"Hey, Jack, can I bother you a minute?"
Jack sat at his table in the rear of Julio's. He looked up from his coffee and saw Timmy O'Brien, one of Julio's regulars. A fiftyish guy, thin, hangdog face, watery eyes, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt in January.
Julio's, an Upper West Side bar that had fought the good fight and succeeded in holding on to its working-class roots through the neighborhood's decades of legitimization, rehabilitation, restoration, and gentrification, had been Jack's hang for years. Julio always saved him a table where he could sit with his back to the wall.
"Well, yeah. I mean, I know about what happened last month, and I'm really sorry for your loss. I know you've still got to be bummed, but I could really use some help, Jack."
Jack sighed. He'd been on sabbatical, ignoring e-mails and voice mails from prospective customers. Didn't feel he could focus enough--or care enough--to earn his fee. That was part of it. Truth was he was having trouble caring about much of anything outside his small, immediate circle. No interest, no energy, and probably drinking too much these past three weeks.
He didn't need a shrink to tell him he was depressed. But a shrink would want to give him pills, and Jack didn't want pills. He preferred beer--but not before lunch.
He couldn't find the energy to get up and get out and get moving again. What was the point? Who cared? And when he got right down to it, did anything he did, anything he'd ever done, matter in the long run? Had he ever made a difference?
But Timmy looked so needy. Jack wasn't ready to venture outside his self-circumscribed world of Julio's, Abe's, Gia's, and his own place, but maybe he could make a few suggestions.
He pointed to the seat across from him.
As Timmy settled his butt in the chair and his draft on the table, Jack reviewed what he knew about the man.
A dozen years ago Timmy had been an advertising hotshot, near the peak of the copywriter heap. Lots of money, but too much of it going up his nose. His agency had been on the short list for a big Citibank account and he had this idea that he was sure would clinch it for them. He'd once shown the Julio's gang a mockup of the ad.
A big, neon-bright lettered cross with tiny letters below it:
Everyone here at Julio's had thought it was way cool, but the new Timmy said he had no idea where his old self had come up with such a stupid idea. The agency brass had told him to forget it, but coke-fueled grandiosity mixed with his own hubris had convinced him that this was the only way to go. So against all advice and all orders, he'd pitched it to the bank officers, telling them that though he knew it would be controversial, that very controversy would make Citibank a household name.
The officers agreed, but figured the bank's name would be associated with other words in those households--like "hell-bound" and "damned" and "sacrilegious."
The multimillion-dollar account went elsewhere. And soon after, so did Timmy.
After bottoming out a few years later, he put himself in rehab, joined NA, and cleaned up his act.
But the clean and sober Timmy was not the same man. The guy who'd had his finger on the pulse of America's wants--who'd even created some of those wants--could never quite localize that throb again. He was still in advertising, but working far below the apogee of his heyday. Always a little out of step--like the Hawaiian shirt--ever functioning just outside the norm. No longer big-time, resigned to be forever small-time.
In other words, a prototypical Julio's regular.
But Jack didn't remember ever seeing him here before five o'clock. And a morning beer--even if it was late morning--wasn't like the new Timmy. Something had to be bothering him.
"It's about my niece."
A problem with a fourteen-year-old girl. That could mean anything from promiscuity to drugs to being an all-around wild child. None of which Jack could help with.
Timmy held up a hand. "Now, now, I know what you're thinking, but it's nothing like that. Cailin's a good kid. She goes to Mount Saint Ursula, scholarship and all--straight-A student, field hockey, the whole thing."
"Then what is it?"
"I told you, Cailin's not like that. But this morning, somewhere between her house and school, she disappeared."
"This morning?" Jack shook his head. "Hell, Timmy, she's been gone, what, four hours? She's probably off with her boyfriend."
"Except her boyfriend's in school."
"What do the police say?"
"Same as you: Hasn't been gone long enough. If someone had seen foul play, that'd be a different story. But with kids running away all the time, they're pretty blasé about the whole thing. Like, 'Yeah-yeah, come back when it's been a coupla days.' So I'm coming to you, Jack."
Jack sighed. He could see Timmy was worried, but he had to lay out a few facts of life.
"I don't do missing persons, Timmy, especially a hot case. And there's a very good reason for that: I can't. I don't have the resources. I'm just one guy, and the cops are many. And they've got all those computers and databases and people from CSI: New York."
"But they're not using them!"
"The other thing is, I'm not a detective. I'm a fix-it guy."
"Well, then, fix this."
"Damn it, Jack!"
Timmy slammed his palms on the table. His beer mug and Jack's coffee cup jumped. The midday regulars looked over, then went back to their drinks and talk. He lowered his voice.
"My sister's going nuts, Jack, and so am I. I never had kids--two wives but no kids. Cailin's been like a daughter. I couldn't love her more if she were really mine."
That struck a nerve. Jack knew the feeling. He had the same relationship with Vicky.
"What do you think I can do, Timmy?"
"You know people, and you know people who know people--people the cops don't know."
"As in, 'I've Got Friends in Low Places'?"
"You know what I mean. Put the word out--a sort of street-level Amber Alert. I'll pay a reward--five hundred, a thousand, my apartment, anything." His throat worked as his voice choked. "I just want her safe and sound. Is that too much to ask?"
It might be, but Jack supposed he could make a few calls. Timmy was a regular here, and Julio's regulars tended to watch each others' backs. How could he say no?
"Okay, I'll call some people." He kept his phone list at home. A quick walk from here. "But five hundred won't be enough."
Timmy spread his hands. "I know you don't come cheap, but like I said: anything."
"What I'm trying to tell you is we're venturing into What's-in-it-for-me Land. Some of the guys I call, and most of the guys they call, aren't going to pass the word around out of the goodness of their hearts. They're going to need incentive."
"Name the figure."
Jack had done this before and knew it had to be set up so, in case of success, everyone along the chain walked away with something. What he'd tell his first-line contacts was that if someone in their contact string found the girl, they'd get the same reward as the finder. This would go down the line: If A tells B who tells C who tells D who finds the girl, all four get the same reward. Five hundred bucks apiece seemed like a good incentive--one that looked better and better as it moved down the chain, ballooning to a bonanza by the time it reached the street people.
"Probably cost you twenty-five hundred, although it might go as high as five."
Timmy slumped with relief.
"Done. I can't think of anything better to spend it on."
"Got a pen?" When Timmy handed him one, Jack grabbed a napkin and readied to write. "What's she look like? What was she wearing?"
"She left the house in a blue coat over a typical Catholic girls' school outfit. You know: white blouse, blue sweater, blue-and-white plaid skirt, blue knee socks."
Jack shook his head. "Got to be a gazillion kids dressed like that in the city."
"Yeah, but they don't have Cailin's hair. It's bright red--all natural--and wild. She's always complaining about how nothing she tries will control it."
"Got a picture?"
"Sure." Timmy fumbled in a back pocket for his wallet. "You thinking of posting it around?"
Jack shook his head. He had neither the time nor the manpower for that sort of canvassing.
"Just want to see her face."
Timmy wiggled a wrinkled photo out of his wallet and passed it across.
"Taken maybe a month ago."
Jack stared at the girl in the picture. Cute kid. Round face, freckles, red and green bands on her braces, and a Santa cap squished on her wild red mop.
"You weren't kidding about the hair."
"She goes on and on about it. She'll wear you out with her constant carping about it, but . . ." He wiped an eye. "I'd give anything to be listening to her right now."
Jack rose and clapped him on the shoulder.
"I'll get on it. Can I keep the photo?"
"Sure. Long as you need it."
"No promises, Timmy, beyond making the calls. It's a long shot."
Timmy grabbed his hand and squeezed.
"I know, but you're all I've got right now."
Jack waved good-bye to Julio and stepped out into the cutting January wind.
Long shot? Who was he kidding? More like hitting a dime at a thousand yards with a Saturday night special.
Copyright © 2006 by F. Paul Wilson F. PAUL WILSON, the New York Times bestselling author of nine previous Repairman Jack novels, lives in Wall, New Jersey.