The sight of my father’s Detroit PD uniform always made me feel like a child, but seeing it on the floor made me feel even more helpless than when I was a five-year-old boy. It was funny to think how intimidating the navy blue garb could be when put upon a sinewy frame of a man with a badge. It looked so harmless and pathetic now, crumpled up next to a dusty fireplace, looking like an old piece of dirty laundry.
Trembling, I stepped up to the uniform and knelt down to take it in my arms. Knowing that the sight of the uniform meant I would never see my dad’s body again, I took its collar up to my face and inhaled, hoping the fossilized scent of his Old Spice might somehow make me feel safe in this darkened place.
The little fucker’s tip was spot on. There was an officer’s uniform in an abandoned house at the end of Baker Street. What the little fucker didn’t tell me was, the uniform belonged to Amit Patel. My father.
The little fucker I refer to is a 17-year-old borderline criminal I interviewed a few times in pursuit of a story for the Detroit Free Press before I got laid off and before I decided he was mostly full of shit. He usually hung around the edge of an abandoned cul-de-sac pretending to sell weed. He flagged me down as I was on my way to an interview with someone who I hoped was more honest.
My story was about “Zombie,” a new drug that had hit the streets of Detroit, but was still so underground only those heavily entrenched in the world of hard drugs and law enforcement knew about it. Those privy to information about Zombie knew it was a liquid drug of unknown ingredients usually cooked up in one of the countless abandoned houses that haunted Detroit. The users injected the stuff in the back of their neck and its heavy hold led to them joining a marauding group of addicts rumored to be eating people — particularly their brains (hence the name Zombie). Whether the drug made you crave eating people or if it was just a group of people who liked to eat people who happened to really like the drug was the subject of hot debate.
I knew all of this because my father, Amit, and my brother, Az, were in the Detroit Police Department. The two of them pulled some strings and gotten me behind-the-scenes access to the department as I pursued the first media story about Zombie.
The department labeled me as a bad omen, because as soon as I showed up, officers started going missing. Three cops disappeared within my first month of hanging around the station — all in the same way my father eventually would. They went out on domestic disturbance calls in one of the many cul-de-sacs littered with the shells of abandoned house that dotted the city like dead insects in a spider’s web. They never came back. Their uniforms were always found in a different abandoned neighborhood than the one they had been sent to investigate. The trend put such a scare into the department my father and brother worked at, the force was reduced to just four officers after a rash of retirements and resignations.
Guys were giving up the force because the entire Detroit police department had zero leads on breaking up the Zombie clan or tracking down any of the missing officers, dead or alive. I think the idea of being eaten had particularly created a panic throughout the ranks because nearly every house that was searched after Zombie groups were reported to have stayed included at least one human body, which was partially eaten with empty skulls and exposed bone, of which flesh had been cleanly ripped off from.
Another factor to the mysteriousness of the disappearing officers were, despite their uniforms always being left behind, their hats, part of the official uniform, were never recovered. The hats housed a new piece of technology: The “cop cam.” Forced on officers due to a never-ending rash of horrible PR, the GoPro-style cameras recorded everything the officers did and were monitored back at the station.
After my dad went missing, Az and his six-year-old son Cale moved into my one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the city. Az and Cale lived in a larger house on the edge of the city and we figured with all of the officers going missing, a cramped apartment downtown was a safer environment. Az and Cale slept on my couch, but after I discovered my father’s uniform, we all slept together in my bed. Az and I cried. Cale was too young to really absorb exactly what happened.
My father’s disappearance encouraged me to double down on my pursuit of tracking down the members of the Zombie group, even if the newspaper I initially planned on submitting my story to no longer employed me. This was no longer about reporting. This was personal. This became about closure and about being able to hold a proper funeral for the man who raised me.
My interview took me out to Stoepel Park, a neighborhood ravaged by urban flight more than any other in the city. Desolate, crumbling, and deserted, it reminded me of the Emerald City in Return To Oz.
The mother of a young man who had joined the Zombie gypsies responded to my Craigslist ad. The ad was for those with information about the group to come forward for a documentary. The mother claimed her son joined the group for a few weeks, but came back home a couple of days ago “to get clean.” This was huge. In the few months the group was first reported to be active, there was not a single report of a “defector.”
I headed to Stoepel alone as the presence of anyone else, especially those that looked like law enforcement, could result in those who may have been loose-lipped to clam up. No one wanted to be connected in any way to the Zombie group, so those that may have information were reluctant to come forward out of fear of being accused.
The address took me to a dilapidated manor that could have belonged to a big wig at General Motors decades ago, but was now home to a single gray-haired woman with cigarette smoke-tanned skin and recessed gums.
She spoke out of the side of her mouth with cracked lips as an ash-gray feline rubbed the side of its head against my calf.
“And I thought he was gone. I thought he was gone forever,” she said.
I could feel the immense weight of the woman’s life in every word she spat to me from her broken easy chair in the middle of a living room heated by three space heaters and the body heat of a handful of felines.
“Then one morning I heard that ol’ familiar rumble of his ol’ Chevy Luv in the driveway and I couldn’t believe it. I looked out the window and there he was behind the wheel, sleeping in the breeze of the air conditionin.”
The woman couldn’t have felt more genuine and sweet. She seemed like one of those women who looked on the verge of 65, but who was actually barely 40 and had lived about three lives already, but I couldn’t get comfortable in the house. It was an open floor plan, where the living room we sat in could be entered through four different openings. I never felt secure and I was quickly overcome with the feeling of being watched by someone other than the woman.
She told me her son went upstairs once she brought him in from the driveway and was there sleeping ever since, but I kept hearing shuffling sounds from the door behind me. A clear cough from behind the door was all I needed to hear to fully tune myself out from the woman’s story and to start and try and wiggle myself out of the situation.
“He said that they tried to get him to do things he just wouldn’t do,” she said.
I stopped the woman with a stiff hand.
“I’m sorry, but I…”
I bit my tongue harder than I ever had in my entire life and tasted the tinny spice of blood drift down my throat while I stared at something that made me want to swallow my tongue.
A gaunt young man, clad in dirty overalls with splotches of what looked to be white paint checkered clumsily across his face emerged from a door behind the woman’s chair. He skulked around with his eyes locked on me while I struggled for words.
Cold hands clamped down on the back of my neck. I was momentarily lifted up off of the couch, but I twisted myself free as hard as I could.
Everything became a blur – the woman screaming, my neck burning, the man in overalls descending upon me. I bolted for the front door. I dashed across the dirty carpet, slammed myself into the heavy wood of the door and pushed my way out with the presence of whoever had picked me up by my neck running close behind me.
I burst out onto the open porch of the house and into a shaken snow globe of a world. Fat, fresh flakes of powdery white snow stuck to the black fleece of my jacket when I ran out onto the icy sidewalk and almost fell upon my ass.
Lucky for me, I parked my car right in front of the house. I developed a bad habit of never locking the doors of my 1999 Oldsmobile, so I was able to slide ride in with the ice still melting upon the bottom of my shoes. I quickly locked the doors and gunned the engine just before a dark presence overtook the passenger side window. I saw the outline of an immense man out of the corner of my eye for just a sliver of a moment before I drove off down the street, skidding on the ice rink that was the pavement.
I called Az as soon as I was far enough away from the terror of the house from which I escaped.
He picked up and spoke before I even had a chance to get a word out.
“You have to come down to the station. Dad’s camera is on.”
I stood with Az with the other remaining police officers watching the video on four monitors propped on top of a long desk.
“His came on about an hour ago. About the same time the others did,” Officer Turner explained and pointed to a monitor which broadcast a dated interior of a car.
“Do we have tracking on these?” I asked.
“We don’t have a GPS in them, but we can follow their location by any surroundings we see,” Turner answered. “Other than your father’s, they all seem to be inside homes right now. Your father seems to be going somewhere in a car, but I haven’t gotten a good look out the windows, so I don’t know where he’s going.”
Turner was clearly the leader of the remaining group. Round, bald, mustached, and gapped-toothed, he reminded me of Carl Winslow from Family Matters.
“Great fucking time for a migraine,” Turner announced and got up from his chair to walk to the bathroom.
The faint sound of trickling urine was interrupted by gasps escaping from the two other officers.
“We got movement over here,” Officer Lind said after gulping down a mouthful of coffee sooner than he had planned.
Officer Lind was the youngest of the group. The guys always made fun of him for his long hair, even though it couldn’t have grown more than an inch from his scalp in any direction.
“Here too,” Officer Washington chirped and adjusted her glasses. “Getting into a car.”
Officer Washington had been the lone woman in the station before everyone else left and bucked any stereotypes about female cops. She would have been considered the most attractive woman in just about any office she worked in, had two kids and was a gentle soul that actually reminded me of my grandma even though she was barely 40.
All four screens we were monitoring now showed the interior of vehicles.
“Looks like everyone’s got some place to go,” Washington said quietly just before Turner came back from the restroom and took a seat next to her.
“Still don’t recognize any locations though,” Turner noted.
“My dad’s stopped,” I pointed out with a finger.
The car in my dad’s camera had come to a stop. We watched the camera turn to the right and focus upon a palatial, but crumbling estate that lurched over the sidewalk the car had parked next to.
“Anybody see an address?” Turner asked.
“Wouldn’t matter unless someone knows what street this is,” Lind replied.
Turner was going to continue, but was interrupted by the sound of Az vomiting upon the floor.
“What the fuck Patel?” Washington groaned.
I patted Az on the back as he knelt over his golden vomit that smelled of light beer.
“I didn’t know you were sick man,” I said.
“I’m not sick,” he said. “I puked because that’s Emily’s house.”
Emily was Az’ ex-girlfriend and the mother of Cale. I didn’t know much about her, but I knew she lived in a rundown old mansion not too far from where I had been in Stoepel Park.
I was commanding Az’ squad car on a residential street at freeway speeds while he sat in the passenger’s seat with sweat dripping off his brow. We dispatched officers from other nearby stations hoping they might somehow beat us to Emily’s house, but it was looking the more likely that Az and I would be the first responders.
Both of us wore bluetooth speakers that stuck out of our ears. They were connected back to the station where the other officers monitored our father’s camera and relayed what they were seeing. My heart fluttered with every detail they described, but the breaks in their descriptions were actually much more heart-stopping, as my brain always assumed that they were seeing something too horrible to tell.
“It’s somewhere in the house, but I haven’t seen any people yet,” I could hear Washington’s voice in my ear as I mashed the pedal and tore down a street that Az told me connected to the street Emily lived on. “I sometimes hear other noises in the house, though and it seems to follow those.”
“Where is it in the house?” Az asked.
“Not exactly sure,” Washington said. “It’s going through a hallway slowly, but I don’t know the layout of the house, so I don’t know where that is.”
“Do you know the house?” I asked Az.
He hesitated for a moment, clearly disappointed with himself.
“No, I’ve never actually been inside, just on the porch.”
We drove up to the house, parked behind a rusty Chevy, and sprinted up to the front porch. Az handed me a gun as we ascended the steps even though he knew that I had never touched one in my life.
“You check upstairs, I have the main floor,” Az said and tore off into the guts of the house.
I couldn’t believe how brave the adrenaline made me. I was always the type of person who changed the TV channel during horror movie trailers and here I was, with a pistol in my hand, climbing stairs in a dark old house chasing after a potential cannibal.
“I think I hear something in the basement,” I heard Az’ disconnected voice speak into my ear. “Have you seen it go down any stairs?”
“No,” Lind answered back instead of Washington, who had been talking to us.
“Lind? What the fuck?” Az spat.
“Washington left. One of the other cams showed up outside of her house,” Lind said in an unemotional flash. “Same with Turner.”
“Holy shit,” Az exhaled. “Where the fuck is it now?”
“I missed some shit when Washington took off, but I think I saw it go upstairs.”
I stopped at the top of the stairs when Lind finished his sentence and pointed the gun ahead of me.
“But now it’s in what looks like a kid’s bedroom,” Lind went on.
“Shit,” Az yelled, making me jump and drop the gun. “The noise I heard down here was a fucking dryer.”
I dropped down to pick up the gun with my eyes steadied on the darkened hallway that was in front of me.
“Where is the last cam?” Az whispered. “You said one was at Washington’s, one was at Turner’s and one is here. Where is that stray one?”
“Uh, it was just in a backyard somewhere. It just went in a backdoor of some house. Now it’s heading down a dark stairway,” Lind answered.
“Where is the one in here?” I called out, but was interrupted by Lind yelling into the speaker.
“Oh my God. It’s in the basement. Patel. Patel. Patel.”
Lind’s shouts were drowned out by the sound of gurgling screams.
I decided to turn back around and head down the stairs to help Az, but stopped when I saw a shadowy figure descend from an attic staircase that was at the end of the hallway.
It was Cale. He scurried down the steps and creeped towards me in the dark hallway.
I should have been paying complete attention to his lurking, but I was more than distracted by the horror broadcasting in my bluetooth.
Whatever Az had encountered in the basement was destroying him in a horrible manner. The sounds of my brother’s screams and Lind’s prayers to God pounded in my ear.
Interrupting the horror in my ears, a figure stepped out of one of the doors in the hallway and pursued Cale back up the attic.
I snapped back to life when the sounds of my brother’s disembowelment stopped.
“He’s following the kid up into the attic,” Lind’s shaky voice announced in my ear.
I shuffled to the attic ladder and saw the figure’s feet disappearing into the attic.
“I don’t think it saw you,” Lind said. “The kid is hiding somewhere in the attic.”
I climbed up into the attic ladder with the gun limply held out in front of me.
“Where is the other one, the one in the basement?” I whispered.
“He’s still in the basement,” Lind stammered, clearly not wanting to give any details about what was going on down there.
I tuned Lind out when I climbed up into the attic and saw no signs of life — only scattered dusty boxes and lines of clothes hanging from the rafters that turned the attic into a bit of a library of faded fabrics and forgotten styles. The hanging outfits concealed almost everything in the space and were strung up all around me.
“Where is he?” I whispered.
“I can’t tell, somewhere in the clothes.”
I started combing through the clothes, throwing down the metal rods they hung from, only revealing more and more cobwebs and dusty wooden beams.
I finally found Cale. He was tucked up into a ball and crying. He looked away from me with his arms out, as if trying to defend himself from me.
“Cale, hey, We have to go,” I whispered.
I grabbed Cale’s hand and started to lift him up from the floor when I felt a presence behind me. Its weight caused a floorboard to creak.
“It’s right behind you…” Lind said.
I turned around to see the blur of a figure descending upon me with a hideously long knife.
I closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.
I was suddenly on my back next to Cale on the floor with my hand throbbing. I looked down to see the gun still in my hand and the figure in a gasping clump on the floor a few feet in front of us.
I stared at the mound of motionless human matter for a few seconds before the sounds of Cale’s cries turned my attention to him. I pulled Cale close and sat crying with him for a few moments with my eyes glued to the figure on the floor and my finger still on the trigger.
“Where is the other one?” I choked.
“It’s gone,” Lind said.
I didn’t bother asking anymore questions about what happened in that basement. My brain assumed the worst. I pictured my brother’s uniform lying crumpled on a dirty basement floor just like I had found my father’s.
I turned my gaze to the body that lay in front of me on the floor and saw something familiar. Perched on top of an oily mop of dark hair was a scuffed and faded Detroit Tigers baseball cap adorned with a few silver pins.
During the 80s, the Detroit PD tried to connect to kids by having officers wear Detroit sports team caps. My dad loved the Detroit Tigers so much he demanded to keep wearing it even after they had disbanded the idea. It was pretty much his calling card.
I could never look at a worn-out Tigers cap and not think about my dad. Now I was staring at his navy hat pinned with his department pin and his cop cam resting on the head of the person that had likely killed him, and possibly eaten him. It made the bone-chilling winter air that seeped through the thin walls of that attic that much more cold.
I sat shivering on the frigid curb outside of the house with Cale wrapped in a blanket next to me.
I watched the various crews that show up after an emergency file about the frozen front yard of the house – paramedics, police officers, firefighters – all milling around behind the backdrop of flashing lights that seemed to light the snowy world a shade of pale pink. I put my arm around Cale and pulled him close.
I audibly groaned when an unfamiliar officer walked up to me. I was still far too shaken to be questioned about anything. I put my hands up in a dismissive posture, but the officer ignored me and started firing away with words.
“This was all bullshit.”
“What?” I shot back in disgust thinking about how what the guy was referring to as “bullshit” cost my brother his life.
“This was a calculated distraction to get what few cops are still around here out of the way. Those fuckers just attacked every house in the neighborhood the last few hours.”
I didn’t really care. It was my time to be selfish. I didn’t care if the savages had gone into hundreds of homes and pulled away helpless people, I only cared about my brother and I didn’t want to hear any more about anything, just hold Cale and wallow in sorrow.
It took a little while, but I think the officer finally picked up on this. A sheepish look washed upon his face.
“I found this in there and I thought you might want it.”
The officer pulled my father’s Tigers cap out from his back pocket and stuck it down upon my head.
“I think it fits you good.”