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Over the door, the tin scales of Lady Justice dipped ominously to the wrong side as Andre Legrande strolled into Bill’s Biker Bar and Grill. The boss had been up to no good again, and our miniature Lady disapproved.
Personally, I thought the dipping scale meant the little statue knew Andre was a fraud, but I was keeping my head down and my mouth shut these days. Rather than feed my boss’s arrogance by admiring his assets, I propped my corrective boots on the stool rung and leaned over my tally sheet, pushing my cheap, black-framed reading glasses up my nose and letting my overlong bangs hide my face.
The weird anomalies—like moving statues—that had begun appearing in the Zone after the first chemical spill ten years ago now seemed an everyday part of my life. I’d taken a job in this South Baltimore neighborhood two years back when no respectable place would hire me. That’s pretty much the story of everyone in the Zone.
Society’s flotsam and jetsam gathered in what would be the world’s largest Superfund site if the authorities had the guts or the funds to rope off more than just ground zero. But all they did was fence off a strip along the harbor around the contaminated Acme plant where they used to make nerve gas. After a series of spills and that final flash fire, the harbor was shut down for half a mile on either side of the plant. Fishermen really didn’t appreciate glowing attack fish.
The EPA ignored the homes and businesses farther inland, because, let’s face it, we’re a slum. As long as no one reported rising cancer rates in the area surrounding the original spill, the government considered their work done. Officialdom had moved on.
The contamination, or whatever in hell was left behind, was moving as well—unless you wanted to believe inanimate objects developed weird lives of their own. If anyone noticed that sometimes the gargoyles took days off from their perches on buildings, they shrugged it off as a gimmick meant to attract more lowlifes to the bars littering the area.
Observing the statue’s dip from the reflection in the mirror behind the bar, Andre smirked. Or maybe gazing at his own handsome image produced that smug smile. Legrande, after all, means “the large one,” and I’d figured long ago that he’d made up the name to match his ego, if not his size. Not particularly tall but elegantly lean, he wore fitted silk shirts that emphasized his sleek muscles. Except silk belonged onstage with the Chippendale dancing boys, not in this industrial blue-collar backwater.
Andre had a reputation for toughness, though I’d never really seen it in action. Still, he’d lived here all his life, and the weak don’t survive long in the Zone. Harmless yuppies seldom found their way into an area marked with DANGER: ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARD signs.
I have a weakness for old cowboy movies where the bullies always get what they deserve. I thought of Andre in the part Jim Garner plays in Support Your Local Sheriff. He’d just stand there and eat his beans while the fistfight flowed around him—until a punch came his way, and then I suspected Andre might turn lethal. I didn’t want to be around to find out.
“Got my reports yet, Miss Clancy?” Andre asked, making himself at home behind the bar and pouring tonic over ice. He disliked being ignored, even by a nonentity like I tried to be. He was deliberately irritating me by not calling me Tina as everyone else did. It could have been worse. He could have called me Tiny, and I’d have had to take him down.
Running late, I was in no mood for old jokes. He always asked for, but never looked at, my reports, and we both knew it. “They’re in your office, growing mushrooms,” I replied, bundling up the cash I was counting from the till. Modern cash registers, like most electronics, rarely worked well in the Zone. When they did work, they weren’t to be trusted for anything like accurate accounting. So this one was an enormous brass-encrusted mechanical model that looked as if it belonged in a western.
“Having a bad day?” Andre taunted. “Doesn’t your best—and only—boss deserve at the very least a cheery greeting?”
“I’m having a bad life, and cheery gets you killed around here.”
At the end of the day, my hip muscles protested my uneven stance, but I hurried through the count as best as I could, still hoping to make the five o’clock bus. I filled out the deposit ticket, added the numbers to my tally sheet, and shoved my glasses in my messenger bag. I was about to escape when the front door rattled unexpectedly.
Customers were a rarity before five, when the industrial plants up the road changed shifts and their workers streamed down the street, hunting for the aforementioned bars. I carried out my accounting tasks after my morning law classes, before night fell and happy hour packed the Zone like it was Mardi Gras. Normally, I had the bar to myself. Even Bill the bartender was hunkered in back, doing liquor inventory.
I glanced up just as Lady Justice’s scales dipped seriously to the right. Either the newcomer was a saint, or the jury was still out on Andre. But watching her enter, I cynically concluded that I hadn’t seen many saints with plastic boobs. I might have been a bit jealous of women with breasts bigger than mine, but these were simply ostentatious on a woman thin to the point of emaciation. Her long, dirty-blond hair scraped a bare collarbone that stuck out like a skeleton’s. Her hollowed cheek wore a fading bruise, and I did a quick check for needle tracks. None.
“Do you need any help?” she asked self-consciously. “I’m looking for work.”
“Sure,” Andre answered without hesitation. “Clancy here needs an assistant, don’t you?”
I needed an assistant like he needed more teeth in that lying white smile. But accounting jobs for women with arrest records were hard to come by, so I didn’t dare rock the boat. I just responded with cheery obedience. “Why not? Want her to run the deposits to the bank?”
As if he’d trust his cash to a stranger. There might not have been much brain needed for my job, but honesty was a major factor, with street smarts a distant second. I had a proven track record. The newcomer hadn’t been tested for either.
“Nah, I’ll take her back to my office to learn the books while you’re finishing up. We’ll see if she fits into your routine on Monday,” he said smoothly, leaning against the bar, drink in hand. In that masculine bad-boy manner that made most women drool, he eyed the goods the newcomer was displaying with her cleavage-revealing tank top.
This was where the spunky female protagonist in the western would sock him in the gut for being a sexist pig, but his abs were rock hard, and I needed my fingers to work.
The woman looked uncertain and even more nervous than when she’d entered. Smarter than I’d originally thought, I concluded, if she recognized that Legrande’s slick dark looks hid a dangerously amoral character.
“He owns Chesty’s,” I warned her. “If you’re into pole dancing, you’re hired. Don’t let him talk you into his office.”
She looked to be my age, but too frightened and vulnerable to be on this street. Were I a true heroine, I would have steered her in a safer direction. But not having a lot of time if I wanted to catch the bus, or any places to tell her to go, I figured I’d done the best I could.
I picked up the locked deposit bag with the cash from all of Andre’s businesses, shackled it to my wrist with the handcuffs I carried for this purpose, and limped for the door. I’d chosen boots that looked like knee-high biker boots, but I ruined the attitude with a skirt long enough to cover the scars that ran from my hips to my knees. Above me, Lady Justice peeked from beneath her blindfold and winked.
“Clancy, you’re no fun at all!” Andre shouted. “I can always replace you.”
He was right. I was immensely overqualified for this two-bit job and easily replaceable. Until I figured out how to expunge my arrest record, I was spinning wheels even bothering to take law classes. That didn’t mean he had to rub it in.
Without turning around, I wiggled my middle finger at him and hit the street. I’d lost control of my life so long ago that obscene gestures were the only weapons I had left in my arsenal.
The bar was the last stop on my tour of Andre’s enterprises. From there, I would drop the deposits at the bank a few blocks farther inland, a neighborhood where computers actually worked—outside of the contaminated Zone—and head for home, and, with any luck, my Friday night date with Max. I had no desire to linger in this neutron-infested industrial stinkhole where the buildings lit up after dark—literally. After the last flash fire of chemical waste, the streets and bricks of the remaining edifices glowed neon blue without the benefit of electricity.
The winking statue of Lady Justice was just one tiny aberration among much greater weirdnesses haunting these few blocks along Baltimore’s industrial harbor. My theory was that seepage from underground tanks had spread over the years. Or the new Acme plant was burning loco weed. I didn’t know precisely how far the affected area stretched, since the blue didn’t show up in daylight, and I was never down here at night.
As best as I’d been able to gather, the infamous flash fire had started at the now-abandoned brick chemical plant three blocks north. The fire spread down Edgewater Street, where I worked, and spilled across the docks and tanks into the harbor. The fire probably stopped at the stone pier and burned-out warehouses half a mile south near the bay. I didn’t know everything, just enough to know better than to live down here.
I hit speed dial on my cell phone to tell Max I was running late and might miss the bus. Seeing Officer Leibowitz on the far side of the nearly empty street, I slipped into the shade of an overhang. Thanks to the Middle Eastern part of my heritage, I’m small, dark, and blend well with shadows. I had no hope of running from danger with my uneven stride, but I’d devised any number of alternatives. Hiding in plain sight was a good one.
Leibowitz was tall, heavy, wore a walrus mustache, and sported a permanent sunburn from patrolling on foot. Even if thieves would have let cars keep their wheels in this neighborhood, the rubber was likely to melt to the blacktop if they cruised the chemical-laden street too often. The city rightfully refused to pay for equipment to be operated in the Zone. Given his size, Leibowitz could have afforded to lose a few dozen pounds walking his beat.
I’ve had a grudge against the law ever since I was unfairly arrested for starting a riot on campus. Admittedly, I started the riot. But if I hadn’t, no one would have listened to our protests about the corruption in the university provost’s office. The Pennsylvania school held a grudge as well as I did, which was why I was attending classes in Baltimore and avoiding officers of the law these days.
My call actually reached Max’s voice mail. In the Zone, that wasn’t always possible. Other days, I’d used the same number and gotten a pizza joint in Brooklyn and a McDonald’s in Juneau, Alaska. Apparently the Zone got hungry. Limping quickly down the street, I left a message for him to pick me up at the bank.
The buses only ran once an hour after five. If I didn’t catch the five, I’d be here as the steel plants emptied and the bars lit up. Max had my car, since I refused to park my only reliable means of transportation in the Zone. I didn’t ask what he did with the Escort all afternoon as long as he kept the tank filled. My boss might have had a sophisticated bad-boy look happening, but Max had him topped by three inches, twenty pounds, and a cosmic blue-collar attitude. Andre didn’t dare hit on me if he wanted to live, not that he’d ever noticed me beyond recognizing I was female, and therefore flirtworthy.
Nervously, I was aware that Leibowitz had crossed the street and followed a block behind me. To save wear and tear on my damaged leg muscles, I usually took shortcuts. Rather than jaywalk with a cop nearby, I waited for the light at the intersection like a good citizen, even though the light was currently pink, and I’d have to guess blue meant go if it was having one of those days.
The bank was on the edge of a lower-middle-class neighborhood several blocks from the harbor. Despite the cash I carried, I felt reasonably safe walking the deposit to the teller. Before my leg got trashed by cops, in channeling my frustrations against the bullies of the world I’d taken lessons in every form of martial arts known to mankind. And even now, when my uneven gait messed with my balance, I could still whack boards with my hand.
Still, I wasn’t naïve enough to believe I had a chance against a bullet. I kept a wary eye on my surroundings. The light turned purple, and I crossed the street, leaving the Zone.
The five o’clock bus rumbled to a stop in front of the bank. I swore under my breath. Even if I could run to catch it, I still had to make the deposit. I’d be stuck here for another hour if Max didn’t pick up my call, and I really needed to sit down on something softer than concrete.
Max had become more and more unreliable lately. I was irritated that he couldn’t be bothered to pick me up regularly when he had free use of my car in return. We’d only been together about six months, but we used to go out on his bike and have a good time in the evenings. Lately, he was too tired and didn’t come over at all, or he just wanted me to fix him a free meal and help him get his rocks off. I didn’t object to the sex. He was good in bed, and a girl like me couldn’t be too choosy.
Okay, despite that errant thought, and my current policy of keeping my mouth shut, I didn’t actually have self-esteem issues. Like the spunky movie heroines, I knew that I deserved better than a man who took me for granted, one who could at least be listening for my call on a Friday night.
Still aware of Leibowitz trailing me, I didn’t cross diagonally to the bank like I usually did. Since I had to wait for another light change—a normal one this time—before reaching the bank, I watched the passengers unloading from the bus. The usual gang of teenagers returning home from ball practice or glee club climbed off, jostling one another and throwing insults as they spread out in different directions.
As the light turned to let the kids cross, a long sleek black car peeled out of the bank drive-up lane with a loud screech, fishtailing on the curb of the narrow side street. Hopping backward in case the driver lost control, I bumped into a newspaper box. Someone stepping out of an air-conditioned doorway roughly shoved my shoulder. Already off-balance, I stumbled forward on my bad leg, hitting the sidewalk with my knees. The limo completed the turn without bouncing off me and sped toward the bus corner.
I screamed a warning when I realized he meant to run the red while the kids were crossing. Too late.
I watched in horror as backpacks, laptops, and kids went flying.
The limo didn’t even stop.
Shouting obscenities, I lurched to my feet and started hobbling for the corner, only to realize my bank deposit bag was no longer attached to the shackle on my wrist. I swung around, but it was nowhere to be seen. Neither was whoever had knocked me from behind.
Leibowitz was jogging, belly bouncing, in the direction of the corner where kids were now shouting, crying, retrieving their crushed belongings, and helping each other up. He had his phone out, calling in the mishap. If he’d seen whoever had robbed me, he wasn’t giving any indication.
Cursing, torn between retrieving my money and helping those terrified kids, I opened the glass door that had been at my back and glanced into an enormous empty lobby. No security guard, nothing but open elevator doors on the far wall.
Unfastening the handcuff so I didn’t look like an escaped convict, I went back outside and checked for an alley where the thief could have hidden, but unless he was in a Dumpster spilling over with boxes and trash bags, he was gone. And so was Andre’s deposit. I was so screwed.
I couldn’t panic and trash an alley in search of filthy lucre while kids were crying and hurt. Abandoning my fruitless hunt, I tucked the handcuffs into my bag and hurried up the street to prevent Leibowitz from forcing a girl with a crumpled leg to her feet.
“Her leg could be broken, numbnuts! Block off the intersection until the ambulance gets here.” Ignoring the twinge of pain, I kneeled down and cradled her head on my lap while her friends gathered around, cursing and sobbing.
“You.” I looked pointedly at the guys in their team shirts. “Get out there and help the officer stop traffic. Did anyone get a look at the license plate? Write it down while you can still remember it.”
“That was Dara’s new computer,” the injured girl whispered. “She babysat monsters for two years to buy that.”
A once-shiny laptop now bearing a tire track lay crumpled beside a weeping girl holding the hand of the limo’s victim. Knowing how hard it was for anyone in this neighborhood to raise that kind of cash, how proud she must have been to have her own computer, I felt her pain. Even I couldn’t afford a nice setup like that one had been, and I had ten years on these kids.
“We’ll get the bastards,” I muttered, more to myself than to them. I’d seen enough of the license plate to know where to start. The Zone was an hour’s drive and a gargantuan psychological distance from D.C., but those were government plates I’d glimpsed while on my knees.
I saw disbelief in the kids’ eyes, but they politely refrained from arguing—rightfully so. They knew no one cared what happened to people who lived in a blighted area so poor that the inhabitants couldn’t escape their unmarketable homes. And I looked more like a bronzed garden gnome with limp hair than a champion of justice.
I could hear the ambulance siren wailing in the distance. I prayed the buzzing in my pocket was Max texting me that he was on his way. “Leibowitz, did you catch the license plate number?” I shouted.
Standing in the intersection, directing traffic around him, he shot me a disgruntled look. “You want me to lose my job reporting a senator? You really think I’m that stupid?”
Yeah, I did. “That’s what you get paid to do! They’re not above the law!” I yelled back, but maybe I was the one who was stupid, expecting justice in the face of all evidence otherwise. “Did you see who ripped off my deposit bag?”
This time, he stared in disbelief. “Did the bus hit you in the head? Don’t go blaming me for theft if Legrande accuses you of stealing. There wasn’t nobody back there but us.”
Visions of unemployment and homelessness danced in my head. Andre would be furious. I’d had a lot of bad days in my twenty-six years, but this one was promising to rank right up there with the day I got arrested and had my leg crushed.