The last notes of the foot-tapping jazz of “The ‘In’ Crowd” blared from the radio and faded into the DJ’s voice. After some insipid rambling, he introduced the Beatles’ current hit, “Help!” I spun the volume knob on the dash and cut off the music, uninterested in hearing any more of the mishmash of genres that had been dominating the airwaves this summer. Maybe it was the American zeitgeist’s response to the announcement of an official commitment to combat troops in Vietnam or maybe some other, larger cultural shift.
Hot air blasting through open windows made the loose hairs on my head tickle my ears. I made the familiar motion to tuck the errant strands in and realized once again that I needed to adjust the leather band holding my braided ponytail in place. I smiled, concerned with nothing, and felt alive while hurtling down the highway. Alive for too long, certainly. I had a method for survival and I was sticking to it; I had a plan and it was working.
At this moment, I was on my way to meet a ghost. Ted Rooster haunted the southern reaches of the forests around Mount Rainier. The message he’d left with my answering service had me thinking about him as if I’d just heard his voice the day before. He was one of mine, a damaged one, a boy I’d tracked to a sodden grave over a decade ago. Left for dead. Children are resilient, to say the least, and he’d survived his scoutmaster’s prolonged sexual assaults right up to and beyond when the molester couldn’t bear the secret anymore. Ted’s volunteer leader, the betrayer of a child’s trust, decided it’d be simpler to murder and bury Ted rather than do the honorable thing and dispose of himself, freeing Ted and any other boys his eyes fell on. Coward. The halfhearted strangling and burying of the boy with nothing but hope that his victim was dead was the best he could muster. The police already had the feckless human when I found Ted and dragged him out of that hole.
I flicked the radio back on and tuned in a different station. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” burned out of the tortured speakers in the early-generation Impala and I thumped the wheel in time with the funky drummer. The decade-old vehicle ran well and I was happy to have acquired it after crossing the border from Canada on foot. At the time, I’d had no particular reason to be heading south through the Pacific Northwest, and I’d been fortunate to have heard from Rooster at all. I hated the goddamned phone, but the answering service was helpful in ensuring that I got interesting cases to support my bid-to-stay-sane hobby. My little network was working.
Rooster grew up a natural survivalist. Very difficult for his parents to keep up with. I passed through the area from time to time and taught him what I knew about the woods. In return and to assuage his own idiosyncrasies, he kept an eye on the area—he couldn’t bear another case like the one that had stolen his choices and defined the rest of his life. Roofs and running water became anathema to his altered nature; he was a natural protector and amazing tracker—for a human being.
Well before calling me, Ted had slid out of the forest on the trail of Kelsey Thomas, a girl who’d disappeared with her father some weeks before the beginning of summer. With nothing better to do, she became the reason I was going south.
He’d lost her trail in the city, one of the places Rooster tended to avoid and where his particular skills came up short. He was claustrophobic like he’d been forced to live beneath the stars his entire life. He never trusted the Boy Scouts again—not that he or anyone else had to worry about that particular troop leader. Bringing the boy out of the forest guaranteed that his scoutmaster went to prison for a long time. We both figured it was the least price a scoutmaster should pay for the extreme measures he’d taken to cover up his crimes. Regardless, the sentence wasn’t for life and Rooster could always visit the sorry bastard if he felt like discussing anything.
For local media, Kelsey’s disappearance was a big story until it wasn’t. I found it consistently amazing how little coordinated attention was paid to these disappearances and murders. It seemed that only the children of the white and wealthy grabbed the national media’s attention and brought the authorities out in coordinated force. And there were so many curious cases or just-plain-gone kids like Kelsey. It was a golden opportunity for me. Something I could distract myself with and keep the mental gears turning. A cornucopia, for sure.
The Impala chugged along and I had not a care in the world until I saw the little boy standing on the side of the road. As I passed, we locked eyes. We knew each other; I remembered him and he remembered me. I never knew his name and any guilt I felt at the sight of my victim’s ghost got packed deep down with vigor. I didn’t see him in the rear-view mirror and I grinned, happy to leave the unshakable memory behind. Though I saw him sometimes but no one else could, it wasn’t nearly enough to rattle me too bad. I was becoming accustomed to the weird in my head.
Hours later, at dusk, I pulled into a spot on the edge of the forest where Rooster lived illegally. One might think he “camped,” but that presumed he was leaving at some point. No, Rooster was there to stay until his dying day. Fine by me. It just meant a bit more effort on my part, more exercise for my brain. I slipped out of my clothes and into the transformation, dumping my weaker skin for the more durable stuff. It was a palpable joy, running into the steaming forest, luxuriating in the green.
There was no breeze, no way for Rooster to hide downwind. I criss-crossed the edge of the pine until I picked up his scent. Then I followed it in a zigzag pattern, noting where it got stronger, keeping all of my senses alert for where he might be waiting. It was a game we’d been playing for years, a long game. He’d yet to win, but he was getting better every year that I passed through.
I tracked him up to a sharp rise. A feint, I was sure, something to get me to expose myself. I hunkered down and skirted the base of the incline until I found his trail again. It doubled back more than once until I could smell him, strong in the air. I felt like I was right on top of him, but there was no other sign. I spun in a quick circle, eyes and ears alert. Damn it to hell, I can practically taste him.
“Does this mean I won?”
Rooster had a laconic, soft-spoken voice. He rarely used it, so he tended to sound hesitant. At this point in his life, I knew he was anything but. He was up a tree. Way up, I could see, now that I bothered to look. Ana had warned me about looking up more often, but I’d gotten cocky and let it slip.
I huffed and sat back on my haunches while he climbed down.
“First time,” he said with a smile playing at the corners of his bearded mouth.
Rooster was short and well-muscled, the human equivalent of a badger. He was currently wearing just enough clothing to ward off any discomfort the forest might provide, but it was a particularly warm night and he was sweating by the time he hit bottom.
Speaking with a mouth better suited for destruction, I growled out, “What’ve you got for me, Rooster?”
“Pretty much what I told ya on the message.” He spoke carefully, reciting facts. “This girl, Kelsey Thomas, nine years old, been gone for ’bout two months now. Her mom was murdered an’ the cops ’spect her daddy. He was something of a big-shot businessman in the area; a lot o’ folks knew him. I know he did it; all the evidence says so.”
Rooster’s brown eyes sparkled in his hairy, mirthless face. He was talking about a predator and it was raising his hackles. I knew he was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to find them.
“Her room didn’t look loved an’ their home had that cold feeling to it, like it had been under a shroud. Nothing out of place, no personality. All appearances seemed manufactured. The mother had confided in a friend that she was…unhappy and that her husband was…touching their daughter. And had been for some time. That must be why he killed her; he must’ve found out she told or she’d had enough an’ confronted him. I s’pose the friend got lucky, ’cause he didn’t have time to get to her. Police been lookin’, but they ain’t doin’ so good.”
“You spoke to the friend?”
Rooster spread his arms and glanced to the side. “No, man, look at me. Who the hell would willingly talk to the wild man from the woods? I read the papers at the library.”
Libraries were a nexus of all available information. Rooster was smart enough to know that. “Where’d you lose the trail?”
He chewed the inside of his lip for a moment before telling me. “’Round the edge of Rainier, west of here.”
“Did you tell the police?”
“Anonymously. Didn’t do no good.”
“Tell me everything you know about the case and I’ll start from the beginning.”
It took Rooster the better part of an hour to recount all the details he’d uncovered. I had all the information I needed to start from scratch—the better to use my own head to work out the particulars.
“Find ’im, Alexander. He don’t deserve no mercy.”
I left the forest faster than I came in. With no need to be stealthy, I enjoyed the run, feeling the supernatural power coursing through my body and energizing my legs.
Back at the car, I decided I’d head to the Thomases’ home first, under the cover of darkness. I could visit Mrs. Thomas’s friend in the morning. I didn’t want to waste any time, and my head buzzed with possibilities. This would be a good hunt, more than a puzzle. Either option kept my monster at bay; all the better for me. I had a long drive to get out of the national park lands and into Centralia. It would be the middle of the night when I arrived.
I pulled the car off the road into a secluded area about a half a mile from the Thomas home. When I’d driven by it, the place was dark and the neighborhood quiet. The area remained still and I didn’t want to alarm any of the neighbors by letting them see a strange car nearby. No need to draw that kind of attention. The entire neighborhood was carved into the woods, a beautiful development with plenty of space and trees between lots. Private, plenty of places to hide.
Where the road curved and the wooded area thickened, I was able to hide the Impala from anyone not looking and slip into the woods straightaway. Without incident, I passed through several backyards, giving wide berth to those with dogs, until I came to the home in question.
It shared the same outward characteristics as all the others in the area. A ranch-style home, sloping roofline, with sliding doors set above a small concrete slab on what should have been a manicured lawn. The Thomas yard was going to pot fast. In this lush environment, the grass was more than twice as long as the neighbors’ and the bordering green encroached, leaving a blurry line between where the trees ended and Man’s dominion began.
There were no outdoor lights on, and after observing the dark home for a few minutes, I slipped across the lawn and took a close look at the sliding door. According to my nose and the appearance of the slab, there’d been plenty of foot traffic in and out. The investigators. How careful had they been when finishing up? I couldn’t see any kind of alarm system or bracing bar inside. I tried the door and it slid open easily. People in these areas rarely developed the habits of inner-city residents who locked every door behind them.
Inside the home, I was just off the black-and-white-tiled kitchen. At the corner of the kitchen, a well-used pea-green electric stove was cornered against a yellow-speckled Formica countertop leading to a bulbous refrigerator the color of squash. I still couldn’t get used to the unnatural color schemes introduced after the Second World War. Progress, indeed.
The air was stale and I confirmed Rooster’s assessment of the décor. It seemed less a home and more a place where people stayed. I didn’t bother with the lights; I could see well enough and, more importantly, I could smell even better. The mother had been murdered here in the kitchen. There weren’t any bloody smudges, but they’d clearly done a poor job cleaning up. More scents lingered here than anywhere else, trapped in the house with the dead air. I could smell the old death and dozens of male scents. Guns, boot polish, tobacco and coffee. It was an olfactory blueprint for law enforcement around the world.
According to Rooster, Mr. Thomas had killed his wife with a butcher knife. Classic. A glance confirmed one missing from the knife block. The largest. They must’ve argued in the kitchen—or he caught up with her there—and he decided a course correction was in order. I decided it must’ve been an argument. The mother couldn’t bear it and confronted him as far from the bedrooms upstairs as she could. Far too many men of David Thomas’s ilk operated for years right under the noses of friends and family. Sometimes with tacit approval or an iron fist.
It looked like David had been sucking the life out of this home for years. Iron fist, then. Years of hidden atrocities that overflowed when confronted, revealing him for who he truly was. All the claws and teeth he’d kept tucked safely away bristled, and no one was safe. No human, anyway. I grinned to myself. Western society continued to produce the perfect fodder for my continued survival. David was going to be worthy of death.
There was nothing more of interest downstairs. What I wanted at that point was a clear scent profile for Kelsey and her father. Upstairs, fewer scents lingered. They’d focused much of their investigation downstairs. Thick carpet covered the stairs and the entire upper floor. My movements were disturbingly silent on the plush surface. There were four rooms. Three were bedrooms and one was an office and storage space. The master bedroom was messier than expected, considering the sterile state of the rest of the home. I peeked into the adjacent bedroom—clearly a guest room. It was neat and had been inhabited by Mrs. Thomas. Perhaps life in the grey zone had been off for longer than anyone knew. I wondered how long Mrs. Thomas had known about her husband’s proclivities. The main bedroom must’ve become David’s nest. I stood in the center of the room, breathing in the patriarch’s scent with confidence.
Inside Kelsey’s room, I sat on her pink twin bed. The room, sparse like the rest of the house, barely radiated much more than “this is a girl’s room.” I sat and breathed in Kelsey’s identifying scents for a few minutes and looked for any clues that might help later on. What little theme there was in the room soon became apparent. Kelsey loved dogs. There was a dog calendar on the wall and a few stuffed ones on the bed. I peeked under the bed and in the closet. Nothing of note except a few books on dog breeds. I stood there for a few minutes more and then ran my hand along the wall at the top of the closet, just out of sight. Then I pulled the drawers of the dresser out one by one. On the back of the drawer third from the top, I found something. A piece of mesh thumbtacked to the back. Inside it, several sheets of folded paper with neat, girlish writing. Some were in pen, others in pencil. From the first page, I gleaned that this was Kelsey’s version of a diary. At least, the kind of diary she wished her life reflected. I pocketed the papers and returned the drawers.
I poked around the office for a while, getting to know David Thomas, what he spent most of his time doing. He was a clown. In every sense of the word, to me, but only occasionally to the locals. Here and there, on shelves and walls, were photos of David at events, with clients. Faded color photos with various people of all sizes and shapes with conservative haircuts and pink faces. All white, of course, the better to hide in plain sight and get comfortable. In all of the photos, David looked plain. His hair was always cut and styled the same way, his clothes were similar in every photo. Looking at the repetition, I thought it might be hard for the police to circulate a photo of this guy for help. If he changed his look, he’d be a completely different person.
He ran a small business that served a wide area. A party supplier with all the entertainments, living and otherwise: ponies, clowns, balloons, games, popcorn machines—you name it. Sometimes, when needed, he slipped on the greasepaint and filled in, entertaining children in his lap. Parents trusted him. An upstanding businessman who provided parties for children? Gold. He got into schools, daycares, homes. Every job must have been like a victim interview. Since he needed to know the spaces he was working with, he would often have unfettered access. Children look to their parents for whom to trust, and there he was; being trusted. Society at large was unwilling to believe the extent that pedophiles would go to satisfy their needs. I knew how patient and dedicated predators could be to claim their prey. I wasn’t surprised when a dangerous beast came in human shape rather than some other animal on the plains of Africa or from the depths of the ocean. Murderous creatures came from both of those places and everywhere in between, but none compared to what Man could do. Maybe one day, humanity would learn.
Downstairs, back near the kitchen, I didn’t pause to think. I just slipped out the back and kept following the clues. Surely the police had the same information I had managed to glean from the Thomas home—excepting Kelsey’s fantasy journal pages. They couldn’t follow a scent trail like I could, however, couldn’t use their other senses to pick up details that would go unnoticed. It would be dawn soon and I needed something to eat before going door to door and figuring out who really knew the Thomas family. At my car, I shed my clothes and then my skin to do a little hunting that didn’t involve humans.
From what Rooster had told me, David Thomas’s parents were deceased and he didn’t have close family in the area. He was estranged from his only aunt and cousins. Telling, I think. Kelsey’s mother, Sarah, however, was a somewhat different story. Her parents had been a hurricane in the area for the past two months; everyone knew them. They were back home in California, so that day I would work for them, that day I was a private detective. They’d hired me due to frustration that the police hadn’t made much progress in locating their granddaughter or their daughter’s killer. That was my story. With no legal constraints and nothing but time on my hands, I could learn more about David Thomas than they already had.
People still wanted to do the right thing; they wanted the world to be good and clean. And they were willing to talk to force the matter in this young and remote neighborhood where residents still neglected to lock their doors. I could use the authorities’ lack of progress to pry open doors and mouths. I pinballed from home to home, inhaling a heady mix of potpourri, dogs, and children while absorbing story after story defining David and Sarah Thomas.
I learned that David was well liked and respected—an entirely different personality than the truth of him, the personality able to murder the mother of his child and steal his own daughter away to play with. Unsuspected, as they always were. He was handsome, helpful, and committed to building a successful business. His few employees didn’t have much to say about him other than that he was fair and professional. He was the owner and manager; they did what he told them to do and it didn’t involve becoming friends.
David Thomas was involved in the community, but not too involved. He never took the lead of his own volition, but occasionally he would be volunteered and he’d do the job good-naturedly. People liked that about him, liked that he’d pitch in when called. He seemed to know everyone, but few people knew him. What I did find were the couple’s friends—some dating back to high school, neighborhood pals from way back. Through them and their guilt and loss and disbelief, David’s life as an emotionally abused and wayward youth could be cobbled together. I was able to follow this bland trail to one of his estranged cousins, someone who knew David before.
Phil Thomas lived off the beaten path, to say the least. He stayed in a small trailer off a short, broken road. I stopped on the main road and took in the area. Tall, golden grass surrounded the trailer for hundreds of yards, getting thicker at a pine tree line in the distance. It would have been beautiful but for the pile of crap Phil lived in that had clearly been sitting in the field for some time. A smaller pile of discarded junk sat next to a rusted red pickup. Two dirt lines were scored into the grass leading to the truck.
Before I was within fifty yards of the thing, I could smell the weed and corn liquor, greasy food, and dirty humans. More weed and liquor than any one man would ever need for recreation. Phil lived with a pregnant woman topped with thin blond hair who looked like a hundred miles of bad road. Her five-year-old had the same empty look her mother did. The resemblance was stunning. When I met her pale, blue eyes, there was nothing there, no curiosity. The kid was barely alert. She picked over a ruined plastic bowl of corn flakes.
I wondered if I’d be back in the neighborhood for Phil one day. We spoke in the dirt patch of the front “yard” under a tattered awning tacked to the side of the trailer. Phil was shirtless and skinny, wearing tight jeans that flared at the bottom, a patch on either knee, and thick tan boots. An intricate belt buckle of tarnished pewter with a center of turquoise on a thick leather belt did little to hold the pants up. His long head was constantly in motion; dirty blond hair hanging down past his ears waved with every movement. I could smell cigarettes and gunpowder on him, but I didn’t believe he was armed. That didn’t mean the woman in the trailer wasn’t. Or that she didn’t have a weapon trained on me right now. I shadowed Phil and kept him between me and the trailer. It seemed to agitate him a little.
“Davey wasn’t no angel, none of us were, but we wasn’t so interested in some o’ the things he was.” Phil’s thick horseshoe mustache danced when he spoke.
Phil spit and kicked some dirt at the wet spot. “Shit, I always swore I’d never talk about family like this.”
“David turn out like anyone else in your family?”
“Hell, no! Man, you believe he’s messin’ with Kelsey, y’know, like that?”
I just stared at him and waited. Waited for the rusty gears in his head to turn and pull the curtain further back. It took time to unravel belief.
“Shit, man. That’s… Shit.”
“You were telling me what David was like when you were younger.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we wasn’t tight. Y’know? But we was cousins—by marriage—and we got together often enough. The usual goofy stuff as kids. Y’know?”
I didn’t know, but it also didn’t matter. Again, I waited, leaving dead air for Phil to fill.
“There was a couple times we found dead animals and he wanted to—I dunno—dissect ’em or whatnot. Weird shit. I remember one time he tried to get a few of us to do some really crazy dares.”
“Ah…” Phil looked around, avoiding my eyes.
I bent over and met his eyes, followed them, stayed in his field of vision. “Like what, Phil?”
Phil sighed and relented. “Man, he always wanted to stick his dick in something or watch someone do it. Girls, boys, whatever. He didn’t bring it up often. Y’know?”
“No, Phil, I don’t know. Explain.” Phil gave me a hard look, the kind of glance that served as a warning. I resolved to take the easy way with him and reminded him that I was working for his aunt and uncle.
Phil spit. He liked to spit when he was thinking. “He never missed an opportunity to try and worm it in. Okay? Got a little reputation for it, for a while, then nothing. He cooled it. No one ever let him do it ’cause it was fuckin’ weird. Right?”
“Yeah. How did his parents treat him?”
“Aaah, his mom was cool. But his dad was mean. Not mean like he beat him a lot or nothin’ for no reason. Y’know? Just, like, cold. Never did much for Davey other than to tell him to do shit around the house or remind Davey that he was worthless. A real prick to his mom, too.”
I heard the motor before Phil’s eyes glanced over my shoulder. I looked and saw a black muscle car grind to a halt at the turnoff onto the road. I couldn’t make out how many people were in the vehicle. Customers, no doubt.
I nodded at Phil. “Where’d David like to hang out when he got older, in his teens?”
“Aw, I dunno. We sorta drifted apart before then. Our moms wasn’t draggin’ us around no more, so we was doin’ whatever we was doin.’ All I know is he started runnin’ away when he got older.”
“Yeah? Tell me about that.”
Phil chewed his lip, thinking, then spit. I hoped he wouldn’t embellish too badly. “He’d disappear for a couple o’ days before coming back. That I know of, he took off three times.”
“Each time longer than the last?”
“Yeah! How’d you know?”
“I’m a private dick.”
“Uh, sure, right.” Phil’s eyebrows creased.
“So, how long each time? Do you know?”
“Uh-huh. The whole family’d go on red alert. He’s gone two days the first time. Like, four the next. And I think over a week the last time.”
“Like one time after the other. Right away?”
“Oh, no. Second time was ’bout a year later. Third time I know of was more’n two years later.”
“I see.” Practice runs, reconnaissance, the son of a bitch. “You remember anything else that might help us find him?”
“Um, no, I don’t think so. Anything else I can do to help my family?”
“Love your children instead.”
“Instead o’ what?”
I turned and left Phil with his busted-up trailer and waiting customers.
David had gotten smart, knew what his behaviors meant, how they affected people. He had started hiding his true self, making plans to become the man he was that day. David Thomas had been a poor kid who’d seemingly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, gotten married and started breeding like all the other humans around him. His entire history smacked of quiet focus. No college, just sheer determination and sweat. An elaborate camouflage for a dedicated monster, all this time festering and waiting. He was careful, and now his hide was coming undone and he could finally come into being. For all the good that did him. He was cut off from his established patterns, on the run. He had his little girl, sure, but that couldn’t last, no matter how clear the illusions he kept in his mind. I began to suspect he’d eluded authorities and evaded detection for thats long because he had a keen, narcissistic sense of self-preservation. The monster would most assuredly spin further out of control, if murdering his wife was any indication.
The more I learned about David, the more confident I was that he was spiraling deeper into his true self. He had his daughter, Kelsey, his plaything, a toy he owned, something he’d created. Dear Old Dad, with nothing more to lose, finally had the opportunity to slip further into his fantasies. And David had experience hiding himself, had disappeared several times as a youth to live off the grid.
This had been the longest it had taken me, so far, to find someone. And the longer it took to find this particular bastard, the more time I had to think on the situation. None of this sat well with me. I tracked what was left of the missing Thomas family northward, through Centralia into territory I’d known to have been inhabited by the Nisqually. White men named the city “Yelm,” after language believed to have something to do with heat mirages. I knew better but didn’t dwell on it.
David Thomas appeared to be cutting a beeline north to more densely populated areas. He had a broad pattern I could discern: using a mix of lonely motels on the outskirts of towns and never staying longer than a day or two. He had to stop somewhere, though; I didn’t think he’d drag Kelsey all the way into Canada.
I had to eliminate his old stomping grounds and calculate how far he’d have to go to stay unnoticed. How far and where. He needed a neighborhood both familiar to him and far enough away that no one would easily recognize him. I knew his service area—as did the police, so it was safe to assume he’d move beyond that. Probably somewhere inside fifty miles. Dense population. City. It’d need enough poor people to have generated the kind of economy David could exploit.
At a gas station near Graham, I picked up a map of the surrounding areas and spread it out on the warm hood of the car and went to work. Once I was certain I had a viable city, I started driving again. It took nearly two weeks of crawling through small cities like this and haunting the halls of motels and rest stops until I came up on the borders of Enumclaw. Another of many cities in the Pacific Northwest that got its name from the First People. Around the time white people began stealing these lands, my mother had told me a tale from the Salish who lived here, of two brothers transformed into thunder and lightning to battle the evil spirits who hailed from a nearby mountain.
I moved through the neighborhoods, eliminating street after street under the grey skies, looking for the areas that might help a man like David escape his childhood and his pursuers. More stalking, more patience, passing time to pick up his or Kelsey’s scent. I came across hers first.
Kelsey was under constant stress, producing sweat and oils, wild pheromones, and shedding hair. He’d colored her hair, I learned, and not very well. Her health was rapidly declining and I knew she’d be a shell of a girl someday soon. What then? He’d be forced to discard her and move on to something new, perhaps. Her scent was turning into a sour mix of depression and anxiety. The flavors of betrayal. A betrayal so fundamental that there was no possible way for her to cope with it; she’d become the embodiment of hopelessness.
I wasn’t sure where all this musing was coming from. I’d pursued others for this long and longer without this sort of analysis. I don’t think I’d ever tracked anyone quite like David, a man who’d murdered his wife in cold blood, probably in conflict over the sexual abuse he was doling out to his daughter and other children. All for reasons only psychiatrists could pretend to understand. The rest of the race, when confronted with such flawed people, were content to assume they were simply insane. I knew better. These sorts were well aware of what they were doing and why it was wrong. They did it anyway.
The basest instincts called for an erasure of their existence, the better for everyone to move on without the toxic weight. In my case, this was a selfish solution, something to further my goals; I couldn’t lie to myself about it. It was impossible to erase the mark that was left on these souls whose lives I affected.
Humanity seemed to be both taking a turn for the worse and making gigantic leaps forward. Vietnam, the resurgence of feminism, free love, civil rights, putting men into space, all the musical genres being played on the radio. Whatever it was that was happening in American history seemed to be occurring in conjunction with a rise in more humans preying on each other. Or waking them up.
Kelsey’s trail supplanted David’s in strength. It was her scent I began to follow more than anything else, picking it out of the damp air. It led to a cheap motel on the southwest side. The squat, single-story building sprawled for a few hundred feet along the parking lot and met the side of a brick townhouse. I found the room they’d stayed in, but it was occupied. I knocked on the door, simple enough. A short, fat man, shirtless, wearing striped pajama bottoms, slung the door open and poured hate out of his rheumy face.
It was warm, but not hot enough for him to be sweating like this. I tamped down any curiosity about what he might be doing in the room and breathed in Kelsey and David’s smells, ignoring the rest.
“Sorry, wrong room.”
He smirked and slammed the door.
I made my way to the front entrance. The small foyer was made much tighter by the built-in desk creating a nook for the motel’s keeper. The particulate stink of cigarettes and the occasional joint permeated the rug and walls. All around, the soiled march of many humans at the lowest point of their lives raked my nose as well. Behind the desk, a gatekeeper of the down and nearly out stared at a small black-and-white television on an abused folding table, ignoring my entrance, lazily dragging on a cigarette.
The rangy man, with a thick head of black hair, wore battered denim and a wildly patterned shirt stretched tight across his lean upper body. He eyed me while he stubbed out the tobacco and licked his lips, sucking the long mustache into his mouth briefly before speaking. His ugly face matched the photo and certificate behind the desk. Dennis Lacourte, Manager.
“What you want, boy, need a room for the night?”
“No. I’m here to ask you about a former boarder.”
Laconic, he stood up, stretched and leaned into the desk, staring into my face.
“You ain’t a cop.”
“You best gimme better reasons to talk to you than just shufflin’ in here, Tonto.” He rubbed two of his fingers together.
I stared back, unimpressed, and considered my options. I wasn’t prone to taking subtle racist jabs before I could crush a man’s skull with my bare hands. I could pay the guy, I could argue, or I could walk away.
“Hey, you hear me, chief?” He snapped his fingers in my face.
My hand cracked smartly across Dennis’s cheek, turning his head. A red welt blossomed on his face and a curt exhalation of air from his mouth followed the blow. He stumbled to the side, grasping at the desk for balance. When he recovered, his long arm snapped out in a wide arc of a right hook. It looked like slow motion to me. I dipped my head at the blow and let his clenched hand slam into the hardest part my skull, just above the forehead. I heard fingers snap. He gasped and I popped him with a right cross into the center of his face. He flailed backward, knocking the television over and scattering other junk piled up back there. Blood gushed down into his mustache and started to paint the front of his ugly shirt. He pulled something from his back pocket.
I vaulted the desk and put my foot in the center of his chest, slamming him back into the wall again; a switchblade clattered across the floor. He lost his balance and tumbled to the floor, where I stepped on his remaining good hand.
“I don’t believe we know each other, so you don’t get to give me nicknames. How about it? Want to get to know each other better? Maybe we can be friends and I can come by for regular visits?” I leaned on his hand for emphasis. I’m not a true heavyweight, being just south of two hundred pounds, but a booted foot could grind bones to dust inside a hand. Especially those little sharp ones.
Dennis ground his teeth in pain and hissed through his teeth. “No, man, no! Okay? What the hell do you want?”
Still defiant. A little crease of frustration ran up the back of my head and I felt a wash of power like I’d been dipped in a hot bath. The manager’s eyes widened and his breath started to come in short gasps. Where his skin was flushed from effort and abuse, he now turned pale. I thought for a moment that he was having a heart attack, but the accompaniment of the energy coming from my body made me think otherwise. I concentrated on it, and even though I still felt the heat, it tamped down a bit.
Dennis continued to squirm beneath my boot. His attention shifted for a second and I could see that the knife was within his reach. I drew one of the two pistols I kept at the small of my back and showed it to him.
“You want to fight some more?”
“No! Okay? No, man; I’m sorry.” He sobbed a bit, snorting up blood and writhing like a worm on a hook. “I’m sorry. Just… What do you want from me?”
“There was a white man here, mid-thirties, light brown hair, with a young girl. About ten years old, short blond hair.”
“Yeah, yeah, they were here!”
“What was he driving?”
I leaned on his hand. “I don’t like repeating myself, Dennis.”
“It was a Rambler, man, white, kind o’ beat-up! Okay?”
I doubted Dennis was the kind of freak who collected license plate numbers, so I wasn’t going to bother to ask about that. I was curious about something else, however.
I let Dennis’s hand out from under my foot and he curled around both of his aching mitts. I remembered the heat, the power bleed, and focused on it, feeling the room warm again. Dennis looked up at me, fear painting the corners of his eyes as he scrambled back to the corner, a small whimper escaping his lips.
This was a new and terrible feeling for me, this tingle of wanton energy crackling on my skin. A field of electric fear that fluctuated around me and terrified human beings? I liked it, thought it might come in useful someday. I took to the road with elevated spirits, eager to catch up with my prey.
Their trail now cut westward, toward Tacoma. I knew three things about the city: one, it took its name from the mountain white men had renamed “Rainier.” Two, city hall was only just recovering from decades-long corruption. Three, when I was a young man, the whites here would not hesitate to round up and evict undesirable non-whites. They’d drive several hundred people out beforeburning their homes to the ground. Compassionate racists. In the 1890s, the discovery of gold farther north, near Seattle, took even more wind out of the city’s sails. This would be a perfect place for David Thomas to fade into.
I started canvassing streets on the southeastern edges of the city, working my way inward. I knew what he was driving and my nose knew what they smelled like. Again, I picked up Kelsey’s scent. A corner market. David would need supplies. I wandered into the store and followed their trail. He made stops for all the basics, dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables. Then back out. Such a conscientious parent. I followed the cloud of what they left behind to a shitty apartment building four blocks north where the white Rambler was parked out front.
The sun fizzled on the horizon while I circumnavigated the building before sitting outside and waiting. The first time I saw them, Kelsey’s hair had indeed been shorn to just beneath her earlobes and dyed, while David’s had been buzzed short and hidden under a khaki ball cap. Not much of a change in appearance, but a completely different locale made them anonymous. David had been smart enough to not leave much photographic evidence behind, nothing significant for the authorities to share in their limited capacity.
The amount of madness going on beneath the cops’ noses was staggering for their lack of communication. I was looking at scores of options for years to come, if things didn’t change. For two nights, I watched David Thomas’s comings and goings and determined which apartment they were in. He always had Kelsey with him. Either he didn’t trust her or she didn’t trust him. She couldn’t; I knew.
It would’ve been easy to snatch Kelsey from her father—he couldn’t stop me—but the solution wasn’t supposed to involve traumatizing the girl further. I could call the cops. Or I could wait. David was bound to frequent the market down the street often enough that someone would notice. Sooner or later. Any of those options would’ve been too easy. None of them served my own purposes; I needed to be sated. To keep my sanity, went the usual argument.
I needed Kelsey’s trust to get to her alone and move her somewhere safe before dealing with her father. Since he kept her close, that would mean a nighttime scheme. She had her own bedroom and it faced the alley. The two-bedroom apartment didn’t have much of a lock; I could get in when I wanted to. I resolved to use a trick that had worked once or twice in the past: big, dumb dog. Shift to my alternate form, keep my lips over my teeth, and let my tongue loll. Adopt a few other dog-like mannerisms and fold my ears back. It often worked with younger kids; they were drawn to big, furry animals who needed a belly rub. Kelsey was a bit old for the routine, but clearly, she loved canines. Once I got her safely away from David, I could deal directly with him. Or so I thought.
The night I concocted my idiotic plan, David started in on Kelsey. This was his night. In my mind, I had two immediate choices: wait until David was finished assaulting his own kin or intervene violently. Despite my selfish need to do this work, I couldn’t bear listening to what was going on inside that shitty apartment. Kelsey had been trained well; she didn’t make much noise. But knowing what I did and hearing David’s satisfied humming and smelling the telltale signs of sex pushed hard on the human buttons I had left.
I’ll never know if David had been surprised or not, whether he knew the kind of smothering fear his victims did—the fear his own daughter knew. Never having seen his face when I seized the back of his neck in my jaws and dragged him from the room, there was none of that to remember. When I snatched him off of Kelsey and out of the room, the strong scent of fear hit my nose. His eyes must have faced his daughter, but she remained turned away from him. I do remember his naked form struggling feebly as my teeth sank into his neck. His arms and legs flailed as I hustled backward with him caught in my teeth. Teeth that pointed inward held on and ensured that whatever was caught had only a one-way ticket. He managed to snag the doorway and left scratches and most of his fingernails behind. In the kitchen, I twisted, crippling David. What remained twitched as I tore him to pieces, reveling in the rush of pleasure and calm his death brought to me.
Kelsey never moved, remained curled in on herself, a small ball on the bed, the remains of a child.
The only evidence I left of her father was a smeared trail from the room to the kitchen. David would never be seen again, much like his wife and several other victims. People he’d murdered inside and out, some gone forever.
I trotted back to Kelsey’s room, where she remained as small as she could be. She whimpered a bit when I entered the room. I was likely the biggest “dog” she’d ever seen. I licked, lolled, and flapped my ears as I shook out my fur. I tumbled on the floor and panted while lying on my back. Waited. Waited for Kelsey to uncurl, to watch me, for her defenses to shift and include me. I rolled to my feet and nudged her foot with my wet nose, only to resume the clown act on the floor because I was too big for the bed.
Over an hour passed before she slid off the mattress and rubbed behind my long ears. Then she put both arms around my neck in a vise grip and squeezed with her face buried in my fur. She cried and smothered herself in my warmth. She told me I smelled like mint and wondered where her father was, if he were coming back. Until she slept.
It was immensely satisfying for me to be the savior, the comforter, with my full belly and head full of myself. And stupid. Stupid because Kelsey wasn’t going to have me for the rest of her life. Not in the way she needed. I couldn’t love her, couldn’t raise her like I had done for Ana—I’d never do that again. This girl was well and far damaged. She needed the kind of help I couldn’t provide. Not directly.
As she slept, I tucked her journal pages into her nightgown and delivered her to the nearest hospital. She’d remember me as a giant dog; my human form would likely be relegated to a dream. The authorities would find the apartment over time and wonder eternally if Kelsey’s story were true.
Over the following years, I was able to make anonymous financial donations, getting her as much counseling and assistance as was available at the time.
Kelsey had an elusive, crackling quality to her, something sharp that lay in her psyche that drove her, kept her relentlessly alive, pushing boundaries. The kind of kid I kept some eyes on, someone who might be useful in my future, depending on how she turned out. I added her to my book in the earliest years of trying to keep track of my life. For a time, she became one of the bits and pieces irrevocably lost to memory.
In her teens, after she’d plunged off of my radar, society stepped in to betray her. She was committed as a juvenile, lost to her foster parents and dumped into the psychiatric system for over a year until I became aware of her again, flipping through the pages of my book, looking for something to do before I slipped over the edge. Selfish as I had ever been.
The mental hospital on the southeastern border of Seattle was centered on a sprawling estate with minimal security. Finding out which room she was being kept in was the hardest part. Once I knew, I was able to scale the building’s wall, pry open the iron grate, and slip into her room in the dead of night.
Kelsey lay restrained on the bed, out cold. Her hair was longer and its true blond color, but thinning—like it had been when her father was abusing her. She’d matured into an attractive, young woman with a puckish nose and strong eyebrows. It was hard to tell through her abnormally pale skin and sunken eyes, and the somewhat distorted appearance of her body. She seemed to have a layer of water beneath her skin—strange weight gain. Her lips, full and cracked, were slightly parted and her breath was rancid. I didn’t find much evidence of actual care in the room.
At the end of her bed, a chart was clipped to the bars there. I scooped it up and flipped through a few pages. They’d diagnosed her as schizophrenic. A far cry from the truth. I knew the kind of shit-show these institutions had been over the past several years. White men and their psychiatry had cut a swath of misery through the nineteenth century. The twentieth wasn’t much better so far, just a more refined brand of bullshit. As society began its slog through the seventies, it bore witness to a resurgence in institutions such as these.
They had her personal effects scattered in a drawer next to the bed. Among them were the loose journal pages, a little thicker this time, and a small photo of her mother. I scooped out the few items and shoved them into my pockets.
I started undoing the straps on her ankles first. “Kelsey. Wake up, girl.”
Her eyes fluttered open and struggled to focus. She squirmed and surprise showed on her face when her legs slid freely. I set to the straps on her wrists.
“Let’s go; you don’t belong here.”
“Oh, God, it’s you. Isn’t it? It’s you again. You, you, you…you again…”
“Alexander. My name is Alexander. Yeah, c’mon. Hold on to me; hold tight.”
She put her arms around my neck in a grip weaker than her ten-year-old self had managed and I lifted her out of the bed. With her nose in my neck, she said, “Mint, mint, mint.”
Bearing her slight weight, I took us back out the way I came in and off the hospital’s property.
It took a few weeks for her to recover from the experimental Thorazine cocktail they’d put her on after their dangerously mistaken diagnosis. With her faculties available again, she was able to recognize me in human form and catalog my personhood somewhere in her damaged psyche.
We had nowhere to be and not much in common. One day, the skies as grey as ever there, she started a conversation that must have been on her mind for years.
“Why have you helped me?”
I didn’t have a good answer for that; my reasoning was flawed. “It’s difficult to explain. I need to do things like this, stay…active to live.”
“You don’t care about me.”
“I…” Was that true? I wanted to be honest and I wanted to be sure of my answer.
She gathered up the sheets on her bed and slid her feet to the floor, facing away from me. I heard the crinkle of her journal pages unfolding.
“You’ve read my journal pages.”
“No. I never have. Not even the first time I found them.”
Even from behind, she seemed surprised by this fact. I didn’t want to invade her privacy in that way, not when I had no reason to do so. She dipped her head again and folded the pages up.
“They did. They photocopied everything and kept it in a file. The doctor thought having my possessions nearby might help.”
I didn’t have an answer for this situation, no counsel. My experience with psychiatric doctors was limited and biased. “It wasn’t about whether I cared or not, Kelsey. Not at first. I cared enough to intervene, when I did, and to keep some tabs on you in the future.”
The question hung there, nibbling at the edges of my conscience, an unstoppable question, open-ended and with endless answers. “I don’t know. How I live is complicated. You have to live your life without me, care about yourself first. I can’t be around all the time.” At least that was the truth. What I did had a distinct purpose for me, but I couldn’t deny the interpersonal messes it created; the emotions involved were volatile and one-sided. I didn’t even want to try and explain the memory lapses I’d been having recently, the chunks of time I’d been losing.
Kelsey shuffled through her meager possessions, her scent shifting to anxiety. “Where’s my mother’s photo?”
I’d forgotten. A sense of frustration clenched my jaw. “Here.” I pulled a locket and necklace out of my pocket and handed it to her. The idea to get it for her came to me when I was shoving her stuff into my pockets weeks before.
She barely looked at me and fingered the cool gold in her fingers. She flipped the little door open and stared at her mother’s protected photo. When she did look to me, her eyes watered and she flung an arm around my neck. After a brief hesitation, I hugged her back as best I could until she took a deep breath and pulled away.
Kelsey padded into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She was recovered enough that I’d have to let her go again. I’d do what I could to ensure that she had a new home and foster parents who gave a damn.
The second time around, and I still couldn’t save her. I still didn’t know how. I’d been a bludgeon in her life, not a savior. A thing that had taken her immediate pain away, but did nothing to help heal the wounds or help her grow.
She disappeared shortly before turning eighteen, releasing herself early from the custody of her latest set of foster parents, hiding until they had no legal recourse.
I crossed her path a final time, in Idaho, during the late seventies. By then, she was into opiates and prostitution, as much a product of her times as I was of mine. It was the last time I’d seen her, my last entry in the notebook; she wanted nothing to do with me anymore, determined to accelerate her descent without my help.
I never should have sprung her, never should have intervened the way I had in the beginning. My methods had no subtlety or lasting, positive impact—none that I could see. My methods meant more to me than anyone else, but I couldn’t reason my way around not leaving Kelsey as her father’s plaything. I couldn’t make sense of what I did and I couldn’t make sense of not doing what I did to survive.