Barry Hoffman's HUNGRY EYES

Chapter Twenty Two

Damn that women, Deidre thought, as she plopped into bed. She needed sleep. She hadn't expected a second call from Renee that night.

And she'd muddled through their conversation without gaining any new insight. Or had she? For some reason Renee was now upset that Deidre had spoken with the Sheffields'. Paul will put it all together. Put what together? What might Paul Sheffield know that could lead her to Renee?

Renee hadn't answered her phone earlier. Jonas had confirmed that. When she called earlier it must have been from a phone booth. And now she calls at three in the morning. Stalking. She was out stalking. Roberta Bracken? Everything pointed towards her. She'd have her confirmation soon, she was sure. A tape of her voice. Then the tail. And a final confrontation, this time face to face. "I'm close, Renee. You don't know how close," she said in a whisper, and finally drifted off to sleep.

# # # #

At 6:55 her phone was ringing again, and she fumbled to reach it. Damn you, Renee, she thought, but it was Tony Hill, the Mayor's closest aide.

"Dee, sorry to wake you, but the shit's hit the fan, and we're going to need you."

Deidre tensed. Had Renee struck that night?

" . . . negotiations collapsed . . . strike on our hands . . ."

Deidre focused in. This wasn't about the Vigilante.

"Slow down, Tony. What's going on?"

"I just told you. Negotiations with the municipal unions broke down last night. City workers made good on their threat of a strike. Took us totally by surprise. Shit, we all thought their threats was just posturing for the membership. Threats, deadlines, last-minute talks, a minor breakthrough and then an extension. But, no, first sign of a stalemate, and they say fuck you, you want a strike, you've got one."

"Tony!" Deidre commanded. "Get ahold of yourself and stop talking gibberish. Give me some facts I can work with."

"No garbage collections, that's what you can work with. No collections, and it's supposed to get up past ninety degrees. Do you get my drift? Doesn't matter, by this afternoon, the smell will be wafting across the city.

"Look, I know you're working on the Vigilante killing, but we need you up here to brief the press on our contingency plans. Get down here as fast as you can, and I'll brief you. It's going to be a long day. Bring a change of clothes with you. It might be an all-nighter."

Tony Hill tended to exaggerate, but Deidre had the sinking feeling this day would be lost. The strike was totally unexpected. The Unions had been working without a contract since early in the summer, but progress had been made in negotiations. The sticking point was privatization of trash removal. With the city's fiscal crisis, the Unions could forgo a raise, but privatization meant lost jobs, and this the Unions couldn't accept. With temperature in the nineties for the past five days, now, she imagined the Unions decided to flex their muscles when the city was most vulnerable. She'd remembered other strikes where trash hadn't been collected, and things got ugly. School strikes people could deal with. A minor inconvenience. Even the blue flu by police and firemen could be tolerated. As it was, the police didn't have much of a grip on crime. But, people got their dander up when their trash wasn't collected. The smell was bad enough, but the flies, roaches and rats. Just thinking about it made her skin crawl.

She had planned on interviewing Renee's half-brother that day. It might not be necessary, after she heard Roberta Bracken's voice, but she wasn't taking any chances. She had called his job and been told he didn't start work till noon. She would have called then and set up a late-afternoon appointment, but that would have to wait now. Whatever spare time she could find would be devoted to writing her story about the Sheffields' for the next days paper. She still didn't have a handle on it. And by the time it saw print, hopefully she'd be confronting Renee, in the person of Roberta Bracken.

Before leaving, she called Briggs to let him know she wouldn't be in.

"No problem," he said somberly. "We ain't got squat anyway. The good news is the strike will take the heat off of us. You might want to see if you can prolong it for a week or two," he said good naturedly.

"God forbid. Imagine the stink."

"Well, just a thought. I'll give you a call if anything comes up."

She called Jonas, apologized for waking him, and filled him in. When she got the feel for the situation down at City Hall, she would get back to him. She wanted to hear the tape of Roberta Bracken as soon as Jonas was able to reach her, and know what Frank Bishop turned up.

"One more thing. Do me a favor and call Timms. Let him know where he can reach me if he turns up anything."

She looked at her bed longingly, sighed and headed for the door.

# # # #

The day was as nightmarish as she'd assumed. Actually more so.

Taken completely off guard in the midst of the summer's worst heatwave, the Unions held all the cards. The City was going to seek an injunction; dump sites previously established had to be manned and announced to the public; police had to be pulled off assignments to protect dump sites, and assure picketing was free of violence.

Deidre had to coordinate all of this with the media. The public was looking to City Hall for answers during this crisis, and she was the Mayor's spokesperson. In theory, and in fact, he was meeting with the various unions, so she had to articulate the City's message, and plan of action. How the public perceived the City's response in great part was determined by how she did her job. Much as she had other things to do, she had an obligation to assure the City put on its best face during the crisis.

At noon the Mayor held a press conference to dispel fears. Deidre spent the rest of the day granting individual interviews to beat reporters from both the print and electronic media. She staggered the release of news to make it appear the city had a coordinated plan, and was making progress. First news of the filing for an injunction, followed by the announcement that dump sites were open and police would be on hand to insure the safety of all those who brought trash to the sites. And later, she told selected sources the Mayor and representatives for the Unions had met unofficially, and progress was being made.

At eight-thirty that night she was spent. Tony Hill, all five-foot-two-inches, balding at thirty-five, with a Hitler complex to boot, told her to skedaddle. All was quiet, and the late-evening news would simply be a rehash of the days events. An hour before, the stalled negotiations had begun anew. The Mayor was reportedly willing to compromise. He didn't have the stomach, both figuratively and literally for a protracted strike. As he wasn't sure he had enough votes in City Council to push through privatization, he wasn't about to make it a political issue for which he could be embarrassed. And a protracted strike, with garbage piling up, was not good for any Mayor's image. Local news would become national headlines, and blame would be heaped at his doorstep. If nothing else, this Mayor was a political animal, and knew when to posture and when to be conciliatory.

The Unions, for their part, cautioned their membership against confrontation. The Unions themselves were split; their unity fragile. While none favored privatization, the concept impacted on only a few, and some Unions opposed going all out on this one issue at the expense of others equally important to them.

Things were back on a relatively even keel.

"I know you want to get back to the Task Force," Tony said, looking up at Deidre. "Get a good nights sleep, and I'll call you at seven. If all hell doesn't break loose you can come here for a briefing at, say, two, issue a statement and be off.

"The worst is over for now. There'll be three or four days of give and take in negotiations, and both sides will agree to what's been leaked for the past three weeks. Now it's all about saving face."

Deidre mesmerized by the bald spot that glistened below her nodded sleepily and left.

# # # #

Jonas was sipping a beer when she entered her apartment.

"Tough day, kid?"

"The worst. All I want is a shower and . . . "

The sight of the tape Jonas held up wiped the fatigue from her face. Confirmation, she hoped, that Roberta Bracken was Renee was just within her grasp.

"What are we waiting for," she said, taking the tape and heading for the deck.

"Got both Bracken and Jeffries," Jonas said. "Didn't want to take any chances."

Her crestfallen expression as she heard their voices spoke volumes.

"Struck out with all six," Jonas said, his tone echoing Deidre's disappointment.

Deidre played the tape back a dozen times, then did the same with the tapes of the other four women. None were even close.

"Bishops' still tailing Bracken," Jonas said. Something could turn it."

"Stop the wishful thinking, Jonas. We're back to square one. You might as well call him off. We've got to go back to the master list you started with, and find other possibilities.

"One more thing. Paul Sheffield mentioned a computer enhanced photo bearing Renee's likeness. It got me thinking. One of your friends could take Renee at ten and give us a likeness as to what she'd look like now. If nothing else, it will eliminate some on the list.

"I'm sure there's more we could do . . . must do, but my mind's a ball of cotton. I need twelve uninterrupted hours of sleep to become functional again, not that Renee will give it to me."

The phone rang as Deidre was heading for the bathroom to take a shower. "Get that for me, Jonas," she said without turning. "If it's Renee tell her I'm dead on my feet and she's to blame." She began laughing bitterly, shedding all pretense of strength she'd shouldered since Friday.

"Timms," Jonas said, after he'd answered the phone. "He's got something."

There was no surge of adrenalin, as Deidre turned around and wearily retraced her steps.

"Sorry to bother you, girlie. I know you've had a busy day, what with the strike and all. Saw you on the news, and you looked like death warmed over."

"I appreciate your sympathy, but right now a shower, no, a long hot bath would do a hell-of-a-lot more for me."

"Sorry to disappoint you, child, but I think you best get down here now. Might be I've found someone your friend stayed with."

Deidre refused to allow her hopes to rise again. She'd been so close, she thought, only to be knocked down, stepped on and spat upon. It was time to be practical. Expect the worst, and hope she'd be surprised.

"Where to, Timms?"

"The shelter for battered women at Eighth and Locust."

"Do you know what time it is? Wouldn't we be disturbing . . ."

"Would I call you in the middle of the night if the person I found didn't want to be disturbed," he interrupted, without the slightest trace of annoyance. "No, girlie, Sister Mary Sheridan is a night person. She'll see you now."

Twenty-minutes later, Deidre and Jonas were ushered into a room on the first floor of a three story building. This was one of several shelters for abused and battered women. This one had private rooms for the thirty women who stayed at any given time. It was a halfway house of sorts. Women could stay with their children for a maximum of ninety days. In that time an attempt would be made to get them jobs or training, and locate a more permanent residence. Some would be sent out of town altogether for fear abusive husbands would track them down. There were so many to accommodate, and not enough rooms nor funds to keep any family for more than three months.

Timms provided Deidre with some background on Sister Mary Sheridan before she ushered her into a room at the end of the hallway.

There was none of his folksy charm in the recounting. She had never seen him in this light, and imagined this was the tone he'd use with an addicted gambler who owed him money, and hoped to win it all back on a sure thing.

"Sister Mary Sheridan was a folk hero in her day. For ten years she ignored the pleas of friends and the authorities and delivered food nightly to the homeless; those on the streets and subway concourses.

"Ten years ago a recently released mental patient, who had carved out his turf, wanted not only food but her purse. She refused, but wouldn't abandon him. She would come by nightly and he'd renew his plea. One night he wouldn't accept her polite refusal and beat her severely. Her hip and leg were broken.

"She refused to prosecute, or even identify her assailant. However, justice is not totally blind on the streets. Three weeks later, he was found bludgeoned to death, and left on the very spot of his attack as a warning of sorts. Only then did Sister Mary acknowledge he had been her attacker.

"A bit ironic, wouldn't you say. The person who might help you was herself the beneficiary of the type of street justice being dispensed by the Vigilante."

"Did she fully recover?" Deidre asked.

"As a matter of fact, no, and the years since have not been particularly kind to her, but don't be taken aback by her appearance. She's as sharp as you or I upstairs."

Sister Mary was sitting in a tattered cloth easy chair near a window. The room was sparse; a bed, bureau with a legal pad and pen. Only a bookshelf, overflowing with books of every sort, separated the room from others she'd passed in the shelter.

The woman she had come to see seemed dwarfed in the chair. She was sixty, Deidre thought, if she were a day; her pale face heavily lined, devoid of all makeup. She wore her greying black hair in a bun, and was wrapped in a bathrobe.

If Deidre didn't know she was a nun, she would have taken her for an old woman pining away the last years of her life in a dingy room. A cigarette hung from her mouth, the ash half an inch long. The woman seemed unaware as the ash dropped on her robe. A minute later, still not having acknowledged Deidre's presence, she lit a new cigarette with the remains of the old, and took several puffs. She coughed after drawing on the smoke, and when she finished, Deidre became aware of her raspy breathing.

"Emphysema," the woman said, finally looking at Deidre. "Don't looked so appalled. I'm a nun, not a saint. We all have our indulgences. Sit," she said, pointing to a straight-backed chair at the writing desk. Jonas brought the chair and set it across from the woman and Deidre sat.

"I don't get around much, now, since my . . . mishap," she said with a slight smile. "I'm sure Mr. Timmerman has filled you in with all the gory details. Stubbornness was another of my many vices, and I've paid dearly for my vanity. Lately, I've had to curtail my activities even more. I used to get around with a cane, but arthritis set in on the hip.

"I'm sorry . . . , " Deidre began, not really knowing how to respond, but the woman across from her waved it off.

"Nothing to be sorry about. I've lived a full life, with few regrets. The last, what, six years I've counselled the many women who fly in and out of this place. The emphysema has made even that difficult. The Good Lord must have been mightily peeved at my insolence, and this is my cross to bear.

"Still, I think I've made a difference to some. But enough about me. Your Mr. Timmerman showed me a picture. One from thirteen years ago. I won't presume to ask why you're interested in her today. What do you want to know?"

"Are you sure you recognized the girl in the picture?" Deidre asked, holding it out to her again.

"My child," she said, a mild rebuke in her voice, but her eyes afire. "I may be a cripple, but my eyes are as good as yours as is my mind. Emphysema is not to be confused with Alzheimers. Let's not waste both of our time. With my various conditions, I don't sleep, but take several naps during the course of the day and night. When the pain's too much, I awaken, take some medication, and go about my business until I tire again.

"Mr. Timmerman was by earlier, and I told him I'd be up around this time. Pretty soon, I'll doze again until the hip or the cough wakes me up."

"I won't take much of your time," Deidre said.

She waved her hand in dismissal. "Don't mind me. I'm told I have an acid tongue, but I don't bite. Now spit it out."

As Deidre spoke the woman sat there, her eyes closed, gently puffing on the cigarette, as if to draw strength to answer her questions.

Briefly, Deidre told her of Renee's abduction, her reporting the story, and the retrospective piece she was writing. She divulged nothing about Renee's current activities, but told of her surprise when the girl's foster parents confided in her she hadn't committed suicide.

"She's taken another identity, and I'd like to speak with her. I'm not looking to expose her, but I think she would want to know just how important she was to her foster parents. I might be able to arrange a reunion between them."

Minutes passed after Deidre had finished, and she wondered if the old woman had fallen asleep. She looked at Jonas and Timms, both who just shrugged. Finally, a chill seemed to pass through the woman's body, and she opened her eyes, looking deeply into Deidres'

"The last is a crock; a reunion you say. Maybe you'd also like to set up a reunion with her mother, the vile creature you wrote about in Monday's paper."

Deidre looked nonplussed, caught up in her lie, unaware the nun had followed her story.

Sister Mary smiled. "Child, there's more behind this dilapidated shell of a body than meets the eye. I told you so. But why you want this woman is no concern of mine. Maybe I'll read about it in the papers," she said with a wry smile, "and maybe I won't. What do you want to know?"

"Did you see her anytime after she faked her suicide?"

"I told your Mr. Timmerman I had. Once or twice, mind you, and only for a moment or so. She might have needed my handouts, but I could see she had no desire to be approached. I recognized her from the picture in the paper. She'd cut her hair, wore a cap, and bundled a coat about her, the collar covering much of her face. But I was good with faces. I knew who she was. Not that I'd any thoughts of turning her in.

"She was a jackrabbit, though. If I approached, she would have bolted. In time, if she needed help, she would have learned more about me and sought me out."

"But she didn't?"

"No. She met someone else; another child who wanted to disappear. Only this girl was five or six years older." Sister Mary paused to light another cigarette before the one in her mouth was extinguished. "Anything else?"

Deidre could see a faint smile on the old woman's face. She was enjoying this, Deidre thought. She'd tell her what she wanted, but Deidre would have to ask. Deidre played her game.

"Do you know the name of the other girl?"

"Shara. Never told anyone on the street her last name. She had a job at one of those clubs where woman dance with little or no clothes, and took your friend off the street."

Deidre could feel her heart pounding. Shara Farris? Was she still alive and living with Renee? Was it her voice on the machine?

"Did they remain together? I mean do you know if they're still together now"

Sister Mary laughed, then began coughing. "Together now. Hardly. They remained together until Shara died. She was beaten by a customer at the club who thought she was a hooker."

"What happened to Renee?"

"She became Shara. Danced at the club, then I lost track of her. Died, moved on, or maybe moved up out of our world. You know, became a regular citizen."

"Anything else I should be asking?" Deidre said, and now she was smiling.

"You've milked me dry, child. Nothing more I can tell you. I'm feeling a little tired now, so I think I'll doze a bit, if you don't mind.

Deidre was about to say something, but the nun read her mind.

"Don't be thanking me, now. Words don't fill empty stomachs. When you go, you might leave a little contribution with Sister Sylvia. The children barely get enough to eat, you know."

She closed her eyes, dismissing them.

Once on the street, Deidre could hardly contain herself.

"Jonas, it's Shara Farris. I don't know how she worked the answering machine, but it's her."

"What now?"

"I want to get into her room. Be there when she gets off from work. Confront her. Can you find out her shift?"

"She's dangerous," he said, and Deidre could see the concern etched on his face.

"Jonas, she won't harm me. You don't know her like I do. She needs me. She needs someone to validate what she's been through; to help explain what she's become."

"She's not sane."

"Of course not. But I'm her window to the world. She wants her story told. She knows I'll be sympathetic, no matter what she's done. Will you help me?"

"I've got friends," he replied, his voice resigned.

"Good. Now, I've got to get some sleep. Find out her shift. I don't want to get there too early, maybe an hour before she gets home, so I can look about. I won't set my alarm. Use your discretion. if possible, don't wake me until at least ten. Then we can talk about how we'll handle it."

She turned to Timms, who had made a show of ignoring them, but she knew he was soaking in their whole conversation.

"How can I possibly thank you, Timms. I was dead in the water, and you literally rescued me."

"Not me you have to thank, girlie, but the good Sister. A contribution to the shelter every once in awhile, I think would show your gratitude."

"You've got it." She kissed him on the cheek.

"It's good to see you on your feet again, girlie. This is the kind of work you were cut out for, if you don't mind me saying, rather than speaking up for that pansy at City Hall. But enough. Get your sleep. I've got a feeling you'll need it."

He winked, and Deidre knew he'd overheard everything she'd told Jonas. In her excitement, she'd totally forgotten about him. And, as much as she knew Timms would be dying to know what transpired, he'd never broach the subject. Not only that, he wouldn't come to her someday, if he were in trouble, and ask her to intercede because she "owed him." He'd agreed to help her without asking for anything in return.

It was odd, she thought, sometimes you couldn't tell the good guys from the bad without a program. When she'd first met Timms, she had these preconceptions of his being a vulture. But, even though she might despise his choice of occupation, he was every bit as good a person -- better in fact -- than Briggs, Tony Hill or the Mayor.

Driving home with Jonas, she felt a rush she hadn't experienced since before her husband and son had died.

I've got you, Renee, she thought to herself.

Beat your at your own game.

Beat you.

Beat you.

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