Halloween was just a day away. And, for once, Wai Yan was pleased to be an outsider.
It was the first time she had felt that way since moving to America from Hong Kong. Back there, the Americans and ex-pats were the outsiders, living in their cold, concrete, gate-guarded high-rise towers. Towers the children had to leave to attend the schools. Wai Yan’s school, where she wasn’t an outsider. And, that was all fine.
True, cultural difference made things a little awkward. But, Wai Yan had no resentment towards the American children, obnoxious as some of them were, entitled as some of them acted. None were poor. Like, Wai Yan.
But now, the tables had turned. Wai Yan’s father had been hired to go to the States to apply his expertise about some ecological thing. The kind of thing he’d prattle on for hours about, but of which Wai Yan had no understanding or interest. Here, they were the outsiders to the local Americans. Only now, instead of living in a sophisticated city filled with sophisticated people such as Hong Kong, Wai Yan, her mother and her father were living in very unsophisticated Cedar Key. It was an actual island off the Gulf Coast of Florida, much like Hong Kong was an island off the coast of Mainland China. Wai Yan’s name had been Americanized to “Emily.” And, unlike the ex-pats in Hong Kong, they were still not rich.
And, that was all fine.
Wai Yan, I mean, Emily had had a rough time adjusting to her new school, Cedar Key High School.
It was the only school on Cedar Key, kindergarten through twelfth grade. And as she learned, it was the smallest public high school in all of this State of Florida here in the United States. Home of the Sharks. There was no escaping the harassment.
That was all fine too.
It was fine now because there was a killer on the loose. And, the killer appeared to be targeting the popular girls at school. In no way was it funny.
But, Emily had to admit it was amusing how the whole thing played out like one of those nineteen-eighties horror movies. “Slashers” they called them here. Pretty girls slaughtered and butchered and cut to bits by a masked murderer. They were ghastly films Emily had no interest in watching. But, that’s what was happening live, in real life. All the popular girls — Tina, Donna, Kylie, and Mylie — had all been found dead.
Just kidding. No one in America has named a daughter Donna since the year 2000. Emily had looked that up based on a solid gut instinct. That was more than a hunch. Just Tina, Kylie, and Mylie had been killed.
Emily hated to even think about how they were killed, the condition the bodies were in. But the truth was, and this was for real, they were all found with perfect circles in their chests. Not something drawn on. There were complete holes in their chests, from the front through to the back. It was a hollow space. Each girl’s innards had started to slide into the newly formed holes and out onto the ground. The circle couldn’t keep a perfect form because their hearts were missing. It certainly was a scandal.
Happy Holloween, thought Emily. What a dumb pun.
“Why, oh why?” people thought. How, but how could a serial killer be on Cedar Key? These were the notions Emily heard as she walked through the halls of Cedar Key High School on the way to her classes on this day before Halloween. No one said them to her directly. They may not have been said to anyone in particular. But, they were said and heard.
People were in a panic. No one felt safe. The terror turned Cedar Key’s greatest feature into an unfortunate, dreaded fact. And, that was its island-like privacy. It was a key, after all. Disconnected from the mainland and surrounded by the postcard-famous Gulf waters. The only way on or off the island was to follow D Street to where it forked into Highway 24, take it over the bumps of land and onto the mainland.
But, even the mainland didn’t offer much hope. It was a long, straight, dark stretch to U.S. 19. The only area of note between here and there was Rosewood, where the white people killed the black people. Emily had read about that too. They were still dealing with their own massacre.
People from Boston were called ‘Bostonians’. People from North Carolina were called “North Carolinians.” Emily had yet to learn what people from Cedar Key were called. But, whatever they were called, those people, her fellow neighbors, had had enough. They wanted answers and they expected the Sheriff to give them some. After all, their beloved daughters had been de-hearted and left for dead on the rocky shore. Pay no mind to the sea roaches skittering in and out of the large, unnatural hole in their bodies.
And, that hole was the most mysterious thing of all. It was one of two clues the killer left at each crime scene. The other clue was the valentine.
“Say what, blood? It ain’t even February,” said Emily trying to sound like a street-smart hustler she’d seen in a movie on television.
And, it was not your normal love and kisses February type of Valentine. It was a Halloween valentine. Instead of hearts there were pumpkins. Instead of cupid there was an adorable witch or mummy or vampire. These were cute and creepy.
Emily heard that Tina’s body had a Halloween valentine that read, “I’m dying to kiss you.” How sweet. Kylie’s valentine had read, “I want to be witch you.” What an adorable play on words. And, Mylie’s Halloween valentine may have been the best of all. It read, “Is there a GHOST of a chance you’ll be my valentine?” Emily felt envious.
The problem was the bloody murdered corpses. One could assume, or so it seemed to Emily, that the only way to get one of these Halloween valentines was to first be killed by whoever or whatever was killing the Tinas, Kylies, and Mylies of Cedar Key.
One also had to wonder, or so Emily wondered, if these Halloween Valentine killings would continue after tomorrow, which was indeed Halloween. Were the murders tied to the season? Or, was the demented intent behind the killings timeless? These were pieces the Sheriff had to put together in order to solve such a bloody puzzle.
Emily had watched enough American television, starting back in Hong Kong, to know that the first thing the Sheriff would have done was send the Halloween Valentines off to some technologically advanced laboratory to study for fingerprints and handwriting analysis. You could tell a lot from someone’s handwriting. Emily hadn’t heard what, if anything, the killer had written in the Halloween Valentines. But, she had heard it was written in impersonal block lettering, which meant it wouldn’t tell them anything at all.
She also knew the police would search to find where and when the Halloween Valentines had been made. Who manufactured them? Where were they distributed? What store had sold them? Could that store remember who had bought them? We just might find this madman.
Emily suspected that wouldn’t help either. The reason why was clear. A slovenly man named Carter, who always wore one of those fishing hats where the brim went all the way around, had snapped crime scene photos and sold them to the publisher of The Whistle, an up-and-coming island newspaper that would do anything to carve into the Cedar Key Beacon’s readership. They published photos of both Tina’s body and her Halloween Valentine. And there, right on the lower left edge of the sweet note, were the words Copyright 1936. Good luck finding that manufacturer, Sheriff.
Emily allowed herself a moment to cackle like a mad killer. Of course, it was only for play. What else was a Chinese girl to do with her time in a foreign country where no one spent much time with her? Emily knew this was why she had become so fascinated with the case.
The Sheriff thought he may have, as they tend to say in America, ‘broken the case open wide’. That was the day, two days ago, that they figured out what had created the five-inch hole in the chest of each girl. Contrary to popular opinion, the hole had not been carved with a knife or cut with a saw. Whatever the disfiguring device was, it had punched right through their rib bones.
As Emily heard it, this time from her father mentioning the case to her mother, which he overheard because he, too, was an outsider on this island…a man declared an industrial press formed the holes. Pull the lever and a metal tube would slam down to create a hole. It was strong enough to work on metal. Why wouldn’t it cut through Kylie?
The search was on.
Both the Sheriff and his sole deputy immediately checked into any and all industrial presses on the island. The Sheriff soon determined there was no way a killer would take a large press like that to the crime scene. The girls had to be killed elsewhere and then deposited on the beach rocks. It was the only way.
After checking both industrial presses within a twenty-five mile radius (one on Cedar Key, one on the mainland), the Sheriff and deputy were stumped. Neither press had been adorned with dried, darkened blood like he had expected. And, the punch press owners denied murder and anything close to it.
Of course, the killer could have come from the other side. The other side was the east side of U.S. 19. But, that required a little more effort than the Sheriff was looking to put in. After all, it was a sleepy island where people came to fish and relax and, essentially, float through life. Emily wouldn’t have been surprised if the town’s official motto had been “Don’t try too hard.”
Fortunately for the Sheriff, he didn’t have to. Because while he was enjoying a fried fish basket at the gas station cafe, he spotted the answer. Or, so Emily had heard. As it happened, there was a local fisherman stepping through the mucky Gulf sand at low tide. Except, he wasn’t a fisherman. He was a clammer collecting clams out of the sand. Clams were what had made Cedar Key famous. They were the number one industry and export. And, this scruffy man was gathering them right out of the earth, right in front of the Sheriff.
His hush puppies forgotten, the Sheriff ran over to the man, dirtying his shiny, patent leather work shoes every step of the way until he reached the man in the middle of the sand. Without asking, the Sheriff took hold of the instrument in the man’s hand. It was a tube, about five inches in diameter. Open at one end and with a handle at the other end that was like those T handles you see on top of dynamite detonators. Except it didn’t collapse. This thing was rigid end-to-end. This was a clam gun.
When the Sheriff asked the man to show him how he used it, the scruffy man obliged by shoving the clam gun into the sand, pushing it down, twisting, and then pulling it out. As the man extracted the clam gun, its harvesting tube pulled the sand out, leaving a perfectly circular hole in the ground. The excess sand spilled out of the tube and the scruffy man snatched up an unearthed clam.
It wasn’t long after that that the Sheriff made the announcement that the popular Cedar Key High School girls had been killed by a clam gun, their hearts sucked out just like a clam in the sand. This brought no relief to the grieving families. But, it was good to know what did it. That’s what Emily thought. It was a lead.
But, who was the clam gun killer? They still hadn’t found out. And the other mysterious part was where did Tina, Kylie, and Mylie’s hearts go? They weren’t just missing from the bodies. They were missing altogether. What did the killer do with them?
And, the clam gun mystery wasn’t entirely solved either. The Sheriff had determined a clam gun was used. But, which clam gun? Because even though the police had checked every clam gun in the city, the consensus soon formed that no ordinary clam gun could have killed those girls. It had to have been modified. Speculation was, as Emily learned while shopping for potato crisps, scratch that, chips, in the convenience store, that the clam gun had been modified in a way to make the lip of the tube sharper. It had to have almost a razor’s edge. So, was the clam gun whittled down to create a sharp cutting blade? Or was some sort of cutting blade attached to the clam gun for a swifter slice? No one was sure because no one had found the actual clam gun.
So, with no handwriting insight and no clam gun in sight, there was really no way of telling who the killer was. But, everyone presumed that if you found the killer you would also find the clam gun as well as the missing hearts.
It was quite a tale to tell, Emily thought. So many details, so much strangeness. And, all in a language she still wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Put it all together and it was certainly the most exciting Halloween celebration she had ever experienced. And, that was all fine.
Students were dead, parents were grieving, authorities were searching, and everyone was suspicious of everyone one. Emily even caught wind, as they say in America…well they say it in China too, except with Chinese words…that some people suspected her father of performing the murders. Emily thought this a horrible notion if it weren’t so ridiculous. Yes, he was foreign. Sure, he studied the ecology, which did include working on the beaches. And well, he did own a clam gun. But, when Emily studied it, picking it up and feeling its weight in her hands, she could tell the edge of the extraction tube was too dull to cut something as thin as paper let alone something as thick as a body. Her father was a good man.
Of course, that didn’t stop the police from questioning him. And, he politely answered all of their questions because why shouldn’t he? He was innocent and a gentleman.
The same could not be said for many of the island’s blue-collar inhabitants. Emily had to look that term up. They were insulted by the slightest accusation. They were off-put by the slightest notion they would have had anything to do with the popular girl killings. Emily imagined them growing red-faced and frothing at the mouth in such fits of rage. “Typical American arrogance,” she imagined her old, wrinkled grandmother saying.
But, the Sheriff had interviewed them because of their blue-collaredness? Emily wasn’t sure how to say it, put all of the men in close approximation to both industrial tools and fishing supplies. Metal workers, aluminum workers, men who worked in logging with heavy machinery. Then, there were the fishermen and clammers who spent days collecting clams with clam guns, collecting and hauling them, shucking open the shells. There was one man who dealt with the clams that were canned up for the islands most famous clam chowder exporter. He was in close approximation to both machinery and clam collecting contraptions.
But, he wasn’t one of the men with a penchant for younger girls. That too was a factor in the elimination or addition of suspects to the suspect list. Regrettably, and to the renewed consideration of the island’s authorities, there were several gentlemen with a “record”. That “record” involved past acts or attempted acts with girls who were not of age or of willingness. All of this was brought to light, re-shaming these guilty and perverted men.
Good, thought Emily. Especially, in regards to Orel Hawkins. Of the questioned perverts, he was the one who had approached Emily some time ago with suggestions that sounded so disgusting she was, for once, grateful for her imperfect English. Fortunately, her father shooed him away without incident. But, if Emily were going to pick one man as the suspect, it would not have been him. He was simply too lacking in muscular bulk. She had heard it called ‘scrawny’ once, she remembered.
Blue-collar workers, fishermen, and perverts, all questioned and all cleared. The mystery persisted.
And, then Halloween arrived.
And, Kaitlin’s body was discovered. Dead on the shore rocks, hole-punched, and a Halloween valentine in her pocket. She had been the class treasurer.
Well, if that didn’t just drive the town wild, thought Emily, trying to phrase it like she expected the sassy southern women of the town to say it. They’d also say things like ‘don’t that beat all’ and ‘God amighty.’ Usually there was a tremble in their hands as they looked up to the heavens, in case anyone wasn’t sure where their god resided. Emily wasn’t sure where her god spent his time. She just presumed he was around and in all things.
But, could he be in the killer? Maybe. Confucius confused us, she’d always say when studying his lessons, so she couldn’t remember where she stood on the subject of good and evil and any ambiguity between the two. It was a subject Emily knew the authorities wouldn’t delve into as they searched for the killer.
The most American Emily had felt to date was when she heard Halloween trick or treating activities had been cancelled island-wide. She was disappointed she wouldn’t get to walk the town collecting candy, which was much better than any candy she’d had in China. Perhaps because it did not come flavored in shrimp. That didn’t mean she couldn’t wear her costume, which she did later that very Halloween evening.
There was nothing she could do about the investigation. So, she walked around the yard wearing the plastic costume her mother had purchased for her at a discount at the off-island dollar store just up the road. Knowing her mother, she selected whichever costume was the most reasonable in price. And, that was well and fine. Emily did her best to re-enact the brief scenes she had seen as Brendan Fraser in The Mummy.
She held her hand out in front, pretending she was holding a torch as she crept under yard trees she imagined were actually tight caverns inside an ancient Egyptian tomb.
What was that!?
She swung the pretend torch only to see a possum waddling through the yard. She followed this mystic guide around the house, past the paddleboat, and underneath the laundry line. She continued through the imaginary cavern around the asbestos-sided house back to the front yard.
She had to admit this game was already a bit stale. But, her parents were busy working inside. And, it was the only Halloween she was going to get this year. Plus, her mother had spent money on a costume.
So, take that Mummy!
To Emily’s surprise, when she finished swinging there indeed was a person in view. They were standing just at the end of the sidewalk that stretched out from the front steps of the house. His face was dirty. And, it was hard to tell much about his features given the lack of streetlights in this isolated part of the island. But, it was clear…he was looking at Emily.
And, he was holding a pumpkin that swung from a metal handle. Only it wasn’t a bright plastic pumpkin like she had see so many times at the store. The kind for collecting candy. This was a real pumpkin carved in classic jack-o-lantern style, with the goofy offset teeth, small triangle nose, and high triangle eyes. It was exceptionally well carved, she thought. Like the intricate rosewood carvings she’d seen on her Uncle Lo’s wall back in, well you know where. And, it was hanging from a handle fashioned out of some sort of metal. Emily wanted to say it was an old paint can handle. But, the pumpkin was much bigger than a paint can.
And, the pumpkin was glowing inside. A light illuminated the pumpkin’s orange, pulp interior.
This person with the pumpkin, whoever it was, walked towards Emily.
“How you do go on,” was another sassy southern expression that went through Emily’s mind as she watched the man and the pumpkin come closer. It didn’t seem appropriately applied. Why she thought of it, she didn’t know. But, it was enough of a distraction to prevent her from running into the safety of the house.
The man was tower tall. And, he smelled a bit like seafood, which wasn’t a terrible smell to a teenage girl who had spent the majority of her life in Hong Kong. She could see his eyes now. They were white amongst the dirt streaks on his face. But, one was crooked. And, the other seemed to have burst vessels. The man set the pumpkin down on the sidewalk.
Emily couldn’t help herself. She had to look down at the pumpkin to see what was what. And, what she saw startled her.
It was filled with hearts. Four of them.
When she looked up, the man was pulling something from his pocket, a piece of paper. It was colorful and designed. He handed it to her. She took it. It said, “I think you’re Boo-tiful.”
Now, she knew what was going on. Now Emily, who in her bones felt more like Wai Yan at the moment, hated the fact that she was no longer an outsider.
When she looked up again he had a clam gun in his other hand.
This was not fine.
© 2018 ANDREW ALLAN
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