"I don't need the work and it's not what I do anymore." At least half of it was true. I tossed the photo back to her.
"Bullshit, Rick." She stood up and was about as tall as I was sitting down. "You can't get enough process server gigs or workers comp fraud cases a month to make a living." She panoramaed an arm around the kitchen. "If you call this living."
She was right about my shrunken private investigator resume. I'd already broken into my savings to pay off credit cards. But I wasn't going back. I'd pick up wait shifts at Muldoon's Steak House before I took money to try to help people with real problems again.
Nobody died when you spied on people cheating the man. Or handed an envelope to an unsuspecting citizen and told them they'd been served. A thirty second encounter and then you moved onto the next one. No entanglements. No feelings. No worrying about doing the right thing.
"I'm doing fine." I stood up. "Thanks for coming."
"Bullshit. You're a mess." Moira slowly shook her head. "You need to get back on the horse. You're a good investigator. A good man. Some things are just out of our control. You can't blame yourself for every bad thing that happens."
"Just the things under my control." I whispered to myself. I walked through the cased opening into the living room and swept my arm toward the front door. "Thanks for dropping by. Let's have lunch some time."
Moira stood up, slammed her chair into the table and brushed by me, her shoulder bag sideswiping my stomach. She threw open the front door but turned to face me instead of leaving. The morning sun backlit her tiny body into silhouette, stretching her shadow long into the foyer. She took a couple deep breaths and relaxed her shoulders.
"I should have answered the phone when you called me last year." The edge in her voice smoothed off the gravel into pebbles. "I had to figure things out after you pulled me into your damage. You put me in a bad position, but I've forgiven you. I know you were trying to help me in your broken way. I didn't realize that you needed me as much as I needed to stay away from you. That was my mistake. I've tried to make up for it and help you, but you won't let me." Her big brown eyes held a cavern full of pain. "I don't think I can try anymore."
She stepped outside and closed the door, pulling her shadow along with her.
The woman's name I'd been given papers for at the process serving agency the next morning was Irene Faye. She was a cashier at a Vons in Pacific Beach. I sometimes shopped there and recognized her in the photo the agency showed me when they gave me the sealed document. A bit younger than me, late thirties. Red hair was always pulled back into a bun. Freckles across a button nose and bright green eyes. A big smile ever present on her face. Beautiful in an unconventional way.
All things being equal, I always chose her checkout line. Today would be the last time I did that. The last time I'd shop at that Vons. I considered not taking the job when I saw her picture. But I needed the seventy-five bucks, and if I didn't take the gig someone else would. Irene Faye was going to be served papers she didn't want, one way or another. I chose to be the one way so I pushed aside the warm feelings I had for her and took the job. If I gave up process server work, I'd never get close to making my monthly nut. I had a dog who needed feeding and a backyard to explore.
A middle-aged woman checked out in front of me in Irene Faye's line. She had a full cart. The kind of grocery shopping you did when you had a family to feed at home. The kind of shopping I thought I'd be doing by now. Getting enough groceries for a wife and two, maybe three, kids. That had been my path fourteen years ago. Before Colleen was murdered.
I've never filled an entire grocery cart up in my life. Today I had a hand basket with a couple of apples and bananas in it. And those were just props.
The woman ahead finally finished and loaded canvas bags of food into her cart. She paid with a check. I unloaded the fruit onto the conveyor belt. Irene Faye gave me a quick smile as the check bobbed up and down in her cash register. A rock turned over in my gut. I didn't know what document was in the sealed envelope in the pocket of my sweatshirt. I never knew. I didn't want to know. But it was never good news. Good news didn't arrive via a stranger verifying your identity and shoving a sealed envelope at you.
The woman with the full grocery cart and a family at home finally cleared the cash register. Irene Faye pulled my apples onto the scale.
"Good to see you." Huge freckle-faced smile. "Did you find everything you needed?"
"Yes." I couldn't force a smile. "Thanks."