Usually, I start these stories off with some kind of message about police work. But today, all I have for you is this. Life is a bastard.
It was a rainy October evening and I had recently moved into my department’s homicide division after a long hiatus. It was a department I was familiar with and initially loved being a part of. However, in light of certain events, I felt that I needed to leave for the sake of my own mental health.
That being said, after a few years of investigating some of the most disturbing cases known to man, oddly, murder became somewhat benign. But more than that, I know it would provide a distraction. Personally, I was far past the point where I’d rather have my thoughts consumed by how to catch a killer than the growing number of monsters that seemed to pop up out of nowhere.
As I pulled up to the apartment complex, I remember thinking to myself how odd it was that a place teeming with life could be so focused on death.
The way people moved in and around the scene was like an ant colony. Each individual doing their job independently of others. Yet the collective end goal remained the same, find out exactly what happened and who done it.
I had hoped that being as late as it was, we’d have fewer prying eyes. But as I looked around, I found the presence of the morbidly curious tenants was apparent. It was understandable. People don’t see murder every day. They’re scared, curious, and fascinated all at the same time. It’s an event so divergent from most people’s normal that it’s difficult not to look.
But, still. Part of me wishes they’d stay inside and save themselves from the trauma that will undoubtedly rise up later. Seeing a dead body is something that never goes away.
I scanned the crowd of police and forensics people, looking for a familiar face. Luckily, it only took a moment for me to find it, and he smiled and waved as I approached.
Officer Ryan stood among a couple of other patrol officers wearing his trademark smile. Few scars remained from his encounter with The Hermit, and his once crooked nose had been repaired to look brand new.
“Detective Smith, wassup man?” He asked as I approached.
“Nothing, much. I suppose.” I replied with a yawn. “Mostly just tired since apparently, people can’t kill during regular working hours.”
The Officer next to Ryan looked at me for a moment, puzzled, before blurting out, “Smith?! You’re back in homicide? I thought you were done with it after uh… What happened…”
I responded with a nervous laugh. “Just a little break, Officer Bailey. I was always coming back.” I looked past him for a moment to take a look at the body. “What do we have on the vic?”
Officer Ryan sighed and shook his head. Motioning for me to follow him, we made the short walk over to the body.
Calling it a bloody mess would’ve been an understatement. The man’s entire face and chest were caved in. Large pieces of flesh had been torn out from his neck. And it appeared as though his right arm had been smashed on the pavement. The way the body had been mutilated disturbed me to my core, and it was hard not to gag at the sight of the man.
“So…” Officer Ryan began. “As you can tell, we’ve got severe blunt force trauma. Cuts and bruises consistent with a fight. So far, no one we’ve spoken to has seen anything. We have the 9-1-1 caller waiting to talk to you, though.”
After getting the rundown, I went to inspect the body more closely. As previously mentioned, we were looking at an inordinately brutal attack. Thinking aloud, there seemed to only be one logical conclusion, “This has to be personal. No way anyone desecrates a body like this if he was killed by a stranger. Unless they didn’t want him to be identified, but even then, it’s excessive.”
“Maybe he had something of value?” Officer Ryan added. “He gets into an argument with someone trying to take his stuff, and they do this to throw us off?”
I wasn’t convinced. As I went to check his pants pockets, my suspicions were seemingly confirmed. “Hmm, I don’t think so. His wallet and keys are still here. So it likely rules out a robbery.”
Opening his wallet, I found an I.D. belonging to that of a Mr. Ernie Garrison. 58 years old. We’d still need someone to positively identify the body, but we could now very likely give a face to the guy. I called for an evidence collector to come over and take the items away while I continued to search the body.
When I went to look at his neck and trapezius, my eyes grew wide, and I immediately yelled for the crime scene photographer to come and take a look. Embedded into the man’s flesh were three yellow teeth. The man I had presumed to be Mr. Garrison was only dead for an hour at most, yet the skin and muscle around the teeth were already rotting away.
The look on his face mirrored mine, pure disgust mixed with confusion. Though neither of us had a deep understanding of biology or the human body, we understood enough to know that it doesn’t rot that quickly. Nor should it only rot in one place while the rest of it remained pristine.
Already, I was getting the vibe of something deeply wrong. Preliminary thoughts were coming together in my mind that I wanted no parts of. Ideas of just what the hell could’ve done this froze me for a second. Could the tall woman have brutalized this person? Or something else?
Once I regained my composure, I simply noted to my team that we needed those teeth removed and checked with forensics to see if they matched any DNA we had on file.
Just as I’m about done with the body, I hear a faint buzz. I instinctively go to check my phone but realize it’s not me. It takes a second to locate where the sound came from, but I eventually spotted a soft blue light emanating from near a trash bin.
Walking over, I discover a phone. Immediately I notice flecks of blood on the case. Pressing the home button takes me to a background image of a man who strongly resembled a slightly younger Ernie Garrison and a dog. One missed call headlined the notification bar. A quick swipe not only shows me that Mr. Garrison doesn’t keep a passcode but that he also has a text message from someone saved as, “Asshole.”
“Asshole?” I said to myself. “What are the odds that it’s a mere coincidence he’s in contact with someone he obviously has a problem with at the same time he gets killed?” I walked the phone over to another evidence collector and told her to keep it safe and sound for me back at the station.
After making the rounds and talking to the other detectives about what I had found, it was time to speak with the 9-1-1 caller, Ms. Eva Braunstein.
I found her waiting outside her apartment door. I introduced myself and started off by asking her what the original 9-1-1 call was about.
The tremble in her voice indicated she was still trying to deal with the stress. “I was watching T.V. when I heard a loud noise outside. I think it was banging. I guess I assumed that one of the downstairs neighbors was doing some work or something. I know it’s late, and it seemed odd, but I wanted to mind my own business. The banging went on for a bit, and I’m sure Ernie had gotten sick of it… Poor man…” She shook her head. “I hear him yelling that he was going to kick someone’s you-know-what and slam his door. The next thing I know, it sounds like there’s a struggle outside. He’s screaming cuss words at the top of his lungs and telling someone to get off of him… That’s when I called the police, but after I got off the phone, it was just silence…”
“Did you happen to poke your head out and see anything?” I asked.
She nodded. “When things got quiet, I peeked out my window and saw Ernie’s body lying there with blood all over it. No one around him.”
“And you didn’t go out to check if he was still alive?”
“Son, I’m 74 years old and grew up in Brooklyn. If there’s a dead body outside, the last thing you do is go hang around it.”
Couldn’t argue there. “Did you happen to know who he went to confront at least? And do you happen to know of anyone who’d do this to Ernie?”
She thought for a moment but ultimately shook her head. “No. I’m not sure who Ernie was going to see. I know he had a problem with one of the neighbors, but he never told me who they were. As for who would do this, no one that I can think of. Ernie had a bit of a temper on him, sure. But overall, he’s a good guy. Outside of that one neighbor, he’s never mentioned having any real problems with anyone.”
“Hmm. Are there friends or family we could ask?”
“No. No kids, wife, or siblings, and his parents died years ago. I’m one of the few people he talks to if there’s even anyone else.”
Not that I wanted to call her a liar, but it was difficult to believe that a man who seemingly has no ties was brutally killed in that fashion. But between the phone, teeth, and lead on the neighbor, I felt we actually had a pretty solid base to investigate.
As I wrapped up the interview, she made one final off-comment.
“I know Ernie was a fighter. He always used to carry a golden pocket knife with his initials inscribed on it. When you find who did this, I swear to God they’ll have scars from that.”
When I finally got back to the station, the first thing I wanted to see was that phone. I nearly flew to evidence to retrieve the device, and I was as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning when I got the chance to see its contents.
A couple of the other detectives and Officer Ryan crowded around my desk as I read what appeared to be a heated argument between him and his neighbor, Allen Wong. In short, they seemed to be arguing about the loud banging. Mr. Wong seemed to claim that he wasn’t making the noise and urged Mr. Garrison not to investigate. The two had a continual back and forth, which eventually led to Mr. Garrison going out to confront whoever was outside, which led us here.
This was critical. The lab wouldn’t have DNA results back to us for a while, but we likely had a direct witness to whoever killed Mr. Garrison. If we could pinpoint who was outside at the time, then the DNA would just be icing on the cake. Either way, this all hinged on the testimony of Allen Wong.
Finding his apartment once we had the name wasn’t hard. Neither was getting him to agree to talk after politely informing him that if he was withholding information pertaining to an active murder case, he’d be in deep shit.
It took a short ride downtown for me to begin sizing him up in the interrogation room. There were no cuts or bruises on his body. No flecks of blood either. For a murder that brutal, you’d absolutely expect there to be signs. But one thing was apparent, Mr. Wong was nervous. Even if he wasn’t the perpetrator, he knew something.
Beads of sweat were forming on his brow, and his eyes seemed bugged out, darting back and forth as if he was looking for something.
“How are you doing today, Mr. Wong?” I asked, attempting to break the tension.
He gave a nervous laugh. “Wild question to ask considering the circumstances. Can we just get to it?”
“Fair enough. I suppose the first thing I’d like to know is how do you know Ernie Garrison?”
“I fix things. And one day, he asked for me to help fix up his car because he thought I’d be cheaper than a regular handyman.”
“Okay… So you helped him out, and what? Everything was cool between you two? Did you ever speak again after that or?”
He shrugged. “I mean. There was a little dispute, I guess you could say. Nothing major, though.”
A man ends up dead after a dispute with a neighbor—an unfortunate yet classic storyline. The pieces were starting to add up in my head. “And what was this dispute over?”
“Payment for my services. I’m a fair guy, but he was lowballing me on price. I tried to give him something below what he’d pay elsewhere, but that wasn’t good enough. Just because the guy’s my neighbor, it doesn’t mean I’m gonna do work for free, you know? After threatening to take him to court, he pays up. But he starts complaining about everything. Noise, my dog, he’d say he thought he smelled drugs from my apartment. Just a lot of shit. The guy was trying hard to get me kicked out.”
“Sounds rough. You must have hated the guy.”
“Hate is a strong word. We weren’t friends, but I’d never wish anything bad on him. It was just stupid.”
“Hey, man, I get it. That’s fair. The problem here, of course, is that the man ended up dead. So what I want you to do is tell me in your words what you think happened.”
The shift in demeanor was quick. I could hear his foot tapping rapidly now, and he choked up a bit when he spoke. “I… I uh, have no idea. I just know the dude got killed. It’s sad as hell, but I don’t have much to add.”
Bullshit. “That’s odd, Mr. Wong. Because we know that you were the last person to communicate with Mr. Garrison. And that he went to your place to speak with you. Add the fact that you two had clear problems, and surely this points to more than a coincidence.”
Even though he shook his head, I could tell from the look on his face that he wanted to say something more.
“Look, Allen. I’m going, to be frank with you. I already told you that if you’re holding back information, you need to talk to us. Right now, you could be facing murder charges if this comes back to you. And you could either have me tell the prosecutor that you were honest or that you tried to hide shit the entire way. What’s it gonna be?”
He scoffed and slammed his hand on the table before pointing a finger towards me, “Don’t do that! I didn’t have anything to do with his death! You don’t think I know how serious this is?” He let out a loud groan and put his hands to his head as tears started to form in his eyes. “This is so fucked! If I’m being looked at as a murder suspect, the last thing I want to do is tell the truth and look ridiculous!”
He was starting to panic. I took it as my cue to stand up and let him have some time to think. As I walked out the door, I turned around and let him know to just give me his truth, however ridiculous it sounded.
After twenty minutes by himself, he was ready to talk. I had hoped for a confession. Hopefully, some story about how anger led him and an accomplice to murder. Horrible but easy. Open and shut. What I got, however, was so much more disturbing.
Mr. Wong went on to spin a story about how he was out late at night throwing his trash away when he spotted something he’d only refer to as an “abomination” across the street.
Apparently, as soon as they made eye contact, this abomination came for him, and his only option was to run inside and hide. He could hear the “Bang. Bang. Bang” as this thing tried to break away at the door. Mr. Garrison has apparently heard the noise and thought it was Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong attempted to convince him to stay inside and stay away. Still, Mr. Garrison wasn’t having it and subsequently ends up dead.
When asked why Mr. Wong simply didn’t tell Mr. Garrison about the creature, he merely laughed and said, “You think he would’ve believed that? I wouldn’t expect the person that trusted me most in the world to believe it. Let alone someone who obviously hates me. He would’ve come down regardless.”
It indeed was a ridiculous story. One that I’m sure damn near everyone outside watching the interview was laughing at. An abomination coming from the darkness attacked him? Yeah, right. Except… Yeah… Right. The way he spoke about what he saw and the genuine fear in his eyes as he flashed back to the memories was familiar. I was familiar with that demeanor because I had experienced that exact thing personally.
Our conversation continued for a while after that, but I ended up letting him go. I informed him that I’d stay in touch, but deep down, I knew I’d never see him again because he simply wasn’t our guy.
I don’t know if it was for my own mental wellbeing or respect for due process, but I needed to hold onto the idea that this wasn’t another hellspawn that came to wreak havoc on society. I needed to see this through and make sure I wasn’t dealing with the standard type of darkness we see from human beings. For all intents and purposes, Mr. Wong didn’t know what he saw, and this could easily be the work of some local maniac.
It took some weeks, but when the DNA profiling came back on the teeth and other pieces of evidence we collected, things started to look bleak. Not a single match. Simultaneously, as we did further research into Mr. Wong, we found no traces of his DNA at the scene. Nor did we find any evidence that he had been communicating with a third party to set up some kind of hitman job. Furthermore, searches from his home computer at the time of the 9-1-1 call indicate he was inside using his desktop around the time of the murder. Even potential security camera footage from the area turned up nothing. If Mr. Wong was involved, there wasn’t any hard evidence to show it.
Our two best leads were drying up, and over time Mr. Garrison’s case went the way of many murders before it. Cold.
The days went by, and with no new leads, we had to try something new. I convinced The Chief to hold a press conference and ask the public for any info. The hope was that if someone recognized the types of injury or Ernie Garrison himself, perhaps they could plug some holes we had been missing.
The tips that came in at first were of little to no help. They were primarily people suggesting completely random names. Maybe a creepy uncle or ex-boyfriend. Hell, we even got a few suggestions that a bizarre set of stairs off in the woods or skinwalkers were to blame. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of either of those. I’ve heard stories of both, and to put it simply? No. I’m staying far away from both of those things.
The point being, we weren’t getting anywhere new, just wasting time chasing dead ends. At least… until I heard a familiar voice on the phone one late office night.
She sounded nervous about speaking at first. “Hello? Is this Detective Smith?”
“Yes, speaking, and who is this?”
“I never gave you a name when we spoke last, but this is Maria Alvarez. Nurse at the Old Hospital. We talked in the parking lot after… What happened…”
The words “Old Hospital” brought back a flood of memories that made me shudder. The face of The Hermit flashed in my mind, and I reflectively turned towards an air vent above me just to make sure nothing was hiding inside it. “Uh, yeah. I remember you. Of course. How are you, Ms. Alvarez?”
She let out a sigh. “I’m, managing. What you said to me back then. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it’s given me a different perspective. I don’t know. I just feel like the world has become a much scarier place almost overnight.”
“Yeah? I’m sorry to hear that… Truly.”
“It’s… Okay. Or, at least tolerable? I saw your press conference, by the way. And it just brought up some thoughts, you know? A lot of thinking about what could’ve happened to that poor man. And yet, the more I thought, the more I realized I may have an idea.”
“An idea of what?”
She went silent for a moment, but I could hear movement on the other end. Then a hushed whisper came through, “Technically, I’m not supposed to be sharing this with anyone because of patient confidentiality. A while back, someone came in with similar injuries at night. Bite marks with rotted skin around the injury site and severe head and chest trauma. We tried to ask him what happened, but all he would say is that some animal jumped him in the woods. I remember us all thinking how weird it was, considering the bite marks looked human. And well… After our conversation about how real monsters exist, I started to connect some dots. Maybe he was attacked by something similar, and he didn’t feel comfortable speaking on it?”
A potential pattern was forming, and my mind was eager to put the pieces together. “And he’s alive? What’s his name, and where could I find him?”
“Yeah. His name is Leonard Houston. I can send you some of his details, and maybe he’ll be willing to shed some light on what happened.”
Bingo. We finally had a solid direction. I was eager to go and meet Mr. Houston to break this thing wide open. “I’d very much appreciate this, Ms. Alvarez. But before I go. Can I just ask, why take this risk? Why not just leave it alone?”
“I dunno. I guess because you shared the truth with me, and I felt like I owed some truth back to you.”
That was good enough for me. I finished the conversation by letting her know that if she needed anything, even just someone to talk to when the dark thoughts creep in, I’d be right here for her. Always.
The next move was to bring someone along to meet this guy. I would’ve had another detective accompany me under normal circumstances, but this was far from normal. Of all the people I trusted to help me deal with the abnormal, one name was at the top of my list.
Officer Ryan was ecstatic to get the call. Once we had our info on the guy, we immediately set out to find him.
The mood on the way over was jovial. Here we were investigating a murder, a ruthless one at that, and the two of us couldn’t stop laughing. As I’ve mentioned before, Ryan had that impact on everyone he came into contact with. I was certainly feeling the stress of finding the person or thing responsible for Ernie Garrison’s death. Yet, all I wanted to talk to him about on the way over was what anime he was watching and whether or not aliens had visited earth. Over the years, I’ve come to attribute many great things to Ryan. But, the one thing that sticks out is the centering effect he had on me. Hell, on all people. Without him, there’s no doubt I would’ve gone insane by now.
I found myself uncharacteristically calm when we pulled up to the rundown apartment. Despite the apparent sound of television inside, we had to knock a few times before we heard any movement. Eventually, we decided to say “Screw it” and yell “Police” to really get his attention.
The pale skinny man that opened the door was quite obviously not thrilled to see us. He smelled of cigarettes, and beer cans littered his couch.
“Whatever y’all are saying I did, I ain’t do it because I was busy that night.” He said, throwing his hands up.
“Um.” I cleared my throat. “Is Leonard Houston home?”
I took a quick peek behind him and saw he was alone. “Right. Well… Good. Mr. Houston, you’re not in any trouble. I’m Detective Smith, and this is my partner Officer Ryan. We’re looking into something, and we thought you might be of some assistance.”
He scoffed. “Boy, do I look like a snitch to you?”
“Not a snitch.” Officer Ryan interjected. “If anything, you’d be a hero! Something awful happened, and we figured you could help us right a wrong.”
Mr. Houston thought for a moment before inviting us in. He offered us a place to sit on the couch. But between the beer cans and potential mold spots, we both opted to stand.
“So,” I began. “I heard from a reliable source that you were in the hospital a while back with some pretty gnarly injuries. What was all that about?”
“Who told y’all that? I mean, yeah, I got hurt pretty bad while going on a night hike: some animal or something. Probably a coyote with mange.”
“A coyote with mange that had human-shaped teeth and rotted the skin where it bit you?”
He shrugged and lit up a cigarette. “Guess so. Lotta weird shit out there in them woods.”
I turned towards Officer Ryan and saw him reflecting my unamused look. Turning back to Leonard Houston, my tone turned a bit more serious. “A man is dead, Mr. Houston. If you saw something that could help us figure out who or what did it, then I need you to be more honest than saying it was a coyote with mange.”
His demeanor shifted quickly, and underlying stress snapped to the surface, “You’re in my house! If I said ain’t seen nothin’ but a coyote, then I ain’t seen nothin’ coyote!”
“But that’s not the truth.” I fired back. “You know it’s not! Trust me, I understand what you saw was probably strange, but we really need your help on this.”
“Well, maybe the truth ain’t for tellin’! Imma be honest with you, sir. I’ve seen shit in my life. But that day I realized, there are some things better left good and forgotten. No sense in tryna convince anyone that it wasn’t nothin’ but a mangy coyote. So that’s what it was. I’m sorry I couldn’t help yall, but it’s all I got.”
I gave Officer Ryan another look. This time he knew it meant I was imploring him to do his “thing.”
On cue, he walked over and put a hand on Mr. Houston’s shoulder, pointed to a picture on the wall, and asked, “That your daughter, man?”
He nodded in response. “Yup. That’s my baby. Turns six this month.”
“She’s adorable. Always wanted one of my own. Why isn’t she here?”
Mr. Houston gave a non-direct answer about troubles with the mom, but Officer Ryan knew it was more than that.
“Forget the badge for a second. This is just a job, man,” Officer Ryan said, pointing out his uniform. “I’m asking you as a human. I know you don’t know me, but it’s still just me. Just two dudes just talking. No judgment. Tell me about what’s goin’ on.”
Like clockwork, the Barry Fucking Ryan effect happened, and Mr. Houston opened up. I listened in silence as the two discussed how Mr. Houston was well aware of his less-than-ideal situation and how he ended up there.
After his initial encounter in the forest, the stress became unbearable. He couldn’t work, he began drinking heavily, and as a result, his marriage fell to shambles. His decision to hide the truth was born out of fear of ridicule. Even if he was to be believed, he was terrified to introduce anyone to the nightmare world he so desperately wanted to leave.
This combination of unfortunate events landed him where he was now. A place unfit to see his child even in a limited capacity. And maybe he preferred it that way. Perhaps he wanted to be isolated in his own growing darkness. I couldn’t help but feel profoundly sorry for him. And to this day, I hope he found peace.
This was the type of world The Chief envisioned when he implored me to keep things secret. A world of fear. From the contemporary evidence, he was absolutely right.
Eventually, the conversation returned to Mr. Houston’s daughter. Officer Ryan had asked a question that really seemed to strike a chord with him. “If the both of us are here saying we believe you and we’re willing to do something, then as a father, wouldn’t you want to help us make the world a safer place for your daughter?”
There was a long silence as he tried to get his thoughts together. He lit another cigarette and nodded.
For the next half hour, he went into horrifying detail. While walking through the woods at night, he heard a banging noise like someone taking a sledgehammer to a tree. He thought about locating the sound’s source. But, as the sound grew louder and more aggressive, paranoia set in, and he decided to try and leave. He set out in the opposite direction but didn’t get very far before what he said felt like a battering ram knocked him off his feet.
In the dark, he couldn’t quite see what was standing over him, but he could make out the outline of a “lumpy humanoid with a tall head.” He didn’t get much time to consider just what the hell he was dealing with because, in an instant, it started biting at his flesh and smashing his face in. His only means of survival was to pull out his pistol and fire off a shot into its torso. He heard a loud groan of pain as it staggered backward. He knew that was his chance and took off into the night.
Someone eventually managed to find him on the road, but he passed out on the way to the hospital. When he was fully conscious, he recalled a nurse at his bedside asking what happened. He contemplated telling her the truth but ultimately decided against it. From that moment forward, all he’d ever tell anyone was that he simply got attacked by a coyote.
Both Officer Ryan and I listened intently as he poured out his trauma. At the end of the conversation, he gave us the location of the forest he was hiking through and the specific trail he took. Lo-and-behold, it was only a few miles from where Ernie Garrison had been murdered.
By the end of the conversation, he was crying and repeating the words, “Never go back. Stay away.” Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure if it was a message to himself or to us.
We stayed with him until he calmed down, doing our best to reassure him that everything would be okay. Eventually, he evened out emotionally enough for us to thank him for his cooperation. As we walked out the door, we assured him that we’d do our best to use this information to make the world a safer place for his daughter.
Still, he made it a point to stop us at the door and give us some parting words, “I don’t know what you boys plan to do. But if you go lookin’ for a nightmare, you’re gonna sure as hell find one. Stay safe out there.”
We nodded in approval and continued on.
As we walked to the car, the road to solving this case had become clear. The biggest question that remained was whether we were dealing with a human or something else entirely. But one thing was for sure, we needed to examine those woods.
But no sooner had we sat in my car to discuss our next move did a call come through on the radio.
Another murder had taken place—this one on the edge of the city line. When the details of the crime and the victims came through on the radio, my heart sunk, and my mind began to falter. A mother and her child were dead. Killed as brutally as Mr. Garrison. A deep rage and sadness filled my entire being, and I could just barely find the words to respond. Opting for a simple “On it.” over the radio.
Without another word, I sped off into the night towards our new destination.
When we arrived on the scene of the murder, there was a cavalcade of cops crawling about. Due to the crime taking place at the edge of jurisdictional lines, police from our neighboring city had shown up as well. They were proceeding with their own investigation while everyone attempted to determine which city the murder belonged to.
Looking through the sea of faces, one, in particular, stuck out to me. In nearly any other case, I would’ve walked up to him with a smile or made a joke to break the tension of the heavy atmosphere. But when standing face to face with the man, all I could ask in a stern tone of voice was, “What the hell happened?”
Detective Michael Christian looked at me and simply said, “Ah, Smith. This one is awful. Almost like the devil himself was at work.” He asked Officer Ryan and me to accompany him into the house to inspect the bodies.
The scene was gruesome. The first thing of note was that the woman’s door had been broken down. It looked like someone had used a massive bat to splinter the wood and create a hole just big enough for a person to crawl through.
We had to be careful not to step on the miscellaneous items strewn about as we made our way further through the house. Detective Christian threw out theories about how this looked like a robbery gone wrong, but he wasn’t so sure.
When we reached the upstairs bedroom and were faced with a mother and her child’s mutilated bodies, it became evident that this was something much more profound.
I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like, but comparisons to Ernie Garrison were apropos. I think Detective Christian was beginning to talk out an idea about how it was likely some personal vendetta that someone tried to hide as a random robbery and murder. But I honestly began to tune him out after the first sentence.
I could feel myself getting lost in thought. It seemed as though the rest of the world was fading into nothing, and the only other things things that existed outside of myself were the two bodies staring back, asking, “Why? Why couldn’t I solve this case sooner? Why did they have to be the victims of my incompetence? Why wasn’t I good enough to make a difference for once in my fucking life and ensure that the world was actually safer for them?”
Sweat was forming on my brow, and it felt like all the air was slowly being sucked out of the room. “Why? Why? Why?” I was drowning in a sea of questions with no ability to find my way back up.
And then a new voice broke through. I felt a hand on my shoulder, helping my back up to the surface. And slowly, I began to swim out of my own darkness.
“You okay, buddy?” A calming voice said.
I spun around and saw Officer Ryan with a deep look of concern on his face. Detective Christian stood by him, but all that he showed was a look of confusion.
“Yeah…” I replied. “Just need some air.” Carefully, I made my way out of the house with Officer Ryan following close behind.
I made it a point to find a spot away from the madness of the murder scene. It was a struggle to pull myself together, and Officer Ryan could clearly read that from my body language.
“What’s going on, man? You didn’t freak like that at the other scene.” He asked.
“I dunno. Maybe the stress of everything just caught up with me for a moment. It just felt like everything was hitting me at once.” I said.
He wasn’t buying it. “Smith, is there something you’re not telling me?”
I looked at him briefly but remained silent.
He sighed. “I really dunno what it is but this whole situation has felt different, ya know? Weirder than the other cases we’ve worked together.” He leaned against a nearby tree and turned his attention to the woods facing us. “Did you know my wife’s pregnant?”
“What? No, I had no idea. That’s awesome, man. Congrats.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty stoked about it. I’ve always wanted to be a dad. But it’s got me thinking a lot.”
“That’s natural, isn’t it?” I asked. “Trust me, every dad-to-be gets to thinking. Especially when you’re in our profession.”
“But that’s that thing, man. After encountering The Hermit and our other adventures together, I suppose I’ve just been considering my own safety. Being a cop is enough but this? There’s a real question to be asked about how far we should be willing to go.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “I mean, I want to be there for my kid’s first steps. I wanna be there when they say their first word, graduate, get married, etc. And you know what? I want you to be there too. I wanna see our kids laugh and play together. I want yours to come to me for advice and vice-versa. Man, I saw how hard you worked to make sure that Lucas kid was safe. You’ve got fatherly instinct coming out the wazoo, and I’d love to see that in a real setting. But how likely is it to work out that way when we’re chasing demons all the damn time?”
He made a solid point. I didn’t have a good answer outside of “Not likely, I suppose.”
“Yeah… You only get to walk away from those situations so many times.” He said. “Whoever this case goes to is gonna do their investigation and probably do a damn good job of finding the facts, but we know where this is trending. Smith, over this time, you’ve become someone I consider to be my best friend. Outside of my wife, of course. I fuckin’ love that woman. Obviously, whatever you’re dealing with personally is rough, and I won’t push you on it. But please, as your friend, I’m asking you to consider how far you really want to go with this. Really think about where your limits are.”
He was right. I absolutely needed to consider my limits going forward. I didn’t realize the emotional toll that all this craziness was having on me. Officer Ryan’s words would profoundly affect me in the future, but still, at that moment, I knew I needed to solve this case.
Weirdly, that became easier once Detective Christian came over to deliver the news.
“Welp, look like you fellas came out here for nothing.” He said. “Looks like this one is in our jurisdiction, so we’ll be taking the lead here.”
I nodded and informed him of the similar murder that we had just weeks prior. I told him that we’d offer all the information we had and be of assistance in any way possible.
He nodded and said he appreciated the help. After he walked away, I offered to take Officer Ryan home. On the way back, I told him how much I appreciated him and that his words weren’t lost on me. But also that I still needed to figure this out as there were dimensions to it that meant a lot to me.
He said he understood and simply warned me to be careful. And that he expected me to come back from this relatively unharmed because, in his words, “My future kids need their uncle.”
I couldn’t help but smile and make a promise that I would come back.
The next day after work, I returned to the scene of the crime. I spent hours talking to everyone I could about what they saw the previous night, hoping that someone could lead me in the right direction.
At the end of my rope with no new information, I decided to double back and re-check the neighbors of the family that had been killed. Turned out I had missed a house.
The elderly woman inside introduced herself as Ms. Watson. When I introduced myself as a Detective, she seemed confused.
“Oh, I thought I already talked to the police? They didn’t seem too interested in what I had to say.”
“There’s been some new developments in the case, ma’am,” I lied. “Could you repeat to me what you told us yesterday? What did you see?”
“Hmm.” She thought for a moment before pointing out towards the woods. “It’s not so much what I saw. It’s what I know. I’m pretty sure what happened is a result of that.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, my grandnephew, Borris. He told me that he shot something in the leg a few weeks ago that tried to attack him. He didn’t know what it was, just that it looked awful strange.”
Something comes hobbling out the woods, and the police aren’t interested in knowing more? There should be people patrolling this area every night. It seemed weird. “Had he seen this thing before? Any chance he knows where they come from specifically?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’d heard stories of odd things coming from there, but he told me he really had no idea what it was. Just that it had this awful groan that he said almost sounded human. I can’t be sure, but I swear I heard a rather strange humanlike groan last night around the time that lady was killed. Tragic, really.”
“Yeah, it really is. Well, thank you for your help, Ms. Watson. If anything new pops, we’ll keep you in mind.”
With that, I went to get back into my car. The puzzle pieces now laid before me. What did I have? What were the facts? Four attacks. Three dead. One severely injured. One scared whatever it was off. In both cases with survivors, it seemed that the common link was that those things reacted to being shot. I looked over at my pistol and knew I had a means of self-defense.
Another connection was that all these cases seemed to happen either next to or a few miles from the woods. Pretty coincidental common denominator. From talking to Leonard Houston, I know precisely which trail to be on the lookout for. Still, there’s a possibility them crossing paths on that trail was merely coincidental.
Looking at a map on my phone revealed that the trailhead was directly north of where Ernie Garrison was murdered. Hypothetically if you walked a straight line, you’d reach the area of the apartment. Head South, and you do the same with the mother and her child. Meaning that even if the trailhead wasn’t precisely where these things originated, it was probably damn close.
Finally, I had some direction. I contemplated asking Officer Ryan or Detective Joss to accompany me on my foray into the wilderness. Or I could feign a tip on our killer hiding out in the woods to get some backup. We could all go in there and set the forest ablaze with a hailstorm of bullets.
If you want to call me crazy or irresponsible for my next set of actions, I absolutely respect it. But, I decided I couldn’t do it. I damn sure wasn’t about to put Officer Ryan or Joss in danger of being ambushed in the dark by who knows what. And if I called for backup, I would’ve had to consider how many officers would undoubtedly know the truth. Not only would The Chief not be too pleased, but what Leonard Houston and Maria Alvarez both opined stuck with me. They survived their encounters, sure—one with no injuries. But the mental scars of knowing what’s out there… Being aware that you live in a nightmare world where if one monster doesn’t take you away, another one will? That fucks up a person. In Mr. Houston’s case, it quite literally ruined his life. How could I willfully do that to other people? It just didn’t seem right.
I get it if you disagree with my reasons, but it’s how I felt. It’s how I still feel. In my mind, I was doing the right thing.
Over the next month, I spent every day after work driving around the perimeter of those woods and walking the trail Mr. Houston had taken when he was attacked. Everything else in my life became secondary, and I was committed to doing it until the problem was taken care of.
One wet and muddy night, I took a moment to stop and rest on the trail. The physical toll of my routine was catching up to me. For a moment, I heard what I thought was a mix between a groan and a whine. And I caught just enough of it to know it was somewhere in front of me.
I grabbed my flashlight and shinned the light forward, but I couldn’t see very far through the trees. Quickly the sound shifted to my left. This time a very clear rustling accompanied it.
Cursing to myself, I pulled my pistol with my free hand and aimed directly towards the left. I waited in silence, hoping that whatever it was would come out and face me, and yet… Nothing.
I waited. Seconds turned into minutes, and there was still nothing. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest. I sat back down and attempted to control my breathing, chalking the incident to normal forest sounds. Likely a tiny critter that was just making its way through.
But just as I got comfortable, another deep humanlike groan emerged, booming towards me from my left. This time rapid footsteps in my direction followed.
I sprung forward, hoping it wouldn’t notice my change of direction. I scurried to my feet and sprinted behind what looked like the vague outline of a pair of trees. I could hear the thing stomping around, trying to search for me. It let out another disgusting groan before stopping in one spot and going silent again. Fear started to overtake my body. I could feel myself getting the urge to run the hell out of there and never look back at whatever was out there ever again. It took everything inside me to fight that primal instinct.
I couldn’t be sure, but I think it was waiting for me to move again. If this thing operated at night, it likely had an excellent sense of hearing. I knew that if I was to make a move, it had to be quick and decisive. But at the same time, it was pitch black outside. Plus, if I was going to act, I’d need to shine my flashlight on it to know where to aim, which could also give away my position. Meaning the shots I took would have to be absolutely perfect, or else it’d reach me and… Well, game over.
Turning off the safety and cocking my gun. I took a deep breath and counted under my breath… “One… Two… Three.”
I swung the flashlight towards where I thought I heard it last and illuminated the ugly creature. I couldn’t tell if it was human or something in between. It had a crooked humanoid body that was missing both of its arms. Yet, it sported two hairy handlike appendages where its feet would’ve been. Looking back up, I saw it had one saggy breast while the other side of its chest appeared to be flatter with its rib cage showing through its pale skin.
But the worst feature was that fucking head. The head alone was maybe two feet tall and incredibly lumpy with tufts of hair on each side. Its mouth hung open with puffy gums and a row of yellow teeth.
Far as I could tell, the thing was also utterly blind as it had no noticeable eyes. But still, that didn’t stop it from shambling towards me while letting out yet another groan.
I didn’t even let it get close. As soon as it started coming towards me, I unloaded my pistol into the thing. One-shot to the head seemed to stun it. Two and it began to falter, wobbling on its already weak legs. From there, I kept going again and again and again until it was on the ground and unmoving.
Silence followed. I let out a giant sigh of relief. “Had I done it?” I thought to myself. But something about this seemed off. I walked over to the carcass and shined my flashlight over both legs: no gunshot wounds or signs of healing. Curious, I flipped its body over and examined the torso, and found scar tissue from what looked like a gunshot in its gut.
This had to be what Leonard Houston had come across, not the one that Borris had shot. Which meant that there was at least one still out there. But how the hell was I going to find it?
I shined my flashlight back towards where it had initially come from. Walking towards the area, I saw a little man… or, I suppose, a creature-made path through the brush. Its large handlike feet making noticeable imprints on the muddy ground. So, I decided to follow it.
Eventually, the path came to a storm drain big enough to walk through that was partially flooded. I’m not a believer in life after death, but as I stood at the entrance, it almost felt like a tunnel to hell. Every fiber of my being told me to turn around and never come back, but deep in my gut, I knew it was exactly where I needed to be.
Before making the journey inside, I searched the area for the thickest stick I could find and held it as a makeshift bludgeoning weapon. Coming back to the entrance, I took a moment to steel my nerves, reloaded my gun, put the flashlight in front of me, and walked forward into the tunnel.
As I descended deeper, my anxiety grew. Every little sound spiked my heart rate. Every vague shape made me jump back in fear. At one point, I thought I saw a human body face down in the water. When I rushed over to inspect the naked man, I was shocked to see it wasn’t a man at all. In my hands was the rotting corpse of the fucking Hermit. His head had been partially eaten, and all the flesh inside was rotting away. It was a horrible sight. But, at the end of the day, I suppose monsters aren’t friendly to each other.
I dropped the body back in the murky water and spat on it before walking away.
Continuing on in my journey, I got this sense it would soon be coming to a close. I thought back on the events that led me to this moment. Everything that had forced me to become the type of person who needed to be out there doing the unthinkable.
Officer Ryan’s words rang in my head. “How far do you want to go with this? Think about what your limits are.” As I went forward, I really began to question why my limits made me suffer. After this was all over, I needed to do some serious thinking.
A familiar groan cut my inner dialogue. I froze where I stood and took a deep breath. Slowly, I took short steps forward.
Then, the shape of a creature came into view. Walking closer, I saw it resembled the thing I saw earlier, albeit slightly taller, with a more masculine chest, thicker frame, noticeable black eyes, and more hair growing out of the sides of its grotesque head. It also clearly had chunks blown out of its leg and what looked to be a golden pocket knife stuck in its side. This was it. The creature responsible for this entire journey.
It screamed at me and stomped in the murky water with its hairy feet, but I stood my ground. When it saw I wouldn’t budge, it tried intimidating me again, puffing out its chest and making its hairs stand on end. But I wouldn’t be deterred. I was here to finish this, and it caught on quick. In response, it did something odd.
It stopped, spat out phlegm, turned around, and started limping in the other direction.
There was no chance in hell I was letting it get away. I sprinted towards the thing, jumped forward into the air, and shattered the stick on the back of its head. It didn’t do any damage, but the force easily knocked it over.
The thing wriggled around on the ground, trying to fight back. Quickly, I pulled out my pistol and shot it into the thing’s back. It let out a scream of pain, but I didn’t care. Bang. Another into its spine. Bang. One to the injured leg. Bang. Another to its back. I was seething. Thoughts about what this thing had done to Ernie Garrison and Borris. What it might’ve done to others. And especially what it had done to an innocent mother and her child. My rage began to take over. I stood over it and unloaded every bullet I had left into its skull, not stopping until I heard the click of an empty gun. But I didn’t stop there. I flipped over the body, using the butt of my weapon, and bashed this thing’s face raw. Only stopping when I physically couldn’t smash it anymore.
And then… Silence. I was breathing heavily. I looked on at what I had done, examining the thing for minutes, simply staring. I don’t quite know what to make of how I felt. The rage was gone, but I felt empty. I had killed the creature, potentially saved lives, and yet there was nothing. It didn’t bring back Ernie Garrison nor a young family. Leonard Houston would still be traumatized. Something about it just seemed… Hollow.
Eventually, I stood back up and began to turn back around to leave. But another sound emanated from deeper in the tunnel.
“Shit…” I said to myself. “Please don’t tell me there’s another one.”
I picked up the remainder of my stick and flashed my light forward. I took careful steps towards the sound until I reached the source. I almost gagged when I saw five greyish pink miniature versions of the two creatures I had killed in a nest of rotting flesh.
They were fucking breeding.
I refused to let the younglings even get the chance to be half as dangerous as their parents. With the remainder of my weapon, I did what I had to do to end the bloodline.
It was finally done. I dragged myself back towards my car. I couldn’t tell you what was on my mind. I honestly think I was just blank. No feeling of victory. Just blank. My only real thought was how to get out of those damn woods.
Reaching my car provided the most incredible sense of euphoria I’ve ever had in my life. I must’ve sat for half an hour basking in the warmth of the heater and the comfort of my seats.
Eventually, I managed to call up The Chief and tell him everything. I told him where he could find the bodies and that he could do whatever he needed to do, but I wouldn’t be there to see it through.
I drove straight home and took the most incredible hot shower. Twenty minutes later, I changed into some clean clothes and walked to the one place I knew I needed to be. The local bar.
The bartender gave me a look of sympathy as I sat down and ordered a shot of whiskey and a cider. I’m sure she had seen a lot of characters come through in her time and could probably pick out the ones that were hurting from a mile away.
When she gave me an extra shot of whiskey on the house, it only reaffirmed that she knew I was going through a rough time.
That night, I wanted to do my best to forget everything. Two shots in, and I was well on my way. But, as I was about to let drunkenness take over, I heard a familiar voice pierce the veil of drifting thought.
“Smith? What’re you doing here?”
I looked over and saw a familiar face staring at me with a wide smile. Detective Joss. Her face was red, and I could see that she was already a few drinks in.
“Detective… Er… Eveline. Fancy meeting you here.” I quipped.
She laughed and walked over to sit down next to me. “Hope you don’t mind me using you to get away from creepy flirtatious drunk guys.” She said with a wink.
I laughed. “Not a problem at all. I never imagined you as a bar type of person.”
“I like to get dressed up and come here sometimes on Fridays. But I’ve never seen you here before. What gives? And… You’re a cider guy? That explains a lot.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I don’t usually go out to drink by myself. But it’s been… a rough night, I guess you could say. Also, why the hell are you calling me by my last name in a bar? Kinda informal, isn’t it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Honestly, I call you Smith so often I forget what your first name even is.”
I chuckled. “Debare. Debare Femi Smith. I know it’s not a common name, but my mom is Nigerian, and my dad is from Birmingham. She wanted to take his last name, but they both wanted to keep in touch with our family’s African roots through me. So, therefore, the Nigerian first and middle name with an American last name. But growing up, my friends used to just call me Dre.”
She leaned in closer. I could see the genuine interest in her eyes. “Oh! That’s fascinating. There’s a real history behind your name.”
I shrugged. “I, uh. I guess, yeah. I’m sorry. This is… Different? Usually, we’re throwing jabs at each other. Fun jabs! But jabs nonetheless. And now you’re here asking about my name? It’s just an unexpected change of pace.”
She pulled back a bit and agreed. “Look, I know it’s different. And I know that usually, I’m on you in an overbearing way. I swear I’m not always that person. In fact, most of the time, I’m the complete opposite. Some circumstances just make work one of the few places where I can keep my mind off of, well, life. And I get a little intense.”
This intrigued me. Taking another sip of my cider, I asked her to tell me about what was going on. At first, she was reluctant, but with some prodding, I got her to talk. And… It was… A lot.
To summarize, her father was a cop and not a good one. Not in the sense that he was terrible at his job, but in the sense that he wasn’t a good guy on the job. He was corrupt and power-hungry—the type of shitty guy that taints whatever semblance of justice this badge has left. And at home, he wasn’t much better—verbal abuse, high expectations, and a cold, distant relationship that she’d never forgive him for.
She wanted to be better than him. She wanted to be one of the good ones and, at least in her mind, do something to make up for his mistakes. She threw herself into her work, made sure to be on top of everything that went down to ensure that it was being done the right way—all well and good. She had climbed the ranks, been a star cop, and was living out her dreams… Until it came to her home life. She was married once, a man that she thought was perfect in every way. A man that she thought she could trust until she found him in bed with someone else.
Blame was thrown around. There were arguments every night. Her fault for being too dedicated to work. His fault for not wanting a family to give her a reason to slow down. Divorce papers were filed. A deep depression followed. The only thing remaining was the work she now had as her only outlet to keep her mind busy and away from the thoughts of him.
It was rough to hear. I tried to offer condolences, but she insisted she didn’t need them. Joss was a fighter through and through. From a rough childhood to now, she was determined to figure out a way to make her situation better and live the good life she’d always wanted.
What followed, however, was a question that struck me at my core, “What about you? I heard you left homicide before I arrived, and now you’re back. What happened?”
I could’ve given some crappy answer about mysterious extenuating circumstances or a simple desire to do something different. But Joss had spent the last who knows how long pouring her life out to me. At that moment, I couldn’t help but remember my conversation with Maria Alvarez. Truth is owed truth. And so, I gave it to her.
I told her about the night that my wife and young son were murdered in our home while I was away. I was out working a case and came back to find them dead together in the master bedroom. Of course, the police were called. Empty reassurances that we’d find the person who did it were made.
I drove around the whole damn county, searching for clues somewhere, anywhere. I followed up on every lead possible. I managed to dig past dead ends. I triple, and quadruple checked every piece of information, hoping that I could find the person who killed my beautiful family and put a bullet between their eyes.
In the end, I never found them. The case remains cold to this day. All we have to go on is some grainy footage of a man walking away from the scene. He was only on camera for a few seconds, but I must’ve spent countless hours watching it over and over again, hoping each time that I’d see something new. Something relevant… I never did.
Subsequently, I left homicide, not being able to deal with seeing the dead bodies and having a breakdown every time I thought of my family.
Joss was in shock. “I had no idea. I’m so sorry.” She said.
I told her it was okay. I had gone through a lot of personal growth to try and move on. It never really leaves you, nor should it, but I was making progress.
For the next few hours or so, we bonded over our trauma. Drinking together, we went from talking about our past to our personal interests—movies, music, politics, space. Hell, she even told me about a psychedelic trip she had while visiting family in Sweden. Officer Ryan mentioned it before but, she really was pretty cool.
Eventually, though, as all good things do, our conversation had to come to a close. I was exhausted, and the alcohol was telling me that I needed to sleep. But before I went, she mentioned that her family owned a cabin a few hours away. She was initially going to go with some friends, but there was a change of plans and then asked if I wanted to go instead.
I told her that I’d love to.
From there, I walked out into the frigid air. On the way home, I had nothing but time to reflect on everything. And with a smile on my face, I finally let my mind wander.
As always, stay safe, everyone.