one had even thought to look
de Mayo came on a Friday, but for most of the residents of the Broadway
Hotel Projects, the morning started as quietly and uneventfully
as Mondays usually did. By 9 a.m., the residents were all waiting
for the other shoe to drop.
In the milky green dawn light of the lobby, Sean stirred on the
couch, wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Far from the coffee table, a morbidly obese woman painted up like
a corpse was sitting in a big armchair perpendicular to the front
door, clutching a wheeled walker quite protectively and commenting
about everything that came into her head. A skinny old transsexual
with a long, graying topknot and a string of pearls around his neck
was haranguing people by the elevator in a loud, gravelly voice.
Sean couldn't remember the guy's name, but he lived on the third
floor and was always trying to sell something.
Sean's Uncle Mark had told him not to talk to the people in the
Broadway Hotel (but it wasn't a hotel, Sean often thought, just
lots of tiny little apartments). Uncle Mark said they were all junkies
and drunks and tweekers, mythic monsters in Sean's odyssey after
his dad went away.
But Rebecca Sawyer didn't look like any of those things. She was
a 19-year-old street kid with long, wavy red hair and the saddest
eyes Sean had ever seen. Sean was barely old enough to think of
the fairer sex as anything but a different species, but he had a
crush the size of a city block on Rebecca.
He just hoped she never found out. She was a little weird, but
she was a good friend. They were sitting there on a morning with
nothing to do. Uncle Mark had said that there was a Clint Eastwood
movie on TV later, and to go downstairs and read or play or help
Gil was a good friend, too. "If you ever need me just holler,"
he said, jockeying his mop and whistling those old songs through
the partial plate that he pushed out under his mustache in a mutant
grin when he thought no one was looking.
Thinking of Gil calmed Sean down a bit. But Rebecca brought something
up that made Sean very, very nervous.
The coffee urn at the front desk was hissing. Miss Nancy had just
put on a fresh pot. Sean liked the taste of coffee, but it made
him sleepy. Uncle Mark said that was normal for an 11-year-old.
Miss Nancy was nice most of the time, except when she was sick.
When she was sick, she got crabby and yelled at him for running
in the lobby or eating in front of the TV. Sean thought Miss Nancy
was pretty in a different way, with her long braid and her twinkling
eyes, though the pink blotches on her dark skin kept coming back
more and more.
Gil said it was the lupus that made Miss Nancy crabby. Sean didn't
know what lupus was, but it sounded like a werewolf in a Marvel
comic. Any disease with a name like that was bound to make anyone
Hans, the cool, old German gentleman from the fourth floor, was
across the lobby playing solitaire. A few other people were drifting
in and out. Rebecca blocked Sean's field of vision though, leaning
forward with her little oval face glowing and her eyes open wide.
"I always wanted to see where it went," Rebecca was saying,
"but I'm scared of heights. It's up on four when you take the
first right and"
"I know where it is," Sean replied. He had seen the trap
door when he went exploring his first night at Uncle Mark's. The
trap door was high in the ceiling of the end of the fourth-floor
hall, right by the back stairs. It was painted blue. There was a
chain on its latch.
"I'm too short," he said softly. Rebecca shrugged.
"Gil keeps a ladder under the back stairs."
Sean stroked his chin, looking around.
"See, I was playin' the Sims on my computer." Rebecca
seemed to change subjects once a minute. "I drew the whole
building out on graph paper, went around the whole block and everything,
to KFC and the bar, and ..."
Sean frowned at her. Rebecca leaned forward, looking like a little
girl telling spook stories at a slumber party.
"There's that one big space up top. About the size of, like,
five or six apartments across ... with just nothing there. And the
trap door would be the only way to get to it. I graphed the whole
"You must get really bored." Sean was curious now.
Rebecca put up a good front, and seemed nice enough. Sean had no
way of knowing Rebecca's psych profile, her medication schedule
or her recreational prescriptions. Miss Nancy could have filled
him in, but that information was not to leave the Incident Log.
he knew was that he had a crush on Rebecca ... and that she had
offered him something a lot more exciting than a Clint Eastwood
movie (well, maybe not "The Unforgiven").
"What do you think is up there?" Sean tried to sound
"I don't know." Rebecca's pale blue eyes gleamed. "This
hotel has been around for a long time. The building goes back a
long way. It's wrapped around a lot of older buildings that were
there before." Her eyes grew a faraway look. "The basement
and the sub-cellar are part of the old tunnels from the Masons and
the Underground Railroad and stuff. I'll explore them with you sometime
'cause they're not high up."
She looked around as if someone might be listening. At the desk,
Miss Nancy's eyes were on her newspaper. Rebecca sighed with relief.
"If you find anything cool, bring it down and show me,"
she said, squeezing his small, pale hand. Hers was not much larger
than Sean's. "We might make a coupla bucks."
Three hours later, Sean's Uncle Mark had to be physically restrained
from breaking down Rebecca's door. Mark had been studying for his
security certification and refused to answer his door until Miss
Nancy blew an exercise whistle just outside. Not about to give much
credence to Rebecca Sawyer's wild math, Nancy searched every floor
and then called the law.
the Broadway, most of the stampeders seemed to be sleeping off an
early Cinco de Mayo that Friday morning. In the basement trash compactor,
the fallout told its own tale. Garlands of flowers, empty beer cans
and broken bottle glass were piled high in the machine, back in
that little gray room. A new hatch of gnats had burst forth from
the compactor during the night in fuming knots and clouds, thick
enough to inhale right out of the air.
The weather had gone muggy. Stripped down to jeans, a wifebeater
and steel-toed Herman Survivors, whistling the backbeat of Eminem
and Dr. Dre's "Guilty Conscience" through his mustache
and partial plate, Gil Robenault bulled open the double door of
the trashroom with one scrapwire arm. Both his arms were clad up
to the elbows in thick black lineman's gloves.
Beneath those gloves were nitrite exam gloves, too. It was just
the way he went about his work. You couldn't be too careful with
the trash at the Broadway. Push on the wrong bag with your hands
and you'd prick your finger on a spindle three letters long: HIV.
Worse than rabies, that was ... and you better damn well find the
10-gauge dirty doggy that bit you to take to the lab.
Gil took his job very seriously. It was one of three ... and he
needed the money. There was still wreckage to clear away and roads
Gil went out of his way when he worked. Pedro, the other janitor,
was a good guy but if you didn't stand on his ass he tended to milk
things. Gil had been to custodial school, though, and that didn't
go down on his watch.
Gil liked the ornate old woodwork of the Broadway, the easy layouts
... and the fact that you could keep it done up well in case you
were ever having a bad day and needed to get the hell out right
He lived on the second floor with his lady Shannon, whom he'd
met at a local Narcotics Anonymous fellowship about eight years
before. Shannon knew all about keeping things up for the bad days.
On the bad days the Broadway looked like a labyrinth. It was something
about the layout and the number of bathrooms on each floor, all
running together into a nightmare of one step forward and 12 steps
back. On the bad days, it seemed like there were 7,000 bathrooms
on 7,000 floors.
The compactor, which had been broken for the better part of the
year, always seemed to be overflowing with a broth of beer and puke
and pressurized rotten food. Every bathroom on every floor was out
of toilet paper on the bad days. Every brain case in the place picked
that day to use Gil as their surrogate shrink.
Gil honked a push broom off its hook on the wall to the right
of the door and began clearing away the wreckage. The beginning
and the end of each day were the only real hard parts. That was
Other than the compactor, the rest was gravy. He could do the vacuuming
and the bathrooms in his sleep. Shannon was the first one to tell
him when not to bust his ass.
Shannon needed him a lot these days. Even before a month ago when
her OB-GYN had smeared her belly with silicon gel and he had heard
his first child's heartbeat on a fetal monitor ... Even before that,
Gil had gone far out of his way for her. And he wasn't going to
be a janitor much longer.
Gil grabbed the handles on both sides of the compactor's bottom
compartment and jerked his weight backward, grimacing as the wheels
came out of the track and trash spilled everywhere. He wasted little
time. One hand pulled the tall green garbage can forward from the
wall. He took the bag in either gloved hand and flipped it over
into the can.
He went one more round with the push broom, then peeled a big fresh
trash bag off the roll. REEEEEEEEEEN. Gil pulled the emergency
switch and reached below to tickle the compactor's hot-wired fail-safe,
watching as the steel tongue went up like a drawbridge and a fresh
cascade of swill came a-tumblin' down with a rattle and hiss and
thump and ...
Someone had been putting clothes in there again, blocked the damn
thing up. Gil grabbed the broomstick without looking.
God, that was a god-awful stink. Like a dead bird or a ...
Gil stood and looked up into the chute from the open-faced side
of the compactor. They hadn't been working up on the roof lately
... but there was a trap way toward the top that was open, below
the fourth trap up into the chute. He could see dull yellow light
and wondered what was going on next door or wherever. That didn't
He cranked the broomstick forward.
Bright red blood pattered down on the trash again. Gil had noticed
it the first time, but attached no significance to it at all.
Gil sat down hard on the floor, not caring if his ass got dirty.
For the first time in his many years of training in the custodial
arts, he had to struggle with his gag reflex.
Had it not been for the stink he never would have seen. The stink
... and the compactor being broken.
There was something else, too. Something that coalesced the black
thunderhead feeling of some heavy shit comin' down over his workplace
and quite fast. Something that woke a fairly recent rage and made
Gil's leathery hands clench into white-knuckled fists. His small,
dark eyes twinkled with speculation.
Gil was piecing little bits of things together. An asthma inhaler
lay in the tiny rainstorm of blood.
Gil saw himself reach forward with one gloved hand and zip open
the case. ALVARO ALCALA had been written on the inside of the case
in big kindergarten letters done by a black Sharpie. ROOM 408.
For a short time, Gil just stood there looking down ... and wanting
to cook one up and draw it off into a cheap Rite-Aid insulin rig,
and hit the vein in his neck that was never shot. Wanting a ground
glass line of that old creepy crystal to clear his head out, and
regain the name of action. Wanting a drink to make his hands stop
He thought of Shannon, and how they'd promised early on to be each
other's rock of sanity. Imagining her eyes in that room pushed him
out of the jones that could be sung to sleep but never fully cured.
Gil's graying crewcut was trying to stand on end. By God, none
of this would touch her. He would do what was necessary. His hands
were still shaking ... but shaking into life.
It all had the smell of something that had just happened.
As he had been told so often to do, Gil hit his knees and clasped
his hands together. For a time, there was nothing at all. He seemed
only to be listening.
Gil saw himself rise, and set the case back down gently. He saw
himself lock the double door of the compactor room and bull through
the outer door. He was enveloped in an icy skin that seemed like
someone else. It was a feeling Gil associated with many years ago,
though he did not quite have the mechanism to access it all the
way. It made him think of baseball.
Miss Nancy glanced up at him from the front desk, tenting open
the Thomas Harris novel in her hand. Gil saw old Betty beaming by
the window, and heard that crazy bitch with the blue pencilled-on
eyebrows talking to herself out front.
"Houston," he called out to Nancy, his face dead white,
"we have a problem."
Gil listened to the Sean story while he was there. Then he went
outside and smoked five cigarettes down to the filters, not talking
to anyone. A lot of the long-time tenants were confused. Gil was
usually a barrel of laughs.
Shannon was over at her mom's on the north side. In the back of
his mind, Gil was praying it would all be over soon.
knew very well that the Philly PD came to the Broadway when they
got around to it and not before. Unless there was a bomb threat
or something, the five-Os would have been happy if everyone in the
place killed each other off. That really burned his ass when Gil's
kid was involved. He knew what he was in for as a witness.
But through the choking tunnel vision, through the rage and terror
... Gil began to see that there might have been a bit more he could
He went back into the trash room. Nancy had said that the cops
didn't want anyone to touch anything. But fuck them for taking their
time. All he was doing was looking, anyway.
He stepped softly over to the open side of the compactor and looked
up into the chute. From a trap door above the fourth floor, someone
was looking down at him.
Gil caught a quick glimpse of hanging, greasy locks ... and a gleam
of metal that he almost remembered. He remembered the guy's laugh
when it came, though, like a nail being pulled out of a board: "EhhhHAAuuuHAAuuHAAuu."
THUNK. The extra trap door in the chute slammed shut. From up there
Gil could hear booted, dragging footsteps. He called softly into
the chute: "Okay, cochon. You wan' play cat an' mouse?"
the lobby, Gil swallowed hard as he flipped through the Incident
Log and waited for the cops. After Alvaro had been kicked out, a
photo had been taped to the following page. It was a smeary Polaroid
of a hunched, blurry thing, covered with scars and fur and apparently
in the act of eating a tallboy of King Cobra.
Gil was thinking of the way the roof bulged out over the back of
KFC, where all the old fire escapes lead down to the street. Between
the buildings, the whole roof seemed to spiral down and wrap in.
There was a rooftop apartment up there for the maintenance man,
from back in the days when the Broadway Hotel had really been a
hotel, full of miners and lumberjacks and booming prostitution.
It had been walled off for years.
But someone at the Broadway would have found it eventually. Especially
His first day on the job, Gil had gone round to refill the toilet
paper in bathroom 4-B. Hans had put a bug in his ear about that
when he got on duty: 4-B was a stinking nightmare of snot and shit
Gil had gone back downstairs instantly, grabbed the hose he used
for the front walks and hooked it up to the sink, blasting all the
filth down the shower drain and going for the bottle of bleach on
his cart for round two.
Gil remembered 4-B
was next to room 408. And when he began dumping bleach across the
It stood there, smelling like pickled goat testes, clearly cracked
out of its skull on something. It had a ponytail badly tied into
a bun. It was wearing a beer-stained wifebeater T-shirt. There was
a scurf of beard on its face, not half as noticeable as the double-ought
brass hoop through the septum of its nose.
Gil had stood with the hose in his hand, waiting for It to remember
where It was.
"EhhHAAAuu," It finished finally in a slurry bellow.
"SHOVEL that shit, there, buddy."
"I'd like to see you do this for a living." Gil had
said evenly, placing Its accent as Mexican. "What you do for
a living, puneta? Shoot dope?"
RAAACH. RAAACH. Gil heard Alvaro's raspy intake of breath, like
a vacuum cleaner with a bad fan belt. Alvaro dragged the built-up
heel of his right combat boot toward him.
"Escucha me, cabron," It growled at him, poking his
chest with one stubby finger. "I own this dump. You fuck with
me, you go down."
The finger crackled and dislocated when Gil shoved it away.
"We're watchin' you," Gil whispered. "I hope
I'm the one gets to roust you out. Puneta."
Alvaro looked into his eyes for a moment, decided something
and slammed the door of 408 shut behind himself.
On the TV in the lobby, "High Plains Drifter" was
being run on TNT for the second time that day. Gil heard Clint Eastwood's
cold, laconic voice:
"I gotta do somethin' about it, but I dunno how ..."
Gil thought about all the deaths in that hotel that got mostly
ignored. Even Children and Youth Services threw up their hands when
kids turned up beaten or missing around the Broadway. The turnover
at the Broadway was so high that the caseworkers could only attempt
to track down the school-aged ones that turned up lost.
Gil's fists clenched together and his eyes teared up when he thought
of Shannon. A person was a person. Every kid deserved the same shot
... and the same protection.
"Sometimes dey ... sometimes dey burn out, torch out."
Gil did not realize he was using his outside voice. "Mebbe
dat's ... dat's why dey ..."
He ran a hand through his short hair, which was trying to stand
"Mebbe dat's why dey let themselves get caught."
LIST FOR SPECIAL DETAIL 5/06
1 box Ziploc bags; tweezers; Q-tips; Polaroid from front desk
2 pairs nitrite gloves
oven cleaner/muriatic acid (spray bottles)
100 yards hi-tensile extension cord
Note: Pedro storing machete in basement closet; check.
Looking irritable and tired in his funny little hat, Pedro leaned
against the wall by 408, shading his eyes with one callused hand.
He peered up into the trap door and held onto the extension cord
as it snaked up into the hot yellow darkness.
"Tie it to de bat'room stall." Gil's voice came back
with quite an echo. "Wait where you at till de cops show up.
If she go slack ..." There was a pause. "You tell de boys
to come packin'."
Pedro thought of vacuuming the floors with that cord splayed out
behind him, around the endless twists and turns of every floor.
He never thought the cord would be used for this purpose.
pushed aside a stack of moldering boxes and heard the source of
the sound. It was not an animal.
He shoved the machete into one of the boxes point first, and bent
before the old card table. On the table, Sean had not bled out and
the chains were easily removed. The damage to the boy, however,
might take longer.
Gil was whipping off his belt and his wifebeater, picking the limp
little cold-sweating bundle up into his arms. He was talking nonsense,
talking a gazillion miles a minute to distract those dark eyes that
were still open but blurry with shock. Sean mumbled fevered incoherences.
Gil checked the knot in the cord at his waist. He was still talking,
trying to carry the message, to pass on the power, to use the sound
of his own voice to distract him from the gutty, mummified nightmare
artifacts all around. Alvaro had probably been up here since he
got out of jail after his eviction. No one had even thought to look.
Gil tugged three times on the cord, but there was no answer. "PEDRO!
" he screamed. "I FOUND 'IM! GET THE LADDER, WE COMIN'!"
Far back in the shadows, up above and behind the street, in the
rancid yellow attic light and the stink of shit and piss and blood,
the breathing came nearer.
"Un moment, ami," Gil whispered pulling the tourniquet
tighter and blindfolding Sean with his shirt. "Ca n'est
pa pour tus yeux."
The breathing sounded closer now, on Gil's right. A built-up boot
heel dragged on the dusty floor. Gil thought a moment ...
... And it was Quad-A, top of the sixth inning, the Lafayette
Blue Devils leading the Cypress Ridge Flash by one run and he'd
finally been rotated off the bench and up to bat, to stand and watch
for the signal ... Gil could smell fresh-mown grass, baseline lime
and the sweet, acrid winds of summer night in the bayou.
eyes were full of baseball-diamond floodlights in that cramped,
dark, stinking maze of boxes. He was barely breathing, and his heart
was beating fast. The boy's face turned toward him. The wifebeater
was turning red around Sean's eyes.
Wait for it ... Wait for it ...
A box fell from the top of the stack. A siren booped outside as
a rumbling engine pulled up out front with the slam of doors and
the crackle of CBs.
Gil's eyes flicked one centimeter to the right.
Gil swung the machete and knocked Alvaro's head out of the park.