We waited there for I don’t know how long – holding each other behind the scrubby bush. There was absolutely nothing sexy about it – it was just intense mutual fear. Finally, I whispered, “We should probably get going now.”
“I don’t want to,” she said in a small voice. “I’m scared. What if he’s waiting for us?”
That didn’t seem likely, but it did seem likely that there was a freshly-murdered corpse in a tent fifty feet away from us. I pointed that out to her, and that motivated her to get up and follow me.
We were about halfway back to the street when Janet abruptly darted off the path. I started to call out after her, but then I heard her retching in the bushes. My own stomach did a slow barrel-roll, the cheeseburgers from earlier wanting to make an escape. I choked back on the urge, not wanting to make any more noise. I didn’t think Malcolm was waiting and listening, but at this point everything I knew or thought I knew about Malcolm Greene had been destroyed.
She emerged back on the path, not saying anything but making small whimpering sounds under her breath. Or maybe that was me. We approached the end of the path and I whispered, “Wait here. I’ll make sure the bike is gone.”
It was about ten steps from the end of the path to the tree where Malcolm had stashed his bike. Only ten steps, but it was the longest walk of my life. When I got close to the tree, I stood and stared for a full minute, trying to make out what was there. Finally, I got up the nerve to turn on the light on my phone. The bike was gone.
I walked back to the bushes and whispered, “Bike’s gone. Let’s go.” She grabbed my hand, and I led her back to the road and up to the car. Neither of us said a word.
As soon as we were back in the car with the doors shut and locked, Janet had a meltdown. Screaming, crying, shaking – a complete blowout. I tried to hold her, but she pushed me away. I leaned my head on the steering wheel, trying to take deep breaths. I felt like I would be joining her in hysterics any second. Finally, she began to calm down, and I was able to wrap an arm around her. I could feel the tension and the shaking as her breath hitched in and out. Finally, she said, “Let’s go, Carlos. For God’s sake, let’s just get out of here!”
I started the car and turned it around back towards town. There was no noise but the chugging of the diesel engine. “Where are we going?” asked Janet.
Good question, I thought. I just wanted to get back to civilization, and maybe to a bar My nerves were shot. I just wanted to unplug and stop thinking.
“Where do you think we should go?” I asked.
“We should go to the police!” she exclaimed. “Hell, we should call the police!” She started to pull out her phone.
“We call the police and tell them what, exactly?” I asked. “We really didn’t see anything illegal, did we?”
“Are you kidding, Carlos? Malcolm shot somebody! Maybe they need medical attention! We could save them!”
“Did we see a body?” I asked. “Did we even see a gun?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” she cried. “You know what just happened! Why are you covering for him?”
“BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO DEAL WITH ANY OF THIS!” I shouted. “Jesus! I’ve got to wrap my head around the fact that my best friend is responsible for a murder! Maybe a whole string of murders! Shit, cut me a break, Janet! I’m trying!”
“What do you mean a string of murders?” she demanded.
“Don’t you get it? That wasn’t just a drug deal gone bad. I think he’s done this before. I think Malcolm’s the Freddy Killer!”
This shut her up. It shut me up, too – I was amazed to hear the words come out of my mouth. But once they were out, it made perfect sense. Perhaps the thought had been floating there for a while, hovering just under the level of consciousness.
“Think about it,” I said. “When did Malcolm start ‘acting weird’?”
“Right after Thanksgiving.”
“Which is when the murders started – or at least started getting press coverage. Right?”
“Yeah, I guess so . . .” she said.
“And didn’t you say he stood you up last Friday? Bailed without an explanation?”
“Yeah . . .”
“There was another Freddy murder last Friday night. I remember hearing about it on the news the next night, just before we talked.”
“Oh, holy shit!” she said. “Oh, my fucking God! That can’t be right.”
“It feels right, though, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Jesus, yes. So what are we going to do?”
“Go ahead and call the cops,” I said. “It’ll probably take you twenty minutes to talk to a real person.”
“Okay. Where are you driving us? Maybe we should just go straight to the police headquarters.”
“No,” I said. “I’m driving over to Malcolm’s”
“WHAT?” she said. “Why?”
“Because I want some answers from that motherfucker,” I said bitterly. “I can’t believe this shit. I am pissed!”
“You are an idiot,” she said, “if you plan on walking into the apartment of serial killer and confronting him.”
“Whatever. Just make your call. If you don’t want to go, I can drop you off along the way.”
She didn’t say anything, just kept fiddling with her phone. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. “Why does 911 have to call me back?”
“Portland,” I snorted. I steered the car through the edge of downtown, and crossed the river on the Broadway Bridge. I was driving by auto-pilot at this point. My thoughts were whizzing by like a meteor shower, too fast to focus on any one.
We pulled up in front of Malcolm’s apartment building just as Janet got through to an emergency dispatcher. I didn’t want to stick around to hear the conversation – I wanted to get some answers out of Malcolm right fucking now. I opened the car door, and she reached out and grabbed my shoulder but I shook her off. I got out, looking back to see if she would try to stop me, but she was already talking to the dispatcher. “I’ll be back,” I muttered. She waved me off.
I went up to the front door of the apartment building, shaking from anger and fear. I knew that I had to keep pushing forward or I would completely lose my nerve. I reached the call box at the front door and paused. I wasn’t going to buzz Malcolm directly and let him know I was coming. Instead, I pushed the button at the top of the box.
“Hello?” came a quavery old-lady voice.
“It’s me,” I said.
I hung up.
I got lucky on the third try and the person on the other end of the line buzzed me in. It was a trick I’d picked up while delivering pizzas in college. I pushed through the front door and hurried up the stairs. It only been a few weeks since I had passed Janet on these stairs, but it seemed like a lifetime ago.
I pulled up short at Malcolm’s door. What if he had another gun? Would he use it on me? I shook my head to rid it of these thoughts, and pounded on the door with my fist, hard.
“Open up!” I hollered. “This is the Brain Police!” I have no idea why I decided to throw a Zappa reference in there; maybe it was just my way of dealing with the stress.
Behind the door: footsteps and a rattling of the lock. The door swung open to reveal Malcolm’s lanky form. He was wearing nothing but a pair of gray sweatpants and was toweling off his hair.
“Hey, Carlitos,” he said amiably. “How’s the boy?” He was grinning casually, as if he had just had a nice workout, and was contemplating a tasty meal.
I pushed past him and stood in the middle of his living room, breathing heavily. He and I had passed many companionable hours in this room. I had a sad feeling that this was the last time I would ever be here.
“Is everything okay?” he asked. “You seem overwrought.” He had an easy grin on his face, but his eyes looked strained and nervous. His gaze kept shifting between me, the door and the windows overlooking the street.
“Did you kill that guy?” I demanded. “That guy in the tent by the river just now?”
Malcolm froze, a broad, false grin stuck to his face. “What do you mean, Carlos? You’re talking crazy.”
“Oh, bullshit, man,” I said. “Saw you myself. You biked way out Front Avenue, went down to the riverbank and shot a guy in a tent. Or maybe it was a woman. I dunno. You tell me.”
A cascade of emotions washed over his face: surprise, fear, amusement, defiance. Finally he composed himself and said, “Yeah, okay, it was a guy. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by trying to deny something you evidently saw with your own eyes.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said. “So, did you kill him.”
“I sure hope so. If I didn’t, I need to get in some serious target practice.”
“Jesus, how can you joke about this?” I asked. “Do you have another gun in this apartment?”
“I’m not going to answer that,” said Malcolm. “But let me say that you are absolutely safe with me. I would never think of hurting you or any of my friends.”
“But homeless guys in tents are fair game?”
“Look, it’s not like you think,” he said. “The name of the man in that tent was Richard Hernandez. Drug dealer and rapist. He has a police record as long as your arm: drug dealing, theft, burglary, assault, breaking and entering, suspected in three murders, but charges ultimately dropped. Known around town for stepping on the heroin he sells with rat poison. Only the most desperate buy drugs from him. He’s a scumbag. A predator.”
“But that doesn’t give you the right . . .” I began.
“Last week,” he said loudly. “Mr. Hernandez raped a 14-year old girl named Gloria Van Nuys. She’s still in a coma over at Good Sam hospital. There are dozens of people who know or at least strongly suspect that Hernandez did it. They’re all too scared to tell the police. Hell, they probably think that the police won’t listen to them anyway. Or that they’ll bust them for something else.
“What’s more, there are dozens of women in the homeless community that Hernandez has raped. A couple of times they came close to getting the charges to stick, but there he was, still free to victimize little kids like Gloria. I know her. She wants to study law at U or O so she can help people.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“But what? Don’t you get it? He fucked her so hard that she has brain damage! She’s only fourteen years old! FOURTEEN!”
He glared at me as if daring me to come up with a rejoinder. I couldn’t.
“Shit, Carlos, I did the world a favor by ending his life. I did him a favor.”
My draw literally dropped open. “What the fuck?” I exclaimed. “A favor? How is that a favor?”
“The man had stained his karma horribly,” said Malcolm. “He brought much suffering into the world. He would do nothing but make it worse for as long as he lived. I saved him making his karmic debt worse, and saved a great deal of suffering from afflicting his potential victims.”
“Oh,” I said. “so you’re not the Brain Police, you’re the fuckin’ Karma Police, is that it? I can believe you’re using Buddhism as an excuse for murder. That’s more of a Christian thing, isn’t it?”
“So now you’re an expert on Buddhism?” asked Malcolm stiffly. “I’ve been studying it for years.”
“And it says you should kill people who do bad things?”
“Not as such,” he said, with an eyeball roll that made me want to shoot him. “Look, you know how the Buddha obtained enlightenment, right?”
“Yeah,” I said defensively. “He sat under a tree for a long time.”
“Seven weeks, actually,” said Malcolm, switching into his pedagogue mode. I used to find his college-professor-lecturing tone funny (especially considering he had never been to college), but right now it was just creepy. “During that time, when he became enlightened, he was able to see all of his past and future lives. You know that reincarnation is a major part of Buddhist belief, right?”
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was getting a theology lection from a serial killer.
“Right,” Malcolm continued. “There are a whole series of stories about the Buddha in the lives he led before he was Siddhartha Gautama, who achieved enlightenment and was called the Buddha.
“In one of these stories, the pre-Buddha, let’s call him, was a member of a caravan carrying riches to the West. He knew that one of the members of the caravan intended to kill the rest of the people in that caravan and make off with the riches for himself.”
“How could he know that?” I demanded. “He wasn’t enlightened yet. How could he know.”
“Ah,” said Malcolm. He held up his index finger, and again I just wanted to smack him for his smarmy college professor bullshit. “It is true that he had not obtained enlightenment, but he was still very advanced in the use of his mind. He was what could be called an arhat. As such, he had what would be called clairvoyance. He knew that the rogue would murder everyone else, himself included.”
“So what did he do? Did he talk him out of it somehow?”
“No,” said Malcolm. “He murdered him in his sleep.”
“Yes, he did. But not for the reasons you think. He did it to save the man from creating a huge karmic stain, one that would take countless lifetimes to scrub clean.”
“So he didn’t really give that much of a fuck about the other people in the caravan, huh?”
“Of course he did,” said Malcolm archly. “He knew that their deaths would cause all manner of suffering – the murdered people would suffer in their deaths, their friends and loved ones would suffer in their absence. But that was just a bonus, so to speak. He mainly did it to keep the rogue from indelibly staining his soul.”
“And that’s why you killed that Hernandez guy? To keep him from further staining his soul?”
Malcolm laughed bitterly. “No, I killed him because he was a scumbag. A hopeless case who would keep on causing suffering – to himself and others – long past this lifetime.”
“One might think that’s a load of metaphysical horseshit, Malcolm.”
“Ah, who gives a shit, Carlos? If you do, that brings the grand total to one. Hernandez was a monster who preyed on the helpless, and the legal system would only stop him after he had hurt many more people – if it ever did it all. Yes, I killed him. He deserved it. They all did.”
That last sentence came out so horror-movie cold that my breathing locked up for a moment. I could not believe the words coming out of my friend’s mouth. I had known this man for nearly twenty years, counted him as my closest friend. In the back of my mind, I heard an old-timey radio voice say, Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
“How many?” I gasped, dreading the answer.
“Eight,” said Malcolm. “The first five were overdoses. I gave them pure fentanyl, saying it was low-grade street junk. It looked like an accidental overdose. Then word got around – ‘beware strangers bearing gifts,’ that sort of thing. People started to get more suspicious, so I had to switch to a more, ah, direct method.”
“You killed eight people, and you’re talking about it like they were sprites in a video game. They were people, Malcolm!”
“They were predators; they were monsters. They were all people who would do nothing but damage themselves and others until their lives ended. I just shortcut the process.”
“My God,” I said. “My God, Malcolm. Do you hear the stuff you’re saying? Do you have a clue how nuts it sounds? Nobody’s going to think that argument is going to hold water. You can’t just go around killing people! Jesus!”
He sighed. “I thought about telling you,” he said sadly. “But I knew you just wouldn’t see.”
“No one’s going to ‘see!’” I shouted.
“Sure they will,” he said. “You think people don’t know? Goodness, pretty much everyone living in that camp under the Broadway Bridge must know who the ‘Freddy Killer’ is. Or at least suspects. They’ll never say a word to the cops. They know that this is the closest thing to justice that those monsters will ever see.”
“Is that how you knew where to find that Hernandez guy?” I asked. “Someone in that camp under the Broadway Bridge told you?”
“Yes,” said Malcolm. “He told me. He knew what I was going to do, too. He was more than happy to tip me off.”
“Not happy enough to do it for free,” I pointed out. “I saw you slip him something through the fence. I bet it wasn’t a pair of socks.”
Malcolm shrugged. “So what?” he asked. “That community has different standards, different forms of currency. I used the most expeditious route. I had to obtain a supply in the beginning, to um, help those first five on their way.”
“So you’re distributing drugs to the homeless community? That’s real noble of you. Jesus, Janet was right. She thought you were dealing drugs. Just didn’t realize why or how.”
Malcolm’s face darkened. “So now Janet’s involved, huh?”
“Of course she’s involved, you dipshit! She’s the only one who knew what you were up to. The way she made it out, you might have gotten ‘I’m Up to Something Shady’ tattooed across your forehead. It was that obvious.”
“Shit,” said Malcolm. He sat down and ran a hand through his freshly-washed hair. “I knew that getting involved with her was a mistake.”
“Well, you had me fooled,” I said. “I didn’t even know you two were going out or anything.”
Malcolm fixed me with a suspicious glare. “So that’s it, is it? You were jealous, eh, Carlos? You wanted to snake my lady friend, so you conspired against me.”
My mouth opened a closed a few times as I worked out a suitable response. There was some truth in his words, and he had hit on a guilty part of my conscience that I had been grappling with since the morning I saw Janet coming down the stairs to his apartment. On the other hand, it was a completely ridiculous comparison.
“Yeah, sorry my jealousy of your girlfriend drove me to interrupt your serial killing spree, Malcolm. I guess I’m just a bad friend.”
“You just don’t understand . . .” he muttered.
“So now what happens?” I asked wearily.
“I guess that’s up to you,” said Malcolm. “You could call the cops. They might actually believe you. They might actually arrest me. After that, who knows? I don’t think it will be all that bad. None of those people in the homeless camps will testify against me, I don’t think. I did their community a favor, and they know it.”
“Malcolm, you murdered eight people!” I yelled. “Sure, maybe they were scumbags. That doesn’t give you the right to go around killing them! We have a system of justice for that! You should know – you’ve studied the law.”
“I studied it enough to know how dysfunctional it is,” he said. “How to skirt around the edges.”
“This isn’t fixing a parking ticket, you lunatic! This is multiple homicide! You know, in your great legal studies, that Oregon still has a death penalty, right?”
“Yeah, and I know that it hasn’t been exercised since 1997,” said Malcolm. “Also, there are only a very limited number of crimes that qualify for the death penalty now. And what I’ve done doesn’t qualify. Look it up.”
I didn’t know if this was true or not, but it sounded like it might be here in the crunchy-granola Beaver State. That same mentality might be what sunk Malcolm; I doubt he had totally considered that.
“Yeah, great – you won’t get the chair. Maybe. I don’t think you’re going to be hailed as the folk hero you seem to think you are. You have killed eight human beings.”
He opened his mouth to object, but I held up my hand to silence him.
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “You were just getting rid of the predators that the system keeps letting go. However, to a lot of people in Portlandia, you’re a monster that preyed on the homeless. You know how the extra-bloody bleeding hearts around here think. As far as they’re concerned, you’re the monster who went around cold-bloodedly offing Portland homeless angels. Or angels temporarily experiencing houselessness. Or whatever euphemism is in vogue this week.”
He didn’t say anything to this; I could see him turning this concept around and around in his mind, looking for a crack in the logic.
“You should also consider this,” I said. “The trial might not be here in the middle of bleeding-heart Portland. You might end up on trial out in East County. How difficult will it be for the prosecution to paint you as a perpetually unemployed Black man, Mr. Currency Trader? How many of the people you killed weren’t Black? How will that go over with redneck jurors from Gresham and Troutdale? Besides, the press has already painted you as a monster. The ‘Freddy Killer.’”
“I keep telling you, that’s not right!” Malcolm blurted. “It should be the ‘Scatter Killer!’”
Jesus, even in extremity this guy was going to be a movie-geek pedant. “Well, pretty soon, the police are going to have a new name for the killer: Malcolm Greene.”
“They won’t if you don’t call the police, Carlos. Have you called the police?”
“No, I have not,” I told him. “But I’m pretty sure Janet has.”
“What? Janet?” This information threw him off-kilter. “What do you mean?”
“She was there at the river, numbnuts! All this shit was her doing! Hell, I didn’t even know you guys were dating, remember? But you jerked her around enough to get her suspicious. And she got me to keep an eye on you.”
“Spy on me, you mean!” he spat.
“What the fuck ever, killer.” I took a deep breath to really launch int him; to spew out all of the fear and the terror and the bile that had been building up. I opened my mouth, and suddenly I was just exhausted. “Jesus, Malcolm – why? There must have been a better way. You’re a smart guy. Surely, you could have figured out something else. Jesus.”
Malcolm looked infinitely sad. My heart broke. After all, he had been my best friend for most of my adult life. I knew that this was the last time I would see him – at least without a jumpsuit.
I sidled over to the window. “Better take a look at this,” I said.
He joined me and we looked out on the street. A police cruiser had pulled up in front of my auntie’s Mercedes. Janet was standing on the sidewalk, talking to a cop who was writing in a notebook. An unmarked sedan pulled up, and two men in suits and jackets hopped out. They conferred with the uniformed cop, and then started talking to Janet.
“I’m done, Malcolm,” I said. “I’m so sorry that it came to this, but this was your choice. I’m exhausted. Being your friend has exhausted me. Goodbye.”
I dragged myself from the apartment and down the stairs. My vision had tunneled into a tiny point. I just wanted to go home, but knew that I was about to spend a lot of time answering questions from men with bad haircuts.
Janet and the cops looked up as I came through the front door, almost staggering. There was a rushing sound in my ears, and I almost didn’t hear the flat, heavy clap that came from two stories above. I did see the flash of the gunshot reflect off the apartment across the street. The cops reacted immediately, ducking behind the cars and pulling Janet down with them. They pulled out their pistols. The uniformed cop started barking into his shoulder-mounted mic. One of the plainclothes cops frantically waved at me to take cover, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter now; there would be no more gunshots. I sat down on the curb across the street from Malcolm’s apartment and cried every tear that there was in the world.