The latest Marty Singer book has fought me every step of the way (and little things like flooded basements, vacations, and audiobooks have proven distracting, as well), but I’m nearing completion.
To reward all of you for your patience, check out this “rough plus” version of Chapter One of Marty Singer #4, The Spike.
p.s. A Reason to Live is free today through September 2 on Amazon! Tell your friends!
Killing a quarter hour on a DC subway platform is like spending fifteen minutes in George Orwell’s head the day before he started writing 1984.
Decades ago, the powers that be tried to paint the people-mover as a place of progress and cheer by calling it the Metro, but the stations are still drab, uniform gray concrete vaults with low lighting reminiscent of a funeral parlor. Scant visualwarmth is provided by a honeycomb, terra cotta-tinted floor and a scattering of digital billboards that flicker with offers and announcements that were old a month ago. The ceiling features an endless series of coffin-sized depressions meant to dampen the crushing noise of trains and passengers, but the pattern reminds me more of a hive colony of killer insect-men from a B-grade horror flick—a joke I’m sure wasn’t lost on the thousands of drones who used Metro to get from their homes to their jobs and back every day. A strange smell of burnt vinyl and industrial fluid sits over the place, and vents blow heated air onto the platform even on the hottest day. To their credit, the stations are clean and nearly functional if you don’t count the broken escalator at every stop, but to me the overall design has always felt utilitarian to the point of dystopia.
Lucky for me, I don’t normally take the Metro. Thirty years as a homicide cop in the city and you learn you have to access to your own wheels at all times. Waiting seventeen minutes for transportation to arrive just didn’t compute. And the normal headache for drivers—namely, a place to park—didn’t exist for me. As a cop, I could park anywhere, anytime. I’d pulled my cruisers onto sidewalks, across the mouths of alleys, on lawns with one wheel hovering off the ground. For three decades, I could go and stop any time I liked.
But all good things come to an end and a transition to civilian life had introduced me to the concept of the parking ticket. I’d backed into a space along the Georgetown waterfront, filled the meter with quarters, and found out later that, sometime in the recent past, the city had repainted the lines for each space. Poorly. Like, by four feet. So, while I’d extended my neighbor’s time in the city by several hours, my meter—located behind another car—had run out of time. I was assessed a fifty dollar ticket which, from experience, I knew no amount of appeal would nullify. So I gritted my teeth, mailed my money to the magistrate, and started taking the Metro when I wanted to go downtown. While the weather was nice, at least. It was late October and the nip in the air had me rethinking the impulse.
I was going into the city more often now that Amanda had picked up a job as program manager at FirstStep, a women’s shelter downtown. The shelter was in Southeast DC, with its region-leading homicide statistics, a section of the city I’d rather drive through most of the time—I feel protected and confident in a car, exposed and vulnerable walking. But exposed and vulnerable described exactly how most of the women who sought out FirstStep felt. It was a small gesture, but taking the Metro and walking to Amanda’s office on 6th Street let me feel like I was sharing something with them. And there was no way for me to get a parking ticket.
I was on my way home from visiting her now, in fact, camped out in the Shaw Street station, brooding and thinking gray, Orwellian thoughts, waiting for the west-bound Orange line to chug from its end-point in New Carrollton, through the Shaw Station, and on towards my neck of the woods in Arlington. Once we got moving, the trip would only take me about half an hour, but waiting for the train doubled that. I sighed and squirmed on the half-wall that I was leaning against, trying to remain patient.
Which was hard, since I’d forgotten to bring a book, didn’t have headphones for my phone, and had read the interesting parts of the newspaper on the way in. If there was one criteria to judge my lack of commuting experience by, this was it—no savvy Metro-goer forgot to bring something to listen to or read, ever. There are few things more boring than waiting for a train to show. Which left, for entertainment, naming the kings and queens of Britain after the Conquest, listing the starting offensive line for the 1982 Super Bowl Champion Redskins, and watching people. The first two kept me occupied for ten minutes, so I was content to stare at commuters until my train arrived.
It was two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, not rush hour by a long shot, and there couldn’t have been more than a baker’s dozen of us waiting for the next train. A gaggle of teens ate fries and laughed about something that had happened earlier in school. A white businesswoman—youngish in a smart looking skirt and blazer, eyes glued to her smart phone—negotiated the escalator and took up a spot on the rubber mat close to the edge of the platform without once looking up. Three guys in paint-speckled work clothes, holding hard hats and backpacks, stood and talked quietly to one side. Tool belt slung over one shoulder, a repairman in a neon vest and Carhartt overalls jawed with a young Metro cop. A slim guy in a hooded sweatshirt and athletic pants, his hands tucked into his pockets, jogged down the escalator, then proceeded to do some stretches out of the way, pushing against a pillar and working on his calf muscles. He was followed by a handful of bureaucrats or lobbyists who could’ve used the exercise. An elderly woman came out of the station’s only elevator and took up a spot near the end of the platform.
The digital schedule showed that the next Orange line train was nearing. With a minute to go, soft amber floor lights near the lip of the track began pulsing, another warning that the train was on its way. People edged into position, standing up from their seats or shuffling a little closer to the edge of the platform, trying to guess where the train car doors would stop, jockeying for the best spot out of habit. I stayed where I was. Middle of the day, a handful of riders, next to no one trying to get off. I could lean on my wall until it came to a stop, then walk right on.
The incoming train, still out of view, gave an unexpected blast from its horn. Some drivers liked to give a warning honk, as if those standing on the platform hadn’t already heard it thundering down the track. It was probably a by-the-book precaution, but the tunnel amplified the blast, making everyone wince as the sound bounced off the cement floors, walls, and ceiling. Headlights lit the curving walls of the tunnel first, then became bright points of light in the darkness. Two more ear-splitting honks and the train emerged out of the tunnel to our right like a bullet out of a gun. We all watched it come down the track.
Had I pushed away from the wall and gotten to my feet, my head would’ve been down and I would’ve missed what happened. As it was, I was watching the incoming train like it was a TV show and couldn’t have had a better view of something I would’ve rather not seen.
With exquisite timing, the man in the hooded sweatshirt took three running steps and exploded into the lower back of the smartly-dressed businesswoman, delivering a perfect body check. The woman flew forward into the path of the train as though she’d jumped. Her head was thrown back and her mouth open like she was singing, while her wrists and ankles trailed from the impact in the middle of her body like she was an angel learning to fly. Then she was swept away by the front of the train as though she’d never existed.
Images, sounds, and actions fractured into discrete chunks, like reflections on a broken mirror. The train’s emergency brake slammed on, the scream of the wheels merging with the screams of the onlookers on the platform. Those who had been behind or to the left of the woman had seen everything—those to her right, watching the train approach, had only a vague idea that something horrific had happened. Some rushed after the train while others stood frozen, their eyes huge with the whites showing or their hands over their mouths in shock. The repairman had dropped his tool belt and was one of those sprinting down the platform, already yelling for help, while the Metro cop stared down the track, his mouth literally hanging open.
Instinct took over and, like some of the others, I took a half dozen steps towards the front of the train before another part of me—the one that had been conditioned from thirty years of police work—kicked in and I stopped myself. The woman was dead. Or, if not, she had more help than she could possibly use. Nothing I could do would matter.
But no one had gone after the man in the sweatshirt.
My attention had been on the woman, not the killer, naturally, and I had only a blurred memory of his shape, but there was only way out of the station: to my right and up the escalator. I sprinted to it, taking the steps three at a time. Another Metro cop and the station manager jogged towards me, keys and nightstick and radio jangling as they moved, already on their way to the scene. The cop yelled, “Hey!” as I ran past, but I ignored him and aimed for the turnstiles that marked the first hurdle out of the station. A few commuters, unaware of the tragedy downstairs, were moving through them in my direction. Most were engrossed in books or their phones and one unfortunate twenty-something in a suit and tennis shoes wandered unconsciously into my path. At six-three, two-ten, I wouldn’t have come close to making the cut for that Redskins lineup, but I was in full stride and highly motivated and I knocked him ass over tin cups without so much as blinking. Book, glasses, and body went flying and a plaintive “What the fuck?” floated up from the ground and followed me as I sprinted away.
I didn’t trust myself to leap the turnstiles without landing on my face, so I slammed through the gate reserved for subsidized riders and headed for the escalators out of the station. Luck was with me: sometimes the escalators aren’t running, in which case they are just stairs and, at fifty-four, I wasn’t about to run up three hundred steps without inviting heart failure. As it was, I barely made it to the top with mechanized help. The escalator popped me out into the station’s glass-covered entrance and I whipped my head around, looking for any sign of the hooded man.
The streets were crowded with mothers and their kids, retirees shuffling to the grocery store, workers on break. Cars choked the street at the stoplight—road work blocked the right-hand lane going south on 7th street. A bored construction guy, leaning on one of those manual STOP signs and with a walkie-talkie dangling from his hand, was holding up traffic. I jogged up to him, out of breath and sweating like a pig.
“You see a guy in a gray sweatshirt come out of the Metro?” I asked. “Running like hell?”
He gave me a look. “Get away from me.”
Adrenalin kicked in. I grabbed the lapels of his flannel shirt with both hands and lifted him half off the ground, screaming into his face, “Did you see a guy in a gray sweatshirt?”
His eyes popped out. “Jesus, man. No.”
I let him go, swearing but, halfway down 7th, I saw a woman sprawled on the sidewalk being helped to her feet by a couple of passersby. I left the construction crew and ran towards the woman, slowing down just long enough to shout, “Gray sweatshirt?”
Two of them looked up and pointed in the direction I’d been running, towards R Street. I waved a thanks and took off. I felt like I had a chance. Even with the wasted seconds on the platform and asking the construction guy for directions, I couldn’t be more than a half-minute behind the guy. If I could keep him in sight until I could dial 911, I might manage a collar. But first, I had to find him.
There. I caught a flash of gray in between the bobbing heads of pedestrians and cars. I took off after it, wondering as I went what kind of amateur I was chasing. A simple dodge down a side-street would’ve thrown me off his trail, but this guy had left the scene in a straight line like he’d been launched. I shrugged mentally. Crooks and killers aren’t smart and pushing someone in front of a train wasn’t exactly Machiavellian in its complexity.
I hoped he would doing something else stupid, because my breath was coming in ragged gasps and my legs already felt rubbery from the strain. I tried pacing myself, evening out my stride so that I could get some wind back while still keeping the sweatshirt in sight. He might even slow down if he thought he was far enough away, which I really wished would happen. For a second that actually seemed to be the case as he approached R Street. But some latent sense of pursuit made him turn around as he slowed for the traffic at the intersection. He glanced over a shoulder, gave a start, then I swore out loud as he ran straight into traffic, causing cars to brakes to be slammed and horns to be honked.
He made it across R in one piece, but traffic was flowing by the time I got there and I watched in frustration as he sprinted away. I tried twice to jump into the break between the cars, nearly getting flattened each time. The light turned and I finally made it across R, jogging down Rhode Island Avenue with my head on a swivel. The rush was even heavier here—six lanes going east and west—and I stood on the corner, looking for any sign of the guy in the sweatshirt. But either he’d set a new world record for the half mile dash or had finally used his head and turned a corner, because he was gone.
Now that I could give up, I bent over double—hands on knees, my heart slamming in my chest—and swore again, loudly, creatively, and with feeling. In between sucking great lungfuls of air, I cursed the guy’s mother, his father, DC traffic, cars, stop lights, the Metro, middle age, and bad luck. A few people walking by gave me a wide berth and glanced my way, checking to see how crazy I was, then moved along when I pulled out my cell phone. Not crazy enough to rate, I guess.
I dialed 911 and waited for the line to pick up.
I hope you enjoyed it! Let me know what you think in the comment section below or at firstname.lastname@example.org…and keep your eyes open for the release of The Spike, coming soon.