The first two chapters of The Black Suits…
The night before I disappear, Detective Bradley tells me the ticket man has nothing to do with what happened to my father fifteen years ago. He’s saying this for about the tenth damn time today as the two of us hide under some scaffolding in Midtown, trying to stay clear of a pounding rain that swept in just minutes ago, blotting out the towers and the half-moon that hung in a starless sky.
“Which booth?” I lean into him.
Bradley, standing two feet in front of me next to a storefront shuttered with corrugated steel, stares me down, silent.
“Please, Bradley.” I’m staring back. The folds of skin between his thick eyebrows are bunched tight, as tight as the steel on the door beside us. This isn’t good. I need to get to him, this one more time. Slowly, I draw the words out, “I need your help.”
“Lucas—” He’s trying not to look away, but then his gaze flicks to the rollaway security doors and condensation escapes from his mouth on a sigh. He nods across the intersection toward the Port Authority Bus Terminal. “Greyhound counter. Second booth from the right.”
I thank him, flip up the collar on my raincoat. “I owe you.”
His shoulders slump and he leans against the crimped steel, unhappy with himself. “Just do what you gotta do and leave.”
A couple minutes later I’m weaving through an annoying chaos of tourists dragging roller bags behind them in the main corridor of the bus terminal. The air reeks of wet newspapers, coffee and warm cinnamon buns.
I file into a short line at the Greyhound counter, steady my breathing. I pull out my smartphone and while making a pretense of tapping the touchscreen I focus on the guy in the second booth from the right. He’s busy talking to the customer on the other side of the glass, so I chance a more direct look.
He’s mid-forties and has a boyish haircut surrounding a pudgy face with mushy features. Most people wouldn’t think that this soft, cartoony face belonged to someone capable of murder, but Bradley’s certain he’s the guy who killed an elderly butler in an Upper East Side mansion last week. A break-and-enter that escalated into a homicide. Bradley also has him pegged for dozens of robberies across the city over the years and an unsolved murder four years back. A young woman in Harlem.
But Bradley insists there’s no way in hell this guy has a connection to my father’s disappearance. Too many differences. No stolen goods in my dad’s case, no property damage. No body. And the furthest back they can trace his activity is five years. But my dad disappeared a few blocks from where the butler worked. Maybe Bradley hasn’t connected all the dots on this guy. It’s a thin lead, sure, but not impossible. And at this point, it’s all I have.
I keep an eye on the suspect, trying to guess whether he’s the person I’ve been hunting for half my life. I don’t know, not yet, but I will. As I wait, staring at his Pillsbury Doughboy face, my temples begin to pulse and a hot flush spreads across my cheeks. Heat scalds my earlobes, like someone’s put a match to them. Any minute now I might be standing face-to-face with the man who took my father from me. The scorching rushes down through my limbs, into my hands, throbs there, just like it did when Bradley and I tracked down the meth addict who once mugged my dad. Or when I found the sleeping homeless man in the alley wearing a pair of my father’s pants, a pair I hadn’t seen in any of the donation piles that had crowded the apartment after his disappearance. But I tell myself this guy is more promising. That I might not have to endure the wrenching gut of yet another dead lead.
When the line moves forward again, I make like I’m looking for something in my pockets and let someone jump the line ahead of me. Then the second booth frees up and it’s my turn.
The burning is all through my body now as I approach the window. The muscles in my limbs are firing, crying for me to charge forward, but I force myself to move slowly, to not raise his suspicion, and to look for evidence to convict this guy.
He’s scribbling something down on a little notepad on his lap. His other hand blocks what he’s writing and when I arrive at the window he moves that hand over the note page and leans forward, asks me how he can help me. A thin smile full of baby-small teeth.
I reach through my raincoat, steady my shaking hand and pull out a photo of my father, slide it under the gap below the glass partition. “This is my father,” I say. “He wandered off earlier today. Last time he did that, they found him here trying to buy a ticket. Have you seen him?”
“No,” he says, not looking at the photo.
I push the photo farther under the gap. “Please. He’s my father.”
His face changes from soft to hard as his muscles tense and bulge. “Look, do you want a ticket or what?”
Adrenaline shoots through me. “I want you to look at this photo.”
His eyes go cold, empty. “Either buy a ticket or stop blocking my booth.”
I snatch the photo out and press it to the glass in front of his face. He has to look now and when he does I see his eyes. I search for the giveaway. The tell.
I’ve shown this photo to thousands of people. I can tell if they’ve ever seen him. It’s a little flex of the pupils. An almost microscopic pulsing triggered when visual memory cells are stimulated. Even if the memory is unconscious the pupils still flex. I trust the tell as much as I would a DNA test.
But he displays no tell. This guy has never once seen my father. He has nothing to do with what happened to him. As I process this, another thought, familiar and dark, slithers through me—I will never find any answers. I will look forever and find nothing. That fear snakes into the hollow of my gut, twisting, coiling. As it ruins my insides, the rest of my body still rages with a fire that wants to lash out at something. To seek a target.
The ticket man’s dead eyes glare back at me from behind the glass. He’s still Bradley’s suspect, still probably a killer, and if I can find something to help Bradley nail this bastard at least some victims will find justice.
From the corner of my eye I can see that the guy has moved his hand away from his notes. I snap my eyes down. He catches what I’m doing and shoots his hand over the page, but for a split second the sheet was exposed. He would never think that it was long enough for me to catch everything he’d written.
I pocket the photo and head back out into the wet night.
Bradley is tucked into a corner booth at the back of The Spoon, a late-night diner not far from the bus terminal. He says nothing when I slide into the red leatherette seat opposite him. Just arches his thick eyebrows consolingly. I’ve seen that gesture from him a hundred times, in diners and pubs and coffee shops across the city.
I wave my hand at him. “Save your pity, alright?”
An elderly man in a red apron asks me what I want. I order a coffee, decaf. After he leaves I ask Bradley if he has a piece of paper. He pulls out a pad and tears off a sheet for me. I quickly fill it with a long list of names from memory.
I hand the sheet to Bradley and tell him that the ticket man had been scribbling this information down between customers. “Looks like he targets people going out of town. Gets their names from credit cards, probably does some research later for addresses.”
Bradley shakes his head and smiles to himself. “Thanks, I’ll get the team on it now.” He pulls out a smartphone and takes a photo of the sheet of paper, then starts thumbing on his digital keyboard.
The waiter drops off my coffee, a clink of ceramic on Formica. I reach for it as Bradley works, then freeze, my hand stuck mid-reach.
The color of the cup. Off white. A mix of cream and pearl. It’s the color of her slip, exactly. I see it in my mind just as I do in my nightly visions, sheer and silky, flowing down her body. White against the dark night.
The swooshing sound of Bradley’s device sending a message tugs me back into the present. I turn my eyes from the cup and wait a moment for her image to fade, then look up at Bradley.
His face twists as he lets out a rush of air through his nose. “Look, the case has been closed for fourteen years.”
My shoulders tighten. “He could still be alive for all we know.”
Bradley is silent, his eyebrows arching again.
“I have to find my father, or get the bastard who killed him.”
Bradley still says nothing. We stare at each other.
He is the only one left. He’s been the only one left for years and years. It’s hard to believe how it once was—the swarm of people. Every friend, the army of strangers, reporters, all the authorities. All of them helping in the search. And the truckloads of cards, letters, the care packages. But as the weeks and months rolled on, all of that faded. Everyone retreated into oblivion, leaving just me and the detective assigned to the case.
Bradley’s gaze falls to the counter. I fix my eyes on him, praying he’ll look back up. That he’ll at least have the courage to tell me out loud that he’s helped me for the last time.
I wait a few more seconds before tossing a ten on the table and twisting out of the booth.
When I get to my apartment I throw my coat over the back of a kitchen chair and sink onto the living room couch. The lights are off and the room shimmers with the gray shadows of bookcases. Water drips from my raincoat onto the floorboards. The time between the drips lengthens gradually like the Doppler effect of a siren fading in the distance.
It will be harder without Bradley. He’d been the source of the best leads lately, mostly suspects of break-and-enters or murders in the general vicinity of where my father disappeared. But Bradley’s reluctance had been growing and I knew he would bail soon. In fact I’m surprised he hung on as long as he did. So many years after he stopped working the case officially.
When you’ve gone through something like I have, you get to see things about people you might not otherwise. You see how your pain becomes a burden to them, an annoyance, a threat. At some point they want to move on, and they want you to move on too. But if moving on means giving up, and if you refuse to give up, eventually you find yourself all alone. I don’t have any family, anyone who lost what I lost. So nobody really understands.
But even without Bradley, without anyone to help me, I will find out what happened to my father. I will keep searching. Tomorrow I’ll scour the internet, search the news and social media sites. I’ll find something. Another possibility.
The gap between the drips has grown to more than a minute by the time I close my eyes.
Many hours later, long after I’ve fallen asleep on the couch, I see her. My eyes are still closed, but my mind has just woken up. I’m entering her hotel room, and just as I have in the hundreds of visions I’ve had of her over the years, I see her standing by the open French doors that lead out to a terrace, a sheer curtain billowing beside her. Her back is to me, her dark hair curling under her ears and flowing down her neck to touch the straps of her slip, an off-white garment that hugs the curves of her body. Beyond her the dark night hovers over a walled city of whitewashed buildings and narrow alleyways. A casbah.
As I walk toward her, she glides toward the railing. Tanned bare feet on stone, painted toes. She lays her hands down on the balustrade. I take a step out onto the terrace.
An insect chirrups. I turn. There, on the ledge of the balustrade, a creature. Tall, arched, arms outstretched. Triangular head, large eyes. A black praying mantis. Praying.
And then the mantis spreads its wings and with a sudden flap darkness engulfs the sky, the casbah, the terrace. I can see nothing now. Everything is black.
I snap my eyes open, stare out into the dark of my apartment, images of the woman spinning through my mind. Her dark hair. The slip clinging to her skin. Her fingers on the railing.
I started seeing visions of this woman twelve years ago. I have never seen her in the real world, and in my dreams I’ve never even seen her face. She is obviously someone I’ve just imagined, but she is more familiar to me than anyone else in my life. At first, I would get just a quick flash of her from behind, every few months or so. But over the years the frequency gradually increased to monthly, then weekly. The flashes lasting longer. I would see more of her silhouette, more of the room and the sky beyond. I’d see movement, the breeze rustling her silk slip. A few weeks ago the visions started to come nightly. The hotel room began to open up. I could walk through it, the hard tiles clacking beneath my shoes. Then the terrace, and the black mantis on the ledge, flapping its wings to kill the vision.
The morning light begins to filter through my living room blinds. I don’t understand what’s going on, why I see her night after night now. This figment of my imagination is ruining my already poor sleep habits. After a minute I force myself to stop thinking about her and pick up my phone to check my Google Alerts for new leads.
An hour later I walk into my office, a small box in the sky, not much larger than a big closet. I close the door, sealing myself inside with my metal desk, cheap filing cabinets and knock-down shelving units—standard issue furnishings for all the marketing analysts that cram this floor of a nondescript Midtown skyscraper.
As I sit down at my desk, exhaustion overwhelms me and I close my eyes. Immediately images of the woman pop into my head. Memories of this morning’s vision. Her back to me, her dark hair. I shake myself awake and power up my computer. Like every other day, I’ll spend the first couple of hours doing my actual job, enough to satisfy my bosses, and the rest of the day working my father’s case.
A minute later, my cellphone vibrates in the side pocket of my suit. I pull it out to see a text from Bradley, telling me the notes I gave him last night paid off. The names matched up to ticket purchasers, giving him enough probable cause to make an arrest this morning and get a search warrant for a storage unit he had connected to the ticket man that was full of incriminating evidence. He thanks me and says he hopes I’m doing okay. I shove the phone back in my pocket, and then my eye catches on something on the outer ledge of my office window. Something small, black.
I cross the floor, not believing my eyes. But as I get closer I see it, clear in the morning light: a black praying mantis.