Earning Money Is Not Success

Knock.

Knock, knock.

The dream wavered.

Bang!

The basketball hit the backboard.

His brother jumped and caught it as it rolled off the rim.

“Dang it,” his father yelled.

He waved his hands to get his big brother’s attention. “Throw here, throw it here.”

Instead, his brother threw the ball at the net.

Bang!

It hit the backboard and dropped in.

The dream wavered again. He knew it was dream because his father left the family before he was old enough to play when Dad and his brother took to the courts. He was the little brother, not old enough to join, the stay-at-home-with-Mom kid.

He cracked his eyes. There was a shelf to his left. Not part of a ball court. He slipped back into sleep, but the dream was gone. He yearned to play with his father, which was probably the cause of the dream, especially now that he was in the same town, Detroit Michigan. Who would have thought?

Bang! Bang! Bang! Was someone pounding on a door?

Crack! The door hit the wall when it flew open.

He sat straight up and looked at the man standing in the doorway to the utility closet he’d rented as a guest bedroom for the night. Bony as a skeleton, the man’s weathered face sported tattoos that curled around his temples, scrolled over his cheeks, and down his neck.

“Up and at ‘em. Cook’s been slavin’ in the kitchen by hisself.” The tattooed man leaned over the foot of the cot, lifted it, and then dropped it. The legs bounced on the cement floor.

The boy woke completely.

The man sneered. “Did you hear me, Topo?”

The boy bolted to the edge of the cot as far from the man as he could get. The green and gold jacket he had somehow placed over his face during the scant hours of his sleep fell to the floor. He mumbled, “My name is Sawyer.”

“Eh. Sawyer, Topo, Topino, whatever. Get up Mouse. Restroom on the left has a small shower if you need hot water to wake up. Courtesy of the Boss.”

He assumed the ‘Boss,’ was Charlie Marchesi. “Thanks,” he said. He picked up his jacket and hugged it.

With the tattooed man out of his space, Sawyer pulled the bedding off the cot, hastily folded it, and stuffed it back where he found it, on the top of the shelving unit. Seven minutes later, he was showered and dressed again. As he stepped into the hallway, the tattooed man threw a white full-body apron at his chest. One of the ties flicked him in the eye.

“Ow,” said Sawyer. His eye watered, but he could not afford to be angry with a host who gave him a place to stay for a few hours of work. He gritted his teeth and flipped the apron’s neck strap over his head, tied the waist straps around his waist, and followed the man into the stifling kitchen.

The cook, a man as tall and as wide as a door, hulked over the stove. Five forty-two in the morning and the grill was hot, two gigantic slow-cookers steamed, and two slabs of salt pork were on the cutting board. Clearly frazzled about Sawyer’s tardiness, he yelled, “Quit gawkin’ and get to work.”

“Get that bacon sliced,” said the cook.

“Uh, okay. Where are the knives?” said Sawyer.

The cook turned and glared at him. “Don’t you know nothin’ boy? The slicer is on that counter over there. Plain sight.”

“Uh, uh…can you show me how to use it?”

Fire shot out of the cook’s eyes. To the tattooed man he said, “Whatcha bring me? A dimwit?”

The tattooed man grabbed Sawyer’s arm. “Here, I’ll show you once how to use this thing before I get outta here. Look sharp at what I do.”

He grabbed the pork, slammed it onto the slicer and showed Sawyer the technique. Sawyer was quick, he’d always been quick, so he hustled for thirty minutes, slicing first one slab and then the other filling trays with side pork. By the time he had sliced all the meat, he had filled three industrial sized trays with it.

“Bring those trays over here,” growled the cook.

Sawyer’s hands shook, a deep tremble, the kind that worried the bones. The kitchen was hot, but he was chilled and running on empty. He said, “Sir, I need to eat. Last night I was promised breakfast if I stayed to work the kitchen. I’m only here to pay for money owed on my room.”

The cook stopped grilling bacon. He knocked the side of the spatula he held in his hand against the grill, set it on the sideboard and rounded on him. “Firstly, ain’t nobody ‘round here calls me ‘Sir’. Name’s Hawg. Second, you think you done paid for that room?”

“Ten dollars. That’s all I owed.”

Hawg laughed, but it sounded more like a gruff bark.

It scared Sawyer.

“Ten whole dollars plus seven for breakfast, and you’re workin’ minimum wage, so I guess that’s your answer.”

“I was told breakfast was free.”

“Empty those buckets. There’s a grease bin next to the trash in the back.”

Hawg added, “You can have any extras that don’t get plated or that fall short of ‘excellence’.” He said the last word with a flair suggesting haute cuisine. “I will hold them for you.”

Sawyer’s trembling intensified. “I am sorry, but I need to eat.”

“You need to empty those buckets. Get going,” barked Hawg. He turned back to his grill. “Stupid kids. Where does he find them?” He looked over his shoulder at Sawyer. “I said, get moving!”

Begrudgingly, and too hungry to put up much of a fight, Sawyer grabbed a bucket in each hand and hefted them. Immediately, he set them down to get a better grip. He lifted again, took one step, felt the strain in his shoulders and back, and set them down again. He took three more steps, setting the buckets down after each to reposition his hold on the thin metal handles.

The back door banged open. A younger man almost as big as Hawg stepped in.

“Where the hell you been?” yelled Hawg.

“Had some business upstairs.”

“Take those buckets from him before I break yo’ head.”

“That’s such a nice thing to say.”

The big man at the grill came at him, but the kid puffed up like a grizzly and stood his ground. Hawg stood nose-to-nose with him and growled, “You be disappearin’ again, Snatcher, you’ll find yourself in a cage.”

Snatcher said, “You wish, Hawg. You plan to run this kitchen by yo’ self, Piggy?”

Hawg whacked him upside the head with his spatula. It left a mark on his cheek. “Go ahead. Sass me again. I already gots me a new boy.”

Snatcher laughed, though he covered his cheek with his massive hand. He grabbed an apron off the hook by the door and threw it over his head. He strode to Sawyer, who was a deer frozen in headlights, and took the buckets from him. Then he stomped out the door, easily swinging a bucket in each hand.

“What you standin’ there for. Wash those pans,” yelled the cook.

Startled out of his stupor, Sawyer gaped at him. Hawg raised the spatula.

Sawyer was elbow deep in the sink, washing pans, when Snatcher came back in. He leaned over Sawyer’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Mind yo’ business here. Hawg will watch out for you, but if Marchesi catches you slacking, one of them will beat you to a pulp. Believe me.”

Oh, Sawyer believed him after getting a glimpse of the kid they carried in last night. He didn’t know the particulars about Evan, but he did overhear that it was payback for a fight of some kind. He would have nightmares about his mangled face for years.

He eyed the big cook who turned his back on them while he fried platter bacon. Then he looked at the big kid standing beside him. “Who, who are you?”

“Rat Snatcher. But, you, Cutie, you can call me Rat. Anytime.” He winked.

Sawyer didn’t roll that way, but he felt like a stupid fourteen-year-old that had just been flattered by the star quarterback of the football team. He edged away from Rat, and as he did, Hawg handed him a platter of bacon, four runny eggs, and a generous, greasy stack of pancakes.

“Syrup’s on the counter over there,” said Hawg. He glared at Rat Snatcher. “Well, you plan on standin’ around?”

Rat stepped up to the sink. “Naw.” He grabbed a pan and started washing.

A Moment of Peace

Maureen Thompson pulled into her driveway and set the brakes. She clung to the wheel of her dusty car, hanging on with the intensity of someone who knew how one senseless act could rip away all that she had. Where was the family of the young Taiwanese teen who lay in cold storage while they investigated his death? Were they in this country? Did they go to work every morning acutely aware of his absence? Did they come home every evening hoping to see him, to be devastated all over again with hopes unrealized? Were they in Taiwan looking deep into the eyes of each person they met, searching for recognition that they belonged to a boy those persons may have seen during their travels? Had he left of his own free will, or had someone stolen him? Either way, he left a family behind that was now broken.

Her porch light was on, small, but welcoming. Her tabby sat on the front step preening. It looked up as if to say, “Come on in.”  She imagined her two dogs curled in sleep upstairs upon a child’s bed. The house itself was dark, except for a dull, flicking light pulsing against the curtains in the front room. Larry, her husband, had been on the road for weeks. He was probably sleeping in a cramped position on the couch in an attempt to wait up for her.

Brutal, replayed memories of seeing the Taiwanese teen thrown away like trash at the river’s edge receded into the background as she deliberately let go of the day. She opened her car door and carefully closed it so it clicked shut.

The tabby waltzed down the steps and shimmied around her legs as she reached down to stroke its fur before she climbed the steps.

She quietly closed the solid front door behind her, and without making a sound, slipped her keys into the glazed ceramic bowl on the entry table. She glanced into the living room where a wall of photos told the story of her life, starting with black and white childhood photos of her and her husband, colorful photos of their marriage and family milestones, culminating with current photos of each of her children. One of Larry’s slippers peeked over an arm of the stuffed leather couch. Otherwise, there was no way to tell that anyone was watching the soundless infomercial that played across the wide screen TV that flickered over the fireplace.

Maureen hung her coat on the coat rack next to the table, and unbuckled her gun. This she placed in a locked safe in a cupboard under the staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms. She slipped off her shoes and lined them up against the wall under the first step. It was one of her habits, in case there was an emergency call.

“Maureen?” Larry gruffled. She glanced his way. He was hanging onto the back of the couch, holding himself upright. He smiled. His wild unkempt mop flopped over one eye, and a scruffy shadow darkened his slack and sleep-dented cheeks. Anyone else would think he was someone who was still half asleep, but she saw fire sparkling in his eyes.

“It’s me, Baby. How long have you been out here?”

“Since the kids fell asleep. What time is it?”

“Late.” She sank into the couch next to him, pulled the scrunchie from her hair, and then vigorously scratched her scalp.

Larry smiled softly.

She grabbed his hand and leaned her head on the back cushion, grateful to be home.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” he said. “Tough night?”

She rolled her head to face him and smiled. “I’m sorry our reunion night was wrecked.”

“No worries. You know that.” He squeezed her hand reassuringly.

She did know that. Larry knew exactly what he’d signed up for when they married during her cadet training. Three kids later, he still waited for her patiently. “You have no idea how appreciated you are,” she said, as she leaned against him.

“Really? How appreciated am I?” He smiled roguishly.

“Very.” She turned her body toward him and pressed her breasts against his shoulder. Tentatively, she kissed the corner of his smile.

“I see how it is,” he purred. He ran his fingers through her thick long hair.

“Yeah?” She arched her neck. His touch was heaven.

He wrapped her in his arms.

She melted into his solid heat and kissed him again.

Gently, but with the determination of a man who knew exactly what he wanted, he pushed her onto the couch and crouched over her, careful that he didn’t pinch her under him or pull her hair in anyway.

“Kiss me already,” she said, as her body responded to his considerations.

His lips touched hers, primly at first, but when she arched up against him, he deepened their union. A fire flared as she felt her body swell in response. When he lowered himself against her, she had no recourse but to rut against him.

“That’s it,” he growled. “Bedroom. Now.” He jumped off her and ran up the stairs. Maureen shook her head, heart palpitating at the thought of getting her night with him. She jumped up and raced after him, unbuttoning her company shirt as she did so.

It had been so long since the last time they were together that they both climaxed within minutes. She did not care. He lay next to her, the love of her life, and she was safe and had another day with him and with her children.

She felt the pull of sleep. However, she needed to wash away the case. One boy was dead, another missing. She couldn’t let go of the idea that somehow the two cases were related, though she had no reason to think it.

She carefully climbed out of their bed and stepped into the bathroom. She intended to turn on the water for a hot bath, but she heard a tiny voice behind her.

“Mom,” her six-year-old said.

She pulled her robe together and tied the sash around her waist. Then she turned, and gathered him in her arms. She walked back to his bedroom, whispering, “I missed you, lovey pumpkin. Did you have a nice day with Daddy?”

“Yes. Where were you?”

She laid him on his bed. “At work.” She pulled his blankets around him and lifted his stuffed owl off the floor.

He grabbed the toy and cuddled it. “Did you catch the bad guy, Mom?”

“Not yet, Honey, but I will. You go back to sleep. I will see you in the morning.”

He shut his eyes and snuggled under his blankets.

“Good boy, Michael,” she said. She kissed him on the forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. Of all her children, her youngest looked the most like his father. She gazed at him until his breathing deepened. Then she checked on her other two. They were both sleeping soundly with dogs at their feet.

Deciding that taking a bath upstairs would be too disruptive, she went back to her bedroom to gather a set of pajamas and her toiletries. She took them to the downstairs bathroom where her only choice was to shower. It would be fine. The hot water was what she really wanted, as hot as she could stand it in order to wash away the terror of investigating dead and missing teens. Her family deserved at least that much from her.

 

Missing Boy

Standing in the middle of Evan Fischer’s bedroom, Jackson Tyler spoke softly into the recorder in his phone. “Either these sheets are brand new, or Evan doesn’t sleep here every night.” The bed was unmade, as he expected. What he did not expect was the absent traces of sweat and other teen aged boy emissions.

He dusted the bedside table and the lamp switch. There was one good print on the edge next to the bed. He pulled it. He opened the drawer. Inside was a half pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He stood up and sniffed the air. The room didn’t smell like stale smoke. He walked to the closet and smelled the clothes hanging there. They smelled fresh.

He lifted a dirty shirt off the floor. It smelled like boy, but not cigarettes. A teddy bear stuffed into a corner of the room under the window didn’t smell of smoke either. Whose cigarettes were these?

He looked out the only window at a featureless brick wall. It was  not screened. A nimble young man could sit on the wide ledge and drag a cigarette, but the sill was free of ash stain. He leaned out the window. The alleyway below was clear of smoker trash, although he supposed he wouldn’t see ash from two stories up. Evan Fischer didn’t smoke here if they were his.

He dusted the window’s sill and the latch on the window frame.

His phone buzzed. “Tyler.”

“It’s Maureen. Where are you?”

The flash of a match or lighter caught his eye. Was someone watching the window?

“Tyler, you there?”

“Yeah, sorry Maureen. Still at the Fischer apartment.” Whoever was at the end of the alley had moved away. Maybe someone had paused to light up.

“How long?”

“What?

“How long will you be there? I want to meet up to share notes.”

“I’m pulling prints from a window in the kid’s bedroom. Maybe ten minutes by the time I explain a BOLO to the grandmother.”

“Okay. I’m at the Ninth. Meet me there?”

“Got it.”

“Okay, out.” Maureen hung up.

Maureen’s voice sounded as tired as he felt. At some point, he would have to get some sleep before he sat with Tomi.

He pulled the prints and walked back to the small living room. Grandma Fischer was quietly sitting in her chair, reading from her Bible. When Jack stepped into the room, she shut the Book, set it on the oval table next to her, and looked at him expectantly.

Jack held up the bag with the cigarette pack and lighter. “Ms. Fischer, are these your grandson’s?”

“I’ve never seen those. He doesn’t smoke.”

“Do any of his friends?”

“I don’t know. I guess one of them could have left those here.”

Jack put the bag into the evidence kit attached to his belt. “I am going to initiate a BOLO. That means we will ask all of our officers to be looking for Evan.”

“Oh, thank goodness. I thought for sure you were going to tell me I had to wait twenty-four hours.”

“No.” He smiled. “That is never the case in real life. We always take a missing person’s report very seriously. I will call you to keep you informed about our investigation.”

“Thank you so much,” said Claudine Fischer.

Jack handed her his card. “Call if you think of anything else, no matter how trivial. Call the second he comes back, no matter the time.”

“You think he will? You think Evan will come home?”

“I’m hoping he lost track of time, overslept at a friend’s house, and will show up at work. He’ll be begging for forgiveness over dinner.”

“The Lord says we should all forgive each other.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

 

In the basement of the Ninth, Jack stood next to Maureen and stared at the body on the cold metal table. The coroner had confirmed that they were looking at a Taiwanese national, probably transported specifically to fight. These particular boys had the reputation of being fierce and unbeatable. They were worth a lot of money on the market. If the build on this one was an indication of his prowess, someone had lost a fortune.

The bright light above him outlined each bruise that littered his torso, arms, and legs. His colorful injuries on his battle-crushed face were surreal, almost fluid, like the melting watches in a Salvador Dali painting.

As he calculated the type of strike it would take to create the particularly nasty bruise on his right cheek, a wave of dizziness hit Jack as a vision obliterated reality. Another boy’s face superimposed over the disfigured face at which he was staring. A sweet face, asleep on a pillow…

…dark colored, softly curled hair. Evan. His face looked as battle scarred as the young Taiwanese on the slab.

Jack couldn’t breathe. Maureen was instantly by his side, rubbing his back. “Blow it out, Jack. Just blow and relax.” She rubbed harder.

Jack understood her orders, but he had trouble making his body comply. He pursed his lips and blew. Suddenly he gasped, inhaled a gallon of air, and bent over, panting.

“For Heaven’s sake, you’re not going to throw up, are you?” said Maureen.

“Oh, my god,” he mumbled. “No.”

“Then what happened?”

“I think Evan’s been fighting.”

“A vision?” she said.

Jack shook his head. “Maybe I am tired and projecting my fears. I saw a boy, Evan’s face, uhn.”

Maureen patted his back. “Just breathe. Is this what Tomi deals with?”

“Unfortunately,” said Jack, grimacing. Through whose eyes was he seeing this? “If I am tripping out again, and actually seeing Evan, he was asleep, not dead.”

“Thank God,” said Maureen.

“It’s not usually God I attribute this to,” Jack mumbled. He shook his arms. “It feels like my arms and legs weigh a thousand pounds each. I am so tired.” He stretched his eyes open, trying to make sense of the multi-sensory vision.

Maureen turned to the tech. “I think we’re done here for now.”

He nodded and covered the body.

To Jack she said, “Let’s grab something from the vending machine and find a place to talk a few minutes.”

 

Maureen and Jack sat at a small table in the break room.

Jack said, “One more thing before we wrap this up. It may be related, it may not, but a group of street kids was creating a ruckus in front of the building when I arrived. The tenants were yelling at them to shut up and go home. They may have been practicing mixed martial arts. I counted five boys, three girls. Kind of hoped the missing kid was one of them, but that was before I talked to Ms. Fischer. When they saw me, they all ran, except for a bear of a kid named Phillip. Calls himself “Rat Snatcher.”

Maureen huffed. “Rat Snatcher. Sounds obscene.”

“Yeah.” Jack chuckled.

“You think we should check into him?”

“I do.”

“I’ll contact Balmario.”

“He’s back to work so soon?”

“Same as you. As needed. What are your plans for today?”

“Sleep, for one thing. I want to sit with Tom for a while.”

She said, “I need some sleep. Need to make amends with Larry.”

“Geez. That’s so hard,” said Jack, thinking about how his work affected his marriage that dissolved so long ago. “I think I should follow up at the Walgreens where Evan Fischer works. They may know more about his social life than his grandmother does.”

“Fair enough. Let’s call it quits for tonight,” said Maureen.

“Excellent. I’ll check in tomorrow.”

“Goodnight, Jack.”

He rapped his knuckles on the table twice as he stood. “Goodnight, Maureen.” Then he turned and strode out the door.

 

Predator

 A boy slung his backpack over one shoulder and reached for his jacket. As he did, a beefy man shoved past him, knocking him face forward onto the bench. He stopped his fall, one hand on the back of the bench, the other on the seat.

“Sorry,” grunted the man.

The boy grabbed his jacket, draped it over his shoulder, and followed him to the front of the Greyhound.

“Better put that on,” the bus driver said to him. “Detroit gets pretty chilly this time of year.”

The man turned on the steps and said, “Better listen to him. Feels like a refrigerator out here.”

He stopped, set his backpack on the seat behind the driver, and put on his letter jacket, blazoned in green and gold, the colors of his high school. No one here would recognize them. He’d sat thirty-five butt-numbing hours to get away.

When he stepped out of the bus, the driver followed him. “Hey, kid. The phone is over there.” He nodded to a lit booth on the west wall of the small depot.

“Yeah, okay. Thanks,” he said, but he had no one to call and nowhere to go. He looked at the lights of Downtown Detroit reflected on the water. “How many miles?” he said.

The driver grimaced. “To the downtown area? About five. Best call someone to pick you up.”

“Uh…okay, thanks.”

The boy walked toward the booth as the driver climbed into a parked vehicle and drove away. As soon as his car was around a corner, the boy set his sights on the lights of Downtown Detroit. He blew on his chilled fingers. Five miles wasn’t that far. He was a fast walker. He blew on his fingers again and stuffed them into his armpits. Walking would warm him.

 

Charlie Marchesi reverently polished the counter in his bar. He’d long since removed every fingerprint and smudge left by the evening patrons, but he needed time to think. One of his studs had worked a rival’s territory today and a brutal beating was his payment. The kid was useless until his face healed. Charlie’s loss amounted to $5,500 with medical bills and lost revenue. He loved this bar with its rich ambiance of masculinity, but it would not cover the loss. What he needed was another experienced stud because the rest of the colts in his stable were too green to make that kind of money.

He tapped the warm wood and glanced around his man cave. It was time to lock up. He glanced at the back wall with pictures of his kids, wayfarers that had stumbled in looking for a way out of whatever they were running from. He flicked off the “Open” light in the big picture window that framed the corner across the street. The rain had stopped and the pavement glistened with diamonds.

A young man stepped into the halo of the street lamp, illuminated as if spotlights had just turned on over center stage. He was tall and stood with strength, even though Charlie could tell by the set of his shoulders that he was shirking from his current situation. His dark hair and arched eyebrows stood out against his pale skin. The scruff of his beard outlined a strong jaw. He looked the part of a young god unsure of where he was, or what he was about.

Had serendipity knocked on his door? “Come this way, mister,” he said. “I have time for one more.”  He flicked the light on again and draped the polishing chamois over his shoulder while walking closer to the window to get a better look at him. “Come on. It’s warm in here. Get out of the cold.”

As if he heard Charlie’s words, he turned and looked at the glowing sign in Charlie’s dark window. His eyes were wide-set, though from this distance Charlie couldn’t read them. He could only read the man’s body movements, and something about the way he adjusted the pack on his shoulders and the garish green and gold jacket said ‘mature teenager’.

Serendipity rose, a questing snake peering over tall grass. The youngster just needed to come in. That’s all. Charlie would wrap him with something beneficial to both of them. “Come on, it’s open. There isn’t anything else. I bet you just got off the bus, didn’t you.”

The young man resettled his pack upon his shoulders, flipped up the collar on his jacket and strolled across the street toward Marchesi’s Bar and Grill.

Charlie moved to the far end of the counter where it was dark, becoming a simple barkeep cleaning up for the evening. The bell over the door tinkled as the young man walked in. Bold as brass he sat at the counter. It was a move calculated to feign maturity and hide the fact that the boy couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen.

Charlie’s breath hitched. God, he was beautiful. He could hardly wait to hear the tale this one was going to spin. He approached. “How can I help you?”

 “Something hot,” said the young man, as if he owned the world.

Charlie nodded. He grabbed a white, ceramic mug from shelving under a simple drip coffee maker and filled it. The whole time he did so, he studied the youth.

Perhaps noticing his scrutiny, the boy frowned and hunched his shoulders, turning in on himself.  

“Cream?” said Charlie.

The boy glanced at him. “Sure.” Then, he remembered to say, “Thanks.”

Charlie was generous with the cream. “Kind of late for you to be out and about all alone.”

Guilt flashed across the boy’s beautiful features. “Got off the bus about twenty minutes ago.” His voice had dropped into a full bass rumble, probably because he was tired.

Charlie chuckled. He liked the brassy attitude of this one. “Where’re you from?” he said.

“Stockton. Stockton, California,” said the young man.

Never been,” said Charlie.

“You wouldn’t like it,” said the boy.

“What brings you to Detroit?”

It was just small talk, no need to rush this. If Charlie was reading this right, the boy had nowhere to go, or nowhere he wanted to go. A boy like this could easily end up on the street and be picked up by someone else. Charlie had never lost a gold mine sitting at his counter, and he wouldn’t tonight.

The boy took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders.

Carefully keeping his voice warm and considerate, Charlie pressed. “You didn’t answer my question. Detroit’s not a place people come to for pleasure. You must have some business here?”

“Just like everybody else,” said the young man. He sipped the coffee, gazing toward the pictures behind the bar. A dip of sadness settled on his mouth for a second.

Charlie said, “Can I help you find someone?”

“No,” said the young man, a little too harshly. He squirmed in his seat. A lie then, there was someone here.

“So you do have a place to go tonight,” said Charlie.

“Not yet,” said the boy, shifting his defiant gaze toward him.

Not willing to give up, Charlie said, “It’s past midnight. It’ll be hard to find a place around here, and folks aren’t going to lease to a minor anyway.”

If looks could kill, the boy’s expression would have dropped him to the ground. Wow. Keeping this one engaged was imperative. Fresh meat like this would attract all kinds of predators.

The young man folded his arms on the counter and leaned into them. He turned to Charlie and said, “Why would you assume I am a minor?” 

Charlie sighed. How many times had he seen this now? He glanced at the pictures on the wall across from them, his stable of young, lost children that grew up under his tutelage, learned the ways of the street, and lived to tell about it. “Seen a lot of runaways come through here. I guess you look the part.”

“There’s a part?” said the boy. His voice raised three notches as he lifted the cooling cup of coffee to warm his hands.

Cold and scared, that’s what Charlie saw. He chuckled and said, “Name’s Charles. Most people call me Charlie. Charlie Marchesi. I have a room in the back. Forty dollars a night.”

“How much for the coffee?” said the boy.

So, he had no money either. Charlie admired the bravado. What did it take to leap into the world with nothing, hoping that it would take care of you? It took a keen mind and a quick wit. Most of these kids didn’t have it. They were scared and lonely, and he took them in and made something out of all that. This kid, though, was different. Charlie pushed a little more. “Coffee is on the house with the let of the room.”

The boy looked him right in the eye. “I don’t have the cash for the room. How much do I owe for this?” He lifted the cup and took another sip.

Tough guy, thought Charlie. He said, “Two-twenty five with a free refill.”

The boy pulled a ten and handed it to Marchesi.

Charlie hesitated. Was he going to let this one walk?

The boy insisted, slapping the ten onto the counter and pushing it toward him.

“Tell you what,” said Charlie. “Put down what you have for the room and you can work for the rest in the morning. It’s a rush here, and I can use someone to bus tables and wash dishes. Beats an alleyway somewhere. Especially this time of year.” He glanced outside.

The kid turned and stared out the window.

Why was he hesitating? Just take it. It’s cold outside, and I am offering a room.

The boy continued to stare.

It was about four miles to Downtown. If the kid walked briskly, he could probably make it in an hour, but there was no guarantee he’d find a warm place to sleep, and he’d run the risk of getting snatched by one of his competitors. Charlie could not have that. He said, “I am offering a room, and a way to pay for it.”

The boy looked down. “I’ll think about it.”

Charlie Marchesi tapped his pointer finger on the counter, twice. “Working the morning kitchen will get you breakfast on the house. For tomorrow, anyway.”

“Okay. Maybe I’ll take it.”

There was no maybe about it. Charlie had found his replacement. He slapped the counter and said, “Smart man.”

He grabbed the coffee and cream. A little refill should cinch the deal. The boy smiled as Charlie poured warm coffee into his mug. Yep, he’d found his replacement.

Chapter 2 – First Impressions

Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler reached for his trench coat. The floor beneath him lurched, as if he was on a bus as a driver locked the brakes. He then fell forward, as if someone jostled him trying to get off it. He caught himself, hands on the sill of his closet, and froze.

The vision coalesced. He was in a long dark corridor lined with benches and windows.

“God, I’m tired,” he said as he rubbed his eyes.

Again, he reached for his trench coat, but instead, grabbed a green and gold letter jacket, the kind a teenager wore.

“Not real. Not real.” He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his hand was on his trench.

When he turned, he was on a bus.

“What the…is this a school bus? A Greyhound?” Jack shook his head. He didn’t have time for this. A child was missing. Yes, he needed distraction from worrying about Tomi, but not the distraction of a vision.

He put on his coat, grabbed his phone and keys, and stepped into the hall. A frizzle of anxiety clenched his muscles. “Not now, not now, not now,” he chanted as he locked his door.

With his mind partly on the job, partly at the hospital, and partly on the vision, he jogged down five stories of stairs to the foyer of his apartment building. Each step nudged his mind toward reality. A missing child always sent everyone’s heart into their throats, and Jack was no different. Time was paramount. Each minute that ticked by lessened the chance of recovery. He left the building at a run and kept his speed the first two blocks north. He slowed his pace to turn east and to jump two puddles. His heart rate was up, and he felt more grounded to the task in hand.

On the far corner in front of his destination, the light was low, emanating from one source – a yellow bug light over the door of the building. Sleepy residents leaned out of their darkened windows, yelling, “Shut up,” and, “Go home,” at a crowd of punks seemingly unbothered by misty, damp air, who jostled each other in mock martial arts posturing. He counted five males and three females. The youths’ movements were just uncoordinated enough to indicate that it was the end of a revel, not the start.

He stopped about forty yards from them to pull his credentials and check the security strap on the gun hidden under his jacket. Revelers were unpredictable, and it was unclear if he was seeing exhaustion, drunkenness, or a group high on something. Without backup, and with as much bravado as he could muster, he approached them. “Inspector Tyler, Detroit PD.”

One female looked up and ran. Alerted by her reaction, the rest followed like a flock of crows. A ninth person hiding in the shadows stepped into the yellow light. The man, puffed up like a threatening bear, clenched his fists and faced Jack. Jack was tall; this man was taller by at least two inches. His shoulders were broader by half.

“What the fuck do you want, pig?” he said. A momentary gleam flashed in his eyes that said, ‘I know you.’

It seemed like ages since Jack had walked the neighborhood, at least three since he’d played basketball in a nearby gym. Had they had a previous encounter? He zipped through his mental catalog of remembered faces, but could not find this man in it. Rattled, Jack replied with authority, “Excuse me. I need to talk to a lady in that building behind you.”

The kid swaggered closer to Jack. “You ain’t got no business with anyone here,” he growled.

“Look man,” said Jack, flashing his credentials with one hand, while holding his other up in a peace offering as he also closed the distance between them. “I didn’t make the call. There is a distraught mother in there worried about her kid. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“You see a kid, here?” he snarled.

Just one, thought Jack, close enough to see that the man was barely in his twenties, twenty-five at most. “Look, I have no problem with you; I just want to talk to the worried mom.”

The kid backed down a notch.

“We good?” said Jack.

“Phillip, you let that po-leese by, you hear?” said a woman from the second story.

“Ain’t Phillip no more. Folks ‘round here calls me Rat Snatcher,” he yelled at her.

“Rat Snatcher.” She belly laughed. “I don’t give no nevermind ‘bout that. You let that officer up here, you hear me, Phillip?”

The bear of a kid cut his sleeve and shoved his fist toward Jack. Then he turned and swaggered back into the shadows.

“Your mother too, buddy,” Jack muttered as he ran up the stairs to the door of the building. He could feel Rat Snatcher’s acute stare hot against his back, but did not turn to confirm it.

The distraught caller was waiting at the door for him, coincidentally the same woman who yelled at the bear named Phillip. She had been crying. Her soft, round body trembled, as would anyone’s who was missing a child.

Jack approached her. “Ma’am,” he said. “Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler, Detroit Police Department. I understand you called about a missing child?”

She nodded affirmatively.

“Claudine. Claudine Fischer. Folks around here call me Grandma Fischer.”

“Ms. Fischer,” Jack said, “can we step inside and talk about it?”

She opened her door, and moved to the side to allow him entrance. As Jack entered, she said, “My grandson, Evan. He didn’t come home tonight after work.”

“Sit. Tell me about it.”

When she shuffled toward her easy chair, it was obvious she had bad hips. Jack reached out to help her. Then he sat on a love seat across from her.

She had furnished the living room humbly, but it was tidy. Softly colored crocheted throws hung on the backs of both small couches, and she had draped another over the worn, gray easy chair in which she sat. The table and shelf surfaces looked dusted. There were a few books, which for some reason surprised him, and an open Bible on an oval occasional table near the chair, which didn’t.

To his right, the kitchen dishes had been cleared and washed, and the food put away, except for one covered microwave tray on the clean counter. “You saved dinner for him?”

“Just like I have every night for the past two years.”

Jack made a note of that. “Where does Evan work?”

“He works at Walgreens.”

“The one in this neighborhood?”

“Yes. I called them because he didn’t answer his go-phone. They said he’d left work at the usual time.”

“So, we know he was at work. What are his usual hours?”

“It varies. Tonight he was off by six.”

“Are his hours the same for tomorrow?”

She pulled a piece of paper from the Bible that lay open next to her elbow. “Same.”

“Can I have that a moment?”

She gave Jack the slip of paper.

He used his phone to snap a photo of Evan’s schedule and then handed the paper back to her.

“What is your grandson’s last name?”

“Fischer.”

“Just like yours.”

“Yessir, my daughter’s kid. She’s a drug addict, out there on the streets somewhere. Evan has been in my custody for his whole life.”

“Where is Evan’s father?”

“Ain’t got no father. That scumbag dragged my daughter to the devil and left her with a bun in the oven. I pray that Evan never finds him.”

“I understand, but I still need a name.” In his experience, sometimes kids went missing trying to find an estranged parent.

“Conti,” she spat.

A sliver of disquiet pricked him. The only ‘Conti’ he knew was a street boss that was no longer part of the Mafia scene. Rumor was he was in witness protection. Most cops thought he was probably at the bottom of the river. He wondered if the boy’s father was one and the same. Conti was a man best left alone. He fervently hoped Evan wasn’t looking for him.

“Does he have a girlfriend, any friends he hangs with, friends he could have gone somewhere with?”

“Well, I suppose he does, but he always comes home.”

“Like clockwork,” he said.

When she nodded, her lip trembled slightly.

Jack placed a comforting hand on her arm. “He’s how old?”

“He’ll be twenty next month.”

Jack’s phone buzzed. “Tyler,” he answered.

“Jack, it’s Maureen. I’m sending you a photo.”

He held the phone in his hand as he continued his inquiry. “Ms. Fischer, do you have any photos of your grandson?”

Ms. Fischer pointed to a collection of photos on the counter between the kitchen and living room next to an old-style dial-up telephone. He walked over to the collection. Claudine directed him to the latest photo, which he captured on his cell. His phone buzzed again, a photo from Maureen’s investigation.

Jack enlarged it as best he could. To him, the mangled face didn’t read ‘nineteen-year-old boy,’ but it was hard to tell from the image on his phone. The hair was dark, as was Evan’s, but the texture looked different. The victim’s hair was straight and each strand seemed thick, somewhat like Tomi’s hair, except it was matted close to his head. Evan’s hair curled, less so as he aged in subsequent pictures; nevertheless, a hint of softness was evident. He felt a tiny sliver of hope that Maureen’s victim wasn’t his boy.

“Is everything all right?” Claudine Fischer asked with a hint of fear behind her words.

“Yes. My partner is on another case and sent me some information.”

“Oh, I hope everything is all right,” she said, wringing her hands.

Jack smiled. “Can I see Evan’s room?”

“Of course. It is at the end of the hallway, past the bathroom.”

Small nightlights near the floor lit the hallway and the opened rooms off it. Evan’s room was closed. Jack quietly opened the door and flicked on the light.

His heart fell to the floor.

To the left of the door, amid the typical teenage chaos, was a collection of mixed martial arts magazines.

Was there a link to his and Maureen’s cases after all?

Numbed and heartsick, he snapped pictures. It would take a long time to sift through the flotsam in this room. It was best that he get started. The first thing he stepped on was a red and white school jacket. Not the colors in his vision, but when he picked it up, it looked similar. Perhaps this kid was on a bus.

One could only hope.

Chapter 1- It Never Ends

Lordy, she hated night calls. It damn near killed her to lose moments with Larry on a night when he was home. Her kids had gone to sleep easily, and they had a stretch to themselves after a long three weeks. The tingle in her limbs slowly and regrettably subsided as she sat behind the wheel of her road-stained Toyota Corolla, peering through the breath-fogged window at the group of four young officers, three men and one woman, who she sent to secure the crime scene at the river’s edge.

They had finished cordoning off the area and now huddled together, a miserable lump of humanity trying to stay warm in the cold of the night. At their feet lay cold death, hidden under a shroud with which they thankfully covered it. As her own warm breath created blossoms on her side window that unfolded then quickly faded with each inhale, they blew into their hands to warm them as they waited for her to set foot on scene.

Maureen Thompson had worked her way through the ranks to become Chief Inspector of Detroit’s 12th Precinct. She wasn’t normally on call at night, but the rest of her senior staff was reeling after the apprehension of a killer dubbed ‘The Vampire.’ Her own partner lay in the hospital, on her way to recovery. Senior Inspector Jackson Tyler sat by the bedside of his partner, Tomio Dubanowski, while he fought for his life. The entire company was mourning the death of one of their own. The killer was now behind bars for the rest of his life, but life out here droned on, and another victim, another criminal’s ruin, lay at the river’s edge. Sweet Jesus, it never ended.

She braced for the blast of cold that would hit her as she opened the door. It did not disappoint. The icy ground crunched beneath her feet as she descended the incline toward the river. Without a doubt, the water’s edge was the worst place to find a body. Thankfully, the blast of frigid air that hit her didn’t reek of dead fish this time of year. Her officers came to attention as she approached.

The body was on top of the rocky shore right at the edge of the water line. Feet poked out from under the shroud, and the river’s waves gently caressed them. It was a weird juxtaposition. The body was face down, unless she was looking at horrendously mangled legs. Markers had been placed next to shoe prints that didn’t belong to her officers, and her people had set down mats of cardboard next to the body as best they could on top of the rocks.

“The scene looks well secured,” she said. It never hurt to pat their backs.

“Yes, sir,” said one of the young men. Another stepped up behind him and laid a comforting hand upon his shoulder. No doubt, the first had upchucked after seeing a murder victim for the first time. What were they looking at here?

Her phone buzzed. “Chief Thompson.”

“Dispatch. Coroner ETA, about two minutes. Over.”

“Thank you. Out.” She stuck the phone back into her coat pocket. Then she squatted next to the body and gently lifted the shroud. The black hair, though short, was long enough to mat against the skull on the back of the head. She used a penlight to check for blood. It appeared to be mud and leaf matter.

“Was this body face-down when you found it?”

“Yes, sir,” said the young woman, who stared at the river when a fish splashed heavily back into it after jumping.

The skeletal build of the body, the short hair and heavy muscling indicated male, but until the coroner flipped him, she wouldn’t know for sure.

The coroner’s van pulled in behind Maureen’s Corolla. A short, older, and gray-haired woman slid out of the bus feet first, wearing muck boots under a business skirt, covered by her white lab coat. Maureen did not recognize her. However, the 12th had an on-call agreement with Precinct Nine. She was probably one of theirs.

The woman stumbled twice as she slid down the hill and fell on her bum. Maureen felt uneasy having to work with someone unfamiliar on a new scene, and watching the woman scramble to her feet did nothing to alleviate that. However, when the woman extended her hand, Maureen warmed to her gentle smile and compassionate eyes.

“Doctor Tamilin,” she said as they shook hands.

“Thanks for coming,” said Maureen. “I just got here myself. Nothing has been moved, the scene is secure.”

At first, the petite doctor seemed feeble and uncoordinated, but then she squatted with the ease of a twenty-something on the precarious rocks next to the body. Immediately all business, she began by temping the body, palpating an apparent knife wound to the back and surveying the brutal bruising on the ribs and over the exposed hips. “Do these look like kick marks to you?” she said.

Maureen squatted next to Dr. Tamilin. “Could be.”

One of the young officers chimed in, “Mixed martial arts.”

“Do you want to elaborate on that?” said Maureen, feeling her left eyebrow arch as she stared up at him.

“Yes, Sir. See that bruise on the forearm and the one behind the knee? Classic strike marks. The victim used a cross-body strike with the arm to push back his opponent, and he took a hit to the back of the knee when his opponent tried to knock him to the mat.”

“Do you fight?”

“Sometimes, Sir. When I can.”

She compartmentalized the information in case she needed it later.

“Am I allowed to direct your team?” Dr. Tamilin quietly asked Maureen.

“Of course.”

Dr. Tamilin seemed taller than she was when she stood and turned to the officers. “Let’s move this person away from the water’s edge. I’d like to roll him over on that tarp.” She pointed to the staging area that her second had set up behind them.

Two officers and her tech lifted the body. They laid it on the canvas and gently rolled it as they set it down. A young boy. He was lean, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, maybe nineteen.

The rocks under the body were clean, except for disturbed river debris. It was obvious he’d been killed elsewhere and dumped. Maureen said, “Was he in the river?”

“No, Sir. That is how we found him.”

Tamilin said, “There is no gross evidence he was ever in the water. I will check his lungs, of course.”

Maureen nodded.

The coroner continued, “From the looks of the wounds, here and here…,” she pointed to marks on the boy’s ankles and forearms, “it looks like he put up a hell of a fight.” Then she lifted each of his arms, one at a time, and examined his wrists. “He was bound, not long enough to form abrasions, but these indentations indicate he was bound.” She checked his ankles. “Yep. Probably rope, but I can’t be sure until I get him under the light.”

“Oh, god. Poor thing,” whispered Maureen. Her keen eyes perused the story on the boy’s face, arms, legs, and bare torso. Angry bruises stained his hands across the knuckles and at the base of his palms. His knees sported fresh bruises, as did his ankles and arches. He had a bent nose and a blackened eye, swollen lips. She wondered if he was missing teeth. There were contact bruises across his ribs. “Looks like he’s been in a martial arts fight to me,” she agreed as she stood.

Why would someone knife him? Was it to put him out of his misery, or had he pissed off someone? If captured and bound, was he held captive before or after the fight? His face was so smashed it was hard to ascertain his nationality, but young Taiwanese boys were smuggled into the country to fight. The color and texture of his hair suggested a tie to that traffic line. Her stomach became queasy as she thought about it.

An officer said, “We broke up a few bouts this week. Two of them licensed, one not.”

“Well, we can count on this bout being unlicensed,” she said in a low voice.

“Sir?”

“Nothing, nothing.” She nodded at the officer and felt her phone buzz again. She walked away to answer. “Chief Thompson.”

“This is Dispatch. We just received a 9948. Family has requested an officer on scene. Over.”

Maureen looked around. They weren’t finished here, and she wasn’t going to desert her people. “Ten four. Send me the information. Over.”

“Will do. Out.” Dispatch hung up. Ten seconds later, she was staring at the call log and an address with a name. Jack’s neighborhood. She wondered if he was home. She dialed.

It rang twice before he answered in an exhausted voice. “Hey Maureen.”

“Did I wake you?”

“No. Just got in.”

Alarmed by his reply, she said, “How is Tom?”

“He’s in the ICU. Had another surgery. They couldn’t control his pain, so they did an ultrasound and found a pocket of blood. Evidently, there was a slow bleeder they didn’t catch the first time.”

“Dammit, Jack. I am so sorry to hear that. I can call someone else.”

“No. I need the distraction. How can I help?”

“Seriously, I can call someone else.”

“Seriously, I am fine. What can I do?”

“I’m at a crime scene on the river, an apparent martial arts fight gone bad. I have rookies working tonight and I don’t want to send them on a missing persons call. It’s in your neighborhood.”

“I gotcha.”

“I’m sending the address. Thank you so much, Jack. I will be praying for Tom. Out.” Maureen clicked off and re-texted the message from dispatch. She owed Jack big time. He and Tom were instrumental in catching the Vampire Killer. What was one more favor?

As she turned back to her team, a news van skidded into a crooked position behind the Coroner’s van. She did not want the press to get hold of this just yet. The illegal fighting clubs were hard enough to break up, their locations found only by chance. Giving them a head start with limited information about this victim was not on her to-do list. With a heavy heart, she trudged up the bank to intercept the cameras and reporters.

It was going to be a long night.

Broken – Prologue

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I plan to post my new novel, BROKEN, chapter by chapter. This is the first installment. For those of you who follow this blog, this post first appeared as V is for Vagabond. Rewritten and edited, the gist of the story remains the same, Jonathan Tyler meets Sailboat Tim. Again for your perusal…enjoy.)

Prologue

Like Tom Sawyer chafing against the constraints of overprotective parenting and the idiocy of enforced school, Jonathan Tyler was running away again.

Six months ago, Rollo, his best and only true friend, reacted to Jonathan’s angst by offering his closet as a place to stay. It was a life raft. Jon jumped on, or rather in, never once considering the current of distress that would wash away the trusting love of his family. After four days of freedom, Rollo’s father caught him. Phillip had no problem soundly paddling his fourteen-year-old stepson. Then he grounded him, piling on a mountain of chores and a multitude of extracurricular activities as a deterrent for wayward thinking.

Jon was done with that, ready to throw in the towel and take a hike. He was fifteen, now, and old enough to make his own decisions.

He dumped his allowance onto his bedspread and counted it. A ticket to Sacramento would cost him the whole amount. It was stupid to go without extra money, but he could not stand another day trapped like a bird or toiling like a child laborer. Tomorrow he’d be on that bus.

He stuffed the money into the backpack hidden behind his clothes in the closet and leaped onto his bed, bouncing the mattress twice. He stared at the walls around him. It would be the last time he ever saw these things.

Most of the posters on his walls depicted mixed martial arts. On the top of his bookshelf were two trophies. One was for Most-Improved Fighter; the other was a first place team trophy from a state tournament. There were multiple pictures of him sparring in various events, his favorite taken when he and Phillip were sparring in the gym Phillip had assembled in the garage. He sighed. It didn’t matter.

Mind made up, he went to bed.

The next evening, he stood on the corner across from the bus station in Sacramento. The view before him was nothing like he envisioned: a vast parking lot behind him, industrial office buildings on the next block, and a few shops across the street, all closed for the night. On the next corner was a restaurant.

He was homeless now, and free. He could stay by the river, but there was a chilled breeze wafting off it. He could stay in the bus station. He took a step to cross the avenue to do just that, but stopped. That would definitely scream run-away to anyone keeping eyes on a stray kid. He stared at the lit depot, watching people come and go.

He was penniless, dumped into an urban wilderness…maybe, he hadn’t thought this through long enough. Shrugging off regret, he walked west until he came across a police station. He turned abruptly and walked away.

Night fell swiftly and with it the temperature. He put his head down and paced, two blocks, three blocks, four…he lost count. It felt like he’d walked an eternity, but ahead of him, a light signaled hope. A neon sign lit his way to a small apartment complex, like a green affirmation that he would be okay. A three-foot chain link fence surrounded the little group of buildings. Most were curtained and dark, but a soft night light shined in the larger building, which was, no doubt, the main lobby. He tried the doors.

Locked. Why did he expect anything else?

He explored until he found a sheltered wall between the lighted office building and a laundry facility. Hunkering between the two, he spent the first night fitfully shivering in the cold.

As the sun rose and before traffic picked up, he hopped back over the fence and walked south, toward Capital Mall. Along the way, he passed several restaurants before it dawned on him to check the back alleys for garbage bins. He might get lucky and find some fresh pickings.

A small pub across the street was open. People entered and left with regularity. It seemed a likely place to scrounge for leftovers. Furtively aware of his surroundings, he raced across the damp pavement and crept around the building to the alley behind it. Was it illegal to steal garbage? He’d heard it was, but he didn’t know if that law applied here. However, he sure didn’t want someone turning him in because he looked young and truant. To his delight, he found that the pub threw away their leftover food in a separate bin from the trash.

Beyond the street behind the pub, across an expanse of public parking, there was a small park. Had he found his stomping grounds? Maybe. The park would be the perfect place to stake out a bench or, at the very least, the base of a tree.

The back door latch jiggled.

He grabbed a couple of rolls and ran. Heart pounding, he raced across the parking area and sprinted into the park. There he feigned calm, hoping he looked as if he was taking a morning stroll to school.

He spent the morning daydreaming and following the arc of the sun to stay in its warmth. His bones and muscles softened and it felt good to sit and observe, with no responsibility, and no worries. He watched a couple, dressed as if they were homeless, raid the pub’s food dump. After observing that they came back a second time for the lunch hour, he surmised that perhaps the establishment put out food on purpose.

Testing his theory, he crept to the bin and found half of a roast beef sandwich and some carrot sticks. He laughed. This was a better lunch than any he got at school. When he got back to the park, he crept under some bushes.

The pub closed at midnight. There was a final dumping of leftovers in the bin. He ran to get his share, as other homeless people were bound to take advantage of it. He skidded to a stop when a hunched, older man, with very long, very gray hair and beard, wearing multiple layers of soiled clothes, stepped in front of him. He wore athletic socks over his hands and carried a walking stick. With the end of it, he hit the pavement in front of Jon’s toes.

Jon yelped and backed up.

The man glared at him.

“No, of course, you first,” said Jon, bowing slightly.

The man didn’t smile, nor did he stop glaring, but he nodded and reached into the bin. He pulled out a loaf of bread, some browned apple slices, and a couple of thick pieces of ham. He shoved these at Jon, who took them. Then he reached into the bin again and pulled out a half bottle of white wine.

In a whispery voice, he said, “Sometimes they leave it, sometimes they don’t.” Underneath the breathiness was a lilt. “Remember to be thankful.” He winked at Jon. “Now, where are you staying? Let’s go there to eat.” He grabbed the loaf of bread out of Jon’s hands.

A little panicky, Jon said, “Uh, sure. Over there in the park. I made a nest under some bushes.”

“Sounds like a picnic to me,” said the man.

Jon led the man to his shelter of sorts.

They sat down. The man took the rest of the food. He gave a sizable portion of the bread to Jon and evenly split the rest.

Jon said, “Are you sure?”

“I have all I need,” said the man, in his gravelly voice.

They ate in silence. Jon furtively watched the man as he ate. Old and thoughtful, he seemed happy while Jon struggled with his decision to leave a warm home and loving family. What kind of person did that? Could he live like this man?

“Why did you run?” said the man, as if he could read Jon’s mind.

“Who says I’m running?”

“What are you, fourteen, fifteen? You’re runnin’ from somethin’.”

“Maybe I am running toward something.”

The man laughed, a deep belly roar that shook his whole body. “Yeah. Well, I hope you find it. My name’s Tim. Folks call me Sailboat Tim.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“And yours is better?”

“I didn’t say that. It’s Jon, spelled J-O-N.”

“For Jonathan, like the Bible, gift of God. And so it is more important.”

“I-I-I only meant that I was curious about why they added the Sailboat to Tim,” said Jon.

“Guess folks likes to tease. I’ve always wanted a sailboat, talked about it a lot in the early days of this.” He swept his arm wide as if gathering the expanse of the park in his sweep.

Jon asked, “How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough to know this isn’t a good place to stay the night. Vigilantes come through and run people out of the park. We’re a safety hazard to the good folks that live in those houses and apartment buildings right over there.” He pointed to a beautifully landscaped two-story building with multiple terraces. Then he pointed to a block of well-appointed office buildings. “We might break in. One never knows about vagrant folks.”

“You’re just being facetious now, right?” said Jon.

“No.” Tim grimaced. “Come on. Finish eating. I know where we can sleep safely.”

They huddled together on the porch of an empty Victorian in the Oak Park region. Tim shared the only blanket he carried with him, a ratty, flea-filled wool of tatters and holes. He told Jon heartbreaking stories. Some gang banger knifed a crippled army vet while he slept under a tree in the park. The cops didn’t even investigate. A crazy old coot froze to death just a winter ago on the steps of the library downtown. Word was, he shouldn’t have been sleeping there. Tim, himself, had ended up in jail twice for raiding the garbage behind a Safeway for scraps of food. Who knew it was illegal to take food from a garbage bin behind a Safeway? Sailboat Tim had fond memories of the food he ate while he stayed in jail, though. And, he appreciated the warm cells, with sturdy cots and thick blankets. At least while he was in the slammer, he didn’t have to worry about getting knifed or “froze to death.”

Jon smiled.

Tim’s toothless grin was kind, and his eyes were gentle.

Before dawn, a clatter of footsteps on the porch of the house awakened them.

A helmeted policeman with a bat, grabbed him by the arm. Another grabbed Tim. Together, the policemen hauled them down the steps and hoisted them into the back of a waiting van where several other homeless people cowered on the benches. A young girl at the end was silently sobbing; the rest sat stoically, eyes averted, awaiting the trip to jail.

Jon whispered to Tim. “What now?”

“Now we sit in a cage until a lawyer secures our freedom. It will be okay. The food is great, the cots are firm, and the blankets are clean and warm. Oh, and the commode is clean. That’s a big plus. They gives us coffee if we want it.”

Jon must have looked horrified because Tim bumped his shoulder and said, “It’ll be okay. You’re the lucky one. They will call your parents. Then, you can go home where it’s safe and warm.”

Jon curled up on himself after that and hid his face.

As Tim said, the police sent Jon home. Jail would have been preferable to his parents’ house of strict rules, and scheduled time. Jon had acquired a yen for freedom that no amount of discomfort could alter. Third time’s a charm, he’d always heard.

It was time to plan his next adventure.