Another Tale from the Shack. This one is after Pogo and Spooky. Really it fits right before the last paragraph of that story. You don’t have to read that one to get this one, but it will make it better. There is no graphic sex in this story line. Special thanks to Sbrooks and Crkcppr for editing and beta reading it for me. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance. And thanks to everyone for the encouragement and support.
The woman staring across the sad, flaking grey metal table clearly knew that already. She never bothered asking my name.
Just gave a dismissive glance at me as if to try to figure if I had any use at all. Just a raggedy-girl crumpled in the chair in front of her.
“Fifteen years. You’re mine for fifteen. If the police had rolled you up, you’d have probably been sentenced to twenty. Maybe gotten parole after six.”
“So why fifteen, if it’s six?” I wasn’t even sure I cared anymore, but I had the sense that looking weak to her would be a very, very bad idea.
“Because the police didn’t catch you. We did.” She paused, waving her hand dismissively, “Well, he did. And you may not understand it, but that was a death sentence.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but nothing came out. She was telling a cold unvarnished truth. I’d been dead. Lying in a cold grave in the basement of a house. I knew, absolutely, knew that I was dead. My life had ended and it didn’t matter to anyone. The only one who would have even realized I was missing was lying in the grave next to mine.
“Who is he?”
“That’s not really important, is it? The important part is that you were dead the second you walked into that house.”
There was no arguing with that either - the white-haired guy had put Duarte down so fast and smooth I still hadn’t figured out how he’d done it, and I’d been looking right at him. I’d been in, and seen, plenty of fights. But nothing like this. It was more like watching a lion attack on a nature show. Or a crocodile come out of nowhere.
He’d played us. The limp, the stiffness that had gotten my attention, and convinced me he was a good target had been a lure.
Whenever I thought back to it, I could still feel it.
That terrified, startled, feeling you get when you are just starting to drift to sleep and it suddenly feels like you’re falling.
Your leg kicks out.
Your heart explodes.
And after a fraction of a second, you calm down and try to relax.
Except I hadn’t calmed down. Because I wasn’t in bed and I wasn’t going to wake up.
I was trapped in a suddenly too-small room with a real predator.
I’d managed to suppress my panic just enough to try to run and found the door somehow locked to trap me in. When I turned around, he was standing stone still over Duarte’s bloody form, not even breathing heavy.
There wasn’t any question; this was the end. I would be killed and nobody would ever know or care what happened to me.
I was so stunned by how quickly everything had turned I went numb. No fear, no panic, just acceptance of my fate.
But it hadn’t happened. For his own reasons, he’d decided to let us live.
Not unscathed, in Duarte’s case.
And I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have been better off dead.
The grimly amused woman across the table from me had made it perfectly clear without saying a word that “dead” was still an option. Maybe even the preferable one, as far as she was concerned.
I only knew her as “Donna”. That was all her guards called her, all anyone ever called her. It felt more like a title than a name.
She glanced down at a piece of paper then back up at me, calculating.
“You do what I tell you or we finish what he started. He thought you might have use as a bird dog.”
Seeing my confusion, she clarified herself. “He thinks you can follow people.”
I tried to suppress a little smile at that. He’d actually seemed impressed, and for some stupid reason that felt important to me.
“Don’t get too happy. You’re a throwaway. You don’t know anything. The important thing is that you’re clean. Unknown.”
She paused, looking through me cold eyes. “The important thing is that you’re nobody.”
At least they gave me some oversized jeans and old tennis shoes to go with my sweatshirt before they took me back to a room and locked me in. I pretty much sat and rotted in what looked like an old-school room with painted over windows for an eternity, until one of the guys I was thinking of as one of “Donna’s Dobermans” opened the door. Barely looking at me, he gestured me to follow and led me out to a half-rust beater car. A skinny, ragged, washed-out guy in a faded, tattered, brown crew cap and a jacket that might have started off blue about two decades ago, was sitting in the driver’s seat, with a lost, spaced-out expression.
The Doberman just turned and walked away toward an alley, leaving me standing by the car. He hadn’t said a word.
The driver looked up and gave a halfhearted smile that was missing a few teeth. “Hop in. I’m Tommy, your cruise director.”
I shrugged and walked around the car to the passenger seat. He seemed somewhere between thirty and fifty, colorless, brittle. Like he’d just crumble away at any second.
I fumbled my way in, sweeping a couple hamburger wrappers off the battered used-to-be leather seat, and keeping an eye out for any rats that might still be alive. From the smell, I suspected they’d died of black mold.
Once I was in, he looked over at me with the slightly jittery eyes of a speed addict. “What do I call you?”
Not “What’s your name?” I noticed.
I thought for a second. “Spooky. Just call me Spooky.”
“Cool. S’all good, Spooky. I’m taking you to your new home, the Ritz Carlton.” He paused and shrugged with a slightly crazed half smile. “Maybe not the Ritz, but the doors lock, mostly. And the toilets flush, and sometimes you can even get hot water.”
He scratched underneath his cap for a second, leaving a few strands of wispy light brown hair sticking out. He fumbled in his jacket and pulled out a ratty looking envelope, shoving it at me. “Your key’s in there. And a cash card –there’s a PIN number on the back. And an unlimited subway card. Your cash card has $500 dollars, and it will be loaded with another $500 every two weeks.”
Enough to live on, but not really easy to build enough to run with.
We drove through a maze of streets, each one worse than the last until he pulled in front of a sleazy 1950’s two story motel. The sign was broken out and unreadable. The parking lot was edged with dead weeds.
He stopped in front of the main entrance. “There’s never anybody on duty at the front desk. You’re in room 223. Next to Amber.” There was a hint of something when he said “Amber.” Something, a tone, a feeling, maybe, in his voice.
“How do I...”
“You don’t. They’ll call when they need ... anything.” He seemed to pause heavily at that word, and for a second I really considered that maybe “dead” might have been my best option. “If they need you, they’ll call between 4 and 5 in the morning.”
“What if I’m not there?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But I don’t think you want them to have to go looking for you.”
He pulled out without saying anything else.
I made my way past the desk to the stairs and down the hall to my room.
Faded. Stained. There were more holes than carpet, and the peeling veneer desk next to the bed was a collage of cigarette burns and coffee cup rings. The only things on it were an ancient liver-colored phone and a neat stack of maps – Washington DC, Arlington, Rosslyn and so on. The maps might as well have had “study me” printed on them.
The closet had a battered, off-kilter door and the bathroom had no door at all. A fragment of one hung from the top hinge though.
At least there was toilet paper.
I’d been sitting on the folding metal chair by the desk trying to make sense of the maps for an hour when somebody knocked hesitantly on the door to my new home.
A watery-eyed, bone-thin bleach-blonde girl stood there. Garish makeup and gold lame shorts with a white fur-trimmed jacket made her profession pretty clear.
“You must be Spooky. Tommy told me. I’m Amber.” She held up a white paper bag. “Indian food. You okay with that?” Her voice was slightly nasal, the way characters in movies from New Jersey talk.
I didn’t even really have a chance to answer, she just walked past me and plopped her skinny butt down on the bed.
As much as her skinny, 90-pound ass could “plop”, anyway.
She kicked off ridiculously tall heels and sighed with relief.
She began to pull Styrofoam containers out, standing them precariously on the bed. “We have chicken vindaloo ... and ... chicken vindaloo.” She looked up at me with a slightly apologetic, fragile smile. “I like chicken vindaloo and I didn’t want to take the chance you’d choose it.” She pulled a couple of bottles of water out.
I closed the door, realizing I hadn’t eaten since ... since sometime before Duarte and I had run afoul of the white-haired man. I even kind of tried to smile when I picked up one of the containers and walked back to the pulled out chair.
“Thanks. I’m starving.”
“Confusing, isn’t it?”
“Who are they?”
“We don’t ask them, it’s probably not a good idea.”
“I can see that.”
“Tommy thinks it’s some kind of syndicate thing. I think it’s some kind of industrial spy stuff. The guys I, uh, entertain? Well, they’re usually pretty flush.”
I had my own ideas about it, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell anyone I’d just met. We stopped talking for a while. After not eating for so long, the spicy food tasted better than I’d even dreamed food could taste. I finally stopped when only raw Styrofoam squeaked under my plastic spoon.
She put her container on the floor and laid back with her legs dangling off the edge of the bed.
“I’m not asking, but you must have really, really fucked up to be here. We all did. That woman...” Amber shuddered, “she ain’t playing.”
“She doesn’t care what you do when she’s not using you; I’m trying to build up a little money...” she hooked the strap on one of her spike heel shoes with a toe and waved it around to make it clear just how she was earning the money. “She doesn’t care.”
I shrugged. “Thanks for the job offer, but that’s not my thing.”
She smiled up at the ceiling without looking over. “Didn’t think it was. Whatever you do though, don’t get in real trouble. There was a guy – he was a mook, did strong arm stuff, a leg-breaker. Mostly played the heavy in badger games. He got busted for robbery and assault while he was here – he had this room, actually – ended up hanging himself in jail.” She sat up and shot a serious look at me. “Thing is, he wasn’t the type to kill himself. He was a really big guy and he wasn’t afraid to go to prison.”
It felt scripted, artificial, like she was giving a formal warning. “I got the idea.”
“Seriously. Tommy’s worried you’re gonna run. They’ll find you sooner or later.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
She shrugged dramatically. Kind of like one of those actresses in really old black and white movies. “Story of my life. Nowhere to go.”
“So how long... ?”
“Two years ago, I promised them ten years for getting me out of the prison sentence. I was holding a kilo of coke for my boyfriend. Got caught with it and he bailed.” Her face twisted in disgust, though with her ex-boyfriend or herself I wasn’t sure. “Of course. Public Defender told me I was looking at 15 years if we bargained it down. Then that woman showed up...” she trailed off for a second, maybe thinking about decisions. “She told me that all I had to do was keep doing what I’d be doing anyway, but for her. She’d make it all go away.”
She stopped and focused back at me. “I do what they tell me to do, wear what they tell me to wear, go where they tell me and do my best to screw whoever they tell me to screw. They don’t even use me all that often – once a month, maybe twice, usually not at all.”
“And nothing. They don’t explain why, they don’t tell me anything ‘cept what I need to know to do my part.”
“He’s a good guy.” I got the same strange, not-quite-right, vibe from her that I got from Tommy. “But he’s a mess.”
“And a little blow sometimes. He’s trying to forget.” She looked down at the floor. “He used to be an emergency room nurse. His wife was a nurse too. When she had their baby, it was a blue baby. Ya’ know that can only happen when the mommy and the baby have different blood types? Tommy and wifey had the same blood type.” She glanced over at me. “You know what that means.” I nodded. “Tommy figured out who the doctor banging his wife was and started a fight with him in right there in the emergency room.” There was a hint of pride in her voice. “Ended up sentenced to five years for assault.”
“She got him out of it?”
“Oh, no. He did three years and then got paroled. But he was already hooked when he was a nurse, and when he got caught with speed while he was still on parole, she showed up.”
Tommy definitely didn’t look like prison would have been easy for him. “And the doctor?”
“Tommy’s wife divorced him while he was in prison and then married the pig. Or maybe the doctor married the pig. Whatever.” A slight scowl and a hint of anger crept into her tone. “At least he made the asshole remember him. He was bigger than Tommy and beating him real good until Tommy tackled him over the edge of one of those ambulance beds with the handrail raised. ‘Crack!’” She made a breaking motion with her hands and moved her head in that peculiar way only Jersey girls do. Her voice suddenly sing-songed for a second. “The Doc’s in a wheelchair for life.” She smiled, a lurid, too-wide smile.
Maybe Tommy was a little tougher than he looked.
Still, I heard it in her voice and almost bit my tongue at the irony of it. Tommy’s wife was screwing another guy and it ended their marriage and put Tommy in prison. Now he obviously had a thing for an honest-to-God streetwalking whore. And she just as clearly had a thing for him.
“I wasn’t asking before, but since you asked me?” She let the question hang.
“Me and a friend did some home invasions, and a guy got shot. Cops didn’t catch us, a friend of the guy did.” I stopped, remembering. “Scariest man I ever saw. He was going to kill us, but instead he hurt my friend real bad, then turned me over to her.”
“Somebody like maybe one of those guards of hers?”
I shook my head, shivering a little. “He makes them look like toy poodles.”
Amber nodded once. “I know they have some real hard-cases. Before she left, Candy used to work my corner; Tommy dropped her off there, just like he does me. One of the pimps threatened her and Tommy. Some guys just kind of showed up. The pimp got hurt bad that night. Real bad. Along with about a dozen other guys. Bad busted, knees, elbows, trigger fingers all smashed with hammers.”
I felt that falling sickness again. “I think ... that may be kind of a signature thing. That’s what happened to my partner.” I didn’t tell her that the white-haired man had made me do it to Duarte myself.
That I either did it or we both died.
She studied the threadbare carpet for a second. “Yeah...” she flashed a weak smile. “Well, they made their point. I don’t get hassled.”
“So, what happened to Candy?”
“Her time was up, she just left.” There was a hint of fear, a taste of desperate want-to-believe in that.
But I don’t think she believed herself any more than I did. Not really.
I faked a smile. I know it wasn’t very convincing, but it seemed to help a little.
“I’m pretty tired.”
“Yeah, me too.” She picked up the containers and dropped them back in the paper bag. “The dumpster is out front. Housekeeping is kind of slow. As in I ain’t seen anyone in two years. So if you don’t want any more bugs, rats, or mice than already live here, you gotta drop your own trash off.”
She stopped at the door. “It ain’t all bad, you do your thing - whatever your thing is - and they leave you alone, mostly.”
“You get bored or just want to hang out, I’m usually right here during the day.” She pointed over toward what I assumed was her room. “Just not on Sundays. Never on Sundays.”
She walked out in bare feet holding her shoes in one hand. Brave girl, I wasn’t sure the carpet wasn’t septic. And I’d slept behind more than a few dumpsters in the last few years.
She’d been making sure she told me the rules – and she seemed to think somebody was listening. It fit with what I sensed of Donna’s people.
I spent my days exploring the city. DC is nowhere near as large as Chicago, and much easier to move around in by subway. I sought out a thrift store, a discount grocery. A pawn shop.
Clothes from the Salvation Army, clothes that would swallow me, make me the raggedy homeless girl. Human debris, not just something people didn’t notice; I wanted to be something people avoided noticing.
Every morning, waking up at four, waiting for the phone to ring. Wondering if it ever would or if this was some kind of purgatory. Sometimes I wondered if maybe I had died. If maybe I was really buried in that dirt floor basement. Sometimes during the day, I picked it up just to hear a dial tone. Make sure it was working, I told myself.
Amber knocked on the door occasionally. “To talk.” she said. Always with some kind of food. Indian, Thai, Cuban, Mexican. Always with the wariness of a rabbit in room full of foxes. Always trying to feel me out, to see what I was thinking of doing. Stilted. Desperate to protect herself and Tommy from the consequences of anything I might decide to do.
I got the impression she didn’t know if they would blame her. But she was terrified to take a chance.
I was right about her and Tommy. He stayed in her room on Sundays, they walled themselves off from the world until Monday. Sometimes I could hear muffled domestic sounds. And sometimes laughter. As if they were real people.
It was almost two months before the phone range. An odd clicking ring, like the phone had seen some hard days.
“Out front. 8AM.”
The line went dead, then came the rasping croak of a busy signal.
I tried to sleep more, but in the end just lay awake until it was time to go.
When I walked out, Tommy sat in his rattletrap of a car waiting.
He handed me a picture.
“Study him, then give it back. Just follow and report.” He handed me a little black notebook and a couple pens.
“I don’t know. Whatever the target does, whatever you think, maybe. They didn’t say.”
Target. That was the word. “How long?”
“All week. Until Saturday night. There’s a phone number inside the notebook. Call every night at midnight and just listen. If the plan changes that’s how they’ll let you know.”
The “target” was staying at a hotel, one of the aging, less fancy ones. I picked him up less than an hour after Tommy dropped me off in a back alley.
Six days of tourist shit. He seemed intent on hitting every museum, every memorial and every food cart in the city. Six nights of watching the hotel. Watching the housekeeping crew spend half the night on the loading dock and arguing loudly in Spanish and laughing raucously.
Watching the night desk clerk slip out to smoke pot with his girlfriend in her car in the parking lot across the street.
Six nights of dead air on the phone number.
I didn’t know what to write, so I wrote everything. Where he went, what he ate, what he looked at. I snagged receipts from his table. The names of the housekeepers with their schedules, the desk clerk. Even the desk guy’s girlfriend. Along with her bra size, because they didn’t always just smoke pot in that car and they left the front window down while they were in the back seat.
I made my last call at midnight on Saturday.
“This number is not in service. If you have dialed it in error...”
I made my way back to my hotel, my room. At 4 in the morning on Monday my phone rang again. I was instructed what to do with the notebook. I dropped it into a hat of a grizzled old black panhandler outside the Capital South metro station. He just glanced up with leaden eyes and went back to talking to himself.
It was another three weeks before my phone rang again. Two days of following this time. Then another four weeks later. It slowly fell into a rhythm over the course of months.
Sometimes it was a day or two, sometimes it was a week. Occasionally, a room key card would be included in the notebook and a midnight message might instruct me to get something out of the target’s room, usually a laptop, or a briefcase - once it was a shirt. Then I took it outside to meet a van – a plumber, a carpet cleaner, a furniture delivery van - in a specific place. I waited outside the van and was given the “whatever” to put back. None of us ever said a word.
The van drivers changed as regularly as the vans. Once, I recognized the driver as the grizzled old black panhandler, neatly groomed and wearing an electrician’s uniform. His nametag said “Jackson.” When he handed me the laptop, he saw the recognition in my eyes and gave me a wordless wink of recognition.
I could tell Amber and Tommy were still worried about me, but I’d told her the truth. I had nowhere else to go.
Time went by faster than I expected; it seemed like I was always a lot busier than Amber.
It was five years before I saw Donna again.
Instead of a four in the morning phone call, it was a tap on the door. Tommy was leaning on the doorframe; head down, idly biting his lower lip.
“She wants to see you.”
There was no need to explain who “she” was, even if we’d never said her name. He followed me in and waited.
I walked back to my closet and threw a set of clothes on the bed. Tommy stood by while I stripped the giant t-shirt I slept in off, and pulled them on.
Tommy didn’t even seem to notice, but then he only had eyes for one girl.
We walked out to the car in silence and darkness.
I didn’t bother asking Tommy if he knew what Donna wanted. He wouldn’t know. And if he did, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to say as we drove through dark streets.
Another ruined building with painted over windows and the smell of urine on the steps.
Tommy stayed in the car while I walked in through the gaping front door and headed toward the only light there was, a single door open in the hallway. Donna was sitting at a twin to the last desk I’d seen her at. Or maybe it was the same desk and they’d brought it for her. What light there was came from a single, cordless camping lamp on her table.
“Sit.” She waved toward an old wooden dining room chair in front of her. One of her bodyguards loomed in the darkness behind her.
I sat. Good puppy.
She pulled a sheet out of her folder. “He was right. You have talent. Your reports are detailed, you improvise well and you don’t panic.” She looked back down at the sheet. “And you’re a ghost. When we’ve tested you on our own people, they don’t even know you’re there. Even when we tell them to keep an eye out. You may be the best we’ve ever had.”
For a fraction of a second I wondered if she’d told the white-haired man. For some reason, I really wanted her to. Realizing that shocked me into silence. I hadn’t thought about him in a long time.
She looked up at me with an arched eyebrow. “And you don’t talk too much.”
I just waited, which seemed to be what she wanted.
“We’re going to teach you some things. Make you more useful to us.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Security systems, locks, alarms, hotel key card systems. Room search techniques. Some techniques for copying computer and phone data.” She paused. “Do you speak any Spanish?”
“Maybe a few words. Mostly insults.”
I saw a hint of a smile flicker on the corner of her mouth. She scratched a note. “Housekeeping crews usually have a lot of Spanish speakers. So you’ll learn Spanish.”
“You’ll be off for about six months. You’ll be in New York City. I don’t want you training around here.”
My opinion or thoughts on the matter didn’t appear to be necessary – or desired. But it was better to warn her now. “I never did well in school.”
She didn’t even look up. “I know. Dropped out in ninth grade. Shitty home life, shitty school systems. Your assessment tests from grade school and child services are pretty clear that while you were behind developmentally, it wasn’t because you weren’t smart enough. But you really are just about as anti-social as it’s possible to be without being a sociopath.”
I stared, trying not to show my surprise. Whatever, whoever “They” were, I was pretty sure it wasn’t a criminal enterprise. Maybe a really big corporation, but the grinding, queasy feeling in my stomach was pretty certain that was wishful thinking.
She kept on without pausing. “This makes you more useful and it will have some benefits for you, if there’s something you want.”
Want. A rush of memories, a flash of sitting in that dimly lit basement across from a man...
“I want to meet him. Talk to him.” The words were out before I even knew I was going to speak.
She looked up sharply. Silent. She knew I was talking about the white-haired man. And she was not happy about it.
I knew I’d crossed a line. But I didn’t know why it was so important to her.
After a long moment. “Why?”
My heart started again. “I don’t know. He ... he saw me. Nobody else...” I just stopped. I didn’t even know what I meant by that.
She blinked. Twice. “We’ll see. Maybe.” She seemed a little off balance. “If you see him, it will probably be the last thing you ever do.”
There wasn’t much point in arguing that.
“Don’t get cocky because of this. Just remember what’s important.”
“I know. I’m nobody.”
She nodded grimly and handed me a bus ticket to New York City and a hotel key card folder.
“Listen for the phone.”
For the next six months, six days a week, I met with “Maria” and “Brandon.” I’m sure those weren’t their real names. I know Rose wasn’t mine.
Maria taught me Mexican style street Spanish three days each week. Within two weeks I was only allowed to speak to her in Spanish and within two months we spent nearly every “class” in places where only Spanish was spoken. Restaurant kitchens, hotel laundry companies, a slaughterhouse. We even went to seemingly endless numbers of street fairs.
Brandon was clean cut and athletic. Every day we met, he brought a backpack with something in it – a lock system, a security camera, a mockup of a sensor or whatever. We spent the day taking it apart and putting it together. He would show me how to beat it or fool it – sometimes it took tools, sometimes electronics. Then he would leave me an address and a time we would meet and use what I learned.
The scariest thing about Brandon was that I was sure he was military. The way he carried himself, the way he talked.
Which meant Donna definitely knew that I knew.
Tommy and Amber might be able to fool themselves, but I couldn’t. I was sure I was right, and if I was, none of us would ever leave. They couldn’t risk letting us go.
On the other hand, at least I got laid for the first time in five years. In all the jobs I’d been on, I’d more or less worked alone, but now I was breaking and entering into hotels, businesses, and private houses with Brandon three days a week.
The rush of getting away with it, of not getting caught. It’s very primal, very exciting. The first time, we’d just slipped away from a house – a very, very expensive house with a very, very expensive security system, and were crossing a very large golf course. An overpowering urge, a wave of desire struck me and I just pulled him into the trees and started tearing at his clothes. Twenty minutes later we were racing in the shadows along the edge of the greens and fairways, flashing grins at each other like a couple of teenagers.
After that first time, it pretty much became a ritual. We never said anything about it; both of us understood that it was more a release of tension for each of us rather than anything between us.
Then it was over. Maria didn’t show up, Brandon didn’t show up and I just got an envelope with a bus ticket back to DC in it.
The first night I was back, Amber knocked on the door and walked in with a bag of chicken vindaloo as if I’d never been gone.
In some ways, nothing changed; Amber, Tommy, 4 AM phone calls.
In other ways, everything changed. I wasn’t just following anymore, sometimes I was given addresses, times, things to look for. Places to break in. I wasn’t always working alone anymore either.
Sometimes a distraction operation was used – a girl, never one I knew, would hook up with the target, and keep him “occupied” while I searched his room, his car, or use a device to clone his phone. The sheer number of different girls meant Donna’s organization was far larger than I’d thought. Brandon had talked about this kind of thing. The girls were called “swallows.”
At first it was a little odd, quietly copying a laptop while listening to a couple in the next room.
Talking dirty, moaning and screaming.
I suppose it was inevitable.
One of the “swallows” was keeping the target very loudly and vigorously occupied in the bedroom while I did my part. From the squealing and gasping, the guy must have been rougher than the usual ones and I was feeling a twinge of sympathy for the girl.
I heard the target imperiously order the girl to get him a drink from the hotel room bar just as I was almost done cloning the sim card from the target’s phone. She strolled out of the bedroom, stark naked. She was a wreck – mascara, eye shadow and lipstick streaking down her face.
She looked right at me but didn’t say or do anything; she didn’t even acknowledge me. Just quietly mixed a drink and carried it back to the bedroom.
That night she knocked on my door. She was obviously freshly scrubbed, wearing a bathrobe and carrying a bag I recognized as the type that usually contained a couple slices of Tivoli’s chocolate cake.
“Hey, Spooks. Want some dessert?”
I just stood back and let her walk in. She looked a little frailer, a little more vulnerable without her makeup.
She pulled two small ribbon-tied white cardboard boxes out of the bag and handed me one before sitting on the bed.
We sat on the bed, eating the rich cake wordlessly.
As she finished, she sighed contentedly and settled over to look at me seriously.
“It’s all pretend. You know that, don’t you?”
She looked back in the direction of her room. “It is, Spooky. Think about it. I sell fantasies. To make it work, I have to pretend there’s some kind of human connection. Something emotional. Pretend to enjoy it, pretend to be or feel whatever it is they want. That’s what most of them want.”
She pulled her feet up to sit cross-legged, huddled under her robe. “Then there’s guys like ‘Morton Gallagher, Esquire, ‘ born with more money than God. Wants to be the big tough guy, so he picks up a girl a little smaller, maybe a little scared looking. Somebody who makes him feel like a big man.”
I waited for her to go on.
“So I look a little nervous, wear makeup that isn’t waterproof, so it runs. Squeal and moan like he’s too much man for me.” She smiled crookedly. “Think how funny that it.” She gestured down between her thighs. “We’re made to push a 20 inch long, ten pound baby out through that. Do you really think Morty’s ‘six inches of steel’ can really hurt if I use a little KY?”
I smiled at that. “Maybe not.”
“Gallagher is all about the big man thing, makes me fix him a ginger ale highball before we start, halfway through and then at the end.”
“I think it’s a thing he got from his dad. One of those passed-down-from-father-to-son things that guys have. He always starts off tripping on something anyway. He’s usually pretty out of it by the time I leave. I always roll him on his side so he doesn’t choke if he throws up. I don’t think she’d like that.”
She looked at me with a kind of helpless look. “This is what I do. Tommy understands. He drives and he treats bullet holes, knife cuts and overdoses for them. Sometimes he has to get rid of the ones that didn’t make it. That’s what he does, and he knows what I do. He knows I can’t be what he deserves. We don’t have choices anymore, not ‘til this is ... over. All I get ... all we get, is Sunday. She lets us have that. Probably because Sundays are lousy days to do this stuff. I mean, who wants to see a hooker on a Sunday?”
“That makes sense.” I thought about my own request. “Did she agree to it, or did it just kind happen?”
“Tommy asked her for it. She didn’t really answer, but neither of us has gotten a Sunday morning call since. During the rest of the week he and I just work together.”
It was none of my business, really, but I asked. “So how does Tommy feel about you ‘earning extra money, ‘ anyway?”
She actually smiled a little. “He gets it. Like I said, what choice do we have? I have to show up on the street regular anyway, or everybody would think I’m a cop. That’d be a real bad idea, even with them knowing I’m protected. You could fake it for a while, maybe, but not day after day, year after year. Tommy understands. And I use condoms every time.”
“Maintaining your cover.”
“Yeah, that.” She flicked the lid on her cake box up and down a few times, and looked sharply at me, then down at the box lid.
I looked down at my own. The inside of the lid was covered with writing.
She looked immensely sad for a second, then got up stuffing her box in the bag, and walking to the door.
“I’m just tired today, Spooks. Thanks for listening. Sometimes I just need someone to talk to.”
And she was out.
I stared looked at box lid while I pretended to study a map of Arlington.
If anything happens to me, take care of Tommy. He doesn’t deserve any of this. He’s not so good with money, so I need you to help him.
The rest of the note just explained that where she’d been hiding the cash from her ‘cover’ nights.
She couldn’t tell Tommy where the money was. Addicts are addicts even if you love them. I realized I was the only choice she had.
I had to ask myself: in what kind of shit-world do I become the one to trust?
Amber never said anything about it after that. But Tommy did. Sort of. On the way back from a job, he pulled into a diner parking lot with no warning, saying he’d missed lunch and was getting the shakes from not eating. We sat in a booth and stared at each other for a few minutes.
“Amber says she talked to you, about us.”
“We’re not stupid Spooky, we know how this probably ends. One of us dies, both of us die, or they decide we aren’t useful anymore.”
There just wasn’t much to say to that.
“I just wanted to ask you to take care of Amber if anything happens to me. She’s a good kid. She got fucked over by that asshole boyfriend of hers. He put her on the street, made her carry drugs. “ He gave a tilted gap-toothed smile. “Somebody has to watch out for her, she has a taste for loser boyfriends.”
“You think you’re just another bad choice?”
His smile faded a bit. “Seriously, is there any way I would ever be a good choice? The only day I’m clean is Sunday. I can do that, but I’m full-blown tweaker for fuck’s sake. I’m one really bad day from an overdose. I saw enough overdoses when I worked the ER, I know where I’m headed.” He shook his head in a jittery, nervous shake. “And I have a lot of bad days, Spooky.”
“She thinks you’re a good choice.”
“Then you’re probably smarter than me or her, just take care of her, will ya?”
“I’ll probably get sick of chicken vindaloo, but if anything happens I’ll keep an eye on her.”
He smiled tightly with too-shiny red eyes. “Thanks. Don’t tell her I asked, okay?”
The way he said it, he didn’t know she’d already asked me to take care of him.
The world was maybe a tiny bit less shitty when we walked out of that diner.
When I had to do a house three days later, I was supposed to make it look like a break in. Steal a laptop along with whatever I thought would look like a spur of the moment burglary.
It was a spectacular house – all marble and exotic wood. Rich people spending money to show how rich they are.
I found the laptop, then took jewelry from an armoire and some small electronics. But on my way out, I saw a wine refrigerator in the kitchen and pulled a couple bottles of champagne out of it.
I turned the laptop over to the ever-waiting van and dumped the electronics and jewelry in a storm drain.
The next morning was Sunday, and I did something I was sure would never do. I knocked on Amber’s door at ten.
She answered, wearing a pair of jeans and a big flannel shirt. No makeup, hair just pulled back. This was Tommy’s girl, the real girl I’d gotten only the smallest glimpses of.
She was wearing a ring I’d never seen before. A little band with a small diamond. An engagement ring.
Of course. She would only wear that on Sundays.