WHOSE LITTLE GIRL?

By Rita Y. Toews

The crabs and gulls found her before the kids did so she wasn't a pretty sight. She was lying face down on the shingle of the beach, the tide sucking greedily at her thighs and legs, inviting her back in for another lethal swim. I hoped like hell the runaway I'd been hired to find wasn't this body lying at my feet.

Her close-cropped techno-coloured hair and the body piercing told me she was just a kid, so Detective Stuart Granger had been doing me a favour by tipping me off about a young floater. I guess that meant I owed him one - again. When you're a private investigator it pays to have a former brother-in-law working for the cops.

The sand and weeds shifted around the pathetic figure and something odd on her right arm caught my attention. I felt my gut clench and the cigar I was chewing on suddenly tasted foul. Squatting down for a better view didn't change what I was seeing there. The barbed wire tattoo encircling the biceps had a name, like a calling card, carved on one of the barbs; she had been one of Willy "The Barb" Barconi's girls.

"I don't know about you, Paul, but this is the kind of stuff that keeps me awake at night," Stu remarked as we stepped back to make way for the police technicians. "Kinda makes you want to go home and give the kids a.... Aw, shit! Sorry Paul," he said miserably as he dug his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders.

"S'okay, buddy," I reassured him with a soft jab to the shoulder. "You don't have to keep treating me with kid gloves."

I missed working with Stu. A few years back we'd been on the force together and had been as close as brothers. Stu had even introduced me to his sister, Cheryl, and Cheryl and I had ended up tying the knot. Every time I thought of Cheryl I had to fight back the grief and bitterness that rolled through me like a shock wave. Cops don't make the best husbands, but some women seem to be able to handle it better than others. Cheryl hadn't been one of them.

"Damn!" Why had I quit the force after it was too late? And why had I decided to become a PI! It was just more of the same old, same old that I'd been trying to get away from. Well, if nothing else, this past year had given me an opportunity to come to grips with the fact that it wasn't just my job as a cop that Cheryl had been running away from. Her own personal demons had been hounding her too. Whatever the cause, a large part of me had died with Cheryl that night. I flung my cold cigar at the nearest gull. With a scream of fury he spiralled off. I felt like screaming back.

The sight-seers were starting to gather behind the barrier of yellow crime-scene tape -- vultures at the feast; and the first of what would soon be a flood of media pulled into the parking area. This would make page one of the dailies for sure. The cops had spent enough time and taxpayers' money cleaning up after The Barb's dirty dealings and the big boys down at City Hall were screaming for results. The body count was now averaging about one a week and we weren't talking wrinkled flesh here -- they were getting younger all the time. The evidence was at our feet.

The girl seemed to be about the same age as the one I was looking for and, although my clients hadn't mentioned that their Mary was into body piercing, a lot could happen to a kid who has lived away from home for a couple of weeks. She might even be desperate enough to earn her next meal through the likes of The Barb.

My clients had contacted me in frustration after the boys in blue hadn't been able to turn up any leads on the disappearance of their daughter. In my considered opinion, little Mary had fled the home in question to put some distance between herself and her overbearing father, but then no one had asked for my opinion. The sign on my door says Paul Tarrant, Private Investigator, not family counsellor. After ten minutes with dear old Dad I was ready to tell him to take a hike, but the stack of overdue bills I kept cramming into the bottom drawer of my desk had a way of reminding me that I don't have the luxury of choosing my clients.

The police photographers finished recording the pathetic tableau from every angle imaginable and Granger signalled the lab boys to take over and bag her. As they shifted her body, her right hand emerged from its envelope of seaweed and sand to reveal of crude hunk of coloured glass perched on the ring finger. Better to be on the hand than in her navel, I guess.

I'd seen enough, and I had no desire to chat with anyone on the force who might recognise me. Following the shoreline, I began to walk along the beach. Turning into the chill wind I took a couple of deep breaths, hoping the sea air would blow the smell of death out of my nostrils. In the distance the white sails of a boat shone in the afternoon sun as it rode the waves, a picture of serenity. What were they doing out there in their picture postcard setting -- screwing on the deck? Yah, well maybe one day if I got my shit together... but right now I had a job to do. Have fun, guys, I thought as I headed for my car.

The fastest way to learn the identity of the girl was to follow the tattoo lead. That meant a visit with The Barb. My brother-in-law may have had the weight of the police department behind him, but that meant he had procedures to follow. Being a private eye gave me the edge in situations like this and since The Barb and I weren't exactly strangers to each other, I fully intended to use whatever advantage I had.

My acquaintance with The Barb went back to my early days on the force; he'd been a small time pimp then and we'd managed to get under each other's skin. I'd been idealistic enough to think I could put an end to prostitution single-handedly and he'd taken my diligence personally. After Cheryl's accident he'd spread the word around town that he wasn't going to be losing any sleep over "a certain cop's tragedy." I wondered if he'd mellowed any.

I knew The Barb liked to frequent a number of establishments so I started working my way downtown. I didn't have to make too many inquiries; by the time I hit The Stroll one of his girls directed me to his latest hang-out -- Jenny's. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful spring day and just the thought of spending a minute of it in Jenny's was enough to send my mood even further into a tailspin. I decided to make a slight detour and take the scenic route to Jenny's. The Barb wasn't going anywhere.

Heading down Oceanview, I watched the action on the sidewalks: your typical assortment of cheesecake, freaks and oddballs that liked to parade their stuff along the beach walk. Most of them were young. They were the perfect target for The Barb or any other sleazeball that could offer the promise of some big bucks and a little nose candy. The younger they were the harder they fell for the line. Where were their mommas or, for that matter, their dads, when the kids needed them?

Now Stu, he really knew how to raise a kid; his Ruthie was a girl with her head on her shoulders! This fall she'd be starting in medical college. It was easy to see that for Stu the sun rose and set on his little Ruthie, and I couldn't blame him a bit.

I thought again of the kid on the shingle. Was it Mary Thornton? If not, what was her story? Did she have a mom or dad who thought the sun rose and set on her? She looked pretty well fed. Didn't look like she'd been living on the street for very long. Her clothes had been the cheap flashy stuff that all the kids wore so no clue there, and I hadn't noticed any tracks on her arms. How had she ended up like a piece of garbage floating on the beach?

I turned the car in the direction of Jenny's. I'd delayed my visit long enough.

Jenny's was one of those places you had to know about in order to find. Regulars only, or the guest of a regular. No walking in off the street. The crowd that gathered there was the scum of the earth and The Barb was the king of it all. I noticed right off that he had his own table and was holding court like some demented Nero. He sure wasn't going to be happy to see me walk in.

As I picked my way through the scattered tables I could just make out the tail end of the conversation he was having with a couple of the retainers who were about to leave. It was obvious from his expression and body posture that he was dealing with a problem.

"... see what you come up with, and check back with me right away."

As soon as he saw me approaching the table he put on a grin that was about as phony as a three-dollar bill. "Well, well" he said as I approached, "it looks like I'm going to be buying a drink for one of our more refined citizens." He settled himself more comfortably in his chair, crossed his legs and ran his finger along the crease in his $150.00 pair of trousers. The smirk on his face was just begging to be slapped off. My hand itched for the pleasure.

"Hiya, Willy," I greeted him as I took a seat. I shook my head to dismiss the advancing barmaid but if he took it as an insult to his hospitality he didn't show it; the smile on his thin face never wavered. Despite the smile, I was getting vibes that our relationship wasn't going to sweeten any, even though I'd gone into business for myself.

"You and me may have a bit of business to discuss. One of your little ladies washed up on the beach this morning. Know anything about it?" I lit one of my cigars to kill the smell of his cologne.

"Hey, come on, Tarrant!" he said as he waved a well-manicured hand in my direction. "What makes you think I would know every little slut that struts her stuff along the coast? What kind of guy do you think I am? And besides, you and I both know that you have no authority to come in here questioning me like this. I'm a private citizen minding my own business in a public place."

"Sure, Willy, but let me ask you anyway, okay? I got a client who's looking for their little girl and I hope like hell I can reassure her daddy that she didn't go for a midnight swim."

My fingers fished through a bowl of nuts on the table, hoping to find a stray cashew. No luck. I had to settle for leftover beer nuts but I palmed a handful anyway and started working my way through them.

"So - you missing one of your girls, Willy?" I continued as I made myself more comfortable in the chair. "She'd have been missing for maybe two-three days. Young, short blond hair."

I noticed his smile start to slip a little. Bingo! I was on to something here.

"You probably know the one I mean, eh, Willy. Ring in her nose and one in her eyebrow. About five-one, five-two. She had one of those tattoos your girls like to wear on their arms to let everyone know who they belong to."

The smile was gone now. The hands that had been toying with a fancy cigarette lighter went still. Leaning forward in the chair, his eyes searched mine. "Sounds like she was just a kid!" He managed to recapture a little of his bravado but Willy was worried. Settling back in his chair again he tried to brush the conversation off. "You know I don't deal with kids. And who's to say she wasn't just trying to make a fashion statement with the tattoo? The way I hear it, they're all the rage these days."

"Yup," I continued, ignoring his protests. "Looked to be about 15 or 16. Can't be sure of course. Probably a real pretty little thing. Had a gaudy ring on her finger with a purple stone. Oh, know her do you?"

All the cockiness left the Barb as a hoarse wail of anguish rose from his throat. It was the same gut-wrenching cry that had ripped from my own throat a year earlier when a bitter wife had mixed booze and pills and taken a late night drive into death with our little Emily. So, Willy and I had something in common after all -- I guess all men think the sun rises and sets on their little girls. I never even knew he had a kid.

Copyright 2000 Rita Y. Toews