The dining hall is already full of noise, but this kind of noise is special. This noise- the helpless sobbing, the grim muttering, the snap of a crime-scene camera, the undercurrent of worried murmurs- is special.
Normally, you would stick around. You would sit on a curb; you'd nonchalantly read a book or tap around on your phone, all while enjoying the sweet song of that noise- but tonight is different. Tonight, you're moving quickly.
Vans are cliche, especially the white ones, but you're in one, and you're driving slightly faster than a completely normal person, cursed with a suspicious white van. The streets are deserted, but that doesn't stop you.
Your grip on the wheel is white-knuckled. It isn't the kind of scene that calls for a tight, movie-star-style grip; there's no sirens speeding after you; but your adrenaline isn't letting you act like a law-abiding citizen. It's time to move.
Your eyes flick up to the dashboard clock- it's been six minutes. Not bad, considering you're at least seven miles away. They'll start canvassing the area soon- they'll go digging through street-light cameras- but you have on a hood, and sunglasses. And your windows are tinted.
They'll see your license plate- that's unavoidable, even if you swerved like a maniac the entire way. You plan to ditch this overly suspicious white van in a sewage canal. They never check the sewage canals.
They never check trees, either. And if they do, they go on the outskirts- they lazily dig out a shovelful or two underneath each trunk before calling it a day and gimping off, forty-two-cent cigars glowing in their mouths.
Stupid. That's what they are.
You're stupid, too. Why the white van? Why the grandiose tree, the one with the overarching branches, the one that held the heart of the forest? Why the pretty child, the one who smiled at you as you led her off?
Why did they attract you?
Maybe it was the danger, you think, absentmindedly clipping an unheeded stop-sign. Maybe it was how distinctive they were. Maybe you live for the thrill of the chase.
No, you decide. You live for the satisfaction of knowing the case has gone cold. That they haven't found the knife you concealed; that they haven't found any fingerprints on that lifeless body six feet underground.
That is, when you let them find the body. Sometimes, when you've been sloppy, you hide it.
You won't hide this one. A thump from behind the mesh partition reminds you that this body isn't cold. It's warm, and struggling, and panicked. A half smile curls your lips at the muffled sobs coming through the latticework.
How pathetic. You thought this one would stay strong- she was certainly ferocious enough when she thumped you in the ribs.
You'll make her pay for that.
But for now, you content yourself with driving along the bumpy road to your trusted tree. The van will be in the sewage canal. The girl will be placed in her bed, at home- you'll hide the blood. It'll look like she's sleeping.
The others probably look like they're sleeping, too.
The financial worker with stringy hair.
The drunkard with beefy arms.
The 7-11 employee with hostile eyes.
The assassin (poetic, isn't it?) with dagger-thin lips.
The artist, with a heart full of hope and a paint-stained smock that you stole and framed.
You took the financial worker from her drab cubicle, grandiose promises and eloquent lies dribbling from your lips. She didn't suspect you when you took her into the 2012 Honda Civic; she didn't suspect you when you parked the car two miles away from where you buried her.
She trusted you. The drunkard didn't.
The drunkard, apparently, thought you were a particularly nasty ex-girlfriend; it amused you, hearing his spewed threats. You tied him up and threw him in the backseat- he wriggled his way onto the floor and lay there, flopping like a helpless, bad-smelling fish, slurring curses and screaming for help that never came.
The ferocious 7-11 worker was the easiest. You walked in, bore three minutes' worth of impatient sighs and irritated body language, walked over to her, hefted her onto your shoulder, and walked out. You still remember the desperate scrape of her fingernails against the uncaring counter. Fittingly, you'd gone out, bought a piece of tile that matched the one she'd left furrows in, placed it in her hand, and buried her with it. You'd been proud of that strike of genius. Proud of how easy it was to kill her.
The next one wasn't easy at all.
You spent months- seven long, painful months- getting her to trust you. She was shifty, capricious, and if your hand even went close to your pocket, she pulled a gun on you.
Needless to say, getting her ready for the burial was close to impossible.
But, eventually, you made her pay for those seven wasted months. She was buried, with her precious knife clutched in her stiff fingers, and you just tried to block that tedious time out. It was the closest thing to trauma you'd ever gone through- you'd told her dead body, cruelly, that at least she didn't have to live with herself anymore.
You'd imagined its blood-soaked face twisting into sadness, and you'd laughed as you'd picked up the shovel.
The artist- the next one- was more agreeable. Simple, even. You'd visited her at her one pitiful museum installation, coughed up a few fake compliments, pulled off an elementary bait-and-switch, swiped down your knife, dug for an hour and a half, and then the deed was done.
Simple, really. It didn't sound like it, but it had been a wonderful change from the months of preparation.
The artist had been your last, and you'd promised the tree another victim, but you don't want to waste this girl, this girl with the porcelain-looking skin. You want to savor her.
You want to put her somewhere people will see.
You tell the tree, as you bounce along the road, to wait for next time. You know it will understand.