The blinking red and blue lights of the cruisers outside the alley seemed strange so close to the police station. In the dim, pre-dawn light, they lit the street, creating long, ominous shadows across the ornate exteriors of the buildings lining the block. Police tape roped off the alley, and the occasional flash of a camera blazed like a localised lightning storm.
The area was swarming with cops. Mark had parked around the corner, respectfully, not wanting to get in their way, although he was currently jogging towards the crime scene. As he approached, he saw Sergeant Donahue giving brisk orders to a uniformed officer, who nodded before heading towards one of the cruisers.
“Sarge,” Mark called as he neared the scene.
Donahue’s head snapped to face Mark, his eyes narrowing. The huge man matched Mark’s pace, thundering towards him before grabbing him by the arm and pulling him further from the scene, sweeping the smaller man up in his wake. “What the fuck you doing here, Mark?” he demanded, his voice a low, angry growl. “You listening to your police scanner again?”
“I heard,” Mark gulped, “I heard this was like – ”
“Like Bailey?” Donahue finished for him. His hands on his hips, Mark’s former superior stepped away, shaking his head. “Yeah, fine, it’s just like Bailey. What’s your point?”
Taken aback, Mark’s forehead knitted. “Doesn’t this mean you’re finally going to look into Johnny? I’m already on the inside, man, I can get so much – ”
“No!” Donahue cut Mark off, bellowing loud enough that some of the uniforms nearby stopped and stared. Waving them off, he lowered his voice. “Drop,” he started slowly, “Your obsession with Johnny. It’s getting you nowhere, and if you keep it up, I’m going to have you arrested for stalking.”
“But – ”
“This murder doesn’t link Johnny to Bailey, it links whoever killed this poor bastard to whoever killed Bailey, got it?” Donahue told Mark. “Now hopefully this is gonna give us some new leads, so what I suggest you do is get your shit sorted out and come help us on this.”
“I can help you now,” Mark protested. “Just let me take a look at the scene, man. I might be able to see something you missed.”
“You know I can’t let you do that, Mark,” Donahue scolded. “’Sides, we’re almost done here. Just cleaning up now.”
As if on cue, two paramedics carrying a stretcher between them came out of the alley. On the stretcher laid a long black body bag, zipped up almost to the top. Those few unzipped inches that had been neglected, gaping open, suddenly split, expanding as the stretcher jolted over a curb. An arm, blood-stained and mottled after festering for over twenty-four hours in San Francisco’s summer heat, fell through the hole, dragging the zipper down further with its weight, until a livid, angry face peered out of the body bag.
The paramedics steadied the stretcher and rushed to put the limb back in and reseal the bag, but Mark had already seen, and was pacing around Donahue. His jaw was slack and his movements slow as if he was in a dream.
“Mark,” Donahue called after him in warning. “Mark, I told you to back off.”
Mark barely heard. “I know that guy,” he whispered to himself.
“What?” Donahue demanded.
“I know that guy,” Mark said clearly, firmly, loud enough to hear.
“Oh, yeah?” Donahue raised an eyebrow. “Please don’t tell me this all connects back to this Johnny guy.”
“It does.” Mark turned to face the Sergeant. “That’s the drug dealer that was at Johnny’s apartment building the day before yesterday. He was threatening this kid who’s like a son to Johnny. Me and Johnny disarmed him and handed him over to you guys.”
Donahue gaped. “Alright,” he conceded. “You win. Johnny’s officially got my interest.”
A black tank top exposing his thick, muscular arms, Johnny strode through the alley outside the apartment building. “Hey, Johnny,” a voice called after him. “What’s going on, man?”
Johnny whirled around, spotting the speaker. “Oh, hi, Mike,” he reached out, and they clasped hands for a moment. “What’s new?”
“Actually, Johnny,” Mike started, pacing over to the twin garbage cans shining at the side of the alley, “I got a little bit of a tragedy on my hands, yeah.” He paused, putting his hands on his hips as he tried to organize his story in his mind. “Me and Michelle,” he stammered, “We were… We were making out, uh,” he blushed, “At your place.”
Johnny chuckled in response.
“And, uh, Lisa and Claudette sort of, uh, walked in on us. But that’s not the end of the story.”
“Go on,” Johnny prompted. “I’m listening.”
“Okay,” Mike steadied himself. “We’re going at it. And, um, I get out of there as fast as possible, you know? I get my pants, I get my shirt, and I get out of there,” he recounted. “And then about halfway down the stairs, I realize that I have misplaced, I have forgotten something.”
“My underwear,” Mike finally admitted, which might have been a surprise if we hadn’t already seen the scene Mike was describing.
Johnny chuckled in response.
“So I come back to get it,” Mike continued, “You know, and I pretend that I need a book, you know, I’m like, looking for my book.” He performed a poor imitation of someone who was looking for their book. “And I reach in, I put the underwear in my pocket and slide out real quick.”
“Well, Claudette, she saw it sticking out of my pocket,” Mike uttered, dejected. “She pulls it out,” he mimed holding up a pair of boxers by the waistband, “And she’s showing everybody,” by everybody, apparently meaning Lisa, “Uh, me underwears.”
“You must be kidding, underwear,” Johnny laughed at the absurd image. “I got the picture.”
“Yeah,” Mike mumbled, shrugging. “I don’t know what to…”
Johnny put a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder. “That’s life,” he told him.
Throwing his hand up, Mike mumbled and shrugged again. His muttering was cut off by a voice from down the alley calling out, “Hey, Johnny.” Denny jogged up, holding a football. “Hey, Mike.”
“Hey, Denny,” Johnny greeted him.
“’Sup, buddy,” Mike asked.
Holding up the ball, Denny grinned. “You guys want to play some football?”
“I gotta see Michelle in a little bit,” Mike decline, “To make out with her.”
“Aw, come on,” Denny groaned.
Joining his chorus, Johnny also urged, “Come on!”
Overcome by their argument, Mike shook his head. “Alright, whatever,” he agreed, accepting the football that Denny was pressing into his hand.
“I’m going out,” Denny explained as he went long, jogging further up the alley and holding his hands up to solicit a pass. Sending the ball flying in a gentle arc, Mike tossed the football to Denny. Throwing the ball around the triangle formed by the three men, Denny, Johnny and Mike joked and laughed as they played.
“Sorry you had to see that,” Mike told Denny, apparently talking about an alternate version of the underwear story that involved more characters. Or maybe it happened again, on a completely different occasion?
“I’m not sorry,” Denny replied mischievously, catching the ball easily.
Johnny chuckled in response.
“You enjoyed it,” Mike teased. “Almost as much as I did.” Flying across the few feet between them, the football was tossed around the small group.
“Studying, right?” Denny teased back, before adding sadly, “I don’t study like that.”
Catching the ball, Johnny confirmed, “He doesn’t.”
Denny let out a loud, abrupt guffaw before looking towards the entrance of the alley. He spotted Mark coming toward them and broke into a wide grin.
“He, Denny, what’s up?” Mark greeted him.
“Oh, hi, Mark,” Johnny said.
Mike passed the ball to Mark as he entered the circle. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Not too much, what about you guys?” Mark replied, twirling the ball expertly between his fingers. Smoothly, he threw the ball, overhand, to Denny.
“He’s just telling us about an underwear issue he has,” Denny answered.
“Dude, don’t,” Mike stuttered, desperately trying to shush Denny.
“Underwear?” Mark repeated, catching the ball again. “What’s that?” he said, presumably wondering about the underwear issue and not what underwear were.
“It’s embarrassing man,” Mike tried to shrink, “I don’t want to get into it.”
“Underwear, man?” Mark asked again, giving Mike’s shoulder a playful shove.
Regretting bringing up his humiliating story and willing to do anything to deflect the questions and get everyone to drop the topic, Mike saw his opportunity and took it. At Mark’s gentle tap, he threw himself to the ground, stumbling wildly into the garbage cans and knocking them down as he flailed clumsily. Sprawled on the ground, Mike groaned in pain. Their game of football – and their jibes at Mike’s expense – completely forgotten, the others crowded around, their faces full of concern as they asked if Mike was okay.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Mike replied, but he let his voice come out in a shrill whine, playing up his distress. Strong arms reached down and wrapped around his elbows and shoulders, lifting him up off the pavement.
“Do you want to see a doctor?” Johnny asked.
“No, no, no,” Mike declined in a staccato string of negatives. “I need to…” He trailed off as Mark slung Mike’s arm over his shoulder, easily taking his weight. “I’m good. I’m alright. I’m fine.”
“I’ll take him home,” Mark offered.
Johnny nodded. “Why don’t you take him home,” he agreed. “And, listen, Mike, if you need anything,” he called after the pair, slowly limping down the alley, “Call me. Any time at all. Alright?” As Mike and Mark disappeared, he added, “See you guys.”
“See you guys,” Denny echoed, standing next to Johnny, shocked at how suddenly their merriment had turned to tragedy. As he reached down to retrieve the football, Johnny shook his head.
“Let’s go home, Denny,” Johnny suggested, patting the eighteen-year-old on the shoulder.