No one called it murder. I suppose that’s what I remember most. They all went out of their way to avoid words that could’ve implied prior humanity, like “dead” or “body.” The incident report, which stuttered out of an archaic fax machine just after 3:00 on a Friday, referred simply to “suspicious foreign remains.” There was an outburst of impatient shuffling in the office as the machine woke everyone from their dreams of going home early. I remember it waited three piercing rings before answering the line, then hummed to itself warmly for a further few minutes before it was finally prepared to print. For all that work, a single sheet slipped from the tray to the carpet. And no one moved.
“Isn’t that important?” I asked.
One of my colleagues shrugged. After a slight pause, I got up and walked over.
The fax machine was attached to a dedicated landline, separate from the department switchboard, whose cord hung free from the tall ceiling—like a hard line to God. Someone had told me my first week that it was a federally mandated redundancy in case of terrorist attack or natural disaster, which I thought was ironic considering that’s what the internet was meant to be.
Tucker Davis, a fellow federal appointee, beat me to the paper. He sported a sweater vest and a coiffed head of blond hair. He read the alert as he sipped his coffee. Then he handed it to me. I saw the letters EAP printed in bold at the top.
“Why don’t you take it?” he suggested. “You can use it to get Dr. Waxman off that conference call.”
He raised his mug to an office near the back on whose pale door I knocked a moment later. When there was no response, I cracked it open and slapped the Emergency Action Procedure, face up, against the inside surface with my palm.
Ollie didn’t miss a beat. “Looks like we just got an EAP. I’ll have to catch you all later.” He hung up before anyone could object. “Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s some unidentified inverse correlation between what people have to say and how long they take to say it. Have you noticed that?”
He grabbed the paper from me and scowled at it while donning his coat with one hand. “Suspicious foreign remains,” he repeated.
“Problem with your meeting?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh. No. The usual. But something occurred to me the other day.” He ahnded the EAP back to me. “The more important the message, the shorter it is. Fire!” he blurted. Several heads turned. “See? But if someone has something very unimportant to say, they can’t just out with it.”
“Who’s driving?” I asked as we walked together to the stairs and down to the hall to the parking garage.
“You are. Wait, where’re we going?”
“Uh . . .“ I scanned the paper. “Flushing?”
“Shit. Never mind. I’ll drive. I’ll drop you at the station after.”
“Ditching school on a Friday?”
“Har, har. Naw, I gotta pick up my kid. She’s getting into nature shows. Did I mention that?”
“You mean like David Attenborough?”
“All of it. Him, old Discovery Channel stuff, you name it. She streams them on her tablet. She watched this one the other day. All these baboons—it was in Ethiopia, I think—they were shuffling on their asses across this field picking grass with their fingers. Hundreds of them, all spread out, chattering to each other while they ate.”
“Yeah, like . . . Eh eh eh eh.” The noise resounded off the concrete-block walls of the stairwell. “On and on like that. Eh eh eh. Nonstop. So my daughter asks me ‘What are they talking about?’ And I say I don’t think they’re talking about anything, monkeys don’t have language. And she says ‘No, Dad. They’re talking. You can hear them.’ And what can I say? From a distance, it really does sound like a crowd of people. I doubt a blind man could’ve spot the difference.”
I pushed through the doors to the garage and held them open.
“My car’s on two,” he said.
“So what did you tell her?”
He waved me off. “You know kids. I just said ‘that’s nice, sweetheart’ or something like that. But I’m thinking, how far removed are we from baboons? They chatter to each other, but they don’t really say anything. It’s gotta be an instinct, right? This is us.” He pointed to a maroon sedan and produced his keys.
“So why do they do it?”
“The man on the TV said it was to make each other feel good,” he said inside the car. “You know, reassurance, bonding—or anger in the case of a squabble. And it occurs to me that’s what my kid did when she was a baby. She’d lay in her crib and make sounds like she was asking her stuffed animals a question or telling them an interesting anecdote, but it was all just gibberish.”
“My step-dad had a dog like that,” I said. “When I was a kid. If people were around, she wouldn’t shut up. Not barking. It was like she was trying to tell you something.”
“Maybe she was.” He started the engine. “If you think about it, what’s the meaning of most of what we say? Like with my daughter. I said ‘that’s nice sweetheart.’ What did my response mean, as far as the actual words? I wasn’t agreeing. I wasn’t disagreeing. I didn’t say her comment was interesting or express a contrary thought. I said it was ‘nice,’ which means nothing, and then I called her a pet name, which is basically just me expressing a feeling of closeness. She didn’t get anything more from it than you did from that dog. Words were entirely unnecessary. I could’ve grunted sounds that had the same meaning. Shit, half the time, that’s exactly what I do with my wife. Speaking of, how are things with yours, by the way?”
“Don’t make word-noises. I want the truth.”
“Are you and me keepin’ it real now, Ollie?”
“I didn’t say that. I just want you to feel like you can talk to me.”
“Oh, I see.” I nodded sagely. “This is our obligatory weekly mentor-mentee chat. Smart. Get it out of the way now and you can avoid buying me lunch next week. Also justifies leaving early.”
“Fine. I’ll owe you a frickin’ sandwich.”
“Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s changed, Oll. If I hear differently, I’ll let you know.”
“Well . . . how long’s it gonna take?”
I laughed. “Ain’t up to me, man.”
“You’re gonna be home in a few weeks. What then?”
I shook my head. “Dunno.” I turned to him a moment later. “But a job’d be nice.”
He just snorted, like that wasn’t up to him either.
Signs for Flushing appeared and he asked where we had to get off. I brought up a map on my phone and directed him under a train trellis and through a couple turns.
“Should be on the left here.” I pointed. “I think. Shit.” All the signs were in Chinese, even the municipal warnings taped to the blue wood barrier around a nest of construction.
We showed our credentials at a police barricade and were directed onto a one-way side street.
“Dang . . .” I whispered.
The entire block was packed with eyes. They stared unblinking from the shop signs that poked over door frames and from under windows, one in front of the other, like electric gawkers jockeying for a better view of the crime scene. Printed on each, next to the same pair of Chinese characters, was a single monochrome eye.
Ollie saw the look on my face. “First time out here?”
“It’s some kinda traditional medicine,” he explained. “Oculists, or so I was told.”
He said it like it was a rare species of beetle.
We opened our doors at the same time. It was just going dusk then, and several of the signs clicked on.
“Oculists,” I repeated, looking at the eye over my head.
The shop it was attached to didn’t look much different than a nail salon. It was dark. The CLOSED sign had been hastily hung and dangled precariously sideways. The whole street was like that—deserted. Other than the police, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
“Whole neighborhood’s like this,” he said with a hint of relish. “This is kind of a city center. Acupuncture guys are around the corner. Two blocks over are the herbalists. Fuckers have more illegal shark fin than you can imagine. Stacks and stacks of it. All sizes, shriveled and dried. Don’t even bother to hide it. So much, you’d think there wasn’t a shark left in the ocean.”
“If it’s illegal, why don’t we shut them down?”
“If you figure that out, let me know.”
The autumn breeze took his comb-over and I watched him press it flat. I scanned the third- and fourth-story windows around us for any hint of the residents, but all the curtains and shades were drawn, which meant the people on that street were all experienced non-witnesses. Our colleagues in law enforcement milled like cattle in a pen of yellow caution tape. A small but resolute band of smokers, ostracized by the others, huddled on the far side. I saw several lightweight jackets emblazoned with the letters ICE. Everyone else was in plain clothes.
An NYPD detective nodded to us as we approached and excused himself from the conversation. “You the guys from Health and Hygiene?” he called.
“What, we don’t look like cops?” Ollie joked, tugging at his overcoat primly.
He stepped ahead of me and shook the man’s hand. Then I did the same. The cop introduced himself as Detective Rigdon. He was about like you’d expect. Mid 50s. African American. A little short. Loose suit. Prominent belly. Seemed decent enough.
He motioned to the front door of an Asian grocer’s. “It’s this way.”
“What is?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
I held up the EAP, which I had folded in my pocket.
He shook his head. “Jesus. It’s not all that. Someone important’s probably trying to keep it quiet—as long as they can anyway.”
I turned to the roadblock we had just passed. I hadn’t noticed, but there weren’t any reporters. Given the scale of the slow-motion operation unfolding around us, I guessed that wouldn’t last long.
“No obvious signs of violence,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure if they were trapped down there or not.”
Detective Rigdon held the door.
The market was a kind of co-op. The central hall was flanked on both sides by pairs of open-front stores. On the left, a butcher and a green grocer. On the right, a fishmonger and general store. The air smelled faintly of fire, as if the building had burned in the recent past. Roast ducks hung by the neck in a glass case. A few accordion lanterns were strung from the hallway ceiling, as if left from a recent festival. They seemed out of place.
“All the way to the back.” Rigdon pointed.
A pair of men in white body suits and blue latex gloves emerged from a dark doorway carrying white plastic tool cases. They nodded at our host, who seemed to be the officer in charge.
“ICE got here first,” he said. “They claim both the front door and the door to the stairs were wide open when they arrived.”
“Like someone got spooked and ran?” Ollie asked.
Rigdon shrugged. “Maybe.”
I stopped at a stack of open-topped crates and lifted a kind of hairy fruit I didn’t recognize. Yellow handwritten placards had been stuck into all the crates, presumably advertising the contents and cost, but I couldn’t read any of it. They even used Chinese numerals.
“You say that like you don’t believe them,” I said.
He shrugged again. “Nothing here contradicts their story.”
“While executing a lawful search in the early hours of the afternoon, they discovered the hole downstairs and called us. Not much else to say. We were about to wrap up when dispatch said something about you guys requesting everyone to be on the lookout for this kind of thing.”
Ollie flashed me a smirk. He leaned in as soon as Rigdon was out of earshot. “So this is all your doing,” he joked.
A cluster of open-topped aquariums bubbled noisily at the back of the linoleum hall. Each held a handful of unusually striped fish who swam as if numbed. Through the door at the back, a wood-plank staircase fell steeply down to the basement. Rigdon stopped at the threshold.
“What is it?” I asked, nodding to the stairs.
“Besides creepy as hell,” Ollie added.
“Storage, it looks like. To be honest, we’re not even sure who owns the place. The shopkeepers keep pointing to each other and shouting in Chinese. You guys aren’t the only ones late to the party.”
He nodded to the produce section, where a uniformed officer had detained the elderly grocer and his wife, both of whom looked terrified.
“We’ve been waiting three hours for an interpreter.”
“Fifty bucks says they speak English just fine,” Ollie mocked in his “Oh, did I say that out loud” voice. He had a tendency to try too hard around new people.
Detective Rigdon flashed him a knowing look but didn’t take the bait.
“You first,” Ollie told me, motioning to the stairs.
“You’re not coming?”
“I trust your evaluation. Good experience for you.”
“You’ll need this.” Rigdon handed me a tubular LED flashlight, barely bigger than a pair of AA batteries. Then he waved a big hand to one of the techs, who walked over and handed me a medical mask and gloves.
“Our thing isn’t contagious,” I said.
“And if it’s not your thing?”
I dropped my shoulder bag by the door. I put the mask over my beard and pulled on the gloves as I walked down the dark steps. It smelled like my grandmother’s farmhouse basement. The single bare lightbulb suspended over the landing wasn’t enough for the steep staircase, let alone the cramped room at the bottom. I clicked the button on the flashlight and ran the beam over cardboard boxes stacked like pillars in the dark. Green Chinese lettering. Perishables, it looked like. We’d have to catalog it all. I thought that sounded like a good job for someone who wouldn’t be lead on the case, if it turned into one. Tucker, maybe.
I reached the uneven brick wall at the back in five steps. Rigdon must have been listening, because just then he called down.
“On your right!”
I swung the light and found a jagged hole chiseled in the concrete floor. It looked like the gasping mouth of someone just about to drop under the surface and drown. Four uneven slats, studded with screw heads, had been affixed by a madman to the wall below, making a simple if uneven ladder. I shined the light to the bottom and saw another concrete floor, rough and stained with age. It easily could’ve easily predated the upper floors of the building. Since the mask covered my teeth, I stuck the flashlight in my armpit before getting down on my hands and climbing in.
The room was a good thirty feet long. Near the ladder, it was just tall enough for me to stand, but the floor sloped upward gradually, as if to make sure everything at the back tumbled forward. A coal bin, maybe. The beam from my flashlight caught bits of dust hanging in the air like the particulates you see in deep-sea footage. My every movement stirred them into eddies. I smelled sawdust and sweat under the stench of days-old diarrhea, which tickled the back of my throat like pepper. I coughed once and my eyes watered.
As my irises adjusted to the dark, I caught the symbol spray-painted on the far wall. It commanded your attention, like a crucifix over an altar. But it wasn’t a crucifix. It was a kind of uneven circle with a shape inside, sort of like a tilted ax with an ankh for a handle. The paint glowed a faint yellow-green. On the floor below were five motionless figures: two women, a man, and what looked like a pair of kids—all Asian, aged 12 to 60, roughly. Easy enough to peg as undocumented. Their teeth were bad, they were malnourished, and they each wore an odd mix of castoff clothing. That at least explained the secrecy. I guessed someone in the mayor’s office wanted a chance to craft the message before the media did. A crop of dead illegals might even make national coverage.
The bodies rested at various places around the dark gray space. The three adults were sitting against the wall. The two kids had collapsed together in a fetal position, facing each other. All of them had died in pain and total darkness. I looked at the hole over my head. No door or lock, but it would be easy to seal with one of the box pillars. No one underneath would be able to get enough leverage to push that off, not from that uneven ladder. Whatever it had been originally, the room was now a dungeon.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, then again a moment later as I shuffled forward to the nearest figure. I stepped on something crisp, which snapped underfoot. I bent to pick it up. A twig. There were several more next to it, along with some frayed twine. I stepped over it to examined the first victim, a short man of about 50 with a wide head and a flat nose. His right arm ended in a stub at the elbow. I ran my beam slowly from his head to his hands. His eyes were closed. He wore cargo shorts and an XXL Justin Bieber T-shirt that reached to his knees like a sleeping gown. His legs were so atrophied there was no way he could walk. One of his feet bent oddly to one side, since birth by the looks of it. The skin of his arms, neck, and face was splotchy and swollen in a latticelike web characteristic of some kinds of fungal infection. And there was an ashen pallor on top of that, as if whatever had killed him had also caused his epidermis to turn to ash.
The woman next to him had the same splotching. I ran a single gloved finger over her arm. Pale dust gathered, like from the mantel of a long-abandoned house. The couple’s hands rested a few inches apart on the floor. They’d been holding onto each other before death. I looked between them. His eyes were shut. Hers were open slightly as if in a deep sleep. I imagine he went first and she reached over and closed his lids. There were a pair of dry tear paths down her cheeks, like desert gullies.
Just past the couple, the two kids clung to each other in silence, foreheads together. There was something wrong with them, with their faces—evidence of a disability I couldn’t place. I glanced again at the man’s atrophied legs, and at the wife who refused to leave his side. Or maybe a sister. At the back, a very old woman sat by herself. She had vomited all over her chest. Orange-ish liquid crusted her lips and ran in hard streaks down her blouse. Her eyes were open. They stared right through me. And there was a hint of smirk on her lips, like she knew something I didn’t. It was unnerving, and I looked away.
I traced the corners of the room with my flashlight and found a crumpled white paper bag tossed to one side. Someone had brought them food at some point. Days ago, by the looks of it. They’d finished every last crumb. Nothing left but a slip of wax paper. No marks on the bag except on the bottom: a black circle with the letters CE inside. No receipt. Could’ve been from anywhere. I turned with a shuffle. My legs were stiff from squatting, and my knees were starting to hurt. I looked around the long, sloped space. I looked at the hands of the husband and wife. Fallen. Almost touching. I looked at the glow-in-the-dark symbol. I pulled out my phone to take a picture and ignored the text messages on the screen. I swiped to the camera, waited for it to focus, and snapped. Then I took a second for good measure. I looked again at the man, at his scalp. I ran my gloved fingers through his dark hair. Tufts came free. I shook them and shuffled to the back. I couldn’t take anymore of the stench.
I stood at the top of the hole and stretched my knees and made sure the photos I’d taken weren’t blurry. Then I read the messages.
YOUR MOM CALLED SAID IT’S
SERIOUS THIS TIME
TOLD HER U R WORKING BUT
YOUD CALL LATER TONIGHT
“Get what you need?” Rigdon asked as I walked up the stairs. The planks creaked underfoot.
He and Ollie had clearly been chatting. I’d heard a hearty chuckle as I ascended.
I shook my head and stripped the latex from my hands. “I don’t suppose there’s a way to get a rush on stomach contents?” I picked up my bag from where I’d left it.
“Oh sure,” Rigdon said as he patted his pockets. “I think I have a pocket knife around here somewhere.”
I took out my phone and looked at the messages again.
Ollie eyed me a moment. “You okay?”
“Two kids down there.”
“So the man said.” He nodded to the detective. “Kids are tough.”
The store seemed choked with stale smoke and strange smells. “I need some air.”
I left them chatting and walked to the street. A handful of residents had returned as if lured by the softly glowing signs. A car pulled out of a pay-by-hour lot on the corner and drove away.
“We’re calling it suspicious,” Detective Rigdon said to Ollie as the pair came up behind a few moments later. “Uniforms are canvassing and all that. We’ll keep you guys in the loop. Anything on the bodies you’ll have to get from the ME. Stomach contents included,” he said louder, to me.
A shopkeeper three doors down had emerged to sweep the sidewalk in front of his store. He caught my glance and looked down, swinging the broom swiftly as he turned away.
I shook my head without looking at my colleagues. “These people aren’t going to tell you anything.”
“Yeah,” Rigdon said softly. “That’s usually how it goes in these ethnic neighborhoods.”
I caught him studying me. “What?” I asked. “I don’t look like a hood rat? It’s the beard, isn’t it?”
He squinted. “Harlem? Bed-Stuy?”
I shook my head. “A-T-L.”
“Southern brutha, huh? What brings you up here?”
“Three-month appointment,” Ollie answered. “This man works for the federal government.”
“Centers for Disease Control,” I corrected.
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Rigdon asked. Then he put on an accent for me and slapped my shoulder. “Welcome to New Yawk.”
“That symbol mean anything to you?” I asked before he walked away. “The one on the wall?”
“Symbol?” Ollie asked.
Rigdon shook his head. “We’re having the gang unit take a look. Plenty of organized crime out here. Hong Kong Triads. Local tong. Poor folks from the mainland get smuggled in packed shipping containers, sometimes thirty or forty at a time. They’re promised a job, think they’re getting a new life. The young women are forced to work as prostitutes or housekeepers or whatever. Everyone else is basically slave labor in a sweat shop. Folks downstairs are probably the leftovers.”
“Then why feed them?” I asked. “If you’re just going to leave them to die.”
Rigdon shrugged. “Maybe someone felt guilty?”
“And the paint?”
“Probably just graffiti.”
I wasn’t sure if he was blowing me off or that’s really what he thought. “Isn’t the whole point of graffiti that people will see it?”
“Hey!” Rigdon called over our heads. “About time!”
An Asian woman in a sharp business suit stepped from an unmarked car and he went to greet her. I took out my phone again and fired off an email to the medical examiner’s office requesting a rush on stomach contents. And a blood culture. I sent another to Oliver, even though he was standing right next to me, and asked that someone start the wonderfully exciting process of cataloging samples of all the produce in the shop and sending them to the lab. I copied Dr. Chalmers.
I hear Tucker’s available, I wrote, now that he’s done with outreach.
I looked back at the store, at the old grocer and his wife. They were shaking their heads at whatever the Asian woman was asking. We’d have to shut them down. It would take weeks to process everything.
“I can see you typing,” Ollie said, walking to the car. “You know I have eyes, right?”
“Five dead,” I countered.
He nodded. “And the police are taking it. You heard them. Suspicious deaths, the man said. That means criminal, which means not us.”
We got in and I pulled the seatbelt down as he started the car. Ollie didn’t wear a seatbelt. He was a big man and it was very uncomfortable for him, or so he claimed. To keep the car from beeping at him, he left the belt in the lock and sat on the strap, which was now pressed permanently to the seat.
“What happens when someone else gets sick?” I asked.
“Hold on there, captain. Who says they will? We should at least get a cause of death before we go emailing everyone under the sun.”
“Emaciation, hair loss, signs of systemic fungal infection,” I rattled off the symptoms. “This makes three cases in the last month. It’s the same thing, Ollie. And you know it.”
He held up a hand. “Maybe it is. I’m not arguing with you. Just take my advice. For once. Please. Wait for the coroner’s report before you run this upstairs. Again.”
I shook my head.
“How long I been doing this?” he asked.
“Thirty years, or so you keep telling me.”
“Right. So don’t act like I got no skin in the game. You young guys come out with—”
“I’ve worked in the field.”
“Yeah, so you keep telling me,” he mimicked my words. “Three weeks in Africa. Lotsa dead bodies. It’s not the same. You guys were there with a UN mandate. We don’t have that. Money is not infinite, Alex. I wish it was. Believe me. Every dollar we spend chasing stuff like this is a dollar that doesn’t get spent somewhere else. Somewhere that can really help.”
“Like the Farm-to-Table program?”
He made a disgusted face, like I had just shoved a gob of shit into this mouth. “Look, I’m sorry those people died. It’s a terrible tragedy. But no one forced them into that shipping container or whatever—”
“You don’t know that. You don’t know how they got—”
“And even if they did!” He raised his voice. ”Even if they were forced, how does that change anything? You gonna take on organized crime now?”
The engine idled calmly.
“You didn’t even look,” I said.
“Fuck.” He turned the car off and shifted his girth to face me. “And why do you think that is, huh? ’Cuz I’m just some callous asshole who doesn’t care about people? Or because I know from experience that all it would do is ruin my day? Because there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re committing the cardinal sin of this job, right now.”
“You’re taking it home with you.”
When I didn’t answer, he faced front again and started the car. “Maybe it’s not a bad thing your wife didn’t come.”
First chapter of my forthcoming occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS. I’m wrapping up Part 1 now and it should be out by the summer.