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 off the canal with a pinch of garbage.
Warehouse 43 crouches right on the canal’s edge. The last in a row of many near identical ramshackle arrays of cracked brick, weathered soft-wood 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 cross the street and go to the corner of number 43. Street mud clings to my shoes. The loading gate in the warehouse 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, a black maw, crouches in torpid anticipation of getting to eat 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, pattery 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 semi-auto 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 here. This green-eyed waif is made of freckles and fire. 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 steer her fall away from the puddle she made. It’s easy to pick her up. She doesn’t weight 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 out of sight around the corner of the warehouse’s end.
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 a dozen angry men not far behind me.