They had been sitting in a diner for thirty minutes when May finally asked, “So what were you addicted to?”
Max dropped his fork and knife, the yolk from his devoured egg still clinging to his lower lip. “Seriously?”
May raised an eyebrow at him. “What?”
“Just like that? You’re going to ask me that question just like that?”
“Well I thought you wanted me to know?”
“No! Of course I don’t want you to know. I mean—well yeah, I would’ve told you before if you hadn’t been all like—‘Fuck you, Max! I want nothing to do with you!’ Telling someone you came out of rehab is kind of something you aren’t eager to share, y’know? It was hard enough getting that much out without you shutting me down before I could say more!”
“Okay. So you’re irritated because you didn’t want to tell me before, but you were prepared to tell me before, only I didn’t want to hear your bullshit before, but now that I am, you are no longer prepared to tell me what you would’ve before. Is that right?”
Now it was Max’s turn to say, “…What?”
May rolled her eyes and sat back in her booth seat. “Just say it, Max. I’m listening to you now and it’s kind of need-to-know if you’re going to barge your way back into my life.”
Her brother slapped a hand to the table and leaned forward, bearing his teeth. “God damn it, May! How are we supposed to co-exist if you make every breath you take an opportunity to hold that over my head?”
“I don’t know big bro, maybe I’m a little entitled to assholery since you fucked off into the unknown and left our family to shrivel up and die?”
“Does it also make you entitled to being as weird as possible?”
May narrowed her eyes and looked at him over the rim of her glasses. “What are you saying?” she asked ominously.
Max huffed as he sat back in his seat. “I’m saying you’ve been staring at me eating for the last twenty minutes and haven’t ordered a damn thing for yourself! That’s abnormal!”
“Fasting?? Who fasts? This is America for Christ’s sakes! Order a burger meal and go large like everybody else!”
May scrunched her nose and looked out the window. “That’s disgusting…”
“Your attitude is disgusting,” Max muttered churlishly.
May snapped her eyes back onto her brother. “Who bought you that fucking meal?”
“Some crabby bitch who likes to torment me!”
“Yeah? Well maybe this crabby bitch is gonna leave you to walk home to a cardboard box if you don’t answer her question!”
Max licked away the yolk that had dried on his lip. He rolled his eyes shut. “Amphetamines.”
May let her body relax a little. “Heroin?” she asked quietly.
Her brother shook his head tersely. “Not H. Fentanyl. Has similar effects to heroin but not quite the same.”
“Riskier too, I hear. It’s more potent than heroin is!”
“The United States Air Force Pararescue gives it to soldiers in the form of lollipops.”
“But you can’t get much of a high off of lollipops.”
“So how did it start?”
“How else? Stress.” Max ran a hand through his hair and leaned on the table. “I was a medic in the Army. I dealt a lot with anesthetics and saw the effects, and it looked tempting. Overseas, if we came across insurgents with medicine, chances were they were illegal. It was my job to identify what those were and advise my CO on what to do with the contraband.”
“Let me guess. One day you find the Fentanyl, you’re stressed out from war time, so you swipe some.”
Max stared at her, and May could feel her snarkiness wither and die.
“Thanks,” he said stonily. “Thanks for putting my life and my struggles in a box labeled ‘stupid.’ Now I know where it belongs.”
May tilted her head back in defiance and crossed her arms. She bit back her apology. It wouldn’t serve much good anyway. It would probably just make him more resentful and it would certainly get on her nerves. Why should she apologize for nailing the truth?
“That was just how it started,” Max mumbled. “I found a Fentanyl patch and licked it. It’s not… It’s not the kind of high that makes you detached. I mean—it’s strong—stronger than codeine and heroine, but it doesn’t numb you like they do. Or maybe it’s a different kind of numb, I don’t know. Then someone showed me how to smoke it by scraping the drug off the patches. It was around that time I started to experiment with other pharmaceutical drugs, but Fentanyl was my darling. I was addicted the first time I tried it.”
“But why?” May asked quietly. “Why do that to yourself? You didn’t even need it!”
Max rubbed his face and sagged further in his seat. Suddenly he seemed so much older. “Affecting my body and my mind like that was an escape. I was in a high risk zone in the Middle East, and more than just mangled soldiers would come to me. Sometimes, I’d get kids no older than five who had been caught in the crossfire. By taking those drugs, I felt more in control of myself. For a while I was a functioning addict… But then I started having blackouts. I’d nod off in conversations and find myself suffering withdrawals if I didn’t get a hit every two hours. One patient even went into arrest because of a stupid mistake I made. Finally my CO called me out on what was going on. After an investigation found me guilty, I did a short stint for the drug charges and was dishonorably discharged. They could’ve kept me in jail for more, but I guess they chose not to.”
May nodded slowly. She didn’t need to ask why it was that Max had only gotten clean recently if he’d been to prison. If there was one thing she had learned whilst dealing with less savory types, it was that prison almost made it easier to get your drug fix than the free world. The only thing she wondered was: what encouraged her brother to get clean at all?
Max shook his head. “There. You have your answer. Are you going to continue playing Dick Tracy today, or can I try and drown myself in the motel shower stall?”
May spared him a look as she signaled the waitress for her check. “We have a few more stops, then I promise we’re done for the day.” Then she added reluctantly, “Thanks… For telling me the truth.”
“How do you know I was telling you the truth?” her brother asked with a resentful glare. “Maybe I’m just trying to manipulate you to trust me so that I can steal your stuff?”
May gazed steadily at Max, not looking up as the waitress set down the bill. When the woman left she murmured, “It’s true that I don’t know you anymore, but I know you aren’t lying to me.”
“But how do you know?” he insisted.
May tongued her cheek before pulling out her wallet and laying down the money for the food. “Because.”
She stood, and as she passed her brother in his seat, she leaned down to hiss, “You know that story wouldn’t make me feel sorry for you and you told me anyway.”
May took a few more steps before pausing to wait for Max. The man was twisted in his seat, staring at May with a look that wasn’t gentle, but was devoid of the thorniness he’d displayed before. After another moment passed, he stood with a sigh and followed her out of the diner.
May stopped the car on Watcher Avenue where some boys were playing football in the street. Most of the houses were small one-stories with chain link fences and chipping paint. A typical low-income neighborhood, predominantly black as Lackley had told her. It was sad how sociopolitical issues shaped the geography of a city so predictably, May thought.
Max whined as she shut off her engine, “Why am I here? I wanna go back to the motel!”
“You can come with me this time,” she said without looking at him. “I just wanna take a look around the neighborhood. See if maybe the people at 3045 are here.”
“What are you looking for?” Max asked as they both exited the car at the same time.
May shut her door and shrugged. “Hell if I know.”
The air felt muggy, the sun rising to beat its ornery heat down on their heads. Dark clouds appeared from beyond the mountains, and the wind carried with it that damp heavy smell. May paused on the faded sidewalk to appreciate the shift in atmospheric pressure, the feel of the cool wind in contrast to the sun’s heat. She felt lighter. Flippant, maybe? That feeling always came before a storm.
When Max neared, May pulled herself out of her reverie and proceeded down the street. She eyed the children playing ball, smiling idly at their roughhousing. As they neared, however, the boys quieted and fixed them with wary stares. May didn’t blame them. Two white people in their area, one in a black suit, must’ve been a strange sight.
In order to resist the natural urge to wave back under such attention, May shoved her hands into her pockets and turned her eyes instead toward the houses. She counted aloud as the numbers dwindled.
“3051, 3049, 3047… Here we go.”
May stopped and felt Max bump into her. She turned to give him a small glare, and the man shrugged at her.
Shaking her head, the freelancer proceeded through the chain-link gate toward the house numbered 3045. The house, like those around it, was a one-story, but its wood siding was painted a faded sky blue. While the paint was cracked and starting to chip, it was clearly a better paint job than the other houses in the neighborhood. Azaleas grew under the windows in planters, and the lawn, though certainly in need of a good weeding, was well watered. A single pink flamingo stood in the uneven grass, and it looked new.
On the porch, in front of the door, was a dirty woven doormat that read, “Jesus is Lord.”
May took this in with a quirked eyebrow. She glanced at Max, who refused to step on to the porch. He glowered at her, clearly still sore from their conversation at the diner.
With a sigh, May knocked on the door.
When no one answered, she knocked again, and this time rang the door bell for good measure.
No response. May scratched the back of her head as she descended from the porch. “Looks like they’re out.”
“Can we go now?” Max asked, glancing over his shoulders. “I think I saw those kids get a couple of gangbangers.”
May looked over. The kids had indeed stopped playing football and were now speaking to a group of older young men in a front yard. They were looking their way and didn’t look happy.
“It’s my suit,” she said with a shrug. “It makes me stick out. If you saw strange people in your neighborhood wouldn’t you talk too?” May pulled Max after her. “Come on. Quit being such a racist jerk.”
“I’m not racist! Their staring is just making me nervous!”
“You the insurance people?” a young voice said behind them.
May stopped and turned her head. At first she couldn’t see who was speaking. Then she spotted a small girl’s face peering at them from behind a window screen left of the door. She couldn’t tell the girl’s age as inside the house was dark and the screen obscured certain details. From the voice alone, May guessed it to be around eleven or twelve.
The freelancer blinked as she cautiously approached the porch. “Insurance people? Us? No.” She gestured at herself, “My name’s May Kliff,” she thumbed back at Max. “This is Max. He’s my brother. We wanted to speak to your parents. Are they home, by any chance?”
“Do they look home?” the girl said with a critical squint of her eyes. “If you ain’t the insurance folks, you need to leave.”
“Well hold on! Can’t you take a message? I’d really like to speak to your parents.”
“You a debt collector?”
May huffed. “No! I’m not here to collect money or cause any trouble! I just have some questions!”
The girl’s lips puckered. “Cops then? You got a funny suit for a cop.”
May’s jaw clenched. This was why she didn’t care for dealing with kids.
“Um, s’cuse me…” Max said. He gently moved May aside and crouched down so that he was at eye level with the girl. “Hey. Like my sister said, I’m Max. What was your name again?”
The girl ducked her gaze a moment before looking at him again. “Jan,” she mumbled.
Max smiled gently. “Hi, Jan. My sister and I aren’t cops. We’re not debt collectors, insurance people, or anything else that might cause your family trouble. We’re private detectives—“
“We aren’t dete—” May started.
Max smoothly talked over her. “—And we’re here to solve a mystery. Wanna know what that is?”
Jan nodded shyly.
“We’re here to learn about a dog that animal control can’t catch.”
Jan’s face went from shy to dark. “You’re with the dog catchers?”
“Not with them. We just want to learn more about the dog. We promise we don’t want to hurt it.”
“You can’t hurt it,” the girl said with a snort. “That dog tougher’n you!”
Max laughed. “I bet it is!”
“Well what do you wanna know, then? It’s just a dog. He don’t bother nobody.”
“We know that,” May said, standing on her tip toes as she leaned over Max to be seen. “In fact, we hear it’s a nice dog. Do you play with him a lot? They say he likes to come to your house.”
“He’s my friend.”
May gently nudged Max aside so that she didn’t have to stand on her toes anymore. “So you’re the special girl I heard about!”
Jan scratched shyly at the windowsill. “He play with everybody who is nice to him, but he plays special with me.”
May leaned forward onto her knees eagerly. “Special how?”
“He’s real smart.”
“Do you know why, sweetheart?” asked Max.
The girl opened her mouth to say something, but a loud voice from behind them cut her off.
Both May and Max turned to see the young men from earlier now stood out on the sidewalk. One of the teenagers, a wiry looking youth with a baggy white t-shirt and black shorts, come through the gate. He looked furious.
“Who are you people?” He demanded.
“That’s my brother,” Jan whispered behind them.
Max muttered out of the corner of his mouth. “Not how I wanted to start my afternoon, May.”
“Shut up, Max,” she hissed back.
May stepped down off the porch and pulled out her business card from inside her suit jacket. “Hello. My name’s May Kliff. This gentleman with me is Max, my brother. We were looking for your parents.”
“As you can see they ain’t here,” the brother snapped. He snatched May’s card without looking at it. “What are you doing talking to my little sister?”
“As I said, we were just trying to—”
“You shouldn’t be talking to no child about that!” He bit out. He leaned over to the side and shouted at Jan next, “What’d Mama tell you about running your mouth to strangers?”
May held up her hands as she heard Jan flee into the house with heavy footfalls. “Sir, we aren’t here to cause trouble. We just wanted some information about the dog that’s been roaming the neighborhood.”
At the mention of the dog, the boy’s face lightened. “This is about that stupid dog?”
May gave a mild shrug.
The teenager rolled his eyes and finally took a look at her business card. His face screwed up. “Freelancer? The hell does that mean?”
“We’re private detectives,” Max chimed up.
“We’re not detectives!” May snapped, sparing her brother a glare. She looked back at the brother with a self-calming sigh. “Anyway, we’re leaving. Do you know when your parents will be available to talk?”
The teenager glanced back at his friends, who snickered at them. He waved them off with feigned annoyance and said to May, “Yeah. They’ll be back sometime after five tonight.”
May held out her hand. “Thanks. And your name was?”
The teenager seemed taken aback by her gesture, but shook hands with her anyway. “Jarod.”
“Take care, Jarod.”
May stepped around him and nodded at the boy’s friends at the fence. They parted for her and Max as they walked back down the street toward their car.
“That could’ve gone badly,” Max said with a great exhale as soon as they were out of earshot.
May snorted. “They’re just kids trying to look tough. Probably no older than fifteen.” She shook her head as she took out her keys. “Jarod was right, though. We shouldn’t have risked talking to Jan like that.”
“What was the harm? We hardly talked to her!”
May found the key she was looking for and pushed it into her car lock. “Yeah, but—”
She looked up and froze, her face going long.
Max raised an eyebrow at her, his hands on his hips. “Yeah but what?”
“Shhh!” May hissed, holding a hand out to him.
“Max, for the love of God, be quiet! The dog I’m looking for is right behind you!”