This block was new to me, but its warped cornices, crumbling lintels, and broken, zigzagging fire escapes could have been ripped from my memories. The people seemed familiar, too: the woman in curlers, cigarette dangling from two fingers, leaning out a first-floor window to gossip with a neighbor on the sidewalk, a potbellied mayor holding court on a nearby stoop. Older boys with gleaming biceps who slouched in lawn chairs and played video games on a television hotwired into the streetlight. Teenage girls in suffocatingly tight jeans who caressed the rusting finials of a wrought-iron fence and kept an eye on a horde of children—black and Spanish—who ran screaming through an open hydrant.
I stepped aside as a girl, maybe seven or eight, tore past me with a water balloon. I used to be one of these kids, I thought, oblivious to the crushing heat: exactly what that made me now, forty years later (and acutely aware of the heat), I couldn’t say. Though as much at home here as anywhere else in the city, I viewed the street warily. We shared a history of sorts, but history—my history—was at best a pleasant dream from which I always awoke with an unsettling sense of loss. I had no reason to be nostalgic. As for the future, that too had always been filled with questions, which led me to suspect that, in the hours and days ahead, I would still be chasing ghosts.
Closer to the crime scene, uniformed cops milled around behind caution tape and sawhorse barricades. Officers sweated heavily, sunglasses reflecting red and blue from the cruisers parked nearby at odd angles. From what I gathered, the corpse, found by some teenagers, was covered in burns and surrounded by votive candles and flowers, signs of what was known as a “ritual killing” in the SCU, where I worked as a homicide detective. So far there were no witnesses.
The building, about fifteen feet wide, was in a short row of limestone town houses with tawny, pollution-streaked facades that dissolved into a blistering white sky. Inside, shafts of mote-filled light filtered down through scattershot holes in the roof. I started upstairs, which was littered with three-legged chairs, broken couches, old televisions with kicked-in screens, car batteries, torn pictures of Jesus Christ, syringes, lighters, broken glass pipes, and heavily stained mattresses, to which I gave a wide berth owing to the bedbug situation in New York City. A palimpsest of graffiti covered the walls, most of it bulbous and illegible, but two words caught my attention: Flower Singers. The mossy green letters, outlined in gold, were surrounded by a wreath of stenciled roses. If you pictured it with your eyes closed, the effect was dreamlike and sacred: a secret hierogram.
In the basement, the body rested supine on a muslin sheet, its skin possessing the hard sheen of black onyx. Flower petals—irises or violets—were scattered among leafy stalks of bamboo and melted candles. The victim was male, biologically speaking. I put on gloves and gave the naked body a few prods before noting a gummy substance on my fingertips. It wasn’t anything I associated with heat or chemical burn—and I had seen both—which made me wonder if what I observed was not a pagan killing but merely designed to resemble one. Everything was just a little too perfect. Call it a hunch or an intuition, but it was sticky and vaguely sweet smelling, like the residue on my fingers.
Along the perimeter of the basement, mortar crumbled into small clouds of dust that dissolved into the shadows. I pushed through a metal door into the mechanical room, where I found a hole in the ground, maybe eighteen inches in diameter. Kneeling down in a familiar state of dread and expectation, I saw what appeared to be a frayed ribbon but was actually the long, twisting hair of a young girl. I lunged for her but caught nothing as she drifted away like Ophelia into the reeds.
Staggering back, I picked up my flashlight, which revealed only a few inches of standing water. There was no sign of an underground stream cutting through the schist, much less a girl. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a hallucination. In my experience, every good detective relied on visions: like dreams, they contained symbols that could lead you to some facet of the truth. This was no ordinary vision, however. I had reached for my sister Helen, who forty years ago had disappeared, never to be seen again.
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Excerpted from #gods by Matthew Gallaway.
Matthew Gallaway is the author of The Metropolis Case, which was praised by the New York Times for being “driven by exuberance and morbidity, fatalism and erotic energy.” He lives in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City with his partner and four cats. Previously he worked as a record-store clerk while earning a law degree from NYU and was a member of the indie rock band Saturnine.