I was still queasy and upset, but I had a job to do. I stuffed two pieces of Trident into my mouth to chase the bile from my teeth and tried to push the horror of what I’d done to my mother from my mind. I didn’t care if it cured her, at this point I was just relieved it hadn’t killed her.
I slipped on my sunglasses and drove down Pine Street in the bananamobile. Stately colonial rowhouses stood on either side, many of which bore the black cast-iron plaque of the National Register of Historic Places. But I wasn’t sightseeing, I was trying to keep my eye on a license plate that saidLOONEY 1.
I wove through the city traffic, stalking my dearest friend. There was no justification for this second breach of Sam’s civil liberties, except, like my mother, necessity. I had to find out about that pink balloon.
Sam steered his red Porsche Carrera left onto Sixteenth Street, without using his blinker. Men never use their blinkers, women do; that’s all I’ll say about it. I took a quick left, almost hitting a pedestrian foolhardy enough to walk her cockapoo through my surveillance, and slowed as we came to the light.
The Porsche turned the corner, then pulled up in front of The Harvest restaurant, letting out a passenger. A young man, dressed in a waiter’s white shirt and black bow tie. Sam’s Cuban alibi. The door closed with an over-pricedta-chock and the car pulled away.
I followed, expecting Sam to drive back to his apartment building, but the Porsche went right on Eighteenth, headed for the Vine Street Expressway, then took the highway to I-95. Odd. I punched up the bridge of my heavy sunglasses and tailed him, checking the rearview mirror to make sure no one was tailing me.
“Miaow,” said Jamie 17. She looked up from her meal, a Snickers bar I’d found on the car floor and broken into pieces.
“What do you want?” I asked, but she paced back and forth in the front seat, jostling slightly as the car took the bumps in the road. I pressed her ridged back, but she refused to lie down. “Be good or Mommy won’t take you on stakeout.”
“Miaow,” she insisted, and I was hoping it wasn’t the bathroom again. Her last mission had stunk up the In box, and I’d had to scoop the stuff into my makeup kit and throw it out the window so I wouldn’t asphyxiate.
We drove up I-95 north, me and Jamie 17 behind Sam, through endless stretches of billboards into the ugly industrial sections of Philly. Huge, empty warehouses stood crumbling, their windows punched out. The highway signs were covered with graffiti. Hattie had lived here for a time, and it was hard to imagine her growing up on any mean streets, because she was so kind. She’d even volunteered to take Jamie 17, but I knew she’d have her hands full with my mother.
“Please.” I picked her up and set her on my lap, almost driving right past the Carrera in the process. Sam had turned off I-95 and was heading down the off-ramp from the highway, running parallel to me. Shit. I wrenched the car onto the shoulder and came to a full stop. The Carrera roared ahead, down the exit ramp, and I risked my life by backing up to the exit on the potholed shoulder. Jamie 17 fell asleep, oblivious.
I hit the gas and shot to the exit ramp. Where was Sam going? I’d never been here, and my practice took me to some of the seamiest precincts in the city. I sped to the end of the ramp and looked right, then left. Christ. I’d lost him.
I tore off my sunglasses and turned left, squinting through the growing darkness. The day was almost over, but it was still light enough to see that this was one of the worst neighborhoods ever. I hit the gas and drove by one deserted brick rowhouse after another, a painful contrast with the colonial homes lining Pine Street. These rowhouses wouldn’t find their way onto any historic register, they were already history.
Most of the vacant houses were boarded up with tin or plywood. Some weren’t, and their upper two windows were empty and black as the eye sockets of a skull. The porches that still existed sagged dangerously and every three blocks was a vacant lot strewn with rubble, broken bottles, and trash. Children played on one of the blocks, skipping double Dutch on the sidewalk, a feat as accomplished as any Olympic athlete’s. But these kids would never make it to the Olympics. They’d be lucky to make it out of the neighborhood.
I turned the corner, looking for Sam, wondering when my hometown had turned into a war zone. Struck with the same insight I’d had at the Roundhouse, then again at the Homicide Division. Only now I knew which side I was on. I didn’t look like them but felt just as alienated, or at least as alienated as a former blonde can be. I was wondering whose side Sam was on when the light changed.
I cruised forward and a squad car popped into my rearview mirror. Oh, no. Stay calm. It joined the line of traffic behind me, swinging into place only one car away, behind a red TransAm with smoky windows. I couldn’t take my eyes from the rearview mirror. My fingers tightened on the steering wheel. I slouched in the bucket seat, and Jamie 17 lifted her triangle head from her paws.
“It’s the heat,” I told her and she went back to sleep, apparently less anxious than I. I had no registration for the bananamobile, no driver’s license, nothing in a Linda Frost name except the Grun ID.
The TransAm took a hard left down a side street, leaving no buffer between the cops and me. The police cruiser pulled up closer, bridging the gap. I felt my hackles rise, from fear. The squad car was on my bumper as I reached the next traffic light, which turned red. I didn’t dare run it. I groaned to a stop, wishing I were blond again. Cops love blondes, especially young cops like these two, sitting side by side in the front seat like the Hardy Boys.
The light turned green and I hit the gas, trying not to speed in panic. I knew I was acting nervous, I was feeling nervous. The cops tailed me as the street widened to two lanes. I could see the cop in the passenger seat talking on the radio. Was he calling in the plate? My God.
The traffic light at the corner changed from yellow to red as I reached it. Goddamn it! I stayed in the left lane so if they ended up next to me, they’d be as far as possible from my face.
It was exactly what happened. I drove up to the light. They pulled up next to me, on my right. I kept my face straight ahead, but I could feel their eyes on me. Scrutinizing me, wondering. What’s a dressed-up redhead doing here in a new banana?
I had to do something. Hide in plain sight. It had worked, so far. “Officer,” I called loudly, leaning over to the cop in the driver’s seat. “Thank God you’re here! I wonder if you could help me. I think I’m really lost.”
“I think you are, too,” he said with a smile, and his partner laughed and hung up the radio. “What are you looking for?”
“I-95, going south. I took my cat to the vet, but I must’ve got off on the wrong exit on the way back.” I held Jamie 17 up by the scruff of the neck and she mewed on cue. “Isn’t she cute?”
He nodded without enthusiasm. “Go to the next light and take a left. Follow it out and take that all the way to 95.”
The light changed to green. The cops cruised ahead of me. I exhaled, resettled Jamie 17, and followed the cops, waving like a dork. We reached the light together, me and my police escort, and they went straight at the light. I took the left they’d prescribed and traveled down another street that seemed to get darker and more deserted the farther I went.
Then I spotted it. There, on the right. Parked at the curb after the line of lesser cars sat the gleaming red Porsche. The license plate saidLOONEY 1.
I lurched to a stop. The car was empty. I looked behind me. The cops were gone.
I parked in an empty space on the left side of the street, locked the doors and windows, and stroked Jamie 17 while I watched the Porsche. She purred softly, completely at peace in the middle of this hellish neighborhood.
I watched the Porsche from way down in my front seat, not knowing which building Sam had gone into. It was too dark to see much around the car, most of the streetlights were unlit. I slumped deeper in the seat. The cops had been too close a call. A wave of exhaustion washed over me. I tasted the bile still coating my teeth. Drained, I leaned back on the headrest.
No children were out at this hour, there were no games of jump rope. It was quiet and still. A hydrant leaked water into the street at the far end and it trickled down the filthy gutter under the Porsche. I wondered vaguely if I should’ve kept the gun Grady had offered me, but I was too tired to care. Where was Sam? I checked my watch. 9:15. I closed my eyes and waited, one hand resting on Jamie 17. I hadn’t slept in days. I didn’t know how much longer I could go on.
The next time I checked my watch it was 11:30. I’d fallen asleep. I woke up scared. I felt my body, my chest. I was safe. Jamie 17 was walking around, scratching in her box. The street was still dark, but the Porsche had vanished.
“Goddamn it!” I said, hitting the steering wheel. I started the car, flicked on the lights, and pulled out of the parking space. I drove to where Sam’s car had been parked and squinted up at the deserted houses. Then I looked down on the sidewalk.
It was Sam. Huddled, fallen, the figure of a man lying at the curb. Even though I couldn’t see him clearly, I knew who it was.
“Sam!” I called, panicked. I twisted the steering wheel to the curb, yanked up the brake, and jumped out of the car.
“Sam! Sam!” I knelt down when I reached him and touched his forehead. It was covered with sweat, blood, and pavement dirt. I threw myself on his chest, listening for a heartbeat.
His eyelids fluttered and he grinned crazily. “‘Assault and Peppered.’ 1965,” he said, as his eyes closed again.
“I can’t believe they took my car,” Sam moaned, while I held an ice pack over his eye.
“You have bigger problems than your car.”
“No, I don’t. How can I be Porscheless?”
“Many of us manage to. You can too.”
“No, I can’t. They can take my money, they can take my watch, they can even take my bone marrow. But don’t take my Porsche.” Sam sighed as he slouched on the lid of the toilet seat in his tiny bathroom. Dirty clothes overflowed the wicker hamper and Tasmanian Devil towels lay heaped in a soiled bunch next to the toilet. The white tile walls were gray and dingy, the shower curtain was spotted with black mildew. Sam’s neat haircut was stiff with blood, and his pink Polo shirt was torn and sullied. It was hard to tell which was in worse shape, Sam or his bathroom.
“What’d you expect, in that neighborhood?”
“I expected to say hello and leave.”
“You went up there to say hello? Here, hold the ice pack,” I said, taking his hand and putting it atop the plastic cap.
“You could ask nicer.”
“I could, but I won’t.” I wrung a grimy washcloth into a sink covered with caked blobs of Colgate, and turned on the faucet for hot water. Jamie 17 watched every move, sitting neatly on the wet and cluttered counter. “So that’s why you were up there, in Beirut? You were visiting a friend?”
“What’s the friend’s name?”
“Mike? How come I never heard of him?”
“He’s a new friend.”
“Mike the New Friend. Is this a cartoon character or a real person?”
“A real person.”
I waited for the water to get hotter. “And this real person would leave you on a sidewalk, bleeding? After some other friends beat you up and stole your car?”
“He’s not a good friend.”
“No, not at all. ‘Mike the Bad New Friend.’ 1952.” Steam came off the tap water so I ran the washcloth in it, then pressed it to Sam’s raw forehead.
“Ouch!” He reared back, letting the ice pack fall to the floor.
“Ouch, what?” I yelled. “Ouch, how stupid do you think I am? Ouch, why are you lying to me? Ouch, what kind of friend are you supposed to be?”
“What? What?” He looked for the ice pack like a befuddled drunk, but I had no sympathy.
“You’re lying, Sam. You’re lying about why you were up there. You lied about money and about Mark. You lied about everything!” My voice echoed harshly in the tiled bathroom, and Sam covered his ears.
“ ‘The Yolk’s On You.’ 1979, I think.”
“It’s not funny, Sam. I could’ve been caught, saving you. And downstairs, trying to explain to the doorman!” I threw the washcloth on the counter, and Jamie 17 jumped. “Level with me. What were you doing up there?”
“You got an Acme portable hole? An Acme time-space gun? An Acme deluxe high-bounce trampoline? Or how about spring boots, any make or model?”
My temper ticked like a cartoon time bomb. “I want the truth, Sam.”
“Ooh. ‘Nothing But the Tooth.’ That was Porky.”
Before I knew what I was doing I had exploded, grabbing Sam by both arms and pushing him easily against the wall. As surprised as I was at my own violence, I wasn’t about to let him go. “This is not a cartoon, Sam. I want the truth.”
“Bennie, please!” he croaked, blue eyes wild and unfocused without his glasses. He struggled but he was too weak to escape my grip.
“You’re in real trouble, Sam. So am I. What the fuck were you doing in that neighborhood?”
“I don’t want to tell you. I don’t want you to know. I don’t want anyone-”
“Is it drugs?” I tightened my grip until tears formed in Sam’s eyes. It wasn’t pain, it was something else. Humiliation. I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. I had to know. Not only for Sam’s sake, but for Bill’s.
“All right, all right.” A tear formed in the corner of one eye and rolled down his mottled cheek. “Yes, drugs. Heroin.”
Heroin.The word cut deep inside me. I flashed on Bill, dead with a syringe in his arm. The balloons on Sam’s desk. Had Sam killed Bill? And Mark? I let go of his arm, stunned, and he fell onto the toilet seat.
“Bennie,” he whispered hoarsely, beginning to sob. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”