I was sitting at the City Desk, halfway through my first cup of cafeteria coffee, when I saw him. His jacket was flapping, his arms akimbo, as he sprinted along the computer terminals and zigzagged past three- foot piles of newspapers, eyes trained on the prize. It was the big sign that said "Metro" under which I sat, scanning the wires on a slow Saturday morning.
You might think that with all those deadline pressures, newsrooms would be kinetic places where people leapt and darted and yelled at the top of their lungs all day long. Maybe they do at other places, but here at the Times, the only place I've ever worked, such displays are considered a mark of poor breeding.
I'd never seen anyone run in the newsroom and wasn't sure what to make of it. But up he came, skidding to a stop before me, white bubbles foaming at the corners of his mouth. He wore a tweed cap, which he took off and ran along his forehead to swab up the sweat pearling at his hairline. Then he placed the cap over his chest like he was pledging allegiance.
"Miss, you've got to help me look for her. The police won't get involved until 48 hours have passed. But something's dreadfully wrong, I feel it here."
His cap flapped weakly against his chest.
"Look for who?" I cast around for someone who could wrestle him to the ground if it came down to that, but it wasn't yet 8 o'clock and the newsroom was empty. How had he gotten past security downstairs?
"My daughter. Isabel," the man said. His face tightened, and he looked over his shoulder. "She's been missing since yesterday afternoon. I think I know where she is, but I don't want to go alone. The press should be there. They told me downstairs no one was in yet but I didn't believe them. Please, Miss, are you a reporter? Will you come with me?"
He must have heard how unhinged he sounded, because he shoved his hand into his pants pocket, rooted around for a wallet and pulled out his driver's license.
"Vincent Chevalier," he said, holding it up with a trembling hand. "I'm a sound engineer. Done all of Jackson Browne's records since "Late For the Sky."
He looked at me. "Of course, you're too young to remember that one. I know what you're thinking," he added, as I inched my chair away. "That I could be an ax murderer."
Damn straight, I thought, sipping my coffee.
"I know I sound crazy, and I am, I'm crazed about what might be happening to my daughter. Please Miss, we have to hurry."
He craned his head again, and this time, I did too. We heard the pounding of feet and yelling.
"He went that way. There he is, get him."
For the second time in my career, I saw people running in the newsroom. This time it was two security guards, charging straight for the city desk. I wondered whether I was going to be on the news myself tonight as they pounded up, each one seizing an arm of Vincent Chevalier.
"He flashed an ID at the door," one of the guards panted, "but it didn't look right so I told him to wait. But he ran up the stairs. I had to radio for back-up before leaving my post."
The guard saw me staring at him, and then at the man he had apprehended much too late to save anyone. He shifted from one foot to the other and hooked his thumb into his thick black belt.
"We only have a skeleton crew on the weekends since budget cutbacks," he mumbled. "C'mon you," he jerked the captive's arm roughly to show him who was boss. "Out we go."
An anguished howl leapt from the throat of Vincent Chevalier.
"Isabel," he bellowed. Then the fight went out of him and he began to weep. "And what if it was your daughter? Wouldn't you do everything you could?"
It wouldn't be my daughter, I thought, because I don't have a daughter. But if I did, I'd keep closer tabs on her than you obviously have. Late for the sky indeed. But something about his tone got to me.
"Wait a minute," I said. "He came up here wanting to talk to a reporter. Let's hear what he has to say."
Reluctantly, the guards stepped back. Vincent Chevalier's face took on a cautious, cunning look. He knew he had one chance and he'd better not flub it.
"My daughter is only 15, but she's precocious," he said "We live in a nice part of Pasadena, prep school and all that, but in the last year she's gotten restless. Started hanging out with an edgier crowd. Some of them are runaways, and she brings them food and warm clothes. They squat in abandoned buildings. There's a young man she's been trying to help. He gives me the creeps but I keep my mouth shut, figuring my disapproval would just drive them closer. They've been on and off for months. Yesterday she said she was going to visit friends and would be home for dinner. She never showed."
He looked at us, anxiety mounting in his eyes. "I want someone to go to the squat with me."
"Why can't you check it out by yourself?" I asked.
Vincent Chevalier twitched his cap up and down against his fleecy sweater. "Last time I saw Finch, that's her friend, he threatened me."
"Sounds like you need a bodyguard, not a puny girl reporter."
He peered at me. His silvery-black hair was curly and wet, plastered against his pale skull, except for one unruly lock that fell forward into his eyes.
"What I really need is the police, but they won't come. They've been there with me before, when it was a false alarm. But if the press noses around, maybe they'll take it seriously."
"Where is this squat?" I asked.
Something about his story gnawed at me. His daughter had been hanging out with a disturbed runaway in some abandoned building and he didn't put a stop to it? And now he wanted me to help find his missing daughter? Yet his desperation was so palpable it rolled off him in big, crashing waves. He was bewildered in that way honest people get when they find themselves spinning unexpectedly into madness. And he had already gone to the police. I suppose that counted for something.
"East Hollywood," he said. "You can follow me in your car."
I scrolled through the wires again to see what else was going on in the city. All over town, people were dying violently - shot in dead-end bars, withdrawing money from ATM's, working the night shift in liquor stores and playing hopscotch on the corner. Usually, we waited until Sunday, when the final tally came in, then did a round-up. Unless they were rich, prominent, or had met their end in some horribly unusual and tragic way, they got folded into the main story as smoothly as egg whites into cake. So far the wires were at 14 and counting. As for scheduled events, there was a Mexican All-Star Rodeo in La Puente at noon. The Mayoral candidates were debating at the Century City Plaza Hotel. Vietnam vets were demonstrating in front of the Federal building at three o'clock. It was a slow news day.
Vincent Chevalier tapped his black suede sneaker impatiently. I focused on its agitated dance. It could be a great story. I pictured the headline, strategically placed in the paper's coveted "Column One" slot. "Dance With the Dark Side - Bored Rich Girls Seek Ultimate Thrills Slumming With Homeless Runaways." But if he wasn't on the level? I looked around. The other 8 am reporter was just strolling in, carrying his designer coffee in its corrugated paper holder. He was a Princeton graduate who had studied with Tom Wolfe and achieved notoriety when his senior thesis, a literary deconstruction of speed metal songs, had been published to great acclaim. I had gone to state school and jostled with 250 students in a drafty auditorium for the attention of some post-doc lassoed into teaching journalism 101.
Chevalier was watching my colleague too.
"Is he a reporter?" Chevalier inclined his chin. "Maybe a man would be better."
That settled it for me.
"Can I see your ID again," I said sweetly. Chevalier handed it over and I typed all his stats into the computer. Then I compared his license photo with the face before me. A few more lines, a certain tautness around the mouth, but it was him all right. I got his home and work phone and typed that in too, leaving a note for the early editor, who was still upstairs in the caf eating breakfast and perusing our competitor the Daily News to see what stories we had missed. I would be back way before noon if they needed me to cover one of the wire events. But that was all canned, predictable stuff, while the foot-tapping Vincent Chevalier was dangling some very live bait. I made a printout of what I had just typed up, tucked the cell phone into my purse and told the guards they could escort their man back out to the street.
In the parking lot, Chevalier and I turned to look at each other. In the milky light of a fall morning, I blinked and wondered why I was embarking on a human scavenger hunt to find his daughter.
Chevalier fingered the bill of his tweed cap, then stuck it squarely back on his head. "I'm a single father, you know, and it's been tough since she hit adolescence. She's constantly challenging authority. I understand that, since I was a rebel myself. So I keep the lines of communication open, like the books say. I tell her I love her and I'm there for her and then I let her go. She runs away a lot. Once she was gone for three months. Don't look at me like that, she'd call. Tell me where she was, what she was up to. Tucson, Kansas City, New Orleans. It made me feel better, knowing where she was. She's always come back. Until now."
Yikes, I thought. Mister, she's a 15-year-old girl. She needs you to lay down the law, and instead you hand her a Kerouac novel and wish her good luck.
"We'll find her," I told him, keeping my parenting lesson to myself. "Now tell me where this squat is."
He told me to get off the freeway at Western and head north, past Santa Monica Boulevard to a side street called Manzanita. The kids squatted in an old government building there that had been damaged in the Northridge earthquake a few years back and was now condemned and fenced off. He would wait out front.
I jotted it down, then got in the car and pulled out behind him onto Spring Street. Downtown was empty at this hour, only an occasional panhandler and a few Latino families trudging off for a day's shopping on Broadway. I usually worked in a small bureau in the San Gabriel Valley but pulled an occasional weekend shift downtown on rotation. Today, my number had come in.
Pulling alongside, I glanced at Vincent Chevalier's black SUV. It used to be that you could tell a lot about a person by what they hung from the rear view mirror. Asians decorated their cars with golden pagodas and good luck characters. Little plastic virgins and rosary beads meant Latinos. Fuzzy racing dice, well that was low riders. But then things got all mixed up and the street-racing Asian kids started hanging fuzzy dice and Latinos began thinking pagodas were way cool. Then the white punks appropriated dragons, dice, santos and milagros and my whole theory went south. Chevalier's windshield was as bare as the Sahara. No window to the soul there.
I let him pull ahead, then grabbed my computer printout and looked at his car again. The plates matched. Check No. 1. Then I groped in my purse, past the squishy black banana I kept meaning to toss, until I felt the smooth plastic of the cell phone. Holding it up to the steering wheel so I could see the keypad, I punched in the home number Chevalier had given me and got a recording saying that Vincent and Isabel weren't home but would return my call as soon as possible. Check No. 2.
Now I dialed the Times editorial library, only to learn that the librarian on duty was working on a deadline project about campaign contributions in the mayoral race. Could I call back after nine when more librarians came on?
Great, I thought. I'm going to end up dead in some filthy squat so that star political reporter Tony Hausman can reveal the shocking story that big money influences politics.
I hung up and considered my options, mentally tracing a path through the paper's labyrinthian corridors that stopped at...the copy messenger desk. Yes, that was it. Luke Vinograd could help me. He was a snarky and overgrown copy messenger who had spent years chipping away at a library science degree. By now he should have been running the place, but something had stalled him, and so at an age when most people were hitting their career stride, Luke Vinograd was still delivering faxes from the wire room and ferrying over the morning editions to impatient editors who had no time or desire to chat about the 16th century Italian poet whose lyric couplets he'd just discovered or the fabulous French farce he'd seen the previous night.
That was a shame, because in a place that lived and died on words, millions of them each day, Luke was renowned for his bon mots, a Noel Coward type but more wickedly bawdy. Even early in the morning, he sounded as though he should have a martini glass in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other.
"I do hope you're calling to invite me to brunch," Luke said, recognizing my voice.
"Thank god you're there," I said.
"I know this fabulous place where they throw in salsa lessons with the eggs benedict."
"In the morning?" I groaned. "Those moves are hard enough at night."
"Dawn's early blight, eh? The trick is to extend your night through brunch."
"Then when do you sleep?"
"Sleep's for sissies. A real man can hold his yawns."
"I see. Well see if you can stay awake for this one. I need a huge favor."
I filled him in on my suspicions about Vincent Chevalier, then asked him to go online, look up Jackson Browne and tell me the name of the sound engineer on his last albums. I knew Luke helped out in the library at odd hours and knew his way around the databases. Sure enough, several clicks later, I had my confirmation. It was Chevalier. Check No. 3.
"No pretender, him."
"Glad to hear it. Hey Luke, just a couple more favors."
"Your requests always come in multiples, don't they, Eve."
"Like my orgasms, dahling."
Despite myself, I blushed. Luke always brought out the Miller's Wife in me.
"Now don't smart-mouth me, it's too early. Could you please check property records on this Vincent Chevalier?"
"Ooh," Luke said, delighted by such sauciness as he tapped away, "and who has Miss Eve been mixing it up with lately?"
We had gone out for drinks several months back at the Redwood up the street, the old reporter's bar, moaning into our beers over the peccadilloes of our respective boyfriends. Ever since then, the banter between us would have made an ink-stained printer blush.
"It's all completely theoretical at this point, Luke," I told him. "I haven't seen Mark in awhile."
"My condolences," he murmured, hands whirring on the keyboard as he recounted the latest gossip about a reporter who had snuck off to her editor's van for an afternoon quickie. They had been caught by Times security guards who came to investigate when the vehicle started rocking as they got rolling.
A few more clicks onto the L.A. County Register of Voters database and Luke was reciting the same address on my printout. Check No. 4. So Vincent Chevalier checked out. He still might be a murderer, of course, but he wasn't a liar. He owned a home, had a real job and appeared to be who he said he was. I felt a bit better.
"Next," Luke Vinograd intoned.
"Oh yeah, one last thing. Speaking of Jackson Browne, and this is very important, I need you to hum the first bar of "The Pretender."
There was silence on the other end of the line, then sputtering.
" 'My Funny Valentine' would be more up my alley."
"OK, fine, there goes your tagline. I was going to put it at the end. L.A. Times Copy Messenger Luke Vinograd contributed to this story. Could have been your ticket out of there."
"First you use, then you abuse me," Luke pouted.
"That's all the abuse you get for now, dollface. Muchas gras and talk to you later."
I was in East Hollywood now, which had always served as the industrial back lot for the glitzy Hollywood that tourists searched for in vain at Hollywood and Vine. East Hollywood was home to prop shops and post-production facilities. It was where wanna-be starlets rented rooms in buildings of decayed glamour and took the creaky elevators up with immigrant families whose vision of the future was no less intense because it was dreamed in Armenian, Thai, Russian and Spanish.
Latino men lounged on the street corners, signaling with two fingers to passing cars. Crack for sale. I shook my head and kept driving. In front of me, a brown truck pulled to the curb by a large apartment building and honked. In response, black-clad women streamed out the front door, clutching plastic bags and change purses. The driver hopped out and threw open the doors to his truck, oblivious to the traffic backing up behind him.
I groaned and craned my neck to signal Chevalier to wait, but he had swerved and kept going. What if I lost him? I cursed the vehicular gods that had stuck me in traffic behind Armenian Home Grocer. It wasn't really Home Grocer, of course, those pretty peach-and-green colored trucks that delivered food you ordered directly from the Internet. But the concept that had been such an innovation to harried Americans was old news in this ethnic hood. In unmarked brown trucks crammed floor-to-ceiling with fruits and vegetables, pita and fresh herbs, their drivers careened up and down narrow side streets where immigrants retained the vestigial memory of haggling at outdoor markets. Armenian Home Grocer didn't charge for delivery either. With traffic hemming me in, I had little choice but to watch the driver hand over scallions and curvy purple eggplants, bunches of feathery dill and new potatoes. In exchange, he shoved coins and crumpled bills into his fanny pack. As a chanteuse from Yerevan ululated from the truck's tinny speakers, the women milled on the sidewalk, clapping their hands and shouting their orders good-naturedly. "Che, che," they tsk'd, "no, no" when he tried to sell them something extra.
Finally there was a break in the traffic and I drove off.
Far ahead, I saw Chevalier stuck in traffic. Thank goodness. I hoped he wouldn't turn. I had left my Thomas Brothers guide at home and didn't know all these tiny side streets. Five minutes later, he pulled over by a decrepit heap of a building surrounded by a cyclone fence. The place was old, dating back to the 1920s, I guessed, from the white arches and pillars. Fissures had made crazy-quilt patterns in the plaster, and here and there, chunks had fallen out to expose the lathe beneath. All the windows and doors were boarded up with plywood and festooned with yellow emergency tape. If I were 15 and trying to get as far away from Rose Bowl Landia as possible, I might end up here too. But only if I had a death wish. With its eyeless holes where windows should be, its cracked adobe covered with undulating graffiti and its jagged piles of plaster and glass, the building struck me as a malevolent and grinning skull.
As Vincent Chevalier walked up, I shivered in aversion. Nothing good could come from going in there. I punched in the cell phone again and got through to George Bovasso, the morning city editor, who had finally finished his cafeteria bacon and egg whites and ambled downstairs to the third floor. I explained where I was, gave him the address and told him to start worrying if he didn't hear from me soon.
"That was my editor," I told Vincent Chevalier, clambering out. "I was just giving him the address. He's going to call the police if he doesn't hear from me in an hour."
I scrutinized him as I spoke, watching his eyes for flinching, for turning away, for any tick or twitch or wolfish quickening that would tell me not to go in there with him. I found none. If I refused to crawl inside the squat, I might lose the best story I had run across in a long time. I had done as much as I could to check out my companion, leave a trail and alert the proper authorities. I had to take a deep breath, plunge off that cliff and hope the bungee cord didn't snap.
* * *
"So you've been here before?" I asked.
Vincent Chevalier and I had scaled the eight-foot chain-link fence. Soon we'd be on the other side. I imagined how ludicrous we looked as we perched precariously at the top, two adults trespassing onto private property in broad daylight.
"I've dragged her out of here and several other squats, but she keeps coming back. This time it's gone too far. I'm thinking seriously about sending her to one of those boot camps in Utah."
With a jingle of his pockets, Chevalier lowered himself down and I followed, glad I had worn linen pants instead of a dress. Too late, I felt the material catch, then rip with a loud tear. I put my hand up to stop it and only succeeded in gouging the inside of my wrist with the pointy barbed edge spikes. I tugged, feeling the flesh ripple as I drew blood. Christ. Carefully, I ran my hand along the seat of my trousers to make sure it wasn't still caught on the metal, hoping I wasn't smearing blood on the fabric as I did so. No, the material had come free. But I had torn a big, jagged flap in the butt of my pants. I could feel my green silk underwear billowing out from the black linen. Great, so now I was half-undressed and bleeding. At least it would be dark in there. I could deal with the damage later.
Sucking my wrist, I followed him onto a crumbling walkway where thorny, two-foot high brambles pushed up through the cracks. We walked up to the entrance, which was boarded and barred by a security door padlocked with a thick, rusted chain. "Fuck tha Police," someone had spray-painted in big letters. "The Chronic," a reference to marijuana. A large capital "A" with a circle around it - the anarchy symbol. "Sid & Nancy." "Sublime" and "Megadeth." More speed metal bands. Pentagrams. The usual detritus of alienated teens. I got out my notepad and wrote it all down.
"Follow me," Chevalier shouted, rounding the building and out of sight. I ran to catch up. We hiked over broken glass, fast-food containers and a faded, lumpy mattress upon which someone had defecated. It was about 10 degrees colder at the back side of the building where the sun's rays hadn't yet penetrated. Chevalier led me behind a pile of rotting wood planks imbedded with rusty nails that jutted out menacingly. He pointed. Before us was another window, covered with plywood like the others. He walked up, grabbed it with both hands and lifted it to one side. To my surprise, it came right off. Then he clambered through and peered back out at me from inside, already half hidden in the shadows.
I took a step forward. An awful reek of raw sewage hit my nostrils and mingled with the earthy funk of abandoned buildings. Chevalier held out his arm to help me in.
"It's disgusting, I know, but don't be afraid, I know my way around."
I swayed there a moment, undecided, then slipped my hand into my purse, turned on my cell phone and climbed in. I felt claustrophobic, unable to breathe the musty air, my eyes adjusting slowly to the penumbra. I looked around. We were in what used to be an office. A rusting file cabinet sat in the corner. I saw a wooden desk scarred by a thousand penknives. There were no chairs. The floor was carpeted in dirt, as if the room had flooded several times, then dried out. I followed Chevalier into a hallway. It was much darker, and I heard something click in his hand. I tensed, then relaxed as a thin beam of light came on, lighting our way. We walked to the next room and Chevalier shone his flashlight in. It took me a moment to make out what I saw - two mattresses wadded with blankets, a boom box, porno magazines, a black duffel crammed with clothes, a bong, a smudged mirror with a razor blade, empty beer cans and a two-gallon bottle of water. Chevalier's flashlight played along the walls, where the plaster bubbled from the damp. I saw yellow water stains and more pentagrams, scrawled snippets from rap songs, the word "Lucifer" in gang-like tagging, an upside down cross, a rat's face with enormous whiskers and buck teeth and, touchingly, a big red heart encircling the words "Isabel + Finch."
I'm no expert on adolescent angst, but this went way beyond garden variety rebellion. It was self-immolation.
"My baby wrote that," Chevalier said "This is Finch's room. They're not home."
"This is disgusting," I said. "I can't believe she comes here."
I can't believe you don't stop her, I wanted to add.
But Chevalier caught the accusation in my voice. He retraced his steps and shone the light at our feet.
"Let's get one thing straight, Miss - I don't even know your name."
"OK. Thank you." He forced the words through clenched teeth. "I'm an involved parent. The two from my first marriage turned out just fine. Got college degrees and kids of their own now. Isabel was the baby and I loosened up a bit. But I know her friends. They hang out at our house. She has a curfew. But I also trust that I've raised her right. This is a phase she's going through. If I forbid it, she'll just climb out the window at night and do it anyway. But I love her and worry about her. And that's why I crawl into this crumbling sewer to drag her out. Maybe you should write about that, huh? This whole subculture of kids whose parents give them everything and yet they still seek out trouble. Not everyone who hangs out in these condemned buildings is a fucked-up runaway."
In that awful place, my pulse quickened. That was exactly what I had in mind. But I didn't say anything just yet. I wanted to find the girl first. Cherchez la fille.
He turned his light in an arc and headed off.
For a long time, our feet thudded noiselessly against the floor where the linoleum was slowly rotting and reverting to earth.
We entered a bathroom and the smell of sewage grew stronger. I breathed through my mouth and willed myself not to throw up. Someone had wrenched the cubicle door off its hinges. The toilet was overflowing with waste and wadded-up toilet paper. In a cheery domestic touch, someone had hung a roll of toilet paper on a red plastic hook
The longer we searched, the more I hoped we wouldn't find her. Nothing good could survive here, nothing wholesome. The place was too eerie, too filthy, too desecrated. It was the underbelly of something I couldn't even name, the flip side of all those teens partying and laughing and living it up on TV and billboards and CDs. Something dark and formless and sinister. This is where you washed up when hope ran out.
We kept searching. As time passed and Isabel stayed unfound, I felt better. She was probably panhandling on Hollywood and Vine. At Venice Beach, scoring some dope. Crunching popcorn with friends at the theater in Pasadena's Old Towne. We walked through rooms filled with more larval nests. Sleeping bags and personal effects. Skulls and crossbones. Leering devil faces. Now we were nearing the front of the building. Faint beams of sunlight shone through cracks in the plaster, illuminating the dust motes that danced crazily in this cold, dead place.
There were no kids here. Just their crazy leavings.
"There's one more place to check," Chevalier told me.
He found the door to the stairwell and clicked his beam on high, pointing down into a basement. I shrank back at the smell.
"Do they sleep down there too?" I asked.
In a far corner of my mind, a movie loop of Isabel played. She bent down to hear what a friend was saying, then laughed and blew away a strand of hair that the ocean wind had whipped into her mouth. The Boardwalk was getting colder. Soon she'd be heading home. She felt guilty, thinking that she should have called her dad by now. She didn't want him to worry.
"Isabel says they do drugs down there," Vince Chevalier said, staring into the darkness. "She doesn't partake."
That's right, I thought. The girl on the tape loop had a purity about her, despite the punk couture. She just liked to hang out while her friends did their thing. Then she'd hold their heads while they puked into the toilet. I just knew she was that kind of girl.
Chevalier began the descent, stepping gingerly on the wooden planks. Once he had reached the bottom, he shone the light up at me. A polite gesture, so I wouldn't trip on my way down.
Holding onto the clammy stucco walls, I put one foot in front of the other, my brain riveted by the image of that little girl, tossing her head back and laughing in the fresh air. She was not the kind of girl who came to a bad end in a rotted basement. She had too much to live for, too much pluck and promise. This was just the last formality, the last place we had to look, before we could clamber out of this dung heap and dust ourselves off and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. We had left no stone unturned.
I reached the bottom and stood there. It was a small room. The ceiling came down at a slant, and the light was murky, like swimming through seawater. Boxes filled with brochures were stacked against a wall. I found a pamphlet advertising services for homeless Vietnam vets, another for a substance abuse program. I walked farther in, making sure Chevalier wasn't blocking my path back to the stairs. While I imagined the laughing girl, I also imagined racing upstairs, my screams careening through the corridors, if Vincent Chevalier suddenly lunged toward me. I was surprised I could keep two such opposite images so vividly engraved in my brain while continuing to move forward into the basement, and I wondered what that said about the kind of girl that I was.
Chevalier's light flickered over the room and we saw a storage closet whose door stood open, as in invitation. Someone had tried to shove a rolled-up futon inside. It was about six feet long and lay on its side, tied with thick twine. Chevalier walked right past it, but I saw something that shouldn't have been there, tumbling out of one side.
"Vince," I said hoarsely.
"Yeh?" His flashlight illuminated the far corners.
"C'mere for a minute."
He heard the icicles creeping up my throat. I watched him retrace his steps. As he did, I inched closer to the stairs and away from him.
"Look down there. At that futon."
He squatted and the light played across what I had seen. There was an intake of breath. He reached out a tentative hand to stroke something, then gave a low moan. In the light, we saw a lock of platinum-white hair, that dyed look the punk kids go for.
"For the longest time, her hair was pink," Chevalier said. "She only changed it last week."
He touched it tenderly, a caress. He seemed contemplative, lost in thought, as if he was desperately trying to recollect something. I saw him tug on the hair. It did not give. It was still attached to something.
Don't unroll it, I wanted to say. Wait for the police.
But to my surprise, he didn't even try. Instead, he stretched himself out on that filthy floor, lay on his side and embraced the futon, stroking the top part where the hair dragged in the dirt, like he was cradling a lover or a child.
"Isabel," he crooned. "Oh my dear sweet baby. It's OK now. Daddy's here. Daddy will save you."
It was this simple gesture that shook the terror loose inside of me, the fear I had clamped down on and kept at bay since clambering inside this creepy moldering building, navigating the fetid underground room, even finding the lock of hair.
"No," I whispered, running up the stairs, jabbing my fingers across 911 as I ran, the crosshatch I had spent hours memorizing so I could now do it in my sleep. He was either crazy or a murderer or both, I thought. Didn't the police always suspect the one who found the body? And how close had I come? Down the hallway I ran, retracing my steps through this chamber of horrors, back out through the trick window and into what suddenly seemed like the brightest daylight I had seen in years.
© Denise Hamilton