Now here is something else I saw, this time in a movie. (I don't remember the name.) There was a Serial Killer who was very clever and at first the cops (one was Bruce Willis, back when he still had some hair) couldn't catch him. So Bruce Willis said, "He'll do it again because he can't help himself and sooner or later he'll make a mistake and we will catch him."
Which they did!
That is not true in my case, Detective Hodges, because I have absolutely no urge to do it again. In my case, once was enough. I have my memories, and they are as clear as a bell. And of course, there was how frightened people were afterward, because they were sure I would do it again. Remember the public gatherings that were cancelled? That wasn't as much fun, but it was "tres amusant."
So you see, we are both "Ret."
Speaking of which, my one regret is that I couldn't attend your Retirement Party at the Raintree Inn and raise a toast to you, my good Sir Detective. You absolutely did give it your best shot. Detective Huntley too, of course, but if the papers and Internet reports of your respective careers are right, you were Major League and he was and always will be Triple A. I'm sure the case is still in the Active File, and that he takes those old reports out every now and then to study them, but he won't get anywhere. I think we both know that.
May I close on a Note of Concern?
In some of those TV shows (and also in one of the Wambaugh books, I think, but it might have been a James Patterson), the big party with the balloons and drinking and music is followed by a sad final scene. The Detective goes home and finds out that without his Gun and Badge, his life is pointless. Which I can understand. When you think of it, what is sadder than an Old Retired Knight? Anyway, the Detective finally shoots himself (with his Service Revolver). I looked it up on the Internet and discovered this type of thing isn't just fiction. It really happens!
Retired police have an extremely high suicide rate!!
In most cases, the cops who do this sad thing have no close family members who might see the Warning Signs. Many, like you, are divorced. Many have grown children living far away from home. I think of you all alone in your house on Harper Road, Detective Hodges, and I grow concerned. What kind of life do you have, now that the "thrill of the hunt" is behind you? Are you watching a lot of TV? Probably. Are you drinking more? Possibly. Do the hours go by more slowly because your life is now so empty? Are you suffering from insomnia? Gee, I hope not.
But I fear that might be the case!
You probably need a Hobby, so you'll have something to think about instead of "the one that got away" and how you will never catch me. It would be too bad if you started thinking your whole career had been a waste of time because the fellow who killed all those Innocent People "slipped through your fingers."
I wouldn't want you to start thinking about your gun.
But you are thinking of it, aren't you?
I would like to close with one final thought from "the one that got away." That thought is:
FUCK YOU, LOSER.
Very truly yours,
THE MERCEDES KILLER
Below this was yet another smile-face. And below that:
PS! Sorry about Mrs. Trelawney, but when you turn this letter over to Det. Huntley, tell him not to bother looking at any photos I'm sure the police took at her funeral. I attended, but only in my imagination. (My imagination is very powerful.)
PPS: Want to get in touch with me? Give me your "feedback"? Try Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella. I even got you a username: "kermitfrog19." I might not reply, but "hey, you never know."
PPPS: Hope this letter has cheered you up!
Hodges sits where he is for two minutes, four minutes, six, eight. Completely still. He holds the letter in his hand, looking at the Andrew Wyeth print on the wall. At last he puts the pages on the table beside his chair and picks up the envelope. The postmark is right here in the city, which doesn't surprise him. His correspondent wants him to know he's close by. It's part of the taunt. As his correspondent would say, it's . . .
Part of the fun!
New chemicals and computer-assisted scanning processes can pick up excellent fingerprints from paper, but Hodges knows that if he turns this letter in to Forensics, they will find no prints on it but his. This guy is crazy, but his self-assessment--one crafty perp--is absolutely correct. Only he wrote perk, not perp, and he wrote it twice. Also . . .
Wait a minute, wait a minute.
What do you mean, when you turn it in?
Hodges gets up, goes to the window carrying the letter, and looks out on Harper Road. The Harrison girl putts by on her moped. She's really too young to have one of those things, no matter what the law allows, but at least she's wearing her helmet. The Mr. Tastey truck jangles by; in warm weather it works the city's East Side between school's out and dusk. A little black smart car trundles by. The graying hair of the woman behind the wheel is up in rollers. Or is it a woman? It could be a man wearing a wig and a dress. The rollers would be the perfect final touch, wouldn't they?
That's what he wants you to think.
But no. Not exactly.
Not what. It's how the self-styled Mercedes Killer (except he was right, it was really the papers and the TV news that styled him that) wants him to think.
It's the ice cream man!
No, it's the man dressed as a woman in the smart car!
Uh-uh, it's the guy driving the liquid propane truck, or the meter-reader!
How did you spark paranoia like that? It helps to casually let drop that you know more than the ex-detective's address. You know he's divorced and at least imply that he has a kid or kids somewhere.
Looking out at the grass now, noticing that it needs cutting. If Jerome doesn't come around pretty soon, Hodges thinks, I'll have to call him.
Kid or kids? Don't kid yourself. He knows my ex is Corinne and we have one adult child, a daughter named Alison. He knows Allie's thirty and lives in San Francisco. He probably knows she's five-six and plays tennis. All that stuff is readily available on the Net. These days, everything is.
His next move should be to turn this letter over to Pete and Pete's new partner, Isabelle Jaynes. They inherited the Mercedes thing, along with a few other danglers, when Hodges pulled the pin. Some cases are like idle computers; they go to sleep. This letter will wake up the Mercedes case in a hurry.
He traces the progress of the letter in his mind.
From the mail slot to the hall floor. From the hall floor to the La-Z-Boy. From the La-Z-Boy to here by the window, where he can now observe the mail truck going back the way it came--Andy Fenster done for the day. From here to the kitchen, where the letter would go into a totally unnecessary Glad bag, the kind with the zip top, because old habits are strong habits. Next to Pete and Isabelle. From Pete to Forensics for a complete dilation and curettage, where the unnecessariness of the Glad bag would be conclusively proved by: no prints, no hairs, no DNA of any kind, paper available by the caseload at every Staples and Office Depot in the city, and--last but not least--standard laser printing. They may be able to tell what kind of computer was used to compose the letter (about this he can't be sure; he knows little about computers, and when he has trouble with his he turns to Jerome, who lives handily nearby), and if so, it would turn out to be a Mac or a PC. Big whoop.
From Forensics the letter would bounce back to Pete and Isabelle, who'd no doubt convene the sort of idiotic kop kolloquium you see on BBC crime shows like Luther and Prime Suspect (which his psychopathic correspondent probably loves). This kolloquium would be complete with whiteboard and photo enlargements of the letter, maybe even a laser pointer. Hodges watches some of those British crime shows, too, and believes Scotland Yard somehow missed the old saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth.
The kop kolloquium would accomplish only one thing, and Hodges believes it's what the psycho wants: with ten or a dozen detectives in attendance, the existence of the letter will inevitably leak to the
press. The psycho is probably not telling the truth when he says he has no urge to repeat his crime, but of one thing Hodges is completely sure: he misses being in the news.
Dandelions are sprouting on the lawn. It is definitely time to call Jerome. Lawn aside, Hodges misses his face around the place. Cool kid.
Something else. Even if the psycho is telling the truth about feeling no urge to perpetrate another mass slaughter (unlikely, but not out of the question), he's still extremely interested in death. The letter's subtext could not be clearer. Off yourself. You're thinking about it already, so take the next step. Which also happens to be the final step.
Has he seen me playing with Dad's .38?
Seen me putting it in my mouth?
Hodges has to admit it's possible; he has never even thought of pulling the shades. Feeling stupidly safe in his living room when anybody could have a set of binocs. Or Jerome could have seen. Jerome bopping up the walk to ask about chores: what he is pleased to call chos fo hos.
Only if Jerome had seen him playing with that old revolver, he would have been scared to death. He would have said something.
Does Mr. Mercedes really masturbate when he thinks about running those people down?
In his years on the police force, Hodges has seen things he would never talk about with anyone who has not also seen them. Such toxic memories lead him to believe that his correspondent could be telling the truth about the masturbation, just as he is certainly telling the truth about having no conscience. Hodges has read there are wells in Iceland so deep you can drop a stone down them and never hear the splash. He thinks some human souls are like that. Things like bum fighting are only halfway down such wells.
He returns to his La-Z-Boy, opens the drawer in the table, and takes out his cell phone. He replaces it with the .38 and closes the drawer. He speed-dials the police department, but when the receptionist asks how she can direct his call, Hodges says: "Oh, damn. I just punched the wrong button on my phone. Sorry to have bothered you."
"No bother, sir," she says with a smile in her voice.
No calls, not yet. No action of any kind. He needs to think about this.
He really, really needs to think about this.
Hodges sits looking at his television, which is off on a weekday afternoon for the first time in months.
That evening he drives down to Newmarket Plaza and has a meal at the Thai restaurant. Mrs. Buramuk serves him personally. "Haven't seen you long time, Officer Hodges." It comes out Offica Hutches.
"Been cooking for myself since I retired."
"You let me cook. Much better."
When he tastes Mrs. Buramuk's Tom Yum Gang again, he realizes how sick he is of half-raw fried hamburgers and spaghetti with Newman's Own sauce. And the Sang Kaya Fug Tong makes him realize how tired he is of Pepperidge Farm coconut cake. If I never eat another slice of coconut cake, he thinks, I could live just as long and die just as happy. He drinks two cans of Singha with his meal, and it's the best beer he's had since the Raintree retirement party, which went almost exactly as Mr. Mercedes said; there was even a stripper "shaking her tailfeathers." Along with everything else.
Had Mr. Mercedes been lurking at the back of the room? As the cartoon possum was wont to say, "It's possible, Muskie, it's possible."
At home again, he sits in the La-Z-Boy and takes up the letter. He knows what the next step must be--if he's not going to turn it over to Pete Huntley, that is--but he also knows better than to try doing it after a couple of brewskis. So he puts the letter in the drawer on top of the .38 (he never did bother with the Glad bag) and gets another beer. The one from the fridge is just an Ivory Special, the local brand, but it tastes every bit as good as the Singha.
When it's gone, Hodges powers up his computer, opens Firefox, and types in Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella. The descriptor beneath isn't very descriptive: A social site where interesting people exchange interesting views. He thinks of going further, then shuts the computer down. Not that, either. Not tonight.
He has been going to bed late, because that means fewer hours spent tossing and turning, going over old cases and old mistakes, but tonight he turns in early and knows he'll sleep almost at once. It's a wonderful feeling.
His last thought before he goes under is of how Mr. Mercedes's poison-pen letter finished up. Mr. Mercedes wants him to commit suicide. Hodges wonders what he would think if he knew he had given this particular ex-Knight of the Badge and Gun a reason to live, instead. At least for awhile.
Then sleep takes him. He gets a full and restful six hours before his bladder wakes him. He gropes to the bathroom, pees himself empty, and goes back to bed, where he sleeps for another three hours. When he wakes, sunshine is slanting in the windows and the birds are twittering. He heads into the kitchen, where he cooks himself a full breakfast. As he's sliding a couple of hard-fried eggs onto a plate already loaded with bacon and toast, he stops, startled.
Someone is singing.
Once his breakfast dishes are in the dishwasher, he goes into the study to tear the letter down. This is a thing he's done at least two dozen times before, but never on his own; as a detective he always had Pete Huntley to help him, and before Pete, two previous partners. Most of the letters were threatening communications from ex-husbands (and an ex-wife or two). Not much challenge in those. Some were extortion demands. Some were blackmail--really just another form of extortion. One was from a kidnapper demanding a paltry and unimaginative ransom. And three--four, counting the one from Mr. Mercedes--were from self-confessed murderers. Two of those were clearly fantasy. One might or might not have been from the serial killer they called Turnpike Joe.
What about this one? True or false? Real or fantasy?
Hodges opens his desk drawer, takes out a yellow legal pad, tears off the week-old grocery list on the top. Then he plucks one of the Uni-Ball pens from the cup beside his computer. He considers the detail about the condom first. If the guy really was wearing one, he took it with him . . . but that makes sense, doesn't it? Condoms can hold fingerprints as well as jizz. Hodges considers other details: how the seatbelt locked when the guy plowed into the crowd, the way the Mercedes bounced when it went over the bodies. Stuff that wouldn't have been in any of the newspapers, but also stuff he could have made up. He even said . . .
Hodges scans the letter, and here it is: My imagination is very powerful.
But there were two details he could not have made up. Two details that had been withheld from the news media.
On his legal pad, below IS IT REAL?, Hodges writes: HAIRNET. BLEACH.
But it isn't just those things; it's everything. The assuredness. There's nothing tentative here.
He hesitates, then prints: THIS IS THE GUY.
Hesitates again. Scribbles out GUY and prints BASTARD.
It's been awhile since he thought like a cop, and even longer since he did this kind of work--a special kind of forensics that doesn't require cameras, microscopes, or special chemicals--but once he buckles down to it, he warms up fast. He starts with a series of headings.
PHRASES IN QUOTATION MARKS.
Here he stops, tapping the pen against his lower lip and reading the letter through again from Dear Detective Hodges to Hope this letter has cheered you up! Then he adds two more headings on the sheet, which is now getting crowded.
USES BASEBALL METAPHOR, MAY BE A FAN.
COMPUTER SAVVY (UNDER 50?).
He is far from sure about these last two. Sports metaphors have become common, especially among political pundits, and these days there are octogenarians on Facebook and Twitter. Hodges himself may be tapping only twelve percent of his Mac's potential (that's what Jerome claims), but that doesn't make him part of the majority. You had to start somewhere, though, and besides, the letter has a young feel.
He has always been talented at this sort of work, and a lot more than twelve percent of it is intuition.
He's listed nearly a dozen examples under UNUSUAL WORDS, and now circles two: compatriots and Spontaneous Ejaculation. Beside them he adds a name: Wambaugh. Mr. Mercedes is a shitbag, but a bright, book-reading shitbag. He has a large vocabulary and doesn't make spelling errors. Hodges can imagine Jerome Robinson saying, "Spellchecker, my man. I mean, duh?"
Sure, sure, these days anyone with a word processing program can spell like a champ, but Mr. Mercedes has written Wambaugh, not Wombough, or even Wombow, which is how it sounds. Just the fact that he's remembered to put in that silent gh suggests a fairly high level of intelligence. Mr. Mercedes's missive may not be high-class literature, but his writing is a lot better than the dialogue in shows like NCIS or Bones.
Homeschooled, public-schooled, or self-taught? Does it matter? Maybe not, but maybe it does.
Hodges doesn't think self-taught, no. The writing is too . . . what?
"Expansive," he says to the empty room, but it's more than that. "Outward. This guy writes outward. He learned with others. And wrote for others."
A shaky deduction, but it's supported by certain flourishes--those FANCY PHRASES. Must begin by congratulating you, he writes. Literally hundreds of cases, he writes. And--twice--Was I on your mind. Hodges logged As in his high school English classes, Bs in college, and he remembers what that sort of thing is called: incremental repetition. Does Mr. Mercedes imagine his letter being published in the newspaper, circulated on the Internet, quoted (with a certain reluctant respect) on Channel Four News at Six?
"Sure you do," Hodges says. "Once upon a time you read your themes in class. You liked it, too. Liked being in the spotlight. Didn't you? When I find you--if I find you--I'll find that you did as well in your English classes as I did." Probably better. Hodges can't remember ever using incremental repetition, unless it was by accident.