Lowlifes

Chapter TWO

The second I hung up on Grieves my phone reported that I had a message.  The call had come in just after eight.  I recognized the number and hit #1 to listen. 

“Larry, it’s Jon.”

It was eerie to hear Jon’s familiar voice knowing he was dead just a few hundred yards away.  It was even more eerie to hear the tension in his voice.

“Pick up your damn phone.  I’ve been leaving you messages all day.  Call me back.  You know I hate these things.  It’s important.  I have to show you something.  It’s big.  I’ll be waiting for you at Kate’s at ten.  Don’t let me down, man.”

I closed my phone, trapping the message so I could torture myself with it later.  I’d been ducking Jon’s calls all day.  Between court testimony and paperwork, my day was full.  I didn’t have time for Jon’s chickenfeed information.  At least, that’s what I’d thought every time I hit ignore on my phone.  If I’d answered, Jon might not be dead.  I’d screwed up again and this time it had cost someone their life.

I scrapped the idea of looking for my car and hoofed it on foot to the crime scene.  Since I was supposed to be miles away and not just two blocks away, I kept my pace slow and took a two-block detour just to delay my arrival.   

The cordon enveloped the northwest corner of Geary and Larkin including the street to the centerline.  I flashed my badge to the uniform protecting the scene.  I didn’t know the uni, but he raised the police tape for me to duck under.

Grieves spotted me and broke away from the other inspectors and crime techs.  “It’s this way, Larry.”

He walked me to Jon’s body.  Jon had died on the corner itself.  He lay on his butt, slumped against the corner of the building.  Everything that made him Jon was gone.  Without a pulse, he resembled a life-size ragdoll with no structure to keep his body upright. 

He'd been stabbed multiple times with a ferocity I’d previously witnessed in prison yard assassinations. His blood had spilled down his tattered clothes and run between his legs.  Gravity had carried it all the way into the gutter.

The stabbing had only been the icing on the cake.  Someone had worked Jon over first, pummeling him with fist blow after fist blow.  One eye was lost under a mass of swelling. 

Considering all the damage done to Jon, his assailant wouldn’t have come away unscathed.  A skull was a rock.  The killer’s hands would be a mess.  A stab of guilt knifed through me.  I casually stuffed my bruised and battered hands into my jacket pockets.  The two-block separation between where my informant’s murder took place and where I woke up screamed a connection, but there was no way I would have done this.  I had no reason to hurt Jon.  The man was my friend.  Regardless, my throat suddenly closed up and it felt as though I was sucking air through a straw.

“Jesus,” I said, the word slipping from my lips like a sigh.

“Yeah, it’s a rough one,” Grieves said.

There'd been sufficient time for bruising to develop, which meant it was unlikely the beat down took place on this street corner.  It was doubtful anyone had yelled for the cops, but an ass kicking would have drawn a crowd.

“What do we know?” I asked.

“He’s freshly dead, or as fresh as a guy who hadn’t seen a bar of soap since the millennium can be.  The ME estimated he's been dead an hour.”

Shit.  Slap bang in the middle of my missing four hours.  I really needed something or someone that could give me an alibi.

“Any witnesses?” I asked.

“No.  Not that anyone is admitting anyway.”

I cast a look at the ghouls with their gazes fixed on the corpse.  The macabre human desire to look at the dead never failed to amaze me.  One of these people had seen something.

“How long was this guy your CI?”

“A couple of years.”

“Was he working on anything for you?”

“No.  Nothing that would warrant this.”

“What do you know about him?”

Jon was a Tenderloin legend.  He'd lost everything during the 80’s.  What exactly had triggered his slide from taxpaying member of society to social outcast I’d never managed to extract from him.  He'd always shut down on me and told me it was none of my business.  Whatever his problems, he lived to help others.  He roamed the streets finding those about to fall off the world and got them help.  He hooked up runaways with child services, directed veterans to the VA, helped the hungry into food banks and soup kitchens and found the homeless beds for the night.  Time and time again, he had the chance to reconnect with society and start over, but turned it down.  He said he could do more for others if he remained on the streets.  It was that attitude that earned him the nickname Noble Jon.

“He was the Tenderloin’s champion.  He kept the peace around here.”

Grieves grunted.  “A hobo cop.  God help us.”

“You're not far wrong.  Despite what you might think, he was a good guy.  He spent most of the money we gave him getting people back on their feet.”

“Why didn’t he help himself?”

“He had his reasons.  Something about the lost only trusting the lost.”

“If he was your snitch, could his Scooby-Doo snooping act have led to this?”

“Possibly.  Who knows?”

Grieves sighed.  “I have to ask.  As this was your guy, do you want the lead on this investigation?  I don’t think there would be any problems turning it over to you.”

I couldn’t take the investigation, not with whatever had happened to me tonight.  I’d gotten into something over my head and so far, it had cost me four hours.  It was likely to cost me more if I got tied to Jon.  That should have been my motivation to take this case off Grieves’ hands.  If I took the investigation on, I had a chance to control what evidence made it into the murder book.  But running the investigation would have me chasing through department procedure, writing warrants, attending the autopsy and managing the press.  That would slow me down.  I needed to work fast to save my ass.  

“No, it’s yours.”

Grieves frowned.  The jerk clearly didn’t want to work a homeless guy’s murder.  I hadn’t worked much with Grieves, but I knew his ambitions.  He wanted more than an SFPD inspector’s shield on his jacket and solving a hobo’s murder wasn’t going to win him any headlines. 

“Look, I’ll make you a deal.  I know the people who associated with Jon.  If you go to them you're not going to get anything, but I will.  Let me work the streets, you work the forensics and tip line.  Whatever I find is yours.  Sound good?”

“Okay.”

“Good.  Just keep me informed on anything you find.”

“Will do.”

“How'd you know he was my informant?”

“Pockets.  You want to see the contents?”

I nodded.

Grieves buttonholed the ME’s Death Investigator.  He brought over an evidence bag containing Jon’s belongings.  It was pitifully minuscule, limited to a matchbook from the Oak Room restaurant, a pack of cigarettes he used to break the ice with people he tried to befriend, a few bucks in change and bills, my business card with my personal cell phone number on the back and a BART ticket.  The BART ticket was interesting.  It had been used a few times, but it still had over twenty bucks credit on it.  Jon kept close to home, rarely venturing outside the Tenderloin, let alone the city.  He didn’t have the kind of cash to blow on the BART ticket.  I pulled out my cell and activated the camera function.

“Hold that BART ticket flat,” I told the Death Investigator and snapped a shot.

“It’s illegal to forge those,” Grieves said.

I smiled. 

“Thanks,” I said to the Death Investigator and he walked off.

There was one thing missing from Jon’s possessions—a cell phone.  Payphones were a dying breed around the city and the ones that were left were shit.  I’d bought him a prepaid phone so he could keep in touch with me.  I wondered who had that phone.

“Do you have his cart?”

“Cart?”

“Yeah, Jon wheels around this shopping cart with all his stuff in it.”

Grieves snorted.  “And how long do you think that would last in this neighborhood?”

I nodded.  “Okay, I’ve got what I need for now.  There are a few people I want to catch before they disappear for the night.”

“Thanks for your help, Larry.  I appreciate you working this one.”

I’d already started walking away.  “Hey, what else was I going to do tonight?”

Grieves chased me down.  “Look, Larry, I have to ask.  Were you tying one on before you came out tonight?”

“No.”  I hated the defensive tone in my voice.  I sounded like every suspect on the hook.

“Look, I hear rumors and they ain’t pretty, okay?  You're a good cop, but I’ve heard that you’ve got a problem.  Get it taken care of before it bites you.”  He jerked a thumb at Jon.  “It doesn’t take much to fall as far as a person can, y’know?”

I took a step back from Grieves.  “Look, I appreciate the pep talk, but the rumors are bogus.”

“Yeah?  Then might I suggest you don’t turn up to one of my crime scenes looking like a sack of shit?  Just a word to the wise.”