12:05 A.M. - 6:00 A.M.
Shortly after midnight, carrying a black and red Nike gym bag by its shoulder strap, wearing disposable purple latex gloves on his hands, and clear plastic covers over his black dress shoes, Deacon Rose silently entered Janet Ryker's dark house through the unlocked back door. A 12-ounce bottle filled with Ambien-spiked grape soda sat inside his right pants pocket. He carried his prized possession in his right hand - a weapon he called The Lady.
He stepped inside the cold, filthy kitchen, leaving the door ajar. The stench of rancid food and stagnant water assailed him. Deacon gagged, nearly heaved.
This was unexpected. He wished he had brought a gas mask.
He fought the urge to flee, and willed the sour, burning bile to return to his stomach.
Deacon faced the open door and filled his lungs with cold September air. He quietly closed the door, locked all three bolts, and waited for his vision to adjust to the gloom. When it did, the source of the repugnant odors became obvious; fetid water and soiled dishes filled both sides of the double sink. He would never eat from those plates, use the flatware, or drink from the glasses, not even after fifty-thousand washings in boiling water using entire bottles of antibacterial dish soap and bleach. Per washing.
Nearly a dozen fast food boxes, most containing fragments of rotten food, covered the tiny table. An unopened box of trash bags lay almost hidden under the mess of cardboard containers. A glance at the overflowing garbage can in a far corner of the room convinced Deacon that this stupid woman had no idea what those bags were for. He knew The Worthless Welfare Whore was an untidy housekeeper, but this was beyond appalling.
He looked toward the living room. An archway separated the two rooms, limiting his vision. All he could make out were the dim dancing lights made by the television and the muted sounds of an unidentified program.
It was just the three of them. Deacon smiled.
An intense shudder took him by surprise. The hairs on the nape of his neck tingled and for an instant, he wanted to slink back the way he came. Taking a deep breath, he shook off the feeling that someone watched his every move.
Ridiculous. He had perfectly planned this event. There were only three people here and ADT did not monitor this house.
However, Deacon crossed the short distance from the kitchen to the living room with caution. He stopped at the entry and peered inside the room.
The navy blue drapes were closed, as they had been all evening. The only other person in the room was the sleeping Whore, her John having left an hour ago. Deacon checked the front door. Locked. He turned to Janet Ryker.
The Whore lay on the sofa, on her back, naked, her legs open. She twitched and groaned in an alcohol and drug-induced slumber. The stink of sweat and sex hung about her like a shroud.
Deacon's mouth twisted in revulsion and he wondered how low a man would have to sink to have sex with the likes of Janet Ryker. And pay for the privilege to boot.
He had detested Janet Ryker, whom he dubbed 'The Worthless Welfare Whore', on sight, and dreamed of murdering her from the day they met. Eight months ago, she enrolled her then three-year-old son, Bobby, in the pre-school where Deacon was a substitute teacher. He felt an instant connection with the boy. The next day, the teacher for whom Deacon had substituted met with an unfortunate, and fatal, accident. Deacon was asked to fill her vacancy. He gladly accepted.
Now he looked at The Whore with utter disgust. Only twenty-six, Janet Ryker appeared to be much older. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken their toll. She might have been attractive at one time, maybe even beautiful by some standards (certainly not his), but no longer. She had a perpetual aura of stale cigarettes, Jack Daniels and marijuana. Judging by the drug paraphilia on the coffee table beside the sofa, tonight's festivities had included drugs much stronger than pot. He didn't care to speculate. A bottle of Vicodin sat between a full ashtray and empty bottle of whisky. Deacon shook his head. The woman had a death wish.
It was her lucky day.
It was unimaginable that any woman could subject her four-year-old son to such repugnant behavior. She needed to learn the error of her harlot ways. He let the strap holding the gym bag slide, and the bag made a soft sound when it settled on the thick carpet.
The longer he stared at the woman before him the less she looked like Janet Ryker, and more like.
His pulse raced and the blood pounded in his ears. He snarled and savagely smashed the bottom of The Lady into the sleeping woman's face.
And smashed. And smashed. And smashed.
Janet Ryker died instantly. But Deacon could not control himself. Could not stop.
Did not want to stop.
Several minutes passed before he regained something resembling sanity. He regarded his handiwork. Janet Ryker's face was mush, her skull destroyed.
He sighed, feeling no remorse, no pleasure. Nothing.
The sensation of being watched persisted. Deacon scrutinized his surroundings, looking for prying eyes, natural or electronic. He found none. He and the dead woman were alone.
Viewing the room, newly decorated in crimson and gray, Deacon found something with which he could clean his beloved Lady. From the opposite, unadorned side, he found a skanky white tank top, previously belonging to the lump of useless flesh on the sofa, hanging from a corner on the top of the new 30" flat screen television setting in the middle of an equally new entertainment center. A rerun of Wanted played across the screen.
Deacon took his time, methodically cleaning the two-feet-tall gold-plated bronze statue of the Virgin Mary that his mother had loved so much. He had used this same statue to rid the world of his mother. And his wife. When the statue was as clean, he delicately wrapped it in the shirt and placed it inside his Nike bag.
Gore covered him. A fastidious man, even now, he wore a crisp white shirt, a red and black striped tie, neatly pressed black slacks with black socks and expensive black dress shoes. Well, they were clean when he had entered the house.
Except for the disposable latex gloves and clear plastic shoe protectors, he could have just as easily gone to Mass instead of committing a murder and a kidnapping.
During his homicidal frenzy, the bottle of grape soda had fallen to the floor. He picked it up and placed it back in his pocket. Carrying the Nike bag from the hand straps, Deacon went to the hallway bathroom, closed and locked the door. He set the bag on the floor, removed a large black trash bag, 2 small rubber mats and a fresh pair of gloves. He placed one rubber mat in front of the shower/tub combination and stood on it while he put the other mat inside the tub.
Taking off his ruined clothes, he carefully put each item in the garbage bag. He removed the safety wrap, shed his expensive shoes, and set them beside the gym bag. He tossed the soiled gloves and shoe covers into the trash bag and loosely tied it.
From the gallon size Ziploc bag he had previously packed, he took out a loofah and his Axe Excite travel kit. He placed the small bottles of body wash, shampoo and conditioner on the edge of the tub, where he could easily reach them while he showered. Deacon stepped into the tub, turned the hot water on full blast, no cold - he was not a Wuss - and enjoyed a long, steaming shower.
Thirty minutes later, he dried off with the towel that he had brought and carefully dressed in neatly folded duplicate attire. He pulled on his socks and slid his feet into the shoes. He put on a pair of clean gloves. After he tossed his toiletry bottles in the garbage bag, he tied the top in a knot and stuffed it in the gym bag. He removed the soft hairbrush from one of the side pockets in the gym bag, cleaned the steam from the mirror… and froze.
A tall Asian woman with purple hair and purple eyes stared at him from the reflective glass, shaking her head from side-to-side. He could almost hear her say, Tisk, tisk, tisk. You're a naughty boy, Deacon Rose, inside his head.
Deacon looked over his shoulder. Nobody. He looked back at the mirror.
She mocked him in silence.
Looking away, Deacon scrubbed the bathroom to make sure he left no traces of DNA behind. Before he left the room, he dared another glance at the mirror.
She was still there. Still mocking.
Deacon shook off the incident. It wasn't the first time he had seen, and heard, people or things that really weren't there. It was just part of the joy of being bat-shit crazy. Some people suffered from mental illness. He rather enjoyed it.
Once again carrying the gym bag from his shoulder, he went to Bobby's room and stood in the doorway for several moments, watching the little boy sleep. Bobby was the image of innocent beauty. If Deacon had possessed a heart, he was certain it would have swollen with love. Or some similarly useless emotion.
He opened the bottle of soda and softly walked to Bobby's bed.
"Bobby," Deacon whispered. The boy didn't respond. Deacon lifted Bobby to a sitting position and whispered again, "Bobby."
"Ponies can fwy," the boy muttered without opening his eyes.
Bobby was still half-asleep when Deacon poured a little soda into the child's mouth. He coughed at first, and then willingly drank. Even in his half-conscious state, Bobby loved grape soda.
When the bottle was empty, Deacon put it back in his pocket, wrapped the pajama-clad boy in a warm blanket and carried him out of the house, to the SUV where the special gift for Bobby waited inside.
* * * * * * * * *
For the second time tonight, an unexpected chill coursed through his body. His paranoia about being watched persisted.
Deacon turned up the radio, always on and set to a local Country station, and tried to shake off the ludicrous notion. He pressed the gas pedal, racing his brand new, custom painted, blood-red Ford Explorer Sport down US-63N toward Decorah. His momentary fear turning to anticipation of tonight's upcoming event. He paid no attention to the speed limit. At this hour, halfway between midnight and dawn, on this desolate stretch of highway, the Winneshiek sheriff's department posed no danger.
A vast bruised sky loomed overhead. Heavy, low hanging clouds of red, pink and purple threatened a torrent of biblical proportion. Forked lightning shredded the atmosphere and pierced the ground. Gusts of wind, like the vengeful hands of an invisible giant, rocked the SUV from side to side, at times coming close to knocking it off the road entirely. The cold air smelled clean and refreshing. Winter had made an early appearance on this bleak September morning. Yesterday's weather forecaster had predicted the beginning of a heavy snowfall by noon today.
No matter. They would be warm and cozy at the farmhouse, the Funhouse, long before the snow fell.
He grinned. The inclement weather only added ambiance to this occasion. He had been looking forward to this day, his thirty-fifth birthday day, for over eight months. This year his special day fell on a Friday, Friday the 13, no less, so he had not one, but three days to celebrate.
Deacon trembled with excitement. The joy of exploring the gift he had just taken for himself, but waited to unwrap, encouraged him to reach his destination quickly. He accelerated the SUV.
All of his previous birthday celebrations had been risky, requiring a lot of planning and cunning determination. This one, however, was by far the most difficult, and dangerous, to execute. He beamed with self-satisfaction.
He sang along with the last couple of verses of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried."
Deacon chuckled at the irony. Scenes from his insanely strict upbringing, courtesy of a crazy born-again Christian single mother, flashed through his mind. His blissful mood darkened, ever so slightly.
"Mama, you did try," he said, his voice touched with bitterness. "You wanted a successful son, and I am. I didn't become a priest, but Demon Bastard that I am, I have excelled in the jobs I chose for myself."
He took a deep, calming breath and exhaled slowly. This was his happy day, and nothing was going to spoil it.
He glanced in the rearview mirror and grinned.
Black-haired, green-eyed, Bobby Ryker sat belted into the right rear bucket seat, unconscious and leaning against the locked door, blissfully unaware of what would soon befall him. The sleeping two-month-old German Shepard mix puppy that Deacon had gotten from a local animal shelter slept curled in the boy's lap.
He would do to the dog what he was going to do the kid, minus the rape, and make the kid watch. When the boy was terrified out of his mind, Deacon would kill the mutt.
Deacon sighed happily. They were alone on the road. They would be alone at the house.
It was going to be a wonderful weekend.
He turned off the blacktop and onto the gravel road heading toward the isolated farmhouse had been in his family for nearly three hundred years. Four hundred and sixty five acres of woodland that had not known a plow or woodcutter in over fifty years. With the exception of the two and a half acres where his newly renovated house stood, the secluded forest remained, for the most part, intact.
This much privacy offered him the freedom to indulge in his wildest, sickest and most depraved fantasies. He videotaped it all. It was the gift that kept on giving.
The fun would start all over again on his next birthday. A new playmate. A new challenge. Every year he pushed the stakes higher. Never before had he taken a child, a student, from his own home, and murdered the child's mother as an added bonus.
Wouldn't Mama be proud?
Deacon chuckled. Who would expect a humble pre-school teacher to have such a demented, twisted and oh-so-rewarding hobby?
He considered himself quite a catch. He was, after all, a remarkably handsome man. At an even 6', he was tall, but not too tall. He was a healthy weight for his size, slender, but not skinny and nowhere near fat. His hair was dark blond, not quite brown. His eyes were the deep blue of the ocean. His chiseled features reminded people of a young Robert Redford. And, like Redford in his heyday, women found him deliciously appealing. Deacon was always well dressed, no matter what the occasion. No jeans, tee shirts or, God forbid, sneakers for him. Ever. He supposed the correct term to describe him would be metrosexual. He hated that stupid, nonsensical word, but it was appropriate.
He had not dated in a long time, not since he murdered his wife nearly six years ago. Women just didn't do it for him anymore. Maybe they never had.
Towering trees of oak, balsam fir and black cherry stood majestically on either side of the road, dominating his peripheral vision. Twin drainage ditches separated the road from the woods.
Thunder growled, and lightning clawed the sky.
He couldn't be any more pleased with himself.
A flash of movement in the rear view and driver's side mirrors caught his attention. He glanced at his passengers. Bobby and the pup were still asleep.
Deacon glanced through the rear window expecting to see a deer or two. Instead, he saw a thick red fog obscuring everything from the highway to perhaps thirty feet behind him.
The air around him suddenly went still. Lifeless.
Curious, but not afraid, Deacon stopped the vehicle, lowered his window and poked out his head.
The crimson sky had fallen, covering the entire expanse of gravel road and woodland in a thick bloody mist. It ended, or perhaps started, about thirty feet away from him.
This 'fog' had to be a product of his sometimes overactive imagination. He stepped outside to get a closer look.
Deacon prided himself on being intrepid, unafraid of anything. Not spiders or snakes, heights, water or anything else. He was a kidnapper. Child molester. Murderer. Serial killer. In the last ten years, he had murdered eight people; five young boys and three women.
Without remorse. Without judgment.
Without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell.
Nevertheless, unbidden thoughts of the 2007 movie 'The Mist', based on his favorite Stephen King short story, crossed his mind.
The writhing, pulsating, rose-colored fog moved closer. He could almost believe it travelled under its own willpower. It glistened and seemed to have the same constancy as strawberry jam. Deacon shivered. He had the unshakable feeling that there was a horrible intelligence dwelling within it.
He didn't believe in the supernatural; demonic or heavenly. He did, however, believe in hyperactive imaginations and he was, at times, prone to delusions. He closed his eyes, counted to three, and willed it to disappear.
When he looked again, he was very disappointed.
Deacon jumped back into the vehicle, closed the window and floored the gas pedal. "Just a precaution," he said to himself. "I am not afraid."
The radio crackled, went static. Died.
Look behind you, a deep, but distinctly female voice said inside his head. Your plans have already fallen apart.
Reacting involuntarily, Deacon glanced in the back.
The boy and the dog were gone. Vanished without a sound.
The back doors and windows were safety locked. The only way they could have escaped was while he had his door open, and he was standing right next to it. He would have noticed if anyone tried to leave, or enter.
Did you really think you could go on like this forever? Slaughtering innocent people and receiving no judgment, no punishment. No retribution?
Before he could respond to the phantom voice inside his head, a dual explosion coming from the front of the Explorer caused it to swerve. Deacon panicked and nearly lost control of the SUV. It careened dangerously close to the right-hand ditch before he got it back in the center of the road. He slammed on the brakes. The air bag failed to deploy.
His peripheral vision caught something fluttering outside of the window next to him.
Ghostly white tendrils, like the frigid, elongated fingers of death, drifted along the Explorer. Before he could attempt to comprehend what he hoped he was not seeing, there was a deafening crash and the unseen sky burst open.
Fat drops of blood splattered on the windshield. He didn't even bother with the wipers.
Despite two flat front tires, Deacon drove forward, blind and desperately seeking the safety of the farmhouse. The crippled SUV moved slowly; leaving shreds of rubber in its wake. He could have moved faster if he had gotten out and walked, but somehow that just didn't seem appealing.
Deacon had never been afraid of things that go bump in the night. Never worried that the boogieman might live inside his closet or under his bed. The Freddy, Jason and Michael Meyers movies only inspired him. But right now, he felt like he was living in a nightmare.
An object from his imagination, large, powerful and unseen, hit the left side of the SUV between the driver's door and the headlights hard enough to dent it. Once again, the vehicle veered to the right. This time Deacon couldn't stop it from plunging head first into the five-foot deep ditch.
The airbag deployed, slamming his head into the headrest. Fiery pain exploded in his neck, shot up the back of his head, and stabbed his eyes. Seconds later, the airbag deflated, but the pain remained.
The SUV filled with a hushed, eerie sound. At first, Deacon thought his ears were ringing. Then he recognized it. The keening of little boys, too young to understand what was happening to them, too terrified to cry out, softly weeping and whispering in the dark for the mommies and daddies that could not save them.
What should have aroused him, instead, caused the lump in his chest to freeze. His body trembled, broke out in goose bumps.
"Crazy, crazy, crazy. I'm just fucking crazy."
He felt, rather than saw, the crimson fog filling the SUV.
His breath came and went in raspy gasps. He was on the verge of hyperventilating.
In a matter of moments, the dense, warm, gummy substance engulfed him. His heart throbbed to the pulsating rhythm within it. The stench of moldering bodies was unbearable. He tried to hold his breath, then to scream, but his mouth filled with a secretion that tasted of rotten meat and maggots. He choked on his own vomit. Held his breath. Tried desperately to wipe the stickiness from his face, to no avail. He was suffocating.
And then it was gone.
Malevolent laughter in his head. Don't worry, Deacon Rose, your life isn't going to end this easily.
His door suddenly flew open and something, some force that he could not see, yanked him free of the SUV and flung him face first into the putrid muck at the bottom of the ditch.
Laughter. Not in his head this time.
Blood-rain assailed him.
An object flew out of the darkness and hit him hard on the back of his already aching head. It fell into the murky water in front of him with a splash. Deacon pushed himself to his knees. A bright light glowed in the spot where the object fell. Recognizing his heavy-duty emergency flashlight, he grabbed it and aimed it at the SUV.
His mouth fell open.
The front tires were shredded. The driver's door lay on the gravel road, ripped cleanly off its hinges. The Explorer was destroyed.
Deacon slipped and slid up the side of the ditch farthest from the road, intending to escape through the forest. Instead, he smacked face first into a clear, solid wall. He moved his hands over it. It felt like Plexiglas, but how could such a thing exist?
He desperately wanted to chalk this experience up to his mental illness, but there was no denying the fact the fact that Bobby and the dog were gone.
This is insane! Floating blobs, invisible walls. If I were a drinking man, I'd say I had about five six-packs to many, Deacon thought.
A silly thought, born out of sheer terror, occurred to him. "I'm being Punk'd! That's the only explanation." He hung on to that idea despite the nagging thought in the back of his mind that Ashton Kutcher had better things to do than slice up an unknown teacher's tires and hit him in the head with a flashlight. Besides, the show was cancelled years ago.
His tormentor's voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, "You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead---your next stop---the Twilight Zone."
"That's not funny," Deacon screamed.
Realizing there was no escape here, Deacon slid into the ditch and sloshed his way up the other side. He shined the flashlight everywhere.
"Bobby? Where are you, you little shit?" Deacon shouted. His voice sounded hollow.
A deep growl from somewhere in darkness answered him.
"Okay, Ashton! Fun's over. Let's just high-five each other and go our separate ways." Deacon bellowed while thinking, when I get my hands on you, your life is over, you smug bastard.
Funny, I could say the same thing to you, the female voice said inside his head.
Ignoring it, Deacon started walking toward the farmhouse. He had only gone a few paces before he heard a nerve-shattering roar. He flew around, flashing the light toward the sound.
He stopped dead in his tracks.
Mouth agape, he stared at the tiger standing in the road, in front of the totaled SUV, less than forty feet away from him. He didn't know much about tigers, he hated animals, but one word came to mind.
The beast was nearly as tall as he was, and at least fifteen feet long, not including its tail. Deacon couldn't begin to guess how much it weighed.
And it had lots of big, sharp teeth.
"No. You can't be real. No tiger. Not running free in Iowa."
He shined the light in the phantom tiger's face.
It snarled at him.
Deacon leaned down and picked up a softball-sized rock, which he flung at the apparition, hitting it squarely between the eyes.
This did not make the apparition happy.
Roaring, the all too real tiger leaped toward him.
Screaming like he was on fire, Deacon pissed himself, turned and bolted for the house. A champion marathon runner could not have outpaced him.
You can't get away, Deacon Rose. Your time of judgment has arrived.
The closer he got to the house, the more difficult the terrain became. His feet made a popping-sucking sound every time he raised his legs. His nostrils burned from the smell of cow manure. He was, quite literally, in deep shit.
His leg muscles burned from the strain. At some point, he did not know when, he kissed his ruined $800 Alexander McQueen shoes good-bye. Now he plodded along in his bare feet. Manure squished between his toes. His stomach churned.
The road dipped treacherously, and then rose again, smacking him in the face when he fell. Coughing and spitting, he picked himself up and trudged forward. The terrain from hell continued to roll, deeper and higher. A roller coaster of filth. He stumbled often. His progress, if indeed, there was any, was painfully slow.
Like a good shepherd, the tiger stayed a respectable distance behind him, guiding Deacon toward the house, to a fate worse than anything he could imagine.
A tidal wave of muck washed over him, pushing him into a deep, narrow pit. Every time he tried to climb out, he only succeeded in covering himself with more and more crap.
Suffocating. For the second time tonight.
Five pairs of skeletal arms reached out of the walls, clawed fingers of bone tore at his face, his clothes, his hair. Deacon was defenseless.
And then he was lying on his back, on the gravel road, staring at the clear night sky like nothing had ever happened. .
No sign of rain or strange amorphous blobs. No rain of blood. No rain of any kind. He sat up, checked himself. No marks or scratches. No injuries. He looked around. Crookedly parked on the gravel road was the Explorer, intact. No fog. No muck. No tiger.
He really had pissed himself.
Had he completely lost his mind? He had always known it was a possibility, but so soon? He was only 35.
Deacon sprinted to the house, digging for his keys as he went.
As it turned out, he didn't need his house keys.
The front door stood wide open.