She laid there, mangled, beautifully arrayed on the ground before him. Her hair was black, ink-like in its tone, and it swirled in a hurricane around her head. She was covered in the day’s makeup. It ran down the length of her face, melted away by the tears, sweat, and struggle that prefaced her death.
There were bruises on her skin, all over her body, and just under her rib was a three-inch gash where the knife had entered. There was only a small amount of blood found beneath her wound, which indicated that the cut had been made postmortem. The bruises were the clue to her true cause of death, there’s a particular pattern that fingers make when squeezing the life out of another human.
Her shirt was ripped, the bra beneath cut open exposing her breasts. A sterile gauze pad had been placed over her chest in a feeble attempt to provide modesty. She was dead on the ground in front of him, the most vulnerable of states, what could modesty do for her now? He was glad for the gauze all the same.
Her green running shorts had been shredded, cut up the left side to the waist. It was done with a knife, surely the same knife that had caused the gash in her side. The cut cleaved the skin of her thigh, and judging by the amount of blood present, he knew she must have been alive for this one. The underwear beneath had evidently been ripped away. There was evidence of a struggle, but no damage to her organ. Usually in cases like these, ladies were all torn up. Huh… brave girl, Vincent thought with a smile, I hope you kicked his ass honey.
Lower, her legs were tangled, broken into an unnatural formation. There was a small round bump where her snapped femur tented the skin, and more knife wounds carved into her legs.
Both feet were bare, apart from her socks and the big toe of her left foot had been severed. Vincent carefully removed the crusted cloth to expose the wound beneath. The blood made it difficult to see, but Vincent noted the watermelon colored toenail polish that covered the tips of her other toes. Pretty color, he thought, scribbling some notes in his pad. Vincent knelt down to grab the grey sneaker sitting adjacent to the body, grateful for the chance to look away from the body for a moment. He studied the shoe, noticing that the match didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. She had, somewhere, lost one shoe, or else the killer taken it with him. Find that other shoe Vincent thought, making another note in his pad. Now that he thought of it, he realized the severed toe was gone too. Find the toe, find the killer, Vincent. Simple.
Jesus, he paused looking back at her, at the face where still lingered terror, she can’t be any older than Colleen. At that his stomach lurched, thinking of his only daughter suffering what this girl had… We don’t even know her name.
Vincent stood deciding to take a break outside. He was feeling faint and obviously confused, as he quickly realized he was already outside, standing in the middle of three plush green pine trees.
It was a small space, and dark though daytime. At night, Vincent knew this place would be completely invisible. Blocked on all angles, and thick with branches, there was no way to see into the cavern from the outside. It was a wonder they located her at all. He brought his thumb nail to his lips and said a silent prayer for the young, exploring girl who had found her.
Vincent heaved over and began to crawl under the branches, trying not to disturb the crime scene, but old age and arthritis made things harder than they used to be and he didn’t quite make it through. Needing to be free of the space, he frantically pushed at the branches bursting through the trees.
“Hey, careful there!” one of the officers shouted his way, playfully. Vincent shot him a glare full of anger, putting the young pup in his place. The officer quickly busied himself with some arbitrary task, wishing he hadn’t chosen that moment to try out being chummy with his higher ups.
Vincent walked to the evidence table set up a few meters away.
“Any updates on who she is?” Vincent asked hopefully. He had named her ‘The Runner’ when he first arrived at the scene, but after spending time with her, next to her, it felt too insensitive, too impersonal. She was human and he wanted to know her name, he needed to know her name.
“Nope,” said the tired, sun-drenched officer, “still Jane Doe.”
Damn, thought Vincent Damn.
Vincent sat, exhausted, at his desk. It had been a year since finding his Jane Doe and it seemed he had tossed and turned every night since. Sleep rarely came easily to him these days, but this was getting to be too much. It was the third night in a row Vincent hadn’t slept at all, and coffee was starting to have no effect. His legs felt heavy, his arms the same. He found that walking around had become particularly difficult, almost painful. His arms had somehow forgotten how to swing correctly, and it was throwing off his balance. He found himself bumping into things so often that he now had bruises in some strange places.
“You look like hell, Vinny,” his captain said. “Go home, take a nap, get some food in ya, fuck your wife, and remember how good it is to be alive. For Christ’s sake, your bringing the whole office down.”
Vincent hated when his captain called him Vinny. He had asked to be called by his full name several times since the beginning of his career, but the captain was adamant that employee nicknames boosted morale. Vincent wasn’t convinced as he had earned his title, ‘Vinny, the Poo’, as a junior officer, 30 years prior. He had been on patrol when an old man, in his underwear, had escaped the protection of his family and was yelling obscenities at people on Fifth Ave. When Vincent approached the man to ask some questions and take him home, the old man smeared his own feces on the front of Vincent’s brand-new blue jacket. His Captain, then just a sergeant, had laughed so hard that he couldn’t assist in subduing the gentleman, who had started to fight to get away from the police. Vincent broke one of the man’s ribs trying to hold him down, something he still felt great guilt over to this day.
“Yeah, Maggie’s been upset with me, trying to get me to take a vacation” Vincent responded.
In truth, Vincent’s wife, Maggie, had become increasingly concerned about him. She had noticed his inability to sleep as of late and had told him that previous to the insomnia he was waking her up at night, flailing around covered in sweat.
“They’re just bad dreams, Maggie” Vincent had tried to tell her. She gave him a skeptical, side-long glare and dropped the subject.
Vincent knew Maggie was worried. He had found some of the case files that he kept in the basement rummaged through. He found her in the kitchen one morning, preparing lunches for the kids. When he asked her about the moved materials, she glanced away, ashamed of her intrusion.
“Why do you keep all those pictures of her?” Maggie asked quietly trying not to sound offensive, “I thought that case was considered cold?”
Vincent shivered at the thought of Maggie seeing the disturbing crime scene photos. It hurt him to think of her keeping those images in her mind, haunting her in her sleep as they haunted him.
“WHY WOULD YOU GO THROUGH MY THINGS!” he yelled, not sure why his sadness had so suddenly turned to anger.
“I’m sorry,” was the only response that Maggie could give. She put down the knife she was using to cut up some watermelon and walked out of the kitchen.
Vincent stared at the knife lying next to the fruit. He stood to finish the job his wife had begun, but images began to swirl in his head. The shocked face, the black tangled hair, the carved legs, the missing toe with the watermel…
“Oww! Shit!” Vincent had been so lost in memory that he had cut deeply into his finger dripping blood on the melon he was chopping. Furious, he carried the fruit to the back door and threw it down, smashing it onto the hard wood of his deck.
It was another two years when a second death came across his desk. Another runner who had been overpowered in the night, taken behind a tree, brutalized, raped, and killed, the big toe of her left foot missing. Vincent demanded that he be put on the case. This is my chance, he thought excitedly, I’m finally going to get this bastard.
“Absolutely not, Vinny” his captain replied. “You had problems letting go of that last girl. The department doesn’t have the funds to see you in therapy three times a week again.” However, Vincent had insisted and in the end the captain had no choice but to relent. It was true that no one on the force knew the first case as well as Vincent did, and despite it being cold for over three years it seemed clear that not a drop of information had leaked from Vincent’s mind.
“Alright, alright,” the Captain said with a sigh, shaking his head, “Go get ‘em, but if I hear you’re starting to lose it, I’m pulling you.”
I won’t lose it, Vincent thought, this is my chance.
“The cases are clearly tied,” he told the woman sitting across from him, her legs piled neatly on top of each other. “The missing shoes, the missing toes for Pete’s sake! I know they are all connected, I don’t care what DNA evidence says!”
Vincent had stopped sleeping again. After another year, and a third killing, he was ravaged by night sweats and terrible dreams that felt more and more like reality each night. While he had not been present at any of the three murders, he was starting to visualize them intensely. He had studied the three cases thoroughly and had become intimately knowledgeable about the crimes.
Vincent had turned the boiler room of his basement into a second home office where pictures and notes were taped to every wall. Vincent didn’t tell anyone about this home office, or the documents he had wrongfully been scanning and taking out in his briefcase near daily. He made sure to keep this from his therapist, worried that she would tell his Captain, officially kicking him off the cases.
“I’m worried about you Vincent,” his therapist spoke softly, “have you gotten any sleep recently?”
Vincent thought before speaking, he had worked so long with convicts that he had almost perfected their ability to speak without incriminating themselves.
“No,” he sighed, choosing honesty, “not for a while now.”
The therapist uncrossed her legs and leaned in towards Vincent, gently placing her hand on his knee.
“I can’t help you Vincent if you don’t tell me what’s going on. The last two sessions, all we’ve been able to discuss is the case.”
Vincent shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He let his head fall chin to chest, allowing a small tear to fall onto her hand.
“Can you tell me about the dreams?” she continued. Vincent shook his head, refusing to make eye contact again until the session was over.
Ring, ring, Vincent’s home-office phone cried out. It was almost midnight and Vincent had just managed to catch a wink in his chair; but, now startled, he picked up the phone.
“Vinny,” his Captain’s voice was clear through the receiver. “Vin, I need you to come down to the station as soon as possible.”
“Another girl?” Vincent asked apprehensively. He wasn’t sure he could manage the life of another dead runner.
“Nah, Vin, even better. I’ve got a young lady down here who thinks she has your man.” Vincent was up and running before he could let the Captain know he was on his way.
She sobbed in front of him, forming puddles of tears on his desk.
“Is he a danger to me?” she managed to get out between whimpers.
Vincent offered the young woman a box of tissues.
“Let’s just start with why you think he might be our perp. Tell me why you’ve come in today.”
The young woman reached a slender arm into her bag. Vincent observed her, noting that she was young and petite like the others.
“Do you run?” Vincent asked while she was still searching for whatever was in her purse. “No,” she said softly, slightly confused “I’ve had too many knee surgeries to be a runner.” Thank God for that thought Vincent.
He watched her as she struggled to remove something from her bag. She looked nervous, anxious; as though whatever it was she was about to hand him would ultimately end a part of her world.
“I don’t think I can do this” the young woman said.
She pulled her arm out of her purse, empty-handed. Vincent understood, but was getting frustrated. Lack of sleep and the excitement of finding his killer had him agitated and he wanted to get this part over with as soon as possible. He knew that she knew who he needed to find, he just knew it. Even so, he made sure to keep his composure, this girl was a victim too, maybe even a witness if he was lucky.
“I know you want to protect him, honey, I know you do. This man, he’s your…?” “Boyfriend,” she said into the sleeve of her shirt. She was wiping away tears and snot, snorting a bit to catch what the sweater could not. “He’s my boyfriend, we’ve been seeing each other for almost two years.”
Vincent quickly ran through his timeline; the couple had begun dating sometime between the second and third murder. This could mean that she might remember something, odd behaviour, bloody clothes… something.
The two talked for hours before it became quite clear to Vincent that if this girl had truly found his killer, she had absolutely no knowledge of his evil deeds. So, what brought her here today?
The young woman twirled the straps on her leather bag until she found the courage to reach back in and pull out the reason for her visit.
“Here,” she said, placing a small Ziploc bag in front of Vincent. “This is how I know he’s the one you’re looking for.”
Vincent reached out to grab the bag, but upon recognition his fingers refused to grasp it. In front of him laid a small, shriveled big toe with a vibrant watermelon painted toenail.
“Confess.” Vincent said with a touch more whine in his voice than he had intended, he was tired of playing these games. They had arrested the young woman’s boyfriend two days ago, leaving him in a holding cell with the intention of loosening him up. The tactic hadn’t seemed to work, as Vincent had been interrogating him all day without any progress.
“He’s toying with you Vin” the Captain said plainly, pulling Vincent from the room. “Let someone else go in there for a while, give yourself a break.”
No, thought Vincent, this is my case, my kill. If anyone was going to get this fucker to talk, it was going to be him, and Vincent knew it. He walked back into the room, slamming his hand on the desk to wake the scruffy man who had fallen asleep at the table.
“Why are you keeping me here?” the man asked. “From the sound of it, you’ve got enough evidence to build your case. Why all this work for a confession? Sounds like something’s not as firm as you’d like.” The killer smiled. His teeth had large brown stains from the cigarettes he continuously asked for. They were otherwise straight, but his smile still gave him a greasy, evil look. Devil thought Vincent.
“Just trying to tie up some loose ends. See we’ve got witnesses th-”
“No, you don’t,” the killer interrupted, grinning. “If you did, I’d have been in a line up a long time ago.”
Now Vincent was truly losing his patience, he could feel his anger brimming, stretching his seams. It took almost all of his focus to keep from killing the man right then and there.
It was almost a year later, and Vincent sat in his chair. It was the same chair he always sat on, every single day. Vincent had not spoken to anyone in seven months, and before that his only words were just incoherent whispers. Vincent would spend long hours staring out the window. He liked the window, he liked the feel of the evening sun beaming down on his face.
Vincent didn’t see with eyes that saw, if that can be made sense of. He looked more in directions than at any one particular thing, and he never quite seemed to process what he was taking in. In truth, Vincent had turned so inward, fallen so deep into his pit, that a bomb could go off and he’d still be sitting there, in his chair, staring out the window.
“Vincent honey, we made dinner, let’s go to the kitchen.” Maggie took Vincent’s arm and lovingly wrapped hers around it. She led him into the kitchen where their daughter Colleen was sitting at the table. Colleen had moved back in with her parents after Vincent’s mental breakdown. She wanted to help with her dad and her two younger brothers, who were just graduating from high school. Besides, Vincent, at times, seemed to get agitated if Colleen was gone for too long.
Maggie sat Vincent in his favorite spot and made him a plate.
“The boys are at soccer, honey, just in case you are wondering why they aren’t here.” Maggie wasn’t sure how well Vincent could comprehend his environment, and since he no longer spoke, it made her feel better to sometimes help narrate his story. She felt it was making sure that if he was in there, worried or scared, he would be calmed by her filling him in. She was happy to do it, she loved him. He’s been through so much thought Maggie at least now he seemed happy.
“Knock, knock!” The Captain joked as he entered through the side door. “Just me.” The Captain had been increasingly present for dinner these days, and often stayed long after to sit with Vincent on the porch. Vincent liked the feel of the wind on his face too.
“How’s it going Vin?” The Captain said reaching down to place a hug on the silent man. This was their ritual, they did it every time. “Maggie” He said kissing her on the cheek, “Colleen”, he said squeezing her shoulder. “How’s was everyone’s day?”
The Captain sat in his truck after getting home that night. Dinner was good, he thought, Maggie’s getting better. He remembered Vincent saying once that he was the cook of the family, priding himself on his pulled pork tacos.
The Captain sank his head into his hands and started to cry. His cry grew incrementally until suddenly he realized he was punching the steering wheel. “FUUUUUUUUUCCCCCKKK” screamed the old man whose hand was now bruised and bleeding. He was beginning to feel like he was spinning. Breathe champ, he thought, breathe, you’re all right. But he wasn’t all right. In fact, he was worried that he was slowly going crazy. His thoughts drifted to Vincent, as they always did, and he began to replay the tape in his mind.
It took all his focus to not kill the man right then and there. Vincent forced himself to breathe, nice, even, and slow. He did not want this killer to see him begin to unravel.
“Tell me what happened the night of the murder,” Vincent said plainly.
“How could I know detective, I wasn’t there to see it.” His greasy smile had returned to his face, knowing there was no way the police had solid proof, he’d been perfectly careful.
“Confess,” Vincent said seething. He could feel something strange beginning to happen in his body, it was almost as if a part of him had lifted off the floor, hovering meters above his standing, angry body below. He knew he couldn’t go much longer, he needed to show him the one piece of evidence that connected him wholly to these crimes.
Vincent left the room and retrieved the small bag a terrified, young woman had trustingly put in his hands just days ago. He placed it in front of the killer, pointing the toe towards him so he could see the pretty color of the toenail. He picked up a number of pictures from the crime scene and shuffled through them. Finally, beside the toe he placed a photo of a foot, the foot of his first victim missing a watermelon colored big toe.
The scruffy man looked at the picture, then to the bag. He paused for a moment, then glared at Vincent. Vincent noted that the killer seemed to be in complete and utter surprise. The moment was fleeting, but Vincent could see the terror in the killer’s eyes, the recognition of defeat. He never thought he’d get caught, Vincent noted.
“Looks like you got me, cop” the murderer spat in disgust.
“Confess” said Victor, knowing that he finally had him. This is my win, he despaired, I’ve been waiting for such a long time.
To Vincent’s surprise, the man began to talk. He stared right at Vincent, barely peeling his eyes away for a second. Vincent was caught, entranced by the killer’s words. The killer picked up the toe and started at the beginning. He boast of how he had stalked her, watching her run through the park night after night. He told Vincent about one evening, when he dared to get a bit closer, he heard her breathing heavily, steadily, and under her breath chanting ‘You are strong, you are brave, you are mighty’.
“She used to run through the field to the baseball pitch,” he said with his greasy grin. “She would lay on the mound, staring up at the stars. She looked so little, all alone in that big open field.”
The killer told Vincent how she would pass by the three plush trees around 10:15pm, a perfect time to snatch her as most of the neighbors would be going to sleep.
“People are less likely to intervene when they are tired. Much more likely to pass the task to another, hoping that someone else will take care of whatever is the problem.”
Vincent up until this time had worked hard and done a fine job managing himself. He sat there, across from this criminal who had committed the acts he had dedicated the last five years of his life to studying, listening to him coolly discuss the murder of this young woman who had found her way into Vincent’s heart. The killer observed Vincent’s face. He could see that though he was putting on a calm demeanor, inside he was boiling.
“So, you grabbed her. Then what?” asked Vincent. Stalking was a few years in the rig at best, he needed a confession for the murder charge.
“You sure you wanna know what happened, cop man?” his grin returned. “You’ve been studying this, haven’t you? I’ve been your subject for years now. How many times have you wished for this moment? The one where you get to play bad cop, look me in the face, spit in my eye, and haul me away for murder, huh? How many times have you looked at these photos,” he slid Vincent the stash. “Do you keep them in your room? Under your pillow? Do you have them hanging in your basement, in a room only you get to go in?”
How did he know that? thought Vincent.
“You’re asking me a lot of questions, but you’re not answering mine. What happened the night of the murder?” Vincent turned on a recording device and spun it towards the killer.
“I grabbed this one by her pony tail. She managed to kick me in the balls before I was on her completely, I made her pay for that one.”
Vincent’s heart rate was increasing, and he was starting to find it difficult to take deep breathes.
“She freaked after I cut her leg, started flailing. I tried to get her underwear off, managed to grab a piece even, but she was fighting me so much I had to stop to break her leg. I remember her face paled when she felt the snap; she sure calmed down then.” The killer chuckled.
Vincent remembered the small bump on her leg where the bone had cracked and come up, but not through the skin. The thought sent an intense shiver up Vincent’s spine. His hands started to quiver, so he rang them in dis-ease.
The killer continued to talk in depth about the murders, pelting Vincent with grizzly details, without stop. Vincent began to shake. He glazed over for long moments at a time, small offerings of refuge for himself. He dazed in and out of the killer’s oration, the glorification of his gruesome atrocities. He was jumping between the three murders as easily as if he were reading a story. Vincent was hearing the words that confirmed all he had ever believed about the case and he was beginning to lose it.
“I couldn’t get her to shut up, she kept crying. I wasn’t afraid anyone would interrupt us, but it was giving me a bad headache, you know?”
Vincent could see the girl laying on her back, hoping, fruitlessly, that someone would come to save her. It was at that point when the room began to spin for Vincent. That small part of himself that had retreated to the ceiling, watching the scene from above, had returned to take more of him away.
“How ya doing cop man?” the killer sleazed seeing the sheen of sweat developing on Vincent’s forehead, “had enough yet?” In reality, Vincent had had enough. He needed to be removed from that room before any more damage could be done. But he stayed in his seat, listening to the animal before him. The one door in the room remained closed, no one was coming in to stop him, no one was coming to help Vincent.
Vincent knew that people were counting on him, that the justice for these girls depended on him. The pressure was killing his head, he found that forming words was becoming more difficult too.
“You wanna know what her last words were, cop man?”
The taunt was killing Vincent, he hated nicknames. More and more images flooded his mind. Vincent felt himself oscillate between the terror and hopelessness of the victim, to the rage and power felt by the perpetrator. The fluctuation almost made him sick. Vincent wanted so badly to put his hands over his ears, to stop listening to the vile spilling from this man’s mouth. He wanted to curl up on the ground, hugging his knees for comfort. He could hear a small voice in the back of his head; it was faint, but clear. ‘Help me’ she cried, the toeless runner in his mind, ‘help me.’ The voice repeated over and over, getting louder every time. ‘Help me, help me.’
“Help me, help me,” Vincent began to mumble. Vincent could no longer hear the words of the killer. In truth, the killer had stopped talking watching this grown man shrivel before him. He beamed at the effect he was having on Vincent, it was clear that he was driving the detective insane. Vincent realized that at some point, he had in fact curled up on the ground, that he was rocking himself quietly chanting “help me.”
“You’re absolutely right, cop man, her last words were ‘help me’.”
In the end, the man had confirmed that he was the culprit to all three murders and was led away for booking. Vincent had gotten the confession he had waited so long for, but at what price? He lay in the corner rocking, with his thumb pressed to his lips as though he were praying.
“What in the world is he muttering?” the captain looked on in horror at the scene. He had been watching from behind the two-way glass and had intervened when he saw Vincent fall to the floor.
A sergeant, who had once as a junior officer tried to playfully tease Vincent, walked over to the fetal man, and leaned down close so that he might hear.
“’Help me’. He’s saying, ‘help me’.”
The Captain hadn’t been able to stop this recording in his mind since it started, about three days after the confession. At first it was just flickerings: small things he had heard the killer say on the other side of the glass, Vincent going to the ground, rocking as he covered his ears like a child.
Later, full scenes came, long chunks of time where he watched his past-self stand by while a serial killer tormented his friend to insanity.
The Captain shook his head, running his hand through what was left of his hair. He stopped to massage a tense area that had been giving him a headache all week but found the muscle unwilling to budge under his tired fingers.
Maybe he deserved the headache. He was beginning to believe the small voice in his head telling him he was a terrible person.
‘Why didn’t I help my friend?’ the Captain thought, ‘Why didn’t I stop him, do something to protect him?’
These thoughts had been keeping him up at night. They chased him around in the daytime too, and he had started to find he wasn’t getting as much work done as he used to.
Others had realized this as well. In fact, earlier in the year, he had been reprimanded for letting a case go uninvestigated. He had placed the folder in his desk mistakenly and forgotten completely that it was there. His mind had been in other places these days and it was hard for him to find focus.
Everywhere he went, he thought of his friend. Thought of him sitting in his sad little chair; thought of his kids, hugging the shell of their father. He thought of the killer, of his eyes boring holes into Vincent’s mind, his evil smile ripping at the spirits of all who could hear his confession. The images got so bad, he had started to have dreams about them.