Birthdays get harder as you get older. Not the birthday itself; I hate when people complain about their birthday, like it’s such a drag to celebrate living another damn year, but trying to buy a birthday present for a grown man? You might as well be trying to find the Ark of the Covenant.
“Just get me a nice bottle of scotch,” Miles insisted as I brooded at my desk. “It’s really not that big of a deal.”
“Your girlfriend can get you a bottle of scotch,” I said. “I’ve known you for fifteen years, it has to be more personal than that.”
“Stella, I have everything I need,” he said. “I’ve got a nice watch, a tablet and a smartphone, a leather weekend bag, cologne and aftershave, a wallet that isn’t made out of duct tape and more cufflinks than I have shirts to wear them with.”
“Maybe I’ll buy you some dress shirts,” I said sourly. “Fix that problem.”
His phone began to ring. “You’re impossible,” he muttered as he picked up the call.
He turned away and hunched over after he said “Hello.” That couldn’t be good. I heard him say his brother’s name. That was even worse. I pretended to look through some files while he talked. He caught onto my ruse pretty quickly and went into the hallway. I waited for him to return with a knot like a fist in my gut.
“That was Glen,” he said when he came back in about ten minutes later. “My mom OD’d. She’s okay, he got the Narcan shot into her, but she’s in the hospital.”
“Miles, I’m sorry,” I said. “You want to go see her? I can drive if you don’t think you’re up for it.”
He shook his head, probably hoping I wouldn’t notice the tears in his eyes. “No time,” he said. “This means I’ve got to go over her insurance paperwork, call around, see if I can’t get her into rehab. The pills had a script, of course, so she can’t even detox in jail. That’s what the Good Doc does. That’s how he gets away with it.”
Here’s the thing about revenge. Revenge, like buttercream and sesame noodles, is best served cold. And by cold, I mean left-in-the-back-of-the-freezer chilled. Too soon and the cops trace back a motive right back to your door. No, you have to let it rest until it looks like bad luck. Wait it out, keep your cool and then call in someone like me and Miles.
We shared a cheap brick storefront on Court Street with a guy who made his rent sticking test-strips into cups of urine and testing kids’ hairbrushes to prove which lowlife was the daddy. I liked Rob well enough when I saw him out in the hallway even if I found what he did pretty sleazy. If he knew our business, he probably would have thought the same thing.
We’d set up shop about a year ago under the vague-enough title of “consulting services” and let word get around. This city’s got a good underground and vengeance thrives between the haves and the have-nots. But we kept things quiet, kept things clean, take clients by referral only. No hits taken out on cheating spouses, no company embezzlement because some middle-manager didn’t feel like he was getting his fair share. If a case didn’t feel right, we didn’t take it on, even if that meant missing out on a good-sized payday.
Miles left early and without saying much else. I closed up at the usual time and chewed my lip the whole way home. I was worried about him, about his mom, about whether this stress would make poor Glen hit the pipe again. And with all this weighing on him, that made a happy birthday that much more crucial. Miles wouldn’t want a fuss made, sure, but he needed something to look forward to, some bright spot in the darkness that kept yanking him back to Novak and the life he’d walked away from a decade ago.
I had a headache coming on, so when I got inside my apartment I went straight for the kitchen cabinet and pulled down an oversized bottle of generic aspirin. I kicked the two tablets back with a swig of seltzer water straight from the bottle. Such was the glamorous life of the single broad.
I probably had a thousand pills in various sized containers stashed throughout my life—my car, the office, my purse, every room in the house—like some sort of aspirin junkie. I get bad headaches. Really bad. Like the kind where you give serious thought to cutting off your own head because it’s the only thing you know for certain will stop the pain.
I looked at the bottle on the counter. I suddenly knew what to get Miles.
Hector was a friend of Miles’ going back to his childhood. His dad was a pediatrician, so he took care of Miles’ and his brother Glen whenever they got earaches or strep throat. Miles’ own dad was a half-absent gambler and his mom was a pill-popping suburbanite, so when the doc was called in, it was usually so she could get her fix. Hector, like his dad, had gone into medicine and ran a high-end practice on the nice part of Riverside Drive, where he kept Pinterest-moms jacked up on legal speed and made sure the husbands had plenty of little blues for when they picked up their mistresses from community college play practice.
To atone for his own sins, Hector quietly got his Suboxone license and offered the taper under a separate clinic name. He couldn’t well have a jonesing junkie throwing up on the carpet next to Mrs. Jones while she flipped through a Martha Stewart Living.
He wrote me the prescriptions I asked for. He didn’t even ask questions. He knew that if I was asking, I needed it bad. I took the slip first to the closest drugstore, agreed to the 24 hour waiting period, then took a second script to the pharmacy across town. Miles had long-ago perfected the art of the forgery, so the IDs I presented looked so real that they barely warranted a first glance, let alone a second. I made one more drugstore stop, then, just for fun, I stopped by the craft store and bought some little bead bags, a stamp that read “Relax” and a rainbow pad of ink.
Back at the office, I was surprised to see Miles. I’d taken the morning off with the confidence that he wouldn’t be in. “How’s your mom?” I asked.
“She’s a mess,” he said, throwing down a pen into a stack of paperwork piled on his desk. “Her finances are a mess, her insurance is a mess, the whole thing is one giant mess. I’m sick of even thinking about it.”
So I changed the subject. “You got plans for the big day tomorrow?”
“Kik’s making dinner,” he said. “I didn’t tell her about my mom; it’s better that she doesn’t know this stuff. You’re welcome to come.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” I said. “Sure, I’ll come by. Kik’s a good cook. What’s she making?”
“I told her I wanted a nice malbec and a porterhouse that would choke a prizefighter, but I have a feeling it’ll be something slightly less than that,” he said. “Last time I sent her to get steaks, she came back with eggplant to grill. Said it was just as good as meat and so much healthier. I almost broke up with her right there.”
“And if you had, I would have taken you out for break-up steaks,” I said. “You want me to bring anything?”
He grinned. “Tell you what,” he said. “You get the porterhouse and the wine, and you and I will make a real birthday dinner at your place some other time. Solves your problem of what to get me, and solves my problem of not getting what I want.”
“Sounds perfect,” I said. But that stupid grin of his wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all me.
I spent the night on arts and crafts and called in sick with a headache, adding that I wouldn’t be able to make it to dinner. The drive to our old hometown was one long stretch of Route 17, so I listened to a book on tape and tried to keep to the speed limit. Couldn’t risk the cops pulling me over with the cargo I had in my trunk. I had to make it to Novak quickly, quietly and without being detected.
Neither Miles or I went home very often. After the accident, where a set of bleachers collapsed during halftime and crushed the four burnouts toking up underneath, we didn’t feel safe. We had been careful, leaving no fingerprints as we loosened the screws, spending the Homecoming Game at the movies and feigning shock when we heard the news. The school put their names on a plaque when they rebuilt the bleachers. We wouldn’t let Mallory pay us even though she offered. We were happy to help. No one should have to endure what she went through under those same bleachers.
I found the Good Doc’s car easily enough, a shiny black SVU parked so close to the front door he was already practically inside. Nice ride for a humble, small-town doctor. Everyone knew that he doled the good stuff out easy, but whenever anyone got picked up, it always got blamed on the poor junkie with the pills in his pocket. He’d wring his hands for the cops and say that his signature must have been forged, his prescription pad stolen, another case of doctor-shopping that addicts were known to do.
The high ride of the SUV gave me plenty of room to wiggle underneath. I’d never had the chance to cut anybody’s brakes, but one afternoon me and Miles got bored and we jacked up each other’s cars and took a peek, just so that we’d know what to do if such a call came in.
When I was sure the coast was clear, I wriggled underneath and taped the package just below the back bumper. I hung around, out of sight, and made a few more calls on a burner phone I had purchased just for the occasion. Once more to Hector, and one to the cops.
Miles was all smiles when he came into work the next day. “Guess you got your porterhouse after all,” I said.
“A couple of slightly-overcooked rib-eyes, but it was sweet that she tried,” he said, perching on the edge of his desk. “Funny story, though. Last night I got a call from my mom. Thought it was just to check in, wish me happy birthday, follow up on the insurance, apologize for worrying me or maybe make some excuses. You know how she is.” He was grinning now. “But it seems someone picked up the Good Doc at with 30 bagged and tagged Oxy taped under his car. Hauled him away from his kid’s tennis game, busted him for child endangerment on top of intent to distribute. Looking at 30 in state.”
“Wow,” I said. “How’s your mom holding up?”
“That’s the best part,” he said. “The rehab Glen and I have been trying to get her into, the one that did such good work for him a few years back? Well, they had a spot open up just last night. Convenient, huh?”
“Guess someone must have heard your birthday wish,” I said.
“Guess so,” he said, sliding off the desk. He passed behind my chair and kissed my head. “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me,” I said. “It’s what we do.”