Albert held a photo of Joanna he’d been carrying for several weeks. They were nearing Dog’s Bar in Oakland, stepping over puddles in the alley gutter. Albert snuck the photo into a hardbound edition of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, his favorite book because of its dens and denizens. Loo hadn’t read it although Albert read the prologue, “Something For The Mouth” to her over and over. She had a fake ID she had made in Chinatown several weeks ago by a Chinese man who greeted her with a nod at the back entrance of a fortune cookie factory. Albert hooked her up although it cost her a hundred bucks. She wished he’d paid for it the way he did most everything when they went out. She tried not to get jealous of Joanna. It wasn’t like he knew her. But the way he stared. Loo thought he put Joanna onto some phantasmal pedestal where Loo would never be unless she were some kind of missing fantasy too.
Eric was outside waiting. His arms were covered in tattoos. The Periodic Table. He said he was the universe. Yellow neon outside the bar lit the alley and Eric with an ochre dullness. He started laughing when they walked up but no one knew why. He pointed to the Au on his left bicep.
They showed the bouncer their IDs. The thug looked like he was moonlighting from the Berkeley football team. Dreads hung past his liquid muscles. Loo thought if she stared hard enough she could see blood flowing through those protruding veins. Loo always got nervous when she flashed her ID. She didn’t smile in it and wasn’t smiling now. She hardly knew how. She thought her gaze must be revolting the way the bouncer barely flicked his grey eyes at her.
Inside, red lights around the room reflected against picture frames, suits of armor, the obsidian eyes of a moose head, the steel of crossed swords, and the shiny surface of an oil painting of a black collie pissing on a shadowy brick wall. Loo thought it might be the alley they just entered from.
Albert took the photo out again. He’d found it nailed to a lightpost. Just hanging, waiting for him to rip it down and carry away like a prize. Now he carried Joanna everywhere, her narrow black face shining up at him. She must have been a model, she was so beautiful. Everyone thought so, though Albert wouldn’t let Romano or Eric hold the picture to gaze at and masturbate over like he probably did. Emily held it once but Albert snatched it back after about five seconds. “That bitch must be some kind of royalty,” she said. “Just look at those cheekbones.” Loo wanted to hold the photo but never asked. Knowing Albert’s affinity for the missing woman, Loo couldn’t bring herself to beg to see it, let alone try to pry the photo from Albert’s fingers. She knew she could. He was the most wiry guy ever. As thin as her. And he was weak, even when they had sex, which she didn’t mind his effete thrusts. His long brown hair hid how really skinny his neck was. All of his clothes, the black pants and shirts clung to his body like a thin coat of dirt. His whisper of a voice was lost in the noise of the bar. She was ignoring him so he got quiet. Loo let him stare at the photo while she spoke with Eric. Emily and Romano still hadn’t shown. Loo thought maybe they should just leave.
“Is he going to quit staring?” Eric said.
“He can’t help it,” Loo said. “He says he’s going to solve her mystery.”
“What did you give him? You gave him something.”
“I didn’t give him anything.”
“Did he shoot up?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t let him shoot up.”
Albert started talking to them but neither could hear.
“What?” Eric said. “I can’t hear you. And why are you keeping that photo in that book. Trying to be cool? Is Thayil some kind of prize?”
Albert put the photo back in the book but not after one last glance.
“What did he say?” Eric asked.
Loo couldn't figure out why Eric was so on edge. But then, everyone seemed that way lately. “He said he thinks he knows where Joanna is.”
“Maybe we should just come back tomorrow,” Loo said. “I just got a text. Romano and Emily can’t make it.”
Eric was drinking bourbon. He turned the glass and took a sip as if he didn’t want to drink from the same spot twice. “How did you get away from home?”
Loo thought about how she acted like such a little girl around her father. She was sick of herself for it. She was sick of home. At least tonight she was sick of her mother’s ghost too. And she hated her stepmother. She didn’t even want to think of Angela or the letter that she left on her desk. It was like a hole the entire world could get sucked into. “He doesn’t care,” she said.
Eric took a drink from another untouched curve of glass. “I guess that’s alright,” he said, then jerked his head to see Albert was at the bar, pointing to the moose head and talking to the bartender. “What the hell?”
By the time Eric and Loo got to Albert, the bartender was climbing on a chair, reaching for the moose.
“The mouth.” Albert’s voice was shrill, audible. “There’s something in the mouth.”