Author's Notes: Not entirely sure how it happened. I sat down to write a case file and suddenly it was set in 1925 in a speakeasy. You must pretend you're watching a 1930s era black and white film while you read it otherwise it might seem stupidly melodramatic at times. (I'm sorry for that too; I've been drowning my sorrows in period dramas and old movies. But just imagine Beckett is a plucky Claudette Colbert and Castle is some weird hybrid between Clark Gable and the fall-down-drunkest/silliest Jimmy Stewart's character got in The Philadelphia Story with a bit of the Lost Generation/Hemmingway thrown in there (so pretty much Castle's character in the show) and you should be right.)
Written for casestory's big bang challenge at livejournal.
I love him, I love him, ran the patter of her lips
and he knew the doors that opened
Into doors and more doors, no end of doors.
- Carl Sandburg, 1922.
New York City. January, 1919.
It was six months after he had been sent home from France with a few extra pieces of a German shell in him as souvenirs. The injuries were painful and deforming; the left side of his face had suffered severe burns which were only beginning to properly scar and his right leg was decorated with a rough, foot-long scar that ran from his ankle to his calf. It had teeth where the surgeons had sewn him back together. He remembered sitting in the hospital for weeks, picking at the stitches and rubbing at the skin inside his cast with a ruler. The leg had healed well enough, though it ached on the coldest mornings. That wasn't why he hadn't returned to the front. After The Incident, his direct supervising officer had raised concerns with his doctors and they had agreed. The psychological stress of the war was blamed, but if anything he thrived in the bloodbath. It whittled away at some men, hollowed them from the inside out, but he was made amongst the chaos and the gunfire.
It had been torture lying in hospital cot for weeks on end while his wounds healed and after the hospital in France was a short stay in England. There he learned the only form of pain relief he found effective, the opium pipe. It numbed the body and the mind, muting the sometimes overwhelming surge of noise within his head. It was like the killing in the war had been, but quieter, more peaceful. He considered more than once taking that great passive slip into oblivion. You saw it occasionally, an addict that had gone too far at the less reputable establishments, surrounded by other addicts too strung out to care. But no, he imagined himself greater than that.
He had returned to the United States but did not go home. There was something about the monotony of the farming town where he grew up that seemed suffocating, so he set up residence in a series of flophouses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and forged a letter to his mother informing her of his death at the front. It looked official enough and he imagined the records would contain numerous mistakes. The trenches had at times been filled with bodies. They hadn't had much time to identify them under the crack of machine gun fire.
He had effectively disappeared. Even he didn't recognise himself in mirrors since the fire damaged his face. He let his hair grow out until he could comb it over some of the damage but there was no hiding the scarring. Over time, uneven spidery tissue grew to replace the wound. Finally, one night he burnt the tips of his fingers in the fireplace until his finger prints were lost. As scar tissue replaced the characteristic loops and whirls that had identified him, his immersion into the underbelly was complete.
He mostly pick-pocketed what he needed to survive, but soon was exceeding his monthly budget with the cost of the pipe. Without drugs, his head became unbearably loud. It was like living with constant shouting in your ear. He never quite knew where the imagined sound ended and reality began. That fog increased in pitch and built to a tension point until he felt full to bursting.
Two months after arriving in New York, he was in an alley behind a cathouse when it overcame him. A prostitute was smoking and the smell offended him. Before he could piece together the exact sequence of events he had his hand around her throat, choking her screams. His army knife was still tucked into his boot and the world went quiet. He sobbed in relief as he plunged the knife through her skirts and into her belly and sat in the alley cradling her body, letting the warm flow of blood soothe him.
After that catharsis he was reborn.
He had been in dire need of a profession and had stumbled upon a vocation he had forgotten. Slaughtering Germans had been one thing; enjoying that had even been encouraged by the army. This was different. This was an intoxicating power that only came with a fading pulse, the dilated fixed pupils staring at him, the last, hard won gurgle of air escaping the lungs of the dying. It wasn't enough to shoot, to kill from a distance; he had to see death up close to feel alive. So he sold his talents, honed after two years in Europe, to the highest bidder.
It was a lucrative business. It made sense. It kept him sane.
His leg was bothering him. He had been following a distinguished-looking woman since she left her rowhouse that morning and it was bitterly cold, the combination of which exacerbated his injury. He had hoped the job would be quick so he could make his way to Chinatown for some relief, but an opportunity had yet to present itself. He began to favour his left side.
A few blocks ahead he spotted his mark duck into a back street, likely taking a short cut home and he wandered up the nearest alley to meet her. The shadows of the buildings were long in the sinking afternoon sun. His breath rose in puffs of white. His back was against the brick wall behind him as he counted her steps.
One. Two. Three. Four.
He smiled as he turned into the alley as she approached. It would have looked to all observers to be an innocent run in, but his fingers were clasped around the knife in the front pocket of his coat. A cursory glance up and down the street told him they were alone. He put his hand over her mouth from behind, pressing the meat of a few fingers between her teeth to silence her. She bit down, hard, but he couldn't feel much in his fingers since the burns had healed.
He pulled her body against his, countering the motion with a thrust of his blade. The knife slipped easily through her lower back and met its mark, a kidney. He held her against his body until she went lax. It was an intimate position. His nose was buried in her hair. It smelled faintly of cherries. Everything within him stilled and his focussed honed on the two heartbeats he could feel. Two fingers were jammed into her neck, sensing the rapid fade of her carotid pulse. Within his own chest, adrenalin raced through his veins to his heart, causing the muscle to contract and relax with greater urgency. It echoed in his ears. The world was soundless, bearable.
When he was sure she was dead, he spun her around in a macabre dance, letting the blade rip through the front of her dress a few times at random before setting her down against the wall behind her. He wiped the knife with her skirt, replaced it inside the hidden pocket at his front and buttoned his coat to hide the bloodstains.
His business done, he shoved his red hands deep in his pockets and hurriedly made the walk home.