They’re hungry again.
He tries to be good, so very good. He has a well-paying job. There’s a woman in his life.
There’s so much to be good for.
But the worms are insatiable. He tries to ignore them, for as long as he can. They’re insistent, insinuating their way into every waking thought. When they start to gnaw on his brain again, he can’t ignore them any longer.
He has to kill again. He has to. But even as he stabs the knife into the poor woman’s chest, even as he drives her out of town, even as he buries her in a shallow grave, he wants someone to stop him. He really does.
Until they do stop him, it’s better for the worms to eat her rather than him.
Detective Vic Hargrove took a sip of her lukewarm, oversweet coffee. Damn. Damndamndamn. He got another one. Heather Dodd, 26, waitress. The poor girl had lain dead for three days before anyone reported her missing. A hunter found her two days later. Same savage knife blows. Same flaying of the torso. Same burial face down.
The Kendall County slasher. That’s what the paper was calling him. Four victims in four months. Unless they had missed one. Or more.
Her chief had given her a lot of rope on this one. A chance to make her name solving a big case. But that was after the second victim. If the chief weren’t out of town, the case already would be in the hands of the FBI. Chief comes back tomorrow, then it’s out of my hands.
Maybe the FBI should take over. This is too much for me.
“He left another one.”
Vic turned to face Doctor Nathan Paxton, the county medical examiner. His thick-lensed, black-rimmed glasses creeped out the girls down in dispatch. Carol thought the way he rubbed his hands together was like a preying mantis. But he wouldn’t be that bad if he combed his hair and didn’t slouch. Besides, he was one of the state’s foremost experts in forensic entomology. He’d earned the right to a few quirks.
“What was it this time?”
Doctor Paxton held up a plastic specimen jar. The insect inside looked like a brown cricket.
“Velarifictorus micado. One of the most prized species for Chinese cricket fighting.”
Vic raised an eyebrow. “Where would he get a Chinese cricket?”
“He definitely has an affinity for insects.”
She looked at her case board. So far they had managed to keep that detail out of the press.
Somewhere on the bodies of each of the victims, the murderer had placed an insect. Not necessarily rare, but not an insect that would rise from the natural process of decomposition. Or so Doctor Paxton assured her.
She had the scientific names listed on the board under the photos of each victim. Ichneumon extensorius, Lygus pratensis, Oedipoda caerulescens, and now Velarifictorus micado.
“What are you trying to tell me?”
The worms are quiet today. Satiated. He likes days like this. He feels more himself. The price is high, but it’s well worth it. He would feed the worms every day, if he could. If it meant being normal.
No. Never that. He scratches at his arm. He’s tried to stop them so many times. Tried and failed. They have too strong a hold on him, after all this time. He can’t fight them alone.
He looks at his specimen tanks for just the right creature. There. Eristalis tenax. The drone fly. Several to choose from, when the time comes.
And it will come soon. The worms are quiet today, but they’re never quiet for long. They’ve grown accustomed to such rich food. Each time they grow hungry more quickly. Already he’s making plans for the next time. He has to plant the clues so someone can stop them, without the worms knowing what he is doing.
They have to be stopped or he can never be with her.
Vic paced the room, not glancing at her board. She had all the information memorized anyway. She knew that the pieces were all there. She just couldn’t see how they fit together. Not yet.
It always worked for her that way. Her subconscious mind figured the problem out long before she did. She only needed to get the information from one part of her brain to the other.
“The answer’s right in front of me…”
She turned and almost ran into Doctor Paxton. He smiled his thin-lipped smile and held up two Styrofoam cups.
“I know you skipped lunch. I brought coffee.”
Vic hoped her weak smile masked her grimace. It was kind of Doctor Paxton to bring her coffee every day, but he always made it so damned sweet.
She took one of the cups. Paxton leaned forward, his eyes unblinking under his thick lenses.
Vic raised the cup. The smell of the sugar turned her stomach. She wet her lips and swallowed.
Paxton beamed at the praise and headed over to the board. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Any new leads?”
Vic set her cup down and faced the board. “It’s there. The answer’s right there. I just can’t see it yet.” She touched the pictures of the victims, renewing her vow to solve the crime. She was glad their eyes were closed. Their accusing faces haunted her dreams. “What do they all have in common?”
Doctor Paxton stood silent for a long moment. When he spoke, it was so softly that Vic could hardly hear him. And was he blushing? “You know… They all bear a certain resemblance…to you…”
Ice went up Vic’s spine. Now that Paxton had said it, she couldn’t unsee the fact. The shoulder-length hair, dirty blonde or honey brown. The shape of the face. The age range and general contour of their bodies.
“Son of a bitch…”
Paxton was right. The creep was targeting women that looked like her. It could just be coincidence, but every bit of Vic’s intuition told her otherwise.
“Maybe it’s a previous collar that got out. I’ll have to check recent parolees. But that doesn’t explain the ritualistic nature of the stab wounds. Or the flaying of the skin. And why bugs? Any ideas, Doctor Paxton?”
But when she looked up to see what help he might offer, Doctor Paxton was nowhere to be seen.
She knows. He trembles in fear, in anticipation. She knows he’s the one the worms are making do these horrible things. Not that she says anything. She’s too kind to say anything until she has the evidence. She’s thoughtful like that. But she knows, and soon he’ll be free.
He hums to himself. He does not want to hear the worms. He can ignore them.
Only he can’t.
It’s you or her. Kill her.
One by one they drop out of his ears and crawl over his skin. Maggots, larvae, grubs all writhe over him. He endures their caresses as long as he can. Then he shivers and tries to brush them off. He shakes his limbs. They don’t come off. They’re all over him. They fill him completely.
He imagines them swarming her. Devouring her. He can’t let that happen. But he can’t endure them any longer.
“I’ll do it! I’ll do it!”
They ease their grip on him and tell him how he will kill her for them.
Vic sat down at her table and frowned over the printout in her hands. The fluorescent lights overhead flickered for a moment but stayed on. She had a list of every violent offender paroled in the county in the past two years. Not very many of them were her arrests, and those that were she didn’t think had the brains to pull off a spree like this.
“You wanted a challenge, Detective Hargrove. Be careful what you wish for.”
She wished she had more coffee, even the crap Doctor Paxton made. She wished she hadn’t given up smoking. She never missed it except on nights like this, faced with her own incompetence.
“No. This sicko’s somebody I know. I just have to figure out who.”
The answer was so close she could feel it, humming under the skin. The multiple stab wounds spoke of an anger-driven killing. The flayed skin and face-down burials suggested a ritual. And the rare insects… They were a message. But to Vic, or to the voices in his head?
Vic bit at her lower lip and tapped at it with a finger. This guy was like an addict, wanting his next hit and hating it at the same time. He wanted to be stopped, but he was scared too. He didn’t want to make it easy. Whatever compelled him to kill didn’t let him stop.
“So the stabbing, the anger isn’t directed against the victims, it’s against himself — or against that part of himself that’s compelling him to kill.”
She rose and looked over the crime scene photos again. “The burials… Those are acts of appeasement. He’s hoping that whatever compels him to kill will accept the offering and leave him the hell alone. Not order him to do it again.”
She traced her finger over the list of scientific names. “The rare insects — is he trying to tell Doctor Paxton something?”
Images flashed in her mind. Paxton at the crime scenes, examining the bodies, collecting maggots from them. Paxton with the victims on his autopsy table. Paxton with his aquarium tanks of insects.
Paxton was never fazed by any crime scene, no matter how gruesome. Paxton touched each wound with an almost intimate familiarity.
“As if he’d seen them before…”
The lights flickered again, but this time they stayed off. Vic cursed and fished her phone out of her pocket. First thing to do would be to check on Carol in dispatch.
She made her way out of her office and down the hall. The dim light from her phone and the emergency exit signs cast an eerie glow over the everything.
“Carol, are you okay?”
Computer monitors on backup battery cast a sickly yellow-green light over the dispatch room. Vic stepped through the doorway.
“No, she’s not okay.”
Vic started at the voice. Her pulse calmed as she recognized the figure in his white coat.
“Doctor Paxton, it’s you.”
“Yes. It is.”
Doctor Paxton stepped forward. He held his right hand behind his back. His left hand rubbed at his right arm, as if he were scratching at something through the sleeve of his lab coat. Or as if he were constantly brushing something off his arm.
The final piece clicked into place. Vic backed up, gripped the wood of the door jamb.
“You’re the killer.”
Doctor Paxton brought out the knife from behind his back.
“Yes. I am.”
The worms are all over him now, wriggling from deep inside him to the surface. They want to see. They know he loves her. Of course they do. They ate that information out of his brain long ago.
“Doctor Paxton. Nathan. You don’t want to do this.”
A strangled sound escapes his throat. A laugh? A sob? Even he doesn’t know. “I don’t have a choice. They can’t let you stop them.”
She turns and runs into the darkened office. Just as they said she would. He follows her without haste. They had him block the exits right before he cut off the power. There is no escape. God knows he’s tried. There’s no escaping them.
“I thought you would figure it out sooner. I wanted you to stop me. I needed you to stop me.”
“You can still stop, Nathan.” There. On his left. “We can…we can still be happy.”
“It’s too late.” He sees a form reflected in the glass. He stalks forward. “They won’t let me go now. They’ve eaten my brain. I’m not really here any more. Just them.”
He corners her in the chief’s office. By the weapons locker, fumbling with the key.
“I am sorry, Victoria.”
He stabs into her shoulder. She does not cry out.
“Me too, Nathan.”
A gun muzzle appears before him. Confusion fills him. The worms were wrong. They didn’t stop her.
The muzzle flashes. The sound deafens him. Bits of grey and red land on Victoria. His brains, he realizes. He sinks to the floor. She stands over him. He thinks she’s crying, but he’s not sure. What he can see in the dim light is the worms. They wriggle out of his brains to burrow into her skin.
The world goes black.
In the darkness, the worms laugh…
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. He studied book-fu on the peak of Jinshan Mountain at the feet of Ray Bradbury, Charles de Lint, and Zombie Basho.
Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. (Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju.
For the record, his surname is Dutch, and he pronounces it “EYEt-flukt.” Tony and Al get better at it the more they say it.
His book-fu is better than yours.