“Leaving Rock Bottom” by Robb T. White

If there was a bottom beneath where I stood in that March wind, I didn’t want to know it.

You hear about it happening to other people and you think it’ll never happen to you. You think: “I’ll never let myself fall that far that fast. I’m too smart, too self-aware, too—whatever.” Then one day, like me, you wake up and you realize it’s already happened.

If there was a bottom beneath where I stood in that March wind, I didn’t want to know it. Bad enough was waking up in an alley that smelled rubbery from the decomposing corpse of a cat. That desolate feeling was enough anguish for a lifetime, and it came without a wife, a house, a career, or friends. All gone. That Fifth Street alley was what I traded it all in for—that and a bindle of heroin with my last twenty bucks.

Two months earlier, I had had a career, wife, house and two SUV’s, my so-called brothers from the precinct, even a little cash in the credit union and savings account. Never mind that PTSD horseshit that TV shrinks give for reasons why cops eat their guns. I didn’t choose Vice because I was leery of getting my uniform dirty. Working Vice is working behind enemy lines, and when it’s good, it’s a full-on high by itself. I took that first shot of heroin in a weak moment, drinking in a bar and brooding about my partner throwing me under the bus that day when he was called in for an interrogation by Internal Affairs over accusations he was in the bag for Derrick Maybon, Irishtown’s biggest dealer.

Since that day and that incredible high, I drilled through our savings and checking accounts until Kelli tossed me out on my ear. It wasn’t long before I could do combinations back-to-back, smoke, snort, or shoot up anything available on the street, most of which was packaged and distributed through “Big D.’s network. That was two months and a million years ago.

My stomach burned. The stew I’d had at the mission shelter on 4th Street the night before was only good enough to put out the fire in my belly from that day. I was sick with the onset of withdrawal symptoms, half-starved, and I had to do something fast—or else that fire escape above the alley that led to the top was going to be my jumping-off party, my last goodbye, and I couldn’t think of anyone left to wave to on my way down to the asphalt.

The one public payphone that worked in this part of town was attached to a wall of a Dairy Mart. Before cell phones, local pimps and drug dealers manned it and gave anyone else the fisheye if you tried to use it. My declassé status, to use my wife’s words from the divorce proceedings, was confirmed when I resorted to it; cell service was a thing of the past. My drug binges forced Kelli to put all our shared accounts and uncontested goods under lock and key by court order.

Desperate, I put my last two quarters in the slot and dialed my brother-in-law’s number. Arnie was a desk sergeant at the precinct.

“Arnie, I need help.”

“Michael? Michael, is that you?”

“It’s me. I need help.”

“You need—what? Fuck you, you need help, you prick! You have some nerve calling me. You’re lucky I don’t—Ah, piss off, Mike! Don’t call this number again and leave my sister alone or I’ll come looking for you in that shithole where I hear you’re living and stomp the living shit out of you.”

When the scandal broke in the papers labeling me a dirty cop, thanks to Geno’s lying testimony at the grand jury, I was at my lowest—fired from the department, facing criminal charges (later dropped), and dealing with the discovery of Kelli’s adultery. All of it drove me to letting some street trash in a bar talk me into mainlining H. The only drugs I used up to that point were aspirin and a little weed, and that was Kelli’s idea to enhance our sex life. I found out she was enhancing her sex life with another detective from the precinct.

All junkies say nothing can ever measure up to that first hit. Yet they’ll keep chasing it. As a cop, I looked down on those people…. It was a bitter cud to chew to learn how easy it was.

All junkies say nothing can ever measure up to that first hit. Yet they’ll keep chasing it. As a cop, I looked down on those people, called them “scum,” and wondered how people could let themselves get to the point they were reduced to living off the streets, turning their flesh into skin and bones, walking around like zombies with body sores and vacant skull faces. It was a bitter cud to chew to learn how easy it was.

I was still holding the receiver in my hand when I was spun around and gut-punched. I doubled over and had my legs swept out from under me by someone behind me. My eyes watered, and I couldn’t see clearly but there were three of them. Bad news. All three early twenties, teens who had begun with selling weed and were recruited to put in work for Big Derrick. They did smash-and-grab jobs with stolen cars. We found their trashed ATM machines in empty lots all over the city. Young gangsters with street names like “Wrecking Ball” and “Crimewave”; the one who grabbed me was big enough to eat apples off my head. In my brief time as a denizen of Irishtown, I avoided these dangerous punks whenever I spotted them coming. Even tough Mary feared them; she told me they’ll shoot me just to see if the gun worked.

The big one who sucker-punched me jerked me to my feet and said how sorry he was, a “case of mistaken identity,” and brushed some of the grit from my clothes. Snickers, laughter from the two smaller ones. Then he bunched my shirt front tight under my chin, lifting me off my feet, and slammed me backwards into the wall.

“I take that back,” he growled. “I ain’t sorry at all. I see your rundown white-boy ass using my phone again without permission and I’ll break your fingers.”

The baby-faced teen hissed something to the alpha male: “Don’t take it there, bro, cop comin’ round the corner.”

He shoved me hard and I stumbled off, grateful to get away. The cruiser passed me. The look of scorn on the cop driving past said more than words. That face was mine looking at street trash just a couple of months ago. What’s the bible say? “For now we see in a mirror but dimly.”

Aimless, wandering the streets, I hunched into the chilly wind and tried to plan my next move. My bones ached inside my thin clothing. Kelli booted me out with just the clothes on my back and slapped a restraining order on me. The money I was able to grab on my way out the door went into my veins. Before she got a judge to lock down our property, I sold off everything I could to maintain my habit. I became a pariah to my friends; no one returned my calls. The guys at the station closed ranks against me even though Geno’s word was all they had. When I bumped into an old high-school classmate outside the Dollar General on Third Street two weeks back, he wrinkled his nose in disgust when I asked for a few bucks—“a small loan.” He knew I was lying through my teeth by then. I hadn’t shot up in eighteen hours and the withdrawal symptoms were kicking in hard.

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“I’m serious, Jerry. I need a few dollars to get a place to stay for the night.”

“Get help, Michael. You look like bad.”

He brushed past me heading to his car. I remembered Kelli and I had double-dated once with him and Rose, a dark-eyed girl from our class, who “gave tongue,” as we used to say, and wore thick sweaters to disguise her big bosom.

Twilight fell; soon the streetlights would come on. Spring was weeks away. I passed sewer grates wafting foul-smelling vapor through dirty clumps of snow. The hotel downtown had kicked me out for non-payment the day before and locked up my two suitcases. I had no place to sleep but that alley. I had a long hike back to Fifth and that alley I shared with a couple other homeless people. I hoped they left a few pieces of cardboard for me to shelter beneath.

The alley was behind a greasy spoon where discarded food was dumped. My stomach growled as I trudged down the broken sidewalks, thinking of locating some discarded fries in the dumpster. Self-disgust couldn’t overwhelm the pangs of hunger eating away my stomach lining.

Don’t go back there. The words seemed to well up from my subconscious. You’ll die a slower death, but you’ll die all the same.

A splash of color out of the corner of my eye jolted me to a dead stop—a life-sized poster in the window of a travel shop. Just a pretty woman in a black bikini lying on a beach. Turquoise waters, a creamy curl of wave, and bright blue skies above, all feet from her blanket where she lay. The photographer caught the swell of her hips and cleavage and reminded me of another hunger long-neglected because of my downward spiral. That image burned its way into my neocortex as I walked on, growing angrier at my fate. A dark seed was planted by that poster, one that seeped below my neocortex into my reptile brain.  

Don’t go back there. The words seemed to well up from my subconscious. You’ll die a slower death, but you’ll die all the same.

Without thinking, I’d made a different decision about where I planned to lay my head before much more time passed. I was not going out like this, not like some desperate junkie. Not like the street trash that you find melted beneath the gray snow when spring comes.

Gas and diesel fumes from passing traffic added a noxious plume to the landscape. One street down from Fifth was a corner tavern with a single neon sign flashing BEER into the gray dusk. I stared at it, entranced. I almost heard the crackling of neon gas in the tubing. I had my inspiration, my escape plan.

One question remained: Did I have the courage for it?  

A middle-aged, well-dressed man came out. His attire told me he wasn’t from the Jungle where unshaven men in beanies and skull caps are the norm. His fawn-colored coat was unbelted, exposing a white shirt covering an expanse of midriff partially covered by the two ends of a long scarf. The tweed bucket hat said he worked downtown, lived in the suburbs, a professional, somebody who didn’t belong here, a denizen of the skyscrapers slumming, somebody who had what I used to have.

Take it back. This time, the voice emanated from a deeper, reptilian part of my brain. I loped toward him, gathering speed as he headed for the lot behind the bar. Adrenalin jolted me as I tracked him with my eyes like a predator eyeing a limp. 

He fumbled for his key fob as I approached.

“I need money,” I said to his back. My voice quavered. This was it.

“Don’t we all, pal,” he replied, turning to see who accosted him. I was close enough that the wind brought his whisky breath to me. His half-smile, fueled by whatever he consumed inside the tavern, disappeared like smoke once his gaze took me in from head to toe—some street bum hitting him up for cash.

“I need money,” I repeated.

“Get a job.”

“I need money for a place to sleep.”

His brow knotted, a single wedge above his eyes, Neanderthal-like.

“I said get lost before I call the cops.”

Wary, unwilling to turn his back to me, he waited for me to go.

“I’m staying right here until you give me some money.”

“Hey, asshole, I’ve got nothing for you. Now fuck off—”

“I slept in an alley last night,” I said. “I didn’t get much sleep. It was filthy and it smelled bad.”

“Tough titty. Now fuck off.”

I kept on, unable to stop or control my own words, a man possessed by a force larger than himself. “See, this mental case gabbed all night to herself, an old man under a cardboard box coughed up his lungs. Next to him a junkie in withdrawal moaned and puked. You’re paying for my motel tonight.”

His bark of a laugh was clipped off; his eyes narrowed beneath that wedge of browline. Shifting his feet slightly, he set them like a boxer closing in.

I’m paying for your—What the fuck did you say?”

His bark of a laugh was clipped off; his eyes narrowed beneath that wedge of browline. Shifting his feet slightly, he set them like a boxer closing in. Up close, he was big.

“Give me the money now,” I said. “It’s getting late and I’m tired of asking.”

“I’ll give you something.”

“Just the money.”

He kicked me in the chest, and I flew backwards as if I were shot out of a gun. The second time I’d been on the ground in one day, and it didn’t feel good them either. Breathing through my mouth because of the pain, I staggered to my feet and stood in front of him.

“The mon—”

This time he hit me on the side of my jaw with his fist before I could say the word.

I didn’t go down this time. A curtain of red filmed over my eyes. I couldn’t breathe much less speak. Groggy, stumbling backward, I was blind for a second before my vision returned. I stepped toward him, my hands down at my sides, not threatening in any way but getting into his space all the same.

“Give . . . me . . . money.”

“You’re crazy!”

. . . the money. Now, please.”

I blew out a mist of blood from my mouth and a piece of tooth. Blood droplets hit the hem of his expensive camel-hair coat.

For a large man with a belly, he was agile as a cat. I was no streetfighter but I knew some tactics. If you work Vice in the Jungle, you better know a few moves. He didn’t waste time with posturing or the push-and-punch of two amateurs, a dumb tactic followed by grabbing the other’s jacket with a left hand to throw a punch with a right. But reaching for me with two hands was a common mistake. I slammed his arms inward so they were crossed. I didn’t throw a punch, but I stopped his aggression cold—and he knew it.

“I’ll break your fucking neck, you piece of shit.”

He growled the words, almost like a crazed lover, into my face. But I knew it was over right there and then.

“The money.”

“You . . . you’re insane!”

I smiled a goofy smile at him, waiting for his next move.

He threw a punch at my head but it was telegraphed from a block away. I avoided it easily but my knees felt weak. Hunger and withdrawal were about to shift the odds in his favor. I must have wobbled on my feet for a long, dizzy second because he was behind me with an arm bar across my neck. I had no strength left. I didn’t resist. The pressure cut off the blood flow to my brain like a switch flipped. He must have sensed it or else he feared the repercussions to his lifestyle—something changed and he let go of me.

I crumpled to the ground in a twisting motion. When I came to again, I heard the car start. His tires passed so close to my head I seemed to hear the rattle of grit below the chassis. Odd, I remember thinking, I wanted to stay there resting before attempting to get up.

When I was finally able to get up, it seemed no time had passed since his arm jammed against my windpipe. It wasn’t yet full dark; however, the street lights reflected a series of yellow cones of filthy snow banked against the edge of the parking lot. I shook with cold. My muscles were spasming. A movement at my feet caught my eye. Paper fluttering—not garbage. Money. Twenties. I picked each one up, slowly, aiming my hand at it like some kid in an arcade aiming the toy claw for the phony prize. Three of them. I looked around for more. The wind fluttered two more to a corner of the dumpster.

His conscience, the fee for my beating . . .

One motel was in walking distance, a familiar druggie hangout. I’d been there a couple times sharing rock or a blunt or even a fifth when I had money in my pocket and no one had drugs. The broken sign out front advertised X-rated movies, but the X had been obliterated by a rock or a bullet long ago.

The clerk barely looked at me. A short-eyed ex-con, he was used to his clientele by now. Into the dirty toilet, I vomited up a ropy string of yellow bile from an empty, bruised stomach.

But the stiff bed, wedge of mattress, and starchy sheets gave me the soundest sleep I’d had in what seemed like years.

No more going backwards, just ahead, all moral objections and obstacles be damned. The Jungle finally put its claws into me.

With a surplus of cash, I’d normally be outside by dawn chasing my next high. Not now. I needed food for strength. I’d buy a couple of aspirin from the greasy clerk. For the time being, tobacco would be my food and drug of choice.

After my trimming in that tavern parking lot, I was leaving rock bottom behind. No more going backwards, just ahead, all moral objections and obstacles be damned. The Jungle finally put its claws into me.

My clothes were grimy from the double decking and unwashed. Putting them back on after a hot shower took an act of will, and I planned a trip to the Salvation Army on my way to breakfast. They didn’t like us using their small lavatory to wash up or change but I was past worrying about anyone’s delicate sensibilities at this point.

The food problem was solved at Reynaldo’s Market near the underpass where I bought two hot dogs, cigarettes, a Bic, chips, candy bars and a couple energy drinks for later.

Mary Burke must have been watching from somewhere. She came right up to me as I left the store.

“Tricky Mickey.”

“Mary-Mary, quite contrary.”

Mary and I went back a long ways, long before I fell headfirst into a pile of heroin.

“What happened to your face?”

“I ran into a door.”

“Got a loosie for me?”

That fresh pack of smokes in my hand was as obvious as a dog’s balls. I slit the pack with a fingernail, tapped one out, and lit it for her.

“How’s life among the little people, big shot, now you see it from this side?”

The jibe stung. Half the freaks wandering around this part of the city glared at me with pure hatred once the word was out. Cops hassle junkies and pinch dealers, making it harder to score. That isn’t the formula for endearment between addicts and law enforcement.  

“Sorry, Mary, without all your teeth, you’re hard to understand.”

A spate of half-hearted cursing followed. Not the first time I’d had my failure thrown in my face.

I drew a lungful of smoke, winced from the pang of nausea that produced. “You going in, Mary?”

“Naw, I ain’t got money. I’m between jobs, as they say.”

“Gainfully unemployed like me.”

Her life was more pathetic than mine. Toothless between incisors thanks to meth mouth, she cadged loose change near the high rises and put all her cash into dope. She was one of Derrick’s many pairs of eyes and ears on the streets, always looking for an opportunity to ingratiate herself. In the mornings, she haunted Reynaldo’s hoping to catch someone willing to share a fix. Doping is like boxing, even in the big city, it’s a small world; everybody knows everybody whichever side of the dope fence you hang out. Like the baby gangbangers he used for lookouts and soldiers, she was used to sell Ecstasy and LSD to high-schoolers, “candy blunts,” the marijuana-filled cigars dipped in cough syrup. Derrick was responsible for every dosage of MDMA sold at raves, although he never went into the clubs himself, always shielded by his baby gunsels.

“Dee in, Mary?”

“He’s on the road, last I heard. Him and John-John. They don’t never go in the same car in case one gets stopped.”

Not exactly fresh news among the junkie herd: Derrick re-upping from his out-of-state supplier was everyday gossip when the needles were empty.

“Know when he’ll be back?”

“You askin’ a lot of questions. You forget which side you’re on now?”

“I remember every time I look into your pretty face.”

“Kiss my ass, you flannel-mouth, lying dog piece of shit.”

“Sticks and stones, Gummy. How’d you like to make an easy ten.”

“Huh, you plan on whipping it out right here? I ain’t that kind of girl.”

She was exactly that kind of girl.

“I need a lookout. Fifteen minutes.”

“Where?”

“Big D’s place.”

Without enough teeth, her laugh exposed her tonsils. “He find out you’re even thinkin’ about going up there, he’ll kill you, sure as God made little green apples.”

“Not if you don’t tell.”

Like a magician drawing a quarter from someone’s ear, I displayed the bill between the crease of two fingers and held it front of her eyes.

“Come on,” I said, “it’ll be quick.”

“His knife’ll be quick opening up your guts, fool.”

She stormed off as if the mere suggestion of being involved was too dangerous to be around. I counted on it. I’d set my hook.

Of the three high rises for the elderly and indigent, the oldest was set aside for the ones generally referred to in the papers as “no strangers to the police”: ex-cons, lowlifes, street hoods, and multitudes of single mothers breeding the next generation of criminals and thugs.

Derrick’s apartment was on the twelfth floor. He had a pleasant view of the city—that is, if you can call the industrial zone of warehouses and factories stretching from Five Points to the shipyard “nice.” You could practically see the clouds of acid rain forming outside the windows at that height. I’d been to his place once before in my other life. Derrick had the smarts of a Norwegian rat. He wouldn’t sell to me. His cop instincts were diamond-sharp. The guy I duped into bringing me up there suddenly disappeared. Word on the street was that he shared Jimmy Hoffa’s fate in some 55-gallon barrel in a dumping ground near the river.

Glancing over my shoulder at the bank of elevators, I worked the lock with my slim jim. You could bet a dollar to a donut every other apartment in the building had a dead bolt. Derrick could leave his door wide open and no one would dream of entering it. The man’s reputation for doing bodily harm was universally respected. I’d heard stories as a cop of his mayhem. Some achieved legendary status among the bad guys of the slum quarters dubbed “Irishtown” from the waves of immigrants who settled here in the 19th century to work the factories. Now it was called the Jungle, home of poor Blacks, Hispanics, newly arrived Chinese, and Puerto Ricans. Every block claimed by gangs and marked with graffiti. Being Vice for so long, I could read the symbols and scrawls as easily as traffic symbols. Taggers sprayed over their enemies’ symbols to the point you felt you were looking at a Jackson Pollock painting. The few “city goats,” poor white trash like Mary, inhabiting these blocks were mostly junkies and street prostitutes, scrappers who’d rip the copper tubing out of buildings at the risk of being blown to smithereens.   

In the movies, the dope dealer is always sitting at a table with his scales, baggies, automatic weapons, and product in front of him when the cops burst through the door. Derrick slept here, held sex parties here but kept stash houses in abandoned buildings between Grantmoor and Greene Streets, where the worst of the city’s abandoned houses and buildings stood. The city had plans to renovate and placed a big sign in front of the vacant lots promising “new, affordable housing,” which would happen around the same time the pigs ate my brother. The sign was pocked with bullet holes and obscenities. A few single mothers’ apartments still existed on the fringes of this blighted expanse in the projects where Derrick sold some of his product to people who had hit absolute rock bottom. He had eyes everywhere.

Once inside, I headed for the back bedroom and began pulling out drawers like some drug-addled burglar. I was already on CCTV the second I crossed the lobby floor to the elevators, so this was all for show—the “Rip-Off Derrick Show.”

Empty beer bottles on the sink, a half-empty bottle of Courvoisier XO Cognac on the counter. Three guns under the mattress: a Commanche .45, a .357 Python, and a Colt .22. Long guns in the closet including a pump shotgun and a Bushmaster with a scope. Boxes of Casull rounds, Glaser Safety Slugs, frangible bullets that’ll blow off an arm if you nick someone but won’t penetrate your neighbor’s wall, and a dozen boxes of hollow points. Typical moron gangsters, they all pack as though they’re planning to take down Fort Knox on Tuesday.

Most people who wipe down a gun forget to wipe the bullets. The gases will destroy most prints when fired but an unspent, chambered round is a calling card for forensics.

I found a wad of money and three burner phones in the night table drawer and stuffed the cash inside my jacket. I found one of Derrick’s extra pieces, one he must have wanted for some special purpose or else he’d never have taken the precaution of putting the Glock inside a cellophane freezer bag and putting it into the toilet tank. Until that moment, if he’d come through his door just then, all I had was a piece of rebar tucked inside my jacket. I slipped the Glock into the back of my pants. I wasn’t concerned about smudging Derrick’s prints, if he’d handled it, because most people who wipe down a gun forget to wipe the bullets. The gases will destroy most prints when fired but an unspent, chambered round is a calling card for forensics.

At the street corner, I spotted Mary. Even better, she’d go out of her way to snitch to Derrick. I knew from the past, before meth ravaged her face, Derrick used Mary for some of his sex parties where she serviced his guests. She cursed his name, but she’d make a beeline to him with the news of my B & E job for whatever reward he’d hand out. Mary knew something about playing both sides of the fence, too. I knew she was a confidential informant. My ex-partner Gino used her. He bragged like a monkey-mouth convict at the precinct for the quality of Mary’s information and her “slurpy blowjobs.”

She shuffled off, pretending not to notice me. How long before Mary ratted me out? My guess was less than a day, nightfall latest, once Derrick discovered the missing cash and weapon. Mary would confirm what the camera showed.

But the gun was secured and the first part of the plan completed. The next part would be harder than breaking into a drug dealer’s empty apartment. But I’d set the clock ticking and there was no going back, as they say.

First things first: I needed a blast or I’d be useless. Try to find a cop when you need one, they also say. No one says that about dope slingers; they’re everywhere you look.

The alley where I’d slept was a long way off. The wind was an icy whip funneled through tall buildings that ambushed you at every corner. But safety first. Derrick knew where all the junkies in his hood roamed after they scored. I’d be as vulnerable as a hibernating hedgehog in a burrow to a rampaging fox if I stayed around my regular stomping grounds.

You could say that stealing a violent dope dealer’s Glock wasn’t the smartest thing I did that day, but you’d be wrong. A wounded dog is a dangerous dog. I was wounded, not so much physically despite the weeks of sleeping rough and living on the edge and what it had done to my body and mind. You can’t make good decisions if you center everything around getting money to get high and then getting back out there, boosting from discount stores, or taking ripped siding and pop cans to the salvage yard before the symptoms kick in and your craving is all you know. Being a junkie is hard work. I once read about these South American weasels that jump on a parrot’s back and go for a ride over the tropical forest canopy—only the weasel isn’t joyriding; he’s waiting for the parrot to get exhausted and land. Then he’ll eat the bird.

That was what my addiction was doing to me. This time, I was going to be the weasel.

My view from the fire escape was perfect. I saw every move and twitch, although I couldn’t hear them talking if they did say anything. The woman who talked all night was gone….

Less time than I thought it would take to find me. The three baby gangsters, all in uniform coming down the alley in that we-cool gangster style. Three sets of dark hoodies covering their heads, one with arms akimbo meaning he already had one hand on his weapon inside his pants. Approaching softly amid the rubble careful not to make much noise. When a cat darted out from a pile of rubble halfway down, I caught the glint of a weapon being drawn from the one in front.

My view from the fire escape was perfect. I saw every move and twitch, although I couldn’t hear them talking if they did say anything. The woman who talked all night was gone; she left an hour ago with another homeless transient who took her to the soup kitchen. The junkie near my cardboard shelter was stoned. I heard him firing up and moaning when I arrived to set my trap. A wiry, bearded, foul-smelling veteran of the streets, he knew better than to make any noise. Punks from the suburbs looking for drugs or trouble were known to light sleeping vagrants on fire for sport.

They stopped right in front of my ramshackle lean-to, listening, and looking for any sign of movement within. The one in front wasn’t the big one, but the one called Crimedog or Crimewave. Looking down from above, one hand steadying the cement block on the railing, I waited.

The big one said something and poked him in the back. He lifted a piece of cardboard packing exposing the soles of the boots I’d bought at Goodwill.

“He in there,” he said. The words drifted up to me as clear as a birdsong.

The flash of muzzle fire startled me. I don’t know why. Was I expecting them to say something before they killed me?

All three rooted among the cardboard slats like hogs going after truffles looking for a bullet-riddled corpse. All three guns were out now.

“Where he at?” the big one demanded, loud enough to be heard up and down the alley.

Correcting my aim, I pushed the block off the rail. It seemed to take long seconds to fall, but that was my adrenalin kicking in.

The block missed the top of Crimewave’s head but even a glancing blow was fatal from this height. It grazed his head before slamming into his shoulder and dropping him to the ground. The shock was so sudden his two homeys leaped backwards as if a bomb had gone off at their feet. Their confusion was my advantage. I had time to set my stance and aim the Glock. I’d fired thousands of rounds at gun ranges, but never had to aim downward from a height—entirely different calculus comes into play. Still, I couldn’t miss. I placed four shots rapidly at them, two apiece, going for the torso.

The big one flew out of that alley as if he had a rocket strapped to his ass. His smaller bro sat there slapping at his chest as if he’d been stung by a wasp.

I came down the steps, not taking my eyes off him. Up close, I heard blubbering. Stepping toward Crimewave’s body face-down, I kicked his feet. No response. With my foot, I pushed aside the hoodie covering his head. An egg-sized chunk of brain lay curled inside the fabric like a thick ragout of gristle and black syrup.

It would help to know because time was not going to be my ally for long. Derrick would start hunting me the second his thug reached him with the news.

I went to the one I’d hit. He was still on his haunches; he looked up at me. His eyes bulged and he whimpered something. Crying for his Momma, a call for me to help? It didn’t matter. He had moments left with a sucking chest wound.

I leaned down and got close to his face.

“Listen to me if you can hear me. I know where Derrick’s stash houses are. Tell me which one he’s using now.”

The boy stared at me, but couldn’t focus. His pupils were going black and he’d have the glazed look of a dead bird any minute. I might as well have been speaking Martian. It would help to know because time was not going to be my ally for long. Derrick would start hunting me the second his thug reached him with the news.

Blood gurgled out of his mouth; he moved his lips, but no sound came out. The slug penetrated his lungs.

I stood up, placed the barrel a few inches from his forehead and squeezed off a round. I don’t know what evil he’d done in his short life and I didn’t care. You’d give a dying animal the coup de grâce in that situation. I shucked the cheap tennis shoes along with the track suit I bought at Goodwill’s, put on the boots I’d stuck beneath the cardboard, and scooted down the alley. Sirens at night are as common as drag queens on Mulvaney.

When I was in Vice, we’d hit all Big D.’s stash houses at one time or another based on tips, mostly from junkies with a grudge. It was playing whack-a-mole. We hit one, we’d find nothing. We hit the next one and he wasn’t there either. Liquor bottles, unfilled gram capsules and cellophane bags left behind on a table with hand-wiped smears of powder dust, often a half-smoked blunt or a granule of drug paste to taunt us. Nothing to hang on him in court.

Derrick’s cash provided my disguise. I was dressed like that guy who thumped me around the tavern parking lot. Only one liveried taxi service operated in the Jungle, picking up crumbs left by Uber and Lyft, who dominated the business districts in daytime and the streets of respectable clubs at night. Their drivers were all foreign-born, the only ones willing to pick up clients at night. Years of buy-bust stings working as a Vice cop gave me a keen knowledge of these streets and stinking alleyways. One cabbie always parked at the perimeter of the area known as the Jungle and charged twice the meter. If you were a regular citizen or an office worker who’d had a few too many with his buddies and somehow strayed off the beaten path, you’d pay five times that to get clear of an area where the only people left were predators and prey.

Derrick was lazy. He used the same stash houses. After a raid, he waited until the heat died down and set up shop in these same places. His lookouts were that good. I had three possible locations in mind. I was shooting craps with my life. Footsore, tired, and hungry, I was moving on willpower alone by then. Images of Derrick’s victims on autopsy tables kept me going.

Between McCafferty and Elliott were houses you wouldn’t put a dog in, but they all had utilities and some even had satellite dishes. I don’t know why, maybe sentimental reasons, but I took a bullet in the leg once at a house there, so that’s where I headed. Overgrown with sumac and spindly, wind-bent trees surrounded by rusted wire fencing between the houses full of plastic torn garbage bags, some abandoned so long they’re barely more than foundations. One appeared swaybacked from rotted roofing open to the skies. Any hood rat could see cops coming and disappear into the weedy underbrush before they jumped out of their cruisers.

Black as pitch, yet the glow from a few picture windows told me denizens were at home in front of their TV sets. I avoided sidewalks and lighting from the few streetlights not shot out and headed toward the cul-de-sac where three houses were. Derrick used the one in the middle. No closed-circuit or Ring cameras down here. If you could afford that kind of security, you’d never live here in the first place.

Nothing like a cell phone light winking inside a blacked-out house to guide me like a homing beam. I sidled up to a window and saw Derrick, John-John, his lieutenant, and Big Boy, as I called him, all working their phones—rat-catching with associates, getting the word out. Mary was there, too, no doubt hoping to cash in on the bounty for my sudden and violent demise.

Truth was, I didn’t have a good plan for this part. When I sold my soul for drugs, I was willing to improvise and it had led to this moment. A man outfitted in castoff Goodwill clothing, holding a stolen gun in his hand, contemplating his next move.

If a concrete block had worked, why not a brick? I headed next door to the vacant house and jerked a brick loose from the top of a brick column, a last monument to some past owner’s vanity. Hefting it, I approached the back of the house and hurled it through a small window where I remembered Derrick used to cook his drugs for distribution.

John-John came flying out the back porch, but I put a bullet just above the AR 15 in his hands. A bullet sizzled the air beside my right ear. I saw the gun in Big Boy’s hand as I pivoted in my Weaver stance to fire. The idiot was backlit in the door frame. I stitched a line of bullets down him from head to crotch. Wood chips flew from my misses, but enough landed to do damage. He jerk-walked backwards and then forwards, gouts of blood spewing from his mouth before he dropped to the porch.

Instinct kicked in. I raced to the front of the house where I was sure Derrick would go after his sidekicks’ suicidal runs at me. For all he knew, a SWAT team was out here, not just one cop, and certainly he’d never believe I was the one gunning for him.

He bolted out the door, a bag in one hand, gun in the other. In the dark, he was barely more than an outline.

I emptied the chamber at him spraying shots and hoping for the best. All missed but one: he was wounded, limping, heading for the underbrush.

He fell ten yards from cover.

I held the gun at him, confident he hadn’t heard dry-firing. His own weapon had been dropped in flight.

“Here, take it, motherfucker,” he said and held out the bag for me.

“I don’t want your drugs,” I said. “I want the money.”

“It is the money,” he gasped. “Gawd damn, I’m hit.”

“That you are. I hope it’s the femoral and you’ll bleed out in front of this shitty brown house.”

“I know you, you dirty cop motherfucker. You down here in the shit like me. You got my money, now you call me an ambulance. We even, see.”

I had no reason to do it. Maybe the adrenalin was still pumping. A lot of cop training came back in a flash and that probably saved my life. You can only get into so many shootouts before you die in one.

I saw the brick column out of the corner of my eye. I went over to it and pried another brick loose.

“What—what the fuck you doin’, motherfucker? I said call me a got-damn ambulance!”

Standing behind him, I looked for a spot. His head twisted and turned trying to follow me.

I threw it at the top of his head. It was no 90-mile-per-hour fast ball, but it did the trick, and made a sound like a melon splitting open. He twitched on the grass and then lay still. Some labs can do DNA off rocks nowadays; no sense in making it easy for them, so I heaved the brick into the weeds and wiped my hand, sticky with blood and gore, on my pants legs before tucking Derrick’s stolen Glock into his belt.

Mary was probably inside watching it all happen anyway. I thought about going for the hat trick, taking one more brick inside for her, but decided she wasn’t worth it and time was shifting from the slow-motion of my tunnel vision to high-speed. The looky-loos would be coming outdoors any second to check out the neighborhood action going on.

Fetching the bag from the lawn, I high-tailed it down the street in the dark. Call me crazy but I didn’t care who might be peeking out of those windows. I was invisible. The forces of darkness were with me and I was pitching a shutout.

Their suspicions about me lasted a couple of weeks, but gradually they’ve come to accept me as another snowbird from up North….

Twenty-two thousand and some change. That was my haul from Big D.’s stash house that night.

Not enough to set me up for life, but enough to get me down to the Florida Keys. I can’t afford Key West or the ritzy beach hotels on Islamorada. But Big Pine Key is close to where I’m staying. I leased a small flat with 6 months advance. I came down stocked with fake ID’s but people down here aren’t like what I left behind in the North. They don’t care who you are and they accept what you tell them.

I spend my days walking on the beach. Now and then, I’ll splurge and head down a gravel road to a cement-block rum bar where the locals drink and make fun of the tourists. Their suspicions about me lasted a couple of weeks, but gradually they’ve come to accept me as another snowbird from up North coming down for the tarpon fishing, although I wouldn’t know a tarpon if I tripped over one on the beach. Buying a couple rounds assisted the ruse.

One of these days soon, I plan to ask a woman who’s a regular at the bar out for a date. She’s a few years older, I think, some crow’s-feet around the eyes a giveaway, but all in all, a well put-together woman who doesn’t get drunk when she’s drinking and doesn’t giggle. Kelli was a giggler. I might be able to hire on at the marina when the college boys go back to school. There’s a hardwood hammock and Key deer just beyond the inlet. I’m not expecting much and this beats a 10-by-10 cell packed in a pod full of cretins, yammering and bullshitting all day long.

I haven’t tried to score drugs since I’ve been here. I’m sticking with beer and the occasional boilermaker. Sounds at night are different down here—no screaming sirens, drunken neighbors, and passenger jets flying overhead. Just nature. At first, I couldn’t sleep. I was listening too hard for the sound of US Marshals on the fire escape outside my window and a bullhorn commanding me to come out with my hands up.

Before I became a cop, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was naïve. I believed in the law and people. Clarence Darrow wrote something that goes like this: “The best that we can do is to be kindly toward our fellow passengers who cling to the same speck of dirt while we drift side by side to our common doom.” My problem was that all the people I came to know as fellow passengers were the wrong kind—a backstabbing partner, a faithless wife, and dope fiends who’d knock their own mothers down if she happened to be standing on a quarter, and more low-browed thugs, bullies, dope dealers, and misfits in one dirty city than I thought existed in the world.

Sixteen years of doing the backstroke in a cesspool. I let it taint me. I would have done it differently in another life. Maybe I can find a way to live right before that last gorgeous sunset winks out.

Robb T. White has published several crime, noir, and hardboiled novels and published crime, horror, and mainstream stories in various magazines and anthologies. His crime story, “Inside Man,” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2019 (guest edited by Jonathan Lethem). A recent series features private eye Raimo Jarvi and includes Northtown Eclipse. His novel When You Run with Wolves was cited as a finalist by Murder, Mayhem & More for its Top Ten Crime Books of 2018. “If I Let You Get Me” was selected for the Bouchercon 2019 anthology. Find him at the Website of Robb T. White.

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