The Last Thing He Told Me (16 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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The Never Dry

In the cab ride on the way to The Never Dry, Bailey keeps pulling on her bottom lip—almost like a nervous habit she suddenly developed, her eyes darting from side to side, frantic and terrified.

I hear the questions she's not asking me out loud and I don't want to push her. I also can't just sit there and watch her suffer, so I search obsessively on my phone for Katherine “Kate” Smith, for Charlie Smith—for anything I can possibly tell her, any new information I can offer up, in an attempt to soothe her.

But I find way too much. Smith is too common of a last name, even with my subsearches (UT-Austin, Austin native, debate champion). There are hundreds of hits, and images—none for the Katherine who greeted us at the library.

Which is when I have an idea. I plug Andrea Reyes into my search, along with Charlie Smith, and I finally hit on something that may help us.

A Facebook profile for the correct Charlie Smith pops up. He is a 2002 graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in art history, followed by two semesters at the Graduate School of Architecture, and an internship at a landscape architecture firm in downtown Austin.

No work history after that.

No status updates or photographs since 2009.

But it says that his wife is Andrea Reyes.

“There it is,” Bailey says.

She points out the window to a blue door, vines around it. You could almost miss it—
THE NEVER DRY
written on a small gold plaque. It sits there quietly, kitty-corner to West Sixth Street, a coffee shop on one side, an alley on the other.

We hop out of the taxi and, as I turn to pay the driver, I see that our hotel is visible across Lady Bird Lake. I feel a strange pull, wanting to call this off, head back there.

Then Bailey goes to open the blue door.

And as she does, something happens that has never happened before. Call it maternal instinct. I grab her arm before I know I am grabbing it.

“What the hell?” she says.

“You wait here.”

“What?” she says. “No way.”

I start thinking quickly, the truth not feeling possible to say.
What if we walk inside there and see her? This Katherine Smith. What if your father took you away from her? What if she tries to take you from me?
And yet, there it is, feeling possible enough that it is the first thing that occurs to me.

“I don't want you in there,” I say. “They'll be more likely to answer my questions if you're not in there too.”

“That's not good enough, Hannah,” she says.

“Well, how's this?” I say. “We don't know whose bar this is. We don't know who these people are or whether they are dangerous. All we know is that it's looking more and more like your father may have taken you from here and, knowing him, if he did that there was something he was trying to protect you from. There may have been
someone
he was trying to protect you from. You cannot go inside there until I find that out.”

She is quiet. She stares at me unhappily, but she stays quiet.

I motion toward the coffee shop next door. It looks quiet, almost empty, after the afternoon rush.

“Just go sit inside and get yourself a piece of pie, okay?”

“I literally couldn't want a piece of pie less,” she says.

“Then get a cup of coffee and keep working on Professor Cookman's roster. See if you can pull anyone else up on a search. We still have a long way to go.”

“I don't like this plan,” she says.

I pull the roster out of my messenger bag. I hold it out for her. “I'll come and get you when it's all clear in there.”

“Clear of what? Why don't you just say it?” she asks. “Why don't you say who you think is inside?”

“Probably for the same reason you're not ready to say it, Bailey.”

This gets through to her. She nods her agreement.

Then she takes the roster out of my hand and turns toward the coffee shop. “Don't take too long, okay?” she says.

Then she opens the door to the coffee shop, a whoosh of purple as she heads inside.

I breathe a sigh of relief. And I open the blue door to The Never Dry. There is a winding staircase, which I take upstairs to a candlelit hallway and a second blue door, which is also unlocked.

I open that door and enter a small cocktail lounge. An empty cocktail lounge. There are maple rafters and a dark mahogany bar, velvety love seats surrounding small bar tables. It doesn't feel like a college town bar. The hidden doorway, the intimate room. It feels more like a speakeasy—guarded, sexy, private.

No one is standing behind the bar. The only indication that anyone is even there is the lit tea candles on the cocktail tables, Billie Holiday playing on an old record player.

I walk up to the bar, taking in the shelves behind it. They're filled with dark liquors, boozy bitters—and there is one shelf devoted to framed photographs in thick, silver frames, a few framed newspaper clippings. Kate Smith appears in several, often with the same lanky, dark-haired guy. Not Owen. Someone besides Owen. There are several photographs of the dark-haired guy alone as well. I lean over the bar to try and make out what one of the newspaper clippings says. It includes a photograph of Kate dressed in a gown, the lanky guy dressed in a tuxedo. An older couple bookends him. I start to read through the names beneath the photograph. Meredith Smith, Kate Smith. Charlie Smith…

Then I hear footsteps. “Hey, there.”

I turn around to see Charlie Smith. The lanky guy from the photographs. He's wearing a crisp button-down shirt and holding a case of champagne. He looks older than in the fancy framed photographs. Less lanky. His dark hair is now graying, his skin weathered, but it's definitely him. Whoever he is to Bailey. Whoever Bailey is to Kate.

“We're not open just yet,” he says. “We don't usually start serving until closer to six…”

I point back from the direction I came. “I'm sorry about that, the door was unlocked,” I say. “I didn't mean to just let myself in.”

“Not a problem, you can have a seat at the bar and take a look at the cocktail menu,” he says. “I just have a couple more things to take care of.”

“Sounds great,” I say.

He puts the champagne on the bar and offers a kind smile. I force a smile back. It isn't easy being around this stranger who has the same coloring as Bailey—and his smile, when he points it at me, is hers too, complete with her same uptick, the same dimple shining through.

I hop up onto a stool as he moves behind the bar and starts unpacking the champagne.

“Can I ask you a quick question? I'm new to Austin and I think I got a bit turned around. I'm looking for the campus. Can I walk from here?”

“Sure, if you have forty-five minutes or so. Probably easier to just hop in an Uber if you're in any kind of rush,” he says. “Where are you headed to exactly?”

I think of his bio, of what I just pulled up about him. “The School of Architecture,” I say.

“Really?” he says.

I'm not a good actress, so trying to look casual while telling this lie is a stretch. It pays off though. He's interested suddenly, just like I hoped he would be. Charlie Smith: late thirties, almost architect, married to Andrea Reyes. Married to Andrea at a wedding Bailey and Owen attended.

“I took some classes at the School of Architecture, once upon a time,” he says.

“Small world,” I say. I look around to stop my heart from racing, to center myself. “Did you design this place? It's gorgeous.”

“Can't really take that much credit. I did a bit of a redesign when I took it over. But the bones are the same.”

He finishes putting the champagne away and leans across the bar.

“Are you an architect?” he asks.

“Landscape architect. And I'm in the running for a teaching position,” I say. “Just a temp position while one of the professors is on maternity leave. But they want me to come have dinner with some of the faculty, so I'm hopeful.”

“How about a little liquid courage?” he says. “What would you like to drink?”

“Dealer's choice,” I say.

“That's dangerous,” he says. “Especially when I've got a little time.”

Charlie turns and studies his choices, reaches for a bottle of small batch bourbon. I watch as he preps a martini glass with ice, bitters, sugar. Then he slowly pours the rich bourbon. Finishing it with a slice of orange peel.

He slides the drink toward me. “The house specialty,” he says. “A bourbon old-fashioned.”

“That looks too pretty to drink,” I say.

“My grandfather used to make the bitters himself. Now I do it, most of the time. I'm falling down on the job a bit, but it makes all the difference.”

I take a sip of my drink, which is smooth and icy and strong. It runs straight to my head.

“So, this is your family's bar?”

“Yeah, my grandfather was the original proprietor,” he says. “He wanted a place to play cards with his buddies.”

He motions to the one velvet booth in the corner, a
RESERVED
sign on it. There are several black-and-white photographs above it—including a great one of a group of guys, sitting in that booth.

“He spent fifty years behind the bar before I took it over from him.”

“Wow,” I say. “That's incredible. What about your father?”

“What about him?” he says.

And I clock it—how uncomfortable he looks at the mention of his father.

“I was just wondering why you guys skipped a generation…” I say. “He wasn't interested?”

His face relaxes, my question apparently innocuous enough for him.

“No, not really his thing. This place was my mother's father's, and
she was definitely not interested…” He shrugs. “And I wanted the gig. My wife, or ex-wife now, had just found out she was pregnant with our twins, so my days as a student needed to be over.”

I force a laugh, trying not to react to the fact that he has kids. Plural. I try to figure out how to press on that, to wrap this conversation around to his wife, to the wedding. To where I need it to go. To Kate.

“Maybe that's why you look familiar,” I say. “This is going to sound crazy, but I think we met a long time ago.”

He tilts his head, smiles. “Did we?”

“No, I mean… I think I was here, at the bar, back when I was in college.”

“So… it's The Never Dry that looks familiar?”

“I guess that's more accurate, yeah.” I say. “I was in town with a girlfriend for the hot sauce competition. She was photographing it for a local paper…”

I figure as much truth as I can muster is a good thing.

“And I'm pretty sure we came in here that weekend. This place doesn't look like a lot of other bars around Austin.”

“It's certainly possible… the festival isn't held too far from here.” He turns and pulls a bottle of Shonky Sauce Co. Purple Hot Sauce off his shelf. “This was one of 2019's winners. I use it to make a pretty feisty Bloody Mary…”

“That sounds like a commitment,” I say.

“It's not for the faint of heart, that's for sure,” he says.

He laughs and I brace myself for what I'm about to do.

“If I'm remembering this place correctly, the bartender working here that night was a total sweetheart. She gave us all sorts of tips for places to eat. I remember her. Long dark hair. She looked a lot like you, actually.”

“That's some memory you have,” he says.

“I might be getting a little help.”

I point toward the shelf of silver-framed photographs. I point toward one in which Kate is staring back at me.

“Maybe it was her,” I say.

He follows my eyes toward the photograph of Kate and shakes his head. “No, not possible,” he says.

He starts wiping down the bar, completely tightening up. And this is when I should drop it—this is when I would drop it—if I didn't need his help to get to it, who Kate Smith is.

“Weird. I could have sworn it was her. Are you guys related?” I say.

He looks up at me, the look in his eye changing from avoidance to irritation. “You ask a lot of questions,” he says.

“I know. Sorry. You don't have to answer that,” I say. “It's a bad habit.”

“Asking too many questions?”

“Thinking that people want to answer.”

His face softens. “No, it's fine,” he says. “She's my sister. And it's just a little sensitive 'cause she's not with us anymore…”

His sister. He said she was his sister. And he said she isn't with them anymore. This breaks something in me. If this is Bailey's mother, she is lost to her. Bailey has lived her life thinking her mother is lost to her, but this will be in an entirely new way. She will be lost to her as soon as she found her. Which is why the next thing I say is the truth.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” I say. “I'm really sorry.”

“Yeah…” he says. “Me too.”

I don't want to push him further on Kate, not now. I can check death certificates when I leave here. I can check with someone else to learn more.

I start to get up, but Charlie scans the shelf until he finds a
specific photograph. It's a photograph of Charlie with a dark-haired woman and two little boys, both of the boys dressed in Texas Rangers jerseys.

“Maybe it was my wife, Andrea,” he says. “That you met, I mean. She worked here for years. When I was in school, she put in more shifts than I did.”

He hands me the picture frame. I look closely at the photograph, at this nice family staring back at me, at his now ex-wife, shining a lovely smile at the camera.

“It probably was her,” I say. “It's weird, isn't it? I don't know where I put the room key for my hotel, but her face, I think I remember.”

I hold on to the photograph.

“Your boys are adorable.”

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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