It felt like ordinary stone, cold and hard beneath my hand. Just the wall of a Victorian town house, worn by the rain and darkened by pollution. The sort of wall where a portal might open.
Some people believed that the portals would be our salvation, a way out of this exhausted city in this broken down country. Some people are bloody idiots.
“Where the hell’s Downey?” I asked.
One of the techs looked up from his camera just long enough to shrug. His photos would tell us nothing, just like always. But we had to take them, just in case, like we did all the rest of the evidence.
When we first partnered up, Downey and I had talked eagerly about solving the mystery of the portals, finding a pattern that explained how and why they appeared. Those conversations had died somewhere around the end of the first decade. Now we focused on logging witness testimony, trying to stitch together a picture of the world on the other side.
There was one witness this time, a man who had been out walking his dog. He’d seen the portal open in the wall, seen a park full of flowers on the other side, bright street lamps, children at play. It had all looked clean and beautiful, like something out of a dream. He’d wanted to go closer but his dog had held him back.
“Tell me about the person who went through,” I said.
“She was tall, red hair, wearing a suit like yours.”
“Great. Now my partner’s going to be chasing her doppelganger.”
I glanced at my watch. Downey was usually the timely one, said she needed to work to keep her distracted. I’d never seen her be this late.
“She had those two-colour shoes,” the man continued. “Like in old gangster films, you know?”
I frowned. It couldn’t be. Downey would never be stupid enough to walk through a portal. Sure, the city was a mess these days, but she had a job here, had friends and family. No-one even knew if we could drink the water on the other side.
Looking to disprove my fear, I pulled a photo from my wallet. Me and Downey meeting Springsteen. Best damn day of our lives.
“It wasn’t her, was it?” I said, showing him the picture.
“A bit older,” the guy said, peering at the ragged-edged photo. “But yeah, I think it was.”
“She wouldn’t have gone through,” I said. “Maybe she was taking notes?”
“Sure, she took notes. Dropped them over by that bin. But then she walked through, swear to God, and the portal closed up behind her.”
The guy flinched from the look I gave him, but he stood his ground. The dog growled quietly.
This whole thing had to be a misunderstanding. I went to the overflowing bin, saw a notebook lying in the litter, and picked it up.
I flipped the cover open.
“I know you’ll be the one to find this Jonesy.” The words were written in that scrawl almost no-one could read. “Please don’t judge me. I can’t take this city any more – the pollution, the corruption, the despair. Since Dan took the kids, you’re the only thing keeping me here, and that’s not enough. Not when I can see hope three feet from my face. Maybe now there won’t be anything keeping you either. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side. Your friend, always. Jill.”
I steadied myself against the bin.
“Are you alright, Detective Jones?” the tech with the camera asked.
I took a deep breath and straightened myself up.
“Make a note for the report,” I said. “Missing person is Detective Sergeant Jill Downey.”
“Fuuuuuck,” the tech said. “I’d never have taken Downey for a chump.”
“Get some closeups of stonework,” I said. “You never know what we might find out. This could be the case that finds the pattern, lets us predict where the portals will come.”
I ran my fingers across the wall. Was I imagining it or could I feel a tingle there, some after-effect of the portal?
“We work out where they’re coming, won’t more idiots go through?” the tech said, raising his camera.
I looked around at the grey skies, the littered streets, and the pollution-darkened buildings.
“Would that really be so bad?” I asked.
* * *
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