The young woman of twenty-two slowed her walk. She heard the name called again and then she turned to look at the caller. "Ashley," he said. "It is you. Hey," he said. Smiling now. Ashley waited to see if she recognized the man. Well dressed and professional. A soft, almost feminine way about him. He had not called to schedule an appointment tonight. But she thought she might have remembered him from before. A convention ...? She gave him her working smile anyway. The all-American college girl smile.
"Hey," she said, her voice bright without being warm.
The man said, "What are you doing here?"
"Just, you know, chilling."
Some of them liked it when you used kids’ words. Chilling, hanging, balling. Middle-aged men with money, wanting to feel young. She could help them with that sort of thing. Anything to move things along.
The man smiled at her. And some part of her recoiled at that. His toothy smile beneath his spectacles. Discomforting, even from a customer.
They were standing on Market Street in downtown St. Louis. A November evening, the threat of cold rain in the air. The Cardinals had won the Series a few weeks earlier and the city was relatively quiet.
The girl’s name was Reesa Woods, but when she was on duty she was called Ashley. She had left a hotel room at the Adam’s Mark only a few minutes earlier. The client had been an old man, older than this guy in front of her. Sixty at least. He had made a lot of money in something called options and he was from England or Australia or someplace like that. He had dressed well and he had been a gentleman. She had been with him before. Tonight, he had done it to her only once, but then asked her if she would stay with him for a second hour and told her he would pay for it. Pay for her company. Another $450. Ashley had agreed to do so.
For the second hour, the old man was back in his clothes and had actually started to lecture her about her career options. Her future. He told her that she was a courtesan, not a prostitute, and there was a difference between the two. He told her that she had been born in the wrong country and probably the wrong century. He told her that she would have made a good Frenchwoman and that he meant that in a good way.
Reesa "Ashley" Woods had heard this sort of thing before. An old, lonely man with money, perhaps he wanted to believe she was something more than she was. A French courtesan as opposed to a girl from Springfield, Missouri, who had simply gotten bored with small-town life and a creepy, abusive boyfriend and had left it all behind as soon as she finished high school.
She had enrolled in classes at the University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL), starting with twelve hours for the semester and soon scaling it back to six because it was harder than she’d thought it would be. She believed she was smart enough to handle the load, but she felt there was no hurry.
When she was twenty, she took a job as a dancer at a strip club near the airport. It paid well with tips, and after a few months of that she was asked to have a drink with an older woman who looked a little like Jacqueline Bissett. Older, but sexy and mysterious. The woman’s name was Bobbie Cafaza and she was the madam of what she said was the most exclusive escort service in the St. Louis area. One of the first questions she put to Reesa Woods was, "Are you using drugs? Don’t lie to me, because if you do, I’ll know it."
Reesa said she was not.
Bobbie said, "That’s good. Because I can’t have that in my house. I won’t have it. At least half the girls who work at these strip clubs are addicted to coke or heroin. But I don’t see the signs with you."
Reesa said she wouldn’t touch it.
Bobbie Cafaza, at that time, was the madam of four escort services. But the one she had in mind for Reesa Woods was Executive Escorts, which was a part of Tia’s Flower Shop. She told Reesa that their clients were not street-corner bums but high-class: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and politicians. She told Reesa that she had that college, fresh-girl look that the clients were after.
Bobbie said, "There are escorts and there are whores. I run a professional outfit. When you’re working, you wear a dress or a skirt. No shorts or pants. If you’re standing on a street corner and you look like a whore, you’re not doing it right. You need to look like you could be working for these men. Or with them. Like you’re about to go to one of their meetings. That’s what they’re paying for. The illusion. Do you have a tattoo?"
"No," Reesa said.
"Good. Get one and you’re fired. When can you start?"
Reesa quit the strip club and started a week later. Now she had been with the Flower Shop about a year. In that time, she had netted about ninety thousand dollars, all of it tax free. She owned a secondhand Mercedes convertible and had an attractive apartment in the Central West End. She believed that her working, "Ashley" identity was separate from that of Reesa Woods.
Walking away from the hotel, downtown on an evening that was turning cold, was she Ashley or was she Reesa Woods wanting to get home and take a shower?
The man on the street was sort of hovering around her now. "You keeping busy?"
She knew what he meant by that. Asking if she was working. "Yeah. How about you?"
"Oh, I was down here for a meeting. Bunch of pointy heads talking about administrative procedure. You know how that can be."
"Yeah," she said, though she had no idea what he was talking about. She was used to going along.
He said, "Are you busy now?" He was smiling at her again.
"Well," Reesa said, "you’re supposed to go through the agency, you know."
"Oh, is that how it works?" he said, and Reesa picked up a bit of scorn in his voice. Like he needed to tell her he wasn’t stupid. Creep. He said, "Can’t you do things on your own?"
Reesa sighed. "Look, I can, but . . ."
Jesus, he was starting to pull his hand out of his pocket. A roll of bills.
"Christ," Reesa said. "Don’t pull out money here."
"Oh. Sorry." He put it back in his pocket.
"Jesus," Reesa said.
"Well," he said, "if you’re in such a hurry."
Shit, Reesa thought. Bobbie fired any girl caught freelancing. Bobbie’s view was that she took good care of her girls, and if any of them thought about not reporting jobs to her, thought about skimming for themselves, they could go stand on the street corner with the rest of the whores because she’d fire their little asses pronto. Reesa believed she would too. But hell . . .
Reesa said, "I can give you an hour. Okay? That’s it."
"Sounds great," the man said.
He walked her to his car. He opened the door and shut it after she got into the front seat.
It was when she got into the car that she started to worry. Because the car didn’t really fit the man. It was a secondhand Ford Crown Victoria. Stripped, utilitarian, and plain. She expected him to have a Jaguar or a BMW. A secondhand car, but the man was wearing a nice suit and a Burberry raincoat. They didn’t go together. A small alarm went off then. She could hear Bobbie’s counsel from the earliest days: You sense danger, you get out of there.. . .
Reesa said, "Where did we meet before?"
The man kept his eyes ahead, on the road. They were south of the I-64 overpass now, heading toward the loading docks beyond Laclede’s Landing.
The man said, "The pharmaceutical wine-and-cheese party. It was a couple of weeks ago."
"Oh," she said. And now she was looking at him again. "So you’re a doctor?"
He nodded, smiling again. Pleased with himself.
And Reesa said, "Is this your car?"
"It’s a loaner," the doctor said.
Soon they were stopped. And she could sense the Mississippi River not far off. Dark and cold and abandoned buildings were on both sides of them. And he had shut off the ignition to the car, and Reesa was not liking this at all. She was not the sort to work in cars. Hotel rooms, homes, apartments, that was her thing. She thought about her purse and the small mace dispenser inside, hoping she was wrong.
"Hey," she said, putting some harshness in her words because often that tone could put guys like this in their place. Particularly the professional ones who worried about exposure and scandal.
"Hey," she said, "I don’t like this."
That’s when she noticed him pulling on the black gloves. Not looking at her as he pulled them on, and then when they were pulled tight, he turned and punched her in the face.
The force of the blow did not knock her unconscious. In her last few seconds, she started to wish that it had.
Excerpted from The Assailant by James Patrick Hunt.
Copyright © 2009 by James Patrick Hunt.
Published in June 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
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.