The Nature of the Beast
She looked up from the cellar-below-a-cellar, a folded-double white grub that should not have been possible, but somehow was. Crouching in one corner, staring up at us through the shelter of her hands with eyes that were all pupil: black, like the deed that had put her there. God only knew the last time she’d seen light.
The reek from the hole was enough to make me retch. Usually that’d set the boys giggling, but not today. I saw Harrison getting out of the way sharpish, his Egg McMuffin making its way back up as the stench forced its way into his mouth. The smell wasn’t just her filth alone. It took about ten seconds to work that out. It was shit and bile, but it was blood and gore too. It was caked over the walls of that tiny room like wallpaper paste.
We’d come looking for dead prostitutes. It looked as if we’d found them.
We hauled the child out, my jacket over her head for fear of hurting her eyes. My first day as Inspector and this was what fate had dealt me: a hideously damaged child and a ruined suit. Oh, and the black eye he’d seen fit to germinate last night. As a reminder, he’d said, though don’t ask me of what because I didn’t enquire. I never do.
We asked the kid her name, but she didn’t answer. A girl of six, maybe older if she was malnourished. She smiled instead of speaking and that was when we saw her teeth, pearly white and all filed into points as sharp as nails.
We took her to the station. Once we were there I retrieved my jacket but she screamed blue murder. I tried to give it back, but she kept on until we turned all but one of the lights off in the interview room. We left her there, in the dark – water and a sandwich on the table, a blanket around her shoulders until Child Services could arrive with clothes, someone in the observation room to keep an eye on her. The social workers were slow to arrive, but then what else is new? Understaffed, they said. Aren’t we all? Not that they would have known what to do with her any better than we did. How do you deal with a child pulled right out of the belly of hell?
Forensics reckoned they found the pieces of sixteen women down there. Two were the ones we’d gone looking for. The rest, god only knew. My guess was they were all toms. When a prostitute goes missing, it takes a lot for anyone to notice and even more for anyone to mention it to us.
Some of the bigger pieces were bone, forensics said. The thing that puzzled them, though, was that they’d all been chewed. There were marks consistent with gnawing, the sort of thing you’d find on a skeleton dumped in a forest. Animal disturbance, they called it, as if some creature had been down there, but it wasn’t one they could identify. Not a rat. Not a fox.
I got the girl’s teeth photographed and showed it to them. Yes, they said. That would just about do it. Moulds would be better, of course, to make sure. But yes, it was likely. Jesus.
We had the duty doctor take a look at her. She wasn’t malnourished. In surprisingly good health, apparently, considering. Anything wrong, doc? I asked, once he was done. You’re awfully quiet. She’s so calm, he said. Shock, I suggested. Trauma. Psychological as well as physical. He gave me a look. It drifted over my right eye. Next time, he said, why not give the bastard as good as you get?
I went to the bathroom and pasted on more foundation. A bit of cover up too, to be on the safe side. Then I went into the observation room. Matthews was on watch and had been for too long, so I told her to go and get a cup of coffee. On the other side of the glass, the girl was sitting on the bench, knees drawn up to her chest, twisting her head from side to side like she was trying to ease a crick in her neck. As I watched, she stopped. She put one foot down and then the other, slowly, as if carefully considering each move as she unfolded herself. She gripped the edge of the bench with one hand and then the other. She stood up and stayed there for a moment. It was dim in there, but I think she was sniffing the air. Testing it. Then she walked toward me, in a straight line that began where she had been sitting on the bench and ended where I stood on the other side of the glass.
She pressed in close, until her nose was flush against the pane. Her breath burst against it in little puffs that pooled on the glass and then gradually dissipated. It took me a moment but then I realised. For her, the glass wasn’t one way. With her eyes, her huge, black, all-pupil eyes, it was perfectly transparent. She was looking directly at me. She cocked her head to one side. She opened her mouth and she smiled. A shark in an aquarium, baring its teeth.
Matthews came back a few minutes later, so I left.
It wasn’t difficult to catch him. He came back a few nights later, juxtaposed in rumpled leather – muscled arms, scrawny body. He turned out to be someone we’d had reports about for a few months. He liked to go around with a crossbow strapped over his grubby biker’s jacket, scaring the locals. When he walked into the warehouse, he was holding one of the arrows. The shaft was threaded with the carcasses of squirrels: six of them, skewered in a line like moles on a barbed wire fence.
We were waiting in the cellar and nabbed him when he bent down to open the hatch. He didn’t put up much of a fight. He surrendered his weapon easily enough, though he tried to keep hold of the squirrels. He kept looking at the cellar-below-the-cellar, the hell hole where he’d kept his little girl.
I put the cuffs on him myself. As I clicked them shut, he asked where she was. Safe, I told him.
He nodded. Don’t let her out, he said.
Really? I said. Is that because, according to you, that’s where defenceless children belong? I nodded at the tiny hole of hell at our feet, the one we’d rescued her from.
He blinked, as if waking from a long sleep. It’s the nature of the beast, he said. That’s all. It’s just the nature of the beast.