The Owls

I’ve got a problem.

You probably don’t care. Everyone’s got problems, right? It’s a basic truth of the human condition. And God knows I shouldn’t get any special treatment. Not after the stuff I’ve done. But I’d like to talk about it a little bit before I go.

Let’s get to brass tacks: I’m a killer that gained a conscience. I know it sounds like a trope, but I think my whole situation is a bit more… surreal. Especially given what I can do.

I can slip through shadows.

Have I got your attention now?

#

My first time was an accident when I was thirteen. I probably should have tried to figure out why, but I didn’t believe in looking a gift horse in the mouth. It was strange, though, one minute I was in detention, the next minute I was somewhere altogether different. You might be imagining some sort of magical wonderland that straddles the line between light and dark, but let me set the record straight right now: it’s nothing like that. All I could see was the purest, deepest black expanding in all directions. I was struggling to find some sort of shape or fold in the darkness, desperate to grab hold of some visible dimension. But, except for the sight my hands and body, I came away with nothing.

Almost worse was the sound, or the absolute lack thereof, which I first noticed when my screams failed to carry. When I settled down a bit, I realized that I could hear something: my heart throbbing and my organs shifting beneath my skin. It was fucking horrifying.

Between the blinding darkness and the deafening silence, the entire experience was far beyond the existential capacity of a teenager. After what felt like eons, I managed to slip back out, again by accident, into the shade of a pier on the West Side Highway. After dodging my share of traffic, I hopped on the subway, clamped my knees to my chest and stayed like that all the way back to Queens. I didn’t revisit the ‘shadow-land’ until years later.

#

I was never the best kid. Clever, sure – I picked up a book or two – but I was no superstar. To make matters worse, I hung around with the crowd from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. But, when you live out in Jamaica, there’re so many tracks it gets a little tough to figure out which side is which. I dabbled in small time crime: a few fights, some pickpocketing, just the general assholery you’d expect from a punk kid with idiot friends. I’m not proud of it now, but we all have to start somewhere, I guess.

As I got older, my crimes got bolder. I did a couple of muggings, robbed a few convenience stores. Ended up beating up a few people just for the hell of it. My friends were my gang, and as naïve as I was, I figured you couldn’t have a better gang than the dudes you grew up with. But all it takes is one nice little fuck up for people to show their true colors. That was something I hadn’t learned yet. Again: we all have to start somewhere.

It was a simple job. Not even a job, really, more like a favor to one of the guys. Danny – I won’t bother with a fake name. You’ll see why. – Danny’d recently found out that some guy had been messing around with a girl he’d been seeing. Being the great friends that we were, the gang offered to help Danny rough him up a bit. That ‘bit’ turned into a ‘bit more’ after we broke into his house and Danny shot him square through the chest.

It was the first time I’d seen a body collapse like that. Not the guy’s. Danny’s. He slumped to his knees, weighed down by what he had done. The rest of us had all pretty much frozen in shock, too. We couldn’t seem to process the whole situation, much less where Danny had gotten the gun.

Until then, we’d all just been punks – none of us killers. Least of all Danny. Danny, who was always bumping into shit. Danny, who told stupid jokes. Danny, who had tears running down his cheeks.

Processing aside, we were all jolted back into reality when staccato flashes of red and blue started streaming through the windows. The rest of my ‘gang’- and now I use that term loosely – blasted their way out the back of the house faster than I’d ever seen them move. Danny remained stuck to the hardwood floor with the gun teetering its way out of his hands. I managed to grab it before it hit the ground. That’s when the cops decided to make their entrance.

The splintering of the front door shocked Danny back to his senses and he bolted, knocking over a lamp before being hit between the shoulder blades and landing on the kitchen tiles. This left me, holding the gun, over the body of some guy I didn’t know. Other guns, more threatening ones, were being pointed at me and I was being screamed at in incomprehensible English. I inched my way backwards, but they fired anyway. It was Danny’s last act of clumsiness that kept me alive.

Tripping into a brief silver of shade cast by the upturned lamp catapulted me back into my teenage nightmare. It was exactly as I had tried to forget it: the very essence of physical and emotional isolation. This time, however, I was not frightened at all. Perhaps being older helped me control my anxiety, or perhaps it was that this time my choice was between the total emptiness of my shadow-land and the total emptiness of death and I was a big fan of going with the devil you know.

Minutes, or hours, later, I suppose I flexed the correct muscle so-to-speak, and jumped myself out of the shadow-land into the shade of a dumpster in the corner of a narrow alley. Once my bearings returned to me, I wandered out onto the main streets to find that I wasn’t near the West Side Highway this time. Nope. Instead, I had jumped out into what looked and sounded like downtown Moscow.

#

That was a fun few weeks, learning how to lie, cheat and steal my way through a country with an illegible alphabet. I tried to shadow-slip myself back home first, but it seemed that the further the jump, the less control I had over where I ended up. I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. I could jump across the city just fine, but attempting to cross continents almost left me stranded in the Congo.

Moscow became my temporary anchor point, since I had familiarized myself with the raw feel of its shadows. I made the best of it and started running a few odd-jobs for local criminals – as you can imagine, the place was an embarrassment of riches. They were very impressed by my speed and success rate. Since I valued the use of my fingers and toes, I never told anyone why I was so good.

By the time I had made enough connections to smuggle myself back into New York the slow way around, I was much more fluent in the art of slipping and pretty eager to exploit it for my own personal gain.

Looking back, I can’t help but think that maybe if mommy and daddy had spent some money on X-Men comics instead of booze, I would’ve learned that power comes with great responsibility or some nerd shit like that. But no use dwelling on hypotheticals, I suppose.

#

Now that I was back home, I started up my old antics again. Solo this time. But now I was beyond undetectable. I could grab whatever I wanted and blink myself through shadowland to a point halfway across the city. After a while, though, I realized that I was just doing the same old things, only faster. I began to want more. Ambition is the enemy of security. And I had a lot of it.

To advance my career, I began to take advantage of my ability to transport things through the shadow-land. In a bold move, I decided to advertise my shadow-slipping abilities through the right channels and started a nice little courier side business for less-than-legal cargo. Booze, weapons, drugs. You name it, I blinked it. I found out I could even transport other people.

Stop. I know what you’re thinking. And, yes. I took a girl in there with me once, y’know, just to try it. Turns out that was a really bad idea. The less said about it, the better.

The courier service got a lot of traction and a lot of attention. Eventually, I was approached by a group of “legitimate businessmen” – you might recognize a few of their names – who wanted me to expand my suite of services. The way they saw it, an extra-dimensional void would be a pretty good place to stash a murder weapon. Who was I to disagree?

My transition from courier to contract killer was so sudden, I can barely remember my first hit. Some guy, I guess. Probably wasn’t important. What I can remember is the resistance of the trigger and the recoil of the butt into my shoulder. That rifle’s long gone now, swallowed by the black. So are the memories.

Most of my targets were low-level guys. Goombas who were gonna turn states, other mooks who weren’t paying their protection money. I once just put the fear of God into a kid who was looking to do things with a City Councilman’s daughter. That was a fun one. But nothing big. Nothing that would draw attention that I couldn’t afford. I wasn’t going around whacking world leaders. I’m not stupid. And though I was sitting on piles of money, I laid low, as you would expect a shadowy figure to do.

My apartment was cheap, and so were my clothes – wifebeaters and jeans, mostly. Not the lap of luxury. Still, conspicuous or not, the bodies began piling up. What Danny once couldn’t even fathom I was now doing with aplomb. So I knew it was only a matter of time before someone would notice. I just wasn’t expecting what I got.

#

It was a bookie. Yes, they still exist. This one was caught skimming a little off the top from a mob boss. Thought he could lie low for a while and get away clean. Make a new life, or something. I wasn’t interested in the politics, just the end result.

The problem with this guy was that he was wise about it. He had been running all day, constantly looking over his shoulder, somehow aware that someone was on his tail. I had been leaping from shadow to shadow – sometimes his own – but had been careful not to tip my hand. After serpentining his way through three boroughs, the bookie made a quick last ditch call to a mechanic he knew. Ended up locking himself in the office of one of the car shops in the shadow of Shea Stadium.

Night fell and made my job much easier. Around midnight, the bookie emerged from his office hidey-hole. He had either needed a fresh air break, or was paranoid enough to need to check if he truly was still alone out here.

From the shadow of an ’83 Ford, I slipped into existence behind him with my gun drawn. He was quick, though. Quicker than I expected. He knocked the gun out of my hand and sent it flying. We grappled for a few long minutes, exchanging holds and blows. Neither of us was particularly skilled, but neither of us relented. He got in a jab to the eye and one square hit to the jaw and I fell backwards onto the dirt. Lucky shot.

He could’ve run away, but the bookie knew it wouldn’t end if he didn’t end it here. From behind my swelling eye I saw him lift a chunk of debris. A fender or a piece of a chassis. Something big, anyway. Big enough to crush my skull. I raised my left hand in a futile attempt to get him to stop, while my right crept toward my gun. But it was futile, he was too eager to keep living. Seeing that tell-tale look in his eyes, I made a rash decision and slipped both of us into the shadow-land. The hunk of metal did not come with us. I made sure of that.

I wiped away the blood that trickled over my good eye and saw the bookie’s reaction. With a wide, blank stare, he whipped his head around looking to latch onto something resembling sanity. I guess for some people, there really isn’t anything scarier than absolutely nothing. Then he began to scream. His mouth contorted but nothing carried. Confused, he began to claw at his throat.

Using the last dregs of my strength, I pushed myself up and grabbed my gun, leveling it at the bookie. I fired. Twice. The shadow-land was better than any silencer. His body crumpled to whatever emptiness passed for the ground. And that’s when things changed.

The sound I had equated with silence in the shadow-land – the sound of my shifting internals and beating heart – stopped. I could hear them no longer. They had been overwhelmed by something else. It was something external. Something far away, but you’d be surprised to find out how noticeable even the faintest of sounds can be in true silence.

Screeches. That was the only would to describe them. Some long and sustained wails, some curt and quick caws. They weren’t human, not that I had expected them to be. Rather, they sounded like the calls of a pack of vicious birds of prey – falcons or, given the nature of my surroundings, owls. Although I couldn’t see them – they probably looked fuck-all like owls – their voices circled me, as if surveying the territory until they reached striking distance.

For the first time in a long while, I felt my chest tighten into a knot of fear. A fear I hadn’t felt since my first incursion into shadow-land. The fear of the unknowable that was plain as day on the bookie’s frozen face. I jumped back out as soon as I could.

My next few jobs brought me an entirely new kind of terror. Each time I leapt back into the shadow-world, the disembodied reminders were waiting for me. And each time, like a monster in a children’s horror story, the screeches seemed to draw closer. They may have been the shadow-land’s warning that it didn’t approve of what I had done to the bookie, bringing death into its sterile environment. Or maybe the faceless vacuum had a moral compass.

Even in the real world, the owls were getting inside my head. Their calls were my conscience now. Pulling each subsequent trigger became more difficult and my ability to slip was being hindered by fear. My clients – a collaborative bunch – had wasted no time noticing my issues and, overnight, my status changed from ‘asset’ to ‘liability’. Of course, having other things on my mind, I was less than privy to their observations.

The jobs slowed to a crawl until August when I received files from one of my more notable clients. An NYPD detective had been investigating a surprisingly fruitful paper trail. I was asked to deal with him one way or another, but I was no cop killer – especially not then – so I decided to pay him a quick “visit” instead. Something that wouldn’t require the extended assistance of any shadows. I had been making it a point to spend as little time in the shadow-land as physically possible.

I slipped inside his apartment through the darkness of his closet. I paid no attention to the owls’ cut-off cacophony. The cop’s living room was dark and empty. No one was home. I wandered around the place, doing a quick casing. A photo of the detective and his family – wife and kid, as you’d expect – caught my eye for a second. As I reached down to examine it, I heard a soft click – a sound I was quite familiar with. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled and I froze as a cold muzzle pressed against the small of my back.

Without hesitation – when did I become such a coward? – I blinked out of the darkened room back onto the streets and started running, dodging my way through the sea of people on the sidewalk and the rivers of cars on the street. Beneath elevated tracks and tense rumbling of the N, I stopped to catch my breath. Both my lungs and brain were screaming as I watched the pale blue silhouettes of the city skyline wash out against the hazy fire of the setting sun.

It was getting dark.

Quicker than I could realize, the emptiness of the shadow-land had replaced the evening sky and the thunder of the subway was consumed by the accusatory shrieks of the owls. I fell to the ground, my heart hammering in my ears. Amidst the rattling screeches, two thoughts dashed across my mind.

I didn’t do this.

I wasn’t alone.

Before me was the handsome family I recognized from the photo frame. They were as surprised to be here as I was. Actually, almost definitely more surprised. The kid and the mom were on the floor, one crying, the other trying to make sense of what she was seeing. I would have told her that logic didn’t work in the shadow-land, but speech didn’t either. The father, the detective, was a different story. He was stood up straight, his back to me and his arms in the air.

As I rose to my feet, a new figure coalesced out of the darkness before the detective. It was easy to see how he escaped my notice. He was draped in all black – leather or something – save for his goggles which cut striking red holes through the darkness. The gun in his gloved hand was aimed squarely at the detective’s chest. The only part of his face that remained uncovered was his impossibly wide grin, wreathed in stubble.

My clients had found another one of me, a replacement. He had been the one to drag me back here to the shadow-land to finish me and my job. I would have been angry, had I not been so distracted. The baying of the owls was closer than ever before. My counterpart’s grin faded, but he made no motion. He couldn’t hear my ethereal conscience.

A sudden idea ignited in my brain. Maybe if I helped the detective, the shadow-land would forgive me. Maybe it would call off the owls and leave me in peace. Maybe I could be saved! I leapt to my feet and lunged across the void at the masked man, flying toward him with a grim resolve.

It’s hard to know exactly when you’ve been hit when you can’t hear a gunshot. The pain transmitted well, though. The impact to my shoulder stopped my forward momentum and sent me crashing to the empty ground. The masked man’s grin was back again, with good reason. He had spared me out of hubris, just so that I could see him complete the job before he killed me.

The detective’s cloudy blue eyes met mine. He mouthed a silent thanks as his gaze shifted to his family. Mine followed. I want to say the wife reminded me of my mom, or the kid looked like me when I was his age, but I’m not going to bullshit you with some Hallmark crap. They didn’t.

I turned back to the masked man, the fiery pits of his eyes burning through the shadow-land. A silent scream escaped my throat as I saw his finger tighten on the trigger. The detective’s head arced back and his body fell to the darkness beside me, any naïve hope of redemption fell with him.

The masked man raised his gun again – at me this time – but stopped half way. He turned in erratic angles, glancing every which way. As the realization hit me, a triumphant, almost psychotic elation grew in my chest as a smirk widened across my face. The assassin slapped his hands over his ears. He could hear them now, too!

I removed my hand, sticky with blood, from my shoulder and pushed myself to my feet. I turned toward the newly widowed woman and her crying child. For the first time in a long time, I felt a twinge of guilt from a real human conscience. Summoning what little willpower I had left, I blinked them out of the shadow-land to safety. As I pivoted back to the confused assassin, I hoped to God I hadn’t sent them to Moscow.

It was just him and me now. I didn’t care who he was or what his face looked like under that stupid mask. It could’ve been the Bookie, for all I cared. Or the reanimated corpse of Danny! It didn’t matter. I just wanted this to end. And there was only one way I could see that happening.

My first punch connected with the mask and shattered one of his backlit lenses. The gun flew out of his hand and skittered away into nothingness. I kept at it, each hit sending shockwaves of pain from my shoulder down my arm, in sync with the thin trails of blood snaking down the same path. Godforsaken wailing is not the perfect soundtrack to a fight scene, but I made do.

He blocked some of my hits, and got a few strikes in himself – two to the ribs, one to the face. But he was too disoriented by the owls to put up a real fight. To his credit, he tried to slip back into the real world once or twice, but I dragged him back in. Clever, but there was no way I was going to let it end that way. On his third attempt, I blinked him back in in front of me and landed a kick to the back of his knee. A follow-up strike to the back of his head sent him sprawling. As far as I could tell he was all but gone.

#

Now here we are together, three corpses in a thunderous blackness, and all I can do is wait and reminisce. Time is a nonsense concept here. It could have been centuries since I started this little memoir of hindsight. I’ve since huddled up into a fetal position next to the detective and his killer. The owls are descending on us now. The baying calls of these nothing creatures have consumed me. I still can’t see them, and that’s the most terrifying thing. I’m starting to lose my mind.

And I know I probably don’t deserve one, but if I’m going to die, I suppose, at the very least, I’m due a last request. Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask for much. I’m just a little shit from Queens who fucked up and turned it around way too late. But I tried. And that kid and his mom are out there still breathing ‘cause of me. So all I want is – well, I guess just remember my name. Please.

 

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