On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published four ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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I’ve been always been troubled by how other people are unknowable. In the same way that you can’t be sure you’re seeing or remembering the same thing as someone else — and you probably aren’t — you also can’t count on the superficial impression you have of another person. That’s why they call it trust.
We present a certain face, and create a little story about ourselves, and set about selling it to everyone we meet. The truth beneath the surface is always hidden. It’s sometimes possible to see glimpses of the underlying person, but only via implication and deduction and example. Direct access is barred to us, and that’s probably a good thing.
The police sergeant was called Howatson. I knew that much from hearing one of his colleagues saying goodnight to him after the backshift. I was nearby, unseen but paying attention.
I’d been watching him for days. He didn’t know it, but I had coincidentally been in a supermarket when he attended a shoplifting call there. He walked right past me in the bakery aisle, after giving a stern lecture and a good scare to a pair of teenaged boys who had tried to steal a package of tagged alcopop. Personally, I think those things should be illegal. If you can’t handle the taste of beer, much less anything stronger, then you shouldn’t be drinking.
When Howatson went past me, I knew. I always know. That’s the trick, and the curse, and all the rest of it. Has been since I was a child. The years since then seem so long, even if they haven’t really been.
I started keeping track of him, which is dangerous when you’re dealing with the police. They don’t like being the ones under surveillance. They don’t like anyone questioning their authority. Some of them are good, certainly, but I’m not sure anyone goes into that line of work with a purely altruistic set of motivations. Power over people is a potent drug, and the scent of it attracts those who would abuse that power.
Howatson had a family, and he went home to them every night. There was a wife, and a teenaged daughter. I didn’t see anyone else go in or out of the modest suburban house. There were two cars outside once he had parked his own civilian vehicle. The other one was small; a city runaround. From the look of the daughter, I think it’ll be getting some red L plates within the next year or two. Such is the cycle of life.
I’m used to not being seen, which is a huge advantage in my unique line of work. I see everything, but I keep myself to myself. And even if they did see me, I’d be a blank surface just like everyone else. A pair of eyes, set within a face wearing a certain expression, and that would be all. Inscrutable. Mysterious. A wall.
How I envy them.
Howatson had already chosen the date and general area for his next hunting expedition. To his wife and child, he’d be going fishing with his buddies, and he was indeed going to do that — afterwards. On the way, he was going to have car trouble that was entirely fictional, which would delay him by ninety minutes. His buddies would poke good-natured fun at him when he eventually arrived, asking if that was why there was never a policeman around when you need one. He wouldn’t even tell his wife about the adjustment to his schedule unless absolutely necessary. Wives didn’t need to know.
What he would actually be doing was taking part in his other hobby, which he’d practised on a handful of occasions during the last ten years, always very carefully. He would find a young woman, not so much older than his daughter was now, and he would abduct her, brutalise her, and murder her. He had even preselected how and where he would dispose of the body.
I’d seen it when he passed by in the bakery aisle. Howatson was strutting, and he had glanced at the glazed pastries. There was a flash of hunger in his eyes for a moment, but it was quickly suppressed. He had to stay in shape for his job, and it was a slippery slope. It was the restraining of his own desires that sparked the neurons of association with his other, much darker, life. I saw it as clear as day.
Once I’ve seen, it gets easier, like tuning to a frequency. The insights come one after another, tumbling, like flashes of inspiration or understanding. I feel, as well as see. I wish I didn’t, but I do, and so I know that the date he chose for his fishing — hunting — trip is today, and I know that the area he chose to search for a victim is here.
He’s been following me for two blocks now, and objectively he’s made a good choice. A safe choice. There’s no-one else around, because it’s early on a Sunday, and I’m alone. I’m a young woman, in the right age group, and I’m dressed as if I’m walking home after being out all night, or perhaps staying the night with someone I only met yesterday evening. He hates those girls in particular. They never had much time for him when he was still young himself.
I hear the tone of the engine pick up, and then the car pulls alongside and just ahead, and out he gets. He’s even smiling, and I know he’s going to apologetically ask for directions. He’ll pretend not to quite understand whatever I tell him, and he’ll use it as a pretext to come closer, at which point he’ll use his superior strength and height and mass and aggression and madness to put the sickly sweet-smelling rag in his coat pocket over my mouth and nose, and I’ll lose consciousness almost immediately, waking up later to a nightmare and then my own death.
I see it all so clearly. All of it, down to the last detail. But he’s so very wrong.
“Sorry to bother you, love,” he says. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I’m just a bit lost. You happen to know how I can get to the train station from here? I’m picking up my daughter.”
“It’s not far,” I reply, sounding nervous but also relieved, perhaps reassured by the mention of his own daughter. “I can show you on my phone.”
He smiles again, because this is even better. I’ve invited him to approach, and so he does. I can see his right hand is already in his jacket pocket, but when I see his shoulder twitch, I grab him by the throat instead, and I lift him clear off the ground.
His shock is comical, and it takes him a moment to realise he can no longer breathe. His eyes begin to bulge, and I can see all the fragmentary questions he can’t give voice to. So I answer the most important one instead.
“To me, you are a window,” I say.
And to his credit, as I crush his windpipe and shatter the bones of his neck, perforating his brain stem and killing him instantly — just like all of them, predator to prey within a moment — I can see that he understands.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.