Sometimes when I’m alone and can’t sleep I listen to the sounds of the city. The grinding and clanging of the J-Church streetcar as it rounds the turn and stops on Thirtieth Street. Foghorns moaning out at the Golden Gate. Cars rumbling, dogs howling, the neighbors’ TVs mumbling. The occasional conversations of passersby and the white noise of the freeways. But mostly what I listen to is whispers.
This city, it makes me afraid.
I love you. . . .
Nobody can find out what I did.
Out here nobody looks at me.
What happened to you?
The night is different.
How could you do this to me?
I love you. . . .
I couldn’t’ve done that. . . .
Tell me everything about that time.
I hurt all over.
Dark, like it’s supposed to be when you’re dead.
Where am I?
Maybe I’m dead.
Of course the whispers are echoes of my past. I’ve heard them all over time. But I suspect that somewhere in the city these words, or very similar ones, are still being spoken. This city is large and diverse. There are pockets of grinding poverty, pockets of middle-class respectability, pockets of wealth. There is corruption beyond a normal person’s belief, and incredible selflessness and valor. Intrigue worthy of a spy novel, and innocence and wonder. Eight hundred thousand–plus people, living out their stories. And all too often, their stories merge with mine.
September in the city, Labor Day barbecues in a misty fog come and gone. On this day, glorious sunshine and clear blue skies. Our summer was about to begin.
I climbed the stairway to the agency’s offices off the north-side catwalk of Pier 24½. Waved to everybody as I passed their open doors. Flopped my briefcase on my desk, sat down, and opened my e-mail.
Reports on cases from my nephew and techno-whiz Mick Savage. Copies of correspondence from the other operatives. A plaintive note from Ma: “When are you going to forgive me?”
For what? Because she’d gone ballistic after I’d been shot in the head and trapped for a time in a locked-in state? (Like a coma, except I was aware of everything around me, could hear and see but not move or communicate except for eyeblinks. Believe me, that is one of the lower levels of hell.) And when your mother hurls herself on your chest, weeping and wailing, it only makes the situation worse.
My hospitalization had ended a year ago; I’d gone through intensive physical therapy and still worked out several times a week at a gym. Occasionally I tired easily and there were periods when—asleep or awake—I’d flash back to the shooting and experience drenching sweats, shakiness, and disorientation. But basically I was okay and improving steadily. Eventually, my neurologist told me, the aftereffects would disappear. I wasn’t so sure of that, but they were things I was learning to live with.
This message from Ma—her stock in trade is histrionics and she wouldn’t be Ma without them. Likely she, recently widowed and a new convert to e-mail, had written this to one of my three siblings and sent it to the wrong address. And what would she be asking any of them to forgive her for? I’d have to check with them.
My other mother, the one who had given birth to me and put me up for adoption, had forwarded a notice of her upcoming appearance on Good Morning America. Saskia Blackhawk was a Boise, Idaho, attorney who had argued Indian-rights cases all the way to the Supreme Court—and won every time. She was much sought after on the talk-show circuit.
Nothing from Hy, currently in Zurich, on a case involving the changing privacy rules of the Swiss banks. Nothing from my friend Piper, who had promised to look into memberships for us in the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. A notice from the city port commission about a scheduled hearing on demolishing old piers. Pier 24½ was in that category, in spite of the thriving businesses that rented space here. So far, with the intervention of a powerful attorney friend of mine, we had been spared. But for how much longer?
I put the thought aside and opened the rest of my mail. Client, commending me for a job well done. Humane Society, thanking me for my contribution. Democrats.org: breaking news, not good. Coldwater Creek: my order had shipped.
Again from email@example.com, only the subject line read, “From Darcy.” The message was brief: “Help me. I’m in SF.”
He was piggybacking off Saskia’s account. Probably had stolen her password; she never would have given it to him.
Bet he wanted money.
Darcy Blackhawk was my half brother from Saskia’s long marriage to Thomas Blackhawk, a fellow attorney who had died several years ago. They’d also had a daughter, Robin, currently enrolled in law school at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. Unlike his sister, Darcy was a troubled kid who’d dropped out of school, done a wide assortment of drugs, and run with bad companions, and who couldn’t hold down a job for more than a week. He’d briefly turned his life around, about the time I discovered my other family, and gotten a job editing videos for a local TV station. But the desire for drugs had proven stronger than the desire for success, and while stoned he’d destroyed the footage of a violent antiabortion demonstration during which a woman was fatally shot. He’d been fired, then had backslid and sunk to a new low.
Saskia couldn’t keep track of him, although periodically he turned up at her house for food or shelter. Last she’d heard he’d been living under a bridge on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, northeast of Boise near Challis. In a recent phone conversation Saskia had said bitterly, “Ironic that it’s also called the River of No Return.”
And I had thought, Under a bridge just like a troll.
Well, the troll was on the move. No computers under bridges—usually.
I shot the message over to Mick, asking him if he could find out where it was sent from—probably some Internet café. Not an easy task for most people to accomplish quickly, but a snap for the co-creator of SavageFor.com, a real-time search engine under the management of the giant Omnivore. Mick knew the side roads and back alleys of the Internet, and could get from one to another in his sleep. Then I carefully composed a reply to Darcy.
Of course I’ll help you, but I need more information. Where are you? And what’s the problem? You know you can always come to me, either at the pier or at home. I miss you and love you. —S
I looked critically at what I’d written, then deleted the last sentence. Neither sentiment was true.
Next I called Saskia in Boise.
“You’re about to get a strange message from me,” I told her. “Darcy’s using your Comcast account from someplace here in San Francisco. He sent me a message asking for help. I replied to him, hoping he’ll tap into your mail again.”
“That little—” She broke off, but it was obvious what the next word would’ve been. “How did he get my password?”
“How does he get anything?”
“Steals. Sometimes I let myself forget that he’s not stupid, just emotionally challenged.”
Darcy was expert at taking money from a till when a cashier had his or her back turned; he’d never held up anyplace—as far as anyone knew—but he’d cadged large amounts from people on the street who felt sorry for him or were afraid of his craziness.
“How long d’you suppose he’s been down here?” I asked. “He was still on the Salmon River a month ago.”
“I don’t know. What does he want you to help him with?”
“He didn’t say. Money, probably. I’m assuming he’ll get back to me. Do you know any reason for him to come to the Bay Area?”
“. . . No. Robin’s made it clear she doesn’t want to see him, and I think she’s warned him not to bother you.”
Robin and Darcy couldn’t be more different. Robin’s feelings for her brother were complex: compassion because he was a weak and troubled man; anger because he’d taken advantage of her one time too many; a strong desire to keep him out of her life; an equally strong desire to protect her mother from him. And, I supposed, a little bit of love because he was, after all, her brother.
“Has he been in any trouble recently?” I asked.
“Only the usual.” Saskia’s tone was wry with a touch of sadness.
“What’s ‘the usual’?”
“Shoplifting. He tried to steal a whole ham from the supermarket. Do you know what kind of bulge a whole ham makes under a hoodie? And then it turned out the hoodie still had its tags on it—he’d taken it from Kmart the day before.”
Uh-huh. Maybe Darce was stupid.
“Oh, items have disappeared from my house: cash, soap, towels, one of his father’s golfing trophies that could easily be pawned. Cereal, his favorite kind, Froot Loops.”
“There’s something else too,” Saskia added. “He assaulted a police officer.”
“Great. When, where, and why?”
“About ten days ago. Under the bridge on the Salmon River. The police were removing him and the other homeless persons from their encampment—that’s how I knew he was there.”
“You bail him out?”
“And he took off.”
“Well, he came home for a few hours. Then, according to my neighbor, a woman—a druggie friend, no doubt— appeared, and the two of them left with my silver tea set.”
Saskia’s voice, usually so forceful and assured, was clogged with shame and grief. “Sharon,” she added, “I think he’s getting worse.”
“In what ways?”
“At times he can pass for lucid, but mostly he slips in and out of reality. Sometimes you look into his eyes and wonder if he’s really all there. I’m surprised he remembered your e-mail address, but sometimes bits of factual information pop into his mind, and he uses them. Other times—” She broke off, her voice ragged.
I spared her any more questioning, simply saying, “I’ll find out what he’s up to and keep you posted.”
As I waited for Mick to get back to me I thought about my birth family. A few years ago, when the father who had raised me died, he’d left me the task of disposing of the contents of his garage—no small chore, since no McCone had ever thrown anything out. The Pack Rat Family. There, in a carton of personal papers, I found—as Pa had intended me to—my adoption papers.
Ma refused to talk about them. My siblings didn’t know anything, had always believed we were blood relatives, even though my dark Indian looks had contrasted markedly with their blond Scotch-Irish appearance. I was a throwback to my Shoshone great-grandmother, my parents had told us. Nobody’d questioned that; it’s a scientific fact that throwbacks do exist.
So after finding the document I’d begun a search for my birth parents. Who else was so suited to the task? It eventually led me to the Flathead Reservation in Montana, where I found my father, a Shoshone artist named Elwood Farmer, who had married a Flathead woman and moved there many years ago. Then I traced Saskia to Boise, Idaho. Elwood and I were still struggling toward defining our relationship, but Saskia and Robin and I had become a family of sorts—with Darcy always lurking on the edges. He seemed to resent our closeness but made no effort to join in. Or maybe he didn’t resent it, simply had no capacity to relate.
Either way, none of us could understand the tangles and turns of Darcy’s mind, and if what Saskia said about his getting worse was true, those tangles and turns would be even more impenetrable now. He shouldn’t be running free on the streets, where he was a danger to himself and others— My cell rang. Ma. E-mail had failed her so she’d resorted to her favorite form of communication.
“Are you still mad at me?”
So the e-mail had been intended for me after all. “For what?”
“Well, I sent those new pink bedroom slippers I bought for you to Patsy and she kept them.”
“Patsy has huge feet; they couldn’t have fit her.”
“They were stretchy.”
“I called her and asked her to send them to you, but she denies having received them.”
“Probably she didn’t.”
“That’s right. Just an hour ago I found a delivery confirmation receipt here. They went to John.”
Not only was she confusing her three daughters, but all her children. I suppressed a laugh, imagining what John must have thought when he opened a package containing stretchy—and probably fuzzy—pink slippers.
“Tell John to send them to me.” I spoke in a light tone, but I was really concerned. Pa had died years ago, and it had been a year and a half since Melvin Hunt, Ma’s second husband, succumbed to cancer. Ma didn’t know what to do with herself, and it was making her mentally lazy—something she’d never been.
“Oh, I’ll do that,” she said. “So you aren’t mad at me?”
“Why would I be?”
“Well, one of my children is. I can feel it.”
Ma had always been overly imaginative, so her response didn’t surprise me, but it alarmed me a bit. However, now was not the time to suggest she get out more, become a charity volunteer, or take a course in ceramics at the senior center. I chatted a bit and ended the call.
An aging parent. I’d been warned about this. But Ma was healthy and had a lot of good years left. I didn’t believe in interfering with what someone wanted to do with her life, yet I sensed she was reaching out. A family council meeting was in order soon.
Mick stood in the doorway—tall, blond, trim, and handsome. Even I considered him handsome, and I’d known him as a scowly, mean little brat not too many years ago.
“Darcy’s message was sent from an Internet café on Chestnut Street,” he said. “It’s called The Wiring Hall.”
“The Marina.” It wasn’t a neighborhood where I could picture Darcy. The district fronting the Bay east of the Golden Gate Bridge was distinctly upscale; nowhere in the city could you see more well-dressed mommies and daddies pushing expensive baby strollers and walking pedigreed dogs.
“Yep. You heard back from him yet?”
Even though Mick was himself a former fuckup, he didn’t like Darcy. Well, neither did I, much.
Mick said, “Why did he e-mail you? He could’ve come here to the pier or your house.”
“Darcy’s brain is . . . wired differently than most people’s. He has no sense of results or consequences. When the impulse strikes him, whatever he wants to happen has got to happen now, not later. He may have gone into the café to get change so he could call me, but then he saw a computer terminal. And there you have it.”
“And everybody—you, Saskia, and Robin—just puts up with this kind of behavior?”
“Pretty much. He’s been in and out of psychiatric institutions, but none of them did any good.”
“Seems to me you three should lose him.”
That made sense, but both Mick and I knew from tough experience that when someone who’s related to you asks for help, help is what you’ve got to give.
My intercom buzzed. Ted, our super-efficient office manager— or, as he preferred to call himself, Grand Poobah— said, “Mr. MacGruder is here.”
MacGruder: a prospective client, potentially lucrative. He owned a medium-sized software firm and was concerned about employee espionage.
I said to Mick, “Can you take over with this client? MacGruder, I told you about him. I need to start looking for Darcy.”
“Shar, the important clients need to initially meet with the head of the agency. That’s what they expect, and what we give.”
“I’ll go look for him. You stay here and don’t worry.”
But I would worry. I didn’t doubt Mick’s abilities, but I was a hands-on investigator. I’d worry plenty. .
City of Whispers: A Sharon McCone Mystery