Ani was a swell looking babe with the wrong kind of blood in her veins. We went steady two summers' ago, but we split when I realised that she was self-medicating with counterfeit street drugs to get her through until Happy Hour. The last time I saw her she was working at Newton Abbot race-track, selling hotdogs out of a ratty cart, wanking off degenerates for small change between races.
Last week her brother told me that she was back in Paignton, working out of Ruby Wu's on Winner Street. I swallowed my pride and paid her a visit.
When she opened the door her pretty face looked sickly and undernourished.
She flashed me a grim smile. The hooker make-up really didn't suit her.
I took round a bottle of carnival vodka as a goodwill gesture. It was so cheap that you worry about going blind drinking it. Ani slid a chipped tumbler in front of me.
"What's the matter? You don't want a slurp?"
She shook her head wearily.
"I'm clean, Joe. Three weeks and counting. No booze, no pills, no powders. Nothing."
"How do you feel?"
She smiled weakly.
"Like shit, Joe. I feel like shit."
I could hear a Turkish prostitute moaning through the partition wall. The Turkish girls never used to work this stroll, but times had changed. Suleiman the Turk had trampled all over the old racial fault-lines in recent years, and Winner Street was now a free enterprise zone. I asked Ani to turn up the stereo. I didn't know what tape was playing, but it sounded like rough sex.
"You look good Joe. Like you've been working out."
I shrugged. Fighting knuckleheads in car parks and abandoned factories kept me trim. If she could see the bullet wound in my thigh or the razor scar across my stomach she might think differently. Shit, I wish I could have returned the compliment, but Ani looked like an old piece of meat that had been thrown to a pack of rabid dogs.
"Do you ever think about us, Joe?"
I considered the acid visions and casual depravity that sometimes kept me awake at night, and shrugged again.
"Hey. You remember Big Wendy?"
"When she caught the bug Ruby sent her out to work the Projects. Last week some sick fuck blew her face off with a .44. "
I winced, and as if on cue, Ruby Wu knocked on the door, barging in without waiting for a response. She is in her sixties, but dresses like a maladjusted teenage girl. Her leathery folds of skin almost made me spew up the carny vodka. She has a long-held reputation as the one of the most demented Madams in Paignton. For years she had been sending the sick girls out to work the Projects, oblivious to the fact that they may end up robbed, raped or worse. Fuck. Ruby once told me that her grandfather used to sell horse-meat to the Nazis. I didn't even know how to respond to that particular nugget.
"Lonnie Carmichael is here to see you. He wanna do the big-time nasty."
A shudder of revulsion passed through Ani's skinny body.
"What's the matter? His money is as green as anyone's."
"For fuck's sake, Ruby - he looks like a walking corpse."
"If you wanna carry on working for me, you better stop being so sensitive."
Ruby spat on the carpet.
"You fucking bitches need to learn some fucking manners."
"Who is Lonnie Carmichael?"
"The girls call him 'Strap-On Lon'. He got second degree burns when his meth-lab blew up and it pretty much burned his dick off."
I kissed her on the cheek and stepped outside. The man hobbling down the corridor on pulverised kneecaps had a face that was burned up worse than a cheap steak. I wouldn't want to fight him, let alone fuck him. He fixed me with his worst thousand yard stare and I laughed in his frazzled face. You're gonna get yours, motherfucker. You're gonna get yours.
The North Atlantic Motor Inn.
The bar was full of raucous off-duty cops trading drunken, sweaty war stories. I sat in a corner booth, making sure that Strap-On Lon was in the booth behind me. Like me, he was drinking on his own, and stank of fear beneath his cheap aftershave. I thought about how much it must have hurt splashing the aftershave on his burned skin and winced. After three beers he got up and walked towards the bathroom to empty his rotten bladder. I waited thirty seconds and followed him into the toilet block. It was dirtier than a flophouse parking lot. Lonnie was pissing indiscriminately on the floor, struggling to get a grip on his flame-grilled cock.
"Need a hand, pal?"
I flashed him my most disarming smile.
"Who the fuck are you?"
"A friend of a friend."
He spat on the floor and glared at me.
"I don't have any fucking friends."
I slipped Ani's dead father's cigarette lighter of my jacket pocket.
"You do now."