Detective Fiction by Drewry Scott
The story, "An Easement for the Detective", is a satirical work of genre detective fiction, but also speaks to the emotional catharsis of loss and the process of metamorphosis it may bring about.
An Easement for the Detective
The rain came down hard. It had started suddenly, a great levy in the sky seeming to have broken, sending a deluge down on a city below that tried its best to pretend at nonchalance. The heavy drops of rain served as newfound connective tissue—every thing, living or non, felt its touch and all were bound together in unspeakable communion: the drops that graced the businessman’s umbrella described the tiny feet of a rat in the sewer system far below; minerals of brittle bones from a long forgotten death realized the grand vista of the sky seen from the penthouse a quarter mile above, which in turn knew the cloud from which the storm itself surged.
At the same time, as it connected the rain also offered isolation, privacy. Those that didn’t escape indoors to hide away the remainder of the evening found they could move about shrouded within it, hunched and secretive.
That’s what the detective liked best about it, the anonymity it afforded him, allowing him to imagine himself as any other denizen of the big city, or any lowlife freak the like he plied his trade in pursuing. The connection was what he craved, but not in the way the other lonely citizens did. He strived to understand, to connect, but his end was to bring about justice, not fellowship.
The streaming droplets divided the scene from the driver’s side window into a hundred strips, and through them he watched EMTs and police officers rush around. They all tried to avoid the weather, even those in bright plastic slickers they’d procured from under the hastily erected canopy tent beneath which forensics had already commenced. Each person likely anticipated finishing their meager tasks in order to re-enter the dryness below the tarp, or else be cleared of duty for the night and go home—a dry bed and a warm spouse were waiting.
Mechanically, the detective then pulled the door latch and emerged, Unlike these workers, he was home. The highway underpass under which another John Doe had been discovered was his warm bed, and his spouse the myriad clues ripe for divining. No one would address him, knowing by word of mouth not to interrupt what was for him the beginning of a delicate dance…
“This way detective.” A familiar voice to his right. “Body’s over here.”
It was Jimmy. Young, bustling Jimmy—more energy than he knew what to do with. Already he’d made his way toward the underpass, the area brightly lit with high watt white LEDs, and was expertly pulling latex gloves on. The kid could still count the bodies he’d seen on two of those gloved hands (that is, without the need for mentally tallying the ten and resuming count on a previously extinguished hand’s worth of digits, as one does when needing to count a higher amount of something—bodies, in the detective’s situation, of which he’s maybe actually might have lost count by now, he’d have to check back at the office). Clearing his throat, the detective jutted his chin slightly and stepped forward toward the scene.
From his coat pocket he pulled a cigarette pack. He shook one out and pulled it directly from the pack with his lips. He let it sit there while his other hand fingered the flip lighter in his other pocket, running his thumb over the HELL OR HOME engraved across one of its faces as he did, never forgetting when and where it came from or that he was its second owner, a succession of pain harbored in the small object which he took on through the will of sheer duty. Duty—thoughts of his duty went through the detective’s mind as he stepped down the small, muddy hill, brushing past sprouting yellow grass and sidestepping ancient aluminum cans that likely once held cheap lager. On rainy nights like these he liked to imagine he was stepping in between the raindrops, that none of them could touch him.
“Another one, eh,” he said when he got there, and the two other officers looked at him. But really, what does one say when encountering the fifth such body in as many weeks? The same discouragement was felt by all—the aching disappointment at having one’s gut feeling confirmed, at finding a grim pattern there for the discerning, and the likelihood that such situations usually get much worse before they get better. For now, and going forward, flippant remarks would have to somewhat suffice.
Jimmy, hunched over the deceased, nodded sullenly. “Vic is a John Doe, early 30s. Prints are on the way to the lab. And yes, it does look like another one from our guy, detective. The markings are there, plain as day, but I’d say it appears he’s stepping up his game in terms of brutality…” Using the tip of a ballpoint pen, Jimmy moved aside the opaque plastic sheeting covering the mess. One of the officer’s flashlight beams wavered slightly, and then returned to reveal what at first glance appeared to be some abstract parody of art: through the recognizable darker navy bits of the man’s cotton shirt shone radiant blue-white of flesh, parts of it torn jaggedly to reveal vivid and horrible deep reds, coagulating blood that glistened in the light, and looking even closer other details began to take shape—subtler textures of exposed muscle and sickening yellow bulbs of subcutaneous fat, the gleaming white of bone peeking from underneath, all of it sitting like an inert pile of matter arranged in somewhat recognizable fashion, instead of the remains of a man’s body. Using his lips the detective transferred the cigarette to the other side of his mouth, and from his pocket he withdrew the old lighter. Using his thumb he flicked it a few times, but it refused to light.
“As you can see,” Jimmy continued, “the wounds are consistent with our two others, but worse this time, more vicious.” With his gloved hand, he gently moved aside a mound of flesh that looked to be the victim’s arm. “All one weapon, from the looks of it. Likely the same serrated blade.”
Again and again the detective flicked the flint wheel but it still wouldn’t light. One of the other officers seemed to notice and looked over, the detective defensively turning away a small bit and making a pained face. He switched to his other thumb and tried some more. Jimmy was still considering the corpse.
“Also, something different this time is the choice of vic. From his appearance, choice of clothing, I think we’re looking at someone different than the killer’s typical vagrants.” Using the pen again he moved aside the dark gray wool of a pricey looking peacoat to reveal the glimmer of a gold pocket watch. “Wallet’s loaded with cash too,” he said, “although his cards and ID are gone. The perp wanted us to get our hands dirty on this one. Sick freak.”
Using the meager, reflective light from the lamps nearby, the detective raised the old metal lighter and tried to peer inside. Then, grumbling, he rolled the flint wheel some more. No spark emerged from within, though everything looked to be in normal working order.
“Um. Detective?” said Jimmy, looking up at him finally. “Something wrong?”
“Um, no. Sorry,” he said, given the wheel some more absent minded flicks. “So any guesses why the vic was out here to begin with? Guy with money, under an overpass on a night like this.” He teased the bit of wick inside the lighter a little, seeing if it was possibly obstructing the flint. “…Maybe our man The Gasher sensed an opportunity, decided to upgrade to someone with a bank account.”
Silence followed and the detective looked from the lighter to see all three faces looking his direction. “Um.”
“Gasher?” said Jimmy.
“Detective,” one of the officers said after a moment, “you caught the Gasher last year. This one here’s the work of the—”
“Right!” cried the detective, his hands in the air. “The Spooker! The Saw Blade Spooker. Right. No duh, sorry.”
“Yeah, the Spooker,” the officer said, sheepishly. “I mean—maybe the Spooker… You’re the detective after all, detective.”
“Oof. Sorry guys. That was dumb. Spooker. Saw Blade… yeah.”
“Are you ok?” Jimmy said, narrowing his eyes at the detective.
“Uh, yes Jimmy. I’m fine. Excellent work so far. Please proceed.”
“It just seems like—”
The young man considered the detective for a few seconds longer before finally looking down toward the mangled remains. “Anyway, given the apparent status of our victim, it’s only a matter of time before we get an ID, which begs the question, why take his cards? Why send us through the legwork?”
“He knows we’ll get there eventually. So it seems to me—”
“—he’s just trying to buy some time. Something about this murder—”
“Has got the Spooker…”
“…spooked. Detective, please if you wouldn’t—”
“Hm? What’s that?”
“Probably wet,” mumbled one of the officers.
“What’d you say?” The unlit cigarette joggled a little in his mouth as his head snapped toward him.
“Your lighter there. Got wet, seems like.”
Flick. Flick, flick. “Don’t think so. This lighter don’t get wet.”
The officer stepped closer. “Well, it happens. I-in the rain. The wick gets wet or the flint… Doesn’t spark. Maybe your hands were wet when—”
“No, no. Doesn’t get wet, officer.” A glance from the detective caused the officer to take a step back. “Other lighters get wet. This one doesn’t. Sorry.” Flick, flick. “I know you’re trying to help but…”
“Alright, detective.” The officer put his hands up as if to placate him, or was he mocking him? “I’m just saying—raining cats and dogs out here and lighters get wet an’ don’t work—”
“Doesn’t get wet.”
“Guys, please,” said Jimmy. The detective had never, in their months of working together, heard such an edge to the young man’s voice. “Can we please focus? I think I might be on to something here.”
“Yes, Jimmy. Yes.” The detective gave a surly glance toward the officer, who had resorted to pouting with his arms folded. “By all means, you may proceed. And I’ll say you’re doing excellent work so far, Jimmy. Really doing good.”
“Thanks detective.” Jimmy took a moment to organize his thoughts once again. The rain continued pummeling down around them. Single, lonely cars swished by on the overpass above. Hours remained before daylight. “If I had to guess,” Jimmy said, loudly to be heard over the rain, “I would say this vic knew the Spooker personally. That’s why the abrupt change in choice of prey. This guy here knew something, something he wasn’t supposed to know. Maybe he confronted the killer here, under cover of darkness, middle of nowhere… and the Spooker got scared. He—”
“Fuck’s sake!” Jimmy cried, rising to his feet with a maddened look on his face and stomping through the muddy rainwater to the detective. “I mean—I’m sorry detective but really… for god’s sake!” The boy fumbled in his coat pocket. “Here, take these.”
Pulling a small book of matches from his coat, he slapped them into the detective’s hand. “If it’s really that damn important to smoke. Then can we finally get on with this?”
Trying to remember the last time anyone had spoken to him this way, the detective looked down at the matches, noting the logo of an infamously seedy nightclub printed on the cover. There was no way Jimmy went to a place like this. “Jolly’s?”
Jimmy ignored him. He’d returned to once again squat down in front of the body, as if he were finding his mark in a play. He tapped his forehead almost audibly, trying to regain his train of thought.
“What!” Jimmy exploded, glaring at him with his teeth bared. “What now?”
“…I can’t use matches.”
“You can’t—you can’t use matches.”
“Nope. Take ‘em back. Shoulda’ said something right when you gave ‘em. They don’t work for me.”
Working twenty years on the force, the detective had chased murderous criminals into dead-end alleys, only for them to wheel around and face him; he’d locked eyes with mob bosses in courtrooms as he was in the process of testifying against them; but the looks on Jimmy and the officer’s faces then made his heart skip. Jimmy especially seemed overcome with a baffled rage. The other officer, silent until now, was the first to speak up.
“They don’t work?”
Setting his teeth, the detective bravely returned the gaze. “Nope. They don’t work. Never have.”
“Meaning you don’t know how to use them.”
“Meaning they don’t work, like I said.”
“Here, let me show y—”
“Step away from me!” The detective cried, surprising even himself by jerking his arm instinctually toward the hip where he kept his holstered snub-nosed revolver. The officer froze.
“Uh… Easy, detective.”
“Woah, man,” said the other.
Exhibiting what the detective considered his patented Quick Thinking, he began to scratch a spot on his lower back. “Hm? What? Oh, sorry—got an itch here.”
Skeptical, both officers nonetheless stepped backwards away from him. “Uh sure. N-no problem.”
Jimmy, tossing the plastic sheet down to again cover the body, then stood and considered the detective with what looked like real concern. “Are you feeling alright?” he asked. “I’m getting a little concerned.”
“I’m fine—” he snapped. “Got an itch, that’s it. Rainy overpasses at night gives me itches. Big deal. Anyway, fine—I can see you don’t believe me. Watch this.” He opened the matchbook and tore a single match from inside. Staring very closely, he applied the tip against the striking area and quickly pulled it along the strip—flup. Nothing.
“See?” he said. Flup, flup, flup. “What’d I tell you.” Flup, flup. “Nothing.”
He began trying match after match. As they watched, one officer leaned over to the other. “Hey,” he whispered, “that matchbook—you ever been to Jolly’s?”
“Nah,” said the officer. “Weird spot, ain’t it? Didn’t that come up in afternoon briefing? Jolly’s is like, equidistant or some-such to where we keep finding these stiffs?”
“Oh yeah. That’s odd.”
Meanwhile, unlit matches rained on the detective’s feet. “Don’t know what more I need to show you. These things don’t work for me.”
Jimmy, seeming to not have heard the officer’s conversation, moved cautiously toward the detective. “You’re not doing it right.” He held his hand out. “See, you’ve got to put the—”
“I know how it works! Christ! I’m sixty goddamn years old. I’m telling you I’ve been trying my whole life and they don’t work. It’s like a curse.” His voice cracked loudly on the last word.
“You’re not—detective are you crying?”
“I’m not crying, I’m just…” Perhaps it was due to some unconscious acknowledgment that perhaps his usefulness to the city police department were waning, perhaps it was just the weather, but the detective found himself on the verge of sharing something he rarely told anyone. “Here,” he said, “since you dips are so adamant about it, I’ll tell you the story. Because there was once, just once that I was able to light a match.”
“The year was 1964…”
The detective—then a lowly private on a search and destroy mission in southern Vietnam—was taking a break after a long few hours combing the areas of jungle immediately surrounding the surprisingly calm village by taking a seat on an overturned metal bucket when, deciding to have a smoke, he discovered that his lighter had stopped working.
“It was a cheap little thing. Given to me by my sweetie back home,” he said to his audience, the two officers and Jimmy seeming to accept the beginning of his tale with sincere slight smiles, all of them unaware that a gigantic oily rat had slipped underneath the plastic sheeting covering the body next to them. It started voraciously to gnaw on one of the deceased’s pinkie fingers.
“Luckily,” the detective continued, “another grunt pops a squat next to me, only him directly on the ground. He removes a heavy looking backpack then proceeds to light one of his cigs with a pristine, shiny looking flip lighter.”
At this point, the detective held the lighter up, not pristine by any measure, but still it glinted in the dark off the meager light from the forensics lights.
“I go, ‘Hey friend, how ‘bout a light?’ and the guy just looks at me, gives me a smirk and proceeds to tell me that no one touches that lighter but him, him and only one other person—his sweetie back home. See, according to him, this particular lighter would light every single time, first try. He said it never needed new parts, never needed fuel. So this guy turns out to have a very similar story to my own, only like a flipped version, a yin to his yang—because while he claimed his own lighter owed its magical qualities to his and his sweetie’s pure love and fidelity, the same could have been said of my lighter because (unbeknownst to me) my own sweetie around that time had shacked up with a young supervisor at the grocery where she’d been employed for only a few months, and so in a manner of speaking her and my “flame had gone out” in more ways than one. (She would go on to marry the supervisor and have a child, whom last I heard he was something of a complete sociopath who I wouldn’t be surprised to find amongst the ranks of the bedraggled agents of criminality those in our profession come in contact with every single day.) But I only include such elements in order to enhance the irony present in what I consider an already fantastical story, one that I would possibly not even believe had it not happened directly to me, albeit years and years ago. But anyway—the lighter…” The detective held it up again. It glinted spectacularly once more, and one of the officers flinched and seemed annoyed he kept doing that.
“…The lighter and the grunt shared its special sweetie/fidelity connection, and after denying my use of it he retrieved from his breast pocket and tossed to me a pack of ratty old matches, not unlike this matchbook you’ve provided me tonight, Jimmy.” He frowned down at the matches, recalling a debriefing about the Jolly’s nightclub being found in connection with a local mobster recently, said mobster known to own copious real estate all over the city. Recently a recording was captured through undercover surveillance of his intent “clean up the city” in ways that local politicians couldn’t. But maybe the detective was misremembering.
“…but anyway this matchbook was like that little box of matches thrown to me that sultry day in the jungles of Vietnam, and before I got a chance to let the grunt in on another small little bit of irony to be shared between us that day—vis-a-vis my match conundrum, where seemingly they decide never light themselves at my behest—when my captain came by and, gently prodding the metal bucked I was seated on with his boot, said we were heading out. We were joining ranks with the one the grunt seated next to me belonged to and leaving on the double.”
The rat under the plastic sheet had succeeded in removing the victim’s finger (a detail the pathologist would later puzzle over until finding traces of rat saliva on the severed joint along with the telltale teethmarks), and had at that point surreptitiously slipped down a sewer grate to join its newly born brood in feasting, the whole lot having developed a taste for human flesh that began with their mother, who after being born in a wave of hundreds of other writhing rat babies was washed to the lowest part of the sewer system in that particular section of town, the rat making its home just below the runoff drain where a local and infamously cut-rate group of plastic surgeons did their carving, the office assistant of which, instead of disposing of their clientele’s undesired remainders in the standard legal way, had been instructed to simply toss the quite sizable bag of weekly parts out the window of her moving vehicle on her way home in the upper east side.
“So on we went, back on the march. I fell in line toward the back with my unit, while the grunt with the lighter put his large pack on his back and disappeared somewhere in the front. Still I had his matches and still I tried fruitlessly to light them, the cigarette now soggy in my lips, the matches falling spent in our bootprints along the way. The little phosphorus heads were scratched at until they became scuffed and useless, or else come off entirely from the sticks at the first attempt, and clumsily I followed after the line of soldiers. One of them—Jones maybe? José?—was continuing a prior conversation about giant centipedes, and how a buddy of his in another battalion found a squirming, living one in a sandwich he’d procured at a small cafe on leave—when suddenly there was an explosion from up front. We’d been ambushed.
“Dirt and vegetation along with men’s bodies took to the air, and everyone hit the ground—scared, yelling, trying to get their rifles in working order. There were more explosions from I guess VC grenades, and machine gun fire came from the darkness of the jungle to our right, the men’s shouts cut short as they were torn to pieces. After securing my rifle in my hands and peeking over the backs of fallen men to see how many separate shooters were in the trees, guessing there were countless more waiting behind them, I cowered. I maintain to this day there was nothing else to be done. I buried myself beneath the bodies of the men as they drained all around me. I felt the life escaping from them all over my clothes and skin the way that undoubtedly few have ever before. Trying not to breathe, trying not to be sick, I stayed that way for a while. Night fell and the Viet soldiers continued to mill around the massacre they’d caused, collecting arms and ammunition, food ration and trinkets the dead soldiers had brought from far away. I feared they would find me, would see the tiniest movement of my breathing and put a bullet in my back, but it soon grew dark and they moved on.”
Having eaten their fill of the flesh of the pinky finger, the family of tiny rats all fell asleep cradled against their mama rat’s warm stomach—all except one baby rat, who sat awake. His little brothers and sisters twitched slightly as they dreamed of myriad things: of memories with papa rat, when he was still around; one baby rat grimaced as the wheel of a bicycle courier, in the slow motion way only dreams could move, squished her against the pavement from tip of her tail to whiskered snout; more than a few dreamed coincidentally of another severed pinkie finger, only this one as big as their entire nest and gone perfectly rotten for just the right amount of time—a week and a day to be exact. The little rat who didn’t sleep moved quietly toward the exit of their nest and peered out, out through the doorway of twigs and branches, surveying the environs outside the L shaped corner pipe inside which the family were left in relative peace. He decided something there, his little head nodding slightly. Then, after taking one last look at his family, he slipped out and away into the dark, his tiny paws splashing determinedly toward a destination only he could describe.
“It got cold,” continued the detective, his audience beginning to sort of fidget and sway foot to foot, knowing it was rude but not able to help themselves. “It got cold in a way I’d never experienced before or since. The temperature was dropping considerably and I was freezing, coated in the cooling blood of my brothers all around me. I had to move. I had no other choice.
“The quiet in the jungle around me was no real indication that the enemy had moved on; I knew their ways, knew they could be invisible as ghosts among those trees if they wanted. Even still, I got to my feet and tried to see anything around me in the pitch black. They would be back by morning to finish scavenging our things, of that I could be sure, so I needed to move fast. Each uneasy step fell on a different dead man’s body, and I tripped more than a few times, catching my fall by putting my hand down into something unspeakable each time.
“From somewhere in the dark came a strange, muffled sound: the low static of a radio. I stumbled over to the spot, where I could hear the radio crackling slightly underneath the mound of bodies, but I couldn’t see a thing. I fumbled in my pocket and brought out the box of matches. There rattled inside one last, single match. I’d wasted all the others, they lay strewn along our path in the dark, a breadcrumb trail leading to the final horrible resting place of the two battalions of young men. I said a little prayer, took out the match and tried it against the strike strip, and it lit. The match sprang angrily to life, a drop of solvent that pushed back the ink-black night, the light from it seeming like the sun itself in my hand. The blessing of sight that the night yielded to me seemed at first anything but, and the death and mayhem of what remained of my fallen brothers is to this day the worst thing these eyes have seen, but something caught my eye amongst the pile of corpses under which the radio was hidden: an unmistakeable glint of gold. A man’s arm sticking out from beneath held in its palm a lighter, the grunt’s lighter. The HELL OR HOME engraving on its face seemed to be a direct inquiry as to my preference, and I answered by quickly snatching it up. At the same moment, the match in my other hand sputtered out, but not before I saw, to my dismay, that the lighter had been left with its flip top open. Almost the entire object, not to mention its insides, had been coated with thick, viscous blood. I thought about what the grunt had said about the lighter’s magical qualities, and wondered if such tricks would work for one such as me—a pitiful man with a non working lighter and a deceitful sweetie (again, unknown to me at the time, and of which I would learn of only a few months later, along with the fact that she’d become pregnant with the grocery store manager’s child, who alas grew up to be one of the biggest brats I’ve ever seen), but just maybe the grunt’s sweetie/fidelity situation and the lighter’s uncanny tricks would work again just one final time.
“At first, my thumb slipped on the bloody flint wheel, but—picturing in my mind the grunt and what I imagined his sweetie to look like, seeing them smooching happily upon a reunion that was never to be, the camera pushing in and the soundtrack swelling—I tried the lighter again and the thing effortlessly burst forth with a stout, robust flame. The thing rather ghoulishly crackled and spit as it burned through the blood clogging its insides, but after a few seconds it was in perfect working order, seeming to desire never being unlit again.
“The static noise from the buried radio sounded once again, and using the blessed light, I began to search. After moving a few limbs out of the way, some attached to bodies and some not, I found it. It had been attached to the grunt the whole time, the big pack he wore on his back the field radio, his position up front for scouting purposes. The palm-up hand that had graced me his lighter still stuck out from the heaped bodies and congealed hunks of viscera, but in his other hand, positioned close to his mouth as if he were to come to life any moment and speak into it, was the radio receiver.
“I thanked the kid once again for saving my ass, and after sliding the pack off his dead body I learned his name, which I will not be sharing with you folks today, no offense.” Jimmy and one of the officers shared a look, perplexed, while the other one appeared to have fallen asleep on his feet.
“I put the pack on and I radio’d out, explaining to the person on the other end what had happened and where I was positioned. He told me the coordinates of the nearest battalion, and again using the lighter for help I found maps on another nearby soldier, likely the grunt’s scouting partner. Along with those maps I took a compass and his mostly full pack of cigarettes, then looking out towards the thick, humid night, made even darker by the light of the flip lighter, I began my journey. With the light I was able to read the compass and navigate the terrain, avoiding a fall into a steep ravine as well as stepping into a well hidden VC trap, but also—to my amazement—it kept me from walking into a nest of giant centipedes, a writhing mass of legs and bulbous segmented bodies, the smallest one not less than four feet. I thought about the soldier José as I snuck past them, imagined his amazement at finally glimpsing such a thing. I made a promise to him then, if we met again in the afterlife, to tell him he was right. The hissing bugs bade me on and I continued on toward my goal.” One of the officers, the awake one, narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly, as if the story he was hearing had finally pushed past the line of what he was willing to believe. The detective seemed to note it and continued on, his voice now hoarse from the retelling.
“I would go on to experience many more things over there in Vietnam, a lot of them horrible, but as I finally found the other battalion, I swore that every day from then on I would give thanks to three things: the match that decided, for whatever reason, that I was finally worth lighting for; the grunt, who maybe in some form is somewhere far away out there, reunited with his sweetie; and third I would give thanks to the lighter, which to this day continues to light on the first try, every single time.”
The narrative curtain closed, or rather was removed from where it had sheltered the four men for its meager duration from the harsh environs of the driving rain and the horrible murder scene. The detective could not take his eyes off of the lighter in his hand.
“…Except now,” said Jimmy.
Snapping to attention, the detective blinked at him. “Hm? What?”
“Except now. It won’t light now.”
A feeling came to the detective’s eyes, the rare sting of tears. “Yeah, well…”
Seeing the man’s eyes begin to shine, Jimmy abruptly turned toward the corpse under the sheet.
“Well, anyway um… the body.”
The sleeping officer startled awake, inhaling with a sharp snort. His eyes went from person to person, then froze on the detective as he saw that the man had begun, embarrassingly, to fully weep.
“Why now?” he asked no one. “Why stop now?”
Jimmy refused to look away from the corpse, as if physically unable to witness such an abrupt change in his hard-edged mentor. He’d tried to study everything about the man, attempting to glean some of his notoriously mercurial genius, but to watch him cry in public, and on the job no less, seemed a step too far.
“Why now?” the detective repeated, his plaintive question reverberating amongst the stoic pillars of the dank old underpass. The rain slowly began to alleviate all around the four men. Soon it would be day, but what then? Something big had changed for him. Nothing of the night could truly be erased by the warming sun, no other result revealed through its illumination. If he could only go back, turn back the hours to the last time the lighter had graced him, if he—
“But,” a voice blurted—one of the officers, the one that had remained awake, “sorry if I’m wrong, but you really need to smoke? Can’t it wait… s-sir?”
The detective’s eyes pierced the man, sobered by the question. The past twenty years working law enforcement reeled through his mind: on a stakeout, smoking; interrogating suspects, smoking; with his feet up on his desk after being bumped down to desk duty for the umpteenth time, smoking; chasing a perp down an alleyway, cigarette joggling around in his mouth; waking up after a night of hard drinking, grabbed a pack and lit up; comforting a dame witness, smoking; practicing with his snub nose, smoking; frowning down at an autopsy while the snide pathologist gave his assessment, smoking; at every single crime scene he’d been called to in the middle of countless dismal, rainy nights… smoking. Smoking cigarette after cigarette. All the time, non-stop, smoking of cigarettes.
“I smoke at a crime scene,” was his answer.
The officer who had asked waited with an expectant look on his face, but when no further explanation materialized he shrugged slightly and looked away. Jimmy, on the other hand, finally cocked addressed the detective.
“Well yeah, but why?” he asked. “You smoke at crime scenes, and for that matter I never see you without a cigarette, but what—are you saying you need it? You need to smoke to solve a case?”
Staring back at the kid, the detective felt his breath suddenly catch in his throat. His entire mentorship of Jimmy, every minute gem of insider knowledge about the job and about the intricate, roguish art of criminal justice in the big city seemed to be on the line with what he said next. And because of what? Because he needed a cigarette at a crime scene? He was due this harsh examination because he needed a cigarette and his magical lighter stopped working? This couldn’t actually be what was happening. He could have let the city chew up this kid and spit him back out in a matter of weeks, and was starting to regret that he hadn’t.
“You’re out of line, Jimmy,” he said. “All of you—way outta line.”
The kid, beginning with almost unintelligible muttering, began to lose control and fully rant at the older man. His voice cracked embarrassingly. “—I’m out here in the middle of the night, trying my goddamn best. Trying very hard to do everything you told me right. Consider the clues, imagine myself as the killer, think outside the box… everything. And what, you can’t do your job to catch this multiple murderer because you need to smoke? It’s a sick compulsion, detective. Not to mention a gross habit, but a weird, sick compulsion if that’s what you gotta do just to…”
The two officers endured just a moment and then, sharing a look, promptly left. There was only so much discomfort they could take. Everyone knew the detective and Jimmy to have very fixed ways in which they communicated with one another: when not remarking in awe over the detective’s prowess, Jimmy sometimes chided the man for his gruff nature, or his fastidiousness regarding case-work while his hygiene fell to the wayside; in turn, the detective complimented Jimmy’s plucky ingenuity but paternally scolded his naiveté or was pretended bafflement by the kid’s lack of experience with women. This scene under the overpass—with Jimmy now finally wrapping up his prolonged diatribe against the detective with multiple examples of the man’s character flaws getting in the way of their work, the specificity of which exposed a much deeper and more firmly rooted hostility than anyone would have guessed—this moment would spell the end of their working relationship.
“…womanizing slob who dares question my prowess in the female department…” Jimmy was saying and the detective looked down to see his own hands were shaking. He couldn’t salvage this. He thought of when the two of them had met, both of them in an old motel room exchanging theories regarding motive over a dismembered prostitute; remembered Jimmy’s face when the detective overturned an old mattress to find where her missing toe had been deliberately placed, thus exposing both the motive and suspect all at once. Jimmy’s increasingly effusive admiration clearly meant more to him than he’d realized, which only dawned on him now, in its dissolution.
“…tag along with you like some snot-nosed sidekick. ‘Oh great idea detective,’ ‘fascinating deduction, sir.’ Such bullshit. Sit on your ass while I run around inside the crumbling tenement full of insane junkies, then get your face all over the news, articles written about your so-called genius mind…” At the word “articles,” and to the detective’s surprise, Jimmy gave the corpse under the plastic sheet a firm kick. His foot landed with a thud, after which he continued muttering and pacing around, seemingly not realizing what he’d just done both to the crime scene and the victim’s body. Something occurred to the detective, arriving to him like an electric jolt—not only the victim’s identity but the likely killer.
His breath left him. He had to do something.
Jimmy had his back turned, apparently not even wanting to look at him again, and before he even noticed, the detective hurried away. His feet splashed in the muddy puddles up the small hill, toward where his and other law enforcement cars were parked behind yellow caution tape. Bright blue morning skies seemed to be trying to emerge from behind dissolving purplish storm-clouds that had ruled the night. A few forensic investigators continued work underneath the canopy tent. Officers mingled about, drinking cups of coffee served from a portable airpots, including the two officers from the crime scene. They were joking with their fellow officers, laughing about something. What could it be they were saying?
Confronting those two turkeys was added to his list of things to do once he found a goddamn workable lighter and smoked just one miserable cigarette. Just one cigarette and he could begin to confront the epiphany he’d had just now under the overpass. Over an hour had passed since he’d had one on the ride over here, before his flip lighter had decided to betray him. He tore open the passenger seat of his car and got in, then began to rifle through the glove box, then underneath the seats for another lighter. Maybe one of his informants had dropped one after he gave them one of their routine rides between wherever lowlifes routinely go, the detective trading their information for a few measly dollars that he was sure were as fleeting in their grasp as a city rat caught out in the day. But still, all of them carried cheap little gas-station lighters, corners burnt from packing bowls, butane regulators rigged so their flames came out three inches high. Under the seats the detective found ancient coffee cups, take out containers, and handfuls of fossilized french fries but no lighters; not even any more matches, not that they would do him any good.
Hyperventilating and half crazed, he then went from car to car, performing the same frantic search inside any one he found unlocked. Most of the vehicles were personal ones, most of them belonging to complete strangers, but still he bitterly cursed each of their owners after he finished, exiting empty handed. One of the cars had an old socket-style cigarette lighter built into the dash, but after pushing it in and waiting about a minute, he determined the key was required for it to function, which was also not present in the car. A small group of officers and crime scene techs had assembled to watch him, some of them the likely owners of the cars he was tearing around inside, but no one stopped him.
He exhausted his search and sat and stared a while, his resting on the ground outside the passenger seat of some stranger’s sedan. Looking in his hand, he saw that the cigarette he’d been gripping there had become soggy and torn, leaving shreds of white paper and dusty brown tobacco coating his palm. He took out the rest of his pack to see that they too were ruined, rainwater having at some point gotten into his pocket and soaked each and every one. He leaned forward in the seat, his face in his hands, and sobbed.
His whole face was covered in bits of tobacco, wet from rain and tears, when he pulled his hands away. There was some sort of commotion going on over by the tent. People were laughing and milling about, some were clapping. Wearily, the detective got out of the car and plodded over.
Some of the faces looked concerned at the state of him, but mostly they were all busy with what looked like celebrating.
“What’s going on?” he grumbled.
“Jimmy’s got him!”
“Jimmy found the killer! The Saw Blade Spooker!”
In the middle of the crowd of people, Jimmy stood triumphantly, his face beaming. Other officers patted his shoulders and congratulated him. “Hooray!” could even be heard from one officer in particular.
“What? How?” the detective asked, his voice barely audible over the others.
“What does it matter?” someone answered. “Jimmy cracked the case!”
He thought to protest, but the detective couldn’t even pretend to possess the energy to do so convincingly. Besides, they’d all begun to leave together, the whole group departing with the same joviality as sports team fans leaving a stadium after a home town win. It seemed it was all they could do not to hoist Jimmy up on their shoulders.
“Let’s go get him! Let’s get the Spooker!”
“We’ll end his reign of terror!”
They all left their cars, deciding instead to parade down the street. Curious civilians that came out of their homes to see what the fuss was about ended up joining the group as they made their way, presumably toward the location of whomever it was Jimmy had identified.
Suddenly very exhausted, the detective looked around on the ground for a moment, and then stiffly sat down directly in a puddle. He pulled his old knees up toward his body and began to rock back and forth, half-words and whimpers escaping his lips. The joyous procession could still be heard a minute later, their voices echoing among the drowsy city buildings and away into the new morning, growing more fervent as more new people joined in.
In the absence of the workers, and apparently either oblivious or uncaring toward the detective’s presence, rats of all shapes and sizes began to emerge from nearly every covered spot or discreet hole in the vicinity. He heard their curious squeaks first, and soon they got their courage up and began to swarm from their hiding places. Echoing the parade of people going the other direction, they coursed around the man sitting there, their little feet pitter-pattering in the puddles as they streamed by. Chattering and squeaking, they celebrating their good fortune: the forensics workers, overcome with enthusiasm at catching the killer, had forgotten the dead body completely, leaving it lying in a heap still down where it had been discovered. It seemed almost the whole city’s population of rats were here, all of them with a taste for human meat, due to them being city rats. A few of them nibbled at the detective in their flesh-craved delirium, making holes in the back of his coat as it soaked in the puddle beneath him, but mostly he was ignored.
The soggy pack of cigarettes was still in his grasp, and the detective reached inside, pinching out ragged bits of paper and tobacco. These he stuffed into his mouth, his face grimacing against the taste. As he chewed he felt bits of it stick in-between his teeth and gums, but he swallowed the horrid paste down and then pinched out another mouthful.
Soon even the rats had left him. A beautiful day had dawned all around, but a few meager rain clouds remained above. Eventually it began drizzling once again, and looking upward, the detective counted the drops that found his face.
Drewry Scott (he/him) is a resident of the Pacific Northwest. He graduated from Evergreen State College in 2016 with an emphasis in creative writing and literature. In his writing he hopes for connection and understanding with the world around him, as impossible a task as that may be sometimes. His other fiction has been published by The Writer’s Foundry Review out of Brooklyn, NY, released June 2021.