Sometime back, I set myself the challenge of writing short stories. A resumption of sorts, in fact, of an art I last attempted a few years ago. How is it? (4471 words)
When a sleepy town in the American midwest is rocked by a sudden spate of killings, who’d be a better bet to protect its citizens than the town’s own police chief, Jeremy Watkins?
You don’t get to hurt anyone in my town…
Chief Jeremy ‘Jimmy’ Watkins took off his hat and held it against his chest. “Bad one, this ‘un,” he said to no one in particular.
The town’s medical examiner, Dr. Brijesh Patel, stepped away from the corpse with the grunt of a man whose knees were starting to rot. “It’s the fourth, all right,” he said, his Indian accent worn into the polished ease of the locals. “Same MO as the others.”
“Any luck this time?” the Chief asked, although he knew the answer. The scene looked like the others; he doubted things would be different.
Dr. Patel shook his head emphatically. “Nothing. No fibres, no DNA, not even a scrap of skin under his nails. Of course, once I get him on the table…” His voice trailed off, and the Chief did not press him. Except for more nitty-gritty details on how death had occurred, there would be very little to help them identify the killer.
Serial killer, he corrected himself. With four victims, the title seemed well-deserved. He wondered which one of the newspapers would come up with the nickname that would stick. His own bet was on the Boston Times. They had been on a roll in recent times, having successfully packaged three of the last four serial killers to pass through the state’s legal system.
The ‘Triple-M’ – Massachusetts Mass Murderer – in honor of the kind soul who had travelled through the state leaving dead bodies at every motel that he had spent a night in, currently serving the second year of seven consecutive life sentences.
The ‘Layer Slayer’ for the contractor who would bury his victims on top of each other, and was discovered when he ran out of space.
The ‘Hi-Tea Lady’, which eventually lost out to the Herald’s ‘Ms. Frankenstein’, for a professor who’d invite strangers into her home for tea and poison them so that she could have the perfect corpse for her research on post-mortem brain activity.
And the ‘Son of the Strangler’ for the man who would use his victims’ stockings to strangle them, much like his predecessor of the sixties.
What would they name this one? Jimmy wondered.
The first victim had been discovered eight days ago. Sheila Davis, 28 years old, blonde, 5”2’, about a hundred pounds when Dr. Patel had weighed her at the mortuary. The Chief did not need to look at a photograph to know what she had looked like; indeed, he doubted anyone in the county did. Her face had been plastered across newspapers and televisions, first as a missing person and then as a victim of homicide. She had been found in the woods just within the town limits, hands bound behind her, executed with a single shot to the head.
The second victim had been claimed four days later. Victor Morris had been the town’s postman for the past twenty years, the last eighteen of which had been spent threatening anyone who would listen that he would quit. He too had been bound at the time of his execution.
Until the previous day, Harald Jungerson had been the latest victim. An odds-and-ends guy who had probably never managed a complete sentence in his entire life, his absence might have gone unnoticed – his corpse undiscovered at least till hunting season – if it had not been for a couple of truant kids sneaking off into the woods to the North to smoke some pot. Same cause of death: GSW to the head while restrained.
And now the latest. None of those at the scene recognized him; he would remain John Doe until someone discovered his real identity. He had been stripped, and Jimmy’s team was expanding their search yard by yard in an attempt to find something that could tell them who Dr. Patel would be cutting up a few hours from now. The only thing he had on him were the plastic ties on his hands and the bullet inside his head.
At a nod from Dr. Patel, the two brothers – operating with more confidence now than they had eight days ago – who worked for him loaded the body into the body bag, zipped it up and loaded it into the ambulance. Dr. Patel was glad there had been no other emergency tonight, especially one that required the services of either the doctor or the ambulance. The town of Chet’s Peak had only one of each.
“Troopers will step in now?” Dr. Patel asked the Chief as they watched the taillights of the ambulance recede in the distance.
The Chief felt the urge to resume a habit he had given up a long time ago and fought it. “They gotta,” he said a few seconds later. Even a stick of gum… “This the fourth in a town that’s never had any. Don’t see how they’ll let us handle it on our own.”
The general physician-slash-coroner of Chet’s Peak nodded absently. A dormant part of him struggled against the abbreviated manners of the Chief’s speech, but he had long learnt to ignore the Indian – or was it the British – in him. “What will you tell them?”
The Chief shrugged. Even a half-chewed stick of gum… “Help, I guess,” he said, his eyes drifting over to where his team were regrouping, having given up the search for John Doe’s belongings. “Maybe get State Forensics to take a look at everything we’ve got. Maybe an FBI profiler.” He pictured himself taking a long drag, letting the nicotine soothe his throat, letting it out, the ash dropping to the ground, the cigarette used until it’s glowing barely a hair’s breadth near the butt, grinding it under his feet…
“The suspect is probably a white male, mid-thirties to mid-forties, reasonably fit – not one of those types who go to a gym, but not one who frequents a Big Mac either – unattached or in a superficial, short-term relationship. I were you, I’d check out the motels leading in off the highway. They guy you want could be a transit, like that Triple-M perp we apprehended two years ago.”
The Chief thought the only passage of confidence in the State FBI Profiler’s verdict had been the last part beginning with ‘we’. Fat lot of good this, he thought sourly. Chet’s Peak had a population approaching twenty thousand, and about half of it were white males; as a preppie town, about two in three were between the ages of thirty and fifty; relationship status – well, he supposed it was safe to assume that most of those who were unmarried could be considered ‘unattached’ or ‘in superficial, short-term’ relationships, which would include him, most of his deputies, the minister at the Church on Main Street, the Mayor and pretty much everyone else he could think of who had a dick. The only one he could certainly eliminate, based on the profile he had been given, was Dr. Patel who was happily married. To his wife’s family, as he was often fond of telling the Chief.
“Anything else?” he asked as solicitously as possible.
The sarcasm was lost on the profiler. “He likes firearms, and is probably armed – so you might ask your deputies to approach any suspect you may have with extreme caution. Oh, and I suspect there might be a bit of sexual deviance in his background somewhere. The signs are all there – tying up the victims’ hands is a classic case of wanting to establish supremacy that’s otherwise lacking in the perp’s life. An abusive relationship, or maybe an emasculating one, maybe a recent breakup that’s led to the killings. You know the drill – girlfriend dumps him, mocks him, leaves him for someone else, guy goes off the deep end. Not the first time it’s happened.”
The Chief listened patiently.
“Like I said, be careful. You are dealing with a certified nutjob. If I can think of anything more to add, I’ll let you know. You keep me posted, will you?”
“All the best, then. Hey, by the way, what are they calling him?”
“What else? The Chet’s Peak Executioner, though I suspect they’ll drop the town’s name from it. The Mayor was talking of suing someone or the other if they kept bringing the town into it.”
Deputy Susan Summers walked into his room without asking, and he raised an eyebrow. “He’s accelerating,” she said.
“So he is,” the Chief answered, the eyebrow going down. “That doesn’t explain why you get to walk in here without knocking.”
She started to say something, thought better of it and stood up before walking back to the door. She knocked thrice, identical, perfunctory, politically correct knocks each. “Chief? Can I come in?”
“There. Was that so difficult?”
He liked Summers. She was intelligent, easy on the eyes, irreverent at times – but never when there was anyone else around – and he had the impression that she was waiting for him to see her as something else other than his deputy. He was tempted, had almost given in a few times. Maybe one day, when he was tired of being the Chief, he would turn in his badge and gun and take her out for the very next meal. Or she would quit, and he wouldn’t need to worry about the sexual harassment suit Internal Affairs kept sending warnings about. Either way, there was something to look forward to where she was concerned.
She approached him, her hips swaying coquettishly, and asked, with exaggerated deference, “May I take a seat, Chief?”
He grinned at her. “You don’t have to overdo it, Deputy Summers. What’s it?”
He liked the professionalism that she switched to with complete ease. “The first vic was eight days ago. The second was four days later, the third two. Between Jungerson and Doe, the perp waited just one day.”
He saw where she was going. “It’s getting shorter between kills…”
She nodded. “That’s significant, don’t you think?”
He agreed, but didn’t tell her that the same thought had already occurred to him earlier. “He’s getting bolder, or more desperate, or both. Either way, we can expect another murder in the next four hours. That’d make it twelve since John Doe, give or take an hour on each side.”
She toyed with an errant strand of hair as she studied him, and he was both pleased and a little disappointed to note that it was with the air of the professional. “So Dr. Patel was able to fix the time of death?”
“Within reason,” the Chief confided, moving forward conspiratorially, causing her to mirror him. “Between midnight and four a.m, but that’s just to keep things more… flexible for us. Between the three of us, he believes it was sometime around half-past two. One shot, the bullet bounces around inside the skull, vic haemorrhages, brain’s soup, dead before he hits the ground. The internal bleeding explains the blood at the scene, by the way – his nose was like a faucet, Patel said.”
She shivered despite resolving not to. His eyes crinkled with kindness for a moment before he told her, “We’re gonna get the sumbitch that did this, Suze. Take that to the bank. No one walks into my town and hurts my people and gets away with it.”
“Captain Dixon? Jeremy Watkins here. From Chet’s Peak.”
“Hear you got another one up there last night. That makes four now, innit?”
“Yup. Any thoughts?”
“Not from up here, no. You spoke to the shrink over at the feebs?”
“The profiler? Yeah. Now my suspects list’s just half the town instead of all of it.”
A throaty chuckle came over the line. “Well, that’s… something, I guess. Tell you what, I’ll drive down in a while and we’ll talk it over lunch. You got time?”
“Unless he strikes again, I’ll be here, Captain.”
Deputy Summers entered his office without knocking, but one look at her expression and he bit back the rebuke he had in mind.
“Mick radioed in just now. There’s a possible suspect at the Marinara B&B on Main and Wild Oaks, a mile down from the highway. Said this guy, by himself, checked in about eight, ten days ago, keeps to himself, in his room for most of daytime ‘cept at mealtimes, goes out at night with a bag and stuff. Name’s Limey Jackson, and according to the copy of the DL Mick saw, he’s thirty-eight.”
The Chief jumped to his feet. This was the one – he had to be. He could feel it in his bones.
“Tell Mick to stay on him. I’m on my way over.” In a smooth, practiced motion, he gathered up his Stetson, his badge, a couple of clips of spare ammo and, as an afterthought, a speedloader for the backup he carried in an ankle holster. He was moving towards the door when he felt her start to follow him. He whirled around and she almost ran into him.
“Stay here,” he told her. As she opened her mouth to protest, he pointed at the clock. “Captain Dixon from the State Troopers is gonna be here anytime now. Hold the fort for me till I get back, will ya?” She recognized his request for what it was, a command, and nodded, the reluctance obvious on her face.
“That’s my girl,” he said before he could stop himself, and then thought, ah, what the hell, and placed a quick peck on her cheek. She blushed instantly but didn’t look displeased; in fact, the reluctance softened.
“Be safe,” she said softly, so softly that he had needed to see her lips move to realize he hadn’t imagined it. Her hand lingered on his for just a moment. “Jimmy.”
Mick was the Irishman of the force – every PD in the state seemed to have one almost as a matter of law. He was a bear of a man who was happiest when he had orders to obey and heads to knock together, and he was of the opinion that they should just ‘storm the godforsaken place, arrest the sumbitch and give him his last rites.’
“This ain’t the Wild West no more,” the Chief drawled in the manner that he always used when he was alone with Mick. For some reason, it always worked with Mick. “Matter of fact, this was never the Wild West – so can the storm-and-burn. If he’s killed four people – that we know of – then I don’t want his shmuck of a lawyer getting him off on a technicality like an unlawful arrest. You get me, Mick?”
Mick nodded sullenly.
“Good.” The Chief peered through the windshield at the diner down the road. “He’s in there grabbing a bite, you said?”
“Yeah, that or his next vic,” Mick replied. “He walked down just a coupla minutes before you showed up.”
“Then I’ve got time,” the Chief said. He unlocked the door and started to slide out. “Gimme a squawk if he’s back and I’m not.”
“Whatchu gonna do, boss?”
The Chief smiled back at his deputy. “What his schmuck of a lawyer will never find out about.”
You don’t get to hurt anyone in my town…
“Who the fuck are you?”
The Chief pointed to his badge. “That enough?”
“What the fuck you doing in my room?”
The Chief pointed to his badge once again.
Limey Jackson hesitated, caught between taking the step forward that any man who’s had his space invaded wants to take and wary about getting it on with a cop – and the Chief of the local force at that – even if he had an advantage of six inches and fifty pounds on him.
“Mr. Jackson – I like Limey better – why don’t you close the door so that we don’t disturb the others staying in this wonderful establishment? Tell you the truth, I don’t want the Chamber of Commerce getting on my ass over something that can just as easily be done quietly and calmly like two gents. Or we can go downtown where I have a nice, sound-proof room that’ll be just right. Your call.”
Limey Jackson pursed his lips, stared at the Chief as if calculating his odds and looked back at the road outside. As if on cue, the cruiser on the other side barked its siren once and the red-and-blues flashed a couple of times, evident even with the sun as bright as it was overhead. The Chief watched him with an expression that bordered on indifference, but Limey knew there was no point in running away. With an exasperated grunt, he kicked his door shut, tromped off to the bed and sat on the edge facing the Chief.
The Chief glanced at the door and knew that if Limey tried to make a break for it, he could be on him before the suspect was out of the door. He brought his radio to his mouth and spoke to Mick, “I’ve got things under control here, Mick. Why don’t you head back to the station?”
“Sure you don’t need me hanging around, boss?”
The Chief’s eyes locked with his suspect’s. “Mr. Jackson and I are going to have a very open, very civilized discussion here. I don’t think we’ll have a problem. Go on, git!”
“State your name and age for the record please.”
“You know my name.”
“Please. For the record.” The Chief held his tape-recorder out.
“Limey Jackson, age thirty-eight, hometown, Des Moine, Iowa.”
“Thank you. And what’s the purpose of your visit to Chet’s Peak, Mr. Jackson?”
“What’s it to you?”
“The difference between dismissing you as a suspect in a homicide investigation, and hauling your as– you downtown and booking you.”
A second’s pause. “I’m an ornithologist. That’s the study of birds…” In case you didn’t know, you small-town hick.
It’s ornithology, you prick. The Chief’s smile did not quite reach his eyes. “Do you have anything to certify you as such?”
“I’m a member of the AOU. The American Ornithologists’ Union. I have an identity card issued by them.”
“May I see it?”
“Yeah, sure. It’s in my bag.” He pulled his haversack over and started searching.
“Mr. Jackson is still searching for the identity card,” the Chief spoke into his recorder.
“Fuck! It’s – I can’t find it, but it’s gotta be here somewhere. I know I have it.”
The Chief waited for a while before muttering into his recorder, “Mr. Jackson has not been able to produce the identity card yet.”
“I have it here somewhere…”
“Mr. Jackson… Limey! Forget the card. Forget it – we’ll come back to it. Let’s move on. Are you, or have you been at any time in the past, William Norris Jr.?”
“What? No, man! I told you – I’m Limey Jackson. Am now, always been. Who the fuck is William Norris Junior?”
“Do you recognize the man in this picture?”
“Fuck you, man! You’re just wasting my time.”
The Chief held up a wallet. “In that case, can you tell me what this is doing in your room?”
“’da fuck is that?”
“This,” and the Chief shook the wallet in his hand, “belongs to the aforementioned William Norris Junior, presently residing as John Doe Number One in the mortuary of Chet’s Peak PD. You want to explain what the belongings of a dead man are doing in your room?”
For the first time, genuine fear flashed across the suspect’s face. “It’s a setup, man. I don’t know who William Norris is. Never saw him, ever…”
“What about this shirt here that I found under your bed?”
“What about it?”
“Other than a few bloodstains that look recent, not much. What’s your size, Mr. Jackson?”
“Your shirt. What size are you wearing now?”
“You asking me?”
“Forty-four,” Limey said, and after a pause, added, “Sir.”
“This here’s a forty. Doubt it will fit you.”
“John Doe – I should probably call him Norris Junior now – was a forty.”
“This locket yours?”
“Know this lady?” The Chief held the opened locket out for the man to inspect.
Limey Jackson shook his head. His shoulders slumped, as if the fight had gone out of him. “No, sir.”
The Chief put the locket back into the plastic sleeve. “Found it under your pillow.” He pointed to it with his stick. “Right there. The girl’s name is – was – Sheila Davis. This locket here was a gift from her mother her last birthday.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Last birthday… yep, it certainly was the last, alright.”
“You know a Faith Mathews in this town?”
Limey Jackson shook his head.
“Suspect is shaking his head. No, he does not know Faith Mathews.” The Chief picked up the next item. “Then why would you have a letter for Faith Mathews in your bin?”
“Someone else put it there.”
“Someone else put it there,” the Chief repeated, his manner that of one considering the theory with all the seriousness it needed. “So if I were to check for fingerprints, I wouldn’t find yours on them?”
“I never touched it!”
“No, but Victor Morris did. He was out on a delivery when he went missing, and the letters he was carrying were never found. What’s the bet this is one of them?”
“You heard of a Harald Jungerson?”
The Chief expected Limey to deny it; Limey didn’t. “Harald showed me around a few spots a couple of days. Wasn’t very sharp, but he knew the right spots for bird-watching.”
“And the trails no one visited?”
Limey scratched his head. “Some, yeah. I mean, birds don’t really settle down if there’s a lot of traffic underneath them, you understand?”
“So he showed you some off-map trails?”
You don’t get to hurt anyone in my town…
“Get up, Mr. Jackson. Turn around and put your hands behind you.”
“What – what’s the meaning of all this?”
“I am placing you under arrest for the murders of Sheila Davis, Victor Morris, Harald Jungerson and William Norris Junior. You have the right to an attorney, and if you can’t afford one, the State will provide one for you free of cost. You have the right to remain silent, and anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand your rights?”
“This is my town, Mr. Jackson,” the Chief said as they accelerated away from the B&B. “You don’t get to hurt the people of my town.”
“But I told you,” Limey whined, “I’m innocent.” Funny how people learn their manners when they are scared, the Chief thought.
“You got someone back home, Mr. Jackson? Anyone you can call to bail you out?”
Limey was silent for so long that the Chief was almost about to write off his question, but he answered. “Had a girl, once. Engaged. She left me for my pal.”
The Chief doffed an imaginary hat to the FBI profiler.
“Ran away from home as soon as I could. Dad was a mean sumbitch with the belt, and Mom… well, she just didn’t care no more so long as he didn’t use the belt on her.”
Scary, the Chief thought. What else…?
“You ever fired a weapon, Limey?”
“I’m innocent, Chief,” the whine was at a higher pitch now. “I didn’t kill anyone.”
“Never held a gun, someone’s life, in your hand? Felt like God? The power over life and death? Like, you know, there’s more to your life than just being someone’s whipping-boy?”
A choking sound that seemed remarkably like a sob.
“Ever waited for the moment you’ve been waiting for, and discovered that it was everything you’d always dreamed it would be? Like the first time with the girl you like, or hey, maybe finally shooting someone like you’ve always wanted to?”
Limey said nothing. The Chief glanced back at him through the rear-view mirror and saw the eyes welling up as his prisoner tried to keep from breaking down. The loss of hope, the Chief thought. That moment when you realize your life is never going to be the same again. He had seen it often enough to recognize it in an instant.
They rode the rest of the way in silence.
“Is this where you’d’av brought the next one, Limey?”
“What is this place?”
The Chief saw Limey Jackson turn around in a complete circle. The clearing was an almost-perfect circle ten feet across at its widest, and thick, ancient trees grew towards the skies all around them. They were standing a little off to one side; the Chief prodded Limey towards the centre with his baton.
“I didn’t notice the pattern at first myself,” the Chief said. “But when I marked the four kills on a map last night… that’s when it occurred to me. There was a pattern. The five points of a star. Where we are standing right now, Limey. This is the fifth point.”
“Why are we here?”
“Know what the time is, Limey?”
“My hands are tied behind my back, in case you haven’t noticed.” The sassiness was coming back, the Chief noted. Well, sassiness was always more interesting to deal with than outright surrender. He was pleased.
“It’s a minute to two. And my deputies are probably waiting for a call about the next murder any minute now. Do you know that, Limey? The murderer has started killing more often. Twelve hours between numbers four and five, and then it would be six between five and six, three between six and seven, and so forth. He has to be stopped, doesn’t he?”
“Why’re you telling me all this? I told ya, I got nothing to do with this. Let me go.”
“The FBI profiler I spoke to this morning said the killer’s a nutjob. That might very well be the only thing he was right on the money,” the Chief said, walking behind Limey and kicking out at the back of his knees. Limey sank to the ground and tried to get back up, but the Chief’s strong grip on his shoulders kept him down.
“Holding a gun in your hand, playing God… it’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it?”
“I. Wouldn’t. Know!”
The Chief patted him on the head. He brought his ankle up and pulled the small revolver out of its holster. How long, he wondered, before anyone thought of his? He felt Limey stiffen at the touch of the revolver to the back of his head.
“You don’t get to hurt anyone in my town…” the Chief said, cocking his pistol. With his free hand, he flipped through the things in his pocket. The tape recorder without a cassette. The key to his safe. A flat, laminated identity card. He withdrew it from his pocket and glanced at the AOU logo before dropping it on the ground beside number five. “I do.”