FIRST NIGHT IN A NEW TOWN - LIBBY CUDMORE
I’m told on the payphone that it’s too late to go to the orphanage tonight. The social worker in charge of these things tells me to get a room and wait it out until morning. I’m down to fifty-five bucks after paying for a room in what I know is a hot-sheet, but the Tropical motel is the cleanest place I can find on my limited budget. And with no idea when my first paycheck will arrive, I can’t be choosy about my lodging. I thought Derris Falls was a pit, but Crimson City is even worse. This place needs me. This place needs God.
I’m just out of the shower when I hear a knock at my door. I dress quickly and answer to a pink pants girl with too much eye makeup trying to hide an amphetamine stare. “Just you in here?” she asks, trying to peek past me.
“I intend for it to stay that way,” I say. “Goodnight.”
She sticks her plastic shoe in the door and grins at the Bible in my hands. “A preacher, huh? I’m pretty good on my knees.”
My hands want to shove her, but my heart tells me to do otherwise. I take the chain off the lock and invite her inside. She sidles in, hangs her purse on the door and sits on the bed with her legs spread. The crotch seams of her fishnet stockings are torn, revealing muted bloodstains on blue cotton panties. “Five bucks for a kiss, twenty for a full party hour. If you can go longer than that, it’s ten bucks extra every half hour. You gotta pay the twenty up front, though, the rest you can leave on the dresser.” She looks me over and smirks. “What can I call you?”
“Gregory is fine.”
“All right, Gregory, I’m Amy. You seem like you’ve done this before.”
“Close ’em,” I say. “I’ll pay you for your time, but we’re going to talk.”
She rolls her eyes. “Christ, if I wanted to sit around yapping, I would have become a hairdresser. If you don’t want to party, fine, but I’m not one of those girls who wants to hear about your wife leaving you.”
She stands to leave, but I pull a ten out of my wallet and hold it up. “Half an hour, that’s all, I promise. That’s two back-alley jobs with no scraped knees.” I’m not in the habit of paying people to listen to me, but if I can save her soul in the next thirty minutes, it’ll be worth a hundred times what came out of my pocket. Then maybe she’ll tell her friends and I can start my congregation. It worked in Derris Falls, there’s no reason it won’t work here.
She can’t resist my offer, not when it’s getting late and her high is crashing fast. She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket and puts one between her purple lips. “Mind if I smoke?”
She’s stalling. She holds the pack out to me and I shake my head. “I’d prefer if you didn’t.” I just quit and, as tempting as her offer is, I wouldn’t be a very good model for resisting sin if I gave in to my own.
She puts the cigarette back in the pack and crosses her ankles. “Tell me all about her,” she says, stifling a yawn.
I pull a wobbly wooden chair around to face her. “Do you believe in God?” I ask.
“Ha!” She leans back on her hands. “The only reason I know God exists is because he’s doing me hard up the ass.”
Now I’m getting somewhere. At least she has some belief, skewed as it is. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh hell,” she sneers. “Is that what’s gonna get you off? Are you one of those fire-and-brimstone bastards who want me to recite my sins while you pound into me so you can gloat about the eternal damnation I’m facing? Save it, Reverend, my rent’s due tomorrow and I don’t have time for the sermon.”
“I bought half an hour,” I say. “And if you want that ten-spot, and I know you do, you’ll sit and listen. I don’t care what you’ve done, all I care about it what you’re going to do. Are you going to walk out that door and buy more drugs to abuse the body that God blessed you with? Are you going to continue to ignore His love and refuse His forgiveness? God’s not the one doing you up the ass, honey. He’s the one offering his hand to help you up off all fours.”
“So you’re saying that it’s my fault, you’re saying that I choose to live like this?” Her eyes fill with tears. “Screw you, pal, you don’t know what I’m about.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I say, putting my hand on hers. She snatches them away and folds her arms under her breasts, pushing them up as though a little cleavage will make me change my mind about her services and shut up about the whole salvation thing. I wish I could put all the fault on her—no one forced her to use drugs, and if she’s like any of the other hundreds of beat girls I’ve met, she only started standing under lampposts to support her wretched habit. I’m not in this to judge. That job belongs to someone a lot higher on the cosmic pay scale. “Every day you have the choice to use or not to use drugs, to stay home or go out. You need to accept your responsibility for your addiction, and the easiest way to do that is to accept that God will help your break your wicked habits with His divine love.”
I’ve given some version of this sermon time and time again, sometimes girls come up to me and hug me and ask, Do you know of anyplace I can get clean? and other times they grab a few extra donuts when they sneak out during the Lord’s Prayer.
She stares at her reflection in the blank TV screen behind me.
“What do you say?” I ask. “Will you accept God’s love?”
“I say you just used up all your time.” She stands and holds out her hand. “Ten bucks.”
My own watch tells me otherwise. “I’ll be preaching over at the Church on Byrne street starting this Sunday. I’d like it if you’d come; there’ll be lunch afterwards.”
“I’ll be singing hymns in the front row,” she snarls. “Pay up.”
I hand her the ten wrapped around Psalm 142.7: Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name. She takes the ten, grabs her purse and slams the door behind her. Probably off to laugh with her fellow street sisters about the weirdo she serviced tonight. Of all the guys in Crimson City, the pimps, the junkies, the wife-beaters and other scum, I’m the crazy johnnie trying to save her soul.
I sigh and sit on the bed. I can still smell her drugstore perfume, artificially fruity alcohol trying to mask the scent of lubricant and unwashed bodies. I exhale and stand. I need a drink. I need a cigarette. I quit both. A cup of coffee will have to do.
Putting on my coat, I briefly consider taking my Bible and preaching at some of the bars I saw on the cab ride over here. I change my mind when I find my crumpled prayer card by the stairs. Converting Crimson City is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
BIO: Libby Cudmore is a regular contributor to Hardboiled magazine and Pop Matters. Her work has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Eastern Standard Crime, the Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Pusher, Thrillers, Killers 'N' Chillers, Crime and Suspense, Inertia, the Southern Women’s Review and Shaking Like a Mountain. She also has stories slated for upcoming issues of Thrilling Detective, PowderBurnFlash, Battered Suitcase and the anthology Quantum Genre on the Planet of the Arts (with Matthew Quinn Martin).