The Treasure Hunter
Marcus had seen blood before, but never as much as this. He knelt on the couch in the darkened living room, his chin resting on the sun-faded, floral-print fabric of the sofa back, his eyes darting this way and that as he peered out the window and took in all that was happening outside. The streetlights here on Eighty-third Place had not worked in months — shot out by the gangsters who hung out on the block at night and preferred the darkness — but the moon was high and full and bright as a pearl, and Marcus, peeking between the curtains and the burglar bars, was able to recognize the uniformed cops and detectives walking back and forth on the sidewalk and out in the street. He had seen them all before.
One of the dead boy’s feet extended from inside the barrier the police had put up to hide the body from view, the blue shoelace in the immaculate white Nike a sign of his membership in some Crip set or another, an Eight-trey Villain from here in the neighborhood, probably, or maybe a Rollin’ Seventy from up around 74th and Avalon. Marcus had just turned six, but he had already been schooled in the grisly science of street pathology, and he recognized the thick, greyish-red blood that had trickled out from beneath the barrier to form a puddle where the sidewalk was cracked. They got him in the head.
Now the cops were gathered in a little circle out in the street, just on the other side of the parked cars from where the body lay on the sidewalk. The fire engine and ambulance had left much earlier. Usually when the gangsters got shot the firemen scooped them up and took them to the hospital, and sometimes you’d even see them back out on the street all bandaged up or limping along a few days later. Then there were other times, like tonight, when the cops came and worked on the guy first, and then the firemen came and joined in, but finally there’s nothing anyone can do, and now this guy was out there on the sidewalk waiting for the coroner to take him away.
It was quiet now — all the people who had been screaming and carrying on right after the shooting had drifted away one by one or in little groups. The only sounds to be heard outside were the voices over the police radios and sometimes a cop shouting at someone to get back behind the yellow tape at the end of the block. A little way to the north, up around Slauson and Avalon, probably, a police helicopter made a big circle in the sky shining its spotlight on the street below. Maybe somebody got shot over there, too. Far beyond the helicopter were the gleaming glass towers of downtown shimmering in the warm air. He hadn’t always been able to see all the way to downtown, but the abandoned house across the street had burned down not long ago, set afire accidentally by the dope fiends who used it to smoke and shoot up and whatever else they did in there, or, if the talk in the neighborhood was true, torched deliberately by someone grown tired of them. How exciting it was that day, with the street jammed with firemen and all their trucks and hoses and ladders. The fire spread to the garage behind the house and from there to the trash piled in the alley and finally to the house on the other side of the block, the home of some family who collected their insurance money and fled the neighborhood for good. The vacant lots were a scar on the block of modest homes but the gap offered Marcus his view of the skyscrapers.
Two of the uniformed cops had come and knocked on the door earlier, but Marcus’s grandmother whispered to him to be quiet and not answer. It was terrible what happened to that boy out there, she told him, but they hadn’t seen anything so there was nothing they could say that would help. And besides, she said, you didn’t want people to see you talking to the police.
Now the sound of her snoring drifted in from her bedroom. She would never have allowed him to stay up so late, and even during the daytime she didn’t allow him near the window when there was trouble outside. But she had fallen asleep soon after putting him to bed, after they prayed for his momma and his grandpa and for that poor boy out there on the sidewalk. And for the boy’s momma, too, because she must be real, real sad tonight. Marcus asked his grandmother if gangsters went to heaven when they died. She didn’t know, she told him, only Jesus knew.
The police photographer had taken all his pictures and the detectives had done all their measurements and picked up all the shell casings and whatever else they collected, and now the guy from the coroner came in his white van with the blue stripe down the side to take the body away. Marcus recognized him, too. The older cops told two rookies to help, and the rookies put on gloves and helped lift the body onto a plastic sheet, and they wrapped the guy up and put him into a big blue body bag, which they zipped up and put on a gurney and rolled into the van. There was another body already in there, Marcus saw, and he wondered what might have happened to him. And finally the men came to clean up the blood, the ones in the white coveralls and the masks and the rubber gloves and all their bottles and brushes and buckets. When they left, the few cops who remained kicked the last of the flares into the gutters and took down all the yellow tape, leaving some of the little strands hanging from lamp posts and parked cars when they ripped or cut it rather than taking the time to untie it. With the street open, the cops got into their cars and left. Now the street was deserted. It’s time . . .
He never used the front door when he went out at night like this. It was too close to his grandmother’s room, for one thing, and the metal security door made too much noise when it opened and closed. He walked toward the kitchen and heard the muffled creak of the floor beneath the carpet, then crossed the kitchen and through the lingering aromas of dinnertime. The kitchen floor always felt cold, even on a warm night like this. When he unlocked the back door the dead bolt gave way with a heavy, metallic thud, one that seemed almost as loud as the earlier gunshots — it always seemed louder at night. He stood still to listen. The snoring continued uninterrupted.
Here I go . . .
Stepping through the doorway and from the warm, still air of the kitchen, he inhaled the wondrous perfume of the backyard garden. His grandmother had long ago surrendered the front yard to the gangsters, but the backyard was still their refuge. Giant sunflowers, silent sentinels to the incursion, cast long moonshadows across Marcus’s path as he closed the door and descended the three steps to the ground. In the moonlight the garden was muted to shades of almost gray, but the flowers dispatched their essences into the night, the scent of each carrying with it its shape and color, and as Marcus tiptoed along his head was filled with the profusion of blooms that were his grandmother’s treasures. He was careful to hug the house as he crept along, for a misstep would trigger the motion detector on the floodlights over the door, which would set the Gonzalezes’ dogs to barking in the next yard, the only sound — other than gunshots and sirens — that would rouse his grandmother once the snoring started.
He made his way down the side of the house and through the gate to the front yard, then stopped there for a moment to watch the airplanes. The street lay beneath the landing path to the airport off to the west, and the lights on the airplanes lined up in the eastern sky were a constellation of slowly dancing stars. One by one the stars got bigger until Marcus could make out the shape of each plane as it passed overhead. A huge 777 came over — he knew all the planes from a picture book his grandmother had given him — and he looked up and wondered where it had come from and how many people were on it and where it would be going next. Someday, he told himself, he would get on an airplane and fly off on an adventure somewhere far, far away, and when he flew back home he would look out the window and see his house.
There were at least a dozen strands of yellow tape the police had left, and Marcus went the length of the block to untie and collect them all, trailing them like party streamers as he floated on cat’s feet from house to house to house. A pair of headlights caught him in the street and he dashed into the shadows to hide until the passing car crunched over the remains of the flares down at the corner. He stepped back into the street and got down on his hands and knees to search under the parked cars until he reached a neighbor’s old Buick — it had a new bullet hole in one of the fenders just a few inches from the one that was there before. Tucked against the inside of a tire was a prize, and he got down on his belly to grab it: a shiny brass shell casing — sometimes the police didn’t find all of them. Nine millimeter. That’s what it sounded like.
Satisfied with the hunt, he retraced his steps to the back door, then froze at hearing the dogs snuffling at him as they padded along the opposite side of the fence.
“It’s me,” he whispered, then exhaled with relief when the tags on the dogs’ collars jingled off to some far corner of the yard. The dead bolt in the kitchen door slid into place with what again seemed like a thunderclap, but it couldn’t compete with the snoring coming from his grandmother’s bedroom.
He crept into his room and reached under the bed to pull out a shoebox. In it were items he had gathered in other nighttime explorations: pieces of crime-scene tape and a sandwich bag full of shell casings — tiny .22s through powerful .45s. There were also a few live rounds left behind by the gangsters after they ran from the police. These he kept in a separate bag which he inspected briefly, taking the bullets out and holding them up in the moonlight streaming through the window. One was a long, missile-like bullet for some kind of rifle. Wouldn’t want to get hit with that one.
After putting the night’s finds in the box and returning it to its place under the bed, Marcus lay down on the floor and played with his toy ambulances, fire engines, and police cars for a few minutes, then left them arranged in a pattern that portrayed how the real ones had earlier been parked on the street. The window that looked out on the backyard remained closed despite the heat — his grandmother didn’t trust the burglar bars bolted to the exterior stucco to keep the troubles out — but an electric fan hummed atop a dresser and sent a breeze across the room, and as Marcus lay atop his bed he raised his pajama top to let the airflow cool his chest. Taped to the wall above the bed was a LeBron James poster, a corner of which had come loose and was softly flap-flap-flapping in the breeze.
Down the hall, his grandmother snored peacefully. An airliner flew over the house. A helicopter droned and a siren wailed somewhere in the distance. The corner of the poster flapped. Soon Marcus was sleeping, dreaming of airplanes and adventures . . . and police officers and paramedics . . . and bullets and blood.
Dan Horan is a writer living in California.