Chapter 9: Warning
Ernie felt weak. His stomach hurt, his heart was racing, and all he could think of was getting out of there. He wasn’t prepared to see a dead body, let alone the body of someone he knew.
He turned and ran back out of the alley, leaving Ken scrambling to pick himself off of the pavement and follow. Ernie didn’t go far. He ducked behind the building at the end of the alley and sat down, back against the side of a dumpster, and hugged his knees close to his chest.
He didn’t cry, but he felt like it. He couldn’t get the image out of his head – Darryl, with his grimy face and bloody hands, lying there motionless on the gurney, a twisted expression of fear on his face. At least his eyes had been closed… Ernie shuddered again.
Ken caught up with him, and assumed the same position as Ernie just to his left.
“Hey, Ern, what’s goin’ on, man? You know that guy or somethin’?” Ernie didn’t reply audibly, but nodded slightly. Ken knew him well enough to realize that if you wanted information from Ernie, you were better off to just ask a lot of questions.
Ken hadn’t gotten a really good look at the man, since Ernie had dropped him before his eyes could fully focus, but he knew Ernie didn’t know a whole lot of people except the kids at the corner and the residents of St. Ives.
“Was is one of the guys from St. Ives, Ernie?” Ernie nodded ever so slightly again. “Man, that sucks.” Ken leaned his head up against the dumpster, hugging his knees even closer to his body.
A burst of inspiration struck Ken like a lightning bolt. This was a perfect opportunity to do some sleuthing! Like many children, Ken vacillated when it came to “what he wanted to do when he grew up.” But lately, he’d been leaning towards the glorious life of a private eye, due in no small part to the mystery novels that his friend Rex provided him.
He could use this opportunity to get some valuable experience. By investigating the cause of the mystery man’s death, he could try out his gumshoes and maybe even help Ernie somehow. It was an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.
“Hey, Ern, I’m going to head back to the store and see if I can figure out what’s going on. Just stay here; I’ll be right back.”
Ernie was more than happy to stay right there. He was still feeling quite sick. Sweat gathered quickly on his brow, and his breath became shallow. As Ken scuttled back towards the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles, Ernie’s mind cleared enough for him to think about what Darryl had told him a few weeks previous.
Darryl was a regular at St. Ives, though he wasn’t there nearly as often as Ernie. He was known by many of the other St. Ives residents as “the squeegee man,” largely due to the fact that he spent his days down on State Avenue cleaning the windshields of commuters as they waited at the lights. It couldn’t be called a living, since he still made moderate use of St. Ive’s free food supply, but he did better than many of the others who begged at street corners or outside grocery stores.
Part of Darryl’s success was due to his easy smile and the fact that he never ever asked for any money in return for his services. He strove to make it appear that he was simply helping people out; he didn’t want people to think he needed their charity, even though he most definitely did.
Darryl preferred instead to believe that people would pay for a service well done, even though they didn’t necessarily know they needed the service. He told Ernie on one occasion that most people didn’t realize how dirty their windows really were until he’d cleaned them, and after that, they were more than happy to throw a few cents his way in thanks. His attention to detail certainly didn’t hurt his enterprise either; Darryl made sure your windows were clean. This was not a cursory effort; this was professional service, even if it did come from a grimy, off-smelling homeless man.
Ernie had accompanied Darryl one day, and initially he found it interesting, but he didn’t excel at smalltalk and smiling the way Darryl did, and the customers’ looks of dismay upon their approach was more than enough to convince Ernie that he was better off to stick to his jive.
He’d learned a lot from Darryl, though, especially about keeping a positive attitude. Darryl had told Ernie stories of drivers that had gotten particularly angry at him – so angry that they had stepped out of their cars and gotten physical with him. Every so often, Ernie would see Darryl with fresh bruises on his arms, or a cut above his eye. But he never let it get him down. He had explained his philosophy to Ernie once.
“Ya see, Ernie, da way I figger it, everybody’s got a lot goin’ on that we don’t see. Take you and me, fer example. Most folks don’t realize you and me ain’t gots no home, ain’t gots no food, but at the same time, we gots to understand that they’se maybe had a rough day. Maybe da wife left ‘em and took da kids. Maybe dey got fired an’ worry about endin’ up like you and me. I dunno. But da point is, we don’t know. We gots to give them the opportunity to be mad, cuz we don’t know why dey are. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so. I think it’s something else. It’s like my momma used to always say, ‘Dey’s more to it than just a broken leg.‘”
Ernie had never quite understood what Darryl’s mother had meant, but if Darryl’s account was at all truthful, she was the most intelligent and insightful woman the earth had ever known, “a true angel,” as Darryl liked to say.
Ernie wasn’t sure if he and Darryl were friends or not, but he knew he enjoyed his company, and whenever Darryl was at St. Ive’s, Ernie sought him out.
A few weeks ago, Darryl had come to dinner at St. Ives a changed man. He was bleeding from numerous cuts on his face, his clothes ripped and torn more than usual, and his hands were blistered so he could barely hold the now broken squeegee.
Rhonda had clucked over him for an hour, dressing his wounds and cleaning him up as best she could. Darryl was strangely reticent during the whole procedure and on into the evening, despite Rhonda’s attempts to get him to explain what had happened.
Ernie hadn’t had any luck either. He sat with Darryl at the dining room table long after dinner, waiting for Darryl’s explanation, but it never came. He just stared aimlessly into space, seemingly lost in his thoughts.
Finally, Ernie grew restless and stood up to leave, but Darryl had grasped his arm urgently.
“Ernie, listen!” He spoke with an uncharacteristic urgency that immediately caught Ernie’s attention. There was a bizarre fire in his eyes, but they stared aimlessly the way they had that entire evening.
“If a man ever comes to you, sayin’ he’s got da answer, dat he can get you out, you just gots to do one thing, don’t listen to ‘im. Don’t let him take ‘vantage o’ you. Tell him you’ll get out y’own way. Tell him you don’t need ‘im. Hear me?” He clenched Ernie’s arm so hard he cried out in surprise.
Ernie nodded a slow acknowledgment and drew his arm away quickly. Darryl had never done anything that would hurt him before, but his eyes still stared off aimlessly into space; he didn’t seem to even realize he’d done or said anything.
Ernie had gone to bed that evening troubled, and he had wanted to ask Darryl what he was talking about, but Darryl was gone in the morning. It wasn’t unusual – Darryl often didn’t spend the whole night at the shelter. He preferred to find his own place to sleep. But Darryl hadn’t returned, and no one Ernie had spoken to had seen him around his normal Stae Avenue workplace.
Ernie hadn’t worried too much, though. Darryl was an old-timer; he’d been on the street for a long time. He knew the ropes and could take care of himself.
But now, seeing Darryl’s still body in the ambulance, the look of pain in his eyes, Ernie wondered if perhaps there had been more to Darryl’s admonition than he’d thought.
**Chapter 10: Investigation **
Ken was having considerable luck on his first foray into the investigative arts. He had quickly found a perfect listening post from a fire escape just beyond the row of police cars and ambulances. From his vantage point, he could get a relatively complete view of the mass of blue-suited officers with little risk of being seen. And if he was quiet and listened carefully, he could make out the conversations of them men below without too much difficulty.
Two men in trench coats and white dress shirts seemed to be running the show. Ken had heard them be addressed as Detectives. Detective – that was a title he could get used to. Detective van Zandt – yes, it had a nice ring to it. This investigation stuff was going to be a blast!
Despite the fun he was having, Ken tried to keep a serious attitude. A man was dead, and while that in and of itself wasn’t terribly stunning, especially in McAllister Park , this was someone Ernie knew, and that made it even more important that Ken take things seriously. He desperately wanted to find out something that would put Ernie at ease, or at least give them a clue as to what had happened. He’d never seen Ernie this way before, which meant that he knew the dead man pretty well.
One of the detectives approached the ambulance where Darryl’s body lay. Ken craned his neck to hear the conversation.
“Any idea who we’ve got here?”
“No, sorry. No identification at all. But judging from his appearance and smell, he was probably homeless. We had more luck with the other guy. We found a few books and some plane tickets from Sumatra in his backpack, and I think somebody mentioned that they had his wallet as well.”
“OK, any idea on what happened?”
“Not really. Both victims had gunshot wounds, but judging from the blood loss, I’d say John Doe over here got hit first. The kid probably stumbled on the perps or tried to help the guy or something. A regular saint, I guess.”
“Where’s the other victim?”
“Well, they’ve got him on the train back up to Elston Memorial. Stomach wound, but it seemed to have missed all the important stuff, so maybe he’ll be all right. We’ll see.”
“OK, thanks.” The detective turned and walked towards his partner.
“What do we have, Cobb?”
“Looks like a homeless guy,” the first detective said, removing the toothpick he’d been chewing on nervously from his mouth.
“Well, we’ve got the other guy’s wallet. His name is Joel Mendocino. Address on his license is for an apartment just west of here. They’ve taken him to Elston.”
“Yeah, that’s what I hear. Is Foster gonna call us when he’s awake so we can get statement?”
“Yeah, she said she would.”
“All right, let’s head to the apartment and see what we can find there.”
Ken watched as the two men headed on up the road towards their car, debating whether the rest of the uniformed cops would have any useful information. None of them seemed to be talking – they were all simply looking around the scene and taking notes. He decided it was time to go let Ernie know what was going on, and scrambled noiselessly off the fire escape and headed towards the dumpster behind the alley, where Ernie was still sitting, head on his knees.
Ken pulled gently on his arm.
“Ernie, I found out where they’re taking the other guy. There were two of ‘em. Come on, lets go see if he can tell us anything.” He pulled more strongly against Ernie’s resistance.
Ernie reluctantly stood up slowly and followed Ken to where his bike lay on the asphalt. He didn’t much feel like “investigating,” but Ken seemed to think it was the right thing to do. He instinctively reached for the headphones around his neck, but stopped short of pulling them to his ears. No, he didn’t feel much like jiving either, so he and Ken made their way up the street in silence.