A breath of wind ghosted through the open office window, rattling the skeletal array of printed papers taped and tacked to the opposite wall. For a moment, the paper bones cracked with life, animated by the cigarette-and-saxophone city air, but presently the wind withdrew to whisper elsewhere, and the pages slumped stiff and lifeless back against the wall. A few more bones and an arrest to give flesh, and this skeleton would be ready to testify in court, and restore peace to a restless city.
Printed upon the dead-white of each page was a screenshot of different posts from various social media platforms, ostensibly uploaded by local news sources. ‘Man Found Dead in Public Swimming Pool’, ‘Storeowner Fatally Shot During Robbery’, ‘Fire-fighters Fail to Rescue Local Woman in Housefire’, the messages read on and on, often accompanied by vague pixelated photos matching the jarring headlines. Enough bodies to make a graveyard, but not enough to make a case.
The pages fluttered awake once again as the office door swung inwards, followed by a thin, famished-looking man whose powerful entry must have been accounted for by force of character rather than force of frame. He ran a careful hand through his thin brown hair and searched the room with distracted eyes, before grabbing a dull remote and switching on a cramped television screen. The news had been all the same these past few days…
“… and currently, Mr. Namath works as a forensic psychologist for the Lanton City Police Department. Mr. Namath, thank you for joining us.”
“Thanks for having me, Kelly.”
“Well let me jump straight to the question we’ve all been wondering: in your years working with LCPD and your time prior to that as a professor, have you ever seen or studied a case like this?”
“The short answer is no. Of course I’ve studied and even interviewed dozens of individuals whom we would refer to as “serial killers”, and in many cases there’s a sense of flare or showmanship attached to their killings, something distinguishable and unique. If the entity that the public have been referring to as “Rumormonger” is in fact a single person, then he or she certainly fits this stereotype. However, psychopathic individuals who become serial killers always target victims alone and unaided – yet all evidence suggests that the rumors and subsequent killings have been carried out by multiple individuals, and if by a single person, then certainly with external aid. As for the rumors themselves, I suspect they are a tactic for establishing fear and notoriety as a means to a higher goal, not the twisted call sign of a psychotic killer. But no, this case is almost entirely unprecedented.”
“And it marks an unprecedented time for our city as well. Over the last two days, we’ve seen several schools choosing to suspend operations, and we’re beginning to see stores and businesses close. Mr. Namath, what do you have to say to a city that appears to be entering lockdown? Who is safe – is anyone safe?”
“I can assure you, the Lanton City Police Department is working tirelessly to resolve this case and to protect the people of – ”
Joel Phillips morosely powered off the screen and stared blankly at the room, leaning back in an office chair hidden behind his rickety, paper-laden desk. A flurry of wind propelled an errant page from the floor in front of his desk and sent it nipping at his ankles, arresting his attention. He picked the page up and scanned its contents, before walking to the opposite wall and fixing it back in place alongside its listless companions. He did not need the wind to remind him of this particular headline; the whole city knew it by heart. “State Senator Amelia Johnson found dead in home after intruder forces entry.” It was a headline that had sent a city into panic. A headline that became Rumormonger’s viral debut. A headline that, like the others on the wall, was entirely untrue when posted.
A week prior, the headline had appeared online under a profile masquerading as a reputable local news source. The post was seen and shared by hundreds of thousands of users, spreading like wildfire before Senator Johnson herself made clear that she was not, in fact, dead, nor had her home been broken into. The source was debunked and the account banned from the platform, and Lanton City laughed at the scare that the false alarm had caused. Joel reflexively remembered how, just two days later, he had been startled awake by his work phone in the middle of the night, the hoarse, frightened voice of his boss ordering him to come to the Johnson estate immediately. He closed his eyes and saw the beaten in door lying prostrate across the threshold, its bent brass hinges grinning crazily. The senator just inside, slumping against a wall as if someone had dragged her there, a single bullet hole staring from her temple. The rumor, at first as empty as the wind, now as real as the dead eyes gazing back at him.
Joel pulled his mind away from the disturbing scene and glanced at the rest of the papers strewn across the wall. These headlines did not give names of the victims, and as such had garnered little attention online. Nobody had bothered to verify whether a local man had really drowned in a swimming pool, or whether a non-descript storeowner had been shot. When a local man really did drown and a storeowner really was shot a few days after their respective articles, the handful of people who had seen the seemingly prophetic posts either did not hear about the real event, or never bothered to make the connection between the two. After the senators’ murder, however, LCPD began frantically reviewing recent deaths and homicides and scouring social media platforms. Dozens of deaths in the last two months had been announced before they had occurred, all by different anonymous accounts apparently created for that purpose alone. As this information spread to the public over the last few days, thousands of malicious copycats had appeared, flinging threats in the form of rumors. Though empty, such rumors were often indistinguishable from the lethal rumors propagated by the entity the city began to refer to as “Rumormonger”, thus accelerating the growing panic.
Worst of all, Joel thought, the false rumors made it nigh impossible to determine when, or if, Rumormonger would strike next. Of course, if his current lead was successful, he thought, perhaps they could simply track down the source of the rumors before they had to find out who the next victim would be. Now if only Harrison could finish retrieving that security footage…
An excited knock interrupted his musings.
Harrison, a stout, red-haired man who worked in LCPD’s administrative department, rushed into the room out of breath and slapped a thumb drive decisively onto a stack of papers at the back of Joel’s desk.
“Almost had to call in a warrant for it but I got the footage from the second, tenth, and twenty-ninth like you requested. Why the library anyway?” he inquired, squinting an eye curiously down at the thumb drive, and up at Joel.
“You know I can’t pass active information like that across departments.”
When Harrison saw that Joel was unrelenting, he scowled and exited. Joel swiftly shut the door behind him, jammed the thumb drive into his computer, and with a few clicks of his mouse had the display cast to his tv. He referenced a small, dirty notebook from his pocket and then began watching the first of the three recordings at 4:55 pm. He repeated this process with the second and third security footage clips, beginning at different timestamps according to his notes. Staring intently at the screen, he attempted to memorize the grainy appearance of anyone sitting at a library computer at the chosen time point. He visibly started during the second recording, and a slow, exultant smile began to creep across his face as he analyzed the third. A single person appeared in all three recordings – a man wearing the same brown corduroy jacket and white beanie. He snapped a picture of the man with his phone and printed a copy, tacking it directly in the middle of the papers on his wall.
Whoever Rumormonger was, he was foolish to use multiple computers in the same location to create his fake accounts. Joel laughed. Even he, whose kids accused him of technological ignorance and incompetence, had thought to use IP addresses to locate the source of the rumor posts. Sure, convincing any of the media companies to share customer information had been a bit of a legal hassle, but they had only needed the cooperation of one to identify the computer source of three Rumormonger accounts, including the one that had rumored Senator Johnson’s murder. After a quick search online, he dialed the library, and spoke with the head librarian, who seemed frightened but more than willing to comply. Next time Rumormonger made an appearance, he would know.
When Joel received a call from the library four days later, he decided to go alone. Not only did he not want the whole department to descend upon a public library full of civilians, but his case was not concrete enough to obtain a warrant of arrest for the man in the corduroy jacket, much less prove his guilt in court. If the man in the library were not the Rumormonger, but simply the servant of a larger criminal system, then arresting him would destroy any chance of penetrating to the source of the rumors. Some small misgiving flickered in his head as he slid a small camera into one side of his coat and a loaded handgun into the other, but he taped it to the back of his mind like the fluttering pages in his office, and set off for the library in his dented navy sedan.
When he arrived, he parked at the back of the lot and mentally rehearsed his plan. He would pretend to browse a shelf that had a view of the computer desks when looking through the books. From there, he would be able to observe his suspect and take a few covert photos. When his suspect left, he would follow at a respectable distance, walking towards his own car at the back of the lot and passing the suspect’s, where he would quickly memorize the license plate and then tail the car in his own as long as possible.
Joel breathed deeply, and began to open his door when he froze, staring at the entrance. The man in the brown jacket and white beanie was walking out of the library doors, book in hand. Instead of continuing straight to the parking lot, he turned right and rounded the corner of the building, behind which was a staff only parking lot which exited out onto the street. Joel cursed, and after a moment’s hesitation stepped out of his car and walked quickly after the man. He peaked around the front of the building and then jogged to the back, peering around the corner into the lot.
Then pain, nauseating, thunderous pain enveloped his being as his head seemed to implode in a flaming, deafening ruin. Furious television-static roared behind his eyes, and then in an instant, all his screaming senses went crashing into dark oblivion.
“Mr. Phillips, it’s so kind of you to join us. I hope you mean to stay a while.”
Aching, aching, his heart throbbing in his brain and in his skull. If that didn’t let up soon… darkness, aching, darkness.
Oh, I can’t see, I CAN’T SEE, I –
Joel whipped his head forward, hands scrabbling for his eyes, only to realize that his hands were tied to the back of his chair. The physical sensation of the rope digging into his wrists helped to wake his numbed senses, and he could feel the rough cloth that blinded his eyes. The panic subsided; the pain did not.
“A little bird told me you were looking for me. Well here I am!”
“Who are you?” Joel hissed through the riotous pounding of his skull.
“Just a rumor, Joel, just a rumor. They don’t even know if I’m real. You don’t either. I’m just a voice inside your head, a whisper on the wind.”
Joel felt a cold hand slide slowly inside his jacket and withdraw the gun from the interior pocket.
“I’m sorry it ends like this, but I can’t leave a bloodhound loose on my trail. And reason compels me to make an example of you. It will be good for the rest of your detective friends. At least we got a good story, out of it, hm?”
A woman walking down a lonely sidewalk of Lanton City heard what sounded like a muffled gunshot in the ground below her. She hurried away from the sound, her heart racing, wondering what new evil this living rumor might foretell.
LCPD detective Joel Phillips scrolled through the story once more with a tremulous hand. It had appeared a day ago on an online writers’ forum and begun to go viral. His friends had started to text him nervously, asking him if he had read “The Story”. Now he had.
His tortured eyes remained riveted to the words. His chest burned with the cold weight of the gun inside his jacket. While fictitious, the story had accurately described his person, his office, his colleagues, his car, and his case, down to the individual headlines on the wall. That Rumormonger was the author, he had no doubt. Joel put his head into his hands, clawing at his thin, anxious hair, and wept.
A whistling janitor pushed a whirling vacuum past the wooden door and paused at the faint sound of weeping inside. He stood uncertainly and then hurried past, wondering what new sorrow this echo of sadness might portend.