David Armstrong and Travis sat under the overhang of an abandoned bakery on Mason Street trying to stay warm and dry. They were both failing and this time David feared he would die first.
The black sheet of visqueen he had stolen from the construction site next door wasn’t large enough to protect them both from the cold driving rain but along with the overhang, only his leg was exposed.
This was the third day in a row the cold drizzle had blown in from the Pacific and he heard the next few days would be more of the same. He had been wet now for two days and could no longer feel his fingers and his left foot was numb. Travis shivered constantly and neither of them had slept more than a few hours and the bone chilling wind cut through the plastic sheeting like a knife.
Across the street, six of the thousands of homeless men and women on this side of San Francisco had already staked out the sewer grate. He had tried to sleep close enough to it last night to feel the warm air currents coming up from the cable car tunnels, but the big man with the acne scars and the yellow and black plaid coat threatened Travis with a knife, so they had moved back across the street.
Exhaustion and lack of sleep finally caught up to him. He stretched out as far as he could trying to stay out of the rain pouring off the overhang and closed his eyes and for the next two hours he was back in Afghanistan where he was warm and dry and he felt safe—safe and Travis was alive again.
He stood behind Travis in the chow line and as they worked their way towards the front, the first rocket landed outside. It was on the far side of the base but they both felt the concussion and the lights swayed on their chains casting moving shadows on the floor. The next one was closer but still too far away to do any damage.
This was the third attack by the Taliban this week and like the rest, the 107 mm unguided rockets fell short landing outside the perimeter wall, but each was closer than the last and it seemed the insurgents had an unlimited supply of both men and launchers.
After each attack, pictures of the destroyed Type 63 launchers and the dead Taliban were passed around. They were gruesome scenes; men blown apart by either the Hellfire missiles or 30 millimeter shells from a Chain Gun. Some officer in the chain of command thought the pictures would bolster their morale. For some it probably did; Fuck those towel heads! he had heard them say, but to him, they were just dead men.
Loaded up with slabs of meatloaf, lima beans and mash potatoes, the two of them sat across from each other eating in silence thinking more about the afternoon’s mission than the taste of the food.
“I think it will be hot again,” he said sarcastically.
As he stabbed another chunk of the meatloaf, he heard the familiar Brrrp sound of an Apache’s Minigun.
“That fucked them up.” Travis said in the thick Brooklyn accent that always made it sound funny.
There were no more rockets in this dream and all too soon the cold returned.
He listened to the steady popping sound of the rain hitting the aluminum overhang as it mixed with the buzzing of a streetlamp and tried to remember if it ever rained while he was overseas.
He felt Travis lift his head and heard a deep growl coming from the dog’s chest. In the dim light he saw Travis looking across the street at the dark shapes of the men sleeping next to the huge vent. Then one of the dark shapes moved and he saw a glint of steel reflect in the light.
He pulled Travis closer and cupped his hand over the dog’s snout and the growl stopped, but his eyes remained on the moving shape across the street. The dog’s trembling came in waves that he could feel as well as hear.
From thirty feet away and in the dim light, David felt the shape was staring at him now, but it was hard to be sure as the steady drizzle began mixing with the first wisps of fog. The tiny droplets illuminated by the yellow streetlight floated on a breeze from left to right helping to obscure the man’s silhouetted face. He couldn’t see anything but the form of someone crouched down next to the others—but there was the feeling of dread he couldn’t shake. The feeling was one of Death.
Death is watching me! He thought.
He held Travis still for several minutes and the shape never moved. So much time passed that he began to doubt what he had seen; then the shape moved again and stood next to the sleeping men. It was a man, a short man covered in a black rain suit with a hood that hid his face.
The man stood and stepped away from the sleeping men and into the street towards him and again and for what seemed like an eternity David felt the stare as Travis continued to shake.
The man was closer now; close enough that he could see steam or mist rising from under the man’s hood each time he took a breath; slow, steady, silent breaths that he tried to match hoping his own breathing wouldn’t be audible.
Travis began to whine again, the sound mixing with the rain and he hoped the rain was louder.
“Shhhh,” he whispered into the dog’s ear. Finally the man turned and moved silently down the street towards Shepard Place and disappeared into the thickening fog leaving a wake of swirling mist.
He eased his hand away from Travis and the dog turned and looked at him, the low whine increased and he could feel it in the dog’s chest. They both shivered and he pulled the dog in tight trying to fight both the chill and the fear.
“He’s gone now Travis.”
Travis closed his eyes but the whine continued.
Looking back across the street at all the sleeping shapes, he heard a few snores and hoped what he had seen was just another part of his dream.
He waited thirty minutes. The fog was thicker now but the rain had eased into nothing more than a light drizzle. He could see two surveillance cameras pointing at the front door of the shop behind the men. He knew there were more hidden in the fog but he had to move, he had to know for sure that what he had seen wasn’t just another nightmare.
His knee popped like a firecracker as he stood and he looked toward Shepard Place hoping the man had moved on and wasn’t hiding in one of the many shadows he could see or in one that he couldn’t.
The aches and pains of sleeping on the cold concrete made it hard to stand. Tying Travis to a wrought iron security gate behind him, he wrapped the black plastic over his head and limped across the street. His good leg was still numb from the cold and it took all his concentration to keeping his head down and away from the cameras and not trip over the patchwork of uneven concrete or the steel cable car rails embedded in the street.
There were six men under the awning and around the grate, two of them were older men, with patchy grey beards in their sixties at least but it was hard to tell. They were the ones snoring. Two others were younger and breathing deeply; he could see the light reflecting on the plastic they were using change with each breath.
The other two men would never breathe again. Their throats were slashed and a huge torrent of each man’s blood mixed together and then ran down the sidewalk with the rainwater and disappeared into the grate. In the yellow tint of the sodium vapor street light, the pool of blood looked like black ink as made a jagged path along the whiter concrete.
He knelt over the man with the yellow plaid jacket and felt his pockets. He found the knife—a cheap imitation of a Swiss Army knife, a used syringe, two small bags of brown powder, a ball of crumpled aluminum foil and thirty-five cents.
Across the street Travis barked and he stuffed the two bags of heroin, the coins and the knife in his pocket; he threw the syringe into the grate and went back across to Travis.
It was still a few hours before sunrise and he wanted to be long gone before the sleeping men woke. Hopefully the fog and the rain would make most of the surveillance cameras useless but he kept his head down as he untied Travis and walked north towards the Broadway Tunnel.
to be continued