Lowlifes

Chapter Three

I slipped away from the crime scene and glanced back.  Grieves was talking to a uniform, but his gaze was on me.

So people were watching.  Not a surprise.

I’d screwed up enough.  My grip on my life was tenuous at best and I felt it slipping.  If I were connected to Jon’s death, then I’d fall and keep on falling.  I pressed a hand to my wallet, which held a picture of Victoria.  If I ever needed a reason to get my shit together, it was her.

I spent twenty minutes looking for my car and gave up.  The car could wait.  Jon’s homicide couldn’t. 

I pulled out my cell and speed-dialed Kate Meadows.  She managed a food bank in the Tenderloin and knew Jon well.  I knew her better.  Until I had screwed that up too.  She answered on the third ring.

“Larry, you know it’s close to my bedtime.  You shouldn’t be calling.  What do you want?”

Normally, I would have made some crack about the night being young, but seeing Jon’s corpse had killed the humor in me.

“It’s Jon.  Someone knifed him to death.”

“Oh my God.  When?”

“In the last hour.  Look, we need to talk.  Jon wanted to talk to me about something but I was busy.” 

Kate’s tone turned harsh.  “Busy?  Busy with what?”

“Just busy.” 

Her disbelieving silence smoldered over the line.

“Can you pick me up?”

“Where are you?”

“In the Tenderloin.”  That sounded bad.  Kate knew why I hung out in the Tenderloin.  “I’m a few blocks from the crime scene.”

“Don’t you have a car of your own?”

“I can't get to it right now and I’m not sure that I should be driving anyway.”

“Larry, you make me crazy.”

“I know.  I’m sorry.  So, can you come get me?”

“Get a cab,” she said and hung up.

I flagged down a cab and it carried me across town to Kate's place in Noe Valley, an ill-named neighborhood, since it seemed to be nothing but hills.  Hills run both ways, I guess.

She lived in a beige Victorian split into four apartments.  I liked the place.  It was clean, tidy and most of all it felt like a home, unlike the sorry excuse I called an apartment.

I pressed the buzzer for Kate's apartment when a year ago I would have used a key.  She didn’t bother talking to me on the squawk box, instead just buzzing me in. 

She stood in the doorway dressed in sweats with her arms crossed.  I expected recriminations, but saw she’d been crying.  I pulled her into a hug and for once, she didn’t push me away.

“It’s okay.  We’re going to catch the son of a bitch.”  Even if that son of a bitch was me, I thought.

She slipped from my embrace and pushed me away.  “You smell bad.”

“I’m sorry.”

I followed her inside and closed the door.

“Take a shower.  There are clean towels in there.”

“I’ll shower later.  We need to talk about Jon.”

Kate whirled on me and jabbed me in the chest.  “No.  You clean your sorry ass up before we talk.”

“Kate, please.”

“Larry, have you seen yourself?  Have you?  Your eyes are like saucers, you smell like garbage and your clothes are a mess.  Jon managed to do better and he lived on the streets.  You’ve got no excuse.”

It was a speech she’d been saving up and one I deserved.  “You're right.  I know how I look.  I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize.  I’m not your keeper.  But you're someone’s.  You need to get yourself straight for Victoria, if not for yourself.”

I didn’t bother telling her I’d missed my midweek pizza night with Victoria.  I felt plenty shitty about it already.

“I’ll jump in the shower.”  My words came out muted by shame.

The hot water felt good against my skin.  The spray of droplets seemed to wash away Ludo’s bad drugs I’d taken tonight.  My brain sharpened.  I wasn’t a hundred percent straight, but I could pass for it.

When I stepped from the shower, I found a fresh set of clothes sitting on the toilet.  No doubt, they were things I’d left behind when she kicked me out.  I toweled off and changed into the clean clothes.

Kate was on the loveseat with her legs pulled up to her chest.  Even in sweats, she looked good.  I missed her.  She’d taken me in when Jennifer and I had split.  A steaming mug of coffee sat across from her.

“That’s for you,” she said.

I picked up the coffee and settled into the recliner opposite her.

“If you want to get yourself straight, I can help you.”

It was a conversation I needed to have, but not right now.  “We need to help Jon first.”

“How did he die?”

“He was beaten, then stabbed.”

I became uncomfortably aware of my bruised and swollen knuckles holding the hot mug.  Kate didn’t notice.  She was putting too much effort into remaining stoic.  She failed and a tear slipped free.

“Jon called me today.  He wanted to tell me something.  I think whatever he knew got him killed.”

Kate palmed away the tear.  “Who'd do something like that?”

“That’s what I came to ask you.  You see Jon all the time.  Did he mention anything?”

“No.” 

“Was anyone sniffing around him who shouldn’t have been?  Anyone coming around asking questions?”

She shook her head.  “He hasn’t been himself.  I know that.”

“In what way?”

“He’s been missing.  You know what he's like.  He always comes to the food bank with half a dozen people he's picked off the street that night.  For the last week, he's been silent and skipping shifts.”

Jon wasn’t a flake.  He wouldn’t let Kate down unless he had a damn good reason.  I wished more than ever that I’d taken his calls. 

“You got your computer around?”

“Yeah,” she said and pointed at the laptop on the dining table behind me.  “Why?”

I pulled up the photo of Jon’s BART ticket on my cell phone.  I zoomed in on the ink stamps indicating the decreasing value left on the ticket from each use.

“This is Jon’s.  We both know he never rode BART, but this ticket started with a thirty dollar credit and he's been burning it in $2.90 increments, which means he's been going back and forth to the same place.”

“Maybe someone gave him a BART ticket instead of loose change.”

“Do you believe that right now?  Because I don’t.”

Kate got up and fired up her computer.  We spent the next twenty minutes plugging in possible destinations to generate a $2.90 fare.  It forced us to make a few assumptions.  Jon would have more than likely gotten on a train at Montgomery, Powell, Embarcadero or the Civic Center.  One connotation popped up like a winning lottery ticket.  Assuming Jon boarded a train at Montgomery, $2.90 got him as far as West Oakland.

“What would Jon want in West Oakland?” Kate asked.

I had no answer.

Kate closed the lid on the laptop.  “I’m sorry about what I said earlier.  It wasn’t fair.”

“It was.  Don’t worry about it.  I will get straight, I have to, but it’s got to wait.  Jon comes first.”

Kate nodded.  “What next?”

“Where was Jon crashing?”

“In the Tenderloin.  Nowhere regular as far as I know.  Why?”

“He didn’t have his phone on him and his cart wasn’t at the crime scene.”

“I’ve got his cart at the food bank.  I let him stash it there.  His phone might be there.”

“I need to go through it.”

“Let’s go.”  She smiled.  “I’ll drive.”

***

Kate drove to the Tenderloin.  Her food bank was less than ten blocks from where Jon lay dead.  I made sure she didn’t drive past the crime scene.  There was a good chance the medical examiner had claimed Jon’s body, but the cordon would still be intact and no one would have washed the blood away yet.  As much as people say they need to see the body to reach closure, they don’t.  No one needs to see a dead friend or loved one, especially one that has fallen prey to violence.  It’s best they remember that person in life, not as some discarded carcass on the street.

Kate’s food bank didn’t look like much.  It was a sliver of building sitting on the corner of Turk and Leavenworth.  The neighboring buildings towered over its two-story structure and appeared as if they were trying to shoulder her unit off the block and into the street.  The six-foot chain link fence seemed as if it was holding the buildings back instead of keeping undesirables out.

Kate got out to unlock the gate.  I slid over into the driver’s seat and parked the car in front of the delivery door.  She tossed me the keys and I unlocked it while she closed the gate.  She flicked on the lights and the fluorescents blinked into life.  Boxes of canned goods climbed the walls in drifts and a dozen serving tables used for handing out food leaned against one wall.  It had been a month or so since I’d done my civic duty for Kate and I wasn’t used to the musty, dank odor the building had developed from years of storage.

Kate pointed to a storage room.  “Jon’s cart is back there.”

I followed her inside.  Folding tables and boxes of serving utensils filled the room.  Amongst the bric-a-brac sat Jon’s cart.  The cart was Jon’s mobile office.  It brimmed with the things he deemed important.  This was as close as he came to material wealth.  Cans and bottles took up a large majority of the cart’s capacity, but a high-sided cardboard box separated Jon’s income-earning recyclables from his dedication to the homeless.  The box contained free product samples, usually hygiene products like soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other toiletries.  Jon used to hustle stores and dentist practices to give him promotional swag to dish out to the homeless. 

None of this was important, but his file folder was.  It was easily an inch thick.  I pulled it free of the box and leafed through it.  It contained all manner of pamphlets, flyers and applications.  They covered the gambit ranging from detox programs, free social services, flyers for assistance programs and counseling services for teen runaways, coupons for free fast food giveaways and locations for homeless shelters and food banks like Kate’s.  Flicking through Jon’s crusade to save people from themselves reminded me of what an asshole I was for pissing away what I had.

“What are you looking for?” Kate asked.

For anything that would get Jon killed, I thought, but said, “For anything that doesn’t belong.”

Kate pulled out an index box for business cards.  Jon collected cards from people he thought would come in handy for the homeless community—doctors, lawyers, civil servants, charity workers and cops.  My card was amongst them somewhere.

“Look for anything he was trying to hide or didn’t belong to him.”

Kate nodded and picked through all of Jon’s knick-knacks.

Jon, for all his openness, could be as squirrely as the next homeless guy.  He'd secret something away if he didn’t want it found.

“His phone isn’t here,” Kate said, closing up the index box.

I sighed.  Jon’s murder could be as simple as a robbery turned violent.  It would make life easier if that were true, but I didn’t believe it.  He'd called me with the promise of something big and bad coming.  Whatever it was, someone had killed him because of it.  That someone could be me.  I recoiled from the notion.  I knew I’d blacked out and couldn’t remember four hours, but there was no way I could have killed Jon.  Someone else had to be responsible.

“What happened to your hands?” Kate asked.

“Nothing.”

“Larry.”

Kate was someone I could confide in, but shame prevented me.  “It’s not important right now,” I said with an edge.  Her probing didn’t bother me as much as our lack of progress.

She frowned and picked up a hardback book.  Jon was a reader and never went anywhere without a book.  A folded sheet of paper fell from between the pages.  I picked it up and unfolded it.

It was a flyer for one of Joseph Rawlings’ upcoming sermons.  Rawlings, better known as Holy Joe by the locals, was the Bay Area’s self-proclaimed prophet and a conduit for the aliens the Supreme Being sent in space ships to enlighten us.  He worked the niche that the big-haired preachers and L. Ron Hubbard ignored.  Despite his bullshit line of hokum, the man pulled in a crowd consisting mainly of the homeless community.

“What is it?”

I handed the flyer to Kate.  “Has Jon being buying into the celestial invasion?”

“No.  Of course not.”

Something had to be going on between them.  I tapped the bottom of the flyer.  “Look at the address.  That’s walking distance from the West Oakland BART station.”

“This says the next sermon is tomorrow.”

“I think I’ll be attending.”