God damn this city.
Every now and again, you’ll read a facetious little novella about how “every city has two sides”. That’s bullshit. Cities have layers. The first layer is the one sold to happy little tourists from across the two oceans, flying over in their snap-happy millions and dragging home little plastic models of landmarks they could easily find in their own shopping malls. The second layer is where the ordinary people live, the ones that scurry from home to work and back every day and spend their weekends with family in the suburbs. There’s a few more layers in between.
My layer is just above the festering core of this place. It’s the grade-E meat they serve at gone-midnight diners, the second-to-last class at your old high school. No one cares as long as the smackheads keep to themselves and don’t shoot anyone who makes more than a buck below minimum wage. Murders only raised an eyebrow when they were either tabloid brutal or came in groups of three or more, and it was the latter as I got off the phone with Precinct. Staring across the grey river, I drew my cheap smoke right down to the filter, flicked it into the water and got back in the car.
We had a ten minute drive to the scene. In the last two weeks, I’d been called to three DOAs, all within a ten block radius. Every single one of them had a severed index finger on the left hand, surgically removed right at the base. They had all been shot three times, first in the leg, then in the stomach, and finally in the head. Always the left leg. Always the left temple. It was as if the sick son of a bitch wanted to immobilize his victim, let him begin to bleed to death, and then executed him when he got bored. And like all serial killers, he had a gimmick. A wreath of buttercups.
So far, the victims had all been white men, no older than forty, no younger than their mid-twenties. No real families to miss them. Half-assed rap sheets - a dropped minor assault charge here, a DUI there. These were such average Joes they were almost a rare breed.
The flashing blue and red illuminated the alley and I knew we’d come to the right place. The back of my neck bristled as we got out of the car and neared the body. Seventeen years of this shit and you still never get used to your first sight of the dead. It’s the realization that this cold, slumped, bloodied bag of bones was a walking, talking, breathing person just hours ago. It had probably loved and lost, grown up with a family, gone to school. And with a couple of trigger-squeezes it was now exhibit A in another murder case. Another ‘vic’.
Like the three before it, a makeshift wreath lay at the poor bastard's feet. Nothing but buttercups. I knelt down to find that number four was missing his left index finger. What a surprise. Bloody gunshot wounds lined the left of his cold lifeless figure. Leg. Stomach. Temple.
The bog-standard boys in blue stood around discussing the blood-spattered bright yellow petals. Personally, I couldn't give two shits if we were dealing with a schizophrenic hitman who yodeled his victims to death. I was more concerned with the sick, twisted adventure I was being dragged into, an adventure in which yet again I was a thousand steps behind, going nowhere fast. I had a bunch of sick calling cards but no phone number, thousands of dots that connected into nothing but a mess of blood and maimed hands.
Jerry waddled over from somewhere I didn't care to notice. His name isn't really Jerry, but you can't look at a jackass like that and think of any other name. He's the kind of cop that protects his donuts, serving to get cheap laughs. As the cold, stinging wind laced with freezing rain lashed my cheeks, I studied him and his pot belly draped in yet another one of those garish Hawaiian shirts. Only two words could ever come to mind: fucking useless. Before he could utter the made-for-TV quip he'd been working on for ten minutes, I pulled a limp cigarette from my fourteen year old trenchcoat, battled with the elements to light the bastard, and went to talk to the sad ten dollar hooker who found the body.
And again it was the same story. Working the street. Saw a slumped figure in the alley. Thought it was an unconscious junkie. Went to check he was okay. (Like hell she was concerned about anything more than how much the guy had in his wallet.) Called the cops.
I followed the usual routine. Took her statement and headed back to the precinct. The captain was waiting for me. We’d hit the magical threshold – four dead bodies, each with a sick little similarity. The vultures at the Post and the Times were buzzing. Great news for the captain and his commissioner ambitions, the commissioner and his dreams of becoming chief, and the D.A. and his quest for congress.
Bad news for me trying to do my damn job in peace. Now every move would be watched by the press. They’d be snooping around in no time, leaking leads and giving the perp a head start every time he walked past a news stand.
I spent an hour going through the ridiculous paperwork. Victim’s mother’s maiden name. Who gave a fuck? Find me a case that couldn’t be solved without this and I’ll hand in my badge.
Way past midnight and even longer after the scum came out on the streets, I drove the seventeen blocks to a damp and dark little box I try to call home. It’s something out of a film noir, this place, with a broken elevator, staircases littered with used needles and “neighbours” of questionable immigration status. The only thing that kept this building crime-free was the presence of a cop on the second floor, although it was only a matter of time before someone conveniently forgot that little fact.
I went through the tedious process of unlocking my front door, then locking myself in for the night. By the kitchen sink sat a little blackboard from the meetings. I added a day to the tally – two years, five months and eleven days now.
Relics of a previous life were scattered across the uninviting excuse for a living room. A picture of an unfamiliar smiling family; two ridiculously handsome boys, one with his father’s eyes, the other, his mother’s smile, being held by their parents, a storybook couple. Her, a high-school teacher who moved to the city to help less-fortunate public school kids with her husband, a recently promoted detective with a bright future ahead of him. Beneath the picture, a photo album, with a faded romantic introduction, a youthful, happy middle, and a blood-stained mess of newspaper cuttings for an ending. A yellowing glass stood beside them with a wilting solitary lily.
I replaced the decrepit flower with a fresh one without even thinking, throwing the old lily out like the hundreds before it.
Every murderous scumbag I’d apprehended for the last five years, I’ve tried to imagine it’s him. The bastard who got himself so high on some insignificant variant of dope that he didn’t think it would be enough to strip our house of everything it was worth, but decided to spray the bedrooms with bullets as a fun little postscript. The one night I shouldn’t have worked overtime. The one night I should’ve been there to put my piece to his head and squeeze.
A crash of garbage cans and some generic swearing in the alley outside my window dragged me out of my pointless what-ifs and back into the damp squalor that was now the closest thing to a home I had. I checked the box, typical late-night crap, and decided to call it a night. A couple of years ago I would’ve opened up a bottle and only gone to sleep when my head hit the table. I don’t do that anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing.
The idiots in the alley were yelling louder now. No way was I having this tonight. I opened the window and leaned out to see two dark forms having a drunken argument a few floors below.
“Shut the fuck up and get out!” I yelled, and watched as they stumbled into the street and out of sight.
And then he shot me.