Fbird.gif (12277 bytes)
by
J. L. Comeau 2000
  Control the Music with these buttons!

Concentration is the thing.

You have to block out everything but the task at hand if you want to succeed. In my mind, I am the Firebird, soaring above the ashes of my own extinction.

Ignoring the sweat pouring down my face, I stand before the mirrored wall, one hand lightly touching the barre. I bring my knee up steadily and lay it alongside my nose, then ever so slowly extend the calf, arching my toes toward the ceiling.

Technique, line, proportion, balance: these are the classical elements of the dance. Ballet is a celebration of the physical instrument, a ruthless, brutal discipline from which mastery of movement emerges. I try to think only of the dance as I push away from the barre and glissade to the center of the cold, silent studio.

I want to pretend that it is not nearly four a.m., that I am not exhausted, that I am not courting injury by pushing myself too hard. Going up on pointe, I turn a dozen mad fourettes, one-legged spins that confuse the mind and challenge the spirit. I want to forget what happened last night. I want to fill my empty soul with the dance.

I keep my balance by means of light and gravity. I focus on the staccato tock-tock-tock of my toeshoes against the hardwood floor. I will myself to forget, but even as my body transcends exhaustion and pushes into the realm of pure bliss, I remember... I remember...

The dream is always the same: I'm charging through a long, dim hallway surrounded by shadowy blue figures running ahead and beside me. Blood crashing in my temples all but obliterates the thunder of our heavy boots as we approach a scarred metal door at the end of the hall. Amid angry shouts and confusing clamor, the door suddenly bursts open. (At this point in the dream, I start struggling to awaken myself because I can't bear to see what I know waits in that apartment.) My screams reach out of my dream and into my consciousness. I awaken on my feet, engulfed in a blind panic.

The dream is a remnant of the other side of my life. Of necessity, most dancers live two-sided lives. Foremost always is the grand passion--the dance--but unless one is a principal dancer in a large company, there is also a full-time outside job that pays the rent and buys the toeshoes.

When I'm not dancing, I work for the city. I'm one of a five-member tactical assault team the Detroit Police Department secretly calls "The Nut Squad". We're specifically trained to respond to barricade situations, which are often precipitated by emotionally disturbed persons, hence the nickname.

My given name is Julianna Christine Larkin. At the dance studio, I'm addressed as Julianna, but inside the police department, I'm often referred to as "Twinkletoes" or "The Sugarplum Fairy" behind my back. At one time, the guys on my squad gave me a hard time, making ballerina jokes and crude references to my gender. Now they simply call me Larkin, and that suits me just fine.

When I pack up my toeshoes and go out with my squad, the mandatory gear is decidedly different. Instead of a skimpy leotard, I wear heavy pads of flexible armor covering my chest, back and groin. A spidery two-way radio headset with multiple channels allows us to communicate quietly. We each carry a different weapon: a shotgun for support fire, an M16 A-2 automatic rifle for close-range management, a .223-caliber assault rifle for long-range control. I carry the A-2, which is relatively light but effective. We also have hydraulic jacks to crack open locked doors, systems to deliver tear gas canisters, and a contraption that shoots explosive diversion devices called "Thunder Flashers".

Like ballet, tactical police work requires agility, strength, endurance and a rigorous training schedule, so the two are not quite so disparate as they might at first seem. These are the areas where I excel. It's a grasp of social competence that has so far eluded me.

For me, adolescence was a nightmare. Girls who reach a height of six feet by junior high school might as well have leprosy. But after a full day of peer indifference or outright scorn at school, I would become a swan in dance class, envied for my length of limb.

"Stand tall, Julianna! Reach for the clouds!" Madame Jedinov would bark from the back of the studio as she pounded her baton in time to the music. "Arch the neck! Extend the arm!"

In the grace and beauty of the dance I found pleasure in being me.

There is a certain grace and beauty to be found in the savage Detroit inner city streets as well. Instead of a joyous dance of life, it is a desperate dance of death, beautiful in its own wretched way.

My first police assignment was a barricade situation located in a shabby, drug-riddled housing project downtown. When I arrived, the building had been pinned to the night sky by spotlights and ringed by armed personnel.

Lieutenant Steven Brophy, my squad leader and veteran of two tours of combat in Vietnam, told me, "I want you to stay in back of the team, young lady. Don't want any trouble on this one. We've got our hands full and we don't need to be babysitting you."

His doubts about my competence did not annoy me--I was having my own misgivings. Everyone in the department was aware that I had received my placement in the unit to squelch a rash of sexual discrimination suits filed against the city. I thought I would be able prove myself when the time came, but right then, I was just plain rabbit scared.

As I adjusted my radio headset, a sharp cry pulled my attention to the third floor apartment window where something dangled beneath the windowsill. Pushing my hair up under my cap I saw that it was a child--a baby!--being held by one ankle, bobbing precariously above the bleak tundra of the courtyard thirty feet below.

The baby screamed in terror, windmilling its little arms, arching its back. My heart froze. Seconds later, the child was jerked roughly back through the window and disappeared from view. Only its wails echoed in the cold night air.

"That's right," Brophy said as he motioned for me to follow him toward the equipment truck. "We got us a maniac, little girl."

After handing me a heavy hydraulic jack, which I would carry during the assault, we joined the rest of the squad for a fast briefing. It was terrifying. Unconfirmed reports indicated that there was a psycho in apartment 302 named Ralph Esposito who had taken his former wife and children hostage. Sporadic gunfire heard earlier in the evening was shortly followed by the ejection of an object from the window which was later identified as his ex-wife's head. Of the six children presumed to be inside the apartment with him, it was unsure how many survived. The situation had been deteriorating rapidly for several hours and the life of the single known surviving hostage, the baby, had reached an unacceptable level of risk.

Our task: Full-Assault Scenario/Termination of Suspect Authorized.

We crept into the building past a dozen uniformed officers and waited for one breathless minute at the end of the third floor hallway until Lieutenant Brophy gave the signal to move. At that point, I was so frightened and everything started moving so fast that the whole sequence of events always comes back to me in blurs and flashes:

Midnight blue figures hustling down the hallway--the sound of our boots against the linoleum floor--halting outside the door to 302--handing the jack to Fred Zaluta, second in command--dragging my A-2 off my back, throwing the safety--the door buckling and bursting open--gunfire--Zaluta on the floor, writhing--I know he's moaning, but all I can hear is my own blood crashing in my ears--a naked man, clotted with gore, pointing a rifle at me--NO!--the end of the barrel explodes with light and something punches me hard in the shoulder--I start to go down, sure that I'm already dead--automatically, I train the red dot of my laser aiming device on the center of the madman's forehead and squeeze off a fast burst.

As I go down, I see the top of the suspect's head lift off and explode in hundreds of shards and droplets that fan out in every direction--swiveling my head, I see another spray of dark blood pumping out of the torn meat of my shoulder--I think very clearly, "Where's the baby?" as I hit the floor--there is shouting and commotion--I lay injured and dazed, but not actually registering pain yet--the medical people swarm over me, lift me onto a stretcher that puts me at eye level with a strange object that looks like a raw roast beef pinned to the wall with a big cooking fork.

Time twists and stretches now, slowing to a crawl.

How odd, I think, running my eyes over the blue veins marbling the strangely shaped piece of meat. Rivulets of blood trace down the dingy wall beneath. How very,very odd.

People talk to me as I'm carried toward the door, but all I can hear is the hushed voice one uniformed policeman addressing another officer.

"That's the way it goes with these screwballs," he was saying, shaking his head sadly. "The bastard killed every one of them. Skinned the baby alive and staked it to the wall with a fork right before the rescue unit got in. Five more minutes might have saved it. Ain't that a shame?"

When I start screaming, the ambulance attendant jabs me with a needle. Fadeout.

The first thing I thought of when I woke up in the hospital was that poor mutilated baby fastened to the wall, and I've thought about it every day for the past two years. I learned afterwards from the reports that the man I'd...killed... had a history of mental problems and had been released from a state hospital that same morning because of budgetary cutbacks. Ralph Esposito. The sound of his name makes my neck prickle. The baby he murdered along with his ex-wife and five other children was named Carmelita. Carmelita. Such a musical name. So full of laughter and promise. I can't stop hearing it in my mind.

Well, months of sweaty work in the dance studio and the department gym healed my shoulder. I've always been able to handle the physical demands of life. It's my head that keeps giving me trouble. If I could only banish the image of that poor child...poor Carmelita, from my dreams.

The guys on my squad welcomed me whole-heartedly into the unit when I came back to work. I was no longer considered an irksome political placement to bolster the department's image.

Lieutenant Fred Zaluta, who was also wounded during the raid on 302, became my champion. He still insists that I saved his life, but I don't know--I was just doing my job. He knows I live alone in a coldwater flat downtown, so he and his wife invite me over for a home-cooked meal with them and their three kids at least once a month. I love watching the Zalutas together. They're a volatile group, always fighting and bickering, but you can feel the love radiating from every cluttered corner of their home. I was raised an only child. My parents' house was cool and hushed, the corners immaculately bare.

My squad leader, Lieutenant Brophy, and the other two men on the team, Parks and Channing, treat me equitably, but we don't socialize. While we've become an extremely tight working unit, the prevailing wisdom is that it's dangerous to become emotionally involved. I guess Zaluta and I are just asking for trouble, but I can't imagine losing those wonderful evenings with his family. I'm willing to risk it.

When I first started having the dream about the raid on 302,

I asked Zaluta if he thought I was going crazy.

"Naw," he said. I could tell by the way he wouldn't look me in the eye that discussing it troubled him. "We all get dreams. I heard once that the only way to get rid of one entirely is to replace it with something even worse."

"You have one, too?"

"Aw, sure. There was a raid back in seventy-two. A psycho twisted some pitiful old lady's head around two full turns while I stood there with my mouth hanging open. I always thought maybe I could have saved her if I hadn't been so green and scared. I don't dream about it as much as I used to, though. It gets better little by little, Larkin. You'll see."

I nodded, disturbed by the way his shoulders sagged and his broad face had grown pinched. I decided not to mention the subject again.

These past two years since the raid on 302 have rocketed past. I divide my time between police work and ballet and, usually, that's enough...until I key the lock to the dreary little closet I rent downtown. At some point, even cops and ballerinas have to go home. Maybe someday I'll buy some curtains, or a cat...

Detroit is often referred to as "Murder City" by the press, and from my own vantage point, the inner city resembles a monstrous, diseased organism that seems to grow exponentially by feeding on its own overabundance of poverty and rage. I don't know if a cure exists--I just help fight the symptoms: teenage gangs warring over drug turf, crazies strung out on crack and PCP, plus the usual family violence. Automatic weapons like Uzis and Baretta handguns equipped with 100-round banana clips are common in the rougher projects downtown. Drug turf battles are dangerous, but I would much rather respond to a gang war barricade then a nut barricade. Gang members usually surrender quickly--they're willing to trade their machismo for survival. But the whackos, they just don't give a damn, which makes them infinitely more treacherous.

Whatever the particular scenario happens to be, each assault is virtually the same, a tightly choreographed dance that never becomes routine. It's the part of my job I dread the most and love the best. The sweats and the jitters I experience seconds before an assault are indistinguishable from the butterflies I get backstage just before dancing in front of an audience. It's thrilling and terrifying at once.

When poised for an assault on a barricaded house or apartment, my heart is always in my mouth right before the door goes down. We never know what we'll find inside. When the door gives and we rush in, I go dead cool. Instinct and training kick in and, one way or the other, it's all over in a matter of minutes. Afterward, just like after a ballet performance, I experience an intensely gratifying rush of physical and emotional satisfaction we call the "afterburn" back in the squad room. It's what drives me, makes me push myself to the very limit of my capabilities, what clouds my judgement at times, but always, always satisfies...for the moment.

Zaluta says everyone is chasing the afterburn in one form or another, and I think he's right.

Sometimes I worry that I have some kind of weird attraction to brutality. Violence is integral to police work, of course, but not many people recognize the inherent self-inflicted violence of the ballet. Ballerinas look like fragile, fairy-like creatures who rest on satin pillows when not dancing--that's the illusion. Pink satin toeshoes and opaque tights usually conceal feet that look like raw hamburger and ugly surgical scars criss-crossing sprung knees and ankles.

Personally, I'm terrified of injuries and pain, but I keep running head-on at the possibility, nonetheless. I don't know, maybe there's something wrong with me. I've never been a particularly introspective woman, but after what happened last night...everything has changed. I've changed.

I had just showered up and was busy stowing gear in my squad locker yesterday evening when the call came in. It's unusual for an off team to get called back on duty since there are three other teams working on rotating shifts. When we arrived at the scene, it was already dark and cruelly cold as only a Detroit winter night can be. A large crowd of spectators had gathered across the street from a five story tenement building, brilliantly hideous against the black winter sky lit by rows of huge, smoking kleig lights. The crowd was clearly agitated, surging behind the phalanx of uniformed police officers who were having some difficulty keeping them in order.

"They've got my Momma!" A young black man wearing a flimsy grey sweatshirt shouted, trying to break past the sawhorse barrier.

An elderly woman shrieked, "Help me, God!" and collapsed in a faint, disappearing into the rippling sea of bodies.

It struck me as odd that none of the people who had assembled across the street were behaving like the usual gawkers who always turn out for a barricade. Instead of the typical good-natured spectators looking for a little excitement, each appeared to have something personal at stake. Most of the women and a good number of the men were sobbing and moaning; none took their eyes from the floodlit building.

I knew then that it was going to be bad. Very bad.

When I heard Lieutenant Brophy summoning our squad for a briefing, I almost didn't want to hear what was going on. Christ, I thought, just let me do my job and get out of here. Then, as I was turning to join my team, the crowd stopped their frantic milling and shoving all at once. It made my flesh creep the way they stood like zombies, faces pale and distorted as they stared up at the building.

When I turned, I entered a waking nightmare.

Wailing in terror, little Carmelita Esposito, my nightmare child, was being dangled three stories above the sidewalk by a wild-eyed man. There was no doubt in my mind that the man was her father, Ralph Esposito, the man I'd killed two years before.

I went hot all over despite the frigid night wind. I felt like I weighed a thousand pounds, petrified.

I might still be standing there if Zaluta hadn't gripped my arm and started shouting, "Holy Jesus, Larkin! It's the old woman I told you about! Mother of God, her head's on backward and she's still alive! Oh, Jesus!"

I swung around and looked at Zaluta. His face was twisted in anguish as he watched the building. I shook his arm hard and he looked at me. I don't know how long we stood holding onto each other, but when we turned our eyes back to the building, whatever it was we'd seen had vanished.

All hell broke loose. The crowd behind us became a hysterical mob, screaming and pushing against the barriers, demanding that something be done. A two-way radio in a nearby squad car squawked something about assembly of a riot control unit. Curling clouds of frosty vapor rose before our faces as we breathed into the numbingly cold air, my own pumping fast and heavy. A couple of teenage boys broke through the police barrier and made a run at the building, but were stopped and strong-armed back behind the line by one gigantic uniformed officer.

"I don't see any of the other assault teams around," I remarked to Zaluta as we headed for the equipment truck to pick up our gear. "I thought we were all supposed to be out here."

"I overheard the Chief telling Brophy that the other units were in getting in place and ready to go. They're just waiting for signal from the point team."

"Who's on point?" I asked.

"I don't know, but I'm glad it's not us."

I nodded as we pulled on our armor. "I'd like to know what the hell's going on. We're hallucinating or something worse. I feel like I'm dreaming."

"I wish you were dreaming," Zaluta said, hoisting his Heckler and Koch 9mm submachine gun, a real brute of a weapon that was just to heavy for me to handle. "If you were dreaming, we'd all be at home."

While we were adjusting our radio headsets, the rest of our team, Brophy, Parks and Channing climbed into the back of the truck and joined us, their faces grim and pasty behind frosty crimson lips and noses.

"This is the deal," Lieutenant Brophy said, rubbing his hands together. "Something fucking weird is going on in that building."

Everyone snickered but Brophy, who cracked a sideways grin. Having successfully loosened us up, his mouth fell into a frown and his eyes narrowed. "Nobody knows what we've got in there.

I guess I don't have to tell you that whatever is happening, we're all witnessing some pretty strange stuff."

Everyone nodded.

"OK. Here's the plan. Earl Cook's unit is the point team. They're going to make an assault in a few minutes. We're last up, so we're just here for backup. We won't be called out unless the other teams fail to resolve this situation."

We all fell silent for a long moment.

"Here's what I know," Brophy continued. "Around six this evening, the department started receiving frantic calls from a number of hysterical people, all claiming to have seen a different event occurring at this address. Four uniformed officers entered the building shortly after six-thirty. Evidently, they never came out."

Carefully adjusting the armor protecting his groin, Brophy said, "Let's not bust our nuts worrying until we get a reconnaissance report from the point team, okay?" He looked up at me. "And you, Larkin, don't bust whatever it is you got to bust."

We laughed and shook our heads, then slowly filed out of the truck. Parks went to get everyone some hot coffee, and the rest of us took positions behind the rows of squad cars parked in a semicircle in front of the building. Then we waited. And waited. The tension was bone-crushing. There was a lot of fidgeting, shifting, and dry-throated coughs.

Behind us, the crowd rumbled like thunder, their collective growl a continual roar that rose and fell, punctuated by shrill cries and hoarse shouts. At the time, I considered that unruly throng as much of a threat to life and limb as the situation inside the building.

As it turned out, I was very much mistaken.

Then things started popping. The first team went in like gangbusters, detonating a number of small, grenade-shaped devices called Thunder Flashers that explode harmlessly, but mimic miniature atomic bombs. You can't help but be disoriented momentarily, even when you know it's coming. Under cover of this diversionary blitzkrieg, they entered the building.

When the sound of the flash-bombs finally stopped reverberating in my ears, I could hear what was going on inside through the command radio hooked into the teams' two-way sets. There was gunfire mixed with the most gut-wrenching shrieks and screams I have ever heard, and which I suspect I'll be hearing in my head for a long, long time. I clenched my fists so tightly my fingernails punctured my palms. Wedged in between the screams were a few frantic words that I could just barely make out:

"...outta here!" one of them yelled in a high-pitched squeal.

"...fuckin dogs!...No!...Jesus!..."

The gunfire finally ceased, but the screams continued for at least another minute. Then there was a crackling silence.

After that terrible pause, everyone starting talking at once, and Brophy had to shout us down to make himself heard. Once we quieted, he said simply, "Unit Two is preparing to enter," and turned away.

Whispering close to my ear, Zaluta said, "That was Kellerman screaming about dogs on the radio. He's been scared shitless of dogs since a crack dealer holed up in a motel released a doberman on him a few years back."

We stared at each other. Everyone in the vicinity was experiencing his or her own private nightmare.

"Are we being purposely manipulated? Is this even real?"

I asked, hearing my voice becoming shrill.

Zaluta shrugged his shoulders wearily and patted me on the arm. He was only in his late thirties, but he already looked like an old man. "I don't know, Larkin. I don't know."

The crowd was working itself into another frenzy when the second assault team silenced them by plunging into the building amid another round of booms and flashes.

Again, the radio crackled with shouts and gunfire. But this time, when the chaos died down, one distinct voice rose out of the background hiss, a trembly but jubilant voice declaring victory.

"I got the murdering bastard!" he cried. "I'm bringing him back alive, folks, so don't blow my ass off when we come out. And send in the medics stat, people. We've got a slaughterhouse in here. O.K., hold your fire now, we're exiting the building."

Hot relief swept over me. I spun around to face the building and began to cheer and clap with the others when two figures emerged.

"It's Delroy Stanton," Parks said.

The wild applause dwindled and died away slowly when it became apparent that something was amiss. Instead of driving a suspect at gunpoint, Stanton was dragging an inert, profusely bleeding man by the tattered collar of a midnight-blue shirt--an assault team shirt.

The prisoner appeared to be a member of his own unit. "See?" Stanton shouted deliriously as a pair of medics rushed him and pulled away his prisoner. A group of officers, including Lieutenant Brophy, swarmed around him. His eyes were wild, rolling back to show white. "It's the boogeyman!" He fell to his knees and started to sob. "Oh, God! It's not even HUMAN!"

Too quickly for anyone to stop him, Stanton raised his handgun and placed it in his mouth.

"No!" Brophy shouted, charging at Stanton, hands stretching for the pistol.

I squeezed my eyes shut a split-second before the crack of the gun discharging racketed into the night, echoing through the cold streets.

Beside me, Zaluta moaned.

Complete pandemonium ensued. The crowd behind the lines went berserk, shrieking and throwing empty bottles and other debris as the policemen fought to hold them back. In our own camp, professional decorum evaporated. Angry demands for full disclosure raced through our ranks. Two of us were known dead, twelve more lives were probably lost inside the building.

A tenured officer named Detrick clambered atop a squad car with a bull horn and blared, "ASSAULT TEAMS THREE AND FOUR REPORT TO COMMAND POST AT ONCE!"

"That's us," Zaluta said.

Following behind Zaluta, I was struck by the surreal quality of my perceptions. Even the shiny black heels of Zaluta's boots flashing and ebbing as he walked ahead of me looked strange somehow. Brighter...more textured. Sounds lost their sharp edges and became rounded, hollow.

When we arrived at the Command Post, a jerry-rigged open-air office on the far side of the police lines, Lieutenant Brophy and his Team Three counterpart were busy talking with the Chief and his people. Amidst the chattering department personnel was an odd little man dressed in a long black tunic covering tightly fitted black trousers. He stood solemnly, clutching a battered leather portfolio case to his narrow chest. As I stared at him, he swiveled his head and looked directly at me, pegging me to the spot with his luminous dark eyes.

We surveyed each other for a long moment, until the spell was broken by the strident voice of Mel Anderson, a flashy, balding department spokesman whose job it was to deal with the media.

"All right, people," Anderson called out, waving his arms and making his storm jacket bunch up around his neck. "Let's have some QUIET! I have some information to pass along to you assault personnel, so listen up."

Lieutenant Brophy, standing behind Anderson, rolled his eyes and shook his head slightly, affirming his widely known dislike of the man we privately called "Captain Video".

"Now what we've got is this," Anderson continued, referring to a yellow legal pad in his left hand. "Two officers confirmed casualties, twelve officers missing in action and an unknown number of tenants inside the building, condition unknown. Identity of suspect or suspects unconfirmed. Causative factors, unconfirmed." He paused, delivering his patented Concerned Countenance, which I'd often seen him wear on the evening news. "We don't know exactly what's going on, so what we've done is bring in an expert on paranormal occurrences."

Putting his hands up to quell the rising buzz of indignant murmurs, he added, "Now, you all know that Homicide Division occasionally employs the services of psychics when they've hit a wall with their inquiries--"

"Oh, come on, man!" someone shouted.

"We ain't no Ghostbusters!" someone else yelled.

"Look!" Anderson said angrily, pointing a finger at us. "If any of you hotshots have the answer to what's going on in that goddamned building, step right up!"

Silence.

"Fine," he said, adjusting his tie. "Now shut up and listen." He extended an arm toward the little man in the black tunic, who walked over and stood next to Anderson. "Mr. Chase has graciously consented to lend his expertise to the department and to work with us on this case. And it is therefore expected that all personnel will treat Mr. Chase with the utmost dignity and respect." Turning a baleful eye toward us, he growled, "Is that UNDERSTOOD?"

This is getting too weird, I thought, thanking Channing as he handed me a styrofoam cup of bitter-smelling coffee.

"I would like to speak to the young lady," Chase said in a thin voice tinged with an rolling accent.

Like everyone else, I started looking around for the alleged "young lady", but when my eyes returned to the strange little man the department had brought in, I was surprised to find that he was pointing at me.

I touched my chest and Mr. Chase nodded. "Oh, Christ," I said under my breath, gulping my coffee down in three swallows.

Amid much hooting and laughter from the guys, I followed Mr. Chase, Lieutenant Brophy and Mel Anderson to one of the squad cars and climbed into the back seat with Mr. Chase.

"This is Corporal Larkin," Brophy said, twisting around in the front seat to face me. I noted the silent apology in his eyes. "What do you want with her?"

"She is the only person I saw with the aptitude to remedy this unfortunate occurrence," Mr. Chase responded measuredly. "What do you mean, 'aptitude'?" Anderson asked. "We've got plenty of men out there."

"My point exactly," Chase said. "Corporal Larkin's obvious aptitude, in this case, is her gender."

"Now, wait just a minute--" Brophy started, but was interrupted by Anderson.

"Mr. Chase," Anderson said, "We need some answers here. We're laying the department's credibility on the line by inviting you into this matter, so if you can tell us something, please be clear."

The little man nodded his head politely and cleared his throat. "It is my firm belief that this disturbance is being caused by a drude," he announced. "'Drude' is an Old English expression for a nightmare fiend. According to most authorities, a young witch becomes a drude with she reaches the age of forty and then assumes the power to haunt any victim she chooses with terrible visions. Sometimes, this new power drives them mad, which is precisely what I believe has occurred here. And in order to put an end to her malicious activity, she must be destroyed. That is your answer, gentlemen."

He inclined his lips slightly, apparently amused by our dumbstruck expressions. He patted my forearm and added, "Males are powerless against drudes. You are therefore chosen, Corporal ."

"Oh, this is nuts!" Brophy shouted. "Do you think I'm going to allow Larkin to go in there after two heavily armed squads have failed?"

Anderson had just opened his mouth to respond when every single window in the barricaded building exploded outward with a terrible shattering sound and sprayed a hundred foot perimeter with glittering shards of broken glass.

"Maybe we ought to hear Mr. Chase out," Anderson said.

After we'd listened to Chase's incredible plan, "Brophy looked at me with tired eyes and said, "It's up to you Larkin. It's your ass--you call it. I'm telling you right now that I think it stinks, but like Anderson says, the Chief will overrule me on this one for sure." He sneered at Anderson. "You guys will try anything to protect your public image, won't you?"

Anderson ignored him. "Our next best alternative is to send the two remaining squads anyway, Larkin. What if Mr. Chase is right? All those lives...?"

"Hey!" Brophy said, his face red with rage. He grabbed Anderson roughly by the collar.

"You better cool off, Brophy," Anderson said. "It's out of your hands."

"We'll see about that!" Brophy shouted, releasing Anderson's collar before slamming out of the squad car.

I appreciated Brophy's gesture, but I knew even then that it wouldn't make any difference. I was going into the building alone. It was simply a fact. I knew it in my heart. I saw it in Chase's ebony eyes. Some things are inevitable. So I said, "All right."

After a few more careful instructions from Mr. Chase, I went over to the equipment truck to check out my radio and pick up some extra gear. If I refused the assignment and more people died as a result, it wouldn't be worth the effort to live. I had to do it.

But I was scared. Good Christ, I was scared.

Once I had made up my mind, Brophy and the rest of the guys quit trying to talk me out of it, but I thought I saw tears in Zaluta's eyes as I came down the ramp leading out of the truck. That's when I nearly backed out; I came so close to backing out...

But then Mr. Chase was affixing something to the collar of my shirt. "This is the only thing that will work," he whispered.

I lifted my collar and saw an old fashioned hat pin inserted through the fabric. It was silver, about seven inches long and was topped with what looked like an enormous black pearl.

I looked down at Mr. Chase. "The heart," he said. "Remember the heart."

I nodded, wondering who was crazier, him or me.

"Keep your focus," Chase continued. "None of it is real. Only the drude. But she cannot alter her own appearance before another formidable woman. Ignore everything else. Remember the signs I told you to look for and you'll find her."

Fastening a string of small explosive charges to my vest and snapping a clip into a 9mm Baretta semiautomatic handgun equipped with a flashlight attachment, I figured that I would be carrying nearly seventy pounds. My antiballistic armor weighed forty eight pounds alone. The additional weight of the handgun, clips and my A-2 was finally the limit I could bear and still move.

I had never really considered the utter strangeness of what I do for a living until I walked across that cold lot toward the building, the arsenal I carried swaying in time to my steps. I'm sure I must have looked like a erstwhile Valkyrie, except there was no Valhalla waiting for me--I was going in after a deranged witch who had taken up residence in a Detroit project building. The radio buzzed and cracked in my ears. I adjusted the earpieces one last time before I stepped across the lines and crossed the lot toward the building. Hustling as fast as I was able, I crossed the open area of the courtyard until I hugged the icy bricks forming base of the building. I got a quick glimpse of Zaluta crouched beside a nearby trash dumpster, his face was turned up, his mouth open wide.

Across the street, the crowd convulsed.

I tilted my head back just in time to see a plastic trash can teetering on the ledge of a third floor window being turned over. Before I could move, I was struck full in the face with a splattering gush of hot, clotting blood. When I could get my eyes open, I saw my nemesis, Ralph Esposito, leaning over the windowsill, leering at me past the edge of the dripping can.

I turned away, revolted and terrified. I tensed my body, trying not to retch, ignoring the shouting voice on the radio. Concentrate! I told myself. It's not real!

My breathing slowed and I looked down at myself. Clean and dry. Not a speck of blood. Chase had been right. It was going to be a battle of wills, not weapons. I looked up at the window. Nothing.

"It's all right," I whispered into the radio mouthpiece. "I'm going in."

Having thus committed myself, I trotted up to the fire-blasted front entryway and slipped into the building. It was similar to other project apartment houses I'd been in, except for one thing: a naked overhead bulb glared across the writhing floor of the entry hall. I found myself standing up to my ankles in snakes.

Something darted near my eyes and I instinctively batted it away with one hand. Panting, I watched my radio headset tumble into a thrashing reptilian mass at my feet. Stupid! I thought.

I'd let myself be fooled into losing my communications. There were no snakes. Clamping down on my terror, I tried to concentrate, concentrate...

I blinked my eyes and the snakes vanished.

Not wanting to waste the time it would take to rehook my headset, I left it lying on the filthy grey linoleum. The building was still as a tomb. There wasn't a sign of a single living soul. Remembering Chase's instructions, I strained to hear a high-pitched keening sound, and I thought I could hear something fading in and out like a remote radio signal, a fluttering wail hovering on the far edge of my audial range. It was coming from above. I headed for the stairs.

When I reached the second floor, I edged around the corner and stood against the wall at the end of the corridor. Nothing moved. A coppery tang hung in the air, a salty odor I recognized instantly. Above it rode the sharp smell of powder. Most of the lightbulbs lining the ceiling had been long since smashed or stolen, so the corridor lay in an eerie half-light. Hugging the wall, I inched down the corridor to find that all of the apartment doors had been left standing ajar.

Toeing open the first door, I discovered the bodies of several people strewn like smashed mannequins across the dimly lit living room. One of the dead, a large man with a rough beard lay sprawled on his back, his hand still clutching a plastic-handled steak knife with which he'd apparently slashed his own throat.

Feeling sick and lightheaded, I turned away from the carnage, taking deep draughts of air into my lungs. Back in the corridor, I leaned against the wall for a moment trying regain my bearings and wondered what my odds of escape might be if I made a dash for the stairs.

I was thinking, shit on this--I'm bailing out, when I heard something behind me move.

I couldn't help screaming when I turned and faced the dark, bloodied figures that shambled toward me from the interior of the apartment. They jerked and hobbled as if drawn along by some mad puppeteer, eyes glazed and fixed on nothing.

Flashes of fire began strobing in front of me and there was thunder in my ears. A bitter cloud of blue smoke rose near my face, through which I could see the advancing corpses exploding and flying apart. It wasn't until after I'd expended my entire 30-round clip that I realized I had been firing my A-2 through the apartment doorway.

And they were still coming.

I turned and made a panicky run for it, breaking for the stairs. Honor and duty be damned. I couldn't think of anything but getting the hell out. I didn't care what happened as long as I got away.

I only made it as far as the top of the stairs when I heard a familiar voice call my name.

"Julianna," it barked in a familiar tone.

And I knew goddamned well that if I turned around, it would be a stupid, perhaps fatal, mistake. But I couldn't help it. I just had to look.

There in the filthy tenement corridor, not ten feet behind me, stood Madame Jedinov, starkly majestic in her wispy dancing skirts, baton in hand, a fierce look on her stern Baltic face.

I stared, astonished, as a huge black tongue snaked out of her mouth like lightning, wrapping itself around my neck and yanking me off my feet. I hit the linoleum floor like a sack of cement and my A-2 skittered out of my hands and bounced down the stairs. As the constriction around my neck tightened, I could hear braying laughter booming over my head.

No, I thought as little lights danced in my head. I won't go down like this. Clamping down on every fiber of my imagination, I forced myself to concentrate. It's not real. It can't hurt me.

When the corridor swam back into focus, I found myself on my knees with my own hands clenched around my throat. Releasing them, I stood, coughing, and looked down the hallway. It was silent and empty. The buzzing in my head cleared until all that was left was that strange, electrical keening sound I'd first detected downstairs, stronger now.

I touched the collar of my uniform and found I'd almost dislodged the hatpin that Chase had inserted there. So that was the game: Get Rid of the Pin. The bitch was scared.

Jamming the pin tightly into my collar, I glanced down at my A-2 lying at the bottom of the stairs. I wouldn't be needing it.

In my mind, I conjured up an image of a bent, hideous crone wearing a peaked black hat and focused on it. Placing my boot squarely on the first step leading to the third floor, I silently called out, I'm coming for you.

Soft laughter echoed above. A shimmering image appeared on the stairway, an abortive, half-formed horror that I was able to sweep away with a wave of my hand. I'm wise to you now. Confident of my own power to dispel the drude's best efforts to fake me out, I jogged up the stairs, heart racing, hot for the game. Go ahead, I thought wildly. Hit me with your best shot, honey.

When I reached the third floor, I stopped dead in my tracks. Suspended from the overhead light fixtures that lined the ceiling were eight large, meticulously skinned human bodies. It was obscene. They swung like smokehouse hams in small, lazy circles spotlighted by naked bulbs above their dreadfully glazed, fleshy heads.

My hands flew to my mouth and I gagged. Looking away, I

called back the imagery of the witch-crone and concentrated upon it, hating her, crowding out the revulsion and terror with rage.

With a strangled cry, I turned and charged down the hallway directly at the swaying atrocities the drude had conjured to stop me. I would reduce them to vapor like the one on the stairs.

It's impossible to describe how horrible, how shocking, how loathsome it was when I collided with that cold, wet slab of human meat. I struck it hard, bouncing backward off of it and hitting the floor hard. I lay there looking up, seeing that terrible dripping thing dangling over me, trying to get my breath back.

There was a soft popping noise and the corpse, evidently released from its mooring, toppled from the ceiling and collapsed on top of me.

A woman's shrieking laughter filled the corridor, drowning out my screams as I struggled to get out from under the inert body pinning me on my back, holding me in a repugnant embrace.

Her laughter racketed in my ears, making it impossible to think. My heart pounded painfully hard, forcing great pulsing torrents though my body. My will and concentration had been pushed to the wall. I was unsure if I possessed the emotional strength to handle my predicament. Surely my spirit could not survive one more shock.

And then the lights went out.

Silence. Not a sound except my own breathing. I managed to push away the thing on top of me and it hit the floor with a wet, slapping noise that reverberated oddly, like in a cavern. Grabbing the handgun out of my belt holster, I flicked on the flashlight attachment and swung the beam out across a domed roof that undulated with the squirming bodies of huge brown bats. One of them disentangled itself from the seething mass and flew at me, striking my chest, snapping at my throat.

As I grappled with it, trying to tear it away, I dragged my left hand across the point of the pin in my collar, painfully ripping open the skin of my palm. Remember the pin! The drude is trying to get the hatpin, I thought wildly. There's no cave, no bats. Concentrate.

The cavern rippled and shimmered, then faded into the walls of the tenement corridor. Arcing my flashlight to the end of the hallway, I saw that the shadows pooling there seemed to be alive, thrashing like storm clouds. This was a sign, according to Mr. Chase. She couldn't bear the light, he'd said, and threw out darkness like a squid expels ink. Being careful to avoid contact with the remaining bodies suspended from the ceiling, I followed the beam to the end of the hall. I flashed the light on the door. The numbers on the scarred metal fire door read, "302".

I should have known.

This is it, I told myself as I pressed a small clay charge beneath the doorknob. Standing well to one side of the door, I triggered the charge. The door blew open and stood ajar, smoking.

Edging past the door, I played the beam of my flashlight around the room, but the darkness was so thick that the light scarcely cut three feet into the gloom. A bright pain blossomed in my heart with each breath I took. My soul was exhausted and damaged. I truly did not think I would be alive much longer, and the unadorned reality of that absolute belief somehow washed away my dread of death, filling me with one burning conviction: to make my last act on earth a meaningful one.

I was going to take that crazy bitch down with me.

"Where are you, you fucking hag?" I shouted, ignoring the tears blurring my vision. I whipped the flashlight beam back and forth, until it fell upon a pale figure standing in the whirling darkness.

His naked body was very white where it was not splashed with blood. My own personal nightmare, Ralph Esposito, stood with a viciously gleeful smile on his mad face. In front of him, he clutched a beautiful little girl by her dark hair, holding a dimestore pocket knife to her throat.

Little Carmelita begged me to save her with desolate brown eyes.

"I'll peel her like a grape if you take one more step," her father growled.

I didn't have the strength to banish the delusion, so I let it play itself out. Sobbing like a child, I moved forward.

Ralph Esposito drew the blade evenly across her smooth neck. She went rigid and shrieked as a crimson trickle necklaced her tender throat.

"Stop it!" I screamed. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't bear the child's agony, real or imagined. Dropping to my knees, I begged, "please..."

I felt the light touch of a hand on my back. I turned to face whatever new demon had been summoned to torment me and looked into the jet black eyes of a divinely beautiful golden-haired woman.

"You're tired," she murmured. "So tired."

Her sympathy drained me. I slumped at her feet, my face against the silken fabric of her long skirt. If I could close my eyes and rest a while...

I felt her hand slide to my collar and gently tug at the pin, but her soothing voice lulled me into a dreamy fantasy. I was wearing a crystalline costume, dancing on a mirror in a child's jewel box, spinning round and round--

A sudden thunder pounded overhead, shaking the floor beneath me, jarring me awake. I reached up and grasped the hand fumbling with my collar.

The drude screeched in my ear and tore at my face with her free hand. Feeling her nails tear deep furrows across my cheek, I jerked my handgun up until the barrel jammed under her chin and emptied the clip into her head.

The drude screamed with laughter and knocked the gun out of my hand, the flashlight beam pinwheeling through the roiling dark and coming to rest beyond my reach. If anything, she had grown even stronger, fighting like a wildcat. Though barely half my size, she possessed at least twice my strength. And she was choking the life out of me. I couldn't allow her get hold of the pin.

The bass thrumming overhead increased, filling the room with its heavy pulsations.

The sound distracted her for a scant moment and I took advantage of it, knocking her off balance as she sat on my chest.

Whipping my leg around, I caught her across her neck and levered her onto her back.

Above us, the booming throb increased to a deafening intensity.

I yanked the hatpin out of my collar and held it out before me. The drude disappeared into the shadows.

I spun around, my heart banging painfully in my chest. She could be anywhere, ready to pounce on me from behind. I edged over to where my gun lay and picked it up, flashing the beam around me.

The building pulsed and shook. WHOP-WHOP-WHOP.

I found her. She was cowering in a dark corner, shielding her eyes from the light, making pitiful mewling sounds.

She looked up, her lovely face stricken with pain and fear.

"Please," she whimpered. "Please. Don't kill me."

Her anguish caught me by surprise and that one moment of hesitation on my part was all she wanted.

She sprang at me with blinding speed, but I was ready for her. When she grabbed my wrist, I felt bones splinter but held fast to the hatpin. It was her own hand that helped drive the pin up beneath her ribcage and into her heart.

She stiffened, her black eyes wide with surprise. Exhaling a gust of foul breath into my face, she went limp and her knees buckled. I went down with her, driving the pin hard, setting it deep.

Pulling myself to my feet, I looked down at her small, crumpled form. There was no victory here. The swirling darkness receded, leaving the room in its former dingy, trash-strewn verity. Above the thunderous pandemonium roaring over my head, I heard the wail of a baby.

Emerging from a cluttered corner, Carmelita Esposito, the most beautiful child ever born on this planet, wobbled unsteadily toward me on pudgy toddler's legs, arms outstretched.

A indescribably intense rush of joy surged through me when I picked that precious baby up and held her in my arms. She was safe. She was mine. I would never let her go. Never.

Hugging her close, I sidled up to a bare window where jagged shards of windowpane rattled in the casement from the bedlam outside. Gales of cold wind blew into our faces, bright lights shown down from overhead. I recognized the insectile outlines of the black shape hovering over us.

A Chinook helicopter hung above the building, its rotors roaring and throbbing.

What are they doing up there? I wondered, certain that any rescue operation would certainly be ground-based.

Something was being lowered from the side of the chopper, something that looked like a large coffee can on a wire.

A bomb. They were going to bomb the building! Images of the Philadelphia MOVE house bombing, the explosion and subsequent conflagration leaped into my mind.

The chopper eased up to a higher altitude, readying for the drop. There would be no time to escape from the building's entrance door. I screamed up at them, but my voice was lost in the chopper's backwash. There was only one alternative left for Carmelita and me, and not a very good one.

My mind set, I kicked the remaining glass out of the window and looked down. At least a thirty foot drop to frozen turf. If I wrapped myself around the child and let my legs take the impact, she might not be injured. My legs would be shattered. The dance...

"Fuck it!" I shouted, ripping off my teflon vestpiece and wrapping Carmelita in it. Her big brown eyes flickered with light.

Holding her tightly to my chest, I climbed over the casement and pushed out, leaping into the cold, cold night.

As if suspended, we seemed to drift like a feather. I saw the ground coming up slowly, slowly.

As we fell, the top floor of the building exploded behind us in a gigantic fireball of mortar and steel.

The ground surged to meet us. I felt a tremendous impact as my legs slammed into the ground. I could sense that the big bones had shattered on contact, but there was no pain.

Then silence.

Lying on my back, I couldn't raise my head, I couldn't move. Then I felt the light pressure of a small hand on my face and Carmelita's sweet face rose over mine.

I remember smiling, then spinning down, down into blackness.

I came around slowly, my blurred vision focusing itself on Zaluta's worried face.

"Is the baby all right?" I asked.

"Baby?" Zaluta said, then motioned to someone beyond my visual range.

A white-coated medic kneeled down beside me and flicked a penlight beam across my eyes. I pushed it away, angry now.

"The baby! Is she all right?"

Zaluta looked at the medic and shrugged. "Looks like she took a pretty hard lick from that bottle."

"What?" I demanded, becoming extremely upset with him.

"One of those jerks in the crowd lobbed a bottle at us and it caught you in the back of the head, Larkin. Knocked you silly for a couple seconds, but you're going to be okay," Zaluta explained.

"Wait a minute," I said, sitting up and rubbing the painful knot near the base of my skull. I looked at my legs: straight and healthy. I stood up. I was behind the barrier with the rest of the police personnel. "What's happened?"

Not understanding my question, Zaluta said, "False alarm, kiddo. They dragged us out here for nothing. The situation's been resolved."

"You mean it's all over?"

He nodded. "Team One went in and found the suspect dead. Suicide. They're bringing her out now."

"Her?"

"Yeah, some woman on the third floor caused a ruckus then offed herself. Stabbed herself to death with some kind of long pin, can you imagine? A neighbor said it was the woman's fortieth birthday. Happy birthday, huh?"

We watched them wheel out the gurney with the body bag strapped across it; I didn't need to see the dead woman. I knew her face. I just wanted to go to the studio and try to dance away the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I dumped my gear and walked through the dark Detroit nightstreets toward the studio. A light sprinkling of snow drifted down from the swirling black sky and glittered like diamonds in the harsh glow of street lamps.

I stood out in front of the old warehouse housing the dance studio watching the snow obliterate the grey ugliness of the city, trying to remember how little Carmelita's hand had felt against my face. But I couldn't get it back. The dream was gone.

Sighing, I turned and unlocked the warehouse door and flicked on the lights. The stairs to the dance studio seemed unusually steep as I trudged up to the dressing room. Released from the confinement of my uniform, I pulled three pairs of legwarmers over my tights to protect my ankles and calves against the unheated chill of the building. There was a dull ache in my chest as I laced the pink ribbons of my toeshoes and tested the firmness of the pointes.

When I went to close my locker, I noticed a black velvet case resting on the top shelf. Picking it up, I found plain white note card concealed beneath it. The note read:

Remember the heart.

Your fond admirer,

D. Chase

 

Inside the case lay a silver hatpin topped with a huge black pearl.

Technique, line, proportion, balance: it is clear to me now that these things apply in all areas of life. I dance feverishly, spinning and leaping, thinking of my bleak rented room, my bleak heart.

Enough. Dripping perspiration, I cool myself down with a series of slow barre exercises. Mopping my neck with a towel as I leave the studio, I stop in the wardrobe room and inspect my costume for tonight's performance of Stravinsky's Firebird. It is exquisite; leotard and headpiece ablaze with flashing orange and red sequins and streaming yellow feathers.

Dancing the principal role this evening, I will feel like Pavlova. It makes no difference that this performance will take place in a elementary school auditorium. It's the dance that matters, not the stage. Zaluta and his family will be in the first row and, instead of dancing for myself, tonight I am going to dance for them.

And when the dance is finished, I will sleep. I will not wake up afraid in the night. There is nothing left to fear.

And tomorrow... Tomorrow I will remind myself that life is more than a series of choreographed movements. I must learn to open my heart. It will be difficult, I know, but I have always enjoyed a challenge.

Concentration is the thing.

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