The crayon moved down the page. Red, livid, ready. Spread on the table, splayed like a sacrifice, was the Classifieds section of the New Zealand Herald. He could’ve found the information faster online, but the risk of leaving an electronic trail made him turn to the old fashioned, the tactile, the untraceable.
The scent of fake wax from the crayon mingled with the fresh ink of the newspaper. He paged to the adverts in the Adult Entertainment column.
Bored? Lonely? Looking for a good time?
No, that wasn’t it.
Fat? So what?
He raised his eyebrows, continued his search. Suddenly, the red crayon halted.
A gentle massage using modern or ancient Eastern techniques.
Leaves you invigorated and stress-free. For appointments, phone...
Unconventional. Not into rules. Yes, this one had potential. The crayon swooped, trailed a jagged red oval around the ad.
“Honey? Are you coming to bed?”
The voice wafted down the stairwell. He closed the newspaper, careful to line up its edges and smooth out its spine.
“In a minute.”
He read the advert again. His blood raced. The addiction simmered inside him. Excited. Expectant.
“Crap.” Constable Zero Zimmerman stood up. Her calves were numb from crouching too long. She switched off the flashlight and tucked it into her pocket. Tried to keep her emotions in check. “Another one,” she said. Short, purposefully harsh. The cold wind pinched her cheeks and stung her eyeballs.
What she needed right now was a cup of strong coffee to settle her stomach. New Zealand Police Criminal Investigation Branch didn’t find corpses every day. But that’s not the only reason Zero would never forget the sight.
Her partner, Detective Kath Taipari, cleared her throat. “You all right, Constable?”
“Yes,” Zero lied.
Zero stabbed the recording app on her phone. “The victim’s female, in her twenties. No visible traces of blood.” Strangled like the other one, she thought, but that was the medical examiner’s call. “This is the second young woman murdered on K Road this year.” The second prostitute. Again, she wasn’t going to record her assumptions. “As with the previous case, the victim is wearing a white sheet and a fencing mask.” They’d initially assumed it to be a beekeeper’s headgear. Now they knew better. “The victim’s hands are arranged on her abdomen, clasped as though in prayer.” Like the previous body.
She stopped the recording. Glanced at the little heap that used to be a human being. Looked at her partner. “We don’t know it’s a serial killer. Need a third victim to prove the pattern.”
Kath Taipari whooshed warm air into the cold winter night. “You watch too much TV, Constable Zimmerman. In real life, when a fencing mask appears, we know it’s a serial killer at victim two.”
My last customer for the day doesn’t want to wear a condom. Cold. Wish it weren’t so cold. On this sad July evening, rain droplets fall as silently as snowflakes. My soul yearns for Christmas, with its hot stretchy days of New Zealand summer and red Santa suits; yearns for the days before the pain.
Three years ago, I flushed my heart down the toilet. The grief has never left. It’s made me softer and stronger, more grown-up and less contrary; it’s made me—me.
“No condom, honey?” I ask. “I guess we’re not going to have much fun then, are we?”
Come to think of it, this client looks a bit like Santa, with his cushion-like belly and bushy facial hair. Only, his beard is silver and the suit grey. Also, he must have left his reindeer and sack of presents somewhere else.
“Hey,” he says. “Just this once.”
I push out my boobs. The mid-thigh dress rides up and molds itself against my body. When I draw a slow circle around my nipple, the silk moans its response.
The grey-haired man in the grey suit—is he really so grey or is my mood sucking the tint out of him—watches me without a word.
“Talk to me, baby,” I say.
They all do, in the end. Abusive husbands, politicians, doctors, priests. They all tell me their secrets.
This man, though, keeps his lips zipped.
Time to step up the game.
“I want you,” I lie. A tiny shift of the shoulder, like a ballet adagio, and my dress slides off, exposing the black lace of the bra. The trick is below par, and I loathe it, but it works.
The grey-haired man swallows hard as he reaches for the foil packet.
He looks ludicrous with the suit trousers in twin concertinas above his shoes, the boxers binding his knees. His fingers shake as he fumbles with the rubber.
I smile my kitten smile again. “It’s more fun if I do it.”
I know how to put a condom on with my mouth. At the exclusive Catholic high school I attended, we practiced that particular skill on our lunchbox carrots or bunched-up fingers.
He pulls me to the bed as soon as he’s sheathed. He doesn’t bother with the zip of my dress, he simply pushes the fabric up to my hips. The thought of my state of readiness hasn’t even crossed his mind. I expect nothing different.
It’s over in seconds. Barely time for me to feel the cold clammy skin, the sharp hipbones, the grey coarseness of the hair.
Come on, Joy, I scold myself, remember why you’re doing this.
And suddenly the grey man doesn’t seem ridiculous anymore. Now he is just another lost soul. I let him rest there, my arms around him, my hand stroking his spiky shoulder blades.
“Wow, that was quite something,” I tell him as I pull off the condom and tie a knot at its base.
His voice is raspy now, like a torn paper bag. “Baby, you’re hot.” His fingers fumble with the collar of his shirt.
All I feel is chilled, right to my very soul, but I give him my most summery smile.
“That’s because I’m still sizzling for you.”
He puffs up, searches for something to say. “Your accent is gorgeous. Where is it from?”
I say the first thing that comes to my mind today, probably because I feel so frozen. Sometimes it’s Hungary or Argentina or Cyprus. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. They don’t really care anyway. Most of them don’t even know the geographical location of the countries I name.
Most of them would be surprised to know the truth.
“Finland?” the guy savors the sound, repeats it. “That’s unusual.”
“Mmm,” I dismiss the topic. “And cold. Now, would you like to have a quick wash before you go home?”
They usually do. He nods and disappears behind the bathroom door, his ankles still cuffed by the rolled-down garments. He probably doesn’t want to soil his underwear. I bet he’s the type whose good wife picks them off the floor for him in the morning.
“My business card is on the table,” I say when he returns.
The design is discreet with a modern unintelligible logo and nothing to indicate the nature of my services, yet most men refuse my card.
He is like most men.
“I’m good with numbers,” he says as he hands me the money, cold empty money, money I never spend. “I’ll remember yours.”
Good with numbers. Yep, an accountant. A grey, bored accountant.
His suit pants, now all the way up, are still slightly creased.
“That’s splendid,” I smile to the closing door. “Be sure to come back soon.”
That’s because I’m not planning to be here much longer.
Before I leave the apartment, I cross off another day on my personal Advent calendar, the one hanging underneath a dark somber painting of a woman and baby. Like every evening, I count the days left, even though I know the number anyway.
Every evening, I tell myself the story of my life. I’m a sucker for stories and I’m a sucker for happy endings. Most of all, I’m a sucker for words.
The events of three years ago, almost to the day, play out in my mind, as they do every night when I look at the calendar.
“I’m dying for a fuck right now,” Steve said in his SMS three years ago.
Good, I thought. It served him right for dumping me.
“I just need someone to hold me. Please. Don’t want to be alone tonight.”
In his words, I read nothing but darkness. The deepest despair, of the kind you get when there is no tomorrow. I should have said yes.
“No,” I typed.
“I still love you, you know.”
I placed my hand on the tiny curve of my abdomen, on the baby-to-be. “What a shame, then,” I typed back, “that I don’t love YOU. I am further from you now than if I were on holiday in China. In China, at least I might be missing you.”
As I powered down my phone, the only person I thought about was our unborn baby.
Steve committed suicide an hour later that night.
I should have said yes.
Words have the power to make things real. Words have the power even to make things un-happen. They even have the power to make the pain go away.
When my sex-worker story ends, the words will force it to have a happy ending.
Twenty-two days left.
It was late in the evening. The coffee mug burned Zero Zimmerman’s hand all the way from the canteen to the office she shared with Detective Kath Taipari. Her boss, the one who had earmarked Zero as her main sidekick for this case. The one who hoped Zero would fail.
That was the curse of Zero’s nickname. While it empowered her to strive for zero weakness, zero imperfection, as well as zeroing in on her goal, some people took it too literally. Like zero potential.
Can’t afford to fail this time.
The floor beat a muffled thud-thud-thud under her sensible sports shoes. The police station smelled of disinfectant so strong no coffee could compete.
The office, a cubicle four-steps-by-three, held two desks large enough for a laptop, two chairs, a whiteboard, and a filing cabinet. One day, they would keep all the reports electronically. For now, case admin was a curious hybrid of paper files and electronic documents.
Zero was relieved to put down her coffee mug. Her fingers still tingled from the heat. They now knew the second victim’s name. Stella Baxter. Street name Sirocco. It was a start, though not a very good one.
Her stinging fingers pressed into the cool skin of her cheek. “Nothing from the street web cams.”
No surprise there. Contrary to the conspiracy freaks, the government of New Zealand had better things to do than to spy on ordinary citizens by installing a security camera on every street corner.
Please don’t let her blame me.
“Right.” Kath leaned back in her office chair. “What’s the next step?”
“Check all the known offenders living in the area. Those on bail and those on parole, for crimes of violence against women. I’ve performed a database search for the greater Auckland region, although we can’t exclude the possibility that the perp comes to Auckland on business from time to time. As it stands, the list has twenty-three names. Would you like me to conduct the interviews?”
Kath narrowed her eyes. Concentration? Loathing? “I think you’re ready. Should be routine anyway. Bring me in if something rings alarm bells. Now, let’s try another angle. Why a fencing mask?”
Zero perched on the desk and tapped the case file with her index finger. Her nail, she noticed, was short and jagged, the skin around it bitten till first blood. “To hide the face,” she suggested. “The perp doesn’t want to see her eyes while he’s killing her. And/or, to obscure the victim’s humanity. And/or, to leave his signature.”
“We assume it’s a he?”
“Statistics tell us serial killers are almost always male?” Zero heard the involuntary question mark at the end of her statement. Crap. She hated sounding like a teenager, having so recently been one. “I read in the latest Law Enforcement…”
“Quite right, Constable. Continue.”
Where was she? Ah, yes. “And/or, to throw suspicion on someone from the fencing community. And/or, to make us chase the wrong lead. And/or, give the media a field day with headlines. You know, as a private joke, ha-ha-ha, the police are looking for somebody connected to fencing, what else is new.” Zero’s head spun from all the possibilities, her brain felt viscous and she almost heard it slosh about in her skull. Keeping multiple ideas in her head made her tired to the point of exhaustion. She was more of a sequential kind of girl.
Kath nodded. “Very good, Constable. I want us to dig deeper, though. Is he part of the fencing sport himself? Does he have a grudge against somebody in the fencing community, someone who sold out in exchange for sponsorship, for example? Or perhaps our serial killer is only number two in the country, and in his mind he’s killing the guy who’s better than him?”
That didn’t sound right.
“If he’s a fencer,” Zero said slowly, sorting and sifting information, “then he sees the masked victim as his opponent. In the case of the murders, a female opponent. Perhaps he had a fencer girlfriend, and she dumped him? Perhaps it’s prostitutes he sees as his enemy? Or all women?” She paused and thought some more, while Kath watched. A tiger readying to pounce. “Perhaps he takes them home, has his way with them, but he fails as a man, or they fail to live up to whatever image he has in his head? So he kills them and dumps their bodies, arranging them like a sacrificial offering.” Zero hesitated. “Do we know whether this victim was moved post mortem, like Rebecca Mahoney?”
Rebecca Mahoney, the first victim. Kath winced the way she did when drinking a particularly putrid batch of coffee. “Still waiting for the autopsy results on Baxter. We can’t make assumptions, but we’ll make them anyway.”
Zero’s brain stumbled over the contradiction, then recovered. “Okay, so assuming they were both moved post mortem...and dressed, also post mortem, in sheets and masks...he’s crazy, or he wants us to think he’s crazy.”
“Have you investigated the sheets?”
“They look like ordinary bed sheets to me. Not new. No labels.”
“Follow it up. Perhaps he took the sheets from the victims’ beds?”
A lump of ice formed in Zero chest. “You want me to phone the families about the sheets?” She didn’t want to talk to the parents or siblings. What would she say? How would she cope with their grief? Doctor Temperance Brennan from the TV series Bones had learnt the phrase “We are sorry for your loss,” but Zero found it empty and artificial.
Kath stared out the window. Given that the view was of the next-door hotel’s service entrance in an otherwise blank wall, Zero inferred it was a thinking pose.
“No,” the detective replied. “You’re right. It’s kinder to do it in person.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to. It’s all over your face. When you show emotions, Constable, you send a bloody memo.”
She grew hot from the collarbones all the way to the roots of her hair.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Kath said. “Compassion’s good in a cop. Beats being jaded. Jaded gives the case your second-best.”
Zero nodded. “I’ll talk to the lab. Are the sheets flannel? Polyester? A known brand?”
“Good. Now the fencing masks. Where does he get them?”
“A shop?” Zero bit on her thumbnail. It was hard, harder than the other nails, and she couldn’t sink her teeth right through it. “Like, a sports shop, maybe. I’ll phone around and check. Fencing equipment is likely not to be as common as running shoes. I’m betting on a specialist outlet.”
They discussed it a few minutes more without getting any further.
“This next one is tricky. Why prostitutes?”
Zero’s teeth conquered the thumbnail with a satisfying ker-snap. “Call girls are easy to attain. And easy to dispose of. Chances are, nobody will report them gone.”
“Right. Why else?”
“He resents the profession? His mother was a prostitute? Most psychological hang-ups can be blamed on the environment in which the perp grew up.” As Zero knew only too well from personal experience.
Kath tap-tapped her teeth with her pen. “It’s after hours,” she said at last. “A good time to visit an escort agency.”
“Again. That’s police work for you when stripped of the glamour.”
They had spoken to the sex worker community after Rebecca Mahoney’s murder. The girls had clammed up.
Back when Zero had joined the police force, she’d imagined a series of fascinating cases, like on Dexter or CSI. She hadn’t realized how much repetition there’d be in the real world. Speak to the same people, ask the same questions. And admin work. Tons and tons of forms to fill in, some on paper, some electronically, both equally tedious.
They should have given this case to a man. Most male detectives she knew would jump at the chance to visit an escort agency on taxpayer money.
The stairs chirp under my feet as I run down onto Queen Street. It’s drizzling and I can see my reflection in the wet pavement. The air is dense with petrol fumes and Asian cooking. Although the sea is two blocks away, its fresh smell doesn’t reach this district of pink neon lights, cheap fry-ups, and blazing party music.
“The u-su-ar?” asks the yellow man behind the counter of the takeaway shop.
“The usual,” I give him my best smile and a five-dollar note.
Sometimes he visits me upstairs. I also ask him whether he wants the usual, and he hands over many, many five-dollar notes.
New Zealand. The land of opportunity in the South Pacific. One of the first countries to see the sun every morning. On a day like today, it’s hard to believe it. It’s not that cold, it never gets really cold in Auckland, but the rain makes me want to wrap my fingers around a mug of hot chocolate and a trashy book.
Instead, I wrap my fingers around a large portion of plain fish wrapped in a newspaper. Without taking a bite, I tear it into little pieces and leave it in the back alley. Over the years, I’ve given up trying to call for the stray cats to come get their dinner. I just leave the food and hope.
A shadow crosses the exit. My heart flutters. The shadow moves away. A laugh of relief escapes my chest, only it comes out as a strangled sob. The prostitution ring is tight in Central Auckland, and news travels fast. After the first one, I started looking over my shoulder. This morning’s news of a second body found wearing a fencing mask made me want to board the first plane out.
And yet here I am, in the back alley of the CBD. As I crumple the newspaper wrapping, a familiar face catches my eye. The newspaper is more than a week old, but the grey eyes staring at me through the fried oil stains I saw only hours ago. My grey accountant client. Only, he’s not an accountant. He’s a Cabinet minister.
At least he paid cash, so he probably didn’t charge my services to his expense account.
If only I could take a bath in a tub of anti-bacterial soap. I need to go home. Now. “Taxi?” I call out.
All the cabs are full, or off duty, or in another part of town. The buses are running in the opposite direction. I turn right and begin my hike up towards Parnell. An upmarket snobbish suburb full of upmarket snobbish restaurants, and upmarket snobbish wives who love their husbands’ money—that’s where I live.
The roll of eighteen hundred hard-earned-easily-earned dollars stuffed into my bra feels sharp against my skin. It’s not a safe hiding place, as I discovered three years ago when three sailors raped me and disappeared with the cash.
Except, it wasn’t what it sounds like.
“Go to the police,” Cora said when I—eventually—told her. “Public opinion is changing; women have the right to say no even when they’ve been saying yes all evening. In the eyes of the court, a prostitute is as untouchable as a virgin. People can talk all they like about girls encouraging men with their dress and body language, but if anybody knows the difference between a provocative strut and an innocent stroll, it’s a sex worker.”
She didn’t understand. She thought it had happened after I’d become I prostitute. She thought I was a victim.
A gust of wind from the harbor hits me in the face. As I approach the shoebox dwelling blocks on the waterfront where the Asian Market used to be, a man stumbles onto the road. Behind, I hear the roar of a car engine.
“Bugger!” somebody screams.
Everything happens so quickly, that for a moment I don’t understand why I’m lying on the ground holding a stranger in my arms. The screech of tires is still in my ears, I can smell hot rubber.
“Keep your fucking boyfriend on the footpath,” the driver yells before racing off. “Or you won’t be able to save him next time!”
The images replay in my mind: the man swaying in the middle of the road, my feet hurting from the leap, my yank that sent us both off-balance and rolling away from the speeding vehicle.
I get up and heave the stranger to his feet. His breath reeks of half-digested alcohol. “Any spare change?”
“Nope.” I would gladly give him all my money, but I don’t want him to drink himself to death, which is all too likely on a day like today.
“How ‘bout some action then?” His fingers grope and grapple around my backside.
I force myself to stay in his liquid clasp. God, if only he didn’t feel so gummy.
“Give us a kiss.”
His lips look like a fish.
Perhaps he has somehow guessed my profession, despite the baggy cardigan and the sports shoes into which I always change after work. Perhaps he is lonely and would have approached a granny or a nun. His stubble fails to hide the double chin.
“Fine,” I tell him. Something scratches my cheek. I smell today’s garlic and yesterday’s sweat and another explosion of cheap spirits. What I taste I choose not to analyze.
It’s in the job description I wrote for myself three years ago. That’s what I’m there for. I reach for his zipper, but he moves his hips away, so I just hold him. We stand there for a long time before he sways out of my arms and sits on the pavement.
Tenderness, sometimes that’s all that one needs—I think as I make my way up Parnell Rise—tenderness and compassion of another human being. I glance up the street and see the couples that stroll hand in hand and read menus outside the restaurants. They already have that, the tenderness and compassion of another human being. Or they have just another human being, at any rate. Perhaps that’s actually all one needs.
And sometimes another human being is exactly what one doesn’t need, I realize, as I approach my flat. Cora is waiting at the front door, her long hair moist from the drizzle but still magnificent.
“You’re soaked,” I embellish, but only just. “Why didn’t you wait in a café?”
I know the answer. Cora would never spend a cent more than absolutely necessary. At mid-thirties, her time is running out, and in our profession, there’s no pension fund.
“We’re going to work tonight,” she says.
I shake the wetness out of my own hair for emphasis.
Even the infantile words don’t make her any younger. She looks like a woman at the peak of her maturity. Ripe and sweet, with no rough edges. Like a mother. Like I would have wanted my mother to look.
“But I’ve already done my bit for the community.”
I’m whining, a child who knows it’ll not get its way.
“Come on, Joanne.”
It’s been ages since I last tried to get Cora to call me ‘Joy’. It never worked.
Cora’s blue eyes are very close to mine. Tantalizing, coaxing, tempting. Like the first time we met. And as I did then, I relent.
“I’ll go if we take a taxi,” I venture.
But we don’t take a taxi, and I go anyway. I feel guilty that I switched off my phone, guilty that Cora had to stand in the rain waiting for me, guilty that I don’t need money while she does.
“The bus it is.”
On the way back into the city center, I look out of the rain-freckled bus window in search of the drunk with the stubble and the garlic beer breath. He’s gone. I don’t know why it makes my eyes burn until tears trickle out.
“So what made you want to work tonight of all nights?” I ask. Cora works mostly office hours, rarely nights, never weekends. “Cora?”
“You can tell me.”
“You won’t like it.”
I give her a grin. “There is no rule that says I have to like everything.”
And how true that is in our profession.
“It’s probably just my imagination,” Cora’s voice tells me it’s anything but. “So don’t go spare on me.”
I wait. My turn to win.
She says, “I thought someone stalked me earlier today.”
Some things are just too close for comfort. A stalker following you on your way home is definitely too close for comfort on the tail of two prostitutes murdered within a ten kilometer radius.
“We can’t leave it like this,” I tell her. “Take the barman home with you tonight, he’ll love it. Let’s go to the police, let’s tell the management at the agency, let’s do something, let’s do anything, Cora. Cora?”
“This is where we get off,” she replies.
She probably doesn’t only mean the bus.
The escort agency looks the way it does every day, year after long year: extravagant. That’s the only word for it. There’s no way the security system would let the man with the garlic stubble pass through the front door.
Every patron pays a few hundred dollars in entry fee and walks up the stairs, through the foyer, and into the bar area. There, bathed in soft forgiving light, we await. A flourish of sirens ready to seduce the sailors.
When a client spots a girl he likes, he joins her at her miniscule table and asks what she’d like to drink. She always asks for a cocktail, which is as expensive as a glass of French champagne. Yet it’s only another of the management’s small profit schemes, for the drink contains nothing but juice or Cherry Coke.
“Look,” Cora’s hand presses my elbow. “I’ll give you first dibs. The bloke at the end?”
I look. I think I recognize the ramrod back, the thick silver hair, the tan. My father? For a split second, before I see his stranger’s face, my heart jumps into my mouth.
Even though it’s not him, I shake my head.
“You go get him, girl.”
Before she can do that, the one-way mirror that serves as the door to the manager’s office swings opens. The Madam catches my eye and beckons us in. “Two detectives to see you, girls,” she says.
Together, in-step like Siamese twins, Cora and I enter the small office that looks a little like a tiny coffee shop and a little like a bedroom. If there is any admin work going on here, you can’t see the evidence: no laptop or phone or a filing cabinet in sight. Just leather settees, a china tea set, wood panels on the walls, masses of velvet curtains.
In a chauvinist cliché turn of events, I’m surprised to see the detectives are both women. One is a more delicate version of Nicole Kidman, all porcelain skin and a compliant red haircut; the other, a Pacific woman old enough to be her mum.
“Constable Zimmerman,” the one that looks like a porcelain doll says with a nod so curt, it’s a spasm rather than a greeting.
The other policewoman extends her hand. “Detective Taipari. Nice to make your acquaintance. We’re here to talk about Sirocco.”
Sirocco. The second murder victim. I didn’t know the first one. Sirocco, though, worked from this agency. My brain bunches up as I try to recall the last time I saw her. A week ago? Two?
The policewomen ask Cora and the manager to leave. Standard procedure, they assure me, nothing to worry about.
“So,” I say, not quite sure what I can possibly contribute. “Sirocco.”
“Her real name was Stella,” the older detective volunteers. “Stella Baxter.”
Of course she’d know Sirocco’s real name. We’re all registered with the escort agency for tax purposes. Stella Baxter. I taste the syllables on my tongue. No. Sirocco suited her better. With big hair, big gestures and a big heart, she was as wild as the exotic wind she chose as her working identity. And now she is no more. Dead. Killed by a sick bastard for whom sex wasn’t enough of a thrill.
“What do you want to know?” I ask.
Porcelain Doll locks her eyes with mine. “Anything that’ll help us catch the bastard.”
“Couldn’t have been personal,” I tell her. “Everybody loved Sirocco. There was nothing catty about her. She never took another girl’s client. Never stepped on a man’s ego.”
“We have strict standards here. The manager…”
Porcelain Doll narrows her gaze. “Drugs?” she repeats. “Off the record.”
“No. Not Sirocco at any rate. She has—had—a kid.” The implications of the tragedy hit me like a physical punch. “What’ll happen to her son? You can’t let CYF take him.”
CYF. Child, Youth and Family, a service provided by the Ministry of Social Development, is there to make sure kids are safe from abuse, never starve, and avoid the path to crime. In theory. In practice, we see too many girls in our profession who’ve been let down by the system.
The other detective puts a hand on my forearm. “Stella’s mother will look after him.”
“So the killer’s after prostitutes,” the older detective says. “Can you tell us why?”
My mind is racing. A robbed client? Someone who can’t get it up with a prostitute? Someone who can only get it up with a prostitute?
“If someone has a grudge against prostitutes in general,” I tell her, “you may need a psychologist to make you a list of the reasons. My guesses will be amateur at best.”
“We hoped you could give us those reasons that…” Porcelain Doll breaks off, her cheeks reddening.
“Reasons only a prostitute knows?” I supply. “Nope. Sorry. Can I go now?”
“Please send in your friend. Cora?”
“That was useful. Not.” Zero breathed in the drizzly night air, tasted car fumes and the garlicky smell of the nearby Korean Take-Away.
Kath spread her hands in a what-can-you-do gesture. “We’ll be back, though. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“Before your time. Forget it. Go home and make that list of why the perp might hate prostitutes. Re-watch a few episodes of Criminal Minds for ideas.”
That was more like it. Still not what she’d thought being a police detective would be, but infinitely better than filling in forms or visiting escort agencies. Watching TV for work—that she could do gladly every day.
So, the plan for the rest of the evening. One, her regular visit to the public pool to swim laps. Two, grab a take-away dinner. Three, take a shower to wash off the patina of the escort agency. This would be a departure from her routine—she usually showered in the morning—but needs must as her mum always said. Four, Google serial killers and prostitutes. Five, select and watch as many TV series episodes featuring serial killers as she could with the time constraint.
Life was good when you could break it down into predictable bullet points.
Life was not good when the case you were working on had the potential to derail your career. She only had one chance left. This one.
The bloke who looks like my father is still sitting alone.
Waiting for us?
“All yours,” I say to Cora. “I’ve had enough.”
I watch her a while, and when she escorts her client to a back room, the one with the African safari theme and a fake zebra skin on the floor, I nod goodbye to the barman. I don’t want to work tonight. Tonight, I want to be alone with my past. I’m about to slip away when I feel Cora’s hand on my neck.
“He wants a triangle,” she says.
I follow Cora to the African safari room. We start off with a shower. We dress it up as foreplay, but what it really is, is a frequent necessity. Most men don’t bother to wash beforehand. They see it as a lack of respect for us, a lack of respect that they somehow have the need to flaunt.
We see it as a lack of respect for themselves.
Like the rest of the business, what we’re selling here is a dream. Straightforward sex or an elaborate triangle with toys and dressing up as hospital nurses, it’s all the same. It’s the Cherry Coke cocktail.
Cora and I have had many opportunities to perfect our big act so that it looks good. We writhe and moan in all the right ways. In reality, we hardly touch.
The guy who isn’t my father, though he looks like him, watches us in silence.
I know Cora’s pleased: it’s easy money. She can’t know how violated I feel—not by the scenario itself, we’ve played it out often enough—but by the guy’s resemblance to the one man who should never see me like this.
Sometimes I expect to bump into Dad at a place like this. Auckland is not a big city by international standards, and I’m surprised I haven’t yet encountered anybody I know.
I can picture the scene: my legs draped around a crimson bar stool, my hand on an exotic looking glass with a cherry on a toothpick. Suddenly I spot my father as he walks in through the door. Time and time again, I search my head and heart for clues as to how I might feel. And time and time again I come up with a blank.
Am I surprised—in that theoretical scenario—that my father, my handsome-sexy-intelligent father is paying for sex?
A long-suppressed memory forces itself on me, and before I can push it back down, I see myself age six or seven.
I woke up in the middle of the night, at least to me it was the middle of the night, and the house felt strange. I knew my mother had gone to a charity ballet premiere with other ladies who lunched, and Dad had stayed home, having refused to watch men in tights, but that wasn’t it. I tiptoed towards their bedroom.
My father’s bedside lamp was on, illuminating his broad back. I heard murmurs, I saw a female form on the bed, but something was off. I couldn’t smell mummy’s special perfume. And then I saw her. The woman in my parents’ bedroom. The one in their bed. She was wearing weird pajamas, all black and shiny like plastic, and rather ill fitting, with her private parts all sticking out. Back then, I retreated to my bedroom, convinced it was all a bad dream.
And now I’m living inside that bad dream and I haven’t seen my father for almost three years.
I still have twenty-two days left.