Swipe Right and Stab

A tale of murder, loss and irony

(Source: haigang Li/Flickr)

(NOTE: The following work of short fiction was inspired by this writing prompt.)

1.

Clarence Hawthorne crouched at the edge of the bathtub, washing his hands like a doctor would before performing surgery. He paid close attention to the dried blood caked underneath his nails and in-between his fingers. The mixture of hot water and chemical-grade powdered soap was harsh on his palms — the soap box’s warning label bore a message that read “CAUTION: FOR INDUSTRIAL USE ONLY! NOT FOR USE ON BODY, HANDS, SCALP, ETC. MAY CAUSE REDNESS, BURNING, RASH OR PEELING.”

Clarence didn’t mind, though. All it would take was one DNA sample: one drop of blood, one loose strand of hair, one clothing fiber, one key piece of evidence not discarded or thoroughly cleansed, and he would be placed behind bars for the rest of his life.

After several more seconds of careful handwashing, Clarence grabbed a purple handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit jacket and used it to turn off the faucet. The squeak from the handle pierced the silence of the upscale condo.

“Huh, probably needs some oil,” Clarence murmured softly to himself.

He watched the dark pink mixture of blood and soap bubbles spiral down the drain in a miniature cyclone with an almost childlike sense of curiosity. Sticking to his routine, Clarence did a quick walk-through of the apartment and looked for any signs of struggle, damage, or disarray. Confident that he had covered his tracks well enough, he took a luggage bag and a duffel bag — the same duffel bag that contained the severed head of 28-year-old Janice Eberhart — in each hand, closed the apartment door behind him and took the elevator down to the first floor.

With his tailored suit and crisp haircut, Clarence, donning a pair of black Ray-Bans, strolled down the lobby to the exit with ease; or at least with the ease that a high-functioning psychopath carrying two bags filled with dismembered body parts could, if you will.

The guard at the front desk, a portly middle-aged man with a gray-streaked George Jefferson-style afro was munching on glazed crullers and streaming Fox News’ morning show on his phone. Once he spotted Clarence heading towards the revolving door, he brushed the crumbs from his mouth and called out to him.

“Hey-Hey, man! Nice job pulling that hot little number you came in here with last night!” said the guard.

Clarence flinched in response. He was busy replaying the night’s events in his head and was startled by the man’s outburst.

“Uhhh, yeah. Heh. Thank you, sir,” Clarence replied. His voice dripped with annoyance.

“Oh. Oh! My bad, man. I see you got the shades on. Bet you had a long night of booze and bedroom wrestling if you know what I mean. I can spot that hungover look anywhere, believe me. I know your eyes are as red as the devil’s dick!” The chubby man cackled at his own crude joke while his jowls jiggled in sync.

“As a matter of fact, they are.” Clarence pulled down his shades to reveal his bloodshot eyes.

“Ha, ha! I knew it!” the guard laughed.

“Courtesy of Smirnoff,” Clarence quipped, cleverly masking the fact that his red eyes were actually due to him having spent the entire night murdering a woman in her own condo, dismembering her body, and painstakingly covering his tracks with bleach and industrial-strength cleaning products.

“You plan on seeing her again?” the guard asked.

“Huh?”

“The pretty girl you were with. Fancy black dress, high heels. Always has a smile on her face and says ‘Hello’ whenever she sees me. What was her name, again? Damn, I just had it a second ago…”

Clarence’s jaw began to clench. The man was getting on his nerves. Fuck, he thought to himself. This asshole won’t shut the hell up and just let me go! Might have to take care of him as well…

The security guard pondered for a moment and gave up. “Ah, whatever, it’ll come back to me eventually,” he said, grinning and shaking his head.

“Well, uh, I gotta get going,” replied Clarence. “My Uber ride should be pulling up outside any minute now.”

“Oh sure, sure. Didn’t mean to talk your ear off buddy. I don’t know, it’s such a beautiful morning that I felt like talking to someone. Most people tend to just walk on past me, you know? Nobody likes to just slow down and appreciate life these days. We could die at any moment.”

“There’s no denying that,” chuckled Clarence. He heard a horn honk and peered through the glass in the lobby. His Uber had arrived.

“Looks like my ride’s here. Take care of yourself, sir.” Clarence raised his right arm to wave goodbye, but the weight of the girl’s head in the duffel bag made it only come up halfway.

“You, too! Oh, by the way, that girl seems like one of the good ones, man. I don’t mean to pry, but it seems like she attracts a lot of douchebags. I’ve watched her get into shouting matches with her exes outside the building and walk in here with tears in her eyes. I hope you do right by her.”

“I will. She’s in good hands.” Clarence nearly broke into laughter. He quickly spun around to hide the smile on his face, headed out the door, threw his bags in the car’s trunk and hopped in the back.

“Where to?” asked the driver.

“Downtown. To the Hammerstead Lofts”

With his latest victim in tow, Clarence put in his air pods, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and let the sounds from his pop music playlist act as the soundtrack on his way home.

2.

Clarence was — by all appearances — normal. He grew up in an upper-middle class family in a virtually homogeneous suburb. The white picket fence, the attached two-car garage, the dog, the impossibly green grass, all the cliches. What made him different from his friends, relatives, and peers, however, was the way that he was “wired,” so to speak. He operated not by a gray-shaded sense of morality like most of us, instead his life revolved around one letter, one word, one phrase: “I.”

Clarence’s form of extreme narcissism was unique. He craved attention, but not in the way that your average narc does. Instead of being being a show-off, donning loud clothes, or possessing a high penchant for attention-whoring by any means, Clarence opted for academic prowess, material possessions, and romantic entanglements, the last of these being what brought the most sadistic aspects of his personality (or what little actual personality he truly had) to the surface.

It began shortly after college. Having spent the past four years of his life hunched over a desk in the corner of his dorm room while his roommate and his small circle of friends (they were more like acquaintances really, ones that he purposely sought out due to their connections) skated by thanks to their parents making “donations” to professors for passing grades, Clarence thrust himself into the dating world soon after graduating top of his class.

Possessing a well-paying job, expensive clothes, a luxury car, an upscale apartment, and looks that often reminded his dates of several of Hollywood’s leading male actors, Clarence had little difficulty attracting his “living canvases,” as he called them, on dating apps. He wasn’t just good at doing it, he was great at it.

He always followed the same two-step formula. Step 1: Making sure that his profile pics portrayed him as successful and larger than life. Studying his competition, he noticed that most of the other guys usually took photos of themselves either posing shirtless in the mirror, holding a wad of cash, or something else equally ridiculous. Instead, Clarence posted high quality photos of him enjoying brunch at a fancy restaurant, wearing tailored suits or vacationing in exotic cities like Lisbon or Turkey. He always used an alias in place of his real name and would digitally alter his face in the photos well enough where they looked a little but not quite like him, just in case the police came knocking on his door one day. The women that he met were always smitten with his physical appearance in person upon meeting him, so none of them ever noticed the difference.

Step 2 involved picking the right targets. They were typically between the ages of 24 and 29, college-educated, career-driven and usually — but not always — women who had left their small hometowns behind for the glitz and glamour of the big city. In Clarence’s mind, these traits typically led to the women being optimistic, eager to meet a guy to eventually settle down with, and most importantly, naïve to the danger of sadistic monsters like him.

He would start off by wooing a woman with some sort of cheesy pick up line that he’d send to their inbox, more often than not leading to a game of phone tag where he’d impress her with fake stories of him doing missionary work oversea for some charity or of him going scuba diving in the Caribbean and swimming with a school of dolphins, whatever lie he felt would draw her closer to him. He always prolonged the eventual first (and only) dinner date in person with them for at least two weeks to three weeks. Engaging in a sort of twisted romance, Clarence made sure he knew virtually everything about the girls; their fears, their desires, their hopes, their dreams, steadily earning their trust before they got to meet each other. The dinner was always both expensive and delicious. Afterwards, they’d go back to his place or hers, the clock would strike midnight, and the young woman’s life would be taken by a blade — the light bouncing off of its reflection serving as the last thing she witnessed before her eyes gave way to black.

Over a period of five years, Clarence had taken the lives of more than a dozen women. He had even become famous in the media for a short moment; the local news nicknamed him the “Dating App Demon,” but neither the media nor anyone else discovered his true identity. Not his parents, not his coworkers, not his boss, not his college friends that he still hung out with regularly. No one.

Everything was going like it always had, business as usual, until the day that a worldwide health pandemic forced everyone indoors and forced him to end his gruesome hobby until further notice. In order to scratch his itch, he spent hours at home during lockdown browsing dating profiles and fantasizing about the various ways he’d murder each woman that caught his eye.

There was Lena, the fitness coach and self-described “vegan foodie.” He imagined taking her along for a hike one day in the afternoon. They’d venture deep into the woods, off the beaten path, and then he would strike, leaving her body to rot amongst a pile of leaves and swiping her “I Ran a 5k Today!” wristband for a souvenir. By the time her corpse would be found the park rangers, the bears, cougars and other wildlife would take care of most of the evidence, he figured.

He came across Michelle, the corporate go-getter who was steadily making her way up the ladder — and becoming deathly worried about the fact she was rapidly approaching her mid-thirties and still not married, while most of her friends were. Yet, her profile hid the uncomfortable truth. The group photos of her smiling with her girlfriends and dangling a glass of tequila at her sister’s wedding were fronts in face of the deep anxiety and loneliness she felt. But, if one focused closely on her eyes, they could see the sadness hiding behind them.

Clarence considered that ending her misery would be a favor, perhaps even a godsend. She would sneak him into her workplace after hours and they would walk in her corner office. They would embrace each other, kissing passionately, until he would abruptly stop. He’d look into her eyes, slowly guide her against the giant glass window that gave her an amazing view of the city’s downtown area and shove her through it. As she fell several stories to her demise, the broken glass shimmering around her like jagged diamonds, she would mouth the words “Thank you,” for his role in ending her suffering. The fantasies of a madman, no doubt.

3.

On and on he continued, until he met one woman in particular. Her name was Sophia, a registered nurse at one of the city’s poorest hospitals. The outbreak had been rough on her, to say the least. The daily, non-stop, around-the-clock shifts caused by the massive influx of patients quickly began to take their toll on her — physically and emotionally.

If she wasn’t being forced to sleep in one of the chairs in the cafeteria so she’d be available to assist the doctors and other nurses at a moment’s notice, she was often hiding in the third floor janitor’s closet, sobbing at the sights she wished she didn’t have to see. One in particular was the grandmother who died alone in her room while her family was restricted from seeing her due to contamination risks. Still fresh in her memory for weeks afterward, Sophia vividly remembered watching the old lady’s lungs hiss and wheeze before eventually falling silent. Accompanying the doctor along with several other nurses to give the family the bad news, she kept her eyes fixed to the floor when the doctor confronted the woman’s daughter.

Sophia heard the woman wail with such sorrow that she nearly broke down herself. But rather than quit her job and let the tragedies that she witnessed day in and day out get to her in addition to the stress, she chose to stay. No matter how bad it got, she remembered that she loved nothing more than helping people, and she was going to stick around to help as many people as she could.

Her outlook took Clarence for a loop. The only time he had only ever helped another person was when he stood a chance to gain something out of it. Money, favorability, important information — anything that would put him ahead of the curve. Doing something out of the “kindness” of one’s heart was for fools, he believed. Yet, he slowly gained a sense of admiration for the woman that was busy risking her life for others and whose life he would’ve gladly ended if it weren’t for the whole country being on lockdown.

A few days turned into several weeks, and the two were still communicating with each other daily. When long conversations over the phone started to become routine, Sophia came up with the clever idea that both of them start eating dinner together over Zoom. They started off doing it every Friday night, then twice a week until eventually they did it every night. Clarence, conscious of his diet, always ate healthy meals, while Sophia, oftentimes having to stream from the hospital’s cafeteria, was content with ramen noodles or whatever she could grab from the vending machine. As far as she was concerned, all that matter was that they got to see each other, be it in-person or not.

Clarence, the deadly serial killer with shark eyes, a million-dollar smile and the uncanny ability to alter his persona depending on the person that he needed to serve his obsessive needs, began to…feel a certain way about Sophia. But he couldn’t quite describe it. Yes, he wanted to be in her presence. To hold her hand. To lock his fingers with hers as they left a movie theater, mocking the over-the-top action film that they had just finished watching, the moonlight casting down on them, their shadows on the pavement morphing into one. But, unlike in his other fantasies, there was no moment of him pressing a kitchen knife against her throat at the end of the night. The vision never came to his mind.

Had Clarence fallen for her? He pondered the question while in bed for several nights. Looking up at the ceiling, all he could see was her face. When he shut his eyes, rolled over and put the covers over his head, she appeared yet again. Crystal clear, in high definition.

He couldn’t understand what he was feeling. He thought about Sophia from dawn to dusk. Any phone call that went unanswered, any text he sent that wasn’t responded to within thirty minutes, made him feel anxious. Worried.

What is this feeling? he kept asking himself. Was it love? Madness? Both?

A day after the calendar marked the third month that they had known each other, Sophia suggested that it was time they finally met in person at her favorite bar. Nothing fancy, just a small pub where the two could finally enjoy each other’s company without the use of a computer screen. The date was scheduled to be the following Friday, in three days. The infection rates around the city had finally decreased, so citizens were free to meet at bars and restaurants again.

Only, it would never happen. Because on Friday morning, a little after nine, Sophia sent Clarence a text saying that she wasn’t feeling well. “Gonna have 2 try again next week,” her text had read. “Running a fever :( Don’t worry tho. Probably just allergies lol :)”

Less than a week later, Sophia died. She had been claimed by the virus.

Convinced she had ghosted him, Clarence sent Sophia text after text that went unanswered. He soon found out about her death thanks to the monthly “In Memoriam” that the local news dedicated to those who had died from the viral outbreak. He had been sitting on his couch one morning and picking at a bowl of Frosted Oats with a spoon when her name flashed across his tv screen.

When he realized what had happened, Clarence couldn’t believe it. He didn’t shed tears, curse the world, or even necessarily mourn her death, but he still felt…uneasy. Perhaps it was the sour irony that dawned on him: the one woman he finally felt something for, the only woman he met online whose life he hadn’t intended on snuffing out, still wound up dead. Whether Clarence was more uncomfortable with the fact that she was simply gone or that he never got the chance to do the honors himself remained unclear to him.

After some time passed, Clarence decided to go to Sophia’s favorite bar. That night, he sat on a stool at the counter, gingerly sipping a glass of whiskey, when he made eye contact with a woman sitting three seats down from him. She smiled, and Clarence smiled back. Wearing a sleek leather jacket and slim-cut jeans, he got up to introduce himself. With music blasting over the bar’s speakers, the two spoke for a little over an hour before leaving the bar together in Clarence’s car.

The two of them went into the parking lot and got into his Mercedes. The woman sat in the passenger’s seat and joked about her annoying coworkers, her laughter warm and infectious. Pulling out into the street, Clarence reached under the left side of his seat in a way that wasn’t obvious to his slightly tipsy passenger. He felt around for a bit before his fingertips met the cold steel of his favorite knife. He had hidden it there before he drove to the bar.

Whether or not his blade drew blood that evening was anyone’s guess.

I’m an Ohio-based writer, music lover and movie snob. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @QBAbstract.