“You suckered me,” she said, indicating the soup.
“You're not the first.”
Amused, she said, “If I could pull the right strings, I'd have the courts change your name to Charlie Mouse. See how that works.”
“I'm glad you can still smile,” Mickey said.
A beautiful young waitress with jetblack hair and almond eyes appeared at the table and asked if Connie would like to order dinner.
“Just a bottle of Tsingtao, please,” Connie said. And to Mickey: “I don't feel much like smiling, if you want to know the truth. You sure as hell ruined my day with that call this morning.”
“Ruined your day? Me?”
“Maybe a certain gentleman with a Browning and a few grenades?”
“So you heard about that.”
“Who hasn't? Even in southern California it's the kind of story that gets on the news ahead of the sports report.”
“On a slow day maybe.”
He finished his soup.
The waitress returned with the beer.
Connie poured the Tsingtao down the side of the chilled pilsner glass to minimize the head, took a sip' and sighed.
“I'm sorry,” Mickey said sincerely. “I know how much you wanted to believe you had a family.”
“I did have a family,” she said. “They're just all gone.”
Between the ages of three and eighteen, Connie had been raised in a series of state institutions and temporary foster homes, each more abysmal than the one before it, requiring her to be tough and to fight back. Because of her personality, she had not appealed to adoptive parents and could not escape by that route. Certain of her character traits, which she saw as strengths, were considered attitude problems by other people. From the youngest age, she had been independent minded, solemn beyond her years, virtually unable to be a child. To act her age, she literally would have had to act, for she had been an adult in a child's body.
Until seven months ago, she had not given much thought to the identity of her parents. There seemed to be no percentage in caring.
For whatever reason, they had abandoned her as a child, and she had no memory whatsoever of them.
Then one sunny Sunday afternoon, when she went skydiving out of the airfield at Perris, her ripcord jammed. She fell four thousand feet toward brown desert scrub as arid as Hell, with the conviction that she was dead except for the actual dying. Her chute deployed at the last possible moment to allow survival. Although her landing was rough, she was lucky; it resulted in only a sprained ankle abraded left hand, bruisesand a sudden need to know where she'd come from.
Everyone had to exit this life without a clue as to where they were going, so it seemed essential to know at least something about the entrance.
During offduty hours, she could have used official channels, contacts, and computers to investigate her past, but she preferred Mickey Chan.
She didn't want her colleagues getting involved with her search, pulling for her and curiousin case she found something she didn't want to share with them.
As it turned out, what Mickey had learned after six months of prying into official files was not pretty.
When he handed her the report in his stylish Fashion Island office with its I 9thcentury French art and Biedermeier furniture, he said, “I'll be in the next room, dictating some letters. Let me know when you're finished.”
His Asian reticence, the implication that she might need to be alone, alerted her to just how bad the truth was.
According to Mickey's report, a court had removed her from the' care of her parents because she had suffered repeated severe physical abuse.
As punishment for unknown transgressionsperhaps merely for being alivethey beat her, shaved off all of her hair, blindfolded her and tied her and left her in a closet for eighteen hours at a stretch, and broke three of her fingers.
When remanded to the care of the court, she had not yet learned to speak, for her parents had never taught or permitted her to talk.
But speech had come quickly to her, as if she relished the rebellion that the mere act of speaking represented.
However, she never had the opportunity to accuse her mother and father.
While fleeing the state to avoid prosecution, they had died in a fiery headon collision near the CaliforniaArizona border.
Connie read Mickey's first report with grim fascination, less shaken by its contents than most people would have been because she had been a cop long enough to have seen the likes of it many timeand worse. She did not feel that the hatred directed against her had been earned by her shortcomings or because she had been less lovable than other kids.
It was just how the world worked sometimes. Too often. At least she finally understood why, even at the tender age of three, she had been too solemn, too wise beyond her years, too independentminded, just too damned tough to be the cute and cuddly girl that adoptive parents were seeking.
The abuse must have been worse than the dry language of the report made it sound. For one thing, courts usually tolerated a lot of parental brutality before taking such drastic action. For another she had blocked all memories of it and of her sister, which was an act of some desperation.
Most children who survived such experiences grew up deeply troubled by their repressed memories and feelings of wortNessnessr even utterly dysfunctional. She was fortunate to be one of the strong ones. She had no doubts about her value as a human being or her specialness as an individual. Though she might have enjoyed being a gentler person, more relaxed, less cynical, quicker to laugh, she nevertheless liked herself and was content in her own way.
Mickey's report hadn't contained entirely bad news. Connie learned that she had a sister of whom she'd been unaware. Colleen.
Constance Mary and Colleen Marie Gulliver, the former born three minutes before the latter. Identical twins. Both abused, both permanently removed from parental care, eventually sent to different institutions, they had gone on to lead separate lives.
in the client chair that day a month ago, in front of Mickey's desk, a shiver of delight had swept along Connie's spine at the realization that someone existed with whom she shared such a singularly intimate bond. Identical twins. She abruptly understood why she sometimes dreamed of being two people at once and appeared in duplicate in those sleeping fantasies. Though Mickey was still seeking leads on Colleen, Connie dared to hope she was not alone.
But now, a few weeks later, Colleen's fate was known. She had been adopted, raised in Santa Barbaraand died five years ago at the age of twentyeight.
That morning, when Connie learned she had lost her sister again, and forever this time, she had known a more intense grief than at any time in her life.
She had not wept.
She seldom did.
Instead, she had dealt with that grief as she dealt with all disappointments, setbacks, and losses: she kept busy obsessively busy and she got angry. Poor Harry. He had taken the brunt of her anger all morning without having a clue as to the cause of it. Polite, reasonable, peiceloving, longsuffering Harry. He would never know just how perversely grateful she had been for the chance to chase down the moonfaced perp, James Ordegard. She had been able to direct her rage at someone more deserving of it, and work off the pentup energy of the grief that she could not release through tears.
Now she drankTsingtao and said, “This morning, you mentioned photographs.”
The busboy removed the empty soup bowl.
Mickey put a manila envelope on the table. “Are you sure you want to look at them?”
“Why wouldn't I?”
“You can never know her. The pictures might bring that home.”
“I've already accepted it.”
She opened the envelope. Eight or ten snapshots slid out.
The photos showed Colleen as young as five or six, as old as her midtwenties, which was nearly as old as she had ever gotten. She wore different clothes from those that Connie had ever worn, styled her hair differently, and was photographed in living rooms and kitchens, on lawns and beaches, that Connie had never seen. But in every fundamental wayheight, weight, coloration, facial features, even expressions and unconscious body attitudesshe was Connie's perfect double.
Connie had the uncanny feeling that she was seeing photos of herself in a life that she could not remember having lived.
“Where did you get these?” she asked Mickey Chan.
“From the Ladbrooks. Dennis and Lorraine Ladbrook, the couple that adopted Colleen.”
Examining the photographs again, Connie was struck by the fact that Colleen was smiling or laughing in every one of them. The few pictures that had ever been taken of Connie as a child were usually institutional group shots with a crowd 'of other kids. She didn't have a single photograph of herself in which she was smiling.
“What are the Ladbrooks like?” she asked.
"They're in business. They work together, own an officesupply store in Santa Barbara. Nice people, I think, quiet and unassuming.
They weren't able to have any children of their own, and they adored Colleen."
Envy darkened Connie's heart. She coveted the love and years of normality that Colleen had known. Irrational, to envy a dead sister.
And shameful. But she could not help herself Mickey said, "The Ladbrooks haven't gotten over her death, not even after five years.
They didn't know she was a twin. They never were given that information by the child welfare agencies."
Connie returned the photographs to the manila envelope, unable to look at them any longer. Selfpity was an indulgence that she loathed, but that's what her envy was swiftly becoming. A heaviness, like piled stones, pressed upon her breast. Later, in the privacy of her apartment, maybe she would feel like spending more time with her sister's lovely smile.
The waitress arrived with moo goo gai pan and rice for Mickey.
Ignoring the chopsticks that were provided with a regular complement of flatware, Mickey picked up his fork. “Connie, the Ladbrooks would like to meet you.”
“Like I said, they never knew Colleen had a twin.”
“I'm not sure it's a good idea. I can't be Colleen for them. I'm someone different.”
“I don't think it would be like that.”
After she drank some beer, she said, “I'll think about it.”
Mickey dug into his moo goo gai pan as if nothing tastier had ever come out of any kitchen in the Western hemisphere.
The look and smell of the food made Connie half ill. She knew that nothing was wrong with the dinner, only with her reaction to it.
She had more than one reason to be queasy. It had been a hard day.
Finally she asked the dreadful question that remained. “How did Colleen die?”
Mickey studied her for a moment before answering. “I was ready to tell you this morning.”
“I wasn't ready to hear, I guess.”
Connie had been prepared for any of the stupid and pointless ways that death could come suddenly to an attractive twentyeight yearold woman in these dark terminal years of the millennium. She had not been prepared for this, however, and it jolted her.
“She had a husband.”
Mickey shook his head. “No. Unwed mother. I don't know the circumstances, who the father was, but it doesn't seem to be a sore point with the Ladbrooks, nothing they consider a stain on her memory She was a saint in their eyes.”
“What about the baby?”
“Yes,” Mickey said. He put down his fork, drank some water, blotted his mouth with a red napkin, watching Connie all the while.
“Her name is Eleanor. Eleanor Ladbrook. They call her Ellie.”
“Ellie,” Connie said numbly “She looks a great deal like you.”
“Why didn't you tell me this morning?”
“You didn't give me a chance. Hung up on me.”
“Just about. Very brusque, you were. Tell me the rest this evening, you said.”
“Sorry When I heard Colleen was dead, I thought it was over.”
“Now you have a family You're someone's aunt.”
She accepted the reality of Ellie's existence, but she could not yet begin to get a handle on what Ellie might mean to her own life, her future. After having been alone for so long, she was stunned to learn for certain that someone of her own flesh and blood was also alive in this vast and troubled world.
“Having family somewhere, even one, must make a difference,” Mickey said.
She suspected it would make a huge difference. Ironically, earlier in the day, she had nearly been killed before learning that she had one very important new reason to live.
Putting another manila envelope on the table, Mickey said, “The final report. The Ladbrooks' address and phone number's in there when you decide you need them.”
“Thank you, Mickey.”
“And the bill. It's in there, too.”
She smiled. “Thank you anyway” As Connie slid out of the booth and stood, Mickey said, “Life's funny. So many connections with other people that we don't even know about, invisible threads linking us to some we've long forgotten and some we won't meet for yearsif ever.”
“Yeah. Funny” “One more thing, Connie.”
“There's a Chinese saying that goes. . . 'Sometimes life can be as bitter as dragon tears-'” “This more of your crap?”
“Oh, no. It's a real saying.” Sitting there, a small man in a large booth, with his gentle face and crinkled eyes full of good humor, Mickey Chan seemed like a thin Buddha. "But that's only part of the, sayingthe part you already understand. The whole thing goes...
'Sometimes life can be as bitter as dragon tears. But whether dragon tears are bitter or sweet depends entirely on how each man perceives the taste.“” “In other words, life is hard, even cruelbut it's also what you make of it.”
Putting his slender hands flat together without interleaving his fingers, in the position of oriental prayer, Mickey bowed his head in her direction with mock solemnity. “Perhaps wisdom may yet enter through the thick bone of your Yankee head.”
“Anything's possible,” she admitted.
She left with the two manila envelopes. Her sister's captured smile.
The promise of her niece.
Outside, rain was still coming down at a rate that made her wonder if a new Noah was at work somewhere in the world, even now marching pairs of animals up a boarding gangway.
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