No one called it murder. I suppose that’s what I remember most. They all went out of their way to avoid words that could’ve implied prior humanity, like “dead” or “body.” The incident report, which stuttered out of an archaic fax machine just after 3:00 on a Friday, referred simply to “suspicious foreign remains.” There was an outburst of impatient shuffling in the office as the machine woke everyone from their dreams of going home early. I remember it waited three piercing rings before answering the line, then hummed to itself warmly for a further few minutes before it was finally prepared to print. For all that work, a single sheet slipped from the tray to the carpet. And no one moved.
“Isn’t that important?” I asked.
One of my colleagues shrugged. After a slight pause, I got up and walked over.
The fax machine, separate from the department switchboard, was attached to a dedicated landline whose cord hung free from the tall ceiling—like a hard line to God. Someone had told me my first week that it was a federally mandated redundancy in case of terrorist attack or natural disaster, which I thought was ironic considering that’s what the internet was meant to be.
Tucker Davis, a fellow federal appointee, beat me to the paper. He sported a sweater vest and a coiffed head of blond hair. He read the alert as he sipped his coffee. Then he handed it to me. I saw the letters EAP printed in bold at the top.
“Why don’t you take it?” he suggested. “You can use it to get Dr. Waxman off that conference call.”
He raised his mug to a pale office near the back on whose door I knocked a moment later. When there was no response, I cracked it open and slapped the Emergency Action Procedure, face up, against the inside surface with my palm.
Ollie didn’t miss a beat. “Looks like we just got an EAP. I’ll have to catch you all later.” He hung up before anyone could object. “Jesus,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s some unidentified inverse correlation between what people have to say and how long they take to say it. Have you noticed that?”
He grabbed the paper from me and scowled at it while donning his coat with one hand. “Suspicious foreign remains,” he read.
“Problem with your meeting?” I asked.
“Huh? Oh. No. The usual. But something occurred to me the other day.” He handed the EAP back to me. “The more important the message, the shorter it is. Fire!” he blurted. Several heads turned. “See? But if someone has something very unimportant to say, they can’t just out with it.”
“Who’s driving?” I asked as we walked together to the stairs and down to the hall to the parking garage.
“You are. Wait, where’re we going?”
“Uh . . .“ I scanned the paper. “Flushing?”
“Shit. Never mind. I’ll drive. I’ll drop you at the station after.”
“Ditching school on a Friday?”
“Har, har. Naw, I gotta pick up my kid. She’s getting into nature shows. Did I mention that?”
“You mean like David Attenborough?”
“All of it. Him, old Discovery Channel stuff, you name it. She streams them on her tablet. She watched this one the other day. All these baboons—it was in Ethiopia, I think—they were scooting on their asses across this field picking grass with their fingers. Hundreds of them, all spread out, chattering to each other while they ate.”
“Yeah, like . . . Eh eh eh eh.” The noise resounded off the concrete-block walls of the stairwell. “On and on like that. Eh eh eh. Nonstop. So my daughter asks me ‘What are they talking about?’ And I say I don’t think they’re talking about anything, monkeys don’t have language. And she says ‘No, Dad. They’re talking. You can hear them.’ And what can I say? From a distance, it really does sound like a crowd of people. I doubt a blind man could’ve spot the difference.”
I pushed through the doors to the garage and held them open.
“My car’s on two,” he said.
“So what did you tell her?”
He waved me off. “You know kids. I just said ‘that’s nice, sweetheart’ or something like that. But I’m thinking, how far removed are we from baboons? They chatter to each other, but they don’t really say anything. It’s gotta be an instinct, right? This is us.” He pointed to a maroon sedan and produced his keys.
“So why do they do it?”
“The man on the TV said it was to make each other feel good,” he said inside the car. “You know, reassurance, bonding—or anger, in the case of a squabble. And it occurs to me that’s what my kid did when she was a baby. She’d lay in her crib and make sounds like she was asking her stuffed animals a question or telling them an interesting anecdote, but it was all just gibberish.”
“My step-dad had a dog like that,” I said. “When I was a kid. If people were around, she wouldn’t shut up. Not barking. It was like she was trying to tell you something.”
“Maybe she was.” He started the engine. “If you think about it, what’s the meaning of most of what we say? Like with my daughter. I said ‘that’s nice sweetheart.’ What did my response mean, as far as the actual words? I wasn’t agreeing. I wasn’t disagreeing. I didn’t say her comment was interesting or express a contrary thought. I said it was ‘nice,’ which means nothing, and then I called her a pet name, which is basically just me expressing a feeling of closeness. She didn’t get anything more from it than you did from that dog. Words were entirely unnecessary. I could’ve grunted sounds that had the same meaning. Shit, half the time, that’s exactly what I do with my wife. Speaking of, how are things with yours?”
“Don’t make word-noises. I want the truth.”
“Are you and me keepin’ it real now, Ollie?”
“I didn’t say that. I just want you to feel like you can talk to me.”
“Oh, I see.” I nodded sagely. “This is our obligatory weekly mentor-mentee chat. Smart. Get it out of the way now and you can avoid buying me lunch next week. Also justifies leaving early.”
“Fine. I’ll owe you a frickin’ sandwich.”
“Don’t worry about it. Nothing’s changed, Oll. If I hear differently, I’ll let you know.”
“Well . . . how long’s it gonna take?”
I laughed. “Ain’t up to me, man.”
“You’re gonna be home in a few weeks. What then?”
I shook my head. “Dunno.” I turned to him a moment later. “But a job’d be nice.”
He just snorted, like that wasn’t up to him either.
Signs for Flushing appeared and he asked where we had to get off. I brought up a map on my phone and directed him under a train trellis and through a couple turns.
“Should be on the left here.” I pointed. “I think. Shit.” All the signs were in Chinese—even the municipal warnings taped to the blue wood barrier around a nest of construction.
We showed our credentials at a police barricade and were directed onto a one-way side street.
“Dang . . .” I whispered.
The entire block was packed with eyes. They stared unblinking from the shop signs that poked over door frames and from under windows, one in front of the other, like electric gawkers jockeying for a better view of the crime scene. Printed on each, next to the same pair of Chinese characters, was a single monochrome eye.
Ollie saw the look on my face. “First time out here?”
“It’s some kinda traditional medicine,” he explained. “Oculists, or so I was told.”
He said it like it was a rare species of beetle.
We opened our doors at the same time. It was just going dusk then, and several of the signs clicked on.
“Oculists,” I repeated, looking at the eye over my head.
The shop it was attached to didn’t look much different than a nail salon. It was dark. The CLOSED sign had been hastily hung and dangled precariously sideways. The whole street was like that—deserted. Other than the police, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
“Whole neighborhood’s like this,” he said with a hint of relish. “This is kind of a city center. Acupuncture guys are around the corner. Two blocks over are the herbalists. Fuckers have more illegal shark fin than you can imagine. Stacks and stacks of it. All sizes, shriveled and dried. Don’t even bother to hide it. So much, you’d think there wasn’t a shark left in the ocean.”
“If it’s illegal, why don’t we shut them down?”
“If you figure that out, let me know.”
The autumn breeze took his comb-over and I watched him press it flat. I scanned the third- and fourth-story windows around us for any hint of the residents, but all the curtains and shades were drawn, which meant the people on that street were all experienced non-witnesses. Our colleagues in law enforcement milled like cattle in a pen of yellow caution tape. A small but resolute band of smokers, ostracized by the others, huddled on the far side. I saw several lightweight jackets emblazoned with the letters ICE. Everyone else was in plain clothes.
An NYPD detective nodded to us as we approached and excused himself from the conversation. “You the guys from Health and Hygiene?” he called.
“What, we don’t look like cops?” Ollie joked, tugging primly at his overcoat.
He stepped ahead of me and shook the man’s hand. Then I did the same. The cop introduced himself as Detective Rigdon. He was about like you’d expect. Mid 50s. African American. A little short. Loose suit. Prominent belly. Seemed decent enough.
He motioned to the front door of an Asian grocer’s. “It’s this way.”
“What is?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
I held up the EAP, which I had folded in my pocket.
He shook his head. “Jesus. It’s not all that. Someone important’s probably trying to keep it quiet—as long as they can anyway.”
I turned to the roadblock we had just passed. I hadn’t noticed, but there weren’t any reporters. Given the scale of the slow-motion operation unfolding around us, I guessed that wouldn’t last long.
“No obvious signs of violence,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure if they were trapped down there or not.”
Detective Rigdon held the door.
The market was a kind of co-op. The central hall was flanked on both sides by pairs of open-front stores. On the left, a butcher and a greengrocer. On the right, a fishmonger and general store. The air smelled faintly of fire, as if the building had burned in the recent past. Roast ducks hung by the neck in a glass case. A few accordion lanterns were strung from the hallway ceiling, as if left from a recent festival. They seemed out of place.
“All the way to the back.” Rigdon pointed.
A pair of men in white hazmat suits and blue latex gloves emerged from a dark doorway carrying white plastic tool cases. They nodded at our host, who seemed to be the officer in charge.
“ICE got here first,” he said. “They claim both the front door and the door to the stairs were wide open when they arrived.”
“Like someone got spooked and ran?” Ollie asked.
Rigdon shrugged. “Maybe.”
I stopped at a stack of open-topped crates and lifted a kind of hairy fruit I didn’t recognize. Yellow handwritten placards had been stuck into all the crates, presumably advertising the contents and cost, but I couldn’t read any of them. They even used Chinese numerals.
“You say that like you don’t believe them,” I said.
He shrugged again. “Nothing here contradicts their story.”
“While executing a lawful search in the early hours of the afternoon, they discovered the hole downstairs and called us. Not much else to say. We were about to wrap up when dispatch said something about you guys requesting everyone to be on the lookout for this kind of thing.”
Ollie flashed me a smirk. He leaned in as soon as Rigdon was out of earshot. “So this is all your doing,” he joked.
A cluster of open-topped aquariums bubbled noisily at the back of the linoleum-floored hall. Each held a handful of unusually striped fish who swam as if numbed. Through the door at the back, a wood-plank staircase fell steeply down to the basement. Rigdon stopped at the threshold.
“What is it?” I asked, nodding to the stairs.
“Besides creepy as hell,” Ollie added.
“Storage, it looks like. To be honest, we’re not even sure who owns the place. The shopkeepers keep pointing to each other and shouting in Chinese. You guys aren’t the only ones late to the party.”
He nodded to the produce section, where a uniformed officer had detained the elderly grocer and his wife, both of whom looked terrified.
“We’ve been waiting three hours for an interpreter.”
“Fifty bucks says they speak English just fine,” Ollie mocked in his “Oh, did I say that out loud” voice.
Detective Rigdon flashed him a knowing look but didn’t take the bait.
“You first,” Ollie told me, motioning to the stairs.
“You’re not coming?”
“I trust your evaluation. Good experience for you.”
“You’ll need this.” Rigdon handed me a tubular LED flashlight, barely bigger than a pair of AA batteries. Then he waved a big hand to one of the techs, who walked over and handed me a medical mask and gloves.
“Our thing isn’t contagious,” I said.
“And if it’s not your thing?”
I dropped my shoulder bag by the door. I put the mask over my beard and pulled on the gloves as I walked down the dark steps. It smelled like my grandmother’s farmhouse basement. The single bare bulb suspended over the landing wasn’t enough to light the steep staircase, let alone the cramped room at the bottom. I clicked the button on the flashlight and ran the beam over cardboard boxes stacked like pillars in the dark. Green Chinese lettering. Perishables, it looked like. We’d have to catalog it all. I thought that sounded like a good job for someone who wouldn’t be lead on the case, if it turned into one. Tucker, maybe.
I reached the uneven brick wall at the back in five steps. Rigdon must have been listening, because just then he called down.
“On your right!”
I swung the light and found a jagged hole chiseled in the concrete floor. It looked like the gasping mouth of someone just about to drop under the surface and drown. Four uneven slats, studded with screw heads, had been affixed—apparently by a madman—to the wall below, making a simple if uneven ladder. I shined the light to the bottom and saw another concrete floor, rough and stained with age. It could’ve easily predated the upper floors of the building. Since the mask covered my teeth, I stuck the flashlight in my armpit before getting down on my hands and climbing in.
The room was a good thirty feet long. Near the ladder, it was just tall enough for me to stand, but the floor sloped upward gradually, as if to make sure everything at the back tumbled forward. A coal bin, maybe. The beam from my flashlight caught bits of dust hanging in the air like the particulates you see in deep-sea footage. My every movement stirred them into eddies. I smelled sawdust and sweat under the stench of days-old diarrhea, which tickled the back of my throat like pepper. I coughed once and my eyes watered.
As my irises adjusted to the dark, I caught the symbol spray-painted on the far wall. It commanded attention, like a crucifix over an altar. But it wasn’t a crucifix. It was a kind of uneven circle with a shape inside, sort of like a tilted ax with an ankh for a handle. The paint glowed a faint yellow-green. On the floor below were five motionless figures: two women, a man, and what looked like a pair of kids—all Asian, aged 12 to 60, roughly. Easy enough to peg as undocumented. Their teeth were bad, they were malnourished, and they each wore an odd mix of castoff clothing. That at least explained the secrecy. I guessed someone in the mayor’s office wanted a chance to craft the message before the media did. A crop of dead illegals might even make national coverage.
The bodies rested at various places around the dark gray space. The three adults were sitting against the wall. The two kids had collapsed together in a fetal position, facing each other. All of them had died in pain and total darkness. I looked at the hole over my head. No door or lock, but it would be easy to seal with one of the box pillars. No one underneath would be able to get enough leverage to push that off, not from that uneven ladder. Whatever it had been originally, the room was now a dungeon.
My phone buzzed in my pocket, then again a moment later as I shuffled forward to the nearest figure. I stepped on something crisp, which snapped underfoot. I bent to pick it up. A twig. There were several more next to it, along with some frayed twine. I stepped over it to examine the first victim, a short man of about 50 with a wide head and a flat nose. His right arm ended in a stub at the elbow. I ran my beam slowly from his head to his hand. His eyes were closed. He wore cargo shorts and an XXL Justin Bieber T-shirt that reached to his knees like a sleeping gown. His legs were so atrophied there was no way he could walk. One of his feet bent oddly to one side, since birth by the looks of it. The skin of his arms, neck, and face was splotchy and swollen in a latticelike web characteristic of some kinds of fungal infection. And there was an ashen pallor on top of that, as if whatever had killed him had also caused his epidermis to turn to powder.
The woman next to him had the same splotching. I ran a single gloved finger over her arm. Pale dust gathered, like from the mantel of a long-abandoned house. The couple’s hands rested a few inches apart on the floor. They’d been holding on to each other before death. I looked between them. His eyes were shut. Hers were open slightly as if in a deep sleep. I imagine he went first and she reached over and closed his lids. There were a pair of dried tear paths down her cheeks, like desert gullies.
Just past the couple, the two kids clung to each other in silence, foreheads together. There was something wrong with them, with their faces—evidence of a disability I couldn’t place. I glanced again at the man’s atrophied legs, and at the wife who refused to leave his side. Or maybe a sister. At the back, a very old woman sat by herself. She had vomited all over her chest. Orangeish liquid crusted her lips and ran in hard streaks down her blouse. Her eyes were open. They stared right through me. And there was a hint of a smirk on her lips, like she knew something I didn’t. It was unnerving, and I looked away.
I traced the corners of the room with my flashlight and found a crumpled white paper bag tossed to one side. Someone had brought them food at some point. Days ago, by the looks of it. They’d finished every last crumb. Nothing left but a slip of wax paper. No marks on the bag except on the bottom: a black circle with the letters CE inside. No receipt. Could’ve been from anywhere. I turned. My legs were stiff from squatting, and my knees were starting to hurt. I looked around the long, sloped space. I looked at the hands of the husband and wife. Fallen. Almost touching. I looked at the glow-in-the-dark symbol. I pulled out my phone to take a picture and ignored the text messages on the screen. I swiped to the camera, waited for it to focus, and snapped. Then I took a second for good measure. I looked again at the man, at his scalp. I ran my gloved fingers through his dark hair. Tufts came free. I shook them and shuffled to the back. I couldn’t take any more of the stench.
I stood at the top of the hole and stretched my knees and made sure the photos I’d taken weren’t blurry. Then I read the messages.
YOUR MOM CALLED SAID IT’S
SERIOUS THIS TIME
TOLD HER U R WORKING BUT
YOUD CALL LATER TONIGHT
“Get what you need?” Rigdon asked as I walked up the stairs. The planks creaked underfoot.
He and Ollie had clearly been chatting. I’d heard a hearty chuckle as I ascended.
I shook my head and stripped the latex from my hands. “I don’t suppose there’s a way to get a rush on stomach contents?” I picked up my bag from where I’d left it.
“Oh sure,” Rigdon said as he patted his pockets. “I think I have a pocketknife around here somewhere.”
I took out my phone and looked at the messages again.
Ollie eyed me a moment. “You okay?”
“Two kids down there.”
“So the man said.” He nodded to the detective. “Kids are tough.”
The store seemed choked with stale smoke and strange smells, more than it had before. “I need some air.”
I left them chatting and walked to the street. A handful of residents had returned as if lured by the softly glowing signs. A car pulled out of a pay-by-hour lot on the corner and drove away.
“We’re calling it suspicious,” Detective Rigdon said to Ollie as the pair came up behind me a few moments later. “Uniforms are canvassing and all that. We’ll keep you guys in the loop. Anything on the bodies you’ll have to get from the ME. Stomach contents included,” he said louder, to me.
A shopkeeper three doors down had emerged to sweep the sidewalk in front of his store. He caught my glance and looked down, swinging the broom swiftly as he turned away.
I shook my head without looking at my colleagues. “These people aren’t going to tell you anything.”
“Yeah,” Rigdon said softly. “That’s usually how it goes in these ethnic neighborhoods.”
I caught him studying me. “What?” I asked. “I don’t look like a hood rat? It’s the beard, isn’t it?”
He squinted. “Harlem? Bed-Stuy?”
I shook my head. “A-T-L.”
“Southern brutha, huh? What brings you up here?”
“Three-month appointment,” Ollie answered. “This man works for the federal government.”
“Centers for Disease Control,” I corrected.
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Rigdon asked. Then he put on an accent for me and slapped my shoulder. “Welcome to New Yawk.”
“That symbol mean anything to you?” I asked before he walked away. “The one on the wall?”
“Symbol?” Ollie asked.
Rigdon shook his head. “We’re having the gang unit take a look. Plenty of organized crime out here. Hong Kong Triads. Local tong. Poor folks from the mainland get smuggled here in packed shipping containers, sometimes thirty or forty at a time. They’re promised a job, think they’re getting a new life. The young women are forced to work as prostitutes or housekeepers or whatever. Everyone else is basically slave labor in a sweat shop. Folks downstairs are probably the leftovers.”
“Then why feed them?” I asked. “If you’re just going to leave them to die.”
Rigdon shrugged. “Maybe someone felt guilty?”
“And the paint?”
“Probably just graffiti.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was blowing me off or that’s really what he thought. He was acting—everyone there was acting—as if all of it were somehow routine. Maybe it was for them.
“Isn’t the whole point of graffiti that people will see it?”
“Hey!” Rigdon called over our heads. “About time!”
An Asian woman in a sharp business suit stepped from an unmarked car and he went to greet her. I took out my phone again and fired off an email to the medical examiner’s office requesting a rush on stomach contents. And a blood culture. I sent another to Oliver, even though he was standing right next to me, and asked that someone start the wonderfully exciting process of cataloging samples of all the produce in the shop and sending them to the lab. I copied Dr. Chalmers.
I hear Tucker’s available, I wrote, now that he’s done with outreach.
I looked back at the store, at the old grocer and his wife. They were shaking their heads at whatever the Asian woman was asking. We’d have to shut them down. It would take weeks to process everything.
“I can see you typing,” Ollie said, walking to the car. “You know I have eyes, right?”
“Five dead,” I countered.
He nodded. “And the police are taking it. You heard them. Suspicious deaths, the man said. That means criminal, which means not us.”
We got in and I pulled the seatbelt down as he started the car. Ollie didn’t wear a seatbelt. He was a big man and it was very uncomfortable for him, or so he claimed. To keep the car from beeping at him, he left the belt in the lock and sat on the strap, which was now pressed permanently to the seat.
“What happens when someone else gets sick?” I asked.
“Hold on there, captain. Who says they will? We should at least get a cause of death before we go emailing everyone under the sun.”
“Emaciation, hair loss, signs of systemic fungal infection,” I counted off the symptoms on my fingers. “This makes three cases in the last month. It’s the same thing, Ollie. And you know it.”
He held up a hand. “Maybe it is. I’m not arguing with you. Just take my advice. For once. Please. Wait for the coroner’s report before you run this upstairs. Again.”
I shook my head.
“How long I been doing this?” he asked.
“Thirty years, or so you keep telling me.”
“Right. So don’t act like I got no skin in the game. You young guys come out with—”
“I’ve worked in the field.”
“Yeah, so you keep telling me.” He mimicked my words. “Three weeks in Africa. Lotsa dead bodies. It’s not the same. You guys were there with a UN mandate. We don’t have that. Money is not infinite, Alex. I wish it was. Believe me. Every dollar we spend chasing stuff like this is a dollar that doesn’t get spent somewhere else. Somewhere that could really help.”
“Like the Farm-to-Table program?”
He made a disgusted face, like I had just shoved a gob of shit into this mouth. “Look, I’m sorry those people died. It’s a terrible tragedy. But no one forced them into that shipping container or whatever—”
“You don’t know that. You don’t know how they got—”
“And even if they did!” He raised his voice. ”Even if they were forced, how does that change anything? You gonna take on organized crime now?”
The engine idled calmly.
“You didn’t even look,” I said.
“Fuck.” He turned the car off and shifted his girth to face me. “And why do you think that is, huh? Cuz I’m just some callous asshole who doesn’t care about people? Or because I know from experience that all it would do is ruin my day? Because there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re committing the cardinal sin of this job—right now.”
“You’re taking it home with you.”
When I didn’t answer, he faced front again and started the car. “Maybe it’s not a bad thing your wife didn’t come.”
The morning meeting was a convention. The double doors at the back opened to a busy lecture hall where stepwise rows of long tables faced the white boards at the front. The folks scattered about the chairs looked at their phones or talked to each other in hushed tones while the single speaker, a full-figured black woman in a maroon dress suit, pointed to the writing on the boards, or to the projection overhead, and barked orders. I did what everyone did: came late and took a seat and waited for someone to call my name. Or at least say something interesting.
The speaker was Dr. Angela Chalmers, the head of my unit and my on-site supervisor. She was a formidable woman, despite her stature. Most of the time she didn’t look at you when you spoke. She’d be too busy approving requisitions, or whatever, and nodding along with your plea as if earnestly moved by your argument. But when you said something that warranted a gaze, she’d stop what she was doing and look right to your core. She had eyes like pistols, fingernails like daggers, and a voice like a Howitzer.
“Alex!” she called before my butt hit the seat.
That’s what everyone called me. It was easier than my first name. So Dr. Alexander became Alex.
“See me after.”
“But it wasn’t me, Teach,” I objected.
Someone near me snickered and Dr. Chalmers shot me a look over the rim of her glasses.
I was part of a joint program set up by the city, state, and federal governments to test active monitoring in the nation’s largest urban centers—a reaction to several high-profile outbreaks everyone likes to pretend weren’t as scary as they sounded. It’s no accident that the first case of Ebola in the US was in a major city like Dallas, or that adenovirus hit Jersey. If an epidemic ever does come, it’s not gonna start in Des Moines or Tucumcari. It’ll be where people overwhelmingly enter the country: New York, LA, San Fran, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, D.C., and Atlanta. That’s where pretty much every peer-reviewed epidemic model puts Patient Zero. So that’s where you start.
Something something needles and haystacks.
While some guy from the city droned on about the new retirement program, Dr. Chalmers walked up the steps and pointed at me to follow her. There was a small crowd waiting for her in the hall, but she waved them away with those daggerlike fingernails and held up one of the files from the stack in her arms. We walked to her office, where she tossed it on the side table and took a seat.
“Someone actually read your health alert. Color me impressed.”
Several weeks earlier, I’d been allowed to include a “Health Alert”—four sentences of white text in a red box—in the department’s monthly blast email, which went to just about every hospital, clinic, lab, doctor, dentist, podiatrist, chiropractor, and nursing home in the Tri-State area, as well as most of the relevant governmental and non-governmental agencies.
She looked at me like she was waiting for me to gloat. I didn’t.
“As of this morning, your undocumented have officially gotten case numbers. We’re opening a file. Congratulations.”
“Should that really be a cause for celebration, boss?”
“You’re doing an excellent job, Alex. Are you sure you want this one?”
The question surprised me. “I found it.”
“And you’d keep credit for that.”
“Are you saying you’re giving it to someone else?”
“I’m saying that I’m giving you the option the passing on it in lieu of other work. You’ve been one of our more successful appointees and I’d hate to see anything jeopardize that.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. “What makes you think I can’t handle it?”
“It’s not the science I’m worried about.” She sat back. “I read the file. You have nothing. These people have no names, no identification. Anyone they might’ve had contact with almost certainly works for whatever criminal group smuggled them here. They’re not exactly going to open up to you, even if you could find them. And you won’t get anything out of the Chinese. They won’t admit—on record, to an American governmental agency—that they have an organized crime problem. Or that their poor are dying to leave the country. Literally.”
“So we see what the police turn up.”
“And in the meantime?” It was a test.
“I take another line of attack.”
“I’m not sure you’ve really thought this one through. Where do you think this will end? You’re eager. Energetic. I appreciate that.” She said it earnestly. “But the decisions we make have repercussions.”
“Ollie gave me the lecture yesterday, boss.”
“Don’t get smart.”
“Look, I get why we didn’t open a case before. I didn’t have anything. A hunch, basically. But now there are five dead people in a basement. How can we just let that go?”
“I wasn’t suggesting that. So tell me, what are going to do first?”
“Well.” I thought for a moment. “We need to identify cause. When the autopsy—”
“On five dead? Will take a week. At least.”
I paused. “A week?”
She nodded sagely.
“Okay. So.” I paced. “We start with the other two cases. It’s not contagious. Frankly, it almost seems random. So whatever this is, it’s unusual, not something people run into in daily life. We look for exposures. What did these people have in common? What did they eat or inject or put on their skin?”
“You’ll need medical histories first. Have you started a database?”
“Not yet. I was told I wasn’t allowed to work on it.”
“But that hasn’t kept you from sniffing around, has it?”
She jumped in before I could object. “It’s alright. It’s the sign of a good investigator. I wish we had more like you, I really do. So now you wanna tell me why this one’s so important to you?”
I went for honesty. “Not really.”
“Fair enough. Talk to Ollie. Tell him it’s official.” Then she pointed stiffly to the door with a turquoise fingernail and returned to her work.
I didn’t find Ollie at his desk. I didn’t wait. I had exactly one solid lead, and it had come from the closest thing in the city I had to a friend. I stood on a sidewalk and watched her sort the stacks of plastic trays that filled the back of the delivery van. Meals on Wheels. The trays were empty. Sanitized. Just returned from the commercial wash.
I nodded to the load. “I thought you were a real doctor,” I joked.
To an MD, us PhDs aren’t “real” doctors.
She let out a single sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, well, we do it all here.”
Amber Massey had sandy brown hair that she tucked behind her ears, a pert nose, and a once-athletic build that now hovered, like so many of ours, on the unhealthy side of fit. She was originally from Waco but had gone to school on the East Coast. Shortly after completing her residency, she joined the Urban Outreach Center in the Bronx with the idea of spending a few years giving back to the poor and unfortunate before settling into a career as a general practitioner back in her native Texas. That was five-going-on-six years ago. I knew her because she was the first physician to report a live case. A man named Alonso White, a colleague of hers—of sorts—had approached her after work complaining of fatigue and hair loss, but when she was suggested it was serious, he waved off her objections and left the clinic. No one had seen him since.
“We’re staffed mostly with volunteers,” she said. “Like Jaime here.” She smiled at a skinny teenager who enthusiastically stuck out her arms for more trays. “We’re luckier than most, though. We have some wealthy benefactors who like to use us as a tax write-off. Keeps the clinic going, at least. Most of the food is donated from area grocers. Stuff that’s about to expire.”
“That’s nice of them.”
She made a face. “Whatever. It’s cheaper for them to dump it here than to dispose of it outside the city.” She lifted a stack of trays so large I wasn’t sure she could see around them and turned for the center’s back door.
“So give me something to do,” I urged.
“Please! You’re doing enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I shifted the bag strapped over my shoulder, grabbed a much smaller stack, and followed.
“Oh, come on! No one gave a shit about Alonso. The police barely looked.” She waddled carefully around a corner with the too-tall stack balanced carefully in her hands.
I followed her into a long, carpeted room where a group of volunteers, mostly women, were checking, sorting, and counting the trays. There was a small stack in the corner with pink lids instead of gray. I smelled potpies baking in the commercial kitchen at the far end.
Opposite the tray-sorting line were two long tables with empty lunch bags—bleached white paper, like I’d seen in the basement of the Chinese grocer.
“What are those?” I asked.
“The meals in trays”—she pointed—“get delivered to the elderly and homebound. The bag lunches we hand out from the back of the center to whoever comes. Until we run out.”
“How long does that take?”
I walked over and lifted one of the bags. Black circle on the bottom with the letters CE.
Amber gave some instructions to young Jaime, who scurried off to complete them, and walked over to me.
“So to what do we owe the pleasure? Is this personal or professional?”
“Professional,” I said. I paused for dramatic effect. “It’s official.”
“Really?” She seemed excited, like it was her case as much as mine.
I nodded again. “As of this morning.”
“I thought you said the whole thing was DOA. What changed?”
“You don’t wanna know.”
“That bad? Should we be scared? Should I be telling people to stay at home and be extra careful about washing their hands?”
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s not contagious. Not by contact, anyway.”
I shook my head. “I wish I knew.”
She studied me for a moment. “Look, I know all men are big and strong and they never need help from anyone, but—”
“I’m alright.” I smiled at the implication. “Really. I’m not being macho. I’m just . . . thoughtful, I guess.” I could see the question on her face. “There was this old woman. Her eyes. They reminded me of something, that’s all, something I hadn’t thought of in a while.”
“So what’s next?”
“That’s why I’m here, actually. I was hoping to get Alonso’s medical file.”
“You already know everything I do.”
“I know, but it’s not just me. You know how it is. I have to document everything. It’s not real unless it’s on paper.”
“Of course. Civil bureaucracy. It’s been three years and we’re still waiting on my license to appear in the mail. Five requests. Can you believe it?”
“I believe it.”
She looked around a moment. “Umm. Okay, let me see. Where would that be? This way, I think.”
She led me through the center and around to the clinic side, where a pair of nurses sat before computers and completed federal claims forms, one after the next. She bent over a wide file cabinet. It was open and stuffed tight with color-tabbed files. She had to grunt just to separate them enough to leaf through.
“Let’s see . . . Alonso, Alonso. Where are you?”
According to Amber, Alonso White was a clinical counselor by trade but worked as a community organizer in Spanish Harlem, and occasionally the Bronx. He was mid-30s, single, no kids with a healthy, athletic build. Supposed to be rather handsome. Volunteered regularly—not just at the Urban Outreach Center but also at area churches and food banks—and was known to be preparing a bid for office. Dr. Massey noticed he didn’t look well one evening and asked him to stay. Alonso mentioned he’d been feeling nauseated and weak since the day before, and that some of his hair had come out in the shower. His chest and forearms were flushed. Amber urged him to go to the ER.
“He’s a workaholic,” she had explained at our first encounter, “like a lot of us in the trenches. There’s just never enough hours in the day, even to do the minimum. You always go home to a warm bed having left someone else in the cold.”
Alonso had thanked her for her concern and left for an appointment and that was it. Shortly thereafter, he was reported missing when he didn’t show up to a vigil.
I waited as Amber rifled through the bulging cabinet.
“What have you been doing with yourself?” she asked. “Getting out, I hope.”
“Oh, you know. The usual.”
“Ha. In other words, you go to work and go back to your hotel and hope your wife will call?”
“You make it sound so pathetic. Mostly I just watch porn.”
A plump nurse with cornrows, late-40s, was sitting at a desk. She smirked and turned to a stack of files.
“Seems to me I was supposed to take you to dinner,” Amber said, “wasn’t I?”
I had technically agreed but then never followed up. Just being polite. We were both busy.
She stopped rifling and scowled.
I looked at the stacks of files the nurse was alphabetizing. “Shouldn’t all this be on computer?”
“Of course. But data entry is unfortunately very low on the list of budget priorities,” she said without turning. She was staring at the overstuffed drawer. “This is so odd.”
She looked around. She lifted a stack of files from the printer and flipped through them.
“It’s not here.” She stood and rested her hands on her full hips.
There was a pause. She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. It fell in front of her full lips.
“I’m so sorry. I—uh . . . I don’t know what to say. There’s no excuse. He mostly worked East Harlem. Maybe they have something over there?”
Young Jaime appeared in the door and said there was a problem with the tray count, and Amber sighed. She crossed her arms across her chest, which pushed up her cream-colored breasts. I tried not to look.
“I’ll be right there.” She looked at me apologetically.
I smiled and nodded.
“I’ll keep looking,” she said.
“Thanks, but it’s—”
“No, it is a big deal. I’ll find it and bring it to dinner, okay?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Really. You got your hands full.”
“Please,” she insisted. It was plaintive and caught me off guard. It seemed then like maybe she needed an excuse to get away for an evening, to do something other than work.
“Sure. Sounds great.”
A commotion broke from down the hall. A woman was making a helluva racket in another room. Something about evil eyes. The nurses at the desk barely noticed.
“I’m afraid you’re not catching us at our best,” Amber said apologetically.
The yelling increased. Someone fell and by the sound of it took a whole pile of trays with them.
“I’ll catch you later,” I said.
“Thank you.” She touched my arm before rushing into battle.
“Hey, one more thing,” I called. “Do you remember the names of the investigating officers?”
“I’m sorry,” she said over the noise. “Let’s talk at dinner. I have to go. I’m sorry.”
The nurse with the cornrows smiled at me knowingly.
“Have a nice day,” I told her.
I showed myself out, fiddling with my wedding ring the whole way. I walked through the front doors and down the wheelchair ramp to the sidewalk. There was already a line forming at the corner of the building. It looked like those old pictures you see from the 1930s—guys queued up for a bowl of soup, or to see if there was any work that day. A police car rolled by. The officers inside scanned the line of people on the sidewalk. Most turned away. It seemed like cheating to me, like hunting for deer at a feed stand.
Cops did that kind of thing back home, too. When I was a kid, they would routinely speed toward us, sirens blaring. Occasionally, it was to arrest someone. Mostly it was just to see who would run. Running from the police constitutes probable cause, which means you can be searched on the spot. A second car waiting around the block would intercept whoever fled. Of course, attempted evasion justifies the use of armed force. A kid from my school got shot that way. He had a bag of weed and went for his cell phone to call for help. Cop said he thought it was a gun. After that, we avoided the parks and corners and hung in people’s back yards, which only made the cops that much more suspicious.
“How you fellas doin?” I called to the men in the patrol car.
The uniform in the passenger’s seat had his window down. He watched me. I watched back, practically daring them to stop. But they didn’t. They rolled slowly around the corner.
I found Detective Rigdon’s card in my wallet and gave him a call. He answered on the first ring.
“Southern boy,” he said after I introduced myself. “Ran into one of your guys at the scene earlier. He was cataloging all the food from the shop. Didn’t seem very happy you weren’t around to help.”
Tucker would get over it. I explained my problem.
“One missing person? Out of the whole city?” He said it as politely as he could.
I told him I didn’t mind doing the legwork. I just needed a place to start. He gave me a name. Officer Stacy Montalvo, Missing Persons.
“She’s good. Gives a shit, too. Like you. She can give you whatever we have. Just don’t get your hopes up.”
“Don’t suppose your guys turned up anything at the scene.”
“Nada. And you were right. Neighborhood canvas was a bust. No one heard or saw anything. Seems several of them were even surprised to learn they had a grocer just down the block, as if they’d never noticed before. Oh, and our good friends from the FBI are involved. Just thought you should know.”
“Thanks. Let me know if you turn up anything on the symbol.”
But he had already hung up.
It took twenty minutes of navigation through the NYPD switchboard before I finally reached the right desk. Officer Montalvo had the competent directness of a woman who knew her job and was happy to help as long as you knew yours and didn’t waste her time. It wasn’t long before I tripped that threshold. She said pretty much the same thing as Rigdon.
“Can I at least know who worked the case?” I asked.
“Um . . .” I heard her typing a search. “Ha,” she chuckled. “Figures.”
“Manson and Dahmer.”
“Mansour and Damon,” she said. “We call them Manson and Dahmer. I have to admit, there is an uncanny likeness. Look, you’re not gonna get anything outta those guys. A coupla sandbags would dance more than they do.”
“I don’t need them to do anything. I just need the case file.”
I heard her clicking.
“Is there any way I can get it?”
“I have the appropriate authority. If you need—”
“Maybe so, but all requests have to go through Records.”
“Come on, Detective. That’ll take days. I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes here. I have at least seven bodies already with every indication of more on the way. How about a little inter-agency cooperation? If anyone asks, I didn’t get it from you.”
A pause. “Let me see what I can do. But only because I grew up in Spanish Harlem. Your guy was legit. A real saint.”
I found Ollie exactly where I always did: sitting in his windowless, underground box of an office. The walls were permanently stained nicotine-yellow despite that it had been decades since anyone had been allowed to smoke in the building. His credenza had been there at least as long as him but held nothing but a stack of files and a single framed picture of a kid, a young girl, and a nameplate: O. Waxman, MD. The overly bright fluorescent lighting made his comb-over look moist, like a sheen of butter on a rising loaf, and he kept pressing it flat with his palm. Each time, he’d rub the furrow under his glasses as well.
He jumped out of his chair to shut the door the moment I appeared.
“Why you chasing this?” he asked. Ollie had that typical New York brusqueness no one from New York seems to notice. It sounded more like an accusation than a question, and it was the second time in as many days that my motives had been questioned. I’m sure he could see the look on my face.
“I would hope that would be obvious.”
“So now it’s seven people,” he scoffed. “I’m sorry to be the asshole who has to say this out loud, but in a city this size, seven is nothing. You’d do more good handing out health citations to the homeless.”
He sat down and so did I. Apparently we were gonna have another chat.
“Dr. Chalmers doesn’t think so,” I said.
“You think that’s why she approved this nonsense? Because she agrees with you?”
I scowled. I had no idea what he was implying.
“You know, we talked to your boss the other day. Your real boss. Back in Atlanta. The good Dr. Sowell.”
“He seems to think you’re a political hire.”
“The CDC isn’t staffed by appointment.”
“No. But the people at the top answer to those who are. And Sowell seems to think you were some kind of diversity case left over from the previous administration’s hiring program.”
“He said that?”
Oliver smirked. “Not in so many words.”
“What do you want me to say, Ollie?”
“I just want to know the angle.” He nodded to the file Chalmers had given me.
“Angle? Why does everyone automatically assume this isn’t straight?”
Waxman scowled and dug in his desk for his heartburn chewables. I glanced at the remnant of a meatball sub in crumpled paper. He popped a tablet into his mouth and held the open bottle toward me. I declined.
“Yes,” I said. “I know what Sowell thinks of me. I’d love to explain why he’s wrong in very precise language, but I have a wife and a child and I can’t work a post-doc forever. And since research positions don’t exactly grow on trees and I’m not gonna get a good letter from him, my only hope is you or Dr. Chalmers. And a solid paper. Not collated stats tables, Ollie. That’s for grad students. Something original. Something that gets my name out there.”
For the past two weeks, an unfortunately large part of my job had been tabulating statistics on a new kind of food-handling program we were testing. The science was mundane. A well-trained undergraduate could have done it. That wasn’t the purpose of the field program. The field program was there to teach us how things worked in the real world. And in that, it was successful.
New York City crams a population of nine million—that’s larger than countries like Israel or Switzerland, by the way—into five small boroughs. Those boroughs sit inside a wider metropolitan area, stretching from New Jersey to Connecticut, that holds nine million more. The combined metro GDP approaches that of the entire nation of Canada. Besides the numerous mega-hospitals—each like a small town—there are a few thousand nursing homes, at least as many clinics, and countless doctors’ offices, dentists, and counselors. There’s a hairstylist and nail salon on every corner, and of course innumerable restaurants—from the five-star palaces in Midtown to the food trucks lining the parks. There are coffee shops, delis, butchers, bakeries, fishmongers, grocers, creameries, school and hospital cafeterias, packaged food manufacturers, food service suppliers, and the distributors and resellers who move it all around. And then there’s all the stuff people put in their bodies that isn’t food: pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, “alternative health” devices, prophylactics, and sexual aids, and the pharmacies and sex shops that stock them.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was responsible for all of it. Which was impossible. It was a feat just to keep up with complaints. They had a whole consumer contact center that handled hundreds of calls and emails—thousands, in a crisis—before lunchtime. They conducted a dozen or so inspections every single day of the week—some scheduled, some by surprise. I got to go on a few. I learned two things: there is very little oversight, and health inspectors, who have roughly the same education as police officers, are at least as corrupt.
“I thought you had the Africa thing,” he said between chews.
“I was fourth author. It’s not the same and you know it.”
“And that’s it? That’s all this is, you being the A student? There’s nothing else?”
I squinted hard and took off my glasses to rub my eyes. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Without being out of line?” I put my glasses back.
“I just wanna know if you have this talk with the white guys who come through here.”
He stiffened. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just wondering why I’m being asked to defend my desire for employment. I’m just supposed to be happy I got a degree, is that it?”
“Whoa the fuck down. No one’s asking you to defend anything.”
I pointed with my thumb back toward the office. “Tucker spent ten days lecturing sixth graders about pertussis.”
“It wasn’t only about pertussis.”
“He got a buncha ‘attaboys.’ Not an interrogation.”
“Tucker’s smart enough to know the commissioner wants ammunition in the public relations fight with the anti-vaxxers. Public school outreach makes a nice feel-good story for the papers.”
“Tucker’s dad is a professor at Johns Hopkins,” I said. “And a former chair of the Association.”
“Okay.” He raised his hands. “You’re right. About everything. Have at it. Your appointment’s almost up anyway. Your choice. In a couple weeks, you’re Sowell’s problem.”
The implication was clear: I wouldn’t remain Dr. Sowell’s problem for long.
“Does that mean I can stop crunching the numbers on the Farm-to-Table Program?” I asked.
“Christ.” Ollie twisted his face in disgust. “Don’t sound so broken up about it. That one happens to be mine, you know.”
I got up. “I know.” I smiled.
He got serious. “Chalmers is gonna give you enough rope to hang yourself. Just don’t hang the rest of us out with you.”
His chair creaked as he leaned back. “I get it. You see the guys with the pedigrees snatching up all the jobs and you’re wondering where that leaves you. But you’ve been after Chalmers about this thing for, what, five weeks now? In the team meeting. Where notes are kept and emailed out to everyone under the sun. And you berated her into sending out that Health Alert.”
I squinted. “Isn’t that what it’s for?”
“Fuck . . . Don’t be so naive. You ever watch the local news?”
I stood with my hand on the door. “Not if I can help it.”
“You should. If you’re serious about staying in public health. Local politics lives and dies on two things.” He held up fingers. “Crime. And health. Last year, the department was all over the local outlets for a couple weeks straight after the commissioner yanked an ad campaign, a PSA combating teen pregnancy. Placards at bus stops and subway stations and shit like that.
“The week before, one of the network affiliates asked for access to the sex worker survey data, which they thought would make a nice nightly lead and salaciously sell some advertising.” He waggled his head with the alliteration. “We said no. It’s confidential, as you know. Two days later, they ran a story critical of the PSA. Swore up and down the two were completely unrelated, that it wasn’t retaliation. Suddenly, we were flooded with calls. The mayor’s office, too. As if no one had noticed the signs plastered all over town until they were on TV.”
“They probably hadn’t,” I said.
“Exactly. Manufactured controversy. The NAACP didn’t like it because it made a young black girl the poster child for the issue. The conservatives didn’t like it because not a single ad used the word ‘abstinence.’ The liberals didn’t like it because we didn’t explicitly hold boys accountable. You know whose campaign that was?”
I shook my head.
“Chalmers,” he said. “A black woman who put herself through a PhD program while raising two kids. By herself. Didn’t matter.” He leaned over his desk again. “Let’s say you’re right and you find something. New strain of avian flu. Homeless people shitting in the reservoir. Whatever. Everything you collect could be used to suggest that an assistant director of this department repeatedly ignored warnings from her staff about a serious public health threat.” He made quotes in the air.
I scowled. I let go of the door.
Waxman saw my face. “Don’t believe me? Okay. Let me spell it out for you. You don’t get to be three rungs down from the mayor of a city this size without making enemies. Get it? There are people out there right now whose full-time job is to find ways of criticizing this administration. That’s it. That’s all they do. Lawyers. PR firms. Political mercenaries. Well-paid, too. And if they can’t find anything, they make shit up. You want a job? Don’t look up one day and find yourself on their side.”
“So . . . if I find anything, we take it to the boss first and let her run it upstairs.”
He nodded sagely. “Or into the ground.”
I looked at the man. At his well-lit comb-over. “What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“Anyone every approach you for dirt?”
“Not me.” He smiled. “I’m straight as an arrow.”
Tucker was due back that afternoon for a team session, so I skipped the office and went to a diner and asked for a booth at the back. I ordered pie and coffee and flipped through the pictures I’d taken in the grocer’s basement. I looked at the man’s stub of an arm, at his atrophied legs, at the tufts of hair that fell out of his head. I looked at the kids, foreheads together, and of course the old woman. The tips of her fingers were cracked and split. I hadn’t noticed that before. I had been too focused on the gaze, the gaze right through me, as if her ghost were still there. I’d seen that before.
I rested my chin in my palm and zoomed in. Her nails were frayed. I moved up to the symbol. Then down to the white bag. Someone had put those people in that dungeon, had given them food, and then never came back. Was that because they were already sick? Or did that come later? ICE said the doors were left open. Could someone have gone to retrieve them, found them dead, and fled? Nothing frightens people quite like disease. It’s not rational.
My pie and coffee came and I closed the photos and called my wife. Video chat. I asked to see my daughter and her big head of frizzy hair. I missed her. I missed her smell. She showed me the picture book she’d been reading with her mother. Something about a cat and a magpie. She showed me one of the pages and explained that the magpie was the black-and-white one and that it was one of the smartest animals in the world. Then she finished her sentence and without pause said “Okay, bye Daddy!” and set the phone down.
My wife picked it up. She was smiling, too. But it faded pretty quick. She looked at me.
“She can’t keep calling here.”
“I know,” I said, which was to say I knew why Marlene didn’t want her to. In my head I was thinking that my wife only had our daughter to look after and it didn’t seem crazy for her to help with her sick mother-in-law while her husband was out of town. But I didn’t want to argue.
“I get why you don’t want to tell her about everything,” she said. “But you at least have to talk to her. You can’t keep giving that job to me. It’s not fair.”
Mom had been in and out of the hospital for years. She was only 56, but then, that’s what years of drug abuse will do. She swore she was dying each and every time. She was always a lot to deal with. Especially after Cliff left, her third husband. She met him at the casino. They married after a few months and he left her four years later. I wanted to feel sorry for her, and to help, but she made it so damned hard. She was just plain mean. I didn’t mind the awful things she said to me. I was used to it. But my wife . . .
My mother slapped my daughter’s hand once. Mari was barely old enough to walk. It wasn’t hard, but it made Marlene hella mad. Her mother had been a teacher. As a kid, she didn’t get slapped. She got a “time out.” Marlene tried to be diplomatic, but Mom is so damned sensitive. She immediately got defensive and said some things that are hard to take back.
Not that she ever tried.
Half the time Mom was around, I felt like a hostage negotiator. The rest of the time, the hostage. She, on the other hand, had no problems speaking her mind, no matter the damage, and walking out the door like it was no big deal.
And she’d never talk about my brother.
“Don’t you say his name!”
I went to a professional. Briefly. Before my dissertation defense. I thought talking about everything might help with my marriage. He urged me to take care of myself before anything, which was a nice way of saying I should cut Mom loose, emotionally. I just didn’t know that I could do that. To my own mother. She didn’t have anyone else. Now she was back in the hospital and calling the house every eight hours looking to guilt me into visiting. Or giving her money we didn’t have. And if it wasn’t that, it was crackpot theories about how the government was poisoning us with chemtrails, or the President was a member of the Klan, whatever.
“Please,” Marlene said from the screen.
I knew that look. I knew that voice. My phone dinged with the receipt of a new message. ALL CAPS. I had been summoned back to the office for some big announcement.
I nodded to my wife. “I hear ya. Gotta go. L—” I stopped.
Almost said it. Out of habit.
“I’ll talk to you later,” I said.
I caught a white takeout bag out of the corner of my eye. Two tables down, it sat on its side, its bottom facing me. I walked over and asked if I could see it. The couple at the table looked at me like I was nuts, but they complied.
Black circle with the letters CE. Sold all over the city apparently. I sighed.
My tablet beeped in the darkness, which meant a middle-of-the-night work email. Nothing else was set to give an alarm. I turned to look at the clock. 3:05 AM. I’d been wide awake for at least an hour. I sat up and rubbed my face. I’d left the TV on with no sound. The dancing light helps me sleep. I turned the light on and the TV off and flipped open the cover of my tablet. I thought the message would be from Dr. Chalmers, who was known to work early, but it was from Officer Stacy Montalvo with the NYPD. And there was an attachment. I responded with a quick thanks and said I’d submitted the information request. Technically, that wasn’t true, but I’d make it true later that morning.
I opened the file and was flipping through the detectives’ notes when my tablet dinged again. Officer Montalvo had responded. She asked what I was doing working so late and provided a link to the online form where I could make an official request for information. She must have checked the system and found it absent.
Touché, I wrote. Sorry about that. Busy trying to find a nonhuman killer. What’s your excuse?
The response was quick. Missing girl. What a world, huh?
The only one we got, I said.
True. Guess that’s why we do it, right? Hope you find your bug.
Not a bug. Don’t know what it is actually. Hoping to hear back from the ME soon.
I dunno. I know those guys are under a lot of pressure, and they don’t want to get it wrong. Just seems like everything that goes in there slows down.
Thanks for the heads up. Maybe I should pay them a visit. How old is your girl?
How’d you know I had a little girl?
A second email came before I could respond. Duh. Sorry. That’s what I get for working at 4am.
So how old are they?
Mine is 8. Vic is 14. You?
Five. I can’t imagine.
Me either. Hey, nice talking to you. Home now. Gonna grab a couple hours before my shift. Don’t forget that request!
It took less than an hour to read everything the police had gathered on Alonso White. Officer Montalvo was right. He was something of a local saint. He’d been written about in the papers a couple times even before his disappearance. The last person to talk to him was a colleague, Cecilia Flynn, with whom he’d organized a protest—or vigil, I guess they called it. He had promised her he would arrive early. When he didn’t, she called to remind him. An hour later, she checked his location through the position-sharing app on his phone. Apparently, his inner circle all had access. When Mrs. Flynn found the signal was no longer broadcasting, she called the police, who responded later that evening.
“It’s unheard of,” she had told the detectives. “For Alonso to be out of contact.”
To their credit, they seem to have taken her at her word. They pulled his phone and data records, location history, everything, which confirmed everyone’s description of him as a very busy and well-connected man. In the days before his disappearance, he visited seven churches, four places of business, a hospital, two schools, and nine wealthy residences—the latter in pursuit of funds for his numerous charitable projects. Somewhere in there, he encountered something that made him sick.
The police had focused on the hours leading up to his disappearance, which made sense. When that turned up nothing of interest, they focused instead on several other lines of inquiry, including a possible revenge motive with an investor that Alonso had accused of misappropriating charitable funds. It was a stretch. The total malfeasance amounted to no more than a couple thousand dollars—not so much direct embezzlement as wastefulness: extravagant dinners and the like. According to witnesses, Alonso never even contemplated filing charges. He simply asked for the money to be paid back. Seemed crazy to me something that small would figure into a man’s disappearance, but people have done worse shit for less, I guess.
As I went over the documents, I had this sense I was missing something very obvious, that I was staring right at it, in fact. I took a shower and decided to change tack. I didn’t need to find Alonso White. I needed to find what had made him sick. The clock by the bed announced in tall red letters that it was just before 7 AM, and yet, my inbox was already bursting, including requests from two reporters, both marked urgent. I deleted them and emailed Ollie and told him I was going into the field.
The announcement from the day before, the one that had come in all caps, had been a kind of summons. Everyone in my unit had gathered in the team room the previous afternoon for an impromptu session. The speaker was the assistant commissioner, Dr. Chalmers’ boss, who reminded us that we were not to talk to the media about the five dead bodies in Flushing. Standing rules said we weren’t supposed to talk to the media about anything, of course. All information released to the public had to go through the press office. But there was already enough interest in that case, he had said, to warrant a “special reiteration” of departmental policy. Although he never came right out with it, his speech was peppered with vague legal threats toward anyone who might be thinking of breaking that silence in return for monetary gain. He also mentioned that the FBI had taken over the criminal case from the NYPD, and that we were to share all our findings promptly with them. He said that last part in a way that made me think he actually meant the exact opposite.
I found a print shop and made copies of Alonso’s schedule before visiting the law office of Cecilia Marie Flynn, esq. The sign on the door said she was a community relations attorney—whatever that is.
“Thank you for seeing me so early,” I said, following her into a spartan office.
Her diploma hung proudly in a wide frame over a single potted plant.
“Yes, well, your call made me very curious.”
She took her seat behind the desk. There was barely enough room between it and the open door for me to sit, and I had to face her at an angle.
“What exactly is the Department of Health’s interest in Alonso?”
“We have reason to believe his disappearance may have been related to a spate of recent illnesses.”
“The police report indicated you were one of the last to see him alive—before he went to the Outreach Clinic.”
“Outreach? Is that where he was? The police said he was in Jersey.”
“Was that unusual? For him to go off like that?”
“Not especially. He was always chasing after one thing or another.”
“How long had he been feeling ill?”
“What do you mean?”
“When he showed up at the Outreach Center, before the vigil, he mentioned nausea and fatigue to the staff, and that some of his hair had come out in the shower.”
“What? He never mentioned that to me.”
“How did he seem that day? You saw him that morning, correct?”
“That’s right, and he was fine. Certainly he didn’t seem sick. He even played basketball with some of the schoolchildren. It was just for a few minutes before a meeting with the superintendent, but he didn’t seem tired in the least. He was laughing and joking with them.” She was scowling. “What makes you think he was sick?”
“Would it have been unlike him to hide something like that?”
“Well . . .” That seemed to catch her off guard. “I mean, I don’t know. Not usually, no. Alonso didn’t keep secrets.”
I waited. “But?”
“I suppose, if he didn’t want to make other people feel like a burden, he might refrain mentioning that he was feeling unwell. He was always trying to do too much. But I just can’t believe he was sick. I would’ve known.”
“Any idea why he might have driven to Jersey that evening?” His cell phone signal had stopped just off a parkway across the Hudson.
“As I told the police: No, I have no idea. He was supposed to be on the other side of Manhattan.”
“In Brooklyn Heights?”
“That’s correct. At the site of the old Watchtower building. You know it?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, we were meeting there to protest. Nonviolently,” she added. “Unlike so many of his generation, Alonso didn’t believe in violence. Of any kind. He didn’t believe it ever actually changed anything. He took his lead from Dr. King.” She paused. “He had the potential to be a great man.”
“He’s been missing for almost three weeks, Doctor. Let’s just say I don’t have a lot of hope. What is it he was supposed to have? This illness, I mean.”
“We’re not sure exactly, but it mimics the effects of chemotherapy.”
“Chemotherapy?” She sat forward.
I nodded. “Nausea. Fatigue. Immunosuppression. Hair loss.”
“Alonso didn’t have cancer.”
“None of the victims did. Not that we can tell, anyway. They certainly weren’t being treated for it.” I pulled out my papers. “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at these for me.”
She reached for her glasses.
“The police compiled this record of Alonso’s movements in the days leading up to his disappearance.”
She took them like they might be toxic. “Where did you get this?”
“From the police file.”
“It’s clever,” she said, tossing the papers on her desk.
“Blaming it on a public health threat.”
“Tell me, Doctor, where are you from?”
“Down south. Atlanta, mostly.”
“We moved around.”
“Well, I’m not sure how things are down there, but up here, what makes it onto the news or into court is largely a matter of convenience. People, especially those in power, tell whatever story they need to get through the day. If you follow the news, you’ll notice that it’s usually the whistle blowers who find themselves facing charges rather than the reverse. But this—” She scoffed. “This is a new and very clever way to discredit someone.”
I sat back. “You think I’m here as part of some cover up?”
“Oh, not wittingly, no. That’s what makes it so devious. What did you say you were again? An epidemiologist? They must have had to turn over quite a few rocks to find one of your persuasion.”
“You seem to be a very nice young man. I’m sorry to be so blunt.”
There was a long pause while I tried to ascertain what she was implying. “Are you suggesting the police had something to do with Alonso’s disappearance?”
“Oh, I doubt it. At least, not directly. But I don’t believe for a second that they tried very hard to find him. That much was clear. The police don’t care about ‘do-gooders,’ Doctor. To them, we’re nothing but a nuisance.” She could see the skepticism on my face and jumped to explain. “Alonso was seeking an injunction against a 450-million-dollar property development scheme. The city of New York occupies a fixed space, Dr. Alexander. For something to get built, something else has to be torn down. A battle always ensues. Whoever has the most money usually wins. Understand?”
“I understand there are probably a lot of palms in the city that would have to be greased for something like that to get approved.”
She nodded. “And there was Alonso, standing in the way. On the very day of our vigil, he conveniently goes missing and the press fail to show.” She looked at me like a third-grade teacher. “And you’re going to tell me that the reason he disappeared is because he was ‘sick.’” She made quotes in the air.
A long silence filled the room.
I nodded to the printed schedule on the desk. “All the same, Mrs. Flynn—”
“I have to ask if anything there jumps out at you.”
“In what way?” she said without looking.
“Is any of it out of the ordinary, something he didn’t encounter regularly?”
She studied me, as if trying to determine if I was for real.
“If you could just take a look so I can say I did my job, I’ll be out of your hair.”
She sighed and flipped through the pages with a scowl. It seemed like she was about to shake her head in the negative when something caught her eye. She read it again.
“This says he was in New Jersey the day before as well.”
“According to his carrier, his phone certainly was. Is that odd?”
“We don’t have any interests in New Jersey.”
“Is that because he planned to seek office in New York?”
“The five boroughs were home, Doctor. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Alonso wasn’t trying to save the world, just make his part of it a little better.” She handed the papers back to me.
“Any idea what he would’ve been doing across the river?”
“If I had to guess, helping someone. It’s what he did. It’s all he did. Are we done?”
I stood. “Just one more question. As far as you know, did Alonso have a charger in his car?”
“For his phone. Did he keep one in his car?”
“Um.” She thought. “Yes. I’m sure he did. Why?”
“Thank you again for your time. I can show myself out.”
The police had gone up and down the stretch of road in Jersey where Alonso’s signal had stopped. I didn’t know what I hoped to add, but I had to see it at least. It certainly didn’t represent the Garden State very well. I passed at least two alley-parked cars that had been stripped to the bone. They looked like giant animal skulls. I dodged a call from Ollie on the way. He left a voicemail. They wanted me back at the office. I deleted it.
Alonso’s signal had been moving just before it quit, which suggested he’d been traveling in a vehicle. If his phone had simply gone dead, why not just plug it in?
From the back of the taxi, I watched on my own phone as we approached the exact spot, which I had marked with GPS coordinates on my map.
“Just up here,” I said.
I paid and got out and looked around. There didn’t seem to be anything of note. I turned in a circle and scanned everything in view.
A gas station barred like Fort Knox.
A vape shop next to a similarly branded liquor store.
An ’80s-era five-story office building with a high wall around the lot.
A 24-hour laundromat.
A kebab joint.
A retail husk.
A paint and hardware store.
I started walking toward the next major intersection, following the path of the lost signal. I passed what had once been a used car lot. The cloth fixed to the interior of the fence was beginning to wear. When I saw the next bus stop, I knew I had gone too far. I turned around and stopped at a side street. A homeless man in a red wool cap with a hoodie pulled over the top had passed out in the corner of what had once been the driveway of the lot.
“Alonso, my man,” I asked myself softly, “why the hell were you out here?”
“Well, it weren’t for the view,” a man said behind me.
He appeared to be homeless also. He sported a grisly beard and an even grislier expression. He was chewing something.
“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t see you there.”
“’s alright. No one does.” He pulled from a half-empty water bottle, sloshed the water around his mouth, and spat. “You got the time?”
I looked at my phone. “4:30.”
“Shit. Look at that. Late my appointment at the PTA.” He stood and stretched and I saw his belly. At some point, he’d had a helluva operation. There was a huge scar. “How do I look?” he asked.
“You live around here?”
He raised his arms to the tarp that extended over the fence. “Mi casa es su casa.”
I brought up Alonso’s picture on my phone. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen this guy around? Woulda been a few weeks ago maybe. He would’ve stood out. Like me.”
He squinted at my screen and shook his head as he scratched himself. “Naw, man. Nobody like that.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. Thanks.” I nodded to the unconscious man. I couldn’t see him breathing. “Your friend okay?”
“He’s not my friend.” The bearded man said it grimly, like maybe I had insulted him.
“Oh. Got it. Sorry.”
“You assume just because we’re both shacked up out here that we’re friends? Roomies? We all know each other, right?”
“I’m sorry to have bothered you.” I started walking.
The man laughed. “I’m just fuckin’ with you, man. Yeah, he’s alright. Sleepin it off, know what I mean?”
“Right.” I tried to smile.
“Somebody take him? The guy on your phone.”
“Not sure. To be honest . . .” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Not sure of anything right now. Thanks again.”
“Well, there’s only two reasons people come out here.” He held up one finger. “Something bad.” He held up a second finger. “Something worse.”
“So why drive out the day before just to turn around and go home?”
“Case the joint,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Guy like that”—he nodded to my phone—”What is he, a priest or something?”
“Something like that.”
“Guy like that isn’t too sure he can take care of himself, know what I mean? But he’s up to no good, so he’s gotta come by himself. Priests are into some weird shit, man. Trust me.”
“Not this guy.”
“No crypto or kiddie porn or anything like that? You sure?”
My new friend thought for a moment. “Information, maybe? Meeting somebody here?”
“Maybe. But he gets spooked. And for whatever reason, his phone’s dead, so he can’t call for help. And he doesn’t trust the police. His lawyer made that clear. So . . .” I looked up and down the road again. “What does he do?”
My adviser shrugged nonchalantly. “He hides.”
“He hides . . .” I repeated as I scanned the scene again.
Across the street, one block down a side road, there was an abandoned apartment complex. Looked like it was in the middle of being demolished. There was a fence, but it had been bent in several places. Inside were three identical housing blocks, parallel to each other, each two stories tall. Their lower halves were covered in faux stone, which was falling off in rectangular panels. Their upper halves were all shingled, except for where the windows poked through, like they used to do back in the ‘70s. Demolition had started. I saw a pair of those giant movable trash bins they roll in for renovation projects—big metal monstrosities that get dropped off and hauled away by semi. Pieces of broken drywall poked up at an angle. Looked like they’d been there for a while, exposed to repeated bouts of rain and sun.
“Naw, man.” The warning came before my first step. “I wouldn’t go there.”
I looked at it. I looked at him. “Why not?”
“No one goes there. Not even when there’s snow on the ground and it’s witch-titty cold out.”
He shrugged. “Some places are just bad.”
“Bad,” I repeated. I reached into my pocket. “Do me a favor.” I handed him a twenty and Ollie’s card. “If I don’t come out of there in ten minutes, run down to the gas station and call that number. Can you do that?”
He looked at the cash. Then he took it. “Sure thing, pal. Your funeral.”
I crossed the street and read the warning sign that had been posted. It said the lot was being developed. Only it wasn’t. Construction had clearly stopped months ago, another dead-end husk in a marginal neighborhood left to rot by people who’d never even seen the place. There was a gap in the fence where it had started to lean, and I squeezed my way through. Each of the three identical buildings on the lot had an open stairway at the middle, with hallways flanking to the right and left. The roof of the first structure had been torn down by a backhoe, or so it seemed. The whole front of the building had been ripped open. There was no way in through all the debris. It seemed an odd place to stop work. Couldn’t have been that much more money to level the building and avoid the potential lawsuit.
I walked to the second structure. The aluminum gate that blocked the central alcove was locked. But it was old and worn. I grabbed the bars and shook and it rattled loudly. I stepped back. There was a long, U-shaped metal bar in the debris—bent, but workable—and I wedged it between the gate and the wall. I pulled. When that didn’t work, I pressed hard against it. Still nothing. I took off my bag and bounced against the bar, over and over, with my arms out, using my momentum to increase the force of my weight. Harder and harder and harder. I gritted my teeth. I growled. It felt good. Like letting off steam. I started imaging I was hitting the man my wife had slept with. Harder. Harder.
It snapped. The metal bar tore the back of my hand as I flew forward into the faux-stone siding. My cheek got scraped pretty bad. It stung when I touched it. I twisted my knee as I fell. And I felt like an idiot. But it had worked. I hadn’t actually broken the lock, but I’d bent the aluminum catch for the deadbolt. I got up and touched my face again gingerly. That’s when I noticed my hand was bleeding. I had some tissues in my bag, and I held them firm over the wound as I walked up the steps. The air smelled of stale cat piss and old wood, and there was a slight metallic tinge underneath, probably from the exposed pipes. Piles of debris had been left by the workers. Doors were either open or missing. Several walls were bare to the interior. Insulation hung unevenly from the ceiling like strips of flesh. The whole thing reminded me of a roadside carcass halfway to being scavenged clean.
I turned down the left hall, where the floor not only groaned but bowed under my weight, but there was nothing but trash and waste. Not wanting to risk a collapse, I turned and walked the opposite way. I was almost to the far end when I stopped suddenly. I walked backward five steps.
Just past the third door from the center there was a long narrow hole, about knee high, where two boards had been knocked out. The wood was thin. It was also old and dry. The splinters were bent outward. Toward the hall. All the other debris bent in, as if the workers had been standing in the rooms with hooks, pulling it all down. But this was bent out, like something had burst free and ran. I knelt and looked closer. Through the gap, I saw a symbol. I stepped into the room. A pair of old mattresses had been fixed over the windows. Along with the boards on the exterior, they blocked most of the afternoon light—all except a thin orange shaft that snuck in at the top. Brown wall peeked from irregularly torn wallpaper. Someone had recently spray-painted three big words in yellow-green glow-in-the-dark paint:
PREPARE THE WAY
Underneath was another symbol: an upside-down triangle offset with swooping curves tipped in little circles. I snapped a picture with my phone. I reached to touch it but stopped at the last moment. I was being watched. Or so I felt.
I turned my head and listened.
Nothing. Not even the distant rumble of a passing car.
I caught movement. Something small. Behind me. And I turned around. There was a jagged hole in the opposite wall, about chest height. It didn’t go all the way through. It merely exposed the interior space, which was dark enough that I couldn’t see a thing. A wasp walked along the lip. Another flew out of it lazily and landed on the ceiling. I saw the sweep of its antennae and twitch of its wings as it crawled. I scowled.
There are all different kinds of wasps, of course. Not all of them have wings, but they’re all nasty, vicious creatures—aggressive and armed. Wasps account for four of the six most painful stings in the world, and unlike bees, which sacrifice themselves for the greater hive, wasps don’t die after stinging you. They can go right on doing it. Over and over. Many species of wasp hunt benign, helpful insects. Others are parasites. The females of one species use the barb on their abdomens to inject their eggs into the bodies of caterpillars, which get eaten alive by the babies from the inside out. Another species is effectively a vampire, living entirely off the blood of the creatures they capture, paralyze, and drain.
Two more insects flew lazily out of the gap. They seemed oblivious to my presence. They were busy preparing for winter. That hole, though. Dark. Still. And I had the most uncanny feeling. I remembered my little brother. And a shed near an abandoned church.
As I moved to examine it, I realized the wall at the back of the closet had been knocked away. Another mattress lay against it, covering it from the far side, which meant there was another space. I walked over and pushed it out of the way. Beyond was another room. Long. Tall. Longer and taller than seemed possible for the remainder of the building. The whole of it was dim and decaying. Three crisscrossing orange shafts peeked in at the top. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to block out as much light as possible.
I stepped in. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust. At first I thought the uneven ridges that covered the exposed floor were boards or debris. But they weren’t. They were bones. Hundreds, at least. Animal bones. Not discarded. Not tossed in piles. They’d been organized, like with like, in a large radiating circle, like dominoes—smaller bones at the center, larger ones at the rim. It had to be a good 20 paces across. In a round gap at the very middle of it all sat the skeleton of no creature that ever existed. Bones of different species had been fixed together to make a ghoul of an oddity. It was about the size of a large dog and sat upright, like a bear on the ground. It faced the east wall to my left. In front of it, as if carrying its gaze to the horizon, the bones of the circle were turned relative to the rest and made a kind of ray pattern. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized the remainder of the collection formed a complex labyrinth which opened in front of me.
The odd skeleton’s skull seemed to be that of a deer. Large antlers rose like a crown, like the creature was the King of Death surrounded by an army of loyal supplicants bowing before it. And there was something in its mouth. I took a careful step, planting the tip of my shoes in a gap between bones—a passage of the flat labyrinth. I barely had time to shift my weight before I heard a creak in the hall, as if someone had tread the weakened floor. I turned my head and listened again. But there was nothing. Either nobody was there, or they were doing the same as me—breathing shallow, trying not to make a sound. A minute passed like that. Then two. My legs were getting stiff. My sore knee burned. But I didn’t dare shift my weight. I thought—but couldn’t be sure—that I heard the sound of faint, distant scratching.
Three minutes passed. I didn’t move. Then four.
Were they out there?
I stepped out of the bone circle.
In the near-silence, I heard the sound of a drop hit the floor. A spot of my own blood had fallen from the cut in my hand. In seconds, a wasp landed on it and feasted, its abdomen throbbing. I stepped to the closet wall, breathing as soft and shallow as I could. I listened.
Nothing at first. Then what seemed a child’s laugh.
I stepped out and peered around the door frame, slowly. Just down from the door on the opposite side, three scrawling letters had been scratched unevenly into the brown drywall. The markings were faint and could have been old. I simply might not have noticed. Then again, they might have been fresh.