GATES OF THE WEST
The cardstock was thick, creamy, and I couldn’t be sure that it was just my imagination that when I brought the business card to my nose that it smelled like money. The law firm whose name was embossed on the off-white paper in a very mature typeset was undoubtedly grandiose enough to have spent a small fortune engineering a way to lace their business cards with the scent of fiscal responsibility.
The names Gordon & Gray took up the entirety of the one side of the card, unsurprisingly-- as if employees would be allowed top-billing. Meeting the smaller-type-faced Ari James, Attorney at Law was probably doomed from the start considering my pretty dim view of his employers and his profession; nothing about that was surprising. What was surprising was that in the back of my gut there was an itch about this case that I couldn’t get away from, no matter how much I tried to keep in mind Lina’s advice about curiosity killing cats. If the SF Examiner was to be believed and Gordon & Gray had already kept Mina Burns safely away from any kind of reasonable doubt in the death of her husband, then why did one of their lawyers need extra hands? Law firms brought on P.I.s when they needed help to find or sift through evidence. No Junior Associate needed help keeping their desk warm while police chased their tails elsewhere.
I tossed the card onto my bed and scrubbed a hand over my face. Goddamnit.
I hit the call button and waited for the answer while sending a silent apology to Lina; the itch just wasn’t going to let me ignore this one. A good detective always followed their gut instinct. “David Krause calling for Ari James.” There was a low hum of background noise on the other end of the line that told me Mr James kept his assistant in the cubicle pool-- or maybe he was in the cubicle pool himself and I’d gotten the receptionist. I pulled a shirt from a hanger and closed the door to my armoire with too much force.
“Just a moment.”
Pulling the cotton over my head while I waited, I held the phone between my shoulder and ear as I pushed my arms into the sleeves. With Montoya no longer occupying my bedroom (too fucking old for a couch, Dave, sorry) it felt a little too quiet in the loft. I stripped the sheets from the bed while listening to elevator music. I’d heard worse.
“Detective Krause.” The voice was easy and plain, without a trace of an accent. The lack of specificity made it expensive. I guess today wasn’t the day I was going to be proven wrong about lawyers. “Glad you called. Tommy said that you might.”
“A man has to keep busy, after all.”
He chuckled. “We both know you didn’t call just because you needed a job.”
Ari James couldn’t see it, but both of my eyebrows raised at that. It was quite a statement of fact coming from a guy who didn’t know me from Adam. I paused with a pillow in my hand. “Do we?” Memories of dealing with Paul Gregory were almost visceral, as if I could smell the ten A.M. scotch at the back of my throat.
“I mean, Tommy. He speaks very highly of you.”
Swallowing the taste away, I resumed shaking the case free from the pillow. “I’m sure that I don’t deserve whatever he told you about me.”
“Well, he told me that you talked him out of half his money.”
I slammed my socked foot into a bed leg and hissed a curse as my eyes watered with the pain. Sitting down on the bare mattress I chucked the empty pillow case on the dirty pile of sheets on the floor and put my hand over my eyes, fingertips digging into my temples. The phone was hot and tight against my ear as Ari James laughed down the line. Color me wrong, then. I had deserved it.
“Half is surely an overestimation,” I managed after a moment, blowing out a breath. “One-third is more realistic. Plus I got him his job, though I’m sure that accessory to gainful employment doesn’t rank very high next to personal fraud.”
“As a lawyer, I’m duty bound to tell you it doesn’t. You must have quite the silver tongue.” The laugh lingered in Ari’s voice, making me feel like I was the butt-end of a joke I hadn’t known about. I didn’t know exactly how much Thomas had told Ari about our past or our present but I wasn’t going to supply any extra information until I found out. Thomas was generally a tight-lipped kid and I’d be stupid to start spelling things out to Ari just because he’d been offered up a tidbit to make me look like I was good at my job.
Hair fell across my eyes as I dropped my hand and stared down at the white-washed wood planks of the bedroom flooring. I curled my toes, the pain a little more distant each time I did. It would take a while to fade completely. “Might as well call me David. But I want you to know that I only use my tongue where and when I want-- and that’s generally not at the behest of lawyers.”
Well I already knew one thing about Ari James; he laughed too much. “I think maybe in this case,” he said, “that won’t be a problem.”
“I think you underestimate how much I dislike lawyers.”
“Then I think I should take you out to lunch so that you can size me up in person instead of just assuming I’m like all the rest. I like to think of myself as a pretty likeable guy.” My lips turned down at the corners. A lawyer who didn’t want to show off the thirty-second floor corner office, huh? “My treat,” he added and I snorted. There it was. Of course-- he’d show off the platinum Amex instead. Either way I wasn’t planning on making it easy on him.
“In that case,” I said, “I hope you like dim sum.”
Yank Sing was busy for lunch. Yank Sing was always busy.
I know that I’d said before I’d happily give up the Financial District but when I said that I hadn’t been talking about its food. There was only one other dim sum restaurant in the city limits that was as good as this one, and that one was much cheaper. No marble floors. No pristine, crisp, white tablecloths that screamed ‘single use.’ No excessively large live seafood tanks that doubled as aquariums. If I was going to bleed a lawyer, I was going to take him for every drop. The general principle of someone whose job it was to let the uber-rich get away with anything they wanted left a bad taste in my mouth The dim sum, however, would not.
With Thomas’ predilection for being friends with the wealthy and genetically blessed, coupled with the fact of Gordon & Gray’s reputation and the sheer cheek that I’d gotten over the phone, I already knew what to expect from Ari James. I was sure that he was both young and charming, greased into his tailored suit by the generous payouts of hundreds of rich palms. His cologne would be specific but not overwhelming, the nape of his hair well above his white collar. Cufflinks were a necessity as well as an expensive and chic watch that could be spotted by someone In the Know as a Brand. Just the kind of guy that bothered me the most.
Someone else might have argued that such things painted a picture in order to cater to a targeted crowd but I couldn’t have given a shit; all the expensive clothing in the world wouldn’t make Ari James less of a douche. My eyes drifted over the people already seated at the high-ceilinged downtown dim sum restaurant. This city had an eclectic food crowd which made for definite breaks in the normal room of dark-haired heads but every neatly-trimmed blond that fit the description of a Gordon & Gray lawyer my mind supplied was sitting across from a filled seat. I checked my watch (well-made but modest, thanks) to make sure of the time. I refused to believe that I’d gotten here ahead of him. Being ‘fashionably late’ was only for people who needed excuses.
Shifting away from the large windows that showcased the busy financial district street, I looked back into the dinning room to find the source of the voice. Had I missed someone? I skimmed over the tables twice before a man to my left raised his hand slightly: the hair was shorter and the frame a little taller but the resemblance was striking enough to make my stupid heart clench like it had discovered certain inalienable truths to be suddenly wrong. Breathing no longer seemed to be essential. I stepped toward him and was watched by dark, almond eyes.
There was a questioning smile on those well-shaped lips that Katsuya never would have worn in a professional situation and breath weezed from my taxed lungs. I managed to take the hand offered to me; it was warm, not quite as soft as I remembered. No, not remembered. As I expected.
“I’m Ari James,” he said.
“Should we…” He trailed off, the smile disappearing with his voice. He stepped forward, just so. He smelled like pine. Did I even remember what Katsuya smelled like? It felt impossible that I couldn’t find the answer. My brain circled it, stuck.
“Is everything okay?”
“Fine,” I heard myself say. That was good, answering. “Fine.” It wasn’t like me to pretend but here we were and I was sitting down across from him not because I was fine, but clearly because I was a masochist. I leaned back against my chair, trying not to look exactly how I felt: as if I was sitting down across from the ghost of a man I’d once loved. Who I’d moved three-thousand miles to escape the memory of.
… Putting it like that, though, I supposed it was probably a pretty specific look. Maybe I didn’t have to worry. I fished for small talk.
“You’re not what I expected,” I said. Considering the private irony, I swallowed the strange urge to laugh. Now if only I could convince my heart to settle into a rhythm conducive to maintaining life.
“From the little I know of you,” Ari James, who was not Katsuya Asano, said, “I’ll take that as a compliment.” The voice was different, of course… but just like the smell of the man, I found myself fighting to remember an exact pitch or cadence to Katsuya’s voice. Ari sat and reached out for the pot already on the table to pour both of us a mug of the steaming, thin brown tea. He started with mine. “‘Not what you expected.’ Let me take a guess.”
I nodded, because I could manage that. “Go ahead.”
He set the teapot down between us, just off to the side. “My suit’s expensive enough, but not as showy as you imagined. Maybe a lack of teal or matching patterns. Close?”
I wet my lips with the drink. I wanted him to keep talking, if only because it highlighted the man that he wasn’t-- the obvious way Ari wore his confidence on his sleeve instead of close to his vest the way Katusya had, the high tilt of the man’s chin that said he’d always been told he was right. It leveraged my sanity bit by bit. I blew across the top of the hot liquid and forced myself to consider for a moment. To see the differences instead of the similarities. Look at him, damnit.
I did. And as I did, my heart began to slow. “No cufflinks.”
He smiled; the expression was positively rakish. Ari enjoyed this. A similar banter worn with so much more ego. “I’m also not as young as I look.”
“Bragging about good genetics is definitely playing into my expectations.”
Ari’s laugh startled me. He took a drink and pulled a menu and a pen over to him and marked a few items in silence before glancing up. “Oh, and of course.” He looked around and then dropped his voice and leaned toward me over the table, “--I’m not white.” Like it was secret. It was all beautifully calculated and I coughed on the laugh that barked, unbidden, from my lips.
“Seems like an antiquated view to have,” I said, and Ari pointed a knowing finger in my direction before resuming his check-marks on the menu.
“Anything you want in particular?”
The more he went on, the less the resemblance to Katsuya. Oh, it was there. The line of the chin, the shape of his nose. How he moved his hands, maybe. The fall of his hair even without the length. With glasses on they might have passed as cousins. But Ari was a different creature than my doctor, a blind man could have seen that. I should certainly be able to keep it in mind. “I was going to order chicken feet, but seeing as how you’re not white, maybe I’ll save the shock factor for the next time a lawyer takes me out on a dim sum date.”
Ari looked up, a dark eyebrow raised archly. “You like chicken feet?”
The corner of my lips twitched and I told the truth. “No.”
“I’m glad,” he said, the two words soft with amusement. “I was about to tell you to forget about the job. I’m not sure that I could trust a man who enjoyed pulling the claws off boiled chicken with his teeth.” He laughed again as he sat back and offered the menu to a passing waiter.
“But you’ll trust a guy who talked your friend out of his money?” It was like a sore tooth; it was hard to leave alone.
He smiled, the expression narrowing his eyes. “Chicken feet are truly disgusting.” He picked up his tea and I found myself sitting forward. I did want an answer to the question. I waited for it. Ari sipped and shrugged. “Tommy trusts you despite it. And that kid.” He paused. Considered. “He needed someone like you.”
“Me.” The money had been the instigator, for sure, but what I had really leveraged was Thomas’ soul into the hands of M. It had all ended well enough but I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Or, I did, and I was still trying to come to terms. And if Thomas hadn’t told Ari the specifics of his new boss then I certainly wasn’t going to.
“Someone to get his head out of the sand.” Ari laughed. A bamboo basket, damp from steam, was slid onto the table between us. The server, a middle-aged Auntie who thoroughly ignored the two of us staring at each other, picked up the lid and deftly cut into the middle of the buns. They smelled like heaven. Sautéed pea shoots, tofu, honeyed pork and rice followed. “Money he has in spades,” he continued, “hell, he could stand to lose some-- though to be perfectly candid I can tell you that those investments you talked him into making have already started panning out, and not to his loss.” Ari picked up his chopsticks. He took a shrimp-filled dumpling and chewed. “But I can tell you as Tommy’s friend that what he didn’t have was an anchor.”
It was a big word with a weighty implication. “And you assume that I am one?”
Pouring himself more tea, Ari didn’t even look up. “He vouched for you. Tommy never vouches for anyone.”
That answered one question, but it brought up so many more. Ari didn’t qualify the statement and I didn’t ask him so I was left wondering if Ari did or did not know that I routinely spanked Thomas until his ass and thighs were a beautiful, vibrant red. Or that I’d broken his heart. My guess was no, but we all knew what they said about assumptions.
“Do you want to know what I expected of you?” Ari asked.
He smiled. “Good answer. It would be pretty embarrassing to explain that you’re exactly how I pictured you.”
“Says the lawyer to the detective.” One of those professions were good at uncovering facts, the other only for twisting facts to suit. It was just a little derogatory. I figured he could take it.
Ari smiled at the tofu as he reached out his chopsticks for some, piling the soft white cubes onto the edge of his plate as he said, “says the lawyer that happens to know that Tommy’s got a daddy kink.”
I realized that I’d relaxed enough to take a drink only when I nearly choked on it. As I coughed and reached for my napkin, Ari lifted his dark eyes and grinned. To that look I said, voice flat, “and here I thought he was just using me for my big dick.”
Ari laughed loudly enough to pull attention from the nearby tables and just like that I’d found my appetite had returned. Katsuya would have never done that; not for such a cheap joke. I reached out to fill my plate.
The food was delicious. Even if I hadn’t been happy enough to kill the conversation about me being almost twice Thomas’ age, I would have sank into a quiet meditation on food anyway once I’d taken that first bite. Ari followed my lead and for a few moments we were happy enough to just eat, the only sounds our chopsticks on the plates and requests to pass this or that. Once I was full enough-- and judged the air clear enough after our getting-to-know-yous-- I relaxed back against my chair. My fingertips kept in loose contact with the warm side of my teacup.
“So do you want to tell me why Gordon and Gray need to buy the first impression of a P.I. they’re just hiring to run up some circumstantial evidence?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I felt the shift in Ari’s demeanor. His shoulders squared slightly and he leaned in just a little so I took a sip of tea, giving him the opportunity to speak up. When he didn’t, I sighed. “Unless there’s a reason you wanted to be out of the office because the woo’ing is of a personal nature. If that was the case, you should have told me; I would have dressed up.”
Ari’s smile was more subdued this time around but no less sharp. “Liar,” he said, sitting his chopsticks down on his plate and pushing it forward to make room for his crossed arms.
“Cotton is versatile.”
The restaurant buzzed around us and Ari’s fingers followed the line of the rolled sleeve against his smooth forearm. “I don’t believe that Ms Burns is innocent.”
Again, Ari slipped crossways against my expectations. I took another sip as I contemplated my response to that. “Except that your opinion doesn’t matter when your firm is her representation. And they’ve already gotten her removed as a suspect.” Maybe I didn’t mean it to sound like a challenge. Maybe I did.
“Which,” Ari said, his voice sharp, “is exactly why we’re sitting here. I’m on Ms Burn’s team and can’t personally act against her self-interest—“
“Recuse yourself from the case.”
“I would lose my job.” Beneath the thin, smooth cream of his dress shirt his shoulders moved in a shrug. “And before you lecture me on my ideals, let me remind you that you don’t know me.”
No. I reminded myself that as well. No matter what he looked like, I didn’t know Ari James. Those were lips that I had never kissed. “Fair enough.” I already knew where this was headed. I’d been there before, if from the other side. “You need someone who’s not on the police payroll.”
Ari lifted a dark eyebrow. “Yes. I need someone who can dig where we can’t. With discretion,” he added. “Which Tommy assured me that you have in spades. He’s a smart guy,” I stuffed one of the shrimp rolls that had come while we had been speaking into my mouth to keep from agreeing and citing M as a reference, and he continued, “so when Tommy says he trusts you, I’m smart enough to extend the same.”
It wasn’t the first time that it had occurred to me that Thomas was too good for me. I supposed at best we were mutually beneficial. I probably owed him a blow-job, or three. Gilding the lily indeed. “It’s still a lot of power to hand over to a relative stranger, despite the word of mouth,” I said. “As you said, it’s your job on the line.”
“Better a friend of a friend who used to be a cop and openly talks about how much he hates lawyers than a total stranger who just wants a paycheck, isn’t it?” And really, I couldn’t fault the logic there. It was rather diabolical. If what he was saying was the truth then what he was counting on wasn’t that I would come over to his side but that he was already on mine. I considered Ari for a moment, quietly. How much he looked like but didn’t quite remind me of Katsuya, though the sharp intelligence in those waiting eyes was the same.
“Haven’t you ever had a gut feeling, David?”
I took a deep breath. Gut feelings used to be my stock in trade but it had been a long time since I’d really had to bet on them. “Of course I have, I was a cop. It’s like our damn currency. I just thought that lawyers were paid to overlook theirs.” He looked at me for a quiet moment and I wondered what he was thinking. For the first time since that initial shocking impression had worn away did Ari truly did remind me of Katsuya— a perfect face, and a perfect face for hiding things behind.
Then he grimaced and the illusion was broken. “I like my job and I want to keep it. But I also want to make sure that whoever killed Josea Romero gets the rap for it.”
I shrugged. “That’s fine. But you have to tell me something.”
“How I sleep at night?”
I snorted. “If you lose sleep over second-guessing stepping outside of your daily role as a professional asshole then we have a lot left to discuss,” I said, and Ari’s frame loosened with his laugh— even though it didn’t sound too self-deprecating. I smiled. “Your number. I don’t think I should keep calling you through Gordon and Gray’s secretary.”
Ari blinked, a bite of food frozen halfway to his mouth. It settled back down to his plate and he cleared his throat. “Of course.” He patted his shirt front before seeming to realize that he wasn’t wearing his jacket and then had to turn slightly in order to pull a pen and a business card from the inner pocket of the navy seersucker. At this rate, I’d force him to restock. He scratched out dark strokes on the back of the cream rectangle.
“You’re accepting the job, then?” He lifted his eyes and the number, the card floating between two of his fingers, almost outstretched.
I watched him instead of the paper bait. “Haven’t decided. You don’t even know my fee.”
“Whatever it might be is worth knowing that I did something.”
“At least you understand paying lip-service.” I didn’t say that I liked it, not out loud, but I reached for the card. It was handed over. “You’re almost coming across as liberal.”
“Don’t tell my mother.”
I looked at the bold slashes of pen dug into the soft, expensive paper. Ten numbers next to a full name: Arinobu. “Ari’s a nice nickname.” It was a small dig at a system that wanted to make rich synonymous with white. It was a small dig at Ari. I tucked the card away.
He picked his chopsticks back up and graced me with a sharp eyebrow that said he understood and wouldn’t rise to the bait. “I’ve always liked it.” He picked up a dumpling out of the basket and sat it in his chili oil before raising his eyes again to me. “Are you familiar with the case?”
“Enough of it to start, at least. Thomas said you were just assigned?”
Ari nodded and chewed the dumpling before answering further. “I’m sitting on it to make sure that everything keeps rolling, paperwork gets signed and into the right hands, that sort of thing. Now that Ms Burns has been cleared there’s not a lot to do.”
“So tell me about your gut feeling.”
For a moment Ari continued to eat, and so I did too, but he gathered his thoughts on the subject quickly and it wasn’t long before he was putting down his chopsticks and leaning back. He crossed his arms over his chest. “My firm is very good at what they do.” I opened my mouth and Ari leaned forward to add before I could speak up, “and despite whatever very nice things you no doubt have to say about it, it’s not just at covering things up.” I had to chuckle and Ari shook his head, as if I was some child who didn’t know better. I liked the look on him. “The lawyers who work for us are not just there because they’re rich; they’re there because they’re the best. We don’t take cases that are beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“You hedge your bets.”
“We are a business.”
“Ah.” There it was. “The fact that you think those things are mutually exclusive, that’s the problem.” Ari lifted a hand and gave the thought a sharp wave to the side. I was as impressed with the gesture as I was annoyed. I let him go on.
“On paper, Ms Burns is innocent. And not only by virtue of having an alibi and a failure of evidence to link her to the scene of the crime, I mean-- she passed the polygraph. All the firm really did was expedite things and keep her reputation protected. She did the rest herself by virtue of being clean.”
“Clean,” I repeated. He hadn’t used the word innocent.
“There’s no motive.” Ari looked agitated. His hands raised and then settled against the table. “ There’s no reason why anyone would want Josea Romero dead.”
“That’s no reason to link it to Mina.”
“Even when her first husband died too?”
I took one last piece of pork and settled my chopsticks as well. “Coincidence? Luck, or lack thereof? You can’t build a case on that. If that’s where your gut instinct is coming from then I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re wrong.” I wiped my fingers and watched Ari’s jaw tighten. “You cannot assume guilt.”
“I know that; I’m not an idiot.” He breathed out, his shoulders dropping a little. When he spoke again his voice was controlled but that snap remind in dark eyes. At that moment any similarity to Katsuya was gone. “I do believe that Peter Burns committed suicide. But I also do believe that there is something here that doesn’t add up the way it should. Like I said, on paper it’s neat. But--” he waved his hand.
“The gut instinct.” I sighed. I did understand. It wasn’t a lot to try and hang a case on, but I understood. “I can’t imagine that Gordon or Gray will be happy to find out that they’ve footed the bill to be second-guessed.”
Ari’s look was dry. “You don’t have to worry about it. You’ll be paid well and on time.”
I considered it. “What do you get out of this, Ari? Is it really just knowing you’ve done something? Because that feeling doesn’t keep the lights on, I can tell you from personal experience.”
A hand was lifted for the bill before Ari leaned forward on his elbows. “David. Unlike Tommy, I don’t need a daddy.” He smiled and I itched to wipe the expression off of his face. “An exploratory contract to start. A week with the files and a meeting I’ll set up and you can tell me if you feel the same way that I do. If you don’t you’ll get your paycheck and you can walk away.” Ari thanked the young man who came over and handed him a card pulled from his wallet. It was indeed platinum.
I had to add, “and you’ll find someone else, I assume.”
There was a small laugh. “At that point it would be none of your business.”
I made a small sound at the back of my throat because, well, true enough. I spread my hands in a shrug and gave him the point. The thick black book with the paid receipt inside was laid on the table. I watched Arinobu James as he scribbled his name across the receipt that he’d let the company pay for despite everything, how his hair stayed neatly swept back even as his chin dipped down, the arrogant scrawl of his signature, the way his long fingers held the pen. His eyes rose and met mine.
The bottom line was that my own curiosity about the case hadn’t gone away, but it would have been unfair not to point out to myself that the focus had certainly taken a sharp left turn. “A week,” I said.
I could give Ari that much.