Fuzzy details, but I remember reading a book, barely noticing the sound of music from the upstairs apartment. I couldn’t tell you what the song was. I smelled smoke before I could make out the muffled pitches. Also, I was eight. I didn’t really know much about anything then.
The ceiling was turning black over the living room couch. The mark making the smell spread quickly, a single dot expanding into a large scorch. The bluest flame I have ever seen consumed the center of the scorch and flashed through the rest of the area as a crack of light opened, revealing the room above. Our upstairs neighbor was screaming, but I couldn’t see him burning.
Then, I was moving. My mother grabbed me under my arms and dragged me down four flights of stairs out to the street beyond our apartment. We stood there for a couple of hours while firefighters and police officers walked up and down the stairs, blocking off the area.
“Controlled burn,” I heard one firefighter say. “We don’t know what stopped the fire.”
“Spontaneous combustion?” a police officer asked as the medical examiner’s office took the body away. No one agreed and no one denied.
We had to live in another apartment for a few weeks while the owner made repairs. By the time we returned, my mother had figured out who the immolated neighbor was. He was in his eighties, a bitter man by all accounts. My mother hated running into him at the mailboxes, because his box was right above hers and he always took forever, fumbling into the dark for something that was never there. We heard screaming sounds in his apartment on many nights, and we guessed he was yelling at his upstairs neighbors, since my mother and I were always quiet.
Whatever those sounds were, it was never music.
“I think he was killed,” my mother told me over dinner once, years later, staring at the spot where the ceiling had been replaced. Her fingers were tapping on the edge of the table without any pattern.
“How?” I asked.
“Not sure, but someone played the music to cover for it.”
It didn’t explain the way the burn left a nicely spherical area of damage, or the fact that the man’s body burned first, or the locked door to his apartment that forced firefighters to go through our room just to get to the scene.
The mystery was delicious. We set off to the library immediately to look for other similar incidents.
In Baton Rouge, in 1983, an unidentified woman was found inside the house of another old man. She was covered in blood and had eaten most of his face and arms. When the police tried to detain her, she attacked them too. The first responders were insufficient and fell back for support, suffering minor injuries. When they finally entered the house, she was nowhere to be found. Response time was slow because loud music was coming from the house and experts suspected it shut out the screams of the victim.
In 1978, a penthouse in a high rise apartment started to leak oil. It dribbled down the elevator shaft and began pooling in the lobby. When crews went to residence to find out what had happened, they heard a disco song playing on a record player in the kitchen, of all places. Someone was stretched across the tiles of the kitchen, facedown in a tremendous lake of what seemed to be bacon grease. The record player was fully automatic, and the record was set to repeat. Beyond that, no mention of how the man had managed to drown himself, since no apparent source could be discerned and there were no tracks to or from the body. Before authorities could examine the record player, someone removed it from the scene.
In 1973, in Juneau, Alaska, authorities were perturbed when an entire townhome complex was discovered to be full of crocodiles. Few of the residents were injured, but one older gentleman was consumed entirely. Residents appeared to be unaffected by the loss of their neighbor, unanimously agreeing that he was not unlike a crocodile himself in temperament. The residents blamed their inability to hear the crocodiles being let into their apartment on the old man’s unusually loud music. None of the residents could discern what the song being played was well enough to name it, but someone suggested Elton John as the artist.
Other events continued to happen without any regular schedule. My mom eventually got tired of looking at grisly crime stories and the trips to the library for sleuthing came to a halt. Maybe she felt guilty about introducing her son to so much violence. The deaths were uninteresting to me. Every night in bed, however, I stared at the ceiling wondering what song was playing the night our ceiling caught fire.
I never grew bored of it. I decided that the common theme between all the incidents was not just music, but records themselves. In the nineties and on, the number of incidents came to a standstill. No incidents had ever been reported where music produced by a human voice, by a cassette tape, or by a CD.
I decided that my dream was to open a music store. Maybe, I thought, working with records could reveal what it was that was causing these deaths.
When you ask me why I followed you, I can’t say for certain why. You had a look. Black coat and a funny hat and an arm full of my newest vinyl records. It's not that I suspected, you know, that you would kill someone by putting a record player with Maroon 5's V album on loop inside their living room until their house filled up with sugar. But when you started to phase through doors, I did get a little suspicious. When Taylor Swift's 1998 caused the old man you gave it to to start bleeding out of his ears and mouth, I was certain I had found the culprit.
I really didn't suspect that you would catch me watching you when you played Hozier's Hozier album and we both literally went to church. That was a surprise!
You're not responsible for the murders back then? Who was?
Is your organization going to kill me too?
You only perform assasinations with music and your own record player? What will happen to me, then?
Thank you for sparing me. If you're going to keep me as your supplier, we're going to have to talk about your over reliance on best-seller lists. Stick with me, and I'll show you some really killer tunes.