Breeder – Benjamin Welton
May 4, 2021
The January cold battered the glass windows in the near-empty office. The place rattled a little each time. The winds, which came down from Canada and picked up speed off Lake Champlain, turned Burlington into a howling vortex—a widening gyre of pain and misery. This was an apt description of Crampton too, who on that night sat meditating and smoking underneath the light of a lone lamp.
Crampton was medium height, average weight, and wore a face that could only be described as forgettable. He perfectly embodied “generic.” The one exception to that rule was his profession. Crampton specialized in violence. One employer had paid him $100,000 to kill poachers in Kenya. Another had paid him in assets (a yacht, a couple of suits, and several bottles of vintage scotch) to stalk his estranged wife for a month before beating her into a coma with a wrench. In general, Crampton was good at his work. He liked it, too.
The last job had gone sideways, however. Crampton took the temporary exile option and found himself in the quiet college town of Burlington, Vermont. It was out of the way and lonesome and better yet, it was close enough to the Canadian border in case things got worse. Crampton was content to cool his heels at Burnham Facilities, a shell company owned by another operator with connections to the Rizzuto family. The place suited his needs—it was quiet, nondescript, and somewhat hidden on the top floor of a brick building off Church Street.
Crampton smoked cigarettes and drank espresso. He did nothing more and nothing less. He appreciated the quiet after so many jobs. One job after the other, all of which included either guns or groans from the prone victims. Crampton was not sick of it yet, but he was getting tired. Very tired.
Twenty minutes before midnight, he heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming up the carpeted stairs. Crampton killed the light and sat back in the darkness. He fingers were wrapped tight around a Glock 19, the most common handgun in the United States.
The footsteps ended at the door to Crampton’s office. The person on the other side tried the door handle and found it locked. The unknown visitor stood still for a long time, which made Crampton nervous. He started to sweat. The visitor moved to the right towards the bathroom with the broken toilet and cracked sink. Crampton heard the bathroom’s door squeak a little, letting him know that someone was inside. He did not like that. After all, Crampton kept a spare key to the office in the bathroom.
A minute of tense silence passed before the visitor returned to the office’s door. Crampton heard the spare key slip into the lock. The visitor turned the knob and gently pushed the door open.
“Put the gun down. I need help,” the voice on the other side of the door said. It was a female voice. Judging by the tone and timbre it belonged to a young female. Crampton figured a woman no older than twenty-five.
“I doubt that Burnham Facilities can help you. That is unless you need something big cleaned, and you do not need anything cleaned at this time of night” Crampton said through partially gritted teeth.
“No, Mr. Crampton. What I need is you. I need you and that pistol you’re holding in your hand.”
The words floored the old gunman. Not only did she know his name, but she knew about the Glock. And by the sound of her voice, Crampton knew without a doubt that the woman was not his ex-wife. He turned the lamp back on and told the woman to walk into the light. He kept the gun level and aimed in her general direction. The woman who entered the office wore all black—black jeans, a black sweater, a black pea coat, and a black knit cap. Her hair was black too, although it had been dyed. Her skin was as pale as milk. The only bits of color on her were the few tattoos Crampton could see on her wrists and at the base of her neck. They looked like faded impressions of sea monsters or other myths from antiquity. The woman smelled vaguely of burnt sage.
“Ok, since you know too much, you ought to be aware that I can’t just let you go. So whatever it is you need me for, I hope it’s worth it.”
“Yeah, it is.”
The woman took the seat opposite Crampton. Without asking, she took one of his cigarettes and started smoking. He offered her espresso, but she shook her head.
“Got a name?” he asked.
“I do, but it is not important. I would prefer to keep things professional. Besides, wouldn’t you like to maintain some distance?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that the job will get…interesting.” Crampton disliked the hesitation in her voice. He stared at her long and hard, but she did not budge. She was a tough one, to be sure.
“So what’s the gig,” he asked without really caring to know.
She exhaled smoke. “Drive me to the ocean and leave me there. I can’t pay you much, but I can promise you the most exciting night of your life.”
Crampton laughed in the woman’s face. When he finally collected himself, he told her in no uncertain terms that he never worked for free.
“You are a true pig, but that’s ok. You are the only man who can do this job, and you are the only man for this job. Fate cannot be changed.” A sick, almost demented gleam came into the woman’s eye. Crampton saw it manifest itself through the thin haze of smoke.
“Are you saying that I don’t have a choice here?”
“I’m saying exactly that.”
“So I take you to the nearest beach. I then leave you at said beach. You go your way, and I go mine. If that’s what you are selling me, then you can go home and never darken my door again.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. The laugh took Crampton by surprise by how deep it was, and how unreal it sounded.
“Aren’t you curious how I knew so much about you? I mean, just now. Don’t you think it’s odd that I know your name and specialty?”
“Yeah,” he said with audible irritation.
“They call it ‘hidden knowledge.’ It is a power I have. I could show you more tricks, but you’ll have to take the job first.”
Crampton had to admit that he was intrigued. He had become a roving man-at-arms out of a desire to see the world and know its dark heart, so her offer was appealing on a primal level. He maintained a stern front, though. His years of experience and professionalism balked at the lack of a payday, plus the woman’s overall bizarreness kept him in check. Still, the curiosity was hard to kill.
“Ok. It will be worth more trouble, but ok.”
“I know I can pay you for your effort. You can handle it.”
Crampton was genuinely shocked. He had only thought about the importance of getting paid; his lips had remained shut.
“I think it’s time that we go, Mr. Crampton,” she said with stern finality. Without thinking, Crampton followed the strange woman out of the office and down the steps that led to the building’s front door. Again, the woman seemed to know too much. She walked right towards Crampton’s parked car, or rather the car his employer had lent him on the condition that it be ditched somewhere in New England before Crampton returned to his usual operating base in Delaware. The high strangeness of everything made Crampton sweat every detail. He was a creature of habit, so before he pulled out his car keys, he searched his whole body to make sure that the necessary tools were on his person. Gun? Check. Extra magazine? Check. Wallet with multiple licenses? Check. Everything was in its place. The only thing out of sorts was Crampton’s head.
And of course the girl. There was nothing right about her.
Crampton sat behind the wheel. “Where to?”
“Head towards the school. Find the Old Mill.”
Crampton knew that the University of Vermont overlooked the whole town. He had visited the campus once before. It was not anything to write home about, but he had found it peaceful enough. The late-night drive took about five minutes. The woman kept quiet. Crampton circled the campus once before parking in a small lot next to one of the secured doors of the Old Mill. The building was the headquarters of the university’s English Department. Crampton was no English major, but he could rattle off several synonyms for Old Mill: gloomy, decrepit, and funereal. The building was almost black except for the sickly fluorescent lights on the ground floor. The woman got out of the car and reached into the seat of her jeans. She removed a small card that proved to be a University of Vermont student ID. Crampton glanced over her shoulder and saw the ID’s picture. The ID belonged to a black graduate student. Crampton wondered if he was still alive.
“Where did you get that?”
“From a friend,” the woman said.
She tapped the ID on the outside reader. The light on the reader turned from red to green. The front doors unlocked. The woman next turned to the right and found an elevator. It was cramped and could only fit two people. Crampton squeezed next to her. In the brief trip up to the third floor, Crampton managed to fall a little in love with the strange woman. He liked the smell of her, and he noticed that her pale skin was without blemish. She noticed Crampton’s attentions. She let loose a thin, almost impish smile from the corner of her mouth. Crampton liked her white teeth. They looked a little sharp too.
The elevator opened and the pair walked out into the pitch-black hallway.
“I have it on good authority that this building is haunted,” she said.
“By the ghosts of student suicides. One even told me that one of the Green Mountain Boys hangs around still, as this used to be his property back in the ancient days when Vermont belonged to New York.”
“No,” Crampton said, “I meant who told you that this place is haunted?”
“Lots of people. All the best kinds of people,” she said slyly.
They walked past closed offices, each featuring nameplates made of printer paper. Off down another hallway and the pair found several classrooms. They walked into a rather large one with seating that fanned out from the center. The center contained a simple podium with an attached computer monitor. Everything seemed kosher. That is until Crampton saw the woman crouch down over a dead body.
The body belonged to a chubby white kid with oily hair. He too was dressed in all black. The only splash of color was the crimson that had overtaken his exposed skin. Crampton knew multiple stab wounds when he saw it. What he did not see was the murder weapon.
“Got a problem with it?”
“Good,” the woman said while rifling through the dead man’s pockets. Crampton expected her to pull out a wallet, but instead she removed a ring of keys.
“Is it important?”
“Yeah, it is. I do not care about the morality of it, just as I do not care about this guy at all. What I care about is my own neck, and if I’m going to keep going along with you, then I need to know what this was all about,” Crampton said while gesturing with his hands.
“Spoken like a true narcissist. I like that,” she said. After a pause, she continued: “He no longer loved me. After years of using me, he had grown bored. I am the jealous type, so I decided to end his boredom in a permanent way. I killed him here because this used to be our special place. We met here when we were undergrads, and on certain nights we would come back here and make love. Tonight…tonight was our anniversary.”
Crampton followed her back out into the night. Occasionally she twirled the keys on her index finger. It was a poor attempt at being playful. No matter how much she tried, Crampton could see traces of nervousness and hesitation in her stride. Something was amiss.
The pair’s next stop was a cemetery. She directed him to another campus—St. Michael’s College. Just beyond the school’s gates, on the side looking out towards Lake Champlain, she told him to stop the car at a decrepit cemetery with a boilerplate name like “Evergreen” or “Oak Grove.” The cemetery was big, but not too big. A long, wrought iron fence guarded it from trespassers. The woman leapt the fence in a single bound. It was an impressive, but pointless display of athleticism.
Crampton followed her past rows of headstones until they came to a squat, moss-covered mausoleum without a door. A quick scroll of her thumb and the interior of the crypt was illuminated by the light of her cellphone. With the speed of someone familiar with their surroundings, she found a dark corner behind one of the crypt’s two tombs and pulled out a metal box. She pulled back the lid and took out a handful of green bills. She placed the bills into Crampton’s hands. He made a quick count: $6,000.
“Where did you get this? And why did you store in here?”
“Stop asking so many questions. People might mistake you for a cop,” she said.
“Not good enough. I have a bad feeling that this is stolen property.”
“It is, but it was stolen from the original thieves. That makes it all good.”
Rather than answer, Crampton stared at the strange woman with a mixture of befuddlement and annoyance. To him, she was annoyingly strange but also charmingly naïve. She seemed a creature out-of-step with a world. Sure, she had murdered a man, Crampton thought to himself, but she still acted like a lost kitten. Then there was the issue of her intelligence. She knew things that she should not, and Crampton was not entirely convinced that ESP was not somehow involved.
“It is now time to go,” she said. The look she gave him put a pause to all his thoughts, for she looked terrified for the first time that night.
“What’s the prob…” Before Crampton could finish his sentence, a pair of headlights swept through the cemetery. The car they belonged to parked, and from the dark recesses of the mausoleum, Crampton could make out the shadows of two figures. Both were male, with one much taller than the other.
“You are not going to leave so easily,” the tall one said in a sing-song voice that mocked someone. Crampton figured he was talking to the girl.
“Who are these guys?” Crampton whispered.
“They are here to take me back to the group. They are enforcers who double as hunters when the need arises. They want to take me back.”
Exasperated, Crampton asked what the hell the woman was talking about. Her answer did not comfort him: “They want me to go back and breed for them again. I’m not going to do that. I got out and I plan on staying out.”
The woman ripped the Glock from the simple Velcro holster on Crampton’s hip. Before he could stop her, she let loose with two shots in the general direction of the silhouettes. They sounded like misses to Crampton’s ears. The two enforcers fired back. One wielded a heavy-caliber revolver that Crampton figured for a .357. The other had a peashooter—a .22 target pistol shaped like a Luger. Both guns cut through the night, but luckily, neither man was a good shot. Their bullets hit all over the crypt, but missed Crampton and the strange woman.
“Give me that fucking gun!” Crampton barked. Rather than wait, he snatched the Glock from the woman’s hands. In seconds, he had a perfect sight picture. The tall man stood perfectly within the headlights, and Crampton aimed at center mass. One shot and the man crumpled. The other, much shorter enforcer ran to his friend’s aid. Crampton cut him down mid-stride. The 9mm round entered the man’s stomach and made a nice perforation in his lower intestines. He cried a little before dying.
Crampton took the woman by the wrist and pulled her to the car. She resisted until Crampton growled something about the police. He knew that in quiet Vermont, everybody would call the cops after hearing so many gunshots. It was a guarantee. Crampton got back in the car and slammed on the gas. He drove fast out of Winooski. He went back towards the city, kept up the speed, and then made it to South Burlington, where he entered Interstate 89. He did not slow down until he saw the first sign for Montpelier.
“Some nice friends you have,” Crampton said.
“I don’t have friends.”
“They seem to want you all the same.”
“I served a purpose for them. A means to an end. Over and over again. That’s all.”
“Mind telling me?”
“I will in a second,” she said. She leaned back in the car seat and shoved her hands down her pants. Somewhere, in the darkness between her skin and black jeans, she removed a small plastic baggie. It contained drugs, but Crampton could not be sure which. It looked like something that grew somewhere. It had dark, almost black leaves. The smell reminded Crampton of marijuana, and yet it was different enough to be unfamiliar. The woman put a few leaves in her palm and swallowed them.
“I’ll tell what you want to know, but you have to try this first.”
Crampton cracked his mouth to say something, but she cut him off.
“Don’t give me that shit about being a professional. I know you have a taste for the wild side,” she said with a slight snicker in her voice. It triggered some kind of Pavlovian response in Crampton, who found himself grabbing a few leaves and putting them up to his mouth. He hesitated, thought about it, and then started chewing. Despite its rancid odor, the drug tasted all right, almost like mint. Crampton waited for the drug to take effect. When it did not, and after the car passed Montpellier going five miles over the speed limit, Crampton finally asked about what it was he had ingested.
The woman answered, but did not say anything. That is, Crampton heard her voice but he noticed that her lips never moved.
“The name of the drug is not important. It is from Asia. It is pure. I like it. That is all you have to know about the drug. Now, as for my story, please pay attention.
“I grew up in New York City. My family were wealthy and had bohemian pretensions. Dad spent his days painting, while mom did some kind of work on the computer. I never bothered to know the specifics, and they never bothered to tell me. Overall, my upbringing was boring. Nothing worthwhile happened. I went to school, had sex with a few boyfriends, did pot, and got into UVM.
“Things got interesting in college. That is when I met the corpse you saw earlier. His name was Miles McMann. He was from Amherst. Despite being ugly, he had a powerful magnetism about him that I could not resist. I was not the only one. Everywhere Miles went, he had followers. Intrigued, I became friends with him. Then I became his girlfriend. I fell in love. It was only after we started having sex that he introduced me to his secret life. Miles showed me why so many people felt enthralled by him, despite his obvious physical flaws. Miles was a black wizard. He was a powerful Satanist who was the leader of a small but devout coven on campus. The group was into heavy stuff like Brazilian black magic, which is the most hardcore of all. Miles knew a lot, and he showed me a whole other world that I never knew existed. I was fascinated and really turned on. It did not take much coaxing from Miles to get me to join the coven. I did all the initiation rituals in one weekend. It was the greatest two nights of my life.
“The coven proved to be a bacchanalia of drugs and fornication. We fucked every night. We snorted, drank, and smoked. We stopped going to class. Being Satanists was too much fun. I slept with all the members of the coven, including the women. I got lost in a fog of sensuality, and I did not want to leave. That is how Miles got me to become the group’s breeder. He got me hooked on the sex and lifestyle, and at night, he would sing softly into my ear about love and marriage. I believed him too. I loved that man so much, but only the sex was real; Miles and the men of the coven wanted my body only. Love never entered the equation. They pumped and pumped, and soon I was pregnant. The first time I freaked out. I did not know what to do. I almost went to Planned Parenthood in Burlington before Miles talked me out of it. He did not talk me out of the abortion, mind you; he just sent me to a very specific doctor. This doctor turned out to be another Satanist. I never got his name, but I remember that he spoke with some kind of African accent. Maybe Somali, I do not know. Either way, he removed the fetuses from me every time at the exact same stage of the pregnancy. This happened too many times to count. The coven used the body parts for their rituals, which they claimed made them more powerful. I participated in a few, but saw no changes.
“I do not know why it took me so long, but I finally grew tired of being a baby factory. I still loved Miles, but I did not wanted to be his breeder. I decided to leave. I wanted to take Miles with me, but he would not let me leave. He said that he no longer loved me, but he still needed my body. That is why I killed him. They want me back, but I am not going back. I do not want to even think about what they will do to me if they get me and find out about Miles. Now you know my story. I think you are tired, too.”
As crazy as it was, she was right. Crampton did feel sleepy. He felt so sleepy that it was no longer safe to be on the road. The drug had finally gotten ahold of him. He found a rest area and turned in. He was so lost in his exhaustion that he failed to notice that they were in New Hampshire. The ocean was less than an hour away.
“We can rest for a while,” she said somehow despite already being asleep herself.
Crampton eased his seat back, and within minutes, he was sound asleep and snoring. Never in his life had sleep come so easily to him.
A series of thuds on the driver-side window woke him up. Even through half-closed eyes, Crampton recognized a police officer’s flashlight. He thumbed down the window and saw the dark green uniform of a New Hampshire State Trooper.
“What are you doing out here?” the officer asked.
“Just thought I’d take a rest is all. Been on the road for hours.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Where are you going?”
“The Seacoast,” Crampton said. He had no reason to lie.
“Can I see some ID?”
Crampton handed the officer one of his fake IDs. This one said his name was Charles Miller. It listed his address as 240 North Street in Burlington. The officer seemed satisfied.
“Ok. Just be careful. You should not sleep out here. It would be best if you found yourself a hotel. There’s plenty in Hooksett, which is not far.”
“Thanks.” The words had not yet fully died on his tongue when Crampton sensed that he was alone in the car. The officer had directed all of his questions at Crampton, and a quick search with his fingertips confirmed that the girl was gone. Crampton also felt his holster. It was empty. She had taken his gun for a second time.
A gunshot pierced the calm night. The sound sprung Crampton from his seat and unto the gravel. He looked up from the prone position and saw the state trooper’s cruiser. The dome light was on, and a bell kept ringing because the driver-side door was open. The trooper was slumped down in his seat. Blood was already starting to pool below the door.
“I have always wanted to ride in one of these. Well, are you going to help me?”
Crampton stood up and took the limp trooper’s legs in his arms. He helped carry the corpse to the trunk of his employer’s car. They stuffed the dead man inside. Crampton then locked up the car and flung the keys far out into the distance. Against his better instincts and against all logic, he took the driver’s seat in the cruiser. He wanted to ask her a thousand questions. He wanted to dress her down for being so stupid as to kill a cop. He wanted to do a lot of things, but he did not do any of them. He drove on and listened to her sleep in the passenger seat.
Crampton drove. He was left with his thoughts, which he gave into. His brain was divided in two: one screamed for him to dump the girl and get away, while the other demanded that he see the job through to the end. He recognized the idiocy of his actions. The job was dangerous, and he was not helping matters by constantly making the wrong decisions. He blamed it on the drug, but he also felt somehow bewitched by the girl. Maybe there was something to her mumbo-jumbo, he thought. He did not believe in the devil or voodoo or black magic, but the high weirdness of the night convinced a part of him that anything was possible. As he sped past Manchester, with is sleepy lights and calm surface, Crampton contemplated all the ways that he felt totally warped.
The faint hint of salt in the air let him know that the sea was close. Crampton had the window down to keep him awake. It did not have the same effect on the girl, who slept right on through the outskirts of Portsmouth. She was still sleeping when Crampton found the World War I Memorial Bridge. He slowed down in order to take in the scenery. Portsmouth was as dead as a cemetery and just as beautiful. The fast currents of the Piscataqua River provided a soundtrack. For the first time since leaving Burlington, Crampton felt comfortable with the world.
A sudden jolt broke the cozy spell. A vehicle in the shape of a Dodge Charger rammed Crampton’s bumper twice in quick succession. This forced Crampton to correct on the wheel and turn into the skid. He put all of his weight on the gas. The other driver managed to keep up and even made it parallel with the driver-side door. All Crampton needed to see was the vague outline of a gun. He reacted by slamming on the brakes and shifting the cruiser into reverse. The other vehicle applied the brakes too, made a turn, and started charging forward. The driver fired twice through his own window. Although Crampton recognized that the caliber was too small and the aim too bad to threaten him, he still ducked in his seat.
He cut the wheel hard and doubled back through the colonial streets of Portsmouth. His peripheral vision saw pitch-black bars, empty restaurants, and too many stores selling the type kitsch that can only be found in seaside tourist traps. He drove through the maze and found a residential area with several side streets. He picked the darkest and tightest one and killed the engine. He reached for his Glock, but remembered that the cruiser had a shotgun in the center console. He picked it up, read the words “Mossberg” on the side, and felt the familiar weight of a fully loaded weapon. Crampton exited the vehicle and began creeping close to the houses. Everyone in Portsmouth seemed asleep. Everyone that is but the other driver. Crampton found him crawling through the streets with his dome light on.
A game of hide-and-seek, or rather cat-and-mouse ensued. The driver scanned both sides of the cobblestone streets while Crampton shadowed him from the right side. Eventually the car came to a stop sign. The car stayed there long enough for Crampton to get a good look at the driver. He had his head down and eyes focused on a cellphone. He never saw Crampton, who fired without bothering to say a word. The man’s face, brains, and skull fragments coated the passenger-side window. The cellphone hit the floor mat. Crampton did not bother to eject the shell. He ran as fast as he could back to the cruiser. Portsmouth started to wake up because of all the noise. Soon enough the city police would find a dead man in a Dodge Charger who may or may not have belonged to a black magic coven in Burlington, Vermont. When Crampton made it back to the stolen cruiser, he found the girl still asleep.
He decided to leave Portsmouth and head to Rye. He started to worry about the cruiser being tracked, so he wanted to ditch it as soon possible. He drove towards Wallis Sands, which he had heard about before while killing time between jobs at bars from Boston to Bangor. The beach was deserted. Nobody with a brain would go to Wallis Sands in the winter, but nevertheless Crampton soon found himself outside and walking in the sand. The girl woke up sometime in between, saying: “I can feel the water. We’re finally here.”
Crampton walked beside her near the water’s edge until, almost as if waking up from a dream, he realized that he had completed his mission. The job was over. It was time to go home. He said as much to the girl. She answered him with a kiss. The kiss then became something more, and then something even more than that. The two stripped naked on the beach. They did not care about the sand. They made love that was rough without tenderness. Someone drew blood. It was a new experience in a night full of new experiences. Crampton finished just as the sun made its first appearance far out on the horizon. This was all the warning that he needed. Crampton got dressed again in silence. He turned and walked away without saying another word to the girl. He did not even bother to look back.
Rather than sleep, Crampton waited until an Internet café opened at six am. He used one of the laptops to book himself a ticket to Florida, where he kept his secret safe house. His flight left that night, so Crampton got an Uber and spent the rest of the day at the airport in Manchester. He slept at his gate and continued to sleep on the plane. He woke up again just to fall asleep in the cab ride to his townhouse in Coconut Creek. He entered his townhouse, changed into an old t-shirt and shorts, and fell asleep again. It proved to be a dreamless sleep. It lasted for fourteen hours.
When Crampton woke up again it was dark. Night had set in once again. The residual traces of the strange job were evaporating as Crampton enjoyed the familiar comforts of his home. He relaxed on his couch and watched TV until he decided to do some chores. He did not need to clean up, as the housekeeper always took care of that. Therefore, he went downstairs to the lobby to get his mail. He never got much mail in Florida, as he always did business through his tax-free address in Delaware, where he maintained a front company known only to those capable of paying top dollar for his services. In Florida, all he ever received was either junk or the rare letter from his ex-wife, which he always threw away without opening. This time though, Crampton found something new. A simple postcard showing Chestnut Street in Salem, Massachusetts. It was a nighttime shot during Halloween, and the foreground showed a crowd of people all in costumes. A cartoon witch on a broom crested a full moon in the background. Crampton flipped to the back of the postcard. It contained a single line written in blue ink.
I think I am going to keep this one.
At the bottom, drawn in a cramped hand, was a bizarre symbol that was in actuality a sigil. The sigil showed a circle with two thick rings, a series of three Patonce crosses, and five half-circles. In between the two rings were the letters S, L, T, R, I. Crampton felt an immediate hatred of the sigil and the postcard itself.
He kept the postcard anyway.