"The Dragon and the Snake," by Chadwick T. Ahn, is the First Place winning story in the crime category for the Tenth Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year's awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusives, you can read Ahn's winning entry.
The Dragon and the Snake
by Chadwick T. Ahn
A man in a blue suit holds open the elevator door, welcoming in a janitor pushing a cart filled with cleaning supplies and equipment. Blue Suit scrunches his nose, the way a child does when faced with a plate of broccoli, and steadily exhales. The janitor, oblivious to the overwhelming smell of ammonia, nods his head while touching his cap and positions the cart besides his elevator companion.
“So, what floor?” Blue Suit asks, index finger at the ready. He begins to regret his earlier act of kindness.
“Well, that depends.” Charlie McBrian smirks and reaches for his .44 Magnum between the bleach and the hand scrub. Blue Suit’s forced smile disappears as the revolver is shoved a mere foot away from his face. “How old are you?”
Blue Suit’s suitcase fumbles onto the floor. “Wait, please, don’t do this.”
“How old are you?” Charlie repeats while shaking his Magnum for emphasis.
“I’m uh, I’m... forty. Forty-one.”
“Forty-first floor then, please.”
It wasn’t until ten past five in the morning when the police arrived at the foot of the Wells Fargo Center. An early jogger alerted 911 after she had practically run into a pool of blood, leaving behind six bloody shoeprints, each one more faded than the last. It’s always the joggers, Park thinks while exiting his car. It’s almost as if they’re the sole reason these deaths happen.
Detective Second Grade Karl Park is no stranger to the scenes jumpers leave behind, with their mangled bodies bent in the most gruesome positions imaginable. Though sometimes, if their landing is perfect, they almost blend in with the homeless sleeping on the concrete sidewalk. Park prefers the sleeping ones. They make death look peaceful. And peace is all Park really wants.
Unfortunately, the body by the Wells Fargo Center is anything but peaceful. A man is facedown on the pavement with one leg twisted up parallel to his crushed torso. His head is snapped backwards and rests on his left shoulder. Park can’t help but breathe through his teeth.
“What an ugly way to go.”
Park turns around and is greeted by his partner, Larry Henderson, who hands him a cup of hot coffee from McDonalds.
“Thanks.” He takes a small sip, careful not to burn his tongue. The coffee is extra sweet, just the way he likes it. “So, do we have an ID?”
“His name is Neil Richards, forty-one, employee of Wells Fargo, which is located in this building right here.” Larry points to the Wells Fargo Center known locally as the “Cash Register Building,” and as if on cue, the crown of the structure catches the early morning sun. “Apparently he was working late in his office before he fell.”
“Let me guess, from the forty-first floor?”
Larry nods and takes a generous gulp of his coffee. Park knows his partner is thinking the same thing he is. They’ve both been on the force long enough to know that this particular incident is not due to a suicide, but rather, a murder. Sure, suicide is common in a metropolis like Denver, trailing closely behind cities like Colorado Springs and Las Vegas. But within the past month, two similar “incidents” had occurred. Similar, in that the victims fell from floors corresponding to their respective ages. And with Neil Richards as the third victim, Park knows they have a potential serial killer on their hands.
“Are there any connections between Neil Richards and the two other victims?” Park asks Henderson, who is now flipping through his notebook filled with jottings from both previous and current cases. There are only a couple of empty pages left, though Park knows a replacement most likely won’t be needed, considering the rumors of his partner’s forthcoming retirement. Henderson is what Park would consider old school. He prefers using pen and paper over digital devices and follows a ritualistic pattern regardless if he’s on duty or not, such as wearing the same white shirt, black tie combo every single day. No one on the force seems to mind, although the same can’t be said for Henderson’s teenage daughter, who’s embarrassed to even be seen with her dowdy father.
“Not any that I can make out here,” the old veteran says while fingering through his cursive writing. “Jamie Rivas, thirty-one, fell out of the Granite Tower. Michael Liggins, forty-seven, fell out of the CenturyLink Tower. All three of them were working late before they died.”
“And all three of them were most likely dead depressed as well,” Park adds as he begins to light a cigarette, ignoring his partner’s sigh of disapproval.
Henderson puts away his notebook. “Well, I’d be too if I had to work late.”
“But we work late all the time, Larry,” Park says, blowing smoke over his shoulder. “Don’t you sometimes wish you could spend more time with Clarine?”
Larry Henderson ignores the question. “Our job is different. There’s meaning, purpose to what we do. Come on, Parkie. I thought you felt the same way.”
Karl Park coughs at the sound of his nickname. “Of course I do. And really, how long are you going to keep calling me that ridiculous pet name?”
“Til the day I die, Parkie,” Henderson says with a grin in his voice. “Til the day I die.”
Charlie McBrian tends to his bacon and eggs on his stainless steel pan. His tongue flitters at the smell of hot grease. He’s singing, though not so loud as to zone out the television. He’s waiting for his special on the local seven o’clock news. He’s been waiting for this moment for a while now. They can’t ignore me any longer.
He transfers his breakfast onto a plate and takes a seat on the sofa right in the middle of his studio apartment. The female news reporter is discussing the increased unemployment rate from the past two years, but Charlie doesn’t care about any of that. As he chews on a strip of bacon, he stares at the woman’s symmetrical face, wondering how much her makeup is hiding from the camera.
“You can’t fool me, Jenny,” he mutters with a full mouth, picturing the faint lines around her wide eyes and full lips. Thirty-six floors should handle you nicely.
“And next up, we have some tragic news at the Wells Fargo Center.”
Here we go! This is it!
A picture of the Cash Register Building appears besides Jenny’s “flawless” face. “Neil Richards, a forty-one-year-old banker at Wells Fargo, was found dead on the street, after what police believe to be more than a forty-story drop from his office window. Here’s what a detective on the scene had to say.”
The screen cuts to a clip of Karl Park in his brown trench coat and dull black shoes. For a man of Asian descent, Detective Park’s eyes are an unusual light brown color, and in certain angles, an indecisive gold. On the bottom of the screen, the words “Detective Karl Park” slide into view as a mic is shoved into the Detective’s pale face. “It has been confirmed that Neil Richards committed suicide last night, and we encourage people to be on the lookout for...”
“Suicide?” Charlie twitches before flinging his plate across the room.
Bacon, eggs, and ceramic shards cover the floor like a splash painting. That wasn’t fucking suicide. That was me! I killed that pitiful man!
“A simple gesture can save a person you care about...”
This is fucking wacko. Charlie slumps back onto the sofa as he questions how impotent the cops are at doing their jobs. And to think that his hard earned tax money goes into those fat fucks’ wallets.
Charlie McBrian does the only thing he can do to calm his nerves. I killed those people, he thinks. I’m not going to let them take credit for their own lives. He turns on his laptop and begins to type.
The back parking lot is a popular break area for cops who can’t kick the habit. Karl Park is on his second cigarette, a luxury considering most patrol officers barely have enough time to finish even one smoke. But Park isn’t a patrol officer. He’s earned his rank after years of utilizing his out-of-the-box thinking.
Larry Henderson peeps out from behind the backdoor. “Parkie, your plan worked.”
Park coughs as he puts out his cigarette amongst the nicotine graveyard and follows his partner inside. An envelope with the return address of “The Thirteenth Floor” lays waiting on his desk. Let’s see who we’re dealing with here.
Carefully, he opens the envelope and pulls out a typed letter.
Dear Incompetent Donut Eaters,
I’ve actually haven’t had my donut of the day yet, he thinks.
Are you guys for real here? How can you clueless fucks not catch the irregularities of Neil Richards’s “suicide”? Here, let me do your job for you (because obviously the pastries have been getting to your fat heads) and inform you that Neil Richards was murdered, by me! I made him jump from the forty-first floor! It only seemed fair, considering he lived for 41 years. And boy, did I love watching him fall!
And just in case you fucks don’t realize, I also killed the Hispanic woman at the Granite Tower and the Black man at the CenturyLink Tower. I did them all, in my humble opinion, a huge favor that they’ll probably thank me for later (something I’m looking forward to in the afterlife).
So please, please, open your eyes Detective Karl Park, and hunt me down already!
I’ve never heard that one before, Park thinks. At least he didn’t go so far as to call me a chink.
Because it really is no fun killing these people when no one’s out there trying to stop me. And believe me, I need to be stopped ASAP.
And because I’m a nice guy, let me tell you where I’m planning to kill next. There’s no greater pleasure than to see someone fall, and the longer the fall the better. So naturally, I’m going to camp in Denver’s tallest building (which is interestingly enough, the tallest building in Colorado as well). I’ll be waiting for you.
THE SUICIDE KILLER
A name which Park has to admit is quite ridiculous.
PS: The building I’m referring to is the Republic Plaza, just in case you nimrods really are as clueless as you lead on to be.
PPS: You’re probably wondering why I don’t live in a city like New York, where skyscrapers with over fifty floors are a dime a dozen. The main reason? Well, rent of course! Maybe one day, when I can afford it, I’ll become NYPD’s problem, but for now, Denver suits me nicely.
PPPS: My ultimate dream is to jump off the 100th floor of the Empire State Building when I reach 100. Of course, that means I’ve got to take care of myself, but chances are, I’ll get there. My grandfather just hit the big nine-O, don’t cha know it!
Park hands the letter over to Henderson, who scribbles in his notebook as he reads it through a second time.
“Cortez, come on over here, will you?” Henderson calls out. A young man in uniform rushes over to where the detectives stand. “Get me and Detective Park here a copy of this and then deliver it to the boys at the lab, alright?” Cortez nods and dashes off down the hall.
“Looks like we’re going to have to set up some men at the Republic Plaza,” Park says while massaging his temples.
Henderson lets out a deep sigh. “I’m not sure if that’s practical, Parkie. There are over fifty floors on that building and we don’t even know what day this Suicide Killer is going to strike. It might be a ruse, for all we know. The Chief won’t give us that kind of manpower for something so uncertain.”
“We really going to call this guy the Suicide Killer?” Park asks, breathing into his hands. “Seems kind of confusing, doesn’t it?”
“You got a better name for him, do you?”
Park shakes his head no. “Then what do you suppose we should do?”
Henderson gives his partner a light pat. “You’ll come up with something, Parkie.”
Karl Park takes out his cigarette box and heads back to the lot. “I’ll try.”
Carpeted buildings always mean next-day backaches for Charlie. The vacuum he’s authorized to use has a faulty wheel, but for some reason his supervisor refuses to get it replaced. “The economy,” his supervisor would simply say while munching on salami sandwiches from the deli across the street.
Charlie thinks back to the most recent replacement rejection and scoffs, “The economy my ass.” He pats his lower back as he takes a seat on a wooden bench.
The elephants are standing idly in a small group out in the open sun. People are crowding around the fences, trying to get a good look at the baby elephant in the middle of the herd. Charlie pays no attention to the animals. Instead, he stares at the families and couples through his fake Ray-Bans. How nice would it be, he thinks, to throw a whole family out of the same building at the same time? The parents from the thirty-seventh and thirty-sixth floors, and the kids from the tenth, eighth, and third floors. The parents would fall to their deaths while watching their own children reach the ground first. Charlie licks his dry lips at the thought.
He follows a multiracial family of four into the Reptile House, where the polished display cases shine under the fluorescent lights. He recognizes a familiar pungent odor lingering about the floors and the walls. And for the rest of his free day, he forgets about the pain in his lower back.
The elevator takes its sweet time as Karl Park rests against the wall across from the doors. It has already been several days since Park has started to spend his late night evenings walking aimlessly about the Republic Plaza. After just the second day, he familiarized himself with the ins and outs of most of the floors. He made sure to use the elevators as often as he could, knowing that they are the focal point of the building.
The elevator dings open, and Park decides to make his rounds again starting from the first floor. He gets on and presses the button labeled “1,” which is noticeably faded more so than the rest. As the doors open on the first floor, Park finds himself blocked in as a cart carrying cleaning supplies rushes in followed by a man dressed in janitorial attire. Before Park has the chance to leave, the doors close shut upon the janitor’s command.
Charlie McBrian takes out his Magnum between the bleach and the hand scrub and aims it promptly at the Detective before even giving him a good look. “Wait a second,” Charlie says as realization takes over his face. “Aren’t you that stupid cop? Karl Park, right?”
Park narrows his light brown eyes. “Detective Karl Park.”
Charlie shakes his head with excitement. “This is fucking wacko! I couldn’t have asked for a better suicide victim. You will be committing suicide tonight, won’t you, Detective?” Charlie says in a mocking manner. “You’re not depressed now, are you, Detective?” he snickers. “I’m just following the advice you gave on the news and trying to show you that I care. I truly do care.”
Park rolls his eyes. “Your banter is beginning to make me depressed.”
Charlie ignores his remark. “How old are you, Detective? Forty? Forty-five?”
“Thirty-nine,” Park says. He holds up his right hand and slowly fishes out a Marlboro from deep within his trench coat pocket.
Charlie McBrian breaks into a smile. “No way! I’m thirty-nine too. Snakes of the same year. How about that.”
“Actually, I’m a dragon.”
Charlie casually waves his gun. “Snake, dragon, it’s all the same, really.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Park interjects. “You see, snakes don’t have wings. Dragons do.”
Charlie’s smile stretches thin on each side. “Well then, Detective. Let’s see how well you can fly.”
The elevator reaches the thirty-ninth floor with a ding. Charlie closely follows Park out of the doors and into the dimly lit hallway. A couple of coughs mitigates Park’s growing headache from the smell of ammonia. They reach the lobby, where Charlie orders Park to open a window. The window barely opens enough for a moderately sized man to jump through. From this height, the winds howl and the air tastes sweet, just the way Park likes it.
“You don’t need me to tell you what will happen if you don’t jump, do you?” Charlie asks.
“What do you take me for?” Park says, his voice slightly defensive. “But before I do, would it be alright if I had just one last smoke?” The cigarette from earlier swims in-between his fingers.
“You’re taking this awfully well, Detective.” Charlie shrugs. “I don’t see why not. I guess one cigarette will give me enough time to tell you a little bit about myself.”
Park lights his cigarette in spite of the unrelenting winds. “I’m listening,” he says as smoke from his nostrils blows directly past Charlie’s white infested red hair.
“Have you ever heard of Evelyn McHale, Detective?” Charlie asks, dreamy-eyed. “The woman who jumped from the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building and landed on a limousine?”
Park nods. “Who hasn’t?”
“‘The Most Beautiful Suicide’ they call it. She was only twenty-three when she jumped. Twenty-three! Yet, she jumped from the eighty-sixth floor observation deck. Can you imagine?” Charlie grows quiet. The high winds take their turn to speak.
“Good talk,” Park says as he throws his cigarette out the window. “But I think it’s time now.”
Charlie snaps out of his daze and redirects his gun. “Yeah, here we go. Here we go!”
“Put down your weapon.”
Charlie turns around and is met by Larry Henderson accompanied by a small police force all equipped with Glock .40 pistols. The janitor’s eyes widen. “What in the...”
“Put down your weapon,” Henderson repeats.
“Fuck,” Charlie mutters, cockeyed. And like a small child, he drops the revolver onto the polished floor. Park handcuffs Charlie from behind and kicks the gun towards his partner.
Henderson gives him a thumbs up. “Good work, Parkie.”
The Dragon coughs. “You too, Larry.”
Charlie stands still, his dream slowly fading away. It can’t end like this, he thinks. Not like this. He imagines the photo he has on his bedside table exhibiting Evelyn McHale’s body, resting peacefully on the limousine. Her legs crossed naturally, daydreaming.
The outside winds call to him. Park senses it too. And without hesitation, Charlie breaks free from the Detective, runs towards the open window, and jumps, hands cuffed behind his back. He falls, squirming through the late night air. Park looks out the window below and spots Charlie’s body, resting on its side. From this height, he looks like one of the homeless, sleeping peacefully on the sidewalk. And fortunately, peace is all Park really wants.