Oblivion

by Kevin Mercurio

Detective Winston finally woke up.

His head was throbbing due to the blunt trauma to its side. Blood was dripping from a large gash just above his right ear. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids fluttered at the immense weight. The room was blurry, almost like a dream. However, this was certainly not a dream.

Winston lifted up his arms. They were tied tightly to whatever he was sitting in. So were his legs. He was immobilized. He was helpless. He wanted to scream.

Where am I?

He opened his mouth at an attempt to make a sound. Instead he gagged. His mouth was dry and sticky. He coughed and spit up more blood.

What happened?

The room became slightly more clear. A single lightbulb above his head lit up just a fraction of the surrounding area around his torture chair. He was in a desolated room; dark, cracked walls around him on all sides. In front of his chair was a large, stand-alone bulletin board. Centred was a piece of paper with a single word written in large font:

JUSTICE

A loud clash in the distance startled Winston. Adrenaline shot into his bloodstream and widened his pupils. He could see a bit further.

How did I get here?

He looked to his left. Beside his chair was a small table with various metallic tools, almost like he was in a hospital or dental office. There was a scalpel, glistening even against the dim lighting. There was also a pair of tweezers, a small buzzsaw, a hammer and some tubing that led to a pressurized tank on the floor.

Winston looked to his right. There was a man in a chair similar to his. Also similar was the bulletin board in front of him. However, on the man’s board was a piece of paper with a single word written in the same large font:

CONSENT

Around the poster were articles of women’s clothing: tops, bras, undergarments. He looked at the man’s face; it was hard to see but his eyes looked like they had been ripped out leaving a hallowed emptiness. He gagged again.

Try and remember. He knew there was something off about this town…

Detective Winston arrived in Main Square and took his first step out of the trolley into Defalco. The air was unusually thick and cool, almost like cold humidity, except no water was around the town for miles. It smelled of steel factory pollution, and as Winston looked at the night sky, he could see the dark fumes in the distance obscure some of the starlight. Somehow at night, they were dark enough to be observed.

Winston looked around at the three buildings that surrounded the square. They were well-kept and certainly Greek inspired, with large columns towering over the entrances. Straight ahead is what looked like the town library. In front, there was a bronze statue of an elderly man in a long-overcoat holding an open book, with his mouth frozen in the midst of conversation. The building adjacent on the left was the Defalco Court House, with another cliché statue of a blindfolded woman holding a tipped scale.

The other building encompassed two sides of the square, bending at the right-corner closest to Winston. He could not determine the purpose for it as the building was lined with scaffolding and metal fencing that covered most of the windows. A sign on the fencing read “Under Construction”, not uncommon for historic buildings like these. The entrance was intriguing because the columns that lined the front were very tight and narrow. Winston could barely notice the doorway peak around the giant centre column. How do people squeeze through for entry, Winston thought.

Towards the centre of the square, there was a man sitting on a wooden bench. Winston didn’t notice him at first, but directly made eye contact with him as soon as he discovered his presence. He was looking directly at Winston. He was an eerie looking old man, rustic and dressed in oversized, rotten clothing. But Winston was focused on the man’s face. It was disturbing. On his right side, the man’s cheek had concaved inwards, likely due to past abuse with chewing tobacco. It looked reconstructed, but just barely enough that one could see right through into his toothless mouth.

The man stood up and began walking towards Detective Winston. As the distance grew shorter, he continued to pick up pace and rose his hand to point at the building with the scaffolding and narrow entranceway. Winston, realizing the potential danger ahead, dropped his bag on the ground to retrieve his badge and gun. He loaded the gun, clicked off the safety and pointed the gun at… nothing. The man was no where to be seen.

Winston heard another rustle in the distance. Like rats in the walls, the scraping against the baseboards made his skin crawl. His eyes finally began adjusting to his surroundings. He looked at the board in front of him and realized there were photographs pinned around the white poster paper. Pictured were people being trialed in a courtroom; men who had a mild familiarity to Winston.

Suddenly, his chair cracked with a broken screw and tilted to the side, which spun him around. Behind him sat another person facing the opposite direction. It looked like a woman based on the long brown hair, which draped over the headrest in a ponytail. In front of her was another bulletin board with a piece of paper that read:

MEDICATION

Winston looked at the items surrounding her poster: bags of various powders, needles and rolled joints. Red light reflected off the blood that pooled around an inconspicuous drain behind the chair.

Think harder. He closed his eyes…

The sun was rising in the East, and Winston looked at his watch. It was 5:45am. The Mayor’s office was just a few blocks behind the Court House straight ahead. Winston had scheduled a meeting with the Mayor upon his arrival to gather preliminary information for his investigation, and was the purpose for his presence in the small town of Defalco. Perhaps the Mayor had started the day early, Winston thought.

He arrived at the Mayor’s office and opened the unlocked door. Inside, the room lit up to what seemed like a waiting area. In front of the door was the Mayor’s secretary sitting at her desk, twirling her hair and chewing on tobacco. Gertrude Russell was a middle-aged brunette with bright red lipstick and large, magnified spectacles.

“I have a meeting with Mayor O’Brien at six o’clock,” Winston explained.

“Sit,” Gertrude commanded, and nothing more. Instead, Detective Winston took the time to gaze at the frames surrounding the waiting area. There were commemorative awards and plaques from the provincial government and local institutions. There were pictures of Mayor O’Brien cutting ribbons, giving speeches to large crowds, and shaking the hands of polished businessmen in front of factories, schools and the like. He seems well respected in his political arena, Winston thought.

“The Mayor will see you now,” Gertrude stated, apathetically.

Winston walked behind Gertrude’s desk and stepped into the Mayor’s meeting room. Inside was a round table, and seated at that table was Mayor O’Brien who was reading the Defalco Tribune while enjoying his morning coffee and cigar.

“Hello Mayor O’Brien,” Winston said, “and thank you for meeting with me.”

“Detective Winston, it’s my pleasure. Welcome to Defalco,” Mayor O’Brien smiled and extended his hand to complete the introduction.

“I’m aware that there has been some disturbing murders in your town.”

“And disappearances, don’t forget the two disappearances,” Mayor O’Brien said. He took a puff from his cigar and folded the newspaper neatly on the table, giving full attention to Detective Winston. This was the first time he was able to create a full profile of Mayor O’Brien’s attributes up close.

Mayor O’Brien was a large man both in height and stature. He easily could have been seven feet tall with a waistband larger than the average doorway. He was wearing a neat, beige suit with suspenders and a typical patterned tie, overtop a pale-yellow ironed shirt. To complete the ensemble, Mayor O’Brien put on an obscure, white cowboy hat and matching boots. Winston saw he fit the profile of a typical politician from the Southern United States of America.

On the table was a folder containing a large stack of papers and photographs. Mayor O’Brien opened the folder and laid out all six photographs on the table for Winston to observe.

Winston viewed the pictures with obscure astonishment. Nothing would have prepared him for what he observed on the table. Six photographs, six stories; each with their own terror leading up to the grotesque final act.

Winston picked up the first photograph of Buddy Johnston. He was a skinny, caucasian male in his late twenties. The man was completely naked, had a shaved head with brown eyes and a charcoal beard. Along his left arm depicted tattoos of abstract shapes: dark, sharp angles that look like they could pierce into his skin. Most of his body was dirty, not because he had been found in the Prescott Forest behind the courthouse, but likely due to his career as a landscaper. Winston’s eyes were fixed on the scar under the right-side of his rib cage.

Winston picked up the second photograph in his left hand. It was of a dark, Latin-American woman named Priscilla Caldero. She worked in the town’s hospital as one of the custodians. She was also found completely naked in the middle of the soccer field behind the town’s high school. Winston immediately noticed the three scars down and across the middle of her chest. He put down the photos.

“What were these two bodies missing?” Winston inquired.

“It’s the darn-dest thing. Buddy had his entire liver removed while Ms. Caldero was missing her heart and lungs. We tried to conceal these unnecessary details from the townsfolk but word got to our local newspaper.”

Winston looked at the newspaper Mayor O’Brien was reading. The main headline read: The Defalco Surgeon Strikes Again.

“Almost like from one of them flicks from Hollywood or what-have-you. To think that there’s someone capable of such horror. I will not have it, no way, not in my town.”

“Where do the families of the deceased reside, Mayor O’Brien?”

“Well Buddy moved here alone six years ago from Windsor, down south. I remember once he said something about hating the city-life and was looking for a fresh start. This was during the beginning of my time as Mayor of Defalco. And Priscilla; she’s one of them migrants from South America. She has two sons who have long left Defalco for school or what-have-you. The others have it written in their files. None of these victims have family here.”

“It is to my knowledge that there have been some suspects for these crimes committed by the Surgeon. Do you have the files on these men?”

“I don’t personally carry such delicate files. However, our town Sheriff would gladly help you investigate further. I’ll give Sheriff Arnold a ring, assuming the police station is on your list of stops during your time in Defalco.”

“Thank you Mayor O’Brien.”

“No, thank you for seeing me so bright and early. As a fellow American, I requested the best. Do not let me down.”

As he exited the office and walked towards the door, Winston turned to give Ms. Russell a farewell.

“Welcome to Defalco,” Gertrude smiled and began typing away on her machine. Winston was able to notice that she was signing off on an email. He caught the ending of the last sentence: -in the place where there is no darkness-.

Winston started wondering about his board. He recalled the photographs of the men he had put behind bars. He cleaned up the streets that year; serving as the lead investigator for first degree murder and rape cases featuring some of the worst criminals in his country. Except these particular people were not the true perpetrators. He knew that, and yet he went on with it despite knowing the weight of that guilt pervading every moment of his life henceforth.

He heard the insertion of a key and the sound of a large metal door opening somewhere behind him. This time, heavy footsteps were approaching. He stopped breathing. Just utter silence except for the loud beating of his heart, and the footsteps. They stopped short just in-between the bulletin board and his chair. Winston could not see as he was still facing towards the woman, but could now hear the faint breathing of a presence behind him.

Keep remembering. It was his only option…

The Sheriff’s Department was just down the street from Mayor O’Brien’s office. Winston decided to walk through what appeared to be an archetypical suburban neighbourhood. Most houses were two stories high; white or a pale brick colour with pointed roofs. Each house had no numbers but instead, were distinguished by various colours painted on their front doors. Immediately beside the Mayor’s office had a purple door, followed by a blue door, two green doors, three yellow doors and finally a red door. Houses on the streets around the vicinity of the Sheriff’s Department building had red doors following a similar sequence that emanated away like a wave. It reminded Winston of the the characteristic colour changes of the autumn season.

Winston walked up the pathway leading up to the Sheriff’s building: a grey, concrete mould that was so generic it had become one of the most notable things on the street. The door was locked. Winston rang the bell and a loud buzzer prompted him to enter the premises.

A large staircase led up to Sheriff Arnold’s office, who was waiting patiently for him behind a desk. Papers stacked his working space: piles upon piles of folders within folders describing crimes and the stories of their victims.

“You must be the hot shot from America. Take a seat.”

Sheriff Arnold was a short, handsome man. He looked old, with his grey, peaked hair and scruffy beard.

Winston gazed at Sheriff Arnold’s picture frame on the desk. It was a picture of a young man in military uniform. On the wall behind the Sheriff was a plaque of various medals typically in the possession of army veterans.

“You know why I’m here,” Winston stated.

“I know why you’re here, but we don’t need your help.”

Winston noticed the creases under Sheriff Arnold’s eyes.

“Tell me what you know.”

“This is no case for young men,” Sheriff Arnold replied.

“Try me.”

“You’ve read all the documents, you’ve seen the evidence. You know as much about this case as we do.”

“What motive do you think the Surgeon has?”

“I don’t think he has a motive, son.”

“Every murder has a motive.”

Sheriff Arnold noticed Winston had been staring at the picture frame. “That’s my son. He was in the military. Billy was his name. Billy served for two full years in Afghanistan before he was finally sent home. Something about a crisis, his team said. Billy came home and couldn’t sleep for days, even weeks. He finally comes out of his room and walked into the living room to tell my wife Judith and I a story. One day they were in one of the market places outside of Kabul and a child came up to his team in a panic, saying that she had been kidnapped. The kidnappers strapped a bomb to her chest and dropped her off at the marketplace. The timer on the front read 10 minutes. Now Billy was responsible for defusing IEDs and was told get to work. Around two minutes left, Billy realizes that there is not enough time to defuse and no safe way of removing the vest. Do you know what my boy was instructed to do?” He paused. “He shot the kid in the back of the head and carried her body to an isolated location.”

“Sounds like murder,” Winston replied.

“It’s utilitarianism. The objective reason behind that decision was to save lives. But did Billy himself have his own motive? He was following orders. Like a cog in the system, soldiers are just on autopilot waiting for the finger to point so they can shoot.”

“Do you think that the Surgeon has an objective motive?”

“I think this person has an ideology that we do not fully understand.”

“I guess that’s why I’m here.”

Sheriff Arnold smiled. “I guess so. Now please, if you don’t mind, I have some work to finish.”

Winston grabbed the files prepared for him on Sheriff Arnold’s desk. He stood and began heading towards the staircase. He turned around and asked, “Would you be so kind as to point me towards Buddy Johnston’s residence? Or Priscilla Caldero’s?”

“They’re just outside. The third and sixth red doors across the street.”

“That’s an odd coincidence, don’t you think Sheriff?”

“Defalco is small, Detective,” Sheriff Arnold debated, “I’m surprised I haven’t been killed yet.”

The suspense was gut wrenching. Winston wiggled his body which gave his chair enough momentum to turn back towards his bulletin board. His eyes were still adjusting to the poorly illuminated room. However, Winston knew exactly who he was facing, and he was taken aback by surprise.

“What do you want from me?” Winston shouted.

“I told you we would meet again,” Gertrude Russell said.

“So what, has Mayor O’Brien been behind this charade the entire time?”

Gertrude smiled and responded, “Actually, the mastermind behind this is Mr. Arnold. O’Brien is just a cog in the system.”

“You don’t have to do this. I will give you whatever you want.”

Gertrude stepped back and took the four photographs pinned to his bulletin board. “James Richardson, Daryl Hunt, Kirk Bloodsworth, and Thomas Kennedy. Recognize these names?”

“No, but I remember their faces.”

“Are these evidence of a working justice system to you?”

“Look, what do you want from me? I work for the families of those victims, not those men. The evidence was there.”

Gertrude smacked him on the right side of his head. Winston groaned in agony as he watched her wipe his blood off her hand.

“The evidence was not there. Don’t you see Winston, you were assigning answers rather than looking for them. Those in power cannot just make assertions and not deal with the consequences.”

“You don’t believe I think about these men? Only took me, what, 20 years to finally remove their names, which were burning the inside of my head. I think about them every day. Every day. I sleep and I see the faces of helpless men who were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. I had to live with that.”

“You sound like a victim.”

“But what do you want from me? Are you going to harvest my pancreas and kidneys? Going to throw them up on the black market to fund your town’s door painting?”

“We are going to make this right, Winston.”

Winston exited the concrete police station and crossed the road. The closest place was Buddy’s old residence, to which he would visit first and then head to Priscilla’s afterwards. He stopped at the end of the driveway and looked at the bright red door. It was somewhat menacing and uninviting. He then turned his head to the moving van in the driveway and approached the men unloading cardboard boxes and small furniture.

“Must be the new people moving into the old Johnston residence.”

One of the men put down a large box. The sound of glass clanking echoed through the deep garage. “No, we’re just part of the moving company.”

“Who is taking up residence here? Mind if I ask the family a few questions?”

“It’s not a family, just a guy. Robert I think was his name. Eh, Andy? What’s the guy’s name? Robert somethin’?”

“Robertson probably.” Andy grumbled from the back of the van.

“Where can I find Mr. Robertson?”

“Think the guy’s in jail right now. Something about fraud and money laundering. Eh, Andy? Ain’t that right?”

“Can you get to fuckin’ work, kid?” Andy was certainly not in a good mood.

“Alright, alright. Sorry, business is booming these days. I wish I lived in one of the reds, though. It’s gorgeous inside. I’m just a cog in the system though.”

“What’s the turnover rate for these kinds of houses?”

“I’d say 6-12 months, then most of them move out of this town. Anyway, gotta run.” He picked up the large box and started walking down to the back of the garage.

Winston was perplexed. He wasn’t quite certain how to comprehend the information he had just received. In any case, he continued on and went down the street towards Priscilla’s old residence. It was indeed another “red”. He walked up the driveway which connected to a stone-laid path towards the front red door. He rang the bell and knocked. A woman opened the door.

“Hello, I am Detective Calvin Winston.” He presented his badge from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, or FBI. “I’m here for a case involving some disturbing events happening in your town, and I would like to ask you some questions.”

“Oh, okay,” the woman seemed hesitant.

“May I come in?”

“Oh, okay.”

Winston walked through the doorway and was stunned by how magnificent it looked on the inside. The floor was a marble tile, covered down the main hallway by a long, gracious rug. The walls were painted in eggshell, and on it were expensive family portraits and candid moments in time. They walked towards the living room, which was even more stunning; white leather seating and a fur rug underneath a glimmering chandelier of gold brass and crystals. The mover was certainly being honest.

“You have a lovely place, Miss…”

“Mancuso. My name is Paula Mancuso.”

“Well Paula, I will just get right to it then. Do you know about the previous resident who lived here?”

“Yes. Priscilla, she was my colleague. More than that, she was my friend.”

“And where did you two work?”

“She and I are custodians at the Defalco Hospital. We’ve known each other for quite some time now. Her sons and my oldest son are very close.”

“Are you aware of the recent events that have happened in this town?”

“Sadly yes. It was in the local newspaper. She certainly deserved better.”

“Why did you move in here after her death?”

“She put me in her will. All her material belongings were given to me, while any money in her accounts were evenly distributed to her two sons.”

“You two were that close? Just working together at the hospital? Hey, where is that anyway?”

“It is pretty well known actually. It is the L-shaped building when you enter Defalco’s main square.”

“The one under construction?”

“It’s always under construction.”

“Do you have any information, thoughts, opinions on the Defalco Surgeon?”

Paula stared at Winston. She seemed to be thinking intently. “Why yes of course. I mean it’s such a horrible thing, so much death…”

Winston began looking through Priscilla’s file. He was surprised that there were multiple pages attached. Following the first few pages detailing her murder, there was a page on recent criminal history.

“…imagine what it’s like for the victims’ families. Anyway, where are my manners, would you like something to drink?”

“Just some water please.”

Paula stood up and started to the kitchen in the adjacent room.

“And all the victim’s so far live alone in the town. Can you speak a little bit about the offences Priscilla was charged with prior to her murder?”

“What charges?” Paula shouted from the kitchen.

“Her file says she was charged with theft; stealing money from patient’s belongings at the Defalco Hospital.”

There was no response from Paula.

“There was also another accomplice in the theft, however the name was not written. Any idea who that might be?”

Winston checked his phone and noticed he had received an anonymous email. As he opened it, he had to read it several times before he was able to remember where he had read that before:

We will meet in the place where there is no darkness.
– Dr. Russell

Winston had been sitting on a chair facing away from the kitchen. His angle did not permit him to notice that Paula had grabbed a cutting board and violently smashed it on the right side of his head.

“And how will that be done?” Winston demanded.

“Have you heard of the Trolley Problem, Winston?”

“No.”

“It was modernized by the British Philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, and it goes something like this: let’s suppose you’re the conductor of a runaway train. You are alone, situated at the front of the train, in which you are capable of switching onto a new set of tracks but cannot modify the speed. Now you notice construction signs along the side of the tracks, warning to slow down the train to give enough warning for workers to move to safety. It is then that you see a fork approaching. The train is currently heading down one set of tracks leading to five workers removing debris, while the other set of tracks leads to one worker nailing down some wood. The train must go through one set of tracks, killing anyone in the way. What do you do? Do you switch tracks?”

Winston remembered the story Sheriff Arnold told him earlier that day.

“Yes, save the five workers while sacrificing the one. That’s four less lives impacted.”

“You are a man of high predictability, Winston,” Gertrude chirped. “Now let’s take another example from one of your own philosophers, Judith Thomson. Now suppose you are a surgeon with five sick patients. These patients desperately require an organ transplant immediately or they will die, and each patient requires a different organ. A traveller comes into the hospital asking for a routine check-up. It is only then you notice that this traveller is perfectly healthy. Not only that, but this particular person is a match with all five of your patients. By killing this perfectly healthy individual, you can save five other lives. Do you perform the surgeries?”

Winston thought about it for a moment. “No, because I would actively be murdering an innocent man to harvest his organs.”

“Why do your answers differ?”

“Because for one thing I am not the one killing the one worker on the tracks, the train is.”

“Sure, but you are not killing the traveler, the anaesthesia is. Some might say this is a more peaceful way to die.”

“Okay. I am diverting irrevocable destruction in one scenario versus causing destruction in the other.”

“Let’s add some factors then, Winston. These dilemmas are never black and white. How about if the other person on the tracks was a woman holding her child? How about if it was your wife? Would you then have the train kill the other five, knowing this information?”

Winston did not respond.

“Or what about if the traveller was a serial killer at large? Would this make you want to sacrifice him for the good people dying in your hospital?”

Winston was again perplexed. On one hand, ethically speaking one should not diverge the train to kill the five people just because one lone worker happened to be someone he loved. The many families destroyed due to his actions (or inactions) would be quite a weight on his shoulders. And certainly, killing the serial killer to save five good people sounded like the obvious answer, but it just didn’t seem right.

“What do you want from me…?” Winston muttered.

“I want you to be the traveller,” Gertrude explained. “I want you to be the serial killer. What ethicists fail to consider are the multiple perspectives in these scenarios. How about the traveller’s perspective? Does he know that there are five good people dying in the hospital that he can save from peacefully dying under a lethal dose of anaesthesia?”

“You want me to sacrifice myself? Why would I?”

“The Defalco Hospital is one of the most renowned transplant hospitals in North America. Many patients from around the world are sent here due to the state-of-the-art technology and surgical expertise. Being just outside of a large city, we attract a lot of criminals trying to escape the system. Hell, we even attract inconsiderate, up-and-coming criminals trying to make a quick buck for themselves and their loved ones. Sheriff Arnold was locking them up left and right, but he couldn’t keep them in forever. They were committing the same crimes over and over again, not willing to change for the better of society. That’s when they brought me in. I am part of a secret national enforcement initiative named Project Hydra. We give criminals the opportunity to attain self-retribution for their actions through capital punishment. Don’t be just a cog in the system, be the energy source that fuels the turning of the cogs.”

“This is why I am here. Because of what I did to those men?”

“The damage you did to those men is immeasurable. Years of their lives were taken from them. By you. By someone who did not have the decency to play by the rules.”

“I am not a criminal,” Winston pleaded.

“Not by the standards of our broken system. But morally speaking, you have committed atrocities of the highest caliber. You can change, and you can leave this life with the idea that your sacrifice will benefit truly good people. You can make a lasting difference of saving other lives despite destroying those others in your past.”

“How do we do that? I don’t want to make the sacrifice just yet.”

“We can situate you in one of the reds for 6-12 months, make you comfortable and ease yourself into your sacrifice.”

“What about my family? My kids?”

“They will be financially compensated not only by your life insurance, but also by partners of Project Hydra. This can be between one to five million dollars if that sacrifice is made right now. You just need to sign this form.”

Winston began sobbing uncontrollably. He was scared, but almost relieved at the guilt that would be lifted off his shoulders. He would be able to save the lives of people rather than live with those he destroyed. He would miss his family and friends, but he could not bear to see them anymore after reliving these repressed memories. He signed the form.

“I’m going to place the mask on you. You are making the morally right decision, Winston.”

As the mask was placed over his mouth, he started feeling a sense of happiness. Despite his great success, he had always lived with the harsh choices he made back in his early career as an investigator. The room was beginning to blur once again, but as he turned his head, he was caught off guard by the site of the man to his right stand up to his feet. It was Sheriff Arnold. He ripped off the skin mask.

“Could someone fix that goddamn chair? I told you that you had to turn all the screws.”

_____

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
– M. K. Ghandi

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