Chapter 1

22 September, 2050

The train grumbled to a stop in the inky night. There was an eerie silence around Harry as he got off. The night seemed to be pregnant with sinister possibilities.

Only a few passengers got out of the cars with him. A few more were waiting on the benches to catch the next leg of the route. Factory workers would have left in droves in the hours before. There was a feeling of unease, he just couldn't shake off.

He had been unable to peel the image of the girl's face away from his eyes. The caramel skin, the wavy hair dancing about her temples, and those dark green eyes had been encroaching his thoughts again and again. But the strangeness of this hour as he stepped across the platform helped clear his mind.

Something caught his attention as he moved past the waiting area. It was a vomit-colored jacket that jumped at him - he would recognize that jacket anywhere in the world. The wearer of the jacket was a huddled figure slumped by the side wall of the long, stubby building hosting the ticket counters.

He approached and sat on his haunches in front of the unconscious man. The man's legs were limp, splayed before him. The open sides of the jacket revealed a threadbare shirt with so many stains of eatables and more, that its true color was lost. The head leaned into the wall at an uncomfortable angle. An expression of agony was fixed on the ridged hard-skinned face. It was a dead body. The fingers of both hands had adopted different angles, positions, and distances from each other in permanent repose. They seemed to reflect the pain of parting from this pointless life that the man must have felt in stages, whatever the sequential progression of a spirit leaving the body must be. Frozen in time, already fossilized, ten snapshots of the past, and sinister clues to institutional failures.

At last, Harry let a deep breath out and struggled to keep the anger and shock from slipping through to the surface. He wanted to hug this dead body, but that would be a deliberate contamination of a possible crime scene. The man, of Puerto Rican descent, was Jorge, Harry's sole family through the lonely stretches of his childhood.

Harry stared at those fingers in horror.

At last, he exhaled slowly and steered himself clear of any oncoming avalanche of loss and grief. He was over those, determined never to mourn anyone ever again.

He turned his head around to view the scene. Passengers for the next train had appeared, lazily walking to the front of the building for tickets. A few vendors went about their business in wait for the next round of sales. Not a single head turned in the direction of the all too visible death on the side - a footnote to life no one had time to read.

The reek coming from Jorge's body was a potpourri of conflicting scents. There was a splash of the cheapest beer this side of the state border. There was the brunt of stale cigarette smoke levitated from a nightly chain session, the way he knew Jorge. A slight but distinct, unpleasant smell of burnt rubber was thrown in for good measure.

There was one potent odor that seemed to crown them all, the rose amid the perennials. It was pungent, but not very sharp. He couldn't place it but he had a feeling it was a riddle with a ludicrous, easy solution.

Somebody had stolen Jorge's shoes. Harry considered the possibility of a fight over them. A charity worker had only recently given them away. A good pair with no damage that could bring in enough value for a junkie's next shot of Tryptovam.

Examining whatever of the corpse's skin was visible, careful not to touch anything, Harry found no signs of struggle or altercation. But he did find prominent swelling surrounding the ankles, while the fingers of the hands looked stubby.

He stood up and checked his watch. He still had time before he must be home.

The next instant, he was running.

He was breathless when he reached the open plot where the Duvall Homeless Shelter had been constructed. It was more crowded today than usual due to the threat of rain - a well-populated jungle of metal-framed beds and egg-crate mattresses. A permanent sweat hung in the air. Many faces recognized him and send a hi his way but he was frantically looking for someone else.

A shrill preteen squeak followed by a whoop broke his search. Before he could turn around, a lanky boy of about twelve had all but climbed onto his shoulders.

"Hold on, Woody! Where's Sheila?" Harry managed to asked, pinning down the quicksilver limbs of the youth flailing in joy and in that frantic attempt to climb.

"Merv, Merv! Where are de rols? I dun see no rols!"

"I dun bring no rols. Its my workday. Toldja before."

"Work? But yer no on work. Ye here for us."

"Wille pass my message to Sheila?"

"She right there feedin de baby."

With another burst of speed in the direction the youth had pointed, dodging a crowd this time, Harry reached a bed adorned with sundry items for babies and mothers. He almost fell before the large-boned lady of about forty with a tender face, quite hapless at the moment with a screaming baby thrown over one shoulder. She didn't know she had been widowed, her baby doll an orphan now.

"Do you even know where Jorge is, Sheila?" The note of sympathy was absent in the haste of his irritation.

"What did he do? I haven't seen him for four days." Sheila replied with greater irritation.

Well, you will never see him again. He almost blurted this out, only to switch it with the only response that could be crueler: the plain truth.

"I found him dead by the east corner of the junction office."

Not stopping to appreciate the widened pupils, gaping mouth, and the loosening of the widow's arms that nearly dropped the baby, he turned with merely a squeeze to her shoulder, and ran all the way back to the junction. He was aware of the ruthlessness of his action. But at a time when his own feelings were like a live wire, he wouldn't dare introduce further messiness between him and the widow than already existed.

Woody, the fast monkey-boy, followed him for several feet, attempting to climb up on him again, all while trying to search through the bigger boy's clothes for hidden treasure.

Harry made use of Woody's clinginess by dragging him along for a few more feet and impress him with urgent instructions:

"Go tell Officer Sito find Jorge at junction pronto."

The youth easily repeated the telegraphic message, a skill that his older friend had come to rely on.

As for Officer Sito, Jorge owed him a sum and had been dallying with false promises of return. It was the quickest way to bring an officer of the law onto the scene, though nothing would become of it other than a routine sanitary cleanup of the spot sullied by another homeless junkie death.

The hateful job fate had thrown on Harry's shoulders was done for now.



All residents of the Black Crow Motel

will be responsible for personal damages if they fail to find a substitute residence latest by

30th October, 2050.

The wrecking ball cometh November 1st.


Weatherbee Tisdale

Village of Estero Administration,

Estero, FL


The notice mocked Harry as he stood before the door of his room, back from the shelter. He took a few steps to his left and looked up at the roof. It looked the same.

The last tornado of the summer had caused severe damage to the roofing of all four wings of the motel, but this corner was the worst. The storeroom that flanked this side was unusable now. A short stretch of the courtyard was littered with crumbled bricks in a sizeable pile. He took care to keep clear of the rubble as he came back to his door and knocked.

That's how he had secured this room, the one next to the storage, at half the rate.

The owner, Johnny Poppins, must have filed for bankruptcy at last. That'd explain the notice. He had been playing dilly-dally with the authorities for a few months. Luckily, the motel was mostly inhabited by the trashiest population possible, all homeless grifters and drifters, who had no better place to go, rubble or no rubble. A saner population would have evacuated the place long before, leaving the building to an early demise and thus depriving him of a feasible shelter for young Brian.

"Hey, Harry! What? Things getting to you again? You look ruffled." Brian's bright face and sparkling blue eyes greeted him, well-supported by the peerless spirit of an eleven-year-old.

"Yes, wise owl. You read me perfectly," he said stepping into the room, pushing Brian's wheelchair out of the way.

There was some damage to this room as well, to the front angle of the kitchenette wall that he had hidden behind a pantry shelf. To delay talking to Brian about Jorge, Harry squeezed his torso behind the shelf and shone a flashlight. Nope. Exactly as 'safely damaged' - Poppin's words - as before.

After a small supper of Ramen noodles and a long discussion of Harry's history with Jorge, Brian at last went behind the curtain Harry had hung in the middle of the room to give the boy his own space. There was a double bed squeezed in there and Harry stood in waiting while Brian hoisted himself out of his wheelchair and onto the bed.

"How many times I gotta tell you I don't need supervision for everything?" Brian asked, settling under the covers and pulling The Murderous Adventures of Grodo and How He Was Caught from under the pillow. Harry raised his brow, but Brian quipped: "It's no use, I'm already on page 234."

With a shrug Harry pulled the curtains over to go back to the table for work but was stopped by Brian's hand on his arm. Harry peeked behind the curtain. Brian was looking at him with soulful eyes that twinkled with mist.

"Promise me, you're gonna be okay, Harry?" Brian's eyes squinted with all the sincerity squeezed into that plea.

Harry smiled. "The same as ever." His voice was a little hollow but steady. He softly kissed Brian's mop of hair in goodbye. "Good brother," he said from his heart.

Brian was not his real brother.

Instead, Harry had found this abandoned kid near an obscure lake far out of town.

As he made himself a cup of coffee and sat down with it at a study table studying a college textbook that he hoped to be passing a course on one day, his lips gave into a sad smile. His heart filled with warmth and heaviness as he recalled Brian's doe eyes when the kid had gazed up at the face of Harry and his friends. They were huddled around him under the gazebo where he lay, discussing what to do with this little boy, their rare picnic planned for months forgotten at the moment.

That gaze had a stronghold in Harry's soul. It would have haunted him for the rest of his life if he hadn't decided on a whim to support the child. He knew their fates were intertwined, the moment he met those eyes.

Some moments stand out like stars that burn the brightest in their arc above the horizon, for better or worse.

Like, the time Jorge pulled an eleven year old boy out of his hiding place and shared his bread roll with.

Like, at the junction today staring at five curved, frozen fingers.

And maybe, just maybe - only time would pass the final judgment - like how he felt knocked out at the theater tonight, playing against that strange girl.

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