In 1987, a plastic surgeon named Harris Wilhelm Tristemon killed his wife, Jill Texana-Tristemon. Harris was never caught, but it was widely assumed it had to have been him. Only Harris had such expertise. Only Harris had such meticulous attention to detail. Only Harris had such devastating psychopathy.
I’m his brother.
I shared with the investigators every incident I remembered from our childhood and adolescence: All the animals Harris had killed. All the classmates he had assaulted. Every punch, every slap, every grope. By late 1989, the investigation had yielded nothing. Harris was gone.
Last month, in the small town of Zermatt, Switzerland, an American expatriate named Jill Pepo was found murdered. While Zermatt is small, crime is not alien to them. Neither is murder, although it is exceedingly rare. That said, the circumstances surrounding Pepo’s murder were hideous enough for officials to demand silence during the investigation. There was concern the growing immigrant population would be blamed. Despite the lockdown, some details leaked. I found them online.
Three weeks ago, a Canadian businesswoman, Jill Moschata, was found dead in her hotel room in Düsseldorf. Again, the hideous details were kept bottled up to avoid sparking a xenophobic panic. Again, those details were leaked.
Again, I found them online. That time, I wasn’t the only one.
A few true-crime aficionados had noticed the similarities between the Zermatt and Düsseldorf murders, and one old-timer made the connection between them and the killing of my sister-in-law. The fact the victims were all named Jill was not overlooked.
Once Jill Cucurbita, a Mexican national in upstate New York, was found murdered, all the cases were officially connected. International investigators descended on all the crime scenes. They were looking for evidence to connect my missing brother to the crimes. All they could find were the same wounds. The same cuts. The same disfigurations.
According to an ICPO and CIA estimation, 11,225 people could have made the same travel arrangements to put them at the scenes of the crimes in Zermatt, Düsseldorf, and New York. That number ballooned to unknown hundreds of thousands if the suspect drove, rather than flew, from Switzerland to Germany. This all meant they had no suspect. No one aside from Harris, who everyone assumed had changed his identity decades ago.
Last Friday, I received a piece of mail containing 13 photographs. There were three from each murder scene. They detailed the incomprehensible brutality of the Jill-killer’s process. The skinning. The scooping. The carving. The candle burning inside empty, grinning skulls.
The 13th photograph was of my daughter, who’d been named in memory of my beloved sister-in-law. It was a very recent picture, which appeared to have been taken when she was playing in the backyard. Our fenced-in backyard.
All the pictures were given to the CIA, and we’ve had round-the-clock surveillance of our home ever since. The police presence has done little to allay the fear my wife and I are experiencing. Jill, despite being only four, knows something bad is going on. Something involving her. We can’t tell her, though. We can’t even hint.
Still, it’s hard to keep it a secret from our daughter. She sees the police officers outside. She sees the expressions of anxiety on her parents’ faces. Worst of all, it was she who found the jack-o-lantern that appeared on our kitchen table in the middle of the night. One that was carved with artistic, surgical precision, to look exactly like her.
Jim Jameson grew some of the biggest and most unique pumpkins you’d ever seen. You’ve probably noticed them online without knowing they were his. Every Halloween, when websites compete with one another to feature the spookiest content, you’d be hard-pressed not to see one of Jim’s mammoth pumpkins carved into some kind of jack-o’-lantern. He was a local celebrity around here before he died, which was a pretty sad day for the whole town.
The circumstances surrounding his death were well understood, but still bizarre and unfortunate. He’d been working on trying to grow bigger and bigger pumpkins for the shows and for his customers, and he’d been experimenting on the best ways to do it. The new method, which caused his death, was growing them in his greenhouse – suspended in the air by a series of cables. The pumpkins could grow and grow without having the ground to retard their progress. The method resulted in enormous, beautifully-symmetrical pumpkins.
Then, one day, as Jim was working in the greenhouse, a pumpkin the size of a small car fell from the ceiling when its cables snapped. Broke every bone he had above his hips. The rescue workers who extricated him from the mess of blood and pumpkin guts famously said they’d never be able to carve a pumpkin again.
Jim had no next of kin, so the property was sold off, along with everything on it. I was looking for a place in the area, and after a quick visit, I determined it was the best place for me. I moved in about a year ago.
Moving into the home of someone who’d died and seeing all their stuff sitting there more-or-less undisturbed, aside from the refrigerator being cleaned out and a few other maintenance-related things, was a strange experience. At first, it felt a little invasive going through Jim’s belongings. There didn’t appear to be anything too valuable; I figured whatever might’ve been there probably got taken by whoever cleaned the fridge. What I did find, though, were reams of paper and shelves of notebooks.
Jim was a meticulous note taker. Every possible pumpkin permutation was cataloged, diagramed, and explained in full. I learned about his cable system, his fertilizer combinations, and even his experimental work.
The experiments fascinated me.
Jim had seen pictures of fruits and vegetables that’d been coaxed to grow into particular shapes. Square watermelons. Star carrots. That kind of thing. But Jim’s ambitions were greater than simple shapes. He wanted something unique and memorable – something that would put him on the map for more than just big pumpkins.
One of the notebooks was filled with diagrams of a scarecrow-shaped mold in which a pumpkin could be grown. He detailed the various materials he’d need to use, the method of keeping the pumpkin properly watered, and even the various fertilizers he’d use at different stages of its growth.
Apparently he’d been working on this experiment since the late 1980s, but with little success. Molds were created and destroyed over the course of the years, with new materials being introduced or rejected depending on their efficacy. Same with irrigation methods. But fertilizer seemed to be the biggest problem for Jim. The plant wasn’t getting the right amount of nourishment as it grew to fill the mold, leading to parts of it dying off and rotting. For decades, he tried. For decades, he failed.
Whenever I had spare time, I read Jim’s notebooks. I was fascinated by his experimenting and the trials and errors he went through. I’d find myself wondering if his works could be published someday – I couldn’t imagine anyone being bored by the work he’d written about so passionately.
Early last October, when the farm was turning brown and the leaves were turning red, I cracked open a notebook of Jim’s from the year he died. I’d decided to skip a few because I was so anxious to learn if he’d had any success with his pumpkin experiment. At this point in his notes, he was writing about hybrid pumpkins: pumpkin/acorn squash hybrids, pumpkin/zucchini hybrids; all with the goal of solving the rot problem that’d plagued his work.
I flipped through the pages of the notebook, skimming the notes, until one word stood out from all the others as if it’d been written in red: radiation. I turned back a few pages and was blown away by what I saw. Jim had, over time, purchased and disassembled hundreds of smoke detectors. He was looking to collect the tiny amounts of americium-241 they had inside.
With wide eyes, I pored over the pages as Jim talked about incorporating the americium-241 into his fertilizer to induce mutations in the pumpkins. With each new entry, I saw that Jim began to have successes. He wrote about each complete, shaped pumpkin with unbridled enthusiasm. I started to notice a slight disconnect between the scientifically-meticulous Jim from before the success and the potentially-irradiated Jim after.
I finished that notebook and started the next one. The disconnect continued. More hypotheses about hybridization were detailed – including hybrids with ostriches and slugs and even dinosaurs. I groaned and dropped the notebook. The poor b*****d had gone nuts. I felt pity for the old farmer and part of me wondered if his death in the greenhouse was purposely self-inflicted. If my mind was going, I might’ve done the same thing.
I didn’t read his notes for a couple weeks.
On Halloween, feeling bored and waiting for it to get dark so I could give the trick-or-treaters the full-size candy bars I’d bought to be the best neighbor ever, I picked up another one of Jim’s notebooks. It was the last one he’d ever made entries in. The handwriting was terrible and the sentences were fragmented. Still, I could get a decent idea about what he was talking about. More nonsense about hybrids. More trials with the americium-241 fertilizer. There were drawings, too. Not just diagrams, but artistically-rendered representations of his pumpkins and the imaginary hybrids. Some were actually pretty cool, like one of a scarecrow pumpkin riding an ostrich pumpkin. Silly, yes, but well drawn compared to his scrawled handwriting.
The drawings tapered off as I got to the end of the notebook. On the last page before a series of blanks, there was a diagram. I held it up and turned it around, trying to make out what it could be. Then it clicked: it was a map of the property. I saw the barn and the house and the greenhouse, but there was something there I didn’t recognize; something in the middle of the field by the three scarecrows that’d been there for what looked like decades.
Still bored and now curious, I brought the map with me to the field. Sure enough, at the center of the triangle formed by the scarecrows, was a slight mound in the dirt. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.
I kicked the dust around for a minute and saw a rope connected to a wooden hatch. I pulled it open, revealing a passage and a ladder anchored into stone walls. I realized it had been a well at one point. I jogged back to the house and grabbed a flashlight. It was getting dark and I knew it’d be pitch black down there.
I took care in climbing down the steps and reached the bottom after about 10 feet. Shallower than I thought. There was a narrow, low hallway with a dirt ceiling covered in the veiny stalactites of roots from the plants above. I stooped down and walked forward, brushing the roots out of my face and trying to put out of my mind the thought of spiders as their webs stuck to my face.
My flashlight beam illuminated another wooden door with a rope handle. I reached out, grabbed, the handle, and pulled. It was stuck. I aimed the flashlight around the door and noticed a metal rod sticking out of the wall, blocking the door from opening. I yanked the rod out of the wall and tried the door again. It opened easily.
The flashlight showed a small room, about five feet by five feet. At first, I thought it was empty. When I stepped inside, however, there was something against the wall next to the doorway. It took me a minute to figure out what it was in the dim light of the flashlight, but when I finally understood what I was looking at, I gasped. The thing began to move.
I stifled a scream as a creature the size of a man stood and stared at me; its veiny, whitish-orange skin covered in dust. It moaned.
I made a move to run, but the thing blocked my path. Now, I did scream. I tried to strike it with my flashlight, but I was dealt a heavy blow that sent me reeling. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was the thing walking out the door and down the root-choked corridor.
My blackout lasted the entire night. When I came to, I rolled around in pain and confusion. I was seeing double and was unbearably dizzy. I knew I had to have a concussion, but for the first couple minutes, I couldn’t remember why. When it all came flooding back, a spell of panic pushed my dizziness aside and I ran out of the room, climbed out of the chamber, and hauled myself into the daylight.
The farm was filled with police and emergency vehicles. One of the officers saw me staggering toward them and called out to his partner. They approached me just in time for me to collapse into their arms.
I woke up in the hospital some time later. I was indeed concussed and my skull was home to a fracture that could’ve killed me. There was commotion outside the door and I pressed the button near the bed to alert a nurse. When one finally came, she looked haggard and upset. I asked what was going on, dismayed by the slur I heard in my speech.
She sat on my bed, and without breaking eye contact, told me what had happened and why the hospital was full. I didn’t believe her, so she turned on the local news. The anchor was talking about the deaths in our town. The dead trick-or-treaters. The dead parents who’d tried to protect them. The dead police officers who’d tried to intervene.
The view changed to a charred and fractured area in the middle of Main Street. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The nurse turned off the TV.
The nurse said no one knew how any of it happened and some people were even doubting what they’d seen less than 24 hours ago. It was too surreal. A man-shaped creature with skin like a pumpkin screaming “where is my father?,” while devastating any person it came near. But the evidence was there. Especially in the victims. The dead were lucky. The living, though, were traumatized beyond comprehension.
While I thought my injury was bad, as more details of the event were relayed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. But it was short-lived. Before she left to assist another patient, the nurse said one thing under her breath. It was quiet and almost sounded like she didn’t want to say it, but felt compelled to. I didn’t get all of it, but what I heard was enough.
“…shattered hips and jaws and orifices stuffed with pumpkin seeds.”