The following post, by J.L. Balderama, is the seventh installment of 10, 12th Street Online’s first serial novel. It is being written by five authors, each of whom write two chapters each. You can read the first six installments here. Check in each Monday for a new post.

Hello?”

Mike hears a woman’s voice from far off somewhere behind his head. He’s facedown in bed, his cheek mashed into the pillow, limbs splayed in a dead-man’s pose. A chalk-figure pose. When he opens his eyes, he sees lines of gray and yellow, the light coming through the bedroom’s blinds, striating the carpeted floor.

Wait. He doesn’t own blinds. And he refinished his floors last year. Hardwood.

In one movement he pushes against the bed and flips himself up and over to sitting. He needs his glasses. Where are they? He feels around on the nightstand. Please oh please let them be—ah, yes, here. He slips them on and takes stock of the room: big bed, big ugly armoire, closets with mirrored doors on his right, a round table and two chairs off to the left, a coffeemaker on a plastic tray. He’s in a hotel. He could use some coffee. There’s a buzzing in his ears. Somewhere around the corner there’s a low, incessant hum, which he presumes to be a mini fridge.

How’d he end up in a hotel?

“Hello?”

The voice comes from around the corner. Echoes in the bathroom. It’s definitely a girl.

“Hello?” he answers back.

“Hello? Hell-ooo?”

“Hey!” he says. “I’m in here.”

“Hello? Ugh, Jesus Christ.” He hears the plastic thwap of a cell phone slamming shut. She comes into the bedroom.

Oh, dear.

Vague flashes of memory. He and his buddies at Joe’s in the Village. A table of girls, all college age, too young, too unbearably hot. Pitchers of beer, rounds of shots. His table, rowdy. Sideways glances from the girls. The flipping of hair. Mikey—that’s Mike No. 2, out of four at the table, all his friends are called Mike these days (what’s up with that?)—dares him to go over and say something to the girl in the red dress.

It must have worked.

Exhibit A: Girl, wrapped in a towel.

Exhibit B? He scans the room. Yup, O.K., there it is: red dress crumpled on the floor under the round table.

He wishes he could remember what it was he said.

She tosses the phone onto the bed. He sees that it’s his.

“Who’s Katherine?” she says.

Oh, fuck. “Huh?”

“Katherine. She’s called, like, three times in the last 10 minutes.”

“And you answered the phone?” He bends to pick it up. “This is my phone, right?”

“Yeah, I answered it. Fuckin’ woke me up.”

He examines the girl. She is slim and pretty, but she slouches in a way that is unseemly. What was her name? Anna? Alice? His head suddenly hurts.

“And what did Katherine say?”

“She didn’t say anything. That’s what’s fucked up. She hung up every time.”

“I imagine,” he says, “she was expecting to get someone else.” He doesn’t try to hide that he’s annoyed.

He gets out of bed and starts picking his way around the room, retrieving shoes, pants, socks. The girl drops her towel and looks at him with expectation. He feels a throbbing in his groin, but he’s not going to encourage her. At least, not until he can remember her name.

Alix? Alexa?

In the bathroom he finds his shirt, drenched, plugging up the sink.

“Hey! Why is my shirt in the sink?”

“You barfed!”

He barfed. Great.

“So, hey,” she says, slinking around the bathroom door, hanging there off the side of the frame like a monkey on a tree. “Who’s Katherine?”

It’s none of the girl’s damned business. But he knows he’s not going to see her again.

“My ex,” he says.

“Ah. That figures.”

* * * * *

Later that morning, Mike Banning, P.I., sits in his office. Computer on, notepad by the phone for quick scribbling, a cup of pens, his Glock semiautomatic stashed within easy reach. Work is the one part of his life that’s not a total mess. There’s a wall of steel cabinets, alphabetized and ordered by date, and another batch of files, open cases, in a smaller cabinet under his desk. At any given moment he knows the location of every item in his office, down to the last unsharpened pencil and cell phone battery and photograph and canceled check. He never understood how other P.I.s could be so sloppy, the theory that clarity could come amid physical chaos. This—clean, efficient—is the only way he knows how to do business. Time is money and he hates to waste a minute. Time is even, on occasion, a matter of life and death.

That’s one thing Katherine never got: When he was on a case, time was precious. His brain was tuned, every moment, to the task at hand. He didn’t have the mental space to worry about her worries when he was already worried about getting his own job done. Call from every airport? Call from the hotel? Call when he wiped his ass? Please.

Katherine had problems. It’s why she couldn’t write. She couldn’t focus. She’d made all these claims before they were married—she didn’t mind that he traveled a lot, no, not at all; she needed the solitude, the room of her own and all that shit. He’d gotten her text message the day before: “Two years.” Christ. Now that she was alone, she couldn’t leave him be.

Yeah. Poor Katherine. She had major problems.

“Hey, Mike?” Jay, his partner, pokes his head around the office door. Jay is good-looking, balding, works out a lot but can’t quite shake his paunch. His wife cooks too well. Jay has a family. He’s found a way to make it work.

“Hey, what’s up, Jay?”

“You hear about that kid who jumped off that building uptown yesterday?”

“Yeah.”

“We just got a call from a guy, claiming to be the kid’s dad. Says he’d like to retain our services. Says he doesn’t trust the police to do their job.”

“Oh, yeah? He say what he was after, specifically?”

“Just a hint. He said it was a ‘sensitive matter.’ Said there might be a suspect he didn’t trust the cops to chase down. Said he’d like to come in, to talk about it.”

Mike swivels to the computer and brings up his calendar. “All right. See if he can come in today, around 3.”

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