The feeling of being watched grew, and as he walked Robert McCall looked around at the dark city street. It was a particularly nice after-midnight stroll for the end of October in New York City. The late hour held no fear for him. Though not as young as he once was he was still secure in the fact that his training would bode him well if any street thug appeared. He had just finished dining at the restaurant where he was the silent partner. It had been a pleasant evening all round.
Just a bit miffed that his usual parking spot in front of his brownstone had been taken, he used his alternative place in the garage just three blocks away and walked home.
But still there was a lingering feeling of being observed, a sixth sense that was best never dismissed. He heightened his awareness to feel if anything around him was awry, but only the sounds of traffic two streets over on the avenue were there. It was rare that a car slid by his residential street. There were no furtive footsteps behind him, no small buzz that would alarm him to another person's energy nearby. As he turned toward his block he whiffed a hint of something putrid. That the city boasted a wealth of smells was the norm, but this was the unique smell of human remains, that sweet, nauseating smell of human flesh decomposing.
The hint of that odor didn't make him want to investigate. Whatever it was, was long gone, but he sincerely hoped that the sanitation department wouldn't find some sort of surprise come morning.
He climbed the entrance of his brownstone's staircase and stood for a moment at the top of the stoop, waiting to see if he could ascertain from what direction the scent of putrescence originated. He finally shrugged, noted that he was quite alone on the street and set his key to the door.
A blood-curdling scream met him as he opened the entryway and immediately he ran up the stairs toward the sound. The screaming continued, hysterical and palpably filled with fear as he raced past the first floor landing onto the steps upwards. His gun was already in hand as he noted that the doors in the other apartments in the house were beginning to open. At the second floor landing, the scream wound down into a keening and he heard another voice ring out with reassuring phrases. He stopped at the door of his downstairs neighbor, recognizing that the calming voice was that of the resident, the elderly Mrs. Paul. The scream must have come from her young granddaughter who had recently come to stay. Pitiful weeping could be heard and Robert knocked.
"Mrs. Paul," he called, "It's Robert McCall, might I be of some help?"
The door swung open and the elderly woman stared at him with rheumy eyes. Her white hair was standing straight up off of her dark brown face; the deep lines that he knew so well were even deeper from the fatigue on her face.
"Oh Mr. McCall, please come help." Without waiting for an answer she shuffled into the dark apartment while still speaking. "The girl wake up screaming, frightened. She see someone outside the window, maybe, but she say it wasn't a man. Something worse." She held her head in her hands as she walked, her slippers shambled along the floor as she stepped thorough her overstuffed, spice scented apartment toward the pool of light of an open door in the back.
Robert heard the neighbors in the hallway behind him as he walked into the lighted room. His attention set itself on the teenager huddled on the floor against the wall opposite the window. The child was weeping, rocking back and forth.
"Marie-Nicole," Robert said to the girl, keeping his voice as gentle, "Itís Mr. McCall. What's the matter?"
The girl looked up at him. Her eyes, still large and unfocused, shone out from her light cocoa colored face. Her body was shivering and she was now moaning a strange high note through her nose.
"You know me," Robert said to her, as he held her gaze. "What's the matter? Tell me."
The girl looked with fear at the window and then turned away facing the wall, covering her face with her fists. "B-b-b-b-o-ogeyman," she keened. B-b-b-b-ogeyman!"
Robert looked at the grandmother and the woman shook her head in obvious confusion.
"B-b-b-o-ogeyman!" The girl screamed again and pressed her arms closer to her body. Her grandmother moved and put both arms around her shoulders.
"There, there my little one," she crooned.
Marie-Nicole, was a bit too old to fear monsters from childhood nightmares. Robert moved to the window and looked out. This apartment was right below his with the same layout, so he knew the back fire escape was there. He put his hands on the windowpane to check it was secure and the girl's shriek nearly popped his ears.
He turned to see her trying to claw her way into the wall. The grandmother held on tight. Footsteps pounded into the apartment.
"Do I call 911?" Isaac Feldstein, a middle age accountant from the first floor peeked into the room. From the doorway his baldpate looked even paler than usual.
"No," Robert said, but get your wife in here to help Mrs. Paul take care of the girl. She's been frightened."
Feldstein blanched as the girl wailed again but he nodded and ran from the room.
Robert looked out of the window as best he could, but it was black outside and he knew he was backlit, a silhouette against the bright window and vulnerable to whoever was out there. He made sure the lock was latched and then turned to the two women in the room just as Bella, Mrs. Feldstein, strode into the room. A large, well upholstered woman with intelligent eyes and a kind disposition, she went straight to the weeping child and embraced the slight teen in her arms and almost carried her out with Mrs. Paul worriedly following behind.
He shut off the lights and stood by the side of the window. By now anyone on the fire escape most likely would be gone, but he wasn't going to take any chances. Listening and hearing nothing but the wind, he snaked his hand to the lock, lifted it and moved the window up in a flash. The smell of dead flesh assailed him as he waited to see if anything would happen. Nothing, no sound or feel of movement. Robert peeked out of the window.
The air was chilled and quiet. As he looked around the fire escape he noted the smell of decomposing human flesh was sharp but fading in the breeze. With only the backyard lights down below at street level, he couldn't see much and decided that locking the window was the best way to go for now.
He walked into Mrs Paul's crowded and well-lit living room. The men folk of the building were all there. "I called the cops," Jose Melendez, a banker from the other second floor apartment said.
Robert nodded. "Fine, I'll just look in on the girl."
He entered the kitchen and saw the teen surrounded by the women of the building, all in various types of night-clothing. All were pressing cups of tea or cookies on the child and Mrs. Paul, all murmuring comforting phrases.
Mrs. Paul looked as if she were sick with worry as she sat near her granddaughter. Her head hung in misery as a tear fell on the front of her nightshirt.
Bella spoke up. "It's a shame that decent folk have to worry about peeping Toms in this neighborhood!" The other women nodded. "I mean, this child's petrified. Poor little thing."
"The police have been called," Robert said, "They shouldn't be long."
"Canít you do something, Robert?" Bella said, her brown eyes framed with her lush black hair, "You know about security and all."
"Your windows are safe, I assure you," Robert said. He had selected the new locked windows for the building personally a few years before when the building's board voted to replace the old ones. They were triple glazed and as strong as tempered glass with a fine metal mesh inside its layers could be. It had the highest security standard of any residential glass.
Sirens were heard coming closer.
"About time!" Sixty-year-old Lilyann O'Connor said as she tucked escaped tendrils of her hair back into its bun, "It's been ten minutes at least. We could have all been murdered in our beds!"
Marie-Nicole had been quiet, but she now started to tremble.
Lilyann grimaced at her reaction. "Oh dear, donít listen to me honey," she patted Marie-Nicole on the shoulder. "I'm just up after my bedtime. We are all safe here." She smiled at Robert, a grin that had a hint of the coquette in it. "Mr. McCall can protect all of us."
They heard the downstairs intercom ringing in a few apartments and it was cut off quickly as Robert surmised someone had gone downstairs to open the front door for the police. The noise of heavy footsteps rumbled up the staircase in the hallway. Two very tall, and to Robert's taste, very young patrolmen stepped in.
"Over here officers." Lilyann pointed to Mrs. Paul. "Sheís the lady who lives in this apartment."
Robert watched from the side as the usual questions were put to everyone in the apartment. He registered some surprise as more and more patrolman came in. Either it was a quiet night in Manhattan or they were taking this call with intense interest. He wondered why.
The answer came in the shape of Lieutenant Isadore Smalls as his hulking form stepped into the room. He first consulted with the uniformed men getting, no doubt, the outline of the complaint.
Isadore turned to him after he had heard what the girl had seen. "You involved with boogiemen now McCall?"
"As much as you are in the habit of being called out on a simple peeping Tom call."
Isadore shrugged. "I just happened to notice this was your address, so I thought Iíd visit."
Robert kept silent and let Isadore read the doubt in his expression.
Isadore inhaled as if weighing his options. He nudged Robert further over to the side then spoke in a hushed voice. "Ok McCall, weíve been having some strange complaints from this neighborhood. Dead animals with their skulls broken open and the brains removed."
"Removed?" Something about all this was beginning to pull at Robert's memory. "Anything else?"
"Scooped out, if you need that detail. Little bits left behind. It's not for publication, weíre keeping it on the QT, not the sort of thing that Mayor Dinkins wants spread around about his city."
"No, I donít suppose so," Robert said, his memory tickling him. Then it hit him why this all seemed familiar. The last time he heard of brains being eaten was in Haiti on his mission there twenty years ago. Now the US had renewed involvement in Haiti and it has filled the news of late. Robert had done his best to not pay too much attention to the stories of the horrors of people escaping on rafts only to be killed by the sea or turned back by the US Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo Bay. His hands had been tied twenty years ago and the less he thought of those days, the better.
If he dwelled on his own history in Haiti in the 70s too much, what he himself had done to worsen the plight of the people, his blood would boil and he'd be plunged into black depression for days. There was nothing he could do then to help and nothing now.
Mrs. Paul walked to them, "Nicole Marie is embarrassed. She think it must be peeping Tom and got upset. Because of what's going on there now, she been thinking of her life on the island lately and maybe got confused when she woke up and saw someone at her window. She must have been half asleep and the man, he looked so bad. Reminded her of the frightening stories her Papa used to tell her about bogymen."
"No worry. Ma'am." Robert heard a hint of the islands came to Smalls' voice as he looked down on her. "I have men looking around the building, it should be safe when we leave, and," he grinned, "also with McCall here, Iíd say you're safe."
Mrs. Paul smiled and nodded and looked up a McCall with a question in her eyes. She looked toward her granddaughter and whispered. "I'll sit with her for a while, but before you go can you stop to talk?"
"I'll clear my people out soon," Smalls said and immediately his attention was taken by a young cop rushing into the room.
"Lu," he directed to Smalls, "you'll want to see what we found in the backyard. I donít know if itís a joke or something."
Smalls glared. "Let's go."
Robert followed them down the stairs to the rear of the building beneath the fire escape. The cops were standing around a small mound on the ground.
"This a joke?" Smalls said as he looked closer. It was a chicken, plucked and painted blue.
Immediately Robert understood. It was Vodou, and a serious black magic curse at that. His experiences in Haiti and his dealings with the more fanatic members of the Tontons Macoute taught him something of the black arts. The Macoute were illiterate foot soldiers from the slums -- ruthless, merciless and loyal only to their leader, Papa Doc. The men Robert had been compelled to attend, followed Papa Doc's black magic teachings because it heightened their feelings of unstoppable power. He shuddered.
Robert had done his best to relegate his own forced dealings with the Macoute when he was there in August 1971 to a dark corner of his mind. The Macoutes rooted out the doctor's opponents Ė or suspected opponents Ė with a thoroughness and brutality unmatched in the country's history. Whole families were massacred, babies burned in their cribs, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons carried off to the torture chambers to be mutilated, starved and shot. He had hated every damn minute of his association with them.
If Control hadn't forced the platoon of Macoute, with whom he had been attached, to be disbanded, Robert knew his nightmares wouldn't have ever diminished. What they did in the name of the black arts of Vodou still gave him cold sweats. He remembered the soldiers clothed in ragged denim, with red neckerchiefs for the war spirit, Ougoun, and the inevitable black glasses going about their gruesome deeds in front of his disgusted eyes.
Robert finally found his voice. "It's Vodou Isadore, you should know that."
"And why should I, McCall? Because I'm black?" He stared down imperiously.
"No, because your dear mother told me that she came from Haiti at her birthday party last year."
Isadore sighed. "Oh right, you've met my mom's. Well anyway, I'm a Christian and an American and I donít know or believe a thing about Voodoo. It's nonsense."
"A closed mind is nonsense, sir." Robert said. The air now had the scent of dead chicken in it; the dead human flesh smell was gone. He tapped Isadore on the arm and indicated that they move off by themselves. "I think I should tell you, only because this Vodou madness has appeared, and with what you told me about the goings on around here lately," he took a short breath, "When I was upstairs near the window just after the girl screamed, I detected the scent of human remains."
Isadoreís smirk was replaced with a grim expression. "When was this?"
"As I was entering the building, just before I heard the girl's scream. Also when I opened the window in her room, the smell was strong."
"Not a dead chicken smell?"
Robert held the other man's gaze. "Isadore, as we both well know there's a difference between poultry and people."
Isadore nodded. "I had to ask. I'll tell the men to take a closer look around." He stared into Robert's eyes. "Any ideas about the man outside the window or the smell?"
Robert sighed, "No idea at all" He shrugged. "I'll leave this to you, after all I haven't been called in to help."
Smalls pulled a half smile and looked behind Robert towards the lady in discussion. "Are you close to Mrs. Paul?"
"Friendly enough," Robert said.
Smalls now sighed. "I'd bet that you will be involved soon."
Mrs. Paul appeared from behind Robert. "Mr. McCall, may I speak to you now?"
"Of course, Iíll be right with you." She nodded, smiled and went back to her granddaughter.
Robert turned to Isadore. "I assure you I shall report all I know to you and the department."
"See that you do," Isadore said, in his deepest and most stern voice. "See you later, McCall, I've got to get the men to search for a corpse."
"Night, Isadore." For a moment Robert watched his friend depart, and then he walked to Mrs. Paul. "I'm all yours dear lady. How may I help you?"