"There has to be evil so that
good can prove its purity above it."
"Barmaid!" Jane Perry yelled above the din of smoke-laced barroom. "Two more whiskeys for me and two tequilas for my friend!" Jane came to an unsteady halt in front of the waitress with her back to Carlos. "You got that?" Jane said, her eyes asking another question.
The waitress cautiously looked at Carlos before quickly locking back onto Jane's iron gaze. "Yeah. I got it." The waitress headed back to the bar.
Jane nervously lit her fifth cigarette of the hour and surveyed the sparse crowd mingling in the center of the bar. The dim lighting painted heavy pockets of darkness across the tables and chairs, making it difficult to discern faces. A dozen, beer-splattered Christmas garlands hung carelessly against the nicotine soaked walls. It was the bar's inept attempt to define the holiday season but the cheesy decor reminded Jane of topping a dead tree with a broken angel. The Red Tail Hawk Bar was located on East Colfax in Denver, Colorado-a location that supported seedy establishments and attracted drug deals, bloody brawls and twenty-dollar hookers. The clock with the beer keg image read 4:45. Within 30 minutes, Jane knew the grimy hole would be packed with hardcore drinkers and enthusiastic partiers, all looking to find a warm refuge from Denver's December chill and to extend their stoned post Christmas revelry. Her jaw tightened, a sign that the stress was taking its toll. The deal had to go down tonight and it had to go down exactly as Jane planned it. Wearing a mask of bravado, she turned around. "You said 4:30. We're 15 minutes past that. I'm not used to waiting!"
"Chill out, Tracy," Carlos replied in a lazy tone, his oily, black hair obscuring his pockmarked, swarthy visage. "I told you I'd hook you up. This is a busy time of year. Santa may have stopped sliding down chimneys two days ago, but Camerón and Nico are still in business."
Jane drunkenly moved around the pool table. "Shit, man, I'm jonesin'."
"Have another shot," Carlos suggested, motioning over to the approaching barmaid and her tray of shot glasses.
"Two tequilas," the barmaid said, setting the shot glasses in front of Carlos, "and two whiskeys," she managed to stammer as she slid two shots in front of Jane and surreptitiously tilted her head toward two men who had just entered the bar.
"Is that them?" Jane asked Carlos, dismissing the waitress and angling her pool cue in the direction of the front door.
Carlos squinted against the poor lighting. "See? I wasn't fuckin' with you!" Carlos raised his hand, catching the eye of Camerón and Nico, who made their way through the syrupy darkness.
Jane felt her heart race as the two Columbians moved toward the pool table. They were as imposing as she expected. Both were in their late 30's but their road-ravaged faces made them appear 15 years older. They seemed to drag the darkness of the bar behind them as they loomed closer. Camerón was the lead guy but Nico was clearly an equal partner.
"Hey," Carlos said, proud to be part of this nefarious deal. "How's it goin'?"
"It's goin'," Camerón said, sizing up Jane.
"This is Tracy," Carlos said. "She's real happy to see you guys!"
"Are you?" Camerón replied, his black eyes boring holes into Jane's face.
"You got the stuff?" Jane asked, crushing her cigarette into a nearby ashtray.
"You think I'm stupid enough to bring a quarter kilo inside a fuckin' bar?" Camerón quietly replied with a sharp timbre to his voice.
"Where is it?" Jane said, undaunted.
"First things fist," Camerón announced. "You check her out, Carlos?"
"Yeah, she's got the 15 G's."
"No gun?" Camerón asked Carlos, never taking his eyes off Jane.
"You think I'm stupid enough to bring a gun inside a fuckin' bar?" Jane retorted, echoing Camerón's prior statement. She noted a stream of patrons enter the bar and realized if she didn't move things along, the set-up was going to get complicated. "I got your cash," Jane opened her leather jacket to reveal a fat envelope secured in an inside pocket, "Where's my coke."
"You gotta love these trust fund, snow junkies!" Nico said with a cocky grin.
Camerón stared at Jane for what seemed like an eternity. Jane matched his steely glare, hoping he couldn't hear the deafening beat of her heart. Finally, Camerón nodded. "Take a shot to kill that edge and then we'll go out to the car," he suggested.
Jane grabbed one of her two shots and quickly knocked it back. "Let's do it," she declared, taking a drunken step away from the pool table.
Camerón eyed the remaining shot of whiskey, figured what the hell and drank it. Jane turned toward him as the last drops of liquid slid down his chin.
"What the fuck-" Camerón said, checking the aftertaste. He grabbed Jane by the arm. "How do you get drunk on tea?"
Jane started to react but Camerón moved too quickly. He jerked Jane's body toward him, opened her leather jacket and pressed his palm against her side. "She's wired! She's a cop!" Camerón pulled out his nine-millimeter handgun and aimed it at Carlos. "You dumb mother fucker!"
Jane caught Camerón's hand, moving it just enough off target for Carlos to escape the deafening gunshot. The shockwave sent the bar into a frenzy. Patrons ducked for cover as Jane skillfully punched the butt of her pool cue into Camerón's groin, causing him to drop the gun. She kicked the pistol under the pool table with her boot as Nico drew his gun, aiming it squarely at Jane's head. Jane rapidly swung the cue at Nico's forearm, deflecting the gun before it discharged. A split second later, Carlos leapt onto the pool table and took a forceful dive onto her body. The loosely hung fluorescent light fixture above the pool table crashed down as Jane hit the wooden floor with a hard thud. As the fluorescent tubing exploded around them, Carlos landed a brutal punch to Jane's right cheek.
"Fuckin' bitch!" Carlos screamed, nailing Jane with another savage smack.
Jane managed to roll onto her back and slam the side of the pool cue against Carlos' forehead. The momentary dazing afforded her the opportunity to struggle to her knees, just as a burly male bar patron jumped into the męlée. Chaos broke loose as the muscle-bound guy pounded Carlos' head against the pool table until he passed out. Jane, slightly woozy from the two punishing blows that Carlos delivered, ducked under the pool table and swept Nico's handgun under a nearby chair. But as she turned her body, the thick envelope of cash slid out of her jacket and onto the floor, spreading several hundred dollar bills under the pool table. Jane reached for the envelope but Nico quickly snagged it and disappeared with Camerón into the dark recesses of the bar.
Jane achingly emerged from underneath the pool table just as the beer keg clock came loose and smashed to the floor. A stream of blood spilled from Jane's lip as she stood disheveled amidst the chaotic aftermath.
All eyes in the bar focused on her.
But one set of probing eyes was more intensely interested in her than the rest.
"We need everybody to please exit the bar now!" A gray-suited, Denver Police official in his mid-30's made the strident request. His cock-sure swagger caught the attention of Jane, who sat on a stool with her back against the bar.
"You need a couple stitches, Detective," the paramedic suggested to Jane.
"I'm not a detective. I'm a P.I. And I don't need stitches!" Jane insisted, pushing the paramedic's hand away and lighting a fresh cigarette off the dying ember of the one still in her mouth.
"You got punched in the face pretty hard-"
"I'll take an aspirin!"
"Bennie!" The cocky officer called out to one of the investigators, "You put a call into Weyler?"
Jane heard Sergeant Weyler's name and her stomach tightened. Until five months ago, Weyler was her boss at Denver Headquarters. But more than that, Weyler was someone Jane considered a friend, as much as anyone could be Jane Perry's friend. The dapper, well-dressed black Sergeant had supported and defended Jane throughout her 10-year tenure working homicide at DH, even though that often meant looking the other way when Jane showed up at work hung over. She hadn't seen the 57-year-old Sergeant since late July when she met him for coffee to tell him she was turning down his offer to promote her to Sergeant. Jane thought long and hard about taking the job. But after solving two of Denver's high profile multiple homicide cases that summer, the subsequent barrage of media attention given to both cases, the death of her father and her decision to quit drinking, Jane needed to take a break.
At first, Jane felt a sense of freedom. It was as if a door was opening into a new reality. But capturing that reality and breathing it in was not always easy. There were days when she sensed she was on the verge of finally figuring out her life, but most days, her enlightenment was dim at best. It was easier to focus on the grittier, more tactile side of her existence. By early August, she felt the itch to prove her investigative might. Jane made a quick sale of her father's property, netted $100,000 after taxes, split the profits with her younger brother, Mike, and opened up a one-person, 200 square foot, downtown office on August 9th called "J.P.I." for Jane Perry Investigations.
Her proverbial "15 minutes of fame" that summer provided Jane with a couple good cases that included nailing a group of counterfeiters for a prominent Denver bank. But she wanted to capture bigger fish. It wasn't that she wanted more media attention. Being in the spotlight was the last thing Jane craved. She had granted only one interview after putting the Stover and Lawrence homicide cases to bed-a one-on-one exclusive with Larry King on CNN. As far as Jane was concerned, everybody and their brother watched that interview. She received phone calls from people she hadn't talked to in years. Suddenly, she was being courted by dozens of news organizations to be the "talking head" on every headlining criminal case. Against others' advice to cash in on her name, Jane turned down all offers, including a lucrative book deal, preferring to pour her mental acuity into what she did best: solving crimes.
And then there was that little detail of dealing with her addiction to booze. She hadn't touched a drop of liquor for nearly six months, earning three sobriety chips from her AA group. She kept the chips in her left pants pocket, nervously rubbing them against each other whenever her nerves spiked. Hearing Weyler's name yelled across the bar caused Jane to start rubbing the hell out of those chips. Jane knew that Denver PD was concurrently pursuing the same powerful cocaine ring. She took on the intimidating sting independently-partly to prove herself as a legitimate investigator away from Denver PD and partly to show up Headquarters for what she perceived as inept management. But in the past two weeks, Jane had been approached by the FBI in relationship to the drug ring. After nearly three months of working the case, she was making good headway and was so close to nailing the top players, she could taste it. The FBI, in turn, was working their own angle, but it became clear to the Bureau that Jane was better positioned within the inner circle. She was promised a large financial payout from the Bureau once she delivered concrete evidence to them. She agreed to turn her wires and all documented one-on-one proof over to the Bureau as long as she could continue have complete anonymity. The Bureau agreed to all of her demands but, in turn, stipulated that Jane quickly wrap up the case.
Jane surmised that the Bureau's desire to move forward had to do with DH's simultaneous investigation of the drug ring and their desire to be the first to nail the group. DH was still smarting from the fallout after the Stover family murder and subsequent Lawrence double homicide that left nine-year-old Emily Lawrence as the sole witness. The further complication of a DH cop's sinister involvement in both cases had not exactly been a shining moment for Headquarters. The apparent race between the Bureau and DH to successfully apprehend the movers and shakers of the ring had far more long-range implications than just scoring an important case. Jane knew that if she aided the Bureau, she could help herself to a lucrative future of independent law enforcement that would be on her terms. However, if she screwed it up, her connections with the FBI would be cut, and with it, any real chance of establishing autonomy.
And Jane knew that Sergeant Weyler was fully aware of it all.
Weyler's ability to know everything that was going down was uncanny. He had friends everywhere-in every jurisdiction and in almost every state. Underneath his quiet, reserved demeanor was a man who could move mountains with a single phone call. He didn't accumulate friends and acquaintances, nor did he respect every cop he supervised. However, his respect for Jane was evident and that respect never once waned after she chose to leave DH. In fact, Weyler called Jane at her home on many occasions but she never returned his phone calls. Her reluctance to talk to him was partly due to creating distance between herself and Headquarters. At least that's what Jane told herself. The bigger reason was that she knew her desire to show up DH by infiltrating the drug ring and handing the group over to the FBI was a blatant slap in Weyler's face. While Jane's intention was never to disrespect Weyler or make him look bad, reconnecting with him would be professionally awkward.
"Weyler's on his way over!" the investigative cop yelled back to the cocky detective.
"I gotta put a topical antibiotic on your lip," the paramedic informed Jane.
"Whatever. Just make it quick," Jane said, feeling the need to get out of the bar.
The barmaid crossed to Jane, hovering nearby with a piece of paper in hand.
"Hey, Rose," Jane said, slightly uncomfortable, "I want you to know that you did everything I asked you to do and you did it well. Tell Jerry I'm sorry everything got fucked up, okay?"
"Jerry left. He asked me to give this to you," Rose said, handing Jane the piece of paper.
The paramedic was just about to apply the topical antibiotic to Jane's lip when she read the note. It was a bill made out to "J.P.I." for damages totaling $3,000.
"What the hell?" Jane yelled, drawing the attention of several crime scene investigators. "What's Jerry smoking?"
"The pool table's got a rip in it, we gotta get a new light fixture, hire a crew to clean up the blood and we gotta plaster the wall 'cause of the gun shot hole."
"Like you've plastered all the other gunshot holes? And blood? This is The Red Tail! The same dive that's known as 'Slaughterhouse Central!' You know as well as I do there's more blood pounded into the cracks of this floor than any other bar on Colfax!"
"I'm lucky to still have a job after what I agreed to do for you," Rose nervously whispered. "Jerry says it's $3000 and that's what it is. And he wants the money in three days or he's pressing charges against you and contacting the media, which, as Jerry said, is not gonna do much for your 'Larry King reputation.'"
Jane turned to the paramedic. "Give us a second?" The paramedic tossed the antibiotic ointment tube into his portable medicine kit and walked away. Jane turned to Rose and spoke confidentially. "I thought we made a deal! I don't give a shit about some 'Larry King' reputation! But I do give a serious shit about protecting my future ability to work undercover. If Jerry talks and exposes what went down here to the media and uses my name, he's putting both my business and my safety in jeopardy!"
"I don't know what to tell you," Rose offered, feeling compassion the delicate situation. "He said three grand in three days or he talks. And he means it."
Rose started to walk away but Jane stood in front of her. "I don't have $3000. Every penny I have went into building my business and working this case. We're talking thousands of dollars. I had to think up a lot of creative angles to make things happen. And I mean creative." Jane realized she was sounding too desperate. She dialed her tone back a notch in intensity. "Look, a lot of the pieces of this case fell apart tonight. But I'll figure out how to make them come back together. And when I deliver those assholes to the people who want them and see some cash, Jerry will get his money. But it won't be in three days!"
"You know Jerry as well as I do. It's his way or.his way. Maybe you can sell some stuff."
Jane stared into the distance. "Yeah, well, the thing is, Rose. The only thing I've got that I'm willing to sell is my ability."
Rose shrugged her shoulders. "I'm sorry, Jane." Jane reluctantly stepped aside, allowing Rose to walk away. She turned to face the bar and caught her shadowed reflection in a large whiskey bottle. It was moments like this when the desire to numb her senses hit hard. Her head started to pound in a syncopated beat. She wasn't sure if the pain in her head was due to the beating Carlos gave her, the stress of the case, the anxiety over a $3000 bill she couldn't pay or the prospect of being revealed by a two-bit bar owner. Her vision began to blur as a distorted face warped into the whiskey bottle, awash in a purple glow. Jane's heart raced as she quickly clamped her eyes closed.
"Hey, are you okay?"
Jane spun around, startled to see the paramedic. "Leave me alone, would you?"
"How many fingers do you see?" the paramedic asked, holding up his thumb, first finger and middle finger.
"Two," Jane said, collecting herself. "Your thumb's not a finger!"
"Well done!" a male voice chimed in. Jane turned to find the cocky PD official standing next to her. "Looks like you got your ass kicked," he said to Jane.
Jane regarded the paramedic. "Give me the ointment, and leave us alone."
The paramedic gave Jane the ointment and walked away.
"You sure you don't need stitches..Jane?"
"Excuse me?" Jane asked, surprised this guy knew her name.
"I recognized you under the wig. Nice try."
Jane touched the blonde wig to make sure it was still securely on her head.
"This is awkward for you, isn't it?" he said, a self-satisfied smile pasted across his face.
"Why?" Jane said, trying her best to remain stoic.
"Come on, Jane. I've heard enough about you through the grapevine at DH to know this whole scene is hard on your ego. By the way," he said, extending his right hand, "my name's Kenny Stephens."
Jane let Kenny's hand dangle. "What do you want, Kenny Stephens?" she replied with a mean edge to her voice.
Kenny broke into a wide grin that exposed his whiter-than-white teeth. "Well, for starters, Jane, I'd like to know where you scored that big envelope of cash."
"Yeah, I bet you would be interested," Jane replied, turning away.
"Seeing as one of the perps got away with the envelope, minus the three hundies that fell out," Kenny said, revealing three crisp one hundred dollar bills, "I'd think you'd be alarmed. Or maybe, those who fed you the cash would be alarmed?"
"Nobody fed me the cash."
"Really? Shit, we're talking what? Thousands?"
"Fifteen thousand, Kenny," Jane replied matter-of-factly, wishing Kenny would let her leave.
"Fifteen grand of your own money? I'd be slitting my wrists if that happened to me!"
"Easy come, easy go," Jane said, attempting to get past him.
"You act like it was Monopoly money." Kenny eyed Jane with heightened precision. His brow furrowed. "Oh, wait, don't tell me." Kenny couldn't believe what he was thinking. "Hey, Bobby!" Kenny yelled over to one of the crime scene investigators, "you got that pen on you?"
Jane's gut clamped down. She knew what was coming but maintained her poker face.
Bobby tossed the pen across the bar to Kenny who slapped one of the hundred dollar bills onto the bar. He drew a mark across the bill and turned to Jane. "You gave those guys counterfeit?"
Jane was aware of the tenuous predicament but kept up the front. "Guess so."
"I don't get it. Are you trafficking on the side with a counterfeit operation?"
"No, Kenny, I'm not making extra cash by making extra cash. Where I got the money is none of your goddamn business!" She wasn't about to tell Kenny that she'd secretly stashed a box of "cash" from the counterfeit operation she successfully bagged for the Denver bank. Jane knew it was legally wrong but she figured that Denver PD used confiscated counterfeit cash in undercover operations in order to trace its subsequent destinations, so why couldn't she? The phony money turned out to be her saving grace when she started her undercover drug investigation.
"I'm curious, Jane," Kenny continued with a perverted sense of professional muscle, "what's a lady like yourself doing hanging in a Colfax bar with a bunch of low lifes during the holiday season? Have you sunk that low since you made that decision to turn down the Sergeant's job at DH?" Kenny moved closer to Jane, whispering. "I'd think with your little alcohol problem, you'd want to stay away from dives like this."
His words cut through Jane's heart. She didn't know anything about him but he knew of her achingly private battle. That was a deep, unforgivable violation. A raw vulnerability enveloped Jane, but she was damned if she was going to show it. "Where in the hell did DH find you? Was it online at assholecops.com?"
"Funny," Kenny responded dryly.
Jane snatched her coat. "Excuse me," Jane said, moving away from him.
"If you're worried that Carlos, your date, is talking, he's not. But that's okay. We know he's just a lackey."
Jane turned to Kenny. "He's not my date."
"Did I say 'date?' I meant stooge. Right? Only a fucking idiot wouldn't check to see if you're wired before setting you up with some of the top guys." Jane stopped. "Wasn't that what Camerón was grabbing for right before he turned and aimed his gun at Carlos? By the way, nice little 'Matrix' move you did in deflecting the gunshot. Classic!"
Jane couldn't understand how Kenny was able to know how everything went down. She was tired of his arrogant manner and decided it was time to play hardball. "I'm not giving DH my wire."
"We don't need your little wire. We've got tons of audio of these guys. We just needed two things to wrap it up: fingerprints and a good, clear video of them in action. You wouldn't think that a dump like this would install video cameras, would you? And once we get the prints off the two guns they dropped and you kicked out of sight, it's a slam-dunk! Give us a few a more hours, and DH will go on the books with this collar!"
"This is my collar, you son-of-a-bitch!" Jane said with venom as she stood within inches of Kenny's face. "I've been inside, working alone for three months."
"And DH has been working it for eight months. But you knew that, right? Did you actually believe you were gonna show us up? I don't think so. Guess you wasted three months for nothing. God, that must totally suck for you."
Jane stared at Kenny, feeling her entire world crumble beneath her feet.
"Oh, and by the way, Jane. DH didn't find me on the Internet. I applied for the job.after you turned it down. So when you see the name Sergeant Kenny Stephens under my mug when the media shows me announcing the collar, you can appreciate the irony." Kenny capped his statement with an arrogant smirk. "Ain't life a bitch?"
Jane felt a feverish rush. Even though Kenny was built like a weight lifter, she knew she had the power at that moment to pummel his head into mush. But since she was looking at losing everything she worked for, certain bankruptcy and the possibility of being revealed by name to a drug mob.well, she figured that an additional charge of murder wouldn't help. She turned and walked to the exit.
"I'll give Weyler your best, Jane!" Kenny yelled out to Jane.
Jane kept walking toward the exit without a word, except for thrusting her middle finger backward in the air before slamming the bar door shut and walking into the bleak December chill.
The late December night air stung Jane's cheeks as she walked to her '66 ice blue Mustang. She'd parked the car within 50 feet of The Red Tail Hawk's front door with the idea that she could quickly rip out of the establishment if necessary. One thing about Jane, she was always thinking ahead and factoring in what may or may not happen in any given situation. It was this highly calculated approach to life that defined her investigative method and had paid off in the past with numerous high profile collars. That's why the chaotic battle inside the bar completely caught her off-guard. She had worked and re-worked every possible angle before ever embarking on the set-up with Carlos-everything from planning the ice tea for whiskey substitution with Rose to maneuvering the meeting at the only semi-private pool table in the joint that was situated on a raised platform with three walls surrounding it. Jane had strongly debated whether to take her Glock into the bar as a safety backup but she concluded that to hide a wire and a gun would be pushing her luck.
Jane ducked into her Mustang and slammed the door just as a flurry of snow whirled against the front window. The crimson glow from the bar's neon sign reflected an eerie blood wash effect against the car's interior. Drawing a squashed pack of Marlboro's out of her jacket pocket, she pulled out a cigarette and lit up. For Jane, the first hit off a fresh cigarette was always like a flood of anesthesia that softened the edges. She pulled the smoke into her lungs allowing the burn to penetrate her lungs. Looking off to the side, Jane noticed a lone prostitute on the corner. It was typical fare for this part of Denver. She noted how the hooker's blonde wig was askew and exposing a tendril of dark hair. Jane thought how trashy it looked and then caught a glance of herself in her rear vision mirror. Her short-cropped blonde wig had been pulling double duty hours over the last three months and was starting to show the wear. Jane yanked the wig off her head, exposing her pinned up, brown hair. Removing the barrettes, Jane shook out the tangles and took another drag on her cigarette. She returned her attention to the prostitute. A cheap, white, cropped faux fur jacket fit snugly around her narrow frame. The hooker tugged self-consciously at her tight-fitting, pink miniskirt. That single action caused Jane to regard the girl with greater interest.
On closer examination, she looked no older than 16. Probably a runaway, Jane thought. She was trying to give off a tough vibe, but Jane could see the fear and vulnerability bleeding through her eyes. Jane knew that look all too well. She'd seen the same face staring back at her in the mirror when she was a teenager. Under the smeared black eyeliner, cheap rouge and fire engine red lipstick, there was an odd innocence to the girl. She still retained enough baby fat to send up a red flag to anyone with a perceptive eye. The more Jane watched her, the more she reeked of inexperience. It was the way the kid bit her lower lip as she glanced from side to side. It was the apprehension in her step. Give her another year on the street and all that would be walled up inside a crusty exterior.
A tall, lean guy crossed Colfax Avenue and approached the kid. As she caught sight of him, Jane noted how the girl's entire body seized up. That single movement convinced Jane that this girl had never turned a trick in her life. The kid exchanged a few words with the guy, but then things turned ugly. The guy slammed the girl's body against the wall, just a few feet from an alley that skimmed the bar. He had one strong hand on the girl's right shoulder and the other working its way up her short pink skirt. Jane peered more closely at the guy and got out of her car.
"Hey!" Jane yelled with a punctuated clip.
The john turned his head toward Jane but still kept a tight grip on the girl's shoulder. "Mind your own business, bitch!" He turned his attention back to the girl. "A deal's a deal!" He said with an intimidating tone.
Jane moved closer. The girl's eyes darted to Jane. They were brimming with tears. As Jane stood within a few feet of the kid, it became clear she was all of fourteen.
"You like 'em young?" Jane said to the guy as the snow spit against her face.
The guy was pissed as he turned back to Jane. "Unless you want to do a three way, get the fuck outta here!" With that, he jerked the girl by her wrist toward the darkened alley. "Come on!"
"So, Rick," Jane yelled out, "how old is Chelsea now?" The guy stopped dead in his tracks. "She'd be what?" Jane continued. "Thirteen. No, fourteen. As old as this kid right here. Fourteen. You know how I remember Chelsea's age, Rick? I nabbed your sick ass 12 years ago when I worked assault at DH." Rick turned around, squinting at Jane through the falling snow. "I also personally wrote up the restraining order that barred you from having any contact with your then two-year-old daughter."
Rick glared at Jane. "Perry?"
"Yep. Take your hand off the girl, Rick!"
"I never touched Chelsea in that way," Rick said with a firm grip on the kid.
"Ten years in prison and your old lady moving out of state with Chelsea never gave you a chance. Are you gonna let this girl go?"
"I gave her a twenty for a blow job and she ran off with the money before services were rendered! What are we gonna do about that?"
"She's gonna put the twenty toward a bus ticket back home so she can finish ninth grade and start high school with a clean slate. And if that doesn't set well with you, Rick, I've got a Glock under this jacket," Jane said lying through her teeth, "and I'll use it to blow off your dick so you won't have to worry about blow jobs in the future. What's it gonna be?" Jane unbuttoned her jacket as if she were reaching for her pistol.
Rick quickly let go of the girl. "Fuck, Perry! You're crazy!"
"And you'll be dickless if you don't get the hell outta here!"
Rick backed up several steps, then spun on his heels and took off down Colfax.
Jane turned to the girl. "So, tell me. Is the reason you ran away from home worse than living out here and dealing with scum like him?"
The girl shook her head, still trembling from what just transpired. "No.No, ma'am." There was a soft, southern drawl to the girl's frightened voice.
Jane's perceptive ear tuned in. "Tennessee or Alabama?"
The girl's eyes widened in surprise. "Tennessee. Just outside Nashville."
"Denver to Nashville. That's gonna be about $150.00 plus whatever food you need." Jane dug into her jacket pocket and withdrew her wallet. She pulled out every last bill. "All I have left is $160.00. Here," she said, handing the cash to the kid. "We'll have Rick's twenty pick up dinner, okay?" The girl took the money in stunned silence. "There's a runaway shelter one block down on this side of the street. It's next to the gas station. You can't miss it. Ask for Hilary and tell her you need a ride to the bus station. If you leave tonight, you can be home around this time tomorrow. But do me and your family a favor. Wash off the face paint and ask the shelter to give you a pair of jeans and a sweater. You don't want to get off the bus dressed like this and give your mother a stroke! And call your folks before you leave so they know you're coming home. Okay?"
"Yes, ma'am," the girl stuttered.
"And by the way, if I ever catch you working the street again, I'll kick your ass into next week. Understood?"
The girl smiled. "Thank you," she whispered through a well of tears. She started down Colfax and then turned back to Jane. "Hey, how'd you know I was fourteen?"
Jane shrugged her shoulders in an offhand manner. "I just did."
The girl turned and continued toward the shelter. Jane felt a sharp stab of pain around her jaw where Carlos punched her. For the first time that night, she realized how much the beating truly hurt. She took a final drag on her dying cigarette, crushed it into the wet pavement and headed back to her car. Once inside, she angled the rear vision mirror toward the light of the bar's neon sign and examined her battle scars from the bar brawl. Her right cheek was starting to swell. Likewise, her cut lip began showing signs of bruising. For a second, Jane flashed back on a bloody night nearly 22 years before when she was 14 years old and her cop father, Dale, nearly kicked her to death in a drunken rage. It was an incident that haunted and defined Jane for many years and one which fueled so much primal anger. It was also a memory that, up until nearly six months ago, triggered her need for a fifth of Jack Daniels at one sitting.
Jane was just about to fall back into the violent flashback when she thought she saw a face looking at her in the reflection of the rear view mirror. She shifted the mirror to the old sedan parked directly behind her Mustang. However, between the shadows that cut through the curtains of falling snow, Jane couldn't see a figure in the car. The only thing she could identify was a crystal hanging from the sedan's rear vision mirror.
Paranoia rightfully kicked in as Jane sat back in the seat. She slipped her left elbow toward the driver's door lock and pressed it down. Reaching under her seat, she pulled out her Glock, placed it in her lap and stared straight ahead. Jane's mind raced with various scenarios of who she may have seen-a mob lackey hired to stay outside and wait for her exit, a Denver detective planning to trail her moves or.nobody. It was the psychological price Jane paid for getting involved in dicey clandestine work and it was taking its toll on her psyche. She snuck another look in the rear vision mirror and was shocked to see that the sedan was gone. Looking around, Jane couldn't believe she missed the stealth exit of the mysterious car. She tuned into the moment, surrounded by the fast falling snow and listened to her gut. When all else failed, Jane Perry could always rely on her sixth sense. And right now, her gut was surprisingly free of turmoil.
Checking her watch, she noted it was just after 7:30. She deduced she could head home and order a pizza and ruminate on how her life was going to hell or she could attend the regular 8:00 AA meeting in the basement of the Methodist Church a few blocks from where she lived. Being a Friday night and a couple days after Christmas, Jane figured the meeting would be filled with people who were equally engaged in gnashing their teeth over their individual dramas. "What the hell," Jane muttered to herself as she clenched the cigarette between her teeth, slid her Glock under the front seat and peeled away from the curb.
She pulled into the parking lot of the Methodist Church at 8:10 with the butts of two cigarettes still smoking in the ashtray. Traffic had been heavy due to the snow and the parking lot was crammed full of cars. Several other vehicles stacked up behind her Mustang in search of a parking spot. Jane was about to give up when she eyed a sliver of cement next to a far curb. Banking her wheels so that half of her car was on the curb and half on the cement, Jane managed to squeeze her Mustang into the space. As she crossed to the back door of the church, she sensed prying eyes focused upon her. She quickly turned around. The only action she noted was three AA members sucking on the dying embers of their cigarettes before heading down the back steps of the church. But as she followed the others down the steps, Jane could still sense the intense gaze of someone out in the snowy darkness.
As Jane expected, the church basement was packed with well over 60 people. The 1000 square foot room felt hot and dank as she maneuvered around the crowd, all tightly stuffed onto the couches and chairs with only the cushion of their down jackets between them. She located a metal folding chair and wedged it between two couches in the back, just behind the table that held the coffee and bowl of packaged crackers and cheap candy. The meeting had started on time, since the customary recital of the Twelve Traditions was completed. Another female member read the Twelve Steps.
"One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable," the woman said with a shaky voice. "Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."
Jane peered around the crush of bodies, noting a lot of new faces. Their hollow eyes gave them away. It was the look of every alcoholic new to the program-a lifeless, blank stare that gradually filled with hope as the weeks progressed. In Jane's peripheral vision, she caught an old man staring at her. When she looked over at the gentleman, she realized he was drawn to her beaten face. He gently patted his own cheek as if to say, "What happened to you?" Jane shrugged her shoulders and mouthed, "It's okay" in an off-hand manner trying to minimize her awkward appearance.
"Three," the woman continued reading, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."
That's where Jane tuned out the woman's voice. It was appropriate. For whatever reason, Jane was stuck on Step Four. She wasn't sure if she just didn't want to work the program or if the words simply weren't connecting with her. Somewhere deep down, Jane could appreciate the significance of the Twelve Steps but the words weren't integrating into her psyche. At times, she likened it to crossing a rickety bridge over a roaring river and wondering how in the hell that compromised bridge was going to safely lead her to the other side. The straightforward declarations within each of the Twelve Steps resonated with millions and made the difference between pursuing a chaotic life or a serene existence. Yet, for Jane, the words felt flat and meaningless. She had no idea how to begin a "searching and fearless moral inventory." Jane could fearlessly defend herself or someone she loved against any number of oppressors. But to boldly delve into the deep, dark regions where the demons play.well, she didn't know how to begin such a daunting task.
"Would anyone like a 24 hour chip?" the evening's appointed leader asked the group. A petite, red-haired woman in her 30's raised her hand. "Great! Come on up and get it! How about 30 days?" An angular, crusty old cowboy in his 70's got up from the couch and collected the chip. "Ninety days?" Three people dislodged themselves from their seats and pocketed their three-month chip. "Six months?" Jane was two days shy of snagging that chip but figured it would be bad luck to add it to her collection before the actual date. The distribution of sobriety chips continued with nine months and finally one year. Finally, it was time to cruise around the room and make introductions.
"I'm Joanie and I'm an alcoholic."
"Hi, Joanie," the group responded in unison.
"I'm Alex and I'm an alcoholic/drug addict."
Once again, Jane's mind wandered. Perhaps it was the throbbing pain around her eye and lip that was causing serious discomfort. But whatever the reason, when it became Jane's turn to introduce herself, she missed her cue. The older woman to her left gently touched her arm, bringing Jane back into the room.
"I'm Jane. And I'm an alcoholic." The words fell tiredly, sounding more as if she were ordering a bag of fries than declaring a life-affirming revelation.
"Hi, Jane," the group responded.
Introductions continued for another five minutes. Then it was time to open up the meeting to whatever topic crept into the minds of the group. Jane shifted her aching body in the hard chair and waited for what she expected would be a sad drone of post Christmas despair. She was about to zone out again when a wiry, dirty blonde woman in her late 40's spoke up.
"I'm Michelle and I'm an alcoholic/addict."
"Hi, Michelle," the group dutifully responded.
"I've been sober and drug free three years, Christmas Day. I think that day is appropriate because that's when I had my big spiritual awakening. But there were lots of moments that served as spiritual awakenings. I just didn't recognize them at the time. When they're happening, you're usually so wrapped up in whatever shit's goin' on that you don't realize that the hand of God just touched you and transformed your existence. Like three and a half years ago, I'd been drinking pretty much for four days straight and decided it would be a great idea to get in my truck and go for a drive. But I was so fucked up that I forgot I had 42 empty beer cans and two empty bottles of Jose Cuervo rollin' around the backseat." The group chuckled in a knowing manner. The woman continued. "So I'm driving and getting more pissed at everything in my life. And I don't realize I'm going over 90 in a 40 mile an hour zone. I also don't see that there's a turn just up ahead. I come up on that turn and try to make it but it's hard to carve a turn going 90 miles an hour when you're sober let alone drunk. So my truck banks on the divider and then flips twice, landing on its hood. For some unknown reason, I don't fly out of the truck window. I'm just hangin' upside down and all around me are those 42 crushed beer cans. The two empty glass bottles of Cuervo had smashed and the chards were embedded in my face. But I didn't feel anything. I was like, 'Fuck! This sucks.' Then a state trooper drives up. It didn't take him more than a second to put two and two together. He said, 'Well, lady, you sure did it to yourself.' I said, 'Get me the fuck outta here.' At least, I tried to say it. I didn't know that I'd almost bitten my tongue half off. The ambulance shows up and they use the Jaws of Life to pry me out. Next thing, I'm in the emergency room and there's the nurse shoving this paper in my face, saying I have to sign it. They'd sewn my tongue back together, but it was swelling up and they said that in less an hour, it would be so swollen that I wouldn't be able to swallow and I'd die. So, I had to sign the piece of paper to let them operate again and save my life. And I thought, 'Wow. I have a clear choice right now to sign my name on a piece of paper and, in doing so, choose to live. Or I could just lay here and die in less than an hour.' That was profound, you know? So, I signed the paper. And you'd think that that would have been the great moment of change for me, right? Wrong.
"Chasing death was my newest addiction. The closer I got to death, the more fun life was. When I got out of the hospital, I started mixing booze and drugs. I lost my job. I lost my house. And the whole time, I cursed God for abandoning me. I ended up in a homeless shelter in the worst part of town. Every possession I had fit into a duffel bag and I got that stolen the second night there. A week later, I got the shit kicked out of me in the alley over a bad drug deal. A week later, right before Christmas, I got raped by three guys. I figured that was it. God had forsaken me and there was no reason to go on. So, on Christmas Eve, I locked myself in the shelter's bathroom and downed a bottle of Valium and a fifth of Jack. I lay on that tile floor and waited for God or the Devil to come get me.
"That's when it happened. I stepped out of my body and looked down at myself lying there. For the first time in my life, I looked at myself as I really was. I saw how much I hated myself and how fucking angry I was at everybody and everything. And in the same moment, I realized that all the shit in my life, all the stuff that I thought was so awful and had led me to that cold, tile floor, had served a greater purpose. All the things I thought were terrible were actually spiritual awakenings that were trying to lead me toward my higher Self. Yet, each time they happened, I wasn't ready to grab onto the towline and pull myself to shore. That didn't mean God wasn't there the whole time. He was beside me but He was also within me. Those are the only words I have to explain it. I looked down at myself and for the first time in my life, I felt love and compassion for that person lying there. I never loved myself until I was on the edge of death. I spoke to God. I thanked Him for the car accident. I thanked Him for getting beat up. I thanked Him for getting raped. And I thanked Him for the grace of a quick death or a better life. And this time I meant it.
"The doctors said I should have died that night. None of them could understand how anyone could survive what I did to myself. But I've never questioned it. I just know that the synchronicities of my life are neither good or bad. They are all opportunities to move closer to the God within." The woman peered down at the worn, blue carpeting and wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. "Someone told me that temptation precedes growth," she whispered. "Now I know what that means."
The group was silent. Jane sat stone-faced. She'd heard plenty of stories over the last few months from group members, but this one drove deep into her core. A swell of emotion inexplicably crept up on her as her thoughts shifted onto that winter night almost 22 years ago. She remembered stepping out of herself and looking at the battered and blood-soaked body that lay lifeless on the dirt floor of her father's workshop. But for Jane, there was no compassion or love for that girl on the floor. There was only the desire to die so the pain would cease. The taste of salt brought Jane back into herself as she furtively wiped a tear off her face. A second later, the cut on her lip throbbed. She knew the only way to temporarily short circuit her pain was via a strong dose of nicotine. Jane quietly stood up and made her way to the stairs that led outside.
Thankfully, the snow had ceased, leaving a dry layer of caked, white powder on the black asphalt parking lot. The orange streetlamps cast a distorted glow against the world. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. Jane looked around the parking lot as the stillness enveloped her. She figured a gentle walk might help, so she drifted toward the front of the brick church. Once away from the glare of the streetlamps, she stopped, gazing into the black velvet December sky.
"Hey," said a soft voice from the darkness. Jane turned quickly to her right. A round-faced woman in her mid-60's sat on the cement steps that led to the church's front door. "Sorry," the woman said. "I thought I should say something so you knew I was here and didn't freak when you saw me."
Jane's first thought was that she'd never heard a woman in her mid-60's use the word "freak" unless she was using it to describe someone who she considered weird. "Okay," Jane said. There was an awkward silence between them as Jane drew two drags off her dying cigarette, blowing the smoke away from the woman. The woman shifted her backside on the cold steps and wrapped her long, wool coat around her chest. "You know, it's warm downstairs. And there's hot coffee if you want it."
"Oh, I'm sure. Thank you," the woman replied, not moving a muscle.
Jane regarded the woman out of the corner of her eye. She appeared slightly plump under her heavy purple coat. Her lilac suede boots rose above her calf, under what appeared to be a violet wool dress. On her head, she wore a jaunty, multi-colored bouclé hat. What really caught Jane's observant eye was a thick, single braid of salt and pepper hair that reached to the middle of the woman's back. The words "well dressed Bohemian" rang in Jane's head. This woman was no road-ravaged drunk, she thought. This was a woman who lived well, albeit alone, and swigged a bottle of good red wine every night as she watched the Arts & Entertainment cable channel. For some unknown reason, Jane decided to do what she hardly ever did: strike up a conversation with a total stranger.
"I remember my first time coming to a meeting," Jane offered, flicking her cigarette onto the curb. "I hung right around these same steps, sucking down a half pack of Marlboros before going down in the basement and meeting the folks." The woman turned to Jane with a nervous smile. "My name's Jane."
The woman looked into Jane's eyes. "I'm Katherine Clark."
"Oh, no, no," Jane admonished Katherine in a joking manner. "No last names. It's like the hotel marquees on the Vegas Strip. "Liza." "Elton." "Siegfried and Roy." I'm Jane P. and you're Katherine C."
"Kit," the woman said, an undercurrent of nerves still below the surface. "Everyone calls me Kit."
Kit peered at Jane's beaten face. "Looks like you got smacked pretty hard."
Jane shrugged it off. "I just had a little run in with a pool table."
"And the pool table won?" Kit quickly replied.
"Fuck, no! It's a goner!"
"Okay," Kit said, with a smile.
Jane eyed Kit. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you, mid-60's?"
"I'll be 68 next year."
"One thing I've noticed talking with the Basement People here-"
"The Basement People?"
"That's what I call them. I'd rather say I'm going to see the Basement People than I'm going to a meeting. Personal preference. Anyway, I've noticed a definite distinction between your generation of drunks and what's out there today. There was a certain dignity to your group that you just don't see anymore. Your liver could be the texture of pâté, you might be perambulating around on two legs that look like thick dowels, you could fall asleep on the kitchen floor clutching a drained bottle of scotch, but you still managed to get up every morning and make it work. Goddammit, I respect that!" Jane slid another cigarette out of her pack and lit up. She handed Kit the pack of cigarettes.
"No, thank you."
"Oh, come on. You can't give up one addiction without starting a new one."
"No, thank you."
"Suit yourself," Jane slid the pack into her coat pocket. "But understand that meetings are sponsored by R.J. Reynolds. We gotta numb the pain, right?" Jane said with a nervous edge to her voice.
"I need to feel my pain," Kit said, her eyes trailing across the ground.
"Running is always a popular one. That's what I do now. I run in circles around my block like a fucking nut. And coffee. I'm a coffee expert. Gourmet coffee, not the cheap shit. I bet I've got close to 20 pounds of coffee in my freezer. If one's good, 20's better. That's the alcoholic creed."
"I haven't heard that one."
"We Basement Folk have a pithy saying for everything. 'Fake it 'til you make it.' 'One day at a time'. And of course, 'Let go and let God.'"
"That's a good one."
"It's one thing to say it, Kit C.. It's another thing to actually do it."
"You don't sound as if you enjoy being here."
"Who in their right mind would enjoy this? Regurgitating your past in front of people with initials for last names. 'Naming it and claiming it.'" Jane peered off into the distance. "I used to hang out with drunks in bars three or four times a week. Now, I get to hang out with these drunks, drink bad coffee, eat crappy candy and listen to stories of redemption. You know, Kit C., there's nothing more tedious than listening to drunks prattle on about redemption! It's like paying a whore to read you the Book of Revelations. What's the fucking point?"
"You don't think a drunk is worthy of redemption?" Kit asked, really studying Jane's face.
"Sure, why not? Let's hand redemption out to everybody!"
"You always use sarcasm to skirt an issue?" Kit asked with a penetrating stare.
Jane turned to Kit. There was something different about this woman-a quiet intensity. At once, it attracted and repelled Jane. "Well, yeah. It usually works."
"But those who know you don't let you get away with it," Kit declared.
The conversation had turned far too personal for Jane. She felt the need to either buffer her well-built wall and change the subject or return to the dank basement. Jane chose the former. "So, have you started your personal inventory?"
"My personal inventory?"
"Oh, right, this is your first time. Step #4: 'Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.' According to the Big Book, "We search out the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure. Being convinced that self, manifested in various ways, was what had defeated us, we considered its common manifestations.'"
"You memorized that well," Kit responded.
"I could memorize a phone book. It doesn't mean I know the people in it."
"I think I have," Kit said, looking off to the side.
"Made a moral inventory. I had to. I had to understand why I did things that in retrospect, were careless and responsible for destroying others."
"I think 'destroying' is a bit over the top."
"Not in my case. I've spent years in 'moral inventory.'"
"Well, good for you," Jane said, taking another drag on her cigarette. "They're just words to me these days. A million questions but no answers."
"What if the answer is that there is no answer? Just faith?"
"Faith? There's a fucking dark pit if there ever was one!"
"Don't you believe in God?"
"In that power greater than me? Sure. Why not? Better to believe than not believe and be caught with your pants down when your time's up, right?"
"But you still can't let go and let God?"
"Well, Kit C., therein lies my daily struggle." Jane's stared aimlessly into the night sky. "I'd let go and let God if I thought He knew what the hell He was doing."
Kit stared at Jane in a probing manner. "Do you really mean that?"
Jane thought about it. "Yeah. I do," she said as the realization hit hard. "I guess that makes me the ultimate control addict. I want finite answers to infinite questions. I want black and white solutions to gray problems. Today is something I just gotta get through. And tomorrow is full of apprehension." She felt herself slipping into the void. Jane Perry would never allow herself to be so vulnerable in front of a stranger but there she was, standing in the shadows and saying things she had only thought about in these last few months. "You know, Kit C., we think we've got it all figured out and that the dark night of the soul is behind us. We become aware that we have a problem and we think that's the beginning of the light shining into our lives. But it's just the beginning of the rocky ride. It's the first layer of the onion after you dig it out of the ground. It's full of dirt and you peel that layer away and the layer underneath is still a little dirty but as you continue peeling, the onion gets cleaner. But you know what happens when you get to the center of the onion, Kit? There's another fresh, dirty onion waiting for you. It never ends."
Kit pulled herself up with the help of the metal rail. "Enlightenment is a life long process, Jane P. Just a whole lot of fresh onions waiting to be peeled."
Jane came out of her daze and looked at Kit. "Well, that's fucked."
Kit smiled broadly. She picked up her purse that looked more like a tapestry carpetbag than the typical purse a 68-year-old carried. "I've got something in here that'll help take the pain away and make your face heal faster."
"You got a bottle of Jack in there?"
"No, but I have this," Kit said, handing Jane a small, amber glass bottle.
Jane hesitated as she took the bottle. Using the reflected glare of the orange streetlamps, she made out the words on the label. "Arnica?"
"It's a homeopathic remedy for bruising. Take four pellets under your tongue every 15 minutes for the next couple hours and then take four every hour tomorrow. You should see marked improvement if you get on it right away."
Jane regarded Kit with a puzzled look. "You a doctor?"
"Oh, God, no. A doctor wouldn't know what the hell those were!" Kit zipped up her purse and carefully moved off the steps and onto the snowy pavement. "See you soon." Kit started off into the darkness, away from the church.
"You're not going to the meeting?" Jane called after her.
Kit turned. "Not tonight, Jane P." With that, she turned the corner and disappeared from Jane's sight.
Jane stood in the semi-darkness, debating her next move. There was 15 minutes left in the meeting. But the thought of dragging herself into the basement was becoming less appealing. She looked at the bottle of arnica and thought "What the hell." Jane popped four of the tiny white pellets under her tongue and headed to her Mustang.
She pulled up in front of her brick house on Milwaukee Street 10 minutes later, just as the snow began to fall in a blinding diagonal arch. Jane grabbed her Glock from under the driver's seat and tucked it halfway down the front of her jeans. Stashing the blonde wig in her coat pocket, she dashed for the front door. She'd left the television set in the living room on "mute" before going to The Red Tail. The erratic glow served as the only light in the room as she tossed her Glock on the kitchen table. Turning to the television, she was greeted with the words "Breaking News" across the bottom of the television screen. Jane knocked back another four pellets of arnica as she watched a Sheriff's Deputy from California hold up a flyer with the photo of an angelic-looking young blonde-haired girl. Jane almost hit the volume button on her remote control but was overcome by the extreme weariness of the day's events. She clicked off the television and turned to head down the hall to her bedroom when she noted the blinking red light on her answering machine.
Punching the button, she was shocked to hear Sergeant Weyler's voice.
"Jane. It's me. We just missed each other at the bar tonight. I need you to call me ASAP on my cell or at home. I don't care how late it is. We have to talk."
The machine beeped, signaling the end of the message. Jane hit the erase button and walked into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her with a violent swing.