Authors: JC Coulton
It’s late. People are trickling out of the café. Even the hipster barista slows down and jokes with the other staff person. I order another coffee and think about the night ahead.
Carrie is supposed to be under FBI protection. Whether or not she likes it is another question. If I follow her and interfere with Cooper, I could lose my job. The best option is to stick with my original plan and try and find Neon. She’s the one threatening Carrie’s. In this area, it’s Neon who is the real threat for Carrie. She’s the source of the problem. I can try to find out what she knows about April; use my bargaining chips and make leaving Carrie alone part of the deal.
Do I believe the FBI will protect Carrie in the meantime? Yes. Do I think Cooper can get through to Neon? No way. That’s what I’ll say to Jacob when the shit hits the fan. She’s gonna discover what I’m up to sooner or later. I’d better have an excellent story ready.
The café is nearly empty now. With the place almost empty, I notice the décor. It has an industrial feel, with exposed brick and steel beams. It’s opposite an old barbershop and a mechanic shop. There are plenty of cheaper places around. The bus station is at the corner. Locals flock to the diners in that area to while away the night.
I’m still checking my phone, looking through some of the pictures of George and Brenda. The photo stream has a series of shots of Carrie and me at the park. On one of our walks, we posed by the pond and she took some selfies of us. They bring another wave of regret to my throat. Despite everything that was going on, we were getting really close. Staying with her at the hotel and having her in my house was starting to feel like having a relationship. I liked it. I could tell she did to.
My private folder app has a new notification so I go in to check. There’s an entirely different set of photos. They are the more private ones Carrie’s obviously been taking in the last couple of weeks. I’m intrigued, and nearly drop my cup when I open the folder and see the first picture. It’s Carrie, smiling mischievously at me, wearing nothing but my shirt.
Her long legs stretch out beneath the crisp tails of my dress uniform. I love the grin on her face. They were loaded over a week ago, before I was taken off the case. Things still seemed hopeful between us. I’m delighted at her playfulness. It’s incredibly hot that she decided to do this for me. It makes me love her even more. I know how camera-shy she normally is. It would have been a challenge to take these photos, and to trust me enough to leave them here for me.
She obviously wanted to leave me a surprise. I shield the screen of my phone. I don’t want anyone else to see these except me. They were taken for my eyes only and I want it to stay that way. The next is one that’s been taken in the mirror at the hotel. She’s bending over the edge of the basin cleaning something in the sink with just a bra and underwear on. She looks incredible, soft skin and droplets of sweat are showing between her breasts. I’m instantly hard and I want to reach through the screen and touch her face.
I can hardly wait to swipe to the next one. She’s made the effort to set up the timer on my cell camera. She captured herself completely naked, surrounded in steam and covered in water droplets after getting out of the shower. I don’t think I have the strength to look at any more. Not unless I can come in my pants right here, and that can’t happen. I’m already shifting uncomfortably on my seat. Luckily the last few people in the cafe aren’t looking my way, and the counter hides my lower half. It feels wicked, looking at these in public. So wicked I stop myself from swiping any further.
It’s not the photos that turn me on—though they are super steamy. It’s more the fact that she was willing to push her boundaries for me. I know she’s a little shy about her body image. Putting this trust in me is such a turn on. It makes me miss her so much. God, I wish she had just come with me just now. I wish April would turn up and this was all over so I could just take Carrie to bed for days.
It’s been a while since she ran off. She must have had a chance to calm down, so I try her number. I just need to follow Mark’s advice and tell her the truth. That I love her. That I care about her. That she’s mine. The phone rings and rings some more. No answer. It’s killing me. Thoughts of her safety enter my mind. What’s she doing ignoring my calls. Can she even answer her phone? Everything seems unsure so I decide to call Cooper. Fuck! He’s the last person on earth I want to speak to, but I force myself to do it. If she’s in trouble, he needs to know about it. He never should have let her come to New Jersey by herself.
I dig his card out of my wallet and enter the numbers in my cell. I hear a couple of clicks before connecting. I wonder if all his calls are recorded. He must have no privacy as an FBI agent. None. The bureau will have looked into every aspect of his past before training him. The thought makes me cringe. I brace myself for a conversation, trying to remember what’s important. There’s no need, because he doesn’t answer. The two of them are off line. I don’t know where they are. I have to trust that he’s got a plan. He had better have a plan.
Someone needs to watch over Carrie. She doesn’t realize how fragile she is. She appears so tough and resilient on the outside, but she can be easily broken. It’s not that she isn’t strong. I’ve even seen her fight. When I first enlisted and I was new in AA, I had made an amends list. She was close to the top of the list. I heard she was grading at her dojo in Iowa, and was back in town to see if I could track down my mother. I went to watch.
She was amazing. Fast and fit. Calm and steady. Her strikes were a thing of beauty. I could have watched her forever but instead I stood at the sideline by the benches. It was a busy night, several classes were in cycle and she didn’t see me. Afterwards I waited. I watched as they finished the practice, then I saw the energy between her and another student. They were heading out for food. They were touching. I needed to say my piece but it wasn’t right. Instead, I went to the bathroom. I called Mark and he told me to wait so I left. Seeing her again nearly undid me. Seeing her with someone else made me realize what I’d lost. Carrie is still on my amends list. One day the time will be right. Until then, I’ll hold my tongue about the way things ended in high school. There’s nothing more to say about it.
With both Carrie and Cooper offline, there’s nothing stopping me from heading out to look for Neon. Everyone knows the blocks where her girls work, but it’s a little strange to find Neon anywhere near them, except when she makes her rounds late at night for her cut. Usually around now she’s at the apartment where she lives, or at one of the local bars. She’s famous for her ability to hold her liquor, that woman. Bartenders also love her because she’s got the money to back up her thirst.
The thing about Neon is that people notice her. She looks too strange to stay under the radar so I walk the streets looking for her. Clubs and bars are located at every level so it saves me time to show a photo. The bright lipstick and the pale skin make her distinguishable. All I have to do is show my badge to the bouncers to get a yes or no answer.
Despite her reputation, she’s nowhere to be found. I decide to take my chances and head over to talk to some of her girls. It’s more than likely that they’ll shut me out. Neon’s girls are trained well. They know if they open their mouths there’ll be hell to pay. So unless it’s for a client, they tend to keep pretty tight-lipped. I’ve learned this in countless interview rooms, over years of trying to solve crimes related to prostitution.
I pass one or two of the bars where I used to drink with her. At the second spot, there’s a young drunk guy outside, bent over a trash can. He’s retching and heaving. I feel thankful it’s not me losing all the booze I just spent my paycheck on to another city trash can. This is the reality of alcoholism and addiction. It leads people down the path of destruction. It gives Neon power over girls who could do so much better for themselves; and it destroys families across the world.
I keep walking. It’s starting to get late. I’ve got one more strip of clubs to check for Neon and her entourage. She always travels with at least one of her security detail, and sometimes even one of her girls. She likes the redheads if I remember correctly. She likes to dress them and own them, leading them around like dogs until she tires of their company.
There’s nothing sadder than a woman who makes other women pay for her own insecurities with public humiliation. I’ve heard she’ll sometimes send her favorite redhead to stand facing the corner like a child if she’s not happy with them. I pity Neon as much as I care that she survives. Inside I’m sure there’s a good person waiting to emerge. But it’s past time I admit that will probably never happen.
As I walk the streets, I notice the women are starting to become more open with their positioning. Solicitation is still illegal, but various pimps have deals with the law. You can tell the ones whose girls are used to having the freedom to work openly.
It’s a bargaining chip I’m unwilling to use; the idea of taking payoffs for looking the other way makes me sick. Besides, this is not even my jurisdiction. I hope my offer to help clear the way with the other pimps in the neighborhood works so I don’t have to think of other options. I’ll do anything to get April back and keep Carrie safe. I would never take the money myself, but I could probably hook Neon up with the right guys to make it happen. Every governing force in the world has a level of corruption.
There’s still no sign of Neon. I remember one more place to check before I give up and phone her. It’s back near where the car is parked. A set of brownstone buildings that have become home for a small group of Neon’s girls. The guys like it because the alleyway nearby means easy access and they don’t get caught on the main roads.
It’s a pretty grungy set up. The whole area is, to be honest; all the streets the girls work on have a negative energy about them. They just feel seedy, even when there’s no one there. So many broken dreams littering the pavements with used syringes and old condoms. It might make me sick, but it’s also the reason I do this job. I head that way as the one of the streetlights start to flicker above me. Another late night in New Jersey closes in.
I round the corner where Neon’s girls normally work, and feel my chest clench. I pity these poor women. I may be standing in squalor, but I’ve hit the jackpot because Neon is right there, talking to one of her security guys. I don’t recognize him but he fits the muscle profile. Greasy hair, arms like tree trunks and missing teeth.
“Neon.” I say to her, drawing her away from what looks like an intense chat.
“Blake,” she withers away from at me. If looks could kill, I have a feeling I’d already be six-feet underground. She’s obviously not as okay with being rejected. I’m not surprised. This is one angry little woman and I do mean little. Her stature has always been small but she normally wears boots with heels that bring her up to my chest line.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Her tone implies she knows that I’ve been looking for her. I don’t give her an inch to move with.
“Oh, just passing by. I’ve been visiting a couple of your old friends from the neighborhood. Some of them have similar interests to you. We should all have a get together one night. Well anyway, sorry for the interruption. You’re obviously hard at work…” My snarky, breezy tone puts her on guard. It’s working. The tables have turned in the power dynamic between us. It’s the way it should have been a long time ago.
I briefly look over at the straggly working girls she’s got stationed behind her. I can’t see their faces but neither body looks familiar. They’re stoned, bedraggled and trashy enough in their skimpy red dresses to be invisible. I can see the open sores on one of the girl’s backs as they cluster together in some half stoned conference behind the woman that feeds them heroin.
“Jesus Neon,” I tell her, “this is a rough trade you’ve got going on there.”
I say it with an acid tongue because I want her to feel my disregard. I want her to take offence.
“You shut your mouth Blake. It’s none of your business what my girls get up to. Who the fuck are you to make comments about my life?”
“I’m the guy who’s just walked the last six blocks of rival territory. I see the competition you’re facing, Neon.” I leave it at that but I can see I’ve started her thinking.
“What do you want?” She hisses at me, obviously unable to resist my hook, but resentful all the same.
“Don’t you dare try and play me. A couple of weeks ago, some thugs attacked my girl, Carrie. They took her friend. Her case is going cold. Word on the street says you know more about it than you’re letting on. Is this true?”
She shakes her head emphatically. “I don’t know and I don’t fucking care.”
“You can lie all you want Neon, but I’m gonna get the goods from you or someone else. If you’re smart enough to get me what I need, I’ve got a little something that’ll make you very, very happy.”
“Why the fuck would I know what’s happening to your little lady?” She says it with a snarl and that’s when her mouth starts to curl upwards. It’s obvious she’s lying.
“Neon, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been calling her, stalking her, and playing her just because she’s mine. What is it? Are your feelings hurt because I’ve finally moved on?”
She looks over at me. For a split second, I catch the shame wash over her face before she changes the subject.
“All I give a shit about is looking after my girls, Blake.”
She looks somewhat fondly down to the curb as the second one climbs into the passenger seat of yet another customer’s car. “I should introduce you...” I can tell she’s trying to change the subject by mocking me again. I’m not going to put up with it.
“Right. Guess you’re not interested in the reward, either.”
I need to convince Neon I’m willing to go elsewhere for the info I need. I start to walk away, but I stop to rub it in. “And thanks but no thanks on that offer. I’ve got someone real to keep me warm at night.”
The way things are with Carrie right now, this may not necessarily be true. But I’m not giving anything away.
“You just think these girls are all bad, don’t you Blake?” she asks. “Becoming a cop has turned you into a judgmental son of a bitch. You used to be human once. I bet you don’t even remember.”
“Oh I’m still human. You’re just deluded. The pain and suffering you’re causing these girls is gonna fuck them up for life. You’re not helping them. You’re hurting them. Every single day they give themselves away for money and every single client takes another piece of their souls. Don’t you get it? Eventually the drugs won’t work anymore. Then you’ll feel it too. You’ll see the harm you’re causing.”
“Listen here, Blake. I’m not turning fresh young things into whores; these two have come here right from Buffalo, New York.”
She gestures at the two women standing with her at the bottom of the brownstone. I try to look closely at them, but she makes a point of standing in my line of sight.
“They were beaten and raped and ripped off by the men who used to run them. Now they’re here with me. They’ve got a safe place to stay and a safe corner to work from. I’m not gonna hurt them, I’m not gonna try and fuck them over. This is just business. All the girls know that woman do it better than anyone else on the planet. Blake, if I didn’t bring them here, where do you think they’d be, huh? They’d be dead. Finished. They were done for in Buffalo, and I saved them. I’m a fucking hero as far as they’re concerned.”
She’s glowing with a self-righteous mania that’s nothing less than scary. I want to shut her down, show her the truth of her words, but she’s insane. She won’t see anything but the reality she’s constructed for herself and the master plan she believes she’s following. It’s incredibly ugly.
I remind myself I’m not here to get through to her. I’m here to get her to work. There’s nothing more valuable than a loyal CI. If I can transform her from this mad bitch into a true source of value, then all of this will be worth it. I decide it’s time to counter with the beginning of my bribe.
“So you’ve got it all figured out, do you? Here you are, the only female manager in town, pimping third-rate girls that are strung out and covered in pimples and puncture marks. Don’t you know every month your territory gets poached a little more? I see it, Neon. Everyone sees it. We see the fallout and the attacks. Faster pimps and hotter girls take each little square of land. The other pimps in town don’t want you in this game. You know it and I know it. It’s only a matter of time before they take you out. You’ll never be accepted without protection.”
My in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of this industry seems to baffle her. She had always made it clear she felt it was a world of her own that no one else could understand. Even the rookie officers learn how the game works. They learn who the players are, who’s got the power, and how we can use their intel for good.
The sex industry is a hot bed, a center for other crimes. The police are well aware of the informal laws governing it. If she doesn’t know the extent of our understanding of this game, she’s more deluded than I thought.
While there are often madams running the parlors, and independents controlling the more elite call girls, and the private establishments, there are very rarely women running girls on the street. That’s what makes Neon so rare. She’s a traditional pimp in the modern sense. She has pussy and muscle and she runs drugs on the side. It may not be a high quality operation, but she seems to run a tight ship and that challenges the men in the game more than anything else. It all comes down to making money.
I’m sure it won’t be long before she’s literally got a knife to her throat. They won’t hesitate to slit it either. There’s no mercy in this industry. Either that or they’ll force her to work for them, if they let her and the girls live.
I decide to give her one more chance to tell me what she knows about April before I go ahead with the plan; maybe my big talk has scared her a little.
“So you’ve never met April Lee? And her Uncle Jessup Lee has nothing to do with it either, right?”
Neon looks up at me sharply. Her eyes are so wired it’s hard to see where she’s looking. It could be at me or through me. There are enough narcotics in her system to drop a horse I’m sure. After this many years on the needle, she must need massive shots to get out of bed every morning.
I can’t tell whether it’s amphetamines or downers; she’s completely disconnected. Operating on automatic, I’m willing to bet she doesn’t eat. The color of her skin is grey and waxy, as if she’s been embalmed.
“I don’t know who April is, but I do know of Jessup. Everyone does. Whatever has happened to his niece is not my business.”
“April was taken Neon, beaten and then snatched from Times Square. Carrie was hurt too. They’re innocent girls. Never seen a day on the street. One’s a veterinarian; the other’s a journalist. They’re not meant for this life. They don’t fit in like you did.” I’m trying to make a plea to whatever moral compass she has left. She had honor once. It may be twisted, but it’s still there and I’m hoping she plays by the same code.
“No deal, soldier. You’re a fool for pulling me into any of Jessup’s affairs. It’s nothing to do with me.”
“What if I told you there’s a way to make sure Jessup and everyone else who controls this town stay away from you? I’m talking about very real, immediate protection for you and your girls. The type that will cut your muscle bill in half and save you hundreds in costs, because the girls will be safe. What would you say to that, old friend?”
She looks floored. I’m the last person she expected to extend such a courtesy. It’s really no big deal. I’ll need to pull in a few favors. In this industry, the players are more than willing to help out the guy who hunts for human traffickers. Their girls are constantly being preyed on.
For a moment, she looks like she’s about to say yes. She’s hesitating. I can feel that I’m getting through to her. I can see in her eyes that she wants to tell me something, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t say a word. She just looks at me then turns to the mute security guard beside her and says, “Ready to go?” I’ve forgotten he’s there but he’s instantly on form and ready with the keys to a sedan.
“I can’t help you, Blake. I’ve no idea about any of it. I know nothing about Carrie, nothing about April and nothing about Jessup.” With that she walks away, slides into the passenger seat of her car, and doesn’t bother to look back as she takes my last chance of helping April with her. I smash my fist into the wall. Fuck!