The Case of the Muffin Man Murders
It was the kind of headline I hated to print.
"Muffin Man Strikes Again, Three Found Dead"
A deep pit began to form in my stomach. This was my second year as a reporter for the Daily Sunrise, a job I had always dreamed of. Every so often, though, I had to write a story that hit close to home. Too close, in this case. Five years ago, I had been one of only two survivors of another Muffin Man slaying. The serial killer always left his mark of the trade at every job; each slain victim was left with a muffin roughly shoved into their mouth. When the stories of the serial murders came out, the locals began calling him "The Muffin Man."
My eyes blurred from their focus on the headline, as I drifted slowly into recall of that formative night.
Three of my friends had been staying at the lake that June evening, camped out in thin canvas tents, which were freezing but at least got us away from our parents for a night. I don't know why he chose us, or how he had decided who would die and who would live.
In the darkness, my eyes had snapped open. Carrie and Eva were in the other tent, and my friend Jess gasped next to me, as we both heard the sound that had awakened us. Quietly, but in an eerie high pitched unnatural voice, someone was singing a familiar tune.
"Do you know, the muffin man....the muffin man....... the muffin man, do you know...?"
Jess screamed, and I reached for my cell phone. The police made it in record time, Chief Moen himself had come in to answer our call with guns blazing. I think the entire force had showed up. Jess and I ran to the sanctuary of the uniformed saviors, but it was too late for my two other friends. Chocolate chip muffins had been stuffed into their now silent mouths, I saw by the strobing blue light of the sirens, and that image would haunt me for many years to come.
During that summer, ten people died by the Muffin Man's hand. The newspapers compared him to Jack the Ripper, and were scolded by the media for encouraging his ego with sensationalism. He had never been caught, but at least the slayings had stopped. For the past five years, the Muffin Man had remained nothing more than a horrible memory. Some locals speculated that he had died, whoever he was. I hoped they were right, but something told me it wasn't the end.
Steadying my hands, I poured myself a cup of coffee in the safety of our office's kitchen. I kept a giant Hello Kitty mug in my desk, just for occasions like this, when a story shook me up so badly that I needed to blame my quivering hands on the caffeine. My partner, O'Malley entered behind me, clutching a copy of this morning's paper, and wearing a look that would have stopped a giant.
"I know what you're thinking," he began, as if his words could reassure me. "This is ridiculous! There's no way the Muffin Man is back. It's a copy cat; Nothing we should be printing. The last thing this guy should get is attention."
"Maybe it will at least make people more cautious." I offered. "They'll be careful; protect themselves more."
He nodded, considering the chaos that ensued last time. The whole town was still traumatized, even after five years, none of us wanted to re-live it. Well, someone did apparently.
O'Malley was probably the best reporter I knew. When it came to his job, he was willing to do just about anything. I had seen him crawl into a sewer tunnel once to get a story on an illegal construction job the mayor had contracted. O'Malley even got punched in the nose a few times for printing the truth, giving it a permanent curve that made it look like he had once been a boxer. He took his job so seriously, people would joke, that he was even dating a cop.
"How is Jennifer taking this?" I asked, very curious to know if the police had any theories.
"She hasn't discussed it in detail with me at this point. But I think we'll be privy to some of the inside information. She wants us to meet her over at the station this morning."
"Let me just put this on the chief's desk" I held up my report "And we can leave right now."
Jennifer and I had gone to four H club together as kids. I didn't know her extremely well, but I heard a lot from O'Malley. She was a few years older than me, but we got along fine. She had joined the force as a profiler, but she often did desk work when the crime rate was low enough that her talents weren't needed. O'Malley preferred the crime rates low, for two reasons. Obviously he wanted to live in a safe town, but it also helped when Jen was out of harm's way, safely filing paperwork. I saw the fear in O'Malley's eyes as he blinked past the rain on the windshield. Jen would probably be working eighteen hours a day, and constantly in danger, now that the Muffin Man was back.
"It might be a copycat, like you said." I broke the silence as we walked up the granite steps to the station.
O'Malley grinned weakly in answer.
When we got into the lab, where Jen was crouched over something small on the table, we could both see instantly from her expression that this was no copycat.
I approached. Jen was holding needle-nosed tweezers and a magnifying glass, extracting small white objects from a muffin. She gingerly pulled each speck loose, and placed it inside a narrow test tube filled with some kind of blue liquid.
"What is that stuff?" O'Malley squinted at the muffin.
"It was found in all of the original specimens. We never leaked that to anyone. The papers never knew." she paused apologetically.
"We had to withhold that detail in the original case, but chief Moen thinks the Sun can partner with us this time. One thing this guy loves is attention, and we can work together to finally put him behind bars." She explained.
"This stuff is found in every muffin placed on the victims. It's some kind of cement or concrete substance, maybe drywall... I can't be sure yet." Jen carefully shook the tube in her tiny hands. The bits dissolved and coagulated to the bottom of the tube.
"So this is the same guy." I said out loud, trying to keep the fear out of my voice.
"Yes." Jen met my eyes, and nodded knowingly. "And this time, we will catch this guy."
Her blue eyes focused on the tube, and she lifted an eyebrow. "It's plaster."
"Plaster. That's an old building material." O'Malley declared. From his pocket, he removed a folded parcel of paper. He spread it out on the lab table; I could now see it was map off the city. Points were highlighted and marked in red and blue. I could pick out city landmarks. The camping area near the lake was circled in red, with the denotation "Two dead, June 2005" neatly written in red ink.
"Where did you get that?" I marveled at the detail of the map. Each red fleck marked tore a tiny bit out of me, volumizing the sinister deeds of the Muffin Man.
"When the case started, I kept a record of every event. My old partner and I were assigned to the story back then, and it was my first big report. He taught me how to lay out the details, to check for anything we'd missed."
"Yikes O'Malley," Jen grinned. "You would have made a good cop."
He nodded in agreement. "It's similar to reporting I guess. Sorting the details out. Everyone has a story."
Speaking of stories..... "Are there any suspects so far?" I looked at the floor, which was so clean it reflected the fluorescent lights.
"I'll be honest with you." Jen sat with her gloved hands folded on the black top of the table. "Your.... ummm... experience in this case may be the only thing we have to go on." Her eyes flicked to my partner though she was still speaking to me. "Do you remember anything about that night?"
I remembered lots. But the song was the worst part of it. I couldn't get that voice out of my head; the memory of it refused to dull after all these years.
"His voice" I admitted. "I would know it from anywhere."
Chills ran up my arm as the childhood rhyme once again ran through my thoughts. How cruel to turn a whimsical song into such a dark symbol of brutality. Over and over it played through my mind in that high pitched falsetto. The room began to spin. My breath caught in my throat.
"I need to get some air" I excused myself and piled through the steel doors of the police crime lab.
Outside, in the damp drizzly October air, the voice finally ceased. A sigh found its way out of my mouth. I blinked back the tears and dug through my purse for some Kleenex. Cleaning my face as best as I could, I noticed a black truck pulling into the front parking space, right next to the police cruisers.
I saw my brother, Brian, climb down from the driver's seat, none too gracefully since his truck's wheels were suspended more for off-roading than for any legal purposes. He had a young face with kind brown eyes, and was wearing his typical trucker's hat.
"I saw you out here while I was driving to the diner." he explained, "What's wrong? Are you in some kind of trouble?" he gestured to my being at the police station, probably assuming that my job had once again led me to trespassing in my penchant for getting the story.
"You haven't heard about last night?" I exclaimed, "Brian, the Muffin Man is back!"
I saw lines of worry instantly weave over his forehead. He had been in middle school the last time the Muffin Man went on his murder spree. He leaned closer to me, and hugged me without saying anything. What could possibly be said about your worst fears happening all over again?
We discussed the details for a few minutes, and of course I skipped over the bit about the plaster, since that was still officially off the record.
"I need to get to work for now." Brian apologized. "I get out at five. I can swing by the Sun on my way back and pick you up, it's no trouble" he offered.
"My apartment is only a few blocks from work" I reminded him "I'll be fine. But, thank you for worrying about me."
He gave me a smile and headed for his truck, which was the pride and joy of his life. Many hours of Brian cooking and frying at the diner had gone into the Chevrolet, since he was paid a line cook's wages. I watched as it turned the corner, and O'Malley joined me on the steps.
"Are you okay with this?" He asked in his off-duty voice.
"I will be. I agree with Jennifer, this time, we are going to put this guy behind bars. He killed two of my friends and plenty of decent people in this town. If he's out there, I'm going to make sure this is the last time." I conceded.
O'Malley looked like he was pondering whether or not to tell me something.
"So far, the M.O. Is still the same. In my experience, the first time the crime was committed is always where they were sloppy. It was sort of the practice run."
I got where he was going with this. "Which means," I added "That we need to go back and look at the first Muffin Man murder."
"Are you still in contact with your friend, Jessica Tardif?" O'Malley held a list in his hand, and he squinted at the words printed there. "I've got a current address a 436 Sunset Avenue." He held the paper closer to his face and blinked. He had needed glasses now for about a year, but was too stubborn to admit he was getting old.
"Actually," I stifled a laugh over the whole glasses thing "She's got her own place now. She married her high school boyfriend. They live just outside the city."
"This thing's outdated." O'Malley folded the list and pocketed it.
From the car, I dialed Jessica's cell number. After that horrible night five years ago, we'd kept what Brian would call a friendly distance from each other. We were still friends, undeniably. We would send Christmas cards and exchange a friendly hello if we ever met in the grocery store, but any prolonged visits were just too painful.
"Hello?" Jess's voice had remained youthful.
"Hi Jess. I'm on official Sun duty, and we'd appreciate it if you spoke to us for just a few minutes. Would it be alright if O'Malley and I stopped by?" I knew that it paid to be direct when asking for information. People trusted you more if you layed your cards on the table. They also told you a lot more if you were polite.
"It will be very quick, and it might help put this guy away." I promised.
"Okay" she agreed quickly. Bingo.
We arrived at the tiny ranch house, and parked by the curb. I grabbed a pocket umbrella from my oversized purse, which could have held a medium sized dog.
The rain was smiting us with full force now, in large cold drops. I picked my feet up to avoid stepping in a puddle, and O'Malley laughed.
"At least it's not snow" he pointed out.
Jessica greeted us at the door. She looked tired.
"So he's back. You're sure?" She peeked at me with large cat-green eyes from behind her cup of coffee.
"I'm interested if you might remember anything that could help us." I pleaded.
"You were there too." She reminded me. "You must remember seeing the shadow against the wall of the tent."
I didn't remember.
"He was really tall." Jessica stated bluntly. "Like six and a half feet."
"But it was just a shadow." O'Malley argued. Shadows can stretch in the light and seem so much taller.
Jessica shook her head. "No. I'm sure."
"Okay" I smiled at her genuinely. "That really helps. We have a body-type now."
Somewhere out there was a tall guy surrounded by plaster who loved baking and children's rhymes.
"We should tell the police." O'Malley suggested.