Angela was a tiny fifteen year-old runaway with flyaway hair, a face filled with hollows dense with shadows, and minutes left to live.
She had been in the city just shy of two months. Her older sister Wanda had run a year earlier, leaving Angela alone in their father’s house.
You gotta get out, Wanda had said. I know what it’s like. Know what he’s like. Ma won’t admit it. Probably glad he don’t mess with her. It ain’t gonna stop, Angie. Quit being a fraidy cat. Come to New York and live with me. It’s cool. The people. The scene. All cool. There’s work. I’ll hook you up. Pays more money than you ever seen.
But Angela had been a fraidy cat and stayed, kidding herself into to believing it would stop.
Until the last time.
While he slept, Angela had crept into the garage, lifted all the cash from his secret hiding place, and headed for the Greyhound bus station in Davenport. Twenty-two stops and a little more than a day later she pulled into the Port Authority bus depot. Wanda met her and took her back to an apartment she shared with three other girls and a man they called Daddy. He told Angela she was part of the family now, and in his family everyone worked. Then he told her what work meant.
Angela ran. Again.
Until the streets caught her.
Now it was Christmas Eve. The temperature had dipped into the low teens and the wind blew the snow sideways. The sidewalk Santas were long gone, the carolers had packed it in, and all across the city, families, all warm and cozy, tossed the last piece of tinsel on the tree and settled in for the night.
And in Hell’s Kitchen, Angela and two brain-fried junkies she had met outside a warehouse hatched their own plan to celebrate the Savior’s birth.
The guys – one with rat eyes, and the other with sores on his face - had dug deep into their pockets and come up with enough for a dime bag of rock and the best bottle of wine three dollars could buy. Even though the thought of it made her feel as if spiders were crawling all over her skin, Angela chipped in her body for a couple of hits and a few hours of warmth.
Then they jimmied a window and climbed into the warehouse.
Christmas Eve was for families, and it had been a long time since Angela had seen her sister. Rat Eyes handed her a cell phone he had boosted a few days earlier. Wanda didn’t answer, but Angela left the address.
And then it was party time.
Surrounded by stacks of cartons stuffed with counterfeit designer goods, they’d made short work of the rock and polished off the bottle with lying stories of Christmas Eves past. Now, with eyes closed and heads propped against the cartons, they slept.
They never heard the whisper of flame smoldering deep within the walls, or the frantic rustling of rats scurrying to the safety of the river. Never smelled the acrid odor of smoke as the flames crept up toward the dead space just under the roof.
Wanda sat in a musty Westside bar nursing a two-buck draft in a dirty pint glass, listening to Angela’s message and weighing her options. Outside the streets were empty, shrouded in the muted glow of light filtered through giant flakes of whipping snow. She wasn’t even close to making her three hundred dollar nut, and didn’t have a prayer. Not on a night like this. But there was one thing she knew for a certainty, Daddy didn’t want to hear shit about blizzards, or Christmas, or any other stuff. You live in Daddy’s house you pay the rent. Every day. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Wanda reached into her brassiere and pulled out a thin wad of bills, adding them up one more time, thinking maybe she had made a mistake. Nope. Three twenties and a ten.
Fuck it! she thought, staring down at the thin soup at the bottom of the glass. If I’m gonna get a beating it’s gonna be for a good reason. Besides, the warehouse wasn’t too far away.
The flames were streaming through the windows on the lower floors when Wanda came up the street. Splashes of glass glittered like diamonds in the snow. She stood stock-still, her body unwilling to move. A man, standing across the street with his face framed in firelight, turned to look at her. The expression on his face made her guts shrivel. And she looked away.
When she looked back he was gone.
At the distant whine of sirens Wanda glanced back at the building and swiped a sleeve across her eyes.