By Arnaldo Lopez Jr.
The phone rang 10 minutes before his alarm was scheduled to go off, followed shortly by Blanco the rooster’s energetic crowing.
Perfecto Jones groaned, pushed the button on his battery-powered alarm clock to the off position, and tried to shield his bleary eyes from the brilliant blue sky that shone through what was left of his roof overhead. Somewhere in the back of his still waking mind it occurred to him that the tarp he’d previously covered his roof with must have shifted or blown away during the night.
Jones carefully adjusted his weight on the hammock that he used as his bed and ran his fingers along the floor until his hand closed on his phone. He groaned again after he’d brought the phone to his face and saw who it was that had called him. It was the captain.
“Hello?” Jones said after pressing the answer button. He was wide awake now.
“Jones!” The captain’s voice practically exploded from the cell phone’s tiny speaker. Jones winced and held the phone a little farther from his ear. It was obvious that the concept of an indoor voice eluded the captain. Blanco the rooster treated him to a hostile glare before hopping off the waterlogged nightstand and wandering off to another part of the ruined home to continue his crowing undisturbed.
“Jones! Are you there?” The captain yelled again.
“Yes sir,” Perfecto replied, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “I’m here.”
“Good, that’s good,” the captain stated in a much more modulated tone of voice. “I need you to go down to Cabo Rojo, there’s been a murder.”
Perfecto Jones, homicide detective with the Puerto Rico police department, showered and dressed in record time (a task easier said than done since his indoor plumbing had slowed to a frustrating trickle since the hurricane). He tapped the location the captain had given him into his GPS, and drove at near reckless speeds to the crime scene, avoiding fallen boulders, trees, broken asphalt, and other debris that had been recklessly deposited onto the roads by the hurricane.
When Jones arrived, the local cops had already cordoned off the area and were holding the crowd of locals and tourists at bay. Thankfully, there were no reporters in sight, probably because they were all still reporting on the hurricane’s recent devastation.
Jones, who was now walking past the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape after having parked his vehicle well away from the crime scene, turned towards the voice that was hailing him and spotted a rotund officer from the local police trudging in his direction.
“Sargent Acosta,” the officer introduced himself as he shook the detective’s hand. “Your captain called and told us to expect you.”
Jones nodded towards the crime scene, “Were you the first officer on the scene?” He asked.
“Oh no,” Acosta replied. “That would be Officer Rivera. He’s back there still working on his report.”
“Any other witnesses?”
Sargent Acosta shook his head, “Just the two surfers that first discovered the body,” he said. “They’re the ones who reported it to Rivera. We already have their statements, and no one else has been allowed near the crime scene.”
“Good job,” Jones acknowledged, relieved to know that no one had tampered with the crime scene. “Have you had much experience with homicides, sargent?”
“Not really,” Sargent Acosta answered breathlessly as he and the detective ducked under the crime scene tape. “I’m actually with the Stolen Vehicles Division.”
Jones wasn’t surprised. The chaos created by hurricane Maria forced a lot of cops (him included) to go home, if home was more or less still standing, in order to take care of their family and property. Some went so far as to abandon what was left of their home to get their family to the relative safety of the mainland U.S.A. So vital services, including law enforcement, were scarce on the island right now.
Jones squatted carefully by the body, shooed away the flies, and took a look at the corpse. The most obvious thing about it was that its head was missing. Behind him, the sergeant made the sign of the cross and muttered a quick prayer.
Detective Jones ignored him and continued his cursory examination of the body.
“The victim appears to have been a pretty big guy,” he said. “So I’m guessing that the killer or killers either caught him by surprise, or were at least as big and powerful as the victim.”
Sargent Acosta nodded, and covered his nose and mouth with a handkerchief. Jones noticed that the sargent’s complexion had paled somewhat. Then the sergeant mumbled something into his handkerchief.
“I couldn’t understand you with your face covered like that,” Jones said as he stood up. “What did you say?”
Acosta removed the handkerchief from his face and repeated what he’d said, “I said that it looks like the gargoyle got him.”
Jones gave the sergeant a look that started out as incredulous, but that then quickly changed to annoyance.
“A gargoyle? Next you’ll be blaming it on a chupacabra,” he said. “Try to remember that you’re a police officer sargent, we don’t have time to waste on superstitions.”
“Yes sir,” the sergeant said, sounding chastened but not totally convinced. “But ever since the hurricane, people say that they have seen a gargoyle flying around at night.”
“People say a lot of things,” Jones said. “Has the Medical Examiner been notified?”
“There is no Medical Examiner,” Acosta replied. “His home and his lab were destroyed during the hurricane, so he relocated with his family to the U.S. mainland.”
“Damn,” Jones said as he searched his brain for a solution. After a moment he turned back to the sergeant. “Get a doctor, any doctor,” he said. “He’ll have to be our temporary M.E.”
Sargent Acosta nodded from behind his handkerchief.
“And find a refrigerator truck, commandeer it if you have to,” Jones continued. “We’ll load the body into the truck and park it somewhere with a big generator – like a hotel parking lot, or a hospital, whatever.”
The sergeant nodded again and, once reasonably sure that no other orders were forthcoming, hurried away to carry out the ones he’d been given.
Jones stood there with his hands on his hips, backlit by a beautiful blue sky that merged almost seamlessly with the sea. A sailboat serenely plied the distant waves, while even farther out, a charter fishing boat ferried tourists out for a day of deep-sea fishing. ‘It all seems so beautiful – so peaceful,’ Jones thought as he let his eyes follow the gulls and terns that wheeled about over the azure waters. In the distance stood the reddish cliffs and salt flats that gave Cabo Rojo its name. Yet, even here, violence and death seemed to intrude with impunity.
“First the hurricane, and now this,” Jones sighed. Maybe he should forget about what was left of his house and belongings, pack up his family, and head to Florida …or New York.
A faint smell of death and decay broke into his reverie, and he immediately blamed the body at his feet as being the culprit. He dismissed that idea as he realized that he had not smelled that level of putrefaction while he was kneeling closer to the body, and so even in the subtropical heat and humidity, the body in question had apparently not reached the extent of decay that would have been responsible for the acrid smell that had just assailed his nostrils.
Jones turned back towards the beach – a breeze from that direction usually carries the salty tang of the sea. A Capitán bird, its yellow epaulets contrasting sharply with the glossy black feathers on the rest of its body, flashed by – reminding Jones of the proximity of the wildlife refuge. He looked now at the greenish line of trees and other shrub-like vegetation a little over 100 yards away that marked the entrance to the area’s lowland forest. Another faint breeze from that direction, a breeze that would normally carry with it the scents of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and green, growing things, instead accosted his senses yet again with the smell of death …and rot.
With one last look in the direction in which Sargent Acosta disappeared, Jones headed towards the forest.
Detective Jones trudged up the slight incline that led to the forest, his shoes gouging deep prints in the sandy soil. He was almost at the forest’s edge when he noticed other tracks in the dirt. He stopped and looked back in the direction he’d just come from, taking note that those other tracks seemed to diminish before abruptly disappearing entirely about 10 yards away. It seemed to Jones that someone may have tried to hide their tracks.
Jones turned back towards the forest and crouched down, brushing dead leaves and other debris from a spot where the ground appeared recently disturbed. He could make out what may have been a handprint, but otherwise there were no discernable foot or shoe prints. It might be nothing, but he used his phone to take several photos from several different angles anyway.
Then – there it was again – that smell of rot and decay …
Jones stood up, brushed off his hands, and looked around. The hairs on his arms and on the back of his neck were standing on end. Slowly, almost without realizing it, he brought his hand to his gun. He felt as if he were being watched – it was the same feeling that had saved his life more than once in Afghanistan, only it was different this time …this time it was not just a feeling of being observed, but also an unmistakable feeling of malevolence, of pure hatred, that also carried with it an otherworldly sense of sadness, loss, and madness.
The cascade of emotions almost overwhelmed the detective, and he staggered slightly as he shook them off. Jones then unholstered his weapon, and walked into the forest.
Jones noticed almost immediately that the air in the forest was hotter and dryer than it was closer to the beach, with cacti and several species of succulents growing at its fringes. The hurricane had stripped away most of the forest’s canopy, and the unfiltered sun glared unrelentingly at the detritus of its passing. Broken tree limbs, fencing, wooden boards, roofing tiles, plastic bottles, and a multitude of other odds and ends littered the area and blocked his path.
As he detoured around a battered washing machine that was lying on its side, a wad of colorful clothing spilling from the shattered glass of its door, the stench of decomposition hit him again – this time accompanied by the loud buzzing of flies. For a brief moment he’d almost convinced himself that the smell and the flies were the result of livestock or pets that had been killed by the storm. Then he saw them …arms akimbo, legs twisted in broken, unnatural positions, they were tangled up in the brush as if tossed angrily or carelessly away. More bodies.
Jones turned away as his stomach violently emptied itself of his breakfast.
Later that day the bodies were removed and meticulously placed in a refrigerated truck provided by Sargent Acosta. The truck was then driven to the parking lot of a nearby hotel where it was hooked up to one of their two working generators and isolated from the other vehicles in the parking lot by a perimeter of traffic cones and police tape. Sargent Acosta acted as security after being temporarily reassigned by the superintendent himself – at Detective Jones’ request.
The next day, Doctor Carmen Rivera, a pediatrician from the nearby town of San German, was the only doctor they could find that was willing and able to perform emergency autopsies on the bodies. Unfortunately, many other doctors, including those certified as medical examiners, had either fled the island or were overwhelmed with the task of caring for the thousands of victims of hurricane Maria.
Now, with the autopsies over, Detective Jones, Sargent Acosta, Captain Fuentes (Homicide), Superintendent Ramirez (Major Crimes), and representatives from the mayor’s and governor’s offices sat in a conference room of the hotel and listened as the doctor divulged the results of her autopsies.
“Four of the victims were male and one female,” the doctor said. “They all appeared to have been in general good health prior to their demise and in the case of the female victim there was no indication of sexual assault.”
“Please hurry this along,” the representative from the governor’s office interrupted while looking at his watch. “I still have a lot of work to do related to this hurricane and the recovery efforts …for all we know these so-called ‘murder’ victims are simply just more victims of the hurricane!”
The mayor’s representative, as well as the other people in the room, glared at the man from the governor’s office before turning back and looking at the doctor expectantly.
“Well,” Doctor Rivera said while straightening her glasses. “All of the bodies exhibited varying degrees of blunt force trauma, some of which could certainly be attributed to the hurricane, but I’m not an expert…”
The governor’s representative threw his hands up in the air in a dramatic show of exasperation, “That’s the problem right there – she’s not even an expert!”
Dr. Rivera straightened her glasses again, and continued. “I may be a doctor, but forensics is not my area of expertise,” she said, a hint of anger adding an edge to her voice.
“We understand doctor,” the superintendent said diplomatically, “And we appreciate your assistance during these very trying times. Please continue.”
“Very well,” the doctor said. “Even though all of the bodies suffered some sort of trauma, my opinion is that the massive soft-tissue damage incurred is consistent with the victims having suffered a particularly savage beating prior to their deaths, rather than just having suffered the kinds of injuries consistent with damage caused by the hurricane.”
“I –I’m confused,” the mayor’s representative spoke out. “A beating? Are you saying that these poor people were attacked by some sort of gang?”
“There is no way for me to ascertain the number of assailants involved,” Dr. Rivera answered. “However, some of the bruises do appear to have been caused by a fist or fists – but due to lividity issues, and the various stages of decomposition – not to mention the lack of proper equipment …it’s impossible for me to be sure. As it is, I’ve taken photographs, along with calibrated measurements, and forwarded them to the F.B.I. field office here in Puerto Rico.”
Jones, having already read this in the preliminary reports, waited to see the reactions of everyone else in the room when they heard what the doctor had to say next.
“And then there is the matter of their heads,” the doctor finally said. “They’re missing.”
The majority of those gathered in the room immediately erupted with shouted questions and accusations. Perfecto Jones and Dr. Rivera, already aware of the headless condition of the corpses were the only ones that remained relatively unfazed.
The governor’s representative jumped to his feet and pointed an accusatory finger at the doctor, “I am tired of your unprofessional theatrics!” He yelled. “You’re no doctor, you’re a charlatan!”
The shouting continued unabated until Jones slammed his hand down on the conference room table. The resultant sound was as loud as a gunshot, and had the desired effect of shocking everyone into quiet.
“I think it would be prudent of us to listen to what this kind doctor, who has done us a great favor during this very trying time of tragedy and uncertainty, has to say,” he said evenly. Then after looking around the room, he gave Dr. Rivera a nod. “Please continue doctor,” he said.
The doctor, somewhat flustered, nevertheless cleared her throat and after readjusting her glasses, continued.
“As well as the trauma inflicted on each of the patients, uh, victims,” she said. “Each of the victims had also been decapitated.”
A collective gasp went around the room.
“So we’re basically looking for a deranged man armed with a machete,” Captain Fuentes said, turning in his chair so that he could address Perfecto Jones directly. “Has a murder weapon been found?” He asked.
“No sir,” Jones answered. “After the bodies were removed there was a thorough search of the area, but no murder weapon was found – nor any of the missing heads.”
“My God,” the mayor’s representative said quietly.
“I don’t think you’ll find a murder weapon,” Dr. Rivera said, capturing everyone’s attention again. “At least not in the sense that you’re thinking, the victim’s heads were not cut off …they were literally torn off their bodies.”
The room threatened to erupt into pandemonium again until Jones held up a hand and called for quiet. Although he had read the preliminary reports, he had been under the impression that the heads had been cut from the victim’s bodies.
“Torn off?” He asked. “How is that possible?”
Dr. Rivera nervously adjusted her glasses again. “It should be impossible,” she said. “As far as I know, it is beyond the physical ability of anyone to forcibly remove someone’s head without the use of some kind of tool. It’s simply not human.”
“Oh my God – the gargoyle!” Sargent Acosta blurted out as he made the sign of the cross.
Jones was surprised to see several others in the room follow suit in making the sign of the cross. He shook his head slowly, “Well,” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of believing in gargoyles, or any other myths or superstitions. I have a killer or killers to catch.”
After the meeting, Dr. Rivera approached Jones so she could speak to him alone. “Detective Jones,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything supernatural going on. It’s just …well, you saw the bodies.”
Jones dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand. “Don’t worry about it doctor,” he said. “And you’re right, I did see the bodies, but I assumed that the heads had been hacked off of those unfortunate folks – probably with a machete like the captain said earlier – but now this is something completely different.”
“I imagine that it must be,” the doctor agreed quietly.
“Dr. Rivera,” Jones said. “You’ve done a fine job; in fact you’ve done us all here a great service, especially in light of this national emergency. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
“I wish that I could more,” she said sincerely.
Jones thought for a moment. “Actually, there is something more that may help my investigation,” he said. “Earlier, you mentioned that a person lacks the physical strength needed to have torn those people’s heads from their bodies. You said that it isn’t humanly possible, right?”
“Right,” the doctor agreed.
“So could maybe a tiger or a lion have the power to do something like that?”
The doctor thought it over. “In the sense of raw power, I suppose so,” the doctor replied cautiously. “But there were no claw or bite marks on the bodies …and why remove the heads?”
Jones tossed these questions around in his head for a moment before answering. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m not an expert, but I know where I can find some.”
The next morning, Blanco the rooster woke him up bright and early with several rounds of overly exuberant crowing. Jones groaned, shut off his now unnecessary alarm, and dialed his wife at the hotel room where his family had taken refuge after the storm had nearly demolished their home. After a few minutes of small talk, he gave the boys his blessings, and got ready for work.
The otherwise uneventful drive to the town of Mayaguez was complicated by a huge sinkhole that had opened up in the highway, causing traffic to slow down to a crawl. Luckily, cleaning crews had cleared away much of the debris that had been deposited on the road by the hurricane.
Perfecto Jones pulled into the nearly empty parking lot, where a lone security guard informed him in bored tones that the zoo was closed. Jones flashed his shield, and the security guard directed him to the main building and gave him the name of the person he should see.
As Jones walked to the main building, he noticed that all of the animal enclosures he passed were empty except for a few stray strands of hay. The main building was dim and cool inside, and he suddenly realized that despite being born and raised in Puerto Rico, he’d never been to the zoo before.
“Hello?” He called out, his voice echoing slightly in the cavernous room.
Jones was startled by the sudden appearance of an overly cheerful young lady in the uniform of a zoo employee.
“My name is Carmen! Welcome to El Parque Nacional Zoologico de Puerto Rico,” she continued effervescently. “May I help you?”
Jones quickly regained his composure and quickly looked around in an attempt to figure out where she’d come from.
“Unfortunately we’re closed right now,” Carmen said jubilantly. “But if there’s anything I can do…?”
“Uh, yes,” Jones replied, producing his shield again. “I’m detective Jones, and I’d like to speak to the person in charge please.”
“Of course!” Carmen chirped happily. “That would be our general manager, Adriana Ruiz-Cordero. Follow me please!”
Carmen then led the detective to a nearby door and knocked twice before opening it just wide enough to stick her head through.
“The police are here to talk to you Adriana,” she said cheerfully, before ushering Jones inside and shutting the door behind him.
General Manager Ruiz-Cordero sat goggle-eyed behind a modest desk cluttered with books, papers, pens, pencils, coffee mugs, animal figurines, and an open laptop computer.
“The police!” She said.
“Yes indeed,” Jones acknowledged with a flourish of his badge. “Detective Jones of the Homicide Division.”
Ruiz-Cordero paled. “Oh my God! Homicide! Was someone hurt? Is everyone okay?”
Jones gestured for her to stay calm. “No, no – I mean yes! But as far as I know, nothing has happened to anyone at the zoo.”
“Then why are the police here? What’s wrong?”
“May I sit down?” Jones asked, motioning to one of the chairs positioned across the desk from Ruiz-Cordero; who nodded her consent.
Jones sat down, took out his notepad and pen. “I’m going to take notes,” he said. “Nothing to worry about.”
Again, Ruiz-Cordero nodded her head.
“I’m investigating several deaths that may have been caused by a large animal,” he said.
“But you said that you’re a Homicide detective,” Ruiz-Cordero said.
“Yes, well, this is an unusual case,” Jones admitted. “I noticed on my way here that there are no animals in the enclosures. Did any of your large animals, like tigers or lions, escape from the zoo during the hurricane?”
The zookeeper shook her head. “No, none at all,” she said. “In fact, due to budgetary reasons, the zoo had already donated all of its large animals to other zoos or institutions. The hurricane destroyed the aviary, so all we currently have left are some small to medium-sized animals, and the butterfly exhibit.”
Jones leaned back in his chair and snapped his notepad shut in disappointment. This had turned out to be a dead end.
“Okay, well,” he said. “I’m not accusing you or this organization of not being truthful, but I’d like a list of the animals you donated and where they were sent.”
“Of course,” Ruiz-Cordero said as she got up and walked over to one of several file cabinets. “At one point things got so bad that we could barely feed the animals,” she said as she rummaged through the files. “There were unflattering articles in the newspapers and even protests! At first that’s what I thought you were here about.”
Ruiz-Cordero retrieved a file and brought it back to detective Jones. “You know,” she said reflectively as she returned to her seat. “We did have one unusual case – a chimpanzee.”
“A chimpanzee?” Jones asked doubtfully.
“Yes. He was donated to the zoo after being rescued from a lab. He was already an adult when we got him, and quite belligerent – even dangerous. We tried everything we could to rehabilitate him, but his condition was made even worse by all of the drugs and chemicals flowing throughout his bloodstream. Finally, for the safety of our employees and of the chimpanzee himself, we in turn donated him to the primate research station at Cayo Santiago – Monkey Island.”
Jones set out for Monkey Island the next morning. Cayo Santiago was located off Puerto Rico’s east coast, and was accessible only by boat or helicopter. He’d called ahead and was told that a boat would be waiting to take him there.
The boat, operated by a young college intern, took him to a battered dock attached to a small “r” shaped island. He was met at the dock by a trim, studious-looking young man who introduced himself as Andres Benitez; a primatologist.
“Do you mind if we stay out here by the dock?” Benitez asked. “We have several scientists involved in a number of very sensitive studies right now, and it would help if we kept the human presence down to a minimum.”
Jones nodded as he produced his notepad and pen. “Sure, no problem,” he said. “This shouldn’t take long.”
“Great,” Benitez responded enthusiastically. “What little we had in the way of shelter or meeting space was blown out to sea by the hurricane. We have no permanent structures on the island since no one is allowed to stay overnight anyway.”
“And I imagine that’s also to minimize the human footprint here,” Jones said, while writing in his notepad.
“Exactly,” Benitez agreed. “Now, how may I help you officer?”
“Detective, actually,” Jones corrected. “I’m looking for a chimpanzee that I was told was donated to your facility. This was before the hurricane struck.”
“Oh yes, I remember that entire episode quite clearly,” Benitez said, a note of sadness creeping into his voice. “At the time we considered it to be a rescue type of thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the zoo had literally run out of money, and so was rapidly trying to divest itself of all of its large animals,” Benitez explained. “The last of these was a very large adult chimpanzee that they had acquired as a donation from a lab.”
“So then you guys decided to take the chimpanzee in,” Jones said.
Benitez nodded. “It was a mistake,” he admitted. “The poor ape was severely traumatized and, even though you couldn’t initially tell by looking at him, his overall health had to have been compromised by all of the chemicals and drugs that were coursing through his bloodstream.”
“So where is the chimp now?” Jones asked.
Benitez sighed. “Look, you have to understand,” he said emphatically. “No other facility would take him in. We were hoping to temporarily house him in one of the large steel cages that some of our scientists eat their meals in while observing the monkeys, but he was too big and powerful. He destroyed two of the cages before we were able to sedate him. And even sedation was tricky since he didn’t react as expected, again, probably due to all of the chemicals already in his system.”
“Just how did he react?”
“The normal dose of sedative for an ape his size had no effect on him rather than causing him to become increasingly agitated and belligerent. The doses had to be increased to dangerous levels just to put him out.”
“So where’s the chimpanzee now?” Jones asked again.
“Wait, let me finish,” Benitez said. “The longer the chimpanzee stayed here, the angrier it became, with the vocalizations of the island’s resident monkeys seeming to irritate it. In turn its own screeches and its pounding on the floor and bars of the cages disturbed the monkeys to the point of ruining at least several months’ worth of scientific observation, entries, theories …
I’m responsible for the 1,000 Rhesus Macaque monkeys that reside here, as well as for the students and scientists that study them.”
“Did the chimpanzee ever hurt any of the people here?” Jones asked. “Did it escape during or after the hurricane? Is it possible that it got out of its cage and swam back to Puerto Rico? Is that what you’re trying to hide here?”
“What? No!” Benitez insisted, before taking out his handkerchief and wiping his face. It had grown much warmer since their meeting started, and standing out in the open didn’t help things. “A chimpanzee’s muscle density would cause it to sink like a stone – it would have drowned.”
“So then where is it now?” Jones insisted.
Benitez sighed. “I gave it to a research lab back in Puerto Rico,” he stated dejectedly. “I have no idea what happened to him after that, and I didn’t want to know.”
“Give me the name and address of that lab,” Jones insisted, writing it down in his notepad as quickly as Benitez recited it. His heart almost skipped a beat when Benitez told him that the lab was located in Cabo Rojo.
“A few more things,” Jones said still writing in his notepad. “Is a chimpanzee smart enough to erase its footprints from a crime scene? Can it be taught to do that? Can it be kept as a pet and taught to kill people?”
Benitez looked confused for a moment, but then answered the questions. “A chimpanzee is indeed smart enough to cover its tracks, but to answer your second question as well, it wouldn’t normally see the benefits of doing something like that, and so it would have to be trained to do so.”
“And the last question?”
“This reminds me of an Edgar Allen Poe story that I once read in high school, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ where an ape that was being kept as a pet commits murder…”
“So it is possible?” Jones pressed.
“Well that was a work of fiction of course, but chimpanzees are often kept as pets,” Benitez said. “Unfortunately their owners soon find out that once a chimpanzee reaches adulthood, it becomes too unpredictable and dangerous to be safely kept as a pet any longer. As far as being taught to kill, I honestly don’t know. But a full-grown chimpanzee, and in my opinion especially the chimpanzee in question, is physically more than capable of killing a human being with its bare hands.”
After the short return trip from Monkey Island to the main island of Puerto Rico, Jones received a call from his captain – another headless body had been found in Cabo Rojo.
As soon as Jones pulled up to the crime scene, he was met there by a nearly frantic Sargent Acosta.
“You seem to be spending more time working homicide scenes than recovering stolen vehicles,” Jones called out as he exited his vehicle.
Sargent Acosta nodded and wiped his sweaty face with a handkerchief. “Yes,” he acknowledged. “The hurricane has pushed many of us out of our comfort zones.”
Jones clapped the Sargent on his broad back good-naturedly. “Very true,” he agreed.
Acosta led him to the part of the forest that faced the grounds of the Los Morillos lighthouse; known simply as El Faro to the locals. The usually well-kept grounds of the lighthouse were littered with debris left behind by the hurricane. Volunteers armed with little more than hand tools toiled under the hot sun in an effort to clear away the mess. It was one of these volunteers, Sargent Acosta explained, that had found the body partially hidden under an unruly pile of twigs and branches.
“It is like the others,” Acosta pointed out once they’d reached the body. “It has no head.”
Jones nodded absently as he searched the area near the body for clues – especially footprints.
“Perhaps the gargoyle has taken it?” Sargent Acosta asked nervously.
Jones sighed. “If you want to remain a part of this investigation sargent, then I suggest that you stop the superstitious nonsense.”
“Yes sir,” the sargent answered dejectedly.
Jones pointed at the area around the body. “No clear footprints,” he said. “Just like at the other crime scene, it looks as if they’ve been brushed away.”
Sargent Acosta took a quick glance around and nodded in agreement.
“Apparently an ape would have no reason to do that on its own,” Jones added quietly as if in afterthought.
“Huh? I didn’t hear you, detective,” Acosta said.
“Never mind,” Jones said. “Arrange for this body to join the others in the refrigerator truck, and see if you can get Dr. Rivera to perform the autopsy.”
“Yes sir,” the sargent said as Jones started walking back to his car. “Where can I say you’ll be if anyone asks?”
“Tell them that I’m with my wife and kids,” Jones said before driving away.
At the hotel where his family had taken refuge after the hurricane, detective Jones sat on the room’s king-sized bed and used the remote to mute the sound on the television.
“The boys are finally asleep,” Jones’ wife Marisol said as she entered the room. “I wish I had half their energy!”
They laughed quietly as she climbed onto the bed and sat next to him. Jones rubbed her back, and she wiggled her toes in pleasure.
“How’s the house holding up?” She asked.
“About the same,” Jones answered. “I just had to take a break from that hammock!”
Marisol laughed again, “I can imagine,” she said. “Well at least tonight you can get a decent night’s sleep.”
Jones straightened up and put his hands in his lap. “I’m not sure I can sleep anyway,” he said. “This case I’m working on doesn’t make any sense.”
“You mean the gargoyle?” Marisol asked playfully.
Jones groaned and rolled his eyes, and then he sighed. “I hate to say this,” he said. “But I’m starting to wonder whether it is a gargoyle after all.”
Marisol laughed lightly, her eyes sparkling in the dim light. “I was only kidding Perfe,” she said, using his nickname.
Jones sighed again. “I know,” he said. Then he told her about his search for an elusive chimpanzee that may also be a killer.
“I was so sure about the chimpanzee,” Jones said. “But at both crime scenes it looked like someone had deliberately tried to cover up the footprints there – and I was told that chimpanzees wouldn’t normally do anything like that, they would have to be taught to do that.”
Marisol bit her bottom lip as she processed the information that her husband had just told her. “Is it possible that someone is helping the chimpanzee hide its tracks?”
“I considered that,” Jones said. “But apparently this particular chimpanzee is too aggressive and dangerous to be led around on a leash or trained to do anything.”
Jones rubbed his suddenly cold hands together, “And I kept getting this feeling that I was being watched.”
Marisol placed her hand over both of his. “Like you told me happened to you sometimes during the war?”
Jones shook his head. “No, no. Not like that exactly,” he explained. “It wasn’t just a feeling of being watched – I could feel a terrible anger coming from whoever was watching me from the shadows. I can barely explain it. Actually the feeling may have been closer to hate than anger …it may have even been evil. Look, the hairs on my arms are standing straight up while I’m thinking about it.”
Marisol reached out and gently smoothed the hairs on one of his arms. “You’re tired Perfe,” she said. “Looking after the house, sleeping on a hammock, this crazy case …you’ll figure it all out soon, you always do. All you need now is a good night’s sleep.”
Then, what started out as a goodnight kiss, ended in sweet lovemaking, and afterward he did have a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, Jones found himself on the road to Cabo Rojo before the sun had fully risen. He drove with the windows open, the air redolent with the astringent scent of the sea. In the distance roosters crowed while the distinct two-tone call of the Coqui tree frogs competed with the trilling singsong of the birds just waking from their nocturnal slumbers.
The drive down to Cabo Rojo was relatively uneventful. Jones nodded appreciatively at the road crews and volunteers still removing debris from the roads or directing traffic around the detours.
The drive through the forest to get to where the lab was located was a different matter altogether. The paved road soon disappeared, replaced by a pitted and rutted disaster that in some places was choked with near impenetrable barriers of hurricane engendered junk and debris. Jones had to backtrack and/or go off-road several times before coming to a well-maintained turn-off that led to a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
Jones continued along the road running alongside the fence until he reached a small, circular clearing and a gate with a callbox mounted next to it.
Jones climbed stiffly from the confines of his vehicle and stretched the kinks out of his back and joints. As he was stretching, he looked around and took stock of his surroundings. The clearing and the entire area as far as his eyes could see, was surrounded by thick forest. Whereas earlier Jones had been able to smell the sea and had been serenaded by birds and frogs, the deep, jungle-like foliage that now surrounded him seemed to have the effect of dampening sound and blocking whatever breeze could have refreshed him, so that it seemed that in this place the day suddenly grew hot, humid and unnaturally quiet.
Jones then peered through the fence at the strange dome-like buildings beyond. The sight was surreal – three large dome-shaped buildings connected by what appeared to be external passageways. At one end of the compound stood what looked like a huge microwave antenna, pointed accusingly at the perfectly azure sky. If it wasn’t for the perfectly normal looking parking lot, the whole thing would have looked like something out of a science-fiction movie.
Perfecto Jones pressed the sole button on the callbox, and after a moment, a woman’s voice answered.
Jones identified himself and then added, “I believe someone from my office may have called you last night to let you know that I was coming?”
Several more moments passed, and just when Jones was about to press the button again, the voice returned.
“Yes, and I remember telling that person that the professor is not accepting visitors at the moment.”
“This isn’t a ‘visit’, Jones insisted. “And if the professor prefers, I can go back and get a warrant that would then involve more officers and which would also then be much more intrusive, I assure you.”
After a few more moments, the voice came through again. “Please drive up to the main building.”
This last direction was followed by a loud click, and a whirr as the gate retracted. Jones climbed back into his car, drove past the gate, and into the parking lot, where he parked next to the only other vehicle there.
As he exited his car again, Jones was met by a sharply dressed woman carrying a clipboard. “Detective Jones,” he introduced himself with his hand outstretched.
The woman, Jones assumed that she was the same person that he’d spoken with through the callbox, looked at his hand and avoided shaking it by gripping her clipboard even tighter. “Follow me,” she said curtly before turning around and disappearing through the doorway of the building.
Jones lowered his hand, shrugged, and followed her inside.
The inside of the building was much cooler than Jones expected, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. As the woman with the clipboard led him towards a semi-circular receptionist’s desk, Jones looked around at the ultra-modern, almost futuristic, décor.
“How long has this place been here?” Jones asked once they’d stopped at the receptionist’s desk.
The woman that had led him into the building took a seat behind the desk, and placed her clipboard carefully on top of it before answering. “The main building, this one that we’re in, was built six years ago. The other two, and the rest of the compound, were added later on, so the entire complex is relatively new.”
Jones gave a low whistle. “Six years? I never knew that this place existed until recently.”
“The professor values his privacy.”
“I guess so,” Jones said as he pulled out his notepad and referred to the notes he’d taken down during his research earlier. “And that would be Dr. Gustavo Lamboi?”
“Yes. He owns and runs this facility.”
“I see,” Jones said, tapping his pen on the notepad. “And who are you?”
“My name is Anna Vasquez,” she answered. “I’m Professor Lamboi’s personal assistant.”
Jones took a quick look around, “I’d like to speak to Dr. Lamboi,” he said.
“He knows that you’re waiting,” Vasquez said. “He will be joining us momentarily.”
“And he prefers to go by the title of professor,” she added.
“Professor of what?” Jones asked.
“Before his accident, he was a professor of spinal trauma and surgery at the medical college,” she answered. “His research led the way to making great gains in the areas of robotic and laser surgeries, not to mention his groundbreaking work in the areas of stem cell implementation, immunology, and micro-surgery.”
Jones stopped writing in his notepad and looked at her. “You really admire the, uh, professor,” he said.
A blush stole its way quickly over face and neck. “Of course I admire him,” Anna said. “He is a great man; a genius! I was his student at the college, and that’s where he first hired me as his research assistant. Once he received the grant to build this facility, he brought me onboard as his personal assistant.”
“That’s a lot of assisting,” Jones said, shutting his notepad and trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
Anna Vasquez skewered him with a sharp glance. “What are you implying?” She asked sharply.
“Nothing,” he said casually. “Nothing at all. I, uh, did notice the unique shape of the buildings here…”
“The dome shape of the buildings make them virtually hurricane-proof,” Vasquez explained. “The high winds have nothing to grab onto, and so ensure that damage is kept at a minimum. Each building and exterior passageway also utilizes a mostly gravity-based drainage system that automatically funnels potential flood-water away from the structures and out into the nearby mangroves…”
“Mangrove trees are notorious for their ability to tolerate flooding and even the occasional saturation of seawater, Mr. Jones.”
Surprised, Jones abruptly turned around to see who had just spoken to him.
“I am professor Lamboi, owner and administrator of this facility.”
The man who had just introduced himself sat in a motorized wheelchair, his index finger rested on the small joystick near his right hand. His large dark eyes and dark hair were in stark contrast to his pinched, pale features. He wore a lab coat, and was covered from the waist down by a thin, white blanket. White gloves covered his hands, and a white scarf was wrapped around his neck.
“It’s good to finally meet you professor,” Jones said, extending his right hand. “And it’s Detective Jones by the way.”
Lamboi glared at the proffered hand until Jones put it away. “I wish that I could say the same,” he said. “I’m not used to the police barging into my facility and questioning my employees.”
Lamboi turned his formidable glare on his assistant before whipping his chair around and soundlessly scooting away. “Follow me,” he said as he rolled down one of the corridors.
Annoyed, Jones hurried to catch up. “I didn’t just barge into your facility,” he said once he’d caught up to the professor and his chair. “I’m here on official police business.
Lamboi ignored him and continued past the doors of what were obviously offices and meeting rooms.
“Why don’t we just stop at one of these offices?” Jones asked. “What I need to ask should only take a few minutes. And, by the way, I have to admit that I’m impressed at how quiet that chair is, it makes absolutely no noise.”
“The offices are the domain of my assistant and the other drones,” Lamboi answered dismissively. “I prefer to conduct my business in the labs.”
Lamboi ignored the detective’s observation about the chair.
They passed through two sets of double-doors that opened automatically into what the professor described as the main lab. Then he spun the chair around so that he now faced Jones.
“So what business is it that brings the police to my facility unannounced and unwelcome?” Lamboi asked.
Jones hid his annoyance and sighed inwardly. “I apologize for the intrusion professor,” he said. “But I’m here investigating a series of murders…”
“And what does that have to do with me?” the professor asked shortly.
“Have you heard about the recent killings that have taken place right here in Cabo Rojo?” Jones asked.
“I’m a very busy man, I don’t have time for television or newspapers,” Lamboi sneered, “Or the garish goings-on of the internet.”
“I understand,” Jones said as he glanced around at the rows of stainless steel and plastic contraptions that filled the enormous lab. “Well it appears that these killings may have been committed by a very powerful creature – an ape in fact.”
Lamboi rolled his eyes, “There are no apes here,” he said.
Jones took out his notepad and flipped through the pages. “According to a Mr. Benitez, your facility received a donation of a large, adult chimpanzee…”
“Oh yes, that creature,” Lamboi sniffed. “I accepted that animal mostly as a favor to the desperate young man that runs that particular facility, but once I’d received it – and after a thorough examination – I’d concluded that the creature was far too damaged to be of any use to me.”
“So where is it now?” Jones asked.
Lamboi smirked. “Follow me,” he said as he spun his chair around and headed to the far end of the lab.
Lamboi stopped his chair in front of a bank of stainless steel racks filled with glass containers of various sizes. “There’s your ape,” he said, indicating one of the large containers with a thrust of his chin.
Jones looked and was immediately repulsed and sickened. Floating in the fluid that filled one of the larger jars was an ape’s head, its face frozen in a perpetual scream.
“What happened to it?” Jones asked once he’d composed himself.
“I euthanized it, of course,” Lamboi said matter-of-factly. “As I said, it was far too damaged for it to be of any use to me.”
“Where’s the rest of it?”
“What’s left of its body is a pile of ashes in our on-site crematorium,” Lamboi said. Then he added with another smirk, “Feel free to take its head with you if it will help with your investigation.”
“No thanks,” Jones said, irritated with the professor’s condescending attitude.
“Very well then,” Lamboi said as he spun away and headed towards the doors through which they’d entered the lab. “In that case, I assume that our business here is finished.”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” Jones said as he snapped his notepad shut and put it away.
Lamboi led Jones back to the lobby where he and his personal assistant, Anna Vasquez, watched Jones exit through the front door and go out to the parking lot. Lamboi then turned his chair towards Anna Vasquez, his face twisted in rage.
Detective Perfecto Jones stepped out into the parking lot and walked the short distance to his car. The day had become overcast and Jones could hear the boom of thunder in the distance. The incoming weather matched his mood – this path of his investigation had basically come to an end – his theory, as crazy as it was, of a rogue ape being somehow involved in the killings in Cabo Rojo had ended in a pile of ashes, and a pickled head in a jar…
Suddenly a terrified scream came from inside the facility, followed closely by a loud thud and an even louder inhuman shriek that made the hairs on the back of Jones’ neck stand on end.
Jones yanked his pistol from its holster and ran back into the lobby of the facility …and into a nightmare!
Anna Vasquez’s body lay on the tiled floor in a rapidly spreading pool of her own blood. Her head was missing. Crouched over her, his gloved hands covered in blood, stood professor Lamboi – his wheelchair lay on its side.
“Hold it right there professor!” Jones yelled. “Don’t move!”
Lamboi slowly turned his head, looking first at Jones’ raised gun, and then directly into Jones’ eyes. He smiled. “It was your fault you know,” he said calmly. “She knew how I value my privacy. She knew better than to allow the police to come nosing around in my business.”
Outside, thunder rumbled and announced the approaching rainstorm with a dramatic series of bass drumrolls. Inside, the two men ignored it and kept their eyes locked together.
“It was only a matter of time before you were caught professor,” Jones said evenly.
“Don’t you want to know why? Or how?” Lamboi asked.
“I can find all of that out once I have you cuffed and in a cell,” Jones answered. “Right now what I want is for you to lay face down on the floor right there.”
Professor Lamboi glanced down at the slowly congealing pool of Anna Vasquez’s blood. “That can be quite messy,” he said.
Jones quickly took a glance at the blood too, just as a sharp crack of thunder exploded outside.
Lamboi leapt at the detective, reaching for the pistol in Jones’ hand. Jones squeezed the trigger but at this close range he couldn’t tell if he’d hit Lamboi or not. As the two men struggled over the gun, Jones was able to fire off two more shots but they went wide; the bullets burying themselves in the fancy receptionist’s desk. Lamboi then succeeded in knocking the gun out of Jones’ hand, nearly breaking the detective’s wrist in the process.
The thunder, now accompanied by brilliant flashes of lightning and the staccato sound of rain, continued to boom outside even as the two men inside savagely fought for the upper hand.
Jones, although he was larger than the professor and trained in hand-to-hand combat by the military, could tell to his horror that he was losing the fight. He latched onto the professor in a futile bid to wrestle him to the ground, but Lamboi managed to knock his hands away and shove him back. Jones sprawled onto his back, tearing away the professor’s blood-spattered lab coat as he fell.
Jones quickly raised himself up onto his elbows; the lab coat still clenched tightly in his hand, and looked around wildly for the professor.
At first, Jones’ mind was incapable of processing what he was seeing, and he just sat there propped up on his elbows trying to will his eyes to see reason. But his eyes betrayed him, because what they insisted on seeing was the professor’s head attached to the thickly muscled body of an ape!
“Like it?” Professor Lamboi asked, puffing out his chest and standing a little straighter. “Quite by accident I found that the amalgamation of chemicals in the ape’s body not only negated its natural ability to reject foreign tissue while maintaining a more or less uncompromised immune system, but the ape’s physiology was such that it seemed to welcome and even embrace multi-tissue interfaces while still remaining capable of fighting off the typical microbial invaders that cause infection. I considered it a miracle that this animal found its way to my facility. Due to my unfortunate disability, I’d already conducted a massive amount of research on the probability of performing a successful head transplant, and after that it was a matter of programming my surgical robots to perform the surgery.”
Jones stood up on legs that felt like rubber, and tried to keep his hands from shaking. “I have no idea what you just told me,” he said. “But is all that the reason you killed those people – for some kind of research?” Jones inched his way to the door as he spoke.
“Oh no,” Lamboi said. His eyes, feverish and shiny, followed Jones’ every move. “Even though the surgery was a complete success, I’d made one slight miscalculation …I had opted to keep the ape’s brain stem intact, it’s the reptilian part of the brain that controls base functions such as breathing. Unfortunately this eventually had the effect of somehow transferring the creature’s substantial, and for the most part, uncontrollable rage to me. In essence, its madness became my madness.”
Jones could make out a viscous line of drool leaking from the professor’s mouth and making its way down to his chin. When he looked back up to the professor’s eyes, all he could see were the dizzying depths of his insanity. In desperation Jones threw the lab coat at Lamboi and ran out into the storm.
The wind and rain lashed at his face – blinding him. He fumbled for his car keys, but his trembling hands wouldn’t cooperate and he dropped them on the ground. Jones heard the building’s door open behind him, and he turned to see the monster that used to be professor Lamboi framed in the open doorway. Lamboi tore the gloves from his hands and flexed his powerful fingers.
“Your head will make a fine addition to my collection detective!” Lamboi called out before bursting into maniacal laughter that ended in a series of ape-like hoots and shrieks.
“My God no!” Jones gasped before turning and running across the parking lot and out through the still open gate.
At first Jones ran along the road, but then he heard the beast that had been professor Lamboi gibbering and shrieking insanely behind him, and he plunged into the darkening forest in a panic.
Jones soon lost his bearing as he crashed through the trees and underbrush, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He had hoped to somehow get to the lighthouse – with its promise of shelter and people, but now he had no idea where he was going and he was too afraid to care. All he knew was that every instinct, every sense, indeed every fiber of his being screamed at him to get away!
Another flash of lightning lit up the sky, burning the image of the forest into monochromatic relief before his eyes, and revealing the glint of water in its strobe. Jones stumbled towards it.
He’d almost made it when he was forced to stop short. He thought that he had been headed towards a beach and the possibility of more people, but instead he now found himself standing on a muddy knoll that abruptly ended right in front of him. The hurricane must have washed away a chunk of the land here, and created a ragged outcropping that jutted out about ten feet above the water.
Jones searched the immediate area desperately as he tried to figure out which way to go, but it was no use – he was trapped.
Jones turned towards a blood-curdling shriek that came from the forest behind him just as a bolt of lightning silhouetted the nightmarish figure of the professor hurtling towards him!
Professor Lamboi barreled into the detective, wrapping his long, powerful arms around his torso as both men flew off the knoll and into the water ten-feet below.
The shock of hitting the cold water caused Lamboi to loosen his grip on the detective who, despite having the wind knocked out of him, managed to kick and flail his arms until he found himself free and swimming towards the surface.
Once he’d broken through to the surface and had filled his lungs with air, Jones nervously scanned the surrounding water for any sign of Lamboi.
A few moments later, sputtering and coughing, the professor surfaced about three feet away from where Jones was effortlessly treading water. The detective could see that Lamboi was having trouble staying afloat.
“Help me you fool! Help me!” The professor coughed.
Jones could only stare.
Professor Lamboi let out a terrible shriek and reached out with one of his long, monstrous arms in an effort to grab Jones, but the sudden movement only caused him to momentarily sink beneath the water. He soon returned to the surface again, his dark eyes wide with fear. “What’s wrong?” He asked. “I can’t stay afloat!”
“An ape’s muscle-mass is too dense for it to swim,” Jones recited, remembering being told this earlier in his investigation. “It would just sink.”
“No!” Professor Lamboi spluttered past a mouthful of seawater, his arms beating frantically at the water around him. “Save me! You must save me-e-e…” And then he sank beneath the waves one last time, his pale face still visible for several feet under the sea’s covering before disappearing into the depths.
Jones looked away, noticing for the first time that the storm had passed. He saw lights and heard distant music coming from a strip of beach about 50 yards away and tiredly made his way in that direction. Back to the world of comparative normalcy, and away from the final watery resting place of the beast of Cabo Rojo. The End