She Thinks She's Safe

Evening of Tuesday, March 15, 2005

He wore a ski mask. It seemed cheesy, almost cinematic to see someone like that. Even the gun in his hand had a staged, unnatural tension to it. Under the lights of the pharmacy, his coal black suit looked familiar to Stacey.

He approached her hastily, gun raised—it was a revolver, short barrel and small, like her ears. From his front pocket he retrieved a 3x5 photo and shoved it in her face. “Why?!” he demanded as he peered down on her from on high, eager to pass judgment.

Those eyes…! As Stacey racked her brain to pinpoint their owner, she surprised herself by how calmly she examined the photo of she and one of her love interests, Aaron, kissing in Grant Park. That was only a few days ago. Aaron had taken her to The Art Institute of Chicago.

“Because I love him,” she stuttered in near muted tones. As the words escaped her, the identity of the gunman started to surface. Was it Mike? He wouldn't kill me. “I love you, too,” she admitted.

Unconvinced, the gunman lowered the photo, stepped back, and aimed. His hands trembled.

Stacey’s face flushed with the severity of her situation. She grieved, however shortly, for the loss of Aaron. If he wasn’t dead already, he would be soon.

Ten Years Later on the Morning of Saturday, March 21, 2015

Three A.M. Becky Hartman froze. Her toes were six inches from the scratched brown door on the third floor of a boarding house in the Roxbury area of Boston. Her hand was raised to knock. Suddenly, inside, a staccato shout. Rex. The words were indistinct but angry. Then a gunshot. Silence. Becky stepped back, turned to run. An old floorboard creaked beneath her. Footsteps inside the apartment thundered toward the door. Becky ran. The door flew open.

Rex shouted, “Stop or I'll fucking drill you!”

Becky stopped but didn't turn around. Nausea rose in her stomach. Her body quivered.

“Come over here,” he ordered.

Becky turned to the sight of a gun raised at her head. She stopped seeing a romantic swashbuckler; Rex was just a thug now. “I didn't—”

“Here. Now!”

A fog captured Becky. The same fog that would always come over her moments before David, her father, would hit her. When in the fog, she did what she was told. She walked toward Rex.

When Becky was close enough, Rex lowered the gun and grabbed the back of her head. He pressed his lips roughly against hers. She felt nothing. Feeling pleased, Rex shoved her away. “There might be some shit on the news tonight. How much is two plus two?”

“Five,” Becky said dutifully.

“That's right. Nothing adds up. Whatever you hear, you don't know nothin' about what happened here tonight, got it?”

“I won't say anything.”

“Get back to your place. I got some house cleaning to do. I'll come by later, have some fun.”

Becky nodded and left quietly. She could feel the memory of David behind her, wrapped with the anxiety of a man deciding if he was going to beat her again before the night was done. She could feel Rex watching her, gun in hand as she walked to the stairs. It was a long walk through a filthy corridor, her skull anticipating the thump of a bullet. Would she feel it? She could sill feel her father beating her. No bullet could compare to that.

The tingling sensation on the back of her head fled once Becky had descended to the ground floor. She poured out of the boarding house, liquified with fear. By the time she reached the street she had decided she wasn't going back to her apartment. She would run.

An hour later, Becky found herself at the ticket counter of a Greyhound bus station. She proffered up every dime she had to the teller. “How far will that get me toward Chicago?”

“Cleveland,” replied the teller. “And you'll have $7.50 in change.”

“Book me. When's it leave?”

“Two hours.”

Becky slept on the fifteen-hour bus ride. She avoided eating, saving what little precious cash she had for whatever lay ahead. In Cleveland, she walked to an interstate on-ramp and stuck her thumb out. In less than an hour she had gotten picked up and was on her way.

“What's in Chicago?” asked the driver. He was a bit creepy but didn't seem like the type who would make a move on her.

“Born there,” she said.

“Yeah? No bags. I'm guessing you didn't plan this. What gives?”

“A whim.”

“A whim, huh? What's his name?”

Becky smiled bitterly. “Rex.”

“Going to see this… Rex?”

“Just the opposite.”

The driver looked confused, and then he got it. “Oh. Sorry. Bad seed?”

“He's a player, and I've had enough of his shit. Biggest scam of my life. I thought he was a narc but he started hitting the drugs pretty hard. Last night he...” Becky didn't know what had happened in Rex's apartment. The more she thought about it, the more diluted her brain became. She muscled together some words. “He hurt me.”

“I'm sorry. You're okay now. He can't hurt you here. Low-life nobody like that… You know what, forget we even talked about him. I don't wanna know him. Let's just remember him as the ambiguous asshole that he is.”

Ambiguous. Becky liked that.

“At least you have some good people in Chicago, right? Parents?” asked the driver.

“My dad's worse than Rex.”

Embarrassment hogged the conversation for the next three miles. The driver apologized. “I shouldn't have prodded. It's none of my business…”

“Why do people say that right before they go ahead and pry into other people's business anyway?”

“Sorry. It's just, I feel kinda bad now. My journey ends on the south side. I don't wanna leave you in a shitty neighborhood. Is there someplace I can drop you off? A friend's place?”

“No. It's all right. I'll cope.”

“Yeah. I'm guessing that's what you do.”

A chord buried deep within Becky's past was struck sharply by the driver's insight. “Fuck you.”

The driver drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, trying not to speak the cliché. Finally he said, “Pretty girl like you shouldn't talk like that.”

Becky Hartman laughed her first big laugh since the gunshot. “You're all right,” she said. “OK. My dad's a dick and my mom's an enabler, that's the lingo isn't it? Enabler. Home is not an option for me. I don't even know where they live anymore and I never, ever want to see my dad again. That'd be worse than running into the most intense shock scene in whatever horror movie you can think of.”

“Alien. Chestburster scene.”

“Yeah. That's about right. He rips me open.”

As they continued toward Chicago, the driver asked, “What's your plan?”

“I got a cousin, Larry. I'll call him.”

“With what? Unless you're hiding something in that pretty little blue dress of yours, there ain't any public phones in these parts. They've been torn out so many times the phone company stopped putting them in, and that was before cell phones took over.”

“I'll manage.”

“Look, on the next stop I'll lend you my cell. You call this Larry and tell him to pick you up ASAP.”

“I don't have his number.”

“You don't know his number? Damn. Digging yourself a grave over there.”

Becky shrugged. “Nothing I can't handle.”

They made stops for gas, rest rooms, and food; the driver ate and Becky watched. While seated at a diner table, the driver wondered, “You gonna order? You haven't eaten.”

“I'm out of money.”

“Should have figured. How long since you ate?”

“Day or so. Kinda been a blur.” She sighed and slid effortlessly into her pretty-girl people-user mode. “I hate to ask, but could you buy me something?”

The driver looked carefully at Becky. “Whatever shit you're in, I'm not gonna enable it, not beyond driving you all the way from Cleveland to Chicago free of charge.”

Becky withdrew her $7.50 from a small pocket in her dress. She flipped the money onto the table and said, “Order me whatever you can get with that. I'm starving.” Leaving the company of her driver, Becky went to the women's room, put her hands on a sink, leaned her head forward against the mirror and cried. She was so hungry and alone. She had Larry's email memorized and could email him from the driver's phone, but she wouldn't. She couldn't, not after what she had done to Larry the last time she had seen him. Things would have to get a lot more desperate before she would use that email address.

When Becky returned to the table, a huge burger awaited her and she bit into it avidly. The driver looked at her and said, “I'll be in the car. That cost $11.50, so I guess I'm four dollars into the world of enabling.”

Her mouth was too full of burger to talk or smile so she just looked up and shook her head enthusiastically.

The car door slammed and her ride from Cleveland drove off; not an enabler. Forty-eight sweaty, hungry, exhausting hours had passed since she had heard the gunshot inside Rex's apartment. It was 11:00 at night. She looked around, noting her surroundings within Halstead. Bad neighborhood was an understatement. She was heading for brighter lights when a disreputable figure sauntered cockily toward her, nothing to hide about his business.

“Hey girl, this is my turf.”

Should have emailed Larry. On second thought, she was tougher than Larry; Larry'd get the shit beat out of him. “My boyfriend's idea of a joke. He dumped me,” she pointed in the direction of the long-gone car.

“Dump you? Makes you trash, babe, and I'm the garbage man. I pick up the trash.” He took a couple of steps toward her, hand out to grab her arm. “I could make you into something nice.”

Becky could already see the dark path ahead of her if she were to let that pimp take hold of her life; she searched over her shoulder for an exit. To her fortune, they were standing near The Backstage Theatrum, an independent theater that often showcased the work of local artists and actors—at least, that's what a sign said. A play, Death by Woody Allen, was just letting out. The audience escaped into the world of cell phones as they poured past Becky and the pimp. “Ben!” shouted Becky, grabbing the arm of a young man and propelling herself along with him and his friend, “Ben, I thought that was you! How'd you like the play?”

The man regarded Becky defensively and started to pull away. “I'm not...”

She tightened her hold on his arm and whispered, “I know. That pimp back there was assaulting me and I was scared. Please, just talk to me like you know me for a minute.”

“Uh, all right,” conceded the man. “My girlfriend's the jealous type, though, so if you're trying to hit on me… Let's just keep this short. My car's across the street. The ruse ends there.” They crossed whatever street they were on and Ben, who was not Ben, opened the driver's side door of a compact sedan while Becky walked around to the passenger side.

“Can I please get a ride?” she asked plaintively to not-Ben.

The man was suddenly swarmed with recognition of his situation. “Okay, nice try, whore, but no. No whores. Tell your pimp to find a different mark for your maiden in distress fantasy.” Not-Ben slammed his door, locked the car, and pulled away.

The pimp was still across the street but he was playing the crowd looking for marks. Becky knew his attention would fall on her again. “I'm not a whore,” she said softly. Not yet. Becky then turned to find she was standing in front of a strip joint, the Triple SeXXX Club. Aside from the Backstage Theatrum which was closing for the night, it was the only other business open on a dark street of shuttered shops. Three old spotlights shown down on a line of posters of women as nude as the law allowed for public advertisement. The women had names like Glitter, Bambi, Passion, and Ruby. Glitter's poster had layers of red tape stretched across it as if it were a crime scene. Atop the tape the word “CANCELLED” was written several times. Next to the entrance of the club was a small want ad with only two words: “Now Hiring.” Becky took a deep breath and went inside. Desperate times…

The smell hit her first: Beer, sweat, and aftershave, in that order. A thumping base drowned her senses with techno-rap gibberish. Two near-naked women twirled around brass poles while a third pole remained unattended. A handful of drunk men sat on stools beside the stage. In the darkness beyond the stage lights were some tables, mostly empty.

“Here for work?” The question came from behind a bar on Becky's left.

Becky glanced back at the door that separated her from the pimp, glanced at the empty pole, thought about the canceled notification over Glitter's picture, and assumed the worst. Hunger rampaged within her. Defeated, she walked over to the bar. “Yeah,” she said, lifting her chin and pushing her chest out slightly.

“Name's Louie,” he greeted with a nod. “I run the bar and screen the new hires. I'll get to the point: The rush is about to start and we're short-handed. You wanna be our new cocktail waitress?”

Cocktail waitress was a relief; Becky didn't want to strip. “I'll take it.”

“Good,” said Louie. “That's B. Luck over there. He's the manager. Go sign his papers and get back here.”

Becky approached a wide-shouldered ape of a man across the club. “You B. Luck?” asked Becky. “What's the B for?”

“You had any good luck lately?” smirked B. Luck.

“No,” she confessed.

“Louie interview you?”

“Yeah,” she shrugged, if what had just transpired with Louie could be called an interview. “He said you had something for me to sign.”

B. Luck ducked out of the main hall and came back with a few papers and a pen. “Most of it's already filled out. Don't pay any attention to the flophouse address, it's standard here. All legal. Just write in your name and get to work. There's some costumes in the back you can change into.”

“Thanks,” Becky said while writing Rebecca Hartman at the top of the form. She took note of the flophouse address; she'd have to stay somewhere after her shift was done. “What's the pay? I'm starving. I need some—”

“Peanuts,” interjected B Luck.

“Yeah, peanuts are food. That'll work.”

“No. I mean you're getting paid peanuts, as in next to nothing. At this job, you earn your pay in tips. You're pretty enough. You'll do fine.”

As B. Luck walked away, Becky returned sullenly to Louie.

“Yeah, that's about how everyone looks after talking to B. Luck,” Louie comforted. “You need a call sign. How about 'Kitty Sweet'?”

“I'm anything but sweet,” refuted Becky. “And why Kitty?”

“You looked pretty stray when you came in, so I just figured… Besides, the name's not for you. The men here like pussy, so you're a cat now.”

“Great,” she sneered unenthusiastically.

“Let's get you changed. Follow me.”

Louie led her away from the stage and into a narrow corridor that had entrances to an office, some dressing rooms, and a few less respectable rooms typically reserved for special clients. Toward the end of the hall was a back exit, which Becky took note of in case she'd need it.

“What happened to Glitter?” Becky queried, thinking again to the posters outside the club.

“She, uh,” Louie delayed, trying to find the right tact. “She was killed. Her body was found in a gutter not far from here after her shift a few days ago. Blow to the head. Look, you shouldn't think about that too much. Sure, it's a bad neighborhood, but if you walk around in pairs and take a taxi every night, you'll be fine.” Heading into one of the dressing rooms, Louie gently touched the elbow of a stripper preparing for the club's next performance. “Bambi, this is Kitty. Will you find her an alcove and help her get into an outfit? She's gonna help out on the floor.”

Bambi glared at Becky.

“Play nice,” ordered Louie.

While she was changing, Becky considered how best to contact her cousin Larry. While leaving Boston, Becky had thought heavily about Larry and the guilt she carried when around him. She had lied about sleeping with Larry to an old boyfriend, Trent Swift, and Larry had unwittingly taken the fallout for her ruse—Trent cold-cocked Larry, breaking Larry's nose and severely straining their friendship in the process. Becky had wanted to force Trent to break up with her, despite the fact that there was absolutely no reason to run from him. In truth, she was afraid of the commitment she was getting herself into, afraid she'd be committing to a man the same way her mother had to her father, agreeing to a lifetime of pain and abuse.

Hours passed as Becky carried trays of alcohol to the men who filled the club's tables. Her ass became sore from the constant grabbing, but it got her tips so she chose to ignore it. In her free moments, Becky watched the girls on stage, studying their movements and becoming increasingly envious of the tips they got. She couldn't help but think about the empty pole and the dead stripper. Waiting for her next drink order, she asked Louie, “What's the real story behind Glitter?”

“See that guy over there? The one on the end. His name's Randall, the girls call him Randy, if you catch the meaning. Important guy. A CEO. Lot's of money. He's the star attraction for the girls. Pays a lot for private sessions in the back.”

“What's that got to do with Glitter?”

“He likes to keep one special girl all to himself. Glitter was that girl, and now she's dead. Not that I've got proof or anything, but if I were a cop, that'd be my primary suspect.”

“So he's dangerous, and the girls don't care?”

“They care, but they care more about money.”

“Who's that blond guy with him?”

“Speaking of cops, that's Peter Thorpe. Probably taking care of some questionable business. Not uncommon around here, and we don't mind it so long as the cops aren't hassling our girls, or sending health inspectors after us, or the fire marshal. We're not exactly up to code.” Louie loaded up Becky's tray. “I'd suggest steering clear of Randall. Besides, Bambi's got him in her sights and she doesn't take well to competition.”

Becky took her tray and resumed delivering. Curiosity caused her to pass by Randy's table.

“Thank you,” Becky overheard Thorpe saying as he accepted an unmarked envelope from Randall. It reeked of bribes. Becky felt immediate disgust, not for the cop but for the world in which they lived where even officers of the law could be paid off. There was no justice. “You don't know what this will mean for my daughter,” Thorpe added and then promptly left the bar.

Becky saw Randall taking notice of her. Their eyes connected momentarily. What Becky saw surprised her. Not Rex's eyes. Not David's eyes. Just a creep, and certainly not a killer; he had too much to lose. Louie was wrong about Randall. If that were true then who killed Glitter?