There is a point between waking and sleeping where the surroundings filter into dreams. All the sounds and bodily functions begin to clamor for attention. A full bladder sends the dreamer looking for a bathroom or ending up sitting on the toilet while companions crowd around for an impromptu chat in a restroom with no doors. The deeper the dream, the longer it takes for external details to filter down, invading the safe haven where the trials and tribulations of the recent past seem dim and far away. Sometimes the real world is insistent, very insistent, and will not be ignored.
The alarm bell clanged. Pearl ducked under the covers. She didn’t want to wake up. A nightmare of cold and hunger and wandering unfamiliar streets and corridors where laughing, leering faces raked her with cold eyes awaited when she opened her eyes. Curling into a ball beneath the covers, she caught at the fading wisps of a better dream. She drifted to the place where she was happiest, a beach with tropical breezes that smelled of sandalwood and frangipani. She wanted to lie in a hammock under the palm trees and watch birds wheel in an aquamarine sky. She didn’t want to open her eyes. The view had been so bleak lately.
She dreaded the damp winter morning and clung to the small pocket of warmth. A chill prickled a bit of exposed cheek. Pulling her knees up, she coiled into a fetal position.
From a distance, a strident voice demanded . . . something. Five more minutes and then she’d get up.
Metal crashed. The sounds of rustling and shuffling penetrated her warm cocoon. Dream peace was shattered and she struggled against the sudden urge to void.
If she could have a few more minutes, maybe . . . .
Uncurling joint by joint and limb by limb, she ventured one hand from beneath the blanket, meeting only the floor. What happened to the heat? She turned over.
It wasn’t her turn to sleep on the floor. Where was the carpet? Something tugged at the strings of an errant thought. What?
Nothing. Go back to sleep. She peered over the edge of the blanket, blinking furiously in the harsh fluorescent light. Above her a heavy, barred steel door loomed.
Florida was weeks ago. She was in jail. Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she peered out and saw—dingy, speckled . . . tile? Underneath her was a mattress and she was covered by scratchy, threadbare blanket full of holes.
Someone moved behind her. She jerked, immediately awake. Every muscle tensed, she scanned the room.
“Get up.” A girl with a tangle of long, dark hair buttoned a light blue chambray shirt and shoved the tails into dark blue cotton khaki pants.
There were no numbers over the pocket. Where were the numbers? Pearl rolled over. “Ouch.” She fingered the scratch on her cheek. Color flooded in. Bright harsh colors. Hard plastic neon orange on her wrist. Inching the blanket down, the numbers swam into view as she blinked to clear the sleep fog. There were the numbers and a name. Her name. The numbers denoted a place in the system. Her place in the system.
A wild bird battered the cage of her ribs. Friday night. Breathing was hard. The French Quarter. Central Booking.
She nodded to keep from looking around. “Right.” Everything came back in a flood of images. The echo chamber, police, deputies, the cavity search. The rubber-gloved efficiency. Her backside still stung. She hugged herself and forced her breathing to slow. Every inch of exposed skin shrank in protest. Pulling the blanket up around both shoulders, she huddled against the thin, lumpy mattress. She wanted to get far away from bars and steel doors, to close her eyes and postpone reality.
She was groggy, but felt well rested for the first time in six weeks. Beyond the bars doors banged and feet shuffled across tile floors.
As strange as the sounds outside, she knew she was missing something. She listened, searching for the absence of sound. There was no rustling. Bugs. That was what was missing: the bugs.
It was much cleaner than the no-tell motels she had frequented. There were no cockroaches and palmetto bugs strolling across the floor, and no musty carpet stiff with who knew what. The mattresses on those beds had sagged like swayback mares. No thick miasma of sick or sex clotted her nose. And she did not itch. For the first time in six weeks it had been possible to sleep with both eyes and ears closed without worrying about the creeping, crawling night.
The best and safest hotel in town was free for criminals. If she’d only known, she would have robbed someone or started a fight, anything to get arrested. She’d played it safe when the easy life was one crime away. Hysteria nibbled the edges of her mind.
“They’re almost here.” The girl’s whisper tickled the hair against Pearl’s temple a moment before she twitched off the covers.
Startled, Pearl cringed backward and bumped her head against the concrete wall. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I need my shoes.” The girl grabbed her arm. Pearl shrugged her off. “I’m up.”
Shocked to painful reality, she got up. Goosebumps raced from feet to scalp. Taking her shirt from the steel stool shoved under the stainless steel desk, she shrugged it on. As she buttoned it with blue-nailed fingers and stumbled into the corridor, she saw a guard, no, two of them. One guard counted. The other marked off something on a clipboard. The tile burned Pearl’s bare feet, but she did not dare move and risk drawing the guards’ attention. Please finish so I can go get back in bed or at least put on some shoes.
A line of faces blurred by sleep stretched along both ends of the hall. They stood in staggered disarray along the corridor. Some patted intricate braids that must have taken hours to plait. Others unwound half a roll of toilet paper from around their heads and smoothed sleek, fat curls flattened on one side or the other or in the back, depending on how they slept. Most were half dressed.
As soon as they had been counted, they stumbled to their feet from a huddled crouch or pushed off the walls, shifted about and disappeared into the walls. Some rubbed nappy heads and fingered loose cornrows or rubbed sleep-swollen eyes. Others scratched themselves as they shuffled out of sight. So many women. She was—surrounded.
The only thing visible between the iron railings and across the wide stretch of floor was another metal door. There was no way out.
She looked down at her own clothes. They were rumpled and had been clean a few days ago. She pushed the hair from her eyes. It still smelled of carbolic and bug spray.
She didn’t look good, but she was presentable. It didn’t really matter; she wasn’t going to be here long. She would change her clothes when she got out. In the meantime, what she wore would have to do until she got to court. The only reason she could imagine for the guards not taking her clothes and giving her the same clothes everyone else wore was because she was not going to be there long.
She glanced out of the corner of her eye and down the hall at the prisoners. Identical shapeless shirts and khaki trousers hid their figures. They were anonymous; only their hairstyles were individual.
Some sported upswept French twists, elaborate chignons, or waterfalls of corkscrew curls. The styles were sophisticated—twisted, coiled and waved—and unique.
Their eyes were glazed and not only from sleep. A single intelligent thought would drown in this morass of banal brains, if the women had any brains at all. For however long she remained—and she hoped it would not be long—she would find nothing to stimulate her mind and help pass the time.
I’m in hell.
Getting along with most women was difficult at best for her. Most females tended to be superficial and interested only in finding a man to take care of them. Faking civility for the space of a quick conversation at a party was one thing; faking it for days—even one or two days—would tax her limits.
The few women she considered friends shared similar interests: literature, art, music, history, and politics—and life. They were not obsessed with clothes or shoes or jewelry—or their hair, except that to make sure it was clean and tidy. Her friends were not mesmerized by their mirror images. They had goals and plans. Accomplished women were the next best thing to the conversation and company of men, and she would find neither inside.
For as long as she was here, she would have to face whatever happened as she always did.
When faced with any difficult situation, her response was to move on and keep moving. She could always break down later, though she seldom gave into those feelings. Jaws clamped, muscles twitching, she wanted—no needed—to do . . . something, anything. What? Where could she go? There was no place except up and down the stairs, from the cell to the floor above with a return trip to her shared cage. She wanted to scream, lift her eyes to the sky and let loose the fear and frustration curdling her veins. Hot tears pricked her eyelids.
No. I can’t let go. I won’t let go. There was no telling what the guards would do if she lost it. Get a grip!
She must keep her irritation in check and watch her mouth, and not say whatever was on her mind. That would not fly in her present circumstances. She would keep quiet and keep her eyes open. I can do that. If I want out of here . . . .
There is no if. Keep your head and your thoughts to yourself. Maybe they will ignore you.
“Breakfast.” Her cellmate nudged Pearl’s arm.
The guards were gone. She was counted and could relax. Pearl forced a wan smile. No sense antagonizing the girl who slept in the same locked space every night. Keep your hands visible and don’t look them in the eyes. Pretend you’re facing a hungry lioness or mother bear. Head and eyes down. Do not engage. Her stomach twisted at the thought of getting into a brawl or cat fight. She was not a fighter.
“Cream of Wheat.” A gleeful smile suffused the girl’s face. Hot cereal must be what passed for Eggs Benedict or sausages and gravy over flaky, buttered biscuits. Or a golden brown omelet oozing warm cheddar cheese hiding salty-sweet bites of Virginia ham and the crisp crunch of red and green peppers and onions, fresh snipped dill and cracked pepper. Her mouth watered. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten, or what she ate. There would be no comfort food on the menu. Whatever was served would be hot, which was something positive. Her stomach grumbled. Embarrassed, her hands flew to cover her belly.
Breakfast meant morning and morning meant work. What day was it? She had lost track since the arrest and that was . . . when? Had it only been one day? No, it had been two days: one night and probably another day spent in the holding cell.
Friday she had been arrested and stuck in a holding cell with a revolving door of faces and charges. Every one of her temporary companions blurted out their charges, some with pride and others with tears. How long had she been in the echo chamber? There was no way to tell without windows or clocks. Under the fluorescent lights, night and day were meaningless.
A clock. She needed to see a clock. And a calendar.
Pearl dug her wadded socks from her tennis shoes and put them on while sitting on the stainless steel toilet seat. She shivered violently, teeth chattering, fingers numb as she unrolled a few sheets of toilet paper. Never had she been so cold, not even on the streets. The past few weeks had been mild, almost balmy. The thin cotton shirt did nothing to ease the wracking shivers. What happened to the heat?
It had been warm the night the cops picked her up on Bourbon Street.
Pearl looked toward the barred window. She couldn’t see out. A bilious green had been slopped onto the glass. Dribbled streaks and blobs had dried down the full length of the window pane, hiding the world from the inmates—or the inmates from the world. Ice crystals in complex layered patterns crept toward the center of the window and frosted the bars with glittering white lace.
“Food.” Her cellmate swept in.
“All right.” The skin of Pearl’s backside and legs stuck to the toilet seat, steam rising from between her legs in a smoky curl, as she stood. “If I wasn’t awake before, I certainly am now,” she muttered. Sliding her hands beneath her thighs, she worked herself free and pulled up her trousers.
“Hurry. Don’t want to miss the food.”
“All right already.” Pearl followed the girl down the corridor.
They marched up the stairs to the common area. Beyond two heavy steel doors, small dark women wearing clear shower caps ladled food into bowls. Cramped muscles uncoiled in the swampy confines. She longed to climb onto the counter above the steam tables until she thawed out.
A clear plastic-gloved hand dumped amorphous white glop into a bowl and shoved it through an opening in the Plexiglas shield. Like automatons, the inmates took glasses of green liquid—probably Kool-Aid—filled cups with coffee or hot water, took two sugar packets, moved down the line and out into the hall. Synchronized dining for criminals.
“Move it,” ordered a husky voice.
Pearl jumped. Afraid to look around, she kept moving. She reached for the milk and shook her head at the sugar the server offered. She didn’t want it.
“Take the sugar. You can give it to me, fool.”
Not daring to look around and earn another reprimand or bring herself to the guards’ attention, Pearl took the sugar, a cup, hot water, tea bag, and a spoon before walking out the door. It would be hard to keep her temper in check with people snapping at her. Head down. Do not make eye contact. It was just like at the no-tell motels. Make eye contact and people thought you were one of the hotel services—or spoiling for a fight.
Thinking back, she remembered the echo chamber and the bedlam of noise and confusion before the echo chamber, but not much after that. It was all a blur. Two guards led her and one of the women in handcuffs through a maze of doors and halls and into an elevator that disgorged them into the opening of another maze. She doubted she could find the way out. Looking up as she turned into the hall, she glanced to the right. There were two doors in the opposite wall. One
of them looked very familiar. Her sphincter tightened. She remembered the door.
“Keep it moving.”
Pearl looked up.
Three heavy-set women the color of carved ebony stood between the inmates and the swinging doors that led away from their habitat. Hands were casually draped over plastic-lidded spray cans (probably Mace) in leather cases hooked to wide leather belts that creaked every time they moved. An embroidered shoulder patch with golden crescent arching above a star was the only bright color on dead black uniforms. Faces set and grim, they guarded the passage between worlds like Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades.
She moved past them holding her breath, unwilling to look back.
Pearl marched down the hall and past the gray doorways towards captivity, eyes scanning the walls for a clock. Voices battered her when she entered the common area: conversations, arguments, chaotic mumbling. Vacant-eyed, wild-haired women spooned hot cereal into gaping mouths as they meandered here and there, clutching bowls to their stained clothing looking as though they had slept in their clothes for days. They cruised past clotted and knotted groups of chattering people.
A hand grabbed the sugar packets from Pearl’s tray. She caught a glimpse of a long thin stick of a woman the color of burnt cocoa. Back hunched, arms curled around the tray, her head swiveled from right to left, eyes wary and watchful.
“Gotta watch yo food.”
Pearl tensed and turned toward the voice.
Sitting at a long rectangular table just inside the door, a solid ebony lump of androgyny with prominent buckteeth looked up at her and pointed to an empty chair. Pearl placed her tray on the table and hesitated. The person nodded and she sat down.
“Sugar’s like money.” She spooned cereal into her mouth, talking in slurred spurts between the assembly line of spoon, bowl and mouth. “More’n cigarettes or aspirin.”
“Why?” Pearl asked.
“Sweet pleasure.” She scraped the bowl clean. “One of the few.”
“Betty. You kin sit here wit me. Nobody bother you.”
“Best eat. Only hot meal we goin’ get today.”
Pearl stirred milk into the cereal, opened the tea bag, and dropped it in the cup with a watery plop. The food was bland but hot. The heat spread out from her stomach but didn’t reach her arms or legs.
“You goin’ drink that?” Betty pointed to the milk carton.
“No. If you’d like it, please take it.” Pearl ate a little more and shoved the bowl away. Betty reached for it and Pearl nodded. The assembly line made short work of the food while Pearl sipped the tea-colored water, burning her mouth. Even though she didn’t like milk, she should have kept it to cool the hot water or at least soothe her scalded tongue.
“Saw you come in last night. Don’t look like you belong. Not comfortable in your skin. I kin always tell.”
“What day is it?”
“Sunday, the day of rest.” She chuckled in a voice like rusted chains and creaking doors as if speaking for the first time in years.
She had been in holding for at least 24 hours. “Why are you here?”
Pearl shifted away, grabbed her tray, and stood. “Better take this back.”
Betty chuckled, her dark voice edged with comic glee.
What was there to laugh about? You don’t want to know a little voice inside warned.
A clock. There had to be a clock. Maybe there wasn’t one. Time probably didn’t matter, the hours of the day marked by waking, eating and sleeping. Time mattered. There was only one day before the beginning of another work week.
The worst was nearly over. Pearl shook the thought loose. The last time she had thought her problems were over, she had been arrested. She was beginning to believe that no matter how far the fall, there was always farther to fall, like when she was taken to make her constitutionally guaranteed phone call.
When she had stood in line at Central Booking Friday night, she knew there was no one to call. She was supposed to be in California not New Orleans. How her family would laugh.
Her mother warned her she was making a big mistake, that her adventure would end badly. Black Starr and Frost Gorham would never hire a designer with only a high school diploma. She was a dreamer with no common sense.
Marlene Caldwell had been wrong about her prospects, but right about the dream job. She had ruined a solid start at Levine & Son’s, and now she could not call him and ask for help, not after accepting another job, a better job.
If she asked, Mr. Levine would help, but Pearl would not be able to face him again. He would be kind. That would hurt more, like disappointing someone who trusted and believed in you.
Her friends would help, but she was no beggar. She had not fallen far enough yet for that. If their positions were reversed, it would be different. She would not hesitate; that was different. She enjoyed helping. She didn’t want to be the one who needed help, especially when they had their own troubles. No need to push her problems off on them. Her mistakes, her responsibility—alone.
There had to be an option and she would find it one way or another. The only people who knew what had happened were her friends and Cap. There was no way to get a message to them.
She did not know Cap’s number or even if he had a phone. There was no telling which hotel Laura and the others were in. Out of options. “Officer. Sir.” The deputy leaning against the wall near the phone turned toward her. “Please take me back to the holding cell.”
Without a stable address, even though her record was clean, being trusted to appear in court to face the charges was not going to happen. That’s what the overworked clerk said at the processing window. The only thing to do was wait for
court on Monday.
Laura and Cap would have to come through for her. The money she entrusted to them would have to be enough. It wasn’t sensible or practical expecting help from anywhere—or anyone—else. It was up to her—and the court—now. She was on her own, but she always had been.
A long time ago, she had learned to fend for herself and that most people could not—and should not—be trusted. It was a lesson learned through too many disappointments. In the current situation, she had no choice but to trust her friends. Her chest ached and tears filled her eyes. She had trusted someone else, too, and that had not turned out well. That was an understatement. Had it not been for J.D. she would not be in jail. She would still be in Florida immersed in work and refereeing spates between her roommates.
All it had taken was a crooked smile and sparkling green eyes, a man who said all the right things, and she became a blind, trusting fool.
With jaw clenched, she took a deep breath and swallowed the tears. No matter what happened, she would not cry. Tears were useless. There was no changing the past. The only option was to deal with whatever came.
She could have gone back to Ft. Lauderdale on the bus, but there was nothing left there. Everything had been sold and a tenant set to move in the day after she left.
That bridge was toast and there was nothing worth going back. Never happy with standing still, there was nowhere to go but forward and make the best of whatever came, especially now she had decided that running was not an option. Pretty hard to run in jail. Since she had not seen an attorney, it was likely she would see one on Monday, and then she could run . . . right back to her friends.
First thing to do was to get past the murderer.