Pretty Little Parasite by David Corbett, short story book cover artwork

“Pretty Little Parasite” by David Corbett

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Casino tips aren’t enough to support Sam Pitney’s new life, so she begins a new career that is as lucrative as it is criminal. Sam is a natural, careful, professional. That is, until she falls for her newest client. Certain she’s come to know everything about him, Sam lets her guard down only to discover the man she’s grown so fond of never really existed.

About the Author
David Corbett, a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest, is the author of five novels (including 2015’s The Mercy of the Night), the story collection Thirteen Confessions, and the writing guide The Art of Character. Patrick Anderson (Washington Post) described Done for a Dime as “one of the three or four best American crime novels I’ve ever read.” George Pelecanos remarked, “Corbett, like Robert Stone and Graham Greene before him, is crafting important, immensely thrilling books.”
Pretty Little Parasite

One hand on her hip, the other lofting her cocktail tray, Sam Pitney scanned the gaming floor from the Roundup’s mezzanine, dressed in her cowgirl outfit and fresh from a bracing toot in the ladies.

Stream-of-nothingness mode, mid-shift, slow night, only the blow keeping her vertical—with this odd craving for some stir-fry—she stared out at the flagging crowd and manically finger-brushed the outcrop of blond bangs showing beneath her tipped-back hat.

Maybe it was seeing her own reflection fragmented in dozens of angled mirrors to the left and right and even overhead, or the sight of the usual trudge of losers wandering the noisy maze-like neon, clutching change buckets, chip trays, chain-smoking (still legal, this was the `80s), hoping for one good score to recoup a little dignity—whatever the reason, she found herself revisiting a TV program from a few nights back, about Auschwitz, Dachau, one of those places. Men and women and children and even poor helpless babies cradled by their mothers, stripped naked then marched into giant shower rooms, only to notice too late—doors slamming, bolts thrown, gas soon hissing from the showerheads: a smell like almonds, the voice on the program said.

Sam found herself wondering—no particular reason—what it would be like if the doors to the casino suddenly rumbled shut, trapping everybody inside.

For a moment or two, she supposed, no one would even notice, gamblers being what they are. But soon enough word would ripple through the crowd, especially when the fire sprinklers in the ceiling started to mist. Even then, people would be puzzled and vaguely put out but not frightened, not until somebody nearby started gagging, buckled over, a barking cough, the scalding phlegm, a slime of blood in the palm.

Then panic, the rush for the doors. Screaming. Animal terror.

Sam wondered where she’d get found when they finally re-opened the doors to deal with the dead.

Would she be one of those with bloody nails or, worse, fingers worn down to gory bone, having tried to claw her way past so many others to sniff at an air vent, a door crack, ready to kill for just one more breath?

Or would she be one of the others, one of those they found alone, having caught on quick and then surrendered, figuring she was screwed, knowing it in the pit of her soul, curled up on the floor, waiting for God or Mommy or Satan or who-the-fuck-ever to put an end to the tedious phony bullshit, the nerves and the worry and the always being tired, the lonely winner-takes-all, the grand American nothing . . .

“Could I possibly have another whiskey and ginger, luv?”

Sam snapped toward the voice—the accent crisply British once, now blurred by years among the Vegas gypsies. It came from a face of singular unlucky pallor: high brow with a froth of chestnut hair, flat bloodless lips, no chin to speak of.

The Roundup sat just east of Las Vegas Boulevard on Fremont, closer to the LVPD Metro tower than the tonier downtown houses—the Four Queens, the Golden Nugget—catering to whoever showed up first and stayed longest, cheap tourists mostly, dopes who’d just stumbled out of the drunk tank and felt lucky (figure that one out)—or, most inexplicably, locals, the transplant kind especially, the ones who went on and on about old Las Vegas, which meant goofs like this bird.

What was his name? Harvey, Harold, something with an H. He taught at UNLV if she remembered right, came here three nights a week at least, often more, said it was for the nostalgia . . .

“You are on the clock, my dear, am I right?”

She gazed into his soupy green eyes. Centuries of inbreeding. Hail, Brittania.

“I’m pregnant,” she said.

Come midnight she began looking for Mike, and found him off by himself in the dollar slots, an odd little nook where there were fewer mirrors, and the eye in the sky had a less than perfect angle (he thought of these things). He wore white linen slacks, a pastel tee, the sleeves of his sport jacket rolled up. All Sonny Crockett, the dick.

“Hey,” she said, coming up.

He shot her a vaguely proprietary smile. His eyes looked wrecked but his hair was flawless. He said, “The usual?”

“No, weekend coming up. Make it two.”

The smile thawed, till it seemed almost friendly. “Double your pleasure.”

She clipped off to the bar, ordered a Stoli rocks twist, discreetly assembling the twelve twenties on her tray in a tight thin stack. The casino’s monotonous racket jangled all around, same at midnight as happy hour—the eternal now, she thought, Vegas time.

Returning to where he sat, she bowed at the waist, so he could reach the tray. He carefully set a five down, under which he’d tucked two wax-paper bindles. Then he collected the twelve twenties off her tray, as though they were his change, and she remembered the last time they were together, in her bed, the faraway look he got afterwards, not wanting to be touched, the kind of thing guys did when they’d had enough of you.

“Whoever you get this from,” she said, “I want to meet him.”

From the look on his face, you would’ve thought she’d asked for the money back. “Come again?”

“You heard me.”

He cocked his head. The hair didn’t budge. “I’m not sure I like your attitude.”

She broke the news. In the span of only a second or so, his expression went from stunned to deflated to distinctly pissed, then: “You saying it’s mine?”

She rolled her eyes. “No. An angel came to me.”

“Don’t get smart.”

“Oh, smart’s exactly what I’m going for, believe me.”

“Okay then, take care of it.”

With those few words, she got a picture of his ideal woman—a collie in heat, basically, but with fewer scruples. Lay out a few lines, bend her over the sofa—then a few weeks later, tell her to take care of it.

“Sorry,” she said. “Not gonna happen.”

He chuckled acidly. “Since when are you maternal?”

“Don’t think you know me. We fucked, that’s it.”

“You’re shaking me down.”

“I’m filling you in. But yeah, I could make this a problem. Instead, I’m trying to do the right thing. For everybody. But I’m not gonna be able to work here much longer, understand? This ain’t about you, it’s about money. Introduce me to your guy.”

He thought about it, and as he did his lips curled into a grin. The eyes were still scared though. “Who says it’s a guy?”

A twinge lit up her lower back. Get used to it, she thought. “Don’t push me, Mike. I’m a woman scorned, with a muffin in the oven.” She did a quick pivot and headed off. Over her shoulder, she added, “I’m off at two. Set it up.”

It didn’t happen that night, as it turned out, and that didn’t surprise her. What did surprise her was that it happened only two nights later, and she didn’t have to hound him half as bad as she’d expected—more surprising still, he hadn’t been jiving: It really wasn’t a guy.

Her name was Claudia, a Cuban, maybe fifty, could pass for forty, calm dark eyes that waxed and waned between cordial welcome and cold appraisal—a tiny woman, raven-black hair coiled tight into a long braid, body as sleek as a razor, sheathed in a simple black dress. She lived in one of the newer condos at the other end of Fremont, near Sahara, where it turned into Boulder Highway.

Claudia showed them in, dead-bolted the door, offered a cool muscular hand to Sam with a nod, then gestured everyone into the living room: suede furniture, Navajo rugs, ferns. Two fluffed and imperial Persian cats nestled near the window on matching cushions. Across the room, a mobile of tiny tin birds, dozens of them, all painted bright tropical colors, hung from the ceiling. Thing must torment the cats, Sam thought, glancing up as she tucked her skirt against her thighs.

“Like I said before,” Mike began, addressing Claudia, “I think this is a bogue idea, but you said okay, so here we are.”

Sam resisted an urge to storm over, take two fistfuls of that pampered hair, and rip it out by the roots. She turned to the woman. “Can we talk alone?”

“That doesn’t work for me,” Mike said.

With the grace of a model, Claudia slowly pivoted toward him. “I think it’s for the best.” For the sake of his pride, she added, “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

That was that. He sulked off to the patio, the two women talked. It didn’t take long for Sam to explain her situation, lay out her plan, make it clear she wasn’t being flaky or impulsive. She’d thought it through—she didn’t want to get even, pick off Mike’s customers, nothing like that. “I don’t want to hand my baby off to daycare, some stranger. I want to be there. At home.”

Claudia eyed her, saying nothing, for what seemed an eternity. Don’t look away, Sam told herself. Accept the scrutiny, know your role. But don’t act scared.

“There are those,” Claudia said finally, “who would find what you just said very peculiar.” Her smile seemed a kind of warning, and yet it wasn’t without warmth. “I’m sure you realize that.”

“I do. But I think you understand.”

It turned out she understood only too well—she had a son, Marco, eleven years old, away at boarding school in Seville. “I miss him terribly.” She made a sawing motion. “Like someone cut off my arm.”

“Why don’t you have him here, with you?”

For the first time, Claudia looked away. Her face darkened. “Mothers make sacrifices. It’s not all about staying home with the baby.”

Sam felt backward, foolish, hopelessly American. Behold the future, she thought, ten years down the road, doing this, and your kid is where? In the corner of her eye, she saw one of the cats rise sleepily and arch its back. Out on the patio, Mike sat in the moonlight, a sudden red glow as he dragged on his cigarette.

Claudia steered the conversation to terms: Sam would start off buying ounces at two thousand dollars each, which she would divide into grams and eightballs for sale. If things went well, she could move up to a QP—quarter pound—at $7800, build her clientele. She might well plateau at that point, many did. If she was ambitious, though, she could move up to an elbow—for “lb,” meaning a pound—with the tacit agreement she would not interfere with Claudia’s wholesale trade.

“I want you to look me in the eye, Samantha. Good. Do not confuse my sympathy for weakness. I’m generous by nature. That doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I have men who take care of certain matters for me, men not at all like our friend out there.” She nodded toward Mike all alone on the moonlit patio. “These men, you will never meet them unless it comes to that. And if it does, the time will have passed for you to say or do anything to help yourself. I trust I’m clear.”

The first and oddest thing? She lost five pounds. God, she thought, what have I done? She checked her sheets for blood, then ran to Valley Medical, no appointment, demanded to see her ob-gyn. The receptionist—sagging desert face, kinky gray perm—shot her one of those knowing, gallingly sympathetic looks you never really live down.

“Your body thinks you’ve got a parasite, dear,” the woman said. “Just keep eating.”

She did, and she stunned herself, how quickly her habits turned healthy. No more coke, ditto booze—instead a passion for bananas (craving potassium), an obsession with yogurt (good for bone mass, the immune system, the intestinal lining), a sudden interest in whole grains (to keep her regular), citrus (for iron absorption), even liver (prevent anemia). She took to grazing, little meals here and there, to keep the nausea at bay, and when her appetite craved more she turned to her newfound favorite: stir-fry.

She continued working for three months, time enough to groom a clientele—fellow casino rats (her old quitting-time buddies, basically, and their buddies), a few select customers from the Roundup (including, strangely enough, Harry the homely Brit, who came from Manchester, she learned, taught mechanical engineering, vacationed in Cabo most winters, not half the schmuck she’d pegged him for), plus a few locals she decided to trust (the girls at Diva’s Hair-and-Nail, the boys at Monte Carlo Tanning Salon, a locksmith named Nick Perino, had a shop just up Fremont Street, total card, used to host a midnight movie show in town)—all of this happening in the shadow of the Metro tower on Stewart Street, all those cops just four blocks away.

Business was brisk. She got current on her bills, socked away a few grand. At sixteen weeks her stomach popped out, like she’d suddenly inflated, and that was the end of cocktail shift. Sam bid it goodbye with no regrets, the red pleated dress, the cowboy hat, the tasseled boots.

From that point forward, she conducted business where she pleased, permitting a trustworthy inner circle to come to her place, the others she met out and about, merrily invisible in her maternity clothes.

The birth was strangely easy, two-hour labor, a snap by most standards, and Sam shed twenty pounds before heading home. The best thing about seeing it go was no longer having to endure strangers—older women especially, riding with her in elevators or standing in line at the store—who would notice the tight globe of her late-term belly and instinctively reach out, stroke the shuddering roundness, cooing in a helpless, mysterious, covetous way that almost rekindled Sam’s childhood fear of witches.

As for the last of the weight gain, it all seemed to settle in her chest—first time in her life, she had cleavage. This little girl’s been good to you all over, Sam thought—her skin shone, her eyes glowed, she looked happy. Guys seemed to notice, clients especially, but she made sure to keep it all professional: So much as hint at sex with coke in the room, next thing you knew the guy’d be eyeing your muff like it was veal.

Besides, the interest on her end had vanished. Curiously, that didn’t faze her. Whatever it was she’d once craved from her lovers she now got from Natalie, feeling it strongest when she nursed, enjoying something she’d secretly thought didn’t exist—the kind of fierce unshakeable oneness she’d always thought was just Hollywood. Now she knew better. The crimped pink face, the curled doughy hands, the wispy black strands of impossibly fine hair: “Look at you,” she’d whisper, over and over and over.

By the end of two months, she’d pitched all her old clothes, not just the maternity duds. Some old habits got the heave-ho as well: the trashy attitude, slutty speech, negative turns of mind.

Nor would the apartment do anymore—too dark, too small, too blah. The little one deserves better, she told herself, as does her mother. Besides, maybe someone had noticed all the in and out, the visitors night and day. Half paranoia, half healthy faith in who she’d become, she upscaled to a three-bedroom out on Boulder Highway, furnished it in suede, added ferns. She bought two cats.

Nick Perino sat alone in an interview room in the Stewart Street Tower—dull yellow walls, scuffed black linoleum, humming fluorescent light—tapping his thumbs together and cracking his neck as he waited. Finally the door opened, and he tried to muster some advantage, assert control, by challenging the man who entered with, “I don’t know you.”

The newcomer ignored him, tossing a manila folder onto the table as he drew back his chair to sit. He was in his thirties, shaggy hair, wiry build, dressed in a Runnin’ Rebels T-shirt and faded jeans. Something about him said one-time jock. Something else said unmitigated prick.

Looking bored, he opened the file, began leafing through the pages, sipping from a paper cup of steaming black coffee so vile Nick could smell it across the table.

Nick said, “I’m used to dealing with Detective Naughton.”

The guy sniffed, chuckling at something he read, suntanned laugh lines fanning out at his eyes. “Yeah, well, he’s been rotated out to Traffic. You witness a nasty accident, Mike’s your man. But that’s not why you’re here, is it Mr. Perry?”

“Perino.”

The cop glanced up finally. His eyes were scary blue and so bloodshot they looked on fire. Another sniff. “Right. Forgive me.”

“Some kind of cold you got there. Must be the air-conditioning.”

“It’s allergies, actually.”

Nick chuckled. Allergic to sleep, maybe. “Speaking of names, you got one?”

“Thornton.” He whipped back another page. “Chief calls me James, friends call me Jimmy. You can call me sir.”

Nick stood up. He wasn’t going to take this, not from some slacker narc half in the bag. “I came here to do you guys a favor.”

Still picking through the file, Jimmy Thornton said, “Sit back down, Mr. Perry.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I said—sit down.”

“You think you’re talking to some fart-fuck asshole?”

Finally, the cop closed the file. Removing a ballpoint pen from his hip pocket, he began thumbing the plunger manically. “I know who I’m talking to. Mike paints a pretty vivid picture.” He nudged the folder across the table. “Want a peek?”

Despite himself, Nick recoiled a little. “Yeah. Maybe I’ll do that.”

Leaning back in his chair, still clicking the pen, Jimmy Thornton said: “You first blew into town, when was it, ’74? Nick Perry, Chiller Theater, Saturday midnight. Weasled your way into the job, touting all this ‘network experience’ back east.”

Nick shrugged. “Everybody lies on his resume.”

“Not everybody.”

“My grandfather came over from Sicily, Perino was the family name. Ellis Island, he changed it to Perry. I just changed it back.”

“Yeah, but not till you went to work for Johnny T.”

Nick could feel the blood drain from his face. “What are you getting at?”

The cop’s smile turned poisonous. “Know what Johnny said about you? You’re the only guy in Vegas ever added a vowel to the end of his name. Him and his brother, saw you coming at the San Genero Festival, they couldn’t run the other way fast enough, even when you worked for them. Worst case of wanna-be-wiseguy they’d ever seen.”

Finally, Nick sat back down. “You heard this how? Johnny doesn’t, like—”

“Know you were the snitch? Can’t answer that. I mean, he probably suspects.”

Nick had been a CI in a state case against the Tintoretto brothers for prostitution and drugs, all run through their massage parlor out on Flamingo. Nick remained unidentified during trial, the case made on wiretaps. It seemed a wise play at the time—get down first, tell the story his way, cut a deal, before the roof caved in. He was working as the manager there, only job he could find in town after getting canned at the station—a nigger joke, pussy in the punch line, didn’t know he was on the air.

“All the employees got a pass,” Nick said, “not just me. Johnny couldn’t know for sure unless you guys told him.”

“Relax.” Another punctuating sniff. “Nobody around here told him squat. We keep our promises, Mr. Perry.”

Nick snorted. “Not from where I sit.”

“Excuse me?” The guy leaned in. “Mike bent over backwards for you, pal. Set you up, perfect location, right downtown. Felons aren’t supposed to be locksmiths.”

“Most of that stuff on my sheet was out of state. And it got expunged.”

A chuckle: “Now there’s a word.”

“Vacated, sealed, whatever.”

“Because Mike took care of it. And how do you repay him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Every time business gets slow, you send that fat freak you call a nephew out to the apartments off Maryland Parkway—middle of the night, spray can of Super Glue, gum up a couple hundred locks. You can bank on at least a third of the calls, given your location—think we don’t know this?”

“Who you talking to, Mike Lally over at All-Night Lock’n’Key? You wanna hammer a crook, there’s your guy, not me.”

“Doesn’t have thirty-two grand in liens from the Tax Commission on his business, though, does he?”

Nick blanched. They already knew. They knew everything. “I got screwed by my bookkeeper. Look, I came here with information. You wanna hear it or not?”

“In exchange for getting the Tax Commission off your neck.”

“Before they shut me down, yeah. That asking so much?”

Jimmy Thornton opened the manila folder to the last page, clicked his pen one final time, and prepared to write. “That depends.”

Sam sat in the shade at the playground two blocks from her apartment, listening to Nick go on. He’d just put in new locks at her apartment—she changed them every few weeks now, just being careful—and, stopping here to drop off the new keys, he’d sat down on the bench beside her, launching in, some character named Jimmy.

“He’s a stand-up guy,” Nick said. “Looker, too. You’ll like him.”

“You pitching him as a customer, or a date?”

Nick raised his hands, a coy smile, “All things are possible,” inflecting the words with that paisano thing he fell into sometimes.

Natalie slept in her stroller, exhausted from an hour on the swings, the slide, the merry-go-round. Sam wondered about that, whether it was really good for kids to indulge that giddy instinct for dizziness. Where did it lead?

“Tell me again how you met this guy.”

“He wanted a wall safe, I installed it for him.”

She squinted in the sun, shaded her eyes. “What’s he need a wall safe for?”

“That’s not a question I ask. You want, I provide. That’s business, as you well know.”

She suffered him a thin smile. With the gradual expansion of her clientele—no one but referrals, but even so her base had almost doubled—she’d watched herself pulling back from people, even old friends, a protective, judicious remove. And that was lonely-making.

Worse, she’d gotten used to it, and that seemed a kind of living death. The only grace was Natalie, but even there, the oneness she’d felt those first incredible months, that had changed as well. She still adored the girl, loved her to pieces, that wasn’t the issue. Little girls grow up, their mothers get lonely, where’s the mystery? She just hadn’t expected it to start so soon.

“He’s a contractor,” Nick went on, “works down in Henderson. I saw the blueprints and, you know, stuff in his place when I was there. Look, you don’t need the trade, forget about it. But I thought, I dunno, maybe you’d like the guy.”

“I don’t need to like him.”

“I meant ‘like’ as in ‘do business’.”

Sam checked the stroller. Natalie had her thumb in her mouth, eyes closed, her free hand balled into a fist beneath her chin.

“You know how this works,” Sam said. “He causes trouble, anything at all—I mean this, Nick—anything at all comes back at me, it’s on you, not just him.”

They met at the Elephant Walk, and it turned out Nick was right, the guy turned heads—an easy grace, cowboy shoulders, lady-killer smile. He ordered Johnny Walker Black with a splash, and Sam remembered, from her days working cocktail, judging men by their drinks. He’d ordered wisely.

And yet there were signs—a jitter in the hands, a slight head tic, the red in those killer blue eyes. Then again, if she worried that her customers looked like users, who would she sell to?

“Nick says you’re a contractor.”

He shook his head. “Project manager.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Sometimes. Not often enough.” He laughed and the laugh was self-effacing, one more winning trait. “I buy materials, hire the subs, make sure the bonds are current and we’re all on time. But the contractor’s the one with his license on the line.”

“Sounds demanding.”

“Everything’s demanding. If it means anything.”

She liked that answer. “And to relax, you . . . ?”

He shrugged. “I’ve got a bike, a Triumph, old bandit 350, gathering dust in my garage.” Another self-effacing smile. “Amazing how boring you can sound when stuff like that comes out.”

Not boring, she thought. Just normal. “Ever been married?”

A fierce little jolt shot through him. “Once. Yeah. Highschool sweetheart kind of thing. Didn’t work out.”

She got the hint, and steered the conversation off in a different direction. They talked about Nick, the stories they’d heard him tell about his TV days, wondering which ones to believe. Sam asked about how the two men had met, got the same story she’d heard from Nick, embellished a little, not too much. Things were, basically, checking out.

Sensing it was time, she signaled the bartender to settle up. “Well, it’s been very nice meeting you, Jimmy. I have to get home. The sitter awaits, with the princess.”

“Nick told me. Natalie, right? Have any pictures?”

She liked it when men asked to see pictures. It said something. She took out her wallet, opened it to the snapshots.

“How old?”

“Fifteen months. Just.”

“She’s got her mother’s eyes.”

“She’s got more than that, sadly.”

“No. Good for her.” He returned her wallet, hand not trembling now. Maybe it was the scotch, maybe the conversation. “She’s a beauty. Changed your life, I’ll bet.”

Yes, Sam thought, that she has. Maybe we’ll talk about that sometime. Next time. “Have kids?”

Very subtly, his eyes hazed. “Me? No. Didn’t get that far, which is probably for the best. Got some nephews and nieces, that’s it for now.”

“Uncle Jimmy.”

He rattled the ice in his glass, traveled somewhere with his thoughts. “I like kids. Want kids. My turn’ll come.” Then, brightening suddenly: “I’d be up for a play date some time, with Natalie. I mean, if that doesn’t sound too weird.”

That’s how it started, same playground near the apartment. And he hadn’t lied, he hit it off with Natalie at first sight—stunning, really. He was a natural, carrying her on his shoulders to the park, guiding her up the stairs to the slide, taking it easy on the swing. He had Sam cradle her in her lap on the merry-go-round, spun them both around in the sun-streaked shade. Natalie shrieked, Sam laughed; it was that kind of afternoon.

They brought Natalie home, put her down for her nap, then sat on the porch with drinks—the usual for him, Chablis for her. The sun beat down on the freshly watered lawn, a hot desert wind rustling the leaves of the imported elm trees.

Surveying the grounds, he said, “Nice place. Mind if I ask your monthly nut?”

“Frankly?”

He chuckled. “Sorry. Professional curiosity. I was just doing the math in my head, tallying costs, wondering what kind of return the developer’s getting.”

She smiled wanly. “I don’t like to think about it.” That seemed as good a way as any to change the subject. “So, Nick says you wanted to ask me something.”

Suddenly, he looked awkward, a hint of a blush. It suited him.

“Well, yeah. I suppose . . . You know. Sometimes . . .” He gestured vaguely.

She said, “Don’t make me say it for you.”

He cleared his throat. “I could maybe use an eightball. Sure.”

There, she thought. Was that so hard? “Let’s say a gram. I don’t know you.”

“How about two?”

It was still below the threshold for a special felony, which an eightball, at 3.5 grams, wasn’t. “Two-forty, no credit.”

“No friend-of-a-friend discount?”

“Nick told you there would be?”

“No, I just—”

“There isn’t. There won’t be.”

He raised his hands, surrender. “Okay.” He reached into his hip pocket for his wallet. “Mind if I take a shot while I’m here?”

She collected her glass, rose from her chair. “I’d prefer it, actually. Come on inside.” She gestured for him to have a seat on the couch, disappeared into her bedroom, and returned with the coke, delivering the two grams with a mirror, a razor blade, a straw.

As always, a stranger in the house, one of the cats sat in the corner, blinking. The other hid. Sam watched as Jimmy chopped up the lines, an old hand. He hoovered the first, offered her the mirror. She declined. He leaned back down, finished up, tugged at his nose.

“That’s nice,” he said, collecting the last few grains on his finger, rubbing it into his gums. When his hand came away, it left a smile behind. “I’m guessing Mannitol. I mean, you’ve got it around, right?”

Sam took a sip of her wine. He was referring to a baby laxative commonly used as a cutting agent. Cooly, she said, “Let a girl have her secrets.”

He nodded. “Sorry. That was out of line.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She toddled her glass. “So—will there be anything else?”

She didn’t mean to sound coy, but even so she inwardly cringed as she heard the words out loud. The way he looked at her, it was clear he was trying to decipher the signal. And maybe, on some level, she really did mean something.

“No,” he said. “I think that’s it. Mind if I take one last look before I leave?”

And so that’s how they wrapped it up, standing in the doorway to Natalie’s room, watching her sleep.

“Such a pretty little creature,” he whispered. “Gotta confess, I’m jealous.”

Back in his car, Jimmy horned the rest of the first gram, then drove to the Roundup, a little recon, putting faces to names, customers of Sam’s that Nick had told him about: card dealers, waitresses, a gambler named Harry Thune, homely Brit, the usual ghastly teeth.

After that, he drove to the strip mall on Charleston where the undercover unit had its off-site location, an anonymous set of offices with blinds drawn, a sign on the door reading “Halliwell Partners, Ltd.”

He logged in, parked at his desk, and wrote up his report: the purchase of one gram Cocaine HCL, field tested positive with Scott reagent—blue, pink, then blue with pink separation in successive ampoules after agitation—said gram supplied by Samantha Pitney, White Female Adult.

He invented an encounter far more fitting with department guidelines than the one that had taken place, wrote it out, signed it, then drove to Metro tower, walked in the back entrance, and delivered the report to his sergeant, an old hand named Becker, who sent Jimmy on to log the gram into evidence. Jimmy said hey to the secretaries on his way through the building, went back to his car, moved $120 from his personal wallet to his buy wallet to cover the gram he’d pilfered, then planned his next step.

The following two buys were the same, two grams, and she seemed to grow more comfortable. He got bumped up to an eightball, and not long after that he rose to two. He always took a taste right there at the apartment, while they were talking, one of the perks of the job.

Later, he’d either log it in as-is, claiming the shortage had been used for field-testing, or he’d pocket the light one, chop it up into grams, then drive to Henderson—or, on weekends, all the way to Laughlin—work the bars, a little business for himself, cover his costs, a few like minds, deputies he knew.

He found himself oddly divided on Sam. You could see she’d tried to cultivate an aura: the wry feminine reserve, the earth tones, all the talk about yoga and studying for her real estate license. Maybe it was motherhood, all that scrubbed civility, trying to be somebody. Then again, maybe it was cokehead pretence.

Regardless, little things tripped her up, those selfless moments, more and more frequent, when she let him see behind the mask. Trouble was, from what he could tell, the mask had more to offer.

He’d nailed a witness or two in his time, never a smooth move, but nothing compared to bedding a suspect. As fluid as things had become morally since he’d started working undercover, he’d never lost track of that particular red line. That didn’t mean he didn’t entertain the thought—throwing her over his shoulder, carrying her into her room, dropping her onto the bed, watching her hair unfurl from the soft thudding impact.

Would she try to fight him off—no, that would just be part of the dance. Soon enough she’d draw him down, a winsome smile, hands clasped behind his neck, a few quick nibbles in her kiss, now and then a good firm bite. And was she one of those who showed you around the castle—how hard to pinch the nipples, how many fingers inside, the hand clasped across her mouth as she came—or would she want you to find all that out for yourself? Playing coy, demure, wanting you to take command, maybe even scare her. How deep would she like it, how slow, how rough? Would she come in rolling pulses, or one big back-arching slam?

Then again, of course, there was Natalie. Truth be told, she was the one who’d stolen his heart. And it was clear her poor deluded mother loved her, but love’s not enough—never is, never has been.

He remembered Sam asking, in their first face-to-face, about his marriage, about kids. You’re not a cop till your first divorce, he thought, go through the custody horseshit. Lose. Bobby was his name. Seven years old now. Somewhere.

When he found himself thinking like that, he also found himself developing a mean thirst. And when he drank, he liked a whiff, to steady the ride, ice it. And so soon he’d be back at Ms. Pitney’s door, repeating the whole sad process, telling himself the same wrong stories, wanting everything he had no right to.

Six weeks into things, he asked, “What made you get into this business anyway?”

She was sitting on the sofa, legs tucked beneath her, wearing a new perfume. From the look on her face, you would’ve thought he’d spat on the floor. “No offense, but that came out sounding ugly.”

He razored away at three chalky lines. “Didn’t mean it that way. Sorry.”

She thought about it for a moment, searching the ceiling with her eyes. “The truth? I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.”

He had to check himself, to keep from laughing, and yet he could see it. So her, thinking that way. “Why not marry the father?”

Again, she took her time before answering, but this time she didn’t scour the ceiling, she gazed into his face.

Admittedly, he was a little ragged: His mouth was dry, his eyes were jigging up and down, his pupils were bloated. And his hands, yeah, a mild but noticeable case of the shakes.

“Some men are meant to be fathers,” she said. “Some men aren’t.”

Sam let one of the Claudia’s Persians settle in her lap, pressing her skirt with its paws. The other cat lay in its usual spot, on the cushion by the window, lolling in the sun. Natalie sat in her stroller, gumming an apple slice, while Claudia attended her ferns, using a tea kettle for a watering can.

“I usually charge thirty, which is already low, but I’d trim a little more, say twenty-eight.” She was talking in thousands of dollars, the price for a pound—or an elbow, in the parlance.

“That’s still a little steep for me.”

“You could cut your visits here by half. More.”

“Is that a problem?” Secretly, Sam loved coming here. She thought of it as Visiting Mother.

Over her shoulder, Claudia said, “You know what I mean.”

“Maybe I’ll ratchet up another QP. I don’t want any more than that in the house.” Claudia bent to reach a pot on the floor. “The point is to get it out of the house.”

Well duh, Sam thought, feeling judged, a headache looming like a thunderhead just behind her eyes. She was getting them more and more. “There’s something else I’d like to talk over, actually. It’s about Natalie.”

Claudia stopped short. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Not yet. I mean, there’s nothing to worry about. But if anything ever happened to me, I don’t know who would take care of her.”

A disagreeable expression crossed Claudia’s face, part disdain, part calculation, part suspicion. “You have family.”

“Not local. And not that I trust, frankly.”

“What exactly are you asking?”

“I was wondering if she could stay with you. If anything ever happened, I mean.”

Claudia put the tea kettle down and came over to a nearby chair, crossing her legs as she sat. “Have you noticed any cars following you lately?”

“It’s not like that.”

“Any new neighbors?”

“That wasn’t what I meant. I meant if I got sick, or was in a car accident.” She glanced over at Natalie. The apple slice was nubby and brown, and both it and her fingers were glazed with saliva.

Claudia said, “I couldn’t just walk in, take your child. Good Lord.”

Her voice rippled, a blast of heat. Sam said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“A dozen agencies would be involved, imagine the questions.” She rose from her chair, straightened her skirt, shot a toxic glance at Natalie that said: Your mother can’t protect you. “Now what quantity are you here for? I have things to do.”

Sergeant Becker called Jimmy in, told him to close the door. He was a big man, the kind who could lord over you even sitting down. “This Pitney thing, I’ve gone over the reports.” He picked up a pencil, drummed it against his blotter. “Your buys are light.”

He stared into Jimmy’s whirling eyes. Jimmy did his best to stare right back.

“I’m a gentleman. I always offer the lady a taste.”

“She needs to sample her own coke?”

“Not sampling, indulging. And there’s always some lost in the field test.”

“Think a jury will buy that? Think I buy that?”

“You want me to piss in a cup?”

Becker pretended to think about that, then leaned forward, lowering his voice. “No. That’s what I most definitely do not want you to do. Look, I’ll stand up for you, but it’s time you cleaned house. You need some time, we’ll work it out. There’s a program, six weeks, over in Bullhead City, you can use an assumed name. It’s the best deal you’re gonna get. In the meantime, wrap this up. You’ve got your case, close it out.”

Jimmy felt a surge of bile boiling in his stomach—at the thought of rehab, sure, the shame of it, the tedium, but not just that. “Like when?”

“Like now.” Becker’s whole face said: Look at yourself. “Why wait?”

Jimmy pictured Sam in her sundress, face raised to the light, hand in her hair. Moisture pooling in the hollow of her throat. Lipstick glistening in the heat.

He said, “There’s a kid involved.”

Becker stood up behind his desk. They were done. “Get CPS involved, that’s what they’re there for. Make the calls, do the paperwork, get it over with.”

“For chrissake, don’t over-think it. Sounds like the last nice guy in Vegas.”

It was Mandy talking, Sam’s old best friend at the Roundup. She’d stopped by on her way to work, a gram for the shift, and now was lingering, shoes off, stocking feet on the coffee table, toes jigging in their sheer cocoon. They were watching Natalie play, noticing how her focus lasered from her ball to her bear, back to the ball, moving on to her always mysterious foot, then a housefly buzzing at the sliding glass door.

“Dating the clientele,” Sam said, “is such a chump move.”

“Rules have exceptions. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be rules.”

Natalie hefted herself onto her feet, staggered to the sliding glass door, reached for the fly—awestruck, gentle.

“He’s got a bit of a problem.” Sam tapped the side of her nose.

“You can clean him up. Woman’s work.”

“I don’t need that kind of project.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how long’s it been since you got laid?”

Admittedly, sometimes when Jimmy was there, Sam felt the old urge uncoiling inside her, slithering around. “To be honest, I do mind you asking.”

They weren’t close anymore, just one of those things. To hide her disappointment, Mandy softly clapped her hands at Natalie. “Hey sweetheart, come on over. Sit with Auntie Man a little while.”

The little girl ignored her, still enchanted by the fly. It careened about the room—ceiling, lamp shade, end table—then whirled back to the sliding glass door, a glossy green spec in a flaring pool of sunlight.

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She can be persnickety.” Sam glanced at the clock. “Don’t take it personally.”

“You think if you let this guy know you were interested, he’d respond?”

Sam felt another headache coming on. Each one seemed worse than the last now. “It’s not an issue.”

“You’re the one playing hard to get, not him.”

Jimmy’s last visit, Sam had almost thrown herself across his lap, wanting to feel his arms around her. Just that. But that was everything, could be everything. “I’ve given him a few openings. Nothing obvious, but since when do you need to be obvious with men?”

Mandy crossed her arms across her midriff, as though suddenly chilled. “Maybe he’s queer.”

Once Mandy was gone, Sam tucked Natalie in for the midday nap with her blue plush piglet, brushing the hair from the little girl’s face to plant a kiss on her brow. Leaving the bedroom door slightly ajar—Natalie would never drop off otherwise—Sam fled to her own room and took a Demerol. The pain was flashing through her sinuses now, even pulsing into her spine.

Noticing the time, she changed into a cinched sleeveless dress, freshened her lipstick, her eyeliner. Jimmy had said he’d stop by, and she still couldn’t quite decide whether to push the ball into his end of the court or abide by her own better instincts and let it go.

Running a mental inventory of his pros and cons, she admitted he was a joy to look at, had a soldier’s good manners, adored Natalie. He was also a flaming cokehead, with the predictable sidekick, a blind thirst.

Those things trended downward in her experience, not a ride she wanted to share. Loneliness is the price you pay for keeping things uncomplicated, she thought, pressing a tissue between her lips.

She heard a shuffle of steps on the walkway out front, but instead of ringing the bell, whoever it was pounded at the door. A voice she didn’t recognize called out her name, then: “Police! Open the door.”

To her shame, she froze. Out of the corner of her eye she saw three men cluster on the patio—shirtsleeves, sunglasses, protective vests—and her mouth turned to dust.

The front door crashed in, brutal shouts of “On the floor!” and shortly she was facedown, being handcuffed, feeling guilty and terrified and stupid and numb while cops thrashed everywhere, asserting claim to every room.

When they pulled her to her feet, it was Jimmy standing there, wearing a vest like the others, his police card hanging by a thong around his neck. The Demerol not having yet kicked in, her head crackled and throbbed with a new burst of pain, and she feared she might hurl right there on the floor.

“Tell us where everything is, and we won’t take the place apart,” he said, regarding her with a look of such contemptuous loathing she actually thought he might spit in her face. And I deserve it, she told herself, how stupid I’ve been, at the same time thinking: Now who’s the creature?

She could smell the scotch on his breath, masked with spearmint. So that’s what it was, she thought, all that time, the drink, the coke. Mr. Sensitive drowning his guilt. Or was even his guilt phony?

She said, “What about Natalie?” In her room, the little girl was mewling, confused, scared.

Jimmy glanced off toward the sound, eyes dull as lead. “She’s a ward of the court now. They’ll farm her out, foster home—”

Sam felt the room close in, a sickly shade of white. “Why are you doing this?”

Almost imperceptibly, he stiffened. A weak smile. “I’m doing this?”

“Why are you being such a prick about it?”

He leaned in. His eyes were electric. “You’re a mother.”

You miserable hypocrite, she thought, trying to muster some disgust of her own, but instead her knees turned liquid. He caught her before she fell, duck-walked her toward the sofa, let her drop—at which point a woman with short sandy hair came out of Natalie’s bedroom, carrying the little girl. Her eyes were puffy with sleep but she was squirming, head swiveling this way and that. She began to cry. Sam shook off her daze, turned to hide the handcuffs, calling out, “Just do what the lady says, baby. I’ll come get you as soon as I can,” but the girl started shrieking, kicking—and then was gone.

“Get a good look?” Jimmy said. “Because that’s the last you’ll see of her.”

He was performing for the other cops, the coward. “You can’t do that.”

“No? Consider it done.”

Sam struggled to her feet. “You can’t . . . No . . . ”

He nudged her back down. She tried to kick him but he pushed her legs aside. Crouching down, he locked them against his body with one arm, his free hand gripping her chin. Voice lowered, eyes fixed on hers—and, finally, she thought she saw something hovering behind the savage bloodshot blue, something other than the arrogance and hate, something haunted, like pity, even love—he whispered, “Listen to me, Sam. I want to help you. But you’ve gotta help me. Understand? Give me a name. It’s that simple. A name and we work this out. I’ll do everything I can, that’s a promise, for you, for Natalie—everything. But you’ve gotta hold up your end. Otherwise . . .”

He let his voice trail away into the nothingness he was offering. For Sam knew where this led, she remembered the words exactly: I have men who take care of certain matters . . . The time will have passed for you to say or do anything to help yourself . . .

And there it was: her daughter or her life, she couldn’t save both. Maybe not today or tomorrow but someday soon, Claudia’s threat would materialize, assuming a face and form but no name—the police would promise protection, but the desert was littered with their failures—and Sam would realize this is it, that pitiless point in time when she would finally know: Which was she? One of those who tried to kick and claw and scream her way out, even though it was hopeless. Or one of those who, seeing there was no escape, calmly said, I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a long, long while.


More stories from David Corbett