Callum MacDonnell woke up in a cold sweat and managed to stifle a yell at the last minute. He caught his breath, then rolled out of bed as softly as possible so as not to disturb Cat. Not easy at six foot five, and two hundred and fifty pounds. The light from the street tinted him the same shade of blue as his eyes, like snow under moonlight.
“You don’t really think I’m still asleep?” his wife said groggily from the other side of the bed. Catherine MacDonnell propped herself up on her elbows. “You were thrashing around like shark prey.”
“Sorry,” he said, and sat back down on the bed.
Cat hoisted herself up from the mattress and rested her chin on his shoulder straining to keep her eyes open. “Bad dreams again?” she asked, rubbing his back.
The same dream had plagued Cal for almost two weeks now. He tried to retain the peculiar details of his nightmare even as they dissolved into the ether of his memory. The lack of sleep affected him on patrol, and in New York City that could get a cop killed, especially in his precinct.
“Want to talk about it?” Cat asked.
“It’s probably just stress,” Cal said.
“Maybe you’re worried about the ESU exam?” She slid her fingers up to the back of his neck and kneaded the tension out with an aggressive thumb. Cal responded instantly. His shoulders dropped, his head bobbed to the side, and his muscles softened.
“No,” Cal said. “I’ll ace it.”
“Maybe you’re stressed because you’re having reoccurring nightmares.” She kissed his cheek.
Cal smirked. “You missed your calling as an analyst.” He let her dig into his neck and shoulders for a little while more. He’d been reluctant to discuss the dreams because of how strange they were—both in content and familiarity. “This dream feels like I’m living a memory,” he said to his wife. There, it was out.
That prospect brought Cat further out of her sleepy haze. “Cal, could it be you’re remembering something from before the accident? From your childhood?”
“I don’t think so. What I’m dreaming … it’s surreal. I’m in a stone building; there’s a fight; someone tells me to go through a door.”
“Who told you? Did you recognize a face? A landmark?”
“I was with a group. We were going on a trip. We had a talking horse…”
“It’s weird. At the end, there’s this intense grief, a pressure like a moose standing on my chest. Like somebody died.”
The thought of that pain made Cal tense up again. He squeezed the bridge of his nose hard and realized he needed an Advil.
“And then…,” Cat prodded.
“That’s when I usually wake up. This is the kind of stuff a fifteen-year-old boy dreams of,” he said, frustrated. “I just want a full night’s sleep. I am feeling stretched thin.”
They heard a shuffle in the hallway. The door to the bedroom creaked open.
“Hi Pa,” said their five-year-old daughter, Brianna, in a sleepy voice. She stood in the doorway in her flannel Dora the Explorer pajamas, clutching her Elmo doll in her hand. A testament to modern-day marketing.
“Bree, you should be in bed,” Cat said, a bit annoyed.
“I heard talking,” she offered as her excuse.
Catherine MacDonnell was the law in the MacDonnell home, which was the way Cal liked it in lieu of life in the outside world: long patrols, city politics, and administrative headaches. Her temper was legendary in the neighborhood when someone broke that order. Her hypnotic gunmetal-gray eyes and raven hued tresses—a gift from her Sioux grandmother—gave her a formidable presence, despite her small stature. She could turn whatever spot she stood on into the center of the universe when the mood suited her.
But, despite Cat’s protestation, Cal was happy to see Brianna. She was his anchor—his only known blood relative in the world, and he never lost his patience with her. “Don’t you have school in a few hours?” Cal said halfheartedly.
Bree looked at her father seriously and said, “It’s only kindergarten. All we do is color and play games. And then they make us take a nap so the teachers can relax.”
Cal laughed. Even Cat had to fight off a chuckle. “When did you get to be so smart?” Cal asked, holding his arms out. Bree jumped into her father’s massive arms, the safest place in her universe.
“Oh, don’t encourage her, Cal. We all need to go back to sleep,” she said looking at their daughter.
As if on cue, Maggie trotted in wondering who had called a family meeting at this hour and could she get a cookie out of it. The pit bull–lab mutt barked to announce her arrival, then jumped on the bed and proceeded to lick Bree like an ice cream cone.
“Brianna MacDonnell, get to bed this instant,” Cat said. “Maggie down!”
Cal knew better than to push his luck. He gave Bree a peck on the cheek and put her down with a pat on the butt. She left the room with Maggie in tow. Cat shook her hair, a bit flustered at the chaos. She studied her husband.
“You’ve got to see someone about this. You can’t keep going to work strung out on no sleep. It’s affecting all of us.”
“I know. I’ll make an appointment with one of the department shrinks.”
“Yes, right away,” Cal said, rolling his eyes. He lay back down on the bed facing the window, staring out at the winter sky.
Cat snuggled next to Cal and put her arm around him. She kissed him tenderly on the temple and then rested her head against his. “Don’t be mad,” she said. “That little girl needs her daddy to come home safe every day.”
“What about this little girl,” he said stroking her arm.
Cat snuggled closer and wrapped her leg around his. They stayed that way until they both fell asleep.
It was the silliest domestic dispute Cal and his partner, Erin Ramos, had ever been called on. The complainant was a seventy-three-year old recent émigré from El Salvador who accused her seventy-eight-year old husband of hiding her teeth because she refused to have sex. Perhaps the ambience of the South Bronx was not as conducive to romance as the Salvadoran countryside. A shouting match ensued, followed by the husband’s playfully spanking his wife on the rear end with a spatula. She responded with a rolling pin to his head. One of the neighbors called it in.
“Technically, he battered her first,” Erin noted.
Embarrassed by the sudden appearance of the law, the wife was on her third straight minute of explaining her story without coming up for air. Erin tried to keep up for Cal’s sake.
“She says she’s in America now,” Erin translated. “And doesn’t have to perform ‘wifely’ duties when she has a headache. There was an article in the Spanish Cosmo at the manicure shop.”
Neighbors spilled into the hallway to witness the commotion.
“Everyone back in their apartment, por favor!” Cal said. He squeezed the bridge of his nose, trying to drive the fatigue from his mind. “I don’t have the energy for this tonight. What’s the husband say?”
The husband, holding an ice pack on his little bald head, stood about four-foot-nine in slippers. His green pajamas and large thick eyeglasses gave him a tortoise-like countenance.
“He’s been getting—‘it’—daily since they were married almost fifty years ago,” Erin said. “They have fourteen children. All of a sudden, she started putting him off. And you think you have no energy?”
A trickle of blood slid down the side of the man’s age-mottled head. The wife, alarmed, used her dishrag to stop the bleeding and led her husband to an armchair in the living room. At first, he sat stone-faced with wounded pride, but soon patted her arm. She kissed his cheeks even as tears began rolling down her own.
“We’re not arresting him,” Cal said.
“Two hours in Central Booking over this? Look at them. They adore each other. She probably got razzed at the manicure shop for being old-fashioned. My own wife used to read Cosmo—I’m aware of the consequences. If we arrest him, she’s going to feel awful.”
“Well, short of booking them separate vacations, what do we do?”
“She is seventy-three. We should probably cool him down a bit.” Cal pulled out his ticket book and wrote, “conjugal engagements, three times per week, only.” He tore out the ticket and showed it to Erin.
“Translate this and inform them it’s an official warrant. They can have sex three times a week.”
“This isn’t legal,” Erin said.
“They don’t know that.”
“Erin, who’s going to know their business? If she’s in the mood, they’ll think they’re being naughty. If she’s not, he’ll be too worried about what the next cop will write up to push it.” Cal gave his partner a big smile. “For God’s sake, Erin, the woman can’t chew.”
Erin laughed. “Okay, but Lord help us if she turns frigid and he whips out your ‘warrant’ to the next unit that answers the call.”
The old woman gave some rosary beads to Erin and a tin of butter cookies to Cal before shutting the door. Cal called it in to Central, and they left.
Rain pattered the roof of their cruiser as Cal and Erin resumed patrolling the South Bronx. The drumming water had a pacifying effect. No one knew better than Cal how the four-to-twelve shift could put a kink in a person’s biological clock. Add to that his insomnia and it was a recipe for bad judgment on a dangerous job. He’d promised Cat he’d see a department therapist, but had yet to make an appointment. As of 11:00 P.M., Cal was willing to give out slaps on the wrist until midnight so that he wouldn’t have to pull overtime booking suspects. He prayed the rain would keep people indoors and out of trouble. He was determined to hit his pillow before 1:00 A.M.
Erin had a passion for Latin music that she foisted on her partners. Cal was grateful for the upbeat tempo that helped counter the lulling effects of the rain.
“You’re gonna love this one,” she said with one hand on the wheel and the other jiggling a CD into the deck. “I recorded it when Tito Puente came to Orchard Beach. You never heard percussion like this.”
“Look, all this Latin stuff sounds great to me,” Cal said. “But I can’t tell the difference between salsa, calypso, or marinara,” he yawned.
“Marinara is a pasta sauce.”
“Whatever. The music is keeping me awake. Your lecture does the opposite.”
As Erin continued, Cal closed his eyes, convinced it would help him stay awake if he focused on the music. Twice, he jolted as he faded toward slumber, shaking his head and forcing his eyes open to their extreme. Erin hadn’t noticed. He concentrated on the music, tried to single out each instrument, an exercise that would keep his mind alert. He was not going to sleep. Erin’s chattering grew fainter. He fell toward slumber, like a kid hurtling down a slide …
They were all dead. The blood-drenched valley was littered with corpses and broken bodies, many belonging to those who were barely yet men. Smoke billowed from burning towns and the nearby forest, painting the sky charcoal. Winged cavalry fluttered before them like a swarm of locusts. The last remaining defenders clustered on the battlements.
Royal guardsmen were building barricades throughout the castle—every man was ready to go down fighting. “You can’t be serious, Father?” It was the first time Cal had ever questioned his commander’s authority.
“Listen to me,” said the old man. “The boy must be protected on this journey.” It smelled like a parent trying to send his son away from a slaughter.
“My duty is to defend this castle until my last breath!”
“Your duty is whatever I…!” The old man’s nose and cheeks shone like hot iron against his white whiskers. He let out a big breath, and his face softened.
Cal looked into the old warrior’s piercing blue eyes and wondered when this tired old man had replaced the robust warrior who was permanently etched in his mind. It was not so long ago he was jumping into the man’s arms, pleading for a fencing lesson. He felt like that boy again.
“This building keeps the rain off the regent in a storm. Our responsibility lies with the kingdom, with the family. I’ve no idea if the hell I’m sending you into is any better than the one we’re about to face. I only know that the boy’s chances fare better under your watchful eye.”
“This is it, then?” Cal said.
“I still have a few tricks up my sleeve,” the old man said with a smile.
No child was closer to his sire than a MacDonnell. It was their strength. Cal could see his father’s heart breaking for not giving him a better world to inherit. He wanted to tell the old man that he had done better than anyone else could have, but before he could utter a word, his commander said:
“Go! They’re waiting on you. Take any servant that swears fealty to his lordship. Wherever you end up, remember your duty to the kingdom. Our family has protected this dynasty for seven generations.”
A loud crash sounded a few rooms away. Metal clashing. Screams of butchered men echoed across the palace. Cal raced down the hallway without looking back. A blinding light emanated from the pantry as though a thousand candles burned. From inside the room he heard a voice.
“Idafor … susma … lewear … respond…”
Erin was shaking his arm. “Cal, wake up.”
The radio blared, “Four-One Ida, ten-thirty-one reported at nine hundred fifty-seven, Kelly Street. Suspect is a large Caucasian male, in a suit, wearing a black fedora, last seen heading for the roof.”
“Ten-Four Central, Four-One Ida responding,” Erin reported into the radio. “Do you have a call back, over?”
“Affirmative on call back. What is your position?”
“We’re two blocks from site, Central. We got it.”
Cal was shaking his head, trying to wake up in a hurry.
“Can’t blame you for being tired, partner … I wouldn’t get any sleep either if Cat were my girl,” Erin said with a smile.
“Very funny. What’s going on?”
“It’s a prowler. He’ll probably be gone when we get there.”
“Should we wait for backup?”
“Nah. One look at your nine-foot ass and he’ll surrender on the spot.”
In spite of himself, Cal hoped the perp would be gone by the time they arrived.
They rolled up in front of the building. Cal picked up the radio. “We’re eighty-four at nine-five-seven Kelly Street, Central,” he said. “What’s the response on the call back?”
“Four-One Ida, suspect threatened tenant with an ax, last seen heading toward roof. He’s described as a large Caucasian in a raincoat. No confirmation that he has left the area yet, over.”
“Why did this skell stick around?” Cal grunted. “We’re dealing with a moron.”
“Crack addicts, murderers, and rapists, oh my,” Erin said. “You want easy, move to Iowa.”
“Four-One Ida requesting eighty-five forthwith at present location, over,” Cal said.
“Affirmative, Four-One Adam responding to request for backup. ETA is six minutes.”
“Thank you, Central,” Erin said airily.
“Wait by the entrance,” Cal said. “We’ll flush him out.”
Erin looked at her partner with amazement. “You want to flush him down alone?” she asked.
“Sooner we nab him, the earlier we book him and the faster I get to bed.”
“What confidence. Nice having muscles to spare.”
“Speed and leverage can beat raw strength in hand-to-hand,” he said.
“Easy for you to say.”
Cal looked up at the tenement. It was a five-story walk-up, the kind with a great crown at the top of the façade, one that had seen better days. He entered and searched the ground floor. Paint peeled off the heat pipes. It smelled like rice and beans and greasy chicken. Trash bags were piled in the corner by the basement door. Cal checked it. Locked. Erin stood in the vestibule by the mailboxes … no room to slip past her. Cal heard a noise from above, and looked up the stairwell. A woman was peering down from the fourth floor. She waved him up. He climbed the stairs slowly, making sure each landing was clear of people before proceeding.
The woman was a young Hispanic, short with brown eyes and cropped curly hair, in a loose tank top that barely contained her. Cal could see and hear a group of children peering through the crack in her apartment door.
“Cállense!” she yelled at them. Then she turned to him. “Fue grande, mas grande que usted. Se fue a través del techo y hacia el edificio abandonado al lado.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish. Here,” Cal said, pulling his radio mouthpiece toward the woman. “Say it into this.”
“He went next door through the roof,” Erin translated.
“Shit. That’s great. Poking around a decrepit building in the dark. If the perp doesn’t get me the tetanus will.”
“I can go,” Erin offered.
“No. You stay downstairs. Same plan, different building. I’ll follow him through the roof and flush him out.”
With a little luck, their backup would arrive by the time he got there.
It took Erin Ramos a few minutes to pull the wooden boards off the doorway. She walked into the vestibule holding her nightstick like a club. The smell was suffocating, like an unwashed hospital bedpan. She propped the front doors open with the boards to let the air in. The streetlights illuminated the vestibule and some of the lobby. Rain streamed in behind her—it felt good, natural. There was something about this building besides the odor that gave Erin the heebie-jeebies. The first thing she noticed was the cold, as though someone were running an air conditioner in the middle of winter. She was glad it was still Cal’s turn to flush out the perp. Since they alternated the task, Cal could have claimed he’d done his turn at the last building. A pang of guilt came over Erin about letting Cal go through the roof alone. It was a good thing her partner was a man without any known fears.
Finding Cal’s phobia turned into a mission at the precinct. Everyone had one thing that spooked them, but MacDonnell’s fear eluded the gang. During a nightcap at a local bar, Cal admitted the only thing he dreaded was losing his family. His coworkers razzed him. They wanted to hear he was afraid of snakes, heights, or clowns. Sergeant O’Malley made a crack about wishing someone would make his own wife and kids disappear. Cal was angered by the remark, and it almost came to blows. He refused to speak to O’Malley the rest of the night. The others refused to believe he wasn’t afraid of anything. Just the AIDS test alone every time a suspect bled on you was enough to make even the toughest cop balk. Erin knew better. Cat and Bree were as much a part of Cal as his limbs.
Erin walked past a line of battered mailboxes. The floor was inlaid with white and black hexagonal tiles, many of them chipped and cracked.
“Four-One Ida, what’s your status? Over,” the radio blared.
“Eighty-five is still requested, Central,” Erin responded. “What’s the ETA? Weren’t they supposed to be here by now?”
“Four-One Adam unable to respond due to vehicular accident en route—redirecting Four-One David to your location. ETA is ten minutes. Recommend you wait for backup, over.”
“Negative, Central. Officer already in pursuit, over and out.”
Erin was not happy with the turn of events. Ten minutes could be an eternity. A shadow at the top of the stairs dissolved into the darkness. If Cal had scared out the perp and he spotted her, then he’d be looking for another exit. Her plan was to sandwich the suspect between herself and Cal. Erin took out her Maglite and crept up the stairs.
At the top of the stairs she shone her light across the landing. Nothing.
She walked across the hall to the second set of stairs and put her foot on the first step. She heard a creak behind her. Before she could turn, there was a swish, like the sound of a switch whipped through the air. Then silence. Not a drop of rain, not a squeak; someone had pulled the plug on the whole world. She realized she was tumbling forward, only because the floor raced toward her. An odd sensation, like gravity had been turned off. She was floating. The moment slowed (a Hollywood special effect) and her view rotated, like clinging to a ball in flight, past the floor and back to the scene behind her. Her temple bore the weight of the fall, hard—she couldn’t move. A beautiful man with long dark hair and bronzed skin had one arm across his chest, and in his hands he held a gleaming sword parallel with the ground. He was the second-to-last thing she witnessed before everything went dark. The last thing Erin Ramos saw was her headless body falling toward her.
Cal searched the roof thoroughly before hopping over the brick divider between the buildings. He landed in a puddle. The cold rain was still coming down hard, and the door to this roof creaked open and shut at the wind’s whim. It was bent, which kept it from closing completely and there was a rusty hole where the lock had once been. He turned on his Maglite and carefully opened the roof door. Something scuttled on the floor below beyond the range of his light. He entered the access way and proceeded down the stairs, his white breath trailing behind him.
The dilapidated tenement, once a shelter for many, now reeked of must, urine, and burnt ashes, the by-product of transients trying to keep warm. Patterns pressed into the tin ceiling reflected a previous era when intricate moldings, rich with details and fancy woodwork, were built into every structure by skilled immigrants. Slumlords turned these edifices into havens for rodents, roaches, and drug addicts.
Cal started to unholster his gun, then changed his mind in favor of the nightstick. He was worried about squatters who might be living there. Nothing hurt worse than accidentally killing someone already down on his or her luck.
The air was colder inside the building. Cal took that as a bad omen. Back at the precinct, the veterans told stories to spook the rookies. The most popular was about taking statements from a person in a building who they later found out had been murdered there years earlier. When they checked photo records it would be a perfect match. Others spoke of homes, which even during winter, were colder inside than outside; it was as though they were no longer connected to the natural world. Nothing good ever came of these places. What they stressed most was, turn around and leave. Just get out of there. Cal chuckled at their intensity, especially Mookie Malone, who would get that glassy stare and even forget his beer. Grown men with guns getting spooked by bumps in the dark. Cal assumed those stories were an elaborate prank to haze the younger officers. He was sure of it—until he entered this building.
The hairs on his arms bristled and he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong. His decision not to wait for backup haunted him.
In his career, Cal had performed a wide range of unpleasant and dangerous tasks. He had recovered decomposed corpses, faced down drug dealers and violent addicts, and broke up angry mobs, while suffering the protestations of a police-wary citizenry. Each day, he left for work confident that he could handle anything “the citizens” threw at him. Now, he felt beyond the safety of that assurance. And, he thought he was being watched.
He landed softly on the top floor and threw his light up and down the hallway.
The scuttling resumed in one of the abandoned apartments at the end of the corridor. Cal crept down the hallway to 5E. The door was off its hinges. He peered into the void and listened before shining his light through the doorway.
The radio suddenly blared.
“Four-One Ida, what’s your status? Over.”
His heart almost burst from his chest. Cal turned the volume down and left the response to his partner. He cursed himself for not turning it down earlier. His position was now compromised, which could be bad if the suspect turned out to be a full-blown wacko. Few assailants would actually attack a police officer, but any cop who depended on that to keep him safe had one foot in the grave.
A few tense seconds passed with no response.
Cal secured his nightstick and drew his pistol. He walked through the doorway and shone the light around the room. It was a studio apartment; the kind coveted by creative types in Manhattan. Beer cans, old newspaper, and dirty dishes were scattered across the wet floor. Plastic buckets caught leaks from the roof, but not enough. A stained mattress lay flopped in the corner. Cracks in the plaster exposed wooden slats in the walls. He could see into the bathroom, the only extension of the single room. There was nowhere to hide, not a corner or a box from which to conceal anything larger than a cat. The room was empty. Yet, something was wrong.
If Cal really had a sixth sense, it was the ability to know when he was being stalked. The image of a gazelle in high grass kept popping into Cal’s head. Every nerve in the cop’s body fired up, his hackles stood on end.
He started to back out of the room slowly. Someone was in there with him, he just was not seeing them. He shifted his light around as he backed up. Rain dripped on his shoulder … and something gooey, too. It smelled acrid, its texture like melted glue. He spun around, ready to fire. No one was there. Then a frightening thought occurred to him. He looked up. Pressed against the black ceiling, two yellow eyes and a fanged grin looked back.
Copyright © 2011 by Edward Lazellari