Look for Joshua Corin’s next novel
BEFORE CAIN STRIKES
available April 2011
from MIRA Books
While Galileo Preys
To my nephew Benji
(for when he is much, much older)
T he bum wore pink. A prom dress, really. Torso to kneecaps swathed in bubble-gum taffeta. His spidery limbs, black with grime and hair, jutted out in wrong angles. The bum was facedown in the basin of a puddle in the middle of MLK Drive, and lay undiscovered until 3:16 a.m.
Andre Banks (age twenty-eight) and his pug Moira (age three) were out for a stroll. Andre was walking off his insomnia. His parents were coming to visit and that never ever boded well. Andre and Moira normally kept only to Lincoln Street, the dimly-lit cul-de-sac in which they lived, but the young man had a lot more anxiety than usual to walk off. Moira made sure to baptize every hydrant on their path, and was christening her eleventh when Andre spotted the bum in the road.
Even in Atlanta, January meant freezing temperatures. The city’s homeless did not nap out in the middle of MLK Drive in January, certainly not in brand-new prom dresses. The bum was almost perfectly centered inside the milky oval of a nearby streetlight’s humming glow. Andre stared through the fog of his breath at the man in the road and then Moira, finished with her ritual, saw him too, and barked.
Prodded by his loud little dog, Andre left the sidewalk and approached the facedown man. He didn’t bother checking for traffic because A. It was 3:16 in the morning. B. This stretch of MLK Drive was cordoned at either end by wooden barricades due to (unapparent) DOT construction.
Moira skittered a few feet ahead of him, tensing at her leash, impatient to reach the mysterious pink shape. She barked again, and hopped up, giddy. The shape didn’t budge. As they entered the circle of electric-powered light, Andre wondered what circumstances led the bum to end up here, (and dressed like that!). Had the man once been successful? Did he have a family? Had his family kicked him out? Maybe the prom dress was his daughter’s and she was dead and wearing it helped the man remember her. Maybe the bum was a transvestite, and that’s why his family had kicked him out. The sins of a stubborn family, mused Andre, never forgetting that his own parents, bastions of disappointment, would be landing at Hartsfield-Jackson in ten hours and—
Moira pounced on top of the bum’s taffeta back and licked at his neck.
“Hey!” Andre tugged on the leather leash. “Bad dog.”
With a petulant whine, Moira fought back. She lapped again at the bum’s neck, savoring the salt mine she’d discovered. Andre yanked his pug off the man, and then realized the bum in the road hadn’t reacted, hadn’t even groaned, hadn’t even breathed.
“Fuck,” Andre concluded, and at 3:18 a.m. (according to his cell phone) he dialed the police.
They didn’t arrive for twenty minutes. This cordoned-off stretch of MLK Drive was not popular. The strip malls and chain stores which populated MLK down by the Georgia Dome tapered off west of Techwood, and Andre’s neighborhood was far, far west of Techwood. The grass in the local park, fifty feet from the bum’s corpse, was rusted, as if neglect had soured it to old metal. One hundred feet away, bordering the park, loomed a three-story mortar slab called Hosea Williams Elementary School. Its windows were shingled with iron bars. Andre taught physical education at Hosea Williams. His parents didn’t approve of the job, and they certainly didn’t approve of the area. No one did.
Since the police didn’t arrive for twenty minutes, Andre finished walking his dog. He knew he’d have time, and Moira was restless. He led her down the block, past the Atlanta Food Shop (boarded shut) and the redbrick Holy Life Baptist Church (gated shut). But by then Andre heard the siren. He reached the dead body around the same time the squad car circumvented the construction barricade.
Two cops emerged, eau de French fries. They clicked off their siren but left on their red-and-blues to sweep and bounce in careful rhythm over the block. To Moira, essentially color-blind, the lights were meaningless, but to Andre, the colored lights painted his neighborhood at 3:40 a.m. into a party-hearty discotheque. That just reminded him of his age, and his misbegotten teenage years, and how much his life had changed in so short a—
“You called it in?” asked Officer Appleby, arms crossed. He was the black one. Officer Harper, the white one, knelt beside the body. The cops who served this neighborhood always showed up in this demographic: one black, one white. In fact, some of Andre’s more clever students referred to them not as pigs but zebras. Yo, zebras on patrol today, watch out.
“I was taking my dog for a walk,” said Andre. He exhaled warmth onto his hands and rubbed them together. Even though he wore a fleece coat over his sweats, winter was still winter. “We just found him lying there.”
Officer Appleby frowned, uncrossed his arms, and crossed them again. His stomach was bothering him. “Did you know the deceased?”
Down by the corpse, Officer Harper did a rudimentary investigation of the bum’s hairy, muddy limbs for frostbite. In a few minutes they’d call it in and the case would belong to the detectives and medical examiner but until then, if he was careful, if he didn’t disturb the body or the scene, he could do some actual police work. Let Appleby chat up the witness, predictable waste of time that would be. In the meantime, Harper would work the case. Find a clue. Share it with the cavalry when they arrived and when his name came up for promotion, they’d remember him for this and he’d be free of this beat patrol graveyard shift bullshit forever.
Moira nudged against his ass with her nose. Harper scowled down at the pug. God, he hated dogs. They slobbered and chewed up nearly anything of value. They constantly needed attention. The county taxed you for their tags, the pet store taxed you for their food, the vet taxed you for their shots. Dogs. God.
Moira nudged again against his ass and Harper slapped her away. He glanced over at his partner and the witness. Neither of them had noticed his violent outburst. Good. The last thing he needed was yet another pissed-off