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Robb White
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mygypsygirl.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees

My Gypsy Girl from Bluefield

 

Robb White

 

 

She was poor white-trash from Appalachia and that’s where the story should have begun and ended.  But it didn’t.

 

Her high school kicked her out for performing fellatio on a number of boys in a stall of the rest room.  What the letter to her house said—which, incidentally, was never read in its entirety by anybody at that address—was that she was expelled for reasons of “moral turpitude.”  The week after that, she walked out of Bluefield, West Virginia, and never looked back.  It turned out that her boyfriend, a senior to her sophomore, wanted to have sex before his seventeenth birthday. Although he was co-captain of the varsity football team, he was ashamed of his virginity and he thought a girl from the hollows would be easier to seduce than his current girlfriend, who was National Honor Society, vice president of the class, and an applicant to four Ivy League universities. 

         

He was right, of course.  Bobbie was smitten, to use an old-fashioned word.  She fell in love, but she’d never admit it afterward.  The two of them discovered sex together and for four weeks it was bliss.  She walked around feeling as if she could hear rushing water in her head every time he winked at her in the hallways.  His jock buddies teased him relentlessly but the truth was they envied the hell out of him.  She was sexually liberated, all shyness gone in the first few weeks of her love for him. 

         

He sent her a note first period and told her to be in the second stall; there would be an “Out of Order” sign in the janitor’s semiliterate scrawl on the door knob.  

         

She was there waiting for him when he walked in. He was barely inside the stall when she went down to her knees and unzipped him.  She took him in and gave him as noiseless a blow job as she could.  To her, it was an utterly selfless act of love, ever more proof that he owned her body and soul. She was pretty and genetically blessed, freakishly so, in the development of her young bosom and the pelvic swell of her hips.  When he exploded into her mouth, she swallowed the jissom easily and, gripping his throbbing meat still trying to peck at her, she smiled up at him. What happened next wasn’t what she feared might happen when she found his note in her locker:  some busybody hall monitor opening the door on them—or, worst case, old Mrs. Waddell, the senile math teacher finding them there because she could never remember this bathroom was for males.  It was four of his football teammates standing there with wide grins on their faces.

         

“I brought you a little present, Bobbie,” he said and walked out tightening his belt buckle.

         

The first one in was Nick DeRosa, the middle linebacker. He held her down by the shoulders and took himself out and shoved his rubbery meat against her lips until she opened.  His eyes were crazy.  His girth was wider than what she was used to and he thrust his hips so that she gagged several times, which made him so angry he raised his fist to her and told her if she didn’t suck it off he’d beat the shit out of her. 

 

He was followed by the team’s running back, center, and cornerback, the school’s only black male.  By the time he had finished with her, she was dizzy, scared out of her mind; she was covered with pasty gobs of semen that stuck to her sweater, hung from one ear lobe, and dribbled from her chin when she coughed up the sticky mess that stuck to the back of her throat.

         

Before she could get out of the stall, two more boys from the junior class, not athletes or friends of the four, burst in and held her by the arms.  They shoved her back inside the stall and forced her to sit on the toilet while they too demanded sex.

         

She lost count; one followed the other; she heard buckles, zippers, laughs, moans, threats, and commands but it all seemed to be part of a nightmare she was having and not reality.  She didn’t know when but a deeper male voice replaced the whispered commands roiling around in her head.  A woman jerked her to her feet and she felt her breasts squeezed in a vise-like grip that made her cry out.  It was the school’s religious fanatic, Mrs. Hochschartner, the Home Ec teacher; she thrust her face into Bobbie’s so hard and close that spittle joined the semen stains of her cheek:  “God didn’t give you these so you could become a filthy whore!”

         

The letter came a week later, but school was impossible.  The stares and snickers everywhere—she was so isolated at lunch that twenty seats were empty in all directions from wherever she sat.  Some of school’s toughest males approached her at her locker and demanded she meet them after school.  Her locker was filled with notes full of obscenities and curses shoved between the slats.  Every time she went to her locker there were dozens of stick-it notes slathered across the front of it in block-lettered abuse, a rotation of “Bitch,” “Whore,” “Slut,” and “Pig.”

         

Being the school tramp she saw as a consequence of the other.  But it was clear that her fantasy was a burning, foul-smelling rubble at her feet.  She berated herself for even thinking that her family, which had spawned nothing but lowlife troublemakers, welfare scum and criminals, could have been overlooked by the school’s most popular boy.  She wept at night in her bed and pulled her hair until she had a scabby line of red dots at her hairline and swollen cheeks from self-inflicted punches.

         

When she left, no one said goodbye.  Her mother was sleeping after her third-shift job at a taco plant in the next town.  Her father was a drunk and long gone from the family.  Her three older sisters were married in different counties and had babies and troubles of their own.  Her younger brother was in a juvenile-detention center for stabbing a boy and was destined for a big prison someday.  She stole ten dollars from her mother’s purse, tossed a few clean clothes and undergarments into a paper bag from the Sav-a-Lot and walked off the front porch.  

         

She ate at MacDonald’s in Beckley and made it as far as a truck stop in Charleston by nightfall.  It was colder in this part of the state and all she had was a flimsy wool sweater.  She ordered coffee in the café and thought about going back home.  She had never been more than fifteen miles from her house since she was born there.  The waitress, a hatchet-faced woman in rouge, kept giving her the fisheye every time she asked for a refill.  She was so desperate that, when a bandy-legged trucker walked in and sat down, she immediately went over to join him at his booth.  He was ancient, about forty-five years old, she guessed, and had a huge pot belly stretching out the fabric of his work shirt.  He gave off a male odor she had never smelled before; all the high-school boys she knew who shaved doused themselves with excessive cologne.

         

He bought her a Captain’s Feast seafood dinner and offered her a ride north to Ohio.  He was delivering a load of steel wire to Youngstown.  He turned out to be a kind man, who didn’t want sex from her and didn’t ask for anything except that she consider “turning to Jesus.”  She promised she would.  His cabin was overheated and the country tunes he favored on the radio were the kind she had heard all her life.  She fell into a long, deep sleep that was full of bizarre creatures, half-demon and half-mechanical, who chased her.  She awoke with her hands slapping at the air in front of her.  He was almost invisible except for the magma glow emanating from the luminous dials of his rig.

         

“Havin’ you a bad dream, hon?”

         

She gulped and swallowed several times and remembered where she was.  The empty landscape at one in the morning could have been in the Alaskan tundra for all she knew.

         

“I’m fine,” she said.

 

He nodded slowly and said, “Jesus is the answer, darlin’.  You-all remember that and you will be just fine.  Just fine,” he crooned.

         

He dropped her off at a gas station near the 680 loop.  She had no idea she was standing near one of the most traveled interstates in the United States with something like half the country’s population living within 500 miles. 

         

The Escalade that stopped for her at a quarter past two in the morning screeched its brakes so hard just past her outstretched thumb that it juddered into the shoulder and nearly slewed into a mileage sign.

         

He was black and he was grinning from ear to ear when he popped the door open for her.  She stood there looking at him a long time, uncertain.

         

“Well, c’mon, bitch, make up your mind,” he said and showed her his gold incisors in a beaming smile; he refused to let the dentist exchange them for the porcelain once he made his money.  They were his street “badges,” he called them. “Keepin’ it real,” he said.

         

Bobbie’s fate changed drastically from that day.  His name was Reggie Duval, or so he claimed, and he was a very big drug dealer in Cleveland.  He said he was coming back from visiting the Muhammad Ali Peace Center in Louisville—the champ being a boyhood hero of his—and, “You know,” he said, “one thing led to another, blasé-blasé,” which was Reggie’s riff for a drug deal wherever he happened to be at the time.  He pointed to a spot on the sidewalk of Cedar Avenue where a young thug named Donald King had kicked a much smaller man to death for failing to pay up when King’s number hit.  That was almost fifty years ago, he said to her, and she nodded her blonde head as if this was a package tour and he was the guide. He babbled some of King’s loony patriotic gibberish in a fair imitation acquired from television and showed her his gold-tipped smile. The sodium arc lights of downtown bathed the empty dawn streets in a hazy orange glow.

         

Reggie took her to a motel and started teaching her about sex.  Reggie read books on tantric sex and believed his masculine stamina was legendary.  When he went off to prison a year later, she had become his prize moneymaker.  She danced at his club and did lap dances in the back room that were sometimes sexual simulations and sometimes the real thing—if the client paid up. When middle-class whites from the suburbs started to show up at his club because of this tall, gorgeous blonde dancer with large breasts, the cops started to pay attention. When some of these white gentlemen were mugged on the way to their cars, the city took action and closed him down.  Reggie headed off to the prison in Massillon a week later following in Don King’s footsteps this way, too.

         

Bobbie became her own manager and went from the better class of club to the best in the city, where her tips and money were tripled.  She read fashion magazines and dressed well.  She hid her urban slang whenever she found herself in politer company at Playhouse Square or at dinner in the Blue Pointe Grill in the Warehouse District.  Once in a while she’d slip up, say, when a passing taxi spattered her outfit and she might blurt out a “jackass motherfucker,” showing the awkward merger of the two big strains in her life.  She was twenty-four years old, disease-free, and her answering machine carried a dozen calls daily from men who wanted to know her better.  She wrote Reggie one letter in a childish scrawl and refused to accept his collect calls from prison. 

         

This is the part where I come in.  I married her a month after I saw her dance.

         

It began at a bachelor’s party for a friend at the Crazy Horse Saloon and around midnight somebody said we were moving on to Ed’s, which is what my crowd called the Executive Den east of town.  It was safe from “the black element,” as my friend Rory said, who worked for Price Waterhouse downtown; he said that we could party hard, feel up the girls there—“maybe get our bones smoked in the parking lot.” A friend of his yapped about a beauty who resembled a young Christy Canyon.  

         

“Be careful,” Rory bellowed to the three of us squeezed into the back seat of his Lexus on the way.  “Some of those bitches are nothin’ but crack whores who let niggers cream into their pussies!” 

         

I was a little drunk when we walked in.  Bobbie’s set was the last one before midnight.  By the time she came on stage, I was half in the bag and more than a little tired from a long day.  I had seen enough of the dancers, and the music, all techno or eighties retro, was beginning to give me tinnitus; the girls were young and pretty enough but I was sated by whatever that amount of gynecological voyeurism is that males require in the limbic brain before they can say, “That’s fine, thanks. I’d like to go to sleep now.”

         

I just happened to turn around, somebody had given me another watered down Seven-and-Seven, and I caught sight of her up there.  I thought my heart would stop.  I had never seen such bone-aching loveliness in a woman.  She made you think in capital letters.  I was rooted to the floor as if somebody had driven railroad spikes through my shoes.  Every undulation of her magnificent body was a caress.  Just when you thought your eyes had feasted on her legs and butt to be satisfied, those gorgeous, symmetrically perfect breasts hove into view.

         

At work I was useless.  I ignored my voicemails and didn’t call anybody back who didn’t have the power to fire me.  This went on for three days before I got up the courage to go back to Ed’s alone.  I waited for her set like a young communicant waiting for the host at his First Communion.  She came on and it was magical—just like the first night.  About one-thirty, just as she was preparing to walk off, she looked over at me and gave me an appraising glance.  The men clapped and cheered and called her by her stage name:  “Dasana!”  “Dasana!” The back of her yellow thong rode high up her crease as she walked.  I remembered somebody’s comment about Marilyn Monroe in Niagara.  Bobbie could make an entrance walking away.      

         

That was the start of it—that one look.  The testosterone in the air was thick as fog.  I asked one of the serving girls to give Miss Dasana the note for me and watched her eyes roll up in her head until I showed her the fifty-dollar bill. 

         

Two days later she called me at the office.  You would think we had met at a dating service.  It was the easiest conversation I ever had with a woman I had never met in my life.  When I asked her how she acquired the stage name, she said she wanted “Dusty,” but one of the other girls dancing in a club on Prospect had already snapped it up. 

         

“I was carrying a bottle of water when I got hired,” she said.  “They thought ‘Bobbie’ was too hillbilly for me so the owner changed my name on the spot to the name on the label, sort of,” she laughed.  The exotic motif was added on by the bartender doing the intro for the girls.  He couldn’t pronounce “Herzegovina,” which was the first choice, so he and the owner proclaimed her to be a “Gypsy from Bosnia.”  They gave her a bright scarf to hold across her bosom.  It made no difference that she was awkward on the pole.  Her body was so eloquent that no one would even remember the scarf later.  

         

“It’s a pretty name,” I said stupidly, “very feminine, like you.”  I could see her serious, appraising glance forming again.  “Call me for dinner tomorrow night,” she said.

         

We dated for three weeks and at the end of the fourth week, I asked her to marry me.  We drove to Monroe, Michigan and found a Justice of the Peace. 

         

I was unprepared for my own response when she first suggested we steal millions from my company and abscond to Rio.  I said yes without hesitation.  She went back to reading her magazine.  All I remember about that conversation is what came afterward.  She took her right breast out of the cup of her negligee and held it out in front of her, examining it carefully.  She was as amoral about sex as a feral cat, which was how I thought of her and her tea-colored eyes.

         

When she brought the subject up the next morning while I was dressing for work, she asked me if I meant it.  I said yes, I did, as long as I didn’t have to hurt anyone.

         

I work for a hedge fund and do most of my trading in the forex markets where a tenth of a cent on the margin can mean millions.  It’s work for young men with rapid-fire brains for mental calculations under enormous stress and a degenerate gambler’s appetite for risk-taking; by the way, it helps to have a cast-iron stomach.  I was almost forty and I was burning out.  One of my fellow traders gave me a condescending pat on the back.  “You lasted longer than most,” he said.  My hands were shaking.

         

The trouble was, at my age, I should have had a comfortable nest egg from my past bonuses.  But I had a ferocious online gambling addiction that stripped me to the bone faster than I could make the money.  Unfortunately for me, predicting a change in the yuan in the Asian markets doesn’t have a thing to do with how the Browns will do that Sunday.  Losers don’t last at my level.  Bobbie came along at just the right time to push me over the edge before I was dumped on the firm’s garbage heap where I had seen other men and a couple alpha-women go.  I had made about sixty million for this group as a senior trader on the floor.  Now I wanted some of it back and I knew how to get it.

         

I told Bobbie how easy it would be to set up a dummy corporation with ghost assets and wire transfer money into a “deep pool” in the Caymans or a “blank check” in the British Virgins.  I was bragging to impress her but I was really telling her what was lying at the bottom of my mind like a tiny pearl being formed out of an irritating grain of sand.  She didn’t say anything more and we talked about boating in the Caribbean. 

         

My chance came two days later when I had a flash of my old brilliance.  I saw an arbitrage coming before the rest of the pack.  I cleaned up on dollars-euro and made a mint for the hedge fund.  My hands were still shaking from the adrenalin rush when I left at one o’clock to meet Bobbie downtown at Piero’s.

         

I told her what I was going to do and I asked her to come with me.

         

“Baby, I’ll be your gypsy girl in Rio,” she said with a smile.

         

If she had a single, tiny flaw in her lovely face it was in her lips.  For a woman with such bounty—from the luxurious sweep of her hair all the way down to her shapely feet—it was in the lack of fullness she had on display everywhere else.  I noticed a carmine smudge of lipstick on one of her incisors. 

         

“When?” she asked me, leaning forward.

         

A serving girl came by and dipped her tray of drizzled treats in front of us and asked us whether we wanted dessert.  Bobbie smiled at her and said, “No, thanks.  I’m having his cock in any hole he wants to put it.”

         

When I got back to my cubicle at four, my knees were weak.  Bobbie had devoured me and I felt as drunk as a Siberian pickle, although I had not drunk anything since lunch at the restaurant.  The firm’s manager spotted me and made a big deal of checking his watch.

         

“Long lunch, Guy,” he said.

         

“What do you want?” I snapped.  I didn’t like Frank.  He had ferret eyes and made a big point of professing his faith on public occasions.  There’s something nauseating about a man who thrived in the kill-or-be-killed environment of hedge-fund trading and thumped the bible.  It was his idea to fine any traders whose eleven-digit password was discovered taped to the undersides of their desks.  Since these passwords were changed quarterly, most guys risked the thousand-dollar fine imposed and did it anyway.

         

“Alicia Fox is taking over foreign exchange Monday,” Frank said.

         

“Who fucking says she’s taking over forex, Frank?”  

         

“Mister Kray wants to try her out.  It’s her special area of research,” Frank said. His little eyes glittered at me for my impertinence.  Sebastian Kray was the fund director, a mysterious man with a lot of rumors and black clouds hanging over him.  Word was he was blackballed in New York and had wound up in our backwater.

         

The blood thudding in my temples subsided; it was all clear now:  I’d have to make my move tomorrow by the end of the work day. Monday I’d lose my chair to Alicia and I wouldn’t have the clearance to do it.   It had to be done on a Friday before the Asian markets closed. 

         

By three in the morning, I had it all worked out.  I didn’t sleep. When I walked into the building on the Memorial Shoreway overlooking Lake Erie for what would surely be the most remarkable day in my life, I was twitching with nerves.  I kept Bobbie in my mind all day long to give me courage.  I followed the contours of that lush body like a desert saint fasting on the single idea of God’s awesome power. 

         

Alicia was right there at my cubicle, eager to begin the tutoring, scenting the warm blood of my demise.  The woman had claws.  She had once tried to seduce me.  Now she treated me as—well, what I was about to become—a junior trader. 

         

I was giddy with fear and at times I must have been incoherent because she scowled at me beneath her piercing blue eyes and said, “What’s the smirk all about, Guy?”

         

“Nothing, Alicia.  I didn’t get much sleep last night,” I said.

         

“Lay off the booze, Guy,” she said.  “You’re getting too old.”

         

Fortunately the woman had the habit of making calls on her cell or punching up files on her BlackBerry every fifteen minutes to follow me too closely.  By three o’clock I had put the pieces in motion; now I just had to ditch her to make the last part of the plan work, and I didn’t need her watching over my shoulder.  I fobbed her off with some excuse about “personal stuff” I needed to do. 

         

When I walked out of that building at five-forty, the hairs on the back of my neck were tingling.  I was five million dollars richer.  The security guard who eyeballed me was the last chance the Kray bloodhounds had of stopping me. When he grunted a surly good night, I knew I had done it.

         

Bobbie was waiting for me at my condo with a bottle of wine in one hand and the front of her bathrobe in the other.  She opened the robe and let me feast on her. 

         

As the plane banked over the dirty gray lake below before turning south, I looked over at Bobbie already asleep next to me, magically curling that long, feline body into the plush lining of her winter coat.

         

We stayed in a deluxe hotel that gave us a view of the world-famous statue of Cristo Redentor atop his mountain in Corcovado overlooking the beautiful aquamarine waters below.  Even the elevators played samba music.  Carnival was next week.  I was going to enjoy my new life as a rich, decadent hedonist—oh yes, very much. 

         

Bobbie pleaded jet lag and stayed behind to catch up on her sleep while I cruised Avenida Atlântica in an air-conditioned taxi—it was the onset of the Brazilian summer—and scoped out the exclusive Zona Norte for a place to dine.  I had an appointment at the bank at four o’clock. I had several ideas about investing the money, which I was calling “mine” whenever I thought about it.  I felt no guilt at my theft, only the slight discomfort of the sun’s excessive warmth.  By the end of November in Ohio, you’re already locked into winter and your blood has thickened.

         

I had overlooked so many things that didn’t add up for a hill girl descended from trailer-trash in West Virginia.

         

The semiliterate note said:  “Forgett looking for me Guy. I realy think you have other concerns on your mind now. Signed, B.” 

         

I’m not sure whether it was the “Signed” part or the chocolate mint she left me on my pillow that stuck more in my craw.  I made a desperate call to the bank and went through three vice presidents before I got to the president, whose English was flawless.  He confirmed it.  While I was soaking up rays and ogling glistening rumps, she was showing her cleavage at the bank with forged papers.  It was gone without a trace. Like Bobbie—vanished. 

         

I remembered how she had taken me to bed as soon as we were in our room. I wasn’t in the mood for love-making because I was exhausted from the strain and lack of sleep.  My eyeballs felt as if they’d been rolled on sandpaper before being put back in my head.  She wasn’t taking no for an answer; she rode me hard on the bed, calling herself vile names like “slut,” “bitch,” “pig,” and “whore”—names I never used on her because I was never angry with her.  Her tawny, gold-flecked eyes stared into mine.  I thought she was transformed by lust or greed in some strange way I couldn’t fathom.  She pounded and squeezed me with her muscles and wrung every drop from my sac.  It wasn’t the same woman I had gotten on the plane with.  When I realized she was the one who had proposed Rio, of all the places in the world, I should have been suspicious.  I’m Canadian so I don’t need a six-month wait to apply for a visa like any American.  Like Bobbie. 

         

She had it all set up, and I walked into her gaping twat like a lovesick schoolboy.  If I weren’t so wired, I’d have fallen asleep for days.  That’s probably what she intended, too:  fuck me into oblivion and then leave me there to wake up broke.

         

I had enough cash to last three more days in my very expensive hotel.  Then I was faced with sleeping on the beach or turning myself in to Interpol or the American consulate for voluntary extradition.  I could walk down to the beach and start swimming toward the horizon, but I’m a coward, and the thought of becoming shark food before I slipped into the black waters to drown was too frightening. 

         

I looked up the address of the American embassy and saw it was located in El Centro, the downtown area.

         

Three days . . .

         

I tried to make the most of them, all the freedom I would get for a very long time, but the sour taste in my mouth and the feeling in the pit of my stomach made that impossible.  I got drunk on the beach from the national cocktail, something called a caipirinha made from lime and a liquor distilled from sugarcane, and tried to chat with the girls but their soft, mushy-voweled Portuguese made that just as impossible.  I went back to the bank, but they said the same thing.  The senhora’s papers were in order. 

         

Some old man in front of the bank selling fried meat on skewers said to me as I passed in a daze:  “Só o que é bom faz o que é bom.”  I stared at him.  Then he said in English, “Only good things make good things.”

         

I have that written out in black letters on the wall of my cell.  I’ve done four years and with good time I’ll do four more.  All that I told you at the beginning of my story I learned from relentless correspondence and computer searches.  I bartered with a hacker in the next cell block for everything I know about trading on the margin for his computer know-how. 

         

Someday I’ll find Bobbie, the girl of my dreams.  The blonde, beautiful succubus of my nightmares from Bluefield, West Virginia.  I wake up every day in the Mansfield Correctional Institution forty miles south of Cleveland.  In the daytime I go to my job in the Tender Loving Dog Care program, and at night I lie in my bunk listening to men farting and groaning in their sleep.  Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me in the hours before sunrise and I’ll have a sharp, sudden hallucination that turns the reek of stale piss wafting down the cell block into a fragrance of cinnamon and musk like the smell of Bobbie’s skin after we made love.

         

What will I do when I find her?  Well, that’s another story now, isn’t it? 

 

 

 

“My Gypsy Girl from Bluefield” originally appeared in Hard Luck Stories in 2007.

 

           


dogofwar.jpg
Art by Bryan Cicalese © 2017

Backpage Baby

Robb White

 

          “This used to be the go-to place back in the day.”

          Jimmy Stoner looked at me as if I cared to reply to that. We were standing near Elaine’s on 2nd Avenue where I used to drink when I was a greenhorn junior trader like Stoner. He was on the rise. I was a senior forex trader on the down elevator. I used to see an arbitrage coming a mile away. Now it had to hit me in the face before I could spot it. I’d lost the firm a sizable amount on the margins with Deutschmarks. Our hedge fund manager had as much mercy for staff who couldn’t cut it as a racer snake for a newly hatched gecko. 

          I stood watching the traffic while the wind howled among the canyons of the Upper East Side skyscrapers. I used to love this town. My divorce was finalized on Thanksgiving. No great loss, but she got the apartment and the dog.

          When I turned around, Jimmy had finished his smoke and had gone back inside to celebrate with the others. When you’re part of the king’s retinue, it’s a good idea to stay close. In my case, it was irrelevant. Even if I was demoted back to junior trader, which was doubtful, I’d be wearing a sign around my neck that proclaimed LOSER.

          “What did you say?”

          “Nothing,” I said to the voice behind me. “Just talking to myself,” I replied.

          No passerby on a New York sidewalk in Manhattan or Hunt’s Point would ever ask a mumbling stranger on the street anything. I didn’t recognize her voice at first.

          Kori Andolsek. She was one of the few women on our floor and she was damned good. I know, I mentored her during her probationary period. She had a killer instinct to go with her degrees, one in math, and she advanced in record time.

          “Why aren’t you inside where it’s warm with all that hot air being blown around our head trader?”

          “You mean the ass-kissing?  I’m not feeling it now. Besides, Harper’s going on about his spoiled brats in some Connecticut prep school and Randolph is boring everyone, including our boss, with some artsy-fartsy gibberish about a Tang dynasty exhibition of Chinese tomb figurines at the Guggenheim.”

          “So, what are you doing out here in the cold with me? I see no plumes of vaping smoke around your head like a cotton halo, I hear no intense cell phone conversation with clients about rupees—”

          “Shut up, Dave. You used to be clever. No one thinks so now.”

          Kori could wield a scalpel as easily as a hedged grid on market volatility.

          “Tell me how you really feel about me.”

          “Dry wit isn’t your forte, either.”

          “Where’s your plus-one, the little blonde you brought to the Christmas party?”

          “Are you being stupid now? She was just a date I arranged.”

          “I never took you for a one-night-stand kind of girl.”

          “She was there to keep you boys from hitting on me. A single girl at a party where you guys get a couple dirty martinis in you, and it’s ‘Hey, gorgeous, wanna see my dick’?”

          “That’s us, all right. Depraved, sex-crazed maniacs, one and all. The toughest motherfuckers in our ivy-league finance classes.”

          “Speaking of finance, how bad was your margin call the other day? Everybody’s talking about it around the water cooler.

          “I burned the company for a couple hundred thou.”

          “You’re losing it, Dave. You’re supposed to take profits from a dead cat bounce, not give away the company’s money.”

          “Yeah, I fucked up.”

          I was shivering from the bitter wind and just about to make a farewell gesture when she stunned me to silence.

          “I want you to be quiet while I say something and then you can say something.”

          “Sounds mysterious, Kori.”

          “Does ‘be quiet’ register in your vocabulary?”

          I stretched out my arms to passing traffic. “Floor’s all yours, m’lady.”

          “I want you to come over to my place and have sex with me.”

          “What the—”

          “Shut up, I said! No talking yet . . . Here’s how I want it to happen . . .”

          Some kinky thing she’d picked up off the classifieds in Backpage.com for hookups between total strangers. Anonymous internet sex, the latest moral degeneration of her age group. One party goes to a person’s apartment at a designated time; the other party is waiting in a specific place. No talk, just sex. Stoner once started a wicked rumor around that same water cooler years ago; he said she got her career started thanks to a sugar daddy on Seeking Arrangement.  

          Kori had conditions; the main was silence, not easy when the rockets go off, but she was adamant about it. “I don’t want you to speak a single word, got it, from the moment you walk in, to the moment you stick it in me, and you will leave. No hanging around for pillow talk and that bullshit. I mean it: Get dressed and get out.” You won’t find subtlety next to Kori Andolsek’s name in the dictionary.

          I’m no prude but it struck me as too weird, even for Ms. Charm. 

          What the hell, I thought, I’m divorced, unattached, celibate as a monk in a nunnery. The better dating sites required a courtship period, the sleazy ones shouted STD’s, mental cases, con jobs, and trouble. Paid escorts and gentlemen’s clubs not being my thing, Kori’s out-of-the-blue offer sounded weird, like an Amish electric chair.

          “Am I speaking Tagalog, Dave?”

          “Agreed.”

          When I agreed to every condition, committed the directions to memory, she left me standing there without a word and returned inside. Cabs wove in and out of traffic, pedestrians played their usual dangerous game of skipping across the street like gazelles at a crocodile-infested crossing. Bits of windblown confetti from the Thanksgiving Macy’s parade decomposed in the gutter.

          I flagged down a cab. One of the nearby restaurants had rigged a loudspeaker to a pole playing schmaltzy Christmas music. Judy Garland told me to Have Myself a Very Merry Christmas. I’m sure I had a smile on my face.

* * *

          I dropped my clothes behind me in the semi-darkened bedroom. The white skin of a naked thigh glowed on the bed a few feet from me. In contrast to the rest of the condo I’d just passed through, this was a descent into the macabre, a discordant note. Black-and-white erotic photos of women entangled with men and other women lined the walls, a Mapplethorpe-esque exhibition of sexual frenzy, phalluses ejaculating onto women’s faces, buttocks, hair. Black satin sheets, black pillowcases. Kori, unmoving, lay stretched out, her wrists dangling from the bed posts where they were tied in black silk scarves. The Fifty Shades of Gray ambience, however, disappointed. I’d expected a more aggressive tableau from a woman like Kori, more sado, less maso.

          Twelve years of marital copulation isn’t the best preparation for kinky sex. Even so, I crawled toward her on the bed on my knees, member stiffening, and felt among the sheets for the contours of her body. My orders were simple. That’s exactly what I did. 

          After the orgasm, I lay down beside her, panting. Her hair had tumbled over her face during coitus, although she too observed her own rules about no talking. She hadn’t made a sound despite the bucking.

          “Kori, enough games,” I said. “Let’s be adults about this.”

          The same silence.

          “Kori, hey, Kori—”

          A pungent odor filled the room. I realized what it was immediately—her bowels had evacuated all over the bed sheets.

          Fuck this, I thought.

          I jumped off the bed and hit the light switch beside the doorway.

          It wasn’t Kori lying on the bed.

          The woman with the wig to match Kori’s hair was younger by many years. Her face was suffused with blood and the tip of her tongue protruded. I stepped closer to the body and brushed the hair from her face.

          My brain finally caught up. I knew her! Kori’s date from the office party, the little blonde. The girl was ten years younger, tattooed, dirty-blonde hair in one of those chi-chi, ragged-looking shorn cuts New York fashion was so enamored of. Jimmy had mocked her at the party as a cheap-looking club girl. Among our klatch of financial sharks, all speaking shoptalk, she seemed out of her element, but we dismissed her as easily as a real shark dismisses the remora fish cruising under its belly.   

          It got worse in the next ten seconds: I detected the thin steel wire looped around her neck so tight it embedded itself into the flesh and was tied off to a dowel obscured by a pillow. The word necrophilia leaped into my neocortex as if branded there with a white-hot iron. Then total panic.

          What the fuck . . . what the fuck . . .

           My prints, my semen—I had to get dressed, get out of there fast . . .

          I should have anticipated it, but a nightmare has only associational logic to offer. Two detectives were at the receptionist’s desk in the lobby. They’d been called, obviously, and were asking for me. Approaching, grim-faced, I overheard their commands to the concierge; they were not very polite about it.

* * *

          My lawyer assured me the jury would never go for a full murder count because there was no motive provided by the prosecution. Maybe he should have stayed in law school a bit longer because juries nowadays want forensics, not motives, and when they hear words like “the suspect’s DNA was found inside the victim,” they don’t much care about the why of it.

          My lawyer struggled with that: “You screwed her, she didn’t move, her bowels evacuated—yet you’re still doing the whango-tango with a corpse? Christ Almighty, Dave, you’re one prize perv.”

          “Kori told me to do it that way,” I said. “She insisted!”

          “And you always do what your domme says like a good little boy?”

          “It wasn’t like that, I told you.”

          “Jesus Christ, you’re a wonder, Dave.”

          “She said she’d grease her vag with a little extra-fine olive oil in case I needed a lubricant. She was concerned about my age. Her exact words were ‘You’ll be hanging on by your fingernails before you know it, cowboy.’”

          “My appetite for salads just left town for good.”

          “Fuck you, just get me out of this nightmare!”

          He tried, I’ll give him that. Three weeks of trial ended in twenty-five-to-life. Kori on the witness stand denied everything, the talk in the street, our secret “arrangement,” which she said “nauseated” her when she heard it from the detectives. She openly wept for her murdered “friend” on the bed and even added a lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans, a little something extra for the jury:  “She saved my life by being in the apartment instead of me.”

          I watched the jurors’ faces when she sniffled through her testimony. Some of them had their mouths so wide open they could have hit high C at the Met. The judge added three years concurrent for the “abuse of a corpse.” I can still see his mouth wrinkled in disgust when he tacked that on.

          “Be grateful it wasn’t LWOP, Dave,” my lawyer said as the bailiff put the cuffs on me from behind.

          Why did she do it? Why me?

          I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ll have decades more to ponder if I don’t find the correct answer. My lawyer said he’d file the appeal that afternoon and assured me I won’t do the full sentence. Easy for him to say, the prick. He was all about billable hours, not my freedom or a new trial.

          Kori beat out Jimmy Stoner for my position after the trial. The most my lawyer’s investigator could discover about the dead girl was that she was a runaway from Iowa, lived in several places in a couple boroughs, met Kori at a club in Soho. CCTV cameras showed the girl coming and going from Kori’s apartment. A girl with no history, no family, zilch.

          The prosecutor’s lame theory was that I broke into rape Kori, in some kind of frenzy of goatish lust, found the girl there instead and forced her into the bedroom, tied her up, and killed her with a ligature while engaging in deviant sex. The autopsy could not establish a time of death. No rigor, little blood pooling, just the telltale petechiae of the eyeballs from strangulation. 

          My attorney went at Kori hard on the stand, but she came across as sincere, vulnerable to “an older man’s manipulation from his position of power” at the company. Kori hinted strongly at my “pattern of unwanted advances” over his numerous objections, although no one at the firm supported her allegations. The jury gave a big yawn to the witnesses testifying about my character. Even Jimmy Stoner left a bad taste in their mouths with his nonchalant testimony about how often he’d seen me with Kori on the trading floor.

          “What physical positions were the defendant and Miss Andolsek in as you observed them?”

          “Objection, your honor. Irrelevant,” my lawyer chirped.

          “Overruled.”

          “Dave was usually leaning over Ms. Andolsek’s shoulder to point out something on the screen.”

          The prosecutor objected to any attempt to portray Kori as anything but a woman struggling against the male bastion of her workplace and then having her very home invaded, desecrated—here, a lip-curled glower in my direction at the table—that the judge’s sustaining them had a couple jurors openly grimacing. They all got the same message: any attack on a dead girl’s character or on my co-worker was going to backfire and fast.

          The fact that Kori was seen on security cameras leaving 15 minutes before I arrived never got in. The judge ruled in the prosecutor’s favor at the pretrial hearing.

          “She killed her just before I walked into her place,” I told my lawyer during deliberations. “That’s why the body was still warm. That’s your proof, damn it!”

          “No, Dave, it’s proof of nothing. No lividity. It’s in the autopsy that way. Did you think she evacuated her bowels out of some sexual turn-on?”

          “At first, I didn’t know what else to think.”

          He chuckled and then coughed to cover the stupid-sounding comment. Yet he was only echoing what the Post had been saying about “The Backpage Killer” all week.

          The whole invitation “excuse” was deemed so off the wall that, when I testified why I was at Kori’s apartment in the first place and about our conversation in the street, even my ex-wife refused to believe it. She got up and left the courtroom.

* * *

          Metropolitan Correctional Center is a rathole. I’ve done six weeks and am scheduled to be transferred upstate to Dannemora. It can’t come too soon. Every other guy in the chow line is a gang member. Every tenth inmate you pass here has a zipper for a neck scar from being shanked or shivved, whatever the right term is. It’s pandemonium from morning wake-up to lights out. I live with fear every day. I’ve fallen so far, so fast.

          “It could have been worse,” my lawyer said, a useless Job’s comforter if ever there was one. “MCC is a charm school compared to Riker’s.”

          I glared at him through the scarred plexiglass. “That makes me feel much better, you asshole. Scuttlebutt says they’ve already got the word on me up there. I’m the ‘Corpse Man’ and they tell me I’d better pay off the first time I’m asked or I’m going to take a suicide dive off the top tier.”

          “Just con talk, Dave,” the lawyer said. “That’s how they scare the new arrivals.”

          “It worked. I’m fucking scared to death.”

* * *

          Prep school, Dartmouth, and a corner desk at an elite Wall Street brokerage firm were not an adequate preparation for a maximum-security prison. My cellmate back in MCC was a normal street hood. My cellmate in Dannemora was a bona fide homicidal, paranoid schizophrenic. Every day was a new challenge to stay on his good side—if that’s the right word for a maniac. Cons who have beefs with their cellies settle differences in private inside their cells. Guards don’t interfere. 

          Every night at bed check, Michael would count every personal item in his space to make sure nothing was missing or had been replaced by something inferior by me while he was in the yard or in the shop. I sweated bullets until he was satisfied with the count. At night, I slept with the proverbial eye open. A filed-down toothbrush with a razor soldered into the plastic from a contraband Bic was considered de rigueur at Dannemora, essential accoutrement for all fashionista killers. 

          After my cell assignment, three burly cons slathered with helter-skelter tattoos paid me a visit. Clowns collided with spiderwebs and shamrocks on arms bunched with muscle. The two bigger ones stayed silent, allowing the smallest—a clean-shaven hillbilly with a pronounced brow ridge, to do the talking. He quietly informed me in his bollixed-up, inflated diction precisely how much I was to pay “henceforth” and how the deposits were to be made into the four accounts “so as not to incur undue curiosity among the penal staff.”

          Penal staff . . . Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

          I said nothing, they said nothing further, turned around and walked out, the bigger ones like two pulling guards shielding a running back. The whole shakedown occurred in less time than it took me to urinate in the morning. 

          I summoned my lawyer, relayed the shitkicker’s instructions, and told him if he said one word about not paying these scum off, I’d use every dollar left in my savings to have him “visited” by one of those muscle-heads’ friends on the outside. He thought I was kidding, then he nodded, sighed, and put the instructions of numbered accounts I had him write down inside his expensive Armani jacket in deconstructed weave.  My transition from shark to minnow was formally and totally complete.

          Three months in, I’d had enough. The whole mind-numbing routine of stupid male chatter, the ragged sleep because of my crazy cellmate, the starchy food, fluorescent lights everywhere, the clang of cell doors sliding into locks, the fart-smells wafting up and down tiers, the body odor of mentally deranged and unhygienic men was taking too big a toll. The boredom of prison is exacerbated only by abrupt moments of terror, punctuated by the shrieks and cries of the unlucky, vulnerable men singled out for “demonstrations” by one gang or another for rules infractions, real or suspected. It was like living inside a combat zone—only one planted inside a rotten jungle atmosphere. I wasn’t inclined to wait 15 years for a first parole hearing.

          I got word to the clean-shaven con who’d entered my cell that first week of my arrival.

          No pleasant greeting this time. He walked in and stared at me sitting on my bunk, shoeless feet dangling.

          He cut his eyes to my hands in case I had some foolish notion of leaping down and sticking him.

          “This visit ain’t free,” he said. “You know that.”

          Jailbird lingo for a ‘legal consultation.”

          “I understand,” I replied.

          “Have fifty in my commissary account by the week’s end. Two twenties and a ten. Don’t be stupid and put the whole amount in at one time.”

          “I understand.” You motherfucker . . .

          I told him what I wanted him—or wanted his outside associates to do for me—and we negotiated a price. The haggling over his fee took half as much time as my little speech. I agreed to his terms—specific amounts to be paid to addresses he’d provide me later. Like that first time, he turned around and walked out sans another spoken word.

          When my cellmate returned from shop, he demanded to know what I’d discussed with “the lifer” from another cell block. I gave him an abridged version, leaving out pertinent details and names by substituting a scenario I hoped his deranged, paranoid brain would find acceptable.

          I admit I was relieved when he grunted.

          “You know, man, that guy, he’s an enforcer for the Brand,” he told me after supper, briefly interrupting his count to glare at me.

          “I know.”

          “You just bought yourself a pig in a poke, fuckhead.”

          Subtle as a rain-wrapped tornado, as ever.

          “Maybe.”

          I hadn’t heard that colloquialism pig in a poke spoken in my entire life, but it rang inside my head with the authority of a papal bull from the Vatican balcony. I was down to the slimmest of hopes. I knew in my brain, heart, and guts, I could never last three more months in this place, let alone face the likelihood of parole denial my first time up, which was the norm. Doing the full life sentence—hell, that was something you’d ascribe to a glacier’s speed, not to an innocent man trapped in a steel cage.

          If this failed, they wouldn’t have to throw me headfirst off the tier. I’d do the dive myself.

* * *

          When I summoned him again two months later, he showed up just before bed check.

          “This ain’t a freebie, neither. Fifty in the account, same way.”

          “I understand. I’ve paid up. I want results. My lawyer is aware of our deal.”

          That wasn’t true. The cash payments were handled through an intermediary and a different private investigator. My lawyer told me he wouldn’t get involved in any blackmail. “It’s an ethics thing, Dave . . .I just can’t.”

          “Good for your pig-fucking lawyer.”

          “When do I get the results?”

          “You’ll know when I do. Why? You goin’ somewhere soon, Corpse Man? Got a Caribbean trip comin’ up?”

          “I’m tired of waiting for what I’ve paid a considerable fortune for.”

          His beetle-brow furrowed, making the bump of his ridge look more Neanderthal than ever. He turned around and walked out without speaking a word.

          My cellmate, of course, with his specialized antennae, already knew about the visit by the time he arranged his items for the nightly count.

          “They say men gossip more than women,” I said, risking his wrath.

          “You’re in a prison, shithead,” he replied; “what else is there to do but beat off, fight, play chess, cornhole trannies, lift weights, and send kites up and down the rows about punks who screw corpses.”

          Touché, you crazy prick—

          My imagined plummet from the top tier moved closer to the front of my mind each day from then on. Time didn’t drag, it slipped like tectonic plates colliding. I was aware of seconds passing, then hours passed while I barely functioned in my fugue state. The thought of suicide slithered like a banded viper and curled a forked tongue into the crevices between my thoughts. In no time, the thought of ending this hell became a siren song, beckoning me when I was at my lowest.

          The Neanderthal showed up in my cell one gray afternoon in spring after rec period.

          “I didn’t summon you,” I said. I glanced at him over my copy of The Wealth of Nations.

          He threw a fat manila envelope stuffed with papers at me and walked out—once again, cat-like, in silence.

          I scooped up the papers that had drifted to the floor and quickly perused what I’d paid a king’s ransom for. It was gold—everything I needed to end this nightmare.

          I paid the ten-dollar fee to get to a phone from one of the gang members on “phone duty.” I told my new lawyer what I had.

          “How’d you get that kind of information?”

          “Through people with better sources and more connections than your shitty investigator.”

          “I’ll be up there tomorrow.”

* * *

          The nightmare, however, wouldn’t end as soon as I wanted. The wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine, as Sun Tzu said. He’d have revised that statement if he’d ever gone through an American justice system, which grinds up the petitioner along with any semblance of justice. But on rare occasions, it does work.

          When my lawyer presented the evidence to a three-judge panel in the court of appeals, I was granted a new trial; my sentence was vacated—for the time being.  

          The explosive discovery revealed some new facts pertinent to my case. For one thing, Kori was born Korinne May Andolsek in Gobblers Crossing, Alabama in 1987. She was state-raised in Tallapoosa County because both of her parents had died in a trailer fire. Each parent, however, had a neat bullet hole in the skull in the temporal lobe region. Both were executed in their beds from a Ruger 10/22 deer rifle. The charred remains were found near the bed after the fire. Kori alone escaped. Or rather, the papers said, “was spared by the killer,” a man no one could identify from her vague description and the police composite. Being of tender age, however, she was spared a grilling by detectives who never did find the mystery man she claimed broke into her trailer apparently for the sole purpose of executing the two adults inside.

          Sound fishy?

          Kori proved to be a brilliant student, if a loner, an autodidact who taught herself algebra and calculus while her classmates were still drawing stick figures for the family refrigerators. A copy of her eighth-grade report card was notable for two reasons: the straight A’s and the teacher’s acerbic comments about the girl’s “antisocial, hostile, and downright belligerent behavior” in her classes.

          She attended the University of Alabama in what should have been her junior year of high school. Her SAT score missed perfection by two points. She took an advanced degree in math and computer technology from Brown on a full-ride scholarship.

          The motive came like a blinding flash of light in a darkened room—in this case, my brain, which could not fathom so elaborate a betrayal for no reason except that it must have been owing to some deviance in her personality, some hatred that laser-focused on me specifically and irrationally.

          It never once occurred to me her motive for destroying me could be personal.

          The bombshell evidence was this: six years ago, my firm interviewed a Robert Klagg for a position. He was 25, newly engaged, and had all the right credentials. As a senior trader, I sat on the interview committee with several partners and the head trader. Possessed of golden reference letters from both business and academe, Klagg was highly recruited. He was as good as hired—that is, until I noticed a familiar name in one of his glowing reference letters. Frankly, no one gives a goddamn what your grades were in college, it’s all about the degree. But that particular professor happened to be someone I had once consulted for a project concerning the development of application strategies with robots in the forex market. A robot studies peaks and suggests reversals or opportunities; in other words, it’s a marriage of necessity between intuition and IT nowadays.

          I asked him several questions about his relationship to that professor and received curt, dismissive answers. That irked my pride. He was the interviewee, not me. Right after the interview, I found that professor’s cell number in my office and called him. He had never heard of anyone named Robert Klagg. I informed the head trader, and I went as far as to suggest we call Klagg and tell him to clean up his résumé—a friendly warning, nothing more. I never gave that interview or Robert Klagg a second thought. I assumed some other firm had snapped him up.

          In fact, he was never hired by anyone. That became clear when I found a xerox of an obituary from a Charleston newspaper six weeks after his interview. It was perfunctory as obituaries go; none of the lavish praises heaped upon the dead. Klagg had died “after a short illness” and the clipping stated few personal details. That translated to death by suicide or by drug overdose. I surmised the former cause.

          My hunch was confirmed by a printout of the engagement between Robert Klagg of Charleston, SC and Korinne May Andolsek—dated a year prior to Kori’s hiring.

          Kori blamed me for her fiancé’s death.  The only person who could have blackened Klagg’s name in Manhattan was our head trader. His memberships in the most exclusive clubs in Manhattan and his contacts ensured every big name in finance would know of Klagg’s dishonesty. It was mere sport for him, a boy pulling the wings off a fly. I’m sure he never gave what he did to Klagg a second thought.

          Kori’s iron will put herself on a path of intensive study—just to get to me. And she got to me, all right. The girl on the bed was a sacrificial lamb to her vengeance, another step along the way. A nobody that no one would miss, another New York girl whose life was interrupted by death. I remember sorting the papers in my cell that afternoon and shivering despite the warmth. The coldness shocked me.

          I’m looking forward to the second trial. It looks promising but nothing is guaranteed. I’ll be the main witness, and I’d better be up to it. Kori is no slouch at acting for a jury.

          I haven’t seen her since the day she testified. Untouchable on the stand, a woman with a genius IQ who manipulated authorities, detectives, and caseworkers as an adolescent would have no fear of dissembling again. A New York jury of her peers would be another cakewalk, so I had better be prepared. I even wrote a personal letter to the Manhattan Southern District DA’s Office begging them to assign one of their best trial lawyers to the case. 

          That “research firm” I employed back in prison cost me most of my savings. Everything is different now. I’ve sold all my assets, my stocks and cashed out my money-market certificates.  

          I’m living in a bedsit near the Bowery, a far cry from my former plush digs on the East Side. I’m working at an all-night diner waiting tables and learning how to become a short-order cook. It’s a handy skill. I’ll need it because I’m almost flat broke, my last bond certificate went to pay for a down payment and a new suit for trial. Good lawyers cost money. I don’t want a pro bono attorney or a fresh graduate out of Cardozo from the public defender’s office going up against Kori.

          After the trial, I’m leaving to go out West for the Big Sky country. I’ll never touch a spreadsheet again. I plan to drop my cell service and go off the grid. Being falsely accused has changed me. Prison has changed me. But most of all, a brilliant, amoral woman with a block of ice for a heart has changed me for good. As they say, no one hates you like your friends.

THE END




Jedda Summons a Higher Power

 

Robb White

 

Before the virus, Miami-Dade’s Antonio Maceo High was featured on NBC as one of the most violent schools in the U.S., never mind just Florida. Every day before schools across the state were closed, her stomach burned with acid this would be the day one of her violent classmates would give her a beatdown.

This school was so bad that, before final bell every day, girls ducked into lavatories to smear their faces with Vaseline to prevent nail scratches from the fights they were about to get into. Being one of the Caucasian minority, a poor girl at that, she lived in constant fear that the verbal abuse the bullies dished out would be aggravated by something she did or said that day. Jedda knew a harmless look could do it and then she’d be the school’s next fight statistic.

Two years ago, a gang of boys lit another boy on fire because he reported they’d stolen his bike. A girl was kicked to death in front of the bus stop by a boy wearing steel-toed boots because she’d helped to break him up with her girlfriend and mocked him in a text. Last year, the only other white girl who dared to socialize with her was a 15-year-old who had been sex-trafficked and made a viral sensation on the web when she gave oral sex to a boy she liked and a couple dozen others who crammed into the stall waiting in line. She wound up jumping to her death from a water tower in Christmas, Florida after a Miami TV station picked up the story.

Jedda hated her name. Her actual name was Jedadiah Marya Sizemore. She lied and told people her parents were Star Wars’ freaks rather than that they’d given her a Hebrew boy’s name, meaning “beloved of God.” Former meth addicts and functional illiterates, they’d cleaned up their act long enough to saddle her with that goofy name before relapsing. By that time, they’d so screwed up their lives the family was forced to move from a seedy bungalow in Fort Lauderdale to their current rental dump full of cockroaches and ants. She was forced to transfer to “Massacre High” because of them.

The Seventh Day Adventist lifestyle was strict—and they, in turn, were harsh in the rules they imposed on her. All in all, it proved a crushing blow to any chance she had of a social life. You could write the things they allowed her to do after school inside the circumference of a shot glass with a fat crayon. They were constantly pressuring her to dress “godly,” read her bible, stop using those awful teenaged expressions, quit listening to that satanic music (Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers), and—most of all—to pray, pray, pray. She felt as if she’d stepped into a live audition for another Carrie sequel.

For a while, she tried. She wore print dresses from Goodwill, hideous potato sacks with gigantic flower heads on most. The humiliation at school was brutal. The tough girls who never bothered with her before took notice, and she endured worse than the usual round of curses. Once, her face was slapped so hard her glasses went flying into the blackboard; another girl bumrushed her in the cafeteria, knocking her paper sack with its bologna sandwich and carrot sticks to the floor, where the girl promptly ground her heel into it. At Maceo, that wasn’t enough to summon the security guard over.   

Bouts of binge-eating, followed by purges and anorectic starvation. She was frail, anemic, close to a breakdown. Now this: extortion. The three girls who slammed her into the stalls yesterday gave her an ultimatum: pay ten dollars every Monday after third-period English or “pay the price.” She didn’t want to ask what “the price” meant; she knew they could get away with it. Britney Mohler, Simone Shibley, and Shakina Mayweather formed the toughest clique in the toughest school in Miami-Dade.

Ten dollars might as well be ten thousand. Her parents scraped by on welfare and were required to put in a few hours at Goodwill Industries downtown. When she blurted out how difficult their demand was, Britney hit her so hard in the stomach she doubled to the floor and retched up the contents of her stomach.

The trio exited laughing, telling her how she could get the money, Britney miming fellatio with tongue poking into cheek on her way out the door. She lay there sobbing, curled in a fetal position. Students passed on both sides around her as if she were a rock in the middle of a stream. No one helped or asked what she was doing on the floor.

For the first time, she did what her parents had been begging her to do: she prayed to God to help her out of this horror show.

She moped in her room until her parents forced her out to eat dinner with them. Still holding her mother’s and father’s hands for the prayer meal, they accused her of being pregnant. The injustice of it was too much: she burst out laughing and then big tears rolled down her cheeks. It was insane, her life.

Friday night she couldn’t fall asleep until nearly dawn. Then she fell into a profound, black sleep and dreamed she stood inside a windowless white room, empty of everything, except for a kindly voice that spoke in a foreign tongue, saying words impossible to understand. She wanted to hear more of the melodic voice and its soothing verbal caress.

When she woke, she showered and entered the kitchen, but her parents were gone. A newspaper lay open on the table. She scanned an article about a farm foreclosure on Highway 62. A sheriff’s auction scheduled in a couple weeks. “All livestock and property to be sold.” It was a message to her from that lovely voice.

Jedda had ten dollars in babysitting money in the drawer of a side table, but she kept her real treasure—fifteen silver dollars, a gift from her deceased grandmother—inside a sock monkey hidden under her mattress. The coins were won in a drawing contest when her grandmother was a young girl. At the height of her parents tweaking, their crazed ransacking for anything to take or pawn left her terrified they’d kill her if she didn’t turn over the money. When her mother came into her bedroom demanding she turn over the money, she lied and said it was stolen from her locker at school. Her mother grabbed her by the hair and sent her flying into the wall.

Jedda dressed and headed to the library to use the computers. She googled the bus station stops and figured she could make it out there and back before her parents returned.

Sunday, all day, whenever she could get free form her parents, she devoted her time to planning; she marked each item on her list. She ate a dull supper and went to bed at once, falling into an anxious, fretful sleep and woke with her mother hollering at her to get up for school.

The principal came over the loudspeaker to inform the entire school this was the last week before school would be indefinitely dismissed owing to the Coronavirus. Just before third-period English, she saw Shanika kissing her boyfriend Demetrius Noble against the lockers. Jedda tried to hurry past when Shanika snaked out an arm like a mamba catching a rodent, stopping her in her tracks.

“Where the money at, bitch?”

Jedda pulled out the pair of crumpled $5 bills without protest.

Shanika pretended to smell the money in her fist. “You wiped your nasty, white-trash ass on these, didn’t you?”

Jedda flinched, expecting a blow. “N-no.”

Demetrius laughed. “I gotta go, babe,” he said.

She leaped into his arms, kissing him full on the lips, both using tongues. Jedda’s stomach churned, a reluctant witness, too afraid to flee.

“What you lookin’ at, skank? Get the fuck out of here before I slap the white off your ugly face.”

She sang out: “Ten, next week, you hear? That virus bool-shit don’t change nothin’—and don’t make me come to your house lookin’ for you.”

Jedda’s legs almost buckled before she passed the row of lockers.

Every day of her plan had to count now; another step accomplished. Despite her parents’ strict eyes on her, it would be hard, but it was life or death now. She knew the mystery voice in her dream was sent to save her—only if she could help herself.

Three of her silver dollars fetched a mere $25 at the pawn shop on the corner. The glittery eyes of the owner’s face told her he was cheating her badly, although she had no choice here, either. She patrolled yard sales every free hour looking for items on her list, her eyes zeroed on tools, the chintzy bric-à-brac. First, she found the heavy wire snips. On the day before Shanika Friday, tacked to the telephone pole in front of her house, was a scrawled notice of an estate sale where she used two more of her dwindling stock of dollars to buy a blue and gold China tea server emblazoned with roses. By that afternoon, she had everything. Now there was just one thing remaining to do. The trouble was, however, she was almost broke.

Close to tears, she wandered up and down the block in front of her shabby house in despair, praying for courage to bring her plan to completion.

She packed up her book bag and caught the eleven o’clock bus out to the sheriff’s auction on the highway. She was the only teenager there and the only female. She waited until the auctioneer announced the last sale of the day, the farm’s entire livestock. Her heart hammered in her chest. She heard a pair of bidders upping each other and then, finally, one ceased to call out.

As the crowd dispersed, she approached the man who won the livestock, a sunburned old-timer.

“Sir, what do you plan to do with them?”

“None of your business, young Miss,” he replied. “Why you askin’?”

She swallowed. “I was hoping I might could see them before you shipped them off.”

“You kin take you a peek right now,” he said, relaxing some of his sternness. “You best hurry, though. They’s penned up for now. I’ll be packing them off in a week.”

She thanked him in a whisper and walked away. That gave her the rest of the day to work on the fence. She had little time before the last bus back to town.

That night, she lay back exhausted in her bed. Her hands were bruised and throbbing with blood blisters and new callous. She had worked on that cyclone fence with the bolt cutters under a blazing sun constantly fretted by mosquitoes and deer flies trying their best to devour her alive or drain her blood. Tomorrow she’d write out her lines and practice in front of a mirror. Shanika and Britney, the toughest white girl in Maceo High, were veterans of vicious girl fights. They frightened her but neither scared her as much as the Shibley girl with her melodious Caribbean accent.

Rumors about Simone Shibley said she’d been involved in something awful back in Haiti, a knife fight that left a girl dead in a sewage ditch. Deep in her mocha eyes was something disturbing Jedda had detected not present in the other two girls despite their street-talk’s mindless chatter about “fucking people up.” Simone had a narcissistic disregard for her clique, a panther’s sensuous grace, when she walked. Jedda believed she was exactly what her psych book meant when it defined “the true sociopathic personality.” Britney, white trash from her own gang-riddled neighborhood, and Shanika were just a pair of remora fish drafting beneath the Great White shark belly.

Her mother called her for school. She woke with a gasp, somehow unsettled by a dreamless sleep. She had far less fear of catching the virus than facing her tormentors this close to her plan’s fruition. School or no school, she was their victim and there was nowhere to hide. She told herself she was ready—she could do it.

She went straight to the girls’ rest room after her second period and waited. She had seen Britney chatting with some boys earlier. Shanika’s tall profile stood out in the hallway. Simone was just coming down the stairs, unhurried as ever, but clearly more important than the other students who gave her a wide berth. One smitten, naïve social sciences teacher doted on Simone, stupidly mistaking her quiet disposition for gentleness. He believed her two steady companions were the bad influences. Not a surprise as Jedda was convinced all adults lived in a parallel universe.

“Give it up.”

She jumped. She turned around to see Shanika and Britney glowering at her, uneven bookends, one thickset, the other angular but both ready to slam her into the wall if she hesitated. Simone, as ever, stood in the back, comfortably watching.

“Here,” Jedda said. Her hands shook; she wasn’t acting. She slipped her backpack off and removed the tea service, protected in bubble wrap.

“What the fuck is this shit?” Shanika demanded.

“Let me see,” Simone said, her voice soft, lilting.

Shanika handed it to Simone, her calm eyes boring into her.

“L-look inside,” Jedda whispered.

Simone peeled away the wrapping, looked inside the kettle, and removed the sock monkey. The girls surrounding her heard the clinking noise.

“Better not be your piggybank, Sizemore,” Britney said. She cocked a fist that showed raw knuckles from her last fight.

Simone looked around first before taking a razor folded inside a cafeteria napkin tucked in her waistband. She split the monkey’s back without taking her eyes off Jedda. Five silver dollars spilled into the palm of her hand.

“They’re worth money,” Jedda said. “A lot of money. I can get dozens just like them, easy.”

“Where did you get this?” Britney asked. Jedda stared into her wide, pale face with the smeary blue eyes and tried not to think of a pig. She’d practiced this moment for hours until she knew the words backwards and forwards.

“I was at a sheriff’s auction last Saturday,” Jedda began, fear knocking in her throat.

Shanika inched closer, her face scrunched in disbelief.

Jedda plowed on. “Some farm was being foreclosed. I saw all this stuff auctioned off, but, like, almost nobody was there to bid. There was a whole bunch of rare China left behind.”

“I’ll China you—” Britney began but Simone held her off with a touch.

“Hold on, Brit,” she crooned.

 Simone’s eyes bored into her, assessing. Jedda hoped her tone was right and that she didn’t lay it on too thick. She saw what they saw in her—a shy, frightened girl in a drab haircut and a sack dress hoping to stave off a beating. Someone too afraid to lie to them.

“Stupid girl, we ain’t throwin’ no tea party,” Shanika chimed in.

Jedda feared a hard slap, or worse, a punch from the end of that long arm that would leave her bloodied on the floor.

Simone raised her voice a notch. “I said hold up.”

“I know where it is,” she pleaded to Simone. “A man there, he told me they’re hauling everything away soon. I walked around the place and found a hole in the fence.”

Jedda took in Britney and Shanika edging closer, a pair of Rottweilers on a short leash.

“Look, I can show you!”

Jedda held her breath, her eyes never leaving Simone’s face, which betrayed no expression one way or the other. Seconds ticked by like the drips from the water faucets.

Finally, Simone said, “Show us.”

“We’ll need a car,” Jedda said as they reached the door. “It’s out on Highway Sixty-Two . . .”

Shanika gave her that stinging slap to the head, after all. “Don’t worry about a car. You just be out front when they close this mother down.”

Demetrius agreed to drive them. Britney told her to “ride bitch” up front. Simone got in back and began texting. Britney put in ear buds and listened to her favorite country-western channel. Demetrius fondled Shanika’s breasts, brushing Jedda’s chest as he groped his girl. Shanika slapped Demetrius’ hand playfully and then mocked Jedda. She lifted her shirt to expose a full bosom, saying, “Check these out.”

“She’s flat as a board,” Demetrius said, laughing. Jedda’s face burned, she sank back against the seat, steeling herself mentally for what came next, oblivious to Shanika’s running patter that mocked Jedda’s mousy hair, her “God-loving” parents, her crappy house, her dress made from a tent. She kept silent, secretly pleased the bashing kept them distracted.

“There’s a padlocked gate there,” she said. “We’ll have to go around behind it.”

She told Demetrius not to take the road to the front of the property.

“There’s a gravel road. Right there, turn there, turn . . .”

Said with too much aggression. It brought Simone’s eyes away from her cell phone. Jedda caught her look in the rearview and felt her heart skip. She needed to take them away from the road to the fence. Her fingers unconsciously traced the calluses on her palms where she’d labored to cut through.

Demetrius growled, unhappy with the command. He swore as pebbles churned up under the chassis of his canary-yellow Challenger, his pride and joy, earned through more drug sales “than fuckin’ el Chapo Guzmán.” Before the virus, he was destined for a free ride to a major football power in the state coming off NCAA sanctioning, and it had given his family an untraceable “down payment” to ensure his commitment.

Jedda stretched her neck to see through the windshield. The Challenger drove past rows of wind-stunted trees, cattails, marsh grass, and steep culverts on both sides of the road.

After a hundred yards paralleling the fence, Jedda blurted: “Here! Stop!”

“Hey, what I fuckin’ say about giving me orders?”

“Easy, baby,” Shanika said. “We gonna be rich soon.”

Britney unplugged her buds and looked around. “Hell, there ain’t nothing around here but a barbed-wire fence and a lobo wolf.”

“No wolves in Florida, Brit,” Demetrius said, stopping the vehicle at an angle in front of the fence. “Aw, God, look at this dust.”

Simone had not said a word the whole time, yet Jedda felt her eyes boring through her neck.

Stepping out first, Jedda took the lead without permission, her brain reeled from the mind-numbing heat and the fear surging in her. Her line of sight in both directions didn’t show a break in the fence. The sudden thought someone might have repaired it was too awful to contemplate. It had to be this way or it wouldn’t work. Then, at last, she spotted it. She’d used nylon twist ties to hold the loose flap in place.

“Through here.”

The others watched, slapping at mosquitoes, while she pulled at the nylon.

Shanika pushed her aside. “Get out of the way, stupid.” A knife appeared in her hand and she slashed through the ties with quick strokes.

Jedda led them through sawgrass that whipped at their legs. She hoped the thought of silver dollars whetting their appetites would last despite the trudge through the green jungle. Simone replaced Britney as the one walking behind her. It occurred to Jedda with piercing clarity that this could end with her throat cut, left out here to rot, no matter what she did.

“You playin’ games, little girl. I smell your fear.” Simone’s words behind her felt like ice in her stomach.

“It’s just ahead,” Jedda replied in a hoarse voice, without turning around, unable to risk staring into Simone’s dark, knowing eyes.

Jedda led them down a grassy slope past a lone sabal palm to the edge of a dried-up lagoon. The air was thicker with insects and the rank smell of mud. A pair of whistling ducks pecking for mud daubers were startled by their arrival and took off with a flap of wings in a yellow-black blur over a stand of holly trees. Demetrius, startled, swore. She pointed to a man-made earthen mound with a shack built on the rounded peak.  

Reeds poked through the cracked and dried mud like the bottom of a dried reservoir. The small, unpainted shack looked like an old-time outhouse except that it had no door. A pair of wharf posts anchored a rope bridge made of braided sisal rope and planks for risers. It was tied off to a banyan tree just opposite the man-made island.  

“The main house,” Jedda said, pointing, “is just beyond that sandbar. We have to cross to the other side of that mound.”

“Whoa, I ain’t wading through muck, ya’ll.” Demetrius said.

“How do we get there?” Simone asked, nudging her back with a sharp knuckle.

“This is the only way to get to the main house,” Jedda said, forcing herself to look at Simone. “Over there, there’s a rope bridge.”

A film of perspiration glistened from their foreheads. Britney’s thick makeup was beginning to run and a moustache of sweat beads made her slender upper lip look pouty.

“You first,” Simone said to Jedda.

They followed her across the rope bridge, single file; the bridge was sturdier than it looked. Despite the number of bodies crossing at the same time, it barely swayed above the mud flats a few feet below.

When they gathered around Jedda on the island, Demetrius looked at his spattered high tops. “Look at this baby-shit all over my kicks.”

“Mine too,” Britney said. The tan skirting of mud covered her sequined sneakers.

Jedda walked past them up the mound and went into the shack. In seconds, she stepped out with two handfuls of silver dollars.

“Look!” she called.

She tossed them up in the air—big fat coins that rolled down to their feet. Britney and Shanika bumped heads diving for the same one. Simone calmly stooped down, ladylike, and plucked one from the soft-packed mud. Demetrius shielded his eyes from the burning sun, then chugged up the mound, blowing past her like the running back he was and sent her sprawling.

Jedda heard Shanika and Britney squealing, arguing over whose coin it was.

Seconds mattered now. Jedda picked herself up, while the girls hollered at one another and lunged for the coins. When all the coins were gathered, they raced each other up the mound to the shack where Demetrius had disappeared.

Jedda bolted for the rope bridge and flew across it, leaping over the planks, reaching the other side in seconds. She dived into the patch of liriope where she’d hidden the hacksaw last week. Using a banyan tree for cover, out of sight of the mound, she sawed furiously at the rope. Sweat poured into her eyes, she heard shouts, sounds of breaking coming from inside the shack and then silence, followed by loud cursing.

She had just sawed through the rope when she looked up to see Simone already halfway across, a shiny flat filleting knife held in one hand.

The bridge collapsed under Simone and she landed in the muddy slurry sinking to her knees.

Jedda saw the knife flip out of her hand and land in the mud. Realizing Simone could still pull herself with the fallen rope, Jedda flew down to the edge and grabbed up the strands of rope and the attached planking and began hauling it in like a sailor coiling a hawser. When she had enough of it scooped into her arms, she hurled the ropes as far as she could out of Simone’s reach where it landed a half-dozen feet from where Jedda stood watching from the bank.

Simone’s agility did her no good in the thick mud. Jedda watched, frozen, unable to move. The knife was gone, but Simone could kill her with her bare hands if she reached the bank—and Jedda knew, once that happened, she’d never beat her in a foot race.

Simone’s weight pushed the last remaining planks of the rope bridge into the silty mud no matter how she tried to avoid placing all her weight in the shifting muck trapping her legs. She stopped just short of the last plank that lay in a tangled heap of rope. Jedda wanted to run; her limbic brain screamed for her to flee.

She didn’t. This was the moment of truth. Simone’s face twisted in feral rage as she understood she wasn’t going to make that short distance. The mud gripped her in a slimy vise. Her deep-set eyes glittered with hatred for Jedda. Jedda saw Shanika emerge from the shack and a few feet behind her came Britney and then Demetrius, last to realize the treachery.

“Get back!” Simone screamed.

The combined weight of the girls sunk the planks faster into the watery mud, which now covered Simone’s thighs. She grunted with effort straining to free herself but sinking deeper, like being immobilized in wet cement. Shanika and Britney, closer to the shoreline, were able to tug themselves free and waddle backward to safety before they too were sucked into the liquid vortex.

Curses echoed at her from all. Unlike the everyday cussing in the hallways from foul-mouthed classmates, these were vile, bitter, serious. Britney and Shanika hurled gobs of mud at Jedda that barely made it halfway to her.

Jedda tossed the hacksaw into the mud where it sank with a plopping sound, its outline painted in the mud and then it disappeared leaving behind a few bubbles in the muck.

Shanika and Demetrius hugged each other for comfort at the waterline, neither fully understanding yet what was to come. Britney, a frenzied harpy a short distance away, still flung mud and spat curses at her. Jedda savored the scene, not wanting to linger a moment more than necessary.  

“Why are you doing this?”

Simone’s question was as calmly put to her as if they were standing by the lockers instead of in a mangrove swamp. Jedda, against her own will, admired the girl’s poise. Trapped up to her crotch, she could only move her hands, the fingers scooping out channels beside her spattered torso and face.

“I have something for you,” Jedda replied, ignoring the baying of the others on the mound.

Jedda spied a tall sumac nearby. She reached up and snapped off a branch and shucked the leaves. From under her clothing, she found the note she’d put there that morning. She speared it to the branch and , as close as she dared to get, extended it to Simone like a peace offering.

Simone stretched out a hand and plucked the paper free from the tip. With hands caked in beige mud, she unfolded it and read it. She looked up at Jedda without changing her expression.

The lack of any reaction sent a cold shiver up her spine. Jedda knew in that instant what would have happened to her as clearly as if it, too, had been written down on paper and handed to her.  

She didn’t waste anther second. Scurrying up the slope, she ran right to the fence, slipping easily through the sliced portion. She made it back to the front gate where the auction had taken place that Saturday. The padlocked gate was meant to stop cars, not pedestrians.

She followed the winding gravel road to the pavilion and the livestock exhibition pens exactly as she had after the auction when the kind older gentleman had allowed her to see the livestock he’d just purchased. He mentioned he was a wrangler in his youth, always loved these big animals and without intending to, he revealed to Jedda everything she needed to know to make her plan succeed. He told her what the feeding times were, what they preferred to eat, how they behaved, and everything he had learned as a boy about the massive creatures as a species.

Most importantly, he showed her the release latches confining them to their pens. When opened, he said, they’d go right to the man-made lagoon beyond the viewing areas where he said they liked to bask in the sun and mate among the lagoon’s wildlife.

Jedda reached for the first pen’s release handle, hesitating. She closed her eyes, hoping to hear her mystery voice, praying for strength. She pulled the first lever; it eased back with little resistance—and then she went down the line pulling each handle faster and faster until all the pens were opened.  

Nothing happened but that was all right, she knew. Time was on her side. The old wrangler had called them “big ‘ole lazy-ass critters.” He said that mound of packed earth where they sunned themselves was where the former owner’s farm hands went every day to toss the rotted packages of unsold meat purchased from the stores in town. Creatures of habit with acute senses of smell, they’d make for the mound in a frenzy once the scent of meat lifted on the air. When the mound was surrounded by water and became a moat in the rainy season, an airboat would bring them their daily food by cruising around the moat and tossing out the piles of dead chickens and spoiled meat.

Most of the bigger ones, he said, preferred to stick close to their pens, accustomed to dead poultry dumped into the waters. The bulls, however, roamed beyond the confines, establishing territories, and seeking out females. The owner drained the lagoon to make it easier to round them up for the sale. Hunting in the tall grass was too dangerous because they moved with deceptive speed on dry land, possessed armored tails that could break a leg with a single swipe.

“They can scale fences, too,” the grizzled old-timer said, “I seen ‘em do that plenty of times.”

“How big are the biggest ones?” Jedda had asked.

“Damn big,” he said, like a proud father.

He’d raised them from hatchlings to adult sizes, which meant anywhere from ten to thirteen feet and four hundred pounds to eight hundred. She remembered hearing the deep bellowing rising from the pens—remembered the thrashing of the water as they beat it with their massive olive-brown or black tails. She shivered recalling their cream-colored bellies encased in that dinosaur trapping.

 “Eat a damn horse whole,” The wrangler said. “It don’t matter none to them.”

* * *

The mental exhaustion was harder than the physical. Her feet had matching blisters to the ones on her palms. She rode back to town with a psalm-singing tent preacher who reeked of booze and invited her to his service that weekend. She walked the last three miles. The thought of being picked up by a psycho or rapist never daunted her, not then. Not after what she had accomplished. She felt light as air, protected by a higher power, like sleeping inside a fuzzy blanket during that awful time when her parents did meth.

The search turned into an Amber Alert because Britney, though built like a brick outhouse, was still seventeen. Three boys hunting muck rabbits with baseball bats came across a femur; it had flesh still clinging to it. A sheriff’s deputy asked where they found it.

“Over to that cyclone fencing,” one said.

“Show me,” the deputy replied.

Up close, the pungent odor of decomposition signaled what they all feared about the missing teens. It was later identified as Simone’s. The boys told the deputy they had no idea they were roaming around the property of an old alligator farm.

State wildlife agents went in with troopers and volunteers. Airboats batted the thick humid air in a grid search for miles around while helicopters chirred overhead like giant winged insects above them.

They recovered pieces of Demetrius, Shanika, and Britney. No intact bodies, however. They brought the pieces to a tent. They searched all around the lagoon and inside the remains of the shack. That had not proved a safe place to hide from the monsters.

The boys were accused of throwing the levers to release the gators. Reporters couldn’t state how the teens had become trapped on the mound on what they referred to as a manmade “mud island where the previous owner had built a skinning shack for alligator hide.” The meat was sold to specialty shops and certain restaurants around Calle Ocho in Miami.

What must it have been like, one sheriff’s deputy mused, to be stuck on that makeshift island at night, starving and insect-bitten, unable to cross the mud to safety and then seeing a horde of luminous red eyes, dozens of alligators coming to rip you to pieces like so much rotten chicken.

Even the shack proved worthless as a refuge once the gators mobbed it, smashing it to pieces with their tails. Whoever had climbed up to the top might have lasted longer than the others but—Lord, can you imagine what that must have been like?

Sweet Jesus, one said, it didn’t bear thinking about . . .

But the strangest item collected was a muddied slip of paper one of the searchers had found. It seemed incriminating but no one knew what it meant or whether it was just windblown debris, the kind gathered up randomly in a crime-scene search.

The state investigators kept it out of the papers for the families’ sake—Simone’s mother being the exception because she did not want to fly in from Port-au-Prince, even though the state’s emergency relief fund director said they’d pay for her flight. Nothing much, after all: just a biblical verse in block lettering:

From “Judges” 15:7:

Since you act like this, I will surely take revenge on you, but after that I will quit.




Robb White writes noir, crime, and hardboiled stories and novels featuring series character Thomas Haftmann. A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. He published Perfect Killer and Northtown Eclipse in 2018. “Inside Man” was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2019. His website is  https://tomhaftmann.wixsite.com/robbtwhite. 





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