“Lepidoptera”

butterfly silence

Stephanie Guthrie stood in the center of the pile of blood-soaked bodies, her arms outstretched, her face a blank mask. Children pointed and screamed, animals paced in their cages. Zoo employees gaped like statues, unable to believe what they had just seen. Soon enough, the police came to quell the panic, and then an ambulance came, and bundled the woman inside.

****

“I haven’t been able to get a single word out of her,” said Theresa Hill, the police psychologist. “Looks like partial catatonia.”

Vic Unger, the lead investigator on what was sure to be the most bizarre case the city had ever seen, made a disgusted sound. “Typical. And wait ‘til you hear what we got back from the lab guys.”

“What’s that?” The halls were nearly empty in this ward, and Theresa’s voice echoed like a snatch of memory.

“Cause of death for all fifteen people at the zoo,” Vic said, “was evidently a mass poisoning. In other words, they were gassed.”

Theresa raised her eyebrows at him. “Terrorists?”

Vic shrugged. “That’s why we need to get a story out of the sole survivor in there.” He scratched distractedly at his three days’ growth of beard. “She doesn’t strike me as the terrorist type, I gotta say.”

“No. Maybe the poison came from somewhere else, and Miss Guthrie was the only one lucky enough to survive it?”

“Could be, although witnesses say the people around her dropped dead as soon as she raised her arms, like the two events were related. Have you done any scans on her or anything? Checked her for brain damage?”

“Yes. Looks like nothing out of the ordinary so far.”

“Damn.” Vic was a handsome man, only in his mid-thirties, but already cultivating a look of hangdog cynicism that Theresa found amusing. They had reached the end of the hall, and the locked room where Stephanie Guthrie was being held for observation. Theresa produced a set of keys from the pocket of her coat and opened the door.

Stephanie was sitting rigidly in the chamber’s only chair, her hands resting stiffly on her lap. She didn’t look up as Theresa and Vic entered, but kept her gaze fixed on a spot just below eye level. A very long moment passed before she even blinked.

“Hello there, Miss Guthrie.” Theresa stood before the woman, her arms crossed. “How are we doing today?”

Stephanie, of course, did not answer.

“The investigator is here, Miss Guthrie,” Theresa continued, gesturing to Vic, who was standing slightly behind and to the left of her. “He’d really like to get to the bottom of what happened at the zoo on Saturday. Do you think you’ll be able to cooperate?”

More silence in which Stephanie’s chest barely rose and fell with her breathing.

Vic stepped forward at Theresa’s urging. “I’m Vic Unger, Miss Guthrie,” he said. “I’d like to help you, but to do that I need to ask you some questions. Is that all right?”

Another blink, another breath.

Vic wasn’t in the mood for this; his impatience was one of his few negative attributes. “Can’t you just hypnotize her or something?” he asked.

Theresa stared down at the top of Stephanie’s head. “That may become necessary, although I have to tell you ahead of time that hypnosis is sometimes not a very effective psychiatric tool. We generally only use it as a last resort.”

“Well, can you get started on all the other resorts? I’d really like to figure out what the hell is going on here.”

“As would we all, Mr. Unger.” Theresa smiled at him. “But cases like this take time. I’m sure you understand.”

Vic nodded. He did understand, but he didn’t like it.

****

The next day, driving up the interstate, Vic ran the facts of the case through his mind again, hoping to stumble upon a detail he’d missed the first few times. Last Saturday at approximately two-fifteen p.m. at the Langford County Zoo, thirty-two-year-old Stephanie Guthrie had been strolling through the butterfly garden in the company of her thirty-six-year-old fiancé, Ray Framington. According to witnesses—the few who were left alive, that is—they had been holding hands, and Stephanie had been smiling. Then suddenly, things had taken a macabre turn. In an instant, the woman had gone white, tilting her head slightly upwards as if she had just heard something that shocked her beyond her capacity to reason. Her eyes apparently
glazed over, and even though Ray Framington had shaken her, trying to discern the problem, she had acted as though he wasn’t even there.

Then, witnesses agreed, she had slowly begun to raise her arms, until they were even with her shoulders. At the moment when she opened her hands, spreading her fingers to their farthest extremes, the fifteen people closest to her—including her fiancé—had simultaneously begun to bleed from every orifice, and after an agonizing moment of this horrifying spectacle, all fifteen had dropped dead to the concrete like sacks of grain. As this was happening, Stephanie Guthrie stood as still as marble in the center of the action, her outstretched hands like white wings, her expression as lifeless as that of a china doll.

When the police and then the ambulance had come, she had said nothing, reacted to nothing. The EMT’s who strapped her onto the gurney said that she was completely docile, but also entirely lacking in humanity, like an empty husk.

Since then, her condition had not changed.

Vic took a swig of black coffee from his thermos, settling it back into the fork of his crotch. His dark mood was getting darker by the minute.

He thought of Dr. Hill’s mention of terrorists. That had been his first thought too, but something about the situation didn’t sit right. Besides that, a search of Stephanie Guthrie’s person had turned up nothing resembling a container in which the toxin could have been carried, and even her skin had only shown trace amounts of the chemical that had killed the others. It was all very odd.

Whatever direction the case was taking, the department was on his ass to put it to bed as quickly as possible, and to that end he was skipping lunch and driving up to Hastings to interview Miss Guthrie’s parents. He hoped they could give him some insight into her history, her personality; from long experience, though, he knew this wasn’t likely. He sighed and turned off the highway.

Vic parked in front of a modest brick townhouse and slid out of the car. He’d called the Guthries yesterday to set up the meeting, and now, as he walked up the driveway, he noticed the curtain twitching as someone peered out at him. He pretended he hadn’t seen.

His knock was answered by a rail-thin man in his mid-sixties, clean shaven with a slick bald head. His eyes were absinthe-green, sharp and wary. “Come in, Inspector…Unger, was it?”

“Call me Vic, Mr. Guthrie. Thanks.” Vic passed over the threshold and immediately spotted Mrs. Guthrie, who stood nervously at the end of the hall. She was also in her sixties, still fairly youthful and fit, though the few lines on her face appeared deep with worry.

At Mr. Guthrie’s invitation, Vic took a seat in the living room, choosing a worn upholstered chair near the unlit fireplace. He
noticed a framed photograph of Stephanie on the mantel, and for a moment he marveled at the difference between the cheerful girl in the picture and the sullen zombie he’d seen back at the hospital. Mrs. Guthrie offered tea, which Vic politely refused. He waited until the couple had settled themselves on the matching sofa across from him, and then he got straight to the point.

“Let me just say that I want nothing more than to see that Stephanie gets the help she needs, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he began. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the situation is very grave. Fifteen people are dead, and it appears that Stephanie may somehow be involved, as either a victim or a perpetrator. As I told you on the phone, she is refusing or unable to speak, so anything you can tell me would be greatly appreciated.” He pulled a tiny tape recorder from his jacket pocket. “May I?” The couple murmured assent, and he switched it on.

Mrs. Guthrie’s lower lip was trembling. “I just don’t understand how any of this could have happened,” she said. “Stephanie never hurt anyone. And she would never do anything to hurt Ray—she adored him.”

Mr. Guthrie was nodding in agreement. “Yes, there must be some mistake. I’m sure she was just the victim of a horrible attack, or perhaps a freak accident.”

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” Vic said with a tight smile. “Please forgive me, but I have to ask some of these questions. Now, about Ray, they were engaged, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Had they been having any problems, though? Arguments? Had her behavior seemed any different recently?”

Mr. Guthrie was shaking his head before Vic had even finished speaking. “We just saw the both of them on Friday night. They came over for dinner. Nothing was wrong; they were happy, laughing. Talking about the wedding plans.”

“I just can’t believe Stephanie would have anything to do with anything so horrible,” Mrs. Guthrie said. Her eyes were glistening, but she spoke firmly. “The poor dear. Especially after—”

“Yvonne!” Mr. Guthrie bellowed.

Vic fixed each of them with a hard stare. “Especially after what?”

“Nothing, Inspector,” said Mr. Guthrie. “My wife was just going to say, especially after we had just seen her the day before.” He shot Yvonne a warning look that he probably thought Vic didn’t notice.

“George…” She reached out and touched the back of his hand.

Vic’s impatience was beginning to flare up again. “It won’t help your daughter’s case if you keep information from me,” he said, trying to tone down the irritation in his voice.

“She’s not our daughter,” Mrs. Guthrie said with a defiant glance toward her husband. “I thought you might have found that out by now.”

“Yvonne, I told you…”

Vic put up his hand to silence Mr. Guthrie, who was clearly approaching a meltdown. “Let your wife talk, sir.”

“He doesn’t like to talk about it,” said Mrs. Guthrie, patting her husband’s hand again. “It was his brother and sister-in-law, you know.”

Mr. Guthrie looked ready to explode, but Vic preempted him with a calming gesture. “Go on, Mrs. Guthrie.”

“It was such a long time ago. Stephanie was only about ten at the time,” Yvonne said. “A very bright child, she was. We didn’t see her often back then, you understand. Her parents—that’s George’s brother and sister-in-law—lived in Rosemere, about ninety miles north of here. But we saw them on holidays, of course.”

Vic wondered if this story would be going anywhere relevant, but he leaned forward in his seat, silently encouraging her to continue.

“Well, it happened at Stephanie’s school,” Yvonne said. She glanced over at George, who had covered his face with his hands. “It was one of those open house nights, you know, where the parents come to meet the teachers and so on. Do you have any children, Inspector?”

Vic did, a baby son, but he shook his head no. He didn’t want Mrs. Guthrie getting sidetracked.

“Well, it was the funniest thing,” Yvonne continued, to Vic’s relief. “Not funny, of course, but strange. I don’t think anyone ever figured out exactly what happened. It was all so sudden. One minute, there were kids and parents milling around the classroom, looking at all the projects the children had made, and then the next minute…”

Mrs. Guthrie waved her hand vaguely in the air. Her bottom lip was trembling again. “I wasn’t there, you understand,” she said, her voice going hoarse. “But I heard all about it. The papers said there was blood everywhere, covering everything. And all those poor little children…” The tears finally came, and Yvonne pressed her hands to her lips, and indication that she could not continue.

Vic looked to Mr. Guthrie, who looked haggardly back at him. “What happened?” Vic asked.

“They all died, what do you think happened?” George rasped. “My brother and sister-in-law, some other parents, teachers, a bunch of kids. Almost everyone in the room, as a matter of fact. Stephanie and one other person were the only ones who survived.”

“But what killed them?” Vic urged, exasperated. “Was it a shooting?”

Mrs. Guthrie had recovered enough to speak again. “I told you, they didn’t know what it was. Everyone just dropped dead, near as I can figure from the news stories. No one was shot, they were sure of that, but…” She trailed off, shrugging. “I guess they didn’t have all the fancy forensic science they have nowadays. Anyway, it was in all the papers back then. The Rosemere Gazette, a couple of others.” She sniffed and wiped at her nose primly with a handkerchief she had produced from her pocket.

Vic made a mental note to check the archives for news stories about the deaths; he didn’t remember hearing about it at the time, but he hadn’t been much older than Stephanie then, and he doubted that any news story, no matter how bizarre, would have made its way into his teenage psyche all those years ago. “Was Stephanie questioned after all this happened?” he asked.

Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie looked at each other. There was a long pause, then Yvonne finally said, “She was never the same afterwards.” Her voice was so soft that Vic had to lean farther forward to hear her. “She just kind of…vanished into herself. Not surprising, I suppose, after such a trauma. George and I got custody—we were the closest relatives, you know, and we were happy to do it—but we couldn’t reach the girl. She had to be…hospitalized for a while.” Yvonne looked as though she might be on the verge of losing it again, but she clenched her jaw and held herself together.

“How long was she hospitalized, Mrs. Guthrie?” Vic had lowered his voice to match hers.

“Oh…almost two years, I think it was.” She sounded almost apologetic, as though the girl’s illness was a personal failing. “I hated to see her in there, I really did, but…well, what else could we do?”

“They did help her in that hospital, right enough,” Mr. Guthrie added. “Stephanie was never the same as before, but once she came out of there she was much better. Not like she was, but still okay.” Now it looked as though George might break down crying again.

Vic thought he had caused the couple enough anguish for one day, so he switched off the recorder, replaced it in his pocket, and stood to go. “Thanks very much, Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie,” he said, reaching out to shake their hands. “I’ll be in touch. And if you think of anything more, give me a call.”

“We certainly will.”

Vic left the pair to their heartbreak, and made his way back to his car, where he finished off the thermos of now lukewarm coffee. His earlier hesitancy, it seemed, had been wrong; he had obtained quite a bit of interesting information from Stephanie’s adoptive parents. And now it seemed like the reticent Miss Guthrie wasn’t quite as above suspicion as she had first appeared.

****

Theresa Hill locked her office door behind her, then retraced her well-worn steps down the hall to Stephanie Guthrie’s room. It had been four days since the incident, and very little progress had been made. The woman was easily the most difficult case she’d ever run across, and as such, was maddeningly intriguing.

Stephanie had not moved during Theresa’s absence. The doctor fetched a chair from an adjacent room and placed it a few feet from Stephanie, then closed the door.

Perhaps hypnosis was the only way to reach the patient, Dr. Hill mused. Certainly nothing else had worked—Theresa had tried cajoling and threatening, withholding food, appealing to Stephanie’s love for her family and her dead fiancé. The woman had sat there through it all, stoic, emotionless. She wasn’t completely out of it, Theresa knew—she had been eating a little, and could be counted upon to get up and use the bathroom when necessary, but beyond that she was a shell of a person, an automaton.

Theresa began today’s session as she had begun the others, talking to Stephanie in low tones, addressing her frequently by name in order to place focus on her core identity. As with all the other times, Stephanie did not react, not even to make fleeting eye contact with the doctor.

After about fifteen minutes of this, Theresa sighed and stopped talking. Clearly it was time for a different approach, one she had been putting off for days. She reached into the pocket of her coat and drew out the small metronome she had brought from her office; she got up and placed it on the seat of her chair. She turned it on, and its winking silver needle began to tick back and forth with a sound like a wooden cane tapping on pavement.

“I don’t know if you can hear me or understand me, Stephanie,” said Dr. Hill, standing off to the side with her hands clasped behind her back. “But if you can, I want you to look at the object in front of you. Concentrate on it very hard, and ignore everything else but it and the sound of my voice.”

Theresa had no idea whether Stephanie was complying or not, since her blank expression did not change. She pressed on. “Good. Just keep looking at it, focusing on the needle going back and forth, back and forth.”

Again, there was no discernible reaction, but Theresa continued on, allowing her voice to become softer and softer until it was a pleasant drone in the drab room. At last, she said, “Now, Stephanie, I want you to close your eyes.”

For a long moment nothing happened, and Theresa’s hopes began to fade. Perhaps they would never be able to reach the woman; perhaps the bizarre deaths at the zoo would remain forever unsolved.

Then Stephanie’s eyes fluttered closed.

Theresa almost leaped for joy, but managed to keep her voice level, even as her heart hammered against her ribcage. “Very good, Stephanie. Now I want you to go back to last Saturday, the day you and Ray went to the zoo. Do you remember?”

Stephanie didn’t answer, but her brow furrowed as though she’d just heard some troubling news. Theresa was so elated to see a change in expression that she immediately moved on to the next question. “What happened that day, Stephanie? Can you tell me?”

The patient’s frown deepened, and her eyelids began to twitch. Theresa thought she saw the woman shake her head, ever so slightly, but it might have been wishful thinking. “Can you tell me what happened, Stephanie?” Dr. Hill persisted, trying mightily to keep from badgering her. “You were walking along with Ray, weren’t you? There were some other people around. And then what?”

Two tears squeezed from beneath Stephanie’s closed lids and trickled down her cheeks. Her face was a mask of horror and sorrow, and Theresa considered waking her up right then, but at that moment Stephanie began to move.

Her arms, which had been dangling loosely by her sides, started to rise, almost as though they were attached to a puppeteer’s strings. Stephanie’s eyes remained closed, but her face contorted, seemingly fighting against the actions of the rest of her body.

Her arms were now outstretched, level with her shoulders, and as Theresa watched, the woman unfurled her fingers like flower petals and spread them wide. The doctor opened her mouth to ask what she was doing, but then Stephanie’s eyes flew open and her gaze fixed fully on Theresa, the zombie stare now replaced by a look of frightening, hyper-aware intensity. The doctor backed up a step.

“The voice,” said Stephanie, the words little more than a creak of muscles long unused.

Dr. Hill was so shocked that the patient had spoken that she stumbled over the next question and had to repeat it. “Whose voice, Stephanie?” she asked, trying to maintain contact with that unsettling stare. “What did it say?”

Stephanie’s eyes widened, becoming round black holes in the midst of her ghostly visage. There was a sound from behind, but Theresa ignored it, intent upon her patient’s words.

“Lepidoptera,” Stephanie said, and then her entire body seemed to collapse in on itself, her arms dropping back to her sides, her head falling forward until her chin rested on her chest. Blood came, first in a trickle and then in a torrent. Frantically, Theresa clapped her hands, attempting to wake the patient from the hypnotic trance, but the sharp sounds of her palms smacking together had no effect other than producing a flat echo against the gray concrete walls.

****

Vic stomped on the gas, urging the car to go faster, even though he was already exceeding the speed limit by a considerable margin. He hoped to Christ his hunch was wrong, but a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach suggested it wasn’t. In fact, if Dr. Hill had gone ahead with the planned hypnosis, then it was probably already too late.

After leaving the Guthries’ the day before yesterday, Vic had gone straight to the Rosemere library and spent the better part of the afternoon examining the newspaper archives on microfilm. And there, just as Mrs. Guthrie had stated, was the entire unbelievable story, laid out in all its puzzling detail, though Stephanie, being a minor, was not mentioned by name. Police at the time had been mystified, and even though Vic had scoured the later records, hoping for some follow-up, he had found nothing further, other than a short article a few months after the event which speculated that the deaths had been caused by some freak chemical seepage into the classroom, since the victims had apparently all succumbed to some unknown poisonous fumes. Just like the fifteen people at the zoo, Vic had thought grimly.

Only one other person had survived the accident twelve years before, and that was a young teacher by the name of Bill Travers. Vic had spent the previous day tracking the man down, only to find out that he had died in an institution, having been in a near comatose state for nearly ten years following the occurrence at the school open house. And after speaking to one of the older nurses who still worked at the hospital where Travers had died, Vic discovered something else—that when a doctor had attempted hypnosis in order to reach the poor man, Travers had ended up dead, the doctor catatonic. Post-mortem examination of Mr. Travers had revealed that his death was caused by the same mysterious chemical that had killed
the parents and children in the classroom, and the same one, Vic knew, that had killed the fifteen people at the zoo last week. He’d had a report back from the lab boys on that, too—they had no idea what the substance was, other than that it was sort of like a pheromone, but deadly poisonous. Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, Vic had said sardonically.

But there was a minor detail that nagged at Vic. The nurse at the institution where Travers had breathed his last had supplied him with a grainy, black and white videotape of the hypnosis session where Travers had died. The similarity with Stephanie’s case was chilling, as the man sat very still in his chair, seemingly insensate, as the doctor stood over him, intoning a list of questions that was meant to draw him out of his traumatized state. But suddenly, the man’s eyes had opened, his face had wrenched apart in a silent scream, and he had uttered a single word: Lepidoptera. The tape stopped just as his lifeless body slithered to the floor.

Vic blew through a yellow light that turned red the second he passed under it. He didn’t understand exactly what the mechanisms behind all this were, but the outcomes seemed abundantly clear. Something was causing these people to transform from normal, functioning human beings into…what? Was it some kind of killer virus triggered by environmental factors? Or even by some internal apparatus that lay dormant in the body until a particular moment caused it to flower?

Vic didn’t know, but he did know that both Stephanie Guthrie and Theresa Hill were in horrible danger. Even though he had abandoned the idea of God long ago, he began reciting a litany in his head, something like a prayer, though to who or what he was praying he couldn’t have said. Please let it not be too late, please let it not be too late…

After what seemed like hours of driving, the unobtrusive sign identifying the Mayflower Psychiatric Hospital loomed through his windshield. He turned the car without slowing down, feeling two tires leave the ground, and then tore down the long, tree-lined road that led to the parking lot. He pulled abruptly to the curb and leaped from the car, leaving the door wide open and the keys dangling in the ignition.

Doctors and nurses turned to stare at him as he belted down the halls, flashing his badge at anyone who looked as though they may try to stop him, squeezing through the digitally locked doors the second the shocked guards had opened them. His shoes squeaked on the linoleum, and his lungs were filled with the mingled odors of urine and sweat and formaldehyde.

He headed first for Dr. Hill’s office, but saw immediately that she was not there. His heart sinking, he continued running, down the endless corridors, deeper into the bowels of the hospital.

At last he arrived at Stephanie Guthrie’s room. He turned the knob and found it unlocked, which made his hopes dim even further. He was almost afraid of what he would see as he pushed open the door.

For a split second it appeared that everything was fine. Dr. Hill was standing in the middle of the room, leaning toward Stephanie, who sat in the chair she had barely moved from for several days, her eyes closed, her arms outstretched. An echo hung in the air, as though Dr. Hill had just asked a question that awaited an answer.

Just as Vic was about to speak and announce his presence, Stephanie’s eyes opened and fixed on the doctor’s. Her lips parted with a soft plip. Vic darted into the room, knowing what she was about to say, but for some reason time seemed to have slowed, the way it does in dreams. Stephanie seemed very far away, her mouth opening like a tiny black O. “Lepidoptera,” she said, and then her entire frame collapsed, and blood began to ooze from her nose and mouth. As Vic watched, she crumpled to the floor, her eyes already beginning to glaze over, the single word she had spoken humming around the enclosed space like a hellbent mosquito.

Dr. Hill was clapping her hands, obviously trying to awaken a patient that would wake no more. She still had not noticed Vic at all. She moved toward Stephanie.

And then Vic felt it, that word the woman had whispered, tunneling into his brain like an earthworm through the loam, lodging in the deepest part of him. He could feel it radiating outward from this command center, infecting his flesh, his entire molecular structure. He could feel it squirming within him, using him for its own devilish purposes, waiting for the moment when it would unleash itself upon the unwary, making of him an unwitting carrier, accomplice, slaughterer.

Dr. Hill finally turned and saw him standing there, and just before his brain began its inevitable withdrawal into its cocoon, he managed to lock gazes with her. She had fallen to her knees next to the corpse of her patient, clearly suffering the same appalling fate as he. Vic tried to smile at her, if only to show that they were now joined in their shared contagion, but he couldn’t quite do it.

At last he felt his body falling, and his thin veneer of rationality dissolved completely, his thumping heart keeping time with the ticking beat of the metronome.

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