By Kris Neri

"It's payback time," the voice on the phone -- the voice from my past -- said.

How had he found me? And my unlisted number? I'd changed everything about myself that could be changed to cover my tracks. But payback? Fat chance. No way was I letting some gutter scum hitch a ride on my gravy train, now that I'd finally crawled free of the place that had produced us both.

"Payback, Dorrie," Nick repeated. His voice sounded unnaturally calm, and that made me even more nervous.

And that name he called me by -- though my whole body was clenched as tightly as my fists, I shuddered. Dora Santiago had long since been transformed into Danielle Sutter. But my old name still had the power to strip away the years I put between myself and the place where it all began.

Nick Cruz had been my pimp, back in the days when I turned tricks in Echo Park, a neighborhood I thought of as the crotch of L.A. He wasn't that bad, as pimps go. He didn't beat his girls, didn't take too much of their dough. Hell, if I wanted to be honest, I had to admit he saved my life.

I'd started freelancing at fifteen after my old lady threw me out when too many of the guys who passed through her bedroom's revolving door decided they liked the newer model better than the older. It was rough going at first, standing out there on that Sunset Boulevard corner, waiting for any guy with an itchy bill in his wallet. But once Nick started looking out for me, collecting from the johns who wanted it for free, protecting me from the guys who liked to hurt, things got better. Well, as good as they could get in that hell-hole.

While no one there had ever had any love for me, everyone in the neighborhood liked Nick, despite how he made his dough. Even the cops; they never busted him, and one particular cop, Officer Martinez, was always going on about how it wasn't to late for him to turn his life around.

Nicky and me, we almost became like friends. Or as close as I ever let anybody get to that. We shared the same yearning for something better than what we were born into. When things were slow, we would cruise down Sunset to gawk at all the Beverly Hills mansions. And we'd talk about how we would trade anything in the world to live like the people in them. He'd yammer on with the stuff that cop, Martinez, fed him, about how he could really make something of himself. Even though we really knew stuff like that never happened to people like us.

Ol' Nick musta felt so safe with me, he told me things he probably never shared with anyone else. Sure, how he wanted to pull himself outta the gutter, like me. But he also used to say that when he did, he'd come back to the old neighborhood in style, just to show the folks it could be done. And he'd do something to help the kids there, to make it easier for them to move up.

I never laughed -- hell, I'd never stomp on anybody's dream. I even told Nicky I'd do the same if I ever made it out, just so he wouldn't feel like such a sap. But I didn't mean it any more than he did. If you can find a way outta the muck, you don't go back. And nobody in this world does anything to help anyone else, if he don't have to.

It was all just the talk of two kids who knew as bad as their lives were, they were the best they'd ever be. The difference between Echo Park and Beverly Hills couldn't be measured in the few miles between them; Beverly Hills was located in another dimension. And no one who started life where I did knew how to travel to that place.

Only that was when Carlton Sutter entered my life. Seventy-something and richer than Fort Knox, but he was still as shy as a boy. I remembered his approach, so tentative and careful-like. His black Mercedes slowed at my corner three times, only to circle around the block. The first time they went looking for a girl was always the hardest.

But I treated it like a game. Batted my eyes in a way that I knew would lure them in. It didn't hurt that the Polack who knocked up my old lady had given me the honey-colored hair and fair skin that made such a striking contrast to the black Latin eyes and full lashes my mother brought to the table. Even if the life was already starting to etch lines in my skin.

Fumbling and sweating like a pig, Carlton finally made his move. I took him up the stairs to my place in the rundown dump on the corner. Along the way, I made sympathetic noises when Carlton prattled on how he lost his wife only eight months before, when all I could think about was whether I should charge him twice my normal rate or three times. My shabby little room disgusted him so, he almost turned away, until I reached out for him. But he had nothing on me there. I was equally revolted when I saw his little worm, and knew how hard I'd have to work to bring it up to normal size.

My mind had wandered off, as it always did, while Carlton was pumping away at me. Until his face became grayer than my dingy sheets. He fell off me, clutching his chest and sputtering that he was having a heart attack. And then, I swear to God, he died!

I didn't know what to do. I thought about getting Nick to toss the old coot in a Dumpster somewhere. But I seen someone do CPR on TV once, and I figured I'd give it a try. Hell, I didn't care whether the old fart lived or died, I just didn't want him tying up my bed for the hours it would take if I called the cops.

I tried the CPR, and it worked. Before long, Carlton was able to call for help himself on his own cell phone. When they carried him out to the ambulance, he promised he'd find a way to show me his gratitude. Yeah, sure. The son-of-a-bitch didn't even pay me what he owed for getting his rocks off before he almost bought it.

But in the weeks that followed, I found myself remembering his promise. And hoping he really meant it. Maybe I could get him to rent me a place somewhere nice and give me a few bucks. Servicing one old guy had to be better than thousands of men every month. But who was I kidding? No one who started life here ever made it out.

Yet Carlton was true to his word, in a way that went beyond my wildest expectations. That old man showed his gratitude not with a few bucks and the demand for a thank-you-fuck that I expected, but with a diamond ring that dwarfed Gibraltar and a proposal. Carlton Sutter felt so grateful for the stick-polishing and life-saving I gave him that he asked little Dora Santiago to become his wife.

I didn't tell Nick or the other girls that I was going. I just left, with nothing more than the clothes on my back. And I threw those rags into a trash can outside a Beverly Hills boutique, where Carlton bought me a new wardrobe.

During the trip from Echo Park to Carlton's mansion in Beverly Hills, Dora Santiago gave way to Dani Sutter. A little too Anglo, maybe, but more uptown, I thought. A name like one of those snooty bitches on the nighttime soaps might have.

Carlton gave me everything I ever dreamed of. Clothes, house, a sports car. He even hired a tutor to teach me good grammar, so I could talk right. I learned to sound as smooth as any of his hotshot friends, even if I never quite heard it that way in my head.

Naturally, there was a catch. I had to sign a pre-nup. Carlton's lawyer made out like it protected us both. Right. I ain't had much schooling, but I was nobody's fool. I could see if Carlton dumped me before we'd been hitched ten years, I'd get nothing. But if he croaked while we were married, I'd end up with it all. How could I trust that he wouldn't get tired of me? We always said there was no way outta the old neighborhood, yet I had found one -- no way could I stand going back after this.

So once we tied the knot, I went to work on my plan. I started feeding him the rich foods he liked, rather than the healthy stuff his first wife insisted on. Lotta good it did her, anyway. I exchanged his heart pills for sugar pills. And I jumped that old man's bones morning, noon, and night, watching all the while for that gray tone his face took on once before.

When the inevitable happened, when his second heart attack struck -- I didn't try to save him as I had before. I just shut all the doors on the house and let him sputter for help, while I sunned myself next to the pool. I didn't go back inside till I was sure it would be over.

With Carlton was out of the way, my life became as perfect as my dreams. No more pokes from old men with Viagra pumped dicks, no more pervs who wanted me to wear little girl's clothes and pretend I was their daughter, no more men who prefer giving black eyes and fat lips to getting it on. Just me, with all the money I could ever want.

I was right when I thought Beverly Hills was another world from the one I'd known in Echo Park. But I discovered all it took to fit in was looking good and acting right. I became the toast of Beverly Hills society. I served on all the right charity committees, even if I never gave 'em a penny of my dough. Mingled with celebrities, millionaires, made all the right friends. I had done it -- accomplished what I thought no one could. And nobody could ever take it away from me.

Or so I thought -- till I picked up the phone and heard Nick's threat to bleed me dry.

"Did you hear me, Dora?" Nick demanded. "I said it's time you pay --"

"I heard you, Nick," I said.

"You know what I mean, don't you? I mean, you saw it, right?" he said.

Saw what? What was he talking about? I didn't bother to ask, because I didn't care. Why should I let him build his case for gouging me?

Instead, I said, "Yeah, I gotcha. I understand completely."

"That's my Dorrie."

I soothed him further with small talk about the old days. But while we chatted, I kept wondering how he found me. I did have occasion to drive through the old neighborhood recently, when I attended a charity luncheon downtown and a truck accident had closed the freeway. The top was down on my convertible, I remembered. But my car never stopped. Could Nicky have seen me there? I never saw him, or anything and anyone else for that matter. I made sure I kept my eyes strictly focused on the road ahead; nothing could have made me look at that place.

Or maybe he was now running girls in the upscale hotels near my home and caught sight of me when I went out to shop.

Either way, how had he found my telephone number? The phone was unlisted and still in Carlton's name, as was my car. Besides, regular Joes can't trace license plates. He didn't even seem to know that I had changed my name. But he knew where to find me.

No matter. There was no way he was getting even one crumb of the pie that life had given to me. The harder he tried, the worse it would go for him -- I promised myself that.

I agreed to meet him that afternoon in a coffee shop in the old neighborhood. As soon as I hung up, I went right to work. I pulled Carlton's Mercedes outta the garage, glad now that I hadn't sold it. I'd need the safety of that big tank. But I replaced its license plates with ones from an old wreck that used to belong to a maid Carlton had hired for us. After he died, she demanded a raise to keep her trap shut about the exact circumstances of his death. Can you believe it? I reported that bitch to the INS and let them deport her.

I arrived at the meeting place early, and parked the Mercedes up the block, but I kept the engine running. Nicky arrived right on time. He rode in the passenger seat of a beige Taurus that made him look like Joe Average. I didn't get much of a peek at the driver, except to notice he was a blond guy I'd never seen before. The Taurus parked across the street from our meeting place, exactly as I hoped.

Nicky exploded his suburban dad look the second he stepped outta the car. Nick had never dressed much like a pimp, but now he'd embraced the look with a vengeance. Purple velvet yet, from his flashy pants to his oversized hat. Talk about a walking cliché.

I slowly pulled the Mercedes from its parking place into the lane. But I kept the car idling up the block till Nick started to cross the street. He took a quick look in my car's direction but just to judge its distance. Nothing in his manner indicated he connected the sophisticated woman behind the wheel with me.

Despite his flashy clothes, I saw that soft spot I'd always detected in Nick seemed to have grown. There was something...I don't know, earnest about the slim, taut lines of his face. It made the sappy family car fit him better than those pimp duds.

He started across the street with a slow jog. I gunned the engine and raced toward him. Faster, faster. I saw in his eyes when Nick realized he couldn't run from the Mercedes' pursuit. In the next instant, my car struck him. Hard. The thud was louder than I expected. His body hit the hood, then the windshield before being thrown over the roof of the car. The Mercedes emblem must have clipped him somewhere, because blood splashed onto the front window.

I didn't hesitate one bit. Even after I heard the screams of passersby behind me. I didn't worry about witnesses, either -- I knew too well that nobody in that neighborhood ever knew nothin' when the cops came calling.

Blindly, my heart pounding in my chest, but with a real sense of accomplishment, I drove home. Only when I approached my own wide circular driveway did I look in the rearview mirror. The beige Taurus that had brought Nick to the meeting spot was behind me.

What the hell was wrong with that driver? Didn't he want to stop and help his friend? I pressed harder on the accelerator. He kept pace with me. I hit the garage remote. Once the door began lifting, I screeched into my driveway. But the Taurus driver was faster. He zipped around my car in the wide driveway and came to a stop before me, blocking my path into the garage. Blocking my only escape.

The shaggy blond driver leaped from the car, wearing clothes even more atrocious than Nick's. He had a gun drawn on me even before he cleared the vehicle.

"You stupid, vicious bitch!" he shouted. "What's wrong with you? You ran Nick down, like a dog."

"Some loss," I said with a shrug. "So the world has one less pimp."

"He wasn't a pimp, he was a cop." The guy approached me.

I snorted. "How does a pimp get to be a cop?"

"When another cop mentors him and guides him through the department. Nick had no record. And you knew Officer Martinez always saw potential in him."

"But those clothes," I protested, backing away.

"Undercover. He did his best to protect the girls of that neighborhood, girls like you used to be. He was so proud that he made something of his life. And he was thrilled that you had, too, when he saw you drive by last week, and ran your plate."

So that was how he found me. "But he demanded money," I argued.

"For the runaway shelter. He told me both of you promised to pay something back, if you ever made it out. You said you saw it when you drove past."

So that was what he meant. Would it have made a difference if I had known? Nah, I still wouldn't have given him a cent.

As the sound of approaching sirens filled the air, the blond man slipped his gun into the back of his waistband and approached me with handcuffs. "Dora Santiago," he said formally as he snapped the cuffs around my wrists, "you're under arrest for the murder of Nicholas Cruz."

What did I tell you? No one who starts life where I did, ever really makes it out.