*Due to strong language the book would be more suited to 18+*
Chris stepped back into the doorway, his foot crunching a shard of broken glass that sliced through the thin sole of his shoe. The man's breath, sour like stale cigarette smoke, puffed an icy cloud, polluting the aroma wafting in from the nearby chocolate factory. Tears burning but unshed, Chris smiled, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth as he bit his lip to keep from cursing out loud.
"Twenty bucks." The man nodded his head toward the alley. "Twenty bucks for a quick bump and grind." Broad shouldered and black, a scar marred his jaw and his hands were large and hard. "You can't beat that deal."
Sewer gas. Stetson cologne. The taste of tears, sweat and semen. Chocolate dark and bitter as blood. Night after night of standing on Clark Street, waiting, smiling, it all started to smell alike. But the growl of his stomach echoed louder than the screaming in his head. Chris held out his hand.
"Money's up front."
The moonlight painted the alley ebony and pewter as Chris lead the man to a corner hidden by a dumpster. The perv was on him before they even stopped, pushing him face first against a splintered door, groin grinding against the butt seam of Chris’s Levi’s, humping, humping like a dog in heat. Cheek against wood, obscenities and grunting in his ear, foul breath choking him, Chris gritted his teeth and waited.
Moon and Teach waited, too, waited until the rutting man started to shoot his wad, moaning and dead to the world, before they pulled him off Chris and beat him senseless. Teach dug deep for the guy's wallet, ripped the cash from it. He waved a fan of twenties and fifties and grinned, his broken front tooth a jagged gap in a crooked row.
"Give it up," Chris told Moon who got in one last kick. "We got the money, let's get back to Lakeview."
"Not yet," said Teach. This was his game, he made the rules. "We got time for one more sucker." He jerked his thumb toward LaSalle street. "Next block over."
"Jesus," Chris spit out. "Greedy bastard. You're not the one getting humped by these greasy old pervs. I need me some Captain Morgan to wash the stink out of my throat."
"What you bitching about, Cry? It's not like they're actually fucking you, for Christ's sake."
"Easy to say when all you got's to do is beat the bastard to a bloody pulp. How about taking a turn as the knothole and see how you like it?"
"But, Crybaby." Teach grinned and stepped close to stroke a finger across Chris's cheek. "Everybody knows you're the purty one." He rolled the "r" in an exaggerated purr. "What joker's gonna look twice at my ugly mug?"
Moon laughed and mumbled something about an orangutan's red ass. Teach punched him in the shoulder, but laughed along with the joke, the two of them moving toward the mouth of the alley. Moon looked back at Chris, his face as round and pockmarked as the dark side of the moon.
"You coming, ain't you?' he called. "One more and I'll let you take a poke at Jasmine later when I'm done with her. Deal?"
Chris wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. It seemed like he could taste the tobacco-scented saliva the mark had been spitting while he ejaculated obscenities into Chris's ear. I'll call, he'd promised Coleen centuries ago, breathing in the strawberry shampoo scent of her hair. Once I get a job and a place, you can come too. The muscles in his jaw clenched and unclenched as he walked off after the others.
God, he hated the smell of chocolate.
Everyone had a dark gaping hole somewhere in their life. Some managed to live with only a toe or two slipping into the depths for a while. Others dwelled there, buried deep, embraced by the darkness. Ever since adolescence, Jo felt like she'd been balancing on the lip of that black hole.
She stared at the unopened letter in her hand and felt the past trying to pull her into the darkness. Were they stupid or just sadistic? She'd changed her fricking phone number, hadn't talked to them in two years. Why couldn't they leave her alone?
The wall clock clicked off the seconds, so loud, too loud.
"I don't know why you didn't make an earlier reservation." Keisha sat on Jo's kitchen counter eating M&Ms straight from the bag. Gold hoops dangled against the flawless bronze skin of her neck when she shook her head. "It's a myth, woman, you know? That models don't eat. If I don't get me some grilled Portobello-- Hey!" She jumped to the floor and fished out the envelope Jo had just dropped in the trash.
"That's not junk mail, Jojo, it's-- Oh." She looked up from the postmark to study Jo's face. "It's from your family."
Jo grabbed the letter and crumpled it into a ball. Shoving it down the garbage disposal, she turned on the water and flipped the switch. The motor grated and groaned, kicking back a smell like sour milk. Lemons, she needed lemons to grind through the blades to sweeten the slimy pipes.
And tequila. Lots and lots of tequila.
"Don't look at me that way." Jo faced the wall, Keisha behind her, but she knew that look. Poor girl. Poor fucked up girl. Her father raped a little boy--killed him maybe--and never went to jail. Poor fucked up Jo.
"I can look any way I want. . . "
Jo turned in time to see the down-dip of Keisha's shrug.
"…but I'm saying nothing. We been there and said that before. You'll see. Someday you'll see I'm right. And I'm praying it ain't too late when you do."
Keisha had been Jo's one constant through three jobs, four men and a divorce. The only one who knew what she was running from. Sometimes Jo regretted the moment when Cuervo Gold and lack of sleep let some of her garbage flow through the dam she'd locked up tight. It wouldn't happen again; the waters flowed free and clear now. There was no before, only an after. She would see to that, God damn it, if she had to shred every scrap of paper between here and Davenport.
"Another time," she said, meaning never. "This is a celebration, remember? New job for me and a new layout gig for you. We are on top of the world and deserve a taste of the finest cuisine Italiano this city has to offer."
Jo grabbed her purse off the counter, ignoring Keisha's friendly jibe about mixing French nouns with Italian adjectives. On top of the world. Yeah, right. Except some days the world resembled a deep pile of shit, so where did that leave them?
She shook her head and pulled on her coat. They were going to be late. A quick check: car keys, wallet, pepper spray. "Let's go." She lead the way out and locked her apartment behind them. For a moment, she rested her palm on the thick wood of the door panel. Double bolted, secure, a place to call home in a neighborhood she loved. But. . . .damn. Damn. Why didn't they leave her alone? Did she have to freaking move before they'd get the message?
She let Keisha do most of the talking as Jo drove. The night view going north along Lake Shore Drive always drew her eye. The dark distance across the water to her right, the city lights like stars on a geometric horizon ahead. Energizing. Intriguing. Inviting.
Finding a parking space vented the rest of Jo's anger. She could even grin as she gave a driver the finger for nosing out too far in the walkway they had to cross. He responded with a bored flip of his own.
Then she noticed Keisha had stopped. She was staring at something across Broadway.
Street lights washed out the blink of green neon from the Hotel Chateau. Most of the windows had drapes drawn closed; half of them hung crooked on their rods. Near the entrance stood a young woman, hands in the pockets of a short jacket with the collar turned up. When the girl noticed them, she hurried around the corner.
"Lexie," Keisha called and headed after her. Jo followed. "Alexis, I know it's you. Quit trying to get away." To Jo, she added, "She's just a kid."
When the girl turned and waited with a sullen expression, Jo saw what Keisha meant. Despite the reek of perfume, thick layers of eye shadow, and mascara that turned her lashes into tarantula legs, she could not have been older than fifteen.
They stood by a playground of brightly painted equipment. Swing sets, slides and climbing bars strong and sturdy and still unrusted. By contrast, through a window of the pockmarked hotel behind the park, faded wallpaper hung in strips.
"I didn't do nothing," the girl said.
"Look at you." Keisha waved to emphasize her point. Under Lexie's jacket, a black tube top clung to her breasts. The leather mini-skirt wrapped around her hips looked so tight Jo thought it must hurt.
"What?" Lexie said, avoiding eye contact. "I'm not doing nothing wrong," she said again.
"I don't like seeing you here, Lexie," Keisha said quietly. "I wish you had somewhere to stay."
"Yeah, well--" Lexie looked down. "--I don't."
Now Jo understood. Despite Keisha's often hectic schedule, she found time to volunteer at the Night Moves Center for homeless youth. She identified with them because she almost ended up one of them. Raised on the South Side, struggling financially, only her mother's love and strong will had saved her.
Jo studied Lexie in the dim light. She looked half child, half whore. Skin as dark as freshly-turned top soil, hair drawn back, finely curved cheek bones. Her jaw jutted out defiantly. A large man's hand could have wrapped around her throat with fingers nearly touching thumb.
"Stop by the Center tomorrow, okay?" Keisha reached out and tucked a stray curl behind Lexie's ear. "It's my day to work. We can talk."
"Yeah, sure." Lexie still studied the sidewalk.
Keisha put a hand on her arm to get her to look up. "I mean it," she said. "I'll worry if you don't come."
Keisha earned her living as a model. Most people only saw the perfect, coppery complexion, the fine figure, the stylish clothes. But at that moment, Lexie looked at Keisha the way someone dying of thirst looked at a glass of water.
"Lunchtime tomorrow," Keisha continued. "I'll be waiting." She touched the girl's arm again and Lexie nodded agreement. "Good. Now take care, you hear?" Jo and Keisha started to turn away.
"Wait." The word seemed to rush out of Lexie before she could think. They looked back. "I was wondering if, you know, if you could--" she looked at Jo, then quickly back at Keisha. "Could you buy me something to eat, maybe? I'm awful hungry."
Jo had a second to picture this half naked child seated at a corner table set with fine linen and Waterford crystal before Keisha said, "How about a burrito?"
Eduardo's, famous for a clam sauce made from Mediterranean shellfish and extra virgin olive oil, did not serve burritos. Felipe's Taco and Burrito Place, however, did. As soon as they walked in the door of the little restaurant, they were hit by the smell of greasy meat. Keisha ordered and paid, then they found a booth near the counter to wait for their food.
"You talk to your mom lately?" Keisha asked the girl.
Lexie shook her head, twirling the salt shaker around and around on the table. "She don't want to hear from me."
"Things change, Lexie," Keisha said. "People change."
"Yeah, you got that right. She starts in to drinkin', she be changing, all right. From one cold bitch to one screamin' hot one."
Jo found herself asking, "What about your father? Other family?" What about your father? echoed in her mind. Other family. She told the voice to shut the hell up.
"Well," Lexie started slowly, "I do have this aunt in Rockford somewhere and was thinkin' maybe--" She broke off to shake her head. "What good's that do me? Might as well be Africa or someplace. Takes money, you know?"
"How much you spending on heroin these days, Lexie?" Keisha asked quietly.
The girl touched fingers to her forearm like she tested to see if the needle marks were still under her sleeve. "Think that food'll be coming soon?" She glanced toward the counter.
"How long have you been on the streets?" Jo asked. "Where do you sleep at night? Shelters? Do you--"
The cashier called their number and Lexie jumped up to get her food without answering.
Jo turned away from watching Lexie and frowned at Keisha's intent expression.
"This isn't an interview, Jojo. This is a girl's life we're talking about here. So just let me do the talking."
Keisha was referring to the job Jo had gotten just three weeks ago. The Winds of Change was a small weekly paper that scraped the crud off social issues. The truth as it really was, or at least the paper's version of it. Chicago's anti-relationship with the homeless was one of those issues, and Jo had been hired in part to write a column called Street Stories.
"That girl could be me," Keisha continued. "If I'd had a mama like hers. She from the same neighborhood as me. Same block almost. What if that was me you was talking to, Jo? Think about it."
Jo bit back words as Lexie returned to the table with her food. Keisha was right, but that didn't make it any easier to sit back and become a discreet observer.
Lexie cut off a great chunk of burrito and shoveled it down without waiting for it to cool. She leaned over the table with her attention fixed on the plate. A couple gulps of cola, another scoop of beans and rice. "Thanks," she mumbled past the food in her mouth.
"What about that job you told me about?" Keisha asked her. "At the funeral home. Cleaning up, you said."
Lexie choked and started coughing. Food sprayed back onto her plate. Keisha pushed Lexie's soda closer and the girl grabbed the can and drank, eyes watering. She ripped some napkins out of their holder and wiped her mouth and eyes.
"Hot," she said, her eyes still streaming.
Keisha waited until Lexie had her coughing under control then pushed her point. "The job, Lexie. What about the job?"
Lexie glanced at them with darkened eyes. She picked up the burrito and began eating again. Filling spilled onto the table.
"There never was a job, was there?" Keisha said finally.
"Not no cleaning, that's for sure," Lexie spit out. "When I get down on my knees I ain't gonna be scrubbing no floors."
"Why, Lexie?" Keisha leaned back in her seat.
"I need the money." After a second, she added, "To get to my aunt's. How else I supposed to get there? You're not volunteering, are you?"
Quick thinking. But even if there was an aunt in Rockford--even if Lexie did want to save money to get there--the odds were it didn't matter. The girl shot dope. Intelligent, good looking, young--those things didn't matter either. The only way that girl was going to get to her aunt's was by way of a drug rehab program
"Oh, come on." Jo could stay silent no longer. "There are easier ways to earn money."
Lexie leaned forward. "What you know about it? You didn't get kicked out by your own mama, did you? 'Cause her boyfriend was messing with you since you was twelve?"
"Jo's right, Lexie," Keisha said. "There are other options." Her quiet voice did not condemn. "But you got to want it. Now, you know that."
"Options." Lexie sank back and fiddled with her fork. "Ain't nobody like me got options." She looked at them both, then down at her plate. "What difference it make what happen to me anyway?" The bitter, hard-ass teen was gone. She looked like a little girl with sad, wistful eyes. "Might as well go back to that funeral home, even if I do end up like the Brit."
"Who?" Keisha asked.
Lexie shuddered. "Tommy the Brit--this wino used to be on the streets. They got him there in this glass coffin."
A homeless guy in a glass coffin? Jo leaned forward in her seat. If this wasn't newsworthy material, she had no right to be in the biz.
"Thing is," Lexie continued, "last time I talked to him, he said someone was watching him. I thought, no one gonna pay attention to a bum like him. But there he was. Dead. Scared me good, you know?" Lexie leaned in and lowered her voice. "I keep thinking, what if he was right?" She glanced over her shoulder.
Just then a man walked in, his face pale and horse-like, dull hair thinning on top, glasses perched on his nose. A well tailored suit hung from his slight fame. Mild and unremarkable, he looked like a schoolmaster in an after school special.
"Oh, shit," Lexie ducked her head. When the man turned his back she rose from the booth and hurried out into the night, leaving behind a large portion of the first real meal she'd probably had in days.