People say life begins at forty. It doesn't. The fact is it's been going on all the while, only you've been too busy to notice; forty is just the age when you start to worry about how much of it you have left. I looked up at the Williamsburgh Tower just as the hands on the clock there crawled past midnight and Monday turned to into Tuesday. Like death and taxes, time is relentless.
In a few hours the world would wake up to a brand new day. Maybe for some it would hold the promise of something better, for me it would be just mean more dive bars and dead ends. Kelly had been my shot at a happily ever after and now she was gone; choked out in a Brooklyn alley like a Hitchcock Heroine. I shoved my hands in my pockets and kept walking. An empty beer can rattled along on the breeze beside me, keeping me company with its hollow chatter for a few yards before jumping off into the gutter. I didn't really notice it until after it was gone. That's always been my problem.
I paused to light a cigarette in the shadow of a five-story walk-up. The mellow bluesy sound of a detuned guitar tumbled down the fire escape from a loft somewhere above. I leaned up against the grimy brownstone and listened while I smoked. It was the soundtrack to a lazy summer on the shore, not winter in the city. I shivered and drew deeply on the smoke, sucking the glowing cherry a little closer, hungry for its heat. I thought about heading back to the hotel and trying to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I saw the dark smudges ringing Kelly's throat; the empty impression of a killer's hands staining her skin with one final, lasting insult.
"Hey mister, you spare some change?"
I looked around and saw an old rummy by the service entrance, clinging to a dumpster like it was a life raft. I pitched my cigarette and walked across.
"Have you seen her around, friend?" I asked, showing him Kelly's picture—the one where she's on the boardwalk looking out at the ocean, her hair billowing out behind her like a bolt of red silk. He peered at it running a grubby hand through the wild tangle of his beard.
"Yeah, I've seen her. She works the corners up on 9th," he said like he was making an apology.
You can't choose who you fall in love with anymore than you can make them love you back.
"Thanks buddy," I said and peeled him of a couple of singles and then thinking better of it I added a ten spot. "Be sure to get yourself a hot meal along with the bottle."
He nodded his thanks and shuffled into the night. I watched him go, thinking there was one more hard luck story that nobody wanted to hear. I turned up my collar and started towards 9th Street. A direction wasn't a destination, but it was a start.
I didn't know what line of work Kelly was in when I met her, and in spite of my job, I wouldn't have cared. She was everything I could have wanted, but we barely lasted six months together, not much—not nearly enough. The last time we were together was at Easy Earl's out near the Parkway. We were only a couple of drinks into the weekend and already burning in the same old firefight. She said something. I said something back. She stormed out. I got drunk. We rode that broken merry-go-round a lot, each of us not dealing with the problem in our own way. Kelly liked to run from it and I preferred to hide in a bottle. You could say we were just too different for it to work, opposite ends of the scale and all that. But deep down, where neither of us really wanted to look, we were exactly alike.
By the time I made it home she had gone, for good this time. She left a note pinned to the refrigerator, it just said: If you ever really loved me, then you'll understand. I loved her all right. I guess I should have told her that more often. I never understood though. I still don't. It's a goddamn mystery to me how I managed to fuck things up so badly. Perhaps in the end I didn't, not completely. When they found her in that alley, she had my number written on the back of her hand, like maybe she was planning on calling. Guys like me only get what they deserve and that doesn't include second chances, but that hasn't stopped me tearing myself to shreds with what ifs ever since.
Rain had started to lash the streets by the time I reached 9th. It seemed like it had rained a lot since Kelly left me. I dodged behind a checker cab and crossed the street to shelter in the doorway of a 24-hour laundromat. There was only one customer inside. She was eighteen-going-on-a-hundred and meth-skinny. Her thrift store coat had a tear in the sleeve and a style that hankered after the days when disco was king. I pushed open the door and went inside.
"Excuse me, miss. Have you seen this girl?"
She looked up at me with empty eyes, charred and shattered like the windows of a burnt out building. She glanced at the picture in my hand, shook her head and went back to watching clothes spin around the dryer. I had this crazy idea that I should put my arm around her and tell her how it would all work out someday. But both of us would know that was just a crock of shit. When you reach a certain point, life starts working like gravity and from then on, you only go down—we both knew that too. I thanked her and went back out into the storm. The yellowing sign on the door said: We Never Close. In this town that worked just as well for old wounds as it did for fresh laundry.
At first, the local cops liked me for Kelly's murder. Sure, why not, I would have too. I was twice her age with a string of bad relationships in my wake and a couple of assault charges on my record that had never gone to trial. I was exactly the kind of loser who might fall for a twenty-something hooker and then whack her when she decided she didn't want to fuck old men for free anymore. One phone call to my Major in Atlantic City cleared all that up. He confirmed I was Jersey PD and more importantly that I was standing right next to him at the time their radio car called Kelly in as DRT—dead right there. She was still warm and I was over a hundred miles away. That left the local boys all out of ideas. They had nothing. Neither did Kelly; no family to miss her and no one to claim her body. Without Kelly I had nothing either, apart from for a picture that broke my damn heart every time I looked at it.
I huddled in the doorway. Rain drummed on the pavement and thunder rolled down Park Slope like a gutter ball. Beneath the storm, spiked heels beat their own rhythm on the wet sidewalk.
"Are you looking for company?"
She was stunning in a hard kind of way, her finely cut features all made up of Asian angles and edges.
"What's a nice Irish girl like you doing out on a night like this?" I asked.
It was an old line and she must have heard a thousand lame variations of it a million times before, although it still got me a smile that was somewhere between up town girl and back street lover; a smile like that must have meant something to someone, once.
"Rain doesn't matter, not if you've got bills to pay." she said and twirled her umbrella.
"What's your name, Irish?"
"What do you want it to be?"
I held out Kelly's picture. She took it and the rain washed the smile from her face, leaving only a well-worn sadness and a hint of rouge.
"What are you some sort of cop?" she said thrusting the photo back at me.
"Yeah, but I'm not a cop around here. This is personal."
She looked at me hard, an arched eyebrow posing the question.
"Kelly and me, we were—" I stopped myself, there didn't seem to be any words for what Kelly and me were … friends, lovers, soul mates? We were all of those and none of them. I know that sounds dumb, but that's just how it was, although now it was something else.
"Shit, you're him. You're Kelly's cop, the one she met in Atlanta," she said.
One time, back when I was still in uniform, I stopped a bullet during a stash house raid. I was on point, first up the stairs. I took a .38 high in the chest and woke up in Memorial Hospital two days later. Her words hit me in much the same way. They told me there could have still been a chance for Kelly and me and that was a hell of a 'what if' to add to my list.
"Actually it was Atlantic City," I said pushing the hurt away and sticking only to the facts—Joe fucking Friday would have been proud.
She shrugged as if everything south of the Jersey Turnpike was a foreign country. "Kelly told me all about you, officer." she said coyly, cocking her head over to one side giving me a glimpse of cheekbone you could shave with and perhaps also of the girl she might have been before the streets claimed her. "I kind of thought you'd be, you know, younger."
"Time catches you up," I said, "unless somebody else catches you first."
She looked around and then took a step towards me, her umbrella shielding us from anyone who might have cared to watch. "You should go talk to that bastard Manny. He was leaning on Kelly for a cut of her action."
"And she told him to go fuck himself."
That sounded a lot like Kelly, she never took any shit from me; I doubt she took it from some low-life pimp either. "Are you saying this Manny character is the one I'm looking for?"
She glanced anxiously up and down the street. "Well, it ain't like Kelly choked on a pretzel, honey."
"Where do I find him?"
"Romero's over on Carroll, but if he finds out it was me who told you, then …" She left her sentence unfinished and for a moment it hung pointlessly between us, like Christmas lights in August.
"He won't, I promise," I said reinforcing the statement with my eyes.
She held my look for a moment, taking stock and passing judgment. "Maybe you are the kind of guy who keeps a promise, but I wouldn't know, I never met one."
I tried to give her money, but she folded my hand closed, which made me feel like a piece of garbage, and then held it in her own, which made me feel better. Not much, but like the old drunk by the dumpster, it gave me something to cling to.
"Kelly was a friend and those are hard to come by," she said.
I nodded. Cops and whores; we had that in common.
She smiled the sort of smile that could melt hearts like ice cream on a hot day, stood on tiptoe and brushed her lips against mine. "Make things right," she whispered.
The echo of her footsteps faded into the night, leaving me with the lingering promise of her perfume and a cold empty feeling in my guts.
Romero's was a low rent pick-up joint in a low end neighborhood. It was all buzzing neon out front and cocktails with suggestive names inside; the kind of place where the sad and the lonely came to drown their troubles like kittens in a sack, before pairing off to fuck each other's brains out. It was a home for the kind of misery that loved company.
Things were winding down by the time I got there. Only two or three couples conspired in the row of shadowy booths. I took a stool at the bar; joining a scattering of late night drunks, all of them hoping the answers would magically appear at the bottom of their glasses if they stared at them long enough.
The bartender came over, laid down a napkin and looked at me expectantly.
"Jameson, straight," I said.
"Don't have Jameson, Bushmills alright?"
It wasn't, but the alternatives all came with chunks of fruit floating in them, and that isn't drinking, it's just getting wet.
"Manny around?" I asked as the bartender set down my drink.
He nodded towards the door. I turned to see a young kid walking in with slutty looking arm candy on either side of him; one blonde and the other dark like he was having trouble making up his mind. That was the kind of problem a lot of men wouldn't mind having. Down here you could rent your own dilemma for $500 an hour.
The trio breezed past me took seats at the far end of the bar. Manny ordered the drinks and then started feeling up the brunette. His hands walking all over her tight little body while he talked shit with the blonde just to hear the sound of his own voice.
I was expecting a hard-bitten flesh peddler, not some damn college drop out. No doubt the kid thought he was a player, but to me he was just another parasitic pimp; a guinea worm in a designer suit. I never heard of any girl telling a high school guidance counselor she wanted to fuck for money. Making a living on a filthy mattress in some by-the-hour motel room isn't anybody's idea of a dream job. The pimps were the only ones who got rich off that kind of work. I downed my drink and grimaced; it wasn't only the protestant whisky that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Manny laughed and leaned in close to the blonde, nibbling on her ear as he whispered something. She giggled like it was the cutest thing ever, but I caught the look in her eyes and it told a different story. It was all an act. She was only doing what she had to. I ordered another drink and pretended not to notice the generic brand name peeking out from under a carelessly placed Bushmills label on the bottle. In a place like Romero's, everyone did their share of pretending.
The brunette got a call on her cell about three drinks later, not long after both the girls got up and left. The wait had given me too much time to think and not enough to get drunk. Manny settled his tab. I did the same and followed him out. The Browning Hi-Power I'd ripped from a Jersey banger the previous week felt heavy under my jacket, like I needed to empty out some of those home made hollow points and lighten the load. It would have been easy to grease the bastard there and then, but Manny wasn't something I intended to rush. I had all night.
The storm had blown itself out and a cold damp mist was seeping in the streets off the Hudson. It was the kind of weather that suited both my plans and my mood. Manny turned left and slouched off down the street toward a late model Cadillac. That figured. Just once I'd like to meet a pimp who drove a Prius. I moved up behind him as he fumbled in his pocket for keys and pressed the business end of the nine into his ribs.
"Let's you and me take a ride, kid."
I brought the gun up and cuffed him on the back of the head. "No, you don't talk, you just drive."
I directed him west, toward the docks. Corner stores and apartment blocks gave way to smashed concrete and steel shutters daubed with illiterate graffiti that nobody over the age of sixteen could read. When we hit the river I made him take a right, along the broken, pitted asphalt of a dead-end street lined with boarded up warehouses on one side and row upon row of rusty containers on the other, all patiently waiting for ships that had sunk along with the economy.
"Look man, I got ten large stashed in the trunk. It's yours, just take it," he said.
"I don't want your, money."
"What then, got to be something, blow, girls … boys? I ain't gonna judge, I mean it takes all sorts right?"
I looked across at Manny, his hands nervously pawing the wheel. In his world everybody got bought and sold, it was just a matter of price.
"All I'm looking for is truth and enlightenment."
"What truth? What are you one of those religious freaks?"
"Yeah, I'm the goddamn second coming. Now, stop the car."
He pulled up just past the last container, next to the legs of a giant crane; the rest of it lost somewhere above the glow of the streetlights. I reached over and took the keys from the ignition.
"Get out, let's take a walk."
The mist had upgraded itself to fog. It cut off the noise of the city, leaving only the gentle sound of water lapping the dockside. I marched Manny down past the containers and out on to a wooden pier cluttered with discarded rollers of cable.
"That's far enough," I said stopping him halfway along.
He shoved his hands in his pockets and stood hunched over against the cold. Ten feet below us, the black and moody Hudson oozed reluctantly towards the ocean. On the far side, the Manhattan skyline was no more than a rumor.
"We're on 53rd Street."
"Nothing, I'm just saying we're on 53rd Street, a couple of blocks over from Bay Ridge Flats."
Manny shifted his feet uneasily, his eyes darted left and right, looking everywhere but at me.
"Hand it over, you sneaky little runt."
"Hand what over, man?"
I worked the slide on my Browning, chambering a round. "Give me your phone, asshole."
He pulled the cell out of his pocket. The screen was lit, showing me the line was open. Twenty years a police and I let him pocket dial the cavalry like some wet-nosed rookie. I snatched the phone out of his hand and stamped it under my foot. I had to assume the clock was running now. I took out Kelly's picture and pushed it towards him. He looked at the photo and quickly turned away.
"You know her?"
He shrugged. His expression remained flat and unreadable—street survival 101.
"Did you kill her?"
He just stood there, shivering with the cold and maybe something else.
"Answer me dammit!"
He flinched like I'd just made to hit him. "L-look I got connections, man. Maybe you should walk away now, while you—"
I jammed the pistol into his cheek, forcing his head back. "Maybe I should just shoot you in the face, how would that be?" He started to mumble something. "Huh? Speak the fuck up."
"I said just fucking do it then," he sobbed.
His whole body was shaking. I tightened my grip on the gun. All I had to do was squeeze. Just another pound or so of pressure on the trigger would be enough to smear Manny all over the pier. Some people got to leave their mark on the world; he would only leave a stain.
"Tell me the truth," I yelled in his face.
"I … I …"
A dark patch spread out around his crotch and urine drummed on his expansive Italian shoes. Irish had told me to make things right and this didn't feel right anymore. It felt like murder. I lowered my gun.
I looked from the trembling Manny with his piss-soaked pants to the banger's nine in my hand. The serial numbers had been filed off and the bullets scored so as they would deform on impact. It was a weapon designed for only one purpose. In Manny's world it was all about price and this was one I couldn't pay. I tossed it in the river.
Manny sniffed up a snot rocket and stared at me wide eyed. His mind desperately trying to work out what kind of trick I was playing on him.
I wanted the truth and now I had it; killing him wouldn't change a damn thing. Kelly would still be dead, the world would still be fucked up and I would still have to go on living in it, alone. I pulled Manny's car keys out of my coat, dropped them at his feet and walked away, my hollow footsteps echoing along the wooden pier.
"Y-you fuck," he called after me his voice cracked and broken. I ignored him and carried on up the slope toward the containers. "I'll … I'll kill you for this, man." Talk might be cheap, but he still couldn't pay the freight. "Just like I killed that whore."
I stopped cold and spun around. Manny had followed me down the pier and stood on the dockside. He was shaking more than ever; an emotional junkie hopped up on fear and anger.
"Yeah, that's right." He screamed. "That bitch squealed like a pig when I choked her out."
My hand shot inside my coat and found only the empty holster. Manny saw me go for a piece and he turned to run. His foot caught in a spool of cable, his legs tangled around it and he tumbled headfirst into the Hudson.
I ran down to the edge of the dock just in time to see him break the river's oily surface. He was spluttering like motor trying to throw a rod and grabbing at the water as if it were something solid that he could take hold of. The kid was no swimmer. For a second his eyes locked on mine as he struggled—just long enough for them to burn into my skull—and then he was gone.
I don't believe in fate or karma. In fact, I don't believe in much of anything. I just know that time catches up with everyone sooner or later. I buttoned up my coat and started walking, keeping myself one step ahead of it.
Dawn limped painfully into the eastern sky; agonizing over the birth of another thin winter day that would only last to mid-afternoon and make you wonder why it bothered showing up at all. I was tired, hell I was exhausted, but I didn't go back to the hotel. I knew that Kelly would be waiting for me when I closed my eyes and I had a feeling that maybe now Manny would be too. I needed a reason not to sleep, any reason would do. A pretty one would do best.
I went looking for Irish and finally found her, stirring coffee in a window booth of a mom and pop diner, a couple of blocks over from the Laundromat. Daylight suited her; it made her look softer, sort of smoothed out her edges. She didn't seem all that surprised to see me.
"You look like shit," she said.
"Funny, I was just thinking you looked pretty good."
"Did you make it right?" she asked as I slid into the seat opposite her.
"No, not really, I don't think it will ever be right, not for me anyway." I said fishing a pack of smokes out of my pocket. "But nothing will come back on you, Irish."
"At least now I know what a man who keeps his promise looks like," she said and sipped her coffee.
"Yeah, he looks like shit."
I waved over the waitress and ordered a coffee. I offered to get her another, but she declined and we sat there for a while without speaking. Words didn't seem to matter right then. I lit up a cigarette and peered out at the street. The condensation on the diner's window made the city looked softer too.
"So what happens now?" she asked finally, pulling my gaze back inside.
"I've been wondering that myself. I think I'll take Kelly back to Jersey with me. My old man bought me a plot next to his, up at New Lawns Cemetery. I figure she can make use of that."
"Won't your dad mind?"
"Nope, he'll be glad of the company. He always was a sucker for a pretty face."
"Oh I'm sorry, I thought …" she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
"Don't be. He's a long time gone." I said, trimming my ash.
"Ain't we all," she said and took a cigarette from my pack, her cherry-colored lips doing more to promote the habit than any billboard I'd ever seen. I snapped open my lighter, spun the wheel and leaned across the table to set her on fire.
"What about you?" I asked.
"Well, officer," she said pausing to send a cloud of bluish smoke up towards the fluorescents, "you could take me home with you too. It will run you two hundred, but I can guarantee it'll be worth it."
I didn't doubt that for a minute. "Here," I said and handed her my photo of Kelly. "I'd like for you to have that."
She took it; that same old sadness showing up on her face again. "Thanks," she said and turned the picture over in her hand. I had written my phone number on the back. "What's this for?"
I crushed out my cigarette and got up to leave. "That's just in case you ever need another friend, Irish," I said and started towards the door.
"Wait, I don't even know your name," she called after me.
The smile felt strange on my face, almost as if it belonged to someone else. I guess it had been a while since I'd used it. I turned and shot it her way. "What do you want it to be?"
Copyright © 2014 Chris Leek. First published in the Zelmer Pulp collection, Maybe I Should Just Shoot You In The Face.
Chris Leek is the author of Gospel of the Bullet and the short story collection, Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em. He is a 1/7th of Zelmer Pulp and a submissions editor at the western fiction magazine The Big Adios. He still has all his own teeth and will work for beer.
He can be contacted at www.nevadaroadkill.blogspot.co.uk.