End of the Barrel
a short story
Wrap it up, damn it.
Detective Misakowski had heard it all before — there was a laundry list of things a useless witness could say and he was pretty sure the kid (no more than a teenager, probably) standing in front of him had nearly exhausted that list.
“He might have been six foot, actually,” the teen second-guess himself. “Or, actually, maybe, he could have been shorter.”
Misakowski sighed. “Thanks. We’ll, uh, take a look around and see what we can find.”
The detective shoved past the useless teen and made his way to the motel room where he said he heard “screaming — real loud too — like, murdery, y’know?” The kid seemed too nonchalant about the whole thing but he didn’t seem like the murdering type to Misakowski.
Chalk it up to video games, Misakowski thought. Plus, it was the third time that month he’d been to that hotel and it was a different kid each time.
The door creaked open with a single knock. Misakowski peered through the opening, his weapon drawn and ready to fire at a moment’s notice; the shaft of his gun had a dull glare under the late autumn moonlight. He carefully moved through the opening, letting the door glide after coming into contact with his shoulder.
Blood. And lots of it, in buckets. That was all he could see at first.
Cautiously, he lowered his weapon and retrieved a compact little flashlight from a pocket in his beige jacket. After smacking the batteries into action, he raised the flashlight and nearly dropped it at the same time.
A head was dangling in front of him to his right but he hadn’t noticed it because of where the light from outside had fallen. And, of course, that’s when the smell hit him: that ugly, sweet smell of desecrated flesh — of something unholy that he knew all too well. As he took a moment to collect his breath and fumble with the flashlight again, he wondered what it all said about him; sure, it was just another part of the job description — finding bodies like this — but no one ever said it would be easy to cope with. Unlike his peers, who looked at every corpse as if it were the first they had ever seen, Michael Misakowski was unfazed.
The job was the job and that was all there was to that.
Misakowski pulled some gloves out of his pocket and put them on. Carefully, he reached out and adjusted the head to get a better look at it’s features.
The head appeared to belong to the body of a female, roughly around the age of twenty or so. Her entire head was perfectly intact, save for a metal screw embedded in the top of her skull by which the entire head hung on a rust-coloured rope. Whoever killed her was well-equipped to keep their dissection of the woman clean and controlled, though they still left behind buckets upon buckets of blood.
Where’s the Moses for this Red Sea? Misakowski entertained himself. He chuckled aloud but no one was around yet to hear it.
The other officers were off dealing with an explosion at a paper mill on the other side of town — a potential terror threat according to the Chief. Michael didn’t buy it. Not in their town. Of course, disagreeing with the Chief would have been his third strike and then… a suspension… but Michael felt that time was catching up to him anyway — that it was starting to all look as though it all wasn’t worth it anymore. His therapist called it depression but Michael knew it was more than that: it was a wakeup call.
With a pregnant wife at home, a mountain of bills, and no outlet besides a shitty therapist who he couldn’t really talk to even if he wanted to, Michael Misakowski was certain his life was crescendoing to something big and terrible. In just three days, it would be the anniversary of the day he officially became a dirty cop (he’d kept track) — not that he considered himself the kind of person who dwells on things but, then again, he also wasn’t ready to admit he was depressed. He didn’t want to become one of those cops who lives the stereotypical melodrama — the boozing spiral of a failure that everyone associated with the idea of a corrupt cop; he wanted to be different — he wanted to find a safe way out.
“Hey,” a voice came from behind him, “sorry to keep you waiting, partner.”
Yeltz, you dumbass, thought Michael.
James Yeltz was Michael’s partner. An occasionally obnoxious but well-meaning police officer with a distracting mole which sat on the upper right corner of his paper-white face. Michael sometimes stole glances at the mole, wondering how it was that James managed to be as successful with the ladies as he was. Not that the rest of James’ face wasn’t normal-looking but the mole really was distracting from time-to-time. Even Michael could admit his looks weren’t perfect: the stubble he called a goatee was an embarrassment to the term; he wore the same coffee-stained, light gray tie to work every day; his body was losing its definition in all the worst places; and just by looking at the bags under his eyes you could count how many years he’d been on the verge of ending it all.
Yeltz stood in the doorway, a silhouette with the moonlight behind him.
“What have we got here?” Yeltz asked.
“Take a look for yourself,” Misakowski jibed, as he handed Yeltz his flashlight.
“What, the light didn’t work?” Yeltz responded in kind.
“I couldn’t see the switch… and I was focussed on making sure no one was in here — well, no one living.”
Yeltz grabbed the flashlight from Misakowski’s hands and shone it around the room. But nothing could have prepared Yeltz or Misakowski for the rest of that crime scene.
The two detectives found themselves face-to-face with not one human head but several, all strung up in the same fashion as the first Misakowski had discovered.
“I think you should hit the light now,” Misakowski whispered uneasily.
* * *
It seemed like an eternity before Misakowski was finally free from that motel, up to his balls in evidence and paperwork with no witnesses (or, at least, no one willing to admit they saw anything). As he made his way back to his car, a terrible bubbling motion swept through his stomach followed by an intense, burning pain; he stood in the darkness of the parking lot, hunched over with his hand outstretched onto the hood of his car, praying that this might finally be it — the moment it all ended and he could rest.
Or, it was just another stomach ulcer. He didn’t like doctors very much.
The detective flung his door open and clumsily dropped himself into the driver’s seat, accidentally knocking over a cup of coffee from two weeks prior into the passenger’s seat; with a sigh he hastily grabbed the styrofoam cup and flung it out his window. He could hear his wife, Isabelle, nagging him: “Could you throw that in a recycling bin? God sakes, Mike.” His face wrinkled on either side of his mouth and he felt his diaphragm vibrate… was he chuckling? The idea was so foreign to him — so ancient a conception despite its simplicity; he couldn’t fathom it. And, for a moment, the detective actually felt an odd sense of comfort — something he hadn’t felt in a very long time.
However, he was interrupted.
A man in a black trench coat approached his car and got in without saying a word. Before Misakowski could reach for his gun, the man spoke.
“Don’t,” he spoke softly in a hoarse whisper.
Misakowski had a feeling he knew who the man was but he still didn’t trust him.
“What is it now?” The detective sighed.
The man in the trench coat said nothing. Misakowski could almost swear the stranger wasn’t even breathing. Then, he produced a file (as if out of thin air). The detective hesitantly reached out to grab but his hand was seized by the man at the last second.
“Make it clean, y’understand?” The man in black urged. “And keep your nose outta this.” The man gestured towards the crime scene in the motel room.
And then he was gone.
Misakowski sat in his car, completely silent. Staring at the cover of the dark green file folder in his hands, his mind wandered into delusive fantasies of a different life. He remembered how, at just five years old, he knew exactly what he wanted to be — how innocently he would manage to balance work and family and not have to worry about demons… demons like his that preyed on him night after night while he tried to get one — just one — wink of sleep. Some semblance of even an average existence.
But this detective’s life was far from normal. The truth was that the picture he would find in the file folder in his hands belonged to his next target and he hated himself for it. And yet, there he was. He took the folder and now he had to live with it, despite the fact that it only made his job and his life harder. It was like some sick relative you once thought the world of but now wished would just die and get it over with already — spare everyone the continued pain… except, in this case, Misakowski was ‘everyone’ and the only way out was at the end of a smoking barrel.
He considered the cover of the folder again for a brief moment.
Like a band-aid, Mike… like a band-aid.
After taking a few deep breaths, he slowly opened the folder.
“It can’t be,” the detective angrily spat into nothingness as he flung the folder on the passenger’s seat. He placed his head in his hands and sat there for a few minutes trying to figure it all out. How had it come to this? As he sat in what was starting to look like vehicular purgatory, he could hear the pitter-patter of raindrops beginning on his windshield.
Great, he thought.
Then, a knock at the passenger’s window startled Misakowski out of his self-imposed exile. He stayed completely still for a few seconds before he turned to see who was there.
“Hey! Mind if I grab a ride with you?” Yeltz asked, but he didn’t wait for a reply before he sat himself in the passenger’s seat.
Yeltz had noticed Misakowski was acting strange earlier and had begun to worry. He didn’t often like to bug his partner, let alone ask him for a ride, but he knew this was his chance to connect with Misakowski on a more personal level — something he wasn’t convinced any of the detective’s previous partners had managed themselves.
Michael Misakowski was an enigma to Yeltz — the ultimate human riddle — that he was going to solve. Ironically, the detective would probably consider himself in similar terms; even Michael Misakowski didn’t know who he was and everyone was beginning to see it.
“What’s wrong with your car?” Misakowski queried, annoyed.
Yeltz ignored the detective’s abrasive tone. “It’s in the shop.”
“How the hell did you get here then?”
“Do cabs not exist anymore?”
“You’re a real smartass, y’know that Yeltz?”
“Relax, Kowski, I was joking! What’s got you so worked up anyway?”
“Forget about it,” the detective resolved, “now where do you live?”
Yeltz knew he had lost momentarily but he was determined. “Actually, let’s take a drive.”
Misakowski stared vacantly at the doe-eyed fellow detective across from him, trying to read his mind. He reasoned that his partner was probably the sort of guy who dreamt about some far-off, bucolic future with a loving housewife and three perfect kids — maybe he’d even name one of them John or Isaiah or Josh (something biblical) — and together they’d be one big, happy family farm. Once, Misakowski had caught Yeltz reading an edition of some magazine called Farmers Digest and nearly burst out laughing; it’s not that he didn’t respect the agricultural industry (or hobby farmers, for that matter) but rather the fact that he couldn’t picture the young, scrawny, mole-clad kid to his right as a big-rigging, corn-planting farmer. Misakowski had been keeping a close eye on Yeltz. For example, he knew that every Tuesday around twelve-thirty in the afternoon, Yeltz made a run to Starbucks for a caffé Americano with an extra espresso shot, whipped cream, and that fancy caramel drizzle on top; on Thursday evenings at eleven o’clock he jogged the track at Martin’s Gym on Jackson Street; and Saturday’s were dedicated to visiting his mother at the mental health ward at the general hospital. However, he had never felt the urge to ask Yeltz about any of this…
“Where to then?” Misakowski played along.
“How about the William Parker Memorial Lookout? Go see if we can’t break up some couples trying to get frisky up there. If you stop by Starbucks on the way we can grab some drinks.” Yeltz awaited Misakowski’s answer with bated breath.
The seasoned detective answered his partner’s question with a smirk. “Let’s do it.”
As they pulled out of the motel parking lot into the increasingly violent rain of a brewing thunderstorm, Misakowski did his best to remain at ease.
* * *
It was almost eleven o’clock at night.
Misakowski was sitting in the car, parked out front of a Starbucks not too far from the motel they had come from. The rain was crashing against his windshield in what seemed like a continuous set of wave after wave.
Waves… waves… why do I remember waves, the detective thought.
He was on a beach, ten years ago. The waves crashed onto the sand in stunningly clear white curls; the hermit crabs, nestled within their cozy, intricately designed shells seemed unfazed. A lone seagull, perched on a wooden post a few feet to the right of where Misakowski and his wife sat, awaited the advent of an overturned crab.
Misakowski’s mouth was on fire, the remnants of a jerk chicken lunch still hot on his breath. He grabbed the bottle of Corona in the cup holder of his chair and looked it over, appreciating the fine details of its blue and yellow label — he wanted to savour every second in that memory.
Isabelle, seeing he was holding his beer up, hastened to grab hers and propose a toast.
“To the future,” she declared with a smile. He loved it when she smiled.
Her smile suddenly reminded him of the day he asked her out, just a few months prior to their being at that beach in Montego Bay, basking in the Jamaican sun.
Isabelle was a forensic engineer who consulted on a number of Misakowski’s cases. Initially, he hadn’t really taken much of a liking to her: he found her crass, stubborn, and a little pushy. It was his partner at the time, Lockwood, who was the first to even suggest that there could be something between them. Misakowski wouldn’t hear it at the time. But everything changed with Lockwood’s death…
Isabelle comforted Michael during the weeks following his partner’s murder and it was during those few weeks that Michael had really come to understand why Isabelle was the way she was… so much so that he fell in love with everything about her. After months of dating in secret they finally went public with their relationship and, just a week later, announced their engagement. He was fairly certain the day he proposed to her, in front of all of their friends (well, her friends) and colleagues, was the first day he ever saw her shed a tear. Isabelle was the last to leave the forensics lab that night — she was joined by Misakowski right at midnight; they danced to Pink Floyd and didn’t care if anyone saw. That was them, the detective thought, the real Isabelle and Michael in that moment.
He kept this precious memory safe-guarded, deep within his mind where no one but him could ever access it. None of his other ‘obligations’ could ever take that away from him.
They stayed on the beach until sunset. Only one crab had been unfortunate enough to get caught in the beak of the lone seagull, despite Misakowski’s occasional attempts to defend them from their avian executioner.
“Look at you,” Isabelle jabbed, “protecting and serving the crabs.”
That remark led to a brief sand fight which ended with them both in the water, frustrated that they had to wash the sand out of their hair but just happy that they could throw sand at each other at all.
“Y’know, this reminds of one case I worked a couple years ago,” Misakowski began, but Isabelle interrupted him.
“Let’s not talk about work while we’re here,” she suggested coolly, “let’s just stay here forever.” And then they shared a kiss, standing among the rushing, white waves of the Caribbean Sea. It seemed so surreal then… it was even more surreal now.
There were often times during his terrible spiral of a career that Misakowski pondered how lucky he was to be with Isabelle — that cliché feeling full of comparisons and reasoning’s and all the answers to questions you wished you’d never asked yourself. Without her, he probably would have ended his own life years ago.
As he sat alone in the Starbucks parking lot, waiting for his partner to return with their drinks, he couldn’t help but feel as though he’d simply been watching the years of his life pass by in old home-movies and flashbacks.
Suddenly, he could hear the sound of a loud shuffle inside the Starbucks. Without a moment’s hesitation, he carefully exited the vehicle and stood there in the rain, silently watching what appeared to be a robbery happening inside the Starbucks.
A young woman with a ski mask on was aiming her gun at Yeltz’s head and shouting obscenities (intermingled with commands to “Get down!” and “Give me your gun!”) at him and the barista. Misakowski stood as still as a deer listening to the sound of cracking twigs under the foot of a hunter and waited. At first, he reasoned he should wait until he had a good opportunity — when the gun isn’t in Yeltz’s face — to intervene in the situation but, as seconds grew to minutes, he understood what his body was telling… what his mind wasn’t willing to admit.
Yeltz, standing there with his hands raised to about an eye-level height, kicked his gun over to the robber in a defeat Misakowski could tell Yeltz had anticipated. Now was Misakowski’s turn to wait with bated breath. He was soaking wet and his nose was runny but he couldn’t bring himself to move a single muscle; all he could do was stand and watch.
What happened next unfolded in such quick succession that Misakowski had to replay the events over and over in his mind for months to come before he had fully accepted it.
As he stood at the receiving end of the barrel, detective James Yeltz turned his eyes away from the robber — seconds away from death — and stared out through the mega windows of the storefront into the eyes of his partner. When they locked eyes, Misakowski saw something in the eyes of James Yeltz he had never seen in anyone’s before: understanding. And it was then that Misakowski noticed how thoughtful Yeltz’s eyes were — how full of compassion; Yeltz was just a man trying to understand the world around him, make a new friend here and there. So what if he wanted that bucolic pipe dream of his. The understanding in Yeltz’s eyes was immediate and real — human.
But Misakowski came to these conclusions without time on his side.
Two loud pops echoed inside the Starbucks accompanied by flashes of light. In the time it took for the robber to shoot the barista, Yeltz had produced a hidden automatic pistol and shot the robber square in the chest. A brief victory, however, as the robber quickly got a shot off which pierced Yeltz in the right eye and kept on going straight through his skull. Everyone was dead… except for Misakowski, who stood there in the rain just as he had been the whole time. He stood there for a few more seconds before returning to his car; he didn’t have time to think — to process — no, he had to get out of there. If he were caught at the scene of the crime it would raise too many questions. Sure, he could claim he arrived after the shots were fired but… what was the point? No one had seen him and Yeltz leave together either (he was almost absolutely sure).
As he drove, he felt like one of those hermit crabs on the beach in Montego Bay. Soon he would return to his home, tired, soaked to the bone, and emotionally vacant, wishing he had never agreed to feed the seagull by letting one of his own die. Yet there he was.
Suddenly, his phone lit up. It was Isabelle.
“Hey, babe,” she greeted him cautiously, “is everything okay? I thought you said you’d be done before ten-thirty?”
“Just had some paperwork — well, you know,” he cryptically offered. “I’ll be home in ten.”
Just another night, Misakowski thought, just another band-aid ripped off.