Orange light beamed across my eyes through a gap in the vertical blinds where my cat had yanked out one of the vinyl strips weeks or months earlier. I was coaxed awake in the otherwise dark room by the familiar sounds of a man and woman drunkenly shouting at each other in the nearby alley. A regular downside of living behind a divey dance hall in the San Fernando Valley. The signature sound of Friday and Saturday nights on the rare weekends I wasn’t out shortening my own lifespan at some bar or other. Their voices were strained, unintelligible. Same old story — new jealousies or long-held resentments aired on boozy vapors. Insights from personal experience. These two sounded slightly more desperate than the norm. Upchuck drunk I guessed. The clock glowed — five minutes to two in the morning. I went back to sleep.
Bang-bang-bang, pounding. Snapped awake. Dawn light slanted into the room. Someone knocking on my door. Weird. Nobody knocked on doors anymore without a call or text first. I opened up. Two men stood there flashing LAPD badges.
One was grey haired, crew cut. One was young, shaved head. Blue jacket, charcoal jacket. White shirts, dark ties. Cops.
They wanted to know if I’d heard or seen anything suspicious the night before.
“Um, no,” I said. Groggy. Then I remembered. “Well, just a couple fighting.”
“How do you mean?” The older one asked.
“People shouting in the alley back there,” I said.
“You said a couple?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure.”
“Man and woman?”
They wanted to know if I knew what time this had been. I told them. They wanted to know what the fight had been about.
“I couldn’t really hear,” I said. “Just drunk people squabbling.”
“What makes you say they were drunk?”
“Just assuming. The bar, you know?”
“This didn’t raise concern for you?”
“No. I mean, it’s a pretty regular thing around here.”
They said okay and handed me a business card. They were investigating a homicide that had been committed in the alley the night before.
They wanted me to call if I thought of anything else that might help their investigation.
I sat on a bar stool at the high counter in my kitchen with a mug of hot muddy coffee. My second-floor window put me at eye-level with birds and squirrels that lived and worked in the trees out there. Branches came right up to the window. My cat sat on the sill with a predatory flick dancing through her tail. Chirping. Wooing her would-be prey. Her ancient instincts on autopilot. I stared blankly, dread rising with the realization that the fight I’d heard the previous night had been a fight to the death.
Most of the tenants in the small courtyard apartment building were like me. Early twenties. Living on scrape-along service jobs. There wasn’t much of the neighborly cordiality that comes with age and the growing awareness of community, its fragility, its importance. The guy who lived across from me was big and doughy. Sandy skin and black hair. I didn’t know his name. After coffee, I saw him down in the laundry room as I was taking out my trash.
I said, “Hey. Did the cops talk to you?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Do you know what happened?”
“Crazy shit. Guess somebody chopped up some girl and threw her in the dumpster.”
“Chopped her up?” I said.
“Stabbed her. I don’t know. Cut her throat or something.”
“What? Holy shit.”
Neither of us spoke.
Then I said, “I think I might’ve heard it happen.”
He nodded and said, “Me too.”
“Shit,” I said.
“Shit,” he agreed.
I carried my trash to the alley. There was a brand-spankin-new dumpster there. No blood. No sign of violence. Just the shiny new dumpster and an empty alley. Civilized.
I showered. I went to work at the supermarket. Clocked in. Did my thing. Clocked out. Some coworkers invited me out drinking. Saturday night. I wasn’t in the mood. It was after eleven when I got home. I had a beer and went to sleep.
I jolted awake. Two in the morning. Another woman screaming in the alley.
I threw on shoes. Grabbed a hammer. Raced outside and down the stairs, heart pounding. I had my phone out, 911 punched in and ready.
The woman’s scream echoed out of the alley again.
My neighbor’s door banged open behind me. The guy from the laundry room. He was shirtless, moving fast. He was armed with a samurai sword.
He shouldered up to me. He registered my hammer. We locked eyes, nodded once and charged ahead, two man-boys, all-but strangers to each other, in something together now. We launched ourselves into the alley.
Then, another scream. We moved forward. Both scared and ready. Hammer and sword.
Then more yelling up ahead and laughing now. I smelled ganja. A cluster of women appeared from a dark alcove. One screamed, smiling. The others laughed, passing a joint. They all woohooed.
Then they saw us. The women dropped their joint and hustled away from us.
We must have looked terrifying — disheveled, crazy-eyed. One guy wielding a sword, the other a hammer. Like ancient warriors, berserkers, ravagers.
My neighbor and I stood in the silence, seething adrenaline.
The previous night’s murder had just been one mental-case who’d lost control. A one-off killing. There was no life to be saved now. No justice to be requited, but that didn’t matter. We’d made our stand. Drew a line.
We didn’t speak. Didn’t need to. We parted with a nod.
In my bedroom, I found the broken blind on the floor where my cat had left it. The slot where it once hung was torn. I punched a fresh hole in the opposite end and rehung it. No more beam of light across my face.
My cat rubbed up to me, hooked her tail around my calf muscle. I picked her up and we went back to bed.
Carl Robinette is a writer of fiction, poetry and journalism. His short fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune and more.