Authors: William G. Tapply
She picked it up, glanced at it again, then frowned at me. “May I ask why?”
“She died in my backyard,” I said. “I feel kind of responsible.”
Patricia McAfee shook her head. “Oh, dear.”
“I don't like the idea of her falling through the cracks,” I said.
She nodded. “Do you want me to keep this photo, show it around?”
I picked it up and put it in my pocket. “No, that's all right.” I gave her one of my business cards. “If you hear anything about a young pregnant girl, fifteen or sixteen, who might've looked like this girl, though, maybe you'll give me a call?”
“Sure,” she said. “Absolutely.”
Back out in the open room, the number of women in the television area had about doubled. It was approaching dinnertime. I showed the photo of the girl to each of the women. None of them admitted that Sunshine had showed them the photo. None of them admitted to having seen the girl. None of them even reacted when they looked at her picture.
They just nodded and shrugged and looked at it with flat, empty eyes. I couldn't tell whether they didn't care, or if they didn't trust this lawyer in an expensive suit, or if they were hiding secrets from me, or if they just didn't have any emotion left in their souls to squander on somebody they didn't know.
Maybe they saw themselves, or their own future, in the dead girl's photo.
We were less than a month past the shortest day of the year, and when I walked out the front door of the Shamrock Inn for Women, darkness had already seeped into the narrow city street. A day of what the television weatherpeople call “radiational cooling” had left the evening air so dry and cold it hurt to take a deep breath.
I took several deep breaths anyway. The cold, sharp air cleansed my lungs.
A dozen or so women were hanging around on the sidewalk outside the Shamrock. They were smoking and shifting their weight from one hip to the other and talking among themselves in low, lifeless voices. I guessed that after they'd stomped out their cigarettes, they'd all file inside for dinner.
It was close to suppertime, so I headed for Skeeter's. A block up the street from the Shamrock, I spotted three women talking to the driver of a dark panel truck that was pulled over to the curb puffing clouds of exhaust into the frigid air. As I got closer, I saw that the women were quite young. Late teens, early twenties at the oldest. They were wearing short skirts and high-heeled boots and fake-fur jackets and a lot of makeup.
Streetwalkers, no doubt. Hookers. Once upon a time everybody called the Washington Street part of Boston between Tremont and Chinatown the Combat Zone. It was sprinkled with peep shows and dirty-book stores and strip joints and nudie bars, and it was populated by prostitutes and pimps, coke dealers and crackheads, muggers and scammers and runaways.
The Zone was a good place for a suburban adventurer to get a knife in the ribs or a dose of the clap.
In recent years the pickup bars and adult-entertainment establishments had been pretty much shut down. Those who cared about such things were trying to revive the area's old name: The Ladder District. If you looked down at it from a helicopter, you'd see Tremont and Washington streets running parallel to each other and a dozen or so short narrow one-way streets linking them likeâ¦well, like the rungs of a ladder.
Nobody I knew actually called it the Ladder District, and a new name would never change the area's history or culture anyway. It was, and would forever be, the Combat Zone to all but the politically correct and those with a public-relations agenda. Besides, nobody was claiming that crime and vice had ceased to be a thriving enterprise in the area no matter what you called it.
I approached the women and said, “Hey, ladies. Can I talk to you for a minute?”
They turned their heads and looked at me. A blonde and two brunettes. One of the dark-haired women looked Asian. The blonde said something to the guy in the truck, and then the three of them started to walk away.
The truck pulled away from the curb and headed up the one-way street. A logo was painted on the side panel. It looked like a stylized silhouette of a couple of bears, a big one and a little one, mother and cub, maybe, with a few pine trees in the background and scrolled lettering under it that I couldn't read. The truck had New Hampshire license plates. Live Free or Die. Some contractor or plumber or car salesmanâor lawyer or pediatrician or politician, for that matterâventuring south to the Big City from Portsmouth or Nashua or Manchester at the end of a long week, hoping to buy a Friday-night hookup.
“Please,” I called to the women. “I just want to talk to you for a minute.”
Two of them crossed the street. The third one hesitated, then turned and came back to where I was standing.
Up close, I saw that she was younger than she dressed. She didn't look much older than my dead girl.
“You wanna party, mister?” she said. She was smoking a cigarette. She had black hair and pale skin. She was wearing a red beret and a fake-ermine jacket and a narrow black skirt that stopped at mid thigh. She wore bright red lipstick and a lot of makeup around her eyes and big hoopy earrings.
“Tempting,” I said. “But no thanks. I just want to ask you a couple questions.”
“Fuck you, then.” She turned and started to walk away.
“Please talk to me,” I said. “I'll pay you.”
She stopped. “Pay me for what?”
“For answers to some questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Nothing personal,” I said. “About somebody you might know. I'm just looking for some information.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “You're not a cop. Are you some kind of cop?”
I shook my head.
“You don't look like a cop.”
“I'll take that as a compliment,” I said.
“So what are you? Truant officer? Social worker? Reporter? Preacher?”
I smiled. “None of those things. Not even close. I'm a lawyer.”
She laughed. “A horny lawyer?”
“No. Just a lawyer.” I took out one of my cards and held it out to her.
She stepped closer, took the card, looked at it, then tucked it into her jacket pocket. She looked up at me. “Fifty bucks,” she said. “We just talk.”
“How do I know you'll tell me the truth?” I said.
She shrugged. “Why should I lie to you?”
“Why shouldn't you?”
“Because,” she said, “whatever you want to ask me, I probably just don't give a shit one way or the other.”
I smiled. “Let's give it a shot.” I took out my wallet and gave her a twenty-dollar bill.
She took it, looked at it, and kept her hand extended. “I said fifty.”
“You get the rest after we talk.”
She shrugged and shoved the twenty into her jacket pocket. “Okay. What the hell. Go ahead. Ask away. I'll give you twenty dollars worth of answers.”
I took out a picture of the dead girl and held it up for her. “Do you know her?”
She squinted at the photo, then frowned at me. “What's the matter with her? She looksâ¦”
“Oh, shit,” she mumbled. “What happened?”
“Do you recognize her?”
“I don't know. Yeah, maybe. Lemme see.” She reached for the photo. I gave it to her. She frowned at it. When she looked up at me, I saw that some of the hardness had gone out of her eyes. “She was sick,” she said.
recognize her, then.”
She took a drag off her cigarette, then dropped it on the sidewalk and ground it out with the toe of her boot. “I saw her just one time,” she said. “She's not like a regular around here or anything. It was a few days ago. I only remember her because she was throwing up. I was gonna see if there was anything I could do, butâ¦” She shrugged.
“I started to, I really did. I felt bad for her. But when she saw me, she walked away.”
“Where did this happen?”
She pointed down the street in the direction the panel truck had gone. “Few blocks that way. Over on Kneeland Street, down in Chinatown. It looked like she was hurting pretty bad. She was leaning against the side of a restaurant, just gagging and puking, and when she walked, she was like all hunched over, holding her belly, kind of limping, you know?”
“Was she pregnant, did you notice?”
“You think because she was sickâ¦”
She shook her head. “She was wearing a long coat. I didn't notice her belly.” She cocked her head and looked at me. “Funny thing, though.”
“The guy in that truck?”
“That guy you were just talking to?”
“What about him?”
“Just now. He was looking for a girl. That's all.”
“What do you mean?”
“We're just hanging on the street, you know? Me and Zooey and Kayla? So this guy, he pulls up beside us, rolls down his window, gives us a wave, tells us to come over. We ask him if he's looking to have some fun. He looks us over and shakes his head. Not with you, he says. We go, Come on, mister. What's wrong with us? I mean, Zooey's Asian. Most guys go ga-ga over her. But this guy, he goes, You are not what I'm seeking. Talked like that, very educated, or maybe a phony, you know what I'm saying? It sounded pretty weird, this guy in a truck trying to hook up, talking like he's some creepy college professor or something. I mean,
“As if he was looking for a specific girl?”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “Maybe. It kinda sounded that way.”
“This girl, do you think?” I pointed at the photo she was holding.
“I don't know.” She shrugged. “I didn't get the idea he was interested in some dead girl. He said he was
somebody younger than us. Blond, he said. She had to be blond. Young and blond. Some guys, they know exactly what they want. They gotta have a girl reminds them of their daughter or their niece or something.” She tapped the photo she was holding. “This chick was young and blond, right?”
“How old would you say she was?” I said. “The girl you saw throwing up.”
“I don't know. Fifteen or sixteen. Just a kid.”
“How old are you?”
She looked sideways at me. “Nineteen.”
I smiled. “Really?”
“Sure. Old enough to know better, right?”
“You'd think so,” I said. “So this guy in the truck, did it seem like he was looking for some particular girl, or just any blond girl who was young? Did it seem as if he knew the girl he was looking for?”
She shook her head. “I don't know. I told you what he said. Kayla's a blonde these days, but I guess she's too old for him. She's a year older than me. You think he was looking for that girl in your picture?”
“The idea occurs to me.” I hesitated. “What about that panel truck. Ever see it before?”
“I don't think I ever saw that truck before. I think I'd remember it.” She narrowed her eyes. “The guy, though, he looked kind of familiar. I think he's been around before, talking to the girls, hooking up.”
“But not with you.”
“Not me or Zooey or Kayla, no.”
“Just now, when you talked with him, did he mention his name?”
“Of course not.” She smiled. “If he had, it wouldn't've been the right one anyway.”
“What did he look like?”
She shrugged. “Kind of geeky looking. Not handsome, not repulsive. No beard or anything. Round glasses, the kind with wire rims. Short hair. He was wearing a necktie.”
“I don't know,” she said. “About your age, I guess. I'm sorry. I didn't exactly study his face.”
“That's okay,” I said. “Did this guy say anything else about the girl he was looking for?”
She shook her head. “No, that was it. Kayla, she started giving him a bunch of shit, and that's when you came along. The guy rolled up his window and drove away.”
“His truck,” I said. “There was some writing on it. Under the logo. A company name, maybe. Did you catch it?”
She shook her head. “I didn't notice.”
I pointed at the photo again. “And you never saw this girl before the other night, right?”
She shook her head.
“Which night was it?”
She frowned for a minute. “Today's Friday? It must've been Monday. Yeah. Monday night.”
Monday night was when the girl came into my yard. I'd found her Tuesday morning. “About what time?”
“I don't know. Not late. Nine, maybe?”
“Did you notice where she went?”
She pointed off in the direction of Beacon Hill, where I lived. “You know,” she said, “you want an awful lot of answers for fifty dollars.”
“Easy money,” I said. “What else can you tell me about the girl?”
She shrugged. “That's all I know. I just saw her that one time, puking on the sidewalk.”
I pulled out my wallet, slid out two twenties, and gave them to the girl.
She glanced at them. “We said fifty. I don't have any change.”
“Don't worry about it,” I said.
She shrugged and jammed the bills into her jacket pocket. Then she held up the photo. “You want me to keep this, ask around, see if anybody else saw her?”
“No,” I said. “I need it.”
“I'll show it to Kayla and Zooey, some other people, if you want.”
“That's okay,” I said. “Don't worry about it.”
She shrugged and gave me the photo.
“You've got my card,” I said.
“You want that back, too?”
“No,” I said. “Keep it. Call me if you think of anything you forgot to tell me. Or if you hear anything about that girl. Whatever. Even if you're not sure it's relevant, just give me a call.”
“You'll make it worth my while?”
“Absolutely. And if you see that truck again, try to get the license numbers and give me a call, okay?”
“Sure,” she said. “Why not.”
“What's your name?” I said.
I smiled. “Yes.”
She cocked her head. “Misty. What yours?”
“Brady,” I said. “So where are you from, Misty?”
“I'mâ” She shook her head. “Fuck you. You're gonna tell me to go home to Mommy and Daddy, right?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Not if you knew my daddy, you wouldn't.” She lifted her hand. “See ya.” She turned and started to cross the street.
“Wait,” I said.
She stopped and looked back at me.
“I'd like to talk to your two friends for a minute.”
“You gonna give them money?”
“If that's what it takes.”
She shrugged. “Hang on.”
I watched her head to the other side of the street. She had the walk. You couldn't miss the message in that walk.
The other two girlsâKayla and Zooeyâwere standing there on the corner, apparently waiting for Misty. When she got to them, they lit cigarettes and huddled. I could hear them talking and giggling. They sounded like a bunch of high-school girls gossiping about some cute boy, and they kept looking at me.
After a minute, the three of them crossed the street and came over to where I was waiting. Up close, I saw that the other two girls were about the same age as Misty, who I guessed was younger than the nineteen she claimed.