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When they arrived, the wagon-men were
already standing around outside the front of the house, chatting and smoking
cigarettes, leaning against the shadowed bulk of their meat-wagon. The
structure behind seemed to hunch overhead like an oversolicitous funeral
An aging HUD bi-level, the place was tucked
back up against an alley, last in a row of a dozen other homes fronting
the north section of Water Street, Eighteenth District. All were dismally
similar; barred windows and entryways, cheap facades, the architecture
of poverty. Slanting bars of late afternoon sun cast long shadows across
the neighborhood, giving its buildings a furtive, hollow look.
Netti yanked the wheel hard over, jamming
the car against the curbside, then leaned his bulk back into the seat
cushions and cursed fluently.
When the flood of profanity had ceased,
he turned to his charge, riding shotgun beside him.
"Grab that paper bag under your seat,"
he said. Cracking the door, he levered his cumbersome body up and out
of the car. A blast of cool air gusted in, ruffling Erin's bangs as she
fumbled under the Dodge's cracked upholstery. Her search turned up a wrinkled
sac with a familiar odor. Stuffing it into a coat pocket, she climbed
out of the car. Netti was proving to be one of the most frustrating, impenetrable,
and annoying individuals she'd ever worked with. Something of a sexist,
It had also been immediately apparent to
Erin that he was the best Homicide had to offer; incisive and calculating,
the man combined a formidable self-education with two lifetimes worth
of knowledge gleaned from the streets. As a Field Training Officer, he'd
been more than difficult, often leaving his trainee to sort out loose
ends of their investigations as best she could. Still, Erin was satisfied
with her choice, an instinct confirmed by CPD recordsover the course
of his entire career, Netti had logged barely two dozen unsolved assignments.
Erin imagined him the type who kept files of those still-open cases, leafing
their worn pages as he sat alone with ... yes, a cat. In a bachelor's
There was no questioning the man's competencehis
social skills were another matter entirely. She pushed the car door quietly
shut and followed him to where the meat-wagon stood in the mouth of the
"Hey, Netti!" one of the wagon-men
called cheerfully, "we were waiting for you. There's a situation
in there calls for your, uh... expertise."
The detective smiled thinly and glanced
over to where a beat cop leaned against the side of the steps, panting
and clutching his mouth. The man's partner, pale, sucked heavily at a
menthol and offered little comfort.
"Terrific. Come on," Netti muttered.
Erin, two paces behind, brushed through the cold, measuring gazes of the
wagon-men without comment. As she hiked up the steps, one called after.
"Miss ... you might want to skip this
one." She turned to see the younger man looking up at her, his face
solemn. The advice appeared honestly given, but ... well, they were a
cold bunch, these guys who carried away corpses, with gallows humorwas
this a ploy? Erin knew that if she backed down they'd think her weak.
She felt a momentary surge of anger, quickly throttled it.
"I'll manage," she replied evenly.
Netti was already inside the foyer. The
splintered frame of its outer door had been propped with a rock. The moment
Erin entered, her nostrils filled with the dark odor of lingering decay.
Netti had produced a vial from his breast pocket, and was dabbing twin
smears of its contents under his nostrils. He offered the jar, and Erin
followed suit. The white ointment had a heavy, astringent odor that made
the stink somewhat more bearable.
"Always a bad sign to see the wagon
boys standing around outside the scene." Netti pulled on a pair of
latex gloves, handed Erin a set. The overhead was out, but reddening sunlight
illuminated the inside door, cracked slightly open. The detective pushed
The smell poured from out of the darkened
landing like a wave, a combination of putrefaction and aged rot. Erin
gagged and stumbled back, but Netti held his ground, fumbling around inside
the doorframe. There was a dry clicking.
"Agghh!" He coughed, then poked
his head out and glared over at the wagon-men. "Bring lights!"
he called. The two made desultory movements toward their van.
"What is that?"
Netti turned to his trainee. "Someone's
been dead a good while in thereafter a week or so, bodies swell
up, burst open... 'poppers', they're called."
"Lovely term. I'm familiar with the
process of decomposition."
"Well, that's what it smells like."
A small flashlight appeared in one of Netti's fat hands. Ever prepared,
Erin produced her weighty mag-lite, then was too surprised to protest
when the detective confiscated it and handed her his inferior plastic
one. Fuming, she followed him inside.Their twin beams played around the
landing, cutting the cool, dank air.
Erin cocked an ear, listening. "Hear
Water dripped from somewhere in the ceiling.
The wagon-men were audible outside, fumbling and cursing over the portable
halogens. Buried underneath was another sound, muffed by distance, a faint,
Netti waved his light around. "Power's
on somewhere. Sounds like an old water-heater."
The interior decor matched crackhouses
Erin had seen over the last few weeks; stained walls bare of any decoration,
light fixtures removed or covered overthe rooms adjoining the landing
contained a few sticks of furniture, but not enough to give any illusion
of occupancy. Floors were thick with undisturbed dust, bits of broken
plaster and debris. They entered the kitchen. The drains were stopped;
the downstairs toilet was a shattered porcelain ruin. Cockroaches scuttled
secretively through the wreckage. A drifting smell of sewage wafted from
the broken plumbing, mixing with the darker odors of decay.
"Gimme that bag," grunted the
detective. Erin handed over the half-forgotten sac as Netti flipped on
a stove burner, his thick fingers feeling the spiral element for heat.
"Power's on, all right." He began rummaging through empty cabinets
and drawers, finally turning up a dented and rusty pan. Placing this on
the burner, he dumped most of the bag onto its surface. Coffee beans spilled
out, and the room slowly began to fill with the sharp odor of their burning.
"You got it."
The obscene smell seemed concentrated in
the rear of the building, becoming more pronounced as they moved to the
back hall. The faint, bass thumping grew in aural counterpoint to the
"Could there be somebody here?"
Erin asked. "Alive, I mean."
"Not likely. A kid, maybe. Sometimes
they'll stay with a deceased parent or guardian ... you know, nobody ever
calls or visits, the mail vanishes regular-like, and finally after week
or two, we get the dread call from dispatch: 'check suspicious odor',
and besides the corpse, maybe find a child hiding in the closet or something.
Erin stared. Netti was not given to long
speeches or explanations.
"You gotta be careful, though,"
he went on moodily. "Sometimes, there'll be boobytrapslike,
a guy wires the trigger of his shotgun to the doorknob, does himself with
a pistol. Then the one that finds him gets it too. Or crackhouse defenses;
pits cut in the floor, tricks with knives... you have to watch yourself.
But that...." he held up a finger as the noise seemed to randomly
trail off and start again, "is probably nothing. Probably, I said."
They moved on, beams swaying ahead over
the littered floors. Carpet squelched wetly under their feet. The door
at the end of the rear hall was nailed shut. Erin leaned slightly on the
stained frame, which seemed to settle back into place as if some internal
pressure forced it outward. The jamb, as well as the gap under the frame,
had been filled in with wood shims, the edges caulked tight.
"Looks rotted." Netti's hand
grasped the knob. "I wonder...." His thick arm straightened
as he pulled experimentally.
"Don't" Erin began.
The door did not so much come open as fly
apart, panels and frame shredding before the wave of noisome liquid that
surged out into the hallway, flooding over Erin's knees, shoving her back
against the wall. The stench exploded out behind it, a soul-churning tide
of corruption that wrapped around her like a wet blanket. Erin leaned
over and was sick into the chuckling waters that lapped her legs.
God! The stink, all over her ... the flashlight
beam showed unidentifiable things floating in the thick waters, grayish
rafts of matter like clotted milk, stringy bits of something like gristle.
Erin's eyes swam. Gagging, she dragged herself upright against the wall.
Netti stood calmly, service revolver gleaming in one fat, pale hand, feet
braced against the black water that swirled down around his ankles. His
flashlight was centered firmly on the yawning doorway.
"My, my." He breathed gently
through his mouth.
"Detective?" Erin sloshed forward
and shone her beam over the man's shoulder. The room beyond was nearly
bare; drowned fixtures lay under a glaze of slime coating the walls like
a bathtub ring. Standing pools of water rippled as the remaining fluid
drained out the open door. From a ragged hole in the ceiling, faint illumination
picked out what lay at the room's center.
A slithering pile of neon snakes, writhing
over and through a tangle of pink balloons. A heaped mass of corruption
and decay that moved under its own power. Layered tiers of shambles piled
three feet deep in thick pink and yellow blankets... Initially, it was
difficult for Erin to process what she was seeing, not from fright or
terror, but simply because the thing was utterly confusing.
"Uh ... what exactly am I looking
Detective Netti turned his head and spat.
"That's what your basic hillbilly
would call a gutpile," he said flatly. "An awfully big one."
Shapes swam dramatically into focus in
the beam as Erin's brain began to fit them into understandable patterns.
She was looking at a huge mass of internal organs. Here, a deflated gall
bladder nestled into loops of swollen viscera, there, soft tissues and
membranes gelled together with rot. Puffed with gas, sections of intestine
protruded from the pile like obscene party favors. The whole was several
feet high, though the rushing waters had probably carried much of it away.
In the dim light, the mound trembled with the secret workings of insect
life and the machinations of decay, seeming to pulse in time to the thumping
beat that sounded clearly through the hole in the floor above.
Erin staggered back, gagging as she tried
to draw breath.
"Human...," she gasped. "I
think they're human organs." A year in forensics had taught her enough
to recognize the insides of a human being.
"You're sure?" Netti persisted.
Erin looked again, briefly. "Fairly
"I figured as much." He sighed.
"How many would you say it took?"
"People. How many," he gestured.
"To make... that."
"Oh." Erin hesitated. "At
least a dozen, more." The beating droned relentlessly against her
eardrums. As she tried to calm her churning insides, Netti reached down,
unclipped the radio from her belt and made a call. There was a garbled
reply, and he clicked off the receiver.
"Better," Erin announced a moment
later, without much confidence.
"Beat cops have the front and back
covered," Netti informed her quietly.
"There's someone here, isn't there?"
"Maybe. We're taking no chances. Are
you armed?" He handed back her heavy, knurled steel mag-lite. "Now
you are." Erin didn't mention the push-knife clipped inside her belt.
Puddles of congealing fluids covered the
hall. The detective led the way up the rickety stairs, moving quietly
for a man of his bulk. The sounds intensified as they reached the second
floor landing, an erratic, muffled thumping from somewhere close behind
the walls... BOOM... ba-DOOM... BOOM... It seemed to come from the nearer
of the two upstairs doors.
"What the hell is that?"
"Like tennis shoes in the dryer."
The noise was somehow familiar, and Erin
struggled to pin down the vague association, anything to place that nerve-wrenching
sound into some category of explanation. Individual beats rose and lengthened
into a rolling crescendo, and suddenly she remembered.
Sixth gradeshe was cello, second
chair, in the middle-school orchestra. The percussionist, a gawky, bespectacled
boy, had been saddled with the school's aging timpani. Their bronzed bowls
were flecked green with age, and this boy had constantly fought to keep
them up to pitch. The sound of him railing away at the ill-tuned pots
during recitals had been at times positively demonic.
The idea of someone playing timpani, here
in this ghetto, with a pile of human viscera downstairs, was beyond implausible,
and Erin felt a crazy laughter building in her chest. Netti gave her a
"Drums..." she hissed. "someone
playing drums." She mimed a snare roll. The detective's eyes were
wild, but he nodded agreement. The noise had climbed to a frenzied rhythm
loud enough to cover conversation. Netti tried the knob, gestured Erin
to stand behind with the light ready, and then drew back the door.
The next minute seemed to strobe past in
flickering frames of single images, like a scratchy newsreel. The door
swung open, and the thumping sound washed over them, accompanied by a
sort of papery wheezing. A light breeze puffed outward, laden with a heavy
scent like drying leather.
In the dim red light, Erin had the brief
impression of a strange-looking crowd of people moving about the room
beyond, a man in their midst, his arms waving wildly. Netti shouted something,
and the pounding stopped. The man in the room turned, then ran toward
them with outstretched hands. There was a dull, almost childish popping
noise, twice repeated, and Erin realized that Netti had fired his .38.
The sound of the gunshots seemed to jar
events back into the seamless motion of real time, and she found herself
kneeling on the planked floor. Netti was slumped against the doorframe
next to her, panting heavily. They remained frozen, eyes wandering over
the scene before them, touching here, lingering there, finding no ease
or comfort in any of it.
A single red light bulb lit the long chamber
from above. Along its sides stretched twin rows of naked people, hanging
from the ceiling in regular lines that reached to the far end of the rectangular
room. Watching the shapes sway gently back and forth, Erin realized that
they were not actually whole bodies, but the flayed skins, carefully stitched
and sealed, then inflated back into puffed, hideous distortions of their
original forms. A rotating fan was set at the end of the room, and the
skintight, hollow shells made slight boomings and groanings as they bumped
and rubbed against one another in the breeze.
The people were of varied age and sex,
and each individual skin bore the careful marks of tedious labor. Every
seam and stitch was lovingly executed, the bodies fully intact and shockingly
complete. Sexual organs dangled impotently like dried fruit. The eyeless
faces were propped into shape by some kind of internal framework, their
features fixed into horrid semblances of human expressions: hatred, sorrow,
agony, grinning joy. Empty eye-sockets gaped mockingly down from the perches,
their stark agonies defying any reasonable analysis or explanation.
Sprawled on the floor in the center of
room was a man, wearing only shorts, crumpled on his side in a fixed pose.
His slickly shaved head, pallid skin, and long, lanky body gave him the
look of a storefront mannequin. A slightly puzzled expression had settled
over his sharp-featured face, now marred by a small hole above the left
eye. Clutched in the man's right hand was a thin blade like a fillet knife.
In his left, he held a curved stick with a soft, leathery ball on one
end, a beater.
Erin remained fixed, faint sounds emerging
from her mouth. The peopletheir faces, and the bodies, blown up
that way... They float like leather balloons, she thought detachedly.
Netti took her shoulders and gave her a light, concerned shake.
Erin straightened, put a hand to her face.
"I'm all right," she said in a hollow voice. "Can we go
back to the hall, please?"
"Just a minute." Netti stepped
gingerly through the doorway and toed the man's body. He glanced through
the door beyond, then returned, stopping to switch off the fan with one
gloved hand. He was careful not to bump against any of the hanging skins.
"Let's get out of here," he said
They groped their way back to the landing,
where Erin leaned tiredly against the sagging handrail. One of the beat
cops was rushing up the stairs, revolver out, a handkerchief tied over
his nose and mouth. He saw them standing there, slowed, then holstered
No one said anything for a moment. Netti's
face was slightly crazed; a white mustache of ointment smeared across
his sweaty upper lip.
"Heard shots...," the cop began.
"We got the guy," Netti told
One of the wagon men came trooping up the
steps, the halogen in his hand flashing a huge swath of white light across
"Sorry," he said, courteously
turning it away as they shielded their eyes. It was the young man who'd
spoken to Erin. "All the damn sockets been superglued," he said
nasally. "Ran a line from the next house. Had to give the guy five
bucks to do it. Can you believe that?" As he played out slack from
the extension cord looped over one shoulder, Erin saw that his nostrils
were plugged with cotton balls.
He surveyed their faces slowly, took in
the state of their clothes.
Netti mopped at his eyes with one sleeve.
"Worse." He turned to Erin. "Go call Dispatch, tell 'em
we got multiples, to send specialists. I'll be right out." Appreciative
of the distraction, Erin went for the front door.
The detective looked at the other two men.
"Gimme that." Relieving the kid of the halogen, he shooed the
beat cop down the steps after Erin. "Come on," he said to the
wagon-man, "I got something to show you."
A half-hour later, they leaned against
Netti's beat-up Dodge as the house became a blaze of activity; swarms
of forensics examiners, detectives, another meat-wagon. Though it was
night, a small crowd was gathering beyond the lines of fluorescent police
Erin watched numbly. The industrial smells
of the Eighteenth District were like a draught of pure oxygen after the
inside of that house. She'd changed into disposable cotton scrubs, provided
by the wagon-men, but the miasma of death clung to her hair and skin.
The shoes had been a total loss.
"Way beyond anything I've ever seen,"
she said finally.
Netti slugged at the soda he'd produced
from a cooler in the car and grimaced.
"If it's any comfort, I'd say the
same, and I was there when they opened up Gacy's crawlspace." The
can tilted back, and his throat worked up and down. "I read about
something like this once... a tribal practiceCeltic? African? They
skinned people, blew up the skins, beat on them like drums." The
big man's face was pale. "By the way, thanks. You handled yourself
very well." He looked regretfully at his ruined clothing. "I
should have listened ... and I'm sorry about the flashlight bit on the
Erin smiled wanly.
She felt very tired. That man, beating
those flayed skins as if trying to exorcise the demons from his own soul.....
What hope, then? How to reconcile that sight with her understanding of
Netti seemed to be thinking along similar
"You have to let it pass you by,"
he said wearily. "That's how you absorb this kind of thing without
going home and putting away a fifth of gin or snorting eight lines of
cocaine. My own weakness is pizza, but then we all have our modalities.
You need a way to deal with itthe things you see, the people...
there's no leaving them behind."
Erin had to agree.
Her thoughts drifted like balloons, drifted
and rubbed against one another with leathery, creaking noises.
She turned to the fat man next to her.
"You look like a cat person to me.
Do you have a cat, Detective Netti?"
It turned out that he did.
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