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The nights we sleep belie the days we live, for our waking hours are spent with masks and acting, smiles and protocols, but at night, out comes our truest selves, unrepentant, unrestricted, unleashed in the safety of our dreams. As I woke up, again far too early for work, in my midlevel apartment in Providence, I looked out the window at the distant river for which the city is named, meandering under a dusky pre-dawn sky, flanked by smokestacks and factories, their lights warning their presence to pilots cutting through a fog that stars light years away had no hope of piercing. Unable to sleep, unsure why, uncertain what dream inhabited my head only minutes before to startle me back awake to insomnia, I considered turning the television on but dismissed it as nothing more than a pest. I looked out the window and I could feel my eyes, heavy for a need for sleep and cursing a brain that would not comply, ache as they scanned the distant reaches of the city. Several years of living in New York and Washington led me to return to the much smaller environment of Rhode Island; big city enough for me, a native of a farming town in Massachusetts. With my magna cum laude degree, I could go anywhere, and Providence seemed like the best fit. So I took a job with the Institute of Independent Investigators, Rhode Island office, and this was where I found myself.
Resigned to staying awake for the day, I moved to the kitchen and got coffee and breakfast started. The microwave clock said the time was 4:45. As coffee brewed, I went back to my bedroom and picked out clothes for the day, then showered. I got dressed and started eating breakfast with my coffee, feeling its false invigoration revive exhausted corners of my body that were screaming for dormancy. Like newly lubricated machine parts, I could feel the muscles of my arms, legs, and torso squeak into motion after a night of poor rest. When I was done eating, I figured the best place for me was work. So I left my place and went to the office.
I was the first one at the office, at six in the morning, and no one would be there for another two hours. I busied myself with paperwork and things that needed to get done, fully aware that I would go well beyond the forty hours the company required of me again this week. Usually I stayed late, conducting research, reading, looking at details of whatever case I was on. My first month at this office was as a secondary; I was assigned to cases after a lead had essentially wrapped it up, acting as a second set of eyes to make sure nothing was missed. Once I got into a groove as to what was expected of me, I would be assigned my first lead in a case. The other three investigators were always away on some sort of travel, sending them to far off places. I was guessing that this would be my destiny as well, once I became established. The others in the office were two secretaries, some accounting folks, legal, and senior managers.
After an hour at the office, I sat in my chair, exhausted. I lay my head back on my chair, looking at the ceiling, closing my eyes, I hoped, for just a minute. My stinging eyelids cried out for sleep, and my conscious mind submitted to my body’s desire. I don’t remember sleeping, but I do remember startling awake. A lingering thought remained in my mind, as if it were a memory, saying “I will take care of you. I will provide for you.” I took it to be from the one that knows me better than I even know myself, who is more aware and intimate of my deepest thoughts and dreams than I even am. The reassuring words settled my heart and mind, even though the uncertainty in my existence was still evident.
By 8:30, some people had trickled in when Ken Price, the branch manager, came in. He approached me in my office about fifteen minutes later. He plopped a folder on my desk.
“Guess what,” Ken said.
“Two things. One, you seriously need to get some sleep. You look like a wilting vegetable. You’re all droopy and…”
“Yeah I know. What’s the other thing?”
“The other thing is that,” Ken said, pointing at the folder. I opened it and found plane tickets, an itinerary, and hotel reservation documents.
“What’s all this?” I asked.
“That’s your first lead case, kid.”
“This is just travel stuff.”
“Yeah, that’s it. You’ll get the info when you get down to Charleston. Your plane leaves next Monday. I hope that’s okay. You included that in your availability.”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Good. Keep your receipts, turn them in when you return and you’ll be reimbursed.”
“Do I get a clue at all as to what this is about?”
“I’ll tell you your contact’s name in Charleston is Lieutenant Louis Carpenter. He’ll brief you when you arrive. They’ve also told us that they’ve contracted an investigator from one of our competitors. But they won’t say who.”
“Is that even legal?”
“Yeah, you see it from time to time. But the key in that situation is to work together as a team. The whole point is to solve the case, and that’s what they’re looking for: cooperation.”
“What’s it all about, Ken?”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel like I’m on a team, right, but I’m supposed to compete against them? What is it?”
“Look, the team was put together by the folks in Charleston. They saw who was available and what strengths they could use. You have an analytical mind like no other, Henry. You’re able to see patterns and trends. You can see the big picture by looking at the smallest details. I know you’re green, but you are able to contribute, and I’m sure you’ll be able to develop more skills along the way. Is everything okay?”
“No, everything is fine. I’m really excited about going. I can’t wait to find out more. Just have some personal stuff.”
I saw Ken glance at my wedding band. “Problems with the wife?” I was embarrassed and couldn’t help but smile shyly.
“I lost my wife,” I said, spinning my wedding band around my finger. He began to apologize. “No, no. It’s all right,” I tried to reassure him. “It’s okay. Don’t worry, it won’t be a negative factor in my work.”
“Well, you can come to me if you need to talk.”
“Thanks, Ken.” He walked away. “Hey, thanks for the chance.” He looked back at me and smiled at me, giving me a thumbs-up.
That night I worked until eight o’clock, then dragged my moribund body home. I nuked a frozen meal and hit the hay, with no memory of lingering awake in bed at all. But there was no relief from my sleeplessness, as I darted awake again the next morning at an hour far too early for any sane human. In the morning I filled the sleepless time with preparing for the trip: choosing clothes to take, packing my suitcase, getting a list of toiletries I would need.
It is reasonable to divulge that at around this point in my life, my relationship with the Creator had been paused for some time. Metaphorically speaking, I had been standing behind a building, peaking around the corner at Him, and any time He would turn to look at me, I would dart back behind the building. It had been years since I had had any involvement with Him; I had not said “yes” to God, but I had not said “no” to Him either. We just kept our distance. But lately, at that point, my gaze at Him lingered a little longer than it had over the past few years, and at one point, our eyes met. For a second or two, I felt the searing knowledge of God penetrate my mind, until I had to look away again. But with each look, growing ever less-subtle, I became accustomed to His presence again. Then in a moment, I said to Him, “It’s been a long time. I’m sorry for what’s gone on between us, me ignoring You. And I still don’t understand what happened in Brooklyn, why You ever let it happen, I don’t understand at all. And I still feel so much pain from it. But I want You to know that I don’t blame You. I love You, I always have, but I needed some time. And I pray that You understand that. But let’s be close again.” From behind the corner, there was a smile.
It was a surprise to me that I would be sent to Charleston, South Carolina to investigate this strange new case, and I eagerly awaited visiting that state for the first time. When I stepped out into the lazy, stifling South Carolina heat from the comparably cooler Vespucci six-seat plane, I felt a sudden urge to wilt. I struggled along with my newly burdensome luggage to the TSA table and amazingly, was quickly processed. Two large, muscular men wearing suits held up a sign with my name misspelled on it.
“My name is Henry Unger with an E, not Ungar with an A,” I said to the tough-looking guys.
“Maybe we’re looking for Henry Ungaaar,” one of the brutes said, satirizing the way I pronounced the word that was spelled on their sign.  “Did you ever think of that?”
“Look, the sign’s for you, right? Do you want to go or not?” the other one asked rhetorically, exasperatedly. “We’ve been waiting here for an hour and a half.”
“Well, in that case, let’s go.” In the car, a black four-door Lexus, the two guys did not say a word, except for when I prodded them to find out that their names were Officers Lester and Karl.
Officer Warren Lester, as I later learned his first name, stood six feet, three inches tall, and weighed about two hundred twenty pounds. His piercing blue eyes seemed to take nothing for granted. His dark brown hair was slicked back, and his swagger showed that he meant business. He was the exasperated one, and he rode shotgun.
Officer Jim Karl was also a large man, six feet, four inches tall, weighed about two hundred fifty pounds. His hair was blonde and cropped short and spiky, and his hazel eyes always seemed to carry a sarcastic way about them, as did the half-smile that seemed ever present on his face. He was the one who commented on my “Ungar” delivery, and he was the one who drove the Lexus.
The Charleston City Sheriff Station was a six-story brick building, as wide and long as it was tall, with the first level of granite composition. It looked like a new construction. Granite steps led up to the front door, and once in, a bustle of activity assaulted my senses.
I was welcomed by Lieutenant Carpenter, the senior ranking officer, who gave me a tour of the station. “This Office was created seven years ago, and we have been struggling with establishing credibility in that time,” Lieutenant Carpenter explained. “Some early high-profile cases went horribly wrong, with the negligent handling of evidence, inability to solve cases, and inability to gain convictions. This current case is important to the Office and solving it above everything else is my highest priority.” We arrived at the break room, where I met for the first time Dr. Ronald Gibson. Dr. Gibson was the top investigator Albemarle College ever produced, arguably the best independent investigator in the United States. It was clear that CCSO was spending big bucks, because Dr. Gibson’s services were not cheap. We studied his cases in school, read his books, and even heard him speak to our class once. Here he stood looking out the break room window, sipping on a cup of coffee. He turned around when he noticed our arrival. He had a wild tuft of gray hair, big brown bushy eyebrows, and rectangular, wire-rimmed glasses. Standing about five feet, seven inches tall, he weighed a good hundred eighty pounds, and he wore a white striped button shirt, no tie and a brown tweed jacket over tan pants.
“Well, thank you for coming down, Mr. Unger,” Dr. Gibson offered demurely, betraying the way he would bellow in his speeches to make a point.
“Please call me Henry,” I insisted. Lt. Carpenter led us to the evidence room at the CCSS.
“I’ll give you a rundown of what we know so far,” Lt. Carpenter began. “We have fourteen victims in the past eleven months, and the activity died down five months ago. Of the fourteen, nine were recovered and five are missing. Here are the recovered.” He threw down a cluster of crime scene photographs. As I went through each one, Carpenter wearily and systematically described the hideous and gruesome photos. “Ann Wheaton, twenty-two. South Carolina Medical Institute student. She was found eviscerated. There was also a narrow but deep puncture wound to her middle back that severed her celiac trunk, which I’m sure you know is extremely rare in a murder investigation.
“Normally you’d be looking at a bloodbath in that situation,” Dr. Gibson offered.
“Actually, blood evidence at the scene was minimal,” Lt. Carpenter clarified. “Next is Ivy Richardson, nineteen. Freshman at Charleston Community College. This one was eviscerated as well. Fingers seemed to have been gnawed off – see the jagged sever points on the hand? Similar slash, like her throat was butterflied, and similar gnawed points around her throat.”
“Have you determined the gnawing wasn’t caused by local fauna?” Dr. Gibson asked.
“Not likely,” Lt. Carpenter said. “There appear to be no other animal marks at the scene that would suggest damage done by animals, no tracks, feces, fur, nothing like that. This is Ophelia Nash, sixteen. High school student. She was decapitated. We were able to identify her by the birthmark similar in appearance to Orion’s belt, on her back shoulder.”I looked at the comparatively ungruesome picture of the victim’s back, with three dots in a row, equidistant from each other, about half-inch apart, according to the ruler included in the photograph. “More gnawing around the wound.”
“He gnawed on her neck where she was decapitated?” I asked rhetorically, shuddering.
“She was also eviscerated,” Lt. Carpenter said.
“This guy’s a real pig,” Dr. Gibson said.
“Okay, moving along, Sandy Henderson, twenty-six. Nursing home assistant. Found her a quarter mile from her work, with puncture wounds, knife-wide, into her upper back and into her heart, so they were really deep. Her hands were completely removed. It looks like she was alive when it happened too. Eviscerated as well.”
“Why is this guy eviscerating everyone?” I asked.
“Good question. Any ideas?” Lt. Carpenter returned.
“And what’s with the fingers and hands?” Dr. Gibson wondered aloud.
“I don’t know – still working on that one too,” Lt. Carpenter answered. “Next is Irene Ellington, forty-nine. Waitress at the Palmetto Spa, one of the nicer spots in town. She was found in her apartment with one long slit up each leg and each arm, drained of blood. He got the femoral arteries, both tibial arteries and the peroneal.”
“Let me guess, the scene is absolutely pristine: am I right?”
“Not a drop of blood was left.”
“God, this guy’s everywhere,” I puzzled. “All ages of girls, black, white, all different kinds of techniques. Let me guess, she’s eviscerated too?”
“Yep, but not the next one, Colleen Barton, thirty-four, stay-at-home mom. She was found in her backyard, originally they thought she was mauled by loose dogs, see?” Lt. Carpenter pointed at the telltale signs of mauling: the shredded muscle, the bloody remnant. “And the fact that she wasn’t eviscerated led the locals to think that this was not our man. But they ran tests on her, and they detected an infection.”
“Cryptococcus Crawfordii, it’s a fungus unique to the Charleston rivershed area, it grows in soil, but it’s not usually fatal. It was found on all the victims. If a serious enough infection sets in, sufferers develop what locals call Gravedigger’s Fever, which is typified by flulike symptoms. The gravediggers would always come down with it, hence the name, and the legend was that if you caught it, you’d have dug your own grave already. But it’s not often that deadly. However, if left untreated with antifungal medication, it can lead to death. But in our girls, the infection hadn’t yet reached that point.”
“Who’s this next girl?” I asked. “Looks like a suicide.”
“Georgia Johnson, forty-one. Middle school teacher. That’s what we thought too, but look closer. What’s missing?”
“No blood,” Dr. Gibson observed immediately.
“Right. You’d expect to see a massive pool of blood after a wrist slitting. But this girl was drained. Not a drop of blood.”
“Yes, this one was. Not sure how that was, but when the autopsy was done, no organs.”
“How the hell did he…?” I stammered.
“Traces of liver, kidney, heart, and other organ cells were found lining her throat.
“He liquefied the organs and sucked them out through her mouth or nose,” Dr. Gibson wondered out loud.
“That’s what it seems, but how could someone do that?” Lieutenant Carpenter countered. “It doesn’t make sense. Next was Sara Terrance, thirty. She was not eviscerated, and there was no sign of blood in the victim.”
“Here’s our last victim. Dana Darwood, twenty-three. Unemployed. Still living with her parents, she was apparently retrieving the mail when she was struck. Mail was scattered everywhere, see? She was eviscerated as well, also limbs were severed.”
“Weird that her arms and legs were severed but her head remained,” Dr. Gibson noticed.
“I don’t know,” Lt. Carpenter said. “I wonder if he was just getting sloppy.”
“She was the last girl to die, right?” Dr. Gibson asked. “At least the last body you guys found, no?”
“Yes, there are the missing girls, but no other bodies have been found after this one,” Lt. Carpenter said.
“Tell me about the missing girls,” I asked.
“There was Andie Gant, twenty-five, nurse’s aide. Then there was Wendy Piper, twenty-two, college student. Also Rhoda Quinton, forty-two, secretary. Celia Cruz, twenty-seven, stay-at-home mom, and Haley Benning, seventeen, high school student. All these ladies were lost without a trace.”
“Then how do you link them to our man?” Dr. Gibson wondered.
“The disappearances fit the timeframe as well as the general location of the other murders.”
“So this guy is a serial killer AND serial kidnapper?” I said, surprised.
“So it seems,” Lt. Carpenter said. “That’s all that we have now.”
“Lieutenant, would you excuse Henry and me?” Dr. Gibson asked. “We’d like to chat privately.” The lieutenant left the room. “I have another theory.” Dr. Gibson led me to a more secluded place. “I’m not ready to share it with Lieutenant Personality over there, but this has all the signs of a deviant.”
“I think that’s pretty obvious, don’t you?”
“Better than any gangland hypothesis this group could muster.”
“So they were all women, all having the same fungal infection. All eviscerated except one. All done at night except for the girl getting her mail. She was done in broad daylight.”
“Yes. There’s a perversity about this guy, the way he enjoys mutilating his victims.”
“Then how do you explain the kidnappings?”
“He’s got two fantasies. The first one was the stronger of the two, the murder and mutilation. The second one he’s just getting to now, kidnapping himself a harem to do as he pleases.”
“My concern now is that this case has gone cold. Five months is a long time.”
“Well, at this point, the locals are hoping that some fresh eyes can see something no one else has.”
“And the locals haven’t come up with this yet?”
“Yeah, right,” Dr. Gibson said. “Look at this!” He picked up the stack of crime scene photographs for evidence. “This guy’s a machine.”
“Doctor, you’d think that would be their first assumption, that they’re dealing with a guy who’s having a good time at the expense of the ladies of Charleston.”
“There’s no accounting for what kind of profiling they came up with before us. I hinted at the idea this guy was a perv and Carpenter over there nearly had a fit.”
“What? Why?”
“I don’t know. Probably because I blew his little theory out of the water. Gangland-related murders. This guy’s gang-crazy. You and I both know that these are not the victims of the local Charleston street gangs. This is the work of a compulsive individual. There is something inside him driving him to do this.”
“So did they put out an APB for someone with symptoms of Gravedigger’s fever?”
“I don’t know. They hadn’t caught that until I pointed it out.”
“I can’t believe they didn’t come to this conclusion. This is almost straight out of the textbook 101 case studies.” There was a knock on the door. Dr. Gibson answered. It was Deputy Wendy Franco of the CCSS.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Deputy Franco said as she entered the room. “We just received this letter, addressed to you, Dr. Gibson.”
“Thank you,” Dr. Gibson said, accepting the letter. Inside was an article cut out of the local newspaper stating that Dr. Ronald Gibson, genius private investigator and paranormal expert, had been recruited to help solve the case of the missing women. The letter read:
Dear Dr. Gibson,
It was with great delight that I heard of your involvement with this case. I am sure your expertise will be invaluable to the local law enforcement authorities, and that you will soon catch this dreadful killer, namely, me. Yes, the City of Charleston has been safe for five months, and today marks the first day of the sixth month of peace. By the end of this month, however, peace will be no more; chaos will reign yet again.
Dr. Gibson, I hope that you do take this prediction seriously. For proof, this letter has been written with the precious, delicious blood of my five darling guests, who will soon leave the land of the living to join…the undead.
Most humbly yours,
“Send this letter to the lab,” Dr. Gibson ordered Deputy Franco. “Have them do a fingerprint analysis. Tell them the writing is in blood, do a DNA scan on it. Check the glue on the envelope seal for DNA, and hell, the back of the stamp too. Have them take a picture of the letter so that we can have an analyst look at the handwriting.” He quickly but gently placed the letter in a plastic bag and handed it to the officer. “This idiot, if it’s him, just gave the case away to us.  This guy’s a vampire.”
 “A vampire?” Deputy Franco said. “Are you kidding me?”
“I’m afraid not, Franco,” Dr. Gibson said.
“Vampires aren’t real, are they? They’re just out of those romance novels,” Deputy Franco said in disgust. “I love reading them, but I’d never –”
“Those romance novels aren’t real,” Dr. Gibson said, almost chastising her.
“Vampires aren’t handsome, dashing, young looking men like in those stories,” I explained. “They’re blood-hungry, evil creatures driven to devour blood and flesh, and give you deadly, paralyzing diseases without you even knowing it. They’re like ticks.”
“Vampires suck,” Dr. Gibson said.

Submitted: September 20, 2010

© Copyright 2022 Peter Amaral. All rights reserved.


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