"I'm telling you he looks like the guy off that show. You know the one with the coat and the hair. The detective guy. How can we even be sure it's not him? I mean, just saying, but I've noticed we seem to attract a type."
Jackson bats Holland's hand away from the photo where he's stabbing at the guy in question, getting smudged fingerprints all over everything. And, to be fair, he gives the picture another long stare, the good old college try, but he still doesn't see it. He reaches into his jacket pocket for his reading glasses and instead of sliding them over his ears he holds them out to Holland with a shrug and a silent suggestion.
"You're looking at it upside down," Holland argues, and Jackson makes a show of hands putting the glasses away, not saying a word.
There's a spread of photos before them and Jackson goes about ordering them into a timeline that makes sense. Holland busies himself with fishing a pack of cigarettes out of his own pocket, going through the motion as far as placing it between his lips but not as far as lighting it. It bobs up and down while he pats down his chest, mumbling something that sounds suspiciously like, "my wife this and my wife that," but he's leaning heavily on a tone so low pitched that it's hard to catch. The cigarette doesn't help much.
Jackson remembers reading somewhere that it takes twenty-one days to form a habit that stays and a lifetime in order to break it again. In his experience, this is not true. He might never become a ex-drinker but he's made it as far as being a ex-drunk. Meaning he has bucked the trend. He's proof. But as he watches Holland juggle addictions from the corner of his eye he's reminded that things can just as easily swing the other way for some people. And, even worse, he worries now. Something he never used to do. Eight months into this partnership Jackson worries about the break, worries about the lifetime that follows it, trying to move on, and then worries even harder.
By now Holland has turned out his pockets looking for his lighter but no luck. Jackson can see him eyeing the burner in the kitchen and can already predict the results of dipping a man like Holland into an open flame. So yeah, with good reason, he worries.
"You're back," a voice cuts in before Jackson is forced to intervene and they both look over to where Holly is leaning out of her bedroom doorway, her hands hidden behind her back. "You left early. Really early. I wasn't even up yet."
"Surveillance, sweetheart," Holland says, like it physically pains him. He's given up on his search and he slaps both hands down onto the counter, scattering the photos Jackson already had lined up because why should one of them be frustrated when they can both be. "But don't sound the alarms just yet," he adds around a yawn, passing unlit cigarette from hand to hand in lieu of a light. "It won't be a habit. I'm already scoping that couch out for the perfect place to pass out."
"So you did forget," Holly says, nodding while also ignoring pretty much everything he’s said.
With an almighty roll of her eyes she pushes off the doorjamb and makes her way over. Holland is tracking her path through a squint, his mind frantically passing over everything possible he could have forgotten. Eight months in and Jackson knows that look only too well.
"What month is it?” he asks. “June, right?" At Jackson's nod he relaxes slightly.
For her part, Holly gives him the space to think. She always seems to find a particular joy in watching her father's mind work but she can be equally put off when Holland returns to defend his title of 'world's worst detective.' Not to sound too preachy but Jackson is a firm believer that putting your money on a knockout in round one is never a smart move. But he doesn't have a story lined up in his head that goes with that so the knowledge sadly remains his until then.
"Okay," Holly eventually relents when it becomes clear Holland's getting nowhere, "don't hurt yourself. Here." She brings one arm out from behind her back and holds up a rectangular shaped box, as long as the flat of her hand and wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. "Happy Father's Day," she says and with those three little words she seems to lose five, ten years in an instant.
It’s easy to forget just how young she really is but the smile lined with anticipation does exactly that. It’s a look that gets mirrored on Holland's face pretty quick once he realises he's not on the hook and, for a brief moment, the resemblance between father and daughter is so clearly on show that Jackson is warmed enough to glance back and forth with a smile of his own.
But the smile drops when he notices how Holly’s still got an arm hidden behind her back. She’s angling herself away from Jackson, attention fully on her father, but there’s definitely something else in her hand. Shit.
"Ooh," Holland croons, completely oblivious, and to free up his hands the cigarette goes back to his mouth to dance around with his words. He takes the gift, flipping the box this way and that and hearing a dull thud in answer. “Do I not get a card?”
“Sheesh, at least open it before acting all disappointed.”
So Holland does.
The box is plain on the outside but the top lifts up after a fight against a vacuum seal. He then stares blankly down at the contents; a densely packed row of little rectangles, faintly edged with orange.
Holly is practically vibrating at their side. They’re just not getting it fast enough.
“You got me...a whole bunch of cards,” Holland says, measured slow.
He shoots a look of begging in Jackson’s direction like he thinks he’s missing something here. And Jackson would normally go ahead and take a closer look but he keeps being waylaid by the mystery in Holly’s other hand, hoping to god he’s got this one wrong.
Holland tries to dig one of the cards free but they’re so tightly packed that pulling up one brings about a dozen with it and they explode across the counter and the collection of surveillance photos, one even escaping to land in Jackson’s lap.
And with that Holly can’t keep herself still any longer.
“Aren’t they cool?” she says, bouncing on her toes. “I wasn’t sure about the colour but they came out looking pretty good. Almost professional.”
Jackson drags himself far enough out of his inner turmoil to pluck the card from his lap. Holding up his glasses once again he discovers that it’s a business card done up in orange, white and black. A card for his own business, in fact, reading ‘The Nice Guys Agency’ with a start.
They’re good. Simple but neat. A phone number and a sincere offer of help where needed and he finds himself overcome with a proud sense of fondness for a girl who’s not even his. He can’t begin to imagine how Holland gets through a day like this when he has a kid as great as Holly. Or how he gets through any day at all.
“These are amazing, sweetheart,” Holland says. Turns out it’s as simple as flinging out his arm and dragging Holly to his chest. With only one arm to catch herself, she teeters into him face first as he adds, “Better than professional. Sure beats those line drawings anyway. No one’s getting mistaken for Mexican here.”
They make a picture together, with Holland’s unlit cigarette getting tangled in her hair and neither one of them caring. Jackson is immediately taken back to a dark stretch of road, watching them cling to each other while he looked on. He feels very much the same now. On the edge but altogether privileged to be included.
That is until Holly squirms in her father’s arms, pushing herself upright. “There’s something else,” she starts to say and Jackson doesn’t want to hear it but he’s leaning forward all the same. “Here, this is for you.”
Finally she brings her other arm around and this time she’s smiling at Jackson. Somewhat shy, somewhat unsure, and Jackson tries to school his face into an expression that best conveys complete acceptance when really all he wants to do is run the other way. He almost expects Holland to chime in with something stupid, something vaguely insensitive, as his daughter gives another man a present on father’s day, but the guy’s not even looking. He’s grinning down at the card in his hand like this is normal practice.
“Sorry it’s not wrapped or anything,” and she considers the object in her hand, the object that Jackson still hasn’t accepted, “but it kept stabbing through the paper.”
Simply put, it’s a statuette of a mermaid and Jackson fumbles it in his rush to please her. It’s tacky and made of cheap plastic, her hair and tail a kind of translucent green that means something Jackson can’t quite remember. He smooths down her plastic curls with his thumb and falls in love.
“She glows in the dark,” Holly continues, “I thought you could, you know, put it in with the fish. Give them something to shoot for.”
He doesn’t say the thing’s so cheap it’s probably toxic. Putting her in with his fish would probably kill them but it doesn’t matter anyway because this thing is going on his bedside table where it can be the first thing he sees when he wakes up. He’s not going to cry over a plastic mermaid but it’s a near thing. Holly’s waiting for an answer too and he’s got one all lined up until he looks her in the eye and panics.
“You know I’m not your father, right?” and he wants to kick himself.
Holly shrugs and says, “Maybe not, but you’re an important male role model in my life and that’s counts for something.”
Across the counter, Holland chooses now to pay them any attention. He peers at the mermaid in Jackson’s hand, taking in the curve of her tail and the way she’s sitting atop it like a throne, and throws him a goddamn thumbs up which Jackson has no idea how to interpret. Other than turning to Holly and saying as sincerely as he can, “Thanks, kiddo. I mean it, thank you.”
Which she seems to understand, maybe not the complete depth of how much this actually means to him, but she puffs up with the fulfillment of a gift well received. She doesn’t have to know just how tightly he’s clutching the thing.
Something catches Holland’s eye then and he reaches for a glossy photo at the far edge of the counter. He’s still mumbling around an unlit cigarette and it acts as a pointer when he slaps the photo to his chest, shady guy in a motel lobby facing outwards. “Alright, Holly, one guess. Who would you say this is?”
It’s the same photo from earlier, the one Holland swears up and down is the guy off the television. And even now, right side up, Jackson doesn’t see it. He can’t help but feel a strange sense of dread though when he sees Holly tip forward to get a better look.
Turns out he was right to.
“Why are you guys tailing Columbo?” Her eyes widen when she pulls back, coming up with a thousand different scenarios in a second, voice turning soft with wonder. “What did he do?”
Holland grins triumphantly, as much at having a puzzle solved as being right on the money. “That’s my girl,” he crows and he tries to catch Jackson’s eye to gloat but Jackson is in the process of sliding a handful of his new business cards into his wallet that he refuses to see it.
Genetics, he thinks instead, this kid is fucked.