A yellow rubber ball bounced once at Sam's feet and rolled under the park bench he was sitting on. He peered down at the toy through the wooden slats, the ball's shiny surface reflecting bright sunlight into his eyes. He heard the patter of small feet approaching and looked up. A young girl was standing in front of him.
"I'm sorry, mister," she said. She had bright blonde hair, brighter even than the ball beneath him. "Would you get my ball for me?"
A simple request, not requiring much action on his part. Why not, he thought. "Don't piss them off" had been his mentor's final instructions. He bent forward, reached under the bench and retrieved the ball. It seemed that he should say something, but words were never his strong point. He handed the ball to her wordlessly.
She smiled, and he thought she would turn around and leave, but she didn't. "What's your name?" she asked.
He knew exactly how to respond, looking up at her with a broad, human smile. It had been hard for him to do at first, but with time he'd mastered nearly all of the human oddities. "Sam," he said. "Hasn't your mother told you not to talk to strangers?"
He shouldn't have said anything, he knew. It was a mean thing to ask, but he'd done it anyway, an echo from another time, another place, where one child taunted another while watching him burn.
The girl's expression changed instantly, from innocent happiness to impossibly mature grief. "My mother's dead," she said softly.
"I'm so sorry," Sam replied, his voice conveying an appropriate level of emotion and sympathy. Both had been hard initially, but he'd taken to them. In his line of work, it was almost osmosis.
His words seemed to comfort the girl, and she brightened noticeably. "My mom wouldn't mind me talking to you, if she were still here."
"Oh really? Why not?"
" 'Cause you're a good person. I can always tell good people."
"Is that so?"
Sam smiled again, forcibly this time. The memory was growing dimmer, cognizance of the event fading as the emotion spent itself. "Well thank you. You should get back to playing. You don't have much time left."
The girl glanced up at the sky, then looked at Sam quizzically. "It's not even noon yet."
Sam stood and looked at his watch. "It'd better not be" he declared bluntly. "I've got appointments to keep."
The girl smiled, then waved goodbye and hurried back to the playground where her friends were waiting.
It hadn't taken Sam long to decide that, unlike people, greasy-spoon diners were nearly indistinguishable. The Big 12 Truck Stop was no exception. See one and you've seen them all, he thought as he entered. He glanced around and spotted the man he was looking for: a balding, rather over-weight fellow who was sitting at the counter, flanked on each side by an empty stool. Sam chose the stool on the man's left. He was in a good mood, a mischievous sort of mood.
"Lemme have the house burger," he called to the waitress "and a side of chili."
"Good choice," the man beside him grunted.
Ever the actor, Sam looked over at the bigger man's plate. The remnants of a cheeseburger lay discarded on its side, and the man was, at the moment, spooning chili into his open mouth. There was an areola of red sauce around his lips, and the sight made Sam want to burst out laughing. You're gonna kill me, huh? a drunk man had asked Sam the night before. "Made a good choice, did I?" he asked, reigning in his impulses.
The man stopped eating just long enough to answer. "Definitely. Fulla grease, but we all gotta die sometime, right?"
It was too much; Sam couldn't help it. His mouth broke into a wide, genuine grin. The man finished off the last of the chili, licked his spoon and leaned back a bit. Sam felt a tightening in his lungs and chest. A shiver ran down his spine. It was seconds away. The man's breath suddenly became heavy and labored. His face began to turn red.
"You okay?" Sam asked, already knowing the answer.
The man's hands leapt upward, clutching at his heart. "Oh my god, my chest! I-"
Sam reached out and touched the man's shoulder, and it was done. The bigger man slumped forward, victim of coronary failure. Sam jumped up from his stool. "Oh my god, someone call an ambulance! This man's had a heart attack!"
The Big 12 Truck Stop exploded into a frenzy of action, and in the chaos, Sam slipped away unnoticed.
For the first time in years, Phil's front door was unlocked. A minor miracle, Sam realized as he let himself in. The stuttering jets of a Jacuzzi somewhere in the house over powered all sound of Sam's entry, but he wasn't surprised. Minor miracles had long ago proved themselves to be a consistent aspect of the job. The house was antiquated, its entryway riddled with creaking planks, but Sam knew just where to step as he made his way past the dining room. He treaded softly toward the kitchen, where a solid, padlocked door caught his attention. He reached up and tapped the lock gently; the shackle fell open. He removed the lock noiselessly and, stepping across the threshold, quickly closed the heavy door behind him. The space beyond was pitch black, but Sam knew exactly where to go. He followed the wooden steps down into the basement. Stealth was not necessary here, and Sam's foot pressed against a loose board, causing a sharp creak. A pitiful moan rose from below. He reached the bottom of the stairs and moved instinctively towards the nearest wall where a lamp waited for him. He flipped the bright light on, his eyes adjusting immediately, allowing him to see what he already knew was there.
A teenage girl lay facedown on a tattered mattress, naked. Her back was covered with dark, wide bruises, and Sam saw that the ragged sheet pressed between her legs was matted with dark blood. The bruises seemed to bulge grotesquely as she painfully raised her head to look at Sam, her dark hair falling in disheveled locks over her features. Sam's teeth clenched involuntarily when he saw her face, her nose broken and covered with caked-on blood, one eye clouded and stained red, the other dilated and glazed. "Please," she whispered, "please leave me alone." When he didn't move, she blinked, trying to adjust her vision. She looked up into the face of a stranger, and the words came rushing out, her body shaking as she spoke. "Oh god, please, he hurt me and-"
He had been here, seen this before - a rookie cop stumbling onto the victim of an attempted murder. It was only his third day on the job, and he hadn't seen it all yet.
"Shhh," Sam whispered verbatim, "it's all right." He knelt down beside her, and, cradling her head in his arms, ran fingers gently through her tangled hair. "It's all right. He won't hurt you anymore."
Her convulsions calmed to whimpering, and then, after a few long seconds, to silence. Sam laid her head on the dingy mattress and slowly stood. He looked down at her for a moment, his face, soft and compassionate a moment before, now twisted involuntarily with hate. He pulled the sheet up over her face, as the cop had done later that night, and, turning off the lamp as he went, headed for the stairs.
The Jacuzzi was still running full-power when he made his way back through the kitchen. He was almost to the dining room when a shopping bag on the kitchen table caught his eye. He moved quietly to the table and opened the bag gently, removing a single box: a hair dryer. He reached into the bag again and withdrew the receipt, time-stamped earlier that day. He opened the box, took out the dryer, and headed again towards the bathroom. Phil had been scheduled for an aneurysm, with a catalytic bathroom fall, but there was always room for last minute changes.
Phil was reclining with his eyes closed, a study in relaxation, as the steam rose from the bathtub.
Sam's voice, cold and powerful, cut the silence.
There had been a father, years ago, whose daughter had died, stabbed repeatedly with a hunting knife. Sam had been there the day the father found the owner of the blood-stained knife and, in a secluded alley, beat the man to death. Sam had watched and listened; the words he now spoke were not those of before, but the rage, the unparalleled desire for revenge was that of the father.
"What were you going to do, strangle her with this?"
Phil nearly exploded out of the tub as he twisted around to face Sam. "Holy shit! Wh- who the hell are you?"
The expansive bathroom was thick with fog, but Phil could make out the movement of Sam's fingers as he slowly unwound the wire fastener that held the hair dryer's cord in a tight bundle. "My name is Sam." Phil tried to jump up, tried to get out of the tub, but his legs, arms wouldn't move. He was paralyzed. "No, don't bother getting up," Sam said, plugging the hair dryer into a nearby outlet. "I wont be here long."
Phil's eyes darted wildly as he searched for any means of escape. "Wha-what do you want?"
Holding the dryer, Sam circled behind Phil, the cord trailing behind him as he let the slack fall. "There's a girl in your basement, Phil. Any idea who she is?" Sam waited for a response, but none came. "No, you don't, do you? Maya Tarrow. Eighteen. A dancer. How about Ashley Baird, fifteen? Or Katie Hall, seventeen? Any of those sound familiar? No wait, of course they don't. No one's found their bodies yet."
The water in the Jacuzzi was growing hotter, and beads of sweat began to form on Phil's head. "What do you want?"
"I watched you kill them all." The words, whispered into Phil's ear from behind sent shivers down his deadened spine. "I was there. I stood still and watched you, with the telephone cord, and then the shoelace. I had to. And now," Sam licked his lips slowly, "now it's your turn." He moved back into Phil's view, the older man's eyes following his movement fearfully as he stopped right beside the tub. "You mix it up, Phil, you never use the same object twice. Variety. I admire that - I do. It's going to be an accident, or a suicide maybe."
Sam kneeled down, making sure to get on Phil's level and locked eyes with the helpless man. "The West End Strangler, driven to madness by his own actions. Hanging would have been more ironic, don't you think, but we work with what we're given...don't we?" Sam looked down at the hair dyer in his hand. "Here, Phil, take it."
Phil could only watch in horror as his own hand reached out and took the dryer. A smile wedged its way across Sam's pursed lips. "Well go ahead, turn it on." Phil's thumb flicked upward and the dryer began its noisy whir. Sam shook his head sadly. "Huh Phil, a dryer in a bathtub. What were you thinking? Two PhDs and you don't read the safety tags? Definitely a suicide. You're not gonna use that," he stated, motioning to the appliance. "You might as well set it down."
Phil's fingers began to relax, and Sam's eyes glittered hungrily in anticipation. The dryer slipped from Phil's grasp; Sam was there only long enough to hear the beautiful splash.
The sun was almost gone, but not quite, as Sam walked leisurely down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets. Dusk, his favorite time of day. At times like these, there was something about the way the air moved, the way every sound seemed to be at half-volume, that made Sam wonder if the world wasn't more than an elaborate metaphor. It was the time of day when humans were at their weakest - trusting their senses as they did in the light, as if darkness was more than a moment away. Leaves scraped slowly across the asphalt, and the smell of wet earth was intensifying under the murky sky. Clouds, barely visible, were massing above the grey veil. Sam slowed his pace, occasionally glancing at the emptying park across the street. Occasionally a mother would step out of a house on Sam's side of the street and call "Dinner time!" or some equally tired phrase, as if, after years of existence, their children hadn't figured out when it was time to eat.
A tightening in his chest stopped Sam instantly. He turned and, looking across the empty street, immediately spotted her. It was the little girl who had asked Sam his name, her hair bright still despite the waning sunlight. She was playing alone, not ten yards away, tossing the ball upwards and catching it in her thin arms. Sam grimaced; he hated these.
He stepped slowly out onto the street. His surroundings were largely foreign, but as he looked around, a familiar confidence began to build within him. This is your purpose. This is who you are, the wind seemed to whisper. His steps were careful, noiseless as he moved to a spot about a yard from the sidewalk and kneeled down. His throat and vocal cords began to constrict. Some, most, were quick, like the truck driver had been - come and gone in a matter of seconds - but others seemed to stretch endlessly. One knee on the asphalt, Sam watched the girl again look up at the sky, then walk across the grass towards the street.
It wasn't her fault. There was no way she could have known.
The car swung around the corner far too fast, its headlights dark. In the dimming light, Sam could see the driver's head bouncing in time with the radio. What kind of idiot wears shades at 6 pm? She didn't have a chance. The corner of the bumper slammed into the side of her thigh, two tons of force throwing her seventy-five pound body into the air. The driver's foot hovered over the brake for an instant, then stomped on the accelerator. She was airborne, tumbling blindly through the air, but Sam had chosen his spot well. She fell, a jumble of limbs, right into his arms, and he caught her easily. Tires squealed against asphalt. The stench of scorched rubber, and he was gone.
Sam held her body in his arms. He closed his eyes and he tried, harder than he had ever done before, to feel. He sifted through decades of unused memories, searching desperately for something, anything - a child lost in the woods, an old woman slitting her wrists, a innocent man dying by lethal injection to pacify the State....nothing. Death was his job, and he felt no remorse as he carried out his actions - all the people he had taken, so few of them knowing, none of them caring. But this, this was something far different. She had cared, and now, so did he. He lifted his head to the darkening sky, and, at last tapping into a floodrush of emotion, screamed out to the sky, "What do you want from me? Do you want me to feel? I'm not like them!" And then, suddenly, the feeling was gone, the mother watching her infant slip out the world only a shadow in his mind. Sam lowered the girl gently to the ground. As he stood, he received his answer, the first crash of thunder echoing across the sky.
The last stop of the night. Sam opened the door and stepped inside, escaping the cold whipping wind. As soon as he was through the doorway, he was flooded with a sense of safety. There were no lights on in the house, but the living room was limned with a vital glow from a fireplace across the room. A high-backed chair was placed in front of the fire, and Sam could see the old man's hand on the armrest.
"Come in," the man said, though there was no way he could have heard Sam enter. "Pull a chair around."
Surprised, Sam obeyed, dragging a chair up to the fireplace and sitting down. The firelight played off the old man's face, and Sam saw that his features were calm, serene, his eyes closed. "How did you know I was here?"
The man chuckled softly, running one hand over the bluish-grey veins of his arm. "I've been expecting you."
Sam looked around the room, around the home. "Are you afraid?"
The old man opened his eyes and looked at Sam. "I'm terrified."
They sat in silence for a moment, losing themselves in the flames. A sharp twinge in Sam's side made him lean forward, a faint groan escaping his lips.
"You okay?" the man asked casually.
"Yeah, yeah I'm all right." Sam replied, leaning back in his chair. "It's an old wound. It never quite healed completely."
The old man leaned forward, his eyes focused intently on Sam. "You, wounded? What happened?"
"It was along time ago. I came to visit a man...he had been impaled, bleeding heavily. It - it seemed his time to go, but...he didn't think so. He fought back. He attacked me - can you imagine that?"
The old man laughed. "Took him good, did you?"
A shadow of a frown passed briefly over Sam's face. "No."
The old man was confused. "What? So...where is this guy?"
"He's around," Sam replied, his nonchalant tone barely hiding his bitterness and shame.
The old man seemed to accept this and leaned back. It was several minutes before he broke the silence at last. "Does it hurt?"
"I don't know," Sam answered truthfully. "I know for some it does."
The older man nodded knowingly. "So how does it work?"
"It won't take much, just a touch."
"I've known this night was coming. I've seen you before, you know. In this very house, in fact."
It was Sam's turn to nod. "Your wife. I wasn't sure if you saw me. Most people never do."
"She was a good woman. Many happy years together...many happy years. I suppose all things end." The man stared into the flames reflectively. "This is the way to go, though, don't you think?"
Sam closed his eyes for a moment and felt the generations of love and life that filled the house, sealing the cracks in the aged stone and polishing the flaws in the ancient wood. "Yes."
"Well, I suppose this is 'goodbye', or is it 'hello'?" he asked, a hint of a smile on his lips.
"Then we should do this like friends," the man declared, holding out his hand to Sam.
Sam slid out of his seat and, kneeling down, took the man's hand, covered it with both of his, and held it tightly until he felt the firm fingers between his relax completely. He gently placed the man's hand in his lap and stood. He moved quietly to the door and opened it. He lingered there on the threshold, between the warmth and the wind, for a fleeting moment and then he was gone, fading into the night.