March 13, 2012
Very dapper, thought Beker, watching the young man board the bus, his hair slicked back, a tiny moue of a moustache over cherry red lips and wearing a grey striped suit straight out of a 1920s getaway car. What’s he doing here? He ought to be in a game room somewhere sucking an alternative to his mother’s milk, and trying to scam somebody. Beker sat past his stop, waiting to see where the young man would get off. It took a while; the bus finally entered a seedier part of town with mainly co-op and subsidized housing. My luck, thought Beker, he’s probably just going to visit his mother. After a turn deep into the enclave of scrubby patches of lawn and greying stucco façades, the youth swung off the bus, Beker following him.
Now was the time to look at the house numbers like you were searching for a particular one, while getting your bearings and memorizing the names of the unfamiliar streets. Just ease along, no rush. But the young man walked quickly and in no time had disappeared down a short alley that looked more like a driveway between a couple of three-storey apartment blocks. Beker picked it up, strolled past the alley and saw him disappearing into a side door. Well, so much for that. He gave himself to the end of the block to pause and then turn, walking more slowly. Then, as he approached the building into which the young man had disappeared, he turned up the short front walkway and entered the vestibule. There were two apartments on each of the floors, plus a button for the basement caretaker. The names were a catalogue of recent government immigration quotas, none sounding English, except the caretaker, Romwell. The silence seemed dense, almost strange. Where was everybody?
Beker went outside and looked for signs of life. There was a child in the next block, otherwise no one. In the distance he heard a low rumbling sound, getting louder. Suddenly, a whole phalanx of motorbikes screamed around the corner, up the road and into the alleyway. Beker jumped back startled, and pressed himself against the front wall of the building, then gingerly peered round into the alley, now crowded with numbing sound. Most of the bikers had already leaped off and shoved open the side door, then left it open. In a second, they were all gone, leaving their machines to inhabit the space like aliens. Beker crossed quickly to the front of the other apartment building to get an angle to let him look into the side doorway. All he could see was a bit of nondescript space and a stairway down.
The silent air had a new character, waiting for more abuse. Beker wondered about their business there, then if he was being watched by anyone wondering about him. He had almost decided to return to the vestibule to wait when in an instant the air was filled with loud shouts, curses, a scream. Beker pulled out his portable phone and dialled 911. Another minute and the phalanx of black jackets and angry, scowling faces reappeared. They piled onto their bikes and roared out. Beker thought they saw him, but had they seen the child? And now its mother, who had come to retrieve it. He hoped she would call 911 too.
Beker ran almost two blocks after the retreating bikers, trying to read at least one license plate. As he stopped to catch his breath and remind himself that he was retired and rode the bus at a seniors discount for a reason, he heard a sound like a muffled shot behind him, then two more. He began to run again, back the way he had come, cursing. As he approached the building, he thought he saw a cop car turning away in the distance. Across the street, the woman had retreated behind her door, her head out. Beker sidled against the front wall again and peered round at the side door. It was still open. He moved gingerly down the alley and crossed the threshold into the building and listened. No sound. Beker descended the stairs and found another door ajar. Pushing it open slowly, he gradually saw an old woman crumpled on the floor, her housedress a massive sop of blood. The dapper young man kneeled on her other side; he held a gun with both hands, shaking badly. It was pointed at Beker. He froze and watched the young man’s blank unfocused eyes and sweaty face. The shaking hands hardly seemed to know what to do. Why don’t you put it down? said Beker. No more use for it. There was a lifelong pause as the young man considered, and then he loosely let the gun drop to the linoleum. Beker pulled back quickly, hoping it wouldn’t go off. The young man sighed like all the breath in him was on its way out, and Beker advanced quickly and picked up the gun. Its feel gave him a shock. Almost at the same moment, the young man leaped up and half-ran, half-scrambled out of the room and out of the building.
Beker looked at the crumpled woman and decided there was no rush. He checked her neck anyway and felt no pulse; all her blood was on her dress. Within seconds, cops had arrived in force, and an ambulance. They started on the murder scene. Beker heard one of them called Foster explaining to the senior detective, Manelli, that he was first to arrive, but he had been cruising the local blocks for anyone who had seen or knew some bikers that were supposed to be the problem. Beker explained to the same senior detective that he had been in the neighbourhood trying to look up an old high school buddy and had only just realized he had mixed up the address and ended up in the wrong district when he found himself witnessing the speeding bikers. This earned him several hours looking at mug shots in the station.
Before leaving for the police station, he called Carol on his portable phone to let her know what had happened to his excursion. Right, she said, disgusted, nosy again? When was he going to behave like a retired government clerk? Even when he had worked for the spies, he had never been a real spy, just a cipher clerk. Then she told him she would meet him at the station. He hoped she would lose patience, as he gave slow and careful attention to every photo and kept an eye out for developments among the detectives in the open room.
It came maybe three hours later. Manelli sat down at a desk close to the table where Beker and Carol still scrolled through the heads and profiles on the computer screen. Manelli picked up the phone and called ballistics for an explanation of the report they had just sent. What do you mean, it’s not the same gun? We’ve got the guy already, we’ve got a witness, and we just need the fucking evidence! This was the first Beker had heard that the young man had been captured so quickly. Maybe not surprising though, hard to miss that suit. But Beker had known there was a second gun and a different killer ever since his fingers had closed on a cold muzzle, evidently not fired.
He turned to the disgruntled detective as he put down the phone and said, sorry, no luck yet with the mug shots. Manelli said they were checking the biker bars with his description, and could Beker keep on trying, because the doctor said the old lady would maybe have died anyway because she was stuck before she was shot. So the bikers could still be it. And now the damnedest thing was, she wasn’t shot with the young punk’s gun! How many damn murderers have we got anyway? The old lady didn’t have much to steal, so they were going to sweat young Valentino for a reason for this murder. Are they related? asked Beker, he her son maybe? As good as, said the detective. She was his grandmother; brought him up for the last eight years, he says, since his parents were killed in a head-on crash with a highway tractor trailer. What’s his story? asked Beker, trying to keep this run of information going. He says he was just visiting, and the bikers came out of nowhere and started to ransack the joint. The old woman tried for a gun in the desk drawer but got stabbed fast. They knocked him out. When he came to, the woman was shot. The punk says he picked up the gun because he heard someone coming down the stairs. That’d be you. Carol looked at Beker like I told you so.
But if she had nothing, said Beker, she was poor, what were they looking for d’you think? The obvious, said Manelli, drugs. The young punk’s or maybe hers. We checked her record, and her late husband’s. Both had convictions, him for receiving stolen property, her for dealing, but old. Seems to be a family tradition. We even looked up their kids, the parents of our young movie star. They were high that time on the road. Probably thought the tractor trailer was the next exit. It was, too! He laughed loudly at his own witticism. Beker thought about the young man’s childhood; could nature have prevailed against that nurture? He was visiting his grandmother, a good boy. Or maybe stocking up at the wholesalers. He was ready to shoot me though, thought Beker. Did he really think I was a biker quietly stealing back? Or did he expect someone else, someone holding a gun with a hot barrel?
You’ve got the kid, said Beker, maybe he would be willing to name them or pick out some mug shots? She’s his grandmother. The detective laughed. That’s called snitching he said kindly. He’s too scared and besides he’d be cutting off a supply from the bikers, and making enemies. Not a good idea. Foster’s talking to him now; he works in vice regularly and knows these guys. He was first to respond to the 911. Beker’s heart began to pound as he started to realize what had happened. Is Foster questioning your suspect now? he asked. Sure, said Manelli, he’s entitled. Where’s the room? Beker asked, his voice urgent. We need to get there. Please, please, let’s go. His urging stirred the detective. Ok, Ok, what’s the problem? But he started down a long hallway, Beker with him and Carol bringing up the rear. It’s the room at the end, but what’s… Beker broke into a half-run. He burst the door open and stared at the horrifying scene. Foster stood over the slumped young man, who was wearing no jacket now. His sleeve was up and a syringe was stuck deep inside the crook of his thin young elbow. It’ll be an overdose, said Beker.
Before Foster could say anything, Beker explained he knew right away there had to be another killer because the gun barrel was cold. When he heard Foster say that he was cruising for a lead to the bikers, he knew already that was wrong. Because both that mother and the child had seen them, and had seen him, so what was Foster up to leaving the scene? After he understood about the family, Beker figured it had to be that Foster’d heard the 911, and recognized the address and knew his danger instantly. He was johnny on the spot because he had been taking protection money from the old lady. When he saw the carnage, he had to finish the woman, since she could expose him now her racket was blown. He had to use his service revolver, since his fingerprints couldn’t be on the other gun. But he couldn’t kill his fall guy, who must have been coming to, and he figured the kid would escape with the wrong gun, so no comparison tests. He only had a couple of seconds anyway till he had to get back to his car, to seem like he had never been in the building. If he was seen by that woman across the street, a little later he could question her himself and claim she had had nothing to say. But then he also still had to get rid of the grandson fast, who’d soon figure out that he had plenty of reason to snitch on his grandmother’s paid cop, with no fear of reprisals from anyone. A couple more minutes alone, said Beker, and you’d have had a suicide by a junkie in custody, no sweat. Beker looked at the pale and unconscious but still breathing figure, and wondered for how long his life had been saved.