The first time I got out of prison my mom and my brothers were there waiting for me, while my dad waited at home working up the anger to beat the shit out of me. That was a while ago. This time nobody was there to pick me up.
I walked the few blocks to the bus stop, freezing because I didn't have a jacket. I recognized one of the guards in civvies waiting there, shuffling his feet to keep warm. It had been snowing when I was inside. Now it had melted.
Inside the bus, the guard spoke to me. By prison rules, he shouldn't have. But we were outside now.
"Last day, huh?"
I said yeah.
"So, you got a girl out here waiting for you?"
"Sort of," I said.
"Good for you," he said and smiled. It made me feel weird. I couldn't think of a reason why he would be nice to me, other than the fact I had never raped or killed anyone.
I looked out the window at the impossibly big sky and the open range which reminded me of home. So I closed my eyes and tried to think of something else.
I should have gone by Anna's place. After all, she did have a kid she said I was the father to. But I needed to adjust to the outside world first. We hadn't talked in months anyway. I was never any good at relationships. I was never really good at anything except stealing cars and getting into trouble.
I needed to see Juan. He'd gotten out eight months earlier. He gave me an address back then, where he might be staying. But a lot could happen in eight months.
Juan and I had worked in the laundry room together. He always used to take off his shirt and wrap it around his head, moving as if there was music going on in his head.
Almost everybody on the inside had lots of tattoos. Juan had just the one; a black heart etched on his perfectly tanned skin just above his own. Like he wasn't afraid to show who he was.
The apartment building was in a part of town that had once been a happening place. Now the action had mostly died out. I passed closed store-fronts and boarded up strip clubs, empty bars and empty streets.
I knew something was wrong when I was climbing the stairs. I saw the police tape across the door and my heart stopped. I stumbled back down, not knowing what to do or where to go. I almost tripped over an old lady who was blocking the stairwell.
"Excuse me, ma'am... do you know if a Juan Ortiz lives here?"
I could see by the way her mouth fell open that he did. Or used to, anyway.
"What... what happened here?"
"He's dead," she said. "They took him out of here just this morning." Her eyes were soft and wet and made me want to look away.
"How?" I croaked.
The old lady mumbled something about drugs and hurried up the stairs to her apartment. I sat down on the floor so I wouldn't fall.
A lot could happen in eight months. Or 24 hours. If I had gotten out just a day earlier, I could have prevented this. Or so my brain told me, like always, trying to make me feel bad about myself. I told my brain to shut up and leave me alone. Like always, it didn't have any effect.
I was staggering out into the stark winter sun, looking and feeling out of place when a voice called out:
"Can I help you, sir?"
The heavy-set man in the silver Lexus had cop written all over him.
"A friend of mine died in here," I said.
"Get in," he said, and showed me the badge. His car smelled like new leather and sun tan oil. He had a kiddie seat in the back.
"So, how did you know Juan?" he asked.
I told him prison. He would find out anyway.
"I thought you people didn't much care for homosexuals," he said.
"White supremacists," he said and nodded at the tattoos on my arms. I rolled down my sleeves.
"Most of these are old," I said.
"Where are you staying?" he asked. I told him downtown. He started the engine and said he would take me. I didn't protest. That never seemed to go well with cops.
"So, what were you in for?"
"Bad luck," I said, and he laughed like I had told a joke.
Of all the cops in the city, I had to catch a ride with a chatty one. Traffic wasn't so bad but it was still a twenty-minute drive.
"Did you talk to the neighbors?" I asked.
"Of course," he smirked. "That's our job. Nobody saw or heard anything. The kid ODed, plain and simple."
What I didn't understand was why a detective was on this case if it was so cut and dry.
"Juan wasn't using," I said.
He sighed. "While I appreciate your concern, I would strongly advise you to keep clear of this," he said. "You keep at it, you'll probably wind up doing something illegal."
He was right. We both knew.
"You don't want to go back to prison, do you?"
I thanked him for the ride and got out, watched his shiny Lexus disappear down the block. Inside I cursed him. Now I would have to walk for an hour just to get back to that damned apartment building.
Most of Juan's neighbors wouldn't open the door. They saw a skinhead biker through the peephole, figured it was best to play invisible. The old guy just below didn't have a peephole. I got a foot in his door before he could shut it.
"Relax, I'm not here to hurt anybody," I lied. "I just want to know about your upstairs neighbour, the kid who died."
"He a friend of yours?"
"No," I said. Again with the lies.
The old man eased up a bit. But he left the chain on.
"All sorts of irregularities happening up there," he said.
"Drugs?" I asked.
"Well, I wouldn't know, but yeah. Probably. Those boys sure knew how to party."
"Well, there's two of 'em. The other one skidded, when the brown kid offed himself. Guess he didn't wanna hang around for the police."
"Did you see or hear anything that night, before the police came?"
"There was always people coming and going," he said. "At all hours." He raised his eyebrows, like I would know what he meant. And unfortunately I did. It made me want to throw up.
"Nothing out of the ordinary then?" I said.
"Someone was up there, that's for sure. Can't say how many."
Going in to a crime scene was a parole violation for sure. But I had to see. I had to know.
The cops busted the lock going in and hadn't bothered to put a clamp on it. I forced myself to go inside, ducking under the tape. The air was stale, like sweat and cheap bleach.
The place wasn't too big. Just the hallway and kitchen and two bedrooms. The one right inside the door was where it happened. The cops and paramedics left footprints all over and the mattress was spilling onto the floor. I didn't go in. I didn't recognize anything in that room.
The other bedroom had a more familiar ring to it. But it was clean, untouched. The bed was made. Above it, on a shelf, pictures of Juan, his mother. A card I sent from inside. I grabbed the card and put it in my pocket without looking at it.
Something was wrong. This was Juan's room, no doubt. Or maybe they shared the other room. I imagined the two men together in bed and it made me sick to my stomach.
The room was cold and I looked at the window to see if it was open. It wasn't but there was a draft that gently made the curtains move. I peeked out. The sky was grey. People hurried down the street to get out of the cold. A silver Lexus was parked at the corner.
I pulled back and knew I had to get out of there. I looked at the heating system. The thermostat was cranked to the max. I put my hand on the radiator. It was cold as the grave.
I went back to the other room. It was warm in comparison. An ashtray filled to the brim on the dresser, a book by Kurt Vonnegut. There was a set of tools in the top drawer. The second drawer was full of condoms. I left the room.
I looked through the kitchen door. There was a picture of Juan on the fridge. Him and another boy with a shock of white hair, bad dye-job. I took the picture. There was a sound at the door and I froze up. If it was the cops, I was done for. I hoped it was the white-haired boy. We needed to have a chat. I clenched my fists and got ready for whatever. Nothing happened. After a while I stuck out my head only to see some bills lying on the floor under the mail slide. I pocketed the envelopes and wiped the doorknob clean from fingerprints on my way out.
I went back to the apartment that night and tore off the police tape from the door. I walked up to the next landing and sat down, and let the lights go out.
It was a long wait. I was used to that. Jail was all about waiting.
The lights would go on once in a while. People would leave their apartments, come back. The mailman came. A UPS man walked straight past me and dumped off a package at the floor above, where no one opened the door.
A little after ten PM, I heard the door to the street open and someone make their way up the stairs. But he didn't turn on the light.
The man was wearing a suit and tie. He knocked on the door below me like I knew he would, quietly. He seemed confused when no one opened. When he walked back down, I followed, shoes in hand so he wouldn't hear me. Luckily he had parked around the corner, giving me time to catch up with him.
I grabbed the man and pushed him down the alley. He was young, in good shape. I wasn't sure I could take him in a fight. But I was angry, and looked more dangerous than I probably was. That gave me an advantage. He got scared. His eyes flickered.
"Look, I got cash, here..."
I slapped the wallet out of his hand.
"Who were you there to see?" I said.
He tried lying for a while, but I pushed him enough to give it up. A lady walked by with her dog, but didn't see us there in the dark.
The man whispered, "I'm married, OK? This get's out..."
"Do I look like a fucking cop?"
"Juan," I said "Was it him?"
"The Latino boy. He had a black heart tattooed on his chest."
"I... I see Daniel. The other one. The blonde."
"Where is he?" I asked.
He told me he didn't know. I slapped him. He told me again. I believed him. I told him Juan was dead, and how.
"I didn't know he was using," he said.
"He wasn't. But Daniel was, right?"
"Yeah. Look, don't hit me again, all right? I don't want to come home with a flushed face. I'll tell you everything you want to know."
I asked him all I could think of. I got more than I bargained for.
"Yeah, Simmons," the man said. "He's running for Congress. It was on the news yesterday."
"And you're sure you saw him with Daniel?"
The man wanted to get away. I couldn't blame him. A part of me wanted to get away as well, just get the hell out of the city and keep running.
"I'll never admit to seeing him here, if it was official. What do you think would happen if that got out?"
I thought about it. About whether a guilty secret like that was worth killing for.
I got out of the man's way and he scurried back to his car.
"I'm sorry about your friend," he said. "He seemed like a good kid."
I just nodded and let the man drive off, home to his wife and kids, to a normal life. He'd last a couple of weeks, maybe. Then he'd be cruising the streets again. Poor bastard was fighting himself. Always a losing battle.
Back at my motel, I paced the room. The cop was right. I should stay out of it. But I didn't have anything else to do. And I had a fire inside me that wouldn't die out no matter how much I drank.
Juan wasn't using. His roommate Daniel was. Whoever killed Juan made a mistake. Now he was trying to correct it. I had to find Daniel before he did. Then all I had to do was wait for the killer to show. Great plan.
I stared at the heavily tattooed body in the mirror that didn't look much like me. I thought of Juan's body. Alive, and then not. I looked at the tattoo across my belly that said "God hates fags." I got it when I was a teenager, not really knowing what it meant. Now I was beginning to wonder if it was true.
The only lead I had on Daniel was the aunt the man in the suit had given me. I had found Daniel's last name on one of the envelopes I had scored from the apartment and I had the name of the town from the man in the suit. It was a long shot, but it was all I had.
I could have taken a sweeter ride. But I needed a car that would blend in. I got a brown sedan with a stick. I always liked driving stick.
It was a long drive up in the mountains. I had time to think. Too much time. Juan's death was on my mind, like it had been ever since it happened. If Daniel was the intended victim, or if he killed Juan. If the two men were lovers. If Juan had really started using. I knew him on the inside. Outside was different.
There was still snow up here. The roads cut black lines through the whiteness. It was the dead of winter, and it got dark quickly. The last light was just dying out when I finally found the place. It wasn't so much a town, more a scattering of farmhouses, some with miles between them. Daniel's aunt's place looked quiet and pretty run-down. Not much farming going on. They had probably sold off the land, stayed in the house, so they could sit at the window and look at nothing.
I parked up the road and waded through the snow to the back yard. I wanted to check out the place before wading into a bad situation. The bad situation would come, but it could wait. I got up to the back of the house and peered through a window. It didn't look like anyone was home. Then I saw an overturned chair in another room, and a foot belonging to a woman who was probably dead. I heard a car start on the other side of the house and cursed myself. Then I ran back to my car, jumped in and revved the engine.
Dark, vertical silhouettes whizzed past as I chased the darkness ahead. I caught up with the red taillights and followed them deeper into the woods. I didn't really have a plan until I was close enough that I could see the make of the car. It was a silver Lexus. Much too expensive for a cop's salary.
Thoughts raced through my head as my foot hesitated on the throttle. I could ram him, and risk spinning and crashing my own car. I could brake slowly and just let him go. That was probably the smart thing to do.
I overtook the Lexus and got in front of it, created enough distance that the cop wouldn't get suspicious. Then as the road turned, I yanked the handbrake and spun wildly across the road. He didn't have time to brake. The crashing of metal was all around me, but I just crouched and let the chips fall.
My car flipped over a couple of times. It hurt, but I let time pass. Nothing seemed broken. I got out and crawled from the wreck, regretting I hadn't brought a jacket.
I limped to the Lexus. It was halfway down a ditch, nose first. The engine was still on. I looked around for a weapon, in case the cop was still alive. But the driver's side door was open and there was no one at the wheel. I turned off the engine and could hear someone making his way through the woods. I walked back around and popped the trunk. A pair of black eyes looked up at me from beneath a shock of white hair.
The kid had tape across his mouth and strips on his hands. I pulled him out and dropped him on the ground. I rummaged through the trunk until I found a tire iron. I looked at the kid, who was struggling to his feet. Daniel. The junkie who was banging a city official and was stupid enough to brag about it. He looked skinny and fragile in his tight leather pants and torn t-shirt. I lifted a hand and tore the tape from his mouth.
"Where were you that night?" I asked.
The kid shivered.
"Where you up here?"
"What?" Daniel said. Kid didn't know shit. Didn't know Juan was dead.
"Tell me about the man in the Lexus," I said.
"He said he was a cop," Daniel said. "But when I wouldn't go with him, he killed my aunt".
"I know," I said. "He killed Juan too. He works for Simmons. He was sent to kill you, but Juan was sleeping in your room, because his radiator was busted."
Daniel flinched. At least know he knew. He knew he was supposed to be dead and Juan wasn't.
"There's a gas station about a mile from here." I nodded back down the road. "Run. You'll keep warm that way."
I followed the blood trails into the woods, little red holes in the snow. I picked up the pace as the ground sloped downward, keeping balance with the tire iron in one hand.
The first shot didn't hit anything far as I could tell. The next one sang right past me and blew bark off one of the trees behind me. I felt lucky and stupid as I ran on. Then the dry, clapping sound roared again and I just felt stupid. My feet fell out from under me and I tumbled through the trees, leaving a red trace of blood all the way down the snow-covered hill.
I must have blacked out from the pain. I woke as I heard the cop make his way through the trees. I pulled myself up against a tree. That was about all my shattered hip would let me do without blacking out again. I couldn't say if the second bullet had got me, but I was bleeding an awful lot.
The cop came around the hill, saw me sitting there. He grunted his way towards me, through the snow. When he got close enough to recognize me, he put his gun away.
"What the hell are you doing up here? I thought I told you to leave it alone?" he said and shook his head. "Stupid fucking redneck."
There was blood at his ear, but other than that he seemed fit as a fiddle. He stood there panting for a while.
"Can I just ask you one question?" he said. "Why?"
He laughed. "What's one dead faggot mean to you?"
My mouth was filling up with blood so I didn't really feel like talking. But I didn't need words. I pulled down my sweater to reveal the black heart etched on my skin just above my own. The cop squinted. Then he got it.
I hadn't counted on Daniel coming back. Neither had the cop. The blow came from behind and completely took him by surprise. He spun around and got the second hit in the face, tumbled back towards me. Daniel swung the tire iron again and drew blood this time. The cop tumbled to his knees as Daniel kept hitting him and hitting him, screaming and spitting. He kept at it long after the cop was dead. He slowly came to his senses and looked at me, wide-eyed and bloody. He blinked.
"I… I'll get help," he said and ran off. I think we both knew it wouldn't matter, but that was OK.
If I had been a religious man, I could have told myself I would soon be seeing my lover in Heaven. I wasn't a religious man. I just sat there, let the life ooze out of me, the cop's blood and mine all mixed together in the snow. The sun was coming up between the branches but it wasn't red, just a pale blur in the air as it began to snow.
I sat there, let the snow fall on me in large, soft flakes that melted as they hit my skin.
About the Author
Palle Schmidt is a Danish writer and artist, dabbling in graphic novels, crime fiction and screenwriting. He talks about himself at palleschmidt.com.