Read part one of this thrilling yarn here!
Baz was as good as his word and his friends kept themselves to his room to continue their nerdish shenanigans. Matt in turn confined himself to his room, watched several episodes of Saturday Night Live and a movie where Meat Loaf played a roadie of legendary capabilities. The Meat Loaf movie was surprisingly good, a lively little romp that deserved more attention.
Competent Meat Loaf movie or no, Matt awoke Sunday morning in a foul mood. He almost unleashed Cooperstown on a guy who, while admittedly sometimes annoying, was innocent. He was no closer to solving the case or finding those double stufs. He didn’t have any leads. It was lame. He decided to go see if any good tapes had showed up at goodwill. He got dressed, put on his coat, nodded “good morning” to Peter, who was pacing the halls considering history or something as was his wont, and made his way into the Brighton sunshine.
An hour or so later, Matt emerged from the Goodwill with a shopping bag full of VHS tapes. He found an old Dolph Lundgren vehicle he could enjoy with Peter, some westerns, a few odds and ends from the eighties, and a VHS release of one of the National Treasure movies he thought might very well be rare, considering how late in the DVD game those movies came out. Matt was satisfied, but the case lingered over him. As did hunger.
Most walks in Brighton follow paths directly down one or another big road- Commonwealth, Cambridge, Market, Harvard, or, well, Brighton. These roads are seldom straight but they do run long and uninterrupted and typically anything you want is on one of them. Certainly, the goodwill is a straight shot down Comm Ave, a trip Matt had taken many times. And Matt didn’t intend to get turned around. But he did. He thought about a sandwich place he had been to once and turned off one of the residential streets, only to remember that the sandwich place was actually in Lynn. Wondering if his encounter with Cooperstown had scrambled his brain, Matt cursed and attempted to right himself and get back to Commonwealth, usually an easy task- follow the sound of the B line trains.
He found himself further ensnared in residential tangles. He was in the nether zone of Brighton, where student and family dwellings mingled uncomfortably. While all too many of Matt’s cases had involved bad behavior on the part of students, as far as he was concerned, Brighton was no place for families. Brighton was a place of night. The presence of so many dwellings of the sort of people who tried to make Brighton a place of day left him uncomfortable, resentful, anxious. He paused and frowned, trying to get his bearings, to find a main drag and a sandwich.
A screaming in the sky interrupted him. Looking up, he saw a hawk circling overhead. This was actually not unheard of in Brighton, home to concentrations of students and twenty-somethings and thus home to concentrations of rats. The hawk dove and Matt was transfixed by its beauty. Its decline became sharper and sharper until it disappeared behind a picket fence. A few scant moments later it reemerged, but was flying low and slow, dipping and bobbing up again with effort. It was laden with something in its claws. A great big Brighton rat, almost majestic in its grodiness.
I will follow this hawk, Matt thought. How often do you get to follow a hawk? Only when it’s moving slowly, like this one, encumbered, was. Why didn’t it enjoy its treat behind the fence? Matt wondered. Where was it going?
Encumbered or not, keeping up with a flying hawk is work. Matt jogged along, hopping over fences, running through yards and between houses, pausing once to kick a ball back at some kids and considered taking a pie from a window sill before stopping himself, considering what Skunk Boner would say. It was while scoping the pie that Matt noticed something reflected in the window and looked back briefly. It was another hawk, also laden! One hawk in Brighton isn’t that unusual- two, both carrying prey to some unknown destination, is. Matt’s feeling of foreboding and promise increased and swelled his body with renewed vigor.
Soon, Matt found himself sprinting across the playgrounds near Soldier Field stadium, and he had a premonition. He knew where the hawks were going. Exactly where he would go: Christian Herter Park. A lonely little expanse of playgrounds and woodland along the Charles, cut off by bad city planning in the form of Soldiers Field Road – four lanes of speeding traffic – from the life of the neighborhood. Still, Matt honored the park as the place that marked the boundary between Brighton and the beyond.
Matt sprinted with abandon across Soldiers Field Road and vaulted the Jersey barriers between the eastbound and westbound lanes, ignoring the honking motorists, concerned only with catching up to the hawks. As the setting sun glittered on the Charles and the streetlamps flickered to light along the road he had just crossed, he could count not two, but five hawks gliding, converging on a point that looked to be in the park. His heart swelled and he tried to run faster.
As he bolted past the little kid’s playground he caught movement in the corner of his eye, at the level of the treeline. As fast as he was moving, he couldn’t quite make out what it was- another hawk, perhaps?
A shrill, trilling cry issued forth from behind him. It wasn’t a hawk’s call, though it sounded like a bird. It sounded again. What did it mean? Two of the hawks had swooped down to a single point, the other three were converging on it, it was below the rise he was running up, down by the old bandstand on the river…
Another cry, this one unmistakeably the cry of a hawk. One was headed directly for him, making a chilling hunting shriek as it dove. Fear stabbed Matt directly in the heart and groin, but by everything holy he was going to find where the hawks were coming from. He kept running.
He made the top of the rise just as the hawk swooped in for his throat. He heard a shout from the bandstand- something like “Go, my pretty one!” but Matt had already started using his forward momentum to duck into a shoulder roll and avoid the hawk’s swoop. The hawk cried out in frustration and took to the skies again. Matt sprung to his feet and got his first good look at the bandstand. There stood six people, four broad-shouldered, scraggly-haired, bearded men, and two svelte women with their hair in braids. In the dying light Matt couldn’t make out their clothes but could tell they were tight. They carried sticks and had lines with lumps attached to them around their shoulders. Matt wondered what they were – sneakers perhaps? – for a split second before the hawk’s shriek reminded him he had company.
Matt got to his feet and started running at the crowd, perhaps fifty yards away. While doing so he weighed the canvas shopping bag of video tapes in his hand. He looked behind him. The hawk was gaining. He had to time this just right…
It meant losing sight of the hawk’s masters, but he did it. He swung his bag in just the right arc to connect with the hawk’s head. The collision with a few pounds of swung black plastic wasn’t enough to kill the bird, but was enough to convince it to find other prey. The swing left Matt unbalanced and he tumbled to the ground, rolling lengthwise.
When he got to his feet, the hawkers were running to the water. One of them had dropped his lumpy string. Matt ran after them, but the hawkers were fast and he was tired. What were they going to do when they got the river, Matt wondered?
Asked and answered: one by one, the men and women dove into the water and began swimming for all they were worth, powerful strokes propelling them rapidly towards Cambridge. Matt got to the shore and briefly considered pursuit, but thought better of it- the spring water must have still been very cold, the Charles is a dirty water, and besides, there were six of them.
Catching his breath, he turned away from the water. He walked towards the length of line one of the hawkers had dropped, and squatted down to have a look at it.
It was rough twine, and attached to it at intervals were rodents – mice, rats, squirrels, one rabbit, maybe ten animals in all – recently dead, the twine wrapped around their little ankles.
Matt considered taking the twine as evidence, but decided against it. It wouldn’t prove much. For all of his exhaustion after that encounter, he found he had a much clearer head than before and made his way back to a main drag with ease. When he did so he found he had a text from his good friend and occasional partner-in-detecting John “Blue Zephyr” Mancuso. John wanted to know if Matt wanted to drink some wine and watch some movies. Matt, his stomach still rumbling, suggested meeting at their local Thai place first, and John was amenable.
John Mancuso is a small, thin man with a big presence, wide eyes and the expressive, finely-featured face of a renaissance prince. His eyes registered both familiarity and sympathetic interest when Matt recounted the tale of his day in the Thai place’s waiting area.
“Ahh! Yes, the Brighton hawk hunters,” John declared expansively. Nobody knows who they are, but they’ve been doing their thing for a little while now. The Brighton blogs talk about them as quite the mystery.”
“Nobody knows who they are? Or what their deal is?”
“No, sir. Other than the hawk hunters themselves. But I am also part of a falconry forum,” John said as though this was the sort of thing one was as a matter of course, “and they say the Brighton rat is the most cunning of all potential quarries for the bird of prey.”
Matt mulled this over. It jibed with his experience. While he was doing so, John said “they started swimming across the Charles? That’s crazy.”
“Yeah. Pretty crazy.”
“I kind of always thought they’d be Cambridge people, though. Hunting with hawks is totally the kind of thing really bored programmers would do.”
Matt nodded. John continued, “you know, after raves and board games and weirdly contractual casual sex arrangements get boring.”
Matt smiled, amused. But a curiosity was awakening in him. “When did these hawk hunts start?”
“Oh, not too long ago. A few months?”
“How many have their been?”
John shrugged. “At least ten or twelve. Probably more. We could look.” He produced his smart phone. Matt got up. “I gotta get a few things. I’ll be right back.”
He returned a few minutes later with his case file.
It took some doing. Local bloggers kept disagreeing with each other about when exactly they saw hawks where. But soon, a pattern appeared- for the last several weeks, whenever there was a hawk hunt, there was an apartment raid.
“What can this portend?” John asked, eyes wider than usual.
“I don’t know,” Matt said, “but those guys looked like assholes. And whatever they’re planning, they’re doing tonight.”
They had left the Thai place and were crossing the street to pick up some candy bars and rolling papers at Lee’s, Matt’s friendly local bodega. When they entered, rather than the usual friendly greeting, the counterman Samar was engaged in a shouting match with two young men, while an elderly man, scratch ticket in hand, looked on from the other side of the counter, bemused.
“Man,” Samar yelled, “You’re gonna clean that shit up or I’m gonna call the cops!”
“This shit is POISON, bro!” one of the young men, a big, broad-shouldered ginger, shouted back as he torn open a package of flour and dumped it on the floor. “Yeah! You should be THANKING us!” added his companion, a wiry, pale man with gross brown dreadlocks and almost equally gross gauged ears. Both men were dressed in an odd assortment of clothes: dirty sweatshirts, exercise togs, and both appeared to be wearing moccasins, of all things.
John Mancuso drew up in surprise and bemusement, but Matt saw in a flash what he had to do. He had seen this pile of grains – flour, rice, cereal – on the floor before, in crime scene photos of raided apartments. He rushed at the big mess-maker and ploughed into his hips full force, knocking him back into a display of incense.
The big man was taken by surprise, but not for long. He clocked Matt good on the side of the head, rolled out from under and tried to get to his feet. His friend tried to help him, but the Blue Zephyr lived up to his name, and also to his reputation for mercilessness- he put one hand on the dredded head, another hand through the gauge of the ear on that side, and pulled the two in opposite directions.
The dread-head let out an ear-splitting scream that distracted his big friend long enough for Matt to get to his feet and send the jerk sprawling with a big right hand. Matt turned around to see the littler man holding the side of his head, sobbing, and jabbing at John with some crude shiv while John bobbed and weaved away. Luckily, Samar had come from behind the counter with a crowbar, and he bashed the man who had vandalized his shop behind the knee with it.
The lottery player had been watching all of this as though he’d seen it all before, but presently he gestured at Matt. “Your man, there,” he mumbled. “Your man.” Matt squinted at this cryptic utterance but was interrupted when he was brained from behind with a cold two-liter bottle of grape fanta. He wheeled around again, only to have that same bottle thrown in his face, and for the red-head to come along behind it.
Summoning up some fraction of the fury which he had expended on The Village, Matt checked the big man’s rush by bracing himself on the flour-coated floor as best he could. He nearly stumbled, but managed to get a hold of his man’s legs as the man whaled on his kidneys with hard shots, shouting “give it up, bro! You’re weak!” Infuriated by this violation of the “no broing without knowing” principle, Matt summoned all of his strength, lifted his assailant up, and powerbombed him through the glass top of the ice cream display case.
That done, he looked around. After getting bashed by the crowbar, and losing a fair amount of his ear besides, the other, littler man fled. Samar was unwilling to leave the store and John Mancuso was unwilling to leave Matt and he escaped in the confusion. John secured the man’s shiv and was looking it over. Samar and the lottery man were yelling about the damage to the store and also about the fight. The man Matt powerbombed was stirring weakly and mumbling “not cool, bro.”
“I dunno,” John Mancuso said. “Looks downright cold in there to me.” Matt, the lottery player, and Samar laughed heartily. The man stirred a little more strongly and made an attempt to get up. Matt shoved his head against a stack of klondike bars.
“Want some ice cream, pal? Gotta be better than eating rats, right?” he inquired. Samar looked confused, but had seen Matt in action before and knew better then to interfere.
“Man, what are you talking about?”
“Dude, this knife is made out of flint! And twine!” John Mancuso announced. “What the fuck!”
The man in the freezer rolled his eyes.
“Talk to me,” Matt said, “You don’t want to meet my friend Cooperstown. How about we start with a name?”
“Firelighter, and that’s what I’m gonna-”
“Listen. Shut up. Rats. Hawks. Break-ins. Double stufs. Tell me about it.”
“Also,” Samar added, “Why do you come in and make a mess all over the place and say my shit is poison? That’s good flour, man! That’s goya!”
“The bachelor’s friend,” the lottery man added, sagely nodding.
“ALL flour is poison! That’s why you’re so weak and flabby!” the assailant yelled, eyes bulging in telltale sign of fanaticism.
“I’m not sure how weak we are. You’re in the freezer and we’re out here. Come on. Where are you breaking in tonight?”
“I don’t have to say shit to you! I want a lawyer!”
“I know this is a cliché,” John said, “but really, we really don’t look like cops.”
“Listen, I don’t want to throw anyone in jail. I just need to get some items back. And maybe kick a few dudes’ asses.” Matt Johnson is a reasonable man.
“Are you, like, really paleo or something?” Samar asked, still angry about the slander against his wares.
“It’s a LIFESTYLE!” the man calling himself Firelighter shouted, trying to get up again. Matt threw a left that sat the paleo freak back down in the ice cream display, and took hold of the door – metal frame, if not glass, still intact – and slammed it on the man’s hand a few times for good measure.
“Ok! Ok! We hunt Brighton game before cave raids! Man, we never hurt anyone! Just took their poison, and… and a few trophies! What the fuck!”
“Good. And what’s your actual name?”
“Firelighter!” Matt slammed down the door frame again. “EVAN!”
“Good. Evan. That’s a fine name. Now, who’s we? The hawkers?”
“The what? Naw, man, we’re just trying to live the real paleo lifestyle. Diet, exercise, tools, the works. And I mean, what’s more paleo than raiding, right?”
John, Samar, and Matt shared a nod. “Fucking paleo people,” they said almost in unison. The lottery guy was back to scratching and didn’t join in, but he might have been thinking it.
“Let me ask you something,” Matt said, warming to the interrogative mode. “If all this is about getting ‘poison’ away from people, why take some of it away and why dump some of it on the floor?”
“And why take a nintendo wii, of all things?” John added. He was a respectably serious gamer.
All of the fanaticism left Evan’s eyes, replaced by uncertainty and shame. “I dunno, man… I think we dump a lot of it in the river… I just do the flour and stuff, like kind of a symbolic thing, you know…”
Matt nodded. “Where do they meet, before a raid? You tell me and I don’t call the cops. I take care of it myself.”
Broken, Evan looked down and mumbled an address.
“Somerville! I knew it!” John exclaimed.
“You said Cambridge.”
Matt looked at his phone. “We’ve got a few hours before their usual raiding time. Let’s stop at the apartment first, I’ve got something to pick up.” They hustled out of the store as Samar picked the beaten man up by the ear and pressed a broom into his hand.
TO BE CONCLUDED… right here!