Monday, August 5, 2013

The Heart Snatcher by Jessica Montgomery

This is one of the last stories I received for the Memory Project. It's a fun little story from a young writer, one Jess Montgomery. This was a fun story to read because of the very film noir feel about it.
Jess is a great writer who has a terrific voice. Her personality shines through and I can't wait to see her continue her work. This piece made me laugh and guess all the way to the end. All I can say is, when I read the last paragraphs, I was very surprised and I'm hoping this story will continue into a novel. (hint hint)
So here is Jessica with The Heart Snatcher. Enjoy.

The Memory Project (continued)
Even as I ached to close the scrapbook in my lap, to run like hell out of this house, I couldn't. There was something larger, stronger that loomed over me now. I didn't know what it was and I couldn't explain it to Jesse.
The scrapbook had some sort of grip on my heart. Squeezing. Strangling. Crippling. I gasped as I tried to breathe, but it didn’t seem to matter. The more I attempted to gulp air, the more the world spun around me.
"Nat? Are you okay? You don't look too well."
My vision blurred. Jesse's voice sounded faint. I couldn't answer. My body felt heavier and heavier.
"Natalie! What's wrong. Natalie, stay with me. Stay with me!"
My world faded to black.
(to be continued)

The Heart Snatcher
By Jessica Montgomery

            A squeal echoes down the hallway. It’s not enough to pull me from my book. It’s high school. Girls scream over some celebrity who won’t be famous in three years favoriting their Tweet. The sound of paper sliding across my desk does catch my attention. I reach my fingers out and brush the edges. .0025 inches thick and vaguely smells like Backwoods Cigars and gin.
            “Stole Mrs. Carr’s paper again, did we.” I state it rather than ask. I put down my book and stare into the open face of Mallory Finn, I call her an acquaintance but everyone groups us together as friends. Her ridiculous key necklace dangles in the open and her brown eyes bore into mine.
            “Don’t act like you’re not impressed,” she says and cross her arms over her chest.
            “I’m not even mildly impressed. Mrs. Carr is always hung over on Monday’s, somebody large and imposing could stomp in there and she wouldn’t notice.”
            “Large and imposing? You couldn’t just saw a gorilla or an elephant?”
            “Why would an elephant be in the middle of Chicago?”
            Mallory sighs. “Seriously Megan, sometimes I don’t even think you’re from this planet.”
            I hate my name. Megan. It’s too plain, but Mal insists on using it anyway. I glance down at the paper. Bold, block print screams ‘The Heart Snatcher strikes again’. My head snaps back up to Mal.
            “That’s why I brought it to you,” she says and scoots a little closer. “This is the third time he’s struck. The police have no idea who it is, they say the killer leaves no clues.”
            “The killer always leaves clues,” I murmur and pull the paper closer.
            I recognize the house vaguely. It sits in Rolling Meadows, one of the old houses big wigs lived in during the Industrial Revolution. It was the same as the first two. The people were found in the bedroom, lying like they were asleep; with a single exception. Their hearts were missing. A small cavity is carved out of their chest, everything else is left intact.
            “We need to get in. This is getting out of hand,” Mal says. She’s excited. She wants this case.
            “You believe we can see what cops can’t?”
            “I think you can.”
             I smile for the first time today. “I think you’re right. Meet at the corner by my house tonight at nine.”
            The school day passes much like any day. I walk to my small bungalow and don’t stop by the kitchen where I hear my mother humming Mozart’s Requiem. She’s been a stay at home mom since the day I was born. I can pinpoint the exact time she stopped loving me and merely started tolerating my presence, the day she tried to leave me in the woods to die when I was four. It is the one time in my life my observational skills got me out of trouble instead of into it. My father claimed she was depressed, but I knew better. I wasn’t the picture perfect daughter she dreamt of, therefor she didn’t want me. A simple logical conclusion everyone seems to miss.
            I snap my door closed and take a deep breath. My darkened bedroom is the only place I don’t have to deal with annoying, simple-minded individuals like my mother. I toss my book bag onto the bed and pull aside the curtain above my desk. A map of Chicago and all of it's suburbs spreads across the wall.  Two pinpoints already adorn the map, one in Crystal Lake and one in Algonquin. I pick up another red push pin and place it right over Rolling Meadows and slide it into place. The murders make a perfectly straight line. I flop into my chair and stare at it.
            These aren’t random murders. The line is too straight; too formulaic to be a serial killer making his rounds. The killer knows the city, knows the suburbs, and knows them well enough to make a perfectly straight line pointing to the heart of Chicago. The killer knows Chicago, but I don’t know why he is killing? What is he trying to achieve?
            I lean forward to stare at the pins. There is something the killer is trying to tell me, tell the world, with his kills. I just don’t know what. My phone vibrates against my thigh and I pull it out without looking at who is calling me.
            “Hello?” I squint my eyes at the pins.
            “Ms. Halloway. I noticed you called earlier?” Deputy Charlie Greene’s gruff voice sounds on the other end of the line.
            He likes to pretend like he doesn’t know what I want, but he does. He’s almost as smart as I am. He got into trouble about three years back when his lieutenant claimed he was dirty and got him fired. I brought his kids clothes so they wouldn’t be made fun of at school while I solved the little mystery. Turns out his lieutenant was the dirty one. Anyway, Mr. Greene owes me quite a lot.  
            “I need in,” I say and trace the line with my finger. The killer’s next strike will be in the Shamburg area.
            “In where?”
            I slam my hand down on my desk. “You know exactly where. You know I don’t like it when you play dumb with me.”
            “You know I can’t take you into a crime scene.”
            “You’ve done it before,” I say and fall back into my chair.
            “Not a crime like this.”
            “You have no leads, no clues, no ideas. You know I can find them for you. I don’t need much time.”
            “You’re a seventeen-year-old girl-”
            “That didn’t seem to matter when I helped you.”
            “You didn’t let me finish,” Mr. Greene says. “This killer is dangerous. People are dying, Megan, with no clues. I can’t let a high school girl into a crime scene when the police have no idea who is doing the killing. Before, we at least had leads.”
            “Which were wrong,” I say. “I’ve helped you with ten cases! I can help you with this one too. I won’t need to be on the crime scene more than a half-hour.”
            “I don’t feel right doing this.”
            “Please, you’ll be there and I may see something you missed.”
            Mr. Green pauses for a long time. My heart thumps in my chest. “Fine. But if anything, and I mean anything, gets out of control or you have any issues with the killer, you drop the case immediately.” 
            “Deal,” I almost feel like jumping. “Can we meet there at nine-thirty tonight?”
            “I’ll be there.”
            “Great. Goodbye.” I end the call.
            Later the night I slip out of my house. My parents are both in the living room watching some mindless reality television show. The night is still a little cool, spring had yet to fully arrive. I tighten my coat around my shoulders and start for the vague form of Mal underneath the lamppost at the end of the street. The white light leaks onto the street in a circle which Mal makes sure to stay in the center of, as if it would protect her. I’ve never had the heart to tell her light does nothing to keep you safe.
            “Ready to go?” I ask, trying not to scare her. She jumps anyway.
            “Do you always have to wear that black trench?”
            “Yes,” I say and she smiles. “Let’s go.”
            We walk the short distance to her car and jump inside. The drive from Hanover Park to Rolling Meadows doesn’t take long. Mr. Greene’s police cruiser is already outside the house by the time we get there. The house sits on the dark end of the street, the closest lamppost being about thirty-four feet away. The house is made solidly of brick, the mortar well kept. The lack of any proper rose bushes and the chipping paint on the banister of the home made me think the people were not overly wealthy, but pretending to be. Not a motive for murder, but an interesting fact none the less.
            Mr. Greene gets out of the car and hitches his pants up. He walks slowly over to where Mal and I are standing. The fine net of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth compounded by the pucker in his lips allows me to all too plainly see how much he hates himself for allowing me to do this. He wouldn’t regret it after I solved this case. He doesn’t say a word to me as he passes and opens the wrought iron gate. The hinges are well oiled, not a sound issued from the metal work.
            Mal leans in close to me. “How do you think the killer got in?”
            I study the high windows on the second floor. Even in the dim moonlight I could tell they hadn’t been forced. I study the lock where Mr. Greene slides in his key. Brand new, by the looks of it. Two windows sit on either side of the front door, painted over with thick white paint, the seal created by the substance is unbroken.
            I don’t say a word as Officer Greene opens the door and steps aside for Mal and I to head in. The house is dark, the wooden floors already collecting dust. That’s the issue with old houses. The porch empties into a parlor, one sparsely decorated with hideous imitation turn-of-the-century wallpaper I might add. There was nothing of importance here. The vases next to the window were intact, the rug in front of the other window lying flat, and shapeless next to the other one. Boring.
            I walk into the next room, Mal at my heels. The dining room is just as bland and useless as the parlor. The kitchen is set in a retro fifties style that doesn’t work with the rest of the house. The locks on the back door are also new, and the man of the house obviously had a bit of an issue hanging the chain door guard judging by the drill scrapes on the wall next to it.
            “I’m assuming no signs of forced entry?” I ask as Officer Greene’s heavy footsteps make their way into the kitchen behind us.
            “Take me to where you found them.”
            Officer Greene takes the lead and heads up the spiral staircase at the back of the kitchen. The upstairs is even darker than the first floor. Five foot tall wainscoting lines the wall. I trail my hands along it. We pass two closed doors before we get to the one at the end of the hall. Officer Greene steps aside and allows us in.
            “Has anything been done to the scene besides the removal of the bodies?” I ask.
            “No, clean-up has yet to get in here. Lucky for you, I suppose.” Mr. Greene says from outside of the room.
            The windows are drawn, the blinds still perfectly set. The floor is spotless, not a single drop of blood, not a scuff mark, not a piece of fabric out of place. I make my way over to the bed. No blood on the sheets, no signs of a struggle, nothing. Like no one was even here. Someone had to have been here. There’s something I’m not seeing. I run my fingers over the pillows and slow as I feel something damp. I look up at the ceiling, intact, no crumbling or mold.
            “When did you find the bodies?” I ask.
            “Nine-thirteen this morning. Mrs. Jones missed her seminar and the professor was worried,” Officer Greene replies.
            ‘She’s still in school?” Mal asks.
            “No, she was the guest lecturer. Taught something about Mesoamerica,” Greene replies.
            “This pillow is wet.” I tell him, “Have the bodies been tested for any drugs?”
            “I got the autopsy report just before I met you here. Their bodies were clean, just like the last ones.”
            I press the pillow to my face.
            “Megan, what are you doing?” Mal practically screams in my ear. I ignore her.
            I inhale. The smell of dish soap filters into my nose and my eyes burn. I set the pillow back down on the bed. The world spins a little and I have to sit on the bed. I grip the edges of the mattress under the sheet. Mal is calling my name, but it sounds fuzzy and far away. The mattress beneath my fingers is bent, dented in almost. I jump up and rip off the sheets. Embedded on the mattress’ wire rim was a dent about two inches thick. I pull the sheet all the way off and see another one near the end of the bed.
            “They were bound.”
            “That’s impossible. There was no sign of a struggle.” Mr. Greene says, stomping into the room and bended down to examine the break in the mattress.
            “That’s because there wasn’t.”
            Mr. Green looks up at me. “What?”
            “They were drugged, by ketamine if I had to guess. The smell is all over the pillow, take it in and test it and I bet you’ll find traces of it still in the fabric.”
            “How do you know what ketamine smells like?” Mr. Green clambers to his feet.
            I turn away from him. “That’s all I needed to see. Mal grab that pamphlet from the side table.”
            I walk out of the room, not waiting for either Mr. Greene or Mal. The cool night air is refreshing when I finally make my way outside. Mal’s quick footsteps come up from behind me.
            “Are you okay?”
            “I’m fine," I say over my shoulder. “Let’s just head back to my place.”
            Mal studies my face for a long moment before she nods. She tosses a wave to Officer Greene and slides into the front seat of her car. The ride back to my place is silent, one of the many reasons I tolerate Mal’s presence. She doesn’t feel the need to punctuate the calm with useless talking. Her fingers tap against the steering wheel all the way back to my house. She puts the car in park and turns toward me.
            “I’m staying the night.”
            “Because you need me,” she says and pulls her stuff out of the back, complete with sleeping bag.
            “I don’t need anyone.”
            “That’s how I know you especially need me now,” Mal yanks a rolled sleeping bag into the front seat between us. “You can’t stop me.”
            Her lips are hard and firm. I know there is no way I can stop her from coming inside and for some strange reason, it doesn’t bother me. I nod once.
            “Did you plan on this all along?” I point to her sleeping bag.
            “No, I always have this in the car. Just in case,” she smiles and hops out.
            I take my time. Just in case of what? Then it hits me. Just in case of nights exactly like tonight, nights where she thinks I need her. The scars on my arm practically scream. I slam the door hard. I don’t want to be mollycoddled because my mommy hates me and daddy couldn’t care less if I’m alive. (I think that the second sentence should go first. helps flow into the "But I do" better)  I don’t want to need help. But I do. As much as it pains me to admit, I can’t do everything on my own. I trail inside far behind Mal. 
My parents are already asleep by the time I sneak up to my room. Mal already has her sleeping bag out. I sigh and sit down on the bed. Mal doesn’t ask me what took so long. I have a feeling she already knows. I open my mouth to tell her thank you for staying. It feels like it needs said, but something else comes out instead.
“Do you still have that pamphlet?”
“Oh, yup, here you go!” She hands it to me and continues to set up her little space on the floor.
The small, glossy, pamphlet portrays a volcano spewing lava with the words ‘Unlock the Secrets to Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica’ across the front. The inside is paragraph after paragraph detailing the new exhibit showing up to the Natural History Museum. In fact, the exhibit had arrived exactly seven days ago. The very day the murders started to occur. An idea starts to brew.
“Up for skipping school tomorrow?”
“If I said no, you’d make me come with you anyway.” Mal says and slips into her sleeping bag. “But I hate school, so you’re not twisting my arm.”
“Great.” I flip the light switch and flop onto my bed.
I stare up at my ceiling decorated with glow in the dark stars. Each one was a different constellation my dad meticulously put up under my careful eye when I was little. It was probably one of the last things we really did together. I sigh. I’m still in my stupid coat and jeans. It’ll do. There’s nothing special about pajamas anyway.
“You’re too quiet for your own good,” Mal says suddenly.
“I don’t think there is such a thing.”
“Humans need social interaction, it’s a basic need.”
“The basic needs are shelter, water, and food,” I say.
Mal humphs and flips over. “You’re smart, you know that humans don’t really survive without community. Okay, before you say anything, they survive, but they don’t thrive. They’re never their best when they’re alone.”
“True,” I draw out the word, not sure what she is getting at.
“You can’t just go on pretending the world doesn’t exist and there aren’t people who care about you.” A long silence stretches between us. “Whether you like it or not, you’re my best friend. My only friend. And nothing is going to change that. I’ll never stop being here.” 
            My heart hammers in my chest as she shifts on the floor. The last time I ever told anyone they were important to me, they left me in the woods. But if I said nothing…it could be worse. Sweat prickles onto my forehead.
            “Mal, you’re my friend too. My best friend. And I’ll never stop being glad you’re around.”
            “That’s all I ever wanted to hear.”
            I roll over to face the wall and smile.

            “No,” Carl Plick swings his hips down the hall away from me. “I said no. It won’t change.”
            “I just want to talk to the curator. I want to know more about the Mesoamerican exhibit.” I follow him. Mal is doing recon in the exhibit now. Even if I don’t get the information I want from Mr. Plick, I’ll still have some idea of what’s in there.
            “We banned you for a reason, Ms. Halloway. I don’t need you to frighten our new curator into quitting too.” His hands waiver as he tries to unlock his office. Scratch marks peek out from underneath his perfectly ironed cuffs.
            “You banned me because I proved your King Tut exhibit had misinformation and you didn’t like it.” I say as Mr. Plink tries to swing his door open into my face. I put my hand on it and slam it shut. “Your arms are pretty scratched up.”
            Mr. Plink goes pink in the cheeks and pulls his cuffs down. “Yes… I…we just adopted a new cat.”
            “Those are awfully far apart to be from a cat,” I study them harder. They’re older. Two nights go, at least. My eyes travel back up to his.
            “Yes, well, it’s a very…large cat. Now get out of my way,” Mr. Plink brushes past me and goes into his room. He snaps the door shut, but not before I see two things. A large obsidian blade sitting on the filing cabinet in the back of his cluttered office and two thick, black leather straps over the back of his chair.
            I pull out my phone and send a quick text. Then stare at Carl’s door. I need to get in that room. I check over my shoulder and see a camera trained right on me. Oh well. If I went to Juvy for this, it wouldn’t be the worst thing I’ve ever done. I pull the small Swiss Army Knife from my pocket and throw it at the camera. There is a loud crack and the knife drops to the floor. I glance up to see a spider web of cracks running along the surface of the camera’s lens. It should be enough to block out all of my actions.
            I cross the hall and pull the fire alarm.
            The sound blares around me and the sprinklers activate. I open the small janitor’s closet at the end of the hall and wait. I hear Mr. Plink mutter a few curses about there not being a real fire, but his large feet slap down the hall anyway. I wait a minute just for good measure before opening the door. The floor glistens as I make my way into Mr. Plink’s office. Once inside, I close the door on the sound.
            I don’t have much time.
            I make my way straight to the obsidian blade. I reach a finger out and run it along the edge, pulling back as it slices into my hand. Sharp, still usable, and missing chunks along the edges. Interesting.
            I measure the leather straps. Two inches, like I though, with obvious cracking. There had to be more clues. It was too much circumstantial evidence. Mr. Plink, as much as I doubt it, could be into BDSM and have a passion for old weapons. I need something definitive. I start with the files in the cabinet, tearing through each door, but all it holds is the payments had to certain shippers and the costs of items in the museum. The drawers in his desk had just as many useless things in it. Papers splay across his desk. I rummage through them, not expecting anything.
            “You’ve got to be kidding me," I whisper.
            Right on top is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for. In loppy cursive at the top it says’ June 28th, 2013 meeting.’ Below were signatures and a lot of them. On the list were Mrs. Jones, followed by the husband of the first family killed and the teenaged daughter of the second. I fold the list and place it in my pocket. The piece underneath that held only a simple note in the same loopy cursive which had to be Mr. Plink’s.
Meeting Tonight
6178 N. Nagle Ave, Chicago
9:30 P.M
The Sacrifice Begins.
            I stare at the note until my cell dings. I dig it out and read the message. Just like I thought. All the people with missing hearts had incisions right beneath their rib cage, cut by something extremely sharp and precise. I no longer had any doubt. I text Mal to meet me out front and run from the building.  
            Pushing my way through the milling crowd is surprisingly easy. I catch a glimpse of Mal’s purple sweater on the other side of the street and start toward her. Someone runs into me without apologizing. I glare at him as I pass and run across the street. When I finally make it to Mal, she looks pale.
            “Are you okay?” I ask, but I know she’s not.
            “I must be coming down with something.” A small bead of sweat rolls from her brow to her nose. “I don’t feel right.”
            I press my wrist to her forehead. She’s burning up, easily five degrees hotter than she should be. I usher her to the car and drive her back home. She's asleep by the time I park in her drive. It takes me a while to get her up, but Mal’s never easy to wake. I get her into her own bed and pull up her vanity stool beside her.
            “Mal, Mal,” I say and squeeze her hand. “I’m going to need you to concentrate. Did you learn anything in the Mesoamerican exhibit?”
            She points to her phone beside me. “Pictures. I’m tired, Sydney. Can’t I just sleep?’
            “Yes. Go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.” I say as I open the photo album app on her phone.
            I zip through the pictures one right after the other until I get to the Aztec human sacrifice station. Typically the sacrifice was made by cutting into the body just below the ribs and reaching into the person to tear out their heart. These incisions were always made with an obsidian blade. My mind reels as I finish scrolling to the right. I delete two dark pictures at the end for Mal and set the phone back onto the stand.
            I have to go to that meeting tonight. Normally, I wouldn’t do anything without Mal, but I have to get to the bottom of this case. I check my watch. It’s not too late. I can break into the warehouse and hide before the group makes it in. It’ll be easier than trying to sneak in after they're already there. I write Mal a quick note and head back to my house to get ready.
            My butt is so numb I forgot its existence. I’ve been in the warehouse for over three hours waiting for the party members to get here. There was no denying where they were all going to be. On the floor a story below me is a large rock with blood stains across the front. Thick rings lay on the floor beside it. I jump a little as a door slams somewhere in the building. Voices whisper from all corners, bouncing off the high beams overhead. A dim glow emits from the opposite end of the warehouse and I retreat deeper into the shadows of the small metal balcony.
            A hum starts up below me. Twenty voices singing together surrounds me as people step from the shadows. They are dressed head to toe in dark robes with thick hoods. I try to see faces, but I see nothing but shadow. They slowly march in time with one another, stopping just before the rock. They all get down on their knees at the same time, still chanting. I click my video camera on. Mal will never believe this.
            The chanting stops as three loud knocks ring out from beneath me. A person in a red robe steps out from beneath me, carrying a limp body in his arms. Dark hair dangles over the crook of his elbow and sways with every step. It’s a sacrifice.
A real human sacrifice.
The person in red drapes the lifeless body over the rock as another person scuttles forward with thick bindings. I recognize those swinging hips. It’s Plink. He’s part of some strange cult. That’s why there’s never been any clues, never been any blood. They bring their victims here to sacrifice and place them back in their homes. And they were about to do it again.
An obsidian blade winks in the dim light as the man in red lifts the blade above his head. A hush goes over the small crowd. My throat tightens. I can’t let this happen. I won’t let this happen. Just as the man is about to bring down the weapon I stand.
“Stop!” I scream.
The entire crowd looks up at me.
“Ms. Halloway?” Mr Plink pulls his hood from his head to look up at me. His red eyebrows crinkle in confusion. The man in red pulls his hood down too and my breath catches.
“Mr. Varney?” I ask. My history teacher from school is a diabolical Aztec cultist? I have to admit I didn’t see that one coming.
“What are you doing up there, Megan?” Mr. Varney asks. “Get down from there. If you wanted to come, you could’ve just asked.”
“Why would I want to come watch you sacrifice someone?” More people in the crowd pull down their hoods, each one a familiar face from AP History.
“To watch the demonstration?” Mr. Varney raises his eyebrow. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“But…but the list on Mr. Plink’s desk. It had a whole list of people on it for some meeting and you weren’t on the list.”
“The one with Mrs. Jones?” Mr. Plink rubs the bridge of his nose. “Those were contributors to the Mesoamerican exhibit. Mrs. Jones was an expert in the field.”
“What about the husband of the first family killed? And the teenage daughter of the second?” My throat gets tighter and tighter.
“Jim wrote all the plaques for the exhibit and Carly was our model for the sacrifice at the top of the mountain. You honestly thought I was The Heart Snatcher…that we…that the society…”
I open my mouth to respond when my phone goes off in my pocket. I bring it up and my forehead scrunches.
‘You lose.’
“Ms. Halloway, are we interrupting you?” Mr. Varney asks. I wave my hand at him and turn away from the crowd.
‘That’s what you get for trying to play grown up games.’
I back out of the messages. It’s coming from Mal’s phone. I roll my eyes and start to type back, when the phone vibrates in my hand again. This time it’s a picture text.
I open it and the world spins. It’s a black and white photo of a hand. Chipped nails curl around a key necklace, the chain wrapped around the other fingers. I know that hand. I would recognize it anywhere. I drop, ignoring the bite of metal against my knees. It’s Mal’s hand. I know it is.
“No,” I moan.
It all made sense. The dark photos on Mal’s phone. The man dressed in black in the back of almost every single picture she took. The same man I ran into as I left the museum. He caught Mal. He injected her with ketamine, which made her tired and sick. I should’ve seen it. I should’ve stayed with her and kept her safe. She was everything to me and I just left her there. Why? To fan my own ego and solve this stupid case before the cops did. The taste of copper infiltrates my mouth. Mal is dead because of me.
Because of me.
The phone buzzes again and I lift it up just to see Mal’s name scroll across the screen one last time. I barely have the will to open it, but I do.

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