Authors: Archer Mayor
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
Intrigued, he used the dim moonlight to guide him to the top step, where he extracted the small narrow-beam flashlight he carried among his other equipment. Shielding it inside the cup of his hand, he quickly played it downstairs to see what lay below. He saw a second door at the bottom, firmly shut.
Now completely captured, he took to the stairs, one carefully tested tread at a time, until he was standing by the door. He tried the handle, half expecting it to be locked or stuck, and felt it easily and soundlessly give way, albeit to reveal an odor unlike anything he’d encountered upstairs.
He hesitated in the pitch black, his nostrils flared and his instincts on guard. This wasn’t mildew or rot or the cloying smell of a neglected cellar. This was human. In Dan’s peregrinations throughout the town’s trailers, flophouses, and shacks, he’d developed a familiarity with the hygienically challenged.
And to put a finer point on it, he was sure that this particular pungency belonged to a male.
He pushed the door wider, waiting for the inevitable creak that would reveal his presence, and then froze when it didn’t come. This was his least favorite situation—utter darkness in an unknown place with someone potentially lying in wait.
Huddling near the jamb, so that he could pull back toward the stairs if necessary, Dan squinted and flashed his light once into the room, like a strobe, creating a near-photographic image on his memory while reducing the risk of being hit by any random shot.
He saw a fifteen-foot-square room, cluttered, messy, windowless—and most important, uninhabited.
He stepped fully into the room and hit the flashlight again, this time leaving it on. For a second, he feared he’d just made the error of a lifetime, for he thought he’d seen a man sitting slumped in a chair in the far corner. But it turned out to be a heap of clothes.
Still, the first impression of this being a man’s lair held true. Looking around more carefully, his ears tuned and his body tensed for flight, Dan saw the disorganized, telltale signs of a male living alone, complete with a pair of boxers dangling off the end of a bedpost.
From the looks of it, the furniture came from upstairs, if perhaps on its way to the dump. But Gloria’s rejects were high grade, so whoever lived here was still faring better than the average renter.
But was that who this was? After confirming the absence of windows, Dan turned on the overhead light. He didn’t have much time. He wasn’t fond of lingering in the best of circumstances, and now he was faced with a true wild card—a missing man he knew nothing about who might appear at any moment.
He worked methodically and at speed, cataloging the room from the right and traveling counterclockwise. He didn’t have a huge amount to go through—a dresser, a bed, a desk with one drawer, an armchair, and two reading lights. A rug on the floor, two calendars, and a postcard pinned to the wall sum totaled the decorations. There were tabloid newspapers and celebrity magazines strewn about, a few paperbacks, the usual sampling of pornography, and of course the clothes, mostly dirty. For Dan especially, this was onerous labor. He preferred to hover, like a ghost, and so relied on his gloves and his concentration to protect him against the filth all around. As charmed as he’d been by the contents of the house above, he was now horrified by the overwhelming sense that he was foraging through less a home than a cave.
But home it was, to one Paul Hauser, according to a tiny and neglected stash of paperwork, who’d signed a lease with Gloria Wrinn to work on and maintain the property in exchange for the use, rent-free, of a single room in the basement.
Dan suspected this was all a reflection of not just Gloria’s good heart and compassion, but yet another example of her needling Larry.
However, to pay Larry his due, Dan thought the nephew might have had a point this time. Just as Gloria had won Dan over through her collections, so Paul Hauser’s assortment of knives, torture porn, and discarded fast food containers repelled him now.
And yet, by the end of his search, all he’d really uncovered were the mundane contents of a human hovel, suitably located under ground.
Until he noticed the tiniest of imperfections on the floor.
One attribute of Dan’s obsessive-compulsive disorder was his awareness of three-dimensional patterns. He had the spatial sensitivity of an eagle studying the ground below, noticing the slightest abnormalities. And he saw one now, in the minute misalignment of a single floorboard.
He dropped to his knees, removed a slim prybar blade that he carried in one of his jumpsuit pockets, and eased it into the hairline gap between one board and its neighbor. Slowly and with extreme care, he lifted the wood free, and the two planks to either side, and peered into the black void below.
Given what he’d seen so far, he wasn’t prepared to reach blindly in and paw around, so he used his flashlight to reveal a large black suitcase, its handle invitingly glinting.
Knowing that he was running out of time, Dan grabbed hold and pulled the heavy case out into the open, surprised by its weight and half dreading the urge that was forcing him onward.
He flipped back both catches, thinking of Pandora, and edged his fingertips under the suitcase lid.
It opened without a sound.
The odor struck him first—sweet and light in this stale-smelling place. A shock he wasn’t expecting. And the contents explained it, for the first thing he brushed with his gloved fingertips was a soft and delicate woman’s scarf—decorative and light.
Puzzled and apprehensive, he gently explored further, uncovering other pieces of women’s clothing—none of it underwear, all of it seemingly talismanic in nature, as if carrying a message. Finally, supporting this implication, he found six photo albums at the bottom of the case, lying neatly arranged, side by side.
Dan gingerly lifted out the center one and opened it. Each page held a single photo, not taken with any expertise or high-end equipment, but each carefully placed in the middle of the page. They were location shots to begin with, some taken during daylight, and showed a trail in the woods and a clearing with a picnic table. The table was stained with something dark.
He kept turning pages. The stain predictably explained itself. Shot after shot, all taken at night, showed a young woman lying nude on the table, stabbed repeatedly, her blood having seeped out to cover the wooden slats and the ground beneath. The photos were taken from all angles, some from a distance, others excruciatingly close up.
Stunned and dizzy, Dan reached the last page to find a long hank of hair, the same color as the dead girl’s, carefully taped in place.
He closed the album, sat back on his heels, and tried to breathe away the nausea clutching at his throat, all the more conscious of the stifling air around him.
He wiped his forehead on his sleeve, and quickly opened another album at random, to a middle page, where he found a similar picture of another girl, in a different setting, her eyes wide and glassy, reflecting the sparkle of the camera’s flash. He slapped the book closed, opened a third one in the same quick fashion, with the same result, before he dropped everything back into the suitcase in a near panic and slammed it shut, closing only one of the clasps in his rush.
He hurried from the room and stumbled upstairs blindly, craving the outdoors, having forgotten about Gloria entirely and his earlier plan to check out her fridge. The sense of playfulness that acted as powerfully on him as his other obsessions had been seared to oblivion.
Outside, in the cool night air, shaded from all eyes by a thick, overgrown hedge, he stood with his hands on his knees, gasping and fighting for the control he so cherished.
He had killed the light in Paul Hauser’s room, and locked the door behind him as he’d left the house. His self-preservation instincts hadn’t ceased to function entirely.
But he was definitely off-balance—shocked, sickened, dismayed, and confused—and paid little attention to his environs as he finally straightened, took one last gulp of air, and set off distractedly for home.
He took no note of the man who’d been coming up the walkway, had seen him first, and who now stood in the shadows, watching carefully and silently as Dan walked by, unaware.
Ron Klesczewski looked up from his desk at the knock on his door. The Brattleboro police chief, Tony Brandt, who’d held the job for so long people assumed he’d welcomed the town’s first settlers, stood leaning against the doorjamb, smiling enigmatically. Fond of tweed jackets with elbow pads, and once addicted to a pipe with which he used to fog his office, he appeared more the college dean than a cop—tall, slightly stooped, and professorial—but this only allowed him to better manage both his department and the ever-changing string of half-baked politicians who’d populated the board of selectmen during his biblically long tenure.
“Morning, Chief,” Ron said, rising and offering his guest a chair.
Brandt’s smile widened. “You’re the only one who’s ever done that, Ron, including when Joe ran this squad.”
“What?” Ron asked.
“Stand up when I come in. It’s very old-school.”
Ron looked around doubtfully. “I’m sorry…”
His boss immediately sat down to better put his colleague at ease. “No, no. Don’t apologize. It was just an observation. You were brought up that way, right? Respect for your elders and members of the fair sex? You open doors for your wife, I bet.”
Ron hesitantly regained his own seat. “Sure,” he admitted, wondering where this was going.
But Brandt just said, “Wonderful. Don’t change. Maybe it’ll spread, although I doubt it.”
Ron nodded. “Want some coffee?” he asked.
“No. My stomach doesn’t need any help right now.”
Ron was slightly alarmed. “What’s wrong? You all right?”
Brandt dismissed the concern. “Oh God, yes. I just came from a meeting with Nicholas.” He pronounced the name by drawing out the middle syllable to three times its length. Nicholas Jones, the town manager who hated to be called Nick, was generally despised by the cops. Jones’s first reaction to every fiscal inquiry by the board was to suggest trimming the PD’s budget. It had become so commonplace that even the
had commented on it in an editorial.
Ron relaxed slightly. “Squeezing you for cash again?”
“Actually,” Tony countered, “not this time. He was busting my chops about the Tag Man.”
Ron’s shoulders slumped. “My favorite subject.”
“I take it we’re no closer to identifying him than when he first hit?”
“This didn’t have anything to do with Lloyd Jordan, did it?” Ron asked instead.
“The latest victim? Not that I know of. Why?”
Ron explained, “Just a weird feeling when I went over there to interview him and his wife. She was fine—very helpful—but he was hinky as hell. Made me wonder what had really happened.”
“You think they know who this guy is?” Brandt’s interest grew.
Ron hesitated. He hadn’t thought of that. “Either that,” he conceded, “or Lloyd Jordan got something lifted he’s not talking about.”
Tony Brandt frowned thoughtfully.
“Willy dropped by a couple of days ago,” Ron admitted. “He thinks Tag Man’s doing something we’re not being told—maybe to all his victims.”
The chief’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
“Nothing solid. He just wondered why someone would go to all the effort of busting into high-security places, complete with sleeping homeowners, to put a sticky note by their bedside. He said it a little more crudely than that, but that was the gist of it.”
“I bet,” Tony responded. Willy Kunkle had once worked for him, longer than he might have, only because of Joe’s protection. Brandt did not miss the man, or having to rationalize his methods to the town leaders.
“And you think he may have something, based on Jordan’s reaction?”
“Partially. I also think we interviewed the prior victims solely in that light, without thinking about what they might be hiding. I mean, we saw the Post-its, the left-out food, noticed the similarities. It became like tracking a graffiti vandal.”
“Without taking note of which walls were being painted, and why,” Tony finished the simile.
Brandt nodded slowly. “Right. Interesting. Would the implication be that the Tag Man’s up to a lot more than we think? Like blackmail?”
“Because he knows who he’s targeting and what they’re hiding?” Ron continued. “Could be.”
“Makes more sense than if he’s just randomly hitting them and hoping to get lucky,” Tony suggested.
Ron was happy to move on from his earlier embarrassment. “Maybe, unless we’re missing a crucial possibility. What if he’s doing this more than we know, and only leaving notes now and then, with a specific goal in mind?”
Brandt was amused. “Telling us which ones are crooks? Jesus. Like we have our own demented version of Batman?”
They shared a small laugh, but only over Brandt’s choice of words. Neither one of them dismissed the idea out of hand.
“So what do you want to do?” Tony asked.
“What I am doing,” Ron told him, “is checking out Lloyd Jordan, but I don’t think it’ll hurt to run all the victims through the system, just to see if anything pops up.”
Brandt rose to his feet, content for the moment. “Good. That’ll be one expense I don’t think Nicholas’ll bitch about. Keep me informed.”
* * *
“Dad? Are you okay?”
Kravitz turned away from his apartment window overlooking the restaurant’s front entrance. His daughter, Sally, had caught a ride from school to visit friends and see him. She wasn’t spending the night. This had been a spontaneous opportunity, and normally was something Dan would have loved. In his universe of privacy and patterns and compulsively maintained order, Sally was the free agent—the one human being who could do what she wanted, however she wanted to do it, without consequence from him.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. A little distracted. When are you headed back? You have time for something to eat?”
She crossed the tidy, austerely spare room and gave him a hug, not something he tolerated from anyone else. She looked up lovingly into his face. “I can do you one better. Remember Andy Weissman? He manages Swifty’s now. I asked him to have some lunch delivered. My treat. Well … actually, Andy’s treat. Should be here in about ten minutes.”