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The Man Burned by Winter

The Man Burned by Winter PDF

Author: Pete Zacharias

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer


Publish Date: June 1, 2022

ISBN-10: 1542039657

Pages: 335

File Type: Epub

Language: English

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Book Preface

She would be the third one, another piece waiting to be finished. He imagined the brushstrokes, the wand flourishes, and that gentle wisp sound on the cotton fabric. With his eyes closed, he could see the eighteen-by-thirty-six canvas. They were always done in neutrals: whites, grays, and blacks, like a perfect photograph.

The only splash of color, a signature in the bottom right-hand corner, like a velvet bead of water—or a drop of blood trickling down.

The flurries fell against her skin. Her face was bare, chalky and pale aside from the mascara tears frozen like charcoal at her cheeks. She was lovely, a perfectly blossomed rose. Eyes like blue glass stared up at the starless night sky. Cotton speckles drifted to the banks of snow below. Their mist lit the trees, leafless and withering through a light fog. Through their naked branches, he made out the semi’s high beams: two watchful eyes, milky white and intrusive. From a quarter mile away on the expressway, the semi looked like a Hot Wheels car. With a whistle of wind, the 18-wheeler’s squeal vanished around a bend, and it was gone.

He was left alone again with her.

He peered up at the powder that glazed the alder and oak branches; every now and then a faint crackle would signal one’s crash to the ground. The trees survived the brutal winter by going dormant, everything within slowing down.

She lay with her back up against the tree, her breasts as porcelain as the snow surrounding her. She wasn’t dormant. She was dead. He’d made the perfect snow angel. A flake danced from the sky and fell gently on her cheek; he caressed it with the knuckle of his gloved hand until it was gone. Broken twigs and dead earth had tangled and matted in clumps on her ash-blonde hair. Despite the size of the hole in her chest, the bleeding had finally stopped. The sea of white had begun to slither over her bare legs; by the time she was found, they’d be swallowed whole.

She was the third body the police would find, and they’d be further from catching him than when they’d found the first. There would be traces of lubricant from the prophylactic in her mouth, but they wouldn’t match it to that found on any of the previous victims. They would look for foreign hair, blood, fingerprints, semen—but they’d find nothing. They were trying to solve an intricate puzzle without so much as a single piece. He’d leave them something, but they wouldn’t know what it was. He had folded the photo in quarters, zipped it inside a plastic bag, and stuffed it into her mouth. It was only a copy. He’d send them the real one soon enough.

While she lay there, now looking up at him, he brushed the hair from the front of her shoulder to her back. He left her tears frozen like icicles on her fair skin.

She was light. He’d carried her from the ice-fishing shed nearby. It was small, but large enough for his needs. The hut was invisible in the night, obsidian siding with a bloodred metal roof and warped wood floors. Two tiny windows were on opposite ends; no chance she’d be able to fit through. The nearest road was a quarter mile away, and Route 169 was nearly a half mile to the east. He’d studied every way in and out, who came and went, for a week. After seeing no one, he’d decided it was the perfect place.

He’d been watching her longer. The lying-in-wait, the stalking, blending in with the darkness—he loved it. It made him feel invisible. Powerful. Sweat dampened his hair beneath the brim of his dark baseball cap, the perspiration in the pits of his underarms soaking through his T-shirt, the bulge growing in his pants.

He seemed ordinary. That was his gift. He didn’t struggle to be social. He hadn’t been a bed-wetting, animal-carving, Oedipus-complex youth. Sure, he’d been drawn to violence early on, but what boy wasn’t? They were always out playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians—or whatever they were supposed to call it now. He’d never forget holding his father’s gun for the first time at age nine. The rifle was hidden high out of sight on the dining room hutch, a Winchester Model 70. He marveled at it, the weapon heavy and glistening in his little hands. He’d also never forget the way his mother screamed at him to never touch it again. He learned later the reason she was so angry: the rifle was loaded.

Even now, he thought back to the night that changed everything. There’d been a murder not far from home; he’d eavesdropped while his mother and father spoke in hushed voices over supper. When it came on the nightly news, his parents shut off the television. But it was the talk of the town, so he soon learned. A girl had been raped and beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend. Everyone knew Marcy Knight for her double Ds and they knew Billy Simms for being a low-life piece of shit. Only a few miles away, he couldn’t resist the urge to sneak out. He slipped out late that evening when everyone was asleep and rode his seven-speed Mongoose Switchback two miles, cloaked in black to blend in with the night. Grouse Creek Road was surrounded by wide-open land, mostly wild grass, tall weeds, and barley fields. There were some houses and barns spaced out, but at night it was capsuled in blackness.

The bike was still a little big for him, the seat like a horse saddle, high and stiff, digging into his bony ass. He slowed in front of the house, sweat starting to bead down the messy haircut his mother had given him. He dropped his bike to the curb. The house was still surrounded in yellow tape, which he ducked under.

The door was locked. He should’ve known it would be. But he thought one of the windows might be open to get some of the smell out. He moved fast, pulling at each one. Luckily enough, toward the back of the house, one window budged. He slid it open and climbed inside. The windowsill dug into his rib cage. Red lines, maybe even bruises, would linger, but he didn’t care. He flicked the switch on the hefty Maglite he’d stolen from beneath the sink at home. After a blink, the room was illuminated in a dim phlegm yellow. He crept into the bedroom and saw the blood splattered on the wall and king bed. He shined the light there, mesmerized by all of it. The mattress had sunken in the center. Marcy Knight, he thought while he admired her blood.

The room had soured. Still, the musty darkness and dead-body smell didn’t faze him. In the harsh light, the ceiling warped and curdled until it was lost in the shadows. The rug was an ugly gray and old. Numbered yellow markers perched on the floor. He shined the beam over them, at the red lines and blotches on the carpet and the rigid imprint of a large sneaker sole. While he backed away to take it all in, he bumped into the mirrored vanity, where the bitterness of hair spray and mint lingered.

He heard a rattle of keys, thought he heard someone coming to the door. He flicked off the flashlight, ran to the window, and hopped down to the ground, his pants catching and tearing as he climbed over the sill. He slid the window shut behind him as quietly as he could, made his way back to the bike, and pedaled off at light speed for home. With sweat trickling down his forehead, the cool breeze tugging at his damp hair, he imagined himself as Billy Simms while Marcy Knight died under him.

The next morning, his mother woke him. He’d be late for the bus if he didn’t get up. He hopped out of bed, felt a mess in his underwear, and saw a small, dark stain in the flannel sheets. When his mother went to make the bed, she saw it too. And he lied.

He told her that he wet the bed, that the murder on the news scared him. She kissed him on the forehead and told him it was fine, that she wouldn’t tell his father. She started pulling the sheets, and he got changed for school. He went on like nothing changed, but everything had. From then on, he’d sit in the classroom daydreaming about how Billy killed Marcy. He found himself wondering about pain and blood.

Over the years, he had studied people like himself. He was more than aware how murder cases were run. He’d studied criminal defense and criminal justice, analyzed how serial killers worked and why some got caught. He read everything he could find on psychological profiling. With four kills and counting, his hat was in the ring. He was one of them, even if he wasn’t crazy about the term serial killer. He was different from them. He was better, he told himself. He wondered when the police would finally let the public in on his—their—secret. That the bodies were connected. That there was a serial killer, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes was his hunting ground.

He wondered what they would call him when his work was done.

His eyes were closed. He could feel her there before him, cold and dead. And as he lifted the radio, he pinched the volume knob and turned it up. Crackling static and droning voices rang out, followed by a female dispatcher’s voice and some sort of whirred chatter coming from a different channel’s frequency. As he listened, he could feel the snow splash wet and cold against his warm skin. An icy wind spread goose pimples all over his body.

. . . 10-83 . . . Hick’s Bar . . . Repeat, disturbance at Hick’s Bar. Something about . . .

He listened for a few minutes before he opened his eyes and looked down at her—and nearly smiled. He powered the radio off, turned on his back foot, and left her there. By the time the police showed up, his tracks would be long gone, erased from this world, as was she. His boots sank ankle-deep in the vast ocean of white. They plunged deeper and deeper as if he were walking through quicksand. The cold snaked up his ankles and into his socks. Though the muscles in his back and calves were screaming, the pain was refreshing.

The police needed to hurry. If they waited too long, the picture wouldn’t be perfect anymore. A spell of warm fall weather was on the way; the pristine snow would turn gray and slushy, and she would turn purple and blue and attract the crows. He was angered by the thought of their batting wings and shrieking caws. The vision of them pecking at her eyes and pulling at her flesh, ruining his masterpiece.

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