And the winners are?

Prose winner, A Peculiar Discovery by Libby Randall

A drain with smoke coming out
PROSE WINNER

A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall

 

‘You had to be the one sucker in New York following the law!’

He crossed the empty road, the outburst over.

I watched him, Officer McGowan, rolling his shoulders through the bitter morning, his balance wavering like a ship upon foreboding waves. My own frustration was set to simmer; I stood on the opposite street corner and suffered as the icy air numbed my nose with its dull sting. The New York streets were never this quiet; the sun hung teasingly below dawn, and whilst the blue hue of daylight felt calm, the breeze scraping through my ears was enough to make the whole experience suffocating. I stood and watched the city lay dead for a while. I could almost hear her breathing beneath my feet.

Steam rose from the sidewalk gutters and thumped with every pulsation of McGowan’s anger. Brow furrowed, he wasn’t trying to hide it. He looked as damp as the morning, holding himself so tight. Not even a flurry of pigeons, his favourite flinching victims, could tempt him from snarling and sulking. It was his way of letting me know this was my fault. My actions, and never his own, were to blame for our standing here at the beginning of the worst shift on a Sunday, the paralysing cold, and the unforgettable scorn we received from Superintendent Byrnes after making our first law-abiding decision of the year to raid the saloon of a man who had considerable pull with the city’s political machine. McGowan had joined the force in 1884, and in his decade of service could never remember his own participation in our more controversial affairs. And now we had been transferred to another precinct, and his wife wouldn’t be able to keep up her sudden yet thriftless fashion pursuit that was clasping the threads of their marriage together. I might as well have gone into their bedroom and fucked her.

Taking in the weight of the drab day, my mind escaped to more pleasant ventures. The only warmth I could rely upon, my own infatuation with the one I loved. Yet that thought was always stalked by its own echo of dread, and once again my focus shifted to the anxiety radiating from my colleague. Sundays were the best day to witness the treasure-trove of New York City’s underbelly. I’d always follow along at McGowan’s rehearsed outrage at the ‘blasphemous and mind you, illegal, notion to gamble on the Lords day’, an irrefutable pain which was only possible to be softened by copious and regular compensation. This drawn out week in quiet streets had given us nothing. As if on cue, he scoffed in that disgruntled tone of his. We were desperate. What’s more, the dreary feeling of being alone in this city was smothering, and all too familiar. Nobody here was like me. I was to protect the city against people like me. If what happened later that day had never occurred, I believe I would’ve lost all hope.

Black cascaded through my vision. I perked up, a shadow on the side of a building. Dark and dancing, elusive yet beckoning. Unnoticed by McGowan, whose slow meander around the same spot had reached its thirtieth lap. I searched for it again, wondered what it was. It scurried like a rabbit in the forest, a rat in the city.

At last, a man slithered through the street, hauling a large bag across one arm and walking in quick strides. His head might have been permanently fixed over his shoulder; such jarring movements caught the eye like an accidental smudge of white across this blue, painted cityscape. An opportunity presented itself, a chance to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I had little to lose.

Following him couldn’t have been easier, shining like an oddity the way he did. By the time my colleague caught on, we were only a few feet apart, my hunt muffled by the heavy thuds of contraband swinging against his back. I held out my baton, fingers locked around its grip. My arm now felt complete, and ready to impose the law with a sharp and deafening swing.

‘What’s in the bag, sir?’ McGowan called, stealing my moment. The stranger jolted to a halt, spinning around with hitched breaths and pale eyes. This closer inspection of him was more flattering, his features chiselled and dark facial hair fashionably unkempt; I took a mental note to be more spontaneous with my barber. His head-turning potential, however, had shrivelled, drowned beneath a timid crouch.

Books, he had replied. Before we could contend, the bag was pried open, the thick volumes peering at us like rabid animals wanting to jump out. He struggled skittishly, gaping up at our towering bodies stretched over grand buildings.

‘Moving things so early in the morning? And on a Sunday,’ McGowan added, shamelessly interrogating with nothing to stand on. We were desperate. It became suddenly haunting, watching all colours but blue drain from his face. If this man was a pawn in a greater game, he’d just given it away.

*

The next minutes were stolen by a story about a little library he and some friends were setting up. He’d take us there, oh yes, no problem at all. At that moment it became possible to witness the optimism trickling from my colleague’s eyes; this man was too trivial to be a criminal, his beard was too thought out. Yet this was the first chase we’d had all week, and the wardrobe of one Mrs McGowan depended on our ability to swindle something out of him. Before long, we were greeted by a door, a secondary entrance to an already unimpressive brick property.

Strips of wallpaper crawled down abandoned walls, invisible forces scratching through the plaster. Every clink of our shoes was captured against tanned tiles, an erratic rhythm that bellowed down the hallway. We had been led through a sequence of double doors and felt ourselves mischievously out of bounds. McGowan’s impatience resurfaced at the thought of climbing stairs, but we survived and were soon led to our promised destination. Thinking back to this moment, if I had known what truly lay behind that final door, I wonder if I would have had the gall to keep walking.

The rising sun poured in through a large glass window, its light glistening and distorting the myriad of colours before me. A wall full of books. I blinked.

The selection wasn’t extensive, shoddily put together over a couple of mismatched bookshelves, yet charmingly homemade and utterly unexpected. Large books hung like gargoyles from the top shelf. Smaller ones scurried underneath at the sight of our entrance, in the middle some leant on others in their old age, or stood proud and clean, but never admitting their yearning to be touched. A shy and mistreated hardcover alone on the second shelf down, exhausted and lying on its back only inches from the rest. Old and new, an eclectic collection of wild and unwanted, a group untamed and never meant to meet. And on the other side of the room, three men staring at us like a display of perplexed statues. They looked to our stranger, who stood too sheepish to return their gaze.

So it was a library, and our suspicions were rebutted. Yet our victor did not wane in glory, and McGowan was similarly unready to relent. If the prostitution rings of Lower Manhattan were to be replaced by whatever this was in the middle of nowhere, they would be made profitable all the same.

‘These are the friends I was telling you about,’ our familiar stranger announced with feigned confidence. Upon receiving their cue, the men nodded a brief welcome, though I couldn’t help but notice their obvious disappointment at our arrival. Perhaps disappointment was the wrong diagnosis; it was a more sinister stillness which held their bodies stiff, faces discoloured and frozen like nothing I had seen before. A cold chill brushed against my back like a phantom.

McGowan was predictably unaware, too consumed by his own self-interest to see the cracks in the walls.

‘A nice place you got here fellas,’ he finessed, picking out a book and passing it between his hands. ‘What did you say it was, a library?’ The act was kicking in; the first man and his background dancers shared a small conversation with their eyes.

‘A public library, yes, just a little community project-’

‘We couldn’t afford any of the ones downtown,’ another interjected, ‘this is more accessible, it’s a, uhm…’ he searched his mind, then the room, then his friends.

‘-Community project. For the neighbourhood.’

I cringed, though with a shred of pity; their façade would’ve been convincing had they possessed a morsel of charisma between them. So what was hidden behind this orphanage, a secret door to another room? Gambling joint? Perhaps there was a prostitution ring here after all. My study of the walls concluded nothing but the need to cover up a rotting layer of brick.

‘I’m going to skip the formalities,’ McGowan barked, as if anything formal existed within his vocabulary. ‘You show me the warrant you acquired from the city to set up this little shindig; we’ll be right on our way.’ The men shuffled nervously, looking to one another. Of course they didn’t have a warrant. A menacing grin moulding beneath his thick moustache, McGowan hit them with the punch line. A smaller sum would suffice, the first time around at least. His satisfaction ended as quickly as it began; they had no money.

The next moments would’ve impressed any thespian. An uncomfortable silence had pinned us in place, and before our eyes the calm began to ferment. Erupting with a splutter of blistering anger and a hand anchored teasingly at his club, my colleague promised to call a raid, get this whole building shut down unless his demands were met. But negotiations were brief; the men really had nothing but a sack of books and this little room. And whatever secret had set them on their brittle edge.

‘We can’t take them back to the station for having a library,’ I protested. His threats turned to me; and for the second time that day I sat through a parade of insults. It had been a hard week for our unfortunate pair, one man losing his marriage and the other himself. Yet an itch hung in the air, and whilst he marched abruptly to the door, I turned to face our prey.

Not prostitution, then, or gambling, but something we should know about. Changing tack, I strolled towards the bookshelf, toying with their reactions. Of the three men, the tallest gave away most. I got closer, maintaining a subtle watch over my victim.

My eyes unmoving, I slid a book from the shelf. My fingers lingered on the edge of its cover before hooking themselves underneath. His face turned white. Intrigue overtook me, and with a lustful impulse I turned the page.

Words, for the most part. I could have read them, but McGowan hovered by the door, frustrated by our impotent effort and gesturing me to follow. Still, vulgar curiosity welled in my stomach. Nothing was more certain than the discomfort hanging in this room, the blatant fear of these men as they eyed my uniform and squirmed at my every move. They were hiding something.

It suddenly flushed over me, the satisfying revelation of the chase. The epicentre lay exposed, the riddle unlocked. The danger was visible and throbbing and all around us; not human or even alive but written and hidden within the teeth of every creature on this shelf. The words.

I put the book down, much to their relief. I picked out another.

The spine was thick; it smelt like dust, or whatever it was that made books smell like that. The hefty cover protested my lifting; bones creaked as I forced it apart somewhere in the middle. Glancing down I crept up on my kill, taking a moment of remorse to eye their mortified faces as I pounced.

I can hardly explain the rest. What I saw stopped my heart.

Few words could describe the paralytic tide washing over me, the uncomfortable weight I held at the back of my throat. An invasive image stared at me, exposing me, awakening me yet threatening me with simple ink. Glancing at the bookshelf, my eyes scattered over a flurry of names. Poetry and Greek literature, Wilde and Whitman. Two male lovers on the page, static and immortalised.

I clasped it shut.

Something welled behind my eyes, and I pushed it down with all the strength I had.

Silence swallowed the air from the room; the men stood in utter dread as their secret was ripped from their hands. But I could hardly think about them, my own heart had started to beat again. A chaotic wave of emotion flooded my chest, a feeling I could never have accounted for and didn’t know how to control. This room was a museum of everything I had been trying to repress. Things I had thrown away were preserved, given a home and handled gently. I saw them again on their shelves, wild and tempting, roaring to be seen. Proud.

  ‘What is it?’ McGowan snarled, catching my disposition from across the room. The silence was torn; it lay dead on the floor. I swallowed whatever was at the back of my mouth. The men who could bear to look up at me held my gaze with more desperation I had ever known. This was it then, the conviction of their little community, their little rebellion.

A pause.

‘We’ll have to try somewhere else,’ I murmured, placing the book back with the others. I grieved its parting from my fingers, the loss of the one thing my soul had yearned to find. McGowan huffed in hoarse discontent, barrowing out the room and down the hallway. I followed, caught the door before it slammed shut and stopped quietly with my hand against the oak. Turning to the men, I noticed they were still locked in place. They waited in wicked anticipation for the final blow, their damnation and death sentence.

‘This is a library that… anybody can use?’ The subsequent silence was uncomfortably long, transgressed finally by a reluctant nod.

‘Yes,’ the stranger spurted, ‘Yes, sir.’

*

Trying to re-trace our steps through the corridor did little to deter my mind from the sudden flush rising to my cheeks. I had seen myself, discovered at last a glimpse of my identity. The deep knot within me, which I had always tried to saw through, had been softly untied, my lungs open and ready to breathe air. That room held a part of me on its shelves; the book had taken it from my fingers and was it holding it ransom for my return. Across brown tiles I ran to catch McGowan. As we gushed out of the door together, he was complaining, though spirit lifted slightly by the steady onslaught of pedestrians streaming out onto the streets. Golden warmth poured through the great canopy of clouds above us. Crime would continue in New York, but believe it or not, the sun was shining.

PROSE WINNER

A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall

 

‘You had to be the one sucker in New York following the law!’

He crossed the empty road, the outburst over.

I watched him, Officer McGowan, rolling his shoulders through the bitter morning, his balance wavering like a ship upon foreboding waves. My own frustration was set to simmer; I stood on the opposite street corner and suffered as the icy air numbed my nose with its dull sting. The New York streets were never this quiet; the sun hung teasingly below dawn, and whilst the blue hue of daylight felt calm, the breeze scraping through my ears was enough to make the whole experience suffocating. I stood and watched the city lay dead for a while. I could almost hear her breathing beneath my feet.

Steam rose from the sidewalk gutters and thumped with every pulsation of McGowan’s anger. Brow furrowed, he wasn’t trying to hide it. He looked as damp as the morning, holding himself so tight. Not even a flurry of pigeons, his favourite flinching victims, could tempt him from snarling and sulking. It was his way of letting me know this was my fault. My actions, and never his own, were to blame for our standing here at the beginning of the worst shift on a Sunday, the paralysing cold, and the unforgettable scorn we received from Superintendent Byrnes after making our first law-abiding decision of the year to raid the saloon of a man who had considerable pull with the city’s political machine. McGowan had joined the force in 1884, and in his decade of service could never remember his own participation in our more controversial affairs. And now we had been transferred to another precinct, and his wife wouldn’t be able to keep up her sudden yet thriftless fashion pursuit that was clasping the threads of their marriage together. I might as well have gone into their bedroom and fucked her.

Taking in the weight of the drab day, my mind escaped to more pleasant ventures. The only warmth I could rely upon, my own infatuation with the one I loved. Yet that thought was always stalked by its own echo of dread, and once again my focus shifted to the anxiety radiating from my colleague. Sundays were the best day to witness the treasure-trove of New York City’s underbelly. I’d always follow along at McGowan’s rehearsed outrage at the ‘blasphemous and mind you, illegal, notion to gamble on the Lords day’, an irrefutable pain which was only possible to be softened by copious and regular compensation. This drawn out week in quiet streets had given us nothing. As if on cue, he scoffed in that disgruntled tone of his. We were desperate. What’s more, the dreary feeling of being alone in this city was smothering, and all too familiar. Nobody here was like me. I was to protect the city against people like me. If what happened later that day had never occurred, I believe I would’ve lost all hope.

Black cascaded through my vision. I perked up, a shadow on the side of a building. Dark and dancing, elusive yet beckoning. Unnoticed by McGowan, whose slow meander around the same spot had reached its thirtieth lap. I searched for it again, wondered what it was. It scurried like a rabbit in the forest, a rat in the city.

At last, a man slithered through the street, hauling a large bag across one arm and walking in quick strides. His head might have been permanently fixed over his shoulder; such jarring movements caught the eye like an accidental smudge of white across this blue, painted cityscape. An opportunity presented itself, a chance to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I had little to lose.

Following him couldn’t have been easier, shining like an oddity the way he did. By the time my colleague caught on, we were only a few feet apart, my hunt muffled by the heavy thuds of contraband swinging against his back. I held out my baton, fingers locked around its grip. My arm now felt complete, and ready to impose the law with a sharp and deafening swing.

‘What’s in the bag, sir?’ McGowan called, stealing my moment. The stranger jolted to a halt, spinning around with hitched breaths and pale eyes. This closer inspection of him was more flattering, his features chiselled and dark facial hair fashionably unkempt; I took a mental note to be more spontaneous with my barber. His head-turning potential, however, had shrivelled, drowned beneath a timid crouch.

Books, he had replied. Before we could contend, the bag was pried open, the thick volumes peering at us like rabid animals wanting to jump out. He struggled skittishly, gaping up at our towering bodies stretched over grand buildings.

‘Moving things so early in the morning? And on a Sunday,’ McGowan added, shamelessly interrogating with nothing to stand on. We were desperate. It became suddenly haunting, watching all colours but blue drain from his face. If this man was a pawn in a greater game, he’d just given it away.

*

The next minutes were stolen by a story about a little library he and some friends were setting up. He’d take us there, oh yes, no problem at all. At that moment it became possible to witness the optimism trickling from my colleague’s eyes; this man was too trivial to be a criminal, his beard was too thought out. Yet this was the first chase we’d had all week, and the wardrobe of one Mrs McGowan depended on our ability to swindle something out of him. Before long, we were greeted by a door, a secondary entrance to an already unimpressive brick property.

Strips of wallpaper crawled down abandoned walls, invisible forces scratching through the plaster. Every clink of our shoes was captured against tanned tiles, an erratic rhythm that bellowed down the hallway. We had been led through a sequence of double doors and felt ourselves mischievously out of bounds. McGowan’s impatience resurfaced at the thought of climbing stairs, but we survived and were soon led to our promised destination. Thinking back to this moment, if I had known what truly lay behind that final door, I wonder if I would have had the gall to keep walking.

The rising sun poured in through a large glass window, its light glistening and distorting the myriad of colours before me. A wall full of books. I blinked.

The selection wasn’t extensive, shoddily put together over a couple of mismatched bookshelves, yet charmingly homemade and utterly unexpected. Large books hung like gargoyles from the top shelf. Smaller ones scurried underneath at the sight of our entrance, in the middle some leant on others in their old age, or stood proud and clean, but never admitting their yearning to be touched. A shy and mistreated hardcover alone on the second shelf down, exhausted and lying on its back only inches from the rest. Old and new, an eclectic collection of wild and unwanted, a group untamed and never meant to meet. And on the other side of the room, three men staring at us like a display of perplexed statues. They looked to our stranger, who stood too sheepish to return their gaze.

So it was a library, and our suspicions were rebutted. Yet our victor did not wane in glory, and McGowan was similarly unready to relent. If the prostitution rings of Lower Manhattan were to be replaced by whatever this was in the middle of nowhere, they would be made profitable all the same.

‘These are the friends I was telling you about,’ our familiar stranger announced with feigned confidence. Upon receiving their cue, the men nodded a brief welcome, though I couldn’t help but notice their obvious disappointment at our arrival. Perhaps disappointment was the wrong diagnosis; it was a more sinister stillness which held their bodies stiff, faces discoloured and frozen like nothing I had seen before. A cold chill brushed against my back like a phantom.

McGowan was predictably unaware, too consumed by his own self-interest to see the cracks in the walls.

‘A nice place you got here fellas,’ he finessed, picking out a book and passing it between his hands. ‘What did you say it was, a library?’ The act was kicking in; the first man and his background dancers shared a small conversation with their eyes.

‘A public library, yes, just a little community project-’

‘We couldn’t afford any of the ones downtown,’ another interjected, ‘this is more accessible, it’s a, uhm…’ he searched his mind, then the room, then his friends.

‘-Community project. For the neighbourhood.’

I cringed, though with a shred of pity; their façade would’ve been convincing had they possessed a morsel of charisma between them. So what was hidden behind this orphanage, a secret door to another room? Gambling joint? Perhaps there was a prostitution ring here after all. My study of the walls concluded nothing but the need to cover up a rotting layer of brick.

‘I’m going to skip the formalities,’ McGowan barked, as if anything formal existed within his vocabulary. ‘You show me the warrant you acquired from the city to set up this little shindig; we’ll be right on our way.’ The men shuffled nervously, looking to one another. Of course they didn’t have a warrant. A menacing grin moulding beneath his thick moustache, McGowan hit them with the punch line. A smaller sum would suffice, the first time around at least. His satisfaction ended as quickly as it began; they had no money.

The next moments would’ve impressed any thespian. An uncomfortable silence had pinned us in place, and before our eyes the calm began to ferment. Erupting with a splutter of blistering anger and a hand anchored teasingly at his club, my colleague promised to call a raid, get this whole building shut down unless his demands were met. But negotiations were brief; the men really had nothing but a sack of books and this little room. And whatever secret had set them on their brittle edge.

‘We can’t take them back to the station for having a library,’ I protested. His threats turned to me; and for the second time that day I sat through a parade of insults. It had been a hard week for our unfortunate pair, one man losing his marriage and the other himself. Yet an itch hung in the air, and whilst he marched abruptly to the door, I turned to face our prey.

Not prostitution, then, or gambling, but something we should know about. Changing tack, I strolled towards the bookshelf, toying with their reactions. Of the three men, the tallest gave away most. I got closer, maintaining a subtle watch over my victim.

My eyes unmoving, I slid a book from the shelf. My fingers lingered on the edge of its cover before hooking themselves underneath. His face turned white. Intrigue overtook me, and with a lustful impulse I turned the page.

Words, for the most part. I could have read them, but McGowan hovered by the door, frustrated by our impotent effort and gesturing me to follow. Still, vulgar curiosity welled in my stomach. Nothing was more certain than the discomfort hanging in this room, the blatant fear of these men as they eyed my uniform and squirmed at my every move. They were hiding something.

It suddenly flushed over me, the satisfying revelation of the chase. The epicentre lay exposed, the riddle unlocked. The danger was visible and throbbing and all around us; not human or even alive but written and hidden within the teeth of every creature on this shelf. The words.

I put the book down, much to their relief. I picked out another.

The spine was thick; it smelt like dust, or whatever it was that made books smell like that. The hefty cover protested my lifting; bones creaked as I forced it apart somewhere in the middle. Glancing down I crept up on my kill, taking a moment of remorse to eye their mortified faces as I pounced.

I can hardly explain the rest. What I saw stopped my heart.

Few words could describe the paralytic tide washing over me, the uncomfortable weight I held at the back of my throat. An invasive image stared at me, exposing me, awakening me yet threatening me with simple ink. Glancing at the bookshelf, my eyes scattered over a flurry of names. Poetry and Greek literature, Wilde and Whitman. Two male lovers on the page, static and immortalised.

I clasped it shut.

Something welled behind my eyes, and I pushed it down with all the strength I had.

Silence swallowed the air from the room; the men stood in utter dread as their secret was ripped from their hands. But I could hardly think about them, my own heart had started to beat again. A chaotic wave of emotion flooded my chest, a feeling I could never have accounted for and didn’t know how to control. This room was a museum of everything I had been trying to repress. Things I had thrown away were preserved, given a home and handled gently. I saw them again on their shelves, wild and tempting, roaring to be seen. Proud.

  ‘What is it?’ McGowan snarled, catching my disposition from across the room. The silence was torn; it lay dead on the floor. I swallowed whatever was at the back of my mouth. The men who could bear to look up at me held my gaze with more desperation I had ever known. This was it then, the conviction of their little community, their little rebellion.

A pause.

‘We’ll have to try somewhere else,’ I murmured, placing the book back with the others. I grieved its parting from my fingers, the loss of the one thing my soul had yearned to find. McGowan huffed in hoarse discontent, barrowing out the room and down the hallway. I followed, caught the door before it slammed shut and stopped quietly with my hand against the oak. Turning to the men, I noticed they were still locked in place. They waited in wicked anticipation for the final blow, their damnation and death sentence.

‘This is a library that… anybody can use?’ The subsequent silence was uncomfortably long, transgressed finally by a reluctant nod.

‘Yes,’ the stranger spurted, ‘Yes, sir.’

*

Trying to re-trace our steps through the corridor did little to deter my mind from the sudden flush rising to my cheeks. I had seen myself, discovered at last a glimpse of my identity. The deep knot within me, which I had always tried to saw through, had been softly untied, my lungs open and ready to breathe air. That room held a part of me on its shelves; the book had taken it from my fingers and was it holding it ransom for my return. Across brown tiles I ran to catch McGowan. As we gushed out of the door together, he was complaining, though spirit lifted slightly by the steady onslaught of pedestrians streaming out onto the streets. Golden warmth poured through the great canopy of clouds above us. Crime would continue in New York, but believe it or not, the sun was shining.

PROSE WINNER

A PECULIAR DISCOVERY by Libby Randall

 

‘You had to be the one sucker in New York following the law!’

He crossed the empty road, the outburst over.

I watched him, Officer McGowan, rolling his shoulders through the bitter morning, his balance wavering like a ship upon foreboding waves. My own frustration was set to simmer; I stood on the opposite street corner and suffered as the icy air numbed my nose with its dull sting. The New York streets were never this quiet; the sun hung teasingly below dawn, and whilst the blue hue of daylight felt calm, the breeze scraping through my ears was enough to make the whole experience suffocating. I stood and watched the city lay dead for a while. I could almost hear her breathing beneath my feet.

Steam rose from the sidewalk gutters and thumped with every pulsation of McGowan’s anger. Brow furrowed, he wasn’t trying to hide it. He looked as damp as the morning, holding himself so tight. Not even a flurry of pigeons, his favourite flinching victims, could tempt him from snarling and sulking. It was his way of letting me know this was my fault. My actions, and never his own, were to blame for our standing here at the beginning of the worst shift on a Sunday, the paralysing cold, and the unforgettable scorn we received from Superintendent Byrnes after making our first law-abiding decision of the year to raid the saloon of a man who had considerable pull with the city’s political machine. McGowan had joined the force in 1884, and in his decade of service could never remember his own participation in our more controversial affairs. And now we had been transferred to another precinct, and his wife wouldn’t be able to keep up her sudden yet thriftless fashion pursuit that was clasping the threads of their marriage together. I might as well have gone into their bedroom and fucked her.

Taking in the weight of the drab day, my mind escaped to more pleasant ventures. The only warmth I could rely upon, my own infatuation with the one I loved. Yet that thought was always stalked by its own echo of dread, and once again my focus shifted to the anxiety radiating from my colleague. Sundays were the best day to witness the treasure-trove of New York City’s underbelly. I’d always follow along at McGowan’s rehearsed outrage at the ‘blasphemous and mind you, illegal, notion to gamble on the Lords day’, an irrefutable pain which was only possible to be softened by copious and regular compensation. This drawn out week in quiet streets had given us nothing. As if on cue, he scoffed in that disgruntled tone of his. We were desperate. What’s more, the dreary feeling of being alone in this city was smothering, and all too familiar. Nobody here was like me. I was to protect the city against people like me. If what happened later that day had never occurred, I believe I would’ve lost all hope.

Black cascaded through my vision. I perked up, a shadow on the side of a building. Dark and dancing, elusive yet beckoning. Unnoticed by McGowan, whose slow meander around the same spot had reached its thirtieth lap. I searched for it again, wondered what it was. It scurried like a rabbit in the forest, a rat in the city.

At last, a man slithered through the street, hauling a large bag across one arm and walking in quick strides. His head might have been permanently fixed over his shoulder; such jarring movements caught the eye like an accidental smudge of white across this blue, painted cityscape. An opportunity presented itself, a chance to scrape the bottom of the barrel. I had little to lose.

Following him couldn’t have been easier, shining like an oddity the way he did. By the time my colleague caught on, we were only a few feet apart, my hunt muffled by the heavy thuds of contraband swinging against his back. I held out my baton, fingers locked around its grip. My arm now felt complete, and ready to impose the law with a sharp and deafening swing.

‘What’s in the bag, sir?’ McGowan called, stealing my moment. The stranger jolted to a halt, spinning around with hitched breaths and pale eyes. This closer inspection of him was more flattering, his features chiselled and dark facial hair fashionably unkempt; I took a mental note to be more spontaneous with my barber. His head-turning potential, however, had shrivelled, drowned beneath a timid crouch.

Books, he had replied. Before we could contend, the bag was pried open, the thick volumes peering at us like rabid animals wanting to jump out. He struggled skittishly, gaping up at our towering bodies stretched over grand buildings.

‘Moving things so early in the morning? And on a Sunday,’ McGowan added, shamelessly interrogating with nothing to stand on. We were desperate. It became suddenly haunting, watching all colours but blue drain from his face. If this man was a pawn in a greater game, he’d just given it away.

*

The next minutes were stolen by a story about a little library he and some friends were setting up. He’d take us there, oh yes, no problem at all. At that moment it became possible to witness the optimism trickling from my colleague’s eyes; this man was too trivial to be a criminal, his beard was too thought out. Yet this was the first chase we’d had all week, and the wardrobe of one Mrs McGowan depended on our ability to swindle something out of him. Before long, we were greeted by a door, a secondary entrance to an already unimpressive brick property.

Strips of wallpaper crawled down abandoned walls, invisible forces scratching through the plaster. Every clink of our shoes was captured against tanned tiles, an erratic rhythm that bellowed down the hallway. We had been led through a sequence of double doors and felt ourselves mischievously out of bounds. McGowan’s impatience resurfaced at the thought of climbing stairs, but we survived and were soon led to our promised destination. Thinking back to this moment, if I had known what truly lay behind that final door, I wonder if I would have had the gall to keep walking.

The rising sun poured in through a large glass window, its light glistening and distorting the myriad of colours before me. A wall full of books. I blinked.

The selection wasn’t extensive, shoddily put together over a couple of mismatched bookshelves, yet charmingly homemade and utterly unexpected. Large books hung like gargoyles from the top shelf. Smaller ones scurried underneath at the sight of our entrance, in the middle some leant on others in their old age, or stood proud and clean, but never admitting their yearning to be touched. A shy and mistreated hardcover alone on the second shelf down, exhausted and lying on its back only inches from the rest. Old and new, an eclectic collection of wild and unwanted, a group untamed and never meant to meet. And on the other side of the room, three men staring at us like a display of perplexed statues. They looked to our stranger, who stood too sheepish to return their gaze.

So it was a library, and our suspicions were rebutted. Yet our victor did not wane in glory, and McGowan was similarly unready to relent. If the prostitution rings of Lower Manhattan were to be replaced by whatever this was in the middle of nowhere, they would be made profitable all the same.

‘These are the friends I was telling you about,’ our familiar stranger announced with feigned confidence. Upon receiving their cue, the men nodded a brief welcome, though I couldn’t help but notice their obvious disappointment at our arrival. Perhaps disappointment was the wrong diagnosis; it was a more sinister stillness which held their bodies stiff, faces discoloured and frozen like nothing I had seen before. A cold chill brushed against my back like a phantom.

McGowan was predictably unaware, too consumed by his own self-interest to see the cracks in the walls.

‘A nice place you got here fellas,’ he finessed, picking out a book and passing it between his hands. ‘What did you say it was, a library?’ The act was kicking in; the first man and his background dancers shared a small conversation with their eyes.

‘A public library, yes, just a little community project-’

‘We couldn’t afford any of the ones downtown,’ another interjected, ‘this is more accessible, it’s a, uhm…’ he searched his mind, then the room, then his friends.

‘-Community project. For the neighbourhood.’

I cringed, though with a shred of pity; their façade would’ve been convincing had they possessed a morsel of charisma between them. So what was hidden behind this orphanage, a secret door to another room? Gambling joint? Perhaps there was a prostitution ring here after all. My study of the walls concluded nothing but the need to cover up a rotting layer of brick.

‘I’m going to skip the formalities,’ McGowan barked, as if anything formal existed within his vocabulary. ‘You show me the warrant you acquired from the city to set up this little shindig; we’ll be right on our way.’ The men shuffled nervously, looking to one another. Of course they didn’t have a warrant. A menacing grin moulding beneath his thick moustache, McGowan hit them with the punch line. A smaller sum would suffice, the first time around at least. His satisfaction ended as quickly as it began; they had no money.

The next moments would’ve impressed any thespian. An uncomfortable silence had pinned us in place, and before our eyes the calm began to ferment. Erupting with a splutter of blistering anger and a hand anchored teasingly at his club, my colleague promised to call a raid, get this whole building shut down unless his demands were met. But negotiations were brief; the men really had nothing but a sack of books and this little room. And whatever secret had set them on their brittle edge.

‘We can’t take them back to the station for having a library,’ I protested. His threats turned to me; and for the second time that day I sat through a parade of insults. It had been a hard week for our unfortunate pair, one man losing his marriage and the other himself. Yet an itch hung in the air, and whilst he marched abruptly to the door, I turned to face our prey.

Not prostitution, then, or gambling, but something we should know about. Changing tack, I strolled towards the bookshelf, toying with their reactions. Of the three men, the tallest gave away most. I got closer, maintaining a subtle watch over my victim.

My eyes unmoving, I slid a book from the shelf. My fingers lingered on the edge of its cover before hooking themselves underneath. His face turned white. Intrigue overtook me, and with a lustful impulse I turned the page.

Words, for the most part. I could have read them, but McGowan hovered by the door, frustrated by our impotent effort and gesturing me to follow. Still, vulgar curiosity welled in my stomach. Nothing was more certain than the discomfort hanging in this room, the blatant fear of these men as they eyed my uniform and squirmed at my every move. They were hiding something.

It suddenly flushed over me, the satisfying revelation of the chase. The epicentre lay exposed, the riddle unlocked. The danger was visible and throbbing and all around us; not human or even alive but written and hidden within the teeth of every creature on this shelf. The words.

I put the book down, much to their relief. I picked out another.

The spine was thick; it smelt like dust, or whatever it was that made books smell like that. The hefty cover protested my lifting; bones creaked as I forced it apart somewhere in the middle. Glancing down I crept up on my kill, taking a moment of remorse to eye their mortified faces as I pounced.

I can hardly explain the rest. What I saw stopped my heart.

Few words could describe the paralytic tide washing over me, the uncomfortable weight I held at the back of my throat. An invasive image stared at me, exposing me, awakening me yet threatening me with simple ink. Glancing at the bookshelf, my eyes scattered over a flurry of names. Poetry and Greek literature, Wilde and Whitman. Two male lovers on the page, static and immortalised.

I clasped it shut.

Something welled behind my eyes, and I pushed it down with all the strength I had.

Silence swallowed the air from the room; the men stood in utter dread as their secret was ripped from their hands. But I could hardly think about them, my own heart had started to beat again. A chaotic wave of emotion flooded my chest, a feeling I could never have accounted for and didn’t know how to control. This room was a museum of everything I had been trying to repress. Things I had thrown away were preserved, given a home and handled gently. I saw them again on their shelves, wild and tempting, roaring to be seen. Proud.

  ‘What is it?’ McGowan snarled, catching my disposition from across the room. The silence was torn; it lay dead on the floor. I swallowed whatever was at the back of my mouth. The men who could bear to look up at me held my gaze with more desperation I had ever known. This was it then, the conviction of their little community, their little rebellion.

A pause.

‘We’ll have to try somewhere else,’ I murmured, placing the book back with the others. I grieved its parting from my fingers, the loss of the one thing my soul had yearned to find. McGowan huffed in hoarse discontent, barrowing out the room and down the hallway. I followed, caught the door before it slammed shut and stopped quietly with my hand against the oak. Turning to the men, I noticed they were still locked in place. They waited in wicked anticipation for the final blow, their damnation and death sentence.

‘This is a library that… anybody can use?’ The subsequent silence was uncomfortably long, transgressed finally by a reluctant nod.

‘Yes,’ the stranger spurted, ‘Yes, sir.’

*

Trying to re-trace our steps through the corridor did little to deter my mind from the sudden flush rising to my cheeks. I had seen myself, discovered at last a glimpse of my identity. The deep knot within me, which I had always tried to saw through, had been softly untied, my lungs open and ready to breathe air. That room held a part of me on its shelves; the book had taken it from my fingers and was it holding it ransom for my return. Across brown tiles I ran to catch McGowan. As we gushed out of the door together, he was complaining, though spirit lifted slightly by the steady onslaught of pedestrians streaming out onto the streets. Golden warmth poured through the great canopy of clouds above us. Crime would continue in New York, but believe it or not, the sun was shining.

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“Strategic foreshadowing, tight exposition, excellent figurative language.”

Janet Noble

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“Strategic foreshadowing, tight exposition, excellent figurative language.”

Janet Noble

JUDGE'S COMMENT:

“Strategic foreshadowing, tight exposition, excellent figurative language.”

Janet Noble

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Prose second place: THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Prose second place: THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu

READ THE OTHER WINNING ENTRIES

Poetry second place: OVER BEFORE IT BEGAN by Jennie Balaganeshan

Prose second place: THE OLD OAK DOOR by Hûw Steer

Poetry winner: THE BORROWER by Yaning Wu