They shipped me back from Afghanistan a leg and a half short, and I ran with it, you might say. When the benefits stopped keeping up with the demands of my thirst and the mortgage payments, I stopped bothering with the benefits. The ladies outside Nordstrom’s have lower expectations of sobriety than the ones who give you temp jobs licking envelopes, and they don’t hassle you if you’re late for your shift holding down the sidewalk. I was working my program of getting past caring, and my tongue was healing very nicely, when I ran into Meaty.
We weren’t particularly friendly in the service, but occasionally it’s nice to see a familiar face that doesn’t get blown right off its skull when you dream at night. I can’t recall if Meaty was properly a Dmitry or Demetrious or what, but the army has an excellent record of lifting such presumptions off you. Hell, people called me John till the Army made a man of me and amputated that sissy appendage of a first name. I’ve been plain old Pinker ever since.
“You know, Pinker,” Meaty mused over a companionable cigarette, “I voted you and your unabridged vocabulary ‘most likely to swing a book deal out of this crap.’ What’s our token intellectual doing on the street?”
“Eh, you know, couldn’t sleep at home, so I let the bank keep it.”
“I hear that, man.” But Meaty had a pale and well-fed look that meant someone was keeping him that way. “Looking for a place?”
I shrugged. “I have my haunts, but if I stay too long they want my beer money or call the cops.”
He puffed and nodded like he understood. “I just ask because I read this ad this morning might interest you.”
“Oh, yeah? Spill. I’m game for interesting.”
“Someone put out an ad looking for an alcoholic roommate.” Meaty flushed that raw hamburger color that earned him the name and started looking at everything but the 40-ounce bottle tucked next to me in the chair. “Not that you’re an alcoholic, of course, but that’s what the ad said. And… how’d it go? Oh, yeah, ‘Preferably a man who’s come by his addiction honestly.’ Just like that. Got me thinking who earns their bad habits any better than them that’s seen what we seen.”
When “hangin with a bro”, Meaty’s diction wavered between stale jive and some fresh Cockney variant of his own creation. I’d forgotten how much I’d hated that about him. And about how much I’d missed hating that about him. Guys thrown together with nothing good in common bond over what pisses them off—even about each other. We will defend to the death a brother’s right to life, liberty, and maddening quirks when it’s literally us against the world.
“I hear that.” I can actually see it when the limits of my sociability start closing in. The corners of my field of vision go dark. “This was in The Stranger or what?”
“No, the straight-up Times. I never read the classifieds, but the wife has been angling to upgrade her car, so maybe it’s a sign….” His face went from all I could see to real small and distant like I was looking at him through a telescope that decided to turn itself inside out. I could hear his voice, but no words.
“Yeah, interesting. I’m gonna run get a copy and read that for myself before they’re out. Real good to see you, Meaty.” I rolled off in whatever direction was away and kept going till all the faces were the right size again and comfortably anonymous. I’m a friendly guy, but my brain needs more personal space than the rest of me these days, and something in my head takes a step to the side sometimes when someone gets too close.
Not two minutes later, a guy offers me his coffee-stained copy of the Seattle Times. It’s folded open to the classifieds with one listing circled under ROOMMATES WANTED. I don’t believe in signs, but I don’t believe in ignoring them either.
* * *
I found the place fine, though the ad failed to mention the address or door code. What it said was “Apply in person, Ninth and Seneca, Unit 221. Exchange classic and modern to enter any time.” There was only one building on that corner big enough and residential enough to require a door code, and obviously it was a code. A puzzle for a code.
Unlike most everyone I see in an average day downtown, I’ve lived here all my life. All the phone numbers for downtown and the hospitals that surrounded this building used to start with 62. No idea what the exchange name that went with that number was. Sometimes I feel old enough I should remember that kind of thing, chatting up tourists from a chair, cussing the damp all winter, but telephone exchanges were way before my time. Why back in my day all the phone numbers around here started with 62… and we liked it that way. Now get off my sidewalk! Anyway, my first guess was wrong, because for the modern exchange half I tried 34 for First Hill. Not modern enough, I realized. 74 for Pill Hill? 6274 and I was in.
I took the elevator to the 2nd floor and knocked on 221.
“Ah, a local from Afghanistan!” A voice cried from close behind the closed door. “Perfect.”
“How did you…?”
The door yanked open on a tall white guy in a stained silk robe, though he looked to be fully dressed underneath, in a collared shirt and jeans. He might have been the man who gave me the paper, but then he might not have been.
“Come in, come in. Now, why say that twice? Wasted words. Who but our VA hospitals puts a man in a purring state-of-the-art chair and parks him indefinitely on the street? No, really, come in. Three times now. I hate to give the neighbors valid reasons to complain. You have the room if you want it, but I suppose it’s traditional to talk about such things for a certain period of time to establish a false sense of intimacy. I’m guessing three-and-a-half minutes. Four at most.” He pushed a button on his watch and looked at me expectantly.
There were wide paths between the stacks of books and papers, so I rolled in a few feet, but not quite enough to close the door. “Um. Well, I’m not sure why you’d want me. I can’t pay any real share of the rent.”
“Fine. So we’ve established your weaknesses as a roommate—none of them deal-breakers: no income; snorer; PTSD, but sirens don’t set you off. These units are already handicapped accessible. Finally the bar in the tub will have some function besides…”
“Wait. Who says I snore?”
“The bridge of your nose does. And a certain rasp to your voice confirms it, since you obviously don’t smoke. Moving on to my shortcomings: manic-depressive; OCD when it suits me; given to clutter though not a hoarder as I occasionally pitch everything I own. Apparently I tend to stare at people in a disagreeable way when I’m not thinking about them at all. When I can’t sleep I play music….”
“Electric violin. And I may spend weeks not sleeping, and days not speaking when I’m working on something.”
“Looking forward to it. And you don’t care I can’t pay any rent?”
“I don’t require a roommate for that reason.”
“So what do you want then, a pet project? Gonna set me back on the straight and narrow? Give me the leg up I’m missing?”
“Just the contrary. I want you to go on drinking to your heart’s content, in fact. I wholeheartedly condone your chosen response to your life experience. War is hell. Cliché or economy of language? I neither fault you nor judge you. I simply see mutual advantages to us living in close proximity. Now why do we always say close with proximity when it is both redundant and repetitive? Wasted words.” He produced a pen from a robe pocket and started scribbling on a paperback textbook that happened to be open on top of the nearest pile.
“So what do you want with a broke, broken drunk?”
“Thank you for bringing me back to the point. Another bad habit. It should be obvious that a profile such as mine is an addiction waiting to happen. I need something handy for reminding myself what a waste that would be, that there are other people in the world with more deserving problems than my own, and several related concepts. All without bothering to have to reason it out for myself again and again. A mnemonic device, as it were.”
“And that would be me.”
“Why not. Help me do what I do by doing what you do. No need to do it in the rain.”
I wheeled myself out. Holmes could find himself another cautionary tale. As much as I didn’t want someone trying to fix me, something about his expectation that I wouldn’t clean myself up chafed, too.
Three days later a Pineapple Express found me taking advantage of the door code to the lobby at Ninth and Seneca. Once I’d dried out a bit—inside and out—I figured what the hell; no need to do it in the rain and called the elevator. The key was in the door of unit 221. The keyring was a bottle opener engraved with the name Pinker.
I opened the door. All the books and papers were gone. The man’s tall frame was now draped sideways over an armchair. He wasn’t sleeping or reading or doing anything, but he didn’t look around when I came in. I wondered if it was too late. Maybe he’d spent the last three days laying there stoned.
After a while I felt I should say something. “I never told you my name.”
“It’s on your jacket. It’s faded, but it’s there. What do you think I am, psychic?”
I looked around a bit. The furniture was now visible and tended toward old-world comfortable. The word “damask” came to mind, but I couldn’t remember if that was a fabric or style or what. “What is it you do exactly? How do you make your money?”
“Through careful observation. And I’m quite good at it, if you haven’t noticed.”
Outside a siren wailed. “If you sleep so lightly and you could live anywhere, why live where there are sirens all the time? And how did you know they didn’t bother me?”
“You obviously knew the neighborhood. You must have known this corner is situated between the two busiest emergency rooms in the city. And I wanted easy access to a morgue.” He stretched. “Not that it signifies in my current study of economy of language and lack thereof.” He fumbled in the pocket of his robe – a different color today, but similarly stained. An evil chemical smell was emanating from the kitchen. “Although the dead are rather eloquent in that regard.” He pulled out a pen, nonplussed to find no paper near to hand, then started writing on the wall.
“And what do I call you?”
“Right. Niceties.” He finally sat up to shake my hand. “Stick to Holmes, if you’d like. I prefer having different names for different relationships. Another helpful mnemonic device. Are there any useless mnemonic devices?”
“You subvocalize. Most people do. You can have the second study at the end of the hall. It’s all cleared out.”
“Enough words,” Holmes declared, rising suddenly from his armchair. Several pounds of dislodged printed matter thumped and fluttered to the floor around him. It had been a matter of hours before the books and papers had begun to accrete around him once more, as if by magic or magnetic force. “Let’s go find some action.”
“Action,” of course, means different things to different people. For Holmes, apparently, “action” meant wandering down toward Union St. and catching the first bus that promised good people-watching. That day it happened to be an airport bus, but Holmes pulled the cord two stops prior.
“I know a good place where a mediocre cop goes when he’s had a bad day,” he explained. “Nobody has more fascinatingly bad days than a beat cop. Shall we go study some humanity?”
The patrons at the bar were the normal SeaTac mix of tourists wondering where the city was and middle-aged men taking their time over a solitary beer. One of them hailed Holmes, who ordered him another and a whisky chaser on his way over and set me up similarly with a draft beer and a shot.
Holmes introduced me to Officer Greg Redman, who called Holmes Jack, and I settled in with the microbrew. Budgetary concerns having skewed my choice of libations increasingly toward the functional, it was the first drink in a long while that I’d enjoyed as more than a means to an end.
“So, Redman,” he began, “Any progress on that hotel suicide from last month? Grace something?”
“The first name was as far as we got. The hotel staff had seen her before, but only one housekeeper would admit it. I’m afraid you were right about her being the kind of girl no one on this continent is looking for.”
“In Sudan, though…”
“So you say, but without any proof of murder or even trafficking, that’s the end of that story. But, I have another one for you.” He paused dramatically, tossed back the whisky and moved onto the fresh beer set before him. “I found my second dead body.”
“In the same house where I found my first.”
Holmes brightened. “Oh, do tell.”
“To catch you up, Pinker, last winter a neighbor called in saying the porch light had been on for a week straight, the mailbox was full, and his dog had started whining when they passed by on their evening walks. Sure enough, little old Mrs. Nguyen had died in her bed. Thank God the furnace was out or it would have been a worse find. Course maybe she wouldn’t have died if the furnace was working, but we couldn’t demonstrate she’d ever contacted the owner about it, and the son we finally dug up as next of kin was as criminally negligent as the owner. Sometimes you just want to press charges against the whole human race.”
Holmes pulled off this whirly gesture that signaled both his impatience and another round.
“Anyway, it spooked me at first, seeing the garage door open. The basement flooded in the spring. The landlord hadn’t seen fit to do anything about it, and by the end of the summer I could smell the house rotting from the street as I cycled by on my rounds. I seriously doubted the owner had finally put in an appearance, but I figured I’d better toss out any squatters before the toxic mold got them.”
“And you found a man lying dead in the back of the open garage.” He held up a hand to stave off any questions. “If it had been another woman, you would have said a second dead woman. You were creeped out, so if the body hadn’t been in the garage, you probably wouldn’t have searched the rest of the house, but if he had been in the front of the garage, some other passerby would have found him. Corpses tend to adopt lying postures. CO poisoning?”
Redman didn’t protest. “I don’t see the tox reports, but it had to be. His face was so red and it smelled like gas, but of course it’s a garage. And I know the utilities were canceled because I did it myself. Busted furnace in an empty house, didn’t want an undetected gas leak. But, yeah. It was just like he gassed himself in the car in the garage except there was no car and the door was open. So someone else had to have been there and opened the garage door and got out. Maybe it was supposed to be a double suicide or just someplace warm and private to toke up and the driver came to in time to get out. Or maybe somebody opened the door, stole the car, and left him.”
“Who was he?” Obviously both men had forgotten I was there.
“Charles H. Masterson of Tacoma, Washington, owned a club near here, went home at 2:25 AM, but never got that far. His ID was in his wallet full of cash and cards, and the cutest little bag of coke you ever seen. At first I was thinking murder by suicide, but who goes to that kind of trouble, killing a guy slow in a house that smells to high heaven, doesn’t take his things, and leaves the door open so you’ll find him first thing in the morning?”
“Very astute and aptly put, Sergeant Redman. Anything else unusual about the body or the scene?”
“Nice-enough looking guy, nice-enough looking clothes. No signs of violence whatsoever. No fresh oil stains, dirt, transfer, anything that I could see.”
“Anything else of interest happen last night?”
“Oh, yeah. See this is the story I figured I would tell you next time I saw you. Got a call out to Seahurst Park because someone found teeth on the beach.”
“Teeth?” I found myself fumbling the shot-glass of whiskey.
“Like molars, but odd somehow. Probably not even human. But I collected them and here’s the weird bit. They smelled… minty. Like they’d just been brushed.”
“Smelled?” I get it upon reflection, how body parts in the sand would mess with my mental state, but it always catches me by surprise. I mean, I’d just listened to a guy describe two whole dead bodies and nothing, right? It’s a form of shock, I suppose. I pass an eternity that lasts all of a minute in which the only reason I don’t faint or throw up is that my body can’t decide which to do first and it’s physically impossible to do both. The only thing keeping me upright was the darkness crushing in equally from all sides.
Redman was showing Holmes pictures on his phone.
“Look, Pinker, letters scratched in the sand using a small metallic container approximately 1-inch deep with a rounded edge. With the teeth in a little pile at the end like a period.”
Holmes caught sight of my face and retracted the phone, but didn’t miss a beat. “The letters ADL… which could mean any number of things. It refers to several computing languages of insufficient complexity to drive most to murder; a number of relatively insignificant energy companies on various international stock exchanges; a few medical conditions—most of which are lethal enough without outside interference. It is, perhaps, most recognizable as the airport code for Adelaide….”
“Justice….” I was barely conscious. It just came out.
“What’s that, Pinker?”
“It means ‘justice’ in Arabic.”
He seemed to shrink a few inches. “Oh, but let’s hope that it doesn’t.”
“Pretty sure it does. Two hundred hours of Middle Eastern Theatre language training doesn’t get you real far on the ground, but I know my way around a flashcard.”
“Then it’s just a meaningless attempt to shift suspicion to a whole pre-vilified demographic.”
“A poor attempt. Wouldn’t an actual Arab write it in Arabic?”
Redman piped up. “What do the teeth have to do with Masterson’s death? He wasn’t missing any teeth.”
“Excellent point, Redman. I failed to account for the inability of the local police to make such elementary connections. So perhaps the killer left this message for purposes other than attracting national attention or deflecting guilt. Perhaps justice has been done… or witnessed….”
Holmes put a twenty on the bar and walked toward the door. I turned to Redman to make apologies for his abrupt departure, but he waved them off.
“No worries, Pinker. That’s how all our conversations end. You’d better hurry if you’re going to catch up with him. No telling where he’s off to now.”
It turns out it was just home for the evening, but by taxi this time. And he was gone all the next day and night.
* * *
The following morning Holmes was at the stove, turning a single egg in a pot of boiling water with a fork. “Once again, Pinker, police ineptitude saves the day.”
“Once again, Holmes, I have no idea what we’re even talking about.” He spared one hand and no attention to gesture to the Washington Post and ultra-local south county rag on the table. He had some elaborate subscription scheme that allowed him to receive two different newspapers each day of the week, all under the name of Martha Hudson.
The Washington Post article was on page eight. Not bad for news of the weird from the other side of the country. “Wisdom teeth?”
“Surgically extracted. Like molars, but odd, just as Redman said.”
I noted that Masterson’s two paragraphs of fame hadn’t made the front page either, because the local elementary school would be closing for a year for repairs. “Two papers. Two stories. Meaning the police didn’t buy or didn’t noise around any connection. And you’re not personally responsible for any hate crimes. Today, at least.” He stirred on and I read on. “So Masterson ran one of those sleazy strip clubs by the airport.”
“No doubt, but then you always talk like you know exactly what happened.”
“Of course I do, I’m just not sure yet who exactly it happened to. But no need to rush these things.” He fished the egg out of the water and balanced it on the fork to air-dry.
“Seems like it happened to Charles H. Masterson.”
“Yes and no.”
“Either way, wouldn’t actually telling someone what happened maybe keep it from happening to someone else?”
“No, we needn’t worry about the killer striking again. For one thing, he is not really a killer. For another, he has no more extraneous teeth to spare for crime scenes.”
* * *
I came out of the bathroom in my briefs the next night to find Holmes outside the door, holding up my clothes from the day. “Sorry,” I stammered, a little worse for wear, and trying to make sense of him being there. “Did I leave those in the hallway or…?”
“It doesn’t matter where you left them. It matters that you put them back on again immediately. The cab is waiting to take us to Masterson’s club where I’ve ordered us a cab.”
I was pretty sure I’d heard that wrong, but since the best reason to drink is that it helps one keep it simple and roll with it, I did just that. I took the cheapo portable chair he’d procured that folds down to fit in a standard-sized trunk.
We didn’t go inside the club, just waited under the pink and red flashing neon sizzling in the rain.
The second cab pulled up. Holmes helped me into the back seat, folded and stowed my chair next to me, and stuck his head in the passenger-side front door. “All right if I ride up here?”
The African driver had a broad, easy smile. “Sure thing,” he answered, shifting a few things from the seat into the glove box. “Where to?”
“Not far,” Holmes responded. “We just bought the first house sold in that new housing complex on the far side of the airport. Do you know it?”
“Sure thing,” the young man repeated and pulled out.
“Ajak Deng,” Holmes read aloud. “Is that a Dinka name?”
“It is in my case, sir.” Holmes didn’t just make conversation so I took another look at the driver. He wasn’t really so young, maybe even my age, but with the over-tall leanness that makes some men look like perpetual adolescents.
My synapses were firing, but too numb to confirm if any contact was made. “I went to school with a kid named Ajak, but he was Sudanese.”
“Yes, sir. As am I. A common name.”
“Just turn up there after the light.”
“Yes, sir. Which house number?”
“Just park in the cul-de-sac, please. Perfect. And hand me the keys and don’t run.” I’d been watching the driver and now Holmes had the keys in one hand and what I was sure was my service pistol in the other.
“Grace was Dinka, too, wasn’t she?”
Ajak Deng didn’t look anywhere near as terrified as I felt. “We met in the camp. In Kukuma.”
“You’re a lost boy!” Sometimes my half-leg gets it in its head it can push me to standing, but of course I only managed to knock my head on the roof. “The teeth! Ajak wanted his front teeth pulled out, but no dentist here would do it! No, wait…” Deng had his front teeth. And the teeth on the beach were wisdom teeth.
“Yes, we boys were lost until we came here, but so were the girls. We were found, and they were abandoned. Fostered out to guardians just waiting to sell them off to rich husbands. Or worse.”
“Worse, in Grace’s case,” Holmes added.
He nodded. “I settled here, finished high school, started working, used the community college computers. I joined every group, every forum. So little information. No official records. Those girls are so lost no one will ever find them.”
“But you found Grace,” Holmes prompted.
“I saw her.” Deng looked away. “It was not her I was looking for. I was looking for my cousin. Grace just appeared. I got a call for a strip club off highway 99. A little fancy-dressed white man put her in my cab and told me which hotel to take her to, and I did.”
“Masterson,” Holmes mouthed over his shoulder for my benefit.
“But I knew her, and she knew me. I told her I would help, do anything, but she thought it unthinkable. I drove around the block an extra time, wanting her to let me take her somewhere else, she insisted her situation was hopeless. Finally I left her crying in front of the hotel.
“A Kosovar friend from community college cleans at that hotel. I pick her up and take her home mornings after our shifts if I can. She told me they found a skinny African girl in the bathtub that morning.”
“Now when I go to the airport I drive around here instead of taking another fare into town. I lose money, but I want to be in the neighborhood when dispatch gets another call for that club. Maybe some other girl I could help.”
“Finally someone flagged you down outside Masterson’s club.”
“Yes, but there was no girl, just the fancy man. I could not believe it. I had not planned for this. I had no plan. He arranged a “delivery” on his phone in the back seat of my cab. I failed to notice a stoplight turn green. He hit my headrest and I hit him and turned back to the wheel and drove. I don’t even remember how I hit him or where.
“In the temple with the heel of your hand, most likely,” Holmes provided.
Deng tilted his head side to side. “If you say so. He never made another sound. This seemed a good thing, but I had no plan.”
“Then you drove by the house,” Holmes prompted.
“The stinky house. You can smell this house from the street, so I knew it was empty, and I needed to think. But I didn’t think enough. I closed the garage door behind me so no one would see, and turned up the heat because I was shaking from cold, anger, fear, I don’t know what. Within minutes I found my thoughts wandering, my eyes closing, and I realized what I had done. I ran coughing to the sidewalk and left the door open, but when my head and the air had cleared enough for me to go back in, Fancy Man wasn’t breathing any more. I pulled him out of the cab and drove to the beach.
“Where you left the teeth you kept in that mints tin in the glovebox.”
Deng stared, then broke into a wide, incredulous grin. He leaned toward Holmes, heedless of the gun. “You have a very fine mind, I think.”
Holmes re-pocketed the gun. “And you a very good heart, I think.”
Deng’s bright smile disappeared. “I am a bad man among others now.”
“But you know you are a man. That’s why you didn’t need the teeth anymore.”
“It was a child’s way of feeling a man. In my village they pull our teeth when we are eight or nine, but I had to leave my village before that age. Having a dentist surgically remove wisdom teeth under anesthetic was hardly proof of manhood, but it was the closest I had. Killing did not make me a man, but it means I have put childish things behind me.
“I didn’t know Grace well, but she could have been my cousin. She could have been my sister. She could have been anyone’s cousin or sister. I started to write my cousin Adut’s name in the sand, but I couldn’t finish. All their names are written in sand. I could never write all the names. When the sun came up and I saw what I had written, I decided to leave it at that, to call it justice, and I added my childhood illusions of manhood as a full-stop. I can believe this when I drive through the night, but in the light of day, when I try to sleep….”
Holmes placed the keys and another twenty on the seat. Deng didn’t move as he opened the door to get out. The sky had just began to lighten in the direction of sunrise. “We’ll find our own way home from here, Mr. Deng, just as you will have to do. Thanks for the ride.”
Jenn Cavanaugh’s poems and stories have appeared in America, Parabola, and Mars Hill Review. She currently lives in Paris.