Little Aleppo is darkest before the dawn, especially if the locals have been shooting out the streetlights again. It is not a time for the respectable or recognizable.
Most normal humans regard the middle of the night as they do Antarctica: they’ve never been there personally, but have seen evidence of its existence. Featureless and blank and deadly, most people believe of both, but they are wrong. Antarctica has mountain ranges, and an ice shelf that gallops back and forth, and the biggest desert in the world. There is a river in Antarctica called the Onyx, and a lake called the Vostok. The world is more granular than you think.
The middle of the night has a topography, too, much of it dependent on what time the bars in the area close. Midnight is for muggers and romantics; two is for drunks and whores; four is for speed freaks and poets, dribbling and scribbling until the sun–bastard that he is–ruins it all.
Five percent? ten? Who’s up all night? Cops and waitresses and cashiers and junkies. Bass players and repo men and the union members who run the newspaper presses. Bartenders and their flocks. Everyone else is a tourist.
The Midnight Librarians stalked through the neighborhood’s peripheral vision; you could always see them at night in Little Aleppo, but you couldn’t look at them. Nine feet tall and made of late fees, they indexed the dreams seeping out of apartments and catalogued the broken hearts. (Novel, unfinished; phone call, unreturned; ring, returned.)
Once a month, there were werewolfs. Other werecreatures, too: a woman named Henrietta who lives on Tanglewood Street is a werepanda; every full moon, she refuses to breed.
In the middle of the night, the streets dreamed of being avenues; the avenues of being boulevards; the boulevards thought about the alley they made out with that time at a party. Everyone was someone else at 3 a.m.
The Poet Laureate was up, light streaming from the dirty window of a stinking apartment. Maybe a sonnet, or some free verse. Shitty rhymes and plastic lines about humanity, or a fuck from the previous century, never to be read or cared about. Certainly never to be paid for. In a few hours, at dawn, the Poet Laureate would kneel and pray for someone to sell out to.
Frankie Teakettle is awake, as always; he runs the Hotel Synod, which everyone calls The Nod. It is the junkie’s hotel, and Frankie’s precise legal standing vis-a-vis the place is shaky. He might own the place. He may be banned from the premises. Either way, he’s there. Frankie Teakettle is always there, and there is a counter four feet wide in front of him and a cubbyholed wall behind him with messages and mail sticking out of slots.
Upstairs there are alliances being made and transactional fucking. The couple in room 311 is writing a hit song; the couple in room 228 is hitting each other. The college dropout in 201 does not understand what he’s gotten himself into to as the skin covering the crook of his elbow refuses to cooperate with the needle, twice-used and battered but the only one he has, which probes and pokes for sanctuary; there is a promise in the barrel.
Oh, number-notched and full round–bullet in your chamber–find my vein heart mind, but mostly vein and I will see the reckoning in the crimson cloud like a rose like broccoli like an olive tree that flows and flowers inside the barrel, number-notched, when the point hits the highway: the blood flows backwards through the needle and into the chamber (it’s just fluid dynamics, physics, there are rules to this sort of thing) and if it does not you can check: thumb and ring finger to balance the whole works, and you lift up the plunger with your first and second, chewed-up nail against the plastic.
And if you have hit the vein, then a mushroom cloud of blood will rise backwards into the syringe’s holding cylinder. Red means go.
The index finger on the plunger–the cord ’round your bicep is in your teeth, you used the telephone cord this time–and sloooooooowly because this is new shit and you don’t know how strong the new shit is so you go sloooooooowly and before that plunger is halfway to home you can taste the new shit and it sounds like a tidal buoy in your lungs BOOOOOOOwhaaaaaaa and you need to swallow hard, and also cough, but there is at least one milimeter left in the chamber and your mother taught you that to waste not is to want not, and you do not want to think about your mother so your index finger pushes down the plunger just a little bit more.
Not much time, get it out get it out, and your knuckles graze your forearm as the needle comes out; you had a wad of tissue paper–single-ply–from the bathroom sitting there, and so you grab it and jam it down on the crook of your elbow and close your fist towards your shoulder and make a noise like this:
“Whooooph. Whooooph. Whooooph.”
And then it’s the middle of the night. It’s always the middle of the damn night at the Nod. Outside, there are stars in the sky and slight breezes.
Where is your leg? The left one. At what angle do the tibia and fibula meet the femur? And the ankle: what of your ankle? You are aware of your leg, the left one, now. It is not pleasant, is it? What to do with the foot, the knee; where to place the leg in relation to the other and OH GOD now you’re aware of both legs. It was nicer when they were just kind of in charge of themselves, wasn’t it?
This is proprioception. Where your limbs are, adjusting them for balance, jiggling them now and then to keep them from falling asleep: proprioception, and it is all done without the conscious command of the higher brain. In fact, the higher brain is terrible at moving your arms and legs around; it’s exhausting and not as accurate as muscle memory. You’d rather let your left leg take care of itself.
That’s how it is with ghosts. People see them if they make an effort, or notice them when some wiseass points them out; otherwise, they can take care of themselves. Easier that way. Little Aleppo has enough trouble with the living; let the dead solve their own problems.
Which means Romeo Rodriguez was on his own. He was a ghost. And he was a cop. He was a ghost cop. Officer Rodriguez secretly thought that was pretty neat, being a ghost cop, but then he remembered that he was solving his own murder and figured he should be dour about the whole thing. Someone had shot him in the face, he reminded himself, and he was now a spectral champion of justice on the trail of his own killer, but then he would walk through a wall, or float up to a rooftop or something, and he would be like, “Awesome,” and then he would feel bad about being happy and be a miserable ghost again.
“I stalk the nigh-HACH-HACH-HACH!” Officer Rodriguez was trying to do a growly Batman voice, but he was a natural tenor and started coughing.
The fact is that Romeo Rodriguez was enjoying being a ghost. He could fly–literally fly: he would pick a point way above him and kinda will himself there–and walls had no substance any longer, and time was becoming a bit more malleable than he had remembered it. He could control his size, and he did not need to eat or sleep but could choose to do either. He was also still wearing his uniform, and there were several girl ghosts that found him quite fetching in it.
It was a lot better than he’d imagined, death. He knew he had been returned to Little Aleppo to do a job, for one last assignment, for his final case. He knew he should be taking this more seriously. Maybe get a trenchcoat, a fog machine. He had definitely envisioned the afterlife as way more foggy.
And his killer was already in jail.
Romeo Rodriguez walked back into the Little Aleppo Police Department’s headquarters on his first day of ghostiness and logged into the system; his account was still active. If this was a movie, he thought, they’d play that fact for sentiment; he was annoyed, though. Basic security, fellows: deactivate the dead guy’s account.
Officer Rodriguez thought he’d be in for some snooping–he was already wondering where he’d get a corkboard and yarn in the afterlife–when his murderer’s mugshot popped right up: he’d been caught minutes later, and tried, and convicted.
So what am I here for? he wondered. Case solved. Justice served. That just left revenge, and Romeo Rodriguez was pretty certain he didn’t want any part of that. He figured that you could either live in a society with revenge or with cops, but not both. Be a bit hypocritical to go seeking extrajudicial satisfaction while wearing a police uniform.
If the guy was still out there assholing it up, Officer Rodriguez thought, then I’d hunt him down day and night. But they had a damn trial, jury of his peers, judge banged the gavel, the whole deal.
Vengeance? Is that it? Go into the jail and kill the guy with my ghost powers? And then, what? Does he become a ghost criminal and come back to seek revenge on me? That sounds like a very Little Aleppo thing to happen, and I want to avoid that.
Under a street lamp on Mott Street that had not been shot out yet, Officer Romeo Rodriguez stood in a small circle of light.
TINKadink the door of the bookstore with no title opened.
“Get to the point! Get to the point! Get to the point and stop speaking French!”
Mr. Venable was sitting in his customary seat, wearing his customary suit. Every year, he attempted to make it through Remembrance of Things Past, and every year he wound up yelling at Proust around four volumes in.
“Would it kill you to throw in a sex scene, Marcel? Stop remembering things and make up something interesting!”
“I remember everything.”
Mr. Venable took off his reading glasses, but did not look up from the book on the table in front of him.
“Are you trying to be spooky?”
“I just feel like there’s certain standards I’m not living up to.”
Mr. Venable glimpsed Officer Rodriguez in the top of his peripheral vision; looking directly at him directly exhausted you in seconds, like being at the beach all day.
“Of being a ghost?”
“Well, throw a sheet over your head and be done with it.”
“What? You want to be a spooky ghost? Find an old, rich family and wander around their mansion going ‘OOOOOoooooOOOOOOoooh.'”
“Oh, I know. You should do the bit with the medicine cabinet mirror. You know that one?”
“It’s closed, right? And so the girl–it’s always a girl in this bit–is alone in her bathroom, and she opens the medicine cabinet for floss or mascara, whatever, and then she closes it and BOOM there you are in the mirror.”
“I said I knew it.”
“Oh, that’s scary. Gets me every time. Is that what you’re going for?”
Romeo Rodriguez had barely been an adult before he was a cop, and he was barely a cop before he became a ghost, but he knew he could be good at something if he just had the chance to settle in. But, Jesus, it would be nice to know what was expected of him.
“Well, how are ghost cops supposed to act?”
“According to their individual nature?”
The church bells on Rose Street sounded eight o’clock.
“The guy who shot me?”
“Oh, yes. Big trial. Many tears.”
“That’s what they call it.”
“Aren’t I supposed to have some sort of purpose?”
“Well, what is it?”
Mr. Venable did not look up, but he smiled slightly.
“You tell me mine, and I’ll tell you yours.”
The door to the bookstore with no title went TINKadink but the door did not open, and the shop was still except for the sound of a tortoiseshell cat batting a wad of tissue paper about, which was barely any sound at all.