tagChain StoriesKeeper of the Streets

Keeper of the Streets

bydr_mabeuse©

The clouds over the lake were low and slate gray and threatening. There would be something cold and wet falling from the sky before the night was over, and Lia reminded herself to keep a careful eye on Peter Bessinger and be sure to leave when he did. She didn't want to be out in the sleet on Michigan Avenue at one in the morning looking for a cab, not in this outfit.

The very thought gave her chills, and the thin yet elegant gown she wore didn't help. She finished her lipstick and adjusted her scarf so it hung just right off her shoulders. Mark was right: she did have beautiful shoulders and a lovely neck, and the rhinestone necklace and her upswept hair showed them off wonderfully. The gown was perfect too: a smooth expanse of burgundy satin that followed the curves of her body so closely the smooth rolls of her abs were subtly visible. Not a trace of fat on her. And not a stitch on underneath either. The points of her nipples were just visible, and she liked them that way: sharp little points, weapons of battle in her unceasing war for supremacy.

Whoever that bitch was, the one trying to make time with Peter B., she'd soon find out that Lia Callison had brains to go with this beauty, and claws too.

"Too much wine! Too much wine!" Candy Moser pushed into the lady's room, fanning herself with her hand.

In Lia's view, Candy's weight precluded her from the immediate competition and so they were friends, or at least as close as Lia as Lia ever got.

"God, is this a view?" Candy asked, going over to the large windows overlooking the lake. "If this is the view from the lady's room, can you imagine what the condos must be like?"

"To die for," Lia said. "Jason's on the 33rd floor. Jason Grippman? His place looks west, of course, over the city itself. That's really the best view. Looking east you only get to see the water."

"But those clouds!"

"Mmm." Lia ran her gloss over her lips. "Yes, I suppose they're nice. If you're a meteorologist."

Lia dropped her lipstick into her bag and turned to Candy.

"Who's that girl talking to Peter B? The redhead. Green dress? Boob job?"

Candy came over to the sink and ran her hands under the electric faucet. She wet her hands in the sharp spray and patted her face. "I think that's Claudia something. Something Irish. O'whosis or something. She's on the speaker committee. A junior partner at Ferris. She'll be working with Peter when he goes over there. You know he's already tendered his resignation at Denton-Langer."

"Of course I know. Senior partner and all that. Taking his city contracts with him, too."

Candy looked at Lia with a spectator's admiration for a pro at work. "And did you hear about the bonus they're giving him? Pretty much just buying him away from Denton. He's rolling in it now. Probably the highest paid architect in the city for not being a full partner."

"Project facilitator, Candy," Lia corrected. "And don't be gauche. What's his interest in her?"

Candy pulled down some paper towels and patted her face dry. "Darling, I have no idea. But you know Peter's involved with Polly. He's taken."

Candy stopped drying her face as the thought hit her. She looked up. "Lia, you wouldn't!"

Lia smiled and shook her head. "Darling, I'm in PR, remember? I'm always looking for new clients. I'm networking. That's all. Just spreading sunshine and good cheer wherever I go."

Sunshine and good cheer weren't what Candy thought of when she connected the word "spreading" with Lia, but she had the good sense to hold her tongue. "And maybe a little good cheer will get you some of the PR for the block seventeen project."

Lia shrugged. "They already have our proposal. But a little lobbying never hurts."

Candy gave a short laugh. "As long as it stays in the lobby."

A sudden squall of wind struck the big windows with a muffled boom, followed by the sizzling sound of frozen sleet blasting against the glass.

"Oh God!" Candy said. "Here it comes. We're really in for it now!"

~ ~ ~

Despite her plans, at one o'clock in the morning, Lia Callison was indeed huddled inside the lobby of the Adirondack building, looking out onto Wabash Avenue beneath the El tracks and waiting for her cab. Her plan to follow Peter Bessinger out when he left and innocently ask him for a ride fell through when she missed the elevator, and by the time she got down to the parking garage he was gone. Too embarrassed to go back up to the dinner, she called for a cab on her cell and now waited.

Sleet and snow blew by outside in nearly horizontal streaks, and the wind moaning through the revolving door was strong enough to set it spinning in slow, ghostly circles. Right outside the door, a mesh trashcan had been overturned and garbage spilled out onto the sidewalk. A plastic bag the size of a football sat forlornly in the wind, it's corners flapping and contents spilling out in a most disconcerting manner.

For some time now, Lia had been staring across the street at a figure huddled in a doorway, so rigid and still it had taken her a long time to decide whether it was really a person or not. It was only when she saw one arm reach out of the shadows to pull a battered shopping cart closer that she realized it was a homeless person: a man, from the size of him, big, and shapeless as a gravestone. She paid him no attention until the thought occurred to her that, although she could barely see him, he could clearly see her standing in the lighted lobby. From that point on she couldn't keep her eyes from him, glancing nervously across the snow-swept street and trying to figure out what he was doing there, why he didn't move.

She wasn't exactly afraid. She'd lived in this city for the last nine years and had never once been robbed or broken into or even threatened. It was more that she didn't want to have to think about him: about where he'd go on a night like this and where he'd sleep.

There were shelters for people like him, weren't there? She knew, because her company had handled some of the flyer work for the city-run shelters on a pro bono basis. There were shelters that provided them with a hot meal and a place to sleep or something, and all you had to do was show up. No doubt he'd go to one once the wind let up a little, and if he didn't, well, that was his concern and none of her business.

But still he didn't move, and she was quite sure now she could feel his eyes on her. She wasn't frightened, she wasn't worried, but looking across the wind-whipped street was like looking into another world. She felt bare and conspicuous, and she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that he wanted something from her, something more than a handout..

Wabash Avenue is the eastern boundary of the Loop. The elevated tracks run right overhead and provide some shelter from the snow and the seeking wind off the lake. But on this night, the tall buildings served only to channel the winds right down its length, setting up a howling gale on the frozen sidewalk. The snow and sleet went flying horizontally down the artificial canyon. It was a night that could only be described as cruel.

There was no traffic to speak of. It was a Tuesday night and well past business hours, and the Loop was deserted. When Lia finally saw the familiar yellow taxi nose in at the curb and sound its horn she sighed with relief and headed towards the door, her heels clicking loudly on the marble floor.

The man made his move at the same time, stepping from his shelter and crossing the street purposely towards her, his hands stuffed grimly into his pockets.

"Oh Great!" she thought as she leaned her weight against the revolving door. The bum had timed his move perfectly, coming to meet her just as she'd be getting into her cab. The door hardly moved.

She opened her purse and looked for some small bills, pressing her back against the heavy revolving door and finally getting it moving. As soon as she hit the street the wind took her coat and her scarf in its teeth and yanked at her and the sleet cut her like knives, knocking the breath from her body and bringing tears to her eyes. With her head bowed she had time to notice that the plastic bag from the trashcan was a bag of frozen French fries, and there was a strange, burnt, fist-sized hole in the middle and the fries were spilling out, mashed and mangled. It struck her briefly as an odd thing to find in a public trashcan, and then she turned her back to the wind and rummaged in her purse looking for something to give the man as a handout. There would be no avoiding him now.

He was just stepping onto the curb as Lia found her wallet and snapped it open. She could just see the man through her watery eyes and see the mound of overcoats he wore, the long scraggly beard, the stocking cap full of holes.

"Don't take that cab," he said.

Lia paid no attention. She found two dollars in her purse and held them out towards him as if they were a shield. The wind bent them back around her fist.

"Don't get in that cab," he said again. "It ain't safe."

The cab driver slid over and opened the back passenger door and looked at her expectantly. He was wearing shirt sleeves, and she could feel, even smell the taxicab's warmth coming out from the back seat.

"Don't get in that cab, lady! I'm warning you!" He reached out, ignored the money she offered and grabbed her arm.

"Are you crazy? Let go of me!"

The bum had taken a grip on her coat and began tugging, pulling her down the street. He was surprisingly strong and she was stumbling trying to keep up, but Lia was stubborn and she dug her heels into the icy sidewalk and pulled free of his grasp.

Down at the end of the block, not fifty feet beyond the cab, a big city salt truck turned onto Wabash, going unusually fast for such a bad night. Its yellow warning light flashed and salt sprayed from the back hopper as he fishtailed dangerously onto the avenue. The bum took her coat again and she couldn't make him let go. He kept pulling her away from the cab.

"Let go of me you crazy son of a bitch!" Lia jerked to get free and looked to the cabbie for help.

There was a deep rumble and a shower of sparks as an El train squealed by overhead, a metallic thunder that shook the ground. Through her tear-dimmed eyes, Lia looked back past the cab and saw the salt truck skidding out of control, sliding through the intersection and shuddering as the driver pumped the hydraulic brakes and frantically spun the wheel. The big tires locked and the whole huge thing started sliding down the street at a sickening angle, its yellow caution light still slapping her in the face like a countdown timer or the strobing light of a stop-action movie. She clearly saw the cab driver's face as he looked in his rearview mirror, the spray of salt bouncing off the car hoods, and then the side of the heavy truck slid into the taxi, lifted the back end up and pushed the cab into the huge SUV parked in front.

Car alarms wailed and lights started to flash, and the front of the cab wedged under the SUV and raised it up in a weirdly sexual way. Lia saw every detail as the cab collapsed on itself like an aluminum can, like a slow motion study of a crash-dummy test, the hood popping up, the windshield shattering, the fenders springing like accordions, the sheet metal collapsing with a pitiful, horrifying sound. The radiator ruptured and sent a jet of steam into the frozen air as if in manic celebration.

"Come on, come on," the bum yelled above the wind. "You've got to get out of here! Come on!"

He yanked her stumbling across the slippery street even as she heard the residual pop and clank of falling metal and the hoarse sound of an avalanche of rock salt spilling from the side of the ruptured truck and burying the cab. Then there was just the sound of the SUV's violated alarm and the vicious howl of the wind through the El tracks.

"Oh God! Oh God! Oh my God!" she wailed.

"There's nothing you can do. Nothing! Now come on!"

He pulled her along and Lia stumbled after him, her new heels slipping on the hard ice and packed snow. All she could think about was that the cab driver was dead, maybe the truck driver too, and had she been in that cab she'd also be dead, with blood all over her beautiful dress and her new shoes.

He dragged her around the corner where the wind was still strong but less brutal, and down a concrete stairway. She thought it was the subway, but no: it descended down to Lower Wacker drive, the dark subterranean roadway running beneath the Loop, used for deliveries and freight traffic: a haven for the homeless and anyone looking for some sort of shelter.

"Stop! Where are you taking me? What the fuck is this?"

"I saved your fucking life, that's what this is. You owe me."

Now that she was out of the howling wind and driving sleet, Lia was able to think better, and she was alarmed.

"Do you want money? Is that it? I can give you what I have." She opened her purse and rummaged for her cash.

He turned his face to her and Lia had a good look at him for the first time. It was the typical homeless face-- the wide cheeks, cold-reddened nose, coarse skin – but the eyes were gray and clear and surprisingly deep.

"Don't you know what happened?" he asked accusingly. "Weren't you just up on the street with me?"

A gust of wind howled down the staircase and Lia stood there as the snow swirled around them. She was suddenly cold and realized how inadequate her outfit was. He didn't seem cold at all. The layers of coats he wore must be three inches thick.

"How did you know?" she asked him. "Why did you tell me not to get into that cab?"

He turned and walked down a few steps. "How badly do you want to know?"

Lia hesitated. It was dark down here and dirty. It wasn't her world.

He stopped and looked back at her. "Well? Are you coming?"

The man was insane, maybe even dangerous. Lia took a step back towards the stairs.

"Look," she said, trying to sound reasonable. "You saved my life. Maybe I can help you. I know a lot of people. You need money? A job or something?"

He stood looking at her until she grew uneasy. She peered into the darkness of lower Wacker and made a face. "Do you live down here?"

"I live all over," he said. "And no, you can't help me. Not that way. You don't have anything I want."

They were at the foot of the stairs now, and Lia looked around. To either side, concrete loading docks lit by garish yellow sodium vapor lights stretched away as far as she could see, bathing everything in a flickery, unearthly glow. She could look down this side of Wacker but the view across was blocked by a forest of massive columns holding up the roadway above their heads. There were lane markers and sawhorses with blinking warning lights all over, a maze of traffic signals with not a car in sight. The place smelled of diesel fumes and wet concrete. It was dirty, cold, and forbidding.

She noticed some movement in the shadows on the cold concrete walls. It might have been a trick of her eyes or the lights because when she looked directly at them they stopped, only to reappear again at the periphery of her vision.

Lia felt a jolt of nauseating fear.

"Oh my God! Are those rats? Those are rats!" There was hysteria in her voice. "There's rats down here! Those are rats, aren't they?"

She ran up the stairs and stopped on the concrete landing, her heart pounding. He walked back and looked up at her quizzically. "Some of them maybe are," he said calmly. "Some of them's something else."

"I'm getting out of here! I'm getting out of here right now, goddamnit!"

"Wait," he said. He said it with such calm authority that Lia froze in her tracks, one foot poised in the next stair. It didn't even sound like the same voice. She was too startled to move.

"Ain't none of them gonna hurt you," he said in his bum's voice again, more gently now. "They's our eyes and ears down here. Don't you know that? Can't you see them?"

Lia turned on him in exasperated fury. Her fear made her angry. "What the fuck are you talking about? Huh? I don't know you! Who the hell are you?"

He was staring at her. She could see his eyes in the strange light of lower Wacker, and they seemed inhumanly bright and deep. He seemed to be looking through her in a way that made her want to shiver, and not from cold.

"No," he said softly. "Who are you? That's the question, Lia. What are you to them?"

Lia stood immobilized by his eyes. For a long moment her mind just refused to work, and then she felt something strange, like a dry tongue on the back of her neck. The hairs on the backs of her arms stood up and she felt her knees quiver.

Then the man seemed to turn his eyes off. It was as if he threw a switch, and Lia could almost see the glow fade as he turned away. He shrugged his coats up around him and began to walk off into the darkness.

Lia's breath exploded from her chest in a shuddering gasp, and by the time she was able to gather her wits he was already moving into the shadows, so swaddled in coats that she couldn't even see his feet. He seemed to be floating back into the general griminess, the dirty gray of his coat merging with the color of the concrete and shadows.

She was stunned, her mind strangely blank. She realized she was looking down at her shoes, and the sight of them planted on the grimy stair horrified her. She ran up the icy stairs, bracing herself for the wind as she emerged from the shelter of underground stairway. She welcomed the bite of the wind. It shocked her back into herself and cleared her mind, and as her mind cleared she realized: he'd called her by name.

She refused to let herself think about it. She walked east, away from the accident and the stairway, all the while listening for sirens and hearing none. The entire Loop was deserted, a ghost town of wind and driven snow.

She huddled in a doorway and called Candy on her cell to come pick her up. Candy was reluctant to leave the party, but there was no way Lia was taking another cab, ever, and the wild fear in her voice frightened her friend. Coming out of the parking garage on Monroe, Candy had no idea of what had happened, and Lia told her nothing, only that she'd been unable to get a cab and was stranded on the street and freezing.

At home in her condo she locked the doors and turned on all the lights and then, as if the cold had frozen her emotions, as she warmed up it all seemed to hit her. She couldn't stop shaking

She made herself strip off her clothes and shower, turning the water up as hot as she could stand it, and she stood under the spray till her skin felt raw and parboiled. By the time she got out she was in control of herself again. She put on her terry robe and wrapped a towel around her head, poured some wine and went into her living room.

He had called her "Lady": that must be it. In her state of upset she had mis-heard. It happened all the time with her name which sounded like so many words. As to the other things he had said, well, the man was clearly insane. After all, most homeless people had something wrong with them anyhow: why else would they be homeless?

The wind rattled her windows and the snow was thick, but down below, eight flights down in the relative calm of the lee side of her building, she thought she saw a shape standing in a doorway. It was hard to be sure in the dark and the blowing snow, but slowly the conviction grew. It wasn't what she saw, it was a feeling she had inside, something about the way he stood, a kind of weight she could feel from. She told herself it was silly, all homeless men looked alike -- walking piles of rags – but there was no fooling herself. It was him. By the time she finished her wine, there was no doubt in her mind.

She didn't know how he'd managed to find her building or how he'd gotten there so quickly, but she was frightened now, and she wished there was someone she could call. She took an Ambien and poured more wine. She watched TV until she found the remote slipping from her fingers. When next she looked out the window, he was gone. She stumbled into the bedroom and fell asleep.

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