Horror & Dark Fantasy

Missing Signal

Advertisement

Fiction

Exposure

The timer clicked, a cicada in the dark. Lifting the tongs off their rest, he swirled the paper gently; watching, judging. Good to go by the rules, better to work by instinct. Finally judging it complete, he lifted the sheet out of its bath, placing it in another shallow tub and turning the water on, cold, over it.

The music played, one CD after another, continuous shuffle so that he never knew what would come up next: Melissa Etheridge, Vivaldi, the exotic noises of a rain forest. It suited his mood, prepped him for the evening’s work. For now the lilting strains of “The Four Seasons” kept him company. Tugging at his ear where it itched, he studied the image floating face-up at him. Satisfied, he lifted it between two fingertips, shaking some of the wetness off. Turning off the water, he transferred the print to his right hand and reached out to flick the toggle switch on the wall next to the room’s exit. Stepping into the revolving door, he pushed the heavy plastic with one shoulder and emerged from the darkroom.

Blinking in the sudden fluorescent lighting, he cast a glance over his shoulder to make sure that the warning light had gone off, then carried the print over to the line strung across the far end of the studio. Clipping it to the line, he stepped back to examine the other prints already there. Several, most notably the three shots of the hookers talking over coffee, leaning intently across the table to get in each others’ faces, pleased him. Others were less successful, but overall he was satisfied. Checking his watch once again, he took off the stained apron he wore, hung it on a hook beside the door, shut off the stereo, and went to take a shower. Time to go to work.

• • • •

“Hey, Westin!”

He slung the bag more comfortably over his shoulder, and stopped to wait for the overweight Latino cop who chugged up alongside him.

“Going out again tonight, huh?”

“As I’ve done every night this week,” Westin replied. “And the week before that.”

“But not the week before that,” the cop said.

“But the entire month before that I didn’t miss a single night. So why are you asking now?”

The cop ignored the slight edge to Westin’s voice. “There’s some weirdo out there, past few nights. Scared the hell out of a couple slits Tuesday, cut into their business too. Guy’s wearing pampers and some kinda bonnet, according to reports. If you happen to run into him . . .”

“I should take his picture for your album?”

“The brass’d be thankful. And ya gotta know the Post’d pay for that picture. Anyway, keep your eyes out.”

“I always do,” Westin said, holding up his camera. He watched with detached affection as the cop loped back to his post, holding up a wall in the upper hall of the Port Authority. Swaddling and a bonnet. That was a new one. He could certainly understand johns keeping away, but why were the hookers afraid of him?

Westin thought briefly about following up on it, then put those thoughts away. If he came into the viewfinder, then would be the time to wonder. For now, there was the rent to pay. He stepped into the men’s room to moisten his contact lenses, darkened to protect his hypersensitive eyes. Another thing to bless technology for. Even he couldn’t take photographs through sunglasses.

Leaving the bustling noise of the terminal, he exited into the sharp cold night of Eighth Avenue and paused. Where to go? Where were the pictures, the images waiting for him to capture? He turned in a slow half-circle, ignoring the line of dinner-hour cabs waiting in front of him, letting his instinct pick a direction. There. The hot white lights were calling him.

Walking briskly, he cut cross-town, one hand on his camera, the other hanging loosely by his side. The sidewalk hustlers and gutter sharks watched him pass, recognizing a stronger predator. But the hookers, ah, the hookers were another story. They swarmed to him, offered him deals, enticements. He did love women so, their softness hiding such strong, willful blood. But he was not feeding tonight. At least, not of that. Tonight was for a different passion.

Bypassing Times Square itself, he wandered the side streets, catching the occasional sideways stare from well-dressed theater-goers on their way from dinner to their entertainment. Only the expensive Konica hanging by his side kept them from assuming he was a panhandler. The long trench had seen better decades, and not even the Salvation Army had been able to find anything nice to say about his boots except for the fact that they had once been sturdy. And the less said about his once-white turtleneck, the better. But he preferred these clothes, using them the same way wildlife photographers hid within camouflaged blinds. He was stalking wildlife as well, a form that was more easily spooked than any herd of gazelles or solitary fox.

For the next seven hours he took shot after shot of the ebb and flow of humanity around him, occasionally moving to a new spot when people became too aware of him, or, more accurately, of the camera. His choices satisfied him. The elderly woman in rags stepping over a crack in the sidewalk with graceful poise. The businesswoman striding along, topcoat open to the bracing wind. Two too-young figures doing a deal with brazen indifference to the mounted policeman just yards away, and the cop’s equal indifference to their infractions. The hooker holding a Styrofoam cup in her hands, rising the steam to her face, taking delicate sips. He loved them all, carefully, surreptitiously, with each click of the shutter, every zoom of the lens to catch their expressions, the curve of their hands, the play of neon across their skin. He could feel the beat of their blood, pulling him all unwilling, and he blessed the cold which kept their scents from him. He couldn’t afford the distractions.

Stopping in a Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up a cup of coffee, he dug in his trench pocket for a crumpled dollar bill to pay for it. “Why can’t you carry a wallet?” he could hear Sasha complain. “That way when someone finally puts you out of your misery I’ll know to collect the body.” Lovely, long-suffering Sasha. But she forgot her complaints when he had a show ready for her pale white walls, secure in her status as Michael Westin’s only gallery. For three long, hungry years she had supported him, and for the last eleven he had returned the favor.

He understood obligation, and needing, and the paying of debts.

Finally he came to the last roll of film he had prepared for the night. He took it out of the pouch hanging from his belt and looked at it, black plastic against the black of his thin leather gloves. High speed black and white, perfect for catching moments silhouetted against the darkness, sudden bursts of light and action. His trademark.

One roll left. He still had time to shoot this roll before heading home, still subjects to capture.

Or he could try again, a little voice whispered inside his head. There was time.

Shaking his head to silence the unwanted voice, he removed the used film from the camera, marking it with the date, location and an identifying number, then replaced it in the pouch. Still the unused film sat in his palm. He could reload the camera, finish the evening out. Or he could save it for the next trip, cutting the session short and going home. At the thought his lips curled in a faint smile. Home to where Danielle slept in their bed, her hair fanned out against the flannel sheets. She would be surprised to see him, surprised and pleased, if he knew his Dani.

Or you could try again.

“Damnit, enough!” He would be a fool to listen to that voice, a fool to even consider it. Hadn’t the three attempts been enough to teach him that? If the third time wasn’t a charm, then certainly the fourth was for fools. And his kind didn’t survive by being fools.

But still the thought lingered, caressing his ego, his artist’s conceit. He could picture the shot, frame it perfectly in his mind. The conditions were perfect tonight, the location tailor-made. It would be the perfect finish to this show, the final page of the book he knew Sasha would want to do.

Stuffing the thought back into the darkness of his mind, he deftly inserted the black cartridge, advancing the shutter until the camera was primed. He cast one practiced eye skyward. Four a.m., give or take fifteen minutes. He had another hour, at most, before he would have to head home, wrap his head under a pillow and get the few hours of sleep he still required before locking himself in the darkroom to develop this night’s work. Then dinner with Dani, and perhaps he would take tomorrow night off. Fridays were too busy to get really good photos. Better to spend it at home, in front of a roaring fire, and his smooth-necked, sweet-smelling wife and a bottle of her favorite wine.

You work too hard, she had fussed at him just last month, rubbing a minty-smelling oil into his aching muscles after a particularly grueling night hunched over the lightboard, choosing negatives. Always pushing, always proving. You don’t have anything to prove.

But he did. Had to take better photos, find the most haunting expressions, the perfect lighting. All to prove to himself that he was the photographer his press made him out to be, and not just some freak from a family of freaks, that his work was the result of talent and dedication, not some genetic mutation, a parasite on human existence.

Shh, my love, he could hear Dani whisper. I’m here, and I love you. She would whisper that, baring her neck so that he might graze along that smooth dark column, feel the pulsing of her blood . . .

He swore, cutting of those thoughts before his body reacted to the thought of her strength, her warmth. Jamming his hands into the pockets of his trench, he watched the street theater, looking for something that would finish the evening on a positive note, leave him
anxious to see the proof page. But the street was empty for the moment, leaving him with the little voice, which had crept back the moment his attention was distracted. The perfect photograph, it coaxed him. Something so heart-breakingly perfect, that only you could create. Otherwise this exhibit is going to end on a downer, and there’s enough of that in this world, isn’t there?

Cursing under his breath, he scared off a ragged teen who had sidled up next to him. Westin watched the kid’s disappearing backside with wry amusement. It had been a long time since anyone had tried to mug him, and he would have given the boy the twenty or so bucks he had in his pocket, just to reward such chutzpa.

Checking the street one last time, he sighed and gave up. Time to call it a good haul, and head on home. To bed, perchance to screw, and then to sleep. Hanging the camera strap around his shoulder, he adjusted the nylon webbing until the shoulder patch fit snugly against his coat.

There’s still film left, the little voice said, sliding and seducing like a televangelist. Can’t go home with film left.

“I’ll take shots of some of New York’s finest,” he told himself. Fragile humans, holding back the night. It would be a good image, and it would please Miguel to be included. And Tonio, his partner. Kid was so green his uniform squeaked when he walked. Veteran and rook, side-by-side, against the squalor of the bus terminal. Maybe he’d catch them in an argument.

He could see that, frame it in his head. The possibilities grew, flicking across the screen of his head fast enough to wipe all thoughts of That Shot out of his head. By the time he reached the corner of Seventh Avenue, he had it all planned out. Stopping to look up at the still-dark sky, he thought he could see just the faintest hint of light creeping skyward from the east. False dawn. At home, he would be watching the deer come down from the wooded area to eat his bushes. He had done an essay on them for National Wildlife which paid well enough to replace the rosebushes the hoofed terrorists had devoured the spring before.

Waiting at the light on the corner of 41st and Eighth, something made him tilt his head to the right. There. By the chain-link fence protecting an empty lot. A shadow that wasn’t a shadow. His soothing thoughts broke like mirror shards, and he turned his head to stare straight across the street. Live and let live. The fact that he chose not to Hunt—did not, in fact, have to—did not mean others might not. Only once had he made it his concern, when a kinswoman had gotten messy, leaving corpses over the city—his city. His mouth tightened as he remembered the confrontation that had followed. He hadn’t wanted to destroy her—but he wasn’t ready to end his existence yet either. And letting her continue was out of the question.

Only fools saw humans as fodder. They were kin, higher in some ways, lesser in others, but in the balance of time, equal. He believed that, as his father had believed that, raising his children to live alongside the daylight-driven world as best they could, encouraging them to build support groups, humans—companions—that would offer so that they need not take. It was possible, his father had lectured them, to exist without violence. And so they had. And the daylight world had given him good friends, a loving wife—and the means to express the visions which only his eyes could see.

With that thought in mind, he turned slowly, looking up at the sky behind him. False dawn. It was almost upon him.

The perfect photograph. It would only take one shot. One exposure, and then it’s done.

A scrap of memory came over him. “If it t’were done, t’were best done quickly . . .” Damn. Damn damn damn damn.

It seemed almost as though another person took control; moved his body across the street, dodged the overanxious cabs turning corners to pick up the last fare of the night. Someone else walked across the bare floor of the terminal that even at this hour still hosted a number of grubby souls wandering, some slumped over knapsacks, asleep, some reading newspapers or staring down into their coffee as though it held some terrible answer. His hand powered by someone else reached for the camera, holding it as though a talisman, a fetish.

Standing on the escalator, he watched out of habit, his mind already on what he was going to do. He could feel it pulling him, a siren’s song, and he cursed himself. But he couldn’t stop, no more than the first three times he had tried. Tried, and failed.

Crossing over to the next level of escalators, he paused at the first step, willing his body to stop, turn around, get on the bus that would take him home. Only a fool would continue, only a madman. Looking down, he saw first one boot, then the other, move on to the metal steps, his left hand grasping the railing. With his right hand he fingered the camera’s casing, stroking his thumb over the shutter button.

At the end of this escalator he stopped, hitting his hand against the sign that thanked him in Spanish and English for not giving money to panhandlers. The pain made him wince. At least in that they were equal, humans and he. Pain was a bitch. He hit his hand again, then gave up. The siren call, as strong as blood, had him again, and he had no choice but to give in. If it was to be done, it had to be done fast. Get in, get out, go home.

Punching the up button, he waited for the elevator that would take him to the rooftop parking lot.

He adjusted the camera in his hand, barely aware of the sweat that ran down the back of his neck and down the front of his shirt. Shifting closer to the roof edge, he leaned against the ornate masonry, bracing himself. A glint of light caught his attention and he squinted, the hair along his arm rising in protest. “One minute more,” he told himself. “Just one damn more minute, you bitch, and I’ll have you. Come on, come on, do it for me!”

He swallowed with difficulty, wishing for the water bottle at arms’ reach, as impossible as if it were on another planet.

Another flicker of light caught the first building, fracturing against the wall of windows.

“Come on,” he said under his breath, unaware of anything except the oncoming moment. He could feel it, a sexual thrill waiting to shoot through his body, better than anything, even the flush of the first draw of blood. This was why he was alive. This was it, this was the perfect moment . . . He drew the camera to his face, focusing on primal instinct. The light rose a fraction higher, and he was dropping the camera, running for the maintenance door, aware only of the screaming animal need to hide, survive, get away from that damn mocking bitch. The camera lay where it fell: abandoned, broken.

“Goddamn,” Westin swore, shaking himself free of the memory. “Go home, Westin. It’s a fucking picture. Not worth dying for.”

The woman exiting the elevator glanced at him, pulling her coat closer around her body as she swept past him, eyes forward in a ten-point exhibition of New York street sense. The first rule: never let them see you seeing them. He moved past her on instinct, not realizing until the doors had closed that he passed the Rubicon.

“Well goddamn,” he said again, but he was grinning. A predator’s flash of too-white teeth, a grin of hungry anticipation. His fangs tingled, the veins underneath them widening in response to the rush of adrenaline coursing through his body.

The parking lot was mostly deserted—the late-night partiers having headed home, and the Jersey commuters not yet in. There were a handful of cars parked in the back for monthly storage, and one beat-up blue Dart pulled in as he stood there. He waited in the shadows until the driver, a heavy-set man wearing work-boots and carrying a leather briefcase, passed by him into the elevator.

Going to the edge of the lot, he sat on the cold metal railing, hooking one foot under to keep himself from slipping the five stories to the pavement waiting below. The air was noticeably colder here, the wind coming at him without buffer. Dawn was coming, damn her. He could feel it in every sinew of his body, every instinct-driven muscle screaming for him to find a dark cave to wait the daylight hours out.

Forcing himself to breathe evenly, he took control of those instincts, forcing them back under the layers of civilization and experience. There would be plenty of time to find a bolt-hole somewhere in the massive bulk of the Port Authority. He had done it before, here and elsewhere. It was all timing. Timing, he reminded himself, and not panicking.

Squinting against the wind, he swung his body into better position, facing eastward, towards the East River. Towards the rising sun.

Idiot, a new, more rational voice said in tones of foreboding. Do the words “crispy critter” mean anything to you?

He shrugged off the voice, lifting the camera to his eye. There was only the moment, and the shot. His entire universe narrowed down to that one instant, his entire existence nothing more than the diameter of the lens. His fingers moved with a sure steadiness, adjusting the focus minutely, his body tense.

A particularly aggressive gust of wind shook the rooftop, making him lose the frame. Swearing, he fought to regain it, all the while conscious of seconds ticking by, each moment more deadly than the last. A taloned claw clenched in his gut, and sweat ran along his hairline and down under his collar. “Damn, damn, damn,” he chanted under his breath, a mantra. The muscles in his back tightened, his legs spasming. But his arms, his hands, remained still, the muscles cording from the strain.

The first ray of light touched the rooftops, glinting deadly against empty windows. He swore again, his finger hovering over the shutter button.

“Come on, baby,” he coaxed it, a tentative lover. “Come here. That’s it, you’re so perfect.”

Another ray joined the first, the faintest hint of yellow in the pure light. The hairs along his arms stirred underneath the turtleneck, his heart agitating with the screaming in his head to get out get away you dumb fuck get out.

His hands remained steady, his eyes frozen, unblinking: waiting, just waiting. He could smell it now, that perfect moment, with more certainty than he’d ever known. Everything slowed, his breathing louder than the wind still pushing the building beneath him, his body quivering under the need for release.

A third ray sprang across the sky, then a fourth and fifth too fast to discern. Suddenly the rooftops were lit by a glorious burst of prism-scattered light, heart-stopping, agonizing, indelible. A ray flashed towards him, reflected by a wall of glass, and glanced off the brick barely a foot to the left. His forefinger so so slowly pressed towards the shutter button while every muscle twisted in imagined agony. “Come on come on come on . . .” he whispered, holding himself back for the perfect second.

The smooth metal was underneath his fingertip when the first light caught him, slashing against his cheek, his chest, reaching though the skin into his vital organs.

He screamed, falling backwards in a desperate attempt to keep the deadly light from him, slamming to the cold cement floor even as his finger pushed, even as his ears heard the click of the shutter closing underneath the sound of his own primal voice.

His skin was burning, the blood seeping from the pores of his face and arms. The pain was everywhere, searing him, branding him. Tears tinctured with red washed a track down his narrow nose.

Crawling to his feet, Westin barely retained the presence of mind to shove the camera back into its padded carry bag before dragging himself to the elevator and slamming his fist against the “down” button. Blood dripped down his arm and onto the fabric.

The elevator opened in front of him. Westin pushed himself into the empty space, shaking. He leaned against the back wall and drew a deep breath, knowledge of his own stupidity battling with the sheer exhilaration of a different sort of Hunt.

All too soon, the rush was over, and he was himself again, drenched in sweat and drying blood. In his memory, the sun rose like some killer angel, and he knew his actions for what they were—vanity.

But he would do it again.

Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula and Endeavor award-nominated author of  the best-selling Devil’s West series (Silver On the Road, The Cold Eye, and the forthcoming Red Waters Rising), as well as the short story collection Darkly Human, the 10-book, 4 novella Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series, and the Vineart War trilogy.  Her recent short fiction has sold to Daily Science FictionLightspeed, and the anthologies Lawless Lands and Weird California.

A former New Yorker, she currently lives outside of Seattle with two cats and many deadlines.  Information and updates can be found at lauraannegilman.net, or follow her on Twitter: @LAGilman