by Arthur Davis
“I know just the girl for you, Mr. Willard. Yes, she will be there at ten sharp. I guarantee it.” I always guaranteed it.
Gretchen Holmann was perfect for the old prick. His father and his father’s father spent their lives building up a textile business in the Carolinas that the younger Willard has managed almost single-handedly to dismantle in half a lifetime. I picked up the phone and left a message on Gretchen’s answering machine instructing her to call me back and to keep tomorrow night open. I never say more than that. You can never tell if an overzealous assistant district attorney is trolling for headlines.
Isabelle used to take care of Willard before she ran away with a guitarist. I don’t know why, but half my girls lose their virginity to their fathers or cousins, and the other half to undernourished, dust-sniffing musicians.
I’ve never figured out the attraction other than the possibility that musicians tend to treat their girlfriends as poorly as those women were mistreated by their fathers or first love. Maybe familiarity breeds consistency. Who the hell knows?
I manage a dozen girls and half could’ve easily satisfied the old pricks demands. Actually, Hamilton Willard is a nice enough guy. He likes the girls to play it like a stripper. At least that was how Isabelle described him. Supposedly, he has two daughters in college in California. He’s been married and divorced three times. He comes to New York City three or four times a year on buying trips. I usually charge him twice the customary rate for a blowjob. He doesn’t care. It’s all he really wants. It’s all the attention he needs or intimacy he can manage.
I’m having second thoughts about Gretchen. Maybe I was too quick to call her. I’m not certain I should be giving her another chance. When she calls back I’m going to tell that her that if she is late again for this or any future appointment she’s off my list for good.
And what if Gretchen is late tomorrow night? What am I going to do about it from a cold slab in the coroner’s office? The fucking redhead will wind up pocketing the whole fee anyhow.
I fire up another cigarette and force the smoke from three long drags into my tarnished lungs. It’s January 1971. A new federal law just banned cigarette advertising on TV. Good news is that there is no chance of dying from lung cancer in the next hour. I can smoke all I want for another, let’s see, forty-eight minutes. Forty-eight times sixty seconds is, oh shit, what the hell difference does it make?
Addicts shoot up in filthy Times Square alleyways while squad cars drift indifferently down town and tourists scurry about. The lights from the red and orange neon sign outside my third floor office on 49th Street and Broadway window pulse on and off, on and off as they have with depressing regularity for the last two years. It’s the overhead that kills you. In this business, that means legal and medical bills and the bribes to the local precinct captains. Then there are the new customers who run out without paying the girls, and new girl’s that shave their fees to me.
Tonight it ends, thankfully, once and for all, with the help of Lincoln Mercy.
The cigarette stinks. If it stinks out here, can you imagine what the insides of my forty-six year old lungs look like? Though from the outside they still have some magic left.
I was once living in a four-bedroom split-level with two kids, two dogs, a parrot, and one cheating husband in White Plains, New York. That was before I met Lincoln Mercy. Before I thought I had finally found true love. Before Linc and I were blessed with Candace.
“Yes. Who’s there?”
“I’m looking for PJ Knowles.”
I push the buzzer under my desk that releases the magnetic lock on my office door. The woman is wearing a light jacket over her navy blue cotton top and fashionable enough shoes. She’s about twenty-three. Her makeup is flawless. Her hair has been worked over very recently.
“Are you PJ Knowles?”
“What do you want?”
“A job. I need to work. Can I sit?”
“Over there,” I motion to one of the three wooden chairs in my office. There is sparseness about this space that comforts me.
She sits down and drops a small shopping bag from an exclusive midtown store and her purse at the foot of my desk. “It’s dark in here.”
Naturally, I think there is a recording device embedded in one of those bags. However, tonight those kinds of possibilities don’t seem as real or relevant.
I had been sitting here for God knows how long after the phones stopped ringing and making final arrangements for my girls and switched off the lights to leave and couldn’t bear to turn them on again. The dim quiet is restful. It has the power to make you forget, but not everything, like how you came to this point in your life. No one wants to look back that far.
“Eye infection. The light hurts my eyes.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, clearly uneasy, though even in the dark haze, quite pretty.
I didn’t even mind her Midwestern accent. There is always a demand for that kind of innocence. “What can I do for you?”
“Like I said, I need the work.”
She is nice enough but there is nothing special or exotic about her. But I am bored. And I need a diversion—a distraction to get me through the balance of my life.“How did you hear about me?”
“Do I have to tell you?”
“If you want me to believe you’re not an undercover cop, you do. Even then it doesn’t mean I’m going to help you.”
“Oh, please. I really do need the work, Ms. Knowles.”
“A lot of girls out there need work but they don’t show up on my doorstep without a referral. Bad business extending trust to strangers.”
She reminds me a little of Candace. More and more girls did recently. It was subtle movements or mannerisms—the way they held their head, crossed their legs, set their hands in their lap, or took one last look in my direction before they closed the door to my office and left.
“I run a legitimate escort service. There is nothing going on that isn’t totally on the up and up. I get jobs for my girls. My clients are businessmen; lawyers and people of influence and power who need someone to accompany them to dinner or to social affairs in the city. I get paid for the job. Then, and only then, do I give you your commission. Any tips or gratuities or extra compensation you get from my clients for how you conduct yourself on the date is your business.”
“How kind and courteous and friendly you are. How you laugh at their jokes, try to act interested in their conversation, and thoughtful when they tell you what they do and how no one really understands them.” I could see it in her face. She was trying as hard to read me, as I was she.
“Do you want to see how I look?”
“Not really, but I’m always concerned about bruises, scars, and tattoos. Tattoos make girls look cheap. I see track marks on your arms, even the faintest indication you use drugs, you’re out the door.”
“I think you should see for yourself.”
“Not necessary but sure, if you want.”
Most of the girls arrive here through a referral, so I have some sense of their credibility and pedigree. Tonight nothing is sacred, including my natural caution and good sense. Maybe it would be better if this girl were a cop. They’ve tried it before. That fiasco two years ago cost me over ten thousand in legal fees alone. This business grinds away at your soul, at your conscience, at your bank account, at whatever remains of your dignity.
“What’s your name and where are you from?”
“Carol. Carol Brenner. Hampton Crossing. Half hour west of Allenton?”
“How did you get my name?”
“A friend of mine used to dance at the Golden Banana outside Boston. She told me her sister worked for you a few years ago. I spoke to her yesterday. Catherine Mary Foster? I’m desperate for work, Ms. Knowles. Really. I just need some money to tide me over.”
“And being an escort in this city is your first choice?”
“What else can I do?”
“Go get a job.”
Go out there and make something of yourself. Set an example for other girls your age who come to New York looking to become a star, for the golden ring, for the white knight to sweep them off their feet. Get an education. Work your ass off without letting some guy wipe his all over your future. Just don’t do what my baby did.
“I can’t type.”
“There are still lots of jobs you can do. Newspapers are full of advertisements for clerical and administrative positions that require little or no experience. I’ve seen them. They’ll train you.”
“I need real money.”
“To support your drug habit or boyfriend?”
“It’s for my kid.”
“Let’s get it out now, Carol Brenner.” I said, knowing there was nothing she could do to save this child.
She had come to New York to get away from her family and to pursue a career in acting. A month after she arrived she found out she was pregnant. Her child was less than a year old. All of her savings had been used to bring him into the world. At the end of her tale, she got up, stepped out of her skirt, and removed her blouse.
Carol Brenner was not at all conscious of her body. There were no signs that she had been pregnant. She unhooked her bra and slipped out of her panties.
“That’s not necessary, Ms. Brenner,” I said, just in case this was being recorded.
She claimed to have danced for a while at a topless club in Pittsburgh after graduation until her parents got wind of it. Her mother was disappointed, her father furious. He hadn’t talked to her since. That may have been the only perk of being disowned. She dressed and quickly filled out the application.
“Do you have anything? I can start tomorrow?”
“I’ll check out the references you listed. Give me a week or so.”
Carol Brenner was disappointed. I was certain the she would find escort agencies that were more accommodating. With the exception of drugs and boyfriends, kids were generally rated the highest priority. And the love and compassion some of these girls displayed would put most traditional parents to shame.
I was relieved when she left. It was eight forty-three. The building was quiet. Even the street below, which usually teemed with holiday traffic, seemed eerily still.
Linc would have liked Carol Brenner. She had a clean body, no scars, or bruises. Her breasts were high and firm and her buttocks and legs were beautifully contoured. High school sports, I guessed. Carol Brenner would have no trouble getting men aroused. How she handled them after that was another matter. I just didn’t sense the maturity that can make the difference between a one night stand and repeat business.
You can’t really teach a girl how to be a good hooker. They had to be smart, but not too smart. They had to possess a certain degree of sexual confidence and a desire to control men. It also helped to develop the ability to separate your spiritual self from your physical.
Girls who put as much space as possible between their bodies and their souls lasted the longest. However, in the end, their spirit was consumed in the white-hot fires of guilt and memories of the humiliation they endured. By the time they quit the trade, they were the last people on earth who wanted to be associated with themselves.
Some were forthright with their boyfriends but, in the end, most men couldn’t deal with it.
Ten minutes left. Why hadn’t I called the police? Certainly, the police would have investigated. However, when they checked out Lincoln Mercy they would’ve have quickly become suspicious about my concern. How many cops were going to distrust another cop who retired with a chest full of citations and a bullet in his leg?
I should have called my attorney. That clever, scummy sucker might have figured a way out. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t called him. My will was recent. My affairs in order.
I could have hired a private detective but somehow there wasn’t any energy left after Candace’s death in October. My misery and desperation, the crush of guilt and anguish was just too much. Then, a surprising acceptance of what seemed the only reasonable outcome. I knew it was the answer I had been searching for. Linc was going to do it for me.
“It’s the only way out,” I said so many times in the last few days the words had lost all surprise. “It’s the only way out.”
I sat back and listened to the elevator at the end of the hall. If you focused, you could hear the antiquated doors crank open and close shut. This tired old building was one of the first in the city to be built with a cable elevator. There were ornate tinplate ceilings in the small lobby and frosted glass office doors still enclosed the warren of cramped offices within. Years ago, it was populated by fancy talent agencies and rich publishers. Now, with so many tenants wanting smaller space and short-term leases, it had the flavor of a cheap motel.
I could hear the elevator door open, pause, and then slam shut. It was exactly nine. How punctual of him. God almighty, couldn’t he break form just once? Then again, if he did, he wouldn’t be Lincoln Mercy, ex-marine, ex-Police SWAT captain, ex-husband, and ex-father. Ex-everything.
Of course, Gretchen Holmann would benefit too. She, Laura McBride, and Tracy O’Conner were going to stop by tomorrow with a report of their evening’s dalliances and find the office empty. A maze of yellow ribbon crisscrossing the outside of my front door, marking off my office as ‘Police Evidence.’
The newspapers would surely carry the lurid tale of the murder of the owner of an escort service. The attorneys of some of my more notable clients would be insisting on a meeting with the DA, just in case. There would be an investigation but I was positive Linc had thoroughly planned out his alibi. The sound of footsteps grew closer on the tiled hallway floor. I was almost home free.
I pushed the same button that gave Carol Brenner access to my world.
“PJ,” he said, and moved confidently into my dark space.
I had planned to say something sarcastic but there was no point. Anyway, I always thought Lincoln Mercy was the most damnably good-looking man I had ever seen and, even if we couldn’t remain as man and wife, it had been my unrealistic ambition that we should remain as lovers. The friction caused during the last few years of bringing up my beautiful young girl had completely underwritten the finality of our divorce. Now, with Candace dead only a few months, it was about to claim its second victim.
Magnetic at fifty-one with steel blue eyes, a hairline tinged with gray, and a rugged complexion, he looked as though he had spent the best part of his life mapping the Rockies. He looked as fit and trim as he had when we were together. Funny, how when you really love somebody, you forgive them no matter what they do. Too bad Lincoln Mercy did not love me as much as I loved him.
“Is the place bugged?”
“Nothing. No cops, no mics, no wires, no hidden cameras.”
“And, your gun?”
“Right where it always is.”
Candace was found dead from a drug overdose in Los Angeles. She was eighteen years old, and had just started working the streets. His darling daughter was dead, and in his mind, I was to blame. Someone had to be.
“So, you’re just going to let me shoot you?”
I stared at the vaguest reference of a dimple that every so often broke out on Lincoln Mercy’s left cheek. No matter when and how he smiled it never was more than a shallow depression, a seedling that never quite took root. “How long do you think I could run from you once you’ve made up your mind?”
“A week at best.”
“I was thinking two.”
This man had seen the worst of the worst. Stopped the worst of the worst. He had dealt with drug dealers, terrorists, kidnappers, bombers, and gang wars. The most foul and evil characters society could produce. Now he had to deal with the woman he felt responsible for his daughter’s—their daughter’s—death.
“This place still stinks.”
“A lot of things stink.”
“You could have stopped her.”
“You said that in your phone call. You told me over and over what we both know to be untrue. I couldn’t. You couldn’t. God probably couldn’t.
“You should have told me what she was doing.”
“She only confessed last month, and that was only a month after she started.” I said, knowing that Candy had developed a habit of twisting truths to her own needs. This girl, once my pride and joy, was angry, unmanageable, and bitter. All at eighteen.
Maybe Linc was right. Maybe there was something she missed or maybe it was what she did for a living that turned Candy’s heart to stone.
“Why didn’t you call me when you found out? I could have done something.”
“What do you mean, like?”
“Like what were you going to do?”
“Anyhow, I had a right to know.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I could have stopped her from going out to that shithole on the coast.”
“She went out to get a job. She didn’t go out to turn tricks.”
“Says me, her mother.”
“I could have brought her home.”
“You mean I should have called you so you could go out there and drag her back and keep her under lock and key with a gun at her head so she wouldn’t do what you find so completely disgusting you once beat a hooker half to death simply because she didn’t open her purse fast enough to show you her identification? You think I didn’t know about that? You nearly beat the girl to death.”
It happened on the last day of his first year as a cop. The night before some of his friends on the force threw him the traditional one-year anniversary party. He had gotten so stinking drunk he puked and pissed in his pants at the same time. He’d barely made it to roll call the next morning.
“I thought she had a gun in her bag,” he said and regretted the lie the second he heard it.
“You almost killed her because of what she did, and who she was disgusted you. You would have done worse to Candy. That’s why I didn’t tell you. And that’s why I asked, begged her to stop, and planned to go out to stay with her. She knew that. She told me that would be great. Her word, ‘great.’ I didn’t tell you because I didn’t fucking trust you.”
Lincoln Mercy couldn’t recall why he had ever left this woman. He also couldn’t recall what he had done this day or the day before or what he was wearing. He wanted to look down at his jacket, shirt, and pants but refused to let PJ get the better of him.
“Do you think that because she turned against me before she left for something that to this day I still don’t understand, that I was going to put her in harm’s way?”
“Telling me is the greater harm than letting her lead that kind of life?”
“You just don’t get it. She was running away from the both of us.”
“From you maybe, because of all this.”
“She was my daughter from the time she was five when we adopted her to the time she was eighteen years, two months, and three days old and walked out the door. She is my beautiful daughter in death as she was in life,” PJ cried, refusing to let the tears get the better of her, half-hoping that he would cut her off by pulling out his gun and firing it until the magazine was empty.
At least then her heartache and guilt at not having found out what had tormented her child and driven her from their home could be put to rest.
He reached for his gun at the sound of footsteps outside PJ’s door. “You said you told no one.”
Lincoln pulled his gun and backed to the wall opposite to PJ’s desk. There was a body standing behind the thick frosted glass door. He dropped to one knee.
“Are you mad?” she whispered.
“Why, so you can kill some innocent kid looking for a job?”
“This is my office you fucking idiot. Girls come and go all day. Or did you forget what I do for a living?”
“Ms. Knowles? Ms. Knowles, this is Carol Brenner. Carol Brenner?”
Linc put his finger across his mouth threatening PJ from responding.
“Ms. Knowles, I left my purse in your office. I don’t know if I overheard your answering machine a moment ago or you’re really in there but I really do need my bag. It’s got my keys and all my money. Please,” she said in a voice approaching hysteria, “I need you to give it to me.”
The doorknob on the front door of PJ Enterprises, Inc., turned slowly and the door swung open. When Carol Brenner saw the man kneeling in the corner with a gun pointed at her she panicked, turned, and tried to run, slamming the side of her face into the doorframe. She fell back before PJ could reach her.
“You old fool. You didn’t even lock the door behind you.”
He got to his feet, holstered his gun, and went over to the side of the girl. “Who is she?”
PJ propped her up against the door. “A girl trying to run away from her father’s anger and her mother’s indifference.”
The girl shook her head as though she were ducking from an assault and opened her eyes. “What happened?”
“You hit your head.” PJ helped her to her feet. “He wouldn’t hurt you. He thought you were following him.”
“Would you get my purse for me?”
“Sure. You stay right there and we’ll have you out of here in a second.”
PJ went over and picked her bag out from under her desk then turned to Linc. “I promised her you wouldn’t shoot her.”
“Give her the fucking purse and get her out of here.”
“You know, right now two weeks sounds a better deal to me than it did half an hour ago.”
“Two weeks of looking over your shoulder and around every corner?”
“You would be surprised at how long two weeks can last.”
As PJ turned, she was confronted with Carol Brenner not a yard away. This time the young woman looked different. She wasn’t frightened. She looked like she was coming to the defense of a long trusted ally. The red welt on her cheek and side of her face was already turning nasty.
“I just want to get a good look at the man who was going to shoot a woman he thought was following him.”
“It’s for you,” PJ said to Linc, and fell back exhausted against her desk.
“You were going to shoot me, weren’t you?”
This was not the way he had expected the evening to go. He had planned this for so long it seemed there wasn’t a time in his past when he wasn’t standing in this room and all twelve empty shell casings flung to all corners of the dingy room. Linc hated this office. He hated what PJ did for a living even if she was more saint than pimp. He hated everything about this business and had been driven quite mad when Candace had been caught up in its horror.
He hated having found out about his daughter from a connection in LA instead of PJ.
“Lady, you need to get out of here, right now.”
“Big man, aren’t you? How would you like me to pull a gun on you and fire away at that fucking smirk?”
“Last warning, sweetheart. I think you’d better leave.”
“What happened, some girl not give you a good enough blow job? She not have tits to your liking? She didn’t laugh loud enough at your stupid jokes? She didn’t tell you how handsome and brave and wonderful you were while you were taking a strap across her bare twelve-year-old buttocks? Does any of this ring a bell, you fucking pig?”
Carol Brenner stood toe-to-toe with Lincoln Mercy and spray him with the spittle of rage. Her fingers clenched into tightened bloodless knots at her side as her voice become strident and confrontational.
“You’re a coward. You’ve always been a coward and you will always be a coward. Men like you deserve the full measure of the hurt they sow. If I had a gun right now you’d be dead and I’d be free,” she said before turning to pick up her purse.
Lincoln drew his gun from under his arm, and cocked the hammer.
“Don’t do it,” PJ screamed.
In one quick movement, Lincoln flipped the gun around in his hand and presented her with the butt. “Here. Go ahead. You got such a burning to kill let’s see what you’ve got for guts.”
“Lincoln, stop it.”
“You’re an evil, cruel man,” Carol said moving to the door. “But you know who I feel worse for? I feel sorry for your child. Boy or girl, they’ve been fathered by a heartless, pernicious prick.” She closed the door quietly behind her and disappeared down the hall.
Dear God, PJ prayed, let this night be over. “You know, I never saw you as a coward, but it’s true.”
Lincoln sent the hammer back into the safety position. “I can’t forgive you for letting our daughter turn into a hooker.”
“Linc, Candy left us long before she walked out on us. Years after something turned bad in her heart and soul. Years after we got her to the best doctors. I feel terrible that she turned out like she did and that our daughter died, but she was no longer the girl we adopted. The essence of our pretty little child died a long time ago. I don’t know what caused it, neither did the doctors.”
Lincoln Mercy didn’t want to hear this.
“Even you have to admit that one day she was wonderful and sweet and good in her classes, and then she was a monster drinking and taking drugs and completely uncontrollable. I did—we did—what we could.”
“I could have done more.”
Understanding a father’s pain, exhausted, weary from failure and doubt, PJ wanted to comfort Lincoln for there shared loss. “What could you have done that would have made such a difference?”
He glanced around the sparse, cold space. It reminded him of cells he had passed through in his life chasing the corrupt and immoral.
“I could not have raped her on her thirteenth birthday.” Lincoln Mercy said, and cocked the hammer. “I could have not destroyed her life.”
And, in one fluid arc, Lincoln Mercy brought the muzzle of his pistol up to his chin, caught the violent grimace of PJ’s horror and rage, closed his eyes, and pulled back firmly on the trigger.
Carol Brenner stood frozen at the elevator; fearful for the woman she just left before the gunshot reverberated down the empty hallway, the terracotta floor, and tin ceiling bouncing it around like a pinball on drugs. She was afraid for her. The man with the gun reminded her of her stepfather. He had a look about him that cried ‘evil.’
She wanted to go back and warn P.J. Knowles, even if it meant she was putting herself in danger.
When the blast from the second gunshot exploded up and down the hall in an echo that split the instant, Carol Brenner knew it was already too late.
Running back to PJ’s office, she also knew there was no one left to save her.