Chapter 1: Prologue
Hoggle: You know your problem? You take too many things for granted. Take this Labyrinth: even if you get to the center, you'll never get out again.
"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes - when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever - there comes another day, and another specifically missing part."
"Where there's a labyrinth, there's a Minotaur, and vice versa! I can't imagine a decent maze that would be caught dead without a Minotaur."
-Catherine M. Valente
When I was ten, I broke my arm falling from a window. Doc Bridges said I was a lucky bastard.
Well, he didn't say those words, because I was a kid, but you could see it in his eyes. Doc Bridges had been a Marine during the Fall of Saigon, which resulted in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The guy had seen some wild shit.
So when he sternly told me, "You are one amazingly lucky young man", I knew he was just being professional. What he meant to say was: You are one lucky little sonofabitch.
I'd fallen from the third floor of the Taylor House, an abandoned colonial mansion on the edge of town. Nobody had lived in the place for seventy years, not since the last tenant hanged himself in a closet after losing everything in the Crash of '29. Since then, part of the roof had caved in, and in the 1960's an unknown arsonist destroyed the barn in a fire.
Kids said the place was haunted, that Ezekiel Taylor still stalked the halls, ranting about his lost fortune. Town legend said Ezekiel made his millions through a pact with the devil that would've made Faust blush. Nobody knew where this story came from, and schoolteachers yelled at you if they heard you repeat it. The story had no discernible origin, but everyone retold it with the relish of someone who wouldn't recognize the truth if it bit them in the ass and didn't care.
Breaking into the House became a rite of passage, no matter how many extra patrols the cops did around the place - and it was always called "the House". For a bunch of kids who claimed not to be scared of anything, we couldn't bring ourselves to call the place by its full name. I'm sure the boogeyman has a proper name, too, but nobody ever wants to use it.
On the day Eddie Pannachio dared me to go into the House, I almost pissed myself but said yes because honor was on the line. I didn't see any ghosts inside, just a lot of spiders and decayed furniture, and an owl that had made a nest out of a clock. Rainwater had gotten in through the collapsed roof and eaten away wallpaper and wood like maggots on a corpse.
The place spooked me good ... not because of any real spooks but because of how sad it was. People had lived and loved here, and all that remained were vestiges of their lives: broken toys and old shoes and night gowns and magazine stacks that had melted into paper bricks from the rain. A monument to a memory. A living tomb.
My family had a bedroom at home that was like this place.
Suddenly, Eddie yelled from outside that the cops were coming, so I booked it from the hallway to a bathroom, where I could escape into the back yard unnoticed. Unfortunately I slipped on my way out the window and broke my arm on the brick walk below. Officer James said if I'd fallen an inch to the left, I'd have impaled myself on the iron fence and would be talking to Saint Peter instead of him.
Mom and Dad were pissed. I still feel bad about scaring them like that. After all, I was the only kid they had left.
My accident at the House changed my view of ghosts.
I no longer believed in the spooky chain-rattling phantom shit. The movies say ghosts are malevolent spirits itching to do humanity wrong. They lie in wait in derelict buildings, overgrown graveyards, dusty basements. Behind attic doors, window curtains, Ouija boards. And when unleashed, they possess people and overturn houses.
Insert the best pyrotechnics money can buy, and you've got a blockbuster.
Nobody talks about the other kind of ghosts. They're not spooks but the memories of people we've loved and lost, people who now only exist on Kodak paper and in the shadows of our memories. No part of your life is sacrosanct. Time is medicine for many things, but not for ghosts. They invade every corner of your life and mold it to their own ends.
Where would you be without your ghosts? You'll never know. They shape your life so much that it's impossible to guess. You've come to define your life by a particular void in it.
Our instructors made us read poetry at the military academy. The poetry was the only good thing about that school, and in a library book with a broken spine and pages roughened by damp and cigarette burns, I discovered this passage: "Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell."
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that, at the dawn of the 20th century. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for poetry.
Jesus, this lady gets it, I thought. It was the first time I can ever recall feeling moved by anything I read in school. Too bad I was expelled a week later. I was sixteen. I enlisted the following year. Figured I'd make something of myself, since school had failed to.
Edna was spot on, though. Ghosts aren't movie monsters. They're the holes in our lives where people used to be.
With all that in mind, let me tell you a horror story. There's no Hollywood magic in it. But as with many horror stories, mine begins with a nightmare.
Chapter 2: Highway to Hell
by J.R. Godwin
Disclaimer: "Labyrinth" belongs to Jim Henson & Co. There's no money being made off of this.
Rating: M (for violence and graphic depictions of wartime)
"Peace is not an absence of war."
"A person can only be born in one place. However, he may die several times elsewhere."
Toby? Baby, wake up, you're dreaming.
I gasp awake to silence. It lasts a second before our daughter's cries split the air. "Cassie," I mumble, "can you ...?"
Reality slams down like a coffin lid and chokes off my breath. Oh, right, Cassie's not here. She never will be. I dread waking up nowadays. Sleep erases my short term memory, obliterates images of doctors and pallbearers and neighbors' casseroles I don't have the stomach to eat. Sleep resets everything in my mind to happier days.
I had a terrible nightmare the other night. I dreamed Cassie had died, that a drunk had hit her, that the mother of my child was gone. I woke up to find the cat sleeping on my chest and heard Looney Tunes playing in the den (Lucia's figured out how to turn on the TV), and I realized it was a dream.
Relieved, I turned over to tell Cassie about it, but her side of the bed lay empty and cold. Then I remembered she'd died the week before.
Lucia's crying again. I stumble from the bedroom and down the hall, which isn't long. We live in a 5th floor walk-up on 80th Street; New York apartments are known for roaches, not closet space. I find Lucia sitting up in bed and rubbing her eyes. When I hit the lights, she gazes at me, looking as raw and brittle as I feel.
"What's up, little bird?" I ask.
She says nothing, just holds up her arms: toddler language for carry me! I oblige, scooping her up and kissing her cheek. Lucia's the spitting image of her mama, with bright shining eyes, and beautiful black skin, and dimples that make her look like she's laughing even when she's not. But all that laughter vanishes whenever Lucia has nightmares, which she's been having a lot of. Then my baby will sob and cling to her daddy like I'm a life preserver.
Lucia insists on sleeping with me, and I never say no. Ever since Cassie died, our bed has felt like a black hole.
Cassie would have known what to do. Cassie was great with children. She always wanted kids, came from a big Haitian family with more cousins than you could shake a stick at, and everybody was forever up in each other's business. It felt like a tribe. You always had someone to go to with your problems. I never had that growing up. It was just my folks and me, and a dog, and a ghost.
I tuck Lucia into Cassie's side of the bed along with her friend, Kermit the Frog, and climb in with her. Lucia cuddles against my chest and hiccups.
Cassie would have known what to do. When I sigh, the sensation reaches into the marrow of my bones as if trying to suck me dry. "All better, baby?"
"No," Lucia mumbles.
"You had a bad dream, sweetie. It's not real. You're okay now." I wonder if I'm speaking appropriately to a toddler. Everything's scary to little kids. Wasn't I spooked of the boogeyman, when I was little?
Lucia rubs her face again. "She scared me."
I freeze. "What lady?"
"The one in my window."
I wait until Lucia falls asleep before slipping from the bed. There's nobody in Lucia's window, of course. We're five stories up facing a busy intersection. Trees belong to suburbia, not Manhattan. As I peer out the window, I hear the honking of taxis and, further up the block, a truck backfiring.
Just a kid's dream, I think, but I don't sleep the rest of that night.
As with many instances in my life, I met Cassie through dumb luck, with the emphasis on the stupidity being mine. I tripped over her while coming out the front doors of Terminal 1 at JFK. I'd just returned from deployment in Afghanistan, and I was jet-lagged from stopping over in Germany.
I remember it like it was yesterday: the glass doors slid open, and suddenly BAM. I walked into a body, which went over like a ton of bricks, and I realized I'd plowed right into some woman. Talk about embarrassing.
She was pissed, too, all 5'2" of her. A real live wire. Read me the riot act and didn't give a crap that I was surrounded by ten towering dudes in uniform. My ears burned as they snickered behind me. If there's anything that's pounded into you in the military, it's discipline and restraint. I didn't even flinch.
"Sorry, miss," I said. "I don't see much from up here, and I have big Dumbo feet." By the time I was fourteen, I'd already hit 6'. Drill Sergeant Stevens told me my first week of Basic: You ain't never gonna be made a sniper, Williams. Know why? You and those huge fuckin' feet, that's why! The enemy's gonna see you from a mile away. You're so tall we can run a flag up you and sing the Star-Spangled banner. Oh, you find that funny, Williams? I'm so glad you do. Drop and give me twenty, you piece of maggot shit!
Anyway, when I replied to the woman, she gaped a bit. I guess she'd been expecting an argument. She wore a pleated black skirt with a fancy jacket and these strappy heels. Her clothes were definitely not off the rack at the local thrift shop, but I couldn't tell you the designers. Guys don't memorize that stuff.
She wore her hair long and locked, showing off the graceful curve of her neck. I didn't know they were called locs back then. Cassie would school me on that later and tease me for my ignorance. I'd been to Asia and back, but I still had a lot to learn about the world. Still do.
Despite her surprise, she rallied quickly. Said uncertainly, "Just be more careful, okay?"
Which was a hilarious thing to say to a guy who'd just finished a tour in Bagram, but I tipped my army-issued cap at her, and she headed off to her flight. It was only then I looked down and saw the wallet.
I spent a week trying to track this woman down to return her wallet. In the meantime, I learned from her driver's license that her name was Cassandra M. Dias, that she lived in East Flatbush, and that she was an organ donor. I didn't snoop into the other contents of her wallet. Wasn't my business.
She was beautiful, though. Nobody looks good in their license photo, but Cassie did. She had high cheekbones and a smile that could power the city for a week. She wore gold jewelry at her throat and ears and looked like a queen. Something about the jut of her chin, and the calm self-possession in her gaze, all refinement and confidence. I liked her immediately.
Turns out Cassie was spending a week with family in Port-au-Prince, so she spent that whole time worried someone had made off with her wallet and was charging her Visa at every salon between here and Flatbush. She came home to discover the wallet in her mailbox along with a note from yours truly:
Hi, Cassandra. Your wallet fell out of your purse after I bumped into you. I didn't look in it, except for your license to figure out where you live. Sorry again for being a clumsy oaf. Mom always told me I had two left feet. Best, Tobias Williams.
I left my number in case she had questions, but I didn't expect her to call, so I was surprised when she did. I thought maybe it was pity that prompted her, but Cassie said it was my unpretentiousness.
The first time I saw Cassie cry was on our third date. We watched The Pianist while cuddled on my couch. Cassie bawled her eyes out while I awkwardly hugged her and fed her popcorn. I remained young and naive in some ways, and women's tears still freaked me out a bit.
The second time I saw Cassie cry was on our six-month anniversary. We went to Chez Pierre to celebrate my passing the NYPD exam, but the restaurant lost our reservation and we had to stand at the door and wait while they found us a table. Some racist asshole thought Cassie was taking up too much room at the hosting station and got nasty. Called her the N-word and told Cassie to go back to Africa. Stupid fucker was too drunk to notice me, until I went for his throat.
I already had friends then on the force, so I didn't get charged with assault, but I've been effectively banned for life from Chez Pierre. I wasn't wild about their stuffy food anyway.
They say you don't find many atheists on the battlefield. From experience, I've found this to be true. I never took off my crucifix in Afghanistan, even in the showers. You never knew when trouble was going to hit.
By the end of our first week in country, the members of Engineer Company had already sneaked in three puppies we'd found wandering the neighboring hills. Pets are strictly forbidden on base, but the little guys were skinny and starving for affection as much as they were for food.
Sergeant Peña was not happy when he caught us red-handed. "Is that a dog, Rodriguez?" he barked.
My battle buddy winced. "Sorry, Sir, he followed me home." Yeah, we actually used those stupid excuses. "I was just about to get rid of him."
"See that you do!"
Only we didn't. At any time, you could find a dozen illegal dogs on base, which the brass never officially recognized. Just a few weeks before we arrived, one Private - some 20-year old kid from Nevada - had put a gun in his mouth, so they were worried about more suicides. I think they understood the healing power dogs had on us soldiers, many of whom had left behind pets at home. Dogs didn't judge you, no matter how bad your day was, no matter if your best friend had just been killed and you were crying like a baby. The dogs kept us sane. So we pretended to get rid of the dogs, and the brass pretended not to notice.
One night, three of our dogs surprised a Taliban bomber who'd sneaked past the front gates. He blew his load five-hundred feet from my bunk, killing two of the dogs and maiming the third. He had enough juice on him to take out half the base if the dogs hadn't attacked him first; the only casualties were the dogs and the bomber himself.
The two dogs - mangy mutts from the hills of Parwan Province - were given a full military funeral. 21-gun salute and Taps and everything. The surviving animal was sent to live with a foster family in Cleveland that promised to pamper the hell out of him.
I have a picture of us playing with those dogs behind the chow hall where we thought Sergeant Peña wouldn't see us. We named them Victor, Bullet, and Daisy. They were babies, just like us.
One night, when Cassie was heavily pregnant, she petted me awake. "You were moaning in your sleep again, baby," she said. "Another nightmare."
I cupped my eyes and shivered as I always did when the nightmares came. Cassie guided my hand to her belly, where I felt our child sliding around beneath her skin. She did this to soothe me; holding her belly always calmed my nerves. Feeling our child reminded me of life.
"Was it about Afghanistan or Sarah?" she asked.
"Both," I said.
My sister disappeared when I was too little to remember. You might recall seeing it in the news, if you lived in New York then ... hell, if you were alive anywhere then. It made the news in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles. Teenage girl vanishes from family home without a trace. The story was made creepier by the fact that my parents found me asleep in my crib, an innocent cherub. Whatever demons had snatched Sarah hadn't touched a hair on my head.
There was no sign of forced entry or foul play. Sarah's bedroom remained untouched, so she hadn't run off. This was years before 9/11, before we started putting security cameras on every street corner. In the years since, I've often wondered what cameras would have picked up if they'd been around then, if they'd have been able to find my sister.
I never knew my father. Not really. Not as he was. My uncle Greg said that before Sarah vanished, Dad was a boisterous man, which I found hard to believe. He was always quiet and serious when I was growing up, and terribly stern. Mom offered the emotional warmth that Dad lacked, but she fussed over every cut and scratch and never let me out of her sight, as if she feared I too would one day vanish like a fart on the wind.
Sarah's disappearance destroyed them both and warped my childhood. Even as a grown man, I constantly feel Sarah's presence, or lack of it, like a splinter in my mind.
Near Bagram you'll find a winding road that unravels 300 miles from Kabul to Kandahar. Uncle Sam recently gave it a $300 million makeover, for all the good it did. Official records name it Highway 1. We grunts never called it that. To us, it was the Highway of Death. The Afghans called it the Highway to Hell.
The Highway of Death is a dusty paved road framed by dried grass and the steel carcasses of trucks. The year before my first deployment, the Taliban firebombed a military caravan and beheaded the drivers. Anytime you went out on a mission on the Highway, you brought your rosary and enough firepower to shave Kabul off the map.
I've heard a lot of my fellow Americans talk shit about the Afghan people. Nobody knows the difference between a Muslim and a bunch of Al Qaeda hooligans. Hell, most people probably can't find Afghanistan and Iraq on a globe.
Let me tell you something: I worked two tours alongside soldiers in the Afghan National Army, helping them clear houses and provide safe escorts. They didn't like the Taliban anymore than we did. I worked a lot with an officer named Sahar, and our first day he walked right up to Captain Lucas and shook her hand.
Sahar and his guys had no trouble working with women, and they thought bullies like Bin Laden were a menace. I didn't know this, but Kabul back in the 70s was like Paris - a lotta wealth and high fashion, you name it. Then the Taliban and the Soviets came to town and things went straight into the shitter. So there you go, History 101 according to Toby Williams and the ANA.
Our ANA buddies were just as desperate to oust the Taliban as we were. They wanted their girls to go to school. They wanted a strong economy. We couldn't bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age - they were already there.
They didn't need the Taliban, who were too busy terrorizing schoolgirls to concern themselves with building a country. Afghanistan needed engineers, doctors, schoolteachers. Those things were hard to get, because in the vaccuum left by the Soviets in the 1980s, entire swaths of Afghan territory remained controlled by religious fanatics.
I remember my first month in country, I witnessed a conversation between two soldiers: an ANA guy named Azizi and one of our officers, a woman named Jones. She'd entered the army as a 2nd lieutenant with a B.A. in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. She spoke three languages and had a black belt in Jujitsu.
"What will you do when you go home?" Azizi asked.
"I'm gonna go to school," Jones responded.
"You will go to high school?"
"No, college. Well, I already have a college degree," Jones clarified. "I'm going back to get a second one, for nursing."
Azizi had a third grade education. Maybe. I'd seen him around base reading out of a little blue book, teaching himself basic arithmetic. College was a dream on par with flying to the moon. When he heard this foreign woman not only had one college degree but was going back for a second one, his face broke.
That's actually the best way to describe Afghanistan in general. The place felt broken, right down to its people, but underneath the despair was always hope. That's why you saw guys like Azizi carting around books, teaching themselves how to add and subtract, picking up English from their foreign counterparts, hunting down terrorists. Figuring if anyone was gonna build up their country again, it'd have to be them. They had to be ready.
Around this time, we had a new member on my squad, a nineteen-year old private from Spokane, name of Abimana. When I first met her I said, "Abimana? Where's that name from?"
She said, "Rwanda, sir."
"Why the hell'd you wanna come to Asscrapistan?"
"To serve my country, sir."
I laughed at her. I laughed at her real good. I liked her guts, though. She'd need plenty of those. I learned later that Abimana was only four when Rwanda went to hell and the Hutus started murdering everybody. Abimana's family was Tutsi, and her father'd been a government official.
In six weeks, over a million people were dead, most by machete. That's a faster slaughter rate than the Nazi ovens during WWII. Abimana and her sister were the only members of her immediate family to survive, sneaked out of Kigali in the trunk of a car. The sisters grew up with an aunt in the States, and when she hit eighteen, Abimana decided she wanted to give back to the country that had granted her sanctuary.
I had to admire that. Me, I'd joined the military for selfish reasons: I couldn't think of anything else to do. I wasn't interested in college, and I'd already had a few run-ins with the authorities by the time I turned sixteen. I figured the army might give me a career. At the least, it'd give me discipline, and how. Boot camp pushed my buttons, and Afghanistan filed them off entirely.
The week after I'd turned twenty-seven and been promoted to Staff Sergeant, we got the call that the ANA needed another escort out on the Highway. Abimana stopped me in the garage and said in a worried tone, "Sir, they're still not eating or drinking anything. Sahar and his men."
I laced up my boots. "Ramadan doesn't end for another week, so don't expect them to."
"And they're still out there every day clearing houses in hundred degree heat."
"They're real troopers."
She pointed at my chest. I'd taken the locket out of my jacket where it usually sat nestled against my heart alongside my crucifix. I always kissed both before I hit the road. At Abimana's question, I opened the locket and showed her. I guess I felt more at ease sharing this with her because she was a woman. I never shared anything with the men.
The photo inside was of a pale dark-haired girl wearing a headband and starfish earrings. Dad said she'd only gotten her braces off the week before the picture. The locket was filigree silver and adorned with roses, super girly. I'd stolen it from Sarah's jewelry box when I was in fourth grade, when Sarah would have been twenty-six and too old for starfish earrings and Cyndi Lauper.
No one in our family noticed the locket go missing. After Sarah disappeared, our parents didn't touch her room, just walled it off like a tomb. No one ever went in there, except on weekends when Mom would go in to vacuum, just in case Sarah came home.
"You look young to have a daughter," Abimana said.
"She was my sister," I replied.
Civilians would always ask stupid questions in response to that. What do you mean "was"? Abimana had been through too much crap herself, though, and she only nodded. Then she pulled a photo out of her breast pocket. It showed a young woman with very dark skin and very short hair, wearing a blouse and the sort of smile you saw in Maybelline ads. The backdrop was obviously fake, part of someone's school photo.
"The only sister I have left," Abimana said. "She's a pharmacist. I don't have any other family photos."
"What's her name?" I asked.
"She's very pretty," Abimana said kindly. I still don't know if she intentionally used the present tense, but I appreciated it.
"Your sister's pretty, too. Help me help you get home to her, okay?"
Abimana nodded. Within moments, I sounded the call, and we rolled out.
We were within sight of Kabul when an EFP punched a hole in the side of the MRAP two vehicles ahead of us. Abimana gasped from behind the wheel. In the gunner seat above her ear, Rodriguez swiveled in the turret and spat something, and his weapon spat, too. Those of us in back braced ourselves.
"Hold on everybody! Hold on!" Abimana yelled as she punched the gas.
We fishtailed around the burning wreckage. It was obvious there were no survivors. Behind us, something exploded. The shock wave propelled our vehicle forward like twelve pounds of shit through a goose.
I felt my center of gravity shift and knew what was happening a split second before it did. "Rollover!" I roared.
Rodriguez dropped out of the turret just as the MRAP began to flip. We grabbed his limbs and locked him in place, held onto him as empty water bottles flew past our noses, as something else outside exploded. My teeth rattled in my skull. Somebody screamed.
We crashed to Earth and began to roll, I don't know how many times. The metal encasing us shrieked and moaned. A wild thought flit past my mind and was gone just as quickly: This could be our tomb.
A mountain of dirt vomited up against the windshield. My head ricocheted off the headrest behind me. I think Abimana was screaming. Outside, another boom, and the Earth trembled beneath us like a puppy before a giant.
Our vehicle shrieked, lurched, then shuddered to a stop. Gravity had completely reversed itself and my neck muscles hurt from the strain, and I realized we'd landed on the roof. The whole thing couldn't have lasted five seconds. Thank God for harnesses, or we'd have been tossed like dead weight in a can.
In those first moments after landing, all you heard was heavy breathing and gasps. Then Leonard yelled, "Fuck!"
"Everyone okay?" I yelled. "Check in."
"Okay," Abimana said.
"Okay," Rodriguez said, his voice muffled. We still had him locked in our arms.
"Okay," chimed Leonard and Garcia.
"Two seven's hit," Abimana called into the radio. "Two seven's down." Through the windshield, I saw the rest of our platoon had retreated to a safe distance, turned, and positioned itself to return fire. Shit was about to get real.
"Sir, something's burning," said Garcia. I smelled it, too: acrid and bitter. We were on fire.
"Side door!" I barked. "Everyone out!" The turret had been crushed in our landing on the roof, so I eased open the side door facing away from the road, and we scrambled out. I couldn't see shit with the black smoke in my face. People bumped and jostled each other. Hacking and coughing. Someone snapped at someone else: "Get OFF me!"
From the road, a machine gun rattled and boomed. Two more MRAPs sped past, seeking to join the offensive down the road.
A van sat stalled on the road. I recognized it at once: a civilian contractor, foreign by the look of the vehicle. The Afghan vehicles always looked beat up. The road was a public thoroughfare, so we were always passing civvies - Afghan and foreign - going about their business on deliveries. Right now, though, the guy was caught in the middle of a gunfight.
"Corporal," I said to Rodriguez. He nodded, scuttled to the far end of our overturned MRAP, and promptly unloaded a round into the air. As soon as he began firing, I charged out from the other side of the MRAP, heading straight for the van. I trusted the rest of my squad to follow.
While Rodriguez distracted the Taliban, I bounded up to the van and yanked open the door. My gut was right: an American cowered in the driver's seat. Mid-forties, looked like, with a mustache and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap, probably had a wife and three kids to support back home in the Midwest. As soon as I yanked open the door, he recoiled like a shotgun and threw his hands in the air.
"Don't kill me!" he whined.
"Get in back!" I yelled.
He hesitated ... then the window next to his head shattered. The Taliban had finally spotted us.
"MOVE YOUR ASS!" I screamed, hauling him out of the bucket seat by the scruff of his shirt and tossing him in back. I squished myself behind the wheel as my squad thundered up the metal steps and followed the driver.
"Where are Rodriguez and Abimana?" I demanded as Garcia brought up the rear. Further up the road, I heard thunder as our platoon returned fire. Out of the corner of my eye, in the field, wherever the Taliban were hiding, something blossomed white and hot. A direct hit.
Garcia looked behind him, unsure. "She was right behind me!"
Bullets riddled the back of the van. I couldn't think straight. As if I moved through a dream, I slowly became aware that Leonard was screaming, "Get down! Get down!"
If we stayed, we were going to die. I'd just made the decision to go when Abimana appeared at the door with Rodriguez over her shoulder. She was a small woman, maybe 140 pounds, and she had Rodriguez and his equipment slung over her back like it was nothing. Leonard and Garcia pushed past me to pull Rodriguez off of her and drag her inside the stairwell. As soon as they were in, I punched the gas. We took off, tires squealing.
The van was an old stick. The highway here was straight and flat, so I opened her up.
"What if there's IEDs, Sergeant?" Garcia yelled. I was clocking over a hundred by then.
"Then we're dead whether we go fast or slow!" I yelled back.
At that moment, I heard a loud whoosh as an RPG soared right over the hood of the van. A near miss. It passed so close that I saw the vapor trail: probably an OG-7V warhead that would punch through metal and fragment on impact, fired by an RPG-7V2. It was a favorite weapon of the armored vehicle hunter/killer teams dispatched by the mujahideen.
Terrified, I flinched, and the entire van swerved. The warhead detonated somewhere in the field to our right. Another whoosh - another one passed over our roof. Garcia screamed at everyone in back to hold on to something.
The other MRAPs were looming large now, and the Taliban's fire had calmed down. They'd already scored a direct hit on one of our squads, whose vehicle still lay smoking behind us. I didn't want to think about that yet.
"Rodriguez is shot," Abimana said. I risked a side glance. She was right - he'd been hit in the thigh and was bleeding fast. Rodriguez clutched himself and groaned. He was pale.
"Breathe, man, you gonna be a-okay," Leonard lied. "It's just a flesh wound."
"Do they know it's us?" Abimana asked as we approached our comrades.
"I don't know," I said coldly. If our own didn't recognize us, there was a good chance we'd be blown off the road again. An unarmored civilian van wouldn't survive that.
I waved my arm out the window and began to slow down. One of the MRAPs trained its weapon on us. I stuck my head out the window, let them see my Army-issue helmet. "Don't fire!" I screamed. "We've got wounded!"
A Colonel and a medic jumped into the van with us to inspect Rodriguez. The medic was a nervous little shit with a twitch, and he looked grim. "We need to get him to the ER." His face said, Your soldier's a dead man. I wasn't giving up on Rodriguez without a fight.
"Camp Eggers, about two miles," said the Colonel. "I'll get you an escort."
We were blocks from the U.S. Embassy when a car bomb went off. That's how things rolled in Kabul. Bet you L.A. folks will never complain about your traffic ever again. The bomb sheared off the side of a building and buried the street in rubble. We didn't see it happen, but we felt the explosion from half a mile away. It sounded like the end of the world.
The MRAP in front of us took a detour down a side street, and I jerked the wheel to follow. Meanwhile, in back, Leonard and Garcia alternated between trying to talk down the contractor, Mitch, who was muttering incessantly about retirement and his kids.
I risked a glance at my side. Abimana held Rodriguez's hand, which was slick and red. Her other hand was pinching his femoral artery, which hung out of his thigh like loose spaghetti. Outside: sirens, screams, gunshots. The stench of fear and C-4, heavy in my throat.
So this is how it ends. Maybe we'd share a grave. Nah, Rodriguez snores. I'd kill him. You think crazy things when you're about to die. But because I can't ever be serious, I smiled and said, "How're you doing, asshole?"
Rodriguez cracked a shaky grin. "I need a vacation."
"Yeah? Where you gonna go on vacation? Vegas?"
"Well, I used to like the desert-"
"Sergeant." Abimana spoke so softly, but the alarm in her voice was like a gunshot. It got my attention immediately. People were running through the street, panicked. Far away but not far enough: more explosions. It sounded like fireworks, but much bigger. The earth shook. And shook. And shook again.
Then fire exploded off of the MRAP in front of us. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail. The MRAP took off, and I floored it to keep up.
Behind us, more weapon fire.
"Don't stop," Abimana whispered.
"I know," I whispered back.
That must be another thing about dying. You hit this space where you're totally calm and stop responding to outside stimuli. You can't even yell. My brain said that I had to drive, so my body just kept driving.
When we got to the next intersection, smoke and rubble blocked our path. The MRAP screeched to a halt. The turret pivoted and roared at gunmen on a neighboring roof.
There was nowhere to go. We were trapped.
"Sir!" Abimana yelled. I saw the snipers at the same time she did. They clustered on another roof, aiming a grenade launcher right at us.
I screamed at everyone to get out. Leonard and Garcia reacted first, grabbing Mitch by the shirt and scrambling out the back. Abimana fell down the metal stairs, which by then were slick with Rodriguez's blood. I scooped him up in my arms and bolted after her, and she scurried through the dirt on hands and knees for an alleyway. I was right behind her.
The van exploded. White noise in my left ear. Ow. Owww. What the ... what ... something hit me. Blood covered half my face, and I couldn't hear shit in my left ear. My chest hurt.
Abimana was back on her feet now, but she swayed and stumbled against the alley wall. We were coughing and choking from the dust. I felt Rodriguez tremble against my chest as he coughed, and this insane surge of gratitude welled up in my throat. If he could cough, he was still alive.
We stared out at the street from our hiding place. People were screaming, scattering, wailing. I didn't see Leonard or Garcia anywhere. Total pandemonium. From our vantage point, I couldn't see the MRAP, but I heard it firing as another grenade went off from the rooftops.
"The Embassy's back that way," Abimana said, her voice roughened by smoke and tears.
"I'm not ... Toby ..." Rodriguez was slurring like he did during our last leave when we tried to outdo each other on shooters. I won (or lost, depending on your point of view). Both of us woke up with hangovers that would have felled King Kong.
"Shut up," I told him. Don't you fucking die on me! I shifted him a bit to get a better grip and wondered how long you could survive before bleeding out. "Abimana, lead the way."
We scurried down the alleyway like rats. Abimana had a good sense of direction and led us back to the original bombing. It was worse than I originally thought. There'd been a market here, but everything was either buried or on fire.
"They don't even care that they're killing their own people." Abimana's voice shook.
"Private!" I snapped. We didn't have time for this. She jumped, and together we ducked across the street into another alley. I'd been through Kabul numerous times in my tours. It's a big city, but Camp Eggers and its hospital weren't too far from the U.S. embassy. I'd never made the journey on foot, though. We fled through backyards, mud puddles, frightened crowds of civilians carrying their own dead and wounded.
That's when I saw it: a scrap of white, fluttering like a dove. I backpedaled and almost dropped Rodriguez as I stared down the dark gullet of a forgotten side street. The ringing in my left ear was loud now, like the roar of an approaching train. In another world, far away, muted explosions. Blood on my face and in my mouth and up my nose.
My vision contracted like I was in a tunnel. And in the middle of that tunnel, standing quietly in that empty side street, was a girl.
She wore a starched white blouse and denim jeans, the kind you saw in the old Levis' commercials with Brooke Shields. She even looked like Brooke a little, except her long hair was black and her face ... her face was white like a ghost. I mean it. She looked like she'd been carved out of bone.
I recognized her, of course. I'd memorized that face when I was four, when I first noticed the old school portrait hanging in the upstairs hall of my parents' house. It was Sarah.
"Toby." She whispered it, and yet I heard her as clearly as if she'd screamed in my good ear.
I said nothing, just stared. I'm sure my eyes were popping out of my skull.
"Toby!" She sounded angry now, as if she wanted to shake me.
"No," I croaked. "You're not ..." I'd been hit harder than I thought in the blast. I was cracking up. Had to be.
Sarah turned on her heel and fled down the street. I screamed at the top of my lungs, like a man possessed, and bolted after her. That's when I felt hands on my arm, yanking me back.
Abimana was beside herself. "Sir! What are you doing?" She recoiled as I whirled on her. I'm sure I looked insane.
"Did you see her?" I hissed.
"Sergeant, when I came back to look for you, there was no one there."
"You-" I bit my lip, shaking with fury or madness or ... I'm not sure what. It felt like my world was falling down. I turned back to the little side street and kept walking.
"Sir!" Abimana said.
"We're going this way," I said, with an edge to my voice that dared Abimana to defy me. She didn't.
At the end of that street, I saw another flash of white. Sarah again, two hundred feet away. I immediately gave chase. I'd regained enough of my wits by then not to scream, but I still scrambled after her like a child on some crazed run with the Pied Piper.
It went on like that for ... well, it felt like forever, ducking and weaving through side streets while war raged elsewhere in Kabul. I didn't know where we were going, where we'd find Camp Eggers. I just kept following Sarah. She never vanished. I'd turn a corner and stare, frantic, sure I'd lost her, only to see that white blouse again and that dark hair. She was always far away but not too far - down the street, vanishing around a corner, a ghost on a mission.
Abimana huffed behind me, struggling to keep up. My arms burned. I'd forgotten I was holding Rodriguez.
Then, after what felt like a year, we turned a final corner and were suddenly standing in front of an army checkpoint. Camp Eggers. We made it. The soldiers on duty whirled on us, startled, and raised their weapons. They stopped when they saw our uniforms, and I guess our faces. We must have been a sorry sight.
"Sergeant Williams, 455th," I gasped. Why was my body shaking? I couldn't feel my fingers. Must have been the running. "We were attacked ... outside ... outside the city, and near the embassy. I don't-"
People running from all over. Medics. Guys in uniform. Someone in a truck. Pulling Rodriguez from me. Rodriguez wasn't protesting, and it occured to me that I hadn't heard him crack a joke for a while. And then I saw why, because Rodriguez had gone blue.
Someone put a blanket around Abimana, who gasped for air like a drowning woman. I guess the shock of the day's catching up with her. I felt light headed, and the ringing in my ear had gotten worse. My head felt heavy. I was going down. I was down. The pavement felt strange against my back, but it was nice to not stand anymore.
The world felt far away, along with the voices clustered above me like chattering birds.
The pain in my chest had been steadily growing into a brush fire. The sun was setting and the stars were coming out. Mom would be making dinner soon.
"Oh God, he's been shot. We need a medic here!"
"It's okay," I slurred. "It doesn't ... even hurt anymore ..."
Through the sea of legs clustered around me, I saw Sarah. She sat on the pavement, head cocked, watching me with tears in her eyes, and I started to scream.
When I was a kid, my family liked to go to Cape Cod. The bay's protected from the ocean, so the waves there are soft and mild. You can float on your back without getting tossed. It's very peaceful.
Floating now, just like at Cape Cod. I was being lifted. Light flashed in my eyes. Pretty stars.
Hold him! One, two, three, lift!
Trauma One. Trauma One, Code Blue.
I can't be here. Sarah! Where is she? SARAH!
Single gunshot wound, left fifth intercostal space, no exit. What's his pulse?
Pulse ox, 75.
Sergeant, a bullet collapsed your lung. We're putting in a tube to re-expand it.
He's bradying down.
Okay, tube him now.
Sergeant, are you Catholic? Do you want a priest?
Falling again. Falling far away.
To be continued.
Chapter 3: Shadows of the Past
Toby finishes the story of his deployment and returns us to the present, where he's dealing with the death of his wife and a very bad murder case. Then the nightmares begin.
"Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on."
Regaining consciousness is like dying, but backwards. One moment, you don't exist. The next, you do. Your eyes flutter open and awareness crashes into you like a truck. There's not enough awareness to ask, Where am I? That's too complex. The complex thoughts come later. In the beginning, there is only light.
When I awoke, heaviness dragged on my fingertips, and then I remembered I had fingers. My eyes throbbed when I opened them.
I lay like that for a long stretch of time, long enough to inhale and exhale many, many times. I couldn't tell you how long. Time had no meaning. But after a while, my fingers didn't feel so heavy and the light didn't hurt so much, but every other part of my body still did. It was the sort of pain that burrowed into your bones like maggots. My body never wanted to move again.
My body and I were separate entities, you see. My body didn't want to move. I thought that was an agreeable opinion to have, so we came to an amicable truce, and together we decided not to put up much of a fuss.
So we just lay there for a long time, my body and me, and we drifted in and out of consciousness. It was hard to focus on anything, except for the light.
Gradually, I realized that the light streamed forth through a window, that the window was next to me, and that my elbow was touching a metal railing. I was in a bed.
Then a person was standing over me, saying something in a hurried murmur to someone else. It was still hard to focus my eyes. My body and I weren't on good speaking terms yet.
"How long?" I slurred. My tongue sat thick and heavy in my mouth, as if I'd swallowed a desert.
"You've been out for two days," the person said thinly.
"Oh," I replied, but their response didn't make any sense. "Am I dead?"
"No, Sergeant, you're very much alive."
There was a lot of activity after that, lots of people bustling around me, saying things that I didn't understand. I kept asking everybody if I was dead. By and by, the grogginess faded and I began to feel more firmly rooted in my body, and it dawned on me that I wasn't dead. I was in a hospital.
My gag reflex started going. "Is anybody dead? I need to know."
"I don't know anything about that," the nurse replied. I called him a useless idiot, and there was a great commotion among the medical staff after that. Something about me causing a disturbance. I didn't catch the details.
You can hear brass coming from a mile off. Something about their walk. Shortly after I realized I wasn't dead, and that I had all my limbs (thank Christ, though I wasn't crazy about all the tubes sticking out of me), I heard brisk footsteps in the hall. Voices outside said, "Ma'am", many times.
Suddenly, Captain Lucas was standing there. Her blond hair was pulled tightly away from her face, which was all angles. She reminded me of a Valkyrie. I wasn't even sure what a Valkyrie was - some sort of Viking warrior woman who'd rip your head off and shit down your neck - but I knew enough to realize Captain Lucas could be one.
"At ease, Sergeant," she said, and the angles in her face softened.
I laughed a little, but my eyes were starting to tear up. I knew what was coming and couldn't stop it. It felt like falling down a mine shaft.
She pulled up a chair next to my bed and leaned forward, like she was going to confide a secret or admire her shoes. She tapped the fingers of both hands against her lips, as if pondering the meaning of life, but then she said, "The surgeons can explain the details. The brief version is, you fainted after arriving at Camp Eggers. You were in surgery for 14 hours for a shotgun wound and a collapsed lung. They weren't sure you were going to make it. Welcome back to the land of the living."
I said nothing, just waited for the other shoe to drop.
"Private Abimana is waiting to greet you," Captain Lucas continued. "She has a fractured hand and a mild concussion. Nothing too serious."
I couldn't stand it any longer. "Miguel - uh ..." I fisted my hands in the bedsheets, willed myself to continue around the lump in my throat. "-Rodriguez. Garcia. Leonard."
She looked at me for a long time, and I knew. I knew before she finally said, "I'm sorry, Sergeant."
I nodded. My face was wet but I made no sound.
Abimana's hand was all bandaged up when she came in. Her face was blank, and she wore flannel pajama bottoms, the kind you expect people to wear on Christmas morning to open up presents beneath the tree. The whole situation seemed absurd, like I should have been laughing, but I couldn't.
Abimana tried saluting Captain Lucas with her bum hand, though, and then I really did laugh.
Captain waved her to an empty seat. "At ease, Private. You're not making a report."
"Yes, ma'am," Abimana said, and she sat down.
"I was just telling Sergeant Williams what I discussed with you earlier, about your squad." Captain sounded so kind. I couldn't stand it. "They're being sent home today for burial."
"What happened?" I asked softly, not looking at her. I kept my eyes trained on my bedsheets. I needed to know.
"Corporal Rodriguez died upon arrival. The ER staff did everything they could, but there was too much blood loss. Specialists Garcia and Leonard, and the contractor, were caught in the explosion of your vehicle. Some civilians brought their bodies indoors for safekeeping before they could be retrieved by our people."
I had a terrible vision of my squad mates, blackened beyond recognition, dragged inside a stranger's house to be stuffed beneath a staircase like a pair of old shoes.
Captain must have seen the look on my face, because she said softly, "It could have been worse. Much worse. We could've had another Mogadishu." That was the '93 incident in Somalia. Militiamen shot down two Black Hawks. Mobs dragged the naked, mutilated bodies of our soldiers through the streets. It was a huge blow to American morale. "You did everything you could, Sergeant."
"Yeah," I mumbled. "Sure."
Captain Lucas turned to Abimana. "Private, will you excuse us a moment?"
After Abimana scurried out, the Captain turned back to me. I couldn't read anything behind her gray eyes. "We have a great staff here. Fantastic staff. I think you should talk with the counselor and the chaplain, when you're ready."
"Afraid I'll crack up?"
"You've just lost three people, not counting the other losses we sustained this week, between that battle and the car bomb. I think talking with someone would be good for you. Sergeant, who is Sarah?"
My breath caught. "She was my sister."
"Ah." Sympathy and understanding. She wouldn't pry. "I'm sorry. You were ... yelling her name a lot. They had difficulty subduing you in the ER."
She stood to go. "Again, I'm sorry to be the bearer of such terrible news, Sergeant, but I'd rather you hear it from me than someone else. Also, your heroic actions, and those of Private Abimana, have not gone unnoticed. You're both to receive the Purple Heart." She smiled a tight little smile, without any humor in it. "Good day, Sergeant."
There's not much else to say about this period of my life. Abimana and I recovered. Within weeks, we were on duty again - but it was lighter duty. They could have sent us home, I guess. Everybody would have understood.
But something changes in you, when you join the army. Anybody who ever joins the military or the police will understand. You swore an oath. You can't leave your people behind.
So we served the remaining months of our tour. In hindsight, it was a pretty unremarkable time, if you didn't count the Taliban bombing Bagram Airfield every night. I was bedridden during the funerals, so I missed them. Some guys I know served instead and presented the flags to the surviving families. I understand Rodriguez's mom was very appreciative (which means she was a complete wreck). Abimana and I got our Purple Hearts. I couldn't tell you the details about these events. Everything's hazy.
I have three distinct memories from this time. Only three.
The first memory was in the weeks after everyone died. Abimana was getting physical therapy on her hand. I was pretty mobile by then, though I got a little winded if I pushed myself too hard around base.
We didn't talk much, but we spent a lot of time together - and whenever we were together, we were silent. We could have said anything. Hell, there was so much to say, but silence seemed safer. So we just sat and watched the world. Whenever I saw something funny, I'd think, Damn, I need to tell Rodriguez. Then I'd think, Oh, right. And then the funny thing didn't seem so funny anymore. Things aren't as funny when you don't have a friend to share them with.
One day, Abimana and I were sitting outside the chow hall, saying nothing like we usually did. Then, out of the blue, she said, "So apparently your dead sister led us to safety." Abimana said this as if picking up a conversation we'd just had five minutes before.
"I know," I said softly. What else was there to say?
"I didn't tell anyone," Abimana added. "I mean, when they asked how we got to Camp Eggers, I just said you knew the way. But you didn't, did you?"
"No, Private, I did not." No sense lying to her. We had a strange bond, my subordinate and me. We'd gone through hell together and come out survivors on the other side. That meant something, more than anything I had with anyone else alive. Even Cassie, years later.
Abimana continued. "I didn't either. And I didn't see any sister. You were chasing shadows."
"Captain said I should see the shrink. Maybe I really am cracking up."
"If hallucinations could help soldiers in battle, everybody should start doing LSD," Abimana opined. I looked at her, and she added, "Meaning no offense, sir."
The second incident occured in the final week of our tour. Sahar came to see me, flanked by two of his men. I recognized one of them as Azizi, the guy who'd quizzed Jones about college, who'd been teaching himself addition and subtraction out of a book.
Sahar carried a folded, pressed bundle that I realized was an Afghan flag. Pinned to it was a dark blue patch decorated in gold thread. I froze in shock as he ceremoniously pressed the bundle into my arms.
"Thank you," he said, "for your service. It has been a privilege."
"What's the patch?" I croaked. I never was good at words.
He smiled. "Every soldier receives one when he joins the army. This one is mine. I would like for you to have it."
The gold thread formed beautiful, flowing script, but I couldn't read Pashto. "What does it say?"
Sahar had to pause and translate in his head. "It means, I swear before God, the Merciful and Compassionate, that I will serve Afghanistan and keep her safe."
"Thank you. That's lovely," I said, and we shook hands.
The most dangerous time in a soldier's life is taking off and landing. That's when a military aircraft is most vulnerable, and that's when the third memorable incident occured.
When our tour ended, our entire company boarded a C-17. That's one of those big ass cargo transports that can carry entire armored vehicles. In our case, the cargo was two hundred personnel, all eager to get home.
Abimana piled in next to me and strapped herself in. She was wearing sunglasses and flipped me the peace sign. She looked like a Japanese tourist posing for a photo. It made a few of us laugh. It was good to laugh, though laughing still felt terrible somehow, as if laughter desecrated the memories of those we'd lost.
The C-17 got into position on the runway, and we were cleared for takeoff. I tensed as we accelerated, then my stomach dropped a bit as we left the tarmac. After a few moments, we began to level off, and I breathed easier.
Then the emergency lights flashed, and Captain Lucas fucking flew down the aisle.
I had never seen her move like that, and I never would again. She screamed at everyone in her way, "MOVE YOUR FUCKING FEET!", in the same tone I'd used with Mitch when I highjacked his van. When she got to us at the back of the plane, she looked out the rear window and cursed.
Abimana grabbed my arm and looked at me. Her eyes: pure terror.
Captain slapped the intercom button and barked at the pilots, "RELEASE HEAT FLARES! NOW!"
I had a window seat, so I peered out to see what Captain saw. They were impossible to miss: two missiles, white and hot, screaming right for our tail. The Taliban wanted to send us a going-away present by blowing us out of the sky.
The pilots released the flares. My breath stopped as the missiles continued their grim approach. Two hundred feet from our tail, a hundred feet, fifty - contact. I watched, mesmerized by the flash. When heat flares explode, they make beautiful, fluffy white arcs. There's a reason they're nicknamed "angel wings." I suddenly remembered to breathe again.
The C-17 trembled from the turbulence. Everybody grabbed each other and waited. The turbulence softened and the emergency lights stopped flashing, and two hundred people exhaled together.
"Was it close?" Abimana asked. Her voice shook.
I smoothly lied. "Nah. These assholes can't even aim right."
We have a picture of the entire cargo hold grinning and doing the wave shortly after that. Somebody had yelled, "Everybody say hi to Bin Laden!", so a bunch of folks are giving the camera the finger. Abimana wouldn't stop laughing, but I knew it was a cover. Her hands were cold and trembling.
That's how I left Afghanistan for good.
If Lucia remembers anything of the strange lady at her bedroom window, she doesn't say so when I wake her for breakfast. She's cranky and won't let go of Kermit the Frog. Eventually I have to pick her up and physically seat her at the breakfast table.
I haven't slept a wink, but I'm not tired. I mean, my body aches a little, but my mind is on full alert. It's a struggle to keep up with my thoughts. So I pour Lucia Cheerios and make her scrambled eggs, keep my hands busy and moving. Lucia cheers up considerably with food, and she laughs when I prance across the kitchen linoleum belting a terrible rendition of "The Grand Old Duke of York."
When you're a parent, you don't mind looking like a jackass to get a giggle out of your child. Pride goes out the window.
Window. I frown again. Just a kid's nightmare, gotta be, but ...
The buzzer sounds, and Lucia leaps out of her chair yelling, "Aunt Elsie! Aunt Elsie!" She's got ketchup on her face and hands. I have to chase her into the den with a paper towel.
We open the door to find my sister-in-law wearing a very plastic smile. She beams down at Lucia. "Hey there, Cupcake. How's my favorite niece?" Lucia giggles and latches onto Elsie's leg, and I have to extricate them while Elsie stumbles in the door carrying a heavy grocery bag. Elsie and I switch our loads: I take the bag, she takes Lucia.
As Lucia buries her head in her aunt's shoulder for a hug, Elsie's and my eyes meet, and our smiles drop like a curtain. We just regard each other, silent and haggard.
"Have you had breakfast?" I ask, forcing lightness into my voice.
"Me? I'm good, I had a bagel on the way." Elsie isn't as tall as her sister. She's small and compact and moves like a carnival barker: jerky and frantic. If Elsie ever had a desk job, I think she'd die of boredom or someone else would throttle her, which is why she runs a salon. She gets to move around all day and talk to (yell at) people. It suits her high energy well.
Cassie was shyer around strangers and felt more at home around books. There's a stack of James Baldwin novels next to Cassie's side of the bed that I still haven't moved. I'm loathe to touch anything of hers. Not yet.
"I, uh, I did Lucia's hair last night and packed you a bag," I said. "Diapers and extra clothes, just in case. Lucia's been a big girl going on the potty, right?" Lucia and I beam at each other. "... but, uh, she's been wetting the bed a bit this week."
Elsie nods. "You sure you want to do this? We'd all understand if you wanted more time at home."
"Yeah. I think it'll do us good. Get us back into routines."
Our families were constantly stopping by in the wake of the funeral to help run the household. Cassie's mom and my mom cooked meals and babysat Lucia. Two days after I put my wife in the ground, I finally left our bed and took our daughter to the park. I pushed Lucia on the swings and sipped black coffee I'd bought on a whim from a deli. (I don't drink coffee.) The coffee tasted like battery acid, but I didn't care. I felt like a stranger watching myself. I was numb.
Lucia's been playing with Elsie's braids, but she chooses that moment to chirp, "When's Mommy coming home?"
Elsie and I freeze. She looks at me as if to say, How do you wanna handle this, cowboy?
I swallow hard. "Little bird, we've talked about this. Mommy ... Mommy's dead."
"When's she coming back?"
"She's not coming back." Goddammit, my eyes are tearing up. "Mommy died, which means her body stopped working. This happens when people get very old or sick and doctors can't make their bodies work anymore. Mommy couldn't continue to do things like eat or play outside. Her body stopped working and she died. She's not coming back."
I'm afraid Lucia will throw a tantrum. She did the first time we had this discussion. This time, however, she starts to cry. Elsie springs into action, cradling Lucia to her breast and shushing her as she hurries past me. I stand rooted in place and cover my eyes. I'm shaking.
I spend the next fifteen minutes hunched on the couch, hands clasped between my legs and looking pathetic in my flannel pajama pants that Cassie got me last Christmas. When Elsie returns from the bedrooms, Lucia in her arms and the diaper bag over one shoulder, my daughter's wearing a cute little pinafore dress that Cassie loved. (I only know it's called a pinafore because Cassie told me.) Lucia's no longer crying, but she's hiccuping and her face is puffy. I feel like the world's biggest asshole.
"So!" Elsie says brightly to the room. "Today Lucia is going to help Gran and me make poule en sauce, and we're going to play with her cousins Ricky and Marta. Then we're going to come home for dinner with Daddy. Doesn't that sound nice?" In response, Lucia sticks her thumb in her mouth and rests her head on Elsie's shoulder.
I jump up to escort them out. Elsie turns at the door. "Listen," she says, "if you change your mind, it's okay. I have more maternity leave yet, and Gran and David are always happy to watch her. Don't push yourself today."
"I know. Thank you." I kiss my sister-in-law on the cheek. Her face is wet like mine. "I may be late tonight."
I lied to Elsie. Routines, my ass. If I could, I'd go back to bed and never leave it again, but I got a text message at 6 o'clock this morning from Harry: We found Ana Maria
Alive? I texted back.
I'll be there in 30
Sure u wanna do this?
ok. Miguelito's taqueria, 3rd ave b/w 105th and 106th, b/w a starbucks and a foot locker. go thru the kitchen & out back. we're in the alley.
Anyone inform the parents yet?
The NYPD's 23rd precinct serves East Harlem north of East 96th Street, an area known to some residents as El Barrio or 東哈萊姆, depending on who you ask. We're famous for a few reasons - some good, some not so good. El Barrio has made excellent contributions to salsa music. It's the home of the National Musem of Catholic Art and History, the New York Academy of Medicine, and Mount Sinai Hospital. Tupac Shakur, Alicia Keys, and Puff Daddy were born here. A colleague of mine got called to Maya Angelou's residence once for a B&E, which was kind of exciting.
Oh, and in summertime, people throw awesome pig roasts.
We also suffer from the highest violent crime rate in Manhattan and the highest jobless rate in all of New York City. 25% of residents live in public housing. East Harlem is the founding location of the Genovese crime family, one of the Five Families of the city's Mafia and considered the Ivy League of organized crime, unmatched in size except, perhaps, by the Gambino family. In terms of power, no other crime family comes close, even a hundred years after the Genovese set up shop. Remember The Godfather? The Corleones were said to be modeled after the Genovese.
The Spanish Lords are big here. Four years ago, they went to war with the Bloods. A lot of people died.
In some ways, it's like I never left Afghanistan.
As I exit the subway, I spot a familiar huddled shape outside a closed liquor store. It's a white girl with an upturned nose and a black eye, shivering beneath a blanket. The sun is just beginning to rise, and the night chill still clings to my bones.
"Got change, mister?" she asks.
I palm a fifty and slip it into her hand as I pass.
"Thank you," she says to my retreating back.
I arrive at Miguelito's to discover a small restaurant with a pink awning. The painting in the window is a caricature of an Aztec god sipping a margarita. I don't recognize the patrolwoman guarding the door, but I flash my badge at her and say, "Williams, 23rd. Detective Rosenfeld's waiting for me." She nods and lets me pass.
The chairs are still up on the tables in the dark dining room. I hurry through to the kitchen, which glows with an eerie yellow light. There I'm waved through the back door by another patrolman, who's standing around with a cook and a busboy looking about as enthusiastic as a party of undertakers.
The alley is wet and reeks of week-old garbage. In the summertime, the heat will make the stink so bad you'll have to cover your mouth. For now though, in early fall, it's not overwhelming. Other uniforms are in the process of cordoning off the crime scene - the alley opens out onto the street at both ends. Harry stands in the middle of the alleyway in deep conversation with the medical examiner, a crime lab tech, and three other members of our squad.
"Hey," I say. "What's the story?"
Harry purses his lips. "We're waiting on the search warrant."
I stare at him. "You're kidding."
"Nope. Private property."
"Didn't those guys inside give their consent?"
"They're just employees. They can't."
"Where's the owner?"
"Visiting family in Puerto Vallarta."
"Yeah. Anyway, we're waiting on the search warrant."
Which is annoying as hell, but you can't be too careful. Every precinct has horror stories about people busting their asses on a case only to have it thrown out in court for unlawful search and seizure. Unless the public's in immediate danger or you're chasing down a fleeing suspect, take the time to get a search warrant before you touch anything. It'll save you headaches later.
"What do you think so far?" I ask, looking at the crime lab tech. I've worked with her before. Name's Molly. Small hands.
"So far?" she asks. "I'm wondering how someone gets a body in a dumpster without being noticed."
On cue, our party turns and stares at the dumpster in question. A thin, waxy arm extends out the top - too small to be an adult's, and a pink bracelet with hearts on it dangles from the wrist.
I look at Harry, resigned. "The bracelet."
Harry nods. "Same as the one Ana Maria's sister was wearing, right? I called it. Busboy found her while taking out the trash."
Ana Maria Ramirez is ... was ... an 8-year old who'd disappeared from her bedroom days before Cassie died. The parents were out of their minds with grief when we interviewed them. You don't make Detective if you don't have a sharp eye, so of course I noticed the bracelet worn by the Ramirez's other daughter, Cristina. The 10-year old had made matching bracelets for her sister and herself.
The one on the corpse's wrist is a dead ringer for Cristina's. No pun intended.
Shit, shit, shit. When a kidnapping case goes well, you find the person and everyone goes home happy. Many cases linger for years, leaving families in agonizing limbo. A few turn into homicide cases. This was going to be one of them.
Thankfully, the search warrant arrives soon after that. Molly and the medical examiner begin a preliminary walk-through of the crime scene. Three members of our squad take to the block, searching for possible witnesses. Harry and I make for the kitchen to talk to the busboy. He's a young guy, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three, and he looks rattled. I don't blame him.
"Hi, I'm Detective Williams, this is Detective Rosenfeld," I say in Spanish, shaking the kid's hand. "I'm told you found the body? Are you okay to answer some questions for us?"
"Sure," the busboy says. "Same as what I told the officers who first showed up. I was taking out the trash and ... I saw that."
"What did you see?"
"The arm sticking up out of the dumpster."
"Did you touch anything?"
"Were you alone?"
"No. Omar-" he indicates the cook. "-was here with me."
"He went outside into the alley with you?"
"No," answers the cook. "While he went outside, I went into the freezer to get some chickens. I only came out again when he ran back into the kitchen carrying on about a body."
"So it was just you two here?"
"What time did you arrive at work this morning?"
"Omar got here first around 4 to prep the ovens. I showed up soon after that."
"Did you see anyone strange around the neighborhood?"
The kid shrugs. "Apart from the trucks delivering newspapers and produce, and a few people wandering home from the bars? It's New York. It's always a little strange. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"Were you guys here last night?"
"No, we work the morning shift," says the cook. "You'd have to talk to Leticia, Ricardo, and June. They closed last night."
"When would they have closed?"
"We stop taking new customers after 11. They probably wouldn't have finished cleaning up and getting out of here until at least midnight."
"The lights on the back stoop - do you always keep them on?"
Omar shakes his head. "Not when we're not back there. There's a time sensor. It only goes off when you open the door to go outside. Conserves electricity that way."
Harry and I exchange glances. I know what he's thinking: So we have a possible 4-hour window for the killer to dump the body in an unlit alley, as long as the people closing last night checked the alley and didn't see a body. "Thank you, gentlemen, for answering our questions. Do you mind if we take down your names and contact information? Also, we'd like to speak with your coworkers."
We step outside on the back stoop again to find Molly sketching the crime scene. "So," Harry says, "thoughts?"
"He comes out this door," I respond, walking slowly down the steps. "The busboy. He's carrying that-" I point at the heavy trash bag, abandoned at the foot of the stairs. "-but drops it when he sees the arm, and he runs back inside. Why does he panic so soon? The dumpster's an easy twenty feet from the back door."
"Well, you can see the arm from here."
"Right. Why is that? Why didn't the killer try harder to hide the body? He's smart enough to get a body into a dumpster without cutting it up or stuffing it in a garbage bag, and then he blows his cover by sticking the arm up so clearly?"
"This guy is meticulous. He wouldn't be that smart and then screw it up. He stuck the arm up on purpose."
"What kind of murderer wants a body to be found?"
"One who likes showing off his handiwork."
"Exactly." A shiver starts at the base of my neck. "This one doesn't care about hiding his tracks. He likes shocking people. It thrills him." And he's not gonna stop.
We interview the other employees of Miguelito's Taqueria. They didn't take out the trash last night, they insist. That's why the busboy did it this morning.
When was the last time anyone was in the alley?
I'm not sure. Maybe lunchtime yesterday?
It takes everything in me not to gnash my teeth. The time window for dumping the body just widened by another twelve hours. I wonder what the medical examiner will find once Molly's done collecting evidence from the crime scene and they can get the body to the morgue.
It's after breakfast by the time we get to the morgue, but we still haven't eaten. On the front steps of the building, Harry stops to shake out a cigarette. I bum one, which surprises him. "I thought you quit."
"I did." I take a drag. The nicotine jolt is almost as good as sex. "I'm starting again. How much of that exchange did you understand? Between me and the busboy and the cook?"
I make a sound of disgust. "I don't understand how you worked a beat in East Harlem for eight years without picking up Spanish. You could at least try to take a class at SUNY or something."
Harry snorts. "Yeah, with all my copious free time."
"It'd help me a lot if my partner could keep up when I'm interviewing witnesses."
"Are you trying to guilt me? Because it won't work. I'm Jewish. I've been guilted by professionals." Harry regards me wearily. "Like I said, you sure you want this to be your first day back-?"
"Sure I'm sure. The work never stops, right?"
"Just as long as you're sure." Pause. "I'm so sorry, Toby."
"I know. Thanks."
You never get used to the morgue smell. It smells like sterilized metal and formaldehyde. The latter never quite manages to do its job of covering up the stench of decay. The medical examiner is a small man with a sleek head and coke-bottle glasses, and he likes to think with his hands folded in front of his nose. Whenever I look at Thomas, I'm put to mind of an otter.
"This case is strange," he says as he leads us into the room where they keep the bodies. "Just based on rigor mortis, I estimate time of death to about four hours before the body was found."
"Well, great, that only narrows our search for a suspect between here and Albany," Harry deadpans.
"Can we see the body?" I ask.
"Of course," Thomas replies. He hesitates. "I heard about your wife, Detective. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Yeah, thanks. Me, too." I rub my nose and look at the ground, just to avert his beady gaze. Somebody like him stripped Cassie. Studied the bruises and broken ribs. Poked and prodded her like a lab specimen. Maybe even called somebody else into the room to marvel at how bad she was. Will ya check that out, Frank? That's where her head went through the windshield. Kee-rist!
Thomas seems like a good guy, but you hear stories in my line of work about assholes who shouldn't be trusted around dead bodies. Either way, somebody cold and clinical abandoned my wife on a metal tray with knives and forceps, locked her alone in a fridge like she was nothing more than hamburger meat. The urge to protect my wife is still alive, even if she's currently resting beneath the lawn of Green-Wood Cemetery. I have a strange urge to choke Thomas until he bleeds. Avoiding eye contact is probably healthiest for the both of us.
"So, the kid?" I ask my shoes.
"Yes." Thomas opens a heavy steel door and rolls out a metal tray. On the tray is a sheet covering a body that's far too small. When he pulls the sheet back, my throat catches. I'm a father, I can't help it, I think of Lucia.
I'll spare you the grosser details. Even for a hardened professional such as yours truly, it's hard to see dead children. Parents should never have to bury their kids. It'd probably be harder for me if I'd known Ana Maria when she was alive, but I didn't, so it's easier for me to regard her body as an object right now. I think shrinks call it cognitive dissonance. I call it keeping your sanity.
Ana Maria is blue, but she doesn't look like she's been dead for long. She could almost be asleep - almost. Her lips are slightly parted. She wears pajama pants with cartoon kittens on them and a Dora the Explorer t-shirt. The t-shirt is on inside out, but I can see the picture through the cheap fabric. The nails on her fingers and toes are painted in glittery pink polish.
I get why Thomas thinks this is a strange case: blood pools dark and thick where her eyes should be and runs in rivulets down her face like tears. I realize all three of us are staring.
"What the fuck's with her eyes?" Harry demands.
"They're missing," Thomas explains quietly.
We stand, silent and awkward, for a long time.
"Mr. and Mrs. Ramirez have been informed?" I croak, partly just to say something.
"Yes, and they've identified her," Thomas confirms.
"So you'll begin."
"Yes. Come back at three o'clock. I should have her ready for you by then."
"Her shirt was on inside out," I mutter to Harry as we leave.
"That could mean anything. Maybe she was a sloppy dresser."
"Did you notice the bruises around her wrists? He had her in restraints."
"Who the fuck is this guy? He pulled the eyes out of her head?"
"I don't know, Toby."
"Listen, I, uh ... I got a thing I gotta do. Can I meet you in an hour?"
"Gonna go talk to the doc?"
"Yeah. Just, if the captain asks-"
"Don't worry about it. I'll tell him you're questioning somebody."
In New York, people think you're crazy if you don't have a shrink. Mine is a psychiatrist with an office on Park Avenue. I've been seeing Louise on and off for years ever since I came home from Afghanistan. I needed a medical clearance before the NYPD would hire me.
But I don't go to see Louise. I head instead for Saint Paddy's on Madison Avenue. It's a 20-minute trek downtown. When I arrive, I bypass the great arched front doors to the cathedral and instead go around the back, to a small office entrance on 51st Street. When I go in, Mabel the secretary smiles and says, "Go on back, Detective."
Father Bill's office is the first door on the left. I knock, and a robust voice booms, "Come in."
It's a small office with a nice desk - the kind made of heavy polished wood you'd never find at Ikea's. Plants line the windowsill and the bookcase, which teems with heavy leather-bound volumes about obscure church law that would put me to sleep. Father Bill himself is a big, burly guy who looks like he'd be just at home on a soundstage or at the head of a board meeting. He has the commanding presence of a 1940's film star; apparently his nickname at theological school was The Duke. I like him.
He's writing something on a notepad when I walk in, but his eyebrows knit when he sees me. "Toby. Please, have a seat. How are you doing this week?"
I sit and, unsure what else to do with my hands, clasp them between my knees. "Horrible. I'm back at work today. We found a kidnapping victim. Eight-year old girl."
Father Bill removes his glasses and polishes them with a scrap of cloth. "That's a rough return to work after the week you've just had."
"That's what Harry said, but I gotta job to do. I can't forsake the people I swore to protect. It wouldn't be fair."
"You and your fairness." He smiles. It's not a condescending smile, exactly. It's the fond, exasperated kind you'd see on a parent chuckling at their offspring. "The world isn't fair, is it?"
"No, Father, it's not."
"Did you come to discuss this case?"
"No. I wanna talk about Afghanistan."
"Has something new come up?"
"Not exactly. It's almost Sarah's birthday and the anniversary of her disappearance. I never told you the full story of what happened in Kabul." Father Bill is looking at me curiously, so I wave my hand for emphasis. "I mean, yeah, I told you a lot, but ... there's more to what I told you. Weird things happened that day that I could never explain."
He looks genuinely intrigued. "Such as?"
I lick my lips. "You're gonna think I'm crazy."
I laugh humorlessly. "Okay ... remember when I told you about carrying Miguel through Kabul? Half my squad was already dead at that point, but I didn't know it yet. I had a green private with me, and I'd been shot. I thought I was just in shock after the blast. I didn't even know the way to Camp Eggers."
"But you found the way eventually."
"That's just it, Father, I didn't. We're running down the street, and people around us are screaming, bombs are going off behind us, and ... I pass this side street and stop, because there's this girl-" I'm staring over his shoulder, and suddenly I'm back in a war zone again covered in my best friend's blood. "-just standing there. Blue jeans, white blouse, loafers, long black hair, white face. It's my sister who disappeared. It's Sarah."
Father Bill is watching me politely. I don't have a clue what he's thinking.
I forge ahead. "And I think, no, that's impossible. Sarah's dead. She calls my name. And I just continue to stare at her like an idiot, because I don't believe what I'm seeing. And she says my name again, but she's getting angry. Like I'm being stubborn. And then she turns and runs up the street away from me. I scream and start after her but Abimana grabs me and asks what I'm doing. She hasn't seen anything, she thinks I'm nuts. But I'm senior, so she has to follow me, so I tell her we're going down this street. And that's what we did. I followed this vision of my dead sister through Kabul on foot. Every time I thought she'd vanished, I'd turn a corner and see her again, running away. I chased her until she led us to Camp Eggers."
"Have you told anyone else this story?" Father Bill asks.
"Abimana knows. She knew something was wrong. She thought I was cracking up. I told Louise, when I started my sessions with her."
"What did Louise say?"
"She said I'd been shot and had a collapsed lung. The lack of oxygen to my brain caused me to hallucinate."
"But you don't believe that."
I open my hands helplessly. "What am I to believe? That a ghost guided me to safety in my darkest hour? An angel of the Lord? A hallucination's easier, but hallucinations aren't so accurate with directions. Or so realistic. I mean, she was real."
"So why does this trouble you still? It's been almost ten years."
"Because ... because ... I can't explain it. To this day, I can't explain it. It makes no sense."
"Do you feel survivor's guilt?"
"We've been over this a million times, Father. Of course I'm upset that I lived and my squad died-"
"I'm not speaking of your squad. I'm speaking of your sister."
I stare at him.
"Something terrible happened in your family's home, Toby, all those years ago," Father Bill says carefully. "Something evil. It left you in your crib and took your sister instead, and your family has suffered from that loss ever since. No matter what you did, growing up, you were constantly reminded of that hole in your lives, and how you could never live up to the legacy of the sibling you'd lost. You had to protect your parents, who became so fragile in their grief. And now, today, you've dedicated yourself to protecting the innocent and the helpless from the monsters that lurk around us. I think your entire life, Toby, has been shaped by survivor's guilt."
I swallow. "Yeah, well ... somebody has to do it. Why not me?"
"Indeed. Why not you?" He smiles. "You never told Cassie?"
"Cassie knows a lot about Afghanistan, and Sarah. I never told her that story."
"I didn't want to upset her."
"Would it have upset her?"
"It upsets me. It feels ... dirty. It's the most bizarre thing I've ever experienced. I have no words for it. If I can't explain something, it bothers me." I chuckle. "It's the detective in me. Truth be told, I didn't want Cassie worried about my mental health. I wanted to protect her, and my parents. I never told them this story, either. It would just upset them."
"So what about the last week brought this story up for you again?"
"I don't know. We just lost Cassie, and it's Sarah's birthday soon, and almost the anniversary of her disappearance. So I've been thinking about it, I guess."
"You can't save everyone, Toby."
"I can damn well try, can't I?" I'm surprised by how angry I sound.
"You can, but I think you also have to forgive yourself for the people you can't save. The world won't be served by you punishing yourself. You asked me what I think," he continues in an abrupt change of topic, "about your story."
"Yes, Father, I did."
"I believe that you saw your sister that day. The reasons aren't so important to me. Perhaps you were hallucinating. Perhaps you were guided by your sister's spirit. The explanation is irrelevant. Your sister guided you to safety. That's all there is to it."
I snort and lean back in my chair, tapping my fingers against my thighs. "That's it? The Lord works in mysterious ways?"
"I wish I had all the answers ... but if I did, I wouldn't have dedicated myself to religion." Father Bill looks terribly solemn. "How did this encounter with your sister make you feel? Besides confused and frightened?"
"I ... amazed, I guess. Awe. That would be the word for it: awe. It felt like I was looking through a window to another world. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time."
Our eyes meet.
"I think it was really her," I say at last.
"Which is what you've been meaning to say to me since you entered my office," Father Bill says, smiling. "I think it was really her, too."
I look at my feet for a moment and nod, then get up to leave. There's nothing left to be said.
Father Bill stops me at the door. "What was her name? The dead child you just found?"
My shoulders sag. "Ana Maria Ramirez. Her parents are Felipe and Elisa, her sister's Cristina. They belong to All Saints on 129th Street."
"I'll pray for them."
"Thank you, Father."
"He'll pray for them?" Harry huffs around a fresh cigarette. "Praying ain't gonna bring the kid back. I thought you were going to your psychologist."
"She's a psychiatrist. And I went to my priest instead. And don't be a dick."
Harry exhales and rolls his eyes - not at me, but as if he's trying to save me from myself. "Toby, don't take this the wrong way, okay? I got a praying grandma. I respect God, even if I don't believe in Him. But whenever people are like, oh, hey, I'll pray for you, you know what? Prayer ain't gonna do shit. You know what's gonna make a difference? Us nailing this asshole so he can't hurt anyone else and the Ramirez family can get some closure."
"How can't you believe in God? You're Jewish."
"Jewish is an ethnicity and a religion. We're special that way. I can be Jewish and still be an atheist."
"You got a praying grandma and you don't believe in God?"
"I don't believe in God because I got a praying grandma. Listen, she survived Auschwitz and Dachau. She's ninety-six years old and still has nightmares about the Nazis. Like, she'll dream she's watering the plants on her front porch in Long Island, and she looks up to see the Gestapo coming up the front walk. We get phone calls once a week because she's had another scary dream that the Germans took my brother and me away. Ninety-six. Still terrified the Nazis are gonna come back and take her grandsons."
"What's this got to do with God?"
"Frankly, I got a hard time believing in the existence of a kind and loving God sitting by and twiddling His thumbs while little old ladies have nightmares every night about babies going to the gas chamber."
"That's not God. That's the result of mankind choosing evil. We did that."
Harry waves me away, annoyed. "Look, I'm not looking to argue. I'm just saying, I don't bet the rent money on prayer. The only thing I put stock in is having one of these on you-" He taps his holster. "-and in taking action. That's how we're going to put a stop to the evil that mankind does. That's all."
"You done with your cigarette?"
Harry flicks the butt. "Yeah. Ready to start again?"
"Yeah. Round three hundred and whatever." We've spent the last hour canvassing the neighborhood around the crime scene, interviewing potential witnesses. Right now we're standing in the vestibule of a public housing complex overlooking Miguelito's Taqueria. "How many apartments you think are in here?"
"This many floors? Dunno. Two hundred?"
"We better get knocking."
People think being a detective is shoot-outs and chasing bad guys down dark alleys. Or someone finds one magical clue that solves the case within forty-five minutes (with commercials). People watch too much TV. They don't know about the long hours spent writing up reports and interviewing witness after witness after witness, many of whom are hostile about cops. It's a lot of footwork, headaches, and dead ends.
Harry and I methodically go down each floor, knocking on doors. Many people work long hours and aren't home. Others refuse to answer the door for the police. The ones who do, don't know anything or won't tell us.
When we knock on apartment 312B, a shadow appears behind the keyhole as someone peers out at us. "Police," I call, showing my badge. "We're investigating a homicide that happened last night."
The door opens on a chain. A young guy stands behind it wearing a Giants jersey, a do-rag, and gold in his ears. In one hand, he holds a bowl of what looks like Honey Nut Cheerios. "You got a warrant?"
"Then I don't gotta talk to you."
He tries to close the door in our faces, but I slap my hand against the wood. "The victim's name was Ana Maria Ramirez. She was eight-years old." I pull her photo from my breast pocket and hold it up to the crack in the door. "Last night, someone killed her and threw her body in the dumpster outside your building. C'mon, man, look at the photo. Please."
His face deflates at the photo. I've already memorized it: it's Ana Maria's last school picture, her hair cut short with a pink headband in it. She has a scratch on her chin from falling off the monkey bars, but her eyes are bright and her smile is huge and crooked. She was going to need heavy-duty braces, when she was old enough.
The guy looks back at us. "Last night?"
"Yeah." I nod eagerly. "Anything you heard or saw outside."
He looks thoughtful. "Yeah, you know what? I had my window open, and some stupid kids woke me up. They were skateboarding in the alley."
"Yeah, three or four of 'em. I yelled at them - some people gotta work, you know? - and they left. Then they came back."
"What time was this?"
"The first time? I dunno, it was long after midnight. The second time was about fifteen minutes later, but they weren't as loud. The noise still echoed though. The alley always echoes."
"Describe the noise for us?"
He frowns. "It sounded like just one skateboard, and they weren't racing, they were ... you know, strolling."
"Strolling?" Harry asks.
"Yeah. You know, slow. Then they made a lot of noise and started messing around with the dumpster."
"Did you see them?"
"Not the second time. I just closed my window and went back to bed. It was late. Dunno what time. That's all I know."
Harry and I exchange a glance. "Okay, thank you, sir. That's very helpful."
"One skateboard?" Harry asks as we leave. "The second time wasn't those kids. It was someone else, alone."
"Someone else who happened to have a skateboard?"
"Not a skateboard, but something that sounded like one."
"You know what that sounds like, don't you?"
"Suitcase on wheels?"
"Yep. Just big enough to hold a body. How long's it take for rigor mortis to set in?"
"Ten minutes to a couple hours. Depends. Why?"
"Because if he was fitting a body into a suitcase, it'd have to be pliable enough to bend. That means he stuffed Ana Maria into it soon enough after she died, which means wherever she died could be within walking distance of the dumpster."
"Unless he drove."
"That guy thought the kids on skateboards had come back. He made no mention of a car pulling up. He would've said so. The killer was on foot. He either walked or took the subway."
"We should check MTA surveillance videos, see if any captured someone walking around last night dragging a big suitcase."
"Unless he traveled by taxi part way and walked the rest."
"Then we're fucked. You know how many taxis are in Manhattan?"
Thomas finishes the autopsy by three. His diagnosis: death by heart failure. "The eye mutilation came afterward," he says, and then nods his head at Harry and me as if to say, Thank God for small favors.
"Heart failure?" Harry echoes. "How much red meat was this kid eating? You know many eight-year olds dying of heart failure?"
"Not many, no. In fact, I rarely see heart attacks in anyone this young. Ana Maria had no history of a faulty valve or anything like that. But the stresses on the heart are unmistakeable. Heart failure."
"What can induce heart failure in someone without a history of heart problems?"
Thomas sighs. "Extreme shock could do it, but rarely in someone who's healthy. Psychological stress is ... complicated. It could do the job."
"You're saying this kid died of fright?"
"That's exactly what I'm saying, Detective."
By the time I get home, it's very late. Lucia's asleep in her bed. Elsie's asleep on the couch. I hate waking her, so I drape a blanket over her and call my brother-in-law, David. Tell him Elsie's spending the night.
David's appreciative I called. You can hear the concern and love in his voice. A man's tenderness for his wife.
Don't be jealous, Toby.
I'm not jealous. I'm not.
I'm standing in the front hall of Ezekiel Taylor's house again, but I'm not a kid anymore. I'm a man. Wearing jeans and a sweater, the sleeves rolled up to show my tattoos.
Rainwater drips through the holes in the ceiling and traces red down the moldy wallpaper. It's not rainwater but blood. Crickets chirp. It's like I'm standing in a graveyard. If I walk outside right now, will a pint sized Eddie Pannachio be there, shuffling his feet on the porch, waiting to goad me on? So many ghosts. I can't keep track of them anymore.
I trudge up the staircase. The steps shriek under my heels. I want to run, want to scream, but I keep going. It's like my dream self has never seen a horror movie. The characters in horror movies are so dumb. They go into the haunted house. They taunt the monsters and end up dead. Stupid, stupid.
I make it to the top of the stairs. The blood is coming down hard through the ceiling now, a flash flood. It's getting hard to focus with all this blood in my face. It pools around the soles of my boots and begins flowing down the stairs.
At the end of the hall, three figures I recognize: Ana Maria, Sarah, Cassie. Ana Maria's wearing her Dora the Explorer shirt backwards. Sarah, her peasant blouse and jeans. Cassie, the little black dress she wore the night I proposed. They're all missing their eyes. Blood oozes down their faces like angel tears, soaks through their clothes. It looks like they've been bathing in a slaughterhouse.
I hear a high, keening wail and realize it's coming from me.
"Toby," Sarah says softly, like she's not missing the eyes in her head, "I'd never let anything hurt you."
And just like that, she's standing right in front of me, almost touching my face. I scream and recoil from her. The holes in her head are deep. Maggots writhe in the sockets.
She grabs my sweater with both hands. "You know that, right? I'd always protect you. Always have."
I've progressed beyond fear to total hysteria. I'm trying to rip loose her grip on me, but her wrists are like steel. I broke my hand wrestling a meth addict, once. You never wanna fight a tweaker, Toby, Harry warned me back when I was a rookie. They'll rip your fucking throat out. You need three guys to subdue a meth head. Sarah's strength surpasses a meth head's. It defies description. It's like Jacob wrestling the Angel of the Lord, only Jacob actually held on until daybreak. If Sarah decides to crush my skull, I don't stand a chance.
"No." To my horror, I'm crying. I'm stripped bare. I have nothing left. "No! Sarah, I'm sorry. I'm sorry-"
"Toby, listen to me." She shakes me like a rat, splattering blood everywhere. It's in my nose, my mouth, my eyes. I'm in Afghanistan again. Carrying Rodriguez. Blood, a river of it. Copper and salt in my mouth. C-4, bitter on my tongue, like almonds. I'm going to die. "Are you listening? I'd never let him take you again. I'll never let you go. You're mine, not his. You're mine."
I'm halfway across the bedroom before I realize I'm awake. I've shot myself out of bed in a blind panic and am not fully aware until I've collided with the closed bedroom door. The concussion knocks me fully back into my body and I hit the ground like a lead weight. It's 4am. I go to the kitchen and want to turn on all the lights, but I fear waking Elsie on the couch. So I sit in the dark and nurse a beer as I watch the dawn creep through the window over the sink. It's a trial to swallow. My body won't stop shaking.
Elsie wanders into the kitchen shortly after seven o'clock. "Oh God, I fell asleep. Did you - Jesus, Toby, what's wrong?"
"Did you sleep at all?"
Did I sleep? Was I awake? Was it a dream? I saw your dead sister, that's what. That won't go over well. I saw my dead wife, and my dead sister, and a dead kid I couldn't save. I realize I'm staring at her with my jaw hanging open, so I shut it like a trap and shake my head, but that gives me a headache, and I realize I've drank a couple beers. So I move my mouth instead and say, "A little."
Elsie looks worried. That's the face she's making. Worry. This is probably not good. She'll tell the family. There'll be questions.
"I'm fine, Elsie. Just, uh ..." I can't even think of an excuse.
"You're not fine, buster. You're not fine at all. What in God's name-"
We flinch as Lucia appears in the doorway, rubbing her eyes with one hand. The other clutches Kermit. Elsie whirls on her, plastic smile at the ready. "Morning, baby. Did you sleep well?"
"No," Lucia grumbles. "The lady was back at my window again."
"We've discussed this, sweetie. It's just a bad dream."
"No, it's not," Lucia whines. "She's scary. Her eyes are all funny."
"What?" I blurt. "What's wrong with her eyes?"
"Somebody hurt her, Daddy. She doesn't have eyes."
"What a terrible dream," Elsie says, scooping Lucia into her arms. "But it's just a dream. C'mon, I'll make you eggs."
I'm losing my mind.
To be continued.
Chapter 4: Erosion
So now we know: New York has a serial killer preying on its children, one who somehow bypasses locked front doors and snatches children from their own beds. Not wanting to waste a good story, the newspapers immediately give our perp a fitting nickname. They call him "The Boogeyman."
by J.R. Godwin
Disclaimer: "Labyrinth" belongs to Jim Henson & Co. There's no money being made off of this.
Verbal: Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone.
-The Usual Suspects (1995)
Operator: Turley! Half the goddamn city just called 9-1-1!
-Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Here is the way of our world. Pay attention.
While Ana Maria Ramirez is wheeled away from the alley, while her parents huddle together outside the morgue (praying praying praying it won't be their baby girl but of course it is), while Harry and I question witnesses in a feverish bid for clues - the world has come awake with the dawn and the birds have begun chattering. The news of Ana Maria Ramirez is no sure thing, of course. We haven't officially identified her yet, but that hardly matters. The gossip channels already know.
So the news spreads like birdsong across treetops, through the streets of El Barrio, through the little bodegas, to the front stoops of apartment buildings, across the blacktops of the basketball courts.
¿Esa niña? The one who went missing last week?
Yeah, cops found her in a dumpster.
They sure it's her?
Yeah. I know a guy who works at the restaurant where they found her.
She went to P.S. 83 with my son.
Watch your kids. There's a nut on the loose.
She disappeared from her own bedroom. Man, how can you fight that?
I just ran into the parents. They're going to ID her now.
Dios, ten piedad.
And so it goes.
By lunchtime, Channel 7 reports that the NYPD has discovered the body of a child in East Harlem. By dinnertime, Channels 7 and 11 will confirm what every neighbor north of 110th Street already knows: the body is Ana Maria's.
Even for a place with as rough a history as El Barrio, the news hits like a body blow. Schools bring in counselors. Parents pick their kids up early. On every corner, in the 7-11s and the hairdressers and the laundromats, people mutter about forming neighborhood watches.
Overnight, another story breaks on all the major news outlets: a sex tape has just turned up of a popular millionaire heiress. A jealous ex-boyfriend is accused of leaking it. The heiress goes on Twitter and vehemently denies it all with the sort of colorful language that would've earned me a mouthful of soap as a kid.
The release of an eagerly-anticipated Hollywood movie has just been pushed back for the second time. It's already over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, an oversight that could very well cost the famous director his career.
A former child star was photographed over the weekend flashing her tits at a strip club and doing a line of cocaine. The paparazzi stake out her family's vacation home in the Hamptons but her daddy, a famous country singer, won't comment. NBC is promising a segment about the strip club incident after lunch.
In this melee of rich white snobs and blonds behaving badly, the tragic story of a little brown girl from East Harlem barely earns any notice. Ana Maria's short life and brutal death get five sentences, buried on page 12 of the New York Daily News that I buy the next morning when I stumble out from the apartment amid Elsie's protests.
Just five. Trust me. I count every line.
The former child star and her tits get the front page.
"Jesus fuck, Williams. You get in an accident on the way in?"
Everyone in the squad room is staring at me like I'm a corpse. Too late, I realize I'm standing stock still in the doorway, dumb, mute, a cigarette dangling from my mouth. Where's the newspaper? I must have dropped it on the sidewalk somewhere. I don't remember. Everything hurts.
My head swims when I shake it. "No. No, I'm good."
Somebody forces me into a chair. Somebody else gets me coffee I won't drink. Hands, a group of them, patting me on the back, the shoulders. Silent affection. Poor guy's still grieving. We got your back, Williams. I can hear it in their touch.
"Okay, everyone," says Captain Mills, "listen up. You all heard the news yesterday. We got a child killer on the loose. We already have one confirmed victim, and this guy will probably target others. Any questions?"
"Somebody said the body was mutilated?"
"Correct. The eyeballs were removed from the sockets."
We're not a bunch of rookies. This room has seen the worst humanity's had to offer. But you can feel the room deflate at this news. "How?"
Captain nods at me and Harry. "You boys wanna answer that?"
Harry sighs. "The coroner says whoever did it had a delicate hand. He removed the eyes with a scalpel without tearing the tissue around the sockets or nicking the bone. We're probably looking at someone with medical training."
"Not sure. He kept her alive for a week. She was fed and taken care of. No sign of sexual assault. There's just the matter of her eyes missing."
The room comes alive like a bee's nest. People are murmuring. This case has serial killer all over it. It's been a while since Manhattan had one of those. Serial murder is a nasty business. Shooting a cheating spouse in the heat of an argument? Despicable, but we can understand people going crackers under stress. There's something unnatural about humans hunting humans for sport. It makes you question the order of things.
It also brings down the wrath of the entire community on our heads. Why haven't you assholes caught him yet? You gonna let us all die? What do we pay you for?
The psychic scars from a serial killer don't go away, either. Captain Mills was just one week out of the Academy when David Berkowitz started shooting people in '76. He helped make the arrest. At least, that's what people say. He won't talk about it.
"And no clue how she got kidnapped?" someone calls over the buzz of the crowd.
"No," I reply. It's the first time I've spoken up. The room hushes. "No sign of forced entry at her home. No sign of struggle in her bedroom."
"Well, that's bullshit," Captain says. "You can't tell me some creep busts into a kid's room and leaves no trace behind. Can't be done. I want you people going over the evidence again. We got a lot of scared people out there."
Our squad is licking its wounds when we bundle into the squad room after the meeting. Somebody says in a high falsetto: "We got a lot of scared people out there. Jesus, like we don't know that?"
"Lay off, Wagner," Harry gripes. "Captain's right. We're sitting around with our thumbs up our ass."
So we pull out the case files and pass them around for the hundredth time. Everybody carefully inspects the photographs, the witness testimonies, the coroner's report. None of it makes sense, and yet the answer's here somewhere. It's gotta be. It's staring us right in the face and we're just not seeing it.
Cassie told me once that people share brain space. She was on the last leg of a PhD in neuroscience when she died, so she knew about stuff like that. As she'd explained it: "That's the beauty of human relationships, baby. It's too much for one person to remember everything, so your friends and family chip in. One person knows everything about cars, so you go to him to change your tire. Another person, they handle numbers and money. Someone else is good with people, so you go to them for your people problems. That's another reason people fall apart when they get divorced - they don't just lose a wife or a husband, they lose entire chunks of knowledge needed to survive. It's like losing part of your brain. A whole skillset - pfffffff, gone."
Explains why I feel like I'm drugged up lately. When Cassie died, she took half my soul and half my brain. When I try to reread the coroner's report, it might as well be Russian.
I flip through photos of Ana Maria's bedroom, which looks like a Care Bear shat all over it. Pink everything. Lucia will probably go through this phase.
What am I looking for? What?
Is there something foreboding about the unicorn bedspread?
Did the killer drop a clue next to the undressed Barbies?
Did he hide pornography on the bookshelf?
What do you think, Sarah? Were you good at these sort of puzzles? Would you see something in these photos?
There's nothing. This is bullshit. The bedclothes are hardly rumpled. Ana Maria wasn't grabbed in the dark and pulled, kicking and screaming, from her bed. Her family would have heard, and the bed is undisturbed. The covers are lightly thrown back as if Ana Maria got up in the night for a drink of water.
Pointless. This is pointless.
The detective next to me, Vasquez, throws down a stack of photos and rubs his face. "Hey, who was that wack job who killed people out in California back in the 80s?"
"Which one?" That I even have to ask that question is sad.
"The devil-worshipping guy."
"... which one?"
"The one in L.A. Broke into people's homes and killed them in their beds. Mexican guy."
"Richard Ramirez. The Night Stalker." No relation to Ana Maria and her family.
"Yeah, that's him."
"Different M.O. Ramirez was chaotic. The guy we're looking for is too methodical. An older man, with an older man's patience. Ramirez was a serial rapist and tortured his victims. He hurt whoever was around. Our perp went out of his way to keep Ana Maria fed and reasonably comfortable while he had her. Who does that?" I rub my temple. "This guy's different. He targeted Ana Maria and bided his time."
"You can't prove that," Harry interjects.
"I can't. But do you doubt me?"
Harry doesn't answer. No one at the table does. I've got them by the balls on this one. People don't doubt my intuition on these things. They questioned me in the beginning, until my hunches turned into arrests. Then everybody started whispering about what a goddamn genius I am.
Nothing genius about what I do. Being a detective means working your way backwards to a logical conclusion. Our perp doesn't have the manic glee of a younger killer. This guy's too careful. He didn't take Ana Maria by accident. She was planned. Everything was planned. But what does it all mean?
"Nobody doubts you, Toby," Harry says, "it's just …"
"This case is fuckin' weird." Vasquez says what everyone else is thinking. I see a lot of nodding heads.
Christ, Ellis is about to speak. I can see it in his ferret-like face. He wants to say something funny. Every department has an Ellis. Ellis is one of those assholes that makes you question the Academy's judgment for passing someone so ill-suited to public service. Harry told me that his one wish in life was for Ellis to accidentally shoot himself before he appeared in the seven o'clock news on charges of corruption or police brutality.
Ellis doesn't disappoint. "Hey, there's one suspect we haven't considered yet!"
The room groans. We've come to expect his witty remarks. "Yeah, Ellis? Who?"
"Maybe the boogeyman took her!"
A few people actually chuckle. Harry and I lock eyes and shake our heads in disgust.
"Maybe the boogeyman took her - can you believe that jackass?" Harry offers me a cigarette before I even have to ask, but I shake my head.
"Thanks, I bought smokes this morning."
Harry lights up and takes a drag. The sun outside is bright and cheerful for such an awful day. "You got real quiet all of a sudden."
"What Ellis said back in the squad room … it brought back memories. When I was a kid, I thought the boogeyman took Sarah, too."
"You were a kid. Ellis is supposedly a grown-up."
"Yeah, I guess."
I have a memory of you, but of course it's not real. I mean, you died when I was a baby. Babies don't remember things, right? So of course this is a memory of a dream. Something I made up in my head. Your mind makes things real for you sometimes. You're not sure what's real and what's not. The mind's a jackass like that.
Anyway, the dream: I'm not much older than I was when you disappeared. I'm barely walking. Mom and Dad are fighting a lot. Grandma was still alive then, I guess, a constant presence in our lives. Trying to fill the hole that you left behind.
But she never did, Sarah, did she? Grandma couldn't. You up and left and no one could put the pieces back together.
Did you like our grandmother? She died when I was in 8th grade. She said you were such a good girl, but grandmas are obligated to say that. Grandma also said you were always making up stories. You were very creative. Fanciful. That's what she said.
I could read between the lines. What Grandma meant was you had your head up in the clouds. You were a little girl who didn't want to grow up. A bit of a storyteller and a rebel.
Oh, sorry. I'm rambling again. It's been hard, Sarah. Real hard. God, you have no idea. First I lost you. Then I lost my squad. Then my wife. Then I let a little girl die. It's fucked up. I've lost so many people, my life's looking like Swiss cheese.
So. The dream. I'm, like, two. That's the age when kids start rebelling against everything. I was a little nudist at that age. Mom practically had to staple me into my overalls.
Anyway, Mom's in the kitchen arguing with Dad. Screaming, actually. It's bad. I want to get away from it, want someplace safe.
So I hide. I'm a good climber. I clamber up the stairs and look for a place to hide. What's a good sanctuary?
Oh, I know.
The room at the end of the hall. The forbidden bedroom that Mom and Dad never enter.
But when I open the bedroom door, the desk lamp is on. Which is strange. I mean, no one ever comes in here.
That's what my adult self thinks, while watching the dream unfold. Why is the light on? My toddler self doesn't notice. Young children don't notice abnormalities like that. I'm too busy inspecting the toys in the room: a teddy bear, and a stuffed unicorn, and a scary statue of … what's he supposed to be? Dracula? He looks like a villain. Grandma would've said, That there is a very wicked man.
Suddenly, a voice cries, "Toby!" I know that voice, but I can't place it. I associate that voice with strong arms and anger. Someone who held me and scolded me in equal measure.
I sharply turn my head and see a girl standing next to the mirror. Well, she looks like a woman to my toddler self. To a 2-year old, anyone older than you might as well be a grown-up. But now, as a 38-year old man … I mean, she can't be more than 15.
Of course it's you. You don't sound angry with me this time. Your voice is sincere, like a mother's embrace. A little teary, too. You've obviously been crying.
You look nothing like the ghastly hallucination I saw in Afghanistan. Your flesh is pink, rosy, alive. You look warm. Human.
I grin wide and hold up my arms. Pick me up!
You move as if to grab me. But then you freeze and glance behind you like you've suddenly heard a noise that only you can hear. When you turn back to me, you put up your hands as if to ward off a blow and back away, regretful.
"Not now, Toby." You're crying again. I don't understand. Did you fall down and hurt yourself? Why are you crying? "I'll come back to you. I promise."
Then you step through the mirror. Just like that, as if it's a door. One second you're there, the next you're gone. Erased from existence.
When Mom and Dad find me, yelling, "No, no, no!" and banging on the mirror with my fists, they freak out because I've climbed onto the desk. I could break my neck doing that.
Of course, this is a dream. One I've been having since at least middle school. I don't know what made me think of it. I guess I've been thinking of you more than usual lately.
Three days later, we get the call: another child's been taken. Jennie Ortega. 7-years old. Her mom goes to wake up Jennie and her brother, and that's when she realizes her daughter's missing. Taken, in the middle of the night.
So now we know: New York has a serial killer preying on its children, one who somehow bypasses locked front doors and snatches children from their own beds. Not wanting to waste a good story, the newspapers immediately give our perp a fitting nickname. They call him The Boogeyman.
To be continued
Chapter 5: Something Wicked
"Every child trusts Santa Claus. Maybe these kids didn't see this guy as the Boogeyman. Maybe they saw him as something else."
"I don't know."
by J.R. Godwin
Disclaimer: "Labyrinth" belongs to Jim Henson & Co. There's no money being made off of this.
Second witch: By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Mrs. Ortega insists on making us coffee the moment we appear at her door. I don't drink coffee and Harry, well, Harry's hungover. Harry's the only person I've ever met who gets sicker from black coffee whenever he has a hangover. And Mrs. Ortega ... she's not drinking anything. Just stares at her lap and answers our questions with a yes or a no.
She puts me to mind of a shotglass that's been dropped on a tile floor. Shattered.
We ask the usual questions. Does your family have any enemies? Was there any strange or suspicious activity in the days leading up to your daughter's disappearance? When was the last time you saw your daughter?
"You don't understand," Mrs. Ortega mumbles. "Everything was normal. Normal. We got no problems. Jennie, she's a good girl. I don't know what to say."
Harry's face contracts as if he's sucked a lemon. Answers like that always drive him crazy. The problem with people, Toby, is everybody thinks they're normal even when shit's hitting the fan, he once told me. This bullshit doesn't help an investigation. There's always something going on, but people don't wanna mention the creepy ex-boyfriend or the weird neighbor. Denial kills more cases than bullets.
Before Harry can explode, I raise a finger. "Uh, I'm gonna look at the bedroom."
Jennie's room is sparse compared to Ana Maria's ... no pink, no frilly decorations. Just a lot of books. Jennie's well-read for a second-grader. Ana Maria liked stories, too. Her bedroom had been full of comic books and fairytales. Our team is already scurrying in and out like ants: taking pictures, laying tape, making notes.
With a tissue, I pull a book off the shelf and flip through it. Where the Wild Things Are. Sounds familiar. I probably loved this as a child. There are other thin volumes here. Scary Stories To Read In The Dark. Some R.L. Stine books. An old red book, too stained to read the title properly. A copy of Stephen King's The Stand, obviously forgotten by a parent. Jennie likes scary stories.
You always struck me as a romantic fairytale kind of girl. Mom showed me your princess dress, once. She said it used to belong to your mom, before she left you and Dad. Your mom sounded like a stuck-up bitch, a real piece of work. I saw one of her movies, years ago, back when Hollywood still gave two shits about her, before the alcohol ravaged her health and career.
Anyway, it was hard for me to enjoy the movie. Every time I saw your mom, I only saw your face.
Who's texting me? I squint at my phone in surprise. Tom Marvel.
Want me to pick up milk?
I reply immediately. Same place?
1 hour, he suggests.
2 hours, I insist.
Tom Marvel, in case you haven't guessed, is a pseudonym. It's taken from an H.G. Wells novel called The Invisible Man. His real name is Julio. You don't need to know his last name. His family's under my protection. Keeps things neater that way.
Julio had a big brother, name of Mikey, who went and made a bad decision: joining the Spanish Lords. Mikey saw more violence than you ever will, and participated in at least one murder and too many cases of assault and battery to list.
When the Lords orchestrated what came to be called the July 4th massacre, it went down in city history as one of its worst gang bloodbaths. The death toll included several officers of the 23rd precinct and a 72-year old grandfather of six.
That was the final straw. Mikey was sixteen-years old. He'd been running with the Lords for five years, and he wanted out. He got his chance when we brought in the gang's ringleader. Mikey testified against him in court and put the guy away for a long time.
In return, I helped Mikey vanish.
The only retirement plan for the Spanish Lords is death. So in a way, I had to make Mikey dead. He's in another country right now. I can't tell you where, or who he's with, or what he's doing. But I can promise you he's alive. That's what I tell Julio and his parents, too. They'll probably never see him again. Small price to pay for his life, really.
Our meeting place is a bench several streets east of Union Square. It's also eighty blocks from Harlem and anyone who'd easily recognize either of us. We meet whenever I have news from Mikey for his family, or when Julio's got gossip for me. Julio's already at the bench when I arrive. He's leaned forward, elbows on his knees, one hand clutching a cigarette and the other feverishly scrolling through his iPhone. To anyone watching, he's intently checking his text messages. Julio's a consummate actor.
We're both dressed in jeans and hoodies. Julio wears headphones and cornrows. I've got long sleeves to hide my tattoos. I don't look like a cop.
I casually sit at the opposite end of the bench and stretch out like I'm waiting for someone else, then casually glance over. "Perdón por llegar tarde."
Julio doesn't look up from his phone. "No pasa nada. You know you talk Spanish like a Mexican."
"Just in general."
"You wanted to talk? I don't have any updates from your friend."
Julio scowls and finally looks at me. His face is half-hidden beneath a Yankees cap. "So it's true? Another kid's missing?"
I stare out at the busy street and nod.
"Fuck." Agitated, Julio takes a drag on the cigarette. "Listen, I got something for you, but you didn't hear it from me, okay?"
Now I'm intrigued. Julio only occasionally has information for me, and he's never nervous about it. Not like this. "Sure."
"I mean it. You mention my name, I'm not giving you anything again, even after all you did for my brother."
"Julio, I swear on my daughter."
"... so, I got a friend. Don't ask me his name. Anyway, two weeks ago, he saw something weird."
Being a detective makes you hyper vigilant to body language. Sometimes you have to read the cues and prod people to get answers. Julio needs some prodding right now. "What'd he see?"
He looks away, drags on the cigarette again. "He was looking out a window, the night she went missing. He saw a kid in the street."
My heart rate's already picking up. "So?"
"It was the Ramirez kid. He recognized her photo in the paper later. She was in her pajamas and didn't wear no shoes, and there was a white guy with her."
That definitely has my attention. "What?"
He nods furtively. "Yup. White dude. Blond, dressed in white, pale as hell. Said he looked like a yuppie grim reaper. Real posh."
"I want to talk to your friend."
Julio barks a laugh. "He won't talk to you. He don't trust the pigs - ha, sorry, the cops."
"What exactly was your friend doing when he saw all this?"
"Liberating a TV from an apartment. Don't look at me like that. The prick owed him money and wasn't paying, so he helped himself. The guy had it coming."
"If he talks to us, I can get him immunity for the theft."
"Can you get him citizenship while you're at it?"
"He's not here legally?"
"Nope. Listen, he won't talk to you, and I'm not giving you his name, so just forget it. He's scared about what's happening to these kids, but he doesn't want your friends showing up at his door."
I need to talk to Harry. We're going about this all wrong. Serial killers usually hunt within their own ethnic groups, and we've had this guy pegged as Latino or black. Shit. Shit.
Julio smiles grimly, recognizing my anger. "You pissed? You better be. One of your own's hunting us."
I stare at him. "Excuse me?"
"Look, nobody gives a shit when little black and brown kids go missing. We're animals, right? Who cares when we're killing each other? But now a white dude's moved uptown and hunting our kids. And sooner or later, he's gonna start touching your kids. And then you'll give a shit. You'll do an exclusive on him and talk about his abusive childhood and what a poor misunderstood monster he is, and nobody'll remember the victims. That's how it always is."
"You're mad at us? We're trying to protect you, Julio."
He stubs out the cigarette and stands to go. "You wanna help? Catch this fucker before he takes someone else. I got a little sister, you know."
"Congratulations on getting into college," I call after him, forcing him to pause. "CUNY?"
Julio eyes me. "Manhattan College."
"What're you gonna study?"
"Engineering. People like my drawing. I'm good at conceptualizing and building stuff. This city needs more bridges."
"Your parents must be proud."
"First one to go to college, and somebody's gotta take care of them when they're old. Mikey's gone now, and my sister's the baby of the family. Gotta be me." His smile has no humor in it. "That's the upside to having a gang banger for a brother. My parents are so happy I'm going to college and not in prison or dead, they don't care I have a boyfriend."
He hesitates, and in the depths of his eyes I see fear. "Catch this asshole. I'm serious. You're looking for a white guy, about five foot ten. That's all I know."
"You know we got an anonymous hotline, right? You coulda called in, saved yourself a subway ride and maybe won some money."
"Lo que tú digas, man. I don't need your money." Then he's gone.
Harry is beside himself when I update him. "We're looking for a white guy? In Harlem? Who steals kids from their beds? Who the fuck is this guy, Houdini?"
"The Boogeyman," I correct softly, flipping through photographs on my desk. "How do you think he does it?"
"How does he do it? This strange white man appears in your bedroom in the middle of the night, you're a little kid, what do you do? Why would you go with him?"
"I dunno. Maybe he offers them candy."
"Even a 7-year old's too smart to take candy from a stranger who appears in their bedroom, c'mon." I sadly touch photographs of Ana Maria and Jennie, one after another. "They trusted him."
Harry sighs, deep and long. "Why would they trust him?"
"Every child trusts Santa Claus. Maybe these kids didn't see this guy as the Boogeyman. Maybe they saw him as something else."
"I don't know."
Today's my first day off in eight days, and the Captain doesn't want to see my face. I think I've been driving everyone at the station a little nuts. Whatever, I'm banished for the next 48 hours. Elsie's back with her family, so I take Lucia and head upstate to see Dad.
Our parents got divorced a few years back. Oh, they said it was irreconcilable differences. They said a lot of things. The truth is, they never got over your disappearance. It took twenty years before they made it official, is all. They're still friends, still get along whenever the family gets together. You'd be proud of them, Sarah. They just couldn't make it work as a couple.
Dad lives in a little gated community on the north side of town, not too far from our old house. I drive Lucia and me by it on the way over. The new owners repaired the fence and the shutters, which is good. Dad really let the place go, in the later years. There was a tricycle on the front lawn, and headless Barbie dolls on the porch. A new family had moved in. I wonder if they knew the house used to be a crime scene.
When we pull up to the apartment, Dad's waiting for us at the door. Lucia latches onto his neck and starts burbling to him about our trip in "Daddy's new car." (I rented a Honda for the trip up.) Dad shows me the deck he built outside, and gives Lucia a new doll, and makes us spaghetti bolognese for dinner.
It almost feels like a normal family gathering. And if it weren't for all the missing women in our lives (Cassie, you, Mom), and the mortuary photographs of a dead girl in my briefcase, it very well could be.
A nightmare wakes me up, though I don't remember what it was about. I just know it was bad. I remember the roar of rocket fire, so maybe it was about Afghanistan. I'm not sure. I remember seeing your face. That's all. There was no blood pouring from your eyes this time, thank God.
I'm not alone in the guest bedroom; Lucia's sleeping next to me in the bed. It's been three weeks since Cassie's death, and Lucia still insists on sleeping with me. Right now she's passed out cold, thumb in her mouth.
I'm out of bed in an instant. My gun's in the bedside table; I pull it out and head for the door.
I reach the hall just in time to see you. You're wearing your regular peasant blouse and blue jeans, but your face looks strange like it did in Afghanistan. Bone white like a dead thing. Your eyes are coal black smudges.
But you smile so radiantly that I forget all this and just smile back at you. Hi, Toby!
I drop the point of the gun immediately. Hi, Sarah.
I've missed you.
Something lodges itself in my throat. I nod and hope I don't cry this time.
Follow me, okay? Don't make me chase you this time.
You lead me down the stairs and into the kitchen. There's a fresh pot of tea waiting on the stove, and someone's laid out a bowl of goldfish crackers. My favorite. How'd you know?
You laugh. It's a bright, bubbly laugh. What don't I know about you, Toby? Have a seat.
I sit at the table and grab a handful of goldfish crackers, shove them in my mouth, bite down. Yum. There are tears again in my eyes. I wipe them away with my free hand and don't feel so self-conscious now. I'm home. I'm safe.
Lucia got so big!
She did. Kids grow fast at this age.
I wouldn't know. You look so forlorn when you say it, like a tree after a fierce storm's torn off all its branches.
Sarah, why did you leave?
I didn't want to leave, Toby.
Bullshit. Nobody took you. Nobody broke into the house. You just vanished. You left.
You sniff at me. You're better than that, Toby. You're supposed to be a detective. When was the last time you heard about someone vanishing from a locked up house without any sign of struggle?
What? No. No, that's completely different. These are different cases. These aren't ... aren't ...
I don't know. I'm not sure of anything anymore.
Then you smile a really eerie smile. It's like half your face momentarily stops working, and the other half curls up into a Cheshire Cat grin. It's so creepy that my stomach twists itself into a knot. Your eyes are too black. Dead eyes, like a doll's eyes. Then you wave your hand at the refridgerator. No, at something beyond the fridge. At the door leading down to the basement.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Something's humping its way up the stairs. Something heavy, like a car. Wham! The door crashes open and falls off its hinges. A cardboard box spills into the kitchen like it's grown legs. As soon as it hits the linoleum floor, it stops hopping and lies very still.
You're staring at the box, and the look on your face is hard to read. There's grief and anger, sure, but I see the sort of determination I haven't seen since Afghanistan. I'm looking at a woman going to war. The truth is complicated, Toby. You love me, right?
Yes. I can barely breathe. Oh, yes.
We need your help.
I jolt awake at the kitchen table. The light of the early dawn peers through the windows. Did I sleepwalk down here? What the fuck? My eyes dart to the stove, but there's no pot of tea there. Nor is there a bowl of goldfish crackers on the table. The overhead lights are off. It was just a dream.
I make a beeline for the basement and find what I want right at the base of the stairs: a large box sealed in duct tape with "Sarah's room" on the side in thick Sharpie. Somehow, I knew it'd be there. I proceed to upend the box's entire contents onto the basement floor.
"Toby?" a querelous voice calls out from the top of the stairs.
"Dad? It's me."
"What in the world are you doing? It's six in the morning."
"Sorry, I couldn't sleep."
"Couldn't you go to the gym like a normal person?" he jokes, and I know he's not mad.
I indicate the pile of growing crap in front of me. "Dad, what is all this?"
He sighs as he comes to stand beside me. He's wearing a terry cloth bathrobe I gave him one Christmas and looks older than I've ever seen him. "I boxed all that up after the divorce and brought it with me. I didn't want to leave it behind. It's Sarah's toys and books and things. There's more in other boxes down here ... somewhere. I haven't looked at this stuff in years."
"You kept it? All of it?"
"Oh, yes. I could never let that girl go, you know. I always hoped ... well, I wanted to keep her things in case she ever came home and would need them again. Seems silly, doesn't it? It's been thirty-seven years now. She's never coming home." I'm stunned by the bitterness in his voice. Mom and Dad never showed any wavering in all the years I spent growing up with them and watching Mom vaccuum your bedroom on weekends. Their faith wasn't to be questioned. One day, you were coming home.
I guess I should feel relief that Dad's finally accepting reality. Instead, I feel tired.
Something else in the box catches my eye. I pick it up and freeze. It's a stuffed unicorn with a bedraggled string tail. And behind it, a yellow teddy bear. And ...
What the fuck?
... and a villainish figurine dressed in black, with fierce eyes and wild blond hair and a flowing cape. Grandma's voice echoing in my memory. That there is a very wicked man.
"Dad." My voice is shaking. "Dad, what is this?"
"Hmm? Some of Sarah's toys. I don't know where she got all of them. She had some of them since she was a baby."
"I remember some of these. Especially this one." I pick up the figurine of the Dracula-looking dude in black. It feels like he's made of poured resin.
"Well, I'm not surprised. You probably saw these in Sarah's room, when you were little."
I'm dreading my next question. "Dad, I remember a dream when I was a kid about going into Sarah's room and climbing on her desk -"
"And pounding on her mirror!" Dad exclaims, and my heart drops into my shoes. "I remember that. Scared the piss out of your mother and me. We thought you'd fall and crack your head open. I still don't know how you got up on that desk. You always were an athlete."
It wasn't a dream. You went into the mirror. It wasn't a dream.
A splash of red catches my eye. I reach into the box and draw something else out: a book, bound in dusky red cloth. It's so old that the title's vanished, but when I open it, the title page shows only one word, printed in a bold script, yellow as a lightening bolt: Labyrinth.
"I've seen this book before, too," I murmur.
"Well, you've probably seen a lot of Sarah's things. They stayed in her bedroom for twenty years."
But this memory continues to pick at me as I return upstairs. Not just the memory/dream of you disappearing into a mirror. The book itself is annoying me.
There's something I'm not remembering clearly. I've seen this book before. But where?
Then it hits me. Pink. Frilly pink. Yellow tape. Black coffee.
I grab my case files from the guest room where Lucia still sleeps and flip through the photographs. Then I see it. There. On the floor, next to Ana Maria's bed. A dusky red book, bound in cloth, lying open and face-down on the floor. Its title, Labyrinth, written in gold.
Another memory. Me, standing in Jennie Ortega's bedroom, using a tissue to pick books off her shelves and inspect them. R.L Stine books. Where the Wild Things Are. The Stand. An old book, the front too heavily stained to read the title. The cover, dusky red, bound in stiff cotton, the edges rimmed in black tooling work.
Dad looks up in alarm as I charge downstairs fully dressed, Lucia mumbling and cranky in my arms. "What's the fuss? What's going on?"
I wave your red book at him. "Dad, where did Sarah get this?"
He looks at me as if I've lost the last shred of sanity I held. "Goodness, how should I know?"
"Dad, you safeguarded every last possession of Sarah's for twenty years, then boxed everything up and moved it with you. Don't tell me you don't know about this book."
"Of course I know that book. I read it to Sarah when she was little. But I don't remember where we got it. At a bookstore, I imagine. Where are you going?"
I'm halfway out the door, Lucia in one hand and the book in another. "Back to the city," I call over my shoulder.
We have to disturb the Ortega and Ramirez families again and actually pull the books from the bedrooms. Of course, they're the same one: Labyrinth. The lab inspects all three boks and finds no strange fingerprints for us.
I take all three copies and pour over them at my desk. Harry thinks I'm nuts, as usual. "We're looking for a kid and you want to read books! You ever stop to think these kids and your sister just shared the same reading habits? Maybe they shopped at the same store."
I shove your book in his face. "Do you see an IBN number? An author? No. These are specialty items, probably handmade. You can't find these on Amazon. I already checked. These books don't exist, and each one is different from the others."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Each book tells a variation of the same story, about a goblin king who kidnaps children. And he-"
"Will you shut up and listen for two seconds? The villain is king of the goblins, and he kidnaps children. But the story is always different. In Sarah's book, the heroine saves a kidnapped baby. In Ana Maria's, the heroine slays a dragon threatening her family. And in Jennie's book, the heroine wakes a sleeping prince and marries him. A lot of the details vary, but all three fight the same bad guy, and they all defeat him with a monologue at the end."
"And all three girls disappeared. What are you saying, they were kidnapped by goblins?"
"Don't be stupid. But don't you find it odd that all three victims have the same untraceable book in their disposal, and each is tailored to them? I mean, my sister babysat me when I was little. There's no mention of a baby anywhere in Ana Maria's or Jennie's book."
Harry is silent for a long time, which is impressive given his big mouth. Then he finally says, "Okay ... so you're our guy. You give your victims a book. Why?"
"Because you know these girls want to be a hero. And you know exactly what stories will indulge that fantasy for each of them. I'm telling you, the books are customized for each girl. Sarah's and Jennie's are in English. But Ana Maria was new to this country, so her book's in Spanish."
"What're you saying? Mr. Sandman shows up in the middle of the night and goes, oh hey, I've come to make all your dreams and wishes come true, just follow me?"
"That still doesn't answer how he gets into the home in the first place. Or gets out again."
"Maybe he's a better locksmith than we give him credit for. Doesn't matter. But right now we can explain how he gets those kids to cooperate, and we have evidence linking all three girls to each other."
"Captain's gonna think you're crazy."
"Do you think I'm crazy?"
"I don't know what to believe right now." He chews thoughtfully on a hangnail and closely inspects Ana Maria's book, still sealed in its evidence bag. "We need to find out where these books are coming from. The parents don't know?"
"No. They don't remember buying them. I already put out a call to several rare book dealers in Manhattan and sent them photos. So far, they haven't seen anything like this."
"Maybe the lab guys can trace material the books're made from."
"Thank me later. We still have to find Jennie." It's been seven days. We're running out of time.
The elevator's out in my building again, so I make the climb despite running the last two days on no sleep and too much coffee. I'm starting to like the stuff, even if it does taste like battery acid. Nobody drinks coffee for the taste. It's just rocket fuel.
I enter the apartment to silence. Usually, Cassie would be making dinner and sitting at the kitchen table, tap-tap-tapping away at her laptop. This thesis isn't gonna finish itself, baby. Why don't you put on some tea for me?
Someone else sits at our kitchen table now. Kimmy's a college student, our usual babysitter. Lucia's wild about her. Nice girl. She looks up as I walk in. "Hey, Mr. Williams. How's everything?"
I hang my coat in the closet and loosen my tie. "Good. No troubles with Lucia?"
"Nope. I just put her down an hour ago." Suddenly, Lucia starts to whine from her bedroom down the hall. Kimmy chuckles. "I'll check on her. Make yourself at home."
My phone's buzzing. I answer it immediately. "Harry, you better have good news for me, man."
"Toby, we found Jennie."
I squeeze my eyes shut, clutch the bridge of my nose. Goddammit. "Where?"
"I can pick you up. Are you at-?"
A scream shatters the calm of the apartment. I drop the phone and barrel down the hall. The scream came from Lucia's bedroom. I burst through the door to find Kimmy pressed against the wall, Lucia sobbing hysterically in her arms. Kimmy looks like she's just seen a corpse. At my entrance, she jabs a finger at the opposite wall, at the window. "Out there! There's a woman at the window!"
"Jesus Christ, Kimmy, you scared the-"
A white face appears in the window, which shuts me up. The eyes, coal black. I've seen that face in my nightmares. It's you.
My jaw drops.
You locks eyes with me and jump from the ledge. We're five stories above the pavement.
"Where are you going? Don't leave!" Kimmy wails. Lucia's screaming. I'm running for the front door like a man on fire. I fly down five flights of stairs without pausing for breath and burst out onto the sidewalk. A stitch in my side threatens to lay me flat, but I ignore it.
I look south, see nothing. Look north and my breath leaves me. You stand on the sidewalk twenty feet away, hands stiff at your sides like a body in a coffin. How the fuck did you survive that jump? Then you turn and flee up 3rd Avenue.
I bolt after you. Late-night pedestrians scramble out of my way. "Stop! Police!"
You ignore me. I'm really seeing this, right? I'm not hallucinating this time. Kimmy and Lucia saw you. You pay no mind to the green light at the next intersection, just run right through it. An SUV blares its horn and swerves out of the way, missing you by inches.
"Sarah! Stop, dammit!"
You ignore me. You lead me on a merry chase up 3rd Ave, then down 88th Street, past the Church of the Holy Trinity, then on until we reach the water. You vanish from my sight at Carl Schurz Park. Flashing red and blue lights clog the entrance. Someone's laying down tape.
"Toby? Toby, that you?" It's Harry, looking like a drowned cat. "What happened? I heard a scream and the line went dead."
I look around me, dazed. "Harry, what is this?"
"Somebody found Jennie down by the water. We cordoned off the park. How'd you know to come here?"
I say nothing.
It's obvious, even when we first see her, that Jennie's been in the water for days. You don't need to know the gorier details, save that her eyes are also missing. Harry covers his nose and tries to breathe through his mouth. "Same guy," he mutters in disgust.
My gaze flickers to her hands. "Glittery pink nail polish. Just like Ana Maria's. He painted their nails. Why does he paint their nails?"
"Toby, who's watching Lucia? Did the babysitter go home?"
Oh God, Kimmy. I left her and Lucia like a madman. I should call - shit, I dropped my phone in the kitchen. I need to go.
Harry looks concerned and understanding. "It's okay. We'll take it from here. Your family needs you tonight." So I leave the park and slowly walk home. My brain feels like it's swimming in a bath. I feel kind of drunk. Nothing makes sense.
I'm aware of the footsteps behind me for a long time before I decide to respond to them. When I stop, they stop. When I walk, they walk. Finally, I halt and slowly turn. 88th Street is dark here, so I have to squint, but I spot the small figure dash behind a mailbox.
My heart beats furiously in the cage of my ribs. "I see you back there. Come out where I can see you." And then you step out into the light. Your peasant blouse is crisp white as always, but your face looks pinker and not so corpse-like.
You're still fifteen, if you're a day. You look pretty and wholesome, in a 1980s kind of way. You would have been fifty-two, this year.
I don't ...
I just ...
I can't ...
You approach me with tears in your eyes, which are normal and green now. No more monster eyes.
"How are you doing this?" I whisper. I realize I'm crying, too. You slip your arms around me, and I sag against you like a deflated balloon. I can't feel my hands or feet.
Sarah. You smell like peppermint gum and freshly-laundered cotton. You smell like a girl. Your hands are solid against my back and your flesh is warm.
Sarah. I don't understand.
Where did you go?
This isn't real.
This is the only thing that's real.
I'm trembling so much I can barely breathe. Oh, my God. I'm going to have a heart attack, I know it. My chest hurts so bad. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
You trace patterns on my shoulders like a mother would with a finicky baby. "Shhhhh. Let's find someplace and talk."
We're sitting in a pizza parlor. I don't remember how we got here. You pretty much led the way, Sarah. I was too much in shock to do anything. Still am. Oh, my God. None of this makes sense.
I should be home right now. I should be checking on my family. Instead I'm sitting here with you.
I'm going crazy. I've snapped. Only explanation.
Sarah. Oh God.
You sit across from me and nervously tuck your hair behind your ears. Just like a teenager. I guess that's true, looking at you. You never grew up.
Nothing makes sense. Jesus.
I sit and stare at you for at least ten minutes while you try to feed me pizza and coffee, but it's too hard to move. If I never saw you again after tonight, I want to commit your face to memory. The photographs in our parents' house didn't do you justice. They never captured the warmth behind your smile. You have Dad's ears and nose, but your teeth are perfect. Those braces really did do the trick. You have a little baby fat, but it's disappearing with puberty. You remind me of Lucia, in some ways.
"Hey." I grab the hand of the waitress as she walks by and nod at you. "Can you see her?"
The waitress obviously can, judging from her withering look. "Time to pack it in and go home, sir." And quit drinking. I can read that in her face.
As the waitress flounces off, you giggle behind your hands, delighted. "Of course people can see me, silly. I'm real."
"I wasn't sure after last time. That was you in Afghanistan, wasn't it?"
You stop smiling. "Yeah, that was me. I made it so only you could see me that time."
"Why? Were you trying to make me crazy?"
You look insulted. "As if! Your friend would be scared if she saw me, too, and I had to get you to safety. I did what I had to do."
Abimana. You mean Abimana. I rub my face and pinch my cheeks. You watch me do it with the curiosity of a baby bird. "Sarah, what happened to you? You haven't aged a day."
"The Goblin King happened," you mutter bitterly.
Goblin King. The book. "What?"
You reach across the table and takes my hands in yours. "Oh, Toby, you got so big! I can't believe how big you got. I used to be able to carry you in my arms. You were as big as a football. I'm sorry I didn't get to see you grow up. I'm sorry for everything."
"Sarah," I whisper, "tell me what happened."
You rub at your eyes. Your face is red. "Magic is real, Toby. I know you don't believe me, because you're a grown-up, but it's true. And then the Goblin King took you, and I had to get you back. So I ran his Labyrinth-"
"Who's the Goblin King?"
You pull your other hand from mine and hug yourself as if the temperature's just dropped twenty degrees. "He rules the Labyrinth, Toby. That's the place where dreams come from. He's the Lord of Dreams, but if you piss him off, he'll control your nightmares. He gives you wishes, but there's always a price. He's horrible, Toby. He's like the boogeyman."
The Boogeyman. "Does he kill kids?" I ask sharply.
You frown. "Kill ...? No. He turns unwanted babies into goblins, and he takes people's souls. I think that's worse."
"So this guy took you?"
You look down at the table and fold your hands in your lap. "Yeah."
"Did he touch you?"
You look up at me. "Huh?"
I may kill someone. "Sarah, did he hurt you?" If he hurt you, I swear to God ...
"No. But he's mean. He made me stay with him in the Labyrinth. I could never come home, except sometimes when I snuck out. I've been sneaking out a lot lately. I think he's mad at me."
"How did he do this?"
You look affronted. Or maybe you think I'm being willfully obtuse. "I told you. He's the Goblin King. He can do whatever he wants."
Okay. Calm yourself, Toby. It's a minute before I realize I'm slouching in my seat, my hands covering my mouth. I'm still in shock. I force myself upright and ruffle my hair. I can do this. "Why are you here? Why now?"
If I could label the expression on your face, I'd call it devious. "I've gotten really good at sneaking back Aboveground. That's what we call the real world, down below. Anyway, I wanted to see you. It looks like you need help. Something from the Labyrinth is killing your kids."
So you knows about the murders. And you're smart enough to put two and two together. Clever, clever girl. "Sarah, I think your Goblin King might be responsible."
You purse your lips. "He's an evil man, Toby. That's the real reason I came to you. I need your help."
"You want me to get you home."
"Yes. But there's only one way to do that."
I must be dreaming again. Standing in our father's kitchen. The truth is complicated, Toby. You love me, right? We need your help. Yes. Oh, yes.
My mouth's moving without my brain. "Anything," I promise.
You beam. "I want you to kill the Goblin King."
Cars honk outside in the street. The door jingles as another customer leaves. The pizza I bought for you lies cold and untouched at your elbow. I stare. "What?"
You nod confidently. "I want you to kill the Goblin King. It's the only way for me to come home. His magic binds everything in his Labyrinth, including me."
"You want me to murder a figure from a fairytale?"
"He's real, Toby! Just as real as I am!" The people around us are glaring at your outburst, but you ignores them as if I'm the only person left alive in the whole world. "You're my brother, Toby, and you're my only hope." You start to cry, and then I feel like a jackass.
"Sarah-" I try to hold your hands again, but you won't touch me. "Sarah," I say more gently, "give me a minute to collect myself, okay? My sister returns from beyond the grave, and she's still a teenager, and she wants me to kill the King of the Faeries. It's a lot to take in." My body's still trembling so bad that I can't hold a cup of coffee.
You're wiping your eyes again. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry."
"I'm sorry anyway."
"It's okay, honey." It's like I'm talking to a daughter. Christ, Lucia's only a few short years from turning fifteen. You look so young and vulnerable. What the hell. "So, magic is real, the Goblin King is real, and I have to get you home."
"Yes," you say in a tiny voice.
"How do you kill a Goblin King?"
"You could bind him," you suggest. "Maybe with a magic spell, or cold iron. That always worked in the stories."
"Jesus, Sarah, this isn't a fairytale."
"Isn't it?" you cry. "Everything else in the fairytales is real! Why isn't this real?"
"Okay." I bury my face in my hands. "Okay. I'll think of something. When do you have to be back?"
"Before he notices I'm gone again." You shiver at the idea.
"Okay, why don't you go-" Home. I almost say it. "-back. Is there a way for me to call you?"
"Just call my name three times, and I'll come," you murmur.
"Like Beetlejuice," I joke, but you cock your head at me like a bird, and I remember that movie came out the year after you vanished. "Never mind. Will you hear me call for you, even Underground?"
Your smile is brittle and sad. "I've always heard you, Toby. I never left you. Not really. I've been watching over you your whole life."
And then, in the space between one breath and the next, you're gone. No one else in the pizzeria sees you disappear but me.
I hurry back to the apartment, rubbing my hands together. It's coming on late October and I left my coat at home.
Jesus. Jesus Christ. I don't ... I can't ...
I'm not crazy. I was never crazy.
You were always real. You never left. You were always watching out for me.
The elevator's still out, so it's my second trip up the staircase this evening. The front door is unlocked. Kimmy should have locked it behind me. Stupid. I'll need to mention this to her. Little mistakes like this get people killed. Christ, I'm shot. As soon as I get inside, I'm passing out on the couch.
But I can't, because someone else is already sitting on it.
He's blond and gaunt and pale as bone. He wears a tailored suit and black gloves. And when he smiles, his teeth are impossibly long. That there is a very wicked man. As soon as I enter the living room, the stranger smiles his terrible grin at me, as if I'm an old friend he hasn't seen in years and years. His mismatched eyes bore into me like he can see every horrible thought I'd ever had.
"Little Jareth!" he cries in obvious delight. "Or I suppose you now like to be called Detective?"
Chapter 6: A King's Ransom
"Speak of the devil and he shall appear."
-Popular proverb around the world
My gun's out as soon as the stranger starts speaking.
"Who the fuck are you?" I yell. "What the fuck are you doing here?"
He doesn't look at all disturbed that I'm pointing the business end of a Sig Sauer at his heart. He's got one leg crossed over the other and one arm draped over the back of my couch as if he owns it. There's an elegance to him that you don't see in the brutes I work with.
He wears a custom suit, pinstriped and fitted. I'd never be able to afford a suit like that, not on my salary. The gloves are thin, probably lambskin. They look like the small unlined gloves James Bond wears in the movies. A scarlet pocket square tops it off, and gold cufflinks line his wrists.
The stranger is immaculate and aloof, like a banker just come from a high stakes meeting at World Trade. From his accent, he sounds like he just fell out of a BBC program. Pure London.
But it's his eyes that stop me. They don't match, like buttons a tailor pulled at random from a drawer. One is a pinprick of cornflower blue, like a Husky's. The other is black velvet and nearly fills the entire eye. Endless night. His eyes hold me as sure as rope. I can't look away, and even though I hold the gun, I'm the one who's trapped. A bizarre idea flitters past my brain and is gone just as quickly: those eyes see every embarrassing thing I've ever done, every regret I've ever had. They know the most intimate parts of my soul.
No, that's stupid. Ridiculous. Pull it together, Williams.
The stranger's grin widens as if someone's pulled on a zipper. If I didn't know any better, he's just heard this internal battle with myself. "Is this how you treat all your guests? No wonder you don't get much company."
"Show me your hands!"
He slowly pulls his arm from the back of the couch and folds both empty hands in his lap. From his calm demeanor, you wouldn't think I had a gun in his face. "Better?"
"Where's my daughter?"
"How should I know where you misplace your things?"
"Don't make me kill you."
Unconcerned, he waves a gloved hand in the direction of the bedrooms. "Still in her room, I imagine. See for yourself. Ah, and don't bother trying to put those ridiculous cuffs on me. You'll just tax yourself."
Which was exactly what I'd been planning to do. Like hell I'm taking my eyes off of him until he's cuffed and frisked.
"I suggest," he continues slowly, "that you put the weapon away, Detective. Someone could get hurt." He hasn't broken his gaze with me from the moment I entered the room. Something cold lies coiled to spring behind the warmth of his smile. It's clear that when he says someone, he's not talking about himself.
I don't budge. "Is there anyone else here with you?"
"Just your daughter and the babysitter. After we're done chatting, you'll find them asleep in the other room, with no memory of any of tonight's unpleasantness. Shock can have negative consequences on the psyche. We wouldn't want that, would we?"
We stare at each other for a long time. His gaze is absolutely unflinching.
"I'm putting the gun away for now," I finally say. "Don't move from that couch."
"Wouldn't dream of it!" he says pleasantly, coming alive again. He remains perfectly still as I holster my pistol. "There, now. That wasn't so difficult, was it?"
My eyes narrow to slits. "Who are you?"
"I see patience isn't your strong suit. We're old acquaintances, you and I, although doubtless you've forgotten me. I am the Goblin King, Lord of the Southern Marshes, Lesser Emperor of the Lower Lands, Guardian to the Nightmare Realms, and High Sovereign to the Labyrinth, among other titles that would be exhaustive to list at the moment. You may refer to me as Your Majesty the first time, then sir after that."
All of this flows off his tongue as swiftly as water. The schizophrenics I've met were about as confident as this guy, though I admit his presentation skills far outstrip theirs.
I laugh despite myself. "You're in America now, pal. I hate to break it to you, but we got rid of the monarchy a long time ago."
To my surprise, he's not angry at my flippancy. "Ah, Tobias, you always were entertaining! How wonderful that fate has deemed us to cross paths once more. Indeed, I am quite fortunate."
"What do you mean?" What the fuck. How do you know my name?
"I need a detective," His Majesty says slowly. "It would appear that something of mine has gone missing. I'm trying to get it back. Oh, you needn't look so troubled! Years of police work and fighting overseas have given you an admirable poker face, but there's little I miss. Of course I know that your sister has escaped my Labyrinth - again - and fled Aboveground to see you - again. Let me guess, she's engaged you to assassinate me. Am I right?"
I can't begin to guess what my face reveals right now.
His Majesty chuckles. "I thought so. She's a fast learner, your sister, and she learned from the best. I suppose I should be flattered. Still, she's the least of my concerns right now. I have lost a nightmare. I need help getting it back."
I stare at him for a very long time. "... Excuse me?"
"A nightmare," he insists, "created to be the darkness, and the fear of darkness in every human heart. A black mirror, made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront. That is how it was described to me by its creator." He sighs and stretches his long legs. "Nightmares need proper keeping, or else they get ... ah, difficult. This one was entrusted to me, but it escaped my realm and I have not seen it since. Perhaps you have."
"I've had nightmares, yeah."
"This is the sort of nightmare that can exist outside of the human mind. It walks on two legs and, to the untrained eye, appears human ... ish." He wrinkles his nose.
"A nightmare in human form?"
"Your race has stories about such a creature. You call it a bogeyman."
"How would I know one when I see it?" I ask wearily.
"To the layman, it's considerably challenging," he concedes, "which is why you likely won't recognize a nightmare at first glance, only the rippling of its passage. Tell me, Detective, have there been any odd disturbances in your city? Anything stranger than usual?"
"We've had kids dying. The deaths are ... they're brutal. Would this thing kill children?"
"Perhaps? You either know or you don't."
"The children," he murmurs softly, like a caress, "were their eyes missing?"
The blood drains from my face. "We kept that from the public because we didn't want a shitstorm."
"My nightmare has a strange fondness for eyeballs. You could say they're his specialty." He hisses this last word.
"How so? Why does he kill children?"
Another bored wave of the hand. "Killing them is incidental. Nightmares feed on fear. And how do we process fear, Detective? Make an attempt to answer now."
I'm a little boy, entering the haunted home of a doomed man. Spiders have made nests of the decayed furniture, and rain pours down through the cracks in the wood. I'm in Kabul, carrying my best friend to his death. Blood on my hands and in my mouth. I'm standing in a morgue, observing the mutilated body of a little girl who looks too much like Lucia, and I fear I'll never sleep again.
"We see things," I whisper in sudden understanding. "We see things that scare us."
His Majesty nods in approval. "Every day. For some humans, that fear is a troublesome afterthought. You process it and move on with your lives. For others, the fear is crippling. I would wager that these children were very frightened indeed when they died. That would be a feast for any nightmare."
"And their eyes? He keeps them as, what, a souvenir?"
"Don't be ridiculous. He's eating them."
"He's eating them?"
"What better way to savor one's final moments than to relive their worst fears, exactly as they saw them?" the Goblin King asks. I have no response. I've never been more speechless in my life. Considering the night I've just had, that's saying something. His Majesty takes advantage of my pause to smile again. "I suppose, now that I have your cooperation in this matter, we must talk of payment."
"Payment?" I repeat stupidly.
"Your kind have a saying, 'There's no free lunch'. Do you not? I wouldn't dream of hiring you without talk of recompense. That would just be vulgar. What are your fees?"
I need to sleep. This is a dream. It'll all be over when I go to bed. "... I've never ... I don't freelance. I work for the city."
"A loyal servant to his government. I appreciate that stance. However, I insist on paying my due. I pay my trash collectors, and you shall be taking care of a particular bad piece of trash."
And then the answer hits. "Give me Sarah."
There's that ridiculous smile again, like a yawning pit. It's more than a little unsettling. There's nothing gentle or amusing about that smile. It's the last thing a seal ever sees before it meets its end to a shark. "No," he says. No argument, no explanation. Just flat refusal.
Bile rises in my throat. "You break into my house, you request my help in cleaning up your mess, I have the right. I want my sister back."
"You want many things, Detective," the Goblin King says lazily. "You want a living wife, and living comrades in arms. You want to forget all your regrets and the shame they bring you, lying awake at night alone in that cold bed of yours. Why not wish for that? Oh, but you won't, because you're honorable. The hero always has honor, does he not? Always in service to others, never to himself. What a deluded way of thinking-"
I take two steps and draw the gun again. My living room is small, so at this range I'll blow his head off.
The Goblin King pauses, not out of fear. "Don't do anything you'll regret, Detective. I daresay you have enough regrets already."
"Give me my sister," I order him.
"You listen to me, you little shit-"
The energy shifts. Shadows disengage themselves from the corners to invade the center of the room. The space around us contracts to a pinpoint of light. I recoil and almost drop the pistol. The Goblin King hasn't moved an inch from my couch, but his mismatched eyes could incinerate entire worlds. "You have ceased to amuse us, mortal. We require a detective. If you are not available, the crown can make other arrangements. What is your decision?"
I stagger as if punched. "This ... this thing will keep killing kids if I say no, right? What're my other options?"
The room brightens a bit. "Ah, you finally understand the situation. I was beginning to doubt your intelligence. You have no options. Catch my nightmare, and you stop your killer. If you don't, I shall be most displeased, and the children of your city will continue to die. Succeed, and I shall forget tonight's rudeness. That is payment enough, I think."
I'm not too far gone to insist in a shaky voice, "I want my sister back."
"It's not enough that I give you a break in your case. So ungrateful! But never let it be said that I am not generous. Find my nightmare. Return him to me, and you may have a wish."
"But not my sister, is that it?"
"Hmmm." His smile unfolds across his face and stretches like a cat. "Little escapes your notice, Detective. That's rather refreshing from the idiots I usually command. And your deduction is correct. I never share my toys. I won Sarah fair and square, despite what she may tell you. She is my boon from battle. I will never give her up."
"What would it take for you to give her up?"
"Are you challenging me to a game, Detective?" The Goblin King's voice is so soft, it could be mistaken for seductive.
"This is a negotiation. We're discussing possibilities."
"And what could you possibly have that I want? Your daughter?" He barks a laugh. "You'll never risk your daughter. I know you better than you know yourself. Honestly, what need have I of another child? I can take any child like that-" A snap of the fingers. "-so why burden me with yours?"
Something here doesn't add up. "If human lives mean so little to you, why do you care about Sarah so much?"
That makes him pause and regard me as if he's truly seeing me for the first time. "You look but you don't see. In this, you could stand to learn a great deal from your sister. She's far trickier than you. Return my nightmare to me, and we can continue this little discussion of yours. You will find I can be most agreeable when properly enticed."
I don't trust this guy, but it's the best conclusion we'll reach at this point. "Fine. That's all I want."
He grimaces. "You want many things, Tobias. Desire is the surest road to hell. Surely a pious man would know that." And then the Goblin King vanishes just like Sarah did, as if erased from existence. It happens so fast that I question my sanity - not for the first time.
Between one breath and the next, I've bolted to Lucia's room, where I find my daughter and her babysitter asleep in the rocking chair. Kimmy startles as I pluck Lucia from her arms. "Oh! Sorry, Mr. Williams. I guess we nodded off." Her expression is sunny, if confused. Not the look of someone who's seen ghostly faces appearing in windows or strange men in the living room. I say nothing, just cradle my daughter.
"Did you have a good night, little bird?" I ask tersely.
Lucia yawns. "I had dreams, Daddy."
"I dunno." But then she pops her thumb in her mouth, which she only does when she's nervous.
Somewhere in my left ear, a wicked voice laughs. No one hears it but me.
To be continued.
Chapter 7: Inferno
Morpheus: Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
-Song of Solomon 4:4
Cassie smells like pumpkin spice and lavender. I should know, because right now she's got her tongue in my mouth. She's been baking in our kitchen. I can taste the sugar on her.
When I lick the sugar off, she laughs, and then she takes my lower lip between her teeth, sucks me gently, and every part of me contracts. Harry told me once that black holes actually come from stars caving in on themselves. Making love to Cassie feels remarkably like that. For a second, I actually think I'm going to die, that all my atoms will vibrate so hard that my body flies to pieces. Is it possible to die from something feeling too good? If so, I can think of worse ways to go.
And my beautiful bride, oh God, she fiercely whispers in my ear, "You liked that!" Accusatory and playful at the same time.
I must have just made a horribly embarassing sound. Right now I don't care. I've got Cassie pressed into the mattress and her ankles are hooked around the small of my back and we can ride to glory together.
I won't deny anything she says, so I just laugh and quiver at the same time, our heartbeats mingling at the root of my spine. Think of something else, anything, but I can't. How can I? You're here, now, warm, this is all I want, all I'll ever want. I'll follow you anywhere.
If I never had another day with you, if all I had was this, it would be alright. It would be fine fine fine fine God Jesus fuck. My heart seizes in my chest. Flatline. Our hips, erratic but perfect together. She's shivering fit to die and then she's gone, fallen over a cliff and pulling me after her.
I feel it in my toes and my ears, the backs of my knees and the tendons twitching through my calves, the muscles in my throat (screamed raw), in every part of me, even the corners of the room, as if I've grown much bigger than this meat suit called a body. In this moment I am everywhere and nowhere. I am God, and I am this wonderful glorious shining woman, and I guess that makes us God together.
God created the universe with a word, a breath. Right now, in the aftermath, we're a shaking mass of limbs, gasping into each other's hair and murmuring unintelligible nothings against the other's skin.
Paradise. Languid, liquid fire in my belly. I could sleep forever ... or maybe I already did? Suddenly, I'm waking up and Cassie is combing her nails through my hair. The sweat against the curve of her neck smells incredibly good, better than perfume. I make a concerted effort not to move and weave a leg between her thighs, locking us together.
"Mm, time's it?" My eyes search through the half light of the bedroom to where I think the alarm clock should be, until I vaguely remember we knocked it over during sex.
Cassie laughs lazily under her breath. "Does it matter?"
She turns my face to her, runs a thumb over my swollen lips. I have never seen her this serious in my life. "Just so you know? That was the best sex I've ever had."
I'm smiling like an idiot. Only word for it. The last time I was this happy, Cassie had just accepted my marriage proposal. "That compliment will totally go to my head. You know that, right?"
Cassie kisses my ear; we've gone back to snuggling into the crook of each other's necks. "You deserve it."
The sun wakes us next.
We've shifted in our sleep. Now I'm curled around Cassie's back, a protective hand cupping her breast, the other cradling her belly. My arm hurts. It's fallen asleep under Cassie's body, and I'm afraid of waking her until I realize she's already up.
She sniffs muzzily against the pillow. I tuck us in from the sheets tangled messily at the foot of the bed.
"Make you breakfast?" I ask.
"No, thank you, baby."
"Geez, my throat hurts."
"You were yelling a lot."
I can tell I'm leering. "Sure was."
For a split second, Cassie looks unbearably sad. She's got a terrible poker face. "Not during ... I mean, I'm not talking about us, last night. You were yelling in your sleep again."
Oh. "Afghanistan or Sarah?"
"Sounded like both."
Cassie's facing me again, so I pull her into me, and we curl into the warmth of each other's bodies. "You stink like sex," Cassie says in a mock accusatory voice.
"I stink like us," I tease her back, my nose buried in her hair.
"I have to present my thesis today."
"You'll do great."
"I have to present to the panel. There's five of them. What if they don't like my thesis?"
"They'll like your thesis. You've been working on it for two years and interviewed a billion people for it. They'll love your thesis."
Cassie pulls me away from the crook of her neck and forces me to look her in the eye. "But what if they don't?"
I cradle the side of her head. She has a small skull, much smaller than mine. Cassie likes to joke that I'm descended from Germans, or Vikings, or possibly Frost Giants. I have these big meaty paws that could crush her head, given the inclination. "The panel will love your thesis. And they'll love you. That's a promise."
"Even if I start stuttering?"
"You're not gonna stutter."
"I did the other week when we went to dinner with Aunt Lisa and Uncle Moïse."
"Yeah, but they were always critical of you and Elsie. That'd make anyone nervous."
"But I'll be n-nervous in front of the panel. Oh God, there it g-goes." A sob catches in her throat.
"Hey, none of that." I mean to kiss Cassie lightly on the corner of her mouth, but suddenly I kiss her like I'm trying to crawl inside of her. The sob in her throat catches, turns into a deep moan. When we pause for breath, I'm alarmed to see her cheeks are wet. "Uh, I guess I still gotta work on my kissing, huh?"
Cassie laughs through her tears. "Oh God, no. I'm just happy."
I don't understand women at all.
This time I wake up for real.
The James Baldwin novels still sit next to Cassie's side of the bed. The room smells sterile, the remnants of Elsie vacuuming the apartment. The bedsheets are crisp and clean. I'm wearing the pajamas Cassie got me at Christmas. The bed around me yawns into infinity, cold and empty and vast, a dark forest on the outer rim of the known world, and nothing on Earth or under it will ever make anything okay ever ever ever again.
The Goblin King finds me standing on the corner outside the apartment. Smug fucker is dressed to the nines again, with a long fancy coat and a scarf and tousled blond hair. He looks like a walking GQ ad.
He doesn't say anything, just stands next to me like a stranger debating whether to bum a cigarette off me, and all faith I have in a sane and sensical world dies. Last night wasn't a dream. Jennie is gone, Cassie is gone, Sarah is back, Goblin Kings are real, I need to go to bed.
We stand and watch the traffic pass on Park Ave for a minute, and then he says out of the corner of his mouth, "Searching for a handle on the moment?"
Dazed, I shake my head. I have nothing to say. I'm staring at the boogeyman. I don't care what he said last night, about living nightmares that eat the eyes out of children's heads. Maybe the Goblin King doesn't cannibalize people, but he's still a boogeyman, isn't he? He's the cause of this problem plaguing my city. He started all this.
His Majesty sighs. "Suicide is the worst possible thing you could do. You know that, don't you?"
I'm out of cigarettes, and my fingers are numb. "How would you know?"
He ignores my rudeness. "You think you can wait another fifteen years, see that Lucia grows up alright, and then end your pain. Maybe walk into traffic one day, or eat a bullet. Or maybe, just maybe, a heart attack will strike in the middle of the night, and instead of calling 911, you can roll over in that big empty bed of yours and let yourself go to sleep."
I hate him. I hate him. If there's nothing else I do before I die, I will end this man ... this man who isn't really a man.
The Goblin King, it turns out, has a very big mouth. It's almost too big for his face, with very thin lips and very sharp teeth. He could be the personification of the Big Bad Wolf. When he smiles, I'm reminded of a story Cassie once told me, an old Norse myth about Judgment Day, when it was said a giant wolf will swallow the moon and the sun, and our world will end in smoke and fire.
He looks at me curiously, and I'm surprised to see no malice there. I could be a speciman in a lab. "Such anger in you, Detective. You and Sarah are so alike, in that respect. When you're angry, you burn like a forest fire."
Before I can retort, a black Toyota cuts off a taxi and nearly causes an accident as it screeches up to the curb. The window rolls down. It's Harry. "C'mon you guys, haul ass. The press is gonna be waiting."
I stare - first at my partner, then the Goblin King. "What ...?"
His Majesty smiles and pops the passenger side door for me. "After you, Detective."
The drive to the precinct is gonna drive me crazy. I can't face forward in my seat and leave my back unguarded, so I keep my eyes glued to the rearview mirror and watch the Goblin King laugh silently under his breath in the back seat.
"Something troubling you?" he asks sweetly. "Poor sleep will do that to a person."
"What the fuck is he doing here?" I hiss at Harry.
Harry looks at me like I've got antlers sprouting from my nose. "He's here to help us with the case?"
"Toby, you're the one who brought Chief Inspector Rex onboard as an outside consultant. The captain was all for it. Thinks he might be able to shed light on what's been going on."
"Dreadful thing, serial murder," His Majesty pipes up from the back. "It's especially terrible when it happens to children."
"Anything like this case?" Harry asks.
The Goblin King's mismatched eyes meet mine in the mirror. "No. Not like this. It's very worrisome to me."
"What would you care?" I demand. In the driver's seat, Harry makes a sound of embarassed protest.
The strange, otherworldly man has the indecency to look hurt. "I care every time a child suffers, Detective. Children are my sole concern in this world."
Concern, my ass. I stare the Goblin King down in the rearview mirror, and he stares right back, but there's a wariness to him that I haven't seen before. Good. Keep him on his toes. Asshole. Our eyes stay locked on each other the rest of the way uptown.
A detective named Torres meets us at the door of HQ. Her mouth is grim. "You guys aren't gonna like this."
"What?" I ask. "What's going on?"
We find the rest of the precinct gathered around the TV, where a talking head from Channel 7 jabbers away with the horrified enthusiasm you find at traffic accidents. The newswoman stands, perfectly dressed and coiffed, alongside the river. It looks like where we found Jennie. Stomach sinking, I push my way through the crowd and turn up the volume.
The voice blasts across the room. "-was looking forward to her eighth birthday next month. Instead, her journey ended here, when last night police pulled the body of little Jennie Ortega from the East River." They show Jennie's picture next, and interview her grieving mother, and a few parents who've clearly been caught by reporters on the way out of Jennie's school.
"It's scary," says a dad holding a squirming little boy. "It's, uh, real scary. My wife and I are thinking about moving out of the city. We've lived here our whole lives, but this? There's no word for this. I can't raise a family here no more."
The camera cuts to a woman who won't stop fidgeting. Despite her dark sunglasses, it's clear she's wound tighter than a guitar string about to snap. "Everybody at my house is sleeping in the living room. We don't let the kids go to the bathroom alone. Why aren't the cops doing something? Shouldn't they have this guy by now?"
I glare at the Goblin King, who stands and watches this without a shred of emotion. "You know, we should. But your boogeyman likes to make things difficult for people, doesn't he?"
His Majesty's eyes narrow without turning away from the screen. "It's in a boogeyman's nature to destroy, Detective. He's an agent of chaos."
"This is your fault. Don't think I haven't forgotten that. All of this." The dead children, and Sarah. He must be able to hear it in my voice.
He snorts humorlessly. I didn't think such an uncouth sound was possible coming from him. "Me? I don't inflict anything on the world, Detective. I merely observe and respond to it."
All conversation stops as the captain hustles into the room looking like an accident victim.
"Sir?" someone asks nervously.
He barely spares the group of us a glance. "I'll handle the press. Williams, Rosenfeld, Torres, I need you downtown. Take Chief Inspector Rex with you. There's been another one."
The bottom drops out of my soul. "Where?"
My mind races across a mental map of Harlem, running a tally of all the neighborhoods where you'll find the most vulnerable. Did a kid get snatched from El Barrio? Maybe the Boogeyman's branched out, hunting down children in Sugar Hill or Astor Row, Brooklyn Beach or Death Valley. Who was it this time?
"48th Street, near Rockefeller Center."
The fuck? Midtown?
Rockefeller Center is across the street from Saint Patrick's, where I go to see Father Bill. During the holidays, the Center's fancy boutiques set up fanciful window displays you don't see outside of a theater production. They make an ice rink out of the restaurant's courtyard on the ground floor. Tourists come to skate there, and Channel 7 comes to film them. For a century now, it's been where they set up the big Christmas tree.
Hollywood has probably shot more movies at the Center than anywhere else in Manhattan. Despite only being separated by blocks, the area is a world removed from the shlockiness of Times Square, with its garish lights and the carnival atmosphere of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.
No, Rockefeller Center means comfort. Money. People of privilege.
Julio's parting words echo in my head like the clap of a gun ... or a warning.
Look, nobody gives a shit when little black and brown kids go missing. We're animals, right? Who cares when we're killing each other? But now a white dude's moved uptown and hunting our kids. And sooner or later, he's gonna start touching your kids. And then you'll give a shit.
"Toby?" The concern in Harry's voice breaks my reverie. He and Torres are seriously spooked by the news that the Boogeyman's spreading out. I'm surprised to see the Goblin King look perfectly neutral.
I shake my head. "We're gonna have a panic on our hands. We need backup."
To be continued.
Chapter 8: Endgame
The Joker: I'm an agent of chaos.
-The Dark Knight (2008)
The crime scene lies catty corner to Saint Patrick's and the Plaza, in a skinny sandstone townhouse whose art deco exterior hasn't changed since the 1920s. Police cruisers block the street to traffic, and journalists shove microphones in our faces as we try to worm past police tape.
"Watch these guys," Harry mouths at me.
He's not talking about the journalists. "Who?"
"I know the guys who handle Juvenile Crime here. Brace yourself. It's like talking to those two old fucks on the Muppets."
"Hi, I'm Detective Williams, these are Detectives Rosenfeld, Torres and ... Rex. We're from the 23rd Precinct, heard you've had a kidnapping."
The two grumpy behemoths with badges guarding the door to the apartment don't budge. One of them mutters, "I didn't call you. That was someone else."
Well, well. Screw you, too.
Torres intercepts. "Fellas, this is your crime scene, we get that. We've had two little girls go missing in our precinct in the last month, and both of 'em turned up dead. Right now we're just looking to bring closure to their families, and help bring someone else home. Please help us help these kids, okay?"
The men give us the stink eye, Harry most of all, then step aside grumbling. I get the feeling Harry's had a run in with them before that they're still licking their wounds over. In any case, our small group shoulders its way into a chaotic living room. Several officers have secured the scene, and the CSI folks are walking around with evidence bags.
The parents stick out like sore thumbs. They're a very handsome, very white couple, seated on the sofa with the glazed look that, after a decade on the force, I've come to expect from victims. They're mid-thirties, looks like. He's dressed in slacks and a pressed button down shirt with enough starch to make it stand up on its own. She's wearing a floral dress and pearls. They look like poster children for Barneys New York.
The husband's trying to field questions from the detectives around them, but the wife looks completely numb. I know that feeling.
Harry and Torres make a beeline for the parents while I head for the crime scene, the Goblin King on my heels. I sidestep a CSI person carrying boxes of evidence and suddenly find myself alone in the bedroom.
Bedroom? It's a nursery, with a crib and lacy curtains. The walls are sky blue and adorned with penciled art of Disney characters. My stomach turns to ice. Our latest victim is a baby. I pick a picture frame off the bookshelf and inspect it. It shows the two parents, beaming, holding a chubby baby boy with a rosebud mouth and blond curls.
From behind me, the Goblin King murmurs, "Youngest one yet. His tastes are becoming remarkably perverse, wouldn't you say?"
I don't turn around. I can't take my eyes off a crib mobile, circling idly in the breeze from an open window.
"You're afraid and feeling out of your depth," he adds, almost gleeful.
I startle as if someone lit a fire under my ass and glare at him. "What's your connection with these kids? Huh? Ana Maria, Jennie, Sarah, they all had your book. It mentions you by name-"
"Title," he corrects me, bored. "Few know my name, least of all you."
Now I'm in his face. "Did you kill them? Did you set this thing on them for your own sick amusement?" It takes me a beat to realize I'm almost yelling.
His face shifts again. Now he looks solemn, which surprises me. I didn't think he had a heart at all. "I have so few things in this world that bring me joy. Murdering children is certainly not one of them."
"Then why is your stink all over this case? Just another funny coincidence?"
"Let me turn this question back on you. What will it take to release your claim on Sarah?"
"The fuck did you-"
"Answer me. Don't deny it, you're still thinking about how you can win her back. What would it take for you to forget Sarah: an ungrateful, spoiled, selfish stranger who spreads misery wherever she goes?"
"You're talking about my sister, asshole."
"Your sister," he hisses, "is dead. She died the night I took her, all those decades ago."
"She's alive, you son of a bitch. She saved my life in Afghanistan, I saw her again not 24 hours ago. She's alive, and she's ... she's just a kid, and she needs her family. Not some sick pervert with a fetish."
"The thing you've seen over the years," he retorts, "the thing you met last night, was nothing more than a shadow, the memory of a dream long since past. Even if I could give her back to you, I wouldn't. I'm not that cruel. No. She's mine, and none shall have her save me."
"What do you mean, you can't give her back? If you're the great and powerful Oz, you can do anything."
He laughs at my sarcasm. "Sarah is no more human than I am. Everything that was human was burned out of her long ago. You have no idea what you're asking."
"I know exactly what I'm asking," I snap. "You kidnapped my sister and you ... you changed her. She needs to come home."
"Oh, Detective. Sarah is home, though she fights it every day, and constantly sneaks to the world above to spy on you and long for the life that she flushed down the toilet. She fights me, which wounds me to the core. You see, Detective ..." He leans in close to me now, like a lover. "... Sarah and I are more alike, more attached, than you can ever guess." His tongue flicks up at the end, lascivious, and his mismatched eyes burn.
I slam him up against the wall by the throat. He barks a laugh, unconcerned at my towering height and superior strength. "Careful, Detective!" he gasps, more out of amusement than lack of breath. "I'm your only hope of solving this case and saving your city's children. And like you, I'm a man who's lost dearly. Don't you see? We're strange bedfellows, you and I."
"I'll break you in two," I growl.
"Even if you could kill me, which you can't, eliminating me wouldn't change anything."
"What did you do to my sister?"
"Haven't you been listening? Your sister is dead. What remains is a dream of a dream, an empty shell of a human being." His voice takes on a strange lilt, as if singing a favorite old song. "It was her own decision, really."
"Bullshit. Nobody chooses that. Nobody would choose you."
"You think so?" All mocking vanishes. "Then how did I enter the story, hmm? I cannot come in unless ... asked. Requested. That's how the magic works, and of course, common courtesy. I wouldn't dream of interrupting a life without an explicit invitation."
"Why would Sarah call on you?" I ask, wary, but I don't release my grip. I don't trust anything he says.
A look of pure, unfiltered delight crosses his face. "... You truly don't know, do you? Don't know the depths to which your sister could sink? My, my. You've canonized this stranger in your head and worship at her altar, yet you don't know your own god. How tragic, and so very Catholic of you."
I throttle him. Or at least, I try. All of a sudden, it's much harder to hold him, much less squeeze his throat. And then in a flash he's broken free my hold on his neck and twisted my hand so hard that I'm on my knees with a strangled cry. If he adds any more pressure to my wrist, he'll break it. The pain burns a trail of fire up my arm and into shoulder.
The Goblin King leans over me. I can hear his voice in my ear, once again the gentle lover. "You observe, Detective, but you do not see. This will be your downfall, in the end."
He releases my hand. I fall to the carpet and curl into a ball, gasping, dazed, confused, and only vaguely hear the footsteps of his fancy Armani shoes as they cross the carpet and walk out the door.
It's a few moments before I can find the strength to stand, much less walk. My wrist still hurts, and I can barely use it. The bastard sprained it.
I'm going to kill him.
But first I comb the shelf, flipping one handed through stacks of toys and stuffed animals. It's got to be here. The red book, the ones all the girls received. It must be here, but I don't see it anywhere. Then I look under the crib and in the toybox and behind the changing table.
I stumble out into the living room, still overrun with cops. "Did anybody see a red book?" I ask.
Nobody pays any attention to me.
"HEY!" I yell. All movement stops dead. People are looking at me like I just cut them off in traffic. "Anybody see a red book? Cloth cover with black tooling. It's important."
Everybody looks at each other. There are a few shrugs, some shakes of the head. The CSI people glance at each other, confused. They obviously don't know what I'm talking about.
Harry sidles up next to me, alarmed at the way I cradle myself. "Toby, you okay? What's with your hand?"
"It's nothing," I say, glaring at the Goblin King. He stares at me from across the room, hands in his pockets, appearing unseen to the mass of people who swirl around him. He looks unbearably smug. "Harry, there's no book. If this kid was snatched by the Boogeyman, he should have had a book."
"Parents said they put the boy to bed and woke up to find him missing, same as all the others," Torres says. "Everything matches."
"Except the victim," I insist. "The Boogeyman targets underprivileged girls who won't be noticed by the media, and then he goes after a white baby boy in one of the richest areas of the city. Why'd he change now?"
"Maybe he got bored," Harry suggests.
I shake my head. "This one doesn't get bored. He likes the familiar. It comforts him. He wouldn't change his routine unless there was a reason."
The husband is out in the hall talking with detectives, but the wife hasn't left the couch. She still looks dazed, holding a full cup of coffee without drinking any of it. I have to speak to her multiple times before she blinks and looks up.
"Mrs. Fisher, can we speak with you?" I ask very, very gently. I'm a parent. I can't imagine what she's going through right now.
She nods like a puppet on a string. Jerky. Torres and I take seats in the chairs opposite her. We decided that it'd be helpful having another woman question the mother.
"Mrs. Fisher," Torres begins, "I'm so sorry for what you're going through. I know you've already spoken with Detective Hazuri's team. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
There's that nod again, like she's here but not completely present. A lump appears in my throat.
"Mrs. Fisher," Torres continues, "when did you notice your son missing?"
"Breakfast time," she murmurs. "I was in the kitchen, and I realized I hadn't heard him cry since I got up. He always cries. He's a fussy baby."
"Did he have a red book?" I jump in, ignoring the glare from Torres.
The woman frowns. "Red ...? A red book?"
"Yeah. Red cloth cover." I pull an evidence bag from the inside of my coat and hold it out to her. It's Sarah's book, encased in plastic. "Like this one."
Mrs. Fisher stares at it, then shakes her head. "No, we ... we don't have anything like that. We're not a big reading family. My husband likes the newspaper, and I like People magazine, but we don't have many books lying around."
Satisfied? I can see the question written all over Torres' face. I tuck the book back into my coat and nod in grim disappointment. "Thanks for your time, Mrs. Fisher."
We stand to go, but she cries out, "They don't think they're going to find him, do they? They think he's dead already, that it was that ... that Boogeyman. You ... you're not giving up that easy, right? Tobias must be so scared. Oh, my God."
I freeze. Stock still. Like a statue. I turn back to stare at the mother. "What did you say?"
The dam has broken, and now she's sobbing hysterically. "He must be terrified! He's never been away from me longer than a few hours before, and now some lunatic's got him!"
"Toby," Torres says in warning.
But I'm too far gone at this point. "You called him Tobias. Your baby's name is Tobias?" I sound angry and frantic to my own ears.
"Y-yes," the mother gulps. "Tobias Michael Fisher. Toby. He's only six-months old. You'll find him, won't you? Won't you?"
I storm out of the apartment, white faced and tight lipped, Torres and Harry on my heels. We push back again through the crowd of journalists. I'm unsurprised to find the Goblin King waiting for me on the sidewalk. He falls in line at my side. The journalists appear to be completely oblivious to his presence; they constantly yell out to me but not to him.
"You have questions." He speaks so softly, yet his voice is like a thunderbolt over the din of the media animal house around us.
I stare at him, wild eyed and short of breath. "What's going on?"
"A forced change in perspective," he responds dryly. "Never a comfortable thing. Ditch your comrades. Walk with me."
I should tell him to get fucked. I should draw my pistol and shoot him while I have the chance. Instead I hiss at my squadmates, "Rex and I are gonna take a walk. I'll see you back at the station."
Harry and Torres shrug and keep walking, and then I know something's up. The Goblin King's working his magical mumbo-jumbo, or something. I've worked with Harry eight years. No way he'd ever split from me that easily, not after the intense scene upstairs.
His Majesty links arms with me and guides me down the sidewalk. The journalists don't follow. I glare daggers at him. "What did you do?"
"Nothing," he replies innocently. "Well. Perhaps I helped things along a little bit, but I did nothing against anyone's wishes, strictly speaking. People always need to invite me in, don't you remember? I suggested to your friends, on a very subliminal level, that they have something very important to do elsewhere. That's all."
I'm nervous, walking arm in arm with him like this. The guy just sprained my wrist, and people are gonna think we're an item or something. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But I don't think there's anything flirtatious about the Goblin King guiding me down the the street by the arm. No, not at all. He wants to show his dominance over me.
"Most people would be thrilled to be seen with me," His Majesty says, correctly interpreting my discomfort. "You and Sarah share the unique habit of hating my guts. I try not to take that to heart."
"I didn't know you had one."
He laughs. It's a very cold laugh that shoots electricity down my legs and makes the hair on my body stand on end. "Funny. Take a ride with me."
I cock my head at him, confused.
Then a black 4-door Sedan rumbles up to the curb. It has tinted windows. Very flashy. While I freeze in surprise, the Goblin King disengages from me and pops the door open. There's no one in the driver's seat. The car is running itself.
His Majesty ignores my shock and smiles. "After you, Toby. We have much to see."
"How is your wrist?"
I'm bundled into the back of the car, partly in shock. The question makes my hand throb anew. "Better," I lie through my teeth. I'll be damned if I give him any satisfaction.
The Goblin King chuckles in the seat next to me. "You're a liar," he says in a jovial way. "And a very bad one at that."
"I guess it takes a good liar to recognize a bad one."
"Tsk. Truth is so hazy. It exists more on the swing of a pendulum than absolutes." He leans against the window and inspects me, thoughtful. "Have you given any thought to our earlier conversation, and my offer?"
My hand throbs worse. I'm a lefty. Figures he'd know to injure my dominant hand. "What offer?"
"What would it take for you to forget Sarah?"
"Don't tempt me. I'm making a very generous offer. What if you could forget Sarah - and with it, all the pain she's caused you? What if you could turn back time and be an only child in a world where life is normal, and without so much loss?" He waits a beat while all this sinks in. "If a tragedy never happens, do you relive the same story?"
I stare at him for a very long time.
The driverless car signals left and make a turn at an intersection. I don't know where we're going, but we're heading into the Lincoln Tunnel. Within moments, we're inside the Tunnel and the interior of the car goes a little dark. It's still easy to see, though, with the underground lights whizzing by the windows.
"You don't know what to say," His Majesty finally says in a sympathetic tone. "Understood. It's not an offer that comes along every day, which is why it's all the more important that you listen carefully to what I'm giving you. It's the opportunity for a better life, the one that was stolen from you when Sarah disappeared."
"You can't change the past," I finally answer in a strangled tone.
The Goblin King smiles like a wolf. "Do you really think that a being as powerful as me would have any trouble rearranging time? Do you think I haven't done so already?"
I'm silent again. I don't know what to say.
"Let's sweeten the deal," he continues. "Let us say that you lose a sister - a wretched sister who has caused you nothing but heartache and misery, I might add - and gain back a beloved wife."
I can't breathe.
"You still don't believe me," His Majesty says. "I've met cynics in my day but you really take the cake."
I finally rediscover my voice. "That's impossible. Nobody can bring back the dead."
"I can make it so that she never died. Cassie, I mean. As for Sarah, well, the only reason your family grieves Sarah is memory. If the world can't remember something, does it still exist?"
"Why are you doing this?"
The Goblin King inspects me. "We are family, you and I. Brothers. I'm offering you a dowry. A bride for a bride."
"She's fifteen, you sick, deluded-"
"She's fifty," he replies with deadly calm. "Don't be dissuaded by appearances. Sarah has had half a century to grow up, and she did, I assure you. Her mind is keener than any mortal adult's. She learned her deviousness from the best, as I've told you, and she's no longer human. I shared with her my powers, and she ran with them, twisted them to her own ends, made them a sight to behold. In all the world, there is none like her. She is truly my match in every way. I shudder to think what she'll be like a thousand years from now, when she's grown into her power."
Strangely enough, this thought seems to excite rather than worry him.
"If you think I'm going to sell my sister out to some pervert, you're even more deluded than I thought," I hiss at him.
The Goblin King has gone back to staring idly out the window. We're out of the Tunnel now and passing somewhere through New Jersey. "Who's selling anyone? I'm talking about relinquishing an old claim. Hardly the same thing."
"Sarah is part of my world now. The only thing drawing her back here is her relationship with you. Have you never guessed? You're a ghost to her and she to you, and yet this last lingering memory of her mortal life causes her unbearable pain. It draws her back to this world again and again, like a moth to a flame. The best way for all involved to move on is to cut the cord. Free her, Detective."
"And give up on her?"
"It's not abandonment," the Goblin King says firmly. "It's a burial. A final eulogy for the dead. Let her go, Detective. Let her stay with me, and free the both of you."
"God, you're sick."
He chuckles. "You'll think differently, in time."
"Where are we going?"
We drive for another forty minutes. The concrete landscape fades away. Jersey City and Fort Lee turn into the rolling forest hills of Nanuet, past the Palisades overlooking the Hudson River north of New York City. I see a lot of bicyclists on the road, enjoying the last warm days of autumn, and children getting off schoolbuses.
This part of New England is picturesque, something out of a Washington Irving tale. You see a lot of old colonial houses and fishing boats in this area.
"What are we doing here?" I whisper against the glass. Dread buzzes in my ear like an evil black fly.
"We're going home, Detective."
The car pulls up to a familiar house. I just saw it last week when I took Lucia to visit Dad. The headless Barbies haven't moved from their spot on the lawn, and the kid's tricycle remains forgotten by the shrubs.
It's my childhood home.
"Once upon a time, I met a human that I respected very much," the Goblin King says softly. He hasn't moved from his seat. "Another king, in a land far from here. He bound me and my kind and bade us build a temple to his god. Normally a human foolish enough to bind me, well, I'd end him and his entire lineage. But he was the wisest mortal I ever met. I couldn't even be angry with him. It was a great surprise to me. I'd long thought of your race the same way you think of bunions: beneath your notice, until it gives you pain and you're forced to remove the problem. No, I liked him, even though he humiliated me by forcing me into servitude. I was glad when he died and I was again free, but I missed his spark."
"Does this story have a purpose, or do you just like reminiscing about your glory days?"
He blinks himself back into the car. I have a feeling he was, for just a moment, millions of miles away, lost in another time. "Sarah is not that king. He was too good. But she's very close in terms of adversity and smarts. I've missed that sort of challenge. You won't. You deserve a happy life, and a peaceful one." He nods at the door handle.
Uncertain, I let us out and step outside, the Goblin King on my heels. I don't hesitate but walk up to the porch.
The place hasn't been renovated as well as I'd originally thought, the other day. There's still some work needed on the shutters, and there's tape over a window.
"The family that lives here now ...," I start.
"Gone," His Majesty finishes. "An emergency in San Francisco. They've been gone for weeks and haven't been back. I don't know if they ever will, after today. Why don't you try the door? It's unlocked."
It is. I twist the handle easily.
The foyer looks the same as it did the last time I was home, at an age when most kids were going to college. For me, it was after my first deployment. I'd gone to Iraq. Rodriguez and I were nineteen and very stupid. We'd originally been a trio, but Seaver had died from a sniper's bullet in Baghdad, and then we were two. And then there was that fateful day in Kabul when we became one.
The furniture's different, and somebody changed out the floor tile. It doesn't look very nice, as if someone was working from a Martha Stewart magazine and then ran out of ideas.
"Upstairs," the Goblin King hisses, impatient. The front door's closed behind us now, yet his hair moves in an unseen, unfelt breeze. His eyes, translucent in this light, glow faintly.
The stairs shriek under my heels. I'm back in my old nightmare again, climbing the staircase in the Taylor House. I refuse to look behind me, try to see if Eddie Pannacchio is waiting for me through the porch window outside, waiting to goad me on.
The top of the stairs come too fast. All the doors on this floor are shut. It's dark with no outside light.
This doesn't deter the Goblin King. "What do you think, Detective? Door one, two, or three? Pick a door and win a prize."
Something smells rank, as if nobody's aired the place out in weeks. How long does it take for a house to smell bad? "I think animals got in. Something reeks."
"Pick a door, Detective," he insists. Something's changed. He sounds more menacing than usual.
Mom and Dad slept in the room at the end of the hall. The bathroom was there, next to the linen closet. That door (next to the wall where our parents hung Sarah's school photo) led to my room. And that door there, right next to the stairs ... Sarah's room. The one place I was forbidden to go.
So of course I choose that door first.
Light strikes, makes my eyes hurt as I open the door. There shouldn't be any light on in this place. No one's been home in weeks. The furniture's different here, too, but the wall mirror's the same from when Sarah lived here, and the current occupants haven't changed the wallpaper.
The smell hits me like a noxious cloud. As I walk through the door, I clap my good hand over my nose and try not to gag. What the hell is that smell?
And then I spy the figure sitting on the floor with her back to me. I instantly recognize that long black hair, even before she turns around in surprise and fear, even before I register those coal black eyes and that strange, inhuman face I once chased in Afghanistan. It's bone white splashed with blood, along with the hands, which she frantically tries to hide. "No!" she shrieks. "Not you!"
To be continued.
Chapter 9: Checkmate
Father Merrin: Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don't listen to him. Remember that - do not listen.
-The Exorcist (1973)
It was Aunt Millicent who really started all the trouble, by observing that Wendy was not a girl any more, and offering to take her into hand and make her a woman. This offer is vaguely alarming to Wendy, and what Peter offers her is the chance to drift in her pre-adolescent dream forever. What she offers him is a chance to grow up. "To grow up is such a barbarous business," Hook observes. "Think of the inconvenience - and the pimples!"
But to never grow up is unspeakably sad, and this is the first "Peter Pan" where Peter's final flight seems not like a victory but an escape.
-Roger Ebert's review of the 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan
Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.
Sarah's not talking to me.
I'm aware of the Goblin King's presence radiating at my back like a furnace. There's deep amusement in his voice, and something undefinable that makes my skin crawl, when he murmurs, "Well met, Beloved."
"How?" Sarah wails, scrambling to her feet. Gore soaks her empty hands. I've discovered the source of that awful odor: Sarah smells foul, like rotten eggs and burnt pork. I have to cover my mouth.
"Do you really think, Sarah, that I don't know every move you make, inside my kingdom and outside of it? Oh, I've brought a friend. I think you know him."
"No! Not Toby!"
"What are you doing?" I demand. I can't move. The sight of Sarah covered in so much blood, reminiscent of my nightmare, has stopped me harder than a concrete wall.
"Nothing that hasn't already happened before," the Goblin King says as he picks at his gloves, all business and no nonsense. "Sarah knows that very well, don't you, Precious?"
"Toby, I killed the monster," Sarah frantically tells me. "The one that got out of the Labyrinth."
"Lies," the Goblin King retorts. "Lies from a woman who traffics in them. She killed those children herself."
Sarah looks like a blade has gone through her. "No!"
"And even if she did kill a vicious child-eating nightmare, I wonder how it would have escaped my kingdom in the first place. Don't you?" As he approaches Sarah, he glances at me for only a moment in feigned confusion. "I know how to restrain my monsters. Only someone who shared my power could let one go. Isn't that right, my beauty?"
Sarah smacks away the hand that's tried to touch her. The Goblin King responds by casually slapping her across the face.
"Isn't that right?" he hisses, gripping her chin. "Look at me. I know about your plans to assassinate me, and I know about the rebels you've organized to overthrow my kingdom. As we speak my army is eliminating them - not only the rebels themselves but every person who has ever spoken with them, unto the smallest child. Never did I dream when I let you live that you would turn against your master like this. I should have known a spoiled brat would never change her spots."
Sarah tries to hit him again. With frightening force, he pins her to the wall by her throat. In the most hateful voice I have ever heard in my life, my sister growls, "You're not my master."
"If I have to beat this lesson into you, so be it."
"I'll die before I let you touch me again!" Sarah screams.
The Goblin King tightens his grip. "As you wish."
I can't follow what happens next. The room explodes. My vision flares white. I'm catapaulted ass over teacups into a wall. Something crashes past me with the roar of a missile, but by now I feel it more in my body than actually hear it. I've gone deaf except for this weird tinny ringing in my left ear.
Holy shit. I think I'm dead.
After what feels like a million years, I realize something's tugging on my arm, and birds are chirping. But then the birdsong changes and becomes my name, and then it becomes my sister's frantic pleas. "Toby! Toby, wake up! We have to go!"
I groan. "Zhut time's it?"
Every part of my body feels like it's been pulled apart and put back together. I'm standing. When did I stand up? There's an arm around my back. Someone's stood me up and forcing me to walk.
Sarah. I can't believe her strength. No fifteen-year old girl is this strong. I've gotta have seventy pounds on her, easy, but she's marching me along like a doll.
When my vision clears, I gape at the room around us. It's literally exploded. Wallpaper hangs in strips from the walls and the furniture is shredded. The door hangs off its hinges as if a cannonball went through it. Of the Goblin King, there's no sign. "Sarah, what did you do?"
"Not now, Toby," she orders me, stopping before a familiar floor-length wall mirror. The new family hasn't removed it. "Close your eyes and take a deep breath, okay? Trust me."
So I do. And when Sarah steps us forward, I follow.
I'm having a heart attack. Only word for it. I've fallen into an icy lake. The cold pierces my heart and squeezes the air from my lungs. I think I'm gonna die, and then suddenly I've broken the surface and am back above water.
Struck senseless, I drop to my knees and throw up.
Instantly, a warm, comforting presence pets my back. "It's okay, Toby. It always feels weird, the first time."
"Sarah," I groan, "what's happening?"
Something slams into a hard surface behind us. The concussion is like a car hitting a brick wall. I flip onto my back and scramble away on all fours. I can barely see an outline of Sarah in the dark. The air here is stuffy and feels like it hasn't been aired out in months, like a closet. Sarah smells worse than ever.
WHAM! The ground vibrates beneath my hands again.
"Uh," Sarah says, "I took us through the mirror. It was the fastest way out."
"Where are we now? Is this the Labyrinth?"
"No. It's a between place. Not much here."
"... w-what the fuck is that?"
"... I couldn't kill him, but I give a good punch. He always underestimated me. I don't think he'll do that anymore."
Suddenly, something roars with a rage that turns my belly to ice and raises all the hair on my body. It's a primal, vicious sound that reminds me of a silverback challenging a rival. I once saw a Discovery Channel documentary about the Congo. A big male gorilla made a sound like that just before he charged a camerawoman and mauled her to death.
"He's pissed," Sarah says lamely. I can hear the fear in her voice, half hidden behind bravado.
"Can he get in?"
"I don't think so. I blocked the mirror after we went through it. He'd have to find another doorway, and then he'd have to find us. This place is millions of square miles. It'd be hard."
"How long can we stay here?"
"Not long," Sarah whispers. "There are worse things in the dark than Goblin Kings, you know."
The wind here is hot and stings my face. That's right, I'd forgotten: sand always stings. The sandstorms were the worst place about Iraq. They'll kill you if you're caught out in the open. Panicked, I cover my face and breathe into the fabric of my coat. Seaver? Rodriguez? Where are you? We've gotta get indoors. Fuck this shit.
I'm standing at the center of a giant compound, the walls tan brick. FOB Iron Horse. Before American forces took over, it was Saddam Hussein's palace - really a group of palaces occupied by Hussein and his sons and their families. We turned one of those buildings into our chow hall.
The FOB was redesignated a bunch of times during Operation Iraqi Freedom and given different names. Danger. Patriot. Loyalty. Bunch of meaningless shit. OIF didn't change anything. We killed one monster and others moved right in.
In 2014, government forces withdrew from Tikrit and fled in the onslaught of ISIS, whose soldiers came in and massacred everybody. I remember when the New York Times reported about the mass graves. Everybody shook their heads and sounded horrified, but I wasn't surprised. There'll always be another monster to fight, I guess.
Where am I? And when?
I'm a ... detective. I live in Manhattan. Rodriguez and Seaver are dead. They've been dead a long time.
"I'm here, Toby."
I've curled up against a pillar near the main door of Saddam's palace, anything to get out of the wind. I feel her hand on my head, ruffling my hair. Sarah looks very tall and unflinching. I can barely see her. The sand is choking me. "We n-need to get inside. S-Sandstorm's coming."
She nods once. "Okay."
We stumble through the doors. Or rather, I stumble. Sarah doesn't look shaken at all. She walks like a deer, all grace and leg. I shove the doors shut behind us, cutting off the awful howl of the encroaching wind. The place hasn't changed at all. It's just as I remembered it. "Where are we?" I asked, frightened.
"Your memories," Sarah says simply. The blood and gore have vanished. Her face looks neatly scrubbed, her cheeks pink, her eyes sparkling green. Human, almost. Her eyes are still a little too vacuous, like a doll's.
I whirl on her, suddenly vicious and angry. I have a feverish desire to destroy the world. "I didn't ask you to drop my ass back here!"
She flinches, just a little. "We needed to get out of the between place, Toby. We needed a door. I used you."
"You should have asked me. Jesus Christ."
Sarah pauses. "I could have."
"I mean, this place, do you know? Do you?" I sound a little hysterical to my own ears. My voice carries in this vast, empty place. It's like a tomb. Even as I speak, my shoulders droop, the fight taken clear out of me. "This is a violation. I don't suppose you know what that feels like."
"I know what that feels like real well, actually." Sarah sounds angry. She's joined me at my side now, but we won't look at each other. We're standing in the doorway to one of Saddam's massive ballrooms.
"We used to play basketball in here," I murmur, the memories flooding back. "Our boots would slip on the marble, but we didn't care. We had fun. The place was looted pretty bad by the time we moved in, so there wasn't much left, except for some furniture that the local people couldn't carry off. I took a picture of Seaver seated on one of those opulent chairs with this stern look on his face, holding his M4 like a scepter. King Jason al Tikriti."
I chuckle without any humor.
"We thought we were fucking hilarious. We were just kids. It was ridiculous, if you think about it. It'd be like if we invaded France and the army set up shop at Versailles."
Sarah's watching me very carefully. She looks tired. "This place must have been beautiful, once."
"Yeah. Hard to believe Uday Hussein tortured people in the living room. If these are my memories, where is everybody?"
"Whatever your mind thinks, it makes so," Sarah says lamely.
"But my memories are always full of people." Mostly the people I failed, the people I lost, but that's another story.
"Your memories are constantly changing," Sarah explains. "That's why you can't trust them."
"Then how do I know what the truth is, or what happened in the past?"
I stare at her for a very long time. "... you're freaking me out, you know that?"
"What is the past, Toby? Really?" She gestures at the empty ballroom. "In reality, this place could be dust right now. Yet here we are. Things can exist in many places at once, none of them any less real than the others."
I touch her shoulder. "You're real."
"I don't know anymore, baby brother," she says wearily. "I don't know what I am. Toby, why didn't you kill him?" Her face contorts, becomes a horrible mask.
I don't have to ask who she's talking about. "Sarah ..."
"I only asked you to do one thing! Just one! I know you've killed people. He deserves it way more than anyone you've ever killed. Why couldn't you kill him?"
"You reappeared out of nowhere and asked me to execute a stranger when I was already neck-deep in another mess. He's also a lot stronger than he looks. It's complicated."
"You're damn right I'm scared!" I bark. "I'm fucking terrified! Are you kidding me? My wife dies, my sister comes back from the dead, a psychopath's killing kids on my watch, I'm a single father - I'm scared out of my goddamn mind! Okay? Are you happy?"
Sarah bursts into tears. I make a frustrated sound and try to turn away, but she buries her face in my arm and won't let go. After a minute, I can't take the crying anymore and slink my arm around her. She's trembling.
"I'm sorry," my sister finally sniffs, her voice very small. "I just want to go home."
I sigh into her hair. Cassie smelled like soap and skin and sweat and perfume. Sarah doesn't smell like anything at all. "You and me both."
We don't spend much time at the FOB. I spent a year in that place. Why would I want to spend another minute there? When the sandstorm finally comes, it blacks out the light outside and turns everything to total night. The giant windows in the ballroom fade out. Outside, the sun burns red.
"How long do we have to stay here?" I ask Sarah.
"We can leave any time," she says.
"Let's leave now."
She squirms, uncomfortable. "We have to follow the rest of your memories to get out. Once you enter a door, you have to continue down the hall until you reach the exit. You won't like it."
"What's our other option?"
Sarah doesn't answer.
I sigh. "Great. Do it."
She weaves a firm arm through mine. "Whatever happens, don't let go of me. And no matter how awful it gets, remember it's not real unless you let your mind tell you it is."
My sister looks so fierce. A wet napkin of a girl protecting a veteran. It's ludicrous. I have to bite back a laugh, but the look on her face stops me cold. That glare could decimate armies. "Yes, ma'am."
We step into the void. It's hot here, too. Suddenly I'm crouched in the doorway of an abandoned Baghdad supermarket with Rodgriguez and Seaver, trying to avoid the cacophony of gunfire over our heads. My hands, slick with sweat, fumbling with my M4. Around us, men and boys scramble for purchase behind parked cars and toppled garbage cans, while a medic frantically tries to patch together one of my platoonmates who's spurting blood all over the sidewalk.
OH MY GOD! OH JESUS!
YOU'RE OKAY, LET ME SEE IT.
I'M GONNA DIE!
YOU'RE NOT GONNA DIE! DON'T LOOK AT IT!
The explosion comes hard and unexpected, and the wall above our heads collapses. Seaver and I miss the brunt of it, but it buries Rodriguez to his waist in rubble. "Shit!" I yell as I start digging him out. "Hang on, man, don't move."
"Not goin' anywhere," he grunts.
"We're sitting ducks here!" Seaver says. I always wondered if he consciously knew what he was doing, and I think he did. Jason was a courageous kind of guy. As I watch, uncomprehending, he brandishes his M16 and moves up to return fire.
And then I understand. "Jay, no!"
Crack of a sniper's bullet. It passes through his left cheek and the back of his head blows out.
I wake up screaming on the lawn of Central Park. Sarah pins me to the ground before I run shrieking into the crowd and trample people.
"Toby, it's okay! We're through! Breathe!" she orders me.
Frantically, I feel myself all over. No holes. I'm dressed in jeans and a muscle shirt soaked in sweat. No army fatigues. I'm back in New York. I cover my face and breathe into the shallow basin of my hands. Hands work in a pinch if you don't have a paper bag. Oh God, don't cry. Not in public, not like this. Be a man, for fuck's sake.
"Toby, how old are you?"
I whimper and shake my head.
Shaking and puzzled, I sit up. Sarah's disappeared, but her voice is clear as a bell. "Where are you?"
"I'm here and I'm not here, Toby. I'm just a passenger for the moment. These are your memories, remember? What is this place?"
My throat is swollen. I'm still shaking from battle and it's hard to swallow. "Central Park. We're in the city."
"Oh!" Sarah sounds delighted. "I think I went once, during a field trip in 8th grade. I forgot what the place looks like."
"Sarah, what do you remember?"
"Not now, Toby. How old are you?"
The grass under my hands is lush and damp. The foliage around us is bright green. Kids play baseball on the diamond. Early spring, from the look and smell of things. "Late 20s. I haven't worn a muscle shirt in years. I wore them to impress-"
Cassie. The bottom drops out of my soul. My wife jogs up the hill, past some picnickers lolling in the grass. She wears jeans and a cute sweater that shows off her curves. I want to peel it off her with my teeth.
Cassie frowns as she gets closer and drops to her knees. "God, Toby, are you okay? You're shivering." I respond by burying my face in her breasts. Cassie recoils with embarassed laughter, but I don't release my grip on her. "Toby, you're scaring me."
Now I remember. This was only the third date. Not my wife. Not my wife. Not yet. Just a beautiful, wonderful woman who's hyper alert for any signs that her new beau might be a serial killing social retard.
Don't fuck this up, Toby. I fumble my hands away. "Sorry, I ... I fell asleep. Had a nightmare. Talking nonsense. You're gorgeous. Geez, I'm sorry."
Cassie laughs in my face, but her body language has relaxed enough for me to know I'm out of the danger zone. "What kind've nightmare was this? Like Freddy Krueger?"
You have no idea. I settle for what I hope is a chagrined smile but I'm sure looks moronic. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. Ready for stargazing?"
"Yes." She snuggles in next to me. That's right. That's what I loved about this date in particular. The first date was coffee, and the second date was the museum, but this was the first time I could put my hands all over Cassie within reason. I learned early on that she was big on cuddling.
This was also the first night we slept together.
Every hair on my body stands up, and my pants suddenly feel tight. Is Sarah still here? How far does this memory progress before we leave again? I don't think I could keep it up knowing my kid sister's watching, no matter how much I've missed Cassie. That'd just be weird.
As if sensing my uncertainty, Sarah whispers in my ear, "Toby, we have to go."
I move my hand like I'm flicking a mosquito.
"Do you think we're alone in the universe?" Cassie murmurs. She's leaning back against my chest, my arms wrapped around her. It's gotten darker in the last few minutes.
"I think the universe is a lot bigger than we think," I whisper back.
"So you believe in aliens?" she teases.
"And other things."
"Hey, Doctor Jones, no time for love!" Sarah hisses. "I know you can hear me! Don't pretend you can't!"
I can't reply to Sarah, not without Cassie hearing me, but maybe my sister can see my back stiffen. She's right. I don't know if there's a time limit to this place, but we have to keep going. I have to get home. Lucia's waiting for me.
Our daughter's waiting for me.
"Hey, uh-" I shift away from Cassie, and she turns to me in surprise and concern. "-listen, I want you to know I've really enjoyed our time together. This has been great."
Cassie looks puzzled. "Are you leaving?"
"I ... no. No. I'll always be here for you. But I wanted to tell you, in case I never got another chance, that you've been the nicest, sweetest person and that I ..." Don't cry, you starry-eyed asshole. "... if we never had tomorrow, tonight would be enough. Five minutes with you is a lifetime of happiness."
Cassie ducks her head. I can't read her expression, but I'm picking up on embarassment and pleasure all at once. "Oh. Wow. Toby, I ... I ..."
Sarah chirps in my ear again. "Time's up."
The world fades to black like a television screen.
We're standing barefoot on a beach at sunset, our pants rolled up from the water, our hands in our pockets. Looks like Cape Cod. In the distance, a little boy dashes into the surf after a barking sheep dog. I don't have to squint to know it's me and Merlin. Technically he was Sarah's dog. He was old by the time I was in grade school, and he didn't run so fast anymore.
"Cassie's beautiful," Sarah says softly. Neither of us take our eyes off the horizon. The sun slowly sinks into the ocean with sparks of vermillion and gold.
"Yeah, she is," I respond wistfully. "Have we talked about her before?"
"I don't think so," Sarah answers, "but I saw her a bunch of times."
"How often did you spy on my family?"
"Oh, Toby. I already told you. I've been watching over you your whole life."
"Could you have stopped that car from hitting her?"
"I'm not God, Toby."
"Sorry. It was a stupid question."
"Not stupid. I'd ask the same thing."
"He said he'd give her back to me, if I betrayed you to him." I look at the surf foaming around my ankles and kick at a shell. I feel her stiffen at my side.
"What did you tell him?"
"I told him to get fucked."
Sarah relaxes. "You asked me before about my own memories."
"Yeah," I tell her. "I did."
"You have enough nightmares, Toby," she says softly. "You don't need mine."
There's something dark and foreboding there that I don't want to know. In any case, the tone in her voice forbids I dig any deeper. So I drop it for now.
"What do your tattoos say?" she asks, very curious.
I roll up my sleeves further. One arm has an American flag that starts at my shoulder and marches down to the elbow. An eagle stands poised before the flag, wings flared to attack. Below that are inked army tags with my wife's and daughter's names and birthdates.
In big block letters on my other bicep: Operation Enduring Freedom. Below that, in smaller script near my wrist: All gave some, some gave all. And below that: May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won't.
There's something else I need to ask, something else I need to know, but I'm afraid of what I'll find. "Sarah, did you kill those kids?"
"No! Geez. God, no."
I'm tapping impatiently on the door of the woman's restroom at my favorite bar on 62nd Street.
Abimana's visiting New York on the heels of getting her nursing degree. She's a wreck. Oh, she doesn't say so, but I can read it in her face. Her hands tremble when she talks, and she doesn't do well with beer. I know this because one drink wiped her out. She's been in the ladies' room for twenty minutes. I think she's puking.
I knock again. "Celine, if you don't come out, I'm coming in."
The door opens. Abimana's mascara is smeared and her eyes are swollen.
She doesn't shrink away when I put an arm around her. "C'mon, honey. I'll get you a cab."
"I tried killing myself this week before I went to the airport," she blurts out.
That stops me cold. I think fast and squeeze her shoulder. "Thanks for confiding in me ... change of plans, we're going to the hospital. Everything's gonna be okay. I'm here."
Abimana takes a long, shuddering breath. "Okay."
"I like Celine," Sarah says. We're standing on the sidewalk outside New York Presbytarian. "She was always loyal to you and knew how to keep a secret."
Wish I had cigarettes. I'm itching for some nicotine, but my clothes keep changing and I didn't bring smokes with me into this memory-dream place. "I think Celine had to be good at secrets. Look at what she had to survive."
"Is she still alive?"
"Yeah. Spent a few days in the mental health unit before they released her. They diagnosed her with PTSD. In hindsight, it's amazing she didn't get the diagnosis before she left the army, but it happens more often than you think. We want to keep a stiff upper lip, you know? Shake it off. Not burden other people. We're good at taking on other people's burdens. That stupid phrase, 'Army Strong', it gets you on a deep level whether you acknowledge it or not. Anyway, yeah, Celine's good now. Started working with a good therapist, got a good job in Seattle, married and had a kid. I saw her last year. She's happy. Doing real well."
"You saved her life."
"Yup. Wish I could've done the same for the rest of my squad."
Sarah makes a disparaging noise. "They were weak," she says simply, and I'm left too stunned to respond.
Unless you live in the tri-state area, you won't understand diners. This is a recurring pattern I've noticed in outsiders. They're like, "Why would you want to eat pancakes at 3 o'clock in the morning?"
I mean, what kind of stupid question is that? Why wouldn't you? If New York is the city that never sleeps, we also want to be able to eat at any time. There aren't too many old school diners in Manhattan anymore, to be honest. Skyrocketing land prices have driven out much of the working class, but you still see some greasy spoons hanging on. Odessa on Avenua A is one of them.
The owners are Ukrainian, which means they've got the perfect pierogi to wash down that final call shot of vodka at your favorite bar. If you want typical American fare, never fear: they also have greasy omelets and slightly-charred French toast to satisfy your late night cholesterol cravings. The burgers are decent, too.
It's coming on 5am, and Harry and I sit in a corner booth hunched over the remnants of our pancakes and eggs. Don't think we're good boy scouts who happen to enjoy getting up early. We haven't even been to bed yet. We've spent the last 48 hours working a case that took us all the way to Hell's Kitchen and the East Village. Vicious double murder. No leads. We agreed that once we were done, we had to eat something before trekking back uptown.
Harry lights up a cigarette. "Well, kid, how you likin' the job?" He blows out a lungful of smoke and chuckles to himself as if he's told a funny joke. "Wanna quit yet?"
"It's good," I tell him. "I'm learning a lot."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Cover your ass."
Now he laughs for real. "Office politics. You'd find that bullshit everywhere, even if you were working corporate. Those high living sons of bitches don't know what we deal with for their sake, God bless their ignorant asses."
This reminds me of something I've been meaning to run by my new partner. "... so what's this stuff going on in the news? About those Spanish Lord guys."
Harry turns uncharacteristically solemn. "Don't be so eager. If you work Harlem long enough, trust me, you'll deal with them. We got a lot of open cases right now that we can trace to the Spanish Lords. Smuggling, arms trafficking, kidnappings, extortion, you name it. They're dangerous people. Don't ever fuck with them, not without backup."
"The New York Times was saying the Lords are struggling after that big NYPD bust last year."
"The Times doesn't know shit. The Lords are regrouping. We'll have bigger problems with them down the road. You'll see I'm right."
"We didn't have gangs back home in Nanuet."
"Well, there's not much to do out in the country. You're in the city now, cowboy." Harry grew up in Brownsville. For years, that Brooklyn district has held the official title as the murder capital of New York City. Harry still has a scar from a partial Glasgow smile given to him when he was a kid and some punk jumped him outside a bar. Harry doesn't fuck around. "You know where these gangs come from, right? And don't give me no smartass response like 'L.A.', okay?"
"Your living room." He smiles and exhales another cloud of smoke.
"I saw the look on your face, when you asked me about the Lords. You think you're better than them." His grin widens. "That line of thinking will get you killed, kid. Erase it from your mind. The truth is, the Lords were you, once upon a time. Maybe not as privileged. It's true, the majority of the Lords come from a low-income Hispanic background. But many of 'em join for reasons that seem reasonable at the time. They want a family. They wanna be able to buy groceries for their granny. But more than that, they want the money and the prestige. They wanna be feared instead of being afraid. Who doesn't want those things?"
Harry gestures at me. "But then you sign that deal with the devil, and you start to realize what you got yourself into, there's no getting out. Ever. Kinda like the NYPD," he jokes at the end.
"You didn't strike me as a religious kind of guy."
"Me? Nope. I don't believe in God or the devil. Though if the devil exists, New York is certaintly his town."
"What about our guys on trial right now?" I don't have to elaborate, because Harry knows what I'm talking about. Several NYPD officers were caught in last year's bust. The Lords had infiltrated our own ranks and paid off a number of our people. "What's in it for them? They were supposed to fight these guys, not join them."
"Evil is sneaky," Harry says, "but more than that, it's charming. If evil came up to you in broad daylight and said, hey, give me your soul, you'd tell evil to fuck off, right? So evil doesn't do that. Evil's too smart. It seduces you slow, like you would a woman. You find out what she likes, and what keeps her up at night. You deeply understand her desires and fears, and you become her new best friend. No, her savior. You don't come right out and ask for a pay day right away. You'll get shot down. So you start off asking for yeses on little things. And then once you get your mark compromising herself on little things, you progress to big things. How can she say no? She's already said yes so many times, and you're her new trusted advisor, right? And then at one point she wakes up and realizes she's in danger. You're not who you said you were. She's in over her head. But she can't get out because she's already ceded so much of her power to you."
Harry takes another drag. "That's a classic example of how murderers and rapists court their victims, by the way. I'm preparing you now, because you'll hear this story a lot when you interview witnesses. But you see this psychological breakdown among many people who come in contact with evil, whether they're victims or willing participants. There's always a seduction process."
"And then people die?"
"Not always, no. Sometimes, the evil is so powerful that the mark chooses to join evil's team. You never heard that Nietzsche quote? I memorized that shit. Nietzche said that whoever fights monsters should see to it he doesn't become a monster himself."
"Like Darth Vader?" Even I can telling I'm smirking.
Harry scowls. "I'm serious, smartass. You don't know the depths to which humanity can sink, and I promise you, they didn't teach you this at the Academy. I'm giving you a crash course in the nature of good and evil, okay? You need to know the face of your enemy, and it is us."
"Coffee?" a young voice chirps at my elbow.
I look up at the waitress and blink. It's Sarah in a starched uniform. She winks at me, and the world goes dark.
I'm carrying Rodriguez through Kabul. Abimana, huffing behind me. Blood, a river of it, on my face and in my mouth. Oh God, not this memory. Anything, anything, but this.
"Toby." Sarah, the wandering ghost, whispering in my ear. "Take us someplace else."
"How?" I bark, hysterical. Abimana utters a question about my sanity.
My sister is relentless. "What's your happiest memory?"
And then we're gone.
I sit behind Cassie in the hospital bed for hours, rubbing her shoulders and cradling her belly, and I walk her up and down the corridor outside while she groans and cries. I can't believe women have been giving birth for millions of years. How do they do it and not die? Seriously. I'm a nervous wreck, and I'm not even the one in labor.
Once she's finally dilated, the end comes fast. The doctors shout encouragement as Cassie bears down, and inch by inch our daughter slides into the world in a purple, slippery mess.
We've done a lot of research and prepared ourselves for the delivery room, so I know it can take a minute for a baby to start breathing on its own. But our daughter makes a choking noise that makes me jump ten feet into the air, and then she starts to wail.
"At least she's got strong lungs," I say warily to cover my nervousness. Cassie laughs too, anxious and exhausted.
"Looks good!" the lead doctor exclaimed as she cuts the cord. She swaddles our baby and places her on Cassie's breast.
My wife is openly crying. "Look at her! She's awake! Hi, baby." Our girl blinks at us with bleary eyes, stunned from the lights. "Take her, Toby."
Cassie hands me the baby, who whimpers before she catches my eyes, and then she stares at me in fascination. She's so little. I'm afraid I'll crush her. "Hi, little bird," I tell her. My voice chokes up. "Welcome to the world. I'm your daddy."
Now I remember why I wanted to live, even after Sarah disappeared, after Mom and Dad fell apart, after the countless wars, after everything. I found Sarah's dolls in our sad empty house, and I raised them. Swore I'd protect them and keep them safe and love them to pieces. That was my earliest memory. I wanted to be a father.
"Lucia," Cassie suggests.
I nod without taking my eyes off the infant in my arms. I can't stop weeping. "Lucia."
We're running down a street in Baghdad, Sarah and me. I'm in army fatigues and kevlar, but Sarah's only wearing jeans and a blouse. She'll be helpless against shrapnel. "We can't keep doing this!" I gasp. The tears are wet on my face from reliving Lucia's birth. "I can't take it! Why do we keep going back into a battle zone?"
"It's the memories that are the most powerful for you," Sarah gasps. "War was traumatizing. It's got a stronger hold on you than what you had for breakfast one day in high school."
I drop to my knees. Sarah is instantly at my side, trying to pull me up, but I only groan, "Can I die in a memory?"
"Well, you can't live without the mind."
"It's ... hard ... to breathe."
"Stress. Damn." She straightens up at the sound of approaching gunfire. "Toby, we're near the end. I'll take over from here, okay? Close your eyes and don't open them until I tell you to. Okay? Promise me. Promise!"
"Promise," I mutter. My vision's hazy and I'm going down again.
Sarah's already spirited us away.
Pitter patter of little feet. It sounds like cats running around a room. I hear things opening and slamming shut. Doors? Drawers? My eyes are shut. All I hear are the noises. Something small scurries over my foot. One of those cats. When I try to kick it, it hisses and laughs like a child as it darts away.
A window bangs open and a gust of wind ruffles my hair. I'm curled up on a floor. I can feel the carpet beneath my cheek.
Sarah, high-pitched and frightened. "You're him, aren't you? You're the Goblin King. I want my brother back, if it's all the same."
And a familiar menacing voice purrs, "What's said is said."
The carpet is gone. I'm lying on stone. I hear a girl shrieking nearby.
"Eyes closed, Toby."
"What's going on?"
"Don't worry. We're going through my memories the rest of the way. I'm trying to make it fast."
"Is that you screaming?"
"I was just frustrated. I'm okay."
I hear a rapid, hushed conversation. Sarah of the past, speaking with someone very small. I swear I hear the other party say he's just a worm, but maybe I'm imagining things. I'm worn out and woozy. It's hard to focus on anything.
"Sleep, Toby," Sarah says gently.
I relax against the stone with a weary sigh ... but then we're off again.
We flit in and out of a dozen memories, some of them only lasting seconds. I open my eyes once when I hear a beast howling in pain. We're in a dark forest. What the fuck. This doesn't look like Jersey. I can smell the earth and rot under my fingernails.
I open my eyes again at the sound of unearthly music. It's like a horror movie version of Amadeus. I haul myself into a sitting position with a groan. I'm sitting in a ballroom, but nobody sees me. How could they? They're dressed in courtly clothes and freaky masks, waltzing in time to some horrible music.
The sight of the Goblin King dancing with Sarah makes me flinch. Full body recoil. I want to vomit. Run, Sarah, run. Don't let him touch you.
I feel Sarah at my side before I see her, and when I look up, she's furious - like flesh about to fall off her face furious. "I told you not to look!" she hisses. Then she snaps her fingers and before I can say anything I'm falling asleep ...
Sarah, beware. I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.
Generous? What have you done that's generous?
Lucia. Where's Lucia? Am I still sleeping? I'll be late for work. Wake up, Toby.
I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.
Kingdom is great ... damn! I can never remember that line.
"Toby! Toby we have to go! Get up!"
Oh God. Groggy. Was I drooling? Suddenly Sarah is pulling me up by my arms and pushing me forward. We take off at a run. Just like being back on deployment, right? There's no light here. It's like that between place we started at, only less musty. Animals scurry around in the shadows in the furthest corner of my eye and vanish when I look at them straight again. Not animals. I don't know what they are, but they make terrible faces like a horde of awful children, and they giggle and snarl as we pass them.
Sarah! they shriek like a klaxon alarm. King! King, king, king!
I kick one as we pass. It vanishes yelping into the dark.
The ground trembles beneath us. Behind us, a terrible noise approaches like a train in a wind tunnel.
"Don't look back!" Sarah screams. "Run! Run!"
There's enough light to see the door. It's an old door with an ornate handle, and Sarah and I hit it so hard that the wood spits up dust. We pull it open and slam it shut behind us.
We gasp for breath and tremble in the light of the throne room. At least, I think that's what it is. An ornate round throne sits in a corner. It's all sharp edges and made of an ugly material, maybe stone or horn. A pit in the center of the room boasts little else but bones and feathers. It's Saddam Hussein's old palace, if old Vic killed animals in his living room. The place has a pungent odor to it, like a wolf's den.
"Not here!" Sarah cries. She pulls me to another door.
A torture chamber. Only word for it. I spy a rack, a table with restraints, and a long row of whips and knives before Sarah's rushed me to a new door.
She isn't even trying to shut my eyes anymore. My sister's in a full-blown panic, as if the devil's on our heels. Maybe he is.
We trip our way through a door with a brass animal head. Judging from the teeth, it might be a wolf. Then we're through the door and slamming it shut.
This room is dark like the others, but it has a quiet ambiance that everywhere else lacked. This place feels stuffy and smells like pine resin and musk. The only sources of light are a fireplace and a few candles, but I manage to see bookshelves, an ornate curtained bed, and a writing desk. Embers from the fire pop and hiss in the silence of the room, broken only by the faint but hard, rhythmic slap of flesh on flesh, and a moan, and a soft voice whispering in the dark: Tell me again I have no power over you.
For just a second, I'm so shocked at the sight of the Goblin King that I stop running. He doesn't see me, because his back's to us. The fireplace illuminates the harsh fury of him, and then I see the source of his excitement. I'd recognize her hair anywhere. He's got Sarah bent over the desk, and he's ... he's ...
My sister's tugging me by the hand again. No time for questions. Numb and wordless, I follow.
The next door has the same wolf's head worked in brass. It leads us back into the exact same room, with one key difference:
Sarah and the Goblin King lie crumpled on the floor, separated by several feet as if they just tumbled off the desk in different directions. Sarah sports a bloody nose, but whatever happened, the Goblin King got the worse end of the deal. His clothes are disheveled, and a wound slashed from his mouth to his ear has soaked through his shirt and glued the fabric to his skin. Where I'm from, it's the sort of injury that means a visit to the coroner, but I guess the Goblin King's a little sturdier than us mere mortals.
Sarah holds a letter opener in one hand. The coldness in her eyes could stop a heart.
For his part, the Goblin King just laughs and laughs and laughs. He's laughing his sick fucking ass off, to be honest. Then he reclines on one elbow without a care that he's bleeding out on the rug and casually remarks, "Well played. I'll be sure to bind your hands next time."
It's the last door, but I don't know it until we collide with it. I struggle with the doorknob for a second until I realize it's locked, and then I recognize the numbers on the plate. It's my apartment. Home.
I whip out my keys and wrench the door open, pushing Sarah in before me. As soon as we're inside, I slam the door shut and slide the bolt home. We collapse against each other on the floor of my living room.
"Safe?" I ask.
"Yeah. We're out."
"Out out? Out of the memories?"
"Yes." Sarah sounds tired on a soul level, like a dish towel that's been wrung too tight.
Not a little scared, I crack the door just a little and half expect to peer in on another torture chamber. Instead, frigid air filters in, and with it the rattle and hum of the elevator creaking past our floor. Good ol' New York. Thank God.
"What now?" Sarah wonders aloud.
"Now we kill him." I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to it.
Sarah has gone very still. "A bullet might do it. Faeries don't like iron, in the stories."
"You don't know?"
"You think he'd tell me his weaknesses? I've only been able to observe and guess. I couldn't try anything myself. As long as I belong to him, I can't hurt him." She sees my look. "Undermine him, sabotage him, wound him, sure. But kill him? He'll always be stronger than me, and he'll hold my leash as long as he lives, Toby. I can't be the one who pulls the trigger. His magic would never allow it."
"You won't have to."
Sarah is happier than I've ever seen her. "I'll check on Lucia," she says, bounding to her feet.
"No." I move with an alacrity I thought I lost in my twenties, jumping up and already moving down the hall. "I'm her father, and Kimmy doesn't know you. Let me handle this." Sarah doesn't argue, but she follows close on my heels.
The door to Lucia's bedrooms groans open ... and then I stop. I can't pick up Lucia, because the Goblin King's holding her.
He sits comfortably in the rocking chair next to the crib, my baby snuggled in his arms. The GQ poster boy is gone: the pinstriped suit, the long overcoat, the polished shoes, the coiffed haircut. Now he looks like a villain in a fairytale, all black armor with spikes on the shoulders and tangled blond hair, like something out of a Dracula movie. His head is bent over Lucia, murmuring softly, as if he's just lulled my baby to sleep.
I've gone completely still on the threshold of the room, as if turned to stone. I don't even breathe.
Sarah walks straight into my back with a grunt. "Toby, what-no!"
Only then does the Goblin King sternly look up. "Shhh, you two. You'll wake the baby."
There's movement in the corner of my eye. Sarah darts under my shoulder with the speed of a jackrabbit and unholsters my Sig Sauer. I catch the movement too late and grab her wrist, throwing her into the wall. We lose precious seconds wrestling for the pistol. I'm far taller than she is, and I try to pop her in the diaphragm ... but then Sarah breaks my hand.
I honestly don't know how she does it. There's no way she's stronger than me. Yet I hear the pop in my thumb, and my mouth yells, "Fuck!" and I hit the floor.
Sarah stands over me, looking taller in the last few seconds. She points the gun at the Goblin King ... and Lucia.
His Majesty quirks a little smile at the corner of his mouth. "I know for a fact you've never fired a gun before, my dear. I'm disinclined to trust your aim to finish me off. You'll hit your niece."
"You bastard!" Sarah spits, and then she pulls the safety. Experienced or not, she knows enough.
I expect Sarah to pull the trigger. And I wait and I wait and I wait. And after a second (or has it been an hour?) I realize that Sarah hasn't moved. We've all gone rather still. The watch on my wrist has stopped ticking. I can't move at all. It's not that I don't want to, but it's as if the synapses between my mind and my muscles have disconnected.
"Well!" the Goblin King exclaims. "That was all rather exciting and pointless." He gets up and walks across the room, rocking Lucia as he goes. As he cradles my daughter in the crook of one arm, he casually pulls the pistol out of Sarah's frozen hands and pops it back into my holster. I catch a glimpse of his crooked smile as he turns away and resettles himself.
"So, now that we've moved beyond that silly display of hysterics," His Majesty says, "I'd like to continue, if you don't mind. Any objections?"
Of course, we say nothing.
"Wonderful." He cradles his chin in one hand and winks. "Continue."
Time unwinds again. Our bodies return to life, and I pick myself up off the floor with a wince. Sarah trembles with rage, but she doesn't move. If it were possible, her gaze would incinerate the Goblin King on the spot.
"What have you learned tonight, Detective?"
My shoulders are heaving. Adrenaline courses through my veins, but I don't know what to do with it. "What do you mean?"
"The lack of gratitude must be a family trait. I've been teaching you from the moment we met, but you continue to observe and refuse to see. What have you learned about Sarah?"
"Don't listen to him!" Sarah cries.
"Here is what I see, Detective." The Goblin King almost sounds sincere. "I see a shade of a human being who died long ago and who's since lost whatever empathy she once held for others - in common parlance, a psychopath. I see a woman who's jealous of the life you have and who has stalked you for as long as you've been alive, trying to regain that life she could have once had before she flushed it down the toilet. And I see a man with so many doubts about this sister of his that he refused to leave her alone with his daughter, even as he offered to kill me for her. How am I doing so far? Am I on the right track?"
"Toby, he's the villain!" Sarah cries. "Of course he lies!"
"I am a villain, and I am a liar," the Goblin King says smoothly. "I will never disown that. But what's more dangerous: the villain who admits he's a liar, or the villain who denies her nature? Who do you trust more, or distrust least? It's all the same, in the end. Where's the baby, Detective? The little cherub named Toby who vanished tonight? Sarah claims to have killed the Boogeyman responsible, yet we haven't seen an infant, have we?"
Sarah's voice has gone raspy. "I killed the nightmare in the between place. He could be anywhere between here and the Labyrinth. I don't know what he did with the baby."
"How convenient," the Goblin King sneers. "An unnatural girl with an unnatural talent for the blade just happened to kill a nightmare, yet we can't find the body."
"You make it sound all wrong when it isn't!" Sarah yells. "Yes, I'm strange and I'm awful and nobody would ever mistake me for human anymore, and it's all because of you!"
"Yes, me. And who was it that invited me in, Precious?"
Sarah's face slides shut like a mask.
"Ah, cat got our tongue? Let us ask the world's greatest detective. Tobias, how do you feel about what Sarah did to you?"
"What the hell are you talking about?" I demand. "And Jesus Christ, give me my daughter."
The Goblin King's face lights up with feigned delight. "He doesn't know. You never told him. Sarah, you sly devil! Why don't you share with your brother how I entered your happy little family unit, hmm?"
"You kidnapped Toby! I rescued him!"
"You could set up your own PR firm, Sarah, considering how well you believe your own lies. Yes, I took your brother, but who was it that wished him away to me in the first place?"
"What's he talking about?" I ask. To my shock, Sarah's suddenly become very small. Her shoulders are hunched like she's trying to disappear.
"... I ... Toby ... you have to understand," she whispers. "I was fifteen. Dad had just remarried. I hated your mom. I hated taking care of a baby. In a fit of anger - and it really was temporary insanity, I swear! - I wished ... I wished you away to the Goblin King."
I feel like I've been punched. "What? You wished me away to this asshole?"
"I got you back!" she cries. "I went underground and fought for you. I tried, Toby. I tried so hard and in the end it wasn't enough. I saved you but I couldn't come home. Don't hate me for one stupid mistake. I lost the last forty years. I lost my family, I lost the chance for a normal life. Haven't I paid enough?"
"Do you know what's truly sad, Detective?" the Goblin King murmurs. "She got all the way through to the end and was set to leave me forever. And then she still accepted my gift." At my questioning glance, he holds out one hand. A crystal ball appears and floats down, popping away like a bubble at the first press of his finger. "She defeated me, and I was falling away, and at the last moment she still reached out for her dreams as they fell into her hand. So I gave them to her, and in exchange, I got her soul. I took her home with me and became her slave. Or she became mine. It's all the same."
"What were the dreams?"
He shrugs. "The usual things. Eternal pleasure. I don't think she's come to enjoy it as much as she thought she would. Wouldn't you agree, Beloved?"
Sarah looks regretful, ashamed, and enraged all at once. "I never would have done it if I'd known what it meant."
"Few would," the Goblin King muses. "That's why they call it hell. Detective." His words ring loud and strong like a bell calling the faithful to Sunday mass, though he never raises his voice. "Do you remember my earlier offer? Have you made a final decision? Choose carefully. And before you do, you might want to consider the ramifications. As long as Sarah is connected to your world, it will suffer, and so will your family."
My hackles go up. "Is that a threat?"
"I don't need to threaten you. On some level, you already understand, but denial feels safer. Let us speak plainly: almost everyone you've ever loved has died. Sarah has inherited many things from me including, I'm sad to say, my possessiveness. If she can't have your life, or you, she'll settle for taking it out on those you care about."
This statement has a decidedly poor reaction on Sarah. If it were possible, I think her head would spin straight off her neck. She practically froths at the mouth. "Liar! Liar! You son of a bitch! For all Toby knows, you killed everybody and are trying to pin it on me!"
"Possible," the Goblin King admits, "but as we've already covered, I own up to being a liar and a fiend. The question isn't which of us is the villain, my dear, since it's clear we both are. The question is, which of us has the most to gain from wrecking havoc in your brother's life? It's obviously you."
"You're so manipulative! You twist everything around no matter how hard I try! It's not fair!"
His Majesty barks a laugh, as if he's in on a terrible joke. There's little humor in that laugh. "Detective, what's your decision? I grow tired, and I wish to tie up loose ends so I can go home. I'm sure you do, too."
Sarah frantically shakes her head at me.
The Goblin King is quiet and thoughtful, almost sad. "You're an officer of the law, Tobias. You deal in theory and evidence. You'll never know the truth for certain, and you're working with two unreliable witnesses. Given all this, who do you believe?"
I don't move an inch. "Give me my daughter, Goblin King."
"I will, once you renounce your claim on your sister. Do it, and I'll give you both a daughter and a wife." He smiles, devious and charming all at once. That there is a very wicked man. "Now, do you give up all ties to your dead sister and leave her to my world?"
"Yes," I whisper without hesitation, and Sarah screams so loud that the electricity in the apartment flickers. I barely notice. Was it this easy for Judas Iscariot? Like breathing?
Sarah won't stop screaming. Pure hysterics ("NO! NO!"). As if in a dream, I go to the Goblin King and he smiles and gently hands me Lucia, who hasn't stirred once despite all the chaos in her bedroom, though she kicks a little in her sleep. I can't use my broken thumb, so I cradle her to my chest with one arm and immediately feel our hearts beat in unison.
Little bird, I will always keep you safe to my last breath. I swear it. Oblivious to my thoughts, Lucia sticks her thumb in her mouth.
I've sat on the floor without realizing it. I look up to see the Goblin King still in the rocking chair, but Sarah's in his lap. She doesn't look like she's there willingly, but he's snaked an arm around her waist and effectively pinned her in place. Her cheeks are bone white and her eyes are black smudges, though her face is swollen from the tears. Otherwise, she looks remarkably unhuman again.
"I hate you, Jareth," she hiccups.
"If I can't have your love, I'll settle for your hate. It's close enough to passion as to make little difference to me." He nibbles her ear and laughs when she flinches. "Home awaits. The children miss you."
I ignore Jareth and look at what remains of my sister. I feel hollow. This isn't a victory. It's a burial. "Sarah, I'm so sorry."
Sarah draws herself up. Despite her tears, and her hands pinned to her sides, you might be able to mistake her for a queen. "Don't forget me, Toby."
"I won't," I promise.
The Goblin King chuckles, "Liar." And then he snaps his fingers.
"Toby? Baby, wake up. You're dreaming."
I gasp awake to silence. It lasts a second before I feel fingers combing through my hair, and a voice murmurs in my ear, "You were moaning in your sleep again, baby. Another nightmare."
My vision clears as I fully settle back into my body. Cassie lies very close to my face. She looks worried, but she smiles when my eyes open. "Morning, stranger," she says happily.
I respond by cupping her face with one hand. The other skims under her nightshirt and grabs her ass.
Cassie jumps and makes an indignant sound. "Toby! What are you doing?"
"Baby, let me look at you."
"You act like you haven't seen me in a week!"
Usually I'd respond with a quip, try to be funny. Something's wrong though. I just shake my head and feel my eyes water with unshed tears. "God, you're beautiful. I'm so glad you're here."
Cassie clasps me by the wrists. "Toby, what happened? Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, I, uh ..." I pinch the bridge of my nose and frantically wipe my eyes. "I dunno. I had a nightmare, I think."
"You were yelling in your sleep. That's why I woke you. What did you dream about?"
I don't know. That's the crazy thing. I had a dream about ... something. But the more I think about it, the more impossible it is to recall it, as if the dream has turned to smoke. It dances once on the wind and vanishes into the ether, and with it goes all the emotion associated with it. I'd felt fear and grief, and a burning desire to come home. Which is stupid, since obviously I'm home right now. This must be one of those dreams with deep Jungian connotations that my college professors talked about. Now the emotions seem shallow and false, like they belonged to someone else. My heartrate steadies a bit.
After a very long pause, during which I've turned the memory of the dream over and over in my mind without being able to make sense of it, I reply: "I don't know. It mustn't have been important." I'm holding Cassie in my arms and stroking her cheek as I say this. We're so close that I can count her eyelashes. "Have I ever told you that you're the most beautiful woman in the world, and the light and joy of my life?"
Cassie lazily closes her eyes. "Not today yet, but I always love when you do. Keep going."
I chuckle under my breath, kiss her tenderly at the corner of her mouth, then full on the lips. I'm wondering how quickly I can get her clothes off when the bedroom door opens and our children run in. Or rather, Lucia runs in and Ben follows on all fours. At three years old, Lucia's figured out how to get Benny out of his crib. Our daughter lands on the bed on the first jump, leaving Ben to hold on to the side of the mattress and make impatient noises. I'm put to mind of the cat indicating she wants to be picked up.
As if on cue, the cat saunters into the room, meowing for her breakfast.
I wipe the last of the tears from my face and crack a smile. "Well! We got a full house this morning! I guess we have to get up now."
"Daddy, we're going to the fireworks today, right?" Lucia asks.
"Uh uh uh uh!" Ben says, jumping up and down as he clings to the bed. He squeals as I pick him up.
"I don't know," I say, feigning uncertainty. "What do you say, Mother? Shall we go to the fireworks?"
"Yeah!" Lucia cries. "Please! Pretty please!"
Ben burbles and laughs.
"I think we can do that," Cassie says, and Lucia cheers. "But breakfast first, okay? Aunt Elsie's family will be here soon."
"Central Park is my favorite place on earth."
"Oh?" I stroke Cassie's arm. We're lying on the grass of the park, the remains of our picnic nearby. I hear my children and their cousins shrieking in the distance as they play with Elsie and David.
"Yep," Cassie says. "We had our third date here, after we met at Columbia. I still can't believe how cocky you were, walking into class that day. You were such a show off."
"I had to impress you."
"It's a good park. My frat brothers and I had our 10 year reunion barbeque here a few years back, too. You know, that was when I finally decided to go full time with the photography thing and leave architecture for good."
"Really? You made that decision here?"
"Sure did. At the time, I figured I'd do weddings. I didn't expect I'd end up getting invited to photograph the governor of New York, or the presidential inauguration."
"Or get a Pulitzer."
"Would you change any of it? Done anything differently?"
I nuzzle her cheek. "Are you kidding? Never."
We have a few hours before the fireworks start, and the women are starving, so we decide to stroll over to our favorite pub for an early dinner. Ben's strapped to my chest in his harness and happily burbles away as we walk. "You don't mind, do you?" Cassie asks her sister. "I don't have any groceries in the house. Toby's parents are coming tomorrow and I still have to go shopping."
"Of course not," Elsie says.
David slaps me on the shoulder as we stroll out of the park. "So, bro, what's this I hear about you going to Afghanistan?"
I puff up. "Yeah, it's crazy! Time magazine wants an exclusive on the rebuilding of Kabul."
"Not sure. I think it's the capital. It got pretty trashed during the war."
"We're still discussing it," Cassie interrupts. "It's not very safe over there yet. I don't know how I feel about Toby running off into a war zone."
"Former war zone," I add.
"Just be glad he's not a cop," David says.
Elsie nudges him. "Sweetheart, you're not helping."
"Sheesh! Sorry.Toby's just used to getting what he wants because he's an only child."
"Why do you think we had two kids?" I joke back. "I don't want them spoiled like me. Let them learn to share with other people, you know?"
Everyone playfully bickers as we exit Central Park on the north side, carefully sidestepping the crowd of people coming out for the Fourth of July. The summer air is hot and cloying. For some reason, I stop. My family continues without me, talking and laughing. Joggers and cyclists swerve around me without a second thought, like a school of salmon swimming upstream.
Frowning, I turn around.
There's a girl standing several feet behind me. She has long dark hair and could be pretty, if she weren't so wan. Her eyes are green. Cassie always said I had an eye for the details. It helps me be a better photographer. I don't know how old she is, but she's got to be in high school.
Ben burbles again at my chest. I jiggle him as I frown at the girl. "Can I help you, miss?"
The girl doesn't respond, but her hands flutter up to cover her swollen stomach. The blouse doesn't do a good job of hiding the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Definitely third trimester.
Suddenly, a man's exited the park and come up behind the girl, slipping an arm through hers. He's got tousled blond hair and the sort of thin, chiseled look that was all the rage in yuppie fashion in the 1980s. He wears a light summer suit and nice shoes. When he smiles, it's a very crooked smile. "There you are, my dear. You mustn't run off like that."
He says this in a very gentle, paternal way, then winks at me. "Lovely day out. Hard to believe they have an entire holiday dedicated to liberty, isn't it?" He says this last bit to the girl as if sharing a private joke, but the girl doesn't laugh.
I don't know why, but this guy gives me the creeps.
"Honey," I ask the girl in my kindest dad voice, "are you okay? Do you need help?"
"No," the girl replies. She sounds very calm when she says it, or resigned. I can't tell. But she grips the man's arm a little tighter as she says it.
The man winks at me and turns around, leading them away into the North Woods. The rest of the crowd is avoiding the shadows of the trees, so it's easy to follow the pair as they leave the heat of the city sidewalk and go away, away, away, into the forest.
"Toby?" Startled, I turn to find Cassie watching me with imploring eyes. "Everything okay? We're waiting for you."
"Oh, yeah," I say. "Ben and I got distracted."
I don't know. There was something important, but I can't recall it now. I guess it wasn't so important after all. Oh, well.
I take Cassie by the arm and escort her away from the park while Ben offers a running commentary in baby talk on everyone who passes us. I spy Lucia further up the block shrieking with her cousins while her poor aunt and uncle try to keep everyone in line. Cassie hooks one hand around my elbow and leans on my shoulder. "This has been a great day."
"Yeah," I agree.
All is well.
Chapter 10: Notes
WARNING: The below contains spoilers. Don't read if you haven't finished the story or if you enjoy drawing your own conclusions.
RESOURCES & NOTES
Here's a short list of resources used in "Eulogy":
The Spanish Lords are a fictional gang from Grand Theft Auto and are themselves based on the real life Latin Kings.
The (unseen) eye-eating monster is the Corinthian from Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel. Jareth's comment about the nightmare being a dark mirror for humanity is a direct quote from that series.
Harry's discussion about the nature of good and evil comes in part from repeat readings of "The Gift of Fear" (by Gavin de Becker). Should be required reading for its deep analysis on how to predict violent behavior.
While writing, I listened to the Cure and NIN. It helped set the mood.
Q + A
I've had some thoughtful conversations with readers while this story ran, so I'm sharing them here for anyone who wants more to read. I've condensed some of the following questions since a few of them have been asked more than once.
Q. When does this story take place?
Around 2023, if you figure Toby's about 38 and he was born in 1985 or thereabouts. That means this story takes place in the not too distant future.
I chose this setting for "Eulogy" because the menace of our modern era fit the tone perfectly. In a sense, the Goblin King is representative of the new world order after 9/11. He's not unlike the terrorists and warlords Toby fought overseas.
Q. What is Sarah to the Goblin King? Why does he want her so much?
Jareth views Sarah as a possession. One reader referred to Sarah as his "wife", which I thought was interesting since that would require Jareth viewing her as a person. Sociopaths aren't capable of love, and the Goblin King is certainly a sociopath (and a sadist). I think Sarah was the first person to ever come so close to defeating him, which annoys and delights him in equal measure.
In addition to Jareth's power, Sarah appears to share some of his sociopathic traits.
Q. Is Jareth hitting on Toby?
Jareth isn't flirting to convey sexual interest. He simply likes to play with his food and assert his dominance. It confuses and unnerves Toby, and the more unbalanced Toby is, the easier it is for Jareth to reach his goals.
Q. Why doesn't anyone in this story see Jareth for what he is?
A true answer: magic.
A truer answer: monsters exist all around us, but we almost never see them unless we know what to look for. Ted Bundy was VERY charming. It's how he got his victims and evaded capture for so long.
Q. What's wrong with Sarah's eyes?
The eyes are the window to the soul. Sarah has lost both.
Q. Why is Toby's train of thought sometimes difficult to follow? He bounces around a lot as he tells the story.
Toby does bounce around a lot, especially when he's talking about something emotional. The storytelling becomes increasingly erratic at the end when he and Sarah are trying to escape Jareth by literally fleeing through Toby's memories, with scenes jumping from one to another in quick succession. If it feels dizzying to read it, imagine writing it.
The lack of focus and the constant switch in the narrative was my attempt at showing what it's like to live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When you suffer from PTSD, you often feel as if you're existing in multiple levels of reality at once, with innocuous everyday things triggering the memory of a traumatic event. You exist in the world but you're not fully present in it. The past is never fully gone. You're constantly reliving it.
Q. Is this the last story you've written that's set in this timeline?
I wrote a prequel that shows what happened to Sarah when she first disappeared when Toby was a baby. Due to explicit content, you can only find it at AO3 under my name and the title "Elegy." Warning: it's not for the faint of heart.
Thanks for reading. I'll update these notes if more questions come up.