“So, she’s in the hospital, you’re saying?” Jo Sullivan was confused. She’d been interrupted right in the middle of this week’s column which was due in a half hour, then hurried to the front desk to meet a visitor who’d insisted she needed to speak to Jo urgently, only to be confronted by a six foot four transvestite with a five o’clock shadow and foundation makeup that desperately needed a refresh.
“It sounds like everything is taken care of,” Jo continued. “I really don’t understand what you want from me.”
Betty at the front desk and the two reporters that had walked through the lobby since their conversation started had managed to keep their mirth under wraps, but Ed Logan was due back from lunch any second, and Jo just knew he wouldn’t let an opportunity like this slip by. She had to get back to work soon.
“Woman,” Avril said, leaning over her and saying each word slowly. “You. Are. Not. Listening. She named the baby Katja. Don’t you get it? It’s plain as the Adams apple in my throat. Which, by the way, you can quit staring at any time now. Yes, I am a man. Yes, I am wearing makeup, a wig, and one damn expensive pair of Jimmy Choo’s. Now can we get back to this girl Lily May and what happened to my friend?”
Katja’s first name is just a placeholder for now. It’s too similar to Jo’s friend Keisha to keep long term. When I replace it, though, it will have to be something just as uncommon in order to trigger Avril’s concern.
“Yes, my friend Katja. Why else would she name the baby that? This Lily has to know where the woman is, but the nurses won’t let me near the girl, even though I’m the one who called the ambulance, not to mention delivered the baby my very own self in that disgusting hovel of a building those kids call home.”
When Jo first met a street artist nicknamed CRY, the brutal murder of a friend and his fear of being forced to turn tricks to survive on the streets had made the boy somewhat homophobic and yet it had been this Avril who he’d gone to when looking for a missing girl and it was Avril who he’d continued to correspond with by letter after he got into Job Corps.
So there had to be more to this woman—man?—woman than Jo understood.
“Okay, okay.” Jo held up both hands to stop what was obviously going to be another diatribe of what sounded like nonsense. “Let’s slow down here a minute, all right? If you could hold on for another ten minutes or so while I finish this article I’ve—”
“Hold on? Hold on? Well, Ms. Sullivan.” Avril’s words dripped with sarcasm. “I’ve got all the time in the world. So does Katja, I suppose. Apparently it is all the same to you if a missing girl shows up dead instead of alive. Is that why you got to Lexie Green too late, hmm? Had an important article to write, did you?”
Guilt and regret bloomed from Jo’s center like a stinking corpse flower. Lexie Green had been murdered by a psycho funeral home employee, a fact neither Jo nor Lexie’s friend CRY had known until way too late. It had been almost a year since that happened, and Jo had done all she could at the time, but nothing could erase the glimpse she remembered of the young girl’s tiny feet in their tubular tomb.
“So this is how you want to play it?” Jo asked bitterly. “You come to ask me for help and then insult me? Who’s not getting it now?”
She turned to leave but Avril’s firm grip on her arm stopped her. Jo looked down at the long fingers with their purple-glittered nails and dark hairs sprouting from the knuckles.
“I’m sorry,” Avril said, letting go. She really did sound sincere. “I’m just so upset I’m not thinking straight. Am I just imagining things? Katja’s been gone for two months and no word at all, not to no one. I know I might just be grasping at strays, girl, but don’t you think it’s too much of a coincidence? I mean, this girl approaching me out of nowhere and then naming her baby after my missing friend?”
Straws, Jo thought, suddenly tired. Grasping at straws. Avril’s very real worry about her friend Katja was something she could easily understand. If Jo’s best friend Keisha had been off the grid for two months Jo would also be turning over every stone, straw, and stray she could find.
She sighed. “No such thing as coincidence.” Okay, she gave up. “Here, let’s go somewhere we can sit down, at least. Betty, will you ask Nick if he can wait another half hour for my column while I deal with this?”
“Wait?” Betty raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow. “You want me to ask Nick Simonoff to delay a deadline? All right,” she said quickly, holding up a hand when Jo started to speak. “I’ll ask. But it’s your head, understand, not mine that will roll if I have anything to say about it.”
The staff lounge was empty with so many out for lunch at this time of day, so they didn’t have to deal with any startled looks when they walked in and settled down at a table near the coffee pot.
“Coffee? Tea?” Jo asked.
“The biggest cup of joe you got, please, girl. I’ve been up all night. Well, usually am, truth be told, but not dealing with all this drama. Babies popping out at one a.m., paramedics asking me all kinds of questions I got no answers to. Good looking paramedics, mind, so it was a pleasure and all, really, but Lord, if it all don’t leave me with a need for caffeine. Thank you, hon.”
While Avril filled her cup with so much sugar and cream the cup overflowed, Jo tried to piece together the hodgepodge of data the man—woman?—had unloaded on Jo as soon as she’d walked into the lobby.
“You said Lily’s been hanging around Lakeview how long again? A week? Two?”
“All I know is that’s when she come up to me. At my spot by Dunkin Donuts, you know? Had no place to stay, she said. Hungry. So many of these kids ’round here is these days, right? When I asked why she thought I was Santy Claus, she started saying a friend told her, but then she shuts up, says never mind, and walks off.
“I thought nothing more of it, except, why me? I got my own business to mind to, don’t go snooping into any others. Chicago got homeless services up the wazoo if you know where to look. I saw her around a little after that, hanging with Franco’s crowd, so I figured she found a squat and her street fam would look out for her. They do that, you know, these kids. Family tight as any you could hope for.”
“Franco is the guy who came and got you last night.”
“Franco Stakoviak. Little kid, thinks the fifteen hairs on his chin means he’s growing a beard. He’s one of Riley King’s.”
Once again Avril had hit a nerve. Jo had run into Riley King more than once, the first time because he’d been the one that sent Lexie to her death.
“He’s turning tricks for King?”
“Probably. Or dealing. Or both. He’s a good boy, though. Lily was having a hard time, he said. Wouldn’t go to the hospital. Bleeding. Poor kid thought she was going to die. So I went. What else could I do? Just in time to catch the little worm wiggle its way into the world.” Avril held her huge hands up and looked at them like she was amazed that they’d held a newborn life.
“That’s what I’m saying.” Avril’s voice rose again. “And then… in the ambulance, when they took the baby from her saying they’d take good care of it she says, real soft so I could hardly hear her, she says, ‘Her name is Katja.’ Katja. Who I been worrying about for weeks now. Katja, who works for the LGTBQ center in Uptown. She must have told this girl she could trust me.”
“You said Katja is, um, a transvestite, too?”
“Katja is transgender. Why is it so hard for you people to understand the difference? Transgender is someone born with the standard equipment of one sex who feels they should have been assigned the other model. I, on the other hand, just happen to look damn good dressed as a woman, and not afraid to admit it, thank you very much. Katja had all the upgrades completed over a year ago, and that girl could turn heads, you know what I’m saying?”
“And you think Lily is connected to your friend because she’s a lesbian.”
“Well, she’ll deny it seven ways to Sunday, I’m sure, if you ask her. Claims Franco is her boyfriend, when everyone knows that boy is gay as Truman Capote. He’s her beard, she’s his, if you ask me. It’s plain as the nose on your face, if you don’t mind me using a cliche.”
“I do mind cli— Never mind. How’d Lily end up pregnant then, if she’s into women?”
“If you have to ask that, hon, then it’s time you go back to Junior High sex ed. That’s a question you need to put to her.”
“What makes you think she’ll answer me?”
“Look, I’m here because of Chris, like I told you. Crybaby. He wrong about you? Kid’s got nothing but good to say about you when he writes. So far, I’m getting none of that here, but you helped him and all I’m asking for is the same. If you’re willing.”
And here’s the rub. Jo feels socially awkward around the transvestite. Is this going to be a turn off to readers? Or will they stick with me long enough to see if her feelings change?
Jo closed her eyes. Why was she so resistant? Was it because Avril was trans? Was she really that small-minded? Or was it because finding Katja Larsson reminded her too much of trying to save Lexie, and failing?
“Jo?” Betty’s voice made Jo jerk around. The receptionist was leaning in the doorway, trying hard not to stare at Avril. “Nick says now or never. And Ed’s offering to do the job if you don’t so if you want to keep your byline on this column …”
“Okay, okay, I got it.” Jo turned to Avril. “Look, I’ll go with you. I promise. I’ll talk to her. But you’ve got to give me ten minutes here, or I’m going to be the one looking to make a few bucks on the corner, all right?”
Avril tossed her long hair over one shoulder. “You? Woman, you like to starve working the streets. Ain’t no man gonna pick up a prickly pear like you for enough to buy a cup of coffee.”
She sat back and seemed content to wait, though, and Jo took that as a sign she would, for a while at least.