Chapter Three: A Favor for Danny Chuster
Most of the time, Roj walked, but sometimes she flew, or floated along a few feet above the sidewalk or street. She considered flapping her arms to see if that would help, but had misgivings -- what if some child like that boy saw her and laughed?
Would that matter? she asked herself, and then answered, I can't be killed again, but I still don't want to look stupid.
Knowles Street wasn't too far from the precinct. Danny had been able to walk to work in about ten minutes; he'd considered his pedestrian commute an exercise regimen, not taking into account the bakery along the way, from which he invariably purchased a half dozen doughnuts to eat before the ten o'clock break.
414 Knowles was an old brick building with a set of stairs up to the porch, and a common entry. No handicap entry, Roj noted. Illegal. She floated through the door and saw to either side Apartments A and B. Danny's apartment had to be upstairs, then. She bounded up the stairs, six or nine at a time. Hey, I like that.
On the upper floor, there was a hallway, with C, D, and E from left to right. She approached Apartment C, listening, but there was no sound. She tried the handle of the door, but it would not move; locked. Leaning against the door, she drifted through.
The apartment was just about as bare as anyone would expect of a geek whose only interests were computers and take-out food. The trashcan in the kitchen was jammed full of paper plates and pizza boxes, fast food paper wrappers and old french fries. On the dirty hardwood floor, a few plastic spoons kept company with balled up socks and empty Styrofoam containers.
There was a television, a recliner, and a table covered with junk mail. There weren't any dishes in the sink, but the sink drain itself emitted a stale scent, an odor of disuse.
Odor. Though Roj no longer had a nose, molecules of unpleasant origins wafted through the air, appearing as ugly as they must have smelled to the living.
The odor on the air of the apartment was not good.
Roj forgot to use the door, and instead went through the wall to a bedroom, where what was left behind of Danny Chuster lay on a twin bed, a rubber cord around his upper arm, a syringe beside him.
Ew, so that was what he looked like? Don't remember him that way.
He was fatter than she remembered.
His eyes were open, and he had attracted ants. His belly was distended, not-quite-whitely swelling above the dark purply-blue of his back.
"Danny?" she asked the room, wondering if he was wandering around as she was, but there was no answer.
He didn't do drugs, she mused. He always wore short-sleeved shirts and was completely, verbally against alcohol and grass and anything else. All he took was Pepsi and Mt. Dew. He was murdered, too.
She drifted back out to the kitchen. The apartment thermometer had been set to ninety degrees. That explained the greater fatness of his body; it was ready to pop.
Poor Danny. He was fired because he was dead. And nobody from the precinct gave enough of a shit about him to come see if he was all right, they just fired him.
That was kind of odd, wasn't it? No one had come to see if he'd been stabbed or was deathly ill or his apartment burned down ... she concluded that no one wanted to know what had happened to geeky Danny -- or else someone did know, and figured that the more time went by after his death, the less likely his murderer would be traced. As she left, she realized that there had been not a single computer in the apartment. That made it all odder still; Danny had told her about his monster computer he used for games, the tiny laptop he carried to and fro to work so that he could look at his favorite sites on breaks, the old ones he'd called his "puppies" that he couldn't bear to give up.
A dog in Apartment D began to bark frantically as she passed the door. Impulsively, she poked her head in through the door and saw a Jack Russell terrier bouncing on his feet, barking like he'd been cattle-prodded. Reaching out, she gave him a quick smack across the face, just enough to really agitate him. And she did. The little dog went ballistic, just about to the point of frothing at the mouth. His owner came into the kitchen front room. "Doozy, what's wrong?" she said in concern. Doozy was leaping at the door like a mad dog, while Roj, in the hallway again, danced from side to side, encouraging him.
The owner opened the door and Doozy rushed out, growling. Roj gave him another teasing slap and fled into Danny's smelly apartment. The dog followed, screaming with anger, scratching at the door of Apartment C. Inside, Roj tried to imagine the feelings she had when she cuffed the dog, and determinedly calling them up, tried to thumb the deadbolt. It turned. Elated, she tried the door handle -- it turned, too, and the door swung open.
The door swung in, and the stench poured out. "Oh, God!" screamed Doozy's owner, as Doozy rushed in and tried to attack what might have been Roj's legs.
Roj moved through the wall, laughing, with the Jack Russell yapping at her, racing through the door and down the hall, his hackles raised and his little teeth showing with every bark. She ignored him. He had done his job, and she had done hers.
There had been no trace of Danny in that apartment, just a pile of decomposing flesh. I wonder where he went? Did he go out to the stars, too? Probably. He didn't have any reason to come back.
She felt bad about that thought, even though she believed it. Danny had no life outside of his computers or his job. No lover, no real friends, no admirers, no co-worker buddies. His co-workers despised him as a no-life loser who smelled sweaty and looked like blubber on the hoof. Poor Danny. I should have been nicer to him.
"Hey, Roj!" She heard a voice and turned toward it. Danny Chuster was waving a Betty's Breakfast Bakery bag.
Roj had had to ask him for help when her computer froze up for no apparent reason; he'd talked her through the backup of her files and when he couldn't find the problem, had done a full system restore for her. The next morning he'd brought her two bismarcks as a gift -- for letting him help her. "Ah, Danny, what's this?"
"Just a treat," he'd smiled, shyly. "You made me feel like a million dollars yesterday." He'd been so happy, just that I asked him for help. Look at him, he was beautiful! He loved to help people!
She'd squinted at him. "A million? If I'd had to call out for service it would have only been a couple of hundred. You want one of the bismarcks back?"
"No, you keep them. Maybe I'll need a one-bismarck payback some day."
What was the virtue called? Gratitude? Graciousness? In any event, it was the ability to just say "Thank you."
Everybody was accustomed to say "Thanks" for the least little thing; "thanks" for setting a dish of eggs and hash browns on the counter, "thanks" for the newspaper you bought on the corner, "thanks," when someone opened a door or held the elevator open for you, "thanks," when you dropped something and it rolled across the aisle to the next desk and they picked it up for you. But saying "thank you" for having done you a favor? Wasn't that strange?
It was like saying that some people really wanted an opportunity to help, and were seeking the chance, and were glad that they had a chance to help.
There's your bismarck, Danny. Maybe someone will find who killed you.
I'm dead, Danny's dead. Matt! Is Matt all right?
The first time she'd met Matt was after she'd only been working in the precinct for about three months. He'd dumped a folder full of papers onto her in-basket, saying, "There, that's all the stuff from the Ammerhill case. He's been arrested, the lawyers will be wanting that all on line ASAP."
"No, they won't," she'd said, not caring if it was true or not, only wanting to keep those electric blue eyes for another moment longer. Not normally a lustful woman, Roj had found this one just a little more than interesting, hoping that the wolfish face and thin curve of his upper lip (and the athletic build) would not be sullied by the lack-brain of a stupid, testosterone-driven Anygirl-Humper. "They'll want paper copies so they can wave them around at the judge, who will not be interested in anything with a computer stamp at the bottom, because computers can be hacked and anything could be inserted. It doesn't matter that the transcripts wouldn't be changed by us -- we're bonded, we aren't supposed to be able to break the law. But let us put the stuff on line -- !
He'd grinned. "So, where'd you get that hair, Walgreens?"
"Nope," she'd said with disdain, "my mother gave it to me. Irish. Where'd you get yours, Super Perms Salon?"
Matt Trapester had laughed aloud. "I got mine from Dad. He was Welsh."
They'd stared at each other's eyes, and something had happened. Both of them had blushed; he'd turned away, then turned back. "See ya around ... " he'd looked for her name on her desk.
"Rodgers," she had said. "They call me Roj." She'd stood solemnly and offered him her hand.
"Roj. I'm Matt. Pleased to meet you."
Lord, let him not be an idiot, Roj had prayed.
He hadn't been an idiot, he had been a kind, considerate, intelligent, clever man, and they had fallen for each other like a ton of rocks on their third date. The first one had been a lunch date, a kind of sparring match, to test each other's mettle and vocabulary. The second was a dutch dinner at Sevastopolis, over Middle-East cuisine, when they'd praised the food and told their dreams about where they'd be in twenty years. The third was at Chili Papa, where they had taquitos and bean dip and salsas and margaritas and danced to the mayhem of mariachis, finishing the evening holding hands and kissing on the street.
Everything that they had loved seemed to be in harmony. They'd become a couple easily, effortlessly, seamlessly. Nothing had been in discord between them.
She wanted nothing more than to be with him again, to hold him, to kiss him, to hear his voice, to lie with him in love. He was her life, her love. Matt! Matt! she cried into the air, but it didn't bring him any closer.
She set out again on the sidewalks, her feet feeling the cement, the feet that were no-feet. Again, she could have flown, but the reluctance to view the reality that was her demise weighed her down.
Roj trudged along the pavements, feeling the dirt and echoes of the fifty years of the neighborhood's past sound up through whatever passed for her feet. People in a hurry, angry people, determined people, and wisps of people in awe of the city.
She passed an alley where a junkie was about to shoot up, stopped, and approached her. "I JUST SAW SOMEBODY DEAD FROM THIS SHIT!" Roj bellowed, swinging a hand and knocking the syringe from the girl's hand.
The girl screamed. Roj, in a fit of inspiration, grasped at her own eye-sockets, and pulled them upward in a distortion of her face, "STOP DOING DRUGS, YOU LITTLE MORON!" She roared with all the power she knew how to give. With every effort she'd learned from opening doors and pushing buttons and slapping terriers, she stomped the ampule into ground plastic. The girl was shrieking, crying, huddled into herself against the side of the building.
Why is it they can't see the damage they do to themselves? Roj raged. All they need to do is keep it clean and most of them will be all right.
She took to the air, tired of pavements, and flew laboriously to Matt's apartment.
The effort left her weary, so she sat on his apartment house doorstep. Something was wrong.
I flew to the stars and felt great, but now that I'm here, I feel tired. She asked the evening sky, "Is this a sign that I should just go back to the stars and forget this?"