The apartment building is deathly quiet and has an unlived-in feel to it. Trip cannot repress a shudder as she presses on the buzzer. Nothing. Then she notices that the door is propped open. Once again, she marvels at the stupidity of her fellow man. Sure, it makes her job easier, but it also makes it more dangerous for the residents. The purpose of having security is so that not just any Joe can walk in off the street. Trip slips the piece of wood from the doorway and shuts the door firmly behind her. She takes the elevator up to the fourth floor then gets out. ‘Go to your left immediately when you enter the apartment,’ DiCalvo’s voice says in Trip’s mind, unbidden. She picks the lock and slips inside, carefully shutting the door behind her. For the first time ever, she doesn’t linger but simply flips the light switch. She just wants to get this job over with. She hates rushing, but something is compelling her to keep moving. Nothing. No lights. She frowns and gropes her way to the left, her hands safely encased in gloves. The light works in the bedroom, and she heaves a sigh of relief. She looks around, hoping the jewelry box is in plain sight. It isn’t. She starts tossing the room, starting with the dresser drawers. She hears the wail of a cop car faintly in the distance.
There’s nothing in the dresser but expensive clothes and lingerie Trip would kill to own. Just because she’s a tough woman doesn’t mean she doesn’t enjoy feminine fripperies. This Sylvian must be a high-maintenance gal with the thousands of dollars of clothes she has. Trip goes through the vic’s drawers twice before concluding the box isn’t there. She opens the closet, but there are only clothes. She is frowning by now, exasperated that this isn’t as easy as she was told it would be. The jewelry box isn’t under the bed or in the desk drawer, either. In fact, Trip can’t seem to find it anywhere. Her sense of unease grows as the siren’s wail grows louder. She looks around the room for a hidden door or a safe or something, but there is nothing. If there is, it’s hidden so well that she can’t spot it in a glance.
What the hell is going on here? The siren sounds as if it’s just outside the building. Trip’s heart stops, making her hurry to the window. The bedroom is facing the front of the apartment, and the police car stops right in front of the building. There are more sirens in the distance. Shit! Trip runs from the room, leaving the light on. The feeling she’s had all day grows until it’s spreading throughout her body. She can’t go out the front door because she just knows this is the apartment the cops are coming to. She rushes into the kitchen and flicks on the light. She nearly shrieks out loud when she sees a body lying on the floor, covered in blood. The knife is still sticking in its—her—sternum, and her eyes are staring dully at nothing at all. The vic must have been a pretty girl in life with her long black curls and green eyes, but now she’s just a corpse. No longer Sylvian—just a body. Trip’s eyes flicker to the table where there are two glasses just like the one DiCalvo offered her—one filled with whiskey, the other with water—this very afternoon.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Trip curses, grabbing the glasses and shoving them in her bag. She races to the other bedroom which is facing the back of the apartment building. She pushes open the door and there’s the fire escape. She knows if she goes down, there will be cops waiting for her—she has no choice but to go up. She cusses out DiCalvo steadily, but under her breath as she climbs out the window and shuts it behind her. “Fucking asshole set me up,” Trip mutters as she hurriedly climbs to the roof which is four floors up. She can hear the commotion beneath her, but blocks it out. She needs to focus on the task at hand and not allow anything to distract her. She clears her mind and looks at the situation with a practical eye. The building next to this one is maybe six feet away—she knows what she has to do. Without giving herself time to think, she gets a running start and leaps. For a terrible moment, she is suspended between the buildings, sure she’s going to fall to her death. A minute later, she’s landed on the roof of the other building with a thud. It knocks the breath out of her as she lands on her feet, but her momentum carries her forward, forcing her to stop, drop, and roll. She lies on her back, staring at the sky, listening with one ear to the shouts coming from the building of the vic.
“Time to jet,” Trip sighs, clamoring to her feet and grabbing her bag. She scales down the fire escape with alacrity then makes her way to her car, saluting the cop cars as she slithers by. “Catch me if you can, fuckers!”
“The asshole set me up,” I scream into the phone, pacing back and forth in my apartment. I am smoking up a storm as I bellow, trying to calm my nerves. If I had any heroin handy, I’d be snorting that up as well.
“Hello?” Mowgli’s voice is thick with sleep. Because he gets up at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, he is usually asleep by ten. He doesn’t have to be in to the office that early, but he likes working with no one else around. It is ten-thirty, but I need to talk to him.
“Wake up, Mowgli! Get your ass over here. Now.” I am climbing the wall, ready to bite off my own tail. I am fuming as well because I had allowed myself to be taken. I knew there was something fucking wrong with that asshole, but I let sheer cupidity overtake me.
“Del, is that you?” Mowgli is having trouble understanding me, which is pissing me off.
“Who else? Mowgli, listen to me. You’re always lecturing me about leaning on the ones I love, well I’m leaning now. How soon can you get here?”
“I’m on my way.”
I pace the floor as I wait for Mowgli. I’m chain-smoking because I figure this qualifies as an emergency. I’m also drinking shots of Jack because I need to. That reminds me of the glasses in my bag which, miraculously, didn’t break from my fall. Still wearing my gloves, I set the glasses on my table and stare at them. I lift the cigarette to my mouth, and to my dismay, my hand is shaking. I steady it carefully before I take the next puff. I go to the bathroom and snag a pair of latex gloves, taking off my outside gloves to slide on the latex ones. I take the glasses into the kitchen and start washing them under the hot water. I know it won’t erase every print, but it’s a start. When I’m through with that, I rub the glasses with the latex, hoping to smear whatever prints are left. I will have to get rid of the glasses, and I shove them back into my bag until I can figure out what to do with them. After that, I take off the gloves and wait.
“Del, what happened?” Mowgli lets himself in with his key and sweeps me into a dramatic hug. As the top of my head fits neatly under his armpit, I move so that my face is in his chest, not his armpit, then snuggle close. After a minute, I pull myself away. He is wearing black jeans and a black shirt, appropriate to the situation.
“Would you like some tea?” I ask, my tone cordial. Mowgli looks at me for a long minute before silently assenting. I put on the kettle, and neither of us talk while the waiting for the water to boil. I pull out some Earl Grey—boy likes his tea British for some unfathomable reason—and toss some leaves into a mug. For myself, I grab a handful of green tea and put that in a separate mug. After the water boils, I carefully pour hot water into both our mugs and hand Mowgli’s to him, waiting for him to finish his tea ritual. Grabbing the milk container from the fridge, Mowgli first creams then sugars his tea until it no longer resembles that noble liquid. When he is finished desecrating his tea, we retire to the futon.
“Spill it, Del,” Mowgli orders, his tone brooking no argument. “If I’m to give up my beauty sleep for you, the least you can do is tell me why.”
“Ok, but I have to tell you it my way which means no interruptions, ok?” I cross my legs under me and sip at my tea. My hands are still shaking but notably less so.
“Only if I need clarification,” Mowgli promises. He takes a long draught of his tea, then looks at me expectantly.
“Remember the job I was supposed to do tonight? The one that was so urgent and that I cleared twenty-five thousand upfront?” I stare at the cup in my hand, willing the tea leaves to reveal my future to me. Unfortunately, any tea-leaves reading skills I might have had are buried forever in the old country, so all I can do is drink the damn stuff—which I do.
“The one you were having second thoughts about,” Mowgli says, nodding his head. For a moment, I mourn what a waste it is that such a fine specimen of manhood doesn’t at least hit for both teams. Even dressed down, he cuts a fine figure.
“DiCalvo set me up,” I say, the words not quite as shocking the second time around. I explain to him in detail what happened while I was in the apartment, leaving out nothing. By the time I am finished, the grin has swept off his face only to be replaced with a menacing scowl.
“Let me see if I got this right,” he finally says, setting down his mug on the coffee table with a thump. “This asshole hires you to steal some stuff from this broad who was allegedly blackmailing his boss, who’s a powerful person except surprise, surprise, the broad is dead on the floor when you get there.”
“And no letters or pictures, surprise, surprise.” I speak softly, but I can feel the heat rising again. I hate being played for a fool, nor can I afford to have my reputation smeared. I worked hard to get where I am, and a fiasco like this could seriously set me back. “When I find that asshole, I’m going to kick his fucking ass until it falls apart.”
“It may not be that easy, Del,” Mowgli says with a frown. I wait for him to elaborate, but he doesn’t.
“What’s the problem? I go back to his office tomorrow, kick the shit out of him, get the rest of my money then beat it out of there.” It sounds like a plan to me.
“Forget the money for once, Del. Don’t you see? He set you up. He made sure the lights in the front hallway weren’t working. He sent the cops after you. He planted evidence with your fingerprints. That means he was planning on framing you for this murder which he most likely committed. I bet he told you to go straight to the bedroom, too, right? Hell, even the door being propped open was probably his doing. The fact that he can toss away twenty-five gees means this is one big, fucking deal. How much do you want to bet there’s going to be an ‘eyewitness’ saying he saw the vic with a young Asian woman who happens to fit your description? Or even worse, that someone of your description was seen entering the building about the time the vic was killed?”
Mowgli looks at me with a mixture of consternation and exasperation as he finishes his recitation. I flush again because I’m usually not so stupid, but my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders at the moment. Not until he spelled it out for me had I fully grasped the predicament I’m in. A part of me wishes I could just pretend it never happened, but that’s chickenshit. It’s not going to go away just because I put my head in the sand. I take another shot of Jack, then shudder as it hits me. I light up another cigarette, and Mowgli refrains from lecturing me. I smoke until the cigarette is half-gone before I feel sensible enough to say anything.
“I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” I look at Mowgli who reluctantly nods at me.
“We need to get you out of here,” Mowgli says, his voice urgent.
“What? I’m not leaving my apartment!” It may not be much, but it’s mine. I pay the rent, on time every month, thank you very much. I don’t have to answer to anyone, and no one is in the position to monitor my comings and goings.
“What do you want to bet either tomorrow or the next day, the cops will be ringing your doorbell ready to ask you some questions? They might even be on their way now, though I bet the next phase won’t start until tomorrow at the earliest.” Mowgli leans forward, his eyes intense. “I very seriously doubt you want to be here when they swing by.” I very seriously doubt it as well. The cops and I are not on the best of terms ever since they arrested me for soliciting my first year on the streets. When I asked them why they didn’t spend more of their energy busting the johns and pimps, well, let’s just say I didn’t win many friends that day. “You’re coming home with me.”
“That’s the second place they’d look for me,” I object. “I’m not putting you in danger, too.” By this time, I am slightly sick from smoking so much so I crush out my cigarette. I also lay off the drinking because I need a clear head.
“What about one of your, uh, professional friends?” He means one of the girls from the street.
“Not that kind of friendship,” I say briefly. “I’m going to talk to them, though. I bet one of them knows something.”
“Del,” Mowgli begins, giving me his stern look. He believes in staying on the right side of the road and is such a tight-ass, he won’t even jaywalk. I, on the other hand, have no such scruples and am delighted when I cause a car to have to slam on its breaks in the middle of the road when I cross against the lights. I consider it a personal best if said person flips me the bird or calls me a bitch before continuing on his merry way.
“Mowgli, listen to me hard. You think the cops are going to give a flying fuck about a Chink from fucking Iowa who used to work the streets? Who does a spot of illegal breaking and entering? You think the po-lice are going to want to hear a fucking word I say? We both know that’s bullshit.” The cops are not usually the brightest bulbs in the box to begin with and are apt to go for the obvious. Hand them a slam-dunk case like this and, well, we all know that if they catch up with me, I’ll be a prison bitch before you can blink. Let’s say regimented life and I do not get along, and leave it at that.
I need to think, but there’s a pounding in my head that precludes serious thought. One glance at Mowgli’s face tells me that he’s having difficulty concentrating as well. His normally placid features are contorted in a scowl that I’m sure reflects my own. All I can think about is how I’m going to kill that motherfucking DiCalvo once I get my hands on him. Again, I try to focus, but I can’t stop thinking about how that asshole set me up and how good it will feel to take him down. First thing in the morning, I’m marching into his office and kicking his scrawny ass. With that, I have argued myself full circle and haven’t come any closer to a solution to my problem. I run my hand through my hair which has loosened from its bun as I continue to ponder.
“Listen, Del. I think this is what you should do. Throw some stuff in a bag and tomorrow morning, anybody you see in this building, tell them you’ve decided to take a spur-of-the-minute trip to see your relatives in Connecticut and will be gone for at least a week. Then, when the cops talk to your neighbors, they will be fed misinformation.” Mowgli’s voice is brisk and business-like, as if he’s in a meeting. “Then I drop you off at a friend’s place. Don’t worry, she’s used to taking in strays.”
“Wouldn’t a hotel be better?” I ask, not wanting to put someone else in danger. Besides, I don’t want my mobility to be restricted under the watchful eye of a ‘friend’.
“Let’s do it this way for now,” Mowgli says, patting my hand.
“Ok, fine, but I’ll drive myself. I want my car.” I don’t drive much—it’s fucking San Francisco, after all—but I want the option available to me.
“You keep your cell phone with you at all times, you hear?” Mowgli glares at me because I’m notorious for leaving the thing at home. I hate the idea of being reachable twenty-four seven. I make a face but reluctantly agree. “And you keep it on.” I’m even more notorious for switching off the damn thing when I don’t want to be bothered with the insipid chirping. It beeps three times to let me know someone is calling which is the least inane ringer it has, but it’s still annoying. I tend to turn it on only when I’m expecting a phone call.
I salute Mowgli and tell him that his wish is my command. His command is that I not be such a damn wiseass, which he punctuates with an affectionate cuff to the shoulder. Once we have settled the matter of cell phones, Mowgli asks what’s really on his mind—what I plan to do about the situation. He knows me well enough to understand that I’m not just going to sit by and wilt like some fucking Victorian lady. I do not get the vapors—I give them. The only thing I’ve figured out so far is to visit DiCalvo and see what I can find out about the dead girl. After that, I’ll play it by ear. We debate about how much time we have before the cops track me down and decide that we are relatively safe for the night. It would look too obvious if they moved within the next few hours. Our plan is that Mowgli will go home, sleep, then return at eight in the morning. He’s going to have to go in late to work, but he figures one day won’t get him fired.
“Get some sleep, Del,” he says, kissing me on the temple. “Lock the door behind me and don’t let anyone in the building, ok? Not even the police.” He doesn’t have to say the last as I have no intention of allowing the police anywhere near me. After Mowgli leaves, I check to make sure that the fire escape is climbable before throwing some necessities into a duffle bag—including my picklocks. I toss anything that might get me in further trouble, such as notes from grateful clients, into a garbage bag after putting them through the shredder and set the bag in the corner of the room. After some thought, I grab the glasses and put them in the garbage bag as well. It will be the easiest way to get rid of them. I go online to try to do some research, but I can’t keep my mind focused, so I power down then pack my laptop in a carrying case and place it next to my duffle bag. I go to bed with my Bowie knife under my pillow, but sleep doesn’t come easily tonight.