It's a Job

Mouth Full of Bullets, April 2nd, 2007

Diana raised her fist to knock on the door.

She had emptied her mind, because thinking didn’t help. At a client‘s house she could pretend to be selling insurance, or running for Congress, or returning home to make amends.

But she knew only one story about motel rooms.

She made sure her professional smile was in place and rapped on the wood veneer. The door swung inward, and there he stood--the man she planned to forget in an hour.

“Hi. I'm Diana. Vince said you'd like to meet me.”

Vince was a local bartender who sometimes referred men to her. His judgment had always been good.

“I'm, uh, George.”

“You don't look like a George. Are you sure about that?”

“Why?”

“Because I'm going to look at your driver's license and a credit card. If they have the same name on them, we‘ll take it from there.”

“I've never done this before,” he said in a somewhere-north-of-here accent. “It’s not exactly romantic, is it?”

“Just wait. I can fit more romance into an hour than you ever imagined.” She gave him her best smile. “But I have to feel confident enough to relax. That's fair, isn't it?”

He hesitated a moment longer before reaching into his left front pocket. He extracted his license from his wallet and handed it to her.

“I guess so.”

His name was George Muller, and he came from Dalton, Massachusetts. He was forty-eight years old, her age plus a perfect quarter-century. He followed his license with a Visa card that also belonged to a George Muller.

There was something else she could verify.

“I apologize," she said. "You are a George. If you can surprise me like that, we're going to have fun. Why don’t you get comfortable, while I take care of something. By the way, your hour doesn't start until I get back.”

She went back out into the warm afternoon. It didn’t take her long to check the cars in the parking lot. Several still wore Bush/Quayle bumper stickers, months too late to make a difference, but only one also had Massachusetts plates.

So far, George was nothing more than a businessman away from home. She hoped he stayed that way.

The door stood slightly ajar. She pushed it open instead of knocking again. He hadn't moved from his place in the middle of the floor. He still held his wallet in his hand.

“You're allowed to relax, too,” she said. “Just tell me what I can do for you. Or if you want me to improvise, I can do that, too.”

“I just want you to listen to me.”

She didn't like the sound of that. Some women would hold still for a client who wanted to abuse them verbally, or even physically within limits, but Diana wasn't one of them. She found almost any physical act less degrading than what the man was thinking when he had her do it.

“I don't know about that, George,” she said, this time without the smile.

“I'll pay you. The bartender said two hundred.”

“It goes without saying that you'll pay me. I can't sell this hour again. The question is whether I stay after that.”

She had worked on her authoritative voice for five years, and it almost always worked. If he refused to pay, there wasn't much she could do. It was one of the few disadvantages of not having an escort agency behind her.

“Suppose I add a hundred?”

He thumbed three hundreds from his wallet and held them out like a passport into her world.

“Maybe. I need an idea of what you have in mind.”

“It's about my daughter.”

That was borderline. She already had one client who made her wear his daughter's clothes. It was as weird as she cared to get.

“What about her?"

He had trouble making the words. She decided to look at her watch to remind him of his deadline.

"I want to know why she would do what you do.”

Diana reached out and plucked the bills from his hand.

“I don't have time for this. This is my job. That's right, it's a job, and if I can't do it here, I’ll go someplace else.”

“Don't go,” he said. It was either a plea or a command.

I‘m going to kill Vince, she thought.

She knew it was unfair to blame him. Vince hadn't recognized Muller as a creep, but neither had she.

“I need answers,” he said. “Whatever it takes.”

He cares about her.

That was something. Her own father had disappeared when she was five.

Diana told herself to sit facing him on the bed. If she was going to stay, standing for the whole hour would prove nothing.

George stood by the other bed and looked at her expectantly.

“It could be just what I told you,” she said. “I do this for the money. Maybe she does it for the same reason.”

“We're well off,” he said. “If she wanted to do something that didn’t pay well, I could have helped her”

“Maybe she doesn't want to ask you. Maybe she wants to make her own way.”

“But like this?”

“Like what? The fate worse than death? You really make me want to help you, you know?”

Careful.

Being alone with a man and then pissing him off wasn’t the best idea.

“She went to college,” he said. “And she was starting graduate school. She wasn‘t locked into anything.”

“This is the best money I can make. Maybe that‘s enough for her.”

That was what she told herself. She had never really tried anything else.

“Did you go to college?"

"No.”

“You're obviously smart enough.”

“I couldn't afford it.”

The words were as curt as she could make them, but he still pursued her.

“There are scholarships.”

“And there are college girls who start hooking to pay their way. Why shouldn't I just pocket the money?”

“Because you can't do this forever. You think you have all the time in the world, but one day you'll wake up and know that time is running short.

“Or you could meet the wrong man,” he said, and her hooker’s radar gave an icy bleep.

“What is this really about?” said Diana. “Do you really have a daughter? Or are you trying to rescue me? I'm not interested in being rescued.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, what? Prove it. Prove you have a daughter, or I'm out of here.”

He started to say something angry, but he stopped himself. He opened his wallet again. It was thick with more than credit cards and cash. He thumbed through some photos until he found the one he wanted. “Here. She's eighteen in this one.”

He let her look and then put the wallet away.

“How old is she now?”

He hesitated and said, “Twenty-three.”

“Like me.”

Immediately she berated herself. It was a mistake to give anything away to a john. One thing might follow another, until he knew something important about her.

“I don't know why I'm so hot for you to go to college,” he said. “It didn't help her. That was where she started. Hooking, I mean.”

“That was sort of my point.”

“But she didn't have to. I paid everything. She didn't even have to work.”

Diana couldn't help herself.

“So how did she start?”

“It was that campus job. Working for a professor. I know how that goes. She does all the work, and he gets the credit.”

“How does working for a professor lead to hooking? What was he into?”

“Public health. That was her major. She was working on the spread of HIV.”

"She wanted to spread it?"

Damn it. Someday you're going to learn to think first.

“No, of course not. She was supposed to study how it spread. She chose prostitutes. What they do about HIV, if anything.”

“What's that mean--if anything?”

“Just what I said.”

“Well, for your information, I use condoms. I insist on them. No rubber, no nothing. If you were anything but a talker, you'd find that out.”

She was almost shouting at him, and she wondered why she was so angry. But she hadn‘t managed to intimidate him, and she began to see what made him a successful executive.

“Don't take it out on me," he said. “If you take precautions, fine. But I'll bet there are women who don't. As a matter of fact, that's what she was studying--whether there are differences between street hookers and women above that level. On the street the women have drug habits, and they might be infected several times over. Are the ones like you different? That's what Annie was trying to find out.”

“I could have saved her the time. I don't do drugs. I always use condoms. I don't have HIV. Next question.”

He ignored her.

“For a while she was really fascinated by the process of designing the study, and then she was going to escort agencies in the yellow pages and trying to meet the women and talk them into participating.”

“Let me guess,” said Diana. “It was a little easier for her than it would have been for a man. But the women also didn't like anyone thinking there was something wrong with them. It was probably a wash, and she didn't get much of anywhere with them.”

“You might be right. After a while she stopped talking about it.”

“I'm also guessing that someone finally challenged her. Somebody told her that nobody would cooperate until she had some credibility, and she said okay and went out and worked a few dates. And they said, fine--now you know it‘s just a job.”

He stared through her.

“That must be it,” he said. “I can see how that would work with her.”

“What did she say about it?”

“Nothing. She never had the chance.”

"You make it sound like she's dead."

“She is.”

Diana looked at him, and he looked back. It was true. She knew it was true. At the same moment she became aware of the strain in her neck. She was looking sideways at him. She should have ignored his story and concentrated on him. As they talked, he had drifted over to the door and blocked her escape route.

“What's this really about?” she said as calmly as she could.

“My daughter. And you.”

Bleep.

“How is it about me?”

“You're alive, and she's not. You do what she did, and you're getting away with it.”

“So far. Maybe I won't always.”

“You won't. I'll see to that.”

He was the man she had just met. How could the same man be so different? Now she noticed how big he was. Under his executive padding there was muscle. Men his size were often very strong just from hauling themselves around.

And he was angry. How had she missed his anger? It made him shimmer like a highway in July.

“Suppose I just report in to you every week,” she said. “’I'm not dead yet, but I'll try to do better.’ Would that be good enough?”

“Keep the smart mouth to yourself.”

That’s fairly clear.

“You don't seem afraid,” he said.

“I don't have time right now. I don't panic until I have time.”

He stood up and took a step toward her.

“I called it in,” she said. “Your information.”

“No, you didn’t. You don’t work for an agency.”

“You think I’m going to make it easy for you?”

“I almost hope you don’t,” he said, but he stopped for the moment.

“You can probably do it in the end, but I’ll mark you. That’s a promise. You’ll have things to explain, and the cops love explanations.”

“What makes you think I care? I don’t care what happens to me now.”

He took another step.

“Why don't you kill the people who did it?” she said quickly.

“I don‘t know who killed her.”

“So I‘ll do? Doesn‘t seem fair to me.”

“Kind of like life, isn’t it?”

“Suppose I figure it out. Will you leave me alone?”

“How on earth could you do that?”

“Let me try.”

She had run out of words. In a moment it would be fists and claws, his fists and her claws, and she knew who would win. She had been trying to find some kind of weapon in the room, but how could she look around without moving her eyes and warning him?

And she knew there was nothing, not even an ashtray.

He took another step. He was huge. He loomed over her. He claimed all the air in the room.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m fair. Everybody who works for me says so.”

Diana exhaled. She had her doubts about his fairness, but it wouldn’t be smart to voice them. Now she wondered how to start saving her life.

He sat down across from her. They looked at each other. The silence grew. She told herself to say something, but for a long moment nothing came to her.

“What do you know about it?”

He glared at her, and she wondered whether he had already revoked their bargain.

“Somebody killed her in her house,” he said finally. “She was renting it. In Berlin, Vermont.”

Her blank look made him explain.

“It’s a small town near Montpellier.”

She didn’t know the towns, but she understood. Except for the exact locations, he could have been talking about her. She rented a small house in a small town and worked all around northern New Jersey.

“Is that where she worked? Montpellier?”

“And Burlington, where she went to school. The police leaned on her escort agency, and they said she also traveled. She was getting a reputation. Men would call from all over New England and offer to pay her way.”

He loaded a remarkable amount of bitterness into the word “reputation.”

“She even came down south a few times.”

So that was what had brought him this far from home. He was following his daughter around, as if he could catch up to her and protect her.

Diana squelched her sympathy. She couldn’t afford it now. With the same mental effort she pushed a twinge of jealousy aside. Clients sometimes recommended her to other men, but it was all local. She thought that it would boost her morale to receive envelopes containing airplane tickets to places she had never been.

Think about it later.

“Do they think she was actually killed at home?”

“They’re sure of it.”

“Then that narrows it down. Assuming she did things the way I do them, it’s not a client. Definitely not one of the out-of-towners she went to, and probably not a local john. I’m a fanatic about not being followed home. It’s probably somebody from her private life.”

“That’s a problem,” he said. “I don’t know anything about her private life. I would have thought I did, but obviously ….”

“How was she killed?”

He stared at her miserably.

“This must be hard,” she said. “But I‘m trying to help.”

And keep your mind off other things.

He breathed deeply, twice. “She was … stabbed. With her own kitchen knife.”

“Was she raped?”

There was no way to make that question gentle, but he let her get away with it.

“They think so, but there was no … there were no fluids. They think he used a condom.”

“Had the knife been lying around, or did she usually put it away?”

“The neighbor said it was usually out.”

“The neighbor found her?”

He nodded.

“Male or female? Married or single?”

“Male. Single, I think.”

“So how did he happen to be inside?”

“He was a friend, so he says. Supposedly he had been in the house a lot.”

“But why just then?”

“He says she had asked him to go look at a car with her. To see if it was a good deal. If it was, he was supposedly going to lend her some money toward it.”

“He knows about cars?”

“The cops don’t seem to think he does. They think he was faking it to get next to her.”

“That was my first thought,” said Diana. “I assume the cops looked hard at him. Sounds to me like he had a crush on her. Maybe he found out what she did for a living and couldn‘t stand it.”

“He already knew.”

“How do they know?”

Muller chuckled without humor.

“His alibi for the time of … death. He was with another hooker from the same agency.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We don’t tell on each other.”

“He knew.”

“I still don’t see how you can be sure.”

“She referred him to the agency, according to him. She didn‘t want to have a client so close to home.”

Diana nodded.

“That’s what I would do with a neighbor. He might go along with her, but he wouldn’t like it.”

Muller was losing patience with her. She could see it.

“Okay,” she said, “what was her day like?”

“What does that mean?”

“What did she do that day? Did she work?”

He glared again.

“That’s what the cops should have asked, if they didn’t,” said Diana. “From what I hear, they always try to retrace the victim’s steps, until they find the last person who was with her.”

“She went to the mall. She went home and died.”

“That’s all? No motel dates in between?”

“No. She bought a couple of things and went to the ATM. The time stamps on the receipts don’t give her time to do anything except go straight home.”

It was interesting.

“Her agency also said she had nothing that day.”

“Sometimes an escort works off the books,” she said. “The agencies hate it, but it happens. If that was what she was doing, it might explain why they didn’t knock themselves out to help the cops.”

“She still didn’t have time.”

“What kind of police department is this? What kind of crimes do they usually handle? I mean, do you read the police blotter?”

“I started. I subscribe to her local paper now.”

“And?”

“It’s a small town. Not many poor people, no really rich ones, not much crime, either.”

“Many hooker busts? I‘m guessing no. The busts probably happen where the action happens.”

He nodded.

“My point is, malls aren’t just for shopping,” she said. “This particular police department might not have the experience to know that. ” “What does that mean?”

“I sometimes meet a new client at the mall to check him out.”

And I wish I hadn’t skipped it this time.

“It’s very anonymous. If a guy gives me the creeps, I just fade into the crowd. I don’t hang around, though. Maybe she did. Maybe some guy she turned down was able to follow her.”

He didn’t react.

“I still don’t trust that neighbor, though,” she said.

She didn’t want silence in the room. Silence would give him time to remember his threats.

“Get off that topic,” he said. “The police ruled him out.”

“Okay, then how about the professor? I can’t believe he didn’t try to get her in bed while she was working for him. From what I hear, that goes with the territory. Did the cops look at him?”

“He either had an alibi or he didn’t, depending on what you believe.”

She understood.

“His wife. She said he was with her.”

“Forget him, too,” said Muller. “But the mall …”

He stood up and went to the corner of the room. His overstuffed briefcase sat on the cheap table with the inadequate lamp. Diana knew what the briefcase was--the portable headquarters of his investigation. Everything about his daughter would be in it. She watched him start thumbing through papers.

Idiot. First things first.

First thing was to grab her bag and run for the door. She had been talking to make time for something, anything, to happen, but she hadn’t hoped for much. She hadn’t expected him to turn his back.

She knew how to run in heels. In three quick steps she was at the door. The deadbolt turned quietly. So did the knob. She had parked around the side of the building. When he came after her, she would be out of sight, and he would waste seconds deciding which way to go.

She always backed into her parking space and left her car unlocked for a quick getaway. There was nothing in the car to steal, and her life came first, anyway. She just hoped there wasn’t a maniac with a meat cleaver in the back seat, because she didn’t have time to look.

And today would be the day for that to happen.

But there was no one. Her three-year-old Taurus started right away. She wrenched the lever into Drive and stomped on the gas pedal. The car roared and fought itself until she popped the emergency brake. Then she was underway. She had done it. She had escaped.

If a truck had come down the highway, it would have flattened her, but she lurched unharmed into the slow lane. She glanced at the motel as she drove by. George Muller still hadn’t come out after her.

That’s weird.

Even stranger was how she kept thinking, not about her ordeal, but about Muller’s daughter and who had killed her. It must have been the neighbor or the professor. The cops probably couldn’t break their alibis. Muller denied what he knew rather than accept that his daughter was dead, and her killer would go free.

At home she called Vince, the bartender. If there was the smallest chance that Muller would return to the area, Vince needed to know that the man was not okay.

“Damn, Di, I’m sorry,” said Vince. “He fooled the hell out of me.”

“Not your fault. I think it was meeting me that turned him into a weirdo.”

She went back to her life. For six weeks she managed to avoid the motel where she had met Muller, but then Vince arranged a very good payday for her there.

The desk clerk was a scrawny young man named Jerry. He smiled broadly, even though it wasn‘t time for her to pay him in kind for looking the other way.

“For you.” He pointed to a large flower arrangement on the desk. “Been waiting.”

Diana took a closer look. The flowers had been there for a while.

“This goes with them,” said Jerry.

He handed her a thick envelope. She opened it and found several newspaper clippings and a letter.

The clippings were all about the murder of Ann Muller. With new information developed by the victim’s father, the police had gone back to her time at the mall. By matching the people who appeared in the security videos with the time stamps on the videos and on her receipts, they discovered that one man had been nearby as she made each of her purchases and her cash withdrawal.

But they didn‘t have his face, until they appealed to the public. A ten-year-old boy with a new camera had started snapping wildly in the parking lot. He had a photograph with the man‘s face.

“I yelled at him for wasting film,” said the boy’s father. “Just goes to show you.”

A detective from Montpellier recognized the suspect. The man confessed during questioning.

“I’ve known him for years,“ said the detective. “Always thought I’d end up busting him for the big one.”

“I’m so sorry,” wrote George Muller. “I look back at what I did to you and what I said I would do, and it’s as if I’m watching someone else. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I want you to know that I’m here. If you ever need anything, I’m good for it.”

It would serve him right if I went to college and sent him the bills.

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