‘There’s something wrong with this damn soup!’
Red hunched down over the chipped porcelain bowl, stabbed at the soup with his spoon. Slivers of roast chicken and golden kernels of corn in a thick broth the colour of oatmeal. Maria had been making the same soup for thirty-odd years. Now and then she’d sneak broccoli or butter beans in there, but whenever she did, he’d always give her a look and then scrunch up his nose as he ate. So, most of the time she just stuck to the original chicken and corn recipe he preferred. The point was Red knew what the goddamn soup should taste like. And this wasn’t it.
‘Maria, honey?’ Red waited a beat for her reply but got nothing.
Sounds drifted in from the kitchen; the shunt of drawers opening and closing, the clang of cutlery. Sounds that told him his wife was definitely in there, fixing him a drink or rustling something up for dessert. She just wasn’t answering. ‘Maria!’
This time he heard his wife reply but couldn’t make out the words. She sounded distant, like she was shouting into the wind.
Red dropped his gaze back to the bowl on his lap, swirling the soup in a loose figure of eight and letting the steam rise to brush his face. He slurped a spoonful and turned his attention to the TV, the screen cracking and buzzing with static.
Lakers season highlights.
Red had never been that big into sports, but once in a while he liked to sit back with a beer and catch a game. He thought of the old metal hoop out front over the garage, unused in years and bleached yellow-white by the Californian sun. He’d been meaning to take it down for months now, but every time he thought about doing it, something held him back. In his heart he knew it would never be used again, that things would never go back to the way they had once been.
Red blinked hard to clear the burning behind his eyes, spooned more soup into his mouth.
As he chewed, a glistening pearl of broth fell from his lip and started making its way south. He ran the back of a gnarled hand across his chin, catching the soup but leaving a streak of motor oil in its place. The Taurus had blown a cylinder head and he’d been mid-fix when Maria had called to tell him dinner was getting cold.
Red stuck another spoonful in his mouth, worked his gums. The soup definitely tasted wrong. Not bad as such, just not how it was supposed to. And as he swallowed it down, his head began to swim. He tried to concentrate on the game, but the players seemed to drift in and out of vision. He blinked several times and squinted but it made no difference, the figures continued to blur and refocus at random, making it hard to follow the action. Maybe he needed glasses. Or maybe he should just go see what the hell Maria was doing in the kitchen. He felt around his chair for the remote, his movement slow and uncoordinated, his train of thought fragmented. His arm knocked against the bowl on his lap, sending the steaming contents to the floor with a thud, streaks of the creamy liquid shooting out across the rug like flecks of paint on a canvas.
Where the hell was his wife? Red tried to call again, but this time the noise that left his lips didn’t sound like him. He wasn’t sure what he’d said.
Then movement. Not on the screen, but in the room in front of him. Shapes. Two of them. Their edges blurred and dull. Red shook his head and tried to focus. Maria materialised, standing a few feet away from him in the middle of the room. She had a strange, nervous expression on her face and he thought her eyes looked milky, like undercooked eggs. She gave him a weak smile as he gazed up at her, drinking her in. Sometimes he’d forget how beautiful she was, and then she’d pass him in the hall, or she’d bring a coffee out to the garage while he was working and he’d see her as if for the first time; POW! Knockout.
Red tried to move but couldn’t. His head spun and his vision blurred. There was movement next to him and he felt his fingers being pressed against something cold and hard. It was a familiar sensation. And, as it always had, it brought with it a strange comfort. He dropped his gaze to his right hand, and to the gun grasped loosely in it. His gun. He frowned, trying to remember when he’d fetched it from the closet. Red watched, mesmerised, as the gun lifted off the arm of the chair and pointed itself at Maria’s chest. Fear shot through him like a lightning bolt. He tried to turn the gun away, but his arm wouldn’t obey. He looked up at his wife with pleading eyes, trying to make sense of what was happening.
And then he fired.
Red watched as Maria’s chest exploded in a plume of crimson, her body falling backwards onto the floor of the den. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder filled his nostrils. He tried to scream, but this time no sound escaped his lips.
His eyes tracked down to the gun. In a daze he watched as the second figure slipped it out of his hand and carried it back across the room. The next two shots erupted in quick succession, the blasts echoing off the walls, Maria’s small body twitching in unison. Her expression blank, bored. Blood was pooling beneath her, draining from the hole in her chest and the two in her head, mixing with the flecks of soup on the rug in some sick pastiche of modern art.
Red sensed movement again, closer this time. He felt his fingers being curled around the gun once more, and for the briefest of moments the clouds cleared and realisation dawned. After all this time, it had finally caught up with him.
Red felt the press of the still-warm barrel against his temple, could hear his pulse beating inside his skull louder than a bass drum. As he waited for the darkness to take him, his final thoughts were of the boy. Because in the end, it all came back to him.
The cops came before dawn. Three of them. Seemed an odd number to me. Like, why not two? Or four? Three was arbitrary. They stood in formation at my door like bowling pins and I had the sudden urge to rush the first one, see if I could knock the other two down. I bet that I could.
‘Fin Malahide?’ the first one said. He had a head like a shovel. All straight edges and right angles. Army buzz cut.
‘Sorry to wake you…’
‘You didn’t wake me.’
‘May we come in, sir?’
I studied him for a second, assessing my options. It’s never a good sign when the cops are beating on your door before dawn. I had a flash of when it happened the first time; my father beetroot red with suppressed rage, my mother standing rigid on the stairs, arms folded across her chest, cold and distant.
‘We just need to talk to you, sir, and I think it would be better if we go inside,’ Shovelhead said. He was getting antsy, rolling his shoulders around. I turned and moved back inside, letting the three of them trail in behind.
I didn’t bother switching the lights on. The sun was yet to rise but there was enough light to see; on the street outside a flickering neon billboard advertised cheap beer and lit my apartment up like a damn Christmas tree. The synthetic pink glow seeped in through my spindly plastic blinds, casting slashes across the room like prison bars. And this was not some jolly good-old-days yuletide hue, it was more the strip-light pink of a Vegas casino or the condemnatory blush of a backstreet sex shop.
Not that there was much to see. My apartment was doll-sized; an open plan living room/kitchen, a cramped bedroom off to the side, a dank bathroom beyond. Other than that, it was bare. Unloved and unliving. No artwork, no photographs, no plants. I'd been in this place nearly six months but still felt like a stranger here, an impostor in a life I’d not chosen but probably deserved.
I padded over to the kitchen area. Grabbed my pill bottle and upended it, spilling a little white gem into my palm. Two dirty glasses sat on the countertop, one smeared with lipstick. I grabbed the other and swallowed a mouthful of its russet-coloured contents (bourbon and Kool-Aid, a personal favourite of mine), popped the pill in my mouth and then threw the rest of the liquid down my throat. It was sweet and sticky and warm. Bourbon and Coke is good, but bourbon and Kool-Aid is better.
I could feel the cop’s eyes on me. Shovelhead had stopped just inside the door. The other two cops—one man, one woman—had fanned out either side of him. I crossed to the couch and took a seat. Shovelhead moved towards the wicker chair opposite me, introduced himself as Officer Robertson. As he lowered himself down, I could see the muscles under his shirt straining to get out. I knew the type. He was one of those guys who lived at the gym, grunting and moaning in front of the mirror like an animal, downing protein shakes and egg whites, hoping the biceps and six-pack would make up for the shitty personality and steroid-shrivelled dick.
‘What’s this about?’ I asked.
‘Just a couple of quick questions first, sir.’
I ran a hand across my face to clear the fug. I only ever sleep in spluttering bursts of unconsciousness, but lately even that sweet respite had eluded me.
‘You all right, sir?’
‘I’m good,’ I replied.
It was mid-August and bone meltingly hot.
My apartment had no air con and I could feel the couch clinging to my skin like flypaper. A bead of sweat edged its way down Robertson’s temple, tracing his jawline and disappearing down inside his shirt. I noticed the light bleeding into the room had cast a perfect pink stripe across his face, making him look like some bad Ziggy Stardust impersonator.
He was scanning the dismal surroundings. The living room contained very little; a couch, the wicker chair, a broken TV, a shelf with a few books, and a coffee table holding a near-empty bottle of store-brand bourbon and a half-finished game of Battleship. Robertson moved his eyes over the board.
‘My daughter likes to play,’ I said.
He nodded but didn’t respond.
To fill the silence I said, ‘What kind of four-year-old girl likes Battleship, right?’
Robertson ignored me, cleared his throat instead. I could hear the phlegm rattling around as he did it. He said, ‘Is it OK if I address you as Mr Malahide, or would you prefer…?’
I thought: Please, call me Fin, Mr Malahide is my father’s name, ha ha!
I said, ‘Mr Malahide is fine.’ No need to make his life any easier.
Robertson was about to continue when a cough from the bedroom drew his attention. The other two cops, mute and expressionless, kept their eyes on me.
‘Is there someone else here, sir?’ Robertson said.
I waved the question away. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
I’d picked the girl up in Hollywood on a whim. A decision I'd regretted instantly but was too embarrassed to call off. As if once she was in the car, I was contractually obliged to go through with it. Hence the lipstick on the glass. Now my bedroom was heavy with the lingering tang of stale cigarette smoke and disappointing sex.
Before the cops had turned up, I’d been in the throes of indecision. I had no idea what the etiquette was in these situations. Should I wait for her to wake up or just leave the money on the kitchen counter and go out, hoping she'd take the chance to slip away? It was a puzzle.
Eventually, Robertson turned back to me. ‘Sir, can you confirm that your folks live at 2106 Orange Drive?’
That threw me. I looked from one cop to the other. They stared back, silent as the grave.
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
Robertson caught the eye of the male cop, exchanged some kind of signal, then turned back to face me. I didn’t like where this was going.
‘Sir, there was an incident last night at your parents’ property...’
He paused. I waited.
‘Sir, I’m sorry to tell you that both your parents were killed last night.’
No one even breathing. Not me, not them. I wondered who would break first, suck in some of the stagnant air that swirled around this place, as thick and cloying as treacle. I tried to process what Robertson had said, but my brain felt muggy, like an old engine clogged with grit, struggling to ignite.
‘I… um, sorry what?’
Robertson shifted, the wicker chair groaning under the strain of his bulk.
‘We got called to reports of shots fired. When we entered the property, we found your folks…’
‘Dead?’ I said. He nodded.
I sunk back into the fabric of the couch, my body folding in on itself, the air escaping my lungs in a whimper. I felt hollowed out, like a bag of skin with no bones. All I could say was, ‘How?’
My father shot my mother three times, then turned the gun on himself. That’s what Robertson told me. For a while after, nobody spoke. Three sets of eyes burrowed into me, narrowed and unblinking, and I realised they were waiting for something. A reaction. Any reaction. For me to cry or scream. My guts were churning and my heart was disintegrating, but my face was Sahara-dry. I don’t know why, but my body doesn’t always do what’s expected of it. Must be the pills. I hoped it was the pills.
Still they stared.
With my head in my hands, I forced myself to breathe. Deep and slow.
If you had to describe my father, the best you could say was he had presence. An aura of something. He isn’t, wasn’t, an especially big man, but something about the way he carried himself said watch yourself. It was usually nothing he said, just a feeling you got. It meant you could never fully relax when he was around. I loved and hated him for it in equal measure.
He never wore t-shirts. One time my mother said he looked like a turtle coming out of its shell, and he never put one on again. He only wore shirts. Mostly black or navy blue. He had big, rough hands that were always covered in oil, even if he hadn’t been fixing anything. And he never wore cologne. Said it made his skin itch.
My mother on the other hand was a distinct entity; quiet, strong, reserved. Aloof even. She wore a lot of plaid and liked to listen to Motown music and watch black and white movies. She was a good six inches smaller than my father and half his weight, but she could stop him dead with a look. She had a power over him I never fully understood. Or maybe I’d just never met anyone who could control me like that.
I pictured the house. The driveway, cracked and oil-stained, leading up to the garage door. The old hoop above it where we’d play ball until the neighbours complained. The smell of my mother’s cooking.
I said, ‘Take me to them.’
Robertson sniffed. ‘Sir, I’m afraid that isn’t possible. Detective Frank Perez—he’s leading the investigation—asked me to bring you down to the station. He needs to ask you some questions about what might have happened, about your father’s state of mind.’
I shook my head. ‘I want to see them. You need to take me there. Then I’ll go wherever you want me to.’
Robertson spoke through gritted teeth. ‘We can’t do that.’
I looked to the other two cops for help. Got nothing.
So be it. ‘Fine, whatever. But I got to put on some clothes first.’
‘Take your time, sir.’
Shaking, I stood up and moved across the threadbare carpet. As I passed the female cop, she laid a hand on my arm and whispered, ‘Your father was a hero, sir. You should be real proud.’
I ignored her, moved past into the bedroom and closed the door.
The girl was sitting up in bed, covers pulled up to her eyes. I realised she must have thought the cops were there for her. It almost made me smile. As if the LAPD had the resources.
I pulled off the vest and shorts I’d been wearing, replacing them with jeans, a once-black-but-now-grey t-shirt, and an old pair of sneakers. Then I moved into the bathroom and shut the door behind me. The bathroom is less a room than a closet; a small tub, dribbling showerhead, cracked white tiles laced with black mould, a mirror, a peach toilet, and a window overlooking the street behind the building.
I leaned against the wall and took three deep breaths. My heart was thumping in my chest and I could feel the anxiety rising in me like battery acid. Leaning my head back, I put both hands around my neck and squeezed. A long, slow, building pressure. Just to take the edge off.
Then I opened the window above the toilet, squeezed myself out onto the ledge, and …