Someone is experimenting in death
The first mark had appeared after the third death: A red handprint dripping paint slapped on a wall of the busted-up hotel where cab driver Felice Sanchez had been found dead. Underneath, “HAND OF DEATH” splotched in an awkward scrawl.
Is that a joke? Detective Frank Nagler thought when he saw the mark for the first time. Pretty crude, but you might be in a hurry to leave your calling card after you killed a woman. But he wondered: Why where there no marks left after the deaths of Nancy Harmon and Jamie Wilson, the deaths that were now believed to be the first in this cycle?
Police Chief Robert Mallory had ordered the markings scrubbed from the wall, after the police work had been completed: Photos, samples, measurements, interviews; the victim’s family, don’t you know. Then he changed his mind: Who would know to place that mark at that exact spot? That made it a statement, a claim of ownership. Instead, the chief ordered the buildings with the marks to be included in daily foot patrols. “They’ll fade in time,” he had said. “The public will stop paying attention.” Was that a taunt, a challenge to the killer? Nagler wondered, the chief in fact saying “We know you’ve been here. We will get you.”
Of course, the public did not forget, but turned two of the marks -- at the hotel and the old train station – into instant shrines with bundles of flowers, photos of missing friends and family and hand-made posters.
For Nagler, staring at the red mark on the hotel had been the door that had cracked open, exposing a dark and sinister place, but the call that a body had been found near the downtown train station was the moment that his new job became real.
He’d been a detective for a month following another round of police department layoffs. He had investigated a burglary or two, a potential arson that destroyed an empty house, and broken up a few husband-wife fights, but he felt was running just to keep up, slogging through the everyday stuff of what he didn’t know, what he couldn’t imagine, one hand outstretched to feel the fog.
And now, ready or not, he was learning the awful lessons of murder first hand.
“Where is she?” he asked a patrolman standing sentry at the dark edge of the train station.
“Half-way down,” the patrolman replied, his voice a drip in a tin can echo. He tipped his head to the left. “It’s bad, Detective. Just sayin’.”
“Thanks,” Nagler replied, trying to sound confident. How bad?
Dispatch had said she was carried or dragged to the train station.
And then, if there wasn’t enough for Nagler to absorb, Medical Examiner Walter Mulligan forcefully said this: “Someone is experimenting in death,” while leaning over the body of the latest victim.
That’s when Nagler felt the ground shift and a tiny hollow spot opened in his heart. We’re supposed to be dispassionate, professional, he reminded himself. Try as he might, that hole never closed.
He ran a shaky hand through his sweat-soaked hair and squinted into a golden haze of a rooftop spotlight across the railroad tracks from where the body was found, and then nodded to Mulligan, trying to appear that he knew what that meant. My first murder case, and it’s an experiment in death.
It wasn’t the statement alone that startled Nagler. It was the chilling tone, an end-of-the-world whisper, a voice inside a dark cave. And the certainty. How does he know that?
Three women, murdered, apparently weeks, possibly months, apart, killed in different ways, in different parts of the city; different jobs, lives disconnected from each other.
And now a fourth.
THE IRONTON RIPPER, an out-of-town newspaper headline had screamed when the third death had been announced.
Nagler absorbed the scene: Dim lights from the train station platform, silhouetted cops, shadows shifting, lighted than gone; faint grinding of late night city noise, bugs buzzing, heat as thick as syrup.
And she lay dead, slashed, exposed, dragged, discarded.
Crap, Nagler thought, shaking off the pity, seeking resolve. Where is this going?
Any doubt Nagler had about what was ahead dissolved when he looked into Mulligan’s face. He was wearing that face, the one experienced officers had warned about, a mix of resignation about the need for his services and a dark anger, a stay-out-of-my-way face.
“This death is related to the others,” Mulligan pronounced after he pulled Nagler aside. “Examine her body closely.”
“So that’s the experiment?” Nagler asked, nodding at the detail that according to the reports he had read, had been present previously. “That makes him a serial killer?” he asked, barely aware of what that term meant.
“A technical term for academics,” Mulligan said, as he shook his head in disgust, and then smiled, trying to encourage the new detective. “We have four deaths, Frank. Just follow the evidence. Don’t worry about the meaning yet.” He reached for Nagler’s arm. “But this is a detail you should keep to yourself. Knowing it, and the time to release it, could be critical to catching our killer.”
Nagler nodded and turned to speak with the first patrolman on the scene.
“Who found her?” Nagler asked.
The patrolman pointed to a man clinging to the side of a patrol car. “Our drunken friend.”
Oh, Great. Nagler approached the drunk. The man shifted, then leaned, then tipped back, arms folded, head nodding.
“Hey, thanks for calling us,” Nagler said.
The man squeezed his face into a grimace and through squinting eyes, looked up at Nagler. “I didn’t call. Just yelled. Your guy was driving past the train station and stopped. Hurray for me.” He tipped his head to the right and closed his eyes. “I’m tired, man.”
“Okay, where were you headed?” Nagler asked, admiring the man’s existential gallantry.
“An old shed, down in the rail yard. Got a…got a sleeping bag there.”
Nagler smiled. “Bet you do. Know what? We’ll put you up for the night.”
“Naa, that’s okay. Someone will steal my bag, and my, um, stuff, if I don’t … Maybe I can get a drink?” He leaned forward and nearly toppled.
“Ahh, no.” Nagler pushed him upright.
The man wiped his nose on his filthy jacket sleeve and shook his head again. “Too bad.”
“Yeah.” Softly. “Yeah.” Firmly: “Look at me.”
“Look at me. Got a couple questions. Did you touch her?”
“Who? Nooooo. Never. She’s dead, man. She was bleedin’ and all. No. Shit, I didn’t touch her.” Shrugged. “Okay, kicked her shoe to see if she was, maybe… naw… dead.” He jabbed out his right foot and nearly fell.
Nagler shook his head. “Maybe … if she had some money on her?”
The man shrugged, then wiped his nose. “Maybe.”
“Did you see anyone with her?”
The man closed his face as if the question was too hard.
He was fading, Nagler knew. Last chance. “Hey, buddy. Was anybody with her?”
The drunk grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked on it. Irritated. “I’m thinkin’.” He glanced up at Nagler and then off to the left.
“A guy. Ran off that way.” He waved in all directions. “‘Hey,’ I yelled. ‘You left your friend.’ Then I looked at her and she was pretty dead.”
“Big guy? Fat? Short? Skinny?”
“Shit, man, I don’t know. Little dude. Seemed so …” Voice fading. “Little dude … I … guess. But he was far away.”
Nagler hunched along the dark street and parking lot following the blood trail back to the Chinese restaurant on Warren, apparently the original crime scene. A crime tech photographed the blood drops, exploding light into the darkness. “Lotta blood,” the tech said. “Man.”
Why carry her to the train yard?
At the restaurant, a shapeless pool of blood filled the sidewalk a few feet from the door to the China Song restaurant, and a smeared trail of blood leaked off toward Blackwell and the train station for a few yards and then stopped at a point the assailant must have picked her up. A blotch of blood was centered on the side window of the corner phone booth, as if the assailant had staggered for a moment under Chen’s weight.
Pretty strong for a little guy, if our drunk friend was right, Nagler thought. But the victim was a small woman, so I guess anything is possible. It reminded Nagler of one of those nature specials where a lion kills a zebra and carries it off to be devoured later. A hunt, a kill. A trophy. Of course. That’s what Mulligan meant.
The restaurant lights were still on and Nagler saw the face of a man peeking around a red pillar inside the second, inner door. A grocery bag of packaged food had been spilled on the sidewalk and a purse leaned against the curb.
A bloody spot dotted the brick wall. A second medical officer took samples.
“Related?” Nagler asked.
“Seems so, from what the dishwasher told us,” patrol Sergeant Bob Hanrahan said. He had run from the city hall police station a half-block away and secured the scene. “She apparently stepped out of the restaurant, carrying that shopping bag. The attacker rammed her into the wall. She was probably stunned by the blow to her head, staggered and then was stabbed.”
Hanahan nodded to Nagler. “It’s your scene now.”
Nagler examined the oversized purse and found a locked blue canvas overnight deposit bag containing what felt like two or three inches of bills. “Probably not a robbery.” He found a wallet with a driver’s license.
Joan Chen, thirty-one. Weston Street, Ironton.
Nagler felt his head spin, exploding with details almost faster than he could examine them.
“You alright, Frank?” Hanrahan asked.
“It’s like I just took the plastic wrapper off my ‘Crime 101’ manual and the killer is on to volume two.” He screwed up his face and glanced at Hanrahan and then at the ground. “I want to do this right.”
Hanrahan grabbed Nagler’s shoulder. “Slow it all down. We know some stuff. It’ll come.”
Hanrahan said, as he shrugged toward the restaurant door, “That guy’s the dishwasher, said he stays after closing to clean the place for the next day. She’s the manager and was going to the bank to make a deposit. He was locking the doors when someone came out of the street, slammed her into the wall, and stabbed her. He said he ran back into the main part of the restaurant to grab the pistol they keep behind the bar, and when he came back, she was gone, as was the assailant. He said the attacker had his head covered, wore dark clothes, but the attack was fast.”
“Did he say anything about the attacker’s size?” Nagler asked. “Our witness at the train station, as drunk as he is, said it could be a small person.”
Hanrahan shook his head. “He said it happen really fast.”
“Ány other witnesses?” Nagler asked. “Customers?”
“No. Place closed at nine-thirty, two hours ago. Dishwasher said Chen’s habit was to eat a light supper, close out the books and hit the bank on her way home.”
“Weston’s on the other side of town. She must have a car parked somewhere,” Nagler said as he scanned the street. “Bet she left at about the same time each night. Someone who knows that pattern ….” He sighed. “This could be the first one of these that makes sense. She married?”