Small Fish to Fry

I know Antony Vargas is innocent, and I know this because I was pulled in on the same charges.

47 murders. 49 by the time they snagged him for riding without a helmet. They’re good at that: pull you in for a little thing, tack on the big thing later.

I won’t pretend I’m 100% innocent. I was driving back from a wedding when I saw a derelict building too good to miss, and I just so happened to have my cans in the back. I was spraying the last layer on my tag when the gun cocked behind me. A friend of mine got capped by an overenthusiastic rent-a-cop back in ‘95, and as I have no desire to end up dead or wheelchair-bound, I put my hands up.

At no point in time did the officer arresting me mention murder. I was twenty minutes in that interrogation room, sweating and looking at my dumb face in the mirror. When the officer came in with a book and started talking casually about where I’d been that night, I instantly dropped the magic word: lawyer. He just went on about how I was a stranger around these parts, probably not a tourist seeing as it was past 10 at night and gee, I sure had a lot of equipment in the back of my jeep.

While he’s talking, he opens the book and shows me…Jesus, how to describe it? I’ve seen wartime photos, buddy of mine was in Afghanistan a few years back. These matched his snaps for the senseless level of violence. Think I threw up in my mouth a little. All the time this cop is talking, watching my reaction. Guess I blinked wrong because he slammed the book shut and left the room. The guy playing bad cop came in and that’s when I shot myself in the foot. In my sputtering about tagging, somehow they found enough to book me on suspicion of murder. A case made out of paper bricks, it wouldn’t hold up in any sane court. But this was Hogg county, and the judge they got looked a little too much like the sheriff for comfort. I’m only free to tell you this today because my lawyer, a beautiful, beautiful man, descended like an angry Santa Claus and delivered a legal smackdown that left their ears ringing. I didn’t understand most of the legalese, but he threatened to have the judge disbarred if this farce of a trial went forward.

Antony Vargas didn’t have all that. He had a mealy-mouthed public defender who told him to take a plea deal or they’d cut his mother’s benefits.

After I was acquitted, or exonerated or whatever the proper term is, the cops acted all self-righteous, told me to never come back. I said I had no problem missing a shit-splat town like theirs in the future. The sheriff actually leapt across the table after me, can you believe it? I guess even Splatsville, U.S.A. has some measure of civic pride.

Anyway, I disobeyed almost immediately. Came back disguised as a photographer enamored by their collection of dilapidated barns. It worked because I’m a 43-year-old white guy with the ability to get a haircut. The camera was originally just cover, but it wound up being handy when I saw what was on the barns.

Above the first barn’s door was what looked like an eye in what was probably blood. Flies didn’t swarm over paint like that. All the barns had ‘em. Old, new, abandoned, inhabited, it was just out in the open for anyone to see.

Now, in a situation like this you’d expect the townsfolk to be a little on the taciturn side. And they were—right up until I told them I worked for Fortean Times. It’s amazing the things people will tell you if they think they’ll be bigfoot-famous. Like how they all knew that everyone the sheriff nabbed was innocent, they just couldn’t speak up. Or the fact that there were probably more than just the 49 murders, but those were the only bodies found. Or the fact that all the plants died at the crime scenes and never grew back.

It goes on.

The blood on the barns came from the biggest animal, be it bull or dog or horse, that they had. They’d bleed it every few weeks, never more than it could stand to lose, mix the blood with a little vinegar to keep it from coagulating and slop it on the barn. Presto. I couldn’t gather how they came up with these particular rules, just that it was how their grandaddy’s daddy did things.

Another thing I couldn’t get was a physical description. Normally, there’ll be at least an outline: ‘it looked like a shadow twice the height of a man,’ etc. Nothing. What I did get was that this sort of thing had happened before, when the town had been nothing but a collection of tarpaper shacks.

This latest rash of murders happened because a place they called the Water Shack burned down. I never got more detail than that. What kind of building, who owned it, why it would have an effect on the murders? Zilch.

I noticed a squad car circling like a shark on the horizon, so I beat feet at that point. Went to the next town over to use their library. Apparently what the townspeople had been unwittingly painting was the evil eye.

The next two murders were in bigger papers, so the cops were aching to have a suspect. Antony Vargas was tailor-made for the verdict: out-of-towner, young, ethnic, and defiant. It didn’t matter that he would’ve been thirteen when the murders started, or that he had clear alibis for nine of them. Once he confessed, no one was interested in looking closer.

I saw the photos of the murder scene in the Tribune, taken by a much better photographer. It was fucking grizzly. What was left of the poor bastard was threaded through a treetop. Which, to me, should’ve been an instant exoneration. How can I say this without getting hyperbolic? No human did that. They’d have to have a catapult to launch it that far.

The newspeople had better luck tracking details down. Of the 49 murders, all had been conducted in the dead of night. The victim had been snatched from somewhere else and brought to the murder scene, sometimes over ten miles. The murders were unusually savage, and the papers used those words they love to use in a time like this: “barbaric” “senseless,” “inhuman.”

I especially love that last one. It comes so close to the truth but shies away at the last moment. Because I don’t believe a human did that. I don’t believe Antony Vargas did it and I don’t believe any of the other poor schmoes they dragged in before him did it. But they need an answer, just like the town needs a scapegoat. I learned the town wasn’t just desperate, they were scared. They all dealt with it differently. The cops dealt by dragging in anyone who so much as dropped a gum wrapper within town limits. The townsfolk painted their buildings in blood. They both came to the same end, and they were both equally ineffective.

I visit Tony in jail. Nice guy, all things considered. His mom has been lobbying for his release since he got thrown in there, but I don’t like her chances. The only thing the justice system hates more than a wrongful conviction is overturning it.

There have been more murders. It’s not in the paper, but I visit town a lot. They like me, I’m the Fort guy. They’ve found maybe two more sites, two more murders that could set Antony Vargas free. So I stuck around to take pictures. They can’t keep it under wraps forever. They can’t continue with this false peace indefinitely.

I know this because when they pointed me to the site of the last murder, I watched the trees beyond it part. I saw them rock back and forth in the wake of something massive. And I realized that we all have much bigger things to worry about.

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