TWENTY-FOUR

Bridget Serafinowicz sets down her bags of shopping with a groan. Her knees hurt, her ankles hurt, her shoulders hurt. Why does growing old have to be so painful? Why do our bodies have to go through this goddamn-awful process of becoming ever more decrepit? If we have to die, why can’t we stay healthy and fit until we do? It should be a simple case of turning the light off one night, never to wake up again. Not this. This is just torture.

But it shouldn’t be like it was for Helena either. Not violent. Life should not be ripped away from people like that.

Her stomach clenches as she thinks about what happened upstairs. Here, in her building. So close.

The reporters were here again this morning. Ringing her buzzer, trying to cajole her into granting them an interview. The vultures. She ignored them. Stayed inside until they got bored of doing their highly speculative pieces to camera and finally drifted away to sniff out more ghoulish and sensational stories.

She came out then, when it was safe. Went to lunch with her friends Golda and Phyllis, just as she always does on a Saturday. But it wasn’t the same. They were far too keen to hear the details of what exactly took place, then far too quick to cast them aside in favor of their own baseless imaginings. Bridget found the whole experience so distasteful she couldn’t finish her tuna sandwich.

The shopping helped. Again, something she has always done after lunch on a Saturday. She found it comforting to adhere to her routine, even though she had been tempted not to bother today. Being amongst all those people, none of whom had an inkling about what she had gone through, made the events seem somehow more distant, more unreal.

But it was real. Coming home again has emphasized that. It’s as though the building has been tainted with an aura of horrific violence.

She starts unloading the bags. While she puts the grocery items away she thinks about Tabitha. That poor girl. She doesn’t deserve such misery. So much death. .

She wishes Tabitha were back here with her. She would comfort her. She would put things right for her. She would do all the things she would have done for her own daughter, if she’d been fortunate enough to have one.

She hopes Tabitha doesn’t leave because of this, but she suspects she will. And when she does it will be heartbreaking. Life will seem so much emptier without her.

Bridget opens the last of her bags and smiles at the contents. A teddy bear, from the Build-A-Bear Workshop on Fifth Avenue. Dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, no less. Something to help convince Tabitha that New York has a friendly face too. That it’s not such a bad place really. That she should seriously think about giving it another chance.

Bridget locks up her apartment and forces her complaining bones up the stairs to the second floor. She takes the master key from her pocket and opens up Apartment 2B. She will make it look nice again. Even though Tabitha was in it for only a brief period and won’t have created much mess, she will make it perfect again. She will tidy and clean and polish, and she will make the bed and place the bear carefully on the pillow. For when she comes back.

She goes inside. Closes the door behind her.

But still her screams are heard right along the hallway.

Mrs Li is back in her apartment so fast she can’t remember the journey. Like she traveled faster than thought itself.

And in her apartment she is screaming at her husband and pointing back the way she came and trying to make the uncomprehending fool appreciate that while she is prepared to change light bulbs in the dark, and do a lot of other things besides, the nature of which she is not about to go into just now but which they need to discuss at some point, she is absolutely not willing to tackle apparitions of the type she has just encountered in the basement. She draws the line at that one. And so what is he going to do about it? Huh? Huh?

She is almost surprised when her husband shuts off the television and gets up from his chair. He looks solemn, concerned. It seems as though he is finally going to take decisive action for once. He assumes the bearing of a tribal chief, about to take part in a duel to the death to defend his loved ones. She experiences a sense of pride swelling in her bosom.

Her bosom deflates when she sees him walk in the wrong direction, toward the bedroom.

She starts to yell at him again. She works herself up into a frenzy, throwing at him every sharp spear of insult she can think of. She threatens to leave him. Worse, she threatens to tell all their friends how bad he is in bed.

She clams up when he returns from the bedroom. She is silent because she has seen that he is holding an industrial-sized flashlight. Not like the puny plastic one he gave her earlier. This one is muscular. It looks capable of lighting up a whole football stadium. A part of her wants to know why he couldn’t be bothered to dig it out for her before she went down to the basement, but she suppresses it. Instead, she watches while her husband steps into the kitchen area and takes the large meat cleaver from its hook on the wall.

Now she knows he means business. There is a boldness to him, a meanness even, that she has not seen in a long time. And as she follows him out of the apartment she experiences a tingling she thought was lost to her forever.

Together they descend the staircase to the basement. At the door to the laundry room they pause. Mr Li pushes open the door and flicks on his flashlight. A cone of light punches through to the far wall. As he plays it over the interior of the room, long fingers of shadow angle and stretch away from them. Mrs Li taps her husband on the shoulder and points in the direction of the washing machine. They start toward it.

Something crunches underfoot. Mr Li flicks the beam downward. He shifts his boot, and the light glints off the myriad fragments of glass from a pair of crushed spectacles. He gives his wife a puzzled glance, then presses on into the room.

Mr Li finds the mountain of washing and keeps the beam focused on it, as steadily as he can manage. There is no movement from the bundle. No sound either. Mrs Li is beginning to wonder if her imagination was playing tricks on her. She believes that her husband will bury his meat cleaver in her skull if that turns out to be the case.

Mr Li steps closer and closer. He lifts his foot and presses it gingerly into the pile. Mrs Li holds her breath. She almost expects a hand to dart out and grab her husband by the ankle. In which event she is out of here again.

Mr Li tries once more. This time he aims a swift strong kick into the center of the mass. His foot strikes something solid and there is a muffled cry. He leaps away, calls his wife to come closer. She has no desire to go anywhere near that thing, whatever it is, but her man is insistent. She is almost crying when he hands her the flashlight and tells her to keep it trained on their target.

Her hand shakes, but she does as she is told. Soft murmurs of fear bubble from her lips as she watches her husband start to pull off the sheets and garments forming the pile. Each time he yanks something away, he takes a leap backward, his cleaver at the ready to strike down whatever is lurking here. Mrs Li thinks she is going to pee herself any moment now.

And then it comes into view. It’s a man. His arms and legs are tied with cord, and there is a cloth bag over his head. Duct tape is wound tightly around the bag at the point where the man’s mouth should be.

Mrs Li’s fear suddenly changes its focus. This man could be suffocating here.

She cries at her husband to remove the bag. He looks at her, then back at the trussed figure. Keeping his cleaver at the ready, he reaches down with his other hand and snatches at the bag.

When Mrs Li sees what caused her to worry so much, what caused her to rant and curse, what caused her almost to have a heart attack, she wants to seize the cleaver from her open-mouthed husband and separate the red-headed lunatic’s head from his scrawny shoulders.

The first call comes in just as Doyle is preparing to leave for work.

‘Hello?’

‘D-Detective Doyle? It’s me. G-G-Gonzo.’

‘Gonzo? What is it? What’s wrong?’

‘You promise you won’t be m-mad?’

‘Gonzo, I’m not promising anything. Just tell me what the fuck this is about.’

‘I. . the girl. Tabitha. Sh-she’s gone.’

‘Gone? What do you mean, gone? Gone where?’

‘I don’t know. I was downstairs. It wasn’t my fault. When I got back up here-’

‘Gonzo. Stay there, okay? I’m coming right over.’

‘O-okay, but it wasn’t-’

Doyle doesn’t wait to hear the excuses. He ends the call and then grabs his jacket. In the hallway he meets Rachel coming the other way.

‘Gotta go,’ he says.

She raises an eyebrow. ‘Who’s your date?’

Doyle doesn’t answer. He stops only long enough to grant his wife a peck on the cheek, and then he’s out of the apartment and clattering down the staircase. When he gets outside, he races for his car and jumps behind the wheel.

That’s when he gets the second call.

The voice says, ‘Cal? It’s Jay. I know you’re not on duty yet, but I thought you should hear this.’

Doyle feels the dread build in the pit of his stomach.

‘Hear what, Jay?’

Holden pauses. ‘This is fucking crazy, man. I can’t even believe this myself. But with all the weird stuff you’ve been saying about a serial killer. .’

‘Spit it out, Jay.’

Another pause. ‘He came back. Whoever whacked Helena Colquitt, he came back and got the other one.’

Doyle’s mouth is suddenly very dry. He finds it a struggle to get his words out.

‘The other one? What do you mean?’

But he knows precisely what he means. He just can’t bring himself to accept it.

‘The roomie. Tabitha Peyton. He came back, got her too. Weird thing is, he used exactly the same MO. She’s in the bathtub, legs over the side. Exactly the same. Crazy.’

Doyle stares out of his grimy windshield. This conversation is too surreal. It can’t be happening. He saw Tabitha last night. He spoke to her this morning. She was safe. She was alive. How could things have gone so drastically wrong in the space of a couple of hours?

‘Cal? You there, man?’

Doyle hears his own voice speaking. He thinks it sounds surprisingly calm and level. And yet it seems detached from him, as though he is listening to somebody else.

‘Thanks for letting me know, Jay. I’ll come straight over.’

He hangs up and continues to stare out into the street. Ahead, a woman is walking toward him with her dog. Nice day for a walk, he thinks. This is what spring is made for. Walking. Enjoying the first signs of sun, of growth. Of life.

And then it hits him. A wave of grief and rage.

He says one word. No.

But it’s not a simple quiet utterance. It’s a long drawn-out syllable that is hurled from his mouth with a force that feels capable of shattering his windshield.

Outside, the woman turns her dog and quickens her pace in the opposite direction.

It takes a frustratingly long time to get there.

He is not in a police sedan, with its lights and sirens and air of authority. He is in his own rust-bucket of a car, and all he has at his disposal is a car horn; and everybody else on the streets, many of whom have much more imposing vehicles and much more impressive car horns, simply blare back at him and flip him the finger and mouth words such as ‘asshole’.

But he gets there.

He gets there just as they are lifting Tabitha’s lifeless and naked corpse from the bathtub. It becomes real then. She is dead. Despite the frequent but unconvincing arguments that have been running through his head about there being some mistake, Tabitha Peyton is most assuredly no longer in the land of the living.

You’ll be safe. I promise.

That’s what he told her in the coffee shop. That he would protect her. And she believed him. She trusted him unreservedly. And he let her down.

‘You believe this shit?’

Jay Holden. At Doyle’s side.

‘I mean, that the guy has the balls to kill one girl, then come back the next day and kill the other one?’

Doyle says nothing. He is too numb. It seems too much of an effort even to think, let alone speak.

Holden doesn’t let up. He grabs Doyle by the upper arm and turns him so that they are face to face. Holden’s expression is more serious than any that Doyle has seen on him before. And when Holden speaks again, it is in a low rumble.

‘You know something, don’t you? Me, I don’t know shit. I’m just a simple cop. This is all fucked up and I don’t know why. These girls dying like this. The shrink and the other vics. Maybe they’re connected and maybe they’re not. I have no idea. But you know, don’t you, Cal?’

Doyle maintains eye contact with Holden. He neither confirms nor denies Holden’s suspicion. But he knows that Holden isn’t stupid. It doesn’t take a detective to work out that Doyle has a deeper interest in this case than is normal.

Holden nods. As though he has just heard Doyle’s thoughts.

‘When you want to talk, you know where to find me.’

And then he walks away.

Doyle feels his legs itching to take him in Holden’s direction. God, if he could only tell him. If he could share this burden with somebody else. Anybody. How much of a release would that be?

And then another voice breaks into his thoughts. A voice much less welcome.

‘Hey, Doyle! Good to see you again.’

Doyle turns to see Folger, with the usual stupid grin on his face. Behind him, Kravitz stands silently.

Folger continues: ‘You called in for a look at the babe? Another stunner, huh? Better even than the first one, in my book. You think they were rug munchers? I think they musta been. There’s not a trace of rug left on either of ’em.’

His laugh is raucous and unaccompanied. He tries to nudge his partner in the ribs, but succeeds in reaching only as high as his solar plexus. Kravitz recoils, slightly winded, but also looking faintly embarrassed and irritated.

Doyle shakes his head in apparent pity. ‘Folger, get a life.’

He turns away, but Folger decides he hasn’t finished.

‘Get a life! That’s rich! You hear that? Get a life. From the guy who has people dropping dead all around him. From the guy who doesn’t get cases any more serious than traffic offenses. From the guy who’s so fucked up he thinks all the crimes in the city are the work of one evil mastermind. This is no comic book, Doyle. There ain’t no such person as Lex Luther. Get a life. Jesus, what a joke.’

Doyle knows he should keep on walking. He should maintain his cool and leave all this behind. Doesn’t matter what they think. Doesn’t matter what they might say about him when he’s gone.

Like hell it doesn’t.

He does an about-turn and strolls back to Folger. The Homicide detective stands his ground, but Doyle knows it’s only because he’s given himself no choice. You can’t throw out a pile of shit like that and then take refuge behind your partner when it starts flying back at you.

‘Nah,’ says Doyle. ‘That ain’t the joke. You wanna know what the real joke is? It’s when people say that short people make up for it with big dicks. It’s just not true. I know that because I spoke with a hooker named Alicia.’

Doyle hears a collective intake of breath from around the room. It’s been rumored for a while that, through sheer desperation, Folger has been getting it on with a fat old prostitute, but nobody has had the temerity to raise the topic in his presence.

Until now. And Doyle isn’t keeping his voice down as he reveals all.

‘Alicia told me yours is the tiniest she’s seen in her whole life, and she’s gonna be fifty this year. That’s a lot of dicks to compare against. She did say you’ve got stamina, though. Said you were grunting and gasping in that bedroom for over an hour. Until she got tired of waiting and helped you climb up onto the bed.’

The room erupts. Folger erupts too, but it’s with uncontrollable fury rather than laughter. When he lashes out, Doyle is ready for it. He’s expecting it. In fact, he wants it.

He swats away Folger’s telegraphed punch as though it’s a mere inconvenience, and then he responds in the way he has been planning all along. Grabbing Folger hard by the throat, he pushes him backward. Only by a couple of feet. Just enough to send him ass over tit into the bathtub.

‘Holy shit!’ somebody says.

Folger pulls himself up in the water and starts to drag himself out of the tub.

‘Oh, you did it now, Doyle. Your career is over. It was nothing anyway, but now you are so finished. You are fucked, boy.’

He steps onto the floor, water pooling around him. He stretches out a finger, then slowly circles his arm so that the finger takes in everyone in the room. ‘You all saw that, right? You saw him assault a fellow officer.’ His finger finally lands on Kravitz. ‘You saw it too, right? For the report. You saw what he did.’

Doyle sees Kravitz look down on his partner. And what he realizes is that the man is looking down not just through altitude, but through attitude too.

‘Yeah, I saw it. I also saw you throw the first punch. You want that in the report too?’

That’s when Doyle decides it’s time to go. He takes one last look at the face of Tabitha Peyton, then walks out the door. Nobody in that room is going to report him for standing up for himself. If anyone’s career is over, it’s Folger’s. At the very least, there’s probably a divorce about to take place between the Homicide cops.

He trudges down the staircase. He should feel better after putting Folger in his place, but he doesn’t. Folger is an irrelevance. The face at the forefront of his mind right now is not Folger’s but Tabitha’s. Tabitha’s beautiful, innocent face, now reflecting the peace she once craved. Maybe she was right to feel so disenchanted with this city. It finally claimed her, didn’t it? And there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Nothing he could do to turn her life around and provide her with the opportunity to discover happiness.

When he hits the street outside, his heart is filled with darkness. There is the potential for murder in that heart.

And he’s not sure he wants it to go away.

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