YOU LEFT IT THERE…
Cast it away on the side of the road,
An oil smudge upon the pavement,
Filthy viscous thing that it was.
Dead thing.
Evil thing.
Old.
Desiccated.
And you left it there.
Walked away,
Once and for all.

Duty Calls

April 10, 1998

IT WAS FIVE IN THE MORNING. Too damn early to look at a dead body, but there I was, arrived at the cottage. It leaned hard against the horizon, crouching low in the shadows as the first hint of dawn was just barely beginning to break through the tangle of clouds and tree branches. Covered in moss, which looked more like efflorescent blue-green sludge, it appeared as if the place had long since belched out its last dying breath, leaving its decayed carcass to ooze a lifetime of bile from its mortared pores. These ransacked, forgotten country cottages are safe havens for all manner of repugnant creatures. The demons of the twilight: cannibals, shape-shifters, and illusionists.

Chipped asphalt and dirty fog caught between my clenched teeth, I felt like I’d been held hostage for hours by the dismal winding roads and the dense countryside. It had taken the better part of a frustrating morning to get to this god-forsaken place. I didn’t think my car was going to make it, coughing and sputtering in protest, but there I was, all back-wooded, nowhere in respect to the civilized world, and the better part of the drive spent in quiet contemplation hadn’t done a single thing to improve my mood, either. All it had done was force the dread closer to the surface. I could skim my tongue across it as it clung coldly to my upper lip.

Leaning half detached from its frame, the gigantic slab of wormhole-riddled wood — allegedly the front door — was open, and so I walked across the threshold. The cold bit into my legs and lower back, and my knees felt like the remnants of the rusted iron hinges that lay in the dried leaves at my feet. I nudged them with my toe, but there wasn’t a glimmer of hope left in them. At one time this cottage had been a summer retreat perhaps, charming and quaint in its better days, I imagined, but it didn’t take more than a few footsteps into the main room before all the lovely things I had imagined left my thoughts forever. Shabby and outworn, this cottage was now just an insignificant oversight, one that should have been razed to the ground a century ago.

Looking around quickly for my liaison, I took a few deliberate mental notes. Two notes to be exact: filth and vermin. What I saw wasn’t pretty, and so I didn’t have to imagine the ruin that plagued this place. The interior hadn’t held up much better than the exterior. The room reeked of animal urine and excrement — a foul latrine for wandering savages and beasts — and there was an eerie sense of movement beneath my feet, like the building was crumbling and shifting around me, each step I took a reminder that the irrefutable agents of time would eventually claw its very foundation apart, starting with the ceiling, which had caved in, exposing blackened beams, greasy and charred from burning candles, incense, and uncontained fires. The odors clung to the congested air — stifling and suffocating — and the walls, what was left of them, had receded into the murk, as the paint had lost all its will and tenacity, coming loose from the plaster in humiliating defeat.

Mold and death lurked behind every fleck of chipped paint. Mold and death, tended by legions of unseen parasitic creatures, moving outward from the blackness — consuming — until this hideous place and all its history would exist no more.

It made me wonder. A fresh coat of paint? It’s amazing what a fresh coat of paint can do. Maybe a fresh coat of skin might make the mangled meat pile in the next room appear more human. Or maybe not. I hadn’t seen the victim yet and wasn’t sure I wanted to. I’ve always hated that word: victim. No other word affirms the tenuous relationship we have with vice and virtue, but anyway, there was too much to see here — the ruminations of a thousand derelicts scrawled across the walls in what looked like blood and feces — but a quick glance was all I could manage before a shiver of something unnatural rushed against my back and shoulders. The cold of it, digging into my bones. I could say it was just an artifact — space, time, the sun’s trajectory — but it wasn’t. It was a shadow, come for me. And it took its time, slipping into the daylight from a distance. As if in no particular hurry, it seemed to meander its way across the wall; seemed to turn and look directly at me without concern as it settled itself into the sweating void of plaster and paint.

I felt it…

Felt its eyes on me…

Felt the room begin to swell against its boundaries, and then all sound stopped, neither a breath of wind through the trees nor the rustle of a fallen leaf against the eaves. I was alone. Terror was closing in. I could taste the metal in my teeth, but I held fast to my position even as I felt the shadow’s gaze slip over me, languishing over my prickling flesh. It just laughed at me, at my sweaty-palmed resolve, then it flexed its shoulders once, twice, and the measure of its fingers began to extend slowly, sinking almost to the floorboards. They twitched like the legs of a spider — scritch, scratch, scratching — as if it were making a mad attempt to rip the floor out from under my feet, so I remained still, unable to move or breath. Then out of nowhere, upon wings made of whisper, a raven — large and scraggy — soared through the open door. It flew over my head, and then, stretching out its claws, it took perch upon the shadow’s undulating shoulder. It squawked. Turned towards me. Glared at me with blood-red demonic eyes. Taunted me. The goddamn repulsive creature just taunted me with raised wings and angry stamping talons, chastising me for some concealed sin — a sin that I had long refused to acknowledge let alone come to grips with.

It wasn’t my fault.

I wanted to say it out loud, my confession, slathered in guilt and a whimper. The words almost fell from my lips … almost … but I choked them back along with my fear. When I opened my eyes, the shadow and its loyal familiar had vanished, melted into obscurity, now nothing more than a mere inkblot amongst the many other stains, bleeding through the wall.

“Rowan!”

My eyes fell blurry back into the gloom, and instantly, the room was bustling with people again. Uniformed officers trudged about, taking notes, speaking to each other in hushed voices, carefully gathering evidence, and Inspector Reed stood beside me, gently resting his immense hairy club of a hand on my shoulder, his pockmarked face flushed and dripping with sweat. “You seemed lost there, lass,” he said more as a statement of fact than a question, but the words just slid right by me. “Come on now, Rowan. You might want to load up. We should have the markers out for you shortly. It’s in the next room.”

“Yes, Inspector,” was all I could manage in response. My bland tone was in no way indicative of any personal feelings that I might have held for Inspector Reed. I prefer to keep my emotions in check while on a job. I actually like Inspector Reed, like him a lot, but his physical presence, well, it’s just overwhelming: too much aftershave, too much of what he ate for breakfast lingering on his breath. He placed a cigarette to his lips, lit it, and then sucked in deeply, releasing a cloud of stale breath and smoke in a wheeze. “You know what I like best about you, Rowan? Don’t worry, you can put that blank I-don’t-give-a-shit look away because I’m just going to tell you: You are a woman of few words. Just don’t need them, I suppose?”

“No, I suppose I don’t,” was my only less-than-slightly-blank reply, and at least we agreed on something.

In spite of his unseemly presence, Inspector Reed was a kind and decent man, a man you had no choice but to like. I knew this simply because of the way he forced a rather crude and misshapen smile at me. He left in his wake a long and distinguished career, mostly due to that smile. Words rarely escaped him. He was just respectfully spare with them, but he was never spare with that smile. It happens often that within the first year homicide Inspectors tend to lose the ability even to force a smile. I have heard it said that a kind of numbness takes over: emotions wane and the intensity of focus increases exponentially. For some. Only the ones who were born to be witnesses survive. Certain defense mechanisms instinctual to the breed kick in and take over. For others not fortunate enough, not built strong enough, well, they suffer and go mad, departing after a year or so for employment better suited to their more fragile sensibilities: security men or traffic wardens, perhaps. Reed is tops on a very short list, so I had to admire his cold candor and his matter-of-fact demeanor. The strength of his presence was comforting to me right then … and maybe it was his authoritarian goodness that sent the shadow crawling back to the mists of oblivion.

I needed to believe that, and so I did.

“It’s a bad one today, bloody fuckin’ mess, it is. Goddamn it’s hot in here,” he coughed out in a rasp as he took a rag from his pocket and scraped the stale sweat from his brow. “Just stay focused and do your magic, Rowan.”

“Yes, Inspector, of course.”

I adjusted the camera strap, which had now begun digging into my neck, and pled a weak smile back at him while giving him a sympathetic nod. He gave me a comfort pat on the shoulder and then pointed in the direction of a doorway — a darkened hollow — leading to what I was certain was probably a gateway straight to hell.

While taking care not to disturb anything that might be construed as evidence, I took slow and measured steps, Reed following behind me as silent as a raptor in an updraft. The corridor was long. Dark and dank. The floorboards squealed in agony with every footfall, and the threadbare carpet runner, which was really no more than a frayed rag — presenting refuge to an entire civilization of who knows what — did not help muffle the reluctant echo of our approach. Even the cockroaches, smug and snarly, mocked us with their insolence as they scuttled over our shoes. Every step seemed like slow damnation, but remarkably, the corridor that had seemed endless only a moment before did, in fact, do just that — end. We reached the door, and without hesitation, I opened it and went in.

I don’t really know what I was expecting. I try not to have expectations. I try to keep my mind clear. I need to see, really see, and that is just not possible with expectations. However, expectations aside, I wasn’t ready for the room. It was alive with death; that’s the best I can do to describe it.

Massive shapes, covered in debris, loomed ominously in the heavy gloom. The skeletonized structure of a rusted iron bedstead held a precarious and haunting position in the corner of the room, and a dull glow, offering the only light, strained its way through the depressing, dust-laden rags that had once been used to shade the windows from prying eyes. The light, meager as it was, was better than the darkness. Death lingered in the darkness like a virulent fiend — waiting — patiently waiting to extract the life and light out of anything that happened to wander foolishly into its domain. I was just such a fool, and as I moved further into the room, I could hear the slow and monotonous drip of a tap coming from somewhere off to my left. How could this place still have running water? A dripping tap, what nonsense, and as civilized and comforting as it was, it was the least of my concerns and completely out of my visual range. Focus Rowan, don’t think, just focus. But as much as I would have liked to will myself to do it, affirmations not withstanding, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t help myself. Fool, fool, fool, stark raving mad fool. I was a fool, had always been. I never felt as strong as I wanted to be, pretended to be, and suddenly, I started to shake uncontrollably. My entire body felt as if it had succumbed to some sort of seizure, so I thrust a bit of honest Inspector logic into it. I suppose, in some slight way, I feared the bloody image before me, and yet, even the disconcerting spasms of my body couldn’t compel me to look away. Never am I able to look away. My fear doesn’t hinder me in the way it does for most people, for it’s not fear the average person can sympathize with, and it’s not bravery. I just have no fight or flight response, not one that could make rational assumptions, let alone decisions, anyway. It’s not morbid curiosity either. It’s more morbid intellectual interest. I’m searching, always searching for death’s great metaphor. So I pushed my hair out of my face and took a deep breath. I might be a fool, but I am in control. This is how I work: cold, calm, and unhurried.

SNAP!

“Jesus, Reed.”

“What? What do you see, Rowan?”

“Hell hath no mercy.”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? I meant exactly that, Reed. No Mercy. It’s a fucking cliché.” SNAP! “But if you need it in plain English, I see too much blood.”

Tossed like a sack of rags and rocks, the body lay on the floor in the center of the room, splayed out in a mangled slapdash sort of way on a stained and shredded mattress, her hair snagged and tangled about the twisted, displaced bedsprings. A black silk slip lay thrown over her head, concealing her face, and the remnants of a garrote remained embedded in her neck so deeply that the enraged, lacerated flesh had wedded itself around the wire just under her chin.

“No … not the blood.” SNAP! “It’s not the blood at all. I see too much emotion. There’s no art here, only savagery.”

“Art?”

“Yes, Reed, art. There’s a difference. Pathological-crazy-person speaking, that is.”

And that was what we were dealing with, Reed finally admitted, and the business at hand was a repulsive sight, one of the worst I had ever seen in my ten years of forensic photography. She had been arched over backwards — snapped in half — her limbs manipulated and twisted, her bones bent into awkward postures, and her skin had been ripped open — not sliced or cut but ripped — revealing glistening bloody muscles and sinew. What had once been a young woman, endowed with unlimited innocence and charm, lay there, a perverted mass, leaving only a mere suggestion left behind of the beauty she had once been. An ironic statement so it would seem. “I can’t believe you got me out of bed for this, Reed. Fuck me.”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly what?”

“Exactly, Fuck me,” was his only retort.

Candles of all sizes, shapes, and colors circled the body, as if paying homage to that which was to succumb to ruin, and a rosary lay across her stomach — alms for a poor soul — the onyx beads gently cascading over what was left of the crest of her abdomen, the image of Christ on the cross lost within her entrails. SNAP!

“I see too much…”

“Too much what, Rowan?”

“Too much anger,” I replied without even thinking what I was saying. I wasn’t a detective. What was I looking for? Who was I to make assumptions? No one. I just record the scene. That’s all I do, so I crouched down and leaned in a little closer. Tried not to inhale.

A spider’s web of veins had risen to the surface, imparting to her skin the blue-black tinge of a beating gone cold, a sharp contrast in color to the pools of coagulated blood that had sunk through the fibers of the mattress clear to the floor. I switched my camera to my left hand and then reached forward to lift the veil from her face. When I did, I almost fell of my feet. Insect larvae. Eyes, ears, mouth, like gaping wounds, wriggling and writhing within mounds of shed exoskeletons and excrement. She had been here for a while. The sands of time and decay had already begun to claim her.

Over and over again, the people in the local village would whisper, “She was a lovely girl.” Young, beautiful, a charming demeanor. Her hair — flaming red, luscious, and vibrant. Her eyes at one time had been a pristine emerald green. Her hips and breasts — voluptuous, and her skin — alabaster and dusted with flecks of sunshine. A lovely girl, reduced to horrid bits of nothing. Less than nothing. Worse than nothing. A rotted morsel for the eaters of the dead.

A lovely girl … was that all?

Was that all she was to them?

“Did anyone really know her at all, Reed? In the village? Because He did, the man who violated her. All that polite euphemistic nonsense about her loveliness. It wasn’t her loveliness that had seduced him. Fuck’ sake. Even if she were the biggest flirty cock-tease in town, that doesn’t warrant this. Such savagery, such a deliberate lack of humanity. Sixty stab wounds by my count, Reed. It’s as if he were trying to cut the kindness and purity from her womb. He hadn’t simply wanted to violate her. He had wanted to destroy her.” SNAP!

“What is, Rowan?”

“The past—”

“You ok, kid? Here…” Reed extended a hanky filled hand. “Put this over your nose. It’ll stop the gagging. That’s it. Sorry about the aftershave. Wife doesn’t like the stink of death on me. Now what were you saying about the past?”

“It’s never really the past, is it, Reed? Through the lens, I mean. She’ll never rest, and we’ll never be rid of this memory.”

“No, Rowan. It isn’t, and we won’t. And it’s a damn shame we’ve got nothing but this.”

“This is enough.”

I spent another hour or so committing the gruesome scene to film before the nausea overtook me and I had to venture into that room — the tiny room with its torturous dripping tap. I even had a plastic bag so I could vomit and not contaminate the scene. A soothing fucking notion, Reed would say. Vomiting is a natural biological response to offensive stimuli. It is not a state of mind nor is it always indicative of systemic illness, which in Reed-speak meant it was one less thing to worry about or be ashamed of.

I didn’t have to worry about it though, the moment I stumbled into the tiny closet of a washroom, the smell of rot smacked into me immediately, even before I could slip in the mung covering the floor. The stench was so powerful I could taste it; so overwhelming, that my mind, in a state of sensory confusion, misplaced the feeling of nausea that had gripped me only moments before. My tongue swelled, and my eyes burned as acid tears seared their sockets. The air was so dense and oppressive that you could scrape it from the walls. My visit to this room would be a brief one, that, or Inspector Reed would be scraping my body from the floor.

I spit several stringy gobs of stomach acid and bile into the bag and then looked to the mirror above what was left of a washbasin, which jutted precariously out from the wall, balanced weightlessly in mid-air by the rusted iron pipe beneath it. Beaten mercilessly by time, slick and stained with old blood and numerous unidentifiable oily secretions, the tap dripped, rhythmically, pounding out a totemic song of anguish and despair. Untended, it had been left alone in the dark to weep. The gleaming splendor of its youth long forgotten, it was now nothing more than a corroded hunk of malfunctioning metal. Once upon a time, someone had taken great care, chosen it above all others, installed it with precision and grace, and then marveled over its functional beauty.

Had its polish faded too quickly?

All the hopes and dreams of this cottage had faded too quickly.

I stared at my reflection in the mirror’s fractured glass: It too was fading — fading into bleak undiscovered depths. “Death warmed over.” That’s what Reed always said I looked like just after a shoot. My skin, wan with a lovely greenish patina, withered over my bones, and there was a monstrous hostility to my eyes.

Not my eyes.

They were his eyes, wild and luminous. He had washed his hands in this very sink, washed them delicately, not to make them clean but to rejuvenate the dried blood on them in order to paint his face like a demon cast out from the depths of hell. He dreamt he was a demon…

He dreamt it while awake.

I looked him in the eyes, but he just sneered at the thinly veiled image of himself, of me, sneered with dry, bloody lips drawn back over yellowed and rotted teeth. Teeth worn down by the bones of his victims, which he gnawed to the marrow, and through the raggedy sweat-soaked tendrils of greasy hair that fell over his forehead, he picked at the flesh of his face, dismantling bit by bit the distance between us.

I could see him as plainly and as clearly as if he were inside of me, looking at me through my own eyes, and I through his. I felt the rage, the satisfaction, the hunger. I felt it as if it were my own, and that was worse.

Worse than being gnawed on in the darkness.