The display lacked cohesion. That was the thought going through Senior Constable Weylin Hollister's mind as he waited for his partner, Jane Moir, to finish interviewing the proprietor of the porn shop. Everywhere he looked he saw disembodied penises and vaginas, or their substitutes: lines of odd knobs and holes with unlikely attachments, like exhibits from a museum of alien genitalia. It couldn't be an easy place to shop, he thought, even disregarding the awkwardness most people would feel coming into such an establishment.
His wife's voice brought him abruptly out of sleep that night:
Had he been the manager, he would have put dildos up front; they seemed designed to catch the eye, and would naturally segue into butt-plugs and vibrators along the shop's inner wall. On the other side he would put the magazines and videos, since there was no way their covers would ever blend. Artificial vaginas, lubes, whips, and novelty items were space-fillers in his eyes, perfect for taking up less intrusive rack space. Bondage costumes and lingerie always looked best above eye-level or in dead corners, where their fantastic natures were suitably framed.
But that was just Hollister's opinion. The proprietor, Aram, a middle-aged, naturalised Iranian who had enough sense to run the business from out the back and put uni student types behind the front counter, obviously disagreed. Maybe his clientele didn't care either.
"Was anything stolen?" Senior Constable Moir was asking him, taking notes. A solid woman in her fifties, twenty years Hollister's senior, she looked the same regardless of her surroundings. The simple practicality of her brown overcoat was as at home in a porn shop as in the Polson Street Station.
"Nothing worth claiming," said Aram.
"You won't put in an insurance claim?"
"For the damage, yes; locks aren't cheap. But the stock..." He shrugged.
"It's okay. A bit of mess; not hard to clean up."
"So nothing at all was actually stolen?" she repeated, for clarification.
Hollister had noted too that Aram hadn't answered the question.
"Just one thing." He shifted a grey-clad buttock from the corner of the counter and indicated that they should follow him deeper into the shop. His left leg was stiff and gave him a slight limp. Half-way along the jumble he stopped and pointed at a relatively large box at eye-level. The box boasted Wet-End Wendy, a surgically enhanced blonde in little more than a pout. Bright colours contrasted sharply with not-quite-real flesh tones in a way guaranteed to unnerve.
"We lost one of these."
"A blow-up doll?"
"What do you think? Real girls don't come in boxes." Aram limped off with a grimace. "Unfortunately."
Moir gravely wrote the name in her notebook while Hollister watched from a few feet away. Thus far they had only confirmed the statement Aram had given the previous day, apart from the doll, but she was treating it as seriously as if the information was fresh. Perhaps she was seeing something Hollister wasn't.
"Do you think this connects?" he asked.
"I don't know, Wey." She looked up. "Aram is clear on how he thinks it happened." Two nights ago, the last person out of the shop had forgotten to activate the alarm behind them, leaving the premises unsecured for an hour. In that time, it was broken into. "The thief must've been watching to know it was safe to force the back doorbut why take only a doll? Why not the money in the till, or at least spray some paint around?"
Hollister didn't bother questioning whether Aram knew his stock. With shop-lifting and staff pilfering an ever-present threat, everyone on Polson Street knew precisely what their shelves contained. He imagined him lying awake, counting Ben Wa balls to get to sleep.
"Why indeed?" He wiped the dust off a display toilet, made out of clear perspex. "But I don't think we're going to find anything new here, Jane."
"I agree, now. It was worth looking, though."
While Moir wrapped up the interview, Hollister stretched his legs outside, under the flashing SEXXX-O-RAMA sign. Polson Street cut like an arrow through the rotten heart of Amberley Park, and the usual crowd of tourists and locals rushed past him. Few of them looked up, intent on errands or avoiding catching someone else's eye. He recognised a number of faces: mostly the workers, dealers and users who prowled Polson Street at all hours. He had thought them soulless creatures at first, predators and prey engaged in a dance of mutual destruction as old as history. Only gradually, over a year working the street, had he learned compassion. Each was an individual, a real person caught up in a dangerous game. If some of them did end up dead on the inside, that was the game's fault, not theirs. They were all victims.
He watched each and every one of the faces passing him, thinking: And one of you could be a serial killer. The Amberley Slayer was still at large, and he was known to be a local. Was he be the smart-dressed businessman on his way back from lunchor the slouching neo-punk trying to get into a strip joint for free? The killer could be any one of the many around him, for all Hollister knew. You may think your game is different to the others here, he thought, but it's not. It'll get you in the end. It's only a matter of time. Or so he hoped.
A motionless figure on the other side of the road caught his attention. Beady, black eyes stared at him from beneath a battered, orange bicycle helmet. Curly grey hair grew in wild profusion across the old man's face and out the collar of a patched Salvation Army great-coat. A tatty brown satchel hung over one shoulder, pressed close against his side. His hands were stuck firmly in the pockets of many-holed tracksuit pants, but Hollister could see his fingers moving restlessly, as though rummaging through change. His lips matched the cadence of his fingers, although the words he uttered were inaudible over the passing traffic.
Hollister acknowledged the man's stare with a polite nod. His was a familiar face, although Hollister had never noticed his eyes before. They were more alert than he would've expected. The other weirdos wandering the streets tended to look away when confronted, like everyone else, but more as though the real world didn't exist for them than because they were pretending to have other things to do.
Hollister waited for a gap in the traffic, then stepped off the curb.
"Where do you think you're going?" The shop door jingled shut behind Moir.
Hollister indicated the old man on the other side of the road, who had turned aside and started walking away. "I thought I'd talk to him."
"Old Jellyhead? I doubt he can help us."
"The kid who was working that night says he didn't see anyone unusual hanging around the shop. What if he saw someone usual and forgot about it?"
"The usuals around here would've taken the money for sure." Moir indicated that Hollister should come with her. "Save yourself the bother, Wey. We've got better things to do with our time."
Hollister watched the old man shuffle down the street. Moir had been on Polson Street a lot longer than him, and the fact that she knew the old guy's nickname added credence to what she said. But he couldn't help feeling as though they were letting something slip. "He might've seen something."
"Even if he did, it'd never stand up in court. We've tried before." Her blue eyes studied him closely. Then she sighed. "But if you really want to..."
"Back in a sec." Hollister dodged through the traffic to the other side of the road. Jellyhead had reached a corner and turned down a side street as he approached. Hollister caught a whiff of sweat and excrement as he put a hand on the old man's shoulder.
The bearded face tilted up to look at him. Hollister was surprised at the disparity between their heights. Jellyhead was barely as tall as Moir, whom he had never thought of as short before.
"She cries," the old man said.
"I'm sorry?" Jellyhead's eyes, unlike before, were vague, unrecognising, seeming to look through Hollister and at the brickwork behind him. But his speech was calm and precise, as though continuing a conversation Hollister had forgotten starting.
"She is impatient."
"I was wondering," Hollister said, ploughing on regardless, "if I could ask you about the night of the twenty-fifth. That's two nights ago. One of the shops up there"he pointed back the way they had come"was broken into. Something was stolen, and we'd really like to find out who did it. I don't suppose you saw anything?"
"She doesn't want to be hard." The rheumy old eyes filled with water. For a moment Hollister thought the old man might burst into tears. "She does what she has to do."
"I don't understand. Did you see something? Do you know someone who might have?"
"She doesn't like the darkness."
The old man broke eye contact and turned to shuffle off down the street. Hollister gave in and let him go. Whoever the old man was talking to, it wasn't him.
"Hassling old crazies will get us nowhere," Moir said as they walked back to the station. "He's not hurting anyone. Best to leave him alone."
Hollister had no reason to disagree, but the tears in the old man's eyestears not of sadness but desperationhaunted him the rest of the day.
"He'll need the bones before he's done."
He opened his eyes groggily in the darkness. "What, Arna?"
She didn't answer. The night was silent and still. Angry at himself for letting himself being woken up like that, he rolled onto his side and tried to get back to sleep.
Thoughts of the latest murder surfaced, unbidden and unwanted. The news had come through that afternoon, after his encounter with Jellyhead, and the worst thing about it was that no-one had been truly surprised. Even Moir had looked resigned. The Slayer was like an unstoppable, invisible disease, killing cell by cell while the rest of the body looked on in horror. Dozens of detectives were working on the case, but as yet no-one had been arrested; no suspects had been named. It was a waiting game at worst, and a praying game at best. Hollister envied no-one involved. It was bad enough on the outside looking in.
During the last year, he had lost contact with some of his old friends in forensics, but he heard enough. The killer targeted young, vulnerable women, usually addicts and prostitutes in the Polson Street area. One had been a day-tripper in the wrong place at the wrong time. All had piercings, which the killer took as souvenirs after he'd finished with them. The media knew about the rings and studs, but they didn't know all of it. The killer was also in the habit of taking his victims' tattoos.
"We thinking he's curing the skin," said one of Hollister's contacts.
"Preserving it. God knows why. Maybe he turns them into lampshades..."
Hollister lay awake in the darkness, imagining the killer's living room, mottled with shadowy roses, Celtic crosses and cobwebs, and shuddered.
He'd half-expected itany sex-related crime prompted connections to the Amberley Slayings, no matter how tenuousbut the call into Superintendent Leonie Penglis' upper-floor office the next day filled him with foreboding.
"Jane told me about your idea," she said, not bothering to get up.
"It's not our case," said Moir. She was sitting with her back to the window, to the view of cheap hotels, garish shop-fronts and closed restaurants stretching into the distance. Her face was in shadow, and Hollister couldn't tell if she was annoyed or not. "We have better things to do than go shooting at shadows."
"Do you think it's just shadows, Senior Constable Hollister?"
"It could be," he said, as diplomatically as he could.
"Well, I think the idea has some merit. Look into it, would you?"
So they went back out onto the streets, hunting for the crazies. At first they strolled at random, seeking just one of their new "suspects". They asked around, paying particular attention to bottle shops and bus shelters. No-one could remember seeing Jellyhead or any of the others that day. No-one knew anything about them, either. Who they were, where they came from, and what they did was all a mystery. They were background figures, drifting into focus on odd occasions but never viewed close up. They were, Hollister thought, very much like ghosts.
"This is getting us nowhere," Moir said over a sandwich lunch, resting on a park bench.
Hollister agreed, although he didn't say so. It was bad enough to have suggested the pointless plan in the first place. He felt awkward disturbing people who had obviously gone to extreme lengths to avoid society. What right did he have to drag them back into it? And maybe that, he thought, was why the crazies were hard to find that day. They could sense his and Moir's intentions on some psychic grapevine and kept their heads down accordingly. Who was he to bother them?
Or maybe it was just the expression in Jellyhead's eyes; he didn't want to probe any deeper into that sadness.
"You're quiet today," Moir said.
"I didn't sleep well." His lunch tasted like ashes in his mouth.
"Kind of." He wrapped up the rest of the food and tossed it into a bin.
"I'm sorry about this, Jane."
"You have nothing to apologise for, Wey. You know that."
"I mean today."
"Well..." She shrugged helplessly. "At least it's keeping us outside. We can work on our tans, from the neck up."
They tried a number of charity groups that afternoon, and managed to track down a couple of tired old men with cheap alcohol on their breaths. They didn't know anything about the break-ins, but showed a morbid interest in the murders. One expressed a firm opinion that the victims deserved what they got for walking around the streets at night on their own, dressed like prostitutes.
"Some of them were prostitutes," Moir said.
"There you are. Asking for it, they were."
"No-one asks to be murdered."
"Not out loud, no..." The toothless alcoholic cackled at them as they left.
They were running out of options, and their feet were getting sore. Their last port of call was a homeless shelter in Reyes Hill run by a tired-looking social worker named Ellard Trenorden, a man so scruffy he looked on the verge of becoming one of his own charges. Hollister had spoken to him a couple of times before, pursuing more everyday matters, but had never warmed to him.
"We get a few of the older ones through here every now and again," Trenorden said. "Not as often as you'd expect, though, unless one of them gets sick or beaten up."
"Do you know here they live?" Moir asked.
"Me? No. But Cloe might. She's made contact with a couple of them."
"Is Cloe in today?"
"I'll see if she's free."
Cloe Flavell was in her late twenties and pale to the point of vanishing. Her office was just as bland, the only feature being a bright red coat draped over a chair.
"I know who you mean," she said in response to their queries.
"Some come of them here to see me; they know I'll listen. They're deeply traumatised individuals, often with serious, and untreated, psychiatric problems."
"Psychosis?" Moir asked.
"In the clinical sense, yes. But none of them is the Amberley Slayer."
"Can you be certain of that?"
"Well, for one thing, few of them bathe, and murder is bloody work. They'd be wearing the evidence for weeks."
This story was originally published online at
Eidolon: Australian SF Online November 2002.
©2002 Sean Williams
Artwork ©2002 Jeremy Reston