It wasn’t a good day for trash-diving, really. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing overnight, and everything was covered with a fine glaze of ice. That was Philadelphia in January. It was still dark – too dark to see the icy patches – so Staci had already fallen several times as she made her way to her lookout post. She slipped behind a pickup truck parked about fifty feet away from the bin and crouched down, huddling in the much-used sweatshirt she’d found last week. She wished she had a hood or something, but her only hat – a worn-out Phillies cap – had been stolen from her two weeks ago while she was sleeping.
Seven minutes later she’d had enough. It was too cold to stay in one place any more, and she hadn’t seen or heard anything. She glanced around and then headed towards the trash bin, her breath making clouds in the frosty air as she went. Everything was silent as she got to the bin, opened the lid and got ready to crawl in. That was the worst part – wading through the trash. But you never knew what you’d find. Once she’d even found a purse with money in it. Not much, but it was enough for a bag of street pretzels and a slice of pizza.
Staci had just started sifting through the bin when she heard footsteps. She froze in place, not even breathing. The footsteps stopped. A few seconds later, a large green plastic lawn bag hurtled over the edge of the bin and landed on her head. She yelped involuntarily. Damnit! she thought. She’d probably been heard. She stayed hunched over silently, hoping the footsteps would go away.
That was when she saw what was dangling from the top of the now-open bag. It looked like a gold chain. She cautiously reached out one hand for it and gave it a pull, drawing it slowly out of the bag. It was a gold chain, and with a beautiful pendant in the shape of a golden rose hanging from it. She was just about to tuck it in her pocket when she suddenly had to sneeze. No! Not now! But she couldn’t hold back.
There was a second or two of absolute silence. Then Staci heard a man’s voice coming from directly above her. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
She didn’t dare lift her head.
‘Hey! I’m talking to you!’ the man said.
She stayed quiet. Then she felt a hand on her left shoulder, squeezing it and pulling her to her feet. A shower of clothes fell around her as the bag that had landed on her split further open. Even in the dim light of early dawn, Staci could see that some of the clothes were stained. Was that blood? Oh, God, what was she going to do? Stay quiet. Say nothing. Look down. She’d learned the hard way that you might get through it OK if you didn’t make things worse by yammering.
‘Get out of there!’
Slowly, still not looking up, Staci climbed out of the trash bin. She knew she must smell as bad as she looked. Her mouse-brown hair was matted, her torn jeans and the sweathirt were now badly stained, and she hadn’t wiped her nose since she sneezed. Maybe that would save her, though. Nobody would want to do her, looking like she did. So she might at least be spared that.
Then the voice softened just a bit. ‘How old are you?’ he asked.
When she didn’t answer, he said it again. Finally she mumbled, ‘Eighteen.’
‘Bullshit! Come on!’
Now he steered her by the arm towards what must be his car, a Chevy minivan. She tried desperately to think of what to do. But she had no weapons, and he was twice her size. She might be able to outrun him if she could get out of his grasp though. Her mind made up, she grabbed his pinky with her free hand and pulled down hard. He cursed and loosened his grip just enough so she could get free.
Staci scrabbled away from him and took off. For a minute or two she thought she had a chance. Then she skidded on an icy patch and fell, twisting her left ankle. All of sudden, a pair of strong arms lifted her to her feet. ‘Come on,’ she heard him say. She still hadn’t even looked up at him. He half-carried her back to the minivan. When they got there, he opened up the front passenger door. ‘Get in,’ he ordered. She tried to twist away from him but he pushed her in and shut the door. Hopping into the driver’s seat, he closed that door too and started the engine. A slow tear started at the corner of her eye. After two days without eating, she was too weak to fight back any more. At this point, she hoped she’d still be alive when this was all over.
After two blocks of silence, he said, ‘My name’s Leo. What’s yours?’
‘Go to hell, dirtbag!’ If she was going to die, at least she wouldn’t be a coward about it.
‘Look, I’m not going to hurt you.’
She shoved herself into furthest corner of the passenger seat, looking furiously out of the window.
‘Oooh-kay.’ Two blocks later, they saw a very familiar lighted sign. ‘Hey, there’s a Mickey Dee’s. I’m gonna get some coffee and some food. You want something?’
He shrugged and pulled into the drive-through window. Staci thought of yelling for help, but the kid at the window barely spoke English. She doubted she could make him understand. Besides, Leo had locked the doors and he was sitting between her and the drive-through speaker.
She’d barely paid attention when Leo ordered the food, determined not to give him any satisfaction. But after they got their order, he pulled the minivan to a stop in a parking place and she felt the warmth of a bag of food being placed in her lap. She couldn’t help glancing down, especially when she caught the irresistible smell of a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich.
‘Go on,’ Leo said. ‘I promise, it’s not poisoned.’
Nearly faint with hunger, Staci finally gave in and plunged her hand into the bag. She grabbed the first thing she touched and had to stop herself from stuffing the entire packet of hash browns into her mouth at once.
‘So what were you doing in the trash bin?’
‘What do you think?’
‘On the streets?’
‘You could say that.’ She’d finished the hash browns and was now starting on the sandwich.
‘Been there long?’
Staci finally allowed herself a glance at Leo. He looked about mid-thirties, short dark hair, no glasses. Small beard. Leather winter jacket. Then she felt cold inside. He was looking right at her, right where the pendant she’d found was hanging out of the pocket of her jeans.
‘You’re pretty good,’ he said, smiling just a little.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You took that without me even seeing.’ He gestured towards the necklace.
‘Here. I’ll give it back,’ she said. Maybe he wouldn’t kill her if she did.
‘No, keep it. I have another idea.’
Oh, God, here it came. Staci swallowed hard. She ought to be used to this by now, but she still hated it. ‘What?’ she finally croaked.
He’d seen her face. ‘Oh, no! Not that! God, no! I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I didn’t even see you put that thing in your pocket. And I’ve been in the business for a while. You could be useful.’
‘Help me out. In my line of work, I could use someone slick like you.’
Then it dawned on her. ‘You hit stores, don’t you?’
‘You’re pretty quick. I figure, with two of us, we get twice the stuff. And you get a place to live.’
What the hell? It was better than the way a lot of girls she knew ended up. ‘OK. And my name’s Staci.’
Staci slept for most of the next three days. Leo’s place wasn’t much, but it had two bedrooms. When she was finally rested up, he took her out for some clothes. No store manager would let her out of sight in the ones she had. A week later, her ankle healed and her belly a little fuller, Staci was ready. That evening, they worked out the plan over a pot of spaghetti.
‘Here’s how it works,’ Leo said. ‘We go in together. I start looking at some of the jewelry. Then you – what?’
Staci put her hand on his arm to silence him. ‘I’ve done this before, Leo.’
‘Right.’ He shook his head at his own ignorance. ‘So we go tomorrow?’
‘Yeah, OK. Just one thing.’
‘I pick the store we hit.’
‘You got one in mind?’
‘Yeah. Loomis Fine Jewels. It’s up in Jenkintown, off Route 611.’
‘Way up there? That’ll take us at least forty-five minutes.’
‘That’s the store I want to hit.’
A sharp look crossed Leo’s face. ‘Why that one?’
‘You really want to know?’
Leo nodded, ‘Yeah.’
‘My bastard stepfather owns it. He’s – he’s why I was on the streets.’
Leo wasn’t stupid. ‘He…’
‘Yeah.’ Staci remembered the clothes falling around her in the trash bin. She’d guessed right. Leo would have what it took to do what she wanted. ‘And don’t forget to bring a crowbar or a knife or something.’
Leo smiled. ‘I won’t.’