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«While Drowning in the Desert», Don Winslow

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I never should have got out of the hot tub.

I was luxuriating in the steaming water when Karen asked me to get her a Diet Pepsi.

“Excuse me?” I murmured.

“I’m in postcoital bliss,” she said. “And when I’m in postcoital bliss I need a Diet Pepsi.”

“Why don’t you get one?”

She shook her head.

“When a woman’s in postcoital bliss it’s the guy’s job to get the Diet Pepsi,” she smiled. “It’s a rule.”

“I’m in postcoital bliss, too.”

“Too bad.”

I saw I wasn’t going to win so I lifted myself out of the tub. She looked at me with what I wanted to think was a lascivious expression.

“Besides,” she said, “it’s your fault.”

That was very nice of her to say.

“Then you don’t mind if I get myself one, too?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

Even though no one could see us on the deck of our house I wrapped a towel around my midriff as I padded into the kitchen. I turned to admire Karen as she stretched her long neck back onto the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. Her black hair was wet with steam. Her wide mouth bent into a smile.

I loved her to distraction.

I had just opened the refrigerator and taken out two cold, shiny cans of Diet Pepsi when the phone rang.

And stopped.

I stood stock-still and watched the sweep hand on the kitchen clock. No, no, no, no, I thought. Let it be a wrong number. Let it be an obscene caller that chickened out. But don’t let it ring again in thirty seconds.

Exactly thirty seconds later it rang again.

I snatched the receiver off the hook and snapped, “What.”

I knew who it was.

“Son!” Graham’s mock cheerful voice pierced my eardrum.

And it had been such a nice evening.

“Hello, Dad,” I moaned.

“Dad” was not actually my father in the biological sense. We met when I was twelve years old and tried to pick his pocket in a bar. He pretty much raised me after that, even to the extent of teaching me a trade.

The trade he taught me included such skills as breaking and entering, following people, stealing documents from offices, searching hotel rooms, and finding the lost, missing, and running.

In short, he taught me how to be a private eye.

Like him.

“You don’t sound happy to hear from me!”

I could picture him on the other end of the line, sitting in his immaculate Murray Hill apartment, his artificial right arm set at a kitchen table that Christian Barnaard could operate on. I could imagine his cherubic little face, his thin, sandy hair greased straight back, and his aggravating, satanic grin.

“Not exactly.”

I know, I know. Petulant and rude. But a phone call that starts in code is not going to be good news. The single ring and thirty-second gap meant that this wasn’t a social call, but business.

And I didn’t want to get back to business.

Graham said, “My feelings are hurt.”

“Yeah, right.”

The Giants blowing the point spread with twelve seconds to play, that might hurt Graham’s feelings.

“How are the wedding plans coming?” he asked politely.

Wedding plans? I thought in a moment of alarm. What was there to plan? I figured that everyone would show up at the Milkovsky ranch, and Karen and I would say the I do’s, and that would be about it.

“Uhh, fine,” I answered.

“Have you registered your patterns?”

“Uhhh, yeah.”

Registered? Patterns?

“What about the honeymoon?”

“In favor of it.”

“Great vacations don’t just happen, you know,” Graham said.

I had never thought of a honeymoon as precisely a vacation, but I let it pass. Instead I said, “You didn’t call me just to nag me about wedding plans.”

“No, that’s just a bonus. We have a little job for you.”

“I thought I was on permanent disability,” I said. Ed Levine, our mutual boss at Friends of the Family, had officially declared me mentally ill. I knew Ed didn’t really think that I was actually crazy, just that I drove him nuts. Either way, it worked for me.

By the way, my name is Neal Carey. I don’t carry a badge.

Actually I never did. Even in the days when I was working I didn’t have a badge. Or a license or a gun or any of that private eye stuff. I just did the stuff that Friends asked me to do, and if that isn’t crazy…

“We decided that you’ve recovered,” Graham announced.

“No, I’m still crazy.”

“Don’t get your panties all wet,” Graham said. “It’s a short job. In fact, let’s not even call it a job. Let’s call it a errand.”

“What kind of ‘a errand’?”