Low eyes and breathy, caffeinated sighs pushed past Officer Boris as he went through the station’s glass double doors. No one was eager to start their day before the sun showed its face over the horizon, no matter if they were an officer, detective, or a big wig. Boris yawned. Sleep didn’t take him as it had most weekends. He’d sat up, rocking Sammy in one hand and staring down the better half of Dale Tilson’s file in the other. The case had kept him up for a month, more than the newborn had. From the teary-eyed hospital visits during Dale Tilson’s initial assault by some online date gone wrong, to the time they found him nearly twisted and unresponsive three weeks ago in the woods outside a Rothbury home, the case was enough to make Boris consider retiring at the age of thirty-three.
He reached into the pocket of his sweatshirt and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Lights and a yellow lighter. With the cigarette between his lips, he lit up, allowing the nicotine to release a calming bloom into his frazzled mind. Manny, his wife, had talked him out of leaving the force right before she went on about his running regiment and how smoking was counteractive. “You owe it to Mr. Tilson to find these people before they hurt anyone else,” she told him as she burped Sammy. The newborn was almost half her size and his small feet kicked, allowing him to climb up her short torso. He bobbed his bald head as he tugged at her dark locks.
These people. He wanted to say fuck these people and that she and Sammy were his only concern. But for some reason, Manny wanted him to help Morgan with Tilson’s case. It could be because of the possible promotion. She’d slipped up and called him detective whenever she gloated to her college buddies about him. He’d told her about speaking things into existence a lot like she talked Sammy and their marriage into being. But he loved the woman no less. If anything, her positive outlook on life kept him going where he wanted—needed—to give up.
Boris sighed. Racked his mind. It wasn’t until recently that Tilson had risen from his short-term coma and learned to use his feet again. According to Ms. Sasha Hall, Tilson’s ex, he was aware of his busted skull and he remembered verbatim how it happened. He was snatched from his home by a mysterious man who was muscular, tall, and lean, and a strange woman who was sultry, curvy, and terrifying.
Boris dragged on the cigarette again as he watched the cars pass by the police station. Traffic whisked by, careful to slow down in front of the station, then pick up speed about a block north and south.
Boris blew smoke from his mouth. He shook his head. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of Tilson’s second assault, according to Ms. Hall, was how he was busted in the head by a young girl named Jessica. Ms. Hall expressed how he tried and failed to get her out alive. Instead, the girl slammed a hammer onto Tilson’s head, almost killing him.
A knot clogged Boris’s throat as he threw the lit butt onto the ground and stomped it out with his shoe.
That bit of information made his heart beat hard against his chest, harder than it had after he’d muscled through a 5K marathon or a nice long jog through the park. But the words that made him lose sleep last night had to be the shaken warning Ms. Hall uttered through the phone as they spoke the night before. After Boris put Sammy down for bed and laid his jogging suit out for work, he took a call from Ms. Hall which had come in around eleven pm. She spoke in a soft whisper and had an urgent cry as if a killer were lurking about in her home. “Dale told me something else this morning and I wasn’t sure if I should repeat it because it’s so hard to imagine him being afraid of anyone or anything at all,” she said. “He said Marla is dead.”
Boris raced over to his Sammy’s dry erase board that clung to the headboard of his oak baby bed. He jotted, ‘Marla is dead’ on the pasty white surface. “Is he sure?” he asked the distressed Ms. Hall.
“Yes. He was forced to attend her funeral while bound at the wrist and on his knees. They made him watch. Oh God. They made him watch Marla attack him and they made him watch him kill her down in that basement…it had all been recorded on video. He said it was like a eulogy. A sick eulogy!”
Boris’s jaw dropped. She went on. “Then he teared up and told me about their eyes. Dark and full of sorrow and anger.” She paused and sniffed. “He said there was mostly anger and he still sees their faces when he goes to sleep; they haunted his coma. The people were young as small children and as old as my parents. There were teenagers who looked like they were on the tail end of puberty and adults who looked old enough to drink in public. Their eyes. Damn their eyes.” She began crying. “They wanted him dead. They cheered that monster they call Father Paul on as he ranted about Dale and they begged that girl, Jessica, to kill him for Marla’s sake and her memory. And she tried…and he almost died…and those sick assholes would’ve been the last people he would’ve seen on this earth. He’s sure his getting away was a fluke of some kind and that they’re not done with him. They are going to get him. Paul is going to get him.”
Boris could only stand there with the phone against his face and the dry erase board in is palm. What was there to say to a woman not begging answers, not telling him to go out and find a perpetrator, but a woman with sheer concern and fear in her broken voice? Paul is going to get him. Boris gave up on sleeping and called Morgan and told him to swing by the station to pick him up on the way to the hospital. Boris slid on his jogging suit, kissed his family good night, and jogged to the station where he sat at his desk and looked over the file for the fiftieth time. Who the hell was he really looking for?
How do you protect and serve from a ghost?
A dark Lincoln pulled onto the curb and let out a short honk. Boris pulled the door open and slid into the passenger seat. “Good morning, Detective,” he greeted.
Detective Morgan grunted as he pulled from the curb, merging them into traffic. He kept his unmoved eyes ahead of them and on the road. Boris wasn’t sure if Morgan ever slept because the bloated bags under his eyes remained unchanged since they’d met a month ago. Boris had been on traffic duty and was ready to call it night until Captain Tatum called for him to come into his office. Strange because Captain Tatum left the station by six pm sharp. No earlier. No later. No matter the day. But it was well after eight, and Boris found himself on the elevator. Slightly shaken, Boris thought of anything the old man could want. It’s been so long since Boris had seen him that he could barely recollect Captain’s balding pale crown, his towering height, bushy gray mustache, and hearty laugh that was as thunderous as Santa’s himself; that’s if Santa wore a navy-blue uniform with a badge to the left of his deep golden tie clip.
Inside Captain Tatum’s office, Morgan sat in the leather chair across from him. His naked face and deep wrinkles around his frowning lips reminded Boris of a seasoned veteran agent from those FBI TV shows Manny insisted on watching, hours at a time. Morgan’s tie was the color of night, as dark as his skin, and he hadn’t bothered removing his tan fedora or long peacoat. This isn’t going to be short. Boris remembered thinking.
“I got the news about the new addition to your family. Baby boy, is it?” Captain asked, a faint smile crossing his lips.
“Yes, sir,” Boris said, still standing closest to the door with both hands behind his back. He secretly wished he kept his uniform on as his white t-shirt was wrinkled and his gray jogging pants had a beige coffee stain on them.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“This here is Detective Morgan from South Philly…” Captain Tatum looked over at Morgan as if to secretly ask, “Did I say that right?” But Morgan’s emotionless eyes had a new target: Boris’s face.
“You are going to help him with an investigation. Help him catch his guy, and you will get that detective’s shield. You and your growing family deserve it.”
Boris smiled hard and nearly leaped off his feet. “I’ll do my best, sir!”
Morgan crossed his arms over his broad chest, raised a brow and in a deep voice, he said, “I need you to go the St. John’s hospital and talk to the victim, Dale Tilson. He’s been attacked by a woman that he met online: Marla. Report back to me as soon as possible.” With that, Morgan stood, tilted his fedora to the captain and went around Boris, who stood there with a confused glare which felt awkward on his face.
Before Morgan exited, he turned to Boris and said, “Throughout the duration of this investigation, you will wear street clothes, comfortable if you can, to remain inconspicuous. We don’t need to scare anyone off with that buzz cut and clean face.”
Since then, Boris had grown his college dusty chin and gelled his stubborn bangs back. Although the guys in the precinct joked about him looking like a drug dealer on holiday, he appreciated the time it saved him in the mirror every morning and his jogging suits allowed for more movement than the uniform had. But the tradeoff had been watching Tilson like a hawk and taking calls at all times of day from Ms. Hall, who, for the lack of knowing, moved this phase along. Even all these weeks later, Morgan refused to drop the superiority act, never acknowledging Boris for his work nor time.
“Not a morning person, huh?” Boris asked.
“No. I haven’t gotten much sleep.” Detective Morgan turned the corner and stopped at the traffic light behind an empty school bus. “Thanks for calling me.”
“Fill me in.” Information. The only use Boris felt he had in this fuckery of an investigation. Morgan never asked for Boris’s deductions since this whole thing started, he only wanted information. Boris had no idea what Morgan did with it. The man showed up at the start of the investigation like a phantom that blew through the station, hungry for evidence on the Tilson case and that was it. Boris frowned. The excitement he had for starting up the assignment had sunk faster than a cinder block in the lake; he was only a lackey for the mystery detective.
“Well, at first, Dale didn’t seem to remember much of what happened. He just mumbled ‘Paul’ and ‘Jessica’ on occasion. But now, he’s able to form full sentences and walk around according to Ms. Hall.”
“Jessica?” Detective Morgan asked. A look of confusion cloaked his face.
“Yeah. He claims that’s who broke his skull. At least that’s what he remembered anyway. The doctor noted he was still in the late stages of deliria, a symptom from emergency brain surgery. Slight amnesia could discredit every bit of information he spat out. But Ms. Hall believed there was nothing wrong with him and that he seemed totally aware. She didn’t share too much information before she started to weep.”
“And Ms. Hall is?”
Boris cocked his head. He’d only mentioned her before, but Morgan was one of those guys that picked and chose what he wanted to hear: something else about the man that puzzled Boris. “Sasha Hall. An old flame of his. She’s been helping me out by delivering information on a daily basis because she feels she owes it to him. She claims that if she hadn’t broken up with him, then this wouldn’t have happened.” Boris grunted. Part of him felt Tilson’s ordeal over her. Ms. Hall was—is—a beautiful girl. He’d even stammered over his words when he ran into her at the hospital. Her light peanut butter skin and voluptuous body were enough to turn heads. But there was nothing like her thick lips and round brown eyes. It broke his heart to see her in so many tears. “But I told her that this investigation was bigger than a lovers’ quarrel or a breakup. Nonetheless, I do appreciate her cooperation. It’s been almost impossible for me to get near him.”
“And why are we trusting a civilian with handing us some fragile information?” Morgan’s wide nostrils flared, but his eyes stayed ahead.
“Err, it’s his sister, Diane Fulton, and her husband, Jim Fulton. They spend as much time at the hospital as Ms. Hall does. Goodness, I damn near had to drop to my knees before Mrs. Fulton let me see Tilson after his surgery, which was useless as I told you before. He only laid there, asleep, not uttering a word. Since then, she wouldn’t let me step into the wing. Mrs. Fulton’s a small, thin little thing, but boy does she have a set of lungs on her. She yelled and screamed and threw ‘fuck’ around until I left. I swear; she followed me to my car, making me aware of how useless I am and how hot Hell’s going to be for you, Morgan. Even Mr. Fulton, who’s a hairy, burly bear of man that’s all of six-five, couldn’t keep her calm because she’d snap at him. He sat there running his finger through his messy, thick hair or rubbing his temples like he was pushing a headache away. However, Ms. Hall has been a sport about reporting to me daily on his condition.”
Detective Morgan merged onto the highway, tightening his dark hands on the steering wheel and letting out a fluttered huff. “Is Mrs. Fulton a threat to this investigation?”
Boris nearly forgot about Detective Morgan’s feelings about the scorned sibling, but Boris understood whole-heartedly how she felt: untrusting of the police who were supposed to be watching Mr. Tilson the night he went missing. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying that Ms. Hall has been cooperative, keeping me posted on Mr. Tilson’s recovery from the time he dipped in and out of his short-term coma, up until and through his two weeks of bedrest.”
Morgan smiled and it filled Boris’s belly with sickening nausea. “Oh, one more thing. There was mention of a group who witnessed his assault this time around. It wasn’t just the girl and Paul; apparently, there were several people looking and wishing Dale’s death at Marla’s funeral.”
Morgan turned up his chiseled chin with a sneer. “Marla’s dead?”
“Yeah, and there’s more people involved than we thought. Detective, what does this mean for the case? Who are we looking for other than a missing body, Jessica, and Paul?” Boris asked.
Morgan smiled. “That son of a bitch Paul is here. I can smell his sadistic stink right now and he’s scrambling like a fish out of water! Oh, I can feel it in my bones and it’s as real as the air I’m sucking in now!” He slapped the steering wheel as if he were giving himself a high five.
Boris shook his head. “What do you mean? Who exactly are we after?”
“Don’t you see? We finally have a man who made it out. A star witness! Mr. Tilson!” Giddy, he pulled his fedora off and tossed it in the back seat. He ran a hand over his shiny head and nodded. “There’s someone who can testify against Paul and shut him down forever.”
They pulled onto an icy bridge and coasted through a green light.
“I wonder why or how he got out? The kids that found him said he was dumped onto the property from a moving truck. It was as if they wanted him eaten by the wildlife or something. But it doesn’t make sense.”
“How do you mean?”
“Wouldn’t we have a body count with a similar MO?”
Morgan shrugged, then said, “I’m coming for you, you son of a bitch.”
Boris winced at him. Who brushes a hunch off, a rather important one, like that? He shook the annoying spell and finally asked, “What happened that night, Morgan? How’d he get taken from his apartment? Weren’t you there?”
Morgan’s smile faded. “Personal matters happened. They knew I was there and they waited. I don’t know where and how, but they tracked me and snatched Tilson up when I pulled off—took Tilson like a damn slithering thief in the night.”
An ambulance kicked on its sirens and buzzed past as they pulled onto St. John’s road. They followed the narrow road around, passing the urgent care entrance, surgery, and then outpatient care entrances. They pulled into the parking lot near the main entrance and backed into a spot next to a handicap sign.
Boris scowled. Since Morgan had popped up, he’d been needy and irritatingly vague about the case. From what Boris could gather, they may’ve been hot on the heels of a psychopath who owned a group of people or ran a cult, meaning Paul was potentially twenty or so times more dangerous than a simple online date gone wrong. Boris ground his teeth. If that were the case, he’d need to know for the sake of his safety and, even more, his family’s wellbeing. “Detective, if I’m going to help in anyway, or any further, I need you to work with me.”
Morgan glared at Boris. “I don’t get what you mean.”
“No one has ever, until they have. Paul is a different type of maniac. One who’s everywhere and nowhere at once. You’ve read the file, haven’t you?”
“Of course, I have. But I feel like there is more at play then what you’re sharing.”
Morgan smirked. “If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I’d use the money to flush Paul out; we wouldn’t be wasting time right now. You’d be pushing papers over your desk, waiting for your chance to be detective and I’d,” he chuckled, “be better at dealing with my wife and other personal issues.”
“What is that you need to know that’s not in the case file? Huh?”
“There’s nothing in the file about a group of people that follow him! Only thing in there is about Marla and how she attacked Dale. About all the blood at the scene that wasn’t just his and how we don’t know who the hell owns the house because that woman is dead! Oh and don’t get me started on the realtor… who’s still MIA. The only thing about Paul is that Dale claims Marla mentioned him being on his way and possibly paying her for his body. That’s it. That’s all. Who the hell is Paul and, moreover, who was Marla to him? And, even moreover, who the hell is Jessica and what does he want with her? You didn’t just blow in here for an assault case, Morgan. I know that for sure isn’t the whole truth. Please, tell me what the hell is going on.” Boris glowered at Morgan, who sat in the driver seat with that unmoving, stern, frown.
He sighed. “Paul must be put down. It’s as simple as that. He’s taken hundreds of lives for his own sick pleasure. It’s not for money. It’s not for fame. It’s simply because he can. This man is a modern-day demon stuck here on our earth and he’s feeding.” Morgan bared his teeth. He cringed and sighed deeply. “And I’ve been after him since 1992.”
“Wow, that’s a—”
“Long…damn…time,” Morgan interrupted. “I know. But a clever psycho like Paul has figured out how to survive by blending and flourishing off the naive. He’s a Manson of our time that isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.”
Boris looked forward, gazed out the window. The case file didn’t mention anything about a Manson-type murderer. Paul owns a… cult? In this day and age? Boris knew about Marla offering Dale up to someone named Paul. True. Human trafficking was a horrifying practice, one that only sick fucks partook and got rich off innocent lives. But a cult? Those people that haunted Dale’s dreams were a part of a very real, seemingly thriving…
“Now are we going to sit here and gossip or are we going in there to interview the star witness; the first person to slip away from Paul in one piece?”
St. John’s Hospital bustled as men and women dressed in scrubs rushed up and down the hallways and in and out of automated doors with patients in wheelchairs or on movable beds. A food cart rolled up the hall full of metal-covered dishes that smelled a lot like bacon drenched in maple syrup. Doctors in white lab coats sipped coffee as they sat in offices along the hallway, while blue drapes were spread out like dividers in some rooms, hiding resting patients from the busy hall. Morgan stopped in front of a mahogany-toned nurse who’d been flipping through a file.
“Good morning, sir. I’ll be right with you. Doctor!” she called out, before circling around the counter and heading for an office off to their left. Morgan turned to Boris.
“Do you know where his room is?” he asked.
“No. Ms. Hall said they moved him from trauma to the ICU.”
“Okay, sorry about that,” the nurse, Nurse Macy on her pale badge read, said as she sat back on the stool behind a computer. “How can I help you?”
“Yeah, we’re here to see Mr. Dale Tilson.”
“Police matters.” Morgan pulled his badge from his breast pocket. Boris removed his from his pocket.
“Oh okay, sure.” She typed quickly on the keyboard. “He’s in the ICU. You just go up this hall and make a left until the hall ends. Then make a right and go straight until you see the elevators. Take it up to the fifth floor. As soon as you exit, there will be another nurse’s station. They’ll be able to take you to his room.”
“That’s a lot of directions,” Boris said.
“I can call up there and see if someone can come down to help you if you’d like?”
“Sure,” Morgan said.
She picked up the phone and dialed. “Hi, Tonya? Can you send a volunteer down to the front? Officer…” She looked up at them.
“Detective Morgan and Officer Boris,” Detective Morgan said with a raised brow.
“Detective Morgan and Officer Boris are here to see Dale Tilson. Um-hum. Thank you.” She hung up. “She’ll be down in a sec. Feel free to have a seat over in the lobby.” She pointed to the host of chairs in the room situated adjacent to where they stood.
Morgan nodded. “At least we won’t get—”
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Boris turned to find a familiar face, glaring at him through tears. Mrs. Fulton stood in the doorway of the lobby with a heaving chest and hands balled at her sides.
“Mrs.—” Morgan started.
“Don’t! Don’t you dare! How dare you show your face around here? Where were you?” she shrieked. “Where were you when they took him?”
She charged at Morgan and slapped a heavy hand across his cheek. “Where were you?” she screamed again.
“Whoa, whoa,” Boris said, going for her.
Morgan put an arm out against Boris’s chest and put another hand on his own cheek. “It’s okay. She’s in pain.”
Mr. Fulton’s thick hair flopped as he jogged down the hallway from the direction of the restroom signs. He grabbed her from behind. “Diane, honey calm down,” he beckoned. “You can go to prison for this!”
“I don’t fucking care!” She kicked and screamed and flayed at the hips until she and her husband went down to the floor.
“Sweetheart,” he pled as tears rolled over his nose and onto her cheek.
“No!” she wailed. “No.” She curled under the man’s weight and stopped fighting. She cried like a child who’d just found out their pet died.
“Sweetie.” Jim’s voice cracked. “It’s okay, baby. It’s going to be okay.”
“No,” she muttered.
Morgan started again. “I’m sorry, Mrs.—”
“Shut up!” she shrieked. “You useless fucking cop. You let them take him. You let them do this to my brother! This is your fault,” she growled.
“Diane.” Mr. Fulton picked her up and cradled her in his arms as he carried her to the seats inside the waiting area. He spoke carefully and softly, sure to keep her coddled in his hairy arms. “Let the man do his job…” was all Boris could pick up.
“Uh,” a man behind them prompted them to turn. Astonishment covered his pale face. The boy had to be no more than twenty as he stood slender and frail, his scrubs nearly hung off his body. “Are you—are you here to see Dale Tilson?”
Still holding his cheek with his mouth hanging open, Morgan nodded.
“His room is being cleaned for the next patient.”
“What do you mean?” Morgan asked with a strained voice.
“I mean, he’s gone. They think he left about an hour ago… between the nurses’ rounds.”
“Well where the hell did he go?”
“We don’t know. He didn’t check out. He’s just…gone.”
Has it been three weeks already? Jessica thought as she stood in the window of Sister Green’s Bodega Trailer watching Hazel push a dolly with boxes that towered over her slender frame through the snow. She trudged, stomped, huffed, and even took a second to pull her sunglasses onto her thick long hair that looked sandy brown in the strained sunlight. She slouched and kicked the dolly with her snow boot. Then she stood there and pouted with her hands in the pockets of her signature leather coat, something Jessica bet costed more than her old home, the beat-up farmhouse she had once shared with Granny.
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