GM - Story #7

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Chapter 27

It took Cliff several hours to find his way back to the center of the city and even longer to find the bus station. He spotted the Earthly Eatery, which served as a landmark to guide him in the right direction. He noticed patrons coming and going through the front door and realized the establishment was open for business. He decided to inquire about how he might take advantage of their hiring policy and walked in the main entrance.

A pleasant woman close to his age met him and asked him to walk around to the business entrance in the back of the building. Noticing a break in customer activity, she offered to walk with him. A young, well-dressed man, at least half his age greeted him in a small cluttered office and introduced himself as the manager. Lean, with a trim goatee, tight spikey hair and skinny jeans, the manager explained the company’s hiring policy and guidelines to him.

“All applicants have to submit to weekly drug tests for the first three months and then monthly after that,” he said. “They have to set up bank accounts and receive payroll through electronic deposit.”

He explained that the restaurant would work with them to find a bank. In the employee break room, the staff could store their belongings, including their bank card in a secure password-protected locker. They had an ATM machine in their building where the staff could withdraw cash as needed without the hassle of having to go to a bank.

The important rules of conduct, the manager continued, included that the staff had to show up on time, work hard, never steal food, stay away from the alcohol and complete their shift as scheduled. He had an opening available if Cliff could pass their qualifications. He could start within the week if he wanted.

The image of Rindy’s window shade ruffling in the top frame of the house came to mind. He thought about Nancy’s agreement that he could work his way back into her life if he could get a job and build stability in his life.

“We help you save your money,” the manager said. “We offer healthcare benefits after three months. We manage enrollment, administration and all your claims for you. We have a shower and bring in a barber or hairdresser every Thursday evening. We try to help any way we can.”

Cliff pictured himself living in an apartment, fostering a new relationship with his daughter, visiting for Sunday brunch.

“You look pretty well put together,” the manager said, regarding his fresh haircut and cleanly shaved face. “Got a place to stay? We can help you find a place if you don’t have one. We own a low-rent apartment building and subsidize payments after a year of employment. Everyone has the ability to manage their lives. Sometimes they just need a little help.”

The manager handed him a business card and asked him to return the next morning to fill out employment paperwork. As Cliff slid the card into his coat pocket, he felt the broken watch with the cracked face and the frozen time stamp.

“You have more than one place?” he asked, conjuring the image of Winona standing by Elliot Bay with the wind rustling her curly hair.

“Four,” the manager said, pulling out a tri-folded brochure. “We’re in LA, San Fran, Portland and Seattle. The concept’s really taking off. I have to say, 99% of the homeless and ex-convict employees we hire work out and go on to lead healthy, productive lives.”

“Are there any openings in Seattle?” Cliff asked.

“Let me check,” the manager said, clicking through the company web site.

Cliff tucked the brochure into his coat pocket with Nancy’s business card and the commemorative watch.

“Yes, in fact, there are,” the manager said. “Two openings as we speak. You know someone up there?”

Kipp fried grilled cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread with bacon and tomato. Winona couldn’t remember having had such tasty food in years, asking for a second sandwich immediately upon completing the first.

In the gap between her first and second visits, Kipp had purchased shampoo and conditioner, leaving them in his shower for Winona’s return. Freshly washed, shampooed and conditioned, her hair glistened and smelled fruity.

Kipp’s wife had been slimmer in the hips with a considerably smaller chest, so the pairs of jeans and blouses didn’t fit, but the dresses and skirts all fit adequately enough to provide her with a whole new wardrobe. She continued to sheepishly protest as Kipp pushed his wife’s unused clothes on her out of respect for the dead. But Kipp only encouraged her more fervently each time she expressed concern about taking his wife’s clothing.

“She cared about the well-being of other people less fortunate than her,” he explained. “She’d be so happy to know her possessions are going to someone who needs and appreciates them.”

Winona ran her hands down her hips and felt the clean, fresh fabric.

“To be honest,” Kipp said, his eyes puffing slightly. “Seeing you make good use of her clothes makes me feel like I’m finally honoring her life in a meaningful way. I think she’s smiling down on us both.”

Latoya arrived soon after Kipp cleared the plates. Alex sat on the backyard patio with Summer and Mandy. Winona read the comics section of the paper.

“Amaya fingered Hutch and Peters,” she said to Kumi. “She won’t make a live ID or testify. But we have our first confirmation of their involvement and it’s bad news.”

“They actually abducted the girls?” Kumi asked.

“Amaya’s face said it all,” Latoya replied. “Japanese, English or body language, there’s no question, they’re the ones.”

Kumi moved to the dining room where she and Danny had set their cork board with the mind map of facts, evidence and clues. She looked at the lengths of string that stretched from Julio De La Cruz in the north end of town to Harsh Garlag in the south.

“Maybe it’s not as simple as Julio sending the girls south and Harsh sending the drugs north,” she said, unhooking one of the strings and reconnecting it to Hutch’s picture. “Our cops steal the girls themselves and probably the cars too. There’s a correlation in the data between the location of the stolen cars and the missing girls. De La Cruz sends the girls south using one driver. Garlag swaps the girls for the drugs and sends them north to De La Cruz, who takes the drugs and leaves the stolen cars for Hutch and Peters to recover.”

“Isn’t that what you and Danny already figured out with the strings?” Latoya asked.

“Yes, but it’s not a line between De La Cruz and Garlag,” Kumi said. “It can’t be. Garlag would have no idea when and where to send his drivers without communication with Hutch and Peters. That’s the evidence we’re missing.”

“We have the burner phones,” Latoya said. “But no evidence of them contacting Hutch or Peters.”

“Right,” Kumi said, writing the word ‘Burner Phones’ in the space between the picture of Hutch and Julio. “Unless…”

“Unless there are missing phones?” Latoya guessed.

“Well, no, maybe,” Kumi said. “Hutch and Peters took out De La Cruz. Nobody saw them. What if the phones were actually Hutch’s and Peters’. They could have wiped them clean, pressed De La Cruz’s dead fingers on the keys and presented them as evidence. Not only would they get away with it, they’d set themselves up as the heroes who busted the ring.”

“Oh man,” Latoya gasped. “Makes it look like an open-shut case between De La Cruz and Garlag. That’ll be hard to prove otherwise without the evidence from the phones.”

“It’s not a straight line,” Kumi blustered, smacking the table as she spoke. “It’s a triangle, with Hutch and Peters running point. They get the girls. They steal the cars. They leave them in the city’s blind spots and inform De La Cruz where to get them. He sends the girls down. Garlag send the drugs back. Our dirty cops get the credit for the stolen cars, a squeaky-clean district - safe from gang turf war violence and a plausible out to pin it all on De La Cruz if it goes south.”

“Jesus,” Latoya muttered.

“Fucking brilliant,” Kumi said. “And nearly goddam foolproof.”

The slam of Danny’s car door broke the tension. They could hear Kipp’s front door smack violently against the jam. Danny ran into the kitchen, turning the corner and almost barreling into Latoya in the dining room.

“They’re all dirty bastards,” Danny said. “And Garlag’s in Fremont, looking to clean up. He’s going after our witnesses. He’s got the other two homeless guys from under the bridge.”

Winona huffed into the dining room, her blue dress swinging wildly across her ankles.

“Jackson and Duff?” she said. “You can’t let them get hurt. You have to find them.”

Cliff arrived at the bus station a half hour too late. The mid-day bus for Seattle left and the next one wouldn’t depart until the early evening. He wandered the streets outside the bus station looking for food. The manager at the Earthly Eats restaurant had packed a chicken salad wrap with a bottle of natural spring water and an apple in a brown handled bag, which he ate as he walked through the city. But the half-day’s exercise caused his empty stomach to rumble. As evening approached, he decided to fill his belly, find an alley and get a decent nap before deciding whether to catch the bus to Seattle or stay in San Francisco and work toward a reunion with his daughter.

He reviewed the prices at the upscale stores and decided to challenge himself to earn the money for his dinner, rather than simply spending the money Nancy had given to him.

“Save your seed money,” he told himself. “Earn your daily cash flow.”

He found a spot on a bench inside the bus station, within earshot of a line of people waiting for the bus to LA to arrive. He proudly introduced himself to the crowd, projected a loud confident voice and launched into his revised story.

He talked about his troubles over the past 12 years. He described his desire to reconnect with Rindy. He even told stories about the kind people in his life that he admired including Kipp Collina, who housed and fed him, Doctor Kushnick, who healed his injury after his failed suicide attempt, the cheerful clerk at the community market in Seattle who traded cans for cash with Winona and the visionary manager of the Earthly Eats, that endeavored to help as many homeless people as he could.

He told his story passionately and honestly, sharing his positive experiences with Winona and the heartbreak of seeing her with another man. People reacted favorably and generously to his storytelling and he made well more than a single meal’s worth of cash for the evening.

One older, well-dressed and well-groomed gentleman in a bowler cap and bow tie handed him a five-dollar bill and then asked him a question.

“You obviously miss and love your daughter,” he said. “But I think you’re also in love with Winnie in Seattle. Which way are you going to go? What are you going to do?”

The dilemma kept Cliff awake with his mind swirling. The bus station cleared. Several homeless people lay across the available benches. The security officers walked past them, ignoring them and allowing them their rest.

Cliff curled up on his bench and tried to close his eyes. But a familiar voice called out to him.

“What are you going to do?” the old hag from the Sound Transit train called to him from the bench across the aisle from him. “Just close your eyes. Go to sleep. Forget the bus. Forget the girl. This is your new life. A bum in the train station. This is your hell; where you belong.”

Cliff opened his eyes. There she was, stub legs protruding from her ruffled skirt, saggy breasts revealing long wrinkled stretch marks running down her exposed cleavage. Her yellowy teeth flashed as her smile stretched open. Her wavy grey hair flopped across her face. But her eyes, like laser beams, bore through him, gripped his attention and occupied his thoughts.

Cliff closed his eyes and covered his ears. But her voice pierced through the backs of his hands and entered his ears as if she were inches away from him. Even with his eyes closed, the image of her face imprinted on his consciousness. Realizing the futility of resisting her, he sat up and faced her.

They stared, like statues, eye-to-eye. The woman sneered and smirked a knowing smile as if able to read Cliff’s past through his eyes. Cliff submitted to the illusion and glared back.

“What do you want from me?” he asked.

“I’m gone,” she said. “I don’t want anything. What do you want for yourself?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I want to be with Rindy. I’ve wanted to reconnect with her for so long. I want to clean up and get off the streets. I think I could do that here in San Francisco.”

“What about Winona,” the Hag asked. “And the group of people who care about you in Seattle?”

“I want to go back to them as well,” he said. “I think I have important evidence to help solve a dangerous mystery. I’m afraid Winnie and the others might be in danger.”

“So, what do you want to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know what I want to do.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question,” she suggested.

“What wrong question?”

“Do you believe in me?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you believe I am real?”

Cliff didn’t answer. It didn’t occur to him that he had the ability to decide whether or not she was real.

“I don’t think you’re real,” he said.

“Why do you think you keep seeing me?”

“I just think I’m a little crazy, I guess.”

“When do you see me?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“When?” she shrieked, startling him.

“When I’m feeling the most desperate and alone, I guess.”

“Yes,” the hag smiled. “You carry a lot of pain and guilt.”

“I don’t understand,” Cliff said.

“Don’t seek the answer to your question,” the hag said. “Seek the right question.”

“What question?”

“Exactly,” she said. “If you owe me anything, it’s that. Figure that out and maybe you’ll find your peace. And, I’ll find mine.”

Cliff closed his eyes.

“You’re not real,” he shouted, echoing across the cavernous granite walls of the bus station. “And, I’m not crazy.”

When he opened his eyes, the hag disappeared. A feeble elderly woman sat on the bench across from him. She shook slightly and coughed excessively. Cliff studied her. She wore a similar ruffled skirt as the hag had worn the night he encountered her among the living. Her hair flopped in a similar manner. Her nose ran and she had dark splotches of unhealthy skin running down the sides of her face.

Cliff walked over to her. He took her hand into his. The right question ran though his head.

“It’s not about what I want,” he said to himself. “It’s about who needs me now. Rindy’s happy and healthy. Nancy’s taking care of her. Our time’ll come. Winnie and Alex, Elmer, Jackson and Duff; they need me now.”

He took the wad of cash that Nancy had given him. He counted out what he needed for the bus ride to Seattle. He added another $20 bill for other expenses. He rested the remainder of his money in the palm of the woman’s hand. Her fingers closed around the bills. Her round, darkened face beamed. Her smile reminded him of what the hag might have looked like under happier circumstances.

He slid his fingers past hers, leaving the money in the palm of her hand. He folded her clenched first into the pocket of her skirt and wandered to the gate for the evening bus to Seattle.

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