Nighthawks – Chapter Three: The Death of Kosminski the Deathless

Why has the Augury sent me here?

Jake wandered down the darkened street, remaining alert for any sounds or movement.  This section of the city had no electricity; it had never been wired.  Only the most destitute people lived here, if it could be called living.  The effects of the depression were felt most in this place.  No one cared about this place; it was as if it didn’t exist.  It was a place on the periphery of existence.  Neither police force would patrol this area; city officials avoided discussing this part of the city altogether.  It was simply referred to as ‘Oldtown’, when it was mentioned at all.

Sandwiched between the waterfront district and the industrial district made it that much easier to forget.  The buildings were in severe disrepair and condemned; garbage filled the streets.  Feral dogs patrolled the streets in packs looking for food.  The people who called this place home fared little better than the animals.  The scene was enough to turn Jake’s stomach.  In an odd way, he owed everything to the Augury, but this errand was too much.

Jake passed people scouring the garbage for food.  They fought the dogs and the rats for the tiniest scraps.  Even the seemingly perpetual rain wasn’t enough to keep them inside.  Of course, the buildings all had leaky roofs and shattered windows.  Many of the buildings were nothing but charred skeletons, victims of an enormous fire thirty years previously.  It was then that Oldtown was abandoned as the city center, which was redesigned in all modern brilliance south of the industrial district.  Jake noticed one man warming his hands over a barrel fire taking an unusual interest in him as he walked.  The overcoat and thick glasses made him stand out from the dregs.  The man kept his distance, but kept an eye on Jake as he walked by.  This attention unsettled the piano player who then quickened his pace away.

Where the hell am I going?

Jake was lost, once again.  He always managed to get himself lost on his many errands for the Augury.  He also always managed to find his way again, but that was of little consolation, in the present moment.  He wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to do, which was no surprise, either.  The Augury’s instructions never made sense at the time, but they always became clear, in time.  All he knew was he was looking for a dame named Gwen and she was here…somewhere…in Oldtown.

As Jake walked along, with only the stars and moon to guide his way, he stumbled over something in the road and fell hard to the cobblestone.  He picked himself up and brushed god-knows-what from his black suit.  The palms of his hands began to burn from lacerations caused by tiny glass shards.  He hadn’t noticed at first; it took some time for the pain to register.  Luckily, none of the cuts were deep and the blood which trickled from the wounds was minimal.  He squatted, next to the bundle he had tripped over, to examine it.

The bundle revealed itself to be a person, or what once had been a person.  He was dead, probably not very long, for the body was still warm.  This new development did little to help Jake’s state of mind.  He broke out in a cold sweat as he noticed the faint moonlit outlines of a half-dozen similar bundles in the street.  He carefully checked each in turn.  They were all dead bodies with no obvious signs of violence.

What have I gotten myself into? How do seven men just die in the street at the same time?  I’m not made for this shit!

     He took several deep breaths and continued down the street toward his destination.  As he walked, he noticed what appeared to be a candle or lantern flickering in one of the many buildings.  It was hard to miss, being the only light around, other than the moon and stars.  He approached the building with the light and made a mental note of which window the light emanated from.  He then entered the building and began the slow climb to the fourth floor, with only the light from his cigarette lighter to guide him.  The stairwell was pitch black and Jake stumbled several times, but did not stop to see what he was stumbling over.  After his fall in the street, he really didn’t want to know what was now impeding his progress.

After what seemed an eternity, he reached the door of an old apartment where the light should have been, if his guess was correct.  He noticed a faint flickering light from the crack under the door.  He knocked on the door, very softly.  In truth, he hoped no one would respond so he could go home.  Despite his attempt to be quiet, the sound of the knock echoed throughout the empty hallway.  Several dogs from somewhere howled in the night as if answering his knock.

A moment later, the door opened.  The faint light from inside the room made it impossible to see the face of the person standing before him.  The form was backlit, creating a silhouette.

“Who are you?”  A woman demanded, “Why are you here?”

Jake answered, “The Augury sent me.  Are you Gwen?”

The woman was silent.  After a moment, she retreated into the room, leaving the door ajar.  Jake cautiously followed her into the small room.  Shadows from the candle danced about the darkened room.  Jake could barely make out the Victorian wallpaper print covering the walls.  Most of it was peeling, leaving nasty yellowish paste beneath.  The woman had crossed the room to a chair, the only piece of furniture in the room, and sat down.  Jake noticed two paint-peeled doors on one side of the room.  She sat and stared out the window which Jake had originally noticed the light.  He assumed the woman before him was Gwen. He wasn’t sure what to do next, the Augury hadn’t informed him.

The woman turned to face him, “Will you stay with me tonight?  It has been a long night.”

Jake was confused by the request.  He now saw her face for the first time and realized she was beautiful.  Her olive skin seemed to glow and her large brown eyes warmed the dreary room.  Those eyes seemed to penetrate deep into his soul, and immediately he knew he couldn’t leave her alone in this place.  He wasn’t completely sure if his sudden desire to stay in this evil place was chivalrous or lustful and he wasn’t sure how much that really mattered.

“Yes, I’ll stay with you.”

She smiled, an exhausted but relieved smile, and turned her attention back to the window and whatever was in the street below.  Jake found a dry place on the floor to sit down.  He instinctively ran the fingers of his left hand back and forth across his lips.  He leaned against the wall and was asleep a short time later.

 

He wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep when Gwen woke him.  She had changed her clothes and now wore a plain gray dress.  It was simple, but looked good on her small frame.

“I must go out for a little while.  Keep watch over everything; only do not go into that closet.”  She instructed as she nodded toward one of the doors Jake had noticed earlier.

“Shouldn’t I go with you?  This is a very dangerous part of the city to be wandering around alone.”

She chuckled before answering, “No.  You must stay here.  I’ll be fine, trust me.”

What is she hiding in that closet?

     He couldn’t help himself; the moment he was sure Gwen was out of the building, he rushed over to the closet door.  He pulled open the door and peered inside.  There hung a man, wrists and ankles shackled with heavy iron chains.  He immediately thought the man was dead.  He was severely emaciated and smelled of decay.  Jake was horrified.

Jake jumped back involuntarily as the man lifted his head and looked upon him, or would have looked upon him if the man had had eyes.  The eyes had been removed and the sockets had been stitched closed at some point in the past, creating grotesque scars.  Jake nearly vomited.

The blind old man spoke in a raspy whisper, “Water?”

Jake watched the man’s chapped lips crack and trickle with blood as he spoke.  Who could do this to another person?  What kind of monster does this?”

     Jake managed to find a pitcher of stagnant water in the lavatory.  He decided the man wouldn’t care how the water tasted.  He took the pitcher back to the waiting man and helped him to drink it.  He drank it all without pausing for a breath.

The man spoke again, once he had finished drinking.  “Thank you.  I have been locked in here for a very long time without food or water.  Thank you for your pity on a feeble old creature, such as I.  I am still consumed by thirst…”

Jake ran down the stairs, ignoring any concerns for his safety, into the street.  He ignored the growling, snarling dogs as they snapped at air, but kept their distance from him.  He collected water from every puddle he could find by saturating his handkerchief and wringing it out into the pitcher.  He hesitated briefly as he realized this was the second handkerchief he ruined this week, but oddly couldn’t remember how the first one had become blood-stained.  Once the pitcher was filled, he hurried back to the waiting man.

As the man drank, Jake noticed him seemingly regain strength.  By the time, he had drunk his fill, the man shook his chains and pulled them taut.  After some exertion, the chains snapped free from the wall and the man was free.  Jake stumbled away from the man and fell to the floor in a state of surprised shock.

What have I done?  No man should be able to break chains like those.

The man sneered and lunged toward the fallen piano-player, but stopped short.  He flashed a sinister grin, “I thank you, and for your generosity in freeing me, I shall let you live!”

The man cocked his head as if disturbed by a noise, but Jake heard nothing.  He sighed deeply before jumping out the window to a four-story fall.  Jake stumbled across the floor to the window and peered into the night.  There was no sign of whoever or whatever he had just freed.  He didn’t know what to do, so he stayed in the room to wait for Gwen’s return.  He hoped she would be able to tell him what the hell he had just done.

 

Gwen returned a short time later.  Jake met her at the door; he didn’t have to tell her anything.  Her eyes immediately went to the open closet door.  She dropped the canister she was carrying and it fell to the floor, spilling its contents.  She rushed to the closet and sank to her knees.

“What have you done?”  She asked in a dejected voice, despite already knowing the answer.

“I’m not sure.  I was countin’ on you tellin’ me.  The wretched man in there seemed so pathetic and helpless.  I couldn’t stand by and not help him.”  Jake tried to explain.

“That man is far from helpless.”

“Tell me about it.  Who is he…what is he?”  Jake asked.

Gwen continued to stare into the empty closet while she answered his query, “His name is Kosminski.  He is the vilest creature I have ever met.  He has murdered countless innocent people, including children.  He murders them and devours their flesh.  It was my duty to put a stop to his terror.  I spent weeks tracking him all over this damnable city.  I finally cornered him here, in this apartment, and locked him up.  All I needed was the salt I just brought back with me, to finish the job.  Now I have to start all over again…”

Gwen collapsed to the floor and sobbed.  Jake was devastated by his careless actions.  Why didn’t she just tell me?  Jake knelt over the spilled salt and collected it back into the canister.

“This time you’ll have help.”  He said as he walked over to Gwen and handed her the canister.

She smiled weakly, “You have no idea what you’re saying.”

Jake remembered the look on Kosminski’s face as he escaped out the window, “I think I have a pretty good idea.  Where do we start?”

Gwen’s energy returned and she picked herself up off the floor, “He won’t leave Oldtown.  It is perfect for his hunting.  No one will ever miss the people living here, so no one will be looking for him…except us.”

They left the apartment and hurried down into the street below.  Jake followed Gwen’s lead.  They barely spoke as they systematically searched Oldtown for the killer.  Jake had no idea what the salt was for, but didn’t want to appear stupid, so he didn’t ask.  The moon lit their way as they searched building by building.  Jake had never seen such squalor, even on his trip through the dustbowl.  They came across countless creatures, barely human.  The people they encountered had lost their humanity a long time ago.  The fact these people were still alive was proof Kosminski had not been there.

“We need to catch him before he completely regains his strength.”  Gwen said to Jake as they crossed a street to search another building.

“What the hell is he?  I saw him leap from that window and disappear into the night.”

Gwen smirked in the dark, “He is just a man.  There is nothing supernatural about him, other than a rare genetic mutation – his nerves are dead.  He can feel neither pain nor pleasure.”

“What?”  Jake asked, confused.

“By some bizarre genetic fluke, he was born without the ability to feel pain or pleasure.  Don’t ask me how…I have no idea.  I do know he worked for years as a carny.  He was billed as ‘Kosminski the Deathless’; he would pierce his flesh with all manner of objects.  He went way beyond your typical Blockhead in that regard.  The story goes, he accidentally killed a small child who mocked him during a performance and then he fled into the night.  He managed to escape the wrath of the townspeople, but in their anger, they burned the carnival to the ground, killing many of the sideshow performers.  The guilt of his actions drove him insane and he lived in the wild, surviving off what he could scrounge together.  I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point, he developed the taste for human flesh and he began killing whomever he came across as he wandered the countryside.  The Augury charged me with his capture and execution.  I followed him from town to town, always a step behind, until tonight…”  Gwen explained.

“The Augury?  So, this is your payment for some favor granted?”  Jake knowingly asked.

Gwen forced a small laugh, “Yes, it is.  Payment for a favor which didn’t turn out as I planned.”

“I’m beginning to think none of the Augury’s favors turn out as expected.”  Jake said under his breath.

Gwen overheard him and responded under her breath as well, “Don’t I know it.”

 

After several hours of searching, in the black of Oldtown, they came across the mutilated corpses of two dogs.  The creatures’ throats had been torn out, and several chunks of flesh had been removed, apparently bitten off.  Jake lost his balance, nearly fainting, but managed to keep his feet.  As he took several deep breaths, he noticed a trail of blood glistening in the moonlight, leading into one of the many abandoned buildings they had yet to search.

“Gwen, the blood leads in there…”  Jake said motioning toward the doorless entrance.

“Let me go first.  We need to be careful…he could be anywhere in there.  Follow me and do exactly as I say, this time.”  Gwen ordered as she crept up the steps to the dark, foreboding entrance.

Jake followed her, trying to appear as if he were in control of his fear.  In truth, the piano-player had never been so frightened.  Damn the Augury for getting me into this mess.

They slowly worked their way from empty apartment to empty apartment.  All the rooms were empty on the first two floors.  They made their way up to the third floor.  Neither of them had uttered a word since entering the building.  Jake did as Gwen had told him and followed her every move.

As they approached the first apartment on the floor, they heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps from within the apartment.  The door was missing, like most of the doors in the neighborhood.  They had been used as firewood during cold winter nights, years before.  Gwen signaled for Jake to wait as she moved along the wall of the hallway to the entrance.  She stopped and listened intently.  After a moment, she waved for Jake to join her.  Once he was by her side, she entered the apartment.  Jake paused, briefly, something at the far end of the hall caught his attention.  He thought he could make out the figure of a man in the dark.  He had to be mistaken, and followed Gwen into the apartment.

The room was empty, but the footsteps were louder and sounded as if they were coming from the next room.  From the sounds of the footsteps, Jake thought they were coming toward them.

Gwen moved quickly.  She poured some of the salt from the canister across the threshold of the door they had entered and then did the same along the windowsills of the two windows in the room.  She hid herself along the wall, next to the door of the room which the sounds were coming from, to block the entrance once Kosminski entered.  Jake stood dumbfounded in the middle of the room, too terrified to say or do anything.  He then realized, he was the bait to lure Kosminski into the middle of the room.

Kosminski appeared in the doorway.  He ran his tongue across his bared yellow teeth.  Jake grew nauseated with fear.  Kosminski was fixated upon Jake as he slowly entered the room, and failed to notice Gwen hidden behind him.  She poured salt along the threshold of the door, sealing off the creature’s escape.  Jake feared for his life, yet all his mind could do was focus on the salt Gwen was pouring.

What the hell is the salt supposed to do to this monster?

Jake backed across the room slowly, matching Kosminski’s approach.  Jake was mesmerized by the man’s scarred eye-sockets.  He was blind, but somehow knew where Jake was at every moment.  Jake backed over the salted threshold into the hallway.  Kosminski stopped shy of the doorway and sniffed the air.  He squatted and sniffed along the threshold.  He reached out and touched the salt, quickly pulling away as a reflex.  He didn’t mutter a word, but Jake noticed a newly developed welt on the monster’s finger.  The creature smiled a vicious smile and moved back into a crouched position.  His empty sockets stared at Jake.

Without turning away, he spoke, “Hello, Guinevere.  Caught me again, it seems.  That’s twice tonight; I’m getting sloppy.”

Gwen stood beyond the threshold on the other side of the room.  She was lost in thought.  They had him trapped, but she didn’t have enough salt to finish the macabre deed.

“There was never any doubt I’d finish my task.”  Gwen retorted.

Kosminski made a low guttural sound, without turning his attention from Jake.  Jake was ill at ease and sweating profusely; he knew the salt barrier was enough to keep the cannibal in the room, but did not know why.  He was curious as to why the monster didn’t just step over the salt.  He had seen some strange things since he began working for the Augury, but this night topped it all.

Kosminski spoke, “Your new man is afraid.  He sweats his fear and I can smell it.  I love that smell.”

He licked his cracked lips before continuing, “Have you told him what happened to your last man, Guinevere?”

It hadn’t occurred to Jake that Gwen may have had help before his arrival.  He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach and he looked over to Gwen for the first time since they had found the killer.

“Ignore everything it says, Jake.”  Gwen yelled across the room.

Kosminski laughed, “Yes, Jake, ignore everything I say.  After all, I’m a heartless fiend and she is as pure as freshly fallen snow.  You should leave while you still can.  This is your last chance to leave before I have to kill you…I would take it, if I were you.”

Jake wanted to flee with all his being, but he also knew Kosminski must be stopped.  Jake stood his ground.

The fiend taunted Jake, “Run away.  Run away, back to the Augury.  No one will blame you if you run.  Leave Guinevere and I to finish…our date.”

Jake stood firmly.  He could see a sense of relief pass across Gwen’s face, when he didn’t leave her alone to face the beast.

“Brave boy.  I’m impressed; standing your ground despite the obvious fear emanating from you.”  Kosminski muttered.

He rose from his crouch and backed to the center of the room.  He squatted down and began punching the floor with a tremendous amount of strength.  A puzzled look came over Jake’s face and he looked to Gwen, who had a similarly puzzled look on her face.  They heard the cracking floorboards and simultaneously knew what the monster was attempting.

Jake was first to act.  He gathered the salt on the floor before him and rushed into the room.  He threw the salt onto the creature’s bare back.  The flesh of his back and shoulders began to redden and welts soon arose.  He showed no signs of pain and continued his escape attempt.  Gwen then threw the reminder of the salt in the canister onto the fiend.  Then she scooped up a handful of salt from the threshold of the door where she had been standing guard and threw it onto the already blistered flesh of Kosminski.

The creature continued to pound the floor as it quickly disintegrated into a mass of indiscernible charred remains.  The apartment reeked of burned flesh.  Jake collapsed to the floor in relief.  Gwen sat down beside him.

“You did a good job tonight, Jake.”  Gwen congratulated.

“In the end, it was a lot easier to kill the bastard than I would have thought.”  Jake confessed.

Gwen smiled, “His only true power was fear.  He was never as invincible as he wanted his victims to believe.  His biggest flaw was that he began to believe his own legends.  He actually thought he was a monster with supernatural powers.”

“I, for one, am glad he wasn’t as strong as I thought he was.  What I want to know is, what is the deal with the salt?”

Gwen let out a hearty laugh, “I was wondering when you were going to ask me about that.  When I first joined the hunt for him, it was the first thing I asked.”

“I didn’t want to seem stupid by asking.  Anyway, what is the deal?”

Gwen stood and made ready to leave, “To tell you the truth, I have no idea.  I was told it would work and took it on faith that it would.”  Gwen walked out the door leaving Jake to contemplate that answer.

Jake stood and hurried after her, “Wait.  You mean I just risked my life on a hunch?”

 

                                                                          *

 

Surprisingly, Detective Travis had slept well over the night.  It was still an hour until dawn, but he wanted an early start to the day.  He carried the files of his most recent homicide, trying to keep them dry, as he walked from his automobile to the morgue.  He couldn’t remember the last time it had rained this hard.  He sipped at the steaming coffee – he had already burned his tongue more than once on it.  He was feeling oddly optimistic, quite the departure from the previous day.  He had never had a case that looked this bleak, so he had nowhere to go from here but up: pessimistic optimism.

Once inside the morgue doors, his breath caught in his throat.  No matter how many times he came here, he would never get used to the stench.  The smell of death and decay and formaldehyde was enough to turn anyone’s stomach.  He walked by gurney after gurney of dead bodies until he came to the examining room.  Gangster shootouts kept the morgue extremely busy these days.  The on-duty coroner was nowhere to be found.  The detective backed out of the examining room and walked down another hallway to the coroner’s office.  He peeked in and found the portly man at his desk.  He was short, pudgy, middle-aged man with grayish hair fanned over an obvious bald spot – obvious to everyone but the man himself.  He awkwardly filled out a baggy suit – obviously bought off the rack.  He didn’t look like much, but he damn sure knew what he was doing.  If Travis was going to solve this case, it partially rested upon the coroner’s skill.

“Come in, Mike.”  The aging coroner said, “I finished the autopsy on your John Doe last night and was getting ready to go home.  Late night or early morning?”

“Early morning.  Any hope of solving this bastard?”  Mike asked, trying to hide his desperation.

“Well, unless someone miraculously pops up to identify him, I can’t give you a name.  Missing teeth and no fingerprints makes it hard on my end to put a name to that face, which only a mother could love.”  The coroner’s macabre sense of humor was lost on Detective Travis.

The coroner continued, “I can fill in the gaps in some other areas, though.  He overdosed on schmeck about three days ago, and he didn’t die where he was found.  The hands were removed after death, but his teeth were removed while he was still alive.  That’s about all I can tell you…oh, by the way, there were no other needle marks on the body.  My guess is someone shot our poor fellow up without his consent.  Whoever killed this poor sap has a serious mean streak.”

The news concerning the teeth removal while the victim was still living sent a shudder over Travis’ body.  Most of the information was of no immediate use to the detective, but would help later in the investigation.  The most important thing was that the man hadn’t been dead as long as he had previously assumed.  The victim had been killed two days before the body was found.  In that mountain of putrid trash, it was a huge break the body had been found, at all.  Travis cursed himself for not being more thorough the day before, in the rain.  He still had uniformed officers scouring the neighborhood, but if it was a dump job, then the killer and victim probably weren’t from that area.  Killers this organized rarely dump bodies in their own backyard.  Really, all there was to do was cross his fingers and hope missing persons could find a match.  Then he’d have a name to begin to sift through this mess of a case.

“Thanks,” Travis said as he grabbed the file from the coroner before leaving the morgue, disheartened.  He lit a cigarette.  He had been trying to quit, but he needed to get that morgue smell out of his nostrils.  At least that’s what he told himself as he smoked.  Besides, it was his first cigarette in three days, damned good for him.  He drove back to the bureau to wait for the call from missing persons concerning his case.  There was hope, but he wasn’t putting any scratch on it.

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