His name was Junipero Hernandez. He’d come to America because he’d had to. He had a wife and children back home whom he loved. Every morning, he got up at five. With the other Mexican men he’d shared the trailer with, he’d gotten dressed, brushed his teeth, and eaten a small breakfast of the fruit they took turns buying from the supermarket or bringing home from the fields where some of them worked.
Then he’d walked six blocks to the hardware store, where the men stood around in the parking lot, waiting for some rich gringo to hire them for a day. Junipero got eighty dollars a day, because some of the house-builder gringos knew him and knew he did good work building things. So he’d smiled and he’d worked on their houses and on their sheds and their garages, and he’d practiced his English as he talked with them to find out what they wanted done.
But today, Junipero had called his wife back home in the morning, and they’d argued, and he’d gotten to the hardware store late. Most of his compadres had already been picked up, and now that the pro builders had come and gone for the morning, the prospects weren’t good.
But Junipero was hopeful, even as the last of his compadres got hired for the day. Two were going to be helping someone move, and a third was going off to help somebody paint his house. Junipero, finally, was standing there alone.
A Volkswagen Beetle drove slowly up to him. A friend of his back in Taxco had a car like this only eight years old, but Junipero knew that here in America, all the Beetles of this style were old, old cars; Volkswagen had quit bringing them to America, and was making some other car it called a Beetle. He doubted this gringo had money to hire anybody.
But when he got a look at the suit the driver was wearing, Junipero smiled a broad and hopeful smile at him. You could be stinking rich in America, he thought, and drive an old, old car. “Are you looking for work?” the driver asked.
Junipero nodded, making his smile even wider. “Yes!” he said, trusting his English only with the simplest phrases. “I do good work. I work cheap.”
The driver smiled lazily, motioned to the passenger seat, switched to effortless Spanish and asked Junipero where he was from.
Junipero should have known better than to answer this question – the guy could be INS or something – but he sat back in the passenger seat, feeling relaxed and happy, and told him, “I come from a little silver mining town, just outside Taxco.”
He’d nodded and pulled out a silver money clip with a wad of bills that made Junipero gasp. Casually un-clipping the money and stuffing it into a pocket, he’d passed the money clip over into Junipero’s hands and asked him, if he was familiar with good silver work, what he thought of it.
The stranger had taken him to a garage in the mission district, where Junipero had sold his eyelids for a hundred dollars each, upper and lower. As he’d cut them away with his pocketknife, he’d been proud of how much money he’d be able to send home. He’d gotten a hundred fifty dollars apiece for his lips. But after that it was hard to bargain, and when he sold his pinky fingers he’d gotten only fifty dollars each for them. The stranger wanted a blow-job, now that Junipero’s lips were gone, to see how it was different. Junipero had never done that before, but even as he remembered being disgusted by the idea last week, he set to the task with a will. The stranger paid him another twenty dollars.
Then, one at a time, the stranger bought his toes.
Junipero had quite a pile of money now. But the stranger was willing to pay for more. His tongue he sold for two hundred dollars, and the remaining fingers of his left hand brought in seventy-five dollars each. He pulled his own teeth one at a time with his own pair of pliers, and sold them all for nearly a thousand dollars.
Finally, he sold the tip of his right index finger. The stranger had told him to use the rest of his finger to write something on the wall, to practice his English — just
writing it, he said, was worth a hundred dollars. ‘I killed Laura Houang,’ it read.
And it was only as Junipero read what he’d just written that he realized how totally and utterly screwed he really was. He sat down, in the spreading pool of his own blood, and began to scream. It was wordless, awful screaming, because his tongueless, lipless, toothless mouth couldn’t shape words any more, in English or Spanish either.
In horror, he watched his own right hand bring the knife up to his throat and slice, carefully, across the adam’s apple so he couldn’t scream any more, but not deep enough to hit the carotid artery or the jugular vein. And then his hand put the knife neatly away in his tool-belt, undid the buckle of the belt and the pants, got the pliers from where they lay next to the pile of his teeth, and slowly and deliberately crushed his balls. The pain made him try again to scream. His breath was shallow, gurgling wetly at his adam’s apple, and the remaining skin on his face stretched into a rictus of anguish.
“And now, Junipero Hernandez,” said the stranger, almost gently, “You will pass into shock and you will bleed to death slowly.”
That was the last thing Junipero heard him say.
“Rose, are you sure?” Mitch asked.
“Dead sure,” she replied. Her face was gray. “It’s a long way off, but it’s not just a regular nightmare-storm, it’s him. Aaah!” She yelped again, covering her other eye.
“Can you tell which way?” said Mitch, his jaw set in a hard line.
Rose just pointed north, up the peninsula toward the city, and Mitch turned the wheel and gunned it, pulling onto the on-ramp for highway 101.
Wolf looked back at her, with his eyes open wide. She had drawn her knees up to her chin. Her eyes were wide and staring, and there were tears running down her face.
Mitch had the decoupage coupe up to 85, which was all it could do. It was about ten miles an hour over the average speed on 101.
Rose tried twice more to say something, but each time she broke off, yelping again and bringing her hands to her face. Twice more she yelped and touched her eyes. “Mitch?” she said. Her voice was slurring a little. Mitch watched her anxiously, with quick glances in the rear-view mirror. “Wolf? He’s killing somebody. A little guy, un hombre poquito. He’s, he’s, in the city, he’s at this garage under an apartment building somewhere in the mission district, and he’s taking the guy apart bit by bit, oh Goddess, Wolf, there’s a whole mess of blood there. I think he’s within a block or two of la Mission de Dolores.”
“Where?” said Wolf. “What building?”
“I don’t know exactly,” replied Rose. “It’s at the crest of a hill and you can see the bay from there. It’s a pink building with white plaques on it, and the garage door’s white.” Another pause, and Rose groaned. This time she was holding her mouth. She leaned forward over the back seat. “We godda ged this guy,” she said. Her mouth wasn’t working right, and now that she was up close Mitch could see angry red welts forming around her eyes and her lips. Her eyes were red and bloodshot; she hadn’t blinked, he realized, since she’d first yelped and put a hand up to her eyes.
“Rose, blink.” Commanded Mitch.
Her head came around, and she seemed to remember something, and she shut her eyes slowly, then opened them again. “Thanks,” she said, and then she jerked and whimpered again, this time holding her left hand.
“Rose?” Mitch said. “You gonna be okay?”
“Just drive,” she sobbed. “I’m not going to be the one who hides any more. I’m not going to be the one who lets this happen.”
Wolf had been watching the whole exchange silently. Now he tapped Mitch on the shoulder and pointed at the dashboard. The ‘Temp’ light had just come on.
In the backseat, it sounded like Rose was having trouble breathing, but she never stopped, and that, Mitch supposed, was the important thing. He backed off the speed
to 75, just keeping up with the rest of traffic, and after a minute the dashboard light went off again. Crap, he thought. If he pushed it, he’d burn out the motor and they
might not get there at all.
“Rose, what’s wrong with your motor?” he asked. But she was making faint gagging sounds now, and couldn’t talk.
Wolf listened and sniffed. “No oil burning,” he said. “Probably just a thermostat or she’s got gunk in the radiator. Not a problem if you slow down a bit.”
“Just hang on, babe,” Wolf said. “We’ll put a stop to it as soon as we can.” He watched her for a moment or two, reassuring himself that she was still getting breath.
They hit traffic under a bridge where a billboard for ‘Smelly Mel’s Plumbing’ pretended to be the side of a panel truck, and spent too many agonizing minutes creeping
along at five or six miles an hour. Rose quit gagging, but started to hold her mouth again. She tried once or twice to speak, but couldn’t any more; whatever it was it was getting worse as they got closer.
Finally they got clear of the snarl at the Bay Bridge exit, following highway 80 for a half-dozen blocks before they got off the freeway at seventh street and roared north into the mission district.
By the time they got to the Mission De Dolores, Rose was quiet. Her hand was shaking and bobbing, but she was pointing with her right forefinger into a side street, up a hill toward a building with pink sides and white plaques. Mitch cranked the wheel over that way and floored it.
Rose finally got herself out of Junipero’s head as she saw her own hand, coming up with the pocketknife to cut his throat. For a moment it was Wolf’s memory of Maria, and for a moment it was her memory of her meeting Wolf, and both of these things jarred her, dislodging her from Junipero.
So, with a jolt, she found herself outside of his head. She could still feel him, less than a block away. His pain, his terror, his anguish at what he’d done for money. But weirdly, it wasn’t stuff she shared with him any more. She had no shelter, not even her box of watches, but somehow, she had crossed into the calm at the eye of the storm. Mitch had his service pistol out; Wolf had pulled a huge .45 from his duffel.
She got out of the car on unsteady feet. But she had her toes. She walked beside Mitch and Wolf as they approached the garage. Her consciousness widened. Momentarily, she was aware of all the birds not singing.
Facing the garage door, she looked through the sheet metal of it into the space beyond, where Junipero was bleeding and the man who’d bought his pieces, the man whose eyes she saw through now, was waiting for them.
“Mitch,” she said. “He’s waiting for me. He knows we’re here.”
Mitch nodded and went back to her car. Wolf had gone around to the side of the building. Rose stepped out of the driveway and looked away from them both, so that the
man inside wouldn’t see them coming.
Inside, she felt Junipero lapse into unconsciousness, and briefly thanked the Almighty for Her mercy, however tardy.
She heard Mitch revving the motor behind her, then her car powered past, and she heard two crashes through four sets of ears as her car tore through the garage door and Wolf crashed his shoulder through the side door at the same time.
The killer had a gun in his hands. He turned it toward the garage door where a bigger noise had come from. It was the wrong move. Wolf’s .45 roared and the hand that held the gun dissolved into a red mess.
Mitch was out the drivers’ door, leading with the hand that held the .38. “FREEZE!” he yelled… and for a moment, everything stopped.
Rose brought up her own hand, wondering at it. Why wasn’t the pain in her? What had changed? And then she looked into him, the man whose hand was shattered, and saw there what was wrong. “Stop!” she yelled. “Mitch, Wolf…”
“It ain’t him,” Wolf finished.
Had she projected? Was she speaking with Wolf’s mouth? No. She hadn’t and she wasn’t. He’d seen it too. No. He hadn’t seen it. He’d smelled it. This wasn’t the Hook.
“This guy is just a pawn,” she said. “This isn’t the killer, this is nobody.”
Then, slowly, with a maniacal grin on its face, the pawn turned its bloody stump first on Junipero, then on itself, and tried to squeeze a trigger that was no longer there. Only Rose and itself knew what it was trying to do.
Finally, it realized its gun was gone. It leaped up, fumbling for Junipero’s knife in his tool belt. But Wolf took three long steps from the side door and his hand came down, open palm connecting with the back of its head in a loud jarring smack, and it fell limp over Junipero’s body.
“This was a trap,” said Rose. “He was supposed to kill at least one of us.”
“Well, he didn’t,” said Mitch. “We sprung it and didn’t get caught.”
“Don’t be too sure yet,” Rose said, holding up a finger for silence so he could hear the approaching sirens.
“Oh, shit,” said Mitch. Rose knew, because Mitch knew, it would do no good to get back in the car. They always caught cars, and there were only four roads out of the city.
“Come on,” she snapped at Mitch. “Don’t make it easy, remember? Wolf, grab him, we need to get him to a hospital. Put him in the back. Mitch, there’s some zipper bags in the glove compartment. You get as much of the bits as you can. Wolf, you drive.”
“Where to?” said Wolf, striding toward the car. Junipero hung in his hands like a bloody ragdoll.
“Hospital,” Rose said. “If this guy’s gonna survive.”
Mitch listened for the sirens, then ran back into the garage and came out with the pawn. He heaved it into the back next to Junipero.
“Ick,” Rose said. “I mean, it’s unconscious, but ick.”
They got back into the car and when Wolf tromped the gas it hauled itself backward out of the wreckage of the door. They were luckier than they had any right to be; its front tires were still okay.
In the back, Mitch was tearing strips off his shirt to bandage some of Junipero’s many wounds. “How the hell,” Mitch said quietly, are we going to get past a bunch of squad cars coming for us?”
“Just keep driving slow, Wolf,” said Rose, as a police cruiser turned the corner at the foot of the hill. “I see the Decoupage Coupe everywhere, every day. I think it’s the most normal-looking car in the world. And right now, so does he.” Her green eyes were practically throwing sparks.
They passed two squad cars. Neither of the drivers noticed the Decoupage Coupe making its stately progress the other way.
Outside the city hospital, Wolf pulled into the emergency admissions area. “If somebody like this comes in,” said Mitch, “there’s going to be a police report and they’ll want to hold us for questioning.”
“Never gonna happen, Mitch.” Rose said. “Somebody who’s hurt like this, taking him into the emergency room’s the right thing to do. Anybody’d do it.”
She rolled down her window and called to a panhandler outside the door. “Hey Murphy,” she said. “Please. Help us get this guy into the emergency room. “He’s hurt bad. You gotta help him.”
“Holy Shit!” said the panhandler. “Russ, get over here! This guy needs help!”
Another panhandler, presumably Russ, detached himself from the wall and came over. Wolf and Mitch helped them get Junipero out of the car, but then stepped back. Murphy and Russ carried him in to the emergency room together, with a little plastic baggie full of fingers and toes and other scraps of flesh jiggling obscenely on his chest.
Rose recruited a couple of guys in business suits to carry in the pawn, then Wolf climbed behind the wheel and Mitch wedged into the passenger side next to Rose. They pulled out as the E.R. doors were still closing.
“Rose, don’t take offense at this,” Mitch said, “But once you get going, you’re scary.”
Rose shrugged. “We do what we have to do,” she said, “however we can.” Her eyes looked distant, empty.
Mitch pulled out a phone, made sure he knew which one it was, and checked his watch. “Damn right we do,” he said, and dialed Purdy’s desk and the police department.
After a pause, He said, “Lieutenant Purdy? This is Mitch. I haven’t been into the office in a couple of days, but I’m still on the case. Things are starting to happen. I just managed to interrupt one of the Freakshow killings in progress, and there’re two survivors. One of ’em’s pretty cut up but he can be saved. The other is still fairly healthy. Looks like he’ll make it okay.” Another pause. “Just dropped them off at the City Hospital.”
Wolf didn’t hear what Purdy said next, but Mitch’s face showed disappointment and anger. “Right,” said Mitch. “I understand.” Another pause, another glance at the watch. “Probably not. Look, I gotta run.” Then Mitch hung up.
“I’m sorry, Mitch,” said Rose.
“Can’t say I didn’t expect it,” replied Mitch. “It had to be a high-up in the department to torque the case around, keep it quiet as long as it could be kept quiet, and keep tabs on me and David. And that’s what she was doing. Emilio in IT wouldn’t have messed with the email on the orders of anybody lower. It just pisses me off that this clown got to her without me noticing.”
“She just took you off the case, didn’t she?” Wolf said. “You weren’t supposed to make any real progress.”
Mitch nodded. “Took me off the case, put me on mandatory vacation. It’s a pretty strong indicator.”
“So,” said Wolf. “What’s going to be the clincher?”
“The clincher is when a killer shows up to eliminate the witnesses, instead of a couple cops in a squad car to make a report.”
Wolf arched his eyebrows. “You mean,” he said, “We’re down to using people as bait again.” He shook his head. “No way ’round it, is there?”
“No!” Mitch shouted. “We’re not! The hospital is where they needed to be to survive, and the killer would come anyway, as soon as the Hook figured it out. They’re as well off as we can possibly make them, and what we’re doing is putting them in less danger, not more.”
Wolf shrugged. “Nobody ever has to say anything loud,” he said casually, “if they really believe it.”
Rose broke the long, awkward silence. “Wolf, Mitch is right. Calling them in gives us more control over the situation, especially since they don’t know we’ll be around. And that means those two have a better chance to survive.”
Wolf stared at her. “How the hell can I trust my judgment if you’re around, Rose? How do I know I’m not doing the wrong thing because it’s what you believe is right?”
“There’s no answer to that, Wolf,” she said. “I’m sorry. But it works both ways. I’m influenced by you, too.”
“Hell,” said Wolf, turning the car back toward the hospital. “It makes sense, I guess. I just wish I felt better about it.”
Rose grimaced. “No, Wolf. No you don’t. Not really.”
Mitch stared at the phone for a long moment. “Rose?” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything like an airtight metal box in the car, would you?”
Rose shook her head, and Mitch nodded ruefully. “We’re going to need one,” he said. Then he rolled down the passenger window and pitched the phone out of the car. It fell, a tiny plastic comet, and shattered into a dozen pieces when it hit the street. A moment later a truck tire crunched the dozen pieces into a hundred.
“Now, here’s the situation,” said Mitch, turning back from the window. “I’m on vacation, which means I’m officially off the case. If I fail to drop the police investigation, they can have me up on charges. But I’m allowed to pursue other jobs while on vacation, and I got a freshly-minted Private Investigator’s license. Now, if I also have clients who hire me to pursue this case, I legally can. They’ll fire me from the police force, but at this point I don’t give a shit.”
Wolf pursed his lips and said, “How much money are we talking about here, Mitch? ‘Cause I’m pretty broke right now….”
Rose laughed, dug into her pocket, and handed Mitch a dime.
After a moment, Wolf cracked a grin, flipped open his wallet and pulled out another.
“Like I told David a couple weeks ago,” Mitch said, pocketing the money with a flourish, “I’m going to play this by the rules.”
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.