Damsels in Distress
by S. L. Franklin
Art by Ron Chironna
Please, Mr. Carr, please find our baby.
When Dawn O’Dell’s parents showed up ten minutes early for their appointment, it was easy to see that they were nervous as well as troubled. I was on the phone in the inner sanctum, which meant that they had to wait in the reception area for a while, and neither one could seem to sit still. The father paced, the mother wandered, and through the open doorway I watched their paths cross several times as I held the line to get an insurance question answered.
This was my new office, the one on North Harlem—thick carpeting, modern oak furniture, glass exterior wall—and regardless of their nervousness, the O’Dells looked as misplaced there as I’d felt myself the day I moved in. Twenty years of working out of my old office—about which the term dump was a magnanimous description—hadn’t prepared me to take on the appearance of affluence in my surroundings. My guess was that the O’Dells were having a similar difficulty, but from the perspective of simple people burdened with big trouble on one hand and a small bank balance on the other.
They were mid-fifties in age, overweight, unhealthy looking, and dressed, both of them, in work uniforms. He was a gofer for the service department of a car dealership, I learned later, and she was some kind of drudge in the kitchen of a nursing home. As potential clients for detective services, in other words, they were highly unusual if not unique. Further, in the interview that ensued, they turned out to be digressive talkers, also incoherent, at times both at once.
The following is a summary:
Mike and Kai O’Dell lived in a two bedroom apartment in Norridge not far from my office. He was Chicago Irish and she was half American sailor and half Hawaiian. They’d met in Honolulu when he was taking some leave from foot-soldiering in Korea in 1952, and he’d brought her back to Chicago with him at the end of the war. Unskilled blue-collar jobs were fairly well paying and easy to come by at the time, and he’d lucked into one at a factory on the west side. She’d been a stay at home mom to three children, two born in the mid fifties and their “baby,” Dawn, in 1963.
In 1981 Mike’s job evaporated when the factory closed, and at age forty-nine, untrained and—a guess—pretty much untrainable, he spent over two years on the unemployment rolls. They sold their bungalow to stay afloat. Kai, even less skilled and not much more trainable—another guess—became gainfully employed for the first time at age forty-six doing the menial kitchen work she was still doing seven years later. To say they had no money to finance a missing person’s search was to exaggerate a little, though. Forty-five dollars changed hands before they escaped the office.
Please, Mr. Carr, please find our baby.
The baby in question was a twenty-five-year-old waitress in a “gentleman’s club,” one of those upscale strip joints that oozed into the suburbs around that time, and according to her parents, Dawn was the family success story, pulling down over twice what they earned in their two minimum-wage jobs, far more than her older siblings made too. She’d graduated from high school with a different ambition, of course, to be a hairdresser, but after two months of training to get a license and a few more as a novice, part-time beautician, she’d grown discouraged with the low pay and taken on a second job waiting tables in a pancake house three mornings a week. This work was steadier; she was good at it; and eventually she gave up tints and perms and took on full-time hours at the restaurant.
At age nineteen and a half she moved out of her parents’ second bedroom into her own tiny place, and when she turned twenty-one and was able to serve alcohol, she left pancakes behind for steaks, seafood, mixed drinks, and big tips. The jump to the even better-paying strip club took place late in 1985, and in the summer of 1987, about a year before her parents darkened my office door, she moved to the far western suburbs where she shared a three-bedroom, deluxe apartment with another young woman.
She was a pretty girl, always happy and upbeat, with whom they talked frequently by phone and met every other Sunday for dinner. Not only were they close, though. Her success was the pride of their lives.
But then, out of the blue, she’d dropped from sight without either calling or writing to explain why. She had left a note of apology for her apartment mate, but that young woman was as in the dark as they were about the girl’s motive for the break.
Well, what about a man? I’d asked, and found out that the subject of men in their baby’s life was a sore spot, the only one they admitted. She’d apparently had a string of boyfriends over the years, but not one had she ever felt like introducing to Mom and Dad. She was “modern”—which I took to mean promiscuous in their view, and her parents, who were anything but modern, had grown to accept this one flaw in their paragon.
The O’Dell case, for what it’s worth, was the closest I’ve ever come to accepting charity work, even given the fact that I was R. J. Carr, noted far and wide as the one true original white-knight sucker for the downtrodden and distressed. But a) I was good at finding missing persons, and b) Mike and Kai O’Dell got under my skin.
Please, Mr. Carr, please find our baby.
When the foyer buzzer went off I just hit the door release because I already knew who it was going to be.
I was expecting yet another prospect to share the apartment with. This one was male, actually, and although my ad read “female preferred,” I was getting pretty anxious to find someone suitable before September first, since I couldn’t make both halves of the rent for a second month, so I agreed to see him, at least. Only it turned out not to be him after all but a man hired by her parents to find my ex-apartment mate, Dawn O’Dell.
I didn’t know what to tell the man at first, and besides that, he awed me just a little because he was so large and unattractive—although he turned out to be very nice. He apologized right away for arriving unannounced and explained that he hadn’t been able to reach me by phone, which I had to admit was a problem, since Dawn had taken the answering machine and I was active a lot in the evenings. But I still couldn’t tell him much, any more than I’d been able to tell her parents much. Dawn and I hadn’t really been friends—that’s the main thing. We’d met each other through a couple of girls we both knew, and when one got married, the other wanted to give up the apartment they shared, so Dawn and I subleased it for two months as a trial, then signed the new lease with the building management.
We hadn’t talked together much, probably because we weren’t at all alike. Right away, in fact, we divided the place, with her taking the master bedroom and small bedroom and me taking the living room and medium bedroom. The kitchen, dining, and balcony were all that we shared. She had her things and I had mine, even cookware and plates, except for a few items we bought together like the answering machine.
I won’t say Dawn wasn’t a nice girl. She was always decent to me and helped keep the common areas neat and clean and didn’t make a lot of noise. But we just didn’t have anything in common but our age, both twenty-four at first, then twenty-five. I was supervisor of the science labs at a community college. She was a waitress in a gentleman’s club—not one of the strippers, although she might have been, considering her figure and how pretty she was. I wasn’t pretty, sad to tell but true, so there’s another difference. She also smoked cigarettes and kept several varieties of liquor on hand for entertaining her male friends, which happened two or three nights a week—or early mornings a lot of the time because of her work schedule. I was into fitness and organized events myself and kept a bottle of chardonnay in the refrigerator door for hardly any reason, since male friends weren’t exactly flocking my way, in spite of my being notoriously genial and humorous.
I was on vacation in mid July when she moved out, a week of hiking the Appalachian Trail with a group from an environmental organization I’d joined, four married or committed couples and two oddball girls. I got back home on Sunday afternoon, and there was a note on the dining table—one word, “Sorry,” and Dawn’s name. Her furniture was gone, her clothes, of course, and the answering machine. She left me the blender and coffee maker, I don’t know why, unless it was because she had more of the phone calls and I ate more meals at home. She was always fair.
And that’s all I could tell R. J. Carr. He showed me a two-year-old picture of Dawn and asked if it was a good likeness. Well, frankly, it wasn’t. Her bad-girl pout wasn’t there, the hair was tame and drawn back, not long and wild. She looked content and positive, too, not jaded and cynical.
That’s when the foyer buzzer went off again, and since he already knew my situation, R. J. Carr was out in the hall waiting for the elevator that brought my apartment sharing prospect up to the fourth floor.
“I’m April DeVries,” I said to this new gent, trying to be both cool and cordial at the same time.
“I know you from someplace, don’t I?” was his response, and he examined me a little before stepping into the living room. “Oh—and I’m Randy Norris. But you knew that.”
I invited him to sit and then asked questions, some of which I probably shouldn’t have, but I felt anxious again. When he said he worked at West Suburban Community College, that explained where he’d seen me before, at least. My job, naturally, was in the science center, and he was a new hire in computers and data processing next door in the administration building. Since the college was just a mile away, the coincidence shouldn’t have surprised me, I guess, but it did, possibly because none of my previous prospects had even hinted at having a college education—or an income that could afford half the rent. Randy Norris passed the test on both scores, academically speaking.
He was twenty-eight years old, he told me. He’d spent six years in the army. He was a spring graduate of NIU and was still living in DeKalb until he could find a place near WSCC. I told him a few things about myself in return to keep from sounding too icy and then gave him the guided tour.
When he commented on the lingering smell of smoke in Dawn’s old rooms, I remarked without thinking, “No problem. I’ll just wash the walls,” words that kind of committed me in spite of myself—not good, because, regardless of his background and income and his being so obviously a nice guy, he wasn’t right for me as an apartment mate. He was male, first of all, and worse, much worse, he was tall, dark, and handsome—he really was—which meant, all in all, that he was going to be a care and a bother because we were simply too mismatched. I was just your average-looking, pleasant, athletic girl, nothing special. My frame was strong and limber on the positive side, but it was somehow just slightly wrong, short-legged and long bodied, so I looked a little off. If you saw me standing next to someone like Dawn you could see it right away: The curves were there, just not quite how they should be. And my face, well—just average and ordinary. Nice hair oughtn’t to be a girl’s best feature. On that subject I was something of an expert.
Also, sharing an expensive apartment with Dawn—did I mention that it was a deluxe place?—that was at least a normal arrangement, just two single girls living at the height of their incomes. With Randy Norris as the sharer, though, him being male as well as good-looking, my imperfections were going to stand out more and seem worse. I decided to make the sublease month-to-month as a trial—until the regular lease came up for renewal—and laid down some necessary rules: I had to be notified before he had friends over, male but especially female, since I didn’t really want to be seen or even present. He agreed, but then said, “Actually, right now I don’t have any friends around here—except you, I’m hoping.” There was a strange, shy, mischievous look in his eye. “So, say, if I invite you for dinner some night, I hope you won’t turn up invisible.”
I should have answered, “I don’t believe in fantasies,” but I laughed instead—pleasant and humorous, that was April. And besides, we were bound to share a meal now and then living in the same place. Even Dawn and I had.
We actually shared our first meal the next day at lunch in the college cafeteria. As I came in he suddenly appeared at my side and said, “Hi. This is where I’ve seen you before.” It seemed an odd comment, since at the college I really did feel invisible in the crowds, and the cafeteria, besides being about the size of an indoor football field, was generally swarming with people at that hour. I decided he was lonely.
On Friday at lunch, two days later, he asked if I could do him a favor and drive him to DeKalb that evening, so that he could leave his car at “our” apartment and make a one-way trip back with his furniture in a U-Haul van the next day. To be honest, I didn’t really want to. I didn’t want to get to know him, mainly, and after three lunches together I almost knew him better than I’d know Dawn.
Deep down, I wanted him to go away, I think.
But since Friday was not a night for groups or meetings or leagues or church choir, and if I went out it was usually to the fitness gym, I smiled and agreed to help. He bought the Chinese carry-out dinner, but I refused when he offered to pay for my gas and mileage. “Not in this life,” I told him. “If we’re going to be friends, let’s be friends.”
At about eleven o’clock the next morning the foyer buzzer went, and I thought for a moment it must be Randy and his U-Haul, but then I remembered that he now had a key.
“Yes?” I said to the intercom.
“Hi-ya. Say, I’m kind of a friend of Dawn O’Dell, and I need to ask you a couple of questions.”
The voice was high pitched, coming through the speaker, but I was sure it was a male’s.
“I’ll come down,” I said.
I’d been washing the walls in the large bedroom, so my hair was wrapped in a scarf, and I had on Levi’s and a tee, but I didn’t care how I looked to the other tenants. I simply didn’t want Dawn’s friend in the apartment, whoever he was—just a feeling I had from the way he talked—and when I got downstairs and saw the man through the glass entrance door I didn’t even want him in the building. He was everything suspicious: around thirty in age, fairly tall, reedy, dressed in tight-fitting khaki slacks and a tighter-fitting dark blue shirt with a red tie. Unhealthy complexion, shifty eyes, and an insolent way of standing completed the picture.
I stepped into the foyer and let the door close, feeling very uncertain.
“You’re Dawn’s friend?”
“Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Dawn and me, we go wa-a-ay back.”
“Well, I don’t remember you,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Joe,” he answered. He looked at the building register, then back at me, grinning. “Joe . . . Grant.”
A party named Grant lived on the floor below mine, I happened to know, and suddenly I felt trapped. When I moved to step past the man out into the open air, he blocked me with an arm, then blocked me from going back and closed in until I was against the wall opposite the directory with an arm on either side, his hands pressed hard against the bricks and his feet spread wide.
“I don’t know anything about Dawn,” I said, not looking at him. “She moved out on me weeks ago.”
“Oh, missy, missy.” He shook his head grinning. “What did she leave behind? Any little boring things? There must have been some—you know—some little boring things?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Well, that’s a bitch.” He shook his head. “So where’d she go? You’re the girlfriend. At the club they don’t know, but you’re the big friend she lived with, so she told you.”
“No, I came back from a trip and she was gone.”
“Oh, missy, missy, missy.” He put his face close in front of mine and hissed, “Don’t tell me lies, Missy or—”.
Copyright © 2017. Damsels in Distress by S. L. Franklin