Two Way Mirror
In the fifth Precinct, inside one of the many grotty interrogation rooms, there’s a crack in the two-way mirror. It wasn’t always there and if you’re in a daze or more focussed on your cup of coffee, you usually miss it. I don’t.
If not for me, it wouldn’t exist. But it does.
Somehow, the tendrils of reinforced glass link in chains around my shoulders. Pull me closer. Closer, closer. Until I’m trying to stare at my reflection, but instead all I can see is the handcuffed perp scowling in the opposite room. Stress. That’s all it is. You can’t exactly be meditative in a job like this. And you can’t believe in monsters. Why? Because after everything you’ve seen, you know all monsters are human. What’s so different about a giant who grinds bones to make bread than a deranged sociopath who stuffs his victims with old shirts and cuddles up to them on the couch?
There’s something different about her, though.
She was brought in about eight minutes ago, from the edge of Brooklyn Bridge. My team were late calling it in, so late that I had to rush for the cruiser with one leg in my jeans. Mauve jacket slung over the T-shirt of an ex-boyfriend dumped at a rock concert last year, I tumbled into the fort of navy crime boards. Shaking what I suspected was a hangover, I had no time to snag a greasy coffee or steal someone else’s. Now I’m fighting a headache the size of Seattle. Everything rolls in and out of focus, as if my mind is trapped inside a tumble dryer. Each morning is like this, in one way or another. I remember my psych evaluation when I joined the force, when they told me about the migraines. How my head turns on me every few weeks, neurons becoming needles. Threading pain throughout my muscles as if trying to sew my skin into a tapestry.
I lean on the wall of the observation room, staring at our suspect. Her smile through the two-way mirror is an ink-stain, bubbling into a blur.
Blinking, my eyes water. Sometimes, it feels like I only have one. After all, I never would have thought a girl like her could be our killer. I suppose, despite all these years on the job, I still see half the picture.
The girl sits slumped on the steel chair, grinning. Her hands are encased in cuffs, tiny wrists like pale biscotti. I frown. This can’t be right. She can’t be The Janus Killer. Her build is slight, lacking the upper body strength required to drag one of the six-foot victims from an alley to hang him from the Statue of Liberty with a hook through his throat. The Janus Killer. She just can’t be.
The case has been gnawing at our heels for months, ever since the Mayor threatened to fire my boss. Since my boss threatened to fire me. Used my full name. Jessica-Arabella Nasreen Ugarte-Simmons. I hated him for it. For reminding me who I was. Hated the killer more.
The first death was a year ago, and it seems as if I didn’t have a life before the body dropped. DOA. Dead on arrival. Or rather, dead on arrivals. The Janus Killer had meticulously strung up the victim on top of the arrivals board in JFK, hanging her by her shredded skin. The Killer had tied bows in her matted hair, pretty and pink unlike her charred flesh as it flaked like an ice-cream cone. Our ME couldn’t discern the cause of death until a week after we had found the corpse. The young woman – a lawyer from a small insurance firm – had been drugged. A paralytic, one of those adjusted party narcotics. She’d heard the gradual splintering of her own bones from where the killer had applied enough pressure to break her ribs. One by one. Pulling the rim of the ribcage out of her flesh, as if trying to find a dollar inside. Or build a baby’s cradle. The victim had heard everything, felt everything. Tasted the blood bubbling from her mouth as the killer had carved into her chest with a spoon stolen from a diner at the airport. Tasted bile as the killer had carved and carved and slowly re-wired her heart. Carefully pried each ventricle from the still-pumping organ and swapped them around. It took the woman almost a day to die.
As I stare at the girl through the mirror, I can’t see a killer. At least, not a killer who would do such horrible things.
A Senior Officer pokes her head around the door, her face a haze. I’d worked with her ever since I could remember, but I still couldn’t picture her name. Perhaps the alcoholism was finally taking its toll. As coping mechanisms go, it isn’t exactly the ideal form of therapy.
“She’s ready for you. You can head in now. I do warn you though, she’s very disarming. Had our profiler down for the count,” says the Officer. I scoff.
“A stiff breeze would bowl over that kid”. The officer frowns at me. At least, I think she does. The room is swaying so much it’s as if each slab of cement is a silk curtain.
“You mean Jonesy? He’s twice your age. We fired that Harvard Graduate years ago. Don’t you remember?” It’s my time to frown. I have no clue who Jonesy is. A shaking grips my hands, so I stuff them in the pockets of my jeans. The fabric strains like splitting ribs.
“Sorry. It’s this case. Got my head all muddled,” I tell her. Nodding, the Officer retreats. She does not linger. No one does.
I bite my lip so hard warmth spills into my mouth. Sucking the skin dry, I yank my hands out of my pockets and storm into the interrogation room.
It’s nothing special. Mottled green walls, straight out of a police procedural. Two chairs, one table and a set of handcuffs housing our perp. Well, their perp. To me, this girl might as well be a Scout selling cookies. She’s playing with her hair. It must be bleached, as the white neon scalds my eyes. She’s wearing a tailored blouse coveted by a teal scarf. Her skirt is pleated; it reaches her ankles. She’s mismatched, a walking Picasso portrait. One ice-blue eye stares at me through the indistinct cut of her brow. Everything bleeds together.
I rub my eyes. Should have grabbed some food before coming here.
The chair is a cold kiss beneath me, seeping into my thighs. I fail to hide a shiver.
In front of me, the girl smiles. In the muddle of cheekbones and alabaster skin, her smile is ghostly. Of course. She must be scared, poor thing. She must be telling herself everything’s fine.
“So, you are?” I begin. For some reason, I don’t remember anyone telling me her name. Even the girl frowns.
“I think you should know that,” she says. Her voice is a velveteen cushion. Smothering and soothing me. Against the cut of her tone, I can’t breathe. My vision steams and I have to rub my eyes again. Try to focus. People are dead. People are dead. More will die if I can’t get it together. So why do I keep having to remind myself where I am?
The names of the victims sink into the depths, submerged in the waters of my mind. Gone, gone, gone. They are dead and their families mourn and yet I forgot them within seconds of being here. I shake my head. Perhaps there’s asbestos in the walls. Perhaps the sleep deprivation is finally taking its toll.
Before me, the girl jangles the handcuffs. Brings me back.
“You were picked up by a car on Brooklyn Bridge. They said you were covered in blood, though I can’t see any now. I’ll have a word with the Officers who arrested you later about the state they claimed to have found you in. Do you know what you’re accused of?” The girl’s smile doesn’t waver.
“You should know this as well. What I am. Why you can’t see the blood upon me. What am I? You know what I am. They keep repeating it on TV, on the radio. I’ve heard it all. You know what I am,” she whispers. I sigh.
“There are no such things as monsters”. That’s what the media have lovingly dubbed the Janus Killer. I don’t exactly disagree.
The girl keeps smiling and I start fiddling with my buttons.
“We both know that’s not true. Don’t we?” My left leg begins to bounce. Jars the floor. Looking down, I realise I’m not wearing shoes. My breath hitches. No. I re-focus long enough to realise she’s barefoot. Not me. I still can’t see any blood, though. Half the inferior officers are paranoid.
“What’s your name?” I ask. The girl giggles.
“You’ve already asked me that. Do you know yours?” I fight a groan. Telling people my name is an ordeal. It’s why I avoided the soirees my Mother keeps dragging me to every other week.
“It’s not important”. The girl claps a hand to her mouth, a pale, shaking hand. Shaking like mine. Not from fear, it seems. From something else. Something which slithers up my spinal column, calling out to my nervous system. Run, it hisses. There’s laughter in its voice. Run. Hide.
“Of course, it’s important, silly. Names are always important”. Still, I refuse to tell her. This is my interrogation for Christ’s sake, not hers. Instead, I try to focus on her features. Somehow, the sharp cut of her jawline, putting her at just over eighteen, seems oddly familiar. Perhaps I’ve seen her in a play somewhere, one of those amateur dramatics productions. Perhaps this is her greatest role yet.
Shifting on the chair, ice lashes up my back. I ignore it.
“You were standing on the bridge. Were you going to jump?” The girl reels back as if I’ve asked her to divulge state secrets.
“Jump? Oh no, I was going to fly. We don’t jump, do we? We fly”. I find myself holding back a groan. This was not how I pictured my morning.
“Have you been diagnosed with some sort of illness, recently? Are you taking any medication? Do you have the name of your doctor on hand? In my experience, people who are found standing on the edge of Brooklyn Bridge aren’t exactly as happy as you are”. The girl shoots me a mock glare, the expression over-exaggerated, as if she’s auditioning for ad lib.
“You’re sounding a tad judgemental,” she titters. I grit my teeth. Regret slamming my hands on the desk like a TV cop.
“Do you realise the gravity of your situation? You were found with the necklace of the first victim of The Janus Killer. You are the only suspect. My colleagues told me when they picked you up you were covered in blood. Where are your bloodied clothes?” I snarl. The girl deflates like clown’s balloon. Her skin becomes sallow, as if it too is exhausted with the very act of holding her together.
“Fine. I’ll tell you. So long as you tell me why the Empire State building is sticking out of your sternum”. Her tone is so blunt I barely register the words. Until I look down. And it’s there.
I scream. My voice is swept into the wind as the metal spike atop the Empire State protrudes from my abdomen.
The grey walls of the precinct have vanished, replaced only by endless blue sky. The sun is beating down, and there’s carnival music in the air. Blood, black as ants, scuttles from the wound and I scream my throat raw, but no one’s coming. No one can hear me.
Against my better instincts, I try to move. The skin around my stomach belches, splitting like butter in a pan. I’m flat on my back, muscles straining. Eyes bulging in sockets. Flailing arms, legs. Blood pours now, as if my body is a Fountain in Central Park. The sun seems to tread closer, but it’s shrinking. Growing smaller, more yellow than orange. The carnival music dims, then spreads out, until the lyrics grow starker. No, not lyrics. Voices. Voices. Calm and soft, like the skin of drums. The sun is a penlight.
I’m lying down again, arms pinned to a bed of stained sheets. Legs too. I’m struggling, but it’s as if I’m trying to swim through concrete with my toes.
“We need to adjust her medication. She’s getting worse”. The disembodied voices merge to a crescendo and I can make out mere silhouettes. Two women and a man in white coats. Featureless faces. Abraded marble statues. They’re figments of a horror movie. Not real. Not real. I’m on a case. I’m not here. The chafing straps around my wrists and ankles say otherwise.
Above, a woman made of glass seems to reach down. Close enough that her blue eye, her wide smile, thaw into focus. It’s the girl. The girl who was in the… Where was she? Was I speaking to her? I must have said that out loud, because the girl above me offers a warm hand. Her eyes – two this time - are poached eggs, melting in their sockets. Dribbling in yolks onto my chin. Into my open mouth. I gag.
“We were just talking in your weekly therapy session. You’re doing really well. You just need to remember to stop. To think. To realise that you’re hurting people. And to accept that hurting people is all you can do. You keep backsliding, thinking you’re a cop. You’re not. Accept that you’re a monster”. She giggles above me. Straining against the bed, I shriek.
“I’m not a monster!” I’m not, I’m not a monster. I’ve never hurt anyone. I would never hurt anyone. She’s lying, she’s lying. You believe me, don’t you?
“You’re lying,” I say calmly to the girl in the interrogation room. She rolls her one eye; the other remains buried in her avalanche of hair.
“Stop being judgemental about what you think is my mental health and I’ll stop lying,” she replies. Crosses her arms. She doesn’t fold them. Her movements are static, not fluid. As if her bones were broken and rearranged at opposite angles.
“You don’t seem to understand the seriousness of this situation”. I cough, risking a glance at my abdomen. Where nothing lances through my skin. I hide a sigh of relief. I’m fine. I just need a coffee. A bit of CLC. Caffeine Loving Care.
People tell you these killers get under your skin, and in this case, the girl had stitched under my collar bone and slid her hand inside. Rummaging around, she’s parting my lungs like armchairs, making room for herself. All tucked away behind my heart. I hide another shiver.
“Oh, believe me. I understand. Unlike you. You only pretend to understand our situation. Or perhaps you pretend to misunderstand,” says the girl. I bulldoze right through her.
“Do you have an alibi for your whereabouts between 10pm and 2am for April 12th, 2018?” The estimated time of death for the first victim. The young woman who had died in agony, begging for help that never came.
The girl flings her hands up in the air and I choke when she yanks the cuffs from the table and pops her wrist bone out of its joint. I blink and the bone disappears. Knits itself back into her skin. My breath steams up the two-way mirror. I’m just seeing things. My therapist. I remember him saying it was leftover trauma. From my life before. Before all of this. I know. You’re probably wondering why I became what I am if I was already a trauma victim. The truth is…I don’t know. I don’t know why. It’s just one of those things. Unexplainable. Like the tether in the two-way mirror. Perhaps I’ve always liked people, always wanted to help them. Perhaps that’s why the girl in the interrogation room unnerves me so much. As if I will suddenly yank away her flesh, peel back her pearly skull like a mouldy carpet to reveal something worse beneath.
I shake my head, but my resolve only makes the girl smile. The smile is tighter than before, less tolerant. Perhaps I’ll get a confession, even if I don’t believe she could do this. There’s something wrong with her – that much is obvious. But she could never have done these terrible things.
“Are they really so terrible? It’s a fact of life that the strong will always devour the weak,” comes the girl’s moist caress. Interlacing my fingers, I raise her a stern glare. Try not to let the glare evaporate when I can’t remember saying anything to prompt a response. Had I expressed my thoughts aloud? No, I’d been trained better than that.
“Clearly, you don’t understand the extent of trouble you’re in. Prison will become a possibility if you don’t start telling the truth,” I say. The girl throws her arms behind her head. Her posture melts.
“The truth isn’t what you want to hear though, is it? Otherwise you would have realised what I am the moment you walked in here”. I shove my hands beneath the table, fighting the urge to bite my nails. No amount of training could have prepared me for this. For her.
The moment I risk looking down, just for a millisecond, just to ground myself, my feet find the mouth a granite ledge. Timber arms stretch around me and I am standing on a bridge. On Brooklyn Bridge, where the wind leaps like a street dancer into my eyes, my face. Forces my heels to endure thirty lashes. Snap. Snap. Snap. I swear I can feel skin breaking, oozing apart as a toe in an oil-barrel.
I glance around, hands shaking as I find nothing to brace myself on. Where’s the girl? Where is she? I was talking to…someone. Who was I talking to? I can’t picture her. I don’t understand. I won a prize in Law School for my academics, my memory. I don’t understand.
My feet dredge closer to the edge of the bridge and I can hear the wail of police sirens in the distance. Tourists snapping photos with a clap, clap, clap. Good Americans racing for their cars, shouting for me to live. I look down and I’m barefoot. Hair as colourless as cow’s milk waving goodbye.
Toes curled, I plant myself onto the ledge. I have a case. Or maybe I had a case. Maybe I couldn’t cut it and that’s why I’m here. Maybe it’s time for a change.
My feet slip, my body tips. A soundless shriek ricochets off the timber frames and I grapple with the air for a hand, a railing, anything. The world slips through my fingers.
Are you familiar with the sensation of falling? You may be standing strong, on freshly laid concrete, yet the world is sinking around you. Or maybe you’re drowning beneath it. This time, I’m drowning in air. Too much air, too much oxygen. Pooling in my mouth as frothy leftovers of a cyanide pill.
The New York skyline rushes to meet me, and I land hard, my backside screaming on the chair. In the interrogation room. Where the girl is laughing. Laughing and laughing and laughing and she won’t stop.
I reach forward, but my hands are quaking. They slide through her, so instead I shove the desk against her ribs. She jerks back, still laughing. She rolls her head back and screeches prayers to the ceiling. Prayers and jokes and anecdotes in a muddle of syllables.
“No. No. You’re not supposed to fall, dearie,” the girl heaves in between breaths. “You’re supposed to fly”. I pinch the bridge of my nose. Push myself away and stand, though my legs are hot coals. As if I’ve just run a marathon in the height of summer. Carefully, I limp to the door.
“We’re done here for now. I’ll have someone bring you a drink”. Even though part of me wants to let her throat shrivel to a husk. Even in my head, I’m burying her in a wall, layering brick by brick by brick. Trying to dull the ring of her laughter. But no matter how deep I bury her, she always digs herself out of the dark.
My hands crash into the door. Sweaty, they slip from the handle until I shove myself out into the corridor. Where I almost bowl into Tally Monroe. I blink. The Senior Officer. Tally Monroe. Thirty-Seven years old, two kids, one wife named Jamila. I frown. How could I have forgotten her? We’d worked together for what seemed like an eternity.
Her frown is an echo of my own, while her baby pink lip gloss shines starkly against her freckled skin. Laugh lines scratch the area around her eyes and a subtle baby bump rolls through her standard-issue blazer. She captures my shoulders, hides a gasp.
“Jesus Christ. Jessica, are you alright?” I cast my gaze back towards the interrogation room. The girl behind the mirror. The girl who hides inside the crack in the glass, fingers etching their way out of the fibres. She’s coming. She’s coming for me. The Janus Killer.
“Jessica, talk to me. Should I call an ambulance?” I don’t look at her. I can’t look at her.
Stumbling, I careen past the coffee stand, wishing I’d have filled a cup, and squeeze myself into the washroom. Ignore how my fingers twitch like dying mayflies as I lean over the sink. A second passes before I’m immediately drawn to the crack in the mirror. And the red on my shirt.
It’s red. So red it’s almost black. Thick and sticky, beginning to crust on my cotton shirt. On my jeans. On my lips. As if I’d guzzled the stuff, blood pouring like juice out of my too-white teeth. I’m covered in blood and I’m not enjoying it. I’m not. Trust me, I’m not. Please, listen to me. I’m not.
Braced over the sink, I lean too hard on the ceramic. It fragments beneath me, the plasterboard eroding. The sink spills over onto the floor, smacking against the tiles the way the Janus Killer’s second victim’s skull was smashed. The sound seeps inside me. Stays there. Festering in the dankest part of my bones.
I’m going to wake up soon, I tell myself. I will have slept in, face sprawled on the pillow. Drooling a little. I will have slept in, or maybe I just need that coffee.
Instead, I take one more look at the blood on my clothes and flee my reflection.
A cadre of desks, all in a biblical grey, block the corridor. It’s as if they’re perched on my chest, slowly compressing my lungs. Can’t breathe. Can’t. Breathe.
With bile rising, I shove myself past the beige filing cabinets, past Tally’s photo of her nieces, past the events board which shouted for me to attended the Chief’s birthday barbecue next week. Every patch of carpet beneath my feet, every stare from a colleague, forms a timebomb. A countdown which sits comfortably inside my gut. Slowly, sensuously ticking, ticking. It has yet to reach zero.
The second I’m propelled outside, in the embalmed air of the city, I know I’ve made a mistake. I let her win. Let the girl in the room sink into my pores and change my way of thinking. Let a girl no older than me ruin everything. Everything I’d built. Every wall, every layer upon layer of brick and mortar. Because that’s what you do, isn’t it? You handcraft a painstaking picture of yourself, place it outside your front door for the world to see. Until someone arrives and knocks. And sees who you really are.
I start running. It’s not quite a sprint, but my lungs are wailing anyway. I’m still covered in blood. No, I’m dripping with it. Almost sweating with it. I hold back a scream, staring at the oblivious New Yorkers as they descend into the mottled subway. I look down. The blood was dry moments before. Now, it dribbles onto the sidewalk like fresh paint.
“Stop!” A throaty voice. Earthy. I almost laugh. Sing me a song, dear voice. Sing me a song. At least, I hope I heard a voice. I’m not entirely sure. Better than the sight of expressionless inferior officers rushing from the precinct, guns raised. Pointing at me.
I can’t think. Can’t breathe. Running becomes a dream, one I can never hope to achieve.
As I turn, my foot catches on the curb. Sends me falling, falling, falling. Out my hands lash, crack into the concrete beneath. But they don’t break. My bones do not splinter. Instead, the ground squelches and red gurgles beneath my palms. On my hands and knees, I scream. The road is a mattress of blood and brain matter. Sticking to my jeans, swelling under my fingernails. I wrench one hand free; it’s like peeling off a band-aid. Slowly, each movement the slice of a knife.
I look down. There’s a coffee cup clutched in my hand. Coffee. The rim of the cup is browned, like a deep tan from the coast. Coffee.
Lips broadening, I stand to face the inferior officers and their guns. Except all I can see is the girl in the interrogation room. And she isn’t smiling anymore. Now, it’s my turn.
Pushing the coffee cup – crumpled and near-empty – onto the table, I retake my seat. The table stands firm – a mediator between us. Finally, I understand. I understand everything.
“Drugged. A milder dose, certainly, but it was enough. To discredit me, to make me appear unprofessional in the eyes of my colleagues. You drugged the coffee to disorientate me,” I tell her. Remind her.
The girl leans back into the chair; her smile has long since drowned. I take that as my cue to continue. I have her now.
“You used the same trick on your other victims, didn’t you? Disorientating them, day by day. Isolating them from their friends, family. Making them think they were crazy. Because that’s how you feel, isn’t it? Alone and lost and crazed. Your victims bought coffee from you, I believe. Different shops, different locations. Same company – the company you worked for”. I lock onto my prey. She twitches.
“You might as well confess. You used different aliases when you changed coffee shops, but I managed to track similar credit card expenditures and common associates. My team have collected the evidence. All we need is your confession. You can’t fight this. Like you said, accept what you are”. I breathe out. I did it. Well, almost. The Janus Killer will be mine in mere minutes.
Before me, the girl with the angel’s face frowns. Gestures to the table.
“What coffee?” My smile fades. The girl spreads her hands wide.
“I don’t see this coffee cup you’re banging on about. Where is it? Hmm? Unless it’s camouflaged, I don’t think you ever had one. In fact, I distinctly remember you grumbling about the fact you hadn’t had your fill of coffee yet. Well, you know what they say. Be careful what you wish for”. She’s grinning now. Her lips are full, but to me they are pulsing with blackened blood.
Straightening her shoulders, the girl stares at me with crinkling cheeks. She has dimples.
“Poor dearie. I’ll tell you what… Since this is an interrogation room, where questions are asked, how about I ask you some questions. Now, you don’t have to answer,” she adds, seeing that I’m about to interrupt.
“Just listen. After all, you wanted a confession. You might just be ready to accept the truth. To face it”. I jump from the desk, hands cocooning into fists.
“Shut up. You don’t know anything about me. I’m the one asking the questions. Now give me your damn statement before I call for back-up”. The snarling words plunge from my mouth so quickly I barely register them. The girl chuckles.
“You’re feisty. I forgot about that. But tell me, Jessica, why can’t you remember more than a year? Why does your head spin like a carousel? Why can’t you remember the faces of your colleagues?” The more she speaks, the more I can see her. See her face. See her eye as it blooms into an icy petal. Stark and azure-white. Like acid-kissed snow. Unnatural.
I step back a little. And I see her lips. Twisting, blackening at the edges as if beneath her skin there lies a tomb of petrified flesh. Her teeth elongate. Big, katana canines. Her cheekbones become hollower and her fringe peels back. The right side of her face is a scarred ditch of dried blood. And a hollow eye socket. Somehow, it is laughing at me.
“Don’t be afraid Jessica,” says the girl with the fangs and claws and the skin of Death’s Scythe. “After all, you don’t believe in monsters”. I believe in her. My lips quiver as I ask,
“How do you know my name?” I never told her. Did I tell her? No, I never said anything. The girl chuckles again; it is oddly infectious. Now I’m laughing too. It’s wrong and it picks at my cheeks, but I can’t stop.
“Jessica-Arabella Nasreen Ugarte-Simmons,” giggles the girl with the spider’s-web flesh. “Do you know what that means?” My name. My stupid, stupid, stupid name. The name I’d run from, screamed at. The name I’d hidden from. The name I’d buried. Until now.
I suppose, we are all monsters in the end.
Glancing around, I realise I’m laughing. Laughing and sitting and staring at myself in the two-way mirror. Starting at the crack in the glass. The glass where I can see my white hair, my darkening lips and my single blue eye. Jessica-Arabella Nasreen Ugarte-Simmons.
I stare at myself in the mirror – the girl with knife-life collarbones and a killer’s stare. The girl who had strung up a woman by her innards at a blood drive, just for fun. Just because she could. Because I could.
I’m still laughing when the Senior Officer arrives to begin the interview. Laughing at the girl in the mirror, at me, because I finally know who I am. I am a monster. And it doesn’t hurt anymore.
I huff a chuckle, rolling my eye at the crack in the mirror. The crack I made when I threw the arresting officer across the room. Whoops. I did offer to pay for it.
Another laugh escapes me. Jessica-Arabella Nasreen Ugarte-Simmons. I mean, who would have such a ridiculous name? No one. Not even a character in a book. Although, I suppose you’d disagree.
Wouldn’t you, dear Reader?
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