I entered a stairwell just ahead and made my way downstairs, passing moldy children’s toys and metal buckets catching water from leaky ceilings. Before too long, I hit the bottom floor where sat a young woman in a dark green hooded coat and filthy grey sweatpants. I had been in the building before. Usually, a second staircase waited at the bottom to take you back up, but this place wasn’t always that predictable.
I didn’t respond, just began climbing stairs. Nothing could be gained from a conversation with nut-jobs like her.
“Yeah, that’s right. Go back to cracking your little case, tough guy.”
Her voice was slow and tired, probably just coming down off her latest heroin fix. I chuckled and turned as she rose from the floor.
“I’m sorry. Can I help you miss?” I asked, somewhat mockingly.
She pulled a cigarette from her coat pocket and lifted it with a sloth-like grace.
“We all need your help, Mike,” she giggled, “Hell just wouldn’t be the same without its big shot detective.” She’d really cracked herself up with that, but the laughing fit turned into a coughing fit that ended with her spitting on the floor. Where did lowlifes like her get the nerve, anyway? Ignoring the delusional comments, I drew Sarah’s ID from my pocket and went for what mattered.
“Do you know this girl?” I stepped back to the ground floor and held the card in front of her heavy eyes. “Can you even see, or are you too high?” She broke into laughter again, hunched over and leaned against the wall.
“Oh, that hurts,” she said, stifling a laugh, then continued, “coming from you,” to fall into an uproarious cackle.
“What’s so fucking funny, junkie?” I made a threatening step closer and she stood up straight with alarm, before taking a drag from her cigarette in an attempt to remain nonchalant.
“Never seen her before.” She exhaled a cloud, smiling. “Pretty though.”
“Why do I think you’re full of shit?” I interrogated, looking her right in the eyes. She stared back unblinkingly.
“Probably because you’re such a great detective.”
I almost reached for the revolver in my shoulder harness, but restrained myself.
“Clean your life up you piece of trash.” I spun in place and started back up the stairs. By the time I hit the landing, she had something else to say.
“I know you are, but what am I?” She laughed as I climbed. “Did you hear me, Mike?” Her voice grew more echoic as I ascended. “What am I?” Laughter faded until I heard nothing else from her.
About three flights up I had to step onto the wall to keep with gravity. The only way you could tell that the stairs were the ‘floor’ was because of all the debris still lying on it; an odd assortment of tricycle wheels, old food containers, and empty dimebags left unaffected by the shift in physics. Soon I had to walk on the ceiling, which was really the stairs of the level above me, and then to the other wall, before making it back to the stairs in time to reach the floor I’d entered from.
The hallway had become a mirror of its former self. The bulletin board, open apartment, and endless corridor junk heaps were now the reverse of what I remembered. However, the dead man I’d found before still lied on the floor of his living room, eyes open, watching a ceiling fan spin on its slowest setting as decomposition took him. I made for the exit as the cooking show he’d left on yammered about heart healthy foods and managed to step on a discarded toy jester. This triggered it to laugh maniacally from a speaker stored inside and subsequently alerted someone, or something, behind me, to my presence. In their hurry, they knocked over a trashcan before ducking into a hall perpendicular to mine.
I drew the snub nose .35 I kept in a shoulder harness as the toy’s laughter faded. Its sound-quality seemed to be melting. Each ‘ha’ grew slower and deeper than the last, before finally yielding to silence. What I’d heard was probably nothing, just another drugged out whack-job, but despite my better instincts, I chose to investigate.
There was one case I’d worked before I’d come here; damn shame it was. I followed some sicko into a city sewer system and promptly lost him. He’d kidnapped a little boy three days prior and, according to reports, was keeping him down there someplace. That foul smelling maze threw me for a loop. Every time I heard what I thought was cry for help, a whisper, or a footstep, I couldn’t tell where it came from. Echoes bounced from wall to wall and the dark makes you think you’re seeing things you’re not. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a shadow slip around the corner, quiet as could be, or heard heavy breathing fill the passageway just ahead. It was infuriating.
I walked for hours down there, searching in every nook and cranny some psychopath would think to hide a little kid. I didn’t hope for the best. I never do. Especially in those cases, generally you find out the victim was dead hours after the kidnapping, but in this case I found a footprint in the mud, or whatever lined the cement floor down there.
It was little.
The words “power rangers” were legibly raised in the muck and my vic was last seen wearing power ranger shoes. I figured the tracks were days old, but regardless, I followed one, two, three, four of them, and on and on into the winding system of filthy concrete. I didn’t understand how I was only seeing the kid’s shoe prints and not the perp’s leading him along, but there was no time to question it.
Shortly, I came to a drop off (water running into it from multiple pipes at different angles) where the tracks led, stopped, and became too muddied to interpret. I shouted into the gloom, giving up any element of surprise I might have had on the perp.
“Shawn!” My voice echoed, bounced back, and carried again through the cavernous tunnels.
I’d begun to believe the poor kid had escaped his kidnapper’s clutches only to fall into the drop off. A sad ending to an even sadder existence. But when I turned around to double back, I saw a little shadow slip around the corner to my right. It was only a second. I could have missed it if I blinked, but I knew my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.
“Shawn,” I whispered, heading for what I’d seen. “Shawn, I’m one of the good guys. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Yes, I do,” a tiny voice came back. “We’re in Hell.”
For a moment I had to question whether maybe he was right. Perhaps I’d already traversed the River Styx. The world of the damned my new home, following cold and bloody trails of unsolved cases left to rot by the best of us. A world where killers can kidnap a child and bring them to a place they believed was Hell. Sickening.
Well, in this case, I convinced the kid we weren’t in Hell, yet. I went to him as he sat against a pile of unidentifiable garbage, rabbit foot in hand, wiping at a runny nose. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the happiest day of my miserable life. After maybe another hour of searching, we found the storm drain I’d entered through.
Thing of it is, I thought I heard a muffled scream ring through the place just a few minutes into our search for the exit. I knew even if I wasn’t hearing things left and right, I couldn’t drag this kid deeper into the sewers. I should’ve called in backup the minute I followed the motherfucker in there but I didn’t want every rookie in the precinct to show up and get the kid killed. It was a quiet, one-man, job. As soon as you alert a psycho that you’ve uncovered his rat hole, he’ll have no reason to keep his victims alive.
I say ‘victims’ because that’s exactly how it was. Little did I know, he’d also been keeping another kid down there, a little older, from a different missing persons case we had shelved after the trail went cold. Apparently not just Shawn heard me yell because once I did call in my discovery, the department found the body of twelve-year-old Damien something-or-other down there. That scumbag murdered him because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut five more seconds.
We didn’t even catch him that day. The guy had multiple entry points into the place so once we funneled into one he just sprang out of another. They caught up with him months down the road after I’d left the precinct. In that time, he killed four more in his preferred fashion and then died in a shootout at the end of it all. What’s the point.
Once again, I’d turned to make for an exit, but heard something that drew me deeper into Hell.
“Hello?” I called into the building, pulling back the hammer on my pistol. I stepped over endless garbage and pools of God-knows-what liquid until I reached the intersection of halls. In the direction I thought I’d heard someone run, a surprisingly spotless hallway led to a single door. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I wasn’t letting the exit out of my sight or it’d be gone for good. I shouted down the corridor again. “If you’ve got something to say to me I suggest you do it. I’m not coming down there.”
A low creak sounded from the door as it opened only an inch. A voice came next, clear as day.
“Why are you here?” It bellowed. My bones rattled and I took a step back.
“What do you want?” I gripped my pistol tighter.
“Why are you here?” It repeated, louder.
I stumbled backward. “I- I’m searching for-” I was cut off mid sentence.
“Why are you here?” The floor shook from its booming question. The walls buckled and cracked. A picture frame crashed to the ground.
“I’m working a case.”
“No.” The cracks spread. Plaster fell from the ceiling.
My grip loosened. “This is who I am.”
I steeled myself. “I don’t need this shit.”
I ran to the exit, jumping trash and errant furniture, and dove into the door. The cement ground outside was hard but familiar. I was bathed in light. A light that quickly flipped direction, pointing to the sky, leaving me in shadow. A streetlight.
I looked up from my hands and knees. A woman stood before me, modestly dressed with worry in her eyes.
“Do you know Sarah?”