Alex Gazes into the Abyss — Excerpt from “She Who Watches”

I never had problems with allergies when I was younger, but these days it seems to be hitting me harder every year. So I’m home today feeling drippy and fatigued, and I thought it might be a good time to post an excerpt from She Who Watches, as a small inducement that might, just might, make you want to read more. Enjoy!

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Damien’s small and surprisingly tidy bedroom was upstairs facing the back of the house, but he’d knocked the wall out between the other two bedrooms, creating a large space that was a computer geek’s wet dream.

“After the house and my car, this is where most of my inheritance ended up,” he said, indicating a tall black structure that lurked in the corner, humming ominously amid more piles of books and papers. “It’s a 64 blade Linux server enclosure. Multi-terabyte RAID-6 array for storage, high-performance workstation, incoming fiber optic line, generator for backup, the whole nine yards.”

I was impressed. “How much did all this cost?”

Damien shrugged. “You don’t want to know. And the power consumption makes the cops think I’m growing weed or something. But I need it, given the sheer amount of data that I have to deal with. I wrote a series of scripts that search the net for key words and phrases, looking for patterns and similarities. Then it sends me a report and I look at the references that seem most relevant. Those I store and use in my articles.” He tapped the big enclosure gently. “I’ve got texts and images of thousands of rare occult books, out of print periodicals, obscure articles, publications, comics, pulp magazines, blogs, journals, everything. This could be the most extensive collection of occult materials in the world, right here in the corner of my office. I’ve got hundreds more printed books downstairs in my library.”

He gestured toward an office chair. “Sit, please.”

The workstation had a monstrous 27 inch screen, and when Damien sat beside me and gave his mouse a few clicks, a world map appeared, with fifteen or so colored pin icons scattered across several continents.

“I can filter my searches any way I want,” he said. “These are the results of my original search when I was just looking for violent crimes in which the word ‘Shepherd’ appears.”

I remained silent, watching as Damien did more arcane things with pop-up menus and search criteria.

“After we talked I took a closer look at those crimes and saw that they all involved knives or stabbing weapons, along with the ritualistic cutting of symbols into the victims’ flesh.”

Damien described the crimes with almost clinical detachment, but I’d been living with the victims’ ordeals for the past six months. I shivered.

The mouse pointer darted across the screen. “There were other similarities. Some babbled gibberish while they killed or raped their victims. Some butchered their dead victims and engaged in cannibalism. I missed all of that, of course. I can be really blind when I’m manic. So focused on one idea that I don’t see what’s staring me in the face.” He pulled down a menu and tapped another button. “I added all of those criteria to my search and look what happened.”

Dozens more dots appeared, each with a date beside it.

“Over a hundred now,” he said. “And in each case, the killer used a stabbing or slashing weapon, cut symbols on the victim’s body, babbled in an incoherent fashion, or used a language that he didn’t normally speak. Not all of them mention the Shepherd, but in most other aspects they’re identical. Most of them aren’t assaults, either. They’re murder. Lots more than I originally thought. The perpetrators that were caught were all either imprisoned, executed, or committed to mental institutions. Many of these crimes remain unsolved to this day.”

I leaned forward to look at the screen, reading the dates. “Jesus, Damien. They didn’t end in the ‘50s.”

More dots appeared with later and later dates. Damien clicked again and the dots changed to different colors according to the decade in which they occurred.

“They happen in waves,” Damien said. “The blue ones happened in the late ‘40s, yellow in the mid-‘60s, green in the ‘80s…” Red dots appeared in western North America, along the route of the I-84 Killer’s spree. “And now it’s happening again.”

There was a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “These crimes are all identical to the I-84 Killer? Over a hundred murders over sixty-plus years?”

“I count a hundred and twenty-two. Maybe more, but the records get scarcer the farther back you go.”

“All over the world.”

“All with three or more similarities.” Damien stopped, as if reluctant to continue. He rubbed his cheeks with one hand. “Some are spot-on identical. The ‘Shepherd’ pattern was only one aspect of a larger crime wave. All around the world, men have been killing and raping with the same M.O. Just like the I-84 Killer. I didn’t see the pattern, Alex. I should have. If it hadn’t been for you I’d have missed it entirely.”

“I don’t like where this is going, Damien.”

“Neither do I. In most cases there’s no record of the supposed gibberish that the killers babbled. In one case I was able to find a transcript of one of the interrogations from 1988. It was in Nice, France, and the guy who did it was a Spanish transient named Ramon Soto.” He picked up a stack of papers that sat beside one of his printers. “I printed it out and highlighted the important parts.” He handed it to me.

I looked at it. “Damien?”

“Hm?”

“I don’t speak French either.”

He took it back. “Sorry. I keep forgetting…”

“Forgetting that not everyone is as gifted as you are?”

“Take it as a compliment, Alex.” He opened the transcript to a series of highlighted paragraphs. “Most of it really is nonsense. The transcriptionist did her best, tried to type some of it phonetically in case he was actually speaking another language. Itcheloot. Agunaba. Bagnakunachee. But here he actually starts to talk in Spanish. He never says anything about a Shepherd, but he does say some interesting things. The interrogator asks him in Spanish why he killed the man and Soto says ‘él me ordeno’ — ‘he ordered me to.’ The policeman asks who ‘he’ is, and Soto says ‘el bestia dentro cabeza me,’ — ‘the beast in my head.’”

I looked away, as if not seeing the printed words would help me to feel less helpless, less confused. “The beast in my head? What the hell does that mean?”

“We’ll never know. After that Soto refused to respond and they finally ended the interview. He died in custody a week later, cause unknown.”

“You’re scaring me, Damien.” I felt as if dark, mad eyes were staring at the back of my head, across scores of years and thousands of miles.

“Yeah, well I’m pretty scared myself. I don’t have an explanation for any of this, and even if I did I don’t think I’d like it. All that cosmic uncertainty I talked about is suddenly right in front of us.”

I looked outside. A pair of doors with large glass windows led out onto the upstairs porch. Night was spreading across the neighborhood. The streetlights were almost invisible through the thick trees in the front yard. I wanted to deny it, to find some logical reason to reject everything Damien had told me, but I couldn’t.

“If this is all true, what the hell is going on?” I asked. “Has some bizarre cult been committing rapes and murders for the past sixty years?”

“It’s one possible explanation, Alex. But only one of many.”

“You said it yourself — three incidents is a movement.” I waved my hand at the screen. “You just found over a hundred.”

“I think there was at least a small amount of hyperbole in that statement. Besides I wrote it when I was manic and thought I was right about everything. There’s really no way of knowing for certain why this is all happening. Or whether it’s happening at all.” He hung his head. “Damnation. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s just my own mind screwing with me.”

Damien was silent for a moment, then perked up.

“Oh, yes. I found something else interesting.” He rummaged through the stack of papers and handed me another printout. This one looked like a high school yearbook photo.

“A little present for you, Alex. Meet Robert Leslie, aka Pine Street Bob. Born 1961, graduated 1979, Holy Grace Young Men’s Academy, Seattle, Washington.”

I frowned at the picture. “Pine Street Bob? How did you get this?”

He shrugged. “I can find just about anything about just about anyone. It just depends on how hard I want to look and what laws I want to break. Finding out about Bob was easy.”

“Are you sure this is him?” I held the printout up, trying to connect the smiling, fresh-faced youth in the picture with the burnt-out street person who had been haunting my imagination. Had the delusional Pine Street Bob really started out life as a Catholic schoolboy?

“Reasonably. You can never be certain with transients — no fixed address, no socials. Many don’t even use their real names. But I’m relatively sure — young Robert here seems to have devolved into your friend Pine Street Bob.”

Damien read from another printout. “Young, intelligent, deeply religious. His yearbook bio says that his goal was to join the priesthood, but he never did. He ended up with a history of emotional problems, a string of jobs, increasing mental disturbances, reports of violent behavior. He moved all over the Pacific Northwest — Seattle, Olympia, Anacortes, Post Falls, Boise, Eugene, finally Portland. He’s been here for a few years, and he has quite a dossier. Disorderly conduct arrests in ’11 and ’13, later assault charges dropped because the victim was another homeless man and they couldn’t find him. The report says that Bob kept screaming that the guy was ‘The Shepherd’ and cut him up pretty badly with a broken bottle.”

I felt my neck hairs raise again.

Damien continued. “They arrested him by that abandoned cement plant out in the industrial area near Blue Lake. You remember — the one that had a fire last fall?”

“Yes, I remember.” It had been a bit of a scandal — an abandoned site that the owner had let go completely to seed. When someone saw smoke and called in the fire department, they’d discovered a fairly extensive homeless community there. The sheriff had fined the owner, kicked the homeless people out and promptly forgotten about the place.

Damien took the photo back from me and contemplated the innocent, smiling face. “Something happened to our little Bobby. Something took this kid and made him into what you saw outside your building.”

“Schizophrenia, maybe? It can happen to anyone.” I was still looking for a rational explanation, for some way to make it all make sense.

“No arguments here.” Damien stroked his chin thoughtfully. “But no. It’s got to be more than that. Certainly he’s disturbed. His history was pretty clear. But why the Shepherd? Why is he following in the footsteps of all those other men? Disturbed, loners, petty criminals who start demanding to know about the Shepherd and eventually kill and rape because of it?”

“He read about the Shepherd crimes somewhere and decided to add them to his delusions? Maybe he read your articles, Damien.” I was busy searching for some other explanation, something that would make sense of it all.

“Not unless he can travel in time. He had a history of violence well before my article was written. Besides, he asked you about the Shepherd before the article was even published. No, there’s some other influence at work. God knows, maybe he’s part of our hypothetical serial murder cult. He certainly fits the profile.”

“Damien, are you suggesting that Pine Street Bob is the I-84 killer?”

There it was, plain and ugly as an open wound.

“No, I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just observing, looking at patterns. And noting that Robert Leslie fits them.”

He was starting to sound like Manic Damien again, but it didn’t bother me. Manic Damien was who I wanted to talk to right now.

“He’s got friends too, Damien. That first day I saw him with another homeless guy who looked like Uncle Creepy. He was there again today. He waved at me. Said ‘Hi, Alex.’ They both looked at me like…” I shivered. “Like they wanted something from me. God damn it, Damien, do you think they could be…”

Again, I let my voice trail off, unwilling to finish a thought that was too awful to contemplate.

I suppressed a shiver. The fact that Damien kept his whole house underlit didn’t help matters. “What do you think we should do? Call the cops?”

“And tell them what? That we think Pine Street Bob and his buddies might be part of a murder cult that’s been raping and killing people for a half century? That he’s going to be a murderer at some unspecified future date?”

“Shit.”

“Exactly. You see the position we’re in, Alex. It’s where I’ve been for years, seeing patterns and thinking things that no one in their right mind would believe.”

Damien held up Robert Leslie’s photo. His eyes stared out of the picture — younger, healthier, brighter. But they were the same eyes that I’d seen in the picture of the Irish rapist, and the same ones I’d seen staring out of Pine Street Bob’s face.

“Gaze into the abyss, Alex,” Damien said. “It’s already gazing into you.”

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