To begin with, she was where she wasn’t supposed to be, doing what she wasn’t supposed to be doing. In the law, it’s called a detour and frolic. She knew this because she used to work in a lawyer’s office. Oh, no, nothing as important as being a paralegal. She just filed and typed and ran errands.
One time, the lawyer defended a trucking company whose driver had an accident on the job. He said the driver wasn’t on the job at the time, he was on a detour and frolic – yeah, stopping at a string of bars on 10th Avenue—so the company wasn’t responsible.
She thought, “Wish I would’ve stayed in that job.” She remembered leaving in a huff, but couldn’t remember exactly why.
Oh, yeah, this was a detour all right. She was supposed to be taking a package out to the far end of Brooklyn. Her boss didn’t say what it was and she knew not to ask. He told them never to ask about his business, just do what he said, and no one ever doubted that he meant it.
She saw right away, though, that she could stop in to a friend’s place in downtown Brooklyn on the way.No one knew how long her official errand would take. Not with a couple of subways and a bus. No one would ask questions if she said, “The trains were all fucked up.”
He wasn’t exactly a friend, JoJo, the guy in Brooklyn. And even though he called her “baby” and said he’d fix her up just right, and sometimes the fixing included sex, he sure wasn’t her boy friend. It was more a commercial type of relationship. He sold what she needed. Retail. Or maybe wholesale. She could never keep it straight.
You could certainly call it a frolic as well as a detour. She definitely had a buzz when she walked out of his ratty crib near the bridge, deep in the shadows under the overpass, in a creepy deserted warehouse. She wasn’t exactly seeing right and she had a big smile on her face. It would make her trip, with the two trains and a bus, and back again, a whole lot more interesting.
Yes, she still had her package but just barely. She’d been halfway down the stairs when he called her back to get it. Jesus fucking Christ, she thought, her boss would’ve killed her if she lost something of his.
She just hustled through those twisty, forgotten little creepy deserted blocks near
the harbor, and then on to the main drag. The sidewalks were lined with crummy stores and crowded with defeated-looking people Except for the guys in big gold chains. They still thought they were going somewhere. Right.
She barely noticed any of it then. Not till the posters showed up
everywhere a few days later. “Have you seen this girl?” they pleaded. And she knew she had.
The posters said she was white, twenty-two, with long dark hair. Pregnant. Last seen in a yellow windbreaker, jeans, and boots. Back pack. Missing for five days.
Oh, yeah. She closed her eyes and there that girl was. She remembered because the girl bumped into her. She was just going around the corner, still on one of those empty back streets. The girl was running clumsily, heavily, to meet an older guy. Let’s see. He was in a tweed coat, carrying a briefcase or something like that. They went off together, him and the girl, and she remembered because the girl’s backpack had smacked her on the shoulder as she flew past.
It almost made her drop her cigarette that she was enjoying so much. She swore but the girl didn’t even notice. She rushed right on to her man. Then enticing smells of sugar and hot oil were calling to her from the shabby doughnut shop around the corner and she forgot all about the girl with the pack. She was busy choosing a couple of chocolate frosteds for the long train ride.
It didn’t register until now. Now, she was only buzzing from coffee, and she was looking at a grayish picture of a girl her age, whose family and friends and job had not heard from her in days. Completely unlike her, they said. The girl had vanished and they feared she was dead.
That girl was definitely alive a few days ago. Now—yeah, most likely she was dead. Disappearing on purpose wasn’t unheard of, as she well knew, but that girl? She closed her eyes again and pictured her. Naa, not the kind. Not the desperate look. She was smiling. But there were endless ways she could have run across big trouble.
She broke into a sweat that left her cold and shivering instead of hot. Ok, she said to herself. What’s the downside of telling someone? She stood on the street, not even noticing the crowds shoving past. She was busy making a list in her head.
One, my boss will be real mad that I was even there. How mad? He’s always made it clear that when we’re on his clock, we belong to him. So-
Two, lose my job for sure. Big deal. Been there before.
Three, would he hurt me? She pondered that one. He totally had a temper. He yelled and cursed. She saw him having a fistfight with a cab driver one time, when he thought the cabbie had cut him off in traffic. Violence would be a possibility, yes.
Four, he also said to everyone, “I don’t give a flying fuck what you do on your own time, but when you’re on mine you’ve got your head on straight. No dope, no booze, no screwing.” OK. Down for two out of three. Bigger trouble.
Five was the big one, too scary to think about first. It left her breathing hard. It was JoJo himself. He used to work there too, and had parted on bad terms. Very bad. Super bad. Her boss didn’t know she was seeing him. In fact, her boss didn’t even know where he was, and he sure would like to.
What did that mean for her? That she knew where he was hiding out, and never told? Nothing good. No, too tame. Something real bad.
OK. That was it. A convincing list of reasons to keep her mouth shut tight. She’d gotten away with it all. Went all the way out to West Bumblefuck, Brooklyn. Found the house, out on the water. Great big house with a fountain in front and a dock in the back, on a little teeny piece of land, crowded right up to other great big houses on teeny plots of land.
She handed over the package, just like she’d been told, to a real old guy in a windbreaker and boat shoes. He took it and invited her in for a soda.
“So you work for Ray? How’s he treating you? Nice boss? Paying you
“Ah, well, uh…”
“I bet. He always was a cheap bastard. Mean too.” He quickly changed his face from ice-cold to a phony grin and added, “Don’t get me wrong. Love the guy. We’re old friends. We go way back, got a lot of history. Tell him thanks for the package.”
He looked hard at her and didn’t say another word. Neither did she. It seemed safer not to.
She found her way back to the bus, the first train, the second train. Back to the shabby office building with the creaky elevator. Reported in. Apologized for the time and said the trains were a mess.
No one questioned anything. With her eyes hidden behind her shades, no one could see how spacey she looked. She was home free.
Now there were no reasons to make that call. About that girl. Not one. Who cared about her? Or her baby?
She repeated all this to herself on Saturday as she ripped down one of the posters, checked her change, looked for a working pay phone. No way was she dumb enough to use her own phone for this. Anonymous hotline, that was it. One call. One tip. Over. Done with.
She stopped herself and said out loud, “When hell freezes over.” She walked away from the pay phone, fast, and speed dialed JoJo. God, did she ever need a little something from him.
Just her luck, when she got there the TV was on. It was a news bit, all about the missing girl. Her family was on, begging for help. Her little sister was trying not to cry. Her father said, “She loved New York. She was in school, studying social work. She only wanted to help people. She was planning to have that baby and raise it herself. She refused to say who the father was, but she already loved her baby.”
The missing girl’s friends were organizing a search party. Combing the neighborhoods where she lived and went to school, and where she was last seen, in downtown Brooklyn. “Last seen in downtown Brooklyn.” Was that me, she thought? Was I the last person to see a probably dead girl? Shit, it WAS me.
Afterwards, she thought it was the face of the little sister, fighting back tears, that trapped her. She always told herself she had no soft spots left, she was a gangsta’ with the hide of an alligator. But there was a memory that had stuck, after she’d outrun all the others. The little sister in one of those long-ago foster homes.
JoJo flipped around the dial, saying, “Stupid out of town college bitch. Probably met a guy at a bar and ran away with him.”
“JoJo, you’re an asshole.” She stood up, ignored his, “Hey, what the…..” and stamped out. The stairs shook under her footsteps. Hours later, when she finally stopped walking, she didn’t know where she’d been, but she’d ended up in front of a police station.
She stood across the street, in the rain, sheltering under the canopy of a news and smoke shop. When the skinny Asian kid behind the register started giving her dirty looks– you’d think she was loitering!—she bought a pack of cigarettes. Now she was a customer and he left her alone. Or maybe the way she sucked in three cigarettes in a row, lighting each from the tip of the last, told him she was in no mood to be messed with.
When she couldn’t stand the damp anymore, her feet carried her across the street and up the steps, even while her mind way saying, “No way! Subway stop. We’re going to the subway station. Down the block, not up those steps.”
Of course this wasn’t the first time she’d walked up steps like these. Hell, no. Not even the second. It was just the first time she’d done it without a cop gripping an arm so hard he left bruises. No one she knew would believe this, not her girls, not JoJo, not any one. Nope, not even if hell was freezing over. Walking into a police station of her own free will.
Funny thing. It didn’t feel like free will.
At the desk she had to try three times before words came out of her throat. The guy in uniform was starting to look pissed off, but that changed pretty damn quick when she said why she was here. It would’ve been funny if she’d been in the mood. Suddenly, she was “miss” and it was all “please take a seat”—please! – and “I’ll be right back. Just please wait right here.”
It was worse than waiting for the dentist. Finally he came back with a guy in plain clothes. He reminded her unpleasantly of every other cop in plain clothes she’d ever met. He had that “don’t try to con me” expression and when she thought about what she looked like in his eyes, with her ratty raincoat, rain slick hair in a couple of hot colors, red eyes, the row of earrings, and the tattoos- ok, maybe he had reasons for the expression.
He spoke to her politely, though, took her to a private room, offered her a hot drink. Mmm, could she use that right now. The caffeine steadied her twitching nerves while the hot paper cup warmed her hands.
She made it clear from the jump that he wasn’t getting her name or nothing else about her. He nodded. “Maybe we can discuss that later,” he said kind of carelessly. She wondered if she should be insulted. But he listened real hard and his face kind of changed color as she talked.
“I’d like you to look at some pictures.”
He placed two folders on the table. “Start with the top one.”
There were a handful of pictures of young white girls with long dark hair.
“Did you ever see any of these faces before?”
“Yeah.” She pointed. “That’s her, isn’t it? The missing girl? I already told you I saw her on Front Street, that day.”
“Are you sure? ”
“You think I would be here if I wasn’t sure? Geez. When she bumped into me we were about six inches face to face. Ok, it was only for a second, but still.”
He didn’t answer, but she knew. It was her. She could close her eyes and see her running past.
“Now the other folder.”
That was older guys, grown up. All white, all dressed nice. She closed her eyes again. This was harder. He’d been further away, and she hadn’t really looked at him. Thinking. Tweed coat. Looking impatient.
“I got it.” She pointed “Him. I saw him meet her, that day.” The detective didn’t answer, but he let out his breath like a little whisper
“It’s someone you re looking at, isn’t it?” She shivered. “You think it’s him, don’t you?”
Again, he didn’t answer. Her experience—somewhat extensive- was that cops didn’t tell, they only asked. He just looked into her eyes and said, “This is very helpful. It gives us something to look at further, but here’s the problem. Without you swearing to it, we can’t take it to court. What’s the DA going to say, that some unknown girl walked into a police station and said she saw him? It doesn’t work like that. It’s great that you came in, so I’ve got to say thank you for that. Now, about signing a statement? A name and number to reach you?”
She stood up. “Not going to happen. I told you that from the start. I don’t want you to know who I am or where to find nothing on me. I’m not going into your computers and I’m sure as hell not going on a witness stand.”‘
“Whoa. Relax. Have a seat for just another minute. Who said anything about that?’
“Do I look stupid? Do I? I know where this could end up and I am not going there. I told you some good stuff. Now I’m out of here. ”
“I’m sure you have your reasons, but you know, we’d like to find this girl, or nail the guy at least.”
“Too fucking bad. I would be in trouble myself. I wasn’t supposed to be there….ah, shit. I didn’t even mean to say that.”
“I got it. You’ve got a few secrets of your own, is that it?” She nodded, mutely. “So, I can’t reach you, but here’s how to reach me.” He pushed a card across the table. “Just in case you remember anything else.”
She shook her head, but shoved the card in her pocket
“I’ve got to get out of here.” She was sweating. She needed air. She needed cigarettes. A drink. A hit. Not necessarily in that order.
“I’ll walk you out.”
On the stairs, they passed a guy in cuffs being pushed upstairs by two other plainclothesmen. He wore a shiny leather jacket, chains, and an earring in one ear. He was looking down as they were moving him along, not wanting to be seen, but she saw him.
She flew down the stairs, out the door, and across the street, with the detective right behind. “I know him,” she gasped. “He didn’t see me, right? He was looking down. No way he could’ve seen me in there, right?”
“Does this mean you are in some kind of trouble?” he asked, not unkindly.
“Hell, no.” She pushed her hair away from her damp forehead and looked back at him. “Do I look to you like someone who can’t take care of herself? My only trouble is that I’m talking to a cop.”
She shook herself free from his hand on her arm—cops could NOT touch her! – and walked away. Tired as she was, she made sure she was walking in a straight line, fast and with a purpose, that “don’t mess with me” New Yorker walk. She could feel him looking at her, but he didn’t follow. She knew she’d have to make a scene if he did. Just knew it. And then what?
Then what anyway? She stopped and looked around, dazed. She finally knew there would be a subway stop in a couple of blocks—but then what? Home and crawling into bed under all her blankets. She figured there was half full bottle of wine somewhere in the place. She considered if she had the energy for a trip to JoJo’s. Did she even have the money for what she wanted, or should she just rely on the wine to put her under?
Then what, after that? If the asshole at the station—not the cop, the other one, his name was Terry—hadn’t seen her, she was still home free. It was over.
Of course that wasn’t the way it happened. Her usual luck. The boss called her into his office first thing the next day. His quiet voice was even more scary than his yelling one. This time he was very, very quiet.
“I hear you were seen at a police station yesterday.” Very softly.
“Who told you that freakin’ lie?” She thought, best defense is good offence, right?
“One of my associates was there himself, not by choice. He saw you.”
“Ya know,” she said, narrowing her eyes to look indignant, and hiding her shaking hands in her pockets, “I can’t help noticing, you got some very sketchy people working for you. Why would you believe that? Me and cops?”
“Terry’s got no reason to lie about this?”
“Terry? Terry! That head case? Yeah, he’s got no reasons to get me in trouble, but that doesn’t mean he was seeing clearly. If you know what I mean.”
He looked at her and said even more quietly, “I hope you know what I mean. No one who works for me has any reasons whatever to be talking to cops on their own. Terry had to go in, and I had my lawyer down there in no time to keep his mouth shut. And no one who works for me lies to me. You think I won’t find out? I always do.”
“Maybe I should just quit?” She was hanging on to her tough act by her fingernails.
“Nobody quits either, unless I tell them to. Usually they can’t work for anyone else after that.”
She nodded silently. She wouldn’t let her voice give her away.
“You’re straight with me, I’m straight with you. And if you aren’t, you pay big time, much bigger that you ever could imagine. Hold out your hand.” When he reached into his drawer she gasped. She couldn’t help it. Then he was holding a wooden ruler, not a gun. What the…?
Without the slightest movement in his face, he brought it down hard on her hand. The metal edge opened a thin line of blood and the hand started swelling before he even moved again. That first hit the shock was almost enough to cut off the pain but the third time she heard a crack inside her hand and she almost collapsed with the agony.
“And that’s just an ordinary piece of office equipment. Imagine what I could do with the right tools. We clear on that? Now get out. Put some ice on that hand, drug up for the pain, and show up bright and early and ready to work day after tomorrow.”
Scared of him? Oh, yeah, plenty, but a little bulb was flickering through that fog: he did not always find out. Son of a bitch thought he knew everything, but he didn’t know where JoJo was. She knew. And he didn’t know she knew.
She looked at the dark purple stain spreading over her hand and thought, “Fuck him. He’s just trying to scare me.” Ok, ok, it worked, but she was already scared. Now she was scared and her hand hurt and she’d smeared some blood on her favorite blouse, and oh, yeah, she was crying because it hurt so much. Fuck him. She was done here.
She felt around in her pocket for that detective’s card. She didn’t have to care about her job now. She stopped at a lunch counter, ordered a large soda with ice, and then told the counter guy to hold the soda. He looked pretty surprised when she stuck her swelling hand into the cup of ice, but it felt a little better. She walked, keeping her eyes open for a pay phone that still worked.
She said only, “Sarah Delano Park in Chinatown. You know it? I’m there now.
If he wanted more, he’d have to come to her. She’d give him thirty minutes to get there.
In twenty, he was parking in a no-parking spot and walking across to where she sat on a swing. He looked at her red hand and said, “What happened?”
“Little argument with my boss.”
“Want to tell me about it?”
“Hell, no. I don’t really want to tell you anything, but, I dunno. Seem’s like I’m in this now.”
After they were done—story recorded, papers signed—he drove her to the nearest emergency room. No she didn’t want him to come in. She never wanted to see him again.
She lied to the doctors. Her hand was slammed in a door. They knew she was lying, and she knew they knew. After endless hours and a cast and a bottle of pills, when she was about to walk out, a nurse slipped her a little card about domestic abuse. She threw it away and laughed until she cried. Or maybe, she thought, it’s all crying.
Ok, so she wouldn’t be going back to her job. Not after talking to a cop. Come to think of it, she should stay away from her apartment for awhile too. Hit the bank and clear out her pathetic account. Get it all in cash. Just in case. She’d throw some basics into a pack, before they figured she was gone, and then lay low, bunk in with friends. Yeah, she could sleep on a floor for awhile. Maybe a road trip upstate would be the smart move. Lay low waitressing in a friend’s coffee shop up in East Podunk. Just in case.
Good riddance to her dump, and to the job too. She shuddered, thinking of her boss and the other creeps there. Nothing good in her life had come from that place. Well, except for steady money doled out in cash once a week.
She wondered what she’d have to do get her old job back, not the last one in the bar, but the one before, in that law office. She finally remembered why she left. Funny thing. She got fired for coming to work stoned. That could be problem.
She passed a grungy old bar and glanced in the window. The large TV was showing a banner at the bottom, “Newsflash: missing girl’s body found strangled.” She went in, found a seat at the bar, ordered a beer when the bartender glared at her and never took her eyes off the set.
So the girl was dead. Just what she expected. The world truly sucks.
The girl’s father was making a statement while her mother hid her face in his shoulder. “We are heartbroken, but grateful to be able to take our daughter and our grandbaby”- his voice broke then- “home to be buried with the rest of the family.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Our deepest thanks to the NYPD, the many friends who helped us get through this, and the many generous New Yorkers who helped us find justice, who put up posters, and especially the public-spirited stranger who stepped up to provide necessary information. We are so grateful.” Then he started to cry. The little sister wrapped her arms around his waist.
The screen changed to some plainclothes officers—hey, she knew that one!- dragging a guy out of a station. He couldn’t quite hide his face. She knew him too. The one she’d picked out of a book of photos. And later signed a statement about.
A lawyer was saying, “My client is innocent, a perfectly respectable executive, and we will establish that this is a terrible miscarriage of justice. ” Oh, sure. Sure it was. She knew they got the son of a bitch. She flashed on the girl’s face that day, lit up with happiness as she ran to meet him. She wondered when she would stop seeing it. Or if she ever would.
When she walked out, her face was wet. Someone had thanked her for something. Someone had called her public-spirited. Her. That was a first.
She wanted to go home, but with the cast on her hand, it was a struggle to open her purse, to get her transit card, do anything at all. Between frustration and pain, she had to sit on a bench and pull herself together as best she could. And then the next step just flashed into her mind. Someone should pay for this.
After, she couldn’t believe she even thought of it, let alone did it. She wasn’t drunk. Or lit. Or anything. What got into her? Before heading north, to the sticks, on a Greyhound bus, she decided on a quick trip south, to the ass end of Brooklyn, on a subway train. And then a bus, all the way back to the very large house on the small piece of land.
“It’s the pretty young lady with the package. I wasn’t expecting anything else. What can I do for you today?” Was there a twinkle in his eyes or was it just the sunlight?
“Maybe I can do something for you.”
“So,” he said. “So. Would you like to come in?’
She never knew exactly what was going on at work- her boss made sure of that – but she was observant and the old man was interested in every little fact, every name, every anecdote. His expression became tighter with each detail she gave him. They talked until the shadows of the trees in his garden had grown right across the lawn.
“Young lady, you have told me more than you even know. He will get….everything from his business associates that he deserves. Everything. ” Was that a wink? It had grown too dim in the large living room for her to be sure.
“Are you going back to work?’
“Uh, no. I am—uh- I have other plans. It’s not a good place for me anymore.”
He looked at her as if he could look right through her, right into her mind. He said, “Very wise. Be careful. And to say thank you, here is some traveling money.” He took a roll of bills from his pocket just before he closed the door behind her.
She ducked behind his garage and stashed some of the cash in her jeans pocket, some in her bag, some in her shoe. It made her nervous.
All she wanted to do now was hustle back to her place, her soon-to-be former place, to pick up her things, and hit the road. She had the upstate bus schedule in her backpack and her bags were already packed.
On the long subway ride, she wondered if a recommendation from a city detective could help a person get a job in East Podunk. She wondered where she would find a free computer there, because she wanted to keep a sharp eye on the city news. She had a hunch they would soon be reporting the mysterious disappearance of her former boss. Or maybe his violent death. She wouldn’t be home free until she read that. She wondered how she would celebrate.
She hustled out of her apartment with all her worldly goods stuffed into a backpack and a big shopping bag. In the subway station, on the way to the bus terminal, she waited until a train came roaring in. Then she smoothly dropped her phone onto the track and watched while tons of metal crushed it to bits. If she was disappearing, there was no point in traveling with an electronic trace.
She could pick up a new one at any phone store. She wondered if she would have the smarts to keep JoJo’s number off it.
© Triss Stein