Willy Kunkle dipped his large right hand into the sink and scooped a splash of warm water onto his face, washing away the last of the shaving soap. He straightened, used the edge of a towel hanging to the right of the mirror to mop his cheeks and chin with the same hand, and studied his reflection in the harsh fluorescent light.
He wasn’t looking for flaws in his shaving. And, God knows, there was no narcissism taking place. Willy was the first to acknowledge his was a purely functional appearance. He had what was necessary: a nose, two eyes, a mouth, none of it particularly remarkable. As far as it went, it was just a face.
And yet he studied it every morning in the same way, carefully, warily, especially watching the eyes for any deepening of the intensity which even he found disturbing. Had he seen them on somebody else, they were eyes that would have given him pause — eyes which troubled him all the more that they were his. They were what made of the whole truly something to remember, and although he didn’t know it, they were the one feature almost everyone remembered about his face.
His scrutiny drifted lower, again as usual, to his neck, to his collar bones, and finally to his left shoulder and the useless arm below it. He’d been symmetrical once — at the very least that. Now he was someone who carried an arm as an eccentric might perpetually lug around a heavy, stuffed animal.
Except that his burden wasn’t that interesting. It was just an arm, withered, pale, splotchy with poor circulation “something straight out of Dachau but pinned to his otherwise healthy body “put there by a rifle bullet in a police shootout years ago. In fact, the scar marked the dividing line between the alive and the dead of his body the way a ragged and permanent tear identifies where a sleeve has been torn from a shirt.
It did draw attention away from the eyes, though. People overlooked them altogether when describing him as “the cop with one arm.” Which was an advantage, as far as Willy was concerned. He appreciated that a lesser but adequately flamboyant deformity covered for a far more telling one. It suited his personality. And his need. As he’d watched those eyes every morning “those windows into the workings of his head” he’d actually become grateful for the arm. It was his own built-in red herring.
He reached up and turned off the light. Time to go to work.
The visit to Bellevue only aggravated the roiling anxieties Willy was trying so hard to tamp down. Even with a recent and extensive remodeling, the huge hospital and the familiar journey to the morgue reached up like a stifling fog to constrict his throat. As a rookie New York cop so many years before, he’d made this trip a half dozen times, collecting paperwork or dropping things off to help in some busy detective’s investigation. He’d enjoyed being part of something outside a patrolman’s routine, and had found the morgue’s forensic aspects interesting and stimulating: all those racked bodies offering entire biographies to those clever and motivated enough to decipher them. These visits had helped him to believe that although police work at the bottom of the ladder left something to be desired, the promises it held justified sticking it out for the long run.
Of course, that was before he’d drowned all such thinking in the bottom of a bottle.
The white coated attendant greeted him at the reception area with little more than a grunt and he followed him down a long, windowless, antiseptically white hallway, through a pair of double doors. There they entered a huge enhancement of Willy Kunkle’s memory of the place: a tall room, shimmering with fluorescence, and equipped with two opposing walls of floor-to-ceiling, square, shiny steel doors. The sight of it made him stop in his tracks, struck by the image of a warehouse full of high-end dormitory refrigerators, stacked and ready for shipment, gleaming and new.
The attendant glanced over his shoulder. “You are all right?” he asked in broken English.
Willy sensed the man’s concern was more self-interested than any display of sensitivity. He didn’t want to deal with a hysterical next-of-kin and miss more than he already had of the television program he’d been enjoying out front.
“Yeah.” Kunkle joined him almost halfway down the towering row of cold cubicles.
The attendant consulted the clipboard in his hand one last time and pulled open the drawer directly before him with one powerful, practiced gesture. Like a ghost appearing through a solid barrier, the white-draped, shape of a supine woman suddenly materialized between them, hovering as if suspended in mid-air.
The attendant flipped back the sheet from the body’s face. “This is her?” Willy watched the other man’s face for a moment, looking for anything beside boredom. He thought he might be Indian, but in truth, he had no idea. He’d recently heard that 40% of New York’s population was foreign born, now as in 1910.
The man scowled at him, suspicious of Willy’s expression. “You see?” Willy dropped his eyes to the woman floating by his waist, looking down at her as if she were asleep on the berth of a spaceship, and they were about to share a voyage to eternity.
He studied her features, feeling as cold as she seemed, his heart as still as hers. A numbness filled him from his feet to his head, as if he were a vessel into which ice water had been poured.
Romantics would have the dead appear as marble or snow sculptures. In fact, the reality was far less remote and pleasant. Whatever blemishes the deceased once had were enhanced by death’s yellow cast, and the tiny amount of shapeliness the musculature had maintained even in sleep was lacking, allowing the cheeks to pull back the smallest bit, and the entire face to strain against the boniness of the skull beneath. This was truly a corpse, and little else.
He reached out slowly, but stopped short of touching her, struck by the vitality of his large, powerful right hand next to her drained, thin, mottled face, the same face he’d reduced to tears a dozen times over. She looked tired, as if the sleep she was engaged in now was of no use to her whatsoever. For some reason, that made him saddest of all. Surely, she’d wished for some peace and quiet when she’d opted for this state. It almost broke his heart to think she hadn’t been successful.
The attendant sighed. “It is Mary Kunkle?”
He’d butchered the last name. Willy glanced down the length of her shrouded body and noticed a toe tag ludicrously sticking out from under the far end of the sheet. It made her seem as if she were for sale.
He moved down to read the tag. It had her name and an address in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge.
That small detail triggered the dormant analytical part of his brain and made him lift the sheet off her left arm. The detective on the phone had said she’d died of an overdose, and there, as stark evidence, was not only the single fresh wound of a needle mark in the pale, skinny crook of her arm, but ancient signs of similar abuse clustered about it like memories refusing to disappear.
“Yes, that’s her,” he finally answered, stepping back, allowing the attendant to flip the sheet back over Mary’s face with all the detached flair of a custodian covering a sofa.