The Howling Detective

At his desk, Ken idled with a Polaroid picture and muttered a few confused curses. He had been staring at it for hours, finding something obvious and dismissing it as far too strange, refusing to appreciate it.

“What’s that you lookin’ at there?” a coworker said over his shoulder.

Ken turned it over and slid it between the pages of the newspaper on his desk. “Nothin’,” he grumbled. “A scrap o’ nothin’ from my pockets.”

“You was starin’ at it like a treasure map just now.” He couldn’t remember her name—Ruby, Rebecca, something; a temp passing the rest of her fortnight in the office by breezing through data entry in the mornings and taking longer lunches in the afternoons. “That ain’t really nothing.”

“Don’t study it.” Ken cleared his throat, sliding the thing out between the sheets and into a pocket in his messenger bag to disappear. He had already seen enough of it. More moments with it wouldn’t make it shift into something more understandable.

He had taken a photograph just outside his front doorstep in the middle of the night. He read up how to rig a DSLR to capture motion-triggered photos, and then set it to keep watch over the outer face of his home, hoping to catch himself walking out one night. He needed to be sure of the past few mornings waking up barely clothed, covered in dew or dirt, sitting on the living room couch when he remembered being in bed early the nights before. It wouldn’t help him much, but it would give him a little bit of closure.

What stepped out of the front door last night had fur and claws, and it dragged a seven-foot coffin behind it by a chain wrapped around its centre. And it wore the same tattered track pants he woke up in that morning, even though they were whole and brand-new the night before.

Ken’s heart wouldn’t stop beating since he saw it. He just assumed he was sleepwalking. He didn’t expect to see a lagahoo.

Stranger still was the coffin. It had a name—do coffins typically come with copper name plates at their heads? He didn’t know. But bearing one wasn’t what confused him. It was whose name it was—one that was unavoidable for days, a spectre of a name, hovering over the pages of news reports and between the lips of taxi drivers and neighbourhood gossips.

Ken’s hand trembled. Marlon Claxton, carved in steel. “What did I do?” he whispered.

The camera picked him up going west. He feared the worst; he knew that in that direction, beyond the boundaries of his neighbourhood, there was a bamboo grove with only a river separating it from the streets, extending for acres and acres up a lonely hill before ever coming back down into civilization. A perfect place to hide a body, if one was inclined to hide bodies in his sleep.

He needed to check.

To know for sure whether he had just committed the murder of the year.

Trinidad Newsday, Tuesday October 10th 2017

OFFICER SPEAKS OUT ABOUT CLAXTON’S BODY FOUND

Constable Roy Hunte of the San Juan Police Station kneaded his thighs with his wrists as he sat, shaking his head at me. “I feel like I make a mistake, miss,” he said softly into his Rituals paper cup of coffee.

I asked him to clarify: “You mean, about the Claxton case?”

“What? No.” He cleared his throat. “About coming here.”

His tension never dropped throughout the interview. After several months dedicated to the disappearance—and later, the murder—of Marlon Claxton, he knew the case intimately, answering each question with confidence. But his guard never fell. In fact, as he began his description of the murders, it would have been easy to assume that the scene was what truly still haunted him.

“Two bodies were found at the scene—in Jason Parris’ house. The first was that of Marlon Claxton, who had been…” Hunte’s voice shuddered for a moment, and he took a sip of coffee. “Claxton had been assaulted with a cane stalk, and was found covered in dirt on the floor of the garage. Would have died from massive blood loss and ruptures to most of his vital organs. And next to him was Parris’ body. He seemed to have been assaulted in the garage, and bled out from multiple cuts across the entirety of his body consistent with many small, curved weapons.”

When he was pressed to explain, he sighed over his cup. “I mean small, curved weapons. Like them special knives you could buy in any shop—karambits or whatever. What everybody keep saying, ‘bout claws or whatever? Was entertaining for a time, but then you get to realize that it ain’t goin’ and do your investigation no favours to charge a stray dog for two murders.”

Hunte admits, though, that there were other possibilities. “A staging did come to mind. That somebody did want to do this radical, symbolic thing. That who killed Mister Parris was the real monster, or whatever—I ain’t know. But even that ain’t make no sense. Mister Parris was the monster, after all. We just couldn’t prove it.”

Ken bought a small bottle of caffeine tablets from a pharmacy on the main road later that day, just a stone’s throw away from his house. He decided at least in the early moments of the afternoon, he may as well get a small nap, the only rare sight of perfect sleep he’d had in a while. And then, when his watch beeped tinny at the strike of six, he shot out of bed, took a shower and a pill, wrapped a rusty spade in a sheet of black plastic, put it into a small bag with a bottle of water, and ventured westward from Carlisle Street into the dark, cold woods.

His breath was curt, and the tropical night was chillier than usual against his skin—not a condition of the temperature, but of his own fear. It was nonsensical to expect, and yet, Ken expected the whole thing without doubt. That thing was him, and something was in that coffin, and he had hurt a child in the way he had been hurt, and now he had to find it and make sure.

That was the part that felt the most alien to his mind. He knew what happened to children when they “disappeared” in Trinidad—they really ended up in a barrel or in a river or both, because the damage done to them was impossible to conceal. He had read a half dozen or more of those stories in the papers before the year was through, and each one turned his stomach.

What cruelty lived in his unconscious night-time mind, then? Why did it don a wolf mask, how and why did it grab a child who lived and studied in the West all the way to his Five Rivers home so he could destroy him once in the way he was destroyed multiple times?

A good forty feet from the river, his cell phone flashlight casting shadows against the stalks, he could see a patch of raised dirt before him—barely a half inch, but somehow obvious. It seemed new when he got closer, a shifted shade of clay from the rest of the soil. And… he could smell it. Not like death… like saltwater? And pencil shavings, and sweat, other things he could make out but not identify the sources of.

He took the spade out, and when the tip of it broke the ground, the scents rose up even stronger, overwhelming his senses. He literally reeled, falling back on his backside with dizziness.

Then he saw the dog. Some feet away, hidden in the shadow of a tight bunch of bamboo stalks, tail wagging as it stared at him. It waited for a beat, and then it let out one single bark in his direction.

Ken crawled back. He didn’t really like dogs, a result of a minor tragedy in his youth. But this one seemed to like him.

He tried to ignore it, still piercing the earth to find whatever was freshly buried there. It was an hour, but only because he was more eager about this than he would be about any other gardening project. But “eager” wasn’t the word.

When the tip of the spade broke dirt and hit something with a thick, wooden thud, Ken held his breath. For a long beat, he stared at the dirt in the dark. Then, he hurried to clear the rest of the dirt, scraping with the spade until he could clearly see a black panel of wood beneath the soil.

The dog came closer as he hauled the coffin out, Marlon’s copper-embossed name gleaming in the moonlight. It was definitely not holding a body, but that didn’t stop an unfit, slightly pudgy man like Ken from heaving under its weight. The dog was neither amused nor frightened by it. It hit the dirt on its side, and its doors swung open to reveal—

Ken leapt back and gasped, still expecting to see a child. Instead, he found randomness. A blood-stained shirt that smelled of rum and tea. A small jar of brown sugar, turning darker and darker under the scarce light of the moon until it shifted totally to black. A gold watch which, after a blink, became a pressed striped shirt, and then again a new pair of grey loafers, and back again, over and over in a way that Ken barely even noticed or recalled. An English Literature textbook, the Oxford Reader of Shakespeare’s Othello, surely with something special inside that Ken would never get to inspect. All of them a kind of figment, there for his touch but not themselves—the book like cloth, the cloth like smoke.

The dog faced Ken dead centre and howled. It felt familiar to Ken’s ears, less like a sound and more like a message, even an instruction. It made him feel a little dizzy, sent his heart beating faster from something separate from fear.

He glanced at the watch.

Wait. He squinted at it in the dark. Ent I see that watch somewhere?

“It was almost evident that Parris had hurt the child,” Hunte said. He practically repeated it throughout our conversation, in so many words. Even after he was no longer on the record, he swore it with the confidence of a man who refused to think himself mistaken. “Down to how he speak to reporters when he was out on bail—you ever see a man so brazen to talk to the news after coming out of a police station? To say ‘It’s a shame they wasted their time trying to ruin my reputation when they have a kidnapper to catch’? To say ‘It hurts my heart to know that the poor, beautiful boy has gone missing, I hope he finds his way home safely’? Don’t take me for no fool. Just listening to the man was enough.”

Of course, the evidence and Hunte’s hunches were at odds. “We couldn’t find a shred, obviously. We didn’t know where he did pick up the child, or where he was keeping him. His car was conveniently getting a full clean the one day we come with the warrant to inspect it. But it never did seem out of the ordinary to anybody else. Just… coincidences being roadblocks to the investigation.”

The media latched on from the early points of that investigation, on both sides of the divide. “Allyuh paper self was running yuh little Ask-The-People segments on page nine, where people did keep saying, ‘Why the police have to pick on the man so?’ What, you ain’t remember? And the usual ranting on the next side, too—’Hang ‘im high! If that was my child, I done slit he throat and leave ‘im in the street!’ But even the news itself. Everybody was rushing to tell me that my unit was incompetent. But we was trying we best! We just couldn’t make the conviction.”

More disheartening still, for Hunte, was Parris’ threats of legal action against Hunte and his division. “Of course he must call it ‘harassment’. It was his last opportunity to embarrass me, to rub my failure in my face. At that point, my superiors tell me to back down. And the trail went cold after that, so… what else was there to do? It wasn’t like we had any new leads.”

Ken’s eyes stung the next day, and yet, he bit down on another caffeine pill without even the vaguest hesitation. Throughout the day, the smallest fragments of questions would flutter about his mind—you know about two monsters now, but do you know which one you’re looking for?—and he refused to face them.

The internet had a lot of things to say about the teacher that everyone accused. Jason Parris was so guilty that Ken wasn’t even the first person to ask in the comments of newspaper websites where he lived. But that first person did ask, and then there was a first person to look, and then there was a first person to confess that the briefest of digital investigations proved that, no matter the nice watches and above-average cars, he lived at the end of a quiet street in D’abadie in an unassuming off-white two-storey house with a creaking gate and lacquer flaking off the windows.

Ken didn’t have a car. Ken had maxi-taxi fare, and a bottle of caffeine pills, and a desire to understand something, and he decided he’d go on the hunt for the simpler thing to understand.

Ken lingered in the shadow of a tree at the street corner and waited, trying to maintain his focus as the corners of his eyes started to sting. At the edge of his eyesight, he noticed the lights in the dining room come off, and he lingered for a few moments more, until he was beyond sure that whoever was inside had gone to bed. Then, the work began—he made for the house, clumsily scaling the outside gate and thanking God that there were no dogs in the Parris yard. Even with his rattling, no one seemed to stir.

He made right for the back of the house, to the garden he could barely make out under the light of nearby street lamps. He squinted, resisting the urge to reach for his phone flashlight to make the search easier. Nothing seemed immediately out of the ordinary. He dreaded that he would have to risk discovery entering the house to find it.

He took a deep breath and knelt there, hoping his eyes would acclimatise, and then he saw something. The entire segment of soil beneath the garden was a fresh brown, maybe weeks since it was turned. And… Ken’s nose burned, full of the smell of congealed blood and rotting flesh and the maggots that swim in it, and beyond that, pencil shavings, and salt, and blood-copper.

Ken put his hand through the dirt, reaching all the way down until he felt something more solid than sand. He pulled out a fistful of soil, then another, pushing out plants and reaching as deep as half a forearm into the garden until he knew that he had a small limb in his grasp, and he pulled.

When the entire thing was struck by the dim orange lamplight, Ken resisted the urge to scream. He could barely tell that it was a real boy at all. The tip of a cane stalk protruding from his wide-open mouth, caked in something ruddy and hard… Ken dropped it and clasped his hands over his mouth, fearful tears wetting his eyes.

He dialed the local station right then and there, perhaps in the hope that the report would stave off his fear and rage. “Hello, police? I calling to make a tip. Jason Parris’ garden—if you didn’t check yet, the body was there. I know—I in the yard right now. Don’t ask me how. But the Claxton boy’s body here.”

In that moment, seeing the boy’s face swollen and broken, there was this illogical urge to let it out in a sound, more than a mere scream, a kind of prayer upward to the full and dazzling moon for guidance, or deliverance, or strength, or rage—

Ken could keenly hear the jingle of a pair of keys, and then a stern voice. “Hello? Who’s there?”

He turned to see the back door’s curtain drawn. A pair of eyes, barely caught by light, gazing at him.

The voice raised. “Who the fuck is you?”

Ken bolted. Back out to the front, over the gate in another awkward jump, hearing the man’s footsteps through the wooden floors of the house—how I could tell that from here? Ken thought as he ran—to the front porch and then out to the gate, behind him until just a metre or two into the street. Ken kept running. Maybe Mr. Parris would just make a trespassing report, dispose of the evid—

Ken heard an engine. He hadn’t even noticed the man’s beloved fancy car wasn’t parked outside the gate. He couldn’t outrun that.

And Jason Parris wouldn’t let him.

The collision put Ken between a speeding Jaguar and a nearby tree. The impact broke things that he was immediately too unconscious to notice, and his consciousness faded with only the touch of blood rolling down his face, and the still-growing desire to let out a nasty howl, to speak this moon-language he did not know he knew…

When pressed about the call on that fateful night—an anonymous tipster who claimed to have witnessed Parris place the child’s body in the soil beneath his garden, Hunte replied initially with a sigh.

“You know how many people used to give we them calls? ‘I see Jason Parris leave the body in he car,’ ‘I see Jason Parris drop him in the beach water up by Toco,’ ‘I see Jason Parris chop something up fine-fine-fine through he kitchen window, it must be the boy.’ We does get so many calls ‘bout Parris. Not ‘bout Claxton, mind—’bout Parris. Everybody does feel that they know somebody definitely committed a crime once it on the news. Just because they see the face so often, and we all want somebody to pay for something that nasty, we need something. ‘I know it’s Parris. I see him do—’… do anything.”

Long after our interview ended, I posed the notion that Hunte couldn’t see the irony of those words at all. “But I know Parris did do it. It’s because I couldn’t tell you how I know—that’s why you could trust me. Me ain’t makin’ up a body or a burial site to blame nobody. I knew it was Parris, and I just knew. That’s all. Those two things are not the same.”

In the distance, the long note of a howl slowly stirred Ken awake. When he fully found himself, a dim yellow light shone overhead and swung slowly, shifting the shadows in the room.

“What you was doing messing around in my yard, man?” a voice said coldly. He knew the voice from enough television news interviews, enough hollow denials of blame. But his vision was too hazy to make out the face among the blurred silhouette. After a beat, he noticed himself—wrists bound in rope, hung over the garage floor by a ceiling beam.

“I’m sorry,” Ken slurred. “I did get lost, and a dog was following me, and—”

The shadow rushed toward him, dipping low and swinging its arms toward his stomach. A trickle of blood spilled out from his lips; only then did he realize that he had already been bleeding, bruised all over his face and cut all over his sides.

“Everybody want so badly to prove something that they willing to trespass on my land, eh? Why? Everybody need to have somebody to blame that bad?”

Ken coughed, feeling the thick red against his chin. “But I already see it, hoss. You can’t lie ‘bout it again. And it ain’t my business, so you could just let me go and I—”

Ken knew he was being struck with a tire iron now, catching it in the light just before it struck him in the jaw. “What body, man? You seeing things in the middle of the night, or what?”

Ken took a breath. “I saw him. The boy. In the garden. If I going and die anyway, I ain’t have no intention of hiding it. And I wonder how long it going and take for you to hide me.”

“Hide you?” Parris laughed, leaning in just enough for the garage light to glow menacing against his face. “You ain’t look like anybody missing you, man. And since you ‘seeing things’ in my yard, it’s only right if I want to stay out of trouble that I get rid o’ you, then, ent?”

Ken’s shoulders tensed in fear, and with the fear came pain. He winced, glancing at his arms to see how badly injured he was. Instead, he found arms that he swore didn’t resemble his own. They were covered in far more hair than he was used to or even comfortable with, and despite their deep, long gashes, they appeared to be bigger than before, too. He tightened his fists, wishing he could shake his bonds loose, feeling them strain under his pressure.

The howl grew closer. Ken clenched his jaw, and that stung too, but he clenched even harder, holding back this deeper and more painful urge to cry out to the unseen moon for help, for release, for more rage, rage, rage deeper and hotter than he knew—

The howl outside sounded in his head like it was right beside him now, and Ken couldn’t resist. He closed his eyes and his head rolled back and he let out a long, low note to the sky, and to him it sounded like thank you, thank you for telling me what I really was, and giving me something to kill, and he wanted to bite his own lip but the desire only made both the inside howl and the outside howl so much louder to Ken.

Before Jason Parris could exclaim, Ken’s ropes had already burst. He wasn’t even trying to break free at that moment. It barely took enough of the new thing he had become. When he glanced down at himself again, he was even more hirsute, less of a man and more of something he couldn’t recognize. At the ends of his limbs were slowly-growing talons, each as long as a man’s finger, and they seemed to sing to him for blood. And by the time he had heard the song, he couldn’t even focus on his own body any more. It was a new thing, asking to destroy a destroyer, and that’s all he knew.

He heard Jason scream, and felt it, too. Could smell it—sweat and expensive cologne and urine and cigarette ash and cane juice, cane juice still all over his fingers after so long. Ken snarled, felt the joy of snarling, his eyes widening to gaze more of his prey.

The rest happened as if his new body was still not himself—far faster than he could notice, and yet with an unavoidable grace. He could still feel the glee of the man’s arms rending from the rest of him, of his wails in the night for God to come give him security. Ken wondered whether Marlon got a chance to scream, whether Parris screaming now was more torture or less than he deserved.

But then it was over before it began, in a passing cloud of blood that burst against the garage floor and pooled in the rightward corners. Ken howled again, this time not being asked by the moon or by another hound, simply singing again to the sky. Thank you. Thank you. It’s done.

The high took too many minutes to dim for him. Even when he could find the thought to run back home, he still relished the scent of raw monster-meat against the concrete. Then, finally, it struck him. Shit. He could acutely hear a light flicker in the main house. He willed his claws to come down, and they wouldn’t.

So he scraped through the door, three long cleaves putting a hole big enough for him to drag his fur and fighting through, and he galloped back into the night, up the lit midnight street and into nothing. He could head home, he thought. Maybe avoid the rare prying eye and fall into his bed in this shape, hopefully don’t break too much on the way.

But soon enough, he wasn’t even thinking about being unseen. He could only think of the blood. The pool of what smelled like villain, bittersweet and abundant, still enough on his talons for imbibing before finally falling to sleep.

“Yes, I know this ain’t police work.” Hunte wouldn’t stop wringing his wrists at this point, gazing down as if this was his only true failure of the Claxton investigation. “I know we have no right to be glad in a man’s death. But I can’t lie to you, miss-lady—Jason Parris did get what was comin’ to he in the end, I am sure of it. I for one not sad that he dead. The body was there. All of the evidence we could still spare—whatever wasn’t ruined with Parris’ fresh blood—did all confirm it this time. Parris was a nasty man. We just couldn’t prove it ‘til somebody kill ‘im.”

Hunte of course understands the importance of bringing Parris’ killer to justice. “I and all call the man a hero, but you not supposed to be taking justice into your own hands so. I have a job to do, and that means I have to find this person, too. It hard—the same problem as before, no reliable evidence yet, just dog-hairs—but we have faith. I have faith that I must find the man. And I can’t lie, I will shake he hand before I put him in cuffs. I have no shame about it. But he have to pay. He ain’t no hero, in truth. Just because he kill one wicked man don’t make nobody a hero.”

“I ain’t have no time for no nancy story, though,” he added, referring to the recent spate of murders matching the same description as Parris’. “I mean, I am an officer of the law. And when you working as long as me, you does come to learn that there is such a thing as monsters. I see enough o’ them. A monster did this, too. But I ain’t believe in no lagahoo.”

Ken faded back into a man, but he never got to sleep. He wasn’t sure if it was yesterday’s pills or yesterday’s power that denied him calm, and he didn’t really complain until it was six o’clock in the morning and he really wanted to feel rested before work.

He was still covered in blood. His sheets stank of the stuff. He burned it all in a metal drum outside, took two cruel showers, scrubbed himself near raw. But the smell didn’t go away. And he didn’t want it to.

Before his usual bus stop, he met a dog he swore was familiar to him. Maybe a hazy delusion that his sleep-deprived self had the night before? The thing bowed to him and wagged its tail. Ken gazed at it and felt like they were sharing a silent language. He wanted to say something to it, and the sound felt in his head like one long, low thing that kept all of its meaning in its tone. Thank you.

Days passed since, and every other night Ken slept a little better. The news had stopped lingering on the death of Marlon Claxton soon enough—as soon enough as the news can without giving up on free drama—and the internet swam with people who didn’t even care how Jason Parris died. As far as they were concerned, the Lord worked in mysterious, violent, saw-toothed ways, and praise the Lord.

Three weeks later, Ken found himself damp and shaken in the middle of the morning again, pajamas torn, feet muddy.

He set back out to the woods later that evening, sighing at the trek but holding back a sly grin. When he got to the coffin’s hiding place, someone else’s life glinted on the copper name plate. Another regular of the page-threes in the papers, also missing for longer than anyone deserved. Another victim calling their name out to him, begging for vengeance silently.

Ken slowly put his right hand into his pocket, felt a small bottle of caffeine pills rattle. The sound of it was like a deep scream against the night. Thank you.

Brandon O’Brien

Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and writer from Trinidad. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Strange Horizons, Reckoning, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also a performing artist with The 2 Cents Movement, and the poetry editor of FIYAH Literary Magazine.

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