Y’know, I rather enjoyed doing the haunted house story for Luna’s recent writing prompt; I haven’t really done a lot of writing, especially fiction, as of late, so it was good to get back into that with a little bit of spooky inspiration. Unfortunately, I’ve got no good ideas at all for the next prompt Luna came out with (zombie survival!), but I did have a weird moment where an entire short story (of slightly surreal spookiness) just came to me, so I figured I may as well try to write that instead. Sorry I’m not participating this week, Luna – next week, hopefully!
Let’s see how this one turns out, shall we?
‘What do you mean, you haven’t heard about the murders?’ I demand, utter shock and dismay flowing through my headset and into the ear on the other end of the line. ‘Well, that’s exactly why I’m calling you today, actually – people clearly aren’t aware of this, and we really just need to get the word out there. People need to know!’
‘You’re saying there’s a killer on the loose?’
‘That is exactly what I’m saying. The worst – it’s just appalling, it really…’ I allow my voice to catch slightly, and press a trembling knuckle against my lips to stop them shaking. I don’t know why I bother; it’s not like he can see me, but it’s all part of the performance. ‘All these murders, all around the country, all the work of one terrible, terrible man, and we just can’t – we can’t let him keep getting away with this!’
He exhales, and I can tell I’ve hooked him. Just need to reel him in. ‘What can I do to help?’ he asks, and that’s it. Hook, line, and sinker. I guide him through making the payment, thank him for his help in this truly most important of causes, and sign off with a smile. Have a nice day, I tell him, and mean it. In a few days, there’ll be little square blocks set aside in all the papers and magazines in his local area, dedicated to his sponsored advertisement informing people about the horrible murders and imploring them to be vigilant.
‘You’re such a dickhead,’ Matt informs me, not for the first time. He’s reading an email or something at the desk next to mine, where he sits surrounded by little bobble-head figures; apparently having them stare at him constantly is a self-guilt-trip strategy designed to encourage him to get stuff done, but they must not be staring hard enough because I’ve not seen it working yet.
I slide my phone headset off so that it dangles around my neck: the ‘casual pro’ look. ‘What, because I make sales?’
‘No, because -‘
‘Because I make people feel that they’re contributing, doing their bit to promote justice and fight evil in the world?’
‘No, because -‘
‘Because I took your sister home with me the other night?’ (Not true. Wouldn’t be caught dead with Matt’s sister.)
‘Ugh. No. Because you’re stirring up fear, telling people about all these murders going on. That guy’s probably terrified he’s going to be next now.’
‘No, he won’t, he’ll be feeling safe and reassured in the knowledge that he’s helping in the effort to catch the culprit.’
‘There is no culprit.’
‘Well, I know that, and you know that, but he thinks he’s protecting the peace.’
Matt scratches his head, looking somewhere between distressed and impressed. ‘You know… I know our job is to sell advertising space, and we’re supposed to get people to advertise whatever they want, but I don’t think anyone had this in mind.’
‘Why does it matter?’ I challenge him. ‘I’ve sold a ton of adverts, paid for by justice-loving citizens who are being responsible pillars of the community.’
‘They’re paying us money to place adverts about a killer who doesn’t exist.’
‘Yeah, but they think – we’ve been over this, Matt, c’mon.’
Matt sighs and gets back to his emails. I stick my headset back on and dial the next number.
The next day, I pick up a local paper on the way to work. Flip through, wondering if I might spot – yep, there it is. The fruits of my labours, a square of ink and paper that’s paying my rent. It’s a big one, actually; I can’t remember who I persuaded to pay for this, but it must have been a decent sale. The ad takes up almost half the page, warning everyone in no uncertain terms that they simply must remain watchful for the dastardly perpetrator of the grisly murders occurring from John O’Groats to Land’s End. (I managed to pick up a sale in both of those places in a single week last month. That commission paid for a new suit.)
Please, says the advert. I have a wife and children, and I can’t bear to think that this horrible thing could take them away from me. Let’s force this evil person to turn himself in, or make it so that everyone knows his face! (Not a bad little call to action there, I think; I drafted the text myself so that people might actually place ads without me even having to call them. Passive income. It’s where it’s at.) Then, under that, one of those mocked-up pictures that sort of resembles what a criminal might look like, possibly. I got a sketch artist to come up with a generic male face that looks as if you just might recognise it, but there’s no way you’d ever actually match anyone to it. Not bad, if I say so myself.
I stroll down the street to my office. Just as I’m about to go in, I stop, holding the door half-open. I’m sure I heard –
‘Have you seen today’s Echo?’ someone’s saying.
‘Oh, yeah. Can’t believe they’re tearing down the old swimming pool.’
‘No, there’s – this – look!’ I can just about hear the rustling of thin paper.
‘Murders?’ The voice sounds taken aback.
‘This says there are people getting killed all over the country, and they reckon it’s one guy doing it.’
‘That’s horrible! Why have we not heard about this?’
‘I don’t even know. This seems like it should be all over the national news, front pages, TV…’
‘Well, you could get it on TV.’
I close the door and try to lean casually against the wall, listening in.
‘I can’t get it on tonight, but maybe tomorrow,’ the first voice says thoughtfully. ‘I mean, people need to know.’
Oh, yeah, that’s right – a couple of buildings down is the TV news station. Damn it – if they put that on national news, nobody’s going to buy ads in little papers to raise awareness any more. Well, I might have one more good day of it, at least…
‘Oh, the murder!’ the first person I call squeals. ‘I heard about that! Was it – who’s – do you think I know any of the victims?’
I sigh and hang up. If people already know about it, they’re not going to think buying another little chunk of advertising space is going to be any use. Might have to start thinking of a new campaign.
‘You know my mum called me this morning to ask me if I was safe ‘cos she’d seen something about a string of murders in the paper?’ Matt says, flicking one of his bobble-heads so that it wobbles around like a trifle on a speedboat.
I scratch my head, looking for all the world as if I could not possibly be less concerned. ‘Well, good. People are going to feel even more like socially responsible difference-makers.’
‘I really don’t think this is sustainable, you know,’ Matt can’t help but tell me.
‘I knew that when I started,’ I retort. ‘It’s just milking it for as much cash as possible, then moving on.’
‘You make it sound so ruthless.’
‘It’s sales. It’s supposed to be ruthless.’
The national news runs a story on the murderer that evening, Thursday night. It marks the end of my ability to persuade people to pay me to raise awareness, since… well, everyone’s aware now. The station even tried to get the police to comment; naturally, they didn’t say anything, but only I know that that’s because there haven’t really been any murders. It’s no big surprise. I knew I was going to have to rethink my strategy sooner or later, so really, it’s all just business as usual.
What does surprise me is the news the next evening. Not typical Friday fare.
Mass hysteria. Psychotic breaks as individuals start suspecting that everyone they know has been killed and replaced with imposters. Suicides, rather than waiting around to be the next victim. Nobody can identify anyone who actually knew any of the victims – well, of course not, there weren’t any – so people start to convince themselves that they themselves have in fact been killed and just hadn’t realised it until they saw the news.
Suffice to say I wasn’t expecting this.
The weekend doesn’t bring any better news; members of my own family are ringing me up convinced that because they’ve heard about this murderer who’s been killing oh-so-very-many people, statistically speaking either I or they must have fallen prey to his butchering ways. It’s a national panic, with the Prime Minister even addressing the chaos directly. No mention of the fact that, as far as the best efforts of the police can unearth, there’s nothing to suggest that any killings have in fact taken place; the speech focuses more on suggesting that people ought to be trying harder to catch this terrible monster who’s plunged the country into such desperation. Can’t say I’m surprised. I didn’t vote for this PM – for exactly this reason. (That’s a joke. A bad one. Imagine not voting for someone in case one day they didn’t deal adequately with a killing spree that wasn’t really happening.)
By Monday, there isn’t a person in the nation who hasn’t lost somebody to the murderer. Or, more accurately, to panic-fuelled suicide over the murderer. Matt calls me on Sunday. Leaves a message saying he feels terrible about his part – like he’s some sort of accessory to my crime – and that he can’t face the fact that he knew I was doing something wrong and didn’t do enough to stop me. He doesn’t come to work on Monday, or indeed any day after that.
By Monday lunchtime, I’ve had enough of this. Some big businessman just announced he’s holding a massive event tonight to commemorate the losses, raise funds for those affected, all that – and it doesn’t take me too many calls to persuade an assistant in his company to get me his number.
‘Who is this?’ he asks. On edge straight away. Most big shots are, if they think you’re going to try to sell them something.
‘I caused all this,’ I say. ‘All the people who are dead, it’s because of me.’
‘You’re the murderer?!’ he exclaims.
‘In a manner of speaking,’ I have to admit.
‘Why are you contacting me?’
‘I’ll be at your event,’ I tell him. ‘I’m going to come up on stage while you’re speaking, and I’m going to tell everyone all about what happened. I want to fix this.’
‘You can fix this,’ he says. He sounds like he’s putting on a very sure-and-certain sort of voice, the kind he probably uses to address his minions, but I can tell he’s got no idea how to deal with this. ‘You can come and show yourself to the world, and everything will be over.’
I sigh. ‘See you later.’ Hang up.
It’s a huge do, in an enormous ballroom flanked by armed security (an unusual sight, but then again everyone does think there’s a killer on the loose.) The event’s free to get in – they’re asking for donations, raffle tickets, that kind of thing, but anyone can get through the door – and by the time he starts his speech about how grateful he is to everyone who’s come and what a difference we’re all going to make together, I’ve barged my way to the front of the crowd. As he wraps up a point about how this is a nation of great people, not fearful ones, and somehow that means we should all donate money to his business and maybe he’ll use it for good or something, I clamber up on stage.
He stares at me, then gives a great toothy smile to the crowd. ‘Our guest of honour,’ he announces.
I’m ready to go and stand behind that microphone, to tell everyone what I did and pay the price, but he’s already striding over, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘You did the right thing by coming here,’ he tells me. ‘You’re making it right.’
‘I hope so,’ I say.
He leads me towards the front of the stage, below which I can see the assembled masses gazing up at me, not sure what to make of me. ‘Let me give you the proper introduction,’ he whispers, and then he shouts, loud enough for hundreds of people to hear: ‘Behold your murderer!’
I’m about to turn around, to tell him no, it’s a misunderstanding, I just want to explain what’s happened – and as I’m formulating the words in my mind, I feel him pushing me hard in the small of my back. I trip forwards, just one step, but in that one step my foot passes beyond the edge of the stage and goes down, and I’m following after it – then I’m flat on my face, all the air knocked out of me, surrounded by a crowd of people who think I’ve killed Christ-knows-how-many of their friends and relatives.
I assume the lynching doesn’t last all that long, because security start pulling people off me before I can be subsumed under a heap of wrathful avengers. When I realise that they’re just getting the audience out of the way so that they can shoot me, however, I’m less pleased.
The event is an unparalleled success – for everyone except the venue’s cleaners, who end the night having to dispose of a pool of vaguely human-shaped mush, pounded into gloop by fists, feet and bullets. I suppose I deserved it.