Chapter 1

 

Chapter 1

A Girl Who Wants to Go Home

 

It was the summer of our discontent. And of a new millennium. Two thousand years since Christ had walked this earth, and from all appearances I couldn’t see much of an improvement, other than maybe indoor plumbing. The faces had changed. There was a new Rome (us) and new barbarians challenging Rome (them), but the drama was pretty much the same. Conflict and more conflict. Always conflict. And over those centuries, Christ himself had become Christianized—his Gospel re-packaged, its message and meaning made palatable so as not to be too disturbing and upset the status quo. Beginning with the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 C.E., the Church had put such a spin on Jesus’ message that one might conclude that the Son of God had come to earth for the sole purpose of supporting the wealthy and sanctioning the powerful. I sometimes wonder why he bothered.

 

“Fuck.” Cam was reading The Seattle Times as we were driving back from a delivery to one of the north Seattle food banks. A lanky kid, he was scrunched down in the seat of the van next to me, his feet up on the dashboard. “Listen to this,” he said, reading about the proposed cuts to food stamps, occasionally throwing in an editorial “fuck.” This was his favorite word; he used it a lot, much to my consternation. Perhaps to provoke my consternation. He finished the article, shaking his head. “And they call this ‘compassionate conservatism’? The poor get fucked every which way.”

Although I agreed with his political analysis, I cringed every time he opened his mouth. “We lived through Reagan. We’ll make it through this, too. The poor are very resilient,” I reassured him. We were heading south along I-5 to our social services center in Renton.

“It’s the system that’s fucked. In a nation with this wealth we still have hungry people?”

“Well, Jesus did say that the poor will always be with us.”

“As long as the Republicans are in power, they sure will.” He went back to reading the newspaper.

I smiled at his youth, at his youthful outrage at the way the world was, and his youthful idealism and passion to change it. That’s why he was serving a year with us as an Americorps volunteer, fresh out of university, while his classmates were moving on to do graduate work, or start families and careers and mortgages, setting out on their own personal quests to attain big incomes and big homes and big SUVs, while Cam had signed up to save the world. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age as a young Episcopalian priest, naively thinking that the Church had some positive role to play in the world and that I could make a difference. He was twenty-two—half my age—and about the age my son would have been had he lived. He was political and passionate about everything and refused to accept the world on its own terms until it got its justice act together. In many ways, he was the boy I’d like to think Eric would have become.

He unwound himself and sat up in the seat, folding the paper as he tossed his hair out of his eyes. He wore it longish, curling at his collar.

“How’s it going with your new girlfriend—Camille?” I asked.

“Camilla. She’s driving me crazy.”

“Why’s that?”

“She won’t let us get past kissing.”

It intrigued me that the only time he didn’t use his favorite word was when he was talking about sex.

“Well, it’s probably best to wait before jumping in too deeply. You’ve only been going together, what, a couple of weeks?”

“Maybe a couple of weeks was okay for your generation, but young people today get it on much quicker.”

My generation. I had reached that point in life where we were talking about my generation, which sounded faintly synonymous with the Cretaceous Period. He slouched back in his seat, putting his feet up on the dashboard again, and looked out over the Seattle Center as we flew along the freeway. “I can’t get her off my mind,” said the younger generation sitting next to me. “I jerk off two or three times a day just thinking of her.”

God, the candor of young people these days. I turned to him. “That was a bit more information than I needed.”

He shrugged his shoulders—“You asked”—and went back to looking out the window.

“Well, I still think you shouldn’t rush it until she’s ready.”

“Oh, I’m not, but talk about blue balls.”

I chuckled. “You’ll survive. My generation did.”

“Really, I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I think I’m in love.”

“You’re twenty-two. Trust me, you’re in lust.”

“Maybe. Hell if I know.”

His cell phone rang, and he dug it out of his jeans pocket and answered. “Oh, hi, Marci”—our receptionist back at the center—“Sure. He’s here”—then handed it to me. “It’s for you again. On my cell phone. Using my minutes.”

I took it. “Hi, Marci.”

“Hi, Adam. Detective Sullivan called, trying to reach you. He said it was urgent. He left his cell phone number.”

“Thanks. I know it. I’ll call him.”

She hung up and I handed the phone back to Cam. “Need to make a call. Dial this number, will you?” I recited it and, as he punched it in with his thumb, he asked, “When are you going to get a cell phone of your own instead of using mine all the time?”

“I have a cell phone of my own. I have two cell phones of my own. I just don’t know where they are.”

He listened as it rang. “Who’re we calling?”

“Detective Sullivan. You’ve met him.”

“The Knight of the Woeful Countenance?”

“Yeah.” It was one of those nicknames that fit. Det had a sagging face, giving him the droopy, world-weary look of a bloodhound, which seemed appropriate for a police detective. He had seen or heard it all before. But in spite of that, there was something of the idealist and romantic in him, worthy of Cervantes’ noble hero.

There was a click. “Yes, hello,” said Cam. “Is this Detective Quixote?”

I reached over and took the phone out of his hand. “Det?”

“Who the hell was that?”

“One of my staff. You can arrest him later. What’s up?” Cam was snickering as he turned back to the window.

“I need a favor, Adam.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got a situation I was hoping you could help me with. Can you spare a few minutes from feeding the poor and meet me at Harborview?”

“You mean right now?”

“If possible. It’s kind of urgent. My men brought in a girl early this morning. She’s been working First Avenue. We need to get her home.”

“And where’s home?”

“Somewhere up in British Columbia. An island I’ve never heard of. Says she left five years ago and wants to go back. We don’t have any resources for that.”

I frowned. “Neither do we, really, but let me see. Maybe I can scrape together some money so she can get home.”

“Actually, I was hoping that your agency could find someone to take her home.”

“Why can’t she go on her own?”

“She’s dying.”

“Oh.” Cam heard the change in tone and turned back to me. I looked over at him. “I see.” I told Det we’d be there in ten minutes.

“Thanks, Adam. I owe you one.”

“More like one hundred.”

I heard him chuckle. “Yeah, but who’s counting?”

We ended the call, and I handed the phone back to Cam. “We’re making an unscheduled stop.”

“Where?”

“Harborview. Special request of the Seattle Police Department.”

He tucked the phone back into his pocket. “I hope his fucking pig of a partner isn’t there.” Bull Simpson. I hoped so, too. But Cam’s use of his favorite expletive was getting on my nerves. “You know, for a bright, well educated, young man, you talk like a longshoreman.”

He looked back at me. “What have you got against longshoremen?”

He was also quick.

 

We arrived at Harborview Medical Center and found the two detectives in the emergency ward. “Hey, Det. Bull.” We shook hands and I nodded toward Cam. “I think you’ve met Boy Wonder.”

“Hey,” said Cam in greeting.

“Hey,” said Det.

Bull just nodded. He was one of those cops who gives cops a bad name. Fat and surly, he still referred to Hispanics as spics, blacks as spades, Vietnamese as gooks, and gays as queers and faggots. He probably didn’t much care for mouthy kids with long hair either.

“Thanks for coming,” said Det. “She’s in here.” He pulled back the curtain and we entered the space where the girl was lying on a bed with an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose. She had been badly beaten; ugly purple black bruises on her face and neck and around her collarbones. I had become hardened over the years. I had seen worse. Cam hadn’t. I glanced at him. His face was flushed, jaw rigid, eyes glassy as he stared at her. Det was reading from his notes. “Name’s Rachel Fremde. Age nineteen. Comes from some island up off the northern part of British Columbia. I’ve got it here somewhere,” he said, flipping through his notepad.

Nineteen but she looked more like forty, showing clear signs of meth addiction. She might have once been pretty, but her gaunt face now resembled a shrunken head. Her teeth—the ones she still had—were blackened and rotting; her hair, blondish-whitish-gray, was stringy and filthy. She appeared conscious but dazed, probably from the drugs the ER had given her.

“From what we could learn, she’s been working the streets for the past two years. One arrest for prostitution, one for dealing drugs. Both were dismissed because of her age. Put into foster care. Went back to the streets…” I was already thinking how I would squeeze the money out of Rollie.

“Apparently, she has AIDS,” he said, still reviewing his notes.

“Probably just HIV-positive,” I commented. “The virus has to incubate for several years before it progresses to full-blown AIDS.”

“Well, that’s what the docs here say. AIDS—end stages. Her immune system is shot.”

We stood by her bed, talking dispassionately like a group of interns doing their rounds or as if they had a corpse lying before them. All except Cam, who I could see was struggling to control his emotions, blinking a lot and swallowing loudly. The girl turned her head and looked up at me with sad, desperate eyes as she sucked in the oxygen. I wanted to comfort her, to hold her hand or stroke her brow, yet felt constrained by the professional setting; and, too, I knew that, after what she had been through, the touch of any strange male could be upsetting, and she had been through enough, so I just smiled at her as Det continued reciting what he had written in his notepad. He and I had known each other for over twenty years, back when he was a young cop and I was a young priest. We were the same age, yet he looked ten years older, probably reflecting all that he had seen. One’s work defines the way one views the world, even when not on the job. Wherever I go, I see poor people; Det sees bad guys—humanity at its worst. We had remained friends over the years, were godfathers to each other’s sons, supported each other through our divorces, and went to Seahawks games together. But now he was being strictly professional.

“She was working First Avenue when our guys found her in a side alley.”

“Bringing in sex workers—that’s kind of out of your line of work, isn’t it?”

“Usually. But she was roughed up by some twisted john. We think it’s the same guy who’s been preying on other girls down there.”

It was at that point Bull chose to open his mouth. “Can you imagine anyone wanting to fuck that?” he said with a look of disgust.

Cam exploded. “You fucking son-of-a-bitch asshole piece of shit!”

I quickly put a hand to his chest. “Hey, easy. Easy. Calm down.” He was shaking with rage. One could see Bull also wanted to attack. With his beefy, red face and small piggy eyes, he looked like he could have been the twisted john himself. Det was restraining his partner as well. “Hey, it’s okay. Let it go. Remember the anger management class.”

“I don’t take that crap off no one!” he bellowed, his face now crimson.

“I know, I know,” Det offered in a soothing tone, “but you can see the kid’s full of contrition for what he said.” Cam and Bull were glaring at each other. If we hadn’t been there, I had no doubt they would be engaged in mortal combat, and although Cam was less than half Bull’s weight, I would have placed my money on him. I had never seen him so angry. A nurse appeared at the curtain. “Is everything all right in here?”

“Yeah. We’re fine. Sorry for the disturbance,” said Det. Then he turned back to his partner. “Why don’t you go on down to the cafeteria and get us some coffee.” His tone changed. “Now.”

Reluctantly, Bull left, still glaring at Cam like he would love to get him alone in his interrogation room, and jabbed a stubby finger at him. “Little cocksucker.”

Cam yelled after him, “I don’t suck little cocks so you’re out of luck.”

I still had my hand on his shoulder. “Easy. Easy.”

Det motioned to me with his head. “Let’s step out here.”

Cam was shaking as he watched Simpson stomp down the hall. I turned to him. “You stay with Rachel. She could use a friend right now.” Det and I went on the other side of the curtain. Because of the drugs they had given her, I hoped Rachel was too far out of it to have heard Bull’s remark.

“How do you manage to work with him?” I asked Det.

“Ah, he grows on you. It takes time before he lets you see his sensitive, caring side.” He gave me his droll smile. “And in our work, we complement each other.”

“Right. Good Cop. Psycho cop.”

“So, can you help me here?”

“What are you going to need?”

His phone went off. “Hold on a sec.” He answered it, “Sullivan.”

As he was taking his call, I watched Cam through the curtain opening. He had gone to Rachel’s bedside and taken her hand, holding it in his, and with his other hand was now stroking her dirty, matted hair. Tenderly, tenderly, he stroked her. She opened her eyes and looked up at him, smiling with cracked lips and blackened teeth and a gray tongue, like he was some dark-haired angel who had come for her. His eyes had become glassy.

“Please,” she said in a faint, whispery voice I could barely hear, “take me home. I want to go home.”

He continued stroking her hair, smiling at her through glassy eyes, and said softly, “Don’t worry. I’ll take you home.” She closed her eyes again, resting in the tenderness of his touch, and drifted off into sleep. As he watched over her, two parallel lines of tears descended his cheeks, and I prayed, God bless this tender boy.

-> Next: Chapter 2