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.
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.
“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.
It was the next afternoon and Jim fumbled with the lock on his old apartment door. The deadbolt finally slid back and he took hold of the knob, pulling upwards as he also swung the door inwards. He and his family had learned that this was the only way to prevent the bottom of the door from scraping across the floor, and there were little arcs carved on the tile from before they had this solution. Jim had promised that one day he would fix both the door and the tiles, but that day still had not arrived four years later.
His wife switched off the vacuum she was pushing across the old living room carpet and looked up to him in surprise. “You’re home early, I thought you said something about staying late today.”
“Unfortunately not,” he sighed, placing his hat and coat on the rack.
“Unfortunately,” she repeated accusingly, her dark brows furrowing together. “You mean you’d rather not be home with your family?”
He opened his mouth to give an explanation, thought better of it, and instead shook his head and murmured “That’s not how I meant it.” What exactly was he supposed to say? ‘Unfortunate’ because a warrant didn’t come through and a homicidal maniac is roaming our streets for another day?
Sarah didn’t press the matter. Her eyes had just settled on the two casefiles in his hand and a grim look of understanding shadowed her face. She had learned during the first years of her husband’s career the significance of two files. One file meant a murderer, two meant a killer. The difference was subtle but significant. A murderer existed only in a brief, singular moment. A murderer’s work happened and then stopped. Most people became a murderer without even meaning to. A killer, on the other hand, was deliberate. It was a profession. A way of being.
Jim followed Sarah’s eyes and he winced. She hated whenever he brought the nasty trappings of his work home, but he had honestly forgotten the files were in hand when he left the office. They both stood there in heavy silence, and after a moment he broke eye contact and shuffled off towards the kitchen for a drink. Jim dropped the casefiles on the counter next to the mail, then filled a tall glass of water and took it down in large gulps. It was too cold and it stung his parched throat, but after a hot and muggy day he rather enjoyed the pain of coldness. He heard the vacuum start up again in the living room again and shook his head. It seemed Sarah vacuumed every day, no matter how many times he told her it wasn’t going to help. The fabric was too shallow and the stains were too deep. Her vacuum would never clean it, and his salary would never pay to replace it. It simply was what it was and had to be accepted. The last drops of water trickled out of the glass and he set it down as he scooped up the casefiles, a single paper falling out of one of them and resting on the pile of mail. Jim didn’t notice though, and he went to the bedroom and shut the files in his nightstand drawer, hiding them from view.
“Dad?” he heard his son’s voice call from the bedroom down the hall. “Is that you?”
“Hey, could you come read through this essay with me? It just doesn’t feel right but I can’t tell how come.”
“Uh, well see, I was going to catch the–” he paused as his eyes fell on the nightstand clock. 4:15 pm. He had forgotten, coming home early meant there weren’t going to be any games on the television yet. “I’m coming” he sighed in defeat, rubbing his weary face, and then lumbering down the hall to help his son.
As the two of them mulled over the essay Sarah finished the vacuuming and took a moment to stare back at the floor in complete dissatisfaction. She placed the appliance back in its corner, then made her way to the kitchen to start something stewing for dinner. She put a pot on the stovetop and started it heating, then pulled various leftovers out of the fridge and placed them down on the counter. She mechanically reached for the mail and her face brightened as she read the first item, a flier promoting a new carpet cleaning business. Free Cleaning Service. A slight smile crossed her lips and for a moment dinner was forgotten while she reached for the phone.
It was the middle of the night, yet sleep only came to Jim in small waves, each throwing him back onto the shores of wakefulness. He couldn’t recall the last time he had had a full night’s rest. Though he craved the slumber, he dreaded the idea of relinquishing all vigilances for hours on end. He couldn’t help thinking of how helpless it left him, paralyzed and exposed to the mercy of an unmerciful world. Jim turned his nightstand clock to check the time, but its face was blank. The power was out. He kneaded his brow with his palms, then swung his legs out of bed and exited the room.
It was remarkable how the darkness in the house seemed thicker than on other nights. As he groped about like a stranger he realized how much he depended on little things like the microwave’s clock face and the television’s indicator lights to serve as anchors, waypoints that helped him to map out his orientation in the home. Now, though, it felt like a thick sheet was smothering all of his senses, and he softly cursed as he walked full-on into a wall.
Finally staggering his way into the front room he found the sofa and dropped onto it. He almost reached for the television remote before he reminded himself that there was no power. So instead he paused and just listened. There was nothing. Not even the chirping of crickets or rumble of cars out on the street. The more he sat in the emptiness the more it unnerved him. Somehow the world just didn’t seem right in this moment. He kneaded his forehead again, pressing the palms firmly against his eyes until little fireworks appeared against the closed lids. He was so tired, so weighed down, so tainted by association. He opened his eyes and still all they saw was darkness. Shouldn’t they be adjusted to this already?
Rising to his feet he stumbled over to the deck’s sliding glass door and pulled back the curtain. Nothing. All the other apartment porchlights were out, so were the streetlights. The sky was cloudy again and the moon and stars were too weak to break through them. It was not a cool night, rather the air was warm, stagnant and clammy. It added to the sense that he had been plunged into a suffocating ink and there was nothing in his power that he could do about it.
Jim leaned forward and rested his head on the cool glass. That, at least, felt nice. He swayed slowly on the spot, closing his eyes, letting his mind rest. He lost track of time. One minute. Two, three. Though standing, Jim’s mind was beginning to stray into the subconscious. As his mind sunk from the present moment he had the sensation that he was slowly falling down and backwards. Down towards something that was reaching up for him. Something malevolent stretching up higher… folding around him… closing… and…
Jim snapped his head up and turned to face the opposite direction, his eyes fixated on the front door. Every hair on his body stood on end. He hadn’t heard anything, he hadn’t even imagined anything, but somehow it was as though he had sensed a rift. Even as he stared at the dark door the sensation was continuing to mount within him, finally breaking in a shiver that traveled the length of his spine. Without knowing why, Jim held his breath and moved as silently as possible across the room. He could feel his heart thudding in dread and beads of sweat were forming along his brow. He reached the entrance to his home and pressed an unblinking eye up against the peephole.
A man stood immediately on the other side of the door, staring back at him. The form was tall and broad, entirely shrouded in darkness save for the two glistening eyes and a row of white teeth popping into view along a widening grin. Jim had the distinct impression that somehow the man knew Jim was looking at him, was watching him watch him. Jim’s heart didn’t race anymore, it entirely skipped its beats. His mouth opened to call but only a vague rattling of air escaped his throat. His initial horror was broken with another as he realized that the doorknob was turning beneath him. Instinctively he gripped it with both hands and tried to hold it secure. Even so, the force at the other end was not to be denied and the metal rubbed slowly but surely under Jim’s sweaty palms. A weight was brought to bear on the wood and the door began to push inwards. Jim threw himself against the barrier, kicking his feet against the ground for extra force, yet the door continued, slowly but steadily inwards, the low bottom scraping along the floor now, wood and tile vibrating together in a long shuddering scream.