Emma Green hopes the old man isn’t dead. It’s one of those moments that come along in life where you think one thing and pray for another. The one thing dead for sure is the café. There have only been two customers over the last hour and neither ordered anything beyond a coffee, and her boss isn’t the kind of guy to let anyone go home early even on a slow Monday night, and just as equally he isn’t the kind of guy to be in much of a good mood because of it. The parking lot out back has her car and her boss’s car and a couple of others. There’s a Dumpster off to the side and some milk crates stacked against it and the air smells of cabbage. There’s not much in the way of lighting. But some. Enough to see the old guy slumped in the front seat with his mouth open and his eyes closed, his head angled to one side, looking exactly the same way her granddad looked a couple of years back when they had to bust down the bathroom door after he went in and didn’t come out.
She walks up to the car and peers in. A string of saliva dangles from his lower lip to his chest. His hairline has receded about as far as a hairline can go before being considered bald. She recognizes him. He was in a couple of hours ago. Coffee and a scone and he sat in the corner with a newspaper trying to solve the crossword puzzle. ‘The devil lives here,’ he kept whispering over and over while he tapped his pen on the table, and she glanced over his shoulder thinking she knew the answer and saw there was only space for five letters. Christchurch has twelve. ‘Hades,’ she had told him, and he had smiled and thanked her and been pleasant enough.
She wants to tap on the window hoping he’s sleeping, but if he is sleeping then she may startle and frighten him and then it’s all going to be very embarrassing. But if he isn’t sleeping, maybe his heart only stopped beating a few seconds ago and there’s a good chance it can be kick-started. The sums don’t add up, though, because he left the café over an hour ago. No reason for him to sit out here for an hour before dying, unless he was working on the crossword. Well, maybe the devil got him. She stares through the window. She reaches out to it but doesn’t touch it. She should just let the next person deal with it. But if she did that the old man would still be just as dead in the morning only he’d be poorer, and his car stereo would have gone to.
If she was the one sitting freshly dead in a parked car, would she want people to keep passing her by?
She taps on the window. He doesn’t move. She taps again. Nothing. Her stomach drops as she grabs the handle. The door is unlocked. She swings it open and places a few fingers on his neck, her wrist snapping the drool from his chin where it dangles over her arm like a strand of spiderweb. His skin is still warm but there’s no pulse, not there, and she shifts her fingers and...
He gasps deeply and pulls back. ‘What the fuck?’ he blurts, blinking heavily to clear his vision. ‘Hey, hey, what the hell are you doing?’ he shouts.
‘You goddamn thief whore,’ he says, sounding nothing at all like her granddad – at least nothing like him before the Alzheimer’s set in – and he grabs her hand and pulls her in. ‘You were trying to...’
‘Whore!’ he shouts, then spits on her. She can smell old man sweat and old man food and his clothes smell of old man and his bony grip is strong. She feels sick. Her back hurts from the angle, her back has hurt pretty much from every angle since the car accident last year, and she reaches for his hand and tries to break his grip.
‘You were trying to steal from me,’ he says.
‘No, no, I work at the... the...’ she says, but the words get caught up in the tears, ‘coffee and a... a scone and I, I thought you...’ This close his breath is almost hot and humid enough to start her makeup running. She can’t finish what she’s trying to say.
He lets her go and slaps her across the face. Hard. Harder than she’s ever been slapped by anybody in her seventeen years on this earth. Her head twists to the side and her cheek is burning. Then his hands are on her chest, at first she thinks he’s trying to feel her, but then he’s shoving her and the stars come into view and swirl overhead, and her back is hitting the pavement, her hands behind her breaking the fall.
The car door slams shut. The engine starts. He winds the window down and shouts something else at her before pulling away, but she doesn’t hear him over the car and over the blood rushing in her ears. He races toward the exit, hugging the wall too closely and clipping the edge of the Dumpster there. It grinds a long dent into it, and she expects him to pull over and scream at her some more, but he carries on, racing out onto the street where there’s the squeal of another car’s breaks and somebody yells out “Asshole.”
She sits on the ground crying and angry, her handbag next to her, the contents in a puddle across the tarmac. Her first thought is to go inside and tell her boss what happened, but he’d tell her it was her own fault. Another thing about her boss is that everything is always somebody else’s fault, and in this case he would think she was somehow trying to blame him. She gets onto her feet and looks at her palms. The skin has torn on her right palm, the skin stretched up like a balloon. At least there’s no blood.
She wipes at the tears on her face. ‘Asshole,’ she whispers. The warm wind pushes against her and tugs against the torn skin on her palms, puffing it out like small parachutes. She gets her handbag packed and then has to rummage back through it for her keys, but her keys aren’t there. She crouches back down. She was holding her keys when she was walking out to the parking lot, wasn’t she? She isn’t sure, but she starts to turn, then spots them behind the back wheel of a dirty and beaten-up Toyota. She moves over and bends down and reaches for them. At the same time footsteps race toward her. She looks up and can see a man silhouetted against one of the lights, thank God somebody is here to help.
‘Thank...’ is all she can say, then just utter panic as he jumps on top of her.
She has no idea what’s happening. She tries to fight him and he rewards her by pounding her head into the ground so hard the parking lot lights go dark. She can feel the world slipping away. She thinks she is fighting against it, but she isn’t sure because it feels like she’s falling into a dream. Her grandfather smiling at her, the old man in the car, dropping one of the coffees earlier in the day and getting told off from her boss, her boyfriend wanting to spend the night, then she thinks about Satan living in Christchurch, setting up residence and inflicting His friends upon the city before deciding this isn’t even happening, but for all her good hopes the world drifts away.
When the world comes back, it arrives without any reference to time. It’s just like last year when she had the accident. Back then she was hit by a car, but she has no memory of it. Can’t remember the hour before the accident, or the day following it. This time she can remember. She’s lying down on a mattress, but when she rolls to the side the mattress doesn’t end. Her wrists are painfully sore and are tied behind her, and her legs are tied too, they’re connected to whatever is keeping her wrists together. The headache is the worst, the pressure so strong behind her eyes that whatever is covering them is probably holding them in. She’s thirsty and hungry and the air is hot and stale. It must be ninety degrees. Everything is dark. She starts to cry. This isn’t a hospital. She’s tied up to bake in this oven of a room.
Footsteps. A floorboard creaking. A lock disengaging and then a door opens. Somebody approaches her. She can hear breathing. She tries to talk but can’t. She thinks of her parents, her friends, her boyfriend. She thinks of the old man at the café and she makes a promise to herself that if she gets out of this alive she’ll never help anybody again.
It’s a man’s voice. The pressure is removed from her mouth. There has to be something she can say to get out of this. Something she can say to make him let her go.
‘Please, please,’ she cries, ‘please don’t hurt me. I don’t want to be hurt, please, I’m begging you,’ she says, the tears soaking her face. She doesn’t think she’s ever cried so much. She knows she’s never been this frightened. This man is going to do bad things to her, and she’s going to have to live with what he’s done to her, it will haunt her and make her insane. The person she was is about to die.
But she will get through this. She will survive. She knows that because, because… this was never meant to happen to her. It’s not possible her life is about to end. It doesn’t add up. Doesn’t make sense. She cries harder.
‘Please,’ she says.
The plastic neck of a bottle is pushed against her lips.
‘It’s water,’ he says, and he tips it up. It pours into her mouth. She hates him, but the thirst is overpowering and she accepts the drink. He pulls it away before she can swallow more than a few mouthfuls.
‘There’ll be more soon,’ he says.
‘Who, who are you? What are you going to do with me?’
‘No questions,’ he says, and the pressure is back on her mouth, some form of tape. ‘You’re going to need to keep your strength,’ he tells her. ‘I have something very special planned for you over the following week,’ he tells her, ‘and you won’t be needing these,’ he adds, and she feels a blade slip beneath her clothes and he starts cutting them away.
The dust from the exercise yard clings to the hot air. Flies and mosquitoes are trying to use my neck as a landing strip. Giant concrete walls separate me from the sounds coming from the other side where men are ticking through life, kicking a football or playing cards or getting stomped on. Cranes and scaffolding are off to the right, workmen creating additions to a prison that can’t keep up, dirt and cement dust hugging the air like an early winter’s fog, so thick the details are hard to make out, could be a stampede of cows just came through, could be a stampede of prisoners are trying to escape. My clothes smell stale and feel stiff; they’ve been folded and jammed inside a paper bag for the last four months, but they’re sure as hell more comfortable than the prison jumpsuit I worked, slept, and ate in. Sweat and confinement is still on my skin. Heat is radiating up from the blacktop pavement into my feet. When I close my hands, I can feel the metal and concrete walls that would isolate me from the world the same way an amputee can feel a phantom leg. My last four months have been all about isolation. Not just from the world, but from other prisoners too. I’ve spent day after day surrounded by cells full of pedophiles and other pieces of human trash that couldn’t be thrown into the general population for fear of having their throats ripped open. Four months that felt like four years, but it could have been worse. I could have had my teeth smashed out and made to play fetch-the-soap every night. I was an ex-cop in a concrete-and-steel world surrounded by men who hated cops more than they hated each other. I felt nauseous being surrounded by child molesters, but it was the better alternative. Mostly they kept to themselves, spending their days fantasizing about what it was that got them arrested. Fantasizing about getting back to that life.
The prison guards watch me from the entrance. They seem worried I’m going to try and break back in. I feel like a character in a movie; that lost guy who wakes up in a different time and has to grab somebody by the shoulders to ask them for the date, including the year, only to be looked at like they’re a fool. Of course I know the date. I’ve been waiting for this day ever since I got thrown inside. My clothes are a little bigger because I’m a little smaller. Prison nutrition is malnutrition.
The nine o’clock sun is beating down and forming a long shadow behind me. In most directions it looks like there is water resting on the surface of the ground, a thin pool shimmering in the heat. The blacktop grabs at the soles of my shoes as I walk across it. I have to hold my hand up to my face to shield my eyes. I’ve been out of jail for twenty-five seconds and I don’t remember a day as hot as this before going in. I haven’t seen much sun over the last four months and already my pale skin is starting to burn. The longer I was trapped behind those walls behind me, the further away this particular Wednesday seemed. Prison has a way of fooling with time. There are a few cars around belonging to visitors, and one has a guy leaning against it staring at me. He’s wearing tan pants and there are dark rings in the armpits of his white shirt and he’s lost a bit of weight since the last time I saw him, but the buzz-cut hair is still the same, and so is his expression, of which, lately, he seems to have only the one. I can smell smoke from something big burning far off in the distance. I close my eyes against the sun and let it warm my skin, and then burn, and when I open them again, Schroder is no longer leaning against the car. He’s covered half the distance between us.
‘Good to see you, Tate,’ Schroder says, and I take his hand when he reaches me. It’s hot and sweaty and it’s the first hand I’ve shaken in a long time, but I can remember how it goes. The prison food didn’t rot all of my brain away. ‘How was it?’
‘How do you think it was?’ I ask, letting go.
‘Yeah. Well. I guess,’ Schroder says, summing things up. He’s just looking for words and not finding them, and Schroder won’t be the last. A couple of exhausted-looking birds fly low past us, looking for somewhere cooler. ‘I thought you could do with a lift home.’
There’s a white minivan waiting near the entrance, the bottom half of it covered in dirt, the top half only marginally better. There’re a couple of other guys released today sitting onboard, both have shaved heads and tattoo raindrops streaming from their eyes, they’re on opposite sides of the van staring out opposite windows wanting nothing to do with each other. Another guy, a short, powerfully built man with all the fingers on his right hand missing, turning his fist into a club, is swaggering out from the prison, his arms puffed out to the side to encompass his large chest and even larger ego. He stares at me before climbing into the back of the van. I give it a week tops before they’re all back in here.
Four of us are getting released today and I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of spending twenty minutes in a vehicle with any of them. I’m not exactly thrilled about spending time with Schroder either.
‘I appreciate it,’ I tell him.
We head over to his dark gray unmarked police car that’s covered in dust from the drive out here, making all the letters on the side of the tires stand out. I climb in and it’s hotter inside. I play around with the air-conditioning and get some of the vents pointing in my direction. I watch Christchurch Prison get smaller in the side mirror before disappearing behind a large belt of trees. We hit the highway and turn right, toward the city. We drive past long paddocks with dry grass and barbed-wire fences. There are guys in those fields driving tractors and whipping up clouds of dirt and wiping the early-morning sweat from their faces. Away from all the construction and the air is clear.
‘Any thoughts to what you’re gonna do now?’ Schroder asks.
‘Why? You want to offer me my old job back?’
‘Yeah, that’d go down well.’
‘Then I’ll become a farmer. Looks like a pretty nice lifestyle.’
‘I don’t know any farmers, Tate, but I’m pretty sure you’d make the worst kind.’
‘Yeah? What kind is that?’
He doesn’t answer. He’s thinking I’d make the kind of farmer who’d shoot any cattle being mean to the other cattle. I try to imagine myself driving one of those tractors seven days a week and moving cows from one field to another, but no matter how hard I try I can’t get any of those images to stick. Traffic gets thicker the closer we get to town.
‘Look, Tate, I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’m starting to see things a little different now.’
‘What kind of different?’
‘This city. Society, I don’t know. What is it you say about Christchurch?’
‘It’s broken,’ I answer, and it’s true.
‘Yeah. It’s seems like it’s been breaking down for a while. But things… things are, I don’t know. It’s like things just aren’t getting better. You’re out of the loop since leaving the force three years ago, but we’re outnumbered. People are disappearing. Men and women leave for work or home and just never show up.’
‘My guess is they’ve had enough and are escaping,’ I suggest.
‘It’s not that.’
‘This is your idea of small talk?’
‘You’d rather tell me about your last four months?’
We pass a field where two farmers are burning off rubbish, most of it bush that’s been cut back, thick black smoke spiraling straight up into the sky where it hangs like a rain cloud without any breeze to help it on its way. The farmers are standing next to tractors, their hands on their hips as they watch, the air around them hazy with the heat. The smell comes through the air vents and Schroder shuts them down and the car gets warmer. Then we’re heading past a gray brick wall about two meters high with Christchurch written across it, no welcome to in front of the name. In fact, somebody has spray-painted a line through church and written help us. Cars are speeding in each direction, everybody in a hurry to be somewhere. Schroder switches the air-conditioning back on. We reach the first big intersection since leaving jail and sit at a red light opposite a service station where a four-wheel drive has backed into one of the pumps and forced all the staff to stand around in a circle with no idea what to do next. The board out front tells me petrol has gone up by ten percent since I’ve been gone. I figure the temperature is up about forty percent and the crime rate up by fifty. Christchurch is all about statistics; ninety percent of them bad. One entire side of the petrol station has been covered in graffiti.
The light turns green and nobody moves for about ten seconds because the guy up front is arguing on his cell phone. I keep waiting for the car tires to melt. We both get lost in our own thoughts until Schroder breaks the silence.
‘Point is, Tate, this city is changing. We catch one bad guy and two more take his place. It’s escalating, Tate, spiraling out of control.’
‘It’s been spiraling for a while, Carl. Way before I ever left the force.’
‘Well, these days it seems worse.’
‘Why am I getting a bad feeling about this?’ I ask.
‘About why you came to pick me up. You want something, Carl, so just spit it out.’
‘He drums his fingers on the steering wheel and gazes straight ahead, his eyes locked on the traffic. White light bounces off every smooth surface and it’s becoming harder to see a damn thing. I’m worried by the time I make it home my eyeballs will have liquefied. ‘In the backseat,’ he says. ‘There’s a file you need to take a look at.’
‘I don’t need to do anything except put on some sunglasses. Got some spares?’
‘No. Just take a look.’
‘Whatever it is you want, Carl, it’s something that I don’t want.’
‘I want to get another killer off the streets. You’re telling me you don’t want that?’
‘That’s a shitty comment.’
‘See, the man I knew a year ago would have wanted that. He would have asked me how he could have helped. That man a year ago, he would have been giving me his help even if I didn’t want it. You remember that, Tate? You remember that man? Or did those four months in the slammer fog up your memory?’
‘I remember it perfectly. I remember you shutting me down when I knew more than you did.’
‘Jesus, Tate, you have a strange perception of reality. You got in the way of an investigation, you stole, you lied to me, and you were a real pain in the ass. Reality saw you kill somebody, it saw you crash your car into a teenage girl and put her in the hospital.’
Last year I tracked down a serial killer, and people died in the process. Bad people. At the time I didn’t know one of them was bad, and killing him was an accident. That guilt, it changed me. It got me drinking. And drinking led to the car accident which led to me getting sober again.
‘You don’t need to lecture me on reality,’ I say, thinking about my daughter, cold in the ground for three years and never coming back, then thinking about my wife in her care home, her body nothing more than a shell inside of which used to live the most perfect woman in the world.
‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘You’re the last person who needs a lecture on reality.’
‘Anyway, I’m a different man now.’
‘Why, did you find God while you were locked away?’
‘God doesn’t even know that place exits,’ I tell him.
‘Look, Tate, we’re losing a battle and I need your help. That man a year ago, he didn’t care about boundaries. He did what needed to be done. He didn’t care about consequences. He didn’t care about the law. I’m not asking any of that from you now. I’m only asking for your help. For your insight. How can a man who did all of that last year not want to offer that?’
‘Because that man ended up in jail with nobody to give a damn about him,’ I say, the words more bitter than I intend them to be.
‘No, Tate, that man ended up in jail because he got drunk and almost killed somebody with his car. Come on, all I’m asking is for you to take a look at the file. Read it over and tell me what you think. I’m not asking you to track anybody down or get your hands dirty. Truth is we’re all losing perspective, we’re too close – and hell, no matter what you’ve done or the actions you’ve taken, this is what you’re good at. This is why you were put on this Earth.’
‘You’re stretching,’ I tell him.
‘And trying to appeal to your ego.’ He takes his eyes off the road for a second to flash me a smile. ‘But what isn’t a stretch is the fact that you can do with the money.’
‘Money? What, the police department is going to put me back on the payroll? I seriously doubt that.’
‘That’s not what I said. Look, there’s a reward. Three months ago it was fifty thousand dollars. Now it’s two hundred thousand. It goes to whoever can offer information that leads to an arrest. What else you going to do, Tate? At least take a look at the file. Give yourself a chance to—’
His cell phone rings. He doesn’t finish his sentence. He reaches for it and doesn’t say much, just listens, and I don’t need to hear any of the conversation to know it’s bad news. When I was a cop nobody ever rang to give me good news. Nobody ever rang to thank me for catching a criminal, to buy me some pizza and beer and say good job. Schroder slows a little as he drives, his hand tight on the wheel. He has to swerve out wide to avoid a large puddle of safety glass from a recent accident, each piece reflecting the sunlight like a diamond. I think about the money, and what I could do with it. I stare out the window and watch a pair of surveyors in yellow reflective vests measuring the street, planning on cutting it up in the near future to widen it or narrow it or just to keep the city’s roadworking budget ticking over. Schroder indicates and pulls over and somebody honks at us and gives the finger. Schroder keeps talking as he does a U-turn. I think about the man I was a year ago, but I don’t want to be him anymore. Schroder hangs up.
‘Sorry to do this to you, Tate, but something’s come up. I can’t take you home. I’ll drop you off in town. Is that okay?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘You got any money for a taxi?’
‘What do you think?’ I actually had fifty dollars stuffed into my pants pocket for this day, but between the time I took my clothes off four months ago and got them back, that fifty found a new home.
We hit the edge of town. We get caught in thick traffic where a lane has been closed down so some large trees overlapping the power lines can be trimmed back, the trucks and equipment blocking the way, but the workers are all sitting in the shade too hot to work. We reach the police station in town. He pulls in through the gates. There’s a patrol car ahead of us with two cops dragging a man out from the backseat, he’s screaming at them and trying to bite them and the two cops both look like they want to put him down like a rabid dog. Schroder digs into his pocket and hands me thirty dollars. ‘This will get you home,’ he says.
‘I’ll walk,’ I say, and open up the car door.
‘Come on, Tate, take the money.’
‘Don’t worry – it’s not that I’m pissed at you. I’ve been locked up for solong I need the exercise.’
‘You try walking home in this heat and you’re a dead man.’
I don’t want his help. Problem is the heat is already close to blistering the paintwork on the car. It blasts through the open door, passing over my skin and sucking away any moisture. Even my eyes feel like they’re being lubricated by sand. I take the money. ‘I’ll pay you back.’
‘You can pay me back by picking up the file.’
‘No,’ I say, but I can feel it back there, pulling at me, this magnet for violence whispering to me, telling me within its covers is a map which will take me back into that world. ‘I can’t. I mean… I just can’t.’
‘Come on, Tate. What the hell are you going to do? You’ve got a wife to take care of. A mortgage. You’ve had no income for four months. You’re slipping behind. You need a job. You need this job. I need you to take this job. Who the hell else is going to hire you for anything? Look, Tate, you nailed a serial killer last year, but do you think anybody is going to care about that? No matter how you justify it, or weigh up the rights and wrongs of what you did, the fact is always going to be the same – you’re an ex-con now. You can’t escape that. Your life isn’t the same life it was back then.’
‘Thanks for the ride, Carl. It was about halfway useful.’
It isn’t until I’m on the street with the gates to the police parking lot closing behind me that I look down at the file, pages of death crammed inside its covers, waiting for me, knowing all along I couldn’t turn it away.