The Greater Picture
Without saying a word, Jake motioned to the crowd on the sidewalk and the vehicles gathered by the road. Sam mumbled, “Let’s check it out,” as he pulled up behind a motorist beside the curb, but, with a sudden determination, the older detective had already emerged from the car and walked several yards toward the scene.
“Hey,” he shouted to a pedestrian on the street, “what’s going on here?”
“The devil has found himself a prophet to begin his work in the world,” the old man replied quietly, gesturing discreetly to Salem Dade in the crowd.
The old man, who seemed to appear out of nowhere, wore a dark suit and clerical collar. There was a tattered Bible in his wrinkled hand. Not expecting such a lofty reply, Jake rephrased his question: “Did you see anything out of the ordinary sir?”
“That man is the False Prophet,” explained the old preacher in a gravelly voice, his baldhead shining with the radiance of an opal in the morning sun. “Standing around him, with that bunch, are his twelve disciples. The day before yesterday two other homeless folk were incinerated by Satan’s wrath.”
It sounded quite matter-of-fact to the detectives, which made his claim seem all the more ludicrous, and yet Jake was troubled by the timeliness of his presence on the street.
“There must be a hundred bums in front of that alley.” He squinted, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Which one are you talking about—the guy with the beard wearing the white suit?”
“Yes, the one who looks like Jesus. You knew that immediately,” the octogenarian smiled, his dark eyes twinkling in the sunlight. “You must stay with this case, sergeant….You, my son, in your search for the truth, are not far from the kingdom.”
Both Jake and Sam had turned to study the crowd and the alleged prophet in their midst. When they looked back to where the old man had stood, there was a vacant patch of cement on the sidewalk. Because there were so many pedestrians in front of the alley, it was easy to assume that he had simply melted into the crowd, but neither detective had seen him pass by them, nor did it seem likely that the crotchety old man could have walked out of sight in such a short span of time.
“Jesus Christ,” gasped Jake, “where’d he go?”
“Beats me,” Sam scratched his head, “he must’ve ran like hell somewhere or vanished in thin air.”
“Maybe he’s sitting in one of these cars,” Jake suggested, bending down and looking into an empty sedan parked on the curb. “Is it legal to park here?” He looked back at his partner.
“…. What’s going on here, Sam?”
“Let’s go find out,” his partner led the way.
After a few more steps, Jake stopped abruptly and reached into his coat.
“Wait,” he said, bringing his cell phone up to his ear, “let’s call this in. Dispatch might have reports on it. It won’t hurt to check.”
“Here, use mine. Yours is dead, remember?” Sam handed him his phone.
Sam was growing irritated with these delays. He sensed that it might be, as the Leed’s fire investigation, another long day. They were, as the other detectives, supposed to talk to church members, but it looked as if the sergeant had forgotten their appointments or didn’t care.
“Is that right Millie?” He could hear Jake say. “The police didn’t think it was a 187? False alarm, eh…. Yeah-yeah, I’m sure Officers Fletcher and Reed did a fine job, but we’re gonna check it out just the same. Please let Lieutenant Howard know we’re following up on this one…. Thanks Millie. Caio!” “That’s just typical of how the police treat this neighborhood,” Jake moralized as they turned their attention to the crowd.
Salem Dade now wore a white suit in place of the Biblical outfit in which he debuted on the street. Though he still wore a beard, it was groomed to modern standards and his long hair was tied in neat ponytail in back of his head. In spite of these alterations, he still looked, in many vagrants’ opinions, like a modern version of Jesus Christ. Marie, who wore the same blue dress as before, looked even more radiant, in spite of the lack of makeup or fancy attire. Virtually all of the twelve disciples had been miraculously scrubbed up to look presentable, though they still wore the same shabby old clothes. A much smaller crowd had gathered as Salem rattled off a series of religious generalities pointing to the new faith: “There will be a day when skid row will become a garden and you, children, will share in a new day…” His voice, however, faltered as he caught sight of Jake and Sam. Here, he told himself, were the dreaded detectives Marie warned him about: a graying, steel jawed veteran and his dark, swarthy sidekick, each supporting a holstered gun by his chest and ready, with pad and pen, to trip him up by his own lying tongue.
“Should I act autistic like I did before?” He asked Marie in a croaking voice, as they approached. “Maybe I could talk to myself, like Cassie. That would be a nice touch.”
“No, that was a stupid idea,” she whispered. “Say only what I tell you. Don’t say anything until you clear it with me first, but mentally—inside your head. Don’t move your lips; already many of these people think you’re deranged.”
Salem and Marie now stood quietly in the crowd. Salem appeared exhausted and dazed to the detectives, which was partly true since he had slept poorly last night. A frantic look shown on his face, as he watched them pass through the crowd. Marie, who looked out of place among this riff-raff, smiled confidently as she held his hand.
“May I have your attention!” cried Jake, waving his badge. “I’m Sergeant Cosgrove and this is Detective Ruiz. We’re from the police homicide division. We heard there was a homicide down here earlier this week. So what else is new? We’re going to ask you folks some questions. First, would someone show us where it took place.”
“It was in the alley, but it wasn’t a homicide,” Effie replied with a toothless grin.
“They were nuked” the bag lady said, folding her arms self-righteously, “burned up by God’s wrath!”
“Okay ladies,” Ruiz smirked, “show us the ashes. We need physical—not bullshit— evidence. No hocus pocus or little green men.”
“There ain’t any,” Effie said, cackling with glee. “Go see for yourselves!”
“They’s no ashes, no evidence. Thems folks gone!” Ursula crowed.
“Blew away in the wind, by the breath of our Lord,” Stork, offered, a dreamy expression frozen on his pale face.
Walking over to the alley, where, according to the dispatcher’s report, the alleged homicides took place, the detective could see only darkness at first. After walking almost to the end of the alley, swishing their flashlights to and fro, they spotted a patch of burnt bricks on their way back out, but thought nothing of it at first.
“We’ll check that out later.” Jake motioned to the wall.
“This sounds like a hoax,” Sam frowned severely, “a big waste of time!”
“Probably is,” Jake rubbed his jaw. “Someone orchestrated this stunt, perhaps to hide a crime: drug-dealing, whatever. We gotta check it out, Sam. That son-of-a-bitch looks like Jesus Christ!”
As they exited the alley, Kaz, the little dwarf, jumped up and down with glee as if bereft of his senses. The dirty, bearded, and scabrous faces of many of the untouchables outside the circle of the twelve filled the detectives with loathing as the vagrants grinned and chattered amongst themselves. Unable to mask his contempt, Sergeant Cosgrove mumbled to Ruiz, “There’s something really weird about this, Sam. These are the dregs of humanity. What’s that counterfeit Jesus trying to pull?”
Sam uttered a nervous laugh and shrugged. The sergeant studied the vagrants, murmuring to himself, “No bodies… cremated… ashes… blown away… Sounds like bullshit, Sam. I’ll be god-damned-to-hell!”
Sam reached inside his jacket to touch the butt of his gun, frowning with disdain at the smelly, unwashed bodies closing in. “There’s no mystery to this Jake. Unless they hid the remains, it’s some kind of prank.”
“Yeah,” nodded Jake, scanning the crowd, “but for what purpose? Why pull a stunt like this on skid row? Who’s going to care?” “Look at their expressions, Sam,” he made sweeping gestures with both hands, “they act like he’s Jesus. I bet if I gave half of these winos a blood test it would be off the chart!”
“I wonder what he’s on,” Sam pointed to Dade.
Sam flipped the safety on his weapon, striking a Napoleonic pose with his hand tucked into his coat. There must have been a hundred or more derelicts gathered at the scene. All of the motorists who had stopped and snuck up to take a peak, however, had shrunk back to the sidelines, several of them driving away in their automobiles when the detectives arrived. Salem remained fixed in his corner of the crowd, waving, at Marie’s insistence, as the detectives approached.
“I’m going to try something different this time,” he whispered to Sam.
“Back away folks,” he called out. “…. That’s it…. Now form a single file, beginning over here,” he directed, making a face. “When I turn my voice recorder on, I want each one of you to state your name and give me a brief account of what you saw. No more bullshit please!”
“We’ll save Rasputin until last,” he whispered conspiratorially to Sam. “I wanna get him nice and nervous, so he’ll spill the beans.”
“Are you serious?” Sam sputtered, looking over at the man. “This is getting ridiculous, Jake. These are bums. That guy’s addled in his head!”
“Well, something happened here today.” Jake pointed to the crowd. “I’m curious to find out what. We’ve got all kinds of nuts down here. This won’t take long.”
Suddenly, it dawned on Sam that Jake, for all his bluster, enjoyed this detour. A line immediately formed before the detective, stretching out into street
“I’ll just get the first twelve—an even dozen,” Jake quipped, but Sam was glaring with disbelief at this charade.
Looking to Salem Dade for directions, Royal Channing and Alden Taylor, who stood closest to him, found him staring vacantly at the ground. This fact was noted by the detectives, too: a trait that was common with autistic men. On the other hand, Jake noticed that the woman, who stood next to the man, had a self-assured look. She wasn’t afraid, and looked at the detective straight in the eyes. There was something unnatural, perhaps even sinister, about the innocent-looking girl by the holy man’s side. Clearly, Jake had sensed immediately, she was in charge…. Was she his girlfriend, he wondered, or his wife?
“Effie Powers,” the first vagrant mumbled into the voice-activated recorder.
“Effie?” Cosgrove repeated sarcastically, holding the machine a safe distance from her splotchy face. “Is that your god-given—I mean birth—name.”
“Ephalia,” she frowned. “You satisfied now?”
“Ephalia,” he repeated the name. “Tell me, Miz Powers, exactly what you saw here today.”
Effie, who had made sure she was first in line, was an enthusiastic witness of the wonders performed recently on skid row. Not only had she seen the cremation, but she could also attest to Buff Peyton’s miraculous cure, discrediting her version of the miracles in their minds when she compared Salem to Jesus Christ. Stork, Alden, Troy, and Liz followed with their eye-witness accounts but with nothing substantial to convince the detectives there was anything more than “street paranoia” afoot. The dwarf struck them as deranged, and Cassie Moa, the young woman standing next to the hard-looking Liz Moydin, also did not seem right in the head. As Ursula gave her account of what had happened this morning, she grew defensive when it appeared that they didn’t believe her, swore at them, and stormed angrily into the crowd. Buff, whom they claimed was miraculously heeled, left out the part where he tormented the holy man, himself. The one-time thug fabricated the beginning to the story, placing all of the blame on the deceased Rhoda Simms and Charlie Blintz, both conveniently absent from the scene. After it was claimed by the others that Buff had been one of the chief persecutors of Salem Dade, Buff Peyton’s testimony seemed like the least trustworthy of the group.
Heck Ramirez and Johnny Trueblood, who suddenly had trouble speaking English, grunted unintelligibly into the machine. For good measure, since Cassie Moa, said nothing at all when he held the recorder up to her face, Jake added the bag lady, Lucille Harding, whose ramblings sounded like the account given by Effie Powers.
Across the street, unseen by the detectives, stood Ignacio Rosales, a recent convert of Moses Rawlins brand of born again Christianity. Though he didn’t yet understand the subtleties of Moses’ new message, he had been influenced by the preacher’s vision of the End Times. He was, he freely admitted, just biding his time on earth, waiting for Jesus to return in the Second Coming and destroy this wicked world.
Breaking from his duties as dishwasher at the mission, Ignacio had taken a morning stroll down the long boulevard leading into skid row just in time to catch the commotion near the old Fairmont Hotel. Today was the first day, since being released from the hospital, that he felt up to the trek. As he lingered a moment near the spot where Moses friends had tended to his wounds, a friend of Ignacio, who stood amongst the idlers, waved to him as he looked his way.
“Ignacio! How’re you feeling?” He called, shuffling across the street.
Ignacio recognized his old drinking buddy Duke Haskins, who had “gone on the wagon,” himself, since accepting Christ.
“Little better maybe, I think,” smiled Ignacio, nodding his head obliquely. “I take walk to exercise bones. Ignacio getting lazy at new job.”
“That’s great Iggy,” Duke called him by his street name. “I’m supposed to start work downtown, myself.”
“What’s going on?” Ignacio motioned to the crowd. “Are those detectives over there?”
“It’s a long story,” shrugged Duke. “I got wind of what happened just today. I saw him a distance away, myself, but got out quickly when I spotted Charlie and his friends. It happened yesterday in this very same spot. I heard those detectives talking to a few eyewitnesses. It all sounds like nonsense to me.”
“What happened?” Ignacio squinted myopically at the scene.
“Two miracles,” Duke answered, looking disapprovingly across the street, “a cremation and a healing.”
In a tone indicating contempt, he told his friend what he heard about the cremation of Charlie Blintz and Rhoda Simms, not only Moses’ enemies but Ignacio’s worst enemies too. Though he could scarcely believe this good news, Ignacio listened incredulously to the claims by witnesses at the scene.
“That’s ridiculous,” he frowned. “You don’t believe that, Duke. That fellow’s loco in the head!”
“Maybe so,” shrugged Duke “He’s wearing a suit now, but yesterday he looked like a painting I saw at the mission. It’s very strange, Iggy, that a man like that would be down here.”
“Too bad Moses isn’t here,” grumbled Ignacio. “He’d take that faker to task!”
Ignacio now followed Duke back into the crowd. He could see several old acquaintances among the audience. Unknown to him, of course, was the fact that many of these same spectators had been among Salem’s hecklers on the street. Though Duke knew nothing of scriptures, Ignacio had been reading his Spanish Bible continually after his injuries. He also memorized the “Christian Basics” that Moses preached. He remembered Moses warnings about a false prophet at the mission and wondered if this man might not be that very man. Even if he was addled, as his friend suggested, he found Dukes comparison of him with Jesus Christ unsettling…. What sort of scam was afoot among his old friends? He wondered, elbowing his way gently through the ranks.
Ignacio stood anxiously alongside Duke, as Jake questioned a bystander, who hadn’t even seen the event. Ignacio could hear homeless men and a few women mumbling to themselves about the miracles. About a dozen vagrants he recognized stood around the holy man in what seemed like awe. What game is that man pulling? Ignacio asked himself, as he listened to a man whisper to a friend, “Yesterday he looked like that painting of Jesus hanging at the mission. Now he’s dressed like some Wall Street dude!”
Ignacio and Duke were both familiar with Harry Anderson’s famous painting of the Lord. Now, despite this reference to Wall Street, there remained an ascetic, pastoral look to Salem. There was not mistaking that ‘Christ-like’ face. Duke was worried about the deepening frown etched into Ignacio’s worn face. He had seen that look on his friend’s face before. It’s what got him beaten up by Charlie Blintz. His friend seemed ready at any moment to call this charlatan out and was simply biding his time, until the moment was right. Discreetly now, however, with Duke following behind, Ignacio moved closer to the charlatan through the idlers in the crowd. Although Ignacio was much to short to see what was going on, he could still hear what was being said. Many derelicts, who knew him and had heard about his injuries, smiled at him, and moved aside differentially as he approached. Finally, as a hiker at the edge of the forest, he could see him: the Counterfeit Christ—the second beast. Putting his finger to his lips to stifle their greetings, he patted their shoulders congenially and settled a short distance from the holy man, as any other idler in the crowd. Duke held back fearfully a moment, then, setting his jaw, bravely joined his friend as he appraised the man.
“Officer,” Ignacio called discreetly.
Thinking that he might be just one more crackpot on the scene, Jake ignored him completely at first.
“Officer!” Ignacio repeated. Following this outcry, he made several psst-psst! noises and held up his hand.
“No, Ignacio,” whispered Duke, pulling his sleeve, “this isn’t your business. You’re annoying that man!”
“Psst, psst-psst!” Ignacio called again through cupped hands.
“What do you want?” Jake feigned grumpiness. “You look like someone with something on their mind.” He held out his voice recorder gruffly, stifling a smile.
“I have lot on mind,” Ignacio said in a low conspiratorial voice.
“You know what happened here?” Jake snarled at the little man, snickering under his breath.
“Moses, he say the devil find himself a prophet and begin his work here on the street.” Ignacio replied quietly, gesturing discreetly to Salem in the crowd.
Jake looked at his partner, who had a jaded expression on his face. “What’s he talking about Sam? Does that sound familiar to you?”
“Don’t ask me,” Ruiz shrugged, “I’m a Catholic; I don’t have a clue.”
Frowning at this absurd statement, Ignacio followed the detectives, disappointed but not surprised by Jake’s reaction. Both detectives seemed annoyed with him as he followed along prattling about Moses’ vision of the End Times, until, at one point, Jake turned and cursed at him, making shooing motions with their hands.
“The part about the false prophet sound’s like what the old man was saying,” Cosgrove commented to Sam, glancing back at Salem and his wife. “The beast rising out of the sea,” he said, looked squarely at Ignacio, “is that suppose to be him?”
“He is one of the beasts,” the little Hispanic said, flatly, pointing to a black book he pulled out of his jacket. “It’s all here what the Lord say!” He wrung it in the air.
Ruiz, amused by his Chaplinesque movements, spoke Spanish to him a moment, motioning again for him to go away. The little evangelist replied in clear, succinct English “I speak plain English please, and I am not loco. That man in crowd belongs to the devil. He’s going to make a big fool of the world!”
Cosgrove now glanced at his partner as if to say, “Make him go away!” Then, as he studied the Bible held in the man’s gnarled hands, he turned his recorder toward the man and gave him a nod. “We’re gonna check this out, okay,” he gave him a begrudging smile. “Tell me about yourself,” he held it under his bristly chin. “What’s you name? Where you from?”
“Ignacio Rosales.” He frowned at the apparatus. “I once lived on street but now work at mission.”
“And you think this guy’s a beast,” drawled Jake, curious about this subject now.
“Yes,” Ignacio nodded quickly, “my friend Moses mean that man when he talk about false prophet.”
“Moses?” Jake scratched his jaw, as he thought about what the old preacher had said. “I just heard someone in this bunch talking about that guy.”
“Moses, oh yes,” Ignacio smiled approvingly, “he’s my mentor leading me to Lord. Now I shall spread the word too.”
“What’s he look like?” pressed Jake, scanning the faces in the crowd. “Is he a crotchety bald-headed old man in a threadbare suit?”
“No, he is crotchety middle-aged man, with shaggy hair, in old suit.” Ignacio smiled wanly.
Sam, who had been calling his wife, belatedly joined the conversation. “I heard someone talking about that incident. He said the day before yesterday Moses was assaulted then taken away by his friends.”
“What?” Ignacio cried with alarm. “What happened?”
A second, unidentified man, called from the crowd, “Charlie Blintz, one of those destroyed by God’s wrath, roughed him up.”
Ignacio, who had recently been roughed up by Charlie, himself, feared the worst. “Where’s Moses?” He looked around for the owner of the voice. “Did they take him to the hospital. Please, someone tell me where he’s at!”
At that point, Wyatt Brewster, emerged from the audience, an enigmatic smile playing on his adolescent face.
“Don’t worry,” he patted Ignacio’s arm, “it couldn’t have been too serious. He was on his feet yesterday, spouting scripture, when they left.”
“Who left with him?” Ignacio frowned with concern.
“His friends Al, Skunk and Tom” answered Wyatt, searching his memory, “and some fellow—Alfredo I think his name was—driving a mission truck.”
“Yes, yes, my nephew,” Ignacio rubbed his forehead. “I bet they take him to county hospital. That’s where my friends take me.”
Without a second thought, Ignacio left the detectives standing there, with bemused expressions on their faces for the quirky movements of the little man.
“Come, Duke, we must go to hospital,” Ignacio said simply.
His friend Duke scurried to catch up, as Ignacio began the long journey across town.
Wyatt, the one member who had held back in the crowd and missed the cut made by Sergeant Cosgrove, had been replaced by Lucille Harding, the bag lady, who was not even a member of the twelve. Not realizing the significance of this number, Jake had thought twelve informants to be quite enough before moving on to Salem and Marie, until giving little Ignacio a chance. He wanted the holy man to stew awhile before he pounced. Lucille, her curiosity satisfied, now departed with her shopping basket, still not convinced who Salem Dade was supposed to be. With the detectives considering whether or not this was a crime scene, the crowd had grown restive. Many of them departed back into the hollows of skid row or followed Lucille uptown, with the goal of being near the mission in time for the evening meal. The young seminary student strolled away meditatively from the others, as the detectives stood back appraising the crowd. All but a few of the vehicles parked on the curb had stolen away. Several dozen street people, who heard Salem’s speech, however, lingered uneasily, wondering whether or not the detectives were going to arrest the strange man. From an incline, several hundred feet away, Wyatt could see the detectives approach Salem and Marie. He wanted to talk to the sergeant but secretly, without Salem’s followers present, so, instead he talked to God.
“Lord,” his adolescent voice broke, “take back this cup. Give it to a wiser, purer man.
Choose a more worthy cupbearer, Jesus. Pick a man like Moses Rawlins to expose the beast!”
At that very moment, as he stared up through the skyline, the Lord gave Wyatt a sign. As he prayed, a great bank of June clouds moved in to dim the scene. Salem’s radiant white suit suddenly looked dingy. Marie’s blue dress seemed drab. All the radiance, Wyatt noted, emanated from one single break in the sky. The Lord, the focus of all glory, was speaking to him in the language of nature. Through symbolism, He was saying, “Salem’s a fake—a counterfeit Christ!” As the clouds moved, only the Word and the Spirit shined, until one great shaft broke through and illuminated everyone standing near the hotel. The patchwork of light and dark shifted, rippling over vagrants and detectives alike. Salem, Marie, and members of the twelve remained subdued as the clouds moved, the message quite clear in Wyatt’s mind. The small, ragtag assembly of drifters, he had reluctantly joined, were the nucleus of a new world order, the religious counterpart to the government of the End Times.
With this realization, Wyatt gasped, his hand flying to his mouth. Evil, in the person of Dade, his mistress Satan, and the devil’s disciples stood in the shadows. Slowly, as a fungus, shunning light, they would take root, spreading Dade’s poisonous philosophy over the world. Once again Wyatt felt the temptation to flee into the city. “I’m not up to this!” He yelped, dropping to his knees. That moment, as Wyatt knelt again in prayer, Jake looked squarely at the man of the hour. Having saved him until this moment, the sergeant placed the voice-activated tape recorder in his vest pocket. After turning up the volume, he swaggered up to Salem and Marie.
“I already know your names,” his voice dripped with sarcasm as he appraised the pair. “You’re the one he’s talking about, aren’t you?” “What’d you do to these bums down here,” he focused upon Salem, “hypnotize them? Give them some kind of religious whammy? Are you on drugs, Mister Dade?… Don’t play innocent with me!”
“I did nothing,” Salem answered honestly, raising his eyes to heaven. “I simply follow my Lord’s will.”
“Oh I see,” Cosgrove said, snickering under his breath. “God did it, right?… Just what did happen here, sport? Was there or wasn’t there homicides committed down here on the street?”
“Yes, there were homicides,” Salem answered evasively, “but not murders. And it wasn’t a crime; it was an act of judgment!”
“What kind of double-talk is that?” Cosgrove snapped irritably. “I want straight answers Dade. Did you witness a homicide down here or not?”
Salem Dade (a.k.a. Adam Leeds) was perspiring heavily now. The one identified as Marie Roget, Jake marveled, was dry and composed. Her youthful face and demeanor presented a state of peace and tranquility to the detective, compared to the sudden “caught-in-the-act” look on Salem Dade’s face.
“What are you suppose to be?” Jake asked, his steel blue eyes narrowing to slits. “What’s a dandy, like you, doing on skid row?”
Satan’s thoughts came swiftly this time, startling Salem half out his wits.
“What’s the matter? Is that a tough question for you?” The detective drawled, sticking out his chin. “Come on, sport, I don’t have all day.”
“Unless you’ve come to arrest me,” Salem answered, parroting Satan’s words, “my presence here is of no concern to you.”
“You atheist cops!” Effie shouted in the background.
“Leave the holy man alone!” cried Stork.
Jake and Sam walked several yards away from Salem, Marie, and the remaining eleven disciples, unaware that the most important member of the group was not present in the twelve. The largest segment of the crowd had now backed away, in an effort, it seemed, to disassociate themselves from the confrontation between Salem and the police.
“Jake, take my advice,” Sam gave his shoulder a firm grip, “forget the lunatic. The only thing we might have here, without evidence of a crime, is a runaway.”
“You mean Marie?” Jake tossed his head at her. “That’s no runaway, Sam. She certainly ain’t no kid!”
“You’ve seen your share of runaways, Jake,” Sam looked at him in disbelief. “She’s just a child, no more than sixteen.”
“Trust me, Sam,” Jake said with conviction. “She’s not sixteen. Did you look at those eyes? I’ve never seen eyes so dark and cold in such a baby face.”
Sam argued with Jake a few moments longer on the dangers of stereotyping a subject. He also insisted on running a background check on the girl since it was apparent that Salem Dade had committed no crime. Jake, however, had already made his mind up that something dark and sinister had occurred here today.
“Do you have any ID?” He stepped back to address them both.
In what might have struck members of the crowd as another miracle, Marie reached into a pocket and produced two social security cards. Each card, which looked brand new, had their names and numbers printed on what appeared to be official stock. The detective, who was half-convinced Salem Dade was mentally imbalanced, didn’t question why he hadn’t produced his own. The action, far from clarifying matters for him, added to the mystery, and yet he was not taken aback. He would of course, after jotting down the social security numbers on his notepad, check the numbers with official records, but he already suspected that they were genuine. Such a gesture if not verifiable would have been foolish, worse, in fact, than producing no cards at all. If this young woman was, in fact, a teenager, she was a pro. Her voice and gestures were calm and collected, and the expression on her face was impossible to read. As if second-guessing his doubts about Salem’s sanity, Marie explained that her husband had suffered a traumatic experience recently with a gang of thugs and was not himself. He would be back in form in a few days.
Jake had them give their addresses into his recorder and was not surprised that they lived in a condemned hotel. The fact that they didn’t have a telephone would make it that much more difficult to keep tabs on this pair. It seemed clear to him that they were street people, and yet there were too many murky facts surrounding them to just let them off without a note of rebuke.
“Listen,” he gave them a mocking smile, “I’m not finished with you two. I don’t know what your game is, but here’s my office number and my cell phone number. If you remember any details, please call me. It’ll go easier on you, if you come clean.”
Handing the woman one of his business cards, an obvious indication to Marie that he knew she was in charge, Jake motioned his partner on. He had sounded like the typical hardboiled detective when in fact he felt out of his element this time. There were too many things about Biblical prophecy and the Apocalypse that he didn’t know or even wanted to know. It seemed too bizarre for his cynical mind that this mismatched pare were anything more than an aberration on the street. On skid row, Pershing Square, and the boulevards uptown, countless lunatics and would-be messiahs spouted their philosophies to pedestrians on the streets. What could be so special about a man down here who looked like Rasputin, with a face like Jesus Christ?
Still within earshot of the pair, he said to Sam, “That joker and that woman staged something here today. I’m not sure if there was really a homicide or it was made to look like one. But there aren’t any bodies. If the lieutenant okays it, we could have the CSI check out the burnt brick back there.” “But we got it covered today Ruiz,” he seemed to say for the couple’s benefit. “No bodies. No evidence…. Just a lot of bullshit on tape!”
Turning back to the crowd in a sudden change of heart, however, he pointed menacingly at everyone in sight. “I can’t arrest any of you, but I want you to break it up here and now. You’re disturbing the peace—my peace. Those of you who saw what happened down here—minus the bullshit—should contact the LAPD homicide division. Now move it!”
“As for you, you son-of-a-bitch!” he called icily to Salem Dade. “I can’t book someone for pretending he’s Jesus. But so-help-me I’d like to have you locked up in a padded cell for staging this show!”
“I never claimed to be Christ,” Salem cried out, feeling Marie’s fingers squeezing his hand. “I staged nothing for these people. The Lord performed the miracles, not I!”
“Where are we going?” Sam asked the sergeant, when it became apparent that Jake was not walking back to the car.
“I’ve got this feeling about this place,” mumbled Jake, glancing back one more time at the scene. “I just don’t know what it is,” he confessed to himself.
The entire assembly, Salem Dade and Marie Roget included, now dispersed, and the few remaining motorists drove away from the scene. The detectives watched Salem, Marie, and eleven of the street people file quietly into the hotel. In the distance, dragging his heels, was the Judas Priest. Turning to the alley where the alleged cremation occurred, they re-entered the shadowy corridor. A shaft of light fell on the smudge on the wall checked earlier by Jake and Sam. Except for the dark silhouettes of what could be the cremated man and woman, the detectives had, of course, found no bodies, not so much as an ash. The burnt impression on the wall was indistinguishable from any other abstract blotch, and yet Sergeant Cosgrove had seen this before…. The more he looked at the wall, the more he believed a homicide was committed here today.
“What do you make of this Sam?” He asked thoughtfully, scratching the blackened bricks with a key. “It’s like a shadow but indistinct…. and yet it reminds me of some of those pictures of Hiroshima. Remember the farmer and his cart caught on the wall?”
“Never heard of it,” Ruiz gave him a bored stare. “That was before my time.”
“That was before my time,” Jake looked at him with disbelief. “Don’t you young whelps ever read?”
Sam frowned and smiled at the same time.
“All right,” the older detective sighed, looking back at the retreating crowd, “something’s not right here. I don’t believe that crap they’re telling us, but not this many bums could be hallucinating—not at the same time. Why would they make something like that up, Sam? What’s that Salem Whats-his-face’s game.”
Sam tried scraping the dark splotch with one of his keys.
“This could be anything, Jake,” he sighed. “We could get Waters’ people to check it out, but, after that bogus investigation in progress, I’m not sure they’ll go for another leap into the dark.”
“Leap into the dark,” Jake rubbed his jaw. “That’s what this is, isn’t it.” “But this looks like someone took a blow torch to it,” he added, studying the wall. “…. Why would anyone do that?”
“I dunno,” Sam was growing impatient, “who cares? Shouldn’t we check Breckenridge and Billingsley out?”
Jake removed a Kleenex and plastic snack bag from his coat pocket, scrapped as much of the sooty material as he thought necessary from the wall onto the Kleenex and carefully folded this package into a plastic bag before placing it gently into the pocket of his coat. What Jake did was acknowledged as routine procedure by his partner. Sam was more concerned with the overtime looming this day.
“Yeah,” sighed Jake, walking with him back to the car, “the investigation at the fire is a shot in the dark too. I’ve said it before Sam; I got this feeling we’re not going to see that reverend and his wife again.” “That fellow,” he pointed to where Salem and Marie had stood, “appears to have just arrived. I’m keeping my eye on him!”
Sam, who would take the driver’s side once more, did a double take after thinking about what Jake had said.
“What-the-hell for?” He looked across the top of the car before climbing in. “He’s another street crazy. We used to get them all the time uptown.”
“This guy’s different,” said Jake, climbing into the passenger’s side. “Why would a man with a face like Jesus hang out in skid row. Why not Hollywood or Santa Monica peer.”
“Maybe he’s not hanging out. Maybe, he’s hiding out,” Sam said matter-of-factly, staring at the road ahead.
Though he didn’t think twice about what he had said, Sam had tied the two investigations together in one fell swoop, and yet it seemed too absurd for Jake to digest.
What could be significant about any of this? He wondered, as he thought about Sam what had said…. A strange, Christ-like figure hiding out in skid row, right after the Leeds house caught on fire, who was accompanied by a flaxen-haired young woman with onyx-colored eyes
…. Is that an unrelated coincidence… or did it mean something?
I don’t know anything about the Bible, he thought to himself, as Sam pulled away from the curb. Why would Salem Dade be called out as a false prophet and a beast by two separate people? Why would anyone come down here looking like that? For Sam’s benefit, however, Jake got back down to business, readying his map and instructing his partner how to get back on the freeway again. What Jake really wanted to do was take his sample from the alley wall to the crime lab and have it tested…. The greater picture, that which no one else yet sensed, had already surfaced darkly in his mind, and would rise incrementally throughout the days ahead.