“Prisoner 58369-032, you have a visitor. When your cell door opens, follow the blue line to the visitor area.”
Wolf hated the intercom system. They always used his prisoner number instead of his name on it. Who the hell would be visiting him now? His dad visited once a month, but he wouldn’t be here for another couple of weeks. Wolf didn’t have anyone else anymore.
He knew the drill though. He was dressed, if a prison orange jumpsuit counted as being dressed, so he just stood up in his cell and waited. Before long, his cell door opened. Wolf went out into the hallway, made a left turn, and followed the blue line. At the end of the hallway, there was a guard in a plexiglass booth, who buzzed him into a tiny chamber at the end of the hall. Another guard, in a plexiglass booth on the other side, opened the far door of the chamber when the door he’d just passed through was securely locked.
The little procedure was repeated six more times before Wolf finally reached the visitor area. There was just one plexiglass booth here, with two guards in it. There was a row of ten visitor booths, each with a locking plexiglass door on the prison side and a plexiglass divider between the prisoner and the visitor sides. They told him to take visitor booth number six, and buzzed open its door for him.
It could have been anybody on the far side of the divider, but it was Mitch Flanagan. The very same cop who’d arrested Wolf three years before, and on whose testimony Wolf had been convicted. Flanagan was about five feet ten, a good three inches shorter than Wolf. He was wearing a white buttondown shirt, with his badge case clipped to his pocket, and his brown hair was still cropped short. Wolf paused for an instant to look at him before he picked up the phone. The guy looked grim, so this definitely wasn’t a social call.
“Afternoon, Detective Flanagan,” Wolf said into the mouthpiece, brushing his own hair back and holding the phone up to his ear.
“Afternoon, Mister Scudder. I guess you remember me.” Flanagan’s face had worry on it, and embarrassment.
“I hardly ever forget people, Detective,” Wolf said coolly. A vague, unspoken threat drifted in the air between them. “What’s this visit about?”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions about Maria Rodrigues.”
Wolf regarded him darkly for a few moments before he answered. “You better not be yanking my chain here, Flanagan. Didn’t you close that case two years ago?”
“Yeah, we did. But lately we found out something that may have something to do with it.”
“What the hell did you find?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have permission to talk about it yet. All I can say is that there’s an ongoing investigation, and the death of your wife may be relevant to it. It’s in your best interests to cooperate here.”
“I think maybe you’re finally on the trail of the bastard who really killed her,” said Wolf. He knew the other couldn’t confirm or deny it, but he could watch Flanagan’s eyes as the words sunk in. A slight pause to watch, and then Wolf smiled a nasty smile. “I’ll help any way I can,” he said. “Just one thing I want to ask.”
“What’s that, Mister Scudder?”
“If you know something that can cast a reasonable doubt on my conviction, don’t let me rot in here. Just say so, and I’ll file another appeal. You don’t have to tell me what it is, but you can talk to a lawyer and a judge without compromising the investigation.”
Flanagan considered that for a moment. “That’s a reasonable request, Mister Scudder, but I can’t talk about an ongoing investigation. I’ll risk my job just a little bit and say I don’t think I have anything that could do it now. Later, who knows. Officially, I can give you that tip when we close the file, but not before. It could be several months, maybe even a year. Or, maybe never. Depends on whether I find out what I need to know.”
Wolf snarled, then thought better of it, and with an act of will, set his face in a rueful smile. “Well, thanks for at least being straight with me about it,” he said. He paused for a moment or two, collecting his breath and his nerves. “Okay. I’ll help however I can. What do you want to know about Maria?”
“How did she die?”
Wolf stared at him for a moment, fighting anger, then he broke through it. He spread his hands helplessly. “She cut her own throat with that knife. I saw her do it.”
“Okay. That’s what you said in court. But if she cut her own throat, why do you think somebody else killed her?”
“Maria wouldn’t do that. It had to be someone – or something – else. And there’d been somebody else in the apartment, so I don’t know how but it had to be him.”
“Somebody else making her cut her own throat? While not even in the room at the time?”
Wolf shrugged, then nodded. “Don’t ask me to explain it, but yeah.”
Mitch wrote something down. “Okay, wait. This is a big thing that the court never bought. There wasn’t a damn shred of evidence that anybody else had been in the apartment. How come you’re so sure?”
Wolf gave him a long look, then finally shrugged and said, “I could smell him.”
Flanagan cocked his head up, surprised. “You never said that at your trial.”
Scudder stared back at him, then reached a decision. “My lawyer told me not to mention it ’cause it wouldn’t be admissible anyway and it would just make folks think I was crazy. But it’s true. I smell things, about as well as a dog. You can ask my dad if you don’t believe me.”
Mitch shrugged, then made a note. “It’s weird, so I’m going to have to. But weird is relative. If it’s true it won’t be the weirdest thing I’m working with here by a long shot. I’m ready to believe almost anything at this point, and if it’s true, that’s a lead. So you smelled somebody. Can you describe him?”
“Not much. His scent, I’d know if I smelled it again, but how can you describe somebody’s scent? There ain’t no words for it. But there are things I can tell you. He was a white guy, older. But that’s about all the description I can give you. That day, he had on a leather coat and lots of denim. Maybe overalls, I don’t know. He was recently bathed, had on clean clothes, didn’t wear any cologne or anti-perspirants or anything. Used Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and Irish Spring soap. He’d been walking in the park next to where we lived.” Wolf spread his hands helplessly.
“Your lawyer was right, it wouldn’t be admissible in court,” Mitch said, “But it’s still important.” Flanagan was writing furiously. “You smelled all that, over the smell of the blood and everything else in your apartment.”
“Yep,” said Wolf.
“I’m afraid I have to ask about the everything else,” Mitch said. “You know what all went on in that apartment before you got home?”
Wolf looked angry, then pensive. “Yeah. The three of them started out having sex like crazed weasels, and then they started hurting each other with bottles and things, and then they started in with the knife. One girl got her face peeled off, then her wrists and tendons slashed. Another lost all her fingers and toes one at a time, then her nose, hands, eyes, tongue, and feet. Maria got pictures of things cut into her skin. But I wasn’t there.”
Mitch didn’t comment. He was writing. Then he looked up. “Was Maria into women sexually, before then?”
Wolf twitched again, then broke through the anger into calm. “We were married, damnit,” he said quietly. “She’d mentioned to me when I proposed to her that sometimes she thought women were pretty in that way and she didn’t want to have that as a secret from her husband. But she’d never ever done anything about it before then.”
Flanagan looked pained, genuinely sorry. “I hate this stuff too, but I have to ask.”
Wolf shrugged. “Like you said, it’s in my best interests to tell you. It ain’t easy, but I’ve got to deal with it.”
“Okay, Mister Scudder. You had gotten up that morning, and you and Maria made love – this is from your version of the story. You went to work at a construction site, and she stayed home. You came home for lunch at noon, and when you got home, what did you find? What was there, at that instant?”
Wolf stared at him. “Two friends of Maria’s were on the carpet, cut up bad, and dead. Maria herself was cut up pretty badly, but still alive. And she got up, and she looked at me like nothing was wrong, like she was glad to see me back, and she smiled at me, and then she slit her own throat from ear to ear. And then she handed me the knife, and she hugged me, and then she sobbed once and she died.”
“Says in the forensic evidence she had your skin under her fingernails.”
“She hugged me really hard, and had a death-rattle when she died. I got scratched a bit, and got a cracked rib. Had more important things on my mind at the time.” Wolf’s hands twitched. He’d given up smoking years before when he’d found out the companies had been deliberately lying in their ads, but sometimes the cravings still hit him and just then he wished he had a cigarette.
“What was on your mind right then, Mister Scudder?”
“Well, I imagine I was busy thinking the same things anybody thinks when they come home to find a scene straight out of hell and the woman they love more than anything in the world has just died a gruesome death in their arms for no good reason,” Wolf said sourly.
Flanagan stared at him intently. “Sorry I have to ask, Mister Scudder, but this is important. I need you to say exactly what was on your mind right then.”
Wolf stared at him for a long moment, then his lips twisted down with a bitter, shamed expression. “I almost died of stupidity,” he said quietly. “It’s the dumbest thing anybody can do, ever, it’s running away from your problems instead of trying to solve them…. It’s dishonorable and wrong is what it is…. But Maria was my reason to live, Mister Flanagan, and she was dead. All of a sudden I had a knife in my hand, and… and I was thinking a bunch of crap thoughts. It would have been real easy, right then, to follow her.”
Mitch said nothing, just wrote down the words.
“I was thinking that I didn’t want to live apart from Maria, that we could be together after death, and that I should punish myself or do some kind of penance with the knife, and a million other things. And I’m not even a religious man, Mister Flanagan. I don’t believe in life after death, and I knew it wasn’t my fault but I was thinking like I did and like it was. Hell, I was thinking that it was my fault, even though I knew better. It was all crap thoughts, excuses, trying to weasel myself out of facing the hard truth.” Wolf was staring at him with a cold, angry intensity that made his skin crawl. Mitch noticed that he had a tear running down his cheek, but his voice was hard and clear.
Wolf went on, in a voice like ice and steel grinding together. “We like our illusions, but we need the truth, Flanagan. Once you start lying to yourself, you turn into nothing. I put those crap thoughts aside. It would have been the wrong thing to do, and I refused to become one more soft-headed idiot who let a tragedy make him stupid. And that’s basically everything I had time to think before you guys kicked down the door.”
“Thanks for telling me that, Mister Scudder,” said Mitch, scribbling furiously. “I know it hurt to say it, and I can’t say exactly why it’s important right now because of the rules, but that’s damned important.”
“Mister Flanagan? There’s something else,” Wolf said. “Maria’s scent was wrong. So were her friends’.”
Mitch stopped, pen balanced in the air. “Wrong how, Mister Scudder?”
“Well, it’s hard to explain exactly,” said Wolf. “No words for it. But when Maria looked up at me, there was one thing on her face and a totally different thing in her scent. Her face, like I said, was like there was nothing wrong, like she was happy to see me, like she had no idea that any of this meant anything. But her scent was sour with fear and dread and desperation and frustration – like she was in a total nightmare and couldn’t break out. The other two were dead already, but I could smell the same thing with them too.”
“So they smelled, what, like they ought to have been having a fight-or-flight response?” Flanagan was staring at Wolf, eyes suddenly bright. Wolf could tell he’d hit something else that was meaningful.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Wolf. “Except she wasn’t fighting, and she wasn’t running, and she didn’t look like either one would occur to her.”
Mitch nodded, started to say something, then paused and said something else. Wolf hated it when people did that. Usually it meant they were lying. But this time it just meant Mitch wasn’t saying something. “Okay, Mister Scudder. Thanks for your time, and I’m sorry to be dredging all this up again.” And he paused, then gave a tiny shake of his head as though deciding again against saying something more. A grimace was on his lips, and Wolf read regret there. Regret and determination to make things right.
“Hey,” said Wolf. “I got nothing but time in here. You catch the bastard who killed Maria.”
Wolf Scudder kept his face grim as he walked back to his cell. It wouldn’t do to let the other inmates see the hope he felt. It wasn’t hard; when he thought of Maria his hope however strong was meaningless because no matter what happened she’d still be dead. But his two thin strands of hope were suddenly looking a lot stronger, and when the cell door slammed shut behind him and nobody else could see his face, he cracked a bitter smile.
Mitch Flanagan walked back out to the car. He wanted to organize his notes before he pulled out, but you can’t just sit in the parking lot of a maximum-security prison. The guards want you the hell out of there if you’re in your car. So he pulled out, thinking. The murder-suicides in the file and Wolf’s suicidal thoughts right after Rodrigues died. The scent Wolf had smelled and the adrenaline thing the coroner had found. The hysterical strength of an adrenal rush and the cracked rib. Bits of it here and there were starting to fit together. Patterns were emerging. Some of it made a kind of sense. It was a very weird kind of sense, but it made some kind of sense. He had to believe it was true.
And if he believed it was true, he had to believe that Maria Rodrigues’ throat had been cut by her own hand but that someone else had done it. That was the only eyewitness account of one of these deaths from up close. And it was impossible. But he no longer believed Wolf had done it, so the impossible was all that was left. What the hell was he chasing here?
It was a long drive back to the city.
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.