Under the Skin

A team of police officers confront evil in the basement of a drug house.

The junkie’s name is Tommy Ferguson and he is going to die.

Twelve years in narcotics, years when I’ve seen just about every depravity one human can do to another, and my intuition has never been stronger. Life on the street is a short and dangerous game, and no player is your friend.

Tommy, a prep from the burbs flashing a bit too much cash for his own good, just met an enemy. A guy in baggy camouflage and a red Chicago Bulls cap selling him a Glad bag containing enough blow to rocket him to another dimension. If he keeps his cool, then maybe he gets back in his dad’s BMW and lives to grow his first beard. But my guess is no, not quite.

Tonight he dies.

Tonight I hope he dies.

Because I got plans.

My partner nudges me. Jerry Carmody was only a beat cop six months before transferring to narcotics. I asked our sergeant to assign him to me. I don’t mind rookies. The other two guys in our unit, Henry McMahon and Bill Trapane, consider rookies about as trustworthy as a woman with a credit card, but they’re looking at it all wrong. Fresh-faced rooks have minds that are so open, you can dump a lot of shit into them.

“Look at that kid, Eddie,” Jerry says to me, shifting in his chair. He does this thing with his palms, rubbing them against his lap nervously. “Looks scared.”

Sometimes I wish my partner wouldn’t talk. He’s that type of cop trying to grow eyes in the back of his head but usually ends up looking lost. He tries to reason things out, overthink things, when instinct is all you need to survive.

“He ought to look scared,” I tell him. “He’s a fucking idiot. Busted him twice before for possession. Never learns.”

Jerry scowls. He doesn’t like me much, but that’s because I’m an asshole to anyone who breaks my concentration when I’m observing. I like to watch the set develop, see who the players are and who’s got the stash, who the moneymen are, the steerers, the managers, all the shit a good cop keeps track of.  From our position across the street in this vacant third-floor apartment, we can see it all go down, like viewing the cancerous cells of an organism destroying itself from within.

“You’re a regular Michael Landon,” says Jerry. “An angel. Have you got your wings yet?”

“Shut up.”

His face turns red. Embarrassed, or maybe pissed off, he turns his attention back to the drug deal.

You could say this operation isn’t going in the books. The other two guys are in on it, but Jerry has no idea. Yet.

A minute of rare, Jerry-less silence goes by before he asks, “What do you think they’re talking about down there?”

“How big their dicks are, how the hell should I know?”

That buys another two minutes of indignant silence.

Then my walkie-talkie crackles. “Any action yet, Eddie?” It’s Henry McMahon from the catch car, a black, unmarked van one block away.

“Kid’s making the buy now. The players are anxious. Lots of movement.”

A static pause, then McMahon’s hopeful voice. “Is it potential?”

“Affirmative,” I answer, trusting my instincts. “I think we’ll have ourselves an offering.”

Suddenly Jerry grabs my sleeve and gasps.

The player pulls a gun; he must have made the kid for an undercover cop or something. Sometimes these dealers are jumpy. Getting pinched is a way of life for them, but sloppy dealing will make suppliers skittish. Something the kid said must have spooked him.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jerry tense up and look at me. I wait a moment before contacting the catch car.

“Jesus, Eddie, I think he’s gonna shoot him!” Jerry’s voice is one octave higher than my wife’s. “Tell McMahon and Trapane to get in there. Do it, Eddie, do it before—”

In one swift motion, I have the rookie pinned to the floor.

Jerry flails against me, glances a few punches off my shoulder, but I’m a damn sight heavier and stronger, compliments of college football and wrestling. In seconds I have his scrawny arms pinned behind his body, his pimply face pressed against the floor. Whiny little chirps escape his throat.

“You’re gonna shut up and listen to me, Jerry. You’re gonna be a good boy and do what I say, because I’m going to save you.  Are you going to stop fighting me now?” I ease up a little. “There are things you need to understand, so these operations go smoothly.”

Jerry wriggles his head, which I take for a nod.

I release him. He rolls over on his back and glares up at me like I’m a few bullets shy of a clip. I ignore him for now and watch the junkie teenager tremble, pale and sweaty, as the player thrusts the gun into his face.

C’mon, I think, pull the goddamn trigger, you worthless scumbag. Do the kid a favor.

Glancing around and waving his gang off, the player utters something inaudible that makes Tommy scream and turn to run, but the gun goes off.  The bullet exits the boy’s chest in a spray of blood, and his body crumples to the ground, shuddering in pain and shock, before finally resting in peace.

Jerry looks like he’s about to faint.

“Y-you let it happen,” he stammers. “You l-let the kid die and didn’t try to stop it!”

“McMahon,” I say into the walkie-talkie, ignoring Jerry. “Hit the set. Don’t bother with the bus.” An ambulance wouldn’t do Tommy very much good now, anyway.

A moment later, the cavalry roars down the street.

“Let’s go, Jerry.” The rookie looks about the way I feel after a night of binge drinking and whoring. “You comin’?”

Slowly he rises from his seat.

Outside on the dark street, it’s controlled mayhem. House lights wink on up and down the street. Curious neighbors, afraid to be out at night except when cops are around, line their porches, the sleep still in their hair and eyes.

“Is backup coming?” Jerry asks, surveying the empty street for flashing lights. “Want me to start canvassing and talking to witnesses, Eddie?” He’s doing that thing with his palms again.

“Negative on both,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes quizzically at me.

“There’s going to be a slight breach of protocol tonight.” I nod to Trapane, a short stocky guy with broad shoulders and close-cropped black hair. He wears a scowl as dutifully as his badge, but he’s as loyal as they come. Trapane, along with McMahon, grab Tommy around the shoulders and ankles and load him into the van.

Jerry draws me aside. “What the hell is going on, Eddie?”

“We’ll tell you all about it on the way.”

“I want to know now, or I’m reporting this to the lieutenant.”

“Jesus Christ,” McMahon grumbles. He grabs the rookie by the back of his neck, spins him around, and jams him up against the van. The neighbors watch this with slack-jawed fascination.

“Whatchoo wanna do is ride along with us and keep your dumbfuck mouth shut,” McMahon tells him, shards of spittle striking Jerry’s face. “You don’t wanna question us; you wanna be a part of us, ’cause we survive the streets, kid.”

“And if you’re lucky, we’ll show you how,” Trapane adds for good measure.

McMahon lets the rook go and slams the van door shut.

I flinch at the sound. There’s a finality to it, like the lid of a coffin dropping. We all look at each other for signs of weakness in our eyes. Sure, we’ve done this before, but every now and then, a man’s conscience comes crashing down on him like an anvil, and maybe his faith in what he’s doing starts to fade.

What we wade through serving the public is fouler than anything they depict on TV. Like the time I found an abandoned baby roasting in an oven, all shriveled and leathery, still wearing its dying scream. Or the time we found a man and woman tied up and gunned down execution-style, their genitals sliced off and soaking in blood in a cake pan beside their mutilated bodies. Why I risk my ass, I’ll never know.

Then there are the things a cop can’t quite explain, the things that break the barriers he puts up around his job, so when he goes home to his wife and kids, he’s not a confused and sobbing wretch like the perps he busts all day. It festers in his psyche like a sliver under the skin. You live long enough, see what I’ve seen, and you realize that evil flows in and around our society like an electrical current with no breaker switch. Deeper than anyone ever thought possible. Deeper than even our priests and philosophers can begin to understand.

What I saw in the basement of a crack house during a routine raid three years ago was born of that current, thriving off it like one of those parasitic suckerfish stuck to the side of a shark. Sometimes it visits my sleep, and I wake up screaming and crying. It’s like my mind is trying to cleanse the memory of it before it can corrupt me fully.

But it’s too late for that. Too late to go back to the illusion of inherent goodness in the world.

Jerry straightens out his uniform, puffs up his chest a little. The rook’s scared, and no one can blame him. He wants to be a good cop and save the world like he promised his mother, and can’t understand heisting a body from a crime scene.

“Let’s go,” I say, and solemnly we pile into the van. My sunny disposition and limitless empathy get me elected to sit in the back with the rook. The boys get a laugh out of this; even Jerry smiles despite himself. McMahon climbs into the passenger seat, and Trapane roars the engine to life.

“Next stop, the Twilight Zone,” Trapane jokes, as he steers us onto some light traffic on South Main.

“Ever watch somebody die before, kid?” McMahon wants to know.

Jerry stares at the body on the floor between us as though he expects it to open one eye and wink at him.

“Guess that’s a no,” I say. Jerry just keeps staring down. Then he starts in with the palms again.

“Eddie,” McMahon says, “you tell the kid about this place yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, my black ass ain’t goin’ near that house.” He turns away from us shamefully.

Big bad McMahon. Took a bullet in the leg during his third tour in Afghanistan, really fought the shit out of those Taliban motherfuckers to hear him tell it, and now he’s shivering at the thought of going inside a drug house. It was only last year McMahon transferred to our unit from sex crimes, so I can cut him a little slack. The adjustment period is different for everyone.

But not much.

“What do we, uh, do with it?” Jerry points at the body.

“Not we, kid. You.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You feed the beast,” I explain, getting right up in his face. “You take that stinking corpse there, carry it through the front door, set it down in the foyer, and then run like hell when you see it coming.”


Darkness creeps into his face. His hands rub harder. I stare him right in the eyes to let him know I think he should listen, that he’s not getting the business here.

“I lost a partner three years ago because he froze, Jerry, because he refused to believe what he saw. This thing doesn’t give you a chance to interview it, but it does give immunity to death. Ain’t that right, Bill?”

Trapane holds up three fingers. Then lowers two so he can flip the middle one at a jaywalker.

“That’s three times he took a bullet and survived,” I say.

McMahon adds, “Yeah, all of them in the ass and just flesh wounds. Point-blank range.”

Jerry shakes his head. “I got a wife and a baby on the way, guys. I can’t play around here. Seriously, get me out of here. My shift is over. I thought narcotics was about busting scum. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, when my old man was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got capped in the head by a dealer. Eddie, tell them to let me go.”

I tell them nothing of the sort.

“We’re here,” Trapane announces a minute later. The van lurches to a stop at the corner of Lexington and Third.

I look at the rook. “Time’s up, kid. Get out of the van.”

The palms rev up. “No.”

“Get the fuck out of the van!”

Jerry strains to see the dark house through the windshield. “No way.” Sweat’s oozing down his forehead.

“I’ll come back there and get you,” McMahon threatens.

“I don’t care. This game’s over.” His hand drops to the Glock holstered on his hip, where it probably waits for the command from his brain to take out three crazy cops.

“You think this is a game?” I whip out my own peacemaker and stick it in his face. Jerry’s eyes cross as they stare down the barrel. “I could kill you right now if I wanted to, but I can’t kill them!” I swing the gun over to McMahon and fire.

Three clicks.

Three misfires.

Not a flinch out of McMahon.

“You see, kid,” I say, “you can have that immunity, too. I don’t know how it works, and frankly I could give a doggy dick how it works. But you feed a body to that house, like depositing a quarter into a juke, and you get back instant immortality.” My laugh sounds slightly maniacal, to my ears at least. “It’s that simple. Now get out of the fucking van.”

I watch Jerry finger his piece a little longer. To my relief, decide he opens the door and steps out of the van.

We all stand together, staring up at the house. We’re so alone out here, it feels like the dark side of the moon. Nobody ever goes near this house. The neighbors have all moved away. On the outside, the house looks typical for this run-down old neighborhood—dilapidated and unceremoniously boarded up, paint peeling and weeds growing unchecked in the yard.

But on the inside, it’s blacker than Hell.

“Better hurry,” I say, mostly to myself. I can feel my skin crawling. “It’s watching.”

Though he doesn’t say anything, Jerry pleads with us with those terrified baby blues of his, but we’re a hard crew with a short supply of mercy. It’s not that we hate Jerry, but some obligations surpass duty.

We watch as the rookie wraps the body in a blanket, throws it over his shoulder, and starts up the weed-choked path to the house. At least we don’t have to worry about witnesses. For that small favor, I’m grateful.

“Dump it and run!” I cry, a sharp guilt gnawing my belly.

He hurries. The body bounces with each stride, and blood leaks out from under the blanket. It leaves an undulating black trail on the cement slabs of the walk.

He hesitates at the porch and then takes each creaky step slowly and deliberately. He has no way of knowing what’s coming next. Like I was saying before about open minds—his was stuffed full of notions about monsters that eat decomposing bodies. Most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

The thing in the house on Lexington and Third is evil, make no mistake. I was scouring the house during a raid for drugs and weapons when I heard my partner scream. At least it started as a scream, but quickly turned into a strangled gurgle. I flew down the basement stairs, a few of the uniforms behind me, and found myself in darkness so thick I could have jabbed it with a finger and watched it ooze.

I switched on my flashlight. My heart flailing, I saw what remained of my partner, a rookie cop named Cliff Barton. I couldn’t call it a man anymore, more like a coroner’s nightmare. In the dim light at my back, I saw his hand quivering, his blood-flecked fingers opening and closing as if inviting me into the dark with him. The arm had been ripped off his body. His head was detached, lying next to his legs, a runny trail of blood and mucous wetting the lips.

I waved my flashlight all around, searching for the assailant, when something crawled out of the shadows behind the furnace. I can only describe it, loosely, as a cross between a cockroach and a spider, but with a large, bulbous body—a thing that made some throaty noises and smelled like sulfur, but worse. Black, oily, and sleek, it bellied up to Cliff’s body and slumped over it, searing his flesh with some noxious acid. In moments,  it reduced my partner to a stain and a few odd bits of bone.

Add to that a steaming splatter of my own vomit.

As I stood there staring at the stain and wiping my mouth, a shot fired from somewhere in the house. The uniforms and I turned and ran back up the stairs.I In the kitchen, we discovered a crackhead waving a Glock. Startled by the sudden appearance of four more cops, he started spraying bullets at us. We were only grazed or missed entirely.

Impossible, you say? That’s what I used to think.

I knew immediately what I had to do. For it to not leave the confines of the house and contaminate the rest of the city, it needs fresh meat. When a rookie winds up missing, the media call it job pressure.

The boys and I call it civic duty.

The three of us, McMahon, Trapane, and I are just cells in an organism, fending off a cancer so the disease won’t spread to the rest of the body.

After Jerry Carmody’s screams fade into the night, I will tell myself he didn’t die in vain. Maybe his wife and children will believe it.

Maybe someday I will, too.

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Feel a mother’s love, learn what happens when songs end, and befriend the entity living behind the wallpaper in your house. Honor the bone god, come to terms with the past, and don’t let death stop you from exacting your revenge.

Whatever you do, steer clear of the shadows, don’t go anywhere without your EpiPen, and remember: your crew aren’t your friends.

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Under the Skin

A team of police officers confront evil in the basement of a drug house.

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