August 24 – All right, I’ve been putting it off long enough. I just have to get this out and not worry how it makes me sound. It happened. I know it happened because I was there. If I can’t trust my observations, how the hell do I expect to be a detective?
After desk duty was over they put me on overnight shifts and even though it’s not part of my patrol, I’ve been finding excuses to take a swing through Deadroot and past the Starling house. Other than the police tape being taken down, nothing has looked out of place. Which is weird right there, because it’s Deadroot and this was a high-profile case. Everybody knows that house is empty and yet no broken windows and no busted doors. Hell, the grass doesn’t even look like it’s grown.
So after my shift, I went straight to the house, still in uniform and everything. It was about 6 in the morning, and it was already damn hot. This August heat wave hasn’t let up and I’m sick of sweat, I’ll tell you that. The Starling house is on Guignol Terrace, so wasn’t anybody awake. Hopheads all passed out and not many folks gainfully employed so no one’s getting ready for work. Not that there are many people in this part of the neighborhood anyway. The house is nested between two overgrown vacant lots and there’s an abandoned factory across the street. Most of this part of town was industrial; I don’t think it’s ever been zoned for residential, so again, who built this damn house?
Before I go in, I check the perimeter. The yard is immaculate. Not a blade out of place. Maybe the guy mowing his lawn doesn’t know Starling’s dead? And no sign of anyone trying to break in or vandalize. I keep finding myself looking up at the windows. Keep feeling like I’m being watched but unless someone’s squatting inside, nobody’s in there. I’m feeling jumpy but I shouldn’t. I think I’m just letting Amancia’s warning get to me.
Strangest thing I notice, I don’t think this house is wired for electricity, phone, cable, nothin’. Hell, I’m not sure it’s got running water or indoor plumbing. I don’t see anything to tell me this house is set up for utilities of any kind.
I go in the front door. Easy as that. The door’s unlocked and I just walk inside. Old house like this, I expect it to creak like something in an old horror movie, but I guess Starling kept his hinges oiled, because not a peep. And then I’m in the. . .is it a foyer? I’m back where I was when we found Amancia screaming over Starling’s mangled corpse. The first thing I notice is how cool it is. Almost cold. With this heat wave and the house shut up like it’s been, plus I’m assuming no A/C, it should be an oven in here. But I’m actually a little chilly in my sweaty uniform.
And no smell. You know how houses always have a smell, especially old houses. Sometimes musty or dusty or just. . .old. But nothing. If we were just going by my nose, no one’s ever lived here. And speaking of dust, there’s none. You’d expect to see some dust motes in the sun coming in the windows, but no. Nothing. And no insects. No flies or cobwebs or anything I wouldn’t have even paid attention to had they been there.
And no blood. This big entryway has old wood floors, and even though Starling didn’t have much blood on him, Amancia was covered. No way there wouldn’t be a big stain right there in the middle of the floor where we found them. But nothing.
Probably took me about 10 seconds to notice all that, and for a few more seconds, I thought about just turning right around and walking back out. I definitely should have. But at the time, I was telling myself I should be ashamed of myself for being a grown-ass man afraid of a house. I’m a cop, for God’s sake. Hindsight and all that.
So I start looking around. The house is so damn quiet. Just like that door that didn’t squeak, there’s just no sound. No creaking or cracking or any of those house sounds you just expect to hear. No footsteps, either. Like I said, the place has wood floors, but not so much as a tap from my shoes. I kind of remembered noticing it the night we arrested Amancia, but now, with just me, now I definitely notice it. The floor is wood, right? But it’s got a little give to it. Almost like a really firm sponge? Like that rubber surface they put on high school tracks? Maybe there’s moisture in the wood, like a leak somewhere? But if that’s the case, then the whole house has a leak, but where the hell’s the water coming from, because it’s not coming from the city. . .
The main floor is as barely decorated as I remember it. Maybe even less so, but with no dust, there’s no way to tell if anything’s been moved or if it was ever there in the first place. There’s just no character to it. If you would have told me that this house was just built and no one’s ever lived there yet, I’d believe you. No scuffs or dings. No scratches on the floor. No pictures, personal or otherwise, and very clearly there never was because there’s no discoloration on the walls where pictures might have hung. No sign whatsoever that there was ever any kind of life within these walls. I have zero idea what kind of person Chellick Starling was before I met his lifeless body.
Besides the entryway, there’s a kitchen, a dining area, a living room and a bathroom, all damned spacious, all a lot bigger than my entire apartment and all seemingly taking up more space than I would have guessed from outside. There is water, though, I can confirm that, but from where? I flushed a toilet and ran some water out of the kitchen sink and the place seems to have good pressure coming from somewhere. Maybe a private well? The water looks a little rusty and doesn’t seem to clear up even after running it for a few minutes but that’s all right. It’s not hot enough to be thirsty anyway, and if Starling were alive and offering me a glass of whatever’s coming out of these pipes, I’d politely turn him down.
I head upstairs. Soon as I reach the upstairs landing I start thinking about Jelkis and that wood splinter and the leg he no longer has. I think about leaving again. Just for a second. I’m picturing Jelkis hopping around on his remaining leg, giving me guff about being scared of a house. That seems to calm my nerves. And looking back, another reason never to get advice from Jelkis.
This floor has more hallways and more doors than I remember from the last time I was up here, but it’s been a month since I was here so I cut myself some slack for not remembering all the details. Same as downstairs, there’s no hint of anyone living here. I try every door, and every door is locked. I consider trying to pick one of the locks or maybe even try to bust one down and for the first time it occurs to me that I might technically be breaking and entering. So I decide to hold off on stepping farther over whatever line I’m crossing. I’m in for the penny, but not quite ready for the pound.
I’m so focused on trying every door handle in each hallway that it takes me longer than I’d like to admit that I realize I’m lost.
I know, I know. How the hell do you get lost in a house? It’s a good-size house, sure, but not big enough for someone to get lost in. But I’m halfway down the fourth hallway when it occurs to me I should have just completed a full circle of the second floor and haven’t come back to the stairwell. And I definitely should have. So I backtrack. Just go back the way I came. Makes sense. But after just a couple of turns, it’s very clear that these hallways are branching off in directions they didn’t before. Which is impossible. That’s what I keep telling myself. That’s impossible. So I try backtracking again to where I was when I realized I was lost. Bad idea on top of bad idea. I have no idea where I am. And I’m just in a friggin’ house! How does that happen?!?!?
Not gonna lie, I started to panic. I’m running down the halls now, careening around corners, frantic. And now, after all the silence, now I’m hearing a sound. It’s very soft. Very subtle. It’s a hissing sound. A slithering sound. Like something’s being dragged across a carpet. And a small, soft “chunk” sound. Slither slither chunk. Slither slither chunk. But I only hear it while I’m moving. If I stop, the sound stops, and then all I hear is my breathing and my heartbeat, both going absolutely too fast. So at first I think I might be losing it a little. Hearing things.
But I slow myself down. Slow my breathing. Slow my heart. Slow myself. And yeah, I can still hear it but only when I’m moving. I stop, the sound stops.
How long I walked down all those random hallways I won’t even begin to guess. Too long. I just kept thinking that surely at the next corner I’d see the way down the stairs and I’d get the hell out of there. But with every corner there was another hallway with more locked doors and more corners to turn down. And more slither slither chunk.
I was beginning to form a theory. It was a crazy theory, but I told myself that I couldn’t keep just walking around in circles or hexagons or whatever the hell shape these hallways had become. So about halfway down a hallway, I took off my badge and set it in the middle of the floor. Then I kept walking and turned the corner, slither slither chunk. And I immediately turned back around. My badge was gone. And the hallway at the other end of the hall was now branching in a different direction than where I’d come before. Sometimes I hate being right.
I was tempted to start yelling. To start pounding on these random doors dotted along the halls, try busting one in. But it didn’t seem worth the effort. In all likelihood, there was nothing behind those doors. Or even worse, there was.
So I sat down. Just eased my back against the strangely pliant wall and slid to the floor. Legs out, arms crossed, head down. And I took myself a nap.
Look, I just finished an overnight shift. I was already tired, and after the workout I’d just gotten in the halls that never end, I was exhausted. The house wasn’t going anywhere (I thought) so might as well grab some shut-eye. I could worry about whatever the hell predicament I’d found myself in when I woke up.
I don’t know how long I was out. There weren’t any windows and the halls were about half-lit the whole time. . .now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing any actual light fixtures so where was the light. . .you know what? Doesn’t matter. Anyway, however long I slept, it was surprisingly restful. I might have slept longer but a sound woke me up. It wasn’t the slither slither chunk I’d been hearing before. This time it sounded more like a heavy sigh. And when I looked up, the door across the hall from me was just slightly opened inward. Beyond it was nothing but blackness.
It looks like the walls are very subtly pulsing in and out, but that could just be my blood pressing against my eyeballs since my heart immediately starts to hammer. I just sit there for a minute or two, waiting to see if anything else happens. Nothing does. So I get up, get out my gun, square my shoulders and walk to the door. I announce myself, but it seems silly at this point. Before I go in, I get out my handcuffs and lay them by the door frame, one cuff on each side, chain in the middle, a little insurance in case the door tries to shut on me.
I take three steps in the room and the door indeed shuts on me. Hard. Hard enough that it sounds like the chain on the handcuffs snapped. So much for that. I’m in utter darkness. That’s not completely true. There’s a redness there, barely. Like when you close your eyes and look toward the sun. And it’s no longer slightly chilly. It’s now stifling. I’ve never been to a tropical rainforest, but I’m assuming this is what it feels like. I have my service pistol tracking back and forth as if I could see anything to shoot and my other hand is out, groping at the blackness. I’m stating as calmly as I can, over and over, “I am Police Officer Richard Monorrow of the Gargoyle Park Police Department, District 7. Please make your presence known.” But I can hear the fear. The quake in my voice. How my throat makes a click when I try to swallow because my saliva is all dried up. I’m not fooling anyone. I have no authority here.
I realize too late that I’ve been steadily walking forward. I should have stayed in place. Got my bearings. But now I’m completely turned around and have no idea where the door is. Not that I imagine it’s there anymore anyway. And maybe there never was a door. . .
My hand brushes against something. It could be rough, unsanded wood. It could be scales. All I know is that as soon as I touch it I think of Jelkis and his missing leg and my arm is immediately at my side, palm sweating and pressed against my thigh.
And then the floor gives way. For a matter of seconds I’m falling. Then my hip strikes something hard. No give in whatever that is and then I’m lurching to the side and my shoulder hits something not quite as hard but it still hurts and its wet. I’m being tossed around like I’m in the bounce house from hell and that’s when I start shooting.
I’d say that the sound of the gunshots are deafening, but that’s not completely true, because over the sound of them I hear something else. It’s this combination of rushing water and tearing metal and some guttural sound that I can’t even begin to describe. The flashes from the gunshots light up the world and immediately blind me. And while I can’t hear myself over all this, I continue to repeat that I’m Police Officer Richard Monorrow of the Gargoyle Park Police Department, District 7.
I wake up face down in the front lawn of the Starling house. It’s night and the moon is out and the heat from the morning has given way to a cool breeze that ends up being the herald of the slide towards autumn. The heat wave is over. And I’m alive.
I just lay there for awhile, feeling the cool, damp grass against my cheek and take inventory. I hurt, but no worse than a long day on the ranch. I can tell I’ve got some scrapes and bruises but I don’t think anything’s broken. Won’t know until I move, though. Which I do, probably too quickly, when I start thinking about that cool damp grass and if it’s actually grass at all. That gets me on my feet and heading toward the street but I never turn my back on the house. If there’d been a vehicle coming I’d have been hit, but it’s quiet on Guignol Terrace and I back all the way to the squad car until I can feel the solid metal realness against me.
The house hasn’t changed. Looks real pretty in the moonlight. Maybe a little creepy but in this light it’s almost quaint. If a family could look past the neighborhood, this looks like a nice house to raise some kids in. I throw up and just barely miss my shoes.
My Glock is still in my hand. The magazine’s empty. My uniform is a mess. Rips and tears all over. I’ve also got scrapes and cuts all over and again I think of Jelkis and almost throw up again but there’s nothing I can do about that right now so I put it out of my head. I get in the car and drive away.
It’s almost midnight. So I lost 18 hours. And dispatch is asking where the hell I am because I’m late for my shift.
I’m back on desk duty for another 3 weeks. Not showing up for my shift for one, plus I’ve got a pair of handcuffs, a badge and a full magazine of bullets unaccounted for. I told Phillips I got drunk out by the landfill and was shooting at rats and fell in a ditch. I think he actually bought it, and worse, I think he has more respect for me now.
No surprise, I can’t stop thinking about the house. But what’s keeping me up nights is not my memories of what happened or of Amancia Bailey getting the death penalty for a crime she didn’t commit. Well, all right, those are keeping me up nights, too, but what I can’t shake is that imaginary family happily moving into that unassuming house that they bought for a steal.
So I call up Kieran. The guy from the Hall of Records who might have a crush on me. Ask him if he’d like to meet me for drinks at Murnau’s, that new bar downtown. I try to sound flirty. Not that I know what a guy flirting with another guy exactly sounds like. Feel gross as hell doing it, too. Not because I’m trying to hit on a guy or anything. Live and let live, I say. But Kieran seems like a nice guy and I’m absolutely leading him on. However I sound, it works, because Kieran and I have a date.
Over drinks and German techno, we make small talk. Any charm I might have I’m cranking up to 11 and Kieran is eating it up, laughing at all of my jokes. Touches my arm a few times. I’m a Paul Bunyan-sized heel. But eventually, I get around to what I’m really there for. How would one go about getting a demolition order pushed through without going through the proper channels? It’s a strange question to be sure, but maybe not so much for a guy working at the Hall of Records, right?
I tell him I’ve got this property that I’m just sitting on. Big plans to turn it into a boxing gym (I don’t know where the hell that came from), but I can’t get the city to sign off on the demolition. Kieran, God love him, he eats it up. He wants to be the first to sign up when it’s finished and if anyone knows how slowly the wheels of Gargoyle Park paperwork turn, it’s him, you’d better believe. It leads to a few tedious stories about city inspectors and one very creepy story about Alderman Benway. And then, just like that, he pats me on the hand and tells me he’ll take care of it for me. Just write down the address and that house’ll be gone by the end of the week.
So I write it down and I thank him and tell him it’s time for me to head out. He gets up to say good-bye and there’s a real awkward moment when he goes in for a kiss and I block it with a handshake. He’s disappointed but hopeful. Did I say Paul Bunyan-sized heel? Make that Godzilla-sized.