He twisted his wrist so he could see the digits from the other side of the baggie. They were indeed stitched together base to base, creating an alien looking object that a humanoid robot might use as a gripping tool. Blood that had oozed through the stitching before freezing formed a rusty red glue where the two digits were joined. He noticed the same purple polish on the thumb, this time no chips, just a smooth shiny finish like a hot rod at a car show.
He took a deep breath, tried to detach himself, think objectively, but his chest stayed tight.
“What’s that on the side of the thumb?” he asked.
“The lump? Yeah, we noticed that, too. It looks like a skin eruption of some sort. Robina says it’s called a cellist’s callous. Apparently an occupational hazard. If she’s right, that’s the left thumb. Sally bowed right handed.”
“Robina says Sally was dating a couple of guys: an angry rock musician studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory, and…”
Qigiq looked up. Kandy’s eyes were searching the room.
“It’s just a rumor.”
“Robina said it’s a rumor?” he asked.
“No. She claims to know.”
“Sally is having an affair with a college professor.”
“Ground breaking. I’ve never heard of that happening before.” He managed a wry smile.
“I’m so shocked,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Not really. Figured you might want to talk with our new friend Robina.”
Qigiq glanced at Kandy’s deep blue sleeveless shirt stretched tight across her breasts: no markings, not even a designer logo pressed into the cloth. Black jeans. Black leather boots that Qigiq would be comfortable riding around the world in.
“You think I look less intimidating?”
“Nope. I figured you could try the father-figure thing.” She laughed, returned the evidence to its makeshift locker, and replaced the Do-Not-Cross tape.
Qigiq turned the doorknob to the interrogation room slowly with only his fingertips, so as not to startle the young girl. She was sitting with her back to him, still holding the ceramic coffee mug with both hands. He walked in, tapping the floor with his riding boots. She didn’t move. He stepped around the table, pulled out a scratched wooden chair, and sat down to face her.
She watched him from behind strands of pale yellow hair.
“Hello. I’m Detective Qigiq.”
Her deep brown eyes were wet under an eye shadow that looked like gray ash from a fireplace.
“Could we talk about the package you brought in?”
She lowered the mug. Looked up.
“Ki-jeek? Sort of weird. Where’s the woman detective?”
He met her gaze. “Taking a break. I’m from Alaska.”
“You mean you’re not a European import like the rest of us?” She tried to smile.
“Never been to Europe.”
“How do you spell it?”
He figured she could spell Europe.
“Q-i-g-i-q. Q-i like kill, soft g, eke…as in eking out a living as a detective.”
“Retrograde,” she said, lifting the index finger of her left hand and wiggling it back and forth like a human metronome.
He raised his eyebrows.
“The retrograde is the same as the theme. You know, the same forward and backwards. There’s a word for it.”
He smiled. “Palindrome.”
“Yeah…yeah, that’s it. Funny.”
At least she was talking. She looked thin inside a loose black T-shirt that bore a musical score. She wore blue jeans cut off mid-thigh and soft fur-lined boots that rose to mid-calf, the knee between looking like it couldn’t support a small grasshopper. He wondered if she was one of those anorexic college girls who starved themselves trying to be attractive. He glanced at his wrist, almost eight.
“I know you’ve been through this, I’ve seen the report.” He fibbed, he had only heard Kandy’s summary. “Do you think you could go through it once more so I can hear you tell it?”
She squeezed the mug. Her eyes weren’t focused.
He guessed where her mind was. Had an idea. “Have you had breakfast?”
Her response was instantaneous.
“God no, I’m starving. Do you have anything decent in this place? Your coffee is the worst.”
Qigiq straightened. Surprise number one.
“No, there’s nothing decent here, but Peggy’s Pancakes has good food. Would that be okay?”
“Sure.” A hesitation. “If you’re buying. Music students don’t have much in the way of discretionary funds.” She looked up. “Is it close? I don’t have a car.”
Qigiq stood. “Sure, on me. About a mile, we can get there fast.”