“Kid . . . how did you find me?”
She looked up at me, eyes wide and intent, never once lowering the fistful of bills. She wore a blue dress and sandals with Miss Piggy printed on them. A seashell hung on a thong around her neck. She had a black eye, and bruises on her neck and arms. On one shoulder I could read the shape of a belt buckle in the bruising. She couldn’t have been more than twelve.
“My dad has a book of names. Your name was circled AND underlined under ‘cleaner.’ ”
“You didn’t locate me with just a name.”
“Welllll . . . there was another name that said ‘finder.’ She was good at finding you.”
I put a hand over my face. Marigold would take an assignment from anybody. This kid would be dog meat when her dad got the bill. “And how do you know I don’t wash windows?”
“That book doesn’t have regular people in it. And the people who clean evidence are under ‘sanitizer.’ ”
My eyes narrowed. This kid’s father was nobody respectable, that much was obvious. Her description of this book made that apparent, as did her black eye and bruised arms. I brushed blonde locks behind her ear to see her more clearly. “Did he do this to you?”
“It used to be mommy he hit. But a couple years ago he hit her too much. She tried to take me away after she got out of the hospital, but the judge said she’s too drunk to raise me.” I saw the tension knot around her jaw. She was angry, this one. “She wouldn’t be drinking if she wasn’t hit all the time. She wouldn’t have been in the accident.”
My heart sank. The threads were coming together and weaving an ugly picture. I already knew I was going to take this job.
Her fistful of money – maybe two hundred bucks at the outside – had dropped a little as bad memories furrowed her brow. But she was resolute, and she looked back up, shoving the bills in my face again. “I’ve saved this since I was little! All my birthday cards, ever!”
I kneeled down to look her in the eyes. “Look, pumpkin. I don’t want your money. It doesn’t spend with me.”
She shouted at me in her dismay. “But I need you to–!” I grabbed the collar of her dress, pulling her closer, my free hand covering her mouth. She stared at me with wide blue eyes, and I relaxed. She understood her mistake. When she spoke again, her voice was softer.
“I need you to kill him. Without mommy around, he’s hitting me more. I’m not as big. One day I’m gonna get the kinda hurt that doesn’t go away.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it.” I looked at her necklace, and almost immediately, she covered it with both hands. “That’s important to you, is it?”
“Mommy gave it to me.”
“Well, it’s my price. Give me the shell, and I’ll do it.”
The money didn’t mean much to her, she didn’t understand it well enough. But that necklace was part of someone she loved. She lifted the string over her head, and she held the shell out for me in trembling hands.
“This is what killing is, kid. You lose something precious from the inside when you do it. You might not be shedding the blood–” I plucked the shell from her fingers. “–but you’ve killed today, and this is what it feels like. Now, are you going to be safe if you go home for a couple days?”
“I think so.”
Her eyes were still locked on the seashell. I pulled the thong up over my head, letting it settle over my chest. One day I would return it to her, but not until she knew the weight of a human life. “Go home. Keep your head down. Do not defy him before it’s done. And for god’s sake, keep that money out of sight.”
“Okay. Okay! Thank you mister Black!”
“My name’s not really . . . you’re welcome.” I watched her run off. Then I took the shell off my neck and looked at it. Was I asking for my pay in children’s trinkets, now? It was no trinket to her, though. I dug into by briefcase, found a spare shirt, and carefully wrapped the shell. She would never forgive me if I broke it.
I didn’t know why I was helping her, but almost from the beginning, I knew that I would. I also knew that she was going to be alone, soon. If she didn’t want to become a monster, she’d need help finding her way out of the darkness. And it would have to be someone who knew the darkness.
Just what was I getting myself into?