A gun’s report rattles my loose windowpane. I turn to look.
Outside, pigeons startle to flight. Echoes of the shot and their flapping wings bounce among the girders of a rail overpass – a flutter of sound in a cave of steel and rust. Beyond the cave mouth runs a canyon of tar and concrete, carved by the human stream that leaves its refuse along the banks: shanties full of desperate bodies and flea-ridden blankets in shades of dirt, grime, and gray.
In the middle of the street, a man in an ankle-length coat pauses as if he’s had a sudden thought. An exit wound spreads dark fluid down the back of his coat. Sandals peek from beneath his jacket and the hems of his pants look like silk. He tries to keep on, but weariness climbs his legs and pulls him down.
His killer stands frozen on the sidewalk: a woman, grey-coated and still in the gloom of the steel pillars. Her loose hair across her shoulders looks like a shawl made of shadows. Her spot is hers. She owns it. The shanties and shacks of the homeless seem to crowd back from her presence as though willing to cede the ground.
Her right hand returns under her coat so I see no gun, but I know she fired one by the placement of her feet, the set of her shoulders, and the curved slash of her posture that makes me think of a scimitar held ready to cut.
She watches her victim fall. He’s on the ground before the echoes have stopped playing or the startled pigeons have figured out where to go. As his hat rolls from his head, she lifts her gaze to meet mine.
Her eyes burn so blue the color seems to cross the distance between us like falling spikes of ice. So blue the steel and mud world looks monochrome.
A pattern of pale scars on her face matches one I see when I look in the mirror, exactly over my own heart.
My breath betrays my trust and dives under my heart to hide, splashing shivers through me. A rushing in my ears may be blood or thunder. This is fear. Fear like staring down the bared teeth of a snarling dog, like the sting of a knife to my exposed throat, like looking up at the fist of one who means to break me.
The blue of her eyes chills me to the bone.
I have to meet her. That cold fear is an invitation I’ll never deny. Behind the alien distance in her eyes, I see something familiar—a promise of myself darkly reflected. I don’t just want to meet her, I want to be her; she stands at her crossroads, and the world bends about her.
In the same instant as that lightning thought, she half-lifts one hand toward me. It’s almost a beckon, or almost a farewell.
I reach for the window lock to go out the fire escape, but she’s gone. I never saw her move.
In my window’s reflection, I see my own eyes widen in their deep sockets; my mouth falls open like a dark-faced fox startled in a yawn.
I clutch at my too-thin chest as my heart hammers like a prisoner against the cage of my ribs. I was looking right at her, and though the shadows and shanties under the overpass are full of places to hide, I should have seen her turning away or taking a step. But I didn’t. She’s gone suddenly, magically, and without a trace.
Red blood breaks the monochrome world.
Making my legs move is like tearing them out of a block of ice. I watch the pool of red spread far too quickly for its source to survive. He drags himself a few feet toward the curb and then lays still. All the electricity of waiting and watching surges against my frozen muscles. I have to know.
I leave my apartment, feet heavy and awkward as I hurtle down the fire escape with raw steel and rust brushing past my fingertips. Cold mud on colder brick squishes between my bare toes. It’s April, but an unseasonably bitter wind off the bay whispers: your hat can’t save you. A train approaches on the tracks above.
The dying man looks up at me, his face narrow and high-boned, with a bald head, almond eyes, and skin the color of candlelight. Under his coat, he’s wearing a collarless suit of blue silk that’s rapidly turning red. I kneel by his shoulder. The blood on his teeth matches the rust on my fingers. The bullet must have cut an artery. He won’t last long. With a grimace he spits something onto the grit—a wad of paper? Yes, a folded note. He was trying to swallow it. There’s something odd about his open mouth; he hasn’t got a tongue.
The vagrant residents of the overpass have all pulled back into the shadows, watching with eyes rimmed red. They’ll take his coat. It may save a life.
His throat rattles a wet and fading rasp that ends with a septic smell. Death smells like shit.
I pick up the paper, pasted into a wad by saliva and blood, and unfold it.
He wants to see you. I’m sorry.
9 PM, 43 north Ziegemeire
It seems a piece of broken eggshell in the palm of my hand. It’s not mine. A stolen ticket onto a train that led to his death. I take it.
Sirens echo down the canyons, nearing. A freckled teen peeks around the corner by the grocer down the street, staring, wondering if it’s safe. The victim’s hat flaps about in the gutter as the breeze picks up. An old man with a beard like splayed shards of glass laughs and shakes his head. The badges don’t come this way often. One must have been nearby.
I’m back up my fire escape before the siren rounds the corner, and the window’s closed by the time the police beacon turns the overpass tunnel into a Mardi Gras. The denizens of the shanties will point my way to keep the police light off of them, which means a blue-hat might knock on my door. I’ll not be here if only to avoid the temptation to lie.
The paper sits on my little table. He wants to see you, I’m sorry, 9 PM, 43 north Ziegemeire. I already know I’m going, but I don’t want to. It doesn’t make sense. It’s none of my business what she was up to, or why that man had to die. It isn’t any of my business, but it is a business that involves guns and a man’s death. The next death could be mine if I dive in unreasoning, unasked, and unwelcome.
But I’m going to.
I know I had better not. It’s 1935 and Chicago groans with crime and hunger. The homeless and desperate crowd every alley. We all know with our dry lips, idle hands, and empty pockets that one of these days something has to change. But not today. Not because of me. Every sunrise I watch the desperate denizens of Hooverville dance between needs—food, shelter, family—spinning about each other in quick steps like tongues of flame on the white-hot coals of not wanting to die. Every night another one climbs to the track above to step in front of a train or burns out in a flash of knives or broken bottles. Today it’ll be the unseasonal chill that loosens a few clutching fingers from the bottom rung after which remains only the six-foot drop into the grave.
I interrogate my face in the window glass. “Am I going to do this?” My face doesn’t reply but lurks beneath the reflection’s warped surface—dark, thin, hard, and tired of waiting. My mother was a hero with skin like coal and my father a villain with skin like a cloud. I’m somewhere in the middle, depending on the light. It might mean I could pass anywhere, but more often it’s the opposite, and I pass nowhere without a fight. That’s worn me down to scars and distemper. It’s worn me down to a few dollars. It’s just about worn me out. I often wonder why I came back to America, and why I bother to stay, but at the moment, I can’t afford to leave.
I need to be in the labor line tomorrow looking for honest work, not traipsing across town throwing my life into jeopardy because I liked the look in a lady’s eyes. But that’s who I am: a fool for adventure. Marcus Summanus, professional at getting into trouble. My bare room holds none of that—only the promise of an empty bottle and an early sleep.
My mother’s typewriter waits by the window. In frustration, I put a page behind the scroll, remove it, and then put it back.
She disappeared like a daydream. I’m half-inclined to disbelieve my own eyes, and that gets my heart pumping. I think when something magic appears, fear is normal. Hesitation is normal.
I’m not normal.
To hell with it.
I get dressed: grey wool suit slacks and a button-down shirt, both found half-under the bed. My one tie is a strip of shredded black with a knot I’ve never undone. My jacket is brown leather, thick enough to stop a .22, with deep pockets. There’s room in the pockets for my keys, handkerchief, nearly empty wallet, thermos of cold coffee, a pencil, and after a moment’s hesitation, a few pages of typewriter paper folded into a crude notepad.
The window is empty. I’ve got nothing left to give. The page is as blank as a grave.
43 North Ziegemeire. Industrial canals are not my favorite places—this one smells of oil, dead fish, and sewage. A cat stands up atop a derelict shipping crate by the water’s edge. Yellow eyes flash as it leaps from the crate to land with a crash, upsetting a trash can and spicing the fish and mud stink with a pinch of garbage.
Warehouse 43 crouches right on the canal’s edge. It’s last in a row of many near-identical ramshackle arrays of cracked brick, weathered softwood, and roofing tar. This one is special only in that it has water on two sides: the canal behind and a rain-filled ditch to one side. The ditch looks like an abandoned attempt to expand the canal. Number 43 has a loading gate facing the street in the front, probably a barge dock in the back, and from my spot in the shadows across the street, I can see the outline of a small door on the rain-ditch side, midway between the street and the canal.
I’m almost an hour late; the sun has set. I spent a few of my rusted-out Model T’s last miles in exploration of Chicago’s industry byways, the vast tenants of which crouch all around this place like huge, incontinent metal insects. Their rumbling digestions fill the night air.
A warren of shanties fills the gaps between the factories like mortar between bricks. Somewhere in that maze, music plays. From this far away, all I can hear is the drums tapping a heartbeat into the dark. That rhythm beckons, but it’s calling from someplace behind me, in the wrong direction. The warehouse has nothing beyond it but water and night, but it’s still what I’ve come here to find.
She must have left—or maybe the message was going the other way, and she was never here at all. One way or another, this isn’t a safe spot. Not in this part of town, not at this hour of the evening.
I miss my gun. I can almost feel its weight in my pocket. One kilogram of steel, brass, and gunpowder, properly arranged, can make a mighty fine friend in a dark alley. I don’t even have a knife.
I cross the street and go to the corner of number 43 looking for a way in. The loading gate in the front has a padlock, but there’s a kind of wharf running along the rain-ditch side of the building, past its door, and on to extend behind it into the canal.
Distant industry thunders. Something might be voices inside the warehouse, but if it is, I can’t hear what they’re saying. It could be wind and groaning wood. I don’t feel alone, but I seem to be. The rain-ditch seems a black maw, open in torpid anticipation of eating me. I start down the wharf between the warehouse and the ditch. Old wood sighs under my muddied shoes.
Why am I here?
I’m not being existential; there isn’t a good reason. But maybe she’s here. If she’s not, maybe I’ll follow that music and find out where it leads.
I reach into my coat pocket for a cigarette. It’s my very last smoke, and it slimmed down my last bit of cash at a gas station that only sold diesel. Patting my pockets, I realize with a sinking sensation totally unrelated to my unpleasant prospects that I don’t have a lighter.
“Need a light?” The voice comes from ahead of me, down at the warehouse’s end where the wharf meets the canal. It’s a high, pattering tenor—the sort you might hear over a game of cards which you suddenly don’t expect to win but might still survive. The accent is local Chicago, probably an Italian neighborhood.
I stop. Cold sweat tells me my body knows the danger it’s in. He shifts his weight—enough movement to reveal his black outline against the paler black of the canal.
“Sure,” I say. “Come on over here.”
“You’re not who I was expecting, and fella, I have had a day.” The man in the shadows creeps a step toward me, but still way out of fist range. “So either you’re returning what she stole, you’ve killed her, or friend, you have walked down the wrong alley.”
He’s got his hand out in front of him like he’s offering to shake. Too far away. He’s holding something. A gun. Shadows hide it. I can’t be sure.
The stagnant water on my right beckons—the dark surface an all-too-easy fall. Unsure what to say, I take a cautious step away from that maw and toward the warehouse at my left. If he starts shooting, I want the wall’s shadows to hide my silhouette.
A glance over my shoulder tells me I could probably make the sprint back to the street, but there’s someone behind me blocking that escape. A black-clad body hugs the corner of the warehouse. It’s a kid or a girl or both. Blond hair catches orange light from the warehouse front, and eyes glint the color of jade. A thin arm points a colt semiauto pistol my way. The muzzle flash from that gun firing illuminates freckles and fear.
The bullet zips past like an angry bee. Even the overpowering stench of the garbage rushes to the background as the tang of gun smoke lights up all my survival glands at once.
I don’t feel shot.
“Shit,” says the man in the shadows. A much louder shot crashes my eardrums from his direction. Something tugs at my coat under my left arm.
The girl fires twice more. Muzzle flashes light the cracked brick next to her hand. Dust stings my eyes. A sane person would get out of the line of fire, maybe dive in the muddy pit, but my legs move me another way–toward the girl. My arm scrapes along the brick wall, and I jerk to a halt less than two long steps from her face. Her gun makes a black obstacle between us.
A body hits the water behind me, by the wharf’s end; he who threatened me. Seems he got what he offered.
She who saved me is definitely a girl, but she’s just as definitely not the one I was hoping to find. This green-eyed waif is made of freckles and fire.
“Take me to her!” she hisses with her gun pointed at me. Sweat beads on her brow. Her stomach is about to lose a war with its contents.
Strange to feel disappointed while looking down the barrel of a stranger’s gun. Ought to be fear. Her arm starts to shake. Her face falls. She won’t shoot me. I grab the gun’s barrel and twist it from her fingers. The smell of bile on her breath warns me in time to escape the green flood as her nerves give out.
I stand holding her gun, watching as whatever she ate last lands on my shoes. It takes about ten seconds, and then she looks up at me with eyes both frustrated and angry and faints.
I’m too slow to catch her, but at least I can steer her fall away from the puddle she made. In the same movement, it’s easier to pick her up. She doesn’t weigh much more than a sack of flour.
No siren this time. We’re deep in industry-land. No cop in his right mind would stick his neck this far into the grinder, not until daylight at least. More likely never.
There’s a shout from far down the dock: sounds German. Running feet raise a clamor across creaking wood.
It’s time to go. As I hoist the girl over my shoulder, I notice she’s dropped a handbag. It takes a moment to grab the bag and shove her gun inside, and then I make a run for the Model-T with angry men and somebody else’s trouble right behind me.