Story from Bill Tope

Strip Mall


Molly sat astride the hot air grate in the breezeway at the strip mall where she worked nights, from 11 to 3.  She was responsible for sweeping the sidewalks and policing the area of debris, as well as for emptying the half dozen or so trash receptacles.  She found it an easy yet thankless job, but the best she could do, for now.  Her boss, Derek, would arrive in a few minutes with the equipment--a push broom, a dustpan at the end of a wooden handle, and a long-handled whisk broom, as well as a half dozen trash bags.  He always counted out the bags, concerned lest she pilfer one.

 

From where she sat upon the metal grate, Molly watched her frozen breaths blossom and then dissipate in the soft but cold night breeze. She was freezing.  If it was like this in November, what would it be like in  the latter part of January? she wondered.  She involuntarily shivered at the prospect of worse weather.  Looking up, she saw the lights of an approaching vehicle.  It was Derek's van, big and yellow and garish.  Molly struggled to her feet, dusted off the debris clinging to her faded jeans.  She heard his heavy footsteps clomping her way. "Here you go," he said.  She glanced at what he'd brought, looked up at him.
 

"You didn't bring any bags," she pointed out . He said, "I want you to just empty the filled bags directly into the dumpster tonight."  She made a face. That meant that Molly would have to dig her hands into that mess; no telling what she'd find there.

"Is there a problem?" he asked importantly. She shook her head.  He hovered over her a moment longer, then satisfied, disappeared back into the night. What a spawn, she thought disgustedly. He was cutting back on trash bags so that he could pocket the difference.  The same way he paid her just four dollars per hour, then collected the difference between the twelve bucks an hour allotted by the company and what he paid her. But what could she do? she thought bleakly.  She was a runaway, just fifteen, and her opportunities to earn money were stark indeed, save for selling her ass.  And Derek had offered her that chance too, but she'd set him straight her first night.  He took no for an answer, though, to her initial surprise.  But now she understood the economics of his scam, how the game worked.  She was more valuable to him working for a pittance while he collected the lion's share of her rightful salary, the same way he reputedly did with a dozen other workers in strip malls and bank buildings and parking lots throughout the city.  Derek was known on the streets for utilizing only runaways for his business. He would shit if he thought his scheme was widely known.


Molly did a little arithmetic in her head--she was always good at math back in school--and calculated that Derek collected more than four hundred bucks a night from poor, desperate girls like herself, who couldn't afford to make a fuss.  And he paid no taxes on that plunder, as well.  No wonder he could afford a new van.

 
Molly had been around some.  She knew that every scam eventually came apart because the con became too greedy--holding back on bags, for Christ's sake.  Next he'd expect her to pick up cigarette butts with her fingers! She was due to be paid tonight, which was only a small joy.  She almost retched each time he laid the sixteen dollars in her dirty, scuffed hands and realized how badly he was screwing her. He paid off every morning, so that Molly and the others came back each night. Sixteen bucks was scarcely enough to survive on; but Molly had done with less. She ate mostly fatty, high-calorie food she got from the discount groceries; she couldn't even afford fast food on what she earned.  And should she unexpectedly require anything extra, then all bets were off.  She got her feminine supplies at the Planned Parenthood office, for free. She'd gotten a deep gash on her arm one time while feeding trash into the dumpster and was able to seek out medical attention at the Free Clinic; thank God!


Molly gathered her things together, set out policing the parking lot with the dustpan and broom.  What a lot of slobs, she thought crossly.  She had believed that everyone had quit smoking, but to see the number of butts she knew it wasn't so.  She had quit months ago, when it became just too expensive.  Ten dollars for a pack! She could either eat or smoke and she chose eating.  She made her way past the Walgreens and the auto parts store and the Pizza Place (sometimes one of the cooks took pity on her and gave her an extra pie) and arrived finally at the Flamingo, the bar at the end of the strip. This was Molly's least favorite part of the mall because men came reeling out of the bar and drunkenly accosted her, wanting a little action.


Normally she slipped past them or tactfully fended off their amorous pursuits but one time a guy had tried to get her into his car for a BJ and she'd had to kick him in the balls in order to dissuade him.  He had drunkenly vowed to enlist the assistance of a couple of other guys and make her come across, but she said she'd just bite it off.  He'd blinked at her, surprised but convinced.  She had gotten a rep as a little hellion who meant business and wasn't to be messed with.  Which suit her right down to the ground.  She knew she wasn't pretty, even in the best of times, and the men told her as much.  But Molly knew the dance wasn't about being pretty, it was about power and control. They would get off if only they could humiliate her.


She swept up the cigarette butts--they were always heaviest here--and scooped an empty liquor bottle into the dustpan and moved swiftly on.  The door to the tavern swung open and another drunk staggered out; she stepped into the shadows at the side of  the building and watched. The man fell into his car, practically unconscious on his feet, then slid behind the steering wheel.  He just sat  there, moving not a muscle. Curious, she approached the open car and peeped inside.  He was breathing loudly; well, she thought, he's not dead.  Not yet, anyway, but when he gets out on the road, anything could happen.  She had seen cops lingering nearby when she first began this job, two months before, but not recently. The bar had probably paid them off, she thought.  The man stirred and Molly jumped.


Suddenly he reached out and seized her round the wrist. She tried to break free but he was too strong.

"What're you doing?" he growled.  Again she tried to escape his clutches, but to no avail. "What's you want?" he asked her. "Why you hangin' around, tryin' to rob me?" The pressure on her wrist increased.  Molly shook her head, which he couldn't see in the darkness. "Speak," he snarled, "or I'll break your damn arm."

"I was just waiting for you to pay me," she stammered, shaking nervously.

"Pay you for what?"

"Th...the blowjob," she managed to get out. The pressure on her arm eased a bit.

"What's you talkin' about, Kid?" he asked, confused.

"Thirty minutes ago you said you'd give me twenty dollars for a blow job," she said, fleshing out her story some.

"Did you do it?" he inquired further, still baffled.

"Just finished," she replied. "I been trying to wake you up to collect for the past twenty minutes." He seemed to turn this over in his mind. "What's the matter?" she asked, incredulously. "Don't you even remember?" He cleared his throat.

"Yeah, of course I remember," he lied unconvincingly and reached for his wallet. 

"You said I'd get a bonus if I could get you off," Molly added.  With a grunt the man extracted two twenties from his billfold and laid them across Molly's palm.

"Nice job, Kid," he muttered, then rolled over and went to sleep. Clutching the money in her fist, Molly returned to work.

Later, after midnight, Molly walked along the sidewalk at the rear of the strip mall, near the back of the Pizza Place. With any luck, Lea would be on duty and give her a pie that someone had ordered and not picked up.  She wanted to avoid the shift supervisor, Dudley, if she could. What was it that made people in charge of other people such wieners? she wondered for the hundreth time. The back door to the parlor was open, the yellow light spilling into the relative darkness behind the shopping center. Molly spotted her friend.

"Lea," she said, smiling.  Lea was perhaps the prettiest girl that Molly had ever known. She was still a regular person, though.

"Lo', Molly," the other girl greeted her.  "You hungry, Girl?" asked Lea. Molly placed her hand on her empty stomach for emphasis.

"I haven't eaten all day," she replied, which was the truth.  Lea turned up a box containing a medium pizza, offered it to Molly.

"Hey!" Dudley's ugly voice boomed out. Molly jumped a little; he always freaked her out some.  When he gets a little older, she thought, he'll join the drunks at the Flamingo.  She shook her head.

"Are you back begging?" he questioned her rudely. Lea rolled her eyes.

"We're just gonna throw it out, Dudley," she said reasonably.

"This ain't the Salvation Army," he pointed out. "Why don't you get on Food Stamps? Then you can buy a pie like a normal human being."

"What would you know about normal humans?" Molly wanted to know.  Lea covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed out loud.

"Listen,"  he said, "I made that pie myself and I think it ought to be worth a little pussy!"

"I agree," said Molly.  "They probably taste the same, too!"

"Hey!" he shouted, but he was up to his elbows in pizza dough.

"Here, beat it, Molly," urged Lea, pressing the box upon her.  "Come back tomorrow night, old sourpuss isn't working then." Molly smiled her thanks and ran off into the dark witth the pizza in hand.

 

After she'd devoured what she could of the pie--she couldn't abide anchovies--Molly was working at the far corner of the parking lot, sweeping away, when she was accosted by a policeman.  He was standing outside his cruiser, holding a large flashlight on his shoulder, directing its rays at Molly.

"Come here, Miss," instructed the cop coldly, aiming the light in her face. She flinched, put up her hand to block the light.  But she obediently stepped closer.

"I want to talk to you," he intoned threateningly. "I've gotten reports of young women selling drugs and sex and...." he grinned lewdly. "Do you know anything about that?" She shook her head no.  She gazed at him, he was handsome, but in a hard way. He reminded Molly of her stepfather. She felt a shiver down her spine that had nothing to do with the weather.

"What's wrong?" he asked, "can't you speak?" She said nothing. She had learned from hard experience that the less you said to the cops, the better off you were.

"What're you doing here?" he asked obtusely. Couldn't he see her dustpan and broom? "Who do you work for?" he persisted. She spoke at last.

"Derek." This seemed to satisfy the cop. He nodded, withdrew back to his vehicle. So, thought Molly, the cops were in on it too.  Derek wasn't doing so well as she'd thought; he had to pay off the worker at the employment office, the cops, and God knew who else.  Everyone got a share; the only common thread was that everyone's share came out of her pay.  She blew out air, continued sweeping.



It was nearly end of shift--3 a.m.--when Molly spotted two cars sitting side by side at the edge of the strip mall, facing opposite directions and with their driver's side windows down.  She couldn't see any activity until the vehicle facing away from her blazed with illumination from the brake lights.  The driver had accidentally stepped on the brake pedal, she guessed.  The light quickly snuffed out. She stared for some time until she recognized that she too could be seen.  She was standing under one of the few light poles in the parking lot that actually had a working fixture and suddenly she felt vulnerable. Perhaps she had been witnessing something that she shouldn't see.  Shit. She took herself off, heading again for the back of the complex.

 

As she hurried away she could hear a motor start up. Not daring to look back, she rushed to safety. She didn't get far, however, before a car--the police car!--caught up with her, swept in front of her, squealed to a stop.  The door swung open and out stepped the same cop who had confronted her before.  He approached her, and he wasn't smiling.  In fact her looked very put out.

"What're you still doing here?" he asked gruffly. Once again she chose to remain silent. Taking two giant steps he was upon her and swinging her by the shoulder, turned her around and fastened a twist tie tightly round her wrists. "Why are you spying on me?" he demanded, nerves cracking his voice.  Molly couldn't stand to be confined in any manner and began to hyperventilate. "Answer me, you little shit, or I'll...."  Out of nowhere came a voice, loud and irritable,

"What are you doing, Muncie, arresting one of my workers?" Derek managed to insert a little humor into the inquiry.  Molly never thought she'd be so glad to see her boss.

"She's still around," groused Muncie. "I thought they cleared out by 3 a.m.?"

"Molly's just doing a thorough job, Officer,"  replied Derek. "Where's you gear, Molly?" She inclined her head at the pile and he said, "Alright, beat it, I'll take it from here."

Muncie, meanwhile, had stepped up to free Molly from her shackles. Shaking her wrists, she hurried off.  What was that all about, she wondered.  And she thought, her employer had more going on that just babysitting homeless runaways.

 

Molly was not in fact homeless; only her home wasn't a conventional abode with four walls, a roof and a floor. She lived in a white, 1953 Studebaker that the owner stored in a remote, screened-in carport.  He kept it in the hopes of restoring it one day, she figured, but in the two months she'd lived there he'd made no such effort. She gained access by virtue of the fact that the driver's side door had no lock.

As she approached home, she was brought up short. There was a new lock in place; she tried the door and as she'd feared, it was locked up tight. She desperately tried the other door--locked up tighter than a drum.

"Shit!"  Suddenly there was another flashlight blazing down upon her. She started to flee but there was no where to run and she was so tired.  So she stood her ground.

"You!" said the voice of an old man. Molly sighed with exhaustion; it had been a hell of a night. "I seen you hangin' round before," the elderly voice went on, "but I wasn't sure it was you that was holed up in Doreen." Molly blinked. Doreen? What the....

"Don't ask me why I named her..." She shook her head.

"I wasn't going to ask you," she assured him.

"Why you livin' in Dor--my car?" Well, thought Molly, at least he hasn't call the cops--yet. "Don't you got no place else to live?" he asked with what sounded like more than mere curiosity. "What are you," he asked "a runaway?" She nodded. Busted.

"Where you from? An' what's your name?" he asked next. Molly was too tired and too weak from chronic hunger to lie anymore.

"St. Louis," she answered. "And Molly--my name's Molly."

"Youse a long way from home," he observed. She only yawned. She really was tired.

"Got any plans?" he kept on. She yawned again. "I see I'm cuttin' into your beauty sleep." Then he asked, "Do you wanna go home?' The one thing that no one had asked her before in the whole long two months she'd been on the lam.  She didn't answer right away.

"I'll buy your bus fare home, but I won't give you the money; I'll purchase the ticket and see you off."  He looked to her for an answer.  What was his angle? she wondered.  Everyone she'd met had an angle, Derek, Dudley, the cops, even her pizza pal Lea sometimes seemed she only wanted for Molly to get her boss's goat.  But then, she thought, she herself had an angle--to stay away from her stepfather, no matter what it took.

"I...I don't want to go home." He looked at his shoes.  "But thank you for offering," she told him. He looked up, smiled kindly. Then curiosity got the better of her:

"Why did you offer?" The man's blue eyes, visible in the street lamp, took on a troubled aspect.  He seemed to be debating with himself.  At last he spoke.

"My grandaughter run away when she was jus' thirteen, lived on the streets for near a month, up in Chicago." He paused in his narrative for a moment. "She was treated bad, real bad. She was runnin' from her dad, who was abusin' her." His eyes grew hard. "That man ain't never gonna bother no one again, I can tell you that." Molly wondered what that meant. What had this old man done? She couldn't help herself:

"Did your grandaughter come back home?" His face went blank.

"Uh huh," was all he said.  He started to return to the house when he turned back and held his hand out to the teenager.  In the hand was a silver key.

"Take it," he said, "and stay there at least while the weather permits. But lock her up durin' the day," he cautioned. "Somebody done stole the Philco radio out of her. He shook his head in annoyance. Then he turned on his heel and walked back the way he'd come.  Molly watched him go, then eagerly tried the key and voila, it worked!

 

ii

 

After work the next morning, Molly approached the Studebaker and tried the door. Locked! Then she remembered Arthur and the key she had.  She had forgotten to lock it herself last night. He must have done it. Fishing around in her pocket for the key, she extracted it and slipped it into the lock.  It worked! So it wasn't a dream.  She looked up at the light in the alley back of the car and saw a fine must hovering. She was glad she had a way to get out of the weather. Pulling the collar of her jacket up round her neck, she climbed into the vehicle.

Molly lay across the front seat of the Studebaker, her feet under the steering wheel, dreaming really awful nightmares.  She was back home and her family was surrounding her, only their heads and especially their eyes, were gigantic.  Sprawled on the bench seat of the car, she made ugly faces and her body writhed restlessly. Then in the dream she heard a pounding on the roof of the family home and waited helplessly for disaster to befall her.  Suddenly her eyes flickered; she was waking up. But the pounding continued relentlessly.  Her eyes opened wide and she stared at the driver's side window. There she found a massive fist, banging on the glass. A gold band on the ring finger made a clicking sound where it touched the glass.  And attached to that first was a policemen, clad in a blue uniform and holding his other hand provocatively on his weapon. He was speaking:

"Wake up. Open this door!" Moving groggily, Molly complied with the order and the cop swept open the door. "Let's see your hands," he told her.  "Grab the steering wheel." Molly's experience with cops--all of it bad--moved her to obey. The cop looked her over closely, then told her to get out of the car. Again she complied without a word. "What are you doing in Mr. Cooper's car?" demanded the cop. Once more she said nothing, which pissed off the cop, as she knew it would. "Turn around, face the car!" This again. He frisked her but unlike most police he didn't cop a cheap feel. "Does Mr. Cooper know you're camping out in his Studebaker?" he asked.  She nodded her head.

"C'mon, I'm going to check out your story," and with a hand on her arm he led her back to Arthur's home.  Molly wondered what time it was. The cop knocked respectfully on the door and soon Arthur materialized. He opened the door.

"What's this?" asked Arthur.

"I found this woman asleep in your Studebaker, Mr. Cooper." If he was expecting a sharp reaction, the cop was disappointed.  Arthur gazed placidly at the teen, just a hint of a smile upon his lips.

"Of course you found her," said Arthur. "This is my granddaughter, Molly." Molly's head snapped up in surprise. "She likes sleepin' in my old car," he explained. "Why don't you let her get back to sleep and I'll fill you in." Yeah, thought Molly, and maybe someone could fill her in, too.  The policeman removed his hand from Molly's arm and she vanished back toward the rear of the property.

When she was safely out of earshot, Arthur continued: "Molly's mother died recently."

"Oh no, not Connie," said the cop regretfully. Arthur shook his head.

"No, Connie's okay. It was my other daughter, Marilyn," he went on, lying verbosely. He hadn't realized before that he had such a knack for it.  "I jus' got back from...uh...New Jersey, and brought Molly with me. She hasn't got no one else." Concern filled the officer's eyes. He said,

"Will she be in school soon?" Damn. Arthur hadn't thought that far ahead.

"After the Thanksgivin' Holiday," he replied, thinking fast. "Thanks for your concern, Bob."

"That's alright, Mr. Cooper, just doing my job. When I saw her asleep in the car, I...."

"Perfectly un'nerstandable," said Arthur. "And you're a good cop, Bob," he added. Bob's chest expanded with pride, and he saluted and withdrew.  As the cop walked back to his car in the alley, Arthur blew out a breath.

 

The next morning, when she awoke and exited the car--with no surprises this time--Molly found a package on the roof of the car. She picked it up. It was warm. Pushing aside a paper towel, she found a large cinnamon roll, steaming in the cold morning air. She glanced back toward the house, then took a tentative nibble. It was good! In seconds she had devoured it. Suddenly a tiny piece of paper fluttered out of the paper towel to the ground.  Molly picked it up and read: "If you ever wake up, come on in for breakfast. Door is open." It was unsigned.
 

Molly appeared at Arthur's back door and started to knock but then changed her mind and simply pushed open the door and entered. She stepped into a green-walled kitchen.

"Hello?" she said, struck immediately by the rich, fragrant aroma of baking cinnamon rolls. Already she was glad she had come.  But, she wondered, what was this old man up to? What did he want? A gravelly voice suddenly boomed out:

"Mornin', Sunshine!" She startled a little. "How are you, Molly?" Arthur asked.

"I'm good."  Then she said, "You're baking?" Arthur grinned.

"What was your first clue?" Then he laughed. Molly blinked.  Arthur wasn't quite like anyone she'd ever met. She quietly surveyed the kitchen.  There were cannisters of flower and sugar and tea and coffee and bowls of utensils and a huge electric mixer and the list just went on and on.

"Molly," said Arthur kindly, "would you like a big glass a' milk?" Her eyes opened wide. Milk!  She loved milk but hadn't had any for at least two months, not since...

"Thanks," she said, and accepted the largest glass of milk she had ever seen. Arthur's  crooked smile crinkled his eyes.

Over the next several hours, the pair came to know one another.  Arthur asked Molly about her life before the streets and she answered carefully, warily.  Arthur was likewise a little cagey when talking about his family but at length they forged a tentative bond of trust.  Still, Molly wasn't yet prepared to trust him fully--but the cinnamon rolls and the milk went a long way in that direction.

"What do you do when you're not sleepin' or workin', Molly?" he asked curiously. Molly shrugged.

"Sometimes I hang out in the library," she disclosed. He nodded. "One time," she told him, "I went to a wedding."

"A weddin'?" he exclaimed. She grinned, feeling ever more comfortable with the old man. "Yeah. It was outside, last September, when I first got into town." At his skeptical look, she went on. "My clothes were new then and I didn't stick out too bad."

"Whey would you go a weddin'?" he asked.

"Because, after the wedding they had the reception," she explained.  "A buffet. I got so full--and a little drunk," she admitted. Arthur laughed heartily.

"Listen," he said.  "Supper's at 6 p.m.; will you be here?" She hesitated for just a moment. "Roast beef, mashed potatoes, homemade gravy," he purred enticingly.

"See you at six," she said determinedly.

 

Supper that night--and for three successive nights--was as successful as breakfast had been. On the third evening Arthur offered Molly a substitute home.  A bedroom of her own, three meals a day, the works.  Molly still had just a tiny bit of her mind that wasn't wedded to the idea; was he in fact up to something or was he just the kind of man he gave every appearance of being? She thought, if this were some grand seduction scheme, he was certainly taking the long way about it. What almost sold Molly was when she fell asleep on his sofa watching TV one night after supper. She awoke with a start, found the television on but muted and discovered that a blanket had been placed over her.  She felt warm and safe and went back to sleep.

 

 

iii

 

Molly was seriously pondering Arthur's offer of a haven: to move into his home and attend school and escape the streets--or the Studebaker, as the case may be.  She would be glad to ditch this shitty job, that was for sure.  Tell Derek where to shove his four bucks an hour, along with his broom and his dustpan.  She didn't trust easily--a lesson hard-learned--but the old man hadn't screwed with her yet. And he'd had every opportunity to. There are times when you just have to trust somebody, she thought. Right now she had to meet up with Lea, her only friend, besides Arthur.  They had some business to discuss.  As she approached the back door of the pizza parlor, Molly noticed something familiar on the parking lot, by the dumpsters: it was a purse; Lea's purse.  Molly knew that Lea would never surrender her purse, for any reason, because it contained not only her birth control pills, but her dope as well.  She stooped and picked it off the pavement, opened it.  Everything was intact, including the keys to Lea's house, her car.  Lea wouldn't just abandon her property, Molly well knew. Clutching the handbag in her hands, Molly approached the back door. There she found Dudley, terrifically busy. As she approached he didn't look up, but continued to roll out dough, festoon it with sauce and cheese and other toppings. She knocked on the open door. Dudley glanced up for a moment.

"What do you want, Molly? Can't you see I'm busy?" he brushed a thatch of blond locks off his  forehead.

"Dudley," she asked, "have you seen Lea tonight?" He huffed angrily.

"I'd better never see that bitch again," he snarled. "She up and quit on me, can you believe it? After all I done for that little shit, she up and quits on me!" He took his anger out on his rolling pin.  "She was supposed to work tonight."

"When did she quit?" asked Molly. "What time?" Dudley glanced at the clock over the huge Hobart dough mixer, said,

"I don't know, an hour ago?" He caught the concerned look on Molly's face, asked, "Why, what's up?"

"When was she supposed to start her shift?" asked Molly next.

"Eight to two, same as always," he replied, then caught Molly's contagion of worry. "Why, Molly?"

"How do you know she quit?" she asked cryptically. Dudley furrowed his brow.

"Because," he said, "she called it in." He got angry again. "And she didn't have the guts to call it in herself, she had her dad do it." This galvanized Molly into action.  She informed Dudley,

"Lea doesn't have parents.  She was emancipated when she turned sixteen last year." This came as news to the young man. "That's what I was coming here to meet with her about tonight."

"Who could have called in for her, then?" Molly shook her head.

"I don't know, but I found Lea's purse outside by the dumpster. I think somebody took Lea to sell her as a sex slave!" A lightbulb seemed to go off inside Dudley's head.

"I heard about that on 60 Min...."

"We've got to do something, right now!" she said pointedly.

"What?" He seemed clueless.

"I think I know a place to look for her." Come with me, Dudley."

"I can't leave the business. I've got customers, and...." She waved him off impatiently.

"This is way more important than pizzas!" she snapped. She started to walk away and then turned back and told him, "Call the cops; or the FBI," and she was out the door. Would he ultimately summon the authorities? she wondered. Probably not, she thought bleakly.  Molly had seen Derek struggling with young women in his big van several times before; she had always considered him a dense, unsuccessful Romeo, but under the circumstances his behavior became even more suspect. And he hired runaways and other undocumented girls, she knew.  Girls who would never be missed. Girls like Lea--and her.



Molly walked the several blocks to the small truck stop and quickly scanned the lot. There it was: Derek's van. It was inconspicuous here with all the other trucks and utility vehicles.  It would have stood out like a beacon back at the strip mall.  Besides which she figured they were just holding her in the van till they could transfer her to one of the bigger trucks.  They undoubtedly were taking other girls besides just her friend, the way she'd heard about it on TV. These guys weren't stupid; evil, but not stupid.  If Molly owned a cell phone, she could have called the cops herself; she looked around for a payphone, but of course they were now extinct. She hadn't any change anyway. She peered closely at the front seat of the van: it was utterly vacant. Sneaking furtively forward, she tried the driver's door; locked. Damn! Then, on the off chance, Molly ran round to the other door and tried that one. Yay! It was unlocked. The driver might not be stupid, but his passenger certainly was.  Molly knew that a reckless crook was an unpredictable one; she'd have to be careful. Who kidnapped someone and then left the door to their escape vehicle unlocked? The teen prudently locked the door behind her.

 

Slipping into the van, she moved quickly through the opening leading to the rear. There she found Lea, sound asleep. Asleep? She stooped, tried to shake her awake; at that moment, both doors were opened by two men.  Molly crouched into the shadows. One of the men spoke,

"Better check the chick." The mean cop!

"Shit. She ain't going nowhere. I shot her up with smack. She'll be out till Munoz gets her to Mexico, and then some." Derek! Though she didn't need one, Molly had found a new reason to hate the sonofabitch.  And Lea wasn't sleeping; she was high on opiates.

"You're prob'ly right," agreed mean cop.

"What time is the wetback getting here, Muncie?" asked Derek.

"Oh-two hundred," replied the bad cop."

"Don't gimme that quasi-military bullshit, what time?"

"Two a.m.," he replied. The evening settled down.  After sharing a loud joint, the men were soon sawing logs, but Molly didn't even remotely think of sleep. She had to get Lea and herself out of here--it would mean death if she did not. For both of them. When the men had snored for some ten minutes, Molly decided to make her move.  It wouldn't be easy, ferrying a comatose girl four inches taller than herself, and who probably outweighed her by twenty pounds.  Finally finding the rear door handle, she pushed it: locked.

"Shit!" she muttered, then cursed herself for speaking aloud. She thought, I'll have to get the key--and the key was up front with those killers. Suiting the action to the word, she edged her way carefully forward until at length she spotted the keys reposing in the ignition. She looked at the two dissolute figures, checking them carefully for any sign of life. They were dead to the world. And Molly knew why: the smell of whiskey and pot was thick in the air of the closed in space. Careful not to make a sound or even to breathe, Molly extended her arm, grasped the keys and then holding them tightly so they would not jingle, pulled them slowly from the ignition.

Escaping to the rear of the bed again, the fifteen-year-old inserted a key and, miraculously, guessed right on the first try.  Another Yay!  She turned over the lock. It clicked with a deafening sound. Molly froze, then thought, why bother? They wouldn't get out at all now, if the men had been awakened. Swinging wide the rear doors, she dragged her friend to the edge of the floor, flopped Lea's legs over the side and attempted to stand her on her two feet. That went about like she'd expected: she nearly dropped Lea to the asphalt. Molly listened for sounds of movement from the men in the front of the van, but she was greeted with silence. Molly was hit with a brain storm!

 

Twenty minutes later found Lea whisking through the streets, tied to the aluminum dolly that Molly had discovered on the floor of the van. She propelled the contraption with all her might; Lea was beautiful, but she wasn't light, decided Molly. With no cell phone and no car, she did they only thing that occurred to her: she headed back to the strip mall. There she found dependable Dudley, still on duty at the pizza parlor, but in the company of two impossibly tall uniformed policemen and two men in plain clothes, ostensibly detectives. Molly eagerly approached the back door, was met by the two tall cops and subsequently interrogated by the plainclothes men.  She told them what had happened, where the two kidnappers were to be found, and how she figured in all this. Asked her identity, Molly replied with flair that she was Molly--no middle name--Cooper and she lived with her grandfather, Arthur Cooper in the house with the exquisite '53 Studebaker in back of it.  An ambulance was summoned and Lea was transported to the hospital with suspected heroin intoxication. Molly noted that the police had possession of Lea's handbag, which meant they had seen the marijuana, but figured that was of no moment; in this state, pot had been all but decriminalized. Besides, the fuzz wouldn't want to alienate a Grand Jury witness against sex slave traffickers.

 

iv

 

Two mornings later, after Molly had moved her meager effects into the extra bedroom in Arthur's house, she sat before him at the kitchen table, enjoying another gourmet breakfast.

"Where'd you learn to cook?" she asked.

"I been a widower for twenty-five year," he told her 'an I hadta' either learn or go hungry.  So I learned."  He looked askance at her.  "Finally get rid a' all that dirt?" he asked with a smile that, as usual, crinkled his eyes.  She nodded. "Took at least four showers," he pointed out. "You know I got to pay for the water..." Molly's eyes grew wide.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was so dirty, and..."

'I'm bein' funny, Molly, or tryin' to be." Relief flooded her face. "You'll have to get used to that."  He was silent for a moment. "Hey, Thanksgivin' is comin' up, two weeks. Got any plans?" His eyes shown brightly.

"Arthur, are you being funny again?" asked Molly. He only smiled.

"I 'unnerstan' from Bob that they caught your friend Derek but that Officer Muncie got clean away," said Arthur.

"What'll happen to them?"

"Well, tax evasion, criminal conspiracy, sex-traffickin', contributin' to the delinquency of minors, the list jus' goes on," replied Arthur.  Molly's face darkened. 

"I knew Derek was into some bad things, but I didn't know how bad."

"All in the past now," said Arthur soothingly. "After the holidays we can get you into school--I got a friend used to be a social worker, Molly, and I know how and where to get the bogus documents we need. Of course, we could do like your friend Lea, and go for emancipation, but you're a little young yet, for this state, and besides, it's an uphill battle.  Might not be any choice, they use you as a witness in the trial; we'll just wait an' see.  And I gathered that you don't care to see your stepfather no more." Molly had related to her new friend the manner in which her stepfather had mistreated her.

"Is that why you're helping me, Arthur, because of how your granddaughter was abused and how no one ever helped her?" For a moment, Molly was afraid she had gone to far.

"Yep. Partially.  I used to work representin' a union, Molly. For forty-five years I was an advocate and, especially when I learned you was workin' for slave wages, I felt you needed an advocate, too." Molly furrowed her brow.

"Advocate?" she queried.

"Someone on your side," he explained.  She nodded.  Arthur then changed the subject.

"What grade should you be in, Molly?" he asked.

"Well, I'm fifteen and a half," she said, "and I was ready to start my sophomore year in high school when I split.  I was a good student," she added. "Until things went crazy with my stepfather and then my grades went into the crapper." Arthur looked serious.

"They're prob'ly lookin' for you, Molly."

"I hope they never find me," she said solemnly.

 

Time seemed to fly by for both Molly and Arthur.  On Thanksgiving Day, Molly asked Arthur,

"Does your daughter ever come down for the holidays?" Arthur shook his head no.

"Not in a long time, Molly. She can't bare to leave Crystal." Crystal, Molly knew, was Arthur's only grandchild. "They live in Seattle," he went on.  "Connie is CEO of a medium-sized tech company--an' no, it ain't Microsoft--and lives in a big condo that overlooks the city. One suite is devoted to her daughter." Arthur hadn't discussed Crystal's condition in any depth before. Molly spoke up:

"How old is Crystal now?  What does she do? Does she have a job?"

"She'll be twenty-five come December 2nd. But, Molly, she has mind of a five-year-old. She needs help dressin' and eatin' and...ever'thing." Molly looked closely and saw Arthur's eyes film over ever so slightly.

"I'm sorry, Arthur."

"Yeah," he said. "Me too." And idea suddenly occurred to Molly.

"Arthur," she said, "could we go to Seattle sometime? I'd like to meet Connie and Crystal." The warm, grateful look on Arthur's face told Molly she'd said the right thing.

 

Thanksgiving wasn't all it might have been.  After carefully dressing and buttering and seasoning the turkey, Arthur had fallen asleep and allowed the bird to burn. The stench of burning flesh and the cacophony of multiple smoke alarms awakened him not a bit.  Molly, alone in her bedroom reading, was roused by the noises and smells and rushed to the kitchen, where she turned off the oven and flipped on the exhaust fan.  Then poor Arthur, awakened by the clatter, stood lamenting a ruined feast. She approached him from the rear and gently placed her hand on his shoulder.

"That's alright, Arthur," she said. He touched her hand with his own.

"You mighta' save' the day, Molly.  I told some cold medicine and I was down for the count."  He looked grieved.

"No sweat, Arthur, my heart wasn't set on turkey anyhow. Now we can enjoy the same meal I would have had if I were still working for Derek." He looked at her over his shoulder.

"Pizza?" he asked.

"Pizza," she confirmed.

 

So, money in hand, Molly walked the two blocks to the venerable strip mall and went  this time to the front of the pizza parlor and stepped through the door.  The aroma was intoxicating, she thought: freshly make, yeasty pizza dough festooned with onions and peppers and sausage and all her favorites. It remained her first choice among foods.  She approached the counter and ordered the biggest, most topping-laden pie on the menu. She asked the person at the register,

"Is Lea back yet?" The girl's eyes widened and she said,

"You're Molly! I saw you on..." Then, "No, she'll be back next week. You saved her life. Thank you so much!" Molly smiled.  "You can have this pizza for free," she offered.  "Business is booming since the kidnapping."  Molly wouldn't hear of it, though.

"Thanks," she said.  "But, no."  She laid the money on the counter, "I'm only making a point.  Tell Dudley:  I came in through the front door this time."

Thirty minutes later, pizza in hand, Molly quitted the pizza parlor and embarked on her way home.  Home; Molly liked the sound of that!  She walked through the parking lot in back of the strip mall, making haste lest the pie grow cold.  There was just the slightest dusting of snow on the pavement and tiny flakes fell from sky. Suddenly she became uneasy, felt as though she were being watched. She turned and looked behind her but there was nothing there.  Since she'd heard that Muncie had escaped, she had kept a lookout for him.  Wait. That man, she stared hard at him: was it Muncie? Molly felt idiotic; she had been on the alert for a man in a cop uniform, but in reality, the bad cop could be dressed in any fashion.  This man had a heavy, green army jacket, hunting boots, jeans and damn! It was Muncie!

Molly took several stutter steps, then catching Muncie's eye, she tore out as fast as her legs would move.

"Come back, Molly," called the bad cop in a sing song voice, tormenting her.  "I just want to talk." She kept running.  She didn't look back, but ran north, past the pharmacy and the Hallmark Store and the Orange Julius, all now shuttered for the holiday. Slowly, steadily, the ex-cop made up ground on her; Molly couldn't figure why she wasn't making better time, till she looked down at her hands: they were filled with pizza. With a slinging motion she cast the pie aside.

She ran into the asphalted corner of the lot, past the furthest parked vehicles, decided she couldn't go home, else she'd lead Muncie back to Arthur and she couldn't endanger the old man that way.  She began panting. She was out of shape.  Suddenly it occurred to her: she had a cell phone now!  Arthur had purchased one for her on her first night in his home.  She whipped it out triumphantly, glanced down at the screen.  No bars!  She cursed herself. She had grown unaccustomed to a cell phone and had let it run down.

"Maaarrrryyyy," screamed Muncie in a cartoon voice.  He was risking detection; he must have gone over the deep end, thought Molly; he's really lost it.  There weren't many shops open tonight, this being Thanksgiving. Just the Pizza Place was busy at all and it wasn't doing very much business. Molly slowed to rest her lungs, then plodded doggedly forward, took a shortcut through the breezeway which divided the strip mall into two.  She got halfway down the breezeway when a stark figure materialized at the other end of the tunnel: Muncie!  And he had a gun, a huge, malevolent looking, murderous black revolver. Lifting it to his eye, he took careful aim.  Molly stopped in her tracks, staggered, retraced her path and tore down the south side of the mall. Behind her she could hear Muncie laughing.

Finally reaching the near corner of the strip mall, Molly found herself outside the Flamingo. Yes! There would be people here.  She had forgotten that they never closed.  Shoving the metal and glass door open, Molly threw herself inside. Nearly fainting with exhaustion and terror, she collapsed into a chair.  An inebriated woman with silver hair looked myopically at her and said, "Can I buy you a drink, Honey?"  Molly felt giddy with relief; she almost laughed out loud.  Her reverie was cut short, however, as the door pushed open again and in stalked Muncie, pistol at the ready. The tavern grew deathly quiet. The ice in a highball glass made a tinkling sound.

"Everybody just relax now," Muncie coaxed.  "Me and this young woman have a little business to attend to. I'll take her out and there won't be any trouble." He grinned at the teen and she thought his teeth were huge, white and ugly.  Molly grimaced, waited for the other shoe to drop when the smile ran away from Muncie's face, to the cadence of more than a dozen metallic clicks.  Molly looked back and saw that fully a score of weapons had been drawn by the Flamingo's customers, even the bartender, and every one was pointed at point blank range at Muncie.  His revolver twisted upside down on his trigger finger and he smiled weakly.

"Whoops!" he said softly.  Molly had forgotten that this was a conceal and carry state and so, apparently, had Muncie.

 

Six Months Later

 

Once again at her favorite spot in Arthur's--and her--home, Molly sat at the kitchen table and shoveled in Arthur's special shirred eggs, made with spinach, just the way she had come to like them.  A year ago she hadn't known they even existed.  Arthur slipped a pancake onto Molly's egg-spattered plate.

"What're you going to do when school's out, Molly--just two weeks now?" he asked.

"I might get a job," she replied. He pursed his lips.

"Got any offers?" he asked.

"Two, so far," she said.  "One, I can go to work at this strip mall I heard about, sweeping sidewalks and emptying trash cans and picking up cigarette butts...." She sneaked a peep at Arthur, was gratified to see a look of horror on his face.  "Or," she continued, "I might get a job at the Pizza Place." 

"That sounds more like it," remarked Arthur. Then Molly added,

"You know, Dudley asked me out..." and if anything the look of horror on his face was even more pronounced.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *