It was dark and late, and Zale's body was telling him to go home, but his mind, his heart was telling him to continue the walk through this poor, run-down neighborhood. He would continue the walk, at least a little farther, and if he didn't find what he was looking for, he would turn around and go home.
One block to go, he told himself as he passed under a dim circle of light from a streetlamp above. He stopped, pulled the collar of his trench up around his ears in a weak attempt to defend against the soft rain that started to fall on his head. He began walking again, then halted, seeing something, not twenty feet ahead, and he already knew what it was without taking another step. He walked up to it, standing just over it, shaking his head sympathetically. It was a body lying across a soggy cardboard box, rolled up in a blanket. Zale knelt down over the end that he figured to be the head.
"Excuse me," Zale said softly. There was no response, just the faint sound of unrestful sleeping.
"You awake?" Zale said, then gave the lump a finger stick in the area where he thought his ribs would be.
There was a stir under the blanket for a moment, then nothing.
"Hey, you awake under there?" Zale put his hand on what he assumed was the shoulder and gave the person a shake.
Immediately, the body under the cover sprang up, whipping the blanket from over his head, his body retreating backward, sliding across the ground on hands and feet, like a human crab. He was shocked to have been awakened like that. He looked as though he thought he would be shot.
"Who are you? What you messin' with me for?" It was a boy, like Zale hoped it wouldn't have been, but expected it to be. A boy of maybe fifteen, if he was lucky, and Zale only gave him that much age because of the dirt that was smeared across his face, resembling facial hair.
"No, no, don't," Zale said, both his arms out, his palms showing, an attempt to show the boy he had no weapon. "I don't want to hurt you. I was just walking by."
"Then why did you wake me up?" the boy said. He was pushed up against the wall of a building now, his blanket up over his chin, a protective shield against evil.
"Did you know it's raining, you shouldn't be -- "
"I know it's raining," the boy said sharply. "What am I supposed to do, make it stop so I can go to sleep?"
"No. I know you can't do that, but you'll catch pneumonia out here."
"Aw, man," the boy said sarcastically, the blanket lowering. "What was I thinking about. Let me go up to my hotel suite where it's nice and dry, so I won't get sick."
"That's not what I'm saying," Zale said, almost apologetically.
"Then what are you saying? What do you want?"
"Look, you shouldn't sleep out here. Have you eaten? Let me take you somewhere to eat, and then you bunk out at my place tonight."
"I'm not doing you," the boy said.
"I don't do that. I ain't no punk pleaser, you fucking pervert!" The boy started to roll his blanket up in a ball, getting up as he did.
"What?" Zale said, then finally understanding what he meant, said, "No! No! I'm not like that. I just want you out of the cold. I'm trying to help you." Zale reached into his trench. The boy jumped.
"I'm just getting my card." He pulled out his card and reached out for the boy to take it. The boy hesitated a moment, then plucked the card from the man's hand.
It was one of Zale's business cards. It read "Zaleford Rowen, President, Father Found."
"And, so what? Who are you supposed to be?" the boy said, pulling his eyes away from the card.
"Zale Rowen, like the card says. Where is your father?" Zale asked without explanation.
The boy looked thrown by the question.
"Where is your father? Does he live with your mother? Do you live with her? Do you live at home?" Zale stopped to slow things down, reading the lost look on the boy's face. "First, what is your name?"
"Well, Billy, I have an organization, and we try to find fathers that have abandoned their children and reunite them with those children."
Zale tried to read the boy's eyes, tried to decipher his expression to see if he was following along, and if Billy even believed what Zale was saying, but he saw nothing but dirt and shadows on the boy's young, white face.
"Does your father live with you?"
"Look around, do you see him?" Billy said, examining the ground around him.
"I mean, did he live at the home you left?"
"My old man left a long time ago. Ten years maybe, I forget. But it doesn't make a difference. I'm out here now, and this is where I'm going to stay, so if you'd just leave me alone so I can get back to sleep," Billy said, offering the card back to Zale.
"Come with me so we can at least get you something to eat." Zale extended his hand. "I'm buying, and I don't want anything from you. I promise."
It looked as though Billy was giving it some serious thought, but then he declined. "Naw, I don't want to. I'm fine right here. I'm fine."
Zale slid a ten and a five-dollar bill out of his wallet and held them out to Billy. The boy snatched the money out of Zale's hand like a wild dog snapping up a piece of meat from a stranger. Billy held out the card again.
"Keep it, please. I want you to call me sometime. Will you do that?"
Billy stood there watching Zale, the blanket balled up in his arms, the pestering drizzle still falling on both their heads.
Billy nodded his head.
"Will you promise me?"
"Yeah, I promise."
Zale gave the boy a long look, worried about what he would do for the rest of the night, for the rest of his life, for that matter. He wanted to get him home, get him some warm food, and find this man-child's father so someone could start taking responsibility for him. But he knew Billy wouldn't let him. The boy had either seen or heard too many horror stories to walk anywhere with a perfect stranger at past one o'clock in the morning, and Zale couldn't really blame him.
Zale turned around and headed back for home. After a number of paces, Zale heard the boy calling him.
"Mr. Rowen!" Zale turned around, barely seeing the figure in the darkness and mist.
"Thanks for the money. I really need it," Zale heard him call.
"Don't mention it," Zale called back, feeling a pang of sadness in his heart. "But I want to hear from you," he called in a louder voice, but something told him that that was the last he would ever see of Billy.
Zale planned on heading home, planned on finally crawling through the door of his house, lumbering up his stairs and falling into his bed without even first taking off his clothes or his coat, just letting himself drop, a small border of moisture forming around his body, the sheets and blankets absorbing the rain from his damp clothes. But he didn't do that, even though he was so tired that he could barely keep his eyes open or the car from swerving now and then on the slick street. He guided the automobile toward the building where he worked, and parked on a slant. He was led there almost subconsciously, like a lost dog finding its way home on senses alone.
He opened the door of his car, almost tripped up the high curb of the street, and stood in front of the building that housed the Father Found organization.
It was an old two-story building that used to be a store of some sort but had gone out of business, boarded up like so many of the other buildings that lined the streets of the South Side of Chicago. These were businesses opened up by African Americans, but without the support of African Americans, so they ultimately failed.
After the owners no longer wanted to invest in it, the building was bought by a real estate company, refurbished, and put up for sale. It wasn't that much money, so Zale decided to start his organization there. It was actually the perfect place, in the heart of the city, where many of the people were deprived of the opportunity to work, to earn money, to live a decent life. Because of that, this was where a high occurrence of child abandonment took place.
Zale entered the building, exhausted, and walked the creaking steps to the second floor where his office was located. He went in, spun his chair around and sat behind his desk. It was dark, for he had not bothered turning on the lights. Splotches of light came in through the windows of his office from the streetlights outside. He stretched his arms out on the desk, placed his head on top of them, and blew out a long, exhausting breath. Finally, rest of some sort. He could not remember the last time that he had relaxed. It seemed like days, and he knew for sure that it had been at least one full day and a half since he closed his eyes. Thirty-six hours he had been running and working, trying to accomplish this and find out that, and his body was weary, his muscles weak, and his mind seemed to be fraying at the edges. He realized he should've just taken himself home and gone to sleep, but he didn't.
He wanted to, but he couldn't. His conscience wouldn't let him. Billy was still on his mind, and he looked over at the phone that sat not six inches from his elbow. He hoped it would ring, that Billy would tell him he wanted shelter for the night, that he was tired of being on the street, but Zale knew that wouldn't happen. He knew it wouldn't because that wasn't how things happened in his business.
Zale kept telling himself that he had to get up, he had to work, do something, and there were so many things: cross-check the list of fathers Father Found had contacted who had gone home and stayed there against the list that had gone home and left already, or had not gone home at all. There were fathers who were in trouble with the law, on the verge of going to jail, and there were people Zale could talk to to try and keep these men out of the system under the condition their offense wasn't too bad and they promised to remain with the child and its mother. At this moment, Zale could be pulling those names. There were also jobs Zale needed to locate for the men who used unemployment as an excuse for not being responsible. He needed to get on the Net and do that, and while he was there, get the names and requirements for a number of the drug abuse houses, for every now and then drug addiction was a problem he would encounter with these men. The monthly national list of "deadbeat dads" had just arrived at his office, and he hadn't scanned across it yet to find out how many of these men were local, so he could start their files, and get the ball rolling
on them. There were so many things he could be doing, should be doing, because even though it was after two in the morning, that didn't mean kids who should've been with their families weren't walking the streets. He had to work.
"But I'll just sleep for five minutes," he said to himself, his voice filled with exhaustion, barely able to complete the sentence before falling off into a deep, much needed slumber.
Seven hours later, Zale sat bolt upright in his chair, his eyes bulging, sweat covering his face, breathing as though he had just run up several flights of stairs. He looked quickly around the office, orienting himself. It was another nightmare, he told himself, angry that he was still having them. Still, after so many years.
The sun was shining through his windows, and he winced against the light as he looked down at his watch. It read 9:30.
He wiped the sleep from his eyes, then reached for his phone and checked his voice mail, hoping that maybe Billy had called, and that he had just slept through the ringing, since he was so tired. But the boy hadn't -- there were no messages.
When Zale got home half an hour later, he bent down and picked up the thick Sunday paper, then slid his key into the door, stepping into his house. He dropped his things on a nearby table and climbed the stairs to his bedroom, taking off his shirt and tie. He went into the bathroom, clicked on the light, and stared at himself in the mirror. He didn't like what he saw. He looked bad. Dark circles hung under his eyes, as if he had been socked repeatedly by a large man with big fists. His face was getting thin, his body deteriorating as if he was on some sort of hunger strike, and he knew his awful appearance could be attributed to the fact that he had not been sleeping or eating properly.
He slid his medicine cabinet open and reached for the short, fat, round prescription bottle with the childproof cap. He remembered his doctor giving him the prescription for the blood pressure medication, just after he founded his organization and started experiencing minor health problems: headaches, nausea, stress, and tension-filled muscles.
"I want you to take these, one every day, and take them religiously," the older woman had said, looking over her glasses like a schoolteacher addressing her third-grader. "Unless there is a major change in your lifestyle, these are going to be a permanent addition to your life."
But he wasn't going to live like that, Zale thought, as he looked down at the bottle in his hand. He considered not taking the pill, then after some thought, decided he would, popping one in his mouth, and swallowing it with water that he cupped in his hands from the running faucet. He'd take it this time, only because he hadn't taken one in two days and it'd probably be another two or three till he saw the bottle again. He wouldn't carry bottles of pills around everywhere he went, his pockets rattling with the things as if he were seventy-five years old when he was forty years from that. Besides, his problems, his stress, his fears, he'd have to eventually solve himself. No drug would do it for him.
He walked back downstairs to the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee, black, no sugar, no cream. He sat down, opened up the Sunday paper and thumbed through the sections, occasionally taking a sip of the coffee, wincing a little at its bitter taste.
Zale avoided most of the paper, not wanting to read about all the violence, the stores that got robbed, the baby that got thrown out of a window, or the kid that was found in the alley, a long, bloody smile carved in his neck. He especially didn't want to hear about that, because every time it happened, he felt responsible. Even if only a little bit, he still felt as though he were to blame. If he had only done more, he would tell himself, or done just that one thing that would've made a difference, could've gotten that child off the street, like maybe finding the child's father faster, and convincing him that his kid would be next on the butcher's list. But it seemed he was always too late, and all Zale could do was turn a deaf ear to the news, mourn for a brief moment, and try to convince himself that it was not his fault.
He pulled the brightly colored comics out of the fat of the paper and looked them over. A couple of them were clever enough to get a chuckle out of Zale, but for the most part, they were corny, and dry.
He thumbed further through the paper, bypassing the coupons, the sales inserts, and the theater section. Then he stopped, his attention grabbed. He went back and pulled out the Sunday magazine. He held it in front of his face with both hands, staring at it, and what stared back was an image of himself. He was on the cover. He had forgotten that the interview he gave would be in this week's paper. As a matter of fact, he had forgotten all about the interview the moment it was over.
He brought the magazine closer to him. The photo was a close-up, and how he hated close-ups. He hated photos of himself period. They never got the color right, always making him look a shade or two lighter than he was, as if he didn't have enough problems just being a light-skinned black man. He was only thirty-five, but these photos always made him look older. The makeup they used was supposed to make his skin look flawless, but it just made him look as if he were ready for viewing by family and loved ones. But what was worse was the look in his eyes. There was an intensity in them, a purpose that a blind man could see. A look of unswerving direction and suppressed anger that would probably scare most people into thinking that he was some sort of fanatic who stayed awake around the clock and infused coffee into his veins, just to afford himself the time to search for abandoning fathers. Zale glanced down at his coffee mug and pushed it aside with a nudge of his elbow.
The truth was, he was just dedicated, but no one understood that, so he never tried explaining it.
Across the top of the magazine, just under the title, he read, "Zaleford Rowen -- Friend or Foe?" As if he were a politician running for office, kissing babies, yet possessing the potential to turn around and stab the infants with the same hand he used to shake the parents' hands.
Zale opened up the thin sheets of the magazine and examined them. He took his usual no-nonsense, nonsympathetic "I don't want to hear any excuses" standpoint on the issue of fathers leaving their children to suffer and grow up alone. "There are no excuses!" Zale remembered saying to the young man who interviewed him. "These men thought enough to lay down and have sex, then they should think enough to care for the child they helped bring into this world. Their financial situations, their feelings as to whether or not they'd make an adequate father, or how they feel about having to raise a child when they'd rather be doing so many other things has nothing to do with that child. To put it plainly, the child is innocent, and the father is guilty. So guilty that he should be jailed. Jailed for as long as it takes for that child to grow up and be able to provide for himself."
The interviewer stopped writing and looked up at Zale. "So you're saying these fathers should be punished somehow for abandoning their children?"
"No, not somehow. They should be jailed, just like criminals, because leaving your child is a crime beyond explanation, and beyond forgiveness. And if that does not stop the rash of fathers leaving their children, then the men considered at risk of having children just to leave them should be castrated! That should put an end to this. Have I made myself clear?" Zale said, leaning back in the large chair, his fingers intertwined, resting on his crossed knees.
"Very," the interviewer said, smiling mischievously. "I love this!" he said, tightening his grip on the stub of a pencil and jotting everything down verbatim.
Zale would get calls about this one, just like all the other interviews he'd done in the past where he stated his uncensored opinion. He would get calls, and have letters waiting for him at his office from angry men who felt that he was just some overcrusading radical who had no idea what he was talking about because he had no children, and hadn't had to suffer all their pains. He would hear from them, and probably one or two of them would drive by his building at night and throw bricks through the windows, or spray-paint filth of some sort across the door. And even though he went to great extremes to keep where he lived a secret, one of these men might find out, and...Zale crumpled the magazine into a ball and tossed it aside, where it fell off the table to the floor.
It had happened before. It was only a year after he started Father Found, and he was so full of energy, so ready to fight against these fathers who left their children, that he said and did things without thought of how some of these men would respond. "Heartless coward" was one of the expressions he often used to describe them. But it wasn't enough that he demoralized them in the papers and on television, after all, they might not have been listening. Whenever he got a call from a mother looking for the father of her child, Zale would go after them with the eagerness of a bloodhound. He would go to the man's place of business and inform his employer that he was looking for this man because he had left his child. Zale would stick flyers on the windshields of the cars in the parking lot, a black-and-white mug shot of the man on the center of the page, the words "Wanted for Child Abandonment!" in big bold letters across the top, as if he were actually a criminal wanted by the FBI.
If the man didn't respond to those tactics, Zale would hit him where it really counted, and that was in the pocket. He would arrange to have the child support that the man owed taken directly out of his check. That usually got his attention, had him calling the woman to find out exactly what was happening, at the very least.
But for one man the scheme backfired. Instead of calling the mother of his children, he called Zale. But he didn't call him for help, or even for answers. He called Zale telling him that he wanted him dead, and that he'd be the one to kill him. The phone dropped from Zale's hand. He could still hear the man's voice cursing from the receiver that lay on the floor like some vile living creature with the ability to talk.
"You hear me, motherfucker! Dead! You're gonna be dead, motherfucker!"
Zale picked up the phone, put it to his ear, but the caller hung up. The caller -- that was the only way Zale could identify him because it could have been one of at least twenty different men he was pursuing at that time, and he went after them all with the same intensity.
He convinced himself to let it pass, it wasn't the first time he had received a crank call, and it wouldn't be the last. But when he got the same call at his home, waking him out of his sleep at four in the morning, he began to worry. He called the police, but they said they couldn't do anything about crank calls, so Zale went down to the station the following morning, angry and upset. He was directed to the desk of a Detective Rames, a tall, athletic, clean-cut white man, who looked about forty.
"Are you Detective Rames?" Zale said, anger still coursing through his body at the indifference he had sensed from the police officers.
"Yeah, I'm Frank Rames, and you're that guy, the Father Found guy, right?" the detective said, waving a finger at Zale. "You're the guy giving all those dads a hard way to go."
Zale stood, looking down at the man, unamused by his remark.
Detective Rames stood and offered Zale a seat. He wore a gun holster across his back and shoulder, a huge handgun sitting snugly in the shiny leather pouch. He pulled out the seat for Zale. When Zale sat, Rames took his seat again.
"Now what can I do you for?"
"I've been receiving threatening phone calls, death threats, and I want someone to do something about it!"
Detective Rames leaned back in his swivel chair. "What are we supposed to do about that, Mr...."
"Mr. Rowen!" Zale said, becoming more upset by the lousy treatment he was receiving.
"What are we supposed to do about that, Mr. Rowen?"
"I don't know. You're the police! You're supposed to do whatever it is you normally do when someone receives death threats!" Zale said, raising his voice.
"We don't do anything right away, Mr. Rowen, so calm down."
"Listen, someone is calling me telling me that he wants to kill me. I'm not going to calm down," Zale said, standing. "Now, I don't care what it takes, but you need to get someone on this. Tap my phones, stake out my home, I don't care, but this needs to be taken care of before I end up dead." Zale was breathing heavily, standing over the detective's desk. He felt the sweat from his anger accumulating around his tight collar, and in his clenched fists. Rames was still sitting in his swivel chair, the butts of his hands on the edge of his desk, tilting himself back and forth, almost playfully, as if not affected at all by what Zale said.
"Are you calm now, Mr. Rowen?"
Zale said nothing.
"Two crank calls, then a phone tap, only happens in the movies, so you might as well stop looking for it here. To tell you the truth, we're going to almost need to see someone grabbing you by the throat, yelling at the top of his lungs that he wants to kill you, before we take the action that you're looking for. But I will do this much." Rames went into his shirt pocket, pulled out his business card, and placed it on the desk. "That's me," he said, stabbing it with his index finger. "There's the office number, and my pager, and..." He flipped it over and wrote on it. "And that's my home number. If you really think you're in serious shit, if you really think someone is about to kill you, give me a call and I'll rush right over." He picked up the card and held it out for Zale to take.
Zale looked at the man for a moment, wondering if this was just some line of bull he was giving him, but he took the card.
"It's the best I can do, Mr. Rowen, and I'm only doing it because I think what you're trying to do making these fathers own up to their responsibilities is really commendable. I have two of my own. They're the world to me, and I would never leave them. Never," Rames said with stern commitment. "Want to see a picture?"
"No, thank you."
Zale left the police station feeling no better than he had when he entered. He made a beeline straight for a gun shop and bought himself some protection, since the police felt they didn't have to do their job.
A week passed, and Zale had received only one crank call, and that had just been a hang-up at the office. It was late, he was at home, and he was about to go to bed when the phone rang. He picked it up without second thought.
There was no answer, but Zale could hear someone on the line.
"Hello!" he said again.
Then Zale got a dial tone. He placed the phone slowly back in its cradle and thought about calling that detective. It just would've taken the push of just one button, because Zale had entered his number in his speed dial just in case he really did need him. Instead, he walked to the closet and looked to the top shelf to make sure he saw the .22 he had bought a week ago. If something were to happen, and he had to take care of it himself, he would be ready.
Zale went back to bed, and was lying down for only minutes when he heard a noise. He sprang up in his bed, his eyes wide, his fist clutching his sheets. His breathing was coming hard and fast, but he tried with everything inside him to suppress it. He listened intently, hearing nothing but the pounding of his heart. Then the noise came again, but this time he knew what it was. It was someone trying the front door. Zale's entire body stiffened, unable to move. He was wondering whether he had locked the front door before going to bed. He knew he had, but his mind could see a dark figure walking through his hallway, filling the space of his doorway, a refraction of light dancing across the sharp blade of the huge knife he was holding. Then, all of a sudden, as if the man could fly, he was on Zale, in his bed with him, the blur of his shiny blade speeding down toward Zale's bare chest.
Stop it! Zale thought to himself, and told himself to move. Move! He tumbled over in bed, grasping for the phone, then punched the button for Detective Rames.
Two rings that took two decades. Then he answered, his voice groggy.
"Detective Rames, it's Zale Rowen," Zale whispered loudly, as his eyes jetted back and forth in his head, looking for danger. He was pushed back in a corner of his bedroom, the phone cradled within the space of his folded knees and stomach.
"You have to come. You have to come now! He's here! Do you hear me? He's here!" Zale gave Rames the address. "I'm going to grab my gun, but hurry," Zale said.
"Mr. Rowen," Rames said, already out of bed, slipping on his shirt. "I'll be right over, but don't you go shooting the neighbor's kid, all right?"
Zale scurried across the carpet on all fours, making his way to the closet. He stood up, blindly reached for the gun, then huddled within the tight confines of the closet, the gun in his hand, looking out into the darkness, listening for the intruder.
Zale didn't know how much time had passed, but it seemed like an eternity. Rames should've been there by now, or whoever it was that was trying to enter his home should've been in his bedroom by now, standing over him. But nothing had happened, and it was driving Zale close to insanity. He still sat in the closet, his pajamas soaking wet from sweat, both his hands cramping from holding the small gun so tightly for what seemed so long.
Zale decided to leave the safety of the closet, telling himself that nothing had happened so nothing was going to happen. The noise at the front door had probably been Ted, Zale's next-door neighbor who sometimes drank a little more than he should've and somehow managed to get his car home without plowing it into a tree, and oftentimes tried entering Zale's front door, thinking it was his own. That's what had happened, plain and simple, Zale told himself. Believing that, Zale stood, although very slowly, the gun still glued to his hand. He walked cautiously through the house, light from the streetlamps entering the partially curtained windows, casting strange shadows across the living room. Zale tried the door, and it was locked. He searched the rest of the house, checking all the windows and doors, and all was well. Feeling more comfortable, he placed the gun back on the shelf, thinking that it was a good thing that his life wasn't in danger, because that lazy bastard of a cop hadn't shown up. But Zale never really thought he would to begin with.
Zale pulled back the blankets of his bed, and was about to climb in when he looked toward the bedroom window and decided he should check that as well. He knew it was locked, but better safe than sorry. He walked through the dark room over to the window, fidgeted with the already secure lock, then took a peek out the window. He looked left, and then he looked right, and then his eardrums seemed to have exploded, and the skin of his face felt as though it was being ripped from his skull. It was because of the loud crash of the window glass shattering, the razor-sharp shards flying everywhere, some hitting him in the face. Zale fell back on the bed, covering his eyes. He had seen the brief glimpse of a body before the glass was broken, enabling him to cover his eyes before the glass started flying toward him.
Zale heard the man unlocking the window, sliding it up. He heard his grunts as he hoisted himself up through the opening in Zale's once-secure home, then he felt the stranger's presence, heard him tramp-ling the already broken glass into glass dust, smelled him -- he was a smoker -- felt the cold he brought into the house with him.
"Come here, you motherfucker!" the voice commanded. The intruder wrapped his arm around Zale's neck, yanking Zale into him, placing a gun to his temple.
"You want to fuck with me, hunh! You wanted to fuck with me, because you just can't leave business that don't belong to you alone!" Toward the end of each sentence, the man tightened the grip on Zale's neck to make his point. Zale was choking. He could barely breathe. His head was swimming, he was about to pass out, and he wondered why the man even had the gun to his head, because it seemed he planned on strangling him to death.
"Do you know what you did? Hunh! Hunh!" he yelled, jerking Zale, his arm tightening around his neck with each jerk. Zale tried to loosen the grip, but he had no strength, no oxygen, and almost no sense of where he was any longer. He was going to die, was going to be killed for what he believed most in, Zale told himself, and he was trying to prepare himself, trying to accept it when...
"Freeze. Police, you sack of shit!"
The stranger's arm loosened some, and Zale choked and gasped on the air that was almost foreign to him. He looked up and saw Rames standing in his doorway, his gun drawn, aiming at the man that held him.
"Now you just put that gun down and let that man go, you hear me."
"I'm not putting shit down, and you need to turn your ass around and walk back to wherever you came from unless you want to be a part of this," the man said, calming. Then when he saw Rames not moving, he screamed, "This is between me and this motherfucker!"
"I'm a part of this now," Rames said, taking a step forward into the dark room. "The minute I entered this house I -- "
"Don't you take one step closer, you fuck, or you're dead!" the man yelled, pointing the gun at Rames, then sticking it back at Zale's head.
"All right, all right, I'm stopping. But let me tell you something. You point that gun at me like that again, I'm going to assume you're gonna shoot me, and then I'll have to kill you. You got that?"
"Fuck you! I told you to get the hell out of here!"
"I can't do that," Rames said calmly.
"I'm going to do this bastard!" the man yelled, pulling Zale closer.
"You're not going to do that."
"I'm going to kill him, right here!"
"Put the gun down," Rames said, raising his voice.
"Put the goddamn gun down!" Rames yelled.
"Get out of here, or I swear I'll kill you too." He pointed the gun at Rames again, then back at Zale, then back at Rames, then let it rest on Zale.
Rames took two steps closer, his arms outstretched, the gun dead on the stranger.
"You point that gun at me one more time, I swear, you're going to make me shoot you."
"Fuck you!" the man yelled, as he raised the gun to Rames.
"POW! POW! POW!" The dark room lit up with three explosions of orange flames. Then the man that was holding Zale by the neck flew backward, his upper body flying out the window, his arms dangling out over his head, his legs remaining within the room. Zale fell to the floor, wrapping both his hands around his throat, still choking, his face bleeding from the cuts of broken glass.
Rames approached the man's body, grabbed him by the scruff of his jacket, not seeming to mind the blood that was there, and hoisted him into the room.
Zale got to his knees, then laboriously stood to his feet.
"Mr. Rowen, you know this guy?" Rames said, holding the man up like a puppet. His head rolled limply on his neck; a thin stream of blood crawled down his chin from the corner of his mouth.
Zale had not seen the man's face the entire time the man was behind him, choking him, bringing him near death, but now, upon looking at it, he knew who it was. It didn't even take a moment. He was Calvin Thompson, Case Number 106. Left his three kids two years ago, had a drug problem, spent time in jail, never once tried to get help from Zale, which was all Zale was trying to get him to ask for.
"Yeah, I know him," Zale said. He watched Rames hang him back out the window, as he had found him, and wipe the blood he had gotten on him off on the man's clothes. Zale stood there, fear still holding a firm grip on him, but his heart started to slow. He had a dumbfounded look on his face as he stared at Rames.
"What?" Rames said.
"Why'd you kill him?"
Rames looked shocked by the question, then looked over at the man hanging out the window. He cracked a smile, chuckled a little, ran a hand through his cropped hair, then looked down at the floor, as if he were trying to elude the question, embarrassed by what he had done.
"I told him if he pointed that gun at me again, I'd have to kill him." Rames slipped his gun back in his holster, then walked very close to Zale. The smile disappeared from his face, replaced with something much more solemn, a mask carved from granite.
"I wasn't taking any chances," he said, spite creeping in his voice. "You'd at least think that some people would be grateful." He turned and walked out of the room.
That was two years ago and nothing had happened since, and Zale hoped nothing would as he looked over at the crumpled Sunday magazine. But if it does, then it just does, he thought. He couldn't stop what he was doing, stop trying to save all those children just because every now and then some lunatic didn't like the way the truth sounded, couldn't stand to have someone hold a mirror up to him and show him that he was really a coward. Zale wouldn't stop, and he wouldn't shy away. He wouldn't allow himself to be bullied, or slowed down. He couldn't let himself or his work be affected by such men. He had to meet them head-on, match them, show no fear, and prove to them that if they had no reservations about taking his life, then, for this cause, he had no reservations about losing it.
Zale eyed the crumpled magazine sitting on the floor, again seeing his face distorted on the cover, twisted like a weird fun-house mirror reflection. He thought to himself, If there are calls, then there'll be calls, and if people don't like what I have to say, then tough!
Copyright © 2000 by R. Marcus Johnson