Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Walter Mosley
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-316-73459-2
It's hard to get lost when you're coming home from work. When you have a job, and a paycheck, the road is set right out in front of you: a paved highway with no exits except yours. There's the parking lot, the grocery store, the kids' school, the cleaner's, the gas station, and then your front door.
But I hadn't had a regular job in a year and here it was two in the afternoon and I was pulling into my driveway wondering what I was doing there. I cut off the engine and then shuddered, trying to fit inside the sudden stillness.
All morning I had been thinking about Bonnie and what I'd lost when I sent her away. She'd saved my adopted daughter's life, and I had repaid her by making her leave our home.
In order to get little Feather into a Swiss clinic, Bonnie had reacquainted herself with Joguye Cham, a West African prince she had met in her work as a flight attendant for Air France. He made a temporary home for Feather, and Bonnie stayed there with her - and him.
I threw open the car door but didn't get out. Part of my lethargy was exhaustion from being up for the past twenty-four hours.
I didn't have a regular job, but I worked like a dog.
Martel Johnson had hired me to find his runaway sixteen-year-old daughter, Chevette. He'd gone to the police and they had taken down her information, but two weeks had gone by and they hadn't turned up a thing. I told Martel that I'd do the footwork for three hundred dollars. On any other transaction he would have tried to dicker with me, giving me a down payment and promising the balance when and if I did the job. But when a man loves his child he will do anything to have her safely home.
I pocketed the money, spoke to a dozen of Chevette's high school friends, and then made the rounds of various alleys in the general vicinity of Watts.
MOST OF THE TIME I was thinking about Bonnie, about calling her and asking her to come home to me. I missed her milky breath and the spiced teas she brewed. I missed her mild Guyanese accent and our long talks about freedom. I missed everything about her and me, but I couldn't make myself stop at a pay phone.
Where I came from - Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas - another man sleeping with your woman was more than reason enough for justifiable double homicide. Every time I thought of her in his arms my vision sputtered and I had to close my eyes.
My adoptive daughter still saw Bonnie at least once a week. The boy I raised as my son, Jesus, and his common-law wife, Benita Flagg, treated Bonnie as the grandmother of their newborn daughter, Essie.
I loved them all and in turning my back on Bonnie I had lost them.
And so, at 1:30 in the morning, at the mouth of an alley off Avalon, when a buxom young thing in a miniskirt and halter top had come up to my window, I rolled down the glass and asked, "How much to suck my dick?"
"Fifteen dollars, daddy," she said in a voice both sweet and high.
"Um," I stalled. "Up front or after?"
She sucked a tooth and stuck out a hand. I put three new five-dollar bills across her palm, and she hurried around to the passenger side of my late-model Ford. She had dark skin and full cheeks ready to smile for the man with the money.
When I turned toward her I detected a momentary shyness in her eyes, but then she put on a brazen look and said, "Let's see what you got."
"Can I ask you somethin' first?"
"You paid for ten minutes; you can do whatever you want with it."
"Are you happy doing this, Chevette?"
Her years went from thirty to sixteen in one second flat. She reached for the door, but I grabbed her wrist.
"I'm not tryin' to stop you, girl," I said.
"Then let me go."
"You got my money. All I'm askin' is my ten minutes," I said, letting her wrist go.
Chevette settled down after looking at my other hand and around the front seat for signs of danger.
"Okay," she said, staring into the darkness of the floor. "But we stay right here."
I lifted her chin with one finger and gazed into her big eyes until she turned away.
"Martel hired me to find you," I said. "He's all broken up. I told him I'd ask you to come home but I wouldn't drag you there."
The woman-child glanced at me then.
"But I have to tell him where you are ... and about Porky."
"You cain't tell Daddy 'bout him," she pleaded. "One'a them get killed sure."
Porky the Pimp had recruited Chevette three blocks away from Jordan High. He was a pock-faced fat man with a penchant for razors, diamond rings, and women.
"Martel's your father," I reasoned. "He deserves to know what happened with you."
"Porky'll cut him. He'll kill him."
"Or the other way around," I said. "Martel hired me to find you and tell him where you are. That's how I pay my mortgage, girl."
"I could pay you," she suggested, placing a hand on my thigh. "I got seventy-fi'e dollars in my purse. And, and you said you wanted some company."
"No," I said. "I mean ... you are a fine young thing, but I'm honest and a father too."
The teenager's face went blank, but I could see that her mind was racing. My appearance had been a possibility that she'd already considered. Not me exactly but some man who either knew her or wanted to save her. After twenty blow jobs a night for two weeks, she'd have to be thinking about rescue - and about the perils that came along with such an act of desperation. Porky could find her anywhere in Southern California.
"Porky ain't gonna let me go," she said. "He cut up one girl that tried to leave him. Cassandra. He cut up her face."
She put a hand to her cheek. It wasn't a pretty face.
"Oh," I said, "I'm almost sure the pig man will listen to reason."
It was my smile that gave Chevette Johnson hope.
"Where is he?" I asked.
"At the back of the barbershop."
I took the dull gray .38 from the glove compartment and the keys from the ignition.
Cupping my hand around the girl's chin, I said, "You wait right here. I don't wanna have to look for you again."
She nodded into my palm and I went off down the alley.
TALL AND LANKY LaTerry Klegg stood in the doorway of the back porch of Masters and Broad Barber Shop. He looked like a deep brown praying mantis standing in a pool of yellow cream. Klegg had a reputation for being fast and deadly, so I came up on him quickly, slamming the side of my pistol against his jaw.
He went down and I thought of Bonnie for a moment. I wondered, as I looked into the startled face of Porky the Pimp, why she had not called me.
Porky was seated in an old barber's chair that had been moved out on the porch to make room for a newer model, no doubt.
"Who the fuck are you?" the pimp said in a frightened alto voice. He was the color of a pig too, a sickly pinkish brown.
I answered by pressing the barrel of my pistol against his left cheekbone.
"What?" he squeaked.
"Chevette Johnson," I said. "Either you let up or I lay you down right here and now."
I meant it. I was ready to kill him. I wanted to kill him. But even while I stood there on the verge of murder, it came to me that Bonnie would never call. She was too proud and hurt.
"Take her," Porky said.
My finger was constricting on the trigger.
I moved my hand three inches to the right and fired. The bullet only nicked the outer earlobe, but his hearing on that side would never be the same. Porky went down to the floor, holding his head and crying out. I kicked him in his gut and walked back down the way I'd come.
On the way to my car, I passed three women in short skirts and high heels that had come running. They gave me a wide berth, seeing the pistol in my hand.
"SO WHY'D YOU LEAVE HOME LIKE THAT?" I asked Chevette at the all-night hamburger stand on Beverly.
She'd ordered a chili burger and fries. I nursed a cream soda.
"They wouldn't let me do nuthin'," she whined. "Daddy want me to wear long skirts and ponytails. He wouldn't even let me talk to a boy on the phone."
Even in a potato sack you could have seen that Chevette was a woman. It had been a long time since she had been a member of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
I drove her to my office and let her sleep on my new blue sofa while I napped, dreaming of Bonnie, in my office chair.
In the morning I called Martel and told him everything - except that Chevette was listening in.
"What you mean, walkin' the streets?" he asked.
"You know what I mean."
"You still want her back?" I asked.
"Of course I want my baby back."
"No, Marty. I can bring her back, but what you gonna get is a full-grown woman, not no child, not no baby. She gonna need you to let her grow up. She gonna need you to see what she is. 'Cause it won't make a difference her bein' back home if you don't change."
"She my child, Easy," he said with deadly certainty.
"The child is gone, Marty. Woman's all that's left."
He broke down then and so did Chevette. She buried her face in a blue cushion and cried.
I told Martel I'd call him back. We talked three more times before I got all the way through to him. I told him that it wasn't worth it for me to bring her back if he couldn't see her for what she was, if he couldn't love her for what she was.
And all the time, I was thinking about Bonnie. I was thinking that I should call her and beg her to come home.