He found her in a junked-out residential hotel room in the Tenderloin. He pulled her close, and her breathing slowed and he knew he had done the right thing in coming. She cried softly into his chest and he stroked her long red hair, letting his fingers trail across the Braille-like vertebrae that led to the small of her very small back. She was barefoot and dressed comfortably in a burgundy Stanford sweatshirt and hot pink sweats. Her skin was soft and pampered and carried the scent of peaches and plums. He breathed her in. “I’m here for you, Cora,” he whispered. He had come to save her.
He thought his words would calm her, but she pushed him away.
“What are you doing? How did you find me?” she asked urgently. She pressed her hand to his lips to silence him. They listened to the footfalls and voices of hotel guests in the hallway.
She looked into his eyes. “Don’t let them take me,” she whispered.
“Don’t let who—?”
“Please.” Her hand dropped down to grab his, squeezing. He had stared into her soft, calm eyes so often that it surprised him to see fear. She had always been the one in control.
He returned her gaze and spoke with a conviction that would have felt false under any other circumstance. “I promise I won’t let anything happen to you—”
The door flew off its hinges. The two men who came were strong and rough. One clamped his meaty hands around Hayden’s neck and forearm. Another set of hands, equally thick but lighter skinned, grabbed Cora’s arms and pulled with unforgiving strength. Hayden held on to her wrist while her fingernails dug into his forearm like fishing hooks.
“I’ve got you!” Hayden screamed at her. “I’ve got you,” he lied.
He winced as the arm tightened around his throat. The second man slammed his fist like a mallet onto Cora’s elbow, and she slipped from Hayden’s grip and fell to the floor.
“Cora!” Hayden yelled, his fingers grappling. He felt himself lifted off the ground by the bearlike arms. He reached for the Colt in his ankle holster, but his legs were kicked out from under him and he fell hard, his head clipping a corner of the steel bed frame as he landed.
A hand ripped the Colt out of Hayden’s holster and pointed it at his face. Hayden braced for the impact, his eyes shutting tight. A foot came down on Hayden’s chest, and his body cringed into a fetal position around the heavy steel-toed boot. It slid into the crook of Hayden’s neck, pinning him to the floor. Hayden coughed, pushing with both hands, struggling to keep an open airway.
He could see Cora’s feet beside him. She had been forced facedown on the bed with her butt and legs hanging off the edge. Her breathing was muffled under dirty bedcovers. He saw the pink sweats come down over her feet, peeled off by thick hairy arms. Heard the weight of the man as he descended upon her.
Hayden arched his back, pushing hard against his assailant’s boot. The man didn’t budge, except to grind his foot deeper into Hayden’s neck.
The bedsprings creaked in rapid, rhythmic motions above his head. He saw her delicate feet, uncallused, unblemished except for the small crescent-shaped tattoo marking her inner ankle. Small toes fighting for traction against the patchy carpet, curling against the assault, appearing and disappearing in the balls of her feet. Her toenails were painted baby blue with a playful Hello Kitty decal affixed to the nail of her right big toe.
Hayden couldn’t find the air to cry for help. He barely found the air to breathe. He felt his chin nudged sideways by the boot, forcing him to gaze into the barrel of his own gun. Beads of sweat fell from the man’s face, landing like drops of acid on Hayden’s chest. Hayden spit hard and high, and much of it landed on the man’s thick lips, which were marred by a purplish cleft at the corner of his mouth.
The lips formed a smile despite the birth defect. When he spoke, he spoke clearly: “Yesly bi ’nyeti mi bi yeyo- po-teryalee. Spy-ceebo bul-shoye.”
Hayden squinted, not understanding. It sounded Slavic, maybe Russian.
The man released the pressure of his boot from Hayden’s neck, but held the gun steady. He repeated the phrase, enunciating, making sure Hayden caught each word. “Yesly bi ’nyeti mi bi yeyo-po-teryalee.”
Hayden had no clue what it meant. He sensed sarcasm, and that was all. Beside him, Cora’s breath grew short and soft.
Hayden twisted the man’s boot with all his strength, spinning him sideways. The man tottered and Hayden rolled away and a gunshot sounded and the lights went out.
His face throbbed and he felt carpet burns on his back as he walked. He wore an army surplus jacket that was too small and cut his circulation just below the elbows. It wasn’t his.
It was daytime and there was fog around him, in his mind and in his path, smelling like the sweet discarded garbage in the gutters by his feet. The fog fit the city, because the fog and the city were the same. And then he remembered. This isn’t L.A. He was in San Francisco.
There were the noises of cars and commercial trucks and the clatter of humanity, the pounding of arrogant music from windows rising seven stories above him. Hayden wavered, wondering where he’d left his Jeep, wondering why he was walking and where he was walking to. He turned a corner and stepped into the intersection of Turk and Taylor. Looking up, he viewed a sepia tableau of ancient brick structures forming office and living space as far as the eye could see. Architecture from another era. He imagined Ben Siegel and Meyer Lansky walking side by side, poking their noses into the entrances of single-room occupancy hotels, SROs, looking for a piece of whatever action was going. In their day, it was booze and hookers. Today it was heroin and meth and crack and hookers. Always hookers. The whores in the street stared at Hayden with predatory eyes sunk deep in their outward skulls, broken-down women sniffing the air for a fix, sensing nothing to gain from Hayden Glass. He shuffled by, keeping to himself, his shoulders stooped inward in an effort to hide his wounds. He didn’t want to appear weak in front of these jackals.
Tucked behind the whores, the pimps and dealers huddled in loose affiliation, looking over their shoulders for the beat cop or unmarked “cool cars” the narcs and vice cops used when patrolling their turf. Above their heads, a city-commissioned mural spoke in contrast to the conditions of the street, with its water scene of dolphins leaping over dark African waters, with pre-Western villagers in tribal dress and wooden bowls of fruit on their heads. Bloodred graffiti cried for attention, sandwiched between the mural’s sandy beach and the piss-colored sidewalk below.
Hayden felt his shoes peel off the sticky concrete with each forward step. He had heard somewhere that the Tenderloin was the armpit of San Francisco. If this was true, then Turk and Taylor was the venereal scab on its cock.
Hayden wondered how he got the jacket, from what bum or thug on this or some other street corner. He wondered if it had been traded for his gun and badge or if someone had rolled and robbed him and left the jacket in a gesture of pity.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets to ward off the cold and felt a hard plastic cylinder bite the skin between his thumb and fore-finger. He removed his hand to find a dirty syringe.
“Shit!” He tossed it aside, and it bounced off the pavement and rolled into a storm drain.
A dark-skinned Honduran hustler leaning against a brick wall nodded in his direction. He wore a tattered leather jacket over his white T-shirt, blue jeans, and Ed Hardy sneakers.
“OC forties, eighties, ice, rock.”
He spoke soft and fast, avoiding Hayden’s gaze. Hayden quickened his pace, his eyes darting from one side of the street to the other. It was the police he was looking for. Now he remembered. Cora was in trouble.
Cora was in trouble because he had failed her. He told her that he would keep her safe. That he wouldn’t let them take her away. He didn’t know who they were, but he suspected they had come to take her back.
Hayden turned the corner onto Market Street, and the full force of San Francisco hit him like the gale that swept down from the hills. Scores of homeless pushed past, shoeless, pants soiled from ancient excretions, caked with grease and dirt and the oils that pooled in the driveways and sleepways of back-alley camps. Tweakers like zombies, white and pasty skinned with dark forest eyes and vacant stares. Hip teenage grunge addicts ruined by heroin, obsessively scratching their scalps under black knit skullcaps, scratching their chests and arms for the invisible gnat that tickled needle marks and abscessed scars. Wasted talent—what the narcs called the fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old street girls who still had a little blush in their cheeks, who perched nevertheless on the edges of self-made chasms, preparing to take the plunge. Limbless beggars crippled on wooden stilts or sitting forever in ancient rusted wheelchairs, toeing themselves from one storefront to the next, shaking empty 7-Eleven Big Gulp cups in the hope of attracting a handful of nickels and dimes. Pimps, dealers, hookers, petty thieves, hustlers, quick-change artists, pick-pockets, parolees, rapists, murderers. There wasn’t a single person on Market Street whose intentions were good.
Hayden waded through the mess of it, pushing forward toward some imagined oasis. He knew San Francisco wasn’t that big and if he kept walking, he’d end up someplace he’d rather be. He caught a glimpse of himself in the window of a Walgreens pharmacy. His eyes looked bewildered. Shit, he thought, I fit right in.
His thick dark hair was matted to his scalp from a combination of sweat and blood. The strong lines of his cheekbones and chin were reduced to a soft swollen mush. There were U-shaped black-blue-and-yellow knots on his jaw from where the steel-toed boots had made their marks. From the pain in his ribs and legs, he figured the bruising continued under his clothes. His jacket was torn and soaked with blood, and he realized it came from the bullet hole in his chest. He remembered now that he’d been shot.
He felt an onrush of pain. Waves of nausea. Sweat boiled off his forehead. The people in his path came forward in a blur. Loud voices in his ear, the screaming of madmen, their expressions suddenly challenging him, their mouths stretched to incredible widths.
Then he saw her, not ten feet away. Cora with her long red hair, the gentle sway of her hips, her round, soft shoulders, her air of confidence, her youthful gait.
Hayden pushed his legs to follow her on the street. He kept pace, feeling the strain in his calves and quadriceps as he turned onto Powell Street to encounter the long, steep incline leading up to Knob Hill. The cable car turnaround sat to his left, and thirty tourists stood waiting for a five-dollar ride. He veered clumsily into the group and felt himself pushed back by shoulders and gloved hands. The hill slowed his pace, but it slowed Cora’s as well. He stood five steps behind her as they approached Union Square. He reached out as they crossed Geary, but when she turned, it wasn’t her. Not even close.
Hayden looked left and right. The thieves and hustlers had been replaced by men in suits and ties. The soup kitchens and SROs had become Macy’s and Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. He trudged up the hill, passing the opulent Westin St. Francis and its bellhops in their flamboyant tunics. They stared, challenging him to cross an imaginary line. Hayden veered away, walking the sidewalk edge like a tightrope.
At the sound of gunshots, he dropped and threw himself against a parked car. It stopped as quickly as it had begun, and when the smoke lifted, Hayden saw a giant red-and-white paper dragon winding its way through the crowd. Hayden realized that the gunshots were only firecrackers. Chinese New Year. A banner held in the hands of children read YEAR OF THE TIGER. Two dozen Chinese dancers maneuvered the ceremonial dragon using sticks attached to its belly. Chasing the evil spirits away.
Hayden exhaled, laughing at his embarrassing display of caution. He stood and stepped absently into the street and collided with an eight-ton cable car and was sent flying.