Melancholic notes echoed in the eerie silence. Lana’s blood-red eyes matched her dress. A year after her husband’s death, she had finally picked up the courage to wear her favourite colour. Alas, her joys had been short-lived.
She clasped her ears shut, but the venomous words refused to leave her alone. Slut. Whore. Characterless – the names the townsfolk had called her.
Little Jess watched in silence – not realising this was the beginning of the descent.
Lana winced as the strong liquid singed her insides. Drunk on loneliness and alcohol, she stumbled in front of the mirror. The wine-red gown – her secret escapade. Her ruby necklace and matching earrings twinkled in the light, but her heart was drowning in a sea of sadness.
The five-year-old waited helplessly for Lana to be the loving mother once again – not knowing she had sunk far too deep.
The red, once a source of joy, had now become the harbinger of doom.
Roles reversed. The six-year-old became an adult, forced to take care of the shattered mother.
The world watched and mocked, not realizing their barbs were breaking the woman beyond repair.
A storm of anger and resentment was brewing inside Jess, but Lana couldn’t see beyond her pain.
Jess crouched inside the cupboard; one eye glued to the scene outside. Lana’s horrendous screams were getting louder and unbearable. The feeble frame shuddered inside the wooden doors, hoping to get away from it all – the smell of despair mingling with a metallic smell; the dreadful screams giving way to a deathly silence; the scarlet stream inching closer and closer.
But unfortunately, the scene remained unforgettable.
The pain- numbing the senses forever.
The anger, relief, and then the guilt – became a part of Jess.
A black curtain engulfed the eight-year-old, but red became ingrained in the senses forever.
Red – Love. Longing. Anger!
About a dozen homicides had rocked Midtown Scottek.
The Sheriff, Dave Johanson, sat in silence, admiring the expert at work. Not surprisingly, he felt a strange sense of relief. The Homicide department’s senior-most detective, Louise Morgan, had been assigned the task of catching ‘The Collector’- a nickname given by the media to the murderous psychopath. With her enviable track record, Detective Morgan was respected and valued by all. Her efforts had given closure to countless families.
She chewed on her pencil. Speckles of graphite stuck to her lips, but she continued chewing, blissfully unaware of the ungainly sight. Her brows furrowed in concentration as she studied the board filled with dates, names, locations, and photographs.
‘Details please,’ Morgan spat a mushy gunk which landed near the Sheriff’s polished shoes.
Ignoring the revolting mess, he pushed his chair and pointed to the board. ‘This is Veira Donelly – our first victim. We found her body in a vacant parking lot behind Flint Street. Cause of death – blood loss.’ He pointed to the long gash on the slender wrist and paused, waiting for the detective’s response. But she was bent over her notebook, scribbling furiously. When she showed no signs of speaking, he continued.
‘Gloria Ogsten – the second victim was a student at Sunshine College. Body found at Redwood Avenue. This incident happened almost two months later.’ He passed on a photograph to Morgan.
‘Then nothing happened for three months. But in the past two months, we’ve witnessed six more murders. It’s as if the psychopath is getting fearless. We’ve increased night patrolling, fixed more cameras, issued advisories in the community. But nothing has helped. The fear in the community is at an all-time high, while my team’s morale is at rock bottom. And on top of it, the media is driving us bonkers.’ The Sheriff wiped the beads of sweat shining on his broad forehead.
Morgan leaned back in her chair, tapping her foot furiously.
‘He attacks only women. In lonely areas. Uses a sharp blade. Cuts run along the arm.’ The Sheriff spoke without even consulting his notes as if he had the entire repository of information inside his brain.
He pointed towards a photograph. ‘See that froth from the mouth? Common to all the victims.’
‘Hmm… Did the autopsy reveal any drugs or alcohol?’
‘Nope. No alcohol in the blood either.’
‘Any links between these women?’
‘Nothing we could find.’
‘Did the victims have a record? Charge sheets?’
The Sheriff scoffed, ‘Morgan, no illegal activities are happening here. This is a close-knit community. There’s a church, schools, a community college, a grocery store, a bakery, a flower shop, but not a single casino or bar. Can you believe the cases we get – placement of garbage bins, the height of the hedges or neighbours forgetting to greet each other!’
‘Just trying to connect the dots. Are any of these shops new?’
‘The bakery reopened after renovation recently. The florist and the grocer are fairly new.’
Morgan felt her ears prick but slumped back on hearing the definition of fairly new–1.5 years.
‘Did you notice – there’s a bit of red in every picture?’
The Sheriff appeared to be stumped by the information. ‘Is it relevant to the case?’
‘Not sure, but I think it’s a vital clue. Anything else?’
The Sheriff passed her a file.
|List of Missing Items|
|Victim no. 1||Handbag|
|Victim no. 2||Stilettos|
|Victim no. 3||Undergarments|
|Victim no. 4||Gown|
|Victim no. 5||Big toe of the right foot|
|Victim no. 6||Ring finger of the left hand|
|Victim no. 7||An enormous chunk of hair|
|Victim no. 8||Forearm|
Morgan banged the file shut. ‘Mind if I occupy this room longer?’
‘Be my guest. I’ll be in my office if you need me.’
‘Isn’t it beautiful, Mom?’ Jess laughed, admiring the burgeoning collection lined on the shelf. Two glass jars filled with formalin, each holding precious trophies – a finger and a toe. Next to them were a clean pair of stilettos, neatly folded gown, bra, and panties. The latest addition went into another container–a tattooed forearm. The vermilion butterfly slightly faded.
Morgan left the police building in an unmarked police car. She passed by vacant verdant fields, muttering under her breath at the sight of goats lounging in the silent pastures. The greens seemed to stretch till the horizons, with no buildings or people in sight. How can people live in such places!
Soon she heard the tintinnabulations of the church bell. Not a believer herself, but she knew from experience that in small towns the Pastor and grocer were most likely to know the community the best.
Parking the sedan under the shade of an enormous tree, she walked on the weathered cobblestone road towards the church.
‘Father?’ Her steps echoed in the silence as she veered towards the white-robed man kneeling in front of the crucifix.
‘What brings you here, my child?’
‘I’ve a few questions.’
‘And I believe you are not seeking answers from Him.’ A calm knowing smile spread on his face.
Morgan smirked Mr. Know-It-All. ‘I am Detective Morgan. I’m investigating the spate of recent murders.’
Within a few moments, Morgan was out of the old building, and still in the same place where she was before. What a waste of time!
The pastor had joined the congregation less than two months ago and was still getting to know people. He had only one recommendation – a Mrs. Dubiliny. One of the long-time residents, who seemed to know all the residents.
Back home, Morgan had extra pairs of eyes and ears–her wide network of informers–beggars and homeless people. But in this clean town, she could rely only on herself.
A few red petals and cookie crumbs on the bonnet and a piece of paper stuck on her car’s windshield attracted her attention. There was no one around. Surreptitiously, she made her way towards it.
Go back, lady! You don’t want to end up in a lonely place, do you?
A mild tangy stench emanated from the paper, causing her nose to itch.
Jess smirked at the detective’s discomfort.
C’mon detective, it’s game time!
The threatening letter was no doubt from the murderer. With her gloved hands, Morgan shoved the paper, crumbs, and petals into an envelope and got behind the wheel.
The Sheriff answered on the first ring as if he had been waiting for her call.
‘I need another car. Ask your assistant to leave one outside Mrs. Dubiliny’s house.’
‘You’re going to meet Bella, the gossipmonger?’ He sounded disappointed.
She continued, ignoring his question, ‘he can leave the key under the car.’
She was about to disconnect when she remembered, ‘I am sending across a paper. Please send it for DNA and handwriting analysis. Also, I want a detailed Alkaloid and Isoquinoline Poisoning Workup on the last victim.’ Without further delay, she explained the contents of the threatening letter.
You are one step ahead right now, Mr. Killer. Not for long, though.
‘Mom, is it sharp enough?’ With practiced ease, Jess sharpened the knife on the sharpening stone. The evil glint in Jess’s eyes matched the blade.
The obsidian knife was Jess’s prized possession. One straight line across the length of the arm and game over!
The pinewood door swung open even before Morgan could ring the bell.
‘Welcome, Carla! I was expecting you.’ A silver-haired lady beamed.
Word sure travels fast here. ‘Uh- it’s Morgan. Detective Morgan. Thank you! Mind if I come in?’
Morgan held the door with one hand and gazed at the poorly maintained garden and the vast emptiness beyond. Not a single leaf stirred, but she felt an unexplainable uneasiness in the pit of her stomach. Am I being watched?
She flinched as a miasma of boiled cabbage, medicines, and sweat welcomed her.
‘I don’t get visitors often these days. After Bob left, I’ve been living alone. Oh! Where are my manners? Would you care for some tea, dear?’ The matronly woman inquired but showed no signs of entering the kitchen.
‘That’s alright ma’am.’
The old lady heaved a sigh of relief. ‘let’s sit then. You look so much like my daughter.’ She pointed towards the photograph on the mantel – a blond woman in her mid 30s, creamy complexion and hazel eyes.
Morgan sat on the worn-out couch and felt the spring wobble. ‘You’re one of the oldest residents. What do you think about these murders?’
‘Oh! It’s the girls’ fault. Dressing indecently, going out with strangers.’
Not what I wanted to know. ‘Well, do you suspect anyone?’
‘Do you remember any neighbours who seemed suspicious or angry? Or any strange incidents?’
‘Not really. But there was this child. Oh, a long time ago now. I think Rozeniack’s or was it Wolhard’s? I don’t remember clearly. No father. And the mother was a bad character woman. But the child… very disturbed.’ She shuddered in horror. ‘Breaking other kids’ toys, stealing bicycles, crushing flowers, even killing butterflies.’
‘Was there a pattern to the activities? The toys, bicycles, –any particular colour?’
‘Colour? I don’t know.’
‘Is that family still here?’
‘No, not yours. That child’s?’
‘Which child?’ Mrs. Dubiliny slurred as her eyes drooped and clasped shut. Morgan rolled her eyes at the bottles of pills lined on the side table.
When soft snores filled the room, Morgan had no option but to leave.
What a miserable town! She stepped out, feeling frustrated. In place of the unmarked car, now stood a grey SUV. Her phone buzzed–” key under the driver’s seat.”
She was about to reach for the door when a piercing scream rang through the air. A man in red shorts and a red T-shirt was running towards her waving a glinting scalpel.
Her years of training came to her rescue.
‘Mom! watch this!’ Jess sat glued to the TV–fidgeting with the remote. Any time now!
The Sheriff’s eyes sparkled as he posed for the flashing cameras. ‘It gives me great joy to announce we’ve caught The Collector. We will share further details in due course. But I can assure our residents the murderer is behind bars and there is no cause for concern.’
‘How are you sure you have caught the right guy?’ a veteran reporter held up her recorder.
‘We found the suspect in possession of incriminating materials.’ He pointed to the contents found in the red-colored bag–photos of all the victims.
Morgan left the conference, but a feeling of unease refused to leave her. It can’t be that simple. How can this bedraggled man kill so many women? What if he is not the killer? What is his motive?
The Sheriff had asked Morgan to join in the press meet, but she had refused. He could enjoy the limelight. She had somewhere else to be.
Jess made an entry in the journal. The crimson lettering was a sight to behold and rejoice. ‘Mom, you are gonna love this! I fooled the detective! I am way smarter than her, isn’t it?’
Morgan entered the brick-red building. Girls in pleated skirts and boys wearing striped trousers were moving about in an orderly fashion along the corridor.
She walked in the opposite direction and knocked softly on the ornate door.
‘Yes,’ a stentorian voice answered.
A voice befitting the role, Morgan thought, as she entered the principal’s office at Coalworth Primary School.
‘Good morning, ma’am. We spoke over the phone. I am Detective Morgan.’
With a firm handshake, the bespectacled woman requested her to sit.
‘I checked the school records. This child was a student here till grade 5. A sweet child, but traumatized by the mother’s death. A suicide, I believe. The child was put in foster care. You can go through this file but I am afraid I cannot permit you to take it with you.’ She glanced at the clock, clearly indicating she didn’t want to discuss anything further.
‘You can use the conference room. 3rd door to the left. Once you are done, please leave the file with my secretary.’
The conference room was well lit and smelt of lavender. Morgan plonked herself on a wooden desk and started studying the file.
|Grade 1||A cheerful and fun-loving child. Fond of playing with blocks and fire-trucks.|
|Grade 2||Child’s father passed away. Seems withdrawn of late.|
|Grade 3||Erratic behaviour.|
|Grade 4||Deeply disturbed since mother’s death. Engaging in bullying. Snatched a child’s pencil box. Broke a classmate’s water bottle. Stole teacher’s handbag.|
|Child taken by Protective Services. File closed.|
Morgan held the passport-sized photograph in her hand. Mushroom cut. Pale complexion. Mottled skin. Sad eyes.
Are you the one I am looking for?
Her phone vibrated non-stop, breaking her chain of thoughts. She held the phone away from her ear. The Sheriff screamed, ‘Morgan, the bastard is still out there. Come to Boulder Street.’ The motley crowd of curious onlookers, along with feisty reporters, meant Morgan had reached the right spot.
Ducking under the yellow police tape, Morgan veered closer to the body and surveyed the scene.
In a dingy alley was lying a woman with her body bent at a painful angle. The torn red dress, froth from the mouth, scratch marks on her hands, and messy hair gave her a grotesque appearance.
Jess filled a tall jar with formalin and admired the latest collection. ‘Mom, isn’t this a real beauty?’
‘Morgan, this victim’s condition differs from the others. But we are certain it’s the same guy.’
The Sheriff lifted the white sheet to reveal a missing leg
Morgan’s stomach contents curdled, and she felt her breakfast rising to her throat.
‘She really fought back.’
‘Yes. Forensics has found some skin and hair residue under her nails.’ The Sheriff was seething in anger.
‘What’s that?’ Morgan picked up something using a pair of forceps.
A petal. Similar to the one left on her windscreen.
She knelt and smelled the victim’s face. Her nostrils tingled at the scent–fresh and lemony.
A victorious smile appeared on her face as she held up her buzzing phone – it was an update on the poisoning workup.
‘Sheriff, it’s time to pay a visit to one of your residents.’
A confident Morgan raced to the police jeep.
‘Bloody bitch! You’ve ruined my plans… Sorry about the language, Mom.’ Jess winced as the antiseptic singed the bruised skin.
Jess’s hands moved in clockwork fashion. Jars went inside carton boxes. Into a brick-red backpack went the journal, gowns, and undergarments. The priced seeds, petals, twigs, leaves, and spray canisters went into air-tight containers.
‘Mom, we’ve to leave,’ Jess sighed, the shoulders slumped in despair.
Copperfield Avenue was usually desolate in the afternoons. The rows of shops lining the boardwalk sprang to life towards the evening when the sea breeze set in.
A steady stream of police cars noiselessly entered and parked around the shops. The shutters were down in most of them. Morgan mouthed, ‘There!’ pointing towards a flower shop – “The Bleeding Hearts.”
Two cops followed her and the Sheriff. About half a dozen went to the rear end.
‘Police!’ Morgan warned and burst open the door.
The shop was in complete disarray. Broken vases and crushed flowers lay all around. Carton boxes packed and piled on top of each other.
The television was on, relaying details of the latest victim.
An unpleasant pot-pourri of smells made her puke – floral, fruity, lemony, metallic.
‘In here!’ shouted somebody.
An obsidian knife lay on thick blood pooled under the couch. And on the maroon couch was a pale young woman – dressed in a red gown, wearing a ruby necklace–a thin slit running along her arm.
The burgundy walls stood mute, witnessing a catastrophe.
The magenta-coloured wall clock continued ticking, regardless of the doom.
Morgan picked up a vermilion-coloured letterhead, read for a while and handed it to the Sheriff. ‘It’s over now.’
The Sheriff read the confession letter to the media:
THE TRUTH – FOR THE BENEFIT OF MY FANS…
I am not a psychopath, as the Sheriff claims. I am quite normal. And actually innocent.
None of this is my fault.
NONE OF THIS IS!
People say my mother, Lana Rozeniack committed suicide. But in reality, she was murdered. Yes! Murdered! By these bloody townsfolk.
They snatched my mother from me.
And this is my revenge. 😊
The last memory I have of her is her wearing a red dress – a colour deemed unfit for a widow! Growing up, I felt red was my only connection to my mother. I hated when others had red toys, bicycles, or even balloons.
I was shunted from one foster home to another, but wherever I went, my mom came along with me.
In one of the foster homes, I chanced upon a poisonous flower – Bleeding Hearts. I fed it to their dog, and it… Let’s just say, it inspired me to make a secret spray. I wanted to patent the formula, but it looks like the secret would die with me too… Quite unfortunate!
The potent spray would send these women into seizures. And then I would carve out their punishment–slowly, very slowly. If my mom can’t wear red, nobody else can!
As a reward, I always took a keep-sake. My Mom loves my collection too. You can read all about it in my journal.
Now you tell me, have I done anything wrong? Wouldn’t you feel the same if someone snatched your mother’s happiness?
I used to enjoy reading the reporters’ claims that I had a special way of choosing my targets. Let me tell you the secret – it was nothing but the colour red! That’s all it ever was. And that’s all it ever will be.
I was planning to run away. But this bloody detective messed up my plans. I never thought my end would be like this. I had always imagined giving TV interviews, answering questions… but turns out, I don’t want to go to prison. Ha Ha!
I am feeling fuzzy… that means it’s time to bid farewell, but remember my warning–red is mine and my mother’s.
Forever and ever!
Jessica Rozeniack, ‘The Collector.’
P.S – every part of Bleeding Hearts is poisonous.
The Sheriff and the Detective prepared to face the volley of questions. Though Morgan heaved a sigh of relief, a part of her felt sad for the young woman.
She held the community responsible for the havoc unleashed on them. Their judgmental behaviour ruined not only Jessica’s and Lana’s life but also of many innocent families. If the community had been truly close-knit, Lana wouldn’t have taken such an extreme step. Jessica could have led a normal life, filled with love and happiness, instead of searching for a lost bond and losing herself in the end.