Winter lingers in the air.
It's fitting, I suppose, that the day should be as gray and lifeless as
my world has suddenly become.
My dad is walking away, and I'm an orphan again.
Because Lo Si is beside me, I resist the urgent need to turn around and stare. My father will be out of sight anyway, lost in the human maze that is Chinatown.
We walk to my car and stand beside it. "You want a ride?" I offer, hoping he'll decline so I can be alone and throw myself a pity party.
The old guy shakes his head. "Come back with me. Have tea."
Tea, a panacea for what ails me? Not hardly. "No, thanks, I have to get going. I'll... check on you now and then."
The little head cocks; the eyes are as bright and shiny as ebony beads. At least Lo Si doesn't say what my father would have: It is not necessary. Instead, he pats my arm and watches silently as I step into the street and unlock the car door.
I wave once before I get into the Stealth and don't look at him again. I pull into traffic. A block away, at a red light, I swipe at my eyes. It's the cold that blurs my vision and snatches away my breath. Nothing more.
I swing the Stealth into the park, gunning the motor, disturbing the tranquility of the place. It's too cold to sulk in my secret place, to sit on the ground for hours, thinking about my father leaving. Besides, I have things to do, places to go. It's my day off. I can-- Well, there are lots of things I can do today.
I switch off the engine and stare into the bare branches of the slender trees. My father expected I wouldn't understand, that's why he offered explanations. But there's enough Shaolin left in me that I know there is little as devastating to a Shaolin as losing his path.
Suddenly galvanized by one of my brilliant ideas, I restart the car and head back to my apartment. For some stupid reason, my heart is pounding as I unlock the door and head for the hall closet. There's a cardboard box stuffed in a corner somewhere, and I toss things aside to get at it. Tennis racquet, skates, a basketball -- who has time for this stuff anymore? What I really want is hidden because I'm not ready to leave the contents standing out to be seen by visitors -- or by me.
But today I could use it.
I drag the box across the floor and rummage through it. The brass Buddha goes on the living room table. Also in the box are packs of incense. I slide out a few sticks and balance them across small plates. There are apples and oranges on the kitchen countertop, so I decide to temporarily sacrifice a couple of them to Buddha. I grab a few of the flowers my last overnight visitor left, snip off most of the stems, and haphazardly arrange them in drinking glasses. The votive candles go next to the incense and the floral offering. I step back and study the makeshift altar with a critical eye. Not perfect, but it's the intent that matters.
I light the candles and the incense. Christ, this is stupid. But it can't hurt, which is kinda my philosophy about a lot of things.
I'm supposed to make devotions now, like I did when I was a child. But I have only a single prayer and it's addressed to Kwai Chang Caine: Find your path soon.
And Pop, please...let it include
My stomach is in knots. I dread the questions that will come. Sooner or later, somebody in the precinct will ask about my father -- Paul, probably -- and then I'll be obliged to defend his decision to leave. Like it's anybody else's friggin' business what he does. Like they think I'm so goddamn fragile that I'll break if he isn't around to hold me together. I got along fine without him for fifteen years -- why don't people remember that?
I remind myself that no one has said a word about my father. I'm paranoid, which is perfectly usual for me. Maybe no one will say anything.
No such luck. I don't even get through a single day free and clear. Late morning, Mary Margaret Skalany cruises up to my desk and leans against it like a hooker under a streetlight. Or maybe it's just all the black leather that paints the image in my mind.
"How's your dad?" she asks cheerfully, loud enough for half the room to hear.
I decide that a crack detective like me can plan a perfect murder. I decide to strangle her.
"Fine," I mumble, reaching blindly for a file, not even looking to see what the damn thing is. "Have you checked this out?"
She takes the folder. "The Martinez case? What for? You have a new lead?"
I shrug casually. "Thought, uh...we might get a fresh perspective on that last statement. Maybe show it to, uh...somebody."
She gives me a very odd look -- not that I can blame her. "Ooo-kay," she drawls, running her thumb across the edge of the folder. "So...you think your dad might like to join us after work sometime? I know he doesn't drink, but...."
"He's a priest, Skalany -- back off."
"Lighten up, Peter! The man still has to drink -- water, at least."
"How do you know he drinks water?" Then I remember the 'date'. Crap. "Forget it. Look, he's...he's on a trip. He'll be gone for awhile."
"Oh. When will he be back?"
"Not for awhile. Can we get some work done, Skalany, and worry about your social life later?"
"I'm not worrying about my social life," she retorts, "it's the lack thereof that's starting to bother me." She wanders away -- to pick on someone else, I hope.
I sense Paul Blaisdell behind me. Not a Shaolin 'sensing', no such luck. Nope, I just hear his shoes and recognize his lumbering pace. I open a file on the computer and stare at the screen.
"Annie asked if you're free for dinner tonight."
Oh, right. If I call Annie right now, she won't know anything about it. Still, I might as well get this over with. "Sure," I say resignedly, hitting the 'page down' button, hoping I look very, very busy and unavailable for further comment, as we say to the press.
"Good. Come by about seven." He picks up on my busy-ness and leaves.
See how you complicate my life, Pop? I wonder if he can receive telepathic messages. Maybe I should leave him a bunch, like on an occult answering machine. Or maybe it's like sending him subliminal messages. Hurry home, wish you were here, having a mediocre time....
"Hey, you were right, partner!"
I look up at her. She's smiling. "I'm always right, Skalany."
"I don't know why I didn't see it before." She's excited. "Alvarez's statement -- he lied to us! Man -- I don't know how you do it!"
I don't either. I take the Martinez file and stare at the object of her enthusiasm. I don't see anything. "Years of practice, Skalany. You want to take the lead on this?"
"You'll give it to me?" She's surprised and touched.
I smile generously and hand the file back to her. "Hey, we're partners! It's all yours."
"Thanks!" She reaches over and pinches my cheek. "Let's roll."
I rub my cheek, grab my jacket and follow her. Another case almost solved, another kudo for my spotted record (which can seriously use some kudos). I don't know how I did it, but that doesn't stop me from going with the flow.
Which is another of my philosophies.
It's just the three of us at that big, polished table. They've sent Kelly away which indicates they mean business. I look forward -- yeah, right! -- to the interrogation.
"How are things?" Annie asks casually.
For a half-second, I'm tempted to play their game and be coy. However: "Yes, my father's gone. No, I'm not sure when he'll be back. No, I'm not upset. Anything else?"
Oh, right. She interrogates me, then I get blamed for answering. "Sorry," I mutter reflexively. Been down this no-win road before. It's best to surrender right up front.
Paul picks up his wine and studies it. "Where's he gone?"
I pick up my wine and study it. "Nowhere in particular."
Paul sips his wine and puts the goblet aside. "He left without a reason?"
I sip my wine and put it down. "He doesn't do anything without a reason."
Paul looks at my wine goblet, then at me. I get the message.
"He's lost his path," I say with a straight face, "and has to find it again."
They are both silent. I take some delight in flummoxing them. Okay, I admit to feeling a nasty satisfaction that my father is a mystery to most people. Unfortunately, much of him is still a mystery to me -- and that part I don't like, not one bit.
I stuff an asparagus spear in my mouth. It's a little rubbery. I realize that my emotions are maybe a tad touchier than I think if I'm seriously contemplating the quality of asparagus.
"What's a path, honey?" Annie asks, honestly bewildered. "And how do you lose it? I thought he liked teaching kung fu."
Here comes the part where I try to explain what I don't understand. "A path isn't a career or a job, it's a...path." Good start, Caine. "A destiny, a goal, a...uh...like that, you know?"
Well, of course they don't know! I don't know!
Paul frowns. I'm not certain if he likes my father. First I thought he was, you know, jealous. Like he thought he had to fight my dad over custody of the fantastic, wonderful, brilliant, charming Peter Caine. Now I wonder if he just doesn't like my pop -- which I can't believe!
"Peter, I don't have a clue," Paul says.
"Well, I understand," I snap back, feeling a little huffy. "I lost my path nearly sixteen years ago and never--"
Well, shit, where had that thought come from?
"Really?" Annie leaned forward. "What was -- or is -- your path, Peter?"
Oh, sure, like I know. I shrug and immediately realize I've picked up that gesture from my father. "The point is that a path is very important to a Shaolin. My father's path was...well, it was either clearing the family name, which we did, or it was finding what was left of me, which he did. So he needs a new one."
I should just shut up, because the more I say, the more confused I get.
"Oh," Paul says, like he understands. Which he doesn't. "What about your path? Did you have one at the temple?"
Christ, they're not gonna let this go. I spoon a second mound of mashed potatoes onto my plate. Annie's are so much better than the flaky kind I make at home. I opt for gravy on this one, since the other one has real butter melting and running off it, puddling around the plate in a heart-attack special.
"Dinner is great."
The diversion doesn't work. "How could a child have a path?" Annie wonders aloud.
Paul is nothing if not persistent. "Was it a path your father chose for you?"
Oh, yeah, blame him. I flatten the potatoes with my fork, and the gravy runs down a steep cliff and mixes with the butter. Now the T-bone and asparagus are drenched, which I hate. Foods shouldn't be mixed together anywhere except in my stomach.
"I don't remember. It wasn't something we discussed much, just...that I always had...oh, hell. Can we talk about something else?"
Paul and Annie both smile like they're satisfied. I'm totally confused and flustered, and they're happy. What's wrong with this picture?
Still, I have a home-cooked meal in front of me and probably some wonderful dessert waiting in the wings, so I can't really complain.
"What are you going to do about your kung fu classes?" Annie asks. "Are you going to another teacher?"
I haven't thought that far ahead. Surely my father won't be gone long. Although, technically, he didn't even say that he's coming back.
But he will, and I can wait until then. I mean, it's not like 'the Fu' is my life, right? On the other hand, what if he's gone for weeks, like used to happen at the temple? He'll be disappointed if I haven't been practicing.
And what about his other students? Where will they go?
Suddenly I feel like I've shouldered this enormous burden: taking care of my father's students. Geez, I wonder if he even told them he was leaving? Or if they'll get a surprise worse than I did, walking into the kwoon and thinking their master's turned into a mistress because there are dresses all over the walls.
Damn! If I'd worked harder and been a better student, I could teach them until he comes back. But I didn't and I'm not, so I'm screwed just like they are.
So ends Day One, Peter Caine Held Hostage.