UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 02/2008
JOSEPH HIRSCH

The Claustrophobic Detective


Hieronymus Jérôme Bosch, detail from Jardim das Delícias
         Tongue Town, so named for the mishmash of cultures that kept it from being called solely Little Italy, Chinatown or Turkey Town, was fifteen square blocks of food smells, and banners strewn like clotheslines between old buildings. It was a small borough of differing Gods who were either at war with each other, or were unaware of the other’s existence. And maybe in the case of the most Zen deities, the right to disagree was respected intact.

         The Law rarely came down here. Policing, for the most part, was done internally. If one of the squad detectives touched the tip of the Tongue, it was usually for a cheap lunch. Junior Detective Bishop deliberately avoided the place when he could, because it was equally hard to enter or leave. His dissatisfaction with being forced to come down here was now palpably written across his stubbly pale face, which was partially concealed by steam emanating from the grates at his feet, moistening the weatherproof sheen off his loafers, and combining with smoke from the cigarette he kept in his mouth. That was the one good thing about this part of town. It was still legal to smoke here.

He craned his neck upward, to the sliver of clouds banked between the walls of the brownstones piled shoulder to shoulder all the way down the street, like an eternally reflecting series of mirrors. The only available light was coming from the crime scene, which gave off a sickly purple neon that overshadowed the neon coming from even the riskiest venture of food poisoning at the shadiest of restaurants, or any case of VD from the battery of whorehouses, both human and robotic, populating the city. It was something that he didn’t want to understand. And this one, this womb, was apparently owned by a Chinese man, or at least one pandering to a cliché as old as the coolie. Won’s Womb.

         Clever. But moving closer to the pumpkin-shaped chamber, throbbing iridescent light, stronger than the reds and blues of the beat cops’ cruiser, he saw that the man detained in flexi-cuffs was indeed Chinese, or at least of Asian extraction. Bishop drank in the smoke from his cigarette, and navigated around the gawking crowd. He thought he could faintly detect the victim through the venous skin of the pumpkin, which was about half the size of the brownstones abutting it on both sides.

         The two cops, holding the perp-proprietor must have divined Bishop’s occupation from his bearing alone, because he flashed no badge, and said nothing to them, but they still let him through the cordon. “You want to talk to him?” They asked, of the man held between them, chomping at the bit to plead his case, and maybe hang himself without the benefit of a lawyer. Bishop held up the hand in which he carried his cigarette, and said, “In a minute. Let me take a look at the victim first.”

         “You don’t want to do that.” The second cop said, his stomach souring in sympathy for Bishop. The proprietor struggled, and shouted. “No smoking in my womb!”

         The two cops pinioned his arms behind his back, in full ninety-degree uncles. “You got bigger problems, now, chief.” Bishop continued smoking his cigarette, and for the first time, stepped inside of one. He had resisted them until now, content to remain simple of this habit. The more mystified he remained by it, the better off he was. At least, that was how he reasoned it.

         There were twelve licensed wombs in the city proper, with talks of zoning space for another three within the upcoming fiscal year. Most moral watchdogs considered the things eyesores, or the craven province of men (usually men) too weak for reality. But from the sky, in a plane or in a rocket, their beauty could not be argued, and they formed a tryst of purple lights, a skyline whose unintentional shape could be argued as endlessly as drifting clouds.

         Bishop, who had never even left the country, let alone the planet, could not appreciate their beauty. And if he ever had appreciated them at some point in the past, all such thoughts would have been banished, washed in the blood of this victim, now a formless pancake of melted bone, and skull so thoroughly crushed that it had been flattened almost to two dimensions. Bishop didn’t lose his lunch, but the way the close confines incubated the corpse did test the veteran detective’s stomach. He countered the impression with cigarette smoke, and the small satisfaction that the man who had crushed this poor bastard didn’t want him smoking in here.

         Could he possibly burn this place with one careless ember, the way someone might fall asleep in an armchair, and burn their house to the ground? It was a thought.

         The warmth of the place entered him, but he was only conscious of it when he realized that he would have to leave at some point, and be forced to walk back outside filled with the knowledge of death, before Forensics and the photographers had their turn with it. The feeling was something like the hard, hot needles of a shower in a cold room, steaming ridges of goose bumps all over your body, and urging you to remain where you were. He gave into it, then, because he so rarely caved in to anything. Take away cigarettes and he was without vice. He was of the Christian minority, attended a church in a dense nest of mosques, was loyal to his wife, and was one of the few men in the department who was not an alcoholic, closet or open. But still he gave in, for now, allowing himself to slide along the wall, into a crouch, staring at the final obstinate cherry of his cigarette. It warned of its impending death by burning his fingers, and staining the nails black.

         He began to understand, against tough will, why some men paid a quarter month’s wages to scurry here, to the very essence, which had finally been expanded, ballooned to the size of a home, and then exploited by men like the handcuffed proprietor outside.

         Overpopulation, man stacked upon man, racial unease, war, disease, the live broadcast feed of footage that rolled into every home when the work day was done, and it was time to repose with horror… He understood these men, could even see himself becoming one if he didn’t get the hell out of here, soon. Now the only thing that remained to be understood was why the proprietor had felt the need to kill this sad case, who had done nothing but patronize his business.

         If it wasn’t a case of cold murder, then it was a case of negligence. And in that case the man standing outside would be fined heavily, and his shop would be closed down. Either way, he had some music to face. Bishop ditched his cigarette on the fleshy floor of the chamber, and stepped back outside, down the gangway to the ground, where the crowd had thinned some. The owner was still animated in his protest, and the two policemen were still struggling to keep up with their care. Bishop glistened with condensation from the womb. Now all I have to do is chew the umbilical cord with my cigarette-stained teeth, he mused. He stepped to the proprietor, who lunged forward with his neck, as if he could bite Bishop with his very words. “I told you not to smoke in there!”

         “And we told you you’ve got bigger problems, now.” One of the cops said, pinching the man’s forearm along the shoulder, until he could only concentrate on his pain. Bishop pulled the man away to a neutral corner, giving the cops a look of weary brotherhood, conveying his need to have a crack at it his way, while also hoping the man now somewhat viewed him as his deliverance.

         “Could a man spend twenty-four hours in there?” Bishop asked, in a low, commiserating tone. It seemed to put the proprietor at ease, and he leaned in, speaking into the detective’s tie, as if it were a listening device. “You mean, physically?”

         “Sure.” Bishop said, genuinely curious. His question wasn’t really pertinent to the investigation, but only he knew that. The proprietor, the Won maybe, gave a shrug, and then spoke. “I would imagine so. After all, it’s not a sauna in there, but…” He paused with a chess-master’s sense of deliberation, then spoke, “But you’ll never find out.”

         Bishop leaned in, so that they were almost kissing. The cops watched the dialogue, perplexed. The few remaining bystanders also watched. Bishop spoke. “Why not?”

         Screams rent the city street, tearing the air like the clatter of a municipal garbage truck’s metal-on-metal retrieval. It was a woman, fine crows’ nests on the sides of either eye, stretching out to weathered sandpaper skin. She looked to be older than her husband. She shouted, threw her fists, and her hair flew, and both of the cops restrained her, reaching the limits of their patience, itching to use the mace bobbing on their utility belts. The husband turned from Bishop, shouted something to his wife in Chinese, and she immediately receded. He then turned back to the detective, whose question he had forgotten. But Bishop hadn’t forgotten it.

         He asked again. “Why don’t you know if a human could withstand twenty-four hours inside your womb?” He realized how insane the question sounded, but he had already asked it, and the suspect had an answer. “Because.” Won said. “Even if it is physically possible, it is not financially possible for most men. It would cost far too much. Any man who had that much money probably wouldn’t need the comfort of the womb. He could probably find solace, elsewhere.”

         But if not? Bishop suddenly thought about it, glad that he was not a billionaire, since a millionaire probably couldn’t swing it these days. But a tycoon probably had enough money to simulate gestation, give himself a full nine months in there. For some reason the thought made him shudder, and he latched onto the investigation, for its sense of reality.

         “Okay.” Bishop said. “Since you haven’t shouted for a lawyer yet, you might as well talk to me. What happened? Did the thing malfunction? Or did you contract the chamber on him because you wanted to see what it felt like to kill a man? Help me out.” Bishop placed his hand on the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, remembered how his defiant smoking had angered the man moments before. He thought better of it, and left the pack where it was, and waited for an answer.

         “Neither.” The man relished the pregnant mystery of his pause, with a wan smile, and spoke. “He asked for me to contract it, all the way. And I did, and he died.”

         Tires screeched, car doors slammed, and men climbed from two plainclothes sedans, pulled into cattycorner herringbones formation. It was Forensics, and the photographer. Something grisly for you boys, he thought. A giant squashed fly, to put your own lives in perspective, and make your Sunday prayers a little hollower.

         “So assisted suicide, huh? That’s your story and you’re sticking to it?”

         Won smiled. “It’s in writing. I’m no fool. The money was right, and with a signed and notarized contract, I consider my case more than airtight. If you would let me…” The man struggled with his cuffs. Bishop drew a serrated K-Bar from his jacket pocket, and cut the flexi elastic. The two cops got jumpy, and he pulled out another pair to allay them. “Got my own.” He smiled. The cops eased back along the side of their cruiser. Forensics and the photographer did a beeline for the womb. There was no media yet, but there was definitely a story developing here.

         With shreds of cuffs dangling from his wrists, Won extracted the folded paper from his pocket, and presented it to Detective Bishop, who read:

         I, Jonathan Lanfree, do sign my life over with full knowledge and forethought, to Won’s Womb…

         Bishop refolded the contract, tucked it in his breast pocket, gave the man a grace period to massage the red burns along his wrists, and then he placed the second set of flexi-cuffs on him, and led him over to the two cops, who were salivating over the chance to restrain him once again, for whatever reasons. Bishop then dug the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, extracted one, lit it with a match, and walked back into the purple pumpkin, flashing with the strobe from a camera, over the sounds of the screaming proprietor. “I told you ‘no smoking’! You respect my property!”

         Bishop entered, listened to the interplay of voices, grizzled banter to see who felt the least about the situation, or who could make the biggest joke out of it.

         “Quite the miscarriage.”

         “This is why abortion’s legal.”

         Flashes, strobes, light. His vision tunneled, paramedics entered the domelike chamber. He thought he could detect veins in the onion-like skin of the ceiling. The more people entered, the greater his sense of panic, until the entrance was entirely blotted out with bodies, and he fought the tide, as reasonless fear mounted in his stomach, turned him toward the wall, and he saw the smug face of the proprietor, like a hologram, contract signed and little smile, the admonitions about the cigarette, which he now ground into the wall. It hissed and extinguished, leaving a blotch that promised to wear all the way through the tent-like material to the other side, if enough force was applied.

         Bishop swung, punched, and his hands became sticky, his mind blank and fevered. One of the forensic crew looked up, someone who recognized him from a double-body job a few weeks back. “Jesus Christ, Bishop! What the hell are you doing?”

         He lifted on his haunches, the force of his punches sliding off the lubricating walls, until he tore through, making a finger-sized hole, which he widened by parting it with both hands, pulled outward in a breaststroke motion.

         “ Be professional, man! This is a crime scene!” Then, when it became clear that words had no effect, his inter-departmental friend shouted, “Someone get him!” Everyone but the photographer laboring over the corpse rushed to the opposite side of the room. But it was already too late. He had torn through the wall, and when he fell through to the other side, it was without the benefit of gangway or plank.

         Upon impact, he found that his head hurt, his ears rang, and his neck was stiff with impending pain, which would probably last for weeks, but he was now free, or at least freer than he had been moments before. He didn’t know why he had done it.

         Above him stood Tad Mercer, head of the Forensics team. His beer-belly bulged against the twin confines of his suspenders, splashed with a loud, garish design. The cigar jutting from the side of his mouth definitely trumped the cigarette which Bishop attempted to fish from his jacket pocket, when it became apparent that he wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down. Mercer spoke. “Well, Bishop...That’s one hell of a Caesarian.” He laughed, and Bishop laughed, looking up at the little bit of sky, where it was trapped between two buildings.


Joseph Hirsch was born in Ohio in 1982. His previous credits include 'The White Hole' and 'Instant Ghetto', both published in 3AM Magazine, and he was a finalist in Glimmer Train Magazine's recent Short Story competition. He currently lives in El Paso, Texas, where he is serving out the remainder of his contract with the US Army.







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