The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event – Noir: A Celebration of Detective Fiction. Please enjoy.
We pull the kid out of the sand in Asbury Park, another corpse I’m sure I’ll be seeing in my nightmares. She’s young—but aren’t they all?—brunette, about 5’5”, a hundred pounds. ID tells me her name is Anna Knowles, resident of Trenton, and twenty-five years old. The killer held her flat on her back in the sand and strangled her. Took nothing of value. One might take solace knowing she was not sexually assaulted, but strangulation is a tough route. It takes time. It hurts. And it’s personal.
I note the green ribbons erupting from a shriveled seahorse in her hair. I’ve seen this somewhere before—they sell these at the craft fair—but no—I’ve seen this one specifically. The young lady was in my office a few days ago, asking to interview me for a book she was writing, a piece of fiction about a serial killer in Asbury Park. Now I’m thinking it was more autobiographical than she realized.
There’s a small journal in her purse. I find the notes from our interview and a few rough sketches of a young man: attractive, effeminate, with feathery dark hair and intense eyes; he’s smiling in a way that pulls at my gut. Come find me, he seems to say. There are three narrative entries, text I have to consider for the purposes of this investigation. Even if these are only fiction, they might unveil my white rabbit.
The glam rock explodes inside the neon-tinted venue, dulling Leila’s eardrums. They call this place the Dark City, and all her life, dark cities have been calling to her like siren songs beneath the waves. With her back against the wall, she knows doesn’t belong here. Nobody will talk to her. They can’t place her purpose, and she seems to be looking for someone who isn’t coming.
The one she seeks will not make his presence known. A good writer needs to be able to find the ugly secrets, and every subterranean dark city is only discovered if one can find the proper guide.
The first set ends and the band members disperse. Bassist Johnny Stellar steals Leila from the wallpaper and invites her for some whiskey in his truck.
“It’s sweeter than what you’re probably used to,” he says, opening the bottle of Jim Beam.
She takes a shot and starts coughing. Johnny laughs.
He brushes her hair behind her ear. “I like your seahorse.”
“What brought you out tonight?”
“I’m writing a book.”
They pass the bottle back and forth, sharing secrets and stories until he kisses her. The kiss perpetuates, seeking texture and taste in the fear of ending and asking what comes next. Johnny’s hair feels like straw and he smells like leather and chemicals. His hands offend the tentacle ribbons in her hair, and he pulls them with his steel rings. They fuck in silent numbness under clouds of self-loathing and a dark moon. It all happens so fast. Cigarettes follow with a lack of eye contact.
She is ready to make this sacrifice. She is looking for Darkness, after all, and the track marks on Johnny’s arms tells her he knows where to find it. “Hey, Johnny. Where do you go to shoot up?” Every word—especially his name—tastes strange on her tongue.
“Wake up, kiddos,” says Tyler. It is four in the morning and the pretty lead guitarist is shaking Leila and Johnny from their unconscious state upon his floor.
They go for bagels, cranky and tired, before heading to a beach Tyler has known his entire life. It is a quiet, private strip of sand. There was once a pier that brought life and tourism to this place, but Hurricane Sandy pulled it into the sea and left nothing but a long jetty of black rocks. The clouds above shroud the sky in gray and yellow foam laces the green waves rushing in. Tyler leaps onto the jetty; outstretching his arms, he embraces the freezing gale.
They wait for dawn. At first they only see the red jewel blazing at the crest of the horizon, but after a few minutes it is absorbed into the grey, barely visible.
Leila shivers and wraps herself in a blanket she brought from Tyler’s house. Johnny feels oceans away, and she pities him. She can’t help it. She is a writer. His life is consumed in the Darkness she has come to expose and exploit. This could be her only chance to shine light into his world; she seizes the moment before it washes out to sea. She kisses him.
Tyler comes running down from the rocks and tackles Johnny.
“I want a kiss too, Johnny!” he teases.
They wrestle, splashing up sand. Even in the bleakest of worlds, there is joy. Tyler gives up trying to fight Johnny and they take repose on the rocks, smoking cigarettes and murmuring tired nonsense. Tyler points to one of the mansions overlooking the quiet beach.
“See that house there?” he says.
Leila looks on its church-like moon window, the Victorian spire, powder blue exterior and elegant wrap-around porch.
Tyler seems to talk to himself more than anyone. “I used to bring my girlfriend here in high school. I’d tell her, ‘Sweetie, I’m gonna buy you that house someday.’ That was the dream, buying that ridiculous house and living like a pair of fancy aristocrats. I really believed it. But here I am five years later, no house, no money and no girlfriend…” He takes a drag and emits a dry chuckle of smoke.
Leila picks up a conch shell and holds it against her ear as the wind blows the dull ribbons in her hair. The hollow voice of the ocean calls to her.
She lies on the couch alone. Johnny Stellar is gone, and she waits until Tyler comes downstairs around noon, rubbing his eyes.
“Can you take me to the train station?” Leila asks.
“You don’t have to leave,” he says. “My home is open to you.”
“But the longer I stay, the harder it will be to leave,” she says. “It’s like purgatory that way.”
Tyler laughs. “I guess that makes me the devil.”
He’s more like Virgil waiting beyond the leaves at the border of the forest. He leads her upstairs. Heroin softens his heart to her. She helps him plunge the needle deep into his vein. He shudders and tears fall from open eyes. She partakes—her first—and together they swim in the river of black sheets, listening to the howling arias from his victrola. The very fabric of her brain unravels. They lie together without clothes, but there is no penetration, just soft caresses. She yields her soul and surfs the waves of euphoria. This is not Darkness, she thinks. Whatever this is, this is life; this is beauty; this is the fundamental beauty of humanity.
I finish reading. There’s nothing more but blank pages. I’ll check her social media for any local bands she liked. We’re looking for a guitarist and a bassist, early twenties, if they’re real. Was there some kind of rivalry between the young men? Did they go to the beach to score and meet some malevolent character? Or is this just fiction?
Anna Knowles wears a 14 karat gold wedding band on her finger with an engraving that reads: Sine amor, nihil est vita. Without love, life is pointless. As much as I would like to hunt the devil deep into the shadows of the boardwalk, these kinds of cases all too often end the same.