I was watching a TV show at my oma’s house. In the living room, there was a small bed, a comfy couch and the TV: snug and cozy, this was my little den, my nest, my burrow. The show was a police drama about a serial killer who wore a mask – a dirty grey rag with indistinguishable black shapes, not dissimilar to the one sported by Rorschach in Watchmen, but this psycho’s mask remained the same, that is, the inky blots on the filthy rag didn’t move at all. And instead of a hat, this man wore a neutral-shaded suit. After only a few minutes watching the show I started to feel threatened by him, as if the show were more than a work of fiction, a real-world instance of wicked, nefarious, malignant evil. I felt like I was being watched and ran up and down the house, making sure all doors and windows were securely locked.
The gruesome details of the murders realistically shown on the TV started to affect me. There were not only flashes, but clear-cut scenes and close-ups of guts, entrails, flesh and bone ground together, dismembered bodies, and such an amount of blood, that left no doubt in viewer’s minds about those cuttings being made while the victims were still alive. Thinking about the gory details made me want to find out his identity for myself: if I did, something terrible could be prevented; if I didn’t, well… I was sure he was going to come alive, out of the realm of imagination, find me and kill me in the most cruel, painful and hideous way possible.
It felt so real. As a matter of urgency, to avoid this terrible destiny, I had to unmask his identity and put an end to his monstrous existence. I would have to dive into the show, imagine myself so well-inserted into the story, experience the fear so close to my own skin, that the fiction would become my reality. I ceased, then, from being a spectator. I was now an active participant, and it wasn’t just a TV show anymore. It was really happening.
* * *
I was an investigator at the police department in a small American town. There was a killer on a spree and he seemed to choose his victims randomly. I worked on a team of several other smart and experienced officers; it was only a matter of time until he made a mistake, forgot one little piece of fabric, or was seen by some offhanded witness, or left behind a little bit of spit, or hair, or skin, or anything we could use to track his DNA. But the investigation was stalled. There was nothing new to track, no witness to interview. We were seated in front of our computer screens, our bored asses moving up and down the precinct to get another cup of coffee or another sugary, heart-disease-full doughnut. The journalists were having a ball. The media weren’t helping either; newspaper headings stated the obvious, plus a catchy nickname: ” ‘The butcher’ eludes authorities – citizens terrified”.
A message came on the fax machine and pulled us out of our reveries. I was close to the machine and it seemed to be written in some kind of coded language, but addressed, in plain English, to our colleague Martin, the antisocial, introverted, most relentless detective of the team. It was due to his work that the police had now a rough idea on the physical build of the perpetrator and a psychological profile that told us he was, most likely, a straight white male between 35 and 50 years old, an only son with mommy issues and had a background in the Army or Navy special forces.
Martin read the letter as if he could understand the code at a glance; he took his gun, cellphone and coat and left in a matter of seconds, without talking to anyone. We all gathered around the fax, but the message wasn’t there anymore: Martin had probably taken it with him, making sure its contents would stay secret. Work was slow and the killer had, apparently, decided to take a break as well. A good sign, for it meant we (or someone else) were getting closer.
As six P.M drew near, officers started turning off their computers, putting cups back by the coffee stand, getting their belongings and going home. No one mentioned Martin and the mysterious message. But I had a hunch it was important. I stayed and tried to figure out if there was any sort of record of the message stored in the “cloud” or in the fax machine. Hell, I couldn’t even name it properly. I called the IT guy, but obviously, he had already left. I needed to see that message right away, and Google told me how. I typed CANON FAX-L170 on the search engine and prayed that Martin hadn’t deleted the record… and there it was. Job History -> 04:57 PM Received #556.
I printed it out, and almost laughed in relief. It wasn’t written in a secret code, but in Russian. I had of course to type in all the correct characters into the online translator, but it all worked out. It said simply this: “You know who I am and what I’ve done. Below there is a time and a place. Come alone, or your wife and children will suffer the consequences”. The address was of an old warehouse in the outskirts of the presently abandoned industrial quarter of the city, miles away from any other human being. Never in a million years would a hardened cop fall for this… but how could I be sure?
As I examined the sender ID, another shock: it had been sent from that very room. I searched around and noticed I wasn’t completely alone – Ted, a hard-working, powerfully-built cop, was still plugging away at his computer. David, the toughest of them all, was also there, apparently fascinated at some article he was reading online. But there had been at least 20 people there when Martin got the message; besides, the sending of the fax could have been programmed in advance, thus, the record didn’t really mean much by itself. If I wanted to catch Martin and his mysterious correspondent, I had to leave immediately. I was almost sure it was connected to the killings. I jumped into the car and drove as fast as I could, making sure to call for backup as a mysterious negative omen took control of my thoughts.
I arrived at the warehouse a little after 10 PM. It was completely dark, except for a light bulb hanging from a cable in a corner of the room. I scanned the place with my flashlight, gun first. Suddenly, the single light went out with a fizzling noise, and in these few seconds I felt strong, powerful hands close around my mouth and body; the stranger quickly disarmed me and held me in a half-nelson, face down. I was paralyzed in fear, could barely breath, my neck almost breaking under the pressure. A needle stung me, and I passed out.
When I came to, I was in a top corner of the building, where I could see most of the ground floor – the light bulb was on – and the moonlit main entrance. I was completely bound by ropes and gagged. The numbness and heaviness told me I was still under the effect of drugs; I was tied in such a way that I could barely move my head. I could only observe, and what I saw made me want to scream. But no sound came. I was as if stuck in an endless nightmare, the difference being that with a nightmare your fear wakes you up, and there was no waking up from this hellish torment. I heard steps on the gravel walk outside, and Martin came into view. As soon as he entered the building, the electricity went off again. I thought he had seen me, or at least, noticed something moving on the top floor, but I couldn’t be sure. Through a carefully planned trick of lighting, my colleague was kept under a beam of moonlight, the only outside light source.
Martin had his gun, but not his eyesight. Whoever had done it, remained in the shadows, thus preserving his identity. Suddenly, movements were seen in the opposite side of the warehouse; gunshots pierced the still darkness, but I could see perfectly: it was a ruse. During these crucial seconds, while Martin fired blindly at an elusive and probably fabricated target, the stranger had approached him in complete silence and overpowered him, just like he had done to me. And this stranger wore a filthy grey rag over his face and a neutral suit. It was our serial killer, and he was going to kill again.
I was transfixed, watching my helpless colleague from above, as if my body wasn’t really there. The murderous monster tied Martin up around a chair, and slowly he regained conscience. But unlike me, he screamed and screamed. And when I saw what the killer had prepared for him, the tools he would use, I too let out a muffled wail of horror. Martin was cut up in pieces with a handsaw. I could see everything, how that butcher tortured him, protracting the slicing movements and stopping the bleeding with plastic ties so that Martin would suffer longer; how blood and body parts started to all look the same, so that I couldn’t discriminate hands from feet and arms from legs; how, finally, his screams just stopped and the killer let out a grunt of satisfaction, as if he had just achieved sexual climax with all the carnage.
It was a bloodbath, but it could have been worse: I was still alive and whole. Blue lights flashed in the distance just as Martin was decapitated with a machete. I had the distinct impression he would have used the handsaw otherwise and stayed there for a little while more, jerking off among the blood and body parts. With a condom – he wouldn’t leave evidence behind. But he was in a hurry. As the police sirens howled, he simply ran into the darkness and disappeared.
* * *
I couldn’t sleep. After I had been rescued and patched up, I withdrew from the case. A few months went by and bodies were still showing up all over the city. Now a connection was clear: porn stars, erotic dancers, prostitutes, their pimps and clients, all found dismembered with signs of torture. Flashes of the night Martin had been murdered kept popping up in my head in the middle of the night. I woke up screaming myself, after listening to Martin’s screams in my nightmares. But this time I distinguished some words amidst his agonizing howls: something familiar, something that made sense that came from the killer. I decided it was time to go back to work, find that sadistic motherfucker, and take my time killing him.
In the meantime, forensic evidence from this Martin’s crime scene revealed quite accurate figures about the perpetrator’s height, weight, shoe-size, and the fact he was left-handed. I felt utterly alone; nobody in the force seemed to be willing to suspect their own peers, so I decided to test Martin’s suspicions (that the killer was a cop) and my own (that he worked with us in the precinct). I waited for everybody to go home and cross-checked the killer’s body specifications to the department’s whole cohort of officers and the results were clear: a perfect match with Ted and a close fit with David. I hid the report in my desk drawer and locked it. I was alone there, so I took the chance and rummaged through their things.
A few minutes passed and suddenly, a voice startled me: it was David. He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was searching for the notebook Martin used to keep – he had it with him when he was killed. David said that the journal was locked in the evidence room – obviously. He laughed, but something in his voice scared me – the tone, accent, I couldn’t really say. My instincts told me to lie, pretend I was confused and had no hopes of ever finding the killer. I said I was going home, mentioned something casual about needing to water my plants, and the fact he just said good night politely filled me with puzzled relief.
That same week, we found another body – or rather, parts of it. The victims were a male and a female; both had been sexually violated, tortured and killed. There was a video, recorded by the killer himself. He wore his dirty mask and a dark suit that covered his whole body. He never spoke clearly, but grunted with pleasure at the carnage, moaned at the physical effort he put into cutting, sawing and grinding his victims, as if it were the ultimate sexual delight. There was something familiar about his voice, or rather, the tone of the grunting, the cadence of the moaning. I had to watch it over and over again, scrutinizing the scenes for details – sounds, expressions, movements, anything at all. The image quality was terrible: dark and grainy, like a poorly-received TV channel, which helped the killer conceal his identity and actually help me not to vomit.
And then it hit me, as I examined the film in the media room for what felt like the hundredth time. It was David’s voice. That day, I made sure the floor was completely empty before starting my search. I managed to break into David’s locked desk drawer, and there it was: Martin’s journal. And what’s more, there was a collection of newspaper articles about “the butcher”. I had the curious and uncomfortable feeling that I was being watched – again. I went home. It was a desolate place, as my plants and flowers were almost all dead now. I didn’t sleep at all, but rather mounted a barricade and kept my Smith and Wesson in hand.
On the next day, I just didn’t show up to work. The phone rang, and I picked it up. It was David. He asked how I was feeling; said he assumed I was sick, and asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said I was fine, and that I would probably be back to work soon. He asked: “are you sure?”. I answered in what I intended to be a casual tone: “yes, why?”. He told me: “you should be careful. There is a bad virus going around, you know, very dangerous for people with a delicate constitution like yourself, and I wouldn’t want you to be caught too. In the meanwhile, don’t forget to water your plants. Your violets are looking completely done, aren’t they?”.