Authors: Zoey Parker
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental.
Bounty copyright 2016 by Zoey Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.
This is a bad idea.
It was all I could think as I traveled deeper and deeper into a seedy part of town I had little experience with. The night seemed darker there, deeper. Scarier. As a kid I was fascinated with the way darkness changed the world around us. Things we wouldn’t be afraid of in the light, things we might even enjoy—trees rustling in the wind, a covered bridge, our own front yard—suddenly became ominous once the light went away. Shadow and darkness tended to do things to our brains.
That was why I started taking pictures in the first place. I became fascinated by the way light and dark played off one another. We all loved the light. We sought it out. We basked in it. Yet shadow made for a great shot. Better than one that was over-exposed. A lot more could be shown in a dark shot with just a hint of someone or something coming out of the shadows than in one taken in a brightly-lit room.
Then again, we all brought a part of ourselves into what we observed. I could hang a print on the wall, taken in one of those dark rooms with just a hint of a shape coming out of the darkness—a face, maybe, or an arm or a desk chair, anything—and one person might find it inspiring, one might find it depressing, and one might find it frightening. Same photo, three reactions. We brought our projections to the image we saw, making it what we wanted it to be.
The only problem was, the part of the world I was exploring that damp fateful night wasn’t very pleasant even in broad daylight. Only the most determined Pollyanna could see anything positive there. Roughly seventy percent of the crime in the city came out of that specific area, only twelve blocks square.
And I was driving into it.
“You sure you’re gonna be all right out here?” The driver cast a concerned look my way in the rearview mirror. He was a grandfatherly type, and I saw the concern in his eyes.
“Sure thing,” I said, sounding more chipper than I felt. Really, all I wanted to do was go straight home and curl up in bed with a cup of tea.
It had seemed like a good idea when I came up with it. I was desperate to find something riveting, something visceral and unforgettable. I was getting photos together for a potential exhibition, one which I had a lot of hopes pinned on. It would make or break me as a photographer.
I hadn’t been seriously into the photography game for very long. I’d studied it in college, but since my parents nearly dropped dead at the thought of their daughter pinning all her hopes on a career in the arts, I couldn’t major in it and hope for them to pay my tuition. So I majored in criminal justice—they were hoping this would lead to law school—while minoring in fine arts. Three years after graduation and I was still fielding the occasional inquiry into when I would be applying for law school. But I was busy taking pictures.
I’d been taking pictures since I got my first camera. It was my tenth birthday, and I’d recently spent a rainy Saturday afternoon watching a documentary on street photography I happened to stumble across on TV. I was hooked. I imagined myself taking pictures of people in their everyday lives, capturing a slice of life for future generations to see and ponder. I would be famous, a champion of the people.
Needless to say, my first roll of film was a disaster. So was the next. I was still too young to be trusted with a digital camera, so all I could work with was point-and-shoot. It was all right—a digital camera would have been a waste of time. I needed to learn how to compose a shot first.
One thing my parents couldn’t ignore was my passion for learning all I could about the medium. I wouldn’t just point the camera at something and click away. I was very serious. I took out books from the library, spent hours doing research online. How to compose a shot. How lighting affected a shot. What made a good picture. Why photos taken by professionals were better than anything I could come up with. This wasn’t just a silly hobby for me.
It took three years of saving every bit of money I could get my hands on, but I was finally able to buy an actual, serious DSLR. Countless hours were spent taking shots, analyzing them, comparing them to the ones I saw in photography books and blogs. It became my life, and I was never without a camera in my possession.
So what was I doing three years out of college? I was working as a portrait photographer in a mall. Hence, my parents wondering when I planned to enter law school.
It was discouraging. I hadn’t spent so much of my life learning the art to take pictures of kids sitting in front of cheesy backdrops. Yet for all my studying the art, I had no idea how to break into the business.
That’s when I got the idea for the exhibit. After spending a lot of time at galleries in the area, I’d made a few friends and one of them agreed to showcase my work for a nominal fee. They had connections to art writers at local papers who would cover the exhibition. This could be my big break, enough to get my name out there and get people talking about me and willing to buy my work. I was stoked—this was the chance I’d been working toward.
All I had to do was take shots worthy of being put up for the exhibition. Nothing I’d already done was good enough. Even my favorite shots were shit all of a sudden. I needed something raw, gripping, evocative. Something nobody would forget.
Which was what gave me the idea to take shots of city life. Not the glamorous, flashy stuff. The seedy stuff. Gritty, raw, real. The only downside being the need for me to travel to these seedy places to take the shots.
It’ll be worth it
, I thought as I rode in the back of the taxi. No way I was driving my car around there—I would even know where to park to keep it from being stolen.
“What’s a nice kid like you doing around here anyway?” The cabbie peered at me.
I smiled to myself.
Yes, Erica. What are you doing here?
This was a far cry from the suburbs.
“Taking pictures,” I said, holding my camera up so he could see it. I’d graduated to a much nicer model than the one I bought more than a decade earlier.
“Of what? A murder?”
A chill went up my spine. “Uh, I hope not!”
He chuckled. “Just wondering. Not many nice things happen around here. I’m sure you watch the news.”
“I do,” I said, looking out the window, biting my lip. I was well aware of what happened there.
“And you still wanna be here?”
“I’m a photographer,” I explained. “I have to go where interesting things happen.”
“Interesting. That’s a word that can have many different meanings,” he said. I smiled to myself. A philosopher cabbie.
We pulled up to the corner I’d asked for and I handed some money up to the front seat. “Can I ask one more favor?”
“Do you mind if I take your picture?”
He smiled. “I’d have worn a nicer shirt if I knew this was coming.”
I got out of the cab and looked around. What a depressing area. I felt distinctly fluttery in my stomach but put on a brave face for the driver.
“Okay, I’ll stand here,” I said, positioning myself to the left of the driver, slightly in front of him. I crouched down. “You just sit behind the wheel as though you’re waiting for the light to change.” It didn’t matter what color the light was or how long he waited—there was no one behind him. The street was strangely free of traffic. My stomach gave another fluttery feeling.
I got my shot and thanked the driver. “You want me to come back for you?” he asked.
I smiled. “I’ll call your dispatch when I’m ready. It shouldn’t take me long.”
“All right,” he said, grimacing. He looked me up and down. “Nice kid. A shame.”
I didn’t get a chance to ask him what the shame was before he pulled away. I didn’t want to know what he was thinking.
I looked around again. There might not have been many cars on this particular block, but there was a decent amount of foot traffic. I’d dressed in dark colors, hoping to blend in, and I realized the bagginess of the hoodie and jeans I’d chosen were probably meant to hide my body. It was a subconscious decision at the time. My ash-blonde hair was tucked up in a dark wool cap.
The only light came from the few working street lamps and the illuminated signs for the handful of businesses on the street, all food joints. Chinese takeout, pizza, wings. There was what appeared to be a market of some kind, too, but no market I would ever step foot into. The inside of the shop looked scarier than the street outside it, with dim lighting and a menacing man in a bloodied apron smoking a cigarette out front. I had my limits.
Still, he was a start. “Excuse me,” I said, approaching with caution. I spoke in a register lower than my natural one, in even tones. The last thing I wanted to do was show him how nervous I was.
He looked me up and down, his eyes squinting. “Yeah? Whaddya want?”
“I was wondering if I could take a picture of you.” I pulled my camera out from the large front pocket of my hoodie, where I’d been holding it out of sight as I walked.
“I’m a photographer. I don’t work for the newspaper or anything. I just find you interesting and thought you’d make a nice shot, in front of the window, smoking. That’s all.”
He looked skeptical but agreed. “I don’t have to smile, do I?”
I shook my head. “No, not at all. Look as though I’m not here. You’re just taking a break.” He did as I asked, looking as natural as he could. I snapped a few shots and showed him the screen so he could see how they looked.
To my surprise, he grinned. I didn’t know why I was surprised—most people smiled when I showed them their shots. Maybe because he was so scary-looking. But I knew he wasn’t scary at all. Just a guy on a smoke break, probably worn down by life. He actually thanked me before I moved on. I made a mental note to send a print to the address of the shop.
I did this a few more times. Once with a group of kids eating pizza while sitting on the doorstep to what looked like an abandoned house. Once with the gang behind the counter of the Chinese restaurant—I managed to see back into the kitchen, where there was a symphony of motion taking place at the time. Once I took a shot of a homeless man with his cart of possessions and handed him ten dollars when I was finished.
This was all well and good, but I wanted something more. Something urgent, something exciting. I knew my images had power. They told a story. But I wanted a little extra spice.
I walked on, surveying my surroundings. As long as I kept quiet and didn’t make a big deal about what I was doing, I seemed to fit in all right. No one paid me much attention, probably because they usually ignored certain things that happened around them. I guessed it was safer to mind one’s own business.
Ironically, just as I had that thought, I heard what sounded like an argument in an alleyway just ahead of me. I approached with caution, afraid a bottle would come hurtling out at me, or worse. I peered around the corner of an old brick building to check out what was going on.
There were two men standing beneath a light, and they were fighting. My fingers itched—it couldn’t have been more perfect. There was so much emotion on their faces, and the overhead bulb lit them perfectly. I had to get a shot. They couldn’t see me behind the building, so I felt safe. I crouched down, focusing in on them.
I snapped a few pics as the fight got more intense. I felt a shiver, knowing I should leave. Neither of the two men looked like anyone I’d want to tangle with. Something kept me rooted to the spot, though, no matter how loudly my instincts screamed for me to get the hell out of there.
Then, the unthinkable. Instead of fists flying, as I’d assumed, the glint of light off the blade of a knife. I gasped softly, taking another picture without thinking. When I looked at it all through the camera’s lens, it seemed like it wasn’t really happening. Maybe that was why I didn’t run.
But it was happening.
The man with the knife, the one who had been yelling, stabbed the other. It all happened so fast. One moment the knife was there, the next it had disappeared into the belly of the other man. He cried out in pain.