A Mann's World
by Rick Beck
Everyone Wants Something
Phil let the phone ring twice before his hand fell on top of it and dragged it off the cradle.
"Yes, didn't we just talk a minute ago."
"A little while ago. I'm trying to do damage control, and I need your assistance."
"Can't it wait?"
"I'm afraid not. It's important."
"Is this official police business, Michael?"
"It's more like an official favor for an old friend."
"You're too young to be an old anything and your last favor has mother wondering about the high cost of friendship."
"Mann…." There was a long pause.
"Yes, I haven't gone anywhere. What about Bobby? He in more trouble."
"He's working for me."
"Tell mother something she hasn't figured out on her own. Maybe I should apply for a job over there?"
"We stuck our necks out and assigned him right out of the academy because no one would know him. Actually Brown and I are the only ones who do know."
"And me. Sounds more like your idea."
"That's the trouble. I got the Commander to go along with me and now he's looking at the possible fallout if this goes wrong. I'm thinking we're losing control of him. He's starting to believe he's a cop and while that might not be a bad thing by itself, he thinks he knows what he's doing."
"A lot of that going around. What do you want me to do?"
"I need to know what he's up to. You see more of him than anyone else. We think he's close to this guy but he seems reluctant to say what he knows. At first I left him alone for the most part, thinking he'd adjust to the gay scene better if we weren't meeting all the time, but now he's distancing himself. Pulling him out is my only other option. I'd pull him out to protect the Commander but he's too important to us where he is." Connell's monotone voice couldn't hide the concern in it. The lack of emotion gave his words authenticity. Not that Phil needed convincing.
"I don't think he believes the police are giving it their best effort."
"I might have given him that idea myself, that the investigation wasn't being taken as seriously as it should. I told him that's why he was out there. He was like a puppy back then. I could train him to pee on the paper and to come when I called him. Now I don't know where he's peeing."
"Puppies grow up, Michael. He's putting two and two together and coming up with illusive three. You put him out here to do a job and you've got to admit he's attracted a lot of attention."
"Maybe too much. I didn't want him in the middle of the investigation. I wanted eyes and ears on the street inside the gay community."
"The guy isn't wearing a sign saying, Strangler. Everything happens for a reason. Let it happen and it will."
"I don't like the idea."
"He's refreshingly naïve. He puts me in mind of some of the gay boys that come here straight off the farm. They look like a deer in the headlights but they're tired of being alone and hearing they're going to hell."
"He's not gay. He's a cop and I need him to communicate with me. If he is close to this guy we need to know. My conscience is starting to bother me. I got this ball rolling."
"Maybe you're too impatient. Did he tell you that the crowd at the Frat House gave him a standing ovation after he took the hit for them?"
"No, he wouldn't give up anything like that. I can't read him. There was resistance and anger for awhile, then he was passive, and now he's evasive. That's where we are and that's what scares me."
"He might see the cops as an obstacle you know. Like we see them, not always on our side. He's looking at his fellow officers from the street and I don't think he likes the view."
"Well thanks a lot for the vote of confidence. I'm a cop too, you know."
"So what do I do, Michael? I don't know what you want. Bobby isn't a guy you can force into anything. He's not going to let me get too close. Our friendship is tentative at best."
"Tell him you're scared after what's gone down. Ask him to hang around. Maybe the cop in him will kick in. Then see what he has to say."
"It's very difficult for me to think on an hour and a half of sleep. Let me get a few hours more and I'll give it some thought and see what I can do."
"I'd be grateful. Phil, he's been close to him, the killer. This could be dangerous for you as well. You should think about that before you take this on."
"How can I not think about it? If it helps nail this guy I'll do whatever. It's personal now. He's murdered one of my friends. I don't have that many friends, Michael."
"Get some sleep and let me know what you come up with."
Robert had finished his coffee and gone to Henry's for breakfast. He looked at the faces of the men in their three piece suits and with their briefcases. He didn't have any feeling that one of them might be his man. He drove deeper into Southeast and stopped at the spot where number eight had been found.
The day was beyond chilly even with the sun shining. A dust cloud blew from between two buildings as he stood up out of the car. The killer had been here and not long ago. And that's why Robert was here now.
There were abandoned buildings scattered around and even during the middle of the day there was little traffic and few vantages where anyone would have an unobstructed view of the space, but of course Andrew Parkson would have been there late at night with his killer. No one would have been around.
He listened to the traffic a few hundred feet away rushing down South Capitol Street toward the Anacostia River. A taxicab deposited a woman at a nearby corner. She walked directly into one of the occupied buildings.
People came and went on an irregular basis. The yellow crime scene tape whipped in the cold wind between the few trees to which it had been secured. He knew this marked the spot where the body had been found. He felt obligated to see the place where Andrew Parkson had taken his last breath. He needed to see it.
When he was somewhere near the middle of where the tape had been strung, his hand went to his temple. It had been getting better. The headaches were mild and infrequent now, but suddenly it throbbed. He rubbed the corner of his eye where the sharp pain settled.
He squatted to look around the empty field, resting his hand on the dirt for balance as he surveyed the scene. How did he get them to go with him? The question became more puzzling as the body count rose. Was it merely the offer of quick satisfaction?
He watched a small stubby island of long ago dead grass blowing in the otherwise sea of dirt. His mind drifted back to North Dakota and many such islands that dotted the prairie. He saw his father on horseback and for the first time in six years the specter of home haunted him.
It was a desolate spot between buildings. He remembered Andrew Parkson's pick-up line as he surveyed the scene from yet another vantage point. Removing the man's card from his pocket, he examined it. There was no clue in the salutation. Why hadn't he talked to Andrew Parkson? Why hadn't he asked him questions, asked him where he was going, where he had been? Why did he go with this guy?
Then Robert considered what he knew about the killer and it wasn't much. What motivated him? Was he like a wild animal taking prey or was it some selection process? He seemed able to roam as he pleased. Where did the hatred come from? Robert stood, there were no answers here in this bare and open space.
It was mid-afternoon when he got to the apartment door. He turned the handle and let himself in without using his key. "Don't leave the damn door unlocked," he bellowed as he charged in.
"I'm sorry!" Toby said, tensing. He was standing on one leg in front of the sink doing dishes. A towel was wrapped around him with another wrapped around his head, hiding all of his long blond hair.
"You take another shower? You must be the cleanest kid on the block."
"I ain't been clean in so long I couldn't help it," he apologized, still leaning against the sink in a defensive posture. "I won't if you say don't. I'm sorry. I just…."
"Quit saying you're sorry, for Pete sake."
"I'm sorry. I don't know what else to say. I don't want to piss you off. I didn't mean anything by it." The fear in the boy's voice made Robert feel a bit like a bully. The kid seemed nothing short of frantic and Robert recognized the symptoms of confusion and insecurity that came from wanting to hold onto something and not knowing how.
"It's cool, kid. I'm sorry too. I'm having a bad week is all. I didn't mean to take it out on you."
"How bad could it be? I'm here to do anything you like." Toby brightened. A warm smile replaced the fearful look as he soaped up a pan in the mounds of suds that had been created in the kitchen sink.
"What are you washing. I've never used pots and pans. I mostly eat take out. What's that smell?"
"Oh, I went down to the store and got some stuff. I'm making you a spaghetti casserole for dinner, or lunch if you want it now. It'll be ready in about twenty minutes. It's even better heated up later on when the seasonings all work their way through it. That's why I like it."
Robert looked around and his initial irritation was transformed. The bed had been folded back into the couch and all the cushions were arranged with the rips down and the best sides up. The shambles that had taken over shortly after he moved in had been replaced with order and tidiness. "You spend all day cleaning up?"
"I went shopping and took a shower, but except for that, yeah. It didn't look like it had been cleaned in a while. I didn't mean…."
"Hey, kid, cool it with the sorry bit. I'm not going to bite you. It was such a mess is all, okay. I confess I'm not going to be named housewife of the month. It looks good. It looks great. It even smells better."
"Yeah, well, I'll tell you a secret if you want. If you put the garbage out once or twice a week, it helps keep down the smell and my name is Toby in case you forgot."
"I know, Toby. I'm not used to having anyone around," Robert said, moving closer to the boy. "You are a real find. I'm glad I brought you home."
"Just tell me what you want and I'll do it. I don't need much if I got a warm place to sleep and some food." The words were a plea but they came with a sudden move and ended in a hug. Toby buried his face against Robert's chest. The hug was a tight one but there was an uncertain shiver that came from the boy.
Robert's hands and arms became obstacles. He couldn't return the hug. He did manage to pat Toby's head as the boy broke the hold, stepping back fast. "I don't get to be close to anyone very often. I don't mean anything by it," Toby said, with his back up against the sink as Robert studied him.
"Me either and I'm not a big hugger," Robert explained, defending his position.
"Whenever I'm close to someone and like them, it's hard for me not to want to hold on. I think I'm always expecting to be thrown out. That happens a lot. People think they want you when they first see you and than they figure out that they don't once they been with you." They were both silent for a few moments, then
Toby's thoughts returned to his day's activities. "Oh yeah, I went to the drug store and got some thread. I sewed up the cuts in your furniture as best I could. I flipped over the cushions cause you can't really fix them too good. I used the bags you had in the kitchen to get rid of the trash. I hope I didn't screw up," Toby said, watching Robert for any sign of approval.
"No kid, you did just fine. Damn, I didn't expect you to clean up. I know it was a mess." Robert looked around the transformed apartment and appreciated the change.
"Yeah, well, I ain't no slob. Somebody trusts me to stay at their pad and I try to do my part if I can."
"Kid, quit jumping. You did fine. I appreciate you helping out. I didn't expect it. I'm a little surprised. I thought you were...."
"A hustler? Low life? I got some pride and I ain't a criminal because I'm on the street, you know. I do what I got to do so's I don't starve. Your stuff is safe with me. I'll keep an eye on it for you and I won't take anything. I got one question for you though."
"Yeah, you've earned a question."
"You a cop or something? I saw those uniforms… when I was cleaning up. I mean it ain't none of my business who you are but I saw them and I was wondering why you had them."
"I was working to be a cop but right now I'm not sure what I am. It's not what I thought."
"You was a cop? Sure enough? Those uniforms are the real McCoy, dude? Far out."
"Sure enough. The real McCoy."
"I wanted to be a cop when I was a kid."
"You are a kid, kid."
"Kids ain't seen what I seen and they ain't done what I done. I thought cops was cool until I got busted a few times. They messed me up good back home. I didn't think much about it after that," Toby's voice tapered off as he remembered where he had been.
"The mark on my face," Robert touched it. "A cop did that. Messed me up too."
"Honest Injun? He didn't like you much, huh?"
"You could say that." Robert laughed at the words. Yeah, he thought, a real honest Injun. What a joke.
"He trying to get your brain to come out your other ear?"
"Never thought of it that way. I suppose it wouldn't bother him none if he did. He wanted me to stop doing what I was doing and I didn't stop quick enough to suit him."
"That's why you ain't so keen on cops anymore?"
"You can say it opened my eyes some. He mistook me for a gay guy."
"Pigs get mean some times. I seen them nail a dude once, I heard the bones in his head crack they hit him so hard. He wasn't doing nothin' but hustling. That's when I left New York. I was scared… more scared after that. Those are bad cops and if they knew I saw what they done… I'd be dead." Toby shook his head and there was fear in his eyes as he leaned on the sink.
"Cops are like people, Toby, good ones and bad ones. You can't judge everyone by one incident."
"Was you a good one? Bet you was! What happened anyway?"
"Person, or cop?"
"Cop. I seen ya's a groovy dude. Was ya a good cop is what I'm asking? I know ya was."
"I don't know. I don't think I was ever a real cop to them. Just hung out to dry when I came down the pike 'cause I was convenient. Now things are so complicated I don't know what I am any more."
"You'd a been a good one. Maybe it'll work out." Toby had already made up his mind. He got scared when Robert raised his voice but he felt good being around him. And in spite of that fear he also felt safer.
"I can't talk about it right now. It didn't work out the way I thought it would. I'll explain it to you sometime. Getting hit changed my mind about a lot of stuff. Maybe he knocked some sense into me."
"That's cool. I don't want to know nothin' you don't want me to know. You ever want to talk about it though, I'm right here." Toby looked over at Robert with wide eyes and admiration before going over to the stove and popping the oven door open. While he was removing the casserole, the towel came loose and unwrapped from around his waist, falling to the floor. "Damn it," burst from his lips. "I can't do anything right. I'm a screw up."
Robert moved to pick up the towel while Toby was trying to find a clear place to set down the bubbling dish. Robert wrapped the towel around his waist so that it covered him back up. He tucked it in at one side. It held fine. "There you go kid. Can't let you walk around with it all hanging out now can we?"
Toby's face had gone crimson as the flash of anger passed, leaving him feeling guilty for his outburst. "Thanks."
"Don't worry about it. We all get caught short sometimes."
"Yeah, but I'm trying to make a good impression so's you don't think I'm some kind a dirt bag. You know what I been doin' and all," Toby explained to the soapy water.
"We all have to do things to get along. You've got nothing to be ashamed of. You were dealt a tough hand and you've done the best you can with it. Don't punish yourself any more than you got to. You've been punished enough."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
"It's what my pappy would say. If you know you can do better, do better, and until you can do better, do the best you can."
"He sounds cool, like you."
"I don't think he is much like me. I haven't seen him in a long time."
"Maybe I'll get to know him one day," Toby said, feeling better as he watched Robert's reaction.
"Maybe I will too. We didn't like each other much. I mean I loved him but he never cared much for me."
"He ever belt you around?" "My father? No, he never hit me. He had this look, you know. It could freeze you dead in your tracks. Me anyway. That was all it took if I was screwing up and I was always screwing something up," Robert remembered for Toby. "You knew when he was pissed all right. It's funny, I was thinking about him today and now you ask about him. You're the second person and I hadn't thought about him in years. Weird huh?"
"Where is your dad?"
"Back in North Dakota."
"That's a long way."
"You can say that again." Robert instinctively found himself doing something for Toby that his mother had done for him a thousand times, he took the towel that was starting to unravel from the boy's head and began to dry his hair.
Toby stood very still, thinking Robert must like him to be doing that. He felt safe under the strong hands and he hadn't felt safe in a long time.
"Thanks," Toby said, taking the towel.
"You've earned your keep."
"Far out. I aim to please."
"How long you been on the street?" Robert asked, suddenly struck by the vulnerability of his young ward.
"A couple a years I guess. You lose track of time."
"It must be tough for someone your size?"
"Size ain't everything, you know," Toby said with a crooked smile.
"That's what guys say who have it."
"You learn how to stay on the right side of things when you're my size. Most big guys only want to kick your ass at first. After that they get other ideas and you're safe mostly. I stay away from the mean ones and stick close to the ones what like me. It's not so bad if you pay attention. I only get hurt when I don't."
"Where'd you get the money to buy the food and the other stuff?"
"That ten bucks from the old dude you stole from me."
"Oh, yeah, Albert. You sure you can cook, kid?"
"You better hope so." The spaghetti was steaming in a glass dish Robert hadn't seen before and the cheese and tomato sauce were thick on top."
Robert stuck his finger in the cheese and licked it. "Hey! You got to wait. Sit at the table. Here you can put the bread out and sit down. Be careful. It's hot."
Robert carried the garlic bread to the table and took a cherry tomato from the salad by his plate, popping it into his mouth. Toby carefully brought over the casserole with the one pot holder he found and a towel. He dished up a big gob for Robert and then sat down to watch his face as he dug in.
Robert was surprised that it was not simply eatable but quite tasty. It reminded him of lasagna, which he loved, and got seldom after his mother died.
"Look, I want you to remember when I'm not here you need to keep the door locked."
" I went out ya know and when I came back in I just forgot."
" I'll leave the key and you can get one made. I'll leave you some money. I don't want you spending yours."
"I don't mind if it's for us."
"There is no us, kid. You work for me is all."
"Yes, sir. I know," Toby said, but his wide-open eyes and the sound of his voice told another story that Robert could see and do nothing about.
"Just don't get any ideas. I don't mind having you around but it ain't permanent. I can't take you on to raise. I can't even take care of myself."
"That's cool. Whatever you say. I'll do laundry if you want? I hung everything in the closet but I could smell some of it needed washing."
"Sure, I don't have any change on me. There's a place next to the market. Check about getting the buckskin done proper. You don't want to ruin it. That's a fine shirt."
"Okay! I can get change and the key made at the grocery. That's no problem."
"Keep the door locked."
"Yes, sir. Do you like it?" Toby continued to watch him carefully.
"Do I like it? Does a bear shit in the woods? Give me some more of that crap before it cools down. You can cook kid. Where'd you learn all this stuff."
"It ain't crap. It's a spaghetti casserole." Dishing up two more heaping spoons full, Toby smiled as he dug in, not looking up except to grab more garlic bread.
"When's the last time you were home?" He asked between bites.
"When I was your age."
"That's a long time ago."
Robert looked at Toby carefully before saying, "Not that long ago."
"Why'd you leave?"
"Mother died. He didn't want me."
Toby's eyes widened and he had a sudden feeling of comradeship with his benefactor. He figured nothing was the best thing to say about that.
"I use to screw up. My old man hided me."
Robert had seen Toby's back. He'd figured out where the scars had come from without asking. Hearing the words made him feel queasy. He hated adults who mistreated their kids. "I wasn't like the other kids. Couldn't do anything right. The old man was always staring at me, shaking his head."
"Look kid, nobody has the right to beat you like that. Not your old man, not anyone, never, you hear? You did what you had to do. You did the right thing."
"I didn't get a vote, kid. My old man got the only vote."
"You get the guy what done that to your face?"
Robert looked up from his plate. No, he hadn't done anything. Yes, it had been a cop and everyday it seemed to become more complicated, but that didn't change how he felt about it. He'd always fought back as a kid and this was the first time he hadn't. It was unacceptable. "Not yet," he replied.
He cleaned the plate with another slice of garlic bread. He would give up any hopes he had of ever becoming a cop to kick the guy's ass who had beat him down. There was an anger he didn't like and didn't know how to control.
"You coming home tonight?"
"You going to be all right if I don't?"
"Sure. I'm fine. I got heat, a TV, and food. I'm in heaven, dude." Toby was low key and waited on Robert at every opportunity. They watched cartoons after Toby did the dishes. They laughed, sipped Coke and made small talk as the afternoon blended into evening.
They ate sandwiches made from the remainder of the loaf of Italian bread and the fresh salami Toby had the man cut off the roll at the market. Toby thought about the guy who watched him as he waited for the salami. He didn't remember where he'd seen him before at first, but he knew he had seen him somewhere, and then when he looked back after coming out of the market and saw the man watching him, he remembered the guy in the green car who asked about Bobby. He would have told Bobby, but he wasn't sure he should bring it up. It didn't seem that important, running into the same guy twice in the same area, but it had made him feel uneasy both times. He just wasn't sure he wasn't making a mountain out of a molehill.
There was more Coke and easy small talk that went with Gilligan's Island, and the argument over who was hottest, Marianne or Ginger? Robert showered and changed into his going out clothes as Toby sat in the corner of the couch, being careful to stay out of the way. He wished Robert was staying there with him but he understood he was but a temporary fixture and the man had his own life.
"You look nice," Toby said in a quiet reassuring voice.
"Thanks, squirt. It takes work."
"Do you forget my name or do you just call me those things to piss me off."
"I don't usually let anyone hang around me, kid. You might cut me some slack and be thankful I say anything."
Toby didn't answer while doing his best to become part of the scenery but he watched every move Robert made. Being aware of how easy it was to talk your way out of a good thing, he was determined not to make that mistake if he could help it.
As Robert walked out he picked the key back up telling Toby they would get one made in the morning.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]