In a way, it was a work of art that rivaled the masterpieces of da Vinci or Mozart. It was a matter of position and timing that made it so extraordinary, though taste and opinion were equally important. So many people would come and go, oblivious to the scene before them, desensitized to that which seemed, to him, most obvious and spectacular.
Every utterance bounded and rebounded within the massive room, eventually climbing up into the heavy beams that spider-webbed the high-vaulted ceiling from which numerous lights hung, casting their artificial dimness into the chamber below. Stained glass windows decorated either side of the enormous white cross; both of these murals stretched from the ceiling down to the carpet like medieval tapestries of shattered rainbow haphazardly reconstructed. Beneath the austere religious symbol was the raised pulpit, currently occupied by a pair of wrinkled men.
At the rear of the church, during early morning Mass—that was the key time and position. It was an incredibly uplifting beginning to a new day. An eloquent religious person might describe the scene as God's love expressed through light.
The moment he had been waiting for suddenly arrived: sunlight flooded the earth's surface, crashing into the colored panes, exploding the hues themselves inward, painting the floor but leaving the glass unaffected. It seemed like a mirage, fake in its overwhelming, awing beauty. But it was real, and he made an effort to witness it every day.
Father Mark was concluding the sermon. "…Peter also addresses the younger followers. What he speaks of"—the flushed priest gesticulated animatedly—"is shamefully timeless and universal! He instructs them to be respectful of their elders. Commandment the Sixth, God's Law—God's Law!—is to honor one's mother and one's father. Yet Peter, like so many disrespected authority figures and parents today, is forced to teach the youth over and over to be respectful of their wiser, more experienced elders.
"Tonight—" He paused to cough and clear his throat. "Tonight is Halloween, a holiday recognized by modern society as a night solely dedicated to the giving and receiving of candy and sweets. A night when the air is filled with the sounds of children's delight. A night when the streets are inhabited by superheroes and wicked villains and Disney characters and countless ghouls. But it is as Peter says: 'be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.' Satan is among us always, hiding in the darkness. Be wary and avoid the temptations. Do not seek his unholy treats, for he is the one trickster you must never indulge!
"Mass is at an end. Let us go forth and do as Peter instructed: 'greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all you who are in Christ Jesus. Amen.'"
"Amen," the congregation murmured in response. Some were already shrugging into coats in preparation to leave.
"'It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High,'" Father Mark sang. The solemn tune emitted from the organ filled the church until it seemed like the building was going to burst as the priest, deacon, and altar boys filed past Nelson and out through the glass doors at the back of the church.
As soon as the holy men had stepped out into the entrance hall, as if of one single mind, the parishioners began to shuffle into the aisles and make for the exit. Nelson, much to the irritation of the people sitting in the innards of his pew, remained stationary and listened to the song until it was finished and the last echoes had faded into silence. He was in no hurry. He'd rather wait and enjoy the peaceful light show for another ten minutes rather than join the mad rush to get to his car. He alone seemed to understand that it was futile to attempt to leave before the dissolution of the minor traffic jam that was a result of everyone trying to exit the parking lot at the same time.
"ALL SAINTS' DAY MASS MONDAY 7AM" the bold letters declared as he drove past the church announcement board.
November was almost upon them; already some people were beginning to prepare for Thanksgiving. But Nelson, like most people, was still focused on the near present—specifically, on tonight. Halloween enthusiasts of all ages knew the best day for the holiday to fall on was any weekend day, preferably a Sunday. This granted them more time to dedicate towards decorating instead of other obligations, such as school or work.
In the same way others would drive around to look at Christmas lights, Nelson would cruise the residential neighborhoods of the entire town to look at how creatively the houses were adorned for the spooky evening. It had always been his favorite holiday—he loved the atmosphere, perfectly described as it was in Father Mark's sermon, that he had come to associate with the famous night. There was something inside him that urged him to don a mask and join the happy-go-lucky children, enjoying the Halloween experience time and again.
He didn't trick-or-treat, though, since he considered that act equal to stealing candy from children. Despite this, he still understood what he was doing to be inappropriate for someone of his age. On more than one occasion, Nelson had tried to cease his Halloween activities, to resist the urge that always welled up every October like clockwork. But the sensation would spread to his physical being: it would tighten painfully in his chest, growing heavier with each passing day leading up to All Hallows' Eve. He had long grown to accept it as a part of who he was. Instead of feeling foolish as he shared the sidewalks with children and their chaperoning parents, he now felt excitement and true freedom. He looked forward to it each year, and each year it was a different sensation, yet fundamentally the same…it was an electricity that tickled his soul. That yearly exhilaration never grew dull, even after so many Halloweens.
And so began his tradition of scouting the town, looking at the Halloween decorations that were already set up or were in the process of being set up. When he came across a house that showed promise, he would scribble down the address so he might come back to it later. It was a methodical search, following a plan that he had drawn up many years ago that would ensure that he would see each and every house in the city. It would take him down street after street after street in a way that seemed to turn the city into a labyrinth. But, despite its complexity, he had driven the same path so many years that he only occasionally looked at the map. He knew of several houses that were always decorated well; those addresses were not added to his list.
Only a couple hours remained before trick-or-treating would officially begin when Nelson finally reached the end of his route. He was famished, having not eaten since breakfast. He ate lunch at a family-owned sit-down restaurant. The nearby Walmart was his next stop on his mental to-do list. He didn't want to deprive any actual candy-seekers from disguising themselves however they wanted desired, so he would always buy his costume the day of. As a result, his options were severely limited: an exotic-looking feathered masquerade ball mask or a cartoonish smiling plastic lion's face that looked like it would crack in an instant. His lip twitched upward slightly when he decided. He returned home to make his final preparations for the night, primarily to exchange his formal outfit for more comfortable jeans, wool shirt, and a jacket.
Abandoning his car in the garage, Nelson walked to the street corner, plastic bag containing his mask in one hand, bus schedule in the other. He didn't really mind public transportation; it was just that it would take so long to get to his specific destination that he would get a sensation of lateness whenever he set foot inside one of the large metal vehicles. In fact, the sole reason why he wasn't taking his own car was because parking on the street during Halloween would get him a ticket if a police officer happened to come by and see his car, and the police were always out patrolling on Halloween night. Besides, he thoroughly enjoyed walking the streets during the October finale, experiencing the spooky goings-on and decorated houses. Everything that was a part of this night of terror was executed in the name of fun.
Nelson stepped off the bus and slipped the mask over his face. His first stop of the night was the most promising house on his list, a brick-red house with a three-car garage. When he was driving around earlier, he had noticed a pair of young boys organizing decorations in some elaborate setup inside the garage. The garage doors were now closed and two cars were parked in the driveway. He could make out an eerie soundtrack emanating from nearby as he drew closer. A woman sat on a folding chair with a large bowl on her lap.
"What have we going on here, now?" Nelson called out cheerfully as he approached the porch.
She hesitated for a second, which was understandable, all things considered. "Oh, the boys"—she gestured at the propped-open side door leading to the garage—"set up a little haunted house in the garage," she recovered quickly. Her tone was kind, friendly, but Nelson could see the curiosity in her eyes. After all, what kind of masked adult—without a chaperoned child in sight—strikes up a conversation with a total stranger on Halloween? She had every right to be wary, of course. A smile, hidden by the cheap plastic, etched across his face.
Nelson glanced at the black portal. "Is it scary?"
The woman beckoned him closer. "Not really," she whispered. The chair creaked as she leaned back. "Oh, yes, very scary," she announced loudly. "I wouldn't go in there if I were you."
"Thanks for the warning, but I think I'll take my chances," he laughed. "Happy Halloween."
"Happy Halloween. Watch the step!"
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust after the darkness gobbled him up whole. The 'haunted house' was cordoned off with tarps that led him in an N-shaped path, taking him past hanging spiders and bats and a bloody ritualistic altar. He paused on the threshold of the final sectioned-off corridor. This was where the music was the loudest. A shovel leaned next to an upright coffin in the corner a few feet away. On the wall, halfway between the wooden corpse-holder and the open door, was a shelf lined with skulls and unlit candles. The last moments of fading light were sneaking through the exit, dully illuminating the space.
He smirked, realizing the purpose of the coffin. Loudly driving his heels into the cement floor, he made his way towards the exit. A bang sounded behind him; Nelson spun around and feigned a frightened yelp. The hinged door hung open, having been slammed against the wall, and a short skeleton stalked slowly towards him. Nelson took a step backward and turned, only to see a robed figure sporting a thorny demon-esque mask in the doorway, blocking the only exit. Nelson gasped and threw up his arms defensively and the two hell spawn closed in on him. He remembered doing the same thing when he was young. Not playing along would spoil their fun, which was something he couldn't live with.
"Unholy beings, I beseech thee! Do not steal my soul. Instead, I can offer you two other souls! A wise woman has told me that there are two boys around here somewhere in this garage." Nelson was on his knees now. "Spare my life and I will help you find them!" The boys glanced at each other for a moment before laughing and taking off their fake faces.
"We're the boys," the once-demon said.
"Whew! I thought you two were really going to kill me or something." Now standing, Nelson placed a hand on his chest. "You guys are good. My heart is still pounding."
"Yeah, we gotcha good, huh?" the bony other added.
"You sure did. Say," Nelson was suddenly serious, "why aren't you two out trick-or-treating?"
"We're gonna scare people now and go trick-or-treating later."
Nelson nodded. "I see. Personally, if I were you, I'd go trick-or-treating now and scare people later. All the kiddies are out right now, and they will be too scared to come through this spooky haunted house you got here. When it gets darker, the older, braver trick-or-treaters will be out. You'll be able to scare more people later tonight and still get candy. That's what I would do, anyway."
The boys looked at each other, seeming to communicate through silent stares. "Dude, let's go now. We can scare people later. Come on."
"'Kay." They slipped past the man.
"Good luck, boys," he called back as he exited out the rear door, a smile hidden behind his plastic face. There was a path leading around to the front of the house and large, untrimmed hedges growing right next to the siding of the house. He looked up. A few more minutes and the sun would be down, creating the perfect Halloween setting. It was turning out to be an excellent night.
Jorge had spent nearly an hour inside the claustrophobic space, watching the occasional group of people pass by, waiting for the perfect opportunity. He had waited for the two boys to go trick-or-treating before sneaking in through the back door of the garage. Soon his tedious planning would pay off. He rolled his tongue over the plastic tube he held in his teeth.
Even over the looped music in the background, he was able to overhear two women conversing. Acting on the other's assurance, one of them entered. He could hear her getting closer: she spoke soft, comforting words to her silent companion. Jorge held his breath in anticipation. The opportune chance had finally arrived.
A figure passed the coffin. It was the woman, hunched over, murmuring comforting words and pushing a small, reluctant child forward through the creepy maze temporarily occupying the garage. As soon as the child saw the safety of the outside, he scrambled forward, eager to put this scary place behind him. Jorge quietly pushed open the hinged door and stalked forward as the woman continued at her own pace. The boy had reached the haven outside. The eerie music drowned out Jorge's footsteps as he came up behind her. The woman would join her child in a few seconds more. Careful not to scrape the ceiling, he hefted the shovel above his head and brought it down on the woman's head. She crumpled to the ground with hardly a sound.
He quickly tugged one of her arms out of the jacket and rolled up her sleeve. Jorge knelt on her upper arm until he could clearly see the veins popping up out of the skin. He plucked the syringe from between his teeth and, carefully watching the plunger, injected the woman with an estimated dosage of Ketamine—based on her weight—to keep her unconscious for several hours.
He capped the needle and hurriedly reinserted her arm into the jacket. "Mommy?" the child whispered into the darkness of the garage. It was too dark for the child to see anything beyond a few feet inside the garage. "Mom?" Jorge slipped a rag and small bottle out of his pocket. A bittersweet smell wafted into his nostrils as he moistened the cloth with the chloroform he had purchased during his recent vacation in Mexico; he quickly screwed the top back onto the bottle. He reached up and pulled his mask down over his face. There is a safety that exists when one's face is hidden. He was no exception. It would be problematic if he were caught, more so if he happened to be exposed at the time.
Jorge grabbed a skull as he passed the shelf and tossed it out the door. The startled child whirled around to see what had flown over his head. Jorge lunged forward and, pressing the cloth firmly over the boy's mouth and nose, pulled him into darkness of the garage. It took only a few seconds for the child to become calmly lethargic. Jorge eased him to the ground before pulling out a resealable plastic bag and shoving both the used syringe and the offensive rag inside.
Jorge worked quickly. He sped to the coffin and propped the shovel back against the wall. Using a fireman's lift, he carried the woman outside and dropped her behind the large, unkempt hedges, taking care that no one should be able to see her. The latex surgical gloves were stripped off and sealed up with the chloroform-doused cloth, and, along with the bottle, was returned to his pocket. He hoisted the loopy kid into his arms; the boy instinctively nuzzled against his shoulder. Then Jorge cut across the lawn, emerging on the next street over. Several groups of trick-or-treaters could be seen going up and down the street, methodically hitting up each house. Not one person cast Jorge a second glance. He blended in perfectly, disguised as a parent of the child he held so affectionately to his chest.
Jorge walked at an easy pace, slowly but steadily distancing himself from the neighborhood where he had snatched the child. It was still relatively early, so Jorge began going house to house to maintain the ruse. He would whisper smooth lies to the candy-givers, saying that his son was tired and that they never should have from walked so far from home. The boy's bag grew heavy with sweets as the trick-or-treating part of Halloween night dragged on. Occasionally the boy would stir and mumble groggily, but these outbursts lasted only a few seconds and were not a cause for concern.
Soon enough, the candy seekers abandoned their quests for more sugar and porch lights started being turned off. Trick-or-treating had come to an end at last. Jorge ceased his treat-gathering and began taking faster, purposeful strides. The time had finally arrived. His chest tightened excitedly with each step.
Jorge had chosen this home carefully. It was a ranch-styled house with tan siding and green shutters. The porch light illuminated a round end table which hosted a withering potted plant with brittle ivy leaves. A brief silence existed after the doorbell had faded into nothingness before the lock was unbolted. "Hello!" the elderly woman smiled. "I'm sorry, but I don't have any more candy that I can give."
"Lots of trick-or-treaters this year," he agreed, "but I was hoping if you could be so kind to allow us to use your bathroom." Jorge nodded at the boy he still carried. "We walked a bit too far from home"—he leaned closer and lowered his voice—"and Brett has to go pee-pee."
"Oh, of course! Come right on in." She pushed open the screen door; Jorge caught it with his foot and maneuvered himself inside, thanking the kind woman. "Nonsense. I've done the same thing with my boys when they were his age. But I'm old; can't even do any good at the shelter no more. Not much else for an old lady like me to do nowadays 'cept help the strangers that come knockin'." She walked slowly, almost a shuffle, leading Jorge down the hallway and through the kitchen. All the kitchen curtains were drawn, Jorge noted. "Toilet's right in there," she said, pointing.
"Thank you, ma'am." Jorge sat the still-groggy boy on the toilet. "Brett? Hey, kiddo, this nice lady let us use her bathroom. Make pee-pee and we can go home to Mommy, okay?"
"Mommy?" the boy slurred.
"Yeah. Make pee-pee and we go see Mommy." The boy hummed his response and moved to stand up. Using his elbow, Jorge nudged shut the door to the bathroom and pushed his mask up onto his forehead, exposing his face. He politely declined the chair the elderly woman offered him when he joined her in the kitchen.
"Is he feeling okay? He's a bit pale."
"I probably shouldn't have let him eat so much candy," he shrugged in a sheepish manner.
"He looks like you, you know."
Jorge smiled. "Thank you." He cleared his throat. "Sorry, but could I bother you for a glass of water?"
"Sure, sure." She stood up and walked to one of the hanging cupboards near the sink. Jorge slinked around behind her. His chest tightened, making it difficult to breathe, as he pulled on a new pair of surgical gloves. A smile played on his lips as he reached into his coat and unbuttoned the long pocket. He had to smuggle this, too, into the States from his trip to Mexico: his prized possession, an M1911 pistol equipped with a sound suppressor. A concealed and unregistered firearm with an illegal attachment—a handful of felonies that could fit into the pocket he had personally sewed into the coat.
She shut the tap off and turned around. "Here you go, dear—" The woman jumped and the cup slipped from her hand, sending shards of glass and water everywhere. They stood there, frozen, one gaping, the other smirking, for what felt like an eternity of agonizing bliss. "Wh—" she swallowed and tried again. "W-what are…are you, you d-doing?" She kept glancing between Jorge and the pistol he had trained on her head. She was shaking. Jorge realized he was, too.
"Trick-or-treating," he replied breathlessly. He grinned wildly, imagining what he must look like through her eyes.
"What?'' She started hyperventilating. "You don't have to"—she eyed the gun and half-gestured toward it—"have to…this."
"Oh! but I do," Jorge breathed. His arms were leaden from having to carry the decoy child around half the night. He was starting to feel lightheaded from the continued exertion.
"What…?" The bewildered helplessness plastered on her wrinkled features tickled him. "Why?"
Jorge laughed. "Because it's the one day of the year I don't have to wear a mask."
"…with a high of fifty-six. In other news, the Halloween Killer struck again last night." Nelson turned up the car's radio. "…our own backyard. Agnes Dandridge was discovered late last night by her son who had come over with his two children for some after-hours trick-or-treating with the late grandmother." Red and blue flashes and a siren forced Nelson to pull over. "…boy was found sleeping in Dandridge's bathroom. The child is suffering from short-term memory loss and is unable to offer any assistance in the on-going investigation. Police who arrived on the scene were baffled by the presence of the child until later that night when it was reported that the boy's mother had been assaulted—" The officer knocked on the glass. Nelson turned down the radio as the window slid open.
"Sir, are you aware that you were speeding?"
"Unfortunately, yes, officer. All Saints' Day Mass begins in less than five minutes and I'm ashamed to admit I am running late this morning."
"License and registration, please," the officer grunted after an almost nonexistent hesitation.
Nelson surrendered the items and the officer returned to his squad car. The early morning air was chilly; Nelson closed the window and increased the volume of the radio.
"…to get inside the house. Like the previous cases, no physical or genetic evidence was recovered from the scene that would be able to help investigators determine who the Halloween Killer is. The only indication that this murder was the work of the Killer was, according to Criminal Profiler Davidson, that this murder fit the Killer's M.O.: the murder was on Halloween night, the cause of death was a single bullet wound to the head, the victim lived alone, and, of course, the fact that a Halloween mask was placed over the victim's face—the Killer's trademark sign. This is the fourteenth suspected murder committed by this serial killer; each year the Halloween Killer has left a different mask, ranging from blank white to Kermit the Frog; this year, the Killer left behind a lion mask…" A knock on the window and the radio was muted once more.
"Alrighty, then,"—he handed the documents to the church-goer—"Mister Jorge Nelson, I'm going to let you off with a warning this time, just so long as you promise to pray for forgiveness when you get to church."
The man smiled up at the officer. "Bless you, sir, I will! Thank you."
"Drive safe, now."
He rolled up the window and drove away slowly. His lips twitched upward. He had only been speeding because he didn't want to miss even a second of the entertainment, or the light show that he knew would occur at precisely7:23. Father Mark reminded him of Jonathan Edwards. It was better than television.