There's a way that you walk when you're scared. When it's cold outside and the Casa Latina grocery and Jo-Ka-Joe's and the Army-Navy store and the Family Dollar are all closed up and the streetlights don't seem bright enough, that's when you slow down and tighten up. You pull your hood over your head and stick your fists in your pockets. You mind your business and when the dark shape of somebody bigger than you detaches from the shadows up ahead, you just glance -- you don't avoid eye-contact, you don't stare. One quick look while you keep going, like you got a purpose, but not an urgent one, like you're not just walking alone at night 'cause you don't have bus fare.
When you're walking late, you keep on looking up ahead. You don't look like you're in a hurry; you try to seem relaxed, like you got somewhere to be, some place close by. You never act like you got a gun -- even pretending that to yourself is borrowing trouble -- but you act like maybe there's keys in your pocket.
That's what Peter always did, anyway. He would set his eyes on one of the cars parked up ahead and act like it was his, hand in his jacket, fingering the green rabbit's foot he always carried with him before Stephanie Mastrorio told him about Saint Christopher in tenth grade. When he drew even with his car, he'd pick another to look at, keep it up until he was at where he was heading.
Just goin' to my Toyota, he'd think. Peter doesn't know if anybody who saw him walking alone ever actually believed it, but it always made him feel better about the situation. My Honda, my Chevy, my Volkswagen. Be gone from here in a minute.
It's different tonight. Up here, it's all residential. There are no darkened store fronts, no lowered security gates or faded, threatening tags sprayed on the walls of buildings. The houses in the developments are set back from the road and there ain't no way nobody else is walking out here this late. In this part of Los Angeles county, all Peter is worried about is freezing or getting run over by some drugged-up punk taking the curves too fast.
Still, those are real concerns, and he does his old thing, slips back into the familiar rhythm. The only cars in sight are the ones that are rushing past him, so he doesn't have anything to concentrate on up ahead, but he pulls down his ski hat and tamps down the worry, thinking instead about what he's gonna watch on tv when he gets back and what he's gonna say to Anthony. Just 'cause you're scared don't mean you have to dwell on it.
The first Christmas present Officer Tom Henson can remember receiving was a miniature yellow Miata convertible that showed up in his stocking the year he was four. He loved to open and close the little metal doors, but more than that, he remembers the the resistance of the tires as he dragged it backwards across the floor and the feeling of release as it rolled away under its own power, zipping under the furniture.
When he was a kid, he dreamed not being a cop, but about driving a real car like that, a big one.
The car Tom owns now isn't a convertible. It doesn't handle nearly as well as the squad car he spends most of the day driving around either, and it's not as impressive looking. It is a plain, sensible adult sedan that he bought on a financing plan with his very good credit, the first new car he's ever owned. It isn't paid off yet, but it's all his, and until fifteen minutes ago, that was comforting to him.
Now the car is on fire. Tom watches the smoke billowing up like a signal or a funeral pyre. He has never shot anyone before.
Peter can see his breath. He is walking north, walking home again like old times. Nobody's worrying about him tonight, except possibly Anthony, and Peter doesn't think that's very likely.
Man's probably already got rid of the fucking Navigator; he's sitting on the couch all warm and cozy while Peter's out here in the cold, his toes feeling like wood inside his boots. Yeah, he could knock on the door of one of those nice houses, call Anthony or even Graham, but he really doesn't want to. He tells himself that the chance of the people who belong to those houses letting him use the phone is about equal to the chance of someone driving by actually giving him a ride, anyway. Fuckers. That's why him and Anthony don't feel bad about stealing their cars.
Peter wishes he was behind the wheel of some car or truck, or even in the passenger seat. He's big enough not to be scared of getting jumped, but he's still tense; he isn't used to being outside at night. Peter doesn't have to walk much, these days -- he may not have a regular job or his own ride, but Anthony's always got something going on.
Problem is, Anthony's not the most reliable dude in the world.
Peter remembers the first time they 'jacked a car together. "Get the fuck out!" he had yelled right in the face of the man who'd been driving. Peter had been trying not to look over his shoulder, worried about the way Anthony was waving the gun around just on the edge of his peripheral vision.
The driver didn't move, so Peter grabbed his lapels and pulled him right out of the seat -- roughly, to make his point, even though that kind of stuff didnt come naturally to him.
"Go!" Peter had shouted, "I told you to get the fuck away from the car!" and he slipped into the driver's seat, trying to breathe normal. The key was still in the ignition. This was all going to be okay.
"Move over," said Anthony, standing outside the diver's side door, feet planted, his Timberlands two feet away from the white mans head. The guy was just lying there.
"What? No, you go around! Quick, yo, we gotta get outta here."
"Move the hell over!" Anthony insisted. He had the pistol pointed at the ground, but he sounded like he'd forgotten who they were supposed to be threatening. "I'm driving."
Peter had looked over at the man on the pavement, his tie askew, griping at his briefcase with his eyes squeezed tight -- he could go for a gun or a cell phone any second, who the fuck knew -- and Peter climbed across into the passenger seat of the car. Somebody here might as well try and act professional.
Can't nobody outstubborn Anthony. That was how come Anthony always got to drive.
The smell of the burning car follows Tom, even though he's got his back to the lot where he left it and he can't see the flames any more.
He almost certainly still has his badge in his wallet, but it's not going to protect him from his conscience. He hopes that no one's around when the car explodes. Does that really happen outside of movies?
Tom feels like the criminal he is. He has no idea where he's going, but he has to get out of here.
Fleeing the scene.
And that's not the worst of it, oh no, but Tom is trying not to think about that. He looks at the lights far up ahead and concentrates. If he can just get there, he'll be okay.
The trick to walking at night is having a goal, or looking like you do.
Peter knows all about this from when he was fifteen, that lonely year when he daddy died, when his boy Cyrus was in juvie and Anthony and Anthony's little sisters were still living with their grandparents in Detroit and there was no one left who had Peter's back.
He would get into stupid situations by himself, then -- get himself stranded in bad parts of town late at night. He would think about calling his momma, then think twice. Peter knew that when he called, she would yell for a while till he reminded her that he was at a pay phone and his dime was gonna run out, then she'd send Graham out to come get him. He would wait under a streetlight, the waiting almost worse than the prospect of walking, and when the old duct-taped Buick LaSabre pulled up to the curb, when he slowly eased his weight into the seat, the plastic under his butt would be as cold as his brother's eyes.
"Just get in, Peter," Graham would say. "Don't make me waste any more time."
Forget that shit. He usually just walked back from wherever he ended up. As long as he was home by morning -- and he always was -- no one had to worry. Saved everybody trouble.
Tom learned to drive with his mom breathing down his neck, stomping hard on the imaginary brake pedal in the passenger's side of the car and hissing every time he pulled into an intersection, but he loved the adult skill from the start. He was good at it.
When he was old enough, she let him take her car to school; she never liked driving him anyway. He told his friends that the two-door Tercel belonged to him and ignored him when they laughed about the furry steering wheel cover and the plastic statues of Jesus and Saint Christopher glued to the dash.
"There's a reason for those, you know, he remembers saying defensively. "There's a reason I've never been in an accident."
When he bought his first used car and this was still true, he decided to get his own Saint Christopher. Might just be superstition, but it couldn't hurt.
It was an accident, that's what he keeps repeating over and over inside his head. This was an accident. He needs to think of something else, anything else. He concentrates on walking, putting down one foot after another, following the serpentine white line that marks the shoulder of the road. He is trying to pretend this is normal, trying to pretend that he's just following the painted line around the periphery of the indoor track at the gym where he runs three times a week. Tom never walks anywhere -- no one does in L.A. He squares his shoulders against the cold wind and keeps going.
Walking is like running. He just has to keep going until it's over. He can feel the small cross he wears on a chain under his shirt, cold against his skin.
It's really cold out. Anthony wishes he had some fucking gloves. He taps his finger against the hard plastic of the statue, safe in the pocket of his coat -- ready to adorn the black Navigator he keeps missing.
Anthony always gave him trouble about that Saint Christopher.
"Get that shit off my dashboard," he'd said, just last week when they got the 2002 Explorer out of some parking structure in Hollywood.
"This is not your dashboard, Anthony. Or if it is, it counts as half mine, too." He'd thumped on it for emphasis. "This half, right here? Is mine." He wiggled the statue between finger and thumb, testing the suction. "How many times I gotta tell you -- Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers."
"Yeah? Saint Anthony is the patron saint of motorists, but I don't put some statue of him on every car I touch."
"Saint Anthony? Bullshit."
"Look, dog. You ain't even Christian. I grew up with my grandma -- I know what I'm talkin' about. Anthony of Athanasius now, not Anthony of Padua, 'cause that dude's only got the fishermen covered. But Saint Anthony of Athanasius has swineherds and motorists. Would I make that up?"
"Okay, fine," said Peter, holding up his hands. "But even if you're right -- which I doubt -- I think there's more than enough Anthony in this here stolen vehicle. And not enough Christopher."
The car was quiet for a full minute before Peter asked.
"What's Saint Peter saint of?"
Anthony laughed, his eyes on the road. "You think I got an encyclopedic knowledge of this shit? I only know the Anthonys because it's my name."
Tom had liked patrolling by himself, fart-noises over the police-band notwithstanding. It was worth the humiliation, worth the Lieutenant's mistrust and Jack Ryan's scorn. Sure, riding with that dick had been depressing on all kinds of levels, but it was more than that -- it was just nice being alone. In his one-man patrol car, Tom had the potential to make decisions -- where to go when there wasn't a call, who to stop, who to question, who to bring in. He liked to think he was good at recognizing suspicious behavior. He was a good cop, a fair cop.
Driving home in his own car, though, was even better, with the heat blasting and the radio on the station he liked.
The thing is, when you make a bad decision and you're alone, it's all your fault.
When they're driving in the cars that are not their own, Anthony is businesslike. Yeah, he can't signal a turn to save his life and he always seems to be fooling around or talking politics, but at the same time, he's intent on the task in an easy, confident, unfaltering way. He never lets Peter take a turn behind the wheel. He shakes off Peter's hand when he lays it on the cornrows.
"Nah," he says, "I'm driving." Casual, but dead serious -- then no one can mess with you. That's the way Peter knows he needs to walk.
He had looked up his namesake. Saint Peter is patron to -- among a list of about twenty other things -- penitents and thefts. Maybe that's the statue he really needs.
Brake lights glow up ahead.
Someone stopped. Peter starts to jog so he won't make the driver in the car wait.
Tom walks right past the glowing doors of the first convenience store and keeps going. He's going to need a cab -- there's no way he could walk all the way to his apartment from Inglewood, even if he wanted to -- but he can't stand to just go in and ask for quarters. He's not sure he is capable, yet, of looking up numbers in the telephone book. He's not ready to act like a normal person, one who hasn't just ended a life.
So he's walking for now. Maybe he'll stop at the next place that's open.
He might not have the best sense of humor -- "Kids a fucking undertaker," he'd heard Ryan say once to a fellow officer -- but he can recognize irony when it kicks him in the balls. Here he is on the edge of the city at night, walking next to the highway. He is an officer of the law and he is walking away like a coward, ducking responsibility for the first time in his life.
Tom feels the serrated metal surface of the car key with the pad of his thumb, tracing the crack around the autolock button on the keychain. He'd got the keys out of the car, along with the statue -- his own, not the one the other man had been in the act of taking out of his pocket.
When Tom shot him dead.
He touches the smooth plastic, cold now. It was an accident, Saint Christopher.
Maybe he isn't the right one to pray to. Who is the patron saint of those who are guilty, those who are sorry?
Tom has left the gun in the car, wiped off and emptied out, the remaining cartridges on the seat. Maybe that wasn't smart, maybe it will survive the fire and they will identify him. If it does, if they do, Tom will know that he deserves to be caught.
Meanwhile he needs to learn how to walk at night. The saint is heavy in his pocket, and he has nothing else to defend him.
He hopes he doesn't look scared.