“What about you?” I asked.
“I was Jamie’s maid of honor. Isn’t that a laugh? Maid of Honor. Me? After the wedding, you knew Jamie wasn’t going bar hopping anymore. That left me by myself and I started to get into some—unsavory situations.”
“I got screwed over so often I figured maybe I should make some money at it.”
“That was a bum rap. I wasn’t dealing, not really. Sometimes I help a guy I know, that’s all. Anyway, I’m on the bus and I asked these black dudes if they want a taste and all of a sudden a guy’s got his arm on my shoulder. I didn’t know they had bus police, guys who ride undercover on the MTC. I didn’t know that. My PD, he says cop a plea and I’ll get probation, it’s my first felony so I’ll get probation, maybe some community service, but no time. So I cop. Wham, the judge gives me eighteen months, no probation. Don’t ever listen to no overworked public defender, that’s what I learned.
“So now I’m in Shakopee. People say Shakopee is like a summer camp or something. No fences and you’re allowed to walk around during the day and there are crab-apple trees and a wishing well and inside there’s a gymnasium with a weight room, and a dark room, and a pottery kiln, and a bowling alley. Only it’s no summer camp, no way. The first day I’m there, I’m trying to call Jamie, and this big bull dyke swings a twenty-four-pound fire extinguisher at my head cuz she wanted to use the phone. It was crazy. I decided right then I was going to keep a low profile. I was going to mind my own business and do my time and get the hell outta there and never go back. Jamie was a big help. She would visit and we would talk. Mostly she would talk and I would listen. Jamie was going to straighten me out. I was going to let her.”
The tears returned, flowed freely. This time Merci made no attempt to brush them away. I moved to her side and covered her hand with mine. She surprised me by not pulling away. Instead she rested her forehead on top of it, her hair spilling across the table. I guess neither of us was as tough as we pretended to be. A moment later, I felt her body shudder. She jerked back her head abruptly, angry at her weakness and quickly brushed the tears from her eyes with the heel of her palm.
“Anyway, it’s like I always say. Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse.”
“Oh? Has it been done before?”
I wanted to talk more about Jamie, only Merci had tired of the subject.
“This is a nice house,” she told me. “You live alone?”
“How come a bachelor lives in such a big house?”
“Just lucky, I guess.”
I finished my beer and went for another. I felt light when I moved. I hadn’t eaten and what little had been in my stomach had been washed off the fast-food joint’s asphalt parking lot with a hose. The alcohol was taking effect.
“You don’t talk much,” Merci observed.
“On the contrary,” I answered. “I can be a regular chatterbox.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Right now I need information. You never learn anything while talking.”
“You’re trying to learn stuff from me?”
“I want to find Jamie’s killer.”
“It’s what I do.” It’s what I’ve always done, I reminded myself. I concentrate on other people’s problems to keep from facing my own. It’s a form of cowardice, I know. At least I admit it. Every day I learn something new about myself, gain a little maturity. At this rate, I figure by the time I hit eighty I’ll be a full-grown adult.
“You remind me of a cop,” she told me.
“I was a cop.”
“Did you like it?”
“I loved it.”
“How come you’re not a cop now?”
“It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
“You’re doing it again.”
“Talking without saying anything.”
“It’s a gift.”
Merci actually smiled at me. “I like you.”
I wondered if she liked all men who punched her in the stomach.
“I like you because when you look at me, your eyes don’t look away much. Most men, I can spend an entire evening with them and they won’t know the color of my eyes. You know the color of my eyes.”
“They’re green,” I said, proving it. Someone much wiser than I once said that the eyes were windows to the soul. He never looked into Merci Cole’s eyes. They were as hard as marbles and revealed nothing of what was behind them.
“We’d be awfully good together,” Merci volunteered.
The remark surprised me, put me on the defensive. “I don’t sleep with hookers,” I said too abruptly.
Merci looked at me with an expression that could peel paint. “I tried brain surgery but I couldn’t hack the hours, too much time on my feet.”
“As opposed to your back.”
“I actually spend very little time on my back.”