"So let’s raise a glass," the bearded man said.
If he knew the name of the victim, he did not say it. Metal clicked and hissed on the cement floor.
San Diego is the kind of place where you don’t have to know someone to guzzle down beer in their memory. It is also a place that has not, in anyone's memory, played host to a serial killer.
Murder-suicides, serial rapists, retired criminals who no doubt, at one time or another, killed a few; but no one has set out to be the indiscriminate killer of random men and women.
At least not until now.
"You're new," the bearded man told me.
I took a sip of someone’s precious blend of wild hops and grain. A little sour, in my opinion. I like Stella and Sapporo, though I've taken a liking of late to Saint Archer and Mother Earth.
"Maybe if you looked at my face instead of my ass you'd know that I'm not," I lied.
"That's how I know I've never seen you. That I'd remember."
"That's what they all say."
Every cyclist I've ever met has a car. Something to transport the one-thousand-plus mechanism between their legs to the event or trail. But when they get to those trails or events, they like to forget.
Bike sharing is recent. But it’s all the talk of bike lanes and closing off busy streets and intersections just for bikers that has the general population coming unglued. Otherwise, well-adjusted citizens are taking to bumper stickers and social media posts depicting dead or dismembered bikers, imagery of targets lined up with silhouettes.
There are numerous things in life to be apoplectic about, some even of legitimate concern, but now someone or someone’s unknown is actually going around making good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) on these threats. Now it’s being debated in town halls - blame, healing, bridging gaps, who started what and when. But Daren and I are not discussing any of that, at least not right now. Dodging death, celebrating life, making use of the memorial of a stranger to hook up with a living stranger. Call it what you like.
“You like midnight riding?” Daren asked, the musky sweet scent of a hand-roll filling the room.
“Bit past midnight,” I point out.
“It doesn't have to be midnight on the dot. It’s a great time. No cars. Or almost none. Just you, and the moonlight, and streetlights to see your way. Makes you feel alive. Want some?” He hands me the roll.
“I don't like it,” I say. “Stuff makes me edgy.”
“It’s supposed to relax you.”
“It doesn't have that effect on me. Enjoy, though.”
“Did you?” he asked inhaling deeply.
He blew a few rings toward the ceiling, which unbeknown to him, is a habit I detest. I can't stand the way someone moves their lips in order to achieve the ring. But given recent proceedings, I am in no position to complain.
“You have a license for the stuff?” I ask.
“What are you, a cop? Yeah I've got a license. I'll have you know I get backaches.”
“Uh huh,” I said. “I could tell.”
“And headaches. You know just general pain of various sorts.”
“Right. Let’s go on this ride. I'm a midnight ride virgin. I want to give it a try.”
The night almost feels welcoming. Easy to forget that someone out there is killing people for doing exactly what we are doing, while we shout and scream war cries.
Red, white and blue reflect and refract. Temporally night blinded, we listen to a list of our transgressions and two officers load us into the back of their vehicle. Our bikes look forlorn chained to a random post, unlikely to be there when we return.
“Whatcha doing out so late?” one of them asks at the station.
“Don't talk to him,” Daren says to me. “You have no right. To just take us off the streets like that.”
The officer fishes through Daren's backpack. “Interesting,” he comments.
“You need a warrant for that. It’s a violation of my constitutional rights to go through my shit. And I have a witness to your having -”
“You can go,” the man says. “Your... witness will stay. Her backpack’s a little more interesting than yours.” He holds up a knife of slightly more than legal length.
“Let her go too, man,” Daren protests, but weakly. “Come on. We weren't doing anything.”
The officer ignores him, escorting me into another room.
“Shorts look good on you,” he comments while smacking me on the ass in full view of the station.
In my biking shoes, I have to turn my foot to not hit him with metal. That puts me off balance but I land an open palm strike to his nose before someone drags me sideways.
“Temper, temper,” a reasonable voice intones.
Nose gushing he says. “Duck. Ducking itch.”
I think everyone gets the general idea as he gasps and straightens his nose.
“He wants to see you,” the man holding me growls.
“He? He who? His holiness?”
“Bet,” Sanchez (His holiness) says. “My office. Now.”
“Do you know why you were selected?” Sanchez asks passing the room.
“Because Jones likes donuts too much?” I ask innocently. “I doubt they make bike shorts big enough to accommodate one of his buttocks let alone both at the same time.”
I see that I have miscalculated Sanchez' mood. Sometimes its filthy jokes along the lines of how the only thing he learned in the Corps was how to masturbate silently, and sometimes he is one of the most serious humans you have ever encountered. Evildoers, beware of either side.
So I sit quietly through my lecture on duty and responsibility and justice and choices.
“You were not chosen for this so that you could fraternize and drink beer and ride around with no helmet on and no hands on the handlebars. They told me,” he shook his head. (He's really got all the gestures down). “You were too young, and I,” he paused meaningfully with his back to the red glow of dawn, “I told them that you would be perfect. Do not make me regret recommending you.”
“Never,” I say feeling for the moment deeply ashamed. Also somewhat annoyed. It is one of Sanchez' habits to treat me like a kid. This, in spite of the fact that I have never (unlike some who will remain nameless) thrown a tantrum in his presence, and show off very little. It may be merely that he likes me and likes kids ergo I am a kid. So I am annoyed but mostly ashamed.
“Do you think you have a future with this... individual?” he asks me.
Marines, current or former, I have noticed, may not be capable of monogamy but they have an outsize respect for it. They also throw the best tantrums when they get caught riding the trolley without a ticket, but that's another story.
He reddens; it is possible he realizes that that is not an appropriate question.
“No, Sir,” I say. It took me ages to say “Sir” within shooting distance of properly, and I still don't like it but what can you do?
“Sir. It occurred to me that if I am to understand this... culture it would be good to make friends with people who are already a part of it.”
“Friends fine. Who doesn't need friends? No one expects you to... to...”
“Noted, Sir, that no one asked or expected any physical form of friendship with um anyone.” This is descending into serious awkwardness. Fortunately someone knocks on the door and we are able to leave it at that.
“Yeah. Yeah. Enough of the 'Sir' shit.”
“Sir,” I say semi-mockingly and make my retreat.
I see Daren outside. His beard is looking somewhat unkempt. As I will never have one, I find it interesting that police officers almost never grow facial hair while civilian males have taken it into their heads it is more manly to not allow strangers to apply razors to their throats.
“What'd the prick want?” he asked.
“I dunno,” I shrug. “Blow job?”
“Give him one?”
“I give you one?”
“Then I think you can figure that one out for yourself.”
“You're the one who brought it up.”
“Wanna get breakfast?”
“You got any money?”
“I've got a friend.”
Who can resist such elegance?
I have so far learned two things from my job.
One. It is not easy being a woman in a “man's job.” Anyone can tell you that and its true. But it was not that long ago virtually any job outside the four walls of a suburban hellhole was a “man's job.” True, it doesn't help that this is a job with certain physical requirements even I find it hard to fulfill. But it’s like anything else. There are people who will like you and people who won't, and you just have to hope the one outweighs the other.
The male dominated world is one of arcane rules and near constant attempts at “one-upping” rivals and, even if you behave in accordance with as many rules as possible, there will be those who will bring up any example of any woman anywhere who is weak and/or pathetic and anything that you have said or done as far as they are concerned is meaningless. That is how things are and no amount of competence will alter the mind of a misogynist. Accept it and move on.
Two. Unlike books, and movies, and TV, all cops are not best friends. All cops do not equally despise a “bad cop” or embrace a “good cop.” Most basically fall somewhere in between. For example, making a career of pulling over moms with kids in the car and people unlikely to resist a ticket, and hoping no one will notice or comment. Like all jobs there are petty rivalries, and alliances, and who you call friends and allies determines who your enemies are. But unlike other jobs, just because someone hates you with every fiber of their being does not mean that they will allow you to get hurt or killed, and any cop who is even suspected of failing in that regard might as well find another employer.
I fell into this job by accident. When the soccer team discovered I was not as good as they had been led to believe, I got a job with campus security. I then graduated during economic times that did not reward those lacking when it came to nepotistic relatives (assuming any time period has ever been conducive to the advancement of the broke and unconnected).
Even then I did not join quickly or easily. I procured a job as a file clerk when an officer, who has since hit me on the ass in public, had the terribly romantic idea of taking me to the shooting range. He was then more than a little unhappy when I learned how to aim and I was able to equal his performance. That could have been the end of my career had Sanchez not spotted my target. He paid for more bullets and a fresh target, and was then quite lucky when he lapsed into Drill Sergeant mode that I did not murder him then and there. He thereafter demanded I meet him at a boxing gym the next day. I probably should have followed my initial instinct and shot him.
“You have no idea who's killing the bikers?” I asked Daren.
Daren shook his head. “If I did I'd 've mentioned it when they arrested me. Not that the fuzz gives a fuck.”
“I'm sure they're trying,” I protested not too enthusiastically.
“Yeah, right. They think we're scum.”
“That has nothing to do with anything. Diego's a tourist town. You think we get tourists when there's some deranged lunatic hunting people down for kicks?”
We talk a little more and make plans to meet up again. Sometime.
Back at the apartment I share with a girl I almost never see, I take a shower and read a list of the ways in which I am failing as a roommate. Namely:
“Elizabeth, there is:
too much loud music
too many men/women (?) friends (?)
makeup in the sink
buying the wrong brands of dish soap and candles and matches
“Bitch,” I whisper. “Marry the fucking telemarketer or pornographer or whatever it is and be done with it.”
I try to calm down with some Tai Chi and then I take a nap. I dream about the people who have been killed, wake up, and turn on the news. Some hot guy has become the latest victim of the killer who has apparently just been dubbed “the speed freak.” His “could not be lower cut without giving up all the goods top wearing” girlfriend looks thrilled to be in front of a camera. You can almost hear her thinking “finally!” Never let grief keep you from looking like a whore in front of complete strangers. Never! Some guy who seems to be friends with the anchorman and looks like he is thinking about consoling the grief-stricken girlfriend alludes to progress. I turn off the TV instead of throwing something at it, which is progress.
After another week with fortunately no further fatalities, Daren calls me.
“I was helping a friend move” is his lame ass excuse.
We agree to meet again, though.
“Let's go on another midnight ride,” he says.
“Because the last went so well?”
But we go.
Night heightens the senses. You feel the coldness of the air, the beat of your heart, the wheels hitting different surfaces.
I turn to look for Daren and somehow skid the bike to avoid the worst. My arms and ribs are on fire and I notice that someone has poured red paint all down my leg. And then I think, “Pull yourself together Bet, this is happening, that is blood not paint.” I want to curl up all around the pains, which blur together into one big Pain. I avoid the tires trying to reverse over me and fire the gun into the SUV, which keeps on travelling in reverse until it hits a lamppost.
It did not take long for them to find Daren.
I don't know if they hanged him or if he hanged himself, but by now everyone knows that all the victims had become his friends or his girlfriend’s friends before he killed them. The news cycle has already moved on and we may never know “why,” in any way that answers anything.
There never really is any answer to anything. Life, having a lot in common with what they recommend for the abusers of certain illegal substances.
“Am I a bad cop?” I ask Sanchez when he visits for the first time and I am actually conscious.
“You are a terrible cop. Bad would be an improvement.”
I had no idea my near death would upset him to this degree.
“I've recommended you,” he says somewhat thickly and closes the door before I can reply.