Trails and Leads
Mitch Flanagan was in his car, parked in front of the Coroner’s office. He sipped stale, cold coffee out of a paper cup, carefully; he didn’t want to spill it on his white shirt. He grimaced at the harsh bitter taste but he needed the caffeine. He’d bought the coffee at a drive through the day before, and it had been sitting in his car. He unbuckled his seat-belt and got out. He had an appointment.
Jay, the Coroner, knew him by name these days; he greeted him when he came in, and didn’t even ask what he wanted. He just took him back to look at the bodies.
They weren’t pretty. A hundred twenty miles an hour into a brick wall never is. The guy’s head, or as many pieces of it as they’d been able to find anyway, was in a plastic bag next to the rest of the corpse.
The woman’s body was relatively intact; she’d been smashed pretty badly when the car crumpled, and had a lot of lacerations and broken bones, but other than a missing foot she was still in one piece.
“Same pattern as the other ones, Mitch.” said the coroner. “Adrenaline elevated way past anything like a sane level, even for the, uh, situation.”
“So, Jay.” said Mitch. “That’s not the whole pattern. Tell me the sick part.” He didn’t want to hear it, but each and every one of these deaths had a sick sexual twist somewhere.
The coroner grimaced. “She was giving him head, but, evidently about ten seconds before they crashed, she bit it off and swallowed it whole.”
“Yep,” said Mitch. “That’s what I heard.”
“So why the hell did you make me say that?” Jay asked, in an irritated tone of voice. He ran a hand through his hair. “I swear to God, Mitch. I hate these little interviews of yours.”
“‘Cause I have to ask these questions,” replied Mitch. “First, how big was the piece she bit off?”
The coroner pointed miserably at a plastic baggie next to her body. “The whole thing, including half the scrotum. And he was hung pretty heavy, too.”
“She swallowed this whole,” said Mitch, looking at the bag. The coroner was right, the guy had been hung like a horse. “Isn’t that a bit more than people can normally swallow without a gag reflex?”
Jay nodded. “Sure is, by a factor of about five.”
“And you’re absolutely sure it was before the crash, not at the moment of impact? I mean, ten seconds – how can you tell ten seconds?” Mitch was writing this down. Here he paused and looked up at the coroner. The guy was clearly miserable.
“She’d swallowed it, and it had time to get into her esophagus. That would take at least ten seconds. I guarantee she wasn’t alive for even two seconds after the crash, so it had to be before. Also, the impact on her head wouldn’t produce a biting motion – it was lateral instead of vertical.”
“Are there any drugs that can suppress the gag reflex?” Flanagan asked, making another note.
“Just general muscle relaxants and heavy doses of barbiturates,” said the Coroner, “And her blood work is negative for both.”
“That’s another thing. Any drugs in the bloodstream at all, either one of ’em?” Mitch had already gotten this in the report, but he had to make sure.
“No drugs of any kind. These two were perfectly healthy, and best as we can tell, stone sober.”
“Hundred and twenty miles an hour into a fuckin’ wall, stone sober,” said Mitch. “You know I have trouble with that.”
“Believe what you want,” said Jay. “It’s just like the others. No drugs in the bloodstream, no evidence of drug use. I looked at every square inch of skin here, and there wasn’t so much as a mosquito bite on either one of ’em before she bit him and they hit that wall, let alone needle tracks. Also nothing in the bloodstream, livers, fatty tissues, or the stomachs to indicate drug use.”
“You knew I had to ask,” Mitch said.
“You’ve asked every time we’ve had a case like this for four months,” the coroner replied.
“A case like this,” Mitch turned it over in his mind. “How long have you been getting cases like this?”
The coroner stared at him bleakly, then ran a hand through his short black hair. “Yeah. I figured you’d get to that eventually. About two years now.”
Mitch’s blood ran cold. “Two years? Jay… two years you’ve been getting two or three of these every couple months and you didn’t say anything?”
The coroner leaned against the wall. “Well, no, not that many. We got three cases like this the year before last, and nine last year. Over once a month has just been, uh, since about six months ago. You gotta understand, Mitch, it was just part of the normal routine. I mean, people die in stupid, perverted, embarrassing dumb-shit ways every day. And they were accidents, and suicides mostly, not murders. With accidents and suicides, we try not to make a fuss, because then the press would have at it and the families would hurt. We just never thought about it being strange until you showed up investigating it, is what it comes down to. It just got to be part of our routine. It was thinking about your investigation that got me reading back into the files, the other day, to see how many we’d gotten before.”
Mitch added it up in his head. “You’re telling me that, what, about fifteen people have died this way?”
“Well, not exactly this way. But yeah, the sick-sex and adrenaline thing… probably about that.” The coroner looked miserable.
“Oh, sweet Jesus,” breathed Mitch. “I have to go talk to the mechanic now who’s going over the car, but this is damned important. I’ll need copies of the files you suspect fit this pattern; they need to be part of my investigation.”
“I made copies last night. They’re in a box on my desk,” the coroner said, putting the bodies away. And then, with a sideways look, he added, “You’re pretty sure this is somehow murder, huh?”
Flanagan nodded. “There’s no hard evidence, and I haven’t been able to convince anyone else, but yeah, I’m pretty sure.”
There was an awkward pause. “Hope you catch the bastard,” said the coroner finally.
The mechanic’s findings could be summed up in a few words; the dead guy had opened and started the car using the owner’s key, and there was no evidence of tampering. He’d have to talk to the car owner about how the dead guy had gotten the key, but it looked like a dead end.
The morgue’s files, on the other hand, were enlightening, to say the least. A certain fraction of deaths always involve sexual activity, because a certain fraction of life is spent on sexual activity. But up until three years ago, they’d been pretty pedestrian; one infection from an inserted object, heart attacks during illicit sex, and a few cases of sexual asphyxiation that had quietly been ruled suicides for the peace of mind of the families.
But in October, three years ago, there’d been three women, horribly cut up, after a lesbian orgy that had somehow ended in carving each other up with knives. And with one of their husbands carving them up with his own knife. Mitch remembered that case, but it had been investigated as murder, so it wasn’t in the Freakshow File. And they’d had adrenaline levels that shouldn’t have been possible. Then there was nothing for six months, and then an accelerating pattern started. The vast majority of them were spectacularly painful and deviant deaths. That clinched it for Mitch; it had a definite starting point. There’d been a time when it wasn’t done, and therefore there had to be someone doing it. Someone that could be stopped.
Mitch made appointments with the coroners of a few surrounding counties, then started reading the files starting with the most recent, hoping for a lead in a recent case, a trail still warm enough to follow. It was a long, discouraging, and disgusting night. Case after case, he’d enter the cross-ref numbers to get the police file, and case after case, it was no witnesses, no survivors, no known motive. And that was where there were police files at all; in a lot of these cases there hadn’t even been an investigation. Still, he wrote page after page of notes. Names, places, dates, phone numbers, of people who had known the deceased. It was a lead of sorts, however cold. If there was anything that a lot of these people had in common, and he could find it, he had a shot at finding the killer. But he didn’t find any possibility of a living eyewitness until the very last folder he picked up.
But having found a possible witness, he was not pleased. Far, far from it. “Oh, shit,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, flaming, fucking, bloody shit.”
He finally put the last folder down the next morning when Lieutenant Purdy came in. He watched her pass by his desk, then she turned in at her office and left the door open.
Mitch stood up, put the folder back in the box, tried to rub the wrinkles out of his shirt and the crusty bits out of the corners of his eyes, and picked up a manila folder he’d been putting notes into as he wrote them. He was getting ready to go talk to the Lieutenant, but then the mail cart arrived and he changed his mind. It had four fat boxes from the medical examiners’ offices of Marin, Contra Costa, Alameda, and Sonoma counties. “Oh, no,” he breathed. He picked up the first folder out of the first box, and read about a seventeen-year-old who’d torn off, cooked, and eaten his own genitals, then poured his dad’s whole cabinet of hard liquor into a bathtub and climbed into it naked, holding a lit candle. He sat back down, feeling like he’d been kicked in the gut.
A minute or two later, he started looking at a few files from the other boxes. An couple of hours later, he went down the hall to Lieutenant Purdy’s office, paused outside the door, then knocked on the open door and waited for acknowledgment before he came in.
Slowly, he shut the door. She regarded him coolly. Shutting the door meant he had something he wanted to be careful about. She leaned back in her chair, and looked at him.
“What you got, Flanagan?”
“You know I’ve been thinking that we’ve got a serial killer.”
“You told me last Thursday, I asked for hard evidence. You got some?”
“It’s not hard evidence, quite, but it ain’t thin, either.” Mitch stared at the corner of Purdy’s desk, not wanting to meet her eyes. “I talked to the coroner. He found eighteen cases. I sent a note to the coroners’ offices in several other counties. They found, God, I don’t know how many cases – they just arrived. We’re looking at some seriously sick and twisted sex deaths here. The whole thing is all sick sex deaths, and it’s not just San Francisco, it’s the whole damn Bay Area.”
“Wait. I thought this case was a possible designer drug connection?” Purdy shook out her gray-streaked blonde hair.
“Still no lead on any drug cause,” said Mitch, “but we’ve confirmed the elevated adrenaline levels. The news is that it’s always about sick sex.”
“Wait.” Lieutenant Purdy spread her hands. “You’re telling me that all these people with too much adrenaline in their systems are sex deaths?”
“Eugh,” said Mitch. “A lot of them, normal people wouldn’t count as sex, but …. Yeah, that’s what I’m telling you,” said Mitch. “I haven’t added it all up yet, but judging by the box I just read and the size of the boxes that just arrived and the fact that two boxes haven’t arrived yet, we’re talking about anything from forty to a hundred people dead. I’ll come back to you when I’ve got harder numbers. ”
“A hundred people?!” Purdy breathed.
“Maybe that. Jay over at the Coroner’s office found eighteen cases, and it fit in a box this big.” Mitch held up his hands. “Now I got boxes out there the same size from four other counties, which probably makes it at least that many. And we still ain’t heard from San Jose or Calaveras.” He paused. “And there’s not a single case in those files earlier than October 2011. Not because we didn’t look further back, but because it wasn’t happening before that.”
“Wait.” Purdy shook her head in disbelief. “How can you tell which ones fit this pattern and which ones don’t?” She was leaning forward now, her elbows on her desk.
Mitch tried to think of a nice way to say it, and couldn’t. He was too tired. And Purdy wouldn’t want a sugar-coated version anyway. “Try to imagine every horrible nightmare you’ve ever had about sex, rolled into a series of messy, deviant, prolonged, and painful deaths, and those are the ones that fit the pattern. I’m not talking about people getting kinky and making mistakes, dumb accidents, jealous husbands and jealous wives, ordinary stuff. These deaths – well, the other guys in homicide have been calling them freakshows. Seriously, you can read the files if you want. It’s pretty obvious.”
“Oh my God.” Purdy leaned back in her chair. “Good work, Flanagan. But now what the hell do we do?”
“Well, there’s still no hard evidence that any one of these is actually a murder committed by a murderer still at large, nothing to incriminate any specific person, and frankly I have no fucking idea how any murderer could have physically done most of these. But there’s a pattern, and there’s an MO involving deviant sex, and there’s a definite time when the pattern began. It’s still technically all circumstantial, but I’d say the odds of this not being somehow a serial killer are so damn flat you couldn’t get an earthworm under them, and I think we should warn the public.”
Purdy spread her hands. “Warn them of what? A bogey man? No witnesses, no evidence, no comprehensible method of killing, nothing to distinguish his victims from accidental deaths? I can assign another detective to the case on the strength of this, but I still can’t go public with that. How about all these cases though? A hundred people, there’s bound to be some witnesses.”
Mitch looked unhappy. “The cases I’ve looked at so far, there’s just one. All the witnesses are dead, except for this one guy. And he’s not going to be happy to talk to me.” Mitch stared out the window, trying to figure out how to say the next part.
Catching Purdy’s look, Mitch explained. “There’s a guy named Wolf Scudder. The first three of these in San Francisco are on the books as murder. We found him with a bloody knife in his hands standing over three corpses, including his wife. We got a conviction, and he’s in San Quentin, up in Marin, cooling his heels for the last two years. And you know who the arresting officer on that case was? It was me. I wasn’t even in homicide then. I’d made detective about three years before, and I was responding to a call about a domestic disturbance because I was close.”
Purdy pursed her lips. “You’re gonna have to go talk to him. But we don’t have enough yet to go public. We don’t want to go public unless we’re totally sure.”
“Bear in mind, if I’m right this bastard whoever he is shows no signs of slowing down. Every month we don’t warn the public, people are going to die.”
Purdy gave him an anguished look. “You think warning the public’s going to slow down a killer who leaves no evidence and has been killing people under our noses for three years? You think people will stop dying if we warn them? What if it just pisses him off?”
Mitch didn’t have an answer for that. Suddenly he was very very tired. “Look, Lieutenant. I gotta go sleep, I’ve been up all night with this.”
“Yeah, go sleep. I’ll talk to the Captain and see what he thinks about going public. Oh, and Flanagan?”
“Before you go, lock down the files on this case and give me a key.”
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.