Authors: Rin Chupeco
This little town is not known for its displays of violence, and so the murder takes them by surprise.
It starts with the man who trudges into the block of apartments that litter the side of one street with gray. The man pauses by door 6A and pounds on the frame like he expects the wood to fall away from the force of his fists alone.
“Hey, Mosses!” he roars. “Mosses, open the fuckin' door and give me my money, you sonofabitch!”
If there is anyone alive inside, they do not answer. The knocking grows furious, violent.
“That's it, you fuckin' bastard! I want you the hell out of my place! I don't fucking care if you gotta sleep in the gutters tonight!” He yanks out a set of keys and fits one into the lock. He twists the doorknob and all but kicks the door open.
The rumors spread: first like tiny ripples, then growing until they overlap into wider spirals of gossip.
The first thing that people are told is that “there is a dead man in the Holly Oaks apartments.”
The second thing they will be told is that “his face is bloated, like he was held underwater for a very long time.” And yet there is not a drop of water on or around him, nothing to suggest foul play other than the appearance he presents. That is why the apartment manager, whose name is Shamrock, throws up all over the stair banister in his fruitless bid to escape the room and his first sight of the body, spattering an unfortunate couple standing below.
The police come next. They park their sirens in front of the building and mark off the area with yellow tape. “You can't go in there,” one policewoman says to passersby and curious onlookers, as the other officers cordon off the scene. “This is a crime scene.” They turn down interviews by reporters. “We cannot divulge anything more specific until after a full investigation has taken place.”
Some of the reporters showed up before the police arrived. “This is Cynthia Silvia from WTV Channel 6,” one reporter tells the camera and the world watching through the lens. I count themâthe police, the growing number of people. I drift past the camera and peer into the frame, though no one notices. “Very little information has been released so far, though the police believe this to be a homicide by a person or persons unknown. We'll update you as soon as we know moreâ¦”
“A thirty-five-year-old man was found dead in his apartment this morning. Sources tell us he may have been dead for days, though the police have yet to release any information corroborating thisâ¦”
“This marks the first homicide case in Applegate in almost ten years. Not much is known about the victim, thirty-five-year-old Blake Mosses. He was a loner, according to his neighbors, and lived in Holly Oaks for only six months before his body was foundâ¦”
“This is Cooper Wilkes of ANTV Channel 5 News, reporting live from Holly Oaksâ¦”
“This is Tracy Palmeri, Channel 2 News. Back to you, Jeff.”
It would surprise these reporters to know that few stories begin with death. Often, they start with grief.
This story starts hundreds of miles away, where a small town in South Carolina gathers to pray for a young girl who has been missing for four months and who will never return home, although they do not realize it. Posters of her decorate every inch of tree and wall, and her sweet, gap-toothed smile enchants those who care enough to take a cursory glance. Her parents, a listless bearded man and a weeping woman, clasp hands as they implore the public to help in the search, knowing that in time their daughter will slip through their fingers and disappear into the archives of unexplained cases and old news.
The reports are different here from at Holly Oaks.
“Officers from two counties are continuing the search for eleven-year-old Madeleine Lindgren, who disappeared in May. Police have set up an AMBER Alert for the missing girl, and so far, thousands of tips have come through the hotlineâ¦”
“The police say they are going through every piece of information that passes through the channels but admit that, with the number of tips coming in everyday, filtering through the information will take time. More than a hundred officers and volunteers have joined in the search for little Madeleineâ¦”
“If you have any information related to this case, please call the following numbers: 242-45â¦”
Strings of a story move through states and cities, leaving parts of the story at every stop. People find themselves at the beginning of a tale without an end, or in a middle that neither starts nor finishes, or at a conclusion that knows no beginning. Only two have read this story in its entirety, can quote it from cover to cover, and had been there from introduction to curtain fall.
One is the Stained Shirt Man that people are now calling Blake Mosses.
I am the other.
And when the news provides no other answers, gossip takes center stage.
For the neighbors at Holly Oaks apartments, it is their moment to shine. “Always knew he was a bad seed,” says Greta Grunberg from 6D, who said no such thing to anyone until after the fact. “Skulking up and down the stairs, never leaving the room for days. He was going to come to a bad end, I always thought.”
Annabelle Mirellin from 5C believes that Mosses was attacked by a wild animal and wonders if this could be possible grounds for suing Holly Oaks for mismanagement. She is not swayed from this belief by the fact that the door was locked from the inside and no trace of a wild animal was found inside the room.
The police, more sensible creatures than the neighbors, are baffled. But it will be days before they discover the small strand of hair hidden underneath the dislodged carpet, and it will be months before they fully understand its importance.
â¢ â¢ â¢
The Smiling Man is unconcerned about this most recent development. The town of Applegate is already proving to be a distraction, and he is busy planning, plotting his next move.
He parks his white car at one corner of the street and strolls toward where the crowd of people (fifty-seven) have gathered, watching in fascination as medical personnel (four) wheel out a large gurney that carries something (one) large and bulky, hidden from view by a large, black blanket. Many have never seen this manner of death up close, one that does not point the blame at old age or sickness.
This provides ghoulish enjoyment, for the town is too large to know of the little perversions that move in villages, yet too small for its residents' spirits to have been toughened by the crimes of cities. There is a thrill in relishing the suffering of strangers, and they hide their interest with worried faces. The dead man, Blake Mosses, had not been One of Them, and they can afford to treat him as a source of unfortunate entertainment rather than one of genuine bereavement.
The Smiling Man wanders in and out of the crowd, the dead children forced to keep up with every step. He does not bother to look at the man's corpse, for he does not specialize in this kind of death. His eyes are trained on a young girl who has wandered some distance away from the group. She sits on a small park bench opposite the apartment block, engrossed in her music.
The Smiling Man sets up shop at the other end of the bench, ostensibly to watch the drama unfolding on the other side of the street. He observes her when she is not looking.
“I don't think your mother would want you watching all this,” he says after considerable time has passed.
The girl shoots him a suspicious look. Few adults, in her experience, would condescend to talk to children the way this man does with such impunity. She takes an earbud out of one ear. “Mommy's a policewoman,” she says. “We were driving home from school when the alert came on her radio. She was the closest to the crime scene, so she had to investigate. Mommy says we don't have enough cops in this town, so we always have to adapt. She told me to stay inside the car,” she adds, as if this was a trivial detail not worth repeating. “But it was stuffy inside.”
“That is true,” says the Smiling Man, whose interest wanes slightly once the girl divulges her mother's occupation. “But I don't think she'd like to hear you've been talking to strangers, either.”
“Mommy said talking to strangers is dangerous,” the girl admits. “Are you a stranger?”
“I live in Massachusetts,” says the Smiling Man. “So I suppose you can call me a stranger. Can you say Massachusetts?”
“Massachusetts,” says the girl. “I'm not an idiot. Are you dangerous?”
The Smiling Man laughs at her courage. “Well, it was dangerous for that man over there, wasn't it?” he asks, sidestepping her question and pointing toward the crime scene, where the crowd surges closer, straining to see more of the dead man as the medical technicians begin loading the body into the back of an ambulance. A flock of reporters (eight) swarm around the police officers (five), firing volleys of questions into the air at them like bullets. “They say he was a stranger, too.”
“That's true,” the girl concedes. “Maybe strangers can also be dangerous to each other.”
The man laughs again, amused. “My name is Quintilian.”
“Sandra,” the girl counters and adds, “That's a weird name.”
“My mother named me after a Greek philosopher.”
“Mommy named me after her favorite soap-opera actress.”
“Sandra is a nice name.”
“I wish she'd named me after someone more famous. Like Marie Curie. I think Marie is a nice name. Or maybe Marie Antoinette.”
“Marie Antoinette had her head chopped off by a group of angry Frenchmen.”
The girl is unfazed by his choice of words. “But she got to go to parties and wear wigs and eat a lot of cake. What are the names of all your other friends?”
“All those kids sitting on your back.”
The man stills suddenly, and his smiling face changes. His gaze is now wary, and his hand slowly dips into his coat pocket and stays there. “There aren't any kids on my back,” he says, trying to sound like a patient adult dealing with a rather precocious child.
“I can see them. They're grouped all around you, and they don't look very healthy. Why are they all afraid of you?”
“What an interesting child you are, Sandra,” the Smiling Man says. “What a funny little child.” From his pocket he withdraws a folded handkerchief, sending a faint whiff of chloroform into the air. He should not be doing this so close to the police cars, he knows, but sometimes the thrill of it fuels his motivations.
“You're quite creative when it comes to making things up, aren't you?”
“Sandra!” a woman's voice calls from where the throng of people is thickest, laced with a mother's worry and panic. “Sandra! Where are you?”
This produces a most unusual change in the Smiling Man. Where his body had been tense and coiled, as if he was biding his time to spring, he now relaxes and slides back against the bench. His hand slackens, and he slips the handkerchief he is toying with back into his pocket, out of sight.
“It appears your mother is looking for you, Sandra.”
The girl pops the bud back into her ear and skips across to where her mother stands, a tall woman with cropped hair and a dark blue police uniform, a tall woman struggling between a job that takes up too much of her life and a child who needs too much of her time. The anxiety in her face shifts into a cross between welcome relief and anger as she spots her daughter.
“What did I tell you about leaving the car? I told you to stay inside!” she scolds, as she brings the girl to where a police car is parked half a block away, the windows rolled down and the doors unlocked.
“I'm sorry, Mommy,” the girl says sincerely. “But it was really hot inside.”
“What am I supposed to do with you, Sandra?” The woman is exasperated. This is not the first time her daughter has wandered off on her own.
“The guy from Massachusetts and all those kids with him kept me company.”
“What guy from Massachusetts?” The woman's maternal instincts have been triggered, knowing there is something odd about her daughter's words without knowing why. She scans the crowd, hunting for a face that may strike her as strange or unusual.
But when her eyes come to rest on the bench, no one is sitting there. Making his escape while the cameras flash and the sirens turn on, while the door slams shut behind what is left of Blake Mosses and the ambulance speeds away, the Smiling Man has disappeared, and with him, all the dead children he has killed.
Four days after the murder hits the front-page news, the manner and reasons for the stranger's death remain a mystery to the people of Applegate. The police have no suspects, and the bizarreness of the crime ensures that reporters are still quick to trot it out on evenings when the news is slow, though few updates warrant reporting.
People have taken to locking their doors or moving about their houses to check for open windows or stray curtains at night. They take the time to warn their children to come home before it grows too dark, cautioning them about the perils of nightfall, and they frequently look over their shoulders, waiting to hear the tread of steps behind them, expecting to observe and question every shadow that moves across the street.
Teenagers find death easier to deal with than adults do, and the news passes easily enough from their minds. Classes give way to lunchtime, and the cafeteria seats are occupied. There are the sounds of boys and girls laughing and gossiping as they congregate in groups and friendship.
The tattooed boy shares in none of the revelries, instead retiring to a corner of the cafeteria alone. Chewing on a sandwich, he stares at the wall across from his seat. He wears another long sweater and has resumed his habit of tugging his sleeves down until they reach well below his knuckles. The sun is shining outside and the air-conditioning is marginal at best inside, but he is huddled, quivering, and with every breath, tendrils of cold air billow out of his mouth. His eyes are dull.
“Hey there, stranger,” a voice says. It comes from a pretty brunette his age who has a fresh face with a slight abundance of freckles and a penchant for friendliness. Her manner suggests that she is one of the more popular girls at Perry Hills High, and this means she is free to do as she pleases. Today what she pleases to do is to strike up the boy's acquaintance. Rumors of the tattooed boy have spread, and ironically, the boy's disinterest in his fellow students makes him more enigmatic and appealing in their eyes. “You must be this strange Tarquin fella some of the guys have been talking about. Wanna eat with us?”
“No,” says the boy, who has a penchant for surliness.
The boy's yellow-haired cousin enters the cafeteria. She looks up, sensing by some obscure instinct that something is about to happen, and glances toward where the boy sits.
“Why not?” insists the brunette, who is not accustomed to being rejected. She reaches out and tugs playfully at the boy's hand, a show of coyness. “My name's Andrea. Come on, I don't bite.”
.” The boy tries to shake her hand off, but it is too late. The dark-haired girl's fingers snag against his shirtsleeve and the material rides up, revealing the strange tattoos that undulate and curl on their own like they are coming alive on his skin, staring up at them both like malignant eyes. The air grows dark and stifling, and the mist begins again, rising expectantly around the two teenagers.
The brunette stumbles back, eyes staring out of her lovely head, uncertain of what she has just seen.
“No!” the boy shouts, and his voice carries across the room. The rest of the cafeteria falls silent, heads turning. The boy yanks his sleeves back down, so hard the fabric nearly tears from the strength of his misery. And yet the fog doesn't lift. It rolls over and around him so that, to his cousin's eyes, the denseness of the shadow obscures him, the form behind him rising once more to mimic the shape of that brooding mask, that lady in black.
Neither the teaching assistant nor the rest of the students see this woman. Not even the tattooed boy seems to realize her closeness. His face is washed of all color, and he is clinging to the table before him, hunched over in pain.
Several things happen.
Flocks of birds crash through the window.
They are missing their heads.
They hit the walls hard:
thud, thud, thud
. They crash into plates and trays, into water fountains and people. Several smash into the lighting fixtures overhead before dropping down, suddenly motionless, and nearly missing a group of girls huddled in a corner.
The students begin to scream. The boy's cousin claps a hand over her mouth, stunned by what she has just witnessed.
Without another word, the tattooed boy takes offâpast the cafeteria doors and down the corridors, bursting out of the school's main doors and barreling down the street, with the woman's shadow fluttering after him.
“Tarquin!” His cousin follows him. She is quick enough to catch sight of him, with the strange darkness surrounding his head like a crown, before he disappears around the corner. “I'm going after him!” she calls out to other teachers who poke their heads out of their rooms, curious. She gestures back inside, where the screaming continues to drift out, where the dead birds still litter the floor.
“Take care of them, Jen!” she tells her friend who has come running up, eyes wide.
“What are you going to do?”
The young woman does not answer her. Already, she is running.
But boys are light of feet and quick of temper, and he is soon lost in the busy afternoon of cars and people. The teacher's assistant pauses, looking this way and that, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. But the crowd flows past her, unyielding and unrepentant.
It is then that she sees the woman in white.
I am standing at the corner of a busy intersection, my face hidden under a ruined cobweb of hair. The girl sees me like a man might see an oasis in a dried desertâdisbelieving, certain that her senses play with her mind, convinced this is nothing more than a mistake, a puzzle of flesh.
I lift my hand and point at something in the far distance. The young woman takes a step forward, her own arm extending, reaching for this strange creature. She is convinced that she will be reassured if she touches this apparition and feels the sensation of skin and bones underneath her own. But in the space between moments I move, and she finds herself standing alone, with only people swarming past.
She turns in the direction I pointed and, because she can think of no other alternative, follows this road.
She stops again along a boulevard, her path lost. A pedestrian light turns green across the street. Once again she catches sight of the woman in white gliding through the rush of people, and I do little to blend in. I lift my head momentarily and the teaching assistant glimpses black hair streaming down past sightless eyes, before I am once more gone in the maze of briefcases and shopping bags.
The young woman makes her decision. She takes off after me, following the bread crumbs I am strewing in her path. Her pace quickens as her certainty grows, and she pauses only to call out apologies and excuses as she jostles against other men and women scurrying past.
She finally catches sight of the tattooed boy. He sits inside a white car. His eyes are half closed, and his head lolls against the seat. But the man closing the door beside him is not his father. It is a blond man with bright eyes and youthful features, and he is smiling.
“Wait!” The girl is frantic. Heads turn in her direction as she fights against the flow of people walking past: an old man in a wheelchair, a dog walker with three German shepherds, two baby carriages. “Wait! Stop him! Tarquin!”
But the man starts the car and drives away, leaving her helpless by the curb. Inside the car, the teenager turns his head, puzzled.
“Did someone call me?” he asks, his voice slurred.
“I didn't hear anyone,” the Smiling Man says gently. “Go back to sleep.”
The car speeds on. The young woman watches it leave before she looks around and does the next best thing.
â¢ â¢ â¢
“For the last time, Jenâthis is
a joke.” She speaks into her phone with a mixture of annoyance and agitation, as the taxi speeds down the street in pursuit of the white car. “I think Tarquin Halloway has been kidnapped by a man in a white Ford, and I want you to call the police. No, I don't have their number just lying around. Yes, 911's been busy for the last five minutes, and I'm not entirely sure why. That's why I want
to call instead while Iâ¦Yes, I'll let you know as soon as I figure out where they're heading. No, I don't know what the hell happened with those birds. Yes, I'll be back as soon as I find Tark.”
“Is this for real, lady?” The taxi driver looks alarmed. “We're after some pervert on the run?”
“I don't know yet.” The young woman's eyes are glued to the white car just ahead, which is turning onto a smaller, quieter street at the outskirts of town. They lose it for a few minutes after it speeds up and turns a sharp corner, and it takes some more searching before she finally catches a glimpse of the car as it turns into a small driveway, almost hidden by a tall grove of trees. She gestures at the driver to stop at the opposite side of the street.
“I'll be getting off here. Keep the change.”
“You sure you don't want me to stick around, miss?”
She pauses. “Can you use your radio to call the police?”
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, I can radio my boss and he canâ”
“Do that.” She hands him a couple of bills and gets out of the car.
“I think you ought to wait for the cops to get here, miss. If there's some wacko on the loose, I don't think you ought to be looking for him aloneâ¦”
“I don't think I can wait that long. Just call the police as quickly as you can.” She runs toward the row of houses, while the taxi driver picks up his radio and speaks hurriedly into it. But by the time he gets out of the car, intent on following the teaching assistant, he stops. She is nowhere to be seen.
â¢ â¢ â¢
She is not afraid, not at first. She is careful not to attract too much attention, though her nerves are frayed and adrenaline shoots through her network of veins. The house is nestled on a tiny cul-de-sac, one of only three houses there. It stands against a backdrop of afternoon sky, the sun bleeding through the clouds. A still calm descends as she nears the parked white car. The hood is warm when she touches it, but its occupants are missing.
, the teacher's assistant thinks.
shouldn't be here alone. I've watched enough slasher movies to know this.
But she knows that as the minutes tick by, her cousin draws ever closer to danger. Her last conversation with his father drifts into her mind, and she is ashamed that she is unable to keep her promise of watching over him. It is a part of her nature to be protective, and this flaw sometimes overrules her caution.
She tries the door and is not surprised to find it locked. She wrestles against the idea that she could be arrested for breaking and entering, tries to imagine herself serving time in jail stripes, and decides to chance it. She circles the house and finds a small window opened partwayâenough for her to be able to squirm inside.
There is no one inside the first room she enters, which is a kitchen. Knives of varying sizes line the wall, gleaming in the dull light. Grocery bags take up one side of the kitchen island, filled with vegetables and canned goods. Everything appears to be in its place, tidy. There is nothing out of the ordinary here. She waits at first; frightened, certain she's been found outâbut the minutes go by, and no one comes. The house is quiet; not a creature stirs.
For a moment she feels foolish, embarrassed. Could she be mistaken, after all? She takes out her phone to call her friend and is annoyed by the lack of mobile signal in the area.
She turns just in time to catch a glimpse of me drifting into the next room, head bowed, feet barely touching the ceiling.
She is taken aback and wonders briefly if she is going crazy on top of everything else, but she realizes she has come too far now to turn back. She grabs a small knife as a precaution, then follows me into the next room and sees me standing before a large wooden door. She blinks, and I disappear.
By all outward appearances, it could have been a closet or a storage space, or even a small bedroom, the type allotted for guests. But when the teaching assistant pulls the door open, all she sees is a set of stairs, leading down into night.
It is all she can do to take that first step down. It creaks slightly under her weight, not loud enough to echo into the narrow space, but enough that she becomes more aware of the darkness. Her descent is slow and careful, and for the first time, she wishes she had looked around for a flashlight to bring. But before she changes her mind, she reaches the bottom.
There is a bulb hanging at the end of the stairs and another door before her. The young woman swallows hard, silently counts to ten, and pushes it open.
Inside, the tattooed boy is nestled against a small cot on one side of the room, fast asleep and unharmed in every way that she can see, much to her relief. A small candle has been lit beside him. Large pipes run parallel across one wall, gurgling water and sewage. The room itself carries a dank smell of rotten wood and moss.
The young woman looks around for other signs of life. Finding none, she hurries to him, feels his forehead, and sighs with relief upon noting his steady pulse, his measured breathing. “Tark? Tark, wake up.”
But the boy only murmurs something unintelligible and sinks back into slumber.
She takes one step, two steps toward him, then gets no farther. Something crashes painfully against the side of her head, and the last thing she sees before blacking out is me, standing over her crumpled form, head twisted enough to one side that a disfigured eye stares back down at her, black against a pale, stark face.