Predator in the House
I never gave much thought to life after death. And now, here I am, teetering on the edge of my grave, a well-intentioned serial killer with terminal cancer, hoping I’ve outsmarted the devil. – Karl Shea
PIERCE POINT NEWSPAPER
Pierce Point Village, New York May 7, 1971
Three Dead in Fire
Three bodies were recovered after volunteer firefighters contained a blaze to the front porch of a home on Thatch Road on Thursday evening.
The coroner’s preliminary examination determined the owner of the home, Miles Lucas, passed from smoke inhalation.
His brother-in-law, Billie Holzer, and a houseguest, Ellis Gilman, appeared to have died from multiple stab wounds inflicted by what appeared to be a sharp, thin object. According to a source not authorized to comment, there were signs of a violent struggle.
Mr. Lucas’ sixteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, is missing and wanted for questioning.
October 2014…A stabbing pain in my back drove me to call my doctor. He saw me right away. After forty years, he knows I don’t call him unless it’s a big deal. He ordered x-rays and a bunch of blood tests and on a hunch, sent me to a urologist for a biopsy of my prostate. It took a few days before the results came in. His phone call was full of clichés. “I want you to see a specialist, Karl. Now, don’t read between the lines, but your tests indicate you could have an issue with your prostate. Better to err on the side of caution.” I personally never use that particular cliché because I’m not sure how to pronounce err. Is it er or air?
I didn’t argue. “Yep, Doc. Better safe than sorry.”
My plan was to go back to the station after the appointment with the specialist. We were working a case in Hyde Park. A kid went missing that morning. Six-year-old Emma Nolan went out to wait for the school bus, but never got on. The school called the mother when she didn’t show up. She called 911, and the locals got us, Boston Police’s Sex Crimes Unit, involved. It never hurts to use all the resources available when a child disappears. We were on it within thirty minutes from when the mom got the call. We have to work fast in cases of missing children. The local cops went through trash cans and parked cars. My partner, Nick, and I canvassed the neighbors. He took one side of the street; I took the other. There was one guy who made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A middle-aged man, living alone on a block with lots of families, raises suspicions when a kid is missing. This guy opened the door a crack, mumbled something about working the night shift. The other neighbors swung their doors open, anxious and afraid for their own children. They wanted to cooperate. None of them knew this guy, said he kept to himself. I got his name, intending to run it through the system.
Nick had the investigation under control, so I told him I had a quick errand to run. I left Hyde Park late in the afternoon and headed downtown for my appointment with the specialist. Have to admit, it was intimidating trying to find my way around a major medical center. First, I had to drive in circles up nine stories to the top of the parking garage, and then spend fifteen minutes looking for the right elevator.
The doctor’s office was in the cancer center. That surprised me. I thought I was seeing a prostate specialist. He sat behind his desk reading my record. I suppose I should have been worried about the results of my tests, but instead I took the time to wonder how old he was. He looked twenty-five, but you can’t become a specialist without years of practice. I guessed he was the uptight type, because he wore a starched lab coat over a
starched white shirt, and a blue and white striped bow tie. My mind wandered to his hair, assuming he slicked it back with an expensive version of flowery smelling Vaseline.
I was squinting to read all the diplomas on his wall when his voice broke my concentration. “Stage IV prostate cancer, Mr. Shea. Mr. Shea?”
I tuned in. “Say again, please.”
He closed my record and put it on his desk. “Your doctor sent you to a urologist, yes?”
I nodded, remembering the biopsy.
“I’m afraid you have prostate cancer and it metastasized, spread, to other parts of your body. It’s in your bones. That’s the source of the pain in your back.”
It’s never a good sign when a doctor starts his sentence with ‘I’m afraid.’ I forced out one word, “Curable?”
He answered, “Treatable.”
They sounded the same to me. The doctor was a man of few words. “So, Doc, spell it out. Curable, treatable? What’s it mean to me?”
“Mr. Shea, stage IV metastatic prostate cancer is beyond curable. If you had regular checkups, as your doctor advised, we would have caught it earlier and been able to give you a more positive prognosis.”
Really, today I need a lecture from Doogie Howser? I cut to the chase. “Okay. So curable is out, I get it. Let’s talk about treatable. Can you do surgery to cut it out? Chemotherapy? What are my options?”
He said the ‘afraid’ word again, “I’m afraid surgery is not an option at this stage.” He held up my record as if I could see inside of it, and leaned forward, “The cancer has spread to your bones and your lungs. It can’t be ‘cut out,’ as you put it.”
My bones and my lungs? The specialist dished out bad news a body part at a time. I felt the top of my head start to float away. The seriousness of my situation hit me. I’m in deep shit. “So, what’s the treatment?”
“It’s up to you. There’s chemo.”
Before I could feel better, he added, “I don’t recommend it. It’s unlikely to bring any positive results, and the side effects can be difficult to tolerate. In cases like yours, I recommend hormone treatment to slow the progress of the disease.”
I repeated his words, “Slow the progress?”
He folded his hands, “For a while.”
The guy was frustrating me with his cryptic answers. “Doc, be straight with me. What’s ‘a while?’”
He shifted in his chair and waved one hand across his desk. “Mr. Shea. I don’t have a crystal ball. The hormone treatments may be effective, but almost as importantly, if you stop smoking and live a clean lifestyle, it will extend your life.”
Now we were getting to it. “How long?” He didn’t answer me. “How long, Doc?”
This fancy haired, starched guy, young enough to be my son, delivered my fate. “Again, without a crystal ball, I can’t say. If we slow the progress with hormone treatments and if you make those lifestyle changes, no smoking, no drinking, you may
live a year or perhaps longer.”
I had no idea where my car was. I walked uphill, from floor to floor in the dark garage for twenty minutes looking for it. I was breathing heavy and my back was screaming by the time I started the engine. I drove straight into the gridlock of Boston traffic at rush hour. My head pounded with the rhythm of the doctor’s words, “A year or perhaps longer.”
Emma Nolan, the missing six year old, was the last thing on my mind. I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. Three months from retiring, looking forward to a few good years in sunny Florida, and I get cancer. Stinking cancer that was going to kill me probably before my next birthday. I lit a cigarette, crawled toward the exit for Cambridge and made my way straight to Sully’s Tavern in Harvard Square. The lifestyle changes the doctor ordered would have to wait another day. I knocked down the first shot of tequila, followed by five more. I don’t remember the drive home but made it to my garage before falling asleep in the car. My clothes were more crumpled than usual when I got to work the next day. That and my red glassy eyes and day’s growth prompted Nick’s question. “What’s with you? You look like shit.”
Focused back on Emma Nolan, I ignored Nick and fished in my pants pocket. I dumped out a book of matches and receipt from the parking garage and found the paper napkin where I wrote the name of the suspicious neighbor. I ran it through the Sex Offenders Registry, and sure enough, he came up a convicted child rapist, just out of jail on parole. He tricked the system, listing his address in Dorchester and then taking up residence in his dead mother’s home in Emma Nolan’s neighborhood. The pounding in the back of my head moved to my temples. I turned to Nick. “Shit, Nick, the neighbor’s a convicted child rapist.”
He was already on his feet. “Don’t take off your coat. We just got the call. We’re heading to Hyde Park.”
“Emma’s been found?”
“Yeah. I’ve had the local cops sweeping the neighborhood since daylight. They found her body behind a storage shed in your guy’s backyard. Cops said she’s still warm. The bastard probably killed her this morning.”
And there it was. If I did my job that afternoon, and followed up on a sleazebag sex offender, instead of drowning my sorrows, Emma Nolan would be snuggling, warm in her mother’s arms, safe.
I got drunk again the day Emma was found dead and stayed that way for four days. I could smell my own body odor and the alcohol leaking from my pores. My wife, Shirley, came and went. She didn’t seem to notice me sitting in the dark at the dining room table we inherited after Mother died. Nick covered for me and called a few times to talk me into sobering up and returning to work.
“Karl, c’mon. You couldn’t have known. Shit happens. Think of all the lives you’ve saved. Where would we be if we fell apart every time we lost one?”
His consoling didn’t help. My soul was stained with at least two of the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony, for my overconsumption of tequila, and Sloth, which I remember from Catholic school. According to Sister Rosaria, in fourth grade, Sloth is not helping someone in need when you can, as in getting drunk instead of saving the life of a little girl. I owned that one, big time.
My self-loathing led me back to my Catholic roots. I decided to seek confession, not expecting forgiveness but I thought getting my sins off my chest might help me pull it together. I knelt in the little booth. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the silhouette of a man through the screen that separated us. It was Monsignor King. He had to be pushing ninety. He baptized me, and years later, my sons. I served as an altar boy for him when I was eleven. I knew he wouldn’t recognize me; it’d been decades since I’d knelt in the confessional. I’m sure he could smell the alcohol on my breath, and probably my general stink. The words all came back to me. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” He sat silent as I told him about my visit to the doctor, the diagnosis, stint at the bar, and being responsible for Emma’s murder. At one point I thought he nodded off, but when I stopped talking, he spoke.
His voice was old and shaky. I put my ear to the partition between us. “Son, God forgives you, and you must forgive yourself.”
That seemed too quick for the serious sin I committed. “Father, how can I forgive myself when I’m responsible for the death of a child?”
That’s when he gave me the direction. “Son, go forward and devote the remainder of your earthly life to her memory. See to it no other child suffers as she did. Dedicate your life and you shall be saved.”
Being saved sounded good, especially with the recent cancer diagnosis. And devoting the time I had left on earth to saving other children had a noble ring to it. I thanked him. “I’ll do my best, Father.”
He had the last word. “Just one minute. Before you leave, stop at the altar and say five Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers.” At that point I suspected he recognized me as little Karl Shea.
I left the church feeling lighter, absolved with strings attached. The priest’s message was clear. I had less than three months before retirement, and I’d spend them seeing to it no other child suffers as Emma did, or, as I interpreted his bidding, eliminating child molesters from this earth in memory of Emma Nolan.
I’d be doing God’s work, and die with a pure soul, a saint of sorts, a dark saint.