(Author’s Note: Reading about life on the street is not for the faint or heart. You have been duly warned.)
Jackson Tyler often woke disoriented and unsure of reality. It’s just the way his life was. Sometimes his mind focused on reality, sometimes it focused elsewhere. Right now, it was elsewhere. He suspected his host was his son, Jonathan; that this weird dreamscape superimposing the breakfast in front of him was Jon’s actual landscape: dark alleys, hulking dumpsters, street people, and last night a sexual encounter he prayed was his own fantasy about his partner overlaid onto the worry about his son. His right hand still tingled as if he had done the deed himself.
With that hand, he dipped a piece of toast in his second cup of coffee. His phone buzzed in the distance. He threw the toast onto the table and ran to get it from the bedside table where he’d left it. He missed the call, but a text buzzed through. It was from Maureen.
Officers pursued teen. Pulled prints. Matched Jon. Presumed alive & hiding in the city. Alive, Jack.
He punched in her number.
She answered, “Thompson.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“We have people on the street actively looking. Jack, we’ll find him. Keep your phone with you.”
“Thank you,” he said, again.
She clicked off.
Jon grabbed food from a breakfast bar on the Riverwalk. He had money left for a thrift shop purchase. He needed a jacket. He stayed in shadows when he could, dipped into alcoves to watch traffic, and tried to stay alert. Running into a Morelli was a death sentence. Relief washed over him when he stepped through the door of the thrift shop with its jumbled shelves and friendly looking people. He found a jacket right away that fit him. He also bought a knit hat that could fold down over his ears at night. An older woman found a fifty-cent sale on a pair of mittens for him that coincidently matched the hat.
After his purchases, he still had enough money for snacks, but he needed more for a good meal. He couldn’t take a chance at any of the soup kitchens, because his picture was plastered on the walls.
However, what he needed to do to earn money didn’t seem like a daylight activity. So, he wandered for the rest of the day, sticking to shadows and studying people. Lincoln came often to his mind. He spoke as if offering sexual favors was an ideal way to make money. Jon wished he were here so he could learn more from him. His death was a heavy weight to bear. Jon had no illusions about how he died. It wasn’t from a heart attack. The simple fact was that he died from the punishment for skimming money. Jon had no desire to go the same way, face down on the filthy cement with his hole reamed by a dozen brutal men. Lincoln’s problem was that he worked for a pimp. Jon planned to be his own man. All he had to do now was to figure out where sex workers plied their trade when the sun set.
By the time the sun went down, the only people Jon passed were a couple of panhandlers. Where did people congregate to solicit sex? There had to be a district somewhere that folks felt safe enough to advertise their talents.
His wanderings took him back to the soup kitchen where he’d first discovered that the FBI had plastered posters with his face all over the walls inside and out. By chance, he saw the group of three colorfully dressed people that had stood behind him in line yesterday. They were going in to the building, presumably for dinner. He waited outside for them to leave the kitchen, then, quietly followed them.
After traversing one block, the tallest, a young man dressed in flowing silk tie-dye turned and said to him, “Are you following us Young Warrior?”
The young man laughed. “We have ourselves a shadow,” he said to his fellow walkers.
The other two turned as one and smiled at him. A short, stocky boy with a wolfish grin said, “I remember you. You stood in front of us in line yesterday.”
Jon took a step toward them and stopped.
“So, come on,” said the first young man. “You might as well hang for now. It’s pretty clear you don’t have a damn clue what you are about.” He introduced himself as Sparkle.
The one that grinned was aptly named Smiley, and the other was Girlie, though Jon couldn’t decide whether Girlie was male or female. Jon introduced himself as Sawyer, because by now he was used to responding to it.
Jon told them about his experience the night before and the twenty dollars he had made.
“Damn, girl,” said Girlie, which may have been why he or she was so named. “That’s a lot. Most I ever made was twelve, and that was because the guy gave me a twenty percent tip.”
Jon asked, “Do you work for yourselves or for someone?”
“No one works for themselves, gorgeous,” said Smiley.
Jon told them Lincoln’s story and why he wanted to. Sparkle sniveled and tears ran down his face. “Poor Lincoln. We all hoped he’d be okay when Charlie snapped him up. But then, Alles Santorini came along, and we worried. Rightly so, I guess,” he said with a sob.
“I don’t know if any of them are alive. Rat Snatcher told me to run, and I did. I heard gunshots, but I…I just don’t know.”
“Rat Snatcher watched out for you,” crooned Smiley. He reached out and fingered a lock of hair that was peeking from under Jon’s knit cap. He smoothed it behind Jon’s ear. “Well, you need to learn the trade, then,” he said. “You hang with us, tonight.”
“Are you sure?” said Jon.
“Absolutely,” they chorused.
“A friend of Lincoln’s is a friend of ours,” said Sparkle.
The three friends had a car. They drove north to the University and then turned east, explaining that Downtown was too heavily policed to ply the trade there anymore. They had better luck here, where the lines between city and suburbia were fuzzy. After a couple of hours, Jon wondered where he got the idea that he could make a sizable amount of money doing this? As soon as he thought it, he earned ten dollars for a quick ‘handy.’ Ten dollars wasn’t bad for a few minutes of effort.
Sparkle threw him at two women who wanted to finger each other while watching him jerk off. He earned ten dollars from each of them and had the thrill of his life. He smiled at his money and stuffed it into his wallet. He now had thirty dollars, which seemed like a lot considering that physical effort was minimal and pleasurable.
The trio then decided to move on, and because Jon was having luck with that corner, they wished him luck and left to pursue their business elsewhere. His business as a self-employed man slowed down. It was possible that a corner was good for only a couple of tricks. Maybe this was part of the lesson he had to learn. The others had each worked a couple of johns and then moved on. All totaled, that was quite a lot of business for that one corner. Besides, in his opinion, three was already a crowd. They had graciously added him as a fourth. He didn’t blame them for leaving.
He was about to give up. Thirty dollars would get him through tomorrow. As he stepped away from the corner, a silver CT-6 rolled up and parked in front of him. Jon was a half inch shy of six feet tall, but the man who got out of the black sedan was taller by at least two inches. Wearing a plaid button down and jeans, he grabbed Jon’s upper arm with a grip of iron.
“Ow,” said Jon.
“Shut up, bitch,” said the man. He threw Jon into the back seat of the sedan.
Jon tried the door. Childproof locks prevented him from opening it.
The man sat behind the wheel and slammed the front door. As he engaged the engine, Jon jerked the back door again. The man glared at him in the mirror as he gunned the engine and pulled away from the curb.
Jon trembled in the back seat with eyes wide open, watching the city roll past. “Where are you taking me?” he asked, in a voice that was not as deep or mature as he would have liked.
“You’ll see when we get there,” said the man.
The tone in the man’s voice set off louder warning bells. “What will we be doing?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Terror crawled into Jon’s throat. His voice cracked when he screamed, “Let me out. I don’t want to work for you.”
“You ain’t got a choice, bitch.”
Jon jerked the handle on the back door, even though he knew the safety lock was engaged. He tried opening the window, but it was inoperable as well.
Just when his panic was big enough for him to jump into the front seat and take his chances with the driver, the man pulled into a lot in front of a small auto body shop.
Jon prepared to run as soon as the door opened.
The man got out of his seat and slammed the front door in one fluid motion. When he opened the back door, he must have been ready for Jon’s reaction, because as Jon flew out the door, the man grabbed and jerked his left arm. A shout of pain ripped from his throat and then he fell hard onto his butt in front of the man’s boots. The man hauled Jon to his feet and marched him into the garage, which surprisingly didn’t have any cars in it even though it was lit with flood lights across the ceiling.
A man who was taller than the one that had a vice grip on his arm, stepped out of the office. He seemed familiar, and Jon’s memory flashed on the confrontation he’d witnessed between Marchesi and the Morelli brothers. He couldn’t help gasping.
“Who’s the tough guy, now?” sneered the taller man. “You think you can work one of my corners for free?”
“What?” Jon gulped. “What are you talking about?”
The man swung his hand, using the force of his entire arm to backhand Jon’s face.
Jon flew, landing flat against the filthy garage floor.
“I don’t take kindly to fresh meat comin’ in here thinkin’ they can take over my territory. You owe me.”
“What are you saying?” Jon didn’t want to snivel, but that’s how the question flowed past his lips. In his mind, Alles was shaking his head and saying, “Topino. What did you get yourself into?”
Alles was dead. This man and his brother killed him. They probably killed Charlie and Evan, too. For all Jon knew, Rat Snatcher and Hawg were dead as well, and now he was going to join them. They’d find his body in the river, and his father would be told. He would probably have to identify him. Would Jack be sad?
“Check him for money,” the man said to the driver.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Morelli,” said the man in the plaid shirt.
Morelli. The man in plaid confirmed his worst fear. Jon lay on the cement, unresponsive as the man in plaid emptied his pockets. He found Jon’s wallet and threw it at Morelli.
Morelli took the money. Then he said, “What have we here?” He had found Jon’s ID. “Says here, you go to school in Stockton, California.” He kicked Jon’s hip viciously. The toe of his boot was sharp, and Jon barely heard him say, “You ain’t in Stockton no more,” because the sudden pain took all his attention.
“Auntie Em, Auntie Em,” chided the man in the plaid shirt.
“Teach him a lesson, then throw him in the garbage. A truck will pick up the body for us in the morning.”
So, he was dead. Would his parents, all three of them, miss him when he was gone? Jon looked out the door, calculating his chance to make one last, mad dash for it. A short, stocky kid leaned against the sill. When he noticed Jon staring at him, he grinned. His big, toothy smile gleamed in the glare of the flood lights. Smiley.
The driver grabbed Jon’s aching arm and dragged him toward a door at the back of the garage. Jon scrabbled to get his feet under him, but the man’s strides were swift and long. His spine scraped against the cement, and a flare of burning pain made him woozy. The best he could do was a one-legged kick against the floor, which lifted his body long enough for cool air to sooth his raw skin each time he managed it. The relief from the burn helped him focus.
Outside the man dropped him.
Jon pushed himself up against the wall. He faced the man and crouched into first position, ready for whatever the man threw at him. He didn’t expect the strike from above as the man jumped up and came down double fisted on his left shoulder. Jon crumpled to the ground.
The man hauled him up and slammed him against the wall. Then the punches kept striking, one after the other until Jon could no longer catch his breath without sniffing blood into his sinuses. The man didn’t stop. He pounded Jon’s ribs and stomach until he couldn’t catch his breath. When Jon fell to the ground, the man savagely kicked him repeatedly.
Barely conscious, Jon was aware of flopping over the man’s shoulder. He could see sidewalk flow past as one foot and then the other heeled into view. The surface of his boot was weirdly reflective, and one drop of blood splattered onto it as the foot passed beneath Jon’s face. Then his vision blacked out.
He was aware of falling, of hitting cardboard, empty cans, and something wet and squishy. Rubber slammed against metal. There was sudden, muffled quiet. He was thankful when he heard the man walk away.
Jon lay in the dark on a bed of trash, wondering if consciousness continued after death. He didn’t believe so before now, but he didn’t see how he could have survived that beating. Time passed. Jon slept and woke, and then slept again.
Beep, beep, beep. The vibrations of a large garbage truck roused him. Beep, beep, beep. The signal was infinitesimally louder with each beep. He needed to sit up. More than that, he needed to climb out of this dark cave.
He felt more than heard the claws bump against the dumpster. It was enough to galvanize his resolve. If he was going to live, he had to leave, now. He pushed on the lid and grabbed the edge of the dumpster. With sudden strength, he pulled and slid through the opening between lid and lip. He fell onto dirt as the great truck lifted the big, metal canister over a gaping maw in its side and shook it.
He limped away from the truck and the dumpster, but not fast enough to avoid the earthquake under his feet when the truck dropped the heavy can back onto the ground. Not fast enough to avoid the small pebbles thrown at him by the truck operator as he hollered, “Get the hell outta here, you filthy vagrant.”
He stopped on the corner, clutching his ribs and peering at the city around him. He had no idea where he was. There was a vacant lot across the street, though, with a small scraggly tree. He stumbled across the pavement, over the sidewalk, and into the empty lot. He sank to the ground. It was all he was capable of for now.