I spent the remaining hours before sunrise, tossing and turning in my bed feeling as though the stolen cell phone, cash, driver’s license and chit were burning holes in my purse. The next morning, I was up and dressed at the crack of dawn. I went to the dining room and bolted down my breakfast as soon as it was ready. It took a supreme act of willpower not to run down the long curving driveway and flag down the first car I saw. I hoped that no one noticed my bulging purse, stuffed with all of the things I couldn’t bear to leave behind. There was someone sitting in a dark blue car up the street. Looking at it made me realize that it had been there every day. I just assumed the driver was waiting to pick up someone in a neighboring house. The thought that it was actually someone watching me was a little unsettling. What else had I been overlooking? I didn’t realize that I was holding my breath until the bus came and I exhaled my relief. I climbed aboard on shaky legs and dropped into the first empty seat, resisting the urge to crane my neck looking for the navy blue car.
The trip took so long that the slow sway of the bus and drone of tires on the road gradually relaxed me. My eyelids got so heavy that I couldn’t seem to keep them open. I wedged my purse between my side and the bus. A little shuteye couldn’t hurt. I slumbered deeply and didn’t stir until a group of noisy teens got on the bus. I yawned and looked out of the window, amazed at what a difference half an hour could make in my surroundings. The mcmansions with their long, graceful curving driveways and ornate wrought iron fences had been replaced with modest ranch-style tract housing which gradually gave way to brick duplexes and apartment buildings interspersed with large brick homes all made decrepit by neglect and the passage of time. I tried to imagine what the area must have looked like in its heyday before all of the graffiti and wanton destruction of its impoverished inhabitants took their toll. I shook my head over the patchy, toy strewn lawns and broken glass glittering from trash strewn sidewalks.
Maybe bringing my purse on assignment wasn’t such a good idea. I thought about hiding it somewhere but dismissed the idea, not wanting whoever was tailing me to get suspicious after watching me walk into a building with it and come back out without it. Acting on instinct, I got off at the next stop and ducked into a hole-in-the-wall diner next to an abandoned building. I made a beeline for the bathroom and silently rejoiced that there was a big window in it. My happiness was short-lived because the window was stuck. I damn near dislocated my shoulder, but I got it open, slithered out into the alley and ran across the way to the wall of the abandoned building. Thankfully, the alley was empty. I pulled on various loose bricks until one came away in my hand. Into the gap I shoved Plum’s cell phone, the folded chit, Flame’s driver’s license and wad of cash I had liberated from Plum’s boot. I slid the brick back into place and used one of my keys to scratch a small mark into the brick so that I could find it later. Then it was back through the window into the bathroom. I walked out, sat down at a table and ordered a cup of coffee, sitting by the window so my watchers could see me.
I fished the scrap of paper with the location of my next assignment scribbled on it out of my purse and realized that it wasn’t far from where I sat. Such a rundown area. What kind of legitimate work could there be in an area where more people were home sitting on their crumbling porches then leaving for work? I slipped the rings off of my fingers and put them in my blue jean pocket. No need to encourage any unwanted attention. I left a tip and decided to walk the rest of the way to my work site. It turned out to be a ramshackle house surrounded by a sagging, waist-high chain link fence. My hand was on the gate latch when a pit bull came streaking towards me, jumped up and thrust its broad head at me with its razor-sharp teeth bared. I jumped back reflexively. The chain attached to its collar was the only thing keeping the creature from leaping over the fence and ripping into me.
I was giving serious consideration to skipping the assignment and walking away when a middle-aged man appeared in the open doorway of the house. He whistled at the dog. The pit bull’s attack ceased as abruptly as it had erupted. It trotted back to its hiding place underneath the porch and lay down. My startled eyes went from the dog to the man framed by the doorway. I watched him light a cigarette and inhale deeply, squinting at me through the haze of rising smoke.
“Who the fuck are you,” he asked.
“I…I’m Patricia. Plum sent me.”
“Plum? Whose Plum?”
“Well, Flame actually gave me this address.”
“Oh, you’re friends with Flame. Why the hell didn’t you say so? Come on in.”
I unlatched the rickety gate and winced at the grating squeal it made as it scraped open along the concrete. I had to lift it back into place with both hands in order to get it latched. The man made no move to help. He stood wordlessly staring at me with such frank appraisal that I immediately felt self-conscious. My limbs felt awkward and my legs became uncoordinated. I reached the doorway. Rather than step back into the house to allow me to enter, he turned slightly sideways, still standing in the middle of the doorway. I had to squeeze past him. The reek of cheap alcohol assaulted my nostrils. I could feel his leering eyes lingering in inappropriate places and my skin began to crawl. Disquiet prodded at me. I didn’t feel safe. My instincts were telling me to leave, just turn around and knock the man down if I had to in order to get out, but I couldn’t do it. Even then, my better judgment was overruled. Plum was expecting me to carry out my assignment. Hiromi had told me to finish the assignment. My upbringing had ingrained meek obedience so deeply that it didn’t even occur to me that I had a choice in the matter.
Drawn curtains made the interior of the shotgun house dim. Explicit rap music blared from somewhere down the hall. I halted in the middle of the living room, looking around hesitantly. The man leered at for a few uncomfortable moments longer before walking past me and banging on the first door in the narrow hallway. He opened it and stuck his head in the room. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The man returned and bared his teeth at me in what I assumed was meant to be a disarming smile but actually looked disturbing. I sat down in response to an arm extended towards the couch. A moment later, a much younger man came strolling into the living room and sat in an armchair across from me. Where the first man’s gaze had been suggestive this man’s eyes were completely devoid of expression. I felt myself begin to squirm under the intensity of his stare and forced myself to sit still. I couldn’t hear his cell phone ring over the blare of the music but he suddenly pulled it from his pocket and answered it. It was a relief when his eyes left my face. He said hello and then listened. The call lasted only a minute or two.
The next thing I knew, the alcohol soaked man stepped over and wrenched the purse off of my shoulder. He ignored my protests ears and sifted through the contents. When he began to root through my wallet, I tried to take it back. He smacked me so hard that my face burned. I blinked back the tears that sprang to my eyes. Again, that small voice in the back of my mind shouted at me. I should have just left my purse and everything behind and walked out of the door. Fear kept me rooted to the couch.
“I don’t see no purple cellphone in here,” he said.
“Where is it,” asked the stone-faced man.
“I don’t have it.”
“Well, that’s obvious. Where did you put it?”
“I didn’t put it anywhere. I never had it.”
“You know what? You’re not a good liar. We’ve got things to do today. Where is it?”
“Probably in one of the clubs we were at last night.”
“Let me have a go at her Daryl. I bet I could make her talk.”
He came and sat so close to me on the couch that I could smell his musty scent underneath the miasma of alcohol. His hand cupped my left breast and my arm reflexively moved his hand away. He grabbed my breast roughly, squeezing it in his paw. I cried out in pain, beseeching Daryl with my eyes. He merely leaned back in his chair with a small smile on his face. My attention was arrested by a hand around my throat. The next thing I knew, I was on the dirty carpet crushed under the weight of my attacker. Struggling only made him tighten his grip. My vision dimmed as he ripped open my blouse. One look in those ravenous eyes and I knew that telling them where the phone was wouldn’t make him stop. He had intended to do this the moment he laid eyes on me. Panic bloomed into terror. His rough, relentlessly invading hands dislodged a sense memory from the well of my subconscious. It came floating to the surface of my mind; another time years ago when I was overpowered by another man over and over again. My anguished cries had gone unheeded then too.
All of that pain was down in the bottom of the well, weighted down by my need to forget. It had taken all of my anger to keep it submerged. The unstoppable sensation of his calloused hands scraping my flesh brought the sunken memories back in a flood of pain and anger. At that point, my mind was such a confused jumble of unbidden memories and feelings that I don’t even remember grabbing the sharp nail file that had fallen out of my upturned purse. I don’t recall plunging it into his neck all the way up to the pink plastic handle. The warm spray of blood on my face brought me to my senses. He fell back screaming and grabbing at the nail file. I didn’t even spare him a glance as I sat up and tried to button up my torn shirt. Daryl leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, taking perverse pleasure in watching his friend pull the nail file out of his neck and then try ineffectually to stem the flow of blood from his wounded neck.