Chapter Thirteen (Part One)
“Huh, what?” I mutter, burrowing my head under the pillow. “Shouldn’t you be oblivious or something?”
“Get up,” Mowgli repeats, plucking the pillow off my head. With a reluctant sigh, I heave my body in an upright position. I yawn and rub the sleep from my eyes. I am not a morning person, and I do not like talking to anyone after a job, and I’m hungry, and someone’s trying to kill me. I do not want to get out of bed on this sunny Saturday morning. It feels like it’s the crack of dawn, but a quick peek at my clock tells me it’s almost noon.
“You are disgustingly chipper for a man who’s been shot,” I grumble, standing and stretching. If I were at home, I’d be sleeping in the nude but out of deference to Mowgli’s delicate sensibilities—hah—I had worn a long t-shirt to bed.
“I need help washing,” Mowgli says bluntly.
“Well, how’s a girl supposed to turn down an offer such as that?” I raise an eyebrow and motion for him to follow me to the bathroom. I help him out of his shirt and sling and with a washcloth, sponge him down. The doctor says in a few days, Mowgli can go without the sling if he’s a good boy. Knowing Mowgli as I do, he’ll be out of the sling by tomorrow.
“What about the rest of me?” Mowgli asks. “I’m feeling grimy.”
“Up to you,” I shrug, leaning against the counter. “It won’t bother me any. You ain’t got nothing I haven’t seen.”
“Oh, yeah, I do,” Mowgli banters, grinning. Under his smile, however, is a grimace. He’s in more pain than he cares to admit, but is too proud to say so. I know better than to foist a pill of on him, so I hold my tongue. “Help me out of my pants, will you?” I undo his khakis and slide them off him until he’s standing in front of me in silk boxers. That’s my Mowgli for you—nothing but the best for him.
“Should I?” I gesture to his underwear, but he shakes his head. I wash him as best I can within the limits. “That should keep you from smelling, at least for today.”
“I’m taking a shower tomorrow by hook or by crook,” Mowgli mutters, looking with distaste at his body.
“Well, since I’m of sound body, I’m taking a shower now.” I push him towards the door, but he resists.
“At least help me dress first,” he protests, grabbing me by the arm. After I finish dressing him, I take my shower. Normally, I’m in and out of the shower in seven minutes flat, but today I linger. I figure I’ve earned an extra ten minutes, especially as it’s not on my water bill. The hot water beats against my muscles, working much like a masseuse. Of course, that reminds me of Evelyn Sato who I had met so briefly. It would have been nice to receive a massage from her, but it was not meant to be. I hope she didn’t suffer much during her death. I lather up my hair and give it a quick wash. One nice thing about having short hair is that it’s easy to wash. Once I’m through pampering myself, I step out of the shower ready, if not eager, to face the day.
I go back into the room to change. Mowgli is sitting on his bed, watching the television. There is no ‘breaking news’ about anything concerning our case which is good news, indeed. I relax a fraction at the absence of more trouble. Subconsciously, I was expecting one of the girls to end up on the news, dead. Of course, there would have to be something spectacular about a whore’s death to make the citizens of San Francisco give a damn about it, but I’m sure the assholes could trump something up if need be. By now, it is clear to me that the boys will go to any lengths to make sure that whatever they’ve been doing is covered up. By the same reasoning, it must be really huge if they’re desperate enough to kill three women in cold blood and to set up a fourth woman—me—at the same time. My anger grows at the thought of how expendable women are to guys like this. Not just women, but girls—little girls.
Thinking about little girls reminds me of my hypothesis that these boys are involved in a kiddie-porn ring. I ask Mowgli what he thinks, but he agrees that the stakes would be too high for our boys to get their hands dirty in something like that. As distasteful as it may be, there are many ways for rich, powerful guys to lay their hands on children that aren’t quite as risky. When I point out that frequenting hookers is risky, too, Mowgli rightly counters that so far, it’s only O’Reilly and Peters we’ve been able to peg as visiting the girls. As for going to a strip bar—well, there’s nothing illegal about that. If the mayor is involved and if he is Blanche’s boyfriend, his only real slip up we’ve discovered—legally, not morally—is whatever evidence Blanche had on him.
Mowgli and I share our information as I dress. I tell him about the key and the diary. I tell him what Lolli told me and why I thought she was more than capable of taking care of herself. He tells me about his talk with Butterfly, the Asian girl who’s a favorite of O’Reilly’s. She’s eighteen years old, or so she tells him. She’s only the latest in a string of Asian girls commanded by O’Reilly. He never uses a girl who’s over twenty, and he likes them as young as sixteen. He doesn’t like to play daddy scenarios—he’s more into heavy bondage with a liberal hand of S&M thrown into the mix. He’s careful not to break a girl permanently, but he likes to leave his mark. He has a problem with premature ejaculation which he always blames on his partner whom he then punishes. His favorite method is either a cigarette to the flesh or the sting of a cat-o’-nine-tails. In fact, meting out punishment is really how he gets off. After punishing a girl, he’s usually more than ready for sex.
Butterfly doesn’t like servicing O’Reilly, but he pays extremely well. He’s a generous man who is willing to pay top dollar in order to indulge his fetishes. ‘He has flat eyes,’ Butterfly says by way of explaining why he makes her uncomfortable. To someone not in the life, it sounds ludicrous, but to me, it makes perfect sense. When you’re on the streets, you have to be able to read a john’s mood. The easiest way to do that is by looking in his eyes. A john with flat eyes is a whore’s worst nightmare. Butterfly couldn’t refrain from shuddering when she talked about O’Reilly. He’s come to her for the last six months, which, if his record is any indication, means her time is almost over. This knowledge doesn’t comfort Butterfly because O’Reilly is well-known for making his last session with a girl so special, she can’t work for up to a month after. One girl didn’t work ever again once O’Reilly was through with her. Occupational hazard with no disability pay.
“They’re going outside for their fun, aren’t they?” Mowgli asks softly, his face the picture of distress. “Not shitting in their own backyard and all that.” He looks at me for a long moment as I zip my jeans. I am back in black, and I feel fabulous. “Shouldn’t you be in disguise?” Mowgli growls, struggling to find a position that doesn’t aggravate his injury.
“What’s the point?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders. “It didn’t fool them for a minute. From now on, what you see is what you get.”
“You going to talk to O’Reilly again?” Mowgli wonders, pouring himself a glass of water. I shrug as I tuck my black long-sleeved t-shirt into my jeans. It’s low-cut, but not nearly as low-cut as the monstrosities I’ve been wearing. I like to look good, but not slutty. I fluff out my hair back into a Halle Berry. I miss my mane, but I have to admit the short ‘do looks good, too.
“I’m not sure what I’d accomplish with that,” I say, scrutinizing my face. I have smudges under my eyes but otherwise look fine. “I want to find out which bank Blanche belonged to and get whatever is in that safety box.”
“You’re going to need an ID and to sign for the box,” Mowgli reminds me.
“Fuck, Mowgli,” I say, rolling my eyes at him. “Quit being such a spoilsport. The ID is simple and as for signing for it, I’ll find a way to get around it.”
“Especially if you talk to a guy,” Mowgli says dryly. We laugh, but he’s right. My powers of persuasion with the male gender are impressive—I can usually get what I want with the right mixture of seduction and subterfuge. Women are more wary of me, especially straight women. They don’t want me anywhere near their men and are usually so busy player-hating, they won’t even give me a fighting chance. Bitches. Who needs their sorry-assed men, anyway?
“What about the diary, Mowgli? Maybe you should tackle that.” Mowgli is the sensitive one in our friendship, more tolerant of the sort of drivel I’m sure Blanche whined about in her diary.
“You always give me the girl jobs,” Mowgli says, pushing out his lower lip.
“It’s because you’re more of a girl than me,” I reply, tossing him the diary. As he catches it, he mutters something under his breath that I don’t quite hear but sounds suspiciously like, “Teena Brandon was more of a girl than you.”
As Mowgli digs into the diary, I pick up the phone book and start calling banks. To each one, I identify myself as Blanche White and ask if I can access my safe deposit box today. Each one replies that I don’t have a safety deposit box there. One suspicious teller even wonders why the name sounds so familiar; I hang up on that one. Three-quarters of the way through my list, it occurs to me that Blanche might have used her real name if she was trying to keep the box on the down-low. With this in mind, I finish up the list using her real name before starting at the top of the list again. If I reached the same person, I used a phony accent. This time around, I merely asked to check on the status of my account. The teller at Wells Fargo asks me which account I want to know about which is good enough for me. I make up some excuse and hang up the phone.
“Got it,” I say laconically to Mowgli who is flipping pages like mad. That’s another reason I gave the assignment to him, though I wouldn’t tell him so—he reads about twice as fast as I do and his comprehension level is higher as well.
“Man, that was one-messed up girl,” Mowgli sighs, shutting the diary emphatically. He sets it on the table as far away as possible.
“What did you learn?” I sit on my bed so we are facing each other.
Mowgli tells me how Blanche knew ‘Sweetie’ would never leave his family for her because his job was too important to him. They had been together for five months, ever since Blanche turned twenty, but she saw signs that he was beginning to tire of her. That was the real reason she tried to get the goods on him. When they took trips outside the country, she suspected he wasn’t always on the up-and-up, but could never prove it. It wasn’t until they were back in the States from a trip to Tijuana that she found the evidence she was looking for when she broke into his office one night. Apparently, he kept his trophies there away from the prying wife—or more likely, given what I’ve heard about the wife—the nosy housekeeper.
It wasn’t easy for Blanche to find the proof, but she’s good at discovering unusual hiding places. She found the packet buried in the dirt at the bottom of a huge potted plant sitting innocuously in the corner of ‘Sweetie’s’ office. She took it and leafed through the proof, of course, her stomach turning over at the sight. She had seen some stuff in her time at the club, but nothing like this. She shoved everything back into the manila envelope and tucked it into the oversized bag she was carrying. She hurried out, leaving everything as it was—she had worn gloves, of course—keeping the packet at home until she could hustle it over to the Bank of America first thing in the morning and put it in a safety deposit box.
“Bank of America?” I ask, interrupting his narrative flow. “Wells Fargo is her bank.”
“She chose a different bank,” Mowgli replies; he doesn’t need to tell me why.
“It’s the mayor,” I say firmly. “All we need to do is prove it. I’m going to get into the safety deposit box.”
“Not unless you change your ethnicity, Ms. Dubrowski,” Mowgli says sarcastically.
“Shit,” I say. I hadn’t thought of that. “Well, I could be married, couldn’t I?”
“No,” Mowgli shakes his head. “Not believable.” He thinks for a minute. “I’ll get Vandie to do it.”
“You think she will?” I ask. “We didn’t part on best of terms.”
“She’ll do it.” Mowgli reaches for the phone.
“I still think I could have done it,” Trip grumbles as she, Vandalia and Mowgli stroll towards the Bank of America. Vandalia has a blond wig on as well as a Laura Ashley-looking number. She’s as sedate as Trip has ever seen her, though not dowdy. A woman of Vandalia’s proportions and features could never be dowdy. She is carrying a smart handbag and even has on patent-leather shoes. She looks like some fucked-up version of a soccer mom, but she’ll have to do.
“Speak,” Mowgli orders Vandalia.
“Good morning,” Vandalia murmurs in dulcet tones. “My name is Bertha Dubrowski. I am inquiring after my safety deposit box.”
“Perfect, Vandie,” Mowgli crows, giving Vandalia a quick squeeze. “You are the goods, baby.”
“This is what I do for a living, Mowgli,” Vandalia says with a slight smile. She nods at both of them and marches into the bank. There is a café on the corner, so Trip and Mowgli slip into it.
“Canigetcha?” The rotund woman behind the counter asks around a wad of gum. Her blue eyes sparkle as she pushes a mahogany curl out of her reddened face. She looks to be in her late twenties or early thirties, and is much too cheerful for Trip’s taste. Not a flicker of recognition as she waits for Trip’s reply. “Coffeemadefresh.” Not only is she chomping her gum, but she’s running her words together, making it nigh impossible to understand what the hell she’s saying. “Likeyerhar,” she nods at Trip who is nonplussed, to say the least. “Slomornfersure.” The woman, who’s name tag says Jennie, seems quite content to while away the time shooting the shit with no other customers in the joint. Her little café is definitely outclassed by the rest of the neighborhood, but nobody seems to have told Jennie that she might be out of her league. “Canigetya?” So they’ve come full circle, and Trip has made up her mind.
“Coffee, black. Plain bagel with cream cheese.” It is near noon, and neither of them have eaten breakfast. “Make that two.”
“Plaincoffee?” Jennie asks cheerfully, chomping away. “Yadonwantespresso?” She shifts her wad from one cheek to the other as she pours the coffee. She’s not trying to sell the higher-priced coffee, just marveling that there’s someone in this area who doesn’t want the fancy stuff. “Plainbagel? Plaincreamcheese?” Jennie stares at Trip for a minute, an anomaly in the times of flavored everything. Dropping her eyes, Jennie slathers two fat bagel halves generously with cream cheese. After they finish their transaction, she turns to Mowgli who is smiling widely. Jennie immediately spits the gum into the trash and smoothes her hair. “Can I help you, sir?” She favors Mowgli with a huge grin who smiles in return.
Trip shakes her head and makes her way to a table away from the front window, laden with her spoils. She sets her food down before sitting herself. She takes a sip of the coffee—passable. It’s not as strong as she likes nor as hot, but it will do. She bites into one of the bagel halves and frowns. It’s as soft as a piece of angel food cake, not chewy like a real bagel ought to be. She sighs before taking another bite. Once when she was around ten, her parents had taken her to New York City, the Mecca of the bagel, and she hasn’t recovered since. Eating New York bagels in her formative years has spoiled her for any other kind. If she wants dessert, she’ll have cake or pie, not a bagel. That’s why she doesn’t eat any kind of sweet bagel—only plain, and in a pinch, onion will do. She struggles her way through the bagel, eating only because she knows she has to eat something. Her dining pattern has been erratic since the first murder, and she’s dropped weight that she can ill-afford to lose. She also hasn’t been to the gym, and she can feel it. She needs to find time to take care of her body so it can take care of her. She vows to squeeze in at least an hour of exercise today.
“That girl is a trip.” Mowgli smiles as he folds his long frame into the tiny chair opposite Trip. “Pun intended. Can you believe she gave me this for free?” He gestures to his large frappe, two chocolate chip bagels with cream cheese, a ham and cheese sandwich on rye, a bag of sun chips, and a bottled water, all of which he sets on the table.
“Uh, stupid, she wants you,” Trip replies, finishing off her first bagel half. She grabs his bag of chips and opens it, helping herself to a handful. “You should be used to it by now.” Women fell all over themselves wanting to do for Mowgli. It’s not because he has a helpless demeanor because Lord knows at his size, helpless is hard to pull off, but there’s just something about Mowgli—and it’s not his tits.
“What if I were your boyfriend,” Mowgli protests. “She didn’t seem to care too much about that.”
“Survival of the fittest,” Trip shrugs, starting in on her other bagel. “Besides, we paid separately—not the mark of a couple. At least, I paid separately.” She scowled at Mowgli who assumes an innocent expression. After a beat, she adds, “Every woman for herself. If a woman can’t hold on to her man, then she deserves to lose him. I think that’s her mentality.”
“Would you do it?” Mowgli asks curiously. By an unspoken agreement, neither mentions the case. Though they have much to do, they are both burnt out and need a break. Besides, there’s not much they can do until Vandalia returns with the goods, so there’s no point in discussing it. “Would you steal another woman’s man?”
“Not a possession,” Trip says, finishing off her second bagel. She is still hungry so she dives back into the chips. Mowgli is watching her, so she elaborates. “I wouldn’t but only because no man, no person, is worth that kind of hassle. I don’t need someone else’s used goods.”
“I wouldn’t do it because I wouldn’t want someone to do it to me,” Mowgli replies, downing half a bagel in one bite. Even though he no longer plays sports, he sometimes eats like he’s still a jock. Fortunately for him, he has a high metabolism or his ass would be twice the size it is now. “I’ve been cheated on, and it wasn’t fun.” Trip knows of whom Mowgli speaks and recalls how devastated he was afterwards. She, herself, hasn’t ever cared about anyone that much to hurt like that.
“People cheat,” Trip says, shrugging her shoulders. “It’s a doctrine I learned early and it has yet to be disproved. All this monogamy shit—I think it’s propaganda.”
“I know monogamous couples,” Mowgli protests. He has finished both his bagels and half his sandwich, showing no signs of slowing down. “Three, in fact. And they’re gay men which merits them bonus points.”
“I’m not saying people can’t be monogamous,” Trip says impatiently. “I’m saying it’s not natural, especially now that we’re living so long. It’s easier for a society if people couple off, but it’s not natural. I’ve seen ample proof of that. I’ll be back.” She gets up and goes to the counter with intent to buy. She needs something more substantial than chips and bagels.
“Getya?” Jennie beams, chewing her gum again.
“Roast beef sandwich,” Trip says, digging money out of her wallet.
“Listen.” Jennie moves the gum so she can speak clearly, but lowers her voice. “Is that your boyfriend with you? Because if not, I think he’s real cute. Think I have a shot with him?” Her eyes are eager as she covertly looks at Mowgli who is looking out the window. “No disrespect or nothing.”
“He’s just a friend,” Trip says amicably, holding out money. “Want me to put in a good word for you? I think he thinks you’re cute, too.”
“Would you?” Jennie squeals, her gum nearly falling out of her mouth. She pushes Trip’s hand away. “The sandwich is on me. Here’s my number.” She scrawls something on a piece of paper, folds it, then hands it over to Trip. “Thanks! You’re a doll.” Jennie glances at Mowgli and sighs before she starts chewing her cud again.
“Got something for you, big boy,” Trip says slyly as she returns to the table, handing over the piece of paper. “I also got something for me.” She waves the sandwich, triumphant that she had finagled it out of the gullible Jennie.
“What did you talk about?” Mowgli asks, unfolding the piece of paper. He can’t hide the slight smirk at whatever’s written there.
“Just how cute she thinks you are,” Trip replies, unwrapping the sandwich before diving in. It’s damn good. “And how I think you think she’s cute, too, and that we’re just friends. You know, girl talk.”
“Trip, you wouldn’t know girl talk if it bit you on the ass.” Mowgli is both amused and exasperated. “You’re just making trouble. Leading the poor girl on like that.”
“You’re the one leading her on, batting your big browns like you do,” Trip retorts, chewing on her sandwich. “I’m just trying to get fed.” Mowgli just laughs and tucks the piece of paper in with his trash, careful not to let Jennie see what he’s doing. The two of them eat in compatible silence until Vandalia saunters into the place. She and Jennie size each other up in an instant, neither liking what she sees. Vandalia bypasses ordering anything and swishes over to Trip and Mowgli, Jennie staring daggers in Vandalia’s back.
“What’s up with Miss Thing?” Vandalia asks, pulling up a third chair. Jennie is still scowling at Vandalia who is pointedly ignoring the barista.
“She has a little crush on Mowgli,” Trip replies, smirking at her friend who sticks out his tongue in return.
“Don’t we all?” Vandalia sighs theatrically, rolling her eyes. She is clutching her bag a shade tighter than normal which both Trip and Mowgli takes as a good sign. “Ready to get out of here?” Of one mind, the three rise and leave, Mowgli waving a friendly goodbye to Jennie. She droops as they leave, sadly shoving three more pieces of gum in her mouth.