Sophia went quickest. She died that first night. The killer didn’t have to stalk her or make preparations. It was just a matter of showing up, then waiting for the right time to strike.
It was as though Sophia refused to believe it could happen to her, as though she didn’t take the threat seriously. She told everyone in the group that she had a date and where her new boyfriend would take her. When she got to the restaurant, she even sat with her back to the crowd. Her smooth young face reflected in the window, flaring and spectral against the moonless backdrop of night on the other side of the glass.
The killer slipped into the packed Applebee’s, watching from the bar. A beer was ordered for calm and disguise. The talk all around covered classes, girls, bands, and the Monday Night Football game on several TVs with the Steelers clinging to a three point lead against the Bears. A pop song bopped and whirred from a speaker overhead—pointless and fun. The killer wanted none of that, preferring to watch Sophia chewing delicately on a saucy cheese stick.
When her boyfriend excused himself, stepping outside for a smoke, it was simple enough for the killer to creep up behind her, dropping a gentle hand onto her shoulder. She didn’t startle or look up, even as the blade came around the other side, drawing a candy smile across her throat. That wound looked like a professor’s edit on a theme paper, and Sophia was the errant phrase that had to be marked out. The killer imagined her boyfriend returning to find her bloody and face down in a bowl of soup.
“Goddammit!” she said, finally glancing around to confront her executioner. “All right, you got me. Now get the hell out of here before Jeremy comes back and sees you.”
The killer gave a slight bow and, enchanted as if in a slow dance, backed away.
The serial-killer game was Brenda’s idea. She said she read about it on the internet and thought it sounded interesting. She didn’t use the word fun, just interesting. She brushed her dyed reddish-orange hair out of her eyes several times as she spoke—an unconscious act, parts nervousness and practicality. “I think we ought to do it,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to play a fucking vampire again.”
I had rejected the idea at first. It struck me as tactless and a little bit nuts. I grew up in a normal middle-class suburb and was raised by mostly-normal parents who paid their taxes, didn’t drink, and went to church on holidays and the occasional Sunday. The thought of being a serial killer or a serial killer’s victim seemed too much like one of my mother’s irrational fears. Sure, I wasn’t a saint. I smoked a joint from time to time, and I liked to escape into fantasy lands by reading Stephen King, James Patterson, Robert Heinlein, or the mandatory Tolkien. I knew how to have a good time at a party or alone with friendly college girls. But this was different, darker, off-putting. Even so, Brenda’s point about vampires got me thinking. I hated the vampire game, too, and the other one—knights and princesses and stuff—had gotten stale. “What would we have to do?” I asked.
“It’s pretty simple, Greg,” she said. “The killer kills. The rest try to catch him and, well, you know, stay alive.” She had everyone’s attention now.
There were ten of us in the Society of Creative Costumed Role-Players (everyone joked our mothers all were SoCCR moms). Brenda, Sophia, and Elaine—the blonde—made up the female members. The rest included Jason, Jackson, Larry, Kurt, Xander, and Rob, who no one knew why he joined other than that he sold coke and pills to Xander. I made it ten.
I’d been in various role-playing leagues and anachronism clubs going back all the way to when I was twelve. My favorite was a Star Wars group I joined in high school, but that ended up being less game and more cosplay, with all the girls and about half the guys just wanting to dress up like slave-girl Leia.
“How do we do it?” Someone asked. I think it was Xander.
Brenda, happy to have the floor, explained the serial-killer game to us. First, we’d separate ten playing cards from a deck: nine random numbers and the ace of spades. Whoever pulled the ace would be the killer. Everyone else would be both victim and cop, avoiding death while also trying to trap the killer and kill him (or her) first. If one of the nine took out the killer, that player would win the game. The killer, however, had to take out all nine opponents in order to be declared the champ. The killer’s advantage would be that no one else knew who drew the ace of spades.
“Sounds brutal,” said Jackson.
“Like an episode of Dexter,” Larry agreed.
There were mutterings of awe. Giddy laughter came from one of the women. One of the men grumbled, “I don’t know.”
Ron said, “Let’s get the cards. I’m ready to kill y’all. I promise I’ll make it quick.”
Group laughter. All of us were coming around to Brenda’s idea, however twisted and dark it might have been. I remember that I thought about a passage from Kierkegaard I had read the year before in Philosophy 101 during one of those rare days when I wasn’t hungover or sleeping with my head on my desk. It had something to do with how the group’s sins are the one’s sins, because in a group, the one can’t be distinguished and therefore bears responsibility for whatever its members do. Now, we in the group were like a lynch mob, albeit only in fantasy, and so all of us would suffer the guilt for any dead men hanging from a tree.
“Wait just a second,” said Brenda, holding her hands palms out to quiet the rest of us. Then she brushed hair from her eyes and told us, “There’s just one other rule. It has to be done off campus. Campus is base. We’re all safe here.” She brushed her forehead clear again—a gesture I found alluring then, and I find it more so now. “Oh, and it goes without saying, if you get killed, please please please shut the fuck up about who the killer is. Just because you lost, don’t ruin the game for the rest of us.”
Ron kicked the bucket next. The killer followed him when he made a delivery, then caught him unaware coming down the stairs at his buyer’s apartment building. The rubber knife, freshly basted with red food coloring, left a dark stain from navel to sternum on Ron’s forest-green pullover to show where the dope man’s guts were spilling out. All he said to the assassin was, “Oh, man.” Then he shook his head and continued on down the stairs.
Consensus in the group was good riddance. Most of the players seemed surprised Ron lasted as long as he did.
Elaine’s death caused more of stir. She was with friends at the gay bar, where she had been dancing wildly in the glitter lights. Half-undressed and dripping with sweat, she staggered back to her table, dropping into a seat and downing the fruity cocktail waiting for her.
A few minutes later, the shooter girl in white halter and black shorts brought Elaine a rolled up scrap of paper.
“Who’s it from?” Elaine asked.
The girl pointed toward the bar where the killer sat on a stool.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” She unrolled the note and read it. It said, You’ve been poisoned. “I don’t believe this. I can’t even enjoy a night out with my ladies.”
“Is there a problem?” the shooter girl asked. Then her eyes screwed up, and she scowled. “Oh, god,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“What do you mean? What is it?”
“Your tongue,” the girl said. “It’s bright, bright red. It looks like you’ve been drinking a slushee.”
Brenda and I have gotten close. Every time someone dies, we comfort each other as best we can. It usually involves lots of tender kisses, while I imitate her gesture, brushing the fiery hair away from her eyes. She smiles when I do this, her face ensorcelled.
Did she come to me, or was it the other way around? It’s not clear. I remember the two of us by ourselves in the meeting room at the student union. We were waiting for the crew, and we had spent about fifteen minutes discussing the brilliance of Elaine’s demise. That had been more colorful a play than any of us had expected. As we talked, there was laughter mixed with a hint of tension. The next thing I knew, I had my hands on the pit of Brenda’s back, and she placed hers on my shoulders, pulling me down toward her for a kiss. Her lips were chapped and hard against mine. I loved the feel of them like overly large raisins.
We stopped before the others arrived. We didn’t want to, but we knew that, as it is with serial killers, privacy’s the most important thing.
Jackson died in a tragic mistake, shot in the head by Larry who saw him walking at the riverfront park and refused to accept it as a coincidence. Larry was the arrogant one in our group, and he would’ve been my first choice for a serial killer. He, like several of the others, went to the dollar store after Elaine’s death and bought a little plastic rubber-dart gun. Like the killer, he dyed the darts with red food coloring. When he saw Jackson strolling the muddy track along the riverbank, he flipped out, drew his pistol and shot before Jackson knew what was happening. The impact must have sounded like a glob of hair grease splashed against a wall. It left an inky crescent riding the wave of Jackson’s unibrow.
That eliminated Larry from the game as well. After his all-too-public slaying of Jackson, those of us left were forced to make a citizens’ arrest. We didn’t think it was right to allow someone who wasn’t a serial killer to go around shooting people willy-nilly as if he were Meursault on a sun-blind beach. Larry had to be punished. We sentenced him to that worst of all prisons: reality.
Well, it definitely wasn’t Xander in the soup kitchen with the rope. X him off the list of suspects.
The phone in my dorm room rings. I pick myself up and stagger naked across the cold tile floor to answer. “Hello?”
It’s Kurt calling with the news about Xander.
“When did it happen?”
“Late this morning or early afternoon. He was serving meals. I didn’t check my e-mail until about an hour ago, so I just found out about it.”
I thank him for calling.
“Hey,” he says, a bit frantic in tone, “if you happen to hear from Brenda, make sure she knows. She’s not answering her cell.”
“No,” says Kurt. “I’ve been trying her since I got the e-mail. She could be dead already for all I know.”
“I hope not.” I turn and catch a glimpse of my naked body in the mirror on my closet door. I find it kind of hypnotic the way things bend and bulge—the arc of a bicep, lens of a buttock.
“Yeah. Me, too. Who knows? She’s probably off getting herself laid somewhere.”
I nod as if he can see me. “I’m sure that’s it,” I say. “What about Jason?”
“Don’t know. I haven’t seen him for days.”
“Neither have I.”
“Maybe he’s the killer,” Kurt says.
“Maybe you are, and you’re directing my attention away.”
“Hey, that’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not. Anyway, I bet Jason got scared and locked himself in his room. He’s like that. Could be waiting for the killer to finish off everybody else so it’s heads-up between the two of them.”
“Or maybe he is the killer,” Kurt repeats.
“Sure,” I say, nodding again. I thank him once more and hang up before he can think of anything else to add.
So, that’s where it stands. Four of us left: Kurt passing along the news that no one knows, Brenda MIA and not answering calls, me staring lovingly at my young body in the mirror, and Jason … hiding. Any one of us would fit the profile. Or all of us.
What if there had been some trick? What if there were more than one ace of spades in the stack? Brenda brought the deck. She could’ve fixed it.
I shake my head. I’m too close to Brenda right now to credit her with that much evil.
Even so, she could be the killer, playing me and keeping me close until she’s ready to make her move. I realize that, just as I’m sure she realizes the same thing about me.
The odds are right. There are four of us left, which means there’s a two in four chance that either she or I drew the ace of spades. My math skills aren’t great, but I’m pretty sure that’s a coin flip. Heads she’s dead, and tails….
How would she do it? I wonder. A garrote, maybe? A hammer? It’d be too difficult to pretend to feed me to piranhas or a passel of hogs.
So, how would I do it to her? Overdose, definitely. I’d want it to go easy for her. That’s how I feel about her now.
Stumbling back across the chilly floor, I climb in under the blankets, easing beside her, spooning against her bare back. One arm slides under the groove of her neck. The other hand cups a breast.
She jerks at the coldness of my touch. “Who was it?” she moans.
“Kurt,” I say, then tell her about Xander.
Her eyelids rise. She lifts her head and twists it to meet my gaze. There’s a sternness to that look, her darkness within merging with mine. I know what she’s thinking. It’s the same masterpiece of mayhem that already went through my head. There are graveyards shared between us, and blackened back alleys at midnight. We’ve swallowed the same dose of the horror, the horror, and we’re closer for it, filled with the same intense passion. We’re ready to love and be loved, even though tomorrow, odds are, one of us will murder the other. Oh, and how the one will regret it—at least until it’s time to start again.
Ace Boggess is the author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly, and other journals, with recent fiction in Tulane Review, Coe Review and Soundings Review. He currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia.