It’s raining in Jamrock. The canvas above you is suffocating; blue sky blotted out with gray. The paint is still wet and glistening. A decades-old scent of apricot fills the space where you stand, crocodile shoes planted on the secant line of the sidewalk. Your apartment block is secured to a conveyor line of other apartment blocks. This urban sprawl bisects the ring road bypass like an arterial obstruction.
On the radiographic map of Jamrock, your home is the cancer, Harry. I’m sorry to tell you that it looks terminal.
A souped-up Coupris Kineema belches vapour behind you. Its owner, Lieutenant Kitsuragi, is pretending not to watch you. He waits at your side, hands folded delicately behind his back. He can’t repress the neurological impulse to squint each time a raindrop strikes his glasses. Otherwise, he is still. His engine is ticking as it cools.
Up the stairs in front of you, a thin green door separates you from whatever Pandoran calamity awaits beyond. The paint is chipping.
“I think I live here,” you say.
“Yes,” Kim confirms. “That seems like a logical deduction.”
His eyes dart from the key you’re holding to the plaque on the door. This skinny, two-story duplex belongs to you. It’s where you washed up after Voyager. You know it in your soul because your necktie is pressing into your Adam’s apple and fearfully wheezing. Don’t open it, you really don’t want to see what’s in there, it’s only going to make you sick and tired with the weight of things.
The lieutenant shifts, conveying something unspoken through the angle of his body: are you going to open the door, or what?
If you back out now, he will count it among your (surplus other) failings. You could kick the door in. Start negotiations with the upper hand.
You stride forward and plunge the key into the lock. It clicks open; the door swings wide, inviting you into the void. A rush of chilled air greets you in a heavy sigh. You shudder.
Welcome home, Harry. Didn’t someone say that out loud, once, in a voice like a dream? Back on Marvel Hill?
Speaking of, there’s a small mountain of papers on the floor, just inside the threshold. The mail slot has been jammed in your absence. The postman’s frustration with you is evident by the repeated battering of the most recent envelopes on the pile.
Before you is the dim, slender maw of the hallway, coated in peeling wallpaper. It’s striped. A staircase hugs the right wall like a jagged incisor. The only light is a pale, gray sliver somewhere at the back of the throat; a window left uncovered in a room you suspect will be the kitchen – from the smell.
It’s somewhere just past mouldy, as though the fungus has grown and died in the time you’ve been away. Not to worry, Harry. There’s a whole mélange of smells coming from elsewhere in the house, as well. Notes of unwashed laundry and body odour are stuffed into this aromatic bouquet.
It isn’t all bad. There’s that lingering smell of apricot, a honey-sweet current to undercut the pungent scent of whatever animal has nested here – namely, you.
Truth be told, this could have been much worse.
It’s more cluttered than filthy. Discarded clothes, papers, knick-knacks stacked on every surface -- the person who lives here is a grease trap, clinging to every bit of detritus that floats through their life whether it’s necessary or not. Not like a collector, you understand. Like a person with extreme executive dysfunction. Like a person who empathizes a bit too much when other people throw out the garbage. Like a person who thinks if they collect enough abandoned things, someday someone might show them the same kindness.
This isn’t deductive reasoning any more, Harry. It’s just something you know about yourself.
Behind you, Kim clears his throat. “Detective?”
He’s waiting for the all-clear. You glance behind you to find him hovering near the doorway, sheltered from the rain, pretending he isn’t curious about your living conditions.
“This must be the place,” you say, pointing to the avalanche of mail at your feet.
Several of the envelopes have some variant of your name on them. The evidence is undeniable.
The lieutenant notes them and gives you an unreadable look. It’s clear he’s trying to look past you into the apartment, hoping you won’t notice.
“Would you like some company tomorrow?” he asks. “I could help with…”
His gaze lands somewhere just over your shoulder. There’s a garish yellow dress shirt draped over the banister like a nylon snake skin. He is too polite to call it “the mess”.
“You’d do that?”
He shrugs lightly, still not quite looking at you.
“We’re partners. I have the day. You might need help.”
Three infallible reasons to continue to be around you. Whatever you do, don’t question them. He doesn’t want to say out loud that he’s worried about you.
You worry people, Harry.
“That would be great,” you say. “Thanks, Kim.”
He lets you see him smile, three parts relief and one part fondness. He’d be upset if anything happened to you, and not just because he’d be left with the mess.
“I’ll stop by first thing in the morning,” he tells you, then hesitates. “Try to… get some rest.”
Fitful tossing in sweat-stained sheets. A dream you can’t escape. It’s the grease trap; you’re the detritus. A half-forgotten expression flits through your thoughts, trite and true: there’s no rest for the wicked.
Your shoulder twinges, sutures straining. A phantom bullet sends a pulse through your trapezius, and you grimace. “I’ll give it my best shot.”
Hilarious turn of phrase , your wounded body seems to hiss at you. Lieutenant Kitsuragi acknowledges your words with a nod and turns on his heel, leaving you alone in your apartment. You shut the door.
The rumble of a radiator fills the enclosed space. Outside, the rain picks up its tempo. In your mind’s eye, there is a deluge of water rolling through the streets of Jamrock, turning thick and sluggish with her filth, dripping slop down her drains. Your spine tingles.
Don’t you find it problematic to refer to the city as a she? Wake up, you have work to do.
You pull the dress shirt from the banister and fold it under your arm, mustering your courage. Your weight makes the stairs creak as you make your way upstairs to the bedroom. There’s a window at the back of the second-floor landing, grimy and clouded by the warm air trapped between panes. You see the tips of a tree branch creeping into view, the only organic shape in the frame. There is another set of ancient houses-turned-flats next to yours; close enough that you can look down and into the neighbouring kitchen.
Beyond that, the view is purely industrial; factories and smokestacks stretching to the horizon. Charnel houses where machines lay wasting. Miles beyond that, a black river, and beyond that, an old, re-purposed mill where Precinct 41 hums with life. Then Martinaise, then the Insulidinian Ocean, then nothing. Nothing at all.
Your bedroom is on the right. It looks like an apothecary; somewhere underneath the bottles and cans there is cheap, dirty beige carpeting. The apricot smell is strongest here. Your bed is a snake pit piled with clothing, the garish brothers and sisters of the garment tucked under your arm. The slatted door of your closet is open. Inside, it is a demented carnival fun-house of New Era clothing. Disco inferno. You do not own a normal shirt.
This is not a bedroom, it’s a mastaba. A collection of prized possessions, meant to entomb you so that the afterlife can welcome you with a parade of exotic liquors and silk shirts.
You take some time to clear off the bed, hanging your clothing as neatly as possible in the explosion that is the closet. This small concession to order is a relief; a little boost to your morale. Like ticking another box off the list. Another task wrung through the infernal engine and churned out, complete.
You gather the empty bottles and cans into a corner, building a neat magpie nest of glass and aluminium. It’s not clean but it’s better, bringing the cramped burial chamber some much-needed symmetry. Parting the heavy curtains, you permit the natural light to break into the room.
It’s almost livable.
There is a minuscule adjacent bathroom. You step inside and examine your face in the mirror. It’s no longer entirely a rictus grin. The Expression seems to be your default state, but you can make other ones in spite of all the cells you’ve burst with alcohol. You prod at the corners of your mouth, watching your reflection for signs of life.
A week or so without drinking has done you marginal good. You now look like a potentially recovering late-stage alcoholic.
Turning on the sink makes the whole flat shudder and whine as the piping groans to life. You splash your face with water, pressing some between your lips and against your gums. It tastes metallic, like coins. Or a gun barrel.
Water drips from your facial hair. You’ve looked worse, Blue-Eyes.
Come to think of it, you haven’t had the chance to really assess the damage you sustained outside the Whirling-in-Rags. You’ve felt the aftermath, sure, and a half-buried sense memory tells you that you can expect an angry, ugly wasteland of red skin and brutal scarring beneath your blazer. But you haven’t seen it with your own eyes.
Do you really want to? There’s a fearful whisper in your head. You don’t have to confront the fragility of your decaying frame head-on. You could go on pretending you’re intact under there.
You shrug off your jacket and unbutton your dress shirt, rolling it off. Even that makes your muscles ache. Slower. You remove the dressing around your wounds and angle your shoulder toward the mirror. Your stomach churns.
If ever you needed evidence that all you are is soft meat in flimsy casing, here it is. A mottled, reddish, screaming mouth engulfs your shoulder where a bullet ripped through it. You stroke it delicately, your brain reconciling its image of you with the wreckage you see in the mirror. It’s the texture and shape of a map. Here, a radial burst of smooth, pink tissue around the bumpy point of entry. There, cavitation. And over there, a serrated row of sutures intersecting the deepest part of the wound, rendered by a hand experienced in field medicine.
You picture Lieutenant Kitsuragi piecing you back together on the street outside the Whirling, hands slipping in your blood. There’s a cocktail of adrenaline coursing through his system. “Not this time,” he says, perhaps. One day, I will return to your side.
Riding low on your pelvis is the second devastated continent. You can’t bring yourself to touch that one. Breathing hard, you replace your bandages and retreat to the bedroom in search of fresh clothes.
Dressing yourself consumes the last of your volition. It reminds you with its death rattle that the lieutenant will be here tomorrow. He will assess your progress and find you wanting.
The warning is not enough to stop your exhausted body from dragging you to your bed. The path of cleanliness you’ve carved through the bedroom is enough for now; you feel almost comfortable as you sink into the sheets. The smell of you is foreign and familiar; that happens when you’re away from home for days. There’s a faint hint of cigarette smoke and the scent of your own sweat. It’s not terrible; it smells human.
Kim did tell you to rest. You push your face into the pillow and listen to the rain.
Oh, but wait, Harry. It’s not that easy. Before you go to sleep, there are a number of outstanding thoughts to address. It’ll only take an hour or so, and you can do it systematically. Think of it as one of your lists.
Number One: It Could Be Worse. Earlier you said it could, and it turns out this was not a rhetorical observation. When Kim was here, it was easier to assess the situation objectively, like investigating the scene of a crime you didn’t commit. But now Kim isn’t here. This is your kingdom, sire. It’s inherently subjective. And subjectively, it’s depressing. You can feel it draining the life out of you. The entire flat is saturated in a viscous layer of capitulation. You could suck on sadness here until you choke to death -- and evidently, that’s all you’ve been doing this whole time.
Number Two: The Disturbing Lack of Appropriate Clothing. You just want to bring it to your own attention that slapping a halogen watermark on all of your sleeves does not make the Guillaume le Million-inspired contents of your wardrobe into passable police-wear. Sometime soon, you’re going to have to acquire some clothes to wear to work. Ones you haven’t dunked into the ocean.
Number Three: The Kitchen Situation. You’re going to have to go in there eventually. It is certain to be terrible -- however, as you cannot subsist on your own sadness nor delay starvation indefinitely, you will be forced to go off in search of food at some point. There will come a reckoning at that time, and so you should fortify your resolve now.
Number Four: The Apricot Smell. You were fooling yourself before. She’s never been here, and you didn’t smell anything on the street but burning rubber and damp asphalt. You know that now because here in your tiny bedroom, you really do smell it. There’s a wisp of tutti-frutti scent wafting from the top drawer of the nightstand. You sad fuck.
There are simple solutions to all of these issues that will construct the framework of your day tomorrow. You just need to clean the flat, wash your clothes, scrub the kitchen, and check the drawer. Simple tasks to soothe your troubled thoughts; to impose order on chaos. Your ancient reptilian brain burbles happily. That’s the good stuff.
The sound of the rain outside is so, so close to wearing down the borders between being asleep and being awake; conscious and subconscious and even less conscious than that. Your thoughts are beginning to liquefy.
Check the drawer, Harry.
It’s more than an inkling. The thought is so potent it makes your throat contract. It drags you gasping into the cold clarity of the waking world. You twist your head away from the pillow and toward the nightstand. The light from the window has gone dim in the time you’ve been wallowing. Jamrock shifts from blue to black.
The nightstand was covered in bottles before you came along; now the only evidence is the dark little circles staining the wood. The drawer is slender and ominous. You worm your way toward it, breathing through your nose. Smells like a kiss on your jaw.
Your hand finds the handle and pulls, releasing a new wave of apricot over you. Two packets of tutti-frutti gum wink at you from inside, as though they expect you’ll ever need them. Next to them, a collection of drugs, some in prescription bottles and others in tightly sealed baggies. And then, the curling corners of a photograph.
Your eyes make it halfway up the slender figure of a woman in white before you slam the drawer shut.
You’re shaking. It’s another bullet; full hypovolemic shock. Not enough oxygen in your brain. Not enough oxygen in the world.
Get a grip on yourself.
You know what would help? The entire drawer full of pharmaceuticals you just uncovered. That’d put a tight cap on this night; shave the edges right off. But you don’t do that anymore, do you, Harry? Because you’re utterly and irredeemably boring now. Boring people only put other people to sleep.
You turn and pull the covers up to your chin. It’s a case; everything is a case. It’s just trees and riddles. It’s fucking impossible, you don’t see how the threads interconnect, and you always have more questions than answers. It doesn’t mean it will never end. You can close the book on this; you’ll have to. There isn’t an alternative anymore; you tried the other thing and the engine kept on churning.
Somebody kept you alive.
For that reason alone, you can at least try to sleep.
You roll, putting your back to the nightstand. Your shoulder aches in nothing but hard angles, but it's tolerable. Eventually, sleep manages to crack through the shell of your thoughts. And beyond that, sub-consciousness. And beyond that, nothing. Nothing at all.