I’m nobody.

The woman staring across the sad, flaking grey metal table clearly knew that already. She never bothered asking my name.

Just gave a dismissive glance at me as if to try to figure if I had any use at all. Just a raggedy-girl crumpled in the chair in front of her.

“Fifteen years. You’re mine for fifteen. If the police had rolled you up, you’d have probably been sentenced to twenty. Maybe gotten parole after six.”

“So why fifteen, if it’s six?” I wasn’t even sure I cared anymore, but I had the sense that looking weak to her would be a very, very bad idea.

“Because the police didn’t catch you. We did.” She paused, waving her hand dismissively, “Well, he did. And you may not understand it, but that was a death sentence.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but nothing came out. She was telling a cold unvarnished truth. I’d been dead. Lying in a cold grave in the basement of a house. I knew, absolutely, knew that I was dead. My life had ended and it didn’t matter to anyone. The only one who would have even realized I was missing was lying in the grave next to mine.

“Who is he?”

“That’s not really important, is it? The important part is that you were dead the second you walked into that house.”

There was no arguing with that either – the white-haired guy had put Duarte down so fast and smooth I still hadn’t figured out how he’d done it, and I’d been looking right at him. I’d been in, and seen, plenty of fights. But nothing like this. It was more like watching a lion attack on a nature show. Or a crocodile come out of nowhere.

He’d played us. The limp, the stiffness that had gotten my attention, and convinced me he was a good target had been a lure.

Whenever I thought back to it, I could still feel it.

That terrified, startled, feeling you get when you are just starting to drift to sleep and it suddenly feels like you’re falling.

Your leg kicks out.

Your heart explodes.

And after a fraction of a second, you calm down and try to relax.

Except I hadn’t calmed down. Because I wasn’t in bed and I wasn’t going to wake up.

I was trapped in a suddenly too-small room with a real predator.

I’d managed to suppress my panic just enough to try to run and found the door somehow locked to trap me in. When I turned around, he was standing stone still over Duarte’s bloody form, not even breathing heavy.

There wasn’t any question; this was the end. I would be killed and nobody would ever know or care what happened to me.

I was so stunned by how quickly everything had turned I went numb. No fear, no panic, just acceptance of my fate.

But it hadn’t happened. For his own reasons, he’d decided to let us live.

Not unscathed, in Duarte’s case.

And I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t have been better off dead.

The grimly amused woman across the table from me had made it perfectly clear without saying a word that “dead” was still an option. Maybe even the preferable one, as far as she was concerned.

I only knew her as “Donna”. That was all her guards called her, all anyone ever called her. It felt more like a title than a name.

I waited.

She glanced down at a piece of paper then back up at me, calculating.

“You do what I tell you or we finish what he started. He thought you might have use as a bird dog.”

Seeing my confusion, she clarified herself. “He thinks you can follow people.”

I tried to suppress a little smile at that. He’d actually seemed impressed, and for some stupid reason that felt important to me.

“Don’t get too happy. You’re a throwaway. You don’t know anything. The important thing is that you’re clean. Unknown.”

She paused, looking through me cold eyes. “The important thing is that you’re nobody.”


At least they gave me some oversized jeans and old tennis shoes to go with my sweatshirt before they took me back to a room and locked me in. I pretty much sat and rotted in what looked like an old-school room with painted over windows for an eternity, until one of the guys I was thinking of as one of “Donna’s Dobermans” opened the door. Barely looking at me, he gestured me to follow and led me out to a half-rust beater car. A skinny, ragged, washed-out guy in a faded, tattered, brown crew cap and a jacket that might have started off blue about two decades ago, was sitting in the driver’s seat, with a lost, spaced-out expression.

The Doberman just turned and walked away toward an alley, leaving me standing by the car. He hadn’t said a word.

The driver looked up and gave a halfhearted smile that was missing a few teeth. “Hop in. I’m Tommy, your cruise director.”

I shrugged and walked around the car to the passenger seat. He seemed somewhere between thirty and fifty, colorless, brittle. Like he’d just crumble away at any second.

I fumbled my way in, sweeping a couple hamburger wrappers off the battered used-to-be leather seat, and keeping an eye out for any rats that might still be alive. From the smell, I suspected they’d died of black mold.

Once I was in, he looked over at me with the slightly jittery eyes of a speed addict. “What do I call you?”

Not “What’s your name?” I noticed.

I thought for a second. “Spooky. Just call me Spooky.”

“Cool. S’all good, Spooky. I’m taking you to your new home, the Ritz Carlton.” He paused and shrugged with a slightly crazed half smile. “Maybe not the Ritz, but the doors lock, mostly. And the toilets flush, and sometimes you can even get hot water.”

He scratched underneath his cap for a second, leaving a few strands of wispy light brown hair sticking out. He fumbled in his jacket and pulled out a ratty looking envelope, shoving it at me. “Your key’s in there. And a cash card –there’s a PIN number on the back. And an unlimited subway card. Your cash card has $500 dollars, and it will be loaded with another $500 every two weeks.”

Enough to live on, but not really easy to build enough to run with.

We drove through a maze of streets, each one worse than the last until he pulled in front of a sleazy 1950’s two story motel. The sign was broken out and unreadable. The parking lot was edged with dead weeds.

He stopped in front of the main entrance. “There’s never anybody on duty at the front desk. You’re in room 223. Next to Amber.” There was a hint of something when he said “Amber.” Something, a tone, a feeling, maybe, in his voice.

“How do I…”

“You don’t. They’ll call when they need… anything.” He seemed to pause heavily at that word, and for a second I really considered that maybe “dead” might have been my best option. “If they need you, they’ll call between 4 and 5 in the morning. ”

“What if I’m not there?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. But I don’t think you want them to have to go looking for you.”

He pulled out without saying anything else.

I made my way past the desk to the stairs and down the hall to my room.

Faded. Stained. There were more holes than carpet, and the peeling veneer desk next to the bed was a collage of cigarette burns and coffee cup rings. The only things on it were an ancient liver-colored phone and a neat stack of maps — Washington DC, Arlington, Rosslyn and so on. The maps might as well have had “study me” printed on them.

The closet had a battered, off-kilter door and the bathroom had no door at all. A fragment of one hung from the top hinge though.

At least there was toilet paper.

I’d been sitting on the folding metal chair by the desk trying to make sense of the maps for an hour when somebody knocked hesitantly on the door to my new home.

A watery-eyed, bone-thin bleach-blonde girl stood there. Garish makeup and gold lame shorts with a white fur-trimmed jacket made her profession pretty clear.

“You must be Spooky. Tommy told me. I’m Amber.” She held up a white paper bag. “Indian food. You okay with that?” Her voice was slightly nasal, the way characters in movies from New Jersey talk.

I didn’t even really have a chance to answer, she just walked past me and plopped her skinny butt down on the bed.

As much as her skinny, 90-pound ass could “plop”, anyway.

She kicked off ridiculously tall heels and sighed with relief.

She began to pull Styrofoam containers out, standing them precariously on the bed. “We have chicken vindaloo… and… chicken vindaloo.” She looked up at me with a slightly apologetic, fragile smile. “I like chicken vindaloo and I didn’t want to take the chance you’d choose it.” She pulled a couple of bottles of water out.

I closed the door, realizing I hadn’t eaten since… since sometime before Duarte and I had run afoul of the white-haired man. I even kind of tried to smile when I picked up one of the containers and walked back to the pulled out chair.

“Thanks. I’m starving.”

“Confusing, isn’t it?”

“Who are they?”

“We don’t ask them, it’s probably not a good idea.”

“I can see that.”

“Tommy thinks it’s some kind of syndicate thing. I think it’s some kind of industrial spy stuff. The guys I, uh, entertain? Well, they’re usually pretty flush.”

I had my own ideas about it, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell anyone I’d just met. We stopped talking for a while. After not eating for so long, the spicy food tasted better than I’d even dreamed food could taste. I finally stopped when only raw Styrofoam squeaked under my plastic spoon.

She put her container on the floor and laid back with her legs dangling off the edge of the bed.

“I’m not asking, but you must have really, really fucked up to be here. We all did. That woman…” Amber shuddered, “she ain’t playing.”

“I noticed.”

“She doesn’t care what you do when she’s not using you; I’m trying to build up a little money…” she hooked the strap on one of her spike heel shoes with a toe and waved it around to make it clear just how she was earning the money. “She doesn’t care.”

I shrugged. “Thanks for the job offer, but that’s not my thing.”

She smiled up at the ceiling without looking over. “Didn’t think it was. Whatever you do though, don’t get in real trouble. There was a guy — he was a mook, did strong arm stuff, a leg-breaker. Mostly played the heavy in badger games. He got busted for robbery and assault while he was here — he had this room, actually — ended up hanging himself in jail.” She sat up and shot a serious look at me. “Thing is, he wasn’t the type to kill himself. He was a really big guy and he wasn’t afraid to go to prison.”

It felt scripted, artificial, like she was giving a formal warning. “I got the idea.”

“Seriously. Tommy’s worried you’re gonna run. They’ll find you sooner or later.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go.”

She shrugged dramatically. Kind of like one of those actresses in really old black and white movies. “Story of my life. Nowhere to go. ”

“So how long…?”

“Two years ago, I promised them ten years for getting me out of the prison sentence. I was holding a kilo of coke for my boyfriend. Got caught with it and he bailed.” Her face twisted in disgust, though with her ex-boyfriend or herself I wasn’t sure. “Of course. Public Defender told me I was looking at 15 years if we bargained it down. Then that woman showed up…” she trailed off for a second, maybe thinking about decisions. “She told me that all I had to do was keep doing what I’d be doing anyway, but for her. She’d make it all go away.”

She stopped and focused back at me. “I do what they tell me to do, wear what they tell me to wear, go where they tell me and do my best to screw whoever they tell me to screw. They don’t even use me all that often — once a month, maybe twice, usually not at all.”


“And nothing. They don’t explain why, they don’t tell me anything ‘cept what I need to know to do my part.”


“He’s a good guy.” I got the same strange, not-quite-right, vibe from her that I got from Tommy. “But he’s a mess.”


“And a little blow sometimes. He’s trying to forget.” She looked down at the floor. “He used to be an emergency room nurse. His wife was a nurse too. When she had their baby, it was a blue baby. Ya’ know that can only happen when the mommy and the baby have different blood types? Tommy and wifey had the same blood type.” She glanced over at me. “You know what that means.” I nodded. “Tommy figured out who the doctor banging his wife was and started a fight with him in right there in the emergency room.” There was a hint of pride in her voice. “Ended up sentenced to five years for assault.”

“She got him out of it?”

“Oh, no. He did three years and then got paroled. But he was already hooked when he was a nurse, and when he got caught with speed while he was still on parole, she showed up.”

Tommy definitely didn’t look like prison would have been easy for him. “And the doctor?”

“Tommy’s wife divorced him while he was in prison and then married the pig. Or maybe the doctor married the pig. Whatever.” A slight scowl and a hint of anger crept into her tone. “At least he made the asshole remember him. He was bigger than Tommy and beating him real good until Tommy tackled him over the edge of one of those ambulance beds with the handrail raised. ‘Crack!'” She made a breaking motion with her hands and moved her head in that peculiar way only Jersey girls do. Her voice suddenly sing-songed for a second. “The Doc’s in a wheelchair for life.” She smiled, a lurid, too-wide smile.

Maybe Tommy was a little tougher than he looked.

Still, I heard it in her voice and almost bit my tongue at the irony of it. Tommy’s wife was screwing another guy and it ended their marriage and put Tommy in prison. Now he obviously had a thing for an honest-to-God streetwalking whore. And she just as clearly had a thing for him.

“I wasn’t asking before, but since you asked me?” She let the question hang.

“Me and a friend did some home invasions, and a guy got shot. Cops didn’t catch us, a friend of the guy did.” I stopped, remembering. “Scariest man I ever saw. He was going to kill us, but instead he hurt my friend real bad, then turned me over to her.”

“Somebody like maybe one of those guards of hers?”

I shook my head, shivering a little. “He makes them look like toy poodles.”

Amber nodded once. “I know they have some real hard-cases. Before she left, Candy used to work my corner; Tommy dropped her off there, just like he does me. One of the pimps threatened her and Tommy. Some guys just kind of showed up. The pimp got hurt bad that night. Real bad. Along with about a dozen other guys. Bad busted, knees, elbows, trigger fingers all smashed with hammers.”

I felt that falling sickness again. “I think… that may be kind of a signature thing. That’s what happened to my partner.” I didn’t tell her that the white-haired man had made me do it to Duarte myself.

That I either did it or we both died.

She studied the threadbare carpet for a second. “Yeah…” she flashed a weak smile. “Well, they made their point. I don’t get hassled.”

“So, what happened to Candy?”

“Her time was up, she just left.” There was a hint of fear, a taste of desperate want-to-believe in that.

But I don’t think she believed herself any more than I did. Not really.

I faked a smile. I know it wasn’t very convincing, but it seemed to help a little.

“I’m pretty tired.”

“Yeah, me too.” She picked up the containers and dropped them back in the paper bag. “The dumpster is out front. Housekeeping is kind of slow. As in I ain’t seen anyone in two years. So if you don’t want any more bugs, rats, or mice than already live here, you gotta drop your own trash off.”

She stopped at the door. “It ain’t all bad, you do your thing – whatever your thing is – and they leave you alone, mostly.”


“You get bored or just want to hang out, I’m usually right here during the day.” She pointed over toward what I assumed was her room. “Just not on Sundays. Never on Sundays.”

She walked out in bare feet holding her shoes in one hand. Brave girl, I wasn’t sure the carpet wasn’t septic. And I’d slept behind more than a few dumpsters in the last few years.

She’d been making sure she told me the rules — and she seemed to think somebody was listening. It fit with what I sensed of Donna’s people.


I spent my days exploring the city. DC is nowhere near as large as Chicago, and much easier to move around in by subway. I sought out a thrift store, a discount grocery. A pawn shop.

Clothes from the Salvation Army, clothes that would swallow me, make me the raggedy homeless girl. Human debris, not just something people didn’t notice; I wanted to be something people avoided noticing.

Every morning, waking up at four, waiting for the phone to ring. Wondering if it ever would or if this was some kind of purgatory. Sometimes I wondered if maybe I had died. If maybe I was really buried in that dirt floor basement. Sometimes during the day, I picked it up just to hear a dial tone. Make sure it was working, I told myself.

Amber knocked on the door occasionally. “To talk.” she said. Always with some kind of food. Indian, Thai, Cuban, Mexican. Always with the wariness of a rabbit in room full of foxes. Always trying to feel me out, to see what I was thinking of doing. Stilted. Desperate to protect herself and Tommy from the consequences of anything I might decide to do.

I got the impression she didn’t know if they would blame her. But she was terrified to take a chance.

I was right about her and Tommy. He stayed in her room on Sundays, they walled themselves off from the world until Monday. Sometimes I could hear muffled domestic sounds. And sometimes laughter. As if they were real people.

It was almost two months before the phone range. An odd clicking ring, like the phone had seen some hard days.

“Out front. 8AM.”

The line went dead, then came the rasping croak of a busy signal.

I tried to sleep more, but in the end just lay awake until it was time to go.

When I walked out, Tommy sat in his rattletrap of a car waiting.

He handed me a picture.

“Study him, then give it back. Just follow and report.” He handed me a little black notebook and a couple pens.

“Report what?”

“I don’t know. Whatever the target does, whatever you think, maybe. They didn’t say.”

Target. That was the word. “How long?”

“All week. Until Saturday night. There’s a phone number inside the notebook. Call every night at midnight and just listen. If the plan changes that’s how they’ll let you know.”

The “target” was staying at a hotel, one of the aging, less fancy ones. I picked him up less than an hour after Tommy dropped me off in a back alley.

Six days of tourist shit. He seemed intent on hitting every museum, every memorial and every food cart in the city. Six nights of watching the hotel. Watching the housekeeping crew spend half the night on the loading dock and arguing loudly in Spanish and laughing raucously.

Watching the night desk clerk slip out to smoke pot with his girlfriend in her car in the parking lot across the street.

Six nights of dead air on the phone number.

I didn’t know what to write, so I wrote everything. Where he went, what he ate, what he looked at. I snagged receipts from his table. The names of the housekeepers with their schedules, the desk clerk. Even the desk guy’s girlfriend. Along with her bra size, because they didn’t always just smoke pot in that car and they left the front window down while they were in the back seat.