Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
“I want you, Roland. When you came into the room the other night, something just . . . clicked. You felt it, too, I know.”
I felt my hands literally ache to roam that perfect pink skin, and I realized that I was sweating. She stood closer now and it seemed as though she was daring me, challenging me not to touch her. Her nipples were hard in the gray light. I could smell the jasmine and her warm, musky, female scent so temptingly close. I finally gathered enough presence of mind to take a step backward. We stood there for a second more. Her lips parted slightly, perfect for a long kiss, and I heard her soft velvety breath. But the spell had been broken. I turned and left without a word.
* * *
I drove across town in a vain attempt to clear my muddled head. Nosing my car out over the cloverleaf toward the Central City, I turned east on 280 and went back to Westmoreland Heights. I knew with a horrible certainty that I wanted to go back there and spend the afternoon with Eve, believe all of the things she said . . . which was obviously the plan.
I was irritated, also, because it seemed that Harry had orchestrated the rendezvous. But for what purpose? An extra incentive to find Danny? Or did Harry have in mind some alternative payment methods? It added up too nicely that way. There was something left out here and it was Harry’s omission. He and I were due for a long talk. However, Harry’s game, whatever it was, would have to wait. I had wasted time the night before that I might have used making contact with Lena.
I took up a post across from Lena’s and mulled it over while I waited for her to appear. I didn’t get much of a chance to think though. I had just taken up my customary watch over on Bowery Corner when she appeared down the street, her body huddled against the cold drizzle. She wore only a thin dress and a ragged blue coat.
She looked very frail. I begin to get the feeling this wasn’t going to be easy. I mentally made a note never to take a runaway case again. I walked slowly across the street. I saw that she was fumbling with the keys, and that she held a package in the other hand. I made my voice as soft as I could, and still be heard.
She stopped moving and then slowly turned around. I saw her eyes widen slightly. Her mind had probably quickly scanned all the reasons that a six-foot-six, 260 lb. black man might approach a girl on a rainy, empty street, and the tightness and fear in her face told me that she had come to a very wrong conclusion. I must have looked like a foreboding giant to her; I had seen the expression that ran across her face before. If she’d had a gun, I’m sure she would have shot me.
“Don’t be afraid. My name is Roland Longville. I’m a private detective.” I extended my credentials. She didn’t move. She looked at me, the scar on my face, and then looked down, without looking completely away from me. The drizzle continued to fall fall; I felt its biting cold through my heavy overcoat.
“What do you want?” Her voice was the voice of a child from the bottom of a well, small and distant.
“Lena, your parents hired me to find you. They haven’t heard from you in over a year; they’re very worried.” As I spoke I noted how thin she looked beneath her coat. She was trembling slightly.
“My . . . parents?” There was a sob in her voice. “They hired you to look for me?” As though the idea was incredible.
“That’s right. They’d like you to come home.”
We stood there for a few minutes, getting steadily wetter, Lena with her brown package and her key in the lock, me with my I.D. extended in my hand. Finally, she took a deep breath and looked up, blinking away tears. She smiled, and for a second I saw the pretty coed from the picture. Then the tired, lost young woman came back. She said in a very different voice, “So, you want to come in?”
We entered the building and she closed the door behind us. Then I followed her up the creaky, trash-filled stairwell. The old woman I had seen before sat in the filth, her back against the stairway wall. She groaned drunkenly as I squeezed past her on my way up. Under her breath I heard her whisper again, “Jerome.”
On the fourth floor, Lena opened the door to a small, neat room. It was sparsely furnished: a couch, a chair and a coffee table.
“Sit,” she said.
I took a seat on most of the couch. She took her package into the kitchen.
Jerome, anyway?” I asked Lena as she came back into the living area. No more package.
, Jerome,” she called back over her shoulder. “He was her dog . . . a cute little dog. I used to give her scraps for him. Of course there’s a leash law, and the animal control people came and got him, something about him running loose. I think somebody who lives in the building complained. She’s been real broken up about it. I guess that he was all she had.”
As she sat down in the chair, I saw that the trembling was still there, perhaps a little more pronounced. I began to suspect that maybe the shaking hadn’t been from nervousness. She steadied herself with an effort. “How are my parents?” She tried her best to sound flip. The brown eyes widened. I saw they were moist with tears.
“They’re fine. They said for me to tell you that they aren’t angry with you for dropping out of college any more. They said to tell you they love you, and they want you to come home.”
She put her face in her hands and I could see that the shaking had returned and was getting worse now.
“They want me to come home.” She said it in a hopeless way, as if I had told her that her parents wanted her to assassinate the president. As if it were a task beyond hope. Suddenly I knew my suspicions were correct; it hadn’t been Chardonnay and Brie in the package Lena had brought in.
“I can’t go home . . . not now. You don’t understand. I—I have a problem.”
I sat for a moment, hearing the gentle sound of her weeping. I felt her tiredness suddenly, the incredible weight of what was pressing down on her. I had felt it myself, too recently, though my demon had been different.
“Heroin?” The word tasted bitter in my mouth.
She nodded quickly without uncovering her face, without speaking. I stood and went over to her window, watched the rain that whispered down. It glinted as it floated, caught between us and the lights from the office buildings in the center of town. Neither of us spoke for a time. Lena broke the second silence.
“You don’t understand . . . I just can’t let them see me like this.”
I spoke softly without turning. “You don’t have to stay like this. You can get better.”
“Lena, it isn’t impossible, you know. People do it every day.”
She turned looked hard at me for a long time. I watched her reflection in the window and her expression was almost angry. Then her eyes moistened and drifted past me. She stared out the window.
“How did I get like this?” she asked me, herself, or maybe no one.
Then she began to tell me about herself, in a hushed, strangely hollow torrent of words. She had been an aspiring artist, but the artistic discipline she’d learned about in college hadn’t appealed to her. Instead, she’d opted to drop out at her boyfriend’s urging and come to The Magic City and “Make it.” Birmingham isn’t really the best place to make it. There are a lot of places like that. They seem to attract young people who have no clue. She went on.
“I wanted to come here and get involved in the art scene. I figured if I could display some of my art while I was still in school, I could take it somewhere big—New York, L.A., you know, I had dreams. I was working in a bar over at Five Points and going to school. Things were great at first. Then Steve started to change. He became abusive. We used to be so close.”
“He started hanging with this tough crowd. Sometimes he’d come home with money, and he wouldn’t tell me how he got it. We fought. A lot. He told me that he had some people he wanted me to meet. I didn’t like them. But it seemed important to him and I thought at the time maybe we could work things out. I guess that’s how the drugs came into the picture.”
In that, at least, her parents had been correct. But Steve hadn’t vanished, and Lena wasn’t living on the street. He had stayed in her life, and ruined it utterly, and Lena was living somewhere far worse than on the street.
The people, who had eventually discovered her through her boyfriend, weren’t interested in art. They were the kind of people who saw her youth and beauty as a commodity, one that they traded in every day for the thing that matters most, the money that brings with it power. They have a trap that always works: Heroin. It was enjoying a certain vogue at the moment. It was also killing lots of kids.
The next thing Lena knew, she was “entertaining,” which boiled down to turning tricks for her newfound “friends” who put them up in the lousy apartment house where I had found her and made sure she needed something only they could provide—so she couldn’t go anywhere else. I’d seen it before, heard every word of her story told by other young people in the same predicament, and I knew that I would see and hear it all again. People run away, and they are like people running with knives in their hands; they fall on them, and they hurt themselves, sometimes to death.
“It was awful—the first time. He owed these people money and Steve said they were going to kill him . . . unless I . . . and then he said they told him they would kill
if I tried to leave. Steve said they have a lot of people . . . people everywhere, that’s why no one will cross them. I had to do . . .
this . . .”
Her hand took in her entire predicament in one vague sweep, “. . . and so here I am.”
She looked at me with big, frightened eyes. Good old Steve. I had heard that one, too. I asked Lena for the names of the creeps. She came up with a name that I recognized. I knew his real name, so did the police; but it didn’t matter; the only name that applied to him anymore was Big Daddy. He was the smack guru from the North Side that controlled the waxing and waning of a mind-blowing heroin blizzard that blew into The City, the North Side, and the tortured lives of the people he and his minions had corrupted. Like Lena.
“Lena, you and I both know, the threats of Big Daddy and his henchmen aside, that it is staying in the present situation, and not leaving, that means dying, too. Maybe not as quick, but it’s a sure bet.”
“But I can’t leave . . . just pick up and leave. Steve . . . he wouldn’t let me . . .”
“You don’t have to worry about that. You can leave here any time you want and nobody can change that. Don’t be afraid of Steve or anyone.” It sounded so good I wanted to believe it. She looked down for a long time, her pale arms shaking, and when she spoke, I barely heard her.
“Not like this.” Her eyes rose to meet mine. Though they were still filled with tears, I could see there was a great deal of determination there, also. “I’d leave here, go back home, but . . . I can’t. Not this way. It would kill them to see me this way.”
I touched her shoulder as I stood.
“I can understand you wanting to kick this before you go home, but that’s not the smart play here, Lena.”
She shook her head adamantly. “No.”
“At the very least you need to get out of here. Away from the dealers and the junk. If it’s not in front of you every day, your chances are better. Go somewhere that you can’t get it. It’ll be damn hard, I know. You’ll need somewhere to go where Big Daddy and his thugs can’t find you. Do you want to do that?”
“I . . . yes, I do. So bad . . .” Her shoulders fell and her voice faded.
“Is there anyone who could help you? Here in the city, I mean. Not part of the drug scene. Staying in this place is out of the question. You’ll never get clean as long as Steve’s in your life.”
“There may be a place I could go.”
“Someplace where there are no drugs?”
“I know a girl who’s straight now. She’s married, with a kid. She and I used to be close; we both . . . you know, saw people for Big Daddy. She might put me up.” She wiped her eyes as she spoke. I saw how quickly the tears were drying, and the strength returning to her face. She had probably gotten used to crying since she had come to Birmingham.
Lena spoke suddenly in a low voice, a voice that seemed oddly disconnected, distant, objective, like a medium channeling her own dead soul.
“It was Steve who introduced me to Big Daddy, and he was the one who got me involved in drugs.”
This statement would have seemed surreal had I not known whom she meant. Ricardo Lorenzo, possibly the greasiest, scummiest little man in a part of the city that overflowed with greasy, scummy little men. Big Daddy ran the houses in the Zone and provided desperate young women to the homemade pornography industry that ran in the basements there. All made possible with the marvelous miracle of heroin, which he dispensed in ever growing volume, until he had grown into a mythical figure, a giant saccharine sandman that blanked out the minds and self-respect of his hapless clientele as though he were wiping chalk scribbling from a kindergarten blackboard.
“I know Big Daddy.” Was all that I said.
“I don’t guess you think too much of me,” she whispered. “But you don’t know how it is.”
“I know how it is, Lena. I . . . I spent a long time in a bottle.”
She looked up at me, and almost smiled. “You?” Her voice was skeptical.