Nola saw him at fifteen minutes past four, as the weary sun was barely blinking any longer through the trees that lined the streets as it sank ever lower into its waiting bed, ready to make way for the black night.
He was trudging along in the snow with a cocksure swagger, his hands dug firmly into his jacket pockets.
The clown mask scared Nola, as it did each time the stranger wore it.
A mask that was at odds with it surroundings – the snow-sprinkled picket fences and cream-coloured houses that kept the respectable community safe.
On and on he charged, wet snow sticking to his boots.
“Why does he wear that mask?” asked Jason, Nola’s boyfriend who had joined her at the window.
She didn’t answer, but continued to watch.
The clown turned his head towards Nola and Jason as he passed their house.
Jason waved and grinned.
Nola grabbed his hand and pulled it down.
“What are you doing?” she asked, furious.
“I’m clowning around,” answered Jason, not taking her seriously. “What’s the matter with you?”
Nola looked out of the window. The clown had disappeared out of sight. She felt a deadly chill run down her spine like a spider on fire.
“She’s dead as fuck,” explained Detective Curtis coldly and bluntly as he crouched down to observe the dead body that lay on the pavement.
“Dead as fuck?” asked his partner, Detective Michaels.
The detective shrugged his shoulders and shoved more of his burger into his mouth before chomping. His colleague winced at the sight of the bit of electric green lettuce that was dangling out of Curtis’ mouth like a paralysed insects leg.
“Brain battered to bits,” continued Curtis in an insolent, matter of fact tone that he knew upset Michaels. “The killer had a fucking field day.”
True enough, the victim’s head had been bludgeoned beyond all recognition.
Blood had coloured the off-white snow, creating an intense contrast.
“Looks kinda beautiful,” observed Curtis with a smile. He pulled his belt up over his sagging stomach.
Nola was watching the crime scene from her window.
The dead woman had been found just an hour earlier, seemingly killed in the middle of the street on the crystal clear blue afternoon. Nola hadn’t seen it, but she had heard the screams while she was in the shower.
The crumpled body lay just a few yards from her house. It was the third that had been found in the exact same spot in the space of just three weeks.
“Why won’t you admit we have a serial killer on our hands?” she asked Jason that night over dinner.
“Three murders and you get hysterical,” he said before drinking some juice. “You women are all the same. Bit of blood and, bam! you say it’s a serial killer.”
After dinner, he put his jacket on and left the house to catch the NBA game. Nola didn’t want him to go.
She tossed and turned in bed uncomfortably that night. Jason returned at a few minutes past one in the morning, bestirring her with his carelessness. He clattered into the bedside table.
“You’re late,” she whispered in the dark as he changed his clothes.
He didn’t answer. Nola assumed he hadn’t heard her.
He got into bed and fell asleep before her.
When Nola woke in the morning, a thick mist greeted her through the window. Jason had evidently risen early and thrust open the curtains.
As she made breakfast in the kitchen, a forceful knock at the door tore through the house like a scream.
“Nola Hampton?” asked Detective Curtis as she timidly opened the door. She was disgusted by the fact that he was eating a cheeseburger as he spoke to her.
“Nola, I’m afraid me and my partner Detective Michaels – I’m Detective Curtis by the way, perhaps you’ve seen me on the TV – have some bad news for you.”
He coughed, which Nola thought was odd.
Michaels was looking sorrowfully into Nola’s eyes. It moved her. He had sad eyes.
“What is it?” she asked, her bottom lip quivering.
“We found your boyfriend’s body last night. I’m sorry.”
It was explained to her that Jason hadn’t even made it to the NBA game. He must have been murdered not two minutes after leaving the house. His body was found on her street.
When she explained that it was impossible, and that she had slept in bed with him last night, Curtis suggested that was an apparition. It wasn’t Jason who got into bed with her – he was already in the morgue.
An icy chill rippled through her body in gushing waves.
She demanded to see the body.
When she saw it, she was able to confirm to herself that it was Jason.
She asked what the specks of yellow on his forehead were. Curtis apologised for getting mustard on her former lover’s face.
Two days later, Nola was looking at the street from her window when, at just after four in the darkening afternoon, the man in the clown mask strode determinedly past in the glistening snow.
Fear enwrapped her. As far as she was concerned, he was the killer.
As he walked by her house, he stopped and turned to face her. He lingered for all of ten seconds before somewhat reluctantly continuing on his way.
Over the next few weeks, twenty-five more people were murdered on Nola’s street – at least, they were murdered somewhere and then dumped on her street like unwanted trash. But still no one was ready to admit that a serial killer was on the loose.
What was stranger still, no one had witnessed anything.
Detective Curtis confessed to Michaels that they still had no leads.
“I don’t deny that it’s a bit funny,” said Nola’s friend Catherine over coffee. “But I haven’t really thought about it too much.”
Nola was horrified by her friends lack of a reaction.
“How can you not think about it?” she protested. “There have been thirty-one murders taken place on our street. What is there not to think about?”
“Oh, honey. If we let every little thing bring us down, we’d never get anything done. We’d never leave the house.”
There were more murders. Nola realised that the already small population of the town was noticeably thinning. The coffee shop was practically deserted. The usual customers had mostly been killed off.
The church was closed because the priest had been disembowelled.
Nola spoke to the police liaison officer, who had been assigned to her to help her come to terms with her grief regarding Jason’s butchering, about the man in the clown mask who walked up her street every night, haunting and tormenting her.
“Kids,” he said with the flicker of a smile and a shake of his head. “What are they like?”
“I think he has something to do with the murders,” she said firmly.
“Well, he shouldn’t be too hard to spot in an identity parade, right?” he said jovially with another flicker of a smile. “See you next week, Nola.”
He rose in good spirits and left Nola to her scary thoughts.
That night, her street was eerily dark and she was very cold. Before midnight, every single interior house light in her line of vision was off. Had every resident but her been killed off? Was no one left at home?
As she looked out of her bedroom window, filled with mortal fear and thinking morosely about the man in the clown mask, a yellow light twinkled from the bedroom of the house opposite her. It felt good to know that she wasn’t the only living soul left on the street.
For the first time in weeks, a warm smile appeared on her face and she felt like bursting into tears of joy and relief. She wanted to wave at this kindred spirit, this fellow survivor, this newfound friend amid the strangeness of the events that had visited their little town.
Seconds later, the light was extinguished. Again, the street felt oddly lifeless, like a dream. It was enraptured by a soul-stirring darkness. Even the moon was invisible tonight. It was a harrowing nocturnal vision that was set out before her.
A disturbing evil had passed over the town. Nola could feel it, even if no one else could.
She woke up at ten minutes past two in the morning. Something had disturbed her. It was a figure, taking off its clothes in her room.
All she could make out was the well-built, masculine shape in the quiet darkness. It moved around slowly, carefully, so as not to make too much of a noise.
It got into bed beside her and turned onto its side, its back facing her. So nonchalant.
Nola was as still as a corpse, her bug-like eyes frozen with dread.
The next day, she confided to Catherine about what had been happening to her recently: The man in the clown mask and the figure who had on two occasions got into bed with her.
“You’re letting these killings get to you,” said Catherine cooly. “Whenever I think about them, I do a puzzle to take my mind off things.”
“You’re insane,” seethed Nola, her eyes inflamed with frustration. “There have been thirty-one murders on our street in two months, and two-hundred and two in the whole town.”
Catherine was taken aback by her friends reaction and suggested she see her therapist.
“Dr Finkelstein is a very talented man. He comforted me after my dad’s death. It turned out that my OCD is directly related to grief.”
She wrote down the number on Nola’s shopping list after ‘garden peas’, tore it from the notepad to the accompaniment of a shrill noise, and handed it over.
Nola went to see Dr Finkelstein. He was a curious fellow of below-average height, who told her that the clown was an apparition, as was the man who had got into bed with her.
She knew better. She had had felt the bed sink when he clambered aboard. She had heard him snore. She knew that someone was physically in the room with her.
“Do apparitions snore? Do apparitions have catarrh?” she asked.
Finkelstein eyed her with curiosity before prescribing her some pills.
“Aren’t you scared by all these killings?” she asked imploringly, desperate for a crumb of solidarity from someone. “Don’t you worry that you might be next?”
Finkelstein looked offended by her tone.
“Take the pills,” he said quietly but firmly.
She was bereft.
That night, unable to sleep, she looked out of her bedroom window. The sky was starless. God wasn’t able to see whatever was going to happen. And she sensed that on this earthly stage, something was going to happen to her tonight.
Not a single interior house light but hers was on. The ghostly white snow was her only comfort, but the mark of the clown’s bootprints tainted it. They were prints of evil.
Things were so unforgivingly silent that she could hear the whirr of the street lamps.
The bedroom opposite hers suddenly became swamped in a dazzling light. She was happy to know that she wasn’t alone on the street.
A figure approached the window opposite. Nola blinked and looked harder. The figure was wearing the clown mask.
A scream ran through her body but couldn’t escape.
The clown closed the curtains. She watched its silhouette move around the room, like a phantom.
That night, she lay awake in bed, waiting for the figure to join her again.
Only, it never appeared this time.
Over the next few days, there were no fresh murders. But Nola felt all the time that she was next.
She watched as the clown mowed the lawn opposite her house.
She watched as the clown washed the car.
She watched as the clown collected the mail.
She and the clown were the only ones living on the street. Everyone else had either been chopped up or had moved out.
She demanded answers from the police. Were they any nearer to catching the serial killer? Weren’t they going to do something about the clown who has squatting in the house opposite hers?
“Hey, lady, calm the fuck down,” said Detective Curtis, who didn’t appreciate her tone. “We got a million and one cases to solve. You think we’ve got time to go chasing some circus clowns? We’re on it. Okay?”
The truth was that Curtis’ inability to catch the killer had left him depressed. He hadn’t had sex with his wife for over a month because of impotency.
Nola returned home and found the clown sat in her living room.
The television wasn’t on.
She assumed it wanted to get to know its new neighbour, but it said not a word.
It was sat in silence, its hands gripping the chair arms, its feet tapping the floor.
That night, the clown showered. It slept in the spare room. Nola was powerless to do anything. She waited for it to return across the road, but it didn’t.
In the morning, while the clown was doing its laundry in the kitchen, bare chested but its mask still on, Nola looked out of the window, feeling like a prisoner. The outside world felt as far away as Heaven.
A man in a clown mask walked past the window. Not quickly, but slowly. As though he hadn’t a care in the world. Nola noticed that his jacket and jeans were smeared with blood.
Chilled to the bone, she turned around to see the clown still loading up the washing machine with its black jacket and faded blue jeans.
When she returned her gaze to the window, the other clown was sloping out of sight, leaving a trail of boot prints in the snow, the way a snail leaves behind its slime.
From that moment on, clowns became a constant presence in her life.
Besides the first clown, a second one moved into her attic.
Eventually, a third started sleeping on her sofa.
She changed the locks on the door, informed the police, but still more got in.
“I’m powerless to help,” said Curtis.
None of the clowns spoke English. They all grunted by way of communication, but appeared to understand one another.
They sometimes hung their jackets up in the hallway stained with blood.
Masked people moved into each house on Nola’s street.
They took over the town’s jobs.
Nola was served coffee by a boy or a girl wearing a Frankenstein’s monster mask that touched her left breast when handing over the sugar.
It wasn’t long before Detective Curtis was replaced by a man wearing a werewolf mask.
Detective Michaels was replaced by a man wearing a Marilyn Monroe mask.
Nola felt unable to move out, despite her world now being so alien to her. She put up with it. As sick as it made her feel, she even allowed herself to eat dinner at the kitchen table with the clowns.
Eventually, she was impregnated by one of them.
She took to wearing a mask herself. It helped her to blend in.
Over time, there were twenty-six people living in her house alongside her. They jostled for space on the floor, slept on top of each other. The conditions were cramped, noisy, and vile.
They took showers together to save on water.
It was shameless.