I should have played hard ball with
the kid, telling her to shove off the minute she poked her head around the
sign, those two dark holes for eyes matching the bullet holes around her. Any
of the others in this sector would, though no cop worth his salt would have
stopped his tank or armored vehicle to investigate her. Too many like her lived
between the Soho wall and the uptown wall at
fourteenth Street that marked the beginning of Gramercy Park, too many kids
between six and sixteen, scrambling around the ruins of the Outside like rats
in a junk yard, how they managed to survive the routine shootings and the
gangland massacres, no one knew. They managed to duck into this hole or that
hole when more macho element chose to shoot it out, fighting cops or wall
guards or other gangs for this stinking bit of turf. Hell I was a kid like that
once myself, wandering in and out of an
But seeing this kid, watching her fingers
curl around the bullet-ridden tin of the old tobacco sign, I couldn't remember
whether or not I'd found the answer, or how I had managed the transition from
kid to adult. I guess I kept enough of those old survival techniques, and some
of the values kids seemed to have that the adult gangs lacked. I'd never killed
anybody, except for my two years fighting as a soldier in the Outlands of East
``What are you looking at, kid?'' I said, half expecting her to be working for one of the east side gangs. I'd heard rumor about them using kids like this to hunt independent dealers down. I didn't like the idea of finding myself on the wrong end of an M-16 or a double gauge shotgun, or any of the plastic explosive weapons the gangs developed to get around metal detectors. That's why I went over. I just wanted her to turn her night scope eyes on somebody else, target some other outlands fool who deserved the attention of the gangs.
Out here, you don't stare too hard at anybody, and the more she stared, the more I wished I owned a gun so I could have shot her. Instead I grabbed her arm and pulled her around the sign, her squealing drawing curious and amused stares from the others on the street -- men, mostly, grubby, grey-faced outsiders like me, shuffling through the streets looking for food, work, or a victim, mildly entertained by the perversions of those around them the way fishermen envy other fishermen who manage a lively catch. Each probably dreaming of taking her into one of the abandoned brownstones for a fifteen minute ride.
``Let go of me!'' she said, viciously clawing at my hand to release her collar. ``I'm not hurting nobody.''
``I'll let go of you when I find out what you want?'' I said. ``Why you staring at me? You making me out for one of the gangs?''
``I ain't making nobody out. I'm just looking. That's all.''
``Why?'' I said.
``I just am, that's all,'' she said, wiping her mouth with her sleeve, dressed in the usual rags I'd seen on other kids, only these rags looked so thin they couldn't have been much use against the cold wind now blowing straight down from uptown. Short of being a little on the bony side, she seemed healthy enough, her skin showing the same grey, dirty hue as all of us out here, suffering more from shortages of soap and water than from disease.
``Why?'' I insisted.
People didn't stare without reason. The cops stared because they feared us, prowling in the streets in cars built with six inch armor. The wall guards stared because they wanted us dead, earning the keep of their masters by keeping the mad and bad element out of their neighborhood. The street people stared because they wanted your money, food, or the shoes on your feet. But her stare seemed different from those others, and close up, she didn't look to be making me out at all, her eyes too sharp and shinny for that kind of work. Not a touch of dope in them or fear, just wonder, that confused the hell of me.
``You want money?'' I asked, knowing she didn't, but digging a crumpled fiver from my pocket anyway, one of two I kept in my pocket for change, along with a few baggies worth of ups and downs, for the usual desperate junkie looking to quell his addiction with a substitute drug, or the slumming neighborhood slob looking to take back a bit of joy for one of their social gatherings. In the cold, however, business on both ends of the social scale had dropped off, neither element willing to brave the bitter weather to score from me. The Insiders paid the exorbitant prices their guards charged. The Junkies froze to death.
The girl stared at the bill in my hand as
it if was a withering flower, slowing shaking her head from side to side, a
refusal nearly as shocking as her survival. I stared at her, studying her face,
wondering if perhaps the cops had put her up to this instead of the gangs, some
new move by the city or the state to infiltrate the outlands. The old
neighborhoods bulged with frightened city residents, who couldn't afford the
big trip across the
What did anybody care about the in
between world that people once called the
She stared at the five, I stared at her, and we might have stood like that forever, had not another gust of wind come, sending her into a fit of shivers.
``Damn it, kid, go home,'' I said. ``You're going to get sick out here or shot, or run over by a tank.''
But she still stared, and then asked: ``Are you my Daddy?''
``What?'' I said, the fiver nearly blowing from my hand. ``Daddy? Me? Are you crazy?''
``He went away, you know.''
``So he sold drugs down here, too.''
``Shut up, will you?'' I said, glaring around. Yeah everybody knew what I did here, we all did something closely resembling it, from prostitution to armed robbery, but we didn't go around announcing the fact in public. ``You want to get me busted or what? Get the hell out of here before I put a boot to you.''
``But I like it here.''
``Don't be a fool, kid, nobody likes it here,'' I said, turning around, pointing in back in the direction of the sign. ``Go home.''
``No,'' she said, digging her heals in so they scraped the ground as I pushed. ``I don't want to go home. I want to stay here with you.''
People really looked now, some of them insiders with the idea they might like to call the police, the word ``pervert' repeated over and over. The kid was making a scene, one designed to get me a jail cell in Riker's, one from which I might never recover. While we all craved the inside, going that deep was deadly. Even the neighborhood jails had the ring of a death sentence. In such places, one learned to pull the trigger, or one didn't survive. In all the years of working the street, I'd managed to avoid such a fate, rarely delving so deep into Outlands activities as to draw attention to myself. But here, this kid was screaming out my name to every private guard and city cop, announcing my availability for a bust.
So I grabbed her wrist again, and hauled her towards the subway, figuring to get her out of sight as quickly as possible, dumping her off somewhere where her parents could take control of her, her old man working over her bottom with a belt the way mine did when someone dragged me home as a kid.
``Where do you live?'' I asked, dragging my only other fiver out of my shoe.
She made a vague gesture and said: ``Uptown.''
So I dragged her down the subway stairs, passed the caged-in closed-circuit TV cameras, passed the flat-black screens of the metal detectors to the bright-white walls of the token clerk, banked in by TV screens and flashing lights, his machine pistol strapped under one shoulder as he eyed me through the six-inch thick glass. I shoved the two crumpled bills into the receiving cup, the detectors humming in their check against some form of explosive. Then, when the man inside had the bills, he eyed us, then motioned us towards the gate to the platform, gates surrounded by rolls of razor wire and iron spikes. No jumping over turnstiles here without losing an finger or an eye. The red light went out, our door opened allowing the two of us through to the other side, to where the nearly empty platform waited for us. Somewhere in the depths of the darkness beyond the station, a saxophone wailed, some poor fool living in the tunnels, singing out his depression in sonorous notes as TV cameras winked at us from every angle.
The kid stared at everything, as bemused
as the street people up top had been when she'd first squealed, admiring the
trappings of the station without realizing the dangers they guarded against.
Despite the electronics and the army of underground police who patrolled these
places, people died here. Cameras could not guard against the hoards of
underground gangs that road ahead of the trains along the tracks,
that snatched people and purses right off the platforms as they passed
on their wheeled machines. Most of these machines were junks pieced together
from old cars, riding the rails they way teenage kids ride the roads of the
suburban outlands, steel wheels replacing rubber ones as the steel rails
replaced asphalt. She just stared and grinned as if all the flashing lights had
been built for her amusement, something straight out of
Yet no discrimination existed here.
Outsiders rode these rails as freely as Insiders did, the law saying that if
you could afford the five dollar fare, you could ride. The train came amid
squealing brakes, its windows thick with fellow travelers, many Outsiders from
outside the city, spiked green and purple hair, faces tattooed with symbols of
various gangs, chains dropping from leather jackets despite the metal
detectors. The doors opened, armed guards stepped warily out with m-20 machine
guns at ready, eyeing the platform the way soldiers did during my tour of
We shuffled aboard, many of the stranger occupants licking their lips as they studied the kid, looking less anxious to rape her as to have her for dinner. I shoved her into a corner and put myself between them and their hungry eyes, though noted again the amusement flashing in her own eyes at them, as if she safety studied a world of apes from outside the bars of a cage.
``All right,'' I said as the guard slipped back into the train, the door closed and the heavy wheels began to push the train away from the platform and into the darkness beyond. ``Where exactly uptown do you live?''
I was trying to calculate how many hours
I was going to be out of circulation, how much money I would lose to the local
jackals who moved in the moment I left, and how much
brow beating it would take to get rid of them when I got back. With the cold,
business had come up short and every hour off the corner meant that much more
trouble meeting the rent at the end of the month. In summer things eased a lot,
the increased daylight brought more neighborhood people out, as well as sickly
imitation street people from the middle class neighborhoods of
``East 11th,'' the kid said.
My mouth fell open, then snapped shut. I
resisted the urge to smack her only because the grim-faced guards already eyed
me suspiciously, thinking me a pervert. Two precious fivers flew away in my
head. And for what? A three five block joy ride between St. Marks and 14th
Street, when we could have walked three blocks relatively unmolested. No
neighborhood wall to fear pot shots from. No local security to check our ID. I
wanted to kill her, or leave her on the train for the long ride up to the
really hellish Outlands of Spanish Harlem, letting her get a glimpse of that
world and the machine guns the East Side Tenants associations used to keep
bloods from crossing
Neighborhood walls are nothing to sneeze
out. You avoid them if you can. While some security outfits take their jobs
more seriously than others, few take things more seriously than
Only the cold kept us from getting shot,
I think, or maybe the fact that we charged away from the wall the moment we hit
street level, rushing towards the line of buildings near
``Well?'' I said, my throat still tight with fear.
She stared at me as if I had mugged her, insulted that I should bring her back so close to home, if anyone dared claim this neighborhood as home. Despite the rigid security from Gramercy Park, the gangs roved here, weaving in and out of the blocks just south of the wall, waiting for their opportunity for revenge, snaring the young and foolish who wandered out of the neighborhood out of curiosity or stupidity. A few squinting figures eyed us from the shadow, but decided we weren't Insiders wandering out, but Outsiders who'd been chased away, and they lost interest.
The kid wouldn't look at me straight.
``Which way now?'' I said, not bothering to hide my anger.
She sagged a little, looking like one of those romantic pictures of a hobo child, her eyes wide and empty, reminding me of what I must have looked like at her age, though I spent most of those days avoiding my old man, not seeking him out the way she did. My old man beat me the minute he saw me, saying he didn't know what I'd done, but that I had done something to deserve the beating.
The kid gave me a heavy sigh, then pointed east, down the row of wrecked brownstones and dingy hotels, each doorway the empire of some petty tyrant, all of them connected in some way to the gangs, spray painted symbols over their doors, protecting them from evil and invasion. It was uncomfortable country, even for the Outlands, where subtle distinction ceased to exist. You either belonged here or you didn't, and the occupants knew whether you did or not. I followed the kid down the street, feeling stares from every door, sweat bubbling on my forehead despite the cold. I kept thinking someone somewhere in one of those windows had his finger on the trigger of a machine gun, and was just nervous enough to twitch.
Then, the kid stops in front a dilapidated brownstone, the steps littered with bums, junkies and empty bottles. No protective mark showed above the door, though from the stares we got from the first floor windows, someone inside thought we were intruding.
``You live here?'' I said, trying to swallow with a dry mouth, wondering just how the kid had managed to escape the building and neighborhood without someone trying to sell her off to the local porn market, slicing her up for beef.
``Third floor,'' she whispered, sagging again, her wide eyes narrowing as they glanced up those stairs. She seemed to hate whatever waited on the other side.
I could have skipped this part of the trip, too, hating the building as much as she did, remembering one not so different from it when I was her age, the rancid odor of poor people's meals oozing out the door, rice and beans, beans and rice, a little old meat if you could find it. It had a mildew smell, too, of flooded basements and backed up toilets. These smells combining with the more human scent of piss and shit and wine. I could almost see my old man's ghost peering out the upstairs window at me, his eyes telling me I was in for yet another beating.
Yet I couldn't very well leave the kid on the doorstep now, not with all the eyes that had seen us walking down the street, envious and hungry eyes, attached to envious and hungry bodies, anyone of which might saunter out for a little free bit of sex, an easy little dish they could serve up later as slightly spoiled good to the local pimp.
``All right,'' I said, taking a deep breath. ``Lead on.''
Inside, the smell got worse, accompanied with the same sounds I remembered, babies crying, someone banging the wall, a radio or tv blaring bad spanish salsa. The floors and stairs had a layer of dust so thick I could have written a book in it, or made a fortune off the deposit on the wine bottles left on every stair. We climbed, confronted by a row doors on the second floor, each opening fearfully at the approach of my step, with angry, bare chested old men or thin-faced overly made up women staring out, kids bobbing behind them like young, needy animals seeking escape. And on each floor, a sense of fear hung, a heavy cloud showing in each set of eyes, looking up sharply at me as if believing one of the gang had finally come to claim this building as their own, exhorting their own kind of taxes on the people, taking money, food, guns, children, or anything else they wanted. Those eyes looking relieved when we passed them by.
Then we came to a door that didn't open, and the kid stopped there, looked me, looked at the door, then stepped aside to let me knock, a knock that sounded hollow on the inside, echoing a little of what must have been a remarkable empty space beyond. A chair scraped, and a slow, shuffling step sounded as someone approached. The peep hole darkened as someone stared out.
``What do you want?'' a weak voice asked, an old woman's shrill voice at the edge of panic.
``My name's Luke Manley,'' I said. ``I got your kid here.''
The woman unlatched a half dozen locks in slow progression before dragging the door open to the edge of the chain, her wrinkled face framed by absolutely white hair. But the woman's eyes startled me most, brown eyes with a white frost over them that told me she was nearly blind. She blinked and blinked again, one hand hidden behind the door, weighted down by something I was sure was a gun. Then, apparently able to make out my shape in the dim hall, she seemed satisfied I wouldn't kill her immediately.
``Where did you find her?'' the old woman asked, blinking in every direction except at the girl. ``I was so worried about her.''
``I found her wandering around on St. Marks,'' I said, shoving the girl forward so that even the blind woman couldn't miss her.
``St. Marks?'' the old woman moaned, even her blind eyes giving her a vision of what that meant, of dark doorways full of dealers and pimps, and rusting cars loaded with homeless and starving. She blinked at me through her thick fog. ``How did she get down there? Where is she? Is she all right?''
I shoved the kid closer to the door. The woman closed it, scraped off the chain, and immediately opened it again, feeling though the wider gap to her arthritic fingers found the girl. The woman yanked the kid to her chest, smothering her with moans and kisses and slow caresses.
``You naughty girl,'' the woman said, pushing the kid away to stare down. ``You said you were going downstairs.''
``I did Nanny,'' the kid said.
``St. Marks is not downstairs,'' she scolded, her face suddenly transformed from worry to anger, as she pulled the kid into the apartment. ``You're not going anywhere after this. Not without me.''
The kid struggled to weave around the old woman, staring at me through the gap in the door, as if expecting me to help with her escape. I stepped back, shaking my head, glad as hell to be rid of the kid and the stink of this building.
``Thank you, young man,'' the old woman said, then closed and relocked the door.
``Daddy!'' the little bitch shouted the very next night, her high pitched voice carrying across St. Mark's like a gunshot. Just when I thought everything had gotten back to normal, there she came, charging across the street at me, her arms wide open as if to hug me, every lousy son of a bitch on that street, from Dog Man to Snake Pit looking up at me, laughing, slapping each other with the expectation of seeing this as a regular routine.
She had caught me mid-deal, too, a plastic bag of dope in my one hand, a twenty dollar bill almost in my other, with this nervous, well-dressed Insider suddenly grabbing both and bolting at the sound of the kid's scream, with me caught between chasing him down or shutting that damned kid's mouth.
Instead, the kid leaped into my arms, locking her hands behind my neck, her eyes next to my eyes, her steamy breath enveloping my face.
``Daddy! Daddy!'' she yelled. ``I thought I'd never find you.''
It was the kind of moment you never forget, every set eyes suddenly fixed on you, that kid better than a spotlight for making me stand out in the crowd, with every drug dealer, pimp, mugger, and undercover cop memorizing my shocked face as I shoved her off of me, telling her again that I wasn't her father, then, dragging her the long way home, without bothering to take the subway this time, up the remains of 4th Avenue, then east on 11th street until we came to the brown stone. The sights along the way as dismal and dangerous as the day before and the smells in the house as painful. Up those stairs I dragged her, gripping her hand with one hand as I pounded on the door with the other.
``Open up!'' I shouted, until the old woman came to the door, going through the same suspicious routine as the day before, finally drawing off the chain to let her granddaughter in.
``Not again?'' she said, staring down at the girl, both faces red and sad, like one of those pathetic support-your-local-poor-house-ads so liberally plastered all over town.
``Yes again,'' I said. ``And I'm getting real sick of this, lady. If you can't keep the little imp in, then hire a baby sitter.''
This was particularly cruel. Even if the old woman could have afforded a baby sitter, none would come to a neighborhood without walls or guards, nor could anyone from the neighborhood be trusted not to sell the kid off the minute the old woman's back was turned.
The old woman's face sagged, but I wasn't through, pushing my way into the apartment before she could slam and lock the door, her whole body stiffening as she hobbled away from me. Maybe she thought I'd come to kill her, grabbing the back of one chair then another until she reached the dresser and struggle with its drawer, coming out with this huge old six shout revolver she could barely lift let alone aim and shoot.
I grabbed it out of her hand and she crumbled into a chair, as if I had snapped her in two, staring up at me with the same shattered expression I had seen a hundreds of victims, her eyes begging for mercy the Outlands refused to offer.
``We don't have any money,'' she said, her hands shaking as the tried to reach the kid, who amazingly had settled on a stool, unmoved by the events around her.
``I'm not here to rob you, lady,'' I said.
``Then what you want?''
``I want to know more about the kid?''
The woman looked surprised, yet not relieved.
``Amy? What do you need to know about her?''
``Where's her folks?''
The old woman laughed, her voice a little shrill, something stirring behind her cloudy eyes, bringing to her face a look of embarrassment or shame.
``Her father lives uptown,'' she said.
``Yes,'' the woman mumbled, old enough for such terms as Outsider and Insider to not seem relevant, before neighborhoods put up walls and hired guards to keep them separated from the poor and violent people outside. ``He lives in one of those fancy places on the upper westside. I remember him talking about how secure it was.''
``What was he doing here?''
``What do you think?'' the woman said, still laughing but without humor.
``Slumming it, eh?'' I said, recalling it as one of the favorite summer activities for many Insider males, groups of them arriving into neighborhoods like this to get drunk and laid and then go home. ``And you let it happen?''
``I thought he wanted to marry her,'' the old woman said. ``They seemed in love at the time. I thought he would take her back to his safe neighborhood. That's more than I could give her.''
``But he left her here? Where's she?''
``Gone,'' the old woman said. ``Looking for another way to get inside, I guess, following anyone and everyone who'll promise it to her.''
``And she left you with the baby?''
``Amy would only spoil her plans,'' the old woman said. ``I know how bad that sounds. I thought I raised my daughter better than that.''
``God, that's crap,'' I said, staring at the kid, wondering how the hell anyone got anywhere with all this going on, how did someone climb out of a hole this deep without killing someone or climbing over someone's shoulders.
``It's not as unusual as you think,'' the old woman said. ``There are hundreds of kids in this neighborhood alone just like her.''
Somewhere in the back of my head, I wondered which was worse, fathers who beat their kids the way mine did, or fathers than ran away leaving their kids to grow up like rats.
``Doesn't the city have anything for her?'' I asked.
Again came the old woman's shrill laugh. ``The city? What do they care about anyone? No votes come out of neighborhoods without walls. And what taxes they collect out of these slums, they pay out in extra police. They have youth houses and shelters, but I can't see Amy doing very well in either place. Can you?''
``How do you survive?'' I asked. ``As run down as these places are, they still cost something in rent.''
``I'm old enough to still collect social security,'' the woman said. ``It's not much, but it pays most of the bills. Sometimes we have to cut back on food or clothing, but we get by.''
But for how long I wondered? Rents rose, social security didn't any more, and even those few who still qualified to receive checks from the feds, grew more and more desperate trying to make ends meet.
``How long has the kid been wandering around?'' I asked.
``Since her mother left the last time,'' the old woman said. ``But never so far as St. Marks before. That's new. But then I didn't know she even left the building. She keeps telling me she's going down to the door to look for her Daddy.'' The old woman let out of snort of a laugh. ``Talk about fairy tales. That's one that's never going to come true.''
``How do you deal with things? Get food and things? It's a dangerous world out there and with your sight...''
``Amy's been a real help there. We go out together. She helps me up and down the stairs, and watches out for trouble on the street. We don't look rich enough for the gangs to bother us, but I worry about some others. Things are getting desperate, and maybe desperate enough for some people to see us as well off.''
``Can you walk?'' I asked, noting a rusted wheel chair in one corner of the room.
``After a fashion,'' the old woman said, nodding towards another corner where a pair of crutches leaned against the wall.
``What happens to the kid if something happens to you?'' I asked.
The old woman shrugged. ``What happens to anybody when they go out there?'' she asked.
I slept badly. I kept tossing and turning and waking up to the sound of kids screaming from the street, only to discover it was a police siren wailing as a helicopter flew by, or the small electric heater groaning from being left up on high too long. I kept seeing the kid's hollow eyes staring at me in the dark, even when my own eyes were closed. I kept thinking how rough I had had it on the street, when things weren't nearly as bad as they were today, when half the neighborhoods hadn't yet put up walls or hired people to keep people like her out.
I wanted to help her out somehow, yet how the hell was I supposed to do that when I couldn't get out from the Outlands myself, when on every side, and every wall, someone stood with a machine gun aimed at my chest. Maybe if I had taken the hard drug route I could have paid my way inside like some of the bigger dealers did, driving big cars, hiring muscle men to keep anyone from hurting me. Maybe I could have gotten a real job, an honest job, and worked myself up the corporate ladder until I could ease inside. But most of us dealt dope because the serious jobs didn't pay enough to make rent, or bills, or transportation, and the since they outlawed minimum wage, we made more dealing an ounce of pot than we did a month working McDonalds.
Finally, I got up, went to my money stash behind the stove, and counted my cash, knowing perfectly well I barely had enough for rent. Still, I counted out half, stuffed it in my pocket, then wandered out onto the street again, where I knew I would find the kid waiting on my corner, her hungry eyes just as I had dreamed them, though with an edge that scared me.
``Come on,'' I told her as I took her cold fingers in mine.
``Where are we going?'' she asked.
``You'll see,'' I said, digging out two fivers as we descended into the subway again, through the security rigamerol, out onto the platform, where others waited with us for the uptown train, many of them as sad-faced and scared as the people on the street, though many of these people were headed off to jobs, in the midtown malls or food emporiums. Some even had jobs in various prisons, their pale uniforms marking them as file clerks or cafeteria workers. Since every neighborhood had its own jail, and the city, state and feds kept building more jails, such occupations became more and more available.
This time, we didn't get off at 14th
Street, but took the subway up to Grand Central Station, exiting onto a bank of
security devices many times more complicated than at Astor Places, cameras and
x-ray machines pawing over us as if we were trying to get inside City Hall or
the White House, bomb scares driving mall security to extremes. The gruff
guards eyed us suspiciously, but since nothing showed up on their screens, they
let us through, the kid's eyes growing wide with wonder as we rode the
escalator up into the mall itself.
We stopped at the shoe store. Each time I'd seen her she'd worn the same pink dirty slippers, grey from contact with the street, so thin she should have gotten frost bite. We both stared at the glittering display of posters advertising every kind of shoes for kids. Her face screwed up as she looked at them and then at me, as if trying to figure out the angle, and what I expected to get out of this.
``Inside,'' I said, and held open the door as she passed through, instantly struck by the smell of leather and carpet cleaner. She crinkled her nose. I pushed her down into one of the posh chairs where as salesman greeted us, a salesman whose frown grew distinctly deeper as he got a better look at us.
``Can I help you?'' he said in a voice as cold as the weather.
``The kid needs a pair of shoes,'' I said. ``Get her one.''
The man did not like my tone of voice or my looks, but both generated enough fear in him to comply with my wishes, cringing only once when he removed the kid's grey slippers. She squirmed and giggled, finding the whole thing very amusing. I shoved money at the man, then went out into to mall to smoke, standing there in a cloud of glorious tobacco scent when the kid emerged fifteen minutes later wearing a bright red pair of shoes.
``Why the hell did you buy those?'' I asked, picturing every pervert on the lower east side strolling behind her as she waltzed through the streets.
``Because I like them,'' she said.
``Do they fit all right?''
``Oh yes,'' she said, her eyes nearly as bright at the shoes.
``Okay,'' I said, crushing my third cigarette out on the polished floor. ``Let's get on with this, then.''
``Where are we going now?''
We stopped at the first clothing store that seemed practical. Most of them looked to posh for me, full of the latest designs of dresses and coats, none of which had any practical value on the street, except as a target. Inside, the kid stared at the racks of clothing the way a starving man stares at racks of beef, her small fingers rising to touch the shimmering, unfamiliar fabrics.
``Can I help you?'' a saleswoman asked.
``Yeah,'' I said. ``The kid here needs a coat.''
The woman eyed the kid and nodded slowly.
``I'll see what we can find,' she said after I stuffed money in her hands and went out for another cigarette, feeling no more comfortable in such places than the kid looked. A half hour later, the kid came out, wearing a cloth coat as red as her shoes, grinning at me as she spun around to model both purchases. Both seemed too bright to me, leaving her to stand out in a world where a person needed to blend in to survive. But the stuff looked warm and that's all that counted for the moment. We headed back to the subway, touring the mall and its wonders as we did, she skipping ahead of me, her bright shoes tapping on the tiles as people stared -- well-dressed neighborhood people whose lives behind their walls rarely allowed to see such characters as us, except perhaps out from behind three inches of bullet proof glass as they passed us on the street. I could almost see the hatred in their eyes, for our invading their part of the world. If they could have, they would have built a wall right here in the mall. I hurried the kid into the subway.
Of course, I then started worrying about
rent, and decided I had to notch up my dealing a little to generate sales. The
I was wrong.
The only people there this night looked as desperate as I did, clawing at nearly empty trash cans for something to eat, mumbling the names of drugs as I passed, mistaking me for a buyer. Under their coats, most them carried guns. If the tourists had come, they were gone already, and I wandered into the park, picturing myself the target in someone's rifle sights, feet kicking at the cracked concrete and roots of dead trees as I walked.
It took me a moment to see the even darker shapes, huddled in the corners of the park, more dismal and desperate than any of the grey people I knew cross town, trying to make themselves invisible, trying to score without cash, their eyes full of fire and hate for everyone -- including me. Being around them, I felt dirty, as if I'd joined the club of heavy dealers at last, drawing money from them the way a rat draws blood from a corpse.
Then, I saw something else even more terrifying, men less desperate moving among the living dead, body armor hidden under grey rags. One of these men, with horn-rimmed glasses, peered over a short wall at me, brows rising as if he knew me.
``Cops,'' I thought. ``I got to get out of here. But not too quickly.''
I didn't need someone to take a shot at
me from the walls of either the
Then, when I reached Astor Place, and walked among the more peaceful world or ordinary muggers and thieves, I saw her again, that blasted little imp charging at me with her red coat and red shoes, screaming out: ``Daddy! Daddy!''
A week later, my luck changed. I got wind
of a big deal, a package deal between one of the uptown walled neighborhoods
and a nervous importer who didn't want to know any of the details. The deal was
over my head, I'll admit, and the shipment had too many other, harder drugs
than I normally dealt. But I didn't have to touch any of it. All I had to do
was take a subway uptown, pick up the money, and bring it back. A UPS truck
would take care of the rest. I wasn't rolling in dough, but my money stash grew
so I didn't have to worry about rent for a couple of months. I could take a
vacation from the street until the streets thawed a little and the heat I'd
picked up by my visit to
I also figured I'd do one more good turn
for the kid. I took some cash to the supermarket, filled up a cart with bags,
then called up an armored cab to deliver me to the
She held the gun in one hand when she opened the door, barrel drooping when he realized who I was, though she frowned at the load of bags I'd dumped in front of her door.
``What's this?'' she asked.
``Food,'' I said and started to haul the loot inside.
``Young man,'' she said coldly. ``We didn't ask for your help. I appreciate what you've done for Amy, giving her shoes and a coat and all, and bringing her back when she runs out. But we're not a charity case. I have my social security.''
``Yeah, so I've gather,'' I said, shoving bag after bag into the apartment, as Amy stirred from deeper in the room to observe me, her eyes bright despite the dim light. ``I'm not welfare, lady, but I got lucky this week and figured I could help out a little. You won't get much more out of me. So take it while it's offered.''
The old woman didn't like it, but took
the food and put it away, filling shelves that hadn't seen a can or box in
years. I'm not sure why I did it. Maybe I was saying goodbye to the kid, since I
intended to make myself scarce for a while, and knew the kid would scour the
Then, I turned to go and the kid screamed and lunged at me from her stool, her face so full of fury I thought she intended to kill me. The old woman grabbed her by the shoulders and held her back, shaking the girl, but those eyes never wavered or lost their look of hate.
``Amy,'' the old woman said still shaking the kid. ``What's gotten into you child?''
``I don't want Daddy to go,'' the kid yelled, trying to kick the old woman's legs.
``How many times do I have to tell you, kid, I'm not your father.''
``You'd better go, Luke,' the old woman said.
I made a hasty retreat to the hall, then fled down the stairs street, that kid's hateful face stuck in my mind like a tatoo. So shaken up about it, I wandered around, stumbling through the rubble of East Village blocks like an Insider, a nearly perfect victim to any fool mugger, though my luck or their stupidity kept anyone from trying.
I kept trying to figure it all out, the big picture, searching for some kind of answer to it all. Everything seemed out of kilter. Kids weren't supposed to starve on the street, and weren't supposed to have eyes like that, hating, deadly eyes capable of killing, and they weren't supposed to look that way towards someone who had bought they clothing and food. I began to understand the others now, the older ones who stood in doorways with their fingers glued to the triggers of machine guns and shotguns and mini-missiles, began to understand why their eyes seemed to hard.
Somehow -- hours later -- I arrived at my apartment buildings. If there was anything wrong, I never saw it, not until I climbed the stairs and found two uniformed cops standing on the landing outside my door, dressed in full riot gear, from chest shield to helmet, each holding an automatic rifle, each squinting at me as I came up the stairs.
``You Luke Manley?'' one of the asked.
``Me?'' I said, my mouth so dry I could have swallowed my tongue. ``No way.''
I turned the corner, hands clinging to
the banister. I figured I'd keep going till I got to the roof, and then make a
quick getaway out one of the other buildings on the block. Then, stepping down
from the next set of stairs was the cop from
Two sets of hands grabbed me. Two sets of hands flung me against the wall, fixing me, hands patting me down in search of a weapon, a little startled when they came up empty. They cuffed me then shoved me ahead of them down the stairs, where more cops waited, all of them in helmets and riot gear, all of them aiming guns -- at me.
They had an armored personnel carrier waiting at the curb with its back door open, and thrust me in, more cops here aiming pistols at my head, as the other cops eyed the scenery for snipers, climbing in last as the doors slammed and the defense systems activated, and we all road down to the headquarters together.
I thought it was all over for me. I thought they had found out about the big deal and wanted to bring me to the station to find out names, names of the buyer, names of the seller, names of everyone in between. I knew better than to spill anything, which would make the cops mad, and get a judge to put me in the city or state or maybe even federal jail for a long, long time -- though I knew, too, I couldn't survive such a place for more than a week. The state never used its death penalty any more. No one needed to. The jail system did it for them. Only the meanest survived.
But when the tank pulled into the police station bunker, and the bomb-proof doors slid closed behind it, no one dragged me out or threw me into the prisoner bullpen. Instead, one of the clerks unlocked the cuffs and led me into the office section, a mad-house of blinking lights, television screens and computer terminals.
``Sit there,'' the clerk said, pointing to a molded seat of grey plastic near one of the terminals.
I sat, aware of some old cop in the
corner, sitting with his feet up on his console, snoring loud enough for people
to hear him in
`A while later, a grey-haired detective sauntered in, looking more like an accountant than a cop, punching up data on his terminal before eyeing me, my picture appearing on the corner of the screen. He seemed interested in some of the printed details.
``What's this all about?'' I asked, rubbing my wrists where the cuffs had cut into the flesh.
``I'll ask the questions,'' the cop said, frowning over something he'd red on the screen. ``Frankly, this has evolved into a sticky matter. We normally leave this kind of thing to the Welfare department. But considering the death and the record we have on you...''
``Could you get to the point,'' I said, melting into the chair, disliking both his reference to death and police records. Up until then, I had been unaware I had any record at all.
The cop glanced over the terminal at me. ``It's about your kid?'' he said.
``My kid?' I said. ``What the hell are you talking about. I don't have a...''
Then, it hit me like stone in the face, some sort of calamity showing in the grey-headed cop's eyes, something dreadfully serious I wasn't sure I wanted to hear.
``You mean Amy?''
The grey-headed cop consulted the screen and nodded.
``That's the first name we have listed here,' he said, peering up at me again, his grey eyes suddenly hard. ``But the last name's the grandmother's since we had no other name on record. Are you the kids father or not?''
``No way,'' I said, climbing to my feet.
``Sit down, Manley,'' the man said. ``The child says you are.''
``That kid's got an overactive imagination,'' I said. ``I'm not anybody's father.''
``But it says here you've been to the child's apartment several times. ``It says you've even brought some groceries.''
``I don't care what that says,'' I shouted and leaped again to my feet, drawing up the formerly snoring guard from across the room. I sat again. ``How do you know all that anyway?''
``Another department has been monitoring your activity,'' the grey cop said. ``I'm not particularly interested in what their investigation concerns so much as I am with the child's parentage. It would seem you have a deeper relationship with the child than you let on.''
``So I'm a sucker for a hardluck story,'' I said. ``That still doesn't make me the kid's old man.''
``No,'' the grey cop mumbled. ``But you still haven't proven that you're not, and considering the death, this could evolve into a very serious matter.''
``Death? What death?''
``The child's grandmother,'' the cop said, reading from the screen again. ``She fell down a flight of stairs.''
It took hours for them to sort it out.
They stuck me in a cell, a white-walled room with a molded grey plastic bunk, a moldered plastic sink, and a molded plastic toilet. A TV camera winked at me from behind wire mesh in the top corner of the room, its little red light going on and off as it followed me from this side of the room to that.
At one point, someone who looked like a nurse came in, told me to roll up my sleeves, then took a few tubes of blood, leaving me to hold a piece of cotton over the wound. Then, hours later, someone came back, another clerk, punching the code into the door computer that opened the locks.
``We're not though with you,'' the desk sergeant said when I made it the front desk. ``Don't leave town.''
Too hell with that, I thought, calculating how far my little nest egg could take me and whether the NYPD could forward its files there, or would want to, or if the Outlands in the suburbs were any better than they were here, a few trees, a little grass, a bit of fish fried over an open fire. That's all I wanted. I'd even put up with hillbillies if that's how far I got. Maybe I could find a real job out on a farm, plowing and planting a spring crop once this frost broke. I just didn't want any more to do with the cops or kids with hateful eyes, or old women falling down stairs. In fact, I was thinking of what to pack when someone called to me on the street.
``Hey buddy,'' one of the street people said. ``I think that kid wants to talk to you.''
Kid? It couldn't be. I turned with great apprehension, and then saw the red coat and red shoes rushing across the street, the kid's arms wide open.
``No!'' I yelled. ``Go away! You and your grandmother have caused me enough trouble.''
But shouting like that put me in the spot light again. People turned and stared, some of them hard people with hard motives and killing in their eyes, smelling my vulnerability like sharks sniffing blood, eyeing the kid as if she was bait for catching me. I avoided her embrace, grabbing her arm and propelling her along the street, searching the doorways for a vacant place where we could safely stop.
Safe? In Outlands? I was getting touched. No one was safe here. That was the point of all the walls. Outsiders couldn't find space like that, didn't have the cash to pay people to kill people to keep them safe, paying again and again as the bodies piled up. Out here, you had to look over your shoulder, had to keep moving, keep watching, keep people had a distance. Too close and they'd kill you. Even people as small as this kid.
``How the hell did you get here?'' I asked in a hushed and angry voice as we walked. ``I thought the cops had you?''
``They did, Daddy,'' she said. ``They put me in this place with walls. But I didn't like it there.''
``With walls? You mean inside? Were there guards? And a gate?''
``You're crazy, girl. People would kill to get Inside.''
``Not me,'' she said, and I got the ugly feeling she would kill to get out.
``So you just walked out, passed the guards and the machine guns, just like that, without anybody noticing you going?''
``I'm too small to notice.''
``That's nonsense. Nobody's that small.''
``I'm hungry,'' she said.
``You can think of food at a time like this?'' I asked, wondering what I was supposed to do now.
Would anybody come and look for one small kid? Only the death had gotten the police involved, now would they give a damn, come drag her away to this shelter or that institution? Would they waste gas on one more Outsider? It didn't seem likely to me, though I figured I could make some calls, find some Outsider shelter that might take it, an ugly place, yes, full of ugly people, but no worse than she would find wandering the Outlands. She absolutely couldn't stay with me. Yet I couldn't afford to parade around the streets with her belly aching about being hungry. I figured to take her home, feed her, then make some phone calls. Call the cops maybe, let them know where she was, ask them what I should do with her.
``All right,'' I said, gripping her arm a little harder. ``We'll get you some food. But not around here.''
``Where we going, Daddy?'' she asked, ignoring how hard I gripped her arm.
``Back to my apartment where I can stash you for a little while,'' I said, thinking about calling a legal eagle, too, just to be on the safe side. I was already in this thing deeper than I cared.
This time I looked around when I got home, up and down the street for any sign of trouble. I saw only the usual stuff, the stripped cars, the fire-blackened storefronts, the freezing bums in the gutter, but no cops or tanks or sign of a swat team waiting in the alley for me to go inside. Yet I did smell something when we climbed the stairs, gun oil and leather, the kind of smell I've always associated with cops. Maybe the smell lingered a long time, lingered from when those sons of bitches hauled me out of here many hours earlier. Scents like that have a way of digging themselves in, making it hard for you to smell anything else for a while.
But the smell grew stronger as we climbed and by the time we turned the last corner and started up the last stair, I understood why, as I stared up into the gun barrels of two automatic rifles, and the angry stare of fully armored cops taking aim at me. Behind them, with only a chest guard, stood the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses, though his stare was twice as furious as the uniform cops'.
``Hold it right there, Manley,'' this cop said. ``Send the kid down the stairs and keep your hands where we can see them.''
I nudged the kid to go, but her small fingers clung to my pants legs like velcro.
``Don't give me a hard time now, kid,'' I said, my voice rising in pitch with each word. ``This isn't the time for it.''
``But I want to stay with you, Daddy.''
``Just do what you're told for once,'' I hissed. ``We can talk about it later.''
She stared at me and seemed go grow stern for a moment, as if she intended to argue, then, glancing up at the guns, then down at other cops waiting below, she shrugged, skipping in her new red shoes as she descended. When she got to the bottom, the cops there dragged her out of the line of fire.
``All right, Manley,'' the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses said. ``Why don't you stroll up to us nice and easy. We wouldn't want any of these rifles to go off now, would we?''
``I was just about to call you guys,'' I said as I climbed, my feet feeling as heavy as two lumps of concrete. The cop grabbed me the minute I reached the landing and threw me against the wall, his two companions sticking their rifle barrels near my ears.
``Sure you were, Manley,'' the cop said, cuffing my wrists again, only much tighter than before, a trickle of blood oozing out from my wrist where the metal cut into flesh. ``You can tell all that to the judge. Now down you go, friend. We have a nice little police car waiting for you downstairs.''
They practically threw me down the stairs, cops in full gear swarming around me, all their weapons aimed at my chest and head, all of their fingers sweating on the triggers, the faces behind the protective face shields grim and angry.
``Let's go over everything again,'' the cop with the horn rimmed glass said, standing on a platform above me, bright lights burning my eyes as they glowed down on me from four different directions, fixed in the wall above the cops window.
``Yeah,'' another cop said from another platform window to the right, with another bright light shinning down at me, making it impossible to see the details of his face. ``Tell us what you intended to do with the kid?''
``I don't know what you're talking about? I told you everything,'' I said.
``Are you a pervert, Manley?'' a third cop said from a third window to my left, with a third blinding light shinning down on me. ``Is that it? Did you have something going with the kid? Did you have to do it behind the old lady's back. She was blind. She didn't cause any trouble.''
``But then things changed, didn't it, Manley,'' the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses continued. ``The old woman fell down some stairs and the kid got sent over to live with some normal people, in a nice Inside place where there were guards and security, and people in a real neighborhood watching.''
``Did someone see what you were up to, Manley'' the cop to my right asked.
``Did the kid's guardian walk in on you while you were doing your stuff?'' asked the cop to the left.
``Is that why you shot that nice Insider lady in the head, Manley?'' asked the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses.
``Shot?'' I said, trying to blink the tears out of my eyes, as if tears had caused me to misinterpret what was said.
``As in murder, Manley,'' the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses said. ``You know how hard city hall takes the death of an innocent Insider. Why don't you confess and make it easier on yourself. Maybe we can make a deal and let you do your time in a city jail, rather than upstate. You know what happens to people at the penitentiary, Manley? Are you tough enough to survive all that? Why don't just spill it all for us. We can't wait. We have all night? Do you?''
Murder? I knew something serious had happened, but never imagined that. And an Insider at that! The only thing worse they could of accused me of, was killing a cop.
``Look, man,'' I said, beads of sweat rolling down into my eyes. ``I sell a little dope from time to time. But I'm not killer.''
``Bull!'' the cop on the right snarled. ``Tell us the truth, Manley. We got a witness.''
``What?'' I said, sweat turning suddenly cold on my skin.
``Yeah, Manley,'' the cop with the horn-rimmed glasses said. ``The kid told us everything. She said her Daddy did it.''
I tried to swallow, but it was like trying to swallow lead.
``I want a lawyer,'' I finally said.
Many hours later, the clerk came to the door, and like before, punched out the code that undid the locks. I couldn't believe it. They were letting me go. I pressed the clerk for answers, but he ignored me, walking me out the same way he had earlier, leaving me to the desk sergeant, from whom I collected my personal things.
The desk sergeant didn't talk to me either. Maybe they found the real killer and didn't care much about explaining details to me. I didn't care much either, and was just glad to get out alive, knowing just how close I'd come to meeting my master. Back on the stairs of my apartment building with rifles pointed at my head and nervous, angry cops ready to squeeze the triggers.
You just didn't kill an Insider and get away with it. Sometimes, cops didn't need a lot of proof, or provocation to blow those kinds of suspects away. The desk sergeant didn't give me any warning about staying in town either. It wouldn't have done any good. I was already figuring on taking a bus out from the Port Authority in the morning to whatever destination my limited finances could afford, a one way ticket out of this Outlands for greener Outlands elsewhere. This city had turned sour on me and I wasn't going to give it a second chance to kill me. I knew when to listen to the warnings.
I got home, packed my bags, and then heard the knock on my door, a low knock, one that couldn't have been the cops, though who knew what they were capable of, or what proof they may have manufactured to solve this case against me. I went to the door, peered through the peep hole, but no faces showed in the hall.
``Who is it?'' I said, keeping to one side in case one of those itchy figures pulled a trigger by mistake.
The knocking came again.
``Go away,'' I said. ``Unless you got a warrant.''
``It's me, Daddy,'' the familiar voice said. ``It's me.''
``Amy?'' I said, growing confused again as I ripped off the chain locks and undid the drop bolts and swung the door in.
There She stood there illuminated by the hall's poor light, wearing her new coat and red shoes, but also wearing that same hard stare I had gotten at her grandmothers before the woman fell down the stairs, hard and angry street eyes straight at me. And, gripped in both her hands, that old revolver, pointed straight at my chest.
``Tell me you're my Daddy,'' she said. ``And tell me you'll never go away again.''