Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Shamshine and Sunshine are not the same thing. Anybody with training can tell the difference. Just like anybody with training could tell that Winfred Pimsley was a crook. But he was my kind of crook.
His antique shop perched on a hilltop just south of the ruins of San Francisco. On the Daly City side, little houses made of ticky-tacky sat back from the street, guarded by picket fences. Cars smuggled up from Mexico were parked across lawns, rusting steadily in the Pacific fog as they waited to get their plates changed. Kids playing hooky raced bikes held together with duct tape and resignation. A block away in San Francisco, moldy Victorians crumbled onto shattered sidewalks. Wild anise poked through the cracks in the deserted streets. Even daredevil teens knew to stay out of the old city.
The area had seen plenty of illicit psychopigment spills over the last thirty years, permeating the landscape with a thick emotional haze at odds with its appearance. As Tommy and I drove past yards overgrown with mile-high dandelions, the aging pigment’s mix of ennui and affection made me feel like I’d just walked into my dad’s old hardware store. Most antique dealers would’ve chosen a nicer neighborhood, but Pimsley had weighed the weeds against the ambient nostalgia and moved his operation from downtown faster than you could say “Falklands.” That was the inveterate salesman for you: everything calculated to pull customers’ heartstrings before they passed the fence.
We left my red Renault 4 on the curb outside the shop. I made sure it was locked before heading to the cornflower-blue garden gate. Not that anyone would bother breaking into a clown car with a lousy paint job, but it was the principle of the thing. Tommy jerked open the shop’s stained-glass door and shouted, “Psychopigment Enforcement! Hands up!”
A low-throated chuckle greeted us from the back. Pimsley’s gray pompadour peeked over the top of an overstuffed recliner. A lever thumped, lowering the footrest, and he stood slowly. His impeccably tailored pewter suit needed no smoothing, but he plucked at his pant legs to make sure they fell straight.
I’d known him since his mane had been a lush chestnut, but he’d embraced the first strands of white as a sign it was time to go full silver fox. He’d always played a man of another era. With his shift in hair color his persona had become even more outlandish. Sometimes I felt like I was talking to a parody of a 1920s matinee idol. But the sharp mind underneath cut through the gingerbread often enough to keep me on my toes.
“Agent Kay Curtida herself!” He spread his manicured hands at me in welcome. “With her delightful cadet! I was just thinking of putting on another pot of tea.”
We weren’t there for a social visit, and he knew it. Getting information out of Pimsley always happened on his terms, but the beverage was negotiable. “Don’t suppose you’ve still got that coffee maker lying around,” I said, producing a packet of old-school grounds from my navy fanny pack.
Pimsley’s smile cut lines in his pale cheeks. He looked like an albino lizard hiding its teeth. “I’m still waiting for the buyer on that one. Perhaps it will be you?”
“Guys, do you have to go through the whole thing about the coffeepot every time?” Tommy asked, sauntering over to the vintage records lining the back wall. “Couldn’t you just drink the instant stuff like everyone else?”
“Youth! That lack of patience, that burning urgency—what a thrill!” Pimsley sighed. “I will make the java. I have a new disc for you, Tommy, darling. Let me get the key to the turntable.” He took the grounds and moved to a Victorian rolltop desk. Reaching for a hidden lever, he shooed me away. “This is not for the prying eyes of the law, Agent.”
I already knew plenty about his fondness for clandestine compartments, but I dutifully wandered off to look over his wares. Even with a dead-end case on my hands, the shop was soothing. Something about the abundance of stuff, the sumptuous piles of costume jewelry, the stacks of elegant chairs from another age. A cluster of Tiffany lamps shed wholesome, comforting light on a dish overflowing with currency from back before we had a thousand-dollar coin; a ten-gallon jar of marbles gleamed in the corner. Everything came in oodles and gobs.
In the cozy confines of the space, it was easy enough to forget that the antique bounty was a front for Pimsley’s real business. It was a poorly kept secret that he was involved in off-label psychopigment collection, plying a network of wealthy collectors hungry for the rarest of pigments: batches of vintage experiments from the 1980s or recent breakthroughs that had yet to reach even the black market. More than once, I’d waited across the street while a bodyguard escorted a bespoke suit out to his Lamborghini. After spending a good part of an hour watching one particularly geriatric patron make her way across the lawn, I’d asked Pimsley why he hadn’t set up shop in one of the big cities. “They all think I’m their special discovery. That’s catnip to collectors,” he’d said.
I figured there were other reasons but I’d immediately regretted my question. The less I knew, the better. Our deal was that I didn’t peer too closely into the darkened corners of the store, and he kept me in the loop about the goings-on in the rinky-dink underworld of Daly City. If he ever needed out of a tight spot, he had my number. Our arrangement worked just fine for me—it was his tip that had led me to the cache of unstable Cobalt pigment that had been turning folks maudlin in San Carlos. That job had almost gotten me a mention in the union quarterly. Almost. Would’ve been the highlight of a career spent chasing hoodlums too dumb to tie their own shoes.
Pimsley put on the coffee and started up the record player. With those two appliances running, we could have been back in my childhood, before boom boxes, microwaves, or the war. Tommy settled into the recliner. The first time I’d brought him here, he’d jittered all over the place, anxious to get the scoop and get out. Over time, he’d gotten the hang of the gentleman’s rhythm. Now I wondered whether he would notice if I left without him. The strains of the vinyl 45 drifted across the room, a girlish voice soaring over a drum machine and the twanging beat of an electric bass. “What is it?” Tommy asked.
“Bootsie Poots’s first single,” Pimsley said, producing three porcelain cups with rose-pink detailing. “She was an R & B singer before Hollywood got ahold of her.”
“R & B?” Tommy asked.
“Rhythm and blues, dear. Back before electronic tango took over the airwaves, there were whole radio stations devoted to it.”
We all listened to Bootsie croon. I thought I’d found happiness, but all I’ve got is something like hope…
Tommy let out an appreciative “mmmmm.” Pimsley’s eyelids drooped with pleasure. I tried to figure out what was so great. It was just another lady trying to convince me she was having feelings. I found a pile of laminated paper clippings next to the Tiffany lamps. On top was a WHAT IS PSYCHOPIGMENT? pamphlet I’d seen in my high school nurse’s office. A cartoon dog said So it’s like paintball, but with feelings? A cat in a lab coat responded Sure. But any way it gets inside you—sinking through your skin, breathed in through your mouth, or eaten—it’s going to give you some gnarly emotions. I’d never understood why anyone thought talking animals were the best way to communicate with teenagers.
Underneath the pamphlet was a stack of front pages from the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the local rags from before my time in the Bay. The first was almost twenty-seven years old, from April 23, 1982. “NATO Enters Falklands Conflict, Declares War on Argentina.” Then followed a litany of lost battles and blitzed cities: New York, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago. I flipped through, reliving Uncle Sam’s topple from the bully pulpit to the third world.
“Military Confirms Deep Blue ‘Psychopigment’ Involved in Mysterious Incapacitation of Leaders.” I’d watched that press conference with my mother. Everybody had already known the blue stuff causing mass amnesia in our urban centers had to be a weapon. Newly anointed President Fletcher Rigby made the announcement, looking surprisingly unfazed for someone who’d been ninth in the line of succession mere days before. The final headline was from 1984: “Surrender in Mumbai Ends Malvinas War: NATO, China and Russia Capitulate; Argentina to Annex Great Britain.” First time the Chronicle referred to the sheep-covered islands that had kicked off the war by their Argentine name of “Malvinas” instead of “Falklands.”
Pimsley hummed along to Bootsie Poots, carefully arranging bullet-sized macaroons on saucers. I hoped his information would be more satisfying than the cookies.
“Shamshine,” the Chief had said as she handed over the file on the case. The fake version of Sunshine Yellow, the prescription psychopigment Depressives relied on to stay functional. Any agent could tell it wasn’t the real thing, but if you were one of the thirty million laypeople filling your monthly prescription, you probably wouldn’t notice if the counterfeit had been slipped into your gelcaps. At least, you wouldn’t until the rip-off had permanently seared the capacity for joy from your brain.
The legitimate happiness pills were big enough business that criminals salivated over breaking into the market. The Yellowjacket Cartel up in Idaho had been the first to develop a cheap imitation. At the height of their power, they’d had infiltrators at every step of the supply chain. All of us knew someone who’d been burnt. Tommy’d told me he had three relatives bedridden after getting bad pills. Since the crime ring had been busted, smaller players were moving into the vacuum, copycats popping up from sea to shining sea.
The Chief said our local cult, known as the Pinkos, had gotten their hands on a recipe for the dangerous Sunshine knockoff. We were to sniff around, find out what there was to know. It was the kind of case that we never got out here in Daly City. The kind of case that could get me noticed. Get me out of this backwater, up to the big time in Boise or Iowa City. But we’d had it on our docket for almost a week now, and every trail we’d traced had been cold.
Bootsie sang out a final “something like hope” and Tommy nudged the needle back to the edge of the record. “I like it,” he said. “How much are you asking?”
“For you, my dear?” Pimsley’s voice went snake-oil smooth, pulling out one of Tommy’s nasal guffaws. If the salesman didn’t have anything for us, we’d have spent the week going to Pinko Temple meet and greets for nothing. I skipped ahead in the pile of papers, flipping through the past as they haggled. The scent of fresh coffee slipped through ebony chair legs and over piles of wheat pennies.
The two men agreed to disagree about the price of the record, leaving it for another visit. Tommy sank back in the recliner and mouthed Bootsie’s lyrics. Great. Another earworm for my songbird cadet to torment me with. An ornately carved chair with flaking gilt and a high, upholstered back balanced with prim pride on top of a stack of furniture. Didn’t look like it had a match. Pimsley brought over my cup. “If you’d told me, when this came out, that in the year of our lord 2009 the youngsters wouldn’t have even heard of R & B…”
“Seems like he likes it,” I said.
“Well, he’s a pearl.” I looked over at my cadet and tried to see where Pimsley got that impression. Tommy Ho was square jawed, tall and lanky, all elbows; his black crew cut looked particularly bland today. I was not in the pearl-detection business. Pimsley followed my gaze, lips puckered fondly, then turned back to the seat I’d been ogling. “So. Has my Louis XIV chair piqued your interest?”
“Or is it something else you came for?”
I took a mouthful of coffee, calculating how many beans to spill. Pimsley was a cog in the rumor mill, and it would take a favor to keep anything I said on the premises. I chose to go with half the details. “You heard anything about new players in the Shamshine racket?”
“Shamshine?” He bit one of his tiny macaroons in half. Chewed slowly and swallowed. “I haven’t seen any that made a splash out here since the Yellowjacket Cartel took their tumble. Heard whispers of a group out in Boulder, but nothing ever showed up. Same with the stuff from Sedona, New Memphis, Bend… Is somebody local moving in? That would be big news. Big news indeed…”
I’d been playing this game with Pimsley for two decades. Long enough to know that he clammed up when he was holding out and let his tongue run when he was fishing for more. A sentence naming three different cities was definitely him baiting the hook. I looked back at the chair, trapped high up on the pile of its distant cousins. “Just rumors. Nothing definitive. Yet.”
There went our last possible source of information. I curated my ignorance of his off-color doings, but I knew enough to know that if Pimsley’d heard nothing, there was nothing to hear. We’d be heading back to the Agency empty-handed. Bootsie warbled “I thought I’d found happiness, but all I’ve got is something like hope” for the hundredth time. I blew a curl off my forehead and readjusted the bobby pin in charge of keeping it out of my face. Losing battles are my forte. “How much for the Louis whatever?”
Pimsley paused, macaroon halfway to his mouth. “You want the… piece of furniture?”
“I could use an extra seat in my apartment.”
He called Tommy over to extricate the chair from its precarious perch. I bargained the price down to a hundred and thirty thou. At the register, Pimsley smiled as he straightened his gray cuffs. “All these years, I never thought of you as a Louis XIV kind of a girl.”
“You learn something new every day.”
“Keeps one young, doesn’t it?” The lines around his eyes crinkled.
“Sure does. You know, I’ve been feeling kind of old, lately.”
He looked up from handwriting my receipt. “My dear, the minute I hear anything about Shamshine, I will make your buzzer go bananas. I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let you get any more frost in those curls. Tommy, let me help you with that chair—”
My Renault 4 was almost vintage enough to be featured in Pimsley’s shop, but the chair fit fine in the back. “Why are we driving around with a beat-up seat?” Tommy asked, riding shotgun.
A forlorn eucalyptus shivered in the morning breeze. I turned down the hill toward the devil’s trident intersection at Hillcrest and Vendome. Telephone wires bunched and splayed overhead like a grid drawn by a drunk. “Gotta sit on something,” I said.
“You already have a chair.”
I could feel him squinting at me. “You expecting company? I haven’t known you to have anyone over the whole time we’ve worked together.”
“You came over when we were tracking the San Carlos cache.”
“Yeah, and you had me sit on the floor. This isn’t about that R & D guy from Boise, is it?”
The R & D guy was Doug Nambi, an old buddy from the Psychopigment Enforcement Training Academy. Research and development sounds pretty boring when you’re a teenager, but as I’d learned since, what your title is in this line of work matters less than where it is. Your assignments can only be as challenging as the criminals you’re up against. Where I’d wound up giving glorified parking tickets to a bunch of would-be crooks, Doug had gone straight to the heart of the action in Boise, Idaho.
He’d been integral in getting the Yellowjacket Cartel’s dangerous imitation of Sunshine Yellow off the street and had brought us this current Shamshine case as a follow-up. We’d lost touch since our fifteen-year reunion. When he walked into the Psychopigment Enforcement Agency office on Tuesday morning, it’d felt to me like finding a years-overdue library book under the front seat of the car. “I took a shine to the chair, that’s all,” I told Tommy. I don’t like to be interrogated, especially about my reasons for doing things. If I don’t care what they are, I don’t see why anyone else should.
We pulled up to the stoplight in front of the old elevated train tracks. Shrubs had pushed through the cracks in the parking lot that had once served the station. My mind ground down a familiar rut. Showing up with nothing on the biggest case the Daly City department had seen in decades would put the final nail in the coffin of my dream of extending my time as an agent. Normal retirement age was forty. Some stellar field agents held out another ten years. At the ripe end of thirty-nine, with my track record of rapping small-timers across the knuckles, I was staring down the barrel of a warm handshake and polite dismissal. I blew the damn curl off my forehead again. The light turned green. It took two tries to get the shifter into first.
On the radio, KFOG was running a report on the economic fallout from the national scourge of Yellowjacket Shamshine Doug had put the kibosh on. Just what I needed to brighten my mood. There was an interview with a daughter who’d quit her job to care for her incapacitated mother. Tommy sighed. I knew he had an aunt with a similar story. Most of his offers coming out of the academy had been in R & D. But Tommy had been dead set on fieldwork because of the damage he’d seen Shamshine causing around the turn of the millennium. Back when folks thought it was just batches of their daily pills getting accidentally “contaminated.” Back when no one could believe a shadowy criminal network was adulterating their meds, profiting off fried brains.
The radio moved on to the Hope Count and weather report. Dreary days ahead. We rattled toward downtown, passing La Parrilla, the local Argentine grill. The sign featured a horseback-mounted Gaucho, a figure more melancholy than a cowboy and shorter. It was a national symbol of Argentina, extolled in their literature and films, a callback to an idealized, simpler past. The cartoon version’s droopy mustache matched how I was feeling, thinking about the big fat nothing we’d be taking into our department meeting this afternoon. If only Pimsley’d had dirt to share. If only the Pinkos’d had a “Shamshine this way” sign at their temples. If only I had any idea where else to go.
I was saved from dropping down the Depressive rabbit hole by a squawk from the radio. “Agent Curtida, I need you to head over to the Icarus campus,” the Chief said. “The cops have been called in to check out a suicide, and they think it’s pigment related.”
Suicides were a bushel a Benjamin in the Pigment Enforcement caseload. Wasn’t exactly an uplifting assignment, but it beat filling out paperwork about the case we’d failed to solve. I turned the wheel, taking us south to see who’d had a worse morning than us.