This piece is brought to you by Billy Stuart! One of the ScaryDad creators and podcasters, here in Houston, TX. I met Billy when he submitted to the Hydrophobia Anthology to help victims of Hurricane Harvey and became fast friends. It’s my pleasure to share his writing prompt below. As always, make sure to catch his bio at the end and give him some love by commenting, liking, and sharing!

 

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Samhain

The whole thing started as a curiosity piece, part of a week-long Halloween-themed series. It’s the sort of maudlin fluff that serious journalists despise, but what we all end up doing so much more of than actual reporting. This is the stuff of small town newspaper. Talk with an old lady whose cat was rescued by the fire department. Cover the ribbon cutting at the new Chevron station. Interview old folks and ask them what it was like to grow old in this no-horse town in the middle of nowhere. But I digress. It was nearing Halloween and the boss wanted to report on some dark and mysterious things in our town’s history.

I was handed three assignments. The first was the fire that destroyed the old courthouse way back in 1928. This was a huge deal back then as all court records- sentences, fines, and judgements went up in smoke one night. To this day the cause of the fire remains unknown. I had the pleasure of meeting the town’s oldest resident, Mrs. Kimmie Dougat, who is, “97 years young this fall…”

She was seven years old at the time and claims to have been there to watch it burn. This was difficult to coalesce with the fact that archived accounts report that the fire started sometime in the middle of the night and that by the time anyone even knew there was a problem, the building had already been reduced to cinders and ash. Miss Kimmie was a sweetheart, though so I didn’t really care whether or not she was lying.

The second assignment was an interview with Lawrence Thomas Griffith III to discuss the 44th year of the charity ball and auction at the KC hall. Griffith the Third is the owner of Griffith Motors (est. 1948), our local car dealership. His grandfather, Griffith Sr. had come back from the war with a piece of shrapnel and a dream and had run a very successful dealership until his retirement in the mid 70’s. His son, Griffith Junior, was a showman. He often appeared on radio and television to promote the dealership and anything else he had going on, which largely consisted of charity fundraisers. He was a beloved figure in town who greatly improved his father’s legacy and made his own not insignificant impact on the town’s economy. The charity ball and auction are local traditions that people look forward to all year.

Griffith the third is a young, sad-faced and serious man, with little of his father’s charisma or personality. While certainly pleasant to be around, it is obvious that the young man’s heart is not in selling cars. If I had to guess, I think he’d prefer the big city and all its… flavor to the small town we inhabit, if you know what I mean. And III is an only child so the entire family business rests on his shoulders. I personally don’t see the dealership making it another five years.

And that’s the kind of life we lead. Small town, big gossip, old school. In spite of the internet, we still sell out our entire print run every week. We sometimes even have to print late editions. Kids still play in front yards here. The ladies gather at the salon to talk about whose teenagers are messing around with whose, and the Baptist Church’s Spring Festival is the most anticipated event of the year. These are good, solid, salt-of-the-Earth folks. It’s the kind of place just about anyone, well, anyone except Griffith the Third, would like to put down roots and live easy.

Unless you were living here between 1998 and 2001. Then it was most definitely not one of those places. You see, in those years the town was terrorized by a serial killer. Four total victims, all under the age of ten, snatched from their own bedrooms on Halloween night. There were never any signs of a break-in or struggle and none of the victims were ever found

Making the situation even stranger was how the story ended.  In ’01, shortly after the fourth victim went missing, a local man by the name of Charles Lee Brooks walked into the police station and confessed to snatching, raping, and killing the children. He said he would cooperate fully and show where he’d hidden the bodies. He declined counsel and said he didn’t even want a defense. He swore that he was guilty and needed to be punished. He also begged to be locked up. Unfortunately, the bodies were never recovered nor were the confessions ever made. You see, once they had him all locked up, Mister Brooks took a sheet and wrapped it around his neck and hanged himself from the bars.

It should have been national news but there was always a bigger, juicier story somewhere else. Even when the story took such an unusual turn, there was still wall to wall coverage of 9/11 on almost every channel, so the story was never picked up by the media. Locally, however, it was quite the sensation.

Charles Brooks was a chronically unemployed alcoholic who lived on the outskirts of town. He did odd jobs and errands to make ends meet and when he was in a rare dry spell, he made his money working on people’s cars. Despite all his problems, Brooks was magical when it came to motors. He could rebuild an engine by himself in an afternoon. The police concluded later that that’s why there were never any signs of a break-in: Brooks had simply copied his customers’ house keys and let himself in.

My third assignment for Halloween was to interview the officers who worked the case of the “Samhain Killer” all those years ago. My boss, the Ledger’s editor and chief, S.L. Cypress, was the man who named the killer. He was not subtle about wanting to get famous, to contribute to national publications, go on TV, and all that, so he took extra steps to sensationalize the whole thing. The insensitive bastard even added jack ‘o lanterns and black cats to columns discussing the murders, even years after Brooker had died. To say that the people of this town are not fans of Halloween would be an understatement.

The thing was, nobody ever came calling. National media didn’t care about a years-solved case that never produced any details. It was simply a tragic tale in an otherwise uninteresting small town somewhere in America. Yet, every five or ten years, Cypress would drop the assignment on one of his staff writers, making them pull out the files and relive all the boring details. “Team,” he’d say, rubbing his hands together excitedly and smiling broadly, “It’s been long enough. America needs to know about Sam-Hane.”

He said it incorrectly. He said it incorrectly every time. For a man of words, this was like nails on a chalkboard. It was the sort of mistake that would see the red of a proofer’s pen so quickly if it was written, but since it was spoken our otherwise super-strict boss-man simply refused to correct it. He’d say it on the radio too, whenever he was invited on to discuss local events or history. “It’s just a travesty that such a tragic event was just ignored. It’s like nobody cared at all for the suffering of the people of a small town. People need to know what happened here. People need to know about Sam-hane.”

Now, to be fair, the story of Samhain did have plenty of mystery and intrigue and his crimes certainly should have blown up alongside killers like Bundy and Zodiac. Four victims, killed by a familiar local personality, and no bodies… It wasn’t that it was boring in and of itself. It was that after writing the same damn article so many times over the years, nobody wanted to do it yet again. So, Cypress assigned Garden Club and Marching Band and Newlyweds-with-Ironic-Names and damn near every other kind of maudlin fluff that we just despise, and damn it if I didn’t get stuck behind a train on the way to work that morning so I got to the office with exactly one assignment left to choose up on the board: Samhain.

Damn.

S.L. wanted the angle of the story to be a 20th anniversary of the disappearance of the first victim, Kyle Walters. He wanted interviews with police and family members. The problem with that was, S.L. Cypress is a baby-faced and vibrant man in his late-sixties who thinks and acts like someone in his thirties. He’s way past retirement age but he’s still in the office before the light and stays late nearly every night. He never married, so the paper is basically his home, the staff his family. I’ve always liked S.L., except for his weird obsession with getting his serial killer stories picked up by the Times. It’s just that he fails to realize that most of the people who were involved with Samhain just really don’t want to relive that time of their lives. Twenty years is a long time, but when you lose a child, those scars never heal, and they never go away. S.L. didn’t care. He wanted his story and he would have it. On his desk. Friday morning. Or there would be Hell to pay.

Fair enough. I’d write his damn story. I went to my desk and prepared to do a very simple Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V on the article I’d written two years before. I sat down and booted up my computer and dicked around on my phone while I waited for the desktop to come up. Checking Facebook, I discovered that Arnold Waller had died. Sheriff Waller had been the face of law-enforcement my entire life. In his brown uniform, hat, and boots, Waller was as much a symbol of this town as the water tower or the little league park. I went to school with his son. Frankie was one grade above me, but the school was so small that most everyone except for the very oldest and the very youngest were friends.

I posted a quick, “thoughts and prayers” comment and stared at my computer screen. Sheriff Waller had been there that night that Brooks had come in to the station. Was likely the one who called in the ME when Brooks kicked it too. I picked up my phone again and reread the post.

“My father, Sheriff Arnold Waller, died this morning at home. He was 79. Funeral announcements forthcoming. Thank you for your concern and support. -F

It wasn’t much, almost strikingly stark. And Frankie wasn’t a guy known for brevity; Frankie liked to talk. I read and reread his post. Comments with broken-heart and sad-faced emojis started rolling in. The whole town was going to be in mourning. Sheriff Waller was an institution. He’d been patrolling for most of everyone’s lives. I think when he retired he’d been with the department for thirty-something years.

And Frankie adored his father. The two of them were practically inseparable—always hunting, fishing, going to games—something didn’t add up. Even though it was just Facebook, Frankie Waller was not one to elegize his father with a mere 23 words. I grabbed my keys and went straight to his house.

Frankie’s vintage Ford Galaxy was in the driveway and the garage was open when I arrived, but nobody answered the door. I called around and poked at the edges, deciding whether I wanted to risk just walking in. I was standing in the garage pondering the issue when Frankie opened the door and we startled each other.

“Jesus Christ, John! You scared the hell out of me!”

“Frankie, I’m sorry! I rang the bell, but no one answered. I, uh, I saw your Facebook. I came by to see how you were holding up.”

He didn’t look good. His normally jovial demeanor was gone. Before me stood a man who had been stressed to the limits. His dark hair was messy, and he had about three days of beard. His skin was greasy, and he looked as if he hadn’t showered in days. He narrowed his eyes at me and then looked at the ground. “I, uh. I’m not feelin’ much like company, John. Been a hard row to hoe the last few days.”

He then went to the refrigerator and got a beer. He didn’t offer one to me. He cracked the tab and drank half of it in a single swallow. In all my life I don’t think I remember ever seeing Frankie even drink a beer, what, with his dad being the sheriff and all. The Wallers were pretty straight-laced. When we were young, Frankie only avoided earning the nickname Opie by being big enough to smash anyone who wanted to say it to his face. I’m not proud of the fact that we called him that behind his back anyway and sometimes still do. But mean or not, it was accurate. Now, this impossibly, and sometimes irritatingly upstanding man was drunk at nine in the morning. True, he was mourning his father, but there was something more.

“It’s okay, Frank. I just wanted to offer my condolences. If there’s anything you need, you let me know, alright?”

He looked at the floor again and nodded without saying anything.

“Okay. I’ll see you later Frankie.” I said as I turned to leave.

“John…” He said, lifting his head.

“Yeah?”

He tipped the can and drained the rest of the beer before tossing the can at the refrigerator. He then began to sob. “I, I, I need to… I. Oh God… I”

“What is it, Frank? I know you loved your dad. It’s okay. We’re all going to miss him.

“It’s not that! It…. FUCK!” He swung his fist and put a hole in the sheetrock next to the refrigerator. I ducked instinctively, although I was not within reach of him. I stepped backward slightly. Frankie was having a breakdown and although I don’t think he’d ever hurt me on purpose, at the moment he was a bit out of his mind.

He staggered a bit, then caught his balance and then swayed. “I… Son of a?!”

I turned to see S.L. pass by in his blue Lexus, He cruised slowly, looking straight ahead, and turned at the end of the street.

“Him,” spat Frankie, swaying.

I looked from Frankie to where the car had passed and back again. “He hit you up for an interview or something?” I asked. S.L. Cypress was known for being a bit brash and unsympathetic. He’s definitely the kind of guy who would call a man on the day his father died and ask if he had any comments for the late edition. Decorum was not his thing.

“No. Look. I… I have to talk to someone, but it can’t be in your fucking paper, okay, John? I need to talk to a friend and since none of them are around, I need to talk to you.”

Ignoring the insult, I said, “We’re friends, Frankie. You can tell me anything.”

“Totally off the record.”

“Off the record. I promise.”

He helped himself to another beer and failed to offer me one a second time, then ushered me into the house. He took a look back over his shoulder, scanning the street for something, then closed the garage door and came inside as well.

“It was them, John. Cypress and my dad.”

“Who was them? I don’t know what you mean.”

Samhain. The murders. It wasn’t that guy, uh, uh, Brooks. It was…”

He looked at the floor, glassy eyes haunted. He had the look of a man who had lost everything.

“Slow down, Frank. You’re not making any sense.”

“They… My dad. Last night, right before. He said he needed to confess something. We’re not catholic but I offered to call a priest or a minister or something. He said it was too late for that but that he couldn’t go without telling someone.”

He stared at the floor in silence, thinking. His eyes went wide, then narrowed. He started and stopped several times before continuing. “My dad. Everyone’s favorite guy, Mister Law and Order… Turns out he was a… a… Fuck! He liked men and boys, okay? He was a closet freak. He’d go into town and… I don’t know. Do whatever he did. Hire kids to… do things.

“Sam Cypress’s his… partner. Cypress ran into Dad someplace in the city. Long time… years ago. Dad didn’t know why Cypress was there, but he’d been caught cruising by the newspaper man. Dad begged Cypress not to tell anyone. He had a family and a career, and he’d lose it all if people found out. Cypress and my father made a deal. Sam wouldn’t say anything about dad’s dalliances. He’d keep a secret for him, if he’d do him a favor in return…

“See… see… Sam liked kids too. But he didn’t just screw ‘em. He… he killed ‘em. He did worse things than kill ‘em. And my dad was investigating the, uh, disappearances. Sam promised my dad his secret was safe as long as he stopped looking for the missing kids. So he did.”

“But Brooks confessed,” I said, “Walked right into the police station and…”

“My dad killed Charles Brooks, John. He… he choked him out in his cell. Brooks never confessed to anything. Dad just found an easy mark that nobody liked to take the fall. A bit of work with the documents, and he had an open and shut case, except for they never found the bodies. Cypress stopped snatching local children. Dad never knew if he just quit or went other places. But no more kids went missing, Brooks hung for it and life went on.”

My heart was beating hard in my chest. This was the story of the century! Local police complicit with a child killer? Off the record or not, the world had to know!

“I think Sam is going to try to kill me,” Frankie said. “He’s driven by the house a few times today but every time, someone has been here.”

“Look, Frank, I know this whole thing is hard to deal with but if this is true, we need to tell people. We need to bring Sam to justice. No more secrets.”

“John, you promised. I can’t… I can’t let people know what kind of a monster my father was. What he did. What he… what he didn’t do. My family would be ruined!”

“Frank, think of all the families that were ruined because of him! You can’t let him get away with this!”

Frank stared at the floor and sobbed. It was a long time before he finally nodded. “Okay. Go. Now. Before I change my mind.”

Good, old Opie. I knew he couldn’t just let this slide. His father may have been a pederast, but he raised that boy right. I took some more notes and then made my way outside and back out to my car. I looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of Sam. Samhain, I thought, the bastard named himself. I drove home to work on my story in private. Tomorrow, Halloween, I would bring down the Samhain Killer.

I wrote my story, with Frankie Waller’s confession as close to verbatim as I could get. I also wrote the story I had intended to write to turn in to S.L. when I got in. I needed to be quick and clever to switch the stories at the last second. That’s when S.L. met me at the door and asked me to come into his office.

Adrenaline pumping, I walked with him and he closed the door behind us. Did he know? What did he know?

“I think I saw you talking to Frank Waller at his home yesterday, yes? What did you talk about?”

“Uh, nothing. I stopped by to give condolences for his father passing. He was already drunk. Taking it pretty hard.”

“Uh huh,” he said, eyes narrowing, “That’s all? He didn’t tell you anything else?”

“What would he tell me? He was just sad and drunk. Why?”

“You haven’t read this morning’s edition yet, have you?” He pulled the folded paper from his pocket and handed it to me. There, on the cover, was Frankie’s old car, on fire in a field.

“What is this?”

“Police found our friend Frankie with half of his head missing. Drove his car all the way out to Mill Creek road, then boom. Twelve Gauge”

I stared at Cypress, choosing my next words very carefully. “I don’t know what to say. He was really broken up about his dad. But I didn’t think he’d do anything like this.”

“You never do, son. You never do. But you know what else?”

“What’s that?”

“There was a box with five pairs of hands and five Halloween masks in the trunk of that old junker.”

“They found…”

“Seems as if old Sheriff Waller did some confessing to our friend Frank before he passed on. Told him something the boy just couldn’t handle.”

The way his eyes bored into me, he knew that I knew about him. Or at least he knew that Frank had told me something. I tried to meet his gaze, but it was impossible. All I could do was stammer, “Confess to what? Hands? Whose hands?”

Sam smiled and sat on the edge of his desk. “Well, the hands of the children, of course. Victims of our favorite local legend. Sam-hane.”

I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. Here was a man who had killed children for fun, who had successfully blackmailed a town sheriff for decades, and had probably just killed Frankie Waller.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said, “And here we thought it was Charles Brooks this whole time. What, were they in on it together?”

Sam narrowed his eyes, caught off guard for a moment. He didn’t say anything. I continued, “So given the new development, do you still want the story?”

He was silent a few seconds longer before his face softened and he answered. “No, no. I’ll take it from here. You get some rest, John. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

My phone began to ring. My wife, Janice. I pressed the, “Call you back later” button and put it back into my pocket. “I was up late working on the story. You know, you said you wanted it on your desk by now.”

“And I’m sure it was great, just like everything you write. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call New York. They’ll want to hear about Sam-hane this time. Why don’t you go on home, John? You really need some rest.”

My phone began to ring again. Janice. She wouldn’t be calling back like this unless it was important. I silenced the ringer and held the phone in my hand, letting it vibrate as I backed slowly out of Sam’s office.

“In fact, take a couple of days off. Things are going to be quite busy around here pretty soon and I want you rested and ready to jump right into the middle of it all. Spend it with your family!” He said, “Take that lovely daughter of yours, uh, forgive me…”

“Michelle.”

“Yes, Michelle. My apologies. Take her out trick-or-treating! She’s just so excited, isn’t she? Bet she can’t wait to put on her cute little blue fairy costume. Hell, just take the whole weekend.”

Something, other than the whole conversation, was terribly wrong. How would he know what color my kids’ dress was?  I didn’t have time to finish the thought before my phone began to ring for the third time. Then my blood went cold. I pushed the answer button and said, “Hold on, Jan. One second.” Then, to Sam, “You said the box had five pairs of hands.”

Sam nodded. “I did.”

“Samhain only had four victims. Whose are the fifth pair?”

He smiled broadly. “I can’t even begin to suspect. So horrible. But I don’t think it will be long before we find out. Anyway, that’s all for now. Happy Halloween, John.”

 

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