FLOAT LIKE LEATHER BALLOONS
By C.B. Leonard
Copyright Chris Leonard, 1999.
Accepted for Print Publication, 1999
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When they arrived, the wagon-men were already standing around outside the
front of the house, chatting and smoking cigarettes, leaning against the
shadowed bulk of their meat-wagon. The structure behind seemed to hunch
overhead like an oversolicitous funeral director, a silent promise poised to
make good on itself.
An aging HUD bi-level, the place was tucked back up against an alley,
last in a row of a dozen other homes fronting the north section of Water
Street, Eighteenth District. All were dismally similar; barred windows and
entryways, cheap facades, the architecture of poverty. Slanting bars of late
afternoon sun cast long shadows across the neighborhood, giving its buildings
a furtive, hollow look. Netti yanked the wheel hard over, jamming the car
against the curbside, then leaned his bulk back into the seat cushions and
When the flood of profanity had ceased, he turned to his charge, riding
shotgun beside him.
"Grab that paper bag under your seat," he said. Cracking the door, he
levered his cumbersome body up and out of the car. A blast of cool air gusted
in, ruffling Erin's bangs as she fumbled under the Dodge's cracked
upholstery. Her search turned up a wrinkled sac with a familiar odor.
Stuffing it into a coat pocket, she climbed out of the car. Netti was proving
to be one of the most frustrating, impenetrable, and annoying individuals
she'd ever worked with. Something of a sexist, to boot.
It had also been immediately apparent to Erin that he was the best
Homicide had to offer; incisive and calculating, the man combined a
formidable self-education with two lifetimes worth of knowledge gleaned from
the streets. As a Field Training Officer, he'd been more than difficult,
often leaving his trainee to sort out loose ends of their investigations as
best she could. Still, Erin was satisfied with her choice, an instinct
confirmed by CPD records -- over the course of his entire career, Netti had
logged barely two dozen unsolved assignments. Erin imagined him the type who
kept files of those still-open cases, leafing their worn pages as he sat
alone with... yes, a cat. In a bachelor's apartment.
There was no questioning the man's competence -- his social skills were
another matter entirely. She pushed the car door quietly shut and followed
him to where the meat-wagon stood in the mouth of the alleyway.
"Hey, Netti!" one of the wagon-men called cheerfully, "we were waiting
for you. There's a situation in there calls for your, uh... expertise."
The detective smiled thinly and glanced over to where a beat cop leaned
against the side of the steps, panting and clutching his mouth. The man's
partner, pale, sucked heavily at a menthol and offered little comfort.
"Terrific. Come on," Netti muttered. Erin, two paces behind, brushed
through the cold, measuring gazes of the wagon-men without comment. As she
hiked up the steps, one called after.
"Miss. you might want to skip this one." She turned to see the younger
man looking up at her, his face solemn. The advice appeared honestly given,
but... well, they were a cold bunch, these guys who carried away corpses,
with a gallow's humor -- was this a ploy? Erin knew that if she backed down
they'd think her weak. She felt a momentary surge of anger, quickly throttled
"I'll manage," she replied evenly.
Netti was already inside the foyer. The splintered frame of its outer
door had been propped with a rock. The moment Erin entered, her nostrils
filled with the dark odor of lingering decay. Netti had produced a vial from
his breast pocket, and was dabbing twin smears of its contents under his
nostrils. He offered the jar, and Erin followed suit. The white ointment had
a heavy, astringent odor that made the stink somewhat more bearable.
"Always a bad sign to see the wagon boys standing around outside the
scene." Netti pulled on a pair of latex gloves, handed Erin a set. The
overhead was out, but reddening sunlight illuminated the inside door, cracked
slightly open. The detective pushed it inward.
The smell poured from out of the darkened landing like a wave, a
combination of putrefaction and aged rot. Erin gagged and stumbled back, but
Netti held his ground, fumbling around inside the doorframe. There was a dry
"Agghh!" He coughed, then poked his head out and glared over at the
wagon-men. "Bring lights!" he called. The two made desultory movements toward
"What is that?"
Netti turned to his trainee. "Someone's been dead a good while in there
-- after a week or so, bodies swell up, burst open... 'poppers', they're
"Lovely term. I'm familiar with the process of decomposition."
"Well, that's what it smells like." A small flashlight appeared in one of
Netti's fat hands. Ever prepared, Erin produced her weighty mag-lite, then
was too surprised to protest when the detective confiscated it and handed her
his inferior plastic one. Fuming, she followed him inside.
Their twin beams played around the landing, cutting the cool, dank air.
Erin cocked an ear, listening. "Hear that?"
Water dripped from somewhere in the ceiling. The wagon-men were audible
outside, fumbling and cursing over the portable halogens. Buried underneath
was another sound, muffed by distance, a faint, repetitive noise.
Netti waved his light around. "Power's on somewhere. Sounds like an old
The interior decor matched crackhouses Erin had seen over the last few
weeks; stained walls bare of any decoration, light fixtures removed or
covered over -- the rooms adjoining the landing contained a few sticks of
furniture, but not enough to give any illusion of occupancy. Floors were
thick with undisturbed dust, bits of broken plaster and debris.
They entered the kitchen. The drains were stopped; the downstairs toilet was
a shattered porcelain ruin. Cockroaches scuttled secretively through the
wreckage. A drifting smell of sewage wafted from the broken plumbing, mixing
with the darker odors of decay.
"Gimme that bag," grunted the detective. Erin handed over the half-forgotten
sac as Netti flipped on a stove burner, his thick fingers feeling the spiral
element for heat. "Power's on, all right." He began rummaging through empty
cabinets and drawers, finally turning up a dented and rusty pan. Placing this
on the burner, he dumped most of the bag onto its surface. Coffee beans
spilled out, and the room slowly began to fill with the sharp odor of their
"You got it."
The obscene smell seemed concentrated in the rear of the building,
becoming more pronounced as they moved to the back hall. The faint, bass
thumping grew in aural counterpoint to the odor.
"Could there be somebody here?" Erin asked. "Alive, I mean."
"Not likely. A kid, maybe. Sometimes they'll stay with a deceased parent or
guardian... you know, nobody ever calls or visits, the mail vanishes
regular-like, and finally after week or two, we get the dread call from
dispatch: 'check suspicious odor', and besides the corpse, maybe find a child
hiding in the closet or something. Happens."
Erin stared. Netti was not given to long speeches or explanations.
"You gotta be careful, though," he went on moodily. "Sometimes, there'll
-- like, a guy wires the trigger of his shotgun to the doorknob, does himself
with a pistol. Then the one that finds him gets it too. Or crackhouse
defenses; pits cut in the floor, tricks with knives... you have to watch
yourself. But that..." he held up a finger as the noise seemed to randomly
trail off and start again, "is probably nothing. Probably, I said."
They moved on, beams swaying ahead over the littered floors. Carpet
squelched wetly under their feet. The door at the end of the rear hall was
nailed shut. Erin leaned slightly on the stained frame, which seemed to
settle back into place as if some internal pressure forced it outward. The
jamb, as well as the gap under the frame, had been filled in with wood shims,
the edges caulked tight.
"Looks rotted." Netti's hand grasped the knob. "I wonder..." His thick
arm straightened as he pulled experimentally.
"Don't --," Erin began.
The door did not so much come open as fly apart, panels and frame
shredding before the wave of noisome liquid that surged out into the hallway,
flooding over Erin's knees, shoving her back against the wall. The stench
exploded out behind it, a soul-churning tide of corruption that wrapped
around her like a wet blanket. Erin leaned over and was sick into the
chuckling waters that lapped her legs.
God! The stink, all over her... the flashlight beam showed unidentifiable
things floating in the thick waters, grayish rafts of matter like clotted
milk, stringy bits of something like gristle. Erin's eyes swam. Gagging, she
dragged herself upright against the wall. Netti stood calmly, service
revolver gleaming in one fat, pale hand, feet braced against the black water
that swirled down around his ankles. His flashlight was centered firmly on
the yawning doorway.
"My, my." He breathed gently through his mouth.
"Detective?" Erin sloshed forward and shone her beam over the man's
shoulder. The room beyond was nearly bare; drowned fixtures lay under a glaze
of slime coating the walls like a bathtub ring. Standing pools of water
rippled as the remaining fluid drained out the open door. From a ragged hole
in the ceiling, faint illumination picked out what lay at the room's center.
A slithering pile of neon snakes, writhing over and through a tangle of
pink balloons. A heaped mass of corruption and decay that moved under its own
power. Layered tiers of shambles piled three feet deep in thick pink and
yellow blankets... Initially, it was difficult for Erin to process what she
was seeing, not from fright or terror, but simply because the thing was
"Uh... what exactly am I looking at?"
Detective Netti turned his head and spat.
"That's what you're basic hillbilly would call a gutpile," he said
flatly. "An awfully big one."
Shapes swam dramatically into focus in the beam as Erin's brain began to
fit them into understandable patterns. She was looking at a huge mass of
internal organs. Here, a deflated gall bladder nestled into loops of swollen
viscera, there, soft tissues and membranes gelled together with rot. Puffed
with gas, sections of intestine protruded from the pile like obscene party
favors. The whole was several feet high, though the rushing waters had
probably carried much of it away. In the dim light, the mound trembled with
the secret workings of insect life and the machinations of decay, seeming to
pulse in time to the thumping beat that sounded clearly through the hole in
the floor above.
Erin staggered back, gagging as she tried to draw breath.
"Human...," she gasped. "I think they're human organs." A year in
forensics had taught her enough to recognize the insides of a human being.
"You're sure?" Netti persisted. "Not animal?"
Erin looked again, briefly. "Fairly sure."
"I figured as much." He sighed. "How many would you say it took?"
"People. How many," he gestured. "To make... that."
"Oh." Erin hesitated. "At least a dozen, more." The beating droned
relentlessly against her eardrums. As she tried to calm her churning insides,
Netti reached down, unclipped the radio from her belt and made a call. There
was a garbled reply, and he clicked off the receiver.
"Better," Erin announced a moment later, without much confidence.
"Beat cops have the front and back covered," Netti informed her quietly.
"There's someone here, isn't there?"
"Maybe. We're taking no chances. Are you armed?" He handed back her
heavy, knurled steel mag-lite. "Now you are." Erin didn't mention the
push-knife clipped inside her belt.
Puddles of congealing fluids covered the hall. The detective led the way
up the rickety stairs, moving quietly for a man of his bulk. The sounds
intensified as they reached the second floor landing, an erratic, muffled
thumping from somewhere close behind the walls... BOOM... ba-DOOM... BOOM. It
seemed to come from the nearer of the two upstairs doors.
"What the hell is that?"
"Like tennis shoes in the dryer."
The noise was somehow familiar, and Erin struggled to pin down the vague
association, anything to place that nerve-wrenching sound into some category
of explanation. Individual beats rose and lengthened into a rolling
crescendo, and suddenly she remembered.
Sixth grade -- she was cello, second chair, in the middle-school
orchestra. The percussionist, a gawky, bespectacled boy, had been saddled
with the school's aging timpani. Their bronzed bowls were flecked green with
age, and this boy had constantly fought to keep them up to pitch. The sound
of him railing away at the ill-tuned pots during recitals had been at times
The idea of someone playing timpani, here in this ghetto, with a pile of
human viscera downstairs, was beyond implausible, and Erin felt a crazy
laughter building in her chest. Netti gave her a worried look.
"Drums..." she hissed. "someone playing drums." She mimed a snare roll. Th
e detective's eyes were wild, but he nodded agreement. The noise had climbed
to a frenzied rhythm loud enough to cover conversation. Netti tried the knob,
gestured Erin to stand behind with the light ready, and then drew back the
The next minute seemed to strobe past in flickering frames of single
images, like a scratchy newsreel. The door swung open, and the thumping sound
washed over them, accompanied by a sort of papery wheezing. A light breeze
puffed outward, laden with a heavy scent like drying leather. In the dim red
light, Erin had the brief impression of a strange-looking crowd of people
moving about the room beyond, a man in their midst, his arms waving wildly.
Netti shouted something, and the pounding stopped. The man in the room
turned, then ran toward them with outstretched hands. There was a dull,
almost childish popping noise, twice repeated, and Erin realized that Netti
had fired his .38. The sound of the gunshots seemed to jar events back into
the seamless motion of real time, and she found herself kneeling on the
planked floor. Netti was slumped against the doorframe next to her, panting
heavily. They remained frozen, eyes wandering over the scene before them,
touching here, lingering there, finding no ease or comfort in any of it.
A single red light bulb lit the long chamber from above. Along its sides
stretched twin rows of naked people, hanging from the ceiling in regular
lines that reached to the far end of the rectangular room. Watching the
shapes sway gently back and forth, Erin realized that they were not actually
whole bodies, but the flayed skins, carefully stitched and sealed, then
inflated back into puffed, hideous distortions of their original forms. A
rotating fan was set at the end of the room, and the skintight, hollow shells
made slight boomings and groanings as they bumped and rubbed against one
another in the breeze.
The people were of varied age and sex, and each individual skin bore the
careful marks of tedious labor. Every seam and stitch was lovingly executed, t
he bodies fully intact and shockingly complete. Sexual organs dangled
impotently like dried fruit. The eyeless faces were propped into shape by
some kind of internal framework, their features fixed into horrid semblances
of human expressions: hatred, sorrow, agony, grinning joy. Empty eye-sockets
gaped mockingly down from the perches, their stark agonies defying any
reasonable analysis or explanation.
Sprawled on the floor in the center of room was a man, wearing only
shorts, crumpled on his side in a fixed pose. His slickly shaved head, pallid
skin, and long, lanky body gave him the look of a storefront mannequin. A
slightly puzzled expression had settled over his sharp-featured face, now
marred by a small hole above the left eye. Clutched in the man's right hand
was a thin blade like a fillet knife. In his left, he held a curved stick
with a soft, leathery ball on one end, a beater.
Erin remained fixed, faint sounds emerging from her mouth. The people --
their faces, and the bodies, blown up that way... They float like leather
balloons, she thought detachedly. Netti took her shoulders and gave her a
light, concerned shake.
Erin straightened, put a hand to her face. "I'm all right," she said in a
hollow voice. "Can we go back to the hall, please?"
"Just a minute." Netti stepped gingerly through the doorway and toed the
man's body. He glanced through the door beyond, then returned, stopping to
switch off the fan with one gloved hand. He was careful not to bump against
any of the hanging skins. "Let's get out of here," he said hoarsely.
They groped their way back to the landing, where Erin leaned tiredly
against the sagging handrail. One of the beat cops was rushing up the stairs,
revolver out, a handkerchief tied over his
nose and mouth. He saw them standing there, slowed, then holstered his
No one said anything for a moment. Netti's face was slightly crazed; a
white mustache of ointment smeared across his sweaty upper lip.
"Heard shots...," the cop began.
"We got the guy," Netti told him.
One of the wagon men came trooping up the steps, the halogen in his hand
flashing a huge swath of white light across the stairs.
"Sorry," he said, courteously turning it away as they shielded their
eyes. It was the young man who'd spoken to Erin. "All the damn sockets been
superglued," he said nasally. "Ran a line from the next house. Had to give
the guy five bucks to do it. Can you believe that?" As he played out slack
from the extension cord looped over one shoulder, Erin saw that his nostrils
were plugged with cotton balls.
He surveyed their faces slowly, took in the state of their clothes.
Netti mopped at his eyes with one sleeve. "Worse." He turned to Erin. "Go
call Dispatch, tell 'em we got multiples, to send specialists. I'll be right
out." Appreciative of the distraction, Erin went for the front door.
The detective looked at the other two men. "Gimme that." Relieving the
kid of the halogen, he shooed the beat cop down the steps after Erin. "Come
on," he said to the wagon-man, "I got something to show you."
A half-hour later, they leaned against Netti's beat-up Dodge as the house
became a blaze of activity; swarms of forensics examiners, detectives,
another meat-wagon. Though it was night, a small crowd was gathering beyond
the lines of fluorescent police tape.
Erin watched numbly. The industrial smells of the Eighteenth District
were like a draught of pure oxygen after the inside of that house. She'd
changed into disposable cotton scrubs, provided by the wagon-men, but the
miasma of death clung to her hair and skin. The shoes had been a total loss.
"Way beyond anything I've ever seen," she said finally.
Netti slugged at the soda he'd produced from a cooler in the car and
grimaced. "Well, if it's any comfort, I'd say the same, and I was there when
they opened up Gacy's crawlspace." The can tilted back, and his throat worked
up and down. "I read about something like this once... a tribal practice --
Celtic? African? They skinned people, blew up the skins, beat on them like
drums." The big man's face was pale. "Ahh.. by the way, thanks. You handled
yourself very well." He looked regretfully at his ruined clothing. "I should
have listened to you. and I'm sorry about the flashlight bit on the way in."
Erin smiled wanly. "Forgiven."
She felt very tired. That man, beating those flayed skins as if trying to
exorcise the demons from his own soul. What hope, then? How to reconcile that
sight with her understanding of the world?
Netti seemed to be thinking along similar lines. "You have to let it pass
you by," he said wearily. "That's how you absorb this kind of thing without
going home and putting away a fifth of gin or snorting eight lines of
cocaine. My own weakness is pizza, but then we all have our modalities. You
need a way to deal with it -- the things you see, the people... there's no
leaving them behind."
Erin had to agree.
Her thoughts drifted like balloons, drifted and rubbed against one
another with leathery, creaking noises.
She turned to the fat man next to her.
"You look like a cat person to me. Do you have a cat, Detective Netti?"
It turned out that he did.