The Caller

Alex Barclay


The room was eight by ten and windowless. Weak shafts of light stretched through the bars that ran from floor to ceiling across one wall. The small television, mounted on a black shelf outside, was full-volume white noise. On a tray by the door lay the shrivelled remains of an overcooked dinner.

The bed, pushed against the right-hand wall, was perfectly made, each corner tight under the thin mattress, the coarse green cover smooth except for where he sat, hunched and focused. Sweat darkened the folds and underarms of his blue shirt, the odor mixing with the rising stench from the discarded food.

He opened his eyes and turned to the desk lamp beside him, flicking the switch. Under the brilliant white light, he held a model; a plaster replica of the thirty-two human teeth he could recall so easily as he traced his thumb over the contours; the imperfection of a prominent incisor, a pointed canine tip, the uneven surface of a chipped premolar. Only once had he seen the teeth in a smile: at the beginning, a quick flash before the terror struck. For hours afterwards, they had been clamped shut in agony or visible only as the lips curled back from them in a silent scream.

He bent forward and slid a box from under the bed, pulling it up to rest on his knees. Twisting his body, he removed a key from his pocket, then unlocked the box. He looked at the model one last time, then set it down inside with the others. One, two, three. Four.

The day after you watch your first victim die is not very different to the day before. You still wake up. Maybe you skip breakfast, even lunch, but you will eat… eventually. And you’ll sleep. And you’ll slip into a rhythm. Not identical to the one before; there might be an erratic beat, but at least it’s a silent beat. Yours.

He pushed the box under the bed, where other reminders lay – of lives taken and lives spared. He closed his eyes and breathed in the warm, captive air.

My prison is a tool, a training ground, a stopover. I look at the bars behind me, the space around me, the confinement. I think of where you are and how tragic for you it is that here I am, there you are, but oh so quickly, there I am. Right with you.

Entrance. Exit.

He switched off the desk lamp. He returned the key to his pocket, stood up and walked to the door. He slid back the bolt and stepped outside. He reached up and turned off the television, watching as the light was sucked into a tiny circle at the center and turned to black. Then he walked across the floor and up the steps, pausing as he crossed the threshold into his bright, air-conditioned home.

She was twenty-nine years old, small and slender, dressed in a white tank, pale pink cardigan and jeans, her dark hair twisted and secured with a dragonfly clip at the nape of her neck. Her skin was sallow, her eyes winter blue. Beside her was a doll, made from instructions that lost her interest before the mouth was sewn and the brown wool hair could be bunched and tied with bows. Beside that lay a clay ashtray, half-painted and dented by pressured thumbs.

She couldn’t remember why she had sat down. She opened the desk drawer and took out a laminated prayer card and red St Pio rosary beads. Wrapping them around her fingers, she bowed her head and began to pray. She told St Joseph that she dare not approach him while Jesus reposed near his heart.

From nowhere, it rose, a familiar unsettling pressure in her stomach. Her only relief was that somewhere mixed in with the fear came a euphoria she had never found anywhere else. But only the fear washed over her now. Her left hand shot out and slammed down onto a notepad. She slid it across the desk towards her, her head feeling free from her body as she tried to make use of what was happening to her. A dark reel unwound behind her eyes; edited razor-sharp, black and grey shapes, a frenzied acceleration of badly lit scenes. Her right hand groped the air, her fingers searching for two short vertical lines that would make it all pause, then backwards arrows to make it rewind. But this was nothing she could control. Coursing through her was the impulse to stay in the moment, not to go back, not to cast any light onto dark half-memories. But before she got a chance to write, she was gone, sliding to the floor, dragging paper and pens and pencils on top of her. The last thing she saw was her friend, standing in the doorway, shrunken to the size of a child.

Detective Joe Lucchesi sat with his head between his knees, tears streaming down his face and dripping onto the carpet below him. His face was grey, his forehead dotted with sweat and newsprint from the fingers he had pressed against it before the real pain had kicked in. Half an hour earlier he had arrived at his dentist’s office for emergency treatment – with pain he had gauged level eight. Now it was off the scale and rising. Nausea ripped through him, but he stayed doubled over, letting out a growl that choked in his throat.

‘Joe? Joe?’ A receptionist rushed in from the hallway. ‘Stay with me, sweetheart.’

She glanced around the waiting room. ‘Did anyone see what happened?’

‘He was sitting right there reading the newspaper, he took a call on his cell. He sat back down and then he started not to look too good.’ Joe knew it was the voice of a kind-faced older man who was sitting opposite him when he arrived.

The receptionist laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder. ‘Dr Makkar will be along right away. Is there anything I can get you in the meantime?’

‘Would he maybe take a glass of water?’ It was the man again. He had stood up – Joe could see his brown suede loafers on the carpet in front of him. Joe managed to raise a shaky hand that said no to both offers.

‘I don’t think he was even able to talk to whoever called him,’ said the old man.

But Joe knew it wasn’t the pain that had stopped him from talking. He just had no answer for the voice that came twisting its way back into his life, drawling and heavy and laden with unfinished business.

‘Detective Lucchesi? Every time you look at the scars on your wife’s pretty little body, right down… low down on that tight little belly. Or when you flip her over onto her front. She’s light, you can flip her easy, can’t you? There’s some scars there too – makes me feel like I’m the gift that keeps on giving. Well, what I want to know is this: when you see them scars? Do you still want her?’ He paused. ‘ Or do you want me more?’ He laughed long and loud. ‘ Tell me. Who’s gonna get it in the ass? Little Anna Lucchesi or Big Bad Duke Rawlins?’ His breath was gone, lost in a dead silence. Then his voice struck up, one last time. ‘ And Detective? You’ll never bury me. I. Will. Bury. You. ’


Detectives Joe Lucchesi and Danny Markey stepped into the elevator that would take them to the sixth floor office of Manhattan North Homicide. They were three hours into an eight to four tour. A short skinny man shot in after them, jumpy and light on his feet.

‘You know, I can read futures by your hands.’ He had weathered skin and a droopy left eye. He stood an inch from Joe’s chest and looked up at him with a gentle smile. Joe looked at Danny and held his palm out.

The man stepped back, banging his head on the elevator doors.

‘Not your palm!’ he shouted. ‘Not your palm! The back of your hand! I will know you from the back of your hand.’ Joe turned it over.

‘The other one too. You too,’ he said, looking at Danny. ‘Both hands. Both hands. Many hands make Jack dull.’

Joe and Danny smiled and did what he said.

‘You’re laughing too early,’ said the guy. ‘This could be bad news, what I see here. This could be too many ducks spoiling the bush.’

‘We don’t want to hear no bad news,’ said Danny. ‘Right?’

‘Right,’ said Joe.

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