“Quant, you are the only one who can help me.”
Those were the ten simple words that brought me back to life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this is where it all began. This was the moment I began to understand it was time for me to go back. Back to living my life. The life I’d worked so hard to discover, build, mould, into something I truly loved. The life I abandoned just over a year ago.
I abandoned my life, because I felt it had abandoned me.
I know it didn’t look like that from the outside. I had family. Friends. I had my health. I had a great house. Great job. Great dogs. And a man whom I adored with all my heart, who came with two more dogs, and a daughter I loved as my own.
Unfortunately, what appeared too good to be true, was. Every aspect of my life actually was as wonderful as I perceived it to be. The parts, however, simply did not…would not…fit together.
A year ago, after a great deal of heart-wrenching indecision, I had decided to give up the home I loved. It was worth it to be with the man I loved. His name was Ethan Ash.
Then disaster struck.
I am a private detective. Therein lay the problem.
During the course of a particularly harrowing case, a young woman died. I blamed myself.
The events of that horrible winter day occurred on a prairie slough, just a stone’s throw away from Ethan’s house. That young woman could easily have been his daughter. The thought of it haunted him. And me.*
In my line of work, a certain amount of danger is expected. As a former police constable and a private detective, I voluntarily accept risk. My loved ones don’t have that luxury. They are left to accept the chance of danger by virtue of their relationship with me.
Ethan could accept it no longer.
He ended our relationship.
I was left feeling empty. I’d lost my partner. My adopted daughter. My career seemed nothing but a cancer, eating up the love in my life. I was miserable. Pathetic. A mess.
So I left.
I closed up my office. I arranged for my mother to move into my house and look after my dogs, Barbra and Brutus. Then, one cold day in February, I caught a one-way plane to somewhere hot with plenty of alcohol.
I admit it. I ran.
For the next twelve months I lived like a gypsy. Some might call it being a mooch.
I am lucky; I have friends in hot places. I started with my neighbour Sereena, who was cavorting in Marrakech and Agadir. After that I spent a while in the south of France with my mentor and oldest friend, Anthony, and his husband Jared. Then it was back with Sereena in Greece and Italy, once again with Anthony and Jared, then some time alone in the South Pacific and Hawaii, and now I was staying with my lawyer landlady, Errall, in her condo in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.
In all that time, I returned home only for a few days here and there, but as soon as I could, before real life could tap me on the shoulder and say, “Uh, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” I was gone again. It was hedonistic. Greedy. Self-indulgent. But most of all, my god it was healing.
On occasion, I’d take on a small job wherever I was. Mostly these were compliments of Sereena’s endless cast of friends and acquaintances, with their endless lists of petty woes and worries. Usually the work entailed nothing more than following a wayward husband or wife, or investigating who was being invited to what party and, more importantly, who was not. I did this for three reasons: to keep my detecting skills limber; for a good laugh; and to earn a few extra Euros, dirhams, or Fijian dollars.
When I think about it now, although I started out believing life had done me wrong, the opposite was actually true. Life was in the process of saving me. And these people—Sereena, Anthony, Jared, even Errall—my friends, were there for me every step of the way. All I’d really done was change the venue. And added some sun, sand, rum, and rebound romances to my daily routine.
In my real life, Sereena is my neighbour. Jared is a trusted friend, and Anthony is my mentor. Errall, however, is something else altogether. Our relationship defies easy explanation. We only know one another because she was the prickly, irritating, opinionated, pushy lover of my dear friend Kelly. Eventually she ended up being my landlord, owning the building that houses my PI office, just off the edge of downtown Saskatoon. Then she became my lawyer. Sometime confidante. Sometime dog-sitter. Sometime travel companion. And before we knew it, we were in each other’s lives, long after Kelly no longer was. Funny how that goes sometimes.
In every way that counts—on the surface, and below—Errall is all dark and sharp. Dark hair. Dark sense of humour. Dark heart (I don’t say that in front of her), with sharp edges, sharp wit, and a very sharp tongue.
Several years ago, Errall began the annual habit of escaping Saskatchewan winters for a week or two. She’d hop a plane to whatever Mexican resort had a seat sale that month. She’d been to Acapulco, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, but it wasn’t until she was spending a week in Ixtapa, having taken a short cab ride over the hill to a neighbouring fishing village, that she began to fall a little in love. On the Mexican Pacific Coast, known as Costa Grande, just two-hundred-and-thirty kilometres northwest of Acapulco, she found Zihuatanejo. It was a Mexican diamond in the rough.
Zihua—as locals call it (pronounced Zee-wah)—manages to maintain a traditional, fishing town feel, by resisting the glitzy nightclubs, pricey shops, glass high-rises, and Señor Frog nightclubs that proliferate in every other coastal Mexican resort. Yet amongst the rocky hills, steep cliffs, and private, craggy bays are hidden a surprising number of fine restaurants, beautiful hotels, and large residences and guest houses. In fact, Errall was so impressed during her first visit, she immediately packed her bags and left Ixtapa for a place on Playa la Ropa. She had found her “spot.” Once there, before the margarita salt had time to encrust her lips, she’d purchased a fractional ownership with stunning beach views, at the Canadian-owned Club Intrawest condos.
I was on Errall’s expansive balcony when I heard those ten words that brought me back to life. We’d just returned from a late dinner at Bandidos, next to the church on Calle Cinco de Mayo, where they make to-die-for fresh salsa right at your table. Although everyone raves about Bandidos’s fish molcajetes, my all-time favourite dish is an appetizer called “Shrimp in Love.” It’s bacon wrapped shrimp, soaked in some kind of sweet sauce that makes love to the tongue.
The night was achingly beautiful, as most were in Zihuatanejo. The sun had long ago found another place to smile, the temperature hovered near perfect, and somewhere, in the distance, someone was murdering the lyrics to the ubiquitous “Guantanamera.” While Errall was getting us a couple of Dos Equis beers to round out the night, I decided to make my bi-weekly call to my home machine to check on messages. I didn’t expect much. As my exile had progressed, I noticed the quantity of messages decreasing in direct proportion with my increasing weeks away. So when I heard the voice, with its potent message, “Quant, you are the only one who can help me,” I was unprepared.
“What’s up?” Errall asked when she set down the beer on a table next to the lounger where I sat. A juicy sliver of lime was perfectly balanced on the bottle’s lip. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“That’s original,” I shot back. Errall doesn’t suffer fools easily. So I always seize any opportunity to return the favour.
“Give me a break,” she answered back, uncharacteristically calm as she plopped down on the chaise next to mine. “You’re the one who insisted on tequila shots after we’d already had coffee.”
“It’s a Saturday night.” I defended my decision.
“Every night in Zihua is a Saturday night,” she cooed with pleasure.
Now, you must understand. Errall Strane is not a cooer. That is the magic of Zihuatanejo.
“Actually, I didn’t see a ghost, but I think I just heard one.”
“I checked my messages. Guess who called me?”
“I don’t play that game. Tell me who, or I’m going to bed.” Now there’s the Errall I know and put up with.
“Jane Cross,” I told her.
That got her attention. She nearly spit up a bit of beer. “Jane? Wow. Talk about a blast from the past.”
Errall and Jane had a past. A romantic one. Well, probably more like a let’s-have-sex-a-couple-times-to-piss-off-Russell one. Jane was a private eye, like me. Thankfully, she ran her shoddy, unprofessional, low-rent practice (not quite how she saw it, I’m sure) out of Regina, a city about two-and-a-half hours south of Saskatoon. Even so, that didn’t stop her from becoming a royal pain in my ass every now and again as our paths inevitably crossed in the pursuit of bad guys and gals.
“Do you still keep in touch with her?” I wondered, as I tried to remember the last time I’d set eyes on the plaid-loving gnome. I was ungracious about her, I know, but she’d once shot me! (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must add that it was with a can of Herbal Essences hairspray…but she got me right in the eyes.) She did make me laugh though. Especially when she got all heated up about something. She looked like a cartoon bug whose head was about to explode.
Errall thought about this for a moment, contemplatively sipping her drink. “I think the last time I talked to her was over three years ago. Probably haven’t seen her in five.”
“So what does she want with you after all this time? If I remember correctly, you two aren’t exactly kissing cousins.”
“Hardly. Actually, it was kind of a strange message. She’s on a case, something serious, she said. And listen to this, her words, not mine…she said I was the only one who could help her.”
Errall threw back her head and laughed.
I screwed up my face. Somehow I wasn’t sensing anything good from her hilarity. “Okay, I know that laugh. What are you thinking?”
“Good old Jane. Knows how to play you like a board game.”
“What are you talking about? You think she’s playing some kind of game? Some kind of joke on me?”
“Oh no, I have no doubt she needs your help with something. But she’s probably heard how you’re on this extended Eat Pray Love voyage, so she’s using your ego against you to get what she wants.”
“My ego? I don’t…”
“Russell, don’t tell me you’re not a little bit flattered by her…” And here she went into her best girly-girl voice impression: “Oh Russell! My big hero! Only you can save me. Please help me, help me, help me!”
“First off, that is as far from how Jane Cross talks as you can get. Secondly…” Hmmm. I suppose she had a point. I was feeling rather good about being needed, wanted, for something that only I could do, particularly for a former nemesis.
“Ah hah!” Errall caught me. “There! You see? I’m right, aren’t I?”
I decided to answer without words. Instead I gazed out at the endless black veil surrounding our balcony. Somewhere out there was a beach, an ocean, blenders taking a well-deserved rest until the next day when they’d be put back to work combining tequila with a dizzying array of fruit juices, and the promise of another sun-drenched day. Was I really ready to leave all of this behind? Sensible, smart adults don’t just run away and never go back home. That was kid’s stuff. And I was far from being a kid. You see, there’d been one other big-ticket item I’d had to deal with during my time away. One that reminded me of this fact in no uncertain terms. It was the headlong, unstoppable, fateful, full-speed gallop towards a major milestone event, one which likely had contributed to my general malaise.
My fortieth birthday.
As the occasion marched into my life, unwanted but inevitable, my apprehension and depression grew. And then, magic happened.
On the day—late last July—I was in Santorini, with Sereena. She was the only one around who knew it was my birthday. I’d accepted an invitation to join her and her friend, Spiros, for a sail around the island. I spent my time sipping a cheap but immensely satisfying white wine, eating delicious breads with cheese and fresh tomatoes, and flirting shamelessly with the cabin boy. (I suppose he might actually have had a more auspicious title—Captain, I think I heard someone call him—but I still prefer to think of him as the cabin boy.)
Under the gentle ministrations of the Mediterranean sun, my skin had turned a colour somewhere between gold and bronze. My hair was long, and bleached near white. Shoes were a thing of distant memory. I felt carefree, and next to naked in lighter-than-air, white cotton yacht-clothes. By the next morning, I too felt lighter. That day, my fortieth birthday, I now believe, was the first, small step, on a long bumpy road taking me back home.
I remember turning to Sereena at some point that morning after. All I said was, “I think I’m feeling better.” She seemed to know exactly what I was talking about.
I am not a dawdler. Once I make a decision, I act on it. By the next morning I had left several messages for Jane, my flights were booked, and my bags were packed. I was going back. Suddenly I couldn’t wait, even though I knew the forecast for Saskatoon was minus thirty, while Zihua languidly entered its hundredth day in a row of plus thirty. I missed my home. I missed my people. I missed my dogs, my office, my own bed, my backyard, my favourite restaurants, my BluRay collection, my books, curling up on my caramel coloured couch on a stormy day, my kitchen, my…I could go on and on.
It was time to go home and take back my life. I was grateful beyond words for the precious gift of the past year. But of any gift I have ever been given, this one was totally, completely, entirely used up. It’s been said that gay people experience a retarded adolescence. We’re too busy fighting doubt, fearing revelation, hiding who we are, to deal with all the other “regular” stuff adolescence throws our way. We have to do that later. Maybe this past year had been my time. My adolescence. My turn to get my hormones in check, and figure out exactly who I was meant to be. Well, mission accomplished. Russell Quant, PI, was back, and better than ever.
Although Saskatoon is the larger city, Regina is the capital of Saskatchewan. There is a good-natured (usually) rivalry between the two centres, but for the most part I see them as two quite different cities. Whereas Saskatoon is a university town with strong ties to potash, pulse crops, and biotechnology, Regina is a government town. It’s home to legislature, football, and oil. With the South Saskatchewan River flowing right through the city, Saskatoon is known as the City of Bridges. Regina has Wascana Lake, outstanding museums, and is home to the training facility for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the RCMP).
The vibe of each city is also quite distinct. But I saw none of that as my plane landed in the Queen City well past sunset. My calls to Jane’s numbers had gone unreturned. I was becoming a bit nervous about my decision to make a layover in Regina to find out what was up with her. Suppose it was a joke? Suppose she no longer needed my help? Suppose she’d decided to take off for a week’s holiday on the island of Lesbos?
It wasn’t such a big deal, I decided as I caught a cab outside the airport terminal. If I couldn’t find her tonight, I’d have a good meal, drop by the casino, catch my twenty-minute flight first thing in the morning, and be home before lunch.
I’d gotten Jane’s home address from Errall before leaving Zihua. After dropping my luggage off at the hotel, I directed the cab there, telling him to wait while I knocked on the door. The woman who answered said she’d been living in the apartment for over a year and had no idea who Jane was. Great. She’d moved.
On the off chance she was still at work this time of night, I asked the taxi driver to take me to Jane’s office.
Jane worked out of a petite, clapboard house she rented on a quiet street near the warehouse district. I could see the low wattage shimmer of a light somewhere inside as we pulled up. I walked up the narrow, shovelled walkway to a covered porch, and pulled out my cellphone. I tried her office number once more. Mounting the steps I could hear a phone ringing inside. I had the right number. But no one was answering. Hope dwindled.
I stepped into the porch and knocked on the interior door.
I was about to head back to my waiting ride, when I heard a noise from inside. It sounded like someone stumbling on hardwood floors. I stepped over to the nearest window and peered through the slats of a blind. I thought I caught a glimpse of a dark mass moving from one side of the room to the other. What the hell?
I rapped on the window.
“Jane? Jane, are you in there? It’s Russell Quant.”
Back at the door I tried the knob. It turned all the way. Unlocked. Not very smart of Jane, if she truly wasn’t here.
Slowly I pushed open the door. It actually creaked. This was all beginning to feel a little like a bad horror movie. I glanced back toward the street, hoping for the comfort of a kindly cabbie watching over me. Instead I saw exhaust puffing from the rear end of his car as he sped off. I should never have paid him for the fare to get here.
I was getting cold. The temperature was hovering in the minus twenties. The jacket I’d brought with me was meant for airports and cabs, not for actual protection from winter elements.
“Yoo hoo, Jane!” I called out. “Ready or not, here I come!” I stepped inside, closing the door, leaving the frozen air behind it.
At this point in a typical Jane Cross-Russell Quant repartee, she’d be shaking her little fists, cheeks all red and rosy, calling me bub, or Priscilla, Queen of the Prairie Desert, and yelling at me to get the hell out of her office, unless I had an appointment. Since none of that was happening, I was guessing Jane Cross, Birkenstock PI, was not in.
I was back on high alert.
I was definitely not alone.
The light I’d seen earlier must have been in another room, because the one I was in was pitch black. I could barely see a thing.
Something moved on my right.
Shit, what the hell was that?
I reached out, looking for a light switch or lamp. I stumbled over something on the floor. Typical lesbian; a lousy housekeeper.
More hurried movements.
“I know you’re there,” I announced, trying to keep the quiver out of my voice.
Seeing what I hoped was the silhouette of a lamp, I headed toward it.
Next thing I knew I was flat on my face.
I swore a little.
What the hell? Did she have the place booby trapped against intruders? My ankle tingled where it had caught underneath the bulky item I’d tripped over.
If I’d thought it was dark standing up, it was even darker down here on the floor. I reached out for something to hold on to, to help pull me up to my feet. My hand landed on something soft.
The pain that coursed through me in the next milliseconds was enough to elicit a discordant choir of screeching. From me.
I immediately felt drops of blood dribbling down my face. My cheek was throbbing. My eyes watered.
From beneath what I was guessing was a bureau, I heard a low, warning yowl. It was coming from the cat whose tail I’d just grabbed in the dark.
I called the cat some not very nice names. To be fair, I did not know her actual name. And, I was hurt. To be equally fair to the cat, I had just broken into her home, and yanked her pride and joy. I supposed we were even. By the time I found a Kleenex in my pocket and dabbed up most of the blood from the scratches, I was ready to forgive and forget.
With the yowling and shrieking having subsided, and the wound tended to as best I could given the circumstances, I decided it was time to make a move. I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my cellphone. The display screen lit up with its silvery glow. I directed the meagre light around me, looking for the nearest public-utility-provided light source. What I found instead, was one of the greatest horrors of my career.