“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 identity.
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 said lamely.
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 morning. “
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 ears–mine included.
“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 gifts.
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 sawdust.
The voices in the room created such a babble that I barely heard
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 comfort.
“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 again.
“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 out.”
A chill touched my shoulder blades. “What part of town?”
“…Somewhere near City Hall, a sleazy area, our friend said.”
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 away.”