It was good to be back in Saint-Ferdinand. The town hadn't changed too much in the years he'd been gone. It wasn't quite the same feeling as coming home. There was no warmth or security. No, it was more like visiting one's old high-school. Every building whispered memories to him, every street begged him to reminisce, but not every scrap of nostalgia was pleasant. There was loss here, fear there, and no small amount of suffering everywhere.
He parked his old rickety car at the Peterson farm and walked to the village from there, intent on experiencing the past all over as it presented itself to him.
After stepping out of his seasoned nineteen sixty-eight Volkswagen Beetle, Nathaniel took a look around, his eyes lingering a moment in the direction of Finnegan's trailer. Somewhere in these woods was the home of his old friend. Oh how it pained him to think on how they'd failed one another.
Just before the tree-line was the field Peterson had lent him, and a few feet away, the farmhouse he and his family had lived in back in those terrible days. There was a boy in the field, working to clear it.
Nathaniel started the long walk towards Saint-Ferdinand proper. It had been a hot day and the old man was thankful that he'd arrived in the late afternoon. If he'd gotten here much earlier he would have had to take the car to town or be broiled alive on his way.
The farms all held strong memories of the friends who had lived there so long ago. Now, most of them had been renovated and modernized almost beyond recognition. Yet, they all kept at least a small fragment of their original charm. An old fence, a dilapidated barn or some other vestigial element from back in the days. To his left was a corn farm where his friend and accomplice, Jonathan had lived. To his right was an orchard that used to be a small potato farm. He remembered a pretty girl had spent the summer there when he was eleven. So long ago.
Nathaniel used to visit Saint-Ferdinand annually. He did so against the better wisdom of Eliza, one of his employees and a close friend. However, his last visit had landed him in jail. He'd stayed away for twenty years, waiting for the appointed time, but as it turned out, he was a few days late. So was the nature of prophesy; vague and conveniently veiled in innuendos.
Not far down the road, a little past the Richard's farm, which he remembered fondly as the home of a pair of twins with whom he'd gone hunting and fishing, Nathaniel's sharp nose detected the nauseating odor of putrefying blood. There was a time, long ago when he wouldn't have noticed or recognized the smell. Today, he wasn't just familiar with it, but attentive to it.
Taking a few steps into the woods, he quickly found a portion of the forest that had been roped off by bright yellow plastic ribbons. The area was large. A chill went up Nathaniel's spine as he considered whether this was the site of a massacre with many victims, or a single, extremely unfortunate one.
Regardless, he had arrived after the facts. While he had strong suspicions about what had happened, some of the details didn't fit. He'd expected a great darkness to have befallen this place, but somehow he felt a small light shining in the shadows. Something dark and cold had taken place here, but it hadn't gone unnoticed. There was power in that. Nathaniel could feel it.
Still, there were things to do and people to see. Oh so many people to see. Nathaniel didn't linger. There would be time for that later.
By the time he walked into town, it was almost five in the evening. Some shops were already winding down. Tables and chairs were moved indoors, signs and placards were being taken down. A series of exhausted employees from a variety of different jobs were eagerly packing up, praying there would be no last-minute customers. Some of the older villagers gave him odd looks, like old schoolmates who couldn't quite remember his name. He, however, remembered them all.
Nathaniel felt a spark of shame at avoiding the police station. The building he was heading for was the only other municipal office in town and was located right next to the station. He had nothing to worry about, at least officially, but there were certain people he'd rather not run into quite yet. There would be time for that unpleasantness later.
Saint-Ferdinand's town hall served a limited number of functions necessary for the village to run smoothly. It housed the mayor's office, administrative offices and even a small courtroom which hadn't seem much use as the small town hadn't had a residing judge in a few years. Fortunately, Nathaniel was only there to pick up a temporary zoning permit. A formality.
The old man squeezed in through the door at the very last moment. The woman at the front desk let out an audible sigh at having her work day so rudely prolonged. She was rather young Nathaniel noticed. Young enough that she would have been an infant last time he visited.
"I'm very sorry to come in so late mademoiselle." he apologized, approaching the counter. "Allow me to make it up to you by keeping my request to a simple one."
"How may I help you sir?" the clerk inquired mechanically, the apology flying miles above her head.
"I am merely here to pick up a permit dear. Two actually; one for temporary residence and the other for commercial zoning." he smiled broadly and announced "The circus is coming to town."
The woman remained unimpressed. She pushed a strand of brown hair from her face before walking over to a nearby cabinet behind the counter. Nathaniel remembered a time when the mere mention of a circus would have men and women, young and old, beam with pleasure and anticipation. Nowadays, people were too blasé. The traditional circus, the traveling carnival, had lost most if not all of its luster. Attractions were either considered too ordinary compared to the wonders one could see at the theater or too politically incorrect because it made use of animals and freaks. It was a disappointing turn of events.
"Your name sir?" the young lady asked with as little interest as she could muster.
The old man smiled again, not with pride or joy but rather like a child unveiling a secret.
"Nathaniel dear. Nathaniel Joseph Cicero."
It had been a long, introspective weekend for Donald Crowley. After witnessing his father's bizarre gathering out in the woods, he had come home with more questions than answers, not the least of them being; how long had his father been hiding all of this?
For the past two days, Don had been avoiding the outside world. Sasha, his girlfriend, or more likely ex-girlfriend by now, had left a dozen messages that he'd ignored. Two sunny days had come and gone without him setting a foot outside. He ignored his routine, neglecting his usual workout regiment. Most of all, he avoided his father. It wasn't fear, though there was certainly a portion of that. It was mostly confusion. Donald wasn't used to lying and didn't know if he could keep a straight face in front of his old man. More likely he'd break down, demanding explanations.
Thankfully, Stephen Crowley was easy to avoid these days. The inspector had barely set foot in his own home all weekend. The two men exchanged brief pleasantries but didn't discuss anything of substance. This situation allowed Donald to spend some time alone trying to figure out the content of the chest under his father's bed. So far, what he'd discovered made him question either his father's sanity, or his own.
From what he could put together, the meeting he'd been a witness to was in fact a gathering of a group calling themselves the Sandmen. This he deduced from a series of letters by various members, pledging themselves to the group's cause.
Then, there was a repeated mention of another group, the Watchers. This he found in an old document that listed a series of mandates and was signed by most of the Sandmen. The first of these was to identify the Watchers. There was even a short list of suspects; Harry Peterson, Paul Mackenzie, Randal Mackenzie and Jonathan Bradley. Oddly enough, Sam Finnegan wasn't on that list despite apparently being the Watcher they were looking for.
Speaking of absentees, Sean Hayes went unmentioned anywhere on any document in the chest. This particular fact felt wrong to Donald considering it was Hayes' business card that had led him to the chest in the first place. Probably not by accident.
The rest of the papers were all case files from the various Saint-Ferdinand killer investigations. A cursory glance revealed that Finnegan had never been considered a suspect.
The final piece of the incomplete puzzle was the photo of his father with the strange boy and familiar woman. Even the location felt vaguely familiar. The antiquated popcorn machine with ornately serifed lettering. The white and turquoise high-top dominating the background. Even the tree line and farmhouse on the edges of the photo teased the fringes of Donald's memory, like a souvenir dangling at the tip of his mind.
Donald was once again sitting on the floor, the content of the chest sprawled around him. He was very careful to keep the documents neatly organized as to place them back in the chest in the exact same order they were originally in. The tension that had been slowly creeping between him and his father would explode if the inspector found out his son had been rummaging through his affairs.
Considering how nervous he got while sneaking around like this, it was a wonder that Donald did not jump out of his skin or keel over from a heart attack as the phone rang, shattering the silence like a sledgehammer through a plate glass window. The sound wasn't that loud, but sitting on edge with his ears pricked made it seem thunderous. Donald clutched his chest in surprise but only until he felt a little embarrassed by his own skittishness. After feeling silly for a second, the phone rang again and he scrambled to his feet in order to answer.
"Hi, Donald?" came the familiar voice of Jacky, the dispatcher on staff at the station. "Is Stephen there?"
Of course not, thought Donald. Why would he bother being home with his son when he had a cult to lead? Of course he didn't voice his thoughts. Don had started to notice an amusing streak of paranoia growing as his first thought was wondering if Jacky was one of 'them'.
"Nah. He's off somewhere." he answered as nonchalant as possible. "Can't you reach his radio?"
"No, that's why I thought he was home." her answer felt unconcerned. "It's okay. Not an emergency."
"Well..." Donald figured he might as well try and gather more information if possible. "Do you want me to give him a message?"
There was a pause on the phone. Donald could tell that the dispatcher was considering the option, weighing whether it was a good idea or not. After a moment though she seemed comfortable enough to accept the offer.
"Alright. Just tell him when he gets a chance to check out the Peterson farm."
"He's gonna ask me why y'know." Don attempted to push his luck.
"Right. The tell him Cicero's Circus wants to use the field next month."
"Will do." he confirmed, his eyes darting quickly to the various stacks of paper strewn around the wooden chest at the foot of his father's bed.
As soon as he hung up, Donald ran back to the chest and grabbed a specific pile of documents; the Saint-Ferdinand killer case files. Quickly, he leafed through them, looking for something, something specific that he could have sworn he'd seen not moments ago. Whispering 'bingo' like a burglar that had found a stack of bills under a mattress he pulled one file out of the stack and flipped through it until he found the photo of a suspect with his name and details. Giving a quick glance to the picture he'd been obsessing over for the past few days he put two more pieces of the puzzle together.
"Nathaniel Joseph Cicero." he murmured, reading the name of a suspect from the case file. "Cicero's Circus."
"Are you sure there wasn't anything else in my purse that might have fallen out?"
Erica had driven all the way to the Peterson farm and walked well into the fields to see Abraham about this subject. She couldn't imagine the boy had taken anything but it was really the only place to start. More likely, the stuffed toy had fallen out and was now lying on the floor of the ice cream shop, which would probably remain closed for the foreseeable future. While a long shot, asking Abe Peterson if he knew anything was still preferable to having William Bergeron open the shop for her. Especially if her suspicions proved to be correct.
"Nuh huh. Didn't even open the thing Ms. Hazelwood." Abe was preparing bales of hay to be packed up. It was physically demanding work which the teen seemed to enjoy. Erica felt guilty about admiring the boy's physique and wondered to herself if Abraham even realized that given a bit of grooming he could probably become his school's most eligible young bachelor. "Venus found your purse so maybe she saw something, but it ain't in her to take anything either. Perhaps if you told me what you were looking for it'd help some."
"It's kind of embarrassing really." might as well try, she thought. "Its a small plush toy. A bear. With a red hat."
The boy seemed unfazed. His smile may have broadened a little but there was nothing derisive about it. In fact it may very well have been compassion and understanding. It made Erica both sad and angry. She knew what the world was like for people like Abraham Peterson and he was just about that age when the painful reality would start punishing him for his good nature.
"I'll talk to Venus for you Ms. Hazelwood. Maybe she's seen it. And if she hasn't, I'll borrow Penny's keys to the shop and check there."
"Thank you very much Abraham. You're a life-saver. If there's anything I can do for you, please let me know." She meant it too. It had been stupid to take that bear. It was a piece of evidence from a crime scene and if recognized as such could have serious repercussions for the person who took it. She'd considered coming clean to Crowley about it, but he didn't seem in his most understanding mood these days. Erica couldn't even understand why she took the toy in the first place. It had just seemed so out of place, it almost felt like it had called out to her. Now, misplaced curiosity and inattention may very well cost her her job and severely damage her career.
"Actually Ms. Hazelwood, there is something." he wiped his brow with the front of his shirt. "Can you tell me how Penny's doing? I haven't had a chance to talk to her since, well, yesterday."
"I can't tell you much but I'll do what I can."
"I just want to know what's going to happen to her."
"That's still up in the air." Erica thought on it for a moment. "For now her grandparents are okay with her living at Venus' home. Penny's mentioned wanting to keep her mother's house, but I don't know if she realizes how hard that would be, especially once school starts. She's a though one your friend, but she has to also learn her limits."
Penny was indeed very strong and level-headed. After breaking down on Friday when hearing of her mother's murder she had pulled herself back together incredibly fast. In fact, it almost worried Erica that the young woman may not be allowing herself proper time to mourn. At their first session after the tragedy, Penny had already seemed remarkably collected, almost preoccupied by other matters. What did worry Erica the most was the amount of anger the girl seemed to have festering under the surface. Anger wasn't unusual in the coping process, quite the opposite, but it had so far been a common trend amongst Saint-Ferdinand residents to experience very little of it, skipping ahead to acceptance in fast-forward. She attributed it to a subconscious feeling amongst the villagers that they expected the loss of their loved ones, the result of having lived in the shadow of a killer for so long. Penny, on the other hand, was seething with barely contained fury. Focused. Driven.
"I don't know." Abraham mused, leaning on a fence for a moment. "Penny's real pig-headed. If she's set her mind to something, odds are she's gonna get it done y'know?"
"Well, we'll see. There's a lot of legal hoops to jump through. Either way, I have to go back to the station. Thank you very much for your help Abraham."
Abraham nodded and smiled before she left. It was another blistering day in the townships and the long walk back to her car, in an open field with no shade and little wind felt like a stroll through an oven. Feeling particularly broiled by the time she saw the white Acura she was renting, she was surprised to see a man standing next to it, fully clad in a black tailored business suit, apparently smiling at her as she drew close. She quickly noticed that the man seemed relatively comfortable in the baking sun with no trace of sweat on his wall street blue shirt.
"Ms. Hazelwood!" he called, displaying a welcoming set of perfect white teeth. Erica couldn't help but find his features familiar.
"That would be me. Mr. ?"
"Sean Hayes. Do you have a moment to talk?" he offered a hand which she shook, noticing his cool, dry palm.
"Not in this heat I don't." Erica was half hoping that this Mr. Hayes wouldn't insist. She didn't like to admit it, but at times she relied more on instinct than reason and this man made her unusually nervous.
"Well then, may I assume you are driving back to town?" again with the charming smile. "Could I impose upon you for transportation? You would be doing me two favors at once."
Erica hesitated. On one hand, she wasn't the type to trust strangers and this particular one really did not warm her heart for some reason. On the other, the heat was murder and it did feel cruel to allow someone to suffer through it for paranoia's sake. She debated internally for a moment before deciding that regardless of how she felt, she wasn't a monster.
"Sounds like an efficient solution Mr. Hayes. Hop in."
Sean did not need to be asked twice and after a brief but cordial show of gratitude took a seat on the passenger's side. Erica followed suit reluctantly. She put the air conditioning to maximum and allowed it to run a moment before moving.
"So what can I do for you Mr. Hayes?"
"'Sean' please." he clarified with a smile. "Actually, there are many things you can do for me Ms. Hazelwood."
Hayes looked at her, perhaps expecting the same familiarity he was showing. Erica did not oblige.
"Well," Hayes continued. "First off, we're both from out of town and I thought that it was nice to have someone to relate to."
Again, Erica stayed quiet. Deep down she felt awful. It wasn't like her to be cold like this to strangers, and by all appearances, Sean Hayes was just being a friendly sorts, but she felt there was more to it.
"Also, I'm a reporter and I've been told you're pretty close to the Saint-Ferdinand killer case."
It all came together, her instincts vindicated.
"And you'd like to ask me a few questions about the case." she completed the thought for him.
"Yes. I am rather transparent it seems."
"I'm afraid you're barking up the wrong tree Mr. Hayes." she explained calmly. "I'm only here to offer support to the victims and those conversations are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality."
"Then perhaps I can impose upon you for something else? Put in a good word for me with inspector Crowley? He's been avoiding me for days now."
Erica could well imagine a defenseless little reporter in the clutches of someone like Crowley. It wasn't a pretty thought. The inspector had little patience for much, let alone someone meddling in his affaires. It was why he'd been so reluctant in alerting the media and considering the effort that was put into downplaying events, it was a tribute to Hayes' skill that he knew to be here at all.
"I'll see what can be done Mr. Hayes but you should know that inspector Crowley barely tolerates my presence here, so I really doubt he'll make time for you."
"I feared as much." explained the reporter while nonchalantly shutting the ventilation fans on his side of the car. "But, whatever you may think of the media, this story must get out at some point. Saint-Ferdinand is very lucky that I'm a fairly ethical journalist. Others would have speculated to get a scoop, I'd rather wait and get the facts."
"There's still nothing I can do." she smiled at him apologetically.
"Is it true that not all the victims are from Saint-Ferdinand?" Hayes asked, wearing a straight face instead of his usual grin.
"There are several of the victims who are from out of town yes."
"Are all of them identified?"
"I can't answer that Mr. Hayes." she knew of course, but she sensed that Hayes wasn't just making casual conversation.
"Okay, but let's assume a few of the non-local victims are still unidentified." he speculated. "Don't the friends and family of these people have a right to know? And is there a better way to do it than through the media?"
"Look!" Erica did not appreciate having her heart-strings pulled and manipulated, probably because it was so effective. "I can't do more than what I already promised."
"I apologize Ms. Hazelwood." the grin was back. "I shouldn't be insisting."
They drove the rest of the way to the village in silence. Beside being frustrated, Erica couldn't help but try to think of a way to get that insufferable reporter his interview with Crowley. She wasn't sure if he'd gotten to her with his manipulative questions or if she just wanted to see the inspector throttle him.