DEAD AND ALIVE

 

 

 

John Richmond


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a road, no simple highway

Between the dawn and the dark of night

And if you go, no one may follow

That path is for your steps alone

Robert Hunter, from Ripple

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One

  

Young Will Tomlinson, aged thirty years, walked into his apartment one June afternoon and found a dead man on his couch.  Young Will did not know the dead man, or how he had come to be in his apartment, or how he had come to be dead.  The door to Will’s apartment was broken in, and Will stopped just inside it.  He stared at the dead man, for a while – for really a long while – before the idea finally took hold in him that the man was in fact – dead, and then he turned and, with a curious detachment, looked around the rest of the room.  No signs of violence, he thought – as if he were a detective, a professional studier and understander of dead bodies, rather than the arbitrage bond trader he was – and in fact, there were no signs of violence: his black leather armchair sat stolidly where it always sat, the glass–topped coffee table was neither shattered nor overturned, the walls of Will’s living room were not stained by any cryptic messages scrawled in blood.  In fact, there appeared to be no blood at all, Will observed, and the idea occurred to him that maybe the man wasn’t actually – dead – but just... sleeping or something.  And, at the moment, this thought didn’t strike Will as strange, or at least, no stranger than the idea of a man lying dead on his couch.

But the man’s hands were stained a dark reddish–purple, and there was an unnatural whiteness to his face, and these facts seemed to argue silently against any quiet–nap theory.  Cautiously, as if it might jump out at him, Will approached the body, approached the couch, and crouched down in front of it.  The body lay face–up on the sofa, its eyes closed, its hands folded peacefully across its stomach.  It was the body of a white male, maybe sixty years old, Will thought – ‘male, Caucasian, late middle age,’ he heard himself telling some strange, angelic jury – and its face bore the marks of long weathering.  It had a full head of snow–white hair.  It wore a small, bright bruise on its upper left forehead.  Its skin appeared tanned, beneath the unnatural whiteness.  It was of average height – call it five–ten, Will thought, trying, for some reason, to be precise – it had a thick, powerful build and a small, round pot–belly.  It was dressed in dark–green work pants, and black, well–worn work shoes, and a flannel shirt and a bright yellow windbreaker.  The windbreaker had no insignia, at least on its front, that Will could see, and Will did not turn the body over to look at its back.

He should call an ambulance, Will thought; and then he stood and walked a small circle in the middle of the living room.  He crouched again in front of the sofa.  He should call an ambulance, he thought again, in case the guy wasn’t actually – dead; but instead, he reached out and took the body’s hand, slowly, cautiously.  The hand felt cool, Will thought, to the touch, the hand felt cool, and vaguely stiff – though that might have just been from the callouses on it; the hand had such callouses on it that Will wondered how it had ever bent in life.  The purple stain on the hand continued up through the wrist, where the sleeve of the man’s jacket had ridden up on his arm, and the stain did not rub off under Will’s fingers: the stain, Will realized, was on the inside, not on the outside.  Will tried to pull the hand closer to himself, to feel, for a pulse, but the hand wouldn’t come.  Will pulled harder.  Why wouldn’t it come? he wondered – a little impatiently, even, a little bit, irritated – the hand was lying on top of the other hand, the fingers weren’t interlocked, why wouldn’t it come?  And then he realized with abrupt horror that the hand was stiff.  The hand – the arm – the body – was stiff; the body was a stiff.  It wasn’t just dead, it was a corpse; and a small sound escaped Will, and he jerked his own hand back and sprang abruptly away from the body, except that the back of his legs hit the coffee table behind him at knee–height and he fell, pinwheeled, tumbled backwards over the glass–topped coffee table, landing hard on his shoulder and nearly shattering the table in the process.  He landed, crouched on all fours, in the middle of the living room, breathing hard, staring at the body.  Whoa, he thought – whoa.

Will rose again to his feet: slowly, cautiously, keeping his eyes on the dead man in front of him.  He needed to get a grip here, he thought – he should call an ambulance, he should call the cops, he should dial nine–one–one.  He moved to the front door, the lock that had been broken in, and stared at it.  The door was splintered and broken around the lock, as if someone had taken a crowbar to it, and the frame was similarly splintered and crushed.  There was a deadbolt on the door, but Will never used that lock; he’d grown tired over time of locking and unlocking the deadbolt, and there were only two of them in the house, him and Belew, and he knew Belew.

Strange, Will thought, he hadn’t noticed the front door to the house looking broken in; but that door stuck sometimes, he remembered, it didn’t always lock when you shut it.  He should call the police, he thought again, and he returned to the living room, and sat in the armchair at the foot of the sofa.  The dead man was still there.  The dead man was still there, with his snow–white hair, his stone–white face, his purple hands, his small, pink bruise.  And why would someone break into his house and leave a dead man? Will wondered.  He didn’t know dead people.  He didn’t know people who killed dead people.  He didn’t know any of those kind of people.

Will reached for the phone beside him, and then, instead of calling the police, he called Belew: Belew, his landlord and downstairs neighbor, his best friend from childhood, his regular run–with guy all through their early years and adolescence; he called Belew.  Belew now a professional musician, an amateur screw–up and a near–professional consumer of mind–altering substances: this was who Will called.  And sat, and listened as the phone rang over and over without answer.  Will could hear Belew’s stereo pounding up through the floor beneath him, and he wondered distractedly if he was hearing the Grateful Dead – Belew was a longtime Deadhead, and even made his living now playing cover versions of Dead tunes at small clubs and college bars; and, for the first time in years, Will considered the oddity of the name – the Grateful Dead – and then he noticed that his hand was shaking.  He shoved the hand under his thigh to still it.  He was really not thinking quite right here, he told himself; he was really not thinking quite right here at all.  The thought occurred to him then that the pounding of Belew’s stereo did not necessarily mean that Belew was home – it was entirely like Belew, Will realized, to walk out the door with the hi–fi still cranking.  Oh, God, Will thought, suddenly desperate, please answer the phone, please pick up the line, the line.

 

 


Two

  

“Yeah,” said a voice in Will’s ear.  Will could still hear the pounding of the music below him – in fact, it seemed suddenly even louder – and for an instant he wasn’t sure whether he’d actually heard the voice or somehow imagined it.

“Belew?” he asked quickly.  “Belew?  Is that you?”

“You got him.”

“Jesus.”  The music was louder, Will realized, because he was hearing it now through the earpiece of the phone, as well as through the floor, and then the music stopped.  Will breathed easier.  “Belew,” he said.  “It’s me – Will, upstairs.”

“I got you, bro.”

“Belew.”  Since childhood, it seemed, everyone had called Belew by his last name – Will didn’t think he even knew Belew’s first name anymore.

Will closed his eyes and exhaled again.  “Belew,” he said.  “There’s a...”  He stopped – it seemed an impossible thing to say; and then he opened his eyes and took in again the body in front of him.  “There’s a dead man on my couch.”

“Dude.”

“What?”

“Really? – cool.  Can I come up and see?  I’ve never seen a dead guy before.”

“What – ?”

“I said, can I come up and see?  I’ve never seen a – ”

“Yeah.  Well, yes, of course, I mean – ”  But Belew had already put down the phone, and Will heard his door slam downstairs a second later, and then Belew’s feet padding up the stairs to Will’s apartment.  Jesus wept, Will thought, and sat back in his chair.  Why had he called Belew?  There’s a dead man on my couch, he thought, and then he noticed a glass, a rock glass, sitting on the coffee table in front of him.  He picked it up – how had he not noticed it before? – how had he not broken it when he fell over the table? – and he sniffed at it, and then he quickly pulled his nose back.  An amazingly stupid thing to do, he thought, even if, especially if, whatever had killed the guy – but how did he know the guy had been killed?  How did he know – ?  And the glass told him nothing, anyway – it smelled of whiskey and nothing else, as far as Will could tell.  Should he taste it? he wondered.  He could see a small amount of liquid remaining at the bottom of the glass – but then he rejected that idea: if it was strychnine, one drop could kill him, right?  That was right, wasn’t it?  One drop of strychnine could kill you?  He didn’t know.  Maybe the dead guy had just – what?  Then Belew knocked on the door.

“Yo,” Belew greeted, when Will opened the door.  Belew stood six feet tall, with a slim build and a lithe way of moving, and mousy brown hair that hung to his shoulders, and, today, he had several days’ worth of stubble surrounding a goatee.  He wore his usual uniform, Will noticed, of torn jeans, much–washed T–shirt (‘Sunsplash Music Festival,’ this one read), and bare feet.  Will was conscious of the contrast between himself and Belew – Will stood two inches shorter than Belew, and was slightly stockier through the shoulders and hips; he had straight, black hair, cut conservatively short, and he wore what might be called his own off–work uniform: khaki shorts, polo shirt, deck shoes.  Will had never in his life grown a goatee, or a beard or even a moustache; in truth, he rarely ever took Sunday off from the razor.

“Where’s the stiff?” Belew asked, and Will pointed at the couch.

Belew brushed past Will, then stopped in his tracks when he saw the body.  He stared at it, and then he padded slowly up and down the living room, his gaze never leaving the dead man.  He seemed to be taking care to keep the coffee table between the body and himself, Will thought.

“Dude,” Belew said finally.  “Well, I’ll be damned.  You got a dead guy on your couch.”

“Yes.”

“Check out the hands – d’you see the hands?”

“I saw the hands.”

“Wild – I wonder what did that.  And look at the face, too – whiter than white, right?  Like out of a Vincent Price movie or something.”

Will didn’t say anything, and Belew continued his scrutiny.  “Who is he?” he asked, and Will said, “I don’t know.”

Belew turned to look at him.  “You don’t know?” he repeated.

“Never seen him before.”

“Wow.”

Belew looked the body up and down again.  “You don’t know him?” he asked again, and Will shook his head.  For some reason Will felt as if Belew thought he should know the dead man, and he was vaguely put off that Belew didn’t seem to believe him.

“Well, that is different,” Belew blew out his breath.  “I gotta check the lease agreement on this one, Will – I think you may be out of your rights here.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Belew grinned, and his face took on a cat–like or even devilish cast when he did so, with his rough–hewn goatee and almond–shaped eyes.

“Sorry, Will,” he said.  “Couldn’t help myself.”

“Jesus Christ,” Will muttered again.  What the hell had made him call Belew?  The guy was useless, ridiculous – worse than that, he was pathetic.  Will felt suddenly alone, with the dead man on the couch.

“So,” Belew said, “maybe no levity.”

But Will wasn’t listening to him.  He stared at the dead man, at the stone–white face, the small, bright bruise on its forehead, at the purple, blocky hands set clumsily atop each other.  He was starting to feel angry.  He’d had a lousy day; he’d had a boring day at work, he’d had a fight the night before with his girlfriend – a sort–of, not–quite fight, that was worse than a real fight – and now this.  He didn’t have time for this.  He was not in the mood for this.

He turned and quickly surveyed the living room.  The body lay on the couch, the rock glass sat unmoved on the coffee table, the sun shone through the windows.  It was one of his own glasses, Will noted, one of his own glasses from his own kitchen cabinet – the dead guy, or whoever, hadn’t brought it with him.  And why would someone bring a glass with them to break into his house and kill themself?  He noticed then that the light was blinking on his answering machine, and he jammed down his finger on the Play button, but there was only a wrong–number call, and then a message from Alex, saying something about were they going sailing the following day.  Will thought of the not–quite fight again.  Then he pressed Save, so that he could listen to Alex’s message later, and he pressed the Memo button and barked “Message!” into the machine, so that the light would start blinking again and remind him later to replay the message.  Good thinking, Will, he congratulated himself on that small idea: good thinking, good thinking.

“What else?” he asked aloud, and his gaze ran again to the glass on the table.  He picked it up and studied it.

“Will – ”

“I already touched it,” Will said, “if you’re thinking about fingerprints – it’s not going to make any difference now.”  He brought the rim of the glass to his nose and inhaled, tentatively at first, and then more deeply.  But he still smelled just whiskey.  “Besides,” he added, returning the glass to the table, “it’s my own glass – I’ve got a right to have my own fingerprints on my own glass on my own table, don’t I?”

“What are you looking for?” Belew asked, and Will shook his head.

“I don’t know – if I knew, I would know where to find it, wouldn’t I?”  He glanced briefly at Belew, then turned and ran his eyes over the room again.

“What else?” he asked.  “What else?  What are we missing?”

“You check him for ID?”

Will turned to stare at Belew, then shook his head slowly.

“No,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Um... I didn’t think of it.”

“Any reason why we shouldn’t?”

“No.”  Will shook his head again.  “That’s a good idea.”

“You want me to search him?  Or do you –”

“Doesn’t matter,” Will shook his head a third time.  “I already checked his hands.  To make sure he was dead – I already touched him, if that’s what you mean – so it doesn’t matter.  Right?”  He kept his eyes on Belew; he suddenly didn’t want to look at the dead man.  “I mean, he’s dead, right?” he said.  “He’s dead.  So it doesn’t matter – right?  I mean this isn’t a Vincent Price movie, so it doesn’t – ”

“I’ll do it.”

Belew bent over the body and began searching its pockets.  “How’d you check his hands, by the way?” he asked.  “You mean for a pulse?”

“No,” Will said.  He swallowed.  He didn’t like thinking about the hand, the arm – how they were stiff.  “I just... felt them.  They were cold.  Or cool.”

“Mmm,” Belew nodded.  “Good idea.  Although I’d have to say it seems pretty clear this guy’s on the other side.”

Will nodded.  Of course, he thought, of course he was dead – he had purple hands.  Living people didn’t come with purple hands.

Will watched, unable to stop himself, as Belew went through the dead man’s pockets.  Belew worked quickly and without ceremony; he checked the pockets in the body’s windbreaker, the pockets in its trousers and its shirt, and then, to Will’s horror, he leaned, grunted, and flipped the body over like a sack of potatoes.  Will’s mind reeled.  He watched, still unable to look away, as Belew went through the dead man’s back trouser pockets, and then poked a finger down each of its socks.  Then Belew flipped the body over onto its back again.  Jesus, Will thought again, oh, Jesus.  He didn’t see why a dead man would have his ID in his socks; but then, he didn’t see why a dead man would show up on his couch, either.  There was just basically an awful lot here that he couldn’t see.

Belew finished his search, straightened up and turned to Will.  The body’s hands still hadn’t moved from their crossed position on its stomach, Will noticed, through all that man–handling; and he pushed that thought from his mind.

“Nothing?” he asked, with an effort, and Belew shook his head.

“Not a coin, not a card, nothing.  This here’s your basic unknown soldier.”

“Great,” Will said.  “So what do we do now?”

He began pacing, rapidly up and down the room.  Then he decided that he would sit, that he would sit and think this through calmly, and he threw himself at the armchair.

“All right,” he said.  “So what have we got?  We got a dead guy.  We got no wallet, no ID, no nothing.  No runs, no hits, no errors, no men left standing.”  He flapped a hand at Belew.  “Sit,” he said, “you’re making me nervous.”  Belew glanced around the room.

“Where?”

“How do I know!” Will shouted.  “On the floor!  On your ass!  On the kitchen fucking table!  How do I know?”

He was getting agitated, Will thought then, he was getting wound up again.  He didn’t have time for this.  Abruptly he leaned forward and picked up the rock glass, from the coffee table, and hurled it at the nearest wall, where it promptly shattered.  There.  That felt better.

“Jesus Christ,” he murmured.  He stared at the pieces of glass on the floor.  Then he grabbed at the phone beside him.  “I’m out,” he said, “I don’t have time for this, I am not interested.”  He stabbed at nine–one–one on the handset, and then, before the connection could go through, Belew stepped swiftly across the room and closed his hand over Will’s on the receiver, depressing the hang–up button.

“Hold on now, bro,” Belew said softly.  “Hold on now, settle down here.”

Will stared at him.  Would he have to hit him?  What was he doing?  And then Belew glanced at his own hand, holding Will’s on top of the phone, and he released it, gently.  He squatted down in front of Will.

“Settle down now, brother,” he said softly.  “Settle, settle down now.  I think maybe you’re going off a little half–cocked here.”  He looked Will in the eye, around and all over and into his eyes.  “Settle down,” he repeated softly.  “Settle, settle down here.”  And, for some reason, this had a hugely calming effect on Will.  Belew stopped speaking for a minute, and gazed at Will.  “Have you thought this thing through?” he asked.  “‘Cause I don’t think you’ve thought this through; and I think you ought to do that, before you go calling anyone right away.  Settle, settle down now.”

He continued staring at Will, into and all around his eyes.  “You with me?” he asked quietly after a minute, and Will nodded, without speaking.  “‘Cause this is a very serious thing,” Belew said quietly.  He spoke very softly, and very, very quietly.  “You got a dead guy on your hands,” he said softly.  “And you gotta think this through.  ‘Cause the cops, they’re going to come, and they’re going to look around, and they’re going to think you’re the guy what deaded him.”

Will stared at Belew.  Belew’s eyes had flecks of gold in them, he noticed, and they did not seem to ever blink.  Strange, he thought, that he had never noticed that before; that Belew’s eyes had flecks of gold in them.

“One question,” Belew said.  “Did you kill him?”

“No!”  Will recoiled.  “How could I kill him, I don’t even know him!”

“All right.”  Belew raised a calming hand, and then gently, soothingly, lowered it again.  “But I had to ask.”  He held Will’s eyes a moment longer, then turned and glanced around the room again, as if for a chair; and he seemed to notice again the sofa and its burden.  He turned back to Will.  “Why don’t we go downstairs?” he suggested.  “To my house, for a minute.  Get away from – this thing here, so we can both think like human beings.”  He held Will’s eyes. “Maybe have a cup of coffee,” he suggested quietly.  “Sit down, rest your bones, take a break in the action.  Sound reasonable?”

Will nodded, silently, without realizing it.  Belew had flecks of gold in his eyes, he thought.  And that had been a very cool move before, too, the way Belew had searched the body.  That had been a very, very cool move.  And smart.  Belew could be smart, sometimes, Will thought.  Belew knew things that Will didn’t, always had; and this might could be one of them.  And, Will thought, too – he could really use a cup of coffee.

“All right,” he said quietly.  “Let’s go downstairs.”

 

 

Will sat on Belew’s sofa, and waited while Belew made coffee.  He was feeling very odd, he thought; vaguely, dazedly, distractedly.  He felt... flooded, like a car engine that was flooded, that needed to sit for a while before it would start again.  He’d been running hot back there, he thought, he’d been running more than a little hot.  That with the glass; that was crazy.  He was a little tense, a little, little bit tense.  He was a lot tense.  He’d been a little tense for a long time, he thought, and he didn’t know where that notion came from.  And he wondered: was that the same as being a lot tense?

It was the old house, he thought then, looking around.  It was the old house, and that was an odd thing to think, too, because he never thought of it that way anymore; not now, after living in it again for almost a year now.  But it was true: this was the old house.  One of them.  This had been Belew’s house, when they were growing up; Will had spent half his childhood in this house.  He and Belew had lived around the corner from each other, and they had been best friends, they ran back and forth between this house and Will’s house, and watched TV together, and went to school together, and played games together, and even slept in the same bed sometimes, when they were little.

Though this room didn’t look at all like he remembered it, Will thought, staring around.  The furniture was all different, and the carpeting, and the flowered wallpaper was gone where Will had gotten in trouble once for leaving a clay–covered handprint, right after Belew’s mother had paid to have the paper put up.  And it was so cluttered! – the room looked as if a small bomb had gone off in it.  Three or four guitars stood scattered and leaning around, on stands or tilted against furniture, and two amplifiers squatted on the floor, their wires snaking across the carpet like umbilical cords; across from Will, in a corner, was a round, white, Formica–topped kitchen table, without chairs, piled high with books and papers and stray articles of clothing, and two old, overstuffed armchairs crowded the room with the couch and the kitchen table and a rectangular coffee table and two beanbag chairs.  Did people still make beanbags? Will wondered.  One entire wall of the room was taken up with TV, VCR, stereo and speakers, with countless cassettes and CDs spilling out of their cases; the coffee table held two ashtrays, filled to overflowing, and another one sat on the kitchen table across the room, and yet another on the floor, next to a beanbag, beside a cordless telephone.  And paper was everywhere!  The chairs, the floor, the coffee and the kitchen tables, every conceivable surface was covered, with sheet music, old newspapers, paperbacks, magazines, torn envelopes, telephone books and scraps of paper with numbers and illegible notes written on them.  Unbelievable, Will thought, gazing around.  Books were everywhere, too, to his surprise – Will wouldn’t have figured Belew for a reader.  Will scanned a shelf on the wall in front of him: the Bible, he saw – even more to his surprise – and numerous songbooks, the I–Ching and the Bhagavad–Gita, Joseph Campbell on mythology, a science–fiction trilogy, a bunch of trash–mystery paperbacks and the full canon of Carlos Castaneda.  More paperbacks were strewn and sprawled around the rest of the living room, including one, titled The Deep Blue Goodbye, that stood tee–peed improbably against a CD case on a shelf of the stereo unit.  Unbelievable, Will thought again.  Will had some old math texts and some software manuals, and a few sailing books, in his apartment and that was it; and they were all placed neatly on shelves.

Good old Belew, Will thought, with an unexpected rush of affection.  He was still a wack job; he was still a complete and utter wack job.  Back then, Will thought; back then, they had been tight, back then.  They had gone to the same kindergarten, and then to the same grade school after that, St. Vincent de Paul’s, and then on to Galileo after that; they had joined the same teams, listened to the same albums, they had formed their own band, with Belew on lead and Will on rhythm guitar, and dated and double–dated the same girls and experimented together with beer and marijuana.  Will remembered, back in high school, at least once a week he would pick up the phone to call Belew, and Belew would already be on the line – he had just called Will, but the phone hadn’t rung yet when Will picked it up.  It happened so often that they just forgot about it after a while – ‘Oh, hey, you’re there already,’ and went on to whatever business was at hand.  It was just like that.  They were both only children, and they had shared a special bond, too, in that they were both missing fathers; Will’s had been killed in the Navy in Vietnam, when Will was two, and Belew’s had never been known, at least not to Belew, or to anyone besides Belew’s mother.  Will had been the smarter of the two, at least school–wise, he’d always made better grades than Belew; and Belew had been the better musician.  At sports they’d been roughly equal, but different – Will had worked harder, practiced more, was the more consistent player, but Belew was quicker and had height and reach on Will.  Then high school ended, and Will had gotten the grades and a small scholarship to go to Princeton, and loans and grants and various financial aid, and he’d gone East.  And he’d ‘gone straight,’ as Belew had put it (with a small, not entirely disguised resentment); Will had stopped experimenting, with pot or anything else, and he’d put down his guitar, and he and Belew had drifted apart.  Summer breaks, they’d still spent together, but things changed, softly and gradually and seemingly irrevocably, just as summer fades into fall, until finally even those short summer vacations came to feel awkward between them.  And then, when he finished school, Will had stayed East, and Belew had stayed West; and they had fallen out of touch.  It was like that, too.

Then, not quite a year before, Will had moved back to San Francisco, and he had run into Belew on the street, in the old neighborhood, the Marina; Belew was still there, in the old house – or rather, he was back again; he had been living in the Mission, and had inherited the house in the Marina when his mother passed on.  His mother had long since divided the house into two up–and–down apartments, and Belew lived in the bottom apartment and rented out the top one, and it turned out the tenant apartment had just come up vacant, and Belew offered it to Will.  Will had just arrived back; he was starting a new job, and settling affairs from his move, and staying in a hotel at the time, and he had thought fine, it’ll do for a year, it’s handy, and then later, when he got settled, he would look for a place to buy.  It had felt strange at first, living in the old house – the rooms all seemed smaller than he remembered, the very stairs seemed to creak with memory – but he liked the neighborhood, it had been gentrified since he’d last lived there, and he liked all the new shops and restaurants, and it was convenient to downtown, and to the Bay and Marin County; and so, Will had taken it.  He and Belew had taken up as neighbors again, and they had tried to renew their friendship, but it didn’t quite work; Belew came out sailing with Will once, but he didn’t like it that much, he was nervous of the water, and Will went to one of Belew’s shows, on a Friday night one time, but he’d been tired after a long week, and the music and all the pot smoke in the club gave him a headache; he and Belew had gone out for beers once or twice on Chestnut Street, but conversation seemed to falter, their interests didn’t intersect anymore, and they were probably more neighbors than buddies these days.  Though Will was glad, now, that Belew had answered his call that afternoon.

“Coffee,” Belew announced, entering from the kitchen, and he set down a mug on the table in front of Will.  Belew tossed a section of the Chronicle off an armchair and lowered himself into the chair, holding his own mug carefully to avoid spilling.  He took a cautious sip.

“So,” Belew asked, “how we doing?”

“Fine,” Will said.  “I mean – better, thanks.”

“Good.”  Belew scrabbled around on the cluttered coffee table until he came up with a pack of cigarettes, and he shook one out for himself and lit it.  He exhaled a plume of smoke, and pulled an ashtray closer to himself.  “So,” he asked, “where were you?”

“When?” Will asked.

“This afternoon.”

“I was at work.”

“Until now?”

“Of course not.”  Will frowned; Belew knew his hours, Will almost always finished work by three in the afternoon, and it was after six in the evening by now.  Will worked New York market hours, even though he was back in San Francisco; he was at the office by four in the morning, and usually finished in the early afternoon.  “I left around one,” he said.  “Why?”

“And then?”

“Then what?”

“What’d you do?”

“Went for a sail.”  Will frowned again.

“Anyone with you?”

“No.”

“You come home first?”

“No.”

“You drove?”

“Yes.”

“Anyone see you?  At the marina, I mean?”

“How do I know?  Look, what’s your point?”

“It’s what they’ll ask you,” Belew said.  “The cops, when they get here.  You oughta be prepared.”

Will grunted, and Belew clicked his tongue.

Belew sipped his coffee, and appeared to lapse into thought while Will stared at him.  Then Belew smoked, and ran a hand through his hair, and stroked his goatee; and then he smoked some more, and cupped his elbow in his opposite hand.  “You really don’t know him?” he asked.  “He doesn’t even look like someone you know, or might know, or anything?”

“No.”

Belew stroked his goatee again.  “All right,” he said.  “Well, it’s what we got to work with.  So I guess we better work with it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s what they’ll ask you, Will – the cops.  That’s what they do – they ask, and ask, and ask and ask again.  That’s kind of, like, their job.”  Belew drew on his cigarette, and blew out more smoke.  “And,” he added, “it doesn’t look like you’ve got the old airtight alibi.  Which even if you did, they’re still going to want to know how the body got into your apartment.”

“So do I!  What –”

“I know, Will,” Belew interrupted.  “I understand that.  But this is what I’m trying to tell you: they won’t understand that – are you following?  I mean, get smart here, will you?”  He sighed and waved a vague hand, then stubbed out his cigarette, and immediately lit another one.  “All right, Will,” he said.  “But you really have to get up to speed here.  I understand: you come home, and there’s this body in your living room – like, bummer, dude, not at all groovy, I understand – and so you started to peak and freak.  And you’re a little upset about it, and you’re maybe a little angry – who wants a dead guy on their couch? – but you’re thinking, I’ll call the cops, and they’ll take care of it, they’ll make it all go away, and everything will be cool and hunky–dory again.”  Will didn’t say anything.  “Well, I’m here to tell you,” Belew said, “it ain’t gonna be that way.”

“How do you know someone killed him?”

Belew sighed and stared off in exasperation.  “Will,” he asked, “do you really think that someone you’ve never seen before, broke into your apartment, and then killed himself for no apparent reason?  Or maybe just laid down and had a nice, peaceful heart attack?  That doesn’t make sense.  And, this guy somehow managed to arrange himself very neatly on your couch in the process?  And got rid of all his ID first?”  Belew stared at him.  “That doesn’t make sense.  And why would someone do that?”

“I have no idea.”

“Exactly,” Belew said.  “Me neither.  For that matter, I don’t know why someone would get himself popped in your living room, either; but you’ve got to admit, it does make a lot more sense.  Plus, if you ask me, that bruise on the guy’s face looked like your classic blow to the head – Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick.”

Will shook his head.  “So – what are you saying?”

“I’m saying, Will, that you are not on top of your game here.”  Will’s eyes narrowed.

“What I’m telling you,” Belew said, “is that you are very much not out of this.  You are very much in this.  You are so much in this, you practically are this, right now.  The dead guy, he’s dead – he’s out of it – but you, you are this.”  He studied Will, and smoked.  “Drink,” he urged gently.  “Your coffee’s getting cold.”

“Will,” he said then.  “You will very probably be the prime suspect in a very real, very murder, homicide investigation.  With fingerprints, and DNA, and everything – and a very real prison at the end of it.”  He paused to let his words sink in.  “And you better get acquainted with that fact – like, now would be good.  The guy’s in your house, Will – do you understand?  He’s in your house.  And you will be the Number One suspect.”

Will nodded, silently, noncommittally, after a minute.

“This is serious shit,” Belew said quietly.  “So when The Man comes: by all means, tell him the truth – ‘cause you don’t have a better story – but, for God’s sake, don’t give him the family jewels.  And you just need to keep that in mind – from the beginning, before they get here.  That the cops are not necessarily your friends here – that they may not even be the good guys.  Here, for you.”  He smiled dryly.  “I’ve dealt with these guys before,” he added, “at one or two points in my illustrious career.  So just keep that in mind – that they are not necessarily your friends.  Despite the fact that you pay lots of taxes.

“Look out for your hiney, Will,” he said finally.  “That’s all I’m telling you: look out for your hiney.”  And Belew seemed to ponder, and turned to stare off out the window.

“Bad karma,” he muttered, and Will continued to study him.

It was an apt warning, Will guessed, what Belew was telling him.  But there was something missing, too, from the equation here, he couldn’t help thinking.

“What about you,” he asked quietly, after another minute, and Belew turned slowly back to him.

“Me what?”

“Where were you?”

Belew gave Will a long, unreadable look.  “Around.”

“Around.”

“Around.”

“Did you know him?” Will asked quietly, and there was another long moment.

“No,” Belew said finally.  “I didn’t.”  He studied Will, as a thin curl of smoke drifted up in the air between them.  “Is that why you called me, Will?” he asked softly.

Will didn’t say anything.  No, he thought.  That wasn’t why he’d called Belew.  He’d called Belew because Belew had flecks of gold in his eyes.  Seen through a blue curl of smoke.

“And downstairs,” Will said softly.  “That wasn’t broken in.”

“No,” Belew said.

“But that door sticks,” Will said, quietly, evenly.  “Sometimes it doesn’t close right.  I always pull it shut; but you don’t, sometimes, and the lock doesn’t catch.  Right?”  He kept his eyes on Belew.

They stared at each other then, across the littered coffee table.  Belew was not entirely on top of this either, Will thought suddenly, and he didn’t know where that thought came from, either.

“Way it is,” Belew murmured finally, and they sat in silence, Belew smoking and Will thinking.

“So, how do you feel?” Belew asked, after a while, and Will paused before answering.

“Messed up,” he admitted, and Belew acknowledged him with a small smile.

“How’s the coffee?”  Belew nodded at the mug in front of Will, and Will glanced down, only now remembering it.  He had barely tasted it, hadn’t gotten through half the cup; it had gone cold in front of him.

“Tasty,” he said.  “It was tasty.”

“It is, isn’t it?  Kenyan, I think – I got it from that place on Chestnut Street.  You know where I mean?”  Will nodded, he knew the shop.  “I think they’ve got the whole damn UN represented in that place, you know?”

Will nodded again.

“I’m going to make a suggestion,” Belew said then, after a minute.  “It might strike you as a little... misplaced, at first.  But see, what it is, I’m thinking you’re maybe... a little frayed here.  I’m thinking you could use... maybe a little more focus.”  He looked at Will.  “What I’m thinking,” he said, “is that you could do with a nice, friendly bowl.”

Will’s eyes widened.  “Dope, you mean?” he asked, and Belew’s eyes creased in wry amusement.

“Yeah, Will,” he said.  “Pot, hooch, reefer, give the dog a bone – come on, you can’t have forgotten that much.”  He smiled briefly again, then he grew serious.  “Will,” he said.  “You remember the time we hot–wired the car?”  Will nodded slowly.  He hadn’t thought of that night in ages.  “What’d we do first?” Belew asked.

Will hesitated.  “Blew a bowl,” he said finally, and Belew nodded.

“Why?”

“Focus,” Will said, after hesitating again.  That had been their big word back then: focus.

“We get caught?” Belew asked, and Will shook his head.  “Left it right back in the same place, didn’t we?” Belew asked.  “Full tank and everything.”

Will nodded.  “Guy was upstairs getting laid,” he said, with a small half–smile. 

“Fucking A right.  Focus, Will,” Belew said again.  “I think you could use just a little bit more of that right now.”

“This is a lot different,” Will said, and Belew nodded; but even as he said it, Will thought, No, this is not any different; it is exactly the same.

It had been their crowning adventure.  A ‘78 Camaro, the summer after their junior year in high school – the owner came to visit his girlfriend every Thursday night, and he was upstairs with her until midnight at least: they’d timed him.  They’d planned it for weeks, down to the last detail: a wire coat–hanger to pop the lock, and Belew knew how to do the hot–wire – Will had never been clear on that, how Belew knew the hot–wire – they’d even thought to bring a penlight with them, so they could see what they were doing under the dash.  Neither of them even had a license yet, just their learner’s permits, but the car had been an automatic, so that made things easier.  They’d studied that out beforehand, too.  And they’d popped the lock, and Belew had done the hot–wire, and they’d eased gently away from the curb, until finally they turned the corner of the street and were gone and out of sight, and had looked at each other in fear and wonder and awe and disbelief.

And they had gone joy–riding: along the Marina Green, through the deserted Presidio, passing lovers’ cars parked under the tall trees, and out, out, to the ocean, past the Cliff House and Seal Rocks, and then back, high, high up over the city on the Embarcadero Freeway, gone now with the earthquake, flying.  They’d wanted to go over the Golden Gate Bridge, but they were afraid of getting noticed at the toll–booth, so they’d headed the other way, found their way onto 101 and drove south, out of the city, picking up speed until they were doing sixty, sixty–five miles an hour, and they’d been awed, again, when they looked at the speedometer; past Candlestick Park, and out, out, past the airport, high, higher, higher, out of the city, and then, before they’d turned around, they’d driven through Millbrae to see the rich people’s houses.  Big old houses – they’d marveled at them, and at how much space was between them, how much land; the streets all leafy cul–de–sacs, or dead–ends that led to only one person’s drive – imagine!  The two boys from their single–mom homes in the Marina.  And they’d driven slowly by the set–back mansions, as the houses seemed to them, and stared, and then suddenly there had been a cop car behind them.  The local police: no siren or lights flashing, but definitely following them – and Will and Belew had both come right down to earth, near panic before Belew brought them up.  Focus, Belew had said softly; focus, now, focus.  And, very coolly – very, very coolly, Will remembered – Belew, driving, had made a leisurely right, and then a leisurely left and then another left, and pulled into the drive of one of the big houses, a well–lit, peopled–looking house, and he and Will had gotten out of the car, and even started up the walk to the house as if they completely and utterly belonged there; until the cops kept going and turned the next corner, and Will and Belew had dashed for the car and hauled ass out of Millbrae, screaming and slapping each other all the way to the freeway.  Will had even insisted on returning the car with a full tank of gas – ‘We’re not thieves,’ he’d said, ‘just borrowers’ – and when they’d stopped at a gas station, Will had asked the attendant to check the oil while he was at it, too, which cracked up Belew no end.  That had been their big word back then: focus.  Before a soccer match, or blowing a spliff before taking the ‘stage’ in their little rock band; as if focus was some magical state of mind, where they would be more, bigger, stronger, smarter than what they were.  It seemed funny, even impossible, to remember now.

Well, that was a long time ago, Will thought.

“I haven’t smoked since I was twenty,” he told Belew, and Belew nodded.

“Nothing to brag about, Will.”

Will looked at the ceiling.  That was a long time ago, he thought again; and, there was a dead man on his couch.  “All right,” he said, and wondered what the hell he was doing.

 

 

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Excerpted from Dead And Alive by John Richmond, Copyright © 2012 by John Richmond. All rights reserved. No

part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.