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The Beast

by Alan Jackson

For he was speechless, ghastly, wan,
Like him of whom the story ran,
Who spoke the spectre hound in man.

— Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Canto VI, v.26.

Tracey Pilch hiked the snot covered toddler on her hip up a notch to stop it sliding out of her grasp. “He were never no trouble to us,” she spoke around her Wrigley wad, “kept himself to himself,” and added as an afterthought, “he were very clean, not smelly like most old people.”

The interviewer nodded amiably and thrust the microphone under her chin trying to tease out pithy sound-bites that just weren’t coming. Tracey smiled and nodded in return, blissfully unaware of the limited impact that would have on a radio news broadcast.

Tracey was only one of many neighbours out in the street, standing in isolated groups chatting, shaking heads, and constantly turning to look at Number Eleven. Police in white boiler suits had spent the afternoon digging holes in the garden and carrying large black bags from the house. Cordons of gaily striped crime scene tape fluttered in the summer breeze, like the beating wings of small trapped birds.

“’Ere mate,” one of the tattooed and bevested male bystanders split off from a nearby group and accosted the interviewer, “Woss he supposed to have done then? Why they took him away, like?” The interviewer explained that the police implicated him in the disappearance of a large number of young homeless men; that they may have been living next door to Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

“Thank God for that,” said the man obviously relieved, “we thought for a minute he were a paedophile.”

* * *

The legends of the Black Shuck the Doom Dog roaming the East Anglian countryside date back to the time of the Vikings. His name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word scucca meaning “demon.”

On the 4th of August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof.

As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day. The marks on the door are referred to by the locals as “the devil’s fingerprints.”

— Michell & Rickard, Phenomena: a Book of Wonders, 1977

Sergeant John Chalmers stood out of sight in Number Eleven’s back garden, sharing a surreptitious smoke break with one of the Coroner’s officers. Cigarettes cupped in their palms, neither felt inclined to discuss what they had seen inside the house.

“He’ll never go to jail,” said Chalmers, “the do-gooders and psychiatrists will see to that. No, he’ll spend the rest of his days in a canvas jacket in Broadmoor doped to the eyeballs.” He spat.

“And who pays for that?” replied the Coroner’s man, “Tell me that, eh? We do, my son, the bloody taxpayers do. We’ll pay through the nose for him to be waited on hand and foot.”

They nodded in tandem, disgusted at the unfairness of it all. Over the man’s shoulder Chalmer’s eye was caught by a dark sinewy movement in the undergrowth at the end of the garden. A large, vaguely quadruped, shape moved just out of sight in the shadow in the trees.

“What the fu... Is that a dog? That’s the biggest bleedin’ dog I’ve ever seen,” his shout startled the other man, who turned immediately to see only dark bushes, empty blackness, and a few waving branches. “What’s it doing in here? Some stupid bastard has let a dog swan about in a crime scene.” Chalmers was irate but, for some reason he wasn’t sure of, he didn’t want to go into those bushes to chase the big dog. The drug dealers on this estate all had Dobermans and Rottweilers, and he certainly didn’t want to bump into any of them by accident.

“Here,” said the Coroner’s man, “you don’t want it running off and burying some of the evidence.”

Both professionals were momentarily embarrassed by their inappropriate gales of laughter at this weak joke.

* * *

An apparition, called in the Manx language Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black mastiff, with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle, and had been frequently seen in every room, but particularly the guard chamber, in presence of all the soldiers, who believing it was an evil spirit, which only waited permission to do them hurt, and for that reason forbore swearing, and all profane discourse, while in its company.

— Jeffreys, A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Isle of Man, 1808

Harry Markham was on the fast-track. He’d only been a Detective Inspector for three months, but here he was heading perhaps one of the biggest homicide cases this century. This would do his career no harm at all. He could feel the worm of envy tearing up his Superintendent when he spoke to him this morning to get permission for the press conference.

“No grandstanding Markham,” the boss had said. You could almost hear the creaking of the stick up his arse. “This isn’t about your P.R. machine, it’s about getting witnesses to come forward. Don’t screw this up, or you can look forward to School Liaison Officer as your next career move...” On reflection, maybe cutting the boss off in mid-flow wasn’t such a good idea, but he could always say he’d driven under a bridge.

Harry looked around the village hall at the journalists and cameramen hastily taking their seats or setting up their gear. He knew this was his future, he knew this was what he’d joined the force for — stuff all that crap about protect and serve — he wanted the glory. He started to read the prepared statement.

“Ladies & Gentlemen of the Press... A man has been remanded in custody... Helping us with our enquiries...” As he warmed to his role; saw the blur of pens on shorthand pads and heard the whirring of cameras, Harry took a moment for himself to look around the room at all the attentive faces.

As he scanned he was almost guilty of a comic double-take. Between the ‘Channel 5’ camera team and the woman from the ‘Daily Express’ was what appeared to be a large black dog. Large was an understatement, it sat back on its haunches, and yet was still a head taller than the seated reporter.

The huge square black canine head was facing directly at him. Its fur was gnarled and matted with dirt and leaves. This was no guide-dog or family pet. Who let a dog like that in here, for God’s sake? There was something unusual about this dog, he thought.

Then he realised, unlike most dogs it wasn’t panting; unlike most big dogs it wasn’t slobbering everywhere, and unlike any dog he knew it was staring, unblinking, directly at him with its dull red eyes. As he met its gaze, icy cold fear tingled up and down his spine. He slowly became aware of uproar in the room. Everyone was shouting at him.

“Inspector Markham! Inspector!” he realised that his fascination with the dog must have turned into a reverie; his speech had ground to a dead halt. He shook his head to try and collect his thoughts. This is that bastard dog’s fault, making me look a prat in front of the cameras. He looked over at the Daily Express chair, and the dog was no longer there. His head whipped back and forth from side to side scanning the room for that damn dog.

Later when he watched himself on the ‘Nine O’clock News’, even he had to admit that he had the look of a frightened lunatic — this was not a good look.

* * *

Barghest is the name given in the north of England, especially in Yorkshire, to a mythical monstrous goblin-dog with huge teeth and claws. This spectre-hound under various names is familiar in folk-lore: The Demon of Tedworth, the Black Dog of Winchester and the Padfoot of Wakefield all shared the characteristics of the Barghest of York. In Wales its counterpart was Gwyllgi, the Dog of Darkness, a frightful apparition of a mastiff with baleful breath and blazing red eyes. In Lancashire the spectre-hound is called Trash or Striker. In Cambridgeshire and on the Norfolk coast it is known as Black Shuck or Shock.

Wikipedia, 2006

Walter Eckhart slowly sipped the hot tea from the mug clasped in both gnarly arthritic hands. Good tea, he thought, sweet tea. It’s what they give you for shock. Not that he’d had a shock, but those poor police officers who came to his house surely had. Still, they’d been very kind to him so far.

The nice woman Sergeant on the desk had spoken to him quite quietly and calmly and explained why they were taking away his belt and shoe-laces. She’d sent someone for his tea, and told him that a Doctor would come and look at him later. He didn’t really know why a Doctor was coming, but they obviously have their way of doing things here so he didn’t ask. Then they’d put him in this cell.

The cell was small; smelt of feet a bit, but wasn’t cold or dank. Walter actually felt quite at home. Thick stone walls and bars around him made him feel the safest that he had felt for years. The small window, high up at pavement level, even allowed some autumn sunlight to brighten up the far wall. Maybe, just maybe, thought Walter, this is where it all ends.

He knew why he was here, he wasn’t crazy, all of those killings must not go unanswered. He accepted that. He would be punished. He would be punished for the things that the Hound had made him do. He would suffer for feeding its greed all of these years; satiating its hunger, its demand for flesh. Keeping himself alive while he was of use to it. Anything that they could do to him now, though, could never match the soul-destroying pain that the Hound had put him through since it came into his life.

In here, though, maybe the Hound couldn’t get to him. The faint hope glimmered in the back of Walter’s mind. He could be a free man in prison, with guards around him to keep him safe and watch over him. A flicker of a smile appeared at the corner of Walter’s mouth. Then a four-legged shadow crossed the cell window briefly, and Walter’s smile died stillborn.

* * *

Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread
because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.

— Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1797

Tracey struggled with the child’s buggy as she pushed it along the uneven surface of the overgrown back lane. She was off to the Aldi for something for the kid’s tea, all of the day’s earlier excitement forgotten in this most mundane of routine tasks.

She teetered along concentrating on staying upright on her four-inch heels, when she became aware that she was not alone. Born and bred on this estate, Tracey knew that this lane was the haunt of glue-sniffers and muggers, but she’d been around, she knew how to handle herself. She knew that one thing you never do is to make eye contact, just keep walking. Which is why she didn’t really understand what made her stop and turn when she heard a deep, low growl behind her.

Turn she did though, and saw a huge black dog a few yards behind her. It wasn’t snarling or baring its teeth, but real menace came off the animal in waves that she could sense deep within herself. Its hungry red eyes never left her own for a moment, until the toddler in the pushchair spoke.

“Here doggie doggie. C’mon doggie,” said the child, waving a soggy half-eaten chocolate bar. Not the brightest button in the box, even Tracey knew that this was not a good thing to say to this particular doggie.

Copyright © 2006 by Alan Jackson

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