Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
Lena Waters was not technically a runaway, since she was a legal adult. More accurately, she was a college dropout. She had come to the city just like so many others who came looking for that elusive break that would set them free forever from the boring and the humdrum—humdrum meaning an ordinary life, like those of their parents.
Like most of them, she’d gotten mixed up with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.
This was hardly shocking to me. There were countless young people like her here, and in other cities around the nation. I doubted I would ever find her, but her grieving parents had implored me to keep looking, forever if need be. Fortunately, within a month I had found her. After I notified her relieved parents, I had discreetly watched Lena for a couple of days and reported my findings back to them, along with a few words of advice: “Finding” a legal adult rarely does any good, since they very often don’t want to hear from the people they ran away from in the first place. I have heard ‘Go to hell and leave me alone!’ plenty of times.
All of this I told Lena’s parents, and more.
“Our Lena isn’t like those other kids you’ve been after, Mr. Longville.” Mr. Waters assured me, his eyebrow arched to show how convinced he was of what he was saying. He had a soft, lyrical Southern accent.
I’m a down-to-earth country boy
it seemed to say. “True, she’s fallen in with the wrong element, but Lena’s a good girl. If she weren’t being pressured, she never would have done this.”
I’d heard that one before, too.
“It’s that boy. Oh, I wish she had listened to me about that boy,” Mrs. Waters wailed, dissolving completely into tears.
“Finding your daughter won’t be easy, and even if I can, I can offer no guarantees,” I threw in, while Mr. Waters comforted his wife.
They both nodded, but I wasn’t sure they were really listening.
“I want you to know that I have the utmost sympathy for what you must be feeling right now, but you must accept that Lena may have made this decision on her own. So even if I find her, she may not want to come home.”
Of course, all of my lecturing did little good. It seldom did. I suppose I repeated the lecture more out of a sense of obligation to the truth. They were like others I’d seen, incredulous at this disaster that had befallen them, their little girl gone mad and run away to the city and untold dangers. Mrs. Waters had cried from then on whenever Lena’s name was mentioned, and I was forced to think of other similar cases that I had taken, years before, of young people who had disappeared under strange circumstances, only to resurface following aging rock and roll bands across the country, pretending to live “Alternative” lifestyles.
Most were just waiting on their trust funds to mature. I had sworn to myself after recovering the last permanently stoned banker’s son from Southern California, that I would take no more runaway cases. However, against my better judgement I had taken this one. In the end what had convinced me was her picture. The parents had shown it to me and there was an air about the young woman that was apparent even in the photograph. She had happy but curious dark eyes, with an eagerness and an innocence bordering on emptiness, like they wanted more, to drink in the world and find what was right for her.
“I’m not the richest man, Mr. Longville, but I am well off. I want you to find my daughter and tell her how we feel. We didn’t get a chance to tell her how we felt, Mr. Longville; no goodbyes. We were loving parents; we gave her everything. Children don’t run away from parents like that.”
Actually, they do. Moreover, I’ve heard that one before, too.
I thought this, but said nothing. I had already decided, and there was really nothing more to say, so I took the case. I’d find her or I wouldn’t.
I had begun the search the next day, planning to find Lena quickly. I figured maybe it was a case of a spoiled kid testing her parents. It happens a lot. It hadn’t turned out to be so simple. For one thing, she wasn’t where she should be.
Being the world’s greatest detective, I wasted only a couple of months stumbling around in the wrong sections of town. When cruising the flophouses and the jails brought me nothing, I had checked the hospitals and the morgues. That brought me no luck. But there are only so many options for a person on the skids. By a process of elimination, I had found her.
I hadn’t broken the news to her parents just yet. What I had found I knew they wouldn’t want to hear. She was living with some delinquent in a ramshackle building in Sumiton, the most run-down part of town. The outside of the building looked like Picasso’s
. The delinquent in question was presumably the would-be artist boyfriend. It didn’t look like they were too deeply in love. Neither of them seemed to be employed, at least not in a traditional sense. I had, however, seen Lena give the boyfriend money several times. He would usually immediately depart with friends for a night’s reveling. Lena had her own visitors; they came at odd hours to the small apartment, always male visitors, and nearly always alone. At least her occupation was obvious.
I had rarely seen the same man enter twice, or stay more than a couple of hours. That pretty much told the story. The fact that there was a boyfriend in the picture didn’t really surprise me. I’d seen plenty of boyfriends who would turn their girlfriends out for money. It isn’t pretty but that’s the way it is. When Lena was entertaining, the boyfriend would always make himself absent. Even from a distance, I could see that there were lines under Lena’s eyes, eyes that looked deep and tired, those same eyes that had been so dark and sparkling.
I had been standing under the awning of a broken down flophouse to get out of the rain. It wasn’t working. I blended in seamlessly with the wet derelicts.
You’re a real master of disguise
, I thought to myself.
Finally, I spotted her across the street. She was walking slowly, warily down the sidewalk. I watched as she walked up to her run-down apartment building, hugging herself against the drizzle. Short and thin, dressed in a shabby blue coat, she wore nothing on her head, despite the cold. Her long brown hair whipped in the wind. She fumbled as she took out her key. She looked small, vulnerable, abandoned. She went inside, but I didn’t venture across just yet.
While I waited, I saw a man come up to the door with a small brown bag. It wasn’t the boyfriend, who was skinny, unwashed and young. Instead, he was stocky, and from a distance, he appeared well dressed, shirt collar open to show a thick gold chain. He wasn’t there for a ‘visit’— at least not the kind I’d usually observed. He went in without preamble, and emerged less than a minute later without the package. All business. He had a look of absolute disgust on his face, the disgust of the master for the slave. Suddenly I knew Lena’s problem all to well.
I waited until this charming fellow departed, then surreptitiously went across the street and up to her door. I leaned on the buzzer several times, but there was no answer. Inside, Lena was probably too high to be bothered just then. I decided to come back after I met with Harry and Eve. She’d be down by then. Smack is a heavy hitter, but its pleasure is fleeting.
My little date would require me to drive all the way across town. The traffic situation was always dismal. For some reason, it seems people like to drive even crazier than usual when it rains. A brief glance in the rearview mirror revealed a river of red tail lights stretching off into infinity in the opposite direction. There were a number of hold ups from accidents along the way.
Ah, Birmingham. I have a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth, jewel of the South. She is a lot of things. She is green and gray, smiling and scowling, bitter and sweet, rural and urban. She is a burgeoning metropolis set in the middle of a wasteland. She is a million strong, almost the exact same size as her British sister that had given her a name. She is the pride of Alabama and her curse, having been the focus of the civil rights riots of the sixties, while remaining her largest city and a center of commerce.
The Magic City is divided into three big pieces. Roughly speaking, they go from Best to worst, like so. The farther south one travels, the better the quality of living. The farther north, the more abysmal. In the middle, there lays Park Place, pleasantly secluded from the rest of the city by its topography. There, most of the city’s rich have managed to seclude and insulate themselves from the troubles other city dwellers face day to day.
Also, in the middle lies Westmoreland Heights and Elyton to the east. Between the two of them, the long sliver of the city that is downtown lies between Airport Highway and University Boulevard. Within it you will find the Morris Station, The Magic City’s central hub of transportation; and The Hart Tower, the tallest building in the city. Most of the smaller business owners, the jewelers and pawnbrokers who dominate there, live in a nearby enclave known simply as The District.
Stretching away far above it all—the poorest section of the city—is the North Side. Here are the ruins of the former great steel empire. The North Side is crumbling. It is home to row upon long brown row of the city’s projects. In the seventies, plans were loudly announced for urban renewal, but those promises were forgotten when the men who made them were elected. The denizens are poor, but make no mistake, there are thriving businesses there and many rich men. But most of the businesses are questionable, at best, if not outright illegal. And the richest men of the North Side are the criminals who run those businesses.
There is also the Mob. The most powerful faction is the Ganato crime family headed by Don Armand Ganato, the Caesar and overlord of the huge mafia family that operates from their own part of the North End, referred to by them as The Zone. In the old days, The Zone was once called The Mafia Zone, but the name has become contracted with the passage of time. Don Ganato lives in The Zone, a part of the city in which there is virtually no law but his, and of which he is ruler absolute. The Zone lies directly across the Cahaba River from the North Side and Ganato’s enemies, the O’Hearn mob.
The O’Hearn mob was traditionally an Irish organization, but over the years it has adopted Southerners of Scottish, Welsh and German pedigree, though it is still referred to by many as the Irish mob. Principally, it still is. Its founder, Big Thom O’Hearn, was born and reared in Ireland, as was his young protégé, “Longshot” Lonnie O’Malley. Now Big Thom is gone, and Lonnie runs the rackets.
Harry’s apartment was in the lower part of Fountain Heights, toward the Cahaba River. Though by no means ritzy, Fountain Heights boasted some of the nicer places to live on that side of the city. They were areas that the police would still go into at night, places where you could still raise children if you were of a mind.
Harry lived on the 7th floor of a high-rise apartment complex, so I had time to prepare myself before I arrived. I don’t fuss with my appearance much, but then again, I don’t get that many dinner invitations. I rode up alone in the elevator, where I was treated to a particularly awful Muzak version of “Nights in White Satin” before the elevator doors opened onto a much more pleasant silence.
I walked down the hallway until I reached the door of number 7635, and straightened myself a little before knocking. I heard an excited murmur, and a light footfall. The door opened.
“Mr. Longville, hello! I’m Eve.” I received a half hug and a peck on the cheek. She smelled of Jasmine, and the aroma pleasantly filled my senses. “We’ve been expecting you. Please come in. Harry will be out in a second.”
“Eve.” I tried to maintain my composure. Her eyes were riveting, violet streaked with gold. I watched her walk away with a pleasant fluid movement, and discovered that I was having trouble taking my eyes off her. Her skin was unusual, in that it was a smooth and perfect . . . pink? I realized that was it, her skin was as smooth and pink as a baby’s flesh. She was also beautiful beyond what most men would expect beautiful to be. She had high cheekbones and full lips that gave her a mysterious, even secretive, look. Thick dark blonde hair hung down to her small muscular waist.
Her posture wasn’t regal, her bearing wasn’t aristocratic, but there was something arresting about the way she moved, something that demanded attention, like a dancer. A former ballerina, I thought. She was dressed in a flowery summer dress. Her body looked supple and strong beneath it. She was the kind of woman that I suppose most men dream about—if not before they meet them, definitely afterward.
“I hope you like veal, Mr. Longville.” She smiled and arched an eyebrow at me. Nice dimples. Her accent was a soft and musical purr, the voluptuous accent of South Alabama. “I know that you don’t drink, so I made you some sweet tea . . . we’re having wine.”
Harry appeared from a back room. “Roland! Glad you could make it.”
“Well, had to meet the little woman, didn’t I?”
Harry beamed. “Glad you got here when you did. Eve’s prepared a feast, and I’d have hated to start without you.”
As we sat down, Eve scooted over next to me and rested her chin on the back of her hand. “So, Mr. Longville...”
“Please, call me Roland.”
“Thank you, Roland. Tell me, how on earth did you and Harry ever meet?”
She had a bemused expression on her face. I glanced at Harry.
“Um . . . we met in jail.”
The pretty face became very serious. She looked from me to Harry and back to me. She leaned very close and whispered into my ear. “So, what were you in for?”