The Bronx zoo was still closed when Frank arrived, crossing the bridge over the river from the car park he could see the first tentative beams of daylight reflecting off of the golden letters that signalled the entrance like theatre signage advertising the hottest new show in town. Below these, black iron gates were chained shut to prevent any unauthorised entry. It was still some hours until the zoo was due to open, but Frank knew that some of the staff would begin to arrive soon to prepare the grounds and tend to the animals. His skin was still crawling with excitement as he tried the gate. The chain rattled steadfastly as he curled his bicep-like fingers around one of the railings and tugged firmly. Frank frowned, his beard unfurling around his grimacing expression; his skin seemed deathly pale even in the dim light, and stretched over his knuckles showing the unforgiving bone beneath as he tightened his grip and tugged again. The chain rattled its protestations back at him but didn’t budge, he would have to find another way in such was his compulsion to investigate the site, and his belief that salvation might lie within. He skirted around to the right of the entrance, shimmying along the edge of the river until he found a section of fence low enough to hoist himself over. He paused with his hands on the fence, casting an eye back over his shoulder for witnesses, the smell of freshwater danceding in his nostrils. It was refreshing, invigorating even, and reminded him of white water rafting with Michelle back when their relationship had been more exciting and amorous. Back before the sniping started and he lost his family to an unrelenting dedication to his work. He could hear birds cawing and screeching on the other side of the wall, summoning him back from his daydream and beckoning him forward. He pulled himself up, braced his elbows on the fence, and hauled himself into the grounds of the zoo.
Inside was eerily quiet. The birds, who as it turned out were housed in an aviary directly opposite where he had vaulted the perimeter, had fallen silent as if to aid his undetected passage. The sun seemed to have given up on its ascension for now and a dull orange glow hung in the air, barely illuminating even the highest summits of the aviary. Frank quickly found a concrete path and followed it towards the birdhouse, its inhabitants watched in unison as he crept past, a multitude of colourful feathered heads silently tracking his progress. He was moving half-stooped and cautiously, the refreshing odour of the water had been replaced by one of straw and stale animal faeces. Up ahead a deep, rumbling growl echoed up from an upcoming enclosure. As frank left his ornithological audience behind him, he kept to the shadows as he approached a large glass screen on his left. He could barely see inside the enclosure, only a small lake surrounded by greenery, but that growl had been made by a creature of considerable size, one that had sensed his presence. The noise came again, louder this time almost startling him, and from behind a thick area of shrubbery emerged the biggest tiger that Frank had ever seen. Granted he hadn’t seen many tigers in his time, but this was one huge cat. The animal made its way forward to the glass screen, constantly growling a warning to this intruder, and began to prowl up and down, eyeing Frank as if to gain some sort of measure of him. Frank stepped forward out of the shadows and approached the glass, and the tiger ceased its territorial prowling and came to a halt directly opposite him. The two stood locking eyes, the beast was clearly unhappy with this intruder and began baring its teeth. Frank held his ground, protected by the division between them, as the animal became more and more agitated. It’s growl grew in volume and intensity until it reverberated seemingly around the entire zoo and it reared up on its hind legs, suddenly lunging at the glass in an attempt to attack its human challenger. Frank took a step back, his heart was racing in his chest but something deep within him wanted to challenge this impressive animal. The crawling sensation in his skin intensified and the rushing in his head returned as he took two steps forward. His nose was now nearly touching the glass partition and he crouched to get eye-to-eye with the tiger, who had resumed his growling and teeth baring display. Neither would back down, and Frank felt as though his senses had dulled and all of his physical and mental strength was focussed on this stare down. He blinked and caught sight of his reflection for a moment; stony pale with pupils like flying saucers so large his eyes were almost entirely black and stringy blue veins tracing a tortuous roadmap over his face. He stumbled away from the image, falling back on his haunches in shock at what he had caught a glimpse of. The tiger, satisfied that he had been victorious in their ocular duel, turned slowly and returned to the undergrowth in contented silence. Another sound from up ahead, this one far more frantic, diverted Frank’s attention and brought him round from his shock at his own appearance; a simian shriek echoed across the grounds, but this didn’t seem playful or intimidating like the ones one would hear on a wildlife documentary. This seemed distressed. A chorus of monkeys soon joined in with the first until theirs cries seemed like an aggressive auditory curtain. A single gunshot halted the apes’ calls and brought Frank rapidly to his feet, he sprinted in the direction of the sound though he felt far weaker now than he had back in the morgue, or even when he had vaulted the fence just moments earlier. His legs seemed reluctant to move, and when they did they felt weighed down like he was running in a pool of treacle. He was focussing so hard on propelling himself forward that he nearly clattered into a waist-high concrete wall in front of him. Bracing himself against the cold stone he looked down into the pit that it surrounded and saw several sleeping bears. He wasn’t sure what type of bear they were but he was sure they wouldn’t have enjoyed his sudden introduction into their living space and would probably have torn him limb from limb. Pushing away from the wall he continued his advance on the origin of the gunshot and, rounding the bear pit, caught sight of a figure crouching in the darkness. He couldn’t make out the person’s features but he was definitely male, and he was attending to something on the ground in front of him.
Frank’s voice was hoarse, he couldn’t remember the last person he’d spoken to, and the words burned his throat as they struggled out. The stranger heard them though, standing straight up and glancing in Frank’s direction before fleeing.
Frank protested, the short run from the tiger enclosure had been excruciatingly tiring and just the thought of a foot pursuit was draining enough. Under his breath, he cursed.
Reluctantly he set off after the stranger, not paying attention to the pile of debris on the floor next to the baboon enclosure. His feet slapped against the concrete and every step felt like he was being cobbled. Forgivingly, his agonising progress ceased after thirty yards; he rounded the baboon pit into a small clearing with a burger hut and a gift shop – both boarded up – and the stranger was nowhere to be seen.
Frank thrust his fist into the side of the burger hut, not feeling the pain as it splintered around his knuckles and not noticing the pure white tendrils revealed beneath his broken skin like worms living in his flesh. His frustration was twofold; he had made a career of chasing and apprehending people, he hadn’t been out of the game long but yet his body had refused to comply to his will on this occasion. He had visibly lost weight and so shifting his lighter frame should have made rapid movement easier, but this was not the case. His physical deterioration angered him, usually so proud of his muscular frame, and he considered landing another blow against the hut but his fist had begun to ache, so he thought better of it. His second bone of contention with himself was that he was searching for the Holy Cow Killer, who may well be his only chance of salvation if the remains in his refrigerator had indeed been his own doing. He presumed this stranger was the HCK, and his new found ineptitude had allowed him to escape and now Frank would never know if he’d tracked down this famous serial killer. But wasn’t he doing something back by the baboon pit, arranging something? Proof that he had indeed encountered HCK would at least be a silver lining to the dark cloud of his escape, and Frank’s unnaturally rapid physical decline. Buoyed by this possibility, Frank trudged back to where the stranger had been crouched. The bears in the pit to his right were still sleeping, and the baboons had fled into their dens after the gunshot, so once again an eerie silence descended on the zoo as Frank approached a pile of matter on the ground. As if on cue, the sun had resumed its daily cycle and emerged over the horizon casting a golden column of yellow over the pile and revealing the horrible, and presumably unfinished, montage that lay in the centre of the concrete path; lying on its side was the severed head of a man. The head had been removed from its body but was still connected to the spinal vertebrae, which coiled out behind it like a bony tail. The jaw had been removed and reattached about halfway down the spine with a tactically deployed rivet, and flesh had been crudely grafted along either side of the face to elongate the cheeks and give the impression of a gaping yawn. The spinal column was still visible at the back of the enlarged oral cavity and both rows of teeth had been adorned with large tusks, two above and two below. On closer inspection the tusks looked like human ribs that had been cracked and broken away from an intact cage, and they had been forcibly inserted underneath the lips so that the flesh was stretched almost to breaking point to accommodate them. This hadn’t disrupted the anatomy so much in the lower jaw, but in the case of the upper this forced insertion had obliterated the normal architecture of the victim’s nose, and almost forced his eyes completely shut. HCK had reopened the eyes, however, by employing a nail through each of the upper eyelids, peeling them back and fixing them against the forehead. The pressure from the insertion of the upper rib-tusks had ruptured both of the man’s eyeballs, and so bloody gel oozed from the ocular cavities like demonic tears. The man, although unfinished, resembled a monstrous, bloody snake with its mouth agape ready to ingest its next meal whole. Indeed there was something positioned close to its mouth; lying face down beside the atrocity, half hidden by the swollen face, its bright red ass glinting in the increasing daylight, was an infant baboon, clearly dead and half-shaven. Frank was appalled by the scene and quietly felt relief that he hadn’t stumbled on the finished article. He only hoped that the man’s injuries and deformations had been suffered after he was killed. So the stranger had indeed been HCK, and Frank had been so close to catching him, moments earlier and he very well may have. He began to pace in frustration once more, fists clenched, and noticed that every time he drew nearer to HCK’s half-finished depiction the crawling beneath his skin intensified. He stomped away from the scene, returning to the burger hut and fully intent on unloading a barrage of punches into its side. He couldn’t see or think clearly such was his frustration, and his vision began to haze as he approached the hut. A small, blurry green shape stood next to the makeshift restaurant, and Frank’s vision returned to focus just long enough to see that this was a trash can in the shape of a lizard. He hadn’t remembered seeing this before, but plastic would be far more forgiving on his knuckles than wood
Yes, it would.
so he began raining blow after blow into the lizard-shaped receptacle. The plastic was indeed far softer than the wooden hut, and screeched almost animalistically as Frank’s fists reduced it to a crumpled heap on the floor. Tears now blurred his vision as the writhing under his skin inexplicably resumed, and he continued his attack until his hands were tender and his lungs heaved to move the air in and out of his chest. Catching his breath, Frank composed himself and stared upwards and the sky; shades of orange and yellow lit up the clouds like ribbons of fire hovering over the Earth, separating sections of clear blue sky. A cool breeze swirled around him and he closed his eyes, momentarily lost in the peace of it all, but he knew he was at a crime scene that was soon to be discovered and that he couldn’t be found along with it. He prepared himself to move, savouring the peaceful feeling imbued in him by the weather. He sighed, opened his eyes and looked down. What he saw brought the tears streaming back to his eyes and his stomach did a backflip inside him, apparently trying to strangle his heart which itself was beating so hard it was trying to burst out of his chest; lying where there should have been a mound of crumpled plastic and parts of beaten lizard was a man, severely bloodied and wearing a green uniform and a patch that read ‘zoo warden’. The man’s face was so badly deformed that it was difficult to discern any features amongst the milieu of blood, shattered bone and swollen flesh. The only confirmatory evidence of his gender was the gore-spackled nametag that read ‘Gary’. His uniform was sodden with blood and turned half brown by the mixture of crimson fluid with green cotton. The corner of the burger hut was also bloodied and smeared where Gary’s head had repeatedly been slammed into its corner, the wood had splintered and pieces of flesh that had torn away from the zoo warden’s face hung from the errant shards of wood that had been disrupted by the assault. Frank was overwhelmed by fear and confusion, he felt completely numb and unable to move. The only sensation he was aware of was an intense hunger, gurgling deep within his abdomen as if his stomach were occupied by coiled, writhing snakes. Without thinking, and without willing his body to do so, Frank fled. He traced his steps back the way he had come, stumbling into shrubs and bushes as he hurriedly retreated. He nearly lost consciousness altogether when he passed the tiger enclosure and the beast lunged angrily at the glass trying to get at him. He couldn’t understand what had happened, he’d been attacking an object not a person, he was sure of it. But Gary the zoo warden was definitely dead, and seemingly by his hand, just as the person he’d found in his apartment was. Frank’s mind was failing him, he felt like woozy and awash in misperception but his legs continued onward. In the haze of semi consciousness only one thing was clear in his head, lucid amongst the mess of fear and confusion; as he made an agonising return to his vehicle, his mother was laughing at him.