The man on the ground’s name is David Morales, and he’s been dead all night. He’s sprawled out like a dropped sack of spuds and the back of his head is a ragged red hole, like something got hungry for hair and chomped. This red hole, that’s where the ghost left from. Straight up and out like chimney-smoke.
Standing over Morales is Detective Clive Reece. He wears dark boots and an overcoat with a frayed collar. Reece wonders what kind of gun could make the hole that sprawled Morales out. Shotgun, probably. Wide spread, blood all over the walls of Morales’ apartment, joining the mold. Reece knows guns because he used them to kill Germans in the war a few years back.
Hours pass. The crime scene is a conveyor belt with something stuck in the wheels. Reece and the other cops think and talk and measure and come to conclusions and hit blocks until the sky starts to bleed.
Press is gettin’ edgy outside, says a cop to Reece. Best let them in.
So the cops rip the white tape and put it down before they bag the body, and soon what was once David Morales is now an implication of David Morales. The tape mimics Morales’ final position: face-down, defeated. Reece recalls a word an egghead soldier taught him overseas: prostrate. Reece has seen prostrate men before, those of down and red, and the thing he remembers about them is the cold. You don’t even have to touch them to feel it; it just drifts from the sprawled dead like dry ice.
In the apartment Reece feels Morales’ cold on his fingertips and shivers.
The tape down, Reece lets the press in with their cameras and notepads while he exits with the cops. Put out a dragnet, says the detective, and we’ll catch who did it. Eventually.
But who did it is halfway across town already. His name’s Paul Bosma and the shotgun shakes in his hands. He drops it on his aunt Daisy’s couch, hopes it disappears between the cushions like change. Things you don’t want to see disappear, like coins, always disappear, but when you want something gone? Fat chance.
The shotgun sits on the ripped cushion, almost pointed at him. Bosma absentmindedly touches his left cheek. There’s a dull sting and his fingers come away red and wet. He swallows.
In Bosma’s experience there are two kinds of crimes: the wet kind and the dry kind. The dry crimes are money crimes. Women’s pearls and watches and wallets. That was the kind of trouble Bosma got into, and he’d told that to his buddy Pen. I ain’t a killer, man, he’d told him. No wet crimes. Pen told him that the steel mill let its workers off at eleven, and that Morales’ apartment would be an easy grab before then. A nice dry crime. Well, fuck, Pen, now I’m wetter than a lake here.
Nobody seen me, though, thinks Bosma, pressing a dish towel to his cheek. Ain’t nobody seen me, I’m sure. How sure? Sure enough. How sure can someone be about something like this? Pretty damn sure, considering it’s murder. Fuck, it really was murder, wasn’t it?
No matter how sure he is, Bosma knows he’s gotta lay low. He chooses his aunt’s place because Aunt Daisy is usually too tweaked out to ask questions or give Bosma the boot. If nothing kicks up about him or Morales in a few days, Bosma figures, then it must be that nobody saw him. That he’s clear.
Bosma is right. Nobody saw him inside Morales’ apartment, and nobody saw him leave it afterwards, too. Nobody, anyway, but Morales’ ghost, fresh from the red hole of former flesh.
Now the ghost flaps like a bat trapped in a garage outside Morales’ third floor apartment window, crackling soundlessly in unheard rage. Then it stops, for below the ghost is a full gray trash can, and on the ground beside it, sitting discarded alongside apple cores and a used rubber, is a softball of white tape. The ghost thrums, as if muttering, and begins to lower.
And on the sidewalks outside the apartment complex, where the wind bullies loose newspapers and cigarette ash across the pavement, the street-lights flicker and the air frosts.
Shadows run long across refuse mountains that reek like skunk-and-shit stew. Crooked bicycles rust and die on carpets of wet leaves and rat-chewed library books. Black, rank monoliths of old tires loom amongst islands of moldy furniture and sacks of clothes, out of style. The ball of white tape, covered by strands of hair and smears of mulch and loam, sits between a busted tripod and a pile of green-hatted hamburgers. The ghost is with it. Hitched a ride, you’d say, all the way to the dump.
There’s a second dead thing near the tape. It’s a raccoon, its skin and fur half-melted from its bones, its burglar-mask an oily strip. It had died scavenging, glancing around with thief-eyes. Ants crawl on the surface of the creature’s wet black eyes and a bulbous chicken gizzard lolls between its teeth.
The tape twitches. Budges. Blossoms, disentangles, unfurls. Like snakes the strips move across the ground to the raccoon and plunge into the fur. It’s easy; the skin is soft and deferential. The pale fingers reach into the under-flesh and slip between the meat and the bones and then coil themselves around the bones and the tape, you can guess, sticks. Two ragged ends of tape secure the raccoon’s eyeholes, pushing out the black beads like champagne corks, and the feeding ants scatter to somewhere dry. The raccoon’s claws meet the same fate and then its feet go too, curled tape ends replacing the raccoon’s paws. Slick with decay, the raccoon’s skin and flesh slip from its bones like meat too tender.
The skeleton, bound by the tape of David Morales, clacks as it moves like rocks rubbing together. It stares without sight and lurches forward, stumbles. The skull tips forward and almost detaches but the tape catches and repositions it, stronger than before. Its tail drags behind it and there’s nothing inside the ribcage but bad and chilled air.
The bones stagger off, heading for the road.
In the morning Aunt Daisy is asleep so Bosma makes breakfast for himself and reads the funnies in the paper. The ink stains his thumbs and he keeps missing the jokes. He paces the kitchen and yells at his aunt when she opens the blinds. Dontcha know I’m layin’ low? he hisses, and she hits him with a spoon. He does push-ups and thumbs a deck of cards and eats five apples. Layin’ low is uneventful.
Now it’s midnight, dark outside, and Bosma is still in the kitchen, cradling a warm beer. A police siren in the distance makes Bosma close his eyes until it fades and then it’s quiet again.
Quiet, anyway, until he hears the clack. Bosma freezes. In his hand he feels the beer’s temperature drop and hears the glass crackle with icy condensation. He jerks his hand away and comes to his feet, his heart pounding. Goosebumps prick his skin and he swears for a second that he sees his breath when he blows out.
Bosma looks left, over the half-carpeted floors and the crummy mattress Aunt Daisy keeps trying to sell, and hears it again. Clack, click, clack. Like a hundred teeth chattering, and they are coming from the hall.
Bosma grabs the shotgun from the kitchen counter. He loads it and moves quietly through the living room, and when he gains a view of the hall he takes aim at… nothing. Just the front door. Growling, Bosma lowers the gun.
Clack! Clack! Clack!
He spins around and sees David Morales.
Morales’s in the shambled form, an assemblage of animal bone and crime tape and anger that pulses in the air like burner gas. The dark hollows of the raccoon’s skull are fixed on Bosma and the tape that holds it all together is black with grime. The thing’s smell reaches down Bosma’s throat and raises hell in his stomach acids.
With a noise that’s between a holler and a gag Bosma fires the gun. His shoulder purples from the recoil and his eyes burn at the smoke, and when he looks there’s a spatter of dark holes in the wooden floor and the skeleton is gone. In the bedroom down the hall he hears his aunt snort then quiet.
Clack, clack, click…
The couch. Behind it. Bosma jams his foot between the wall and the couch’s back and kicks. With a groan the couch slides aside, but the creature is gone. Bosma lets out a scream and punches the wall. Crazy, he thinks. He’s going crazy.
Then the lights burn out, all at once like birthday candles, and there’s nothing but darkness and that unholy smell in the room. Bosma’s breath hitches as his grip on the shotgun whitens, and for a second he’s back in that fucking apartment, his duffel bag empty save for an ashtray and a pinch-sized wad of cash from beneath Morales’ mattress. He ground his teeth at the bad grab and was about to leave when he heard the front door creak open. Morales entered, his footsteps heavy and thumbs hooked into his work overalls, and Bosma met him, loaded shotgun in hand. The wiry worker stood between the thief and the door, a stride away.
‘You rob me?’ said Morales in a gravel voice.
‘Put it down.’
‘Lemme go,’ said Bosma.
Morales stepped forward, his eyebrows meeting at a point. ‘You rob me?’ he repeated.
‘I need the cash.’
But instead Morales lunged forward and slapped the shotgun, and before Bosma could blink it was on the floor, out of reach, and he was too. Morales set upon Bosma, raining down punches and poundings and swipes, unstrategic animal attacks, his eyes dark-rimmed and wild. The thief raised his forearms over his face in defense, but one grimy and uncut nail breached the shield and caught Bosma’s left cheek, drawing a thin red arc. Crying out, the thief thrust his arms forward and managed to throw Morales off of him. Bosma scrambled to his feet and grabbed the shotgun, taking aim. His heartbeat deafened him and his finger trembled over the trigger. There was distance between them now and Morales stared down the barrel for a second before fear filled his eyes and the worker spun around, making a break for the door, and when the raccoon’s next clack comes (from behind) it sounds like a dull reenactment of the blast that slipped from Bosma’s finger, opened up the back of Morales’ skull, and dropped the man cold and out on the floor.
But here he is.
The bone paws, like fistfuls of glass, dig into Bosma’s back, and before he can scream four strips of hair-covered tape fasten around his mouth. The skeleton’s tail whips forward and whacks the shotgun from Bosma’s hands as sun-yellow teeth sink into his neck. Blood spatters the walls and couch as Bosma falls to the floor, gasping.
Scurrying with unbelievable agility onto his chest, the skeleton’s black gaze meets that of the thief’s, a white claw punctures his left cheek, and Bosma’s thoughts before the thing lurches forward are I’m not ready to die and then I’m going to die and then I didn’t mean to kill him, honest and then nothing at all.
Some hours later Clive Reece arrives at the scene. The house smells like rot and he hears cops speaking to the homeowner in the kitchen. Her voice is thick and trembling and she doesn’t know what happened, she promises.
Paul Bosma is sprawled on the floor, face-up. His face is a pink tundra, craterous and raw. One eye dangles from its socket and his tongue protrudes plumply between ripped black lips. Across his chest and thighs run deep red ravines. When Reece kneels beside him his stomach swashes and he feels like hurling.
What did this? demands the detective, because he knows damn well it wasn’t a who. The cops avoid his gaze, so Reece snarls, well, did you find any clues?
We found this, sir, offers one, and Reece holds out his hand, and into it the cop drops the evidence. Reece frowns. What the hell is this? he asks, though he knows what it is. It’s a ball of white tape, brain-sized and gritty, and from it Reece feels the last chills of coldness depart.
© Cold Case, 2022, Zack Shiffman
Zachary Shiffman is a fiction writer from New Jersey. He has been published in Catfish Creek, RiverCraft, Variety Pack, and elsewhere.