Short story
English

Grey and Lifeless

I close the door of the office after my client, and pushing on my lame leg, I walk back to my desk. Darkness reins over my workplace. Were you to peek through the blinds, the only thing you would see would be a grey and lifeless sky, caging an equally grey and lifeless city. No lights, no shadows. A lifetime away, I fell in love with the wide panorama over the rooftops this place gave me, and chose it to be my office. Now I never glance at the world outside.

I reach under the desk. The top drawer is my little treasure chest. That’s where I used to hide my Magnum .38. But now that Maggy never leaves my person, it’s home to a bottle of whisky. I don’t bother using glasses anymore. I uncap the bottle and put it to my lips, like a drunk. But you can’t be a detective in this city without also being a drunk. It’s part of your license.

I look at the picture the man gave me. I’m good at my job. When I set my mind on a task, I never fail. I know I could find that person. Just like that time. Oh, let me explain the irony.

It was a day like this one, just add rain to the mix. I hadn’t got out of my office for three days, and it smelled of cold tobacco and solitude. I was wearing the same suit as the day before, and my chin couldn’t remember how a razor blade looked like. My grey, lifeless eyes were sunk in their orbits, and the last thing I wanted to see was another of those tiring human beings.

The bell rang. For a time, I pondered if I should go open the door or not. A quick glance at the unpaid bills littering my desk pushed me out of my comfy chair.

Waiting for me on the other side of the door was a woman. She was a classic beauty: Marilyn Monroe wearing gloves and a bright, woolen coat. That was it. I recognized the peak of my career, the point where I get to be this noir film protagonist. All detectives are waiting for The Case, the one that will forever change their life. Just like that, my fool mood vanished. The terrible smell didn’t, and I could see the second thoughts crossing her mind as she entered my lair. I sat her down on the armchair facing me and tried to play it cool.

“Let me know what I can do for you.”

“I’m looking for a missing person,” she said. She retrieved a picture from her coat and put it on the desk, facing me. “My husband.”

At first, I hadn’t noticed the ring under her glove. Now it was obvious. Subconsciously, my fingers reached for my own wedding ring. Old habits die hard.

“You married?” she asked, as a way to bring me back to the present.

“Legally, yes. But I haven’t seen my wife and daughter for years. Tell me more about your husband. And you.”

Her name was Lillian. She had married Adam two years ago, and even though the honeymoon was over, things were still going well between them. Until the day Adam had left for work and never came back. She had called his boss, who told her Adam had left the office a little earlier than usual that day. After checking that he hadn’t been caught in any known accident, the cops dismissed her plea. They told her that he either had an affair, or a bad hangover, or both, and he would be back eventually. He did not.

And so she had come to me.

“You were married for two years and things were going well… was there any talk of a child?”

“No,” she said. “Why?”

“I had to chase my fair share of men with a parenting phobia. Any… close female friend?”

“You mean, any mistress? Not… that I know of. As I said, things were going well between us. He would never…”

I saw doubt creeping on her.

“Sometimes, we believe we know people… and we’re wrong. But I’m not saying it’s the case here. I’m just asking the usual questions.”

Lillian nodded and told me more about them. She described me a good man, kind and down to earth, and I could find no obvious reason for him to leave. Sure, there was this friend of his, Evelyn, but they had known each other for a long time, and if anything more than friendship could have blossomed, it would have done so long ago. I would check this lead, but deep down I knew it wasn’t that simple. I had stumbled upon a true disappearance case.

I saw her off, promising to do my best. And it was a promise I was eager to keep. Not because of the money, or because I wanted to leave a good impression. Though both played a part. I wanted to help her because I could still remember a different time, a different me, when I was recently married and carrying a baby child in my arms. It had gone down poorly for me, but maybe I could help her reach for a different fate. It was The Case, alright.

So I got on a quest. I asked around, showing Adam’s picture at his office, talking to his boss. Adam was a good asset and he hoped he would be back soon. Any rival? The boss laughed, telling me the devil himself would want to befriend Adam.

And I started to fear he was right.

Evelyn was harder to find. Cute girl too, but with a quiet personality. She didn’t talk much, and I thought her grey eyes were kind of lifeless. Not an unusual sight in this city. She didn’t talk much and I learned nothing from her I didn’t already knew. They were friends, not lovers. She had no interest for love. Not unusual either.

It was still raining when I got home, head down, hands in my raincoat pockets, the heart heavy. The lamp posts blinked meekly, as if they were going to give up and shut down forever, plunging the city in an eternal night. They probably would, in time.

The day after, I stayed in my office, gazing at the dusty dart-board. I was done investigating. I had promised myself I would solve this case, and I had. I knew what had happened to Adam, and the only thing left to do was waiting.

Lillian called me in the afternoon to tell me Adam was back. She sounded excited, and I tried very hard to share her enthusiasm. Adam was tired, but he was okay. She would ask him where he had been tomorrow.

I waited. One day. Then another. And finally she came back to my office. She was distraught.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, knowing the answer better than she did.

“Adam is not himself. I don’t know what happened to him, he won’t tell me. He can’t tell me. Says he forgot all about it. I asked him if he had been drunk, but he can’t even answer that.”

“He probably got scared,” I lied. “Drunk misadventures can do that to you. And don’t even get me started on shame. I know all about it, trust me. He needs time before he can talk about it openly.”

“But he doesn’t seem to care… He’s changed. The way he stands, the way he talks, even the look in his eyes… it’s all off. Not by much, but I’m his wife and I can tell. I don’t know who came back to me, but it’s not the Adam I knew.”

Here it was. I sighed, because I knew it, and sometimes I don’t like being right.

“Like I said, he’s probably shaken.”

“He hurt himself. He dropped a glass of water and watched it shatters, as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. When he knelt down to gather the shards, he cut his hand.”

I knew she was going to talk about the blood. And that made me sad. Noticing the blood is a point of no return.

“His blood was grey, like ashes,” she said. She waited for my reaction. When I offered her none, she almost shrieked. “Grey blood! Am I going crazy? What kind of… substance did he had to ingest for his blood to lose all color? Drugs? Was it Evelyn that gave them to him? She’s been stoned for a month now.”

“Calm down,” I said. “Evelyn was probably the vector, but your husband is not on drugs. I’m sorry to say that Lillian, but I’m afraid Adam is gone.”

She was shaking. “What do you mean?” Yet she knew what I meant. She had seen it in his eyes. Grey and lifeless. They were a deep brown in the picture she had given to me. And then the blood. Grey and lifeless as well.

“People disappears all the time in this city. That’s why the cops don’t take it seriously anymore. Most of them can’t bring themselves to care. Just like Adam or Evelyn can’t. It’s not just the mood, or the weather. It’s not a disease. It’s… an invasion.”

“You’re scaring me…”

“The missing people always come back. They only need a day or two to work on them.”

“Who are… they?”

“Don’t know. Don’t want to. They are not like us. They are not from here. But the city belongs to them now.” I rose and walked to the windows. Peeked through the blinds. Grey and lifeless. “Had been theirs for quite some time now.”

“What happened to Adam?”

“Adam is no more. I’m sorry, but he’s forever gone. What came back to you is… something else. An approximation of your husband.”

“What does it want… from me?”

I turned back to face her. “Like I said, it’s an invasion. First Evelyn. Then Adam. And then…”

“I can’t go home.”

I nodded. “Any family close by?”

“No. I would need to take the plane. But Ada… that thing has the car.”

“Let me drive you to the airport, then. It’s too late for your husband, but you may still avoid his fate.”

That’s how Lillian got into my car. I drove fast, almost recklessly. Not that it mattered. Cops were among the firsts to be replaced. What parade as them now don’t give a damn about traffic. And few of them use cars, so the roads are always empty.

Lillian was looking at me, sadness and fear in her beautiful, living eyes. I wondered how long it would take for her to notice.

“You don’t wear your wedding ring today,” she said. That wasn’t the observation I expected.

“Yeah… I… lost it.”

“Really?” She frowned. Then she looked around, finally paying attention to our surroundings. “Wait, it’s not the way to the airport!”

I could have lied, told her it was a shortcut, but why bother? I parked in front of a warehouse and motioned toward the old, derelict building. “Out.”

“Where are we?”

“Out.”

“Not before you tell me where we are!”

I drew Maggy from my coat. “I said, out.” She stared at the gun for a moment, before opening the car’s door. I led her toward the warehouse, pushing the barrel against her back.

Inside the warehouse were only shadows. It took some time for our eyes to focus. Then a silhouette appeared in front of us. Lillian recognized it, even though its posture was slightly off.

“Adam,” she said. The next question was for me: “What does all of it means?”

“I thought you wanted to find your husband.”

“I’m here, Lillian,” said Adam. His voice wasn’t really brimming with joy. It was grey and lifeless, too. “I was looking for you.”

He reached for her with clumsy open arms. Lillian’s hand crashed against his face, drawing blood from his nose. Ash-grey blood.

“You’re not Adam.” She span to face me. “And you’re not the detective!” Her eyes looked down on my finger, where the wedding ring was supposed to be.

“The process is quick and painless,” I promised.

“Come, Lillian,” said Adam behind her. “Let’s go back home. You and I. You and I and everyone. Let’s go back home.”

“Fuck you!” She caught the barrel of Maggy before I could react. She struggled to pry the Magnum from my fingers, and I fought back. The gun got off.

Thunder echoed inside the warehouse and slowly died off. A scream of agony followed.

I fell on the ground, grasping my bloodied leg and wailing. Lillian watched, Maggy smoking in her hand.

My blood smeared the warehouse’s floor, painting it…

“Red…” Lillian dropped the gun. “Your blood is red.”

I struggled to get my senses back, to see her through the veil of tears, to anchor myself to consciousness.

“But… the ring…”

I smiled with clenched teeth. “Threw it away. Thought it was time. That I could go on living… without clinging to my past. It was The Case, you know?”

Silence. “Why?” she finally asked. “Why help them… if you’re not one of them?”

What used to be Adam kicked the gun out of reach and caught her arm.

“It’s their city. Hell, it’s their world, for all I know. When in Rome…”

“You’re hopeless,” she said.

I laughed and then I cried.

Adam led her into unknown darkness.

The bottle of whisky is empty. I shake it to get a few more drops, but it’s already one hundred percent dry. I throw it to the ground but it doesn’t even shatter. Guess what I truly need is a smoke. I pull my lighter from my treasure drawer. Then I stare at the picture of the missing person the man brought me.

She’s a classic beauty.

I drop the picture of Lillian in the ashtray.

I’m good at my job. I could find her if I wanted to. That’s what Adam asked me to do. What they want from me.

But I don’t feel like it.

I click the lighter and set fire to the picture.

Because I have this belief… that some unsolved mysteries can make the world a little less… how should I put it? Grey and lifeless.