Detective Brian McCaffrey stared at the unconscious man lying strapped down in the sturdy pine casket. He glanced at his watch and looked skyward. A veiny canopy of leafless branches creaked, like slowly-opening doors, under a light breeze that sighed through the oppressive thickness of the forest. The campfire snapped in small bursts of bright orange sparks as the flames licked at the sap that bubbled to the surface of the green bark. Lazy smoke twisted ethereally through the trees.
It was time.
He took some Salt of Hartshorne from his pocket and held it under his captive’s nostrils. Almost immediately the inhalation reflex was triggered and ammonia gas ripped through pulmonary and nasal mucous membranes. The man’s body jerked convulsively, heaving against the restraints, and he began vainly coughing into the duct tape that covered his mouth from ear to ear. His eyes widened in mystified alarm as McCaffrey’s impassive face slowly came into focus above him.
“Hello, Leonard”, said McCaffrey slowly. “Been a long time”.
The young child looked around bewildered, trying to suppress the first pangs of panic welling up within her. She could not see her mother anywhere. Swallowed up by throngs of Christmas shoppers milling around frantically in the enormous mall.
“What’s your name”? asked an unfamiliar but friendly voice.
“Leslie Kline”, she said, looking up at the stranger. Despite his dark features, she saw kindness in his eyes and he was smiling down at her reassuringly.
“I’m Leonard Daly”, he said, extending a hand to her. “Are you lost”?
“I can’t find my mother”, she said wiping away a tear that had escaped from the corner of her eye.
“Listen, I saw you before and I’m sure I just saw your mother heading that way, towards the exit to the parking lot. She seemed upset and I think she was looking for you. Do you want to go and try and find her together”?
“I’m not supposed to move if this happens”.
“C’mon, I can help you”.
“Leonard, have you ever heard of Room 101”? asked McCaffrey, throwing some more wood on the fire. “I guess with that tape over your mouth you can’t really answer questions, can you? Too bad. Not to worry, though, I will be taking off the tape soon enough so I can hear you screaming. There’s not another living soul around here for at least a couple hundred miles. In the meantime, let me explain the concept of Room 101 in case you haven’t heard of it. This is a place that was introduced by the writer George Orwell in his book 1984. The room is a torture chamber in which a prisoner is subjected to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia…”
It was a cold November day and the rain was coming down in sheets when McCaffrey pulled up at the crime scene. Uniformed police were bustling around, mostly trying to keep onlookers and the media behind the yellow tape that extended out to the sidewalk in front of the house. As he got out of the car and flicked a half-smoked cigarette in the direction of a sewer grate, a young detective came rushing up to meet him. She was pale and her lower lip quivered slightly.
“Thank God you’re here, Sergeant”, she said. “I can’t go back in there right now”.
“That bad, Detective”?
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Victim’s name is Leslie Kline. Seven years old”.
“…so Winston Smith saved himself by begging the authorities to let his lover, Julia, have her face gnawed by the ferocious rodents instead of himself”, recounted McCaffrey. “Unfortunately for you, Leonard, you can’t save yourself by betraying that which you care about most. I broke into the clinic and read your file. I was fascinated to learn about what you fear more than anything… what you have had recurring nightmares over since you were just a boy… what terrorizes you so morbidly you can’t even get within a hundred feet of a cemetery. Yes, Leonard… yes… you’re starting to understand now… that is your coffin you’re lying in… you are suspended above a deep grave in the middle of nowhere… I am your Room 101. There’s no point in struggling… there’s no escape. You are going to die out here… after I bury you alive…”
The uniformed police officers stood aside as McCaffrey waved his shield and picked his way down the musty staircase and into the cellar.
“Jesus Christ”! he shouted. It was the first time in his career as a detective in homicide he had lost his composure at a murder scene. The little eviscerated corpse lay in the middle of the large, windowless room, organs strewn haphazardly across the floor in an impossible amount of blood.
“Any evidence of sexual assault?” he asked in barely a whisper.
“Ex… extensive vaginal and anal mutilation… The… the semen swabs have already been taken to the lab”…
“Where… where is the head”?
“Over there in the corner with the blood spatter guys”.
Multiple blunt-force blows drove fragments of the skull deep into the brain creating this pattern here. Can you get some close-up shots of that please, Gary…
“There’s only one thing that isn’t going to your grave with you, Leonard”, said McCaffrey matter-of-factly. He had put on a surgical mask and protective glasses. He raised a gloved hand and brandished a hunting knife. The blade was red-hot from having been sitting in the coals of the fire. “The heat will staunch the blood… and now I want to hear you scream”, he said as he tore away the duct tape and shoved the blade fiercely in between his captive’s legs, slicing cleanly upwards until the organ and testicles came away, messily, in his hands.
Dozens of birds lifted into the air in a contorted cloud of startled wings as Leonard Daly’s agony burst shrilly across the branch-broken sky, the nearby creek merrily bubbling while the meat sizzled in the fire.
The young priest cleared his throat nervously. He was getting to the hardest part of his funeral sermon for the murdered girl. McCaffrey sat close to the front of the church with his head bowed in his hands, the relentless sobbing of Leslie Kline’s grief-stricken family pushing him closer and closer to an abyss of unimaginable darkness.
“We are all shocked at the circumstances of Leslie’s death”, said the priest, his voice wavering slightly, struggling with the words. “It is hard for us to imagine such evil. It is hard for us to imagine that it could step so casually into our daily lives, create so much pain and grief and then simply walk away. And when evil of this nature seems to come and go so arbitrarily, we can all too easily despair in life… in hope… in faith… and in God. It is at times like these when we must not give in to anger and hatred… It is at times like these when we must redouble our affirmation in our faith lest madness creep into our souls…”
Unable to listen to it any longer, McCaffrey stood up and marched down the long aisle of the church and out the front door. Lighting a cigarette and trudging into the grey drizzle of the late afternoon, he left himself behind.
He waited patiently for his captive to slowly regain consciousness. Almost half an hour had passed.
“Ah, you’re back, Leonard”, he said lifting up the lid of the coffin. “It’s time for your final descent. Look, I’ve cut some air holes into this thing so that you won’t suffocate until the very end”.
He struggled to get the lid in place as his captive, eyes bulging, threw all of his weight against the restraints and shook the coffin violently in its cradle, his screams so blood-curdling the trees around them seemed to sag. Nevertheless, with steady and grim determination, McCaffrey hammered down the lid; 4-inch nails spread a few inches apart.
“Goodbye, Leonard”, he said, grasping the handle of the winch and slowly lowering the coffin into the grave, the screams becoming more muted with each foot deeper into the moist ground, until it finally came to rest at the bottom. Reaching for a shovel, he then very slowly filled up the grave until the hysterical screaming and banging could be heard no more.
McCaffrey wiped his perspiring forehead as he drove through the barren mountains in the middle of the night. He had to see for himself and ensure that the terrifying nightmares over the past few months were all in his mind. He pulled over at the side of an abandoned gas station and, grabbing a high-power flashlight, a shovel and a crowbar, entered the daunting black mouth of the forest.
Half an hour later he had located the grave site and began to dig frantically. It seemed to take an eternity before the tip of the shovel finally knocked against the coffin. The cheap pine had already begun to rot and it did not take long for McCaffrey to pry off the lid with the crowbar.
Staring into the coffin’s yawning emptiness, an impossible madness rushed into his broken mind as fast as the blood had flowed out of Leslie Kline’s body all those years ago. As his vision began to blur, he pulled his old service revolver from his pocket and, placing the muzzle of the gun to his temple, pulled the trigger.
He slumped face down in the grave and, in his last few moments of consciousness, he could swear he heard the rasp of a shovel and felt clods of earth falling on his back.