It's called a street name. See, when you get in the game, you want to make sure nothing gets traced back to you. There's a lot of ways to do it - don't let people see you, keep moving, change your appearance. But if you do things like that, you might not be recognized by your potential customers, either, and that's bad for business. The idea is that you want to have a reputation without being recognized by the cops. So you have two names: one for the street, and one for family dinners.
Not that most of us have families. It's too much of a risk. We have lovers, but most of them know the score. You don't bring innocents under fire. And if you want to get married, you get out of the business first. Pay off your debts, get rid of your enemies, and spread the word. Retire your name. The point is to get your nearest and dearest out of the line of fire and don't look back. Otherwise, they're nothing but bait. And if that happens you'd better have the power to get them back yourself, because nobody else is going to help you.
We call it the Warren. It's a tough life, with its own set of rules. People come in two varieties: tourist and trade. Tourists are there to buy and get out. Married men wearing Armani and looking for a thrill. Underage kids who want to buy some booze. For them, the Warren is like an addictive bad dream. It's filthy, it's dangerous, and it frightens them, but they still come back. They still want more.
The traders are the ones who know the ropes. A lot of them are people who don't live anywhere near the streets they work. It's just a job to them. They go in, do their thing, and get out. Most of them are small-time players - drug dealers, pickpockets, cheap muscle. They're just looking for a little cash. They'll sell to the runaways and the addicts and run the same circuit for years, until the customers either get out or kick off.
The big men might actually live in their territory, to keep an eye on what's happening. Pimps like to watch their women, especially if the women are junkies. You don't want a woman to wander off for a fix and never come back. The serious dealers tend to stick around, too. They're the real bad boys. When people disappear in the Warren, you don't go talk to Mommy Dearest. You check out their dealer. And if it's a big name, you don't talk to them, either. Not if you're smart, anyway. You back off and find somebody who'll tell it like it is without taking a body part as payment.
Usually, that's the working women, the whores. My crowd. We're supposed to be the lower circle, but if you keep your eyes open and your mouth shut, you learn things. And if the right person comes along, you can sell those things for a pretty penny.
Not that we're all spies and smooth-talkers. Most of the girls get into crack or heroin and never get out. Some of them just drink themselves to death, or give up when they're too old to ply their trade. More than a few hook up with the wrong guy and wind up dead. Because when it gets down to it, they're just normal girls. They don't know how to protect themselves, which is why they wind up in the Warren to begin with. And once they're here, they don't bother to learn. They're still anybody's victim.
Me, I'm a special case. Four years of living in the Warren taught me to walk the walk, talk the talk, and protect my own ass above all else. I learned the rules fast and met the right people to stay alive. I didn't trust the pimps, and I sure as hell didn't trust the dealers. I'd come here with a purpose. I fought my own battles, and I reminded myself constantly: if I died, the job wasn't going to get done.
So I stayed sharp, and I stayed clean. Any customers I took on had to be the same way, and my rule was safe or nothing. Without a pimp it was even more of a struggle, but I didn't have to worry about getting beat up or drugged, either. I made enough money to live on, and I didn't make any enemies. People got to know me.
My name? You could say it's a family name, actually. See, my dad was real big on angels. When I was a kid I was always his baby angel or his precious angel or his little black angel. I haven't talked to him since I got here, but I'm sure he'd understand the reference. I've just grown up a little bit. Instead of being the angel of forgiveness I'm the angel of death.
If I wanted to spend my money on a shrink I know what they'd say: Jenny Parker? The kid never had a shot. Her mom ran off when she was six, to a man or a dream or both. Her father was a religious fanatic who ate whatever he could catch and thought he was a prophet. Her entire childhood was full of things that go bump in the night. It was a miracle she got into college in the first place. Nobody should have been shocked when she dropped out. She never really had a chance at being normal.
That would be my cue to argue that I did have a chance. I'd gotten in on scholarship and made it the hell out of my dad's house. As long as I kept my grades up and didn't cause trouble, I could stay.
And for a while, I was doing a pretty good job. I was in the top percentile of my class. My professors liked me. I had a boyfriend and a best friend. The boyfriend, Trevor Welling, was a year older than me and nice even if he wasn't the sharpest crayon in the box. I thought he was cute even if Kendra did say he looked like a Muppet.
Kendra Lychman was my roommate and best friend. She was twenty years old and flat-out beautiful, the kind of girl you see in magazine ads. Her personality wasn't disappointing, either. The girl was irresistibly exotic.
And unlike Trevor, Kendra was the sharpest crayon in the box. She tutored for both calculus and philosophy. She read classic fairy tales in their original languages. And, wonder of wonders, the girl had a sense of humor. As far as I was concerned, Kendra was one of the best things to ever come my way.
She met Carson Neil halfway through the semester, and it was a mutual attraction. Granted, beautiful people have a tendency to find each other, but this was nothing short of incredible. Carson was Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Brad Pitt all rolled up in one yummy package. Trevor and I tried to double-date with them a few times, but Trevor never really enjoyed it, and I was a little awed by their brilliance. Heads turned when they walked by. It was intimidating, to say the least.
So I guess it was predictable that we drifted apart. For a while I just didn't see much of Kendra. Our paths didn't cross.
But we were still best friends, so when she cut Latin one day for some "personal time", I stayed in the dorm with her. She looked a little pale, and I didn't remember the heavy circles under her eyes. I wondered how well she'd been sleeping, and if it would be rude to ask.
Meanwhile she ran around our room in frantic little circles, pulling things out of the closet and dropping them in haphazard piles. It was strange behavior for Kendra, who usually kept her clothes in immaculate condition.
I finally gave up and set my magazine down. "Is something up? You seem really wound."
She held up a red sweater for consideration, then tossed it onto the bed. "Carson asked me to dinner tonight."
"You guys go to dinner all the time," I said. "What's the occasion?"
A tank top joined the sweater in exile. "He said I had to look beautiful."
I leaned forward, trying to see if she was kidding. She looked serious.
"Honey," I said, "You are beautiful. And I'm pretty sure Carson knows that. When he said 'look beautiful', he was asking you to dress up, not making a death threat."
She smiled, but her eyes kept their flat, nervous shine. "Death threat. Ha."
I slid off the bed, meaning to touch her forehead, and she shied away from me. "Kendra, are you feeling okay?"
"I'm fine," she said.
"You don't look good."
"I said I'm fine."
"Yeah, well, I'm saying you're not. You should cancel dinner. Carson will understand," I said, reaching for the phone.
She put her hand over it to stop me. "Don't," she said. "I'm just tired."
"Then get some sleep," I said.
"Jenny, I just want to go out, okay? Don't call Carson. Don't worry about me."
I wasn't convinced. "He'd understand, you know -"
"No!" she yelled. The sound was too loud for our small room and it seemed to hang in the air between us. Kendra looked away but didn't blush.
"I mean, no," she said. "I'll be okay, and this means a lot to me."
"No, then," I said. After her shout, we both sounded quieter than normal, like the silence after a gunshot. I felt like crying and didn't know why. "But maybe you should take some time off from Carson. You guys are acting really serious, you know?"
She sat down next to me, her hand on my leg. I didn't look at her.
"We are serious, Jen," she said. Her voice took on a dreamy quality that was annoying but tolerable. It was better than yelling, at least. "Carson's showed me so much. Things are different now."
"Oh, so he what, took you on a magic carpet ride?" I said.
I meant for it to be sarcastic, but Kendra laughed. "Yes, that's exactly it," she said. "You always know how to describe things. It's like, since we've been together, everything is so --"
"Different," I said. "Nothing's different with Trevor and I."
She flapped her hand dismissively. "That's just a fling. You two aren't going to last forever, Jen. You aren't going to spend your life with a Muppet."
"You don't know that," I said, but I was arguing because I was mad at her. Trevor was nice, but I wasn't head over heels for him. We didn't even have that much in common. I kept going with it because there was no reason to stop. I wasn't sure I loved him, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel without him, either.
Kendra rolled her eyes. "Of course I know," she said, throwing her arms around me. "I know everything."
I hugged her back. I didn't want to argue with her. When she pulled away I saw the marks on her arm, tiny red dots along the bend of her elbow.
"What happened?" I said.
"Bug bites," she said, clapping a hand over them. "Damn mosquitoes. Now help me pick out an outfit, and you two can come with us tonight. It'll be - fantastic."
"Superb. Extravagant. Perfection," she said.
"If you say so," I said.
She settled on a dress that brought out the blue tint in her eyes, and I wore a little black dress that was, in my opinion, appropriate for all occasions. Carson picked us up at six and Trevor met us at a French restaurant that considered snails to be edible.
I didn't agree with them on the snails, but other than that the place was nice. There were actual attendants in the bathrooms and the napkins at our table were folded like swans. Since I didn't understand a word of French I let Kendra order my food for me, and Trevor let Carson pay for everything. We were finishing dessert when Carson took his big surprise out of a little velvet box.
He kept it short and sweet, the way good proposals are. "Kendra," he said, "You're the most incredible girl I've ever known. I love you." He got down on his knees and the entire restaurant got quiet. The Beautiful Person effect again, but this time I wasn't envious. I was looking at Kendra and grinning as much as everybody else. She looked like she'd stopped breathing somewhere around the word "incredible".
"Will you marry me?" he said.
There was no sign of the anxious Kendra I'd seen earlier. Somewhere through the tears and the kissing she said 'yes', and they got one step closer to happily-ever-after.
But that was as close as they ever got. Three months later, before she'd even had a chance to pick out her dress, Kendra Lychman died of a heroin overdose. I got out of the shower and she was slumped against the wall, the needle dangling from her arm like a sick flag. For a minute, the whole world swam. I bit my lip to stay conscious.
I had tunnel vision. All I could see was Kendra's breathless, boneless body. I dropped my towel, called an ambulance, and yanked the needle out of her arm. It left the kind of red mark that she'd claimed was a bug bite.
When the paramedics got there I dragged her body to the door, threw it open and let half the freshman class see me naked. It didn't matter. I thought that as long as I could hold on to her, she'd still be okay. There was still a chance to save her.
They proved me wrong. They put a sheet over her face and someone went to turn off the siren. Living people need the siren. I put my hands over my face and screamed.
Four days later I found out it was being called an accidental suicide, but I was miserable and hungry for answers. How could I not have known? How could she have been so stupid? And later, when I found unanswered cell phone calls and her engagement ring in its box, I had to wonder: did Carson have those marks down his elbow, too? Was he involved?
"You just want someone to blame," said Trevor. "It's natural, but don't take it too far."
It might have been the smartest thing he ever said. I ignored him anyway.
I didn't see Carson until the funeral reception. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason for a reception. Weddings should have them: funerals should not. But I didn't want to go back to the room that still smelled like Kendra's perfume, and I didn't know where else to go, so I picked at a casserole and then wandered outside.
He was out in the garden, in the overgrown area that no one ever trimmed or visited. It was a place that Kendra had liked, and I guess that was what led us there. He still looked good; I looked like shit. My eyes were red and swollen, the rest of my face pale. It had taken me four tries to zip up my dress this morning.
He greeted me with a hug and a smile in spite of it. "Jenny, God, I haven't seen you. They told me you found her."
"Yeah," I said. My eyes darted to his sleeve and I had to force myself to look away.
"I've been pissed at her," he said. His eyes were blue, the same color as Kendra's, and they sparkled with tears. "I don't understand how she could just throw it away. She had everything. We were supposed to be together."
This was a cue I recognized. I should have been trying to comfort him, but I couldn't muster the energy. I was too tired, too frustrated. "Yeah," I repeated.
"I loved her," he said, and then he kissed me.
It was a hard, angry kiss, and I responded to it. We didn't kiss because we loved each other; we kissed because we loved Kendra, and she was gone. We clung to each other, desperate and hopeless, and I never spared a thought for Trevor.
"Come home with me," he said, his mouth against my cheek. "I need you, Jenny, please."
And I did. He drove over the speed limit to get to his apartment - technically only freshman had to live on campus - and we had sex on his bed, on the same sheets that he and Kendra had been on together. I cried the entire time, and he whispered in my ears. There were no needle marks on his arms.
They were on his thigh, and I didn't see them until the next morning.
He was still asleep; I was kissing my way along his hip when I noticed them. They were faint, almost hidden in the soft skin, but still visible. They mesmerized me. I hadn't expected to find anything. I hadn't really believed myself. But here was my evidence, my connection.
I got out of bed and searched the bathroom. His kit wasn't hidden; it was in the medicine cabinet. There wasn't much to it, and I didn't touch it. I went to get my clothes.
"What're you doing?" he said. His fingertips brushed my back, raising goosebumps.
Don't touch me, I thought. God, never touch me again.
"I have to go," I said. "I have to get out of here. Everywhere. I have to go."
"Jenny," he said, and kissed my neck. "You can't -"
"Don't! Don't touch me!" I screamed. "You killed her!"
Carson froze. I yanked on my dress, moving away from him the whole time. I was sobbing so hard I had the hiccups. I didn't want to die with the goddamn hiccups.
His voice was cold and silky. "She was an addict, Jennifer," he said. "It was an accident."
My hand was on the doorknob. "Just tell me," I said. "Did you give it to her?"
He didn't say anything. It was an answer. The boyfriend who had charmed Kendra into marriage had also charmed her into a drug addiction. One way or another, he had killed her.
I ran, and he let me go. I stopped to get some of my stuff out of the dorm, but most of it stayed there. I left my books behind. I didn't break up with Trevor. I took some clothes and a few other things I couldn't live without. I took Kendra's wedding ring. And I left.
I didn't go to the police, because without evidence, they couldn't help me. I didn't talk to anyone, because I already knew what I was going to do. The man Kendra loved had killed her. I wanted to repay him. And if I was going to do it, I'd have to do it alone.
So I disappeared. I found myself a name and a place to live in the Warren, and forgot about everything else. To the people I'd left behind, I could have been as dead as Kendra.
But then again, they didn't matter. The only one that mattered was Carson, and he wouldn't be fooled. He'd hidden a world of secrets behind his prep-school smile. To have such a total double life without anyone knowing, he had to be smart. He'd know I was out there. He'd remember, and he'd watch. Eventually, he'd find me.
Until then, I'd wait.