(You can read more horror-tinged detective fiction by Howard (with revisions by Miller) in NUELOW Games's Names in the Black Book. Click here to see a preview, or to purchase and download a copy.)
THE DEVIL IN THE DARK: A CASE FOR STEVE HARRISON
By Robert E. Howard & Steve Miller
(Copyright ©2012 Steve Miller. All Rights Reserved.)
(Copyright ©2012 Steve Miller. All Rights Reserved.)
Part One: The Death of Jim Hong
There’s no blackness this side of Hell’s abyss as absolute as this, Detective Steve Harrison thought, as he groped along the narrow trail that wound through the densely timbered pinelands.
He once again found himself entirely too far from his normal beat of Chinatown's River Street Precinct, and the darkess that pressed in around him as he clutched his unlit flashlight in one hand and his pistol in the other still filled him with a creeping dread that maybe there were unseen things lurking in that blackness; things that skulk in the deep shadows and shun the light of day; slinking figures that prowl beyond the edge of normal life. He had faced down drug-maddened Tong assassins, psychopathic killers, and even a crimelord reputed to be immortal, but the darkness of this lonely stretch of forest still filled his mind with vague fears.
The trail Harrison followed was but a half-guessed trace winding between the walls of solid ebony. He went as hurriedly as he dared, with his ears whetted to knife-edge alertness. But there was stealth mingled with his haste, because he had reason to be wary beyond figments of his imagination. He listened for the snap of a twig under a great, splay foot, for any sound that would presage murder striking from the black shadows. The creature he was hunting, and which he feared might be hunting him, was more to be dreaded than any phantom.
Earlier that day, Ku Chang, a Tong enforcer had chosen to fight rather than surrender to the law, leaving a ghastly toll of dead behind him. Every available officer and detective of the River Street District and neighboring preceincts had turned Chinatown upside down hunting for him, and all leads soon indicated that he had fled the city for the woody hills beyond.
Down along the river, bloodhounds were baying through the brush and hard-eyed men with rifles were beating up the thickets. Harrison glanced toward the bobbing shafts of light that pierced the darkness while keeping his own electric torch turned off. The chief of police had directed the officers to focus their search on the river with the assumption that Chang would doubleback and follow the waterway to the sea and steal away on a boat.
But Harrison was certain Ku Chang had a different goal in mind, because he was more familiar with the people of the River Street District than most of his fellow officers. So while the hunt flowed away in another direction, he plunged into the black forest alone, on a mission that was as much one of warning as of hunting.
Six months ago, an elderly herbalist and rumored mystic named Kai Shen had quit Chinatown to move to a cabin within mazy pine labyrinth. Shen was reported to create exceptionally powerful good luck charms and Harrison knew that Chang was deeply superstitious like many other of the city’s Chinese. Given the manhunt he was trying to escapes, Chang was sure to seek one of Shen’s charms—and Harrison was certain that he would get get it over Shen’s dead body. If Harrison didn’t intercept Chang in the woods, he was hoping that he would beat him to Shen’s cottage and save the old man from death while putting six slugs in a vicious murderer.
Harrison stopped dead, all thoughts of what might happen banished in favor of the immediate by sudden shriek that was edged with agony and terror. It came from somewhere ahead of him. Silence followed that cry, a silence in which the forest seemed to hold its breath and the darkness shut in more blackly still. Again the scream was repeated, this time closer. Then he heard the pound of feet along the trail, and a form hurled itself at him out of the darkness.
He brought up his revolver as he flicked on the flashlight. He squinted against the harsh light and the only thing that kept him from pulling the trigger was the sounds the object was making—gasping, sobbing noises of fear and pain. It was a man, and direly stricken. He blundered full into Harrison, shrieked again, and fell sprawling, slobbering and yammering.
The form cried out in Mandarin: “Oh, my God, save me! Oh, God have mercy on me!”
In the pool of light Harrison stared down at blood-splashed body of a burly Chinaman. The hair stirred on Harrison’s scalp at the poignant agony in the gibbering voice and the terrible wounds on the man’s body. Blood jetted from torn veins and arteries in breast, shoulder and neck, and the wounds were ghastly to see, great ragged tears, that were never made by bullet or knife. One ear had been torn from his head, and hung loose, with a great piece of flesh from the angle of his jaw and neck, as if some gigantic beast had ripped it out with its fangs. He was dying, and only abnormal energy rising from frenzied panic could have enabled him to run as far as he had.
“What in God’s name did this?” Harrison exclaimed. “A bear?”
But even as he spoke, he knew that there had not been a bear in these woods for more than 30 years.
The mauled man clawled weakly at Harrison’s knees and stared up at him, recognition dawning on his blood-smeared, contorted face. He moaned something in Mandarin.
“Speak English, damn you!” Harrison growled, kneeling next to him.
“Officer Harrison, keep him away! He kill my body, and now he wants my soul! It’s me— Jim Hong. Don’ let him get me!”
Jim Hong?! The blood and grimace of pain had obscured the man's features, but Harrison recognized him now. He was a small-time crook who hung around the waterfront looking for drunks to roll and sailors to scam. He had occasionally helped Harrison by relaying information from within the insular Chinese community that he needed to put away more dangerous criminals. Harrison barked, “What are you doing out here?! What happened to you?!”
“He did it!” Jim mumbled thickly, his hands twitching weaking in the flashlight’s harsh glare. “The white man come to me on the dock. He ask for guide to Master Shen’s house. He say he have tooth-ache, so he has head bandaged; but bandages slipped and I see his face—he killed me for seeing his face.”
“He set dogs on you?” Harrison demanded, for as he looked closer the wounds reminded him of a case last year where a man had killed his wife in just that fashion—by trapping her with vicious junkyard dogs.
“No, sir,” whimpered the ebbing voice. “He done it hisself— heeeaaggghhh!”
The mumble broke in a shriek as Jim twisted his head, barely visible in the gloom, and stared back the way he had come. Death struck him in the midst of that scream, for it broke short at the highest note. He flopped convulsively once, and then lay still.
Harrison checked to see if life had indeed left the prostrate form—but then he caught movement at the edge of the flashlight’s radiance. He brought the light up, but has he did, its light died with a sharp and sudden pop. He was plunged into an immediate darkness that seemed even more eternal than before. The silence was also complete; he couldn’t even hear the baying dogs down by the river.
He was certain that he had seen a vague shape on the trail some yards away as the light went out. In his mind’s eye, he could still see it standing there—erect and tall like a man. He aimed his gun into the darkness, trying to sight along the barrel he could barely see at a target he could only envision. He opened his mouth to shout a challenge to the unknown person, but no sound came.
A chill unlike anything he had ever experienced flowed over him, freezing his tongue to his palate and emptying his mind of all thought. It was fear, primitive and unreasoning, and as the longest seconds of his life passed, Harrison stood paralyzed. Years of police training, experience, and his naturally curious intellect brought a small degree of reason back to him, but it was an almost hysterical thought that did nothing to dispel his dread—what sort of devil had he half-glimpsed that should rouse such instinctive terror?!
Almost without warning, whoever—or whatever—was upon him. The figure had closed soundlessly and it was only the ferocious snarl it uttered as it flung itself against Harrison that gave him a chance to react at all. He pulled the trigger on his gun—once, twice—almost involuntarily and without aim, and its flash dazzled his eyes, obscuring rather than revealing the tall man-like figure that struck at him.
Then with a crashing rush through the trees, Harrison’s assailant was gone.
The detective staggered to his feet and whirled to face the diminishing sound of breaking branches. He raised his gun to fire after the man—his analytical mind now once again in full force—but that’s when he became aware of the pain in his shoulder and the warm wetness on his chest.
Harrison moved to a tree by the trail and squatted. He holstered his weapon and touched his chest and shoulder—his shirt was soaked through and his suit coat was quickly becoming so as well. He swore with anger and surpised pain as he touched his wound through the shredded shoulder padding of his coat. He fumbled and eventually found a match in his vest pocket. He struck it and examined his injury in the frail light.
It wasn’t as bad as it had seemed in the dark—another shirt and suit coat were ruined, but his shoulder wound was little more a couple of parallel scratches. But their arrangement caused another chill to sweep down his spine. The thing he had glimpsed, the thing that roused nameless fear in my mind, was the same thing that had killed poor Jim Hong and it had left its mark on Harrison as well.