Gathering Prey by John Sandford
Skye and Henry stood on a corner of Union Square on a fading San Francisco afternoon in early June, the occasional odor of popcorn swirling through, trying to busk up a few dollars. Skye saw the devil go by in his black ’85 T-top, crooked smile, ponytail, twisty little braids in his beard. His skinny blond girlfriend sat beside him, tats running across her bare shoulders like grapevines, front teeth filed to tiny sharp points. Skye turned away, a chill running down her back.
Henry was strumming on a fifty-dollar acoustic guitar he’d bought at a pawnshop. Skye played her harmonica and kept time with a half tambourine strapped to one foot, jangling out into the evening, doing their version of “St. James Infirmary,” Henry banging between chords and struggling through,
“When I die, bury me in a high-top Stetson hat . . .”
He did not sound like any kind of black blues singer from the Mississippi Delta. He sounded like a white punk from Johnson City, Texas, which he was.
? ? ?
SKYE WAS STOCKY with high cheekbones and green eyes. She wore an earth-colored loose knit wrap over a sixties olive-drab army shirt, corporal’s stripes still on the sleeves, and gray cargo pants over combat boots. Her hair was apricot-colored and tangled, with a scraggly braid hanging down her back.
Henry was a tall apple-cheeked man/boy with a perpetually smiley face, dressed in a navy blue Mao jacket buttoned to the throat, and matching slacks, and high-topped sneakers. Their packs sat against the wall of the building behind them, big, capable nylon bags, with a peeled-pine walking stick attached to one side of hers.
“Put a ten-piece jazz band on my tailgate to raise hell as we roll along . . .”
They both smelled bad. They washed themselves every morning in public bathrooms, but that didn’t eliminate the musty stink of their clothes. A laundromat cost money, which they didn’t have at the moment. A cigar box on the sidewalk held five one-dollar bills and a handful of change. They’d put in two of the dollar bills themselves, to encourage contributions, to suggest that their music might be worth listening to.
They weren’t the worst of the buskers on the square, but they were not nearly the best, and in terms of volume, they couldn’t compete with the horn players.
As Henry wound down through the song, his shaky baritone breaking from time to time, Skye noticed the young woman leaning on a fire hydrant, watching them.
Was she with the devil? She was the kind he went for. Thin but hot. Not blond, though. The devil went for blondes.
The young woman was casually dressed in a loose multicolored blouse, jeans, and sneakers, each of those separate components suggesting money: the blouse looked as though it might be real silk, the jeans fit perfectly, and even the sneakers suggested a secret sneaker store, one that only rich people knew about.
Her dark hair had been styled by somebody with talent.
Skye thought, Maybe with the devil—but if not, maybe good for a five? Even a ten? A ten would buy dinner and a cup of coffee in the morning . . .
Henry gave up on the “St. James Infirmary,” said, “Fuck this. We ain’t doing no good.”
“Don’t have enough cash to eat. Let’s give it another ten minutes. How about that Keb’ Mo’ thing?”
“Don’t know the words yet.” He looked around the square. “We should have gone up to the park. Can’t fight these fuckin’ horns.”
? ? ?
THE YOUNG WOMAN who’d been leaning against the fire hydrant ambled up to them. She smiled and nodded to Henry, but spoke to Skye. “I don’t give money to buskers . . . or panhandlers . . . because I’m afraid they’ll spend it on dope. I got better things to do with it.”
“Well, thank you very fucking much,” Skye said. Her voice was harshed by smoke and a good bit of that had been weed.
“You’re a traveler,” the woman said, showing no offense.
“You know about us?”
“Enough to pick you out,” the woman said. “My name’s Letty. What’s yours?”
“Skye. My friend is Henry.” Skye was calculating: this woman was either with the devil, or . . . she could be worked. And Skye was hungry.
“Let’s go up to the park,” Henry said.
“Hang on,” Skye said. Back to the young woman: “If you won’t give us money, could you get us a bite?”
“There’s a McDonald’s a couple blocks from here,” Letty said. “I’ll buy you as much as you can eat.”
“Them’s the magic words,” Henry said, suddenly enthusiastic, his pink face going even pinker.
? ? ?
THE TWO TRAVELERS shouldered their packs and Henry carried his guitar case and they started down Geary, walking toward Market Street, weaving through the tourists. “Where are you coming from and where are you going?” Letty asked.
Skye said, “We were in Santa Monica for the winter, then we started up here a couple weeks ago. Planning to be here for a couple of weeks, get some money, then go on up to Eugene, and maybe Seattle.”
Henry said to Skye, “I could have sworn I saw Pilot go by a few minutes ago. I heard they were traveling this summer.”
“We stay away from that asshole,” Skye said. “He’s the devil.”
“Is not,” Henry said. “He’s cool.”
“He’s not cool, Henry. He’s a crazy motherfucker.”
“Been in movies, man,” Henry said. “He said he might be able to get me a part.”
Skye grabbed his shirtsleeve, turning him: “Henry. He’ll kill you.”
“Ah, bullshit.” Henry started walking again and they could see the McDonald’s sign beyond him. He looked back at the two women. “You don’t know a chance when you see one, Skye. He could get me a part. I’d like to be in a movie. I’d really like that.”
“Why? So you know you’re alive? You’re alive, Henry. Let’s try to keep it that way.”
Henry shut up and they got to the McDonald’s.