by Marcia Muller
Page 1 of 6
"Larry, I hardly know what to say!"
What I wanted to say was, "What am I supposed to do with this?
The object I'd just liberated from its gay red-and-gold Christmas
wrappings was a plastic bag, about eight by twelve inches, packed
firm with what looked suspiciously like sawdust. I turned it over
in my hands, as if admiring it, and searched for some clue to its
When I looked up, I saw Larry Koslowski's brown eyes shining
expectantly; even the ends of his little handlebar mustache
seemed to bristle as he awaited my reaction. "It's perfect," I
He let his bated breath out in a long sigh. "I thought it
would be. You remember how you were talking about not having much
energy lately? I told you to try whipping up my protein drink for
breakfast, but you said you didn't have that kind of time in the
The conversation came back to me--vaguely. I nodded.
"Well," he went on, "put two tablespoons of that mixture in a
tall glass, add water, stir, and you're in business."
Of course--it was an instant version of his infamous protein
drink. Larry was the health nut on the All Souls Legal
Cooperative staff; his fervent exhortations for the rest of us to
adopt better nutritional standards often fell upon deaf
"Thank you," I said. "I'll try it first thing tomorrow."
Larry ducked his head, his lips turning up in shy pleasure
beneath his straggly little mustache.
It was late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and the staff
of All Souls was engaged in the traditional gift exchange between
members who had drawn each other's names earlier in the month.
The yearly ritual extends back to the days of the co-op's
founding, when most people were too poor to give more than one
present; the only rule is Keep It Simple.
The big front parlor of the co-op's San Francisco Victorian
was crowded. People perched on the furniture or, like Larry and
me, sat cross-legged on the floor, oohing and aahing over their
Next to the Christmas tree in the bay window, my boss, Hank
Zahn, sported a new cap and muffler, knitted for him--after great
deliberation and consultation as to colors--by my assistant, Rae
Kelleher. Rae, in turn, wore the scarf and cap I'd purchased
(because I can't knit to save my life) for her in the hope she
would consign relics from her days at U.C. Berkeley to the trash
can. Other people had homemade cookies and sinful fudge, special
bottles of wine, next year's calendars, assorted games, plants,
and paperback books.
And I had a bag of instant health drink that looked like
The voices in the room created such a babble that I barely
the phone ring in the hall behind me. Our secretary, Ted
Smalley, who is a compulsive answerer, stepped over me and went
out to where the instrument sat on his desk. A moment later he
called "McCone, it's for you."
My stomach did a little flip-flop, because I was expecting
news of a personal nature that could either be very good or very
bad. I thanked Larry again for my gift, scrambled to my feet, and
went to take the receiver from Ted. He remained next to the desk,
I'd confided my family's problem to him earlier that week, and
now, I knew, he would wait to see if he could provide aid or
"Shari?" My younger sister Charlene's voice was composed, but
her use of the diminutive of Sharon, which no one but my father
calls me unless it's a time of crisis, made my stomach flip
"I'm here," I said.
"Shari, somebody's seen him. A friend of Ricky's saw Mike!"
"Today around noon. Up there--in San Francisco."
I let out my breath in a sigh of relief. My fourteen-year-old
nephew, oldest of Charlene and Ricky's six kids, had run away
from their home in Pacific Palisades five days ago. Now, it
appeared, he was alive, if not exactly safe.
The investigator in me counseled caution, however. "Was this
friend sure it was Mike he saw?"
"Yes. He spoke to him. Mike said he was visiting you. But
afterward our friend got to thinking that he looked kind of
grubby and tired, and that you probably wouldn't have let him
wander around that part of town, so he called us to check it
A chill touched my shoulder blades. "What part of town?"
"...Somewhere near City Hall, a sleazy area, our friend
A very sleazy area, I thought. Dangerous territory to which
runaways are often drawn, where boys and girls alike fall prey to
pimps and pushers...
Charlene said, "Shari?"
"I'm still here, just thinking."
"You don't suppose he'll come to you?"
"l doubt it, if he hasn't already. But in case he does,
there's somebody staying at my house--an old friend who's here
for Christmas--and she knows to keep him there and call me
immediately. Is there anybody else he knows here in the city?
Somebody he might trust not to send him home?"
"...I can't think of anybody."
"What about that friend you spent a couple of Christmases
with--the one with the two little girls who lived on Sixteenth
Street across from Mission Dolores?"
"Ginny Shriber? She moved away about four years ago." There
was a noise as if Charlene was choking back a sob. "He's really
just a little boy yet. So little, and so stubborn."
But stubborn little boys grow up fast on the rough city
streets. I didn't want that kind of coming-of-age for my nephew.
"Look at the up side of this, Charlene," I said, more
heartily than I felt. "Mike's come to the one city where you have
your own private investigator. I'll start looking for him right
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