The paper rippled against the light post in the night breeze. The faces of two little girls smiled out from black and white xeroxes of separate photographs. The younger girl, on the left, beamed up at the camera through missing teeth. The photograph on the right was an official school shot of the other girl, older, posing and comported. The paper was warped and water stained having been hanging up for a few nights now.
The word “Missing” yelled out in large, bold lettering along the top of the sheet. Information on the girls, their names, what they were last wearing, where they were last seen, filled in the bottom of the paper.
Throughout the large, empty parking lot, on all the other light posts, the same xerox of paper could be seen, white squares against the matte gray metal.
A woman, Anita Bryson, stared absently out at the lot of the deserted mini-mall as she waited outside of a small home and garden store. She was dressed in a suit, and the badge on her hip glinted in the lights.
“Where is he?” she asked her partner.
It was late. The store was long closed and the wind rippling the sheet of paper against the light post was louder than the occasional car passing on the road out past the empty blacktop’s end.
“He’ll show,” Murray said. He was bigger than Anita, his suit hidden by an overcoat.
“What if this guy’s lying?” Anita asked.
“Then we waste a little bit of time and move on to the next lead. Me? I’m checking under every rock for this piece of shit.” His voice was raw and there was a rumble of something underneath that prickled alarmingly.
“Hey,” Anita said. Her voice was curt, containing in that one syllable an order to turn and face her and a question about Murray’s tone.
Murray obeyed, looking over at Anita and blinking out of his stony face to give her a reassuring nod.
“Okay,” Anita said, allowing him to get back to scowling and thinking. “I’m just not thrilled with our current source.”
“Kids go missing,” Murray said, “you take leads where you can get them.”
“I have to play nice with a drug dealer to find a missing girl,” Murray said, “that’s not even an argument in my head.”
“Drug overlord more like it,” Anita said.
“He’s more like middle-management. And he knew a lot,” Murray responded, as if this trumped everything. “There’s no way he got all those details right through luck. None.”
Anita shook her head and glanced up at where the McKenzie sisters, frozen in their xeroxes, looked out at the world. The younger had already been found dead, mauled. That toothless smile was forever trapped only in the world of photographs. Her older sister was still missing, though.
Anita looked away and walked towards the windows of the home and garden store, partly bored, partly cold, partly to get away from the photographs. “I need some coffee,” she said.
Murray, in turn, walked back over to the light post. His eyes were looking out over the parking lot. His brain, though, wouldn’t stop recalling the photos from the crime scene where the younger McKenzie girl had been found, and his mind wouldn’t stop reacting to them with horror and rage.
In the beginning he had tried to figure out what it was that made this case hit him so hard. It was gruesome, yes. It was two girls around the ages of his own children, yes. It was an invasion of his own home town, yes. But these things had happened before in his years on the force and he had been able to continue through the job as a policeman.
Sometime last night he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing different about this case. It would have been comforting if there had been. It would have given him a reason to back off or accept that it was too much. But nothing was different about this case; there was something different about him. And that thought had brought him a weary peace as he stopped fighting himself.
In the face of this case, he wasn’t a policeman. Not anymore. No longer. A simple shrugging off of that identity and he knew that when he found the man responsible he was going to tear him apart, and enjoy it.
Anita was talking again. He looked up at her. “Yeah,” he said, agreeing with her tone, pretending he had been listening without knowing what she had asked.
Anita seemed to approve of what she saw. “You look more relaxed,” she said. “You get some sleep or something?”
“A full three hours, and then a hot shower.”
Anita smiled and turned away from her partner, glad to see he had a handle on things.
A sudden rapping on the thick glass behind her made her start, and she spun around.
“Fucking Greene,” Murray said, recognizing the man behind the glass.
Greene stood inside the home and garden store wearing a satin jacket in pristine condition from some minor league team, a baseball cap with the sticker still on resting on his head. He was smiling, having startled Anita.
“Yeah great,” Murray yelled at him through the glass. “Now let us the fuck in.”
They all met up at the doors as Greene unlocked them.
Stepping inside, Anita felt nervous. The store was quiet, locked down for the night. “What is this? Why are we here?” Anita asked, her tone interrogating.
“A compatriot of mine owns this place,” Greene said, smug grin still on his face. “You don’t like it?”
“I don’t know why we’re here,” Anita said dismissively.
“What, you think I’m gonna bring you to my place of business?” Greene was enjoying the fact that everyone here knew their roles, but nobody was playing them.
“Talk,” Anita ordered.
Greene puffed up at the order, sucking air in through his teeth. “Mmmm…is that how you think this is? You say speak, and I speak?”
Anita glared at him.
“Man, fuck you, I ain’t no lap dog.”
“And I didn’t come here to watch you preen yourself. Talk.”
Greene stood his ground.
“Well how about we take you in for questioning? Or trespassing?”
Greene laughed dismissively. “Please…trespassing? This is my cousin’s store. I work here part-time. What you think I’m gonna to do? Break the law while meeting with you?”
“Alright, alright,” Murray said, getting between them.
“In fact, I ain’t even here as far as you two are concerned, you got that? I tell you what I know and then I’m gone.” Greene watched Anita’s eyes flick over towards a security camera. “Those ain’t on, woman. Damn you have got a hard-on for me, don’t you? I’m trying to do the right thing on account of a missing kid and all and you—“
“So why not come into the station and talk to a police officer?” Anita snapped.
Greene shook his head at her. “Right. That’s just what I’m gonna do. Man, get this bitch out of my face or I swear I’m walking right out this…”
Murray herded Greene away from Anita and spoke to him, placating him.
Anita watched them talking for a few seconds, then slowly wandered around to the back of the store. There was a break room in the rear, probably where Greene had been waiting, with all the lights on. A TV was playing images silently in the corner. She glanced in and saw a news report. The picture changed and the McKenzie girls were smiling out at her again. The camera panned in on the familiar set of photographs, cropping out the younger sister, focusing on the older one, the one still hopefully alive.
She turned back towards Greene and Murray. They were talking more animatedly. Greene pointed towards the back and Murray questioned him again, harder. Greene was insisting. Murray was shocked. Anita knew something strange was going on and she approached the two. They were finished talking by the time she got near. She only heard Greene telling Murray, “Have fun,” before he was walking past her towards the door.
“What did that mean?” Anita asked.
Murray turned to her stiffly, in shock. “He’s here.”
“What do you mean ‘He’s here?’” Anita yelled.
“Some of Greene’s guys caught the guy. They tied him up in the back.”
“What?!” Anita yelled, her hand moving to her gun, frozen between going to investigate and wanting more confirmation from Murray that she was hearing him right.
“Yeah,” Murray said, still in shock.
“Well how do they know it’s really—“
“They said it looked like the composite sketch.”
Anita fumed at Murray, “Are you out of your mind?! Some thugs kidnap a random man off the street because he looks like a hand drawn picture?” Her hand was reaching for her phone. “I am calling in back up and telling anyone who spots Greene to pick his ass up immediately! Who knows who the hell they decided to jump—“
Murray held out his hand. He was holding a cloth toy, a worn out bean-bag elephant with one beaded eye missing.
Anita froze and stared at the toy. “That may have leaked,” she whispered.
“No there’s more. It’s really him,” Murray said, marveling at the older McKenzie’s stuffed toy in his hand.
“We have to call this in,” Anita said. “You know that.”
“I know,” Murray said, conceding.
Anita looked relieved. “Okay.” She relaxed and moved her hand from her gun to her pocket for her phone. “Let’s—”
There was a ratcheting click and she felt a cold ring close around her wrist and she swore at herself and tried to fight back as Murray, already a move ahead and with surprise on his side, easily handcuffed her to a shelf.
Murray muttered a half-hearted apology as he gagged her with his tie, but his wasted eyes were already looking towards the storage space. He barely noticed her struggling as he removed her phone and gun and slipped them into his pocket.
Then he walked off towards the back of the store.
Anita struggled to scream, but only managed to drool slightly out of her mouth as Murray’s tie blocked her tongue and held her mouth open in a grimace.
She tried again anyway, yelling after Murray only to have it come out as a choked off gargle. She flailed her body and a sharp pain from the metal handcuff crushing into her wrist bones made her gag.
Self-preservation and common sense took over at the pain and she relaxed, fearful of damaging her wrist.
Then something else roiled inside of her, a base emotion blunt and hard as she saw her partner disappear into the store.
She looked down at her hand and pulled, feeling the pain of the handcuff scraping against her bone. Her stomach felt sick again.
She relaxed, looked down, then yanked again, hard.
Murray felt off-balance, almost drunk, as he slid open the storage room door. The past few minutes, locking Anita up, were bleary. Some part of his mind held them that way, making them feel unreal so he could ignore them.
The door was heavy and swung shut with a loud thump behind him. The inside of the room was dimly lit by the entrance, but towards the back there was stronger light.
There were rows of shelves on either side of him, simple angle and bolt structures, with vinyl bags of various sizes organized in neat rows.
The shelves stopped about three-quarters of the way into the room, and he could make out a more open space there, sinks along the wall, stacks of buckets lined up, side tables and a trash can.
In the center of this space was a man, naked, tied to a chair.
The man was stirring, confused.
Murray watched him for a few seconds, his eyes having adjusted to the low light. He walked around to the back of the chair and tested how tight the ropes were. Satisfied he slid his gun back into his holster. He walked down the row of shelves, studying their contents. Satisfied with what he saw he removed his coat and his gun and threw them into an empty space. He rolled up his sleeves and walked back to stand in front of the chair.
The man looked up at him through matted hair and a black eye.
Murray took his time, inspecting the area, double checking the ropes. The man in the chair, struggled and tried to speak, but he was weak and Murray shushed him, showing him his badge.
“Oh thank god you’re a policeman you’ve got to help me,” the man said, his voice a husk of what it should have been. “These fucking guys jumped me and dragged me back here…I think they drugged me or something…”
Murray dropped the bean bag stuffed elephant into the man’s lap. Then he walked to the nearest shelf and picked up a twenty pound bag of decorative garden pebbles. He turned to the man in the chair, hefting the bag and getting a grip on it at one end.
“Where is the older girl?” he asked.
The man in the chair began shaking his head. “What girl?” he said, weakly.
Murray swung the bag like a baseball bat, grunting as he twisted his body and slammed the flat of the bag into the man’s chest. It made a slap like a dead fish hitting a counter and a few of the seams of the bag popped, spilling some pebbles onto the floor as the chair crashed over backwards.
The man was struggling to breath, his breath coming in hitches as his eyes bugged out in panic and he tried to get his lungs under control.
Murray, calmly, reached a hand under the back of the chair and pulled it, and the man, upright again.
Under the hanging dome lights Murray could see the purple blotches on the man’s chest where blood vessels had burst.
“Where is the girl?”
The man barely had his breath under control, his whole body was trying to shrink away from Murray as he shook his head from side to side.
Murray swung the bag of pebbles again.
The chair skidded backwards this time, the whole thing shuddering, before toppling over.
When Murray pulled the man up this time there was blood between his lips and he was repeating a hitching spastic breath over and over again.
“Where…” Murray started, but the ache in his shoulders and the flashes of the crime scene photos took over and he found himself asking another question. “How could you do this?” His voice was plaintive; he needed this answered. “Why did you tear that little girl apart?”
The man had his mouth open, finally able to take deep, though raspy, breaths. He glanced down at the one-eyed, bean bag elephant in his lap. “I don’t know what that is. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Whatever those black guys told you they were lying. Please, you have to believe me.”
“I know. The elephant toy? That was all over the news and they’re sold all over the place. Anyone could have dug one up and planted it on anyone.”
“See?” the man said, suddenly hopeful.
“Though the missing eye was kept pretty quiet,” Murray said.
The man looked confused.
“Plus? What wasn’t in the news, though, you piece of shit, was that you bit a chunk out of the younger girl’s arm.” Murray cupped the man’s cheeks and shoved his head back. “And that bite mark had some seriously fucked up dentistry.” Murray pushed hard enough to reveal the man’s teeth, revealing the various gaps where some were missing and the broken pieces of some shards still lodged in his gums. “Absolutely nobody knew about that.”
The change was eerie as the man’s posture changed in his chair and his eyes went from wild and scared to calm and appraising, locking onto Murray even with his head shoved backwards.
“Why did you do it?”
Murray squeezed his hand and felt the man’s cheeks grinding against his jaw. The man stared back at him and Murray thought he could feel him trying to smile under his grip.
Murray let go and walked back towards the bag of pebbles. The tear in the end dropped small stones to clatter on the floor as he walked to stand alongside of the chair.
“Why did you do it?” he asked again, defeated.
The man didn’t answer.
Murray wound up and swung. The bag burst as it struck the man’s chest sending stones raining all over the room as the chair bounced backwards, yet remained upright.
The man held a wince in place for a long few seconds, then slowly let out his breath. His body was relaxed and he looked up at Murray with curiosity.
Murray looked like the beaten one as he stared at the man’s face, begging for an answer. “They were just little girls,” he said, his voice thick. “My daughters knew them. I knew them. Why them? Why?”
The man smiled silently in response.
Murray turned away and began looking over the shelves. He found a row of paving stones and picked one up, the stone fitting nicely into his hand. He shuffled his way back over to the man and, shaking his head in defeat, bashed him across the face.
The man’s head lolled around slowly on his neck as blood and saliva dripped from his mouth. “Why did I do it?” he slurred.
Murray just shook his head, ignoring him, and cracked him across the face again with the stone. The chair toppled sideways and the man crashed to the floor.
Murray felt his wrist throbbing and his hand felt numb. He dropped the brick and walked back to the shelves to find another blunt object.
“Why did I do it?” the man’s voice called out, and Murray paused at the shelves.
“What made me turn on my fellow human?”
The man’s voice was different. It was stronger, less worn and ragged, but there was something else. Something was off.
Murray, still thick-headed, turned and looked at the toppled chair. It was shaking, bouncing on the floor like it was alive. The man was moving somehow in a way that shouldn’t have been possible. His legs were getting longer and his arms were getting thicker, pulsing his body in ugly spasms.
“What made me commit horrible acts against another living thing?“ And his voice was disgusting, only part human, a sickening warble of some weird chilling melody underneath it.
Murray could only stand still as the chair snapped in two under the pressure of the man’s growing torso and hair sprouted all down his legs.
“Why did I do it?” The man’s head came into view and Murray’s stomach became icy fear as he saw the man’s face breaking itself, his jaw shattering as it pushed out into a snout and follicles of hair sprouted around his eyes.
A monstrous face, the vestiges of a human skull still hiding somewhere beneath it, stared at him. Huge jaws opened as the legs, now covered in a mottled brown fur, lifted up the rippling torso and somewhere back in its throat the thing let out a mad hyena’s laugh.
It trotted over to Murray and easily tackled him to the floor as he gave a half-hearted attempt to run. “I was hungry,” it said with the last vestiges of a human’s voice from a mouth full of teeth as it loomed over Murray’s body. Its lips pulled back and its jaws seemed to take up its entire head as a slavering tongue ran over them. “What was your excuse?”
It tore into Murray neck, practically severing his head in one bite. It threw its head back, tossing a meaty part of Murray’s shoulder into its mouth to be chewed.
It reached a leg out and pawed Murray’s cold, dead face. Then it chortled again, a bully’s laugh, a little garbled as it greedily swallowed the half-chewed meat.
It turned towards the door to leave when, with a slam, the door flew open.
Anita stood, squinting in the light. Her right arm dangled at her side, her wrist shattered to pieces, her thumb dangling, half ripped off. She stared at the scene in front of her, then made a break for Murray’s coat and gun on the nearby shelf.
The hyena laughed, almost uncontrollably, and trotted towards her, pieces of Murray still hanging from its endless smile of teeth.
Anita slumped against the shelves as the animal picked up speed and prepared to pounce. She raised her left hand, wobbly, and fired until the gun was empty, her aim off, her trigger pressure weak, but as shot after shot rang out the hyena’s body spurted blood and its run skidded to a halt and it landed on the floor, dead.
She looked down her vision growing blurry as blood poured from her throbbing, crushed, right hand.
She dropped the gun and fell to the ground.
Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph Devon is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.