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Sisters under the skin

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It was different, being an actual police officer. Not just the work, which was an obvious difference (one that filled Elaine with secret glee, as she watched her new precinct's Civilian Aid stand at the copier duplicating and collating one form after another, and she thought: I am never doing that again) and not the surface, trivial things, like the uniform and the gun. It was a whole other level of the police force, being an officer, and not just the girl who made copies and coffee. She was no longer confined to the bullpen, behind double doors and a receptionist who only buzzed people through if they had legitimate business with the lieutenant or one of the detectives. She was out on the street, busting the punk who had grabbed a tourist's wallet, helping a lost four-year-old find his mother, talking gently to a sobbing woman who let her hair fall across her face to hide her black eye. She was doing something, doing something real.

And then Lieutenant Martinez called her into his office. He stood up from his desk when she walked in; he was younger than Welsh, and not as crusty, she thought, or at least he wasn't yet. He jerked his head toward the door, and she closed it.

"Yes, sir?"

"Vice wants you," he said. "Temporary, undercover. You don't have to say yes."

"Why –" she started, and then closed her mouth. Of course she knew why. She was female, and she was young. More importantly, she was coffee-skinned and kinky-haired, and in a pair of tight shorts and a red satin halter top she'd look like any prostitute on the Chicago streets. It didn't matter that she had graduated from the Academy at the top of her class, or that she already had a commendation in her file, or that she always scored 50 out of 50 shots in the quarterly handgun qualifier. She could look the part. That was all.

"And if I do?"

Lieutenant Martinez smiled thinly. "Then I lose you to Vice for a while. It's a good career move. If you want."

And he would know. On paper, Chicago was a good place to be a cop even if you weren't white with a surname like Flaherty – there'd even been an African-American appointed police superintendent, back in the eighties. She'd once overheard Martinez referred to as "Lieutenant Wetback" (which was not even an accurate slur; he was from Puerto Rico, not Mexico, but that clearly didn't matter to the sort of people who would call someone Lieutenant Wetback) and she knew he must have had an uphill climb to get to where he was. She was going to get there too, one day, and if she had to put on tight shorts to get there, she would.

What surprised her, during her stint with Vice, wasn't the way the other officers looked her up and down, said, "I'll be damned, Besbriss, you sure clean up nice," or told her, with broad winks, that she ought to get some practice before heading out on the street, and they'd be more than happy to oblige. She'd been expecting that. It wasn't anything she hadn't heard before.

It was the hollow looks in the girls' faces, out there, that got her. She'd seen them before, but she'd never really looked before - she'd never been among them like this, before. The practiced blank expressions, the smiles that went only as deep as their lipstick. It was worst with the younger ones – and too many of them were young, younger than her, way too young. She wanted to save all of them. She couldn't save any of them.

The older ones ignored her. She was competition. The younger ones would have ignored her too, probably, but she couldn't help herself; she smiled at them warmly and they gave her uncertain frowns, then giggled, and tossed their hair, and looked away, looking for men. There was one in particular, a sweet-faced girl who gave her name as Lupita. She had a high, breathy voice, and Elaine thought she couldn't have been more than fifteen, sixteen at the outside. "Lupita," she said, "don't you have any other place you could go?"

"Why would I want to go anyplace else? This is my corner."

"I don't mean that. I mean – I've seen how TJ treats you. You don't need that. You got a home? A family?"

"TJ's my family," said Lupita.

"But don't you –"

"My mama told me to get out of her sight." Lupita shrugged. "So I did. She don't like that her boyfriend likes me better than her. I ain't going back there. TJ takes care of me okay." She smiled brightly, but it was just her mouth that smiled, not her eyes.

TJ knocked you around until your front tooth came out, Elaine thought but didn't say. Lupita was already walking toward a long black car with smoked windows, her hips swinging.

It wasn't until the badges came out and the johns were cuffed and taken down to the station that the girls' features slipped, that their contempt for her showed through. One of them spat at her, a white girl with curly dark hair and long red fingernails. She looked a little like Vecchio's sister, Frannie, who'd taken over as Civilian Aid when Elaine had become a real cop. Except younger than Frannie, way too young, like so many of the others. The only part of her that looked old was her eyes.

Back at the station, Elaine scrubbed off the makeup, frowned at her reflection. She looked old and sallow under the fluorescent lights. Frannie had always been a little wild. But when Vecchio had gone undercover and the other Ray had taken his place, he'd taken on Frannie, too. Like he was her real brother, and that was good, because Frannie could have turned out like that girl out there on the street, but between the two Rays it looked like she was going to turn out okay.

She took off the shorts and halter and put her own clothes on. She had to do the paperwork now, and take the tapes to be transcribed, but then she was done. She'd helped bust some men who should have been dating women their own ages, not girls not even old enough to drive, for Pete's sake, and Vice thought they might be getting closer to being able to take down their pimp, but that was going to be someone else's collar. She was done.

She walked out of the station and through the lobby, between the double doors where the bulletin board was, and her eyes slid, as usual, over the tacked-up posters and flyers, the HIV testing information and the menu of the new Greek deli and the appeal for only $1 a day to save a child's life, the information and pleas she'd seen every day for the past year and a half – and then she stopped.

She wanted to save them all. She might be able to save one of them.

She'd seen the flyer a million times before. Big Brothers Big Sisters Chicago, it said. Help children realize their potential and build their futures.

She took out her notebook and jotted down the phone number at the bottom of the flyer. If she could keep just one Lupita from the street, it would be worth it.