Marked as Strange by Kristina Kellingley

A public defender gets the worst possible case, a teenage murderer who gets under his skin; by Kristina Kellingley.

The kid was nineteen. I studied him carefully as I introduced myself and spread out my junk. The unusual, violet eyes were wary and harder than you might expect. Still, this was not the face of a murderer. As Bethel's one and only public defender I did the job I was paid to do, the job I was committed to. But it's nice for the soul if you can, at least once in a while, believe your guy is innocent.

I pulled out my chair and sat down waiting to be convinced - one way or the other. The kid smiled... and in that moment, I knew he was innocent. No killer ever smiled in such honest misery. So his next words rocked me back in my seat.

'I am a murderer, Mr. Harker. I've killed five times and when my description goes out you'll find I'm wanted by the police in five different counties. I feel no guilt and no remorse for what I've done. Only a sense of desperation because I've run out of luck.'

He leaned toward me across the small space of the table. 'And if by God's miracle I somehow get out of here, I will kill again, soon.'

His voice was low, earnest and it left no doubt as to his sincerity.

'Why don't you tell me your story, son?' For the first time in what seemed a long while, I was intrigued. I wanted to know how my instincts could have been so wrong. I was also looking for an angle to play. Some shoe with which to pry some small change loose from what I now saw was a bucket of shit.

'My stepfather, Perry, was the first. He was one of them. I killed him because he killed my dad, and because I knew he wouldn't rest until we were all dead.'

'Now son, if there were any -'

'Oh, it looked like an accident... my stepfather and his kind, I call them the 'others', are smart and they're careful.'

Abruptly he pushed himself to his feet and, grabbing the plastic cup of sludge that at the station house passes for coffee, hurled it at the opposite wall. 'And as far as I know I'm the only one who can see them.'

I was beginning to understand how things lay. But the longer he talked the more chance there was of finding something to go to the table with. 'From the beginning, kid,' I urged. 'The place to start a story is at the beginning.'

For an instant he hesitated, then his shoulders slumped and all the fight went out of him. He sat down again. His eyes, fixed on mine, were tired, hollow looking.

'I've nothing more left to lose anyhow.' He sighed, running both his hands through his sandy, collar length hair. 'My rap sheet tells you I'm Tom White, but I came into this world, inside a small clapboard house high up in the hills of Vermont, as Tony Cameron; seventh son of a seventh son.'

He stopped, glanced at me. I kept my face impassive, gesturing for him to go on. I needed all the information I could get, and something to plea bargain with, and somehow, for no good reason I could presently see, I badly wanted to have something to throw into the ring for this crazy kid.

'My mother had her own magic,' he said, his voice soft. His eyes were on the barred, dirt streaked window but I knew from his face that what he was seeing was the green, rolling mountains of home.

'People travelled a long ways for her herbs and poultices. Sometimes she would only have to lay her hands on and pray, and that would be enough for that person to get well.'

He smiled ruefully. 'With that kind of genetic mix it was a certainty that we, my brothers and I, would be 'gifted'. But,' he said and his voice had turned dark. 'With me the mix is something more than clairvoyance. In me the gift is unusually strong and it manifests in different ways.'

He turned his head and his eyes when he looked at me were clear and I would have staked my reputation that they were also sane. A chill, like a premonition of Armageddon, stroked down my back.

'I've always been able to see the 'others'. I've never spoken of it though.'

I interrupted him. 'Why, son? Why didn't you tell anyone about these... others?'

He shrugged, after a moment, 'You've got to understand, Mr. Harker - I'd been seeing them since I was a child. For a long time I didn't understand what I was seeing. But I seemed to sense instinctively that it'd be dangerous to talk about. When Perry came along I couldn't just start babbling about seeing 'others', masquerading as human beings. You see, everyone accepted my powers. Most, though, viewed them as a mixed blessing. Among the mountain communities, I was marked as 'strange'. There are widely held beliefs that 'seer's' are mentally unstable. Even my parents worried that the strength of my gift would prove to be a curse. I was afraid if I began ranting about seeing the 'others', I'd only feed the fear of those people already sure I'd end my days in a padded cell.'

He was silent a while, drawn in on himself. Then he looked at me and giving me a tight smile he said quietly. 'The link between psychic ability and mental instability is such strong folklore I have times when I doubt my own sanity.'

He looked away, to the window again. 'It's hard Mr. Harker. I can't control it. I can't stop the visions. Dear God, if I only could! I can be walking down the sidewalk, the sun warm on my shoulders and - it starts with this little tickle, somewhere at the back of my scalp, and it grows, and as it grows, so does the fear - of knowing one of 'them' is there, somewhere close. Knowing sooner or later I'm gonna have to go after it... kill it!

'There's no rest. They're even in my dreams. Sometimes... sometimes I dream about Perry. There... there's blood everywhere - on the rock, all over my hands... in his hair. And he's...'

His voice had dropped low enough that I had to strain to hear him. But the fear and loathing and the hatred was as clear and biting as acid.

'... begging me - Please, don't! I'm not one of them. I'm just like you! There's no such - You're crazy, Tony. Oh, my God! Oh, my God! You're crazy!'

I sat in the heavy silence that followed, torn between sick anger and gut wrenching grief for a kid who could have been something good, something fine, if only nature hadn't poked a malicious finger in his pie.

'In real life it wasn't like that,' he said. 'In real life he didn't beg. And he denied nothing.'

I had to get out of there - now! I scraped back my chair. 'Time's got away from me kid,' I lied. I stowed my stuff back inside the old, battered briefcase that is as much a part of me as my arm; strode quickly to the interview room door and rapped on the thick, glass pane set high in the centre.

Glancing over my shoulder I said, 'You need anything? Smokes?'

The kid shook his head. He looked lost and scared, too thin, his shoulders bowed beneath the weight of his burden, and my stomach roiled with impotent anger against a God who could create the terrible tragedy of insanity. The door opened. I was still looking at the kid. His face tightened and for just a second I saw fear and hatred blaze from his eyes. I whipped my head around. The guard's hard gaze was fixed on the boy. The skin at the back of my neck prickled. No wonder the kid saw monsters in men's faces when you could find brutes like this on any street corner. Man stank too. An habitual odour of old farts and rotting garbage. I hesitated, I'd had some previous run-ins with Dean, I decided it would be in my client's best interests not to provoke him without reason. I made myself nod pleasantly as I walked into the corridor. I needed a drink... I needed sleep. I kept seeing the boy's tormented eyes.

'Here you go kid.' I tossed the paper bag down in front of him. 'I know the food's none too good in here.' The pleasure in his eyes far out stripped my offering of hamburger, fries and milkshake.

'Thanks, Mr. Harker. That's real fine of you.'

Suddenly he stopped chewing. His eyes went far away. He blinked. His eyes cleared, pinning me with their violet stare. 'Take care, Mr. Harker,' he said. 'You're a good man - good at your job. That don't sit too well with the 'others'. You let too many of the people that pass through here slip away from their grasp.'

'Now son, I can -'

'Dammit!' The sound of his fist hammering down on the table was shockingly ugly in the small room. He shook his head. 'Why God! Why'd you make me able to see them? I can't stop them alone and no-one will listen! No-one believes me!'

The boy armed tears from his face. He glared at me angrily. 'You don't understand. The sole purpose of their existence is to torment and if possible, destroy human life. They're motivated by an intense hatred of the human race. Everywhere they are - bad things happen. And prison is a wonderful place to make bad things happen, Mr. Harker. In prison they can torture, beat, rape, even, sometimes, kill... and no-one sees. And if it does come to outside attention, how hard d'you think it is to push the blame off on another inmate?'

'And you'd really like it if I did my best to keep you out, wouldn't you son?' I asked mildly.

'Mr. Harker.' The kid's eyes were resigned. 'I'm goin' to jail. We both know that.' He sighed. 'And I'm probably going to die in there. Because I don't think I'll be able to hide the fact I can see them in a place where their kind rule. Even if I could, it won't take them long to find out I've been killing their own.' He pushed away the remains of his hamburger. 'After that... death'll be the easy part.' His voice was flat. He stared at the table for a minute. When he looked at me again his face was closed. 'I'd just like to know there's one person in this world who knows my story - who knows what's happened to me.'

'I could get in touch with your folks -'

'No! If they find out about this, about the 'others', there's a better than even chance they'll believe me and go looking for revenge.'

I looked at his pale, drawn face, at his wide, horror shadowed eyes, and finally I really understood. For Tony Cameron these 'others' were as real as June following May.

'Tell me about them son.' I hoped that in the telling he would, at least for a while, feel a little less alone in that dark and terrible space where he lived.

A shudder took him and the fear in his eyes leapt out at me so that for a moment, there in that quiet room, although I had absolutely no belief in these 'others' I found myself trembling and afraid.

'They have no soul,' he said, his voice shaky. He held my gaze. 'I don't know if you're a religious man, Mr. Harker, but God gave me a gift.' He gave a low laugh. 'Or maybe a curse. When I look at someone I can see their spirit - it's a bright light all around them - an aura some call it. The aura around the 'others' is black, shot through with a dull, angry red. And within them, where the spark of their soul should be, there's nothing but an empty, dark void. I don't know what they are Mr. Harker, but they're not human. I think that's maybe why they hate us.

'There's a smell too, not strong, but I can smell when one of 'em's real close by. I think some people, maybe those who are sensitives themselves, sometimes catch it. They just probably don't realise what they're -'

He took a quick, angry breath. I could see the whiteness of his knuckles through the tanned skin of his clenched fists. Abruptly, hope shone in his face. 'Look, maybe I can prove some of it. Check the records for the places where I've killed. Look for bad accidents, kids dying in a school fire - I - I don't know - just look for an unusually high incidence of bad luck.'

As quickly as it had come, all the steam ran out of him and he slumped in the chair.

'But you're not going to do that are you Mr. Harker? 'Cause your sitting there thinking I'm just one more crazy dude and pretty soon now I'll be sentenced and I won't be your problem anymore.'

'You're wrong, son,' I told him. 'I'm sitting here doing my hardest to figure out how to get you the best possible deal when we go up in front of the judge.'

I stood up and walked to the door. Behind me the kid spoke.

'Take good care, Mr. Harker,' he said. 'I want someone alive to remember Tony Cameron passed this way once.'

I headed for Joe's - nothing unusual in that. Somehow though, tonight, watching the guys shoot pool and argue over which team would score a home run come Saturday or who would finally catch Sammy Lee Darnell's fancy enough to get her to agree to a date, was infinitely more appealing than facing an empty house.

I was halfway through a bowl of Joe's beef stew when Dean came in. It didn't take very long for me to figure out he'd decided he was going to be the one to break down Sammy Lee's defences. I guess Sammy couldn't have liked his stink any more than I did because from what I could see she was doing her damndest to keep a distance between them.

I was nursing my third beer of the evening when Dean must've trod on her toes once too often. I was sitting in the corner, too far off to get what she said but her face, as they say, told it all. The unofficial Sammy Lee fan club heard sure enough and I had no trouble at all making out the roar that went up.

Dean slammed his beer down on the bar, his face ugly. For a moment I thought there would be trouble. Then he spun around on his heel and left.

It was late when I pushed to my feet, around 11.30 and I still had a stack of work to do. Tomorrow was Tony's day in court and I was determined to do the best I could for the kid. Truth was, I didn't believe he belonged in jail.

Dean opened the door to the cell. Judging by the hard glitter of his eyes, his mood hadn't improved none since last night. I took a shallow breath. Didn't smell any better either. Have to get him some deodorant for his Christmas stocking this year, I thought grimly. The more I was around Dean, the less I liked him.

'C'mon kid.' I walked across, laying my hand on his shoulder, coaxing him to his feet. My hand was still on his shoulder as I glanced back toward Dean. I blinked, my arm falling back to my side. For just an instant, as I'd looked at Dean, I'd seen something looking out at me from behind his face. Something distinctly inhuman! Something with glowing, red eyes, like pieces of hot coal - come directly from hell - and the snout of a pig, or maybe, maybe a bear. I blinked, glanced at the kid. He didn't seem to be aware that anything was going on with me.

That's 'cause nothing is going on wit' you dufus! My brain was screaming at me, insisting I believe. And I did! God help me. I did. With every scrap of my sanity - I believed.

I got the sentence reduced from murder one to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility. Tony would serve his time in Riverdale Psychiatric Hospital where he would receive medical help. Definitely better than a stay in Cook County jail.

Joe's was deserted, a couple of travelling salesmen sat together over a steak sandwich and warm beers, suitcases propped against their feet.

'Gimme a beer, Joe.'

Joe nodded. That was pretty much the only conversation you got out of Joe. I glanced round, looking for Sammy Lee. I could do with the sound of her smooth voice washing over my nerve endings right about now. 

For the third evening in a row, she wasn't to be seen.

'Sammy sick or something?'

Joe shook his head, chewing on a match he had clamped between his teeth. 'Nope. I ain't heard from her since last Tuesday. Guess she took off.'

It was possible. Sammy wasn't a hometown girl and people passing through frequently decided to move on. Tuesday; the night Sammy had gone head to head with Dean. I remembered how he'd looked as he left the bar; Dean was not a man to be crossed lightly. Maybe she'd thought it would be in her best interest to move on. I took a long pull on my beer.

I'd done my best for the kid and he knew it. The end. But for some reason I couldn't let the case go. I kept chewing on it like a hound with too little sense and not enough teeth.

Two days later, the day of the kid's transfer, Sammy Lee's body turned up in a dumpster behind Harvey's store. She was broken up pretty good.

Ray Edmunds, town coroner, shook his head. 'Twenty-two cuts! Some fucker beat the tar outta her and then took a knife and carved strips offa her - twenty-two times! What kind of a sick puppy dog d'ya have to be to do something like that to another human being?'

I drove down to Riverdale behind the police wagon.

'They don't do room service, kid, but there's worse places.'

He looked at me seriously. 'I know, Mr. Harker, I appreciate all you've done for me.'

I watched him walk inside. Climbing back in my car I sat there, picturing his pale face and tormented eyes. It didn't fit - the evidence was all there - but dammit, it was all wrong! Something was trying to get my attention. Humming in my brain, like an electrical circuit ready to blow.

I killed the engine and hurried up to the wide doorway. The deputy was talking to an orderly that the kid was trying his damnedest not to stare at. The boy's face was sweaty and his eyes were scared. He looked ready to run.

Trying not to stare at the kid was a woman. She was around twenty-six and beautiful. There was a tension in her face that didn't quite mask her excitement. But it was not sex she hungered for.

She reached him before I did, moving casually, her hand brushed his arm. She smiled, deliberately alluring now, looking for all the world as if she was making a play. I was close enough to hear her low whisper.

'Hold on - don't let them win. Yes!' She nodded. 'I see them too...'

I felt a chill gather in my gut.


  1. very good indeed! love the characters and the build up, a real sense of hopelessness.

    Michael McCarthy

  2. Tony Simon

    A great read.This had me hooked immediately and kept me hooked to the last sentence and beyond. Love the characters and the atmospheric prose. I hope we see more of this writer.

  3. A really well paced and intriguing story. Rounded characters and a great hook in the ending.

  4. I loved the ending, nice to know the kid will have some company in Riverdale. Felt so sorry for him. The way the author wrote his character evoked a lot of empathy. Good solid writing.

  5. Intriguing, there was so much good characterization and tension in this short story, that I wanted to read more and wished it was a book. Great writing and good satisfying ending that gave me plenty to wonder about. Hope they'll be more from this writer.

    Maria Wilbrink

  6. THis was gripping right form the beginning. Loved it.

  7. Awesome stuff. Really enjoyed this.

    1. Chilling! I, too think it could be the start of a book. CD

  8. I just wanted to say a very big thank you to all you lovely people who took the time to read and leave a comment on my story. It has to be the best feeling in the world when someone reads and enjoys something you've written. Thank you all again.

  9. Helpless and hopeless done really well.