He was sure she had been there, but there weren’t any other people on the street aside from him, and there weren’t any doors nearby she could have slipped into. A brick wall stretched away from him in both directions, spotted with dark windows and unmarred by either door or alley.
Was it some kind of decoy? Had Sor known she was being followed?
Well, whatever it was, that was his only lead gone. He considered giving up and going home, but if he called for a rideshare now, he might get Kendrick again, and he wasn’t in the mood for another encounter with him just yet. He might even give Kendrick a one-star rating, prevent him from accepting any of Zebra’s requests ever again. And, as a bonus, that would damage his current five-star rating, which would be a small portion of the punishment Kendrick deserved for annoying him.
It was something to think about, anyway. At the very least, Kendrick wasn’t getting a tip for this particular ride.
In the meantime, Zebra was rapidly reconsidering how much he cared that Katters had gone missing. Abandoning ship was looking more and more appealing. He could even convince himself that that was what Katters had done, and there would be no hard feelings on either side.
Except, no. He couldn’t actually convince himself of that. He knew her too well.
So, why didn’t he know where she was? Where she could be? He was pretty sure she never did anything but stay at home — surf the internet, read a book, spend as much time in the basement as possible. It was unfathomable that he’d pegged her wrong, that he was mistaken about her character.
Ah — she did do the grocery shopping. About half of it. And it had been her turn the week she’d vanished. Maybe someone at the shop had seen something.
The Gold Market was a small store, with a single register near the front and a butcher hidden behind a window in the back. Most of the shelves were stocked with foreign goods, but their countries of origin varied by a wide margin.
Zebra tried calling Katters while he waited for the queue to clear up, and it went to her voice-mail after five rings.
He hung up and carried a bottle of water and a bag of crackers back to the cashier: a tall, round woman.
“‘Afternoon,” she chirped, and scanned his goods.
“‘Evening. Doesn’t Gail usually work the register?”
The woman grinned. “Gail’s my daughter,” she said. “She’s at school, now. She only works here on the weekend.”
“Your daughter? That can’t be.”
“You’ve got to be the same age,” Zebra said, and it was barely a lie. Gail was in her twenties, and this woman didn’t look nearly old enough to be a mother.
The woman laughed. “Nice try,” she said. “I’m old enough to be your mom, too. That’s four dollars for the snacks, kiddo.”
Zebra pulled out his wallet. “I was hoping to chat with her. My friend’s gone missing and I wondered if she’d seen her.”
“Your friend a regular, too?”
Zebra nodded and handed over his card. “We alternate the shopping,” he said, “but we both do it on weekends.”
“I’m in the back then, sorry to say. Unless she buys a lot of specialty meats, I wouldn’t remember her.”
She doesn’t have to buy those, Zebra thought. “She’s a little unique,” he said. “She’s a ket, with brown scales and blue ears. Usually wearing a green vest. Maybe you’ve seen her, anyway?”
But the cashier was shaking her head. “Sorry.”
The person in line behind Zebra tapped his shoulder. “‘Scuse,” she said in a low, quiet voice. She was just as rotund as the cashier, but much shorter, and her brown hair was cropped close to her scalp. “You said a ket with blue ears?”
“Yes. You’ve seen her?”
“Comes by my kiosk every other weekend — just outside, here.”
“Have you seen her lately?”
“Not in three weeks. Is she okay?”
“I don’t know,” Zebra said. “She usually comes regularly? You see her every other week?”
She nodded vigorously. “Every other week, for cigarettes and a newspaper.”
“Then she didn’t make it as far as the store,” Zebra said to himself.
“Have you checked the bars?”
Zebra jerked out of his thoughts and back to the woman. “The bars?”
“Yes, the bars. She talks about them — the 42, the Hammer & Shark, and the OA6, I think they are. Sounds like she’s a regular.”
“The bars,” Zebra said again. “Thank you,” he added, took his things, and left.
Of course, bars. Zebra should have thought of it himself — if Katters was prone to coming home drunk, she must be coming home from somewhere. But it was still weird to think of her out of the house at all, let alone off having fun, surrounded by other people. She was not a social animal.
She was an occasionally drunk animal, though.
The Hammer & Shark was nearby. The 42, Zebra knew, was closer to Downtown, and the OA6 was back in Ripton.
How on Earth, he wondered, do you become a regular at three different bars?
It was still too early for barhopping, but the Hammer & Shark was open, if abandoned. So, Zebra went inside. A peeling and faded mural greeted him, a tranquil beach scene painted over the far wall. The rest of the bar was done up in unassuming wood and torn pleather seats. Nothing too expensive to replace, nothing too precious to lose.
A woman in a rumpled pantsuit sat at the bar, being served by the stout, bald bartender. A man, large in both a tall and muscular sense, and covered in aquatically-themed tattoos, was sitting at a table.
Zebra decided to try the bartender.
“‘Afternoon,” the bartender said as he approached. “Getcha?”
“Vodka.” Zebra wasn’t actually in the mood for a drink, but he was sure the bartender would be more willing to part with information if Zebra were a customer. The bartender obliged, setting a glass in front of him and splashing liquor over some ice.
Zebra drank it and tried not to wheeze. He tapped the bar and the bartender poured him another.
“Do you ever get a ket in here,” he asked, “with light brown scales and blue ears?”
“Why you asking?”
“I’m looking for her.”
The bartender set the bottle on the counter and eyed Zebra over. Zebra did not look trustworthy, he knew, but he did look like he had trustworthy friends — paper ones, that fit in his pocket.
He drank again. It sat poorly with the crackers already in his stomach and he stifled a burp. The bartender refilled his glass, staring levelly at him from under a stern brow. But Zebra got the impression that that was just what his face was like.
“S’pose we do,” he said, leaning back. “Get a few lizards in here. Think your friend mighta been one of ‘em.”
The bartender didn’t say anything. Zebra steeled himself and drank again, and covered the glass with an unsteady hand before the bartender could refill it. He pulled out his wallet and set a couple of bills on the counter.
“Keep the change,” he said.
“That’s a nice tip.”
“What was that you were telling me? About lizards.”
“‘Ey, Shark,” the bartender called over him, to the man at the table. “Friend here’s askin’ about a lizard, brown scales and blue ears.”
“Black hair?” Shark called back.
“That’s right,” Zebra said. He got up from the bar and joined Shark at his table.
“They were in here a couple of days ago,” Shark told him. “Or, yesterday, I suppose. It was real late.”
Yesterday. That was very recent. She may still be alive, after all.
A warm buzz washed through him — vodka, or relief. It was hard to tell.
“In here with some other lizards,” Shark continued. He had a young, boyish face that worked with the fish and waves crashing over his arms to give him a guileless surfer-ité, which was not realised in his speech. “Celebrating something, maybe. They were real rowdy, but your friend there, with the blue ears, they were the worst.”
“She usually is.”
“She?” Shark asked. “Never can tell with lizards. But, yeah, had to kick them all out. Nothin’ too serious, mind you, but they’d had more’n enough at that point and it was time for them to go.”
“I don’t suppose you have any idea where they went,” Zebra said, more than asked. It was a long shot, and Shark shook his head.
“I don’t, but a cab took a couple of ‘em somewhere. Don’t know if your friend was with ‘em, but you might get somewhere with the dispatcher.”
Zebra considered. “Thanks,” he said, steadying himself against the table as he got to his feet.
“Sure,” Shark said. “Don’t you go hurting them, alright? They were good customers, just excited about something.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Zebra lied. “I’m just worried about her,” he continued to lie.
Shark nodded to himself, satisfied, and Zebra left.