Before he even rounded the bend, Grant knew it was over. Just from the ghosts of red flashing lights scampering through the bushes, he could picture the scene. She had been a sudden walk away and now it was too late.

As he rounded the bend and the flashing red lights stabbed through his windshield, Grant saw that prick Johanson standing with his hand splayed across his chin, as if he were studying a Rembrandt hanging in a museum rather than a body sprawled across the pavement. Grant knew what he was thinking. A slender black man with an IQ that he hid behind the backwoods of Alabama still running through his veins, he said the same thing every time. I just don’t understand why a nice girl like this would put herself on the street.

Grant curled his fingers around the steering wheel and squeezed hard. As smart as he was, Johanson never did understand that it didn’t work like that. While they all drank stale coffee and complained while they sifted through too many cases, trying to find the ones that they had some dim hope of solving, girls like Denise wandered home at three in the morning too tired to eat and too wired to sleep. Denise was just smart enough to know that she inspired the lurid craving men surrendered to some time after midnight and enough drinks not to care any more. But she had been clumsy. In her profile, she was Dee-Dee 578 and she made it plain enough. Looking for a good time. No strings attached. Must be generous. Her wide smile, fawn-like eyes that somehow looked eager and a blue satin dress that hugged her buxom figure said the rest. Grant had stared at that picture for hours one night, sipping Jack Daniels and shaking his head.

He liked it better in the old days, when he had to meet them on the street. It was easy enough to let one bend down, duck her head next to his window and ask if he wanted a date. He would just slip them an even hundred and say, “I have a question.” The expression changed the same way, every time. The smile disappeared and the hard face of a reluctant businesswoman emerged. Questions were dangerous. But a hundred bucks helped her quota. Nobody noticed – he was just another face among the herd of drunkards sewing regret for the next morning. It had been easier that way. Messaging, on the other hand, was a pain in the ass and he didn’t like the idea of his queries slipping into the databanks of the NSA. He wasn’t from Generation Text. He preferred talking to people. Words were only part of what they had to say. The rest was written all over their face. Things had gotten more expensive too – they always wanted the 500 up front, tapped out coldly on his iPhone. But, as in the old days, he became known and nobody ever said no. The 500 went on his bill under “miscellaneous.” Any client that didn’t know better than to ask what that meant was immediately ghosted.

The drill was the same every time. Leave your phone at home. Meet me at Denny’s and then we go for a drive. A few offered to do more than answer questions and he always felt a stab of disappointment when they did. They liked the money, nothing more, and being friendly was a way to become a preferred vendor, so they thought. The smiles withered and cigarettes were plucked from handbags studded with cheap plastic when he reminded them, “All I care about is what you know.”

Denise had been different. First of all, she was just plain stupid. Once she had received the money, she had replied with a message telling him what she thought he wanted to know. She had been right about that, but now her collaboration was on record, just a few keystrokes away from the deft hands of the crackers that every pimp kept on hand to watch his stable and their goings-on in cyberspace. There wasn’t a dollar they didn’t know about. He had sucked in a hard breath and held it when he saw the words trample across his screen. Now, he lightly pounded the steering wheel. “Stupid girl. Stupid, beautiful, what- the-hell-are-you-doing-in-this-business girl.” Women who worked the street for a living were smart in one way or another. And often dangerous. Denise was neither. She was like a high school freshman stumbling into the middle of an NFL game. She was good with her hands, but had no clue how to dodge a tackle. The worst part was she didn’t know it.

Grant cut the lights and pulled up next to one of the red flares hissing on the road. Johanson glanced at him and nodded, his eyes hooding over with a vague disdain. But the man wouldn’t stop him. Grant was too useful to turn away, but he knew it would be a favor this time. The playbook was obvious and nobody was going to do anything about it. The problem was, Grant couldn’t just let it go this time.

He stepped out of his car, stuck his hands in his pockets and walked up to Johanson. Still studying Denise’s body, Johanson asked, “You know this one?”

This one. Grant clasped his hands behind his back, curling them into fists. As if she were on page 112 from a mugshot book, or screen 112 these days. The Internet had made it all so much faster. He felt a little sick thinking about that.

“Who did this?” Grant asked.

Johanson scoffed and waved a hand through the air. “Oh, come on now, you know who did this. I’m asking if you knew her.”

Grant looked at the pavement, just short of actually looking at Denise. He wasn’t ready for that yet. “What are you going to do about it?”

“Same as always.”

Grant snapped his gaze on Johanson. “What do you mean the same as always?”

Johanson smiled and shook his head. “Oh come on now. Really? The Man gives us more information than Google. We’ll have a talk with him, but what he does with his horses is his business.” He narrowed his gaze and his smile widened. “You know this one, don’t you? Did one finally get through to you? Huh?”

Grant turned back to look at Denise. He stepped closer and crouched down next to her body. She was lying on her back, her hands flung over her head. Her eyes were wide open, staring into space. But they weren’t fawn-like. They didn’t look eager. They were empty. Her mouth was ajar, as if she had been caught by surprise. Her blue satin dress was splattered where a single bullet had slammed through her left breast and straight into her heart.

The last time Grant had seen her face, she had stood on his porch, banging on his door. When he opened it, he saw her trembling, her mascara streaming down her face. The fawn-like eyes looked at him and she said, simply, “Help me.” Grant let out a slow breath, closed his eyes and hung his head as he remembered what he had done next. He had slowly closed the door and walked away. She pounded on his door for another fifteen minutes. That was the last he heard of her.

“Yeah, I knew her.”

“Oh man, I can hear it in your voice.” Johanson crouched down next to him. “You’re going soft. That won’t work. You’re going to need to find a new line of work.”

Grant reached out and caressed her calf, trying to soothe her pain somehow. Or maybe it was his own.

“Yeah, soft.” He had tried to deny it when he had closed that door, but as Grant Lambert stared at her dead eyes, he knew he couldn’t escape the truth any more than he could escape the air he was breathing. He loved Denise Redding. And somebody was going to pay.

©2021 Michael J Lawrence

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