A CHAT IN THE COFFEE SHOP
by B.B. Teeter
A Kirbi Mack Story
© 2019 B.B. Teeter
The traffic on the 5 North from San Diego was surprisingly sparse.
Kirbi Mack listened to an audiobook as she drove.
I Can’t Breathe by journalist Matt Taibbi. The story of cause celebre Eric Garner, a black man from New York City who died in a police chokehold while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. A sad and disturbing chain of events. But a more complicated one than she’d imagined, just seeing it in the news, years before.
As Kirbi neared L.A. itself, the flow of vehicles thickened and slowed.
But being big on punctuality, she’d planned for this possibility. In fact, she’d started out so early that when got to her destination—a coffeeshop in West Hollywood—it was with almost an hour to spare before her three p.m. appointment. How best to spend this time? Listen to some more of the audio book, or maybe stretch her legs on a walk?
Opting for the walk, she grabbed an open parking spot down the street, then stepped out into a cool but sunny December afternoon.
Kirbi felt good. The neighborhood had an artsy, upscale vibe. She set off up the sidewalk in a random direction, glancing into shop windows as she strolled along.
At five minutes to three, however, she made sure to arrive back at The Bean.
Inside were maybe a dozen tables. Most occupied. She let her gaze flick over the shop’s occupants, looking for black faces like her own, but encountered none. James Cooper didn’t seem to be present.
She ordered a mocha latte at the counter. And when it was made, carried it to a table by the window, where she sat facing the door.
The place was noisy. Competing with the caffeinated chatter around her, music played from the sound system. Jazzy instrumental takes on Christmas carols, played on acoustic guitar. As she sipped at her latte, she checked her messages and social media on her phone.
It was just after three twenty by the device’s display, when a small, dark-skinned man entered.
He wore khakis, a beige knit shirt, and a brown suede jacket. She watched him remove his sunglasses. Slide one temple into the neck of the shirt to hold them there. Glance around. And gracefully cross the room to where she sat.
“Small, female, short-haired, and early thirties—you must be Kirbi.”
“Product was as described,” she joked back, parroting a formulaic online review phrase.
“So nice to meet you, my sister,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Not a problem.”
He glanced at her (by now) half-finished latte. “I think I’m going to get myself a bottled water. Can I fetch you anything else while I’m up?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
Kirbi took her seat once more, idly studying him as he joined a short line at the counter. Though three decades younger, James bore an amazing resemblance to her father. Actually, their father. Since they were both offspring of the man, but by different mothers.
It’d been something of a shock for Kirbi to get James’ call the night before. She’d been aware she had several half-siblings out in the world somewhere. But until hearing from him, she’d yet to come across any of them.
He told her he’d been given her name and number by their father. Who’d also mentioned what Kirbi did for a living. That is, that she had her own security business and was a licensed investigator.
It seemed James was in some kind of trouble.
But wanted to discuss his problem in person.
So, while Kirbi was intrigued to meet this new blood relative of hers, she was also a little wary of entanglement before she got a better take on him and his situation. Who was he? And what kind of mess was he involved in, such that she was being asked for her advice and/or help?
She was willing to listen with an open mind.
But she was not ready to commit to anything until she knew more.
Because although shit can happen to anybody, there’re a lot of people who seem to get themselves into shit. Over and over and over. Those are the ones you can’t really help. At least maybe until they first help themselves.
Did James fall into this category?
Kirbi wasn’t sure yet.
But she couldn’t help but notice that she, who at his request had driven over a hundred miles to meet him, had been able to show up on time. While he, who apparently lived within walking distance, hadn’t been. His lateness didn’t make for a good first impression.
Also, she didn’t like that he had an arrest record.
She’d run his name earlier in the day, before she left San Diego. The charges were fairly minor ones. Shoplifting. Possession of stolen property. Possession of a controlled substance. Driving without a license. Failure to appear.
But they painted the picture of a young man who seemed to have difficulty coloring inside the lines. The picture of someone who was not an upstanding member of society.
Kirbi continued to examine him from across the room.
He was, she could see, a kind of male version of herself, though his complexion was somewhat darker than hers. But then, this made sense. His mother had been black and hers, white.
A minute later, when he returned with his water, she said, “You know who you’re a dead ringer for, right?”
“Our daddy?” James grinned. “My mother always told me that when I was growing up.”
“How old were you when he left?”
“Less than a year. She didn’t even have any pictures of him.”
“Which means, when he showed up the other day, that was the first time you’d ever set eyes on him?”
“Yeah,” James said. “It was interesting—but kind of weird, too.”
“I’ll bet. You ever wonder how many of us there are?”
“You talking about the widely scattered offspring of Kenneth Mack?”
Kirbi smiled and nodded.
James gave comic shrug. “I’m sure he doesn’t know, himself. But the man did get around, didn’t he?”
The two of them shared a laugh.
When it subsided, Kirbi looked on as James opened his water, drank half of its contents, and recapped the bottle. Then set it decisively aside. She took this as a cue he was ready to get down to the business at hand.
“So,” she prompted, “let’s hear about your problem.”
He showed her a wry, embarrassed smile. “I’m afraid to say, it starts with me doing something stupid.”
“Hey, we all do stupid things.”
“Well, mine’s pretty stupid.”
“I tried to blackmail a guy.”
“Right. Because instead of me making some scratch on the deal—him paying me what I asked—it looks like he’s decided it’d just be easier to kill me.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it doesn’t, does it?” James said in grim agreement.
“What were you blackmailing him about?”
“Something my buddy Arthur saw him do back in the nineteen seventies, when they were both in college. Arthur said the guy shoved this other dude off the roof of an apartment building. Because the shovee had stolen his girlfriend or something.”
“Better tell me who Arthur is.”
“Oh, sorry—Arthur is the rich, older, white guy I’m currently living with. And off.”
This said, James shot her a coy, slightly challenging look. He seemed to be telling her he was gay. Maybe even that he was a gay hustler.
“Okay,” Kirbi said, taking a moment to digest this. “So, am I right in thinking that, at the time, Arthur didn’t tell anybody about what he saw?”
“You are. Not the police and not the college authorities.”
“I guess because this was the seventies. According to Arthur, he and his drama teacher were up there doing the nasty. Something neither wanted to become, you know, public knowledge. For Arthur, who was still in the closet then, it would’ve been embarrassing. But for the drama professor, it might’ve spelled career doom—having sex with a student from one of his classes.”
“Did the murderer know he’d been seen?”
James shook his head. “It was at night, and Arthur and the drama teacher were in the shadows behind some ventilation unit or something.”
“Also, the next day, when the body was found, it was assumed the guy had fallen on his own. That it’d been some kind of accident.”
“Interesting,” Kirbi said.
“Yeah. Anyway, when Arthur told me all this, even though we were both drunk as hell, I made a point of memorizing the guy’s name. Because Arthur said he was now a famous architect, and lived right here in L.A.” James gave her a sly waggle of the eyebrows. “So, the next day, I looked the name up online. It wasn’t hard to find and neither was his address. Then I went over to his office, bluffed my way in to see him, and hit him with the story of him being seen pushing a guy off a roof.”
She drank some of her latte. “And Mr. Architect said what to this?”
“Well, basically, he tried to play it off. You know, face me down and act like he didn’t know what I was talking about. But he was freaking. It was obvious. So I tell him, without mentioning Arthur’s name, that all this information comes from a friend of mine, who’d been a witness. And that if he doesn’t give me five thousand dollars, this long-ago secret killing of his isn’t going to stay secret much longer.”
“You said he never paid you. Did he say he was going to?”
“No. He just kept playing dumb.”
“So, what’d you do?”
“After a while,” James said, “I stood up and told him I’d let him think about it for a couple of days. That I’d be in touch. But before I left, I noticed he had these expensive-looking art prints on his wall. So, I lifted one down, put it under my arm, and just sashayed out. Like a test.”
“To see if he’d try to stop you, or call the police.”
James’ eyes met hers, appreciating her grasp of the subtleties. “Exactly.”
“So, did he do anything?”
“No—and that was when I thought I had him. That it’d just be a matter of time before he came across with the money.”
“Except that wasn’t the case,” Kirbi said.
“No. It wasn’t. It seems he’d decided there was an easier way to deal with the situation.”
“To simply eliminate you.”
Kirbi took a couple of thoughtful sips from her latte. “Maybe he figured if he gave you the five thousand, you’d just keep coming back for more.”
“I like to think I wouldn’t have,” James told her with a frown, cocking his head.
“That you’d be an honorable blackmailer?”
James chuckled despite himself. “Screw you.”
Kirbi chuckled along.
“Sorry,” she told him, allowing a sheepish smile. “That just slipped out. But let’s back up to him wanting to kill you. You know this how?”
“I know it because I’m pretty sure he killed a friend of mine.”
“Ah,” Kirbi said.
However, before James could continue, she saw him glance over his shoulder.
Then give his chair a polite scoot forward. Apparently, it’d been bumped.
A large woman with magenta hair—open laptop in one hand, and whipped-cream-topped beverage in the other—murmured an earnest apology. She’d been trying to slide through the gap between James’ chair and the one at the next table.
After a moment, Kirbi caught his eye. “You were saying….”
He nodded and took a breath. “A few nights ago, a guy named Deon Handy was stabbed to death, five blocks from where I’m staying with Arthur. He’d stopped by to see me and had just left.”
“Needless to say, I was shocked by what happened to him. You know, it’s usually a pretty safe neighborhood. And at first I didn’t really put it together.”
“But then I started thinking. You mentioned that I look a lot like our father? Well, get this, Deon looked a lot like me. More or less the same height, same build, even the same chocolate skin. You see what I’m saying.”
“Now get this. Here’s the clincher. When he was killed, Deon was wearing the same dark blue trench coat I had on when I confronted the architect, like two days before that. I’d lent him the coat to wear home. Because the night had turned cold and rainy, and he only had on a sweater.”
“You think architect mistook Deon for you,” Kirbi said.
James gave her a strained smile. “I know, I know, we’re talking about some white-haired guy in his late sixties. Who’s designed buildings all over the world, and who’s probably worth millions. But it’s just too much of a coincidence. And I believe Arthur about seeing him shove that dude off the roof.” He shrugged. “For all I know, he’s been eliminating people who get in his way for years—and getting away with it.”
Kirbi took a breath. Her gaze strayed to the window.
While one part of her vaguely registered the passing cars and pedestrians, another sorted through what James had been telling her. After maybe half a minute, she turned back to him.
“What do the police say about Deon’s death?” she asked.
“They’re calling it robbery. His wallet and phone were missing.”
“Okay. But, assuming Mr. Architect did it, how do you think he got onto you?”
“What do you mean?”
“How’d he know where you lived?”
James bobbed his head, understanding now. “To be able to lie in wait.”
“Right. Because, like you said, if this guy did it, it can’t be coincidence. He wasn’t just tooling around greater L.A. in his car that night and happen to spot you—or someone he thought was you—bopping down the street. Then jump out with his knife.”
“I have no idea how he knows what he knows. But it scares the hell out of me.”
Kirbi leaned back in her chair, turning her hands out in a what-if gesture. “The day you went to see him at his office, could he have followed you when you left?”
“I’ve thought about that.”
“It’s possible, I guess. At first, I was on, like, high alert. Ready for him or somebody else to come after me, or for the police to show up. So, I think I would have noticed somebody following, at least at that point. But to tell you the truth, after a few minutes, as I got farther away, I probably stopped paying attention, figuring I was home free.” James made rueful face. “Maybe I wasn’t.”
“How about this instead,” Kirbi suggested. “Could it be that he somehow knew all along—or recently figured out—that it was your sugar daddy, Arthur, who was the one up there on the roof that night?”
James gently bit his lower lip as he considered the notion. “Again, I guess it’s possible. But when Arthur told the story, he acted like there was no way he and the drama teacher could’ve been seen. Also, according to Arthur, he and the future architect didn’t even know each other at the time. It was only after seeing him kill the guy, that Arthur made a point of finding out the dude’s name. And who he was.”
“What about the drama teacher letting the secret out? He was a witness, too, right?”
“That’s true. I hadn’t thought about him.”
“What’s Arthur’s theory?” Kirbi asked.
“What do you mean?”
“About how Mr. Architect learned who you were, and/or where you lived?”
James hesitated, shifting in his chair. Then took a deep breath, held it, and slowly let it out. “Arthur doesn’t know about what happened to Deon. Or if he does, he doesn’t know what it means.”
“And you didn’t tell him.”
“But he does know about the blackmail thing, right?”
Again, a telling hesitation. This an even longer one. “Not really.”
“Don’t you think you ought to maybe warn him?” Kirbi said.
“I mean,” she continued, working hard not to sound accusatory, “this homicidal whack job might figure Arthur had to be in on the blackmail, too, right?”
James frowned and glanced away, still making no reply.
She waited him out.
Half a minute passed.
“Look,” he began at last, meeting her eyes, “let me explain it this way. In love, there’s the one who kisses, and the one who offers the cheek. Specifically, in this case, there’s the one whose assets are youth and charm and good looks—excuse my vanity—and the one whose contribution to the mix is wealth and social position. What I’ve got going with Arthur is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.”
“Which you don’t want to jeopardize.”
“I can’t!” James told her, wincing.
“Arthur’s a respectable, retired guy with an orderly life. I live in his high-end condo. Eat his high-end food. Drink his high-end liquor. And take the occasional generous handout. He and I get along because I don’t bring trouble into the relationship.”
“Except you sort of did.”
“Except I sort of did,” James acknowledged grimly, getting to his feet. He sighed. “I think I’m ready for some tea. You want another one of those?” He gestured at her latte.
“No. I’m good, thanks.”
“Back in a flash then.”
Kirbi nodded to this statement, and he set off toward the front of the shop.
As before, her gaze followed him as he went.
In many ways, he was an impressive guy. Handsome. Clever and well-spoken. She’d grown up an only child. It was cool to discover she had this personable sibling, or at least half-sibling.
But she realized now that her instincts had been right.
She and James were guided by very different moral compasses. She didn’t mind that he was gay. Or that he lived a sketchy life. She knew lots of gay people, and lots of people who lived sketchy lives. It was just that there was an unsavoriness to him that she found herself intuitively shying away from.
He reminded her of her father.
The father who Kirbi had been forced to exile from her life, if only for sake of her own sanity. The father who left a wake of chaos wherever he went. Who for as long as she’d known him had been an utter, needy mess. Con man, sponger, drug addict, thief. Not to mention, sire of multiple children he neither helped rear nor financially supported.
This didn’t mean she wouldn’t try to assist James in getting out of the fix he was in.
But given his way of looking at the world, she wasn’t sure how yet.
A few minutes later, when he again sat down across from her, she said, “I was just thinking about your…problem.”
He gave her a conversational nod as he took the lid off his tea. She caught the faint aroma of Earl Grey. Even amidst the overpowering scent of coffee in the air.
“Can you guess what my advice is?” she went on.
He laughed. “Come clean with Arthur, then go to the police and tell them everything.”
She laughed along. “Right. Because as I see it, all you’ve really got to worry about with the police is the extortion attempt. Which, unless the architect was recording you, amounts to his word against yours. Right? Plus, you don’t still have that print, do you?”
“I sold it for four hundred bucks. Cash transaction, no paper trail.”
“Good. So then why not go to the police?”
James showed her a pained look. “Unfortunately, I have a record.”
Kirbi slowly nodded.
“I know—I ran a check on you,” she said. Then paused to assess his reaction to this confession. She was pleased to observe neither resentment nor surprise.
“Then you know how they’ll treat me. They’ll be suspicious of anything I say from the get-go. Not to mention, I’m a poor black nobody and this architect is a rich white somebody. And then there’s the fact that, to get them to look into Deon’s death, I’ll have to tell them why he was killed. Which is because the architect thought he was eliminating me—me, who was trying to blackmail him.”
“I get that.”
“I’m not sure you do.”
“I do. What you need is a good criminal lawyer to go in with you when you talk to them. Somebody who can help you frame things more to your advantage. Gentleman, this little ‘blackmail’ thing with my client is likely just a matter of miscommunication. Let’s keep things in perspective. What he’s prepared to tell you will allow you to solve a vicious murder.”
“Maybe,” James allowed, though his tone remained dubious. He took a careful first sip from his hot tea. “But I don’t have the money for a lawyer.”
“Arthur might help.”
“No. Not when he hears why I need one.”
“That’s too bad,” Kirbi said.
In the silence that followed, she waited uncomfortably, wondering if James might now ask her for the money. Because she wasn’t sure what her answer would be if he did. Yes or no? In material terms, there was little doubt she was better off than he was at the moment. Her small security business was prospering. She owned a nice house in a nice part of San Diego. She drove a Jaguar. She had investments.
Had Daddy filled James in on some of these facts?
Or did he even need to? James could have picked up as much based on their phone conversation the night before. And there was of course Google.
Kirbi knew her father saw her as a mark, someone to be ruthlessly exploited.
Did James also?
She hated being this suspicious. This cynical.
In any event, when the question never came, she offered another suggestion. “Have you considered talking Arthur into filing a report in the case of the old murder—the thing on the roof from the seventies?”
“I see what you’re saying.”
“Because in doing so, he’d be protecting himself. As with the killing of your friend Deon, whether Mr. Architect is ultimately convicted isn’t the point. Just getting the cops to go rooting through his life might be enough to sidetrack him for good. That and some ugly media attention.
“I like it.”
But Kirbi didn’t think he did.
James was humoring her. Shining her on.
Lost in thought, she twisted her latte cup back and forth on the tabletop.
“You like it,” she said, eventually looking up at him, “but you’re not going to do it. You’re not going to the police and you’re not going to put Arthur in the know about what’s going on.”
James exhaled and shook his head. “I can’t.”
Kirbi refrained from asking why not.
She understood why not.
Instead she asked, “What’s Arthur do for a living, by the way? I’m just curious.”
“He’s more or less retired now,” James said, brightening a bit, maybe glad for the change of topic. “But at one time he was a fairly bigtime screenwriter.”
James gave her an enthusiastic nod.
Then went on to list a handful of the films Arthur had written and TV shows he’d worked on. Kirbi recognized at least a few of them. If necessary, this should enable her to come up with his surname.
She didn’t know Arthur. But it bothered her that he was being left in the dark about the danger he might be in. Was there a way of warning him without spoiling things for James?
“He sounds like quite a guy.”
“He is,” James agreed. “You wouldn’t believe who some of his friends are. And what he knows—and I mean, not just about movies.”
“I’ll bet. I’d like to meet him.”
This said, she watched the smile slowly fade from James’ face.
Her words seemed to hang in the air between them. A comment. But also, in a sense, an implied request.
When he made no reply, she continued, her tone still light. “Seriously. If you want, I could talk to him for you. On your behalf. You know—” She smiled “—one person with an orderly life to another.”
“I…don’t think that’d be a good idea.”
“Okay,” Kirbi told him, acquiescing.
Then let things settle for a few moments.
Drank the last of her latte.
Shrugged. “Another possibility is that I have a little talk with Mr. Architect.”
As with her previous idea, this one appeared to catch James off guard. Though this time, the reaction was a brief, shocked widening of the eyes. Followed by a look of disbelief.
She waited, watching him as he digested what she’d said.
After a few seconds, his lips formed a mirthless grin.
He picked up his tea, and took several small sips. His eyes met hers over the rim of the cup. And when he spoke, it was almost in a whisper.
“You know, instead of talking to him…maybe you could just kill him for me.” A joke, but not a joke.
“I’m afraid that’s not in the realm of possibility,” Kirbi said.
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah. Is that what you thought I might be able to do for you when you called me up?”
James frowned, giving his head an emphatic shake. “Not at all.”
“I guess I just wanted to meet you. But also, I don’t know, my father looking me up after all these years and then happening to tell me about you, a private investigator, seemed like Providence or something.” He set his cup down and gave her an ironic, self-mocking shrug. “I thought maybe you’d have some unique, clever insight into my screwed-up circumstances, and be able to show me a way out.”
“I’m trying,” Kirbi told him.
“And I appreciate it.”
“So why don’t you let me pay the architect a visit. To talk.”
“And say what?”
“Mmmm, maybe explain to him the downside of doing anything further except minding his own business and leaving you alone.”
“That’d be nice. But why’s he going to listen to you? He didn’t listen to me.”
“Could be I’d be a little more prepared than you were.”
“You mean armed.”
Kirbi shook her head.
Though in such a situation she might very well bring her Glock, mentioning this to James would only serve to confuse the issue.
“I’m talking about armed with information. Before I’d ever confront him, I’d have done my research. I’d go in knowing nothing short of everything about him—down to shoe size, checking account balance, and name of his best friend in kindergarten. And I’d be sure to study up on the full details of the two deaths. Both the roof guy and your friend Deon. Not to mention Mr. Architect’s whereabouts at the time the deaths occurred.”
James said nothing but stared across at her, intrigued despite himself.
She went on. “All of this I’d then type up in a summary. Give him a copy. Tell him that it was a copy. And mention that several other copies were in the other hands, including those of my lawyer in San Diego.”
“I don’t get that part,” James said.
She winked. “In case he has ideas of putting me on his to-kill list.”
“Where I already am.”
“Where you already are. Anyway, once I give him the summary, I explain that if he doesn’t stand the fuck down, the info in the summary goes to the cops and the media—and he’s in for a shitstorm of unpleasant attention.”
James wore a tentative look now.
He seemed like he wanted to believe, wanted to be convinced, but couldn’t quite let himself go that far. After a moment, he took a breath. “So, what, you’ve done this kind of thing before?”
“But stuff like it,” Kirbi told him, unshaken by his skepticism.
“He could, you know, simply lie to you. Act like he’s going to back off. Then two weeks later, my body’s found in a dumpster in South Central.”
“You’re right. It could happen exactly like that.”
“You’re not being very encouraging.”
“What do you want, James? Some kind of written guarantee?”
“I just don’t want to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.”
“Then your wisest move is to go to the police.”
James lowered his eyes, shaking his head, grimacing. “That’s not an option.”
She was reminded of her time in the military in Iraq.
Of something called the X. That is to say, a place or zone of imminent danger. Where the enemy had you in their sights. Where you were being fired upon and where, if you didn’t move that very instant, you were going to die.
James was growing tiresome in his unwillingness to move off the X.
It frustrated Kirbi that every idea she came up with somehow struck him as unworkable.
“Listen,” she said, “you either want me to try to put the fear of God in this dude for you, or you don’t. I don’t care either way. But waiting for events to overtake you is not a solution.”
“Doing nothing isn’t going to get you anywhere but dead.”
“I know. I just….”
He heaved a sigh. He frowned and looked away, picking up his tea and sipping from it.
Neither he nor Kirbi said anything for half a minute.
When he then spoke, it was almost to himself. “I just don’t like the idea of you putting yourself at risk.”
“I want to help you.”
“I know. I appreciate it, believe me.”
“So, don’t worry about it. I put myself at risk all the time. It’s part of what I do for a living.”
“Except in those cases you get compensated for your risk, right?”
Kirbi gave a silent shrug.
He went on. “I’d just feel better if there was a way we’d both be benefitting from what you were doing. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem fair.”
“Fair in what way?”
“Look, this is a bad thing I’ve gotten myself into. But if you’re willing to help me—and share the danger, for God’s sake—then I’d feel better if you were getting something out of it besides just my everlasting gratitude.”
“Okay.” Kirbi wasn’t sure she understood yet. But she didn’t care for where her intuition told her he was taking things.
“And I think I should go with you when you talk to him.”
She shook her head. “Absolutely not.”
“For a dozen reasons I’m not going to bother trying to explain. But here’s a simple one. I need to be in control of the conversation, the situation. Wherever it goes. And you’d just be a wild card and a distraction.”
“Yes. You would.”
He exhaled in exasperation. “Okay, let’s leave aside whether I would or wouldn’t. You’re missing what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Spell it out then.”
“Look, it’s like this. Together—together—I think you and me could put the big bite on this guy. In fact, I know we can. And not just for a piddling five thousand. Maybe ten or twenty times that. Which we bloody well split right down the middle, fifty-fifty.”
Kirbi willed her face not to betray her thoughts.
After a long moment, she manufactured a slow nod. “That’s quite the idea.”
“You and me, sister,” he said.
And showed her a knowing grin.
She held his gaze, then gave the tabletop a loud rap with her knuckle.
“Hold that thought,” she told him as she slid back her chair. “I’ve got to visit the ladies’ room.”
This said, she stood, turned, and ambled left toward where a sign indicated Restrooms.
There were two. One was occupied.
In the unoccupied one, Kirbi flipped on the light and locked the door behind her. From the mirror above the sink the usual short-haired, elfin female looked back at her. She watched as her reflection scowled. And sadly shook its head.
She thought about the parable of the pickpocket coming to meet the Buddha. How all he saw were pockets. All James seemed to see in her was a co-conspirator.
From his point of view, the only way of slipping out of the jam he’d gotten himself into was further criminality. Nothing else had any appeal. Nothing else made any sense to him.
The trouble was, he wanted to involve her in this criminality.
It wasn’t that Kirbi hadn’t herself committed criminal acts. Though generally law abiding, she sometimes did what needed to be done to help her clients. She’d taken risks, but calculated risks. Never needless ones.
Here, James just wanted to have his cake and eat it too.
Though she’d offered him solutions to his problem, that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t merely that he wanted to escape the consequences of his actions. He wanted to snatch an even bigger chocolate-frosted payoff than he’d at first bargained for.
And worse, he wanted her help in doing so.
It was clear he’d been making skeezy choices all his life. Of which this blackmail scheme was just the latest.
She was reminded of Eric Garner. About the details of his life as outlined in the book. He too was someone who’d made a succession of questionable choices. About his health. His love life. His family. And especially about his outside-the-law occupation of dealing untaxed cigarettes.
She liked to think her own life choices had so far been better.
But had they been? Or was she just luckier? Had fate just dealt her better cards?
In other words, was there free will, or was everything determined? Determined by heredity, society, institutional racism—by what-have-you?
Kirbi didn’t have the answer.
She could love and accept James as a person. Even admire him. As is. But she wasn’t going to involve herself in his recklessness.
Still at the sink, she rubbed her now sudsy hands together.
The soap from the dispenser had a pleasant citrus scent.
She was reminded of the phrase, wash your hands of somebody.
When she emerged from the restroom, her gaze flicked to James across the room. He was bent forward over the table. Oblivious. Absorbed in fiddling with his phone.
Heaving a regretful sigh, Kirbi set off toward the door on a diagonal.
On the drive back to San Diego, not in the mood for more I Can’t Breathe, she listened to Christmas music on the radio.