The Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major played quietly in the background, the volume level of dinner music in a restaurant. It could be heard enough for ambiance, not the focus of attention, and it would have blended into the background without barely a recognition that it played if not for the fact that it was a sound very much out of place in its surroundings.
The guards had heard the song no fewer than a dozen times each day. Maddening for them, the Mozart piece was the only thing that seemed to sedate the inmate. Mandatory isolation, pharmacological interventions, all were ineffective in keeping the aggression at bay. That is, except for the music, a cliché about the soothing of the savage. The song swept over the man upon the first few notes, a trance-like euphoria that was visible from the half-closed and drugged-like pose of his eyelids to the close-lipped smile and the subtle sway of his body from one side to the other. Sometimes, there were tears in his eyes and he would mouth something as if there were lyrics to the sonata.
The inmate gently scraped the chain from his cuffs against the metal table in a movement reminiscent of a conductor’s right hand, the direction for the heartbeat of the instruments. The sound was as low as the music that played in the background, yet coarse, metal to metal scraping, a sound unpleasant to most and for some truly unbearable.
“You have twenty minutes,” the taller of the two guards stated. He was an intimidating presence with a large, muscular frame, dark eyes and an almost expressionless face. He dictated the rules.
Your hands do not go beyond this line on the table.
You are not to pass anything to the inmate.
You can take notes but only on your device, no pens or pencils.
Cameras are prohibited.
Most of these rules are for your safety.
Then the men transformed into statues. Their backs were to the cinderblock wall, facing the inmate without making eye contact. They were scenery, a reminder of the purpose of that drab place. Their eyes wandered off to somewhere more pleasant than the dank visitors’ room at the state prison.
Kaleb scanned the chalk-colored, concrete walls that surrounded them, the cracks that proclaimed the age of the building. Calls for its closing rose up on occasion because of insufficient facilities to ensure humane incarceration. Regardless of the periodic outcries, there was no stomach for building a new prison.
The warden agreed to the interview, but only in the evening hours to avoid the chatter and potential backlash from the neighboring public.
There was a bright light that hung, out of reach, from the ceiling. A table and two chairs were positioned directly under the light in the center of the room. Kaleb sat in one chair, The Hunter in the other.
That’s what they called him, The Hunter. In his first story about the murders, Kaleb quoted the prison guard who nicknamed the old man. After the story ran, every major news outlet in the country called him The Hunter. But Kaleb wrote it first. He broke the story and it was the beginning of a young journalist’s climb to success. More career-making assignments came his way to the disgust of his colleagues.
Kaleb’s story sold newspapers. Editors liked it. The publisher certainly did. The critics, the purists, the defenders of news pointed to the coverage as further eroding the credibility of journalism, that his angle was no better than when the tabloids invented Bat Boy and Alive Elvis in the eighties. Tabloids that once captured the nation’s imagination now left to rot next to supermarket checkout lines, overshadowed by the immense hole of cyberspace.
And now, he landed the exclusive interview.
Kaleb was nervous. He fiddled with his tablet and phone, arranging them several times on the table until he built up the courage to look The Hunter in the eye. The old man was still, silent. He stared at Kaleb, stone-faced, watching attentively as the reporter tried to compose himself.
Mozart drifted around their breaths and created a disturbing calm in the room. The song had already progressed to the recapitulation and Kaleb wondered if it would simply start again, if they played the sonata on a loop.
“Mr. Hadley, thank you for talking with me,” he said.
“Mr. Hadley,” the old man repeated, “am I Mr. Hadley now?”
Kaleb looked into the bloodshot eyes of the interviewee, weathered skin folded around the sockets. The old man’s face was a blanched leather.
“That’s not what you called me in your articles.”
Kaleb looked into the air, as if he could see the notes that Mozart had composed as they floated about the room like puffs of smoke with complex composition.
“My son,” The Hunter responded to the reporter’s search through the musical air.
“I’m sorry?” Kaleb asked.
“He was a classically trained musician. A pianist. Started when he was three. He was studying at Juilliard when they killed him. Weren’t you wondering about the music? Nothing else left.”
“That must have been traumatic for you,” Kaleb responded.
The Hunter leaned back in the chair. His eyes were unchanged and unwavering as they were set on the eyes of the reporter. Yet, his attention was clearly divided between the conversation and the sonata. Kaleb felt like he was being studied. It wasn’t the first time he had jockeyed for position with an interviewee. There was often a bit of a power struggle at the beginning of an interview, the more seasoned or arrogant subjects opened with more of a battle of wits, a chess match. However, patience and training, waiting for the right moment and knowing how to tell when it was there, would often win out for a good reporter in the end. Kaleb was certain he was about to slip into a slow and steady chess match, until the subject abruptly countered.
“Let’s cut to the chase. Ask me why,” the inmate in orange attire, straggly and unwashed hair, and full wiry beard, offered to the reporter.
Kaleb, anticipating the chess match, was caught off guard by the abrupt offering, a very brief loss of composure when the obvious was so easily thrown on the table.
“You have the what, where, how and when. You are just here for the why. So, ask me why,” the inmate followed when the response was not immediately touching his ears.
“O.K.,” Kaleb said. “Why did you kill them?”
“Because they were unfit for this world, that simple.”
“Seven people, just unfit for the world?”
“Not people. Although very similar, I suppose at some point the genome split and went different ways. Or maybe meant to appear to be similar. Like the Orchid Mantis. It’s a bug that looks like a flower to attract its prey.”
The Hunter continued to conduct the music that played behind and it was plain to see he was not completely part of the conversation, rather more a translucent presence, there but not completely there, which made the grasp on the intent of Kaleb’s questions and the manner in which they were answered all the more surprising.
“You are quite a writer. You should be a novelist with those descriptions. What was the word you used? Savagery? You painted me as a real monster.”
“Aren’t you?” Kaleb asked, surprised that the words left his lips.
“I hunt the monsters. That’s what I do. If that makes me one, then so be it.”
Kaleb ran his fingers through his night black hair, a compulsion that was part reaction to anxiety, part vanity, the thick strands and perfect hairline.
“During your guilty plea, you stated that you were protecting the public from a being that humanity has known for centuries but has little comprehension. What did you mean by that?”
“If you can’t comprehend, what is the point of explaining. Continue to live in your ignorance while others like me do what is necessary.”
The inmate looked tired. His face, full of wrinkles, seemed to sag with the weight of past actions. He was old, late sixties to early seventies, but far from feeble. He was tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders and immense forearms. The sleeves of his orange jumper were rolled up, exposing the muscle.
The inmate, The Hunter, had killed seven people viciously, and seemingly without conscience. Each one, the throat slit, and upon bleeding out and dead, the head removed. His acts were as savage as any murder that had ever been documented. The blood alone, sprayed like a sprinkler on the floors and walls, would have been enough to affirm the atrocities. But to see them, faces separated from bodies, anguished faces left suspended as if time were frozen at the moment of their anguish.
“Your dramatic final words in the courtroom, before they removed you…they were pretty unconventional, out there. It kind of sounded like you were describing vampires.”
Kaleb intentionally trivialized an intense moment during the sentencing before Hadley was dragged out of the courtroom. The technique was meant to illicit emotion, to bait the interviewee so he would share more in an attempt to delegitimize the trivialization. Chess.
“Vampires. A ridiculous Hollywood adaptation of a silly superstition from peasants in old Europe,” Hadley sneered, and for the first time since being brought into that room for the interview, he had stopped conducting.
“Then if not vampires, what were you describing? You must want someone to know. If not, why say it in the courtroom at all?”
The Hunter leaned forward, as far as the chains on his wrists would allow, careful not to cross the line on the table that would engage the guards like flipping a switch. His greasy gray-black hair fell over his eyes.
“The real story is far older and far more real. The ancient Sumerians were the first to draw the road map. They called them the Ekimmu. A few other cultures tracked their movement, but it wasn’t long before other superstitions polluted the knowledge.”
“So, what are we saying? The Ekimmu are real blood suckers?”
Kaleb knew he was running out of time for the interview and wanted to get to what was just out of his reach for the story. The hook. That tantalizing nugget that draws the reader in.
“Blood suckers are a child’s way of understanding the enormity of real nightmares. The Ekimmu drain another way.”
“So, this is about some old Sumerian myth?”
“Myths are fiction. The Ekimmu are very real and they feed, but in a way that is far less revealing than Christopher Lee’s punctures to the neck. They are often reported as causes unknown because the corpse is so decomposed it is difficult to determine. The assumption, because no external factors were present. The decomposition led lazy experts to believe the bodies were left undetected for days. But I have seen the body in this state within minutes of death. My son.”
Hadley looked up at the ceiling. Eyes shifted back and forth inside a stationary head like he was looking for something while trying to be cautious of movement and mouthed my son a few times to whatever he was searching for on the ceiling.
“The white hair is the only thing that gets a raised eyebrow,” he continued. “Because there is no seemingly scientific reason a dead person’s hair would turn completely white, and it turning white from fear is an old wives’ tale.”
“You are saying that Ekimmu victims die from seemingly natural causes, masked by rapid decomposition, and their hair turns white,” Kaleb repeated.
Hadley’s eyes returned to the reporter.
“They take the lifeforce. Suck it right out of you. That’s how this whole vampire business got started.”
Jackpot, Kaleb thought. There’s the money shot. The hook. The red pill that keeps them reading.
The guards emerged from the cinderblock camouflage, indicating the interview was overview.
“Thank you for your time Mr. Hadley,” Kaleb told the interviewee, but he was already removed from the conversation and back inside the sonata.
Back outside, away from the confines of the prison, Kaleb was reminded how quickly the night creeps in during the fall. He had walked through the long, dreary corridor to the main desk, signed out and headed for the gate, never peering over his shoulder, never looking anywhere except for straight ahead where his eyes met the darkness. He sat across from a killer, and now he would go home and write the story, complete the series, give closure to his readers, and accept the praise.
Even with the creeping night fall, the parking lot was especially dark. Every light that lined the spaces was out.
No. Lights were on in the lot on the other side of the prison. He strained to see into the darkness, barely able to make out the beginning of the path and the cars in the first row.
Kaleb stepped cautiously. He plotted a line from the main gate to where he remembered his car was, about one hundred and fifty yards away, staying in the middle of the path, as far from the parked cars on either side and using them as a guide to walk a straight line. Finger on the panic button of the key, he pushed it compulsively, hoping the beacon would call to him soon. Every few feet, he picked up the pace. His head moved from side to side like a security camera, monitoring the dark crevices between the cars as he walked by each one.
At the halfway point, Kaleb almost convinced himself to turn back. It was ridiculous for him to have to walk through a dark parking lot alone. And a prison parking lot for that matter. He walked faster. His head bounced around like it was made of rubber, sorting through even the slightest movement in the darkness, and his thumb continued to push the button on the car key over and over and faster until blinking taillights appeared only a few yards ahead and a horn alarm pierced the darkness, which made him jump and nearly dive into the dark space between the cars.
Kaleb disengaged the car alarm and jogged the remaining few yards until reaching the driver’s side. The primitive fear, the fight or flight surge of adrenaline began to subside and a feeling of embarrassment replaced it, for being afraid of the dark the way a child is. He even laughed a bit as he reached for the door handle.
Then he froze. Hand in mid-air, perfectly still, not even blinking.
A presence was behind Kaleb. It was so close, he could feel its breath. At least, he assumed it breath, even though the air that was expelled was as cold as winter and it smelled like fresh earth. Coldness touched his hair, then leaned against his ear lobe, and it sniffed him. He was sure. It nestled in his hair, at the earlobe, and took a deep, primal inhale the way a predator sniffs its defeated prey.
Kaleb couldn’t move. He began to let out a quiet whimper, also a primal response, like a lost cub without its mother in the grips of something it is too young to understand in the wild.
As quick as the presence had come upon its prey and seized its position, ready to feed, it was gone. Kaleb managed the strength to turn and scan the parking lot just as the lights went on, as perfectly orchestrated as the sonata playing during the interview with The Hunter.
It was twelve in the afternoon. Kaleb was still in bed. His eyes wide open as he tried to rationalize the sickening moment in the parking lot the night before. He stared at the television news, without really watching it. The television was on as a distraction, but it could not hold his attention, until The Hunter was mentioned.
Just two hours ago, police were summoned to the prison to investigate a murder. The Hunter was found dead in his cell, no comment from the prison other than causes unknown.
Kaleb dialed the warden’s office. Her administrative assistant answered. The name was Corrine, but she went by Corey. Kaleb had spoken to her several times leading up to the interview and on the day of, he had brought her a gift from the city, fresh New York City bagels, because she told him the ones in her small town just don’t compare.
“Corey, it’s Kaleb. Can I talk to the warden?”
“Sorry Kaleb. He is with the coroner.”
“What happened?” Kaleb asked, pacing the small space by the apartment door.
“Sorry Kaleb. I have been instructed to refer any media to the county’s public information officer.”
“C’mon Corey. It’s off the record. That man was alive and well when I saw him last night. He is in solitary confinement. And he just died?”
“I can’t, Corey. You have to talk to the PIO.”
Flashes of the night before flickered through his mind. The icy breath. The feeling of his scent being enjoyed before the feast.
“O.K. Then crazy question for you. An utterly absurd one. And if it is, you will hang up on me because you will think I am crazy and we can both go about our day.”
Kaleb took a deep breath and sent the absurd words on a stream of expelled air.
“Was the body in decay? Rotting? Like he had been dead for days?”
There was silence on the other side. He understood it to be a confirmation or affirmation or testament.
“Corey, was his hair turned white?”
“Kaleb, I have to go now.”
Corey hung up the phone. Kaleb kept the phone to his ear for a few seconds longer to listen to the silence and come to terms with a newfound validity to the claims of a madman.
He stepped into the bathroom to meet his reflection in the mirror above the sink. Out of habit, the reporter ran his fingers through the perfect black hair, to rake it back out of his face. On the side of his head, near the ear, the place where he felt the icy breath and contact from the night before, streaked through the black strands was pure bleached white.
Kaleb turned off the television and crawled into bed. The sun shone bright through the window. The sounds of traffic and people rose from the street below. He closed his eyes, taking comfort that the sun had finally risen. The story deadline had passed. He hadn’t written a single word.