By David V. Mammina
The most dangerous man is a man that knows. That’s what my father used to tell me when I was young. He’d always come home late from his dreary detective work and spend some time telling me about the stark realities of the job. Argumentatively, a selfish form of child abuse. He couldn’t tell my mother, because she’d shut him down. Maybe he thought I was strong enough to hear it. Maybe he wanted me to build a bulwark around me for when the levy broke in my life. Don’t know why he told me about his experiences on the black streets, always over a hard drink, but those liquor-stricken chats changed my lot permanently.
Now, because of him, I have become him. Hell, even I tried to be something else. I could have been a teacher or a writer, or something like that. But, no, this is blood and blood tells our stories before we even know we’ve lived them. When my father died, I felt his spirit leave this world. His last breath left my lungs that night and I knew he was gone. As the only man of the house, mom was sure that there was nothing that could steer my ship away from my father’s tide. There was something pulling me—a string that tugged me like a fish. At least I didn’t drown in his liquor.
Years later and they send me to Grenville for a “serious investigation.” That is one hell of an understatement. They set me up with some fast-talking rookie, Arty McCarran, and away we go. Back in the dark light, much like it was back home. Bad scenes make bad dreams and I’ve had the worst of them. This scene, however, takes me for a ride. As Arty is vomiting words in the passenger seat, I’m already realizing why they called me in for this particular assignment. It’s not that I’m the best they got or that I had the most experience. They chose me, because they had no other stones to turn. I grew up around here. So did Arty.
“Agent Archer, right?” The captain of Grenville police shakes my hand at the front door to the crime scene.
“Yes, Alan Archer.” I show him my badge, “And this is my partner, Agent McCarran. We’re not here to take over—“
“We know why you’re here. Come in.” He replies, walking us into the fine high ranch home.
Breaking through gawking cops, the captain leads us into the former commissioner’s personal office. More like a personal slaughter house. Nathan Stevenson was the Commissioner of the GPD for ten years before he retired, but I knew him for a darker reason. I knew him but good. My father used to mouth off on him, cursing his name and gnawing his teeth at every tale. He knew how corrupt he was, but wouldn’t do anything about it. Stevenson had ties to covetous journalists, drug traffickers and even the mob. Imagine that. He knew my dad was onto him, and boy did he take care of that loose end.
Dad was transferred, and fast. On the first night on the new job, he received a phone call from this anonymous pawn telling him to keep quiet and be grateful. Funny, I made it into the FBI without any black marks on my record, at least. Stevenson’s crooked lifestyle was bound to catch up with him, but not like this. Thank God he was alone when the killing started. His family was not in town. It seems convenient, because it was. Someone knew Stevenson was alone last night. And there wasn’t any struggle either.
“Oh dear, someone special filleted this fish.” McCarran chews his gum and starts writing notes about the crime scene. He’s actually pretty good at that, as it turns out. Stevenson’s throat was cut out and his hands were tied tightly around his own seat. Blood had splattered crudely all over his desk, common for such a nasty laceration of the throat. But that wasn’t the worst part of it all. This was not why I was called in.
One for the money…
It was written in blood on the back wall just above his head, usually where his certificates and awards would be. That was the only clue to the scene. Hell, the police dusted and scanned for prints, but there was nothing. The commissioner’s security cameras weren’t even rolling the tape. Like I said, all too convenient. The eerie phrase above was written with a durable glove, maybe kitchen. McCarran is laughing to himself and looking at me as if I’m part of the joke he’s telling himself. But, he is right to laugh. CSI is cooked. No phone calls made to his office or cell phone, no strange emails, messages, nothing in the trash or shredder. No witnesses. Just one damn clue. Even I write the idiom down, repeating it to myself, “One for the money.”
“Something funny?” The captain growls at my temporary partner. The asshole was still snickering to himself. What are they doing to me, sending over a sap—a dud? I tell him to shut his mouth or leave before they start suspecting him. Grenville had more than a dozen connections to the commissioner. Some hated him, but most loved him—those that didn’t know any better. He was always on the TV. Like a celebrity death, the media had taken over the street like hungry vultures at a dead lion’s banquet.
After thirty something long minutes in this cursed place, I find myself in need of some fresh air. As McCarran and I step outside, there she is. A girl, no older than twenty, sitting on a black moped locks eyes with me over the yellow tape that separates us from the mob. Once she sees that I’ve seen her, she’s gone. Just like that. This woman wasn’t here for the scene, I know she was here for something else. But I can’t care enough about that now, nor could I even try. The reporters are flashing pictures and giant lights are beaming on us both. As I fight to watch her ride off, my cellphone vibrates. The only time this phone rings is when I’m in for some bad news. And wouldn’t you know it.
“This is Archer.” I answer.
“Archer, we’ve got something big going on here. Get down to East Hills. This is gonna blow up fast.” Says my higher-up, “When you’re done, get here as fast as you can. We’ve got something else that could be connected to that.”
And how the hell do you know what I have? I think to myself. A monkey could tell that this is the big story right here. Why am I leaving it all this quick? It’s lunchtime, but an agent eats after the job, especially this next one. East Hills is only one town away, but wealthier. Driving up and down hills, this easy rode brings us to a big house in the middle of surrounding spruce trees. This one eluded the media for now. Everyone and his step-twin are at the commissioner’s place. The police only discovered it forty minutes ago. There was no doubt that this was my case. It had my name written all over it. McCarran sighs and opens his little notepad a second time, sucking his teeth. It’s been a strange day already—an unorthodox way to do the job.
Up on the third floor, the police are giving me cold looks as if to say, “You’re in for it now.” The entire house looks fine, until we enter the victim’s bedroom. There he is, all limbs tied to the bedposts with his throat cut out and his fifth limb cut off. Like a murder victim version of John Bobbitt. As the law explain the connections of this crime to the one I just left, it hit me. Just above the bedstead.
…two for the show…
I guess that means that there’s going to be a “three to get ready” coming soon. The scene is similar, too similar. Here is another killing by the blade, another message written in blood, and, of course, dry evidence at the well. Not one witness, not even his dick hung around. The psycho took that, too. How classy. While the cops take in the scene, I get a good look at the guy’s face. That’s when my hearts sinks. I know this guy, too.
Well, I’ve only met him a few times. His name is, or was, Kevin Malone. The CEO of a struggling private school for learning disabled kids, he was my mother’s boss and worst weasel she ever met. She was his secretary, until he made sexual advances towards her. He even told her that she would get a twenty percent increase in her pay if she would only sleep with him once. This degenerate pig fired her when she refused, setting her up with a good excuse to let her go. If he only knew who my father was. He had been dead three years before that. I can’t be bothered to remember what that waste of space and time pulled off to get rid of her, but I was always willing to clock him square in the jaw. Looks like someone had a better reason to take him out.
So, what is the definition of irony? I know two of the victims today, indirectly, and they both wind up dead. The time of death was about an hour or so after Stevenson’s. That’s pretty good time for committing two squeaky clean murders. Both happened in the dead of last night. We go through the same routine until we lose our patience. It isn’t every day on the job when trained professionals look at each other with the same face they used when learning how to read their W2 forms for the first time. Eventually, our pens just hover over our pads.
It’s not a good day, to say the least. After lunch and further investigation among the Grenville and East Hills crime scenes, it’s getting darker and McCarran gets restless. I’m starting to think that it’s all just a hoax—a “This Was Your Life” game show moment. Tired and suffering from an induced headache, I glance at my watch and find that the day has treaded over my resolve. What did I accomplish? Indigestion.
Back at the office, hearing it from everyone and racking my brain with every detail, McCarran calls my name and enters my radius of concentration uninvited. Dropping my pen and rubbing my eyes, listening to the gears of the clock nearing the end of my shift, I shake my head and wait for the rookie to bark something newly futile. He knocks on my desk, saying, “Join me for a drink so we can forget about all the things we didn’t learn.”
Hearing his request is like a tourist asking for directions after you’re lost. Doesn’t this kid get it? I’m just fighting to stay above crazy, swimming against the current of making these two murders personal. I’m too damn close, and I almost feel like walking into the director’s office and calling it quits. But, I can’t. If not for my own worrisome curiosity, I need to know how I am connected to these sadistic homicides—if at all. Just when I realize that McCarran doesn’t know my past, where I came from, and couldn’t know how deep into the shit I really am, he calls out, “Alan? You in there?”
I should deny him and just go back to my cozy little inn just two towns away, but after a day like this one, a beer is an elixir. We haven’t had a chance to really get to know each other, let alone swap personal notes on the disturbing case. So, we leave the offices and hit a bar nearby. We sit and drink until talking is easier. I haven’t been in a bar for three years and, somehow, I feel like I never left. We’re babbling about the lot we’ve been given when the rookie actually says something interesting.
“You know what this is? This is the J.D. killer.” He finishes his second glass nonchalantly.
“The what?” I ask before taking another swig. Of course I know who he is talking about, but I want to hear what he really knows.
Looking at me with this stunned face, he goes, “The John Doe killer. Don’t look me in the eyes and tell me that you never heard of the John Doe Killer. How could you be an agent, or even a regular shmuck, and not know of—”
“Well, you gonna set me straight, or what?” I shake my head and pick up the next round, still intent on finding out where he’s going with all of it.
“Tell me, something.” He says, “What’s the most dangerous attribute a killer can have—the most perfect talent that would prevent him from ever being caught by anyone?”
Humoring him, I say, “Smarts. A genius.”
“Try again.” He offers a crooked grin before shooting down another drink.
Shaking my head, I say just to get to the point, “Someone on the inside of the law.”
He looks at me real mysterious-like and whispers, “Psychic. A psychic killer. That’s what J.D. was when he killed those people three years ago. You see it? An elite psychic will never leave any evidence he knows is going to give him away. He always knows where the cops are gonna be, or what they’re gonna look for. He knows where his victims are and how vulnerable they will be at a certain time. That’s who we got here. This is the psychic killer.”
I try to hold my laughter in, but it’s no good. A burst of hysterics rushes forth and I wipe my mouth with a sleeve, “No kidding.”
He nods with the same dumb smile, “Swear to God, that’s not just an urban legend, you know! I gotta say, I’m a little shocked you’ve never heard of this. You’re a real ostrich!”
“Keep your voice down.” I tell the idiot, “If this is why you brought me out here—to have a debate on whether we’re dealing with a psychic, then, clearly, you need—”
“No prints, no witnesses, no real leads, right?” He barely whispers back to me at the bar table, wobbling on his stool, buzzed, “Same as last time. You’ll see. They’re just going to file this into another cold case bin.”
“A cold case bin?” I’m compelled to repeat it, mirroring his lack of experience, even with his vocabulary, “Look, I’m taking you off this case first thing in the morning. This is not the job you’re looking for. And I’m not the mentor you need. The director will have to appease me this time.”
With him looking me up and down, I pay for my drinks and stumble out of the place. Never bothering to look back at him, I flag a taxi and give the driver the inn’s business card. As I look out of the cruising cab’s rainy window, I suddenly can’t help but ponder McCarran’s far-fetched theory of my case. Five minutes away from the motel and I’m thinking about how I would convince the director to drop him off. This man is a liability living in a toon world. He has no business being on my case, let alone one he suspects is the work of a murderer with psychic powers.
Soon after I tip the cabbie, my sixth sense tells me to scout my surroundings. As the car drives off, I feel it. Someone is watching me and I’m rarely wrong. And there she is again—twice in one day on that moped. Connecting eyes with me a second time, the strange woman drives off in the opposite direction. First at Stevenson’s residence and now here. This woman knows something bad. She knows a lot more about me too. Life is never black and white for people who do what I do. Sometimes, the job bleeds into my real life and real life just becomes the gray area. So where does this girl fit in?
After taking those drinks, I actually slept. I wish I could have gotten more hours, but I’ll settle for small miracles. Like clockwork, my phone rings and I know it’s not a wakeup call. McCarran lets me in on some early morning bad news from the office. It sounds like he’s gotten less sleep than I did when he says, “Rise and shine, you poor soul. We’ve got a problem.”
As if it was on the tip of my tongue, I come out with, “Three to get ready?”
“You’re catching on, Archer. Coram Heights. I’ll pick you up in ten.”
…three to get ready…
I’m not surprised anymore. The scene is variably different from the previous two in that there are four victims who were beaten and forcibly overdosed. Hypodermics were lodged into their bare chests, while only one of their throats was actually cut. He likely died from the overdose, though. The slicing seems to be this guy’s calling card. The blatant similarities are perplexing as usual. The murders were not done overnight. Of course not. The approximate time of death, as the CSI team reports, was an hour or so after the last one in East Hills. McCarran is very helpful at laughing again. This stupid son-of-a-bitch.
Beyond the lack of evidence and the same old stare from the faces around me, I’m only interested in one thing. Do I know any of them? How could I? They were druggies, two of them actual drug dealers, who had their little cove here in Coram Heights. It’s three towns over and the murders were committed as if the killer knew when and where they would be. They were just waiting for their grim reaper to come and give them a taste of the wrong medicine. I almost want to name him the J.D. Killer when I notice something that sends my world for a spin.
I know that face. Goddammit. The second dealer pressed up against the bed suddenly looks very familiar. I went to school with this punk. We were high school friends. I hung out with this loser long enough to get a sample of bad drugs. At one point, his uncle had to drive us to the emergency room after this prick picked up laced drag. It took that experience to shake me off a bad course so that my mother could smack me onto the right one. As a cop, years later, I got this little bastard put away for dealing. As an agent, I’m staring into his cold, dead face.
The thing that takes me over the edge is that he’s the only one who sustained the signature throat laceration. He is the only one out of all these lowlifes who merited the signature service. My stomach turns and my nerves shake. The bloody phrase on the wall mocks me. After all this, there is only one possible lead. This sick, calculated person knows me and wants my attention. He, or she, is reaching out for me. But what is the connection? Why am I a potential puzzle piece? Damned if I’m going to tell a soul about it. God help me if they find out.
Please be the only case today, I tell myself, though I would rather just get the last part of the idiom splattered on someone’s wall and be done with it. I keep that to myself. It’s the wondering and the waiting that rips my insides apart. Someone is playing this game on us, but I’m the only one taking it personally. McCarran’s psychic theory is still rattling around the empty crypt of my brain as I update my higher-up on the day’s events. He is less than pleased with my results. I can’t blame him. Perhaps I should just tell him that a psychic killer is on the loose cutting jokes and using me for a punch line.
The whole rest of the day, McCarran is starting to meet me at the bottom. He finally has accepted how deep we have become in this job, scrounging for evidence and connections. Just give me one damn witness. Amid the growing media presence blowing up the internet and front pages blurring my vision, we make a chart on the wall back at the office and pretend that we can connect dots. At the day’s break, we eat lunch back at the inn, realizing that we may not have this bloody case for much longer. After eating our Chinese food at the end of a dark, cloudy day, he leaves and I sit at the end of the mattress holding my head. Many people want answers. Like them, I’ve got nothing to write on. I’m fried.
Suddenly, my phone rings. I let it ring four times before I have the nerve to pick it up. Who could this possibly be? Who knows I’m here besides McCarran? Upon picking it up, I don’t answer. I listen. To my astonishment, a female’s voice starts on the other line. She says with hesitation, “At the 13th Street trestle, right?”
Shaking my head in a frustrating daze, I bark, “What? Who the hell—”
“Meet me under the 13th street trestle at ten tonight. You won’t be late.” She then hangs up.
I know it’s the moped girl following us around. It has to be. What’s stranger is I know exactly where that trestle is located. It sends chills up my spine when I think of how far lost I really am. How did she know I was here in this room? How did she know that I knew where the trestle was? Where did she get my personal number? That’s what I really want to know.
Curiosity kills cats, but I’m still putting on my clothes to meet this mysterious woman. She asked me about the trestle first—timidly. Then, she told me where to go, as if she was reading from a card. This girl knows too damn much, but does she expect me? I can catch on to things fast. Give me one shot at you—just one shot. Talking to myself, I almost don’t hear my cellphone talking to me. It’s McCarran. Though he’s calling to run something by me concerning our investigation, I cut him short and let him know about the 13th street trestle. He sounds thrilled to be a part of the expedition down the rabbit hole. I make sure my gun is loaded.
McCarran waits in a vacant lot across the street. I can’t see him through the steady rain, but I know he’s waiting in the driver’s seat. The cabbie takes me right under the trestle, taking cover from the impulsive storm. Let McCarran run across to me. There’s no time to be cordial. It all seems too eerie, even for film noir. The traffic light is blinking red tonight, shining on our faces and wet overcoats. It’s exactly ten o’clock now, and McCarran can hardly contain his excitement as we watch the cab drive away. His shoulders are bouncing. That’s when I notice the trestle’s utility door behind him. On the door is a big white arrow pointed towards the knob. On any night, this door should have been locked. It wasn’t.
I pull it open and let McCarran head in first with his firearm drawn. Once I turn the light on, the bulb overhead blows out. Yet, I get a fast glimpse of something that rested on the ledge. It looks like a knife of some sort, but I can’t be sure. As the sound of falling rain is cascading down the sides of the trestle’s edges, McCarran sets the flashlight where I want it to go. Rushing the light over stacked traffic cones and miscellaneous construction litter, he shines the light over a bloody dagger. It was a serrated knife with a customized handle, like something from Ancient Egypt, featuring birds of prey. Just above the display, the serial killer spray-painted the last phrase of that classic idiom on the wall, but with an enlightening twist.
…and now you know.
And there it is. Just like that, I’m back. As promised, I put on my gloves and seize the knife. McCarran utters in shock, “What the hell is going on? Where’s Kaylen—that bitch?”
I tell the asshole real calm, “Come here, kid. Read this phrase on the blade.”
He comes scurrying over and shines the flashlight on it, blinding his sight for but a second. That’s all I need. Quickly, I slash his throat and watch him yank back in terror. The flashlight falls to the ground and lights up his bustling shoes while he bleeds out, struggling to crawl away from me. Finally, I put him out of his misery with his own gun. Well, ownership was relative, since he stole the piece from a gangbanger. The shots echo and almost make me deaf. His overcoat serves as a blade cleaning for my best friend. This unique piece of art has taken out all my targets.
This creep was a smart one—a true charmer. He joined the force years ago, but a more crooked cop I did not know. I couldn’t wait to take this job for that reason alone. He was a mockery of my father’s legacy, representing everything my dad tried to purge from the force. A murderer, rapist, drug trafficker and corrupt son to a corrupt town supervisor. It just so happens that Kaylen and I had commonality in this bastard’s dirty demise. Who is Kaylen, you wonder? Wait for it.
My phone lights up with her number and I answer coolly, “Kaylen?”
Cautious, she mutters on the other end, “Is it—is it done?”
“Done deal, as promised.” I reply while removing McCarran’s car keys from his coat pocket, “You know, you didn’t have to follow me around, kid. This is how I do things. You didn’t have to ghost me.”
“I just had to know.” She says almost in a whisper, “So, what now? Where do you want me to meet you this time?”
“You pick the diner. I’ll meet you there as soon as I can.” I place the gun back into his holster and take my dagger along, staring outside at the heavy rain of the night.
“Wait, which—oh, right.” She catches herself, “You already know where I’m going to go, right?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I answer before returning the phone to my pocket and running into the rain to take McCarran’s car for a last ride.
The Pan Diner was on the beaten path actually, for a beaten path is a better place to hide than the hole in the wall. Escorted by the hostess, I sit in the back corner booth with Kaylen and order a coffee. She doesn’t like looking straight at me first, but, like our last meeting, she adjusts her gaze and musters up the confidence to seek the eyes of a killer. She’s a pretty girl with fair skin and smooth brown hair. Sitting there with her hands folded in her lap, Kaylen gets right down to business, saying, “I have the last two thousand when you’re ready.”
“I’ll relieve you of that phone I gave you.” I outstretch my hand to take back the cell phone I lent to her for direct communication. As she puts it into my hand, I place it into my inner blazer pocket and say, “Keep the money until we’re done here. I’m sure you have lots of questions.”
Looking around to ensure no one could hear them, she said, “Where is his body?”
Receiving my coffee, I order some rice pudding and wait until the waitress pulls away for me to answer, “He’s where I left him. It doesn’t matter how he’s found. It’ll be a long time until he’s discovered, killed with his own gun. The crooked son of a crooked town official will make the papers soon enough and the spotlight will be shining on the worst type of people connected to him. Nothing can blow back to you, so don’t panic about all that.”
Drinking her tea, she says nervously, “Good riddance.”
“Retribution feels good. For whatever he did to you or to someone you love, I’ve been there. You and I are done after this. I can’t promise you’ll sleep easier, but you won’t be worried about him living the American dream at the expense of other people’s lives.” I tell her straight.
It’s clear that she still fears me, unable to figure me out. Unlike my previous clientele, she was just an ordinary person with a decent heart. I can see her past in my mind as I take another sip of my coffee. McCarran had crossed the wrong person. He couldn’t have known that a young woman as obscure as she could have found a weapon such as I. That man ruined many lives in his unchecked existence as a rotten, sadistic tool, but now he’s gone. Funny how she was the last straw. She did right by seeking me out. Word of mouth.
Having finally gotten the pudding, I start into it and ask her nonchalantly, “So you felt you had to spy on me, eh? Afraid I couldn’t pull it off?”
Almost hoping I would open the door, Kaylen leans into the table and whispers with resolve, “I had to know. You were roaming around the town, talking to yourself. How many taxies did you take to nowhere—just different peoples’ homes and then to the bar and back to the inn? What were you doing?”
Smiling in response to her bewilderment, I feel that I should explain it. “I’m not that type of psychic. It can get complicated with so many factors involved. Once I have everything set up where I want it so that I’ve seen every possible way it could play out, I put myself into a catatonic state and go through the story I’ve concocted.”
Puzzled and amazed at once, she comes back with, “You mean you hypnotized yourself?”
“In a sense.”
Shaking her head, Kaylen replies as anyone else would, “Why? Why not just use your psychic abilities and just do it?”
“A fair question.” I begin, taking another spoonful of rice pudding, “Well, if I just do it, many different things can go awry. Knowing too much beforehand can make one ignore the little signs that come and go. Every little trivial component to life’s ordinary happenstances can’t be accounted for all the time. You couldn’t imagine how fast my mind works under that sort of pressure and how tempting it becomes to tear away from the plan to follow deeper kernels of the mind—little visions that offer new, more rousing avenues. To ensure that I follow the original plan set up so perfectly, I put myself under a sequence murder mystery—a “who done it,” which leads me with just the right morsels to bring me back at the right time of the hit. See what I mean?”
“Yeah, right.” Kaylen says to herself, feeling to laugh after hearing my ludicrous explanation, “So you purposefully trick yourself into an imaginary detective life to follow your own clues to wake you up at the time of—the deed, the hit?”
I mockingly clap with my fingers amid finishing the delicious rice pudding and proceed to impress even myself, “You use a memento to snap yourself out of it and as long as the stage is set as you set it before you go under, the hit goes off without a hitch. Before I put myself under the spell, I called him on his cell and told him that I was hired by you to take incriminating pictures of him for blackmail. When he called me back, as I subconsciously anticipated, I told him to meet me where you informed me, as we discussed, at the 13th Street trestle. He never even asked how I got a hold of his number. McCarran wasn’t the first and his sorry ass won’t be the last.”
At this point, Kaylen is just nodding her head in shock of so many things. With the completion of McCarran’s big karma coffin and my sharing of how I do what I do, I suppose anyone would be just as speechless. So, I finish our business, poking my hand under the table, “But this is the last you’ll see of me, Kaylen. I’ll take care of the tip and you just take care of yourself. Enjoy your Star Wars, Hunger Games and Harry Potter books. Your troubles are over.”
She slips me the rest of my dues in a lunch bag full of cash and I easily take it with me as I leave, knowing exactly how much is inside and how much tip I need to put down. Another customer made whole. Another bad soul stripped of life on this earth. And another play on my past to fulfill the present. It isn’t an easy thing to do, reliving my life’s most intimate enemies. My father’s shady superior, my mother’s sleazy boss and the goon I once called friend. They all suffered fates as God provided, but they receive worse in the rendition I play every time I need a clean kill. I may not be like other seers and clairvoyants and telepaths out there. I don’t claim to be. But my father was right about me before he even knew about me. The most dangerous man is a man that knows. And you know what? He’s right every time.