The smell of cheap motel rooms was comforting to him, like his oldest, rattiest T-shirt. Lysol, unwashed feet, and that sour tang of grime and desperation that tried to dress up and look nice with laundered sheets and those stiff bedspreads that felt like sandpaper on your ass, bargain basement art on the walls and the cheap paper-wrapped chits that weren’t so much soap as a suggestion of what soap might be like.
Motel rooms like this had known many men without names, but he wondered if he was the first who’d let his go by choice. He signed a meaningless pseudonym to the register and paid cash. He could afford to stay in nicer places, but that would mean hauling out one of his impressive array of fake identifications, and he didn’t use them unless absolutely necessary. Each one, when used, left a shallow footprint in the shifting sand dunes of his existence, which he preferred to keep pristine and featureless. Even if that hadn’t been the case, he’d still prefer rooms like this. They fit around him snugly with the comforting security of anonymity. Every time he’d stayed in fancier digs he’d felt like he was rattling around in them like the last pea in the can. The eyes of the world could see him in places like that. Places like this, he could float through without leaving a trace, and the world’s eyes looked away.
He shucked his jacket, smelling smoke and stale beer on himself from the bar he’d spent the evening in. He didn’t know why he kept going. The bars, like the motel rooms, were always the same. He didn’t go to the ones with fancy neon and clever drinks at the bar. He liked the ones with gravel parking lots and sagging roofs, the kind that sported hand-painted signs proclaiming that this was Somebody’s-Name’s-Bar. Folks went to those places for two reasons: to get drunk enough to forget their sorry-ass lives, or to pick up a piece of tail. Neither interested him. He wouldn’t claim that his life couldn’t stand some forgetting, but the booze had not yet been invented that could let him, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to pick up a piece of tail.
Sometimes he thought he should, just to keep up the appearance of being part of the human race. It wouldn’t have been hard. The skanks that hung out at these bars usually homed in on him the minute he walked through the door, sizing him up to see if he was good for a screw, a free meal, maybe shacking up in a double-wide and paying the bills. They’d flap around on the dance floor, presenting like monkeys at a zoo, and lean too close when they stood next to him at the bar, wafting an unpleasant mixture of Love’s Baby Soft and flop-sweat.
The occasional notion that maybe he shouldn’t sleep alone every single night of his life wasn’t enough to actually make him take the initiative. It had been a long time since anyone got that close to him. In his line of work, he had to be careful. Close enough to fuck was close enough to shank him with a dagger hidden in the crease of some chick’s jean shorts. Some part of his mind that remembered civilization knew that it wasn’t normal to be this paranoid. Couldn’t be helped. That ship had sailed.
So he went to the bars, had a beer or two, stayed quiet, watched the people, and left. If he stayed any longer, the eyes on him became too much. Always the eyes, looking at him sidelong, like they knew. What could they know about some stranger having a beer in a bar? They didn’t know shit. But the eyes were always on him, and whether they knew anything or not, the idea that they might always drove him out.
He stretched out on top of the bedspread and lit a cigarette, staring at the ceiling. He could tell Josey that it was just a precaution, he could tell himself that it was paranoia, but here on the sandpaper bedspread where it was just him and the bargain-basement art, he couldn’t deny that he was always alone in these godforsaken motel rooms because the tits and ass on offer just weren’t that interesting to him. He didn’t like to think about how far gone he was into the abyss that even the humanness of lust was now foreign to him.
At least he still felt hunger, and cold, and the craving for nicotine. How long until even those animal sensations left him? Would he eventually be left with nothing but a set of skills that suited him for only one profession, and a head full of things he didn’t want to know? Maybe he’d disconnect enough that he would no longer sweat, or piss, or get stupid songs stuck in his head. He’d been told over and over again that he’d have to become a machine, but he hadn’t really believed that he would. He knew better now.
He stubbed out his cigarette and shut off the bedside lamp. He wondered if he should try jerking off. It’d be nice if he were capable of even that level of self-love, but he hadn’t managed to wring one out in a long time. Months? Years? He couldn’t remember. The desert stripped most indicators of date and season from his memories. Everything was always hot and bright and seared crisp.
He set the alarm clock. He couldn’t be late for Josey tomorrow, and it still was a long drive to Nevada.
Jack just wanted to wash the blood off his sleeves. It was ground into the creases of his knuckles and clotted into the hair on his wrists. He was elbow-deep in blood on a daily basis, but never without the shielding of gown, gloves, sterility… sanity. He couldn’t stop staring at it, the edges of the stain bleeding into the white of his shirt, the darker blotches on his hands. He just wanted to be allowed to get up, leave the interview room, and wash it off. Or change his shirt. Or go home and cry.
The odds of this happening seemed slim. “Let’s go over it again, Dr. Francisco.”
He didn’t bother to look up to see which of the suits was talking to him. They were all the same. They blended into one nameless entity of Suit With Questions that surrounded him in navy blue polyblend and poked and prodded and wouldn’t let him go home. “I told you already.”
“Tell us again.”
“I was on my way to my car.”
“In the parking garage.”
“Why’d you park way up there?”
“I got to work late today; that was the first spot I found.” He could hear his own voice, flat and uninflected. This was what it had come down to: a rote recitation of one of the worst days of his life. “I saw three people standing in the empty spot next to the car.”
“What kind of car?”
“It was a black Escalade. I don’t know what year. Late model. I didn’t get the plate number. The woman was up against the side. I looked over to see if she needed help, then I saw the knife.” He felt the shame rising in his chest again, wanting to choke off his words. “I should’ve helped her,” he said.
“It’s a good thing for you that you didn’t, or you’d be dead too. Then what happened?”
“I ducked down behind a car. The tall one stabbed her. She didn’t scream. There was this sucking noise, like a gasp. I heard her fall. The two men got in the Escalade and drove off.” He gulped. “They didn’t see me.”
“And you saw the men clearly?” Jack nodded. “Then what’d you do?”
“I ran to her to see if I could help her. I tried to put pressure on the wound while I called nine-one-one.” He swiped at his eyes. “She died before the paramedics got there.”
Silence. Jack looked up. The suits were concerned. He glanced around. The suits were waiting for something. He didn’t bother to ask what.
The door opened and another suit entered, carrying a folder. He didn’t introduce himself or acknowledge the other suits; he just sat down next to Jack. “Dr. Francisco, the woman you saw killed was Maria Dominguez. She was scheduled to testify about her extensive knowledge of her ex-husband’s drug-related activities.”
“So… those men were….”
“Yeah.” The new suit met his eyes. “I’m not going to bullshit you, Dr. Francisco. You’re our winning lottery ticket here. We’ve never had a witness who could identify any of the Dominguez family in the commission of a crime.”
“You mean you haven’t had one that lived long enough to testify.”
The suit sighed. “You’ll live. I promise.”
Josey was waiting at the drive-in where they’d arranged to meet. The place was straight out of the Twilight Zone. It looked like it had been abandoned for years; everything was bleached white from the desert sun. Listless brown weeds clumped around the bases of the empty posts that had once held the speakers, planted in regular rows like grave markers. He wouldn’t have been surprised if some of them were. Be a good place to bury some bodies, he thought. No one watching except this big blank eye of a movie screen.
She was sitting on the hood of her car. “You’re late, D,” she said as he approached.
“Pick a meet site that ain’t in the middle a fuckin’ nowhere, then we’ll talk about bein’ late. What ya got fer me?”
“Nothing you’ll take, probably.”
“Must have somethin’. Ya called me here.”
“I swear, I don’t know why I keep you on the list. So fucking picky.”
“Rules is rules.”
She sighed and opened her briefcase. “Biggest ticket today is this one,” she said, handing him the folder. He glanced over the file and knew within five lines that he wouldn’t be taking it. “D, it’s a hundred large,” Josey beseeched him, as he handed the folder back to her. She always tried to palm off a few up front on him, although he couldn’t imagine that after all this time she’d think that just this once he’d cave in and take it.
“I ain’t doin’ no woman just cuz her asshole husband’s embarrassed that she fucked the pool boy. Next.”
The second one only took two lines before he was handing it back. “Don’t do cops.”
“Okay, Mr. Fucking Moral Superiority, how’s this one?”
He started reading, and kept going. This one was… possible. “Hmph.”
“Oh, you’re actually gonna consider this one? I might just piss my pants for joy.”
“Never done no art dealer.”
“Oughta be a walk in the park. A guy like this thinks he’s untouchable.”
He sighed. “How much?”
He tucked the folder into his jacket. “Three days.” He started to walk away.
“You know,” Josey said. “All these other ones that you won’t do? I just give them to one of the others. They get done anyway.”
D stopped, but did not turn. “Yeah?”
“So if they’re gonna get done, why does it matter you’re not the one doing them?”
He shook his head. “You gotta ask why it matters, I ain’t gonna bother answerin’.”
Jack was sitting in his dim living room. Well, not his living room, technically. It belonged to Jack Macintosh, whoever that was. He had Jack Macintosh’s driver’s license in his pocket, and the mail in the hallway was addressed to this mythical man, wherever he’d come from. Who was he? What did he do for a living? Jack Macintosh was a professional at waiting. Waiting for it to be time to take an oath and tell a jury what he’d seen. At the moment, however, Jack Macintosh was scrolling through the cable guide, looking for something interesting on TV. Dr. Jack Francisco wasn’t here just now. But Jack Macintosh had all the time in the world to reflect on the events that had led him here to this impersonal, pre-furnished home in Henderson, Nevada.
You had to have a cookie.
A cookie had landed Jack here, thousands of miles away from his old life. He’d been on his way out of the office when one of the nurses hailed him. “Have a cookie, Dr. Francisco!” she’d said. He’d hesit