Okay, so while I do my usual ridiculous self-doubt writer’s block dithering over chapter seven of More Than Words, here’s a bit from a forthcoming book, notable for it being the first one I’ve ever done that isn’t named for a song title. Trigger Warning: If you thought Girl Afraid or A Certain Romance were a bit too extreme for you, turn back now, this is not for you, trust me. Everyone else, enjoy.
It was Horowicz, of course. It was always him, this time of night. Shift over, about thirty minutes for me to get home, and the phone in the hall would ring. If I didn’t pick that up, he’d call my cell. Just to check. Just to make sure. Eight years on the job together and it never changed. It didn’t make me pissed, or feel like he was babysitting me. It was just his way. Partners are close. It’s not the same as being close to your husband or your kids; it’s different. Sometimes it feels even closer. Nothing can compete with what you two experience together. There were things we saw on the job that we could never take home. Things we’d never talk about outside of work. But we could talk about them together.
He didn’t sound good. Something in his voice. I couldn’t gauge it.
“Hey. I’m home.”
Every night, for eight years. Same old same old. My partner, Jeff. Just looking out for me.
“What? Oh, good. Listen, Carrie…”
“What’s up? Are you okay?”
“I’m – I’m fine. It’s… I need you to come in.”
“Come in? I just got-”
“I know. I know, Carrie. Just… trust me, okay? I need you at the precinct. Now. Take a cab.”
“What’s happened? Did you – is it Harrison?”
I’d put in too much OT in the last couple of months. Was looking forward to a whiskey and bed. The Jared Harrison case was bad. The kind that stays with you. We hit a wall with the ADA. the week before, but maybe Horowicz had something new. The hallway was hot; the phone table was next to the main pipes. I’d gotten in the habit of setting the thermostat to switch on an hour before I got in. New York winters..
“No, not him. It’s something else, something new. Just come in, I’ll tell you everything when you get here.”
“Okay. Be there in twenty.”
“Good. And Carrie?”
I cradled the handset under my chin, while flicking through the cab company cards and take-out flyers I kept in in the drawer of the table..
“You have a drink yet?”
“What? No. No, not yet.”
He had my evening routine down pat. Subway, bus, lock the apartment door, coat off, single malt, bed, trash TV, and sleep. He’d caught me just in time, though. I smiled to myself, pulling out a yellow card, with ‘A-Cars, Manhattan’ on it.
“Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
He was gone. I shivered a little, in spite of the heat. Something was wrong.
It was past 3am when the cab dropped me at the door. I pushed the hand-scribbled receipt into my coat pocket and went past De Courtney on the desk, who barely looked up from her newspaper . I pressed the elevator button and stepped into the empty car. The place was never quiet, but a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning was dead compared to the weekend. The cab ride had been quick, no real traffic going downtown. I called Jeff on the way, but his desk phone rang out. Whatever it was, he was busy with it. The doors opened to a silent room. Our workspace was open plan, and it would be usual, even at this time, to see one of the squad at their desk finishing some paperwork, but there was no one. I tried to remember who the night crew was: I figured Jensen and Crowley. They’d either caught a case, or they were with Jeff. I threw my coat down on a chair and headed to the interview rooms. There was no one in the pen. That was normal too. Our squad handled rapes and sexual assaults of adults and minors, under the umbrella of the Detective Bureau. Everyone had their gold medallion; most of the job was brain power, but we weren’t house mice. We got out. Uniform were always first on a scene, and if it was sex-related, we got the call. The Sex Cops, the Pussy Police, and all the other nicks those smartasses had for us. They treated us like a joke, a lot of the time, but most of them couldn’t handle doing what we did. A detective I knew from Queens said to me one time:
“I prefer it up here, Carrie. We don’t have no living vics in Homicide. A stiff don’t change her story a bunch of times, neither.”
He was right, but I asked to come to SVU as soon as I made Detective. Wasn’t sure if I had for the stomach for it, but I figured if I didn’t try, I’d never know. That was a long time ago. I was half way through my Twenty.
I passed the glass outside Room One, expecting to see Jeff inside with a collar or a vic, but it was black. Two was the same; no lights, no people. The only other place he could be was… I swallowed dry. Kids are the worst cases to pull. I thought about that whiskey I hadn’t drunk, and Jeff’s voice on the line. Fuck. I found myself walking slower, and my heart rate started climbing. Deep breaths, Carrie. You’ve done this a thousand times before. That much was true, but it didn’t make it any easier. The lights were on in the last interview room. It looked nothing like the fluorescent lit, bare brick of the others. It was specially designed to feel comfortable. Soft furnishings, books, a toy box, even some curtains, just for show. There was no window behind them, but it did the trick; kids aren’t supposed to be interrogated, even in cases where they’re the suspect, not the victim. We’d had a few of those over the years. All of them stayed with me after, for longer than they should have. Jeff was sitting at the reading table, across from two small children. I put about eight and nine on them. The girl looked older. Both blonde, clean, not street kids. Someone cared about them. I flicked the intercom so I could listen in. Jeff looked white, shaken. It was his voice I heard first.
“And then… and then what does your fa- what does Papa do?”
The small boy answered him. Considering what he said, his tone was chillingly matter of fact.
“Papa kills the baby.”
“I see. And where does he- where does this happen, Tommy?”
The boy went to speak, but it was the girl who answered.
“In the church. In the secret room in the church. Papa kills the baby, and then we cook the baby, and then we eat the baby.”
The boy nodded, almost excitedly, agreeing:
“Yes! We cook the baby. And we drink the blood.”
“Yeah, we drink the blood. We always drink the blood”, the girl said, playing with her long golden locks. Jeff looked like he was struggling to keep his composure.
“Who drinks the blood, Lily?”
“Oh, we all drink the blood. Me, Tommy, Papa, all the others. We drink the blood and we cook the baby, and then we eat the baby’s meat.”
I leaned against the glass to steady myself. Light headed, all of a sudden. I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Jeff wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
“And who are the others? Do you know their names?”
He was good at it. The obvious terror and revulsion he must have been feeling never showed in the tone of his voice. Years of practice. The kids looked at each other, and then the one called Lily spoke.
“There are lots of others. Sometimes the same, sometimes different. Miss Seaver, Reverend Alcott, Mrs Bane – she’s Natalie’s mom… Am, Mr DuBois, Mrs Theroux, lots of people. They all drink the blood, and they all cook the baby and eat the baby.”
“Okay, Lily. Okay. Who- who is- did you say Miss Seaver?”
“Yeah, Miss Seaver is a teacher. She’s not our teacher. I mean, she used to be my teacher, but she’s not anymore.”
It was too surreal. This kid, this kid who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, saying these horrible things, with all the innocence and calm of someone solving the puzzles on Dora. What had Jeff found tonight? Where did these kids come from? I couldn’t listen any longer. I rapped on the glass to get his attention. He jumped, like he’d been woken from a nightmare. To all intents and purposes, he had. I saw him get up and excuse himself, before coming through the door; tie off, shirt unbuttoned. He looked like he’d aged years since I saw him earlier.
“The mom brought them in, not long after you left.”
We were at the vending machine. It was right across from the one way glass of the room. We could still see Tommy and Lily. They were laughing at something in one of the books on the table. I had a coffee, black. I’d never wanted something stronger in all my years on the job.
“Where is she? Who is she?”
“That’s the thing. We don’t know.”
He took the lid off his drink and gulped it down. An asbestos throat came as standard in our job; you never know when your coffee break is going to be interrupted.
“You don’t know? What did she say? Did you get a statement?”
“I didn’t see her. Garcia said she came to the desk and asked for you, by name.”
“For me? How? Why?”
It hadn’t been Sal Garcia on the desk when I came in, but De Courtney had probably relieved him around two. That was the usual switchover time.
“Beats the hell out of me, Carrie. All I know is that she was acting crazy. Wouldn’t fill out any forms, kicked up hell until the deskie told her what floor we’re on. Didn’t matter he let the mom know you were gone for the night. Really shook the shit outta Garcia. He said she was spooky as shit, too. She had black eyes, he said.”
“Someone beat her up?”
“No, he meant her eyes. The colour. He said it was like looking into hell.”
“I dunno, people say a lotta shit. But she freaked him, for sure.”
“And she didn’t come up?”
“No, Garcia said she came back down a minute or two later. On her own. He tried asking where she was going, but she just ran. Alex and Sonny are out looking for her. Nothing so far though. She’s in the wind.”
Alex Jensen and Sonny Crowley were part of our six officer SVU team, under Capt. Jim Richards, at Manhattan Borough Patrol. The other two, Mannirez and Slater, were off shift until morning.
“Fuck, so what happened? With those two, I mean? Was there an outcry? Have you called up? You were in there on your own when I came in. You know 1PP won’t be- ”
“- I know. I’m just… there was nothing I could do. These kids, they walked in here, and asked to see you. I didn’t know what it was. Then Garcia called up, and I sent Jensen and Crowley to pick up Mom.”
“Did you call anyone?”
“Haven’t had a chance. And ACS isn’t going to answer a phone until the morning. And these kids… these kids just started talking. And once they started, they didn’t stop. And I could really do with a shot or three of Wild Turkey now, Carrie, so don’t bust my ass on procedure. Please. This shit is fucked up. You heard them yourself.”
He looked drained. The circles under his eyes were deep and dark enough to get lost in, and his lips were chapped and broken. He was probably right about Children’s Services, but he should have called someone. Then I remembered that he’d called me.
“I did. What else have they said? Any more names? You been able to check any of this out?”
“What? No. No, it’s just been me, remember? That’s half the reason I called you, Car. And well, just to have someone else here. Cos I’m starting to think I’m crazy. Did you see them? Hear them?”
“Yeah, I did. I wish I hadn’t, but… and there’s more?”
“So much more. Look, I could tell you, but I want you in there with me. I’ll get them to talk, from the start. I don’t wanna hear it again, Carrie, trust me. But if there’s no change in the details when they talk to you, I’m gonna have to start believing this real.”
He finished what was left in the cup, and crushed the paper in his fist. Behind him, the little girl was goofing around, making her brother laugh (I guessed it must be her brother, if the missing chick was Mom). They looked like the most normal kids in the world, but they were in our precinct, in the early hours, talking about… child sacrifices like they were recapping episodes of the Flintstones. I followed Jeff into the room, bracing myself for whatever was coming. The boy smiled at me when I came through, but little Lily seemed to only have eyes for Det. Horowicz.
“Tommy, Lily: this is Detective Burnett.”
“Hi, guys. You can call me Carrie.”
Their faces lit up, and they both spoke.
“You’re the special lady! She’s the special lady!”
“The nice lady!”
“The lady who will help us!”
“The good lady! She’s the good lady, Tommy.”
“She’s the kind lady. Mama said Police Lady Carrie will help.”
“Mama said Officer Burnett does kind things!”
I tried to look normal. There was something about the two of them that gave me the creeps, though. Not anything about the way they looked, or their voices. It was the things I’d heard them say, and how they’d said them so easily. I was thinking on my feet: it was all new to me. Was it some sort of sick prank? If it wasn’t, their behaviour wasn’t too hard to explain, in theory. Children who were the victims of systematic abuse within a family unit often acted as if the most heinous things were normal to them. They’d been conditioned, almost trained, to see the harm that was being done to them as ordinary. In extreme cases, some of which I’d witnessed first-hand, the victims would swear blind that they actually enjoyed it. Those were the worst cases, because you knew that they were almost better off with that ignorance. That months of therapy was only going to open their minds to the fact that they had suffered, and that the people who were supposed to love them and take care of them were the ones who had made them suffer. It was a quandary, morally, but in practice we had no choice. They had to be fixed.
“Well. Now I feel really special. Does your mommy know me? What’s her name, your mommy? Does she have a name that isn’t ‘Mommy?’”
The girl looked bemused.
“She does? That’s great, Lily. Can you remember what it for me? Take your time, honey. It’s okay.”
“Her name is ‘Mama’.”
Of course. I smiled and didn’t let the frustration show.
“Mama, yes. And how about another name? What does… what does Papa call Mama? Tommy? Do you know?”
The boy looked at the floor. His sister nudged him and made an encouraging grunt, but he just giggled.
“Tommy? Would you rather tell Detective Jeff? You can whisper it if you like. Me and Lily won’t listen, will we, Lily?”
The girl shot me a glance that was neither conspiratorial or hostile. There was something rotten in her. Those eyes. Bad things had happened to her. She wasn’t bad herself. Or at she hadn’t been, to begin with. She was beautiful, in spite of it. They usually were. The boy rolled his eyes and gave an overly dramatic sigh, and leaned into Jeff. The whisper was faint, but I heard it clearly.
“Papa calls Mama ‘the whore.”
We’d hit another brick wall. I hadn’t smoked in ten years, but I wanted one now. I looked at Jeff, sitting opposite, with the boy. It was time for me to hear their story.
“So, Jeff tells me you guys have been real busy…”
I didn’t know how else to start it.
“Busy like the bee?” said the smaller kid. His eyes were less troubled than his sister’s, but he mightn’t have seen what she had, or at least not for as long.
“I guess so. Jeff says you have a story. Is that right? Did Mommy tell you to tell us the story?”
“Mama says to always to tell the truth,” said Tommy. Lily nodded, agreeing.
“And is the story the truth? Lily?”
“We don’t tell lies.”
Her tone was slightly abrupt and defensive.
“That’s good, Lily. Because you know what happens if you tell a lie to a police officer, right?”
“You make us die?”
She didn’t look like she meant it as a joke. I swallowed the spit at the back of my throat.
“Oh, no. No, Lily, the police would never do anything bad to you. You must know that, right?”
“Well… kind of.”
“Only kind of?”
Jeff’s voice reminded me I wasn’t there alone. The precinct was still empty. Someone would have tapped glass to let us know we had company.
“Well… yeah, maybe. Papa says, sometimes, if you tell a secret, someone makes you die.”
“Well that isn’t true, Lily. Especially not me and Detective- me and Carrie. We’re here to help you. No one is going to hurt you. I promise.”
“Will they hurt me? Will they make me dead?” said Tommy, squeezing his sister’s forearm, across the little table. They were tactile with each other. Normally it wouldn’t raise alarm bells, but abused children often displayed extreme neediness and regularly sought validation. Sometimes it came across as innocent, other times it manifested as inappropriate touching- both among themselves, and with a new adult. We’d seen it a million times.
“No one will hurt you either, Tommy. Now, who wants to start? For Detective Carrie? What you wanna talk about first?”
“The school?” said the girl, with all the enthusiasm of a star pupil who knows the answer in class.
“Or the church?” said Tommy, chewing on the sleeve of his sweater. Jeff’s interest piqued at the suggestion, and he answered.
“What about the church, Tommy? You didn’t say anything about a church…”
“That’s cos you didn’t ask us about it, stupid.”
“Tommy, stop being bad.”
Lily had been holding her brother’s hand loosely, but in that instant, her fingers closed over his, crushing them. I convinced myself I’d imaged the cracking noise. The boy’s face flushed, his eyes watering.
“I’m not being-”
His protests were cut short by another crush of fingers. I swapped glances with Jeff, wondering what to do next. He made the decision for me, taking Lily’s wrist with the lightest of grips.
“Hey. Come on now, Lil. You don’t wanna hurt your brother, do you?”
She turned her head extremely slowly, and gave him a smile that, on an adult woman, would be interpreted as almost coquettish. It was unnerving, and then it was gone.
“I’m sorry, Jeff.”
Horowicz had seen the look too. I could see it shook him.
“That’s… that’s okay Lily. But it’s not me you should be saying sorry to…”
The girl rolled her eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh. Her body language was a mess of childish awkwardness, and that unmistakably adult flirtatiousness.
“Ugh, do I have to?”
“Yes,” said Jeff, moving his chair back an inch or two. I didn’t know how conscious it was, but it was noticeable.
‘Okay. I’m sorry, Tommy.”
Nothing about the way she said it convinced me she meant it.
“Okay, tell us about the church. What church is it? Do you remember the name of the church?”
Jeff had the right tone to his voice when he spoke to kids. He was a big guy, and I’d seen him lose it in the room, or on the street, with adult perps. He had a switch somewhere, though. He was a father, and a good one too.
“It’s not a real church, silly,” said the boy, giggling. Their hairstyles and clothes were neither fashionable or outdated, I noticed. But it was hard to tell; everything looks like the 80s again now.
“It’s only a church sometimes.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Lily’s right. It’s not a church all the time.”
“That’s funny. So what it is when it’s not a church? Lily?”
I was letting Jeff talk. I took out my notebook to take down some details. We didn’t record interviews like this, usually. Not that it was an interview, or an interrogation. They were minors, they weren’t suspects, they were vics. If we decided a crime had been committed, we could take statements, but I wanted their mother there. Jensen and Crowley needed to find her.
“Ah… I don’t know. It’s a… place. It used to be a place, and-”
“It used to be a place before. But now it’s not a place. And people used to be there. There’s tables. And… chairs. And… windows. But it’s not nice now. It’s dirty, and messy, and there is probably rats there. Probably lots of rats,” said the boy, cutting her off, mid-flow.
“Okay, Tommy. Do you know where the place is?”
“Hmmm, not really.”
Lily looked up from her book, and joined in again:
“It’s across the sea.”
“No it isn’t, Lily!”
“It is, Tommy. You don’t know!”
“I do know! I never been across the sea. You never been across the sea either, Lily. You never, you never!”
“Hey, hey, hey, hey! No fighting, guys. Lily, what do you mean, it’s across the sea?”
Jeff’s voice never went above a certain volume or under a certain pitch. The room felt cold. It was probably the time of night. It was always below freezing in NY after about Eleven. Maybe the heating had broke.
“It’s over the sea. We go on a boat.”
“I never been in a boat!”
“You have, Tommy. You have.”
“He doesn’t know, Officer Jeff. They put him- they put us to sleep, then they take us on a boat. Over the sea.”
“Okay, Lily. And… how do you know this? I mean, if you’re asleep?”
The underarms of his shirt were saturated, even with the cold. I wasn’t imagining the temperature either. I could see his breath in the room as he talked.
“One time, I woke up.”
“You didn’t! She’s making stories, Officer Jeff! She is, she is.”
“Okay, Tommy. Let’s let Lily tell us about the boat, okay?”
Tommy slumped forward on the table, but he gave in. Kids usually did what Jeff told them to. Another useful talent.
“Thank, you. Now, Lily: you sure this happened? Cos sometimes, when I’m really tired, I have a dream- and in the dream, everything is really, really real. And when I wake up, I don’t even think it was a dream. Does that ever happen to you?”
“Well, okay then. What can you remember? About when you were on the boat? Whose boat was it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who has a boat, so…”
“It might have been sailors.”
The boy had an innocent joy about him, like most kids his age. I had to keep reminding myself of the context of what was going on, because I had no frame of reference for it. I looked at the girl, who was biting her lip, a look of annoyance in her eyes.
“Shut up, Tommy. You don’t know.”
“Okay, okay. No shut ups, no stupids. Don’t make me give you a time-out, all right?”
“Sorry, Officer Jeff.”
The weird, flirtatious thing was back. Along with the briefest of fingertip touches along Horowicz’ forearm. Blink and I’d have missed it, but I saw. I had no clue who this kid was. What she was.
“That’s okay, Lily. Now, how did you know you were on a boat? You’d never been on one before, had you? What makes you think you were going… across the sea?”
“Well, it was moving real wobbly. Yeah? And I could hear the birds.”
“Yeah, but not like birds in morning, or in the forest. Different birds. The ones you hear in a movie, when people are on a ship.”
“Okay, you mean gulls? Seagulls?”
“I think so. I didn’t see them. I was in a bed. Underneath the boat.”
“Below deck, that’s how you say that.”
“Okay, well that is good. You’re good at that, Lily. Maybe you could be a detective someday. Like Carrie.”
“Maybe. Can I be a detective like you, instead, Jeff?”
I didn’t know why that offended me so much, but if it was intentional, it worked. I tried not to glare at her. She was innocent. The victim.
“Hehe, if you like, yeah. Do you remember anything else about that boat, Lily? What it looked like? A name? Did it smell like fish, or like something else?”
“Like fish!? Uh… I don’t think so. And I couldn’t see. It was dark. It was in the night. And I was pretending.”
“Yeah. Pretending to sleep. Or they would find out.”
“Who would find out?”
“The grown-ups, silly. They would find out and I’d be in big trouble. So I pretended. But I could feel the water. And hear the birds. Just like at the beach.”
“What kind of trouble, Lily? What would they do to you, the grown-ups?”
“If they caught me doing something bad?”
“Yeah. If they… What happens to you?”
“Oh, they just hit us. Or burn us with the hot things. Or do fuck to us.”
I felt myself gag. I could see Jeff’s fingers digging into the pine of the small table. Before he could answer, Tommy spoke, in a horrifyingly matter of fact way, that seemed to make it much worse.
“Yeah, sometimes hits. Sometimes burns. Sometimes do fuck. Sometime they do fuck when we haven’t been bad. Sometimes they just do it. It used to hurt a lot, but now… it’s not so bad.”
I had to speak.
“Tommy, what do you mean by- what is that? What does ‘do f..uck’ mean?”
His sister was the one who answered this time.
“Ugh, are you stoopid? Doing fuck is when the man puts his thing in you, and he moves it in and out. In the front or in the back. It’s what they do to us. Papa does it, Mr DuBois does it. Reverend Alcott does it. Everyone does fuck. Even the women do fuck. The women do fuck to us with the plastic thing. The plastic thing looks like a man’s thing, but it’s not real. And it hurts, a lot of the time. It’s bigger, I think.”
I had nothing to say back. Jeff looked shaken, but he kept on.
“And do they do this to you too, Tommy?”
“Oh, yeah. Everyone does fuck. All the people. All the kids. We don’t like it, do we Lily?”
“I do. I like it sometimes. Sometimes I really like it.”
This time the touch was anything but subtle, and her fingers stayed on Jeff’s arm. She looked at him in a way no kid should ever look at an adult. The rapping on the glass behind us saved me from saying something no adult should ever have to say to a kid. The others were back. I hoped to Christ they’d found the mother.
They’d come up empty. Jensen and Crowley had been across the street at a bodega, on a late sandwich run, when Jeff had put the call out with the mother’s description. They hadn’t seen her, or the kids. Alex was the one who came to the room; I came outside to her, partly because Jeff hadn’t moved when the knock came, mostly because I needed a break. It had been a long time since a case shook me like this one.
“Nada. I mean, it’s not like there’s a lotta people out there. We went ten, fifteen blocks, and circled back. There’s too many alleys and backstreets. Our best chance was, catch her before she makes a turn. But she could have turned anywhere.”
“How are the kids? What’s going on?”
I searched for the right word. They were physically intact, but ‘fine’ and ‘okay’ didn’t really cut it. ‘Good’ was out too.
“Like you can’t imagine.”
“Shit. Anything we can do?”
“Not right now. I’ll need you to run some searches in a while. But we don’t have details, yet.”
“They aren’t talking?”
“Oh, they’re talking. It’s just… complicated.”
“Anything you wanna share?”
She put a hand on my shoulder. She was younger, I had four years on her, job-wise. But she was a Mother Hen, always had been.
“No, I’m good. I need to get back in there. When Jeff and me figure out- when we know how much of this is real… we’ll know what to do. Where’s Sonny?”
“He’s in the car.”
“Going back out?”
“Yeah. Just came back for coats. It’s fucking ice out there.”
“Okay. Get me on my cell.”
I looked in at Jeff and the kids. The speaker was off. I couldn’t remember switching it. Maybe he had, when we came back in. The boy was sucking his thumb in a way that seemed too babyish for him, but boys grow up slower than their sisters. The girl was rapt, eyes fixed on Jeff. Her body language made me want to turn away. I paused at the door. Another coffee might help. I’d get one for him, too. I thought about getting the kids some sodas, but it would be too much to carry.
The light in hallway buzzed a little, and flickered for a second. There was something alive inside it, probably a mosquito. I couldn’t make out what it was, but I could tell it was trapped, and dying. It took me a while to get the coins out of my pocket for the machine. The sound of them dropping through the slot seemed a lot louder than normal, in the stillness of the empty hall. Everything had an edge to it tonight, if it could still be referred to as night. The early shift would be on soon, and the sun would be up. I couldn’t see either of us getting home before it went down again. I pressed the Extra Shot button. Caffeine was no substitute for sleep, but it’d have to do for now.
“So, if it’s not really a church, why do you call it a church?”
Jeff threw me a glance as came in, nodding his approval at the arrival of refreshments. I could see two soda cans (empty?) on the shelf behind Lily. I’d ask them if they wanted more, when there was a break in the conversation.
“It’s a church cos we do praying there, like in a real church. But… it’s not really like a real church,” said the boy. His sister agreed,
“Yeah. It’s not like, a nice church. On Sunday. When people dress up real fancy, and there’s bells. It’s not like that.”
“So what do people wear at this church then, Lil?”
“Yeah, cloaks. Long cloaks. Sometimes they’re dark, sometimes cloaks are white. I don’t know why. They just are… They’re just different colours sometimes.”
Tommy’s demeanour was that of a kid who’s put his hand up in class to answer the question, but doesn’t really know the whole answer.
“I think different colours for different feasts. I think that’s it.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, they’re not feasts like feast feasts. They’re just called feasts. We don’t eat lots and lots and lots of nice food,” said the girl, smiling. She had well-kept teeth, another sign of a good home, and someone caring about her. Ironic as it seemed.
“We do eat though!” said the boy, indignant.
“Yeah, yeah we do eat, Tommy. Just not like… not like a big feast. Not like cakes and Jell-o, and ice cream, and turkeys, and sweet potatoes, and pie.”
“Yeah, we never eat pie at church.”
I wanted to laugh. It wasn’t funny, but the mixture of anxiety and strong coffee was enough to bring on a fit of inappropriate giggling; like the kind you try to keep in when you’re a kid in a classroom, or an adult at a funeral.
“What is it you eat then, Tommy?”
The sound of my own voice was alien to me, it’d been so long since I’d spoke in the room.
“We eat the baby. First we kill the baby. Usually Papa kills the baby, and sometimes he makes me help to kill the baby.”
It couldn’t be real. Jeff cradled his coffee, without taking a sip, and let me carry on with the questions.
“A real baby? Or is it just a doll, maybe?”
The first time I’d heard them talk about the babies seemed like hours ago now. It might have been, I wasn’t watching the clock.
“Oh no, it’s a real baby all right. It makes cries, and it screams, and it doesn’t like it.”
“What doesn’t it like, Tommy?”
“It doesn’t like it when it’s killed. Papa gets the curly knife, and he puts it on the baby’s neck. And… sometimes he puts my hand on the handle of the curly knife, and we kill the baby together. It doesn’t like it though. It cries and cries and cries, but when the bloods come out, it probably stops crying then.”
Still disbelieving, I looked to the girl for confirmation.
“Is this true, Lily?”
“We don’t tell lies.”
“Okay. Okay, good. That’s good, Lily. And what happens to the baby then?”
“Papa hangs the baby up with ropes, ropes around its feet. And… then the all the blood drips out, into a big bowl. And then Papa or another grown-up pours the blood into shiny cups, and we drink it. It’s not nice. It doesn’t taste good.”
They’d seen it in a film. Someone had left them unsupervised with the TV on, and the rest had just managed to work its way into their heads. They thought it was real, but it was just a movie. The only hitch in that theory, of course, was they were corroborating. Or was it conspiring? Tommy spoke now.
“Ugh, yes! The blood tastes bad. The meat is all right, though. They cook the meat. Sometimes it’s fried in like… big steaks. Sometimes it’s like stew. It’s okay. It doesn’t taste bad. It doesn’t taste like… baby.”
I tried to pretend it was normal. Stick to what I’d ask in any other situation. Get the facts, even though I was sure now they were anything but.
“And… where do the babies come from, guys? Whose babies are they? Where does Papa get them?”
“Hospitals. Babies come from hospitals.”
Tommy looked pleased he’d got the answer right. His sister shook her head.
“No, babies come from their mom’s bellies first. They come out from the front hole. And they get in there when a man…”
“Yeah, but they come out of the bellies in the hospital, stoopid.”
“I know, stoopid. Everyone knows that.”
She didn’t look at me the way she did at Jeff. We had a different dynamic, clearly.
“Okay, that’s good, guys. Babies do come out of… And, yeah, usually in the hospital. Where do these babies come from though; who owns them? Who are their moms?”
“Whores,” said Tommy, with a shrug of indifference. Lily agreed.
“Whores and sluts. Bad people. Junkies. We take away their baby because they can’t look after it. They’re bad people, and bad people can’t be moms, or dads.”
“Who told… how do you know this?”
My theory about the whole thing being the plot of some Friday night B-movie on the horror channel was crumbling with each second that passed.
“Papa says it. He says the babies come from the hospital, and Officer Joe goes with the lady from the look after kids place, and they take the baby from the whore, and then they bring it to the church and then we kill it.”
“The look after kids place?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what it’s called really. They look after kids. Sometimes they come to our school and talk to the teachers. They come to the church too, and wear cloaks.”
“Okay, Tommy. Do you know their names?”
“The look after kids people. What are their names? What do you call them?”
“Hmmmm, I can’t remember. Lily, do you know?”
“What is the names; of the look after kids people?”
“Am, one is called Sarah. And… another one is called… Alice?”
“And what about Officer Joe? Does he have another name? A last name?”
I realised then that I didn’t know their surnames. Jeff had sheets of paper in front of him, with pencilled scribbles. He’d have gotten all that before I came. I couldn’t make out what was written from where I was. But he’d have made sure he took their full names down.
“Ah… no. No, I don’t think Officer Joe has another name. He comes to the school too. He knows the teachers. Well, some of the teachers. The teachers from the church, the ones who wear the cloaks.”
“Do all your teachers come to the church, Tommy?”
Lily answered instead.
“No, not all the teachers in the school. I don’t think so. I don’t know though, cos it’s dark. And the cloaks have big hoods, so sometimes… sometimes you can’t see faces. You just hear words, when they talk or when they sing.”
“Okay. They sing? What do they sing?”
The hairs on the back of my neck were already up, but the last bit made me feel like someone had dropped ice cubes down the back of my shirt.
“Yeah. I think… in other churches, they sing about Jesus, and God, but not in the church over the sea. It’s different. Other churches have crosses, but we have big stars.”
“Big stars, with a circle round them,” said Tommy, with a serious expression that suddenly made him seem much older.
“And there isn’t God. God isn’t allowed in the church,” said Lily.
“Yeah, not God from the Bible.”
“Is there a different god in your church?”
“Um… kind of,” said Tommy, deliberating. Lilly agreed.
“Yeah. There’s kind of gods. But they don’t look like people.”
I looked at Jeff for support, or some kind of reassurance that I wasn’t still at home, in bed, half-way through a whiskey nightmare. He didn’t catch my eye.
“What do they… what do the gods look like, then, Lily?”
“Animals. And birds. One is like a goat, with curly, curly horns. They’re curly like Papa’s knife for killing the baby. One is like an owl, but he’s not a friendly looking owl. His eyes are too black to be friendly. I think they are the gods. But sometimes Papa says there are no gods. Papa says the real god is yourself, and doing what you want, and what feels good. That’s what he says, all the time.”
“Sometimes Papa is the gods, though. Remember, Lily? Remember when Papa does the changing?”
Jeff finally spoke, his voice was cracking like schoolboy on the brink of adulthood. His coffee was next to him on the table, almost full; cold and undrunk.
“What do you mean, the changing, Tommy?”
“It’s… I dunno. Sometimes when we are in the church, it’s a special feast. A different one to always and normally. And everyone sings a devil song, and Papa changes. His faces changes, and if you look at it, you can see him being something else.”
“You can see him being a owl, or a goat, or sometimes a fox. Just in his face. He doesn’t look like Papa anymore, but you know he is him, cos you can see his shoes, under his cloak. That’s how you know the god thing is still Papa. It only happens on a special feast though. Not every time. The special feast with the special song, and when they…”
“The special feast on the special day, when all the grown-ups and all the kids come to the church. It must be a special day, cos Papa does the changing, and everyone does fuck that day. They do fuck to the kids, and to each other, and the kids do fuck with each other, and everyone is doing fuck on the ground, and no one has cloaks on, everyone is in their skin, and then Papa kills the baby on the… on the church thing, and when he puts the blood on himself, he changes. Into a owl, or a goat, or a fox. His eyes go bad. Like on snakes. His eyes are like snake’s eyes, in a fox’s face.”
“I think sometimes he’s actually a wolf, Tommy. Sometimes it’s more like a wolfy face, with yellow snake’s eyes,” said the girl, with the chilling nonchalance I was worryingly familiar with by now. A call came in on the radio, and I snapped out of my fugue to listen to what it was saying. Crackly, not clear, indistinct. A 10-13, possibly. Officer in need of assistance. Then words, just two of them, almost whispered. “Officer down.”