Free Cleaning Service: Part One

silhouette of a man in window
Photo by Donald Tong on Pexels.com

Jim Morgan ducked under the police tape and pulled his coat tighter against the wind. He moved with hurried steps, little splashes of muddy rainwater billowing around his ankles. He gave a final glance upwards to the dark, cloudy sky, then pushed through the creaky wooden door to the cozy diner within. The layout of the place was extremely basic. A dozen circular tables crowded around the floor, with a cashier’s counter fronting a kitchen along the left wall. Across the back wall was the occasional window offering a view of the neighboring Main Street, or at least they would have been under fairer weather. On a stormy night such as this, the interior lights overpowered the external darkness and the windows became large black mirrors. Jim was drawn to the image of his duplicate in the glass, watching him come in from the cold, cup his hands to his mouth, and blow into them for warmth.

“Sir?” a police deputy stood up from his chair and approached him. The officer couldn’t have been older than twenty-two, and the way he nervously loitered around made it clear he had no idea what one was supposed to do at a crime scene.

“Detective Morgan,” Jim gestured to himself, but didn’t trouble to pull out his badge to prove it. “Let Barry know I’m here, if you will.”

“Barry?” the young man repeated, confusion wrinkling his brow.

“Detective Barton,” Jim clarified and comprehension dawned on the deputy’s face. “He phoned that he wanted to see me here.”

“Yes, sir, of course,” the officer said, yet he remained on the spot, shifting his weight around uncomfortably. “It’s just that—well, he’s occupied with the crime scene presently.” The young man started to turn his face in the direction of the kitchen doors, but he halted halfway through the motion and instead jerked his thumb over the shoulder instead. Now it was Jim’s face that broke in comprehension.

“You haven’t been in there yet, have you son?” he asked bluntly. The deputy dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head. For the first time Jim paused to look at the man’s badge and read his name. “There’s no shame in not wanting to see, Ellis,” he said compassionately. “And I’ll tell you right now there’s no special trick to stomaching that sort of stuff, it’s just hard. Always is.” Ellis looked back up and Jim held eye contact for a few moments, trying to remember a time when his own face had been that innocent. Still, if the man was expecting to be let off the hook, he was about to be disappointed. “But that’s the job,” Jim said flatly. “Go tell Detective Barton that I’m here.”

There was a firm finality in Jim’s tone and Ellis didn’t try to argue the point, instead exhaling slowly and dejectedly shuffling off towards the kitchen door. Meanwhile, Jim turned and walked deeper into the diner, making his way to the dark mirror of a window where he could peered closely at his own reflection. To be sure, there wasn’t any of that old innocence left in him now, and not even the miles of tracks under his eyes did justice to the distances he had traveled for this job. He was tired. Tired in ways he couldn’t begin to explain. His blinked, then so did his reflection.

“Jim?” A voice called him out of his reverie and he spun around to see Barry emerging out of the kitchen. Barry had barely cleared the door before Ellis followed behind him, much paler in the face now and moving with nervous, rapid footfalls. Barry strode the rest of the way to Jim with a few giant paces, and the two shook hands with a well-practiced familiarity.

“Hello, Barry,” Jim said, thus concluding the formalities of their greeting. Now they could get to the heart of the matter. “You said you wanted to see me?”

“Right. And you brought the file I asked for?”

Jim nodded, pulling the manila folder out from the dryer confines of his overcoat and handing it to Barry who began thumbing through its contents. The folder was aged, but the case was not. In fact it was so recent that Jim’s thumb still bore a black mark where he had smudged it against the freshly-typed details of the case, details that were similarly smudged across his mind.

Harold and Ava Harrison, both in their late sixties.
Both retired.
Found dead in their apartment, by the landlord who had responded to a neighbor’s report of loud shouting.
No sign of forced entry.
Little sign of struggle.
All in broad daylight, yet with no one having seen the perpetrator.

Those last details were a bit uncommon, but not enough to make the case particularly stand out. Thus far Jim had made little progress on the investigation, but that was how many of these went.

Barry had gone directly to the section for evidence. Jim knew there wasn’t much there. A couple statements, the phone records, and some stray pieces of mail taken from the home. Barry selected one of these and held it up in its plastic bag. Jim squinted at the paper. Free Cleaning Service.

“The new carpet cleaning business?Jim asked, remembering the advertisement.

Barry nodded.

“Yeah…come to think of it, that was one of the bits you helped me follow up on, wasn’t it?”

Barry nodded again. “That’s why I remember it.”

“Sure…what was it they said to you?”

“Not much. Was just a one-man operation, said he didn’t keep track of names or addresses, just went to people when they called. Asked if he had been to the Harrisons, he said no, said sometimes he had to turn people down because of conflicting schedules.”

Jim nodded, memories of Barry’s report trickling back. At the time it had been buried like one drop of data within a stream but now, when it stood on its own, it did seem a bit odd. “Strange for a one-man operation to be sending out free services. Seems like he’d never be able to keep up with all the calls.”

“That’s true. Of course, you didn’t know that when you sent me there. Was there something else that made this flier stand out to you.”

Jim closed his eyes and called back the remembrance of that day. “Yeah,” he said finally. “I was trying to piece together why it would’ve happened in the middle of the day and with no forced entry. A service-man just made sense for it.”

“Good thinking,” Barry agreed. “It would also explain an owner found dead in his diner, again with no forced entry but this time in the evening… after closing hours.”

At last Jim was seeing the connection, and the reason why Barry had called him down here. “You found another flier.” It wasn’t a question.

Now it was Barry’s turn to reach a hand into his overcoat, pulling out a plastic bag with an identical Free Cleaning Service flier in it. “The owner was holding it.”

Jim closed his eyelids and exhaled slowly. As if things hadn’t been bad enough already… A part of him wanted to resist agreeing with Barry, simply because he didn’t want to face the conclusion that stood at the end of this this line of reasoning. But that was the job. He opened his eyes and blinked them back into focus. “Alright, we’ll work it together from here on. I can go back to the office and fill out for a warrant on the cleaner’s place. If we get it before end-of-day tomorrow then maybe we can wrap it up in a hurry.”

“Works for me. Tell you what, though, I’ll go back to the office for the warrant. You can head home, or else have a look around here if you want to see.”

Jim scoffed derisively. “No one wants to see, Barry,” his eyes glanced briefly back to Ellis who had sunk back into his chair from before. “But yeah, I’d better go check it out. See you tomorrow.”

Barry nodded, handed Jim the casefile he’d been putting together, then left out the front door. Ellis looked up as he left, then back to Jim, evidently uncertain of which detective he was supposed to remain with.

“Go call the morgue to come for the body, I won’t be long,” Jim told him. “Then go ahead and get home, I’ll wait here for them.” As the young man enthusiastically left his perch for the phone, Jim swallowed something back that had been rising in his throat and strode towards the diner’s kitchen.

*

Jim held the kitchen door open for the morgue workers as they shuffled out, each carrying an end of the black bag. When they were through he hurried ahead to do the same for them at the diner’s main entrance. They thanked him as they progressed to their hearse and he grunted in response. He stepped back into the empty diner and gave it one last sweeping glance, then strode to each of the room’s chandeliers to turn them off. The thought occurred that it was a strange thing to do, seeing as there was no living owner to thank him for the gesture. Still, courtesy even to the dead, wasn’t that right? Courtesy especially to the dead.

He approached the last table, the one set underneath dark window he had used for a mirror before. He peered back at his reflection and asked himself what he saw there. Was he imagining things, or had a new line appeared under his eyes that very night? His reflection blinked, then so did he.

Jim turned back to the last chandelier, reached up, and turned it off. With the last light doused, darkness swept through the room and the light within the diner no longer overpowered the blackness without. Now visible for the first time was a man outside, staring in through the same window. The man was tall and thin, his hair a motley mess of dark strands, framing a shockingly pale face. His eyes were open in a wide stare, glistening as though they bore unshed tears. His lips were curling back and opening, exposing his teeth in a broad grin. Jim’s back was already turned though, and he remained oblivious to the watcher as he walked to the opposite wall, out the front door, and into the night.

***

As I said in my post on Monday, a good horror story should take residence in the core, fundamental fears inherent to the human condition. My purpose in this story was to focus on a few, such as the fear of innocence lost, the fear of being watched, the fear of being our safe places being made unsafe, and the fear of being powerless. The first two of these you can see in the first half already, and the other two will crop up in the conclusion next week.

One thing that I debated when writing this story was the portrayal of Jim Morgan as the gruff and jaded police detective. I felt that that was such a tired trope, and I didn’t want to be going that route just to follow some trend. As I thought about it, though, I felt that within the context of this story it was essential for his character be this way. At his core, Jim fears that he has been tainted, that he has walked through a dark mist and now wherever he goes a part of it might be following him. It is a fear we all have experienced in our moments of guilt, and I could think of no better way to establish it than to write him gruff and tired.

This question of whether your story decisions are being motivated by its needs versus just shoehorning it to match a certain trope or genre deserves further examination, though, and next Monday I will discuss the point further. I’ll see you then.

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