BY THE SECOND WEEK IN June, there are two dead women laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel. They are so close to each other that their fingers nearly touch. The women can see everything with perfect clarity now, the man’s entire design available to them as though they had thought of it themselves: by the end of eight weeks’ time there will be five more women. He plans to use the city’s symbols against it. Seven women, seven warnings. Not so lucky after all.
The motel sits on the western border of Atlantic City, where stretches of salt marsh buffer the space between land and ocean. Casinos line the shores on the eastern edge of town, along the boardwalk, and to the north, where pleasure boats slip in and out of the marina or dock long enough for a bottle of wine, a bit of sun, a swim. At night the skyline is gapped, like a child’s smile: half of the casinos have shut down and their lights are turned out. The empty buildings hulk against the shoreline, mammoth and spectral as shipwrecked cruise liners.
In death, the women are still dressed to walk the streets. To attract clients with a slice of leg, cleavage. To mime desire with a cant of the hips, a toss of their hair. Dressed to be undressed. Their jewelry glints in the sun: gold hoop earrings and the delicate chains of ankle bracelets. Charms in the shape of four-leaf clovers, a pair of cherries, a cat’s head. A stack of cheap metal bangles, the gilt coming off in tiny flakes. There is longing in the way their hands seem to reach toward one another, the aching almost of it. Bruises bloom on the skin of their arms, delicate blues and greens that could have been painted with watercolor. Except for their necks, which are marked with purple rings. The water seething in and out with the tide means they won’t be preserved for long. Already dense, iridescent clumps of greenhead flies tickle along their limbs, their cheeks, their scalps; the flies’ thick, segmented wings like stained glass.
Each day brings a new hope that someone will find them. Planes fly banners over the beach, advertising Corona. The pilots loop back over the marsh but never look down. Other days an employee from the motel rattles a bag of recycling to the dumpster. Some nights a couple stops in the motel’s parking lot to fuck in the back seat of a rusted-out Ford Explorer. The car rocks on its frame for a little while, and after it goes still the man ambles out to light a joint. Sometimes the woman squats on the edge of the marsh to piss behind the cover of the reeds. The women call to her, the shush of the wind through the grass like a whisper. Look, they try to say. Look. Look. Please see.
Cars and buses thrum past on the Black Horse Pike, trucks delivering cuts of filet mignon and rib eye to the casino steak houses, or vans of fresh laundry for the hotels: sheets and pillowcases that have been boiled clean, napkins and tablecloths stiff with starch. At one point or another the women in the marsh have wished for that kind of a cleansing, a way to scald their secrets away, their pasts swirled down the drain.
The man has turned their heads so they both look in the same direction: east, toward the lights of Atlantic City. They have been placed there to watch, to warn. Their eyes are open. They wait.