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Frederick Zackel

Mario and Cheryse

After midnight the foggy streets of San Francisco were like a foreign country. The night was so dead quiet, the hookers had spread out from the Tenderloin and into the decent people's worlds, and now were promenading across from the Cliff Hotel. And still no johns were striking at the bait. Last time I'd seen San Francisco night life this quiet was the last time an Alcoholic Anonymous convention hit town.

A beat cop who quit the streets to become a junior high school teacher once told me what hooking is. He said the word "prostitute" comes from a Latin word that means "to stare," and hookers stare for hours. Time passes slowly when you stare for a living. When you're new to it, the hours go by like years, and then you grow used to it, and the years go by like hours, until one day you realize that what you're staring for is what's long gone.

I did a stake-out at Hooker Heaven, the corner of O'Farrell and Leavenworth. I parked behind a Volvo with an old bumper sticker on the rear fender that read, "Die, Yuppie Scum!" He was another individual unclear on the concept.

Time dragged like a legless dog. Now and again vice cops cruised by in their unmarked cars that everybody who works the streets instantly recognizes, and every-so-often beat cops came by, swapped lies and bullshit with old regulars, and memorized new faces for next time. The streets went on and on as they always have. Seventy minutes into the stake-out I watched a homeless man fight his shadow. He fought dirty. It still came out a draw.

Two hours into the stake-out, I saw the girl again.

She was holding up a building, just one of the many hookers scattered like fireplugs around the neighborhood. She had changed clothes. Now she wore a red skin-tight dress and red high heels and a thin parka. From my vantage point, her fourteen year old eyes were cold-blooded and ruthless.

I watched her work the street. I watched a homeless man give a calculating look at a woman he couldn't afford. I watched her flip him off when his back was turned. I watched her get into a purple Camaro. The purple Camaro drove a hundred yards, then parked in an alley. Ah, the old handjob in an alley.

Don't ask me the going rate. Just because I work on the streets doesn't mean I live on them. The last time I was curious, I was new to the streets, and spending money that way struck me as foolish and deadly.

But it was handjob interruptus when a San Francisco garbage truck came down the alley the wrong way. Like all garbage trucks in the City and County of San Francisco, after dark he drove like he had the right-of-way over all but emergency vehicles. He was determined to go the wrong way down the alley, and no out-of-towner scoring a handjob was going to slow him down or keep him from his appointed rounds.

The garbage truck leaned on its horn, and the sound was like a locomotive blowing through a cloistered nunnery. He had a route, a schedule, and zero sympathy for anyone parked in his path. He blasted his horn and hit his high beams, and his high beams lit up the purple Camaro's interior like klieg lights at a Hollywood premiere. He blared his horn, he sat on his horn until all the apartment dwellers above the alley on either side were screaming for the purple Camaro to back out and let the garbage truck through so they could go back to sleep, goddammit! The purple Camaro had no choice but to back out of the alley. Once he pulled backwards into the street, and the garbage truck had swung around him, loudly cursing him all the way, the driver of the purple Camaro kicked Cheryse Geneva's skinny ass out.

Cheryse Geneva stood on the street again, staring at the long shadows that were everywhere. She looked as desperate and lonely as the country & western music sounded that was coming from the deserted laundromat behind her.

Time passed like a gallstone. I watched two transvestites kiss. I watched pigeons pecking at roadkill. I watched a drunk in a wheelchair cruising down the middle lane of O'Farrell Street.

The night got colder. Hotel flags were snapping to attention from the winds off the ocean. The winds pressed her parka against her dress. She stood at the bus stop like a victim waiting for a villain. She held hot coffee from a fast food outlet and sipped it as if it were the Holiest Sacrament.

An empty bus after midnight came down the street and stopped in front of her. The bus had a placard on its flank that said Use Condoms. She walked from the bus stop, huddled in her whore's dress, her thin parka.

A drunk got off the bus, looked around and licked his lips at the sight of her, and tried to hustle her. He looked twenty-two years old. He was apple-cheeked and had blonde hair. Had the California surfer look down pat. He probably lived in blue jeans and T-shirts. And he tried to hustle her. But something was wrong, and he wasn't right, and she tried brushing him off. He tried copping a feel, and she pushed him aside and off her. Snarling and growling, the drunk came at her with hatred and blood-lust. He didn't see her whip out her stun gun and zap him.

She stunned him good. He lay on the sidewalk, clutching his face, and howled with the misery and the pain of a wounded animal. She zapped him again, just a quickie, to scatter his brains, then left him quivering alone on the cold concrete. She walked uphill, into the shadowy recesses of a residence hotel, and watched him drag his maimed body downhill. She stayed long after he was gone.

When she no longer felt hunted, she came out from the shadows like a coyote comes down from the hills. Nobody noticed, or seemed to care, and quickly all was quiet and cold again. In the long hours of night, what is five minutes?

Stiff gusts of wind began blowing in before Last Call, and those nightly breezes off the ocean turned mean-spirited. Still not a dollar or a dime to be found. Work the streets every night, and you know soon enough some nights are like that. Lonely nights, when the only thing on the streets is the wind.

She had a long night of nothing happening. She worked to 3 AM, an hour past Last Call, until even the drunk bartenders had found their way home. Then she flagged a cab and left the streets.

The cab took Jones to Golden Gate Avenue, then crossed Market, and took 6th to Harrison. Then the cab climbed onto the 101 freeway south at 7th Street. Only a handful of cars were up there at this hour. The cab and I rode awhile through a sleeping city, then we both left the 101 freeway south at the Candlestick exit. But we didn't hang left and cross over 101 to reach the 'Stick or Hunter's Point. Instead we bore right and took Old Bayshore Boulevard and the Cow Palace turn-off that led down into the housing projects that were Vivisection Valley. We wound down the long curving road until Old Bayshore Boulevard was jabbed in the side by San Bruno Boulevard. The cab didn't have the green light, but goosed itself through the yellow light, and I caught the red light in all her car-stopping glory. I gritted my teeth and watched the cab turn onto Visitacion Avenue and disappear.

Once I got on Visitacion, the empty cab came from a street four blocks up, and he passed me going the other way like a bat out of hell; he was deadheading back downtown, I guessed, or maybe out to the airport. Sure, a cab is like a hooker; it only makes money when it's on the streets. But answering a radio call down here was downright dangerous, and the fastest way to die in San Francisco was to pick up somebody here off the streets who was flagging you down.

The fourth city block led directly to Vivisection Towers. The front doors were locked and chained, but a service entrance on one side gaped like an open sore. I looked all around, I saw no signs of life anywhere, but that was no comfort.

I guess I was both amazed and depressed. Mario Rosales's last best place to hide was Vivisection Towers. He and his girl friend were squatters in a derelict housing project. Boy, had they hit rock-bottom.

The service entrance door moved with the wind. I couldn't imagine anyone in his right mind walking through that door. Behind that door death waits.

Any cop will show you dozens, maybe hundreds, in the City. The dispatcher gives them a call at this address, that address, any one of those addresses, and the cops drive up, stop, stare, lock their doors and wonder why they should go open that door, why they should step inside, wonder why they should hear that door clang! shut behind them.

They think about their families, try to remember when they last kissed their babies good-bye, wonder if that was too long ago to count, and wonder if they should take this final fatal stroll.

They know the chance they take. They have done it before, swallowed their pride and their fright, and walked that lonely walk through those long shadows on a deserted street on a moonless night and walked through that door.

They didn't die then. They might not now.

They might not now.

I looked around to see if any of the long shadows had sprouted arms or legs or handguns. This was the heart of Vivisection Valley, if it had a heart. And what was on these streets at this time of night was no different than those punks who killed Old Pete and tried killing his son.

I should go home, I thought. I could have a couple beers, watch Movies 'Til Dawn, I'd be fine and dandy.

I felt I stood out. Hell, I thought, I wouldn't stand out more if I were bucknaked blindfolded holding a handful of hundred dollar bills. Christ, I was about as subtle as a blowtorch lighting a bowl of rock cocaine.

I didn't look like a potential crack customer. No, I looked like a sucker. A dumb jerk saying, steal my car and dump my body in an alley kind of sucker. These jokers here could kill me and never remember me in the morning.

I should just drive off and forget everything. I reached down and twisted the ignition key, and my car started right up. I should throw 'er in gear and get the hell outa here. Then I had another thought. If I leave my car here, it might not be here when I come out. If I came out. A C note says you won't, I told myself.

I remembered the last time I had been here. A red Eldorado had been parked in front of those front doors to hell. It had a busted right taillight. I stared at the memory of that Eldorado and saw again the two bodies thrown inside its trunk like golf bags.

Why should I enter Visitacion Towers?

I shouldn't. It would be like walking into a dragon's mouth. But I kept thinking about how Mario Rosales was the only eyewitness to whatever had happened here five nights ago.

Suppose I did go inside the Towers. Whatever happened in there was final. There was no way out. I could expect no help. Paramedics wouldn't go in there. The Fire Department would let it burn. The cops left their cruisers locked and wore bullet-proof vests when they swept the building with their riot guns and their pepper sprays. The crews on the city garbage trucks wore bullet-proof vests until even they refused to come down here.

Together, my Browning 9 and I went in Visitacion Towers. Smashed and ravaged and charred and splintered and gutted and burned out and looted. Doesn't even matter when all this was done here, I suppose. That this housing project from Hell would end ruined like this was a foregone conclusion the day the cornerstone was set in concrete.

I don't know why the electricity was still on; maybe some squatter had reconnected the disconnected. There were still electric lights in a few hallways, though most hallways were dark from stolen bulbs and broken fixtures. Gang graffiti was scrawled on every surface. Plaster hung in shreds from the ceiling.

The elevator was out, of course, and it stank like somebody had recently taken a dump in there. I took the stairs as quietly as I could. I went up slowly, checking out each floor, one at a time, and made my way up toward the penthouse suites.

Broken glass and garbage were littered in every corridor and entirely filled some rooms. In some corridors there was a foot of rubbish, and I had to kick my way from one end to the other. Target practice with automatic weapon fire had put bullet holes in many of the walls and doors.

As I walked, I saw my breath coming out in front of me in little icy clouds. This hell on earth was ice-cold. There was a natural break in the coastal range here, and the same icy summer winds that made Candlestick Park world famous blew through these broken windows first. Fog was actually visibly curling in some corridors like wraiths from the netherworld left behind to haunt the living.

On the third floor I heard a woman's low voice. She was wheedling and dealing with a dealer. She had a hand gun to trade for a rock of cocaine. She told him she had found it behind an after-hours bar twenty minutes ago. The dealer wanted to know how hot the gun was. When she couldn't tell him, he told her to dump it in a storm drain. I kept prowling onward because these two weren't my prey.

More signs of squatters on the fourth floor, on the side away from the street. The toilets had long been smashed or stolen, and now people shit where they could here. I was careful where I walked.

On the seventh floor I heard a woman's shrill voice. She was angry. I crept close and saw a mother berating her mentally retarded daughter for wasting all the mayonnaise. The mother must have weighed a hundred pounds. Her daughter was in her late forties, was weeping, and must have weighed three hundred.

I reached the ninth floor. Down at the end of the hallway a luminous glow came from a Coleman camp light. A shadowy figure was lighting candles. I saw a cooler near the window. Beside it was a stained foam pad big enough for two sleeping bags. On the other side of the pad, a small microwave oven sat on an overturned cantaloupe crate.

I saw Mario Rosales. I came closer, and I saw the fresh stitches on the ugly red wound on his neck from the bullet that had narrowly missed his jugular vein. He was wearing a T-shirt under an oversized flannel shirt, and baggy pants he could hide a litter of puppies in. I see kids like him hanging out in the malls and movie theaters all over California. Good kids, all of them, or almost all of them. Restless and eager, they had wants and hopes. And I hesitated.

I reminded myself that Mario Rosales was all punk. That he was a fugitive and the cops wanted him for murder. That he had no conscience and was all trouble. I tightened my grip on my Browning, took a deep breath, and steeled myself for trouble.

I saw Cheryse Geneva up close. Her blue zombie eyes and her cornsilk hair were in my face, breathing hard on me, and my Browning was useless with my wrist grabbed like this and stretched out away from her.

"Que pasa, hombre?" she said. She was pale and tight-lipped. She smelled of fresh strawberries.

I made no move against her. She held a stun gun inches from my face. She punched it for several seconds, and a blue arc of electricity streaked out of the dark.

"You're the boss," I said.

She took my Browning. She held it like a brick and smashed me in the side of the face, and when I jumped for her throat, she zapped me down to the concrete. I stayed down because for the longest time I couldn't breathe. I told myself I'd pitch her out an open window given half a chance. We were nine floors up. That was high enough.

Once I was okay again, she held the gun in one hand and the zapper in the other, and I rose to my feet like a ballerina amid broken glass. She pushed me into the camp light's glow. Mario Rosales heard us coming. Startled, he jumped to his feet.

Mario hissed. "What's he doing here?"

Cheryse frisked me, picked my pockets, field-stripped my wallet, and stole nearly two hundred dollars of my money. "He saw me downtown working," she said. "He must of followed me."

He was bigger than I had remembered. His shoulders were broader and his chest was deeper than I had remembered. Lots of red meat and vitamins keep making the next generations bigger. Hell, he was fourteen, but he looked seventeen, maybe eighteen. Maybe he just had a growth spurt.

Mario Rosales swallowed hard and steeled himself to do harm. He stuck a shiny new Glock 17 in my face. "I should blow you away," he said. That's when he actually thought about what he was saying. "I didn't want to blow away nobody," he regretted. And his voice cracked. Nothing like puberty in a gunman to make me tread more cautiously.

And yet . . . And yet I thought I saw him differently, with new eyes. The kid was standing in front of me, but his eyes were huddled in a corner, like a pile of dirty laundry that missed the hamper toss, like a homeless woman huddling in a sleeping bag to stay warm.

No one who has ever known me has ever accused me of being a pollyanna. I've worked the streets long enough to know pollyannas on the streets die quicker than first lieutenants on the battlefield. And yet . . .

He was still a kid. He still had the wide eyes of a young boy who was now neck-deep in more trouble than he had ever been in before. He was scared shitless.

I'm the father of two boys. I looked at him--into him--and I saw my boys. In both cases, I saw boys growing up without a father in the house. I pushed aside my own regrets and pushed aside my own better judgment and concentrated on the boy at hand.

"What's the real story, Mario? What happened outside here?"

"We gotta blow, Mario, 'fore someone else finds us," she said.

I got bold and up-front with him. "I came to help you, Mario. Help you see why you gotta turn yourself in, before some nasty cop with a hard-on for you blows away you or Cheryse."

She banged me across the back of my head. I think she wanted to bang some sense into my head. Thank God she didn't have the same upper body strength as Mario. She could have killed me if she had the strength to do what she wanted done.

"We got to take care of you, Mario," I said, not daring to slow down the jive. "Your grandmother made me promise to get hold of you and save your ass."

"My grandmother," he said. His eyes said he didn't trust me.

"She loves you and wants you home."

"I ain't going home to her!"

"Don't you want to think for a moment about going back home?"

He thought I was nuts. "Fuck Rehab," he said. "I been there three times."

"What do you got here that's so much better than home?" I dared.

Cheryse rolled her eyes. She knew I was a fool. A growl came from her throat. She wanted me circumcised with a chainsaw.

His jawline went stubborn and set. "It's okay here."

"I talked with your grandmother," I said. "She loves you." Watching his disbelief grow, I felt my spirits sink further. But I pressed on. "She doesn't want you dead, Mario. She wants you alive and smiling and healthy and sitting beside her even if it's just Visiting Hours. She doesn't care if you're wearing a red jump suit and shackles. She loves you and wants you alive and wants to fight for you. You stay here, you get cremated by Welfare money and your ashes get dumped in Potter's Field and all she gets is a lousy photograph on top of the TV set to remember you by, and she wants more than that, Mario. She loves you."

He flinched. For an instant he was a kid in pain getting chewed out by an adult, and he blinked fast, and the kid in pain was gone, replaced by an android's smooth features, the kind I saw all the time in Juvenile Court.

"What about his mom?" Cheryse Geneva asked.

"His mom's in jail for a two year old burglary charge for which she failed to appear."

Mario didn't seem to care about that. "You don't know my grandmother."

"You live by Point Avisadero. On a clear day you got a view of downtown. You got a rusty bike with two flat tires chained to her front porch, and your grandmother's got a plastic leg that screws on and off."

Cheryse was taken aback. "Gross!"

They didn't exactly release me. More like, they stopped holding me so tightly. I had a chance to take a closer look around their scatter. They were camped out in a squatter's apartment. I thought about what it must be like coming down from a drug-high and finding yourself here. Being straight here was like living in the House of Usher on a bad day.

"Why here?" I asked.

He gestured behind him. "That toilet still flushes."

I was sympathetic. Mario Rosales was a fourteen year old who had lived too hard and seen too much. Ambushed by drug dealers. Patched up and then snuck out of the hospital. On top of all that, now he was a cornered fugitive living on Vienna sausage from a can and cold PopTarts while his girl friend had to go out hooking. Ask him what he was most afraid of. A gang out to get him? The cops who wanted him? T'aint easy being Mario Rosales today. No wonder he had holed up here, exhausted.

I looked at his lady love Cheryse. Like most teenagers, she acted sullen, and she reminded me of a gargoyle on a ledge above a cathedral. I had no problem with that. Teenagers are small children with big hormones.

"D'you get coked up here?" I asked her.

"Can't get it," Cheryse said. "No money."

I didn't bother asking if they'd get cracked up if they could buy some. Crack would make anybody forget how ugly and short their life looked here.

I was suspicious. "Why did you shoot those two white guys?"

I saw the flesh whiten on Mario Rosales's throat wound.

"He didn't kill nobody!" Cheryse said.

"I was set-up."

Yeah, you and everybody else.

"Who hired you to shoot 'em?" I asked.

"Nobody," Mario said.

"Who hired you to shake down the old man and his kid?"


"Who was the boss?"

"You talk about Mad Dog," Cheryse told him.

He wet his lips. "He's dead. I saw him buy it."

"Who was Mad Dog?" I asked.

Cheryse told me, "Mad Dog was a bastard man. He killed a man with a runny nose for snorting his powder. Let that fucker die forever!"

"He sold rock all over the City," Mario said.

"But he bought it here at the Towers," I said.

"Yeah." His eyes backed away from me.

I surprised him. "I don't give a shit who sold it to him, or who he turned around and sold it to." I gave pause, to start another angle. "What went down outside here?"

"What went down . . . " He swallowed hard, not wanting to confess more than what he needed, but wanting desperately to get it all out. The effort to both spill his guts and keep his yap shut left him speechless and frustrated.

"--was a carjacking?" I asked

"The car was free to us, man, so we took it!"

"You were just out scoring rock," I disbelieved.


"You're not straight with me," I threatened.

"I swear, yes."

"Why did you kill the old dude in the trunk?" I asked.

"Never knew he was in the trunk, man."

"Who hired you?"

"I got no job," Mario Rosales said. "I wasn't doing nothing!" he insisted. "I was following Mad Dog. I was there to look big, look tough. I wanted to sit in the car, play with the buttons on the dashboard. He made me come upstairs here and watch him buy rock."

"You were s'posed to look like back-up muscle?"

"Yeah! Everything inside goes down cool. We make the buy, they're all friends, high-fives and see ya soon, bro. We get outside, and the air lights up with bullets flying at us. I got shot, he gets killed, I go to SF General."

"What was Mad Dog's real name?"

"I don't know. He liked being called Mad Dog."

What can you say about anybody who likes calling himself Mad Dog? The dumb fuck defames himself. Just asking to be shot down in the streets.

"Who drove the Eldorado to the Towers?"

"I did," the boy said.

"Is that how you got involved?"

"I'm the one that parked it there."

I grinned. "Wrong spot, right?"

"I didn't know the space was reserved," Mario Rosales swore. "I would never park there, 'cept it was empty."

"How come you drove?"

"I was the designated driver."

"Fourteen years old, right?"

He had a lopsided grin. "I don't do rock when I drive. Mad Dog and the guys can get fucked up and still get home okay. Somebody gotta make sure we get home okay."

"Where did you start off from?"

"From the Sunshine Apartments."

I kept cool. "Mad Dog lived there?"

"That's one place where he sells. He got a place there, another one on Rose Alley, and another on Dolores."

"How did you get the Eldorado?"

"We found it. It was double-parked in front of Mad Dog's car with its windows down, the key was still in the ignition, the engine running. There was a raggedy twenty dollar bill on the floor mat. We check it out, shit, we took it for a ride." The equation was simple, in his mind. "Free car. Free ride."

"Did you know the old white dude who owned it?"

"I seen him at Sunshine Apartments. Old white dude."

"Did he ever talk to you?"


"What did you think when you saw his Caddy there?"

He puzzled over that. Finally: "Free car. Free ride."

"Did you check the trunk before you drove it?"

He scowled like I was crazy, but he spoke wistfully. "You always check your trunk before you drive a car?"

"Did you shoot him?"


"Do you know who did?"


I thought back to the first time I came down here, the scene of the crime that it was, walking through it with Captain Banagan. The red Eldorado with the two bodies in the trunk. I kept seeing that busted taillight in my mind. Let the cops pull it over. And I saw how the deal went down. It was all slicker than ice on glass.

"You were set up," I said.

He agreed. "I was set up."

Why did I believe they were set up?

The busted taillight.

Cops love busted taillights. A busted taillight legitimizes stopping John Q. Public and checking him out. Ted Bundy got caught because cops stopped him for his taillight. The busted taillight is probably the most cost effective piece of cop equipment cops got in the never-ending fight against crime.

The rockhounds were just patsies. Too stupid for words and therefore dumb enough to take a fall. They went joyriding in a stolen car. They were supposed to get stopped by the police. Did you know you had a taillight busted? May we see your registration please? Please step out of the car. Pop that trunk, son. And then they would go away to prison forever. A deaf, dumb and blind DA could put those fools away. Who would believe them? Even the Public Defender's Office wouldn't.

"Why did you run from San Francisco General Hospital?"

"The electric chair," Mario said.

"It's the gas chamber in this state."

He knew it was something evil. "I'm sitting there, and nobody told me nothing. They told me who I was, and I was in trouble. A million dollars bail! I told them they was wrong. They said I was lying. I was causing trouble. They know what I done. They wasn't listening when I said I didn't do nothing."

Cheryse was watching him, her chin trembling, fighting back the tears, having a cigarette.

"Who set you up?" I asked.

"I don't know who."

I snickered. Who wouldn't want to get rid of Mad Dog? Everybody wants to get rid of the rock man. Cops. Other dealers. Scammers. Bangers. Rockheads looking for free rock. Straights.

"Did he have any face-to-face enemies?"

"One he talked about. Some chump he fucked from South Bay, San Jose maybe. Mad Dog got him busted because he owed the chump money and didn't want to pay him."

"He framed the guy?"

"Yeah. The guy got San Bruno time, not hard time, but he was gone six, seven months. That's something."

I called bullshit on that. "Misdemeanor time anybody can do standing on their heads. Snitching on anything less than felony time is stupid."

Mario glowered, a habit he probably didn't know he had. "The dude was s'pose to do long time, be a three time loser and never get parole, but the DA dropped it down in plea bargaining, 'cause the jail's too full with three-time losers."

"So Mad Dog's snitch didn't hold."

"Man, it snapped."

"What was the chump's name?"

"Mad Dog called him the Spaniard. He wasn't Spanish, just another Mexican that got some money, so now he called himself Spanish, not Mexican. Don't know his name. One tough dude, I heard. Mad Dog was scared of him."

"What did he look like?"

"Mean." Mario was glum. "I never seen him."

"Where does Cheryse come into it?"

I saw how they looked at each other, and I saw hopeless love that was doomed from the start.

She spoke up. "Yo te quiero mucho," she told him.

I swallowed hard. "La mona, aunque se vista de seda," I quoted. I broke off seeing Mario's face in obvious pain. "Where'd you two lovebirds meet?"

"We was in Juvie together. Then I seen him a prisoner over at Mad Dog's."

Surprised, I looked at Cheryse again. "Why were you there?"

Mario talked for her. "Mad Dog made women have sex with him to score rock. He never gave no free drugs. Her pimp wanted some rock, so him and Mad Dog made Cheryse have sex with me, and they watch us. She help me 'scape once, but I still got caught and had to go back."

"How did you help him escape?"

She was proud of herself. "Broke a window."

According to her, Mario was held captive by Mad Dog, allowed a single meal a day, and had to sleep in a room whose windows were boarded up and whose door was often nailed shut.

"How long were you a prisoner? Three months, right?"

He nodded. "If I 'scaped again, Mad Dog said he knew where my mother lived. Where could I go? I don't try no more."

"Your mom and the cops say you sold crack," I said to the boy.

"He sold crack so his mom can keep her house and not be homeless."

"I liked the dough," he admitted. "But if I don't sell rock, I don't get food."

They waited for me to answer.

I caught on. I was an adult, a grown-up, and the children were waiting for me to answer them. We all knew they wouldn't listen to me and my words. They knew an adult's answer was no solution to their problems. They knew adult answers involved too much up-front pain, and they were children who still believed good things can come true, if you just wish it hard enough. If you close your eyes real tight and click your heels three times and say, "There's no place like home," you could go home again. But childhood is a jockey who rides on a paper horse. Nobody rides the paper horse for long; there's too much rain.

We locked eyes, Mario and me. I wanted him to turn himself in to the police. I recognized the look in his eyes, and I knew from all my experiences on the street he never would. He was doomed and both of us knew it. I wondered if Cheryse knew it, but then she was a fourteen year old hooker, and she was more doomed than he was.

"What do you want, Mario?" I asked. I talked like a big brother, not a father. "No bullshit. No preaching, no sermons. What do you want?"

He looked at Cheryse, and she looked back. He licked his dry lips and looked at me. "Me and Cheryse go to Mexico, my family's village. In Mexico I don't live like this."

"You're fourteen years old."

"In Mexico I'm fourteen years old. In San Francisco I'm gone be tried as an adult for nothing I did."

"Don't you worry about those Vivisection shooters here?"

"They don't live here now," he said. "The cops want them so bad, they cleared out and won't come back."

"That means this place is up for grabs," I told him. "Soon somebody is going to want this turf, and there will be gunfire and the air will be filled with stray bullets and innocent people will die."

"We can leave now," he said. "Got nothing holding us."

"You can stay and get your name cleared."

He scoffed at that nonsense. "I can't defend myself here. If I win, I still go to jail forever. In Mexico we get a new start."

"You need cash to blow town. So who you gonna call?"

"We gonna be all right."

"Right." I thought of the American Dream: a fresh start in a new land. "If you went to Mexico, you can never come back to the states."

"I never want to come back here."

"You can never come back!"

He truly understood this time. "Por tola vida!"

I agreed. "Until the end of time."

He gave me a kid's goofy grin. "Going this way I don't got to sneak across the border in the dead of night."

"Are you going to steal a car to get to Mexico?"

He did not look at me.

"You'll have cops every step of the way."

"I die if I stay here."

The night outside our window erupted with the sound of gunfire, random shots fired into the darkness. Automatic weapons fire shattered the window and punctured the walls and the ceiling. A second swarm of bullets burst through the windows and chewed up the ceiling and the walls, and plaster chips fell like hailstones on us.

Cheryse grabbed up the stun gun. She touched my arm and jolted me. The touch lasted forever, only a fraction of a minute, and I thought I was having a heart attack. I bellowed and screamed, and as I fell to the floor, echoes ricocheted throughout the cavernous hall.

Cheryse Geneva zapped me again. While I lay writhing, Mario Rosales and Cheryse then grabbed what they could--including my two hundred dollars--and took off running. They could have killed me easily enough, but they didn't. Nowadays that makes them the good guys.

When I could stand, I climbed to my feet. I went to the window. I thought I saw the two running from the building toward the far shadows behind the other tower. They disappeared into Vivisection Valley. Romeo and Juliet on the run. I wished them good luck. I knew they had none coming.

I searched their love nest and found they had left most of their belongings behind them, along with several piles of garbage. Those belongings included all her trick outfits and a sawed-off .12 gauge Remington 870 shotgun.

I wrapped the shotgun in a whore's chemise, careful not to smudge any fingerprints. I couldn't leave the shotgun here. It would be gone before I reached my car.


Two days later at Molly's Donuts I read in The San Francisco Examiner that a teenager was shot and killed by a San Diego police officer during a struggle as the officer attempted to arrest him and a teenage girl for allegedly stealing a car. The two teenagers, both fourteen, were stopped at 3:30 a.m. when the officer noticed them driving with a busted taillight. The officer's computer reported the car had been stolen. While he tried to handcuff the driver, the girl attacked the officer with a stun gun. During the struggle, the officer's gun discharged once, striking the boy in the head. The boy was taken to San Diego Medical Center and pronounced dead on arrival. The girl was booked at the San Diego Juvenile Hall for auto theft. The San Diego police did not identify the youths or the officer to the newspaper.

Frederick Zackel teaches literature, writing, and the humanities at Bowling Green State University.

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