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 I. THE SET-UP

 

It cannot be said that Holland March is a reliable man. He spent a good few years in the force, where good men got demoted and worse men got bribes or medals; and then he went into the P.I. business because he could make more money for doing much less.

He did try, once upon a time; he used to have some kind of motivation, but then his wife died and there was nobody left to cajole him and he lost what little authenticity he might've once had. It was a bad trait in a private eye, and a worse trait in a father.

Holly, during a shouting match once, had called him a blunt knife. Useless for its intended purpose. It was a low blow, but not a poorly aimed barb. She could have only picked that one up from her mother, he suspected gloomily. His in-laws were English, and that side of the family always knew how to sling a dry insult. Anyway, they hadn't spoken to March since he let their daughter—anyway.

The last person to put her misguided faith wholly in the hands of Holland March was poor Lily Glenn, two Ns, who'd paid him twice over to find her dead niece, and all she'd got for her bonus payment was another girl's corpse on her doorstep.

Fat fucking chance of getting an honest day's work out of that son of a bitch.

And then, lo and fucking behold. Who should plod into his life but Jackson Healy. Not a noble man, but hell, Healy liked to see a thing through to the end. A sense of pride in his deadbeat work. March had the charm and Healy had the stamina, and maybe, just maybe, they could make this business thing pan out.

March's connections are of no use to him, a dribble of ageing clients whose mysteries are more down to shitty memory than foul play. But Healy has a way of extracting information that works considerably better than March's pitiful bribes - namely his huge fucking fists - and they manage to strike something close to gold. A Will dispute, a missing trinket, told time and time again it's of no value but sentimental; a surprisingly well-hidden derringer, two shots, a brisk left hook, and not only do they get paid for the job, but a long-absent nephew pops up out of goddamn nowhere to thank them for finding his beloved aunt's locket. The old witch was hiding a key in the dime store necklace, the key to her safe, her safe full of priceless artwork that immediately went to auction.

March haggled for two percent of the total sale; what with the attempt on their lives and all.

"Priceless", as a valuation, is complete misdirection. Those old paintings sure as hell had a price tag.

There are a pile of letters at Healy's apartment requesting the services of Real Life Tough Guy Jackson Healy. He trashes most of them; the few he keeps are only through a fierce sense of propriety when it comes to teenage girls and their ill-advised love lives. Then he picks up a second-hand desk, two leather office chairs, and a metal in-tray. March helps him, complaining loudly, push the bed to the corner of the apartment, and install the little office. The address on the fliers was a front, anyway. March has them reprinted.

"You didn't get them to draw me again?" Healy tuts, trying to find the right height for his chair.

"That was a custom portrait," March snaps, affronted.

Three weeks later, a shaky client tells them they came highly recommended, and March won't stop repeating it. He's quoted it at least five times to Holly as though it's a title - Holland March (Highly Recommended) - and twice again to Healy, even though Healy was present at the conversation. March drinks when he celebrates, and this is cause enough for a beer or five, and, tipsy, he grills Healy on who the hell told him, way back when, that March was half decent at this sort of thing.

"I mean I'm not saying I wasn't," March stumbles.

"You weren't great," Healy says.

"Fuck you, not great."

Healy sighs, perhaps measuring up whether March will remember this in the morning. At least he's consistent about that. "I was buttering your ego," he admits. "I had a feeling about you."

March scrunches up his nose. "What hippie bullshit. A feeling? You're the world's worst detective."

"Okay then," Healy says, wryly. They drink their beer - Healy tenderly nursing a single bottle all night - and head to bed.

Healy's been staying over, more often that not. His apartment's a much better office than it was a home, and March has spare rooms coming out of his ass since the house was rebuilt. It's barely furnished and the walls are all plaster and white paint, but it was built to the original plans; a house for a growing young family. His wife had been expecting to crap out a couple more kids by the turn of the decade, March supposes. But his wife is--

He's not dwelling on it, and he's not being morbid. His mind is unreliable, too. Forgets she's dead, for whole minutes at a time. Go figure.

They'd been offered an arson case a month back, and Healy, in his most polite telephone voice, told the client their caseload was just too heavy. Scribbled on a napkin the name and number of a guy who knew a guy whose Pop worked in insurance, might be able to help them with the claims and small print.

They could've taken it. Extra cash in the kitty, no harm with the dead heat and slow trade of summer swiftly approaching.

But March found himself choking on that argument, and instead punched Healy very feebly on the forearm and let him interpret however the hell he wanted.

It makes sense for Healy to be around more often than not. You know, to take the reins on their fledgling – highly recommended - business enterprise. March finds the local Mormons bother him considerably less when Healy answers the door too, so. Added bonus.

It's Healy, in the end, who ventures the idea that Holly might need a break.

"It's summer vacation, Healy," March snaps around his cigarette. "She can't get more of a break." They're pounding the streets, on a side-job of Healy's: his brass knuckles in the back of his jeans. Old habits die hard, or whatever. They're sharing the take. March had been stung when he first saw the tools of Healy's trade, and Healy had told him off-handedly that March should consider himself lucky he'd only come out of the affair with a broken arm, and not a nose and jaw as well.

"Okay you're just—you know what I'm saying here. As the unofficial and decidedly unpaid third partner in this business, she deserves a kick-back, don't you think?" Healy veers over, pats his big paw over March's jacket and finds the cigarette carton nestling inside. They're sharing bad habits more often than not, and March's first experience with a fat cigar was not dignified but at least had made Healy laugh himself hoarse. Healy still makes a face whenever he smokes one of March's lights, but settles into it soon enough, puffing thoughtfully. "She seems kind of listless."

"She's fine," March says, waving smoke out of his face from the stagnant California air. "Listless?"

"You know. Lackadaisical."

"Jesus, your word calendar needs updating. She's—no, she's fine, right? She's got. You know, homework? And she's helping us with—important shit."

"She's filing the invoices you're too lazy to do."

"Right. That's important."

Healy sighs, his low, patient mark of frustration. "I mean she deserves to do—kid stuff."

"What would you know about it?"

"Clearly less than you, Daddio."

"Never say that to my face again," March spits. He nods, Healy's mark a few paces ahead of them now, his swagger too obvious and his jeans too tight.

"Okay, sure, let's—let's talk about this when you feel like being an adult isn't beneath you," Healy mutters, donning his knucks.

He doesn't throw a single punch in the end. Threats and braggadocio are enough when they come from a two-hundred pound bruiser with an iron grip and a wad of metal adorning his right fist. March is almost proud.

See, March has noticed his daughter's latent apathy.

The thing about March's ideas is that they tend to arrive fully formed and then decay at an alarmingly rapid pace. Emma, his wife, (his ex-wife), had floated the idea of a trip, too. Younger and keener to impress, March had immediately told her he was gonna build Holly a cabin somewhere up in the Hollywood Hills. Do it by hand, make it real special, an heirloom.

"I don't think you can just build whatever on public land, Hol," Emma had said to him, well-meaning (Healy, when March gets round to telling this story, belatedly agrees with her).

The idea diluted gradually over the days. Someone else could build the cabin. He could buy a cabin pre-built. Maybe not a cabin, you know, but a tree house. In the Hollywood Hills? No, fuck no, just like, in the yard. They could just pitch a little tent in the yard.

"You know what? Never mind," Emma had sighed, and ended up sending Holly off to her mother and step-father in New England for two weeks. Holly came back rosy-cheeked and grinning, and Holland felt like a shit father with no follow-through.

He vowed to himself that he'd take Holly somewhere next year, but then, he had promised to get someone in to check out the gas leak, and his house had burnt down, and he had no faith in his own promises anymore.

So this time, he aims low.

"I'm gonna take Holly to Santa Monica for the day," he announces to Healy over dinner. Healy can cook meat and potatoes about eight different ways, though very little else. It's steak and mash tonight, and he's skimped on the garlic and overdone the salt. He did, as Healy perpetually likes to tell him, grow up Irish after all.

Healy's fork stops on the way to his mouth. "Santa—are you fucking kidding me?"

"What? No—No? No. We can, you know, sit. With ice cream. Spend nickels on the pier. Look at the—sand? That’s what people do at beaches, right?"

"At that shithole? Have you seen that place in the last twenty years? You wanna take Holly for ice cream with the crackheads and Hell's Angels? That pier's falling into the ocean, March, you'd put your fucking foot straight through it. Santa Monica?"

"Jesus, you made your point," March sulks, affronted. He'd figured Healy would appreciate the thought. Last time he'd been to the pier with his folks was in the fifties, when he could barely walk, and he'd remembered having a damn nice time, his Grandpa lifting him up to feed old pennies into the clunking arcade machines.

Healy shovels in a few bites of his chewy steak. They eat dinner together more often than not, these days; Holly practicing her home ec skills on them or Healy's salt-riddled stews or March managing to put takeout on their decent plates and make it look like a meal. It's—pleasant. March has said as much, a grand total of once, and Healy seemed so unable to take the basic compliment that March clammed up with it. Kept his goddamn thoughts to himself.

"Listen," Healy starts, and March braces himself for a rambling story. "I got this acquaintance, a good guy, used to box, back when I was working the rings. Broke his nose right outta joint, looked like that actor, that Stallone fella; and then once it healed, I broke it right back again for him a few years later. He was pretty as a pin after that. Works in—I dunno, something clerical now. Look, what I'm saying is, he's got this beach house. Inherited it. It's a little ways out. Sky something or Moon—Moon something, can't recall it off the top of my head. Anyway, it was his Ma's place. She died up there last year and now it's just sitting empty."

"I'm not taking my daughter to some fucking ghost house, Healy."

"So a porn king's party is fine but an empty house is outta bounds? People die in houses all the time, March."

For a split second, March's internal organs go cold. His stomach is glacially heavy, his lungs frost-bitten, his heart clammed up. He puts his fork down hard on the table so it won't stick to his frozen palm.

And then he looks up at Healy's stricken face, and it passes.

"Fuck, I didn't—" Healy swallows. "Fuck. I wasn't thinking."

"Whatever," March says, trying not to slur. He feels light-headed, his insides melting. "It's okay."

"No, it's—" Healy starts to reach his hand across the table, hovering a good few inches above March's, and March wonders if Healy's gonna pat the back of his hand, awkward and trite. They both stare at the space between their skin.

Healy rubs the back of his own neck instead. "Look, I'll get in touch with him, okay? Ask him about the house, for you and—for you and Holly."

"You don't have to," March says, both sulky and genuine.

"I know," Healy says, a low laugh on his lips. March isn't sure whether to be patronized by it; but it's a pleasant sound that warms away the last of his cold shudder. "But I'm gonna."

 

 II. THE STAKE OUT

 

The morning of the trip, March wakes up drunk. Or rather, still drunk.

Things had kind of snowballed.

March had his palm read once, years back, by a hack psychic in a gaudy tent at some old timey carnival Holly had begged to go to. She'd taken one look at his craggy hands – two fingers bandaged at the time - and told him, in no uncertain terms, that if he didn't slow down, boy, he was gonna hurt himself. He tipped her very badly.

Suffice to say, he did not often have the appearance of a man in control of his own destiny.

Holly was, tentatively, thrilled when he told her the vague plan. They were doing the dishes, March washing and Holly drying, and she said, "For real? Really for real?" and forgot to put her hand out for the dripping plate. March could remember neither the name nor location of Healy's mystery beach, and told her four times that it was meant to be a surprise. "As long as it's not Santa Monica," she said blithely, "because Jessica's uncle took her to Santa Monica two weeks ago and she said it was shady as heck."

"If you're gonna cuss, sweetie," March told her, "cuss properly."

"Santa Monica's shady as fuck, Dad."

"It's not Santa Monica."

Holly rubbed a dishcloth thoughtfully over her plate, making it squeak. "Did you book a separate room for Mr Healy? Or is he bunking with us?"

"What?"

"I mean, he might want his own space, is all." She said it as though somehow she were managing to say the complete opposite.

"What? No, we're—we're staying in a house. Healy's cousin's brother-in-law's friend's, or whatever. But he's not—I mean, it's just—"

Holly's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Mr Healy is coming with us, isn't he, Dad?"

It wasn't that March had forgotten to ask. Healy was—Healy was, until recently, a divorcee, a self-employed bruiser, a loner. March half assumed he'd suggested the whole escapade as a way of ridding himself of Holland March and his tagalong daughter for a few days. Not that he thought Healy hated them. Just that he—put up with them. Could use a break himself.

He called Healy that afternoon, with Holly glaring over his shoulder. "Do you—wanna come?" he blurted, without pre-amble.

"Sure, I'd like that," Healy said, not bothering to ask the context. March couldn't tell whether it was the phone line that made him sound oddly calm and quiet, or whether he just was.

"You don't have to."

"It's fine."

"There's a couple of cases still hanging around that could use the ol' one-two from a real life tough guy, if you know what I mean. I'm sure they could wait. But I know you're—anal about seeing a job through. Not a slacker. Like some of us."

"March," Healy said, and it wasn't a trick of the tinny phone making his voice soft. "I said it's fine."

"Oh," March replied weakly. Holly shot him a smug grin and two thumbs up, and danced around the house with a spring in her step all night. It wasn't like she didn't already see Healy every day. It wasn't, March thought, his stomach flipping like a fucking pole-dancer, like he didn't see Healy every afternoon at work and every night in the house they'd started sharing.

He gets badly drunk the night before the trip.

"I'll drive," Healy sighs.

"The deckchairs won't fit in your tiny-ass trunk," March snaps. His shades seem to be doing nothing against the hellish Hollywood sun, and the sound of his own voice is bringing on a headache.

"They'll fit," Healy says, his jaw set.

They do not fit.

This trip is a fucking disaster.

March, to his immense shame and slight relief, has been relegated to the back seat by his daughter. Holly and Healy – the adults – sit up front, with bottles of pop and an old map of the west coast that March dug out of his glovebox: a relic from the pre-Holly years of spontaneous road trips and lazy long weekends of languid fucking with his newly minted wife. (He had never been reliable; he was fired from two jobs for skipping town with Emma.)

Holly, unfairly, is livid with him. He at least had the generosity to get quiet drunk. But she ate her morning cereal with a viciousness he used to see on the Force, when ballsy men reloaded their pistols. All scraping metal against the ceramic bowl, dragging his hangover out early. The L.A. traffic is punishing him too, way too busy for this time in the morning, horns and engines fighting for noisy supremacy, trapping them in the arid smog.

"March," Healy says, warning.

God, they shouldn't have left the business like this. It's an omen, L.A. telling them to stay in their goddamn lane. They're both city folk, he and Healy, not bred for the great outdoors. March spent his childhood with a fanciful mother in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, being told by his Ma and her TV and her movies that he could be anything he wanted when he grew up. He had a slight grass allergy. Quit the Boy Scouts after a camping trip made his shins break out in an angry rash. The wilderness did not appeal to him. He took no cases more than two miles outside the city bounds, unless they were paying out like a dying man haggling for his immortal soul.

What if someone breaks into the house while they're off cavorting in the fucking sand dunes? What if someone's breaking into the house right now? What if the house burns down? Oh my god.

"March," Healy snaps. "You're muttering all this shit out loud."

"No I'm not," March mumbles.

"You couldn't even stick the Boy Scouts?" Holly says, the first full sentence she's said to him all morning.

"It's a running motif," March groans, turning over and burying his face in the seat of the car. It's hard and leathery and cold. Nobody's ass has sat here for any great length of time. Healy, he supposes, never really had passengers to ferry around.

Never really had a reason to ask his cousin's brother-in-law's friend's whatever if he could borrow the beach house for a couple nights.

And then, as abruptly as always, Holland March falls asleep.

(He dreams his reoccurring dream that he is sober, and Emma is alive, and Holly is happy. Healy—Healy's there too. Large and gentle as a whale. He is, in fact, a whale. How about that.

He lays a big, blue, flabby flipper carefully on March's face.

"Oh," March says. "Uh."

"Some view, huh?" Healy says pleasantly. His ginormous flipper pushing into March's ruddy cheek.)

March jerks awake. The motion instantly renders him helpless, seasick and groaning. Someone has clipped both back seatbelts around him while he's been dozing, and one of them yanks the skin of his cheek. He's drooled into the leather. Like, a lot.

"Jesus H," March groans. He clambers up, his muscles heavy, and peers out of the window.

They're flying. Holy shit. They're flying over the mist and treetops, the greenery gasping up at them from below. The foreground is a mess of flickering shapes and colours, but the wide, distant horizon is almost static, serene and mountainous. March swoons, dizzy; a lifetime in the city has made him near-sighted, unable to process depth and scale. His stomach lurches and he swallows it down. He feels utterly abducted, rushing through an alien landscape in a car he wouldn't know how to drive even if it were careening into the woody abyss.

(It's a stick-shift. March never fucking understood the extra effort.)

"Hey," comes Healy's low burr. "The prodigal son's returned."

"Fuck," March groans, wishing he could burrow into the crummy gaps between the back seats. "I'm gonna throw up. Where are we? Fuck."

"The 154. Just cruising over Cold Spring Canyon. You were out for some two hours and change." Healy cranes his neck to glance at March, annoyingly fond and frustratingly sad. "I guess you guys never drove out through Los Padres before, huh?"

He nods towards Holly.

March's daughter looks euphoric. Her head craned out the rolled-down window, her hair fluttering in the slipstream. They'd clearly stopped somewhere while March was passed out, an open can of Pepsi resting between her skinny knees, a pair of cheap shades half way down her nose, the tag still on, dancing in the wind. She's got her feet perched up on the dashboard, her silvery jelly sandals throwing glittery sparkles on the car ceiling and Healy's arm. Her face is young bliss. He hasn't seen her smile like that since--he assumes, briefly, it's some long-forgotten time when she was carefree and young and still had a Mom, but then he remembers her watery grin in the messy aftermath of the auto show last summer. Her Dad the hero of the hour. Healy's big hand reassuring on her little shoulder.

She's smiled like that a few times, when she's been around them both. Him and Healy.

"I guess we never did," March mumbles.

"I came out here once with, ah, with my ex," Healy says, not quite stumbling over the word, but not entirely surefooted. "In the early days. Her pa, my father-in-law, he was a walker. A rambler, he'd say. Used to take her all over on cabin trips and mountain ranges, just camping and eating and hiking. I was never outdoorsy," --Called it, March thinks-- "But I thought it would be nice, you know? Some nice throwback to her childhood, not long after we got hitched. Planned it all myself, a surprise. Stunning. Damn stunning down there." He looks out the window wistfully, one arm leaning on the sill, his palm conducting the steering wheel with a lazy confidence. "She told me on the first day she fucking loathed hiking."

They bump along the ridges of the end of the bridge. March stifles a groan. It seems--inappropriate.

"I didn't know you were married, Mr Healy," Holly says quietly.

He'd mentioned the circumstances of his divorce to March once or twice. Never sober. The first time he'd laid it bare, he said bluntly that his wife left him for his own goddamn father. The second time, when March forgot he'd heard the story before, Healy was more drunk and more pensive, and said simply, "I don't think she ever liked me much. I guess she couldn't be bothered to hide it anymore."

Healy nudges Holly lightly with his elbow. "Maybe we'll come out here one time and make some better memories, huh, kiddo?"

"You and Holly?" March blurts, his mouth working faster than his brain.

"Well, all of us," Healy says, a little strained. He clears his throat. That must've been it. "C'mon, March. Get yourself up. Half way to Moonstone, now."

"The beach is called Moonstone?"

"I told you it was Moon something," Healy says, tetchy at March's disbelief. As though he's never wrong. (He's rarely wrong, March would argue, and that's completely different.)

"You're making this up. Holy shit."

"It's right here on the map," Holly pipes up happily, waving the old paper between the front seats, like March can read any of that tiny fucking writing at this angle. He pulls himself up, his stomach lurching unhelpfully, just once, before it settles with the steady hum of the car and the quiet hum of fifties crooners, cooing from Healy's tape deck; the comfortable air between the three of them helps his hangover, a lot.

March has never been able to sit still for any length of time. Holly loved it, as a little girl, the jittery energy that made him pace about the house carrying her under his arm, bump her on his nervy knees. When she hit double-figures, she started to find it as tiresome as her mother, and Healy has barked at him more than once about his restless leg unnerving potential clients. They met one sad cuckold in a diner and March accepted four free refills of grainy coffee just for the excuse of going to the bathroom every five minutes. He was never good at being still.

He lights a cigarette, fumbles it subconsciously, makes the act take twice as long as it should. The back of Healy's car is neat and organized, nothing for March to occupy his hands with, so he winds the window down, raps out a jittering rhythm on the door. The air is cooler this high up, and the road quiet, and the forest serene while they amble through it. There's a trio of kites wheeling between the treetops and the mid-morning sun, three dark specks with the whole of the horizon as their playground. March never much thought people deserved anything more than a back yard for loping around in. That's surely space enough, right?

Jesus, it's nice out here. If March's stomach wasn't still railing at him for drinking the night before, it'd be so damn nice.

He never would've brought Holly out here on his own impetus.

But Healy, he suspects, would only shrug and say it was just a suggestion.

"How much—" March stops himself, cringing.

"Go on," Healy sighs.

"How much longer is it gonna take?"

He catches Holly rolling her eyes in the rear-view mirror, and knees the back of her chair.

"Two hours, more or less."

"Yeah but, more? Or less?"

"More, if you piss me off."

"Speaking of—" Holly pipes up. She shifts a little uncomfortably in her chair and mutters something neither of them catch. Healy leans over, lends her his ear, and March tries to school his features into something close to fatherly concern. It's not that he doesn't feel it; he's just a little slow to react right now.

"I really need to pee," Holly mumbles, her cheeks pink.

"Ah," March says.

"Um," Healy agrees.

They've just about started their descent back to earth, the car rolling smoothly along a leafy road carved through the forest. Guardrails on either side mean they can't veer off, but nothing's passed them for miles; Healy slows to a tentative stop.

What if there are—bears. Oh god. Or guys.

"What if there's like, bears," Holly says, unsure. "Or—guys."

Healy fishes in the glove box by Holly's feet, and pulls out his brassy knucks. Slips them on with a smile and a raised fist. "I got your back," he says gently.

March doesn't believe Jackson Healy has ever punched an American black bear in the jaw. But in that second, he believes he could.

The two of them stand watch while Holly does her business behind the pine trunks. March lights a smoke for himself, and offers one to Healy. "Only you can prevent forest fires," Healy says, wry, shaking his head.

"Jesus Christ," March says, taking a shallow puff and stamping out his match pointedly on the mossy ground. "You're the real deal, you know that?"

"What?"

"The whole package," March murmurs, suddenly much less blithe than he'd intended. It's true, though. Healy's—a stand-up guy. Reliable, dependable, moral – some of the time. The perfect straight man to March's barely proficient fool.

March takes a stuttering drag on his cigarette. "What are you—" He falters, speaks lower, aware that Holly's not far. "What are you getting outta all this, Jack?"

"Excuse me?"

March wishes he could light another cigarette. Something to occupy his hands. His trousers are too damn tight to shove his palms in his pockets. "I mean—all of this. Slogging out into the middle of nowhere with us. This isn't part of the job, you didn't sign up for this shit. So why do it?"

Healy looks at March like March might somehow be clever enough to try and test him. "I've been on my own for years, Holland," he mutters angrily. "You think I don't want this?"

It's brutally honest and awfully cryptic all at once. Emma used to say men only spoke in circles, but she'd been talking about March's shallow seduction of her, so that—that didn't mean anything here, right?

Right.

"You wanna turn round and go home? I can turn this car round."

"Don't be—"

"If you're not comfortable with me—being here—"

"Why wouldn't I be?" March says, incredulously. They're looking right at each other now, and Healy is inscrutable. His gruff jaw tight, his eyes searching. His fist, the one by his side, the bare one, is oddly close to March's open palm. He hadn't realized they were standing so close.

"What are you guys whispering about?" Holly says, walking out from behind the trees. She looks considerably more at ease.

"Grown up stuff, sweetie," March mumbles, even though it isn't.

Healy is still looking at him, strange and serious.

And then he turns to Holly, and breaks into an easy smile. It feels like something of an answer, something like a revelation. If only March could figure out what the question was.

They pile back into the car, and listen to Perry Como on the tinny tape deck, and drive on.

 

III. THE PAY OFF

 

It's not a beach house.

"Where's the goddamn beach?" March demands, his long legs and back cracking as he staggers out of the car. "You lied. How could you. This isn't a beach house."

"It's half a mile west," Healy replies placidly. "It's a ten minute walk, March. It's a beach house."

"A beach house is a house that's on the beach. This is just a regular house near a beach." He waves to catch Holly's attention; she's already bounding up the old porch stairs, skipping in the faint clouds of sandy dust that puff up under her feet. Ah, youth, March thinks coldly, as his elbow twinges. "Back your father up, honey."

"It counts," Holly yells back, shrugging.

His own daughter is a traitor.

"Come on," Healy says, smiling. He seems buoyed by the fresher air, the quiet street, the fact he isn't hunched behind the wheel of his car anymore. He pops the trunk, and hefts a suitcase into March's arms far more easily than March catches it. They'd have had room for the deck chairs if Healy's only overnight bag wasn't a fucking steamer trunk. He looks out of place with it, in his aviators and sneakers, carrying the beige trunk in his meaty hand and looking up at the shabby two-story house like he's witnessing the sending off of the Titanic.

He nudges aside a withered plant on the doorstep, and nods for Holly to pick up the key underneath. March is gonna have a fucking conniption.

"Are you kidding me?" He snaps. "That's like—the least unexpected place to ever hide a fucking housekey. The place is gonna be crawling with squatters. Oh my god, Healy you've brought us to a hovel. A drug den."

"Some people trust each other," Healy mutters wearily.

"Not in L.A."

Holly sidles up slowly, threads her hands through March's spare, and he startles. Looks at her. He can just see her eyes through her big, round, plastic shades, and they're looking right up at him. "We’re not in L.A. now, Dad," she says quietly.

They're not in L.A. – not in that smoggy city where the birds can't breathe, and unhappiness is bartered for money, and March's wife died, and he has a reputation for being unreliable. Not in that vast, unsavoury city where Healy broke March's arm and then, months later, offered bashfully to drive him and his kin out to maybe-a-beach-house, free of charge, for a night or two.

That's—

That’s how relationships go in pulp fiction, not in real life.

Fuck, March thinks, grasping Holly's hand; L.A. never claimed to be real. He grew up on black and white movies and TV shows with canned laughter: how the hell should he know what reality looks like?

The inside of the house is a mystery. Untouched. Furniture – March assumes, draped in off-white dustsheets, spotted around the rooms like exhausted ghosts. The rooms are smaller, the ground floor divided by far too many walls, carpeted all over, even the staircase. Holly seems fascinated by the display cabinets, alternating rows of someone else's good china and little porcelain trinkets, rinky-dink tableaus of chubby-cheeked farm hands kissing milkmaids; a collection of useless crap that holds just as much interest for her as March's string-lines of illicit photos developing in the kitchen back home. She stares in wonder at all the old copper cooking pots, the utensils hanging from wooden racks on the kitchen walls, the bay windows at both ends of the house, the sills brighter white where they'd once hidden reading nooks under piles of plump cushions.

Healy slaps March mildly on the shoulder – was he staring at it all too? Or staring at Holly staring? – and they open as many windows as they can reach, flapping all the cotton sheets out, letting in the light and banishing the dust; it settles on Healy's hair and eyelashes, and makes him look greyer than ever.

"It's not a bad look," March tells him.

Healy laughs, then sneezes, and the back of March's neck feels hot. What the hell. Why the hell would it—?

Holly runs their cases, with some effort, up the stairs, yells down that she's found her room, with a decisive thud of her bag on the floor.

"She's a grand kid," Healy murmurs, warm.

"What are you," March scoffs, "Her uncle from the nineteen fifties?"

His throat feels tight. From the dust, he reckons.

"Jesus," he mutters, patting down his pockets for his cigarette carton. He'll have to find the liquor cabinet later. "Let's go to the fucking beach."

"You got it."

"Hallelujah."

*

Cambria unnerves March. The cars amble by, directionless; strangers wish them a good morning for no reason other than making polite conversation. March is more used to street girls yelling their trade. People don't talk to each other in the daylight hours, not in his city. Holly shouts back a bright salutation to everyone; Healy nods; March stares.

The houses are clean, far apart, inconsistent but for their sense of pride. Most of them built upwards instead of sprawling out. Little local delicatessens and grocery stalls scatter the streets, as often as the liquor stores in L.A. It's not that March is shocked by its quaintness – he just distrusts it. It reminds him of lavender-smelling old women and their yappy ankle-high dogs, and he's swindled enough of those in his life time to cross to the other sidewalk when he passes them in the street.

"It's nice here, huh?" Healy murmurs, as Holly races ahead. She's glimpsed the sea, already dancing like she's jumping the waves.

"It's—quiet," March says, suspicious, his lips pursed.

Healy sighs. His hands are in his bottomless pockets, but he sways, nudges into March, half his bulk pressing into March's side. "Try and enjoy it, huh?"

"For Holly?"

"No, just—Because you gotta enjoy something that doesn't come out of a bottle every once in a while," Healy says, resigned.

The two of them had – got drunk together less and less, since business started getting good. March buying more booze and Healy drinking less of it. March had noticed, but held his tongue for once. Healy was not a jovial drunk, for all his paunch and whiskers suggested otherwise, and March—hated to see him down.

Fuck.

March fishes a cigarette out of his pocket, puts it in his mouth, and forces a grin around it.

"Try harder," Healy says, but there's laughter under his voice.

March's feet hit grass, and then sand, and he almost falls face-first into Moonstone Beach. "Jesus," he yelps. "I thought there'd be some—fucking warning? People? Noise? A fucking ice-cream stand or something?"

Healy shrugs, and points out March's daughter, who looks younger and fresher than she has in years, already whooping and jumping in the gentle surf. "This is pretty much it," he admits.

'It' is just short a mile of clean, calm sand, yawning into the sea like a stretched out cat; languid and carefree. There are two specks in the distance, walking another speck on a leash, but apart from that, the beach is theirs. None of the city fog has followed them out, and the sun is a few hours from its peak; the sky is the same colour as Healy's sole jacket, softly blue. Holly has dumped their makeshift picnic basket (a ratty tote bag) onto the sand, sandwiches and bags of tortilla chips clamouring out of it already. She turns back to them, waving and yelling, and sucks in a big gasp of the fresh air, puffing her cheeks, holding it as long as she can before it wheezes out of her like a deflating balloon.

Healy belly-laughs at her. March feels like he can only watch. These two bright strangers. Out of the shadows of the hills, the high rises. He takes a shaky puff of his cigarette, as though he can cling on some sense of the dirty city with it; his home, his shelter, where things are miserable and familiar. Sun goes up. Sun goes down. Nothing changes.

(Healy—changed a whole lot of things—)

Healy plants a warm hand on the small of his back, though that might be a mistake because he moves it up to March's shoulder a split-second later. "Where d'you wanna make camp?" he asks wryly, gesturing at the vast expanse of sand and sea and sun.

"Ha fucking ha," March says, and sits his ass down right where he's standing.

*

 

It takes a lot of effort for Holland March to relax, but Moonstone Beach tries its darnedest to help him along. The unfettered sun is gonna burn him to crisp hell, but the sand has adjusted almost instantly to March's bony grooves; he's too comfortable to do anything about it. He packed neither shorts nor sandals – a part of him had always thought this entire venture would go bust, and they'd all slink back home shamefaced – and his oxfords aren't exactly prime beach-wear, but there's only his family out here to snigger.

His family and Healy, he thinks.

They eat lunch ravenously, sustained on not much more than jerky and soda on the journey. Little finger sandwiches perfect for Holly but absurd-looking in Healy's big paws. Strawberries and peach slices that have gone mushy in the car and ooze down March's wrist, delicious anyway; flat ginger ale and warm root beer. March itches for something stronger but keeps his opinion to himself.

Healy changes into a pair of over-sized flip-flops and trails Holly up to the soft surf, distant enough that March can only hear the murmur of their conversation; their laughter. Holly seems to still for a minute, her gaze fixed curiously on her father, like she's trying to puzzle him out, and March feels the clench of panic in his chest. Healy is looking at him too, almost sad.

"Hey," March yells. "Hey. Hey! Behind you!"

"There's no sharks here, Dad," Holly shouts back, sardonic, her curiosity fled.

"No—" March scrambles up, "Seriously. Look!"

He yanks off his shoes and pulls up his slacks and stumbles out to join them in the waves and get a better look. A few feet out, in the rocky shallows, there's something glistening and bobbing in the waves. For an awful second March thinks it's a corpse – Jesus fucking Christ, tried to do one nice thing for his daughter and dragged her into another hot mess, a thankless case with no money at the end of it to boot – but he blinks and it's gone, the vision morphing itself into reality: a trio of otters, dancing in the water, not a care in the world.

"Sea otters," Healy murmurs. "This place is known for 'em. Never seen 'em myself. But here they are."

The otters keep close by them for a good ten minutes, March and Healy and Holly just standing there rapt, and then the moment breaks: a bark from the far end of the beach and the otters scatter, spray and glittering fur, and Holly lets out a yell that's so primal and happy it's almost a howl – that sets the distant dog barking again – and she follows the otters, loud and flat-footed, splashing in the sea until it reaches her kneecaps and becomes too heavy to wade through.

Holly flings her arms up to the sky. Her whole little body is shimmering.

March loves his daughter so goddamn much. He doesn't know what he'd do without her. Wishes—he told her more often.

Healy nudges him, making sure he's not missing the moment. March nods, and thinks about how strange and serious Healy looks sometimes; because that's exactly how he feels right now.

"You'd make a good dad," March says, strained.

"No interest in it," Healy huffs, a tough, bitter smile on his lips, like he's thought about it a lot recently. "Having kids. Not with June, anyway."

"You got a few years left in you," March scoffs, hitting Healy's paunch lightly with the back of his hand. "Find a nice girl who likes, you know, fat old men. Settle down."

Healy sniffs, not dismissive exactly, but unwilling to agree.

"Stick to the bachelor life, huh? Wise, wise."

Healy glances over at March like March is an idiot. And yet it's not a mean look. Too soft for cruelty. Just sad and fond. "That's not exactly what I'd call this."

March has—questions about that phrasing.

"Dad!" Holly yells, before he can ask. "Mr. Healy!" She's darted away from the sea now, a new wonder to catch her eye. "Come look at this!"

She crouches at a little rock pool, pointing at the oval pebbles with unfettered glee. "Rocks," March says. "Gee whiz."

"Look."

March humours her, and looks.

And then a couple of the reddish rocks skitter anxiously across the pool floor.

They're crabs. A whole bunch of them, big and small and round and flat. Ugly little fuckers, big claws and bulging eyes, but Holly seems fascinated. "We can take a couple back to the house if you want," Healy says.

"What for?"

"Dinner?"

"No!" Holly says, frowning. Healy shrugs, and March is weirdly glad that Healy doesn't yet have a full grasp of Holly's quirks and foibles. Not in the way that he's—jealous of the two of them, he realizes, but that there's plenty left for Healy to learn.

She reaches tentatively into the water and strokes the back of her knuckles on the rough shell of one of the smaller crabs, laughing when it snaps warningly at her, jerking her hand back just in time.

March worries his bottom lip. It's absurd that he's let his daughter run around the battle ground of a corporate conspiracy, dodging men with revolvers and grenades and flick-knives; but he's worried about a fucking crab pinching her fingers.

She seems so much like a kid, out here in the clean sun and sandy breeze that he feels wholly inadequate as a father. He let her grow up too much. Taught her how to fire a gun, double-bluff a mark, pick the lock of a trunk from inside the car. But he never built her that treehouse. Never took her to the beach.

"I gotta—" March stutters, abruptly trying to stand. "We shouldn't leave all our shit just lying—"

"Dad," Holly says firmly. "Our stuff's fine." She smiles, and March feels suddenly watery, unsolid. Healy puts a hand on his waist to steady him, and March sways back down to the sand with a feeble thud.

They all three of them watch the fucking crabs for twenty goddamn minutes. Just skittering back and forth. Blowing bubbles in the shallow pool. Fetching—fucking rocks for no reason.

It's—it's okay.

There's no great impetus to go back to the house. Holly seems dozy, her energy close to spent, but she pulls them both back to their little camp, spreads two towels out side by side and arranges them like windbreaks on either side of her, snuggling in close to March's hip.

Some big fucking pebble is stabbing into March's left ass-cheek so he digs around under the sand to unseat it; just about to toss it towards the receding tide, but Healy says, low and pleased, "Look."

He looks. The pebble, washed smooth by decades of surf and sea-breeze, winks back at him.

"What the fuck," March says.

He turns it in his fingers, lets it roll around his palm. Not a wink, but the way the light catches it, almost sucked inside, trapped and roiling, a pearly iridescence that refuses to stop swaying, even when he brings it to a stop.

"A moonstone," Holly murmurs happily. She puts her hand out for it, examines it for a moment, and then puts it very carefully in her pocket, buttons it up so the stone can't wriggle free. Then she turns over, her eyes closed, her rosy cheeks bared to the fading sun, and she finds March's hand with her own. "Thanks, Dad," she says.

March chokes.

"It was—Jack's idea," he tries. He doesn't deserve her gratitude for this, for any of it.

But Holly just seeks out Healy's big hand too, murmurs, "Thanks, Mr. Healy," and dozes off in the warm sand.

Fuck, March thinks immediately. Oh my fucking God. This is it, he realizes.

This is it.

A long time ago he used to wish for things, and then he used to wish he wished for things. When he proposed to Emma, he bought her a cheap ring with an I.O.U. optimistically stuffed into the box alongside it. When Holly was born, he had Holland March Junior written on her birth certificate, desperate for some kind of second chance. When Healy moved in, March let himself believe it was temporary. Because he didn't wish for things anymore.

"Fuck," he says out loud.

"Shh," Healy murmurs. "She's asleep."

"Fuck," March says again, quieter.

"What's up?" Healy asks softly. As if it's the simplest question in the world.

"I'm—You're—"

March married young but he was never entirely straight-edged; never, maybe, entirely straight. He just happened to shack up with a wife before he had the chance to hook up with anyone else.

He squeezes his daughter's hand, desperately gentle, and wonders if she'll pass the tenderness on to Healy. If she can let Healy know that her dad might – just might – have it real bad for him.

She murmurs absently in her sleep. No such fucking luck.

"This is nice," Healy mutters, looking away. Giving March some dignity. He must look like a mess, sweating and panicking, his eyes darting between Holly and Healy and the horizon. His hands shaky.

"You're nice," March stutters. It sounds like an insult. Goddamnit.

"Nah," Healy sighs. "Maybe I could've been. Too late for that now. Too much history."

"You're nice," March says again, strained. "You're a nice guy."

"Ain't that a coincidence," Healy laughs quietly. "So are you."

A pause stretches out into an awkward silence. The sun trickles down the darkening sky. March, frantically, feels like this is his only chance and it's slipping away, down below the distant sea as the light begins to fade. They'll go back to the house – the not-a-beach-house house – and sleep in separate rooms, and drive back to the city tomorrow, and work at opposite ends of the office, and Healy will announce he's found a little place to rent, won't be underfoot in the March household any longer, about time too, huh, he'll say, and March—

March will say—

"Can I—" Healy starts abruptly. He rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly, with the hand that isn't tangled in Holly's slight fingers. "Jesus. March, don't—don't lose it, okay?"

"Don't start a sentence like that," March says, quietly hysterical.

"I know. Fuck." Healy pulls in a deep breath of fresh evening air, closes his eyes as he exhales. "Holland, can I kiss you?"

"Holy fucking shit," March hisses.

"—Right. Okay. That's—fine."

"Are you a goddamn mind-reader?" March finishes, and Healy looks at him, and March looks back, and they're both looking at each other's mouths. Healy's short, you know, so maybe he's always looking at March's mouth, and March just never noticed.

Healy leans forward, careful of Holly between them, and kisses March. He's—rough, salt-hewn, and March still makes a noise of alarm even though he was forewarned. Just the reality of it, he thinks, comes as a complete surprise.

Healy drifts back, but not far, and nudges March's chin with his thumb. Gets him at a better angle. "That's it," he murmurs, and kisses March again. His bristles are soft, but March needs a shave, and it feels rasping against his jaw. Not in a bad way; present, physical. Healy's so fucking stout, a bruiser: a real solid guy, and that's how he kisses, too. Firmly. Doesn't do anything he didn't intend to.

Sees a job through to the end.

"Easy now," Healy murmurs, and March realizes his lips are parted, his tongue heavy and soft. He pulls back once more and March, too far gone to be ashamed, sways with him a little. "It's all right," Healy says, soothing again. How fucking dare he be so good at that. "We're gonna pick this up later, okay?"

He nods down at Holly between them, just shifting in her sleep. Her hands still clutching both of them; a conduit. A conductor.

"I can't promise anything," March says shakily. He wishes he had more hands so he could light a cigarette. "My promises aren't worth shit."

Unreliable, people always said. And when they stopped saying it to his face, March just murmured it to himself.

"You don't have to promise," Healy shrugs. He runs his tongue absently over his bottom lip, where March's mouth had been a moment ago. Fuck.

"That's good. It's—that's good," March manages. He can't quite manage anything more.

So they sit and hold hands and watch the sun setting over Moonstone Beach: March, and his family, and Healy.

March, he corrects himself, and his family.