Parking across the road to his former precinct headquarters seemed strange to Frank. He had so often turned into the wire-fenced car park provided for the officers that he had to fight the muscle memory in his wrists and force them to guide his car away from the dipped curb that signalled the parking lot’s entryway. Instead he slotted his Toyota into a space across the street, moving the vehicle forward and backward several times as he squeezed its chassis in between a bright yellow Ford pick-up truck and a rusted, faded lime green Cadillac. A lamppost situated in the centre of the parking space prevented the driver’s side door from opening fully, and Frank groaned as he contorted his back in order to escape the vehicle through the limited space between the door and its body. Outside was humid and the hot, sticky air assaulted Frank as he exited his air-conditioned cocoon and straightened his tie, his shirt started sticking to his torso almost immediately as he stood tall facing the building over the street. He knew the precinct had no air-conditioning of its own and that inside its stone shell would be a smouldering concoction of odours, mixing the sweat of the hard-working officers with the alcohol infused breath of the morning drunkards and the desperately poor hygiene of the city’s street walkers. Perspiration began to bead on his own brow at the thought of the sizzling atmosphere inside the building, but he had to venture inside; an old friend from their days on the force, Markus Hopkins, was still active and working homicide. Frank hoped that he could get some information on the missing van der Linden girl from Markus, maybe even a lead on her whereabouts. He didn’t expect Markus himself to help, as he was sure the girl had just run away for a bit of attention and thus wouldn’t have appeared on homicide’s radar, but perhaps his old friend might be able to run a search on the missing persons database for him. Frank ran a finger around the inside of his collar, feeling the grime accumulating as he stretched the frail white cotton and temporarily released the accumulating heat from within his clothes, before striding across the street and towards the steps that led up into the police station.
Inside the building was deafening; angry patrons shouted and gestured at the officers behind a large mahogany desk that swept in a semi-circle in front of the far wall. The desk was flanked either side by locked doors reinforced with metal bars across their glassless windows. Frank knew from experience that the door to the left opened into a corridor that weaved a path through various detectives’ offices until terminating at the main communal working area of the station, where sergeants shared desks, coffee and doughnuts in a clichéd homage to officers past. The door to the right of the reception desk led down a seemingly endless amount of cold stone steps to the holding cells in the basement, a place that Frank had never enjoyed visiting with its dull grey walls and cold steel bars separating New York’s finest from the jeering, abusive criminals hauled in over previous shifts. Frank had filled those cells plenty of times in his days on the force, and grimaced to himself as he reminisced on time spent sat behind the only desk in the cavernous basement, perps swearing and spitting at him as he did his best to ignore their distractions and read the New York Post.
The ingress to the station was filled with people, some sat on benches that had been placed along the sides of the reception area, hands in cuffs while they awaited processing with heads hung low in remorseful acceptance of their capture. Others leaned over the dark mahogany desk trying to gain the attention of one of the many uniformed officers that bustled behind it, eager to report crimes or complain about their neighbours’ dogs barking throughout the night. Frank stood at the entrance to the building, surveying the scene in silent thanks that he had escaped this arena of mania and criminality. He was right about the smell too; over the suffocating aroma of heated stone he could discern the all-to-familiar scent of booze-laden breath, vomit, and faeces which he hoped to God wasn’t human but knew from experience that there was a good chance that it was. A scruffy man wearing a frayed burgundy beanie hat and muddied black overcoat bumped into Frank as he pushed his way into the building, and cast a hateful look back over his shoulder as he made his way toward the desk. Frank held the man’s gaze firmly, asserting himself, until he turned his attention back in the direction he was walking. Frank realised his own fists were clenched by his sides, and so he slowly relaxed his fingers and brought his hands to his chest, nervously rubbing his knuckles.
“Ward! Over here!”
Markus had been expecting him, and now beckoned Frank toward the door to the offices where his considerably large head had emerged behind the metal bars. Even compared to Frank, whose frame was considerably broad, Markus was a large man, albeit less muscular in nature; standing just over six feet tall, his substantial waistline gave him considerable girth and stretched the hem of his shirt to its limits as it disappeared into the top of his trousers, the gaps between the last few buttons were pulled open by the tension like elliptical windows to a portly underworld, and the buttons themselves looked as if they could pop off at any moment. Markus had sweat stains in the armpits of his shirt, and his double chin connected the top button of his collar to his jaw like a billowing, fleshy awning akin to a chubby pelican’s bill. He was clean shaven but the hair atop his head was a mess of tangled brown curls, and his beady green eyes flashed eagerly at Frank from beneath swollen lids that nearly obscured them completely.
“Hey, big man, how’s life treatin’ you?”
Frank reached the locked door and addressed his friend as he duly turned the key in its housing and swung the door open.
“Pretty good Ward, pretty good.”
Markus pushed the door closed after Frank had passed through it, continuing to scan the maddened crowd as he locked it again. Once the two men were safety ensconced in the inner passageways of the station Markus seemed to relax, and slapped Frank weightily on the back as he ushered him through the maze of hallways towards his office.
“So Franky boy, what brings you back to our merry little haven of shit-storms and assholes?”
“Actually Mark, I need a favour.”
“How did I fucking guess that?”
Markus chortled this sentence jovially, teasing his former colleague and slapping him on the back once more before continuing.
“So what’ll it be? Coke from the evidence room, or a whore from the cells?”
Frank grimaced at the puerility of Markus’ jibes; he was a good cop and they’d been friends since rooming together back at the academy, but he’d never appreciated his colleague’s jovial approach to law-breakers.
“Not this time, pal. I need help with a missing girl.”
“Oooooooh, so wh-“
“It’s a case I’ve got, asshole.”
Frank anticipated Markus’ lurid reference to his sex life, or lack thereof, cutting his friend short before he could ridicule his sorry excuse for a personal life.
“Well then by all means, step into my boudoir.”
Markus pushed open the door to his office with a cocky, chubby smile and stood half-bent forward gesturing into the room like a rheumatic bell boy showing someone to their hotel room. Frank could see a bald patch starting to form on the top of his friend’s head, and thought he could hear the buttons on his shirt creak under the tension that this gesture perpetuated.
Inside the office it appeared as though a strong gale had blown in from the window and scattered sheets of paper all over the place; puce-coloured files sat abandoned on the window sill, others were strewn haphazardly onto an armchair in the far corner. Yet more files were stacked in piles of varying heights across the floor, the discolouring of their covers and differing levels of thickness of dust that covered them was the only clue as to their age. A path wound its way between the towers of criminality from the armchair to the door, and another path led to the left of the room where the grimy, worn-out carpeted trail terminated behind a large oak desk, at a rickety chair bound in faded green leather. Frank felt sorry for that chair, having to bear the weight of the office’s sole occupant, and noticed that the wooden spines connecting the backrest to the seat were warped and contorted to accommodate a larger-than-usual frame. The wheels at its feet were buckled and dug in to the carpet, seemingly now incapable of rotation. Behind the desk was a cork board that almost obscured the entire wall, and this itself was similarly concealed by the array of documents that were pinned to it; case summaries and letters were attached in no particular order and their age in some cases was betrayed by their dogged corners, faded ink and yellowing colour. A few of these pieces of paper were clearly new to this tapestry; newspaper cuttings reporting the emergence of a horrific murder that the tabloids had dubbed ‘The Holy Cow Killer’. Frank smiled as he negotiated the treacherous path to the armchair, carefully avoiding bumping into any of the precarious towers as he remembered that his friend had been just as untidy back at the academy, and how this had scared off plenty of women in the past. It had actually been Frank who had introduced Markus to his wife shortly after their graduation and, as the larger of the two men closed the door to the office behind them, Frank enquired as to her wellbeing.
“How’s Trudy? Treating you well I presume.”
Frank nodded towards Markus’ rotund belly with a wink as he relocated a pile of notes to the floor and lowered himself into the now vacant seat. The chair was upholstered in a scratchy wool-polyester mix that itched his skin even through his suit, and it was a sickening shade of brown that had once been fashionable many decades ago. There were dark stains on the armrests where the fabric had worn, the origins of which were unclear so Frank opted to fold his arms across his chest in lieu of resting them on these questionable blemishes.
“She’s great thanks, still my angel.”
Markus smiled back as he dropped into his chair, the wood creaking and groaning in protestation. He leaned forward, swept a couple of mouldy Chinese takeout boxes into his arms and dumped them into a waste paper basket at his feet then, resting his elbows on his desk and interlocking his fingers, he continued.
“Now, Wardy my man, how can I help?”
The window to Markus’ left was as dusty as some of the piles of folders lying about the floor, and was obscured by a similarly grimy cheap Venetian blind. The dim light shining through the metal slats sent horizontal beams of light across the room like a laser trip-wire and highlighted the glinting sweat on Markus’ face where they lingered almost menacingly on his skin. Frank became acutely aware of an uncomfortable feeling inside him, a sensation that felt like his bowels had suddenly woken up and begun squirming in his abdomen, as if eager to escape. He ignored this feeling, putting it down to being back in the precinct, and proceeded to tell his friend about the case he’d just accepted.
“Just need a hand finding this girl really, Alice van der Linden. Been missing a few days and her folks are kind of worried, well her mother is anyway. Probably just another teenage runaway but I thought I’d call in one of the million favours you owe me to see if you could do a bit of digging.”
Markus leaned back in his chair, reproducing the agonising groans from the wood that somehow held his immense frame, and folded his hands behind his head, smiling as he did so.
“So, the great Frank Ward needs my help. Again. Hahahahaha!”
His spirited chortling sent plumes of dust dancing through the beams of light around his mouth, and his coarse laughter was piercing in the confines of his tiny office.
“I dunno Wardy, I don’t work missing persons. They might not appreciate me asking too many questions.”
“So then just ask a couple.”
Frank replied with a smirk that provoked a similar facial response from his former partner who, resigned to the fact he was going to help or else have a permanent office buddy, sighed deeply, sending another large plume of dust in Frank’s direction, accompanied by the stench of stale burrito.
“Alright. You sit here a sec, let me do your legwork for you.”
With that Markus hauled himself up out of his seat, Frank wincing on the chair’s behalf, and strolled out of the office, closing the door behind him.
Frank looked around the office once more, smiling to himself at his friend’s calamitous filing. The subtle writhing in his belly resumed and he rubbed a hand across his abdomen like an expectant mother comforting her foetus; he didn’t feel sick as such, but he hadn’t eaten all day and perhaps Markus’ burrito breath was spurring his gastric system into life. He stood from the chair, scratching his backside until the uncomfortable itching sensation from the dated fabric had subsided, and navigated his way around to behind the desk. In silence, he studied the cuttings on the cork board; “Brutal offering from The Holy Cow Killer!”, “HCK strikes again!”, and “Will our streets ever be safe?!?” were some of the sensationalist headlines of the newspaper articles but, on reading the actual stories it was clear that details were at a premium, and that the press were experimenting with conjecture more than reporting on the facts. Frank was particularly engrossed in one article calling for a curfew, detailing why this would benefit the state beyond protecting its residents from HCK, when Markus boisterously re-entered the room, startling him somewhat.
“Oi, don’t you go solving that one when my back’s turned! That fucker’s going to be the crowning glory of my career!”
Markus stabbed a chubby finger through the air at the articles attached to the board in a determined gesture as Frank made his way back around to the coarse brown chair.
“How’s the hunt going? Any leads?”
“Not a fucking clue Frank, not a fucking clue. The guy’s like a ghost, half the time the bodies show up before we even know the vic’s missing! And does he leave us anything to go on? Not a fucking shred!”
Frank could tell from his aggressive tone that his friend was particularly invested in the HCK case and he knew from past experience that, despite his disorderly approach, Markus was a damn good cop.
“You’ll get him soon enough pal, everyone makes mistakes sooner or later. Stick with it and he’ll get lazy, you’ll see.”
The tension in Markus’ muscles eased visibly at the reassurance from a man he’d respected since they had been cadets. His shoulders relaxed and he lowered his accusatory finger. His face softened from the plump grimace it had adopted, revealing his beady eyes from the flabby frame that had formed around them as his brow had furrowed.
“Thanks Frank, means a lot. Anyway this girl, seems she’s quite well known for absconding. Her mother’s well known too, always reporting her missing when she doesn’t come home after a night out partying in the city. Truth be told pal, she always shows up sooner or later attached to some chiselled male model or a two-bit rock star that she’s spent the last few days bumping uglies with.”
“Ah well, should be an easy find then I guess. Not clues as to what her soup du jour is this time?”
“Her soup-? Franky boy you slay me, you really do. But that’s all they’ve got I’m afraid, sorry I couldn’t be more help.”
“No problem Mark, just lemme know if you hear anything, OK?”
Frank pushed himself out of the uncomfortable chair and made for the door. He paused just before he exited and turned to address his friend once more.
“Oh and Mark?”
“For God sake get a new chair”
Frank saw his friend lift his head from his work and flash him an exaggerated, sarcastic smile before he made his way back through the maze of passageways leading to the precincts ingress, Markus’ retort echoing behind him in the corridors.
“Yeah fuck you too Ward!”
Outside, the heat of the day was peaking and the lunch time rush had filled the street with honking cars, their inhabitants desperate to fill their stomachs before the deadline to return to work had passed. Frank stood at the foot of the steps, squinting into the sunlight and pondering his next move as the foot traffic bustled around him. The smell of body odour and cheap perfume vied for the occupancy of his nostrils, occasionally punctuated by the odour of overcooked hotdogs wafting over from a nearby stall. Frank supposed he would visit the usual places that you might find a teenage miscreant, but that would have to wait until tonight when the younger generation emerged from their daily hibernation in search of the debauchery of the later hours. He navigated the traffic that was standing still in the road and found his way back to his car, sliding into the driver’s seat Frank noticed a stark contrast in temperature between the outside world and the interior of his vehicle; as he lowered himself onto the leather he felt its chill even through his clothes, and he shivered in the freezing microenvironment, confused as to how his car could be so cold after an hour or so with the midday sun pouring in through its windows. He pulled his jacket around him and fastened his seatbelt, scanning the chassis and windows for cracks that might have allowed a cooling draft to penetrate the car’s shell. On checking his rear view mirror, Frank sat completely still, fixated by what he saw; reflected in the glass was something occupying his back seat, a transparent, fuzzy entity of indeterminate shape. It’s outline merged with the surrounding atmosphere as if it had no definite border, and it shimmered as if composed of thousands of see-through bees buzzing around one another. Frank stared at the apparition, trying to discriminate any detail at all in this blurred figure all the while fighting the fear that slowly began to rise in him. His skin, finally reacting to the cold, goose-pimpled and his hairs stood to attention beneath his clothes. He realised he hadn’t blinked in a full two minutes when a tear fell from his eyelid and tumbled down his cheek. A low thrumming began in his ears and slowly grew to a deafening crescendo echoing inside his head like a steam train circling his brain, and his hand, gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles hand turned bone white, began to shake. He didn’t want to lose sight of the strange thing in the back of his car but forced his eyes closed to clear the film of lubricant that was forming across them and, when he reopened his eyes, the spectre was gone. Frank realised he had been holding his breath and forcibly exhaled like a drowning diver coming up for air, sending a cloud of spittle over his windscreen. All at once his muscles seemed to relax and even though he was seated, his body slumped back into the chair and the deafening crescendo in his head ceased abruptly. Perturbed by this experience, Frank sat staring out through the rear view until his panting settled to a more usual rate of breathing.
It was just a mirage dear, just a haze from the heat.
He nearly jumped out of his seat at the sudden intrusion of his mother’s voice into his consciousness. He readjusted the mirror in its plastic housing so that he could see his own reflection; he was pale and sweating, and his pupils were dilated so that his irises were mere rims of colour surrounding of a pair of seemingly bottomless holes. Drawn in by the darkness, Frank leaned closer to study the depths of his eyes. A flicker of movement flashing across his retinas startled him once more, this time sending him scrambling for the door handle and out of his car, the driver’s door denting as it crashed into the lamppost in his haste to escape. Once outside Frank felt comforted by the heat, he turned his face welcomingly up into the sunlight and paused for a moment to compose himself; he was tired and needed to rest, he didn’t believe in the supernatural and he needed to go home. Rubbing his palms across his face, feeling his coarse beard scratch against his skin as he did so, Frank returned his attention to the street; a slow walk home would clear his head.
Frank kept his head bowed as he strolled home, trying to fill his head with happy memories and objective thoughts. He thought of his daughter, Daisy, who lived alone in Washington and who worked as a reporter for one of the local news agencies there. He always considered it a compliment to his fatherhood that Daisy had embarked on a career so closely linked to investigation, even though they had become somewhat estranged since her mother had divorced him. He imagined her chasing down leads and opportunistically interviewing politicians she had accosted outside of congress and a smile spread across his face, emerging from its bristly nest and hidden from the public by the down-turned angle of his head. Before his grin could recede, Frank stumbled into a woman standing in his path. At first he only saw her feet, looking downward as he was. Her pointed, red high heeled shoes were polished to a sheen and starkly contrasted the grey paving stones. They encased feet that were clad in thick white woollen stockings, and as Frank allowed his gaze to follow the woman’s slender legs up towards her torso, he found her body wrapped in a grey trench coat that she pulled tightly around her slim frame despite the heat that was persisting determinedly into the afternoon. Frank brought his face up level with the woman’s and his eyes met hers; she was pretty with a petite jaw and full lips that were painted red to match the fascinator atop her neatly bobbed, jet black hair.
Frank apologised for nearly clattering into the woman and made to step around her but was blocked as she matched his side step.
“It’s OK, I’ve been waiting for you.”
The woman’s voice was soft and perfectly enunciated, and her red lips danced alluringly within the pallor of her skin as she spoke.
“Take me Frank, give in to what you feel.”
Her familiarity and tone sent a shiver down Frank’s spine, and the woman held his stare firmly as she slowly opened her trench coat; underneath she was naked except for her tights, and an incision stretched from the top of her sternum down to just above her pubis. It looked fresh, the flesh at its edges was raw and erythematous, and as Frank stared aghast at the wound that matched the colour of the woman’s lipstick and bisected her small, pert breasts, her skin began to peel off and fall away from the top of the cut like pages being torn from a book. Frank felt his knees weaken as the woman’s skin flayed revealing the mounds of fatty tissue that made up the limited bulk of her breasts, and fresh, gleaming red musculature like a living plastinate. He thought he would vomit as a burning sensation rose up in his chest, but this halted at a lump in his throat and he realised he was crying. The woman raised a hand a gently took a hold of his chin, her hand was icy cold and smooth as porcelain. She was still smiling back at him as her flesh began to blacken and rot.
Her voice had changed and the words she now uttered were spoken in a tone familiar to Frank, the same one that had so intrusively forced its way into his head inside his car. He barged the woman out of the way and ran the remaining eight blocks to his home without so much as a glance back over his shoulder. Behind him a startled, and very much intact, young woman was cursing loudly at the man who had so rudely bumped into her and stared salivating at her bosom before running away without offering an apology.
Back home, Frank clattered clumsily through his front door and slammed it shut behind him. He paused for a moment leaning his back against the closed entryway as he caught his breath. His lungs burned from sprinting home and his heart was beating so hard in his chest he thought it was knocking on his ribcage demanding to be set free. After several minutes had passed, Frank marched down the hall into the kitchen and rummaged in his limited cupboard space until his hands emerged clutching a chipped crystal glass and a bottle of whiskey. He hurriedly poured himself a generous measure and gulped it down in one, the burning in his throat felt far warmer than the one in his lungs, and far more comforting. He poured himself another drink and downed it in a similar manner to the first, slamming the glass down on the countertop, then slowly made his way back down the hallway to his bedroom, still carrying the bottle of alcohol. He placed the whiskey on his bedside table, opened the drawer, and slid his hand deep into the back of the opening. When it emerged it held a picture in a small frame; Daisy at her christening in a gleaming white gown, beaming from ear to ear. Frank turned the frame over and undid the clasps on its rear, he pulled away the back of the frame to reveal a silver necklace with a crucifix pendant. He’d given it to his daughter at the church and it had been her pride and joy until their last meeting, when she had thrown it at him after an argument. That was five years ago, just before he forbade her from visiting him during the Stokes case and their relationship had deteriorated. Frank felt woozy, exhausted by the torment of recent events and the exertion of his forcibly rapid journey home. He slipped the long silver chain over his head, clasped the crucifix tightly in his fist, and fell back onto the bed unconscious.