This is chapter three of my forthcoming novel, Scotch-hoppers. Don't miss the Hopscotch Song and Chapter One: Hopscotch.
The Quiet Room
Debbie Cole admired her creation, the perfect Christmas party. The orange glow of the fireplace reflected off the polished oak floor and tables. The smell of cinnamon floated through the room. Everywhere small circles of conversation commingled. The men wore blue or grey suits, drank whisky, and talked about golf or business. The women were beautiful in their new dresses. No party in nearby Dallas could be anymore urbane.
Drrring-ring! Drrring-ring! Debbie startled at the sound and darted her attention to the antique candlestick phone by the bar. No one ever used that phone but Sam. Her skin tingled with goose bumps. “Excuse me,” she said to Judge Key as she scooted past him.
Drrring-ring! The twin brass bells vibrated on the side of the bell box Sam had rebuilt in his shop. Lidia Reller stood at the bar near the phone. She took a step towards the phone and then stopped as if she was unsure whether she should answer it. Or maybe she wasn’t quite sure how to answer it. Either way, it wouldn’t do because it had to be Sam calling. Debbie caught Lidia’s eye: I’ll get it, she mouthed, and Lidia took a step back, eyes wide.
Debbie lifted the mouthpiece from its hook: “Hello, Sam?”
“I’m in the bedroom,” he whispered.
“You’re. . . ?” A dial tone replaced the whispering voice.
Debbie set the phone down and took a deep breath. She made her way through the heart of the party toward the pocket of shadows where the home’s long main hallway began. Sam and Debbie’s bedroom was at the end of the hall, across from the bolted door that opened to the pool area.
Debbie hadn’t thought about how long the hallway was since they’d first moved-in, but now it seemed to stretch like a dark road to an unseen horizon. The collection of conversations from the party blurred into muffled mumbles and laughter that somehow sounded unkind. She thought she heard her name in that laughter, and she imagined herself as a fawn in the middle of an icy highway, clumsy and exposed.
Debbie turned her attention on the scatter of framed photos on the wall. Her eyes fixed on a photo of Sam and her at the beach. Sam’s dark skin glistened with water; hers, pale next to him despite her tan, gleamed with suntan oil. The sign focused her on her marriage and washed away the doubts murmuring through the walls. She hurried, feeling surer of foot.
Sam’s bizarre state of mind when he ran from the house earlier that day terrified her. But she needed to know what was wrong. Debbie wanted Sam to hold her in his arms and say everything was all right again. Then everything would be perfect, at least for a moment. They would find a way together to fix whatever went wrong.
The feeling of being a fawn on the road returned. Why? She examined the feeling. She couldn’t be sure the whispered voice belonged to Sam. And if it wasn’t him? She shut the thought down.
Her thoughts returned to the photos on the wall. A familiar hook sunk in heart and tugged from the photographs not there. They would have named him after his father: Sam, Jr., Little Sam. Out of habit, she steeled her heart. It was an old game she’d played for five years. She’d feel the tug of the hook, let it give her a good yank, and then let its pain harden inside her.
She reached the bedroom door. A seam of star-blue light seeped through the crack at the bottom of the door. Then she gripped the cold doorknob. Her heart raced. It could be the Measure Man she finally admitted. But she immediately dismissed the thought. The Measure Man killed prostitutes, addicts, and trailer trash. And besides, it had to be Sam. Who else even knew that the antique phone worked? No one but Sam ever called it or used it.
She turned the knob, felt the door free of the jamb, and pushed it open a few inches. “Sam?”
“Sam,” she whispered, “what’s going on?”
“Shhh! Come in.” The voice held a solemn urgency that reminded Debbie of church.
Debbie opened the door wider and took one step in before stopping. Something deep down screamed at her to run away. Nerves, she thought, and she had plenty to be nervous about. But facing Sam here and now would be better than risking a scene later. Either she could talk him into a good place where he could be himself again, or he would need help. Whatever the possibilities, just running away wouldn’t help things.
“Come in,” he whispered. “Close the door.”
Debbie’s stomach tickled with wild adrenaline. The feeling reminded her of slowly climbing the steep first hill of the wooden roller coaster at Black Pool Sands Holiday. She took a deep breath, unable to step in or out of the door. The lavender air freshener and star blue light from the nightlight gave the room a dreamy aura. She searched the webs of darkness around the dressers, vanity, and bed. Where was he? “Sam,” she whispered. “I want to see you.”
“Shut the door. Only you can see me.”
“There’s no one else here,” Debbie said.
“The walls murmur and laugh.”
Debbie sighed. Maybe Sam had gone insane. Whatever had sent him off muttering about birds and hopscotch earlier in the day was more than something he ate. He’d left the back door open and disappeared through the gate to the alleyway. Debbie had followed him into the howling wind. His footprints in the thin sheet of snow headed west toward Buckingham Street. She decided to try to follow him in her car, but when she went to the garage, she found that his car wasn’t there. Had he parked it down the street?
She had called Giorgio’s. Sam went there that morning for their order of ricotta cheese cookies for the party. Yes, he’d been there, the clerk told her, and he seemed fine when he left. So where were the cookies? Where was his car? What happened between the time he picked up the cookies and when he returned home? Whatever the answers were, they defied any mundane explanations Debbie could conjure.
Now, Sam was hiding in their bedroom during their annual Christmas party. Now, he would only speak in a whisper. Now, he wanted her alone in their bedroom, and some instinct held her back.
Again, the Measure Man crawled up from the basement of her thoughts. Could the whispering man be the killer who cuts the trophies from the skin of his victims’ bodies? No, she decided. The thought was absurd. How could he get the number to the old antique phone? And coming to a party of the city’s elite to murder someone, the hostess? All these thoughts added up to a misplaced anxiety. Of course it was Sam. Her husband needed her, needed her now.
“All right, Sam,” Debbie said. “Just stay calm. No running away this time.”
“Shhh! Shut the door.”
Debbie stepped into the room and leaned back against the door, closing it. On the far side of the bed, the door to the walk-in closet stood open; the interior was dark and full of darker shapes hung in a fuzzy row.
Debbie walked to the foot of the bed and stood facing the closet. “All right, Sam. Let’s talk.” The man grabbed Debbie from behind and clamped a gloved hand over her mouth.
Debbie’s heart pounded; her chest hurt. Her mind locked, like a vinyl record repeating a scratched snatch of a song: No. Can’t be. No. Can’t be. No. Can’t be.
The man stuck a syringe in Debbie’s arm and pressed the plunger. He leaned his weight on her, breaking her frozen balance. He controlled her fall to the floor, keeping his gloved hand over her mouth on the way down.
He’s done this before. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a killer.
Debbie lay on her back staring at a man with the head of a black bird. The mask looked like it came from a nightmare S&M shop. The black feathers gleamed as though coated with oil. The sharp beak ended in a cruel point. A black polyester mesh covered the dead and hollow eyes.
Debbie tried to bite the man’s gloved hand covering her mouth but realized that she couldn’t. Black eyes gaped at Debbie. Tears blurred her vision. She could not blink the tears away. She could not blink at all.
“Cry,” the man said. “The little girl who wants to win wants to bawl now, doesn’t she?” The house was full of people. She could hear their muffled voices through the walls. If she could scream, help would come. Debbie told herself to scream, but she could not. “Cry, I command it,” the man said. “I want to hear sobs as fat as the tears sliding down those porcelain cheekbones.” Debbie tried to sob. She wanted to sob. But she could not.
The man stood and raised his masked face to the ceiling. “Oh, these divine equations,” he said. “One to ten. One equals sorrow, and ten equals a bird. Ten for a bird.” He flapped his arms as if taking flight.
Debbie scanned her body for any sensation, any muscle that might work. She couldn’t even move her eyes. But she was not numb. She felt everything. Waves of panic crashed through her. She could feel the panic beating through every inch of her, but not a muscle would move. It’s a horrible nightmare. But she was wide-awake. Everything was real as stone.
The man put his masked face close to hers then pecked at her mouth with the metal beak. “Mmmm. Nine for a kiss,” he said. He touched a gloved index finger to her lip then rubbed a drop of blood between his finger and thumb. He slipped finger and thumb under the mask and sucked.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. His voice was quiet but much of the whisper was gone. She could almost recognize it. “Who? Or, as they say in the rooks, caw?” He snickered, pleased with himself.
Debbie did wonder who he was. She knew him but couldn’t place a name to the quiet voice. Panic and fear made it impossible to think. The Measure Man was going to kill her.
“Well, no time for questions,” the man said. “The poison will stop your respiration in about thirty minutes. But don’t worry. It’s only a neuromuscular blocker, so you’ll be able to see and especially feel everything until it’s lights out, forever.”
The man pulled a tailor’s measuring tape from a compact black duffel bag. He held it front of Debbie’s fixed eyes. “This is Lachesis, the measure.” He put the tape down and removed an enormous pair of scissors. He opened and closed the scissors by Debbie’s face. “This is Atropos,” he said. “You are Clothos, weaving the thread of your life. But then Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it.” He snipped the scissors by Debbie’s face again then put the scissors on the floor. “Your life, a mythology in the texts.” He removed a long flaying knife. “This,” he said, “this is just a knife I use for flaying birds. You’ll get to feel its caress soon.”
The Measure Man gave a low chuckle. “I like to leave a little note for the police, a little taunting rhyme-song. I’ll share it with you. Your own private reading.” He cleared his throat, unfolded a piece of typing paper, and read, “Facing the squares, squares to face. I cut them out, measured to pace. I’ll make my game, and leave my waste. Measure for measure, I’ll cut and you chase.”
“Not a bad little rhyme, huh? Hard to believe that I got a ‘C’ in College English.”
Debbie’s body flooded with pain as the Measure Man began to cut. Eyes wide, body useless, frozen by some paralytic drug, she cried without a sound. The Measure Man cut the skin of Debbie’s face slowly with the enormous scissors and used the flaying knife to pull the skin off, inch by searing inch. He held up a grotesque mask cut from Debbie’s face and stretched into a square-ish shape. “Gorgeous,” he said, admiring his butchery. And then the pain just fell away. “Nighty-night,” the Measure Man said. Debbie felt like she was falling, and then she looked down and saw everything.
Debbie knew the body on the floor was hers. Yet it was not hers, not now, not anymore. The body was matter, not dead but no longer alive, simplifying and de-organizing itself. She was above, alive; she was highly organized energy that was becoming more complex. She wanted to be enraged at the man putting the gruesome mask of her face into a large zip-lock bag partially filled with salt, but she all she could do was watch with a removed fascination.
The Measure Man opened the window and sliced open the screen. He put Sam’s overcoat over the window well and crawled out carrying his black bag of evil things. Then he was gone. The coat was still draped over the window well. Conversations from the Cole’s last Christmas party murmured through the walls like prayers.