Antoine lit a cigarette with the lighter from the dash of the twenty-seven year-old 1976 Lincoln Continental and leaned forward with both forearms on the steering wheel. Harry beat out a rhythm on the dash with both hands—BOOM chee CHEE—di di BOOM; and he sang a song of lost love. Antoine liked the tune, liked the way his cousin could make it flow.
Antoine watched the green two-story frame house across the street from where they were parked on a side street in Gretna. The image of the thin child Suchin, the eleven year old Chinese girl, materialized in the dark narrow alley between the houses, the blurred outline of a man blocking the alley behind her. She was naked except for a pair of patent leather Mary Janes. She stopped before stepping into the glint of the morning sun, and slid a lace-trimmed white dress over her head, pushing her arms out the sleeve holes. She smoothed the fabric in front with both hands and the hem fell to her ankles.
“She’s done,” Antoine said. Harry stopped his rhythm and got out of the car. He met the girl still in the shadows, grabbed her arm, and brought her quickly to the car, her moving feet barely touching the ground. Harry opened the back door and shoved her into the back seat.
“Don’t push me.” Suchin said, kicking out, her shoe heel glancing off Harry’s arm.
The girl made money and this guy in the shadows was one of her many repeats. But Antoine didn’t trust her. Something about the way her eyes held his, hard and cold in their darkness, and the way she never flinched if he had to cuff her.
“Tape her,” he said. “I got a bad feeling.”
“We ain’t going that far,” Harry said.
See! Even Harry was ornery now, started about the time this girl arrived in a shipment of twelve. Strange too, because the kid was all girl—not anything womanly—like a twig in a forest of leafy branches.
“That Paradise Motel near the airport,” Antoine said.
“Tape hurt,” said Suchin.
That proved it. Pure trouble . . . the way she’d just butt in like she belonged.
“Ride with her then,” he said to Harry.
Harry shoved Suchin over to one side on the back seat to make room. He slammed the back door as Antoine cranked the motor.
“But don’t put them locks down,” Harry said.
Harry was a goddamn two year-old trapped in the body of King Kong sometimes. Antoine undid the childproof locks on the back doors.
“Don’t like the door locked,” Harry said feeling foolish when the fear of being closed in grabbed him.
The Lincoln Continental rolled down the expressway. Antoine kept in the right lane, five miles an hour below the speed limit. Harry’s big head blocked half his view out the rear view mirror. He checked the side mirrors for cops. He was clean but Harry had a prior for assault with a parole violation.
The kid wasn’t in the mirror. He glanced back over his right shoulder. Nothing. She was either lying down or she’d slipped over next to the door. He reached for a rumpled cigarette pack wedged between the windshield and the dash, squeezed out the end of the last cigarette that he extracted with tight lips, and lit up.
The silence from the back seat mounted.
Then the tap . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap. The kid was beating her shoe against the doorframe, grooving on the beat like a pro, the pulse asking for more. Sure enough, Harry’s big hands clapped soft but firm with emphasis on the late off beats. Tap tap CLAP tap CLAP tap CLAP CLAP.
Without thinking Antoine beat his thumb against the steering wheel. He tucked the Lincoln in behind a bakery truck.
Harry started singing, his voice filling up the car, and the kid making ooou-ooous like a real backup.
“It’s down” tap tap
“In Pascagoula” tap tap
“Where the women” tap tap
“Do the hoola” tap tap
“And the men” tap tap
“They the ones” tap tap.
“They the ones, whoooo—-oooooooooooo”
“Wicky . . . wicky . . . whacky—whacky—woo.”
For a few bars Harry and Suchin clapped and tapped almost perfectly in their shared drive. Then they shifted in unison to a slower groove, four to the bar. Harry’s voice fell off a minor third.
“Ohhhh, ohhhh,” he wailed.
“Ouuuuu, ouuuuu” the kid chimed in,
“It’s my woman,” . . ."ohhh, yeah,”
“That cheating woman,” . . .
“Its my woman,” “ohhh, yeah,”
“That done me wrong.” Harry finished.
“Soooo wrong,” the kid added. “Ouuuuu . . .”
Then, smooth as a river running, the two of them were back working on and off the beat, setting up for another verse.
Goddamn her. She could work Harry like a dog jumping through hoops.
“Tolls,” he said.
Harry shoved Suchin down in the foot well to hide her as Antoine held bills out to the collector. “Be quiet,” he said. The engine strained when the Lincoln started up the bridge incline over the Mississippi. Two minutes later the car slowed in traffic. Suchin stiffened, her teeth clenched.
She yanked the door handle, shoved the door open, rolled out headfirst flipping on her back. In seconds she was up running toward the guardrail, the river, so much bigger than the stream that ran near her village in China. Horns blared. Fast cars moved in the opposite direction. Harry yelled behind her. How close was he? A sports car hit her, throwing her up on the hood, screeching to a stop. The girders above her weaved like dragons’ tails.
Harry grabbed her before she slid off to the pavement, held her so close his hot breath smothered her face. Her leg began to throb, she could barely see out one eye, but her heart squeezed fast and strong.
“Shouldn’t done that,” Harry whispered to her. “Antoine going to kill you.”
The sports car guy came running up screaming about his innocence. With one arm still holding Suchin, Harry picked him up and threw him against the side of the car so hard his head flew back on the roll bar with a crunch. Harry grunted satisfaction as the guy slumped half conscious.
Suchin moaned when Harry put her in the car.
“Stay with her,” Antoine said. He blew the horn, waved at people. He had to get moving before any cops came. He’d have to switch the plates again, find something in the Marriott parking garage from Ohio or Indiana this time. In a couple minutes they were at the exit ramp. He was out of cigarettes.
The kid trembled, her head in Harry’s hands, her shoulders on his thigh, her legs out on the seat.
“She breathing?” Antoine asked into the back seat.
“Blood coming out her mouth.” A trickle of dark red mixed with spit-foam dripped on Harry’s thigh. “Her leg getting big,” he said.
Antoine caught a red light. He looked back. The girl’s chest moved with quick in and outs. Her dress was torn. Her upper leg a sick purple. No one would pay for sex with a bleeding, moaning kid. He hated to stiff the guy on Airline Highway but he headed for Claiborne to get on the I-10.
“She bad,” Harry said, “She real bad.”
Suchin heard Harry’s words as if the volume had been turned to maximum in a set of headphones. She did not think about dying and she wondered if she could run with her leg hurting.
“What was that?” Antoine said.
Harry saw a bloody tooth on the seat. “She bad,” he repeated.
Well, shit. Antoine was going as fast as he could without putting them behind bars.
“Her eye look crooked,” Harry said like he blamed Antoine.
It was Harry’s fault she got out. No locks! Harry had jumped at the click of a deadbolt sliding home since he was in Angola for two years five months. Like he caught a phobia and now we can’t lock the back doors.
Antoine wasn’t being unreasonable. Okay. He didn’t like kids. But he wasn’t a monster. And he never let a guy down. Or a kid, for that matter. He was taking her to the doc, for Christ sake. How many guys would do that? “How many?” he said out loud.
“What you say?” Harry said.
But he didn’t explain. Harry was slow to understand sometimes. And too soft to keep rules.
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