Woman Into Wolf

Chapter Five – An Unknown Subject

After a week of routinely reassuring rhythms she was disoriented to find Ned McKick standing on her doorstep. She said, rather stupidly, “You’re here.”
She had been so certain she would encounter a Jehovah’s Witness or a FedEx man that she hadn’t bothered to strip off apron or rubber gloves or even turn down the glam rock blasting behind her. Serious cleaning was heavy-duty stuff; she knew she must look to him like an animal wrangler or morgue attendant. His mild, distant expression only deepened her flush.
“Guess I should have called first,” he said. “But I promised to bring you up on the facts of the case.”

Had he? She had dismissed the encounter as a crazy dream, but he carried a professional-looking pile of folders. He was certainly more cleaned-up looking than she had ever seen him before; his gray sweater and flannels suggested the visit was an official one. She could only hope the neighbors would mistake the police package at the curb for a salesman’s vehicle. Pulling off her gloves, she ushered him inside, then shuddered to see soap scum halfway up her arms. Which would be worse; stand here talking to him while disguised as a maid or leaving him alone for a moment to prowl unrestrained? Unable to think, she turned off the music.
“Sorry,” she apologized. Pointlessly. “Hello. I guess I’m in another world when I’m cleaning.”
“A nice clean world,” he agreed. “Alpha waves.”

Had he really said that or had she only imagined it? This man had an uncanny ability to guess other people’s thoughts, so she should tread carefully with him. He closed her stained glass door gently, like a man who appreciated the finer things, and glanced around her hall with interest.
“Hard to believe you do your own cleaning in a place this size,” he commented. “Looks like even your help should have help.”

She smiled reflexively as his deep voice bounced through unused corridors of her brain. A sound so low only the guilty could hear it? Did he tease felons into confession by hypnotizing them with this music?

“It’s just me and Roy,” she said. “We don’t like having strangers around.” Now he was subjecting her wedding pictures to close inspection; just as if he had never seen people posing on beaches, crowned with flowers. She felt a desire to explain; she’d needed a wedding as different from the formality of her first as possible. But hadn’t Bish warned her to never explain, never apologize? All explanation sounded like apology.
Ned waved his folders.

“Got some stuff for you.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Maybe she could make a clothing change fast. Her own
filth was becoming unbearable.
“Mind waiting just a minute? I really have to take a shower.”

He smiled at her. A vein throbbed beneath the scar on his neck. It seemed
obscenely intimate. She pulled her eyes away.
“Not at all. Take your time.”

She knew what that meant. He welcomed a chance to snoop around.
Detectives! And any room she put him in would only make him more curious about the others. It was better to say nothing.

She took the fastest shower on record, pulled on low-rider jeans and a knotted macramé top, but had to at least darken to her brows and lashes, so she didn’t resemble a washed out ghost. Opal earrings, for luck, completed the transformation to majesty. Brush out her hair, and now she could recognize herself e in the mirror. Otherwise, which of her selves would be chatting to the police? An unrecognized alter might say anything.

She rushed barefoot down the stairs to find him in Roy’s study testing the locks on the glass cased knife collection. Couldn’t the man stay put? Did he look at everyone as if at a suspect? But that was police work, or so she had heard. She quivered as he approached the dark computer screen, but he hadn’t touched the keyboard. Get him out of here. Roy would be furious if he felt his castle had been breached. She cleared her throat expectantly.
He knew she was there, but he still, leisured, he turned his attention to the gun rack. Took his time, missing nothing, craning his neck to get the full picture.
“Your husband hunt with these antique weapons?”

“In black powder season.” It was Jarod – the cop — who didn’t bother about seasonal laws. Was every cop like that? Did he count himself above?
“He must be quite the hunter.”

A compliment or a point against?
“Everyone hunts around here,” she defended. Hadn’t the shower worked?

Why did she still feel dirty? She imagined Roy, triangling between the two of them, standing in this room. Was she out of her mind asking for investigation updates? She could never pull it off. She needed to get this man out of here.

“Tea? Coffee?” she shooed him towards the kitchen.

“Coffee would be nice, thank you.” He spoke comfortably, as if this was a social call. She could have offered him a beer, but it was still before lunch. Roy himself never bothered with the timeline, but she sensed it would be a point against her with this guy. Unfortunately, she had to make the coffee, and that gave him time to study Roy’s array of supplement bottles lined up along the kitchen counter, everything from cod liver oil to horny goat weed. In Persey’s view Roy’s childish hypochondria was one of the cutest things about him. Even the strong had weaknesses. Every warrior came home at last to have all his wounds tended.
The coffee was tooth-enamel dissolving-strong because she couldn’t wait for it to finish dripping through.

“More like espresso, really,” she apologized. If only he wouldn’t stare at her like that. Like she was something on a slide, up for inspection under his microscope.
“Turns out I love espresso,” he said.
“Milk? Sugar?”

“That would ruin good espresso.” He accepted his cup from her hand. She
added milk to hers. It barely made a change in color. “Sure?”
He shrugged. “Wouldn’t matter anyway. At this point my gut is armor- plated.”

She recalled the warm Red Bull in his trunk. Lucky man. She would love an armor-plated gut, instead of a fragile pouch that balked at the slightest tension. As it was, this cup was just for show; she probably couldn’t get down a sip. She led him out to the deck where all he could inspect was a handkerchief of lawn, a barbecue pit and a dog pen. Past that, impenetrable scrub blocked out the distant wildlife refuge. Safety at last. They could sit and have a decent chat beneath the neighbor’s eyes.

Digger clamored to join them. Persey let him out. His nails clicked along the deck as he hurried up to Ned.

“My old buddy,” said Ned, allowing Digger to taste his hand. “He must smell my dog.”
“What kind do you have?” Persey believed that you could tell a lot about a person by his dog. She and Digger, for example, were two sides of the same coin.

“My kids have it. St. Bernard.”
St. Bernard! Brave man! His stock went up.

They settled into Adirondack chairs like a couple at a lawn party. He rattled
her by pulling his closer. She soothed herself by swiveling her vision out into the distance. Roy couldn’t stay put, so it was Persey who contemplated here, sometimes for hours at a time. Doing nothing. How many mornings had she watched the birds screeching up above the trees, thrown and scattered by an unseen force?

This was a wilderness that rejected the hunter; there was not the faintest tracing of a path. She often sat here quietly, wielding binoculars, wondering if perhaps the time to map out her own wilderness awaited. It was the only place left on earth where no one had ever been.

The folders lay untouched in his lap, but still she was aware of them. He kept a place in one with a ringless finger. What lay shadowed there? She could feel his moves develop like a chess opponent’s. To be a better player, she willed herself to relax. This was a man like Bish, who cultivated the social skills derided as feminine. He at least found it pleasant to dally in the world of the hidden and the inexpressible.

“So what have you got for me?” she asked.
“Think you can handle it?”

So that was the phrase he’d settled on. His opening maneuver.
The Bird Lady had also marked that out as life’s big question: to know or not
to know?
“I think so,” she answered, senses alert.

But she was wrong. She wasn’t prepared for nightmares like these. These
were full color; her worst imaginings shamed themselves chastely in black and white. Why was that? Here Girls Gone Crazy was Girls Gone Dead; women exploded into pieces, torn apart like ruined dolls. She was reminded of the frenzy of the carnivore: trying to get the marrow out. She gasped, choked, tears spurting out of her eyes so fiercely that her shoulders shook. Detective McKick snatched the photos back, rocketed to his feet, upsetting his coffee. It drained harmlessly away through the wooden slats. The Chinese mug, one of a set, now lay in pieces.

“Bad call. Sorry. Stupid. Sometimes they don’t even show these to a jury. I guess I thought since you had seen the one–”

This was so humiliating. She was crying too hard to explain that she was not a crier. She pushed her fists into her eyes as if to dam the flood but the angry tears came harder. Now her makeup was ruined. A meltdown of embarrassment. She hadn’t when her mother died; hadn’t cried since high school when she and Roy were stuck together in her blood. But now that she had started, she could not stop.

She could feel him standing over her uncertain about what to do. She felt helpless, her clothing was so skimpy there was not a sleeve to wipe her eyes. Into her hands he pushed a crumpled object. A Fudrucker’s napkin.

“It’s clean,” he said. “I think.” He tried removing the folder but she clutched it fiercely, refusing to surrender. She could hear departure in his voice. If she allowed him to leave she would never recover from this failure of courage. She could never face the Bird Lady again. Her throat was locked; she had to summon faith that in time, she could speak.

She pulled on his jacket till he sat back down. Another unsung feminine quality was surrender to the inevitable, but that he hadn’t mastered. He, too, was unable to just sit. Instead he tried re-assembling the broken pieces of the mug. She was calming now, pressing her fist hard against the hole in her chest.

She croaked, “I can handle maggots. They’re natural. Don’t they use them in hospitals, to clean wounds?”

A God-appointed mission, to wash the wounds of nature. Something hikers see every day.
He cocked his head as if she surprised him.

“You’re right. There’s nothing natural about what he’s done to these women.” He was silent for a moment. “I still feel like a fool.” Did he search for explanation or apology?

Always easier to resort to lying. “Forget it,” she said. “I’m very emotional. I cry over splinters.”
Social lies are the glue holding us together; otherwise we’d fly apart. Persey had arranged for herself a life without tears. With the splinter detail she surprised herself. It was subtle, and she was felt too raw for subtlety.

Digger, fussing, knowing something was up, inserted his nose between them. Persey stroked it reassuringly, curling her fingers around the fur.

“It’s a clean break,” said Ned. “I’m sure I could repair this cup.”
If her gambit had been to throw him off track she had certainly succeeded. “We never drink from mended china,” she said. What she meant was that
there could be no clean break. Once integrity was breached, poison could leach out.

“Believe me, it’s OK.” These dragon cups were wedding gifts from Babe, Babe who gave everything. There were a dozen left undamaged. Babe’s dozen was the baker’s lucky number. It didn’t bother Persey, because anything unlucky for others was her own lucky number. Babe must have learned to anticipate breakage, even if others did not.

“I really have but one brief question,” he said formally. “Then I’ll be on my way .”
This was not what she expected. Not what she wanted. He was getting rid of her in her own house! The nerve of him! How could she ask all her questions if he had only one?
“No.” She insisted, “The deal’s still on.” She held the folder tightly but she didn’t open it. “What’s that around her mouth?”

“The remains of adhesive. Probably duct tape.”
Persey had taken it for something worse.

Childish to be afraid. The childhood label “scaredy-cat” still stung. I can be
brave, thought Persey. Long ago the Bird Lady showed me the truth about what can happen. Mere photos lack the power to destroy. Think of the video she had seen; her first husband with those waitresses. Restaurant security cams taped every encounter and he was stupid enough to treasure the artifacts of betrayal. She hadn’t cried then, or even made a noise. Embrace the horror, and be civilized anyway; that was the Bird Lady’s challenge. Think of the things the Bird Lady saw, bodies stacked like cordwood. “Live to tell.”

“Tell me about it.” She solicited his beautiful voice to commemorate these horrors. “Have they identified our bodies? The ones we found?”

He shifted in his chair. Unease; the pattern of this interview was as broken as the Chinese cup. Or had she shocked him by her proprietary attitude towards a pair of corpses?

“Not yet. But we expect results on the …more recent one soon. The lucky thing about prostitutes is they’ve usually been fingerprinted even if they’ve been on the game only a couple of months. The unlucky thing is that prostitution’s a misdemeanor so their fingerprints aren’t nationalized. Gotta search by county. The oldest body – the skeleton I found – is going to take the longest to identify. Seems different. A much younger girl. Wearing leopard-print stirrup pants and a Barbie sweatshirt. Seems to me like little kid’s clothing. My daughter’s only eleven and she’s already done with Barbies. Hope to track her under “last seen wearing”, because there’s nothing left to fingerprint. Looks like she’d never even seen a dentist. So far we’re thinking an Asian female twelve to fourteen years of age.”

“Well, she couldn’t be a prostitute.”
“I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. But I do agree she’s more likely to be a missing child. “

“Different murderer?”
He shrugged. “I hope not. There are knife marks on the bones, so it seems the
cause of death is stabbing. Our guy is a piqueur.”
“A piqueur? What’s that?”

“Means he loves his knife. Works over his victims like he’s pricking piecrust
– after death, which interests me. Like he’s afraid of them. On the other hand, this early victim’s hyoid’s missing. The little stirrup-shaped bone in the throat that breaks under neck pressure. Our guy has never strangled his victims since then. But she was just a little thing and perhaps she was his first. There’s often overkill before they learn what works for them. As for the other body – your body – it seems he soaked the hands in some corrosive. The prints are pretty decomposed. The ME is going to try slipping the skin off the hands. He puts them on over his own, like gloves – and prints them that way.”

She tried not to react to this grim picture, right out of one of the Bird Lady’s most fevered tales. A doctor wearing dead hands like gloves! And these are the good guys!
Instead she asked, “Can’t you find people these days through DNA?”
He smiled. “Maybe. Have to have a reference sample. Getting the DNA itself
is less of a problem. DNA’s been successfully extracted even from prehistoric corpses, and from bodies so burned they literally have no flesh. But DNA tests

take forever and cost plenty, and you still have to wait for a comparison sample. No one shares the same DNA – well, except for identical twins–“
“Identical twins share the same DNA?” She grimaced wryly at this discovery. Poor Roy – forever linked to hated Bruce!

“But they have different fingerprints.” He smiled. “See? No free pass. You can run, but you can’t hide.”

Persey thought of those two babies locked together in the womb. Something made them grow up opposite, mirror images of each other. What?

“So tell me about the other bodies.” See how relaxed she was now, how calm? The tears were dried along her cheeks. Another sadness drifting in her wake, behind her, soon to be out of sight.
“The first body was found last November by a jogger fifty-three feet off the Green Pines Hiking Trail. Right at the edge of Peruvia County. Body was half-in, half-out of a small pool of water and covered with brush. Her hands were bound behind her with flex cuffs.”

She had seen it in those photographs. She would never forget them. “You mean those cable-tie things?” Strapping ties. Building sites were full of them.

“Not exactly. They’re police issue flex cuffs. They have a little piece of metal for a locking mechanism that makes them different. They’re made in Mexico.”

Now that was interesting. Had she ever seen such things? Jarod wore Chinese woven handcuffs around his forehead when he was jogging – just in case he happened upon some miscreant. Or so he said.

“Could it be a cop?” She asked it hesitantly. He had been to Jarod’s party; he might be Jarod’s friend. In the crossfire of favors, everyone was Jarod’s friend at one time or another.
For a man who claimed to maintain an open mind, Ned reacted unfavorably to this idea. Persey guessed everyone has their limit; the visual cliff they can’t see past.
“Cops travel in pairs,” he said disapprovingly.

“You don’t,” she pointed out.
He grinned. “Some of us are impossible to get along with. I can believe he
pretends to be a cop.”

She couldn’t let the idea of Jarod as a serial killer go.
“How about someone trained to kill? Like a soldier?”
“I can’t see it,” said Ned. “This guy’s too messy. He can’t seem to disguise
the emotional nature of his knife play.”

Persey indulged herself with a vision of Jarod raving behind bars. Would Roy
revert to the sweet sensitive boy she had nurtured in high school? Or was the past always the past?
Ned read aloud; so she did her best to seem attentive.

“Corpse wore a white lace shirt, turned inside out and open to expose the breasts, a fake leather miniskirt and a pair of lavender stretch-lace socks. No underpants, no shoes. Jewelry included… plastic barrette representing pig with wings, pink and blue. Gray metal ring with blue stone…pink plastic heart earrings, two in one ear, one in the other ear, housekey on woven blue cotton neck cord bearing legend, I Heart Jesus. One tattoo on her left buttock, a red heart containing the blue words, “Big Bert”, one tattoo of ornamental ivy and rose design in blue around bellybutton.”
“She certainly was big on hearts.” Pathetic. Cry of “Love me?” Or a charm to ward away evil?

His comment was, “Sad, huh?” before he moved on to further mayhem. “Knife cuts not present in the shirt. That means he dressed her after death.” Between them floated a holographic vision a man struggling to dress a naked, bloody, stiffening corpse. She was beginning to see why one could get obsessed about this puzzle. She couldn’t picture Jarod doing this. He walked away from mess. He butchered a deer in his own downstairs bathroom! Stormee had to call the Hazmat crew.
The question the Bird Lady would want answered, is, why are monsters so unrecognizable to the rest of us? How could secret thoughts this disgusting leave any face unmarked? Persey knew from twenty years of experience how much effort it takes to keep a mask impenetrable. And still there were slips. Like today .

Ned cleared his throat as if aware that the attention of his class was wandering. “First body was identified as AnJanette Lonegan, a.k.a Cookie Paradise, a.k.a Cookie Louise Close, a.k.a Jeannette Sweeney, a.k.a Jeanette Jane McCombers.”

“A lot of identities for one girl.” Was this need for constant reinvention the victim’s mark?
“That’s the way prostitution works. Girl get picked up by the vice squad, she gives a name. If she already has a bench warrant out, she gives a different name. Each time up, they’re hoping for a free pass, so they try to pretend they’ve just started doing this and they’re waiting for a gesture of love from the state before giving it up. When the cops start recognizing their faces, they change cities or counties. False ID’s blow through the lives of those girls –- and their pimps’ lives for that matter – like a whirlwind.”

He made it sound like prostitution was something somebody would actually choose as a lifestyle. Surely impossible. “Sounds like she’d been at it awhile.”
He shrugged. “About two years. She was seventeen.”
The mask broke. Persey could not hide her astonishment. “She was just a kid!” She thought of herself at seventeen. She and Roy naked and shivering together, playing at adulthood.

“Maybe like everyone else, he likes them blonde and young,” said Ned. Persey shivered. “Poor kid. What happened to her that she chose this life?”
“Drugs and a pimp named Albert Alda happened to her. Something these women often have in common is an appetite for destruction.”

She froze her face so he couldn’t read her reaction. Apparently no one was above blaming the victim. Why say she chose the wrong man when the wrong man chose her?
“Did you talk to him?”

“Alda? He blew town the moment he heard we were looking. Cookie was easy to identify, because we had a nice clean fresh set of her prints on file. In fact, she’d been arrested only four days earlier.”

“Right before she was murdered.”

“As you say. The key turned out to be to the room she shared with Alda at the Will O’ the Wisp Motel. Her parents were located – they live in Jersey – haven’t heard from her for a month, but said she was a real good girl and always made periodic visits home. They thought she was waitressing and going to community college. It’s amazing the things parents don’t know.”
Another reason never to have children, thought Persey. There were enough strangers packed into a single marriage, without invoking fresh identities.

He read on: “Six severe stab wounds in right anterior neck, any one of which could be cause of death as they transected the jugular vein. Maximum depth,

two inches. Over the right breast were twenty-one stab wounds located in a horizontal grouping. One stab wound was so deep it exited the victim’s back. Estimated depth, six and one half inches. Eight penetrations through right lung alone.”

Persey imagined the shadowy man chopping his meat. Why did he do it? What was he feeling?
Ned pulled out a sketch of a face and placed it on the deck rail. It depicted a dark eyed woman with high cheekbones and a broad flat nose.
“This is Number Two?”

“She’s Number Two. His only African-American – that we know of. It used to be an absolute maxim that serial killers killed inside their race. But with prostitute killers, that doesn’t hold. Probably his preferred victim type — youthful blonde prostitute – trumps race.”

“Brunette,” said Persey. “Unless you’re telling me she dyed her hair?”

He nodded. “She did. We distributed the picture to salons, but either no one’s talking or she got a home job. She was found in the Reservoir Forest by a maintenance worker. No clothes except for a bra that was loose around her neck, no flex cuffs at the scene. There were horrific head wounds – apparently he shot her and then dug the bullet out — but the face was chewed by coyotes, so bear in mind this is just a reconstruction. We got prints, but they aren’t on file. “

“Then what’s with this prostitute thing?” This man was too enamored of his theories; yet another visual cliff. Men liked thinking every woman had a price. That was the long and the short of it. Persey blamed the pairing of their twin obsessions; sex and money.

“But what else could she be if no one missed her?”
“Immigrant? Runaway?”

“Supporting herself how? She wasn’t picking apples – she was very well
nourished. Maybe she’s just an unlucky beginner.“

Persey constructed a different tale, defending the anonymous woman’s
honor. Couldn’t she be a wanderer, reinventing herself with a new head of hair — responding to the apparent kindness of a stranger? Men had the freedom of sharing rides or coffee without ending up on a mortuary slab.

“Or maybe the person who should have reported her missing is the one who killed her,” Persey suggested.

“You sound just like my boss. He wants to believe every corpse in our district is struck by lightning and clawed by wolves, but it’s a hard theory to maintain in view of the stab wounds.”
Persey was insulted. She hadn’t suggested wolves. She hadn’t forgotten about the piqueur. This man, special as he was, was just another guy who didn’t like to be argued with. He continued,

“It’s too coincidental, and I don’t believe in coincidences. Victimology says our guy specializes in low-risk victims. He knew no one would come looking for her.”
She studied the drawing. Generic. Depersonalized. Did that mean the killer had won? “Why do you think he shot her?”

“Maybe almost got away and he panicked. Likely he uses a gun to control them and tie them up. But the gun is registered, so he only want to use it as a prop.”
“So he..?” She had reached her visual cliff. She couldn’t see over.

“Pick the bullet out? Trusty knife. We figure he favors a six-inch hunting knife with a big-toothed, serrated edge. It’s an extension of himself, but it’s certainly not adapted for that type of work. Messy, going in through the skull. Looks like he used a hammer. Shows he was scared. Means he thinks we can trace him. Let’s hope retrieving the bullet gave him the confidence to keep the gun. It could still exhibit microscopic blowback. How are you feeling? Sick yet of the wound catalogue?”
Wound catalogue? This guy was afloat in bizarre expressions.

“Quote, inner right quadrant of the right breast two inches from the midline in an area roughly three and a half by five inches contained eighteen stab wounds, all inflicted after death. Plus he cut up her feet. Severed an Achilles tendon. So she could never run again. That’s our guy. These are rage killings. Makes me wonder who he’s really mad at.“

“She should be scared, whoever she is,” said Persey, shuddering. “So he picked the bullet out and then he stabbed her? You think he’d be tired.”

“He must have been very angry — he didn’t wait to undress her. The cuts to her chest went right through her bra.”

“Turned him off,” said Persey. “Was he…too angry for sex?”

“If it started as sex it soon turned into murder,” said Ned matter-of-factly. “We’re not finding fluids. His choice of low-risk victims and his frenzy over evidence suggests he’s done time in a case where a witness identified him. He’ll never let that happen again. Another thing this victim tells us; he’s a big guy. She was about five-eight inches tall, a hundred and forty-five pounds, but he felt confident he could control her. She has a few gold teeth – maybe we can trace them – and a healing broken clavicle. Car accident, or a domestic abuse incident? We’re crosschecking hospital records. But you know, some victims are never identified.”
“He must take clothing. Why?”

“Trophy collection. He relishes reliving his triumphs.”
She had to ask, without faith that he or anyone could answer. “What…makes
people get this way?”
His raised eyebrows pulled the corners of his sad-clown lids down further.

“Wouldn’t we love to know. Probably different in every case. Can’t be just child abuse, though obviously that’s a factor. Something else they have in common is the homicidal triad.”
“And what’s that?”
“Bedwetting, animal torture, fire setting.”

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