Praise | Book Description

Coming August 16, 2007

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The house Rachel and I bought stood in stylish Hyde Park near my old place, a few blocks south of the new Koenig Lane overpass. I liked it because it was in the middle of town, the streets were numbered and the avenues were lettered, giving me a sense of order. I hopped into my blue Chevy Caprice, a car issued me by the department, identical but for the color, to the Caprice my partner Joey had died in. This spooked me when I first saw it. Now I took it as par for the course, Joey’s ghost peeking up and saying hello. I headed west on 45th Street then north up Burnet.

When I got to Denny’s, Pop and the girl were standing in the parking lot. I pulled up near them. The girl had a cloth tote bag over her shoulder and she clutched it close to her side with her elbow, while holding a cigarette close to her lips.

The other arm wrapped around her waist.

She had dark, deepset eyes, disproportionately large for her Slavic features: the sharp nose, the stark, high cheekbones, the unearthly white-blond hair cut straight just below the shoulders. What made all this spookier was pale white skin, smooth and delicate like an eggshell, a china doll. The clips on her yellow raincoat hung open exposing a ragged sweater and floral skirt, and she wore sneakers the quality you’d find in a supermarket. Sleeping, she looked like a ten-year-old. With her eyes open, she was probably about twenty. A jaded twenty.
Pop said, “This is Irina.” The “r” had a Russian trill to it.

By way of greeting, Irina eyed me with suspicion.

When I was a kid in Elmira, one of my friends had a black cat that got pregnant before she was full grown. The kittens came out okay, but the cat’s torso stopped growing after that, though her legs reached full size. People would look at her twice, trying to figure out what was wrong. This is what I thought of when I saw Irina.

I turned to Pop, his breath barely making clouds in the cold night air. He stood near her but not too near, one shoulder oddly positioned higher than the other, eyeing me like he was waiting for a judgment, like a kid waiting to get smacked, or in his industry, a functionary waiting to get shot.

He gestured to the restaurant. “We could do better than this.”

“When I was a kid, you used to say, ‘Food is food.’”

He shrugged. “People change.” He opened my passenger door and flipped the seat forward to let Irina in the back. Then he slid in next to me.

We headed south, through the middle of town. Irina lit a cigarette.

Finally I said, “So, Irina. What do you do?” Pop groaned.

She blew out smoke. “In Russia I was waitress.”

“Uh huh. What about here?”

Silence, drag on her cigarette. “Here, I am prostitute.”

Long silence. In the rearview mirror, I saw Irina smoke with desperation; her fingers shook as she raised the cigarette to her lips. She would sit still for minutes, staring and filling the car with smoke, then suddenly turn her head and look behind her. We rolled past downtown on Lamar, toward the river. Then across the bridge, and into South Austin, over to Congress and down to the Magnolia Café, all-night haunt of hippies, vegetarians, near vegetarians, dopers, insomniacs, cab drivers and cops.

We entered unnoticed and sat ourselves in a vinyl padded booth. Pop and Irina ordered burgers and I got eggs, which seemed more suited to a late-night snack but I didn’t know where they’d been or what kind of appetite they’d worked up. The waitress, like the rest of the staff, wore some combination of tattoos, dreadlocks and piercings. I think the house rule was that you had to have two of the three. A trifecta would get you the manager’s job. They’d carved a hole in the kitchen wall and turned it into a breakfast counter, though I never saw anyone eat there. Pop and Irina sat across from me and I wondered about the nature of their connection. Mostly, they looked beat. Irina reached for a cigarette.

“You can’t smoke in here,” I said.

Her eyes bulged. She scoped the room, saw no other smokers to prove me wrong, then slapped the cigarette pack on the table.

Pop looked around. Community bulletin board. Art on the walls. Diverse crowd. “This your place?” he asked.

My father came from a world where the last place you were likely to find a guy was at his home. You asked around until someone told you where he drank, shot pool, got laid, or boxed. You could tell a guy was at his place by the way he walked in. Was that my place?

“Yeah,” I said. “Pretty much. No one gives me shit for being a cop.” A passing waitress suddenly slowed her pace.

“Yeah,” he said, “what’s that about?”

“I’m a cop.”

“I heard. Why?”

I knew from the postcards Pop sent me between the mid-seventies when he left Austin, and ’81 when the postcards trailed off, that he heard I’d become a cop, like he heard I’d gotten married to my college sweetheart. Who told him these things was something I never learned.

“Who’d you hear it from?”

He shrugged and started a new conversation. “Is that the same wife from before? I heard you got married around ’77.”


“What happened to the old one?”

If I wasn’t getting any straight answers, I sure wasn’t giving any. I said, “You sleep on the road?”

“We took turns.”

Eventually the burgers showed and Pop and Irina laid into them. I picked at my eggs. “So,” I said to Irina. “What brings you here?”

That I addressed the question to her and not both of them registered loud and clear: He didn’t need an explanation. She did.

Pop defended her. “She’s Russian. She could be your cousin.”

“No, she’s too young.”

Irina said, “I don’ need your help.”

Pop said, “It’s okay.”

I said, “No, seriously. I like you bringing hookers to my house. I don’t know why you haven’t done it sooner.”

“She was looking for work,” he said. “They kidnapped her.”

“And you rescued her? You?”

I sensed people at other tables shifting to hear us better. I lowered my voice. “I haven’t heard from you in fifteen fuckin’ years,” I said. “Not a postcard.”

“What are you, a baby?”

“Seriously. Fifteen years. And now this.”

Irina said, “I am ‘this’?”

I stared at Pop until he looked away. “All right,” he said. He leaned forward and spoke in a strained whisper. “Kansas City. ’81. I got six to ten. I did a nickel, got out in ’86.”

“Jesus. For what?”

“It’s complicated.” I stared him down until he said, “It was a deal. Two doctors, a house, some papers. Anyway, they caught me in the house, alone.”

“So…what? Burglary?”

He closed his eyes and tightened his mouth. He was ashamed. He nodded.

If he’d been caught and tried for larceny, fraud, money laundering, it wouldn’t have insulted his dignity. But six to ten for burglary, that was beneath him. What was worse, he was probably the mark in someone else’s game.

He said, “I didn’t want to write while I was inside. You would know where I was.”

“What about after you got out.”

“I felt bad for not calling.”

“So you didn’t call.”

He shrugged. It made sense. I said, “What about now?”

“We left in a hurry. We didn’t know where we were going.”

“Pennsylvania plates.”


“Your car.”

Oh,” he said, returning to his burger. He swallowed and something seemed to get stuck in his chest. He struggled with it a moment, then showed some relief and took another bite. “Yeah. That’s not my car.”

“Whose is it?”

He leaned toward Irina. “The guy who…”

I finished his thought. “The guy who Irina works for.” No argument. He chomped on his home fries. “You stole a car,” I said. “From a pimp.”

Irina said something in Russian, a sentence worth. Pop nodded.

I said, “Do you speak Russian now?”

He bounced his head side to side. “Couple of words. From the old neighborhood.”

“What did she say?”

He ate one more mouthful of potato.

“What was I gonna do?” he said, “Call the cops? They’d bust her for prostitution, then throw her back to him.”

I looked back at Irina. Small nod. That’s just what they’d have done. That’s just what they’d do in Russia, too, and though we didn’t like to see it that way, that’s what we’d do in Austin. Like most cops, I had mixed feelings about prostitutes, but not about pimps. Prostitutes committed a crime that had no victim. Pimps roped in vulnerable young women and made money off their misery. Pimps were nearly impossible to catch. They made me angry, and righteous. And they gave me a feeling of moral superiority that I really liked.

“Mostly I been in Vegas,” he said, through a mouthful of burger and potato, in response to the question I was probably thinking about asking.

“Is that so?”


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