After working out, Trip is no more settled than she had been beforehand, so she decides to pay her old friends a visit. She showers and changes into black jeans and a black long-sleeved t-shirt before covering that with her black trench coat. It’s her work outfit, and that’s what she’s doing tonight—working. She stops at her bank and withdraws five hundred dollars, tucking it into her pocket. If she needs more, the girls know she’s good for it. She has to be if she wants them to continue talking to her. She has her Bowie knife with her, which she carefully straps to her calf and pulls her jeans’ leg down over it. It’s a beaut with a six-inch blade—a girl’s best friend. Trip knows better than to go to the ‘Loin without protection, though truth to be told, she rarely goes anywhere without her knife.
“Looks who’s here, girls,” a skinny white skank named Snow sneers as she scratches her arm listlessly. “It’s Suzie Wong herself.” Trip hates being reminded of her working days, but lets it slide this once.
“Shut the fuck up, Snow,” Mona Lisa, the one who used to talk about the Louvre, snarls. “You just mad because Trip made something of herself.” She’s white trash, too, but better-looking than Sugar with her white-blond hair done in a retro-eighties style and lime-green micro-mini-skirt. Her makeup is a riot of colors that no sane person would dare attempt. Pink and green eye shadow, silver lipstick, black nail polish. Trip wonders how much Mona Lisa Lisa is raking in these days. She’s had better days, and she looks ridden hard and put away harder. Despite it all, though, she still sticks up for Trip. It’s one of her better qualities—her fierce loyalty.
“You better step,” Snow says, flipping her hand at Mona Lisa. The other hookers are pretending not to notice the altercation as they scan the streets for possible johns. “I’m tired of you flapping your big-ass mouth at me like you was somebody.” Snow’s eyes are ugly as she juts out her hip.
“Listen up, bitch,” Mona Lisa hisses, stepping closer.
“Hey, Mona Lisa, let it go.” Trip reluctantly gets between the two women. She knows fighting is part of the life, but she needs information and she doesn’t want to have to scrape Mona Lisa off the street to get it. Mona Lisa can hold her own, but Snow didn’t get her name because she likes to ski, and like many cokeheads, Snow doesn’t feel the pain until after her high wears off. Since that’s never for her, Trip prefers to keep Mona Lisa separated from Snow.
“Trip, you’re getting soft. You know how it is on the fucking streets.” Mona Lisa is not backing down, and neither is Snow.
“Do it later, then. I have to talk to you. All the girls.” Trip stares hard at Mona Lisa, then Snow. “I need some information, and I need it fast. I need to know if there’s any word on the street on someone talking about me.”
“Yeah, they be saying they miss that ass,” a girl calls out. The other girls whoop it up.
“Then they get a piece of this,” a tiny, Asian girl slaps her nonexistent butt. “They forget all about you.”
“Have you seen this girl?” Trip pulls out a picture of Sylvian at which few of the girls even bother looking.
“Hey, it’s Angel!” Mona Lisa says, blanching. She grabs the picture and shoves it in her coat pocket before anyone else can get a good look. “Come on.” She grabs Trip and drags her to the Phoenix Hotel. “We have to talk in private. Can you front for a room?” Trip nods. It’s the least she can do since Mona Lisa won’t be working while she’s talking to Trip. The room is $79, and Trip hands over two fifties and her credit card number to Candace, the smiling woman behind the counter. To her credit, Candace doesn’t even smirk as she hands back $21.
“Have a nice stay,” Candace calls out as Mona Lisa hustles Trip to their designated room.
“Tell me,” Trip says the minute they step into the room.
“I gotta drink something to talk about this shit,” Mona Lisa announces. “Mind?” It’s not really a question, and Trip doesn’t bother answering. She sits on a chair and waits for Mona Lisa to situate herself. When Mona Lisa is well-oiled, she plops on the bed, spreading her legs. It’s an unconscious decision, but it makes her look cheap. “Trip, they been talking about you.” She has one of those miniature bottles of alcohol in her hand, and she gulps it down in one swallow. “They saying you heading for a fall. ‘Course, the girls are jealous because you’ve got it good now.” Her eyes stare at Trip. “That Cocoa did right by you, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did.” Trip doesn’t feel guilty for getting out of the life nor for her new profession. She works hard, pays her taxes like a good American—consultant work, only skims off twenty percent—and owes nobody except Cocoa anything. And Mowgli. She can never repay what she owes him.
“Some guy came nosing around, asking the girls about you. Wanted to know if it’s true you’d been in the life. Girls told him the stories all through the night.” Trip sits up straight. Could it be DiCalvo? How the hell would he know about that? She’s never been arrested except for that one time. But it isn’t supposed to be on her record.
“What did he look like?” Trip’s voice is harsh; she doesn’t like the idea that the motherfucker knows so much about her while she doesn’t even know his real name.
“Short, fat prick. Sweaty. That’s what I remember. He was dropping bills like he had printed them himself.” Mona Lisa fans herself with her hand, vamping a little for Trip’s benefit. Even though it’s not a sex scene, Mona Lisa can’t help putting on the act.
“You tell him anything, Mona Lisa?” Trip asks, her voice low. Mona Lisa may be loyal, but she’s also a slave to the dollar. She would have had her hand out as fast as anyone else.
“I told him about your sometimes pimp, Ronnie, and how he got out of the game to go back East. I told him a few of your street names. Suzie Wong, China, Amy Tan.” Trip flinches inwardly at the sound of the names she refuses to think about these days. In retrospect, perhaps she had been too harsh in her judgment of Evelyn.
“What else you tell him, Mona Lisa?” Trip’s voice is even. She’s not mad at Mona Lisa because when Trip was in the life, she would have done the same damn thing.
“Not fucking much to tell, is there? Not like we were bosom buddies or anything. We just hung on the same corner. That wasn’t good enough for Mr. Asshole, though. Shit, you would have thought we were stonewalling him the way he started cussing. He even smacked Snow a few times.” Mona Lisa smiles in satisfaction at this recollection. “I told him how you poached other girls’ territory sometimes, and how you were always mixing it up.” Penny ante stuff, really. Nothing solid. It still bothers Trip that this man knew she had been a pro. “Oh, he wanted to know if you’d ever been fucked over. I told him about that asshole in the alley.”
“Did you tell him what happened to the guy the next time he visited the Tenderloin?” This part of the story makes Trip smile every time she tells it. “Did you tell him that the guy got his nuts kicked in by one Trip Wire?”
“Oh, yeah, I told him,” Mona Lisa nods, idly, stroking her thigh. It’s in no-way erotic, and yet, it’s disturbing. “He liked to bust a gut laughing when I told him.”
“How much money you score off this asshole?” Trip asks casually, as if the thought just came to her mind.
“He threw two large my way. Said there was more if I thought of anything else. Let me tell you, I damn near made something up.” Mona Lisa swings her leg as she talks; she’s never been able to sit still. Trip watches her for a minute before tearing her eyes away. She is pissed, but it’s no use taking it out on Mona Lisa. Trip changes the subject.
“Ok, about the girl. You recognized her.”
“Yeah, that’s Angel.”
“She in the life?”
“Not on the streets like me. She dances in one of those clubs. You know, down the street from here.” Mona Lisa is picking at her cuticles, which is a strict no-no for hookers.
“The Roman Empire?” Trip asks, pulling a name from out of her memory bank.
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Mona Lisa says, her eyes lighting up. “She came out wearing this gorgeous fur coat. I asked where she got it, and we got to talking. I liked her, you know? I can’t fucking believe she was done like that.” Her eyes filled with tears, but she doesn’t let them fall. “Sweetest girl you ever want to meet. What kind of asshole would kill her?”
“How well did you know her?” Trip’s heart beats slightly faster. Hopefully, this is the break she’s been after.
“Not like that,” Mona Lisa wrinkles her nose. “You know I don’t do girls like you. Angel, though, we talked a few times. Did you know she made a shitload of money shaking her titties at men? How come they get paid so much more?”
“What did she say?” Trip isn’t going to get into a discussion about the hierarchy of exploitation.
“She was just a sweet girl,” Mona Lisa says, spreading her fingers helplessly. “We didn’t talk about work much, you know. She did tell me Angel was her stage name, like Mona Lisa’s mine. Oh, she said something about getting out while she still had her looks. Didn’t want to be all used up and dried out by the time she punched her clock.” Something in Mona Lisa’s laugh let Trip know that Mona Lisa is well aware of her own decay.
“You sure this is the girl?” Trip holds out another picture. “Look closely.” The things she’d read on Sylvian’s website does not match up with what Mona Lisa is telling her, not that Trip believes everything she reads on the web.
“It’s Angel, I’m telling you.” Mona Lisa pushes the picture away as she studies her cuticle. She hesitates before speaking again, and once she does, Trip appreciates the hesitation. “Trip, you’re gonna take care of me, right? I mean, I got my nut to make, and I’m way short.” She tries to smile, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Back when Trip was in the life, Mona Lisa used to talk about getting off the streets and going to cosmetology school, but there’s no thought of that in her head now. All she can do is focus on making enough money each night not to get the shit beaten out of her by her pimp, Johnny Vee, an oily white guy who talks of himself in the third person and who has a hair-trigger temper. He once beat one of his girls into a coma for being fifteen minutes late. His temper is unpredictable, however, because he let another of his stable quit the life without giving her grief. He even gave her a couple hundred on her way out. There’s no telling how he’s going to react to anything.
“I got your back, Mona Lisa,” Trip says softly, pulling out two hundred dollars. “Here.” She knows that these days, two large represents quite a few tricks for Mona Lisa.
“Thanks, T. You still my girl.” Mona Lisa tucks the hundreds in her bra and looks expectantly at Trip. “Anything else you want to know? How’s life treating you?” She’s turned on the charm, which isn’t what Trip wants; she doesn’t want to be treated like a john.
“Nah, that’s about it,” Trip replies. “I’m doing ok. What about you? Still dreaming of the Louvre?”
“Come on, T, that stuff is for kids. I’m pass that now, you know? No good comes from thinking of that shit.” Mona Lisa says, her eyes flashing. “I can’t believe I used to think about that shit so much. Kids.” She shakes her head, her white blond hair trembling. “You sure there’s nothing else?” It’s clear that she doesn’t want to go back into the night.
“I’m sure,” Trip says . “You can jet if you want.”
“Mind if I stay a bit?” Mona Lisa asks, lying back on the bed. “I am so wiped.”
“You using, M.L.?” Trip uses her friend’s initials like she did back in the day. It feels strange, as if she’s returning to a part of her she had left far behind.
“I’m clean as a whistle, Miss T. Just some weed now and then. You know how it is.” Mona Lisa closes her eyes and in a second, is out. Trip studies her, seeing how the fine lines on her face have deepened over time. Mona Lisa is only two years older than Trip, but looks in her mid-thirties. Her mouth is drooping, she has a jagged scar over her right eye, her body is way too skinny as if she hasn’t eaten properly in months. Trip doesn’t believe that Mona Lisa isn’t using, but it’s none of her business. She watches Mona Lisa sleep for a few minutes, but soon has enough. She tucks another two hundred into Mona Lisa’s bra, kisses her on the forehead., scribbles a note to Mona Lisa telling her to pamper herself a bit, then lets herself out. She stops at the front desk to arrange a wake-up call for Mona Lisa in an hour and to put the resulting tab on her (Trip’s) credit card. Once she’s done, she leaves in a more sober mood than when she entered. She hates being reminded of her life on the streets, and she doesn’t like to watch the deterioration of her former colleagues. In a way, it’s like losing a part of herself.
When I return to Vandalia’s, it’s well past midnight. All is quiet on the western front, which leads me to believe that Vandalia is spending the night with her paramour. She doesn’t strike me as the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ type, this morning notwithstanding, and it is gratifying to see that my hunch is correct. I check my cell phone when I get home because I had turned it off for my nighttime prowl. There are no messages which isn’t highly surprising as very few people have my cell phone number which is just how I like it. I resisted buying a cell phone for many reasons, the biggest being that I don’t like being tethered to a piece of equipment. When my business started taking off, though, it was expedient for my clients to be able to get a hold of me at odd times, so I reluctantly bought a cell phone. My revenge, however, is that I don’t have it on when I’m not working a case; it makes me feel as if I’m in control.
I yawn, but I’m not really tired, though I should be. I lug my computer into the guest room and plug it in. Soon, I’m on the information highway and typing away to my heart’s content. I have no idea how I’m going to find out if the information about Sylvian is true, but I type in the keywords: Angel, Sylvian, Roman Empire, and see what I come up with. More hits than I know what to do with and nothing of relevance. This is not the kind of thing easily discovered on the net, but I do my level best. I type in combinations of keywords until I think my head’s going to explode. After a half hour of searching, I’m ready to admit that the only thing for me to do is to go to the damn club and do some nosing around. Damn it, I don’t want to go—I hate strip clubs and anything that smacks of my life on the streets—but it’s my ass on the line. If that means going to a club with naked women, then that’s what I’m going to have to do.
I wander into the living room and flip on the television, ESPN. SportsCenter is on, so I watch that for a bit I need to let my mind relax before I can even think of sleep. The events of the last few days are enough to knock a person flat on her ass if she’s not careful. I hop up from the couch and go into the kitchen to see what kind of beverages Vandalia is hoarding in her refrigerator. I pull out a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and pop the top, returning to the living room with my open bottle. I settle on the couch and will my mind to veg. After the last few days, I deserve to give my mind a rest. I know from experience that I’m of no use if I am running on empty. I also don’t want to be running on full because I do my best work when I’m on the edge, but below my comfort zone. What I need is mindless entertainment and a good night’s sleep.
Despite my best intentions, however, I can’t stop thinking about the case and about Mona Lisa. When I was on the streets, she was a mentor of sorts to me. She took me under her wing and taught me how to survive. Some of the girls would rather cut you two ways to Sunday than help you out, but M.L. was never like that. She’s the one who taught me how to put on makeup, how to color-coordinate and in one hilarious afternoon, how to walk in stilettos without looking like a total ass. She helped transform a hick girl from Iowa into a born-and-bred San Franciscan. By the time she was through with me, people no longer asked where I was from because they just assumed I was native. She was like a big sister to me, even fighting off one girl who thought I had stolen her man. I don’t stop by the Tenderloin as often as I used to, and it pains me when I do. I want to remember M.L. back in the day when she was still able to see a life other than the streets, when we used to talk about art and shit like that. Now, she can’t even think about it because it hurts too much. Oh, she gave the old song and dance about it being childish and whatever, but I know the truth. On that sad note, I drain the lemonade and go to bed—I need the oblivion.