Sneak Peak of THIS SIDE OF DESPERATION

Chapter 1 – Sarah

A single drink at the Hotel Grand Prioutt cost more than a week’s worth of groceries, which is why, when I found myself in the bar on a Wednesday afternoon, I ordered a glass of water with lemon. I didn’t know I had to specify ice so I sipped the lukewarm beverage with my right hand, keeping my left arm in my lap.  

I’d dressed up for the occasion: my best sweater, a pair of jeans that were becoming too small, and pointy-toed flats I’d bought for a friend’s wedding six years ago. The blister formed almost as soon as I’d put them on, and I couldn’t find a parking spot so I’d had to walk almost a full block to the hotel, cringing with every step.

But Mrs. Agnes Perrine had been one of Charlie’s best clients and this was the first time she’d contacted me since Charlie’s death. In fact, when Charlie died, I’d put her file in the drawer of clients who would probably never bother with a one-armed ex-cop-turned-private-detective. I didn’t have the charm, wit, or connections of my former partner. 

So when I saw her name appear on the cracked screen of my cellphone, I’d kicked Meow Mix in my rush to answer it. The tabby hissed as he darted under the couch. I answered in what I hoped was a professional (read: non-desperate) tone of voice. 

Mrs. Perrine had always been generous to Charlie when she needed him to track down her opioid-addicted daughter. But the old woman had been MIA for three years—ever since I’d joined Charlie at the firm. Charlie said it was because her daughter had finally gotten clean after giving birth. 

Motherhood has that effect on people, I guess. 

I wouldn’t know. I’d never been lucky (or rich or poor) enough to qualify for H.S., the procedure that helped so many women conceive since fertility rates plummeted a generation ago. And besides, divorce has a way of stopping even the slightest chance of pregnancy. 

“Miss Malone?” 

I’d been about to take a sip of water. The liquid sloshed over the glass and down my chin. I twisted around. 

Agnes Perrine was as stately as she sounded on the phone. Short but thin, salt and pepper hair sprayed to perfection, a pressed pantsuit, complete with a purse I’m sure cost more than I make in a year. 

“Mrs. Perrine,” I said, knocking the table in my scramble to rise. “It’s a pleasure.”

Mrs. Perrine frowned, her bony hand cold. “Pleasure’s all mine.” Her eyes flicked to my prosthesis but didn’t linger. 

“Can I get you anything? The water’s delicious.”

It was a joke, but Mrs. Perrine didn’t smile. She raised a finger at the waitress. “Vodka tonic, please.”

“Right away, ma’am.”

Mrs. P settled herself across from me. “I was sorry to hear of Charlie’s passing.”

A ring of water pooled around my glass. I wiped at it with my good hand, keeping my left arm in my lap. Since the shooting I found if I kept it out of sight, I could hide the fact that the arm, from the elbow down, was fake. 

“If he hired you,” she continued, “I trust you are as discreet as he was?”

“Of course,” I said, adding, “Ma’am.” 

“Good.” She waited until the waitress placed the vodka in front of her and disappeared again. “And I also trust he had a file on my daughter?” 

“He did.”

Mrs. Perrine sighed. “Then I won’t bore you with her history. It’s enough to say she’s gone off again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” 

Mrs. Perrine scowled. “Only this time, the fool has taken my granddaughter with her.”

My stomach twisted. Painkillers, illicit fertility drugs, and a new drug called vex that gave users a paranoid euphoria combined with a mistaken belief in their own immortality were the hottest things on the black market at the moment. It was no place for a child. 

“I need you to find them,” Mrs. Perrine said. “Find them and bring them back.” Her lips thinned, wrinkling the skin like an old school marm. “Or at least my granddaughter. Sophie can rot in whatever drug den she’s holed up in.”

Yeesh. 

“Mrs. Perrine—” I started. 

“If that girl took that sweet, innocent child into one of those places she no more deserves my love than the next junkie on the street.”

“Addiction is a disease, Mrs. Perrine.”

The old woman hit me with such a glower that I cringed and backpedaled. “I mean, it’s a disease, yes, but she shouldn’t have taken your granddaughter if that’s—if that’s where she’s gone.”

“Of course that’s where she’s gone,” Mrs. Perrine snapped. “I’ve seen enough of her falling off the wagon to recognize the signs. She’s been a bear to live with. One minute anxious, the next lashing out, playing with Eranda then abandoning the poor child to go sleep it off. Yesterday she took Eranda and never came home.” 

“Do you have any idea where they went?”

“None at all.” The old woman sounded stoic, but I’d seen enough family members of the addicted to know inside she was terrified for her granddaughter, and although it came out as anger, she was also afraid for her daughter.

“I need you to find her,” Mrs. Perrine continued. “Find her and bring back my grandchild.”

As my lemon water grew more and more sour, and lukewarm, Mrs. Perrine recited every person who might know where Sophie had gone. She gave me phone numbers, addresses, and locations Sophie had used to get drugs in the past. 

“And then there’s Tyler Vasquez. Eranda’s father.”

“Not a fan, huh?” 

“Ha.” It was the closest to a smile I’d seen from her. “The good-for-nothing has been in and out of rehab almost as much as Sophie. Why we ever let him father her child…”

“It was H.S.?” I asked. Hypersalpingoectasia, or H.S., was a procedure developed by some enterprising pharmaceutical company to thicken the uterine lining. Combined with a drug that pushed underachieving ovaries to ovulate, it helped fertility rates, but it also required a bank account the size of Mrs. Perrine’s, or government assistance for the rest of us.

Mrs. Perrine threw back her vodka tonic in one gulp. “I promised Sophie if she could stay clean—and find another sperm donor—we’d help pay for a sibling for Eranda.”

Addiction—especially to opioids—was a long, hard-fought battle that usually took years to overcome. 

“She relapsed right after Eranda turned one. Sophie and Tyler got into a fight and a week later, our housekeeper found her unconscious in an upstairs bedroom. We sent her to rehab and kicked Tyler out.”

“Could she be with him?”

“I’ve tried calling but I can’t get hold of him. Maybe he changed his number.”

“OK,” I said, collecting Mrs. Perrine’s notes with my right hand, “I’ll see what I can find.” 

Our business complete, I expected Mrs. Perrine to leave, but she remained where she was, her unblinking gray eyes fixed on me. 

“Is there anything else?” I asked, feeling my cheeks burn. She would ask me about my arm. They always do. 

“This can’t find its way to the press,” she said. 

“Wh—?” I stopped at the look of fear that crossed the old woman’s face. It was the first real fear I’d seen.

“I mean it. No press. No cops.”

I could understand the press—Mrs. Perrine’s husband was a prominent businessman in the city with an eye on political office. They’d kept their daughter’s problems from the press and tabloids thus far, they couldn’t risk it now. But why no cops?

 “OK,” I said. “No press. No cops.”

Mrs. Perrine’s shoulders relaxed. “Eranda is innocent in all of this.”

That was a weird thing to say. “Yes. Of course she is.” 

Without another word, Mrs. Perrine collected her purse, got to her feet, and left. I turned to watch her walk from the bar, her shoulders back, dignified in a way I’d never be.  

My mind ran through our conversation. If I could find Sophie and Eranda Perrine, there’d be a large check with my name on it waiting for me at the end of the case. I could pay the office rent (which was two months late), think about getting a new arm—one that did more than just hang there—and finally have M declawed so he’d stop shredding my socks and sweaters. 

I swigged the last of my water, felt a lemon seed slide down my throat, and left the Hotel Grand Prioutt feeling more hopeful than I’d felt since Charlie’s death. 

Chapter 2 – Sarah

Sophie and Eranda disappeared yesterday afternoon. I had a hard time believing Sophie would take her child into a drug den but drugs made people do things they never would dream of doing sober.

Since fertility rates dropped and Despair Culture took hold of the United States—not just in the Appalachians where it had started, but all across the country—kidnappings soared. Children could be bought and sold on the black market, which made parenthood an even more terrifying prospect. While Eranda was technically a little old to qualify as a good kidnapping victim—babies were easier to hide and transport—the threat was still very real. 

Sophie would know that. So why she’d even dare take her daughter on any kind of drug run was beyond me. 

But my job wasn’t to answer unanswerable questions about what goes through an addict’s mind. My job was to use my—or rather, Charlie’s—contacts to see if anyone knew where she might have gone. If everything went well, Sophie would turn up, stoned but alive, with her child in a house on the outskirts of town where drugs were common but not as dangerous as in the inner city, where a person could be killed for a mere twenty dollars cash.

Just three weeks ago someone had burglarized a house and several prescriptions were stolen in one of the wealthiest parts of town. A junkie, the cops thought, looking for his next hit, or things to sell to secure his next hit. The problem was, they shot and killed the couple who lived in the house, a prominent entrepreneur and her husband.

And to top off the already-sad story, the couple’s business was a non-profit firm that provided funds to start-ups, small businesses, and many addiction resource centers throughout the city. 

Tucking the notes under my left arm, I opened the Honda’s door with my right. The hardest part of losing an arm was learning to do everything with my right hand. I’d been left handed before the shooting, so along with the constant pain of surgery, I’d had to endure almost a year of physical therapy to learn to exist right handed. 

The cops took Charlie’s car as evidence after his death, so after leaving the hospital and attempting to get our agency back up and running, I’d had to conduct business via public transportation. I hated the bus, but for six months, until I could pull enough cheating husband/wife/girlfriend cases to afford an old beat-up Honda, it was my only means of transportation. 

The Honda’s front bumper had taken its share of dents, and a long scratch at hip-height told the story of a vengeful teenager who didn’t take kindly to me outing her vex habit to her concerned father. But it drove well. So what if it smelled like fry oil and marijuana. 

I climbed inside just as my phone chirped. A reminder for an eleven o’clock appointment. Crap. I’d forgotten all about it. 

I considered canceling. The junkie who’d called yesterday to say she had something for me wouldn’t be worth the time I could spend looking for Sophie Perrine, but it was already ten-thirty. With a sigh, I put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb, the blister on my heel smarting painfully. 

***

 Meow Mix rubbed himself against my leg when I came into the office. I threw my keys on the desk and crossed to the window overlooking the street. I opened the blinds. Sunshine streamed in, illuminating the dust collecting on Charlie’s desk. 

After his death, I considered moving to his side of the office and getting rid of the child-sized desk he’d crammed between filing cabinets and a puke-green couch after he hired me. But when I’d sat at the mahogany colossus, I felt like an imposter. Maybe one day I’d get rid of it, but the thought of disassembling the beast to fit it through the door was too much. Especially one-handed. 

I started some coffee. M purred against me and dragged a claw across my jeans. 

“Stop it!” I pushed him away with my foot. “This is the third pair of jeans you’ve ruined.” He gave me a really? look. “Well, OK, maybe not the third.” I sighed. “Here.” I opened a can of food and placed it on the floor.

The cat darted over and lapped up the stinky, wet meat—or whatever it was. 

As the office filled with the smell of fresh coffee, I pulled on a different baggy sweater and slipped out of the pointy-toed shoes and into my comfy sneakers. I glanced at my watch. My physical therapist thought I ought to keep the watch on my prosthesis—he said it would force me to use that arm more often—but when I tried it, I found it drew more attention to the damn thing.

A knock sounded. Out of habit, I pulled my sweater sleeve over my left arm and opened the door. 

A skeletal woman with dry, frizzy hair and too much makeup stood in the doorway. 

“Kit,” I said, “Come in.”

Kit Seventy-Third glanced down the hall before coming inside. Charlie had begun the tradition of calling our contacts by the streets on which he’d first met them. It gave us a way to distinguish one from another, while assuring our informants their identities would be safe. 

“Please,” I said, gesturing to the cheap metal folding chair I’d squeezed between the couch and my desk. But Kit went straight for the coffee, grabbed a mug with the image of a cartoon corgi’s butt on it, and poured herself a cup. 

“That bastard,” she said, half to herself. “What was he thinking? And with her!”

“Uh…?”

“I can’t do it,” she said. “But you can.” She pointed a long, yellow-nailed finger at me. “It’ll mean more coming from you. And then we’ll split the cash.” She smiled a gap-toothed smile and put the mug to her lips. 

“What will mean more coming from me?”

“The tip.”

“The tip for what? What’re you talking about?”

Kit rolled her eyes. “About what I’m going to tell you.” 

Kit Seventy-Third had been one of my best sources since Charlie’s death. Most of our contacts had run the other way when they’d seen me coming. But not Kit. Of course, the oxys had helped. But the way I figure it, if she was going to get them from anyone, it might as well be me. At least then I knew the pills weren’t laced with anything.

“I really need the money,” she said. 

“Ha. Who doesn’t?” 

“I’m serious, Sarah. This is legit. We can both make a lot of money.” She sat on the edge of my desk, one foot resting on the metal chair. 

I frowned but sat on the couch, feeling more like the client than the detective. Meow Mix hopped onto my lap. He smelled like cat food. Without thinking, I raised my prosthetic to nuggle the plastic fingers behind his ears. It was a habit I’d gotten into so I could continue to use my right hand when he demanded attention. 

Kit’s eyes widened. She’d not seen it in all its glory before. I quickly dropped the arm to my side again and tugged my sleeve over the plastic. 

“That’s balls,” Kit said, her eyes still on the fake arm. 

My cheeks burned. “Tell me what you have.”

“Right,” she said, slurping her coffee. “My lame-ass boyfriend—Nic—you know Nic? Have I ever told you about him?”

I shook my head. 

“I caught him with that bitch Cindy from next door. About a month ago I come home one day and bam! That whore’s riding him like he’s a goddamn carnival ride.”

Now my cheeks really burned. 

“Bitch got pregnant,” Kit continued. “You know how long we’ve been trying to get pregnant?” 

I didn’t, but I didn’t ask either. The H.S. boards were incredibly particular about drug use. Even a history could sometimes prevent your approval—unless you had money. If Kit couldn’t do it naturally, there’d be little hope of assistance for her.

“He’s all ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. She just—’ blah blah. I thought, ‘OK, he’s just lonely. Partly my fault, right? Then last week I hear she’s pregnant with his baby! Then I find the bottle of Estro!” 

Estrogelitol. One of the drugs that helped ovaries give up their eggs. 

“I was ready to throw holy hell at Nic. If he could get that bitch Estro, why couldn’t he get me some, you know?”

I stayed silent. M purred in my lap. 

“Nic was at work. I couldn’t do anything ’til he got home. I carried that pill bottle around for hours before I bothered to look at it closer. It still had the label on it. So I look and what do you think I see?”

“What?”

“Goddamn Isabell Sheldon’s name.”

My stomach dropped. Isabell Sheldon. The entrepreneur of the NPO. The one killed, along with her husband, in the robbery three weeks ago. 

“You gotta tell the cops,” Kit said. “Nic killed those people—all for that bitch Cindy!”  

“Do you have the bottle?” 

“Hell no. I threw it at Nic and he must’ve grabbed it or something because I couldn’t find it anywhere.”

“Kit, I don’t know if the cops can go on your word alone.”

“But it won’t be my word, will it?” She grinned. “It’ll be yours.”

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