It was ten-thirty when I answered the phone, the Thursday night before Independence Day. Atlanta’s tree-lined neighborhoods flew flags in anticipation from front porches and garden stakes. Red, white, and blue ribbons decorated mailboxes. In town, the city’s diverse population celebrated July’s holiday weekend with food and art and music festivals, rooftop bars and ground-shaking fireworks displays.
“I need to see you,” my cousin, Miki, told me.
Oh boy. Miki, the daughter of my adoptive mother’s troubled sister, Florence. She’d lived on a houseboat in her own backyard when Jimmy and I were kids. I hadn’t seen Miki in a couple of months. She was probably embroiled in some drama. She might also be in real trouble. Miki had a flair for trouble.
I was in my office late, catching up on the work I’d put off all week, a last-ditch effort to take a long weekend off. The air-conditioning was working overtime. Atlanta’s smoldering summer had dropped down around us like a burning building.
My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say “little,” I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say “red-eyed,” I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning. My background is in law enforcement, criminology, psychology, and, well, drinking. I was once a criminal investigative analyst in the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) at the Bureau. But I set fire to that and to nearly everything else in my life back then. So this is what I do now. Detective work suits me.
“What’s up, Miki?” I asked. “You okay?”
“No,” said my lovely sandy-haired cousin. Put us side by side and we looked like the photograph and the negative. I’m a Chinese American recovering alcoholic with a southern accent, white parents, and a gay African American brother. Neil is convinced there’s a way to cash in on this—reaching minority status on so many levels. A government program, perhaps. But that’s what happens when you combine Neil’s Generation-Y sense of entitlement with his subversive stoner’s brain.
Neil handles most of the computer searches and I collect the human intelligence, which means I trail around behind certain folks, search their trash, take unwanted pictures of them, listen in on their conversations when I have the opportunity, and generally intrude on their private affairs. It’s all very glamorous. There’s a pile of Little Debbie wrappers and Starbucks cups in my car to prove it. Our client roster is mostly law firms and headhunting agencies, but we’ll work for anyone who wants the secrets swept out from under the rugs. Missing persons, surveillance, bond enforcement, and process serving keep the cash flowing when business slows to a crawl over the winter holidays. But when Atlanta starts to heat up and the glaring southern sun sets our bloodstreams ablaze, when the clothes get skimpy and overworked servers stagger out with trays of frosty pitchers at packed pavement cafés, my phone gets busy. The badly behaved fill my coffers. I’m fine with that. It buys the Krispy Kremes. Original glazed, warm—the current monkey on my back.
“Keye, I need to see you right away,” Miki insisted. “It’s serious.”
I rolled my neck a couple of times. Everything was always massively serious with Miki. I was tired. I’d served two subpoenas today; one of them meant following someone to work, bullying my way into her workplace, and tossing it at her before she could put her coffee down. I then dealt with the cluster-fuck they call a parking system near Fulton County’s courthouse, filed the paperwork for the attorney, left there, and picked up a bail jumper for Tyrone’s Quikbail in East Atlanta and delivered him to the police station. Also, my bitchy cat hadn’t had a shot of half-and-half in hours.
“Someone broke into my house, Keye. I don’t even want to be there right now.”
I grabbed my keys. “I’ll pick you up.” Miki’s Inman Park home was just a few blocks from my North Highland office.
“No. Meet me at Gabe’s. I need to be around people. And I need a drink.”
I picked up my ink pen and bit into it. I needed a friggin’ drink too.
“Keye, please,” Miki said, and I heard it for the first time—genuine fear in my cousin’s voice.
Nine minutes later I pulled into the small parking lot across the street from Gabe’s on Juniper. It was a fireplace bar and restaurant with plush seating and room to lounge, a cigar room, the kind of place that served single malt at exactly the right temperature. In spring and summer, the big deck that edged right up to the street with a view of Midtown’s crowded skyline cranked out gourmet tapas and stayed packed late into the evening. Runoff from the 14th Street Playhouse, the Alliance Theatre, Symphony Hall, and The Fox Theatre, all kept it brimming with hip clientele, multitaskers who can chat with you while conducting text conversations, updating their Facebook status, and Tweeting the wine list.
I saw a crowd in the parking lot as I searched for an empty spot for the Impala. Instinct told me Miki was at the heart of it. Miki always seemed to be putting on some kind of show. I’d never been out with her when she didn’t have an entourage, faithful followers to bask in her brilliant light. It was how she kept everyone at arm’s length while soaking up the adoration she craved.
I parked, took a ticket stub from the attendant, and headed that way. The knot of nicely clad humans loosened just enough for me to glimpse my cousin’s wispy figure at its center. As I moved closer, I smelled something burning and saw a small fire of twigs and leaves and something made of fabric. I stopped on the fringe.
“It’s her black gloves,” the woman next to me whispered reverently. Ah, the black gloves. No need to explain. Everyone in Miki’s life knew about the gloves. They had become a part of Miki’s depression rituals. I think we had all hoped at some point that wearing them would be expression enough of her misery to prevent her from hurting herself again. But the gloves had merely acted as a warning. Someone would find her in the bathtub, on the floor, in the bed, with her veins open and enough barbs in her system to give Keith Richards a run for his money.
I moved through the group and saw Miki standing over the smoldering pile. Someone handed her a champagne flute. She held up the glass dramatically as the last bit of fabric curled into the fire. A cheer went up as she drained her glass.
She spotted me and smiled, raised her voice. “I’ve turned the corner, Keye. The curtain has lifted.” And then she stepped out of the circle and walked away from her fans without so much as a word. She hugged me and whispered: “Be my date tonight. Protect me from the wolves.”
I laced my arm in hers, and we crossed Juniper to Gabe’s, maneuvered our way across the busy patio and went inside. The first whiff of tequila and lime wrapped its arms around me like an old friend. Most of the time now, I don’t even really want a drink. Not when I’m thinking. But when I’m reacting to some trigger—a smell, a certain glass, a social situation—my addict’s brain gets busy romancing the memories—the way that first drink of the day settles in on your stress, the way a good tawny port feels in your mouth and lingers on your lips after a meal. That’s when my sobriety feels fleeting. I felt prickly heat on the back of my neck. I needed to get back to AA. Not surprisingly, I’d made a mess out of that as well.
Miki was wearing a black dress that flared out above her knees, more Judy Jetson than Audrey Hepburn, and over-the-knee boots. She stood near me at the bar, searching my face. We must have looked like lovers, something Miki had already calculated, I was sure. And another way of keeping her flock at bay.
“Are you all right?” she asked, then went on without giving me time to answer. “Oh, right. The alcohol thing. What’s the big deal, anyway? I won’t let you get wasted. Just order a fucking drink.”
“That’s the worst idea I’ve heard all day.”
She reached into her bag and withdrew a tiny glass vial with a black cap. “I’ve got some coke. Would a line help?”
That’s my Miki, always thinking of others. “Probably not,” I answered, with more revulsion than I wanted to show her. We’d all been watching Miki’s self-medicated self-destruction for years. I felt really over it at the moment. I’d been down that road. We are always less tolerant of our own reflections, aren’t we?
I ordered grape juice and got the same smirk I’m usually subjected to when I order grape juice in a bar. They didn’t have it, of course. “Okay, how about a Diet Pepsi?” A couple of heads turned. Ordering Pepsi in a Coca-Cola town was an act of treason.
“We have Diet Coke,” the bartender told me.
I settled on club soda with a twist and Miki ordered an Absolut martini, extra-dirty. We found an empty couch with a coffee table in a back section off the main bar. The room was set up with lacquered cherrywood tables and chessboards. And though our long, hot summer was in full swing, the bar was air-conditioned to frosty cold so the gas fireplaces could warm it back up. I could see the bar from where we sat, mirrored and glimmering in the soft light. I looked at Miki and tried not to notice the marks on both her arms. The thick horizontal streaks of white scar tissue were a reminder of how desperate she’d been, and how utterly incapable she was of loving herself. There must have been eight or ten slashes on each arm. They seemed especially out of place on my porcelain-doll cousin. She’d just burned the long, black gloves that had covered those scars. Perhaps she was ready to look at them. It wasn’t the first time I’d been grateful the DNA that had poisoned Miki’s mental health and her mother’s, and perhaps even flirted with my adoptive mother’s happiness from time to time, was not surging through my own veins. Mother’s family had a history of quiet and hidden gloominess. Depression isn’t something one freely admits to down South. But Florence and Miki had blown the lid off the family secrets vault with their overt and sometimes public illness. Fortunately, someone had always managed to find Miki after she’d sliced herself up or swallowed a mountain of pills—a self-appointed watcher, a groupie, one of the countless men or women who flocked to her like hungry gulls. They couldn’t help themselves. A radiant, brilliant, dark, and emotionally unavailable woman is irresistible to the demons and obsessions of codependent fixers and masochists. Miki’s illness only sparked theirs.
“So what’s up with the gloves?” I wanted to know. We had leaned back, drinks in hand, legs crossed, facing each other.
“That part of my life is over.”
“You taking your meds?”
Miki shook her head. “I can’t live like that. I can’t do my life numb. I just can’t.”
Yeah sure. Coke and alcohol wasn’t numbing at all. She was probably on some manic tear with stimulants and booze and no meds. I wondered if the break-in was real, imagined, or outright fabrication. She must have read the concern on my face.
She leaned in close and whispered, “I think I’m following someone. I’m just not sure who.”
I stared at her blankly.
“Oh, come on, Keye. Lighten up. It’s a joke.”
Stress hormones began to jet-ski through my bloodstream. My eyes dropped to the martini. It was cloudy and cold. My saliva glands were working overtime. I didn’t want to be here. What’s the big deal, anyway? . . . Just order a fucking drink.
A busty brunette with an old-fashioned cigarette tray attached to her by a neck strap passed through and headed for the cigar room, where she’d clip ends and refill cognacs. Someone at the bar was licking salt and lemon and shooting tequila. I squeezed lime into my club soda and blinked up at Miki. Patience. Something had frightened her. She wanted to be here right now, and I needed to function in the real world, where people drink and want to talk to me in bars. I’m a PI, for Christ’s sake. Half my clients are drunks. The old tapes were playing, telling me this was hard, telling me I wanted a drink. I didn’t. Not ever. I reminded myself it wasn’t real. Just the mind stalking shadowy old corridors. I reeled myself in, knowing that each time I did that, each time I said no, new pathways were burned into me that might help avert the next crisis.
“I hired this trainer who uses alternative treatments as mood stabilizers to get people off meds,” Miki told me. “Exercise and supplements, acupuncture and diet. It’s working. I exercise my ass off. It releases some kind of chemical that keeps me healthy. You know I’ve been good for a while, right?”
By “good” she meant she hadn’t been institutionalized for cutting or overdosing in a couple of years. She took the vial out of her bag, filled the cap with white powder, glanced around the room before she lifted it to her nostril and inhaled.
“Cocaine and vodka part of the regimen?”
“So judgmental, Keye.” She swirled the martini glass gently, then sipped it. I smelled the olive juice. Her blue eyes lifted to mine. “It’s really disappointing.”
“You’re not the first bipolar patient to argue against meds.”
“I’m not a fucking patient!” Miki exploded. Heads turned. She set her martini down too hard. Liquid sloshed over the rim. “I’m family, Keye. I mean, what the fuck?”
“It was a valid question, Miki,” I shot back.
“I was a finalist last year, Keye, for a Pulitzer for feature photography. A goddamned Pulitzer. You ever notice how many World Photography Awards I have on my shelves? Some of us can manage our cravings just fine. How about you?”
I felt that knife twist in my gut. “I fought for my addiction too, Miki,” I replied evenly. “For a long time. It didn’t pay off.”
“Someone was in my house when I got home tonight. Can we just focus on that?”
“Tell me what happened,” I said calmly. I wanted the heat to dissipate a little.
She told me about fumbling with her keys at the door, then hearing something and knowing someone was inside the house. The combative demeanor began to peel away. Tears spilled out and ran down pale cheeks. She swiped them away and picked up her martini glass with a shaky hand. “I went to the window off the porch, and I saw him. Inside my house, Keye. He had walked from my front door to the window. And he just stood there looking at me. He made his hand into a pistol like this.” Miki raised her thumb and jutted out her forefinger. “And he squeezed the trigger.” Another tear trickled.
Excerpted from Stranger in the Room by Amanda Kyle Williams. Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Kyle Williams. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.