Lowlifes

Chapter Ten

Waves of nausea smashed into me one after another.  I’d lost my weapon and it had been used in a double homicide.  If there was any worse fear in a cop’s mind, I couldn’t think of it at that moment.  The Reaper had taken my gun, but my finger might as well have been on the trigger when he pulled it.  I went to speak, to say something in my defense, but the words didn’t come.  My response was only the silence of shock and shame.

“Hayes, I knew you were a screw-up, but I didn’t think you were brain-dead enough to leave your piece at the scene.  And please don’t sell me a line that it’s been stolen.”

I wasn’t planning to.  Grieves wouldn’t believe me.  I wasn’t entirely screwed.  The Reaper wasn’t as smart as he liked to think.  Grieves wouldn’t find any gunshot residue on my hands.  It wasn’t a lot, but it was all I had going for me.

“Come in,” Grieves said in a conciliatory tone.  I couldn’t tell if it was manufactured or sincere.

“No.”

“You know you're done, Hayes, don’t you?” 

No, I was done if I came in.  If I surrendered, the lid would come down on me and that would be the end of it.  I needed to stay out on the streets.  If I could bring in the Reaper, then I stood a chance of talking myself out of this mess.

“If you come in now, everything will go a lot easier.  I’ll put in a word for you with the DA.  You're a good cop who screwed up.  It happens.  We’ll look after our own.”

Now who was bullshitting who?  SFPD, like any other jurisdiction, walked a fine line when it came to busting a cop.  They couldn’t be seen to be going easy on one of their own.  I might be given consideration, but I wouldn’t get any favors.

“Look, I get it,” Grieves said.  “You killed your dealer.  We’re not talking about someone society gives two shits about.  You'll come out of this okay as long as you do the right thing and come in now.” 

He paused for my response and when it didn’t come, he replaced the carrot with the stick. 

“Don’t make me come after you and drag you in front of cameras, because I will if you force me.  Think about this, Hayes.”

“I will,” I said and hung up on him.

I stared at my phone.  It was no good to me now.  Grieves could trace me in a matter of minutes, so I yanked out the battery and the SIMM card and tossed the pieces down a storm drain.

So I had no friends, family or cops on my side.  Maybe I should have surrendered to Grieves, but I just couldn’t do it.  My survival instinct was strong and fueled by my sense of justice.  I’d be damned if I’d give in to whoever was trying to hang me out to dry. 

I reached 24th street.  It was lively for the time of night.  I walked like I had somewhere to be and not like someone trying to evade capture as I pulled together my next move. 

My world might be coming off its rails, but one thing hadn’t changed—I needed to find Rawlings.  His knowledge would get me back on track.  The only problem was locating him.  The man was paranoid.  He thought space demons lurked on every street corner.  He wouldn’t have a regular place where he bedded down.  At this time of night, he could be anywhere.  I reached inside my pocket and pulled out his flyer for his next paranoid extravaganza.  At least I knew where and when to find him tomorrow. 

Now I had to square away tonight.  A night in a motel was no longer an option.  My credit card would sell me out faster than a cheap hooker.  I considered going back to Kate’s but the idea only lasted a second.  She wouldn’t have me and if Grieves had any smarts, he’d know to check her out.  My place would be red hot for the foreseeable.  That left me with only one option.

I hoofed it to the Tenderloin.  It took me an hour.  In that time, people disappeared off the streets and traffic shriveled up.  Only cops and cabs kept the streets busy.  The presence of squad cars forced me to keep to streets without too much lighting and not so dormant that a lone figure stood out.  The Tenderloin itself was quiet.  Streetlights illuminated blanketed figures sleeping in doorways and in alleys.

I stopped in front of Kate’s food bank.  Jon always called this a safe place to sleep.  I clambered over the fence.  I crossed to the trash enclosure and found I wasn’t the only one who knew about this place.  Three other people had bedded down.  There was room for me if I wanted it.

They had blankets.  I only had my jacket to keep me warm. I dragged some flattened out boxes from a dumpster and made a bed for myself.  A couple of my bedfellows stirred.  One eyed me before nodding and going back to sleep. 

I encased myself in cardboard and made a pillow out of my jacket and counted myself lucky it wasn’t winter. 

It went without saying, this was the lowest point of my life.  If I didn’t pull my ass out of the fire, this was where I was heading on a permanent basis.  I swore that if I survived this ordeal, I was turning my life around. 

***

The rumble of the city coming to life woke me.  The chill and damp hit me the second I opened my eyes.  Dew had soaked into my cardboard bedding and it encased me like a cocoon.  Two of my homeless bedfellows had gone.  The other snored, still dead to the world. 

No one had bothered me during the night. 

I tossed the sodden cardboard aside and holstered my weapon.  I groaned when I stood.  My back was killing me.  Sleeping on concrete was a killer.  No doubt, it would catch up with me.  I threw on my jacket and scaled the chain link fence. 

I checked my watch.  It was six-ten.  Six hours before Rawlings’ next rally.

At least I wasn’t totally derelict.  I’d gone on the run with money still in my wallet.  I ate breakfast at a Burger King, then grabbed deodorant and a razor in a drugstore and cleaned myself up in men’s room of the Union Square Parking Lot.  The moment the stores opened, I bought myself jeans, a tee-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt.  The girl on the checkout gave me a doubtful look, but I explained it away as a tourist mugging. It was a good line, but it didn’t kill her suspicion entirely.

I spent a couple of hours in a Starbucks reading the Chronicle and listening to chatter.  My wanted status hadn’t made the newspapers or TV.  That confused me for a moment, then it made sense.  The SFPD wouldn’t want to go public about a manhunt for one of their own.  The media backlash would be hard to play down.  They must fancy their chances of picking me up and I saw why.  I didn’t have a car or friends, I had limited money, and I had a knowledge of police procedure.  They knew I wouldn’t hit an ATM or use a credit card.  That simple fact hampered my mobility and limited my options.  In their minds, it was only a matter of time until they caught up with me—and I couldn’t disagree.

I ditched the Starbucks for BART.  This was where I put my head in the lion’s mouth.  Once I entered the station, I walked into a closed system with barriers and witnesses and cameras tracking my every move.  I couldn’t let it bother me.  Doing nothing wasn’t going to help me.  If they took me down before I got to the truth, so be it.

I bought a ticket at the Embarcadero station and descended the escalator to the platform.  I kept my hood down and acted like someone who wasn’t the target of a manhunt.

A pair of uniformed cops wandered up and down the platform.  They gave the impression their presence was routine.  I knew better.  These two were SFPD and not BART cops.  No doubt, there'd be local cops on every platform and BART cops on the trains.

I didn’t let the understated security precaution bother me.  I didn’t recognize either of the uniforms and chances were they wouldn’t recognize me, as long as I didn’t do anything to set them off.

I fell in with the densest cluster of people waiting for an East Bay train.  A Pittsburg/Bay Point arrived first and I got on.  The cops didn’t.

I stood facing the window in order to avoid the car’s security cameras.  The train accelerated into darkness.  The air pressure changed as the train hurtled along under the bay from San Francisco to Oakland.  I closed my eyes and waited for someone to arrest me, but it never happened.  The train emerged on the other side of the tunnel and slowed for the West Oakland station.

I walked past the Oakland cops and out of the station. 

By the time I reached Rawlings’ house, his sermon was in full swing.  He had a crowd numbering close to fifty people.  I didn’t see a cop, uniformed or otherwise.  It eased the pressure in my chest.  No one had made the connection between Jon’s murder and Rawlings.  I fell in amongst the unwashed and unshaven faces and waited for Rawlings to finish.

“It heartens me to see so many of you here today.  You’ve broken away from the herd.  They are so blind that they do not see the demons poisoning them.  Instead, they welcome the poison and make the aliens rich because of it.  Some of you here know I speak the truth because you are victims of the poison.  You were slaves to it.”

Instead of dismissing his ravings, I listened.  Through the babble, Rawlings truly saw something.  I picked his words apart.  It was all so esoteric, truth lost in confusion, but he returned to poison time and time again.  Looking at some of the homeless, it was plain to see some of them were junkies or ex-junkies.  Was the alien poison drugs?  I thought about the building I’d broken into.  A renovation would provide the perfect cover for a drug lab.  I remembered the hole through the ceiling of the building.  A vent stack.

I smiled.  I had to hand it to those alien demons.  They were good.  They really knew how to hide in plain sight.  No wonder the herd ignored them.  I still wasn’t seeing it all.  The building had only been up for renovation for a few months, but Rawlings had been raving about devils from space for two years.

The sermon ended with Rawlings asking his flock to stay vigilant, confront the aliens at all times, and stay away from the poison.  I pushed through the crowd to get to him. 

“Reverend Joseph,” I called.  “We need to talk.”

He turned and stared at me like he was looking through a fog before he recognized me.

“Did you see them?”

I shook my head.  “They're gone.”

Rawlings frowned.  “Still not ready to see.”

“No, I’m ready.  I encountered an alien.  He tried to kill me.  He thought he had.  But the place you sent me to is empty.  They’ve moved on.”

Rawlings smiled.  “Do you think they hive in just the one location?”

“There are others?”

“They are parasites.  They feed in one place and move on.  They are all over.”

“Do you know where they are now?”

“Of course.  I follow them.  They are like the herd.  They don’t see what they don’t want to see.”

“Can you take me to them?”

Rawlings backed away from me.  “You work for them.”

“I’m not a demon.”

“No, you're one of the herd.”

I thought about the alien poison.  Rawlings was right.  I’d let it blind me.  I pulled out my shield and pressed into his hand.  “I was part of the herd, but not anymore.  I want to find them and stamp them out, but I need your help.”

Rawlings examined my gold shield.  I loved that shield.  I’d worked damn hard to earn it, but somewhere along the line I’d forgotten how important it was to me.  Now, I was about to lose it.  A day late and a dollar short.  That was my life story.

Rawlings handed my shield back and pressed a hand on my shoulder.  “I’ll help you.”

“Show me the way,” I said.

Rawlings ushered his flock into the backyard so they could get fed then said his goodbyes.  He smiled at me and we walked out onto the street.

“Do you have a car?” I asked.

“I have no need of a car.  Possessions own you.”

I shouldn’t have expected anything more.  “Of course they do.”

“It’s easier for me to pass through this world unseen if I forego life’s trappings.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.  “Where are we going?”

“Into their lair.”  Rawlings pointed across the bay at San Francisco.  “The city.”

“Let’s take BART.” 

As I escorted Rawlings to BART, I felt totally exposed.  I worked alone most of the time, but I’d always had the might of the SFPD behind me to bail me out of trouble.  Not this time.  Rawlings was the most valuable witness I’d found and all I had were my wits to back me up.

“You have a phone belonging to a friend of mine.”

Rawlings reached into his pocket and produced the cell I’d bought for Jon.  He held it out to me and I took it.

“How did you get this?”

“During the abduction.”

“You saw Jon get abducted?”

“Yes.  The aliens caught him leaving their hive.  I tried to help but I was too far away.  They searched him and threw the phone away.  I gathered it up after they cast it aside.  I knew it would be important to someone.”

“When was this?”

“At night.”

Probably moments after he left me his last message.

An engine firing drew my attention.  A grey Econoline van a block and half back rolled towards us at a lazy pace.  Faceless and unoccupied buildings were our only witnesses.  Yelling for help would only draw echoes.  I thought about returning to Rawlings’ gathering, but there was no way this guy would let us backtrack.

“Speed it up, Reverend.”

He detected the note of fear in my voice.  “Do you see them?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not taking chances.”

Rawlings picked up his pace.  The van maintained its predatory pace, slowly reeling us in until it pulled alongside us.  I glanced over at the driver.  He was Caucasian, respectable with his neat haircut and designer shades hiding half his face.  He didn’t say a word.  He just stared at us.

The son of a bitch was going to make a move.  I felt it.  And there was nothing I could do to stop him.  We were a quarter mile away from BART.  We didn’t stand a chance.  He could take us at any moment. 

“I see him,” Rawlings said.  “He’s one of them.  He's a demon.”

“Don’t worry about it.  He's not important.  Just keep going.”

We were coming up to a street corner.  I saw a plan unfold.  The second we stepped into the crosswalk the Econoline would mow us down.

“Get ready to run,” I told Rawlings.  “Don’t worry about what I do.  Just get to BART.  Got that?”

“Yes.”

Just as we reached the corner, someone said, “Detective Hayes.  Remember me?”

Instinctively, I turned and greeted a butt of a pistol with my face.  I staggered back and hit the sidewalk unconscious.