Loretta’s condo was on Burton Circle by the beach. She’d only lived there a few weeks and I had never been inside. Her old place was a small teenager’s mess with clothes laying everywhere, dishes in the sink, Ramones posters on the wall, and more of a crash-pad than an apartment. She opened the door to what I could see was a grown woman’s home.
“Is there anyone else living here?”
“Why do you ask?
“It’s so much nicer than...” I looked past the living room to an open-concept kitchen and dining room furnished modern eclectic with oils and lithographs framed and placed perfectly. It was a good sized apartment that must have cost her a tidy sum.
“Come in. Let’s not stand here gawking,” she laughed... probably at my wonderment. “All the other girls at the Rhino are throwing their money away on coke and worse... know what I mean?”
“Who did the artwork?”
“I did those two and four of the lithographs. The other two were done by a friend in my class. They’re my City College student projects,” she was proud and I was proud of her.
“Geeze girl, I had no idea,” I gave one lithograph a good looking over. It was a small print no bigger than 20 by 10 of an odalisque that looked at first like a good Ingres knock-off but its face had been subtly changed. The come hither look of Ingres’ nude became more of a, come hither if you dare. Goya type demons filled the space Ingres left black in the background, “Man-oh-man. You... are... good.”
“You know. One day I came home from a client’s joint. His was a nice place and I thought, I can do that. I did my last line of coke. I drink a little too much but I’m seeing a therapist for that.”
“Oh good, hon. I was afraid for a minute that you’d gotten religion.”
“Have a seat. You want coffee?”
Loretta began talking like she’d never had anyone to talk to. She explained how she got a library card first and how the art museum was near-by, “I always liked pictures but it dawned on me that I could do almost as well as these masters if I knew how... you know... mix paints and, and use materials? You know? It was like learning magic or alchemy”
“I do... I do.” I did too. That was why I was trying to get back the muse with my Remington. I knew exactly what she was trying to do and my own spirit was lifted by her enthusiasm.
The Loretta then changed the subject back to me. She asked, “Mike, you don’t still want to get back on at the cab company, do you?”
“I need the cash. I can’t stay on your couch forever.”
“Mike, I gotta tell you something. There’s a reason Doc let you hang,” her face turned sour, “Think, the San Ysidro Ranch back when I first told you I was turnin’ tricks... remember?”
“You were crying.”
“What? You still go to the Ranch sometimes though...”
“I’m talkin’ ‘bout when I was fifteen. I’d been goin’ to client’s places like that since I was twelve.”
“Twelve?” I was stunned. It wasn’t enough that she was jail bait at fifteen but... “How... what?”
“I was living with foster parents then. They sent me to school in a cab because we lived in Painted Cave. The same driver picked me up. My so-called folks made like it was safer that way... a driver we could trust.
“So-called? What do you mean?” this was beginning to sound sicker than I could’ve imagined.
“They set me up with him and he set me up with dates.”
“... And the money?”
“I never saw the money. Between the driver and my folks I was given enough for lunch money. Get the picture now?”
“Shit, like real pimps. Who was the driver? I’ll kill the fucker.” I went through a list trying to remember the cabbies in those days.
It gets worse. Sometimes it was San Ysidro Ranch... sometimes it was the Biltmore cottages... it wasn’t always the same people and other times it was a big group with other girls. The man and his ole lady there... they was especially into little girls.
“Surely County Welfare or the police would’ve...?”
“I couldn’t tell who they were but that they were all very rich and wore leather masks. you know, all that S&M gear.”
“You might have set them up some way then,” I advised, embarrassed I said anything when it was too late to do anything about it.
“It ain’t like the movies, Mike. I was twelve years old... everyone I was supposed to trust had been screwing me over in more ways than one. How was I to know who to trust? I went along with it and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Foster kids are survivors Mike. We learn early on how to get by.”
“I assume it was still going on when I picked you up that night.”
“Yes and no. Something bad happened. I ran away on my thirteenth birthday... as far away as I could get. I ended up in Vegas.”
“From the frying pan into the fire,” I said.
Shit, I was hearing things that were incomprehensible to me... and I thought I was jaded. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know any more but she had me in the grip of anger and confusion, “What brought you back here? Was it that bad there?”
“No, it was good. I mean... it was all I knew. I learned the trade with, and then without, a pimp in Vegas. I already knew how to handle the work but I learned the business side of it ... the salesmanship... from switch and bait to teasing up the price... how to work the tricks for more money... know what I mean?”
Damn, I thought... she could teach a thing or two about business to MBA’s.
“I came back to Santa Barbara to do a job and maybe get even with... I was only thinking about the money those bastards took from me... what they made me do... but not the cost of... what? My innocence? My soul?”
“You know this is a lot for me to digest. You said something happened at the Ranch?”
“Someone you knew was there.”
“Who? Was it Bob? Was he the driver that set you up? Was it Doc and his ole lady that...? I’ll skin ‘em alive.”
“Take it easy, Mike. I was too old for Doc by then...” she stopped herself as though she’s already told me more than she thought I should know. “and besides, Bob helped me.”
“Oh no. Too old at fifteen? Then, why were you crying?”
“It was nothin that was done to me if that’s what you’re askin’. Just say... except maybe foreign objects. I shot the guy up with a cocktail. He wanted a real cocktail... you know? I’d been around by then but I never heard of people injecting Coke in their Johnson. But, I did that and made sure he got more than enough H in his arm...”
“The driver I knew?” I had to think... I hadn’t seen the connection, “Perry... yeah, he died of an overdose. But they found his body on Mountain Drive.”
“I paid three grand to have him dumped.”
“Three grand... three years ago... three years before that. You like threes girl?” I tried to lighten it up just for my sanity’s sake.
“Just the way it turns out.”
“Okay. Fine with me but let me put together what I figured out so far. I know that Doc is the guy in the mask... am I right?”
She didn’t need to answer.
“I’m not sure from what you told me whether the woman was always with was his Rachelle," I thought about it some more; huge mams are regular fare in porn for S&M. " I'm thinking it was a mistress. So far so good, eh?”
Loretta’s face told me more than anything she might have said but she finally talked, “I think Ginny just went along. She’s a Christian and if it wasn’t for her I might not be here to tell you the rest.”
“Bob, where does he fall into this sewer?”
“Bob knew you and I were friends. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
“... and Bob knew about. Shit, people personalize drivers all the time. Hookers, dealers, and the middle of the night junkies trying to score... it’s the bread and gravy of the graveyard shift.”
“For a graveyard cabbie, I can’t believe how naive you are sometimes, Mike,” she affectionately teased.
All I knew was that I was being tutored on the intricacies of the depravity in the underbelly of Santa Barbara by a teenager and it didn’t sit well with my ego. I had to let her know that I wasn’t that dumb, “Bob dumped Perry’s body.”
“So, now you know why they got rid of you and now you know that it will be fatal if you insist on going back. They will take you back just to keep you close.”
“Is there a connection between this shit and the DEA busting the drug ring?”
“Did you ever wonder why the news stopped talking about the others taken down in the bust; that a washed up drunk and alleged drug dealer gets charged with public intox. It’s puzzling how it was all over the second page of the News Suppress; implications tying you to complicity in it, isn’t it?”
“You learning all those big words in City College? Naw, I just figured they had the wrong guy and that it was a big mix up and...”
“Shit Mike. This is so much bigger than you’d ever dream... not in your worst nightmare.” She picked up our coffee mugs, “I’ve been up all night. You want more coffee or do you want to go to bed with me?”
Going to bed with someone as young as Loretta, even though she was of age, was still child molestation as far as I was concerned. “I can’t, Loretta, you know I appreciate the offer.” I knew that to her it was just a good friendly gesture and that was all it meant. I was proud of myself... “I’ll just use the couch.”
“Come to bed with me Mike. We don’t have to do anything. I just want someone to hold.”
Okay, I bent my few standing morals a bit but I never took advantage of her. Had I done so, I would have been no better than Doc and Bob. If people asked me whether I was sleeping with her I could honestly answer the question either way; literally but not figuratively, like the old Henny Youngman type jokes, “Did you sleep with my wife?” Say, “Not a wink.” and leave them wondering.