UNDERGROUND IN CARBON CITY
"Bess, you is my woman now," crooned George, as she and her cousin strolled through the dockyard district of Carbon City.
"George, hush," whispered Bess. "I don't think that we can maintain our lowlife personae if we go around singing Gershwin's opera."
"O, Lady be good . . ."
"Stay away from his musicals as well. Too recherché for a modern young pimp."
"What can I sing then?" demanded George. "What, pray, dear Bess, is in the repertoire of the contemporary procurer?"
"I wouldn't know," answered the faux harlot. "I don't think you should chance any singing at all. Just act sullen."
Bess and George were "on the prowl" in the big city. Bess was wearing a skimpy fire-engine red dress that accentuated her proto-matronly pulchritude by not covering it. The wide mesh on her fish-net stockings would not trap anything smaller than a barracuda. And the heels on her luminescent scarlet pumps were so high that she had only recently gotten over hobbling. George, on her part, had to wear platform shoes so as not to appear a positive dwarf beside her cousin and thus exposing her as an implausible "manager" for such a giant hooker.
George had at first appeared too fresh and shiny in her "mec" attire. Bess had to wrestle her to the ground in a back alley to rub some of the clean and new off her green and yellow plaid sport jacket and to blunt the creases in her striped trousers. And Bess tore George's spats right off and threw them in the ash heap. "Who do you think you are? George Raft?" she had asked. After that remark, George was at a loss what to do with her hands. In her pocket was a shiny new quarter that she had been planning to repeatedly toss in the air while she strutted about town. Instead she nervously picked at her mustache where the ends of the hairs curled over the top of her lip. "Stop that," Bess had said. "I don't mind the nervous tic, but I'm afraid you'll pull the mustache crooked."
Bess wasn't much better at impersonating a prostitute than George was at being a pimp.
"For someone who is nearly naked in the public square," said George, "you carry yourself as though you were the chairwoman of the Legion of Decency."
"I just don't know how to act lewd and wanton," replied Bess.
"We don't want wanton exactly," dictated George. "I think bored will do. Or sullen, like me."
"You're not sullen."
"Look annoyed then," suggested George. "Pretend that you are uncomfortable. Your underwear is binding and you've got fleas."
At this suggestion Bess instinctively scratched at the back of her thigh.
"That's it," encouraged George. "Revolting is good. Scratch up front too. Imagine that you have pubic lice."
Bess shivered. Then found herself involuntarily scratching herself all over in a quite unladylike way. She looked around in shame. No one appeared to be watching.
"Don't be so self-conscious," reprimanded her manlike companion. "Sluts revel in not caring what other folks think."
Bess gave George a nasty look.
"Good," praised George. "I think you've got it. I am getting to be quite the reverse 'enry 'iggins."
Barely had this sentiment crossed George's lips than they were presented with a situation that made George suspect that perhaps Bess was getting to be too good as a slut.
"How much?" asked the "John" who had appeared suddenly before the two girls. He was a good two hundred pounds by George's estimate. A burly and thick-headed looking fellow. There was a deep scar running from the edge of his right eyebrow down to his lip. George guessed that he hadn't got it in a gentlemanly duel. A fight with a broken bottle was more likely.
"No sale," said Bess firmly. She maintained outward composure, though inwardly she was panicked. Her feet trembled and she was afraid that she might turn her ankles, so suddenly unsteady was she in her challenging shoes.
"Out here, you're for sale, sister. Don't tell me no, or you'll hurt my feelings." This was not a confession of vulnerability, but a threat.
George stepped in. "She likes you just fine, Mister. But she has a dose, don't you see, and we're on the way to the clinic."
Bess casually picked up the edge of her skirt. What the John saw apparently revolted him. He moved along without further protest. Bess and George decided not to dawdle, and moved briskly across the square.
"I hope we are headed in the direction of a clinic," said Bess.
"I'm sure he bought it," replied George. "That was some makeup job down there. I don't think he'll be looking back this way. I know I wouldn't."
"That was my last line of defense," Bess observed ruefully. "What will I do the next time?"
"No. I don't think I want to go through that again."
"Then, you will have to look a lot less enticing," said George. "Don't scratch yourself so much."
Bess stuck out her tongue.
"Watch yourself," warned George.
The timorous "hooker" quickly retracted her proboscis. She also blushed at the thoughts that were entering her mind.
"I had better get you covered up before a real disaster strikes," muttered George as she pulled Bess sharply off the sidewalk and into the Salvation Army Thrift Store. There she bought her cousin what looked like a Republican cloth coat, so shabby that might have been aging ungracefully ever since the time of the "Checkers" speech. George acquired a tattered trench coat hor herself. Thus under wraps, and carrying a large stuffed pink Easter bunny to ward off grownups, the cousins hurried off to recover their composure in their motel room.
Bess and George had to return to the dockyard area at the end of the day to make their appointed message run for Carson Drew. Having further practiced looking sullen and possibly diseased in the interval they managed to insert themselves into Stanley's Bar without further untoward incident. Nancy's father was not there. Back at the motel the unsightly couple cleaned themselves up and transformed themselves into young middle-class women so that they could drive out to the suburbs for a luxurious meal.
"I think we really deserve this," claimed Bess as she contemplated her roast beef au jus, Yorkshire pudding, and beans almondine.
George, who had that day sweated off a few pounds in pure fright, could not but agree.
The next few days passed without cause for further panic. The girls learned to do most of their foot-traveling with Bess in a more covered-up form of undercover. It was only when making their inquiries that Bess presented herself as a prostitute. The intrepid pair went from bar to bar and dive to dive, with George ever asking for a special "secret" bawdy house. "He" claimed that he had heard that this cathouse was top quality and that the propritors would take good care of his sister who was a really top quality whore but was deathly afraid of what she might catch on the street. But there seemed to be two kinds of fellows in the sleazy bars of Carbon City: those who didn't know and those who wouldn't tell-even to someone as obviously vicious as George appeared to be. The girls persisted manfully in this loathsome task out of love for their poor trapped chum.
On the fifth day the cousins were stopped by the police.
It had been a stifling hot day. Bess had been forced to forego the coat as it would have made her both uncomfortable and conspicuous. George was boiling in her linen jacket, but did not dare risk exposing her identity by going in shirtsleeves. On the way back from Stanley's Bar-they had finally spotted Carson Drew and George was bearing in her breast pocket the thick brown envelope which they had found taped under Drew's table-nearly prostrate from the heat, they had paused to drink and splash each other at a public water fountain.
While thus lustily disporting themselves, and momentarily forgetful of their precarious situation, Bess was approached by another "John." He didn't ask the price, but merely offered her three hundred dollars, a princely sum by Carbon City streetwalker standards. Bess was so flattered, and dazzled by the man's rugged handsomeness, that she forgot to say no. Before the cousins knew what was happening, two other men appeared from around a corner, cuffs were put on the girls, their rights were read, and they were traveling in a paddy wagon.
Bess and George were crestfallen. That their undercover scheme had come to this! It was possible that they might stand trial for vice and shame their families. Bess wondered if the charges would be sustained. They needed a good lawyer, a certain powerful and skillful lawyer. But at that moment their counsel was hiding out somewhere, having infiltrated a gang of criminals, and perhaps already himself implicated in the prostitution slave trade!
In the semi-shadow of the police vehicle George made a subtle signal to Bess that she wanted to try to coordinate a break from their captors while they were being transferred into the station. Bess shook her head. She did not fancy their chances with a bullet between the shoulder blades or a crushed skull. George settled back in her seat in mute resignation.
The girls were conducted into an interrogation room where they were permitted to seat themselves upon a pair of hard metal folding chairs. The guards removed their handcuffs and disappeared. When they were alone George signaled towards a half-open window. Before Bess could respond there was a peremptory knock at the door. Instantly the door opened and in walked Commissioner James McGinnis, head of the River Heights police department!
"Bess Marvin and George Fayne, how nice to see you well," he said genially. "I'm sorry about the melodrama and the handcuffs etc., but believe me, it was necessary for verisimilitude." He sat himself down opposite George. "Now, to coin a phrase, 'the envelope please.'"
"What envelope?" Bess spurted out before George could get her mouth half open.
"You both know what envelope," said the chief. "Carson Drew left a message for you-I mean for us-taped under a table in Stanley's Bar. I need to see that message immediately. I think you will find that it is addressed to me."
George slowly and hesitantly drew out the long brown envelope. On close inspection it turned out to be addressed to no one. Sallow snapped it out from George's grasp nonetheless.
After tearing off one end of the envelope the chief poured out the contents onto the seat of an empty chair. There proved to be two smaller envelopes inside, one addressed to him, the other to George and Bess. He gallantly handed the latter back to George, then got up with the other missive and hastily departed the room. George tore open the communication before Bess could ask for it and read it aloud: Dear Girls,
I didn't think that I would have to write to you, but I have heard rumors of a wayward couple pursuing a course of investigation in these neighborhoods, which has led me to believe that you two are overstepping your commission. You will be reading this in jail. I ought to have asked the Commissioner to detain you there for the duration, for your own protection, but I have not the heart to keep you in jail when I suppose you will have the sense to heed my warning and to desist from your reckless course. I have my own investigation well in hand, which you cannot abet. I expect to be able to inform you fully in a couple of days. There is no need for your further action as a messenger service. Please return to River Heights as soon as you can and there await developments. I have instructed the local police to let you go today, but to arrest you on sight starting tomorrow. So there is nothing you can do at present. Thanks, and go home the first thing tomorrow morning! Love, Carson Drew
When he returned the chief had not one word of instruction or advice to give them. But Bess could tell from the look in his eye that he was fully apprised of the contents of Drew's message to them and that he thought further comment unnecessary. An officer drove the girls back to where they had parked their car.
Back in their motel room, Bess and George held a council of war.
"It's clear that we can't go back undercover into Carbon City tomorrow," said Bess. "But no one said anything about tonight. This evening will be our only hope of helping to find Nancy."
"Perhaps we will find a different group of people to interrogate after dark," added George. "I wonder why we didn't think of doing this before."
"Because it's too dangerous, silly," Bess replied.
"But it's only this once," George argued. "And then back to River Heights like good little girls."
The Carbon City dockyard area looked completely different to Bess and George at night. They had thought they knew the area after prowling around for nearly a week in the daytime. But, after dark, it was an altered landscape. While skimpily-clad Bess felt less conspicuous wandering around in the shadows, she wondered who else might be waiting and lurking in that dark alley that seemed always to be just around the corner. It took the girls until nearly midnight to get their bearings. Many of the haunts that had been open in daytime were closed in the wee hours. While the sands of nighttime were slipping away, the bogus pimp and her imitation doxy were making no investigative progress at all. The cousins were about to give up in frustration when by chance they stumbled upon a dour hulking young man, dressed much in the fashion that George had been seeking to imitate. George, affecting a display of fellowship for a comrade-in-arms, walked over to greet the nocturnal pimp.
The salutation was not so amicably returned. Too late, George realized that pimps were probably territorial, and that she should have expected to be challenged as an intruder. She raised her empty hands in a sort of submission.
"Please, I'm not here to horn in or anything," George explained. "I just want to ask a civil question and then we'll be gone. Do you know where I can find that splendid huge brothel about which I have heard tell on the street? The one that takes in all those missing kids? My girl here," George pointed to Bess and lowered her voice so that Bess might not hear, "I'm trying to take her there to sell her."
George thought this a convincing argument. But the other pimp said not a word. He just looked closely at Bess, as if sizing her up.
Then suddenly his fist flashed out. Before Bess could even think to cry out, George lay prostrate on the ground. The stranger quickly grabbed Bess and pulled her towards himself. His stench-a combination of alcohol, body odor, filth, and cheap cologne-caused Bess to retch. When she struggled to look back at George, the pimp cuffed her sharply on the side of the face. Not wishing to be beaten senseless, Bess submissively trailed after the man who held her arm in an iron grip and seemed intent on propelling her into an unspeakable form of captivity!