Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Hell Hound

by Brian Lo Rocco


The greatest pleasure, I will always believe, occurs exhaling a single breath into a dark room. Trust me about this.

My name is Barry Anderson, and I've been a sleazy salesman for the better part of twenty years. You name it, one time or another, I've sold it. I could do this job without a decent night's sleep, and without the morning's coffee -- sometimes even without a shower. (Just kidding about the shower. It's hard to make a sale when the customer is holding his nose.) But in this line of work my colleagues and I adhere to a simple notion: no other profession, be it law enforcement or psychiatry see as many challenged individuals as your local retail salesman.

At the age of fifty-three, long past the point of working for prestige -- because in this field it wasn't happening -- I have become a good enough judge of character to know two things. One: most of my customers were harmless, and number two: if anyone I knew happened to appear live at ten I'd give my clientele top picks with the exception of maybe a few.

Colin Sornell was the exception. When he was being investigated for murder, I said to myself No way. I'm giving you twenty years of experience when I say this. No way. Colin had been a dependable network client of mine, and getting to know him better I learned he was far more interesting.

Not only was he a gritty democrat, but I had to credit Colin for clenching the American dream by its testicles and refusing outright to relinquish his grip. Alice, my wife, once referred to him as a classic Oprah story, which I guess I agreed with. Humble beginnings, a computer science major, and a slow ascent to entrepreneurial genius: a networking and consulting firm now relocated on the Atlantic shore.

Colin and I actually became tech buddies outside of work, another rarity of the retail sales games. Now don't you go thinking I'm the kind of guy that goes home and builds networks on Saturday night -- not likely. True I've overstayed my professional welcome, but come Saturday I was either watching the fights or enjoying some Atlantic City nightlife.

Tech talk I was always good for, but I think our bond more so than our friendship started in traditional fashion. Sports were always good bonding for men, true, but when it comes to New York Mets' fan, me living in Atlantic City where I never seem to meet anyone other than humdrum Yankee and Philly fans, meeting a passionate Mets' fan was like meeting a long lost relative. The amount we had to talk about was staggering.

I released that final breath, and then the worst thing that can happen in a dark room at the right moment, happened: the phone rang. I leaned over my wife's sweaty body, toward the blinking green, and felt for it. "Honey no." But it was too late; I was already listening to Colin's voice.

In his bleakest moment, I could coin a cliché -- remember the one about strengthening friendship through necessity?

Days ago, I've heard of Colin being a possible murder suspect, but this was the first I've spoken with him. He did not sound like his life was out of order though, nor, for that mater, did he sound jovial. He sounded like Colin. Maybe you could hear slight subdue, but you had to listen for it. He asked me to visit him. He tried persuading me with decaf coffee, because it was approaching nine. I looked at Alice. I could not see her eyes. I patted around her forehead trying to feel for them. In a winy voice she told me to quit it, and from that I knew dreamland was steadfast.

"Sure," I told him. If I said his having been a Mets' fan had not entered my mind I would be lying. It did enter my mind, and in a strange way I told myself it has to count for something. More than me, I knew Colin had plenty of family and friends, and his wanting to see me brought me both flattery and concern. I knew how it could be sometimes. Sometimes you were too close to family to unload. As a fifty-three year old retail salesman don't remind me. Yet as I left I wondered, what if Colin really did kill a woman?

Would he still be Colin? Shit, would he try to kill me?

These feelings became more intense as I pulled into his driveway. His house, a colonial beach house, sitting upon the Atlantic sands for the better part of seventy years, had a belittling effect on me. Colin's success -- someone ten years my junior -- was like looking into a mirror and not liking the reflection. A reminder, once upon a time, I had dreams, a vision of the future, long elapsed as often occurs when age and reality become prominent. In my youth, who didn't want to be a ball player? As a man I did well with the sax -- never went anywhere with it. Now as a man approaching his golden years, already wondering what kind of arthritis I might have, or what part of my body a malignant tumor might appear on, all I could ask for was enough money for my wife and me to enjoy what we had left together. Funny how ambitions change.

Alice told me God has a plan for each of us, and she would say it meaning if it wasn't meant to be Barry, it wasn't mean to be. I loved her for a great many reasons, compassion, amongst the highest of those reasons.

"Barry," Colin said, "come on in." His face, usually sunburned from long days on the beach was now as pale as it might look in December. Uncharacteristically he wore a wrinkled pleated shirt, along with denim shorts, also wrinkled. He betrayed his everything is okay voice I heard while talking to him on the phone. He did not have to describe his sense of captivity, his sense of persecution, or his apprehension, for me to know it.

"I'm sure," he said, "you've heard everything."

"Not everything. Only a portion of it."

In his den, beside a picturesque bay window looking toward the sea, I sat upon a mauve, sofa as he placed a coffee cup before me and gave me a firsthand account. To say I wasn't prepared for his story was putting it lightly. It made me ask questions about Colin I didn't want to ask.

"Jenny Marris, have you ever met her?" I told him I hadn't, but I've heard enough to know she was the victim. "She lived a couple of houses down; her and her husband had been planning on going into business for themselves. Medical billing," he said raising a brow. "Looking to have their home setup and networked, they came to yours truly."

Business hours as well as standard pricing didn't apply. They were friends. Jenny Marris came over one night and she and Colin sat out by the dock because it was too good a night to be inside. "I was showing her your store's website, and rolling some prices off at her, computers, routers, the works. The Marris's were -- you know," he nodded.

Computer illiterate.

I must have heard that phrase a billion times.

"As we were discussing, something in the water splashed us. It was a big and sudden splash. I said to myself that's got be one giant sucker under there. But when I looked down," he said taking a breath, "when I looked down, I wasn't so sure it was a fish I was looking at."

He paused. I had this idea he was sizing me up, the way a lawyer might gaze across a jury, wondering just how much I'd let him get away with. "Beneath the ripples in the water there was this red glow, and I was baffled. Jenny looked at me and asked me what it was. I didn't know glows in the water like that." Looking toward the recessed light overhead; drawing from memory he said, "When I say glowing it was more like it was pulsating."

Looking out the bay window I could see the dock, see both the moonlight lacerating the current, and his boat swaying in the easy tide. I imagined Jenny Marris breathing, imagined her smile as Colin might -- wondering what else that smile might have done for him. "Mister Marris, he didn't mind you sitting on the dock at night, with his wife?"

"Barry, come on. We're all friends, and Denny doesn't know how to use a typewriter. It was business, but friendly business. And hey, don't play detective, I have enough of that." He looked distraught. "Anyway this fish thing swam off. I watched it blink until I saw it no more. Then Jenny and I got to speculating."

Shortly after that Colin explained the conversation was back to business. Then Colin noticed the laptop battery was low. Colin went back inside to replace it. When he walked the gravel road back to the dock Jenny was gone, save for her black hair band damp and dripping through the wooden planks. Colin thought it might have been a joke at first (more like hoped was my guess). He went over to Jenny's home and if it had been a joke Denny Marris wasn't aware of it.

"It was horrible," he said. "I was worrying about her, and then somewhere in the middle of the chaos I realized I myself might be in a good amount of trouble. The police interrogated me, asked me question after question -- the strangest one stuck out in my mind. A young detective asked if anything unusual occurred. I said, no, nothing had. Then I replayed it over and over until I could no longer think about it. Finally I thought the only thing unusual, if it had any bearing at all was the fish we saw. But like I said what relevance could a fish have?"

"Your neighbors didn't hear anything, see anything?"

"If they had," he shrugged, "no one has come forward with it. Listen Barry, I did call you for a reason other than to play my shrink. I need advice. Come walk with me."

####

Outside the poignant scent of the sea hung in the air; beneath a young maple, his storage garage sat amid blades of grass long neglected of care. "How much do you love animals?"

"An average amount, why?"

"Let me tell you, if you're ever in my position, and I hope to God you never are, you get in this frantic mindset. Most days all you do is think from the moment you open your eyes until the moment you shut them at night. I must have been back on that dock a dozen times brainstorming a thousand scenarios. Unless she decided to have herself a swim, what the hell else happened to this woman?" Holding a key to a thick and rusted Master Lock, "Prepare yourself."

He swung open the doors.

I screamed looking at it, not realizing I was until I heard my own voice. It was a good word for the creature, squirming in a fifty-five gallon fish tank, beneath a UV fluorescent lamp. It's was nearly a foot in length, and eight inches from belly to back, Its finless body was made of a flesh that looked like rubbery fat, which rolled freely with its movement. I thought to myself, it's a rancid disease that can swim, and somehow it's alive. But most disturbing of all were its eyes. Crimson pearls illuminating for nocturnal purpose, and probably the pulsation Colin witnessed glowing beneath the sea. It had small fangs, and it opened its mouth to hiss as it glared at me. I watched it roll along both sides of the tank, clouding the water as it turned. "What the fuck is that?"

"I've been on these docks many years, Barry. I've fished these waters countless times. I've been out fishing with my father and grandfather ever since I've been big enough to walk, and I've never, and I mean never seen anything remotely close to something like this. Maybe it's a mutated bass, maybe it's from the stars maybe it's a hound from fucking hell even though it's not a dog. I don't know. Whatever it is, wherever it came from, I don't think it belongs here."

I had a hand over my mouth, watching and gaining an ominous sense that Colin was right, whatever it was, however it became in our ocean, it did not belong. Yet here I was in his shed staring at it. The tank was beside an old gas mower, and that was when I realized I could not smell gas or oil. An olfactory cloak, like the pungency of a cow herd, overwhelmed the shed. I wondered if a creature of its proportions could produce such a stench.

"This thing, this thing right here is what killed Jenny Marris. I found it down by the dock," he told me, "and there's more than just this one. There were at least two more of them! I caught the fucker with ease too. It was like catching a jelly fish." He reflected on it for a moment and began shaking his head. "But that's what bothers me. If it was so easy to catch how was it capable of killing a woman that weighed at least a hundred and twenty pounds?"

"How long has it been here in that tank?"

"Two days. I've had it for two days, and I don't know what to do. But what I do know is this thing, here," he pointed (and now he looked crazed now) "this thing here is what killed Jenny Marris!"

Although grotesque, something in me could not keep from studying it. Something in me asked, why?

"So what do I do? Do I call the police? Or will that only incriminate me?"

"Incriminate you?"

I saw darkness beneath his eyes, as he stared at me, his mouth drawn, and his breathing was terribly labored. I felt horrible for him. Trying to pass this as your killer was going to be a tall order.

"What other choice do you have?" I asked him. "Call the police, call Fish and Wildlife, someone will be able to identify or classify it."

"You're right."

In the dim glow of the overhead lamp, Colin turned to face me. I did not do the same. I continued to stare at the monster trying to find a logical answer. When I became aware he was still watching me, I lifted my gaze from the creature to the shovels and tools in the back, and then I turned to him. "What is it?"

"I have to tell you something Barry, and I need you to listen." He turned his back to the tank. His perspiration was now beading past his brow. He whispered. His whisper was so slight I could not, at first, make sense of a word he said. He was frustrated when he had to repeat himself. "Do you think I should kill it?"

I looked at him. "Kill it?"

Lowering his head to my ear, he said, "I caught it so easily... Maybe it wanted me to catch it, you know?"

"Colin, that's crazy -- "

He placed his index finger to his lips.

"You have no justification in thinking that. Call the police and let's be done with it."

"I'm afraid, Barry." He closed his eyes. He released a long breath, and let his head roll down to his shoulder. "I'm afraid."

I'm afraid for you, I thought. Your freedom may depend on some marine biologist's ability to classify an oceanic rarity with an appetite for Jenny Marris.

"Come on," I told him, "let's go inside. You're driving yourself crazy. Let's go inside and we'll call, and you can put this behind you."

He looked into my eyes, searching for something, what exactly I don't know, but something nonetheless. He reached over and picked up a rake. "I'll watch the thing," he said, "you go inside and you call." I did not like that idea, and told him so. I told him no, we would both go inside and he would do the honors. "Why don't you get me my cell phone, it's on the counter in the kitchen, and I'll stay watch. I'll feel better that way."

Looking at him, holding the rake, still breathing heavy, his perspiration shining in the dim light, I made the worst decision I have ever made in my life. I knew what he really wanted to do. At that moment, for whatever reason, I decided his need for someone to have faith in him was greater than someone who needed to lecture him.

It did not occur to me until a long time thereafter that this might have been exactly what I intended to do.

I've been a sleazy salesman for twenty years of my life. You name it, one time or another I've sold it.

There were nights I laid awake thinking of poor Colin, but they passed.

For half a century Alice and I lived near the Atlantic shore -- and half a century is far too long if you asked me. I soon discovered a Pacific sunset, and terrestrial sea creatures were what the lord had made.

Two things about hell hounds: when they were full they were easy to catch, but more importantly, they had tremendous market value.

If you've never been to the Pacific, I could say this much: it's a hell of place to work your sax.

THE END


© 2010 Brian Lo Rocco

Bio: Brian Lo Rocco.

E-mail: Brian Lo Rocco

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