PART OF THE From the Shadows ISSUE
‘I felt it then. Uncoiling in my gut, warm and slick. That strange mix of feebleness and fury, like I wanted to throw up and beat my fists against a brick wall at the same time.’
Welcome to Cooper
By Tariq Ashkanani
Published by Thomas and Mercer
They ask me to tell them a story.
Friendly words, spoken by tired men wearing crushed suits, over lukewarm coffee in a paper cup and a bagel that was cold long before it ever reached me.
Tell us a story.
A red-hooded girl visits her grandmother. I think they’ve heard that one before.
The problem is, I was never any good at telling stories. Never could work out the best place to start. It’s all about making an impact—see, I get that. Grabbing their attention and not letting up till you’re done. I get that part plenty. I got that part spilling out my pockets. Pick a moment, buddy, they say, like we’re friends. Like we’re in a bar and not in a room with the blinds closed.
I think back over everything that’s happened these past few weeks. I remember the snow, snow up to my shins. Snow like ash, from a blackened sky to bury all beneath it. Flakes of the stuff gathering in my hair and in the folds of my ears. I remember watching as she stood at the window and stared out at me. She couldn’t see me—even from where she was standing she couldn’t see me, even from twenty yards away. I remember moving down her hallway, and the sound my wet shoes made on her wooden floors. I remember my hands didn’t shake like they used to, like they had the first time. And I remember music playing, but don’t ask me what it was. It was noise, and noise was good. I could hide in the noise.
Or maybe I should just jump straight to the end. Give these boys what they want. The forest and the early morning sun and the spot where I led a man to his death. Only they don’t want that story. They want history. They want backstory. I can see it in their eyes, I’m losing them, and they interrupt with their questions, with their confusion. Back it up now, they say, like my memory’s an old SUV with a busted axle. A hand pushes a fresh cup of coffee across the table to help me remember.
So I’ll take them back. Not to the very start, because I don’t know them all that well just yet and, besides, most of that stuff isn’t important to them. But I’ll lead them far enough. Back to my arrival in town, back to the tall grass and the cornfields, and that long freeway, cracked and uneven, and the sign that read Welcome to Cooper in bleached, looped writing.
I push the coffee away, ask for something stronger. Glances all around but I keep my mouth shut, like I’d be happy keeping my mouth shut forever. Eventually someone shuffles out the door and I lean back in my chair to wait.
I think I’ll start with the girl.
She was dead and dressed for dancing.
Face up, that’s how they found her. On her back and stretched out across the grass like the only thing being killed was time.
I stood at the back door next to Joe and pulled on a pair of latex gloves. Snow drifted across her crowded backyard.
I thought about that sign on the way into town. Some welcome. Her body was lying at the foot of a tree. Don’t ask me what kind. Big and brown, with blossoms on the branches. White petals, whatever. Rachel would have known what it was.
A group of men had gathered. A murder like this, they always did. No-name men in chinos, from departments I didn’t care enough about to ask. Bureaucracy, who gives a damn. They weren’t here because they cared and I’m sure you all know something about that. As we got close I could see it in their eyes, in their bent heads, in the way they were talking, in the way they sucked back on their cigarettes, in the way they gazed down at her. Detached. Like she was a bad cut of meat. Like she was a problem.
I followed Joe across the yard and he turned to me and said he wanted me to take point on this, and I said alright. I figured he was testing me, and I guessed this was as good a way as any. I wasn’t worried. I didn’t much care what he thought of me. People sometimes say I’m emotionally closed off, but people say a lot of things. A woman once said I was an asshole and I reckon she was right.
The men shifted as we approached. I caught a glimpse of a bare arm in the fresh snow. Pale white.
‘Who’s your boy?’ one of them asked Joe. I couldn’t tell who.
‘This here is Tommy Levine,’ he said. ‘Make him feel welcome.’
I swept my gaze around the group, got a perverse pleasure that no one bothered to try. Joe slid a cigarette into his mouth. Waved me on as he lit up.
I pushed through to the center of the circle. Bodies shifting just enough to let me pass. Shoulders brushing, the tang of stale coffee and bad breath. When I emerged she was revealed to me in all her grotesque beauty, and when I stood over her it was like some tribal ritual.
Black shoe, the fancy kind, and only on one foot. Light-brown pantyhose. A thin black dress and a slim leather belt. Her legs outstretched, her arms tossed up above her head, her hands crumpled together. A dark, heavy necklace of bruises around her neck. Blonde hair, long and curled at the ends. She was young, maybe mid-twenties, and if whoever had killed her had left her eyes behind she’d have been pretty, too. Hell, you’ve seen the photos.
I felt it then. Uncoiling in my gut, warm and slick. That strange mix of feebleness and fury, like I wanted to throw up and beat my fists against a brick wall at the same time. Staring at a mutilated woman tends to do that to a guy.
‘What do we know?’ I said, hoping someone would answer.
Welcome to Cooper by Tariq Ashkanani is published by Thomas and Mercer, price £8.99.
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