THE LOATHSOME DETECTIVE
By Spencer Koelle
Normally, Helena Ramirez loved this graveyard. Wild honeysuckle filled the air, crickets sang, and the black headstones gleamed like mirrors. Normally, she came here to visit her grandparents, bearing flowers. Tonight she came with a bag of rancid calf brains.
Helena crouched down in the unconsecrated section of the churchyard behind St. Francis, the second-largest church in this city. A sliver of moon peeked between thick clouds. She pulled out a switchblade and carved a crude skull in the dirt, then set a dollar-store candle on it. She had expected some grand expensive rite with goat blood and a silver dagger, but her godmother said this was all it took.
She lit the candle. She raised the bag of calf brains. “Creature of the underworld, favor me now. I make offering of spoiled meat with my left hand. Favor me now. I have known loss, and would know the murderer. Favor me now.” She flung the stinking beef on the candle. It should have smothered it.
Instead, steam rose. The goopy brains burst into green fire. Green light flared in the drawing of a skull.
The fire went out. For a hundred heartbeats, Helena stood in utter silence. A cold hand gripped her shoulder. She bit back a scream and turned around to meet the ghoul.
“You rang?” The uncanny figure spoke with a deep, bubbling voice. A stained trench coat covered most of her flesh, and that was a mercy. Her face was of uncertain age. She could be a fresh-faced two-hundred-year old, or a teenager just dragged out of the riverbed. Dull orange sparks smoldered in her sockets.
The apparition had strong yellow claws to pry open coffins. Her long pointed tongue had evolved to lick the marrow out of bones. The wrinkled hide that covered her body stretched tight over an inhuman frame.
“I have a case for you, detective,” Helena said.
The detective grinned. “Show me the body.”
* * *
Juan “The Tiger” Ramirez had been shot through the neck from behind. He’d been a decent man, as gang leaders who enforced territory through revenge-killings and intimidation went. The detective had taken a small sample of Juan where it wouldn’t show. The detective had moved on, and they now sat in the home of the deceased’s mother.
“I would have taken you home, but the police kicked me out. They say they need it clear for further investigations,” Helena said. The grim set of her jaw told the ghoul that this woman didn’t expect to find any silverware when she returned to her house.
Helena was a big sturdy woman, but for one moment she seemed small and weak. The victim’s mother, a shriveled little woman called Andrea Ramirez, who stank of lavender water, rested a hand on the widow’s shoulder. Strength flowed back into Helena Ramirez.
The detective adjusted her sunglasses and broad-brimmed hat. “I need your consent to continue. You understand my price?”
Helena bit her lip. Her eyes roamed around the cozy old house and settled on a wall hanging with the words “Finish what you begin.” She cast her eyes downwards.
“If you find the murderer, you may have Juan’s body.”
Andrea Ramirez’s draw dropped. “What in God’s name did you say?”
Helena looked at her
mother-in-law with a mixture of guilt
and defiance. “I need to know. The police will close the investigation
they do the other ones, and they’ll grab some random idiot from the
of town. I can’t hire a human detective, because they’ve seized all
earnings, as ‘evidence.’ Don’t you care about him?”
Andrea Ramirez reflected back the same light in her eyes, but held her tongue. Helena’s face quavered and broke.
“Of course you do. I know. That’s why you don’t want to see him desecrated, but I want to know. I need to find justice.” She hugged the little old woman. “I don’t have a choice.”
“You have a choice,” the detective whispered, flexing her claws. “Either his body will rot in the ground, or his murderer will rot in prison.”
Helena looked imploringly at her mother-in-law. The old woman shook her head, clutched her rosary, and offered the detective a glare of bottomless loathing with a hint of fear. Andrea Ramirez then ran upstairs as fast as her arthritic legs would carry her.
Helena waited until her mother-in-law closed the door.
“Juan used to eat at the Taste of Bombay restaurant with all of his...business associates. Nobody would dare start a firefight in such a public place, he said...”
The detective listened, still and silent as the corpses she fed upon. The Tiger had outlined matters of “business” with background chatter providing more privacy than any darkened hidey-hole. The only senior gang member absent had been his second-in-command, Sancho, who’d stayed at home with his wife.
No rival gangsters had been spotted by the watchers and underlings keeping an eye out. The Tiger had stepped out back for a smoke in between the coffee and the dessert. He’d never stepped back in again.
The other “businessmen” had shared all this information with the grieving widow.
“They’re mostly good men, deep down,” Helena said.
The detective did not contradict her. She’d never tasted any difference between “good” men and “bad” ones.
“And where were you that day?” the detective asked, with her low, rough voice.
Helena flinched. “Surely you aren’t suggesting—”
The detective raised a bony finger. “I just need facts.”
Helena looked down. “Of course. I understand. I was at home, fixing some early dinner.”
The detective nodded. “So, you’re hiring me? That’s official?”
The detective leaned closer. “I need your word.”
Helena sighed. “I call upon you to solve this case, and I swear to accept your price.”
The ghoul detective grinned. Helena felt thankful she hadn’t eaten anything today.
“One more thing. I’ll need to interview the Tiger’s associates. Do you have their addresses?”
“I do not bother civic authorities with trivialities,” she said, with a deep chuckle.
Helena jotted down the addresses. The ghoul tipped her hat, revealing strands of curly green hair, and then walked out.
The detective pulled a patch of Juan’s skin from her coat pocket, sniffed it, and wrapped her tongue around it. She tasted and savored, exploring the last moments of the man it had belonged to.
* * *
Juan “the Tiger” Ramirez drew in a deep lungful of cigar smoke. Cuban cigars were a cherished advantage of his position, although he reminded himself this wasn’t why he’d gotten into The Business. A safe home far away from here for unborn children to grow up in remained his top priority. His second objective was keeping bloodthirsty bastards like the Blackjacks out of his neighborhood. Pedro needed to tighten up–
A loud crack scattered his thoughts. The lance of fire in his throat made recovering them impossible.
Juan fell to his knees as the smoke leaked from his neck. He spat a bloody cigar. He struggled to draw breath but only swallowed more blood and spittle.
Behind him, he heard a muffled sob and the ring of metal hitting the ground. He drew a whiff of air through his nose. His mouth was too ruined to use. Some familiar smell comforted him. The image of somebody kissing his skinned knee to make it all better dissolved into darkness.
* * *
The detective whistled and plucked a bit of Juan Ramirez from her crooked fangs. Most cases could be solved in a single moment, but this one might be tougher to crack than a marble sarcophagus.
A car shot past, headlights blazing. The ghoul detective retreated into a dark side alley. The darkness and dank helped her think, and she might find a dead vagrant if she was lucky.
She’d picked up a few more facts about the Ramirez family, after the formal interview. The Tiger had a brother, Roberto, now an assistant manager at some rest stop on the highway. Roberto got along much better with mommy dearest. She’d even lent him some cash last week, to help with a rent rise.
Nobody had any definite financial gain from the Tiger’s death except the police. Indefinite gain might be a motive. Who knew how much he’d stashed with other gang members and around the city or how his will would divvy it up?
Then again, most murderers had deep personal motives. Revenge was a popular one, and so was power. After combing through the debris, the ghoul slunk off to find her next suspect.
* * *
Sancho raked his fingers through already tangled and dirty hair. He stared at the map of the Tiger’s—of the Pride’s territory. “Never fight a war on two fronts,” Juan had always said. That was a quote from some dead white guy. Well, the Pride wasn’t looking at a war on two fronts, now that the Steel Angels had moved in. They were fighting a war on three fronts.
Sancho washed away the taste of hysterical laughter with another triple-shot of rum. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. He chased away the burn of rum with a sour energy drink. The Tiger had always managed with imported beer and black coffee.
Somebody knocked politely on his door. Sancho repressed the urge to jump through the window. He stopped to think for a moment. If it was a rival, he’d have heard shots fired. If it was one of the Pride, they’d have asked for him by name. If it was the police, they wouldn’t be polite.
“Who’s there?” he said. He managed to keep the slur and anxiety out of his words.
“Helena sent me,” answered a horrible voice. It sounded like the final gurgles of a stab victim.
Sancho drew out two guns. “Come in.”
A withered specter in long, loose clothing and sunglasses stepped in. A single wrist poked out between its pocket and sleeves. Its skin had the texture of plucked chicken.
He aimed the guns. “How did you get past my guards?”
She, it was female, snickered at his guns, and bared some crooked filed teeth. “I threatened to kiss them.”
Sancho set down one of the guns and picked up a crucifix.
“I eat dead meat, not living blood. I just want to know what you were doing when somebody poached the Tiger.”
Guilt wrenched Sancho’s guts into a new shape. He didn’t let any of the pain or fear show. “I was at home, with my wife.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not with the police either,” the ghoul said. She gave him a leer that could turn an entire lesbian bar straight.
Sancho chose to continue worrying.
She leaned inside his personal space, without actually touching him, and inhaled deeply. Sancho mustered every ounce of willpower to maintain his poker face and bladder control.
“Your wife told me you weren’t home last night,” she whispered in his ear. He could feel her clammy breath.
A sick little laugh escaped him. Spooks were all alike, even the real spooks. “Nice try. You haven’t even talked to my wife.”
The ghoul detective pulled back. She nodded. “Smart boy.”
“No, I’ve just got more sense than a stupid cop,” Sancho sneered. He desperately needed to feel smarter than somebody today. “Get out of here.”
* * *
“I’ll never understand mortals,” the detective muttered.
Humans admired big cats. They put them on coats of arms and named sports teams after them. Those animals would kill young humans or elderly humans for food. Vultures, in contrast, cleaned up road-kill and did no harm to anyone. Yet somehow, humans idolized the dangerous predators and despised the harmless scavengers.
She plugged the recent smells into her memory. A familiar aroma had risen off of Sancho’s unwashed skin. Then there was the odor the Tiger had picked up with his last breath. She could feel the mystery cracking open like an old hip bone.
The detective still needed to close off a few possibilities. Maybe the local constabulary could help with her inquiries.
* * *
Officer Pullman shuffled his paperwork. Suspected marijuana users, bums sleeping on sidewalks, and teenage shoplifters went through this building every day. As soon as he found a likely boy in his cells that fit the Steel Angel, Blackjack or Red Hammer profile, he could wrap up this case and move on to important things.
He shivered. Either somebody had walked over his grave, or that damn rookie McCloud had left the window open. Pullman rose from his desk. A cold claw tapped his shoulder.
“There’s no need for that,” the apparition said, sticking a finger in the barrel of his revolver. “I’m just a detective, a seeker of justice, like you.” The mockery in her voice was almost undetectable.
“Robin, McCloud, come in here!” he bellowed.
The “detective” frowned at him.
“I don’t want to hurt
anyone, and even three gunshots at once can’t do much to a
nervous system. That’s not important, however,” she said. She pulled
him and turned to face the window. “I hear you’re having trouble with
Pullman snorted. “That? That’s no mystery. One gang-banger kills another gang-banger.”
“So you haven’t found the gun?” she said.
The door swung open. Reinforcements jumped through. “What’s wrong boss?” Robin shouted, his voice breaking.
The detective threw up her hands in a theatrical gesture of surrender. Pullman didn’t want another mess on his hands, and some of his men were a little overzealous. Anyway, he did want to solve the case. A public-spirited citizen had offered to expedite justice. Officer Pullman valued swift justice.
“Never you mind,” Pullman said. He dismissed his men with a wave. The detective spun around and grinned.
“Thank you. I’m guessing you didn’t find a murder weapon, but you didn’t look very far. I’m also guessing you have an unofficial file on close relatives of local gang leaders, and you can tell me whether Roberto came to town last Thursday.”
Pullman sighed. Robin had some crackpot theory that the jealous Ramirez brother had hired a contract killer to take out the Tiger, but where would a loser like Roberto get the money? Robin was naïve and eager, but he would learn.
Pullman made a show of rifling through his papers. He knew the pipsqueak hadn’t come home last week, and of course there was no weapon. What kind of gangster leaves their gun at the scene of the crime?
“If you want information, you’ll need to tell me something I don’t know or make a more persuasive argument.” He had four kids in college, and this “woman” looked cynical enough to take a subtle hint.
“Here’s my argument. Pretty pretty please with a cherry on top, will you tell me?”
She leaned in close to him. She lifted her sunglasses with a prehensile tongue. The lit cigarette eye-sockets blazed into him.
Pullman didn’t even think. He didn’t waste time screaming. He shot her in the head.
The detective recoiled and hissed with pain. It dug its claws in and yanked out the bullet, along with some clotted blue slime.
“I believe you’re supposed to shout ‘stop’ first,” it snarled. “Now, will you play nice and share, or do I have to get...” it wiped steaming goop from its claws, “impetuous?”
Pullman pulled out the file drawer and tried not to have a heart attack.
* * *
Helena opened the door. The ghoul detective smiled in at her. “I’ve got good news.”
Her heart leapt into her throat. This was the moment she had hoped for, and then again, a moment she had been dreading. “I’ll get the body right now.” She kept her voice level.
The detective waved a dismissive talon. “I trust you to hold up your end. Is your mother-in-law home?”
Helena nodded. “She’s just upstairs, sleeping. She won’t bother you.”
The detective held up a plastic bag. She could see the shape of a gun in it. “This was dropped at the crime scene. The only fingerprints on it are the victim’s.”
Through the web of anxieties, Helena managed to think. “What? Why would they just leave it there?”
“Why indeed?” the detective said, gravely. “A young gangster might drop his gun in a moment of panic, but such a child wouldn’t go through the precaution of gloves. Likewise, a serious hired killer wouldn’t just drop their gun. Unless they started out a planned, premeditated killer and ended a nervous, guilty wreck.”
Darkness rose up in Helena’s mind. She tried to make sense of the possibilities.
The detective sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me you were sleeping with Sancho?”
Helena bit back a denial. Hot tears ran down her face and remorse stole her strength. “How did you know?”
“You washed it off and covered up with Chanel. He didn’t. I could smell you on him.” She shook her head. “I would have solved this case quicker if I knew you both had alibis.”
Helena struggled for breath. How could she explain to this inhuman thing all the nights of her husband “working late,” all the worry and resentment and then the shame she had to bury in a pit of willful forgetting?
“Who killed him?” Helena asked. “Was it his brother?”
The detective shook her head. Something like pity crept into those deep, burning eyes. “It was a family matter, but no. Your mother-in-law is a very responsible woman, and thinks herself a good Christian. Do you think she could stand to let this continue?”
“I don’t understand,” Helena lied. The revelation rose like bile in her throat.
“The last thing Juan smelled was lavender water,” the ghoul detective said.
The detective continued. “Andrea Ramirez did her best to raise two children without a father, but her best wasn’t enough. She managed to keep one of them on the straight and narrow path. For years, she tolerated her wayward son, a thieving murderer. If she’d cared more, if she had paid more attention, she knew, he wouldn’t have gone so far astray. Then one day, she received a little visit from the one who came out right and a few reminders of the difference between them. She straightened out her priorities and set right the mistakes she had made.”
Helena shook her head. She bit her lip until it bled. She ran upstairs, shrieking.
* * *
The detective listened to the shouting match with patience. The argument would end. The Tiger’s mother would confess her sins to a jury of her peers. The Tiger’s wife would move on with the grieving process and give the detective her payment. A small, sickly-sweet portion of justice would be served.
Spencer Koelle has spent 29 years in this veil of tears. While he was originally born naked and covered in filth, he has cleaned up his image and resides in a room of a West Philly row house with several other struggling millenials. He is a fan of Agatha Christie but dislikes the trend in action and urban fantasy of having trash-talking detectives who fight their way out of situations they wouldn't be in if they thought and listened more. His website is www.spencerkoelle.com and he will probably be your friend if you buy him a glass of cheap wine or order him a pizza.
Copyright © 2017 Spencer Koelle. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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