Simon the Sorcerer flew.
It was an ancient story that came to Butner Creedmoor in his dreams. Simon, a man consumed by his need for power, used magic and illusion to convince the people to worship him as God. Even Emperor Nero believed Simon’s trickery. He sought his council in matters of the Empire, built monuments in his honor, and proclaimed him guardian of the city.
When Peter heard this, he traveled to Rome and publicly challenged this self-proclaimed deity. He exposed Simon’s lies, and in the name of the Lord he raised a man from the dead. The people who had believed in Simon were enraged and drove him from the city. For months, he lived among the shadows and beasts of the hills. Outcast. Forgotten.
One day, he returned to Rome in secret, asking the Emperor to gather crowds on his behalf in a large piazza near the capital. Hundreds watched, including Peter, as Simon climbed a tower, leapt off, and began to fly.
Nero turned to Peter. “It is you who are the deceiver!”
With these words, Peter looked into the gray sky and cried out: “Angels of Satan, who keep Simon aloft, carry him no longer. Let him fall!”
Simon dropped to the ground, his screams filling the square until his neck snapped against the earth. Grieved and outraged, Nero condemned Peter to death.
Crowds surged as the executioners brought him to the cross. They wanted to intervene, but Peter begged them not to act, not to hinder his martyrdom. He then asked to be crucified upside down, saying that he was not worthy of dying like Christ.
Nero nodded in approval and watched as they nailed his feet above his head.
Years ago, Butner’s mother told him this story, and he can still hear the cadence of her voice. He had forgotten it until recently, but now it seems to be the only story he knows.
In the quiet, he breathes deeply and knocks on the apartment door, wearing his old UPS uniform and carrying a heavy rectangular box.
"Package for Miss Erin Winesburg.”
She peers through the opening of the chained door. "A delivery on New Year’s Eve?”
"Yes, miss. UPS doesn’t believe in holidays.” He makes his voice sound strained, suggesting the weight of the package, and she opens the door, smiling at the joke.
"Just grab the clipboard on top and sign by your name. Where do you want me to put this?”
"Oh . . . on the table over there. Thanks.”
Butner steps inside the sparsely but stylishly furnished apartment. A black coat and a bottle of white wine have been placed on a midnight-blue armchair. Erin is wearing an elegant black dress with crimson flowers; it stops a few inches above her knees. She has long, slender legs and wavy, chestnut-brown hair. The mark under her left chin suggests that she plays the violin or viola, like his mother did for years, and he imagines Erin on stage—the audience torn between listening and watching her statuesque figure. As she hands him the clipboard, he wants to hear her play, to touch the soft material of her dress. He wants a choice.
Tightening his right hand, he strikes her across the jaw. The force of the blow knocks her against the wall, spraying blood on the door.
Butner closes the blinds, then the front door. The deadbolt locks with a hollow clap, and the phone starts ringing. He opens the package, pulling out a strand of wire, two long spikes, and a hammer.
Erin lies crumpled on the floor, blood on her chin and cheek.
Part of him doesn’t want any of this, but he knows it’s the only way. He hasn’t slept in over a month.
While dragging her body to the bathroom, he hears the answering machine beep.
"Hey, girl, you’re probably on your way. If not, get a move on. We’re waitin’ for you. And guess who’s here? Josh, the man of your dreams. Anyway, I’ll see you soon. Bye!”
The machine beeps again. The outgoing message rewinds.
Erin begins to moan.
Officer Jennings knew it wouldn’t be like television, but he secretly has hoped for something more all along. Traffic tickets, drunken college students, paperwork, and more paperwork. No, law enforcement isn’t a glamorous life, but as his sister reminds him after every complaint: "At least you’re not being shot at by some crack-head serial killer!”
True enough, but he secretly hopes for something more.
After responding to several calls about flat tires and stalled engines, he and Officer Bland fill out a report for a stolen car that "reappeared" after the owner sobered up and remembered where he parked it. Now, off to an apartment on the west side of town. Apparently a young woman never showed up for a party yesterday evening. Her friends can’t reach her by phone, and she isn’t answering the door—even though her blue Saturn is parked out front.
It’s going to be one of those days, Jennings thinks.
He knocks again and sends Bland to get a key from the manager. While waiting on the porch, he imagines breaking down the door and yelling, "Chapel Hill Police Department. We are entering under exigent circumstances!" His gun carefully poised in front of him as he peers into the dark corners of the home. "Clear!"
"Hey, Bob. Bob? We have to remember to leave this in the drop box." Officer Bland hands him the key.
"Sure." He unlocks the door, and they enter.
"Hello? Miss Winesburg? This is the police. Hello?"
The room feels hot. Jennings notices a bottle of wine on the armchair. Their footsteps echo loudly against the hardwood floors, and a glass bowl on the living-room table rattles with each step. Jennings signals Bland to check out the kitchen while he walks into the bedroom. The door creaks as he slowly pushes it open. Someone is in bed, curled on top of the comforter, facing away from the door.
"Miss Winesburg?" he asks. Muted sunlight passes through the closed blinds, and the haze makes it difficult to see. "Miss Winesburg, are you all right?" Jennings takes a tentative step toward the bed, and the figure rocks slightly. He stops.
There is a sudden crash behind him as Officer Bland stumbles backward into the room and bumps into a dresser.
Jennings turns, startled. "What the hell?"
Bland’s lower lip trembles. "She’s . . . she’s in the bath—WATCH OUT!"
Officer Jennings spins around, and the figure on the bed slices an upward arc into his chest. He falls back with a yell, and the entire room shudders when he hits the floor. In two quick motions, the attacker tears down the blinds and opens the window. He vanishes through the opening before Officer Bland can unlatch his gun.
Jennings winces as he gets to his feet and follows.
Garbage cans and boxes clutter the narrow, grassy alleyway. Jennings is panting now, and his temples throb rhythmically with each footstep. In the sunlight, he sees the man’s all-brown outfit; it looks like a uniform of some kind. The suspect’s lead increases, and he leaps over a fence like a track-and-field athlete. For Jennings, the climb is more labored. The chain link rattles and bends under the weight of his body. One. Two. Three. Over.
Dogs bark wildly along the fence behind him. He pulls out his gun again and edges forward slowly. The shirt sticks to the blood on his chest, and he wipes sweat from his forehead. A few more steps until a clearing. Closer. He tries to breathe steadily, waiting and gripping the gun with both hands. He leans against the large brown Dumpster.
He spins into an open field, panning with his gun, looking for a target. Rusty iron pipes, scattered trash, a dilapidated wooden shed. No movement. He can hear sirens getting closer, and the throbbing in his head almost blinds him.
A few minutes later, Jennings returns to the apartment and walks to the bathroom with deliberate, heavy steps. His face shines with sweat, and his lower lip starts to quiver when he sees what terrified Officer Bland—Erin Winesburg’s body hanging upside down at the back end of a bathtub. Wire cutting into her ankles, fastening them to a metallic towel rack at eye level. Her head and shoulders against the incline of the tub. Each hand elevated and positioned—the right nailed into the porcelain tiles, the left into the Plexiglas shower door. A circle has been carved into her torso, and bloods drips from the gash across her neck.
"What the hell happened here, Jennings? Bland said you went after the suspect."
He turns to see Detective Hicks standing behind him. "A man was asleep in the bed when we arrived."
"Yeah. I woke him when I entered her room. Then, before I knew what was going on, he attacked me with a knife and jumped through the window. He was wearing a brown uniform."
Detective Hicks looks at Jennings quizzically. "Get the paramedics to check you out." He turns, barking orders to no one in particular about searching the area.
Jennings lowers his eyes, then walks outside.
A small crowd of neighbors has gathered, wondering what has happened. They look at the officers for reassurance. They want to hear that everything will be all right, that they don’t have to be afraid.
Jennings turns from them.
They should be afraid, he thinks. They all should.