This psychological thriller, a sequel to Forgive Me, Alex, is my current WIP (Work in Progress). We’re targeting sometime before 2525 as launch year, lest the Zager & Evans song becomes my theme. (Just kidding! I hope….)
In the meantime, if I may provide a little tease, please enjoy the following opening chapter of The Devil’s Bane.
THE DEVIL’S BANE
“All virtue lies in individual action, in inward energy, in self-determination. There is no moral worth in being swept away by a crowd even toward the best objective.” – William Channing
“And think not that you can guide the course of love; for love, if it finds you, shall guide your course.” – Kahlil Gibran
“Hope, however, isn’t all that’s needed to achieve change. Hope is a hand extended, but two hands are required to be pulled out of a deep hole. The second hand is faith….” – Dean Koontz, One Door Away from Heaven
Prologue – August 5, 1995
Not the typical Saturday night out; Maria Molinari would always remember this day, if only she lived through it.
She gasped for breath through the handkerchief the monster had stuffed into her mouth. He’d tied another one around her head and over her mouth, effectively gagging her. In her panic and terror, she now cried and sniffled, and her nose ran such that she struggled for air.
She thought back to the critical moment. If only she’d carried mace in her purse, so that when he attacked her…. Fuck that, she thought. If only she’d packed a gun.
Even in her current predicament, she almost laughed to herself, finding humor in the sad irony. A staunch advocate of gun control, she now wished she could have shot the rotten bastard who’d tied her up in this horrible place.
Too late for that.
What did he intend for her? What horrifying acts would he commit upon her? Maria’s imagination flowed much too vividly for her own good, conjuring multiple possibilities, each more horrendous than the one before.
A whirl of childhood memories played out like a film reel in her mind. Terrifying monsters had lingered behind her closet door in the dark of night, and only by hiding beneath the covers could she protect herself.
She had no covers to hide beneath here.
The empty warehouse, perhaps an abandoned factory, heightened her panic. She couldn’t force herself to believe that anyone would come to her rescue. Her mother wouldn’t stroke her hair and say it was just her imagination or a nightmare, or soothe her with hot chocolate until she slept peacefully once more.
Mommy, she called out silently. Please, Mommy!
She must endure whatever sick plans the monster had in store for her, and suffered no delusion that she’d come out of this alive.
The large butcher’s knife in his right hand made that clear enough. He mumbled and swung his arms wildly at times, as if fighting with himself and trying to decide what to do next. One moment he ranted, the next he prayed—calling on God, cursing Satan, and screaming for his Momma to guide him.
Maria wished only that she could hear and see none of it. Forced to do nothing more than fear the death awaiting her, she desperately needed to hide beneath the covers.
God, please let it be quick. That’s all I ask.
She’d never considered herself courageous, but had always thought of herself as a faithful believer in the one true God of her Catholic upbringing, even if she wasn’t exactly a candidate for sainthood. She regretted her many sins as she now leaned heavily on God, praying not for her life but, if she must be delivered to Him, a painless death and quick entry into Heaven. Faith guided her from terror to resignation to acceptance, and finally, to a steely courage.
All right, asshole, do it already!
Stefan Gogal prepared to complete his task. Almost finished talking to the voices, he walked to where he’d tied up Maria, stood over her and stared into her eyes, which were more angry than frightened. He hated that look, knowing she found him repulsive in every way imaginable. It made him boil all the more, and a righteous anger rose up in him. He hadn’t planned to say anything or taunt her, but the damned look on her face….
“You know why you’re here?”
She couldn’t answer, of course.
“I saw you! You were holding hands, kissing and laughing with that man, and all right out in public. You’re nothing but a slut!” He flailed his arms again. “God sent me. Did you know that? Him and Momma.”
Maria zoomed in on the knife, now perilously close.
“We can’t have sluts walking around, doing whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’re a sinner! God gave you a good heart and you’ve turned it to sin. You’ve let your loins and your sick lust destroy your innocent heart. I must fix it. Momma taught me that. She punished me when I forgot. Now I never forget. Never!”
He bent down out of Maria’s sight, and when he stood again, he held not the butcher’s knife… but a hand saw.
She clung desperately to her faithful courage, but her eyes broadened at the sight of this new implement of death. A knife might have been mercifully quick, but a saw? Her terror rose, and it took all of her will and determination not to wet her self. She would not suffer that indignity.
God, help me.
“You know what this is for, don’t you? I’ll tell you. I have to separate your good heart, given by God, from your evil loins, given by Satan. You should thank me. I can’t save your body—it’s far too late for that—but I can save your soul by cutting your body in half. Your soul is from your heart, you know, and once your loins are gone, your soul will be pure again. You see, even though you’re a filthy slut, I will save your soul. You have no idea how lucky you are. I know, because Momma took my evil sex sack, so that I would never fall prey to the temptations of Satan.”
She could only close her eyes and pray harder than ever before, but her mind exploded in a pyroclastic blast of terror and dread. She struggled to hold onto her faith, for faith was all that remained for Maria. Blackness swept over her, delivering her to a dark place where she hoped to hide from the monster, from the pain, from the fear.
She pleaded with God. How can you let this happen? I don’t deserve this.
“I hear you, Momma,” Stefan yelled. “I know what to do. I remember the lessons.”
He raised his arms in the air, and looked to the heavens invisible beyond the old factory’s roof.
He stopped, unsure if he’d really heard the strange sound or just imagined it—like air leaking from a tire, or a whisper. Maybe the filthy slut had tried to speak through the gag.
He spun around to find the source of this interruption.
What is this? Is it Satan come to stop me? All dressed in black and only a couple of feet away? Who else but Satan could sneak up on me like that?
“Momma,” he said.
“Momma can’t help you now,” the man in black said. “See ya.”
The black-gloved hands swung two tempered, three-foot sticks so quickly, Stefan could barely move before they slammed against his head. Excruciating pain exploded from his jaw and mouth, and then his head again.
He fell to the floor barely conscious, with a jaw surely shattered, trying to focus on this beast who’d attacked him.
Satan then moved toward the table where Maria Molinari lay trembling, and everything faded to black.
Maria clenched her face to block out the terrifying sight, sound and pain of being sawed alive, cut in half. When hands settled upon her, she cringed with new fear, but they removed first the handkerchief from around her head, then the one from inside her mouth.
Does the bastard want to hear me screaming while he cuts?
“You can open your eyes now. You’re going to be okay.”
She paused a beat before responding to this gentle new voice. Before her stood a man dressed all in black, like one of those ninja warriors from the cheap martial arts movies. This was not the monster.
“He’s unconscious,” the man said, “lying on the floor next to some of his teeth. He won’t cut you in half. You’ll be fine.”
She could hardly believe it, as he untied her legs and hands and helped her into a sitting position. She swung her legs over the edge and looked at the floor where the killer, the sick bastard who would have been her killer, lay. Three teeth dotted the floor beside him, eliciting a slow smile from her.
Still, the way the man, this savior of hers, was dressed, it seemed like a scene from a cheesy movie.
“Who are you?” She shook her head. “You can’t be a cop. My guardian angel, perhaps? Or just the king of the ninjas?”
“Would you believe I’m just an ordinary guy doing his part to stamp out crime? Neighborhood watch? Consider this a… citizen’s arrest.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What’s your name?”
“Maria. Maria Molinari.”
“A fine Italian girl, huh?”
His laugh set her at ease, and even made her laugh nervously in response. Her fear and anger even subsided a bit, as did her shaking. “One hundred percent Italian, that’s me.”
“Wonderful. Maria, are you glad to be alive?”
“Are you kidding? Yes, of course.”
“How would you like to show your appreciation for me saving your life?”
She could only imagine the look on her face—some mixture of incredulity and amusement, no doubt—as he laughed again. She smiled, certain her eyes must be bulging like two eggs. The idea didn’t even repulse her all that much, which further comforted her.
“Not that,” he said with a wild laugh. “What did you think, that since I saved your life, I now expect you to get on your knees and service me?”
“Well, the thought did cross my mind. Clearly, I’ve been hanging around the wrong guys.” She paused to chuckle along with her new hero. “What did you mean by show your appreciation if not that?”
“As lovely as that sounds, I had something else in mind. It’s your turn to save me. We’ll tie up this scumbag before I go, and the police will be here shortly thereafter. I’d like you to tell them what happened, except not what really happened. That could get me in serious trouble.”
She glanced at the killer again and nodded.
“Would you be willing to tell a little white lie in order to keep me out of jail? To do a favor for me in return for what I did for you?”
“You better believe it. You saved me from a horrible death. I’ll do pretty much anything you want.”
Tony Hooper laughed loud and uninhibited at the look on Maria’s face. She tried to regain her footing, no doubt, after the worst experience of her life. Though she still shook a bit, the natural result of the adrenaline flooding her system, she seemed to have accepted that the worst was over, leaning on humor to find her sanity again. He’d seen it before. She would be just fine.
“You’re a card, Maria,” Tony said. “I love your sense of humor. Sure am glad I got here in time.”
“Now, let’s talk about what you’ll say to the police.” He paused for a moment. “Tell me, do you like the circus?”
“The circus? I don’t get it.”
He clasped his hands under his chin. “What I mean is, are you a fan of clowns?”
Part 1 – Out of the Ashes
Chapter 1 – Tony Hooper’s Journal
Tony settled in at the kitchen table with a cup of Starbucks Sumatra, lightened with just a touch of half & half, to take advantage of a private moment. Frank Willow, whom Tony lovingly referred to as Gramps, was piddling around out in the garden, where he’d keep himself occupied for at least an hour.
Perfect. Tony needed a little alone-time, an opportunity to figure out his next moves.
The operation in St. Louis had turned out well, at least to this point. He could only hope that Maria Molinari had come through for him, telling the cops and the FBI exactly what he’d instructed her to say about the capture of Stefan Gogal. If she hadn’t, the knock on his front door could come at any time.
The FBI, in particular, would be flat-out pissed, but no sense worrying about any of that. Whatever would happen would happen. He knew the risks.
He had in mind a rather huge trip this weekend. Well, a short trip—just a couple hours’ drive north—but one so important that concentrating on anything else seemed an impossible task. He would drive up to see Diana Gregario for the first time in seventeen years. Heaven only knew how she’d react to him. He meant to patch up a long-festering wound on Saturday, and if she resisted….
He’d at least be able to walk away and start fresh. He hoped.
In the meantime, he still needed to deal with the sonuvabitch who’d killed his little brother, Alex, in some manner suitable to such a piece of shit.
He opened his journal, which he thought of as his future memoir—once the authorities caught up with him; surely they would catch him sometime—and slid a pen from his shirt pocket. He chewed on the end of it for a moment, letting his thoughts coalesce.
Journal Entry: Monday, August 7, 1995
It’s no simple exercise to examine one’s life with sincere objectivity. I know, having sought to do so recently in desperation and great yearning. The truth of my life—my secret avocation—has remained hidden, or at least politely unmentioned, for a long time. Yet sooner or later, the truth always finds its way onto center stage. Will anyone applaud when it does? I think not.
I am a hunter of monsters, a purveyor of justice. I track down murderers and end them.
They deserve it.
Indeed, a few weeks ago, I again rid the world of one of its demons, reducing the ranks of serial killers by one. The man in the mask who lay on the floor with his own knife stuck in his chest, compliments of yours truly, must be Mitchell Norton, I thought, the man I call the devil. It must be so.
Yet when I lifted his mask and looked upon the face of death, I saw only the confusion of a twelve-year-old boy, locked in the body of a thirty-five-year-old man. I had killed not the devil, but his younger brother, Tommy—the innocent one.
No, he wasn’t exactly innocent. He’d murdered three people, after all, and would have murdered a fourth had I not stopped him in the act. Who knows how many he would have murdered beyond that? Nonetheless, his mind had never properly developed, and he understood neither the consequences of his actions, nor the dark depths of his evil.
When I recall how he told Ethel Simmons, the woman he intended to murder, that he was “sorry,” or the tears in his dying eyes and the easy manner in which I dismissed them, a little soul-searching seems in order. Who have I become? What have I become? My soul could use some repair, a remedy in its endless war against oblivion. Poor Tommy; he thought being a serial killer would cure his mental retardation and make him as smart as his big brother, Mitchell.
Ah yes, Mitchell, the devil who killed four victims of his own in 1978. He took from me Alex, my bright light in the days before the darkness arrived. He took my father as well, albeit indirectly. And, of course, he drove Diana from me.
I stalked him this summer following his ludicrous release from a psychiatric prison, where he’d spent seventeen years. It was hardly surprising that with the devil on the loose, the murders began anew. The good people of Algonquin, Illinois, once again lived in fear. And isn’t it my job to remove such threats and bring peace again to the good people of the community?
Or is it?
Shit, I don’t know anymore, but I was certain that the killer must be Mitchell Norton. Who else could it possibly be?
Determined to stop the killing, to stop the devil for everyone’s sake, I convinced myself that more than simple revenge lay in the balance. Yet perhaps I stalked him for just that reason. Perhaps I assumed he would kill again because it satisfied my need. Perhaps that is why I watched gleefully as the life ebbed from the masked killer, whom I’d assumed to be him. Perhaps that is why, in the end, the realization that the killer was not Mitchell Norton, but Tommy Norton, so devastated me.
Perhaps, perhaps, and more perhaps. Shit.
So what now? I’ve left Norton alone these past few weeks, since the death of Tommy and the end of the murders in Algonquin. The resolution I sought so desperately, and which an entire town seems to have gratefully accepted, leaves me wanting more. Did I not accomplish my goal? Yet satisfaction eludes me, as though robbed of what was rightfully mine.
Mitchell Norton walks and breathes and laughs and…. He remains the boogeyman in my nightmares, the ghost that lingers around every corner, always out of sight but never out of mind. Still, he asserts his innocence like a wide-eyed child caught with fingers in the cookie jar.
Yes, he surely laughs, but what will he do next? Does he still prepare himself for his grand return? Does he still seek the path to his old glory, or is he truly reformed? The answer lies beyond my grasp, but my instincts speak clearly on the subject: he will torture, murder and dismember again. He must. He can’t help himself. No matter how determined his fight against it, if that’s even true, he will lose.
I have seen the face of evil up close, looked into the very mind of the devil, and I know what I know.
Now I must hold to my nerve, maintain my control, fortify my resolute determination to rid the world of one last evil. Last? Yes, it’s true; I have no particular desire to kill again. Indeed, I’d rather not, which is why Stefan Gogal still breathes after our encounter a couple nights ago, despite the risk to me of leaving him alive.
Yet one last deed remains undone: Mitchell Norton, the devil, the sole reason darkness persists while at long, long last, light once again teases at the periphery of my life.
I’ll watch him, wait for him to make his move. Then, with neither heavy heart nor troubled conscience, a monster will die at my hands—I pray for the last time.
Tony returned to his bedroom, nudged open the hidden compartment underneath the bottom of his nightstand, slipped the journal inside, and closed the compartment.
Chapter 2 – The Devil’s Plans
This should have been one of the happiest times of Mitchell’s life. After seventeen years in the state facility for the criminally insane, he’d been out of custody for several weeks. He should have been reveling in his freedom. Instead, his whole world had exploded into one giant clusterfuck–again!.
Tommy, the little brother who’d worshipped Mitchell, was dead. Tommy was the serial killer who’d recently plagued Algonquin for two weeks, trying to take after his big brother.
Fuck a rubber duck!
Mitchell had done a little killing himself, seventeen years ago, after discovering his true capabilities—not just for torture and rape and murder, but for intelligence and insight and reason. He’d killed four people, and had been arrested for it thanks to his interfering nemesis, that fuckin’ Tony Hooper. But when doctors discovered the tumor on his neocortex, the outer layer of the brain that houses the intellect and the imagination, and then suggested it could be the cause of his “insanity,” he’d fallen into the perfect defense.
His lawyers had pounced on it like a fly on shit, and the jury found Mitchell not guilty by reason of insanity, though they still locked him up in the state nuthouse. Once they’d removed the tumor, the cause of his insanity, Mitchell had merely to complete a “reasonable period of psychiatric rehabilitation.”
Who knew it would last for seventeen fuckin’ years?
Tommy, in his child-like ignorance, had mistakenly thought that the act of killing had transformed his hero brother. He thought that by killing, he would become as smart as his big brother.
The tragedy of it almost broke Mitchell’s heart. He almost felt guilty about it.
Tommy was killed during the attempt of his fourth murder, by a mysterious figure the police had yet to identify. Ethel Simmons, that hysterical old hag who would have been the victim, claimed that some kind of guardian angel had appeared and, after disposing of Tommy, disappeared again.
What a crock o’ shit!
Mitchell knew perfectly well who was responsible, even if the cops had no proof of it: Tony Hooper, his nemesis, the bane of his existence.
I’ll bet Hooper thought it was me. Imagine his surprise when he saw it was Tommy. Wish I could have seen the look on that fuckhead’s face!
And now the old hag, Ethel, spent an awful lot of time at Frank Willow’s place, where Hooper lived with that old geezer. Coincidence?
Gimme a fuckin’ break!
The police might not have found any evidence to support his theory, but that changed nothing. Mitchell knew. He still remembered Hooper’s little ninja act back in ’78, though that was never confirmed for the authorities. They just chalked it up to Mitchell’s insanity, but he didn’t imagine it. The image remained clear in his memory.
Who else could have killed Tommy with his own knife? His little brother had been doing manual labor for years and was strong as a bull, so taking Tommy down would have required great skill. It had to be Hooper.
Somehow, some way, I will figure out a way to get back at him, to make him pay for what he’s done.
What Hooper had done was throw Mitchell’s world right into the shitter.
His mom was absolutely distraught over Tommy, over what he’d done, over his death, over the fact that both of her sons had now been classified as serial killers. She couldn’t face her neighbors or her coworkers or the clerks in the stores where she shopped. She could no longer face Algonquin, Illinois, so she’d decided to sell the house and move on.
“I don’t blame you, Mitchell,” she said earlier. “Poor Tommy just didn’t understand the world around him.”
Sure. Then why can’t you even look me in the eye? “So you’re going to Arizona?” Mitchell almost whined. “What about me? Am I going too?”
“No, I’m sorry. Your Aunt Susan says she has room for only one. It’s time you found your own way. I can give you some money to help you get started.”
“But what will I do? No one will hire me. I can’t get a job.”
“You will. You’re a smart man, Mitchell. You’ll be okay.” She went back inside the house to resume her cleaning and packing.
Sure. That’s just fuckin’ dandy.
As if Mitchell didn’t have enough to worry about already, now he had only a short time to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He desperately wanted to get back at Hooper, but that would have to wait.
His mom probably had it right: he should get the hell out of Dodge. Who needed Algonquin, anyway? He needed to go someplace where no one had ever heard of Mitchell Norton. Better yet, now that he thought of it, perhaps he should stop being Mitchell Norton altogether. An acquaintance of his from the state hospital just might be able to help with that.
He paced around the back yard and talked himself through it. “Let’s see, I’ll need a birth certificate and a Social Security card. With those I can get a driver’s license, and then I can sell my van from me to me, from Mitchell Norton to…. I’ll have to come up with a name. Or maybe they’ll have one for me. I wonder what old Viper is up to these days, if he’s still at that same joint in Chicago.”
He stopped, put his hand up under his chin as he stared at the ground, and nodded. “Time to take a little drive.”
Viper wanted three thousand dollars for the false identification papers, but Mitchell didn’t have that kind of money.
“Tell ya what, Mitchell,” Viper said. “Instead o’ money, maybe we could make a l’il trade. Whatcha say?”
“And what do I have that could possibly be of interest to you?”
“Don’t be so modest, Mitchell! You got, shall we say, skills. I got this guy, givin’ me nuttin’ but shit all da fuckin’ time. I’m tellin’ ya, he done pissed me off so bad I can’t hardly stand it. Know what I mean?”
“Sorry to hear that, Viper. And what would you like me to do about it?”
Viper laughed a raspy, cigarette-laden wheeze that made Mitchell feel as though he might become infected just standing close to the disgusting puke.
“I’d just like ya to do whatcha do so well. See, it’s gonna take me a coupla days to get da papers for ya. When ya come back for ’em, if my big pain in the ass ain’t hurtin’ me no mo’ and can’t do so ever again, then I’ll just give ya da papers. Whatcha say, Mitchell?”
“You have a name and address, I presume.”
“‘Course. Now tell me, what name would ya like on da papers?”
Mitchell didn’t kill Viper’s mark in his usual way, his old way, because that might have brought the police around with suspicions he just couldn’t afford. He made it look entirely different, even had a little fun with it. It was the first time he’d killed in seventeen years, so no sense in wasting the opportunity.
It had nothing to do with getting his rocks off; it was just business. Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it.
When he returned to Viper’s hangout to pick up his papers, the disgusting puke could hardly contain himself. “Damn, Mitchell, the cops said dat asshole was sittin’ on da sofa like he was watchin’ TV, ‘cept the sumbitch’s head was sittin’ on top o’ the TV. That’s pure fuckin’ genius, man! Ya know what I’m sayin’? You’re a true ar-teest, man. A fuckin’ ar-teest fo’ sho’.”
“Keep it down!” Mitchell glanced around the bar, not pleased to be discussing such things in a public place. “You have the papers ready for me?”
“‘Course. Got ’em right here.”
They looked quite authentic, even weathered, as though they’d stood up to many years of use—one birth certificate, one Social Security card, and one driver’s license in need of renewal.
“Now, Viper,” he said, “I intentionally made that little bit of art, as you called it, look like nothing I’ve ever done, so that the police will not even think about me. If they come a calling, I will assume you got a little loose with the tongue. You know what I do to people who try to hurt me, Viper?”
The puke’s eyes bulged in terror behind the face he tried to keep calm. “Hey, don’t need to worry ’bout me, man. I’m cool.”
“That’s good because, believe me, you don’t want to end up tied to my workbench, begging me to kill you.”
“Like I say, man, you got nuttin’ to worry ’bout.” Viper, all five-foot-five of him, trembled a little.
Sick puke looks like he’s about to piss himself. Good.
Three days later, Mitchell relaxed in a lawn chair, sipping a Budweiser and thinking through his next steps with a grin plastered across his face. It had all been so easy; how could he not smile? It was good to feel that kind of power again.
Even the Reaper, whose voice echoed in his mind again, had been fairly impressed.
He’d go down into Chicago tomorrow, where his false address was, and get a new driver’s license. Then he’d sell himself—his new self—the van and head out for parts unknown.
He looked at the ID papers again and laughed, amused by the little riddle he’d prepared for the authorities.
Fuck it! I need to have some fun, and this is fun.
And always, always in the back of his mind, he thought about Tony Hooper, his nemesis. Mitchell would have his day. Maybe he’d build up to it, start having some of his old fun while making plans for that fuckin’ Hooper.
The Reaper now urged him on, and Mitchell surely didn’t want to anger the demons. He knew what that could mean. He must be a good soldier: follow orders and, at all costs, avoid the wrath of the Reaper and his horde of demons.
His mom distracted him when she came out with another handful of garbage for the dumpster she’d rented. She planned on moving very little, selling off what she could and throwing the rest away. It seemed like a whole lifetime of odds and ends were going into that dumpster.
She stopped, put her hands on her hip, and whooshed the hair out of her eyes by jutting her lower lip out and blowing upwards, then turned to him. “Mitchell, have you decided where you’ll go?”
“I’m thinking about the mountains of Wyoming, some little cowpoke town where nobody ever heard of me. That seems like the best chance for me. I learned how to cook in the hospital, so maybe I can get a simple little job in a diner or something. Maybe I’ll start writing that book I’ve been thinking about.”
“That sounds wonderful. I hope it works out just the way you want it. Be sure to drop a note from time to time to let me know how things are going.”
“Sure.” Right. Lousy bitch!
She was abandoning him, making it quite clear—without saying it in so many words—that she wanted nothing more to do with him.
Fine. Two can play that game. I’m not going to Podunk, Wyoming, for fuck’s sake, but she doesn’t need to know that.
Nobody did. Safer that way.
Chapter 3 – The Revelation