The City

We are, each of us, dying an inch at a time. It takes the slow creep of years for it to be noticeable. A clutch of crow’s feet here, a spatter of liver spots there, the white of snow on hair. Time is a weight, dragging us into the cold depths of age, and we are the body wrapped in chains, the breath crushed from us by icy water. Morte magis metuenda senectus. Old age should rather be feared than death.

If age is anathema to the human race, it’s the opposite for a city. It’s an invigorator, a shot of stimulant to an already thriving nervous system. Streets and walkways grow wider, their concrete built on the backs of the younger generation, the arteries of the city held up with rebar and lined with asphalt. Its buildings grow with time, wider and taller, reaching for their brothers, reaching to the sky. Its traffic becomes more efficient, sleeker, and cleaner, blood cells undergoing the dialysis of time. With each generation of dying inhabitants, the city gets a facelift – a new patina of chrome and granite and glass, suckling on the symbiotic relationship.

Still, there are places in the city where you can smell the rot. You can see behind the patina and smell the sulfurous eggs and dead refuse of its breath. You can see the suppuration of gangrene on an otherwise healthy limb. It’s the sort of thing that had a doctor examined the patient, he’d recommend amputation. It’s the sort of thing that’ll do a man’s head in if he lets it. If he only stands by and smells the stink and ignores it, just another stranger on the train, never mind that poor sap in the gutter.

I already knew the sap in the gutter. Her name was Rosalind. Someone had taken a straight razor to her throat, and her life pooled around her head like a sanguine halo. Neon reflected in the blood, garish pinks and greens tinted with the remnants of her life. I flicked my cigarette into a nearby puddle and crouched, looking close. She was like the others, pale and lovely and dumped in the street like trash. No other marks marred her body – aside from her throat, she was as pristine as new snow. Well, that wasn’t necessarily the truth, but considering her state, I wasn’t about to quibble details.

I stood and looked at the nearby bar, a dive called Paddy’s. The neon glow came from there, throwing its colors onto the sidewalk in a way that said it cared as much for propriety as it did for what the clientele did under its sign. I walked over, pushing on the plywood that passed for a door. A bell tinkled over the threshold, and the smells of stale beer, sweat, and desperation hit me in the face like a two-ton weight. I passed through the doorway and lit another cigarette, letting the smoke burn the scent from my lungs. The smoke pooled around me in the still air like stagnant water. I pushed my way past the brooding and half-conscious patrons and stepped up to the bar.

The bartender was big – I’d call him half a mountain, but I was pretty sure that this guy made mountains insecure. The voice in my head spoke up.

Beirut, ’82. Killed a kid. Thought he was carrying a bomb. Didn’t use a gun.

It was that last part that made me worry for my safety. For the sake of appearances though, I leaned in. What is it the kids say? Fake it ’til you make it?

“Hey, Everest.” The voice in my head made a choking sound. “You see anything weird outside tonight?”

He looked up, the slope of his brow dropping like an avalanche. I wondered briefly if I should have given him a nickname. I wondered if all my thoughts were going to be brief if I kept taunting this guy. He fixed me with a stare that said my sense of humor was like my guts – better kept inside. After a minute, he shook his head.

“Ain’t seen nothin’, man.”

I ignored the double negative, but I could hear English teachers screaming around the world.

“Nothing? A girl gets cut up not a hundred feet from your door, and you didn’t even hear a scream?”

He shrugged. “Gets loud in here.”

I strangled my own scream of frustration and turned to the room. It wasn’t what I’d call a jumpin’ joint –

Who would?

– but there were a few patrons. Just the usual fare – an old man with a beard as long as his face sleeping in a puddle of drool, a half-glass of some dark brew still in his hand; a couple of skinheads, and a group of dockworkers still in overalls and wool caps. Despite the amount of beer fumes in the air, and the rough clientele, the place was quiet. I was worried it was my personality, and then realized these guys couldn’t see a rose in a field of shit. I raised my voice, but not much. I didn’t want to break up the funereal atmosphere they had going.

“Any of you know anything about the girl in the gutter outside?”

They tipped their heads down, looking into their drinks as if they had answers. Apparently none of them did, because no one looked back up.

“Shitheels,” I muttered.

One of the skinheads must’ve caught that, because he looked up. He rose, half up from his seat. The voice in my head used my mouth.

SIT, BOY.”

The words reeked of age and a rage you couldn’t suppress with ten tons of concrete. There was also command, the kind that comes from expecting others to obey as a birthright. It was a voice you didn’t ignore. It tickled the hindbrain, made the lizard part of people squirm in the best circumstances, and downright wish they’d worn the brown pants in the worst. It was a voice you especially didn’t sass. The skinhead sat back down. The voice chuckled in my head and made a note.

Silas. 28. Likes to kill cats. Once threatened a black man with a knife in a Whole Foods. Saturday.

Today was Thursday. I nodded to myself and left the bar. Outside, the rain had steadied to a gentle patter. It was cold, the bite of autumn on the drops. I flicked the cigarette butt away and looked around. Sometimes your first stop is a goldmine. Others, you get bupkis. It happens. When it does, you lean on your contacts, whether it’s the cops or the press or others. In this case, the ball was firmly in the court of the others. The girl had family once upon a time, though these days maybe it was just the memory of family. Chances were the cops would never notice her missing. Chances were no one would after a week. I knew I couldn’t get justice. But I could get revenge.

I stalked off down the street, knowing my next stop.

*

In some parts of the city, you get a weird symbiosis. Gothic liquor stores. Conservative strip clubs. Neon churches. The Church of the Holy Redeemer was the last. It sat on the edge of what they called Skid Row, and WASP territory, and was an old department store someone had converted into a church with some nice siding, a few bushes out front, and a neon Jesus on the sign. The pastor in charge was someone I’d always liked. I suppose the voice liked him, too. It was always quiet around him.

He greeted me when I walked in the door.

“How are ya, Jimmy?”

I shook his hand. “Good, Frank. Hey, I need the church for a few. Are there any devout I have to worry about disturbing?”

He looked over his shoulder and dropped my hand. “No, should be empty. The ladies won’t be by to clean for a few hours.”

He never asked why I needed to be alone. He just shut the doors behind me and let me do my thing. I think it had something to do with a small matter of extortion I’d cleared up for him a while back. Some people you have to teach the proper way the collection plate works. Either way, it was one of the only places I could meet my contact. I walked past him into the nave and heard the doors close behind me.

Pews lined up like supplicants, facing the pulpit. Behind it hung a large plaster Jesus, the neon man’s twin. Like so many of them, the statue was nailed to the cross, wound in his side, crown of thorns. His eyes turned upwards, though whether in beatification or suffering I never could tell. It always seemed to me that there’s a fine line. I approached the statue and sat on the edge of the baptismal. I waited. The voice in my head began to hum something I didn’t recognize.

Minutes passed, and I was about to leave, thinking my contact wouldn’t show today. I stood, and the statue creaked, the plaster suddenly pliable. I looked up and saw blood trickling from the wounds, thin streamers that pattered to the floor in soft drops. I looked to the face. The eyes rolled slowly in their sockets, as though searching for something, or trying to escape the pain. The statue opened its mouth.

“Jimmy. Make it quick.”

“Someone’s cutting up girls and leaving them lay. I need to find him.”

A moan escaped the statue, and its eyes rolled back until I could only see the whites. It was like looking at fried eggs. Silence, punctuated by the occasional moan pervaded the church. I sighed. Having a daemon on retainer was useful, but it would’ve been nice if someone on the other side would’ve invented Google already. Finally, the statue’s eyes rolled back, and it fixed me with a stare that could’ve boiled noodles.

“Somewhere around Ninth and Bleeker. He was a bastard to find, Jimmy.”

I nodded. “How long do I have?”

“About three hours.”

I looked up at the statue, and reached into my jacket, where I kept payment – a small vial of blood. “Thanks.”

I dropped the vial behind the baptismal, and looked up to see if the daemon had seen it, but the statue was still again. I shrugged and left the nave. Father Frank had beat feet, so I left the way I’d come, the voice in my head humming again.

*

Ninth and Bleeker was a shithole that made other shitholes look like the Ritz. It smelled of garbage and despair, the Steak Oscar of scents. Turned out the building I was looking for was the only one suitable for habitation. It was a squat duplex with a brick facade and a rotting awning over the picture window. I knocked on the door and wiped my hand on my shirt. The man who answered was small, bald, and wearing wire-rim glasses. He squinted at me through the glass. He smelled like piss and vodka.

Titus. 45. Killed Angelica Cortez, Rosalind Peters, Sharon Goldman, the list goes on. This is the guy. Let me out.

I ignored the request for a moment, and instead stuck out my hand and put on a smile that felt as fake as plastic dog shit.

“Mr…?”

He took my hand and pumped it. My skin tried to crawl away.

“Volstock,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“You have an aunt…”

Cathy

“Cathy?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry to inform you she’s passed away.”

No emotion passed his eyes. I cleared my throat.

“There is fortunate news, however. She left some of her possessions to you. May I come in, and we can discuss them?”

He looked up and down the street, and then back at me. He seemed satisfied I was who I said, and stepped aside. I entered the house. It was dim inside, but not dirty, despite his smell. Everything was just so, the threadbare carpet well vacuumed, the tables and shelves dusted, the furniture coated in plastic covers. It looked like the world’s best-preserved grandmother’s house. I heard the door close behind me and turned. Just in time to see Titus come at me with a knife.

LET ME OUT

I stepped out of the way of his lunging advance and let go, the presence in me pouring out like smoke. Titus saw it and stopped mid-swing, stepping away from the inky pool on his carpet. I could feel it pouring from every hole in my head. He began to back away.

“What the fuck is this?” His voice betrayed a tremor. Finally, emotion.

The pool coalesced, and something began to rise from it. Something tall and horned and the color of hot tar. Its eyes burned orange, and its hands ended in wicked talons. He tried to run, but tendrils of smoke that formed around the thing like a skirt reached out and grabbed his ankles. I could smell burning cloth and flesh as they began to sear through his clothes. They pulled him toward it, and now he was weeping; now he was screaming, more tendrils wrapped around his head, and the noise cut off as his flesh was welded shut. They pulled him to the thing in the middle of the room, and lifted him. His eyes went wide, and I could see the tiny veins in their whites.

My companion, the thing in my head that was now the thing in the world, reached its clawed hands into his chest and pulled out his heart like a child removing macaroni from a picture frame. Blood and gore splashed the room, enough to form a small wave as it rolled across the carpet. The thing, that ancient thing called Legion, dropped the body and dissipated; becoming roiling smoke that once again flowed back into me. When the smoke cleared, it sat in my head, and hummed. I left the way I came.

I reflected as I walked along the dilapidated rows of factories and homes. If age is a weight, 4000 years is a fucking Mack truck tied to your ankles. In that time, I’ve learned three things. One – it’s easier to find God than a conscience. Two – sometimes the dead don’t stay dead. Three – life wears steel-toed boots, and will kick you in the balls first chance it gets. In a world like that, you don’t always get justice. But with age comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes knowing that revenge is sometimes all you can hope for. Sometimes, it’s all this world deserves.

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