This was a spur of the moment piece I wrote when I had a spare hour today. Interested to hear any and all thoughts.
It was raining again. That hard, thick rain that could puncture skin, if you were unlucky. The tiny droplets would smash into the ground with such force that they’d briefly go back up again. Alas, they didn’t get far; and the water formed small rivers and canals, all leading to the mighty Hudson. The river was restless, the ofttimes calm waters turning in on themselves, and against the small tugboats that fought on through the night.
It was here, in the cabin of a tiny craft, that I sat. The thin tin roof above me amplified the sound of the rainfall, so that it could have been a mass of gravel pouring down on New York City. To my left, I could see a thousand buildings; each building lit by a thousand lights, a thousand lives. But tonight’s river journey was about finding if there was one less light in New York.
The captain of the boat, if you could call him a captain, staggered his way into view of the small, clear plastic on the cabin door. I quickly stood, and made to unhook the small iron latch, as he had instructed me to do. The man looked so drenched you’d almost believe that he’d fallen into the river. He pulled the sodden cap from his head, and a small stream of rainwater fell to the floor.
“The chief’s sent up the signal. The boats are going back to dock.” Despite how close we were, he had to yell over the heavy puttering on the roof.
“Why would he do that?” I responded with equal volume.
“One of two things. Either the storm’s getting too bad, or they’ve found something.”
Probably both, I reasoned, as the Captain adjusted the engine and began turning the wheel. As I squinted out into the darkness, somehow made darker by the twinkling city, I could barely make out the shapes of the other vessels, of varying sizes and speeds, turning and retreating to the safety of Manhattan.
The Captain had barely moored us as I leaped ashore. I knew it was dangerous, with the rotten old wood being precarious even when dry; but I had to see.
Chief Allen, a normally jolly fellow fond of smoking cigars almost as fat as he was, was already waiting for me as I, rain falling in beads from strands of hair in my face, approached the end of the jetty.
“Shelby.” He greeted me, striking a match to light his favoured cigars.
“Allen.” I responded, pushing the stray locks from my eyes. “What did you find?”
As he replaced the book of matches on the strap of his hat, showing his own balding scalp; he indicated for me to follow him down the corridor. “Come and see.”
I had to stop myself from running, speeding down that hallway. I needed to see if I were right. And I was.
The dock workers had clearly just unloaded the body, yellow and bloated from its tenure in the water. Bluish veins, visible through discoloured skin, were bulging. I had seen it before, and far worse, but you are never truly prepared to see this. Never. I adjusted my glasses, and moved closer.
This one had tried to swim, to get free, evidenced by the rope-burns on her ankles. The rope in question had been loosened and put to one side, still holding the misshapen, heavy rock it had been tied to. But, there was more. Another, similar set of markings were on her wrists. This was new. I turned to Allen, who was just behind and to my left.
“These ones on her wrist, do we know what caused them?”
Allen nodded gravely. He guided my eyes to the other end of the room, where I saw it. Another rope, thicker and stronger, attached to a buoy. I approached it, understanding quickly. He had wanted it to be found. But wait, that wasn’t all. Tied to the buoy, a chain, with a lockbox clipped to it by a harness. I peered at the lock.
“Do we have any way to open this?” I asked, to the gathered group. Allen shrugged, and I sighed, exasperated. And it was at this moment that I spotted, reflecting off of the exposed bulb, a gleam of metal in the corpse’s hand. I moved over to the body. It was a key. I pulled a pair of tweezers from my pocket, and crouched beside the cadaver. The stench, from standing above, had only been a strong smell of briny water, but was far worse when poised directly beside the mass. I could almost smell the detritus of the Hudson that this poor girl’s body had been steeped in. With a small pull, the key came loose, and I carefully dropped it into my hand. I showed it to the assembled crowd of workers and police, and finally to Allen, who seemed uncomfortable but determined. He took the key from my hand without a word and opened the box.
Aside from the cacophony of rain outside, it was silent on this dock. Allen stayed, for several seconds on his knees, then reached into the lockbox. I braced, expecting a gruesome souvenir or a trophy, but all that was clutched in Allen’s hands were cut-out bits of papers.
Allen held them out to me, and I took the first one. I read the all-too familiar headline.
“ENGLISH JOURNALIST HELPS CATCH THE HUDSON DRENCHER
The New Yorker’s own Thomas Shelby to thank.”
My hands trembled, and I knew it was true. The killer I thought I had stopped was still out there, and I’d put an innocent man in the worst hellhole on earth. I looked past Allen, to the window, and to the city beyond it.
What had I done?