Howler

red emergency telephone on a wall

Howler


My father-in-law worked as an emergency dispatcher in New York City during the early 1980s. His bizarre tales of panicked phone calls with strangers have become conversation fodder for family events and social gatherings ever since. Some of the stories are tame enough to share at the dinner table. There was that one guy who, back in ‘83, called 911 to report his wife missing, only for the police to find her fast asleep in bed. Or that one lady who wanted a full complaint and charges filed over a neighbor’s fallen tree. My kids loved these stories. They begged him for them endlessly, even if they heard the details all a thousand times. Mostly, I think, they just liked his acting. Dad had a unique way of making the characters come alive in the soft candlelight of a Summer evening. I have to admit, the stories were pretty entertaining; like a parlor trick designed to keep us distracted from stale bread and lukewarm tea.

And then there was the Howler.

The Howler was the type of case reserved for late night drinks in the open air. Long after his wife disappeared downstairs with a plea to take care of the dishes. After the children were snuggled into bed with their mother. Out on the deck, high above the man-made pond filled with massive Koi, with a pair of fat cigars and a bottle of beer each. That is where I found myself this past Father’s Day. Punch drunk and choking down the ashy taste of my yearly injection of lung cancer.

“There’s one I never told you about. The one that made me quit.” Dad asked through a cloud of smoke. “Marcus knows. My wife and Emma obviously know. But I don’t think you do.”

I shook my head and tried to hold in the smoke.

“I don’t.”

He nodded.

“Nineteen eighty… one. God, you think I would remember. Before you were even born.”

“Nope, never heard it.”

He nodded again, solemnly. It was weird to see the carefree expression melt from his wrinkled features.

“This was before Giuliani. Before the cleanup. Drugs, gangs, prostitution… you name it. Most women were too scared to walk home alone. Most men invested in a pair of brass knuckles. The city was not safe. It really wasn’t.”

I chuckled a bit at the dramatic tone.

“You laugh because you can’t imagine it. That’s a good thing. We did our job.”

And that shut me up.

“Around that time, 81, we got word about a series of break-ins on Avenue D. Something like sixteen break-ins in seventeen days, all on the same street.”

“Jesus.”

“Right. But the suspect never took anything. He broke a window, or a door, anything to get inside… but once he did… never stole a thing. Probably just looked around a bit and left.”

“Weird.”

“Definitely weird. So the detectives assigned to the case paid a visit to the lowly dispatchers and told us to be cognizant of any calls that came in from Avenue D.”

Dad took another generous toke of his cigar and looked down into the water.

“Which, truth be told, really pissed off me and my colleagues. We were swamped. I mean, we were up to our ears in calls, I already told you… the city was BAD at the time… and here these cops stood, asking for special treatment on a crime where nobody was even injured. Nothing stolen.”

“Understandable. So what happened?”

“Well, just my luck, the very next night… I get a call from Avenue D.”

“Shit.”

“Shit is right. As soon as the call comes in, I flag my manager, he rushes over, and we record it. In seconds he is on the horn with the detective assigned to the case and fifty different people from fifty different departments and organizations are barking in my free ear for an address.”

His hand starts to shake.

“And I’m listening to this call, and this woman is telling me that someone is breaking into her house. And… God, Matt, I can hear it happening. I can hear the wood splintering. I can hear her shouting for the intruder to go away and I can hear the intruder shouting SOMEthing back at her…”

“So what did you tell her?”

“I told her to run. Run to a safe place. Run out another exit. Find a window. Find something. I told her to do anything she can to avoid the situation. Otherwise… fight. Always find a weapon and fight if you need to.”

“And what happened?”

A fresh rain of fortuitous rain reached down to snub out my cigar.

“The intruder got inside and shot her in the forehead.”

“Fuck.”

“That’s not the worst part. I mean, it sucks, but that sort of thing happens in this line of work.”

“What could possibly be worse?”

“The phone line was still open. The victim had it on speakerphone.”

“*Could you… could you hear him?”

Dad handed me back the lighter.

“He was quiet for a couple moments. Just kinda whimpered a little bit. Then he started moaning… or howling, I guess, for his mother. His tone jumped up and down so much he almost sounded like a sick animal. ‘Please Mom. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ That sort of thing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then it switched to his grandmother. ‘Grandma, help me, help!’ Then God.”

“He realized what he did.”

“Definitely. Then he must have found the phone on the floor. Because he picked it up and started apologizing to me.

“What did he say?”

“’I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to kill her. I didn’t want to. I didn’t mean it.’ Help me, he said, I remember him saying help me quite a bit.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him to stay in place and somebody would be there to help him shortly.”

“Did he?”

Dad spit down into the lake.

“*No. The apartment was empty when officers got there. Nothing but a broken door and dead body.”

I didn’t know what else to say. The rain started to come down in uneven waves that dipped in under the awning of the deck.

“We should head inside.”

We each put out our cigars carefully and headed through the sliding door into the warmth of the kitchen. I helped myself to the fridge to pour us a fresh couple classes of UFO. Dad collapsed into a chair at the table. I followed suit with a couple tall glasses.

“Not the last of it,” he added once we were settled. “We got another call. Two nights later.”

“What happened?”

“Same as before. The call hit my dispatch station. Avenue D. I flagged down my manager, had him record the call, and by the time everything was set up… an intruder was breaking through the victim’s door.”

“Again?”

“Again. I told the victim to stay calm… to stay on the line… help was on the way. But I doubt she could even hear me. The suspect was SCREAMING at the time. That same up and down kinda scream. I couldn’t even make out the words until the door frame snapped. Then the victim dropped the phone, but, it was still turned on…”

“No…”

“They struggled for a bit. He chased her around the kitchen. I could hear that happening. He screamed a few more unintelligible sentences at her. Then it sounded like… it sounded like he got her. They both got quiet and he let out this triumphant kind of grunt. The police officers were still five minutes away at this point. Stuck in traffic.”

I groaned.

“And then the suspect just started… berating her for calling 9-1-1. He asked her why she would bother. He said that we were too slow. He said that we would never catch him. He actually found the phone, probably lying on the floor again I guess, and started talking to me.”

“What did he say?”

Dad took a deep breath.

“’Tell her she is going to die.’”

“What the fuck…”

“That’s what he said. Tell her she is going to die because you can’t save her. You can’t save everybody.”

“What are you supposed to do in that situation?”

“Distract him. Keep him busy.”

“Did you?”

“I tried. But the guy just kept howling. I’m sorry but that is really the only way to describe his voice.”

“What was he howling?”

“‘Tell her she’s going to die. Tell her she’s going to die. Tell her the truth. You know it’s the truth.’”

My father-in-law took one last swig of his beer and stared down into the empty glass.

“So I said, can you please put her on the phone please, and he did. And I told the woman to run. I told her to throw the phone at his head and run from the room as fast as she could. Run for the windows. Run for a back exit. Run away! But… but before I could even finish my sentence, the suspect fired his weapon.”

Dad pointed at his forehead with two fingers.

“And then the cops arrived.”

I got up from the table and collected the empty beer glasses. I needed something to distract myself from the moment. The emotional toll of the story was hard enough for me to manage. I could not imagine how he felt.

“There was a brief standoff. The suspect barricaded the broken door and waved his gun at the officers. Just a distraction, probably, because the kid put a bullet in his own head a couple minutes later.”

I grimaced.

“What was his name?”

“Tim,” he guffawed. “Tim could have been anybody, really. Normal guy. Twenty-seven years old. No history of mental illness or run-ins with law enforcement. He worked as a dispatcher, just like me, over in another county upstate.”

I nodded in anticipation.

“But two years earlier, his mother passed away in a fire. They lived together on Avenue D.”

“Jesus.”

“Tim was away on his very first business trip. A training course for emergency responders.”

My father-in-law reached for his beer and wiped away a tear. He hoped I didn’t notice. But I did.

“You know, it’s kinda stupid, this case really shouldn’t bother me so much. I don’t even know all of the details. We dealt with much worse in my era and never lost much sleep. You learn how to compartmentalize things. And now… now, the kids who worked through 9/11… they have heard shit I can’t even imagine.”

I moved to protest in his defense.

“It’s fine. But it was something about Tim’s voice, the hopelessness in it, the disparity of doing something horrible and knowing you will be punished for it. That HOWL… it always stuck with me. It made me feel useless. I quit the job I loved a week later.”

“What made you wait so long?”

“Got a call on my final shift. Blocked number, blocked location, the whole nine.”

“What did they say?”

“Nothing. Nothing intelligible at all.”

Dad took one more healthy swig of the heffeweizen.

“The caller just howled.”