Lowlifes

Chapter Six

The next morning, I watched my daughter and ex-wife leave the house.  Neither of them noticed me parked half a block away, they were too preoccupied with getting on with their new day to wonder about me.  I missed Victoria so much.  She meant the world to me and I’d blown it.  Jennifer had every right to resent me the way she did.  It was days like these that made me believe I deserved to lose the custody battle.  I was responsible for the mess we found ourselves in. 

I waited until Jennifer backed the car out before phoning the house and leaving a long, apologetic message to Victoria.  When I hung up, they were long gone.  I slipped from the car and reclaimed the butcher knife and my tainted urine from the sump well.

I walked into the Hall of Justice with the knife used to kill Jon in my jacket pocket.  I skipped my Major Crimes Unit—I didn’t want to get dragged into a conversation with Grieves or stuck with a fresh case—and went directly to Forensics. 

For the first time in twelve hours, I got lucky.  Maria Cho was in, someone I could trust with my life.  She sat at her desk with racing pages spread out, selecting her picks.  I sidled up to her and slipped my arm around her shoulders.

“Cho, hard at work as usual, I see.”

She frowned and peeled my arm away, then checked her watch.  “Smarm at this time of the morning?  That can mean only one thing.  What do you want, Hayes?”

“You're too cynical, Cho.”

“Just hand it over.  I need to check in with my bookie.”

I put the evidence envelope containing the knife on her desk.  “I need the prints run on that yesterday and checked against every database we have.”

Cho cautiously picked up the envelope.  “Hmm, doesn’t feel that hot.”

I looked her dead in the eye.  “I need a result on that as soon as you can, Cho.  It’s important.”

She lost the playfulness.  “Sure, Hayes.  I’ll get right on it.  Has this been booked in?”

“Yeah,” I said and tapped the number on the envelope.  I’d logged the knife in with another of my open cases.  I wasn’t about to share the result with Grieves just yet.

“I’ll call you as soon as I know something.”

I kissed the top of her head.  “You're a star.”

“Everything okay?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Just a tricky case.  Be sure not to share your findings with anyone except me, okay?”

“You got it.”

“I’ll make this up to you.”

I left her with a confused look on her face and the murder weapon in her hand as I left the Hall for my car.  I got behind the wheel of the Crown Vic, popped the glove box and put the sealed bottle of urine in the cup holder.

I drove across town to a clinic that catered to corporate dope screenings and worker’s comp claims.  I pulled up in their tiny parking lot and punched a number into my cell.  “Nick, it’s me.”

Nick sighed.  “Where are you?”

“Outside.”

“I’ll be right there.”

A minute later, Nick emerged from a side door wearing his medical scrubs.  I don’t think I’d ever seen him out of scrubs, no matter the time of day.  I powered down my window and he leaned in.

“Piss please?”

I handed him the bottle, now safely stored in a Ziploc, along with two hundred bucks.  He viewed the cash with the same distaste as the urine I’d given him. 

“This is the last time, Larry.”

“I’ll decide when it’s the last time.  And it’s Inspector Hayes.”

“Haven't I paid my debt to society?”

“I’m the one paying you.”

Nick frowned.  “I could complain.  Where would you be then?”

“Screwed, but don’t fuck with a desperate man.  It never works out for anyone.”

“I could say the same to you.”

“You're not desperate.  Just mildly inconvenienced.”

Nick eyed the piss again.  “You have people for this.  This can't be kosher.”

“I need to know what's in that before nightfall.”

I stuck the car in gear and backed away, leaving Nick cursing my name.  Let him curse.  His problems were small compared to mine.

I’d conscripted Nick after I’d picked him up on a possession charge a year ago.  It wasn’t really worth my time, the court's time or the taxpayers’ money.  It was better he worked off his crime with some off-the-books community service.  It paid to ask what people did for a living before you read them their rights.  I had quite a useful collection of contacts who got things done for me.

I threaded my way through the city and picked up the Bay Bridge to Oakland.  Construction crews worked on the replacement bridge to my left.  They'd been going at the thing for years and didn’t seem to be any closer to finishing it.  It was the Winchester Mystery House of bridge construction—a never-ending project. 

The other view from the bridge was the port of Oakland.  Container ships lumbered into the port weighed down with cargo.  Sadly, I didn’t see any ships leaving in that condition.  No wonder someone like Joseph Rawlings could set up shop in that area.

I peeled off the freeway on the other side of the bridge and descended into the Oakland's industrial district as a whining BART train pulled into the West Oakland station, the station Jon would have used.  Cavernous warehouses and nameless engineering firms converted the empty streets into slab-sided gulleys.  An occasional Victorian house took up a street corner.  None managed to poke their heads higher than the elevated freeway.  Little activity filled the streets, but at night, it would be a different story.  There'd be plenty of people asleep under the overpasses.

I turned a corner and stopped.  Two dozen people milled around in the street in front of a house.  I turned my Crown Vic around and parked two blocks over from Rawlings’ place in front of a warehouse and got out. 

I popped the trunk release and jumped out of the car.  I pulled off my jacket and tossed it in the trunk, then pulled my shirt out of my pants and unbuttoned it.  I locked the car up after securing my service weapon and badge in the lockbox, then checked my appearance in the door mirror.  Dark rings circled my bloodshot eyes.  My face looked puffy.  I mussed up my hair.  I didn’t look homeless, but I looked like someone in trouble.  I’d fit right in.

Joseph Rawlings’ followers gave me scant attention as I slipped amongst them and I returned the sentiment.  I made only brief eye contact and didn’t smile. 

Rawlings’ space invader-free zone or whatever this place was, was a ramshackle Victorian painted in violet and purple.  Unfortunately, no amount of garish paint could cover up the house’s decrepitude. 

A grubby hand landed on my shoulder.  “I don’t know you.  What do you want?”

I turned and faced a heavy-set man with straw-blond hair.  His weather-beaten face was the color of mud.  He looked to be in his fifties, but I guessed life on the streets had prematurely aged him at least ten years.

I pulled a flyer from my pocket.  “I got this from a guy at the food bank.  He said I should come.”

The flyer proved to be as accepted as American Express.  The sight of it nullified the man’s suspicion and all the tension went out of his body. 

“Welcome.  Come inside.  Joseph is about to begin.”

I thought it interesting that Rawlings had sentries looking out for him.  I wondered who they were protecting him against.  The alien invaders?  I followed the man into the house.

It was standing room only inside.  My new friend gestured to me to follow him into the living room.  I pushed my way into the room where in excess of fifty people stood.  Not a stick of furniture occupied the space.  The only clear area was a small stage in front of a fireplace.

Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Rawlings stood on the stage.  He appeared oblivious to everyone gathered in his name as he psyched himself up to speak.  He paced the length of the small stage like a man with his spring too tightly wound. 

“There is no heaven.  God isn't dead.  He isn't dead because he never existed.” 

Rawlings paused for a reaction, but he was preaching to the wrong crowd.  Everyone here was way past believing in a benevolent deity.  It was hard to have faith when you call a stretch of sidewalk your bed and a blanket your roof.  Rawlings smiled at us like we were all believers.  It just showed you that even the divine could be wrong.

“We don’t owe our existence to a being with a beard in flowing white robes or his son born of a virgin, but we do owe our existence to the heavens.”  He pointed up.  “The man we call the son of God was real.  Just not the way we believe.  Jesus was a traveler from another world.”

When no one reacted to this revelation, Rawlings clarified the point.  “He was a being from another planet.  An explorer on a space race of his own.  People will dismiss what I say as heresy.  Let them.  Their eyes are closed.  They don’t want to admit the truth.  All the things described in the bible as miracles are commonplace acts these days.  Artificial insemination can produce a virgin birth.  CPR will raise the dead. You name any miracle and our technology can replicate it.  Jesus came from a more advanced society with better technology.”

I soon zoned Rawlings out.  His brain-addled dogma was nothing startling or that I hadn’t heard before.  It was just the rambling of the garden variety delusional. But his performance was still worth the price of admission.  He knew how to put on a show.  He furiously paced the stage as he talked to the ground with a white-knuckled fist an inch from his lips.  Only occasionally did he glance over at his audience and his tone rose and fell with the practiced intonation of a long time performer.  His intensity could turn coal into diamonds.  I had to admit his presence bordered on hypnotic.  I thought that if Rawlings could lose the Ted Kaczynski appearance and tone down the crazy talk, he possessed the talent to land himself a cable news pundit’s job. 

I surveyed the crowd.  They didn’t exactly hang on Rawlings’ every word, but they were listening, taking it in and accepting it.  The ones who resided at Rawlings’ end of the crazy spectrum were believers. 

Then Rawlings said something that drew me back into the conversation.

“The devil, just like Jesus, came from outer space.  While Jesus might be gone, the evil that followed him here never left.  It’s in every part of our country.  In our cities.  On our streets.  The demons are all around us.  The public doesn’t see them.  They're too content to live in their bubblegum world seeing what they want to see.  They ignore us.  They see human refuse, instead of a fellow human being.  Likewise, they don’t see the demons from another world.  But I do.  People like us do.  We see through the bullshit.  We’re too close to the streets not to.  I’ve taken them on and paid the price.”

Rawlings lifted his sweatshirt up to reveal a nasty set of bruises running under his arm and down across his stomach.  They had to be a week old having faded from angry purples and reds to weak yellows and greens.

“They did this to me after they caught me spying on them.  I watched them hard at work manufacturing their poisons while hidden under their spacesuits.  This isn't the first time I’ve caught them in the act, but there's nothing I can do alone.  That’s why I need you.”

Rawlings shot the crowd a pleading look.  “Do you want to help me?  Do you want to see the demons?”

A chorus of uninspired yeses made its way up from the congregation.

“Is that all you can say?  It’s the demons that put you on the streets.  It’s the demons that tore you from your families.  It’s the demons who peddle poison for you to snort, smoke and inject.  The demons are the reason why you're standing here now.  If you can't see them, you should want to know how to see them.”

Even I joined in with the more energetic round of yeses.

Rawlings snatched a sheaf of papers off the mantle above the fireplace and brandished them at the audience.  “These are the locations of the demons.  I want you to go to these places and see them yourselves.”

“I’ve already seen them,” someone shouted from the crowd.

The remark threw an anchor on Rawlings’ pacing.  A spreading grin smoothed his creased and lined face.  He stepped down from the stage.  The crowd cleared a path to the emaciated man who'd made the remark.  Rawlings clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder.  

“Doesn’t it feel good to see them for what they are?”

“Yes, Joseph.”

“Your eyes are open.” 

“Yes, they are.”

The men embraced and everyone broke into applause. 

I wondered if the believer in the crowd was a plant.  I didn’t think so.  He definitely lived on the streets and his remarks seemed way too natural to be forced.  I got the feeling the guy was either looking for acceptance or was a zombie all too eager to agree with the first person to show him a glimmer of common decency.

Rawlings jumped back onto the stage and grabbed the papers off the mantle.  “I know there are others who see, but aren’t sure what they see.  These places will help you see.  You will come to believe there are demons amongst us.  Who'll come join me in the fight?”

Everybody put a hand in the air, me along with them.

“Then please come up onto the stage to learn where you can find the alien demons.  One at a time please.”

The congregation formed an orderly line.  Rawlings called each person up to the stage.  I waited my turn and climbed onto the stage when Rawlings beckoned to me. 

“Be vigilant, my friend,” Rawlings said, pressing a ten dollar bill into my hand with the flyer.  “There’s food and drink for you in the backyard.”

Now I knew why Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Rawlings had so many followers.  It did raise the question of where the money was coming from. 

The flyer had been hand written with a sharpie, not typed.  The banner headline at the top read: WHERE THE DEMONS RESIDE.  The flyer listed City Hall in San Francisco and Oakland, the federal building, the water utilities, and the Hall of Justice along with every other Bay Area police department.  The places weren’t identified, but I recognized most of them by their street addresses.  Amongst the usual crackpot manifesto poster children were a few addresses I didn’t recognize.  One of the addresses was on Jones Street, slap bang in the middle of the Tenderloin and I didn’t see the significance of the place.

I followed the guy in front of me into the backyard.  Food covered picnic tables and a handful of the homeless manned the tables, dishing out sandwiches, potato salad, chips and soda.  With nowhere to sit, I performed a juggling act with what I’d been given.

I tried inserting myself into conversations to learn more, but everyone clammed up the second I showed my face.  I exchanged a word here and there with a couple of the attendees, but no one wanted to be my friend.  I put that down to my appearance.  I looked bad, but I didn’t look street bad.

I’d gotten all I was getting from this shindig, so I slipped out through the side gate.  I didn’t get half a block before my cell phone rang.  It was Kate.

“Hey, Kate.  I’m sorry about last night.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Her tone was more forgiving today.  “Look, I may have something for you.  Do you know one of my people—Cradock?”

I thought I did.  When I used to help at the food bank, I got to know some of the regulars.  Some liked to talk.  Some didn’t.  Cradock did.  He was a former Marine, Vietnam vintage.  He talked to me because of the badge.  He still worshiped hierarchy despite living in a world that didn’t have one.

“Jerry Cradock, right?”

Kate nodded.  “He’s been attending some of Rawlings’ sermons and he wants to talk to you.  He says he knows something about Jon and Rawlings.”

Things were looking up.  “Did he say what?”

“No.  He won't say.  Not to me, anyway.  He said he’ll meet you at the food bank at eight.  He doesn’t want me there.”

“Why?”

“He’s trying to protect me.”

That made my Spidey senses tingle.  “From what?”

“He won't say.  Will you talk to him and come see me afterwards?” 

“Yeah.  Of course I will.”

“Okay.  See you later.”

I hung up on Kate and smiled.  If Kate could forgive me, then maybe my family could.  I flipped open my phone to call Victoria to apologize.  Just as I punched in Victoria’s speed dial number, I realized that I’d neglected to call someone.   I punched in the number belonging to Jon’s missing phone.  The phone rang three times before Joseph Rawlings answered.