I have always been an ordinary guy who appreciates simple things. My dad used to say a man’s intelligence was defined by his plan of action. His deeds should facilitate the human condition and enable progress.
My childhood dreams were primarily highlighted by my interests in comics and science fiction. Superman was more of a disappointment as a born superhero, whereas Spiderman convinced me that you could mutate into a superhero. So, I almost poisoned myself with bleach. Then came Batman, who had no powers, and yet his dark past fueled him with anger and grief.
I’m not like that.
Despite not having had many friends, my childhood was okay. However, I can’t express what is bothering me. Images of all these superheroes continued to haunt me along with this constant urge to accomplish something worthy of recognition.
Colleen, my wife, is a simple woman, too, except that she does not have these urges. She has only intended to be a good wife and mother, which she is. And for that reason, I cannot share my sentiments with her, as they would taint her.
My working hours vary immensely. The person I investigate determines my routine. Often, I feel like a justified stalker or someone looking to steal a person’s life by keeping track of every single keystroke. I prefer the latter, especially if the subject is of personal interest like my latest investigation.
He is called Matthias, a Swede and current law student at the New York Law School. According to his profile, he’d received two warnings for consuming marijuana, followed by a suspension based on an apparent physical assault on one of his law professors, Seymour Bateson.
The final court judgment is on hold, as only one witness had seen a masked figure on the campus.
Currently, Matthias is employed as a part-time Swedish-speaking consultant.
The school’s chairman, James McCain, hired me to investigate Matthias’s private life. Well, my supervisor assigned this case to me.
If no further evidence comes to light, the university will take him back on the course. Still, according to the chairman, he is determined that Matthias is involved in some illegal underground dealings.
On my first day of investigation, I gathered that he has an American girlfriend, Lauren Cregan. She is a pretty girl with short dark hair. Matthias picked her up from the Forensic Science School and went for a romantic dinner in Times Square.
I took a few innocent photographs. Matthias made a few private phone calls in her absence, but he would dismiss those calls when with her. Judging by his facial expression, he is secretive, but at the same time, his pale blue eyes express some sort of warmth, which mainly comes to the surface in Lauren’s presence. His blonde hair suggests some fairy tale innocence when juxtaposed with Lauren’s dark hair. She’s like a modernized version of Snow White.
They ended up making love at her place just outside Queens. I began to think about my former lovers and how they’d left me empty by attempting to challenge a side of me that didn’t exist. I’m not sure if a person lives for another person. Alternatively, you do need a person for balance. Maybe Matthias would agree with me. I never had a friend with whom I could share such a sentiment. Of course, he is hiding something Lauren isn’t even aware of because she, too, wouldn’t understand. Colleen never would.
Matthias and Lauren left her apartment together this morning, parting in different directions.
I realize that I haven’t been home at all to sleep. I snap a few more pictures before taking off.
Matthias walks toward the subway to go to work, whereas she heads to the bus station. I don’t know why I choose to follow her instead of going home to freshen up before my appointment.
When I arrive at the law school to report the first day of investigation, my stomach is in knots. My client McCain had distributed me Matthias’s documents one week before I started my work.
My supervisor, Chad Hallowell, is present at that meeting and waiting for me to sit next to him.
“Hi, Ed,” he says.
Further in the back of the room, behind McCain, a grim-looking man scrutinizes me. My stomach still feels tight and uncomfortable.
“Mr. Olsson. It’s nice to see you. May I introduce you to our senior law professor Mr. Bateson.”
He gives me a brief nod, or he might not have nodded at all; I don’t know. He doesn’t appear human to me, more an illusion that arose from a nightmare. He’s bald, sharp-headed. His eyes are two slits, which have never seen the sunlight. It’s hard to believe that he has a legal background.
“As you may know, Mr. Olsson, we are very concerned,” the McCain says.
I throw a brief look at Chad.
“Why so?” I ask.
The investigation has only just started, and I feel that they do not give me enough time to investigate.
McCain walks towards the American flag that was hanging above the outdated fireplace.
“Are you a patriot, Mr. Olsson?”
I am stumped.
“Uhm, sure. I vote. I work. I pay tax. I love this country.”
“That’s good to hear.”
I see Chad in my peripheral vision. He has thrown a brief glance at me as if bothered by my response.
“You are of Swedish heritage, aren’t you, Mr. Olsson?”
“Yes, my grandfather moved to New York in the 1920s.”
“Ah, the golden age!” he sighs.
There is a long pause—almost evolving into an awkward silence. I can tell that for whatever reason, these men don’t entirely trust me.
“Mr. McCain,” I say, “on the first few days of investigation, I can only report that phone calls were made in the absence of Mr. Arlberg’s girlfriend, a forensic student.”
Mr. McCain snorts.
“They spend lots of time together, but I assure you that I will make a closer move to speed things up.”
He finally takes a seat at his desk, now looking at Chad and me.
“You Swedish folks are such a neutral bunch, Mr. Olsson. You always mind your own business.”
“I will do my job, Mr. McCain,” I say.
I can feel Chad’s nervousness.
“You’re a good man,” McCain says. “I trust your skills, Olsson. Please be aware that this law school has certain principles that all students and staff must honor and respect. We cannot tolerate people who don’t.”
On the way out, Chad becomes more at ease again. I light a cigarette. He does not utter a word until we both enter my car.
“Lordi, that was tense!” he says.
“What the hell just happened in there, Chad? What did they say before I came?”
I start the engine.
“Listen, I’m under a hell of a lot of pressure. Maybe I shouldn’t have assigned this case to you.”
I turn off the engine.
“What are you talking about?” I say.
“You’re the best I’ve got.”
I blew out a cloud of smoke.
“They obviously want Arlberg down,” Chad says. “So, just focus on that.”
“Of course. First, I’m going to collect evidence.”
He looks at me again, worried, like he did inside McCain’s office.
My presentiments are signaling something bad, and I’m sure that Chad feels the same way.
“He asked you whether you were a Swedish patriot.”
I dig my cigarette into the ashtray.
That meeting has left a bad taste in my mouth.
Since Matthias won’t finish work until 5 p.m., I’ve been watching Lauren at the public library in Manhattan. She is a decent girl with ambitions, someone who truly knows what she wants and wouldn’t give it up for anyone. According to her records, her dad’s in prison for murder. I wonder what other secrets she has and whether Matthias knows about them. Matthias doesn’t have much of a record in the States. The only pieces of information that stand out are that his dad was Christer Arlberg, the first Swedish astronaut to enter space in 2006. Matthias’s excellence is marked by his fantastic grades in science, like father like son. And yet, he chose to study law.
Although I’m sitting two tables away, I can smell maple in her hair. I hear the air leaving her nostrils. Her slim figure would make her a very delicate dancer. I can’t stop imagining her slowly taking her clothes off as she walks towards me on the table, giving me the attention that I’ve been looking for all my life. But I have to snap out of it.
I try to focus on the newspaper, which highlights the latest on the Menzies murders. Lewis Menzies is New York’s most wanted prostitute killer (both men and women). His style is to skin the females alive and castrate the males, followed by a stab in the chest after a final prayer to set their souls free.
By the time Lauren leaves the library to meet one of her girlfriends for dinner, I realize that it’s almost 5 p.m.
Matthias is wearing a black winter jacket and a blue polo shirt underneath. His posture has changed, and his eyes look sharp. He’s quite a tall fellow. It’s also the first time I see him smoke, which he doesn’t do in Lauren’s presence.
He enters a grey Polo Moda parked at the side of the building. The driver must’ve been waiting for Matthias for a long time, as I haven’t noticed his arrival. I make a quick note of the registration number, followed by some pictures.
I follow the car almost all the way down Lexington Ave until we make a right turn towards Chelsea and a left turn down to the Meatpacking District. At this moment, Matthias represents everything I wish I were because what I am about to find out is what I’ve been craving all my life. My palms are sweating, and my heart is pounding hard. My senses are sharp; the stench of sewage and garbage smells like victory, but the battle hasn’t started yet.
For a second, I thought I heard Matthias laugh. And I do catch him smile in his side-view mirror. There’s ecstasy in my blood. I’ve never felt so exhilarated in my life.
I’ve lost track of which street we’re at, and I have to make sure they don’t see my car.
It’s a rough neighborhood, so it’s difficult not to stand out with my spotless black VW Jetta. I park on the side street and turn the headlights off.
They are a few blocks ahead. I see Matthias and his partner get off to greet two other guys who are leaned against a Volvo. His partner, however, gets back into his Polo Moda and drives off. I watch how the rest put on cotton masks before entering a building that seems to be unsecured. I step out to investigate.
The building reeks of decay and rat excrement. I hurry up the stairs as fast as I could. Next, I hear someone kick open a door on the second floor. Within seconds, someone slams it shut. Shouting voices are coming from room 245. I hold my ear against the door and hear someone pray. There is light coming through the keyhole, enabling me to peek through.
“Fuck, someone shut his trap!” one of the masked men says. (I’ll call him A.)
Matthias is the tall, quiet one standing at the table’s side, holding a traditional barber’s razor. On his knees is their victim–a middle-aged man whose head is hanging during the prayer.
“God sent me to clean this city, God sent me to save America. If my time has come, Lord, please…”
The other masked man (B) stuffs a rag into the preacher’s mouth.
“Holy fuck, he’s crazy!” says B.
“It’s our job to clean this city, you hear?” A. says and grabs the preacher by the hair, forcing him to raise his head.
I instantly recognize the face of Menzies, the prostitute killer. Matthias motions towards him–holding up the razor.
Someone opens the door behind me, and I see the pretty face of a middle-aged lady.
“Who are you?” she says.
Before anyone hears anything, I approach her immediately with my ID, my forefinger pressed against my lip. I gesture for her to enter her apartment.
“Private investigator O’Neill.”
I walk in with her and close the door behind us. She is a neat-looking woman, most likely Christian, judging by how she buttoned her blouse all the way to the top. Her red hair is firmly tied back.
“I heard noises. Is Reverend Hollis alright?”
“Rev…? Please, ma’am, I’ll take care of it. It’s for your own safety.”
“I was going to call the police. Is he under arrest?”
She grabs hold of her cross, almost close to tears. We both hear a loud groan from Menzies’s apartment. She cries in fear, pressing her hand against her mouth.
To stop her from taking any action, I pretend to call 911 on my cell phone.
“This is O’Neill. Please urgently send reinforcement.”
The woman cries and prays with eyes closed.
“Don’t worry, ma’am, the police will be here any minute.”
If only she knew who she is praying for. The heavy groans of torture painted the most gruesome images in my head.
Fifteen minutes later, and the woman is still in praying mode. Menzies’s door finally opens. Through the keyhole, I watch Matthias and the other two guys walk down the stairs in silence.
I quietly step out to check on Menzies. Through the broken door, I walk into his apartment. I find him half-naked on his knees, covered in blood. Half of his face has been skinned, as well as half of his chest. A trail of blood is running down from his blood-soaked underwear. He appears to be breathing, half-consciously.
The sound of sirens from afar strikes me, and I hurry down the stairs to step out. The previous Volvo passes me by, and I recognize Matthias on the passenger’s seat. I get in my car and follow the Volvo to Brooklyn.
I take quick pictures of the guys before they enter a bar. It was a victory indeed, but there’s no need to witness their celebration.
I wake up to the crackling sound of a space shuttle, which turns out to be the sound of construction. The clock shows 06:20 a.m.
The crime scene could get me in trouble, depending on what the lady told the police. But their act of vigilantism was heroic in my eyes. The law, however, won’t let this pass as an act of justice.
When observing the photographs in my laboratory, I face a dilemma. Whatever I do will jeopardize my job in one way or another. Looking at Matthias’s sharp eyes explains that we’re not who we appear to be.
After eight years of PI service, I have only encountered one person without a secret identity. A woman called Lauretta was the exact equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Sphinx with no Secret. Eventually, she died of her husband’s lack of trust in her.
Of course, I’ve also put power-driven, money-hungry women behind bars. My eyes wander towards a photograph of Lauren smiling at Matthias while brushing her fingers through her hair. If he loves her, I’m sure it’s torture to keep such a big secret from her. But like me, Matthias knows that she won’t understand his view of right and wrong. And maybe her beauty and innocence keep his life balanced. Lauren is the reason why he protects the vulnerable.
Knowing that Chad will visit soon, I destroy last night’s photographs except for the ones I took outside the club in Brooklyn.
Chad arrives earlier than agreed. I lead him through my lab to show him photographs of Matthias leaving work and meeting friends for a night out. Chad isn’t happy but asks no further questions.
Before he leaves, he says, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Watching Matthias in this club right now makes me paranoid, like someone is watching me as I’m watching Matthias. But I see no one in this club who would cause any suspicion.
Matthias has been wearing the same blue polo shirt for three days now– does it occur to him that the dangling top button needs stitching?
I haven’t had a chance to shower, so I’m wearing cologne. Something is telling me that he’s wearing the same one. It’s intriguing enough that his tastes and habits are that of mine. I keep my Pall Mall in my left inner pocket as well, and a spare pack would be on my backside.
Matthias sucks at his cigarette more elegantly than me; it’s like each exhalation has a purpose. When I picture myself exhaling the smoke, it loses all meaning like I have no reason to even smoke—no reason to be here. In his presence, I’m no longer the same. I’ve given my own existence away to someone more significant than me.
He’s at it again. I wonder how the concept of substance abuse can give you joy and pleasure when all you can think of is the side effect. Or maybe it’s just me. Transitory happiness is the worst kind. The sugar melts on your tongue, the sensation travels through the nerves toward your brain, and you’re happy for a second.
On the contrary, I prefer to gain and maintain happiness through stability, such as having a decent job and looking after my family. At least, I think so.
Colleen is calling. I dismiss it.
It seems that every Friday, Matthias hangs around with his dealer Sean and a couple of other lowlife friends in this underground rock bar. They seem to be mapping out tonight’s targets. Watching them from the side of the bar, I see some papers on the pool table illustrating outlines of places. It seems like tonight’s leading destination will be midtown. I put down the newspaper highlighting Menzies’s arrest.
I follow Matthias and his comrades outside, where they enter the same Volvo as yesterday. Sean waves bye before going back inside the club.
I get in my Jetta, which I parked two cars behind them. They’re waiting for something.
Chad is calling me.
“Ed, where are you? Any news?”
“I’m driving. I think they’re about to cross Brooklyn Bridge.”
Matthias steps out of the car and finishes his cigarette, then someone in the car hands him a cotton mask.
“What do you think they’re up to?” Chad says.
“I don’t know.”
Chad sighs. Next, Matthias is at the wheel and starts the engine.
“Come on, Ed, I need results. Get ’em!”
I follow the Volvo down Pearl Street and turn right towards the bridge. It’s a misty evening; there is always one or two of these nights toward the end of fall, and it puts people right into Halloween mode.
Matthias is the leader of the group—proven by his reserved nature and common sense. He’s already smoking another cigarette. I just realized that I am smoking too, but I don’t remember lighting one.
In their back seat, one guy seems restless and out of his mind for continuously drumming against his buddy’s headrest. Matthias is oblivious to it. I wonder what they have in mind. This might be another night of victory like the last one.
We reach the end of the bridge, where we continue past the College of Technology, heading straight into downtown. My digital watch is striking midnight.
After several turns, we reach Court station, which is the worst subway station in Brooklyn. It has a mazy structure and high traffic.
I’m beginning to lose track of where we are until they turn into a cul-de-sac. I continue to the next street and park my car.
This place seems familiar to the extent that I’m almost certain I’ve been here before. While walking fast to the cul-de-sac, the smell of chlorine and Chinese takeaway hits me. I’m nauseated, but I should be used to this environment. It’s the stench of people’s dirtiest secrets.
The car is in front of a permanently closed gateway. The buildings are old and desolate, and I don’t like them. There are too many closed doors and unidentified noises seeping through the walls.
Matthias and his two masked comrades, A. and B., rummage around in the trunk for weapons. But to my surprise, the two fellows bring forward two bondage whips, whereas Matthias grabs a set of love balls. Now he veils his face underneath a black cotton mask.
The gate isn’t locked. The boys enter the building with a card key, stolen or copied. I see them hurry up the stairs, and before the door falls shut, I rush to hold it. But I slip on the front door curb and fall forward on my stomach. My cell phone falls out of my pocket and slides across the entrance. The closing door pushes my cell phone back toward my direction and eventually gets caught right in between the gap. The sound of my phone breaking into pieces makes me get back on my feet and follow the guys up the stairs.
I hear screaming on the fourth floor, followed by heavy footsteps coming down my way. Several half-naked teenage girls hurry down the stairs, some with tears in their eyes. Halfway up on the fourth floor, I hear a man squealing in fear. I’m nowhere close, so I look up the staircase and see a man trying to escape, but either A. or B. is grabbing him by the hair.
“Where do you think you’re going? You’re a customer, aren’t you? You have the right to be served!”
As I reach the fourth floor, I see Matthias standing in front of the bottomless, kneeling pimp and other customers. A. and B. have their whips ready. In this second, Matthias looks over his shoulder briefly, and I wonder whether he has seen me.
The door falls shut.
I get back in my car, watching my trembling hands on the steering wheel. It’s not fear. However, something is going on with me, as if I’ve entered a different dimension.
I start the car, and the headlights brighten up the cul-de-sac. A. and B. step out of the building and spot me right away.
They run toward me and hop in the car as if I was some random cab driver.
“How about telling us when you leave, man!” says Bruce on the passenger’s seat.
“Come on, come on, let’s beat it, Matts!” says Adam in the backseat.
I hit the accelerator and begin to reverse the car out of the cul-de-sac. It takes me a while to register that I’m driving a Volvo. A Volvo?
Bruce and Adam are cheering, giving each other high-fives, and hitting my shoulder.
“Who says retribution is bad?” says Bruce.
“Those pricks deserved it,” says Adam. “I think that was one of the worst criminal acts we’ve had to deal with. I felt physically sick, man.”
“I feel sorry for what you had to do, Matts!” says Bruce, and both laugh.
They remove their masks, and each one lights a cigarette.
“Look, the cops!”
Only now have I become aware of the sirens. The cops are heading towards the cul-de-sac, where the pimp and others have been handcuffed to each other. They should find our notes on the young girls who have just fled to their homes.
I see in the rearview mirror that my blue eyes look different, somewhat sharper, and more determined like my father’s.
There’s a text message from Lauren asking if I’m around. Bruce and Adam want me to join them for a beer, but I say no.
My heart is beating fast when I stop outside her place—the smell of maple tree and the thought of holding her wash away tonight’s messy acts. She opens the door and swings her arms around my neck. After a sweet kiss on my lips, she says: “Thanks for coming. I’ve made too much pancake!”
“What? At this time of night?”
We watch TV on mute, pretending that we’re the speaking actors with funny voices. She likes that. She says it stimulates her creative side and distracts her from criminology-related shit.
“What did you want to be when you were a kid?” she says.
“Isn’t it obvious?”
She knows about my dad.
“What about you? If you don’t want to think about crime, why are you in forensics?” I say.
“I want to understand.”
I think about her dad, Robert Cregan, who is jailed for life for killing a man in a grocery store. He used to be a successful businessman with no previous criminal records. Before that happened, Lauren was kidnapped. She was 15, and all she remembers is being kept in a basement, not knowing what would happen. After less than a week of captivity, they eventually released her. By the time she’d arrived home safely, her dad had already shot that man.
She only spoke of it once and never again. Shortly after sharing the story with me, I had enrolled in law school.
“I need to understand what’s going on in a killer’s head. They must be either fueled with rage, or they’re simply psychopaths,” she says.
I look at the sticky maple syrup on a half-finished pancake. No one knows why Lauren’s dad killed that man, neither does she.
“Do you think killing someone as punishment is okay?” I say.
“Of course not.”
The following day, I find my car vandalized. There is a little note stuck between the window wipers: “We know what you did.”
For a second, I don’t know who is being addressed, but then all becomes clear.
I look around me and across the road, but I only see the same VW Jetta, which has been following me for a while. I wonder what the man behind those windows has reported about me so far.
Bateson wants me, and this mysterious man knows, but it’s not until now that Bateson has finally struck. Why did it take him so long?
I look at the Jetta as I walk to the subway. But before I even get to cross the road, a Mercedes stops right in front of me. Out of the car come two masked men; one of them hits me in the face while the other pulls both my arms behind my back. After a smack in my head, I begin to hear ringing and static noises. They drag me into the car, where I lose consciousness.
I hear the crackling noise of a space shuttle. My eyes open to a blur. I taste blood between my teeth, and I see a drop of blood hanging from my left eyelid. I groan in pain as I try to lift my body from the cold concrete. It appears to be a basement, judging by the sight of pipes and the sound of leaking water.
I smell cigarette smoke—a chair squeaks.
I press my hand against the floor to lift my body. I turn around and see Bateson sitting at a table with his hand resting on a gun.
“What’s wrong with the law here?”
“You should know it best,” I say.
He rises from the chair, and the next thing I feel is his fist in my face. I fall hard on my elbow. The button from my polo shirt falls off.
“I do,” he says. “It’s having a little retaliatory force like you around who’s a junkie on top of it!”
This time he kicks me in the stomach.
“You see, we clean the streets of America from foreign scumbags like you who wish to take over.”
I spit blood.
“I get paid quite well for that. Perhaps I should quit teaching.”
“You corrupted piece of shit,” I say.
“Corruption is probably not the right word. But tell me, how did you find out about me?”
“I just look at your shitface, and I know.”
I feel his tight grip around my throat, his grim face only one inch away from mine. A line of blood is drawing down my face. My head must be bleeding. I feel faint again, and yet an image of Lauren’s face keeps me awake.
“I said, how did you find out about me?”
“Cregan,” I say.
“Robert Cregan’s in jail because of you.”
He lets go of me, and a series of questions begin to erupt from his dark eyes, but I can read the answers from his lips already.
I remember talking to Lauren’s dad through the glass. He didn’t know me, but I knew everything about him. I promised that I’d take care of Lauren.
“The Irish fella?”
I’m surprised he remembers his victims.
“You abducted his daughter and threatened to sell her.”
“So, it’s his daughter you’re dating?”
He grabs his gun and starts polishing it on his sleeve. For a second, I think I’ve heard steps above us, and then my left ear starts ringing.
“Well, Robert was a good man—virtuous and obedient. He had a lot of money to offer, too.”
Which, of course, Bateson didn’t need and therefore didn’t take. He observes the gun from bottom to top and then puts it back down.
“But I really needed him to get rid of that illegal immigrant who was planning to bring his entire family into the country with fake visas. You agree that’s wrong, don’t you?”
I hear crackling noises again.
“However, you are putting my reputation at risk, and you’re giving the university a bad name,” he says.
I am oblivious to the sight of the gun. The crackling sound in my ears comes from Lauren’s frying pan. I smell maple syrup.
I think the crown of my head is bleeding badly; bloodlines keep flowing down my face. I fall on the side of my body.
“Go fuck yourself,” I say.
I imagine how much Lauren will hate me if she ever finds out. She has told me everything, and I’ve kept everything from her.
My vision becomes blurry, but this is the moment I see a second figure enter the room. He is wearing a black mask, similar to mine. It looks like he is pointing a gun at Bateson, but I can’t hear the conversation. I feel like I was underwater.
The stranger takes off his mask, and the conversation continues. I never take off my mask. I wonder who that man is—his posture reminds me of me.
My eyes are halfway shut. I hear a gunshot.
I smell the cologne that I use hovering over me.
For J.A.: I was in a hotel room in Edinburgh, putting myself under pressure so I’d finish this story in time for your birthday. But you were doing things behind my back in London. I don’t think you ever finished reading this.
by P-chan (c) 2012