The police car waited underneath the window, humming. It was another animal hiding in wait. Tina lay on the ground next to the wall, chest heaving, grabbing air, her lungs two closing fists. Somewhere out across the city night, coffee poured into blank cups, pavements welcomed aching heels, lights in vacant offices were echoed out into air. All without her. Tina was not part of anything.
She heard footsteps on wet ground, the slippery stick of leather on wet concrete. Voices talking low to fill a void. The veil of death was not one that lent itself to easy conversation. Two police officers, unnamed but variously striped, nodded as they muttered to each other, swishing their shoulders like birds in a mating dance. Tina picked up words, pieces of code, from their voices, but the sounds she heard best came from the ground: the ticks and shivers of urban ants, the dried paper rustle of sidewalk rubbish. Hers was the language of ground zero.
She managed to make out some words, official growling nouns: … Station … Report … Estimation … Overtime … but they meant nothing new to her. Her life, as it now was, had become official talk, filled out forms, language meant for certified word processors and squares of black on fresh white paper. Even the space around her was sectioned off like a biology survey. Wooden stakes with fluttering flags mapped out corners, everything joined by a misty web of yellow tape. Everything in its right place. Except, of course, Tina. She was the reason for the pomp and ceremony, but she felt like the only part of it that didn’t fit.
The first of what Tina guessed would be called later, perhaps on the news, onlookers, arrived with goggle eyes and bright Friday night shirts. The media would no doubt lament the lack of passers-by, of interviewable witnesses, when it all kicked off, but here were the vultures now, come to add a personal, public touch to the night. Here they were, three young guys with professionally uncut hair, bobbing along their night’s easy road, cruising down back alleys, between clubs, stopping at the blue-light flash on the usually darkened walls. Tina listened as they shuffled behind the police tape, mumbling TV cop-show quotes to each other. Tina ached to turn her body over, show them the reality of it—not smart computer-enhanced profiles and imaging, but grit in fleshy gory glory—but she couldn’t. She watched them anyway, enjoying the growing tension between tired policemen and cocky youth. The Friday Night Lads taunted the police with predictable barbs, to which they received, at first, a stony silence, closely followed by mild annoyance, then, inevitably, outright hostility. The Lads were chased away, partly by threats of arrest, but mostly by the staleness of a once exciting situation. Tina was dying. She wasn’t going anywhere.
The woman who had found her here first—a woman dressed in work clothes, but with bright white sneakers for the walk home—had stifled a scream, gone through the clichéd ohmygodohmygods, before laying her fingers on Tina’s forehead and cooing in a way Tina found quite uneasy. Although she guessed this woman was someone’s mother, Tina was not at all comfortable with being treated in such a manner, and when she found she couldn’t speak, she blinked, angrily, several times at the woman to make her stop. The woman didn’t notice because Tina’s face was right up against the wall and so the motherly consoling continued until Tina guessed the woman felt something sticky on her fingers and called the police.
Tina heard the two policemen shuffle their feet. She heard the fizz of a cigarette meeting the pavement. Another voice, an older man, then three walking sounds: foot wood, foot. She felt what she guessed was his walking cane in the small of her back. He prodded her for some time, before she felt hands on her sides, and suddenly the streetlights were above her, and she was looking straight into the sky. A rough face filled her vision, then the cane returned, waving in front of her eyes.
Ugly, said the old detective. He shook his head, and Tina looked incredulously at him. While she was almost completely sure the detective was talking about the situation and not her face, she still did not like the possibility that her looks were being judged without a right of reply. With one expression, Tina drew the old detective’s attention to the tasteful way she had done her hair tonight, swept up in a classic, Hepburn-esque swirl. She arched her finely shaped eyebrows. Or at least she tried to.
The detective seemed to take no notice. He motioned to one of the policemen. The policeman grunted agreements and shuffled officially in Tina’s direction. She felt his breath as he squatted down. She noticed his navy pants stretching at the knees. The worn holes at the crotch. The smell of cheese.
This one done? said the cheese policeman.
The detective nodded. Running his hands wearily through his hair, he said, What's say we get an early night, boys?
Want me to call it? said the other cop.
Sure, said the detective, walking away. Then, over his shoulder, Cause of death unknown.