Born and raised in Northeastern Ohio, Robb White has published many crime, noir, and horror stories in magazines and anthologies as well as hardboiled novels in various anthologies and magazines like Down & OutBewildering StoriesMystery TribuneHoosier Noir, 365 Tomorrows, and Close to the Bone. His two ongoing series feature private eyes Thomas Haftmann of Jefferson-on-the-Lake and Raimo Jarvi of Northtown, Ohio.


by Robb White


Roger Blinken’s friends laughed at him for collecting old photographs of dead people. “It’s ghoulish,” his wife Mary said to him. But he was always quick to defend his hobby: “I’m saving history,” he replied. “I’m preserving the history of ordinary people.”

In his quiet moments, however, he admitted to himself that, if he had the cash to purchase photos of dead celebrities—meaning bribes—from morgue attendants, police officers, and funeral home workers, he’d have bought the last recorded images of them as well. Like the Topps’ “Perfect 10” baseball cards, which valued cards 100,000 times to collectors, photos of James Dean or Albert Camus entangled in twisted metal of their crumpled vehicles, or Jayne Mansfield’s decapitated corpse beneath the semi or Marilyn Monroe on the autopsy table with her sagging face replaced after brain removal—such were his notion of “Perfect 10’s.” He suspected there were photos of Kurt Cobain in a chair of his attic with the shotgun lying on the floor, the upper-half of his head vaporized against a wall—probably some gruesome eBay on the dark web.

Being a purist, he refused to substitute jpegs from the internet for the real thing. No, it had to be a photograph, black-and-white, color, 8-by-10 glossy, or a fading Polaroid with scalloped edges. Handling one, touching it, stroking his finger delicately over the visages of the departed—it gave him a thrill that was part erotic, part mystical.

Roger believed in every fiber of his being he was “connecting” to the spiritual essence of that individual, stepping through—if only for an infinitesimal moment—a channel into their dimension. His view of religion was warped in his youth by fanatical parents who dinned into his head from his earliest days that ghosts existed all around the physical world.

His parents were missionaries in Cambodia before Pol Pot and then Thailand. They returned to the States with their Christianity “contaminated,” according to their bishop and the church elders. They pled to them that spirits were capable of guiding everyone into more ethical paths and higher moral views, all of which led to God, but their protests were futile. They were cast out of their congregation. Over time, Christian orthodoxy gave way to a deep conviction in mysticism.

As a result, Roger grew up surrounded by books on ghostly manifestations, the prophecies of Madame Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce, Baba Vanga, the Bulgarian clairvoyant. Mary always believed her husband’s parents died in a car accident in Oklahoma. He never revealed the grimmer truth: they made a suicide pact by drinking a concoction of ground apple seeds, castor beans, apricot kernels, almonds, and liquid nicotine. Roger remembered his mother kissing him on the cheek the night his parents drove off to die in a secluded woods. 

A dozen cardboard boxes of death photos lined the walls of his basement, classified by “manner of death,” “decade of death,” and by age and gender. By far, the manner of death was the most intriguing because of the multiple possibilities by natural causes, accident, or by sheer human malice—in other words, “murder.”

Roger captioned and catalogued each photo. He would sneak down at night while Mary slept and peruse as many as he could before sleep or dawn overtook him. After Mary was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer, he promised her on her deathbed he would destroy his collection before the funeral, a vow he knew he wouldn’t keep even as he made it holding her hand.

He continued to scour estate sales from near and far in search of old family albums. The prizes were those sepia-toned photos of the once-cherished custom of posing with the deceased beloved—an infant, a toddler, a grandfather, a grandmother. Some posed with the decedent in a pine-box coffin dressed up in go-to-church Sunday best.

Saddest were those impoverished settlers of the American Southwest whose deceased relatives wore the worn and hand-sewn garb of the everyday life of common people. Men posed in their bib shirts and saddle-seat pants or frock coats beside wives clad in their simple gingham dresses covered by an apron, a shawl on their shoulders and a bonnet despite the hot sun and the dirt that no wife could ever keep out of her house. Their thickened forearms and telltale knot of deltoid muscle from hauling up countless buckets from wells stretched the fabric. Their razor-slit smiles testified to the hardships of life. Young siblings surrounded the small coffin, tilted for the camera’s lens.

He held a photograph of Mary he’d taken just as the hospice nurses left the house and before the funeral home people arrived at the house to take her away. Cancer carved deep lines in her face but he took comfort in the knowledge that she died peacefully. He kept it by his night table and made a silent vow to her departed spirit it would never be seen by anyone else—a vow he planned to keep.

And then one night, his phone rang.

He didn’t have Caller ID, so he didn’t know what the caller’s number; he didn’t recognize the voice. An elderly man’s, scratchy. No discernible accent, but the way the caller enunciated words was like someone who’d learned proper English late in life.

“The precinct is being torn down now,” the voice said with a quaver. “You can find the photos in their basement.”

“Pardon me,” Roger replied, “to whom am I speaking?”

“They’ll be lost in the rubble soon.”

“I appreciate the tip, sir, but—”

“Third and Grand. Tomorrow.”

The connection ended.

He didn’t know what to make of it. Was the stranger talking of crime-scene photos? Photos of the officers who’d served in the precinct?

More likely, it was a prank arranged by someone who disapproved of his hobby. The major suspect was his Mary’s fat-headed brother from Saginaw, who openly mocked him during every Christmas and Thanksgiving visit. Roger knew he bitterly resented Mary’s share of their grandfather’s estate going to him.

Roger slept on it. That precinct was forty miles away, not a quick trip around the block. On the other hand, he’d driven longer distances and returned home with little or nothing to show.

The urge to know whether such a cache of old murder photos existed was too strong a temptation. As soon as the morning light crested the treeline over Lake Erie, and his black coffee was working in his bloodstream, he exited the house with a song on his lips. During the drive, he fantasized about an old Victorian structure with esthetic trimmings, belvederes, and turrets, all for beauty’s sake.

Instead, when he arrived at the intersection of Third and Grand, he saw a no-frills, cement-block structure that looked more like a Soviet-era style apartment in the process of being demolished. The wrecking-ball crane sat idle beside a pair of yellow dump trucks parked inside the cyclone fencing where red No-Trespassing signs were attached. Roger had hoped to bribe his way inside for a quick foray. He’d bought many family albums from jaundiced relatives for chickenfeed—so much for sentimentality.

Were the workers on a mid-morning union break? He was on the verge of aborting his mission when he spied the hole in the fencing—easily big enough to walk through right to the front entrance, where one of the big wooden doors was missing.

Roger had never broken a law in his life. He was the kid who never faked an illness to stay home or slapped a Kick-Me sign on a classmate. But the urge to dart through that opening, and head into an abandoned building that might not be structurally sound, was overpowering. His forehead was slick with perspiration and his armpits clammy; his body was either warning him or compelling him forward. He didn’t know which.

Now or never, said the caller…

He bolted through the fencing. Minutes later, he was inside, breathing in the ancient must of that sad building’s history.

Some force guided him into the bowels of the building; he followed no signs. He knew the room instantly: it held shelving composed of wooden planking and two-by-fours. The smell of mouse urine was dense in the closed atmosphere. Boxes had spilled their contents; scavengers, rodent or human, had ransacked the place, yet, amazingly, the metal box was untouched, dust-covered but intact. Right there for the taking, Roger mused, if anyone had been interested. About the size of three shoe boxes side-by-side.

Later, back inside his car, with the rusty lock box beside him on the passenger seat, he giggled like a schoolchild at his bravado. Still, he had no proof it contained any photographs at all.

He took the box into his living room. Gingerly he opened it, afraid it would be empty. But photographs there were. Dozens of them. Horrific photos. Murder victims from a century ago from the looks of the victims’ appearances and styles of dress.

The parade of grim death they contained was stomach-churning even from the temporal distance of Roger’s perspective. Bodies in doorways, alleys, rooming houses, cafes, streets, and stairwells. Dead men and women with their eyes open and closed. Dead in chairs, looking asleep; dead in bed, fully clothed, looking asleep. Bodies with blood, bodies without blood. All ghastly.

The grotesquerie of urban life played out before Roger’s eyes in these black-and-white photographs, many flawed by poor lighting, others stained from moisture on the emulsion of the glass negative, some streaked from the image of the wire cradle that held the plate in the camera. Each one was a precious time capsule that enthralled him.

Like a gaming addict, he couldn’t pull himself away from them the moment he woke; he never let the box out of his sight. Like a thirsty straggler in the desert, he soaked up every detail in every photo, putting himself inside each one, whether a cluttered and shabby room or a garbage-strewn alley. His dreams turned vivid, lasting through the night, not the average person’s two-minute rendezvous with a distorted logic borne of daytime stresses. Roger felt “absorbed” by these victims’ horrid fates. He often woke with a lingering odor in his nostrils of the sordid aromas of those deathbed scenes.

With Mary gone, he could devote every hour to his morbid hobby. He was unaware of life degenerating about him—the house’s orderliness, the grass in the yard; bills went unpaid, phone calls ignored or neglected.

Roger couldn’t remember when the voices started.

At first, a slight buzz like tinnitus; then it grew louder, especially at night. The buzzing became murmuring, the murmuring collapsed into a single insistent, but not unpleasant, whispering. He grew accustomed to it, allowed the voice to infiltrate his thoughts, burrow like a boll weevil into his neocortex until, rising late one day with a slight headache, he went to his laptop before making coffee.

He had a name to find, one the whispering informed him about. He put Charles L. Smith, 55, into his search box and drew twelve pages of Smiths, mostly living but several dead, not to mention the hundreds of sites in every state offering record searches on so common a name.

But he knew the exact Smith he wanted. That Charles L. Smith was a native of Charleston, West Virginia. He started with Whitepages and other public, people-search databases to track Smith’s personal information. Mary’s subscription to a private search engine used to locate far-flung relatives before her illness gave him more accurate details than the sketchy, public ones. Roger was an hour into his detecting when he stopped cold, his fingers poised claw-like over the keyboard.

What the hell am I doing?

He stood up, stepped back from his desk as though the computer were electrified. All day he brooded, unsure what impulse had come over him. He even refrained from visiting his collection. That night, wearier than usual, and bored with the same two news channels deploring the other side’s pundits, he retired to bed but slept badly.

He dreamed of being lost in a familiar city, wandering aimlessly, frightened by the squalor he saw. Shabby buildings, hard-featured people glared at him as he passed. The men wore flannel pants, pointy shoes, long-sleeved cotton shirts, many with suspenders or vests from a bygone era. He kept walking, trying to make himself invisible within this unsettling drab environment.

Coming fully awake, he discovered he was sitting on the floor of his basement, an open cardboard box in front of him. He was also aware that, a second earlier, his fingertips were riffling through the filing tabs. Roger cried out. The shock of sleepwalking, an affliction he had never experienced before, terrified him.

He was oblivious how he’d stepped out of bed, managed to descend a flight of steps, descend the narrow basement steps, locate a box, lift it, set it in the middle of the floor, and begin searching—searching for what? It terrified him in the deepest core of his being.

“I’ve never been a sleepwalker!”

Now I’m talking to myself in an empty basement—

Except that it wasn’t empty.

A man was lurking in the furnace room, half in profile. Roger was aware that the man had moved; a slight shifting of his feet.

“Who—who are you?”

Was he a burglar? Someone who broke in through the cellar doors in the night and watched while he went through one of his photograph boxes in a state of hypnotic sleep?

Before the blood stopped thudding in his ears, Roger knew the man wasn’t there to kill or harm him. He knew he wasn’t there to steal anything. As though some telekinetic energy had entered the basement in that spectral form, this newfound feeling imparted a peculiar knowledge to him, and him alone, that was as swift and certain as anything Roger had ever known in his life.

Where moments earlier he had jerked his hands out of the files, he flicked past tabs to settle on one. His right hand slipped inside the folder and extracted a single photo from the six others.

The dead man looked to be in his thirties, mustachioed, shot in the chest. His suit coat and white shirt had been pulled back and his pockets emptied, maybe by his killer or by the cops. A fedora and a pack of Mecca cigarettes lay between his splayed legs. No caption on the back. Many photos contained handwriting or block printing recording names and addresses or descriptions of the victims, date and time of day with a homicide filing number.

Roger fondled the photo as if to draw from it its secret knowledge from the long-dead corpse. Then he slipped into a deep REM sleep, his eyeballs twitching behind his eyelids. Yet another extraordinary event in a bizarre sequence since his sleepwalking episode. When he woke again, he was aware of a frenetic dream just passed like a film played in reverse. The murder victim’s photo lay in the palm of his hand.

The voice in his head that day was relentless—now coalesced into a young male voice: basso-profundo, tinged with a slight accent he couldn’t place. The voice would not let him eat a meal, sit in front of the television, nap, walk around his yard—nothing would make the voice cease.

When he saw his neighbor pass by the front of his house with his Labrador on the leash as always, he wanted to bolt outside and confront him. “Can you hear it? Can you hear it too?”
But he realized how . . . insane that would make him appear.

Mary’s relatives were already convinced he was coming undone from grief. A letter from his brother-in-law’s lawyer said a legal action was initiated to have Mary’s share of her grandfather’s trust fund declared null and reapportioned to her siblings.

He had to find the relatives of this man. A semblance of Roger’s sanity argued strongly against it, but then that last bit of reasonable thinking left him like a puff of smoke, and he got into his car to obey the voice in his head.

The drive to West Virginia took six hours. Finding Charles Leon Smith’s house on the river took another hour of backtracking. Like the child’s game of “Hot & Cold,” he heard the voice in his ear grow louder, even snarl, if he went too far in the wrong direction.

He sat in his car beneath a hug Norwegian maple at the end of the block watching the house. Lights went on at dusk and off in the early hours of the morning. Roger removed the interior light bulb before opening the door. Knowing sounds carry at night, he didn’t shut it.

Walking curbside beneath the trees and avoiding the streetlights, he made his way directly to the Smith residence, a 1930’s Craftsman. Using the hatchet he’d purchased at a Lowe’s, he wedged the blade into the door jamb. The Craftsman had a brass thumb latch and deadbolt. He threw his body weight against it, bruising a shoulder; the wood splintered and the door swung open. Roger stepped into the foyer, pausing to listen to the dark house.

He knew where he was going. It took him minutes to ascend the stairwell because he clung to the banister, shifting his weight carefully to avoid creaks from the old wooden stairs. Once his eyes adjusted, he noted a door closed off the end of the hall: Smith’s descendant’s bedroom, separated from two bedrooms and a bathroom. None of the other rooms distracted him as he walked close to the wall on the tongue-and-groove flooring.

Entering the last bedroom with his hatchet hanging loose against his thigh, Roger approached the mound of blankets guided by the man’s snoring.

Two windows beside the bed provided milky light from the half-moon. He felt his way with his free hand on the bed post. Gauging the distance, he grabbed the handle for an overhand swing and brought it down on the center of his unseen face. A bucking, sheets tossed, gurgling.

He struck again—and again. The hatchet flew in the semi-darkness. Aware of warm spatter on his face and hands, he told himself: Slippery, hold tighter—and kept swinging until cracking and splintering sounds became mixed with spongier one.

No need to turn on the light, he told himself. Retreating down the steps cautiously this time, unconcerned about creaking boards but fearing a stumble or a sprained ankle, Roger was about to exit the house when the voice told him: Stop!

As though pulled by wires, he headed down a dark hallway into a step-down room and went straight to a small cabinet against the wall near a fireplace. Roger kicked in the glass and removed two automatics, ammo, and several boxes of shells, along with the 12-gauge. He walked out the front door with the stolen guns cradled in his arms.

He tossed the guns and hatchet on the back seat and drove home, the voice in his head now a lulling, soothing feeling of bliss. The morning air washed over him. He wanted coffee but looked down his chest to see he was speckled in blood. He wouldn’t be able to stop anywhere public.

Arriving home at noon, he walked into the back door with his stolen weapons and the bloody axe lying on top, unconcerned whether anyone could see him. He was protected, invisible.


Two weeks later…

A different voice—a woman’s—threaded its way, twisting around his dreams; he once again experienced a familiar, abrupt coming awake in his basement holding a photo in his hand. This time, the picture was of a young black woman.

The long drive to Atlanta and Peachtree Street brought him to the right door without the previous randomness. He knocked on the door without an idea what he would say to anyone who opened it. He heard children inside. The bald, tall black man who answered his knock was disheveled, had not been asleep long. His expression twisted when he saw Roger.

“Who the hell you?”

“I’m looking for the relative—”

“She ain’t here, man, get lost, and I ain’t buyin’ nothing.”

He slammed the door in his face.

After dark, Roger used the fire escape from the alleyway to enter the apartment. He crept past the bedrooms of the sleeping children to find him. He put a pillow over his face. The big man struggled, tried to claw his eyes and knee him in the crotch, but Roger held his position with his heels dug into the man’s ribs. He leaned forward with all his weight on his chest, pressing the pillow down until it formed a pair of giant ears over his head. He stayed in that position long after the man ceased to struggle.

As before, he left the way he came, oblivious to his surroundings, indifferent to whoever might be looking at a white man climbing down a fire escape at four in the morning. The drive home took twice as long, but he had no clean-up to do.

The woman’s voice in his ear soothed him without words. Being daylight when he returned, undaunted by what he’d done in Atlanta or the long drive in hectic traffic, he fetched the leaf blower from the garage, donned a pair of safety ear muffs, and began blowing leaves off his driveway.


Every two weeks, a new voice. A new destination. 

Roger remained complacent, ever more willing to be guided by the spirits who sought his murderous assistance from their photographs. His soul remained untroubled. The spirits giving him orders also gave him a cloak of invisibility, he was sure of it.

He passed through busy streets without fear of detection, entered the houses or apartments of the intended victims by guile or by devices provided by the spirits. He had no fear of barking dogs, CCTV cameras mounted on corners, or home surveillance systems.

He understood he was their vessel, those victims in the photographs. He was their instrument of revenge for atrocities committed decades earlier—those unrevenged murders. Until now.

Sometimes the victims would appear on a newscast or in an internet story. He neither knew, nor did he care, how they were connected to the dead ones in his photos. The connection between their living bone and blood tied them to those slain corpses in the images stored in his basement. They had to pay for what their ancestor did.

Roger’s entire life until the moment he prowled inside that defunct precinct was irrelevant. Everything up to the moment of his anointment by the dark forces of the spirit world had the weight of a snowflake. If he maintained his relationship to them through blood vengeance, he would be accepted wholeheartedly into their midst. Nothing else mattered; nothing was as compelling as this sacred oath to them.

He did his chores, cut grass, and shoveled snow from his porch for the mailman; he hummed mindless tunes as he did the supper dishes, and smiled or waved at his neighbors coming and going. They were friendly and waved back but something—call it neighborhood gossip—hung over him like a dark cloak. That whisper kept them from inviting him over to their barbecues.

One neighbor who walked her dog past his house every evening told her next-door neighbor she saw people standing around Roger’s living room behind the plate glass picture window.

“What’s new about that, Cora? The man has company.” Cora didn’t know how to answer her. If she said they stood apart, gazing at Roger sitting on his sofa in front of a blank TV, she’d have been badgered to explain.

But how could she explain that those people wore the same types of clothes her own grandparents used to wear, frozen in a silent gaze at—nothing.

So she snapped the leash, hurrying poor Sugarpoo along before she time to finish her business. It was impossible, she knew it…but the whiff of something leaking from that house to assault her nostrils made her break into a trot despite her arthritic knees.

Later that night, in the privacy of her bed before falling asleep, she knew it was the smell of madness, of grief, and a rage so pent-up and unsatisfied that she never walked past Roger Blinken’s house again.