The man didn’t belong there. Malik had taken one look at his leather shoes and knew that, but he wasn’t about to say anything. The shoes weren’t new, but they also weren’t scuffed like a cop’s would be. He wore leather gloves. This man was money. Why he had come to the Circus was beyond Malik’s ability to reason.
He and Malik eyed one another. Without preamble, the man held out a twenty dollar bill.
“I’m looking for someone,” he said.
“Twenty bucks can buy you a lot of someone, dependin’ on who you’re lookin’ for,” Malik replied.
Malik slumped. He looked the man up and down again, then decided that the safest course of action would be to pass the twenty back. “Lauren ain’t here. She got picked up.”
The man took Malik’s hand and pressed the money back toward him. “How long ago was that?”
Someone coughed. Malik and the man glanced over the sleeping bodies that surrounded them. The only movement was hand-to-mouth or hand-to-genitals. Their eyes landed on King, the only elevated body in the room. His eyes were open, but he was not awake. Even asleep, his gaze was hard.
“Let’s take this upstairs,” Malik said. He slid his arm around the man’s elbow, guided him across the room, and led him up some stairs. The second story was a vast open space, except for a few mattresses pushed against the wall and some chairs surrounding them.
“This one is Lauren’s.” Malik gestured toward the middle mattress, but the man didn’t catch it. He was already studying the items on the crate that constituted a bedside table. Wads of foil, spent match sticks, and bits of wax were scattered across the surface.
The man knelt down and sifted through the books stacked inside the crate. He froze when he found one: Selected Poems of e e cummings. He sighed, picking up the book and flipping through it.
Malik pulled up on of the chairs and took a seat. The man, book still in hand, sat on the mattress.
“Sure you wanna sit there?” Malik asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes,” the man replied with absolute certainty.
“Lauren might be gettin’ back soon, but I dunno. Last I saw her was two days ago. If they got her on solicitation, they might only keep her for a night. She never comin’ back if they got her for dope.”
“How long – ”
The man was interrupted by a heavy treat on the stairs. A scrawny, blond bobble-headed man peered up the stairs, then approached them slowly. He was shaking, rubbing his arms for warmth. He was pale. His pupils were the size of platters, haunted, and he did not meet their gaze. He plucked at a blanket on one of the other mattresses, then picked it up and wrapped it around his shoulders.
“Marshall might know somethin’,” Malik said. “You got picked up last night, right?”
Marshall sniffled, looking at the floor around his tattered shoes. He nodded.
“Downtown or Midtown?”
“This guy’s lookin’ for Lauren. Was she with you?”
Marshall started to shake harder. “I don’t… I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Malik and the man exchanged a glance. The concern in the stranger’s eyes assuaged any suspicion Malik may have had. Malik reached into his pocket and pulled out a nicklebag with some papers.
“Need some green?” Malik asked. Marshall did not reply, but the relief in his eyes answered. Malik rolled a joint, lit it, then passed it to Marshall. Marshall puffed silently for a moment.
“I need to get out, man,” he finally said. “I need…” He shook his head, then looked Malik in the eye. “I need to go in.”
Malik raised his eyebrows. His eyes drifted to the stranger. The man reached into his glove and produced a hundred dollar bill. He held it out the Marshall. Marshall stared at the money, then folded it into his hand.
“Laur – ” His voice was low. He had to swallow and collect himself. His eyes threatened to spill tears. “Lauren was brought soon after I was. Public intoxication. She didn’t even know her own name.” He cracked a smirk, knowing that – under other circumstances – this situation would be humorous. “But she wasn’t… intoxicated. She had a fever of 105. Those ear infections, you know?”
“What ear infections?” The man asked.
“She started gettin’ ’em after she moved here,” Malik explained. “She had burst her ear drum last year, an’ it never healed right. Kept gettin’ infected. That’s the only reason she was doin’ dope.”
Marshall cracked an ominous smile. “No, it wasn’t.”
Malik gave him a look. Marshall took another long hit. His tremors eased gradually.
“When they realize what was goin’ on, they rushed her down to the infirmary for a penicillin shot. It brought her fever down quick, and they brought her back up. But it didn’t do shit for the pain.” He took a deep breath the threatened to become a sob. “She started cryin’… then, then screamin’. She was talkin’ crazy, like she could hear… all these other people screamin’… Then she starts… beatin’, like… beatin’ her head against the bars…” The dam finally broke. Tears streamed down his face. He closed his eyes and pursed his lips until they stopped. The stranger watched Marshall closely, his own face etched with anxiety. Marshall’s mouth broke into what could have been a grin or a grimace. He took a few more hits, then offered the joint to the stranger. The stranger accepted, taking a single hit.
“When she starts… bangin’ her head, one of the officers comes in to stop her. And she’s quick – real quick.” He shook his head, sniffling. “She grabs his gun, an’ puts it to her head, an’…” – He puts his fingers to his head and gestures – “pulls the trigger.”
The stranger’s face fell with an almost-audible expression of grief. His chest sinks as the air leaves his body.
“But nothin’ happens.”
The man’s mouth snaps shut. Awe fills his face.
“Not a click….nothin’.” He sniffles and shakes his head. A broad, ominous grin breaks across his face as his shoulders begin to shake with sobs. “They get the gun from ‘er and take her back downstairs. A couple of hours later, a couple ‘a suits come and get her. They must have doped her up somethin’ powerful, ‘cuz she looked calm as fuck. One of ’em had their arm around her shoulder. She was leanin’ on him like they were fuckin’ family.” He sniffed indignantly.
“What did they look like?” the man asked.
Marshall paused, searching his memory. “They were both tall. One was blond, skinny. The other one was darker, dark-hair. Nice suit.”
“That sounds like her brotha,” Malik said. “He helped her move in. Hot?”
Marshall shrugged. “I guess. Cut.”
Malik nods. The stranger nodded back. His eyes dropped to his gloved hands. He studied them with a pensive expression. After a moment, he shifted. Pulling out his wallet, he extracted a large wad of bills. Malik and Marshall stared agape as he sorted out five one hundred dollar bills, then handed them each a stack. Marshall’s eyes were wide as he took the money. Malik donned a reserved expression, then handed the money to Marshall.
“You said you had to go in,” he pointed out. “Here’s your chance.”
Marshall’s eyes were wet as he took the money. He folded the bills and slid them into his pocket. The stranger’s jaw dropped slightly as he watched this exchange.
“Who are you?” Marshall asked. “How do you know Lauren?”
The man snapped his jaw shut again. He looked at each of the men. “Leave,” he said. “Both of you. Go far away. Don’t come back.”
The eyes her turned up at them were different from the grief-stricken or hopeful eyes he had just moments before. They were hard. Cold. Murderous.
Malik smacked Marshall’s arm with the back of his hand. “Hey,” he said, “I’ll drop you at the Ridgeview.”
Marshall found it difficult to take his eyes off the stranger. He nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he said, allowing Malik to pull him to his feet.
Marshall paused half-way to the stairs. Malik tugged at his sleeve, but he turned.
“The craziest…” he stammered. “The craziest shit was… the officer, this fat fuck, couldn’t figure out why the gun didn’t go off. He took it to the supply guy. The supply guy comes back a few hours later, after they take Lauren, and says” – he raised his voice – “‘Tain’t nothin’ s’wrong with yer gun. Shoo’s jus’ fine.'” Marshall’s grin-grimace returned. They couldn’t tell if he was chuckling or sobbing.
As Malik dragged Marshall to the stairwell, the man stood and tucked Selected Poems of e e cummings into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Listen” e e cummings
it appeared that you thought to
escape me and became a great
lily atilt on
waters but i was aware of
fragrance and i came riding upon
a horse of porphyry into the
waters i rode down the red
horse shrieking from splintering
foam caught you clutched you upon my
i dreamed in my dream you had
desire to thwart me and became
a little bird and hid
in a tree of tall marble
from a great way i distinguished
singing and i came
riding upon a scarlet sunset
trampling the night easily
from the shocked impossible
tower i caught
you strained you
broke you upon my blood
beloved i dreamed
i thought you would have deceived
me and became a star in the kingdom
through day and space i saw you close
your eyes and i came riding
upon a thousand crimson years arched with agony
i reined them in tottering before
the throne and as
they shied at the automaton moon from
the transplendant hand of sombre god
i picked you
as an apple is picked by the little peasants for their girls