You awaken the second the alarm clock goes off, and the following one you start wishing you hadn’t, for that’s when the hangovers set in, as if your body suddenly remembers it has good reason to punish you. It’s not the usual kind of hangover you get from knocking back a dozen cans of Bud, but the truly torturous kind, the kind that means business, the vodka-wine-and-weed kind that makes your brain feel like it has been shook loose from the nerves and wiring in your head and now floats around freely in the cephalic fluids inside your skull. You reach out a hand to shut the alarm up, and who you are settles back into place amidst the first tumultuous thoughts of the day and the fragments of memories from the night before.
You are Tony Burrell, 43, divorced homicide detective living in a cramped apartment above a liquor store in downtown L.A. The location is convenient when you are an alcoholic, which, let’s face it, you are.
Apparently, in last night’s drunken stupor you didn’t quite make it into your bed, and so you slept fully dressed, among all the empty bottles and cans that surround you like onlookers at a traffic accident.
It’s Monday morning and you should have clocked in down at the MCU an hour ago.
At least you won’t need to waste time excavating clean clothes from the piles that are sprawled around the floor of the bedroom, you think as you straighten your tie. It’s been more than a year since there was anyone in your life that would complain about the blotches of dried sweat in the armpits of your shirt or the smell of a strange woman’s perfume on your collar. Nowadays, the name Veronica is but a faint memory, a name you vaguely recall once meant something to you.
Nowadays, a trucker-shower and some coffee is all you need to get set.
Except you decide you need a good wank to kick-start your system and speed up the recovery process. Besides, being hung over always puts you in the mood to watch some fine young thing getting destroyed by a big cock.
You stagger into the living room and let your 210 lb. corpus sink down into the office chair that’s parked in front of the cabinet of your house-altar; the NCR PC, with the clunky white and gray monitor that was state of the art in the early nineties, and who has been your only lover since Veronica abandoned your sinking ship.
You switch on the machine, and as the screen informs you it’s loading your settings, you expectantly unzip your pants and start fondling yourself.
For the last couple of months your consumption of internet pornography has undergone somewhat of a change. The normal gangbang scenarios and threesomes and lesbian scenes that you used to get off to, seem to have mysteriously lost some, if not all, of their allure. It’s just not enough anymore. For some reason, images from the murder scenes you have been investigating in the past have begun to pop into your head when you’re spending quality time with yourself, and though at first you shunned them and tried to shut them out, boredom and hornyness eventually got the better of you and you began indulging in them. Maybe that’s what you need now, you think as you click open Internet Explorer. Something more intense than the normal vanilla…
Every click you make with the mouse brings you, almost unconsciously, as if you were following a train of associations, further into the dark underbelly of the internet.
It doesn’t take long before you see links that advertise ”forced sex”, ”extreme rape scenarios” and even ”death fetishes.” And it’s working. It gets you turned on. Lust wells up inside you and pushes away any vestige of shame or guilt. The ”Necro-babes” really do the trick…
Just as you’re getting ready to climax, and you reach for the faithful box of Kleenex next to the computer, the screen suddenly chokes on pop-ups and adds that keeps opening and opening like flowers sprouting images of perversion.
A cacophony of screams, moans and crying pour out of your loudspeakers like recordings from hell itself.
Shit, you think. The computer must have gotten a virus of some kind. You reach for the mouse to close the program, and that’s when you notice the young woman who’s staring directly out at you from the red, green and blue quivering of the picture tube.
The site is called ”The Choke Chamber” and it brazenly promises ”One Death Per Video!”.
The preview video shows a young woman – no, not a woman, a girl you think and swallow – naked, surrounded by a gang of men in a tiled, dimly lit room that could be a prison shower or some other cesspool of humanity somewhere. One of the men, his face strategically obscured by shadows, is fucking the girl while his hands are clenched around the girls throat, shaking her and choking her like a ragdoll.
Tears stream from her frightened eyes and mix with the blood from her busted nose. She’s screaming, telling the man to stop, and it’s just too much for you.
You turn the whole computer off, but not before you catch a glimpse of the words that appeared on the screen in just that moment:
Then the screen goes black with a disappointed burp.
Your heart is hammering in your chest like a drum at a heavy metal concert, and suddenly the smell of perfume on your shirt is making you nauseous. It’s been a long time since you’ve had to throw up, but you are starting to consider it, when your phone rings in your shirt pocket.
”Hello,” you manage to gasp as you answer it, but your voice sounds hoarse and frightened.
”Christ, Burrell,” the testy voice at the other end growls, and you can almost imagine your partner Manoli with his shaved head and the moustache that straddles his upper lip like a big fat slug.
”Did I wake you ?” he asks.
You tell him that no, it’s fine, you were just on your way.
”Get your fat ass down to the corner of 51st and Ellis then. By the public toilets. We found a body,” he says and hangs up.
The sounds that greet you at the crime scene are those of cameras flashing and the hushed creaking of the forensics scientists’ rubber gloves. You know they are meticulously combing the scene for strands of hair and stray fibers, and will soon start dusting for fingerprints.
”Christ, Burrell,” Manoli says again and spits out his greeting along with an impressive gob of snot that lands on the floor, as if he was disgusted by the mere sight of you.
”I don’t care what you do with your time off, but at least have the common decency to shower once in a while. You reek,” he hisses and screws up his face as you duck past him under the yellow tape and enter the crime scene.
”Fuck you, Manoli,” you say, knowing well that even though the Italian is a dickhead who never gets tired of busting your balls, he has covered for you all those times you’ve come in late, and even when you’ve had to call in sick because you were too drunk to stand up. And he’s right – about the perfume. It seems to stick to you and follow you around. You should have changed before you came. You will never hear the end of the lewd jokes from the other officers.
As you approach the body that’s lying on the floor, you catch a glimpse of your reflection in one of the dirt streaked mirrors on the wall. You look like five miles of bad road, and the cold death-green junkie light doesn’t exactly improve it. The words of Charles Bukowski when he described himself as unfit for the beach because his ”skin was white and his teeth were brown,” spring to mind.
Fuck it, you think and turn your attention to the body. That’s when you recognize the girl from the pop-up add earlier, and your heart starts to pound in your ears again, and you feel perspiration form along your brow.
Her skin is the color of broken porcelain except for her throat which is a hideous hotchpotch of black and blue.
”There’s no traces of blood except for in the immediate vicinity of the body,” a forensics scientist chewing gum that smells of peppermint informs you as he crouches down to snap pictures of the girl’s exposed crotch.
”She was killed somewhere else and dumped here. No trace of her clothes either.”
”Do we know the cause of death?” you ask.
”We’re guessing asphyxiation. Beaten pretty badly too. Soon as we get her down to the lab we’ll know more of course,” chewing-gum tells you.
The feeling of guilt rises inside you like a bilious eructation that forces you to squint.
Manoli sidles up next to you, and with his usual delicacy says; ”Gathering some good masturbation material for later, huh?”
You fight down the urge to punch him. After all, it’s not him you’re mad at.
”Well, you’re lucky cause you’re gonna get to know her really well, partner. I’m up to my ears in the Weinstien case so you’re gonna have to pull the weight on this one.” He slaps your shoulder, mock-cordially.
”I’m sure you two’ll get along fine,” he nods in the direction of the dead girl. ”It’s too bad she’s all cold and stiff otherwise I wouldn’t mind throwing a good fuck into her myself!”
Manoli heaves up his pants and laughs at his own wit. The words get stuck in your teeth as they grind.
While you wait for forensics to come back with an ID on your Jane Doe, you go to the deli on the corner to get a club sandwich, but it makes your stomach flip and you abandon it in a trashcan on the way back to the station.
Jane Doe ceases to be Jane Doe when her name turns out to be Isis Westerman, which strikes you as an odd name. You don’t actually think you’ve ever met anyone with that name before. Yet somehow, there is something familiar about it, as if you must have heard it before.
A quick Google search reveals that Isis was the name of the Egyptian goddess of fate and fertility. The wife of Osiris and mother to horus, the domains associated with her was births, family life and general welfare.
After the death of her husband by the hands of her evil brother Seth, she became known as the mourning widow and mother goddess.
Somehow these associations that dovetail with her name make the whole thing worse, and this unknown woman, this lifeless face who has become imbued with an unsettling portentousness now haunts you when you lean back in your chair and close your eyes.
The real Isis Westerman would never start a family or give birth to a child.
She is dead and it is your job to find whoever did it.
Outside, the sky is the color of Isis Westerman’s throat, and sure enough, before you park outside the tenement house that was her last address, the clouds have started weeping disconsolately.
The landlady who lets you into the building is a frail old creature with wisps of hair like a thistle that has run to seed. She tells you her name is Mrs. Hanover. She is visibly saddened to hear the news of her former tenant.
”She was such a nice girl,” Mrs. Hanover sighs and makes a tsk-sound as she leans against her broom and stares at the raindrops trailing down the windowpane.
”Poor as a church mouse but always with a smile on her face all the same. I can show you her room if you’d like?” she offers and leads you up a creaking set of stairs to a door that carries Isis Westerman’s name on a disposable sticker by the doorbell. It will soon be torn off and be replaced with another’s name, you think to yourself.
The apartment is small and sparsely furnished. You notice the flowers in the windowsill that are dying now there is no one to water them. The mirror framed with photos of Liza Minnelli and Sophia Loren and a bunch of other movie stars you don’t know the names of. The eye-liner and the lipgloss and the cotton sticks on the dressing table in front of it. The blow-dryer and the small collection of paperbacks. Post-it notes with motivational catch-phrases like ”You don’t get what you deserve but what you expect!” and ”Smile at the world and it will smile back!” strategically placed on the inside of the door to be the last thing Isis would see every time she left the room.
Those are the only things left behind to prove there was ever a person named Isis Westerman who lived and took up a little space in the world.
You run through the usual questions, did she have a boyfriend, anyone come to visit her, what kind of company did she keep and so on, while you peruse the earthly belongings of Isis Westerman. Mrs. Hanover answers all your questions with despondent shakes of her head.
”She wanted to be an actress,” the landlady suddenly volunteers.
”That’s why she came here. She said she was gonna be a famous actress and star in real Hollywood movies. I don’t think she ever had much luck with it though.”
You said a mouthful there lady, you think, and for a moment you feel like laughing hysterically.
You drive home, and still the name Isis Westerman is ringing in your head.
As you climb the stairs to your apartment that night you hear the sounds spilling from your room before you can even see the front door.
Too loud, you think. Fucking hell, what will the neighbors be thinking.
You rush into your apartment and into the cold light of pixels dancing in depraved constellations on your computer screen. Screams and moans from a hundred vile pornographic websites greet you mockingly.
The pop-up from ”The Choke Chamber” returns as you walk towards the computer, and again you are forced to watch as the life is being choked from Isis Westerman’s body.
You realize you are crying and what a strange, bittersweet sensation that is.
You reach out for the mouse to force quit Internet Explorer, but nothing happens, the screen seems to be frozen and doesn’t react no matter what button you click.
You feel like the screams are reaching out to strangle you with invisible hands, tears stream from your eyes and you feel sick to your stomach. You just know you have to make it stop, so you drop to your knees and fumble for what seems an eternity in the darkness under the table before you find the main power chord which you yank from its socket with all the force of your self-hatred.
And still the sounds and images keep spilling into your apartment.
No, no, it’s impossible you think and shake your head in disbelief. This is a nightmare. You get back up on shaking legs and stagger away from the convulsing, writhing images of flesh and blood that fill the screen.
As you reach for your gun the pounding of your heart almost drowns out all the other sounds, like a fever beating your brain, ten times worse than the hangovers now, and then, as you train the gun at the screen you realize, impossibly, that it’s not your own heartbeat you are hearing.
The gunshot kills the noise and blows the backing off the monitor in a shower of glass and plastic.
For a moment all you hear is the ringing in your ears, but then, as the smoke clears from the ruin of the screen, the sound of the heartbeat returns, growing louder and louder now, till you feel like your head might explode, and behind the jagged teeth of broken glass and the wires that dangle like entrails inside the monitor, you see a beating, bleeding human heart, dilating and contracting obscenely to the sound of the beat.
That’s when, like one of the wretched souls in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, you take to the streets, screaming and crying, still holding the smoking gun in your hand.
You find your way to the only place left to go. The warehouse down by the docks where the discreet sign on the mailbox gives away the location of ”Black & Blue Studios Ltd.”. You stagger past the wire fence like a wrecked, drunken crow, your trench coat fluttering around you like broken wings and the rain and your tears soaking you to the bone.
You tear the gate to the old warehouse building open and it makes a sound like a dying scream.
You step into the room, and even though it lies shrouded in darkness you know all too well what it looks like. Maybe once it was nothing but some storage room meant for the housing of containers and crates, but you know that someone has turned it into hell on earth. You know the floor is tiled and that there is a drain in the corner. You know there are projectors for when they shoot the movies standing around like blackened skeletons somewhere in the dark.
You are startled when someone hits a switch at the far end of the room and the fluorescent tubes above you come on with a series of hard, spastic flashes. The light bares the room in all its crude, stained whiteness, and reveals the man who is walking towards you from a door at the other end of the room.
His latex costume creaks and belches as he strides slowly to the center of the hall where he stops.
”I wondered when I was going to see you again,” the director says. Even coming from behind the zipper-grin of the latex masks, every word is as clear and sharp as if cut in ice. He pronounces every syllable carefully in the manner of an educated man, and you get the feeling he could be smiling, maybe slightly amused, behind the expressionless black mask.
You can see your own reflection thrown back at you like a bad joke from the one-way glass of the goggles that hide his eyes. Not a sliver of skin is visible anywhere on his body to reveal if there is human flesh beneath the shiny material.
The bizarre horns that protrude from his head make him look like an old fertility god, the evil twin of the horned god Pan.
You swallow hard, trying to choke down your fear but it sticks in your throat.
”I need to know. Did you…” you begin to say, but your voice fails you.
”Our clientele has very specific preferences,” the director says.
”You could say they like a certain… conclusiveness in their entertainment.”
”Besides,” he says and makes a casual flapping motion with one hand that makes his costume creak, ”what do you care? She was just merchandise.”
Again you get the feeling hen is mocking you, and almost without thinking, you raise your gun and aim it at him.
”You didn’t have to kill her!” you shout and are almost surprised at how righteous your anger sounds.
”Oh Tony,” the director says, ”You’d already killed her. You killed her the moment you laid your hands on her.”
And then he has the nerve to turn his back on you as if you posed no threat at all. He starts walking away from you while your gun is still aimed at him.
Your hands are shaking and tears are blurring your vision and you are trying to decide if you should pull the trigger or not when a whiff of perfume hits your nostrils. A familiar smell that has clung to you since last night.
You sense movement in the corner of your eye, and then she puts her spectral hands over yours. You turn your head, and Isis Westerman smiles at you with eyes that though long since bereft of life still display a strange sorrowful understanding.
And as she guides your hands with the gun up, remembrance speeds through the neural pathways of your brain with the speed of lightning.
The intoxicating feeling of closing your hands around her throat. The smell of her perfume and of sweat and blood and tears mixing while the cameras lapped up every filthy second of it like lustful dogs. And most of all, the feeling of flesh against flesh.
And wasn’t there a moment, in that hazy, lascivious nightmare, where your eyes met hers, and you both recognized something – how similar you were perhaps, both made of flesh and bone and hope – and wasn’t there, in that moment, a glimpse of something like empathy on both sides, maybe even a hope that you could be forgiven and that Isis Westerman could find peace?
And guided by her soothing hands you put the barrel of the gun between your teeth. You see her smile through the veil of your own tears and then you press the trigger and there is nothing.
By L. V. Kramhoeft