by Daniel Robinson
“Ah, but I was so much older then,I’m younger than that now.”–Bob Dylan
Some days in October, Seattle can be an old city without any hope as the clouds huddle heavy above the city, threatening another rain. The buildings between First and Second Avenues block even the stray bits of sunlight that might have been available, so late in the morning or early in the afternoon, the world still seems dark. And life travels even darker on those days, especially when those days turn to night. When I lived in the city back then, thirty years ago, I was old as well. Chill was older than me. She was too old to live.
About an hour after they left with Chill’s body, I climbed out an empty back window to join Punj and Fre in the blind entry to a blocked-out door across the alley.
Punj shifted his weight against one side to let me sit between him and Fre.
“I’m sorry,” Fre said.
She meant it. Even back then on the street, she had a good heart. Still does, as a matter of fact.
“Me too.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“Chill told me she was quitting the stuff,” Fre said.
I did not look at her when she spoke. Instead, I concentrated on the rivulet of old rainwater that washed urine and filth down the alley’s middle. I could not look at her because her eyes were like Chill’s. Innocent eyes that had much earlier lost their innocence.
“She did quit,” Punj said and laughed, although his laugh was far from warm. “She ain’t having no more rides.” Those leather gloves he always wore slapped at the air.
“Shut up, Punj,” Fre said.
I was glad she said it because I didn’t want to fight Punj again. I felt all spent, too beat to let someone do anything but beat me some more.
Punj’s body shook in a silent laugh. I liked Fre but I hated Punj. She was the opposite of him, the very opposite. While her smile felt warm, his seemed raw as bone. When she talked, you walked closer to listen hoping she would whisper so you could get even closer. When he talked, which was not very often but way too often, you wanted to break a chair to burn for warmth. You knew when either walked into a room by the way it got lighter or darker.
Even though we were all dirty with the city’s streets, Punj was dirtier. His face was always a little darker and his hair matted into dirty locks underneath a torn and dirty stocking cap. But Fre was tiny, like a small bird in winter, which is probably why she stayed with Punj since he was so damn big and mean. Everybody needs protection.
“You think she meant to, you know, kill herself? Suicide?” Fre asked me, her voice just loud enough to cover the traffic noise from the end of the alley.
She said suicide softly, and I almost couldn’t hear her, like it held something evil in its sound. As though just saying the word brought down some bad on us. We had all witnessed enough bad to not invite any more.
“No. I don’t even think she did it to herself.”
“What?” Punj jerked toward me. Any little thing could set him off like a cooker come to pressure, which was why he always wore those leather gloves. He was ready for a fight if anything overheated him.
“I think someone shot her up,” I said.
“Why would someone do that, huh?” Punj asked. His voice scraped against my ears, metal across concrete.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Maybe she did find someone holding and they shared a bag. Maybe not.”
“Why do you think anything at all happened?” Fre asked. She removed her stocking cap and pushed the errant strands of hair behind her ears.
A rain began falling so we pulled our knees up tight against our bodies. As Punj drew his feet to his butt, he cussed at having to scrape his new boots against the brick wall. I looked at Punj’s black Doc Marten’s, the dull shine looked like a lie. Not in months had I seen anyone wear something new, at least not since Chill found a brand new H-bar-C shirt still in pins at the Goodwill. Next to my hightop Chuck Taylor’s with holes in the ankles and toes, Punj’s new boots looked like money. If they were, the asshole wasn’t sharing, at least not with me.
The rain fell harder. We huddled tighter. We sat like the three monkeys except we had all seen, heard and spoken too much evil.
I said, “They found her on the first floor. Before she left, she said she was going down to the Market to wash her hair and clean up in the restroom there.”
“Hell, man,” Punj grunted. “She was turning tricks. You know them old guys like ’em young. Shit man, stock brokers drive their Mercedes Benz down here, get a chick young enough to be their granddaughter, get their rocks off, and dump them. Nothing new there. That Green River dude, it was probably him.
“I wanted to hit Punj. I wanted to hurt him, but he had been hit by so many people for so long that he might not even have felt my pain.
“Shut up,” Fre said again. “Sometimes you’re a real ass.”
Punj spit into the rain.
“Somebody put her in that room,” I said. “It’s right next to the front door. She had all her clothes on. There weren’t no needles or tubes or nothing laying anywhere near her. One shoe on, the other across the room like it was tossed in. An afterthought. No. Somebody shot her full. After she died, they dressed her and dumped her back here.”
A siren on Pike went by, and a cat looked up from its garbage can across the alley. The city returned to its sounds. Rain dripped down brown gutter spouts, cars, drunks cussing, babies crying.
“So.” Punj said the word like in itself the word held a complete answer. “I’m not a high school graduate like you but I’m not stupid. I don’t see nothing. She shoots somewhere else and dies and whoever she’s with brings her home. Sounds like you should thank whoever it is.” He looked at me like a rabid dog ready to strike, daring me to disagree.
“It sounds too messed,” Fre said.
“Sounds like shit to me,” Punj said and spit again
I sat with them for a while longer without saying anything. Nothing more to say. When the rain slackened, I walked off and went down along Alaskan Way to watch the ferries. Maybe find a discarded sandwich for dinner.
When you run away from home, you trade one set of problems for another, one set of enemies for another. Me and Fre had talked about that once, how a world that seems so bad when you’re in it turns out no worse than the one you run to. So you begin to choose another escape–smack or suicide. It’s the same. I quit riding the brown horse over a year earlier, but some people only quit when it kills them. When it does, the police write out a quick report about another junkie John or Jane Doe runaway who overdosed. That’s all. Easy to report, easy to forget. It’s not always the truth.
The cops don’t care. Any punk runaway off the street is a blessing in their eyes. One less hooker, one less thief, one less panhandler. They don’t see the person. They see the statistic, a number moved from one column to another.
That’s how it was when Chill died. The police tagged her, bagged her, and carted her off to the morgue. No need to identify her, just get rid of her like tossing out a Handy Bag of last week’s garbage. No need to name her, just dump her so they can investigate some important crime happening to some important person living up on Queen Anne Hill.
Hell, I don’t even know if they had seen me sitting on the stairs crying when they walked past me. The police responded to another 911 and found a dead runaway with no name and saw the trash she lived with. Faces weren’t that important. Names even less. I could not, then, have told them who killed her. I could have told them her name was Chill and she was from Colorado and that me and her slept together sometimes to block out the night and that she wanted to be a nurse someday. They did not ask.
That night after Chill died, I sat the whole night in a corner of our building. I cried and I rocked and I questioned why I didn’t do something to save her. I could have. I knew it. I knew that as well as I knew that someone had killed her.
Sometimes you have these feelings about things. I had one when I left home in Longview and hopped an express up to Seattle. Something told me to just leave, and I did. It’s like a voice whispers into your ear while you’re asleep. You wake up just knowing something you didn’t know before. That’s how I felt about Chill’s death.
I also knew the police wouldn’t do a thing even if they believed me. They’d spit into the rain water just like Punj did.
What I didn’t know was that Chill was the second runaway to overdose that week. The first one, New Delta, was a black girl from West Seattle who had been in and out of our world for a couple of years before finally coming over the previous winter. From what I heard, they found her just like Chill. Inside a building, near the front door, fully clothed except for the rosary she wore as a necklace, and dead from a hot shot under the nail of the little finger of her right hand.
I believed most of it, except where she shot. I rode the horse a good distance myself but I never could see putting a needle under a fingernail, at least not when your veins aren’t all tracked out.
They found the next girl just a couple of weeks after Chill died. I saw her in the alley behind The Western Coffee Shop while I was searching dumpsters for food. The police had already lined her body with white chalk and a couple of cops in Nordstrom’s suits were arguing. They seemed to think another serial killer was on the loose. I got as close as I could before a uniform blocked my path. This was a half-dozen blocks from where Chill and I lived, and this girl wasn’t wearing a coat against the fall weather. That voice kept telling me that whoever helped Chill die also helped this girl die.
She was clean, even her face looked washed except for where she had vomited. She was dead. One cop asked another if there was any ID. Nothing. No purse, no wallet or bag.
A big uniformed cop said, “Another runaway. What’s that? Four? Five?”
A Nordstrom’s suit answered, “Counting those two in Bellevue. This isn’t a runaway, though. Look at her. There isn’t even dirt under her fingernails, and her clothes are clean, too clean for a runner.”
“Probably lost it or somebody stole it while she was dying.”
The suit shook his head, “Some cheerleader from Edmunds looking for a new kick. Kidsdon’t know their own mortality, you know that. There’s no track marks. She was probably smacking for the first time.” He shook his head.
I knew the suit was wrong and the uniform right. She was runaway. I had seen her a couple of days earlier at the Teen Feed in the U-District having a free lunch on the ministry there. I remember her because she was talking with Punj until me and Fre joined them at their table. Then she got real quiet and left without finishing her stew. She looked at Punj and said she’d see him later. He nodded, chewed his food loudly, masticating it with such force that it looked like he had entered into battle with it. That was the last time I had seen her before coming across her lying against a pile of garbage bags with vomit crusted against her cheek and her skin the color of seaweed.
The cops asked me a few questions. None of them recognized me from Chill’s death. They had no reason to talk with me other than I was pushing through a crowd trying to get a closer look. They probably figured I was some sort of sick mind. Getting kicks from looking at dead. It was just a case of rounding up the usual. number of suspects. They asked, I listened. I answered, they wrote. They walked away, I stood looking at the dead girl and missing Chill even more.
It may sound heartless, but when you live on the street you can’t show too much emotion. You learn to treat death like it was just a rainy wind you turn your back to. You stuff it into the pack you carry on your back along with fear and loneliness and hope, and you try to ignore it all.
I climbed back into the flophouse and went up to my room. After I locked the door, I laid down on Chill’s things, her backpack, bedroll, and extra clothes. I curled around her stuffed dog and cried, silently so nobody could hear. When I had left home, the only pain I felt was from hunger and the old man’s belt. Losing Chill, though, was deep, as deep as leaning over the end of a pier and seeing the shadow of something swimming just beyond the border between darkness and sunlight. Losing Chill was cold, cold as the wind from a deep hole. Losing Chill meant losing my way at night.
I cried because the last time I had seen her alive, I ignored her in favor of sharing a bottle with someone I hated. She came to Punj’s room to tell me she was going out. I said nothing to stop her. She looked drawn and tired and scared. I drank cheap wine.
The day after her death, I went to the hospital where they’d taken Chill, but they wouldn’t let me in. They said only family could view the body.
“Hell,” I said, “I am her family. I’m all she’s ever had and I just want to say good-bye.”
They told me to leave before I was arrested.
My usual afternoon route after panhandling near the Seattle Center wound through the alleys backing restaurants. Sometimes dinner meant cold french fries at the Dog House or a loaf of bread from. One alley or half a steak from another. Living like a Tomcat. A few days following the last death, I walked home along Denny Way. By time I got back downtown the sun had dropped. The wet darkness felt oddly like a comfort, something close.
At the entrance to our alley some fool had parked a Jeep Cherokee, a new black Cherokee with the sale sticker still in a back window. My first thought was how much money people have to spend on cars. My second thought was to steal the car. After all, a Jeep Cherokee was about the easiest car to steal. I figured that by time they found a phone that worked, I’d be half way to Tacoma heading in a straight line for the tip of Baja.
Before I could act on my second thought, I heard people walking down the sidewalk. I slid back into a door’s entry inside the alley.
A man’s voice preceded the foot steps. “You look pretty.”
“Uh-huh.” A young girl’s voice.
“Don’t be nervous. It’s just a job. You’ll get your money and we’ll be back later tonight.” The man had a high voice, one that moved quickly and uncomfortably through the dark.I could see them silhouetted against the streetlights. He was tall and thin, wearing an unbuttoned coat. His fingers moved against each other like he was rubbing something from them. She wore high heels and had pulled her coat tight against her neck. He unlocked and opened the side door. She lifted herself in.
In the uncertain glow from the dome light, I could see the girl’s face and brown hair. She was no one I recognized except that I had seen her on the street. She wore new clothes, at least not clothes she would have worn in our world, black stockings from the high heels to a leather skirt and a black coat that reflected the light like silk. She was a part of my world and didn’t look the least bit comfortable dressed for another world’s pleasures.
“Don’t worry. You’ll enjoy it,” the man said as he closed the door. Since he faced her, the dome light only hardened his silhouette.
I could see the girl’s head slowly drop. The man walked quickly around the Jeep’s front and opened his door. When he did, the dome light spotted him, impaled him for a moment.
His face looked like a mouse’s. He had a thin moustache, long aquiline nose, and deep eyes that stayed within the shadows of his brow. A mouse studying to be a rat.
I didn’t like him, and if I’d have listened to my voice I would have picked up the empty wine bottle at my feet and tossed it through a window of his Jeep. ‘If’ always turns out a word you hate. If I hadn’t run away, I might have had a job. If I’d have helped Chill, I might wake up tomorrow inside the circle of her arms. If I would have thrown that bottle, the girl in the Jeep would not have been found dead the next morning on the stairs between Alaskan Way and the Market.
But instead of pitching the bottle, I stood in the recessed shadow of a back door and watched the Jeep drive around the building’s front. The pain in my stomach was from hunger, the ache in my eyes from lack of sleep.
When I walked around to the building’s front, I met Punj sitting on the front step. Behind him, new boards that had been used to block the building’s entry were piled against the wall and the door hung open.
“Hey, man, ‘s happening?” Punj asked.
“You see that black Jeep off around the corner?” I asked.
Punj studied me for a moment, his eyes tight in a squint against the cigarette smoke rising from his mouth. He looked across the avenue as a taxi drove by with its light out.
“I ain’t seen nothing, man.” He talked as if he were talking to himself. “I ain’t been studying nothing and I been just sitting.”
His head swayed. He sang a song that as far as I could tell had no words, melody or rhythm. Just a loose series of fragmented sounds heaped together in a broken pile along with the rest of the city’s filth.
I woke up the next morning staring at the boot that had kicked me awake, a leather alarm clock more rude than any Timex. A uniformed cop led me downstairs to join Punj and Fre and the rest of the building’s occupants. Before we left the room, however, the uniform kicked apart my bed. He turned the mattress over, emptied Chill’s back pack, and dropped her stuffed bear out the window to fall into the alley’s filth.
Downstairs, with our backs hugging a bare wall, the uniforms piled an assortment of things they had found upstairs–knives, guitars with missing strings, skateboards, a boom box. While one uniform packed the knives into a bag, another uniform picked up a guitar and broke it against the floor.
“Go home,” he said and kicked the wired guts from the back of the boom box.
“Go home,” he said and busted a skateboard against the door jamb.
“Go home,” he said and threw a half-full Jim Beam bottle against the opposite wall.
This continued for a few minutes. We stood against the wall watching with numb eyes–violence is easy enough to watch when you grow up with it and have felt it bite you. After those few minutes, the cops left and we returned to our rooms. Nobody spoke. Nobody bothered to ask what happened. Only a few people gathered their things together.
I walked outside for a smoke and to find Chill’s bear. The bear had landed on the cement between a couple of wine bottles. Sandwiched between the bottles, the poor thing looked as lost as I felt. I stuffed it inside my coat and walked to the corner bus stop to sit.
Someone had left their newspaper on the bench. I opened to the Sports section–the Seahawks were then looking down another long tunnel toward the losing end of their season. I read the paper backwards, from the last section to the front page, which I never got to. Somewhere in the paper’s middle, an article about another young kid’s death caught my eye.
The police, the newspaper said, were puzzled by this odd string of deaths. Those girls they had identified were all runaways, but they were clean and wearing new clothes. They all had died from heroin overdoses, and some Public Information Officer theorized that a lunatic in the “runaway underground may be on the loose” spiking junkies’ joy juice.
I read on about the girl they found that morning on the stairs below the Market. I knew right off that she was the girl I had seen the night before. I felt a sudden surge of responsibility because I was too busy drinking wine with Punj the night Chill died, I couldn’t be there to save her. Now I had let another girl die. I hadn’t killed them, but I hadn’t prevented their deaths either.
The day turned colder, the sky low and bruised. A rain threatened, and I could feel no warmth from the world nor within my body.
I pulled my coat around me and walked back toward the flophouse. Punj stepped out the front and turned the other direction toward the Market. I followed. There was nothing inside for me except reminders, and following at least gave me something to do, something almost like a purpose. Punj took long, extended strides, two for every three I took in order to keep up. Once we hit the Market, I couldn’t keep pace with him any more because of all the people swirling and pushing and walking. But I knew that Punj liked to beg for money around the corner from People’s restaurant. He’d sit on the sidewalk and tell anyone who passed by about how he and his wife and kid had come to Seattle for a job that never came through and now he needed money for the bus fare back to Portland.
I figured I had a better chance of finding him if I stayed on First and waited on the hill above where he panhandled than if I tried following him through the crowd in the Market. I was right.
He walked around the corner, took off his leather jacket, folded it and placed it on the sidewalk. Then he sat on the jacket and waited for people to walk past.
I leaned against the building at the corner above where Punj sat and thought. I wondered if I should go down and kick him in the head, or wait until that night and bust a bottle over him, or just sit down next to him and ask what was going on.
Within minutes, however, a black Jeep Cherokee drove past. It stopped across from Punj. He got up, walked to the Jeep and sat in the passenger’s side. The Jeep drove away, the price sticker like a scar on the tinted window.
The rest of the day, I sat at the corner bus stop across from our flophouse waiting for Punj to return. Someone asked what I was doing. After I said I was just waiting, she left me half a tuna sandwich. Another person left a roll and half-full cup of coffee on the bench next to me when his bus turned up early. I ate pretty well that day, and considered sitting there more often. I read The Rocket, the bus schedule, the Times, and someone’s abandoned mail to pass the hours.
Finally, mid-afternoon, the black Jeep drove pulled into the alley behind our place. I darted through honking traffic across the street, into the building and to the corner window closest to where the Jeep was parked. There weren’t any rats scurrying along the floor boards of the room, so I crawled up under the window, which without any glass was basically a hole in the wall. I listened.
“. . . heat’s on.” I caught the last of whatever Punj had said.
“Don’t worry,” the driver of the Jeep, the mouse-man, said. “I just want another one tonight. This will be the last time for a while.”
“I don’t know if I can find someone for you tonight,” Punj said.
“You’ll find someone.”
A pause followed in which I could hear a distant siren screaming. A car door closed, the engine started, then the man said with emphasis, “Find me someone.”
“Tonight at ten.”
“Yeh, yeh, we’ll be here.”
The Jeep drove away.
For the rest of that day I followed Punj as he approached girls on the street. He rubbed his hair and face vigorously to jump start his mind whenever he stopped at a street corner, but he wasn’t very cautious. He never looked around to see me a half block behind or across the street.
As the streetlights began to wink on, Punj sat next to some kid I’d never seen before on a bench in Pioneer Square. She was blonde, maybe sixteen and new to our world, but she had dressed the part–blue jeans, fatigue jacket, back pack, skateboard. She wouldn’t look at Punj when he first sat next to her. He began to talk, his hands flying as he explained something to her. Eventually she turned her head. I could see Punj get more serious. He moved next to her, leaned into her, brought his hands in close as if he were drawing outlines on his palms.
She nodded her head. They stood together and walked back towards our flophouse, stopping first at Burger King to eat, then on to That Jazz, a clothes store that specializes in expensive street clothes for kids rich enough to not have to live the life but still want to look like it. She left the store with a smile and carrying three bags. They walked the last eight blocks to the area, our building.
By nine-thirty, I was standing in the shadows of the entry way from which I had watched the mouse-man the previous night. His Jeep drove through the alley with lights on the high beam. I had just enough time to squeeze into the cracks between the bricks as he pulled to a park.
He stepped from the Jeep and walked toward the building’s front but stopped and leaned back against the car, pulling out a cigarette to light. He shook the match and tossed it into the alley and said, “Well?”
Punj walked from around the building. “She’ll be here in a minute,” he said. “I don’t like this no more. I think we should quit doing this.”
“We will.” The mouse-man dragged hard on his cigarette, exhaled and motioned for Punj to follow him.
“Here,” he said, “I have the rest of your money back here. I’ll get in touch with you later if I decide to start things up again.”
Punj hesitated at first but followed the man to the Jeep’s back hatch, which the man unlocked and pulled open.
“In that bag.” He pointed into the dark interior.
Punj stepped closer, his arms reaching for a bag of money that did not exist. I would have thought that Punj had better sense. The man pulled a pistol from the back of his pants, shoved it tight into Punj’s stomach and fired twice. He used Punj’s momentum to help push Punj into the Jeep’s rear, closed the door and walked to the street to look around.
The sound of the pistol firing was no louder than a car door slamming shut. The report’s crack was distinctive, but he had pushed the pistol so far into Punj’s belly as to muffle the sound.
The man stood at the alley’s entrance watching the road for a minute before returning to Punj’s body in the back of his Jeep. He took a dark blanket from the back seat and neatly covered Punj, tucking in the dead body as though Punj were a sleeping child. Then the man returned to the alley’s entrance, looked both directions and walked up the street along the side of our building.
I walked to the building’s corner and watched him disappear around the building’s front. When he did, I walked back to the Jeep and climbed in with Punj, between his body and the back of the rear seat. I covered us both with the blanket.
I remember thinking how long it seemed between the time my old man’s car door shut and he walked into the house to take his anger out on someone. I remember thinking how a few minutes could pass like entire nights–dark, cold, unable to rest for fear. That was like the time I lay next to Punj waiting for the man and his girl to return. I would have bet a tired dime he took a whole hour, but it may have only been a couple of minutes.
When he returned, I held my breath, listening to the blood rush through my ears and my heart pound against my chest. I couldn’t even hear the sounds of the city at night for the sounds of fear in my head.
“I told you,” the mouse-man said, “Punj had to take care of a few things. He said he’ll meet you tonight after you get back. If you’re worried about your money, don’t. I have it right here.”
A pause followed. The Jeep’s engine started. I let myself exhale into my arm.
“Go ahead,” he said, “count it. It’s all there, plus a little extra because you’re so pretty.
“I figured the girl, whoever she was, would punch the son of a bitch before I had a chance to. But she said, almost whispered, “Okay.”
“All right,” he answered. “Not a thing to worry about tonight. The moon is high and round, there’s no rain, and we’re going to have us a good time tonight, honey.”
The Jeep eased from the alley.
I pulled the blanket from my face to watch where we were headed. I could see the charcoal outline of buildings rising into a blue-black night. The car’s wheel clipped a bottle as we turned into the street, sending the bottle rolling down a gutter it sounded as though it owned. From where I lay, between a dead man-child and a murderer and with a rectangle through which to view the world, all I knew for sure were the yellow of streetlights and the echo of tires. I was tired and I wanted Chill to cradle my fears in her lap and stroke the night from my body.
We drove south on 1-5, then east on 1-90 toward the mountains. The metal grates covering the floating bridge over Lake Washington hummed to the roll of our tires, a hum that repeated like years of insults. I watched the gray outline of high clouds shift across the black sky as we drove.
We passed through the tunnel on Mercer Island and across the next bridge, through Bellevue. Somewhere past Issaquah we turned from the highway onto a frontage road then another black-topped road and finally onto a gravel and dirt driveway of maybe fifty yards.
“What do you think?” the mouse man asked as he let his car idle. The engine’s sound echoed into the dark.
“Nice place,” the girl said softly.
“Wait until you see the inside.”
I stayed next to Punj for a few minutes after the car doors shut and I heard a house door open and close. During those minutes I thought about what I was doing. I had not planned anything. I was just following that inner voice. I shook with the sudden realization that my inner voice had a year earlier told me to run away for the comforts of the street. I wasn’t so certain that I wanted to listen to that inner voice, but my choices had become limited.
Stuck in the driveway huddling with a dead man, I was lost. The only constant that kept knocking around in my head was the thought that I had to do something to keep another murder from happening.
After I finally peeked over the seat back, I broke the bulb from the dome light, pulled Punj’s leather gloves off his tightening hands and put them on mine, and crawled from the Jeep’s rear. Reaching inside Punj’s coat, I took his folding Buck knife. My hand pulled out smeared with his blood.
The house was a two-story brick with a basement and surrounded by spruce trees which the driveway wound around. As I stood next to the Jeep, a light went on in the basement. There were also lights on in two first-floor rooms. I walked across the short grass to bend down next to the basement window. The scene inside was trapped behind a heavy shade that may not even have allowed shadows to escape. I placed my ear against the cold window and listened to muffled voices but could not understand anything being said. I did hear two voices, one so close to a whisper that a gentle wind would have robbed. The other high and agitated. Then music began, chanting music like from Gregorian monks or drunken Indians down under the highway.
My footsteps left dull marks in the wet grass as I walked to the front door. Locked. I traced around the house until I found a window partially open. It slid easily up to a point I could crawl through. I sat for a moment on the carpet until my eyes adjusted to the darkness of a bedroom. I checked the drawers of a bedstand, hoping to find a pistol. Nothing at all in the drawers. I was in a room that was not used. I crossed to the door and opened it, turning the knob as slowly as possible and pulling the door open no more than an inch.
The bedroom was off a front room. I listened for a moment after opening the door, hoping not to hear any movement and my hopes were answered. I opened the door enough to allow some view into the room. No people sitting in a chair with a pistol aimed at my head, no dogs with a silent snarl pulling their lips back over white teeth, nothing to keep me from entering the room. I did not, however, think that an old hardwood floor could make as much noise as it can until my third step into the room sent out a loud groan.
I stopped. As hard as I tried, I could not remember where the basement room was in relation to were I had entered the house. So I waited with all my weight forward on my right foot. After I began breathing again, I stepped with my left foot onto a rug and slowly lifted the right foot. Another groan echoed, but I could hear no other noises in the house other than the chanting music from the basement.
I paused again at the entrance to the kitchen. A dark tile floor, counters ringing the wall to my left and refrigerator to the right, a chopping block in the center, and a breakfast nook opposite. Letters and small boxes were stacked on the table in the nook. There were two doors–one had a curtained window and opened to the outside. The other was open to a carpeted landing that separated stairs leading up and down.
I crossed the tile on the squeaking toes of my Chuck Taylor’s and stopped at the landing to look into the darkness of the basement stairs. A soft glow lit the stairway’s bottom, and I could hear the muffled sounds of the mouse-man’s voice. I walked down the dozen steps, through a subterranean trophy room. The lack of light, except for what filtered around a corner ahead of me, kept the room’s walls and corners in darkness. On the walls, however, I could make out the outlines of animal heads, one of a fox caught enough light to reflect a single glimmer from the teeth.
“Who are you?”
My entire body fought between fleeing and freezing. The voice came from the darkness against the near wall, but sounded so soft that I was unsure I had heard it.
“You here for me, too?”
It wasn’t the mouse-man. I could still hear him in the next room, his voice oddly soft and shrill under the recorded sounds of some destroyed heraldic choir coming from deeper in that sepulchral basement.
I stood silent. The heavy breathing from the shadows sounded like muffled groans.
“You here for?” The voice slid off into sleep. The voice of someone on juice. The voice of someone soon to never wake up.
I walked toward it. On a leather couch lie the figure of someone too young to be as old as she was. I couldn’t tell for sure. A coat covered the body. Hair like strands of straw fell across the face. The lack of good light sent hollows across her cheeks. Her eyes couldn’t stay open.
I bent down and whispered, “Sleep tight. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“G-night, Mom.” The figure twisted to face the couch’s back and curled into a sleeping fetal position with the hands together under her head as though she were praying.
I patted her back and walked toward the next room.
From the door I could see the man, wrapped in a robe, standing above the girl Punj had sold him. A track of lights on the ceiling illuminated the room as brightly as much of the outer room was left in dark. Three video cameras stood mounted on tripods with a bed between them. Lined against the opposite wall were chairs, a massage table, a rack of S&M clothing and playthings, television with VCR, cardboard boxes, and two clothes chests.
The man stepped back. The girl sat on the edge of the bed, her head bobbing until she passed out and fell on the floor.
“Bitch,” the man said and nudged her with his foot.
He turned around to see who was tapping him on the shoulder. I hit him so hard I felt his jaw dislodge. He fell like a sack of cement. Boom and then down, and it felt so good.
When he came to, he found himself handcuffed to a chair. He struggled for a moment before I walked between him and the blue light from his television.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Punj is dead in the back of your car,” I said.
His eyes widened.
“The girl you brought here tonight is sleeping off her last shot, but I don’t think she’ll die. You must not have finished with her yet. The kid in the other room is dead.”
He began to yell. I tapped the side of his broken jaw enough to send it into his ear. He got the message and said to me, “What do you want?”
“I have what I want.”
“Listen,” he said, “what happened to Punj was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill him. But now I need someone to help me. I pay well. Just look in the top drawer there.”
“I already have,” I answered. “That’s a lot of money.”
He smiled. He figured he had hooked me and was beginning to reel me in, then he saw the syringe in my hand. His eyes widened further as he watched me point it at the vein in the crotch of his elbow and slowly push beneath the skin. A drop of blood formed around the needle as I pushed the juice into him. His mouth had opened to scream but nothing came out.
I pushed the remote switch for the VCR and let him die watching a snuff tape he had made. I wanted him to know why he was dying, not just who had killed him. He barely moved as the brown down walked up through his veins. He died while I emptied the drawer of money into a head sack from his rack of toys.
The cardboard boxes held video tapes. I scanned each one until I found Chill’s. The rest I returned to the boxes. I emptied the video cameras of their tapes and a wastebasket of polaroids to burn with Chill’s tape the next day. I put the girl into the passenger seat of the Jeep, carried Punj into the house to lie on the floor next to the mouse-man.
As I drove across the floating bridge back into Seattle, I tossed the syringe out the window to break on the pavement under the rush of car tires The girl did not wake until I had pushed her through the back window of our flophouse building.
“Take this,” I said, pushing an envelope into her hand.
In it, she would find a couple thousand dollars from the man who had almost killed her, a note that read “Go Home!” and some Polaroids he had taken of her. I hoped the photographs might impress on her how mean the streets can get. I parked the Jeep along the water front, left the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition.
The next afternoon, I took Fre with me to look for an apartment near the University. She asked about Punj, but didn’t ask again after I said he left. A couple of weeks later, the police went to the man’s house because neighbors were alarmed by the smell and animals around the place. The papers ran articles for a week on the man I killed. His Jeep was found abandoned on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, stripped and shoved into a salt water slough. Those letters on the breakfast table were from clients and led to a number of arrests in the Northwest and California. The police had no clues about the killer but would leave the case open.
Fre and I came back into your world. I started college. At first I considered nursing, but that was Chill’s dream. Eventually I graduated and now work in an office downtown. I have a daughter who I tell “I love you” to every night. I am slightly overweight, losing my hair, and I look like your father. I get a Christmas card from Fre every year, but I haven’t seen her since she moved to Boston a dozen years ago. Within six months of leaving that world, we both had gained a dozen pounds. Our skin no longer looked like overcooked pasta. We no longer carried deep bruises under the arms. I read the papers and still do, after twenty years, to see if the police have discovered anything new.
Sometimes I walk down on First Avenue. The buildings have changed. No more flophouses. I see runaways. I don’t know any of them anymore, but I still recognize all the faces.
(Bio: Daniel Robinson’s first career was fighting wildfires, from which his first novel grew- After The Fire. His second novel, The Shadow of Violence is a noir set in Depression-era Trinidad, Colorado, and his third novel (Death of a Century) is a historical thriller set in Lost Generation, Paris. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.)