You don't know who they are? You should read more, babe. They're everywhere. They're inescapable. They're the hounds of Hell. They're the killers of Gods, of suns, of death itself. If you spill blood, they're coming for you. And there's nothing, nothing that can stand against them. They run through the cracks of pain and grief and righteous rage and tell you to pay back, tell you the world that smiles upon your revenge is right and good and kind. The Elder Gods of revenging. The Kindly Ones. The universal force of Bitch.
People call the Furies that, avoiding their proper name. I don't know about that. I've seen a lot of things, but I've never met a God. I've got a degree in psychology, I know it's more about symbols, assuming aspects of our own mind. Externalizing your bloodthirst as an outer force makes it easier to live with. The Devil made me do it, you know. Comes from traditions from back in the day when our brains worked differently and we actually physically experienced Gods talking to us. Instead of stress and intuition and motivation and maybe basic memory we had dancing muses and bloody-handed beasts and burning bushes telling us what we were thinking.
It's important to know where your thoughts are coming from. I think about this while I look at the victim. Fourteen-fifteen years old, female, black. Lying naked in the dirt. One of her large eyes looks up, untroubled by the slow fat raindrops striking it. The other is a gaping hole. My first impulse is to arrest the rain for disturbing the scene. Ob-scene, the way it runs in the eye socket and splashes bloody water over her cheek. I stare while my hair gets wet and a part of my brain runs up a list of relevant details and the bigger part keeps my breathing slow and keeps my hands from making fists and worries about their shaking.
Anger would be useful, they tell me, whispering three times in the back of my head. It would make it easier. It would stop it hurting. It'd give you an edge, make you last longer. Let you catch the asshole who did this and give him what he's got coming. You don't have to care so much when you're angry. No, I tell them. I do not rage. I do not hate. I take the cold feeling and I shove it at them, inward. I am sworn to the rule of law. I do not give in to primitive instincts and superstitions. No, I tell them. I do not want to tear through the underbelly of the city in a roaring rampage of revenge. No, I will not bend an inch. No surrender. No compromise. No truce with the Furies.
'I had him put some crack in it', says Joseph, holding a paper cup of coffee in front of my face.
'Just what I need', I say, shaking out of my trance to grab it. I don't feel the taste, but I feel my brain waking up so fast it's got to be a placebo effect. My head begins to hurt, and then my stomach.
'So, did you have any Shamanistic insights?' says he. My partner. He's a little too flippant. His way to tell me he's not okay. He may be feeling this one more than me.
'Well, I think somebody took this little girl's clothes and beat her to death. The brick there.'
'Is that all? I could have figured that out with police work.'
'Yeah. Nothing more.' It's the things we don't say that make the difference. No sign of rape. Makes it a little better, but it means the case is not what it looks like. It's something new. I don't like it.
Joe moves as if to put his hand on my shoulder, and I blink, surprised. He mimics my expression, and then takes a long sip of coffee. 'Wish I owned an umbrella', he says. 'I'd hold it over your head and it'd be a perfect platonic gesture of comfort.'
'I appreciate it, babe', I say. 'When this is over we'll have a good cry and watch “Eat Pray Love”.'
'Over, right', says Doctor Hanson, grunting as he stands up. He gives me a look that's nearly blank. Without hope. He holds up a bag with the bloody brick in. 'This is our only hope. No clothes, no tracks, nothing. Time of death, four to seven hours ago.'
'In this mud?' says Joe, spitting out a little coffee. 'It's been raining since last night, right? I didn't imagine it?'
'Yep. Plenty of blood splatter, and you can see where she rolled, kicked.' The Doctor points out some marks in the dirt that do look a little fresher than the others. 'She was killed on this spot, I'll set my house on that. But no trace of the killer.'
I don't like that either. I look up, hoping to maybe spot a demon flapping around on big bat wings, ready to confess. That'd make my day. And the water running down my cheeks is only rain.
And with nothing else to do, my partner and I spend the next eight hours knocking on every door of the eight floors of the eight buildings surrounding the construction site. No one has seen anything. No one has heard anything. No one is missing a child. Not ten people were even awake at any time in the Doctor's generous window. At least it's a good day for the coffee cart guy. He stays one corner behind us, avoids the impression of gawking, as unnoticeable as the flavor of his product. My stomach feels like a chemical spill in a swamp by the time we're called back to the station.
A woman has come in to report her child missing. Her picture matches our victim. They have nicely let her wait two hours for us while anyone with a spine could handle the identification. She of course melts down seeing her daughter's broken body in our basement. They could at least have put a sheet on her, I reflect as I comfort Ms McCarthy. Comfort. Whatever that means. She clings to me like a lost child and screams until she has to sit down. I hold her and try not to think. Joe gives me a look saying he doesn't know which one of s he's more sorry for. He's too nice for this job.
But at least we have a name. Shona McCarthy. No family besides the mom, but many friends. We spend another eight hours talking to some of them. No enemies, no bad habits, no recent change in moods or anything out of place. As far as we can figure out, Shona spontaneously teleported across town from her room in the middle of the night to die. By a brick falling on her twenty times.
I run out of funny things to say about that on the way home, and spend ten minutes staring at the rain on the windshield before Joe drops me off.
The rain only gets heavier. It cools me down on the short walk from door to door, and I wave Joe off with a smile that feels entirely genuine. But in the hallway, just ten steps from my door, it hits me so hard I lose my breath. I bend over and rest my forehead against the wall and gasp in a moment of pure blind panic. I can't think, I can't see, and shuddering I realize I'm pressing a fist against the wall. Raised over my head. No. No anger. I take the hand, the left hand, in my good right and bend the fingers open. It won't stop shaking. And I'm so close.
I think of Alike and relax, and wipe the tears from my eyes and open the door and say hi to her. Quiet, in case she's sleeping. But she sits in front of the computer with a book in her lap and looks up at me with big sad eyes. How does she know? I guess it's all over my face.
'Tough day at work?' says Alike, standing up, stepping toward me.
'A little more than usual', I say, trying to smile. 'I, you've seen the news, I guess?' Shona's pictures flash on the screen behind her. Before and after. I don't understand how pictures of dead girls get on the Internet before they're cold. Pirate journos, working without accountability or shame or conscience. Sure, that's one thing, but how people pass the pictures around?
'I thought it would be, she would be your case. Hoped. Cause you'll catch them, right?'
'You didn't know Shona, did you?'
'No I just thought, she looks just like, it could have been me.' Alike helps me pull off my jacket, heavy and clinging wet, and shoves my hair back behind my neck when she puts her arms around me in the second most desperate embrace I've received today. 'She could have been me.'
'Please don't say that', I say, my voice not quite steady, my eyes shut to hold back fresh burning tears, my hands holding her lightly instead of squeezing as hard as I'd like. 'I've been, do you understand, all day I've tried not to think that?'
'I'm sorry, mommy.'
'It's okay', I say. And I find it is, with her in my arms. The cold goes away and leave me warm and faint and my baby has to hold me up and we stand like that in the doorway, softly blubbering together, for a time. No fear. No hate. No anger. 'I love you', I say, and I can't think of any reason not to.
'I love you too', says Alike, untangling, self-conscious. Maybe I shouldn't have said anything. 'I made dinner.'
Dinner is cold, burned, bony steak and half-boiled potatoes. It's the finest meal I've had in a long time. The night passes outside and the rain still comes down, ever stronger, but Alike lights a candle and we're safe in its warm glow.
'Honestly I don't know', I say, staining a comfortable silence. 'If we can catch the guy. I don't think so. We have nothing to go on. So much nothing it's weird.'
'Oh, well', says Alike. She smiles, sleepily. I promise myself for the thousandth time I will not take that smile from her face. 'That's how it works sometimes right? In the real world?'
'Wait, now you tell me we're not in a cop movie?'
'No, mom. But um, thanks. For being honest.'
I don't know what to say to that, so I don't answer at the same time as I promise myself to stop doing that when I'm with her.
'Anyway', I say. 'Just in case, I want to ask you to message me throughout the day tomorrow. At least every hour?'
'I can do that', she says. No hesitation. She even seems a little relieved. 'And you, if you get a chance –'
'I'll call you. I'll make the time. Okay, I'll try.'
'Well, I do have classes till four. But I'll try to answer.' She gives me a brazen piteous smile, and a kiss as she stands up. 'Speaking of, goodnight.'
'Thanks for supper', I say to her back. And alone at the kitchen table, I sit and look into the candle flame. I don't cry, but my eyes aren't dry either. From far away comes the sound of the bathroom tap, jerking me into motion. I seem to move of no volition of my own. I watch myself snuff the candle and wash the dishes and watch the tick tock of the grandfather clock (from Alike's grandfather, in fact) and pick some clothes up from the floor – my jeans jacket, still wet, I don't even know what to do with, so I just put it on a hanger – and Alike' book. Some massive tome on architecture from the library, I register without reflection. I pull back into myself to write her a note:
I forgot to ask what you learned today. Please fill your answer in below.
Or remind me to ask you when we meet again. Whichever seems best to you.
These may be dark days before us, but I believe we'll get through and even
get stronger, together. You are my courage, my pride, my life, my light.
Remind me also to tell you that I love you.
Hugs & Kisses, Mom
P.S. Buy milk.
And I put it in as a bookmark she may not even find. I like hiding these little treasures for her. I don't tell her how many. She finds almost all of them, given some time. Our own little ritual. Of course I can't help but try to teach her looking. It's a good skill to have, even if she may never want to be a detective.
And eventually, I can get into the bathroom and then go to sleep. It takes about an hour before I wake up; hard to say if I had a dream I immediately forgot or if my barely-sleeping mind rouses as it remembers the absurd yet most likely theory of Shona disappearing from her room. But face wet with tears, I take my gun from under the bed and go into Alike's room and sit down to watch her.
My only choice for a seat, without making a sound, is a high-backed chair facing the wall, away from the bed, so I straddle it and rest my elbows on the back, gun dangling in my hand, and for a moment I do feel like a cop in a movie. A foxy blaxploitation lady cop in lingerie. I'm sure Alike would laugh if she saw me just for the pure banality of the image. And I smile and I watch her sleep, so relaxed, so peaceful, so innocent, and I watch the rain smear the city's lights against the window and try to keep a feeling for the time. I'm alert, fully present in the moment, not merely waiting. I'm not afraid and I am not angry and I'm not brave. No. Only concerned. Cautious. Guarded. Guarding.
Trying not to reach out to touch her face to make sure it's still warm, and both eyes still there under the lids.
I feel strangely rested when I get up to check the time, at six twenty five. Strangely proud of my ability to tell time, too. I wash up, dress and get out the door just in time to step in as Joe pulls the car over.
'Like clockwork', he remarks, eyebrows raised. 'All well at home?'
'Better than we should have any right to, really', I say. 'You can imagine how it could go. But aside from me not getting any sleep it's good, thanks. You?'
'My cactus is going to leave me, dude. I can feel it.'
'You deserve better, babe. Actually, I heard your laundry basket is single.'
'Uh-uh. It's going out with my leftover takeout in the fridge. It grew legs.'
'I'm sorry to hear it', I say, bracing myself against the dashboard to keep from laughing.
'Somehow I don't believe that.'
'Well, I'm sorry to hear it before I had any coffee.' I cradle my forehead in my hand, shaking in a way that I hope is humor and not hysteria.
'A likely story', says Joe, in full deadpan.
'And I'm sorry cause I wanted to be serious for a minute.' With a sigh, I sit up, brush hair out of my face, and give him a look of pure sleepless hollow-eyed gratitude. 'I want to thank you. Not to make it a whole thing, but thank you. For making me laugh just now, in the middle of this shitfest. And yesterday for reading my mind. You didn't mention Alike even once. That was good.'
'Oh, that just seemed obvious from the way you kept looking at your phone you probably wanted her way out of your mind.'
'You know me too well', I say. I don't add better than I know myself, but I can't remember doing anything of the sort and I feel my face getting hot. 'It was a real thing, separation of work and family life thing I had to do. Real tricky.'
'Though, you did it, right? Seeing as we're now talking about it, it's done?'
'Oh yeah. Turned into a real family moment.' Just then my phone gets a message, at the top of the hour. It says:
Good morning. My code for the next message will be “banana”.
'Communicating more consistently already, I see', says Joe. 'It must have been good.'
'Well, I may just have replaced my daughter with a security paranoid android', I say, with my voice drowned out by background noise as we drive through the parking garage. Joe makes an inquisitive noise, and when the car stops I show him the message with a crooked grin.
'Clever', says he, with a telling look.
And we clock in and feast on coffee and donuts and information and start calling people for interviews. Kids. Classmates, neighbors, book club, church group, theater group, online game clan. That part is easy. I write the administrators, they give me her friends' emails, I can write them all at the same time. But boy did she have a lot of friends. Usually that's good. The more people, the better chance someone knows something. I should not assume that's wrong in this case.
But everything is wrong in this case.
Everyone's very sad. Some are in shock. That at least is predictable. But no one knows a damn thing. One boy says he has a shriveled capacity for empathy and is upset that Shona wouldn't kiss him, except he frames it in the words “She was always talking about what drugs she was on and how she wanted more drugs”. I just look at him for eight seconds, not moving a muscle, and then he apologizes for lying. I say nothing and scribble in my notes just to freak him out a little.
Things like these keep me warm and relaxed through the long hours of nothing. And good office coffee. And the rain seems to at least stabilize at a ridiculous, torrential level without getting worse. And Alike's texts get more and more involved, to the point I have to skim them. Far later than any reasonable folks would eat dinner, when Joe and I step out for pizza, I call her.
'I'll be really late home', I say. 'You'd better sleep for both of us.' I rub my eyes, wishing I was in bed already.
'That's cool', she says. 'I've got nothing going on here, I'd probably be boring company.' She sounds as tired as I feel.
'Even if you are unconscious you're the most interesting person in the world to be around', I say with the confidence of experience. Joe looks wounded. I give him the finger, cheerfully.
'Right, I got your note. Today I learned a boy wants to ask me out.'
'Does he look like a murderer?'
'No, in fact, he looks like a French horn player.'
'Sounds good enough to me.'
'Mom, you know, I think your standards may be a little too low.'
'Well babe, I've got to get you married off before you're too old, you know. I want the highest dowry.'
'You've got to look at it this way, if he's not the one and I let him kiss me, then you're down at least one camel. You have got to trust me when it comes to dating boys.'
'Something about following your heart. No but is this a thing where you could get a free meal or are we talking about something real?'
'Don't underestimate the ontological validity of chili dogs at the mall. But I don't really know. We should put a pin in it until such a time as we're both less loopy here. He might show up with like twenty wolf pelts to ask your permission to ask me out.'
'A couple tiger furs would look good in the apartment, don't you think?'
'His name is Martin. Martin Cruz. I kind of really want to know what it means when he looks at me, the way he looks at me.'
'That does sound like something, something worthy. I'm really, what's the word, not exactly “excited”.'
'Happy?' supplies Joe, nibbling at a slice of pizza next to me.
'Oh yes. I'm happy for you, babe.' I am. I can hear her joy, her smiles. It fills me with feelings I don't recognize (but if I can't remember what happiness is what do I recognize?) but that wash over me with overwhelming goodness. If anyone in this world deserves to find love . . . and that reminds me. 'I feel like I forgot to tell you something.'
'You're reminding me that you wanted me to remind you to tell me that you love me, you realize that right?' says Alike, with a reluctant, almost grudging smile in her voice.
'Now that you mention it, I love you.'
'I love you too, crazy lady. I should get you cats. Several cats.'
'But you'd have to take care of them all the time.'
'Only until I marry Martin.'
I surprise both of us by breaking down laughing at that. And I deliver greetings between Joe and Alike and we say goodbye and play a few turns of “No, you hang up first” and when she hangs up in the middle of a sentence I laugh more, to myself, and the Furies seem very far away.
'Dinner and a show', says Joe, while I shove a whole, mostly congealed pizza slice in my face. 'It's my lucky day.'
'I feel bad, it seems like we lost a lot of time we could have been talking murder.'
'Are you joking? First, I love your family. Watching that was like, a picture of basic humanity, reminds me why we're doing this shit thing.'
'She is what gets me up in the morning', I say. 'But I could be biased.'
'So, little Kee is growing up huh?'
'Boys, man. And I'm going to have to give him a chance and everything.'
'You know how you're a basically terrifying, no-quitting case-cracking hawkeyed police detective with guns and medals and stuff, right? I think any man making eyes at your daughter is either very bold or very dumb. And she's too clever to fall for a dum-dum.'
'Now you sound biased.'
'Changing the subject, secondly, I was going to ask, what are we actually going to do with this overtime? There's no meat left to chew on this case, is there?'
'Oh, I was just going to do paperwork in search of a cure for insomnia. You should probably go home. Tomorrow we'll have to go on teevee and ask the public for clues.'
'Please tell me you have a hunch that's so thin you're not sure it's worth sharing. Just anything to go on. Or else I'm going to carry you to the car and drive you home.'
'No', I say, and just then I feel how utterly exhausted I am and struggle to stay on my stool. Sleep suddenly seems both wonderful and inescapable. I can't even be angry at my failing body, I just think about my warm bed and the sound of Alike's breathing. 'I've got nothing. This idea was pointless and bad. Take me home, please.'
I wobble and lean on Joe for the short walk back to the station and it feels a little weird, our arms touching. I can remember hugging him a handful of times, but that's been in carefully premeditated conditions, public gatherings. We've never touched in this way, this urgent, needful grabbing of bodies on a deserted street pouring with rain.
I'm mentally halfway through the ride home in comfortable silence when I pick up the phone at my desk, without a thought. I can hear the silent echoes of the dark depopulated halls, the sound of each raindrop against the windows; every detail in Joe's sad knowing frown shoots through my eyes and my brain seems to prickle in pain as it turns on.
'Who?' says Joe.
'Male, black, twelve or fifteen', I say, moving to the elevator. 'Beaten to pieces. No clothes. Do I notice a pattern?'
'Well you know what they say, there's no good time for serial killers.' But, the concession too grim to put in words, more dead bodies means a better chance to find who did it.
'I'll drive. Got a second wind.'
In the mouth of an alleyway between two rotting five story tenements waits the circus. I see two squad cars, two news vans, a taco truck and a dump truck that's probably falling behind schedule and six uniformed officers taking pictures and trying to hold back twenty people behind the yellow tape. Flashing yellow and blue lights paint the rain. Joe goes on sleeping and I enlist a uniform to find a coffee and insert it in my partner and one for me, and then I go poke at the body.
He looks very small, lying face down deep in the winding, crap-coated alleyway in a deep puddle of dark water. Almost like a part of the ground. In my flashlight light he's all shadows, skin and bone. Torn skin and broken bone. Both arms point in ways they shouldn't, broken in several places. The Doctor will know, but I suspect he's tried to defend himself. Could have left some trace of the perpetrator. If the Goddamn rain hadn't long ago turned any such possibility to shit. I don't even see any blood.
'You look like you're about to tell me you got the call', I say, standing back up, addressing the uniform approaching behind me. A young woman, I note as I turn around, less than a month on the job by my estimation. Looks like someone who just had a long hard puke. Pale.
'Yeah. Yes ma'am. Kate Coplin, ma'am. Two calls about assault in progress from that building.' She points to the side. 'We got here uhh one eleven. I found the, him. I didn't touch anything. I called it in, said it must be you, your guy.'
'Breathe, Kate. You're fine. Doing fine. Your first murder?'
This is what I have for comforting small talk, but just then Joe appears and asks 'What did I miss?' with the Doctor in tow.
'We've got a thin, cold soup of man', I say, heedless of Officer Kate's wide-eyed look of terror. 'Doc, I don't want to tell you your business but I'd check the fingernails first. If we're going to have any chance of finding DNA.'
'A good approach given the circumstances', says Doctor Hanson, adjusting his glasses (I wonder how much that can help when they're brimming over with water anyway) as he crouches down and lifts up the boy's hand with a pencil. 'Lights, please.'
Leaning down to lend my light, I note he does squint a lot, and reaches under the glasses to rub his eyes. I suspect he's had even less sleep than I. But he looks with a grit-teeth gaze as if he was digging through the skin with his eyes alone on the landscape harshly illuminated by Joe's and my flashlight beams, going over the body from hand to shoulder to toe with a desperate speed before demanding a hand turning it over. The first thing I notice, as a layperson medical examiner, is the two empty, bloody eye sockets in the boy's face. I nearly lose my breath at that, but Hanson doesn't make a sound.
'Yes', he says, at last. 'There may well be something here. I need to get the body in my lab at great speed. Hm. Coats.' He glances in my direction, then Joe's, and nods and stands up and takes his coat off, a trenchcoat far more sensible for the weather than anything the two of us are wearing. 'Will help keep the rain off a little bit. Hold this while I fetch help, if you will.'
He hands over the thing to me and stalks away and Joe and I spend two minutes trying to work out how to stretch it over the corpse, standing in the ankle deep water and making little progress before he returns with a stretcher and two assistants.
Hanson's noncommittal promises fill the both of us with determination, and we go knock on doors. No less than nineteen people heard a struggle in the alleyway but no one saw anything. One old white guy on the third floor overlooking the alley clearly isn't saying something, and I schmooze him for a while thinking he's freaked out and hiding it with anger until it becomes clear he's just angry at me and I turn around and leave in the middle of his explaining letting someone like me be a cop is everything that's wrong with this country. I am not angry. Only bored.
'Thank you for your cooperation', I say when he stops talking, just before the door closes.
And the sun comes out and you could think things are looking brighter. Seeing the group of kids hanging around outside it occurs to me this is Saturday, a bad day for getting people to cooperate to interviews. And with lab results and identification to wait for I agree to go home and sleep.
My room gets all of the sun, but I like it. Sleeping in the light, feeling like there's no place for darkness in the world. It gives me bright dreams. At some point I surface, with a head full of cotton, to see Alike lying by my side. Bathed in the warm light I don't think I'm too partial to say she looks like an angel.
She opens her eyes and looks at me all sad and scared and hugs me tight and says,'Don't cry, mommy.'
'I don't know if if I'm dreaming', I say.
'It can be a dream if you want', says Alike. 'Do you want to sleep?'
'Oh, I'm so tired.' I can feel myself slipping off again, the weight on my shoulder pulling me down deep.
The downside with sleeping through the day, I find, is waking up in the dark. I don't know when or where I am until I hear the creak of the computer chair in the living room. In the dark, with eyes closed, I take another shower which fails to wake me up very much. Robed, steeling myself against what's sure to be too bright light, I enter the living room to find it lit only by computer and television screens. If I remember last night (or more accurately, late morning) right, I have slept twelve hours.
'Good morning', says Alike, with a gentleness bordering on forced, turning away from what looks like a busy chat window. 'How do you do?'
'I could sleep twelve more hours', I say, scratching my head, yawning, easily. 'But I've got more important things to do.' Like hugging my daughter. She seems tense for a moment, surprised.
'I thought you might not remember', she says. 'You were, you know, clearly not getting any rest, having bad dreams.'
'Just working too much', I say. 'It's nice that you want to help mommy, you don't have to make it in secret, you especially don't have to make excuses. I could just kick myself for making you worry so much.'
'I know killers don't catch themselves, but don't you get at least eight hours a day off?'
'Yeah, I mean, when someone notices how much overtime Joe and I have worked we'll probably be suspended. But. There's someone out there killing kids, and we still have nothing. Twenty four hours a day still isn't enough. But it's not going to be forever.'
'Yeah. I think I want to help you so maybe you can catch them faster so I don't, um, I'm terrified of being alone. They call, have you heard on the web they're calling him the Boogeyman, it's like, like something in a ghost story but it's real and I'm, I'm clearly his type.'
'Easy', I say which is probably a lie no matter how you cut it, and return to hugging. I probably should have thought more about how seeing herself on television naked and dead might affect her. I wonder how many things there are I'm not letting myself think about. I don't miss my chance to look at the screen over her head; there's a fast-moving window, filling up with messages at a furious rate, one in twenty or thirty with Alike's username - “Shareandshare” - highlighted. From what I can tell they're talking about videogames and guns. There are those who disagree with the gun club, but they are surprisingly polite.
What the busy chat doesn't mention is any Boogeyman. There's a window by the side that's not moving that does. It makes me doubly happy, that she knows to keep her involvement with the killer (accidental as it surely must be) private, and that she has someone to confide in.
'You don't want to be alone, we'll work something out', I say. 'Honestly it'd make me feel better too.' There's the station babysitter, where she'll be twice the age of the second oldest kid. We could even stick her in a cell.
A sleepover with a friend might be what you'd call the conventional solution, but Alike is an unconventional child like that.
'Could we get out of here to begin with?' says she, calmer.
'Take in some night air, take out some food?' I say. 'I'd like that. I do have to call work though.'
I don't promise it won't take long. She looks at me tired, smiling, proud. I touch my fingertips to her smile and then to my heart, not trusting my voice. And I call Joe, while Alike turns back to her friends.
'What's the word?' I say.
'The word is “no”', he says. 'No leads, no witnesses, not even a name.'
'Wait, we don't know who the victim is?'
'No prints, no dental records, no one's come forward. The kid is a ghost. I'm about ready to give up and go home.'
'I can back you up, I'm a lot better now.'
'Only half dead', says Alike, as if to herself.
'Nice thought', says Joe. 'But you know as well as I do we have just one thing left to do.'
'And we should both be fresh at the same time for that. Yeah. Stay strong, babe.'
'See you tomorrow, my dude.'
It is the right call. I need more rest to be an effective detective. It just feels like betrayal because I know in my bones we need him to kill again before we can catch him. Maybe several times. Enough to get cocky. He's good enough to beat us, next he's going to show he's good enough to toy with us, and that will be his failure. Not our success.
And it feels like betrayal because Alike is so happy to get me to herself and I am able to shut work entirely out of my mind and be happy to be with her too.
We step lightly out the door and I'm almost knocked down by how good their air smells. The sky is soft and dark with clouds, promising more rain. Maybe the city needs it, hideous as it is. We walk around for thirty minutes on streets I had almost forgotten and talk about small things. Alike has learned, over the last couple of days, several things about history. Ancient history (and architecture). Industrial history. Musical and philosophical history. She tells me by all accounts Beethoven was a black man, which blows my mind a bit. That we never learned about this in my day. That we assumed as teachers assumed as our history books assumed, based on no evidence at all, that a man of great accomplishment in that age should be white. Well the books were written in the 1800s when they started being truly committed to racism, she tells me. I guess that works out.
Kids these days. So lucky. And they know it.
Sitting down at a pasta bar, open to the street, we talk of boys. Well, boy. Martin, she tells me, has been like a knight in armor to her, keeping watch, keeping her company, unflappable no matter how unreasonable she acts when consumed by fears and insecurities. One time people were talking about the Boygeman and this guy looked like he was maybe just about to say something dumb and Martin shut him down with nothing but a stink eye. I want to meet this boy.
'Well he's pretty, um, husky', Alike sais, a touch too uncertainly. 'He has it easy when he wants to be intimidating.'
'I'll just throw this out there', I say. 'Teach him to cook if he needs it. If you cook for him and he has a weight problem, then your food gets the blame.'
'You really want me to marry him don't you?'
'Oh, just in case, of course.'
'Of course. But I think I'm giving you the wrong picture. In fact I should just give you his picture.' She shows me a face on her phone, a sharp smile, a soft chin – two, rather – brown eyes sparkling with dark humor. 'He runs', she says, which seems hard to fit in with that pudgy face. 'Long distance. I was going to join him sometime. Might be hard to keep up with him.'
'You can't always judge the book by the cover', I concede.
'The expression is “Never”, mom', says Alike, with a patient smile. She pats my hand and turns around on her stool, looking up to the sky. I follow her lead, rubbing my eyes because I can't really believe how soft everything looks. The glow of the streetlights seem to paint the clouds. It takes a while to realize there's a thin mist coming down over the rooftops. Nothing else moves, it's quiet, and for a moment I can believe there's nothing wrong in the world.
'I can't', I say. 'I can't tell you how good it is to be here in this moment with you, babe.'
'Wow, no, no subtle little aphorisms or anything', says Alike. 'You just jam the point right in there.' She has a hand on the base of her throat, breathless, full of laughter.
'Additional memo: I love you.'
'You just killed me, and killed irony itself.' She leans on me, forcing me to grab her to keep her from falling to the ground.'
'Worth it', I say, squeezing her a little tighter than I have to, and stroking the top of her head with my free hand. We stay this way, trying to pause time, until the man behind the bar clears his throat and asks if that will be all. Jostled out of our family movement, we spend another thirty minutes walking back home trying to find it again. It comes close.
3 & 4.
The job, it seems to me today, is like armor. Like an iron cloak I put on top of the warm, living thing at my center. I still hold on to such days as yesterday, but inside the armor where the heat doesn't come out. So I stay cool and professional when I talk to the captain and then to the news. And I follow the script when I talk to the camera. Not pleading and begging. Only asking the viewer to call in with any information they think they may have. I tell them the killer is out for our children without crying. I don't need to say any more. Murdered children is their own rhetoric, all but infallible. Joe stands next to me and doesn't say anything at all, legitimizing my words to the sexist viewer. It's cheap, but we're on a budget.
The switchboard filters who knows how many calls for us – I promise to bake them all a big cake – and we drive around talking to the more plausible-sounding ones. I estimate this to be low-risk enough to let Alike ride along, in the back. It's a long, fruitless day of lonely people, bored people, crazy people, people who think they're clever, people who think they're psychic, people who hate cops and one pregnant thirteen year old who somehow could come up with no better way to seek help. She gets a ride to a shelter, a call to child protective services and my number, and at least our day is not entirely wasted.
Only from a serial-killer-catching perspective.
For our Sunday dinner, Alike makes this creamy mess of mushrooms and olives and ground beef and somehow stuffs them through the length of these bell peppers. It seems like magic, and Joe remarks it tastes like it too, which gets him out of doing dishes. No one mentions murder and the time runs away from us until just after midnight when the call comes.
Two bodies in a dumpster. Young. No eyes, no clothes. We're all but out the door before I realize Alike has gone quiet and fearful.
'Well, he's escalated', I say. 'I could say you still ought to be safe tonight but, shit. Are you armed?'
'Yes', says Alike, grabbing her handbag. 'I'll stay in the car. I mean, I'll probably sleep.'
'This works. You get to ride shotgun, too.'
Joe takes this evenly, with a look of mild concern. 'I mean, if we get to take in a suspect tonight I'll eat my hat', he says, driving through the dark.
'It's unlikely', I say, 'but we have to be prepared for the worst. You know what, right?' I reach forward and pat Alike's shoulder.
'Mmm', she says, rubbing her eyes. 'What is the worst that can happen here? Prepare me.'
'Let me see. The killer could be hiding under the bodies or something dumb like that, waiting until we start poking them to pop up with an assault rifle. He could time it so I'm still stuck in the back seat, dividing our forces.'
'So why am I up here?'
'In the much more likely event', Joe says, 'that he's waiting to surrender peacefully and we'll have to cuff him and put him in the back with minimal interference.'
'It's just a numbers game, babe', I say. 'This is extremely low risk which is why you can come.'
'But I stay right here and keep my hand in my purse just in case.'
We ride in silence for less than ten seconds and meet a couple of oncoming headlights in some kind of rhythm and then she's asleep. I note my hand is still on her shoulder. I take it back and wish I could do something better for her. Get out of homicide, maybe. Or take some bribes to get her a sitter.
The victims, a boy and a girl, neither older than ten, are missing an eye each. The first one had an eye dislocated through blunt trauma to the skull; this seems like the killer is trying to make a gimmick for himself. It seems forced. An asshole in training playing it up for the evening news. Or his future book deal. Her name was Shona, I remind myself, a little late.
And he's getting sloppy. The Doctor points out semen on the bodies. All over them, in fact. Hard to say if he's getting desperate to be caught or developing his method. Or just really likes little kids. But the important thing is we've got a lead. If we're really lucky his DNA will even be on file. If it's not a copycat.
Most serial killers are fucking stupid. He could have done this thinking his DNA will be untraceable because he rubbed lemon juice on his balls or something. But there are voices in the back of my head telling me it can't be that simple. Three voices.
Looking up, I see a monstrous shadow on the brick wall in front of me. Someone in the crowd has a big flashlight, and the crowd is getting rowdy. Shouting and raising fists. A strangely large crowd for the middle of the night in a good part of town. Joe and I head over to fish for leads and maybe keep a riot from happening.
The first part of this plan doesn't work out as we have to block a barrage of questions from the press. The crowd gives up any pretension to being a mob with just some calming hand gestures, but when someone asks you twenty questions in front of forty or more people and your only answer is 'No comment', turning around and asking the group if they've seen anything produces mostly sass.
And I do it all while keeping an eye on Joe's car.
And then the Captain calls and asks to see us at the station. His tone is so mild it makes my face feel cold. Someone has done something wrong. And we're probably taking the blame for it.
Sleeping alone in the station parking garage does not appeal to Alike, and she follows us up to lie down in my office, barely conscious. Joe and I go to the Captain's office, where he waits with four bereaved parents to ask some pointed questions about who wants to learn their kid has been raped, killed and disfigured from the Goddamn television. I understand his anger, misdirected as it may be. We just don't have a chance, when the bodies are found in public without identification. The media gets everywhere. They would have been using mini-drones or shotgun microphones or who knows what to get any pictures and quotes they needed and put out their story while we were still putting together ours.
But I don't need to tell anyone that. Instead we stand with our heads held low until he's done shouting, and apologize to the Captain and each of the parents. Colin and Martha Ryes, parents of Nina, nine years. Alice and George Wilson, parents of Anton, ten years. I tell them I'm sorry for their loss, like that means anything, and I tell them we're doing everything we can to catch the asshole, with a desperate frustration I can't quite keep out of my voice.
The families don't know each other, is the thing that stands out to me. They live nowhere near each other, or the scene. Both Alice and Anton were last seen at nine in the evening. Time enough for one guy to physically be able to do this, maybe, but I put the “less than two killers” theory on the back burner. Well, the DNA will tell.
And we spin the wheels for an hour, building up a picture of the kids' social networks moods and habits. No surprises there. They never give you much to go by, the little angels. It would be nice to at least find one common contact. Shona, Alice and Anton were all only children, that could be something. We can warn parents of color with only children to be especially careful. Of course we (the parents) already are, but we (the department) must be seen to take action.
Upon having this thought I collapse on the table, my midsection seeming to tear itself apart. I don't know if my body is trying to cry or vomit, but I know the groaning coughing sounds I'm making don't suggest much else. I collect myself and sit up again in less than two seconds, but it's enough.
'Sorry', I say, standing up, wiping my forehead with my hand. 'I'm under a lot of stress. I have a young daughter myself.' Stupid to play that card. I gain their sympathy but lose their confidence. 'I, I'll start making some calls. No time to lose. You handle the rest of this, Detective Washington?'
'I've got you covered, Detective Freemantle.'
Outside the interview room waits the Captain. He takes my shoulder in his big hand and asks, 'do you need to be taken off this case, Detective?'
'No', I say, meeting his even look eye to eye. 'I need, we just need more time. This is getting out of hand, we need to get on top of it. Before people start throwing rocks.'
'I can give you some more manpower. Not quite a taskforce. If I get, say, six detectives under you?'
'Might take tomorrow to familiarize them with the case, but then we can cover the ground faster. We have no good leads, but a lot of them. Yes, that would be ideal, please and thank you.'
'Well, you're right, the natives are getting restless. The department is seen as incompetent. Speaking of which, tell me you have something. Anything.'
I tell him of the slim thread we have just as I get a text message. From the coroner's office:
No DNA match.
I show the Captain, and he growls. 'What's your next course of action?' he says.
'Well our shift starts in', I say, pausing to consult my wrist watch, 'two hours. I'll have a nap, then find the last couple of names on McCarthy's list and, when do we get these detectives?'
'Two hours', he says, with a wolfish grin.
If he'd known about you it he wouldn't have asked about taking me off the case, I think, watching Alike stretched out on my couch. It's a wide and deep couch, but pretty cramped for two sleepers. I still shuffle in next to her, spreading my jacket to half-assedly cover us both. Alike doesn't stir, and I nod off listening to her breathing. I can feel it through my body. It seems more real than my own.
And I wake up with ten minutes to spare, Alike half on top of me. I smile and brush her off and get up and put my belt on and ask my drowsy girl if she'll be okay taking a bus to school.
'I'll live', she says. 'Public space and all.'
'I might just have some time over later today', I say. 'Going to get to delegate work. We'll keep in touch the usual way, alright?'
'The fine old tradition from this Friday.' She still struggles to sit up, and I bend down and give her a kiss and we both recoil laughing at each others' horrible breath.
And I manage to wash the worst of the dirt off me and wake Joe up in his office and meet the Captain exactly at seven in the morning. Which is enough time for us to get installed in a conference room, print some files, hook Joe's phone into an overhead projector and confirm with the Doctor we're still looking for a single perp (I ask if it could be identical twins and he laughs at me) before any of our fresh meat shows up.
But none of the six men are more than five minutes late, and all of them are eager to catch a serial killer. They seem disbelieving when they learn just how little we have to go on. In fact the briefing takes less than twenty minutes, and most of that is just going over four lists of names and locations. One with two items on it.
'Just a thought', says one – Reynolds, if I remember right – in the second-long silence after I ask for any questions. 'I've a niece who knows the dark web, or says she does. If someone's trying to sell any eyeballs she could find out.'
'Good', I say. 'Real low odds on that one, but it can't hurt. It's thinking out of the box. We need that.'
But first we need to follow the leads we have, and convince the public to look out for their kids, and go through missing persons reports from this and neighboring countries. Joe and I pick the last one, and we split up and start the grind.
By late Tuesday we have stone nothing but a growing cluster of protesters outside our doors. Judging by their signs they are equally divided between people who want more cops and people who want us all fired, so I guess it evens out. I watch them through my office window and try to divine how long they'll give us before doing anything we have to spend time and resources stopping. A BLM contingent shows up and I want to go down and tell them of course they have a point, but the department is already doing all it can.
But I don't take it personally. They probably want a minute on the news to remind everyone that people of color are humans, which may very well help. If the public treated all our victims as if they were white someone probably would have seen something by now. I consider joining them. It would be the most I can do to help the investigation right now and it would feel good, but the risk of complications isn't worth it.
Maybe I should just go home. But Alike is sleeping deeply on the couch. And it feels like I'm missing something. Of course that's a feeling you get a lot when you deadend a case. (Which usually happens in months rather than days.) I think that the killer is probably either killing someone right now or will be twenty-four hours from now and consider going out just in case I can be one of the ones who see something. I estimate a better chance of accomplishing anything by adding my voice to the protesters.
Why are they here in the middle of the night, anyway? That seems worth investigating. Right outside the door I spot Shona's mom, so I guess that explains it, but now it's be weird to go back inside.
'Rhea McCarthy?' I say, as she stares at me with growing confusion. She's drunk.
'You. You're the. Her. Officer?'
'Call me Zoë, please. Can I help you?'
She embraces me forcefully, and I have to struggle to stay on my feet. This may have been a mistake.
'No I know you're doing your best', she says, regretful. Maybe she has just said something she hopes I haven't heard. 'Or um, you catch him yet? He, the, fuck, he's up to four now right?' She pushes away and stares at me with flat angry eyes, breathing hard.
'Look, Rhea', I say, slowly and evenly. 'Can I call you Rhea?' She blinks, and nods. 'I can answer, hm, some of your questions, if you really want to know, but you understand I'm not supposed to talk about an open case, right?' I lower my voice and glance at the people around us who're all looking like they're trying to look like they aren't listening.
'No, man it doesn't matter', she says. 'Nothing matters. I got nothing. Nothing left.'
'Yeah? Zu. Zoë?'
'I am so, so sorry about Shona. I can't imagine.' My voice catches in my throat, but I don't know what I was going to say next anyway.
'Thank you', she says, fighting back tears. I somehow had the idea she was taller than me, but I realize she's quite a bit smaller as I pull her to my chest. Small and defeated.
'I'm not a grief counselor, you understand', I say. 'Right now I'm also not a cop. I'm a mom and, and I'm so fucking sick of the asshole that did this walking free.'
'This is personal to you, is what you're saying?'
'Like you wouldn't believe.' I debate for a moment inviting her to the station, have some coffee and tell her everything. (Well, the important parts.) It would be a not inconsiderable security risk and it wouldn't help anything but I'm just that starved for human reaction. And I want her to know, not to carry around this mystery on top of the sucking chest wound that is her life. But of course I don't have any answers.
So I just give her my card again, and write the number to my psych teacher on it, and tell her to call either of the above if she wants to, even for no reason at all. She looks like she might. I look up at the sky, where more storm clouds roll in, and I tell the protesters to take care of each other before I go inside.
And so I keep from tearing my hair and howling at the moon for another day.
Beyond tired, I sit in a trance and stroke Alike's hair until dawn, when the call comes.
Asking nicely, I get the officer at the scene to send me a picture. Maybe it'll help us beat the press to get an ID. Somehow. I shake the life into Joe when it comes on my phone and then I swear loud enough that I probably make someone drop something. I hear a shattering sound from somewhere in the building. The Furies are beating at the doors, like the blood thumping in my hears.
I recognize him. Lying in a garbage heap with blood on his face and his sparkling dark eyes gouged out I still recognize him. I tell Joe to start up the car and start running back to my office where I run into one of our helpers. I have to close my eyes for a second to remember his name.
'Detective Sombra, good. Can you and Peters supervise a crime scene? At the docks.'
'Sure?' he says, looking like he's waking up. 'Sure. We got a hot lead or?'
'I'm going to talk to the next of kin', I say, which gets him moving with a somber nod.
I reach out to open my office door just as it swings out and I'm face to face with Alike. How did she know, I almost ask out loud before I realize she doesn't. She just woke up from my scream and came to see what's wrong.
'Can you reach Martin's parents?' I say. She doesn't fool herself for a moment, doesn't bargain or deny it or cry out, just catches her breath and bites her lip and turns around to pick her phone out of the couch cushions, and at once I realize both that she's going to be a damn good cop and that I never want her to be.
'There's the class register', she says. 'I've got a phone number.'
'Can you find an address? You don't do this on the phone unless you have no other choice.' Of course I could just work it out with the Google machine myself, and as it turns out, that's what she has to do. But it saves us a second while I lead her along to the car, idling in a cloud of stinking fumes. (And it keeps her busy.) We get in the back seat together.
'Where to, boss?' says Joe, in a good humor that seems utterly alien to me.
Alike reads him the address from her screen. 'The Cruz residence', she adds, with a wavering voice.
'I see', says Joe, adding some burnt rubber to the smells as he peels off. 'Balls.'
'Balls', agrees Alike, and leans on me, breathing deep and slow. I hold her, and close my eyes, and hum to her, a song I don't remember how I learned and don't remember the words to, but it's from somewhere in my childhood and it sounds like a lyllaby.
Then Doctor Hanson ruins the mood by calling me. I answer saying 'Shit, I was supposed to call you. The victim is one Martin Cruz, if that helps.'
'Ah, possibly, you know how it goes. Er. Nice work?'
'Thanks', I say, as we pull up outside an anonymous apartment building. 'Got to run. Be nice to my newbies now.'
'When am I not nice?' says the Doctor, or probably something along those lines. I cut him off after two words. One more for the cake list.
'So', I say, turning to Alike. 'You want to come with? It's not procedure but it'll be nicer for them the more people they see caring.'
'No I, I can't. I'll be okay in the car. Can't stand to, I'm not that strong.'
'You're okay', I tell her, hugging her hard. 'You don't need to, babe, you've already gone above and beyond.'
'We'll probably be taking them to the station though', says Joe, opening my door.
'Burn that bridge later', says Alike. She smiles at me, showing just that strength she was worried about. 'I do want to be alone for a bit.'
They take it well, as much as such a thing is possible. It's being in the comfort of your home, I expect. With people telling you instead of the television. It's easy if you don't care. Then you just stand there and pat their shoulders or whatever they need. I am a storm at sea. Crashing, crushing waves and thunder and unending rain. I don't want to say anything because the pain I feel for them is so profound it seems selfish, like I can't help but make it about me. But I nod and answer their tortured looks with tortured looks and pat their hands and arms and shoulders and drink their coffee, and eventually we get a statement out of them. Barren, like we're used to by now; a few dozen names, no suspicions, no connections, nothing. My daughter doesn't come up, and I'm relieved. They elect to come by the station later, and I'm relieved about that too.
'You carried that for us both', I say, on the way out. 'I think I may be to close to this.'
'Just warn me if you're going to have a nervous breakdown', says Joe. 'If it's longer than ten minutes.'
I laugh, unprepared, relieved. Not quite loud enough to echo through the stairwell. I hope. 'Noted. But no, it's more I feel I'm slowing down. Forgetting shit. Not contributing.'
'It's just feelings, guy. I'd rather have you busy with working through your stuff than five other detectives.'
'Yeah, Sombra could probably replace you', says Joe, with a shit-eating grin.
'Rapscallion', I call him, fondly.
And we hurry over to the scene to get a look. I call Sombra to make sure we're not too late, and I call the news station to make sure our plea for information is still on the air, and I call Alike's school to learn it's closed for the day.
We have to push through a crowd of hundreds hanging on the tapes, which worries me. At least they have no protest signs. But it's early on a weekday and it's raining and it's the docks. And all there is to see is a poor dead boy lying in a heap of fish-stinking trash between two boat shacks.
It's hardly even worth seeing for us, with our junior detectives and forensics having already taken enough pictures to recreate the scene in virtual reality, but it's a strong tradition, an almost superstitious belief that seeing with our own eyes will reveal something more.
And I help wave the crowd out of the way of the morgue wagon and I think for the first time this will maybe be my last case. A strange thought to think because I have to stay on the job or Alike doesn't eat.
Two weeks go by without more murders and you'd think the public would calm down, but it's the opposite. As the case go cold and our not-task force stops meeting, Joe and I get drafted for riot control every day. Nothing too bad; we arrest a couple of so-called ring leaders but no one who's going to go to trial. Exactly one count of vandalism happens in the city that I hear of – an electronics store window is smashed. Alike goes back to school, and sleeping alone. But we keep up our phone contact through the day, and it's not just to try and talk more.
So I'm surprised when I come home and find her phone on the kitchen table next to a note:
Have gone out to keep city in one piece.
Intend to return before midnight.
Please don't worry about me. I'm sorry I couldn't
trust you enough to talk about this before, and I'm
still asking you to trust me and don't hate me.
Only by doing this I remain,
PS. Please feed cat.
'But we don't have a cat', I say before I can think of anything else, which I guess means her postscript works as intended.
Then I try to calculate the cost in trust capital of asking to be trusted at the same time as going behind my back. I think I'm going to have to ground her. But if she's, presumably, out being Batman her days of caring what I have to say may be over.
And I try to calculate the odds of me needing to arrest her. And I wonder if she's helping a lot of people. And I wonder if it's making her feel better as she apparently hopes. And I shower and make food and chew on it and refuse to think she may be hurt.
Five minutes to midnight I have Joseph's number dialed and my thumb on the call button when I hear the apartment door unlock and there she is, covered from head to toe in form-fitting, thick black fabric, hunched over from what looks like pain in the ribs and the leg. She stops halfway through the door and pulls off a face mask and looks at me worried and guilty and sweaty and half her face smeared with blood.
I cross the room seemingly in one step, my phone falling to the floor, to hug her and hold her upright and pull her inside where I can kick the door closed all at once. 'My clever idiot', I say. 'My kind, caring, beautiful, tough little massive idiot.'
'That's me', Alike says, sounding half her age. 'Uhm. I'm sorry, I'm in pain and I'm so tired and I'm so hungry and I'm filthy and I'm sorry and I saved someone from getting killed.' She puts all her weight on me and cries in big breathless sobs as I drag her through to the bathroom.
'Okay, okay' I say. ''Okay. Let's try to take it one thing at a time. You're in trouble, but heroes get deferred punishment. I don't think you can take food right now but we'll try milk and then later I'll go out for applesauce. Okay?'
Alike only whines, quietly.
'Now I'm going to get you out of this outfit, if you can stand up. If you can't I'll have to have to call an ambulance and they'll have to call the cops and then it'll be awkward for everyone.'
'Major party foul', she says, sniffling, and moans through gritted teeth as she works to find her legs. She has to hold her breath to lift her arms enough to let me get her top off, and the left side of her torso is a big bruise, so I figure she has some cracked ribs. I hope she has nothing worse than some cracked ribs. As I get her utility belt off (unable to stop myself from being impressed with how much potentially useful junk she has thought to pack) she does buckle in front of the toilet to throw up. Nothing but bile. She assures me, in between struggling for breath, she's not dizzy. It just hurts.
I bring the milk and a straw and embrace her from behind very gently and say, 'I'm more proud of you than anything, and you told me not to worry so I'm telling you not to think about anything beside that.'
And she shudders one last time and starts breathing slowly and deliberately, leaning back against me, but not heavily, sipping milk in between every other breath.
'Thanks', she says. 'You're the world's best mom.'
'Don't make this weird when I'm about to touch your butt', I say. This makes her laugh and laughing makes her cry and I feel bad, and we continue very carefully. Between the ribs and the cut on her forehead and a swollen knee getting Alike clean is at least a two person job, and by the time she's in bed I'm more exhausted than I remember ever being. Stalking out for applesauce, nutritious soups and painkillers leaves me with a headache, and when I get back she's sleeping deeply anyway.
The first rays of sunlight come through the window as I get myself to bed, surprising me almost as much as that note. Me and my usually firm grasp of time. I text Joe, telling him Alike had a fall, we had a long night and I'm staying home for anything less than a nine, and then I sleep like a stone for ten hours. Alike sleeps for twelve. I wish I had her sense for cooking as I try to come up with the perfect trauma recovery breakfast, and I watch as she wakes up and pretends to sleep for two minutes.
'Are you mad?' she says, at last.
'I'm scared and confused and frustrated and sad, but not mad.'
'I, damn, I would feel better if you were just mad instead.'
'Too bad, getting mad is against my religion. Look, I understand if you can't talk about this, but I want to hear about this murder in progress you stopped.'
She can. Over applesauce and aspirin and coffee she talks, telling me how just walking past some rowdy crowds on the street they seemed to calm down ('Though maybe they were just confused'), and then she ran into four white guys trying to hang a Sikh guy from a street lamp and jumped at them without a thought. Anger. Bottomless anger. They ran after cracking her ribs didn't slow her down, as I suppose anyone unarmed and untrained would.
'I guess they figured you were on bath salts', I say. 'You weren't, right?'
'Please', she says, with an indulgent smile. 'That stuff is dangerous. I thought about packing a little cocaine but I wouldn't know where to get it.'
'Might pack a pocket Necronomicon too. It could get you out of a pinch, but you pay a terrible price.'
'Indulge me while I express the absolute terror of seeing you hurt as snarky advice on how to avoid it in the future, why don't you.'
'Do you want to start with “Don't do this”?'
'Yes, well, why would you?'
'I'm not going to, I promise you that. I thought it was this, something I had to do, it was the stupidest fucking thought I've ever had. And don't tell me I'm a hero.' She tries to curl up, on her back, and holds my hand in a painful grip, and looks at me with tears on her cheeks. 'I'm so sorry.'
'You're still alive, babe', I say, resting my head on her chest, trying not to cry myself. 'Everything else we can work out.'
The words don't matter, here at the dark heart of our family. The blood and the tears we share does. The secrets, too. I want to tell her mine so badly, I think it will never be a better time, but I don't have that strength. Words, it seems, only fail us.
By the late evening Alike is up and moving, very slowly, and I start thinking we might just get away without any close examination leading to awkward questions.
Then, twenty minutes to midnight, Joe calls. He comes to pick me up and we head for the landfill at the edge of town. Alike elects to stay home, and I'm glad her paranoia at least isn't stronger than the pain.
Going by the killer's usual pattern this should be the freshest body yet, and I wonder how it happened to have been found so fast so far out of the way.
'It's a white girl', says Joe. Of course.
'Well that changes everything, doesn't it?' I say. 'We'll get some real support. Maybe they'll build us a new forensics lab.'
'Always look on the bright side', says Joe.
And it does look bright. There's a mass of people covering the landfill, most of them holding up lights. Some have actual torches. Several vans pull up just as we get out of the car, dispensing over twenty officers in riot gear. The Captain himself is here with a megaphone, telling people to go home. He does say please, yet, but the crowd is slow to move. It has a lot of inertia.
We have to elbow about a hundred people out of the way to get to the body, though for whatever reason we need to be there. The four kids who found her aren't saying much; they'll go to the station, though I can't imagine they have anything useful to say. The girl looks about twelve, a terrible mess of violated flesh, and she won't have anything new to tell us either. I think, again, he's not doing this to feel something himself, but he's trying to upset us, make a spectacle of himself. I share this intuition with the Doctor, who thinks there may be something to it, though divining whether he kills because he's a narcissist craving mass validation or a psychopath craving intense emotion probably isn't going to help us catch him.
I start thinking I don't care enough to do this job anymore. I can't not care because just going by procedure won't be enough for the Bogyeman. I can't care because every one of our dead boys and girls breaks my heart.
Teach us to care and not to care, I recite, to myself. Teach us to be still. To both care and don't care at the same time. To ride caring like a car, to use it to take you where you need to go. That would be good. Eliot thought to teach us this is what God is for, I suppose. But I don't know any God who can do that.
The get the body away just as the rain starts, and I feel like time may not be on our side but it has a sense of timing. That goes away as we spend the whole night establishing the kids don't know anything. That they didn't see or hear the killer is pretty strange since they must have been playing Tag not a stone's throw away while he dumped the body, but I believe them. They're more scared of us than of him.
The Captain goes on television at dawn to reach out to the parents and gets results in under ten minutes. We spend another five hours talking to them and I'm forgetting what sleep feels like by the time we head out for lunch and start calling Linda Ericksson's contacts for interviews. Then time seems to stop as we drive past the town center square and see it packed with people.
'Is that a fucking gallows?' says Joe and all of a sudden we're out of the car and pushing through the crowd and calling for help; Joe on the phone, me on the radio. A black man, gagged and bound and face covered in blood, is hanged by a gang of six white men in white shirts and black ties, in front of a cheering crowd, while we struggle uselessly against a sea of angry meat.
'Every one of you motherfuckers is under arrest', I say, I think. I can't hear anything, but probably my meaning gets across because the crowd then turns on me. There's pain in the back of my head and the ground rises to hug me and there's gunfire passing around me. I can't see Joe, and then I can't really see anything.
I fall for a long time in the dark. When I wake up there's still dark, and I'm still moving. I'm in the backseat in Joe's car. Someone warm and soft is pushing against me. Straddling me, in fact. Looking into my eyes close enough for me to smell her sour breath. Almost invisible in the faint light flickering by outside. I realize there are fires on the street.
'Where's Alike?' I ask.
'Just about to find out', says Joe. 'Phones are down, at least twenty five cops are dead, the army is coming and my favorite partner had her brains bashed in, but there's good news.'
'I got us out of the killzone, Serena here is a nurse and she could not be talked out of coming with to look after you, and we're two minutes from your place. And you're awake.'
'Uh, hi', I say to the woman as she climbs off me.
'Sorry about that' she says, hiding her face in her hands.'Just couldn't get any good light to check on your eyes. Are you in pain?'
'I'm pretty out of it', I say. 'Pretty sure I'm bleeding. Somewhere.'
'I'll go up and get Alike, and we'll go to the station and regroup', says Joe, pulling over the car. 'Sound good?'
'Yes, please', I say, and lean my head back and close my eyes and try to figure out where it hurts most. The answer is not where I expect. 'Serena, was it?'
'Serena Williams, just like the tennis person', she says. 'You're Zoë.'
'Yeah. I wanted to say thanks, Serena. You're taking care of me, I don't think you have to be embarrassed about that.'
'I just, it wasn't very professional', she says, pulling down on the hem of her shirt.
'That's fine. Anyway I think we're probably going to have to go to the station house and defend it from a siege so maybe you want to get out of here. Just. Think about your options.'
'Listen, you just sit back and worry about holding your head together. You've missed a lot, a police station may be the safest place in the city right now.'
'You shouldn't lie to a cop, Serena.'
'It's true. I want to stick around you to be safe, and to give you the medical care you obviously need. There are, fine, other reasons as well. You don't have to push people just cause you're a cop. And anyway why are you taking your girlfriend if it's going to be so bad?'
She's even more embarrassed than before, and glances at me from the corner of her eye as if seeing me causes her pain. Like rusty machinery, the wheels turn in my head until I see what she's hiding I lift a heavy hand, though pain grinds into my shoulder, and grasp hers, at her side.
'It's fine', I say again, wishing I had something more I could say. I have so many things to say, and maybe it would be easy to share them with a complete stranger. Who's not going to believe the dangerous bits anyway. But then my daughter and partner appear and I settle for trying to clarify while making introductions. 'This is my daughter Alike, and this is my nurse Serena apparently.'
Alike seems mildly shocked, and struggling not to climb into the back seat with me, but she sits still once I assure her I jus bumped my head and Serena mostly just wanted away from the rioting masses. It doesn't seem like lying until I catch Serena's questioning eye.
After three sudden changes in direction Joe begins creeping the car down the road and it occurs to me we're not taking a straight road to the station. 'Bad traffic?' I ask.
'Roadblocks', says Joe. 'I get a feeling the whole city is cut down the middle. And radio's still dead. Could be time to get out of town.'
'It's your call', I say. Joe surveys his passengers with a doubtful look and breathes in sharply.
'I want at least a look at the station', he says. 'If it looks even a little bit on fire, well.' Then he stops in front of a barricade manned by two men in ties and white shirts. They are both holding shotguns, but don't seem ready to use them. They seem a little drunk, in fact.
'Serena', I say, without moving my lips. 'My gun is on my hip, right next to your hand. I want you to take it.'
'I've never even seen a gun up close', she says, but fumbles it out of the holster anyway, one-handed.
The men stand shoulder to shoulder as they stop by Joe's window. The one on the right points his shotgun to the glass and empties both barrels in Joe's face. Alike leans into the torrent of blood spraying from his neck and shoots the killer in the chest three times at point blank range. The other man jumps back and breaks his gun, apparently only now trying to load it. Alike jumps out, quick and lithe as a whiplash, and puts three bullets in his chest as well, with the car door for support and cover. A textbook maneuver, I think, with a sleepy sort of pride. Though walking up and shooting them when they're already down, two bullets each, is something else.
She opens my door and throws her arms around me and howls into my chest. I manage to get my unhurt arm around her back and marvel at the hardness of her. She's like a stone, shivering and turning to flesh only very slowly.
'Can you drive?' I turn to ask Serena, when I remember her. She sits squeezed against her door, as far away from us as she can get, with both the guns in her hands, crossed over her chest. 'Please? I think you're in better shape than either of us.'
She nods, and swallows, and puts the guns down on the seat and tries to get out. It takes another thirty seconds to get Alike to stand up, and she goes around and opens the door for Serena and helps her drag Joe's corpse out of the car with obvious pain in her side and immediately crawls back in my lap.
'I don't know where to go', says Serena as she pulls away from the bloodbath, without a word about the parts of Joe that must be soaking into her butt by now. 'If we're going out of town. But I heard the Projects is some kind of resistance base.'
'There's a resistance?' I say.
'It's what I heard yesterday. I thought it was paranoid bullshit. But I guess they knew what the white shirt Nazis were up to.'
'Shit, couldn't they have told me something?'
'How did this happen?' says Alike, quietly, without moving. 'Just like that? And now we're in a race war?'
'It happens', I say, trying to sound comforting. 'We'll figure it out. We have to get somewhere safe first though. Till I'm better. Until we figure out whose side the army is on.'
And we drive in silence, past some scattered mobs who seem busy looting rather than killing each other. To the city border, where we see the fields covered in pale lights. Maybe the army is already here, we figure, and head to the side where there are no lights. It's the darkness that convinces me this is the safest we can be tonight. Way out of the way, through the forest on overgrown roads, we come to the Projects. A half-city of rusted steel, great graveyard of stillborn, barely begun buildings. Serena flashes headlights and honks, furtively, just enough to show anyone waiting that we're not trying to sneak up on them.
After a minute there's a tap on the roof. Alike turns to stone again and Serena gasps in surprise. A candleflame appears, in a cupped hand.
'Are you all right?' says the hand's owner, in a deep voice. He seems alarmed. By all the blood and broken glass, I imagine.
'No', says Serena. 'We're, we have wounded. Do you have somewhere we could lie down and maybe a little light and hot water?'
They do have a series of makeshift cardboard rooms, it turns out, to which we navigate haphazardly in the dark. A dozen or so people welcome us, haggard-looking hippies and hobos who seem to have hardly had a hot meal between them in months. They tell us they have to be careful with fire for the smell, and now that the revolution is here careful also with light and sound. But they take us to a squat little space with a tin roof and a couple of nearly clean mattresses, and they bring us towels and buckets of water and candy bars, and using my own flashlight Serena can look me over. Aside from the rather deep cut in the outside of my shoulder I seem unhurt, and Alike goes into a deep and soundless sleep as Serena tries to stitch me up using nothing but blood-stiff thread from my shirt and a safety pin. In the end what she does is more of a bandage, and my shirt is consumed and all the towels we have been given are filthy, but I feel clean.
And she looks clean, and tired, and very beautiful. It may be just the way she looks at me, helpless, longing, like there's no such thing as time. She looks at me for long seconds without even noticing, so lost it doesn't embarrass her when she wakes up with a little shake of her head.
'Look', I say. 'I don't know how to, it's been fifteen years since I lost Alike's mother.' What a strange way to phrase that, I think with some distant part of myself. As if I'm trying to assert my youth, distance myself from my motherhood. 'But I want, I obviously need comforting. And you?'
'I need. Something', says Serena.
There's soft, muted drumming coming from outside. And Zoë Freemantle, who has gone half her life without giving a single thought to sex, thinks about Joseph, that funny, caring man, always there for his partner, Joe the perpetual rookie, who always looked at everything with fresh eyes and was never shocked by anything. The memories fall under the crushing memory of his head turning into stew and spraying all over the car with a sound like thunder and she thinks about nothing but the warm skin pressing against hers, the hand between her legs, eager but restrained, gentle, patient, so careful. She's scared to touch Serena, to disturb the operation of this machine for perfect pleasure. She comes fast and hard and bites her teeth to keep silent.
Surely it's just to keep silent, I think. Surely it's just an accident Serena's shoulder happens to be there and my bite draws blood. It probably hurts me more than her anyway. My head seems to scream, outraged at how I'm throwing it around. She takes it well, doesn't cry out, doesn't shy away. She lies down restful by my side and makes me feel like a gross monster.
'Sorry', I say, my voice coming out sort of choked.
'No biggie', she says, rubbing the wound with her hand. 'Actually that was a very big, very nice, thing mostly. This, heck, I hardly feel it.'
'You're bleeding, man. I don't, I'm rusty, okay, but that's no excuse.'
'How about, you're upset and exhausted and in pain and madly in love with me?'
'I, okay. I'm still sorry. I don't think we'd have made it without you. And it was so good, you've been so good to me.' I'm not sure if I'm speaking clearly. There's a deeper darkness creeping in around the edges. I have just enough time to think I'm probably just falling asleep and then I wake up, with light creeping through the edges of the walls.
In the daylight the room seems smaller and Alike lies much closer than I remember and I'm petrified for a while, until I hear her breathing and realize she's sleeping evenly. I also realize I'm alone. I go for a walk around the neighborhood and find a room were three men sit and listen intently to a short band radio. They tell me Serena said she had to go to work, the city sounds to be under military rule and people are getting shot on sight and the white panthers group are talking loudly about how they killed the Boogeyman. I remark if they had any idea who it was they killed they'd probably at least say his name. They agree and would happily spread the news except they don't have broadcast abilities.
Equipped with a pail of cold spring water and some stale bread, I return to my room to think. To sleep for a month seems like a good plan. Maybe sleep forever. I'll have some explaining to do when things go back to normal, if they go back to normal, but that seems less important now than somehow hiding from the tidal waves that seem to rise like mountains all around us. Going out and upholding the law seems like a joke. Like something celluloid heroes do. I think I'm probably in shock. I think Joe would want me to keep it together and go out and help people, and I cry over my bread, curled up in the corner of this unfamiliar bed in this unfamiliar room as far from home as I've ever been.
I jump a little bit when Alike hugs me, reaching down and almost pulling me out of the corner which has to hurt her ribs. 'Don't cry, mommy', she says, sounding close to tears herself, still sticky and crusty with Joe's blood.
'Hey, it's the wild warrior woman who saved our lives', I say, patting her locks.
'Can we not get into that right now?' she says, pleading, frightened. Then, hesitant, 'I really wanted to ask about something else.'
'I, yeah, I have nothing but time. Serena is at work apparently. Maybe rescuing more saps just like me.'
'About Serena, actually. This is awkward but I overheard you a bit, just a, I went to sleep pretty fast.'
'Oh shit, I'm sorry babe, I was sure you were sleeping like the dead.'
'That's not the, I'm happy for you, okay. It was just. I heard you say. A thing. About my mom?'
All of a sudden I can barely breathe. I hold on to my girl and I think she can feel my heart pounding. I can feel her impatience.
'Everything is happening right now', I say, to myself. 'Okay, it's all things you should know. I never meant to keep it from you. It's just hard to, I've never talked about this to anyone, you understand?'
Alike says nothing, but she doesn't let go.
'Your birth mother's name was Anike Freemantle. When I met her she was Anike Smith. We were in the orphanage together.'
'Oh yes, I knew you were an orphan. But you've never said a word other than that.'
'For reasons that should soon be clear.
'It was, well, it's never easy. It was just the two of us against the world. Literally. The bonds you form, dodging pedophile social workers and kid gangs and digging through garbage for dinner together, they, we, I don't think I can explain. Well, I can say when we met I was nine and she was thirteen.'
'Gross! Mom, what would you say if I came home with a twenty year old? Or eleven?'
'I wouldn't allow it, obviously. Because I'm your mom. That's the point. We had no parents. We had no one to turn to. There was, at most, three other girls in that home at any time, never anyone close to our age. We were alone. She was a late bloomer. I was early. It worked out.
'And if it makes it any better, we waited three years before we slept together. We were very much in love. And when she turned eighteen we finally got to be together for real. I got my emancipation the month before, somehow I beat her to the street. Had an apartment and a job at the supermarket by the time she got out. She went to law school, I brought home the bacon, it was the happiest time of our lives.
'And then she told me she was pregnant, one night in bed. I've never been so hurt, before or after. And then she told me this guy, your father who I will not name, raped her and I asked her to marry me. And she died in delivery.
'Ah, you should have seen me when they tried to keep you from me, cause we were not for-real married and that's how they did to people like us back then. "By law, I am the only living relative of Anike Freemantle, I am the only mother the child has left, and you will not stand between me and my daughter."
'And then I stalked your daddy and killed him and buried his corpse in these woods. And then I started at the police academy. And I've never loved another woman since.'
I want to tell her more, about the price of murder, about the Furies, and how my life has only worked when I have fought against the anger with every fiber of my being. But I don't seem to have strength left to form another word. I slump back against the wall, arms dropping down. Alike wipes her cheeks, and then mine.
'Thank you for sharing that', she says, looking me straight in the eye. 'That's a lot to, to take in, but thank you. I don't care, it would bring me joy if we never mentioned my father again. And I'm not going to say you're not my real mom or anything. I mean, you are, you are the only one I have ever known. I love you. And I'm proud of you.'
And then she hugs me again and I think if I had the power of speech I would lose it again. I just sort of slide down on my back, sobbing quietly and pulling her down with me with the last of my strength.
'I'm sorry', I say, in a breathless whisper. 'You shouldn't see your mommy cry. It's been a rough day.'
'You think you've got it bad, I had to shoot two people in the head. While I was spitting up bits of Uncle Joe's brain. And flying off in an acrobatic fucking pirouette with broken ribs.'
The day goes too fast, and I'm torn between the joy of being able to bond with my daughter on this deep level I had thought I would never experience again and the horror of having put her into this situation where it is possible. She seems to think she's turned into an adult, well, maybe she's right; at least the thought helps her categorize the many big things that have happened. That's the most beautiful and terrifying thing, to see her take the death and suffering and mayhem and uncertainty and loss she's seen and break it down in small digestible components and just work through it.
And our hosts curiously leave us alone. We stagger out the door, eventually, to thank them for the food if nothing else. It turns out they each of them thought it might be inappropriate to intrude. I wonder how these ten kindly old hippies ever got a reputation of being a resistance movement, or anything. But they share their bread and salt with us and I can hardly complain.
In the evening, after hiding the car deeper in the steel jungle, Alike and I go for a walk in the woods. We talk of the use of exercise and maybe foraging something healthy, but it's no secret we're both going mad from not knowing what's going on and we are pulled, as if against our will, towards the city. Too far.
They circle us like Goddamned sharks, on a dark street in the shadow of a warehouse. Maybe we should have run the moment we saw them, but they're armed, and we're wounded, and we don't really have anywhere to run to. And, okay, I was distracted and didn't immediately assume people on the street would be a problem. I didn't think people would be eight white guys in ties. They push and mock and fire insults like shotguns, weapons held low. I exchange a bored look with Alike and we keep walking toward the apartment, without a word. When one of them notes Alike's identical appearance to Shona McCarthy I get an idea.
'Hey, you murdering assfucks know you killed the wrong guy, right?' I say. 'I heard the Boogeyman killed again. Almost like you have no idea what you're doing.'
Making them angry can only help our chances of getting out alive. And obviously it's not true at all, but they just as obviously don't know that. I start into a rant about how shocked I am they could tell the two girls look alike, confident I can at least draw their attention, when one shoves Alike backwards with both hands and she goes heels over head on a second one kneeling behind her. She screams in pain as she rolls on the ground, and they start kicking.
There's a moment of agony, a moment of stomach-churning pain as I resist. No, I tell the three voices at the back of my head. No. No truce. No surrender. Not even now. And the world turns red.
So. A few notes from the author, when and if you have recovered:
There's a moment of agony, a moment of stomach-churning pain as I resist. No, I tell the three voices at the back of my head. No. No truce. No surrender. Not even now. And the world turns red.
So. A few notes from the author, when and if you have recovered:
* First some thanks. To my diligent beta reader and idea plank TacitusVigil. To Literal Lucifer (that's probably just a nickname) for some laser guided editing. To the devs behind No Truce with the Furies who provided the entire inspiration for this story in just those five words. To the excellent, painful movie Pariah which supplied the name for the character of Alike, though it's not pronounced the same way. To MedievalPoC who taught me cool facts about Beethoven and to see the massive gaps in my education. And to Brian Michael Bendis and the writers of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the combined consumption of whose work apparently has given me the confidence to fake my way entirely through a police procedural story.
* This may be the first thing I've ever written that's actually pushed my abilities. The hinges on which stories turn are my life's blood, I understand them like I understand breathing, and this tremendous intuition has carried me this far by letting me just glance at a story and see what about it works and doesn't. But writing this I experienced doubt about my writing for the first time. The story tries to do a lot of things with the structure of a short story that I don't even intellectually understand. It's very exciting to me.
* This story has over 400 paragraphs. I know this because when I was posting it I saw the formatting had somehow gone off halfway through the text in a way that was invisible until it went through blogspot's automatic formatting. The second half of the story was nicely formatted in a way you never expect to see on the web, with indented paragraphs. So I tried to clone that formatting to the whole text, which doubled the paragraph breaks and removed some, but not all italics, but it looked perfect when pasted into blogspot. So I went through the text in blogspot and put the italics back in, and then the double paragraph breaks appeared. So I went through the text in Libreoffice and deleted over 400 paragraph breaks, noticing I had somehow gained a format that created spaces between paragraphs and looked very nice. But when this text went through blogspot then there was no longer any paragraph indents or a lot of italics or spaces between paragraphs. (You really need some space between paragraphs to read anything longer than a page or so on a computer screen.) So I went through the text and added over 400 paragraph breaks back in and also those bits in italics I now knew by heart. But that's the text you're seeing now. I'm guessing there are some spelling and format errors I haven't caught.
* Yes, the presence in the story of Black Lives Matter, Nazis wearing ties and a fantastically unimaginative serial killer with narcissistic and/or psychopathic personality traits who gets to get away with anything are entirely reflective of current events.
* Yes, I'm a straight white disabled virgin man trying to write about a queer black working single mom. I have probably failed in some part of this. I will humbly seek to do better, with or without instruction.
* Joseph's car is not a police cruiser; the back doors are just child proofedt. That's why there's no fence keeping people from reaching between the front and back seats. I know that's going to bug someone unless I make it clear.
* I don't actually know how the killer could do any of the things he does. I hate it when Batman and people like that get away with doing impossible things the writers clearly have no explanation for, but here I found it necessary to push the conflict between law enforcement and revenge to the breaking point without which there would be no story. Though, you know, he's probably magic or something.
* If you're disappointed at the lack of resolution to the mystery, you should know any long-time readers are probably more relieved at the large number of characters who're still alive at the end of the story. Horror is about disempowerment, dear reader.