Malls. The heart of any community is its shopping mall; it reflects the pulse of the area. By that definition, my hometown of Pinewood, Pennsylvania has all but flat-lined.
Around here we have the Pine Grove Mall. Less than 20 years ago, Pine Grove was hopping. Everyone in the county would shop here. Restaurants would spring up like weeds and would grow just as fast. But that is just a dim memory anymore.
People younger than I am only know Pine Grove as an abandoned old cluster of buildings with a thick layer of graffiti painted across dull grey walls. It could easily be a set background for The Walking Dead or something. Sadly, I’m not sure a zombie apocalypse would look much different. The people around here have gone the same way as the mall; from bright and exuberant to dull, lifeless, and bleak. Heroin is absurdly high here. I swear, the only people making any big money around here anymore are the dealers.
Which was how I found myself at the old Mall last week. Being one of the town’s sheriff deputies means I know this town like the back of my hand. We’d been getting steady reports from locals about weird activity at the mall. Nothing new there. Kids loved to sneak in there on dares and to drink, smoke, get to second base, the usual. We usually took these reports with a grain of salt, but lately, there had been more calls than usual, so we were obliged to look into it.
Walking up to the entrance, my breath came out in a cloud. Time to be on the lookout, because odds were good that there was probably some homeless guy in there or something. There is something inherently unsettling about abandoned public buildings. Perhaps it’s because you can’t help but imagine them bustling with visitors, you can sometimes feel the hustle and bustle of the past. But then you see the reality and it doesn’t look natural.
Walking to the padlocked front double door, I got a closer look at the graffiti on the door. Even if I hated the sight of it, I couldn’t deny some of it was impressive. There was something inherently captivating about its raw pain, it just screamed out at the observer.
After unwinding the chain and padlock, the front doors whined slightly as I opened them as quietly as I could. Stepping onto the cracked glazed floor of the entryway, I caught the damp bitter smell of mold invading the area, the scent mingling with that still lingering department store smell. That synthetic smell you automatically associate with corporate retail. Taking great care to shut the door partially behind me, I slowly crept inside, my narrow flashlight dancing on the surfaces ahead of me. It felt far chillier in here now. I didn’t like being here. Not one bit.
The Pine Grove Mall had two levels. One was the entryway floor, which was technically the building’s second level. From the outside, you could see how the place was built on a quarry. Once inside, visitors could descend via escalator or elevator to the ground floor. Taking great care not to stumble on the escalator steps, I descended down onto the ground floor. It was filthy down here. Garbage strewn everywhere you looked. The only light besides my flashlight was from the occasional skylight above.
Putting on hand on my gun in case I needed to protect myself, I walked forward. The air felt different here, denser. Every step I took forward, I felt like there were shadows moving on the walls. But every time I looked, it was nothing. Repressing that voice in the back of my head that told me to get out, I scanned the place. No homeless anywhere. All around me, the old vendors and stores were silent. I was just about to turn around and go back when I smelled it.
A faint smell of smoke coming from what used to be Sears. I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The old saying never felt more real; there was smoke, so there had to be fire. Turning off my flashlight, I crept around, taking great care to look around corners. Nothing. But I realized that the smoke was coming from the basement. Drawing in a deep breath, I silently walked down the stairs. The smoke thickened as I did.
Most of the time, fire is a pleasant smell. Something about it is natural, inherently cleansing and earthy. This was anything but. It had a bitter, angry tinge to it. Sort of like how chemically induced fires smell different. The smell was noxious and heavy. Great, that meant whoever was down here was probably burning something they shouldn’t. Fucking meth heads. Doing my best to control the tightening in my chest, I inched forward. As I approached the door to the basement, I could see the outlines of a fire through a crack in the door. But just as I was thinking about how to deal with the situation, I stopped dead in my tracks.
This was no small time drug deal, at least not one that I had ever seen. Peering through a small hole in the wall a few feet away, I could make out the shape of at least five figures. I had no idea what they were doing, but I knew it wasn’t good. People making meth was looking pretty good compared to whatever the fuck this was.
There were five people that I could see, each tall and lean in build. Also identical was their attire; black hooded jackets, black pants, and the masks. The masks were those cheap costume store ones; milk white and expressionless. Just remembering them now gives me the creeps. I crouched there, simultaneously transfixed and alarmed by the sight. I could hear faint murmuring coming from the room, but I couldn’t make out any actual words. It was driving me crazy that I couldn’t see what exactly they were doing.
The only other thing in the room seemed to be medium sized crates, stacked against the far side of the wall. I felt like I was a kid again, secretly watching adults doing something that I didn’t understand, but I knew wasn’t good.
Right then, I heard the sounds of scuttling from behind me. Even now, I am amazed I didn’t yell out or anything at that moment. With a rapid glance behind me, I saw it was a rat. My hand tightly gripping the butt of my gun, I forced myself to calm down a bit. I didn’t know what to do. I was hoping that they wouldn’t hear it and investigate. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to notice.
A few moments later, I saw something. In the glint from the fire, I noticed one of them was wearing a ring. A gold ring with a sapphire in the center, a custom job. I know because I’d seen it before. It was typically worn on the finger of Seth Lang; one of the towns more prominent citizens, a member of city council and one of the town’s few people of means left. Looking at the figure now, I could see he had a similar build to Mr. Lang.
Want to know what the most disturbing thing of all was? I wasn’t even surprised. In a place like Pinewood, gossip tends to spread quicker than a forest fire, and gossip about Lang wasn’t good. I had never met the guy myself, but I knew people who had, and they all told me the same thing. He always made them feel uneasy. Seeing this, I knew what they meant. Believe me, I have seen more than my fair share of bad.
But this was different. I don’t think I have ever felt so small before. Whatever this was, it wasn’t good. Smelling whatever that was they were burning, it stung my nose. Perhaps it was drug-related after all. Either way, it was time to make my leave.
Every move I took made me hold my breath, I was hoping that I wouldn’t be seen or heard. Part of me didn’t want to take my eyes off the door as I left, so I did my best to look back and forth repeatedly.
The air got mercifully clearer with each step I took. Internally, I was screaming “Get the hell out of there!” But fortunately, I was still in work mode and I knew I had to keep my head and stay quiet. No use running if it got me shot. Or worse.
I didn’t know how many of them were here, so best to stay incognito. If possible, I felt even more terrified than when I first arrived. Every shadow I passed, I thought I could see the shape of the blank white mask lumbering towards me in the darkness.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I made it the door I came in through. Casting a glance over my shoulder to make sure the coast was clear, I stepped into the cold night air. I had no idea what to do.
As I walked back to my car, I couldn’t believe I actually saw that; whatever that was. I didn’t see anything explicitly bad, but I also didn’t see anything good. Well, It was also at that point when I felt the most fear. Something about the wide open space made me feel exposed, not to mention the dim but still operational light. Every step made me think that it might be the last before someone or something jumped me. When got back in my car, I don’t think I have ever been so happy to be back in a vehicle in my life. I felt like I was on the run from a rabid dog; something just aching to rip me to bits.
Shoving my key into the ignition, I hastily started my car. I took care to get out of there quickly, but not so much that I made a bunch of noise. Looking around myself on every side, I was still alone.
“Calm down,” I told myself out loud in the solitude of my car. But as you might imagine, that was easier said than done in this case. From a professional standpoint, I had nothing to report that was illegal. At best, all I saw was loitering or trespassing, with no way to know who it was for sure. I didn’t see anything explicitly bad, but I also didn’t see anything good. But that was my head talking. My instinct was screaming “Shady!” over and over.
This was the worst part of my job. When I knew something was up, but there was nothing I could do about it but wait. Backup was a no go either. By the time they got here, whoever was down there might be gone. I decided that last word sounded amazing, so I kept on driving.
When I got home, I felt the crushing silence. The sound had never before sounded so real—like a state of existence. Out of paranoia, I peered through my window blinds every few moments, only to find nothing there. Keeping my weapon handy, I went to bed. Sleep was not to be had, as I spent the rest of the night staring up at my ceiling fan.
After dragging myself out of bed a few hours later, I went to work like I would normally. I felt simultaneously exhausted and wired. After sitting down at my desk with a massive coffee, I began to fill out some routine paperwork. As usual, the scent of stale Chinese food lingered in the air. I decided to file paperwork saying that I had seen nothing at the abandoned mall. But that was a task for the end of the day. I was at work for about two hours when my boss called me into his office.
“Adam, I need you for a second,” Sheriff Hammond summoned me in his low, gruff voice. I always admired the man, because despite his job, I had yet to hear him raise his voice at anyone. A tall, slight man, he had these piercing black eyes. Being a former sergeant in the Marine Corps, no one in town would dare mess with the guy. The fact that he was my boss was one of the few things that helped me stay calm. I was at the safest place in town here.
“Yes, Sheriff?” I stood in front of his desk expectantly as he reclined casually in his chair with his feet up on the messy surface.
“The anniversary of the town’s founding is coming up and they are having the usual shindig. Was wondering if you’d mind working the street festival.”
“Sure thing, no problem boss.”
“Good man. Oh and by the way. What happened last night?” I froze on the spot, unsure of what to say. I could lie about what happened to anyone else in town, but not the Sheriff. I swear the man could smell a lie quicker than a snake smells prey.
“Well Sheriff,” I began hesitantly. “I don’t know what exactly I saw.” He took his feet off the desk and was studying me. “All I know is it looked creepy as hell.”
“You saw those bastards too huh?” he asked as if it were the most routine thing in the World. I could feel my jaw drop as I just stared at him. But that was the typical Jake Hammond. The man didn’t flinch at anything.
“How did you,” I began to ask before he interrupted me.
“My boy, I know this place like the back of my hand. There is a lot of shady things that go on here that I know of, but for a lot of reasons, I can’t do anything about. It’s not that I’m afraid. Not by a long shot. It’s because I know who and what I’m up against. A lot of boys over the years have taken calls just like that one. Most never return. Know why?”
“No,” I couldn’t believe it was possible, but I felt even more afraid than last night.
“Because those mask-wearing assholes always get them. Not with bullets. Well, most of the time they don’t. No, they use something more dangerous; bribes. Drugs, money, women, booze, whatever. Know what happens once they turn them?”
“They put them to use. For something. Occasionally it’s just to look the other way on something. Other times, well, let’s just say there’s a reason why turnover here is so high. Every time there is a call out to that place, I keep a close eye on whoever goes out and how they act after. You, my boy, are different than the rest. You know it’s bad news. So tell me, who do you think was there?”
“I think one was Seth Lang.”
“Good man. Lang is the ringleader. Slimy little prick. Had my eye on him for quite a while now. He’s dirty.”
“What exactly is it they do?” The Sheriff exhaled as he ran his hand over his bald head.
“Few things. They do your typical small-time drug deals on occasion. But that’s not what keeps me up at night. No, they tend to use drugs as a means to control their merchandise. The merchandise being people. Women usually, but they are equal opportunity lowlifes if the demand is there.”
“Bingo. Area’s been a hot zone for the last few years. Ever since they did all that construction on the highways and whatever, this place is an ideal midway point. Crime is like real estate, location is everything. Oh and with the number of people around dropping dead from heroin around here, there are plenty of bodies that go missing. Hell, the coroner sometimes needs more freezers and most time no one claims them anyways. So there’s another business opportunity. Someone needs a kidney, no problem. Just get off what used to be old Highway 26 and you’re in business.”
“So what do we do?” I had no idea where he was going with this.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, my boy. I’ve been planning what to do for a long time. I just needed someone I could trust as my back up. All I need you to do is man the office when I say so and that’s it.”
“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe that was all.
“Yup. Believe me, old Seth has a lot of enemies. Powerful enemies. In virtually every field. They’ve been waiting to crack down on him and his associates and now they’ll have the chance. So, all I need you to do run the office tomorrow and it will be done.” I nodded and agreed I would.
I spent the rest of the day in a haze, but the following day, I did just as he asked. It seemed to be just another day to me. The entire time I was there, I tried to stay calm, but inside I kept wondering what he was doing? Time seemed to drag painfully by. As the sun was setting, the Sheriff came back and offered me a nod.
“Keep an eye on the news. Good work son.” He gave me a pat on the back. It was oddly comforting. The man had never done that before.
The next couple of days I was on edge as I watched the news. But nothing caught my eye until yesterday. My heart dropped into my stomach as I saw Seth Lang being dragged away in cuffs, the local anchor giving some commentary about being indicted for racketeering and similar charges. But it was what I saw next that I couldn’t believe.
The person who was being taken in right alongside Seth. A tall, slender guy about my age with a buzz cut. His name was Terry. I had seen his picture a million times; most recently right on his father’s desk where I sat at all day less than a week ago.