Sweetness Is Easy but Cinnamon Is Tricky

Submitted into Contest #200 in response to: Write a story that includes the line “my lips are sealed.”... view prompt

53 comments

Crime Fiction

                                                               March, 1995

Michael watched the old man for some minutes before approaching him. He had only seen photos of his uncle before today. Grainy black-and-white images of a legend. The alleged serial killer that the press had dubbed The Ringmaster.

He doesn’t look like a monster, but they never do. In fact, I look a lot like him.

                                                    **************

                                                             September, 1961

Gabriel Lockwood was interviewed by psychologists, psychiatrists, FBI profilers, and local law enforcement detectives. He was fingerprinted and photographed. He was accused of twelve murders. He never went to trial.

He was, however, declared mentally incapable of independent living and reasonable decision making. Raphael Lockwood, Gabriel’s older brother, made sure of that.

One brother putting another brother away and taking over his fortune was big news back then. Half the nation screamed about the injustice done to a mildly eccentric man by his greedy brother. The other half yelled that Gabriel should be executed because, after all, there was no smoke without fire.

In the end, Gabriel Lockwood was sent to an insane asylum. He faded from the public’s memory as new and more sensational events hit the airwaves and newspapers.

                                                   **************

                                                           March, 1995

“It’s coffee. A little cinnamon and sugar to mask the poor quality of the coffee at this fine establishment,” Gabriel said, smiling at his nephew.

Michael Lockwood took a proffered seat across from Gabriel, gazing at the old man intently. He gingerly offered his hand, which Gabriel immediately took and firmly grasped.

Damn, he’s still strong as hell.

“I’m pleased to finally meet you. I’m Michael Stanton. Freelance photographer and occasional writer.”

Gabriel smiled and shook his head.

“You told me already, Mike. In your letter.”

“Michael, please. Mike sounds like a kid who has a dirty face and plays with bugs.”

Gabriel laughed, a rich, throaty laugh, surprising Michael with its genuineness.

The old man has a sense of humor. I’m starting to like him.

“So,” Gabriel leaned forward, “what brings you to these environs?

Michael gazed at his uncle, his head cocked slightly to one side. Pale blue eyes gazed back at him, unblinking, and a slight smile played on his uncle’s lips.

“I…I wanted to meet you. Mom and dad would never let me see you when I was younger. They never talked about you, so when I found out I had an uncle, I was intrigued. I started digging around and found all these old newspaper articles about you.”

Gabriel’s smile widened. He chuckled softly and sipped his coffee. He added more cinnamon and sugar to the insulated pot beside him.

“Ah. Yes. And now you want to meet the alleged killer of twelve men.”

“Well…yes. But mainly I wanted to meet my uncle.”

“Hmm. Disappointing. I’d rather be viewed as one of those rare, exotic creatures not often captured. The Ringmaster, in captivity.”

Michael shifted in his seat, swatting at a mosquito.

“Ok, you got me. Yeah, I wanted to see what you looked like. How you acted.”

Gabriel held out his hands to his sides and leaned back.

“As you can see, I’m not foaming at the mouth. I don’t have a crazed look in my eyes. I’m just an old man in a white bathrobe.”

“No,” Michael said, laughing, “I suppose you look normal.”

“But those old newspaper clippings you found told a different story, yes? I killed twelve men and took their wedding rings, and then I would pin a note to them, stating that they died because they were unfaithful to their wives and betrayed their children. The sanctity of marriage had been violated, so they were made to pay for their sins. That sort of stuff.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Alas, I was never convicted. Wasn’t even charged. Still, here I am.”

Gabriel leaned forward and placed his forearms on the table.

“Let’s take a walk. The afternoon is spread out against the sky, smoothed by long fingers.”

Michael looked at his uncle, frowning, and blinking rapidly. Gabriel laughed at his nephew’s reaction to his words.

“Lines stolen from a poet, and slightly paraphrased. Softly spoken lies to describe a truth. Pay no attention to my ramblings, nephew.”

The uncle and nephew walked to the east, following one of the myriad paths that cut through the vast expanses of green lawn. Trees, mainly oak and crepe myrtle, were plentiful, providing shade but also providing pollen and pink blossoms that fluttered gently towards the ground when a breeze kicked up.

“An oilman from Abilene donated this land for the institution. He persuaded the state houses to build this place. Seems he had a daughter that was slightly batty, and he wanted her to have a decent place to live out her years.”

Michael remained silent, intent on listening to what his uncle had to say. He felt a thrill walking beside a man who might be a serial killer.

“That man that’s following us? That’s Harrison. Looks mean, doesn’t he? Big as hell. Arms like oak trees. Sweetest man in the world. Works here to take care of his mother while he works on getting his CPA certification. He hasn’t taken the exams for certification yet. No confidence, though he’s as smart as they come. Black men often feel like they’re unworthy when it comes to academics.”

Michael nodded at Harrison. Harrison didn’t acknowledge him.

“I didn’t start off in this place, my boy. Oh no. I was in a dark, dank, dangerous place for the first twenty years. Smelly. Terrible food. No coffee. People screaming and shouting at all hours of the night. A man couldn’t sleep. I was treated like a criminal. Imagine that.”

Michael looked at his uncle. A smile creased his weathered face.

“But I was deemed not dangerous after a couple of decades, so they put me here, with the nice crazies. As you can see, most are women. Only three men here, and I’m the only one not in a wheelchair. Harrison follows me around. A precaution, I’m told. To keep me safe, they say. I fear they’re lying to me, Michael. But they tell me this with soft voices and gentle tones.”

“Doesn’t it piss you off? I mean, the fact that you’re here instead of enjoying the fortune you made with all your patents. The lies, the abandonment by my mom and dad. All of it.”

Gabriel kept on walking, but he had turned back towards the center of the land.

“No. Not at all, Michael. I have crossed the Rubicon and I can’t go back. That,” Gabriel stopped to face his nephew, “is one vicious patch of water.”

“Uh…what?”

Gabriel sat down on a bench under a live oak, leaning forward, hunched over as if he was weighed down by the enormity of problems in the world. Like God had made him feel like He feels when observing humanity.

“You came here to find out if I killed those twelve men I was accused of killing. I suppose I could tell you, ‘my lips are sealed.’ I won’t do that because you’re my nephew and I’ve taken a liking to you, so I’ll tell you what I haven’t told anyone. I didn’t kill those twelve men. I killed twenty-seven men.”

                                                        **************

                                                       April, 1995

Gabriel took his time flavoring his coffee. He added a pinch of cinnamon and several spoonfuls of sugar. He tasted the coffee. He added more cinnamon. He tasted the coffee again and nodded.

“Sweetness is easy, but cinnamon is tricky.”

“I see.”

“Thank you for coming on a Sunday. I find Sundays to be the best days for confessions. Especially in the afternoons. I gaze out and watch the people here, watch the orderlies, and observe the natural beauty of the place. I imagine that I’m in the Garden of Eden and God is listening.”

“That’s…interesting.”

“Yes, yes it is, but you don’t think so. You have other things on your mind.”

“The killings.”

“Yes. That. So,” Gabriel leaned forward, “did you bring them?”

Michael dug around in his bag and laid two packs of cigarettes in front of his uncle. Gabriel unwrapped one of the packs and gestured to the orderly standing a few yards away.

“Arnie, I would like to smoke a cigarette, though I know that it’s a slight bending of the rules. If you would be so good as to give me a light, I’ll provide you with thirty-nine cigarettes.”

The orderly looked at Gabriel for a second before producing a lighter. The exchange was made, and the orderly ambled off to the eastern side of the property to smoke.

“That’s Arnie. A slob. He eats fried foods and inhales candy bars. He also cheats on his wife. I considered killing him. He would be my twenty-eighth. My target number.”

“Uh…what?”

Gabriel laughed softly.

“Twenty-eight is a perfect number. All its factors add up to twenty-eight.”

Michael stared at his uncle.

“Let me explain. Six is a perfect number, its factors being one, two, and three, which add up to six. But I couldn’t kill just six men. The next perfect number after twenty-eight is 496. I’d never get that far, so I settled on twenty-eight.”

Michael smiled and shook his head, a slight scoff escaping his lips.

“Well, uncle, I’m sorry you didn’t get to twenty-eight. That must hurt.”

Gabriel looked intently at his nephew.

“Your mother came to visit me last week.”

Michael’s head snapped up.

“What? Really?”

“Oh yes. We had a long conversation about you.”

“But…”

“I guess you know that we were married before she married your dad.”

“Uh…yeah. I always found the family dynamic to be odd.”

“Understatement, thy name is Michael,” Gabriel said, laughing.

“What did…”

“About you, of course. Millicent tells me that you want to be a writer but you don’t write much. You spend your rather generous allowance on partying with friends. You bought a Ferrari and crashed it. Twice.”

“Yeah. Spending the family money. They do too, uncle. Mom and dad, I mean. They drink like fish and pop Vicodin like they’re M&Ms. And they fight all the time. I know dad hits mom, and I know mom has affairs to get back at him.”

“Don’t think I’m angry. It isn’t my money any longer, after all. You should have a good time while you’re young. And don’t worry about your mom and dad. They’re jellyfish, just drifting along until they die.”

“Ugh. Sounds grim.”

“It is, but it isn’t your problem.” Gabriel leaned forward again, staring at his nephew. “Now, did you bring the other thing?”

Michael dug around in his backpack again and produced a manila folder stuffed with newspaper clippings and typed reports.

“You have a fan, uncle.”

Gabriel leafed through the papers before settling them down.

“Tell me, Michael, your thoughts on this copycat killer.”

Michael didn’t take long to answer.

“Ambitious. Wants to outdo the original Ringmaster. Feels anonymous but needs to be heard, to be felt.”

Finally, my savior has arrived, in the form of a nephew I never knew.

“Thank you, Michael. Come back next Sunday with a tape recorder and I’ll tell you everything you want to know about the twenty-seven men I killed. You’ll be famous.”

Michael grinned.

“And you’ll be famous.”

Gabriel smiled softly.

“Yes. As it should be.”

                                                  **************

He was called The New Ringmaster. A serial killer reminiscent of the one who struck terror in the community thirty-four years ago. Seven men killed, and their ring fingers cut off. There were no suspects yet, but the police believe him to be a white male, aged 25-35, and living in the area. Further requests for information from the authorities have been denied.

                                                    **************

                                                          May, 1995

Arnie was sent off with another thirty-nine cigarettes and wouldn’t make an appearance for at least an hour.

“He’ll eat a big bag of Cheetos, drink a couple of Pepsis, then he’ll smoke some more before heading off to the restroom. He’ll come back out and have another couple of cigarettes before making his way back to us.”

Gabriel added cinnamon and sugar to his coffee as he spoke, taking great care with the cinnamon.

“Did you bring it?”

Michael produced a tape recorder with a microphone attachment.

“I haven’t been as forthcoming as I could have been, Michael, but you must accept my terms.”

“Wait…what? You said…”

Gabriel waved away Michael’s protestations.

“I have requirements, Michael. Though,” Gabriel sipped his coffee before resuming, “my requirements are easily met.”

Michael sulked.

“Uncle Gabe…”

“Gabriel. Like the archangel.”

“Uncle Gabriel, you told me…”

“Yes, I’m aware of what I told you. Accept it or leave.”

The steel in Gabriel’s voice was new. And frightening. Michael could now see the killer in the gentle old man.

“Yeah. Whatever. What do you want?”

Gabriel sipped his coffee, frowned, and added more cinnamon.

“Just this. The newspapers say that seven men have been killed so far. I say there are more. If you can tell me why I think that, then I’ll be as forthcoming as you please.”

Michael looked around the area.

“Arnie is gone. No one is within thirty yards of us, Michael. Speak freely.”

Michael nodded. He smiled at his uncle.

“That’s easy. There are more, of course. But other men have been killed and aren’t missing their ring fingers because the killer can get the rings off their fingers easily. The ones missing their ring fingers are fat, and the killer couldn’t work the rings off their fingers. He had to cut them off.”

Gabriel laughed loudly, clapping his hands.

“Oh, excellent! You are a gift from God, my boy. And now,” Gabriel leaned forward, smiling brightly, “I’ll tell you everything. Turn on the recorder.”

                                                   **************

Gabriel told him everything, in great detail. Michael was amazed at what he heard.

                                                   **************

Michael nodded his head slowly, his aspect thoughtful and serene.

“Put the recorder away. I have something else to tell you.”

Michael did as he was instructed. Gabriel poured himself another cup of coffee and meticulously flavored it.

“The thing is, I could have hidden the rings better. I’m surprised no one has found them. I suppose that I’m not the flavor of the week any longer, so no one cares to look for the rings now.”

“Really? I think you were clever to hide them in the gazebo decorations.”

“No. I have a better hiding place. And I’ll tell you what I should have done, but keep it to yourself. Just our little secret, you understand. And it means nothing now. After all, I didn’t use this excellent hiding place, so the point is moot, yes?”

“Yes. But I’d love to know where you think is better.”

Gabriel leaned forward and started whispering to his nephew. After he finished, his nephew leaned back and nodded.

“Impressive. Brilliant, really. No one looks in trees.”

You have no idea how brilliant it is. Yet.

                                                  **************

The bombshell dropped three days later. Michael delivered the taped confession to the FBI. The rings were found. Gabriel gave them a full confession. A trial date was set. Gabriel Lockwood was going to pay for his crimes.

                                                 **************

                                                       June, 1995

“Don’t worry. You worry too much. Not good for the soul, or your health.”

The attorney stared at Gabriel like he had a cucumber growing out of his head.

“Mr. Lockwood…”

“This will all be settled in a few minutes. You’ll get an astounding amount of publicity and I’ll get what I want. Win-win. Say, could you scare me up some cinnamon and sugar? The coffee in here is the real crime.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a team of FBI profilers. They came in and sat down. No one smiled except Gabriel.

“Mr. Lockwood, it’s been thirty days. You promised us that you could give us the New Ringmaster in exchange for a return to the institution you were in.”

Gabriel looked at their faces. No one appeared to be optimistic.

“There’s an oak tree about thirty yards from my old bedroom at the estate. You climb up that tree about twelve feet or so. Use a ladder. Safety first, my friends. On the top part of those branches will be the rings you’re looking for. Inlaid in the wood.”

The team of profilers looked at each other and frowned slightly.

“What are you telling us?”

“The New Ringmaster is my nephew. Michael Lockwood. Now, I understand that there was a recent victim found, just this morning.”

“Well…yes.”

“He’ll be preparing the inlay tonight, right before dusk.”

“We’ll observe him, see if that happens. If it does, we’ll take you back to your old institute. If not…”

“If not, then I’ll go to trial.”

                                                   **************

                                                      July, 1995

“How did you know?”

Harrison sat across from Gabriel, watching him add cinnamon and sugar to his coffee. Gabriel tested the coffee, nodded approvingly, and smiled at Harrison.

“Socratic dialogue. Thin-slicing facial expressions and body language. I told the FBI profilers all this and they just looked at me like I’m crazy. You know, Harrison, they really need to up their game.”

“But you really are crazy. The state of Texas says so.”

“True enough, my friend, but I did help them capture a killer.”

“Your nephew.”

“The boy wanted to break my record. I couldn’t have that. Besides, he rounded out my number of victims rather nicely. Twenty-eight. And I didn’t even have to kill him.”

Harrison shook his head.

“Crazy.”

“According to the state of Texas.”

“I still don’t know how you knew.”

Monsters know other monsters. Michael should have known that.

Gabriel added more cinnamon to his coffee and sipped it.

Perfect.


June 01, 2023 11:02

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53 comments

Ken Cartisano
17:44 Jun 07, 2023

'Monsters know other monsters.' Do they now? It's an interesting supposition. I think you have nailed the essence of the psychopath. Intelligent, observant, keen acting skills, and a complete lack of empathy, even for family. Very good story, excellent writing and dialogue.

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