He always loved the Madonna-like glow around a mother tending to her child. More than once, this glow had been the thing that called a woman to his attention.
He appreciated the way this mother’s deep brown skin shone as she bent down close to a little face that was just as beautiful as hers. Her auburn braids cascaded around her face as she leaned in to hear her child’s secrets. White teeth gleamed behind full lips that would have glistened even without the frosty pink gloss she wore. Earrings dangled like a hypnotist’s shiny watch. Rings adorned every one of her fragile fingers.
He had been watching this mother with this child for a long time, longer than he’d ever stalked a woman. His attention had strayed, because certain needs must be met, but he always came back to her.
For her, he had broken every one of his rules. They lived mere blocks apart. He knew her name. She knew his. More to the point, the people who would be her survivors knew his name and they knew where he lived. He should have run from her as fast as his feet would take him, but he was transfixed by the graceful tilt of her head as she listened to everything her little girl had to say.
As the two of them neared the crosswalk, she held her hand out in the mother’s universal signal of caution. The hand said, “You’re too young to cross the street alone.” Or perhaps it said, “You’re old enough to cross the street alone now, but hold mine, please. I feel safer when you do.” Something about the way the child took her mother’s hand made him think that the balance was already shifting, years too soon. Perhaps the mother was the one who needed someone steady to look after her.
There was no wedding ring. He always checked for those.
He could have done it, then and there. Nobody could be easier to grab than a woman with a child in tow. Come within an arm’s length of the child, flash a knife, grab a wrist, and you were in control. That’s where he liked to be, in control.
This woman knew him well. Getting close enough to seize the wrist would be easier than it had ever been, because she knew him. Or she thought she did.
He said her name out loud, again: “Frida.”
He liked the taste of it. It vibrated on his lips in the same way that her wrist would pulse against his palm.
Grabbing a woman’s wrist was always his first move and, in many ways, it was his favorite moment. There was always a tremble of fear there, playing counterpoint to her rocketing pulse. There was a cold clamminess, too. A hard yank on the wrist could bring her close enough for him to smell her sweat in the very instant that a surge of adrenaline gave the scent a top note of fear. A harder yank could sprain the wrist, dislocate the elbow, sometimes even snap the arm, but he had to wait for that. Until they were alone and no one could hear, he couldn’t afford to loose the hungry dog of his desire.
Mother and child crossed the street, hand in hand, and he enjoyed watching them go. The mother had long, slender legs beneath a short skirt that was silky enough to enhance the curves beneath. The daughter’s legs were short and sturdy beneath her athletic shorts, but that would change. She was her mother’s image made over. In two years, maybe three, she would be as delectable and he would be waiting. Once he’d broken his rules for her mother, he might as well break them for her too.
He let them walk out of sight, but it would be a mistake to say that he let them go. He had decided that they were among the chosen, and this was not a decision that he had ever reversed. The mother was ripe now and the daughter would be soon. They could walk away from him, but they could not escape him.
He knew where they lived.
The slow-moving creek carried a thick layer of olive-green algae. Faye Longchamp-Mantooth shuffled along, using her feet to feel her way along a sandy bottom that she couldn’t see. Tainted water lapped at sandy banks littered with beer cans, crumpled plastic grocery bags, and an occasional whitewall tire. Anything that had ever been cast aside by anyone in Memphis, or even in most of west Tennessee, could theoretically be hiding under the scum, so she stepped carefully.
She was wearing boots that were water-resistant, but not watertight, and she’d been slogging along this creek for nearly half an hour, so its blood-warm water now saturated her socks. Her shirt clung to her ribs. Even her bra was sweat-soaked. She was mildly miserable, but she couldn’t quit now. To quit would be to admit that a little girl was tougher than she was.
She was far behind the girl, just close enough to catch sight of her every five minutes or so. The child couldn’t be more than ten, yet she moved in the world like someone who had never been dogged by a protective adult urging her to be careful. There was no question that she knew this creek. Faye had quickly learned to pay attention when her quarry made a random move, stepping deeper into the water than Faye would have expected or crawling up the bank to take a detour that seemed unnecessarily strenuous. When Faye reached the jumping-off points for those odd detours, she inevitably found out the reasons for making them.
Once, a deep hole, hidden by the algae and muck, claimed her leg all the way up to the butt cheek. She’d waited in that hole several minutes, until she was sure the girl was too far away to hear her splash and flail her way out of it. Another time, she’d tripped over a submerged television and barely missed slicing her calf on the exposed shards of an ancient cathode ray tube. Faye had collected ample proof that the girl knew this creek intimately, miles of it. This was despite the fact that, if Faye had been her mother, she would have been years away from receiving permission to leave the back yard alone.
When a culvert came into view, Faye crawled up onto the high bank to get a better look at it. She saw a concrete pipe, maybe four feet across, marking the point where the creek was almost blocked by the bed of a busy road. The pipe throttled the creekwater into a narrower, swifter flow.
Faye hoped that the girl had traveled as far as she intended to go. She didn’t want to see her wade into the culvert’s fast-moving water, deep enough to splash the hem of her skimpy red shorts. Faye had been following those shorts for nearly a mile, but she’d been keeping her distance. There had been times when the only signs of her quarry were occasional glimpses of their faded crimson through the underbrush.
Why was she doing this, anyway? It had been three days since Faye had first noticed the child hiding in a shady clearing atop the creekbank that loomed over her worksite. Every day since, the little girl had been up there before Faye arrived, ready to roll up her sleeves and do some archaeology. Shortly before noon each day, Faye had seen her creep quietly through the trees lining the bluff, skirting the creek until she believed she was out of Faye’s sight. Each day, she returned more than two hours later, closer to three, and waded out of the water at a spot where the creek bluff dipped down to a manageable height. This happened far enough from the spot where Faye worked that the child probably believed that she’d gone unnoticed.
But this had been a tactical error. She’d underestimated Faye, who had also spent her childhood outdoors, albeit in safer places and supervised by an adult. Whenever the girl passed by on the bluff above her, Faye heard the soft footsteps and the rustle of disturbed underbrush. Even the faint splish of small feet stepping into running water was obvious to Faye.
After the girl disappeared downstream on the first day, Faye had listened for the barely audible splashes to fade. Then, certain the child was gone, Faye had climbed up the bluff and checked out her hiding place.
The little girl’s stash of treasures was eclectic. Faye found a neat pile of magazines that looked like a sampling of convenience store stock—three issues of Guns and Ammo, a real estate circular, two issues of Car and Driver, and a dog-eared copy of People so old that the cover featured Paris Hilton. She’d also found a cache of pretty-colored stones and a fistful of dried-up yellow water lilies.
There was lots of trash corralled in a plastic bag pinned down by a rock. Faye had admired this act of unchildlike tidiness. Then, because archaeologists are fascinated by trash, Faye had followed her instincts and peeked in the bag.
It was filled with food wrappers, which was no surprise, but Faye hadn’t expected the wrappers to lean more toward real food than toward candy and gum. The girl’s unkempt hair and too-small clothing had led Faye to assume that she was neglected, but somebody was making sure she ate granola bars, peanuts, and canned fruit. Why wasn’t she eating it at home instead of hiding from the July sun in the patchy shade of a copse of water oaks? Was she homeless? Did she live here, outside and alone?
No, that was impossible. There had barely been room in the gap in the trees to sit, much less to lie down and sleep, and there had been no possessions beyond the tattered magazines. This was not the hideout of someone with nowhere else to go.
This line of reasoning made Faye reasonably sure that the child had a home, but was there someone waiting there to take care of her? She studied the girl, far ahead of her in the creek. By her best guess, she was looking at two-days-since-somebody-fixed-it hair, which is a far cry from the hair of a ten-year-old living alone. Some of the braids were starting to fray, but most of the multicolored plastic barrettes still held. A lot of kids’ hair looked like that in the summertime.
Where was she going?
• • • • •
On the first day she laid eyes on the child, Faye had stayed at her work, digging with her trowel in the damp creekside sand and watching the girl trek downstream. Hours later, her spying had been rewarded with the sight of a wet, tired child sneaking back toward her cozy nest. Hours after that, she’d seen her stand and fade into the woods again, this time walking away from the water. Faye had presumed she was going to a home where she had a bed and someone to look after her, but she would have liked to be sure.
The second day had been just like the first day, with the girl spending part of the morning hiding in the woods, leaving for a while, then returning to lurk until late afternoon. The big difference was that Faye hadn’t been alone. She’d had a witness to help her watch the child skulk through the underbrush.
She’d wanted to follow her then, but her witness hadn’t hesitated to say, “You’re nuts.”
This was rather bold of him, since she was the one who’d be signing his paychecks. Faye had hired Jeremiah Hamilton as her assistant more for his local knowledge than for his decent-but-not-exceptional archaeological expertise.
Jeremiah was in his late twenties. He held a master’s in anthropology, and he was now a third-year doctoral student, but, more importantly, he had grown up in a house that stood less than a mile from their worksite in Sweetgum State Park.
Jeremiah’s local knowledge was inarguable. His archaeological knowledge wasn’t nearly as extensive, but he thought it was. Jeremiah was one of those people who really liked to explain things to his boss, and he liked to do it carefully and thoroughly. He was probably just trying to impress her, or maybe he just liked to hear himself talk, but it felt like he was doing it just in case she turned out to be stupid.
“Why are you worried about this particular little girl?” he’d asked as the girl in question traipsed out of sight. “Do you know how dangerous this neighborhood can be? And do you know how many little girls live in it? If she’s really been sitting up there eating snacks and reading all summer, she might be better off than most of them.”
No, Faye didn’t know how many little girls lived nearby. She also didn’t feel qualified to judge who was better off than whom, and she didn’t think Jeremiah was qualified, either. She did know she didn’t like Jeremiah’s suggestion that she shouldn’t worry about one little girl’s safety unless she was prepared to make sure all little girls were safe. Since it had been her first day as his boss, she hadn’t said, “That’s a logical fallacy,” out loud. She’d merely shot him an eye roll that said it for her.
Jeremiah might have been an annoying know-it-all, but he’d seen the eye roll and backed down. Nevertheless, Faye had known what he was thinking. It was as clear as if he’d spoken out loud.
You’re an outsider, Dr. Longchamp-Mantooth, and you should mind your own business.
Jeremiah was going to need recommendation letters for post-docs and faculty positions soon. It would help his case if he learned to be more diplomatic with the people who could write them for him. Faye had held her tongue and changed the subject.
On this, the third day of her new project, Jeremiah had gone to the university to oversee the final day of training for their crew. This was the last day Faye could anticipate working alone for the duration of the project, and she was done with being a passive spy. It was time to find out where the little girl went every day. Making sure a child was safe just seemed like the right thing to do, despite what Jeremiah, the judgmental local expert, had to say.
In the end, Faye’s reason for going after the girl was a simple one. She was curious. Curiosity had gotten her into trouble before, but it had also taken her on some adventures.
Being her own boss had its virtues. If she wanted to take a long lunch and spend a couple of unpaid hours slogging down this creek, nobody could stop her. Thus, her curiosity had brought her to this moment, standing in a murky creek and staring at the round dark opening of a culvert.
Crouched behind a stand of cattails, uncomfortable and wet, Faye wondered why she hadn’t just called out, “Hey! Little girl! Can I talk to you? Do you mind telling me where you’re going?”
Deep down, Faye knew that a direct question would have left her looking at the back of a child who was running away, fast. The child’s furtive glances and smooth, silent movements said that she was cautious and that she had good reason to be.
As Faye watched, her quarry walked with purpose toward the culvert, which protruded from its bed at an alarming cant. Stooping her head as she approached it, she didn’t slow down.
Dang. She was going in.
Faye watched her wade into deepening water that was opaque with the goop washed off the streets of a major city, not to mention the excess fertilizer applied to the green lawns of Memphis. The water lapped at scrawny brown thighs and faded red shorts as the child strode into the culvert and disappeared.
Cursing herself for her inability to leave a question unanswered, Faye stepped into the sunlight and waded toward the culvert. She could feel the current tugging at her calves, her knees, her thighs. She wished wholeheartedly that she hadn’t worn full-length pants with heavy cargo pockets that dragged her down even more than the sodden pants did, but she plunged on.
At five feet nothing, Faye rarely had reason to think, “I’m too tall,” but the culvert succeeded in planting that thought in her head. Bending her knees and leaning for- ward, she was able to enter standing up, though she had to work hard to keep her breasts and belly dry. With both hands holding her phone out of the water, she plunged ahead.
Putting her face so close to the scummy water forced her to acknowledge that it didn’t smell very good, but it was too late to turn back. She shuffled her feet through the silt on the concrete bottom of the pipe and made her way slowly, allowing plenty of time for the little girl to stay ahead of her.
The rough concrete undersurface of the culvert dragged against her back, but it kept her oriented in the dark. She knew she wouldn’t have to go far in this condition, hunched over and mostly blind, probably just the width of a two-lane road. Still, the light on the other side looked very far away. She headed for it, single-minded in her desire to forget about the smell and the unidentified squishy things under her feet. Soon enough, she stepped into the light…
…and fell into waist-deep water.
She twisted as she fell, because it was imperative that she land butt-first, keeping her phone overhead in both outstretched hands. She’d opted for the waterproof case, but still.
Had she tripped? No. Her foot and shin had definitely struck something solid, but then that something had moved, hooking itself around her leg and throwing her to the creek bottom. Faye shook the water out of her eyes and saw nothing but sunlight glinting off broken green glass.
“Why’re you following me?” said the small human wielding a broken bottle. Her voice sounded thick, rough, choked, with none of the fluty sweetness of childhood.
Faye’s foot hurt where the girl had used her own leg to sweep it out from under her. The water in her eyes burned but her phone was still overhead and dry. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
The girl snorted. “Stand up. But slow. James Roy Curtis tried to take my backpack one time.” She brandished the bottle and its fierce shards. “He still drools out the hole in his face.”
“Is that true? Did you really cut a little boy’s face open?”
Faye was still blinking hard to clear her eyes, so she didn’t move fast enough to suit this little person who had just thrown her off her feet.
“It’s true enough. Get up! And hold your hands out. Away from your sides.”
Faye rose until she was looking down at the white part running through the dark hair on top of her assailant’s small head. Dark eyes raked over her body, and a small dark hand reached out to smack the cargo pockets on either side of her pants legs. The girl’s wariness faded quickly when she saw that the wet clothes clinging to Faye’s slender form hid no weapons.
Faye studied the unsmiling face. Could she really be as young as she looked? Maybe she was under ten and maybe she wasn’t, but Faye would have bet money that she was at least a year shy of puberty. Faye had been warned that she’d be working in a dangerous part of a dangerous city, but being face-to-face with a small child who knew how to frisk her for weapons broke her heart.
“Lady, you should go back where you came from. Meth heads don’t sleep forever.”
The what-are-you-saying? look on Faye’s face must have been hilarious, because the child laughed out loud. Jerking her head toward the creekbanks behind Faye, she said, “They hide up there. To sleep it off.”
Faye had always prided herself on her powers of observation, but she’d walked at least a mile without realizing that there was anyone nearby. “What about you? How come it’s safe for you to walk through here but not me?”
“I know where I’m going. I know where the bad people stay. I know when they sleep. But you?” She flicked her eyes up and down Faye’s body. “You don’t know nothing about this place. You should go home.”
“How do you know I’m not already home? How do you know I’m not from around here?”
The girl gave another quick, hoarse laugh, but said nothing.
“It’s that obvious?” As a woman of color, Faye had thought she’d be able to blend into a city where only a third of the people considered themselves white.
“You look like somebody on TV. Slick. Not even real. Talk like that, too.” She leaned her head back and gave Faye’s face a hard, cold look. “Rich. I think you’re rich, and so will those people sleeping up there. You don’t want to be around here when they wake up and try to take what you got.”
What did the girl think she had that was worth stealing? She already knew Faye’s pockets were empty. Her purse was locked in the trunk of her car. Then she remembered her cell phone and the slim gold band on her left ring finger. People had been killed for less, just not in any neighborhood where Faye had ever lived.
Joe had argued against her taking this job without him, but she’d brushed him off. Frankly, she’d been offended by his insinuation that she wasn’t streetwise.
And now she was reacting just as strongly to the suggestion that she was a rich outsider. Faye remembered wearing secondhand school clothes bought with the money her mother made as a nurse’s aide, and she remembered the nasty things the other girls had said about those clothes, clean but long out of style. She remembered daily peanut butter sandwiches in her lunch box, because her mother couldn’t afford to pay what the cafeteria charged, and she was too proud to apply for free lunches.
Most of all, she remembered the day her mother, giddy with accomplishment, had said, “I got my license! I’m a practical nurse now and I got a new job. I can do better for us now.”
Not that this news had stopped the steady flow of peanut butter sandwiches. Oh, no. Faye’s mother had been cheap as dirt, and she’d stayed that way till the day she died. Her grandmother, too. Poverty leaves its marks. Faye had more security now, but she would always keep a close grip on her budget.
“I’m not rich,” she snapped, then she felt stupid for letting a ten-year-old get under her skin.
The girl’s grunt said, “If you say so.”
She stood with her eyes on Faye, as if waiting for her to turn tail and run. Faye thought maybe she should do just that, but her stubborn streak was arguing with her, and it was winning. It was asking her what, exactly, she’d be running from. Sleeping drug addicts? Or a bottle-wielding ten-year-old?
“I’m not going back until you tell me where you go every day. And until I know you have a safe place to sleep at night.”
Instead of an answer, the girl gave her a small shake of the head, then another. She appeared be thinking hard, but she eventually reached a conclusion, because she tossed the bottle toward the creekbank. It landed in shallow water and sent ripples that brushed Faye’s legs while she waited for the girl to speak.
Finally, the child turned and started walking again. “Do what you wanna do. I’m sure the meth heads will be real glad to see you when they wake up.”
• • • • •
Faye had seen the undersides of two low-slung bridges since her companion had chucked her beer-bottle weapon into the shallows but she had not, thankfully, had to get herself through another culvert. Slowly, the banks got lower. The creek spread out on both sides until it was hardly more than a linear wet spot.
The girl took this opportunity to walk onto dry land and keep walking without looking back. Faye could see that they were in a wooded park with a playground surrounded by picnic tables.
There were children everywhere. Faye trudged in the child’s wake until she was stopped in her tracks by an order to “Wait here.”
The idea that the girl had slogged through a mile of water to find a place to play hit Faye in the gut. When she remembered that this happened every day of the week, she felt it in her gut again.
She stopped where she stood, as ordered, and considered what to do. Should she turn around and walk back up the creek, returning to the work that she probably shouldn’t have left? Or should she linger while the girl played, so that she could walk her back home?
While she dithered, the girl surprised her again by walking right past the swings, the slides, the jungle gyms, and the joyful, shouting children. Instead of stopping to play, she headed toward a picnic table loaded with coolers and plastic bags. Faye inched closer to see what was going to happen.
Taking a bag from the table, she turned around without acknowledging the middle-aged man who handed her a juice box. He didn’t seem offended. In fact, he reached into the cooler for a second box. This time, the girl gave him a faint smile as she took the second juice box, but she didn’t linger. She never even stopped walking. She just got her bag and her juice box, then turned and walked back to the creek.
Within a few steps, she had passed Faye and stepped back into the water. Faye followed her, although she could tell that the child didn’t care if she did or if she didn’t. She could also tell that the wary girl never stopped keeping track of where Faye was and what she was doing.
Opening the lunch that she’d walked a mile to get, the girl fished out a granola bar and bit off a big hunk. Then she peered into the open bag and considered its contents before reaching in again. Pulling out a bright green apple, she tossed it to Faye.
Truthfully, tossing was a kind word for what she did. She threw it overhand at Faye’s left arm, hard enough to leave a bruise. Faye felt a petty joy in plucking it out of the air with her right hand after it bounced off her arm. She was pretty sure that the girl had meant for her to fish it out of the disgusting water.
“You sure you can spare this apple?” Faye asked.
“I got plenty here for today. It’s the free lunch people. From the school, you know? In the summertime, they bring the food here every day.”
“Naw. Just during the week. But they bring us whole backpacks full of food on Fridays. It lasts long enough. And I can always go eat with Uncle Laneer, but I don’t like to do that. He gives me too much and don’t keep enough for himself. He ain’t got enough to eat as it is. Anyway, there’s always potato chips at home. And popcorn. That’s what my mama likes to eat, when she eats. And ice cream. She really likes ice cream.”
So she had a home and a family. That was a relief.
Faye bit into the apple, despite the fact that she’d never really liked apples all that well. It would have been rude to turn down a gift of food from someone who’d walked the whole morning to get it. Besides, she was hungry.
It occurred to Faye that she might need to recalibrate her notion of “hungry.” She’d been short of money for her whole life, but she’d never lived in a house where her only options for food were to walk for miles or to subsist on potato chips and ice cream.
Her teeth punched through the tough apple skin and released a burst of juice into her dry mouth. Its flesh was crisp and full of tartness, not at all mealy. Faye decided that she might not like most apples, but she liked this one.
“Thank you,” she said. “What’s your name?”
The girl said something indistinct and Faye said, “Come again?”
Obviously irritated, the girl said, “Kali. K-A-L-I. Not like the dog.”
“Oh, like the Hindu goddess? That’s a great name. It suits you.”
Faye was being honest, because it was a great name and it did suit her. Kali was revered as the Mother of the Whole Universe. Often portrayed with black or blue skin, she was a powerful image for an African-American girl to look up to, even if she did hail from the wrong subcontinent. Faye remembered how hard she’d looked for role models when she’d been a dark-skinned girl on a light-skinned street. She would have been a huge Kali fan.
There was no arguing, though, that Kali the goddess was flat-out fierce. She liked to wear skirts of human arms. Oh, and a garland of skulls, also human. Faye could absolutely see this scowling child growing up to be that awesome.
“A Hindu goddess? Yeah? That’s better than a collie. The kids at school say collies ain’t nothing but big ugly dogs. Never seen one, myself.”
“They’re wrong. Collies are beautiful dogs. Truly. Shiny, shaggy fur. Sweet faces. Let me show you a picture.” Faye pulled her miraculously undrenched phone from her only-slightly-damp shirt pocket and plucked a picture of Lassie off the Internet.
The dog’s happy face made the tiny Mother of the Whole Universe crack a grin, revealing a row of teeth like pearls set in polished iron.
“You went down like a rock when I tripped you. You know that? You sure you can walk and eat that apple at the same time? Not gonna fall again? ’Cause I ain’t waiting for you. We gotta get back before the crack heads wake up.”
“I thought they were meth heads.”
“Don’t matter. None of ’em wake up happy.”
Faye chewed on a mouthwatering bite of apple. “I can keep up. Just watch.”
Kali’s grunt sounded doubtful.
“You couldn’t lose me if you tried. And Kali? My name is Faye.”