His Other Face
by Loren W. Cooper
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The day had faded by the time she made her way back out into the street. Long tails of gathering darkness stretched and coiled across every path. The weak winter sun went to his bed like an old man, bleeding feeble light. Sara walked briskly, keeping the chill at bay with deliberate energy, her mind slowly unwinding through loosening coils from the business of the day.
Negotiations and further negotiations; surfing the rising tide of Burns’ approval rating had turned out to be considerably trickier than she had anticipated.
She would use this to her advantage. She would do everything she could to make this country a better place, a place where a five-year old boy and a stray bullet had no opportunity to occupy the same space.
Her attention turned inward and on the past, she jumped as a hand fell on her shoulder from behind and another covered her mouth. She turned, leading with an elbow, and saw Richard dance cautiously back into the tight space between two buildings. “Easy! Damn, I forgot about those self-defense classes!”
Sara put her fists on her hips. “Richard, what are you doing?”
He held one finger to his lips, stepped back further into the alleyway, and beckoned for her to follow.
Sara frowned. She had known Richard for close to three years. She trusted him as well as she trusted anyone. At least, she had never seen him as a physical threat. But something about the situation made a chill run down her spine. For a single insane instant, she thought about running into the street, waving her arms and calling for help.
She brushed the thought away and followed Richard down the alley. He stepped back between two industrial sized trash bins, caught her arm, and pulled her into the narrow space with him.
Sara twisted, pivoting her arm against his thumb, breaking his grip, then poked him in the chest with one long finger. “Richard, what the hell is the matter with you?” He held up one hand, and she cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Don’t even think about touching me again.”
He bobbed his head, giving her a strangely tentative smile. “I’m sorry, Sara. But I needed to talk to you, and I didn’t want anyone to see—”
She snorted. “Sure, that was subtle.”
He winced at her sarcasm. “Don’t be mad, Sara. I need you to help me. I need you to keep something for me.” He reached into his coat pocket, paled, and began digging furiously through his clothing.
She frowned, leaned forward, and sniffed. His breath had a strong overlay of whiskey. The smell was stronger than she would have expected from Richard, but a sharper, sour smell lurked underneath the spirits. She rocked back on her heels as she realized that Richard was not simply drunk and playing games, as she had first assumed, but apparently drunk and thoroughly and deeply afraid.
“Oh, hell!” Richard wailed, nearly on the point of tears. “I’ve lost the damn thing!”
Sara frowned. “Lost what?”
Richard sagged against the wall, shaking his head. “My Pulitzer.”
Richard forced a smile. “Nothing much, Sara. Maybe nothing at all. Maybe the key to the murders.”
Sara stepped closer, her gaze suddenly sharp and unwavering. “What are you talking about?”
He covered his chin with one hand, staring at her silently.
“Richard,” Sara snapped, “you dragged me into this alley to talk to me. So talk to me.”
He chuckled hoarsely, rasping his hand nervously across the short stubble of his beard. “You have it wrong, Sara. I didn’t bring you here to talk to you. I wanted to give you something.”
“And you’ve lost it.”
He gave her the shadow of a quick smile. “You were never slow.” He dropped his head back against the wall and took a deep breath. “I thought I’d give it to you. For insurance. But now that it’s gone, I don’t know what to do.”
Sara shook her head impatiently. “Insurance from what? Richard, if you know who’s been killing all these people, why don’t you go to the police?”
“It’s not that, Sara. I can’t prove anything! The world’s gone crazy. I’ve been seeing...” Richard faltered. “I’ve heard things...”
Sara frowned. “You’re going to have to start making sense.”
He took a deep breath and gave her an uneasy smile. “Right. You know how long I’ve been working on this D.C. Ripper thing. Trying to find a connection...trying for an insight. Trying to beat everyone else to the answer. And I found the common thread. I found the pattern.”
Sara held up one hand. “Hold it right there, Richard. What pattern? All of the killings have been random. If they hadn’t been so uniformly brutal, they probably would never have been connected to a single killer in the first place.”
Richard shook his head, smirking. “The killings seemed random in the choice of victims. There are some characteristics the police haven’t told anyone, Sara. I’ve only found out a few things, and even my sources won’t or can’t give me details.
“The police always hold things back. Everyone knows that there was some scavenger damage on the first couple of bodies. I’ve heard it was worse than they’ve said. In every case there’s been enough animal interference that it’s giving the forensics people trouble with identifying what the killer used.
“Crime scene’s the same way, tracks all over the place. Rats, dogs, cats, birds. But none of that is the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I’ve been looking for the pattern that’s the key to the killer’s selection of victims. And I found it. This pattern wasn’t easy to see, but with enough digging I did come up with something plausible.
“You see, if you look at a map, the locations of the murders seems random. Even if you look at it over time, the pattern seems random. Background, sex, appearance, even income and social status didn’t lead to anything conclusive, though there are a few red herrings there. It’s mostly been street people, for example... but not exclusively.
“I spent quite a bit of time weeding through all that, just like the cops. But I kept on, looking back through their movements, tracing over each victim’s life, and I found that two out of eight had discovered one of the Ripper’s bodies. I dug further and managed to prove that four of the remaining six commonly went through the area where the previous murder victim had been found, and the fifth had a girlfriend his wife didn’t know about who lived not one block from where the body of the murder before his own had been found. Only the last murder didn’t have that kind of connection.”
Sara frowned. “What does that prove?”
“It doesn’t prove anything Sara, though it is the best pattern anyone has identified. What if this killer waited around to watch where he left the bodies? What if the Ripper picks his next victim from the crowd gathering to look at his last?”
Sara shrugged. “Fine. So what? Why not take it to the cops?”
He gave her a pitying look. “Right. So anyway, I needed to verify, so I started tracing the movements of the last victim. She had a habit, and feeding that habit took her right through the neighborhood where the last killing occurred. I found out who called in the police on the last one. I started tracking down possible witnesses. I wanted to find out who’d been at the last scene. Then I tripped over the body—”
Sara’s eyebrows shot up. “Body? Hold it right there. What body? You aren’t telling me that you removed physical evidence form a murder scene, are you?”
Richard grinned nervously. “I didn’t actually get close, after I saw the blood... so much blood, Sara. All this time spent on the trail, and I damned near tripped over the next body. Should have been a beautiful opportunity...
“Sara, the blood was still fresh... steaming. You know what I mean? The killer had to be close. If you want to know the truth, it scared the shit out of me. I mean, here I’ve been building this conjecture that he picks his next one from watching the scene of the previous killing, and be damned if I didn’t look like the first fool to come strolling into the scene of the next murder.
“I was trying to find a witness. I went around back of the house and there it was. I think the killer must have caught the guy at the back door, letting the cat out or taking out the garbage, and nailed him right there in the doorway. It looked like a slaughterhouse. I didn’t even think about that Pulitzer at that point. I mean, who said the killer had to wait, right? All I could think of was getting the hell out of there and lying low.
“I tripped and fell on my ass. When I went to push myself up, there was this ring under my hand. It looked old. It had these crazy symbols engraved around it. Not somebody’s wedding ring, you know? I picked it up, and looked up, and for a moment I saw someone standing at the edge of the house, and I just ran.
“I haven’t even been back to my apartment. I haven’t felt the same since that moment, almost as if something in that place has crawled into my soul, and I can’t shake it. I’m getting out of this damned town.”
Sara grabbed him by the collar, ignoring the sharp, cold smell of sweat that clung to him. “Richard, if you know something, go to the police. If you have evidence, or had it, tell them about it. Ask for protection. You’re a witness, Richard. If that someone you saw was the Ripper, then you’re the only person who’s been that close to him. Use that.”
He sagged. “Sara... I can’t. No one would believe me.”
“Who did you see, Richard?” Sara asked flatly.
He closed his eyes. “It was Burns. If it wasn’t, then Burns has a twin.”
“Like hell,” Sara snarled. “You’ve had this thing for Burns since he started making headlines.”
“See what I mean, Sara?” Richard asked bitterly. “Even you don’t believe me.”
Sara bit her lip. “I believe you saw someone. Maybe you saw someone big, like Burns, and blond. Think about it yourself, Richard. Conditions weren’t exactly ideal for making a reliable identification.”
He looked up, his face set in angry lines. “It was him, dammit! I got a good look at him.”
“That’ll make you points with the cops.” She leaned forward. “Go to the police, Richard. Describe what you saw. Don’t make any conclusions. Tell them about the ring you found.”
Richard shivered and drew his coat closer around him. “Maybe you’re right.”
“You bet I’m right. Go to the cops. You’ll be safest there. Sit back and let them catch this sick bastard.”
He pulled back slightly, into the shadows. Some of the desperation eased from his face. “Thanks, Sara, for listening.”
She watched him carefully. “You want a lift?”
“No,” he said. “No sense pulling you any further into this. I’ll make my own way.”
She watched him draw himself straighter, turn and thread his way back through the alley. She stood there for a moment, watching, and then walked back out into the street, toward the place where she had parked her car.
She thought about what Richard had said. She thought about the tone of the last confrontation between Richard and Burns and she wondered how long this idea of Burns as killer had been building in the back of his mind. Did he have more of a real foundation than she knew, or was it a natural outgrowth of a more personal hostility and resentment?
Sara did not doubt that Richard had seen something in that moment of shocked discovery, but she suspected that if Frosty the Snowman had been standing in that alley, Richard would have seen Burns in his place.
When she pulled away from her parking place, her thoughts still revolved around the mystery of a man’s mind, that drove him to the farthest extremes of blood and death, or let him see what he wanted in the face of every stranger, or even, she thought wryly, let him continue obliviously about his normal routines as if they contained the whole world, at least until the world stepped in to shock him to wakefulness.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Loren W. Cooper