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Chapter One

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Abe Barrett worked for the City of Marble Springs, a small community recently hit hard by an economic downturn. Scarce jobs became scarcer and Hart & Sons' Liquor and Liquor enjoyed record levels of business. To ease budget woes, the past mayor turned over city work, including Abe's, to a subsidiary of Hart & Sons, Inc. Like everyone else in the city, he struggled. But things could be worse.

Wow. Two more than yesterday.

Driving home, Abe admired two more roadside billboards, put up by grieving families looking for missing kin. Along with a flatlined economy, Marble Springs has a problem with mysterious disappearances. While the town has neither a natural spring nor a supply of valuable marble quarries, Marble Springs boasts a surprising number of missing persons cases. For a population hovering around 38,000, nearly 100 people have simply disappeared since 1987.

At least he had smiling faces to look at on the drive home. They always chose smiling pictures for the billboards.

As a member of the city's, now Hart & Sons', Parks Department, Abe works with a team dedicated to maintaining the high standard of excellence the Parks Department demands. Meaning he keeps the grass cut and trash-free. At least the repeal of Mayor John G. Bennington's "Make Business Spring in Marble Springs" initiative allowed him to enjoy the option of health insurance again, even if Hart & Sons wasn't too keen on things like "living wages" and "overtime."

His shirt stuck to his back via layers of sweat and mulched grass. Abe cranked the AC in his 1989 Honda Civic. Despite being well into October, the heat still bore down on the park maintenance crew with no sign of mercy or respect for changing seasons. Abe discarded his hat, stained with a line of pale salt deposits from months of sweat, onto the floorboard. He was finally heading home for the day.

Abe turned into Camelot Apartments, a cluster of buildings in a faux-castle design hidden behind a growth of pine trees, and as the car creaked over the concrete speed bumps, he glanced at the complex's newest addition, an overweight man in his mid-fifties, perpetually naked, with nothing more than a bath towel covering his shame. Abe waved at Mr. John G. Bennington.

"Now, that's a shame."

The former mayor returned his wave enthusiastically. During the second year of his first term, Mayor Bennington decided to save the town by cutting taxes and unnecessary services. Followed by necessary services. Followed again by all services. The wealthy rewarded his efforts with record spending, the rest with a ball-peen hammer to the back of the head.

The mayor often took evening strolls through the rougher neighborhoods on the east side of Marble Springs to show the economically vulnerable he cared through speed-walks along their crumbling asphalt roads. It was here that hammer met head.

Fortunately, the Mayor's attack did not kill him. Short a wallet and functional short-term memory, Mayor Bennington continued to preside over his community. Unfortunately, the swelling in his brain led to a wave of nonsensical orders, refusal to acknowledge the proper dress code, and no improvement in the latest rash of disappearances. He now lived around the corner from Abe.

Abe took a right at the dumpsters and swerved into a spot just in front of building two. He looked up at apartment number 239, with the gnarled pecan tree leaning over the roof, bombarding the building in a nightly rain of nuts, twigs, and clumsy squirrels. He turned the key and the engine breathed a final, halting gasp. Jamming the keys into his pocket, he pulled himself from the rust and sky-blue colored car and slammed the door. Running his hand along the metal railing as he ascended the stairs, the anxiety started to seep in.

Abe Barrett had no roommates, on paper at least. But through his current squatters, he learned plenty about the multitude of missing people in Marble Springs. He knew the common explanations, such as UFOs, or the monster in Town Lake. He knew the media rarely paid any attention especially with the tenth anniversary of the 726 on the horizon. He knew the police typically shrugged and said, "Maybe they left and moved to Dallas." when confronted with the growing tally of vanished citizens.

But his roomies had a simpler, more disturbing explanation: a serial killer, operating in an economically depressed town populated with people without the means to donate to campaigns or start businesses. People whom, as far as the town's leaders were concerned, never really existed to begin with.

So, who would notice if they went missing?

Abe's roommates made a lot of sense, he hated to admit. But the reason he feared entering his apartment, was because he'd ignored his roommates' requests. As a result, they had stepped up their campaign of terror. Would he be greeted with bleeding walls? Or possibly eyeless wraiths and mournful shrieks?

Abe took a breath and opened the door.

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