Excerpt from the beginning of Coldheart
Available from Captain Supermarket Press
San Francisco was as cold as it had been in a hundred years. That’s what all the newscasts said. We were breaking records for January, ones that had been set a century ago, in the days before the last blizzard the city had ever seen. Now it was happening again. The creeping tendrils of fog slithering in from the Pacific reached inland, enveloping the city in an icy haze. People, cars, buildings, all emerged from the mist like dreams and disappeared just as quickly. And for someone like me, it was tough to know if it had happened at all.
The phone in my apartment rang on Friday night well after dark, the city smothered under billowing white arms. I had finished another meal of ramen washed down with gritty tap water right as the alarm on my watch beeped. I picked the phone up, numb from a day of meaningless work, the drugs making me as murky as the city outside, and walked from the tiny combination living room and kitchen into my cracked and dirty bathroom.
The voice on the other end was hollowed out. “Chris? It’s Sarah.”
Sarah Black. No, Sarah Strauss now. Went back to her old name.
“You sound... are you okay?” I opened the medicine cabinet and took out my pills.
The phone seemed to go dead. I felt Sarah on the other end of the line, but she wasn’t speaking. Maybe the words weren’t there.
“No. No, I... I saw something.” Her throat clicked as she swallowed. “Something terrible.”
My tiny apartment constricted around me. “Are you in danger?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“There was a murder.”
“Murder? Where? Sarah... are you okay? I’ll be right there.” I shut the cabinet.
She kept talking, the link between us through the wires the only thing her sane. “A patient killed May.”
I looked up into the mirror. My face, stark white.
“He ate her heart,” Sarah whispered.
I didn’t hear her right. She was too quiet. My mind playing tricks. “He... he did what?”
“It all happened so quickly.”
“Did you see who did it?”
“I didn’t get a good look at him. I don’t remember... I only remember what he did.”
I swallowed my pills with a grimace. “He didn’t hurt you?”
“No.” There was no equivocation in her tone.
“They got him, right? The police?”
“He... I think he got away. I can’t really... the doctor said I’m in shock.”
I knew it was a bad idea before it came out of my mouth, but that didn’t stop the words. “Do you want me to come over?”
She was silent for a moment, thinking it over, coming to the same conclusion. “No... no, it’s okay. I’ve been alone all day. I needed to talk to someone. I couldn’t sleep last night after... after it happened, and I just sat here all night and day, not sleeping.”
“It’s okay. I’m always here.”
“I feel numb right now.”
“Why didn’t you call me yesterday? Or last night? Or today?”
“I didn’t want to be a bother.”
“It’s no bother.” It never is.
“I... I can’t see his face.” She paused, and I saw her, scrunching up her face, the memories washing up over her. “All I can see is May’s belly cut open. Him reaching in, and up. And the sound. Ripping. Popping. May’s face. I don’t think I can ever forget that.”
I was already pulling my thick wool peacoat back on, still damp from the fog. “It’s okay. Just give me like five minutes and I’ll be at your—”
Through the phone I heard a loud thump. “What? Who are—”
“Sarah? Sarah, what’s going on?
There was a loud scratch, like the phone being pulled over something, then distant struggling, and a sharp rap. Sarah’s voice, distant now, terrified, screaming, “Chris! Chris, call the police! It’s—”
The phone let out an eerie metallic shriek and went dead.
I stood there, in the quiet of my room, staring. Then, softly, “Sarah?”
I called the cops first. “Police? Please, you need to help!” I gave them Sarah’s address, talking over the operator. I wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise. Wouldn’t let him handle me. Put me on hold. Ignore what I was saying. I barreled through it, telling them everything I could remember, everything even remotely relevant. “Sarah Strauss! I’m a friend. I’m her friend. You have to help her! Her phone went dead.”
“Do you know if anyone would want to hurt her?”
“She witnessed a murder! Two days ago, I think? She was telling me about it. On the phone! Just then. You should have some records of it. Sarah Strauss. S-T-R-A-U-S-S.”
The operator said there was a car in the neighborhood. They’d check on her. Said it was nothing to worry about. Phone lines had been going out constantly since the weather turned. There had been blackouts, too: the city itself turning on us in misplaced anger over the coming storm. The operator told me to stay put. Someone would call me. Probably Sarah. I wasn’t to leave the house. Wasn’t to go check on her myself. Too late.
I ran back downstairs, out into the chill night. The fog seemed to have solidified. Before, it was a ghost, conscious but lacking in form. Now it was alive, solid, and malign. My crappy tenement in the Tenderloin was nearly falling down, and the damp wasn’t doing it any favors. My motorcycle was chained up outside, but it didn’t really matter. The thing was so old and broken down, no thief would ever want it. I unraveled the chain as fast as I could, my breath already coming quick and shallow. Sarah needed me. No one else would do it. Her family was on the other side of the country. I was what she had left.
My bike started reluctantly, the engine coughing and sputtering out its winter cold. It chugged toward Sarah’s, even as my headlight could scarcely pierce the murk. There was no ground, no sky, no path in front of me, just an endless white void. From time to time, a yellowish glow would spread, and a car would wash past, disappearing shortly afterward. The only evidence was the muted sound of its engine, twisted by the fingers of winter.
I screeched to a stop in front of her place. A prowler was already there, the traffic stop lights glittering amber. I pulled up nearby and got off the bike. Sarah lived in a townhouse in one of the nicer parts of the city, shoulder-to-shoulder with other pastel Victorian homes. The front door was open, tendrils of fog invading the house.
One police officer stood on the porch, huddled in a long coat, his badge flashing in time with the lights on his car. He saw me as soon as I was off the bike, running for the house, his hand dipping into his coat for the pistol. “Sir? Sir, I need you to stop.”
“I called you! I was the one who called you.”
“Sir! Stop moving!”
I put my hands up, trying frantically to peer into the house. A moment later, another cop emerged. She was smaller, and something about her face calmed me down. “What’s going on?”
“I called you!”
“Sir, just calm down.”
The other cop’s hand moved away from his gun, but both kept steely eyes on me. “Please, is Sarah in there? Is she okay?”
“Sir... there’s no one home. Frankly, it doesn’t even look like anything happened.”
“But on the phone... someone came in!”
“We’d like you to come down to the station with us. Fill out a report. I think we can get everything sorted out there.”
The haze stuck to me as I sat in the police station, rattling off everything I knew, which was nothing. They asked the same questions again and again, rephrasing them at times. Maybe to get me to slip. Maybe to get at the truth. I told them the same thing. The fog in my head wanted me to trip. It kept getting the way of the story, turning everything soft and white, but this was Sarah. She had always been good to me, even when the rest of my family had already written me off.
The police listened to what I had to say. They gave me coffee as I huddled in the old peeling chair by the detective’s overflowing desk. He wrote everything down. Until another detective came in. I knew the look on his face because I’d seen it a hundred times. Concerned a little, but also undercut with annoyance. He pulled the detective questioning me aside and murmured something in his ear. The expression spread from one man to the other. The detective questioning me sat down again.
“We’ve got your report, Mr. Black. I wouldn’t worry. Ms. Strauss probably just took a vacation is all.”
They released me. Patted my head. Sent me back out into the cold with hollow assurances. And I knew, as sure as I knew anything: the police were in on it.
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Justin Robinson © 2019