“The people of this world are just balloons to him,” the medium said. Seated around the medium’s circle was an odd assortment of people. From left to right, there was Lucas, the head librarian at the university; Marjorie, the paralegal who worked for one of the oldest law firms in the city; Kraft and Linkler, the business owners; and Stephens, the true crime writer. Collectively, the group called itself the Secret Six, even though what they did was not necessarily secret. Because the city council had voted in favor of defunding the police department, the mayor was forced to fill the gap against the rising tide of crime by greenlighting funds to private security contractors and at least one private military company. The Secret Six, whose name came from the glory days of Chicago’s war against “Scarface” Al Capone, received municipal funds after Kraft and Linkler penned a letter promising to use “unusual and progressive anti-crime strategies.” The wording appealed to the political inclinations of the mayor’s handlers, none of whom realized that “unusual and progressive anti-crime strategies” included seances with the medium Olga Fursenko, a fake Ukrainian but real psychic medium.

“So that is why he kills them the way he does,” Lucas said to the medium.

“Yes. He puts pins in them to ‘pop’ them. He stays at the scene because he likes to watch them burst.” The medium’s words made the members of the circle shiver. The crimes were gruesome enough, and yet Olga’s renderings of the criminal’s psychology made their collective blood freeze.

The so-called Pincushion Man appeared just as the city’s crime rate skyrocketed. Even in a city where shootings had become routine and where the jangle of kicked shell casings indicated the approach of pedestrians, the crimes of the Pincushion Man managed to maintain attention. The true crime writer Stephens spared no adjectives in his articles about the unique awfulness of the serial killer’s crime scenes. Most of the state police detectives and county deputies who witnessed the crime scenes concurred with Stephens’s verbose assessments.

The first victim was Michael Lee Stoller, 21. Stoller was a university senior and a work-study student who had a part-time job in the library’s digital archives department. It was his job to maintain and catalog the library’s DVDs and Blu-rays, and whenever a professor asked to put one on reserve, Stoller would dutifully comply. All reports indicated that Stoller was gregarious and friendly and had a penchant for chit-chatting with patrons about their tastes in film. And yet Stoller had failed to make an impression on Lucas, his nominal boss.

“I don’t think I ever met him,” was all Lucas said after Stephens had brought the crime scene photos to a meeting of the Secret Six. The fussy librarian paled after glimpsing at the photos, which showed Stoller naked and tied to his bed. Protruding out of him was an army of pins that was later tallied to be 125.

The next to die was Grace Moore Kennedy, 19. A single mother who took online classes, Grace was remembered by those who knew her as a formerly wayward party girl who found God and quit drinking after the birth of her daughter. All agreed that 19 was too young to die. Even worse, Grace’s decomposing body was first found by her infant daughter, whose cries drew the attention of Grace’s neighbor. Grace, like Stoller, was found bound and stripped in her own bedroom. And yet, unlike Stoller, the killer had focused on Grace’s sexual organs. All the pins were discovered in her most private parts. Marjorie fainted at the second meeting after recognizing Grace’s face. The deceased had been enrolled in one of Marjorie’s classes.

The Pincushion Man earned his sobriquet following the discovery of the next crime. One rainy night, during a security guard’s routine patrol of a gated community, a local had flagged him down. The concerned citizen asked the guard to check in on the Moreno family, as they had not been seen in several days. The security guard jotted down some notes, including the names of the family members and basic descriptions of them, and then drove to the address. The Moreno family lived in a three-story house at the edge of the community. Indeed, the family’s backyard ended at the high gate that encircled the entire community. This was noted as a possible entry point after the discovery of the bodies.

Miguel and Juliana Moreno were found in their bedroom. Well, in truth, they were partially found. Miguel was discovered handcuffed to one of the posters of his four-corner bed. He was nude and covered in so many pins that it was difficult to see his skin in between the silver metal. Juliana was also nude and tied to the bed, and like her husband, she was covered in pins. However, the first on the scene noticed to their horror that Juliana Moreno had been decapitated by her killer. The huge spray and pattern of blood in the bedroom, along with the overworked county coroner’s initial findings about the times of death for both victims, convinced the members of the Secret Six that the killer had butchered Juliana while her husband was forced to watch.

The day after the murders, employees for both Kraft and Linkler sent out frantic emails about finding disturbing notes. The one that had been found in the Kraft office was left on a cubicle on the fourth floor. The note read: Folks all hate me. It tickles me the way they rate me. A study of HR’s records indicated that the cubicle had belonged to Miguel Moreno, who worked in the claims office prior to his murder. The note found at Linkler’s company was left in the mailbox for employee Juliana Moreno. It read: Always have a pin at hand. That’s the reason why I’m panned. Both notes were given to the Secret Six after they were analyzed and recorded by the state crime lab.

The security guard who discovered the bodies of the Moreno family was the first major suspect in the case. The state police grilled him for days, but the poor man maintained a consistent story. The state’s attorney general went ahead with charges anyway out of political expediency. The totality of the state’s political elite wanted the case closed, so the security guard was put on trial. He earned an acquittal due to a profound lack evidence. This gave the state a major blackeye, which was followed by another one when Juliana’s head was found across the county line. A passing motorist noticed an odd shape bouncing in the wind. The motorist inspected the matter and realized, to his everlasting horror, that the object was Juliana Moreno’s head. Its tongue had been pulled out and nailed with a pin to the crossbeam of an abandoned farmhouse.

The last known victim was Christina Herschel, 38. Herschel was a noted outdoors enthusiast who had left her job with a local publishing imprint to create her own company. The company sold hiking and boating equipment online, and its success had earned Christina some small-scale fame in the city. As such, some grew suspicious when Christina failed to attend an awards ceremony honoring her and other entrepreneurs. A video clip of the awards ceremony, where the flummoxed mayor announced Christina’s name three times to no response, went viral after the victim’s remains were found scattered in an infamous forest outside of city limits.

Stephens, an avid hunter, had been the one to kickstart the investigation. While sitting in his blind waiting to bag the first deer of the season, Stephens was caught off-guard when a male black bear charged him from the side. Quick thinking and expert marksmanship from his .270 Winchester saved his skin from being ripped off the bone. Stephens followed the wounded animal to its place of death, which turned out to be its makeshift den. Inside, partially buried under a pile of orange and red leaves, was the severed arm of a white woman. Stephens’ calls to the other members of the Secret Six, who in turn alerted the state police, initiated a large search party of the area. It took a month to piece together the dismembered body of Christina Herschel; a hand was found underneath a cairn of stones, while her lower torso was uncovered at a campsite five miles away from Stephens’s encounter with the bear. Her head and upper torso were found even further away, and when the county coroner investigated, he found dozens of pins in the victim’s lower intestinal tract. This was evidence that the killer had made Christina consume the pins prior to her death.

As for Stephens, he contemplated quitting the Secret Six when an unmarked and unsigned letter arrived in his mailbox. The letter read: How I stop ‘em when I pop ‘em!

The letter was the reason for the séance. At a loss about what to do with the Pincushion Man, the members of the Secret Six called upon Olga to use her powers to contact the murderer via astral projection. The medium had initially balked, warning her peers that such activities were dangerous and the possibility of bringing demons into the world.

“The other side is full of leeches,” Olga had said. “They would all love to use me to cross over.”

“But you are the only one who has not yet been targeted,” Stephens had reasoned.

“Yes, we all have had some connection to the murders. You’re the only one who hasn’t,” Lucas had rejoined.

It did not take a medium to understand what the others were saying. They believed that the murderer would soon target someone in Olga’s life, and they wanted the medium to use the supernatural to stop the crime from occurring. Reluctantly, she agreed.

The séance began at 8PM. Since the bachelor Lucas did not have to worry about scaring a partner or child, the group agreed to have the séance at his home on campus. Lucas also had the added benefit of having attended a séance before, so he guided the other participants through the process while Olga cleansed and prepared herself for the possibility of spiritual battle. All eventually linked hands in the dark, while Olga commanded and demanded the murderer to appear.

An hour into the séance, Olga’s voice and mannerisms began to change. Her voiced deepened and took on a new cadence. She spoke with a bouncy, almost sing-song rhythm that seemed childish until it became sinister.

La-la-la, you’ll never find me. La-la-la, you’ll never catch me. La-la-la, the Pincushion Man is a fake, says the baying, bleeding necks of babes.

Lucas was forced to growl at Marjorie and Kraft, for they attempted to break the circle and save Olga from what they believed to be possession. Lucas whispered that their circle could not be broken until the ceremony concluded. This settled Marjorie and Kraft back into their seats, but they and everyone else watched in severe agitation as Olga continued to mocking sing.

La-la-la, let me in, I’ll get mad in a minute. Open the gates; I want to come in. La-la-la, I’m your friend. I want to leave you something.

“What does this all mean?” Linkler had asked Lucas. True to his calling, the librarian had shushed him.

“I might be wrong, but our murderer is talking as if he’s an inhuman spirit,” Stephens whispered.
“A demon?” came the chorus from everyone but Lucas.

“Keep quiet, you fools! Any mistake could cost Olga her life.”

La-la-la, I roll in a ball of mud. La-la-la, but you can’t push me off the cliff!

A frightening burst of deep-throated laughter came from Olga before the lights inexplicably turned on. Olga opened her eyes. The cold, clear blue of her irises looked haunted, but they were Olga’s eyes.

“The people of this world are just balloons to him,” she said. Olga proceeded to divulge everything that she had learned about the murder while under his influence. She spoke of a false reality wherein everything was made of balloons except for the Pincushion Man. In this world, the Pincushion Man had free reign to terrorize and destroy.

“You speak of him as if he were not human,” Marjorie said.

“My dear, I felt his presence, and it felt like an elemental evil rather than the sinful substance of a mortal man.”

“So, we need an exorcist, not a police force?” Linkler asked.

“But how can a spirit, even an evil one, murdered people in our world?” Stephens asked.

“And why is that evil spirit seemingly targeting us?” Kraft added.

“Please, I am exhausted. You all ask very good questions, but I need to rest and think about them first. Please leave me for a moment.” The other members left the séance table and left Olga alone.

In the Lucas’ kitchen, the members of the Secret Six reformed. With drinks in their hands, they set their brains and tongues to work.

“Olga really seems to indicate that our killer is not human,” Kraft said.

“How is that even possible? Ghosts can’t kill people, especially not the way that the Pincushion Man kills people,” Marjorie added.

“And, to the best of knowledge, demons cannot directly murder someone; they can only through possession,” Lucas said.

“So maybe the Pincushion Man is the spirit, but the murderer is a living man.”

“You guess is as good as mine,” Lucas said. “Best to keep all options open.”

“What about a type of bleeding?” Linkler asked.

“A what?”

“A bleeding. Like maybe the Pincushion Man is a creature who exists in a different dimension, and through some kind of black magic, he is now bleeding over into our world.”

Linkler’s comments created a void of silence that was broken by Marjorie, who offered a non-sequitur.

“Poor Olga. I hope the dear gets some rest. I could never do what she does,” Marjorie said.

In the other room, Olga had drifted off into a deep slumber. She never dreamed anymore, or at least never remembered her dreams upon waking. This time, however, she tortured by a dream—a painful dream. Rather than be subjected to images, Olga’s dream saw her experience physical sensations. She first felt the march of a million fire ants across her skin. Each wrinkle and fold burned with red-hot pain. The pain intensified until it transmogrified. The little ant feet thinned and sharpened until Olga felt the prick of a million pins.

As she opened her mouth to scream, a gray-black cloud was released from her mouth, eyes, and nose. Olga knew what the substance was. Most knew it as “ectoplasm,” but Olga believed it was better rendered as “inhuman essence.” The spirits of the air are not made of blood and bone; they are instead composed of unknown and mostly unseen elements. While a paralyzed victim, Olga watched as the inhuman essence flowed out of her and took shape. The shape did not have the contours of a man, but rather the shape of a gigantic safety pin.

The pin’s lower half detached. Its lower torso, which more closely resembled a thorax, unhooked itself and showed Olga, who could neither move nor scream, its sharp edge.

I’m the old Pincushion Man, terror of balloon-y land! It’s time to pop!

The gray-black pin came down on Olga again and again. The force of the blows cracked her spine and eventually detached her brain from her spinal cord. Olga was already dead when the heavy smell of copper reached the Secret Six members in the kitchen.

They all raced into the sitting room to check on their medium. Marjorie screamed, while Kraft, Linkler, and Lucas stupidly raced outside to find a police officer. They, of course, found none.

Stephens was the only one brave enough, or desensitized enough, to check the body. The aroma of blood and intestinal fluid repulsed him, but he pushed on out of a morbid curiosity. As he did so, and as he placed his face close to Olga’s, the dead woman’s eyes bolted awake and glowed with a strange luminescence. Her lips, which sloshed due to all the blood, parted and emitted a low-pitched laugh. Stephens was too entranced to escape as the gray-black miasma covered him. Marjorie screamed as her friend and fellow Secret Six member disappeared in an unnatural fog.

When the air cleared, Marjorie tried and tried to find Stephens, but the true crime writer was gone. He had somehow disappeared without leaving a trace. Marjorie and the remaining members of the Secret Six had no idea that Stephens had gone to Balloon Land to be with the pins and the pops.