“Which one of you is Lolli?” I ask, scanning the girls clustered under the light. It is three o’clock, and the girls are showing their wear-and-tear. I used to hate this time of night because you’re dead tired on your feet and still have another hour or so to go. Everything is snapping your last nerves, and if you’re on drugs, you’re aching for a hit. Plus, the johns who use the services this late at night are usually the real fucked-up, psycho-types. The kind who decide to off a whore just for kicks with nary a qualm about it. This is also the time the sad sacks manage to creep out of their hidey-holes, and sometimes, I hated them worse than the psychos. All that emotional pain rolling off their bodies. Pathetic.
“Who wants to know?” A hard-eyed redhead who was definitely not on the right side of twenty snaps her gum at me, her hip thrust out provocatively. I narrow my eyes and take a step towards her.
“Aw, Trip, chill. She’s just messing with you.” A girl with dyed black hair whom I knew slightly turns to the redhead and retorts, “Back off, Yo-Yo. You don’t know who you be messin’ with. That be Trip. Ever hear tell of her? Story goes she took a chainsaw to some yahoo from Florida who thought he be the man. Well, he be the eunuch after she was done with him!” The gathering burst into appreciative guffaws at the story, but the redhead isn’t amused.
“So? What she got to do with me? Why she gotta be asking about Lolli?” Yo-Yo thrusts her face into mine, baring her teeth.
“Back off, Duncan,” I hiss through my own teeth. I’m not amused by the story, either, and the girl telling it didn’t even get it right. “I got no beef with you, but I can sure find one in a hurry.” Even though I don’t move a muscle, something in my eyes must warn Yo-Yo that I’m not playing because she backs off.
“I’m Lolli,” a small voice says from behind the crowd. The girls move slightly to reveal a girl who is nothing more than a child. She is everything M.L. says she is and more. Her face is devoid of anything but the merest trace of makeup, and her ears are not pierced. She is wearing tiny, cut-off overalls that barely cover her butt cheeks over a white, long-sleeve t-shirt that cuts low and is cropped just below her flat chest. There is a mournful look in her eyes that zings straight through you. She is the picture of innocence except for the five-inch stilettos on her feet, white of course.
“Jesus Christ,” Mowgli mutters, looking sick.
“Lolli, I need to talk to you,” I say crisply. “I’ll pay you for your time, but let’s get you away from here, OK?”
“She don’t do girls,” Yo-Yo says pugnaciously, her jaw thrust out like her hip.
“What are you, her pimp?” I stare down Yo-Yo before turning towards Lolli. “You don’t have to talk to me, of course.” I take two hundred dollar bills out of my bag and hold them up to Lolli. She doesn’t move, but something in her eyes change. Suddenly, she looks older and even sadder.
“I’ll come with you,” she sighs. “It’s OK, Yo.” She pats her older friend on the hand before moving towards us. She slips her hand in Mowgli’s as we walk, a sway in her slim hips. He jerks away as if he’s been burned. Lolli’s thin shoulders sag, but she keeps walking. “Where are we going?”
“Teddy’s Diner,” I say firmly. “You need to eat.” Lolli looks up at me, and there’s a curious look in her eyes. I recognize it from my days in the life. She’s assessing the situation, wondering how to get the better of the deal. No way this girl is sixteen, and yet, in some ways, she’s ageless.
“What’s your real name?” Mowgli asks, his voice harsh. I look at him sharply, wondering what the hell is wrong with him.
“Lolli,” she says in her little-girl voice. “That’s my name, Mister. Honest.” She widens her eyes, staring frankly at him. Suddenly, she giggles. “Know why they call me Lolli? Because they like to make this Lolli pop!” She giggles again, but she’s the only one laughing. None of us says anything more until we reach the diner. The waitress looks askance at us but doesn’t say anything. She brings us menus and water as soon as we’re all settled. Mowgli is sitting on the outside of Lolli so she can’t escape.
“What would you like?” Mowgli asks her gruffly.
“Will you read this for me?” Lolli asks sweetly, holding the menu up to Mowgli. “I don’t read so good.” A flicker of something crosses Mowgli’s face as he grabs the menu from her. Even though he is sitting next to her, he is sitting as far away from her as possible. From the sudden movements he’s making, I deduce that Lolli is acting inappropriately. Or for a girl in her job, appropriately. “I’d like a hamburger of some sort. With fries!” She sounds so exactly like a little girl with her parents, it’s easy to forget that it’s three in the morning, that she’s a baby whore, and that Mowgli and I are the last people in the world fit for parenthood. Mowgli’s jaw is clenched as he takes the menu from Lolli and places it on the table in front of him.
“What can I get ya?” The waitress’s tone is one step above freezing as she waits for us to order.
“Three burgers with the works, three Diet Cokes and three orders of fries,” I say firmly, handing the menus to her. I glance at Mowgli, willing him to take control of the interrogation. He refuses to meet my eyes so I start. “Lolli, what do you know about a Mr. Peters?”
“Who?” Lolli asks sweetly, her hands folded in front of her on the table.
“How old are you?” Mowgli asks harshly, his voice steeped in disdain.
“How old do you want me to be?” Lolli asks, fluttering her eyelashes. I stare at her for a minute, deliberating.
“Lolli, cut the bullshit, OK? I don’t give a damn how old you are, but I need some information quick. Mr. Peters, owner of The Roman Empire. The stripper club down the street.” Too late, I think that I should have brought pictures with me.
“My going rate is two hundred dollars an hour,” Lolli says in her high, fluttery voice.
“I said cut the bullshit,” I say, slapping my palms down on the table. “Don’t try to con me, little girl. You will get a hundred an hour, and that’s contingent on me hearing something I like.”
“Daddy, tell her not to be so mean to me,” Lolli pouts, trailing her finger down Mowgli’s arm. “I’m just a little girl.”
“Mowgli, switch places with me.” I get up from my seat, and Mowgli gratefully trades. He sits in the booth opposite with an audible sigh, not as uncomfortable with a little distance between him and the pretty baby. I stare at Lolli who refuses to meet my eyes. I deliberately slap her across the cheeks, just to get her attention.
“You bitch!” Lolli screams, dropping the little-girl act for a second. Pure rage shines from her eyes before she covers it with manufactured sadness. “That hurt.” The tiny voice again with a tiny pushed-out lip to match.
“Del,” Mowgli says, his voice raw. I take one look at him and make my decision.
“Get out of here, Mowgli. Go see what you can get out of the other girls.” I don’t look at Mowgli as he slides out of the booth. Once he’s gone, I move my face closer to Lolli’s who is still not looking at me. I grab her by the chin and force her face towards mine. “Listen very closely, Miss Lolli. I don’t give a damn how old you are, and that little-girl act isn’t going to work on me. I need some information, and I need it fast. I’m not playing.” I slip my hand into my bag and press the gun against her side. “Talk.”
Lolli talks. I don’t even need to keep the gun on her once she loosens her lips. She tells me how Peters latched onto her the first time he saw her. She had her hair done in pigtails and was licking a lollipop. He about shot his wad just from laying eyes on her. He paid her a cool grand to have her for the whole night which was easily the most money this girl has seen in one night in her young life. How young? After chowing down her second burger, she confesses that she really is sixteen even if she looks younger. I still don’t believe her for a minute, but I let her slide. It’s not important to me because it’s clear that this girl belongs on the streets right now. Even if she were to be plucked from the streets by some zealous social worker, Lolli would be back the next night working her nonexistent ass off. In between fries, she describes Peters’ ritual. He picks her up around midnight, taking her to this apartment. One of the rooms is decorated as if it belonged to a twelve-year old girl. He makes her dress in whatever frilly frock he has laid out on the bed. He insists that her hair be in two ponytails and that her lipstick be pale pink.
Even though the frock is frilly, it is designed for anything but a little girl. It scoops down low over her breasts and is sheer on top with a short, frilly, white skirt. Under the dress, she wears white garters and thong panties. She always wears five-inch stilettos, but she has them in a variety of colors. White works the best whereas most guys frown when she’s wearing the red ones. Red is for vamps and vixens, not for innocent little girls. Once she is dressed to Peters’ satisfaction, she has to sit at the desk and do her homework while Peters watches her. Math homework. She has to struggle through columns of figures while Peters slowly masturbates. At this point, I interrupt her recitation which is delivered with too much glee to hurry her along. She fast-forwards through having to call Peters ‘Daddy’ as he carefully undresses her. She impishly adds details that I would rather not hear. How he’d have a picture of his daughter facing them as they had sex so he could stare at the picture while fucking Lolli. How he’d call her by his daughter’s name. How he’d cry when he ejaculated into Lolli. How he told her he could put her in his club one day when he was done with her.
“What about his business, Lolli? Did he ever talk about that?” I don’t show my impatience at Lolli’s grandstanding, but I need to talk to Mowgli. I’m getting sick of this little prima donna.
“He told me that some guys were putting the squeeze on him because of something that happened a few weeks ago,” Lolli says, shrugging her shoulders. “Can I have dessert?” I order two slices of chocolate cake and hand one over to her when they arrive. “I didn’t ask ‘coz Peters didn’t like nosy girls.” She eats a huge bite of her cake before adding, “He said something about foreign authorities?” Her voice curls up at the end as if she’s not sure of the term. “Had some troubles over some little girls. He likes them young. Like me.” She giggles again, her eyes glancing at me to see how I’m reacting. She reminds me of a precocious boy I knew in Iowa who always liked to get a rise out of people. I don’t give Lolli the satisfaction of a reaction, and she returns her attention to the cake.
“What else, Lolli?” I feel a headache coming on. This girl needs someone to swat her ass to keep her in line, and I’m sorely tempted to allow myself the satisfaction of being the one to deliver it.
“Um, somebody knew about it and was making him do something because of it. That’s all he said,” Lolli says, shrugging her shoulders again. She bursts into a flurry of giggles as she blurts out, “Daddy doesn’t like to waste much time talking.”
“OK, we’re done here.” I stand up, throw a wad of bills on the table and start walking towards the door. I know that if I stay too close to this girl, I’m going to let my temper get the best of me. Right now, I can’t afford to give in to my impulses, so I rein them in tight.
“What about my money?” Lolli cries, tottering after me. With her five-inch heels, she is nearly as tall as I am, but looks like a stork on stilts. “You owe me.” I keep walking back towards her corner, not wanting to talk. “I’ll tell Yo-Yo you made me do you and then you stiffed me. She’s got my back!” Lolli has dropped the innocent little-girl mask now that it’s just us girls, and suddenly it’s easy to believe that she’s over sixteen. She sounds just like every other two-bit whore I’ve ever known, including myself. I pull out two hundreds from my bag and silently hand them to her. That more than compensates her for her time. “I didn’t tell you about O’Reilly!” I stop and turn, grabbing her by the shoulders.
“Are you messing with me, little girl?” I give her the gimlet eye, my patience gone. “Cause if you are…” I give her a hard shake, causing her eyes to widen in slight panic. She knows better than to toy with a john and though I’m not a john, the same principle applies.
“No, I just didn’t think of it.” For the first time, a thread of fear worms its way into her voice. I relax my grip and wait to see what she has to say. “Um, O’Reilly is one of the guys putting the squeeze on Peters. He was with Peters when the trouble happened, but O’Reilly didn’t get caught. He’s always the careful one.” Her brow furrows. “He kept talking about a trip, though, and that confused me.”
“Why? If what happened involved foreign authorities,” I begin, but am stopped by the shaking of her head.
“No, that was different. O’Reilly kept talking about how Peters was supposed to take care of a trip but couldn’t do it, so the handyman had to do it. O’Reilly wouldn’t stop saying how this trip was a bad idea. I only did him a few times, understand, because he usually prefers Chinks, but I stood in when the slants weren’t available.” Lolli pauses expectantly, but I don’t react to her heavy-handed baiting, either. I’ve heard worst in my life, and it’s just a bore, anyway. “Last time I saw him, he said he was going to have to cancel the trip himself.”
“When was the last time you saw him, Lolli? Think carefully.” I had stopped walking to grab her, and now, I start walking again.
“Last night,” Lolli says immediately. “I don’t like him though he pays good enough. He’s mean.” Hm. A john who makes hookers uneasy is, indeed, a man not to be trifled with. I have no doubt that the trip he’s going to cancel is me, but how is he going to do it?
“Did he say how he was going to cancel the trip?” I ask carefully. I don’t think Lolli has put two and two together because logic isn’t her strong point. I’m not worry that she’ll figure it out, but it never hurts to be too careful.
“Said something about making the trip disappear.” Lolli frowns. “I don’t know what he means by that.” Now that she’s not playing little girl, her whole demeanor has changed subtly. It is clear that she is closer to womanhood than earlier supposed even if her body is more reminiscent of a girl’s body than a woman’s. She delicately nibbles on a fingernail as she thinks over the conundrum. Giving up, she shrugs yet again. I slip another hundred into her hand before marching back to the girls. There is Mowgli amongst them—a big hit. He’s chatting to a tiny Asian girl I’ve never seen before. Most likely, she’s O’Reilly’s favorite. She’s around twenty years old with that fresh-faced look that O’Reilly prefers. Of course, she’s rail-thin and has a demure demeanor. I wait until Mowgli is done talking to her before approaching.
“About damn time,” Yo-Yo snaps as she steps up to me. I glare at her, daring her to take the next step. Being street-savvy, she recognizes now is not the time to push it. It would be touching how she’s appointed herself Lolli’s protector if the girl was in the least deserving of such solicitude. Lolli hurries to Yo-Yo’s side, garnering herself some cooing and clucking from the older pro. Lolli snuggles in, darting a triumphant look my way. I pay her no mind now that I’ve gotten what I want from her. The other girls leave me alone as I wait for Mowgli, intent on making their nut for the night. It’s slow for a Friday night, most likely because of the bite to the air.
“Let’s roll,” Mowgli says, stuffing his hands into his pockets. The look on his face is forbidding as he passes the rest of the girls. He resolutely doesn’t look at Lolli as we pass her, but her tiny voice calls after him.
“Bye, Mister,” she yells, managing to sound alluring and helpless at the same time. The other girls laugh as Mowgli’s ears turn red though he pretends not to hear. I tuck my arm through his as we hurry towards my car.
“I need to get my car,” Mowgli mutters. “Let’s swing round to my apartment.”
“You think it’s safe?” I haven’t been back to my place since this whole rigmarole started, but I can imagine that the cops are crawling around it like flies on rice.
“I need my car,” Mowgli says simply. “The cops weren’t sniffing around my joint this morning when I went back. I’m not going in.” I say nothing as we drive to his place.
“You want to talk about it?” I finally ask as we near his apartment.
“No,” Mowgli says, slumping in his seat. After heaving a loud sigh, he amends, “It messes me up, you know? That little girl and what she has to do. It fucking sucks.”
“Save your tears for someone who needs them, Mowgli,” I say, wheeling the car to my left. “That girl knows what she’s doing—don’t let her innocent look fool you.”
“She’s just a little girl,” Mowgli says softly, his jaw stubborn. “She doesn’t belong on the street, no matter what you think.”
“She’s probably the same age I was when I started, possibly older,” I say, pulling up to his apartment with a screech. I don’t see any black and whites, so I kill the engine. “Look, Mowgli, you gotta trust me on this one. Lolli knows what she’s doing. Get your car and see you at the hotel.” Mowgli gets out of the car and slams the door. I can tell by the rigid set of his shoulder that he’s not happy with me. Just as he reaches his car, a sharp sound cracks the night, and Mowgli hits the ground fast. I grab my bag and paw through it, pulling out the gun. I slam bullets in it as fast as my fingers will let me, and when it’s loaded, I slip out of the car. Dropping into a crouch, I slither my way towards Mowgli who has crawled towards his car. He has his gun out and steady in his left hand. I am glad that I’m wearing black as it makes me less of a target. As I near Mowgli, I see a stream of blood pouring from his right shoulder.
“Come on,” I hiss at Mowgli, indicating that he should follow me. He struggles best he can as we crawl back to my car. I am looking all around us, but nothing is moving. I open the passenger’s side door and shove Mowgli into the car. I hurry around to the driver’s side and start the car. I hand my gun to Mowgli who puts the safety back on and shoves both guns into the glove compartment. I take off, the tires burning slightly as I careen wildly away from the curb.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Mowgli curses steadily, his face gray. “Motherfuckers followed us. The girls are in trouble.”
“The girls can take care of themselves,” I remind him, checking the rearview mirror as I drive. There is nobody following us, but this is too much like locking the barn door after the animals have escaped. “We have to get that looked at. St. Luke’s.” Mowgli nods. He has a friend there—Mowgli has friends everywhere—who will patch him up, no questions asked. More importantly, he wouldn’t feel honor-bound to report the gunshot wound like he’s supposed to. In my opinion, he’s one of Mowgli’s many admirers; anything that gets the job done.
“What the hell you been up to, Esteban?” Dr. Travis Richardson asks, a mock-scowl crossing his handsome face. He has spiky blond hair, emerald-green eyes, and a smile that would make the cherubs envious. A thin gold hoop pierces each ear. He looks tired as if he’s just put in a forty-hour day—which he probably has. “Getting yourself shot at,” the doctor grumbles to a wrapped-up Mowgli.
“It’s her fault, Trav,” Mowgli retorts pointing at Trip who is leaning against the wall, refusing the doctor’s invitation to sit down. “She leads me into temptation.”
“I bet she could deliver me from evil,” Travis smiles, shooting an admiring glance Trip’s way. Perhaps he’s not one of Mowgli’s admirers, but an actual friend. A straight man who is secure enough to be friends with a gay man? Not such a rare breed in San Francisco as in other areas of the country, but still not that common.
“I am evil,” Trip snarls, her back stiffening. She doesn’t have time to do the mating dance with this man, however charming he is. “Is he good to go, Doc?”
“I would advise he stay in the hospital overnight,” Travis begins, but stops when he notices the twin mulish looks on the faces opposite him. “Make sure he gets a lot of rest and takes the pain pills if he needs them,” Travis sighs. He knows full well that Esteban won’t do anything he doesn’t want to do, so Travis doesn’t push it. “It was nice meeting you even if under these circumstances,” Travis says, holding his hand out to Trip. “Perhaps I could call you sometime?”
“No,” Trip replies, keeping her hand to herself. “Let’s get out of here, Mowgli.” The doctor lets his hand fall to his side and hurries out of the room.
“Let’s roll.” Mowgli is more than ready to leave; he loathes hospitals with a passion. Unfortunately, they have to fill the scrip, but then they are out. Neither of them say much on their way out of the hospital, but both find themselves on the lookout for anything unusual. No one seems to be paying any attention to them, which doesn’t make either of them relax an iota. Both are packing their heat—which is strictly verboten in California, but chances are their would-be attacker doesn’t have a permit, either.
“Which motherfucker shot at us?” Trip asks as she drives. Mowgli is slumped against the seat, but his eyes are open.
“Does it matter? We have to nail them all,” Mowgli replies, his tone less buoyant than usual. “If we let any of them fuckers free, we’re dead.”
It seems simple when he phrases it like that. After assessing that Mowgli still possesses his sound mind if not body, Trip begins to divulge what she’s discovered—starting with the bounty from Blanche’s apartment. Mowgli is interested to hear Trip’s theory that she’s worth more to them alive than dead until they destroy all the evidence of whatever heinous dealings the mayor and his boys are involved in. He also agrees that they need to find out what bank Blanche used so they can get that safety deposit box. How they’re going to get it with Blanche dead is another question all together, but neither wants to give it to much thought at the moment. Mowgli gamely tries to participate in the conversation, but he is drifting in and out of consciousness. Though he would prefer not to take painkillers, Travis had talked him into taking one ‘just for tonight’. Trip finally gives up on talking to him and lets him sleep.
The rest of the way back to the hotel, Trip thinks hard. She already knows that she’ll be up the rest of the night reading the diary. From the little she already read, it doesn’t appear the diary will be helpful, but she can’t afford to overlook it. She wishes she could have gotten her hand on Blanche’s purse, but either the cops have it or the assholes do. Next, Trip thinks about what she learned from Lolli and the girls. There is a lot of gossip floating around this case, but what is clear is that some of the mayor’s boys if not the mayor himself, one of San Francisco’s finest, and the owner of a strip joint have a liking for really young meat. Their predilection makes Trip wonder if any of them are involved in kiddie porn; it’s a natural thought. However, because of the high visibility of many of these men, she rather doubts they would put themselves at risk that way. Then again, she wouldn’t have guessed they would frequent the streets of the Tenderloin, either, so what does she know? They’re probably men who get off on the danger and how ‘bad’ they are being.
“Let’s go.” Trip wakes Mowgli when they reach the hotel. She has been watching the entire way back to ensure that they haven’t been followed. Her guess is that the assholes waited somewhere near where the girls hung out and picked up the scent after Mowgli and Trip left. She doesn’t know whether she was the intended target or not, but it makes more sense than the thought of them shooting at Mowgli. She doesn’t think they were following her when she burgled Blanche’s apartment because the diary and key are still snug in Trip’s bag.
“Shit, I’m tired,” Mowgli mumbles as Trip helps him up to their room. She takes off his shoes for him and he tumbles into his bed. Trip intends to think about the case, but is out like a light as soon as her head hits the pillow.