- A John Milton Novel
TABITHA BETTY WILSON
TABBY WILSON updated her Craigslist profile on the night she was murdered. She tweaked her personal information a little and added a new selfie that she had taken that same afternoon. It was a good likeness of her: she was wearing wispy red lingerie, her skin was smooth and blemish-free and she was wearing a crazy blonde wig that made her look a little like Lana del Rey. She looked fine, she thought. Her expression was sultry and provocative, almost daring men to contact her. She was slender and had big eyes, androgynous with that alien look that was so popular on the blogs that she bookmarked and the magazines she thumbed through in Wal-Mart or when she was waiting at the laundromat.
It was important that she looked her best. The Craigslist ad was her shop window and, as she touched up the blemishes in Photoshop, she was pleased with the results. She had porcelain skin, a short bob of dark hair, and those big eyes were green and expressive. She was twenty-one and had left school when she was seventeen to have a baby. She never went back. She had two children now, each with a different father, although she never saw either man. Her mom helped to bring up the kids. Until recently, she had worked in telemarketing. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Vallejo funded by the alimony that her son’s father had been ordered to pay. Apart from the fact that cold-calling saps to sell them new windows wasn’t what she had in mind for her career, the alimony and her wages didn’t cover all of her expenses. Things got worse when she was fired for missing her sales targets. Delivering pizza or running the register at Wal-Mart were not what she had in mind as her career, either, and those jobs ended just as soon as they had started.
Tabby liked to think that she was a positive person and so she concentrated on her ambitions. She had always wanted to be a model. There was money in that, lots of money, and she was sure that she was pretty enough and had a good enough figure to make a go of it. She created Pinterest and Instagram pages that she filled with photographs: selfies with the camera held as far away from her face as possible, others showing her in the full-length bedroom mirror, a selection that she had culled from the shoot that a photographer friend had conducted in exchange for a night with her. She knew that she needed to do something to get her career moving in the right direction. She spent a lot of time working on her page and it wasn’t long before she noticed the ads for modelling. She clicked on a site called ModelBehavior.com which offered free hosting for the portfolios that girls sent in. She set up an account and uploaded the best photos from the shoot. She started to see enquiries right away. She was hoping for offers from catalogues and magazines but they were all from agencies that said that they could book her for those kinds of jobs but, when she clicked onto their sites, it was obvious that what they were really looking for were hookers and escorts.
She started to take the offers more seriously when she saw how much money she could earn. Escorting was like webcam stripping, only in person, with no sex involved. And it wasn’t hard to be tempted by the money she could make if she did have sex. But she couldn’t see the point of signing up for a service and giving them half of the money she made.
She could do it all herself.
That was when she had started advertising on Craigslist.
THAT NIGHT’S JOB had been booked on the phone. The john had emailed her to say that he was interested and she had done what she always did: gave him the number of her work phone so that she could talk with him and lay out the prices and what he could expect to get in return. Insisting on a call also gave her the chance to screen the guys who had never booked her before. There were always weirdos and she’d been knocked around by a couple. Talking to someone was better than reading an email to get an idea of what they were like. She had refused bookings with several men who had just sounded wrong on the phone. Tabby liked to say that she was a good judge of character. She was careful, too.
This guy, though? He sounded alright. A southern accent, a bit of a hillbilly twang going on, but he’d been polite and well spoken. He’d explained to her that he was a police officer, in town for a law enforcement conference, and said that he wanted a little bit of fun. He had no problem with her charges and so she had arranged to meet him.
She was on the corner of Franklin and Turk at eight, just as they had arranged, smoking a cigarette and watching the traffic go by. She was thinking about her kids and about how she had made enough money already this week to pay the rent, pay for the groceries and maybe even take them to Six Flags for a treat. There was one at Vallejo. She was thinking about that as the Cadillac slowed to a stop beside her. Her old man had been a mechanic and she had been big into cars when she was younger so that she could impress him; she recognised it as an Eldorado, probably twenty years old. It wasn’t in the best condition. The front-right wing was dinged, the registration plate was barely attached to the chassis and the engine backfired as the driver reached over and opened the passenger side door for her.
He called out her name in the same redneck accent that she remembered from the phone call.
She picked up her bag and stepped into the car.
She was never seen again.
* * *
* * *
THE GREY SEPTEMBER MIST had rolled in off the Bay two days earlier and it hadn’t lifted yet. It softened the edges of objects within easy sight but, out beyond ten or fifteen feet, it fell across everything like a damp, cold veil. June was often the time when it was at its worst––they called it June Gloom for a reason––but the fog was always there, seeping down over the city at any time, without warning, and often staying for hours. The twin foghorns––one at either end of the Golden Gate Bridge––sounded out their long, mournful, muffled ululations. John Milton had been in town for six months and he still found it haunting.
It was nine in the evening, the streetlamps glowing with fuzzy coronas in the damp mist. Milton was in the Mission District, a once-blighted area that was being given new life by the artists and students who swarmed in now that crime had been halted and rents were still low. It was self-consciously hip now, the harlequinade of youth much in evidence: long-haired young men in vintage suits and fur-trimmed Afghans and girls in short dresses. The streets looked run-down and shabby. The girl Milton had come to pick up was sitting on a bench on the corner. He saw her through the fog, difficult to distinguish until he was a little closer. He indicated right, filtered out of the late evening traffic and pulled up against the kerb.
He rolled the passenger-side window down. The damp air drifted into the car.
“Madison?” he called, using the name that he had been given.
The girl, who was young and pretty, took a piece of gum out of her mouth and stuck it to the back of the bench upon which she was sitting. She reached down for a rucksack, slung it over her shoulder, picked up a garment bag and crossed the pavement to the Explorer. Milton unlocked the door for her and she got in.
“Hi,” she said in a lazy drawl.
“Thanks for being so quick. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“You know the McDonalds in Balboa Park?”
He thought for a moment. Six months driving around San Francisco had given him a decent grasp of local geography. “I know it.”
“That’s where we’re headed.”