I leaned back against the cold stone wall, grimy water seeping through my t-shirt as I shined a flashlight in either direction. I could’ve sworn I’d heard a second set of footsteps, but… it was hard to say. These tunnels had a way of playing tricks on you, especially if you’d seen what I’d seen. Once the sprawling vasculature of the state mental institution above, they’d become a sort of underground refuge for several displaced tenants after the facility was permanently shuttered. The Lord of the Flies nightmare that ensued – complete with orgies, sadism, and kidnapping – was enough to turn even my stomach. And, while I’d been able to provide a permanent accommodation for most of these demented souls in the last year or so, I was still ready to come face-to-face with just about anything down here. Well… anything except someone’s grandmother.
“Odd place for a house call, Doctor,” the old woman chuckled. She stepped forward to reveal a surprisingly well made-up face, the sequins on her ‘You Had Me at Meow’ sweater glittering in the faint light.
“Wha- uh… ma’am… you really shouldn’t be roaming these tunnels. You don’t know what’s lurking in the dark.”
“Honey, I am what’s lurking in the dark.” She offered her claw-like hand. “Nadine.”
“I know who you are – I’m a big fan of your work. Even brought you a present.”
Confused as I was, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say – this was a situation too strange to question. I simply followed Nadine to the central chamber, surprised to see the network of precariously placed lamps already glowing. They lent a such a soft backdrop to my handiwork.
“Must have taken you years to pull this together,” the old woman mumbled.
Indeed, when I’d first found this three-story atrium, it was clear that the room had been boarded up long before the rest of the hospital. The floors had to be stabilized and the dilapidated staircases ripped out, the latter eventually replaced by an assortment of wrought iron spirals from the sides of crumbling buildings. Then came the fun part. I’d visited every abandoned book depository in the city – every old public library and forgotten bookstore – and rescued anything I didn’t already have. The cataloguing process had been painstaking, but it was well worth it in the end. All three tiers of this room were now lined with full bookcases – knowledge stretched from the floor to the dirty glass panels of the ceiling. My desk sat in the center of it all, and I couldn’t help but notice that the armchair at its side was occupied by a petite, blonde-haired girl who looked far too young to be here. Nadine ran over and draped her arms over the girl’s shoulders.
“See, Madeline? I told you Dr. Swinton would be here to help us.”
“Excuse me, um… Madeline… how old are you?”
I looked from the girl to the IV pump waiting on the pole next to her. “You- you do know what I use that for, right?”
“You’re the suicide doc.”
“That’s… one way to put it. And I don’t normally work on people your age. Are you… ill?”
“Oh, worse. Much worse,” the old woman interjected. “Her parents forbid her from seeing her boyfriend. Imagine that! You finally find your true love, and now you have to spend your life without him! Think of all the miserable, lonely days ahead.”
“I- what? That’s ridiculous! She’s sixteen! Nobody marries their high school sweetheart! And if even if she did, she’d only have to wait two ye-”
“Well, I married my high school sweetheart! And I can’t imagine having to spend years without him.” Nadine brushed the girl’s bangs out of her eyes. “I’m so glad you found me when you did, honey. Now we can hurt your parents even worse than they hurt you! Think of how their stupid, smug faces will look at your funeral! Then they’ll learn… but it’ll be too late. They’ll have to live with what they did.”
“I’m sorry, but I absolutely canno-” I was cut short by a claw-like hand on the back of my neck as Nadine dragged me to the side.
“What the fuck are you doing? I handed you this girl on a silver platter! Don’t make this complicated!”
“I don’t want her! My work is meant to help the terminally ill! I’m trying to make dying with dignity mainstream. This would only hurt my-”
“Oh right, right, right. That’s why you’ve been testing your little process out on all the fruitcakes living down here?”
“I did society a favor! Those people were dangerous and participating in my research gave their life purpose!”
Nadine pulled me closer. “Alright, listen here you shitty little Kevorkian knockoff – I found your journal. The one on your desk. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the proof was on the page. Fantasies about all the creative ways to kill someone? A scrapbook of people you’ve ‘helped?’ You are a serial killer in denial! And a dumb one at that, leaving evidence in plain sight! I’ve got that journal hidden somewhere else at the moment… somewhere that would be easy for the police to find if the right tipster called in. Your looks and charisma and moral bullshit might fool people now, but it will not fool a jury once they hear what you wrote. Look how many times Bundy got convicted!”
My heart dropped into my stomach. “What do you want?”
“I want you to do exactly as I say. That’ll get me outta your hair in a matter of days, and you can go back to whatever freaky shit you were doing before. But I swear to Christ, if you piss me off one more time, I’ll have you in prison for the rest of your life. You will never scratch your itch again.”
We walked back over to Madeline, tears now streaming down her trembling face. “Would you just do it already? I can’t wait to look down at those shitheads crying at my funeral!”
“That a girl!” The old woman patted her shoulder. “Oh, Doctor?”
I sighed, starting an IV in the teenager’s arm and handing her the button to turn on the pump. “When you press this, you’ll get a dose of sodium thiopental. That puts you to sleep. Afterward, a timer in the machine will trigger a potassium chloride injection. That stops your heart.”
The pump was whirring before I could say anymore, and I watched as Madeline’s clenched jaw went limp. Once I was sure she was gone, I turned to my own reflection in the IV pole and noticed my smile. I also noticed that my dark hair and even darker eyes had grown quite stark against my skin. Like my shaking hands, I assumed this pallor was a final warning shot from my subconscious to not feed the beast any further. It was one thing to get satisfaction from my work… but pleasure? How many senseless deaths could I be party to before it became an addiction? Before my itch became a compulsion? It didn’t matter; a quick shove from Nadine was all it took to remind me that the next few days were out of my control.
“Move.” She used her phone to take a picture of the body. “Okay – there’s still service on here… guess the bitch I stole it from thinks it’s lost in her purse. Now let’s see. This number is supposed to be the mother’s cell. We’ll go ahead and send…” A phone call popped up almost instantly, a hysterical woman on the other end. “Yes? Hello? Oh good, you got the picture! Alright? Oh, no… no, no, no. She’s dead.” A series of piercing screams forced Nadine to hold the phone away from her ear. “No- stop. Stop! Listen to me! Stop screaming! This can go one of two ways – you can pay me to get the body back, or I can dump your little girl in a landfill. Your choice.” There was a pause. “Well… how much is your daughter worth to you? Really? That seems like a lowball offer. I’m thinking more in the neighborhood of a hundred grand. I bet you could scrape that up if you tried hard enough. You already failed as parents; don’t you at least owe Madeline a proper burial?
“That’s awful!” I hissed. She waved me away.
“Excellent. When the bank opens tomorrow, I want you to withdraw the money in cash and leave it under the slide at the park on Fifth. And do not involve the police. If my assistant makes it back with your payment safe and sound, I’ll call you back and tell you where the body is.” Another pause. “Well, I could be lying, but think of it this way – you saw the picture. You know she’s dead. Either you do exactly what I say and maybe get the body back, or you call the police and definitely spend every Mother’s Day for the rest of your life trying to find the trash bag with your daughter’s skeleton in it. That’s what I thought. Money better be there by nine.” She hung up the phone and looked at me with a smug grin.
“So that’s it? That’s your plan? Convince a bunch of teenagers to kill themselves and then ransom the bodies?”
“Genius, right? Sure, it was a learning curve at first, but I got the hang of it. Look.” She opened a social media app on her phone to reveal the profile of an attractive yet realistic-looking teenage boy. “My decoy. All I had to do was friend a bunch of girls from around the city and wait for the posts bitching about their lives. These kids – it’s amazing how upset they get over nothing. Guess it’s easy to feel like the world’s ending when you’ve never really lived in it.”
“I can’t imagine what you say to drive them to suicide over nothing.”
“It’s really not that hard. You just, oh, what’s that saying you kids have? Slide into their DMs? Most of ‘em are already angry, spiteful little shits who can’t see further than a week into the future. All you have to do is gain their trust – not hard when you’re a cute boy – and play into their persecution fantasies. Make ‘em feel validated. Push ‘em to the extreme while they’re still angry. Takes an hour at most.”
“And that’s when you introduce them to your ‘friend’ Nadine who knows someone that can help? Of course they would trust you! You look like their grandmothers.”
“Exactly! What they don’t know is, Granny wants a Bimmer.”
“You really think this will work?”
The old woman laughed. “If there are two things I know in this life, they’re grief and bodies. Right now, all that family wants to do is bring their little girl home. They’re not thinking of anything else! That makes ‘em puddy in our hands. Speaking of which… you’re a strapping young lad, put that somewhere safe.” She was pointing to the corpse. “I have two more brats coming tonight and I don’t want anything dead on display. Might give ‘em cold feet.”
“My God you work fast…”
“I have to. It’ll take the cops one day to establish a pattern and two to figure out what they’re looking for. I gotta be gone in three.”
“I thought you said the cops wouldn’t be involved.”
“No, I told the harpy on the phone not to call the cops if she wanted the stiff back. She will absolutely call the cops after she pays up and realizes I was lying.”
“I know I heard you say you would at least give the body back!”
“For fuck’s sake! You get dumber by the minute! Do you know how much evidence is probably on that body? Why don’t we hand over a damn business card while we’re at it? When I said take it somewhere safe, I meant somewhere nobody could smell it until we get a chance to dump all the bodies in a landfill together! Now get to it! I have to go grab, uh…” She glanced down at her phone. “Olivia.”
Grimace though I did, I spent the rest of that night and much of the next morning following Nadine’s orders – everything from moving bodies to braving the summer heat with a scarf over my face so I could collect payments. Focusing on the old woman’s blackmail helped to keep my mind off of how much I may or may not have been enjoying her little scheme, but there was one feeling that I couldn’t stave off – intrigue. Something deeper than greed motivated this woman, and I was too curious not to figure out what that something was. I had my answer roughly twenty-four hours after our first meeting. Unfortunately, my plans for a confrontation were brought to a screeching halt by the grizzly scene awaiting me in the atrium.
“Nadine! What the hell?” The blood-soaked body of another teenage girl was slumped over in the euthanasia chair, her clothes still dripping into the small pond on the floor.
“I told you I had a schedule to keep. You were running late, so I tried to start the girl’s IV myself.”
“More difficult than embalming, isn’t it?”
The old woman raised an eyebrow. “What would you know about that?”
“Not as much as you. I followed you home last night and then broke in this afternoon while you were gone. Found some interesting things.”
“Well, if you were looking for your journal, you were looking in the wrong place.”
“I wasn’t… really. I was more looking for this.” I held up a photograph – faded and decaying – of an attractive young woman with long, blonde hair. She was standing in front of a family funeral home, a man at her side and a girl in her arms.
“Give me that! Put it in my hand!”
Nadine lurched at me, but I was too quick. “Who’s that girl you’re holding?”
“None of your fucking business! Give me that picture!”
“I will give you the picture when you tell me who’s in it. Is it really that hard?”
The old woman sighed. “There’s me, and that’s Harlan, my husband, in front of our old funeral home. The girl is our daughter. Both are long gone.”
“What was your daughter’s name?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I do! And so does the lighter in my pocket.”
“Fine… her name was Annaliese.”
“She had your hair.”
The old woman’s posture relaxed a bit, some semblance of a smile shooting across her face. “Yes…yes she did. Used to call her my little sunflower. Only kid we were ever able to have.”
“So what happened?”
“This city got her,” she sighed. “Concrete doesn’t grow flowers; it grows weeds. She grew up, fell in with the wrong people, started using heroin. I tried over and over again to save her… even after my husband wrote her off. It wasn’t enough. She OD’d right in the funeral home. And you know, my husband… he was so over the whole thing that when he called the coroner, he asked if he could just wheel her down the hall. I never forgave him for that.”
“That explains a lot. You and I are… not as different as you think.”
She rolled her eyes, her old demeanor returning. “Whatever helps you sleep at night. Anyway, I found some towels in a janitor’s closet upstairs that you can use to clean up this mess.”
Nadine grabbed a towel from the pile and, for a second, made me think she was actually going to help. Instead, she used it to wipe off one of the dead girl’s bracelets before placing it on her own wrist. “Looks like real sterling…”
“You are disgusting.”
“My bank disagrees. I’ll have five bodies by the end of tonight – that’s half a mil in ransoms!”
“Nadine?” A soft voice caught us off guard, and we both whipped around to see her final target standing in the doorway.
“Mallory! I told you to meet me outside.”
“Yeah, well… I kinda wanna get this over with.” She slunk forward, her outward-facing arms revealing a patchwork of scars. The bloody corpse, to my amazement, didn’t seem to bother her. “And you’re not gonna get any ransom money for my body, so don’t waste your time.”
The right side of Nadine’s face twitched. “You… you must be worth something to someone.”
“All that’s left is my dad. He doesn’t care. That’s why I’m here. Last time I tried to… you know… he told me he wished it worked.”
“Useless…” The old woman scowled, gritting her teeth. “You know what? I bet he didn’t mean that. What parent could mean that? Let’s get him back. You squeamish?”
“Lay down by the blood. There you go. Like that. Hold still.” She snapped a photo and handed the girl the phone with instructions to send the picture to her father. Then we waited. And waited. After about ten minutes, Nadine finally called the number herself.
“Probably not even gonna answer…” Mallory mumbled.
“Someone just di- Hello? Yes! Well do you know who the pict- Yes. Ye- That’s your daughter! Jesus Christ, that’s your daughter!”
I walked by in time to hear “…and make sure you dump her on someone else’s door!”
Nadine hung up the phone in a huff. I expected her to simply kill the girl and be done with it once she realized that she wasn’t going to turn a profit, but instead, she took the poor teenager’s hand. “Listen, kid, you don’t wanna do this. You kill yourself, your father wins. You need to grow up to be smarter and stronger and meaner than he is. Then you can hurt him like he hurt you. Then you can hurt everyone who hurt you. Take it from me; suffering is my specialty. Now come on… I’ll walk you out.”
Rage bubbled up in my chest as I watched them disappear into the tunnel. That was it? She was going to let a witness walk? But I knew that wasn’t the real reason I was upset. No, that girl was never going to tell anyone what she’d seen. In truth, I felt like an animal robbed of its prey. Two days with Nadine hadn’t merely fed the beast – they’d unleashed it. I was suddenly at real risk of becoming the Kevorkian knockoff she’d accused me of being. I couldn’t let my own compulsion to kill – a compulsion I would not be able to control for much longer – turn me into the next macabre poster child for the anti-euthanasia crowd. That would make my work meaningless – detrimental, even. My only option was to sacrifice myself for the preservation of my legacy. Heart racing, I yanked the corpse out of my chair and started an IV in my own arm, pressing the kill button before I really had a chance to think about what I was doing. Nadine reappeared just as I was beginning to fade away.
“Thank God! I was starting to think you wouldn’t make it back before I lost consciousness. I need-”
“Nope.” She pulled her picture out of my pocket and began collecting the duffel bags full of money that I’d left on the desk. “See you around… or not. Freak.”
“Wait! Please! There’s a section in the back of my journal laid out like a lab notebook. Make sure that section – and only that section – makes it to someone. Anyone. Even the police. That’s my life’s work!”
“Can’t,” she laughed. “Hate to tell you this, but I can’t remember where I left the damn thing. Sorry. Senior moment.”
Raised in Michigan, William Presley is now a graduate student in human genetics who spends all of his time outside the lab desperately hocking his fiction at anyone who will have it. His short stories have been featured by a variety of different publications, including Scare Street, Timber Ghost Press, the Creepy Podcast and Homespun Haints. He also writes the Apprentice's Notebook Series for Little Demon Books.