A Christmas Hanging
A public execution is probably the last place you’d want to spend Christmas Eve. After all, that doesn’t seem like a very cheerful way to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior.
Yet, here we are. More than half the town gathered together in front of the old stone courthouse. The gallows standing right next door to the park where the town Christmas tree was lit only a few short weeks ago. Believe it or not, today is a happier day than that day was. There hasn’t been a hanging in West Virginia in over one-hundred twenty years and this one won’t be on the books. There’s fewer than five hundred people in this town and we keep to ourselves. It ain’t nobody’s business what goes on here and we look after our own.
About four months back, a sweet little couple that goes to church with my wife and me had a baby. The cutest little boy you ever laid eyes on. One day while his momma was outside working in the garden, she left the baby in his crib to nap. Mind you, she was gardening just outside his bedroom window, which was open. She finished her gardening and headed back in the house only to find an empty crib. Understandably, she nearly lost her mind.
A search party was formed, family and friends were questioned. It was like the baby had vanished without a trace. As dark neared with no sign of the infant all of us here at the police department knew the more hours that passed the lower the chance of finding him alive. We tried our best to keep the momma’s spirits up though. We were all afraid of what she might do otherwise.
In the middle of the night, she woke up her husband, saying she heard the baby crying outside. She said maybe whoever took the baby had a change of heart and brought him back. He said she jumped out of bed and took off outside in her nightgown and bare feet. The husband thought she must have dreamed she heard the baby cry or hallucinated it in her distraught state. He got up, put on his robe and slippers and went after her. He flipped on the porch light before going out and saw the shadow of his wife on the ground in their yard. He went to her to comfort her and realized her throat had been slit from ear to ear.
We got there within minutes after he called. It was a mess. At that point, it was one of the worst things I’d ever seen in my career. We were searching the house for anything that might give us a clue as to what the hell had happened. Then we went in the baby’s room. We turned on the light and I’ll be damned, the little feller was sound asleep in his crib. Gave me chills like you wouldn’t believe.
All we could figure was the killer had broken in and put the baby in the crib, sneaked back outside and maybe played a recording of him crying to lure out one of the parents. Killed her when she ran out, then he took off.
We tried to contact bigger police departments for help. No one would even look at the file. They all said the husband did it, that the case was open and shut. They never even tried to help us. They all thought we were just dumb hillbillies. So when the next one happened we decided we would just handle it ourselves.
About three weeks later, the Gilliam twins were found down by the creek next to their house. A twelve year old boy and girl who were outside playing. Just like they did everyday. Thankfully it was a neighbor that found them and not the parents. Once again the throats were slit. We didn’t know why one of the them didn’t try to run. But the dad said they were like that, they wouldn’t leave each other’s side for anything. Once again, we questioned people and tried to find which direction we needed to look. There wasn’t much to go on. Nobody had seen or heard anything around town the day of the crime.
After a week of no progress, me and the rest of the sheriff’s department decided to hold a town meeting. We talked about bringing in an investigator from Huntington. But, the families of the deceased didn’t want to go through more questioning. We knew there would be miles of red tape only to be told there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue anyone. We told everyone to look out for each other and to keep their kids close. Everyone stayed on high alert and for a over a month things were quiet.
Then one day, everything came crashing down. Mary Kent was going over to Ms. Elmira’s house for the weekly knitting circle. Ms. Elmira, was one of the oldest ladies in town. She had been a school teacher for many years. Pretty much everyone in town had sat in her classroom. After she retired she kept busy having knitting and quilting circles at her home with other ladies. Well, when Mary arrived a little late, she walked in to see something out of a horror movie. There was Ms. Elmira, Katie Hassel and Mary’s own sister, Sarah Murphy. All three had been murdered. Blood was everywhere in the tiny house that was decorated with so much pink. Two of them were facing the door as if they had tried to get away, they just weren’t fast enough. What kind of pyscopath were we dealing with? It took three of us to pry poor, screaming, Mary off of her sister’s body.
One, two , three, I counted in my head. Did that mean a murder of four was coming? That our town folks weren’t even safe in groups anymore? I looked through files until my eyes crossed when I tried to read. I stood up from my desk to stretch my legs and decided to go over to the grocery store for a snack and bottle of pop.
The cashier was ringing up my Little Debbie and bottle of Diet Coke when a stock boy at the end of the aisle caught my eye. I didn’t recognize him and I knew everyone in this town. He looked up and saw me walking toward him, some emotion passed across his face but I couldn’t be sure of which one it was.
“Hi there.” I said trying to sound as friendly as I could. I didn’t want my uniform to be too intimidating.
“Hi. Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” The boy asked.
I was trying to figure out his age. Just to glance at him he appeared to be no more than twenty, but looking directly at his face his eyes seemed to sink in. And there was a roughness to his skin that could have put him being much older.
“Yes, I just realized you must be new in town. So, I thought I’d come introduce myself. I’m Sheriff Maxwell.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Derek.”
He shook my hand and the longer I looked at him, the stranger he looked. His hair was cut neatly but was greasy with flakes of dandruff standing out on his dark hair. His marked, rough skin was dotted with angry looking sores he had apparently been picking.
“It’s nice to meet you Derek.” I wanted his last name but I could get that from Mr. Dempsey, the store manager. “How long have you been in town Derek?”
“I moved here in July.”
“We don’t see many young people choosing to move in town. There’s not a whole lot to do. What brought you here?” I asked.
With my next breath, I gagged. I was hit by the odor of something rotting and sickening.
“What is that smell?” I asked, covering my face with my arm.
Derek smiled. “Oh, we tossed out some spoiled chicken earlier. The pack must have broken open in the garbage can.”
“Might want to get that out of here before customers start throwing up in the aisles.” I said as I started walking back toward the counter.
` As I was walking, I saw my reflection in the large round mirror at the front of the store that looks down the aisle. I watched Derek go back to stocking the shelves. It was very odd for me not to be aware of a new person in town, let alone for months. In the mirror reflection, Derek looked up at me and smiled. It was a twisted smile, there was no kindness or humor. It was a dark, evil look that I felt in my bones. It was almost like I could see under his skin. A slimy, red, bloody thing with sharp claws was living beneath that human skin. Jagged teeth rested in the mouth of a skeletal face with dull red skin stretched over it. I knew in my gut that this was our killer.
I talked to Mr. Dempsey and got Derek’s last name. Mr. Dempsey’s comments on Derek were simply, ‘he’s an odd kid, but he works pretty hard’. I started calling around checking out Derek’s past. He had been raised by his grandma who passed away about two years ago. His high school teacher said the same thing I’d heard from everyone else. ‘Kind of quiet but never caused any trouble’. I’d been at the job long enough to know to trust my instincts even if I didn’t yet have all the info.
I started stopping in the grocery store a few times per week. When I did, I’d always make a point to go say ‘hi’ to Derek. I was always friendly as could be. I didn’t want him to know I was onto him. But I wanted him to know that I knew who he was. His eyes always seemed to follow me wherever I moved in the store. I could feel his stare on the back of my head like a hot poker. One day he was ringing me up at the register and my little snack came to four dollars even.
“I’ve always liked the number four. It’s a good even number. I mean, I like all numbers, but four is one of my favorites. One, two, three,…four” He was taunting me.
I kept my face down until I could get a hold on my emotions. My blood felt like it stopped moving, frozen in my veins. But the anger from the pit of my stomach wanted to rise up, it urged me to grab him by the throat and slam him against the cash register.
“Ya know Derek, I must have questioned everyone in town about those murders we’ve had. But I haven’t talked to you.” I smiled at him.
His face stayed neutral then he smiled back at me. “Terrible thing, those murders. I can tell you where I was for each one. During the first one I was home asleep.The second one, I would have been here at work. And the third one, once again, here at work.”
“Do you know if you made any deliveries those days?” I asked.
“It’s possible, but you’d have to go back and check the schedule.” He was so nonchalant, not a trace of concern in his voice.
On my way out of the store, I glanced up into the mirror again. Once I again I saw the bloody, thing that lived under Derek’s skin. And this time, it winked at me.
I was up all that night trying to find a way to tie Derek to all of the murders. I hadn’t been asleep long when one of my deputies was banging on my door.
“What is it?” I asked rubbing my eyes.
They were all laid out on Main Street. The bodies of four teenagers were scattered on the sidewalk right in the middle of town. They had tried to fight, they had tried to run. But in the end they had all ended up with their throats slashed. Blood had pooled and ran down the sidewalk like spilled red paint. One of the girls had gone up the stairs to knock on the door of an apartment to get away and had fallen backwards cracking her head open on the concrete steps. The killer had still cut her throat even though she was probably already dead. This was the worst thing I’d ever seen. A massacre, right out in the middle of my little town.
“Sheriff!” One of my men called out. I turned his direction and walked over. He was standing with boy and girl about the same age as our victims.
“Get them out of here! They don’t need to see this.” I grumbled.
“They’re witnesses. They saw everything.”
Back at my office I sat across from the two shaking kids. I knew their faces, and I could pick out their parents. But I didn’t know them well.
“What happened?” I asked.The boy started first.
“We were walking home from youth group. Melissa and I were walking a ways behind everyone else. A man crossed the street and walked fast until he was behind Alex, we saw him grab Alex.Then, Alex fell down.”
“Then everyone was screaming.” The girl, Melissa, chimed in. “I screamed.” She said, dropping her head.
The boy put his hand on hers for comfort. “When she screamed the killer looked at us. Then he grabbed the other girl by her pony tail and…we ran and hid until we heard sirens.”
“You did a good thing coming forward. How well did you see the killer’s face?” It was a lot to hope for that they could identify him.
“He was standing right under the streetlight. We saw him. It was the guy who works at the grocery store.”
A short time later Derek sat across from me where the teenagers sat only hours before. He didn’t put up a fight when I came to arrest him and he didn’t seem surprised. He was calm and as pleasant as he’d been every other time I had seen him.
“Derek, why did you do this?” I asked.
“I needed four.” He answered.
“Why did you leave witnesses?”
“I only needed four. They would have made six.”
“Why did you need four?”
He didn’t answer me, he just smiled. It was the same smile I had seen the first time I met him, when I knew something was wrong. And in that one smile, I knew, I wasn’t talking to Derek. This was something evil. I tried asking more questions. But he just sat there smiling, and soon the smell of rotting meat, the smell of death, began creeping through the room. This wasn’t spoiled chicken. This was him, that evil thing living under his skin. Using this poor boy’s body as a vessel.
We locked him up while the town decided what to do with him. We talked about sending him off somewhere more equipped to deal with him. But the families of the deceased wanted him dead. When he started tormenting our officers, we agreed. Every night, when they would do rounds, he would give the gruesome details of his kills and he would always count. ‘One, two, three, four.’
One night as he counted he said, “One, two, three, four, five.”
He looked up at the officer as he said the last. The officer’s heart stopped and he dropped dead on the spot. Whether it had been terror or evil that caused his death didn’t matter. We knew it was up to us to take care of this. The pastor agreed with us that death was the only way to kill this much evil.
A lot of ideas about how to do the deed were thrown around the room. We finally settled on hanging. Most of us men could pitch in to build the gallows, that way his death fell on us together; not on just a single man. We set the date for today, Christmas Eve. It might sound strange to some; but knowing this evil is no longer in the world, in our town, is a good Christmas present.
We still have a whole lot of unanswered questions about everything that happened here. But, you can’t get answers from somebody (or something) that won’t talk. And we can’t live in fear of who will be taken from us next. So, we’ll do what needs to be done. Like I said, ‘We take care of our own.’
I just hope like hell that hanging kills this thing. If it does, then maybe we can wake up with a bit of peace on Christmas morning.