Emma Green hopes the old man isn’t dead. It’s one of those moments that come along in life where you think one thing and pray for another. The one thing dead for sure is the café. There have only been two customers over the last hour and neither ordered anything beyond a coffee, and her boss isn’t the kind of guy to let anyone go home early even on a slow Monday night, and just as equally he isn’t the kind of guy to be in much of a good mood because of it. The parking lot out back has her car and her boss’s car and a couple of others. There’s a dumpster off to the side and some milk crates stacked against it and the air smells of cabbage. There’s not much in the way of lighting. But some. Enough to see the old guy slumped in the front seat with his mouth open and his eyes closed, his head angled to one side, looking exactly the same way her granddad looked a couple of years back when they had to bust down the bathroom door after he went in and didn’t come out.
She walks up to the car and peers in. A string of saliva dangles from his lower lip to his chest. His hairline has receded about as far as a hairline can go before being considered bald. She recognizes him. He was in a couple of hours ago. Coffee and a scone and he sat in the corner with a newspaper trying to solve the crossword puzzle. “The devil lives here,” he kept whispering over and over while he tapped his pen on the table, and she glanced over his shoulder thinking she knew the answer and saw there was only space for five letters. Christchurch has twelve. “Hades,” she had told him, and he had smiled and thanked her and been pleasant enough.
She wants to tap on the window hoping he’s sleeping, but if he is sleeping then she may startle and frighten him and then it’s all going to be very embarrassing. But if he isn’t sleeping, maybe his heart only stopped beating a few seconds ago and there’s a good chance it can be kick-started. The sums don’t add up, though, because he left the café over an hour ago. No reason for him to sit out here for an hour before dying, unless he was working on the crossword. Well, maybe the devil got him. She stares through the window. She reaches out to it but doesn’t touch it. She should just let the next person deal with it. But if she did that the old man would still be just as dead in the morning only he’d be poorer, and his car stereo would have gone too.
If she was the one sitting freshly dead in a parked car, would she want people to keep passing her by?
She taps on the window. He doesn’t move. She taps again. Nothing. Her stomach drops as she grabs the handle. The door is unlocked. She swings it open and places a few fingers on his neck, her wrist snapping the drool from his chin where it dangles over her arm like a strand of spiderweb. His skin is still warm but there’s no pulse, not there, and she shifts her fingers and . . .
He gasps deeply and pulls back. “What the fuck?” he blurts, blinking heavily to clear his vision. “Hey, hey, what the hell are you doing?” he shouts.
“I . . .”
“You goddamn thief whore,” he says, sounding nothing at all like her granddad—at least nothing like him before the Alzheimer’s set in—and he grabs her hand and pulls her in. “You were trying to . . .”
“I thought . . .”
“Whore!” he shouts, then spits on her. She can smell old man sweat and old man food and his clothes smell of old man and his bony grip is strong. She feels sick. Her back hurts from the angle, her back has hurt pretty much from every angle since the car accident last year, and she reaches for his hand and tries to break his grip.
“You were trying to steal from me,” he says.
“No, no, I work at the . . . the . . .” she says, but the words get caught up in the tears, “coffee and a . . . a scone and I, I thought you . . .” This close his breath is almost hot and humid enough to start her makeup running. She can’t finish what she’s trying to say.
He lets her go and slaps her across the face. Hard. Harder than she’s ever been slapped by anybody in her seventeen years on this earth. Her head twists to the side and her cheek is burning. Then his hands are on her chest, at first she thinks he’s trying to feel her up, but then he’s shoving her and the stars come into view and swirl overhead, and her back is hitting the pavement, her hands behind her breaking the fall.
The car door slams shut. The engine starts. He winds the window down and shouts something else at her before pulling away, but she doesn’t hear him over the car and over the blood rushing in her ears. He races toward the exit, hugging the wall too closely and clipping the edge of the dumpster there. It grinds a long dent into it, and she expects him to pull over and scream at her some more, but he carries on, racing out onto the street where there’s the squeal of another car’s breaks and somebody yells out “Asshole.”
She sits on the ground crying and angry, her handbag next to her, the contents in a puddle across the tarmac. Her first thought is to go inside and tell her boss what happened, but he’d tell her it was her own fault. Another thing about her boss is that everything is always somebody else’s fault, and in this case he would think she was somehow trying to blame him. She gets onto her feet and looks at her palms. The skin has torn on her right palm, the skin stretched up like a balloon. At least there’s no blood.
She wipes at the tears on her face. “Asshole,” she whispers. The warm wind pushes against her and tugs against the torn skin on her palms, puffing it out like small parachutes. She gets her handbag packed and then has to rummage back through it for her keys, but her keys aren’t there. She crouches back down. She was holding her keys when she was walking out to the parking lot, wasn’t she? She isn’t sure, but she starts to turn, then spots them behind the back wheel of a dirty and beaten-up Toyota. She moves over and bends down and reaches for them. At the same time footsteps race toward her. She looks up and can see a man silhouetted against one of the lights, thank God somebody is here to help.
“Thank . . .” is all she can say, then just utter panic as he jumps on top of her.
She has no idea what’s happening. She tries to fight him and he rewards her by pounding her head into the ground so hard the parking lot lights go dark. She can feel the world slipping away. She thinks she is fighting against it, but she isn’t sure because it feels like she’s falling into a dream. Her grandfather smiling at her, the old man in the car, dropping one of the coffees earlier in the day and getting told off from her boss, her boyfriend wanting to spend the night, then she thinks about Satan living in Christchurch, setting up residence and inflicting His friends upon the city before deciding this isn’t even happening, but for all her good hopes the world drifts away.
When the world comes back, it arrives without any reference to time. It’s just like last year when she had the accident. Back then she was hit by a car, but she has no memory of it. Can’t remember the hour before the accident, or the day following it. This time she can remember. She’s lying down on a mattress, but when she rolls to the side the mattress doesn’t end. Her wrists are painfully sore and are tied behind her, and her legs are tied too, they’re connected to whatever is keeping her wrists together. The headache is the worst, the pressure so strong behind her eyes that whatever is covering them is probably holding them in. She’s thirsty and hungry and the air is hot and stale. It must be ninety degrees. Everything is dark. She starts to cry. This isn’t a hospital. She’s tied up to bake in this oven of a room.
Footsteps. A floorboard creaking. A lock disengaging and then a door opens. Somebody approaches her. She can hear breathing. She tries to talk but can’t. She thinks of her parents, her friends, her boyfriend. She thinks of the old man at the café and she makes a promise to herself that if she gets out of this alive she’ll never help anybody again.
It’s a man’s voice. The pressure is removed from her mouth. There has to be something she can say to get out of this. Something she can say to make him let her go.
“Please, please,” she cries, “please don’t hurt me. I don’t want to be hurt, please, I’m begging you,” she says, the tears soaking her face. She doesn’t think she’s ever cried so much. She knows she’s never been this frightened. This man is going to do bad things to her, and she’s going to have to live with what he’s done to her, it will haunt her and make her insane. The person she was is about to die.
But she will get through this. She will survive. She knows that because, because . . . this was never meant to happen to her. It’s not possible her life is about to end. It doesn’t add up. Doesn’t make sense. She cries harder.
“Please,” she says.
The plastic neck of a bottle is pushed against her lips.
“It’s water,” he says, and he tips it up. It pours into her mouth. She hates him, but the thirst is overpowering and she accepts the drink. He pulls it away before she can swallow more than a few mouthfuls.
“There’ll be more soon,” he says.
“Who, who are you? What are you going to do with me?”
“No questions,” he says, and the pressure is back on her mouth, some form of tape. “You’re going to need to keep your strength,” he tells her. “I have something very special planned for you over the following week,” he tells her, “and you won’t be needing these,” he adds, and she feels a blade slip beneath her clothes and he starts cutting them away.
© 2011 Paul Cleave
People are disappearing in Christchurch. Cooper Riley, a psychology professor, doesn’t make it to work one day. Emma Green, one of his students, doesn’t make it home. When ex-cop Theodore Tate is released from a four-month prison stint, he’s asked by Green’s father to help find Emma. After all, Tate was in jail for nearly killing her in a DUI accident the year before, so he owes him. Big time. What neither of them knows is that a former mental patient is holding people prisoner as part of his growing collection of serial killer souvenirs. Now he has acquired the ultimate collector’s item—an actual killer.
Meanwhile, clues keep pulling Tate back to Grover Hills, the mental institution that closed down three years ago. Very bad things happened there. Those who managed to survive would prefer keeping their memories buried. Tate has no choice but to unearth Grover Hills’ dark past if there is any chance of finding Emma Green and Cooper Riley alive.
For fans of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series, Collecting Cooper is another “relentlessly gripping, deliciously twisted, and shot through with a vein of humor that’s as dark as hell” (Mark Billingham) novel by this glimmering new talent in the crime thriller genre.