Chapter 1: Flash Fire
The night was cold, not freezing, but chill enough that you had to wear your thick coat and gloves on your way down Perry street and towards the river. It was still early spring so there was a bit of frost on the ground and a thin sheen of ice along the shorelines of the Hudson river as you moved towards it, looking over once before you’d picked a spot on the opposite side of the street, closer to where you’d come and closer to an easy escape. You had been sent there on an ‘errand’, or so Simon had called it; your boss, your editor, the one who signed your checks and red marked the paragraphs in your drafted articles.
“Go an’ take a piccy of that warehouse on Hudson and Perry,” he’d said, waving you off as you’d gathered your camera and purse, “I need a clear shot, doll, so no townies- make sure to go in the evenin’ when it’s quieter.”
He’d looked up then, locking eyes with you as if to pass on some sort of wordless message.
“I’d send Eric or Miller,” he raised his voice a bit, maybe so someone else might hear, maybe so you would get the meaning behind his spoken words, “But this is just an errand- real simple like, not even you could muck it up. Got it?”
“Got it...” you mumbled as your fingers twitched against the old camera that shook in your grasp.
You’d only been there for a few minutes, adjusting the setting on your old Canon and setting yourself up for a good few shots when you heard it. The low rumble of a distant- what?- explosion? No, couldn’t be. Explosions were for wars and third worlds, explosions didn’t happen in New York. You seemed to chuckle to yourself at the thought, an over active imagination making you think you could still feel it shaking the ground beneath you as you looked up and saw the spark of something bright and unmistakable from across the street. It forced you down, crouching and covering your face as if to shield yourself from the sudden flash and the roar that told your sane mind to get the hell out of there. But you remained, still as a toppled statue as the rumble died down and the sound of a window shattering in the distance made you open your eyes with caution and slowly rise back to your feet.
The night was cold, but even standing where you were you could feel it-- the heat. From the fire. The warehouse-- your mouth dropped open as soon as you saw it, blazing flames illuminating your figure in the shadows of the street and halting any progress in stealth you had even minutely hoped to achieve. It was impossible. The entire block was lit up with the blaze and there really wasn’t anywhere to hide. In fact, you were surprised there wasn’t anyone else there to witness it. Usually, someone dropped a planter off their fire escape and the whole neighborhood would be out in hordes trying to figure out what’d gone wrong.
Was there an earthquake?
Someone tryin’ to start a feud?
This neighborhood’s really gone to the dogs hasn’t it?
Damn monsters, I tell ya.
It was just a planter, you would think, walking by as if the commotion didn’t make your mob mentality senses start to tingle-- but now, now you wondered why no one else’s was. This was big, huge even. There was a warehouse, on fire, on the pier of Hudson and Perry street and no one was there to witness it. Except you that is. Seeming to blink out of whatever stupefied moth-state the flames had put you through, you fumbled with your camera. Damp, gloved fingers working over the shutter and lens cap till you had to gnaw the damned things from your hands and spit them to the ground before you could get a better grip on your Canon.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn-” you cursed mildly, looking through the view finder in an attempt to frame the scene just right, “...Fuck.”
That’s when you saw it.
A figure, standing just outside the warehouse on the sidewalk down the road from you. They were across the street, and it was dark, so you couldn’t really make out who they were through the view finder let alone with your own eyes, but you could definitely see them now and it made you wonder once again if this whole thing didn’t have an expiration date on it. Simon said no townies, which was why he’d told you to come so late into the evening. It’d be dark, but you figured there would be enough light with the street lamps and the warehouse floods that you’d be able to get something decent- he’d only wanted a front shot after all. And you weren’t exactly a shutter bug either. It’s not like you knew exactly what you were doing out there, you’d only just snagged the gig after all.
Took you ages to get into the Tribunal, but once you had, you’d sunk your claws in and you weren’t letting go. Not for an instant. Because the moment you did, you knew your mother would be there to tie you up and drag you back to the weeds, where you yourself had grown, and you weren’t having none of that. No sir.
So you struggled with your camera, trying to ignore the stocky figure in the distance and keep them out of frame as you fired off a few rounds. You felt almost grateful for the fire as it illuminated your progress, the wimpy flash on your camera like holding a waning candle to a watted bulb. As you snapped, the shutter clicking and the wheel grinding as your thumb passed over it with passive memorization, there were still about a handful of self-important thoughts rattling around in the back of your mind. Like pennies in an empty can, worthless and ignored.
Who set the fire? Why set the fire? And, most importantly, where was the fire department?
Dropping your camera from your eye to your waist, you straightened and gave another long look at the empty streets. You even turned an ear searching for the sound of sirens, hoping, but no, all you could hear was the incessant crackle of the flames and the occasional burst and crumble of the interior of the warehouse from the far side of the street. It felt eerily quiet despite the obvious hubbub and it had you glancing back towards the figure, just in case they too were wondering the same thing.
But they were gone.
You’d blinked, the air now starting to thicken with smoke, warning you that your time there was in fact coming to a close and that you’d better move on lest you wind up in the hospital for a severe cause of unintentional smoke inhalation. You took a few short steps back, hugging your camera to your chest, as you swung your gaze around again, just in case you had been mistaken and the figure had been smart enough to move further down the-
“hey,” you jumped at the suddenness of the voice beside you, nearly toppling over as you stumbled back and your hands reflexively tightened to grip the camera.
The flash went off as your finger snapped the trigger and you could hear Simon’s voice grating in your ears about no townies and going in the evening and mucking it up. He hadn’t wanted you to draw attention. He hadn’t wanted you to get caught. No, you had mucked it up. Oh no, you had done worse than that. You'd fucked it up. Christ almighty, your feet were moving before you even had a second to finish the thought. You ditched your gloves, leaving them to suffer the loneliness of the streets as your 'janes caught the pavement and you frantically sprinted away. You almost dropped your camera as you dove for your car, parked just up the street, and pulled at the door. It didn’t give at first, forcing you to look back over your shoulder as you struggled to make sure you hadn’t been followed.
The hinge creaked as you did, giving just as your eyes passed over the figure from before. Standing, staring, their body a large shadow as the fire illuminated the world behind them. It made your blood run cold and sent a prickling sensation down your spine, but your car door was open and you were slumping into the too large seat- you didn’t have time to acknowledge the fear coursing through your freezing veins. Later on, once you’d driven home, locked the door and had time to breathe, you’d recall that feeling with regret. You would slump down to the floor and fold your head into your arms as you tried to process everything that you had just witnessed.
Christ, you were a witness to some sort of crime weren’t you? Simon couldn’t have known there would be a fire waiting for you when you got there. He’d said it was just an errand, just to get some stock shots of the warehouse for whatever article he was working on at the moment. He couldn’t have known. He wasn’t smart enough to have known. You seemed to be screaming this in your mind, pounding harsh fists into your brow as you tried to keep from shaking anymore than you already were.
This was it wasn’t it? This was going to be the motive for your mother to come out of the wood works and take you away. Fresh tears welled at the thought and your fear bunched in tight knots around your stomach, making you squirm with your back against the door. You gulped down a sob and shook your head, trying to collect yourself, trying to reason with what had happened and what you were supposed to do next. Next. Next.
You were going to find Simon and rip him a fresh one.
Sending you out at night to get a shot of a freaking warehouse of all things, was he trying to get you in trouble? Was he? The thought occurred to you that maybe he was up to something- putting you in harms way for whatever reason- a set up? Maybe. “New hire killed during routine photography errand”-- new hire killed...you shook your head and the thought seemed to evaporate as quickly as it had formed. You weren’t an idiot, but you were a good person. You liked to believe that other people could be as well and just thinking that your boss would purposefully send you to your grave for the sake of a headline, it- it just hurt too much to consider.
So you sat there, legs pulled up to your chest as your skirt bunched up around your thighs and your camera lay like something poisoned and dangerous on the floor in front of you. You’d get the film published in the morning, you told yourself, resting your head against your knees as your heart thudded unnaturally in your chest and an image of the figure from before, watching you as you drove away, flashed menacingly in your mind’s eye. You shut it tightly, squeezing your own eyes with such force that a trickle of tears trailed down the a-line of your nose and stained the already ruined state of your skirt. You tried to imagine that whomever had approached you was just another townie, another resident curious about the fire, but even that frightened you.
If they thought you had set the fire and told someone-- you kicked your foot out and sent the camera skidding even further away from you. There was a part of you that cringed at the unwarranted abuse, but the most dominant thought in your mind was to try and distance yourself from it all. You didn’t care if the lens cracked or the film got damaged. Good. Fine. You’d be getting rid of whatever connection that tied you to the scene you’d just escaped from. Simon was just going to have to deal with it. You could always get a new camera, but you couldn’t always come back from an arson sentence. Not completely, anyway.
That’s not who you were. You weren’t an arsonist or a criminal, you were a good person.
A good person.
And there wasn’t anything, or anyone, in this lifetime or the next that was going to change that about you.
Chapter 2: Ignition
Woof, it has been a while. Sorry for the wait, but here's chapter 2! The balls rolling now and reader's got some work to do!
You couldn’t remember when, but at some point after your anxiety ridden mind rant, you’d fallen asleep. It was a troubled sleep, full of heat and nightmares of a bulky figure watching you from the shadows, but it was sleep nonetheless. And you knew it was sleep because when you fell in your dream, tripping over your own camera and catapulting into what you could only describe as a dark abyss, it was as though you had fallen back into your physical body with such a violent shake that you found yourself gasping as you woke. You grabbed at your throat, at the floor, at anything to stabilize yourself and get a hold of your breathing, but it was like breaching from a pool of ice cold water, and you couldn’t quite catch it.
You were in a state of shock, of confusion, it took you almost two whole minutes to realize that you actually were cold and that your throat was practically bone dry, something that made you cough as you struggled there, on the floor. And that was only because the one window in your den was wide open and the cool air of the early morning was pouring through it to chill you and the rest of your home with its frosty embrace.
Had you opened that when you came home before?
No. No, you had not.
Shaking your head to clear the fog of sleep, you found yourself reeling from exhaustion and sore from having slept the way you had, but you had to get up- had to look around and make sure that nothing had changed, that nothing was missing, that you hadn’t been burgled after witnessing what you had come to believe was an obvious graft.
So you did, slowly. Rising to your feet, you staggered forward, rubbing your neck and shoulder to cure the stiffness formed from sleeping with your back against the front door in the most awkward and uncomfortable of positions and you took another look around. Everything seemed fine, nothing was exclusively missing or moved, aside from a few magazines on your table that could have honestly been flipped open by a stray breeze from said open window.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place,” you mumbled, your mother’s words coming to mind as you placed a hand on your hip, rolled your neck against your shoulders and stood beside the window that remained open. Taking one last sweeping glance over the small apartment, you had resigned yourself to mark up the opening of the window as a forgotten, half crazed action during last night’s fit and moved to close it. As you did, you paused, hands on the sill as you leaned with your head against the pane and allowed last night's events to pass through your mind like a series of snapshots and still frames. Each moment more foggy than the next until-
Where was your camera?
Looking again, now with purpose, you found yourself back at the door, on your knees as you pictured where you were before- how you’d kicked it away before- before…
“Shit-” you bit your tongue on the curse, crawling forward with a frantic mind rising as you peered under the table, sofa and your overstuffed lounge chair in an attempt to find something you had realized was a lot more important than you’d treated it previously. That camera was your proof, wasn’t it? You’d taken pictures of the fire, the empty streets and-
“Fucking, shit!” you slammed your palms against the wooden floorboards and pushed off from the ground as the memory of a deep voice and a flash engaged your mind and you realized what else you’d likely gotten a picture of.
In full panic mode now, you rose and moved to stomp down the short hall to your bedroom when your eyes caught a dark mass against the far wall, near the bathroom. Moving closer, you recognized the shape and your heart fluttered in relief. It was your Canon. A few feet away from where you’d originally kicked it, yes, but still, there it was, in your home. Not missing, not stolen, but there. Bending at the waist, you retrieved it and gave it a bit of a dust off before looking it over to make sure your spontaneous kick hadn’t damaged the lens or the backing in anyway that might have ruined the film. You were relieved to find that everything was fine.
Everything was fine.
“Just fine...” the word felt odd in your mind and even odder on your tongue, like something alien and unnatural, something stolen, something that didn’t belong to you after what you’d been through. After what you’d seen. But you supposed that you would have to use it anyways, especially when returning to work- whenever that was going to happen.
Standing there, leaning against the wall and musing as the gears turned in your head and the gum-shoe in you had you curious and looking as you turned the camera over and over in your hands, you pondered and let your mind wander through the facts.
You had taken more than a few shots the previous night. Plenty of the empty streets, and enough of the related pyrotechnic events, that you didn’t have to rehash them all from memory if you decided to take this story to the police instead of straight to Simon as you would usually do, but there was one- just one- that you knew you would need in case someone needed to get pinched. One picture that you knew would be enough to place blame on the proper shoulders and free yourself as the patsy.
You’d snapped a picture of whomever had approached you before you’d run off.
Regardless of what Simon’s intentions were, sending you out when he did- thinking you a rube as you assumed- you needed to know for your own sake, as well as the authorities, who that someone was and the only way you could know would be if you developed the film.
And that meant you had to go back to work.
All of your developing gear was back at the office. The dark room, the chemicals, the wash- everything- everything you needed was right beneath Simon’s feet and you weren’t sure about whether or not you felt comfortable moving beneath him at this point, let alone felt comfortable leaving your apartment, period, but if it needed to be done that’s where you’d do it.
“Lord have mercy,” another phrase from good ol’ mom slipped from your pursed lips as you found yourself back on the floor, your shoulder sliding against the wallpaper as you skid to a stop and your knees knocked together beneath you.
At this point, you were at a crossroads: either you went to work and risked Simon finding you in the dark room, or, you stayed home and risked the figure from the fire finding you in your bedroom. Both options sounded awful and could lead to any number of chalk outlines of your broken body beneath whomever's feet you’d been stalking, but you figured since you’d be dead either way...why not go out fighting?
A few hours later you were standing outside your place of work. A large office, half a skyscraper, as you’d called it, since it wasn’t quite big enough to rival the other highrises you’d seen down in Monster Manhattan, but was still pretty intimidating while looking up from down below. Especially now, as you stood with your hair curled tightly against your cheeks, your hat flattening each strand against your head as you dripped with nervous perspiration and clutched the case of your Canon closely to your side. It was still early, about eight and some change, so you weren’t as anxious about running into Simon seeing as how he liked to show up closer to noon, screaming for coffee and whining about why he didn’t have tomorrow’s articles on his desk. So you were practically free to waltz in, take the elevator down to the basement and use the dark room without interruption.
The simplicity of it made you almost giddy as you took your first steps, excited even, but something caught your eye just as you were about to grasp the handle to the glass door and all too suddenly that feeling of giddy diversion turned to paranoid dread.
You were being ranked.
Not wanting to appear too knowing, you entered the building as if you hadn’t just seen a hulking, wrong gee leaning against the corner lightpost and made a beeline for the lift. Tugging at the gated door, you managed not to get you coat’s sleeve caught on the grate, as you often did while manning it yourself, and was successful in turning the dial to the requested floor, but when you made to turn and close the gate behind you you were shocked to hear the creak and snap of someone having done it already. Spinning even faster on your heel, your back slamming against the fenced in walls of the lift, your hand clutched at your heaving chest as you eyed the one who’d done the closing.
It was a large man, more stout than tall, but intimidating nonetheless as his black, gloved fingers from the one hand he’d used to close the grate were digging into the metal there and squeezing. He looked pale in the dim light of the lobby, his eyes dark beneath the brim of his boater as he watched you descend with a groan of gears and a shudder of the rig that lowered you down into the abyss that was your office building’s basement. You only had a moment to study the features of his face as you dropped away from him, but it only took a moment to realize that he was a few features shy of a man and much more akin to- well- to a monster.
Unless he was wearing a mask, you swore up and down that you were looking upon the calcified features of a walking skeleton. He had the structure for it in his jaw line, the way his teeth aligned as a permanent grin against the high cheeked smile of someone who knew the punchline to a joke that they weren’t keen on telling you. And it was in this grin, as he stared down at you, that you found this sudden petrification. There was something in his expression, something in the dark emptiness of his eyes, or empty sockets as you could now see, that made you think that you had been wrong to assume you’d only have Simon to worry about here at the office.
The last thing you saw before disappearing below your own field of view was the way he seemed to snap out of existence. You’d blinked and where he once stood, his hand gripping the gate and holding it closed as it was, his scuffed shoes nosing the edge where the elevator dropped off into its own shaft for anyone to be lowered or lifted, now proved empty and eerily so. You hardly heard the departure of feet or the hurried thud of hard shoes on a staircase that’d lead him to meet you at the bottom where you were sure he’d make quick work of you- no. You heard nothing but the grinding machinery and the rushing of blood in your ears as you tried to stave off a growing panic attack.
Had you been any less aware of what was happening to you, you’d have thought what you’d seen was all just a part of your imagination. That you’d created this paranoid illusion and projected it out into the world before you in an attempt to convince yourself that you weren’t just spouting nonsense and that seeing what you’d saw and taking the pictures that you had, really had put you in some sort of mortal danger. But no, you knew better. Even though you had only been in the city for a short period of time, you knew the dangers lurking beyond the alleyways, knew the fear that was meant to be instilled in all women who thought to put themselves out into the world as a working class citizen.
You weren’t stupid and your mother didn’t raise a fool, no matter what she said behind your back.
You knew that what you saw was likely going to be the end of you, but you weren’t going to let that, or the obvious move of intimidation from a skeleton, stop you from doing what you thought was the right thing to do. You were going to get those pictures and you were going to the police.
End of discussion.
You jumped at the sound of the elevator coming to a sudden stop and were more than a little surprised that it had only done so because you had reached your destination. The basement: it wasn’t a six star hotel, wall to wall with carpet and easy access to lights, no, not in the slightest, but it was well lit and despite the concrete that coated each corner and the boxes and old wired shelves strewn about in their own sense of organized chaos, you felt that you knew it well and that familiarity seemed to reassure you in its own way.
You were down here often, developing film for the paper and, honestly, just using it as an escape from the prying eyes of your colleges. Not that they all weren’t wonderful people, but you were pretty sure most of them hadn’t quite wrapped their head around the whole equality part of the newest mandate passed around the time monsters first began to surface from the underground.
Although it mostly translated to equality between monsters and humans, in general, women around the country were pleased to find that it also, in some ways, helped their position too. On top of the constitution's ratification of their previous inability to work and vote, everything seemed to be coming up tops for the fairer sex...at least from an outsiders point of view.
Beneath the surface of it all, they all still had a very long way to go, especially when sexual objectification still held many under a scrutinizing gaze, so that was why you came down here; it was your sanctuary. But now, as you stood with your hands pressed against the gated door of the lift, you wondered if this hadn’t just become your prison.
There was only one other way in, or out, of the basement and that was through the stairs- something of which were honestly too dimly light and steep for you to even attempt to brave without fear of falling, or worse, so you often opted for the elevator, as you did now and as others often did before you. As you continued to stare out anxiously into the cramped space, eyes trained on the door leading to said stairwell, you half expected it to slowly open, with an ominous groan of all things, and present to you this hinky skeleton, grin and all.
But after what felt like ages of watching and waiting and allowing your imagination to run wild with thoughts of your own murder, and nothing happening, you finally felt silly enough to shake your head in resignation and put your bravest foot forward.
“So much for going out fighting,” you chuckled softly, tugging at the grate and stepping off the lift as your low heels clicked and clacked against the concrete floor. Once you’d closed the gate behind you, you moved quickly to the room and the reason you’d come down there in the first place. The developing room was pretty small, and the dark room itself even smaller, but it was cozy to you and the door had a deadbolt on it so that definitely put your mind in some sort of ease.
Locking said bolt almost immediately, you turned back to the room and your brow furrowed with determination as you let out the longest of sighs and felt your shoulders relax while that same sense of familiarity surrounded you.
“We’re hitting all eights now,” you removed your coat and gently placed the camera case on the table in the center of the room, your voice low despite there being no one to disturb with your personal mutterings, “Better get this show on the road before Simon pops his head in.”
Removing your hat, you dropped it carelessly on a nearby counter and moved towards the dark bags that were kept in the corner. This wasn’t your favorite part of developing film, as time consuming and sensitive as it was, but it was the most precise and most important so you weren’t about to go in half assing it least you lose the one bit of evidence that you knew would get the redhot sap who’d set the fire behind bars.
With a goal like that in mind, you rolled up your sleeves, tucked your hair behind your ears and went to work.
Prepping the film had definitely taken some time, more time than usual, and, you figured, the reason had something to do with the constant shaking of your hands and how many times you blindly stumbled with your fingers against the tank while trying to wind the film into the reel. As many times as you’d done this, you couldn’t help but worry that you were going to mess something up and lose it all. But in the end, you’d done it and the chemical wash that followed was nothing more than waiting and rinsing, waiting and rinsing.
Being in the basement, with no windows to speak of, time seemed to pass differently for you because when you looked at your small wrist watch, after having removed it to rinse your own hands before taking the processed film into the dark room, it was much closer to ten then you’d originally assumed.
“Hells bells,” you cursed softly and hurriedly dried your hands, slipping the watch back onto your wrist as you gently cupped the negatives in your hand and made for the much smaller door leading into the built in dark room. Well, it was actually more of a glorified closet then a room, but comparing apples to oranges shouldn’t have been on your mind at the moment so you pushed down the comparison and turned on the red light. As you entered the space, moving to set yourself up at the small desk within, you paused. A creeping, tingling, sensation passing through you and settling in your spine as your eyes trailed over you workstation and you fought the urge to turn tail and run.
Something felt off about the space you were in. It felt cramped, more so than usual, and as you glanced over your shoulder, slowly and methodically least you whip your head into something your eyes weren’t prepared for, you stood there and watched the door slowly close on its old, creaking hinge with a soft thud.
And then you realized just why it felt so crowded in there.
You weren’t alone.
You couldn’t have been.
The dim red light that swung above you made it difficult to really get a good look around, but as your head pivoted, and the sane and rested part of your brain rationalized that the door to the dark room wasn’t heavy enough, or oiled enough, to close on its own, you couldn’t fight the paranoia and suddenly the room became that much more suffocating. You wanted this space to be a safe zone, you wanted to convince yourself that what you felt was merely residual fear from having escaped the hands of a black eyed skeleton and nothing more. You were locked in, for Christ’s sake, you’d made sure of it, no one could enter the room unless they had the strength and means to break it down and by then you’d likely have hidden yourself somewhere within the room your were in so, to put it simply, you should have felt safe.
But you didn’t.
And you weren’t going to let that stop you from doing something you felt you desperately needed to do.
So, taking that sense of dread for granted, you accepted the rationalization that you might not be completely alone in there and went back to work. Cutting, framing, exposing, you did everything with fluid ease and it felt good to do it. To wear those gloves, those goggles and that mask, it made you feel like a mad scientist and it distracted you from the breath you could have sworn was heating the back of your neck as you worked. Lit beneath the red light, bathing your world in hues of blood and gore, you felt as though you’d reached the point of no return, that you couldn’t be stopped regardless of what happened next and then-
“pretty rude of ya to go runnin’ off like that,” you froze, your arms raised in the air above your head as you attempted to clip the processed photo paper to the drying line. The voice came from nowhere and everywhere, it was deep and rumbling, like a growl rising from a threatening beast. What was it your mother used to say, ’just let sleeping dogs lie’? Lord above, you wished you could. Just let it lie for eternity so you wouldn’t have to face exactly what it was, but you didn’t and it wouldn’t and just when you thought, when you’d hoped, the voice had just been a symptom of your own amassed hysteria, the red light above your head went out with a pop and you were cast into the deepest darkness imaginable. And still the growl came, “how many is that...twice? twice now?”
There was a low grunt and something that you could have sworn was a chuckle if you weren’t on the verge of tears and hyperventilation, “twice, you’ve run away from me, doll, ‘nd all i was tryin’ to do...was be all polite like and introduce myself.”
You were practically shaking as you lowered your arms, placing them on the table and grasping for something, anything, that you could possibly use as a weapon, or even to hold yourself steady as the shaking seemed to have transferred from your arms to your legs, threatening to buckle them, but it was so dark and you were so desperate with your searching that all you’d managed to do was knock over what you assumed were tongs and create such a clattering that your ears were still ringing when the voice returned and seemed to scold you.
“tsk-tsk, that’s no way to treat a new friend.”
You felt hands resting on both of your shoulders. Strong, tight hands that threatened to embrace your neck as gloved fingers brushed the line against the base and along the upper portion of your clavicle. You opened your mouth to scream, but the sudden onset of dry mouth left you croaking out a whimper, ready to accept your fate- when the world around you exploded into light.
You were on the floor when you came to. The world blurred as a figure stood over you and you recognized that the dark room was no longer dark. Light from the outer corridor was filtering in through the open doorway and casting strange, gray and black, shadows across your vision as it blinded you and your eyes refused to adjust. It took you a few seconds, but eventually you noticed that whoever was standing over you was speaking.
And it was Simon.
He sounded concerned as you felt him lift you from the small of your back into a sitting position. He felt your head and seemed to be checking your face for any visible injuries as he removed your protective gear and cleared the blur from your eyes. You guessed it had been the goggles because when you blinked the world was clear again and you were squinting into the face of your boss. Your very worried, very red faced, boss.
“Are you okay?” he seemed to be repeating himself, “What happened? How long have you been down here?”
Confusion clouded your judgement and forced a weak shake of your head as you made an attempt to push him away, just to give you enough space to process what exactly had happened. You remembered the voice, the impossible growl from a room too small to harbor two people, let alone one. You remembered the hands and your inability to scream and then- light.
“-the police are here, Reader,” the drop in Simon’s tone and volume shook you out of your recollection and you looked at him with, hopefully, the best poker face you could manage, “There was a break in, a robbery or something upstairs, they came down here lookin’ for the bastard and broke down the fucking door. It’s gonna cost me a fortune to get that thing fixed...”
You watched him with a wary eye as he turned to glance over his shoulder, out into the other room, before he lowered his eyes to you once more.
“Did you get anything?”
There it was. The one question you’d been afraid to be confronted with and the one person you never wanted to be confronted by. He was holding your hand with one of his and had the other pressed against the small of your back to support you, but his touch felt hard and tight- and, without a doubt in your mind, you could feel that he was shaking.
“...n-no,” you finally said, pulling your hand away from his to absently pat at your own body in an attempt to further check yourself for injuries, but also to make sure that those cut negatives were still in your breast pocket where you’d stowed them during the printing process. You were fine and they were safe, but as you took the time to glance around you realized the same could not have been said for the prints you’d made earlier and left to dry. Everything was gone.
Part of you hoped that there’d been a mistake and the sudden appearance and opening of the dark room door had just jostled them from the drying line, but as Simon helped you to your feet and you were able to really get a good look at your station you saw that there was no mistake. The prints were gone...and so was this ‘new friend’ of yours.
“Okay,” his voice held no emotion as he kept himself close behind you, his hand still pressed against your back as if to guide you through the throng of policemen that you now saw were crawling over every inch of the developing room. Quietly, you asked for your coat and hat, then made a move to fetch your camera when one of the boys in blue stopped your hand with his billy club and gave a stern shake of his head.
He didn’t even have to speak for you to know that your Canon had just become evidence.
Swallowing softly, you gave a curt nod and turned your head to Simon as if to say you were ready to go. He acknowledged this by tugging gently on your arm, leading you towards the door and out into the basement hallway. You saw a few more buttons there, muttering to each other as they nudged and pushed through the boxes and discarded shelves, likely looking for any space a thief could escape through or hide, but you tried not to look too long and allowed Simon to lead you towards the elevator.
“We’ll head up to my office,” he whispered, his mouth uncomfortably close to your ear as his hand moved to cup your shoulder and another memory flashed forward from the back of your still groggy mind. You felt them again, the intruder’s hands on your shoulders, inching towards your neck- the obvious threat from the encounter had your body hot and tingling from where you’d been touched and the discomfort of that feeling had you shrugging him off. He didn’t seem to mind, or at least didn’t show if he did, as the lift arrived on your floor with a familiar thunk and he pulled at the gate to allow you entry. Once inside you shoved yourself as far into the corner as humanly possible and waited for him to board to choose the floor.
While his back was turned, you tucked your arms into your coat and shrugged it back over your shoulders, as if to protect yourself from anymore unwanted touching, but also to keep Simon from noticing the inconspicuous lump of the processed negatives in your breast pocket. Holding your arms around yourself, your hat dangling from your fist as you clung, almost desperately, to your sides and leaned against the elevator wall, you finally allowed yourself to look up at Simon and weren’t surprised to find him staring back at you.
“What?” the gears groaned in their cacophony of labor as the lift rose from the lowest floor on its way up to its highest. You tried not to break eye contact, tried not to look guilty or nervous, and instead settled for minor upset. If he asked you’d say it was because of your camera, but he didn’t ask, instead he just stared and put up a hand in an effort to silence you as you slowly rose to meet the main floor, where you’d originally come from.
You admitted to yourself in that moment that you did look for him. Yes, your eyes strained over Simon’s frame, yes, you looked to where he’d originally stood- holding the gate closed as he had- and no, no, you didn’t find him there waiting for you. Instead you saw more police and one of your coworkers, Angela, being interrogated by them. You could tell she had been crying, but as the receptionist to a small newspaper printing press that had just been robbed you could sympathize with her tears.
Poor thing, you thought, she’ll be blamed for this.
Upon reaching the appropriate floor and entering the aforementioned office, Simon allowed you to sit, before he took his, and the two of you took a few moments to stare at each other in pregnant silence until you felt as though you might burst and Simon finally broke through the surface tension.
“I’m gonna ask you again, Reader,” he steepled his fingers and leaned forward so his nose was pressed against the tip, “Did you, or did you not, get any pictures from last night’s assignment?”
He spoke carefully, as you knew he would, but there was something beyond his carefully manicured words. Something shuddering and tangible. You could see it in his eyes, feel it in the way he held himself as the two of you moved through the chaotic mess that had become your place of work, and now, sitting across from him, you could practically sense it radiating off him in waves. Simon wasn’t angry, not as you thought he might be, no- Simon was scared. Of what you didn’t know, not yet, but it was your turn to speak and the way he was looking at you made you feel as though pity was an emotion that shouldn’t have been wasted on this obviously frightened man.
“Like I said before, I got nothing- well, practically nothing,” you watched for a reaction and received one in the form of a relieved sigh and the displacement of his hands back down onto his desk, “It was pretty dark-” you began again, much more slowly this time, “So anything I might’ve got likely won’t look good on print, but I’m sure I got at least one or two good shots of the warehouse.”
Cautiously, you toed the line between true and false, feeling as though anything else you might say, anything that might sound off, even to your own ears, would clue him in to what really happened and everything you’d been working towards would be for naught.
“But you saw the dark room, Simon,” you were leaning forward now, hands braced against your knees as your eyes glanced through the glass to your right and an inconspicuous copper moved slowly past the office and off into another room, “Whatever pictures I’d been developing down there are gone…”
You paused, swallowing against the lump in your throat and the lie that lay heavy on your tongue.
“And so are the negatives.”
You could see all the color drain from Simon’s face as the words finally left your lips. Guilt struck you like a freighter, but you stood strong against the sudden weight of it all and waited for the breathe that had so obviously left his body to return to him. His hands found his face and he sat there for what felt like ages, rubbing his eyes, his brow, covering his mouth- when he’d finally pulled them away he looked decades older and you could see the battle of conflict waging wars behind his eyes.
“I made a gamble,” he spoke, interrupting you as his expression distorted and you felt as though he were about to cry, “I made a gamble on you, on that warehouse, on those pictures-”
He trailed off and it took him nearly a minute to find his voice again before he continued.
“I...I sent you out there knowing you’d do the job and get me what I needed, but-”
He stopped again, biting into his own fist as if to stop himself from saying exactly what you needed to hear.
“What’re you talking about- what exactly did you need from those pictures, Simon?” you knew the answer, but you wanted him to say it. You wanted him to admit that he’d sent you to your grave. You wanted him to tell you everything, “What’s going on here?”
You thought you were prepared for whatever it was he might say, but when he looked up at you and lowered his hands to the desk, you weren’t prepared for the storm that was brewing behind his tired gaze.
“Have you ever heard of the Font Face Killers?”
Oh, heeey, it's me again! Took me some time to decide on whether or not to post what I wrote as a single chapter or multiple, but I realized how long it was and decided to cut it up into shorter chapters.
So, now we've got a nice looking cliff hanger right here.
You're welcome! ;)
Chapter 4: More Fuel for the Fire
“Have you ever heard of the Font Face Killers?”
There it was again, that exhausted mien on his face that made him look ages older than he actually was and one that you had a feeling you’d be sharing if things continued the way that they were; and, you realized, you could have stopped it all right there. Could have told him no, you’d never heard of the ‘whatever face whatevers’ and called in one of the coppers from out in the corridor to put an end to all of this, but morbid curiosity and an understanding that you’d already been immersed too long in this, Simon’s attempt at baton passing, told you that there was no point in lying about who you had and hadn’t heard of.
“Yeah,” your mouth felt as though it were full of sand, the grit giving you pause as flashes of hot and cold pulsed through your veins and you had to drop your gaze to give yourself a moment of reprieve from the hurricane you knew was heading right towards you, “They’re a gang, part of the Monster Mafia. I’ve never...I’ve never exclusively interacted with them, but the streets talk and when they do I listen, so-”
You shrugged with a sigh, raising a grimace to match Simon’s as the two of you shared a moment of unintended empathy. You were lying again and you were afraid that he knew this time.
“What about them?”
The Font Face Killers were indeed a gang as you had said, but only a small part of what was known as the Monster Mafia and an even smaller fraction of what you had understood was their foot crew. This crew being made up of mostly petty criminals and crooks that were often sent out to do the dirty work that the bigger bads were too high up in their penthouses to bother themselves with. But the Killers, the FFK, they were much more than that.
From what you could understand, between the murmurs and rumor mills that had been surrounding this particular mob of monsters, there were only three of them. The head and his shoulders that controlled an even smaller body of men, or monsters, that did what even the usual patsies were too chicken shit to get themselves tied up in.
So if Simon was bringing them up-
“I’m being bullied...threatened,” the words came out on a shaky note, so much so that he needed to clear his throat before he spoke again, “I saw-” more swallowing, he just couldn’t seem to get that lump to clear, “I saw something that wasn’t meant to be seen and-”
There was a bit of a nervous chuckle between his words and a pause that you knew held an ocean of regret, and one of silent recollection, but nonetheless he continued. His eyes closing as he lingered on what looked to be a rather painful memory.
“A-and you know how it is in this town,” his head was in his hands again and you were getting impatient, “We may not be Monster Manhattan, but we’re close enough to it to get all sorts of fucked up individuals wandering into our streets...claiming things, marking their territory...”
“What does this have to do with-”
“I fucked up,” he was struggling again, but you could tell his tongue was beginning to loosen, and his resolve and pride dissolved right before your eyes, “I published...something, that thing that I saw, and now I’ve got these sons of bitches breathing down my neck like a pack of hungry hellhounds.”
It didn’t surprise you, not really. Simon was never the first person on your list of honest joe’s, nor was he the last person you’d expect to do something so idiotic that he’d eventually have to pay for it, but you really didn’t think he was that stupid; that he’d use something so obviously rank to garner attention for a paper that barely covered a block of consumers let alone anyone important enough to do something about anything. You couldn’t even think of a time when you’d seen anything remotely related to the Font Face Killers in any of the Tribunal’s current papers or back issues- but then, you hadn’t really been there that long, had you? All of this could have happened before you’d moved to the big city. Before you’d found your apartment and applied for this job and-
You felt as though a cold wind had just swept through you, making you shiver as a sudden awareness stole your breath and left you gasping.
He had been so eager to hire you.
“I...It wasn’t just about the photos,” you’d lowered your gaze at that point, staring down into your lap as your mind raced. This job had always been too good to be true, “Was it?”
You didn’t even have to look up to know that he had his eyes on you, watching, waiting, testing your reactions and words and wondering if it even mattered to tell you now that it was already over and done with.
“I’m sorry, Reader,” Simon exhaled into his hands, covering his face as if to muffle his own breathing, “I shouldn’t have done what I did, shouldn’t have sent you out there, but I- I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t...I can’t live like this anymore.”
“So…” you began slowly, trying to fit the pieces together as best you could while the pillars of your carefully lain foundation of understanding began to crumble beneath you, “So, you sent me out there to do what? Take your place- become their new target?”
A small light flashed in your mind, making your head spin as you slumped back into the support of your chair, palms gracing your brow while pushing back the sudden migraine that had been evolving from the headache you’d had since you first left your apartment that morning to when you’d met that new friend of your’s in the basement.
“You needed...a body,” you didn’t move, just made yourself smaller on the chair as your elbows met your knees and you curled into yourself, “Didn’t you.”
It wasn’t a question.
“You needed more than just someone to take your place, you needed visual proof, pictures are one thing, but a body...that’s bound to get everyone’s attention.”
You were shaking, an uncontrollable tremble that started at the tips of your fingers and spread throughout the entirety of your body until you could do nothing, but wrap your arms around yourself to still the tremors and squeeze your eyes shut against the world that threatened to spin out from beneath you.
“I had no other choice…”
“You were an outsider. You said yourself that you had no family out here, no friends...I figured-”
“I figured I was doin’ ya a favor by giving you this job, by sending you out there...”
“What favor?” you felt your voice crack as it rose in volume and you snapped at him, “What kind of a favor would you be doing me by painting a fucking target on my back? For Christ’s sake, Simon, you’re forcing me to die for you just so you can cover up the fact that you fucked with the wrong people!”
You were yelling at this point, your arms still tucked tight up against your chest as you fought back tears of anger and fear.
“Who in their right mind thinks that sounds like a favor?”
“I’m trying to do the right thing here-”
“The right thing? The right thing would have been to just leave whatever the fuck you saw alone,” you swallowed hard against the urge to ask him what it was he even saw, to ask him if it was worth the five cents per copy he must have sold having the Font Face Killers blasted on the front page of his newspaper. You wanted to taunt him, wanted to call him a fucking chump and a mark and just rub his ego in the dirt he’d dug for himself, but the realization that you were now right there with him, all because you too thought getting ahead in life meant doing whatever it takes to get one over on someone else, kept you quiet.
So, you sat there in silence. Simon’s voice muffled beyond the roaring in your ears as you thought back to the sweet talking he’d done; the hype he’d fed to you about you being better than any Tom, Dick or Harry he’d ever hired up off the streets.
“You’ve got the right stuff, twist. I’ve never seen work like what you’ve shown me here,” he’d said, and when he said it, it made you gleam, but now that you knew exactly what his intentions were, beyond hiring you for some low quality snapshots, you realized what he really meant to say was, “You’re exactly what I’m looking for ‘cause you won’t be missed.”
And the thought of it made you sick to your stomach.
“Look,” his voice finally broke through and you did look, you looked up at him and glared, not even realizing that those tears you’d been holding back had been streaming down your face the entire time you’d been reminiscing and lining up all the signs and cues that you’d bent yourself backwards for not noticing sooner, “It’s too late for regrets now. I’ve done what I’ve done and I’m paying for it, my plan didn’t work and I’ve still got this bruno beatin’ down on me. I deserve that-”
He seemed to flinch at your words, but put out his hands as if to stop your back talk- as if he had some sort of genius plan to get the both of you out of this without anyone else getting hurt.
“But , but...you said yourself that you haven’t been braced or buzzed by these guys, so maybe you’re still in the clear, huh? Maybe I didn’t back myself too far behind this eight ball after all,” you saw what could have been relief roll off his shoulders, but you couldn’t tell if it was meant for you or himself, “Maybe you’ve still got a shot at walking away from this.”
“Yeah,” you could feel your guts twisting and your blood run cold as the ghost of those telltale hands on your neck made your flesh goose and flushed any remaining color from your cheeks, “Maybe you’re right.”
“Go home for now, Reader,” Simon rose from his chair and turned to lean against the window behind him that looked out onto the streets below; his expression no longer visible to you, but his voice giving away the terror that must have still been reflected in his eyes, “I’ll call you if anything else comes up.”
“Sure,” you rose with a shiver running down the length of your spine as you turned away from him, but before you had a chance to leave his office, something stopped you and you couldn’t help but look back at him standing there. Soundlessly, you gave his figure one last once over, weighing your options and considering whether or not he deserved a chance to walk away from something like this too, but, out of the corner of your eye, you received your answer.
A dark figure leaned against the glass pane facing out into the hall. Without the usual blinds to cover it, you’d seen a cop move past it at one point or another and figured any other shadow might have been one and the same, but this shadow was far too familiar to be anything more than what you had already conceived it to be.
It was him.
He had his arms crossed as he lounged against the glass, his back pressing into it as if he’d only just decided to take a break from his responsibilities and rest for a while. Casual, the word popped into your mind almost as soon as your heart skipped a beat and your brain sparked a warning of impending danger. Casual danger. There was a moment between you having seen him and what you assumed was him realizing he’d been seen that you thought to open your mouth and warn Simon.
He clearly hadn’t seen him, and if he did, he hardly made a move to show that he had- but a slow, gloved finger raised to a lazy, skulled grin kept you from speaking and seemed to choke the gasp in your throat as you stumbled back from the doorway and hugged your coat to your sides with about as much grip as an iron vice as you hurried away.
You didn’t see any cops on your way through the newsroom, didn’t hear any voices or sirens as your shoes clapped against the floor boards and you reached the elevator with about as little breath in your lungs as was humanly possible, but, as soon as you stopped to grip the gate and pull, you could distinctly hear the footfalls of hard soled shoes from somewhere behind you before you heard a door swing shut and all the sounds of the building and the world beyond came rushing back to greet you.
There were still people in the building, downstairs in the lobby where you too would soon be, but even after you’d opened the gate and stepped in, turning around for the first time since you’d left Simon’s office, you knew you wouldn’t send anyone back up there.
Not a chance.
Chapter 5: Stoke the Flames
Just posting a small update while I work on this next chapter.
I started writing and I realized that it was going to be A LOT for just one chapter, so I'm trying to coordinate smaller updates so as not to overwhelm with exposition.
Simon never did call you, but that really wasn’t that surprising. You’d seen the skeleton, you knew what Simon had been running from- what he’d been trying to use you for so he could escape whatever it was said skeleton seemed there to...collect. But what was weighing on you, was the why? Why even bother with a maroon like Simon? He wasn’t smart, it seemed to you like they’d already done their fair share of clean up seeing as how there weren’t any visible signs of the article he’d told you about. It even felt like they’d already done their best to break him down, so down that he had to resort to the patsy plan in attempt to satisfy their pound of flesh. Which, seeing as how that skeleton showed up anyways, also appeared to have failed miserably and, since you never received a call, you guessed at least someone had succeeded in doing their job.
“Hello?” you picked up the phone on the third ring. It’d been almost a week since you’d been to work, one week since you’d seen Simon or really spoke to anyone outside of the grocer down the street. You hadn’t left your apartment in all that time for fear that you’d see him again- see that the problem hadn’t been solved by the taking of Simon Lochhead; see that it was only a matter of time until the Killers came for you too.
Especially since you still had those negatives.
“Yes, I’d like to speak with Ms. Reader?”
“This is Joshua Mills, I’m the editor of the Tribunal newspaper company. I just had a few questions regarding your employment at our facilities.”
Your stomach rolled uncomfortably in your abdomen and made you feel instantly nauseous. Who was this Joshua? Since when was he the editor of the Tribunal?
“I-I’m sorry, editor?” you tried not to stammer, tried to keep your voice steady, “What happened to Simon?”
You already knew the answer to that question.
“Simon Lochhead is no longer employed by the Tribunal,” you thought you already knew the answer to that question, “He received a better offer from a competing company in the city, so...he’s no longer with us.”
No longer with us , there was a part of you that wanted to laugh at the sound of that. As dark as it sounded, the choice of words seemed purposeful and that in itself made you think this Joshua person was a lot more aware of what happened than you might have originally assumed.
“Okay,” you paused, “Joshua?”
You were trying not to sound too accusing, too knowing of the circumstances you felt this new guy was already straight on, as you continued.
“What was it you wanted to ask me?”
“Just a few questions, like I said before. It’s been a good few days since we last saw you in and I just wanted to make sure everything was alright on your end.”
“Y-yeah, I’m fine. I caught a bit of a cold and I’ve just been recovering,” another pause from you and you could have sworn you heard a soft chuckle come from the other side of the line, “Simon approved my time off...from before.”
You bit your lip at how fake that sounded and wished you hadn’t taken advantage of the lack of Simon to back up what you were saying, but what else could you do? Tell him the truth about your paranoia and terrible lack of sleep? Tell him that you hardly ever ventured beyond a block from your house and when you did it was only to get food so you could continue to hole yourself up in the only place you felt remotely safe? That was none of his business and, frankly, you didn’t think you could trust this guy.
“Oh, well, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you’ll be feeling better soon,” he paused and, again, you thought you heard a soft sigh of amusement from the other side as he took in a long breath before continuing, “When you are, Ms. Reader, I look forward to seeing you back at work. I’ve heard great things about you and I can’t wait to meet you.”
You lingered on his last words, letting them sink into you and processing them as a clear warning of what might happen if you didn’t come back and come back soon.
“Yes, sir, I look forward to meeting you as well,” seeing as how he was the new editor and all, “I’m sorry for the trouble-”
“Oh, no trouble,” he laughed a bit more audibly now, “No trouble at all. Just get better. We’ll continue this conversation when you come in. Make sure to see me as soon as you do.”
“I will, thank you.”
“No, thank you , Ms. Reader,” you could practically feel the smile through his words, “Take care.”
You heard the line go dead before you really had a chance to finish your end of the conversation and the suddenness of it had you leaning back to look at the phone as if to ask yourself if that really just happened. None of it felt real. Simon being gone, this Joshua person taking his place, and the way he spoke made you feel as though there was a lot more to what he was saying. Or at least that he seemed amused with your excuses, like he knew something you didn’t- you shook your head and hung up the phone.
Settling back into your favorite armchair, you draped yourself over the armrest and stared out the window to your left, musing on the circumstances of Simon’s assumed death, the cause for your hermit symptoms and the figure you hadn’t been able to put out of your head since the last you’d seen him.
That skeleton had definitely been on your mind these past few days. Lurking in your thoughts and drifting in and out of the nightmares you suffered from whenever you did manage to get some sleep. He was about as big as you could remember him being, stout and intimidating as he stood on the opposite end of the elevator’s gate; holding it closed as he stared you down from beneath the rim of his hat. You could even remember a point in which your dreamself didn’t shy away from him, stepping closer and hugging the grate yourself as you looked up into his face to see that smirking grin and those empty, soulless eyes. You’d seen monsters before, who hadn’t, living as close to Monster Manhattan as you did it was almost impossible not to walk down the streets and pass one or two, maybe a family, but in all the time you’d been living there, you couldn’t recall ever seeing anyone like him .
Yawning, you tucked your head between your folded arms and wondered why they were called that? The Font Face Killers. The killer part you could understand, poor Simon could definitely understand, but font face...like type font? Did that mean they dealt exclusively with the press? You figured that’d make sense and actually found yourself smiling at the thought of how clever they must have felt having come up with a name like that.
“The Font Face Killers…” you yawned again and your eyes drifted closed, “Buncha dangerous wise heads, that’s what they are…”