Lowlifes

Chapter Seven

 I sat in my car in front of Kate’s food bank waiting for Jerry Cradock and watching the Tenderloin come to life as the world waded deeper into night.  The cover of night gave its residents the opportunity to deal in the open.  The city workers weren’t around to disapprove of their hustling, dealing and whoring, so they gave into their desires and addictions.  Hunched figures poured from liquor stores.  Others found a doorway or an alley to bed down in for the night.

My presence in my unmarked repelled those giving into their weaknesses.  As soon as they spotted me sitting behind the wheel, they shifted their transactions from my sight.  That was fine with me.  I didn’t want to be disturbed.

I put the issue of Rawlings having Jon’s cell phone on the back burner.  Let the son of a bitch think he was in a safe spot for now as I built a mountain of evidence against him.  I was itching to find out how he'd gotten hold of that phone.

I eyed my dashboard clock.  Cradock was forty minutes late.  Not a surprise.  He'd long ago given up on a reason to follow the clock.

I pulled out Rawlings’ watch list and circled all the addresses that didn’t belong.  Five didn’t fit for me.  These five appeared to be private addresses.  Earlier in the day, I’d gotten to check out three of the five, a warehouse in Hunter’s Point, Pier 45 near Fisherman’s Wharf, and a small office building in the Mission.  All five properties belonged to out of state owners, none of them seemingly connected, and were either unoccupied or under renovation.  I couldn’t fathom a reason why Rawlings thought alien demons would want anything to do with the buildings.  Maybe to park their spaceships? 

My cell rang and Nick’s number came up on the caller ID.

“Yes, Nick.”

“I’ve got news on your urine test.  You’ve been running with the wrong crowd.  You proved positive for Rohypnol.”

“Thanks, Nick.”

“Does this mean I’m done being your private lab?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Before I could thank him, he hung up on me.

The Rohypnol confirmed that someone had wanted to take me out of the game at the time of Jon’s murder.  It also had the added benefit of making me a murder suspect.  How it tied into Rawlings, I didn’t have a clue.

Knuckles rapped my passenger window and Jerry Cradock craned his neck to peer into my car.  His large frame filled my window.

I pocketed the list.  “It’s open.”

He pulled open the door.  “Hey, Inspector.  Can we go somewhere?  I don’t want people seeing me sitting in a cop car.”

“Sure.  Where?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Me too.  Let’s eat.”

I locked up my car and we walked a couple of blocks to a Burger joint.  The night manager frowned at the sight of Cradock stinking up his restaurant.  I pulled back my jacket to show him my badge and he took our order.

Cradock carried our food to a corner table away from the windows.  A Marine out of the service at least thirty years earlier, he still walked with a proud military bearing.  While I was curious about Cradock, I didn’t ask him his story.  Stories were shared, not requested.  Jon had taught me that.

“Thanks for the meal, Inspector Hayes.  Sorry for squeezing it out of you.”

It killed me to see the real appreciation in Cradock's expression.  It was a quarter-pounder, fries and coke.  It was hardly a five star dinner.

“It’s no problem.”

Cradock’s hands trembled when he picked up the burger.  The shakes weren’t from fear, but alcohol addiction.  I’d been pretending not to notice the alcohol fumes drifting off him.  Kate had warned me that Cradock was a major league drunk, but he seemed lucid.  He could carry off normality while mired neck deep in his addiction.  I knew all about that.  I also knew that state never lasted.  The descent into self-destruction was just around the corner.

“What did you want to tell me?”

“Jon got into a fight with Holy Joe before he died.”

“What kind of fight?”

“They had words, at first, but then it turned physical.”

“When was this?”

“About a month ago, but this has been going on for a while.”

“What do you mean?”

“At Kate’s food bank.  Holy Joe was going around handing out these flyers to everyone in line.  At first, Jon was okay with it.  You know Jon, he wasn’t one to judge anyone.  If this guy wanted to spout crap about little green men, who cared?”

“What changed?”

“Holy Joe started telling people that the programs Jon had gotten them into were instruments of Satan and all that crap.  Naturally, that lit Jon up.  He believed in his programs.”

I nodded.  Jon was the Tenderloin’s hardest working unpaid social worker.

“Jon told Rawlings he was welcome to eat with us, but he had to keep his opinions to himself.  Rawlings poured gasoline over the fire by accusing Jon of being a demon and a deceiver.  Jon threw him out.”

“And that was the end of it?”

Cradock took a bite of his burger.  “Oh, no.  That was just the beginning. Jon lost a couple of kids and junkies.  They dropped out from their programs.  Turns out Rawlings was the cause.  Jon went after him, tracking him to his rallies.”

“Rallies?”

“Yeah, Holy Joe has been working the Bay Area hard, taking over parks to preach.  Jon was following him around to shout him down.  That was when it got physical.  Rawlings’ supporters in Berkeley tried to kick Jon out of People’s Park and they gave him a beating.  Nothing hardcore, but enough.”

So Rawlings’ people could be violent when they wanted to be. 

“Jon went quiet after that.  Instead of getting vocal, he went covert.  He'd disappear, not telling anyone where he was going, but I knew he was trying to get something on Holy Joe.”

Jon must have found something, and I’d blown it by not taking his call.  “Do you know if he found anything?”

Cradock shrugged.  “Don’t know.”

“So what's your opinion of Holy Joe?”

“He’s a whack job.”

“But you attended his gatherings, didn’t you?”

Cradock had his sandwich up to his mouth to take another bite.  My question killed his appetite and he put the burger down.

“Look, man, if I have to listen some asshole sound off about alien demons for a free meal and little bit of cash, I’m going to do it.”

“So, you checked out the places on his watch list?”

“Yeah, some.”

“Did you see anything?”

Cradock shrugged.  “Just people doing their thing.  I just did it for the money.”

“Does Rawlings always hand out ten bucks?”

“Yeah.  He gives you the ten bucks, you spend a day hanging out in front of a place and you tell him what you saw.  He gives you another ten if he likes what he hears.”

“Where's the money come from?”

“He’s got money.  You go to that house in Oakland?”

I nodded.

“He owns that and some vacation home in Tahoe.  He inherited them.  He gets an income from the Tahoe house.”

“I thought he lived on the streets.”

“He does.  He rejected all his worldly possessions when he turned to preaching.  He's a fool if you ask me.  Who gives up a roof over their head if they don’t have to?”

A crazy man, I thought.

I pulled out a copy of the watch list.  It was a clean copy and not the one I’d doodled all over.  I didn’t want to lead Cradock.  He was an honest guy, but that didn’t mean I could trust him.  Witnesses had a habit of being eager to please and occasionally swayed by anything put before them. 

“Did you check out any of these places?”

Cradock pushed his tray to one side and pulled the list over.  He tapped the address for the Hall of Justice.  “I tried there.  The cops moved me on.”

“Anywhere else?”

Cradock pointed to three other addresses. 

“What were you supposed to see?”

“Demons?”

“Did you see any?”

“No, of course not.  I just saw people coming and going.  Life in action.”

“Did Holy Joe get excited by what you told him?”

“Not really.”

“Do you know if Jon checked out any of these places?”

Cradock took another bite out of his burger and nodded. 

“Which one?”

He tapped the Jones address in the Tenderloin.  “I saw Jon a couple of days ago camped out in front of the building.  You know Jon, he don’t sit still for a moment, but he was planted in front that place. I asked him what he was doing there.  He told me he was working and to move on.”

“And you’re sure it was that address?”

“Oh, yeah.”

I’d narrowed Rawlings’ watch list down to one.  “Okay.  Thanks for your time.”

“You going to finish that?”

I grabbed the soda.  “No.  You can have it.”

He pulled my burger and fries over to him.  “Thanks, Inspector.”

I fished out a twenty from my wallet and pressed it on the table.  “You hear or remember anything else, you let me know.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught the night manager watching us.  He'd perked up at my impending departure. 

“Look after yourself,” I said in a tone the night manager could hear, “and if that asshole in the paper hat gives you any shit, just let me know, okay?”

Cradock grinned.  “Sure thing, Inspector.”

Suddenly, the manager remembered a fry emergency or something burger related and disappeared into the depths of the kitchen.

“Inspector, you're going to nail the prick who killed Jon, aren’t you?”

“Without a doubt,” I said and walked out.

***

I pulled up across from the address on Jones and sighed.  If there were alien overlords here to destroy us, they'd come with construction experience.  The building was hidden under a giant protective wrapping courtesy of an asbestos removal order.

An explanation for Rawlings’ spacesuited alien demons fell into place.  They were the asbestos removal workers.  They probably hadn’t taken too kindly to Rawlings trying to repel them with the power of the bible and had handed out a beating.  Hell, I felt like tracking down Rawlings and giving him a beating for wasting my time.

My disappointment didn’t last.  Jon had spent the day here.   He knew the Tenderloin better than anyone and would have known the building was under renovation.  He should have dismissed Rawlings’ ramblings, but something had struck a nerve with him and he'd still come here.  Had that something gotten him killed? 

I moved my car a couple of streets away.  What I was about to do wasn’t legal and I didn’t want to be seen walking back to my car.

I walked up on the building with a crowbar pressed against the length of my arm.  The canvas fabric fluttered in the breeze.  The tent had been professionally installed, but it was far from a hermetic seal.  Warning notices every few feet warned me of the dangers of entering.   I pulled out my buck knife, slit the fabric at a seam and slipped through.

A hefty padlock and chain protected the doors from unlawful entry, but plywood and nails covered the windows.  I pried one of the six by four foot panels from the frame with the crowbar.  I’d hoped for a broken windowpane, but an intact pane looked back at me.  I slipped off my jacket, pressed it against the glass and smacked the crowbar against it.  The glass split and fell into the building.  I pulled my jacket on and clambered inside.  I didn’t fear any backlash.  The carnage I’d leave behind could easily be explained away as a simple B&E carried out by a bum looking for a place to crash.

I snapped on a flashlight and swept it over the room.  A thick layer of dust covered the floor and my footprints ruined the virgin surface.  Obviously, the cleanup crew hadn’t gotten to this room.  I pulled out a handkerchief and tied it bandit style over my nose and mouth.  The last thing I needed was a case of mesothelioma. 

I went from room to room, floor to floor and found no signs of asbestos removal or any kind renovation activity until I reached the top floor.  It consisted of four units.  Like everywhere else in the building, there'd been no construction activity, but each unit was clean.  All dirt and dust gone.  Plastic sheeting hung from every doorway.  And where every other floor smelled musty and old, the rooms on the top floor smelled clean.  No, that was wrong.  They smelled sanitized.  As if the air had been filtered.

Asbestos removal, my ass, I thought and pulled the handkerchief covering my face off.  Something had gone down here, but whatever it was had moved on to greener pastures.  Whoever had been here had gone to a lot of trouble to hide their existence, but no one could cover their tracks completely. So what had my silver-suited friends left behind?

I combed the rooms looking for anything deemed too trivial to worry about.  I found something in the third of the units.  Holes had been drilled in the floor.  The holes didn’t belong to the ghost of fixtures past.  They were fresh.  Judging by the distances between them, they'd held down some serious equipment.  And no one had bothered to repair the eighteen-inch diameter hole drilled through the ceiling and clear through to the roof.  The renovation scam had been the front for a sizable operation of some kind.

I wondered if Rawlings’ alien demons had made off in the night because of Jon’s snooping.  “Jon, what did you stumble across?”

The sound of footsteps on the tile floor in the hallway shook me from my thoughts.  I couldn’t run.  The only way out was past Mr. Footsteps.

A flashlight beam swept the unit.  The plastic sheeting refracted the light, sending its beam in all directions.  The light eventually fell across me.

I didn’t panic.  I knew something like this could happen and I’d come armed with a cover story.  I was a cop, working late.  I saw the damage to the tenting and checked out the place to see if anyone had broken in.  Representing the law had its advantages.

The figure stopped in the doorway.  The plastic sheeting distorted his outline, but I could still make out his vital statistics.  He was around six foot, with a good build and shoulder-length, shaggy, dark hair.  He was a prime candidate for Ludo’s dog killing friend, the Reaper.

“Hi,” I said, reaching for my shield.  “SFPD.  I think you had a break-in.”

The figure pulled back the plastic sheeting and hit me full in the face with the flashlight beam.  I held up a hand to shield my eyes while holding out my badge with the other.

“You want to get that flashlight out of my face so I can call this in?”

I heard the familiar sound of the hammer being pulled back on a gun.  Blinding light obliterated the gunman, reducing him to pools of light and dark.  Reaching for my gun would be a futile gesture.  I was quick on the draw, but with my vision shredded, I couldn’t hit the broadside of Canada with any degree of accuracy.  I did the only thing open to me.  I charged the blinding light.

I slammed into the Reaper and bear-hugged him to force his gun arm out of harm’s way.  The impact drove us into the plastic sheeting and the cloying plastic entangled us.  The Reaper lost his footing and both of us came crashing down, dragging the plastic sheeting with us.

A knee found my groin.  I doubled up and my grip on the Reaper fell away.

The son of a bitch moved with lightning speed.  With the advantage back on his side, he flipped me onto my back and pressed the plastic sheeting over my face.  Suddenly, I was sucking the acrid stench of polythene into my lungs.  The Reaper pressed harder on the plastic until it became a death mask against my face.  My lungs burned as my air turned sour.

Panic and my animal need to survive took over.  I ripped at the plastic shroud suffocating me.  My nails scraped at the plastic but they failed to penetrate the tough material.  I felt my strength bleed out of me and seemingly into the Reaper.  His hold on me turned into an iron grip.  My vision returned to me, but my would-be killer’s face remained obscured by the opaque plastic and the condensation of my own breath.  Droplets of moisture dripped back onto my face.

I stopped thrashing.  It wasn’t doing me any good.  Instead, I focused all my energy on reaching for my gun.

“That’s it.  Die, asshole,” the Reaper growled.

After you, I thought and fought hard to wring out every molecule of air left in my lungs for what I needed to do.  I slid my hand to my hip and slipped the gun free.  I made the move smooth.  I wanted the upper hand for once.

I pressed the weapon against the plastic.  My vision dissolved into blobs of lights and lost integrity.  I aimed at the Reaper and pulled the trigger. 

The gun bucked in my hand.  The report bounced off the walls and kept on bouncing.  I’d missed, but it didn’t matter.  He leapt off me like I was venomous. 

I took the plastic sheeting from my face and sucked in the best lungful of air I’d ever breathed, leaving me lightheaded.  No pill had ever delivered the high I felt in that moment.  I swung the gun in the direction of my attacker and scrambled to my feet with the dexterity of a newborn. 

“Hold it right there,” I yelled.

The Reaper took a leaf out of my playbook and rushed me.  I aimed at him, but he was upon me too quickly and drove me into the banister.  It splintered under the force and gave way.  I spilled over the edge.  There was no time to grab anything to save myself and I smashed onto the stairs below on my back.  Unconsciousness spared me the embarrassment of screaming.