She wanted to go out and look for a grocery store because we didn’t have much in the way of food in the house. She’s one of those people who believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That left me alone with the messy house. The longer I worked to set the house in order the more dissatisfied I felt – I felt I was wasting my time. I felt I was destroying the history that had attracted me to this house in the first place. I was also slightly panicked because I had no idea as of yet what I would write about, and Heather at Southern Gothic wasn’t happy. The only productive thing the morning brought me was a name. After cough and hacking my way through the heaps of decrepit furniture I decided I would call the place The House of Dust.
By the time 11:30 rolled around, and she still wasn’t back, my stomach was growling, my head was aching, and my interior decoration skills were in serious decline.
I had just sat down with my laptop to jot down the name and whatever other crazy ideas might come to me when the last thing I expected happened – someone knocked on the front door. – “The House of Dust.” Southern Gothic
It was Bony-face.
He wore khaki pants and a blue collared shirt. A black umbrella hung on his arm, contrasting weirdly with the rest of his costume. He smiled, and Brad new he didn’t mean it. “Good afternoon. I came to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
“Thank you, sir. Won’t you come in?” He pulled the heavy door wider and gestured.
“Think I will, just for a minute.” The man came across the threshold, eyes sliding to the side to look at him. He shut the door and adjusted his glasses. “Afraid we aren’t settled yet, so I can’t offer you anything.”
The man lifted his umbrella and peered through the crooked handle at the staircase. Then he looked back at him and smiled again. “What? No lemonade? No sweet ice tea?” He named the drinks with an exaggerated southern accent, then returned to his smooth, humming voice. “Don’t worry about it, my friend, I understand completely. I passed your little lady out taking a morning stroll.”
“Yeah, she’s going to buy groceries.”
“Didn’t wanna drive, huh? Well, it’ll be a waste of effort. She won’t find much in Three-Summers.”
He adjusted his glasses. “Is that the name of the town?”
“Yep.” The man lowered his umbrella and turned. “You mind if I sit down, Brad?”
“Not at all.”
“Thank you.” He walked through the door to the right, into the sitting room, lowered himself into an armchair amid a cloud of dust, and placed the umbrella across his knees.
He followed, hands stuck in his pockets. “I don’t think I caught your name yesterday.”
“Because I didn’t throw it out. I have a rather strong opinion that people should only give their name to people they trust.”
He shrugged. Bony-face had selected an isolated chair by the window. The nearest seat, the couch, was almost twenty feet away. He eyed his laptop on the coffee table, noting the dull blanket of dust that already lay across it. Smothering – that was the word he’d use to describe the air of this house, should he ever – but of course he did have occasion. “Is that a common opinion around here?” He asked, trying to make the conversation useful in some way. “To not share your name?”
“Used to be more so.” The man looked around the room and changed the topic. “I see you haven’t made many alterations in here yet.”
“Uh, no. As I said, we just got here yesterday, so nothing’s really been done. I don’t guess the previous owner cared too much about . . . presentability.”
“No,” the man chuckled. “She didn’t.”
“She loved her gardened, though.”
“That she did. It’s been said watching it go to weeds the past few weeks.”
“Well, now that we’re here, maybe we’ll be able to rectify the situation.”
“Maybe. You don’t strike me as the gardening type.”
He crossed his legs and smiled as best he could.
“What do you do, Brad?”
“I’m a writer.”
“An author, shouldn’t you say? Anyone can be a writer. I could be a writer, but I don’t get paid for it. You do, I’m guessing?”
“That’s right. I write–”
“Who do you write for? I’m sorry, you were about to tell me.”
“I write for Southern Gothic. It’s a magazine based in Atlanta. We publish fiction, poetry, historic articles, and crime.”
“Crime.” He repeated.
“That’s my department. I write about crimes, both historic and modern day.”
The man seemed genuinely interested. A little of the tension of having the creep sitting halfway across the room staring at him eased. “What sort of crimes?”
“They do tend to be the most interesting kind. Any I’ve heard of?”
He settled back. “They tend to be obscure, which brings the challenge to my job. My most famous article – the one that launched my career, really – unearthed the Serene Flats murders. Ever heard of it?”
The man shook his head. “Tell me.”
In the third bedroom off the upper hall, the sheets fluttered.
“Okay, so Serene Flats was an apartment complex in Jackson, Mississippi built in 1969. In wasn’t in an especially seedy part of town, but the majority of the renters were lower-middle class: college students, and unwed couples, and seniors struggling to maintain their independence. The place had a steady turn-over rate but still ran smoothly for the first five years of its existence; the only illicit activity that took place there was drug use, and, you know, considering the populace that was not surprising or unexpected – certainly not to the management. When trouble came, though it came in a big way.” He spread his hands, staring at the bland surface of the coffee table as he recalled the details. “On the morning of July third, 1974, water was reported leaking from under the doorway of unit 20. When the tenant did not respond the maintenance men used a master key. The chain was also securing the door. They had to cut it. Sarah Murphy was found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit. Apparent suicide.”
Boney-face smiled. “But . . . no?”
“The police were ready to accept the obvious. That is, until the next morning when Jimmy Olympus, in unit 21, appeared to have suffered the same fate.”
“More water under the door?”
“Same in all respects. Naturally, this set the residents on down the building in a rather paranoid state of mind. They seemed to be part of an Agatha Christie novel where each night the next highest number would experience a murder. The management advised everyone to lock their doors and even hired a security detail to watch that side of the building. Next morning, the same phenomena was found in number 23, this time striking down Al Jeffries and Nancy Cillian.”
“By that time some people had had enough. There were a total of fourteen units on that side of the building, and the residents of number’s 25, 29, and 33 chose to evacuate.”
“I’m surprised they didn’t do so sooner.”
“And that more didn’t go.” He glanced briefly at Boney-face, who was clutching the umbrella across his knees and watching him intently. “We must now introduce the person who, in my opinion, is the real victim of the whole ordeal. His name was James Bell, and he was an aspiring author. He lived on the other side of the building. The string of supposed murders fascinated him. It turns out he had been plotting a book with a similar concept in mind as was taking place – unexplainable deaths in an apartment complex. According to witnesses in the building across from him, he would sit daily before his window and watch their comings and goings and smile a weird smile occasionally,” he eyed the other man.
“The twist, of course, was the hardest part of the man’s novel. He decided it would be worth his while to make a small investigation into what was truly going on behind his walls. On the forth night, this would have been July seventh, he went out and sat in his car which was parked near the end of the side of the building in question. He watched, and the police watched, but once again all was quiet that night.”
“Who died this time?”
“A trio, two women and a man. I should be able to remember their names, but I can’t for some reason . . .” He frowned, thought for a moment, then continued more slowly. “The manner of death changed slightly in their case. All of them could not fit in the tub. The women were found there and the man in the kitchen with a knife in his neck. Well, James Bell was convinced he knew the answer. He sat in his apartment that day and wrote out scenarios from the killer’s point of view, detailing how each murder was committed. He then spent the next night, from three to four-thirty a.m. sneaking around, trying to catch a glimpse of the killer and attempting to establish in his mind the look of the place at night. That day he drew sketches of the place and planned the capture of the killer.”
“Had more died the night before?”
“Oh, yes. A single woman in her forties, Miriam Collmer.” He was silent for a while, wondering how to put the next bit. “. . . it rained that night. James Bell went up on the roof anyway. He thought that was the answer – he had heard people walking around on the roof before, though it had only been the maintenance men. The ceiling had always seemed thin, to him, and the footsteps so heavy they might step right through into his apartment. It seemed the only possibility left. He stayed up their all night, crawling back and forth, waiting for someone to appear.”
“No one did,” Boney-face said softly.
“In the morning, around seven, with the rain still falling, he came down as the police were forcing entry into the remaining occupied units – none of the tenants had responded. With the patios and steps drenched it was difficult to find the tell-tail sign of nefarious activity, the water under the door. All units were scenes of havoc.”
He leaned back and stared at the muted ceiling, projecting the crime-scene pictures on its cob-webbed whiteness. Broken vases, busted lava-lamps, scattered beds, shredded books, blood and alcohol stained furniture, and dark, soggy carpet. And the bathroom, of course, where bodies, some clothed, some not, lay in the water and blood. Just above the ceiling, in the third bedroom off the upstairs hall, the dust on the floor, and the bed, and the nightstand, and the lamp shade all floated up and rested on the ceiling.
“It seems so obvious,” Bony-face said.
“Nothing is obvious in the heat of passion,” he replied. “The police were naturally furious. Though James Bell tried to avoid them, he was spotted coming down from the roof. They arrested him on the spot, both for his skin, and for the cuts the night on the roof had inflicted on his skin. They raided his apartment and found they sketches and the written scenarios. They also found large amounts of various drugs – as an aspiring author he had to have some source of income. He still had plenty of connections from his childhood in Birmingham, and the occupation allowed him to work a couple of hours each night and have the days to himself. The police questioned his neighbors and learned about his days before his window. They learned about his nocturnal habits, and they learned from one man that his car was wet every night when he returned. Since he had no family, no positive witnesses on his side, and a management at Serene Flats that had been destroyed by the affairs, he was quickly convicted of all the murders. He was sentenced to life in prison.”
“He there now?”
Brad shook his head. “He died there in 1992.”
“And I’m guessing from the way you told that that you believe he was innocent.”
“He was. He acted stupidly, probably a result of smoking too much dope, but he was no killer. The opposite, in fact. He wanted justice for the killer and for the world – thus his little investigation and his desire to write crime novels where the bad guys go to jail.”
“But how do you know?”
“Because I met the real killer. He called himself Jerimiah Johnson. Everyone else called him Disney. He ran a drug den outside Jackson. Every night three was like something out of the Bible that needed fire and brimstone poured down on it.”
“Ironically enough, some of the drugs that passed through James Bell’s hands may have ended up at Disney’s Den. The people he was trying to save may even have used them. The connection was never made because the personal lives of these people was never delved into. When they were seen as victims they held no importance. What I did was look at each of these people and look at Jerimiah Johnson and make the connection.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“He eventually went to jail as well, though not until ‘79, where he was sentenced to thirty years. I arranged an interview back in 2009, right before he got out. I had always be frustrated with this case because I knew it hadn’t ended correctly. It was hushed up for that very reason, but I wanted to stick with it. I had collected every scrap of information I could. I had thought about it a great deal. When I asked Disney about it I knew he was guilty – not of killing the people, but telling them to kill themselves. He was a smooth, intellectual, spiritual sort of person. He would quote every philosopher and religious leader who ever existed as well as a few who haven’t. He wanted to prove his power in a dramatic way. So he asked the group of patrons from Serene Flats, people who had come upon him in large part independent of one another, if they would kill themselves over successive nights. He became acquainted with each individual before he made the request so that when the time came he knew they would not refuse. And they didn’t. Not one of them.”
“And none of the other members of his club came forward with the truth?” He asked mildly.
“Only one. When the place was busted in ’77 everyone was arrested. I was able to track down a fair number of them using police records, but only one would talk, a woman named Hilary Wegner. She remember the group from Serene Flats and said she had no doubt what had happened – Disney had ordered it.” He was silent again, before saying. “It was a lot more complicated than just two interviews, but in the end Southern Gothic published the story and their circulation went up by fifty percent . . . and I had a job.”
The man across the room nodded slowly. “A simple story, but a sad one. People will do anything if they are part of a group – they lose themselves and become an idea. Usually the leader’s idea. Most of the people with Disney were women, I suppose?”
“They are often the best at crime.” He stood up abruptly. “That’s part of the big city life I can do without.” The umbrella whooshed open and he reached into it and pulled out a wilted daffodil. “I brought a little house warming gift for you two.”
Brad stood up and came around the coffee table, holding out his hand. “Thank you, that’s very interesting.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I live in Atlanta–”
“I mean originally.”
“No. I’m from Rhode Island.”
“Rhode Island. I’ve never met a single person from Rhode Island.” The man offered him a bland smile. “Now I’m afraid I have to go before the rain comes.”
“Is it going to rain?”
“It’s always going to rain, just a matter of time.” He left the parlor and made for the front door.
“One more thing, Mister – er – Sir.”
He looked at the flower sagging in his hand, looked around, then just held it as he walked after the man. “Right in here, in the – I guess this is dance hall.”
“Used to be great parties here, back in the day,” Boney-face agreed.
“Yes. Right in here, on the mirror, can you see that shape? I cleaned the dust off and it’s still there.”
They stopped beneath the mirror that hung above the fireplace. The man tapped the tip of his umbrella on the floor while looking between Brad and the symbol. “There’s no real name for it – it’s just a shape. Darrin DeWitt made it up and I think he called it the Symbol of Unity across Time. Not too catchy, but he lived a while back, when people enjoyed boring stuff.”
“Who is Darrin DeWitt?”
The man turned away, stemming the tide of follow-up questions that were already filling his mouth. “He’s the guy who built this house.”