Twenty Five

Park close enough to the target’s place to have the device pick up conversation, we don’t get anything from his apartment, she directs the dish at another, we can hear TV, a car commercial.
We wait, someone drives to the rear of the building, then appears in front, up the steps to the top right apartment. Zero focuses the dish on that one.
His phone dings, we hear his end, making arrangements to meet for a beer, hangs up. Top left is the one with the TV on. Bottom left comes out, a woman, a big woman, true American Heifer, geez.
Zero, ‘Blue Ribbon at the 4H, I have no idea how people that fat function. Got to be miserable, jolly fat girls are a myth.’
‘There’s a story Emo Phillips tells, he’s a weird comedian nobody ever heard of, anyway he went into a bar and wound up next to a large woman wearing a t-shirt that had Guess on the front, so he said, thyroid condition? She got really pissed.’
Zero’s giggle turns into a laugh, ‘Is he on YouTube?’
‘Everything is on YouTube, you can find him on the drive home. Look, car going to the rear lot and another sedan parking in front. If that’s not an unmarked cop, I’m Brad Pitt.’
‘You’re hunkier than Brad.’
‘Thank you.’
Our target rounds the corner, guy in a cheap suit follows him in.
‘Well, well, well, maybe we got in a lucky guess.’
‘Thyroid condition?’
I laugh, ‘You are as strange as Emo.’
‘Thank you.’
We listen and record.
‘Whaddya got for me Elvis?’
‘How does a delectable twelve year old sound?’
‘Juicy. What’s the deal?’
‘Dad disappeared, mom got a boyfriend a year ago. Then mom disappeared, girl is now stuck with boyfriend. He broke her in, now she’s available for paying customers.’
‘She clean?’
‘Take a look,’ it’s quiet for a bit.
‘Must be showing him photos, maybe a video.’
Cop, ‘Shit, she’s fucking hot.’
‘Get this, bitch thinks she’s in love with boyfriend, he’s thirty something. Got her convinced they can make a lot of money, he sets her up, she gets half.’
‘Half of what?’
‘One large, for an hour.’
‘A thousand bucks! For an hour?’
‘This is not some ghetto runaway all skanked up and hooked on one or another drug. She does a trick or two a day, gets Sunday off.’
‘So she’s hauling in at least six grand a week.?’
‘More like ten, and get this, if she stays all night, it’s five.’
‘I’ve heard of upscale kiddie sex, never encountered it. How’d you get onto it?’
‘Detective, I’m a pedo, it’s cost me plenty of jail time and my face plastered on the registry. I’m snitching my way off as an informant. If I don’t inform, I’m stuck there forever. To give you what you want, I have to stay on the fringes of the game. I haven’t crossed the line, but I still know the players.’
‘You get me a date?’
‘I can, but you gotta pay, that’s not in my control. The alternative is to give you a shot by telling the guy you’re a cop that can keep him out of trouble. Up to you.’
‘No, I’ll pay, so far, you’re the only snitch I’ve got that’s reliable. No way do I want to be obliged to cover for this guy. How do we set up the meet?’
‘If you want to be anonymous, at least to him, he’ll deliver her to me, I deliver the girl to you and wait around to return her. She’ll see you of course, but a kid like that, she couldn’t pick you out of a line up the next day. Even if she could, she wouldn’t. That’s the end of her cash cow and she wants to keep milking it.’
‘I guarantee you she sees herself as an escort, not a whore or even prostitute.’
‘Adults should be able to pay for sex without interference from the fucking legal system. The escort business arose to serve the wealthy without the messiness of getting arrested. Money can always sidestep the system, no point in being rich if you can’t.’
‘I see it every day, if it isn’t whores, it’s drugs, poor people go to jail, rich people go to luxury rehab.’
‘I’ll give you a heads up when I have it arranged.’
‘And good job on the last guy. I don’t ever ask how you know, I don’t want to know how you know, but we got him with enough kiddie porn to feed a thousand hungry pervs. He even had a makeshift studio to create his own video.’
I turn to Zero, ‘This is wrapping up, scoot out and stick a tracker on the cop’s car, I’ll do the target’s, be discreet.’
‘No point in both of us being visible, give me the other tracker, I can do both.’
I do, she does, takes her less than ninety seconds, cop first, around to the rear for the target’s car. As she’s climbing in, the cop comes out.
‘Just in time.’
Zero, ‘He’s not checking his car, good, he didn’t see anything.’
‘Now we decide who to follow?’
‘You must have a reason to track the target’s car, I could knock on the door and pop him right now.’
‘We’re going to do the cop, the target, and whoever handles the girl.’
Zero grins, ‘That’s the spirit, the more dead, the merrier. We’re like abuser terrorists. Our asshole jihad.’
‘You going to start praying to Allah?’
‘Fuck Allah.’

Twenty Six

I care, just not about you.
The Psychopath Code

‘We don’t need to follow the cop yet, I want to see what our target does.’
Z, ‘Won’t he contact the man running the girl?’
‘Likely, and he may call, but eventually he has to collect her then bring her to the cop.’
‘You aren’t planning on letting that happen?’
‘No. I do think there’s one more thing to take under consideration, do you have an idea what it might be?’
‘What happens to the girl?’
‘Yep, her pimp is soon dead, she doesn’t know about the cop, she’ll never meet him, and she doesn’t care about our target. She does care about the money, which goes away…unless…’
‘I see where you’re headed, can she pimp herself, at age twelve?’
‘That would be dicey, while the pimp is a leech, he’s also a measure of protection. This one at least doesn’t appear to be taking all her money, but we only have the target’s comment about the split. How does he know ex-mommy’s boyfriend is actually splitting anything?’
‘Ah, of course, it may be more likely than not, what’s she going to do, sue him for back wages?’
‘You got it, a guy who’s willing to run a twelve year old isn’t going to feel guilty about cheating her.’
Z, ‘Nothing to do until we get the merry trio together, for all we know, she runs him. If she’s smart, she knows she needs protection, suppose this arrangement is fine with her, even her idea?’
‘Then we walk, I mean we do the target and the cop, leave the other two alone. That means we need to know where the girl is on this. The target only knows what the pimp told him, to take a pimp at his word is stupid.’
‘Okay, I have a plan.’
She lays it out, damned if it doesn’t make sense. 
The listening device crackles, target is on the phone.
‘I have a customer, an hour appointment, when is she available?’
We can’t hear the other side of the conversation, then, ‘Yeah, day after is good, time?’
A reply, then, ‘I’ll talk to my contact and see if that works. Back to you.’
Phone goes dead, then a second call.
‘It’s me, you’re in luck, day after tomorrow, six thirty, book a room and let me know where.’ 
More silence, then, as will happen, our target talks to himself, ‘Fuckin’ A, I’m golden, three more months, a couple more pervs fed to the cops and I’m off the registry. Then I set myself up with my own little coven of kiddies. Go from DA handouts to half a mil a year or more. Gotta love capitalism, anything is legal if it makes a profit.’
Z, ‘I would love to off him now.’
‘Patience is a virtue.’
‘How many fucks do I give about virtue?’
‘There’s that.’
We laugh.
Our target does nothing the rest of the day, Zero finds a hotel less than two miles from the apartment. It’s not upscale, just a standard traveler’s stop run by one of the name brands.
‘You going to monitor the GPS?’
Z, ‘Yep, both of them right here.’
‘If either car moves, make a note where it goes. We can check out those locations, we have nothing to do until day after tomorrow except keep an eye on these two.’
‘We can’t follow them both at the same time.’
‘It’s okay, I don’t much care where the cop goes. What we want to know is any change of plan. We need the name of the hotel, more likely motel, where the girl is to be delivered.’
‘Why a motel?’
‘Cheaper, he’s only got an hour, and hotels have lobbies you walk through to get to the room. A motel has an office, but the rooms are open to the parking lot. Bring the girl, knock, collect the money, she goes in, wait for an hour, bring her back. A trip through a lobby, then on an elevator; when time is up, collect the girl, back through a lobby, more eyes, more risk.’
Z, ‘Understood. I’ll stay here and monitor, pick up something easy to fool with for dinner, we only have a microwave.’
I surf around for restaurants, ‘Chinese is easiest, or a roast chicken from a market.’
‘Whatever is closest.’
The supermarket wins, I’m off to fetch food, bottle of wine and club soda. I skip vodka on the off chance we need to follow one or the other target tonight.
Only takes half an hour, I’m back with a seasoned roast chicken, beet salad, a container of mac and cheese.
Zero, ‘I’ll cut up the chicken after I fix us a spritzer, no vodka tonight?…oh duh, we may have to go out.’
‘Yes, it’s not like I ever get stupid drunk, but even a little foggy is dangerous. Bit of wine with dinner doesn’t count.’
We heat and eat, it’s just past seven, target’s car hasn’t moved, cop tracked to the precinct, then to a house around six thirty. 
‘Must be his place, it’s a good sign, takes his unmarked home at night. I presume a vice detective doesn’t work nine to five.’
‘What if he takes a different car to the motel?’
‘Doesn’t matter, we have the target’s car tracked. Unless one or the other spends a lot of time driving, the tracker battery should be fine, it only engages when the car is in motion.’
Clearing the table is simple, I got paper plates and plastic utensils, stuff the remains in the supermarket bag then haul it down to a dumpster behind the hotel.
When I return Zero is in the shower, ‘Come on in, I washed my own hair, how’s that for self-reliance?’
She leaves the water on, steps out of the shower, ‘Not really big enough for you and me in there, be good to get home so you can return to spoiling me.’
‘I like washing your…hair.’
‘You like washing my everything, I like you to wash my everything, see how things work out? We’re in harmony.’
We kill the evening with a movie called Taken, Zero likes Kate Mara in her snug shorts, I concur.
‘Her sister played Lizbeth Salander in the American version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’
Z, ‘I read the first book, let’s get the movie when we’re home again, is the sister as hot?’
‘Pretty much.’
Sleep, wake, coffee, I forage for breakfast burritos. When I return Zero is monitoring trackers.
‘Target went out, as far as a gas station and market, then back to the apartment. Vice is still at home.’
‘Get dressed and we’ll pass by the cop’s place. No reason, we aren’t going to do him there, but we have a day to waste. We can take a long walk, stop for coffee, goof.’
Vice lives in a typical ranch, nothing special, not even a garage, only a carport. If he has a spouse or kids, it isn’t evident, no bikes, no second car. Instead of walking, we go to a mall, one of the giant indoor things that has the same stores as every giant indoor thing anywhere in the country. I get a coffee from a kiosk, Zero goes off in search of jeans, she’s started to outgrow the ones she has.
I surf news sites on the phone while she shops. She returns with a couple of bags.
‘Skinny stretch jeans that form fit my perfect tush, leggings for winter, a pair of platforms. What time is it?’
‘Eleven thirty.’
‘Not exactly starving.’
‘Me neither, maybe we pick up deli something, cheese, bread if you want a sandwich, Coke You.’
Zero, ‘I’m in every supermarket and convenience store in the country. Shouldn’t they be sending me royalties?’
‘If they put your blondeness on the cans, sales would double.’
‘Only the truth.’
Once we’re back at the hotel, we don’t leave again. Zero would rather do a bit of code practice and reading than riding around town, I park on one end of the couch with a book. We keep the Do Not Disturb tag hung, I swap towels with the housekeeper when I hear the cart rolling down the hall, give her ten bucks, she hands me a half dozen little shampoo bottles and four bars of soap.

Twenty Seven

We stalk the target, hoping to overhear a call giving us the location he’s bringing the girl. So far, no such luck. It’s only three thirty, three hours if they haven’t changed the plan.
We’re in the Erratic, down the block from the fourplex. He’s made no calls while we’ve been here, a guy on the offender registry isn’t on anyone’s list of besties.
‘You’re pretty good at his, waiting around.’
Z, ‘My former captors didn’t let me off leash much. I could never figure out why they kept me there at all. I was an inconvenience at best. I learned to be in my head and learned to be out of it, meditation maybe, I didn’t call it anything.’
‘You got something out of it at least, you learned stillness. Snipers have to park for hours, often in the same position.’
‘Get us a rifle that can handle distance. You know anything about long distance shooting?’
‘I spotted for one, I did a few kills as a sniper, the rest were close contact.’
‘What is spotted?’
‘The spotter helps to gauge distance, verify the target, provide protection. If we were attacked, a sniper rifle isn’t the best weapon for close work. I learned to see the vapor trail the bullet leaves, it’s like disturbed air, well, it is disturbed air. Not a vapor trail you see when a jet flies overhead.’
A voice from the listening device, ‘Girl going to be ready?’
We can’t hear the reply.
‘Okay, I’ll come at six, she’s going to a motel on the outskirts, I’ll get the money first, don’t worry.’
Conversation ends.
‘I wonder why the guy who runs her isn’t making the delivery?
‘Don’t know, maybe because the delivery is to a cop. Or Target may have done this before, the pimp trusts him. And Pimp doesn’t have to show his face.’
More wait, no calls. The target knows where he’s taking her, so he’s spoken to the cop. We’re going to have to be quick.
‘Got any ideas on how to handle it? We can follow Target, but we don’t know where he’s going. I wanted us to get to the motel first, but I don’t see how.’
Z, ‘Improvise. We follow Target, get to the motel. What happens then depends on whether he collects the money first, then sends the girl to the room, or he brings the girl with him to collect.’
‘I have an idea.’
Target leaves at quarter to six, we follow along, no need to be crafty, the GPS tells us exactly where he is.
Zero and I are in our normal disguise, I thought about dressing her in something more revealing, she could pretend to be the girl with a little makeup to add a couple of years. Zero could knock on the motel door, get inside and pop the cop. I would get to Target. That leaves the girl as a witness. I’m stuck, don’t see how to leave her out of it.
While I follow, Zero taps into a second phone, ‘There are three motels on this road, we just passed one, the next is two miles, the third just under four.’
I speed up and pass the target, Zero spots the girl in the passenger seat. The second motel appears on the left, I pull into a service station on my right, across the street.
‘If he stops, we move in, if he continues, then I have to catch up and pass again.’
Zero looks over her shoulder, ‘He’s not slowing down, got to be the last one.’
‘Scrunch down so you aren’t visible from the window.’
She does, I zip past again. The road is hardly empty, if he’s even aware of the same car passing, which I doubt, the Erratic is so plain as to be invisible, he doesn’t react, doesn’t slow or pull over.
Zero, ‘There it is, you can get in the lot and down the side before he shows.’
I do, we each chamber a round, snap on latex gloves, get out of the car and move to the corner. 
‘The cop’s unmarked is backed in a parking space, I suspect not right in front of the room he’s in, go past it a few rooms, like you’re heading to the ice and vending machines.’
She strolls off, Target parks in a space on the far side of the lot, gets out, girl stays in, this is it.
I got one thing right, Target heads towards Zero, she’s staring at the selections in the vending machine. He turns left and walks to a room three doors down, knocks.
Zero is ten feet behind him, I come from the other direction, the door to number eleven opens.
I pick up the pace, hear, ‘Got the cash?’
I kick Target hard on the hip and drive him into the room, Zero is on the other side of the door, we go in. Target is on the floor holding his hip, the cop is looking from him to the door, Zero and I step in, she shuts the door.
Cop, ‘What the fuck?’
He dives to the bed, I assume he’s armed, but he wouldn’t want the girl to see a gun so it must be in a drawer by the nightstand or maybe under the mattress. Zero leaps on the bed, knee in his back. She doesn’t weigh a hundred pounds, but it doesn’t matter, she puts the Glock to his head and he’s dead. 
Target rolls to his back, hands out towards me, ‘No, no, no,’ I shoot him square in the forehead.
‘Go to the girl and see what’s what, strip off your gloves, holster your weapon. I don’t think she could see us from where he’s parked, but I’m not certain.’
‘What if she freaks?’
‘You know what to do, settle her, a whap to the head ought to do it, don’t kill her.’
Zero hustles off, I shut the door, pluck the GP’S tracker from the unmarked, and return to the Erratic, crank it and pull out far enough to see the target’s car. Zero is just approaching, girl rolls down the passenger window, I see them talking.
Zero looks over at me, waves me over, collects the tracker from the target’s car.
I pull up, they get in, I don’t wait for explanations, drive off towards town.
The girls is strangely calm, she and Zero are in the back seat, there’s no anxious chatter, more like dad taking two kids to soccer practice.
Zero, ‘Go to the hotel, it’s alright, Cherry said if she had a gun she would have shot them herself.’
‘Cherry?’
The girl speaks, ‘A stupid name Asshat gave me, said it was a porn star name. He’s gonna be pissed when I don’t show up, he tracks me,’ she pulls out a small device from her sock.
‘Throw it out the window.’
She does, ‘And I have to dress up like I’m fucking five.’
I hadn’t noticed and can’t see anything but her head in the rearview.
Zero, ‘Schoolgirl shit, pleated short skirt, white blouse, white socks and maryjanes, how ridiculous.’
The girl actually giggles, ‘It is sooo moronic. Who are you, how did you know…’
‘We can talk later, don’t worry, you aren’t going back to him.’
I would have guessed she would start with ‘what happens to me’ questions, but she’s just quiet. Maybe because Zero is there, a girl even younger.

Twenty Eight

‘When we get to the hotel, you two wait in the car. I’ll get her something to wear, she can’t stroll through the lobby dressed like she’s six.’
I park, go out and up, grab one of my t-shirts and down again.
‘This will do to get you to the room, let me go up first, give it a minute.’
Some things work as planned, they are parked on the couch. I would have thought she’d be crying, agitated. So much for my insight on girls. Then it occurs that this girl has been passed around so much she should be frayed at the edges. I saw the eyes of girls in Thailand, girls as young or younger, they had seen everything and their eyes were either vacant or resigned.
Cherry, ‘Asshat has connections, not just pimps, so called important people, he’s going to look for me, he calls me his retirement plan. Once he puts the word out, they won’t stop until they find me.’
Zero, ‘Asshat isn’t going to see the sun tomorrow.’
She takes a moment to digest Zero’s comment, ‘You mean you’re going to…I want to do it, can I do it?’
‘Ever fired a gun? Ever killed a man?’
She shrugs, ‘No, and I don’t want to fuck it up, but can I go, watch?’
Zero knows what I’m thinking, if she’s there, she’s implicated, which is good for us, ‘It isn’t something you see and forget though, you sure?’
‘I don’t want to forget.’
‘It’s already seven, Pimp is going to be waiting.’
The girl knows the address, so do we but it’s easier to let her guide us instead of going through the GPS memory. In the car again, this time three of us. It’s under a half hour, the place is quiet, not a neighborhood, which makes sense, Pimp wouldn’t want other kids trying to make friends with the girl. He doesn’t live rich, but he does live relatively isolated.
I turn to Zero, ‘You got this?’
She grins, ‘Oh yeah, wait and see my wonder. Cherry…Jesus, we have to get you a different name, here’s the plan. Oh, here’s the money, when we get to the door and he opens it, stick the money in his face. It will distract him. Let’s go, I’m hungry and this puke is holding up drinks and dinner.’
I’m cross corner from the house, I can see the front door. Anything goes sideways, I’m out and in somebody’s face. I decide to use the binoculars, get a good look.
Cherry knocks, Zero is to her right, the door opens inwards, she knows to stay out of his line of sight. It opens, I see a wad of bills sticking out, he reaches for it. Zero steps alongside Cherry, Glock pops, I can’t hear anything, the suppressor does its job. Asshat falls backwards and bangs the tile. Uh oh, a second guy appears digging at his waist no doubt for a gun, I’m out and running. Unnecessarily as it happens, by the time I’m there, number two is laying across Asshat. 
‘He usually have people over?’
Cherry, ‘No, I know him though, bouncer at a strip club, sometimes Asshat works a shift when other guys can’t make it. I think his name is Teddy.’
Zero, ‘Well Teddy deady already, we get spaghetti, go to bedy.’
Cherry giggles, ‘You always this insane?’[
‘Every minute of every day, let’s go.’
‘He keeps cash in a safe, I know the combination.’
Zero looks at me, ‘Quickly, and grab clothes, her toothbrush, hair brush, shoes. Leave as little of her presence as possible.’
They are back in ten minutes, Cherry has a plastic shopping bag full of cash, a roller case with her stuff.
We evaporate, I stop for Chinese, not spaghetti, then to the hotel.
‘Give me your gloves, you and Cherry get a shower, long and hot. Dinner will be out when you finish. Leave the schoolgirl outfit, all of it, shoes socks, everything.’
The girl actually strips right there. I see why she’s expensive, if she’s not luxury nothing is.
Cherry, ‘Is it okay? I mean, I’ve taken my clothes off for so many men I don’t think about it anymore.’
Zero, ‘Not a problem, I’ll explain in the shower.’
While they clean up, I take the kiddie outfits and our gloves, stuff it in one of the hotel’s plastic laundry bags. Tomorrow it will be in a dumpster. I prep the food for the microwave, pour myself a drink. Tonight vodka, I think we shot enough people for one trip.
Zero is almost as tall as the girl despite a couple years difference, they come out with brushed wet hair in t-shirts and socks.
‘Zero, warm up what you want, there’s won ton soup, hot and sour, egg rolls, double jumbo shrimp in garlic sauce with vegetables, chicken wings.’
Cherry, ‘Your name…’
Zero, ‘I named me, sometimes it’s just Z, you can use either. Zero means empty, nothing touches empty, but empty makes everything possible.’
We start on soup and egg rolls, Z has poured wine and seltzer for each of them. Cherry doesn’t ask the obvious, she sips, ‘My name before Asshat was plain, Sarah.’
Zero, ‘We’ll call you C until the name you want comes to you. I’m just Zero, no last name, you can do it either way of course.’
‘I’ll go with C for now.’
We finish course one, Zero nukes the entrée enough to be warm, not scalding. They take what they want, pass the remainder over to me.
‘You’ve been too generous with the shrimp,’ I spear two for Z, two for C, we divide up the wings and start in.
C, ‘What happens with me? Social workers I suppose, then foster homes.’
Zero, ‘Fuck that, you come with us.’
C looks at me, ‘Is that okay with you?’
‘Zero decides, she’s decided, so it’s decided.’
If C is perplexed, she doesn’t show it, she does have another question.
‘People knew I was with Asshat, are they going to think I killed him, and the bouncer?’
‘Doesn’t matter, tomorrow you are going to be someone else someplace else.’
Zero, ‘Let’s finish dinner, watch a movie and go to bed, what time do we leave tomorrow?’
‘Nine, you two take the bed, I’m good with the sofa.’
C, ‘You’re kind of big for the sofa.’
‘It folds out to a bed, I’ve slept in a lot worse places, including the dirt.’
Zero, ‘Go with it, he’s crazy easy to work with. I’ll bring you up to speed over the next few days. Let’s count the money.’
I stuff dinner things back in the bags, tie them up, take them to the dumpster and return.
‘A quarter million and change, C has a little savings at least. The pimp wasn’t giving her anything, he said he kept it safe for her. Total bullshit, she was never going to see it.’
‘No, he would have claimed expenses or simply never given it to her.’
C, ‘He pissed away a bundle at strip clubs and bets on sports. I’m surprised there was that much in the safe. I knew the combination, never looked, if he found out I’d be black and blue.’
‘He hit you much?’
‘Slaps, despite me doing nothing, it was to show his power, keep me obedient. He knew better than to have me full of bruises, the customers paid top dollar, they expected the merchandise to be clean and unmarked.’
Girls are yawning, me too. They go off to prep for bed, I make up the couch, slip under the blanket and disappear.

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