THE DANCING LADY
Stunned, Matt couldn’t believe he was looking at the same Dancing Lady, the one from his streetcar rides, but her words jarred him back to reality.
“We need to get to the backa this place,” she said.
He reached up to touch her arm, and she drew back as if his hand were electrified. “Nooooo,” she hissed. “I don’t like nobody I don’t know touching me.”
He dropped his arm, then held up his hands to show respect. He began to follow her. The floor was littered with wreckage, and they stepped over rotting palm fronds and other vegetation. Matt looked around at the once-magnificent, stately building that smelled like it was bathed in a musky perfume that wasn’t pleasant. Now that the storm was clearing, that Matt could see the symmetrical system of steel supports, framing, and trusses overhead. Some of the frames held intact panes of glass, while others had acknowledged defeat and dropped their sheets of glass to the floor below. The walkways were decorated with slivers of broken glass in fragments large and small. Shards crunched underfoot, and Matt felt as if he were trampling on history. Sunlight used to stream through those panes, he recalled, giving the place full of plants and musty smells of soil and humidity a special charm.
Now it’s reduced to this.
Mattie stopped abruptly, and Matt was drawn out of his thoughts. He listened to her unique manner of speaking. Her syntax and odd words, jarring at first, still told a story. As much as he might have wanted to correct her speech, he knew it would be the wrong thing to do. He listened to her. “This conservatory was builded in 1879. They had to do it again after a fire—1902, I think.” Matt couldn’t miss the melancholy in her voice. “I wonder if it ever be rebuilded after this…”
He had nothing to add, so he nodded and listened.
“Important peoples talked here. They say Oscar Wilde did once.” Matt was surprised at the reference. “Maybe he was looking for new words growing here, or finding commas hiding among the tropicals.”
Matt thought he was beyond being surprised any more that night, but her literary observations flummoxed him. Detective Carling had warned him not to judge her by appearance, or to assume she was ignorant. “If you do, you risk underestimating her,” Carling had said. “A lot of people do that when they see a homeless person—you know, misjudge them.”
He thought about that as he looked at Mattie Reynolds. “Where did you learn stuff like that?”
“Homeless peoples spends a lot of time at the library. We used to, anyways.”
He was still trying to put her in some kind of context when he looked around.
“Where are we now, Mattie?” They were passing an entrance that Matt guessed was on the north side. They came to a door.
“Used to be the cactus room,” Mattie said. “It was my favorite. I liked the prickles.” She looked around. “It’s getting lighter; we need to hide.” She opened a door that revealed letters on a dangling sign. It spelled out “Cactus House” and under that it said “Cacti and Succulents.”
They walked into the room and past ruined displays, most now reduced to the remains of potting soil, broken pots, and boards torn from the shelving. Mattie was in a hurry and led the way directly to another door. It squealed in protest as she pulled it open.
“We’re safe in here. Nobody comes into the ruins this far, usually. Except for the teams on foot, those vans just spend their time driving around the streets looking for people like me.”
“And me,” a man’s voice boomed from the shadows.
“Damn, I almost pissed myself,” Matt said. “How about some warning? I’m sure my heart skipped a beat—or three.”
“Clifford,” a muscular man said as he stepped out of the shadows. “If you need to write it in one of your notebooks, for your record, I’m Clifford Horne, with an e.” He looked at Matt with a steady gaze as he walked over and draped a protective arm around Mattie’s shoulders.
She didn’t pull back and shout at him as she had at Matt, and he felt irrationally annoyed at that.
“You two know each other, then?” He looked at this latest character in the nightmare that would have made Alice feel at home.
“We didn’t. Not until this business with CleanSweep brought us together.” Clifford brushed some glass from the top of a box and looked as if he was going to sit.
“We friends now.” Mattie looked at Clifford, and her voice had a softness that surprised Matt.
Instead of sitting, Clifford motioned them to a far corner. The threesome walked there and squatted, leaning back against the walls. It was the first time in hours Matt could have relaxed, but he soon began to feel cramping in his right leg. An involuntary pang shot a bolt of pain up the muscles in his leg, and he yelped, jumping up to shake out the cramp. When the pain eased, he sat down again.
Nobody talked for what seemed like minutes, but it was a comfortable silence. Matt wondered if this was the time to bank his emotional strength for the conversations he knew were coming.
Both Mattie and Carl seemed to be hyperalert to sounds. She swiveled her head from side to side, reminding Matt of a radar dish on the mast of a ship, spinning around and scanning as if peering into the distance for hazards.
“We listen for those van sirens,” Mattie said. “We listen for car doors slamming. But we don’t really worry until we hears footsteps.” She didn’t finish—and didn’t need to.
“We hide in different hiding places every night of the week,” Clifford added. “So far, we’ve stayed safe.” His voice lacked conviction about the “safe” part.
“May I call you Cliff?” Matt wanted to know.
“Clifford will be just fine, thank you.”
Matt looked at the two of them. Is it turning to daylight already? He realized he had no idea what time it was; the ambient light was likely just coming from the unspoiled part of the city.
Their collective gloomy moods suddenly filled the Cactus House room.
“What can you tell me?” Matt finally asked. “Carling—Detective Carling—said you two escaped from CleanSweep. How is that possible?”
Neither answered immediately, and Matt started to worry that this was all going to be a zilch, a waste of time, an excursion through hell for nothing.
“We each done it different,” Mattie said finally. “You know, escaped. It was different for each of us.”
“Like she said, we each escaped their clutches in different ways,” Clifford added.
Matt, getting used to Mattie’s speech pattern, waved off Clifford’s need to explain. She had an odd way of speaking, but her meaning was quite clear.
“What happened to you? How did you get out, Mattie?” Matt asked.
She grimaced and sniffed, as if detecting a foul odor. “I was sleeping in a doorway near my regular corner, cold, needed more blankets. I heard the tires screech. Their van stopped, and three mens jumped out.” She paused, wrapping her arms around herself. “I grabbed onta my bag and held it tight. I knowed they wasn’t up to no good. One of the mens grabbed me by my arms, one held my feet together. They throwed me into the van like a sack of potatoes. One of them threw ’way my bag.” The sadness of its loss was etched on her face.
She was quiet for a long time then, and Matt wondered if she was going to continue. Pain was fixed on her face. He knew enough to wait.
“They had another man already in there. He was tied to the wall with bracelets.”
“Handcuffs,” Clifford said, “locked to U-bolts welded onto the wall.”
Matt gave him a withering look for the needless explanation, but Mattie kept talking.
“This guy and me was locked in the back of the van together. He kept yelling as we slid around corners, but I kept quiet. Then they locked in another man and drove us around some more. We ended up at some building. I couldn’t see much, but I think we were still on the east side.”
Matt was scribbling her story in his notebook as fast as he could write, using his own cryptic version of shorthand.
“They dragged us out of the van, and then we was all inside a building, in a big room. The lights hurted my eyes. They marched us in a line.”
Her pain at telling this was evident.
“You know how it was, don’t you, Clifford?” she asked.
“Yep, they took me to the same building. I wasn’t sure where it was, but I guessed we were east of Parliament Street. I will never forget the smell. You know how it is when people are nervous. They have a nervous smell. Some of the people reeked because they hadn’t bathed in days. Add an overlay of an aroma I called ‘eau de cleaning solvent.’ Phew! And the stink from all the smoke in the air…”
Mattie picked up her story again. “There musta been ten or more of us in a line. As we got to a counter, they had us take all our clothes off. It was embarrassing—mens and womens all naked like that together. It wasn’t sexy or anything like that, just embarrassing.
“They took everything I had in my pockets and throwed it in a bin. I never saw any of it again. I lost the only picture I ever had of my two kids.” She started a low, mournful keening at the memory. She wrapped her arms around herself again and began to rock forward and back.
“You have children?” Matt asked with his pen poised.
“They live with their father, back east. Last time I seen them, they was with their nana. Nobody wanted me to see them.”
Matt was intrigued by this new glimpse of Mattie’s life, but he knew he had to stay focused on CleanSweep. Her full background story would have to wait for another time—if ever.
He noticed her wardrobe was certainly a unique assortment, but that she kept things clean. He wanted to ask her about her ballet, the dancing he used to see from the streetcar, but he didn’t want to distract her. It’s a question for another time, he thought again.
Mattie was in constant motion as she talked, her head jerking to one side and back to the front, like she was turning to listen to something neither Clifford nor Matt could hear. She kept biting her fingernails. Matt looked carefully at her hands, saw that the nails were bleeding and raw. He knew it was painful for her, just like her life.
Clifford sat at her side, placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“How did you escape? What happened?” Matt prodded again.
“They put us in those orange suits. You remember, Cliff?”
I have to remember to call him Clifford, Matt thought, letting his annoyance drift away like a balloon. I was just trying to be friendly.
She went on. “When they moved us to the other place, there were four of us womens chained together in a van when we started out. They told us we were going to the Spadina place. They didn’t use no bracelets, though—just locked us inside. One woman was crying, and another told her to shut up. One pounded on the door, but it didn’t do any good. I learned a long time ago that quiet was best. I kept my mouth shut.”
She screwed up her face in thought. “Partway there, we gots hit from the side. The dumb driver wasn’t looking when we was crossing a road, and a streetcar hit us. We were throwed all over. The van was pushed almost a block, and we ended up on the side. The back door flew open. I took one look at the driver and guard and knowed they was both hurt bad.
“I crawled to an alley. It was dark there, and I curled up like I was a baby. I just laid down real still and acted dead.”
“Go ahead, Mattie,” Clifford said. “Tell him the rest.”
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