The Halloween Project 2022 - Story 6: A Writer’s Craft
This serial killer is so obvious, Preston thought. So typical. A stereotype. The black clothes, face mask, gloves. The thick piano wire he used to garrote his victims but never a shred of evidence left behind. Killed in suburban homes dotted across the Hudson Valley just north of New York City.
The killer was a master of surveillance. Seven murders over 10 years in all. Single women living alone. Never a robbery, never a sexual crime. Nothing taken, nothing left behind. An entry, usually simple, like an unlocked window, a basement access, a sliding door easily jimmied. He never made a mistake, no DNA, no forensics, clean. And Preston knew it was a man. Preston knew the killer.
Seven in all. From the farthest north out of the city, one in Glemont, one from Castleton-on-Hudson, one each from Stuyvesant, Saugerties and Poets Walk Park. Number six was in Highland Falls, and perhaps a nostalgia murder, the furthest south, Sleepy Hollow.
Preston had written 17 crime novels, the last 9 or 10 being bestsellers. And he knew who the killer was. Absolutely certain. He had known for at least five or six years. Preston studied crime. Not simply crime. Murder. He discarded killings based on anger, jealousy, money, drugs, affairs, lingering animosities, betrayals and gangs. He studied anomalies. He read, interviewed, researched and considered those sociopaths who killed to kill. No other real reason, just because they had an urge that could not be scratched in any other way. And then he wrote books about them with a thin veneer of fiction draped over them and it had made him rich.
And finally after studying these seven murders; the style, characteristics, incidentals, police logs, facts and tossing out theories and guesses over that time, Preston was certain.
Matthew Stalls, a 42 year old bachelor, living in Nyack, a delivery man for UPS for a dozen years was, in fact, the killer. Preston went to the police after the third woman was strangled and offered Stalls name. They were already aware of Stalls as a person of interest.
He went back to them after Number Four.
And Number Five.
And Number Six
But accusations were not evidence despite the information Preston provided. Stalls always had rock solid alibis and when Preston entered the police station to discuss number six with the detective he had come to know on a first name basis, several cops rolled their eyes. He was shown the precinct door rather hastily.
After Number 7, a woman named Rose Thomas, Preston decided to take matters into his own hands. Murder novel number 18 was titled: “Stall Time”. It recounted murders in the Hudson Valley. Women strangled, not violated. Murdered and left to be found. It went to Number 5 on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for 15 weeks.
And Preston waited. When “Stall Time” dropped to Number 35 among bestsellers he got a phone call.
“I’m tired of you, Mr. Writer. I’m tired of you going to the police, over and over again. And the book. What did you think I was going to do? Just let that go? Just let that terrible book go? I’ve had enough of you. I’m coming for you,” the voice died away.
“I know. I’m waiting for you,” Preston replied and the phone went dead, but not the recorder Preston held in his hand.
Two weeks later the October night sky was scratchy with a half-moon and clouds that ran, fast and thin. Preston waited, two glasses of Jameson whiskey, three-quarters full, sitting on the table before him, just as they had been each evening for the last ten days. A faint breaking of glass echoed up from the basement. Steps climbed the stairs. A shadow crossed and Stalls entered the expansive room from the hallway. He was in black, head to foot, but no masks. He carried a large bladed knife like from a cheap Halloween movie.
He settled into the seat opposite Preston, coughed, and said, “Finally,” laying the knife across his lap.
“Yes, finally, it’s taken a long time, but now I have you,” Preston said.
“You have ME?” Stalls laughed, coughed, cleared his throat and said, slightly louder, “YOU have ME? And whiskey to boot?” gesturing at the glasses.
“I’m certainly not sorry to put an end to this. I thought the police would have done a better job, but it just didn’t work out,” Preston offered, “And you’re not wearing your ski mask? But I know your face very well. It’s all over the walls of my study.”
“I have YOU, Mr. Writer. And I wanted you to see me. Just the way those women saw me for just a moment. My real face. Before…” Stalls hesitated, lost in thought, “ I have a knife, an alibi and was very careful. Very, very careful.” Stalls hand stitched and cramped.
“Not careful enough, Mr. Stalls. You’re never going to kill another woman. Or anyone, me included. Never. How do you feel? Throat sore, runny nose? Headache perhaps? Cramping in your legs and chest?” Preston asked.
“I’m done with this,” Stalls threatened, “I’m going to kill you. Now.” His hand moved to his lap but his fingers could not clench or grasp the knife. Spasmodic muscles contracted in his neck, back and forearms.
Glancing at his watch Preston said, “You have about 90 seconds to live Stalls. Maybe only a minute. Let me explain. At the basement window where you entered, and several other spots in the house, I fixed small canisters of gas. Actually quite small. You would never have seen it. When the window broke,than it released a fine odorless mist. And you must have breathed.”
Stalls head began to jerk in rapid succession, neck clenching into what looked like a bag of marbles. His eyes fixed on Preston. Mucus spittle edged his lips.
“It was VX gas. You know VX? Deadly nerve gas. 10 times more toxic than sarin. On your skin, you die. Kind of slowly. Breathing just a bit, just a tiny bit, you die fast.”
Stalls garbled a broken scream. He tried to raise himself from the chair, blade clattering to the floor, but failed. He screamed again and the nerve endings in every limb contorted and imploded.
“The nerves that control your breathing are collapsing. Your diaphragm will cease to function. Look I think it’s starting right now. You’re about to suffocate Mr. Stalls.”
Stalls jerked in the chair, arms flailing. Mouth wide as if more air could enter his impossible failed lungs. Eyes widened in both pain and fear. A grimace revealed teeth and jaw ajar. A scream would have fit nicely, but none came. A sudden expansive rolling seizure contorted his limbs into explosive disarray and he collapsed backward motionless.
Preston sat back and watched the now still killer. He reminded himself to shut off the tape recorder beneath the couch. Shortly he would don his gas mask and descend to the basement turning on his blowers and fumigating the room.
Eventually, he would call the police.
But first, he drank both glasses of whiskey.