A Dirty Job Chapter 3

3

BENEATH THE NUMBER FORTY-ONE BUS

It was two weeks before Charlie left the apartment and walked down to the auto-teller on Columbus Avenue where he first killed a guy. His weapon of choice was the number forty-one bus, on its way from the Trans Bay station, by the Bay Bridge, to the Presidio, by the Golden Gate Bridge. If you’re going to get hit by a bus in San Francisco, you want to go with the forty-one, because you can pretty much figure on there being a nice bridge view.

Charlie hadn’t really counted on killing a guy that morning. He had hoped to get some twenties for the register at the thrift store, check his balance, and maybe pick up some yellow mustard at the deli. (Charlie was not a brown mustard kind of guy. Brown mustard was the condiment equivalent of skydiving – it was okay for race-car drivers and serial killers, but for Charlie, a fine line of French’s yellow was all the spice that life required.) After the funeral, friends and relatives had left a mountain of cold cuts in Charlie’s fridge, which was all he’d eaten for the past two weeks, but now he was down to ham, dark rye, and premixed Enfamil formula, none of which was tolerable without yellow mustard. He’d secured the yellow squeeze bottle and felt safer now with it in his jacket pocket, but when the bus hit the guy, mustard completely slipped Charlie’s mind.

It was a warm day in October, the light had gone autumn soft over the city, the summer fog had ceased its relentless crawl out of the Bay each morning, and there was just enough breeze that the few sailboats that dotted the Bay looked like they might have been posing for an Impressionist painter. In the split second that Charlie’s victim realized that he was being run over, he might not have been happy about the event, but he couldn’t have picked a nicer day for it.

The guy’s name was William Creek. He was thirty-two and worked as a market analyst in the financial district, where he had been headed that morning when he decided to stop at the auto-teller. He was wearing a light wool suit and running shoes, his work shoes were tucked into a leather satchel under his arm. The handle of a compact umbrella protruded from the side pocket of the satchel, and it was this that caught Charlie’s attention, for while the handle of the umbrella appeared to be made of faux walnut burl, it was glowing a dull red as if it had been heated in a forge.

Charlie stood in the ATM line trying not to notice, trying to appear uninterested, but he couldn’t help but stare. It was glowing, for fuck’s sake, didn’t anyone see it?

William Creek glanced over his shoulder as he slid his card into the machine, saw Charlie looking at him, then tried to will his suit coat to expand into great manta-ray wings to block Charlie’s view as he keyed in his PIN number. Creek snatched his card and the expectorated cash from the machine, turned, and headed away quickly toward the corner.

Charlie couldn’t stand it any longer. The umbrella handle had begun to pulsate red, like a beating heart. As Creek reached the curb, Charlie said, “Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!”

When Creek turned, Charlie said, “Your umbrella – “

At that point, the number forty-one bus was coming through the intersection at Columbus and Vallejo at about thirty-five miles per hour, angling toward the curb for its next stop. Creek looked down at the satchel under his arm where Charlie was pointing, and the heel of his running shoe caught the slight rise of the curb. He started to lose his balance, the sort of thing we all might do on any given day while walking through the city, trip on a crack in the sidewalk and take a couple of quick steps to regain equilibrium, but William Creek took only one step. Back. Off the curb.

You can’t really sugarcoat it at this point, can you? The number forty-one bus creamed him. He flew a good fifty feet through the air before he hit the back window of a SAAB like a great gabardine sack of meat, then bounced back to the pavement and commenced to ooze fluids. His belongings – the satchel, the umbrella, a gold tie bar, a Tag Heuer watch – skittered on down the street, ricocheting off tires, shoes, manhole covers, some coming to rest nearly a block away.

Charlie stood at the curb trying to breathe. He could hear a tooting sound, like someone was blowing a toy train whistle – it was all he could hear, then someone ran into him and he realized it was the sound of his own rhythmic whimpering. The guy – the guy with the umbrella – had just been wiped out of the world. People rushed, crowded around, a dozen were barking into cell phones, the bus driver nearly flattened Charlie as he rushed down the sidewalk toward the carnage. Charlie staggered after him.

“I was just going to ask him – “

No one looked at Charlie. It had taken all of his will, as well as a pep talk from his sister, to leave the apartment, and now this?

“I was just going to tell him that his umbrella was on fire,” Charlie said, as if he was explaining to his accusers. But no one accused him, really. They ran by him, some headed toward the body, some away from it – they batted him around and looked back, baffled, like they’d collided with a rough air current or a ghost instead of a man.

“The umbrella,” Charlie said, looking for the evidence. Then he spotted it, almost down at the next corner, lying in the gutter, still glowing red, pulsating like failing neon. “There! See!” But people were gathered around the dead man in a wide semicircle, their hands to their mouths, and no one was paying any attention to the frightened thin man spouting nonsense behind them.

He threaded his way through the crowd toward the umbrella, determined now to confirm his conviction, too far in shock to be afraid. When he was only ten feet away from it he looked up the street to make sure another bus wasn’t coming before he ventured off the curb. He looked back just as a delicate, tar-black hand snaked out of the storm drain and snatched the compact umbrella off the street.

Charlie backed away, looking around to see if anyone had seen what he had seen, but no one had. No one even made eye contact. A policeman trotted by and Charlie grabbed his sleeve as he passed, but when the cop spun around and his eyes went wide with confusion, then what appeared to be real terror, Charlie let him go. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry. I can see you’ve got work to do – sorry.”

The cop shuddered and pushed through the crowd of onlookers toward the battered body of William Creek.

Charlie started running, across Columbus and up Vallejo, until his breath and heartbeat in his ears drowned all the sounds of the street. When he was a block away from his shop a great shadow moved over him, like a low-flying aircraft or a huge bird, and with it Charlie felt a chill vibrate up his back. He lowered his head, pumped his arms, and rounded the corner of Mason just as the cable car was passing, full of smiling tourists who looked right through him. He glanced up, just for a second, and he thought he saw something above, disappearing over the roof of the six-story Victorian across the street, then he bolted through the front door of his shop.

“Hey, boss,” Lily said. She was sixteen, pale, and a little bottom heavy – her grown-woman form still in flux between baby fat and baby bearing. Today her hair happened to be lavender: fifties-housewife helmet hair in Easter-basket cellophane pastel.

Charlie was bent over, leaning against a case full of curios by the door, sucking in deep raspy gulps of secondhand store mustiness. “I – think – I – just – killed – a – guy,” he gasped.

“Excellent,” Lily said, ignoring equally his message and his demeanor. “We’re going to need change for the register.”

“With a bus,” Charlie said.

“Ray called in,” she said. Ray Macy was Charlie’s other employee, a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor with an unhealthy lack of boundaries between the Internet and reality. “He’s flying to Manila to meet the love of his life. A Ms. LoveYouLongTime. Ray’s convinced that they are soul mates.”

“There was something in the sewer,” Charlie said.

Lily examined a chip in her black nail polish. “So I cut school to cover. I’ve been doing that since you’ve been, uh, gone. I’m going to need a note.”

Charlie stood up and made his way to the counter. “Lily, did you hear what I said?”

He grabbed her by the shoulders, but she spun out of his grasp. “Ouch! Fuck. Back off, Asher, you sado freak, that’s a new tattoo.” She punched him in the arm, hard, and backed away, rubbing her own shoulder. “I heard, you. Cease your trippin’, s’il vous plaît.” Lately, since discovering Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal in a stack of used books in the back room, Lily had been peppering her speech with French phrases. “French better expresses the profound noirness of my existence,” she had said.

Charlie put both hands on the counter to keep them from shaking, then spoke slowly and deliberately, like he was speaking to someone for whom English was a second language: “Lily, I’m having kind of a bad month, and I appreciate that you are throwing away your education so you can come here and alienate customers for me, but if you don’t sit down and show me a little fucking human decency, then I’m going to have to let you go.”

Lily sat down on the chrome-and-vinyl diner stool behind the register and pulled her long lavender bangs out of her eyes. “So you want me to pay close attention to your confession to murder? Take notes, maybe get an old cassette recorder off the shelf and get everything down on tape? You’re saying that by trying to ignore your obvious distress, which I would have to later recall to the police, so I can be personally responsible for sending you to the gas chamber, that I’m being inconsiderate?”

Charlie shuddered. “Jeez, Lily.” He was continually surprised at the speed and accuracy of her creepiness. She was like some creepiness child prodigy. But on the bright side, her extreme darkness made him realize that he probably wasn’t going to go to the gas chamber.

“It wasn’t that kind of killing. There was something following me, and – “

“Silence!” Lily put her hand up, “I’d rather not show my employee spirit by committing every detail of your heinous crime to my photographic memory to be recalled in court later. I’ll just say that I saw you but you seemed normal for someone without a clue.”

“You don’t have a photographic memory.”

“I do, too, and it’s a curse. I can never forget the futility of – “

“You forgot to take out the trash at least eight times last month.”

“I didn’t forget.”

Charlie took a deep breath, the familiarity of arguing with Lily was actually calming him down. “Okay then, without looking, what color shirt are you wearing?” He raised an eyebrow like he had her there.

Lily smiled and for a second he could see that she was just a kid, kind of cute and goofy under the fierce makeup and attitude. “Black.”

“Lucky guess.”

“You know I only own black.” She grinned. “Glad you didn’t ask hair color, I just changed this morning.”

“That’s not good for you, you know. That dye has toxins.”

Lily lifted the lavender wig to reveal her close-cut maroon locks underneath, then dropped it again. “I’m all natural.” She stood and patted the bar stool. “Sit, Asher. Confess. Bore me.”

Lily leaned back against the counter, and tilted her head to look attentive, but with her dark eye makeup and lavender hair it came off more like a marionette with a broken string. Charlie came around the counter and sat on the stool. “I was just in line behind this William Creek guy, and I saw his umbrella glowing…”

And Charlie went through the whole story to her, the umbrella, the bus, the hand from the storm sewer, the bolt for home with the giant dark shadow above the rooftops, and when he was finished, Lily asked, “So how do you know his name?”

“Huh?” Charlie said. Of all of the horrible, fantastic things she might have asked about, why that?

“How do you know the guy’s name?” Lily repeated. “You barely spoke to the guy before he bit it. You see it on his receipt or something?”

“No, I…” He didn’t have any idea how he knew the man’s name, but suddenly there was a picture in his head of it written out in big, block letters. He leapt off the stool. “I gotta go, Lily.”

He ran through the door into the stockroom and up the steps.

“I still need a note for school,” Lily shouted from below, but Charlie was dashing through the kitchen, past a large Russian woman who was bouncing his baby daughter in her arms, and into the bedroom, where he snatched up the notepad he kept on his nightstand by the phone.

There, in his own blocky handwriting, was written the name William Creek and, under it, the number 12. He sat down hard on the bed, holding the notepad like it was a vial of explosives.

Behind him came the heavy steps of Mrs. Korjev as she followed him into the bedroom. “Mr. Asher, what is wrong? You run by like burning bear.”

And Charlie, because he was a Beta Male, and there had evolved over millions of years a standard Beta response to things inexplicable, said, “Someone is fucking with me.”

Lily was touching up her nail polish with a black Magic Marker when Stephan, the mailman, came through the shop door.

“‘Sup, Darque?” Stephan said, sorting a stack of mail out of his bag. He was forty, short, muscular, and black. He wore wraparound sunglasses, which were almost always pushed back on his head over hair braided in tight cornrows. Lily had mixed feelings about him. She liked him because he called her Darque, short for Darquewillow Elventhing, the name under which she received mail at the shop, but because he was cheerful and seemed to like people, she deeply mistrusted him.

“Need you to sign,” Stephan said, offering her an electronic pad, on which she scribbled Charles Baudelaire with great flourish and without even looking.

Stephan plopped the mail on the counter. “Working alone again? So where is everyone?”

“Ray’s in the Philippines, Charlie’s traumatized.” She sighed. “Weight of the world falls on me – “

“Poor Charlie,” Stephan said. “They say that’s the worst thing you can go through, losing a spouse.”

“Yeah, there’s that, too. Today he’s traumatized because he saw a guy get hit by a bus up on Columbus.”

“Heard about that. He gonna be okay?”

“Well, fuck no, Stephan, he got hit by a bus.” Lily looked up from her nails for the first time.

“I meant Charlie.” Stephan winked, despite her harsh tone.

“Oh, he’s Charlie.”

“How’s the baby?”

“Evidently she leaks noxious substances.” Lily waved the Magic Marker under her nose as if it might mask the smell of ripened baby.

“All good, then,” Stephan smiled. “That’s it for today. You got anything for me?”

“I took in some red vinyl platforms yesterday. Men’s size ten.”

Stephan collected vintage seventies pimp wear. Lily was to be on the lookout for anything that came through the shop.

“How tall?”

“Four inches.”

“Low altitude,” Stephan said, as if that explained everything. “Take care, Darque.”

Lily waved her Magic Marker at him as he left, and started sorting through the mail. There were mostly bills, a couple of flyers, but one thick black envelope that felt like a book or catalog. It was addressed to Charlie Asher “in care of” Asher’s Secondhand and had a postmark from Night’s Plutonian Shore, which evidently was in whatever state started with a U. (Lily found geography not only mind-numbingly boring, but also, in the age of the Internet, irrelevant.)

Was it not addressed to the care of Asher’s Secondhand? Lily reasoned. And was she, Lily Darquewillow Elventhing, not manning the counter, the sole employee – nay – the de facto manager, of said secondhand store? And wasn’t it her right – nay – her responsibility to open this envelope and spare Charlie the irritation of the task? Onward, Elventhing! Your destiny is set, and if it be not destiny, then surely there is plausible deniability, which in the parlance of politics is the same thing.

She drew a jewel-encrusted dagger from under the counter (the stones valued at over seventy-three cents) and slit the envelope, pulled out the book, and fell in love.

The cover was shiny, like a children’s picture book, with a colorful illustration of a grinning skeleton with tiny people impaled on his fingertips, and all of them appeared to be having the time of their lives, as if they were enjoying a carnival ride that just happened to involve having a gaping hole being punched through the chest. It was festive – lots of flowers and candy in primary colors, done in the style of Mexican folk art. The Great Big Book of Death, was the title, spelled out across the top of the cover in cheerful, human femur font letters.

Lily opened the book to the first page, where a note was paper-clipped.

This should explain everything. I’m sorry.

– MF

Lily removed the note and opened the book to the first chapter: “So Now You’re Death: Here’s What You’ll Need.”

And it was all she needed. This was, very possibly, the coolest book she had ever seen. And certainly not anything Charlie would be able to appreciate, especially in his current state of heightened neurosis. She slipped the book into her backpack, then tore the note and the envelope into tiny pieces and buried them at the bottom of the wastebasket.

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