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The Couples Killer

 

The Jamisons were killed in their bungalow, nestled in a tree-lined cul-de-sac.

 

The home betrays nothing of what happened within.  White siding, red shutters.  This is the kind of neighborhood where kids leave their bikes on the front lawn overnight and think nothing of it. 

As I approach the house, I catch the eye of a concrete goose sitting in the front garden –– the kind people pay money for so they can dress up their muddy bird-shaped rock.

 

He stares up at me, judging.

 

The front door is propped open to let the house air out. It’s redolent with death. My stomach does summersaults. I swallow hard to calm it. A Medical Examiner, just inside, sees me and twists open a small jar of Vapo Rub. 

 

“You’ll need this,” he says with a grim smile.

 

I grunt my thanks, sweep some onto my finger and paint the area just below my nose. The strong odor helps, but the smell of decay is still there, underneath, like the distant throb of a root canal being born.

I mount the cream-carpeted stairs, and note the double-handful of framed eight-by-tens on the wall; they’re all of the same couple, forties maybe. All taken in different cities, some foreign. They seem happy.

At the door to the master bedroom I am halted by a squadron of flies. I wave them away. The bodies, in the center of the room, aren’t hard to spot. She’s tied to the bed; he’s tied to a chair. My stomach reminds me they’ve been dead a while.

My partner is standing next to the bed speaking with the Chief Medical Examiner.  After a moment he notices me and walks over. 

He takes my hand with a stronger grip than usual.  “Josh.’” His eyes bore into mine. “Sorry to hear they passed you over for promotion again.”News gets around fast. “Dave, thanks. Don’t worry about it. I’m not.” It’s the nature of my work that I don’t get recognized for it. Choices; I made my peace with that long ago.

He nods in the direction of the man he was talking to. “You’ve met Pete Farraday,” he says to me.

“Yep.” Our eyes meet. Prick.

“Detective.” His tone is cold. He’s met me, too.

I don’t want to look at his pig face, so I focus on the half-melted mess that used to be people instead. I try to imagine what they looked like when they were still whole and happy. It motivates me.

Faraday fishes a banana out of his pocket. “Given the condition of the bodies, I’d say they’ve been toes-up three days. Maybe four.”

I feel my face grow hot. “You’re going to eat that here?”

“I didn’t have lunch.” He peels it and pops a piece into his mouth, his eyes not leaving mine. 

“For God’s sake, have some respect for the dead,” I say through clenched teeth.

“They don’t care,” he says with a shrug.

“I interviewed some of the neighbors,” Dave says quickly, looking from him to me. “No one saw anything unusual. And there was no sign of forced entry.”

Faraday chews, swallows. “Our boy’s right-handed.” He takes a step toward the body on the bed and gestures at the torso. “The blood spatter’s mostly on her left side, and she has multiple stab wounds to the chest, also on the left side.”

Dave points to the woman’s midsection. “Is that hole in her abdomen what I think it is?” The timbre in his voice says he already knows.

Farraday finishes the banana, balls up the peel, and shoves it in his coat pocket. “He removed her uterus and related organs—apparently, post-mortem. And before you ask, yes, Mr. Jamison was gelded. Everything appears to have been removed as a single piece.”

“The Couples Killer,” I say. “And looks like he raped her first this time.”

Dave flinches. “What makes you think so?”

“Just a hunch.” I gesture to the four ligature points. “This is the first time he’s left her tied this way—spread-eagled.” I walk the few steps to Mr. Jamison, turn, and view the bed from his perspective. “He made her husband watch the whole thing.”

Dave’s sigh is a strained whistle. “Maybe the rape will get us material for a DNA match.”

Farraday chuckles. “His habit of taking the vagina with him may make that difficult. But we’ll test the bedclothes anyway, for stains. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Dave’s face colors. “We’ll need to test for hair and fibers, too.”

“Naturally.”

“Let’s get a crew in here to fingerprint the master bath,” I say to Dave. “He must have bathed, brought a change of clothes . . . otherwise, he would have left the house looking like he worked in an abattoir.”

 

My cell buzzes in my pocket, and I pull it out; it’s Melanie. “I have to take this,” I tell them.

 

I retreat to the hallway. “Hey, Mel. You back yet?”

 

“Yep. Flight just got in.”

 

I hear the thrum of suitcase wheels keeping time with her steps. “How’d the book signing go?”

 

“Meh. The Penelope and her Magical Purple Puppy series doesn’t sell as well as it used to.”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

 

“My agent ripped my ass for it,” she says with more passion. “Said I’ve gotten lazy. I want to chop her up into little bitty bitchy bits.”

“You could always get a new agent.”

“I like my idea better.”

“You would.” I want to chuckle, but a fly plays chicken with my nose and reminds me of where I am.

She sighs. “So, I’ll be home in about an hour. You?”

I look at my watch. “I can make it.”

“Still on for dinner?”

“Abaddon’s at seven.”

“Good! See you at home.”

I close the call and return to the bedroom. “I need to go—call me if you find anything new. Otherwise, let’s pick this up first thing tomorrow.”

“You got it,” Dave says.

He follows me down the stairs. “Anything up?”

“No, just my anniversary today. Worst timing . . . but she’d kill me if I missed it.”

“Good on you,” he says when we reach the bottom. “How many is it?”

“Fifteen years," I say with pride.

He whistles,  then smiles. “What’s your secret?"

I shrug, not sure how much I can tell him. “Marriage is about compromise.” 

He returns the smile, but his face turns serious. “Think we’ll catch this guy?”

“He'll see justice,” I say with conviction.

“You said that about the others.” He rubs his chin, and continues. “Captain Crunch. The Coed Killer, the Fairview Ripper, the Heights Slasher, the Golem. Never caught.”

I’m not sure what I can tell him. “They stopped killing.”

His eyes drill into mine. “Josh, we have to get this one. I need this one.”

“We’ll do what we can. You know that.”

“I do,” he says, massaging his neck. “But, if we don’t catch him . . . I’m thinking of transferring out.”

And there it is. “Do what you have to.” He wants the pep talk. I don’t have it for him. 

His lips move as if trying out words. “I’m sorry,” he settles on.

I let him go. “You have nothing to be sorry about,” I say, trying to be reassuring. “You’re a better cop than you know. You have to do what’s right for your career.”

“Thanks,” he says, not reassured.

I look at my watch and turn to leave. “I really have to go.”

He calls after me. “Hey — why do they stop? Killing, I mean?”

“I don’t know,” I say, trotting to my car. “Maybe they fall in love.”

Traffic’s against me and it’s an hour before I get home. I find her suitcases are in the foyer.

I go upstairs to the bedroom. Melanie is in a sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist with a thin silver chain. “Hello, you,” she says, turning from touching up her makeup in the mirror. She kisses me on the lips, then pulls away, her nose wrinkled. “You smell of flies and Vapo Rub. Fun day at the office?”

I nod. “Compliments of the Couples Killer.”

Her eyes widen. “He’s been a busy boy. Four in the last three months.”

“I know.”

“You’ll have to shower.”

“I know.”

I take off my suit, throw it in my special hamper. The dry cleaning people probably think I have a thing for rolling in dead bird.

I get in the shower and scrub everywhere to get the scent off my skin. When I’m done, as I towel off, when I breathe a certain way I can still smell a hint of putrid flesh. Mr. and Mrs. Jamison will be guests of my sinuses for a while. I try not to think about it.

I walk out of the bathroom, and Mel’s still there, putting in emerald stud earrings. I like them because they match her eyes.

“Better?” I ask, and present myself. 

She sniffs me at my neck, and kisses me there to signal her approval, my pulse insistent against the lingering press of her lips. “Better,” she says with a loving smile, “but we’re late. We need to go.”

I dress quickly, and we head out. Dinner is good, but for me it passes in a blur; my real destination is the park next door to the restaurant. “Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask as we leave.

“Sure,” she says, with a funny smile.

It’s a moonless night, and it’s not long before the trees close in, and we are alone. She strides in the grass in her bare feet, her heels slung over her shoulder. Even the crickets are strangely quiet. We come to a pocket in the trees near a stream that is a black ribbon in the darkness. “You know where we are?” I ask.

“Of course I do,” she says and smiles. Her teeth gleam white in the dark.

“Here’s to fifteen years,” I say, and kiss her. She feels just like she did when I proposed, and I have as much trouble letting her go now as I did then. “I have a surprise for you.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“An anniversary gift.”

 

She pounces and half-frisks, half-tickles me, giggling. “You’re sly. I watched you dress. Where is it?”

 

I let her try for a minute, then tell her, “It’s not here, It’s at home.”

 

“At home . . . ?”

 

“It’s waiting for you in your craft room.”

 

Her mouth drops open. “No!"

“Yes,” I say, my excitement rising with hers.

 

“I can hardly wait!”

“Then let’s not, anniversary girl,” I tell her, and take her by the arm. “Shall we?”

She drags me back and kisses me, her mouth hungry on mine. “I will have you right now.” 

“What?” Despite my shock, I feel myself stirring. “Melanie … Mel! I’m a detective, for God’s sake. We can’t do this here!”

She undoes my belt, and I try to stop her, but she slaps my hands away. “You afraid the Couples Killer will get us?” Her voice is low, husky.

“You know that’s not it.” My resistance melts away quickly with her hands and mouth on me, as she knew it would. She has me. I could never resist her.

She tears her dress as she pulls me on top of her. I listen at first for voices — for footsteps, for anything—but soon I am lost with the feel of her, her smell, the whimpers she makes. Her nails flay my back as we peak together.

Afterwards, I kiss her, reveling in the softness of her lips. The breath from her nose teases the small hairs of my face.

I get up and start to put myself back together. She rolls languidly to her side, her dress still bunched about her waist, her head supported on her arm. “What’s the rush?” She pats the grass in front of her. “C’mere.”

“No. We need to go.”

“Why?”

“I feel kind of exposed.” I’ve never been much of an exhibitionist.

“Not anymore,” she coos, eyeing my closed pants.

“I also have to be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow,” I tell her, and adjust my tie.

She rolls her eyes. “You don’t really. Can’t you call in sick? It’ll be fun.”

“It’s my job, Melanie.”

“Okay,” she sighs. “You can be such a choir boy.” She sits up and offers her hands. “Help me up.”

I pull her to her feet, and she straightens her clothes as well as she can. She hums as we walk hand-in-hand to the car. Mel’s always been more of a free spirit than I.

It’s going on eleven when we get home, and my key has just turned in the lock when I hear a loud thump at the side of the house. I instinctively crouch and get my gun out. “Mel, get inside.”

“I’m sure it’s noth—“

“Get inside. Lock the door. Go.”

She shrugs and goes in. Our eyes meet through the rippled glass as the deadbolt slides home.

I use the bushes for cover as I approach the corner, and poke my head around. I see nothing out of the ordinary—just trees, a woodpile. I slide around the side, keeping low, gun pointed to the ground, checking for footprints in the soft earth. None human, but I find fresh deer tracks. I make it to the other side of the house. Nothing. I double back and check behind the woodpile.

Nothing.

I relax a bit. A deer must have hit the house and run off.

Mel screams from inside the house and my heart climbs into my throat. “Mel!”

I jump over the woodpile, race around to the front, and nearly knock myself unconscious on the steel door.

I told her to lock it.

My hands shake uncontrollably as I get out my key. I will it to get into the lock and turn, and throw my weight through. The house is silent and Mel’s nowhere to be found. “Mel! Mel?”

“I’m down here,” she calls from the basement.

I go down the steps as quickly as I dare. The room opens to the right, and on the other side, light spills from the door to her craft room. Someone is moving in there. 

“Mel?” No response.

I cross the dozen feet to the craft room. In my haste I don’t give my eyes time to adjust to the bright light. Someone rushes me and almost knocks me over.

I bring my gun up, and at the last second I realize it’s Melanie. She captures my head in her hands and kisses me. “I love you,” she says with fierceness.

“Jesus, I almost shot you," I scold her. "What was with the scream? I thought you were getting murdered.”

“Seriously, like that would happen,” she tosses off. “You know I can take care of myself. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I love what you got for me.”

“I thought you would.” Adrenaline’s still pounding in my veins, but I smile anyway. She’s happy as a little girl. That makes it all worth it. 

“Mind if I play now?”

“Go right ahead,” I say, and chuckle. “I assumed you would.”

By this time, the naked man on the morgue table has had a chance to get a good look at all of

Melanie’s craft tools on the walls: saws, picks, pliers, cordless drills. The rollaway table with the scalpels. He whimpers under the duct tape that binds his mouth, and I can see the tendons in his limbs strain as he struggles against the leather restraint cuffs. He can’t move an inch.

Melanie doesn’t like them to be able to move. It ruins her concentration.

She bends over him and caresses his cheek in a pantomime of tenderness. “Are you the Couples Killer?”

Unable to move or nod, his Adam’s Apple bobs his acknowledgement.

“I got him yesterday.  Too late to save the Jamisons,” I tell her. “He got a ride in my trunk.”

Her eyes have not left his. “We are going to have so much fun together.”

I turn to leave. She straightens and chooses a scalpel from the rollaway. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”

“No.” I shrug. “This is your thing.” 

“Suit yourself.” She rips the duct tape off, and he yelps from the pain. That tape has been on his lips for thirty hours. It took some skin with it.

She likes to hear them scream. The first is gratifyingly bloodcurdling, before it’s cut off by the soundproof door.

She’ll come up for meals, but he’ll keep her busy for days. The bits that aren’t still living she’ll feed to the industrial garbage disposal in the corner, which goes to our septic tank.

I smile to myself as I go back up the stairs. Fifteen years of happiness.

No one has ever suspected that Captain Crunch is a woman. She hates that name, but I tease her about it; her fate was sealed when she stuffed her first victim with the cereal. She thought it was funny at the time.

Whenever I start to feel bad about indulging her hobby, I remember that the people I feed her have destroyed lives. For these monsters, lethal injection brings no justice at all.

In my heart of hearts, I would like her to stop killing, but she can’t. She likes it too much. But she agreed to give up hunting, especially innocents, and that was huge for her.

Marriage is about compromise.

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