“Sir, I was looking for you,” Howard said, staring at the back of the chief’s neck. “We got him.” He turned around slowly, eyes staring down at a manila folder in his hands. He was an intimidating man, even despite his enlarged belly and the countless wrinkles spiraling down his face, neck, and everywhere else. Tall, maybe 6’2’’, and still quite muscular—especially for a 63-year-old that refused to retire. He was bald now, but he’d had thick, black hair when Howard had first joined the department over a decade ago. Even after all that time, he still felt as if he were a child talking to an adult whenever he was around the chief.
“Him? Who is him?” Chief said, not looking up from the manila folder.
“Him,” Howard said, nodding toward the folder. “We got him.”
“Him? Al? You got Al?” Chief said, glancing up from the folder in his hand, then slowly closing the cover. A large, red “CONFIDENTIAL” was stamped across its front.
“We did, he was outside of an arboretum. We caught him red handed. No, red lipped. Red worded? We caught him in the act is what I’m trying to say.”
“The fuck is an arboretum?”
“Sir, it’s a garden with a large collection of trees instead of flowers. Kind of like a forest, except man made,” Howard said. “It’s basically a forest.”
“Where is there an arboretum in New York?”
“Central Park. Does it matter? We got him.”
“Where is he?” Chief said, glancing around the room. The veins on his neck, visible through his wrinkled, dried skin, popped out slightly as he swiveled his head.
“He’s in the interrogation room.” Howard nodded toward the big, metal door on his left.
“How do you know you got the right guy?” Chief asked.
“He was standing outside of the arboretum telling people they were barking up the wrong tree.” Howard paused. “You know, bark: like a tree has.”
“My god,” said Chief, lowering the folder down to the side of his left leg.
“That—that wasn’t all,” Howard said, stuttering slightly. “When I approached him, he told me to leaf him alone. Not leave, but leaf. To leaf him alone.”
Chief slowly walked to the wooden table in the corner of the room and lowered the manila folder onto the top of it. He placed both palms down and sighed.
“We got a real sicko on our hands, Howard. You did good getting him off the street. Has he confessed yet?”
“No, sir. We sent Chuck in earlier. He came out in tears, an absolute wreck. He didn’t even get a chance to step out and turn on the recorder. Said he wouldn’t stop punning, that Al told him to spruce up the place. Said that it would help us branch out creatively. Chuck tried to play it off, tried to be the tough guy, but Al just didn’t let up.” Howard turned his head toward the metal door to his left. “Chuck told me Al claimed he had an idea for an escape that he maple off. Maple, not may pull. He made it clear that it was a pun.” Howard exhaled deeply and stared up at the ceiling. “He said Al called all of us saps, and that he wooden be surprised if he just walked out the front door. Wooden. Like wouldn’t.”
“Dear lord in heaven,” Chief said, lifting his palms off the table then smashing his fist down on top of the manila folder. “God damn this monster. I’m going to go in,” he said.
“Chief,” Howard said, his voice higher than he had intended it.
“No, I have to do this. I can’t send any more of my men in. I need to be the one to face this maniac.”
Howard nodded and took a step back so that the door was clear. Chief slowly unbuttoned his sports jacket, revealing a leather holster underneath. He unclipped it, the grip of his Glock now exposed, then re-fastened the top button on the jacket.
“Turn the recorder on by the window. If it gets too much, please leave the room. I will not hold it against you. Just make sure the recorder is running—we can’t let him go this time.”
Chief exhaled, brushing the side of his hand down the front of his jacket, then made his way toward the door, unlocking it and pulling it open before stepping inside. Howard walked around the wall to the one-way window, flipped on the old tape-deck recorder, and peered inside.
“Al?” Chief said, sliding a chair out from the metal table in the middle of the room. “I’m Dave Johnson, Chief of Police. Do you know why you’re in here?”
Al glanced up at the chief, but seemed to be looking toward the corner of the room.
“That,” Al said, pointing to a whiteboard in the back of the room, “over there.”
The chief turned around. “The whiteboard? What about it?”
Howard involuntarily smashed his fist down on the table in front of the glass, but the chief seemed not to notice Al’s pun.
“Nothing remarkable about it.”
“The whiteboard,” Al repeated, “it’s remarkable. Re-markable.”
The chief squinted slightly, as if he were in pain. “Seems unremarkable to me. Now please answer the question. Do you know why you’re here?”
Al sighed. “Let me guess, is it because of the two pieces of string I ate?”
“What?” said the chief.
“The string, I ate two pieces of string. I shit you not.”
Chief’s face became tense, a reddish hue slowly replacing his normal pale color. “You are here for your puns, Al. You’ve been on the pun,” Chief stopped, his eyes wide. “Run. You’ve been on the run for a long time, but we got you. And we have you recorded making these puns.”
Al stared down at the metal table and his eyes closed. “I know,” he said.
“So you admit it?”
“You think I like making puns? You think I like breaking the law?”
“If you don’t like it, then why do you do it?”
Al slowly lifted his head back up toward the chief. “A long time ago, I was kidnapped and brutally tortured. My life was threatened and I was brought to the brink of death. Do you know what that’s like? Six men accosted me, beat me and chained me to a tree as I walked home. They said they’d tell me ten puns to dictate my future. If I survived, then I was free to go. They told me no one had ever lived through them, they assured me I would die. They laughed when they said that, stared straight in my eyes and pulled the chain tighter to keep me from squirming. Then they began. Each pun was said with hate, each one meant to kill me. Yet in the end, no pun in ten did.”
The chief’s eyes rolled back in his head, his torso slumping forward onto the table in front of him. He began convulsing, seizing hard enough to knock the chair out from under him, his body plummeting to the floor behind the desk. Howard tried to reach for the alarm on the far right of the window, to hit the button and call for help, yet his limbs refused move. His mind refused to listen. The room turned black.
Howard awoke to a uniformed man standing over him, one of the new recruits he’d not yet learned the name of. He was towering over Howard, yelling for him to get up.
“Gone!” shouted the recruit.
“Huh,” Howard said, voice groggy and slow.
“He’s gone. He took the tapes and he’s gone.”
“Ch-chief,” Howard said, pulling himself up. His arms felt weak, as if he’d spent the past few hours lifting weights. “Where’s the chief.”
“He’s okay, we’ve got him in the office. He’s awake. You’re both going to be fine.”
“Al,” Howard said, remembering the barrage of puns. “Where did he go?”
“He’s gone,” said the recruit.
“Where did he go?” Howard repeated, now shouting.
“Gone, sir. He walked right out the front door.” The recruit paused, but Howard could tell he wasn’t yet done speaking. “We also have reason to believe the name we’ve been calling him is fake.”
“What? Why? We had him here, he responded to Al. All the background checks matched his name.”
“It’s just, his name. Mr. O’Bye. Al O’Bye.”
A stinging pain shot through Howard’s skull. Alibi. Why hadn’t he seen it before; that was why his history was so clean, why he had been so elusive. They were tracking a ghost.
“Fuck me,” Howard muttered, holding his left hand to his throbbing forehead. He stared into the empty interrogation room.
“Sir, that’s not all,” said the recruit. He picked up a folded piece of paper from table and handed it to Howard. “He—well—he left you a note.”
Howard stared at the paper. “Detective,” it read in cursive on the front, hand written in blue ink. He flipped it open.
“You ask me why I do what I do, what makes me who I am. Yet you don’t even know who it is that I am. Perhaps I’m simply an unappreciated baker getting revenge on the world after suffering through long hours because I kneaded the dough. Maybe I’m a forlorn banker, doing this because I’ve finally lost interest. Or maybe I’m just a backwards poet, writing inverse and making no sense. Yet, in the end, you’re not much different than I. You stay up all night and day, searching for me, wondering who I am, waiting for the light that never comes. Only when I stayed out too late waiting for that sun to rise, it dawned on me.
It’s been my pleasure meeting you, perhaps I will see you around.
Mae B. Layter”
Howard lowered the note, a warm sensation running down his face as if an insect were crawling on the flesh above his lip. He lifted his left hand beneath his nose, rubbed it, then glanced down at his fingers. They were covered in blood. Darkness again drowned out his vision.
Writing Prompt: In a world where puns are illegal, one man rises up in opposition.