Detective Sammy Stone stared at the naked, bloody corpse of the young girl tied to the La-Z-Boy recliner in the center of the cramped living room. The girl had been gagged, gutted, and scalped. No flesh-eating maggots were present on her body. The acidic stench that always accompanied the advanced putrefaction stage of decomposition hadn’t yet permeated the air. This was a fresh kill, probably somewhere between two and four hours. For Sammy, the fresh kill was the worst; the presence of the newly shed bright red blood was a crushing reminder that if he’d gotten here a few minutes earlier, this girl might still be alive.
“Our victim’s name was Marci Levelle. She was twenty-one years old. Poor girl,” said Laverne, the stout forensics technician with the coke bottle glasses, as she photographed the gruesome crime scene. “This is a nasty killer.”
“While I appreciate your opinion, is there anything else you can tell me? Something that might actually help me catch this nasty killer?” Sammy asked in a testy voice, his sleepless nights showing in his belligerent attitude.
“Don’t listen to him, Laverne.” Sammy’s partner, Will, gloved up and stepped inside the room. “You’re doing a great job. What can you tell us so far?”
“The splatter is going from left to right, so it’s possible that our killer is left-handed. None of the blood stains are larger than 4 mm in diameter. That indicates a medium-velocity impact splatter. I’m thinking that both the wound in her abdomen and the scalping were made by the same weapon, a weapon with a single cutting edge. Maybe a kitchen knife or a hunting knife. That’s why one end of the cut skin in her abdomen has a clearly pointed edge, and the opposite edge is squared off. There’s some bruising in the tissue around the cut, so it seems likely that the perp may have stuck the blade in as far as it would go, and the knife hilt may have hit the flesh. I can’t tell you exactly how deep the belly cut is. In this area of the body, the skin is very elastic and probably shrank a little when the knife was withdrawn. We’ll have to wait on the medical examiner’s report to get that info, and to find out if she bled out from the scalping or the stabbing.” Laverne took a step closer to the body.
“Anything else?” Sammy asked.
“Yes. The void pattern of the blood I’m seeing is peculiar.”
“A void pattern occurs in blood splatter when a person or object blocks the path of the blood flow. In Marci’s case, the void would’ve been caused by a person. Her killer. My educated guess is that her killer was likely standing in front of her when he stabbed her. When the blood jetted out of her stab wound, the position of his body would’ve formed a shield that prevented the blood from spraying, or projecting, across the room, as it normally would’ve if he’d been standing elsewhere. There would be, um, missing blood in the room.”
“That sounds logical. Instead of the spray of Marci’s blood being on the walls or on the floor, it was trapped in the killer’s clothing when he stabbed her. That would explain the missing blood in the room.”
“That’s just it. That’s the peculiar part. There is no void, or missing blood in the room. Do you see the droplets of blood by Marci’s feet?”
“Yes.” Sammy replied.
Laverne stayed quiet.
“We can’t read your mind.” Sammy said. “Tell us what’s going on.”
“Those droplets are relatively small, round in the center, with a few spikes around the edges. They fell from a straight up and down angle. They hadn’t fallen far, maybe a couple of inches, and weren’t going very fast when they hit the floor.”
“So?’ Sammy asked.
“Those droplets shouldn’t be there. They were part of the spray of blood that should’ve been absorbed by the killer’s clothing when they landed on it. But, instead, those droplets of blood just rolled off of the killer’s shirt, pants, and shoes. They slowly dripped to the floor.”
Sammy and Will looked at each other with puzzled expressions on their faces, then at Laverne.
“Isn’t it obvious? That means that our killer was wearing non-absorbent, waterproof gear. Maybe a plastic raincoat, plastic booties too, since there are no footprints. He came prepared, that’s for sure. I’ll know more when I do my stringing. I just need some time. I wish we had the scalp and a murder weapon.”
“Me too. Sorry I was so hard on you.” Sammy’s voice was apologetic. “I’m-”
“Getting old and grumpy,” Will chimed in.
“No apology is necessary.” Laverne said it in a relieved tone, like a student who had just passed a difficult exam with flying colors. “I’m going to get some coffee before I do the stringing. I’m in for a long night. Do you want anything Sammy?”
“No. I’m good.”
Laverne tucked her camera in her nylon backpack and slung it over her shoulder, taking a long look around the room. Her eyes fixed on the glossy eight-by-ten portrait of the brunette with the sparkling gray eyes and Hollywood smile that hung on the stretch of white wall behind Marci’s body. “That’s the worst part of this job. We get to see what the dead looked like when they were whole.”
Sammy looked at the portrait and gently laid his hand on Laverne’s shoulder. “I know.” She turned and walked out the door.
Will shook his head. “Abigail May was scalped in DuPage County in September. Barbara Tony was scalped in Lake County in October. And Marci, now, in November. That makes three scalping victims in three months. We’ve got a serial killer on our hands.”
“Yes. We do. Who’s on the DuPage case?”
“The Lake County case?”
“You know them, don’t you?”
“I went to the academy with both of them. They’re good men. They sent me photos and notes of their crime scenes. They wanted to pick my brain, see if I could find a connection between the two cases, other than the obvious ones, those being that the two girls were attractive young women with long, brown hair, like our Marci here, and both girls were scalped, gutted, and died tied to a kitchen chair.”
“Did you come up with anything?”
“Nothing they didn’t already know. Abigail and Barbara still had their diamond wedding rings on. Their cash and credit cards were still in their purses when they found the bodies. The jewelry in their jewelry boxes was untouched. Their phones and laptops weren’t taken. Nothing of value was. Ed and Lester ruled out robbery as the motive in their cases. So did I.” Will pointed to the shiny, bold gold Rolex watch strapped to Marci’s wrist. “I think we can rule out robbery as the motive in our case too. Besides, thieves are degenerates, but even the most incorrigible of thieves don’t resort to this level of viciousness. There would be no reason for them to. Ed and Lester said there was no sign of vaginal or anal penetration and no semen present on the bodies. Neither Abigail or Barbara appears to have been violated.”
“Did Ed or Lester find the murder weapon?”
“No. They came up blank, just like us. No murder weapon. No scalps.”
“Any sign of forced entry in the other two cases?”
“So, we can assume that Abigail and Barbara, as well as Marci, must’ve known their attacker and may have willingly let him in. The first two were tied to their kitchen chairs, Marci to her recliner. Were the other two victims tied up the same way as Marci?”
“Yeah. Hands bound behind their backs, the rope tied in a square knot, feet tied in front of them the same way. The type of rope the killer used is common. It’s the same three strand nylon rope you can buy at any home improvement or hardware store.”
Sammy looked down at Marci’s manicured fingers. “Marci didn’t even have a broken nail. She completely trusted whoever did this to her. She let herself be tied up and rendered defenseless. I imagine the others did too.”
“Casanova strolls in, draws the blinds, ties them up, and then gags them. They’re thinking he’s into kinky foreplay. He’s thinking that he’s got them right where he wants them. If his end game is to kill them, why bother to scalp them? Why not just stab them a few more times?” Will stared at the gaping wound in Marci’s belly. “It’d be quicker, and they’d be just as dead. He took a chance on getting caught by staying here longer than he had to.”
“My hunch is that the stabbing was just an afterthought, an added insurance policy that they wouldn’t survive. The scalping holds a great deal more meaning to our perp than the stabbing.”
“It’s hard to say. In the Old World, the Scythians took scalps for vanity and prestige. The Roman auxiliaries took scalps because they believed the scalps would ward off danger on the battlefield. Germanic tribes scalped those who broke the law. Native American tribes lifted their defeated enemies’ scalps to show power and control, and to humiliate them. They believed this humiliation would make for a less than smooth transition into the afterlife. Confederate guerillas scalped Union soldiers for revenge.”
“You know a lot about this shit.”
“I did a research paper on the history of scalping in junior college.”
“So, we’re after a vengeful, sadistic, narcissistic control freak, who believes in magic; and maybe has some religious background and a fetish for brown hair.”
“It would seem that way.”
“Good luck to us.”
Sammy studied the continuous, unbroken line of the circular cut that traveled from below Marci’s right ear, up to her right temple, across her forehead, then down her left temple and under her left ear. “When you looked at Ed and Lester’s crime scene photos, did you notice if the scalping was this precise?”
“No. The cuts on the heads of both Abigail and Barbara were sloppy and jagged, deep around the temples, shallow around the ears. A sawing motion, not a clean sweep. Amateurish. Whoever scalped Marci was more of a ‘paint by numbers’ pro.”
“This prick is perfecting his art, getting better with each kill. It’s weird though.”
“The way he tied Marci and the others up, with all of them facing forward. Every book I’ve read about the scalping technique states that the most efficient way to scalp a person is to lay them belly down, with their backs toward you, to put a foot between their shoulder blades, grab a hunk of hair, start cutting, and then rip the scalp off. The person who is doing the scalping doesn’t see much of the victim’s face, and vice versa.”
“You think he wanted the girls to see it coming, that he got off on the fear he saw in their eyes as he was mutilating them?”
“Cold fucker. He’s probably doing a happy dance with the scalps now. But, maybe we’ll get lucky. Forensics might turn up some prints.”
“I wouldn’t hold my breath. This perp doesn’t strike me as being careless. Check Marci’s laptop, her cell phone, her text messages, and her emails. Let’s start knocking on some doors. We need to ask her neighbors what she was like. Was she a quiet girl? A party girl? Did she like to go to the neighborhood bars? Boyfriends? Girlfriends?” Sammy continued his breathless string of words as he began to pace back and forth across the room. “Did she drive to work? Where’d she gas up? If she took public transportation, maybe she met the perp on a bus or train. Where’d she shop for groceries? Check to see if the store had security cameras. Did she have any hobbies? The killer had to connect with her somehow.”
Will cast a knowing, empathic look Sammy’s way. “That itch has gotten ahold of you again, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” But Sammy did know what Will meant. Will could read him like an open book. While Sammy resented Will’s being able to view his private thoughts, he knew that he needed Will in his head. Sammy’s maddening sense of doing too little too late for the victim had kicked in, and he had to have Will’s objectivity to steer him back on course.
“Your mind is all over the place. You snapped at Laverne for no reason earlier. Here you are now, pacing back and forth like a kid on crack, barking out orders to me as if this is my first day on the job. I know you’re acting this way because you’re taking this case personally. You feel guilty about Marci. You think you failed her somehow. You’ve become obsessed with catching this killer before he hurts anyone else. I get it, I really do. But, that guilt is scrambling your brain. If we are to catch this monster, we have to work as a team. I need your mind to be sharp. You have to concentrate on Marci, not your sense of failure.”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“I’ll tell you, if you won’t bite my head off.”
“You have a date with Eve tonight, don’t you?”
“Yes. But I’m going to call her and cancel.”
“Don’t. Go on your date. Have some good food and a drink and chill out. When you’re more relaxed, meet me at the station. We’ll go through Marci’s cell phone and her laptop together. In the meantime, I’ll talk to the neighbors.”
“Are you seriously recommending that I sit back and leisurely sip on a bottle of beer while Marci’s killer roams free, that I give him more time to seek out his next victim?”
“That’s not quite the way I would’ve put it, but, yes, I am. I admire your dedication. That’s what makes you a good detective. But I think it overwhelms you sometimes. I don’t want you to burn out.”
“I won’t burn out.”
“Really? Those dark circles that I see under your eyes tell me a different story. When was the last time you had a good night’s sleep?”
Sammy didn’t answer because he didn’t know. Weeks, maybe months. Tossing and turning on his bed for hours on end without getting any sleep seemed to have become part of his routine. It was his memory of the victims he’d encountered that had kept him awake night after night. He’d see their bodies in his mind’s eye, sometimes in one piece, like strangled Lenore, sometimes in more than one piece, like decapitated Maria. Last night, he’d seen Maria’s mother too. She’d been kneeling next to the dumpster where she’d found her daughter’s headless body, praying and weeping. Each grotesque memory brought with it grief and pain and drained him both physically and mentally. Will was right. Dealing with the scums of the earth was taking a toll on him. His nerves were frayed. If he didn’t want to end up in the psych ward of some obscure mental hospital, he did need a break, no matter how small that break was or how inopportune the timing was. “Ok. If it will make you happy, I’ll take a break,” he said reluctantly, glancing over his shoulder and offering Marci a silent apology for temporarily abandoning her. “I’ll keep my date with Eve. But I’ll meet you back at the station in a couple of hours.”
“I’ll see you when I see you. Speaking of Eve, do you think there’s a chance I’ll get to meet her anytime soon?”
Sammy fidgeted with his car keys, avoiding eye contact with Will. Not introducing the woman who he’d been dating for four months to his partner, who was also his best friend, was awkward, but he was afraid that history would repeat itself and Eve would dump him like his last three girlfriends had. His male pride was a fragile thing, made even more fragile by the pity he saw in happily married Will’s eyes every time he told him he was single again. Until he was sure that Eve was going to stick around, introductions could wait. “Soon, I promise. . .”