I'm over it. I mean, it's been three years. At least, I'm mostly over it...I can't imagine why I even telephoned that number. It all started when Margie and I went to Dark Carnival to see if there were any new Tanya Huff or Katharine Kerr or maybe Piers Anthony books around. We have eclectic taste. We picked up Tanya's newest fantasy, which turned out not to be as good as her vampire stuff, and of course there was a new Xanth. We chatted with Jake for awhile about his new window display, and wandered outside to look around. That area of Berkeley always has great stuff in the shops, not to mention the street artists and just people wandering around. It's a nice break from business, you know? Particularly when your business is being a female private detective in a city like San Francisco. Not a quiet moment, let me tell you. Margie and I have been in business together since college -- that must be eighteen years, now.
The business card was card to miss -- the one posted in the window of the shop next to the carnival. The odd thing is, I didn't remember the name of that shop later, or even what kind of a place it was, what they sold. That's strange for me, because I'm the 'nose' in our business. But the card was shiny black, made out of some kind of plastic, with writing that looked like liquid plastic. It read, I can grant your fondest desire; and in the lower right corner was a name -- Annalisa Solnikov. A telephone number and a small red heart with a lightening bolt through it.
I laughed and pointed it out to Margie. "So, what's your fondest desire?"
"To get pregnant, as if you didn't know."
"In our business you run around too much and get in too much danger; that little soul is avoiding you. You're gonna hafta be patient, honey."
Margie sighed, the breeze stirring her blond bangs. "I have been, for five years. Jack and I are thinking of adopting."
"Sounds like a good idea. There are lots of babies and kids out there that need a home; unfortunately we see evidence of it every day."
"Yeah, but I thought just one of my own...I'm gonna call 'er."
I stared at her in disbelief. "Marg, you've lost it. It's a scam. The kind we investigate all the time."
"Then we'll report her to the Berkeley Fraud Division and save some other poor sap his money. Will you come with me to see her?"
I snorted. "I wouldn't miss this for anything."
Annalisa Solnikov wasn't exactly what I'd expected. She was small and plump, with pale blond hair lighter even than Margie's, in a sleek shoulder-length bob. The day we went to see her, we sat in her small, neat living room and drank chocolate/raspberry tea. She wore leopard print leggings, black suede boots and a gold silk top that was loose, like a caftan. I wore my usual; black jeans, a white tee-shirt and my black leather jacket. Margie wore a grey silk shirtdress and suede pumps. Yeah, we were a strange pair, all right.
"Have you brought a personal object for me to hold, Ms. Sheffield?" She asked Margie.
"Hold it," I interrupted. "How much does this cost, first off."
"I have no fee. If you're satisfied with the service, you may pay me whatever you feel it's worth."
I blinked. There was a catch. There had to be. Houses in the Berkeley hills don't come cheap, not even small ones like this Bungalow. "What do you mean? No upfront charge? What about people who aren't satisfied; what if you can't fulfill their fondest desires?"
"Then I don't expect them to pay me. Believe me, it doesn't happen very often. Now, where is the personal object?"
Margie held out the little stick from her last home pregnancy test, which had, as usual, registered negative. Annalisa took it with a grin. "I've had women ask for babies before, but I've never had one bring me part of her pregnancy test." She closed her eyes, clutching the piece of white plastic in her hand. I watched in disbelief as the indicator changed from white to blue. She handed the stick back to Margie. "There you are, dear. That was an easy one. Don't think about paying me too much, when your pregnancy is confirmed. After all, a policeman and a private detective don't make a fortune, do they?"
Margie hadn't told Annalisa her husband was a policeman. "Do you mean I'm pregnant?" Margie asked, obviously confused. "But how is that possible? I mean, I wasn't this morning..."
Annalisa shrugged. "I think you'll find these home tests can be rather inaccurate. Go to your doctor or clinic tomorrow, and have them do a test."
Was that it, I thought? Something of a letdown, after all. No crystal ball, no Tarot cards. Annalisa turned to me with a smile. "And you, my dear. What is your fondest desire?"
I snorted. "Believe me, it's a lot more difficult than becoming pregnant. Not even Aladdin's genie could do it."
"Let's see; it wouldn't be killing someone -- in your profession you could probably do it yourself and get away with it. Making someone fall in love with you? No...you look as if you wouldn't want someone who was coerced. Ah; I have it! You want me to bring someone back from the dead."
"Do you think it's a joke?" My voice caught in my throat. I was over him -- I know I was! It wasn't my fondest desire; that would be too pathetic, wishing for a man who'd been dead three years.
Annalisa picked up my hand, turning it over to examine the white gold and diamond watch I always wore. Mike bought it for me one Christmas. She unfastened the catch and slid it over my fingers, and I didn't try to stop her. "A very nice watch," she said. "Michael has wonderful taste."
"Had," I corrected her dully. "Like the genie said, that thought of bringing a man back to life who's been dead for three years is pretty gruesome."
She handed the watch back, and I put it onto my wrist again. "Things are rarely as they seem, Samantha." I hated to be called Samantha, and was about to correct her when I realized that, just as we hadn't told her Margie's husband was a cop, I'd never mentioned Mike's name. "True, your situation is more bizarre than most, but remember this -- I rarely fail to grant a fondest desire."
Yeah, right, I thought; this little fat woman is gonna be more powerful than a genie. That annoyed me, it was as if I believed genies were real. She really got to me, I guess. But I forgot about it after a couple of months, even though Margie was pregnant, just like Annalisa said. That was a normal situation. Wishing your lover was back and whole when he'd died of AIDS a couple of years earlier was just bizarre. True, everybody else seemed to pale beside Mike, but that was my tough cheese. And I'd even gotten over the 'it wasn't fair' part; life is rarely fair, and nobody knows that better than a P.I.
Mike should've been a P.I. too. That's how he started out. Hell, he taught me, even though he was only a couple of years older. But he decided his country needed him, and accepted an offer from the C.I.A. I told him it was a mistake, but he wouldn't listen. And when he was bitten by an X-crazed drug dealer in New Orleans, nobody ever thought to test him for AIDS. How I missed getting it from him, only the Goddess knows, and she never tells her secrets. But it must've been a particularly healthy and virulent strain, because within two years he was dead. For the first year he had it, nobody knew -- that's where my luck with the Goddess comes in. Then, suddenly, he got sick. He'd been assigned to a case with Interpol, and they telephoned me from Vienna to tell me he'd been taken to the hospital after collapsing at an embassy cocktail party. That was where he was tested; that was where they told him...I never saw him again. The agency spirited him away somewhere, and from then until the day he died, my only news came from his brother Gerry. Gerry was the one who called to tell me about his death. I didn't go to the memorial service. I knew Mike wouldn't be there, and that was the only reason I would've had for going. But a lot of other people went, and that made Mike's mother happy. That and the fact that I wasn't there -- she didn't approve of me. I wasn't Catholic, and I was a P.I. That wasn't good enough for her beautiful baby boy, and she spent about ten years throwing good Catholic girls at him only to have him sidestep them in favor of me.
I met him the year I graduated from high school, and from then on there wasn't anyone else for me. Until the year he died, at the age of thirty-two, in that hotel room in Vienna. I was twenty-eight then, and three years later there still wasn't anyone else. I kept telling myself it was because I don't meet a lot of decent guys in my business, except cops, and usually cops don't get along that well with P.I.'s. But that was lie; it was because Mike was so special. I held everyone else up to his standard and found them wanting.
Don't get me wrong; I'm no beauty. Too skinny, with small features in an age that celebrates women who have mouths like train tunnels. Too boyish in the age of supermodels; I know those waifs won't last, and I'm too muscular to look like them, either. And my hair is kept short because it has too much will of its' own. It's naturally a rather nondescript color, but I dye it dark auburn; that goes with my best feature, my eyes. They're green, and for some reason my eyebrows and eyelashes are naturally black. I guess I attract my share of men, but not many who look like Mike and have the temperament to match.
The hardest part was not being there when he died. A lot of people would consider that a blessing, but if I had seen his body, maybe I could stop believing he was really alive somewhere...and now this damned woman had come along with her psychic craziness that I didn't even believe in. But what was her game, exactly? What did she get out of this, when she didn't even charge a fee? I'd seen my share of bunko artists and cons, and this didn't smell like one.
By Christmas, I'd pretty much forgotten about Annalisa and her strange predictions. Margie was about to pop forth with a girl or a boy (hopefully, though we teased her about it being an alien) and wasn't working anymore. She wouldn't be for about six months after the 'it' made its' appearance, either, and I hated working alone. I'm not a Christian, so I don't celebrate Christmas on a more than cursory basis; I go to other people's parties and I give my friends gifts, but for me these are Winter Solstice celebrations. And I always give a big Solstice party myself; if people who are Christians don't want to come, that never bothered me. Mike's brother Gerry usually comes, and a couple of times he's brought their mother, Violet ('call me Vi, I don't in the least resemble a flower'). This year I hadn't heard from him, and when I tried calling him I kept getting his machine. So I decided I'd see him if he showed up, and catch up with him later if he didn't.
This particular year I had a large crowd coming. Margie was the spectacular cook, and she always made lots of food for my parties. I love having parties, Margie loves to cook -- we made a great team. This year was no exception, except that Malcolm kept following her around, urging her not to over-exert and cause early labor. The afternoon of the party she finally threatened to put a bowl of whipped cream over his head, and he retired to take a shower and sulk. The party was in full swing when I was passing by the front door, carrying a tray of mini-quiches. The doorbell rang and I opened it, smiling in greeting. It was Gerry and Vi, along with a couple of other people.
"Gerry! You never called me, so I didn't know if you were coming! How are you?"
I stepped back so he could come into the living room. There was no entry-way to my little cottage, and Margie appeared behind me, her green silk trapeze top swishing softly, to take the platter of food from me. Then, with a shriek, she dropped it onto the parquet floor, and I thought she was going into labor.
"Margie! Are you all right? Did your water break?"
"Ah...ah..." she gargled, as people surrounded us. Then she pointed at the tall, thin (much too thin, I realized) man standing behind Gerry, the one in the black leather coat. Strange...he looked exactly like...that was the first time in my life I ever fainted, including the time I was five and the man on the corner exposed himself to me (I kicked him in the shin and ran away, wondering why he would show anyone his deformity).
When I woke up, I found myself lying on the couch, in the lap of the man who looked like Michael. He was smiling down at me...no, it was Michael...no, it wasn't..."Who are you?" I croaked, sounding like a belligerent frog.
"Have you forgotten me, sweetheart? You promised me you never would."
"Bastard!" I jumped up, starting to him and pummel him anywhere I could. Gerry grabbed me from behind before I could do any permanent damage, and pulled me backwards.
"East up, girl -- let the man explain!"
"Not in front of all these other people -- you owe me more than that, Michael." I wrenched away from Gerry.
"You're right. Let's go for a drive. See you later, Gerry -- have a good time."
Gerry took this in stride, and joined the party. Michael and I drove to one of our favorite spots, up in the Berkeley Hills. For a few minutes we stared out at the starry night in silence, then I said, "They did it. Those bastards did it. They told me you were dead -- not just dead, but of AIDS! Can you think of anything worse for a lover to hear?"
He put his arms around me, despite my fighting him, and just held on until I calmed down. "I didn't know what they told you. It wasn't supposed to be that way -- just a routine courier mission."
"Where to? I thought you were in Vienna."
He laughed humorlessly. "Don't I wish. Try Iraq."
"A routine courier job in Iraq? Are you crazy? And where have you been since? It's been three years, Mike."
"In Iraq, darling. In an underground prison, to be exact."
I couldn't speak. I could hardly think. All that time, believing he was dead, when he'd been tortured and starved, held in a dungeon. "How did you get away?"
"One of those thousands of uprisings against Hussein. We were liberated by Iraqi revolutionaries, who gave us messages to bring back to the west. I just arrived from Washington last night. I'm sorry, love -- can you forgive me?"
"I'd love to blame you for this, Mike -- but I know who's really at fault. Will you quit those bastards now? I've only been telling you to since we met."
"Nothing like a woman whose always right to make a man feel like a fool. I've been given a medical discharge."
I twisted round in his arms so I could look up at him. He was very thin, and his eyes weren't so bright a blue. His black hair was still curling around his face luxuriantly, but perhaps there wasn't quite as much of it as there had been before. His skin was very pale, but then, as a black Irishman that wasn't unusual. "What is it, love? Battle fatigue?"
"I wish it were that simple. The irony of it...it's just too delicious, really. To think they told you I'd died of AIDS...well, I'm not dead yet."
It took a moment for that to penetrate. What was it I said about life not being fair? No wonder I'd never contracted the disease myself, but...what was he talking about? "I...don't understand. You said you don't have AIDS...didn't you?"
He shook his head, and when he spoke again his voice broke. "I said I didn't have it then. I have it now."
I turned to look up at him. "How is that possible? I mean...you've been in prison all this time -- haven't you?"
"Dearest girl, you know all about Arabs, don't you? How they treat their prisoners, their sexual tortures? Something their religion doesn't specifically condemn, like Christianity. A good thing, too -- they all seem to go for it. At least, the ones who came to the prison did."
My head was throbbing, pounding, threatening to burst open like an overripe melon in the sun. "They used you as prostitutes?"
"The word prostitute implies the victim consented and received payment for services rendered. In this case I never received much of anything, except being beaten to a bloody pulp anytime I tried to resist. Eventually, I gave up. It was the only way I could stay alive...the only way I could see you again. Now I can't even make love to you, much less marry you."
"We can still do those things, honey. Are you actively ill?"
"No...I'm just HIV positive at this point. I know I look like hell, but that's because I wouldn't take more than two weeks recuperation time before coming home. I can't put you at risk, though -- I'd never forgive myself."
As sweet as he is, Mike can be the most stubborn guy around. First I lost him, for three years. I just get him back and that same night he tells me I can't have him anyway, not as more than a friend. I couldn't take anymore. And as for that damned woman, that damned Annalisa Solnikov..."Mike. I know someone who can help you."
"Honey, as much as I think you're Superwoman, even you must realize there isn't anyone who can help me. Eventually I'll die of this disease, and I'm not giving it to you."
"I have a story to tell you, and it's a strange one."
We finally went home, somewhere in the middle of the night. In fact, it must've been later than that, because it was already starting to get light as we drove up to my cottage. I rushed into the little bedroom I use as an office, and in my hurry to find Annalisa's telephone number scattered the cards in the Rolodex so they flew all over the floor. Mike helped me pick them up, and when we'd been through them all, there was no card for Annalisa.
"I know I had it," I muttered, crawling around and looking in the corners and underneath the computer desk. "It's very distinctive; I don't see how i could've lost it." But it was gone. Undaunted, I telephoned Margie, who discovered she had also lost her card. There was no Annalisa Solnikov listed in the Berkeley telephone directory, either under psychics or in the white pages. I was starting to have that horrible empty feeling in my stomach when one of my cases is about to go bad. The last time I had that feeling an irate husband shot his wife and her lover after seeing the Polaroids I took of them together at a lakeside cabin...
"Never mind," I told Michael. "We'll go back to the shop. I'll get the number out of the window the way I did the first time."
"Honey, you're really clutching for this one. What the hell can a psychic do that thousands of scientists working overtime haven't been able to? I never thought you'd be so gullible."
I dragged out to where my smoke-grey Range Rover was waiting. "You'll see, Mike -- she's the real thing. She knew Margie was pregnant, and she knew you were alive."
That sobered him a little, but he wasn't really convinced. "What's the name of this store, the one next to Dark Carnival?"
I thought about this for a moment. "You know, I'm not really sure. Some arty or crafty place, probably. In that part of town, it's mostly geared toward college students or tourists."
The card was gone. There was no shop next to the book store, just an empty storefront. Jake, the owner of the carnival, insisted there hadn't been anything there for months. I had certainly been longer than that since Margie and I saw the card. He couldn't remember ever seeing a card in the window.
I still refused to give up. We drove into the Berkeley Hills, and I went to the address where Annalisa Solnikov's little bungalow had been. You guessed it; no such number. I was finally beginning to understand how it was that Annalisa was always able to grant everyone's fondest desire...everyone who could find her, that is. For Michael, there was no wish fulfillment. And I was learning to beware wishing. Still...I go back to the carnival every week, looking for a certain business card. And if it's ever there, I'll know Michael's luck has changed.