He chose that same damn bar stool every night, ordering one tall glass after another of what looked like horse piss. Colt 45, probably, or whatever it is small-town lowlifes like to drink. I watched from my car, slouched in the driver’s seat and buried in shadows. The dim interior of The Corridor was visible through a bay window facing the sidewalk, its amber glow contrasting against the night. It was hot out, still and muggy, and the air inside the car was beginning to turn stale and moist.
He kept his head down, staring a hole through his empty glass, looking up only as the bartender approached. She was a girl about my age, but unlike me, she had silky hair streaked with highlights, sensual curves, and bronze skin. Becca was her name, I think, although I couldn’t be certain. She had just moved to Wakefield from Portsmouth, according to local gossip, and she had no idea how dangerous this man was.
He handed his empty glass to Becca, I could tell he had ordered another pint. And as she took it, his fingers lingered around hers for a little too long. It was a gesture she seemed to dismiss as harmless flirting, but I knew better.
His name was Kenneth Pritchard. He was forty-four, a construction worker, and a reclusive type. He’d stop at The Corridor on his way home from work, and venture out on Saturday mornings to buy groceries and fill his truck with gas. He had no friends in town to speak of, no known family, and no hobbies, either. Not so much as a pet cat. He kept the shades drawn at all hours, and no one seemed to know where he’d come from, although some thought he was hiding out from a past life.
Becca, a smile painted across her naive face, flounced her way back to Kenneth and handed him his newest beer. He said something to her, and she listened for a second, all the while batting her eyes. She laughed—a fake laugh, of course—heaving her substantial chest in his direction. She tilted her head back with each chuckle, placing one hand over her falsely modest heart and the other on his forearm.
Then the laughter stopped, with just as little warning as it had started, and Becca busied herself with wiping down the bar. A futile effort, given what a rundown hellhole The Corridor was. Its main entrance was hidden in an alley that stretched between two old brick buildings. That’s where it got its name, I imagine, a reference to its own relative obscurity. Its windows were caked in filth, its chairs and stools were mismatched and uneven, and a number of its overhead lights flickered or appeared to be missing a bulb altogether. A mirror behind the bar had a large crack running through it. Seven years of bad luck, but no one in Wakefield seemed to notice or care.
My face was beginning to bead with sweat, despite the window being cracked, and the thick rims of my glasses slid down my nose. I exhaled a thin stream of hot air, trying to keep my breathing slow and even, my body motionless. And as I stared at the back of Kenneth’s head, I couldn’t help but picture his face—those thin, dry lips, flanked by patches of graying stubble. The heavy bags beneath his bloodshot eyes. He was average height, five-foot-nine or so, and lean, except for the slight belly that spilled over the top of his pants.
He’d glance at Becca every so often, and I was sure she was consuming all of his mental resources. That, in itself, was innocent enough. There were plenty of men in Wakefield that would have liked to take her home for a night. But that wasn’t all that was on Kenneth’s mind. He was imagining her pinned beneath him, I was sure of it, her face streaked in tears, a blade pressed to her throat. Unresponsive to her cries for help and getting off to her shrill whimpers. He’d be almost silent, though, notwithstanding a few depraved whispers, and a low grunt at the last second. At least that’s how other women had described the ordeal.
Kenneth had been accused of assaulting at least three different women in the area, but never convicted. Never formally charged, for that matter. Insufficient evidence, the Wakefield police claimed. A small police force comprised of all men, by the way, who found it easier to believe that three women had been lying than to accept that they had a serial rapist on their hands. I knew it would only be a matter of time before he would strike again.
It was with that thought in mind that something else caught my eye, something indiscernible at first. Movement, I thought, a figure tall and lanky outside the passenger window, traveling in slow motion. Someone was creeping in the shadows. A man, perhaps, watching me while standing next to a wooden bench at the edge of the street, concealed in part by a decorative lamppost. And all at once, I could feel it. The prying eyes of a fellow voyeur, keen to assess my intentions as much as observe my actions. But as I gave my head a soft shake, the figure disappeared, and I was almost alone again.
It was well after ten o’clock when Kenneth got up from his stool. He tossed some cash on the bar, gave Becca one last look up and down, and headed for the door. It was tough to tell if he was stumbling, because he always walked with a limp. He sort of shuffled to his truck, where he sat for a moment, rubbing his gaunt face with calloused hands before starting the engine.
I was about to tail him home when I felt it again. An onlooker lurking outside my car, peering at me from the shadows. I scanned over my shoulder, left and right, but saw no sign of activity, nothing material.
A familiar voice spoke to me from the backseat. “He’s getting away, Afton.”
I ignored her remark and narrowed my eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of this man in shadows. But again, my senses deceived me. I could feel his presence, just as I had several nights before, but I couldn’t find him. There was nothing out of the ordinary on the street, just a city block devoid of pedestrians, near silent, and dwarfed by an expanse of red brick buildings.
The voice spoke again, this time harsher, lower, and breathier. Like a lifelong smoker with throat cancer. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go. Follow him, before . . . it’s too late.”
Kenneth had already rounded the corner. I made quick work of catching up, though, making sure to keep my vehicle at least fifty yards behind his. After a few blocks, he turned. That was all I needed to know. That he had gone home, and no one was in danger for the night.
She spoke again. “When, Afton? How much . . . longer now?”
I hadn’t experienced true autonomy over my consciousness since adolescence. Well, seventeen or so, to be exact. A second Afton emerged that year. A twin sister of sorts, a manifestation of my darkest desires. A relentless cheerleader, in a manner of speaking, who appeared only to me, urging me to obey impulses that most good people can suppress or ignore. I had named her “Animus” Afton, and the time to give in to her was drawing nearer.
She leaned forward from the backseat, her cold breath fanning across the back of my neck, but said nothing. That’s because she didn’t have to. After a second passed, I glanced in the rearview and the backseat was empty. Animus was gone, but she would be back.
Kenneth Pritchard had to die, you see—she and I agreed on that much—but it would be me who would have to kill him. He would be my first, and his death had to be just right.