Fiction: Reaper of the Voiceless
By Corbin Buff
Bolting out of the cabin, Jessie opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
Before, as she was washing the dishes, all she’d seen was the flash of the scythe in the kitchen window’s reflection. But that was enough.
Now she ran barefoot in the cool of night, with so much adrenaline coursing through her she couldn’t even feel the driveway’s cragged rocks and pebbles piercing the soles of her feet. In the distance she could see tendrils of fog rising off of her neighbor’s lake. The Boone’s. It was her only hope. But in rural New England, one’s neighbors weren’t exactly close. She could already feel her legs tiring from her desperate sprint, but she didn’t dare turn her head and look back.
She heard him behind her though. Was it a him? All the police reports, the newspaper articles thought so. Whatever he was, she could hear his footsteps moving twice as fast as hers. Was he gaining on her? She had to look.
Turning, all she saw was the scythe flashing in the moon’s reflection. Then the blade bit into her face. She opened her mouth to scream again, and again no sound emerged. The scythe pulled back into her vision. Now it was red instead of white. In the cold and silent night, among the tendrils of fog and the dew just settling on the grass, she saw it whirling toward her once again.
“It’s the younger generation who lose their voices first,” Detective James Baron said.
Above him, the overcast sky was gray as steel. He looked down at Jessie Sommers’ mutilated face and slashed throat. Beneath his feet, the earth was still damp and loamy. Soon the sun would emerge and smolder the moisture up into the early autumn air.
“That’s why I always tell my girls it’s important to keep social,” Baron’s partner, Mike Garvey chimed in. “It’s not just about keeping the ol’ brain healthy anymore.”
This was the third killing, or “reaping” as the media was calling it. And Detective Baron and Garvey had about as little to go on since when they first got started. Forensics confirmed once again that a razor sharp scythe had been used to do the deed. But when it came to the killer, the case was cold as a dead fish … or as cold as the body of Jessie Sommers.
“Neighbors said they didn’t hear anything,” Baron said, nodding toward the Boone’s house, toward which Jessie had made her last desperate sprint just the night before.
“Of course they didn’t,” said Dr. Graff, glancing up from his clipboard. His eyes peered out from his spectacles, looking briefly at the dead body. “This one’s been voiceless for about six months, according to my examination.”
Baron looked at Garvey. “Like I said, always the young ones these days.”
Baron was right. The voiceless virus, as it was called, was spreading most prominently in the young these days. It had been hard at work, moving relentlessly across the country for about a decade. Even a rural, scenic Massachusetts town like Elmsworth wasn’t spared. In fact, small towns seemed to be getting the worst of it.
Big cities kept people social. One was forced to speak, to interact. At least more often than in a town like Elmsworth. Here, where scrub pine forests and crawling woods ran for miles between neighbors, people could go weeks without talking to one another. For the older generations, maintaining one’s voice was easier. They’d had decades of practice keeping social.
But the young? They lived alone. Worked alone, or remotely. Relaxation? Leisure? Also done on screens, alone. Months could pass without them even noticing that they hadn’t made a peep. Months did pass. In silence. Then one day, they would go to speak, and no sound would emerge. Like the muscles of an astronaut or a trapped coal miner, the voice seemingly atrophied and died if not used. Experts recommended citizens speak at least once every month to keep the voiceless virus at bay. But it was easier said than done these days.
And when a person went voiceless, they were the perfect target.
Baron’s walkie-talkie crackled to life. It was HQ with another supposed “witness.” He didn’t have to look to see Garvey already rolling his eyes.
“Another pointless interview with someone who claims to have heard something but can't provide any concrete details? Can’t wait.”
The detectives confirmed the address and set off towards the edge of Elmsville where the witness, Evan Carmine lived. If you could call it living. They could already see from the cruiser that the house looked like it hadn't seen a visitor in years. The Carmine “residence” featured windows grimy with dirt and an overgrown yard infested with weeds. A rusty bicycle and old pickup truck sat in the middle of the lawn, clearly forgotten and abandoned to rot into the earth like compost.
They knocked. The door creaked open, revealing a disheveled twenty-something young man, eyes darting with paranoia.
Garvey took a subtle sniff, the smell of rot and decay unmistakable. Inside, the state of disarray was unsettling. Dirty dishes stacked high, rotting food on the counter, old newspapers, and peculiar drawings scattered around.
"Um. Do you live here alone?" Garvey asked, trying to mask his disgust.
Evan nodded. "No visitors. Not anymore."
“But you are Evan Carmine?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, I called in.”
Baron’s gaze fixed on a wall, covered in newspaper clippings, all detailing the recent murders. Drawings of Grim Reapers with large red crosses and dates accompanied the articles.
"Clearly you’ve been following the case," Baron stated.
"Following it? I saw him! The night Marissa Weyland was killed. I was out, you know, just watching the night. And then he appeared, black robes flowing, the scythe gleaming in the moonlight! I hid but saw everything."
Evan's eyes were wild with a mix of fear and excitement. Garvey’s eyes were dull with skepticism. Baron couldn’t blame him. Both detectives remembered the Weyland murder. Another young girl’s throat slashed by a scythe - this time beneath Elmsworth’s abandoned clock tower.
“Look kid, if you saw the Weyland killing, why are we just hearing from you now?”
“Two other detectives came and talked to me. But they didn’t listen to anything I told them. Didn’t even write a word down - just like this guy!” Evan pointed at Garvey’s empty notepad. “They didn’t take me seriously.”
“Can’t imagine why,” Garvey cut in, his eyes roaming around the place again.
“So can you tell us anything new about the case? Anything we don’t already know?” Baron was losing patience. “We’ve got a guy, well we think it’s a guy, who dresses like the grim reaper. Black robe, hood, gloves, and boots. Then the scythe. Anything to add?” He looked at the kid skeptically.
“All correct,” Evan said. “But I’ve got something more important than what this guy looks like. I know when and where he’ll strike next. Well, to some extent.” Evan stood up and walked to the wall. “The three killings so far all occurred here, right?” he said, pointing to a map with three red circles on it, one of them drawn around the cabin where Jessie Sommers had just been killed.
“If the fourth killing is here,” Evan drew a fourth circle on the map right over the Elmsville fish pier “then the killings form a cross, or crosshairs, rather, with the four points equidistant from one another. The center of the crosshairs?” Evan looked at the detectives. He was clearly enjoying himself. For all they knew, this could be the most socialization he’d had in months. “The church,” he said simply.
“It’s really quite clever when you think about it,” Evan continued. “Don’t you see? It’s a symbol. This guy is a killer of the voiceless. The geometry of the killings implies a death of religion, of spirituality. God is dead, as Nietszche said. Or perhaps according to our killer, God is voiceless.” Evan drew a fifth circle in the center of the crosshairs formed by the intersection of the four previous killings. It was right over Elmsworth’s historic church. “The killings all radiate out from this central issue, our spiritual death.”
“Or the killer has God himself in his crosshairs, as one of the next victims,” Baron said.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t humor this kid,” Garvey said. “Look Evan, this is pure speculation. We deal in facts."
Evan looked earnestly at Baron.
“Thanks for your help kid,” Baron said.
As they left, Garvey dismissed Evan’s words. "Poor kid’s lost it, living in this dump."
“You think that’s all just coincidence? The locations of the murders, the crosshairs, and everything?”
“Baron, don’t tell me you bought into any of that. Evan saw the Weyland murder and it’s clearly shaken him up. You saw the place,” he nodded toward it now. “The kid’s clearly nuts. There’s nothing to this.”
Baron wasn’t so sure. That evening, as the clock tower's chimes echoed through Elmsworth, he decided to pay the fish pier a visit, just in case Evan’s tale had a shred of truth.
The sun was setting when Baron got to the Elmsville fish pier. Seals dipped their heads in and out of the water begging for a meal as the fishermen docked their boats for the day. As the sun sank, its light reflected off the pools of saltwater on the docks.
Baron was far from moved by the scenic view. He hated the fish pier. It reeked of fish, naturally, and it wasn’t just seals who came to beg for food. Seagulls circled the sky. He came to the fish pier twice when he was a kid, and twice the seagulls had pooped on him. Tonight, he was staying in his car, safe from any aerial assault.
Besides, it was unlikely Evan Carmine’s crazy theory was true. Even now there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. He popped in his favorite jazz CD, Bill Evans’s You Must Believe in Spring, and prepared for a long night ahead.
When Baron awoke, the sky was a black canvas of darkness. What time was it? He checked his watch. It was 2 A.M. So much for that stakeout, he thought.
But then he saw something down on the docks. Something flashing, reflecting the glow of the overhead lights. An arc of silver flashed, dancing across his visual field again and again. Before he knew it, Baron was out of the car, sprinting toward the docks. He hoped that silver arc wasn’t what he thought. But it was. And it wasn’t silver anymore.
A figure clad all in black turned to face him, holding in its hands a scythe now stained red with blood, dripping down onto the victim. Baron didn’t recognize him. Not that there was much to work with. The face was already disfigured, but he saw a long fisherman’s beard. Beneath it, a slashed throat. Blood pooled on the docks.
Baron had been staring too long. Paralyzed. In shock. He hadn’t even reached for his pistol. When he turned his eyes back to the killer, all he saw was the scythe’s blade whirling toward him. Instinctively, he covered his face. Baron shrieked in pain. Not pain in his face, but in his hand. He looked down to find his right index and middle finger missing. He saw them lying limp on the dock.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake. This time his eyes flashed immediately toward the killer. The robed figure pulled the scythe back to strike again, but Baron was faster, jabbing him twice in the face with his left fist. He pulled back the black hood from the robe and saw a face he’d never forget. Were those burns? Scars? He couldn’t tell. The rippling, mutilated skin pulled back into a smile. Or what was left of one.
Not just a smile. The killer was laughing. But listening, you’d never know it, because he didn’t make a sound. He was voiceless. Baron watched helplessly as the killer twirled the scythe through the air, laughing maniacally and silently. The blade whizzed by Baron’s face, missing him by a hair. Then the killer went for his legs. Baron dodged again. He went to unholster his pistol but was a fumbling mess without his right index and middle finger.
The scythe was over the killer’s head now. He brought it down on Baron in a straight arc. Baron had no choice - he jumped backward into the water. The salt of the frigid New England ocean stung his wounds instantly. It crept into his eyes, which he kept open in case the killer followed him into the cool water. Surfacing, he saw now that the killer had not followed him. He was gone.
The ancient stones of Elmsworth's historic church seemed to carry the weight of history, and tonight, an added weight of suspense. As Baron approached, he could see the tall, gothic windows illuminating the church’s interior in an eerie bluish glow.
Baron couldn’t help feeling crazy, approaching an abandoned church at 3 A.M. But Evan Carmine had been right about the fish pier. He was probably right about the church too.
Pushing open the creaking wooden doors, Baron stepped inside. His pistol was already drawn in his left hand. He wouldn’t make the same mistake.
The silence of the church was profound, only broken by the distant echo of his footsteps on the stone floor. As he walked towards the altar, he noticed a folded piece of paper. Its edges were frayed, and the paper was aged as if it had been carefully chosen to fit the church’s ancient atmosphere.
Unfolding the paper, Baron's eyes darted across the words, written in a tight, controlled script:
"To whom it may concern,
I had hoped our final meeting would have been face-to-face, but alas, the shadows have always been a better fit for me. You've come closer than anyone else ever has, and I respect that. But you must understand, I am not your ordinary killer. By now you know that I am voiceless, just as those I target. The ones who have been silenced by the noise of a modern world, their lives drowned out by the ceaseless chatter of cyberspace, their thoughts unheard amid the digital cacophony. Our world has lost its reality, replaced by an artificial existence.
When I was a boy, people conversed, they debated, they lived in a world of tangible experience. Now, they exist in a world where nothing real happens. All the anger, the passions, the life, is poured into an online void, leaving the physical world an empty shell. I can only hope my murders, brutal though they are, bring a spark of intrigue back to the real world, jarring humanity out of its self-imposed exile from reality. Each life I take is a statement, a cry to return to a world where actions have consequences, where voices matter.
Anyhow, your presence at the pier confirms that the police are onto my patterns. It's time for me to move on, to take my message elsewhere. There are countless voiceless towns scattered across this vast nation, and my work has just begun.
Baron's hand clenched the paper. The words brought back his earlier encounter. The chilling laugh without sound, the silent mania in the killer's eyes. Evan Carmine was right all along: he’d been dealing with a killer who wasn't just after blood, but was on a deeper mission.
The church's silence seemed to amplify the weight of the killer's words, and Baron felt a pang of something beyond fear. The confession was disturbing, not just for its content, but for the shards of truth woven within. Was this killer as insane as everyone thought? Or was he the most sane of them all, the only one brave enough to do something about the voiceless virus? Not that that justified his actions, of course.
Exiting the church, Baron thought back to Evan Carmine. The kid had not only been right all along, but during the visit to his house with Garvey, it was also abundantly clear Evan was on the verge of going voiceless. Yet neither of them had done anything about it. Baron hadn’t even thought about it, until now.
As he looked around the silent town, the barren streets reflected the softly glowing lamplight. Detective Baron knew he had closed a chapter on the reaper's tale, but all around him remained stories waiting to be told, waiting to be heard. Stories of the voiceless, and the near-voiceless. Stories like Evan’s, and like the reapers’ victims’. Baron knew now that the violence wouldn’t stop. Not until everyone realized that maybe, just maybe, it was time to start listening.
Corbin Buff is a writer living in western Montana. His poetry has appeared in Verse-Virtual, After Hours, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, One Sentence Poems, and elsewhere.