Malcolm mounted his bike and pushed off. I waited until he was a block away and pulled out behind him. He pedaled towards the homeless camp under the Broadway bridge. Just like before. I was about to reassure Janet with this fact, but then he pedaled right past the entrance. I grunted.
“Something wrong?” asked Janet.
“Dunno,” I said. “Let’s see where he goes.”
He pedaled around to the back of the encampment, and pulled up close to the hurricane fence there. I killed the lights and stopped behind one of the bridge supports. Without the streetlights, it was much darker, and I was barely able to make out Malcolm in the gloom. He seemed to be talking to someone on the other side of the fence.
My eyes began to adjust, and I could make out Malcolm and the person he was talking to. I could see a little better, but not much. Malcolm reached into the pocket of his hoodie and pulled out a small package. He handed it through the fence to the person on the other side. The figure behind the fence gestured towards the river. Malcolm nodded and pedaled off in the direction that the person had indicated.
“Carlos? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Usually, he just goes in the front and hangs out for a bit. Hands out socks or sandwiches.”
“What do you think he gave that person?”
“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a baloney sandwich.”
“This is creepy,” she said. “I’m getting scared.”
She wasn’t alone. I could feel a steel ribbon of fear uncoiling in my gut. Up until now, I had thought all of this drama about Malcolm was just that – empty drama. Now I wasn’t so sure. I was about to find out, though – I was pretty sure of that.
Malcolm turned left by the river and started pedaling away from downtown. It wasn’t too hard to follow him at first, and there was enough traffic to screen the car from him. He kept going as the newish lofts and condos gave way to the trainyards and industrial areas. Traffic thinned, and I dropped back a little, trying to keep Malcolm just in sight.
“You need to get closer,” said Janet. “You’re losing him.”
“Don’t want to get too close. He’ll spot us.”
We continued through railroad sidings, tank farms and rusted out industrial buildings until we got to a patch of blasted wasteland as yet untouched by urban redevelopment. Traffic was almost nonexistent here, and I was having trouble tracking Malcolm. Then, he was gone.
“Oh, you’ve lost him!” said Janet, a little sharply.
“Dammit,” I muttered. What was I supposed to do? I sped up, hoping to close the distance. No luck. “Shit, where could he have gone?” I asked. There were really no side streets, and that ten-speed wasn’t built for anything like trail biking.
Janet was peering out the passenger window. “There!” she said. “Right there! I saw his bike!”
“Where?” I peered in the rear view mirror, trying to make out anything in the gloom.
“I saw his bike under a tree back there. Blue and chrome. It had to be it.”
“Okay,” I said. I cut the ignition and let the car drift to the shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m not going to turn around and stop right there,” I said. “He’ll hear the car. Do you think you can find it in the dark?”
“I think so,” she said. “It was a pretty big clump of trees.”
“Okay, let’s go,” I said, opening the door.
We walked down the road back to where Janet thought she saw the bike. I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight, covering the light with my hand so only a sliver spilled out onto the roadway in front of us. This stretch of road was practically deserted. Once, a semi from a cement factory came barreling past in the other lane, dragging a vortex of dust and trash in its wake. Other than that – nothing.
As we trudged down the dark and desolate street, it occurred to me that this whole endeavor was nuts. The smart thing to do would be to go back to the car, drop Janet off wherever she wanted to, and go the fuck home. And stay there. All of this had been a mistake.
I looked over at Janet and she looked none too happy herself. Perhaps she was having similar thoughts.
“How much further do you think it is?” I asked. I let my hand fall away from the phone and let the light shine on the edge of the road ahead of us.
“I don’t see it, but it can’t be much further,” she said shakily.
“If we don’t see it soon, I say we just bag it,” I said, feeling like a coward even as I said it. “Odds are, he just biked up to the bridge and is having a drink in a brewpub in St. Johns.”
“Not much further,” she said grimly. “Just ahead, I’m sure. Hold the light up a little more.”
“Yes, there!” she said. “That clump of trees right there.”
“Okay, let’s check it out,” I said. But if there’s no bike there, we’re gone, I thought.
“You must think I’m crazy for dragging you into this,” she said. “I think I’m crazy for dragging both of us into this. What a shitty birthday. Okay, if the bike’s not up there, fuck it. We’ll go to the nearest bar and you can buy me a birthday drink. Or three.”
“Sounds good.” Sounded really good, actually. Which made it that much weirder when we got to the clump of trees and saw Malcolm’s distinctive sky-blue Fuji leaned haphazardly against a scraggly scrub oak.
“Now what?” she asked.
There was a crash and ragged laughter. It came from further into the bushes, towards the riverbank. I immediately shut off the phone light.
She grabbed at my sleeve, “Carlos, what . . .”
“Shh,” I said, raising my hand.
I knew we couldn’t be too far from the river, even though we couldn’t see it from where we were standing. I waited a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the surroundings. It was cloudy, but the cloud cover was low enough to reflect the lights from the neighborhood across the river. Eventually, I was able to discern a path between the thick bushes heading down towards the river.
“This way,” I said. “Let’s go – but quietly.”
We wound our way through the bushes and came out on a hard-packed dirt ribbon between the bushes and the steep, stony riverbank. It was a little easier to see here; the lights from Swan Island and University Heights on the other side of the river illuminated the riverbank. To our left, back towards where the car was parked, was a campsite where a small campfire cast shadows on a colorful cluster of ragged tents. Laughter and muffled conversation came from the campsite.
In the other direction, about two hundred feet away, was a lone tent. I flickering light inside illuminated the squat domed form. As I was watching, I saw a dark figure moving along the edge of the bushes. I tapped Janet on the shoulder and pointed. She squinted into the gloom. “That’s him,” she whispered.
I nodded. It was hard to mistake his lanky frame. I motioned for her to follow me. We followed Malcolm down the edge of the brush line, trying to stay concealed. I was trying to be careful not to step on any branches or make any noise. I hoped that the gurgling of the river would mask any sounds we made.
I had stopped being afraid. The whole situation had become so bizarre that it didn’t actually seem like reality. This was some sort of crazy-ass dream, not all that different from the ones I had while taking Ambien. It was weird; it would probably get weirder; then I’d wake up in my bed feeling disoriented.
By the time Malcolm got to the lone tent, we were about fifty feet behind him. The other campsite was out of sight and earshot. I pulled Janet back behind a large bush, but not so far that we couldn’t see the tent.
Malcolm was standing in front of the tent, hands inside the pocket of the hoodie.. He said something, and the light in tent went out. We were close enough to hear the voices, but not the words. A rough voice responded to Malcolm. As the conversation progressed, the voice in the tent got more agitated; Malcolm stayed calm.
Malcolm reached out and unzipped the tent. He calmly pulled something from his hoodie and put it into the opening. There was a bright flash inside the tent, followed a quarter-second later with a flat clapping sound. Another flash, another clap; it sounded like a firecracker.
I felt Janet inhale deeply, getting ready to scream. My breathing had stopped entirely. I managed to slide my hand over her mouth before she made any noise. She chomped my thumb, and I had to stuff my other hand in my mouth to keep from yelling from the pain.
“Stay quiet,” I hissed in her ear. “Stay calm and make yourself small.”
We huddled together, scrunching as close to the bush as we could. Malcolm turned and came walking back up the riverbank towards us. The fear was back now – no Ambien dream, this. My stomach clenched and all of the moisture in my mouth took a sudden trip to Mexico. My heart was beating so hard that I’m sure that it could be heard from across the river. Janet’s breath was whistling quickly in and out of her nose. I pulled my hand away, and she clamped both of her hands in its place.
Malcolm casually strolled up the riverbank, one or two times stopping to look out over the river. He got to where we were hiding and stopped again. He was probably eight feet away from us, no more. It seems like time froze. Malcolm looked around, including right into the bush where we were hiding. It didn’t occur to me until later to be scared about that – I was still struggling to understand what had happened.
Malcolm turned back to the river, pulled something out of his hoodie pocket, and underhanded it into the water. It impacted with a loud plonk. Then he turned and began strolling back up to the path through the bushes.