The Musicians―I don't know why I was drawn to the three of you, only that I was. I can't define it. Many of your peers have similar qualities. But I was moved by you. So . . . to the Magic 3―Sheryl Crow, Sarah Mclachlan, and Alanis Morissette―much gratitude for your inspiration. It struck a chord . . . the divine one.
To the young woman who told me her story, then vanished. The story you told, true or not, touched my heart. I didn’t know what to say to you back then. Through Mary Jane Chevalier, I hope to now. I pray it reaches you. I dedicate Saving The Innocents to you, and all of those like you that have been abandoned, either physically or emotionally―to the little girl by the side of the road.
The human spirit is like the dandelion⎯chopped off at the ground, it will spring back from a single, hair root.
A lot of shit can happen in eight days.
She put the pen to the paper. This is the way she believed it went . . .
She thought it funny . . . what went through her mind while waiting for the bullet. Time slowed down in that moment. Several thoughts and feelings flashed⎯alternating waves. Her body felt relaxed at first, as though relief had finally come. Freedom. And she welcomed it.
But that feeling passed just as quick and a tension gripped her innards⎯like someone was squeezing her belly from the inside. Like he was squeezing it from the inside, from what he’d done all those years ago⎯and now she’d never find him . . . never know why.
Mary Jane, her eyes deep inside the hooded jacket, stared at the blackness from where the bullet would emerge⎯blackness roughly the size of a dime, surrounded by shiny blue steel. She chewed her gum slow. Deliberate.
Twelve inches of air between her and the gun. Twelve inches and it would all be over. She focused her eyes three feet beyond the gun barrel, back to its owner, to the face he tried to keep hidden from the dimmed bar lights. Only half his face in light⎯a long scar running from his right temple to his chin⎯his eyes a chocolate brown. A Cockney accent in a low, even tone when he spoke. It oozed out of his mouth, like pus from an open boil.
“No strangers come in here. Even young, pretty ones. You’re leaving, luv.”
She sneered a little as the thought crept into her mind.
She listened as he clicked back the hammer. She closed her eyes, leaned forward, until her forehead touched the barrel⎯the way a small child would lean into the hand of a loving mother feeling for a fever.
When she opened her eyes his face had changed. His eyebrows were pulled down and together in the center, vertical lines creased between, his eyelids widening out⎯like he’d seen a circus freak for the first time . . . or a cow with two heads.
When his cell phone rang under his tweed jacket, he flinched, which then faded into a scowl. He flipped the phone open.
The voice on the other end was deep. Mary Jane could hear it clearly.
“I think I’ve found her, Alex. The little one. Get over here. Now.”
She watched him flip the phone closed and slide it back into the jacket. He stared at her a while longer. She could see the hamster in the cage of his mind running⎯turning the wheels over, pondering whether or not he would let her see another moment of daylight.
He thumbed the hammer forward with ease, shot her instead with a quizzical look, turned and walked to the back of the bar. He stopped next to a large, barrel-chested man sitting on a stool guarding a curtained doorway. The guy had arms in girth as thick as a python. She saw the scarred man whisper something in the guard’s ear, pull the curtain open, and walk through the back room. Just before the curtain closed, Mary Jane saw a flash of blue uniform standing over an opened suitcase, and what appeared to be a clear plastic bag of sugar. She heard the accent again.
“Let’s go. I need a lift across town . . . now. We’ll use the lights.”
She listened to the metal of the back door open and slam shut. The large man then got up off the stool and walked over toward her. She could tell from the way he carried himself he was going to attempt some form of intimidation. Just something in the way he moved. A sort of physical arrogance. She blinked slowly, calming her mind, and casually snapped her gum again . . .
The old woman’s eyes glistened out of the midnight void, like two moist pearls on jeweler’s velvet⎯shimmering lines dancing from the streetlights across each milky white surface. At night she didn’t need the shades to hide them. The electric motor of the wheelchair whirred underneath her along the sidewalk at a swift clip⎯her silhouette rolling along at just above three-and-a-half feet.
She sensed something. Something unusual. She grunted, and locked up the wheels. She pulled up beside the old silver Mustang⎯like she’d slammed into an invisible wall. She cozied the wheelchair gently next to the car, held out her right hand six inches from the slits just behind the driver’s side window⎯slits resembling shark’s gills. Her fingers twitched at random, as if an electric current were passing through each one. She whispered softly to herself.
“Oooh. Powerful. Yeeesss . . . yeeesss.”
She clamped her gaze to the door of the bar across the street, then whipped the chair around the front of the car; her shadow glided over the shining horse on the front grill as she crossed the one-way street.
She wheeled up to the door, pulled it open a crack with the right hand⎯the only hand that worked⎯then nudged the cat curled in her lap with the remnants of her left. She talked to him softly.
“Time to go to work, young man. It’s time. Yes, Yeeesss.”
The cat, a husky one-eyed tabby, dropped to the sidewalk and slipped through the crack. The woman let go of the door and engaged the electric motor once more, and passed beneath the iron bars on the windows; she chortled deep in her throat.
“Power. Strong. Splendid. Simply splendid. Yeeesss . . .”
After getting up off his stool, the six-foot-two side of beef ambled toward her. Mary Jane recalled the snapshot in her mind. She’d scanned the layout on her way in the door out of habit . . . just like she’d done for the last five years, every watering hole its own peculiarities.
Bar on the left: all the way down the wall. Seven guys. All locals. Four ceiling fans⎯two wobbling. Nice wide space, between stools and the two pool tables⎯lengthwise down the middle of the room: two guys, pool cues in hand, front table. Another wide space to the right, four more fans: all wobbling. Jesus, what the hell are they attached with, bailing twine? Booths along the far right wall. Five guys. Jabbering in Spanish, and this damn goril . . .
“Hi,” she said. She forced a smile.
The big man kept walking, backing her up. She pulled the picture from her jacket pocket.
“Just came in to ask . . .”
He swatted the photo out of her hand with the back of his.
Mary Jane stopped backing up. She stood firm, next to the gap between the pool tables; her mouth, that had been working over the gum, went still. The tone in her voice changed.
“Have you seen him.” Wasn’t a question. More like a dare.
He didn’t answer.
She bent down to pick up the photo. When he moved his foot over it, she stood up, and moved in close to his face.
“That’s my only copy. It’s my fath . . .”
He twisted the photo into the floor with the ball of his foot.
She turned her back, and made two quick strides, grabbing the butt end of a pool cue from the man leaning into his next shot. She slid it backwards out of his hands, grabbed the tip and flipped the cue around in midair, catching the thick end with both hands.
The sound was like a bumblebee as it split the smoke-filled air. She swung her body around with a gathering force, and brought the cue from behind her like a broadsword⎯the way a Viking marauder would in the long ago of Scotland. The wooden blade made a thunderous crack into the side of the big man’s knee, the cue splitting apart, the tip snapping off and skidding into the base of the bar. The support to the man’s body buckled, and the offending foot over the picture came up off the floor.
His mouth went agape. He grabbed the knee with both hands and went down to the floor, was halfway back up when the next blow came.
She had flipped the cue again, catching it just above the jagged and splintered end, reversed her hands and again swung it like a sword⎯this time left-handed⎯the thick heavy end coming around. It caught him solid across the jawline and turned his head nearly around. His dense body landed with a deadening thud, and dust from the cracks in the floorboards puffed out into the room, sending the cockroaches scurrying for cover.
Motion and talk came to a standstill, except the man lying prone. He blinked his eyes rapidly, struggled to breathe, drooled blood and spit from the corner of his mouth into a puddle on the floor.
The five men in the booth snickered to themselves in Spanish again, and Mary Jane heard the word “puta” repeatedly. She knelt down to the photo, brushing away the granules of dirt with a delicate finger. She blew on it softly, and picked it up.
A few scratches. Can still see him clearly.
She looked to the man on the floor.
She stood, still glaring down at him, holding the splintered cue out behind her for the pool player to take.
“No thanks. I’m done.”
“Take it,” she said.
He hesitated at first, then took it gently from her hand and set it on the edge of the front table. He motioned his friend toward the door with a look, and quickly followed behind.
Mary Jane blew a bubble in her gum, turned and faced the seven men at the bar. None said a thing but couldn’t stop staring. She glanced behind them to the bartender. He was pointing to the man on the floor, and mouthing the word “cop”. Mary Jane looked back down. Popped the bubble.
She slipped the photo back into her jacket pocket, turned and walked toward the front door. She had the door pulled half open, glanced left at the booth, and had turned to go before the patch of color registered. It was set off and surrounded by the darkness of the bar. A light brown, almost cream color. Under the light on the table. Centered by the men in the booth. She planted her front foot, pulled back beyond the door and looked again.
The cat was walking along the edge of the table, rubbing against each of the men, arching its back, flicking its tail in the air. Each of them took turns petting it.
She smiled, turned again to go, and again turned back. Narrowed her eyes.
It was hanging from a horizontal beam above the entrance to the booth⎯a long, rawhide bullwhip, the handle slightly swaying head-high next to the last man sitting on the corner. It snaked up over the beam, down and into the semi-circular booth, across the length of the square-shaped table, to the fat man with the dark complexion in the center of the five. He was fashioning a small noose on the end of the whip, chuckling and talking, louder than the others.
Mary Jane walked back to the seven locals at the bar.
“This place serve any food here . . . like any meat?”
The bartender pointed to a display rack. Small bags of potato chips and pretzels. Mary Jane puffed air out of her mouth.
She knelt down behind the front pool table and pulled at a pant leg. She went for the knife strapped to her ankle, then thought better of it.
There are five of them. Jesus MJ, this is why you never leave the leather coat in the car. Always keep it with you, just in case. Damn it.
She pulled the pant leg back down, then glanced across to the man still lying on the floor. He was up on his elbows, shaking his head from side to side, trying to get his eyes to uncross.
She smiled, moved over to him, and knelt down. She rolled him over part way and felt inside his jacket. Under each arm. Bingo.
She pulled the .45 automatic from the holster, clicked off the safety, kept it low, behind the pool tables. Left hand.
Seven bar stools immediately scraped and squealed. Wood over wood. Every local got to his feet, eyes wide, frozen in anticipation. Mary Jane was at the edge of the first pool table, lining herself up with the center of the booth. The fat one was pulling the noose around the cat’s head like a collar when she spoke. Her voice dropped down a full octave.
“Let him go.”
The men did nothing, kept on talking and laughing. She pulled up a corner of her mouth.
Spanish, dolt. Spanish. Probably drug mules out of Columbia . . . or Miami.
She turned to the seven.
“Any of you boys been south of the border?”
They shook their heads no.
“Not a college boy among you?”
Again, all no. She winced a fake smile.
She noticed the bartender’s eyes flicker back to a gun rack on the wall behind the bar. One shotgun, a 12-gauge pump, prominently displayed. She met his eyes, and with a look told him no. The bartender moved to the other end of the bar and knelt behind a metal beer cooler. She turned back and faced the booth, lined up⎯the gun to the fat one in the center.
The seven behind her made for the front door, pushed and shoved one another on the way out. All scrambling to get through in time, before the fireworks started.
The fat man in the center reached for the handle to the bullwhip. Didn’t see her.
Mary Jane closed her right eye, focused with the left.
Wait for the cat to clear.
She gave a quiet bird whistle to the two men on the end of the booth. They looked around.
She cocked the hammer back.
Each man scrambled out of their seats. One went left, the other right.
The fat one pulled on the handle slowly.
The cat tried to dig in, sat down low, stiffened and leaned back. Table top was hard and smooth, and he began to slide. As he moved across the center of the table, that’s when she did it.
It all happened in less than two seconds. She eased the hammer forward in her left hand so the gun wouldn’t go off. She swung it down in front of her, hit the splintered pool cue lying on the edge of the table. The cue flipped around and into her right hand, jagged side in front. She flattened out her right arm and pulled the cue stick behind her, gripped light, lining it up alongside her head.
The cat’s front paws hit the edge of the table.
She launched the cue like a javelin. Put everything behind it she had⎯a four-foot wooden missile that went whistling over the pool table. Two warning shouts in Spanish went out, just as the javelin passed behind the cat and thumped into the hangman, mid-belly just below the sternum.
He wailed like a newborn. When he went to pull the cue out, his friends yelled and dove over to him, holding the cue still and yammering into his ear until he understood. He held the cue hand over hand, next to his stomach to try to keep it from moving⎯or falling out. He swore in broken Spanish, between gulps of air. The two sitting next to him, now convinced he knew not to remove it, let go.
The other two that stood reached for their guns.
Mary Jane clicked back the hammer again. They stopped.
The cat backed up until the bullwhip slackened. Sat down. Licked his paws in the middle of the table.
She motioned for the two men to pull their guns out barrel first, pinched between thumb and forefinger like they were carrying a dead rat by the tail. Showed them how without lowering her gun, and had them lay theirs on the bright green felt of the pool table. She waved the gun barrel a couple of times and backed them up to the center of the room. Collected both guns, put one in her belt, mid-back, the other in her jacket pocket.
She moved to the booth, trained the gun on the three remaining, loosened the noose with one hand to free the cat. She unzipped her jacket halfway, gathered the cat and put him in, zipped up to his chin.
She heard “puta” again, multiple times. Didn’t like the way he said it. The fat one. He made a face when he did. When he yelled and spit and gave her the finger, that was it. She slipped the noose around the thick end of the cue, and pulled it tight.
His eyes got wide, the yelling louder.
She turned, grabbed the handle to the bullwhip, then began walking away. She looped the handle up and around the wobbling blades of the ceiling fan. It landed on top, up near the housing where the blades met the motor. The rawhide of the whip spindled around the fulcrum of the blades. The fan continued to wobble, pulling the whip tighter and shorter with every revolution.
She opened the front door for the last time, turned and looked back. The fat one and the two in the booth were all clutching the cue and the lower end of the whip, pulling hard to keep the fat one from being uncorked. The motor to the ceiling fan was smoking and grinding, and the tug-o-war deadlock went on, until the fan finally gave way. It came out of the ceiling with chunks of plaster and metal, landed on the floor and the pool table with a crash and sparks.
Mary Jane glanced back over to the floor next to the bar. The cop was up to his hands and knees, breathing back to normal.
Hurry up, before he calls his friends.
She stepped outside, turned, and tossed all three guns up and over the marquee, and took off running across the one-way street. When the last gun landed on the roof, it went off.
She cradled the cat with one hand and found the keys in her pocket with the other, running to the car all the while. She thought how funny it must have looked, like maybe a pregnant woman about to drive herself to the emergency room.
When she reached the Mustang across the street, she slid over the hood on her butt, and looked down to the front bumper as she did.
Not enough room. Jeep in front is too close.
She unlocked the door, put the cat on the passenger-side floor, then cranked the keys hard, slamming the car in reverse, spinning rubber and smoke under the car. The tires screamed. She shouted over to the cat.
She spun the wheel hard around one-handed, turned her head, and looked through the rear window. She did a U-turn, headed up the one-way the right way, backwards toward the bar.
Three of the five men came flying out of the bar, two holding pool cues⎯the third leading the way with the shotgun from the wall. Mary Jane pressed the gas pedal to the mat and the engine growled. She was doing thirty and speeding up, taking aim at the one in front through her rear window. He let go of his weapon and dove over the hood of a car, back toward the front door of the bar when the Mustangroared past.
Mary Jane glanced down at the cat, then back to the rear window.
“I don’t really want to go this way!”
She whipped the wheel hard to the right when she got to the end of the block, threw the Mustang into a broad slide, and squalled the tires. She pumped the clutch, jammed the stick into first gear, pounded the accelerator, and squalled the tires again. Pillows of smoke rolled behind the silver beast while the car lurched forward.
She jacked the rpms, worked the gears hard till third, looked back and laughed. Blew a bubble. Smiled at the cat down on the floor, splayed out wide, all four sets of claws dug into the carpet. She glanced forward, and lost the smile. Popped the bubble. She saw two sets of headlights, side-by-side, coming straight for her.
She stood hard on the brake, dropped the Mustang’s nose down low, squealing the tires across pavement. She slammed it in reverse, then floored the accelerator, pinning her body to the steering wheel. The cat rolled up under the dashboard.
She was doing forty when she hit the intersection she just left. Saw a flash of the men still standing in front of the bar through the windshield when she yanked the wheel hard left, throwing the car into another spinning broad slide. She tried to do a one-eighty, flip the car around to get it moving in the right direction⎯for a change.
“Too much dipshit!”
The nose whipped around two-hundred-seventy degrees instead⎯she clutched it, shifted and floored it again, spinning the steering wheel back to the right, going the same direction down the first one-way.
“I guess I really do want to go this way!”
She moved through the gears fast, popped the headlights on finally, got the old girl up to sixty-five. Felt her stomach rise for a second⎯like on a roller coaster⎯as the car crested the top of a hill. She backed off, eased down to forty when she’d put enough distance between her and the bar. Heard the cat crying, and talked softly to it.
“Shhh . . . It’s okay baby, it’s okay. We’re okay now . . .”
She looked in both mirrors.
She took a couple of calming breaths, blew the air out slowly. Worked the gum easy. Leaned forward and tapped her forehead against the top of the steering wheel three times as she said the words.
“Dumb ass, dumb ass, dumb ass.”
Last time. That’s the last time I stop someplace after work. Dumb, MJ. Really dumb. Yes it was a dive. Yes, he might have been there. But it was a long shot. You know that. Stick to the plan. You know his habits. Stick to the plan. No more getting sidetracked. Get back to your routine. Tomorrow morning. Run. Just like always.
She rumbled the Mustang through the darkness. Calmed the cat and his one good eye with soft words and a soft hand . . .
“Easy boy . . . easy . . . .”
She sat in her wheelchair backed against the brick building, on the corner at the top of the hill. She faced down the street that gently sloped away from her, and watched the six vertical red taillights in the blackness . . . three on each side⎯with her blind, white eyes. She sensed them trailing away from her in the distance, smaller and smaller. She chuckled to herself, down deep in her chest; she cracked a smile.
“Powerful. Very powerful. Nice. Very nice . . . Vroom, vroom.” She chuckled again.
She turned the wheelchair and rolled into the darkness. The chuckle echoed against the buildings and into the street, then degenerated into a hacking cough.
The child’s breathing was like a piston, rapidly firing in and out. Her little feet splashed down into the mud puddle, spraying water in the direction of the flower. She raced by, the water in the puddle settling again to a smooth surface. Several seconds passed.
More breathing. Heavier. Deeper. Labored.
Two sets of feet, big ones following the little, trampled the flower⎯squashing it in the mud.
Sera had known better. Jack had told her about going out during the daylight. Now she was really in it. She had taken a chance and now she felt them . . . gaining on her.
She was fast for a seven-year-old. She darted through the warehouse district between the abandoned buildings, weaving her way through the dilapidation and filth like a dragonfly buzzing out across an open, stagnant pond. They never knew which direction she would fly, and that was her only chance.
She had come to know this territory⎯the aged, forgotten, broken-down buildings⎯all of their secret crevices and cracks. It was as if the buildings had known she was coming, and provided their final duty by giving safe haven, looking over the child with a last, majestic act.
She heard their breathing, and the footsteps. Louder. Closer.
They were giants. Angry giants.
She knew if she could just get some space between her and them⎯out of sight. Then she could do what Jack had said to do in times of trouble. Hole up. Like a rabbit.
She shot into building No. 5, an old storage facility forgotten by time and its neglectful owner. Now it was just a congested mass of old furniture and pottery. Rusted tool and dye machinery was piled high and deep. The sight of it bubbled a thought up into her mind.
They’d have to move that junk to get at me. It’d slow 'em down a little.
She crawled into the pile, picking the thickest, heaviest patch of relics, choosing the smallest of holes to squeeze through. She tipped over two old porcelain lamps and a glass cabinet behind her, crashing them to the floor, leaving a path of jagged, broken shards on her trail.
She watched with her bluish-green eyes as her pursuers reached the doorway, each stepping gingerly through the glass gauntlet. She moved across the floor, leaving everything undisturbed, bending and contorting her body. She eyed her target, a long piece of old aluminum at the top of the stairs leading to the basement. Risked a quick look back.
They’re following⎯both of them. Good.
She reached the stairs, and squatted down. Placed her body behind a drill press and some sheet metal, peeking around it only long enough to see where they were in relation to her. The biggest giant pulled out a gun and took a shot at her, but the bullet pinged off the mass of metal and around the interior of the building so violently that the two men began arguing amongst themselves. The smaller giant yelled at the big one, until the pistol went back in the shoulder holster. She waited patiently, until they had worked their way to the center of the mess. She watched them move most of the furniture and machinery between themselves and the door. She could only hear the sounds of giant-breath and giant-grunts as they went about their job, wading their way in toward her. She studied their progress, quietly.
Then, she nodded, as if someone had whispered something in her ear. She launched herself onto the aluminum and down the stairs, squatting on the back of it like a surfer on a board catching a wave. She glided over the steps, leaning left when the stairs curled around, hurling down to the lightless, dank basement. The metal slid across the floor at the bottom, and through the darkness she could hear them cussing and swearing, the big one letting out a tremendous howl. She flipped her sandy brown hair out of her eyes and climbed onto a table and out a broken basement window. The hole just big enough, she squirmed through to the outside, and freedom. She knew the giants would have to retrace their steps, moving everything back, to get out.
She swiveled her head in every direction, and heard crashes coming from inside the building.
She ran down the length of the building, her speed increasing with every stride.
She flew around the corner, sliding to a stop across a dry patch of dirt. She stared at her now unencumbered path through the alley, then snapped her head back around to look for them.
She could make a run for it, but even as fast as she was, they could still catch her. Jack had said they weren't very smart, and he had almost always been right. Heard his advice in her head again. Hole up. Rabbit.
She sliced into a doorway in the adjacent building, closing the door behind her.
The room was molasses black, the only light filtering underneath the door. Her eyes were locked on it, waiting for the shadows and those dreaded footsteps again. She tried to quiet her heavy breathing, determined not to give herself away. Tried to think like Jack. Tried to imagine Mama’s soothing voice.
Easy does it. That’s my girl. Nice, smooth, and easy. N-S-E. Focus. Calm . . . that’s my girl.
She heard them. It was faint at first, but growing louder. She prayed for God to make them go away. Closed her eyes, tight as she could, held her breath, feeling as if her lungs would burst.
A giant hand came from the darkness, a man’s hand, wrapping around her mouth. She felt her arms pinned in tight to her body.
Oh God. They got me.
Her heart fired inside her chest. She wriggled her body hard in an attempt to squirm free, but felt the steel grip of her invisible assailant tighten. Panic gushed through, and her eyes widened. She could feel the big body behind her down low to the floor, pressing her into him. Could hear the scuffling of giant-shoes; the shadows danced in the light underneath the door.
She was spun around. Out of the blackness came the most beautiful sight. Thick brown hair that spiked a little in front, and a stubbly, bearded face framing a pair of soft, blue eyes that could only belong to one person. Jack.
He pressed the cold, dark steel of the pistol barrel against his lips, motioning for her to keep quiet, then calmly removed his hand. He spoke in a hush.
“I gotcha punkin’.”
She felt her fear melt away; it dissolved the second she heard the soothing pitch of his voice. They both looked to the bottom of the door. The shadowy footsteps moved around, lingering in the light. She watched Jack stand up, his face intense; he leveled the gun at the closed door. She moved in close to his side, and felt his arm press her into his body, shielding her from what was to come.
But the giants continued on past; their grunts and breathing faded away when they moved down the alley.
Jack put up a hand and she held still, until he motioned for her to follow him. She nodded silently, and fell in step behind him. Together they picked their way through the darkness, patiently working through and around the piles of outdated, rusting railroad equipment.
She began rubbing a small talisman attached to a string of leather underneath what used to be a white dress⎯now tattered and muddy. She could feel something stirring in her belly. Something she didn’t understand. Something driving her to do the things she’d done. It gnawed at her as she rubbed at the object. Mama said it was the gift. Never explained it much though. Said if she tried it would go away. Said she had it too, but that it faded as she had grown up. Told her to simply trust it. Let it lead her. And it was never wrong.
Jack would be angry with her. She knew he would be. She would brave his scoldings, his impatience. She knew why he’d be angry. Underneath all the anger, all the upset⎯he cared for her. He was fussy. He couldn't hide it. She knew she was important to him. She felt special when she was around him. Jack was like a big, wool blanket. Safe. Warm. But even his care and concern couldn't soothe what she felt⎯inside⎯or the never-ending need that went with it.
For several minutes they laced through the rubble. They found the stairs and climbed upward toward the roof. She knew where Jack was taking her now. They were going back⎯back to that special place that made her feel at least comfortable inside her own skin. The only place to make her feel that way since before the whole mess began. Back when things were like they were supposed to be⎯but would never be again.
Like two rats, familiar with the maze, Jack and Sera emerged from the shadows of the old warehouse onto the roof, stepping quietly along the catwalk that linked one building to the next.
Jack stopped to admire the view, high above the entire district. Row after row of broken-down buildings stretched toward the horizon. It was panorama of decay.
He didn't mind. He felt like a king. King of a labyrinth of neglect. When he spotted the would-be pursuers far down on the ground below, Jack shook his head with a crooked smile.
"Two-dimensional thinking,” he said. “Poor ignorant bastards."
Hell, all they’d have to do is look up.
He knew they never would.
Jack and Sera continued on, building after building, roof after roof, until they arrived at the hole in the stone wall in the side of the building that led downward⎯down to the street.
He watched Sera scoot through the hole first. Once inside, she turned to watch him, while he moved half in, half out of the gaping hole. His eyes met hers. She studied his face. Something was coming. He could feel it, and she could tell. She always said he got that look. He lowered his head under the top of the hole, poking it back outside.
Down below, the giants struggled to catch their breath. Big Richard Johnson, dressed head to toe in a white silk suit, was now covered with dirt and rust. He was every inch of six-foot-eight, two hundred ninety-some odd pounds of mean and nastiness. He bent at the waist, his breath in the cool morning air rolling over his black, bald head. At the apex of his dome was a perfectly round scar the size of a peanut, which glistened from sweat in the morning sun.
Failure. Again. He scowled at his cohort, his upper lip curling into a snarl.
Alex Morris was much smaller than the big man. A long scar ran from his right temple to his chin, acquired in his teens from a pub in London after Manchester United lost a critical game. He was a dangerous Brit, and a frightening man in his own right, but nothing compared to the black behemoth. He had seen that look he was getting from Big Richard before, and he knew there was only one way to put out that fire, short of taking a nasty beating⎯trump it.
"What are we going to tell the old man?"
Alex saw Richard's face contort for a split second, then the expression cooled. He knew his comment would have that affect. Only two men on the planet ever scared Richard, and their boss, old man Edgar, was one. Richard spoke in a silky, deep, even tone.
"Let's give it some time. We'll make something up."
Alex nodded in agreement, smirked a little, but then he heard something and pivoted his head around. A voice echoed throughout the buildings.
"Better luck next time, fat man!"
Big Richard swiveled from side to side, furious to locate the source of the irritation. The big man let out a monstrous sound, like a lonely humpback whale bellowing from the midnight ocean.
Jack listened to the cry as it carried up to him. The sound was glorious. He relished his victory with a broad, pearly smile.
When Sera giggled, his face clouded over.
"You're on my shit list, young lady."
Sera feigned a serious face, mimicking Jack's look of concern. He pointed his finger at her.
"Knock it off."
"I'm sorry," she said.
She searched his eyes. He again pointed his finger.
"No more day trips. Promise me."
"Promise." She crisscrossed an index finger over her heart, then pinched an imaginary needle between thumb and finger, and held it to her eye.
Jack gave her a wry smile, showing her all was forgiven. She grinned, nodded down toward the warehouses, then channeled her best imitation of Foghorn Leghorn.
“Bawy’s abat as shaaap as a bolin’ bol.”
Jack snorted, then turned to go. Sera squeaked out one last tiny giggle, and followed him down the winding, dark stairs.
When they reached the front door, Jack put his hand around behind his lower back. She stood still, awaiting further instructions. He moved out the front, checked the street, then went to the edge of the curb and removed the sewer grate. He returned to Sera, and motioned with two fingers around the door. She followed him onto the sidewalk.
They stepped quietly around the corner, moving along the curb to the grate.
He lowered himself into the rectangular hole, splashing water and filth at his feet when he landed on the sewer floor. He reached up with both hands to steady Sera’s body. She leaned over the edge of the hole and into his grasp. With Sera folded in half over one shoulder, Jack used his free hand to pull the grate back over the opening, easing it back into position.
The route through the sewer was burned into his brain. He waded along the shin-high water for the first five turns, Sera sitting high on his shoulders. He told her to duck each time they came to a low overhang in the concrete.
The rats ran along the side of the walls where the water was shallow, squealing and chirping to one another as the pair passed by.
Jack reached into his pocket and grabbed a dozen small rocks, handing them up to Sera. He trudged along while she played her game of hit-the-rat, pelting any of the rodents that got too close.
Jack set Sera down once he got to the shallow water, and took her hand to lead her the rest of the way. He called for quiet again, peering up through another grate when they neared their new home.
All was clear. Jack pushed the metal grate up and away from the hole and pulled himself up to the street. He lowered the upper half of his body back into the hole, allowing Sera to latch onto his forearm, then hoisted her up into the alley. She ran to the alley’s edge, and pressed her body against the outer brick wall of a pawnshop, peering around the corner in both directions while Jack put back the grate.
He joined her at alley’s edge, and glanced both ways.
Nothing in either direction. Even the local bar across the way was quiet in the early morning. They ambled across the street at a slow, inconspicuous pace, angled away from the front of the bar, grabbing the door to the deserted, broken-down hotel right next to it. Several signs displaying threats were hung on the door, swiped from businesses across town to keep prying eyes from nosing around.
They moved quietly inside, closed the door and moved a big rock against it, and mazed through what was once the lobby, avoiding the chunks of ceiling that had caved in. When they made it to the other side, Jack watched Sera slip in front of him. She crawled over the rubble just under the stairwell, moving over big pieces of concrete and bricks that littered their path. Jack followed behind her, watching; she moved over a slab of concrete peppered with patches of black oil stains.
He looked up.
Sprawling above him was a massive shaft, mostly air⎯and the remains of five floors of what used to be the east stairwell to the old hotel. Now it was nothing more than blocks of concrete and broken brick. Metal handrails twisted out into nothing. Old plumbing pipes were sheared off, jutting out into the chasm. He could hear water dripping, the echo bouncing around the walls.
Jack stared at the crumbling mass of rubble up above him. It had taken him a month to learn how to get from the fifth floor to the ground floor. Several times the shaft had damn near cost him his life. But it also had saved it, and claimed its first victim.
One of Big Richard's men had managed to track him into the hotel. Jack thanked God that the man was alone. After following Jack into the shaft, the poor bastard had fallen, the life crushed out of him⎯splattered on the concrete below.
“Gravity,” Jack whispered to himself. “What a concept.”
A bloody mess. Red was everywhere. Jack had scrounged around from his many nightly Dumpster raids, managing to find a few quarts of discarded oil to cover the stains. The man's body, dragged into an alley on plastic bags under cover of night, became instead a victim of a brutal mugging, or a drug deal gone south.
Jack looked again at the black stains. He felt bad the man had died. The guy didn't deserve to die, but the bastard was trying to kill him.
How the hell did I go from a respectable gardener for a wealthy family, to a sewer dweller and fugitive so quickly? How did I wind up here?
He already knew the answers. There were two of them.
The first answer was the decision several years ago to disappear, so the past couldn’t catch up to him. He had a green thumb that came by way of his mother, who taught him while he was young. Becoming a gardener was an easy transition from his former life. A safe haven from his previous problems. But he missed the true passion that went with those problems, the thing he knew he was born to do. Driving was as natural to him as breathing. Anything with wheels he used to say. If it rolled he could drive it. And fast.
The second answer was even simpler, and in the end much more important. It was why he never minded becoming a sewer dweller and fugitive. She was looking right at him, with those damned, sweet little eyes.
He watched Sera turn and dart into the center hall, running down the corridor to the middle stairwell. He moved over the black stains, following Sera into the abandoned Hermitage Hotel.
Mary Jane stood on the front steps to her apartment building, twelve steps above the sidewalk. Even though it was early morning, and a gray, tartan-like fog weaved the city streets, from the high angle she could see for a good stretch in both directions. No sign of the cops. Or the Spanish five. Probably illegals. All the same, she had parked the Mustang in back, off the street. Would do it for the next couple of weeks, just to be sure.
She took in a couple of deep, slow breaths. Her twenty-three-year-old body felt solid and firm. She reached down and gently kneaded her legs before the morning run. Thighs, hamstrings, calves. The muscles felt thick and fibrous, like overdone steak in a cheap diner.
She slipped on the cotton jacket, and pulled the large violet hood over her head, her face disappearing inside the thick cloth. Her breath slowly filtered out of the hood, the light gray moisture dissipating as it hit the crisp morning air.
It was odd, kind of a paradox really, that as solid as her body felt, she herself felt invisible. It felt that way damn near all the time. Like nothing she did mattered. Like she didn’t matter. She did her good deeds anyway, little kindnesses that nobody noticed, convinced it would be her way of earning her keep here on the planet. But the warm and fuzzies from her generous nature only lasted so long. It was like some sort of body vacuum had sucked those momentary good feelings down into a black hole, leaving her with a recurring emptiness. Like somehow they didn’t count. Like she didn’t count.
She moved her gaze slowly across the tips of the downtown buildings, just beginning to come into the light. It was a city, just like the others⎯the latest in a string of unfamiliar places. After a while, they all looked the same. Dull. Lifeless.
Although it was April, it wasn’t apparent from the chilling, steady wind that coiled through the streets between the old, deteriorated buildings on her end of town. Gently swirling clouds of mist billowed up from the city’s underbelly, through the metal grates, the steam rising into the dark, morning air.
Mary Jane zipped up the hooded jacket and moved down the front steps. She walked slowly across the street until she reached the lamppost, the starting line every morning for the last six months. She leaned into the post and grabbed the top of a foot⎯first one, then the other⎯pulling them behind her thighs to prepare for the run. Same routine. Every morning.
A cricket began vibrating, its chirping catching her attention. She darted her eyes down, spotting a crack in the cement along the sidewalk. Within the crack, next to the hidden cricket, a budding dandelion struggled through the broken concrete, its petals just blooming.
As she approached, the chirping stopped. She squatted down, stretched out her hand; warm breath spiraled out from underneath the hood. She was transfixed by the flower, caressing its tiny yellow bud . . .
It had been late April that year too, almost twenty years before. The car had a warmth to it. The sun penetrated into the interior, illuminating the face of Mary Jane the child.
She had her own illumination, did Mary Jane Chevalier⎯a warmth that could only come from an unbroken spirit. Her giggling and squealing had its own pitch, its own resonance⎯an intensity coming from the green eyes of a unique child. The only sound interrupting that beautiful pitch was the constant, never-ending chomping sound of the one thing she must always, always have . . .
All life revolved around that sweet, juicy goo. To her it was automatic⎯like breathing. She loved any kind really, but her favorite was cherry.
Kaleb had learned the hard way. He tried once to separate his daughter from her gum. What he saw was an instant change from a well-behaved four-year-old into a biting, kicking, screaming banshee. Truth was, he would’ve had better luck trying to separate hyenas from a fresh carcass. He didn't know why she felt so strongly toward the gum, only that she did. That was enough for him.
Kaleb was a simple man. He had the task of raising Mary Jane alone after his wife, Mary, died giving birth to the child. At the wheel of the big Buick, the light that once burned within him was all but extinguished, replaced by a hesitation in his voice, and uncertainty in his eyes. A once steady hand now contained a cigarette, and a constant tremble⎯his pale, ashen skin adding years to his true age.
That April afternoon he drove from the two-lane highway into the makeshift parking lot, crossing over the aisles between the rows of cars⎯aisles covered with dust, dried mud, and scattered gravel. The car bounced under his guidance, its undercarriage scraping across the uneven ground, passing beneath the wide banner draped over the entrance to the circus.
Mary Jane rolled down the window, and listened to the birds singing. The leaves rustled high above when the car passed by a stand of trees. Strange, playful sounds wafted their way into the car, sounds she had never heard before. She wrinkled her nose at the pungent stench of animal dung that drifted in with the spring breeze. The oval locket she wore with a picture of her mother dangled from a silver chain, and reflected the sun in quick, flashing pulses . . . like Morse code.
The old car lurched through a few more fresh mud puddles, before rusty brakes ground it to a stop. Mary Jane stuck her head out the window, a glimpse of yellow waving gently on the ground.
"Back-up daddy, you're crushing it!"
Kaleb gave her a sideways glance and turned off the engine.
Mary Jane scrambled out the door to the front of the car. She bent down, squatting to smell the yellow bloom cockeyed under the tire.
Kaleb walked around the car's front end, casting a brief look before turning his back. He moved down the aisle of parked cars toward the entrance to the circus grounds.
"It's just a weed Mary Jane. Let's go. We're going to be late for the show."
She reached out to touch the flower.
His tone snapped her to attention and she fell in line quickly behind him. She looked back, giving the dandelion one last glimpse before grabbing her father’s hand.
"What are we seeing today, Daddy?"
"All sorts of things, honey. All sorts of things."
They moved through an opening in the fence line separating the parking lot from the grounds, walking up an embankment to the attendant standing at the entrance. Mary Jane pulled at Kaleb’s hand to get him to move faster, but his gait remained deliberate. Mary Jane watched her father hand two tickets to the young man, then take another drag on his cigarette.
"Will we see elephants?" She clapped her hands and hopped up and down on tiptoes. She saw him smile, then blow smoke out through his nose.
"We might, honey, we might."
The compound leading up to the big tent was teeming with life, bodies moving in every direction. All around her, Mary Jane sensed an excited feeling from the people. People of all shapes and sizes. A land of the new and unusual.
A rush of warmth came over her. She lifted her glance up to see Kaleb. She loved the gentleness of his face⎯the crooked lines under his eyes that turned up with a smile. And for a daddy to care for her so much that he would bring her to this magical place. She felt special. Warm. Loved.
"Want some cotton candy?" Kaleb pointed to a concession stand.
She nodded. They walked up to the trailer, and she noticed two huge blotches of paint splattered on the side⎯one a light pink, the other a pale, cerulean blue. She saw a big, brown, unusual-looking horse pass by. It let out a groveled, grinding sound. Recognized it right away. It was the same kind of horse that daddy had on his cigarette package. Funny looking horse.
Kaleb handed her the sugary, fluffy, pink ball.
"Want a snow cone too?"
Kaleb nodded, grabbing her hand. He led her across the field, stepping through the trampled dirt and mud that had replaced the lush, green grass.
He took the snow cone from the woman inside the white trailer, handing it down to Mary Jane, leaving the plastic spoon on the edge of the narrow counter. She became engrossed in alternating back and forth between treats, taking a bite first from the snow cone, then from the cotton candy.
"How about something for later?" Kaleb offered.
"I don't know, like something with chocolate?"
Her eyelids spread out; she sensed what was coming. Next to bubble gum, it was her favorite.
Her daddy smiled.
They moved toward the last stand. Mary Jane shook her head with amazement. It wasn’t even her birthday. She was overcome with a tingly feeling. Inside.
When they reached the stand, she noticed it had many pretty colors⎯rack upon rack of boxed, bagged, and wrapped goodies. They joined the short line of people waiting to be served; she caught the scent of perfume coming from the woman in front of her. To Mary Jane, she smelled like a basket of fresh fruit.
She stared at the woman adorned with brilliant, vibrant spangles and spandex⎯the costume peppered with sequins in a bright, intense rainbow of color. Her raven-black hair was twisted and spiraled in an unusual way around the top of her head, her skin sprinkled from head to toe in a light dusting of glitter. The woman turned and smiled at her.
"What a beautiful child."
Even with the strange accent, to Mary Jane her voice sounded like a music box, the words lilting in the air.
The woman shifted her attention and whispered something to the vendor inside the stand. Seconds later, she bent down, her brown eyes bright with kindness. She held out a box of Milk Dudsand tucked it into Mary Jane's pocket. With a smile and a wink the woman rose to her feet, then set off for the big tent and the main circus grounds.
Mary Jane narrowed her eyes at the woman.
How did she know? Daddy didn't tell her.
She watched the woman walk away. After a dozen steps, the woman was joined by a man who seemed to spring from nowhere. He wore black pants and a white shirt, the sleeves long and baggy, hiding his dark, olive-tanned skin. A large, black leather pouch was tied to his waist. Protruding from the top of the pouch were several long, shiny knives, reflecting in the sun.
Mary Jane tipped her head to one side. She thought they were pretty, glimmering things.
The couple continued on, swapping words. Then, in unison, they glanced back to her and smiled, neither breaking stride. Mary Jane suddenly remembered her manners and blurted out a thank you, but the couple had disappeared into a crowd.
Her daddy saw it too, and motioned for her to follow him. He moved into line at the main entrance to the Big Top.
She followed his eyes; he looked back the way they had come, like he always did in an unfamiliar place, then ducked his head under the canvas flap to the entrance, weaving around behind the back of the bleachers to avoid the main congestion of people. He moved to a small side entrance, a narrow aisle leading inward between two of the large bleachers. She looked up at him. He traced a handrail with his eyes that ran down along the bleacher’s edge. He saw a small gap a few rows up from the front corner, lifted Mary Jane to the spot slightly above his head, and slipped her under the railing and onto the seat.
The lights dimmed and the crowd hushed. Mary Jane's mouth dropped open. A man appeared out of the darkness into a small circle of light.
"Ladies and gentlemen . . ."
"Uh oh, Daddy forgot his cotton candy," said Kaleb.
Mary Jane pressed her forehead against the metal rail, glanced down to her father, and whispered . . .
"You should’ve gotten yours when you got mine."
"You're so smart."
He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a twenty. He palmed the bill, and slid it into Mary Jane's jacket, underneath the Milk Duds.
"Daddy will be right back. Just wait here."
"Promise you’ll hurry?"
He reached up to the front of her neck and caressed Mary Jane’s locket. He looked into her eyes.
"Promise. It won’t be long."
She saw him walk to the side entrance, look back briefly to watch her finish off her cotton candy. He then drifted through the opening.
Mary Jane spotted an open trash barrel twenty feet away at the corner of the lower end to the bleachers. She cocked her head to one side, focusing in on the target, firing the stick into the barrel. She set down the remainder of her snow cone on the seat next to her. She fumbled with the top to the Milk Dudsbox, using both hands and a series of contorted facial gestures. With a dogged persistence she finally managed to pour the luscious chocolate bounty into her hands. She set the box upright on the floor next her feet.
The show started; a huge, male lion snarled at his trainer. The thunderous roar vibrated through Mary Jane’s body. She flinched, kicked the box of candy, and sprayed the contents under the bleachers to the ground below.
"Uh oh," she said.
She grabbed the empty box and ducked under the handrail, leaping from her seat down to the narrow aisle. Her sneakers hit the ground, and sawdust puffed out from under her feet. She walked toward the side exit, searching inside the box with one eye for any sign of leftovers. Practiced what she was going to say, talking softly to herself.
"I don't know how it happened, Daddy. It was an accident. I didn't mean to. It was that lion’s fault. That mean, old lion. Can I have some more?"
She stepped outside, stopped, searching her memory for the location of the cotton candy vendor. She examined every direction, trying to get her bearings.
The memory came, the colors pink and blue popping into her mind. She laced across the compound, dodging and weaving through the remainder of the late arrivals.
She reached the cotton candy vendor, walked back and forth from one side to the other, squinting her eyes for signs of her daddy. It was a full minute before she heard the familiar sound of a car exhaust coming from behind the trailer, on the other side of the fence.
A brown cloud of dust rose into the air. She frowned a little, together with a questioning look, and moved around to the back of the stand. She stood on her toes and raised her chin, trying to see over the fence. Her vision blocked, she crept up, looking between the slats. She saw the old Buick racing down the aisle past her in a rush.
What is Daddy doing? The cotton candy man is right here. Did he forget? Surely he saw it on the way to the car? Where is he going⎯without me?
A sick feeling, unknown to her, crept into her belly, seeping its way into the deepest part of her insides. She ran along the fence, not yet even sure why, the feeling taking over, a voice in her mind shouting for her feet to move. She stopped, trying to convince herself that everything was all right. The feeling crept in again, this time even more powerful, more intense. Its command was overwhelming.
If I could just catch him before he gets to the road.
Like a bullet out of the gun, she raced down the fence line, the empty box clutched in her hand like a baton. The quick and steady pounding of her shoes split through the grass. She gritted her teeth, whipping by the slats at a furious pace, the low rumble of the Buick beating into her ears.
If I could just get close enough for him to see me.
She hit the entrance on the dead run, cutting diagonally across the parking lot in an effort to close the gap.
She was gaining. She could see it.
Her heart beat faster. She sliced through the final row of cars and onto the gravel. She saw the Buick rolling toward the exit.
Mary Jane could see him. Could see his face in the mirror on the driver’s side door.
"Wait Daddy! Wait! Where are you going?!"
She saw him look back to her through the mirror. She struggled in the dust, pumping her legs hard in his filthy wake.
Her eyes met his. She slowed to a halt, heaving in big gulps of air and dirt. Relief flooded her.
He saw me. Yeah, he saw me. He’s coming back. I know he is.
The car whirled around the corner and onto the highway, the wheels spinning in the gravel, a plume of exhaust curling up into the sky. The Buick passed behind the tree line and, like a wisp of air, vanished from sight.
She blinked at the empty stretch of asphalt, waiting for the car to return to view. A minute went by. Then two. The feeling in her belly began to grow again. Her whole body got hot, and time crawled. Her hand went limp, fell to her side, and released the empty box.
The box dropped to the ground, and came to rest in a mud puddle along the side of the road. She whispered.
"Daddy? . . . Daddy? What about me?"
Her eyelids narrowed in a swirl of dust. Her voice trailed off into the breeze.
Everything slowed down in her mind. Everything . . . numb. Nothing moved. No birds singing. No leaves fluttering in the trees. The sounds of the circus muffled into a stillness and a deafening silence. Nothing penetrated from the outside.
Only one sound now, coming from the inside. It was all that was left. The sound of a beating heart.
A beating, shattered heart . . .
A car backfired off in the distance⎯or a gunshot⎯hard for her to tell. It jolted Mary Jane out of her memories. It crackled down the street, the soft echo dissipating into the air.
Promise. It won’t be long.
It was the last thing he said. She could still hear the cadence of his voice. The sickening feeling, leftover remains of locked in emotion, still churned in her gut. She reached into the pocket of the hooded jacket, pulling out the old black and white photo⎯its edges dirty and worn over time and her countless references.
The Army had supplied her with the photo. She wondered with all the time that had passed if she would even recognize him. She stroked her fingers gently over the fading image of his face, wishing it was skin instead of paper. The single thought lingered. The one always there . . . lurking.
Invisible. Like I was never there at all. He saw me, and drove away.
She wondered how many times it had played over in her mind. A hundred. A thousand. Always the same result. Always the same feeling. Like a stomach flu you couldn’t shake.
She slowly got to her feet and put the photo back in her pocket, pulling out a fresh, new piece of bubble gum. She squeezed the middle between her thumb and forefinger, the corners of the wrapper unfolding. She stared at the gum.
If I had just been fast enough. If I had caught him in time. I would have made him explain himself. A few steps quicker, then none of it would’ve happened. Then I wouldn't be where I am now.
She thought about the circus people. They had been kind enough to take her in, a stray among wanderers, but she never felt like she belonged. It wasn't her home.
When she had turned eighteen, five years ago, she had struck out on her own, determined to find him. Determined to make that ache go away. Determined to find the answers to the questions that wouldn't stop.
City after city, year after year, Kaleb had eluded her. Five years⎯and he still had no idea she was trying to find him. He had drifted from place to place, never staying for very long in any one spot. She had come close a couple of times, within hours of catching him once⎯in a dive bar in Boston. But it was like catching the wind. All she ever got was air and whispers⎯of where he might have gone next.
It had been six months since she got her last lead. But there was hope. The lead was a good one. It was what prompted the shift from staying in motels to getting an apartment. It was as solid as they come. Through an eye-witness from a local bar she’d found a twenty-year-old junker, an old Chevy, abandoned on a dead end side street, about a mile away from her new place. Solid, because it had a block M carved into the dashboard. M for Mary, her namesake. She’d seen the exact same block M carved into the dashboard of another car. Back when she was just a child. That damned, other car.
Fuckin’ old Buick.
She remembered running her little four-year-old fingertips over each groove of that M. She’d even attempted to carve her own initial, a J next to it, with Kaleb’s pocket knife. But her daddy had stopped her about halfway through. That was the same day. The very same day she ate dust in that parking lot. That damned parking lot.
Fuckin’ old Buick. It’s never gonna happen again. I’m never gonna be “not fast enough” ever again.
She looked down at her legs one last time, moving her hands slowly over the muscles. Hard legs⎯sculpted by hard running. Chiseled . . . by a hard lesson.
She blew out a quick breath, popped the gum into her mouth and began her run.
She settled into a steady gait down the empty, desolate street. The thumping rhythm of her shoes hitting the pavement matched the rhythm of the gum. She zoomed by the old man opening his newspaper stand, glancing at his feeble hands while they stacked the papers for the day's business.
What did I do wrong? Was I so bad he had to leave? What did I do?
With a subtle shift in weight, she drifted between two cars along the curb and out across the street toward the old park, her slender, solid frame breezing past a man warming his hands over his hot dog cart. She glided around the corner, her eyes peering out of the darkness of the hood. She slowed her pace, spotting a big, wiry-haired dog panting in the cold, morning air.
It had the size and markings of a shepherd, but the wide muzzle was covered with tufts of coarse, matted hair⎯like a wolfhound. It looked a bit lost.
She cut down a side street, the cold air now filling her struggling lungs. Her sweat pants and hooded jacket seemed to blend with the colorless morning as she ran through the heated, swirling, gray mist that rose from below the streets.
It was as if she was the gray mist. A ghost. Invisible to all, except perhaps the cat huddling next to a pile of trash in the alleyway. She took careful notice of the cat, reminding herself of its location, if only for a moment, never breaking stride either in her pace, or her mind.
Why is the world so out of control?
She reached the far side of the park, and saw a cop banging his nightstick against the side of the benches, waking the street bums from their peaceful slumber.
Why are people so cruel? Where is the compassion?
One of the bums looked back over his shoulder with a penetrating gaze. A piercing stare straight at her. Her pace faltered, the moment frozen in time. She could feel his pain, understand his anguish.
The broken man turned to join his brethren moving down the street. Mary Jane, mindful of her task, swung around the corner and continued running down a narrow corridor, a one-way street between two stone office buildings.
A woman in a motorized wheelchair emerged from the morning fog fifty yards to her front, splitting the mist like a seam on an old dress. Mary Jane was heading directly for her. The woman's right hand was at the controls, guiding the wheelchair down the street with a deft touch⎯her left hand shriveled and disfigured . . . drawn up like a claw across her chest.
Mary Jane thought the wheelchair was moving fast⎯faster than any she had ever seen. As she neared, she noticed something peculiar.
Dark sunglasses. Barely any light, this early. She’s blind⎯blind and crippled.
Mary Jane moved her head slightly to the left, using her peripheral vision. She drifted out into the street, after sensing all was clear, to avoid the oncoming collision. She had seen the woman before, but never this early.
The wheelchair passed by to her right, and she caught a glimpse of something. She spun around, just to be sure, running backwards.
The woman had a jar. It was fixed on a small platform, attached at the end of the handle to the wheelchair.
She’s a panhandler. A beggar.
She thought it odd, how she had never spotted that.
She wheeled back around, her quest nearly at an end. Mary Jane lengthened her stride, shooting down what remained of the corridor and across an empty parking lot, leaping over a waist high chain-link fence. She covered the remaining hundred yards of asphalt in a gut-wrenching, blistering sprint, coming to a stop at her intended destination. The Quick-Mart.
She was down to her last piece of gum.
Her lungs, burning to capacity, struggled to fill. Her breath churned out from the hood like steam pumping from the engine of a train. The quieting of her mind only temporarily abated, and, as equilibrium returned, so did the incessant flow of thoughts unchecked.
She already knew the answers. It was too late for her. The evidence was clear. He had seen to that.
Her eyes passed across the skyline, the tops of the buildings still shrouded in the early morning fog. She turned her head back to the alley where she had seen the crippled woman.
Does anyone see me . . . caring?
She wanted to make a difference. They didn't deserve what they got. She wanted to take care of them.
She cast a glance back to the skyline.
SAVING THE INNOCENTS
She knew the answer to that one too. Didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter.
The drumbeat in her mind⎯its painful spot⎯returned. It was always the same.
Just find him.
GET THE REST OF