Red stopped in place, turned her face to the sky and shook her fist angrily. She shot a string of obscenities at God for doing this to her. Why had she let herself lose focus and wander into this yuppie-infested neighborhood, and why had that bastard in the sky sent this storm after her?
She wore a ragged T-shirt, free-box jeans, and a pair of old sneakers with holes in the bottom. She’d had a hat earlier tonight—at least she thought she had—but that was gone, probably swept away by a gust of wind when she was thinking of something else. At least her hands were protected from the worst of the cold. There was an elementary school just up the street—she ought to know that, she’d been a student there once upon a time—and some kid must have dropped a pair of gloves on her way home from kindergarten or first grade or second grade, because Red had found them on the sidewalk and managed to pull them onto her skinny, undersized hands.
The rain was coming down and there were even rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning, not common with Pacific storms, but who the hell knew what God was going to do? She paused under a streetlamp to look down at herself. She was skinny, the skinniest she could ever remember being. The cold rain and wind made her nipples stick out through the thin shirt. At least that was one good thing. They might attract the attention of a john if there was such a thing as a john in this neighborhood full of smug house holders and students from smug families.
And the fuzz patrolled this neighborhood. She knew that. It was too late at night for panhandling. Nothing to shoplift; all the stores turned off their lights and closed up before now.
It was her own fault. Bobby had told her to stay in the flat lands when he turned her out for the night’s work. Stay in the Berkeley flatlands, or better yet, head for West Oakland. There was more business there and the cops were more likely to look the other way as long as what was going on involved what they called consenting adults.
Was she a consenting adult? How old was she? Hard to remember her last birthday. Hard to remember anything anymore. Turned on in middle school, turned out in high school, dropped out, busted, released, juvenile hall, released, using, hooking, dealing. If she hadn’t found Bobby—or if Bobby hadn’t found her—there was no telling where she would be by now. Maybe dead.
Although that didn’t sound like such a bad idea, either.
A flash of lightning showed her a black-and-white coming up Claremont from the direction of Oakland. She was pretty sure she was still on the Berkeley side of the city line, but cops from both cities liked to cruise in this neighborhood, crisscrossing the boundary with impunity.
She ducked behind a parked car. The black-and-white swept by, its tires making a hissing sound on the rain-wet roadway. She didn’t want to get picked up now. She needed a jolt, and she didn’t care how she got it—from a pill, a snort, or a pipe. She liked the pills best. They were like jelly beans—fun and easy to take. She’d tried a pipe and it burned her throat and made her cough. And she was seriously afraid of needles.
Man, was she ever cold. If only she could get inside somewhere, out of this rain. She contemplated checking out the backyards of some of the houses in this neighborhood. Maybe she could sneak into a garage or a basement and get dry. She’d even try a kid’s play house or a storage shed.
The black-and-white was gone. She hoisted herself to her feet, using the door handle of a shiny new sedan. She caught a glimpse of herself in the car’s window. Oh, man, what a vision. No wonder the johns were so few these days. She looked like a hag of forty, maybe even older. Nobody would take her for—She tried to remember her actual age. She was probably fifteen. Her hair was dirty and ragged, she’d lost half her teeth, her complexion looked like an old soccer ball.
Maybe she could find a junkie looking for a fix. She could steer him to Bobby, and Bobby would make a sale and let her stay in the room overnight and not have to hit the street again.
She started down the street again, trying car doors. They were all locked. She caught another glimpse of herself in a window. Yes, her hair was red. That must be why her name was Red. Or maybe Rita, Rhoda, something like that. It was just so hard to remember anything, to think about anything except getting a jolt. Getting a jelly bean or two. Getting dry and getting a jolt.
Another black-and-white rolled past and she ducked behind another car until it disappeared into the darkness and the rain. A gust of wind slammed a piece of flying cardboard against her and she had to peel it off her back and throw it into the middle of the street, screaming at God to stop fucking with her and give her a place to sleep, out of the storm.
At least that.
Please, you fucker, at least that.
Her face was wet and she couldn’t tell whether it was with rain or tears.
She’d better get off the main drag. Too many black-and-whites, too much chance of getting dragged down to the lockup on MLK.
She turned down a little side street. Most of the lights were off. Smug burghers were nestled all snug in their beds while visions of, what, she couldn’t remember, visions of something danced in their heads. Visions of jelly beans, maybe.
Holy cow, thank you Jesus, an unlocked car! She pulled open the door, crawled in, shut the door behind her. Oh, all right, dry and warm and safe. If only she had a jolt life would be perfect right here in her own little nest of safety. She slid across the seat, reached up and turned the rearview mirror so she could see herself, at least a little, in the small light that was available.
One look and she started to cry again. She’d been a pretty girl. Her parents had loved her, her father especially. Her mother was so self-absorbed, Red sometimes wondered if the old broad even remembered having her. She was popular with her schoolmates—and boys. Boys really liked her. They started sniffing around after her before she was even out of sixth grade.
When had she lost it? She couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. Red. That’s who she was. Or Rhonda. Or Robbie. Was she Robbie? No, that was Bobby. Bobby was her source. Bobby loved or, or he would someday. So she wasn’t Robbie. Maybe Rosie. Little Red Rosie, wasn’t that a nursery rhyme? Something like that.
She looked around inside the car. Maybe there was something here worth ripping off. They said you could get some nice money for a good car stereo but she didn’t know how to get one out of a car, and if she did, how would she get it back to Bobby’s room in the old Van Buren Hotel down on Acton Street? No, that wouldn’t work.
She punched open the glove compartment and pulled out a fat wad of papers. Maps, owner’s manuals, insurance certificates, registration papers. Christ, this guy must never throw anything away. She pawed around the dashboard until she found a knob that she recognized as a cigar lighter. Imagine, everybody used to have these things in their cars. She punched it, waitedtill it popped back out, pulled it out of its little hole and stared at the glowing bull’s-eye of red-hot wires. She held it up to her face so she could feel the warmth. It was really great. She decided to warm herself, pushed it against her cheek, screamed when she felt the burning, searing heat on her skin.
She dropped the lighter. It bounced off something hard lying on the floor. She reached down to see what it was. Something black, almost like an attaché case only not an attaché case, more like—She almost had it, she’d get it in a minute… but somebody in the house must have heard her scream. She saw a light come on in the house, heard a little yippy dog sending up an alarm.
Somebody was going to come and grab her, she knew it. If she could get out of the car fast enough and get away she’d be all right. Or maybe she should lock the car door. She should have done that in the first place but she didn’t think of it, she was too occupied thinking about getting warm and dry and swallowing jelly beans. She started to get out of the car, then realized what the black thing was, realized that she’d hit pay dirt after all.
Her heart beat wildly, her blood sang in her veins. This was something she could sell for real money. Or she could bring it to Bobby and he could sell it and they’d share the money. He’d let her stay with him in his room on Acton Street. She wouldn’t even need any of the money. He could have it all. She’d take out her share in jolts.
She started to sing a happy song.
Some ancient guy wearing pajamas and a bathrobe must have come out of the house because he was pulling at the car door. He got it open and reached for her but she didn’t wait for him to grab her. She could have scrambled out the other side of the car but this was too exciting. She screamed at the guy and jumped out of the car, straight at him.
He was startled. He hadn’t expected that, the sucker hadn’t. She’d never seen anybody look so surprised. He actually backed away from her. There was a brick thingamabob behind him, a plinth or a pilaster or what ever the hell they called them in art history class. She laughed at him. She went for him; the black thing in her hands was a laptop computer and those things were worth real money, worth even more than car radios or cell phones.
The sucker saw her coming at him and he threw up his hands. She hit him smack on with everything she had, smashed him in the face with the laptop computer.
There were more lights on in the house and the little yippy dog was going absolutely bonkers nuts.
The guy she’d hit lurched backward, his head jerking backward against the brick thingamabob, and then the front door of the house opened and the little yippy dog came swarming at her followed by a dumpy old broad waving her arms. Red split; she turned around and she ran, ran back to the bigger street, turned, and ran, and ran, and ran, the laptop computer hugged to her chest, her feet soaked with icy rainwater that came up through the holes in her sneakers and she was screaming, “Bobby, Bobby, open up, Bobby, let me in, Bobby, Bobby, I’ve got something for you, Bobby, for us, Bobby, something wonderful. Oh, love me, Bobby, love me, Bobby, love me, Bobby.”
Excerpted from The Emerald Cat Killer by Richard A. Lupoff.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard A. Lupoff.
Published in September 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.