It was one of the nicer houses on its block which is to say three or four of the windows still held glass and the yard had been mowed at some point over the past year. The front door sagged from twisted hinges over a foot-wide chasm where the porch fell away from the house. There might have been a shutter still dangling that hadn’t yet fallen into the weeds. It was a nice place.
Klein was talking to reporters out front. I nodded and ducked the yellow tape.
I managed to bridge the gap between porch and house without snapping my leg off, walked inside, and retched at a stench that might have been rotting maggots fermenting in the sun.
A broad L-shaped staircase brought me up to a second-floor hallway. There were four bedrooms here, two on each side. Filthy mattresses and greasy sleeping bags were sacked around on the floors. Bottles, cans, and cigarette butts were everywhere. Drying puddles of bodily fluids added to the ambiance.
A bathroom about the size of a teacup stood at the end of the hallway with its door open. Sweeney and McGregor were inside looking at blood spatter.
Sweeney saw me and his eyes changed. He hissed something at McGregor who waddled over and pressed a meaty palm into my chest.
“Hold up, Joe.”
“Sweeney thinks you should sit this one out.”
Sweeney stepped up and laid an arm around my shoulder. “Joe! How you been?”
I looked at Sweeney. Then at McGregor. I looked at Sweeney again. “What is this?”
Sweeney paused and mumbled something to the floor and I put it together.
“You don’t want me to see her.”
Sweeney tried to guide me back towards the steps. “Let’s go down, Joe. You should be sitting for this.”
“Who is she?” I asked, trying to squirm free.
Sweeney and McGregor blocked my path. “Hold up a minute,” McGregor said.
My mouth was dry. A bead of sweat slid down my back. I didn’t like my new heart rate. “Get your mitts off me. Let me see.”
Sweeney exhaled. “Joe…” He and McGregor exchanged a look. “Listen, there’s no easy way to do this. Nothing I say is going to prepare you. Maybe I should just let you see for yourself if that’s how you want to play it.”
From far away I heard myself tell him it was. My heart triple-timed. Sweeney said more but I heard it the way you hear the television as you drift off to sleep. He and McGregor stepped aside. I floated down the hall and I was in the bathroom, kneeling by the tub. The woman was young, maybe still a girl. She was sprawled on her back, bare arms dangling over the sides of the tub, blood still dripping from a fingertip.
She was clothed which struck me as unusual. Her short shorts and sleeveless t-shirt were sopped. Blood was smeared across her face and neck, smeared across her teeth. The skin that wasn’t painted bloody was a bruised yellow turquoise. Her lips were grey. Her hair, blonde at one time, was red and black and matted. I studied her face. Then, I turned to Sweeney: “So? Who am I looking at?”
Sweeney’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “You don’t know?”
“Never seen her before.”
Sweeney looked to McGregor.
“Look again,” McGregor said.
I turned back and the girl was sitting. She shrieked at me, wild-eyed and hysterical. I shrieked back. She lunged for me and I was on my feet with my gun out. Sweeney and McGregor threw themselves at me. They took hold of my arm as the gun fired. It sounded like an atomic bomb in that little room.
They pinned my wrist to the wall above my head and held it there. They were blocking the girl. I couldn’t see the girl! Someone was screaming and screaming. I closed my mouth and the screaming went away. Sweeney’s contorted face swam in front of me. He was insistent, barking orders, trying to reach me. My ears sang.
“…a gag,” Sweeney was saying, distant and tinny. “Not real. It isn’t real…” His face was shiny and pasty. His eyes looked insane.
We stood this way for several seconds. Finally, McGregor tilted his head, squinted at me, and released my wrist. He turned to the tub. Sweeney let go and I had my arm back.
The girl was on her side in the the tub with her hands over her ears and her knees pulled up tight. She was shivering, frantic, talking to herself. Sunlight streamed in through a fresh bullet hole in the wall. My bullet couldn’t have missed her head by more than six inches.
I stumbled to the hall, found a place to slide down the wall, and sat on the floor. I laid my gun beside me. My pants were wet. Sweeney knelt by the tub and comforted the girl.
McGregor came out and sat beside me. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He picked lint off his pants. Finally, he said: “I tried to warn him, Joe, but you know how he is. I told him it was too much.” He turned, appraised me frankly, shook his head, and returned to the lint. “Great gag.”
My voice was hoarse and thin. “What happened?”
McGregor sighed at his pants. “The girl is his niece. She’s taking some acting courses at the community college. This whole thing came about when she told Sweeney her acting could fool a cop.”
I considered this for a while. “Makeup?”
McGregor nodded once. “Everybody was in on it. The reporters are actors. Sweeney wanted to get back at you for that stunt you pulled with the pizza delivery guy.”
I smiled ruefully. “Mission accomplished.”
The girl bet him $10 she could convince you she was dead,” McGregor said. “Looks like she won.”
I shook my head. “The blood didn’t smell. There was too much of it not to smell. I knew it felt wrong, I just couldn’t – I couldn’t quite…”
McGregor shook his head again. “Sweeney.”
“Let’s hope the girl isn’t in shock.”
“She’ll come around. Listen, Joe, you’re not gonna…you know…report this, are you? Sweeney and me and Klein, we could lose our badges.”
I shook my head. “What is this trash heap anyway?”
“Crack house, maybe? Smack? I dunno, ask Sweeney. I’m just here because he told me to be.”
I nodded and climbed unsteadily to my feet. I felt ninety years old.
“What are you gonna do?” McGregor asked.
“Going home for dry skivvies.”
McGregor nodded and returned his attention to the the lint on his pants. “Sweeney,” he said.