Rain. There had been a sprinkling back in late September and nothing since. Now, on a dark February afternoon, it came down in sheets and had been for a day and a half. It soaked down to the caliche, hard as rock, then sheared off, running downhill, flooding back yards and streets and highways, filling washes and dry riverbeds, threatening the bridges across the Salt. The sky hung dark and low. It seemed like the rain would never stop.
The cold burned deep into Rennie’s bones. He sat on plastic milk crates stacked three high, his feet out of the puddles that turned his camp into a lake. A shelter of heavy cardboard crates, smashed flat and wired together, that had stood tall against two searing desert summers, now melted around him. He shivered under a sweater, a coat and a poncho made out of a plastic garbage bag.
He’d sat shivering, clenched tight into a ball since yesterday, ticking off each slow minute. No surprise that a voice would spring from nowhere.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice.
Rennie bent to look under the drooping cardboard. A pretty woman holding a big golf umbrella stood there in yellow rain boots and a parka. Water washed around her ankles.
She stooped to see his face and smiled at him. “Are you Mr. Rennie?”
Rennie tried to talk, but couldn’t. Generally he yelled at strangers to go away, threatening them with a cricket bat he’d found in the trash.
“Detective Ojeda said you might be able to help me. I looked for you in all the shelters. I didn’t think anyone would be out in this.”
Ojeda took away his cricket bat after Rennie waved it at the lady who owned the tiny lot where he made his camp. Rennie spit into the lake at his feet. Ojeda. Rennie had been thinking of abandoning his camp for Joseph the Worker or Mano de Dios. He’d lose everything, but if he didn’t get warm and dry soon, he’d die.
Rennie called, “They room?”
The woman shook her head, confused.
“They room down there?”
“At the shelters? No, sir. They’re all full, every one.”
He turned away, finished with the woman in her yellow boots.
A slow minute passed. Another. “May I come in?”
He had a length of pipe to chase her with, but it was lost under the water with everything else.
Her boots sloshed, sending out waves that broached the pallets his camp stood on, then her shadow blocked the afternoon’s dim light. The umbrella snapped closed as she sat on the milk crate next to his.
“This is cozy.”
It was an empty lot too small to build on in a dirt-poor neighborhood that bordered new developments and commercial buildings. So ugly your eyes slid off it without registering it was there. The woman who owned it parked her two goats there to gnaw down the chest high weeds and get the city off her back, but Rennie chased off the goats and then their owner. Resulting in a visit from Ojeda, the devil.
“Fourteen months ago my daughter went out with her friends on a Friday night and never returned to her room. She was studying at the medical school downtown and doing well. Fourteen months. Detective Ojeda tells me he’s still looking, but I believe she’s dead.”
Rennie didn’t know anything about Friday nights or rooms or friends. He knew the cold was going to kill him. He knew if they looked in all the closed off alleys and hidden camps they’d find the bodies of men like him brought down by the cold and rain.
“Vinnie’s got room. They open up when it cold.” But it would take him a couple of hours to get there.
“They took in the families. It’s a madhouse. There wasn’t enough space to turn around.”
“They told me they couldn’t take anyone else in.” For the first time she noticed Rennie’s shuddering. “You’re freezing.” Her hand slid into an inside pocket of her parka and came out with a stainless flask. She unscrewed the top and handed it over.
The rye burned its way down Rennie’s throat to his empty stomach. He drank again. And once more.
She touched his forehead with her palm. “How long have you been sitting here?” Her boots sloshed, her shadow passed and she was gone.
Sounded like a boat in his alley, something big like a towboat, shoving the floodwater out of the way, making a racket big enough to drown out the rain.