Chapter 5 – Explanations
Tommy looked at her in bewildered disgust as a street light hummed overhead.
“Oh,” he said flatly. “One of those.”
Dejected at this turn of events, and embarrassed by his apparent lack of judgment, he turned away. She immediately reached up and grabbed his shoulder.
“Don’t walk away from me like that! I’m not a whore!”
He turned back to face her. His countenance softened if only for the fact that she was not afraid of him. From the moment he had met her, she had never acted put off by his appearance, and she was unfazed by the savage capability he had just exhibited.
“Look,” she insisted. “Men don’t usually treat me well, but you tried. When you talked to me before, you weren’t angling, and you really wanted to help me out here. You couldn’t have known any better, but you interrupted something you shouldn’t have.”
He dropped his shoulders in exasperation.
“Just let me finish what I have to say,” she insisted. “I go by Angel, but it’s not my real name. What you came in on is my career, but it’s not my job. I work like anybody else to support myself, and one of the men where I once worked told me I was an angel. He was more honorable than some but still kind of sketchy. I think he was trying to ask me out. For some reason, men call attractive women angels, especially if they’re blonde. It has almost nothing to do with our true character, at least not mine. I’m more like the angel of death.”
“You’re right,” Tommy conceded. “You’re not a whore. You’re crazy.”
“You might not think so if you knew my story. Care to hear it?”
“Why tell me?”
“I don’t know – you’re different. You listen.”
Her manner was direct and uncomplicated, and something told him she was worthy of his patience. Despite the bizarre turn of events, he still wanted to believe in her, so he nodded in assent and sat down on the curb. In one, smooth motion, she crossed one foot over the other, bent at the knees, and sat down next to him.
“You’ve heard of sex workers who are HIV-positive but who never get AIDS, yeah?”
“Sure. In the news, but it’s rare.”
“Very. Well, I’m not a sex worker, and I’m not HIV-positive.”
His forehead wrinkled like that of a little boy trying to solve a math problem.
“This isn’t going anywhere fast.”
“Hang on,” she reassured him. “It’s about to. I’m trying to decide where to start.”
She hesitated then set her jaw resolutely.
“All right. I don’t really want to go there, but the rest might not make sense if I don’t. My mother was an addict. Except for feeding me just often enough and taking care of other minimal responsibilities, she pretty much left me to fend for myself. When I was older, I had to take care of her. She also had a weakness for abusive men, a series of boyfriends. In their own objectionable ways, they liked her, but they liked me more.”
Her mind went back to the memory of waking suddenly in her darkened bedroom with a hand clasped over her mouth. Unaware of exactly what she was thinking but knowing the general content, Tommy closed his eyes.
“Go ahead,” he encouraged. “Stop whenever you want.”
“I was twelve the first time one of them paid me a visit. Mom was passed out, so she didn’t know. I tried to fight, but he was too big and too strong. Since I wasn’t used to it, I didn’t know what was happening at first, but it hurt. I remember feeling defiant and wishing he would die. Less than an hour later, he did.”
“Slow down. How did you know?”
“First, I could hear a door opening. Mine was shut. There was no way I was leaving my room, but I heard him start gasping. Then I heard him fall. I finally worked up enough courage to go out and see what had happened. We lived in government housing, a high rise, and the door to our apartment was open. He was lying face down, mostly in the hall, and he wasn’t breathing. Only his feet were still in the apartment. It felt weird, like a coincidence, but I knew that it had something to do with me, that he’d been punished for what he’d done. Should I go on?”
“Sure. I want to hear how this ends.”
“It hasn’t, and I don’t think it ever will, at least not until I die. Like I said, I don’t know why I’m telling you this when I’ve never told anyone else. Maybe it’s because you didn’t hit on me, maybe because you tried to protect me. You seem trustworthy.”
“Even if I don’t believe you?”
“Maybe I think I can convince you.”
“But why bother? You barely know me.”
She smiled. It was a curiously friendly gesture.
“Okay. I’m tired of men acting like I owe them something because I’m pretty. Please don’t think I’m conceited, but I can tell how they look at me.”
“To quote you from earlier this evening, what has that got to do with anything?”
“Let me finish. So many men ignore us unless they think we’re beautiful. Once they are paying attention, it doesn’t make any difference if we’re actually good at anything. When we succeed, they just say it’s because of our looks.”
“I didn’t mean to obligate you,” Tommy stated emphatically, “and I’m not them. You’ve probably figured out that women don’t normally talk to me – I mean really talk – so I got a lot out of that discussion we had earlier at the coffeehouse.”
“You’re missing the point. So did I. You’re unusual, in a good way, and I guess your opinion matters to me. Changing it might be worth the effort.”
He couldn’t tell if she really was insane, but she was sincere. There was nothing to fear from her except the possibility of wasted time, and he was willing to go on listening.
“Or the risk,” he countered.
“Yeah. That, too. Anyway, I kicked his feet out into the hall and closed the door. Later, a neighbor coming home called the police. They were knocking on doors and asking questions, but I didn’t answer. Our lights were out, and they eventually went away. My mother didn’t come to until after the body had been removed. Because of where we lived, I think they might have thought it was an overdose or something, but I never heard about any investigation or findings. Mom never did find out what happened to her boyfriend, and I wasn’t going to say anything. She thought he’d walked out on her. As far as I was concerned, it was good riddance.”
“Didn’t your neighbors know he was living there?”
“I don’t know. If they did, they must not have talked. It was best not to betray anyone to the police in that building.”
Tommy remained impassive. He was still trying to make up his mind.
“You said that was the first time.”
“Yeah. There were two others before I graduated from high school. My room had become a dangerous place. One died out in the parking lot, another in the apartment. My mother was briefly regarded as a suspect on that occasion, but there wasn’t any evidence to implicate her. They eventually ruled out foul play. A lot of cases went unsolved in that part of town.”
“Speaking of high school,” her listener reasoned, “how did a girl from a housing project prepare for college, let alone pay for it?”
“Did you ever read Emile by Rousseau?”
“I tried, briefly, but it was pretty dry.”
“It is, but there are some good passages. In one, he said that exceptional children aren’t raised. They raise themselves. That was pretty much me. I’m smart, and I worked hard at school. It wasn’t the best, but an English teacher who was good took an interest in me and helped me supplement the curriculum. She gave me extra things to read outside of class. Reading classics was my escape from the project, from the environment in my home. I made good grades, and I worked after school as a waitress to earn some spare money once I was old enough. I kept part of it back from my mom and used it to pay for the ACT test.”
“What was your score?”
“Thirty, but I didn’t study. My teacher recommended taking it, so I did. I didn’t know any better.”
“Way above average,” he commented.
“How would you know that if you didn’t finish high school?”
“I heard it enough in my classes. The faculty and administration were obsessed with standardized testing.”
“My school was kind of the same, only with more problems.”
“So you took the test. Junior year?”
“That’s when people usually first take it,” he commented. “I didn’t have the money or the motivation. I spent a lot of time in detention.”
“Need I ask?”
He raised his hands in surrender.
“Fighting. I managed to get expelled during the first semester of my senior year, but this is about you.”
“Right. So, achievement scholarships were available for Missouri high school students with scores like mine to attend any community college for free. I enrolled in the Saint Louis area – that’s where I lived – and I commuted from home. With my low income, my gender, and my grades, I got a very good transfer scholarship to a local four-year college, and I still worked as a waitress to make up the difference. When I turned twenty-one, I got a job in a bar. That paid better. I managed to graduate without taking out a student loan.”
“Not the studying. I pick things up quickly, and my memory just works. Getting sleep was the challenge because of all the extra hours I worked.”
“Back to the main theme, then, how did this lead to your present, uh, career? I take it there were other assaults.”
“There were – one during the summer between high school and college. It was a neighbor from the projects who was a couple of years older. He’d been watching me for weeks, so he knew my routine – when I got home from school, when I got home from work.”
“How’d you find that out?”
“Oh, I notice everything that goes on around me. Trying to get away didn’t work. He ran me down. I recognized him when it happened, and I heard later that he was found dead in a stairwell in the next building. I know my story sounds strange to you, but back then I didn’t ask why this kept happening to me. I figured it was a consequence of where I lived, that it was happening to other girls, too. It was during college that I began to understand the improbability of my life history.”
“So it happened again?”
“Yeah. During my senior year when I was walking to the bus stop after studying till the library closed. It was a quiet part of campus – deserted, actually. Fifteen minutes sooner or later, and someone might have been close enough to hear me yelling, but I can’t say that with confidence. I was so mad that time that I followed him. He kept turning around and telling me to leave him alone, threatening to hit me, but I just kept after him. I asked him what he was going to do that he hadn’t already done, and that seemed to scare him. I’d already suffered the worst he was prepared to give out, and he tried to run away. That’s when he collapsed.
“When I reached where he was lying, he wheezed out a question about what I’d done to him. I reminded him that he had done something to me. Then he barely whispered, ‘Forgive me.’ I asked him if he was sorry because he had hurt me or because he was dying.”
“You knew he was dying, of course,” Tommy commented sarcastically.
“Of course I knew.”
“What was his answer?”
“There wasn’t one. He stopped breathing. The school’s intranet posted a story about the guy being found dead. It turned out that he was a fellow student but one I didn’t know.”
“You knew the others, then.”
Aware that he was stating the obvious, Tommy winced.
“That’s usually the case. You know, three of my mother’s so-called boyfriends, a neighbor…”
“Until the incident on campus which you never reported.”
“Do you disapprove?”
“It’s not that he didn’t get what he deserved. I’m just asking for the sake of argument. Not that you owed him anything, but could he have been saved if you’d called 9-1-1?”
“An ambulance wouldn’t have arrived soon enough.”
“What if you’d called earlier?”
“What should I have said – that I’m following a guy who’s about to stop breathing? Sure, I expected it to happen, but I couldn’t explain it. Besides, I never called in anything, and I don’t now. I didn’t want to be accused of something I hadn’t done. Do you know how often women get blamed when they come forward? Most rapes aren’t reported. Of those that are, most don’t result in arrest or conviction. There’s a national backlog of untested rape kits. Police are often skeptical, and victims are often vilified by defense attorneys. How do you think I’d have been treated if I’d been forthcoming from the beginning? Who’d believe someone who’s made a claim like that on multiple occasions? Right now, I’m having trouble convincing you.”
Her last questions were rhetorical. Aware that she was not expecting a response, Tommy chose not to interrupt her narrative.
“Anyway, this got me to thinking. Five assaults by five different people couldn’t have been coincidental. I asked myself if I was doing something wrong, or at least unwise, but I decided I wasn’t. My looks brought out the worst in the wrong individuals, and that wasn’t my fault. I dressed modestly. I didn’t send signals. I had no control over where I lived, and it was my mother who brought those men into our apartment. It was the neighbor boy who chose to stalk and attack me. I couldn’t help it if I had to study late and then walk to the bus stop when I was in college. My professor had placed a textbook I couldn’t afford on reserve, and I had a test the next day. By the way, I aced it. It was in ethics. Kind of ironic, yeah?”
“No comment. Keep going.”
“What I had noticed was that my skin gave off a certain sensation every time I was attacked but never otherwise. I finally made the connection. This was my body’s way of defending itself. I must have been giving off some type of poison, so I did a little personal research. A number of animal species are poisonous, some of them producing neurotoxins that cause respiratory arrest. There are frogs that are poisonous to the touch. I know it’s not normal for humans to do that, but I’m sure that’s what happens with me. I’m passing it through unwanted contact with my skin, which is unavoidable during such, you know, circumstances.”
“I think I know what you’re going to say, but how are you protected from what your body produces?”
“Do you know how neurotoxins work when they cause respiratory arrest?”
“A little. It depends on the substance. They work in different ways, and I’m not familiar with all of them. I just did a little reading to satisfy my curiosity.”
“It might be a weird omen given the name on the back of your shirt, but I wanted to know about cobra venom. I was flipping through a science magazine at the public library when I saw an article about it. I wondered how it could work so quickly, so I did an on-line search for more articles.”
Following that comment, Angel’s voice grew more excited.
“Because of the symptoms it causes, that’s one I read up on, too. It’s a protein that binds muscle cell receptors. Acetyl choline made by nerve endings can’t bind the blocked receptors, so the muscle cells stay relaxed for lack of a proper signal. The prey stops breathing. The cobra isn’t affected because its receptors are altered so that its own venom can’t bind them. Something like that must be true about me.”
“Is that what you think you are, a Naga, a cross between a woman and a cobra?”
“No. That’s silly.”
“So what’s with the shirt?”
“Fair warning. I’m biohazardous, toxic.”
“Like a cobra.”
“But I doubt my toxin’s the same. Proteins don’t absorb readily through the skin, do they?”
“Not that I’m aware. Remember, though, you majored in English, and I didn’t major in anything.”
“But we’ve both looked the topic up. I don’t know what I’m making, but it must absorb through the skin rapidly. So it has to be a molecule smaller than a protein. Other neurotoxins such as curare work similarly to cobra venom. Some work differently, like you said. For example, anatoxin-a is made by a certain species of blue-green algae. It binds receptors at neuromuscular junctions to cause permanent muscle contractions. It’s an opposite mechanism that has the same effect. That’s all I remember. I know I must sound like a nerd, but from what I’ve told you about myself, you can see how information like that would stick in my mind. Cobra venom kills in less than half an hour, but it’s injected directly into tissues through the fangs. Mine works a little more slowly.”
“You know, you don’t exactly talk like most people our age.”
“What age is that?”
He cocked his head slightly to one side and sniffed.
“Approximate. You told me the first time we met that you graduated from college a few years ago. That makes us about the same age.”
“Yeah, well I was socially isolated at home and in high school…”
“I’m socially isolated everywhere.”
She put a restraining hand on his arm.
“… and I was a commuter student in college – a loner. I didn’t get many opportunities to pick up speech from my peers, and I honestly wasn’t that interested. I pick up a little here and there, but I learn expressions more from what I read. You don’t exactly talk like people ‘our age’ yourself.”
“I didn’t want to sound like the kids who ostracized me. So you’ve been assaulted several times, and your attackers have all died. How does that get us to the point of you getting mad at me for preventing a gang rape?”
“Like I said. I got to thinking. I’m attractive to men in ways that allow some of them to think they can do whatever they want with me. If they succeed they die, and they’ll never harm anyone again. Remember, I’d been studying for an ethics test before that assault on campus. I made the connection, considered it, and came to a logical conclusion. Not everyone is granted a happy existence, and some are called on to be self-sacrificing for the sake of others. I realized that I’m one of those people. My physiology and my looks have given me a responsibility, an ability to do something that helps others. Every time I’m raped, it means that someone else isn’t, and at least some of my attackers – most, actually – would have done it again. I save other women from having to go through what happens to me. I especially want to eliminate as many serial rapists as I can.”
She paused to give him the opportunity to absorb what she was saying. His expression indicated that he was already ahead of her.
“Now about those guys you just… met. You saw the way they acted – no hesitation at all. Do you think I’m the first woman they’ve accosted?”
“Definitely not,” she lectured. “Do you think I’ll be the last?”
He looked over his shoulder toward the mouth of the alley.
“But I would have been if you hadn’t interfered. From now on, don’t get in the way. I might still be able to fix this.”
Thinking of what to say next, her would-be savior stared down at the asphalt between his feet. This exchange could go in any one of several directions. Was she telling the truth, or was she delusional? Were her descriptions of the deaths of those who had harmed her nothing more than wishful thinking after the fact, and was this self-deception driving her to take unwarranted risks? As evidenced by her behavior and her courage, she was fiercely principled, and her bearing was one of conviction. She deserved fair treatment. Her claims were in need of further scrutiny.
“You said all this happened in Saint Louis. Why bring your act all the way here?”
“My ‘act’ plays just as well here and in a few other places besides. I work a circuit from Saint Louis to Columbia, then to Kansas City, Joplin, Springfield and back to the beginning. It’s been three years, and I’m in the middle of my second lap. Those are all large cities or university towns, and they’re along a triangle of interstates: I-70, I-49, and I-44. That means I can use commercial bus lines to travel. More importantly, they all have the same problem.”
He was unimpressed by this last statement.
“Can you name a place that doesn’t?”
“I mean a chronic and acute problem,” she corrected herself.
“How do you define that?”
Her tone was indignant.
“In the media, words fly back and forth about hidden agendas and the accuracy of statistics. My litmus test is more practical. Wherever you see posters and ads announcing counseling services for victims of sexual assault, that community has a chronic and acute problem. Law enforcement agencies in each place I go keep monthly or annual statistics on the number of sexual assaults in their jurisdictions. In Joplin and Columbia, the range is from about ten to seventy, depending on the year. But for Springfield, Kansas City, and Saint Louis, the numbers are over two-hundred – more than three-hundred for Saint Louis, and they break it down by neighborhood. Those are just the ones the police know about. For reasons I already gave you, most go unreported.”
“Alright. You’ve told me how you kill, but how do you live?”
“First of all, I’ve never killed anyone. They kill themselves by attacking me. With my looks and job experience, I’ve always been able to find work in restaurants and bars. I make just enough to live on while I hunt. I rent affordable accommodations if I have the money. If not, I find a women’s shelter. I walk to get around, or I use public transportation when it’s available. I’ve never been in a car. That may sound hard to believe, but I have no friends and little in the way of capital. Cabs are too expensive. When I build up sufficient resources, and when things slow down – or when I get injured – I move on.”
“Since you brought that last item up,” Tommy countered, “here’s the main reason I’m having trouble believing you. You have such perfect skin.”
“Oh, please,” she countered. “I thought you were different.”
He rolled up his shirt to display his torso. Even in the poor lighting, it was obvious that his front and back were covered with scars. Small and round, thin and elongated, they marred the patchwork of his pigmentation.
“I know the signs of repeated abuse,” he challenged. “These are mine. Where are yours?”