The Six-Chambered Heart draws the curtain on a troubled heart ensnared in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, a protagonist who might be you or I. Does he enlist our help or merely desire a witness to what he has planned? Are we his accomplice, his counterweight? His conscience? Hold tight the arrow of time along with Maddock, through the last door but one.
A Snitch in Time
That evening I mused a little. I mused about the skin a city wears and how different from high and dry all the way down to damp and rotten. And how I was always lifting it up, letting the steam escape, poking around beneath it. When I got tired of musing, I mulled.
I sat on the balcony with the city spread out below, the carpet of lights everybody yelps about. I'd eaten dinner at a nearby restaurant and come home to ruminate. I was on my second drink, and I mused about the business I was leaving-20 years, and where had it gone? What everyone muses about.
Mostly it had been a big yawn, catching folks with their pants down, not too many tears, peeking in windows and now and then the big sob. And it paid well, people so often bent out of shape and money running loose through the streets. Once in a long while I even had a hand in helping someone. More often I was stage right or in the wings watching the lights fade to black.
It wasn't a bad line really. It paid the bills, and sometimes late in the evening or on some very early morning, I gave myself the luxury of believing I had done some better thing. Well that bag no longer held water, no matter how many drinks. I would have to live with that one.
I left the balcony, checked my answering machine and then I called the office and left a message for Marie. It was just before midnight when I asked her to look up the word jacaranda, a kind of tree, and find out where they grew. I'd tell her why in the morning, or at lunch, if she could make it. And I thanked her for getting Dodson's ear and making the arrangements for our one o'clock appointment. I knew Dodson would try to hold the meeting at his estate, and who could blame him? But Marie insisted and managed to draw him to our office, and it's not so easy a task telling a big shot where to go. Saved me crawling up the lawn to his front door. Saved me a shirt.
I dimmed the lights along with the stereo volume and made certain the blinds were angled just right for cover. Soft diagonal strips of light with no silhouette when viewed from the front. I stepped onto the balcony and pressed against the railing with my stomach, just leaning out, trusting the moment. The railing felt neutral, neither hot nor cold, that rare neutral you find on a handful of nights in July. Flashing through my mind was a joke about taking the big dive but I shrugged that one off for what it was-background noise. I took another sip and thought about another cigarette, on a night ready-made for dangling.
Everything was settling in, even the cars had mostly gone silent. In the distance somewhere, a screen door slammed, while below, my gardener friend soundlessly opened his own screen door to the backyard. A rectangle of light shone in the doorway and onto the steps then down to the lawn, following my friend into the darkness. I saw the flash of a lighter and the first puff of smoke and the glow of his face rising from cupped hands. Then it went quiet and dark again. A gardener that smoked. I knew just how he felt.
I threw on a light jacket and took the stairs down. I was cautious in the garage, listening, still as cement. I glanced at the backseat before climbing into the car and when I turned the engine over, eyes on the rearview, I could feel a nerve jumping rope on my neck. Tiny hairs rose together as one, the church choir, all full of praise and devotion. I cleared my head with a shake and pointed the car downtown.
Queer was the feeling I had . . . the same as earlier while passing through the warehouse district, the feeling of a dumping ground. A warehouse city of empty boxes deserted by day, surrendered later to the dark. Tin buildings rusting impatiently on a cement slab. Above the dock lights a gray nothing, a starless night. A car arrives and idles, the tailpipe quivers. Someone steps from the vehicle, something left remains. Such meager evidence, a vague recollection, and somewhere the sound of a trunk closing. Only the clouds look down.
Nearer the center though the city watches carefully. Beneath the surface of a black windowpane, a face floats into view. On the second floor, a curtain edges back. Was it a noise or just a premonition? Either way you grasp tight your own ticket, wait for the telephone to ring.
Unsettled was the feeling the city evoked until I passed through the entertainment district with the late-night clubs and restaurants glowing with patrons, everything loud and alive and fine and always would be. The lying smiles that proclaimed, "Live, live, live!" The bright shining lies. I laughed, I laughed knowing outside the gay lights was a darkness old, with its own rules and patiently waiting. And again I laughed, though half-heartedly, knowing I was up to my neck in some old pervasive misery. A dull ache was climbing my throat, fleeing the lost cause I seemed to have become. I let it. It felt so good I decided not to swallow.
And what of it. I pulled to the curb and parked below the Dodson girl's apartment. Salome was her name. A rogue vein in my neck beat a steady rhythm, a tom-tom from a distant world. Two pulsing wrists throbbed along as my fingers clenched the wheel. Dare I reach out and touch Salome where she lived? Through the veil?
It was the third floor, a corner unit with a view of the downtown skyline and an eye to the street. It was dark and empty as sin now. I switched the engine off, settled in and waited . . . for that single great clue, the dead giveaway, the stitch in time. I fumbled the flask from the glove box and had a drink while staring at the apartment window. I half expected to see her peering down, a face I wouldn't know or recognize, wavering behind darkened glass. A mermaid draped in grey scales, the silver gone, drifting lifeless at the edge of a lifeless sea. I was open to any kind of vibe but that particular one kept coming back.
Mostly what I got were the lights of passing cars and a lot of foot traffic. Young people need never sleep. The squares go to bed, the bohemians take the streets. I was parked mid-block, down from the corner coffee shop, the next-door grill and a convenience store. A few blocks further along resided the jazz club. It had been just such a night, sultry, middle 70s, not many people about. The street was ill lit and there would have been some apprehension walking alone. Real fear perhaps of the man going the same direction as you, taking his time, twenty yards back. Less so the man in the glass enclosure of the lobby, surely just a neighbor's friend waiting to be buzzed in.
I went over the police report in my head. It was general in nature. She kept to herself, quiet but friendly. She had different male friends. She went out frequently, often alone, seemed to like the nightlife, was a habitué of the local bar scene. The night in question she did the town, took several cab rides and dropped off at the jazz club after midnight. She left an hour later, walking alone the several blocks to home.
It was over by 2:00 a.m. Moderate alcohol in her system, no drugs. Traces of cocaine were lifted from her face, in saliva left by her assailant. No suspects, a flimsy profile, no leads. The kind of case only the cops take and only because they have to. Or someone slightly out of round.
I started the car and pulled away from the curb, driving south this time. I'd seen enough. Up ahead, beneath the corner street lamp, I spied a young couple laughing and swinging about. Guiltless under a summer's night. They probably couldn't even see the stars. For them at least, for this one evening, the music would never stop.
For me it was straight and fast, making every intersection, timing every stoplight until I was forty blocks east, where the lots were manicured and the homes spacious and set back from the street. A nice neighborhood with nice people. Evans lived there.
The house was a brick ranch on the corner of Elm, painted white and landscaped and well-kept with plenty room between the neighbors. It took some money to camp there, more than a cop pulled down.
There were decorative lights bordering the flagstones that led to the front door and an elaborate porch light that was large as a phone booth and glowing. The driveway rose to a three-car garage illumined by the beam of several spotlights peeking from beneath the eaves. A kid's bike lay on its side in front of the middle stall of the garage. Everything was just so.
I sat at idle opposite the house and stared. Something somewhere was getting worked out, some conclusion was bubbling up. I couldn't put my finger on what it was though. I needed time, and that was in short supply, obliged as I was to snap out of my reverie rather quickly. The outer garage door began to rise and I was painted by the headlights of a car approaching from around the corner. A deep-blue cop sedan swung round and through and into the garage in a single rush, lighting me up like a mouseketeer. I bobbed my head and put it in gear, darted quickly to the stop sign. Then I flicked the lights and stepped on the gas. I scooted away in the night.
In the rearview, my eyes were yelling, "Red-handed!" but the big red letters racing across my forehead hollered, "Stu-pid."
Beating it back home, I gobbled cigarettes and had a couple more slaps from the jug while I worked on the new feature film I was writing. "Gotcha, Sucker!" I called it, starring a clumsy hero with not many ticks left on his...