“Chief,” said Nell, sauntering into my office. “You called for me?” She closed the door and sat without asking, her diamond earrings glinting in the hollow yellow light of my desk lamp.
“I have a confession,” I said. I lit a thick Cuban cigar with a lighter held in my giant, brown flipper. “I’m a walrus.”
Nell’s walnut-brown eyes narrowed. That was all the reaction she allowed.
“You,” said Nell, picking her words carefully. “You’re a… a walrus…”
“Correct,” I said, blowing smoke between my two-and-a-half-foot-long tusks. “I’m sorry to break it to you like this. I tried to think of a better way, but none appeared. I’m sorry… baby.”
Her breath probably quickened and I bet the heart underneath her glorious chest might have even skipped a beat, but I’ll be damned if she showed it. She was a hard dame, Nell. That’s why I’d hired her. That’s why I loved her.
“So, you want me to believe,” said Nell, straightening her back. “That the best goddamn precinct in New York City is run by a four-hundred-pound aquatic mammal?” She shook her head. “Nuh uh… I’m not buying it.”
She was so beautiful like that — angry, confused — it nearly broke my enormous heart. “Nell I—“ I said. She cut me off with a flat palm in front of her. Her hard façade was cracking. Below us, sirens from the city street wailed up at the closed window. Nell sat up, shaking her head.
“You’re a walrus,” she said. “You think I’d fall asleep every single night thinking of a walrus? You think I’d write out drafts and drafts of the words I’d use to break it off with my fiancé for a walrus? You think I would have felt my stomach do a somersault when I heard that I was wanted in the office of a walrus?!”
She got up and stormed for the door, wiping quickly at her eyes. I felt the need to say something, but what could I say, propped as I was with both flippers on my mahogany desk? I thought of something.
“Nell,” I said. “Just listen.” She stopped, didn’t turn. Standing there, her black hair framed against the smoked glass of my door, she looked like a silhouette of a dream. God, the professional way she dressed, trying to hide curves that refused to be hidden; I’d have swam through arctic waters just to be with her. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’ve gone crazy. But no matter what I am and what you believe: I still want only you...”
It was pretty good for off the cuff, I must say. Nell turned. Her eyes shimmered red; she wanted to let me keep talking. She wanted us to work out no matter what. I wanted that too.
“Please, Nell,” I said.
She started to say something herself but Detective Alvarez burst in the door without knocking. Nell casually hurried to the window.
Alvarez’ eyes were bloodshot and his red hair askew. The thin, red mustache that lined his upper lip like mascara quivered with sweat. “Chief!” said Alvarez, panting. “Chief we have a triple homicide out in Jersey City and… hello Nell."
Alvarez was Nell’s fiancé.
“Hi,” Nell said, turning from the window, the picture of normalcy.
“If you’re telling me about a homicide in Jersey City,” I said. “That means it’s him again, right?”
“Party kids. Spring break from Oklahoma,” said Alvarez. “All eighteen years old. Two males and a female. Yeah Chief, we think it’s him.”
“Goddamn it,” I said, slipping my government-issue suit jacket over wherever a walrus’ shoulders are. “Nell, we’ll finish this conversation later.” Nell nodded, a true professional.
I flopped out of the squad car onto the frigid pavement. Red and blue lights painted the lone building abutting the lot. Eight motionless officers leaned against their squad cars, sipping at lukewarm coffee in the weed-strewn lot. We were out in the boonies of Jersey City, no place for three revelers to end up. What a shame.
“Same arrangement,” said Detective Alvarez, getting out of the passenger’s side. I nodded. The kids’ bodies were arranged on the ground, two prone, one bent at the torso. The dead skin of their pale, skinny bodies glowed opalescent in the full moonlight. Their bodies formed a W shape on the ground. Or was it an M? We’d seen this two times before and it was starting to get on my nerves.
I hunkered down to look at them. These murders were all alike, three young, innocent kids — two males, one female — taken from their natural habitat in the packed jungle of bars that made up the meatpacking district, brought to a foreign place, poison froth leaking from their mouths. Who was this maniac? What was he — or she — trying to prove?
“Chief!” said Alvarez. “Look.”
I humped next to Alvarez; he had the girl’s skirt lifted. “He’s taunting us,” he said, pointing to words etched over the faint blue veins of the girl’s pail thigh. This was new. He’d never sent us a message.
The handwriting was hurried, the blood still not fully congealed. It read, “Monkey see. Monkey do.”
I was inclined to agree with Alvarez — that this was just another taunt, another piece of the puzzle — but it didn’t sit right. I scanned the scene again, two guys and one girl. Far away from home. I gazed up at the lone abandoned building looming behind us. Its façade was grim, chipped brown concrete framing rows upon rows of windows. So many windows. He’d underlined see. He sees. He could see us.
“He’s still here,” I said, rearing up on my hind fins. “He’s still here! Form a perimeter!”
The scene sprung into action. Coffee cups rattled to the ground and service pistols were cocked. Policemen bristled from behind the parked cruisers like some epileptic phalanx. I caught my breath behind my vehicle — walruses aren’t meant to hustle. Alvarez, seated next to me, his pistol up in front of his flushed, red face, gave me a look that said I was either nuts or a genius.
“What the hell is going on, Chief?” he asked. I twitched my tusks towards the abandoned building. It stood not fifty feet from us, five stories of windows, some broken, some yellowing to opacity, lining its five dilapidated floors.
“He’s in that building,” I said. “Let’s go catch this maniac.”
The front door opened with a grating shriek, as if its hinges hadn’t been moved since the twenties — they probably hadn’t. Behind us, police officers spread out in a perimeter in case our killer tried to make a slick escape. I shuffled in first, a flashlight raised in my flipper; Alvarez followed close behind. I could hear his pistol rattle in his shaking hands.
Around us oily dust was pushed up in piles next to skeletons of machines. It was just another manufacturing plant, from back when Jersey had jobs for the middle class. My thick brown hide rasped against the aged concrete. Chipping paint and the odd spray of graffiti littered the walls and girders that somehow held this hollow carcass up.
“Chief,” whispered Alvarez, shaking. He pointed to footsteps in the grime. They were fresh, leading deep into the back. I nodded and we trudged deeper.
My flashlight created more darkness than it pierced, shadow darted behind shadow. Crack heads and squatters had taken everything of use; only forgotten debris remained. My thick torso’s scrape echoed against the concrete walls. We followed the footsteps back and back until they came to a door. Painted on its cracking wooden face, in what used to be beautiful hand-written calligraphy, was the word “Foreman”. I motioned to Alvarez and he raised his pistol, releasing the safety. We got into position beside the door and I started counting. Even my whisper echoed.
“3… 2… 1…” I threw my girth against the door, splintering it like Styrofoam. I bellowed for the killer not to move. First, there was silence. Then a bang echoed through the darkness and a blunt stick knocked the flashlight and gun out of my flippers. Both went clattering uselessly toward the far wall.
“Alvarez!” I yelled. “Get your light on!” But there was only silence again. The smell of the place inundated me, engine oil mixed with dirt and mold, a forgotten smell. But there was something else… something acrid to it that I just couldn’t place. Maybe it was my own fear. I tried to slide toward a corner, I had no idea where this maniac might be or what he’d done to Alvarez.
As I flopped helplessly, I heard a chuckle.
“Chief,” it said. It was a deep voice, more gravel than I was used to hearing in it. But it was a voice I knew.
Alvarez flicked a light on his face; it was pinched up, rage or madness or some admixture of both boiled on the surface. He was across the room, sitting with his feet up on a desk. “I know you’re a walrus.”
What? How could he know? I’d never told him. Alvarez shined the flashlight in my eyes.
“I’m a what?” I said, squinting against the glare.
“You think I didn’t notice?” He said, his voice a sickly growl. “All those pounds of whole fish sent to your office? The way you never talk about family, where you came from. Oh I picked up more than you think.”
Alvarez turned the light’s beam back on his face. “I know about you and Nell. I know the way you two skulk around like your feelings aren’t on your sleeves! But you don’t know Nell like I do. And that’s why you’re here. That’s why I wanted to show you this…”
Alvarez flicked a switch and electronic buzzing filled the room. Halogen lights jittered on, dazzling my eyes. Slowly, the images coalesced. The walls were covered in pictures. That had been the acrid smell. Pictures, so many, but of whom I couldn’t tell.
“Look,” said Alvarez, cocking a silenced pistol and leveling it at my brown dome. “Look at them!” I raised my flippers and complied. Sidling to the wall I focused on the one closest to me. It was of Nell, younger than I’d ever seen her, looking happy, eating a banana. The next photo showed Nell prone in a cage, naked, a dart sticking out of her neck. The next she was sitting in a tree, people were watching her through bars. And more and more: people in lab coats teaching Nell sign language, Nell picking mites out of someone's hair. There was something connecting all these, some pattern or reason in all these images… I just couldn’t figure it out.
“What are you trying to show me?” I asked. Alvarez cackled, his mania growing by the moment. “You know, Chief. I know you know.”
I didn’t know. Did I? Hadn’t I suspected this since the moment I laid eyes on her? Hadn’t I felt it in the way she walked with her knuckles lightly grazing the floor? Hadn’t I noticed her swinging from the pipes of my apartment when she was happy? A tear rolled down my giant wrinkly cheek. “Nell is a chimpanzee.”
“Yes!” shrieked Alvarez, spreading his arms wide. “And how does that make you feel?” Alvarez leapt onto the desk, kicking a stack of dusty paper to the floor. I was confused. Nell, is a monkey? It blindsided me, sent me reeling. I slumped into a corner. “How does it feel to have something hid from you?! Still love her? Can a walrus love an ape?!”
“Nell is my love,” said Alvarez. “My love. You can’t even begin to know what that means. You love Nell the person. You could never love Nell the stinking simian!”
I straightened my back, shook my girth. What was I thinking? What did that change? Nothing!
“Of course I still love her,” I said, puffing my chest out to its full barrel splendor. Alvarez stepped down from the desk and raised his gun. I began to ebb towards him. “Did you kill those girls? What the hell is wrong with you?”
Alvarez’ gun shook slightly. “You think I could get the chief of New York City’s most honored precinct out to just any old crime? You think I could get such a figure — such a walrus! — to join me into any old dilapidated building? You think I didn’t know that there was only one way I could break you and Nell up and still get away with it?”
Alvarez shot me, the bullet hit just below the sternum, taking some meat on its way out my back. I groaned, stopped.
“Do you think they’ll find you?” Alvarez pulled out a remote with a red switch on top. “I mean… five stories of brittle steel and chipped concrete. That’s a lot of shrapnel.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was focusing on the next breath. It felt like an elephant seal was sitting on my chest.
Alvarez kicked open a back door, letting in the sound of sawing crickets. The room hovered at the very extremities of focus. I had to get him, but I didn’t know where he was. My body felt heavier than it already was.
“Well,” Alvarez said from somewhere in the onrushing blackness. “Got to get back to Nell.”
I heard a click and then the shut of the door. I didn’t even have time to bellow for help before a dull thud rumbled out from deep in the factory. A large pillow of shrieking warmth wrapped itself around me, lifting my body from the ground. Everything seemed to suck inward as the air was filled with the unthinkable wrenching shriek of falling steel.
I woke up to blinding light and the soporific beep of a heart monitor. Phosphorescent light stabbed my pupils, so I squinted until it only hurt a lot. I tried to roll over and stopped immediately as pain tore through my chest.
Next to me on a little tray was a piece of paper, folded in fourths. I gingerly moved a flipper, the same pain growling with every inch. I flipped the note open. It read:
I know you know. Alvarez disappeared. I can’t see you, not anymore.
I lay in the bed listening to machines tell me I was alive. I didn’t believe them. I’d get Alvarez for this, all of it. I’d make Nell understand it didn’t matter what she was. I’d fix everything if I could only move.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*bows at the foot of a bagel altar*
Light on the Dough
$1/2 — For the quality of the eats, the money is well worth it. Bagels themselves aren’t pricy; the baked goods by the counter can run a bit more — in the $4.00 – 6.00 range. Scratch is filled with fluffy pastries that won’t leave your wallet light.
Goods on Display
Bagels are fresh and copious. A horn-of-plenty’s worth of savory and sweet delights await you by the front counter. Fresh cream cheese awaits in the fridges. It’s a walk-in-and-get-what-you-need sort of place with a nice, homey ambiance for good measure.
Chipper, fulfilled-looking people manned the cash register. Working at a place that’s producing a product of very obvious quality certainly pervades the workspace with a feeling of wellbeing.
EAT OR SKIP:
If you hadn’t already guessed, Scratch has my number. The quality and care they put into their baked goods is abundantly apparent first in the layout of the shop — baked goods cover nearly every flat surface — and second, upon biting into one of their heavenly bagels. A Scratch bagel’s crisp crust enwraps a matrix of fluffy inner-bagel-flesh that, when lathered with their insanely tasty, made-from-scratch cream cheese, is a piece of gustatory splendor. Seriously, I’ve been back already this week. I will not, however, give Scratch the nod over my all-time favorite bagel spot, Brookside Bagels, but it is a close — and delicious — second. Go there. Eat bagels. Love life.
Scratch Baking Co.