“So, where can I find Charlie 8? You guys know where he hangs out?” Deputy John looked up from his chair at the four men still gathered around him.
He figured that Ace and Beverly and their friends knew a lot more than they were saying. The homeless community, if you wanted to call it that, had its rules, its own structure. Rule #1 was don’t say more than you absolutely had to. About yourself. About other people. Keep your words in your head. Everybody’s safer that way.
“We don’t know,” Ace answered. “Charlie 8 come and go. He don’t tell us.”
Deputy John got up to go, figuring that the group would hang tough on not talking about Charlie 8. He’d have better luck checking out the Citgo and the Mickey D’s up on Chamber Street. Maybe check out the bus shelters. Somebody had to have seen him. But first he had to get some kind of physical description. He could see that’d be tough with these guys. They weren’t going to offer up anything.
“Who’s lookin’ fer me? I’m right here, y’all. Your search is over.”
A very thin Asian guy, maybe mid forties, stood up out of the brush bordering the lake. He wore a Cleveland Indians t-shirt and black joggers with a white stripe down the side. He had long black hair pulled back in a ponytail and carried an orange Sponge Bob backpack, probably retrieved from an untended Goodwill bin.
Deputy John had heard about Charlie 8 but never met him in person before. News of a new guy on the streets spread fast among law enforcement and all the volunteer programs that helped homeless people. He’d heard a shrimper from Louisiana had joined the Wilson Park camp, that he was Asian was a surprise.
“Hello. I’m Deputy John Pickler from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. I’m investigating the murder of Jacob Walensky, the park maintenance man. You might have heard. Somebody stabbed him. With a shrimp knife.” Deputy John said this in a quiet easy way. His gut told him that Charlie 8 wasn’t carrying a gun and wasn’t a demonstrative kind of guy, meaning he wasn’t an immediate threat. He looked to be a very cool character.
“So, because a shrimp knife was used, you think it was me?” Charlie 8 struggled to take his backpack off. It was crammed full of stuff. Deputy John could see the edge of a t-shirt, the toe of one shoe, and a bit of blue tarp sticking out.
“Not saying that. Not saying anything. I’m just looking into it. That’s my job. So, tell me what’s the deal with your name – a name and a number. What’s that about?” Deputy John kept the conversation going on purpose. The more Charlie 8 talked, the better. Didn’t matter what he was talking about, just that he conversed. Deputy John really wanted some good conversation.
“The guy who owned the shrimp boat I worked on, he was in Nam. He called all us Vietnamese guys Charlie. I was Charlie 8 – there were seven other Charles. They all got hired before me so I was 8.”
“Your people were Viet Cong?” Deputy John had relatives who’d been in the Vietnam War. He’d heard about the VC – Charlies for short.
“No. Why? You think the guy cared about being accurate? He didn’t give a shit. We were all the same to him,” Charlie 8 said.
“So, you worked on a shrimp boat? What was that like?” Now, Deputy John’s questions started to sound like the kind of idle conversation one might make on a long bus ride.
“You know shrimp boats? You worked them? It’s shit work, man. You work around the damn clock, it’s wet, nets are always getting ripped up. It’s a bitch. I’m glad I left. Smartest thing I ever did.” Charlie 8 was pulling his gear out of his Sponge Bob back pack. When he got to the tarp, he stood to throw it over the low branches of two trees, the start of a shelter for the night.
“What about the dead guy. Did you know him?” asked Deputy John.
“Yeah, I knew him, knew of him. It wasn’t like we had conversations or anything. He would just yell at me to get out.”
“Get out of where? What were you doing when he told you to get out?”
“Takin’ a crap.” Charlie 8 tied the ends of the tarp to the branches with small bits of rope he retrieved from his backpack.
“What? You were in the bathroom and he told you to get out?” Ace and Beverly and the guys all nodded. Yep, they murmured, that’s how it happens to us.
“Well, it was a little less polite. He actually hit the door with a sledgehammer and then pulled me off the can and threw me out the door. It was kind of a mess. The guys’ll tell you. That’s how he was though. That Jacob. He was a fucker.”
“So, you went after him with a shrimp knife?”
“Nah. I don’t have a shrimp knife. I left all that stuff back home. A shrimp knife will rip the heck out of your pants, man. People don’t carry shrimp knives around. That’s cracked. Anyway, I didn’t kill him. He wasn’t worth killin’.” Charlie 8 had spread a blanket on the ground under the blue tarp and sat down to empty the contents of his backpack. He ripped open a cellophane wrapped bagel and started to spread cream cheese on it with a tiny pink knife.
“Any of y’all heard from Jerky lately? How’s she doin?,” he said, licking the knife clean.