The old Escort was accelerating like a rocket launcher—right at me.
I froze so long I could see Max’s eyes narrowed in fury and his fingers clenched white-knuckled on the steering wheel.
My boyfriend was trying to kill me!
Shocked into action, I dived for the protection of the concrete bus stop bench. With as much anguish as fear, I screamed, “Damn you, Max!”
The heat of the engine was almost upon me as I fell to the sidewalk behind the bench on already bruised knees.
At the pain, I automatically cried out, “Damn you to hell!”
The rusted Escort slammed into the light pole where I’d just been standing. I shivered and huddled in the protection of the bench. In horror, I watched as the pole cracked and the car kept on going, careening into the bank’s brick wall. Metal and mortar flew.
I felt the impact like a small earthquake. Scrambling backward, I could only stare in alarm as the cracked light pole split in two, teetered ominously, and then tilted. Snapping under the tension, live wires crackled and sparked—igniting the gas from the shattered car in a ball of fire that engulfed the Escort.
With Max inside it.
I screamed. And screamed some more.
Over the door, the tin scales of Lady Justice dipped ominously to the wrong side as Andre Legrande strolled into the Biker Bar and Grill. The boss had been up to no good again, and our miniature Lady disapproved.
Personally, I thought the dipping scale meant the little statue knew Andre was a fraud, but I was keeping my head down and my mouth shut these days. Rather than feed my boss’s arrogance by admiring his assets, I propped my corrective boots on the stool rung and leaned over my tally sheet, pushing my cheap, black-framed reading glasses up my nose and letting my overlong bangs hide my face.
The weird anomalies—like moving statues—that had begun appearing in the Zone after the first chemical spill ten years ago now seemed an everyday part of my life. I’d taken a job in this South Baltimore neighborhood two years back when no respectable place would hire me. That’s pretty much the story of everyone in the Zone.
Society’s flotsam and jetsam gathered in what would be the world’s largest Superfund site if the authorities had the guts or the funds to rope off more than just ground zero. But all they did was fence off a strip along the harbor around the contaminated Acme plant where they used to make nerve gas. After a series of spills and that final flash fire, the harbor was shut down for half a mile on either side of the plant. Fishermen really didn’t appreciate glowing attack fish.
The EPA ignored the homes and businesses further inland, because, let’s face it, we’re a slum. As long as no one reported rising cancer rates in the area surrounding the original spill, the government considered their work done. Officialdom had moved on.
The contamination, or whatever in hell was left behind, was moving as well—unless you wanted to believe inanimate objects developed weird lives of their own. If anyone noticed that sometimes the gargoyles took days off from their perches on buildings, they shrugged it off as a gimmick meant to attract more lowlifes to the bars littering the area.
Observing the statue’s dip from the reflection in the mirror behind the bar, Andre smirked. Or maybe gazing at his own handsome image produced that smug smile.Legrande, after all means “the large one,” and I’d figured long ago that he’d made up the name to match his ego, if not his size. Not particularly tall but elegantly lean, he wore fitted silk shirts that emphasized his sleek muscles. Except silk belonged onstage with the Chippendale dancing boys, not in this industrial blue-collar backwater.
Andre had a reputation for toughness, though I’d never really seen it in action. Still, he’d lived here all his life, and the weak don’t survive long in the Zone. Harmless yuppies seldom found their way into an area marked with danger: environmental hazard signs.
I have a weakness for old cowboy movies where the bullies always get what they deserve. I thought of Andre in the part Jim Garner plays in Support Your Local Sheriff.He’d just stand there and eat his beans while the fistfight flowed around him—until a punch came his way, and then I suspected Andre might turn lethal. I didn’t want to be around to find out.
“Got my reports yet, Miss Clancy?” Andre asked, making himself at home behind the bar and pouring tonic over ice. He disliked being ignored, even by a nonentity like I tried to be. He was deliberately irritating me by not calling me Tina as everyone else did. It could have been worse. He could have called me Tiny, and I’d have had to take him down.
Running late, I was in no mood for old jokes. He always asked, but never looked at, my reports, and we both knew it. “They’re in your office, growing mushrooms,” I replied, bundling up the cash I was counting from the till. Modern cash registers, like most electronics, rarely worked well in the Zone. When they did work, they weren’t to be trusted for anything like accurate accounting. So this one was an enormous brass-encrusted mechanical model that looked as if it belonged in a western.
“Having a bad day?” Andre taunted. “Doesn’t your best—and only—boss deserve at the very least a cheery greeting?”
“I’m having a bad life, and cheery gets you killed around here.”
At the end of the day, my hip muscles protested my uneven stance, but I hurried through the count as best as I could, still hoping to make the five o’clock bus. I filled out the deposit ticket, added the numbers to my tally sheet, and shoved my glasses in my messenger bag. I was about to escape when the front door rattled unexpectedly.
Customers were a rarity before five, when the industrial plants up the road changed shifts and their workers streamed down the street, hunting for the aforementioned bars. I carried out my accounting tasks after my morning law classes, before night fell and happy hour packed the Zone like it was Mardi Gras. Normally, I had the bar to myself. Even Bill the bartender was hunkered in back, doing liquor inventory.
I glanced up just as Lady Justice’s scales dipped seriously to the right. Either the newcomer was a saint, or the jury was still out on Andre. But watching her enter, I cynically concluded that I hadn’t seen many saints with plastic boobs. I might have been a bit jealous of women with breasts bigger than mine, but these were simply ostentatious on a woman thin to the point of emaciation. Her long, dirty-blond hair scraped a bare collarbone that stuck out like a skeleton’s. Her hollowed cheek wore a fading bruise, and I did a quick check for needle tracks. None.
“Do you need any help?” she asked self-consciously. “I’m looking for work.”
“Sure,” Andre answered without hesitation. “Clancy here needs an assistant, don’t you?”
I needed an assistant like he needed more teeth in that lying white smile. But accounting jobs for women with arrest records were hard to come by, so I didn’t dare rock the boat. I just responded with cheery obedience. “Why not? Want her to run the deposits to the bank?”
As if he’d trust his cash to a stranger. There might not have been much brain needed for my job, but honesty was a major factor, with street smarts a distant second. I had a proven track record. The newcomer hadn’t been tested for either.
“Nah, I’ll take her back to my office to learn the books while you’re finishing up. We’ll see if she fits into your routine on Monday,” he said smoothly, leaning against the bar, drink in hand. In that masculine bad-boy manner that made most women drool, he eyed the goods the newcomer was displaying with her cleavage-revealing tank top.
This was where the spunky female protagonist in the western would sock him in the gut for being a sexist pig, but his abs were rock hard, and I needed my fingers to work.
The woman looked uncertain and even more nervous than when she’d entered. Smarter than I’d originally thought, I concluded, if she recognized that Legrande’s slick dark looks hid a dangerously amoral character.
“He owns Chesty’s,” I warned her. “If you’re into pole dancing, you’re hired. Don’t let him talk you into his office.”
She looked to be my age, but too frightened and vulnerable to be on this street. Were I a true heroine, I would have steered her in a safer direction. But not having a lot of time if I wanted to catch the bus, or any places to tell her to go, I figured I’d done the best I could.
I picked up the locked deposit bag with the cash from all of Andre’s businesses, shackled it to my wrist with the handcuffs I carried for this purpose, and limped for the door. I’d chosen boots that looked like knee-high biker boots, but I ruined the attitude with a skirt long enough to cover the scars that ran from my hips to my knees. Above me, Lady Justice peeked from beneath her blindfold and winked.
“Clancy, you’re no fun at all!” Andre shouted. “I can always replace you.”