“Slow down, slow down. How about this guy?”
There was a man moving along the sidewalk, close by a row of darkened shop windows. Hack brought the car to a halt, and they watched him. He paused at each window and looked inside. As he looked, he swayed.
“That’s our man.”
Hack was their leader. He owned the car and the camera. He got out first and the others followed. Simeon went out through the roof. He was the psycho sidekick. He had the tics and twitches of a thousand psycho sidekicks from a thousand movies. John-John was sure that Simeon’s mannerisms were carefully cultivated. He had real energy though; there was no denying that.
John-John was still on probation. This night was very important to him.
They approached the homeless man from three different angles. He was clearly homeless. Overdressed, in a quilted coat. Red faced. Pants too long. Cord belt. Obviously nowhere to go. He saw them advancing on him, and tried to shuffle past, pressing even closer to the windows. Hack stood in his way.
“Hey, guy, how’s it going?” he asked.
“It’s going,” replied the man, and then from force of habit, irresistible even now when he clearly felt threatened, the man asked, “Do any of you guys have any change you can spare?”
“Change?” Simeon performed a spin move, a little turn on his heel, and giggled.
“Sure, sure, we have change. But how’d you like to earn some real money?”
The man looked at him uncertainly, and backed up a step. His face showed heavy scar tissue around the eyes and cheekbones. His nose was flat. Perhaps he had once been an unsuccessful prize fighter.
“Nah, nah, nothing like that,” said Hack.
“Relax, dude,” said Simeon.
“See, I’m a filmmaker,” said Hack. He held up his camera. “I make documentaries. You know, like reality television. I shoot extreme situations. Street situations. I pay people real money, not change.”
“Yeah? How much?”
“Ten, twenty, a hundred. It depends on what they do.”
“A hundred dollars? You don’t got a hundred dollars.”
“Look at my car. Look at it. You’re gonna tell me I don’t have a hundred dollars?”
“Man, he rolls his own with hundred dollar bills,” said Simeon.
“So, are you game?”
“Sure,” said the man.
“Sure he’s game,” said Simeon. “Buy some of that good stuff, keep you warm at night.”
“Let’s start small. I have to check out your talent… your natural aptitude. See that garbage pail? I’ll give you five dollars if you stand on your head in it.”
“You said ten.”
“For that? That’s for nothing! OK, OK, you drive a hard bargain. But you better get your head down into it. Now, first, look into the camera. Franklin Avenue. One a.m. What’s your name?”
“They call me Crash.”
“Crash. That’s your street name. What’s your real name?”
“That’s my name.”
“OK, you don’t have a real name. What are you going to do for us, Crash?”
“I’m gonna stand on my head in that garbage can.”
“Do your stuff.”
The man started over, then paused and looked back.
“You’re not going to stiff me, are you?”
“No, no. I said ten, I’ll pay you ten. Fair is fair.”
He went over with a will, and tipped himself into the rancid-smelling container.
“That’s right, get down into it, get down into it.” Simeon squatted beside him shouting encouragement. The man packed more and more of his body into the cylinder until only his legs waved in the air.
“That’s good, that’s good.” Hack sounded bored. “You can come out now.”
The man struggled for a while, then finally overbalanced the can and crawled out backwards. There was damp matter in his clothing and in the greasy hair that straggled out from under his knit cap. Garbage trailed out of the overturned pail into the street.
“You better pick that up, Crash,” said Simeon.
“I’m not picking that up.”
“All right, my man Crash has his pride,” said Hack. “Here’s your ten. I said ten, I meant ten. Fair is fair. That was OK, but… unspectacular, you know? My audience craves excitement, the unusual. How’d you like to make some real money?”
“Sure, man. I’m not afraid of nothin’.” The man seemed exhilarated.
“Let’s see what we can come up with.”
Hack walked past the row of shops to the corner. John-John walked alongside, trying to think of something clever to say. Simeon was chattering away to the homeless man.
It was plain that Hack had taken a dislike to his new star.
“I can’t believe I just gave this dirtbag ten bucks to do something he does every day anyway.”
They rounded the corner. They were in a wide open area. Opposite them, across an expanse of asphalt, a row of oblique parking spaces angled against the sidewalk, beyond which was a low stone wall topped by an iron railing. The whole area had been built on a high bluff that overlooked a riverfront. During the day, it was hard to find an empty space here, and there were always BMWs and Jaguars to be seen. John-John had never eaten in the bistro at the corner, and he could not afford the clothes that were sold in these shops, but he often used to ride his bicycle here when he was younger, before he met Hack and Simeon and joined their crowd. There was a narrow lane that led down to a cobblestone square immediately below the stone wall. It split off from the main street, and dipped sharply, first leading away from the square, then executing a hairpin turn and continuing its steep descent, until it emerged from the confining buildings into the open, where a speeding bicycle would shudder and rattle on the cobblestones, threatening to throw the rider.
Hack, however, had made a ninety degree turn in the other direction and was keeping alongside the shops and office fronts. He stopped in front of the imposing post office, with its high clock tower and large white doors.
“Here’s where you earn your money. You see those steps?”
There was a single short flight of stone steps leading up to the door, supplemented by a recently added wheelchair ramp to the left.
“You see that railing?”
A railing ran down the middle of the steps; during the day it divided the customary traffic into two streams.
“Twenty bucks. Twenty. Ride the railing… You don’t know what I’m talking about. John-John! Show him how it’s done.”
It had rained earlier in the night; the street was still damp, and the railing was slick. John-John, glad that he could at last contribute, ran quickly to the top of the steps. He was an avid skateboarder with a superb sense of balance, and the proposed exercise was easy for him. It would not be so easy for the homeless man. He lightly stepped onto the railing, and balanced on the initial flat section on the landing. Then he stepped to the side, and easily slid down the incline, balanced just forward of his heels. At the bottom landing, the railing flattened out again. He used this as a jumping-off point, sailed high in the air, and landed safely far from the bottom of the steps.
“Piece of cake,” he said.
“Think you can do it, Crash?”
The homeless man started for the top of the steps without hesitation. Hack made him wait while he adjusted the camera and moved around to take advantage of the lighting and found the best angle for the scene. He took his videos quite seriously, and expected one day to make filmmaking his profession. John-John was conscious of a slight feeling of surprise. Anyone trying this trick for the first time should show some trepidation, but the homeless man seemed untroubled. Maybe he’s too drunk to be afraid, thought John-John. Or maybe he’s a retired acrobat.
In the event, the homeless man showed no evidence of an acrobatic background. When he tried to stand on the railing at the top of the stairs, he shook crazily with his knees deeply bent. He started himself down the incline in what seemed to be a desperate attempt to regain his balance through speed. He was almost at the bottom, going fast, when he fell forward off the rail. He came down on one leg, his foot catching the last step and twisting in a sickening manner, and his body levering over and crashing face first into the pavement with a loud smack.
Simeon was leaping about with great frog hops, squatting all the way down on his haunches, then jumping as far as he could in random directions.
“Oh, snap!” he was saying. “Oh, snap!” He had developed a system of verbal expression, borrowing from every era and age group, that was unique to him.
“Crash! Outstanding! But that must have hurt.”
That was putting it mildly, thought John-John, who knew a great deal about stunt-related injuries. The man must surely have broken his ankle. John-John was frankly shocked to see the man arise and walk over to Hack with his hand held out.
“Twenty,” was all he said. He had a slight redness on his left cheek which seemed new, but otherwise showed no ill effects.
“One Andrew Jackson coming up,” said Hack. “I said twenty, I meant twenty.”
John-John felt an unexpected chill, an indefinable, unexplainable fear, the first warning of the winter that was to come.
“I can’t believe this guy is still walking,” he muttered.
“These guys are so stoned half the time they don’t feel anything. He’ll feel it tomorrow, all right. Hey, Hack! This guy is gold. I wish we had that other guy here, from last week. Fightin’ Phil. They’d make a good match.”
“Yeah, some day, maybe. That’s some pretty good stuff, Crash. You want to call it a night, or are you still game?”
“You still got money?”
“Have I got money? I always have money. Fifty bucks.” Hack pointed without looking to the brick front of the post office. “Fifty bucks, if you run face first into that wall. But it has to be face first. And you have to really run. Are you still game? Whoa, whoa, wait a second.” For the man had already taken a stance facing the wall, and was drawing himself up for his charge.
As Hack chose a vantage point, John-John murmured to him, “Come on, man, this guy could fracture his skull.”
“I’m just giving him a chance to earn some honest money, and I’m giving him his fifteen minutes. Back off, you’re in my way.”
Hack, finally, was ready.
“Remember, head first, and fast. Anything else hits first, you get nothing. And take that hat off, no padding.”
“There he goes.”
Crash started for the wall, leaning forward at the waist, picking up speed. John-John kept hoping he’d pull up. At the last instant, John-John turned away. He heard a sickening sound, the like of which he had never heard before: an unprotected human skull striking brick hard, a serious sound, almost hollow.
Then he heard Crash’s body falling to the sidewalk. John-John was afraid to turn around. Even Simeon was shocked into silence. John-John heard the faint whine of the camera as Hack moved in for a better view. Then he heard something else: the sound of a man climbing to his feet. He turned.
He saw Crash walking towards Hack with his hand held out.
“My fifty,” he said. There was victory in his eyes. One great dark cord of gore formed above his left eye, stretched, broke, and splashed to the pavement. That was all.
Hack counted the money into his hand.
Simeon was beside himself.
“Crash, you are indestructible. You are the King of the Streets. And you, John-John, are a girl. You’re such a freaking little girl.”
John-John’s heart sank. This night was turning into a disaster.
“Yeah, Crash, you sure are indestructible. I’ll tell you what. If you jump over that wall and do a swan dive into the courtyard, I’ll give you my car.”
There was at least a fifty-foot drop to the cobblestones below. Simeon laughed. The homeless man turned once, in a long slow triumphant look that encompassed them all. John-John’s eyes swelled with horror. The man started for the wall. His boots stamped across the wide street.
They stood and watched.
“He’s gonna do it!” said Simeon.
“No he’s not,” said John-John.
“He’s gonna do it!”
“Look at him! He’s gonna do it!”
“No!” Hack screamed, suddenly running and trying desperately to keep his camera steady as he ran.
The homeless man crossed the sidewalk, put one foot on the little stone wall, the other foot on the metal rail, and launched himself into space. He spread his arms and seemed to hang in the air. For a moment, John-John almost expected the man to rise and flap away into the night sky. Then he fell.
They all shouted, but there were no words, only voices. They had not reached the wall when they heard the man hit. If the first sound had been shocking, this sound was incredible. It was impossible to believe that such a sound could be produced by a human body. But they knew it could be produced by nothing else.
John-John reached the wall first, but he did not look over.
Hack was enraged. He craned over the wall with his camera, trying to find the range.
“I missed it. I can’t believe it, I missed it.”
“Hack,” said Simeon quietly. “That guy’s dead.”
“Did I push him? I didn’t push him. He jumped. I can’t believe I missed it. Did you see him? I’ve never seen anything like it. He flew. What a shot, once in a lifetime, and I missed it.”
John-John looked over the wall. The homeless man was spread-eagled on the cobblestones, some distance from the base of the wall, and an oily stain spread from his head.
“Let’s go. I’m going down there.” Hack started back for his car. The others followed.
Simeon spoke again.
“Hack, we’ve got to get out of here. That guy’s dead.”
“He killed himself. I didn’t kill him. But I’ll be damned if I don’t get my shot.”
When they reached Hack’s car, John-John and Simeon got in the back on opposite sides. Hack made a sharp U-turn and his right front tire climbed the curb, then bounced back down into the road. He would never have done such a thing if he had not been rattled too, John-John thought. The car roared down the street, turned left past the scene of Crash’s last flight, and headed for the narrow lane that led down to the square and the body. The familiar sensation of rapid motion rejuvenated Simeon. He rose from his seat through the skylight, and took his place leaning on the roof.
Hack slowed the car to a crawl as he negotiated the hairpin turn, then stepped on the accelerator and sent Simeon and John-John reeling backward. They emerged from the alley going fast, but still should have had enough room to make an oblique left and screech to a halt alongside the homeless man’s body, if only it had been lying where they had last seen it. But the homeless man was much closer than they expected, for he had arisen, and he was walking towards them. One open hand was extended, and in his eyes shone a terrible new light.
The three boys screamed when they saw him. Hack had no time to stop, no time to consider. He did what was natural to him. He floored the accelerator and sought to expunge his strange tormentor. The front fender struck the man, and he flew off at an angle into the air behind them. They were going too fast now, and their follow-through carried them out of the square, into a cylindrical cement piling designed to limit automobile traffic. It worked. They struck hard, and loud, and the car bucked once and stopped, hissing.
John-John was holding his throat. He felt as if he had been struck very hard by a very soft object right on the windpipe. He was terrified that his throat would swell up and he would suffocate. He was convinced that if he removed his hand from his throat he would die. He managed to get the door open with his left hand, and he fell out onto the cobblestones. He could hear Hack making wet flipping noises, as if his mouth was filling up with blood and he was trying to get rid of it using his lips and tongue. From where he lay, cheek pressed against the cold stone, John-John could see Simeon. He had been thrown far clear of the car. He was still twitching, but no longer like a movie sidekick.
John-John wormed a bit farther from the car, then gave up and sank back to the stone. He listened, and he heard the footsteps that he knew he would hear. He saw boots crossing the square between him and the car. He painfully raised his eyes in time to see the homeless man jerk the driver-side door open and slide Hack over on the front seat. Then the man sat down behind the wheel, and closed the door. He restarted the car without difficulty. It backed up suddenly, coming so close to John-John that the rubber of the back left wheel actually touched his leg where he lay helpless. Then the gear shifted, and the car started forward as the homeless man drove away into the night with his prize.