history talking in tongues
by dm gillis
His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.
As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.
This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.
For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.
It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.
As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. Occasionally, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.
One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. Lester thought it odd, however, that he believed he recognised her, as if from another life. He even thought, for the briefest of moments, that this recognition was empathy in disguise—but it was a very brief moment.
In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.
Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.
And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween falls on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for devotees of all that is wicked. Lester’s career as a cutthroat had begun on a Halloween Tuesday. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.
But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.
Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out an absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.
He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to track, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.
The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. He smirked. She was just asking for it.
On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a section, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.
“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”
“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”
Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.
“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”
“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”
“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.
“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”
“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.
That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.
“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.
Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.
Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.
“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”
“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”
“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.
“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.
“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”
“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”
Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.
“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween.”
Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel. As he did, he massaged the long heavy leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.
Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.
Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement light came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be found.
Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor. Many of the old appliances were still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.
Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.
Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?
Then just stillness and silence. He was imagining things.
Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.
The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings. Match shadows, he was certain.
He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds. .
Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.
It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.
Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room had read his mind. Then there was a call out—
“Oh come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise, or did he? “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”
All here for him? What could that mean?
“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”
Lester peeked in again.
“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”
The faces in the room were becoming unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way. It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.
“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.
“Lad?” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”
“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.
“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”
Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there were thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.
And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia Flint. Natalie, the lass who was his very first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.
“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”
“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.
“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”
A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back. That’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”
Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.
“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.
“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.
“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”
“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”
“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.