Special Agent Eric Paulson stood in my doorway, with a goofy smile on his thin lips. He flicked away his still burning cigarette. Snowflakes melted on his grey stubby chin.

“What do you want?” I asked. Bitterness seeped from the back of my throat. I wanted to spit it out, but words fell out instead. “Seven! Years!” No calls, no visits, no cards. He didn’t even call, when my sweet little baby Ana died.

He was fast with flashing a smile. There it was, the I’m-better-than-you-Look in his dirty blue eyes, the look I died to smack out of his face, with a brick, or bottle, or a chair. His dark hair was shorter, his build porkier, than I remembered. He was doing well. His red parka was too tight on his belly and arms. The smile froze to an annoyed grin.

“Is this how you greet your best friend, Vince?” He pulled an offended grimace, and pushed me aside, to enter the hallway. That was Eric Paulson all over. He stomped his feet on my doormat. With one hand he opened his ski parka and I slammed the door shut.

I needed a drink, and went into the kitchen to grab a bottle. I prayed, he came to visit out of pure friendliness, as a friend, as family. But I knew better. His hesitation in the hallway meant he had a case, he wanted help with. He stared at his boots, left hand stroking his jacket, where his breast pocket was. I knew that look of guilt…

Long ago, Eric and me, we were a team. He was the agent, and I was the psychic profiler. We were match and gasoline. “Prepared for the blizzard, buddy?” He attempted small talk. Pathetic.

“What’s it to you?” He inched my way, eying the photos of Maria, Ana and me on the walls; reminders of my misery. My kitchen disgusted him, I noticed. Today it seemed particularly smaller and dirtier than usual, even to me. I manned the whisky bottle and shook it at him, by mere courtesy.

“You tell me, Vince,” he shrugged. “Don’t you see, what I’ll do?”

“It’s not working that way.” I turned and went to the twilit living room, switched the lights on. He followed me in silence. “You know that.” The bookshelves made the room look like a cave.

Outside, the snow came down in thick curtains. I couldn’t see his car. Up here, November hit us hard, with temperatures below 5 °F all week. The winter was gentle and silent around my house, the woods insulated me from the world. But I felt it roar in the valley, and down in Points.

I plunked down into the leather couch and tugged the patchwork quilt over my legs. Maria, my ex wife, made it during the two long years of our marriage, for Ana. She was adept with the needle and yarn, but she couldn’t take it, after the accident, after… She left me the quilt, so she could forget. It covered my bad knee, which was cold and swollen. It hurt and I couldn’t hide it. Eric furrowed his brows. Was that concern?

I shifted my legs, and put my throbbing stiff one unto the coffee table. My sock was torn, big toe peeking from the knitted green wool. Under my heel one of the magazine towers collapsed and spilled to the floor. I had an empty whiskey bottle wedged into the couch, nestling between my left side and the elbow rest.

That was what numbed the pain best, as long as I kept my brain fogged up. The black cap went bye-bye. Another wasted hour without being hammered. The smell of my armpits hit me. Eric stared. The grey wooly darkness of the late winter afternoon bloomed forth into the room. What did I care if Eric saw me in this shape?

The night was coming and I wasn’t drunk. Not yet. I had to turn up the volume of the misery static in my head! Everything was better than silence. I had to get there first. I took a big gulp from the bottle. It burned. It burned all the way down to the midnight of my soul. But it burned much less, than Ana’s absence.

“The Eric Paulson I know, wouldn’t dither,” I growled at him. Jaw muscles clenched together, my fist was a white ball of bone, sinew and muscle. The Eric Paulson I knew, was responsible for my stiff leg.

He breathed and rubbed his chin. “You know why I’m here, don’t you?” I gazed out of the window. “I need your help.” I shook my head. He would have to spell it out for me. I needed him to say ‘pretty please’.”We got ourselves a maniac.” Eric continued unfazed.”We need a new angle.” I needed to hear a ‘sorry’ too.

I stared into the bottle before my lips touched the liquor. No need for a glass, or ice. There was this hollow icy feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t shut it out. His presence woke something up. It stirred in me. And he knew it did. “He isn’t satisfied with killing them. He tortures them for days. Always two steps ahead…”

Eric walked up and down in the room. My senses, even as numb as they were,  picked something up. The alcohol wasn’t stamping my mind out fast enough. The liquor burnt. Something in the back of my skull tuned into the underground rivers of suffering. Felt like I had my ear planted on a trembling track, with a train approaching at high speed. Cold, guttural and with bad intentions. I couldn’t stop it. And I couldn’t move out of the way either. “Vince! He’s a monster!” I tasted smoke. The smell of bunt hair hit me. I tasted blood. My head spun, it hurt.

Eric came up close to me, observing my face.

“Vince?” I must’ve spaced out.

“Was the last one burnt?” I asked, hoping he’d say no, but his eyes lit up instead. Poor man… That merited another gulp. “I hate you!” Eric sat down on the coffee table in front of me. It creaked its complains. He plucked the bottle from my hand and held a plastic bag in front of my face.

In the bag was something lathy, dark and stained. I swallowed, that was a knife of some kind, unusually thin.

“For the love of God… Eric, I don’t need more nightmares!” He wanted me touch it. “Why are you forcing me?” I didn’t need to be a psychic, to know where that thing had been before.

“You play hermit in the woods? That’s okay,” his calm voice floated in the room. “You won’t talk to me, cause you’re teed off? That’s also okay.” He ruffled his dark hair. “I respect that, and I’m sorry for what happened. For what I did, but can’t take back…” He took a sip from the bottle, and pulled a grimace. “Alright. Be mad at me. That’s fine.” Eric looked at me like a kicked dog. “You expect the world to leave you alone?” His lips tightened. His left hand made a flat horizontal swiping gesture, as if covering something. “I’ll have none of that bullshit!” I stared at the star and heart patterns on the quilt. “Vincent, I need your help! I’m not giving up on you. We all need your help. With your special abilities…”

I felt his despair seeping into me through the pores of my skin. “He sent us a picture of his next victim. A little girl, not older than five.” His voice picked up volume and urgency. “Help solve this!” He pulled a little photo of a smiling child from a pocket. She had blonde hair, bangs and a red dress, smiling brightly.

We locked eyes. That face! She looked like my little Ana. I heard myself gasp. Eric’s lips flashed with victory. I could hear his mental ‘gotcha’. The anger, the disappointment, the hurt in me exploded into a punch. I caught him good on the jaw, and he swept down the top of the table.

His surprise, that sudden breaking of his expression… It was like the crushing of an egg. Behind that white thin crust, an innocence, a vulnerability oozed out. I didn’t know Eric was still capable of. Eyes wide and watered up, lips trembling, corners of his mouth pointing to his heart…

He had that same look. The same terrified look, when I had pulled him out of that car wreck. He thought that he was going to die. That day, we nearly did, both of us. He was 17 and I was 19. Maybe it would have been better…

I couldn’t imagine how hard it’d punch me. I forgot that I still had these feelings in me. Why did I notice just now? Eric was exhausted. Something festered in him, something stinging, black and tar like.

Something hungry…

And easy as that, I was his partner again. Ready to help Eric, ready to watch his back… I took the plastic bag, and he smiled weakly. Between my fingers the knife slithered into my palms, snuggled into my left hand and wanted to be clutched tightly.

A lefty. My hands felt wet and warm, the blade seemed to pulsate, like a beating heart. I sent out my thoughts like tentacles.

“It’s not a gift…” The smell of blood was overwhelming. Nausea kicked me in the teeth. “It’s a condition, ruining my life.” I forced my stomach back down. “I think, I got something.”

My body plummeted, my mind trickled down my navel, like sand in an hourglass. “He’s a lefty and went to college. Had good to mediocre grades but dropped out. He prefers to work with his hands. He’s in his forties. I get the feeling of clay on my hands… Maybe pottery, maybe gardening. Overly adjusted. Most likely married, but his little wife is clueless, so is everyone else in his social vicinity.” I swallowed, my body grew heavier, my vision blurred. “He needs glasses.”

Heavy knocks echoed through the house, made me jump. The door trembled under the beating. Eric nodded towards the hallway. “Go on. Open the door. It’s an officer with more information you need.” The hard labor of standing up started and the quilt slit down to the carpet.

Eric took a big gulp of my whisky, while I hobbled to the door. He was right. It was a man in uniform at the entrance. His police car sat obediently in my driveway, lights flashing. Where was Eric parking?

“Good afternoon, sir. I’m Officer Peterson, Hampshire County Police. Are you Mister Samson? Mister Vincent Samson?”

“Yes.” I answered. Suddenly, I didn’t like how things summed up. The icy feeling dropped deeper.

“I’m sorry that I have to tell you.” He breathed. “Your ex partner, special agent Eric Paulson, was killed. Yesterday, in the line of duty.”

—No!

“I’m sorry for your loss…”

“He was on his way here, to beg for your ability as profiler.” Officer Peterson harrumphed. “There is something else… His little daughter was kidnapped.”

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