I dont want to kill you, p.19

I Don't Want to Kill You, page 19

 

I Don't Want to Kill You
 


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  ‘Maybe being eaten is the culmination of all a hamburger’s desires. It’s like their heaven.’

  ‘But what if there was something that ate humans? And what if they started a chain of restaurants where you could buy people-burgers? Would you pose for a sign and smile and wave about how happy you were to get eaten?’

  ‘Not if it was a franchise,’ she said, grinning slyly. ‘I only pose for the one-of-a-kind people-burger places.’

  ‘At least you have standards.’

  ‘Now let’s stop anthropomorphising our food and start eating it. I’ve got six whole grains like a rock in my stomach, and I need some grease and ketchup to break it down.’

  We went inside and waited in line; it was fairly crowded, even on a Tuesday night, and we stood chatting with various people Marci knew. She chatted; I just stood there, holding her hand. We didn’t need to read the menu, because it hadn’t changed in five years.

  ‘Hey, John.’

  I looked up in surprise and saw Brooke standing behind the counter, wearing a little paper Friendly Burger hat. It was our turn, and we stepped up to the counter.

  ‘Hey, Marci,’ she said, ‘how’s it going?’

  ‘Great,’ said Marci, her mouth hanging slightly open. ‘I didn’t know you worked here.’

  ‘It’s only been a couple of weeks,’ said Brooke, ‘since school started, I guess. I was at the parks all summer, on the water crew, so when fall came I needed something new.’

  ‘Cool,’ said Marci. ‘You like it here?’

  ‘Depends what I’m doing,’ said Brooke, laughing and rolling her eyes. ‘The counter’s not so bad, but sooner or later somebody’s got to clean the pop machines.’ Her eyes went wide. ‘I mean, they get cleaned every day, of course, I just don’t like to be the one who does it. Sorry, that sounded gross.’

  ‘No problem,’ said Marci, and leaned in privately. ‘Anything we should stay away from?’

  ‘Of course not,’ Brooke said loudly, glancing over her shoulder, then tapped the paper menu on the counter, pointing at the chicken nuggets. Marci raised her eyebrows, and Brooke nodded.

  ‘Two Friendly Burgers, then,’ said Marci. ‘You want cheese, John?’

  ‘Actually, can I get the fish fillet?’

  She stared at me, then laughed and said, ‘Of course, sorry - the meat thing. One Friendly Burger, one Friendly Fish. We’ll share a fry and a drink.’

  Brooke wrote the order on a small spiral notebook, ripped out the page, and started punching it into the cash register. I dug out my wallet and reached inside it for bills. She gave me the total, I handed her the money, and she opened the register to make change.

  ‘Kind of funny, isn’t it?’ she said, counting out coins.

  ‘Huh?’

  ‘Last time we were here,’ said Brooke, ‘we were on that side of the counter, and now here am I on this side.’

  Marci took my hand again, slightly tighter than before, and rested our balled-up hands on the counter. ‘You guys had a date here?’

  ‘Not really anywhere else to go,’ I said.

  ‘Yeah,’ said Brooke. ‘It was . . .’ Her face fell. ‘The night Forman took . . .’ She looked around at the crowded room. ‘Well, you know, I guess.’ She handed me my change, suddenly quiet. ‘Number 78.’

  Marci and I stepped away from the counter to wait for our order, and Brooke smiled broadly at the next couple in line. She looked bright and happy, eager to talk to people, and beautiful even in her hideous Friendly Burger shirt.

  Marci grabbed me in a hug, wrapping her arms tightly around my waist. I looked at her in surprise and saw her staring across the counter at Brooke. ‘Kind of weird of her to mention her last date with you.’

  ‘That’s just how she is,’ I said. ‘She talks without thinking. If she knew you were upset about it she’d feel horrible.’

  ‘Maybe,’ said Marci, and then she turned and smiled up at me, filling my vision. ‘I’ve got you now, though, don’t I?’

  I smiled back down, enjoying her closeness. Absolutely.’

  Our food came, and we found the cleanest table we could. Marci filled the centre of our tray with a huge blob of ketchup, and stirred it idly with a cluster of fries.

  ‘What was he like?’ she asked, staring at her ketchup.

  ‘Who?’

  ‘Clark Forman. I saw him a few times, of course, but I didn’t really know him. Not like you did. Not like Brooke.’

  ‘Brooke was only there for a few hours,’ I said, watching the ketchup as she played with it – deep and red, like thick blood. ‘Forman was dead for most of that time, anyway. And I was there two days, I guess, but I still don’t think I “knew” him. I knew “about” him, though; enough to get away from him.’

  ‘He was horrible,’ she said, spitting out the words like they tasted vile. ‘He was a monster, and he deserves whatever death he got.’ She looked up, meeting my eyes. ‘I still can’t believe you had to go through that.’

  I stared back at her, trying to read her face: bitterness, and anger, but also tenderness. She lifted her hand from where it rested on the table, and reached across to hold my arm. Is this af fection, or is she being possessive? I glanced back at the far side of the room, to the counter where Brooke was talking; just a tiny glance, a fraction of a second. Marci tightened her grip.

  ‘When we were in Forman’s house,’ I said, trying to move her thoughts away from Brooke, ‘I spent most of the time locked up – alone, for the first night, then in the basement for another day and a night.’

  ‘It must have been horrifying.’

  ‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘I think I was more angry than scared. I’m not as emotional as most people. When everyone else was traumatised, I was able to think it through and find a way out.’

  ‘That’s what makes you better than them,’ she said firmly.

  ‘Better?’

  ‘You’re the one that saved everyone, right?’

  ‘Yeah.’

  She nodded, and looked back down at her ketchup. She stirred it again, then put the fries in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed. ‘So, how are the plans to save everyone from the Handyman?’

  I cocked my head to the side, confused. I guess she’s gotten over whatever was bugging her about it at the dance.

  ‘Not bad,’ I said. ‘If all goes well, he might not ever kill anyone else.’

  She looked up. ‘Does it usually go well?’

  I shook my head. ‘It never has before.’

  On Wednesday morning I got up early again and watched out the window for the paperboy. He came at 6 a.m., tossing the newspaper in the general direction of the mortuary, and I raced outside in the cold to get it. Back inside, I ripped off the rubber band and spread the paper out on the kitchen table, searching for the editorial page. There it was, right at the top of the Letters to the Editor section: my letter to the Handyman, attributed to Father Erikson. They actually printed it. I was worried they would hold it back as too controversial, or call and check with Erikson before they ran it, but they didn’t. They took the name at face value, thought it was a message of hope in troubled times, and printed it.

  Everyone would read it that way, except for the Handyman. To him, this was practically a dinner bell.

  I need to call Erikson, I thought, but I forced myself to be patient. This had to look convincing or he’d never believe me. If I called too soon he might suspect that I was the one who wrote the letter, and then he’d never go along with my plan. I sat on my hands, then paced the room, then turned on the TV, flipped through the channels, and turned it off. What if the Handyman sees the letter as early as I did, and decides to kill him now instead of waiting for nightfall? The two weeks was up – if he waited fifteen days, like he usually did, the Handyman would strike that very night: Wednesday. If he got back on his old schedule, he might wait until Thursday - and if he struck early, like he had before, then I’m already too late, and he killed somebody last night.

  I turned the TV back on, combed
through it for news, but there was nothing about another body. I turned it back off and started pacing again.

  Waiting was agony.

  Finally, when Mom started to get up at eight o’clock, I took the phone into my room, locked the door and dialed the priest’s home number. He picked it up on the second ring.

  ‘Hello?’

  Showtime. ‘Father Erikson? You’re okay?’

  ‘Who is this?’

  ‘It’s me,’ I said, ‘John Cleaver – the kid who talks about demons all the time.’

  ‘Oh.’ Pause. ‘Do you need something?’

  ‘I need to see if you were okay,’ I said, trying to sound urgent. ‘I just read your letter in the paper, and I thought something might have happened.’

  ‘What letter?’

  ‘Your letter to the editor – I just read it. I don’t know what you were thinking when you wrote it, but the Handyman is going to be seriously pissed off.’

  ‘I didn’t write a letter to the editor.’

  ‘Sure you did,’ I said. ‘It’s right here: “The Handyman killer has announced to our community that he has come to purify our town”. I’m sure the paper thought it was innocent enough, but—’

  ‘I didn’t write that,’ he said. ‘Does it have my name on it?’

  ‘ “Father Brian Erikson”,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that you?’

  ‘That’s my name, but I didn’t write it.’ Pause. ‘What else does it say?’

  ‘Who do you think wrote it, then?’ I asked.

  ‘I have no idea,’ he said, and I heard a door close over the phone. ‘What else does it say?’

  ‘A whole bunch of stuff tailor-made to enrage the Handyman,’ I said, ‘including his hatred of authority and his focus on religion. You know how mad that’s going to make him. You even called him out as a sinner.’

  ‘I told you, it’s not me.’ I heard another door close.

  ‘Let me read it to you—’

  ‘Never mind, I’ve got mine right here.’ I heard the rustling of paper, followed by a long silence. After a minute or two he spoke again: ‘I have to hang up, John. I need to call the paper and—’

  ‘No!’ I said. ‘You have to get out of here.’

  ‘Out?’

  ‘Don’t you see what this means? Whether you wrote that letter or not, the Handyman thinks you did, and that almost guarantees you’ll be his next target.’

  ‘But—’

  ‘And if you didn’t write it, that means someone else did it in your name to make you a target. That means there’s two people who want you dead.’

  Pause. ‘How can you be so sure?’

  ‘Read it again,’ I said, looking over my own copy. ‘The Handyman is obsessed with religion, and with authority figures. By his own admission, in the letter he sent to the Homecoming Dance, he’s here to purify the town by killing the people who lead us astray. That suggests a very strong sense of buried guilt stemming from a religious background - that’s Criminal Profiling 101. This letter throws that sense of guilt right back in his face, and from a religious leader, which makes it even worse. Then you’ve got the way the letter flaunts your own superiority, and tells the town to ignore his message. The Handyman’s message is so important to him that he threatened an entire school with a bomb. Telling people to ignore it, and to follow you instead, is like asking to be killed.’

  Silence.

  ‘This letter uses the Handyman’s own words against him,’ I continued, ‘with phrases like “you can be purified”, and “we will not lead you astray”.’ It also talks about the killer’s hands, I thought; that would probably set him off more than anything else in the letter, but I didn’t want to mention that to Erikson. There was no way to explain the significance of it without revealing how much I knew, and that would only make me look suspicious.

  ‘Basically,’ I went on, ‘you attack everything he believes in, you insult what he’s trying to do, and you dredge up the same emotional wounds that probably made him into a killer in the first place.’

  ‘But I didn’t write the letter—’

  ‘It doesn’t matter who wrote it!’ I shouted, a little too loudly; I was trying to sound desperate, and I hoped it was working. ‘It doesn’t matter who wrote it,’ I repeated more quietly. ‘What matters is that your name is on it, and that’s all the killer is going to see. You’re the next target, whether you like it or not.’

  Silence.

  ‘What if he doesn’t read the paper?’

  ‘He’s written two letters to the editor; he reads the paper.’

  More silence. ‘Okay,’ he said at last. ‘You’re right. But if the paper can print a retraction—’

  ‘Then you’ll look like a guilty coward, trying to go back on what you said.’

  ‘Then I need to call the police.’

  ‘So another one of them can die?’ I asked. ‘I tried to warn the police two weeks ago, after you and I figured out the religious connection, and they tried to protect William Astrup; the killer found out about it and killed the Sheriff in retribution. For all we know, the killer is one of the police. Do you really want someone to die trying to protect you?’

  ‘What else am I supposed to do? I can’t just sit around and wait for him to kill me.’

  This is it. ‘You can leave,’ I said. ‘You can pack some things and get out of town – visit some family in the city, or go on a vacation you’ve been meaning to take – anything. If you’re gone he can’t kill you, and if there’s no police protecting you then he can’t kill them either.’

  ‘What about my neighbours?’

  ‘As long as you don’t tell them anything, they’re innocent,’ I said, ‘and the Handyman goes out of his way to keep innocents safe. Look at the Homecoming Dance – the bomb was fake and his gun wasn’t even loaded.’

  ‘He protects them until he gets into a rage,’ the pastor said. ‘Then they just become targets of opportunity. He attacked the Mayor’s assistant, and he was just a bystander.’

  ‘But he didn’t kill him,’ I said, ‘and he only attacked him because it was part of his plan. He’s too meticulous for targets of opportunity. If he can’t kill you, on the terrain he’s scoped out and prepared for, he won’t kill anybody at all.’

  ‘You really think so?’

  No. ‘Of course,’ I lied. ‘This is a very careful, very organised man.’

  ‘Then he’ll follow me,’ the pastor said, ‘and catch me while I’m leaving town.’

  ‘Not if you leave now. It’s only eight o’clock – he may not have even read the paper yet. Get out while you can, and come back in a week when it’s safe.’

  Pause. ‘I won’t be safe until he’s caught,’ said the pastor. ‘I’m going to leave, but tonight I’m going to call the police and ask them to patrol the neighbourhood. If he’s there, looking for me, they might pick him up, and if I don’t tell them until late they won’t have time to tip their hand with a stakeout.’

  No! I was going to use your house as the trap. But his suggestion made sense, and I couldn’t think of any way to talk him out of it without sounding suspicious. ‘That’s a good idea.’ Maybe I can use the mortuary – it’s on the edge of town, in a neighbourhood with no streetlights. I’ll have to get rid of Mom.

  ‘And you, John,’ he said. ‘I want you to promise me you won’t get involved.’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Of course you’ll promise me, or of course you’ll get involved?’

  Tricky guy, this pastor. ‘I promise I won’t get involved,’ I lied. If I had a nickel for every time I broke a solemn promise . . .

  ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell the police to watch for you, too, just in case.’

  ‘You don’t trust me?’

  ‘I’m leaving town on your recommendation,’ he said. ‘I think that speaks for itself. I’m grateful that you called to warn me, but I want to make sure you’re safe.’

  ‘Thank you,’ I said, tapping my notebook with the early drafts of the letter. ‘I prom
ise I’ll stay away.’

  We hung up, and I scouted around the mortuary a bit, looking for good places to hold someone. All of the obvious choices were too obvious – I couldn’t just tell him to get into the closet and expect him to comply. It had to be somewhere he would naturally go anyway, and that meant the entry – but our main doors had glass, and it would be far too easy to escape.

  Our side door, on the other hand, was perfect. There was a solid wooden door that led into a small stairway; from there you could go through another solid wooden door into the mortuary, or up to a third wooden door that led into our apartment. I’d need to barricade those doors even further, to stop a desperate demon armed with a hatchet, but I could do it, and it could work.

 
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