Cookie

I told him I was down in central booking. Again? he wanted to know. What now?

I need you to come down. Please.

This isn’t us anymore, Cookie. You can’t keep calling me every time you lose your shit.

So he left me there. Like everyone else had left me, so did he, and I didn’t think he ever would. I remembered the feeling in my chest the first time he put me behind the wheel. Him and his block headed brother ejected through the artificially lit glass door and were yelling at me to go before they touched the car. The adrenaline smelled like flop sweat and Jim Beam and burned the tiny hairs in my nose like gunpowder. Maybe it was powder.

We never got caught when I drove. You’re like a filly out of the gate, he’d tell me, and his breath was sour as his kisses were sweet.

After every take he’d push my face down on the hood of the Charger. My cheek grinding against the gritty prime, banging my hip bones into the grill, and he’d go till I screamed. Those were the best fucks. They became the only fucks I wanted.

I slept in holding that night. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

Annabelle

It was not clear what had happened. The body on the staircase, twisted and broken. The only light, a bare bulb hanging from the high ceiling, also broken. Blood smearing the walls down both sides, erratic swipes of crimson that were more umber in the dimness.

He sat on the lower step, face vacant, figure slumped. Once in awhile he shook his head, as though trying and failing to capture a fleeting thought. As people moved up and down past him, he reflexively shrugged against the wall at his back.

The enclosed staircase was narrow, steep, and curved at the bottom. There were no railings; it was an old house, built cheaply and for function in this, the mill district.

“Mr. Barnes? Mr. Barnes, can you tell me what happened? What is her name?” The detective stood with his pen poised, and used it to gesture at the body, now draped in coroners’ plastic. He only knew the man’s name by assumption; it was on the mailbox by the door.

The man turned milky gray eyes upward. Moisture sat on the lower lids but didn’t break; just sat and lended an odd magnification to part of the eyeball.  “She didn’t mean it. She didn’t. It was all a misunderstanding.”

“How so? What did you fight about?”

He shook his balding head. What hair he had was the same color as his eyes. “No fight.”

The detective’s pen scratched. Someone said he had to move off the stairs so they could bring the body down. The detective silenced them with a gesture, and mouthed, Give us a minute. He looked back at the old man. Was he so old? Or had whatever happened here only given him the appearance of age? “Is she your wife?”

Mr. Barnes shook his head.

“What was her name?”

His wiry brows knitted over his wide nose. “Annabelle.”

“This woman is Annabelle?”

“No, Annabelle is my wife. She didn’t mean it. It was an accident.”

“Where is Annabelle, sir?”

“She’s dead.”

“Excuse me?”

Mr. Barnes nodded gravely. His thick hands twisted in his lap.

“When? How long has Annabelle been dead?”

“1982.”

Someone said again they needed to remove the body. The detective reach down and helped Mr. Barnes stand. He seemed no larger upright; if anything, his shoulders slumped more. He shuffled his feet as the detective led him across the room to a straight back chair. It was part of the dining set. He took a chair opposite the old man.

“Mr. Barnes, do you know the woman on the stairs?”

He nodded. “She’s dead. I know she is.” He looked at the detective with a slight question raising his brows.

“Yes. She’s dead. Did you kill her?”

Barnes didn’t react much, not as much as it seemed he might have. But his gaze didn’t waver from the detective’s. “No.”

“Did you find her?”

He nodded. “Saw her fall.”

“Was she dead when she fell?” They knew already the fall didn’t kill her.

“I don’t know. I just saw her falling.”

“Where did the blood come from?”

“The walls.”

“Excuse me?” No sooner had he said it than he caught his partner’s eyes across the room. “One moment,” he said to the old man. Or the not-so-old man. He crossed and bent his head to listen. He came back. Sat down. “Mr. Barnes, are you hurt? Are you bleeding?”

He shook his head.

“Do you mind if the medics have a look?”

“Why?”

The detective cleared his throat. “Because the blood didn’t belong to the victim. So it’s either yours, or there was somebody else here. Was there somebody else here?”

“I told you, Annabelle.”

“But Annabelle is dead. You said so..” He felt silly, but he humored the man.

“It was the walls.”

He sighed and sat back and studied Barnes. “I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to come with me.”

“Are you arresting me?”

“You’re our only suspect, Mr. Barnes.”

“That’s not my name.”

“No? It’s the name on the box. Is this your house?”

“Used to be.”

“But not now? What are you doing here, then?”

“I’ve always been here.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, Mr.-”


She watched him from across the room. They’d been partners for the better part of a decade,  lovers almost as long. But he was slipping. She wondered if it would fall to her to write this incident up, and wondered if she’d have the balls to be honest this time. She doubted it.

She watched him speaking to the empty chair, stopping to scratch in his notebook.  The girl on the stairs was home alone, and it looked to be a straightforward accident. She tripped on the hem of her nightgown as she came down the stairs and broke her back when she fell. There was no blood. Only a dead girl, Mary Barnes.

Sophia

We find inspiration in the death of things. In the failure to thrive, in loss and heartache and pain. He wiped his tears and stood against a blushing sky. The song in his heart was a dirge, but his hand ached to write.


 

When Sophia was a girl, her laughter filled the stairwells of 1416 Tillwell Lane. A tinkling, musical sound, he imagined, that left winking lights behind its hearers’ eyes.

The day she stopped was the day Mr. Blessing dropped by. He delivered newspapers and fliers to the street, on foot, his sack slung across his rounded shoulders. His was a kind face, but Sophia had always been frightened of him. Mother often invited him inside for a glass of sweet tea, or in winter, a hot toddy.

The last day Mr. Blessing was in their house, Mother was out. Everyone was out except Sophia and Rosali. Rosali lived next door and came to sit with Sophia when Mother had errands.

On that last day, Sophia left her dolls on the stairs, engaged in their afternoon tea; Rosali was supposed to bring warm water for the tiny cups. But she must have forgotten.

The sight in the kitchen when Sophia went looking was the sight that took her innocence and deadened forever her tinkling laughter.


His pen stilled. He looked at the brown gunk under his nails, and his heart chilled. He wondered if what he wrote he wrote for Sophia. Or was it to feed his own foolish narcissism, so he could hold his beautiful words up to the world and feel good about mediocrity? Did he tell a story?

Or did he tell the truth?

The truth was too hard. The truth would show the foul Blessing’s fat hand on Rosali’s pale and bruising throat as he stood between her naked legs, ass pumping. The girl’s lips were already turning blue, and a drop of blood oozed from beneath one tightly shut eyelid. The sounds he made were vile, animal. The kitchen reeked with the vinegar and beer odors of his acrid sweat.

And Sophia’s tiny face peered around the door frame, cherubic, pale as talc, and framed in flax.


 

The house at 1416 Tillwell Lane stood silent after that. For many years after the fourteen-year-old girl was found stripped and lifeless on the gold linoleum, Mr. Blessing continued his deliveries. Sophia grew up. From a pale, silent child into a pale silent woman, her charge the secret that lived behind her eyes.

They left the house, finally, shortly after a third fourteen-year-old girl was found strangled and nude beside her family’s pool just down the street; also shortly before Sophia’s own fourteenth birthday. It was apparent Tillwell Lane had a predator with a lucky number.


 

He laid his pen aside and wiped his hand over his face. The story to tell ended here.

He looked over at her, sleeping amidst the rumpled sheets of their bed, her face peaceful. It was the only time Sophia looked peaceful, when her nightmares left her to rest – when Rosali left her alone.

They would find the old man’s body, eventually. And they might even tie it to the thirteen dead girls on and around Tillwell Lane. The only proof he had lay locked inside the mind of his young wife- as safe a secret there as in any bank vault.

But when he told her, when she awoke today and he confessed what he had done, maybe Sophia would laugh again. And maybe it would be all he’d always imagined.

Dominoes

I knew it wasn’t about the murder.  Maybe Charlie knew it.  Hell, it was pretty clear.  You didn’t take a man’s life because you had nothing better to do.  I didn’t.  I got no thrill out of spilling gray matter over an oil-spotted parking garage floor.  But sometimes… Sometimes that’s the way things goes.

I wasn’t so sure about Charlie.  I’d watched his face after I hit the guy, and it made me go sick inside.  Charlie with that strange smile of his, whose pale blue eyes almost mirrored death.  He understood something he wouldn’t ever tell me.  Did Charlie know it wasn’t about murder?  He would’ve whacked the guy for blowing his nose.

The body, as it was now  appropriate to say, lay in a black pool on the concrete, face down, smashed, eyes wide and empty.  They stared past my knees.  I stepped to the side, half-expecting them to follow.  They didn’t.  I felt a jolt of disgust that I could be so childlike.  Fifty years old last week and still watching for fucking ghosts.  Charlie stood on the other side of the body, his black gloved hands hanging at his sides in a way that made me think of the old silver-back at the Metro Zoo.  He was gazing at the body.  The light from the naked bulb overhead glinted on the white of his left eye like a small star burst.  I watched it.

“So,” his child’s voice said.  “What in hell we do with ‘im now?”

The smells of gasoline and diesel fuel, of slick oil and shit.  He’d soiled himself, our corpse.  I had no answer.  Should have thought farther ahead, too busy pretending to be an asshole hit man.

“I say we leave ‘im,” Charlie said.

“You outta your fucking mind?” I asked.  “Leave ‘im for some rookie cop with everything to prove?  You think we’re that good, do you?”

Charlie shrugged.  “No prints.  Ain’t touched ‘im, have we?  Ain’t laid hands on ‘im.”

“God.  Who’s the ex-cop?”

Charlie again lifted his shoulders, slightly, not much of a gesture; so much attitude in him.

“Listen to me.  They got ways of tracking stuff.  You leave behind a fucking skin cell, your chances are down ten percent.”

“So we take ‘im someplace.  Throw im’ in the river.”

“Runs too fast here.  He’d be washin’ up a mile, maybe two down in no time.”

Charlie walked around the body, hands still hanging, fingers slightly curled.  “Bury the bastard.  Find a place where the earth’s already been turned.”

The cemetery.  A fresh grave.  Could two bodies fit one box?  If the corpse was small.  The body had been a medium sized man, my height, Charlie’s weight.

I realized I still held the club, the stick, the murder weapon, tight in my fist.  My fingers felt frozen around it.  The corners digging through my glove and biting flesh.  I’d cracked his skull with it, opened scalp and bone and watched the surprising redness begin to trickle, and I’d hit him again, and again, again again again- I’d hit him until his hair was matted with it, till his brains started to leak out on the ground, till the smell of shit and urine and vomit and blood brought back the realism.

And I still held it.

“We bury ‘im, Joe.”  Charlie was looking at me.

I nodded.

Charlie squatted near the body’s head, his long hands hanging between his knees.  “We bury ‘im someplace, and we bury that with ‘im,” he jerked his chin toward the weapon in my hand.  Charlie was bright.  Cocky and bright.

We worked silently, side by side, tucking the body into the trunk of my car lined with Food Lion and Sky City grocery bags.  I tied one over his head to catch the ooze.  I closed the lid. Charlie rested his ass against it, lit a cigarette.  “It’s a high,” he told me.

“It’s murder.”

Charlie chuckled.  “You tellin’ me you didn’t feel it?”

I looked away.  I hadn’t.  I’d felt nothing.  That was the terror of it.

“Sure, man.  I believe that when dicks dance.”  He drew deeply, sucking the smoke into young pink lungs.  “I felt it.  Made me hot.  See ‘im laying there, all surprised.  He was probably going to his kid’s school play.  Pick up the missus first, then take the brats to Chucky Cheese and live it up for the night.”  He blew smoke.  A thin, gray-white stream.

“Get in the car.”  I got behind the wheel, again sickened by him.

He stayed long enough to make it his own idea to get in, ground out his cigarette on the car, and fell into the seat beside me.

I said it aloud.  “It’s not about killing.”

“Not this time.”

“Not any time.  Never again.”

He bobbed his head, a lanky sillhoutte with a knobby Adam’s apple against the lights along the street.  “Sure.”

It was silent for a time.

“You going to tell ‘er?” he asked.

“No.”

“You fucking kill for her and you ain’t telling ‘er?”

“I didn’t do it for her.”  I did it for me.  For me to be able to sleep at night the scum had to be gone.  That I couldn’t touch her anymore without feeling him, without feeling her cringe because of what she remembered, made me angry.

“All right.  So don’t tell ‘er.  What do I care.”

The cemetary was dark.  No lamps, just me and Charlie and a couple of EverReadies, and the stiffening body with the ghost white sack rattling on his head.

It wasn’t about the murder.  I would never murder again.  I wasn’t a violent man.  Funny how two lives would branch off from this night, from this one weak act.  How when The Body decided to victimize my wife, his ending would begin the career of another criminal.

Life was funny that way.