A Shot Into Darkness
“Well, this is quite extraordinary,” said Abelard, setting aside the boxes of coroners’ files and looking at them with some alarm. “A … what did you say … a psychic killer?”
“I swear to God,” said Mitch, placing one hand over his heart like an overgrown boy scout.
“The idea of psychic phenomena is well outside my area of expertise, gentlemen, and there’s no precedent in criminal psychology for…”
Wolf cut him short. “Look. We know it’s ridiculous. But we ain’t got time to argue about it. So I’m going to start off by talking about you, just to convince you we’re serious.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “You — you live alone. You had oatmeal for breakfast this morning. Your house is a mess. It’s packed with books and bookshelves and you’ve got scads of papers that your students turned in all over the place.”
Abelard made a guilty start.
Wolf smiled. “Papers you should have given back once they were graded, right? Anyway, on to the books. You got a lot of books that are professional for you – criminal psych, yes? You also got a lot of books that are just plain cheap books – romance novels, westerns, that kind of crap. Every one of them is used. You hardly ever read them, but you don’t get rid of them either.”
“You — you know that last just because someone told you,” stammered Abelard.
“I don’t deny it,” said Wolf. “And the lady who told me? She’s a psychic.”
“Hey, yeah,” said Mitch. “That’s right. I’ll bet you have a lot of knicknacks aside from just books and papers, too. Maybe you collect art? Maybe you buy most of your furniture secondhand? And I’ll bet your bed is in the middle of the house, maybe in the same room with a lot of books? Yeah? And it has papers all around it?”
“How… how do you… ” Abelard stammered.
“I bet your car insurance is expensive,” said Mitch, plowing on. “You’ve got some kind of old car with a lot of stuff in it, but you just can’t seem to go more than a couple years without an accident, right? I know something else, too,” said Mitch, his tone dropping suddenly. “Lately you’ve been having bad dreams. It’s been getting worse for about three years, hasn’t it? I bet you make a point of going home before you get tired.”
“I… ” Abelard made a helpless scrabbling movement on his desk with his right hand, then became still. “You can tell all this, and you still need me to do a profile?”
Mitch nodded. “See, Abelard … we’re not really so talented as profilers, we just know something about you and we’re filling in some blanks. That’s what profilers do too, right, except you guys know a lot more ways to fill in blanks given some profile or other. Our killer is somebody a lot like the lady who told us about you. Our killer is, in fact, somebody a lot like … you.”
“You think… you mean… you mean to say that I… oh.” Abelard laughed nervously. “I guess that would explain a lot,” he said, “but I’d never imagined it before now.”
“You know why it seems like a reasonable idea now?” Mitch said. “It seems like a reasonable idea now because we’re here and we know it’s true, and you’re reading our minds.”
Abelard looked back and forth between them, his watery blue eyes goggling. Wolf just nodded solemnly.
“So, anyway,” Mitch said. “Our killer, this lady, and you – you’re all mind readers. Sort of. Except mind reading isn’t really under any kind of conscious control, most of the time – it’s just thinking the same thing as other people are thinking, and usually it only happens when you don’t want it to. Especially when you’re tired. And having things around, things that have soaked up a lot of human attention – that’s protection, of a sort.”
Wolf frowned, then sighed. “That’s not exactly true, Mitch. Rose did some things on purpose when and how she wanted to. I think practice and how aware somebody is of it has a lot to do with it.”
Mitch waved his hands, excited. “Okay. So maybe our killer can control, does control, what he’s doing. But just about nobody else does except Rose.”
“Rose…” said Abelard. Then he shook his head as if to clear it of cobwebs. “That name is … familiar.”
“She’s also missing,” said Mitch. “Anything you can tell us about her, we want to know.”
“Isn’t she the girl who works in Morey’s bookstore?” Abelard looked from one to the other, then nodded to himself. “Yes, that’s who she is… There’s something about her. Something I thought just recently, but I can’t remember what it is.” He shrugged apologetically.
“Well, if you think of it be sure to say something,” said Mitch. “For now we want to focus on this killer.”
“Um. I’ll have to think about this … talent. How it works, what it implies.” Abelard shrugged. “It may take me a few hours to develop some working theories.”
“Wrong,” said Wolf. “I can tell when people are lying, even usually when they can’t. And what you just said was only half the truth, Mister Abelard. It’ll take you a few hours to justify what you already probably know in terms of language that makes sense to you. There’s a difference, and we ain’t got very many hours. Take your shot in the dark, Abelard, and I’m betting it hits something.”
“Because I’m psychic?” Abelard rolled his eyes. “Please, Mister Scudder.”
“No,” said Wolf, “Because you’ve been meeting this guy in your dreams and nightmares and you know what he is and what he does. Because you suffer from the same condition that gives him his weaknesses and his his power. Because whether you can justify it or not, you understand this guy.”
“Jeez, Wolf. Calm down a little,” Mitch said. “You’re pushing too hard.”
“How hard is it okay to push, Mitch? This bastard kills what, three-four people a month? You wanna soft-pedal now that your number one witness is missing?”
“Stop,” said Abelard, holding his head. “Just … stop. I hate to be around people who are fighting.” And then he stared at Wolf. “He … killed your wife, didn’t he.”
Wolf, who had been pacing in agitation, stopped suddenly and stared venomously at Abelard, who gazed back sadly. “I’m sorry,” said Abelard. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Gradually, Wolf’s face softened. Then he looked at the floor. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “We just gotta stop him, that’s all.”
“I’m ready to take my shot into the darkness,” said Abelard, “for what it’s worth.” He took a deep breath, then another, and closed his eyes for a few seconds. Then he opened them and spoke.
“This man, this … we use the word unsub, for unknown subject … anyway, this unsub has been a psychological abuser and rapist for a lot longer than he’s been a killer. He’s accustomed to committing crimes anyway; he’s been doing it for long enough for his territory to have expanded from his own neighborhood to at least six counties. He has not been arrested before, but if you find his back trail, you’ll find a lot of victims, probably going back to his independence from his parents as a young man.
He’s been obsessive-compulsive, a little bit, in remaining undetected. It’s been – necessary – for him to cover up every kill, make them look like suicides or murders committed by other victims, or accidents. In the usual case, we attribute this kind of thing to either good judgment or simple neurosis, but in this case, I think he’s been afraid of what would happen if his killings became public knowledge.”
“And what’s that?” Mitch wanted to know.
Abelard’s brow furrowed. “Change. He was afraid that the public reaction would change him. And since the Laura Houang murder, it … has.
You see, he’s uniquely powerful – and uniquely vulnerable. As long as he remained undetected, he was a sociopathic killer – very much in control of himself, very much able to do what he wanted on his own terms. But the tide of public attention can hardly fail to affect a psychic sensitive to attention, can it? Now that the public sees him as a killer, they’ve made him in their minds into a monster, into an archetype, into the bogey man, the thing lurking under the bed. And whenever he comes into contact with them, whenever he self-identifies as the killer, even to himself – he’s putting that on, he’s becoming that very creature. He’s probably drunk with the power of it, but at the same time he’s no longer in control.”
“So whatever enough people expect of him, he becomes?” Wolf asked. “They make him into the villain out of their melodramas, the creature that they fear in their secret hearts? They put that on him?”
“Yes. Well. People need monsters,” Doctor Abelard said. “The propensity of the very young, in particular, to imagine monsters hiding in the dark and waiting to do terrible things to them probably saved a lot of our ancestors, as children, from wandering off into the dark and succumbing to very real dangers. Evolution, you see, has selected us to believe in monsters. And now, that kind of belief has a focus here in San Francisco, and that focus is your killer. And if you’ve described his – interaction as a psychic with other people – correctly, then he’ll be powerless to resist it.”
“Good God,” said Mitch. “So now he’s become something – something worse, or different, than a psycho killer who can get into people’s heads. Now he’s a monster of some kind.”
Wolf shrugged. “I don’t see how one is much worse than the other. He’s still the same kind of animal. Tell me where he came from, how he got to this point. Tell me where we can find his back trail.”
“He’s been obsessed with pain and power for a very long time. As a rapist, his main gratification had to be the combination of inflicting pain on his victims, and asserting power over them.”
“How does pain work here?” said Mitch. “If he feels what they feel…”
Abelard shook his head. “He is, or was, a sociopath. The pain, the humiliation, everything … he experienced it vicariously, but for him it wasn’t horrible. It was the only way he could feel any human emotions or feelings at all. He got addicted to it, and started raping as often as he needed a fix. And now… now I don’t know for sure that sociopath is still a good description. The behavior expected of monsters may be more like psychotic, but that word’s wrong too… ”
“What changed, three years ago?” said Mitch. “Why did he switch from raping to killing?”
“I think,” said Abelard, “That he became obsessed with the idea of death. He was curious about it, wanted to understand it, wanted to know what it was like. It fit well into his power-and-pain-and-sex modus operandi, he just added death as a final act. ”
He paused, considering. “A final act. That’s important. A psychotic – a real psychotic – usually makes quick kills against weak victims, because they are afraid of people, and then engages in mutilation after the victim is dead. It’s all about working out fear of human beings by obliterating the human form. That’s the usual case in which you see this extensive type of mutilation.
But this man was not a psychotic, he was a sociopath. Firstly, he did not prey upon the weak. Secondly, once his victims were dead, he quit doing anything to them. And that suggests that this was still all about the sociopath on his quest for vicarious experience – that he wanted their feelings, their emotions, their experiences – and especially the experience of death.”
“Does he want to die?” Mitch asked.
Abelard thought about it. “Maybe. If he had a death-wish, projecting it on others for vicarious fulfillment is one possible symptom. But it’s not quite right. Give me a minute to think.”
He closed his eyes, and sat back in his chair. Wolf and Mitch looked at each other, waiting. On the wall, an antique clock ticked. A minute passed, then two. Mitch
started squirming in his seat.
Abelard began moving again, opening his eyes and resuming the conversation as though it hadn’t been interrupted. “I think he had some kind of experience that gave him an awareness of his own mortality. He became certain that he himself would eventually die.”
Wolf snorted, then shrugged. “We’ll all eventually die,” he said. “You’re telling me he didn’t know that already?”
“It’s quite likely he didn’t,” said Abelard. “Sociopaths rarely understand their own mortality. Death, to them, is something that happens to other people. If they ever imagine that they themselves might one day die, it’s rare that the fact means anything to them.”
“So he found out he was going to die,” said Mitch. “Why? What’s wrong with him?”
Abelard nodded and put his hands together on the table. “I think he’s contracted a fatal disease,” he said calmly, then held up his right hand and started enumerating facts on his fingers. “One: nobody else’s death but his own would have mattered to him as a sociopath, so whatever he found out had to be about himself. Two; his principal activity at the time was probably the rape of strangers. Three: as a rapist into pain and power it’s nearly certain that he didn’t practice safe sex or isolate himself from his victims’ blood or body fluids. Four: Since escalating to killing he has been isolating himself from his victims’ blood and body fluids – at least nothing of his has been left at any of these scenes. Five: it’s a fatal disease but it hasn’t killed him yet in three years.”
“He’s got AIDS, doesn’t he?” Said Mitch, connecting the dots.
Abelard nodded. “As I said, this is a shot into the darkness, but right now I’d give about seven-to-two odds that he does.”
“All right,” said Wolf. “How did he get to be a rapist? What sort of event sets that off?”
“Power issues,” said Abelard. “Classically, most adult rapists were abused sexually as children, and I think that’s what we’re probably looking at here. The use of sexual force by moral authority figures in a child’s life vindicates the use of such force throughout life. As a child he probably experienced abuse, most likely sexual abuse by both his parents. Having discovered his own power he set about doing the same kind of thing. He probably fantasizes about revenge on his parents, but he hasn’t done it. For some reason he can’t; either they’re dead, or he’s still terrified of them.”
“Okay,” Mitch said. “Can you tell us anything about him physically? Or anything that would help us identify him when he’s not actually committing a crime?”
Abelard thought about it for a moment. “He’s probably white,” he said. “His pattern of violence doesn’t focus on any particular racial minority, the way it would if
he were a member of one. I think he’s in his fifties or sixties,” he said. “I’d expect him to be charismatic and well-spoken in person. He has effectively no relationship
with his parents now, but has a lasting hatred of them both. He’s very smart, but antisocial. He has never married. He probably has some kind of job where he deals daily, as a peer, with powerful and monied people, because his ego will demand it. His ego will not allow him to be a salesman of any kind; he is most likely the representative or a principal of some kind of institution or foundation. Also on the basis of ego and power issues, he most likely abuses whatever power he has over those whom he sees as social inferiors, including cheating them in business deals.”
“But all this could change,” Mitch said, “Now that he’s become the monster under the bed.”
Abelard nodded. “Yes. If he has the power you describe, and a public panic has started that’s focused on his own identity as the killer, then… well. Everything changes.”
Abelard thought about it, then continued. “There’ve been several cases where people were thought to be demonically possessed, and started to act out as if it were true,” he said. “I should probably review some of them in light of this…”
Wolf nodded as though Abelard had said something terribly obvious. “Just what,” he said with a shrug, “did y’all think a demon was in the first place?” He cast his eyes downward. “It’s people, you know. It’s what happens to us when we believe the worst about ourselves.”
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.