Sheriff Tusk made up his flask of coffee as the sun came up. No more ‘whiskey drips’ though; that was a thing of the past. Tusk had made a promise to himself to keep a clear head. He made his way to the car, dropping the bag in the back seat, the murder file on the seat behind him.
He drove along the interstate, thankful the traffic was light. The radio was playing, although he gave it little attention. Eventually he clicked the dial off. On the back seat the file lay sprawled; after a while he felt the static from it fill the car; the screams, the restless chatter. He pulled off the interstate and headed into the woods.
They said he worked as a landscape gardener. The press, always so keen to jump on any quirk, seized upon that, over everything else. The killer’s actual history, his upbringing, teenage years, all paled to that one line. The lurid nicknames began, the macabre jokes were told. Even before his guilt was confirmed, his history was established for the lurid paperbacks and cultural references set for the future. Tusk had always been indifferent to the newspapermen, but now it left a dark, metallic taste in his mouth. A nightmare, one of the few he ever had, set in. It was not the killer that haunted him; he was more a solitary, secondary figure. No, it was the hacks that circled the bodies that caused him to jolt upright into life at three in the morning. ‘The ghouls’ with their notepads open, their pencils ready. Bu it was their fingers that flavoured the nightmare: Long, wiry and hungry.
Edward Delbee was such a humdrum name for a murderer. Perhaps that’s why the newsies were so desperate for a nick-name. An unremarkable man whose voice was low and drifting, almost sounding on the verge of sleep, no matter what it was that he said. His eyes were not lit; there was no manically charismatic smile. He was simply a plain, greyed man who had chosen to kill twelve innocent people. Tusk wondered if it was just that, the sheer mundane nature of the man’s life, which had driven him to it, rather than some blazing, murderous impulse. Perhaps, it was the only way he could be alive.
Tusk parked the car and paid for the ticket. The park itself was a sprawling, beautiful thing. Once, before he had been sheriff, he had made love to a girl named Laurie Rocks amongst the conifer trees. Tusk had never told anyone; that one afternoon with the girl he hardly knew had been the finest love-making of his life. As ferocious as it was temporary and like no other feeling in the world. Tusk lit a cigarette and smoked it in the car park, then lifted the bag from the trunk, jamming the file from the back seat in as best he could amongst the tools.
Delbee simply waited until the evidence was overwhelming, then simply agreed with what he was being accused of. Tusk had been in the room, though had not asked the questions leading up to his final statement. The feeling of anti-climax was overwhelming. Even the blow his partner landed on Delbee’s cheek was a half-hearted, almost apologetic thing.
And then came the sketches.
Delbee was not a talker. He said ‘thank you’ for his meals and that was it. So when he the paperwork was being filed and the recurring motif of a tree appeared on whatever paperwork had been issued for him to sign, Tusk jumped on it immediately. His partner raised his doubts, claiming Tusk simply wanted something more, some gloss, to the whole sorry affair, in order to give it more meaning. Foakes had said, good naturedly, that nothing upset Tusk more than a boring murder. But it shook him all the same, the neat, careful, sketches, in a way he could not quite fully articulate.
This was when Edward Delbee changed. Whether he showed his true colours, or whether it was simply another layer to an already broken mind, it was hard to say. All Tusk really knew, was that something revealed itself in Delbee when he showed him the sketches, all copied and cut and pasted into one montage. It was as if something else, something primal, tore out of the grey skin and into the light. The body of the killer remained the same that much was certain. Scientifically, nothing had changed. And yet…and yet when Tusk stood three feet from the man, clutching the sketches, it was like standing in a room with another man; no being trapped in the same room. He mumbled at first, as if the words were bubbling out of his throat, out of his control. Tusk had an idea if it had gone on much longer, he would have foamed at the mouth. His eyes remained flat and cold, but for once they were full of movement, scanning each picture as if it retained codes in each tidy branch.
And then there was his skin.
It retained its grey, dull texture, all right, but Tusk saw something else underneath the surface, that in his mind, burned bright. It was almost rippling under the surface, trying to break free. Tusk had the idea the man’s whole body was on the verge of something, on the point of tipping over into something else entirely. Tusk drew the paper back and folded it back into neat squares. He watched the killer the whole time; for a moment he had the feeling of being one of his victims, such was the naked fury and hunger in the man’s eyes. If he had taken his eyes off him, he would have seized on Tusk, he had no doubt of that. He pushed the paper lower, out of sight into his pocket and like a spring shower, everything slipped away in seconds and the pallid skeleton returned to the seat. The host gone, Tusk thought.
Tusk asked the man where the tree was. He asked casually, not wanting to reveal the need he felt to track it down. Somewhere inside him had the idea that this place was terribly important and that he needed to see it and maybe, deal with it in some way. The man looked him over and just as casually told him the location, where the tree was, down to the nearest inch. Tusk held his eye and got a good sense he was not lying. Another cop would have asked more questions, the whys and wherefore questions. Hell, the real questions. Instead, Tusk simply nodded and turned out of the room, his mind playing over the image of the man he had finished speaking to and the wholly different beast that reared up inside him with the sketches.
It was evidence.
What they had discussed was evidence, or at least pertinent to the investigation. Tusk knew that and kept walking. The paper in his pocket itched, almost burned against him. He signed out for the day, tossing idle chit-chat back and forth as his brain played with his career. Tusk drove home, talking himself out of going to the park, letting sleeping dogs lie and all the rest of it. He parked the car and immediately started loading his tool bag.
The walk into the woods was bracing, almost pleasant. Tusk tried to keep himself calm; even as he twisted off the recognised paths, he told himself his heart stayed on an even keel. As he stepped into the mulch, his feet slipping slightly, he noted how the angles of the branches cut-off a good deal of the sunlight. He walked on, tumbling out of the day and into the darkness of the woods. Tusk acknowledged that his heart surged a little. He gripped tighter to the bag, trying not to shiver as the shade rode over him.
‘What they felt, we could not say.’
The words Tusk had issued to the press half-way through the investigation. Some quarters took him to task with the statement, others praised the non-sensational tone. In truth, it summed up everything he felt about the case. The slim, perfect divide between being a victim and being a witness to such cruelty. It had always been that way, Tusk felt.
Standing before the tree, Tusk froze. It was not quite fear, not quite panic, either. It was dread, pure and simple. He looked up to the monster and saw everything that was wrong and dark taken shape. The bark was a thick, pus-like tone, oozing without dripping. The nooks and crevices were empty, terrible places; not natural indentations as much as scars, scooped out and left to weep, rather than heal. The branches were distended paws, hungry and reaching, the twigs more like blades, needy and sharp.
But worst was the hollow.
Somewhere towards the center of the thing was a space. It had not been carved, nor had it been emptied, not in any natural way. Instead, it seemed simply…vacant, as if waiting to be stuffed and sated. It was a gaping place; slack jawed but twitching and ready. The monster pulsed; Tusk understood then, as eager to be fed, as certain as it was that it would always be supplied.
The other, unnatural sensation that shrouded tusk then, was pain. The pain of the twelve the monster, through Delbee, had taken. The fury of their pain, the rush of how their lives had been seized so unfairly, so coarsely, blazed over him. It rocked Tusk onto the balls of his feet, almost toppling him back onto the thick, wet ground. He kept his balance, pressing against the force, knowing that to fall, to succumb, to the sodden place around him, would be the end of him. No wind shuddered, no rain fell; it was as if the world had been cut off from this one, secluded, dirtied place. It was, Tusk understood, a sliver of Hell, sustained and gone unchecked, unnoticed for too long a time.
A small part of his mind felt the insanity of the situation and almost made him laugh. It was the stuff of poorly developed fairy tales, spook stories drafted to warn off the young and vital lovers. Yet the darkness was overwhelming, a current he had only ever experienced before in the hum before a storm. Though he had stood his ground, Tusk became aware that the hollow seemed to be closer; the void loosening all around him. It would not be long before it was over him and then he would simply cease to be, he understood that. Tusk forced himself rigid, buckling against the black, thinking of the victims, the families and the anger that crackled through him at being lured here into Delbee’s trap.
One hand gripped onto the tool bag, then another. Amongst the stilled rage that gathered around him, Tusk pulled the tools from the bag; he roared in pain and felt something, a bone snap someplace inside him. Still, he pushed on. Even though he was inside Hell, Tusk did not lapse into any mode religion; he did not go cap in hand for prayers. Instead, he repeated the names of the twelve over and over; the motion of their names gave him strength, the grind of each letter propelled his body forward. He screamed as he uncapped the fluid, recoiled as the lighter latched onto the liquid.
No, not quite burned; it died. Tusk stepped away, not to a safe distance, not by any means; he had to be close by. The flames tore into the ripe bark, setting onto it like hungry dogs. The fire crawled over every aspect of it, wearing it like a cloak. Tusk did not want to see what came next, but knew he had to, all the same. He was something else then; a witness to the victim’s revenge.
The tree was pared down in the heat. From it, each of the twelve burst into life, racing across the timber of the monster, each of them party to hauling it down and dismantling its frame. There was no emotion in their faces, no savage joy in what they did. It was a task, he thought, brining down Hell in order to restore any trace of heaven. On and on it went, the vapours of the twelve bodies racing through the smoke, tearing strips and clutching broken limbs. On and on it went; as a final statement the pages from the murder file drifted casually into the hollow of its heart, clogging it up with substance before searing it to nothing with the flame. Then it was done.
Tusk allowed himself to fall onto the ground; with the monster nothing but ashes now, the ground surrounding it returned to its natural state. The fire had not spread; there was no risk of it latching onto the real, thriving flora. The flames had contained themselves to dispatching one terrible item and one alone. Tusk listened for sirens that did not come, policemen or passers-by that did not materialise. Soon, he would pick himself up and walk back to the daylight. Something inside him understood that far from the forest, Edward Delbee had slipped away; his heart stopped short, the last link removed. There would be no more chains to lead to this place. But still, he pulled the last remaining sketch from his pocket, the copied montage, and held his lighter under it. As it burned to ash, he thought he heard a faint trace of a scream, little more than whisper, then nothing. It was over. But still he sat and waited, circling the patch with his eyes; he looked for any ash that looked as if it could flicker into something else, something more than dead matter.