Scenes from a Scary Novel

from NEW POP LIT

Blood splattered across a glass window in a gray city.

*******

He was an inept cop.

Nearing retirement, he was 55 years of age but could’ve passed for 70. White-haired and weather-beaten. Hawk-eyed, with a gunfighter’s gray moustache and a perpetual forward lean, of several degrees, hands out from his body as if saying, “Try me.” As a child he’d watched too many Clint Eastwood cowboy movies.

The city’s new super-trained gung-ho young officers wondered why he’d been hired—likely someone’s nephew or cousin—holdover from a less-regulated time. A legacy of chaos and corruption in town, even in the police department—maybe especially in the police department—not commensurate with the clean efficiency of the gleaming new postmodern city.

The cop’s superiors put him in the business district, on the nightshift, near a downtown shopping mall surrounded by skyscrapers. They figured, “He’s harmless,” “He’s a nice guy!” and laughed as they said it. The only people who lived in the area were monied, they owned condos placed high in well-secured towers. High paid security everyplace. If the inept cop knew anything, he knew how to behave around rich people. Around those above him, the glittering class, to whom he looked and behaved like an obedient dog. The intelligence gap between they and him was about the same.

The cop blinked and paused at what he couldn’t understand.

He’d write long reports when they couldn’t find one of their dogs, “Foo Foo,” or such, kept as decorations for their living room, the size of kittens. He cared, it was important, and this made them happy.

He only wanted his chance. Decades on the police force and he still awaited his chance! Opportunity to show his ability. To serve these people and the city. To prove, as he’d never proved, that he had what it takes.

So he walked to and fro, with fast steps, forever alert. Hawk-eyed. Hands ready. Waiting.

The few 24-hour businesses in the district knew him assiduously. A copy shop. A pharmacy. A diner. The cop made his appearances like clockwork, writing reports about every story they told him. A customer left without paying! The lengthy, humongously-detailed reports went to his superiors, who read them aloud and laughed at them, uproariously, before dropping them into the “round file.” Younger officers, more thoroughly trained, of socially-conscious mentality, saw the reports as an unnecessary and environmentally-unfriendly waste of paper.

One night—3:05 a.m. to be precise—bar crowd in for the night, the diligent cop made his rounds. Trying doors to ensure they were locked. Glancing at a space between buildings. Watching for untoward movement or shadows. The district around him gleamed spotless. An island of perfection. Ahead, neon lights of the diner. He’d have coffee.

The cop stopped. Had he heard a rustle of clothing in the space? It was now a few paces behind him. Whoever was there couldn’t see him. If someone was there. He listened. Movement. Breathing. The sudden rustle of clothes.

From his all-purpose police belt the cop detached his flashlight. He kept it off but moved carefully back toward the space.

He sensed a couple standing against the wall. Twenty-or-so feet from the mouth of the alley. Their silhouettes outlined from stray downtown light. Well-dressed. Woman’s fur coat and man’s overcoat. The good people. A couple making out? He could go on his way. He could pretend he didn’t see them—but surely such people knew better. This was his turf. He couldn’t lose the respect residents held for him. He’d smile and give the couple a warning.

As he switched on his light and raised it, he saw the woman’s fur coat open, she was naked beneath. White flesh. Round breasts. The cop gaped voyeuristically, seeing then in an instant the tall man behind her, knife out—at her throat—slicing across. The woman’s throat slashed as easy as paper, red blood flowing down in the lamp’s white light like in a too-violent movie. The cop dropped his flashlight and called “Halt!”; he would stop this, would save the day, his hand went for the draw. The cop struggled to pull his 9mm service weapon from its holster as the mad killer closed the space between them in three bounds and rammed the large knife into the cop’s chest. Through the cop’s heart.

The surprised cop couldn’t believe it.

Blood shot out from him like an out-of-control water fountain.

*******

“A CITY IN TERROR!”

So screamed the headline on the homepage for the city’s sole remaining newspaper. Print version to follow.

Four women dead in a matter of weeks, each one slashed horribly. Added to that, a heroic cop who’d stumbled onto a murder scene.

Brent Neufeld, young liberal mayor, took the podium at a hastily called press conference, twelve hours after the killing. In a line behind him stood the police chief; Brent’s wife Elizabeth; and Alan Lam, the mayor’s chief of staff. They looked haggard. They knew the questioning wouldn’t be pretty.

“I was awakened a little after four this morning with news of the double homicide,” the mayor said in a somber, somewhat high-pitched voice.

He seemed unsteady. His usual confidence, the mayor’s trademark assurance, had been ruffled. Brent Neufeld had a distinct program and liked everything in place. He knew unpredictabilities happened.

“I made it to the crime scene as fast as I was able. He’d been about to say, “As fast as my driver could take me.”

The mayor paused, peering out at the television cameras and the equally glassy faces. The moment felt surreal.

“Chief Dohl met me there. His experts had already closed off the scene. Any evidence to find, they’ll find.”

Mayor Neufeld looked down at a paper in his hand, thrust into it by Alan Lam. Two names. The victims. The mayor read aloud the two names.

In the front row sat the newspaper’s chief investigative reporter, Robin Arruda. Twenty-nine years old, dark-brown-hair and eyes, reddish-beige complexion, of medium height. As she waited for the opportunity to ask questions, her mind wandered. She liked the mayor– everybody liked the mayor– but what he engaged in now was just so much political blather:

“You have the right to be protected. The right to a safe and clean environment. Freedom from sickness, inconvenience, inequity. This includes the freedom to be safe. The city exists to help you be safe.”

With her reporter’s mind, Robin Arruda assessed the personalities in front of her.

Mayor Brent Neufeld, even at a time like this, carried an incandescent glow. Critics called him a narcissist. If he was, he had much to be narcissistic about. Brent Neufeld was unconventionally handsome, with a large mouth, large brown eyes and a wide smile. His carefully groomed brown hair carefully brushed his shirt collar. He was a man women gazed at. The figure who caused notice when he stepped into a room. When young, the child to whom other children gravitated.

His life had been an unbroken path toward success. Young activist; professor; college administrator; university president. Then, elected mayor at barely forty years of age. He never seemed to take any of it for granted. If anything, Brent Neufeld had been propelled up the ladder by others, simply because they liked him, and saw his potential.

Chief John Dohl was something like him yet at the same time, nothing like him. Dohl was an inch or two taller than the mayor; a tad more muscular. He maintained a crew cut hairstyle, was rugged, rumpled and klutzy, as if he’d been unpacked from a box and didn’t yet know how to behave outside it. To compensate, his schedule was ordered and precise. John Dohl was a time freak, always aware of the time. If you had an appointment with him, he expected you to be exactly on time. He’d be there ahead of you, waiting for you, his expression saying, “You’re wasting my time.”

“I can do amazing things in two or three minutes,” Robin had heard him remark.

The mayor’s chief-of-staff Alan Lam was an Asian-American man a couple years younger than Robin herself. That Brent Neufeld made Lam his right-hand man was a signal to the community that his administration was inclusive and forward-looking, with purposeful appeal to millennials– the educated young professionals Mayor Neufeld wanted moving to this town. Of this demographic, Alan Lam was an exemplar.

Moderately tall, fine-boned, lean but noticeably fit, with a spotlessly clean face and square jaw, Alan Lam could’ve been stamped out by a factory. He fit the look of a “We Are the Future” image precisely, as did his attitudes. Even more than Brent Neufeld, Alan carried the belief that ideas can change the world. Not even ideas. On every issue the administrative team held not ideas or opinions but beliefs. Their progressive premises became beliefs carved into stone. Embedded in metal.

No, not ideas. Intellect. Alan Lam enjoyed the trappings of being an intellectual. Strategy sessions. Studies. Commissions. Jargon. Networking and name-dropping. Knowing the right people from the right colleges. His dislike of Chief Dohl was because he didn’t know him. Dohl’s credentials weren’t good enough– not good enough anyway to be a key player in Brent Neufeld’s world. Alan Lam policed that world.

Next to Alan stood the most formidable individual of the lot, Elizabeth Neufeld. She stood with arms crossed as if she owned the room– as if her husband was mayor of the city because she allowed it. Thirty-five years of age, she was tall and golden-haired, with wide shoulders and small breasts. From her shoulders down, her modest-but-elegant beige outfit showed her body’s sleek, tapering lines, down to tasteful shoes on fairly small feet. Her gold jewelry was modest but expensive.

Elizabeth Neufeld was a Van Buskler. Her grandfather had been a leading industrialist. Her uncle, Richard Van Buskler, remained an influential civic leader, working with Mayor Neufeld on avenues of non-profit funding for new city projects. More bluntly, he gave Brent entry into the area’s money.

Elizabeth’s father, deceased, had been mayor of the city for over two decades. A powerful yet genial man. Brent Neufeld carried the burden of living up to that record; that myth.

In personality the mayor’s wife had craftiness more than intelligence. Her impassive eyes studied the world like those of a poker player. When she spoke– not a lot– her voice and questions were direct, probing for weakness. She was severely well-educated, yet gave the sense of a wild cat imprisoned by its own position and propriety.

For twenty years Elizabeth Van Buskler Neufeld had been the city’s top beauty. In this modest city, she’d been, perhaps still was, its greatest prize.

*******

After the press conference, Mayor Neufeld had a conversation with Alan Lam in a side room.

“I’ve rescheduled your meeting with Bob Stumpf of the small business group until tomorrow. About the other meeting–”

“Yes. The citizen group. ‘Citizens Against Relocation.'”

“‘Citizens United Against Urban Removal,'” Alan said.

“It’s not removal!” Brent Neufeld said, exasperated. “What’s wrong with those people? We want to move them from their shitty diseased neighborhoods for their own frickin’ good. Can’t they see that?”

“Well, we need to talk about that.”

Alan Lam gave Brent his serious mien. Not so many years ago Alan had been a student of Neufeld’s. Alan had facial expressions announcing when he had more to say– and that Brent wouldn’t like it.

“Talk,” the mayor insisted.

“I have suspicions there is no group, per se. Just one elderly lady. Her group is a figment of her imagination.”

“But we’ve had phone calls from them. There’ve been letters and emails from them to media.”

“Phone calls and letters from her.”

“Well, let’s meet her and see.”

“I don’t want you to meet her.”

“Why not?”

“She looks like Rosa Parks, for one thing. A little old black lady. I know you. You’ll feel sorry for her and listen to her ideas and delay the relocation, when we can’t delay it, we’re on a strict timeline.”

“She’s a citizen, Alan. I can’t not meet with her. She has rights. At least the appearance of rights. Tell her I’ll meet her, just not now. Reschedule her for a later date. Too much is happening. With these murders, too much IS happening.”

Alan Lam took some offense at the notion that he wasn’t interested in the public’s rights– when he believed he was personally more concerned with them than Mayor Neufeld himself. The mayor didn’t seem to realize that Alan subsumed his own opinions in service of the cause. In service of the mayor– Brent Neufeld.

The conversation between the two men took place at fast speed, within a brief time frame. Both looked harried. Brent paused for a moment– a few seconds– and closed his eyes. He put his fingers against his forehead.

“Headaches,” he said. “When I try to work too fast I get headaches. Too, too much is happening.”

“We also need to talk about Chief Dohl. We need to have a serious conversation about the chief.”

“I don’t want to talk about the chief!” Brent exploded, non-violently.

*******

The killer replayed in his mind the murder of the policeman. The fool deserved it for interrupting his kick. For all that, it’d been too easy. The stupid cop. Slow-thinking slow-moving cop!

The man sat inside a secluded den in the basement of an old apartment building marked for removal. His hiding place. In a part of town which had become no man’s land. Utilities soon to be cut off, but not yet. The room gave off a red glow from red lightbulbs, matching his mood.

He clicked on his large screen television and watched a replay of the press conference. As minutes went by of the staged media show, he began laughing aloud at the illusion of control given by the array of upstanding individuals. The benevolent mayor. His trophy wife. The obedient aide and brainy, authoritative police chief. He was but a raging collection of chemicals and hate, but knew he could out-fake the lot of them.

Would they catch him?

There remained enough crevasses in the city to slip into and out of. Like a wild animal, a hunted beast, he could move and live and thrive in the crevasses.

*******

Staffers in the mayor’s office were criticizing the handling of the press conference when they noticed Alan Lam in the room. The mayor’s wife stood there as well, had been listening to the talk. Alan didn’t seem happy with what he’d heard. He turned and left the room, not making eye contact.

“Is he upset about something?” Elizabeth Neufeld asked her top assistant– a young woman with an ever-smirky red-lipsticked mouth.

“So– don’t know. When is Alan not upset or sensitive about something?”

Elizabeth didn’t worry about it– Alan was the mayor’s guy, not hers. They’d meshed their staffs together imperfectly when Brent took office.

In truth, power in the administration rested in her hands. Her people were pros inherited from her father. Brent’s, green idealists. Easily frustrated fanatic amateurs not fully understanding how the game was played. This was a one-party city, and Elizabeth Van Buskler Neufeld controlled the party. Specifically, the machine, represented here by several of her father’s long-time associates.

Elizabeth openly surveyed the room with her powerful dark-blue eyes. Her golden hair was pulled back from a strong forehead on a round face anchored by strong eyebrows. The face was always impeccably made up, white and impassive– some might say plastic– like the face of a geisha. She was imperious. Dominating and indomitable, carrying an aristocratic facade, with the hint of a cruel savage beneath.

The product of breeding and manners, and wealth, from a girl she’d carried an inherent scorn for men not her father. She’d been scheduled to marry the WASP ideal. “Clay.” Brent Neufeld’s brains and ambition captured her instead.

Her eyes studied Brent’s idealistic millennials. How would they react to a real crisis, she wondered? A typical one of them was Robert Vix, tall, red-haired and thin. In his confidence and health he was similar to Chief Dohl’s new police officers, but more casually dressed and fashionably unshaven. More significant, his every gesture and expression communicated the message: “I Care.”

The mayor’s administrative staff had doubled since he took office– ideological soldiers eager to remake the city according to their own standards. They’d been recruited from every avenue.

Robert Vix for instance had been part of an investigative blog with nonprofit status– funded by liberal donors. The blog’s purpose was to uncover corruption in the city’s real estate world. They exposed negligent slumlords.

Now Robert directed for the city a project acquiring, by foreclosure and eminent domain, much of the city’s dilapidated housing stock. Much of it would be torn down, leaving swaths of vacant land which could be used for large development projects– or simply closed off.

Other homes, in closer proximity to downtown, were being rehabbed with state grant money, then auctioned. Robert and his girlfriend lived in one of the properties now. It was a way for Robert to demonstrate to himself his commitment to this town. (He’d grown up in a distant suburb.)

Elizabeth Neufeld stood by Robert’s desk and scrutinized him. He wasn’t all that much younger than herself, but struck her as a soft puppy.

“How’s the work?” she asked. “How’s it going?”

“Good. Good!” he said, partly wary of her and partly in awe of her.

Elizabeth knew the developers doing the rehabbing– those to whom the housing stock had been turned over. Those making the profits. Many of the same people, friends of hers, would develop the city’s empty stretches of vacant land– when more state-or-federal grants came through. For Elizabeth and her friends, and the city, it was a win-win situation.

She studied Robert’s face to make sure he was fully on board with the way things would be done. Elizabeth hadn’t vetted Brent’s choices. She was doing that now.

“Are you happy, Robert? Are you fulfilled?”

It was a question Robert Vix hadn’t thought about. He’d been too busy carrying out his tasks the past several months.

He thought of Mayor Neufeld’s vision of the New City, of which he played a small part in creating.

“Yes. Very,” Robert answered.

*******

Alan Lam had stepped into the room to hear people badmouthing him. As it was his job to implement the mayor’s policy, it’d be expected that he’d take any criticism from staffers– but he wasn’t used to it and didn’t like it. To him it was evidence of backbiting and backstabbing throughout Brent Neufeld’s “perfect” administration. What hurt most of all was that the mayor’s wife overheard the words– if not been in on them.

He left immediately, alienated from all humanity. He’d felt this way before– a current of profound angst. Alone in the universe, with no one to trust.

Alan knew nobody liked him, really. He wasn’t a gregarious person– yet he wanted to be liked.

As before when he felt this way, Alan Lam desired only to hurry to the closest friendly bar, and there lose himself in the lights, laughter and sense-obliterating drinks, until he could no longer think about anything.

*******

Chief Dohl gave Robin Arruda a tour of the police department’s new Command Center. Cylindrical, constructed of thick concrete blocks supporting layers of glass, it looked like a squat fort. A structure of unsparing expense. As they entered, the chief opening a large sliding door with the wave of a plastic card, Robin could small the fresh paint.

The inside walls were blanketed in video screens. Hundreds of screens. As yet not all of them were in operation.

“When this is fully up and running, Ms. Arruda, virtually the entire city will be covered by our cameras. The inhabitable parts anyway.”

“Big Brother,” Robin remarked. “But you’ve missed the slasher.”

“So far, Ms. Arruda. So far. We’ll get him eventually. Ironically, downtown is the most intensively covered district in the city. We barely missed him. Watch this.”

He moved his fingers over a touch screen on a console, then pointed to a monitor on the wall directly in front of them.

The dark screen sprung to life. A series of colors. Blue buildings. A lighted street.

“Watch,” he said to her. “See?”

The chief fast-forwarded the recording, then reversed it and replayed it. He did this several times. Her eyes squinted.

“See?” he asked again. “The figure walking down the street. The officer. ‘Tough Cop on the Beat,’ as your newspaper eulogized.”

The camera zoomed in at Dohl’s touch. Robin saw the funny duck walk of the slain officer. He paused, having passed the mouth of an alley. Then, after as much as ten seconds– a digital clock on the screen clicked off the time– the officer took his flashlight from his belt, his holstered firearm visible. The officer entered the alley.

“The killer and the other victim were already there, standing in the shadows. The killer with his knife to the woman’s throat.”

“Do you have them on your recording?”

“Unfortunately not. They entered the alley from a service exit to the building. The first structure.”

He pointed.

“The victim lived on the 21st floor. The killer forced her onto a service elevator without being seen. It was three a.m. He was familiar with the building’s layout, exits and the like. That itself is a clue. We’re scrutinizing each resident; every person who works in the structure. Methodically.”

“No doubt,” Robin said. “Maybe he just hung around the place and familiarized himself with it.”

“Maybe. But we eliminate all possibilities, Ms. Arruda. What’s the quote? Eliminate the impossible to get to the improbable.”

Robin observed the dozens of personnel diligently at their desks, studying rows of screens. A small army eliminating possibilities.

“I can’t help remarking, Chief, that you’re using this crisis to increase your department’s turf and resources.”

He grinned involuntarily while looking at the screens, as if making a mental note that she’d scored a point.

“Call me John,” he said.

He’d told her when she arrived, when he met her in the parking lot, that he was restless to win the game he was in. Chief Dohl studied the screens now, reluctant to pull himself away from them. His hand touched buttons. One of the screens showed the workers in this room. Dohl zoomed in on the image, moving it from desk to desk to make sure his people were working and alert.

*******

After the tour, Robin was treated by Chief Dohl to lunch at a nearby restaurant. The kind of noisy, middlebrow place with large windows and a gazillion items on the menu. The place was busy. They sat at a small table toward the middle of the floor– booths reserved for four people or more. The frazzled dark-skinned waitress didn’t recognize the police chief– or didn’t care who he was.

John Dohl studied the menu intensively, as if it were an important document, before he settled on a hamburger and fries. Robin ordered a Caesar’s salad.

“The days of police thuggery are an item of the past, Ms. Arruda,” the chief said while clutching in his large hand a tall glass filled with cola and ice. “Our new officers follow total professionalism. Technology equals professionalism.”

“Total technology is total professionalism?” Robin asked, touching her own glass.

“Yes.”

“The mayor believes that?”

“Absolutely!” Dohl said emphatically. “It’s why I was hired. He believes in technology and progress more than I do, Ms. Arruda, truth be told. That it can solve all the world’s problems. You said I was expanding the department’s tools and resources. Don’t kid yourself. That’s what Brent Neufeld wants. I’m one of the tools. Sometimes we have to read his mind to determine what he wants– but he believes in all of it. Data mining. Analytics. That with the proper tools and methods, all the world’s problems can be solved. In this outlook, humans are numbers on a spreadsheet. The world reduced to a computer screen. Yet my men in the field know how false those assumptions are.”

Their food arrived. Chief Dohl dug hungrily into his hamburger.

“It sounds to me, Chief, like you’re looking for excuses for not having caught the slasher.”

“Not really, Ms. Arruda. Can I call you Robin? You can call me John. I’m just saying that there are natural limits to what any tools and any men– and women– can accomplish in this chaotic world. A world filled with crazy people. That’s where I part ways with our esteemed mayor. Anyone out in the actual world has to part ways at times with him. Nature, Ms. Arruda. Nature!”

“Your new professionalized police officers aren’t up to it?”

“Why do the police exist? Who are they? They’re idealistic middle-class men and women paid to protect property and to protect you, the gentry. The good people. The people of sterling education, privilege, and money. You may not know the theme of my academic paper, Robin. Can I call you Robin? Batman and Robin– you must get that a lot.”

He stuffed his face with the hamburger as if he’d never had a meal, and devoured the plate of fries, while Robin Arruda picked at her salad.

“Your theme?”

“Order or chaos. That’s the theme. Not my theme. The world’s. Chaos everywhere. A mad chaotic universe incapable of perfection. To understand the world and this city, one must embrace the imperfection. That’s where our mayor goes off the tracks. He’s reluctant to acknowledge human nature– maybe not even his own.”

“What does that mean?” Robin asked with some fire. “I like the mayor.”

“I’m sure you do!” John Dohl said with a trace of innuendo.

He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin before he continued. She’d encountered many men like him– full of themselves. Arrogant, beneath their facade of politeness. Thriving on argument.

“I hear you wrote a 10,000-word profile on Brent Neufeld when he was president of the university. I haven’t read it.”

“It’s true.”

Robin had followed Brent Neufeld for a week around campus, observing him in his office, seeing him conduct meetings or interact with students on the mall, a photographer capturing every moment. Then she interviewed Brent for a total of three hours. It included lunch at a famed campus hangout, where she saw for herself how much he was loved by students and faculty both. The piece appeared in her newspaper’s Sunday magazine section, with photos of Brent Neufeld on the cover and throughout the article.

“People tell me the article ensured his election. Or at least raised his standing high enough that he could run for mayor.”

“I don’t know,” Robin said. “The article wasn’t inaccurate. You weren’t here then, but Brent Neufeld generated a lot of articles, particularly when he dated, then married Elizabeth Van Buskler. They’re good copy. Photogenic and personable.”

“Very photogenic, both of them,” Dohl agreed. “Were you jealous of Elizabeth Van Buskler?”

“Don’t be silly,” Robin said.

“Did Brent ever come on to you? Does he look at you?”

“Look at me?”

“Let’s not kid ourselves, Ms. Arruda– Robin. Women enjoy when a man looks at them. You enjoy it. You’d better believe Elizabeth Van Buskler enjoys when men look at her– a lot of men do– she enjoys being in that position.”

“Looks at her in what way?”

“The way a man looks at a woman.”

Robin was not unattractive herself. She pondered his statements– knowing the matter depended on who was doing the looking.

“We’re of course restrained by political correctness,” John Dohl told her.

“Are we?” she said to this Brent Neufeld substitute; wannabe– unsurprised that Chief Dohl would depart from his boss’s persistent liberalism.

“Yes, we are,” he insisted, as if making an intellectual point in a class.

John Dohl wore the self-satisfied expression of a bright undergrad.

“For instance, we’re not supposed to talk dirty to anyone. Never. Ever. In this day when everything is recorded, it’s the sure end to a career. Yet society’s dirty little secret is that some women like when a man talks dirty to them.”

“Only a man?” Robin asked. “You surely are politically incorrect.”

“Okay. Point taken. Not just a man talking dirty to them.”

Robin was thinking how risque Dohl believed he was being. Again, the daring undergraduate. He’d spent too much time with unformed coeds.

She was tired of undergraduates.

She knew what was coming next.

“Can I talk dirty to you?” John asked.

“Oh, must we ask permission?” she scoffed, then assessed his eagerness. “Okay, if you like.”

He moved his chair closer to hers, then put his mouth next to her ear. The stream of words shocked her.

“Okay. You’ve made your point,” she said at last.

She found what he’d said to her extremely offensive, but didn’t want him to know that.

John sat back, like an unruly boy pleased with himself.

“Why don’t you interview me,” he prodded. “The department could use some positive publicity. Neufeld gets all the positive press in this town.”

“And write what you told me?” she said. “I think not. My readers would be shocked.”

“Who reads your newspaper?” he asked rhetorically. “The good people seeking affirmation of their station. Their place in society. Everyone’s bad except them.”

“Okay,” she said, putting a mock-serious expression on her face as if doing an interview.

“Who’s your favorite author?”

“D.H. Lawrence.”

“Favorite sport?”

“Hockey.”

“Band?”

“Metallica.”

“Food?”

“Steak. Rare.”

“No surprises,” she said.

“You see, I knew you’d rather be interviewing the mayor.”

They studied each other like wary tigers.

“Do you want him?” John Dohl asked, staring at her.

She was about to say “No!”– before she could, the chief said, “Be honest.”

At the thought of Brent Neufeld her eyes glassed over and legs weakened, she felt a surge of heat, then she recaptured control of herself. She hoped he hadn’t noticed.

“No,” she said, hurriedly finishing her drink.

*******

A woman sitting at a nearby table recorded the conversation on her cellphone. She’d recognized the chief. The woman had no idea how clear the recording would come out, or what she’d do with it, but one never knew.

*******

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Wearing hard hats, Mayor Neufeld and his aide Alan Lam toured a construction site near downtown. As they walked, large rats scurried away among the debris at their feet.

This had recently been a poor but thriving urban neighborhood of hot corrupt clubs and colorful neon signs; of glaring drinking, drugs, and sex. A crammed-in world of lost souls scarcely surviving amid battered brown structures built a century before. “The Valley,” it’d been called.

That world was being bulldozed, renamed and replaced by gleaming clean glass-and-steel structures. A new steel framework rose before their eyes. Both men admired the efficiency of the design, the clean lines.

“The people displaced?” Alan asked– a question that’d popped involuntarily into his head.

Brent Neufeld looked at him wide-eyed.

“Mere curiosity,” Alan replied.

“You know,” Brent reminded him, “ten percent of the residences are reserved for low-income people from the neighborhood. If they meet requirements.”

“This,” Alan said, of the cold postmodern project, “might seem alien to them. Like a warehouse or prison.”

“We’ll have daycare centers and schools for their children. Modest service jobs for themselves if they want them, at good pay. Cooks or custodians. Recovery programs and rehabilitation centers. We’re going to help these people even if they don’t want to be helped.”

*******

The mantra had appeared at the outset of the Neufeld administration: “CHANGE.” A city in the process of change. Large banners proclaiming that change everywhere. A billboard showed young, attractive people with the caption, “YOU ARE THE NEW CITY.” From on high, institutions and regimentation, accompanied by an army of enthusiastic young technocrats programmed by their universities to enact swift change. They’d remake the city, and remake humanity at the same time.

*******

When he became frustrated at happenings on the job, Alan Lam reacted in one of two ways. In bar-hopping or gym work. Today it was gym work.

Alan used a weight machine at the Athletic Club, surrounded by paunchy plutocrats who enjoyed the pretense of exercise. Some no doubt got off on being around sweaty, scantly-clothed men, or on pretending they were athletic. Interspersed among them were a few younger men like himself turning their bodies into imitations of their new city. Efficient, hard, relentless.

Assessing those around him and finding them wanting, Alan admired his own yellow-tinged body. Shirtless, he wore naturally what white colleagues would regard on themselves as a light tan.

Alan worked harder on the machine, punishing himself. Harder. Moving the straining cabled weights up and down– working his pecs, delts, abs until comforting warm sweat poured from his body. He wanted to be a sleek leopard. He would never feel inferior, to anybody. He wanted to be a glistening steel machine.

*******

They rode along in a dark purple limousine, Mayor Neufeld not acknowledging large stretches of poverty outside the windows. Robin wondered at the real reason for the quickly arranged meeting.

Had someone in his administration picked up hints of what she was actually investigating? Impossible– she’d acted solo, consulting no one on her newspaper, covering her traces well.

Had someone hacked into her emails?

She’d used cryptic language; codewords and euphemisms whenever possible.

“I know you’re at the forefront of public concern over the policeman’s death,” the mayor said. “You were notable at the press conference. It’s why I wanted this talk. I need your help to quell public hysteria.”

“I’ve done nothing to encourage public hysteria,” Robin said.

Brent Neufeld made a gesture with his hands to say, “Work with me.” Robin noticed how tense she was in contrast. On the defensive. She took a breath and leaned back in her seat as the limousine bounced ahead. The carpeting in the vehicle was plush gold, the seats leather white.

His gesture, a sign of his humanity, changed the dynamic in the vehicle. She found herself within his warm and encompassing eyes. In his presence, Robin believed that people were good. That humanity was okay, people were born good. The mayor’s existence contradicted the city’s omnipresent reality.

Brent told her she had a responsibility to help make his plan for the city a success.

“We support the experts and we are the experts. Democracy the way some people understand it or want it is a naive dream. Society needs to be guided, in the same way democracy needs to be guided. Progressive media exists to let people know how to think. You exist to announce our new world.

“We’re the same, Robin. We have the same ideas. We want the same things. This society is on an inexorable course into the future. Media is an integral part of this process. It’s called progress. One can support it or get out of the way. There’s no third choice.”

“I support your goals,” Robin said. “You know I do.”

“Do you? You– your paper, its website– were my biggest supporters. You made me. Don’t bail on me when we’ve completed only part of the journey.”

“I’m not bailing on you.”

“Do you believe in change?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then you know we have to keep moving forward. There will always be missteps and failures. What matters is making progress. I know you– you’re like me. We were raised to believe we’re agents of change. That WE can make our environment. Our own reality. A benevolent world. Safe. Clean. No inequalities. Everyone happy. The world made perfect. Controlling our environment– our city– is the first step toward taming it.

“You were once at the forefront of change, Robin. I know you were. An activist. Idealist. Well, so was I! When I was in college I wanted the same things you did and I still want them.”

“But– the price?”

“There’s always a price. What’s the answer? The answer is that whatever the price is, we pay it.”

*******

Robin waited for Alan Lam in an internet cafe. He’d phoned her, wanting to discuss his concerns about the city, the police investigation, other things. Apparently he wasn’t happy in Mayor Neufeld’s happy world.

As she waited at a round table to the side for him to arrive, she studied her environs. This was a hangout of Alan’s. Most of the customers were single men, of all stripes, captivated by the electronic consoles in front of them.

It wasn’t an internet cafe so much as a gamer cafe. The men were playing video games. She knew what this meant. Extreme violence, sexism, misogyny. As her hearing adjusted, Robin heard around her grotesque imaginary carnage; extreme guttural threats, explosions and panicked screams coming from the screens.

She realized this would’ve been a perfect breeding ground for the city’s murderer. Nothing he accomplished in the analog world matched the digital crimes here.

The police should begin their investigation here, Robin decided. Where were they?

The hypnotized expressions on the gamers’ faces matched those she’d seen on police employees observing the city in the police department’s video tracking center.

*******

The knife! The finely-sharpened hunting knife filled the killer’s vision. Staring at the edge of the knife intoxicated him. The image carried resonances of barbarism. Violence and blood. To his warped mind, the killings were necessary, but they’d also become fun.

Once you’ve killed, it becomes the easiest thing in the world.

*******

Early a.m. Brent Neufeld watched a thin red band appear on the horizon as the sun prepared its appearance. Brent sipped dark roast coffee from a blue porcelain cup, then placed the cup carefully on a glass table. He stood at an expansive window in a luxury high-rise condo. This was Elizabeth’s residence– they seldom stayed at the mayor’s official mansion on the river. Elizabeth found the mansion useful chiefly as a showcase. A setting for fundraisers or civic events, at which the city’s leading couple could display themselves like show horses– the kind which as a younger woman Elizabeth had trained and rode.

He heard her chatting in the kitchen with Lester, one of their bodyguards. Lester wanted to take Claudine, her pet poodle, for a walk around the park.

“Got to keep Claudine in shape, Mrs. V.B.,” he said with professional concern. “She’s an animal. Have to work off her soft apartment living.”

Brent could see Elizabeth frowning, asserting herself with her impressive shoulders, which were almost as wide as Lester’s.

“Don’t overwork her, please,” Elizabeth instructed, adding bluntly, “We don’t need a dead dog on our hands. The voters love Claudine.”

“Yes, Mrs. V.B.”

Legally she was now Mrs. Neufeld– Ms. or Mrs. N– but the common people in the city called her Mrs. V.B. She’d been Miss V.B. since childhood, and old habits die hard. It was an affirmation of her status as Mayor Van Buskler’s daughter. Brent Neufeld was a popular mayor– especially with millennials– but among older people the memory of his predecessor Lloyd Van Buskler loomed large.

As Brent stood at the window efficiently tieing a burgundy tie on his neck over a clean white shirt, a strong pair of hands suddenly placed themselves around his throat.

“Good morning,” his wife said.

Brent winced. She’d disturbed his routine of the tie.

“Have to get going, hon. Much to do. Much happening.”

“This early?” she asked. “The sun’s not up.”

They saw the red band on the horizon grow thicker, larger. More emphatic. Demanding.

Brent sensed she wanted to stamp her proud foot on the carpeting, like the well-bred show horse she was.

Later that morning in a loft in the warehouse district, near the river, a young woman did her morning power yoga. Her intercom buzzed. The woman pressed a button.

“Yes?”

“Delivery.”

“Oh, the statue! I’ll buzz you in.”

The woman was blonde and healthy, fit and fearless. She’d graduated law school six months before, passed the bar and obtained a position with an up-and-coming law firm whose main office was downtown. The woman had been living in the loft for six weeks, was still decorating it, imposing upon it her artistic tastes. She’d gone to law school at the urging of her parents, but had always wanted to be an artist. With her new income– substantial if not ample– she’d gone on a modest spending spree at some of the local galleries, including a few well-hidden exotic spots in sketchy neighborhoods. The statue, a cutting edge piece by a new artist, was her latest discovery. Of a naked woman reaching toward the sky, made of bronze. Its sharp lines had caught her eye.

She was putting her yoga mat away in a cabinet when she heard the door to the loft open.

“Just leave it inside the door, please,” she called. “Or do I need to sign?”

The cabinet door didn’t close properly. One of several matters to correct in her new residence before it was a perfect fit for her.

She began to turn when she felt a crushing force around her neck. What?! Fury arose in her– lamps flying furniture overturned as the young woman struggled with the intruder who gripped her from behind, around her throat. She engaged her martial arts training, tried to step on his foot with her heel and threw an elbow into his abdomen which seemed made out of steel– “Keep your head!” she told herself as the room turned around her, it zoomed in and out like a camera as they moved– the man was very strong, wouldn’t loosen his grip– she tried to flip him; they tumbled over a sofa– “You bitch!” he exclaimed with hot anger, twisting her back, her spine, her neck– she heard something crack, her limbs lost feeling she was flung onto her shag rug like a broken doll then she saw the knife saw the man’s insane face, heard him panting hard, the knife entering her body again and again as blood flowed out of her. . . .

She never heard the sirens.

*******

“The city is falling into chaos!” a woman shouted at the mayor during his next meeting with the Citizen’s Council, a neighborhood group.

He raised his hands, palms out, to calm the angry herd. He’d have liked to tell them that occasional deaths in a city this size was natural.

“It’s in chaos!” the woman continued.

“It’s not,” the besieged mayor insisted. “We’re in fact becoming more orderly. All statistics show the city is safer. Our population is better behaved. More compliant.”

“The assaults? The killings?”

“Expected anomalies.”

*******

“You’re undercutting me with the media!” Brent Neufeld said to his police chief, John Dohl. “This story, this one individual, has caused mass hysteria.”

They sat at a corner table in a private dining room on the top floor of the city’s administration building. The room was as austere and brightly lit as a public cafeteria, but the food was excellent, prepared by Five-Star chefs. Chief Dohl picked his head up from a plate of prime rib and looked over at his counterpart.

Both were fairly tall white men, with dark hair. Healthy men, in their prime. Both vaguely ethnic; incompletely “white.”

“I’m defending my men, Mr. Mayor. That media which has been so good to you is out of my control.

“But ask yourself the pertinent question, Mayor. Why is the public becoming hysterical? It undercuts your core narrative that humans are rational beings. In truth we’re anything but. Monsters. This world is filled with monsters.”

Appearing roughly the same age– Mayor Neufeld listed a few years older– they might’ve been brothers, but Brent Neufeld was precisely groomed and dressed, wearing an Italian-made suit which fit him well– while Chief Dohl in his rumpled brown suit, gravy-stained orange tie and unshaven, dark-stubbled face was a fiasco. He looked as if he’d slept in that suit. With the crisis in the city, he well might have.

“I’m putting every spare moment into catching this maniac,” Dohl reminded his mentor and boss.

Brent winced at the word “maniac.” For him, the killer– disturbed; ruthless; violent– remained a human being.

“Our plans are disrupted by the publicity,” the mayor said.

“Not to mention, people are being killed,” Chief Dohl answered with a smirk.

Brent Neufeld studied the chief, not enjoying sarcasm from him. He reminded himself of the security analysis of John Dohl before he’d been hired. Author of a nationally-renowned academic paper on policing. Carrying an I.Q. at least the equal of Brent’s, which was quite high. Which made John’s attitude all the more frustrating. Chief Dohl was being influenced by his own bureaucracy, instead of the other way around. He’d been hired to be Brent’s guy. If anyone should give him 100% loyalty, it was his police chief.

Mayor Neufeld put a look of pleading on his face, then realized a show of weakness was the least effective tactic to use on John Dohl. The mayor’s attitude hardened.

“I made you,” Brent reminded the chief. “You owe me everything.”

The chief didn’t hear him. He was consumed with his thesis. Dohl carried a set philosophy expressed through regular talking points. He’d decided he was going to hit Brent with the thesis and wouldn’t rest until he did. John Dohl was ever the lecturer in a classroom, with fully prepared script.

“You and your staff are Neo-Puritans,” Dohl said. “A collection of liberal saints, with an idealized view of humanity, and of yourselves. You engage in no inappropriate talk, and I suppose not in inappropriate thoughts, even though we humans are consumed with intense thoughts of the grossest kind. Historical Christian saints did hours of prayer and flagellation to keep those thoughts outside their heads; that language away from their mouths. Jesus Christ himself was tempted for forty days and forty nights. But not you! You have no temptations. You wrestle with no evils within you.

“But that can’t be true. Do I suspect gross hypocrisy?”

The mayor shifted in his chair, not agreeing with his police chief but not seeking an argument.

“What’s your larger point?” Brent asked.

John Dohl moved his unpleasant form forward across the table so he looked directly at the mayor, a foot away from him.

“You tie our hands then complain that we haven’t caught the man. Unleash the dogs, Mayor. Allow us to fully do our jobs.”

*******

dsc06289

Robin Arruda seldom traveled home by foot from her office, though it was a fifteen-minute walk. The outskirts of downtown were filled with no-man’s-lands, this path one of them. Stretches of vacant blocks without street lamps; gaping black expanses that at night took on the quality of “Zombieland,” a famed grafitti piece written across the top of one of the empty structures of the area. If you encountered a human here, the person was invariably akin to a zombie. Otherworldly, with dark circles under the eyes, ragged clothes, missing teeth, begging hungrily for money for whatever drug, alcohol, or food kept the semblance of a person going.

New eco-friendly streetlights were scheduled to be installed in the area– next year. Until then, darkness. The lights were extremely expensive.

Robin walked through the wasteland now. She’d had a quick phone conversation with one of the city’s remaining recalcitrant bloggers, a former legitimate journalist. He’d somehow obtained the number to Robin’s second cellphone– a private phone known to only a few individuals. An ex-boyfriend who lived out of the country. Her brother. Her best friend from college. That the blogger had the number boosted Robin’s opinion of his investigative abilities.

The blogger said he had important information he could give over no electronic device. He asked for a face-to-face meeting. But where? Robin mentioned this dark stretch.

She walked along like a rat in the shadows. On all sides in the near distance surrounding this black hole were the tall lighted buildings of downtown. She should be terrified walking here, but of what? Who?

The blogger?

The killer??

Robin had been educated into a fear of the white male. Cause of the globe’s problems. Raping the planet. Imposing his mad culture upon all cultures. That was the narrative, and she’d bought into it. The conquistadors who’d conquered and raped her people. Never mind that most of the white men she knew at college were psychologically weak. Anything but conquistadors. The narrative trumped reality. It took only one unstoppable male ego to make that race again the scourge of the planet. To make the world a frightening place.

“Robin Arruda?” a voice said from the shadows.

The voice came from behind a fence, the cloudy early-night sky stretching far behind and above it. A man stepped from behind the fence.

“I am she,” Robin said.

The man was short, unprepossessing, about thirty, with an unruly beard of the kind favored by hipster intellectuals. A barrier to hide behind. His expression was serious, his eyes intense– but Robin found him in no way frightening. He didn’t fit the proposed description of the serial killer: tall and clean-shaven.

Chief Dohl forever emphasized that people have the instincts of animals. Her instinct told her this man was harmless. He looked more afraid than she was. On the verge of uncontrolled terror. Any moment about to start shaking, or run off. What did he know that she didn’t know? His eyes twitched. She felt sorry for him.

“Hi. How are you?” he asked after a moment, once he gained control of his mouth.

They shook hands.

“Let’s make this quick,” Robin said. “Neither of us wants to hang around. What do you have for me?”

“Enough. They’re raping the city,” he gulped. “I’ve seen the documents. Every real estate deal the mayor has instituted benefits Elizabeth Van Buskler and her cronies.”

*******

Robin Arruda sat soaking in a tub of hot water, her legs too long for the violet-colored bathtub. The walls were pale pink. The thick rugs: maroon.

Here, despite the city’s madness, Robin felt safe. Here, dissonant chords of unease running through her being could be temporarily wiped away. Inside this tiny room.

Yet how safe was she?

She was part of a jigsaw puzzle– one of the pieces. Helpless. Caught in a mystery or maze beyond her understanding.

Robin stared at the closed door to the bathroom, as if any moment someone would come through it.

Could the outer part of her elegant urban apartment be called safe? Could the madness of the city reach there?

How sturdy was the apartment’s door? Had she remembered to lock it? Was someone knocking on it? Had someone entered?

Robin shivered in the hot tub of water.

How secure was the glass entry to the patio? Robin Arruda’s apartment was on the third floor. Not very high up. Not high at all. Someone could climb the wall, she realized.

Sounds rustled outside the building. Perhaps someone was climbing the wall now. Her imagination visualized a shadow hoisting itself onto a wall.

No! she asked. Keep her safe.

Asked who?

Within this tiny, humid warm room, please keep her always forever safe.

*******

 

A camera zoomed in on the patio to Robin Arruda’s apartment. It caught reflections of city lights off the sliding glass doors, and a yellow glow from an electric lamp inside. Then the camera moved on.

In another neighborhood a half-mile away, a man climbed balconies, obscured by shadows of the moonless night. He cast about for stray attractive women, looking for his next victim.

*******

That night Robin Arruda had a dream about the mayor. “Robin. Robin. I need you,” his voice whispered, real as life. Then he was above her on the bed, his face close.

“I’m working too hard,” Robin said to herself when she awoke.

*******

In the morning she studied the view outside the glass. Red petunias on her patio rustled against a perfectly vertical stainless steel backdrop. Drops of wetness on the sliding glass door. Did it rain last night?

Mud smudges on the deck. From a cat?

*******

NEW POP LIT

 

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