The Price

 I shuffled through the business cards. I settled on Jack Dawkins, journalist. It was plain enough that most people would forget it, and it was familiar enough that people would think they’ve seen the name on a byline. I patted my jacket to check the notebook was still there and exited the car.

The house was comfortable without being ostentatious. Neat gardens bordered the driveway. Behind heavy curtains I could see the chink of light; someone was home. I looked either side of the door. There was no bell, just a door knocker that wouldn’t look out of place on a church. I rapped out my presence. Almost immediately the door swung open. He must have been lurking by the door. Well, it was a long gravel drive, and curtain twitching appeared to be the town sport.

“Hello. Mr Lomas? I’m Jack Dawkins.” I held out the fake card at arm’s length. “I wonder if I could ask you a couple of questions.”

“Mr Hurst. Welcome. I’ve been expecting you.”

I froze, my arm outstretched. How the hell did he know my name? “I’m sorry? I think there’s some confusion. My name’s Dawkins.”

“As you wish, Mr Hurst. Please, come in.”

Still I froze, trying to run through all the possible outcomes where I ended up in a good place. There were precious few.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “The evening is chilly. I’m going to close the door. Which side of it do you wish to be when it closes?”

I finally dropped my arm and stepped inside. After all, I had come here to talk to him.

He shut the door and passed me. “Please, come through,” he said, leading the way into a sitting room. Two armchairs, the sort you expect to see occupied by a book critic on late-night cable TV, stood either side of a small table. The table was set for coffee for two. I glanced around as I entered, looking for the other coffee drinker.

“Please, take a seat,” said Lomas, sitting in one of the chairs. I sat opposite him. “Columbian blend, yes? Milk, one sugar.” He slid the cup towards me.

“Thanks.” The coffee was still swirling from when he had stirred it. I picked it up and sniffed. It certainly smelled like Columbian coffee. I took a sip. It disturbed me that it was just how I like it.

“And now you want to ask me some questions,” said Lomas, sipping his own coffee and grimacing. “Decaf. Sadly the real thing no longer agrees with me. You want to ask about a missing young woman?”

“Yes. Sandra DuPont.”

“I do not know this name.”

“Really? Perhaps you recognise her face.” I reached into my jacket and showed him the photo.

“We are a small community, Mr Hurst. If she were here, everyone would know.”

“Oh, she was here, Mr Lomas. Bus companies, they keep records, and they keep CCTV recordings back at their head office. She arrived here at the bus depot. She just didn’t leave again.”

“Yes? Then perhaps she left by another means. A friend, perhaps. Or maybe she hitch-hiked. Young women do, despite the dangers. You hear such terrible things, but young people think they are immortal, don’t they? Or perhaps she wanted to disappear? Young people don’t always appreciate what they have at home.”

“Except no-one saw her. No-one saw her get off the bus, no-one served her coffee at the diner, no-one saw her hitching a ride. Don’t you think that odd?”

Lomas shrugged. “If she were only here for a short while, why should she be noticed?”

“Because it’s that sort of town. You know my name, how I take my coffee, what I’m after. You were expecting me before I knocked on your door.”

“Perhaps I’m psychic, Mr Hurst. Perhaps I have strange and god-like powers.”

“Or maybe this is the sort of small town where everyone talks about everything. Maybe the waitress at the diner told you how I take my coffee. Maybe the guy in the bus depot told you the questions I was asking. Maybe all the curtain-twitchers in the street told you I was coming this way.”

Lomas sighed. “All true. Oh, and you paid for your room at the motel with a credit card in your real name. Such a cynical age we live in. There was a time you might have thought me a powerful wizard. Now everyone tweets everything on the Internet and everyone knows everything. So, yes, Maggie told me about your coffee, Tom about your questions. Officer Delaney confirmed your real name. You’re registered in Washington as a Private Investigator. No black magic. No supernatural powers. Just a nosy old man in a small town of gossipers.”

“That’s my point, Mr Lomas. How can a young woman, a stranger, arrive in a small town like this and no-one see her? It doesn’t make sense.”

Lomas stared into his coffee, then took a long breath. “Yes, yes, you’re right. I should have thought of that. People here, they’re so, well, so nice, I guess. They don’t have the deviousness necessary to weave convincing lies. So, Mr Hurst, what brings you to me? Why not pursue Tom at the depot, or Maggie in the diner?”

“You’re right. They’re very nice. Did you know this town has the lowest crime rate in the country? The lowest rate of home repossession? The lowest bad debt record? They live long too. It’s a veritable paradise. Everyone is so nice. And then there’s you.”

Me?”

“You started paying tax in 1947.”

Lomas raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I did? Well, I’m sure you’re right. Do you moonlight for the taxman? Do I owe back taxes?”

“You were about twenty then. That would make you about ninety-something now. You seem a little sprightly for a man sprinting towards a hundred.”

“Thank you.”

“And before that first tax payment, nothing. No birth records, no school records, nothing. You’re not the only one that has friends in law enforcement. You came into existence aged twenty, and you’re too young for who you say you are. It’s very hard for a professional to fake an identity, Mr Lomas, and I don’t think you’re a professional. So I have to wonder, in a town where a young girl goes missing, why would someone be so keen to hide their real identity?”

Lomas stared at me for long moments. I wouldn’t want to play poker against him; I couldn’t read him at all. Finally he gave a humourless smile and gently applauded.

“Bravo. Such small details, such tiny little mistakes. Tell me, though. Who was she? This girl you are pursuing with such tenacity.”

‘Was’. Not ‘is’. That meant she was dead. Well, that was not a surprise. The longer they were missing, the more likely that was.

“Sandra DuPont. Heiress to the DuPont family. So, with all due respect, Mr Lomas, I think she appreciated what she had at home. Mr DuPont is most anxious to find out what happened to her, and I’m most anxious to make sure he gets what he paid for. So, what happened to her? And don’t give me any ‘I’m just a nice old man’ crap.”

“Very well, Mr Hurst. She did arrive on the bus. An heiress, you say? She didn’t look like it. She looked like what she wanted to look like, I suppose, a teenage runaway out to experience the big wide world. It happens. You’d be surprised how often. Do you know how many young people disappear every year? And she was just one, just one in that great tide of directionless humanity. Tom noticed her, hanging around the bus depot, wondering which town to go to next. He sent her over to Maggie’s diner. They looked after her, made sure she was alone, made her feel comfortable and safe.”

“Are you saying they were in on this?” That didn’t sound right. I’d spoken to them, and apart from them lying about seeing the girl, they seemed so normal.

“While Maggie saw to her, Tom phoned Officer Delaney. You can’t abduct a woman in a bus station. Too many outsiders, you see. Too many from out of town in transit. But if a police officer asks a young woman into his patrol car, well, that’s normal, isn’t it?”

“Delaney? A police officer too? No, I’m not buying that.”

“He brought her here.”

He shrugged, as though that were the end of the story.

“And then what?” I said.

“And then I killed her.” He drained his coffee and replaced the cup on the table. It didn’t even rattle in the saucer.

“You killed her?”

“Yes.” He said it as though it were the most matter of fact thing in the world. I should have left then. I should have gone straight back to DuPont, tell him what had happened and let him have some outside police force deal with it. But Lomas was just a man. Not ninety, but in his fifties maybe. I felt safe enough.

“Why?”

He shrugged. “What else would I do? Tradition, I suppose. It’s what I always do. They bring me a young woman, I kill her. It’s the price they pay.”

“What you always do?”

“Yes. What? You think I molest them? Torture them? Why would I do that? No, I just kill them. It’s quite humane. It’s all over in seconds.”

Them! It screamed around inside my head, deafening rational thought. Them! He was right. Countless people disappeared every year. Who would bother with yet another missing girl, especially if the local police were in on it? Them!

“How many?” I said, my voice cracking.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t keep count. How long did you say I’ve been here? Seventy-something years? Then seventy-something women. At least, seventy-something in this town.”

“Seventy?”

“Every winter. ”

“No. You’re, what, fifty? Fifty-five?”

He chuckled. “Yes, I’m fifty. And I was last year too, and the year before. I’ve stuck to the story I’m fifty so long it must be true. In the past it was possible, of course. You could be the old man of a generation, and then they died and you were the old man for another generation. It’s been getting harder, though. Governments keep records. And of course, there’s computers now. The world used to belong to warriors and kings. Now it belongs to accountants and mathematicians.” He heaved a huge sigh. “Which means I shall have to move on, I suppose. A pity. I was barely settled in. And in the future I won’t be able to stop for more than a score years. So… inconvenient.

“Oh, don’t blame yourself,” he said, as though I’d apologised for exposing him as a serial killer. “If it wasn’t you it would have been someone else. A bean counter, a statistician, a journalist. At least you had a good reason for digging.”

“Why?” I repeated, trying to make sense of it all.

“Why? Why what? I’ve told you, it’s just what I do.”

“No, why do they, you know. Why do they bring – I mean, you said it’s the price.”

“Yes. The end result would be the same, I suppose, but a thing is only worth the price you pay for it.”

“For what?”

“You said it yourself. Statistics. I suppose a computer told you? The lowest incidence of cancer in the country. Other terminal diseases too. A lifespan ten years above the nation average. If you’d checked further, they have the mildest winters in the region, the mildest summers. Crops don’t fail, no droughts, no floods. So if you lived in such a place, why would you commit crimes? You think I am a monster, a devil. The opposite is true. They are blessed, and that’s worth something. One life, in return for so many.”

“Wait. So you, what? You sacrifice a virgin for good summers?”

“Well, I don’t ask. I suspect, in these times, virginity is too rare a commodity. No, any life would do. And it’s not I that sacrifices the young women, it’s them. Any place I live is blessed. It’s they who pay the price, to keep me here. It’s what they’ve always done.”

“Always?”

“Yes. Once it was slaves, or captives. Then girls from neighbouring fiefdoms. Now, with such a mobile community, with so many isolated lives, well, they’re spoilt for choice. Though, in this case, they could have chosen better.”

“Who are you?” I said. He was insane, obviously. How long had he constructed this fantasy? And how had he roped in the local townspeople? He had, obviously, because they were lying to cover for him, but why?

He spread his arms. “I am Mr Lomas.”

“No. Who are you really?”

“Before I was Lomas? I was Mr Lopez. Before that, Lucan. Or was it Logan? I forget. So many names, so many winters. I remember my first name, though.”

“Yes?”

“Loki. Back in the old country, when they knew the value of keeping one of my kind on their side.”

He rose, and I jumped up to match him. He wasn’t muscular. If he had a knife, I could take it from him, I was sure. A gun? I couldn’t see the bulge.

“So what now?” I asked. “Are you going to kill me as well?”

“Kill you, Mr Hurst?” He seemed genuinely shocked. “Why would I do that? This winter’s payment has already been paid. No, I have no intention of killing you. Not me. Hello, Bill.”

I turned. Half a dozen people stood in the doorway, fronted by a police officer.

“Please don’t leave a mess,” he said, as the group parted to let him through.

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About snodlander
Snodlander is the nom de plume of Bob Simms. He is an IT trainer, but it's not as glamourous as it sounds. When he's not enthralling classes with adventures through SQL Server, he writes, draws and drinks his own home-brew. Buy his novel on Amazon Kindle at The Young Demon Keeper, It's 74p, for crying out loud!

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