(The following is one of our occasional ventures into short fiction. We hope you enjoy it.)
The killer backed out of the room into the empty hallway and knelt at the keyhole; peering inside, he examined the end of the old-fashioned key. From the pocket of his windbreaker he took a small pair of what looked like bent needlenose pliers padded with thin strips of cloth. These he inserted. Gripping the key, he turned until he heard the lock click. The pliers went back into the pocket, and were replaced by a flash and small magnifier.
He peered through the lens, tsking at a couple of small scratches he’d left with the tool. From a different pocket he removed a bottle labeled (but not containing) Wite-Out. Using the brush, he carefully and methodically applied a thin coat of translucent lacquer onto the end of the key, dulling the scratches. It would dry long before the body was ever discovered.
Besides, by then they’d be looking for a vampire, not him, he thought, and chuckled to himself.
He’d been scraping by for the last few years as a copy writer, generating reams of third-grade-level crap for a newspaper chain while trying to work on his novel on the side. It used to bother him to watch as every trace of wit and originality was ruthlessly edited out of his articles, but he’d long since adjusted his output to match expectations. These days he never bothered to read the final product, and his editors (when they thought of him at all, which was seldom) described him as easy to work with.
But as the years passed he found it harder and harder to put any real passion into his novel. He’d come up with a clever idea, but by the time it passed through his writer’s mind, it would inevitably come out reading as bland as cottage cheese. His work was stifling his creativity, but if he were to quit— No! He couldn’t do that; jobs were scarce, and he had no other marketable skills. And so the day came when he boxed up his half-finished manuscript and a thousand pages of notes and outlines and put them quietly away. Perhaps when I retire, he thought, then laughed grimly. He would never be able to retire; he could barely afford rent. His co-workers got promotions, but never him; when his parents died, the small inheritance barely covered their funeral. And slowly, the bitterness grew.
He had one vague hope remaining, in the form of an elderly aunt — his mother’s sister — who had outlived every relative but him. They were not particularly close, but he made a point of visiting her on occasion and sending the odd holiday card when he thought of it, out of a vague sense of familial duty. And so it would have continued had he not accidentally stumbled across her secret fortune one afternoon.
One piece he’d written at work that week had been about certain rare books discovered in an attic, and the rather startling price they’d fetched at auction. He mentioned it casually to his aunt on one of his rare visits — they rarely had much to talk about, and he’d taken to secretly making notes before each trip out in an effort to break the long painful silences — and much to his surprise she smiled at him, delighted to finally find a common interest. It turned out she’d been buying rare books for decades, haunting thrift shops and church bazaars and the occasional yard sale, and had amassed quite a collection by paying pennies on the dollar.
“Oh, but I never sell them!” she said, replying to his question. “That’s not the point, and anyhow I’d have no idea how to go about it. Dealers, you know — even the honest ones only pay a quarter what a book is worth most times, or at most half. They can’t afford to do better and still stay in business. But then, I never need to sell them, because I live quite comfortably on what little I have, you see. It’s…” She paused, then went on, smiling impishly. “It’s the thrill of the chase, is what it is. I glory in my little finds.”
For the first time, she opened up the little front room for him to see. It was packed with books, stuffed thickly on the shelves that went from floor to ceiling, piled on tables and even on the carpet. On a small table was a laptop computer, which she used to check prices — “Very simple, once you get the trick of it,” she said. She had first started with a small collection of occult works and volumes of obscure folklore that had been gathered by her late husband many years ago and built up from there.
After that day, he began to obsess about the books — or more particularly, about the money they could be sold for. It wasn’t as though she ever read one of her treasures; once purchased and valued, they went straight onto a shelf, or into a carton in her attic. He fought his obsession, recognizing it as unhealthy, and tried to channel it into something more productive. A few times he drove her to out-of-town antiques malls, and once or twice made small purchases of his own, but she had the advantage of years of experience over him, and her crowing over her finds on the way back home was almost more than he could bear. Some were worth hundreds, some thousands of dollars. And she had piles of them on the floor, and couldn’t care less about the money!
He knew it was a growing madness, but he couldn’t help himself: He wanted those books; he desired her hoard with a lust he’d never felt before, and which he was powerless to resist. Before long, he realized it was inevitable and surrendered to his passion; however, being a methodical sort, he also knew he couldn’t simply steal them from her. She would know where they went; she never spoke about her books to anyone but him, fearing the neighbors would break in and steal them — not unlikely in her neighborhood. He thought of murder, but then the tax man would get involved; it would be a forced sale at the worst rates, and he’d end up paying half to the government — and, anyway, there was no guarantee that he was even in her will, for all that he was her only living relative. Besides, even if he were heir, he’d be the automatic suspect; that was no good either.
His brooding went on for months before he came up with his idea. He thought it through carefully, testing methods, inventing and discarding bits as he detected flaws and overcame them. Then came a setback; he hadn’t been ruthless enough, he realized, so he went back to the beginning and redesigned the whole thing.
Paradoxically, this new project marked the happiest he’d been in years. He was fulfilled, contented, even cheerful. His co-workers noticed it, and one of his editors (a former trainee) briefly thought about marking him for promotion. Had he realized, and been able to limit his obsession to the planning, things might well have gone quite differently.
The first murder went perfectly, all precisely according to his plan. It was of course a complete stranger; he’d selected his potential targets randomly, using a pair of dice and a street map of the city, then winnowing out those who were unsuitable: Spouses, housemates, pets, and frequent visitors were each enough to rule out a candidate. The ideal target would have no close friends and no complications — much like himself, he’d thought, and chuckled at the irony.
Curiously enough, his initial target even resembled him a little; middle-aged, glasses, balding. He felt oddly uncomfortable as he subjected the poor fellow’s remains to the indignities his plan demanded, but not enough to make him hesitate. By the time he locked the door behind himself (it was a modern bolt, which he latched from outside using a loop of monofilament) the discomfort had passed, and he took satisfaction in a solid plan well executed. He had stolen only the small amount of money on the body, on the theory that cash was anonymous.
The third victim was to be a young female; he had been inside her apartment and already knew about the antique lock. To throw off suspicion, the second would have to be his aunt, and because of that it would be by far the trickiest. Unlike the others, he had a key (copied secretly long ago), and could simply lock the door behind him after killing her on one of his irregular visits. The time of death could be disguised somewhat by delaying discovery, perhaps a bit more by scattering ice from the freezer onto the corpse — detectable, but he thought it unlikely. No, that wasn’t the problem.
The difficulty lay in extracting his profits, and he was particularly pleased at his solution. Over the years, the bulk of her collection had gradually been stored in cartons in her attic; once they had been valued and marked down in her ledger, she had no further interest in them. All he’d had to do was go in a few times while she was out on her regular book hunting trips, swapping out one carton for another. It occurred to him then that he needn’t go through with his plan after all, and that perhaps a well-placed match might hide the entire crime… but the very best of the collection were displayed prominently on her shelves, and he couldn’t bring himself to forego stealing them, much less destroy them.
In the end, the solution was simple: He would simply store the books he most coveted in the attic, in boxes clearly marked with his name. After all, surely the neighbors would have seen him carrying boxes in and out; knowing his aunt’s private nature, he’d made no great secret of his trips. When asked, he could simply say that, lacking space at home, he’d stored part of his own collection here. All he’d need to do to cover his tracks would be to steal her ledger. Which, after killing her, he did.
It was more days before the first body was discovered, and he enjoyed the sensation it caused in the news. He didn’t happen to write the copy for his own paper, but that wasn’t surprising; still, he broke a personal rule for once and read the story, wincing at the bald and uninspired prose. “Brutal murder” was fair enough, he supposed, but “completely drained of blood”? They could have at least said “exsanguinated”; it was a perfectly useful descriptive term, and lent the emotional distance one could only achieve using medical jargon. Breaking his long-standing habit he even said as much to the editor (costing himself that promotion, had he but known).
His plan called for the third murder to take place before his aunt’s body was discovered, after which he would stop. The pattern would be clearly established by that point; the police would be looking for a serial killer who thought he was a vampire, or something like that. Each killing was in a locked room in a locked house, and the method and tools would always be the same. He needed to dispose of the knives and pliers, and above all the ledger. After that, all he had to do was wait, and to be surprised to hear about his aunt when, inevitably, they informed him.
The third victim did not cooperate; she had a rare visitor on the night he’d planned her murder — a male, and one who showed every sign of interest. This was an unpleasant complication, but one he was prepared for; he would try again the following night, and failing that he would switch to an alternative target. As it happened, the next night she was alone, and again the plan went perfectly — right down to the lacquer on the key.
As he walked home, he gradually disposed of his tools. The sharpened icepick went into a storm drain, the pliers an overflowing trash bin, and so on. The bulky ledger had been shredded at work last week, and by now had already been pulped; industrial recycling came in handy. All that was left was the Wite-Out bottle; the lacquer within was remarkable enough that he’d need to clean it thoroughly before disposing of it. It was a very small risk, and one he felt quite comfortable with. After all, who would wonder at a bottle of Wite-Out in the hands of one of the world’s few remaining copy writers? Who would even think of opening it to look?
Such were his thoughts as he climbed the four flights of steps to his apartment — the only reason he was able to afford the rent at all was that it was a fourth-floor walk-up. Hauling the books up had been hard work; no doubt it had been good for him, though. Now that he was about to be, if not rich, then at least comfortably well-off, he really ought to start thinking about regular exercise — a gym membership, perhaps? He would make a note of it.
His step was light and his thoughts cheerful as he entered his apartment. He locked the door and then turned toward the kitchen, where he would immediately clean the bottle — and a throat cleared behind him. “I hope you don’t mind, but I let myself in,” said a voice from the living room. A light clicked on, revealing a rumpled man in a cheap suit.
“What–” began the killer, his mouth dry. He was suddenly very aware of the small bottle in his pocket. He swallowed, tried again: “Who–“
The rumpled fellow smirked. “You’re wondering who I am, and what I’m doing here.” He waited for the other’s nod, then continued.
“As it happens, I’m a cop, and no this isn’t official. You might say it’s my day job. Only not really, because…” He sighed, turned, and sat down in the easy chair. “No, I’m getting off on the wrong track. I’ll start over. It’s like this: I keep my eyes open for a certain kind of murder, and when one happens I take an interest. That guy over on 39th, now — that was almost perfect. Complete stranger, puncture wounds in the throat, blood dumped down the bathtub. Only thing you missed was, he had a crucifix on the bathroom wall. Didn’t matter to you, but a real vampire would notice instantly.”
“But– Real vampire?!” The cop nodded. This is insane! There’s no such thing as… as… “I assure you, I have no idea what–“
“Save it, buddy. I told you; this isn’t official. Don’t bother with the denials; nobody cares. See, even after we found your aunt last night I wasn’t really sure; it was the occult books threw me off. Vampire folklore; coulda been the real deal. It wasn’t until I followed you tonight I knew for sure. Just plain ordinary greed, and you killed three people.” He shook his head. “Pity, when you think about it. It was a good plan.”
“N-now, stop it! I don’t– I haven’t–” The killer stopped; cleared his throat. “What are you doing in my house?” he asked plaintively.
“Well, it’s like this: Vampires these days are real good at hiding their kills; gotta be these days, what with D.N.A., hair and fibers and what not. So either you were the real thing and didn’t know no better, in which case someone’d have to have a sharp word with you, or,” and here the cop smirked again, “you’re a wannabe, drawing attention exactly where it isn’t wanted.”
“But I–” The killer stopped and gathered his thoughts. “I thought you had to be invited in,” he said.
The vampire stood and moved forward, grinning, fangs gleaming. “Nope. Clear-cut case of hot pursuit.”
EXTRA: VAMPIRE KILLER SLAYS TWO IN ONE NIGHT
The new serial killer plaguing the city has broken his pattern, according to a source within the investigation.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, a member of city law enforcement told News staff today that the two bodies found yesterday were killed within hours of each other in different parts of the city. Both bodies were found fully exsanguinated in rooms apparently locked from inside, but seem to have no other connection.
Police are reporting no new leads in the case, and are warning the public to take precautions about who they invite into their homes…
If you found this entertaining, feel free to support us, or buy us a coffee. We can use the morale boost — and the caffeine. On the off chance you’re a relative now debating the wisdom of that small bequest: Don’t worry. A real murderer would never have written it all out, and there’s no such thing as vampires.
No, really; there isn’t. I just prefer to write at night when it’s quiet, and… *sigh*