by M. B. Vujacic

Don’t smoke while walking.

That’s what Irma’s mother had said whenever she saw Irma and her friends strolling around the neighborhood with cigarettes in their hands. Apparently, smoking while walking caused you to inhale more of the cancerous stuff than if you were sitting or lying down. And boy oh boy, did it piss Irma off every time she felt like lighting up while on the move.

Like now. It was nine in the evening and still 90 degrees with no wind. She was on her way home from work, every inch of her body clammy from standing all day in a clothing store—one that didn’t allow its employees to smoke, not even in the bathroom—and she couldn’t enjoy a goddamn cigarette without being haunted by some factoid her mother had read in a magazine 20 years ago.

“Christ,” she said, lighting the cigarette.

The first few drags tasted like heaven, but then she started getting an itch in her throat. Constantly talking to customers had left her throat feeling dry as emery.

There was no one at the bus stop. She sat on the bench and took her battered old flip phone from her purse. She’d just started texting Jake to let him know she’d be home soon, when a car came screeching from a nearby intersection. It was black and looked like a sports car, only bulkier. Its driver gave exactly zero fucks about traffic rules, cutting diagonally across the street. Horns shrieked as the cars in the opposite lane swerved out of the car’s path. It headed straight toward the bus stop.

“Jesus Christ!” Irma shouted, scrambling away from the bench.

The car veered left with another screech, careened onto the sidewalk, and lurched to a stop just short of a wall. The driver’s door opened and a man stepped out. He wore a gray fedora and a leather trench coat so long it resembled a robe. Deep shadows covered his features, making him look as if he didn’t have a face at all.

“The Hell you think you’re doing, you goddamn idiot?” Irma screamed at him.

Mr. Faceless ignored her. He slammed the door and strode into the building he’d almost crashed into. He passed under a streetlamp, yet somehow his head remained in total darkness. As he raised his hand to ring the intercom, she saw that he was wearing leather gloves.

He held the button for a full minute. When nobody answered, he grabbed the door and pushed. It flew open with a clang, making Irma flinch. He went inside.

Slowly, ready to back off quickly if he returned, Irma approached Mr. Faceless’s car. It wasn’t a sports car. Hell, it wasn’t anything. She saw no manufacturer logo, no model name, no license plate, nothing to indicate where it came from. Which was weird, since it looked expensive. Maybe it was custom made.

She noticed that Mr. Faceless had forgotten to close the driver side window. She glanced at the building he’d entered, then looked into the car. Its interior was all leather, chrome, and fancy touchscreens. A bobblehead cat stood on the dashboard. It wore a garish suit, its huge head dominated by big bloodshot eyes and a tiny grinning mouth full of rotten teeth. A smartphone lay on the passenger seat.

Irma took another glance at the building Mr. Faceless had disappeared into, then returned her attention to the smartphone. She’d never owned a touchscreen phone, but Jake had one, and the way it could play movies and browse funny-picture websites had always made her want one, too. Also, she wanted to get back at Mr. Faceless for almost running her over.

A bus appeared at the end of the street. Irma watched it draw closer until she made sure it was the one she was waiting for, and thought, Ah, Hell. Now or never. She leaned into the car, took the smartphone, and stuffed it into her purse, then she got on the bus. The doors rattled to a close as it started moving. Irma smiled.

A perfect crime.

She found Jake on the living room couch, munching popcorn and watching a reality show. He was a wiry, tattooed guy with a mullet and a Fu Manchu mustache. Irma had met him a couple years earlier, after his ex-wife left him and took their kids. He wasn’t much of a provider, but at least he didn’t mind the stretch marks under her arms or the ever-increasing size of her ass.

“Hey, babe,” he said. “Want some popcorn?”

“No, thanks.” Irma took the smartphone from her purse and placed it on the coffee table.

“What’s that?”

She smiled. “I picked it up.”

He took the smartphone. “You bought it?”

“Nope. Some rich guy left a window open on his sports car and it was inside.” She shrugged.

Jake chuckled. “Did you turn it off?”

“Dunno how.”

He looked the phone over. “Where’s the off button on this thing?”

Irma shrugged again and went into the kitchen to make coffee. She was reaching for the sugar when a sound like a dozen out-of-tune pipe organs shrieking in unison boomed from the living room. It startled her so badly she almost dropped the sugar bowl.

“Jesus Christ, Jake, turn the TV down!”

“It’s not the TV. It’s this phone!”

“What? Seriously?”

She came back to the living room. The phone was lying on the coffee table, its display shining with a toxic green light, ringing so loud it drowned out the TV. Jake sat with his arms crossed, staring at it.

“What are we gonna do?” Irma shouted over the noise.

“Nothing. Just wait for it to stop.”

“Can’t you turn the sound off?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t have volume buttons and I dunno how to unlock it. Must be some new software or something.”

Irma had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t care. She sat next to him and they stared at the phone together. When it didn’t stop ringing for a full minute, she dropped it on the couch and pressed a pillow over it. No use. After another five minutes of the cacophony, she found herself seriously thinking of taking a hammer to the damn thing.

“Oh, to Hell with this,” Irma said. She took the smartphone and tapped the Answer Call icon. When it finally went quiet, she pressed it against her ear. “Yeah?”

“I want my phone back,” a man said. His voice sounded wet and guttural, like it came from his stomach instead of his lungs.

“And I want a million bucks.”

“I need my phone and I need it now.”

“Buy another one with your platinum card. I’m sure you won’t even notice.”

“I had a very bad day. Do not make me come there.”

“You a cop?”

He chuckled. It sounded like his throat was full of slime. “Of course not.”

“Then fuck you,” Irma said, hanging up.

“He’ll call again,” Jake said.

She lit a cigarette. “Good. Maybe the battery will run out.” She put the ashtray in her lap and leaned back.

They sat in silence for a while, waiting for the smartphone to ring again. It didn’t.

Jake kept fidgeting with it for an hour before giving up. He couldn’t even figure out what brand it was, let alone how to unlock it or remove the SIM card. “Made in Abberon” was etched on its side, but whether that was a city, a factory, or a third-world country, the two of them had no idea.

“I’ll take it to Fred tomorrow,” Irma said after they went to bed. “He sells these things; he’ll know what it is. Maybe I can get a few hundred bucks for it.”

Jake kissed her, his hand cupping her breast. “My criminal mastermind.”

“Yeah, I should change my name to Soprano or something.”

Irma yawned.

It was noon, hot as the Devil’s armpit, and she was at the sales counter. She’d received a call from her boss around seven in the morning. He had told her his allergies were acting up again and asked if she wouldn’t mind taking the morning shift. She’d groaned inwardly but agreed anyway.

So there she was, trying to act interested while a shriveled housewife complained how today’s fashion industry manipulated women into spending more money by promoting layered clothing and making every new garment thinner than the last. The woman had just begun elaborating on the benefits of cotton over synthetic when Irma’s flip phone started ringing. Irma glanced at it, saw “JAKE calling” on the screen, and pressed the Silent Mode button. The ringing stopped, but she could still hear it vibrating and it made her want to throw it at a wall.

“Sorry,” she said. “You were saying?”

After the housewife left, Irma went to the counter and took out her cell phone. Two missed calls, both from Jake. She exhaled loudly and dialed his number. It rang three times before he picked up.

“Why are you calling me at work, you moron?” she said, “I told you to—”

“Where is my phone?”

For a moment, Irma just stood there, leaning on the counter, wondering if she’d called the wrong number. Then she recognized that deep, gargling voice and the way it somehow made the words sound sticky and viscous, and just like that, her heart started beating so loud she could hardly hear her thoughts.

“Where is my phone?” Mr. Faceless repeated. “Did you hide it?”

“W-where’s Jake?”

“He is here.”

“Is … is he okay?”

“Never better. I want my phone. Did you take it to work with you?”

Irma put a hand over her mouth.

“I can find it myself, you know. I can follow its smell,” he said. “But then I would have to find you first.”

“P-put Jake on the phone.”

Mr. Faceless let out a “heh” that sounded like he had loose gravel under his tongue. “Irma wants to talk to you.”

She heard some rustling, and then Jake said. “B-babe? That you?” His speech was slurred, as if he’d suffered a stroke.

“Jake, you okay?”

“Babe, he’s a … like a shadow … he broke the door with his—” Jake coughed, wheezing like an asthmatic. “Babe … oh my God, he … he has so many eyes.”

“Jake, I—”

She heard more rustling, and then Mr. Faceless said, “Come home. We will be waiting.”

“I-I’ll be there in half an—”

“I hear sirens. One of your neighbors must have called the police.” He snorted. “Nothing can ever be simple, now can it?”

There was a click as the line went dead.

Irma picked up her purse and rushed out. She crossed a dozen yards before realizing she’d forgotten to close the store. She went back, locked up, and almost left the key in the door. She dialed Jake’s number again as she walked toward the bus station, only to have a robotic voice tell her the number was unavailable.

Mr. Faceless was right; Irma had taken his smartphone to the store with her. She’d planned to drop by Fred’s house after work so he could look at it and tell her how much she could get for it.

Now she took it out of her purse and pressed it against her chest. She hadn’t prayed since she was a kid, but she prayed now. Prayed that, at any moment, the smartphone would ring and that Jake would be the one calling.

But it didn’t. Not even a peep.

Jake was dead.

Irma knew it the moment she saw the ambulance and police cars in front of her apartment building. She knew it because their lights were flashing but their sirens were quiet.

As she came closer, she saw other details that made her want to shriek: a cop telling a bunch of kids there was nothing to see, another cop leaning against a tree and trying not to retch, and a paramedic standing in the shade with a cigarette in hand, his face unreadable.

A cop stopped her at the entrance, asking where she was headed. Irma had to repeat the number of her apartment three times before she managed to say it loud enough for him to hear. He swallowed and explained her apartment was now a crime scene. She couldn’t go inside until the detectives and forensic technicians had examined it. It wasn’t until she asked if he’d seen Jake that she noticed how pale he looked. Yes, he told her, he’d seen him, and it would be better for her if she didn’t.

For hours after that, Irma saw everything as if through a glazed lens. More people showed up—cops mostly, but there was also a group of men and women equipped with metal briefcases and clad in what appeared to be blue raincoats. They all went into the building and stayed there for a long time. She kept expecting them to come out carrying a large black bag with a zipper running up its length. Instead, they brought out a bunch of smaller white bags, many no bigger than the ones she stored frozen meat in.

Two men in suits approached her. They introduced themselves, though she instantly forgot their names, and told her they were detectives. Their faces differed—one was covered in wrinkles and had big rabbit teeth, the other was boyish with sleepy, gray eyes—but their voices sounded exactly the same, soft, slow, and sensitive in a way that made them easy to talk to. When they asked if Jake had any enemies, Irma told them she knew who the killer was.

They took her to the station, sat her down at a table with a camera pointing at her face, brought her an ashtray and a glass of water, and listened to her statement.

When she told them how Mr. Faceless had driven like a maniac before entering a building next to the bus stop, the younger detective inclined his head and asked if she could name the street where it happened. Their expressions didn’t change after she gave them the address, but they began leaning closer, asking if she could remember the number of the building and the exact time of day. When she asked, “Why? What did he do there?” they apologized and explained that they weren’t at liberty to discuss ongoing cases.

Irma described Mr. Faceless’s car in as much detail as she could remember, up to and including the bobblehead cat. She didn’t mention the smartphone, though. She had different plans for it. Instead, she told them Mr. Faceless called her at home and threatened to hurt her for “insulting his driving.” She swore she had no idea how he’d gotten her number, let alone her address.

Later, the detectives brought in two of their colleagues and asked if she could repeat her story for them. When Irma finished talking, all four detectives went out. The younger one returned half an hour later. He told her they’d arranged for her to stay at a safe house for a few days. The police officers assigned to take her there were waiting outside.

“Can’t I go to my place?”

He shook his head. “That wouldn’t be wise.”

“Are your people still there?”

“No, but depending on the lab and autopsy results, they may need to go back. We can’t risk contaminating the crime scene.”

“Please … I just need to pick up some clothes.”

He sighed and said, “Wait here,” then walked out, shutting the door.

He returned 10 minutes later. “You can make a quick stop at your apartment. The officers will escort you and tell you what to do. The kitchen and the living room are off limits. Is that alright?”

“Yeah. Thank you.”

As the detective turned to leave, Irma said: “Wait … what did he do in that building?”

The detective paused, his jaw tightening. “Believe me, you really don’t want to know.”

It’s as if nothing happened, Irma thought.

She stood in the hallway, staring at the yellow tape crisscrossing the doorway of her home. The door was cracked around the knob; the lock looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it. Aside from that, everything was the same: the cold floor, the grinding of the elevators, the grandmas on the balconies, the neighbors walking their dogs. It was all business as usual. It made her feel like she was drowning.

One of the cops, his nametag identifying him as A. SMITH, gave the tape a little tug and said, “We’ll have to duck under it, miss.”

He had a big, flabby face and a bigger, flabbier neck that looked like it was about to spill over his collar. He waited until Irma gave a weak nod, then pushed the door open and somehow squeezed his bulk into the apartment without ripping the tape. He waved for her to come in. She swiped a lock of hair from her eye and followed. The other cop, J. MILES, came in after her.

The door that led into the living room stood wide open, giving her a good view of the shattered TV and the overturned coffee table, not to mention the red streaks on the walls and the stains on the carpet. The light was on, too. It might have been her imagination, but the shadows seemed … odd, especially the large one behind the TV. It seemed deeper than the rest and lacked a recognizable shape. It also appeared to be moving slightly, as if—

Smith flipped the switch, plunging the living room into darkness. “Sorry, you weren’t supposed to see that,” he said. “They must’ve forgotten to turn off the lights.”

It’s okay, Irma thought. Or perhaps she’d said it out loud. She wasn’t sure which.

“Please pack your things,” Miles said.

Irma went into the bedroom and just stood there, staring at the bed. The sheets were still ruffled from the previous night, and strands of Jake’s hair were still lying on his pillow. Everything looked the same as it did before she had left for work in the morning.

As a kid, Irma had loved watching action flicks where the hero went on a murderous rampage against the people who had harmed someone dear to him. The idea of exacting one’s own justice sat well with her, which was why she’d been doing it her whole life, starting with the day she avenged the dolls her brother had broken by melting his plastic army men on the stove. It was the way she was made. Her gut reaction to being wronged would always be to claim an eye for an eye.

Or so she had always thought. Mr. Faceless had wronged her more deeply than anyone else ever had, yet all she could do was stand here, an observer in her own head, not caring if they caught him or if he drove away laughing, just as long as he left her alone.

So she took his smartphone from her purse and dropped it on the bed, hoping it would be enough.

“Miss, can you hurry, please?”

“I, uh … just a minute.”

Irma took her travel bag and opened the closet. She thought about asking Smith what sort of clothes she’d need in the safe house, then decided to just take whatever was clean. She began digging through her shirts when she chanced upon a shoe. It was made of some rough, black material, like a beetle’s shell. Its twin lay even deeper in the closet, shoved under an old sweater. She’d never seen these shoes before, and had no idea what they were doing in there.

Irma was wondering whether she should tell the cops about this, when a glimmer from behind one of Jake’s jackets caught her eye. She pushed the jacket aside and found herself staring at a leather trench coat so long its hem would drag on the floor if she tried to wear it. Underneath it, laid neatly down, sat a gray fedora.

Irma still stood there, the temperature in her guts rapidly changing from hot to cool to ice cold, when Smith screamed, “Jesus Christ!”

She heard the metallic click of a gun being cocked, followed by a gasp and a noise like something viscous being sucked through a straw. She rushed out of the bedroom and stopped in the doorway. Her mouth went slack.

The light in the living room was back on. The shadow—the big one from behind the TV—had moved from the wall to the hallway. It floated in midair, a flowing mass of darkness like a squid’s ink cloud, its tendrils slithering into Mile’s and Smith’s ears and mouths and nostrils. Their knees were bent, arms hanging by their sides, eyes weeping black pus. They stood like that for a few moments, and then a scraping, ripping sound echoed from within them and they collapsed.

Irma watched the darkness flow toward her, unaware that she was backing away, until her legs struck the edge of the bed. She lost her balance and sat on the sheets, breathing in gasps so shallow she almost choked. She couldn’t look away from the darkness, couldn’t stop trying to figure out how it could fill the doorway and still be razor thin, and the more she tried, the more her brain felt hot, too hot, like it was boiling, like the sight of it stretched her sanity thin, way too thin, and—

“You have no idea how much trouble you put me in,” it said.

—and she knew that voice dear God she recognized it and oh God help her he was like a fissure in reality and he had a head and it wasn’t faceless it wasn’t faceless at all because he grinned and laughed and then Irma too grinned and laughed laughed LAUGHED until Mr. Faceless said, “Yeah, I’ve always been a funny guy,” and reached for her eyes.

Irma’s scream could be heard half a block away.

Mr. Faceless stepped from the bed and went to the closet.

He donned his clothes, taking care not to get any blood on his hat, then picked up his smartphone from where it lay among Irma’s remains. It was splattered with blood and other fluids, but otherwise undamaged, thank God. He found a clean spot on the sheets and wiped the phone with it.

Mr. Faceless took a deep breath, counted to 10, and unlocked the display. No missed calls. Good. A dozen or so texts, each angrier than the last. Bad. Very, very bad.

He took another deep breath and tapped the topmost name in the contacts list. He pressed the smartphone against the side of what passed for his head, and waited. He hoped she wouldn’t pick up. Then he heard a click and the ringing was replaced by her voice.

“Hey, you won’t believe what happened,” he said, “some lowlife stole my phone. Yeah, I left it in the car and forgot to close the window. … Uh-huh, that’s why I’m late, I had to track it down. … No, I am not lying; I told you, someone stole my phone. If I was lying, don’t you think I would have come up with a better sto— … No, dammit, I didn’t meet her again; I was tracking down my goddamn phone. Why do you always—” He leaned against the wall, shaking his head. “I am telling you the truth! My— … Alright, we will talk when I get home, do you— … Sure, I’ll buy some. … Yes, don’t worry, I—”

The line went dead.

Mr. Faceless stared at the smartphone for a few seconds, then sighed and let his hand drop to his side. He looked at what was left of Irma, and said, “Now look what you did.”

Mr. Faceless left the apartment and pushed the elevator button, then decided to take the stairs anyway.

The night was dry and windless, the street deserted even though someone must have notified the police by now. It almost seemed like everyone had gone on a vacation. Everyone except him. Hell, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken a day off. And where the Hell was he going to find fresh milk at this hour?

“What a time to be alive,” he said, walking toward his car.

Copyright © 2015 M. B. Vujacic