This is an old one about a mysterious person or group that forces men to wear a mask of shame or be put to death. I thought about just rewriting the whole thing with slightly improved writing skills, but instead I have just cleaned it up some to make it mostly comprehensible.
Mark of X
By R. J.
Matthew Sweep had visited the brothel many times before. He had started going after being persuaded by a few male coworkers. The visits to the dark and dismal place weren’t something that the thirty-seven year old was proud about. It was just a part of life; just another thing that became a routine. He would usually go after work, heading straight there as soon as he got off. It was a way of relieving stress and a way to simply feel good, even if just for a short period of time.
He didn’t think too much about it. Plenty of men stopped by the brothel. It wasn’t like he was the only one, not in a city like his. There were plenty of men that frequented the place. Matthew ran into them all the time while he was there. It was one of those places that people went to do their dirty deeds, a shady little business that seemingly stayed off the radar of the law. Matthew was certain that they knew about what was going on in the supposedly vacant building. Either they were being paid off or just didn’t care. It didn’t make a difference to him. He was certain that he would never be caught. It just wouldn’t happen to him.
Matthew saw the kind of men that went in and out the brothel. Many of them were married. In fact, it seemed like most of them had wives. Matthew saw the rings on their fingers. At least I’m single, he would tell himself. It made him feel better as it put him above all those men who were going behind their wives back and visiting the dirty place. They were the ones who should really be ashamed. Not guys like him, single men who just didn’t feel like putting up with the normal dating world.
“God,” Matthew said with disgust as he stepped into the brother. It had that urine smell that it often had. Sometimes the whole place would reek of the odor. Other times the horrible smell would be absent.
Matthew continued to take his usual route to the girl that he wanted. Sheilah. She was a petite sixteen-year-old whom he had been seeing for nearly eight months. She was just his type. He had almost fallen in love with her. He was definitely infatuated enough to keep going back to her and paying the price.
“It’s been a couple of days,” Sheilah said when she saw him coming her way. She was standing right outside of her usual room. “I was beginning to get suspicious.”
“Work.” That was all Matthew could offer. “We’ve been really busy.”
“I understand. Well, I got a guy in there right now. Let me take care of him real quick and then I’ll be right with you.”
She was well worth the wait, just like she was worth the money. Matthew stood by patiently, waiting for his girl to finish up with the guy who had come before him. He looked around at the other girls who occasionally walked by with other men. They were all so young, and plenty of them looked innocent. He knew that it was wrong and so did other people, people who would actively oppose his actions.
By the time he got home, Matthew was exhausted. He didn’t think too much about his trips to the brothel after they were over and done with. There was no need to reflect on it. Sometimes he felt bad about what he did, but he knew that it was going to keep happening. He was addicted in a way. Back at his apartment, Matthew grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. He would be alone for the rest of the day. After watching a few hours of television, Matthew made his way to bed. It had been a long day.
The next day was a busy one at work. Matthew found himself rushing around trying to finish up deals that needed to be taken care of. By the time he got off work, Matthew was too tired to take his usual trip to the brothel. It would just be another day that Sheilah would miss him. When he got back to his apartment, Matthew was surprised to see the black box sitting by his door. It was a small box, small and black with a red bow wrapped around it. He picked it up and examined it. Attached to the bow was a card that read:
For Matthew Sweep
Some friend had to have put it there. Matthew figured that it was either going to be some kind of prank or an invite to a lame affair. Matthew stepped inside with the box in his hand. His curiosity was starting to get the best of him. He had to find out what was inside. Opening the box up slowly, Matthew looked down and saw a folded up piece of fabric in the box. He told is out to get a better look at it. It was a black mask. A black mask with a red X across the face of it. Matthew looked back in the box. There was a note. He picked it up.
Dear Mr. Sweep
We have been aware of your unrighteous actions at the brothel. You have become a man of many sins and have now been sentenced to wear the mark of a sinner for two years. If you continue to commit your disgusting acts, more time shall be added to your sentence. This is the last day you have to show your face in public for the next two years. Starting tomorrow, you will wear this mask with the appropriate mark. If you choose to step outside without the mask, you will be terminated. Once again, if you step outside without the mask on, you will be terminated. We will be watching you, Mr. Sweep. You and many others.
Matthew read the letter several times before putting it down. Someone was playing some sort of sick joke on him. He didn’t appreciate it. Not at all. Matthew held up the mask and looked it over once more. There are some really sick people out there, he concluded.
Matthew went out the next day without the mask on. The mask, letter, and black box had been tossed away into the trash. He wasn’t going to entertain some sick person that he would probably never hear from again. The day was stressful. After work, Matthew figured that he had time to swing by the brothel. He decided against it.
I’m really tired, he told himself. I just want to go home and sleep.
“See you later, Matt,” a coworker said as he walked out of the building.
That would be the last time the coworker saw Matthew Sweep alive.
A friend stopped by his apartment after Matthew missed four days of work. Nobody had heard from him. Being extremely concerned, the friend decided to check in on Matthew. He found the apartment door unlocked.
“Hello?” the friend looked around the living room area. “What the…?”
There was a smell in the apartment. The friend continued to walk around. He found Matthew’s body in his bedroom. He was tied down to the bed. Both of his wrists were slit as was his neck. The friend knew it was him because of the Japanese tattoos on his side. He couldn’t see his face for that was covered with a black mask. A black mask with a red X across it.
“This thing is really getting out of control,” Detective John Ramirez told one of his comrades. “I mean….Really. I don’t know what’s going on here. I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t think there’s ever been anything to really prepare us for something like this happening.”
The man who had been a detective for over ten years had just found his tenth body with a black mask covering the victims face. It was the same kind of black mask with the same red X across it. This time the victim had been a preacher. His wife had found him lying out in the backyard. A stake had been driven through his heart along with other wooden stakes to hold him down. It had been going on long enough for Ramirez to know what kind of questions to ask.
“And you’re sure you don’t know about any extramarital affairs?” Ramirez asked the preachers visibly shaken wife. “You’re absolutely positive?”
“No.” the wife started shaking even more. “He never said anything about it.”
Officers would search the house until they found what Ramirez wanted. When they did they would bring it to him. He was just hoping that the preacher had kept it around. Some of the past victims had thrown theirs out.
“Got it right here.” an officer announced as he presented Ramirez with a small box and letter. “Here you go.”
“All right.” Ramirez grabbed the letter. “Let’s see what we got going on here.”
Ramirez took less than a minute to read it.
“According to this,” Ramirez looked over at the preacher’s wife. “Well…”
“What?” the wife stepped towards him. “What is it?”
“According to this, your husband was molesting young girls. Girls who went to the church and turned to him for help.”
“No.” the wife started to shake her head. “It’s not true. It’s not true.”
Ramirez knew that she didn’t want to believe. He wasn’t sure about whether or not to believe what was written in the letter. But whoever was behind the killings did have a history of being correct.
There had been Thomas Long, a man who was found hanging in his bedroom with the black mask over his head. The killer or killers had accused him of being involved in child pornography. Mr. Long had been a married man with three young children. At first, the detectives hadn’t found any proof, but as Ramirez looked more into Mr. Long’s possessions he began to dig up things, things that were proof of what the killer had accused Mr. Long of doing. There were picture and videos.
“Who is this guy?” Ramirez inquired about the killer to another one of the detectives he was working with.
Once the bodies start piling up, Ramirez made it personal. He was going to find who was behind all of this. He was going to find them and make them pay. No matter what the victims may have done, the law didn’t want some vigilante out there killing people, especially when they were doing it in such gruesome manners.
Kevin Moody had been a heavyset man. His head and body had been found in separate places. The head had been left in front of the post office, while the body remained back in Mr. Moody’s apartment. The head had one of the black masks over it. Mr. Moody had been a cheat. He had found a way to take money from hundreds of innocent people. The killer had sent him a letter insisting that he stop and wear the mask for four years. Ramirez wasn’t sure if Mr. Moody had planned to stop the illegal activity. He never got a chance to make any amends.
Things were just going to keep getting worse. Ramirez was certain of it. The news had picked up on what was going on. There were plenty of headlines about the killer
Black Mask Killer Goes After Personal Justice
Sadistic Killer Loose: Making Victims Wear Masks
Who is the Black Mask Killer?
This guy had to be stopped. Ramirez was certain about that. If he were allowed to go on, then the whole city would remain in a panic.
By the time the twelfth victim was found, Ramirez had noticed that there were people walking around with the black masks on. They were out on the streets with their faces covered and a big red X going across it. The killer was starting to work faster and faster. Ramirez became certain that it had to be more than one person doing it. There was no way a single man could get to all those people in such a short amount of time.
Ramirez even wondered if it really was a person. What if it was something else? Maybe there really was some sort of higher being controlling all of it. He got it out of his mind right away. He knew it was people. There was a group behind it. Maybe six. Maybe the six X’s in the letter stood for a person. The signature was always there.
It was on all of the letters.
As he was adamantly working the case, Ramirez began to wonder if he could become a potential target for the killer. If they knew all that stuff about the other people, then it was a guarantee that they knew he was out there looking for them. What if they didn’t like that? Could they really get to him? Ramirez wasn’t going to let it slow him down. He was going to find the people responsible for the black masks death.
James Edwards had been ecstatic when he found out that he was going to be a father. He and his wife, Janelle, had been married for less than a year when their son came into the world. Tyler Edwards. He had been a blessing as far as James was concerned. Even when things were strained around the house between him and his wife, the twenty-four year old was always happy to spend time with his son.
“You’re going to be basketball star,” James talked to his son in a childish voice. “Aren’t you? Yes you are.”
The two were sitting on the couch. James had just gotten of from work. Another day at the grocery store. He had been working there for almost a year without many improvements on the job. Being with his son made him know that it was worth it all.
“What are doing?” James laughed at his son who was making a weird face. “What are you doing?”
“Honey,” Janelle called from the hallway.
She appeared in the living room holding a small, black box.
“This was by the door when I came home.” Janelle gently set the box down on the kitchen table. She continued to stare down at it with concern.
They had all seen the news. Since she was home most of the time, Janelle even had more time to watch the news and get a bunch of information on the Black Mask Killer. She had heard about how the killings had started. The victims had all received black boxes.
“What is it?” James said, picking him son up as he rose from the couch. He walked over towards the kitchen table. “What is that?”
“It’s a black box.”
“I can see that. What’s in it?”
“It has your name on it.”
“Okay. But, what’s in it?”
“You don’t know, do you? You really haven’t been paying attention.”
“Attention to what?”
“This is how it starts. With a black box. The mask killer. He sends his victims a black box.”
James stared down at the box with a blank expression.
“It can’t.” James thought for a second before handing Tyler over to his wife. “Let me see here. Probably some jokester. I’m sure they’ve been having those. People want to make light of this.”
James opened the box with reluctance. He set the top aside and looked in. Staring and staring, it took him awhile before he reached down and grabbed what was inside.
A black mask with a red X. There was also a letter. James read it silently.
“What does it say?” Janelle was beginning to get upset. She took a few steps back from him. “What did you do? The killer only goes after people who do something. What have you done?”
James put the letter back in the box. He lifted the mask up and looked it over.
“Honey.” he turned towards Janelle. “I’m sure this is some kind of joke.”
“It has to be. I mean…”
“I want to see the letter. I want to know what it says. I know it accuses you of something, and I want to know what.”
James just stared at her. She could see it on his face.
“It does say something about what you’ve done. So, is it true?”
His face continued to answer her questions.
“I think we should sit down,” he finally told her.
James liked to believe that he was still a good man, a good man who had just made a horrible mistake. It had happened right after Tyler was born. Janelle was focusing on the baby and when she wasn’t doing that, she seemed to be in a sour mood. He was feeling lonely and like he needed someone to talk to.
“But you didn’t just talk,” Janelle said. “You slept with her?”
“How many times?”
“I don’t know. A few. No more than five or six. We broke it off because I told her I couldn’t keep doing it. And she moved a couple of months ago. Babe, I swear, I never meant for things to go so far. I don’t know…..I guess it doesn’t matter now. This guy, if it really is him, is going to kill me.”
“No. How long does he want you to wear the mask?”
“In the note, it says how long you’re supposed to wear the mask. I know one guy, a friend of mine, has to wear it for two years after stealing from a relative. How long did it say?”
“They want me to wear it for a year and six months.” James held his head down. “That’s how long.”
“You’ll have to do it. It’s the only thing you can do.”
James sat and thought about. Things had been going so well for him. Now, it was all about to change. Once he stepped outside with the mask on, everybody would know.
After three months of wearing the black mask with the red X, James had decided that he had had enough. He was going to find the people responsible for him being forced to wear the mask. The shame and guilt had started to subside as he went through his life with the mask on, but he still violated. It wasn’t right to have to be kept in fear and worry. Every time he stepped outside of his apartment, he had to make sure to have the mask on. James knew the consequences for going out with his face showing.
The murders had continued throughout the city. People were still receiving the masks, and many were still trying to defy whoever was behind the whole thing. People continued to be in disbelief over the fact that so many people could be monitored and forced to cover their faces or be executed. It seemed like almost everyday James was hearing about some poor person who had been murdered over their refusal to wear the mask. James started to catch on to a few things. One, the black boxes seemed to appear in a pattern around the city. One day they would be in the northeast part of the city. The next day one would be in the northwest. Then the southwest. Back to the southeast. A counter clockwise motion. The other thing that he noticed was that every single person who received a black box was male. They were never given to females. Many speculated that it was some sort of feminist group behind it. That wasn’t James’s theory.
He believed that it was a man or group of men behind the whole thing. They were probably Christian fanatics or people who practiced religion in a very strict manner. Their whole lives were dedicated to watching people. They did it with ease and secrecy. No one would suspect them of being the killer because they looked very much like normal people. They probably even looked like the kind of people who were warm and welcoming. They walked around with friendly smiles. They said hello to everybody. No one was going to easily catch on to them.
James was determined to find them, and the first person he went to was Detective John Ramirez.
“I don’t think you’re going to have any better luck than we have.” Ramirez gave it to James straight. “We’ve got just about all our men out there looking for these people. Yet no one can seem to catch them. They’re moving in places that have thousands of people. Security cameras. Still we have no known pictures or clues as to who they are. No one can ever remember seeing someone place a box down. Cameras seem to simply skip over the part of someone actually dropping off the box. One second there’s nothing there. The next, a black box. A bunch of cameras have also been broken. I guess if they can locate them, they’ll just take them out. These guys are good. Real good. And I’m actually beginning to wonder…”
The detective stared at the mask over James’s face. He shook his head and turned away.
“Yesterday.” Ramirez stared out his window. “We got a call out to some guy’s house. His wife and kids came home and found him sliced in two. He had a mask on. It didn’t take us long to find out what he had done. He had raped a young girl, a friend of the families. And then he forced her to lie about what had happened. It never went to trial. That was a few years ago. I guess he finally got his punishment. The killer had demanded that he wear the mask for twelve years. The same age the girl was when he attacked her. The guy was arrogant. He just knew the killer wasn’t going to be able to get to him. I have to tell you, I’m starting to feel like we can have a bunch of people on this case because now that this black mask stuff has started catching on, people are a little more hesitant to stray from the law. So on one hand we have a group of people taking the law into their own hands, something that no man should do. On the other, we have a city that is much safer.”
The detective went quiet.
“What are you trying to say?” James asked him. “That what this guy is doing may be right? That people can just intrude into others’ lives and force them to live a certain way? And if they don’t then they are to be punished by death? Look at this. I don’t deserve to wear this. Yes, I cheated on my wife, but who the hell are these people to make me wear this thing?”
Ramirez turned and looked at James. The mask was covering it, but he could almost see the face. It was one with anger and pain. A human one. There were hundreds of them out there. People being forced to cover up. James for infidelity. Another for secretly taking nude photos of his neighbor. One for continuously being drunk in public. There were plenty of people out there wearing mask who hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong in the eyes of the law. Not the old law. There seemed to be a new one coming in, one that they were finding nearly impossible to stop.
James was going to find the people. He had his mind set on it. First, he started trying to hangout in the areas of the city that he knew the black box people would be at. They had a pattern, and he tried to follow it. His efforts were in vain. James was never able to find anyone placing a black box down or even be in the area where a person received on. He realized that he was never going to find the people that way. Especially after they broke away from their usual pattern one day. Things were changing because the people’s behavior was changing. James figured that there was only one real way.
“I don’t know,” Ramirez told him after James gave him a plan. “Some other detectives have tried this before. They end up living while someone else is watching, but somehow the killer always gets them while they’re alone.”
James had decided that he would take off the mask and he would go out in public. He had wanted Ramirez to follow him after he had taken it off. The killer would come for him, and Ramirez would be right there to catch whoever it was.
“You’re right.” James thought about it. “That may not be such a good idea. It would just be the two of use alone.”
He went home that night and thought about it. There had to be a way. A plan started to creep into his head. James dismissed it at first, certain that it would never work. It kept coming back until he finally started to work it out. If it was done right, then they would be able to stop the people behind the black masks.
The group met on the steps of the city library. For a week, James had been working on sending the message out. The day of the meeting, nearly a thousand people showed up wearing a black mask with a red X over it. They were all uniting as one. The plan seemed so simple that James wondered why no had ever thought of it before.
“We probably just needed larger numbers,” he told his wife earlier. “There’s enough of us out there now. And there’s no way these people can get to us all.”
That morning they all stood in front of the library. When it was time for the meeting, James stepped up to the top of the stairs. He raised one hand in the air. Then swiftly lowering his arm back down, James snatched the mask off of his face.
There was a gasp from the crowd.
“Come on,” James yelled. “We must all do this together. As long as we are together, these people will not be able to touch us.”
There were police on standby. Everyone looked around to see what would happen next. One man followed James and took his mask off. Then another. It kept on going for a couple of minutes when all of the men who had joined the meeting finally had their masks off.
“Finally,” James called out. “We are free. Our faces are back out. And if these people want to do something about then they need to come out and show their faces. Just like we have. Like real men.”
The crowd started to rumble in agreement. The noise went on for a few minutes before everyone went silent. They were looking around, anticipating the killer’s next move. The black mask people had to be out there watching. It was just a matter of time before something happened.
The silence remained as they all waited. Waiting and waiting, there was no signs that something was going to happen.
“What are we going to do?” one man asked James. “Do we just stay here?”
“Yes,” James looked around. “Eventually, one of them will show their faces.”
The crowd continued to wait. Many of the men were growing highly impatient. Finally, something happened. A man wear a black mask with a red X began to approach the crowd. There was a note attached to his chest. As he started to make his way through the crowd, the other men could see that the note was nailed to him. The man wearing the mask continued to make his way towards the top of the steps where James stood. When he finally reached James, the man collapsed to the ground. James bent down to check on him.
“He’s dead,” another man said from behind James. Several people had gathered around to get a closer look. “What’s in that note?”
With the help of another man, James released the note from the deceased man’s chest. He stood up and read it.
“It says,” James continued to read. “It says that we are all fools. While they may not be able to get to us, they can always reach our families.”
James instantly thought about Janelle and Tyler. They were back at the apartment. He knew that he had to get to them as soon as possible.
“All right,” James called out. “I have to go. I have to….”
James rushed off away from the crowd. Some called for him to come back while other began to go off to check on their own families.
James felt that he couldn’t run fast enough. His apartment was a ten minute walk from the library. He kept telling himself that they would be okay as he ran to his family. Finally, he reached the apartment. The door was slightly cracked open. He slowly pushed it opened and walked in. The tall being was the first thing he saw when he entered the apartment, but his eyes went directly down to his wife who was lying at the being’s feet. There was blood beneath her head.
James’s jaw fell.
His eyes slowly went back up to the face of the being. Once he looked into the being’s eyes, James instantly understood what it all was and what it all meant. All that time he had spent trying to fight it. If he wasn’t paralyzed with awe, he would have been mentally chastising himself for having been so dumb. They were in control all along. Even before the masks with the red X came into the picture. These were the ones who were in complete control.
And they always would be.