Read an Excerpt
I Hunt Killers
By Lyga, Barry
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Copyright © 2012 Lyga, Barry
All right reserved.
It was a beautiful day. It was a beautiful field.
Except for the body.use page from PDF
By the time Jazz got to the field outside town, yellow police tape was everywhere, strung from stake to stake in a sort of drunken, off-kilter hexagon.
The field was thick with cops—state troopers in their khakis, a cluster of deputies in their blues, even a crime-scene tech in jeans and a Windbreaker. That last one really impressed Jazz; the town of Lobo’s Nod was too small for its own official crime-scene unit, so usually the deputies handled evidence collection at the scene. The fact that they’d actually called in a real, live tech from two towns over—and on a Sunday morning, no less—meant they were taking this seriously. Some of the deputies were down on all fours, heads down, and Jazz was amused to see a guy with a metal detector just outside the crime-scene tape, slowly pacing back and forth. One of the staties had a cheap little digital video camera and carefully paced the perimeter of the scene.
And riding herd over all of it was Sheriff G. William Tanner, standing off to one side, fists planted on his love handles, watching as his command scurried around at his bidding.
Jasper “Jazz” Dent wasn’t about to let the cops see him. He belly-crawled the last fifteen yards through underbrush and tall grass, patiently making his way to a good vantage point. This part of the old Harrison farm had once been endless rows of soybean plants; it was now nothing but old bent and broken stalks, weeds, cattails, and scrub. Perfect cover, really. From here, Jazz could make out the entirety of the crime scene, helpfully demarcated by the yellow tape.
“What have we here?” Jazz murmured to himself as the videographer—about ten feet from the body—suddenly shouted out. Jazz was far enough away that he couldn’t make out the words, but he knew it was something significant because everyone immediately turned in that direction, and another deputy rushed over.
Jazz went for his binoculars. He owned three different pairs, each for different purposes, each a gift from his father, who had very specific reasons for giving them to his son.
Jazz tried not to think about those reasons. For now, he was just happy that he’d brought this particular set of binocs: They were Steiner 8x30 binoculars—waterproof, rubberized grip, weighed just a tad over a pound. But their real selling point was the blue-tinted objective lenses, which reduced glare and reflection to almost nil. That meant the enemy—or, for example, a group of cops just twenty yards away—wouldn’t catch a glimpse of the sun bouncing off the glass and haul you out of the woods.
Dust and assorted leftover plant pollens tickled Jazz’s nose and he caught himself just before he sneezed. When you’re prospecting, Dear Old Dad had told him, you gotta be real quiet, see? Most people’ve got little noisy habits they never think of. You can’t do them things, Jasper. You have to be totally quiet. Dead quiet.
He hated most things about Dear Old Dad, but what he hated most was that Dear Old Dad was pretty much always right.
He zoomed in on the statie with the video camera, but the others were crowding around, making it impossible for him to see what had so excited everyone. Jazz watched as one of them held up a small plastic evidence bag, but before he could adjust to focus on the bag, the cop brought his arm down and the bag vanished behind his thigh.
“Someone found some evidence.…” Jazz chanted under his breath, then bit his bottom lip.
Most of these guys, they want to get caught, Dear Old Dad had said on more than one occasion. You understand what I’m saying? I’m saying most of the time, they get caught ’cause they want it, not ’cause anyone figures ’em out, not ’cause anyone outthinks ’em.
Jazz wasn’t doing anything wrong, lying out here on his belly, watching the police process the crime scene, but getting caught would probably mean being taken away, and possibly a stern lecture from G. William, and he didn’t want that.
He’d been at home earlier that morning, his bedroom door shut tight against one of his grandmother’s periodic rants (they’d been getting worse and more frequent), when the police scanner had soberly announced a code two-two-thirteen: An abandoned body had been found. Jazz had grabbed his pack—already stocked with everything he needed for a stakeout—and climbed down the drainpipe outside his window. (No point running into Gramma in the hallway and being delayed by her raving.)
A body was nothing new in Lobo’s Nod. The last time bodies had turned up, Jazz’s life had turned upside down, and it still hadn’t righted itself. Even though it had been years since those days and everyone had packed that time away, there were still times when Jazz feared his life would never be right side up again.
As the cops clustered around G. William, Jazz refocused on the body. As best he could tell from so far away, there was little in the way of serious trauma—no obvious knife or gunshot wounds, for example. Nothing major jumped out at him, but he didn’t exactly have the best vantage point.
He was reasonably certain of two things: It was a woman, and she was naked. Naked made sense. Naked bodies were tougher to identify. Clothes told you all sorts of things about a victim, and once you identified the victim, you were one step closer to identifying who made that person a victim.
Anything that slows them down—even if it’s just by a few minutes—is a good thing, Jasper. You want them nice and slow. Slow like a turtle. Slow like ketchup.
Through the binocs, he watched as G. William mopped sweat from his forehead with a checkered handkerchief. Jazz knew from experience and observation that the handkerchief had been embroidered gwt years ago by the sheriff’s late wife. G. William had a dozen of the snot rags, carefully laundered and cared for. He was the only man in town—probably the only man alive—who had his handkerchiefs professionally dry-cleaned.
The sheriff was a good guy. He came across as a sort of parody of himself when you first met him, but underneath that BBQ-infused gut and floppy, dishwater-colored mustache was some serious law-enforcement genius, as Jazz knew from personal experience. Tanner ran the entire county’s sheriff’s department from his office in Lobo’s Nod, and he’d earned the respect of not just the county, but the entire state. Heck, the staties didn’t send a guy out to videotape a field for just anyone. Tanner had pull.
Jazz swept his binocs over a bit and caught a glimpse of the evidence bag as G. William held it up in the sunshine. For a heart-stopping instant, he was sure what he saw in the bag couldn’t be for real. But the sheriff’s stance gave Jazz a perfect, binocular-enhanced view of what it held.
And that made Jazz’s heart pound so hard he thought Tanner would hear it from where he stood. A body in a field was one thing. It happened. A drifter. A runaway. Whatever. But this…This portended something new. Something big. And Jazz had a sinking feeling that people would be looking at him with accusation in their eyes. Only a matter of time, they would say. Had to happen sooner or later, they would say.
So he started running down possible alibis. From the relatively pristine condition of the body, he was comfortable guessing the woman had been killed sometime in the past six hours…and he’d been home in bed all night…with Gramma the only other person in the house. Not the world’s most reliable witness.
Connie. Connie would lie for him, if necessary.
This thought went through his mind for a fleeting second, but was interrupted almost immediately by the sound of a vehicle trundling up the grade.
The field was almost level, but not entirely. While it was flat where the body had been found, it sloped gently down about a hundred yards to the south, and also climbed a bit more steeply maybe twice as far to the north. The vehicle coming up the road from the south was a beat-up Ford station wagon from back when they used to put lead in gasoline. lobo’s nod medical examiner was stenciled professionally if a bit pretentiously on the door. That meant…
Sure enough, as Jazz watched, two cops approached the corpse with a body bag hanging limp between them. The preliminary crime-scene examination was done.
Jazz watched as a tech carefully wrapped the corpse’s head, then did the same to the hands and feet.
Always check the hands and feet, Dear Old Dad whispered from the past. And the mouth and ears. You’d be surprised what gets left behind.
He blinked away the voice and watched them maneuver the dead woman into the bag and zip it shut. As he focused on the struggle with the body bag, something caught his attention from the corner of his eye. He tried to ignore it. It was the kind of thing he didn’t really want to notice, but he couldn’t help it. Once he’d seen it, it wasn’t something he could just unsee.
There was one cop in particular, standing off to the side. Not so far from the body that anyone would doubt he was a part of the crime scene, but far enough that no one would ask for his help with anything. He just stood there, and to anyone else observing, this cop would appear to be keeping out of the way, trying not to interfere.
Jazz thought he knew all of the Lobo’s Nod cops on sight, and even most of the guys from the surrounding towns. This guy was wearing a Lobo’s Nod uniform, but he was a stranger.
And he was ready. That was the only way Jazz could describe it: Ready. Vulnerable. Easy. He was fidgeting just a bit, two fingers on his left hand idly toying with a rough patch of scuffed leather on his gun belt, near the canister of Mace.
He would be easy to take down. Despite his training. Despite his gun and his Mace and his baton. Jazz could more than imagine doing so—he could see it right through the binoculars as if it were happening.
Jazz could read people. It wasn’t something he worked at; it was just as natural as breathing. It was as ordinary as reading a billboard on the highway: You don’t really think about the billboard; you just notice it and your brain processes it, and that’s that.
He closed his eyes for a long moment and tried to think of Connie, of the two of them tangled together at the Hideout. Tried to think of playing basketball with Howie. Tried to think of his mother, of the last thing he could remember about her before she’d disappeared. Tried to think of anything—anything—other than how easy it would be to approach this cop…
Put him at ease, seduce him into complacency, and then…
Go for the belt. The Mace. The nightstick. The gun.
It would be so easy.
It was so easy.
Jazz opened his eyes. The body was in the station wagon. Even from this distance, he heard the doors slam.
Jazz wiped sweat from his forehead. G. William was picking his way carefully down the grade, toward the road and his car. The rest of the cops were staying on the scene for now.
The evidence bag. Jazz couldn’t stop thinking about it. About what he’d seen inside it, actually.
A severed human finger.
Jazz backed up out of the brush and carefully made his way back to his Jeep, which he’d concealed along an old dirt path that cut through the Harrison property.
Jazz would go to G. William. He had to go. To see the body. He would confront his own past and see what impact it had on him. If any. Maybe it would have no impact. Or maybe it would have the right kind of impact. Prove something to the world, and to himself.
A body was one thing. That finger, though…That was new. He hadn’t expected that. It meant…
Bouncing along now on the nearly nonexistent shocks in his father’s old beat-up Jeep, he tried not to think of what it meant, even though the finger hovered there in his imagination, as though pointing at him. It’s not that he’d never seen a dead body before. Or a crime scene. Jazz had been seeing those for as long as he could remember, thanks to Dear Old Dad. For Dear Old Dad, Take Your Son to Work Day was year-round. Jazz had witnessed crime scenes the way the cops wished they could—from the criminal’s point of view.
Jazz’s dad—William Cornelius “Billy” Dent—was the most notorious serial killer of the twenty-first century. He’d made his home in sleepy little Lobo’s Nod and, for the most part, kept his nose clean while in town, adhering to the old adage “Don’t crap where you eat.” But eventually time had caught up with Billy Dent. Time, and his own uncontrollable urges. Even though he was a masterful murderer, having killed into the triple digits over the previous twenty-one years, he eventually couldn’t help himself. Two Lobo’s Nod bodies later, G. William Tanner tracked Billy down and cuffed him. It was a sad and ignominious end to Billy Dent’s career, caught not by some FBI doctorate with a badge and the might of the federal government behind him, but rather by a local cop with a beer gut and a twang and one decent police car.
In fact…Maybe Dear Old Dad was right. Maybe all those guys—including Billy Dent—wanted to get caught. Otherwise, why hunt at home? Why crap where he ate?
Jazz pulled into the parking lot of the sheriff’s office, a low, one-story cinder-block building in the center of town. Every election year, some town selectman or county commissioner would run on a promise to “beautify our dour, grim center of law enforcement,” and after every election, G. William would quietly divert the money to better equipment and higher salaries for his deputies.
Jazz liked G. William, which was saying something, given that he’d been raised to respect but despise cops in general, to say nothing of the cop who finally put an end to Billy Dent’s legendary multidecade career of death and torture. Ever since arresting Dear Old Dad four years ago, G. William had kept in touch with Jazz, almost as if he felt bad for taking away Jazz’s father. Anyone with any sense could see that taking away Dear Old Dad was the best thing that had ever happened to Jazz. Poor old G. William and his old-fashioned Catholic guilt.
Occasionally, Jazz would confide in G. William. Things he’d already told Connie and Howie, usually, but could use an adult perspective on. Two things remained unspoken between them, though understood: G. William didn’t want Jazz to end up like Billy, and Jazz didn’t confide everything.
Just about the only thing Jazz didn’t like about the sheriff was his insistence that everyone call him “G. William,” which constantly made the speaker sound surprised: “Gee, William!”
Inside the station, Jazz nodded to Lana, the secretary/dispatcher. She was pretty and young and Jazz tried not to think about what his father would have done to her, given the chance.
“Is G. William in?” he asked, as if he didn’t know.
“Just blew through here like a tornado,” Lana said, “then blew straight back.” She pointed to the restroom. G. William’s bladder couldn’t stand being away from the office for too long.
“Mind if I wait for him?” Jazz said as calmly as he could, as though he weren’t itching to get into that office.
“Help yourself,” she said, waving him back toward G. William’s office.
“Thanks,” he said, and then—because he couldn’t help it—he gave her the full-on megawatt smile. “The Charmer,” Billy had called it. One more thing passed down from father to son.
Lana smiled back. Provoking her into a smile was no challenge.
The office door was open. A sheet of paper lay on the desk in the cone of sickly yellow light coming from an ancient lamp-shaped pile of rust. Jazz darted a glance over his shoulder, then flipped the paper around so he could read it. preliminary notes, it read at the top.
“—to lab for pos. ID—”
The jangle of handcuffs and G. William’s heavy tread alerted him. He flipped the page around again and managed to step away from the desk before the sheriff came through the door.
“Hey, there, Jazz.” G. William positioned himself behind the desk and put a protective hand on the preliminary notes. He was no fool. “What can I do for you? A little busy right now.”
Excised digits, Jazz was thinking. Digits, plural. Not singular. He’d seen only one finger in the evidence bag.
You’d need a knife. Not even a good one. Just sharp. Get between the lesser multangular and the metacarpal—
“Yeah,” Jazz said, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Body in the Harrison field.”
G. William scowled. “Wish someone would outlaw police scanners.”
“You know how that goes, G. William,” Jazz said lightly. “If you outlaw police scanners, only outlaws will have police scanners.”
G. William cleared his throat and sat, causing his ancient chair to complain. “Really am kinda busy. Can we banter another time?”
“I’m not here to banter. I want to talk to you about the body. Well, really, about the killer.”
That earned him a raised eyebrow and a snort. G. William had a massive, florid nose, the sort of bulbous schnoz usually seen on heavy drinkers, though G. William rarely, if ever, touched booze. His nose was a combination of pure genetics and thirty-five years as a cop, being hit in the face with everything from fists to gun butts to planks of wood. “You know who the killer is? That’s great. I’d love to go home, watch football like a citizen.”
“No, but…” Jazz didn’t want to admit that he’d been spying on the crime scene or that he’d read G. William’s notes, but he didn’t have a choice. “Look, a dead body is one thing. Excising multiple digits is—”
“Oh, Jazz.” G. William slid his sheet of paper closer to himself, as though by taking it away now he could somehow erase Jazz’s memory of reading it. “What are you doing? You need to stop obsessing about this stuff.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one everyone thinks is gonna grow up to be Billy Dent, the sequel.”
“No one thinks—”
“Plenty of people do. You don’t see the way people look at me.”
“It’s in your head, Jazz.”
They gazed at each other for a long moment. There was a pain in G. William’s eyes that Jazz figured to be as intense as his own, though of a different flavor.
“Dead female Caucasian,” Jazz said in a clipped voice. “Found at least two miles from anywhere in any direction. Naked. No apparent bruising. Missing fingers—”
“You get all of that from here?” G. William waved the paper in the air. “You didn’t have that much time to look at it.”
Busted. He’d revealed too much. Even knowing that G. William was savvy, Jazz had still tipped his hand too soon.
Oh, well. He would probably have to admit this, anyway.…
Jazz shrugged. “I was watching.”
G. William slammed a fist on the desk and swore out loud. Something about that mustache and those big brown eyes made the swearing incongruous—Jazz felt like he’d just seen a nun do a striptease. G. William’s bushy mustache quivered.
“You know how I grew up,” Jazz said, his voice low and thick as they stared at each other across the desk. “The rumpus room. The trophies. It was my job to keep them organized for him. I understand these guys.”
These guys. Serial killers. He didn’t have to say it out loud.
G. William flinched. He was intimately aware of the details of Jazz’s upbringing. After Billy and Jazz (and Jazz’s missing mother), G. William knew the most about what growing up with Billy Dent had been like. He knew more than Gramma. More than Connie, Jazz’s girlfriend. More than Melissa Hoover, the social worker who’d been messing with Jazz’s life ever since Billy’s arrest. Even more than Howie, the only kid Jazz truly thought of as a friend. It had, after all, been G. William who’d found Jazz that night four years ago, the night Billy Dent’s reign of terror ended. Jazz had been in the rumpus room (a converted pantry in the back of the house, accessible only through a hidden hatch in the basement), doing as his father had commanded: gathering up the trophies so that they could be smuggled out of the house before the cops searched the place.
It should have been an easy task—Billy didn’t take large or complicated trophies. An iPod from one, a lipstick from another. The trophies were well organized and easily portable. Still, G. William got there before Jazz could finish. And Jazz truly didn’t know if he would have followed through with his father’s orders. He’d spent his childhood obeying his father’s every command, but as Billy Dent had become more and more erratic—culminating in the two Lobo’s Nod bodies—Jazz had begun to shake off the chains his father had bound him with.
And so he had stood there with all but one of the trophies in a large backpack, staring at the last one, the driver’s license of Heidi Dunlop, a pretty blond girl from Baltimore. And in that moment, Jazz had felt like he’d woken up for the first time in his life, as if everything else that had happened to him had been unreal, and now he was about to make his first and only true decision. As he tried to decide whether he would hide the trophies…or run and hide himself…or turn them over…fate took the decision out of his hands in the form of G. William, who came up through the hatch, puffing with exertion but pointing what looked like the biggest goddamn pistol in the entire universe right at Jazz’s thirteen-year-old junk.
“Let me help you,” Jazz insisted now. “Just let me look at the file. Maybe a few minutes with the body.”
“I’ve been doing this for a while. I don’t need your help. And it’s a little early to go barking ‘serial killer.’ You’re jumping the gun, kid. Serial killers have to have at least three victims. Over an extended period of time. This guy has one.”
“There could be more,” Jazz insisted. “Or there will be more. These guys escalate. You know that. Each victim is worse. And they experiment. Cutting off the fingers…You just have to look at things from his perspective.”
The sheriff stiffened. “I did that with your dad. I didn’t like doing it then. Don’t like the thought of it now.”
Finding Billy Dent had taken its toll on G. William, who had still been grieving for his recently deceased wife when the first of the Lobo’s Nod bodies showed up. He’d thrown himself with an obsessive fervor into tracking and catching Billy Dent, and while he’d succeeded, his sanity had almost been another of Billy’s victims. Jazz remembered the expression on G. William’s face when the sheriff had come up through the rumpus room hatch, that huge revolver pointed at him. With all he’d seen in his life—the bodies, the trophies, what his father had done to poor Rusty—very few things could haunt Jazz, but the look on the sheriff’s face that day was a regular star in Jazz’s nightmares. He’d never seen a man so utterly despondent and devastated, the gun steady as a rock even though the big man’s lips trembled when he shouted, “Drop it! Drop all of it! I swear to Christ I’ll shoot you!” in a high lunatic’s falsetto. G. William Tanner’s eyes had seen too much; if that night had not ended Billy Dent’s career, Jazz was certain that the next day would have seen G. William dead by his own hand.
It had been four years since then; G. William still saw a therapist every month.
Now G. William stroked his mustache with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. Jazz imagined cutting off that forefinger. It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt G. William. It wasn’t that he wanted to hurt anyone at all. It’s just that he couldn’t. Stop. Thinking about it. Sometimes he felt like his brain was a slasher movie set on fast-forward. And no matter how many times he jabbed at the Off button, the movie just kept playing and playing, horrors assaulting him constantly.
For him, imagining cutting off that finger was an academic exercise, like a calculus problem at school. It wouldn’t take much strength. An easy trophy. What did that mean about the killer? Did it mean he was weak and scared? Or did it mean he was confident and knew it was best to take something quickly?
If G. William knew the thoughts that came unbidden to Jazz’s mind, he would…
“Let me help,” Jazz begged. “For me.”
“Go home, Jazz. Dead woman in a field. Tragic, but nothing more.”
“But the fingers! Come on. That’s not a woman who stumbled out there naked at night and fell and hit her head. That’s not Joe-Bob McHick smacking around his girlfriend and then leaving her to die.”
“We already had one serial killer in this town. Be a hell of a coincidence to have another one, don’t you think?”
Jazz pressed on. “At any point in time, it’s estimated there’s something like thirty to forty serial killers active in the United States.”
“I think,” G. William said, sighing, “that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me, and you’re not helping any. We’ll figure this body out, along with all the other usual junk we have to do around here.” He gestured for Jazz to leave.
“You’re at least treating this as a reportable death, right?”
“Of course I am. I’ve got the medical examiner coming in first thing tomorrow morning for a complete autopsy, but Dr. Garvin is doing a quick work-up today. A woman’s dead, Jazz. I take that very seriously.”
“Not seriously enough to be going over the crime scene with tweezers. Or to cut down the vegetation to look for clues. Or to—”
G. William rolled his eyes. “Give me a break. What do you think this is? What kind of resources do you think we have here? I had to call in the staties and deputies from three towns over to do justice to that scene.”
“You should be looking at bugs and soil samples, and I didn’t see anyone casting footprint molds, and—”
“There weren’t any footprints,” G. William said, exasperated. “And the other stuff…We have to contract out to the state for forensic odontology, for botanical services, for anthropology and entomology. We’re a small town in a small jurisdiction. Stop comparing us to the big boys. We’ll get the job done.”
“Not if you don’t know what the job is in the first place.”
“A serial killer,” G. William said, skepticism dripping from every syllable.
“How did you find the body?” Jazz asked, desperate for something that would prove his point. “You didn’t trip over it out there. Was it an anonymous call? If you got a call, that’s totally a serial killer making sure you see his handiwork. You know that, right?”
He’d gone too far—G. William could take a lot of abuse, but he didn’t cotton to condescension. “Yeah, Jazz. I know that. I also know that serial killers like to stick around and watch the cops work.”
The words slammed Jazz full in the chest, no less powerful and painful than if G. William had drawn his service revolver and put two slugs into his center of mass. Jazz was afraid of two things in the world, and two things only. One of them was that people thought that his upbringing meant that he was cursed by nature, nurture, and predestination to be a serial killer like his father.
The second thing…was that they were right.
And with the discovery of this new body, who could blame them? The odds of two separate serial killers picking a tiny town like Lobo’s Nod were beyond astronomical, so far beyond that it didn’t even bear serious consideration. Billy Dent was locked up. Thirty-two consecutive life sentences. The joke around town was that he wouldn’t even be eligible for parole until five years after he was dead. He was on total lockdown—twenty-three hours a day in a five-by-eight cinder-block cell—and had been since the moment he set foot in the penitentiary. He’d had no visitors other than his lawyer in that whole time.
When the original devil couldn’t do the crime, who did you look at next? His son, of course. If Jazz didn’t know for certain that he wasn’t involved in this murder, he would have pointed the finger (ha, ha) at himself. It made complete sense that the son of the local serial killer would kill someone. But just because it made sense didn’t make the thought any easier to bear.
“Th-that,” he stammered, “is over the line. I learned a lot from Billy, and I can use that to—”
“You go skulking around a crime scene, spying on me and my people. You march into my office and violate my privacy by reading my personal notes,” G. William said, ticking points off on his fingers as he went. Jazz couldn’t help thinking of the severed finger in its pristine plastic evidence bag, just sitting there like leftovers. “I could probably bring you up on some kind of charge, if I wanted to take five minutes to think about it. Demanding I let you in on a case, which would be highly improper, even if you weren’t a kid, and even if you weren’t Billy Dent’s kid.” He had lost track of the counting—his whole right hand was splayed out. “All those reasons, Jazz, and plenty more. All of them say I won’t let you help out.”
“Come on! You bring in experts all the—”
“You’re an expert all of a sudden?”
Jazz leaned in and they met over the desk, almost bumping into each other. G. William’s mustache and jowls quivered.
“I know things,” Jazz said in his strongest voice.
“You know too much and not enough,” the sheriff said, so softly that it caught Jazz off-guard.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying”—deep breath—“you learned a lot from him, but you want to be careful you don’t act too much like your daddy, now don’t you?”
Jazz glared at him, then wheeled around and stomped out of the office, slamming the door behind him as he went.
“Let me do this my way!” G. William called through the closed door. “That’s my job. Your job is to try to be normal!”
“Um, Jasper,” Lana said nervously as he flew past her desk. “Uh, good-bye?”
He didn’t even realize he’d ignored her until he was next to the Jeep, seething. He kicked the bumper with the flat of his foot; it complained with a metallic, grinding squeal and threatened to drop off.
I’ll show you what I learned from my father, he thought.
Whenever Jazz needed to do something risky or vaguely illegal, he made sure to bring Howie along. This did not endear him to Howie’s parents, but if Jazz wanted to stay as human as possible, it was necessary: Howie kept Jazz close to the line of safety and legality. That’s because Howie was Jazz’s best (and only) friend. And also because Howie was so fragile that Jazz had to hold back in his presence.
Howie Gersten was a type-A hemophiliac, which meant that he bled if you looked at him too hard. The two had met when they were younger, when Jazz had come across Howie being tormented by a trio of older kids who weren’t quite stupid enough to cause any serious harm, but who reveled in poking at Howie’s exposed arms, then chortling over the bruises that blossomed almost immediately. Howie’s arms had taken on an almost lizardlike appearance, with overlapping bruises of blue and purple that looked like scales.
Jazz had been smaller than the other kids, younger, and they outnumbered him three to one, but even then—at the age of ten—Jazz had a rudimentary understanding of some of the more important weak spots in the human body. He’d sent the older kids packing with their own fine collection of bruises, including a couple of black eyes and fat lips, as well as one knee sprained just right—it would plague the kid for months. For his troubles, Jazz earned himself a bloody nose and an undying, unstinting friendship.
And the kind of friend who would come along when you had to break in to a morgue.
The police station was open twenty-four hours a day because it was a nerve center for the county’s law enforcement efforts. But at night, many hours after Jazz had left in a huff, it was just a skeleton crew, consisting of a deputy on duty and a dispatcher. Lana was still at the desk, having pulled the night shift. Jazz knew that would make this easy. Lana thought he was cute. She was right out of high school and he was a junior, so only a couple of years separated them.
“I’ll distract Lana,” Jazz told Howie, “and then you work your magic.”
“You sure you can keep her occupied?”
Jazz rolled his eyes. “Puh-lease.”
“The ladies love bad boys,” Howie said, striking what was supposed to be a tough-guy pose. “Gotcha. I will be your magic trick. Misdirection!” He waggled his fingers. “Abracadaver! Get it?” he added as they headed for the door. “Abracadaver? Get it?”
Jazz sighed. “I got it, Howie.”
Together, they walked into the police station, which was quiet this late at night. Lana looked up, then grinned a wide grin when she saw Jazz.
“Hi there!” she chirped.
Jazz sauntered over to her cubicle and leaned on the half-wall with both elbows. “Hi, Lana.”
“What brings you back?” she asked, her eyes very wide and earnest. This was going to be way too easy. “You stormed out of here before.”
“I just wanted to—”
Just then Howie came up to them, clearing his throat. “Okay if I get a Coke?” he asked, pointing to the back corridor, where an ancient Coke machine loomed large.
“Go ahead,” Lana said, not even flicking her eyes in his direction as he walked past them.
“I just wanted to apologize for the way I went out of here before,” Jazz said, pretending to give Lana all his attention. He cranked up the wattage on his smile. “I didn’t even say good-bye to you.”
As he chatted with Lana—who assured him that his apology wasn’t necessary, all the while lapping it up—Jazz watched Howie head for the second desk in the row behind Lana. He looked up at Jazz, who nodded quickly. Howie opened the top desk drawer, fished around, then closed it. A moment later, he rejoined Jazz at Lana’s cubicle.
“Done,” Howie said.
“Well,” Jazz said to Lana, “I guess we have to go. School tomorrow, you know. But I just knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t say something to you.” Another big smile.
Howie and Jazz were almost to the door when Lana called out, “Hey, Howie, I thought you were getting a Coke?”
Jazz shot a glare at Howie, who shrugged meekly. “Turns out I don’t have any change.”
They got outside before Lana could say anything more. “You’re an idiot,” Jazz told him.
“And yet, I recover well.” He dug into his pocket and produced the block of wax Jazz had given him earlier. “Still an idiot?”
“Yes,” Jazz said, grabbing the wax. In it was a perfect impression of the morgue key Howie had found in the desk drawer. “Just somewhat competent. Let’s go.”
Making a duplicate key from a wax impression was an extremely useful skill to have if you were the sort of person who liked invading other people’s homes and killing them. Billy Dent felt it was important for Jazz to know how to do this, and for once Jazz was grateful for Billy’s lessons. It didn’t take long before he’d turned Howie’s wax block into an actual key—he had a selection of blanks and cutting tools that Billy had given him on his eleventh birthday. Match up the right blank with the wax impression, then file away everything that isn’t in the right place until the notches fit the wax. Simple. He’d been practicing most of his life, after all.
The police station abutted the Giancci Funeral Home on one side, the two buildings joined by the briefest of outdoor corridors. The Lobo’s Nod morgue was half the basement of the funeral parlor.
With Howie at his side, Jazz strode into the morgue like he lived there, flicking on one of the overhead lights to bathe the place in cold white light. Because there were no windows to the outside, he and Howie would be able to mill about with confidence.
“We need to move quickly,” Jazz said. “There’s a rent-a-cop who comes by every hour.”
Howie craned his neck, gawking. “This place is nothing like on CSI.”
“What did you expect?”
“I guess I expected CSI,” Howie said, miffed. “Otherwise, why would I have said—”
Jazz snaked a pair of purple, powdered latex gloves from an open box on a metal tray. He threw them at Howie, who bobbled them, but managed to catch them. “Put these on. Fingerprints.”
“I hope they fit.…”
He watched Howie cram his oversized mitts into the gloves, which looked like they were stretched just slightly beyond their tolerance. Howie had the build of an NBA player: gangly, loose limbs, rope-thin frame, hands that seemed preternaturally grasping. But Howie’s hemophilia saw to it that he would never play basketball on a team, not even Little League.
Still, Howie loved the game. He obsessed over the stats and the standings. Every March, Jazz had to tune out Howie’s endless droning about the Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four, etc. Still, it was worth it—not many kids would willingly pal around with “that Dent kid.” Before Billy had been arrested and exposed as the Artist (or Gentle Killer or Satan’s Eye or Hand-in-Glove or Green Jack—take your pick of Billy’s media-assigned nicknames), Jazz had been a pretty popular kid. Then the arrest had come, and Jazz became a pariah.
Except to Howie.
Howie had been the constant in Jazz’s life, the kid he’d come to rely on to keep him grounded and sane when the world threatened to tip him over into Billy-style craziness. When he’d started dating his girlfriend, Connie, several months ago, he’d been a little worried that maybe he and Howie would become less close, but if anything, they’d become even tighter, as though Jazz doing something as amazingly normal as dating a girl made him a better, stronger friend.
The sound of Howie—now gloved—pawing around on a tray of medical instruments brought Jazz back to the present. “Stop it,” Jazz said.
“Bro, I’m wearing gloves.” Howie waved to prove his point.
Jazz jammed a shower cap on Howie’s head. “We’re not here to mess around with their stuff. Stick to the mission.” He settled a cap on his own head, too.
“‘Stick to the mission,’” Howie mocked, but he left the instruments alone and instead joined Jazz at a large steel door set with a surprisingly modern digital lock. The keypad was numbered 0 through 9 and also included the letters A to F. Howie frowned at it. “This isn’t going to be easy,” he said. “‘Tonight, on CSI: Hicksville, Dent and Gersten encounter their toughest case yet.…’”
“How much do you want to bet I can get that door open on the first try?” Jazz said.
Howie pursed his lips, thinking. “You pay for burgers next time. And we have to eat at Grasser’s.”
Jazz scowled. He hated the food at Grasser’s, a local burger joint more appropriately nicknamed “Grosser’s,” but Howie loved the place with a lust that bordered on the irrational. “Okay, fine. And what if I can get it open on the first try?”
Howie thought. “We don’t eat at Grasser’s for a month.”
Totally worth it. “Watch,” Jazz said, grinning. He reached for the door handle and twisted. The steel door opened with only a tiny squeak.
“Oh, come on!” Howie protested. “Not fair! It wasn’t even locked.”
“A deal’s a deal.” They slipped into a small refrigerated room, where the bodies were stored while awaiting autopsy, reclamation, or burial. Right now, there was a single body in the freezer, zipped into a new body bag (the one on the scene had been bright yellow; this one was black) and resting on a wheeled stretcher.
“Is that her?” Howie whispered, shivering slightly.
“It,” Jazz corrected. “It stopped being a ‘her’ a while ago.”
Screwed to the wall of the freezer room was a plastic file holder, in which sat a lonely pale green folder. The tab read doe, jane (1), the number denoting that this was the year’s first Jane Doe. Probably the only one, too. In a place like New York City, there might be upwards of fifteen hundred unidentified bodies in a year. There had been bodies in the Nod before, of course, but they’d always been identified. For this town, a single Doe broke the long-standing record of none.
Jazz plucked the file from the holder and flipped through it, scanning the report.
“Have the lambs stopped screaming, Clarice?” Howie said suddenly in a dead-on Hannibal Lecter impression.
“Well, I don’t understand why you have to see the body,” Howie complained, hugging himself for warmth. “She’s dead. She had a finger chopped off. You knew that already.”
The report was short. As G. William had indicated, it was just preliminary. Jazz went back to the first page and started reading. “Ever hear of Locard’s Exchange Principle?”
“Oh, sure,” Howie said. “I saw them open for Green Day last year. They rocked.” He played a little air guitar.
“L-O-L,” Jazz deadpanned. “Locard was this French guy who said that any time a person comes into contact with anything at all, there’s a two-way trip involved. Stuff from the guy gets on the thing—hair, maybe, or skin cells, dandruff, whatever—and the thing gets stuff on the guy—like dust or paint or dirt or something. Stuff is exchanged. Get it?”
“French guy. Stuff exchanged. Got it.” Howie saluted, then went back to hugging himself against the cold.
“So I thought maybe the killer left some kind of evidence,” Jazz went on, then sighed. “But according to this report, nothing. No fibers, no hairs, no fluids…Clean.”
“As clean as you can be after lying out in a field,” Howie said. “Can we go now?”
There were crime-scene photos paper-clipped to the inside of the folder. Jazz stared at them. It was almost eerie, the perfect poise of that body. Unnatural. Perfect, save for the missing fingers, and even they had been neatly “excised” (the police report’s antiseptic language) postmortem, with no blood loss. No pain.
If there had been some sort of savagery before death—torture, cutting, mutilation—it might somehow be easier to believe that something once living was now dead. As it was, the word dead seemed somehow…inaccurate.
“Earth to Jazz. Can we go?”
“Not yet.” Jazz slipped the coroner’s report back into its holder and started to unzip the bag.
“Oh, man!” Howie took a step back. “Totally not into checking out the corpses today.”
“You can wait outside if you want.” He got the zipper all the way down, and there lay Jane Doe, eyes closed, skin a waxy white. After roughly forty-eight hours, bacterial action turns skin a greenish hue, so Jazz figured it had been less than two days since the murder, and the early report agreed with him.
“Oh, man,” Howie said from behind him, his voice hushed. “God. Look at her.”
“It,” Jazz reminded him again, staring down. He knew he was supposed to feel something here. Even coroners felt a momentary glimmer of regret when someone so young and healthy was laid out before them. But Jazz looked down at the body and felt…nothing. Exactly, precisely nothing.
Well, that wasn’t completely true. A tiny part of him registered that, when alive, Jane Doe would have been an easy victim. Simple prey. To a killer’s eye, the smallish frame and lack of obvious strength would have been attractive. Short fingernails meant less risk of being scratched. According to the report, Jane Doe stood no more than five foot one—when standing was still possible. A killer’s dream victim. You couldn’t custom-order one better.
“Man, this sucks, doesn’t it?” Howie whispered. “She was like this little bitty thing and someone just came along and—”
“Yeah, sucks,” Jazz interrupted. “Now be quiet. I’m working.”
No bruises, no cuts or contusions or scrapes. All he could do was a cursory examination, and the report had most of that data already. Autopsies were conducted in a specific sequence: ID the body, photograph it, remove any trace evidence, measure and weigh it, then x-ray it and examine the outside. That’s as far as they’d gotten tonight, with just old Dr. Garvin on call. The real medical examiner would come in the morning to cut her open, then look at tissues under a microscope and prepare the toxicology samples. In the meantime, according to the folder, the cops thought strangulation. Jazz thought that made sense; strangling was a relatively easy way to kill someone. No weapons needed. Just hands. As long as you wore gloves, you wouldn’t leave any incriminating evidence.
The report said that Jane Doe was a “Caucasian female, between 18 and 25, no distinguishing tattoos, birthmarks, scars.” Jazz scanned quickly, agreeing with the assessment. He took a moment to peel open the eyelids, causing Howie to gag and take a step back. The eyes—light brown—stared out at nothing. It was possible, Jazz knew, for red blood cells in the retinal veins to keep moving hours after death, one of the last gasps of life in an already-dead body. But the dead eyes betrayed no movement, so he checked what he’d come here for, what he’d really needed to see with his own eyes: the right hand. He wanted to make certain what he’d seen in the report was accurate.
Three fingers on the right hand were missing—the index finger, the middle finger, and the ring finger. The thumb and pinky were all that remained; that hand would flash devil horns while the corpse rotted in the ground somewhere. But according to what Jazz had seen in the Harrison field with his own eyes and Billy’s gift binocs, the cops had recovered only one finger—the one he’d seen in the evidence bag.
The killer had taken the other two with him. According to the woefully thin report, he’d taken the ring and index fingers.
Howie cleared his throat. “Man, are you sure about this? What if the whole thing was just an accident? Like, what if it was just two people out in the field? Like, having sex and stuff? And she hits her head or has a heart attack or something and the guy is scared, so he runs away.”
“And what? Accidentally cuts off three fingers postmortem? ‘Oops, oh, no, my girlfriend just died! Clumsy me, in trying to perform CPR, I chopped off some fingers! Guess I’ll take them with me.…Oh, darn, where did that middle finger go?’”
Howie sniffed in offense. “Fine. Maybe an animal came along and—”
“Look at the cleavage plane here.”
“Cleavage?” Howie perked up, then immediately winced and shrank back as Jazz grabbed Jane’s wrist and held up the mutilated hand.
“Cleavage plane,” Jazz said again, shaking the hand just slightly. “The cut. It’s smooth. An animal would have gnawed away at it; the wound would be ragged and chewed.”
“But there’s more than one finger missing. So maybe an animal ate them—”
“No. The killer took them. As a trophy.”
“Why the fingers? Your pops never took body parts. Say what you want about him, but—”
“It’s when the killer projects his worst characteristics on the victim and then kills for it. So, why the fingers? Was he caught touching something he wasn’t supposed to? Someone he wasn’t supposed to? Is this his way of punishing himself?”
“Put that away,” Howie said, and Jazz realized he was still holding the corpse by the wrist.
Jazz tucked the hand back into the bag, and Howie visibly relaxed. “So, fine. Why does it have to be a serial killer? It could be a onetime thing.”
Jazz shook his head. “No. The fingers. Your average murderer doesn’t mutilate a body like that. And he especially doesn’t take trophies. But it’s more than that. It’s that he left one behind. He left the middle one behind.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. He literally gave the cops the finger. He’s saying, ‘Come and get me. Catch me if you can.’ That’s a serial killer.”
For a moment, there was nothing but silence in the freezer, as Jazz stared at the body and Howie stared at Jazz.
Jazz gazed down at the eyes, at the lips pressed together in a pale pink line. When people saw dead bodies like this, they said it looked like the person was sleeping. Jazz thought that was crazy. He’d never seen a dead body that looked like it was sleeping. He’d never seen a dead body that didn’t look like exactly what it was—a corpse. A husk. A thing.
Wrapped my hands around her throat, Billy whispered in Jazz’s mind. Just squeezed and squeezed…
Jazz looked closely at the neck. Howie leaned in, curious despite himself, and said, “Was she choked to death?” He mimed throttling someone.
“Strangled is the right term,” Jazz told him. “Choking is when something blocks your airway from the inside. And, yeah, I think so. Can’t be sure yet.” A good strangulation left few signs. The medical examiner would have to drain all the blood from the neck, then slowly and meticulously peel back layers of tissue, looking for telltale small bruises.
“Can they, like, get fingerprints from her neck? Can they catch the guy that way?”
“This guy isn’t an amateur. He probably used gloves.”
“How do you know he isn’t an amateur, Sherlock?”
“There’s bruising on the left-hand knuckles, and on the sides of both hands. Probably would be on the right-hand knuckles, too, if we had them.”
“She hit him,” Howie said. “She fought back.”
“And that means this guy has done this before. If you’re a newbie, you don’t want a fight on your hands. You sneak up behind them and you knock them out and then you start the nasty stuff. If you confront someone while they’re awake, you’re a badass.”
Struggling is what makes it worth doing, Billy said. Jazz closed his eyes, trying to chase away his father’s voice, but it was no good. Billy was on a roll, dispensing what he thought of as honest fatherly wisdom, baring what passed for his soul. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between living and dead. Sometimes I look at a pretty little girlie and I think to myself, Is she a living, breathing thing? Or is she just a doll? Are those actual tears she’s crying? Are those real screams coming out of her mouth? And it’s like a fog in my mind, like I get all confused and frustrated and mixed up, so I start doing things. Start small at first, like maybe with the ears or the lips or the toes. And then move on to the bigger things, and there’s blood, so I keep going and my hands are wet and my mouth is warm and I keep going and then something real magical happens, Jasper. It’s real magical and special and beautiful. See, they stop moving. They stop struggling. All the fight just goes away and that’s when it’s all clear to me: She’s dead. And if she’s dead, then that means that she used to be alive. So then I know: This was a living one, a real one. And I feel good after that ’cause I figured it out.
Jazz realized that his own gloved hands—
This guy isn’t an amateur. He probably used gloves.
—had come to rest on either side of the neck. With just the right movement, he could have that neck in his hands—
This guy isn’t an amateur.
—and he could feel the muscles and the windpipe and the—
He jerked away and grabbed the steel lip of the stretcher to steady himself. “You were right,” he told Howie.
“Um, I was?”
“Score for me. Beauty. But what was I right about?”
“She’s a she. Not an it. She’s always been a she.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“Don’t ever let me call her an it again,” Jazz told him. “Actually, don’t ever let me call anyone an it, okay?”
Jazz finished his examination of the body while Howie crept into the nearby funeral home business office to make a photocopy of the anemic preliminary report. There was nothing substantial in the file, but Jazz figured it couldn’t hurt to have a copy. Besides, he didn’t want Howie around when he rolled the body.
The human body holds about ten pints of blood when everything is going right, and Jane still had enough of hers when she died to cause dark purplish areas, almost like bruises, when the blood pooled postmortem. Jane had been found on her back, but there was evidence of blood-pooling on her front and side, giving the flesh of her lower abdomen and left hip an almost mottled appearance. Jazz reached into the bag, slipping his hands under her, one near the shoulders, the other near her buttocks. He paused for a moment. It was so strange. He was touching a woman’s ass. It was wrong on so many levels.
“People matter,” he whispered to himself. “People matter. People are real. Remember Bobby Joe Long.”
His personal mantra, whispered every morning. A reminder. His own magic spell, casting a shield against his own evil.
It was tough to turn her, as her body was still going into rigor mortis. Rigor usually started about two hours after death. It started in the face and hands—the small muscles—and spread to the entire body over about twelve hours. If her big muscles were just freezing up now…Jazz did some quick math, factored in the pliability he’d observed in the field when the cops moved Jane’s body, and decided that she must have been killed no more than an hour or two before the cops arrived on the scene. Just before daybreak, then.
He turned her onto her left side. Her back was pale.
If she’d been killed in the field and left there on her back, all the blood in her body would have settled in her back and buttocks, making them purple and slightly swollen. But the blood had pooled elsewhere in her body. That meant she’d been killed somewhere else and then transported, her blood sloshing around in her dead body like the grains in a piece of sand art every time she was moved.
So the killer killed her…then moved her…then called the cops right away.…
Yeah. Definitely not a newbie.
The killer was a badass. Talk about supreme confidence. Jazz couldn’t help it; he sort of admired the guy.
People matter. People are real. People matter.…
The spot in the field where Jane had been dumped wasn’t just the sort of place you stumbled upon while carrying a corpse around. The killer must have scoped it out in advance. Did it have some significance to him? And why that particular spot? Moving a body was risky, but also necessary. You want distance between you and the cops, so you have to—
Shut up, Billy, Jazz thought fiercely.
“Uh-oh,” Howie said from behind him, his voice panicked. “Jazz?”
Jazz turned and saw that Howie’s face was covered in blood.
For a split second, Jazz thought someone had attacked Howie, but then Howie tilted his head back and said, “Oh, no. Crap!”
Howie had twice-weekly shots to boost his clotting factor, but he was still prone to random nosebleeds. This one was a real flood, twin red rivulets running out of his nose, gushing over his mouth and chin. Howie had the report in one hand and the photocopy in the other, his arms spread wide to keep him from bleeding on either of them. Jazz dashed over and cupped his hand under Howie’s chin to catch the blood before it could hit the floor. Even so, a few drops spattered against the cold tile, almost perfect circles of red.
Howie’s blood was warm, especially in the cold freezer. Special kinda warm, Billy said, and Jazz grimaced, then used his free hand to pinch Howie’s nose shut and stanch the flow.
“Danks,” Howie said.
“How long since your last desmopressin shot?”
“Must have been the cold in here,” Jazz said. “Back up to the other room. There were some Kleenex on the desk.”
They carefully edged out of the freezer and back into the office, Jazz still pinching with one hand and cupping with the other, all while watching his feet so as not to smear and track the blood all over the place. Blood was the worst bit of evidence to leave behind: Blood is chockablock with DNA, and it’s almost impossible to remove every trace from most surfaces.
Ten pints, he thought again. Ten pints. How easy to lose track of a few drops, and a few drops were sometimes enough to give you away.
Once they were in the office, Jazz had Howie drop the papers and take over pinching duty. He couldn’t walk around with bloody gloves, and he couldn’t just throw them away covered like this, so he stripped them off and rinsed them in the nearby sink, watching the rusty red water swirl down the drain. It was hypnotic, taking him back to a time he could scarcely remember and yet could never forget: his own childhood. His own childhood, and another time when rusty red water had swirled.
Billy Dent’s fathering skills—such as they were—resembled brainwashing techniques more than parenting. As a result, Jazz mostly remembered bits and pieces, like now—a memory of blood running into a sink drain; the pungent smell of it thick in his nose; a sharp, stained knife resting in the sink. Jazz had a terror of knives left in sinks. He couldn’t stand seeing them there. At home, every time he used a knife, he had to clean it and stow it in a drawer or knife block immediately; just the sight of a knife in a sink made him shiver and quake.
Nice job, son…Nice, good cut. Clean…
—just like chicken—
Excerpted from I Hunt Killers by Lyga, Barry Copyright © 2012 by Lyga, Barry. Excerpted by permission.
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