Chapter Eight (Part Three)
Trip doesn’t like Blanche any better than she had the first time she laid eyes on the whore. Blanche isn’t nearly as beautiful up close as she appears on stage because her pores are bigger, her lips are slightly too narrow, her nose a hair too long, and her eyes too close together. Still, she struts into the place like she owns it, her ass swaying solely for Mowgli’s benefit. She’s dressed in white jeans which are three sizes too small for her, a white tank top, and white stiletto heels. Nothing is tackier than high heels and jeans, but somehow, Blanche carries it off. She’s wearing enough makeup to feel right at home up on stage, and her eyes are a perfect blank. Either she’s on something, or she’s very well trained not to give herself away. She holds her head high, staring coldly at Trip before resting her eyes on Mowgli. She favors him with a wide smile which shows more gum than teeth, but the smile never touches her eyes.
“Well, what can I do for you?” Her eyes flick to Trip and back to Mowgli. “I don’t do girls, though she can watch if she wants, I guess.” Her tone is doubtful, but gains confidence as she flops on the couch. “Two hundred an hour, no kinky stuff. That’s extra.” The straps of her tank top slide down her arms before either Mowgli or Trip can get a word in edgewise. They both watch in amusement as Blanche wriggles her boobs for their benefit. Obviously, Mowgli isn’t affected by the show but appreciates the effort whereas Trip doesn’t care for such artifice, her own current look notwithstanding. “Well?” Blanche says impatiently. A flicker of uncertainty crosses her face as Mowgli makes no move towards her. She flushes and pulls up the straps of her top, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “Well?” Her tone is belligerent to cover up her embarrassment.
“You’ve misunderstood, Ms. White,” Trip drawls, her eyes watching Blanche carefully. “We are not in need of your…services, though we will surely pay you for your most valuable time.” Even with the saccharine Trip ladles on her words, Blanche is quick to catch the undercurrent and flushes.
“I don’t have to take this,” she says angrily, standing up in a huff.
“Lucien Andretti,” Trip says softly. Blanche turns as white as her name as the forbidden name is uttered. She sways in place as her knees buckle, but she doesn’t leave. “Caleb O’Reilly,” Trip adds, the magnolia gone from her tone. She isn’t playing, and she wants to make sure that Blanche realizes it. “Angelica Sylvian.” Blanche is trembling as she listens to the names so Mowgli escorts her back to the couch where she sits down again. Trip remains standing so she can retain the psychological advantage.
“What do you want from me?” Blanche whispers, all traces of arrogance gone. “I don’t have any money to pay you.”
“I don’t want your money,” Trip hisses, still using the Southern accent. “We just need to have a little heart-to-heart you and me. Girl talk.” She looks at Mowgli, but he shakes his head. As much as he loves Trip, he knows her too well to leave her alone with Blanche.
“What’s there to talk about?” Blanche still hasn’t looked Trip in the eye, but steals a glance at Mowgli who smiles reassuringly at her. She seems emboldened by it and straightens her spine.
“I’m going to be frank with you, Blanche,” Trip says, her tone cold. “I know Angel is dead. I know Andretti did it. I know O’Reilly knows about it and is abetting, even if it’s after the fact. What I don’t know is where you fit in.” She stops, allowing Blanche the opportunity to talk. Blanche, however, chooses to exercise her God-given right to remain silent. Unfortunately for her, this is not a court of law, and Trip is no judge. “Answer me!” Trip’s voice lashes out, causing Blanche to flinch.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it,” Blanche says in a little girl’s voice, keeping her eyes fastened to Mowgli’s comforting face. He sits next to her and pats her knee in an avuncular fashion. She leans into his touch which causes him to quickly pull his hand away. Even in her fear, she can’t help but sexualize her interactions with Mowgli.
“Tough.” Trip’s voice is uncompromising. “Another girl died, Blanche. Evelyn Sato. Ever heard of her?” Blanche silently shakes her head, but her face grows even whiter. “She died because she knew something about Caleb O’Reilly. Murdered, though they tried to make it look like suicide. She told me some things, but held back. She would have told me eventually, but now it’s too late for her.” Trip pauses, letting the implication dangle.
“What did she know?” Blanche asks, nervously clutching her hands together.
“Would you like something to drink?” Mowgli breaks in, earning a scowl from Trip. She hates having her flow interrupted, but Mowgli is concerned about Blanche’s pallor and doesn’t want her fainting on them.
“Yes, please,” Blanche answers, trying to smile. “Gin and tonic if you have it. I wouldn’t mind some food, either.” Trip refrains from rolling her eyes, but how like a whore to take what she can get even before it’s offered to her.
“I’ll be right back,” Mowgli says, shooting a warning look at Trip who is studiously not looking at him.
“Just water for me,” Trip calls out, concentrating on her prey. “Sato was O’Reilly’s personal masseuse. She heard his conversations to Andretti and others. For that, she had to die.” Though Trip keeps the accent, she is reverting to her own personality. It is too important for her to break this woman, and she has the feeling that being a hard-ass will do it faster than playing Southern belle. “Women like you are expendable to those guys,” Trip says casually, catching the flinch Blanche isn’t able to refrain from showing. “Why are you playing their game?”
“If I say anything, they’ll kill me,” Blanche whimpers, picking at her jeans for nonexistent lint.
“They’ll kill you anyway if they think it’s more expedient,” Trip says, not telling Blanche what she heard that afternoon at Tosca’s after Blanche left O’Reilly. “The only way you’ll truly be safe is if they’re in jail.” Or dead, she adds to herself but doesn’t say it out loud. People tend to get spooked by such sentiments, and Blanche might clam up if faced with the possibility of contributing to O’Reilly’s and Andretti’s demises.
“I can’t,” Blanche exclaims, her voice rising. “I’ll lose everything if I tell.”
“Angel lost everything,” Trip counters. “And she didn’t tell, did she?”
“Angel’s dead because of me,” Blanche says sorrowfully, anguish washing over her pretty face. “It’s all my fault she’s dead.”
“Let me guess, you convinced her to tell what she knew which got her killed.” Trip doesn’t bother to hide the contempt in her voice. “You wanted to get them out of your hair, but you didn’t want to take the rap for it so you let your friend do it, instead.”
“No! It didn’t happen like that at all!” Blanche shouts, her temper flaring. It’s clear that she’s on the edge and that it’ll take very little to push her over. “Look, can I smoke?” Trip nods, spying an ashtray on the bookshelf and tossing it on the coffee table in front of Blanche. Blanche’s hand is trembling so hard, she can’t light her Marlboro, so Trip has to do it for her.
“Maybe you set Angel up,” Trip suggests. “You tell Andretti that Angel is going to talk, that you tried to stop her, but she’s made up her mind so Andretti kills her. I bet that’s what happened.” Trip is working Blanche, but not letting her see it.
“You really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Blanche sighs, her whole body sagging. All the anger and indignation seeps out her pores until she resembles a deflated doll. She pauses as she sucks on her Marlboro, trying to decide if she should share or not. As she’s thinking, Mowgli comes back into the living room, tray in hand. It’s laden with goodies ranging from crustless sandwiches to cheese and cracker to grapes and slices of apples. He has the gin and tonic for Blanche, a glass of water for Trip, and a hard lemonade for himself. He plates food for everyone, then settles back on the couch.
“Blanche was just going to tell us why it’s her fault Angel died,” Trip says as it becomes clear that Blanche isn’t about to speak. Blanche gives a start, spilling her gin and tonic on her chest. She dabs at the stain, but otherwise remains still. Seconds tick by until she finally opens her mouth.
“How old do you think I am?” Blanche asks Mowgli who studies her carefully.
“Twenty-four,” he says after scrutinizing her face.
“I’m twenty,” Blanche says bleakly. “I got the job with a false I.D. I’m from Ohio originally, and this is my first time in a big city.” Trip is about to speak, but Mowgli sends her a look that says, ‘Shut your big fat mouth.’ For once, she heeds his advice. “I thought I was the shit for landing this job, you know? I mean, all my life I’ve been the pretty one. Since I was fourteen, I’ve seen how men treat me differently because of this and these.” She gestures at her face then her breasts. “Since I’m not that smart, I decided to use what I got.” She sips at her drink, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She plucks a grape and puts it in her mouth before continuing. “The other girls hated me, saw me as a threat. Not Angel. She befriended me right away, showing me tricks of the trade. She’s the only real girlfriend I’ve ever had. I even hung out at her apartment sometimes.” Tears shimmer in Blanche’s eyes, but she carefully dabs them away.
“There were nights when I thought I couldn’t do it any longer. All those disgusting men pawing at me, watching me strip. Having to touch myself and pretending like I enjoyed it. Some nights, I went home and cried for hours because of how much I hated my job. Angel always knew when it hurt the most, and she made sure to come over or to call, just to be certain that I was OK. The other girls, they loved it when I made a mistake or when things were a little worse then I could handle. Only Angel gave a damn what happened to me.” Blanche pauses to eat a few crackers with cheese. Trip is tapping her foot impatiently, but Blanche ignores her to continue at her own pace.
“I loved her. She was the sister I never had. She’s the only person in this damn town who cared if I lived or if I died, and because of me, she’s dead.” They are reaching the crux again, but Blanche can’t seem to get past this point. She reaches for a sandwich and starts nibbling on it, more to have something to do than because she’s actually hungry. She brings the sandwich up to her mouth, then lowers it three times in succession. Trip is ready to knock the sandwich out of Blanche’s hand when the latter finally decides to speak again. “Do you know why she died?” Blanche looks directly at Trip this time, no subterfuge.
“No, that’s why I’m asking you.” Exasperation laces Trip’s voice. After the past few days, her capacity for compassion—never her strongest point—has eroded completely.
“She died as a warning to me,” Blanche states flatly, slugging back her gin and tonic in one neat gulp. Mowgli has had the foresight to bring out the bottles, and he mixes her another. She tosses that one back, too. She fiddles with the glass, having lost her nerve again.
“What do you mean, Blanche?” Mowgli asks, his tone gentle. Trip shifts her stance. She wants to throttle the information out of Blanche, but manages to rein herself in. She knows that you can only frighten someone so much before she snaps. Then, she’ll either tell you everything you want to know or she won’t say a fucking thing. Blanche appears to be heading in the latter direction.
“I, uh, am the girlfriend of someone big,” Blanche whispers, looking pleadingly at Mowgli. He fills her glass again without a word of reproach. “Or I was until I fucked it up. I found out something that could ruin him. I told him if he took care of me, I’d forget what I knew.” She stops again, looking down at her hands.
“What did you mean by take care of, and what did you discover?” Trip asks, her tone impatient. Somewhere along the way, she’s dropped the accent, but Blanche doesn’t notice the difference.
“I’m not going to have my looks forever,” Blanche says bluntly, suddenly looking much older than her twenty years. “I don’t want to end up one of those hags in the District, you know? My, um, boyfriend is very generous and all. We travel all around, even outside the country. Mexico, Canada, even Paris, but he likes them real young—no more than twenty-two. That means I have less than two years left. I asked my, uh, boyfriend to write up a contract guaranteeing me a monthly stipend of $5,000 a month for the rest of my life.” Blanche struggles not to sound defensive as she talks, but doesn’t succeed. “I told him if he didn’t, I’d tell the papers about it, and I’d tell his wife about our affair. He told me he’d think about it and sent me away.”
“Then what?” Mowgli asks, giving her a verbal prod when it becomes obvious that she’s having a difficult time talking.
“Next thing I know, Angel is dead and my boyfriend is sending his handy man to talk to me. Andretti says, ‘See what I can do? See how powerful I am? You don’t want to fuck with me.’ I didn’t believe him at first, that he had done it, you know, but he finally convinced me. That’s when I knew I had to keep my mouth shut or he’d kill me, too!” Blanche’s eyes widen as she relays the information.
“Wait a minute,” Trip says, her features hardening. “Are you telling me that Angel wasn’t involved at all? That Andretti killed her to keep you in check?”
“Yes,” Blanche says in a tiny voice. She shrinks into the couch under the weight of Trip’s glare.
“You tried to blackmail your lover and you got your best friend killed,” Trip says, making sure she understands the situation. “Is that the tall and short of it, Blanche?”
“Yes,” Blanche says in a tinier voice. She must have sensed the disapproval in Trip’s voice because she continues, “What’s a girl supposed to do, huh? I dropped out of high school when I was sixteen and never got my GED. I wasn’t going to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s for the rest of my life!” She stares defiantly at Trip, but wilts under the glare that Trip delivers in return.
“Do you know who I am?” Trip asks, her voice harsh. “I’m the one Andretti set up for Angel’s murder.” Blanche looks startled, as if she didn’t know about the frame. “Beyond that, I was in the life some years back and I got out of it. I didn’t graduate from high school, either.”
“Well, I’m not smart like you,” Blanche pouts, pushing her lower lip forward. “My mama always says a girl’s got to look out for herself, so that’s what I did!”
“Look where it got you,” Trip says coldly. “Minus one best friend and scared out of your ever-loving mind. You’re still in danger, you know.”
“Oh, no,” Blanche shakes her head. “As long as I keep my mouth shut and the evidence hidden, I’m safe. Andretti promised me that.” Trip doesn’t know whether to laugh or to scream at this young woman who thinks the word of a murderer means jack shit.
“Who’s your boyfriend and what did you find out?” Trip asks, her hands clenched in fists. She wants to smack this girl around, and she’s not entirely sure why. She has the uncomfortable feeling it has something to do with herself, but pushes that thought away.
“I can’t tell you that!” Blanche says, bouncing up from the couch in alarm. “I’ve told you too much already!” She grabs her purse and heads for the door, but Trip is blocking her way. “Move it,” Blanche says shrilly, tossing her blond hair over her shoulders. “I have to get ready for my shift.” Trip still doesn’t move, her arms crossed in front of her chest.
“You’re being silly,” Trip says softly, leaning in so only Blanche can hear her. Mowgli scowls but doesn’t interfere. “You know and I know that your only hope is to turn on your boyfriend. Your life isn’t worth shit to him.”
“My only hope is to keep my mouth shut and to keep him happy,” Blanche snaps in return. She stares at Trip then holds out her hand. “You owe me two hundred dollars for my time.” The words are defiant, but the tone is tinged with shame.
“I’m not paying you,” Trip says softly, moving away from the door. She has the money, but it’s the principle of the matter. Blanche scowls but doesn’t say anything else as she huffs out the door.
“Do you really think she’s in danger?” Mowgli asks, his face troubled.
“Yes,” Trip says simply, not telling him either what she overheard in Tosca’s. If the silly bitch thinks she can take care of herself, she is more than welcome to try.
“So what’s the plan?” Mowgli asks, sighing as he closes his eyes. He’s not used to staying out all night and getting up early for work. Fortunately, he has some flexibility in his hours and wasn’t scolded for going into work at ten instead of his usual eight. He doesn’t want to push it too much, however, as his spot at the company is getting precarious.
“I’m going back to The Roman Empire tonight,” Trip says firmly in a tone that brooks no argument.
“You sure that’s wise?” Mowgli asks in concern. “Not only did you lose your accent with Blanche, you’ll be remembered. There weren’t that many women in the joint.” Trip mutters something under her breath, but Mowgli is right. She doesn’t want to stand out, but she has a feeling that whatever is taking place will happen after Blanche gets off work tonight. So in actuality, she doesn’t need to go to the club until after Blanche is done for the day. The problem with that is that Trip doesn’t know when that will be.
“Maybe we should give it a rest,” Mowgli says, consuming more sandwiches. “I need some real food.” Trip ignores him and turns on the television. There is the mayor making a speech. Trip is about to change the channel when she hears the name, ‘Evelyn Sato’ come out of his mouth. She turns up the volume.
“It’s a sad day when a young woman is thwarted in the prime of her life. That has happened twice this week, with one made to look like a suicide. I had a daughter myself who disappeared when she was eight as well as two boys. My daughter was never found, but I still pray that she’ll be returned to us some day. Barring that, I want the person or persons involved held responsible for their actions. These girls are someone else’s daughters. Their parents deserve peace of mind—the peace I’ve never had ever since my baby was taken from me.” He looks at the camera sternly, his tone hard but avuncular at the same time. “The police have a strong reason to believe that both Angelica Sylvian and Evelyn Sato were killed by the same person—the young Asian woman seen breaking into Ms. Sylvian’s apartment around the time of her murder.” The composite sketch flashes on the television screen, looking almost exactly like Trip. “She is definitely a suspect and may be armed and dangerous. We urge the public to use extreme caution if the suspect is spotted. Don’t be a hero—call the cops.”
“The bastard,” Trip says, her mouth tight. “I wonder who’s feeding him this bogus information?” She turns off the television, lost in thought.
“They’re closing the noose around your neck, Del,” Mowgli says softly. “Linking the two deaths and making it sound as if you’re some kind of serial killer. Do you think he’s involved?” Mowgli gestures at the now-silent television. “Maybe he’s Blanche’s boyfriend.” They both shudder at the thought as Sam Davies is in his fifties, but it’s a possibility, especially as the, uh, boyfriend likes ‘em ‘real young’.
“Or maybe he’s just a pawn of the real boyfriend,” Trip adds. “He doesn’t strike me as very smart—the kind of man who’s easy to manipulate.” In her opinion, Sam Davies is a blowhard who peaked in the sixties and has suffered a slow decline ever since.
“Are we in agreement that he’s involved somehow?” Mowgli asks. Trip nods her head glumly as she sinks onto the couch next to Mowgli.
“Do you remember his daughter’s disappearance?” Trip asks curiously. She’s not one to keep up on the news when she’s not making it, so she hasn’t a clue as to what happened.
“Yes, it was five years ago,” Mowgli says grimly. “She simply disappeared from the mayor’s home one night while he was asleep in his bedroom. His wife was in some East Coast state visiting her mother. She collapsed after returning to San Francisco, which is why you rarely see her in public any more. The cops were all over the case as you can imagine, but nothing ever came out of it. Every lead evaporated, every trail turned out to be a dead end. Although no one will say it, most people are sure she’s dead and in the ocean.” Both Trip and Mowgli are silent as Trip digests this information. When she does speak, it has nothing to do with the mayor’s disappearing daughter.
“What am I going to do now?” Trip asks so softly, Mowgli almost doesn’t hear her. He blinks in consternation. Even when Trip was on the streets, she never was at a loss as to what to do. This is a new side of Trip, and he doesn’t like it.
“We are going to continue digging until we find all the dirt,” Mowgli says firmly. “You are not going to jail—I couldn’t take the separation.” That elicits a smile from Trip, though not a very big one. Neither of them mention that California is a capital punishment state which means Trip could be executed for the crimes if the worst happened.
“They are such shitheads,” Trip says, going into her bedroom. She emerges a few minutes later with her pack of cigarettes. She lights one up and inhales deeply. Sometimes, there’s nothing like a cigarette—this is one of those times. “They think they can take me down like that? Well, they picked the wrong woman.” Her eyes are polished onyx as she stares at the burning ember of her cigarette. “I am not going to let them fuck me over.” Her tone is conversational as if she’s talking about the weather. Only the clench of her jaw gives away her determination.
“There’s the Del I love and am afraid of,” Mowgli says, chucking her under the chin. He is the only one allowed to touch her in such a familiar manner; anyone else would be missing a hand if he or she attempted such a gesture.
“Talk about something else,” Trip orders, closing her eyes. “I am so damn tired of this shit.” Mowgli obliges, filling her in on the peccadilloes of the office—who is in love with whom; who loathes whom; who is about to get thrown out on his ass; who is about to be unduly promoted. He has Trip smirking at the antics of colleagues, which is his intended goal.
Mowgli is a kindhearted soul who worries about his best friend because she has grown hardened from what she’s seen. They had met when she had propositioned him. Normally, he would have just brushed her off and not thought twice about it, but there was something about this waif of a Chinese girl who looked as if she weighed a hundred pounds wet that tugged at him. She looked a little like his younger sister which probably had something to do with it, but it was more because of how determined she was not to let anything fuck with her. She didn’t bitch and moan like the other whores, or whine about how horrible her life was. She didn’t drink or do drugs, nor did she have a crazy pimp who beat the shit out of her. Her pimp pretty much let her do her thing. Even as a ho, she commanded respect and fear. She was one of the few whores Mowgli knew who didn’t bear physical scars from her days on the street. From the start, she knew that she would get out of the life some day, and she never believed otherwise.
He admires her greatly, but now he fears that she’s in over her head. The men who want to suit her for a cell of her own—or worse—are not men to be fucked with. Mowgli knows more about men than she does despite her stint on the streets, and he’s sure that these boys are not going to rest until they have put Trip out of commission. When Trip was lecturing Blanche about her expendability or discussing it with him, it was all Mowgli could do not to point out to Trip her own vulnerability. One of the things he loves best about Trip is her confidence, but he’s afraid that it’s also a weakness when she places too much faith in her ability to get out of scrapes. The time in the alley when she was a hooker, the only time her life was seriously threatened, she could have avoided the whole confrontation by refusing to go with the guy in the first place. She thought there was something a bit off about the guy, but rationalized that she could take care of herself. She nearly paid for that mistake with her life, and Mowgli doesn’t want her to make the same mistake this time.
He has to admit, however, that it’s hardly her fault these jerks decided to make her the patsy and send her up the river for murder. Knowing what he does about Trip, Mowgli is inclined to believe that for her to go to jail would be almost more painful than death for her. She has always been her own woman, yes, even as a whore, and to be forced to follow someone else’s rules and regulations would be a living death. She might welcome the death penalty in that situation. Until now, he hadn’t allowed himself to think about what would happen to her if she is caught or if they don’t clear her name. What if she has to be a fugitive for the rest of her life? She could deal with that, always being on the run, but he isn’t sure he could. Not knowing where she is or how she’s doing. Hearing from her on an irregular basis or not at all. He already doesn’t like it when she shuts him out after pulling off a gig—what would it feel like to be out of her life for good?
He slams his hard lemonade bottle on the coffee table, oblivious to the odd look she’s sending his way. His hands clenches in fists as he thinks wistfully of his sports days when he could legitimately pummel the crap out of some hapless boy and even brush up against his ass without raising suspicion. What a high to release both his violent and sexual tensions simultaneously in the sanctified realms of sports. He clearly remembers the first time he hit a home run—how the guys all swatted him on the ass as he touched home plate. He was determined to replicate that situation as often as he could. Now that he is no longer in sports, it’s not acceptable for him simply to walk up to someone and thump him on the head, or pat him on the ass. To do so would surely have him arrested before he could say, ‘I love my Versace.’ He settles for thumping the couch pillow before placing it behind his back.
“What’s up?” Trip asks, glancing at him again. “Why so mad?”
“I’m mad because these assholes want to take my best friend away,” Mowgli says, his normally pleasant features set in a scowl. “I want to rip their lungs out through their chests.” Trip is surprised to hear such a strong sentiment as Mowgli is a pacifist.
“Well, there’s no need for violence,” Trip says, patting Mowgli’s knee. “At least not yet.” Neither her tone nor her eyes are laughing. “I would like to wrap this thing up by Thanksgiving, so we have two weeks to figure out what the hell happened.”
“Hi, boy and girl.” Vandalia peeks her head into the living room. “Is it safe for me to come in? I decided to come home after all.” Her tone is light, but her eyes are watchful.
“Sure is,” Mowgli says, bounding up to give Vandalia a big hug. “How’s it going with Greeley, the nine-day wonder?”
“Oh, hon, he’s just a bit of fun if you know what I mean,” Vandalia says, winking lasciviously at Mowgli. “Don’t you just want to eat him up with a spoon?”
“Girl, he’s the one who better be doing the eating,” Mowgli retorts. “Boy got someone as luscious as you, he should have his mouth open 24/7!” The two of them share a hearty laugh.
Trip wants to go back to The Roman Empire, but both Mowgli and Vandalia nix the idea. They think that there’s nothing to gain by watching Blanche strut her stuff again. As Mowgli points out, she’s not likely to tell them any more than she had a mere half hour ago. Perhaps less since Trip had refused to pay her for her time. Trip declares that she will go by herself, but knows she’s just blowing smoke. She can’t just waltz into a gentlemen’s club alone without calling undue attention to herself. She pouts, demands and hollers at Mowgli, but he refuses to go. After a half hour of ranting, she reluctantly puts the idea to rest knowing that she can’t go by herself no matter how much she threatens to do it. She sulks and flips on the television, watching the news. There’s no additional information on the deaths of Angelica and Evelyn which in this case, truly is good news. Trip is fucking tired of the whole thing, but knows that there’s nothing to gain by whining about it.