The lights downstairs were all off. The dishes from Mike’s breakfast earlier in the morning still sat in the sink; the soft sound of water drops echoed in the silent twilight of the room.
Mike glanced around expectantly, all five of his sense on maximum awareness, ready to respond. Someone was in his house – he could feel it. Someone had the audacity to enter his home – his home – and do something – what he didn’t yet know – but whatever it was, he knew he wasn’t going to like it.
He stepped quietly to the closet in the den and picked up his trusty baseball bat. If someone wanted to get physical with him, he was going to have something other than his fists to protect him. He still had seen no sign of the intruders, but he knew they were there somewhere, and he was going to introduce them to Big Bertha.
Now armed with the bat, he moved slowly towards the stairs up to the second floor of the house. The creaking of the carpeted stairs hid the sounds floating down from upstairs until he made it to the narrow hall at the top of the stairs.
Once there, the sound was clearly audible. He turned left towards it, bat held at the ready, and crept towards the bedroom. The perspiration collected in large beads along his forehead, then ran down into his eyes. He didn’t dare remove his hands from the bat to wipe them, and instead ignored the burning sensation and slightly blurred vision the saline sweat produced.
He reached the bedroom, the apparent source of the sound. The door was only partly open, and he sidled alongside the doorway, back pressed against the wall. He peered inside the crack of the door, but nothing was visible.
The sounds were growing louder. Soft, hushed breathing and occasional low moans had turned into groans and raspy, labored breaths, coming at a much greater frequency than before. Mike took a deep breath, gripped the handle of the bat till his knuckles turned white, turned and stormed into the bedroom, yelling at top of his lungs.
Chapter 12: Identification
“Wow, what a dump,” Cobb said as he stepped into the small one bedroom apartment. “Not much of a decorator, is he?” The apartment was bare except for a small unmade bed in the corner. The floor was bare cement, the normally white walls a light brown from months of city soot and grime.
“Well, I guess you get what you pay for,” Ames commented as he moved deeper into the interior of the apartment. “Doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot here. The landlord did say the kid had been subletting the place, and that the other two tenants left about a month ago.”
“Two people lived here?”
“Well, not everyone has the benefits of a detective’s salary, Cobb,” Ames smiled wryly. Cobb shook his head in response. “Hard to believe, that’s all.”
He detectives glanced around again.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything here. Maybe the kid was just coming back today. He did have those tickets in his backpack.”
“All right. What next?”
Cobb sat down on the bed, looking around the room in thought. “They said the other guy was most likely homeless, right?” Ames nodded. “Not too unusual in this part of town. I think there’s a shelter down on Sullivan. Maybe somebody there knows the guy.”
“You read my mind. Let’s go.” He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up, following Ames out of the ground floor apartment and back to their car. “You drive,” he said, throwing Ames the keys.
Ames was surprised. “Say what? You never let me drive? What’s the deal?”
“I just want to look around a bit. You drive.”
Ames didn’t argue. Cobb was reticent as he started up the engine and pulled slowly out of the apartment complex and back onto the main road, making his way towards Sullivan Street .
Cobb looked out of the passenger side window at the groups of homeless men and women underneath the bridges as they passed. Their faces were dirty, hair greasy, a broken, beaten look in their eyes.
He thought back to the last summer he’d spent with his mother. He’d grown up in a neighborhood not unlike this one. He didn’t remember exactly how it had happened, but one day, his mother had come home from work telling him to pack his things into his small backpack, and they’d left the apartment that had been his home.
They had walked forever that day, him with his backpack, his mother with a small blue suitcase. When evening fell, they had found shelter under a bridge with others like themselves – others with nowhere else to go.
Cobb hadn’t liked it there at first. The cement was a hard, cold bed, and the others there had smelled funny, but his mother had held him close, told him that everything was going to be OK, and eventually he was able to fall asleep.
Every day they followed the same routine – they’d get up, repack their belongings, and walk around the city streets, looking for whatever they could find. At first, his mother went into a few places looking for jobs. Cobb would sit out in front of the store, patiently watching his backpack and the blue suitcase, but every time his mother returned with a sad look on her face, and they started walking again.
Eventually, his mother stopped looking for jobs and started looking for food. Cobb was always hungry, and so their lives became a constant search for sustenance. His mother would take his hand and they’d walk along the alleys, looking in dumpsters for food or other things that might prove valuable in trade to someone else.
This had been his life for that summer. Towards the end, his mother had started leaving him under the bridge in the evening. She would return a few hours later, often with new bruises, but the next morning, his mother would pull out a small wad of crumpled cash, and they would go out and have a big breakfast, with orange juice, eggs, and pancakes, and sometimes, they’d go to the carwash and wash themselves with the hose. Those had been his favorite days.
One day a policeman had stopped them on the street and had taken them to the police station. He had sat on the bench with his mother fearfully clutching her hand, and had cried incessantly when she said she had to go and he would have a new family and a new life.
Social Services had placed him with a foster family, and he had gone back to school. The foster family was nice enough, but all he had really wanted was his mother. He hadn’t seen her since that day in the police station. He wondered now, as he peered out on the dirty faces, if perhaps one of them was her.
Abruptly, the car turned onto Sullivan Street and Cobb was drawn back into reality.
“There it is, at the corner, on the right,” said Ames quietly as they approached the St. Ives shelter. Cobb looked up at the large stone structure looming in front of them. The white brick exterior was worn and caked with city grime. The large orange neon cross above the entrance flickered “Jesus Loves You.” A few grubby, coated figures sat on the large stairs, sharing a cigarette between them.
Ames pulled up next to the entrance and parked the car. “Ready?”
“Yeah, let’s go.” Cobb pulled his jacket tighter around him as they exited the car and walked towards the figures sitting on the stairs. They seemed to have the right idea. He could really use a cigarette right now. He pulled one from his pocket and lit it as he and Ames took the stairs towards the entrance.
“Better not smoke that inside,” one of the figures on the stairs said as they passed by. Cobb stopped and turned. “Why not?”
“Rhonda won’t like it. She doesn’t let us smoke inside. Why else you think we’d be sittin’ out here? Shit, it’s warm in there.” The man gestured towards St. Ives. The others sharing the cigarette laughed.
Cobb handed the cigarette to the man. “Well, I guess you guys can have this one on me.”
“Thanks, officer,” the man responded, accepting Cobb’s offer.
“Is it that obvious?” Cobb asked, putting his hands in his jacket pockets.
“Only cops move the way you two do,” the man responded, inhaling Cobb’s cigarette slowly before passing it along to the next one in the small circle.
Cobb smiled. “Must be our police training.” A few men chuckled as he turned and followed Ames into the large St. Ives vestibule.
“Sounds like Rhonda’s the one we want to talk to,” said Cobb as they hung their coats on the rack in the corner. Ames murmured in agreement, and they walked up the short staircase into the large dining hall. It was mostly empty, except for one of two men sitting at distant tables, eating.
The only sounds seemed to be coming from a door at the far side of the room, so they walked in that direction, aware of the strong smell of food wafting more strongly as they approached.
“They say it’s warm in here?” Ames commented as they entered the doorway to the kitchen. “Seems chilly to me.”
“Wal, you try heatin’ a big old place like dis wit what money we got! ‘Sides, it’s warmer than outside, and that’s warm enough for most folks here.” Rhonda turned from the kitchen sink and wiped her hands on her apron.
“Are you Rhonda?” Ames asked, stopping at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Sho ‘nuff,” Rhonda replied. “And you must be cops. Only cops walk the way you do. What can I do for you?”
Cobb interrupted, “Hi Rhonda, I’m Detective Cobb and this is my partner, Detective Ames. I don’t know if you’ve heard yet, but there were a couple of men found earlier this morning, and one of them is dead. He appeared to be homeless, so we were wondering if he’d have maybe come in here. We’re just trying to find out who he is and how he got shot.”
“Shot? Well, dat’s a new one for one of my guys. Usually they do a pretty good job of staying out o’ da way of guns. You got a picture?” Ames nodded, reaching into his jacket pocket for the Polaroid.
“Ma’am, this is from the crime scene, so…”
“Just let me see it. I’ve seen worse, I’m sure.” Rhonda walked over, accepted the picture, and inspected it with a frown on her face, shaking her head.
“Yeah, this is Darryl. I don’t know his last name.” She shook her head again. “Poor guy. Guys around here call him da Squeegee Man, on ‘ccount o’ his always cleaning car windows down on State Ave. Last time he came in, he was pretty beat up, but he didn’t seem to wanna talk about it. We don’t pressure ‘em ‘round here. He ate a bit, talked to Ernie once, but didn’t stay the night. I hadn’t seem him since den.” She handed the picture back to Ames .
“Do you know anything more about him? Any reason you can think of that he would have been shot?” Rhonda shook her head.
“No, Darryl was a nice guy, real friendly and he’d talk your ear off if you let him. He was different last I saw him, though. Real quiet. Like I said, he was beat up. I spect he got in front of that bullet by accident – he wasn’t the kind to seek out trouble.”
“OK. You mentioned he talked to Ernie last time he was here. Who’s Ernie?”
Rhonda smiled. “He’s a reg’lar ‘round here. He’s not all right in the head, but he’s a sweet boy. He didn’t have anything to do with this, I can tell you dat. He used to talk to Darryl a lot; went out with him to State Ave. once.”
“Any idea where we can find him?”
“Wal, he usually goes down and hangs out with some kids around 34 th and Broadway, but I doubt you’ll get much from him. Ernie can’t describe things very well. His mind don’t work dat way. Tell you what, though, there’s a girl that some of da guys talk about ‘round here. She works up at the Dominick’s just up the street. Da guys say she’s real nice. I know Darryl knew her; Ernie does too. She might know somethin’ more. Sometimes dey talk to other people better – they don’t tell me too much. Now, I’ve gotta get the rest of this food made, we’ll be having a large crowd here for lunch in a bit. ‘Scuse me.” She brushed pas Ames and Cobb and rummaged around the counter.
“OK. Thanks a lot ma’am. If you hear anything just give us a call at the station.” Rhonda nodded, and Cobb turned back and left the kitchen, Ames close behind.
“You want to head over to the Dominick’s?” Ames asked.
“Might as well. Foster’s going to call us when the kid wakes up. Might as well try to figure out why the homeless guy’s dead.”
Cobb pulled out another cigarette as they exited St. Ives. The men on the stairs were gone.
“Maybe the kid was bein’ held up or something, and this Darryl guy went to help him out. From what she said, he sounds like he might have done somethin’ like that,” Ames commented as he unlocked the doors. “Am I still driving?”
Ned felt uneasy as soon as Cobb and Ames entered the store. There was a purposefulness in their walk that said they were on the job, they were looking for someone; this was not just friendly stop for donuts and coffee.
Positioned at the register nearest to the entrance, he was their first stop. They flashed a badge. “Police. Can you call the manager down for a second? We need to speak with him.”
Ned nodded and walked to the intercom mounted on the support beam behind the register. “Bob, please come to register one, Bob, to register one.” Bob was the nearest thing to a manager today. He wasn’t the big man himself, but he was in charge for the time being.
Ned returned to his position behind the register. “He’ll be right over. Anything I can do for you gentlemen?”
Ames looked at Cobb for confirmation. “We’re looking for a girl that works here, may be real friendly with the homeless guys that live around here.”
They were talking about Holly, no doubt. “This girl in some kind of trouble?” Ned asked.
“Not at all. There was a homeless man that was murdered earlier this morning, and we’re trying to identify him and figure out what happened. Rhonda from St. Ives said this girl might know him.”
Ned was relieved. He had been concerned as soon as they had mentioned Holly. He knew she’d had her run-ins with law enforcement before, but she was a good kid – he didn’t want anything bad to happen to her. It looked like the police officers just needed information.
“Yeah, she was probably talking about Holly. She works here. She knows a lot of the guys that live around here. I go out with her and talk to them every once in awhile. Maybe I can help you out.”
Ames had already taken the Polaroid out of his pocket and thrust it into Ned’s hand. He peered into it. It was a grisly photograph – the man in it was obviously dead.
“Yeah, Holly’s talked to him a couple of times. He’s stopped by when she brings pizza or hot chocolate or something, but I don’t know if she knows anything more than what he does and where he works – on the street, I mean. None of these guys have real jobs.” He handed the photo back to Ames .
“Tell you what, I think Holly just took a break. She might be out back smoking or something. I can take you out there if you’d like.” He wanted to be there when they talked to her – he could keep an eye on things and make sure they hadn’t been lying to him about why they wanted to talk to her.
Bob approached from the back of the store, smile pasted on his pale face as always. “Hey Ned, you called? What do you need?”
Cobb spoke up before Ned had a chance to answer. “Well, your employee here has been kind enough to help us out. We’ll let you know if you need anything else.” He flashed his badge again. A confused expression clouded Bob’s face, but he replaced it quickly with his award-winning smile and nodded.
Ned grinned to himself. It was satisfying to see the cops put Bob is his place. Bob was too used to having things under his control, to being the ultimate decision maker. But the cops didn’t even give him a second glance as Ned led them to the back of the store.
As Ned had expected, Holly was standing outside in the back parking lot, a lit cigarette between her lips. She smiled as Ned and the cops joined her on the sidewalk. Cobb lit another cigarette and smoked while Ames explained the situation.
Holly’s eyes teared upon inspection of the Polaroid. “Yeah, this is Darryl. He’s really friendly. Such a great guy.” She cried harder, and Ned put his arm around her.
“I’m sorry ma’am. Do you happen to know anyone who would have wanted to kill him?”
Holly nodded, still crying softly. “Oh no, not at all. I mean, every once in awhile somebody’d get huffy with him for cleaning their windshield, but Darryl just let it go. I can’t imagine him doing anything to anyone that’d make them want to kill him.”
Ames looked at Cobb, who signaled their departure by flicking his half- finished cigarette to the ground. “Thank you, ma’am. And again, we’re sorry.” The detectives made their way towards the back entrance to the store.
“Wait!” Holly called softly. She ran up, tears still in her eyes. “Some of the guys have been talking lately about something. Something that has them all scared. They were saying that sometimes, one guy disappears for a night, then shows up the next day all bruised and beat up. It happened to Darryl one time. I tried to talk to him about it, but he wouldn’t tell me what had happened. But everybody seems nervous about it these days. Even the homeless guys try to stay in pairs now, just to be safer. Maybe it has something to do with that, I don’t know.”
Ames and Cobb thanked her again and continued on into the store. Holly was still crying as Ned put his arm around her again.
Chapter 13: Beat Down
Mike’s vision focused slowly as he stormed into the room, yelling wildly. His own voice was soon drowned out by Marie, shrieking maniacally at the top of her lungs, and by that of a man as he jumped free from his position on top of her and rolled off the side of the bed.
Marie clutched the sheets around her naked body and continued to shriek on the bed, a fearful look in her eyes. Mike’s hands were still tightly grasping the bat, and he ignored her screaming as he scanned the room for the man. He moved around to the left side of the bed, where the man was cowering next to the night table, holding his hands in front of his nude, trembling body in an attempt to shield himself.
Well, this was an interesting development. He glanced around the room in an effort to discredit the conclusion he already knew to be true. The room was in perfect condition, just like the rest of the house; no, Marie had let this bastard into the house.
Marie regained her composure to some degree and shouted, both in fear and anger, “Mike, what the hell are you doing?”
Mike’s mission now seemed clear. His job was gone, Angelo was going to kill him, and Marie was cheating on him; with this pasty-faced bastard, no less. He couldn’t do anything about the job or Angelo, but he’d be damned if he was going to let her get away with this. She was going to pay.
The weakness he’d been feeling on his trip home was now fading, replaced by the familiar rage that fueled all his best work. He was starting to feel normal again – in control. But this time was going to be different. He wasn’t going to stomp around, screaming vulgarities and throwing things around the room. This time he was going to do it fucking right.
Mike glanced back at Marie, a strange stillness in his eyes. He replied icily, eyes staring blankly into the distance, “I’m fuckin’ killing your boyfriend, that’s what I’m doing.”
He swung the bat down forcefully, striking the pale, sweating man on the left side. His arm crumpled as he cried out in pain. He scrambled towards the bed, looking for shelter, but Mike bent down, grabbed his ankle, and pulled him out one handed. With his other hand he swung the bat again, hitting his target just between the shoulder blades.
The man gasped, then went limp, and Mike struck again, with both hands this time. The man’s body was unresponsive, and in his subconscious Mike realized that he was either dead or knocked out, but the beating continued.
Marie jumped from the bed onto his back, screaming nonsensically at him and pounding weakly at him with her fists. The man groaned unexpectedly and Mike smiled inwardly at the realization that he wasn’t dead yet. The beating could continue.
He grabbed Marie’s arm and swung her off his shoulder, then clutched her towards him and threw her hard towards the left closet door. She smashed awkwardly into the full-length mirror there, sending fireworks of sunlight from the early afternoon sun around the room, and landed in a heap of broken glass, broken skin, and tears.
Mike smiled at her. “That’s right, bitch,” he spoke smoothly, resuming his swings with the bat. The man was now in a fetal position below him, moaning softly. Bruises had already started to form on his legs and back, and his disfigured arm gushed blood where white bone jutted incongruently out of his pasty skin.
Mike pounded on him mercilessly with the bat, paying special attention to his broken arm and now purple back, then abruptly dropped to his knees and continued with his own fists, focusing on the face and neck. His own blood mixed with the man’s as the cuts on his knuckles reopened. He raised his hand for another blow, and without warning, stopped short, instead grabbing the bat again and standing slowly up.
The tip of the bat was smeared a dark crimson now, and flecks of a similar color dotted the sheets and bed surrounding the crumpled body of the man. Mike smiled coldly, satisfied with his work. He looked over at Marie, where small rivulets of her own blood ran along the glass pathways on the clean hardwood floor, fueled by constant drops from fresh cuts on her back, legs and buttocks. She caught his cold stare from behind a shroud of matted, blood- flecked hair.
Mike turned and threw the bat at her feet. Its noisy clatter was drowned out by her own surprised shriek, and she scrambled away quickly, leaving a broad swath of crimson in her path.
Mike reached down and picked up the telephone on the night table, throwing it at her. “You’d better call 911, Marie. I think your boyfriend needs to see a doctor.” With that, he turned and strode quickly out of the room, down the stairs, and into the kitchen.
He stopped at the sink, running cold water over his own wounded hands. The white of his own knuckles shone through as the blood washed away. He saw Marie’s purse in it’s customary position on the kitchen counter, and he swung it over his shoulder as he walked to the garage.
Marie wouldn’t be needed her SUV – he might as well take it. It was really his anyway, he’d paid for it. The angry adrenaline surged pleasantly through him as he pressed the garage door button. Sunlight streamed brightly into the dark garage as the door opened. What a beautiful day, he thought. He pulled out slowly onto the street, and continued on through the path of finely manicured lawns, stone yard fountains, and hedge art. It was time to go see Angelo.