My brother stood up and stormed out of the house. I listened as his car started and peeled out of the driveway. I apologized to the cops, who told me not to worry about it.
“We were telling your brother, your parents, they uh, looks like there wasn’t any pain.” the tall cop said.
“Where did it happen?” I asked.
“On the parkway. That long stretch of road, nothing but trees, no lights.”
I stood still. I just couldn’t believe it.
“You were at your friend’s house last night, yeah?” he asked.
I looked up.
“Your brother mentioned it.”
“Oh…yeah. My friend Ryan.”
“Do you have somewhere you can go?” the short cop asked, trying to draw attention away from his partner’s callousness.
I knew that my aunt and uncle (my mom’s brother and his wife) were the ones who would get custody of my brother and I if anything happened to my parents. Since my brother was 19, he wasn’t made to go there, but there were a lot worse places I could’ve ended up.
“Yeah, my aunt and uncles.” I said.
“Is that…Richard and Jennifer?” the tall cop read from a notepad.
“Yeah.” I choked back tears.
“Alright, well…give them a call, okay? Some official stuff will need to happen, but you just take it easy for now.”
I nodded. The officers walked past me, with the short one placing a hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll get through this.” he said.
All I could do was nod. I stood in place, unsure of what to do or where to go. At that moment, the store, the videos, they were the farthest thing from my mind.
“Video West…that’s your folks place, yeah?” I heard the tall cop say from behind me. I spun around.
“Uh, yeah.” I muttered.
“You spend a lot of time up there? I know I would, I was your age.”
“I haven’t been there in a while. They said it was a place of business, not a place to hang out.”
“Hmm. Take care, son.”
The tall cop turned back around left.
I didn’t want to call my aunt and uncle right away and deal with everything that would come with that, so I tried calling Alex, but got no answer. Next on my list was Ryan. He was able to borrow his mom’s car and drove over. A short time later, he walked into my house. I was sitting in the living room, in the same spot my brother had been not long before.
He walked right past me and started up the stairs before I called for him.
“What are you doing down here?” he asked.
“My parents are dead.” I blurted out. I figured there was no sugarcoating it.
“What…the fuck? Really?” he asked, incredulous.
“Really. Cops left like 20 minutes ago.”
“Shit dude…I’m sorry.”
“Man…I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry, Nick.”
I paused for a moment.
“You know what I keep thinking?” I asked. Ryan didn’t answer, instead just waiting for me to continue. “They got in a car accident coming home from the store in the middle of the night, and they were there in the middle of the night because I called the cops.”
“You can’t think like that, man. It’s not your fault.” my friend offered.
I don’t know if it was out of need for a distraction or grief giving me an odd boost, but I suddenly stood up.
“Let’s go to the store.” I declared.
“What? No. Why? We don’t have to do that shit anymore, dude.” Ryan objected.
“I want to. We don’t even need to sneak in. We can just…you know, go. Let’s get that proof.”
“….if you’re sure, yeah, I guess let’s go.”
We got into Ryan’s mom’s car and drove to Video West. I still had both keys in my pocket, and I rubbed them together nervously in place of conversing with my friend. Once we arrived, I walked to the front door and slid the key in, and once I was inside I shut the security system off.
Ryan and I quickly walked through the store and headed straight downstairs. The stairway seemed even gloomier somehow, the cobwebs fuller, the walls a darker gray. We made our way into the basement, the contents of which, boxes, cardboard cutouts, rolled up posters, had been rearranged.
We felt around the wall, finding the section that depressed when we pushed on it. After finding the edge, we pulled back, revealing the hidden area.
But it was empty.
The hidden alcove was nothing but four gray walls and a matching floor and ceiling. No boxes of videos, no TV/VCR combo, nothing.
I felt defeated. I didn’t even know what my plan was once I got a tape, but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get one, it hurt. I hung my head in submission. Looking back, I think I expected that getting proof of the murder videos was going to somehow make my parents’ death mean something, that I was going to honor them somehow by exposing what was happening at their store, which, perhaps due to the fog of bereavement, I decided there was no way they were a part of.
Ryan and I replaced the wall and walked upstairs.
“Sorry, man.” Ryan offered. “But hey, at least there’s not murder videos in your store anymore.”
“Yeah.” I said without any kind of emotion behind it. “I wonder what’s gonna happen to the store now.”
We walked through the doors into the main area of the store. Just as we did, the front door, which I’d failed to lock behind us when we came in, swung open, and two men walked in.
“I’m sorry, we’re not open.” Ryan announced.
The men continued perusing the aisle.
“HEY.” my friend said with some more force behind his voice. It got the men’s attention. “We’re not open.”
“You aren’t the people who’re usually here.” one of the men said. He wore a blue button-down shirt with jeans, and had his dark brown hair slicked back.
“No, we’re not.” Ryan explained “They’re not in today.”
“Then why are you here?” the other man abruptly asked. He was shorter, but more solidly built than the other man.
“My parents own this place.” I said. “They, uh…won’t be coming back. I don’t know why I’m here, just thought I’d come check on the place. I don’t know.”
The men looked at each other, then back at us.
“Won’t be coming back?” the taller one asked.
‘Yeah…” I started. “They…”
“Jesus dude, the fuckin’ store is closed, I’m sorry. We’re figuring everything out. Next time you come back we should be good to go.” Ryan interjected, something I was grateful for.
The men headed towards the door, and just as the taller man walked through, the shorter man stopped and turned around.
“Very sorry for your loss.” he said, and in retrospect I should’ve seen the venom dripping off his tongue. I didn’t realize it back then, but the way the man said it, there was more than a simple condolence behind his words.
“Fuckin’ asshole.” Ryan said.
I stood there, in the middle of the video store my parents had dedicated their lives to.
The video store my friend and I had snuck into the night before.
The video store we’d seen a collection of murder videos in.
Years passed. I had moved in with my aunt and uncle after the funeral, and my brother had too, but like everyone else, I rarely saw him.
I resented him for that. With our parents gone, I needed my big brother more than ever, but he was nowhere to be found. For as rarely as he answered his phone, it was even more seldom that he was at the house outside of the hours of 3AM and 7AM, when he would sometimes come home to sleep. As time passed, I saw him less and less, to the point that in the last three years, I’ve only laid eyes on my brother three times.
Our parent’s life insurance policy paid out to my brother and I an amount of money that was substantially more than I would’ve expected from two people who owned a video store in the mid-2000’s. It wasn’t an extravagant or unbelievable amount of money, but it was enough to lay a solid foundation.
I made a series of smart investments based on the advice of my aunt, who’d had a long career as a CPA. Over the years I was able to quadruple my inheritance, and because I lived with them rent free, plus the fact that I had a job, I was able to accumulate an amount of money to where I could live comfortably. My brother, as far as I knew, blew through his money very quickly.
I had remained friends with Ryan. He helped me through the roughest time in my life, and the events of the video store and the murder video faded into pockets in the very backs of our memories. We’d brought it up a few times, but what could we do? Video West had been bequeathed to my aunt and uncle, who managed to keep it open for a little over a year, but the advent of Netflix and Redbox eventually made the store unfeasible.
My uncle eventually sold the property to a business, but nothing was ever done with the building. It just sat there collecting dust and being beaten down by weather and a lack of maintenance. Whenever I drove past it, it brought back recollections both good and bad, and it saddened me that a place I once treasured so much had become a worn down, dilapidated, faded memory of a building.
That brings us to about a year ago.
I was 26, and Ryan and I had grown tired of the same three bars in our small town, and at that time had been travelling to the nearby city whenever we felt like going out. On that night, we were at a bar we’d discovered a few weeks earlier playing pool. As I lined up the cue to hit the 4 ball into a side pocket, Ryan started tapping me on my shoulder.
“Dude, Nick, dude.”
“What, what, what?” I bit back, probably sounding more annoyed than I actually was.
“Look.” Ryan pointed towards the bar at the front of the establishment.
I looked over, trying to figure out what he was pointing to. And then I saw.
It was the man who’d offered me his condolences at the store the day I found out my parents died. I stood there for a few moments, emotions flooding through me like waves in a storm. Years of therapy, however, helped me to maintain my composure. I simply looked at the man as he leaned on the bartop, his head craned up so as to see the basketball game playing on ESPN.
I might’ve ignored it entirely. I might’ve not even given it a second thought; the man was of no consequence to me, I hadn’t seen him in years, and I really didn’t even know who he was, just that I got a bad vibe from him. I might’ve just ignored it, but then someone walked out of the bathroom. This person exited the bathroom and walked up next to the man from the store, patting him on the shoulder as he leaned against the bartop. As this person leaned against the bar, the bartender came from the kitchen and set a few bags of food in front of them. This person handed the bartender money, and gave a motion that told the bartender to keep the change.
The man from the store and this person each did a shot that had been sitting on the bar the entire time. This person picked up the bags of food, gave a knowing, familiar handshake to the bartender, and the two of them started for the door.
This person was my brother, whom I hadn’t seen nor talked to in nearly three years.
I was stuck for a moment, frozen in place, leaned halfway over the pool table. He looked different. I don’t know if it was his clothes, his haircut, the way he carried himself, but something was different about him. As they stepped out the door, something clicked in me and I dropped the pool cue on the table and started for the door without saying a word to Ryan, who just knew to follow.
We made our way outside, just in time to see my brother and the other man get into a Maserati, my brother into the driver’s seat. I decided to try to call Alex. I saw the glow of his phone cast a dim light in the car, then I saw that light go away at the same time I heard “you have reached the voicemail box of…”, and then I saw them drive off.
I was in a particularly sour mood thereafter, now having more questions than ever with regards to my brother. I drowned that mood out with a series of shots and mixed drinks from the bar. When it came time to leave, despite neither of us being in a position to drive, we decided Ryan was better suited to it than I was, and he took us back to our town.
As we neared my neighborhood, I suddenly got the urge to make a pit stop.
“Go to the store.” I said to Ryan.
“Alright. What do you need? You wanna just get McDonalds or something?” he replied.
“The video store.”
“Whaaat? No, dude. Why?” he asked.
“I just wanna check it out.”
“It’s been sitting there for what, like 10 years, 11 years, whatever. It’ll probably collapse on us.” he argued.
“It’ll be fine.” I was insistent. If he wouldn’t have stopped, I would’ve immediately left my house in my own car once we got back and gone alone.
“What are you gonna do, break a window?”
“If I have to, who gives a shit?” I started. “And who knows, maybe the key will still work.”
I pulled my keyring from my pocket and held it by one gold key, the copy I’d made all those years ago.
“You still have that?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why.”
We parked down the street from the old Video West building and made the rest of the trip on foot. As we reached the parking lot, the building loomed before us, shadows hitting it in the most unflattering of ways. We got to the face of the building and tried to peer inside, but the windows were too marred by grime and dust to go inside.
The front doors were boarded up completely. As such, we decided to walk around to the back of the building. The back door to Video West, the one we’d escaped through years prior, had three windows, one of which would be just low enough to reach the locks if I reached in.
“You sure you wanna just…break in?” Ryan asked.
“You really think anyone will notice? Look at this place.”
I put my back to the door and drove my elbow into the window, but it bounced right off of it. I tried again, but to no avail.
“What the fuck?!” I yelled out in frustration.
Ryan shushed me, then patted me on the arm, pointing to something I hadn’t noticed.
“There’s like a thousand locks on the door, there used to just be the one.” he said. And he was right. There was the doorknob lock, but there were also three deadbolts.
I didn’t say anything. Instead, I walked back around to the front of the building and up to the front doors. I pulled the key out of my pocket and put it in the lock, and we were both surprised to find that it still worked. I swung the door open, motioning for Ryan to hold it.
I put my back to the wood and swung my leg up and then back into the bottom corner of the plywood, sending a loud, flat thud echoing into the night.
“Fuck dude, be quiet!” Ryan yell-whispered.
I kicked again, and the noise this time was accompanied by a split-second of a metallic squeal. A third kick sent one of the eights bolts clinking across the floor within. A fourth split the wood on the frame to which the plywood was fastened, and a fifth sent a second bolt clattering to the floor. Meanwhile, Ryan looked around us with a paranoid fervor.
“Are you fuckin’ done? Jesus dude the whole goddamn neighborhood probably heard that.” he said, despite the fact that Video West wasn’t *in* a neighborhood, but just on the outskirts of one.
I pushed the plywood in with my foot, making a space just large enough for us to fit through.
We crawled in, the plywood making a *crack* as it whipped back into place.
It was evident that we weren’t the first people to explore the abandoned store. The walls were marred with graffiti, the glass from a hundred fluorescent light bulbs littered the ground, beer cans and empty cigarette packs had made their home in the corners.
“Jesus, what a shithole.” Ryan exclaimed. I knew he was right, but to hear my parent’s store described in such a way caused me instinctively shoot my friend a biting glare. He saw it, and his regretful face served as an adequate apology.
We walked to the back area of the store, staring into the dark abyss of boxes long torn to shreds, movie posters with hand-drawn addendums, and empty DVD cases.
I looked over to the basement door, and from where I was, I could see a numbered keypad.
“What the fuck?” I said as I made my over to it.
“What?” Ryan said.
“The basement door.” I replied. “It’s got a keypad lock, and it definitely didn’t before. The door’s been reinforced, too.”
And it had. The old door to the basement could’ve been pulled off its hinges with a hard yank, but the current door was a much thicker wood, built into a much sturdier door frame.
“We have to get down there.” I said.
Now with a motivation I hadn’t had until that moment, I walked back into the main area of the building, where the aisles and aisles once full of movies now sat bare, with a few DVD cases scattered about the floor.
“That room, the…the hidden one. Where about was it?” I asked my friend as I walked with purpose across the building, navigating our way around the aisles. “Here, you think?”
Ryan looked around, and I could see his thoughts working through his head.
“Little this way.” he said, and we walked a few feet to our right. “Cause it was down the stairs, then like halfway across, right?
I nodded in silent affirmation.
“What are you thinking?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know…can we get through the floor?” I said.
“Seriously? Even if we did, how are we gonna get back up?”
“The room didn’t have a ceiling, it was just the slats. And as for getting back up…one problem at a time.” I said, drunken confidence taking over rational thought.
The carpet had been torn up in a number of spots on the floor, revealing the wood beneath it. And to our luck, the wood at a spot just to our right had been warped, I figured due to a leak in the roof. I recalled a conversation between my aunt and uncle years prior during which they debated getting the roof replaced. This was shortly before they sold the building altogether.
I tore a piece of thin but sturdy metal from one of the aisles and used it as a crowbar of sorts, prying up the warped floorboards. From there, I worked my way left until I had gotten to the area over the hidden room. We tore out the insulation from between the levels and were soon looking down into the room in which we’d watched the beginning of a murder video years prior.
Instead of a TV/VCR combo, there now sat a desktop computer and monitor and three laptops. The room was no longer a tiny warehouse filled with boxes of videotapes, but was now set up like some sort of cubicle. Each computer sat on a desk, with the wall opposite us home to two laptops on one desk. In the corner of the room was a metal multi-shelf unit, and each was stuffed to its limit with small USPS shipping packages.
On the floor almost directly beneath us sat the only box in the room, only it wasn’t filled with videotapes. As far as I could tell, it was filled with packaged USB flash drives.
“The…fuck?” Ryan said.
“I’m going down. You wanna stay up here? I can use the desk and get up far enough if you can help me up just a little bit.”
Ryan agreed. Just as I was about to stick my legs through the opening and jump down into the room, Ryan stopped me.
“Wrap your shirt around your face.” he advised.
“If they have some murder-video-ass operation going on down there, you think they’re gonna not have cameras? There’s none I can see up here, but…I don’t know, better safe than sorry.”
He had a point. I took off my t-shirt, leaving only my white tank top to cover my upper body. I wrapped the shirt over and around my head in such a way that I saw through the neckhole. I put my legs through the opening of the floor, dropping down onto the desk below.
I maneuvered the rest of my body down and hopped onto the floor. The first thing I noticed was that instead of just a false plywood wall, there was now an actual door. I communicated that fact up to Ryan.
I stepped over to the nearest laptop and turned it on. While I waited for it to boot up, I turned to face the shelving unit and looked at a few of the USPS packages. All of them were addressed to people or businesses all over the United States and Canada, and each had a different return address.
Brunner’s Automotive Solutions – Milwaukee, WI
Pet Prizes by Millie – Walnut Creek, CA
Kimberly Corporation – San Antonio, TX
I pressed my thumbs against the packages, finding each of them to have only a single small object inside. That’s when I turned around and stepped over to the box full of packaged USB drives.
Each of the at least 50 drives were the same brand, and accompanying them were a stack of paperclipped receipts that showed me that no more than three of the USB drives were purchased at any one location, and the locations they were bought at spanned the entire state.
I turned back to the laptop, finding it to be password protected. As luck would have it, there was a post-it note stickied to the side of the desk, on which was written a series of 22 characters, some letters both lowercase and capitalized, some numbers, and some symbols. I input the string of random characters into the password box and was in.
The screen opened to an in-progress project in the video editing software Sony Vegas. The title of the project was 5-12-2018 – K7 – F – 34, the same title format of the videotapes. I clicked play, and in the bottom left hand corner a video began, ostensibly somewhere in the middle.
Rather than simply a stationary camera, this video was done side by side, with one view from the upper corner of the room by what was presumably a security camera, and the other handheld. The security camera caught the entire scene, the masked cameraman included.
In the handheld view I watched a woman cower in the corner while a man closer in frame, his face covered by what looked like a handmade paper-mâché mask, held a blowtorch up for the camera.
“Today is May 12th, 2018, let’s get to it.” The masked man said over the tormented screams of the woman in the corner.
He turned towards her and laughed at her fear, blowtorch in his left hand. He stepped closer to her and the woman made a sad attempt at running from him, but with his free hand, the man grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head into the wall. With a sickening crunch he drove his knee into her jaw, dazing her.
And that’s when it started.
I don’t want to be gratuitous, so I’ll give you the broad strokes. He started at her feet, chasing her around as she tried to scurry away. Next her legs, then her back and stomach. He punched her in the head whenever she moved around too much.
When he got to her chest, she passed out, or died, I don’t know. The video didn’t end until he used the blowtorch on her face, until she didn’t have one. It was the most depraved, revolting, horrible thing I’ve ever seen or heard.
“Alright, cut.” the cameraman said.
The left side of the screen cut to black, but the right side still showed the security camera footage, on which I watched as the man with the mask lifted his disguise over his face; it wasn’t a face I recognized.
“Sweatin’ like a whore in church, fuck me.” the man said, wiping sweat from his face and hair. “How’d it look?”
“Looked damn good.” The cameraman replied. “Bitch put up a fight though, huh?”
“Didn’t she?!” the murderer laughed. “Ah well, Al likes when they squirm a bit. Tough little thing she was. Thanks for serving your purpose.”
The man spit on his victim, something so inherently disrespectful that it made me cringe as much as anything else in the video.
“NICK!” A sharp whisper from Ryan brought me out of my trance. I looked up. “Someone just pulled up!”
I didn’t hesitate for a second. I grabbed a handful of addressed packages from the shelves and tossed them up to Ryan through the hole in the floor. Additionally, I grabbed a few loose USB drives. I held the power button the laptop down and shut it before climbing up on the desk. Ryan helped me up through the floor and stuffed the insulation back in, then scattering some debris over the area we’d pried up as I picked up all the evidence.
We made our way to the opening in the plywood. Just as Ryan pulled it open for me to crawl through, we heard the locks near the back door clicking. We both made it out and sprinted to Ryan’s car. As we pulled away with his lights off, I saw for the car that Ryan had heard pull up.
It was a black Maserati, the same one I’d seen my brother get into at the bar earlier that night.