The strange man who told me my estranged husband was dead had a very odd voice— deep and well-modulated, as though it were programmed to be that way. Very masculine, yet cold and sterile like my husband's lab equipment.
That wasn't the only thing that was odd about him— he was also a most unusual-looking man. He was tall and pale, as a lot of Englishmen were, but these were the only aspects of him that even came close to approaching ordinary.
His face consisted of sharp angles and shadows, so that he looked a little bit like a beautiful, moving fractal art. There was a stillness in him that reminded you of cool, calm waters, especially with his eyes being that indigo shade of blue, but for some reason, I had a feeling that stone-faced stoicism was a facade. There was a unique gleam in his eye as he took in the sight of our dingy motel room. It almost looked like glee.
Which didn't make sense. Why would a complete stranger care about the sorry state of our family affairs? There was no malice behind it, really. His expression reminded me of a little boy who lifts a heavy, rotted log after a night's rain and is excited to find all manners of nasty, slimy beasties under there. He wasn't even being judgmental about our circumstances; he was curious and eager to find out more. About... me? The children? My husband?
I would understand why he'd want to know more about James— hell, I didn't know enough about James. I thought I did, but a good lot of it was a lie. Nothing but lies.
And after all, he— the world's only consulting detective, as he wanted me to know— was the one trying to find out how Dr. James Carter, a perfectly average biochemist with a boring school teacher wife and two children, ended up in five, separate suitcases scattered all over London.
I'm sorry, I don't mean to sound callous about Jim, but he was a proper arsehole. And a cheater. And apparently, at the time of his death, he was developing a new, nasty party drug for the Chinese triads.
That was an avenue, the detective said wryly—another out of place reaction— that they would have to explore.
I looked over to where his partner-slash-colleague was sitting with my children. He was a compact, well-built man in his late thirties with a congenial face and clean-cut dark blond hair. Apparently, John Watson was a general practitioner and had a clinic not too far from the motel.
He was talking softly to my Timothy, while his big sister Helena, all of her six years, watched suspiciously. Dr. Watson took out a tiny flashlight and gave it to my son to play with, so he could inspect the large wound on my son's arm, which I had tended to myself as best as I could with a first aid kit I bought from the motel's convenience store.
"Did this hurt?" asked the kind-faced GP as he examined the area around the wound outside the bandage carefully.
"Well, duh," said his older sister Helena. "Obviously. He got shot. Of course it hurt."
"He didn't get shot, Lena," I told my daughter patiently, even as I struggled to keep my voice sound as calm as I could. "The bullet hit the sliding glass door and he cut his arm on the glass when we were going through."
It was a sound that would haunt me for the rest of my life. As the jagged glass cut into the flesh of my son's arm, his shriek of pain pierced the quiet we had been working hard to maintain and I had to be the one to slap my palm over his mouth to cut off his cries. And I kept my hand there even when he bit me repeatedly.
There had been so much blood— I remember wondering in amazement that so much of it could come from my son's four-year-old body. Which, of course, brought us another big problem that we didn't really need. Blood leaves a trail.
Any minute now, the people with big fucking guns currently riddling our house with bullets would enter and check the results of their carnage. No way in hell I would have let those Triads— pretty damn sure they were Triads, though I never saw them—find us loitering around.
I wrapped Tim's little arm in a dish towel, then covered it with two plastic bags, which I tied around tightly. We snuck out through the gate of the backyard to the back alley with Tim clinging to my back like a spider monkey. Helena was pale and wide-eyed but was uncharacteristically quiet and cooperative. I think even her six-year-old brain could decipher that we were in some deep shit.
We hotfooted it down the streets, hiding in between cars, just in case we were being followed. I was also looking for a car to break into. I've been out of practice for about fifteen years and anti-car-theft technologies have developed leaps and bounds since then.
It was right about then that I remembered that the Hartwells' daughter Jessica had an old beat-up VW Rabbit. She had just recently gotten her driver license and since she was the youngest of four, she was the last one on the receiving line for the Rabbit. Which tended to stall on really cold days. And hot days too, come to think of it.
It wasn't the fastest getaway car in the neighborhood, but it was the easiest to break into and hotwire. Since it was a junker, it had no alarm. Sorry, Jess. I stuck the kids in the backseat while explaining to them that we were just borrowing the car and would give it right back and that Jesse probably wouldn't mind if she knew who'd taken it. Oh, good old Mrs. Carter from three blocks over. She'd probably bring back the damn thing freshly washed and full of petrol.
"You are from San Francisco," the blue-eyed detective was saying. "You emigrated from America maybe seven or eight years ago and you haven't been back even for a visit since you left."
I opened my mouth to reply, completely blanked out on what I was about to say, and could only stare at the man for a few moments. Had I told anyone that? It didn't seem like something I would get into while narrating the night's events to the stone-faced Chief Detective Inspector Lestrade of the Scotland Yard.
Did I still have an American accent after all these years? From the moment I moved to England, I tried my best to eradicate my Northern California accent and believed all this time that I had succeeded. Jim often remarked that I sounded more English than he did. So how did this man—
No, I hadn't said anything about me or my past at all. In fact, I was still very shaken over how quickly we were found and by the fuzz at that. We had tried to avoid all major roads getting out of London and I had not seen anyone following us. Have I gotten so rusty over the years? I used to be able to shake the cops like nobody's business.
I had every intention of reaching Jim's sister Diane, who had a house in Bristol, but halfway through the drive, Tim began to complain about his arm and Helena resumed being her six-year-old monsterish self and whined about being hungry and cold and that we were going to die.
I dumped the Rabbit behind a 24-hour diner and jogged the remaining two blocks to the open motel with my kids. I had them covered with a couple of the airline blankets that I found in the backseat.
Bewildered, I returned my attention to the blue-eyed detective, whose intense scrutiny of me, was really starting to make me feel uncomfortable. The man had a way of looking at you like he could see right through your bone. I shivered despite my usual resolve and clasped my arms tighter to my body. A move that would be seen as a defensive gesture, to be sure, but the detective's gaze made me feel hot and cold at the same time and like my skin was suddenly two sizes too tight.
"How do you know that?" I demanded wearily of him. "That I'm from San Francisco and all that stuff?"
He gave me a look like he couldn't believe I would ask such a question and opened his mouth, probably to say something patronizing about how obvious it all was and then begin to elucidate on how he gleaned the information. But just then, Dr. John Watson raised his head and gave his companion a disapproving frown.
"Sherlock," he said in a calm, even tone."It is not a good time. This poor woman has been through a lot tonight."
"Right." The detective nodded, then did the most curious thing: he bit down on his lower lip. It was gone within a second, but what a sight it was. He had the most luscious lips I had ever seen on a man—a full, almost perfect cupid's bow. And they did nothing to detract the sheer masculinity the man exuded.
This guy was the very definition of Alpha Male. This was a man who could walk into any room, analyze the situation quickly, and do what needs to be done. This was a man who took things in hand and got shit done, just because he could.
"When was the last time you saw your husband alive, Mrs. Carter?" asked the detective.
"Last week." My own lips were suddenly very dry. I glanced at the unopened bottle of water on the table just within the detective's reach and wondered what he would think if I asked him to get it for me. He struck me as the kind of guy who analyzed the smallest of actions for any hint of motive.
The last time I saw Jim alive— or the last time I saw Jim as I knew Jim... alive?
"Last week," I repeated roughly, taking a quick moment to moisten my bottom lip with a swipe of my tongue. I did not fail to notice that the black circle that surrounded the blue irises of the detective's eyes momentarily thickened and got darker. I took a mental note of this. "At our house."
"Right," he said. "And what did he do when he got there? Did he do or say anything out of turn? Was he acting strangely?"
"Look, detective, he'd been acting strange for the last three months," I said carefully. "He'd come home at odd hours— like three or four in the morning— sleep, shower, then return to the lab before noon. The children and I hardly ever saw him. The thing is, detective—"
"He is not a detective!" said the beautiful, slender black woman in the cleanly-tailored pantsuit by the door. It was the first time she had spoken and the glare she leveled at the man I was speaking to was nothing short of malevolent.
"Of the Scotland Yard," he said with wry amusement. "And thank heaven for that. You must forgive Sergeant Donovan. Her interlude with her boyfriend was interrupted last night by the early arrival of the boyfriend's wife."
"You're not gonna goad me to play your mind games, freak," snarled his adversary. "Stop pretending you know more than you know."
"As you wish, Sergeant Donovan." Sherlock Holmes rolled his eyes upward, a funny, little move that seemed uncharacteristically buoyant for such a serious face. His focus, when it was returned to me, was even more probing and intense.
"Do you have ties to the Chinese Triads, Mrs. Carter?"
I looked down at my wrists and surreptitiously tugged at my sleeves to make sure that none of the skin was showing. "Are you asking me that because I'm Asian? Dude, I'm not even Chinese."
It was a common tactic of an American person of color. When cornered, make the conversation about race. If needed, imply that the person you're talking to is racist. Use tactic sparingly.
But it seemed Mr. Holmes was familiar with the tactic because all he did was quirk up one perfect eyebrow. "I know you're not, Mrs. Carter. It is obvious from the shape of your eyes as well as your facial bone structure. You are Japanese with... I would say, Eastern European and Austronesian strains, mixed in."
"Sherlock," said John Watson when it looked like his partner was about to launch into a long explanation on how he was able to tell I was Japanese. I myself could tell he was about to do it. This self-satisfied "watch me" smirk came over his face and he oh so casually took a deep breath as though once he started talking, he wouldn't be able to stop for air, because he had to finish, just in case someone tried to interrupt him.
Suddenly, he leaned toward me as though he was going to kiss me and for a moment, I was completely frozen. Then instincts took over and I skittered further along the bed toward the center.
"I was only going to whisper something to you," he murmured so lowly that only he and I could probably hear.
"What was that, freak?" called Sergeant Donovan from her post at the door.
"You've a fine set of ears on you, Sergeant Donovan!" cried Mr. Holmes with obviously fake joviality. "We'll make a decent inspector out of you yet!"
The sergeant flashed him a rude gesture. "Sit and spin, arsehole."
I found myself getting irritated at the other woman for the seemingly unwarranted hostility she was projecting onto Mr. Holmes. Was there an undercurrent there that I wasn't privy to? Why did Sergeant Donovan seem to hate Sherlock Holmes so much?
"Oh, blast! Now I've gone and spilled this bottle of water all over myself. And on my favorite scarf, too. Sherlock Holmes, how could you be so clumsy?"
I doubted a man who seemed to contemplate his every move could be so careless, so I was surprised when I turned to face Mr. Holmes and found that the previously unopened bottle of water was now on the floor, on its side with half of it contents on the ugly carpet and a whole lot of it on the front of the detective's trousers and dark purple shirt. I thirsted after every drop.
Dr. Watson looked up briefly from his examination of my children, shook his head, and returned to his work.
"I do believe I'm going to need things with which to dry myself," Mr. Holmes enunciated, giving me a meaningful look. "Could you direct me to the washroom, Mrs. Carter?"
I almost laughed out loud at the exaggerated expression of innocence and mock embarrassment on his "too interesting to be called classically handsome" face. I bit my lower lip to stifle a hysterical urge to giggle.
"But of course, Mr. Holmes," I replied gravely, as he took my elbow and gently propelled me forward.
I found myself wishing he wasn't wearing gloves, so I knew what the touch of his hands felt like. I told myself to get a grip and stop acting like a ninny. Now was not the time to indulge a crush on someone. Now or anytime from now. Though my husband and I had been estranged for months, he had just died. This had to be shock. I couldn't find another reason for this idiocy.
Sally Donovan watched us like a hawk as the tall detective and I crossed the room to go to the bathroom.
"I don't know what you're up to, Holmes, but you better not be up to your old tricks," she threatened. "Keep the door open."
We weren't two steps into the bathroom when I realized the mistake I had made, a major tactical error on my part. I had placed myself in a vulnerable position in tiny quarters with a large man who is unknown to me. God, I'm an idiot. Mr. Holmes loomed over my five-three frame. He had to be at least six-foot-two and easily had three stones on me.
I stood in front of the mirror in front of the sink and Mr. Holmes went directly behind me, even though he had about two feet of space behind him, easily. I could feel his breath on my hair. His breath smelled like spearmint and coffee. My heart was pounding so hard, slamming itself against my ribcage like it was trying to get out, and I was almost sure that he could hear the beats.
"Was there something you wanted to ask me that you didn't want the others to hear?" There had to have been a reason for that elaborate ruse with the water bottle. Otherwise, I would have to think that the man was completely insane.
His voice was slightly hoarse when he asked me to lift up my hair.
I turned around to face him, making sure my braid stayed in place. "Why?"
"I have an inkling of an idea. Indulge me, won't you please."
When I only continued to stare at him, he made a huffing sound, placed his hands on my shoulders, and forcibly--yet not painfully-- turned me toward the mirror again. His assured, determined blue eyes met my worried but annoyed ones on the surface.
"I'm going to look now," he announced softly, lifting my braid and placing it atop my head along with his palm. His long, low whistle told me he was impressed with what he saw.
I hung my head in shame and blinked back the tears that had sprung to my eyes. The ones that covered my arms like sleeves were mostly gone via laser, as costly and painful as they were, though some of the scars will always be there, which is why I always wore long-sleeved shirts, even in the summer. But the one on the skin of my back covered the entire span of it. It had taken almost eight years to finish and all the surface area was practically covered. There wasn't a patch of skin that wasn't inked.
He removed one glove and with his index finger, traced the path of the tail of the alpha dragon. On my back, there were three. My skin seemed to crave his touch like parched, cracked ground for rain. It was insanity. Was it because it had been so long since I had been truly touched by a man?
I shivered despite myself and my knees became rubbery. I would have fallen and hit my head against the sink if he hadn't caught me by the hips.
He lowered his head toward mine and when his lips brushed the upper shell of my ear, my world stopped moving and I ceased breathing. "You are," he whispered, "Yakuza."