Authors: Timothy C. Phillips
“Sit,” she commanded with mock seriousness. I took my customary seat on the sofa.
“I just wanted to make sure that you were getting moved out without any hassle.”
“Thanks.” She came over and sat next to me. “Thanks so much for everything you’ve done. And thanks for talking to me. You’re a really great person.” Her tiny hand made an attempt to squeeze mine. I held that hand for a second; it felt like a tiny creature, warm and alive.
“I get paid for this, you know.” I couldn’t suppress a smile. “ Don’t get too used to me. My job’s almost done, or so it would seem. You’ve got a tough time in front of you, Lena. But this is a step I’m glad you’re making.”
“Well, I wouldn’t be making it without you.”
“Nothing wrong with giving yourself credit, you know.”
“Well, whatever, Mister Private Eye.” She drew closer.
“I really have somewhere else I need to be, so I just wanted to make sure you were doing alright.”
“I’m fine. I felt pretty bad last night. But I feel okay . . . for the moment.”
She twirled her hair nervously. Then she said quietly, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“I guess that would be okay.”
“How did you become a detective?” she asked with surprising enthusiasm.
“That’s sort of a long story.” I couldn’t help but return her smile.
“Are you afraid it’s too long, or too scary?”
“I was a uniform cop for five years,” I began, “And everybody I knew wanted to get into the Detective Division. The trouble was, most of the time it’s based on seniority. It can take a long time. My patrol route was out in Mountain Brook. One night, I happened to be in the right place, but like the old song says, it was the wrong time.”
“Why was it the wrong time?” Lena inched closer to me on the sofa.
“I was too late.”
I paused for a second, thinking about what I was going to say. “The neighborhoods there are settled and quiet, long time residents who all know each other. I happened to see an open rear window and stopped to investigate. It struck me as odd since the weather had been fairly cold. Also, it was early evening, maybe nine o’clock, and there were no lights on inside the house. I radioed it in and went through the back yard, up to the open window. With no flashlight, I peered inside.
There’d been quite a struggle in there. The window afforded me a view of the kitchen; it looked as though someone had been disturbed while in the process of making dinner. I could see lettuce and cutlery and various spices strewn across the floor in what appeared to be an otherwise spotless kitchen. The window was wide open, and low enough so that I was able to step inside. I stuck my fingertips in liquid that pooled beneath the counter.
I heard a dripping sound coming from somewhere in the front of the house. Gun in hand, I had crept up that carpeted hallway, lined with cozy family portraits and engraved bible verses. Each of the brown wooden doors represented potential sudden death. I kicked them open, one by one, moving toward the living room where a muted television show displayed beautiful young people laughing happily on a beach.
It was at the last door that I heard the noise. I flattened along the thin wall of the hallway and eyed the door. It was closed and there was no light coming from beneath it. The blood roared through my ears; I could feel my heart beat in my temples and in my throat. I yelled, ‘POLICE!’ and kicked open the door, and went in, gun first.
She had been trying to call out.
The woman was probably thirty, maybe a little younger. It was hard to tell. She sat shivering in a bathrobe, curled in a ball on the floor. She was soaked in blood, and it was coming from her face. One eye peered at me wildly from a mass of shredded flesh. The other had been slashed open, along with the rest of her features. I could see her teeth, glinting in the darkness, through where her cheeks had been.
The thing that I always think about is how she had already been driven mad. Just sitting there in the darkness feeling her face falling off in strips had sent her over the edge. I couldn’t make her understand that I was a police officer, that I was there to help, that things were going to be okay. She had gone somewhere beyond all that.
I had heard about the others, but I hadn’t seen them. The woman I found had been number three. There would be more. In all, ten women would suffer the same fate in varying degrees. On her, he had done the most damage. No surgery could correct what he had done to her. He had cut out their tongues. And he always wore a hood.
Finding the man who was capable of doing such things became an obsession with me. I visited her a couple of times, trying to get information from her, but she was so . . . distraught, they wouldn’t let her talk to police anymore. She had to be institutionalized because she became incapable of caring for herself. Her total mental collapse made me that much more resolute. I would find him, and I would make him pay.
Through the fall and winter, he struck again and again. The only leads he left were psychological ones. He raped the women, but always wore protection. He shaved his body so as to leave no hair. He always wore a hood. He always slashed their faces, and when he could, he cut out their tongues. And he always left them alive. He never cut them anywhere else. And all of the victims were extremely pretty.
Psychologists felt he was a previously institutionalized individual, that his rear entry modus operandi and wearing of the hood indicated low self-esteem, while his extremely methodical approach indicated having lived in an ordered environment. From this they surmised he’d been in an institution. It made sense.
I was just a patrol cop, but I had a different theory. I didn’t think he entered the house from the rear. I thought it much more likely that he
that way. But it was a while before I figured out why he hid his face. But in the end, it came to me. It wasn’t some sadomasochistic thing for the rapist. They would have recognized him; that’s why he never spoke. It’s also how he happened to have nothing but beautiful victims. He had selected them beforehand.
No one wanted to hear a beat cop’s theories. Especially not when the whole city was being terrorized by a maniac. So, on my own time, I did some investigating. I looked at each of the girl’s school records. They went to different schools, almost all of them. They belonged to different churches, different faiths. Some didn’t even attend. So that was a dead end.”
“But you found something.”
“Yes, but it was really a complete accident. In the kitchen, that first night, while we were processing the crime scene, I had noticed all the food. The lady had been out shopping before she was attacked. She’d bought groceries. It was the only common factor; only two of the victims hadn’t been to the grocery store the night they were attacked. And they had both been within the last three days. I checked. The same store. That had to be it.”
“So, you figured that it was someone they knew from there, someone who worked there? Like the manager maybe?”
“Not the manager,” I turned and looked into her liquid brown eyes. “The butcher.”
Lena was silent for a few minutes. She inched over closer to me with her head down, not looking at me. I could feel her breath, soft as a child’s, against my skin.
“And that’s how you got the scar?”
“Yes. I went to the store to question the man. I didn’t do the thing right. I was alone. He had seen me come in so he tried to sneak out. I caught him trying to leave out the back. We fought. He had a knife hidden on him, a big one that he had taken from the butcher shop. When I confronted him, that’s when he cut me.”
I could still feel the cold biting steel slide across my cheek bone, see the man lurch and fall as we struggled, and thinking, in some dark corner of my mind,
Squirm, you freak. How does it feel?”
“But you caught him. That’s what matters.”
“Ultimately, yes. I made detective because of it. But I still had a lot to prove. There were a lot of guys on the force who thought I was a hotshot for what I had done. But I just wanted to catch the man. I learned that everything comes with a price, though. That’s what this scar means to me. Seeing it in the mirror every morning reminds me that nothing is free in this life.”
“Instead of the cross the albatross, about my neck was hung,”
Lena whispered quietly.
“With his cruel bow he laid full low the harmless albatross.”
I smiled. “Coleridge. I was an English Major once, before I went over to Law Enforcement.”
“Such a smart fellow, too.” Her eyes twinkled, but then her smile disappeared.
“What I meant was, what was your albatross, Roland? What made you go over to the bottle?”
I sat for a moment considering the question. She had revealed everything about herself to me. It was sort of petty of me, in a way, keeping from her the most painful part of my life, when her own pain was so readily apparent. I knew I liked her, cared about her. What impressed me the most about her was that she had been down in the darkness, and had been there a long time. Still, though, deep within herself, she had stayed decent. Hate was a cup that had been placed before her, from which she refused to drink. It is rare that a prisoner finds pity for the torturer.
“So much for my moment of triumph. Yes, there were defeats, too. Or, more correctly, I had one great big one. I almost let it destroy me, too.”
She was gazing levelly at me when I turned to look at her. Her eyes were that warm and liquid brown from the college yearbook. This was the girl I’d been looking for, the girl in the picture, revived and sitting next to me. Revived for a little while, at least. Until the longing, and the sickness returns.
“It was a routine raid on a drug lab. It was over in Westmoreland Heights, my old neighborhood. I grew up in the projects there. Usually, more often than not, they go quiet. It doesn’t take a lot of people to run a lab that’s making LSD or crack cocaine or whatever. We hit the place, probably ten officers. There was some gunfire and a couple of the suspects went down.
There was a new officer with us, a young white woman, straight out of the academy. She couldn’t have been much older than you are now. It was after the raid that it happened. She asked my permission to question some onlookers. Three kids, maybe fourteen years old. She said they were communicating with gang signs.
“I told her to maintain crowd control and keep her opinions to herself. Just like my superiors had told me when I had my theories about the Mountain Brook Slasher. I really dressed her down. This was
neighborhood; I knew the streets, and the people. I didn’t need rookies trying to run the show.
They shot her maybe five minutes later, as soon as I ducked back in the building. She was right; I was wrong. They were gangbangers, all right. They had come to get some payback. I watched her die right there in front of me,
all because I wouldn’t listen.”
“And the gangbangers?”
“They all ended up dead, too, by the time the shooting stopped. Four young lives.”
“And . . . your wife?”
“We were very much in love. We were married right out of college. It wasn’t perfect; we were young. I was just twenty-three and she was twenty-one. But I thought I had the world by the tail. After the shooting, I started drinking. She didn’t mind, at first. But it got to be a problem with me. I would start drinking and I couldn’t stop.”
I paused momentarily. I had closed my eyes, and a thousand images were dancing around in my head. They were things I hadn’t wanted to think about, for a long time.
“We began to argue. Sometimes she would go to her mother’s place; other times I would go somewhere, or I’d wake up in the street somewhere. They all tried to help me. But I didn’t want to be helped. Alcohol does that. It can take you down so far that recovery isn’t even an option. You can lose everything and you just don’t care, you’re so numb. And that’s what happened to me. I lost everything.”
“So . . . she left you?”
“Yes. She pretty much had to.”
“It sounds to me like you’ve probably suffered enough for what happened, Roland.” Her hand was on my back, and it was tiny and soft, as she slid her arm around me. She put her other arm across in front of me; her small arms could never reach around me.
I stroked her long brown hair, and she raised her face to mine, and gave me a long kiss on the mouth. For a minute I felt the desire to hold her tight, to tell her I would keep her safe, get her away from all of this. But I knew it didn’t work that way. We can’t save one another. We have to save ourselves.
“Lena.” She was still cuddling against me, and I could feel her heart beating. She was shaking her head against me, not wanting to hear what I had to say.
“No,” She was saying softly, over and over. “Don’t say it.”
I held her gently, and whispered to her. “Lena, this is not what I came here to do.”
I held her away from me, and looked into her eyes. “This isn’t what you want.”
. You are a good man.”
“Listen to me, Lena. Being with me won’t solve things for you. Getting out of this situation is the only thing that’s going to do that. You have to get better before you’ll even begin to see what you want.” As I spoke, I placed my hand on her cheek.