Part 1: Icon
A dark, dismal face stared back at Detective Fabian Mendez from his mug of black coffee. Rough, grizzled, and deeply unhappy. Although darkened and distorted by the hot coffee, it was still the same face he saw every morning in the mirror after he woke up.
Sad sucker, he thought just before a plate topped with a large muffin landed onto the table next to his mug.
He lifted his gloomy gaze to see a young blonde woman in a police uniform, staring at him expectantly.
“Happy birthday,” she said with a grin.
Fabian stared blankly for a moment before breaking the silence with an exasperated chuckle.
“Oh jeez,” he muttered. “I forgot about my own birthday.”
“You gonna thank me?” the woman asked.
“Yes, yes,” Fabian replied wryly. “Thanks, Wendy.”
Fabian leaned forward to examine the pastry that had been forced upon him. It was slightly orange in color, and appeared to be dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
“What is this anyway?” he asked.
“They make those now?”
Wendy raised a concerned eyebrow in Fabian’s direction. “They’re seasonal, Fabi. They make them every year.”
Fabi nodded. “I see…”
“For a detective, you don’t seem to pay attention to your surroundings much. Unless there’s a dead body around, at least.”
Fabi was already mid-way through a bite of his muffin when Wendy’s remark stung him like an angry hornet. He swallowed the bite joylessly.
“You know, my ex used to say the same thing,” he remarked before indulging in another bite of the sugary treat.
“I could have guessed that, yeah.”
A sudden laugh almost made Fabi spit crumbs onto the table. “Hey, hey,” he said after swallowing again. “Why can’t you… you know… boost my confidence for once? Tell me about how smart and talented I am, huh?”
Wendy shook her head. “Aren’t you the one always complaining about participation trophies and stuff?”
Her logic was air-tight. “Touche,” Fabi replied with a shrug.
After they’d finished their coffees, the pair made their way back out to the squad car, which was parked in a pothole-ridden lot about a block away from the cafe. The sky had darkened significantly since they’d arrived, and seemed to grow more grey by the second.
It’s gonna rain soon, he thought. I can smell it.
“So how old are you anyway?” Wendy asked as they made their way down the sidewalk. “50? 60?”
“Very funny,” Fabi groaned.
“No, but for real.”
“For real?... Thirty-three.”
“Really?” Wendy raised an eyebrow in his direction. “You seem older than that.”
“That makes sense,” Fabi replied. “I definitely feel older.”
“Got anything fun planned for the night?”
“Well, it’s my birthday… I suppose I should visit my mother.” He seemed more worried than overjoyed at the idea.
“How has she been lately?” Wendy asked, her voice more serious than before.
Fabi gave a quick grunt to clear his throat as he conjured up an answer to her question. “Well… you know…” he finally replied, a slight quaver in his voice. “She has her good days and bad... some bad days are worse than others.”
Finally at their destination, Fabi reached out and grabbed the driver’s side door handle to his old Ford. The door squeaked when it opened, a familiar and welcoming sound to him.
The two got into the vehicle and Fabi absent-mindedly adjusted the icon of Jesus on the sun visor above his head.
“You really like that thing, huh?” Wendy commented.
“Yeah,” Fabi replied. “My abuela gave it to me a long time ago. She said it was for my protection.”
The images from that day flooded into his brain. He remembered the funeral parlor, and the sound of his mother weeping. He remembered the warm embrace of his abuela, holding him tightly as if to shield him from all the evils of the world.
If she could see me now in this dangerous profession, she’d have a heart attack, he thought with a sigh.
“Anyway,” Fabi continued. “Let’s get out of here.”
Part 2: Suffocate
A young Fabian Mendez wandered down a metal-lined hall. The floor was made from rusted grating, with some kind of foul sludge flowing just underneath. His small mismatched sneakers clanked against it as he walked.
He came to a fork in the hallway and looked down each identical path. Both of them extended into an impenetrable darkness that Fabi couldn’t see through.
“Mom?!” He called once again.
An echoing call came from the hall to his right: “Fabi!...”
“Mom!” Fabi ran down that path, straight towards the darkness. Even though he couldn’t see even a foot in front of his face, he continued his advancement.
He emerged from the thick shadow into another metal-lined hall. A blast of hot steam shot out from a hole in the wall.
“Guh!” Fabi quickly ducked under it and began running even faster, the clunking from his shoes getting louder and louder as his pace increased.
Suddenly he emerged into what appeared to be a massive cylindrical tank, the bottom of which was filled with a dark rotten liquid with chunks of what looked to be meat and viscera floating through it. The liquid nearly came up to his knees, but Fabi still pushed forward, following the distant calls of his mother.
The giant tank filled with the sound of rushing water as more of the putrid drink poured in from holes in the walls. The water level rose further and further as he struggled to move his feet. It felt as if the liquid was also getting thicker as it rose higher.
Flies buzzed around Fabi’s face and he made his slow crawl through the tank. He swatted at them in futility as they collided with his face again and again.
Soon the water was up to his stomach. He wanted to stop, but there was no way out but forward. He had no choice but to keep going.
“M-mom!” He shouted as the liquid reached his neck. “Mommy!” It poured into his mouth, making him choke and suffocate on the festering flesh.
“HUUUUUURGH!” Fabi shot upright in his bed, hands gripping his dry, sore throat.
It was a dream! he thought, his mind buzzing with frantic anxiety. Just a dream...
Somewhere along the line he’d stopped breathing, and his body’s hunger for air finally woke him up.
Not good. I gotta figure out how to stop doing this, He thought. Sleep was proving to be quite dangerous for him as of late, and the nightmares seemed more vivid every time.
He wiped some cold sweat off of his brow as he tried to regain his composure. It was still early in the night, which meant he could still squeeze out a few more hours worth of rest.
“BRIIIIIIIING! BRIIIIIIIIING!” Fabi sighed as his phone lit up on the bed stand.
So much for that idea…
Fabi hit the green answer buttons and brought the phone up to his ear.
“Detective Mendez,” he said calmly.
As the man on the other end explained the situation, it became very clear that Fabian wouldn’t be getting back to sleep for a good long while.
Part 3: The Heebie Jeebies
“Ah jeez.” Fabian Mendez could almost feel the bile rising up from the back of his throat as he examined the freakish scene before him.
“You tell me they almost considered this a suicide?” He asked.
Officer Aaron Mackie nodded. “Yeah, I mean… There was a witness who saw the whole thing.”
Fabi gestured towards the front door of the convenience store with his thumb. “You mean that guy who was crying out front?”
“Yep. That’s the one. Said the man was freaking out real bad and just… started contorting around like that.”
Fabi squinted in confused astonishment. “You mean to tell me this guy twisted his elbows backwards like that all by himself?”
Mackie shrugged. “I- I dunno. We’re gonna take the witness in for questioning, obviously, but we got the whole incident on security camera.”
“He didn’t touch the guy the entire time. Just called 911 to report what was happening.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“Nope,” Mackie shook his head. “Come on back. I’ll show you.”
Fabi followed the officer into the hallway at the back of the store and the two entered a dimly lit office room. The air conditioning seemed to be on the fritz, as the room was noticeably stuffy and uncomfortable to be in.
Mackie sat down at a chair in front of the computer monitor and pulled up a window displaying the security footage. Fabi waited patiently in the heat for Mackie to find the appropriate timestamp.
“Sorry, this software is kinda cheap and clumsy,” Mackie told him.
“It’s alright. Take your time.” Fabi’s words were meant to put Mackie at ease, but his tone was very obviously on-edge.
“Alright,” Mackie finally said, gesturing for Fabi to observe the computer screen. “I got it.”
He hit “play” and, just as he described, the entire incident played out in front of them.
The man behind the counter just stood there, the store completely empty. Nothing appeared to be amiss, other than the man apparently looking over at the window next to him every five seconds or so, as if he were waiting for someone to approach from the parking lot.
“What’s he looking at?” Fabi asked, pointing at the screen.
“Don’t know,” Mackie replied. “Watch this though.”
He fast forwarded a couple minutes. The man was looking directly out the window now, without glancing away.
“He’s really concentrating on whatever that is,” Fabi observed.
Suddenly the man jolted backwards away from the window. He began to shake his head fearfully and appeared to shout something at whatever was coming towards him. However, the camera was angled in a way where they could get at least a partial glimpse through the window, and there was absolutely nothing there.
Fabi furrowed his brow in concern. “It looks like he’s… begging... He’s terrified.
Next, the man turned to face the far end of the store, as if a second figure had appeared there as well, and he cowered against the rack of cigarettes at his back.
“You checked the other angles as well, right?” asked Fabi. “There was nothing there?”
Mackie shook his head. “Nope. Nothing. Just thin air.”
The man then collapsed onto the ground, presumably huddling in the fetal position and scared out of his mind. From that point on, he was out of view of the camera.
“This is where the witness comes in,” Mackie said, pointing towards the video. “Check this out.”
True to the witness’ story, he came in casually through the store’s front entrance and looked around for an employee. His attention was drawn to the checkout counter, and he gradually made his way over. Even with the relatively low resolution of the security video, Fabi could see the growing distress the witness had been feeling in his movements, which became more frantic as the video went along.
“Well I’ll be,” Fabi said with an exhausted sigh. “You’re right. He didn’t even touch the guy. What the hell…”
“Yeah…” Mackie replied solemnly. “Can a guy really do that to himself? I mean… It has to be physically impossible, right?”
“I would think so, but…” Fabi’s mind was racing with questions, but answers seemed to be in short supply. He very quickly decided to give up for now.
“Ah shoot, I dunno,” he continued, throwing his hands up in a show of surrender. “We’ll need to see what the medical examiner thinks. For now, let’s see if we can find any more evidence before this place gets cleaned up.”
“You got it.”
After the men emerged back into the fluorescent lighting of the A+ store, Fabi returned to the checkout counter and peered out through the windows into the empty parking lot.
As much as he tried, he couldn’t see anything.
“What were you looking at, big guy?” he muttered.
As he turned away, he could have sworn he saw something standing out there, watching him.
What the hell?!
He quickly glanced back out, but the lot was still as abandoned as it was before.
I gotta finish up and get out of here, he thought. I’m giving myself the heebie jeebies.
Part 4: Impossible
Dr. Dmitry Popov ruffled the sparse salt-and-pepper hair on top of his balding hair. He peered through thick glasses at the examination notes in front of him, very obviously in a state of distress. The name “Austin Goldthwaite” was written at the top of the forms.
It wasn’t a surprise that the doctor would feel so on-edge, of course. He and Fabi had been up since the very early morning trying to crack the case, with little in the way of luck. The past few hours had been spent entirely in the confines of Dr. Popov’s white, brightly-lit office trying to put the pieces together.
Toxicology screens were negative, no history of mental health problems... No leads whatsoever.
Fabi approached the anxious doctor’s desk and set a small paper cup filled with cheap vending machine latte onto it. The doctor didn’t acknowledge this kind gesture apart from a quick “thanks” said over his shoulder.
“No problem,” Fabi replied, rubbing at his dry, tired eyes.
Fabi’s crime scene documentation was finished, as well as all of the accompanying paperwork. However, the final determination for the man’s death was still undecided.
“It’s just impossible,” Dr. Popov muttered. “In all of my years working as a medical examiner, I’ve never seen something like this. It’s just… strange.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to your work,” Fabi said, starting towards the office door. “I think I’ve provided everything I possibly can at this point.”
Popov nodded, keeping his gaze firmly planted on his notes. “Alright,” he replied. “Have a good day, detective.”
“You too,” Fabi shot back with a quick nod before leaving.
He headed back through the examination room, towards the hospital hallway, making sure not to spare another glance for the twisted dead body on the examination table.
As soon as he reached for the door, his phone began to ring again: “BRIIIIIING! BRIIIIIIIING!”
“Oh lord, Fabi thought, wincing. What is it now?
He answered it, giving his usual “Detective Mendez” after bringing it up to his face.
“Fabi!” The voice on the other end called. Fabi recognized the voice right away. It was Wendy.
“What’s going on?” Fabi asked, growing concerned at her tone.
“I know you're tired,” she began. “But we got another scene for you.”
“Another one?” he asked, grimacing. “Is it a murder?”
“That’s the thing…” She took a moment to think over what she would say next. “You know that case you had this morning at that convenience store?”
“Oh god, you don’t mean…”
“Yeah…” Wendy’s voice became grim. “It happened again.”
Part 5: Three More
The branches of the dark trees in the distance thrashed around in the furious wind, resembling tiny claws grasping in desperation towards a grey, uncaring sky. Below them, the tall brown grass beckoned to the onlookers in the field, waving and undulating in a seemingly endless mad dance.
Fabi stepped out of his old Ford and his black work boots made crunching noises on the brittle cracked concrete below. About fifty yards away, he spied the police officers in front of an old van that appeared to be rusting away in the middle of an empty field.
His heart filled up with dread, Fabian tightened his overcoat around his body to keep out the quickening breeze and made the journey over to them. Officers Wendy Carmichael, Melinda Park, and Aaron Mackie were waiting for him in front of the steel deathtrap, their faces dark with foreboding expressions.
“What’s going on?” Fabi asked, nodding towards the van. “They in there?”
Melinda nodded and reached out towards the van’s side door with a gloved hand. Carefully, she slid the heavy rolling door open, revealing the twisted rotting carnage inside. Fabi instinctively covered his nose with a hand as the stench wafted towards him and took a small step towards the van to get a better look.
The more he examined the horror before him, the sicker and more worried he felt.
“Good lord,” he said under his breath. “What the hell is happening?...”