Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Wolf of Albright: Part Two

Note: the following story contains disturbing language.  

The vice of unreality gripped Mina's mind as she walked down the street.  The air was wet with tiny drops of water, which might have been rain if they'd been any larger; it felt like walking on the bottom of the ocean.  It wasn't very dark yet, and the streetlights had just come on, but in her eyes the darkness was impenetrable.  She pressed on, knowing the way but failing to see it, and to all appearances unconcerned.  What Mina Cardiff hid behind her face, very few could tell.

Her boots made subtle thuds on the damp cobblestones, but they were loud enough to stand out against the background noise: the rushing of the occasional car, the voices waving from the buildings, all bubbles and currents in a stream.  None of these could distract her from the thud, thud, thud that echoed from her boot heels to her brain.  As she often did, she wanted to shriek, but could find no good reason to.  She waited in vain for just cause.

As she passed by a dingy alleyway, it occurred to her (for no particular, conscious reason) to pause and peer into the shadows, past the rust-bitten fire escapes and garbage cans.  A lamp post cast its muddy orange glow into the chosen crevice from just around the corner.  It managed to illuminate a few cracking bricks, but left most of the rest to the starlight, or what little of it there was to be had.  This was the world as Mina Cardiff saw it: swathed in dark, and now with eyes in the blackness, lidless and inescapable.

She saw eyes everywhere, and constantly felt their looks upon her.  Now, suddenly, she faced them directly and without warning.  There was a wild evil in them, she sensed: formless and feral, like the eyes of a monster from some television horror, but otherwise black and invisible, and she felt them more than she saw them.  It was the sensation of being seen that gave her sight, like a twisted reflection in dark glass.

He really did look like a wolf, or a wolf-man, possessing a hunter's intellect and backed by the security of the shadows.  He could strike at the time of his own choosing, and set his own advantage.  Mina did not enter the alley, for she was rooted where she stood.  The warmth of the streetlights crept down the back of her neck.  She felt that the eyes were waiting for her, waiting for her to speak first.  She felt them for what they were: her nemesis.

"I know you."

"I know you."  The voice was real, though she heard it only in her head.  She hated the sound it made, but felt no passion, no desire to stop it off.  It was only shadow embedded in shade, and it was as natural as she.

"Where are you going?"

"It's me."

"I'll find you."

The wind was dead, the rain was slowing, and Mina was still unable to move.

"A beast dies or it lives; there is no alternative."

"This filth... this excellent filth will be the death of us all."

The conversation spun out of control; she could not keep from speaking, impatient for each hateful reply, every scornful provocation from the monster.

"This isn't the end o this, I'll see to it myself." 

"I will break you for everything, everything..."

"Society is rotting.  I can smell it in the air."

"You will rot, I will rot, but who will first, I wonder?"

"The sweet gasoline mingles with the acid rain..."

"I don't want to hunt you."

"I don't want an hour to pass, or the rain to stop, or the music or the cold."


She opened her eyes.  Of course she was sitting across the table from Aaron Harfelt.  Of course she was safe inside the walls of the Raven, where old-fashioned yellow bulbs cast grey shadows on the wallpaper.  Of course his blue eyes were upon her, seeking a way inside.  The moment had passed.

She looked down again, past her menu to the engraved wood of the tabletop.  "I'm sorry," she said.  "I was remembering something.  Daydreaming."

"Well, which is it?"

"Which is what?"

"Never mind."

The waitress came back and took their orders.  In a short while, she returned once more with a bottle of fine Madeira: a treat at Aaron's insistence.  Even a fortified wine, however, was unable to enliven the small talk.  Aaron leaned back slightly in his chair, as he usually did when he had something else to say, but couldn't see a way to bring it into the conversation.  Mina had already made peace with this.  She was fairly certain that she did not want to hear it, but almost convinced that she had to.  In either case she could endure it, and hope for the best.

"I don't know what to do next, Mina."

"You don't have to do anything.  It's not yours anymore."

"Of course I do.  Of course it's mine.  It's always been mine."

"What do you mean, always?"

"You know what I mean.  It'll always be mine.  Long after you, after the chief's forgotten, this'll weigh on my soul.  This'll, this'll drag on me forever, and I don't know what to do about it."

"I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking."

This wasn't enough for Aaron.  Though he tried to project an air of calmness, did his best to affect an aura of dispassion, he had only begun to rebuke and let his feelings show.  His eyes darted here and there, and his voice nearly creaked in quiet, lest he should be overheard.

"I don't think you should give up hope.  I haven't."  It wasn't a lie, strictly speaking.  She rarely applied feelings like hope or despair in descriptions of her work.  Whatever the outcome, she had to deal with the emotional aftermath.  Why saddle herself with expectations?  But in Aaron's eyes she did see a kind of hope; a glimmer of nascent hope, wishing badly to be born, but sadly unable to cross the threshold.  She didn't want to see that small hope die.

The waitress brought their shrimp appetizer, and the two each offered a soft "thank you" in gratitude.  Aaron reached for the plate first, and contemplated the small tail he held lightly in his fingers.

"Have you figured anything out on your end?"

There's really not very much to go on," she replied, "making a profile based on two such different cases.  No strong leads have really jumped out, or suggested themselves in any remarkable way."

"I didn't think so," he said, munching slowly.  "What about the weaker leads?  Any wild theories?"

She smiled.  "Aaron, you know I don't talk about my hunches.  It'll only bias the investigation."

"Yeah, yeah, I know.  Only curious."

"You're worried about your brother, aren't you?"

"No," he said, letting the tail crunch loudly between his teeth.  "No, of course not.  I already told you, there's dozens of good, physical reasons that it couldn't have been Henry."

"But you feel responsible for him, right?"

"I do.  I am responsible for him."

She stopped her breath, realizing that she should have known better than to pursue that line of questions.  "I don't suspect Henry, OK?  Really, I don't.  Under other, different circumstances, I might have put him on the short list.  But I think there are much, much better explanations for what little we do know."  Looking up, she saw Aaron still bristling, but apparently coming down once more.

The two of them sat silently for a few minutes, chewing on shrimp; strains of Chopin (or some imitation) filled the empty spaces from tinny, invisible speakers.  The waitress returned at last with the main course: cod fillet and salad for her, pork chops and mashed potatoes for him.

"That was quick," said Mina, smiling lightly at the waitress.

"I hope they're cooked through," said Aaron.

"I hope so too."  She also hoped that the waitress hadn't heard.

Aaron obviously had more to say, but the words seemed temporarily held up.  Perhaps something unspeakable, Mina thought; she was well familiar with thoughts that had no business being realized.  But why go to all of the trouble, and still clam up now?

"I don't think my report will be much help, either."  She sighed in apology.

"It's alright.  Something will come up."

"That's what I'm afraid of," she said.  "We may not catch any more breaks until more people die and leave some clues.  Maybe a pattern will come up, but this case doesn't fit any of the usual ones.  I think the next incident will probably be completely different from the first two."

"Aimless evil," he offered, imbibing liberally and turning to refill his glass.  "Or maybe confused, misdirected evil.  Mis-educated evil."

"That certainly won't make matters easy."  She lost focus for a moment, lost in the feel of her fork as it twisted about in her hand.  "I have been thinking.  A lot.  About what sort of person he must be..."  Her voice trailed off; her thought remained unfinished.

"He?"  Aaron's voice hinted at mischief.

"Well yeah.  I guess I hadn't considered that it might be a woman."  She thought it was barely funny, but tried not to show it.  Was this really the time for pronoun parity?

"Well, consider it then.  Do you think a woman could have done it?"

"Psychologically speaking, of course?"

"That's your specialty; leave the rest to me."

"I find it difficult to imagine, with the first victim especially so.  But I'm not...well, I'm not inclined to think that a woman killed your parents.  Not like that."

"I don't think so either," he said.  He looked agitated again, restless, and he scratched at his knee as though something felt dreadfully wrong.  Then, he looked straight at Mina, his mind finally settled in its intended course.  "Actually, I've started thinking there may be more than one of them."

"More than one of... you mean, a copycat killer?"  It was her own first inclination, but those unholy wounds spoke loudly against it.  Truthfully, she could not make up her mind one way or another.

"A copycat, maybe.  Or an accomplice, or a partner, or just a kindred spirit; maybe there's a whole pack of these animals on the loose."

"Isn't that a little fanciful?"

"Yeah, I guess... I guess it is.  But to be honest, I like to think of it that way.  It's comforting."

"I'm sorry?"

"I think it's comforting," he said deliberately and (uncomfortably) directly, "to imagine that 'the Wolf' is actually two or more people."

"I don't understand."  She could hardly believe her ears at such disturbing words.  His eyes betrayed no similar signs of distress.

"Well, it's easier to catch at least one if there's two," he began, "but that's not really the point.  Consider this.  Consider: if one man committed both crimes, and is likely to commit more; well, he's got to be one of the sickest bastards that ever lived, right?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"Well, it's all good to just write him off, 'he's crazy, he's crazy,' so we don't have to think about it, right?  We don't have to think about it, do we?  We don't have to ask ourselves why he did it."  Aaron's hands were wringing, and occasionally he'd scratch his face, as if he wanted to dig the words straight out of his skin.  "But for people like me... people like my brother, people who have to watch death pass them by within an inch of their faces, and take someone, it's different.  We've got to live with the fact that some 'crazy' freak of nature, the sickest bastard that eve lived, crawled out of the woodwork and came straight for us.  Came straight at us, and the rest of the people can just say, 'he's crazy, he's a monster, he's unique,' and never have to tell us why, why us?  Can you imagine what that's like?"

"It must feel awful."

"Do you think you could live with that?  Do you think you could endure all of that?"

Endure it?  "I guess that I'd have to."

"And that's it, that's just it.  You'd have to endure that, that uniqueness, all your life.  But..." and here he stopped, and looked down for a moment at his half-eaten foot and red-stained glass, with a deep, cold fire in his eyes.  The pause was not long, but it felt a though it might never end.  "But," he continued, "suppose the monster isn't unique.  Suppose there's more just like him, and there always will be.  Suppose whatever it is that's made him a freak of nature is doing, is doing exactly the same thing to someone else?  Well, he's not a freak anymore.  And when he strikes out, and takes something from you, it's not unique anymore.  It's a part of nature: predator and prey."  If Aaron thought that getting this off his chest might help, it looked as if he was right.  He seemed more peaceful now, as if he'd just solved the case and some satisfactory justice had been all but served.  "Wouldn't that be easier to live with?  Wouldn't that make more sense?"

Mina didn't want to hear it; she'd known that she wouldn't want to.  Her training, her instincts, even her dormant spiritual beliefs resisted that sort of reduction.  Even if it were true, in some absolutely pedantic sense, the moral implications were unacceptable to a well-ordered human mind.  Was Aaron's truly so disordered, or did he simply fail to see it?

Aaron's idle supposition suggested two logical conclusions to Mina.  On the one hand, a human species that consisted of two irreconcilable castes: a class of innocents, and an unknowably large criminal element lurking under cover of darkness.  These irredeemables would wait only for the right circumstances to call their ghoulish natures out of the depths of their skulls.  It was the same old fantasy that kept pale, decrepit dynasties in power long after their powers of leadership had failed, at the expense of those whom they could not bring themselves to trust.

But blue-blood though he was, she felt that his implication was deeper, and had been intended as such.  Humanity was not divided between innocent and guilty parts.  An apple, half-affected by rot, was still a rotten apple.  Cut the putrid pieces away, and you couldn't save the whole: only a misshapen mess, all the more vulnerably exposed at its edges to the forces of corrosion.  Every wound was ultimately fatal, and every sin was mortal; the ghastly conclusion was the guilt of all humanity, the potential for all men, women, even children, to bear claws and teeth in the service of hate.  In a society of beasts there could be no monsters; and no innocent children to hurt in the night.

Was it just such a child she saw now?  And more importantly, was he wrong?  The peaceful expression he wore was only that: it communicated no other emotion.  No tension, no fear, no confusion, no despair.  Was this a monster, a child, or a fool?  What did he take the rest of the world for?  What if he wasn't wrong?

Mina was often told (and she often said it herself) that there was no explaining evil.  But that might not be strictly true.  Perhaps it was merely taboo, not impossible.  If it was all as he'd said, and the world looked as grim as it did through a red-stained glass, then who was she trying to fool with platitudes?  As she watched him meditate on nothing, she thought, "maybe I can't endure this.  Not now..."

"I'm leaving.  I'm sorry, I, I can't stay here."

He started violently from his live-eyed stare.  "Going?  No, no, you can't go!  Please!"

"I'm sorry, I'll get the check..."

"Will you, what, no!  The check!?  It's not the check, it's not about the check.  Stay here, stay!"

"Aaron, what's the matter?  You seemed so calm..."

"I don't need you to mother me!"

"You don't need me..."

"No!  I need you!  Stay here!"

"Aaron, people can hear you."  She reached into her bag, and took hold of the blunt-tipped rod she kept ready for self-defense.  If he really did try anything desperate, one good swing could...

"I thought you knew, I thought you understood!"

"I don't understand.  Understand what?"

"Mina, Mina, Mina!  You can't go.  I need you here now."

"I think my skills would be better used elsewhere."

"Well it's obviously not your skills as a psychologist I'm interested in," he leered.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're no good at it, no good at this.  You can't solve it, I can't solve it, so stay here where you'll do some good.  Stay where I need you."

"I'm not here at your beck and call, Inspector Harfelt..."

Without even twitching a muscle, he had a hold of her.  With sharp, cold fingers he took her by the throat, crushing her powers of speech and bolting her fast to her seat.  And all the while he sat there, hadn't moved a muscle, only babbled...

"It'll be different next time, you can't stop it, can't predict it, no one can... I'm sorry, I'm, I'm sorry, I, you can't go, you couldn't!  You've gone, they've gone, every one's gone!  I had to, there's no one, nothing there..."

Mina could see the restaurant staff approaching from her right, felt their eyes upon her.  She needed to escape more than ever, but she couldn't move, she couldn't speak...

"Don't go.  I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have, I'm sorry."

Mina Cardiff could not remember what he said next, or how she came to be home again, or who had paid the bill.  She did not know what had transpired to close that scene.  She could speak again, and move, but there was no one there to ask.  Only a lonesome crystal window overlooking a grainy street, lit by ruddy lamps and set in her stone grey walls.

She didn't know what she'd hoped to accomplish, but she knew that she had failed.  She searched her faltering memory, and it proved that she had not endured.  She could not withstand his feelings, or his cruel words, which crawled and clawed at her brain like icicles on stone, breaking through the least-expected cracks.  It didn't matter that she couldn't cry.  She didn't need to.

A soaking dog barked in the streets below.  An unwelcome reminder.  This wrinkled mess of fevered minds and motives was her life's work, and none of it made sense anymore.  Her life's work, her daily grind: a grind she shared with maniacs of all sorts, unnameable and unmentionable.  She placed a hand upon her window, and wondered if she couldn't see another face: an orange face, streaked with shadows and broken raindrops.  She shuddered in recognition of the strange, in recognition of those baleful eyes.

"I'm sorry too," she whispered.  Sorry she had no answers.  Sorry that she could offer no peace, and sorrowful that there might be no peace to offer.  Sorry that she had made promises that couldn't be kept, and sorry for the future she had to face.

The air in the small apartment was frigid, and she shivered beautifully and alone.  There was no one to comfort her, nothing to find comfort in, except sleep.  Just so long as she did not dream: to dream would haunt her with what she had not endured, the ghosts of all her latest failures revived for the sake of pain.

She had to sleep.  She was too exhausted not to.  But she could not sleep while her heart was beating so, drumming loud against her gentle bones.  She still felt all too clearly the pain of Aaron's confessions: the wound in his clear blue eyes, the truth in his sorrow, the sincerity of his apologies, and the sharp, cold fingers on her throat.

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