The Freed Man
After Mitch had the conversation with Laura Houang’s parents that he’d been dreading, where he had to ask distraught parents everything they could remember about their poor dead daughter’s last few days, and, inevitably, spent some time with the media circus, there were four new detectives assigned to the case. Once they got up to speed on the case file, they were all pretty damned disgusted with it. Jackson did the right thing and took the lead with the new investigators; Mitch answered questions as best he could, but mostly kept his head down and kept working.
The knife they found with Laura Houang’s body had been used in her flaying, apparently by her own hand – but it hadn’t been the only knife. The medical examiner had found patterns in the lacerations that allowed him to identify the knives that had been used on different parts of the body. And there were three different knives. There were no clues about who had used the other two, but the medical examiner said that all three had been used with extraordinary skill. Laura had been flayed with great care, removing the skin while leaving almost all her blood vessels intact so that she wouldn’t bleed to death immediately.
Laura had rented the panel truck herself that morning, with a fake ID that had come off a laser-printer somewhere and her mom’s credit card. Evidently she’d managed to pass as a twenty-one year old.
Mitch put in a request for authorization to work with a psychic on the case, and he could hear Purdy’s teeth grinding as she approved it. That was just about as far as this whole newage thing could be pushed, and he figured there was probably going to be fallout. But there weren’t any other plausible leads, and he really didn’t care anymore.
But in between listening to Purdy grinding her teeth and getting the new detectives up to speed on the case, he was really glad to hear from the police commission’s licensing division.
In October 2013, they let Wolf Scudder out of prison. He stood outside the gate, quietly listening, as the steel grillwork door ground shut behind him one last time.
Except this time he was facing the other direction.
His first and greatest hope had come to pass. And, oddly, he felt nothing. He looked up, and his gray eyes scanned the horizons he’d been denied for so long. He could have had his dad meet him at the prison, but he took them up on their offer of a ride to the bus stop instead. It was only a few blocks to the bus stop. He’d lived within three miles of the place for almost three years, and he’d never known it was there.
Reasonable doubt. They hadn’t caught the killer, but Wolf had talked to his lawyer, and the lawyer had talked to the cops, and Wolf didn’t know all the details, but a new appeal had been made, with new evidence, and this time there was reasonable doubt. Wolf was a free man, but there was something he didn’t particularly like about that. They weren’t sure he was guilty anymore, but they didn’t sound sure he was innocent, either.
He’d been called to give his testimony again, in prison, speaking to a tape recorder while his lawyer and some other lawyer watched him. He guessed Flanagan had testified again too. But none of it was real to him until two weeks later when they’d come to get him out of his cell. They’d taken him to the courtroom, in his orange prison jump-suit, there to see the first woman he’d seen in two and a half years. She was wearing a black robe and sitting on a judge’s bench and telling him that his convictions had been overturned. And he’d felt nothing.
They’d brought him back for his exit processing, and made him wait around for an hour while they did paperwork. Someone brought his personal effects in his little box from his cell. They’d outfitted him with two changes of clothes and a duffel bag to put them in and a little money for a bus ticket or something, and then they’d kicked him out. It wasn’t the kind of place where you said long goodbyes.
They’d given him back his wallet, which he hadn’t seen since they’d arrested him. And his hands remembered it, remembered how to turn it around and flip it open, the way he had flipped it open ten times a day back when, and without even thinking about it, he’d found himself staring at her picture. Maria looked back at him, wearing the same smile she’d worn at the moment her hand had drawn the knife across her throat. He’d lost track of the world around him for a few seconds then. But then his hands had remembered the rest of the gesture, folding up the wallet and stuffing it back into the back pocket of his pants, and he’d pretended everything was okay.
It wasn’t okay. He should have felt happy about being released, and instead he just felt dead inside.
So he stood there, in the cold October rain, with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, waiting for his dad’s pickup to show up and wondering why he didn’t feel anything. He’d thought he’d be happy. He’d thought that he’d want to celebrate. Instead the only things that were occurring to him were that he’d need to get a job and that Maria was still dead. Wolf walked into a little deli across the street from the bus station and bought a sandwich. Then he walked slowly back to the bus station, and waited. One bus came by, then another, then finally his dad, all the way from Bald Mesa in a battered old 1968 International Harvester pickup truck.
Wolf slung his duffel bag onto the seat of the pickup and his dad got out to say hello. They hugged each other once, and Wolf buried his head in his dad’s shoulder and drank in the scent of his old coat and his home and the truck like a man hoping to find a reason to live. Neither man said a word until they were both in the truck and getting ready to pull out of the lot.
“Glad you’re out,” his dad said.
“Me too,” Wolf replied. But in his own mind he heard his voice asking, why don’t I feel anything?
About ten or fifteen minutes passed.
Henry Scudder’s face darkened and his scent changed, gradually over the course of about another two or three minutes. Finally, the old man spoke again. “They ever catch the guy who killed Maria?”
Wolf was looking out the window at the countryside going by. They’d driven out from under the rain by now. The houses were already thinning out, and overhead wild geese were flying in a vee. “Nope,” said Wolf. “They let me out ’cause they finally noticed that when they locked me up the sonofabitch kept right on killing people. They figured out it probably wasn’t me, but they ain’t caught him yet.”
His dad considered it as they approached the Carquinez Bridge. “How bad is it, Wolf? How many people?”
Wolf shrugged. “I don’t know for sure, Dad. My lawyer said they suspect over a hundred.” His lawyer had seen the case file, so he’d probably know for sure.
“Damn,” his father breathed. “That’s a whole lot of killing for one man to do.” They drove on in silence for a dozen miles while his dad contemplated that. Finally, the old man spoke again. “So, do you know what you’re going to do?”
Wolf’s face turned red with the sudden knowledge that he wanted revenge worse than anything else he had left to want in the world, and that his dad had figured it out before he had, and that his dad didn’t approve. Every so often in the last hundred years or so, revenge and revenge and revenge, in an endless cycle, had been hard on the Scudder family. It was like they were born prone to it somehow. Maybe, Henry had told him when Wolf was just a boy, it was their family’s own curse, or some kind of a weakness in their spirit. His dad wasn’t looking to see his face turn red. He’d known it would, so he was giving Wolf some space for dignity. The old man was watching the road, and then they stopped to pay the toll at the far end of the bridge. Wolf handed him the toll money without a word; the trip was made for Wolf’s sake, and when someone drives a long damn way across the country for you you don’t screw around about who pays for stuff like tolls.
“Figured I’d visit home for a couple weeks,” said Wolf eventually. “Then head into the city again and see if Lopez will hire me back.” It wouldn’t be what his dad wanted to hear. His dad would rather have Wolf far away from the city, far away from what had happened and revenge.
But his dad considered it for a few minutes, and surprised him. “I guess you’re going to do what you have to do, son. ”
Wolf considered that one for a while. Stopping someone was different from revenge. And whoever and whatever he was, the bastard needed stopping. And what his dad was saying was, if you meet this guy ever again, can you promise me that you’ll stop him but without making it personal or taking revenge? And Wolf didn’t say anything for a long time because he didn’t know the answer.
“The cops are after him, you know. Trying to stop him,” Wolf said as they passed out of the northeast corner of Vallejo.
Henry Scudder knew a bluff when he heard it. He looked sharply at Wolf, almost angrily. “They ain’t never gonna catch him, and you know it. Son, I wish you had the strength to walk away from this and live a peaceful life. You know you can’t do Maria any damn good now.”
“Yeah,” said Wolf. “I hear what you’re saying.” And he heard what his dad wasn’t saying, too. What the cops couldn’t believe in, they couldn’t catch. And what they couldn’t catch that had to be caught…. Well, had to be caught by somebody who could. And that probably meant Wolf. But for the sake of stopping him, and not for revenge. And that was the sticking point.
Wolf turned it over in his mind for a couple of hours, halfway back to Bald Mesa. Then he set it aside with a grimace that turned into a rueful grin. There was no point dwelling on things that you just couldn’t know. “It’s good to see you again, Dad.”
His dad understood, and smiled back. “Good to see you too, son.”
There was a lot that Henry Scudder didn’t say. But Wolf knew the old man well enough to hear him not saying it.
His dad had always had a way with words.
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.