|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.60(d)|
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The girl couldn't have been more than sixteen, plodding down the sidewalk on Bleecker Street as if she'd lost everything. She no longer looked at the dirty storefronts, didn't notice the street people asking her to "spare some change", and didn't smell the burnt coffee-grounds in the air. She didn't notice the smartly dressed woman stalking her or the black limousine cruising down the street at the same slow pace and backing up traffic for blocks. Even the cacophony of car horns and shouted curses didn't faze her. She was dressed Greenwich Village from head to toe in thin India cotton and sandals with her black hair thoroughly bushed, but she no longer felt she looked cool. Everyone else was dressed the same. She even looked conservative compared to some of them. Laney never realized until now that she'd been taken care of all her life. Everything had just happened. Everything had always worked. If she didn't get what she wanted, it was just a matter of asking someone else. Now, she was in another world, and nothing was working. She had a problem and no one was making it go away.
Laney shrugged off the person at her elbow, and then noticed it was a woman wearing expensive clothes who looked only a few years older than she was.
"You're in trouble," the woman said.
"Huh!" Laney thought of a hundred smart-ass remarks to throw back at the woman, but she was too curious to vaporize the woman yet.
"My name's Mary. I work for a philanthropist who likes to perform individual acts of kindness for people who really need a helping hand."
"You're trying to get me into prostitution!" Laney hissed. How dumb did they think she was?
"No," Mary said. "No, that's not it at all." Instead of pushing her, the woman waited. "Of course, if you're not interested…." The woman said and started to turn away.
"No, tell me the deal," Laney said, trying not to sound as desperate as she felt, and slouched in a cool way so she wouldn't look like a helpless teenager.
"You'll be given a nice place to live and good medical care and everything that you and your baby need."
"Did Rick send you? That bastard! It's his responsibility to take care of my baby, not some philanthropist!"
"No, no, he didn't send us. He doesn't know anything about this."
"Not that he'd care." If there was one person Laney hated above all others in this rotten world, hated more than she thought she could ever hate anybody, it was Rick.
"And you'll be given-"
"This man wants my baby, doesn't he?" Laney said. "Well, he's not getting my baby! My baby's mine!"
"Of course, of course. As soon as you're on your feet, you and your baby will be free to do whatever you want to do."
Laney looked up and down the crowded sidewalk. What could she do! Without any money! Without a job! Not that she wanted any job anybody would give her. If something didn't happen soon, she'd have to go back home and live with her mother again, and that was almost as bad as anything else she could think of.
"Okay, okay, I'll go for this. But if this is a trick, I'm going to strangle that philanthropist of yours. You tell him that!"
"Don't worry. Everything's going to be great, better than you expect. Wait and see."
Mary gestured toward the long, black limousine. Laney was unimpressed. She'd ridden in limos before. She still thought this was probably some prostitution thing; but if it was, she'd get to a phone and call her mother. Her mother would chop these people into little pieces, no matter how powerful they were.
"Okay," she said and shrugged. "Cool. Let's go."
She stepped out into the street and out of habit, waited for Mary to open the door for her. Then she checked to see that the car was empty and stepped in. It was a typical limo inside. She slumped back in the plush seat for a minute, thoroughly exhausted, then reached into the built-in bar and started hunting for a Sprite.
Mary got in and closed the door. The car drove off.
The next limb of the tree was way too far. The little boy held on with one hand. The smooth bark was getting slippery. He shaded his eyes against the sun, squinted and stretched. His fingers touched the limb. He leaned out farther, farther. Grabbed it. Swung his leg. A pull, and he was up.
Ben checked behind him. Cool! He was almost high enough to see over the wall. One more limb should do it. He found one on the other side of the tree and reached. Stretched. A beam of sunlight caught him in the eye, his foot slipped, his leg shot down, and pain zinged up from his knee.
Ben hung there clenching his teeth. Below him, the ground was way far. He could've broken his dumb neck. His picture would've been in the community newspaper like that kid at school. Died: Ben Craig, 10, four-feet-nine, eighty-seven pounds.
What else? He'd never done anything. Even came up one short of leading the league in batting. Ben pulled up to his chin, wrapped one leg around the limb and hauled himself up. As long as the paper didn't call him cute. One of the women his father went out with called him cute and he hated it. Made him feel like a dork.
On the other side of the wall was the back of the mansion. "Mansion" is what everybody called it, but it wasn't fancy and it was made of wood. And the place was like a tomb. No parties, no nothing. In fact, you hardly ever saw a car come out of those huge iron gates in front, and it was always an old-model white Cadillac with black windows. Why would a rich man build a big house like that in an ordinary neighborhood like this? Why did he need a concrete wall higher than a basketball goal, with steel spikes sticking out of the top and surveillance cameras? This wasn't a dangerous neighborhood. They were thirty miles outside of Boston. No one was going to attack you around here. Other houses didn't even have a fence around the backyard, much less the front. If only he had some binoculars and one of those long-distance eavesdropping microphones!
Ben stood on a limb and watched the enormous empty backyard until his brain was numb, but nothing happened. The place was as boring as the Sunday sermons his father dragged him to at the creaky old Unitarian church in town. All these years wondering about this dumb place! He'd even missed a ball game to come out here this afternoon. He rubbed his skinned knee to prove how unfair life is. The one interesting thing in his world, and it wasn't interesting either! He searched below him for the next limb.
Then, something caught his eye. The back screen door opened a little then closed. Ben watched it. All he could see was a screen and a hint of a figure behind it. There was only a small landing in front of the door and four wooden steps. No shrubs or flowers were around the house and no lawn furniture. Again, the screen door opened a little. A face leaned close to it, and then jerked back.
A metallic sliding sound came from the front of the detached garage. A lawnmower sputtered to a start, and a thin man with blue and yellow earphones and short blond hair drove onto the grass on a tractor-mower. Another tough-faced man with hair so short and so blond he looked like a skinhead loped across the grass swinging a weed-trimmer in one hand. He cranked it a couple times until it roared and settled down to a growl, and he started edging around the back steps with a side-to-side motion. The crackling sound reached Ben all the way back in his tree.
As soon as the lawnmower and the trimmer had finished in back and the blond men had disappeared up beside the house, the screen door gradually, quietly opened a little. Ben watched, as suspended as that screen door. It opened farther. A face leaned close to it, a small face. It opened farther and farther until Ben felt he was stretching as tight as that screen. A little hand gripped the edge of the door, and the person who slipped out was a girl. She was about his age, but he'd never seen her at school or anywhere else, that's for sure. She was pale and thin but really cute, long wavy black hair, a fancy sundress made of some shiny sky-blue material with two little straps over her shoulders. She stood on the landing, her face bright like she was totally awed by this boring, empty backyard.
Then she did something weird. She spread her thin white arms, threw her head back with her eyes closed and seemed to be soaking up the sunshine, turning from side to side, making her long black hair swing at her waist.
Ben scrambled down the tree, limb-by-limb, and ran home through the state forest, skirted the marsh and cut through the neighbor's backyard, burst in the backdoor and darted into the attached garage. Grabbed an old rope, made a loop at one end and slipped the other end through to make a lasso. Wound the rope round and round from his elbow to his hand until it was all coiled, then slipped the coil onto one shoulder and hurried back into the woods.