Speculative Fiction Mystery

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.


By the time I got there, it was all over. I was too late. not only for what happened then but for history’s continuum. Everything that happened before and since my birth, including World War I and World War II (which wasn’t my fault) was over. As much as I might have hoped the depths of evil had been exhausted for all time, what happened made me wonder whether evil was taking up too much space to allow for goodness to prevail and if all that happened was just a rehearsal for what was to come.

I never told anyone I knew the eight residents who once lived in that house in a suburban subdivision of Rockledge County. When the subject came up with strangers who knew of the tragedy, it made me so suspicious and I didn’t mind telling them it was nobody’s business but my own.

I first met one of couples who lived in the house at a local art gallery in Brittany Falls, Pa., Mushroom country. The three of us were standing in front of a nude couple in a contemporary American painting. It reminded me of the anarchic Die Brucke school, the early Expressionist form of German painting featuring free brushwork, flashes of pure color and impetuously delineated forms.

“This is what I came for,” I said. “Are you exhibiting?” I asked the gentleman next to me. “No, we’re just here,” he said. “I’m Stan.” He didn’t introduce his companion. “And you are…?” I asked, looking at his girlfriend. 

“Rika,” she said.

“She’s a manga artist from Japan,” Stanley said. “I don’t like it. I’m into abstract. You paint?” he asked,

“Just an observer,” I said.

“A collector?” he went on to inquire.

I shook my head. “Not until I win the lottery.”     

 Stan’s mood might have been inspired by the generous flow of free liquor being served at the vernissage. Never without a glass in his free hand. His other arm was around his companion Rika who kept him steady.

Before we parted company, Stanley says, “Why not come over and see us someday? I’ll show you my work. Who knows? Maybe you’ll buy one” and hands me a business card with the words “Painter Artist” under his name and their address. .

As Rika was trying to steer Stan out of the gallery, she gave me a wistful look and I nodded. From the way he tugged and shoved her shoulder when he was ready to move on, maybe Rika needed to be rescued dein his brutishness. I found her slightness and sadness seductive …which is why I turned up at their front door several days later in what turned out to be a gated community.  

Stanley was so surprised to see me he blocked the half-opened doorway and seemed to have trouble remembering me.  

“You invited me to see your work,” I said. ”Remember? We met at the gallery opening the other night,” I said. Then Rika appeared. They invited me in and I was introduced to a bizarre family of mostly unrelated people. A chocolate lab came up to greet me. He kept jumping on me and biting my hand until Stanley threatened him with a curled-up newspaper and he ran off.

 An outsider among total strangers in such a community elicits two reactions. Some welcome you with open arms out of delight at seeing an outsider. Others are wary.

Stanley introduced me to Victor, a friendly elderly man.

“He’s from Mexico,” Stanley said.   

“Where in Mexico?” I asked.

“Ciudad del Carmen,” he said.

“I was there years ago,” I replied enthusiastically. “It’s a beautiful town. I embarked there on a ferry to cross the Bay of Tabasco on the way to Merida on the Yucatan peninsula to see the Mayan ruins.”

He smiled graciously.

Victor introduced Martin from Albany, New York. “He’s a writer.”

“This must be an artists’ colony. Everyone is so talented, “I exclaimed.

Then a door opened to an adjoining room and I saw a man in a wheelchair. A middle-aged home aide was just leaving. “See you guys tomorrow,” he said.  

“He has dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Martin said as he quickly shut the door.

I was also introduced to another couple. Owen, a retired Marine sergeant and his wife, Beatriz Christina from Lima, Peru.

“Follow me. I’ll show you my paintings,” Stanley said. 

Stanley led me into a large sunlit room with an easel set up near a French window. Paintings were stacked against the wall. He began displaying them. They appeared to be the work of a painter who had never learned to draw.

“This one with the rocket ships and bird wings came to me in a dream,” Stanley said. “what do you think?”

Since I was not competent to judge, I observed, “I only know what I like. This work is very profound. The juxtaposition of lines and colors are integrated and reveal structure.”   

“Want to buy it?” Stanley asked.

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“Make me an offer,” he said.

Rika rescued me by showing me her free manga website on her laptop.

“She’s got followers,” Stanley said.

“I always wondered what the difference is between manga and anime,” I said.  

“Manga are graphic novels or comics. I draw them in black and white. Anime is an animated version of manga.”

The manga she displayed showed a girl bound and gagged taken hostage by a naked young man holding a pistol at her head.

That was it. Since no-one suggested we hang out, I felt like an intruder and mumbled some excuse about having to leave. As I was politely inching my way to the door without appearing to be rushed, I remember asking Beatriz Christina how she met her husband. She looked at her husband as if she needed permission to answer. “We met in Peru. He was guarding the U.S. Embassy in Lima during the Shining Path Sendero Luminoso campaign. I was in line to apply for a visa to go to the States to visit my sister.”

“I wasn’t a guard,” Owen said. I was a Sergeant Major. I was in charge of the detail.”  

“The terrorist Shining Path?” I asked.  

“Yes but Peru is now a safe destination,” she said.

“And Machu Pichu?” I asked, showing off my meager knowledge of the 15th century citadel built by the Incas in the Andes at an altitude of seven thousand feet.

“Definitely. And see Miraflores, Lima’s beachfront district and the city’s historic center. “But I’m not Peruvian. I’m originally from Montivideo.”

“When my ship sails, I want to go to Valparaiso,” I said.

“That’s in Chile. A beautiful city,” she said “with hills overlooking the Pacific and a labyrinth of cobblestone streets.”

The U.S. Marine Sergeant Major just stared at me. He did not seem to take to strangers. At a loss for words, I asked his wife, “Do you get to visit your family back home?”

“I have a sister here but I and our two boys did go there a few years ago so they could meet their relatives.”

“What do you do?” Owen asked.

“For a living?”

He nodded.

“I teach. But I’m between jobs.” I replied.

“How do you live?” was his next question.  

“I collect unemployment,” I said. “And you?”

“I’m retired. I put in my twenty,” Owen said.

“Where did you serve other than Peru?” I asked.

“The Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan. Ever served?”

“No, I’m an academic.” I said.

He took a sudden interest when he learned I was a college instructor.

“My two boys need soccer scholarships. You know any colleges that offer a full ride for soccer?”

“Sorry, not off the top of my head, but I can find out,” I said.

As I left, I wondered if Rika was trying to send me a message. If she was, I didn’t get it.  

A week later I was tempted out of curiosity to think of a pretext to find out more about this unusual family. I happened to drive by the community and decided to visit them again. As I approached their house in a circle, I saw a sign in one of their second-floor windows. It said, “HELP!”

I pulled into the driveway and rang the doorbell. No-one answered. I peeked in one of the windows. I saw furniture but no people.

A neighbor approached. I recognized her as the young widow of the local Episcopal priest. I had heard about her young husband’s premature death from a stroke. I remembered her standing outside the church at the close of a Christmas service I attended. She was dressed in a sleeveless vintage hippie flowered tank dress with her hair slicked back in a bun and she was pregnant.  

“My condolences for your loss,” I said to let her know I knew who she was. I introduced myself.  

“Thank you. I’m Clara.”

“It looks like no-one’s home. But I saw a help sign in the second-floor window. I was concerned.”

“We never saw the sign. How could we have known? Did you know them?” She asked.

 “Slightly. I knew the artist-couple mostly. Did they move? I asked.  

“I don’t think you will be running into them anywhere soon. They’re dead,” she said.  

I doubled over from the shock.  

“It happened last week,” Clara said.

“I didn’t hear about it in the news,” I said.

“I don’t know why it has not been made public,” she said. “No-one knew them. They moved in before my husband died. I invited them to church to make them feel welcome. Some came a few times. I did see them walking an Irish setter.”

“You mean the dog? I remember a chocolate lab.” 

“You might think I would know the difference. I told the police and the medical examiner the little I knew. They came and went and seemed to be pursuing their daily routines. The mailman came every day. They kept to themselves. Maybe we thought it unneighborly to keep to yourself. Here, everybody knows everybody. My late husband said I was too forward when I invited them to church, but he never let on anything sinister was going on. He would have said if he knew. But maybe he didn’t want to alarm me.”

“Did you think they were in some kind of trouble?” I asked.

“There was gossip about it being a cult or a halfway house for ex-offenders and there was someone there who was an invalid. But I thought it’s a free country and if they choose an alternative lifestyle, I better mind my own f…. ing business.”

“People were curious I assume.”

“Sure, but we’re not the type of neighbors who peek out their windows. There was talk. Just having to speculate in an otherwise peaceful neighborhood is troubling. I’m still in mourning for my husband. I break into tears several times a day. I’m carrying his child. I’m in grief counselling.”

“I understand,” I said.

“A van and a car with four passengers pulled up in the driveway in front of their two-car garage wearing dark suits.” she said. “Maybe it was because of the dark suits no-one took the trouble to take down the license plate number of the car or the van. I assumed it was the FBI or ICE. There were foreigners in the house. Maybe they were undocumented. The four men in suits banged on the door. No one answered.  Then they went into the house and a few minutes later the residents were marched to the van. I thought they were under arrest or something. There was a ramp for the wheelchair-bound man. Then they drove off. Later we found out they were locked in the van and suffocated.“

She didn’t know their names but they were all there. Martin and Victor, the elderly unnamed gentleman in a wheelchair. Rika and Stanley, Owen, the retired Marine and his  Uruguyuan wife and their two boys. 

“Where did they find the van?”

“How should I know? In an isolated spot down the road somewhere. I should have done something like walked up to the men in the dark suits and asked where they were taking them. But I was afraid of getting arrested. Afterward, a next door neighbor said she heard the faint sound of a telephone ringing from the house. Another neighbor said he heard a dog barking inside the house. He called the local animal shelter out of concern for the dog, The animal control officer came for the dog but he had to call the police to enter the house to rescue the dog who was hungry and dehydrated and in a very agitated state. When they tried to take the dog away, it escaped and led them to the van. That’s when the police found the crime scene. I thought of adopting the dog but don’t think it could stand living next door to where the dog lived before. We’re all animal lovers. We were horrified but that was nothing compared to how we felt when we found out what happened to the people, including two boys,” the widow said. “It turned out we had been going about our business not knowing they had no air, food, or water.”

“Did the police say anything?”

“When I asked the Chief of Police what happened, he said he didn’t know. He shook his head. He was mad at us. He wanted his officers to round us up and take us down the road to see what happened. I refused. Then the chief started going crazy about the rights of innocent women and children and talking about the liberation of Dachau in 1945,”  

“What was the connection?”

“He said after the American troops shot the concentration camp guards, there was no-one left to take care of the burials in mass graves. So they marched the local residents from the town to the camp to bury the corpses. Imagine being lectured by the chief of police like I was a Nazi sympathizer!”

“I know this has been distressing. Thank you for placing your trust in me,” I said.  

A few days later, the news broke and it triggered local hysteria. Wire services picked up the report. People all over the country might have read of the incident. The reports identified the house’s occupants from papers and forms of identification they found in the house. Based on what I gleaned from the press reports. Some were on disability. Others were receiving social security or pensions.  One had a criminal record which raised the question of whether the entire family was punished in a settling of scores with a single individual.

After the news broke, the County Sheriff standing next to the Police Chief at a hastily organized press conference. They called it a domestic terrorist act of mass killing and promised the public it would be investigated, and the perpetrators brought to justice.  

A local reporter asked the Police Chief if the County District Attorney would charge every neighborhood resident with a failure of duty to assist. That went nowhere. The Police Chief vowed to get to the bottom of it. Nothing came of that either. He retired a few weeks later and within three months died of natural causes.

Months later the property was condemned. Its contents were removed by men wearing hazmat suits. Rumor had it that the FBI rummaged through papers found in the house but they found nothing. The County paid to have the house torn down because they said they could not identify an owner and who would want to live there? An investigation of the tax rolls revealed it was owned by a Limited Liability corporation registered under a fake name with a fake address in Connecticut. I never heard of any funerals. A few next of kin must have been contacted because the town funeral director turned up at the County Coroner’s office to handle arrangements. The remains or ashes of some of the victims to relatives who claimed their loved ones’ remains were forwarded to relatives. One relative appeared but left town without speaking to anyone.

It continues to haunt me. A few months later on a hot Sunday afternoon I awakened fully dressed from a long nap in a two-tier dream, a dream within a dream. In the dream’s first tier, I find myself in a partitioned room in what seems to be a dormitory in which empty rooms keep repeating themselves in mirrored reflections receding into infinity. I walk through infinite rooms seeking some sign of a fellow human being. Instead, I feel like I’m among spores or organisms of unrecognizable shapes lurking about in the shadows. They did not seem to be from here. I remember thinking “Who are these people? They are not of us.” Maybe they had been here all along stirring about. Still in a haze, I went back to my room and lay down for the second chapter of my dream.

When I woke up, I called the local police tip line and suggested that people from somewhere else might have been responsible for the atrocity in the van.

“The people who did it were not from here,” I said.

“Do you mean from another planet?” the desk officer.

“I’m just saying maybe they were not from here.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“I mean we’re not alone!” I exclaimed. My amygdala was firing up. I knew I might regret what I said next. “I apologize. Have a nice end of the day,” I said.                                                                          Antoine J. Polgar

August 09, 2023 19:32

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