In a window booth of a truck stop in Pueblo, Colorado, two men sat under the neon sign that read Al’s Diner. When the sign flashed, as it did now in the daylight, a sizzling sound not unlike bacon accompanied each flicker of the letters. Both men stood out in this place like white corn in Kansas, or black chaff in a granary. Though they did not belong, they were ignored, which was fine with the older of the two men, Greeley, who sitting with his left leg up on his booth seat, reclined back into the corner of the cushions and watched the street from a backwards angle provided by the mirror behind the deli counter.
A young waitress approached the table with a pot of coffee and spoke to Greeley’s partner, a twenty-something all-American-boy-next-door who drank coffee and read the newspaper while Greeley sat figuring their next move.
"Want me to top that off?"
Looking over the top-edge of the paper, a tattered copy of The Rocky Mountain News, The all-American read her name tag. Alice. How original.
"I’d love a refill, Alice."
All-American winked and smiled at her, flashing a row of teeth so white that Greeley almost winced from his corner of the booth. She was pretty, but not beautiful. What her face lacked was made up for in her figure: slim, with long legs, and an ample handful of bosom. All-American jerked his thumb in the direction of the road.
"What’s there to do for fun in this little town, Alice?"
He kept smiling while Alice fidgeted and blushed. Her cheeks dimpled as she revealed her sallow row of smoker’s teeth.
"You flirting with me, Mister?"
"Course I am. Who wouldn’t flirt with a pretty gal like you? You’re the best looking gal I seen all day."
Alice put her left hand up to her mouth. On her ring finger was a small diamond wedding ring. All-American was not put off.
"Your husband must be the luckiest man in this small town."
Looking at her hand as if reminded of some shameful secret, she moved it quickly behind her, embarrassed that it was noticed at all.
"He’s not around much, you know. He works for the railroad and is gone about three weeks a month. We only been married a couple a months. He’s gone this week."
Still watching the street through the mirror, Greeley tuned out the flirtations and focused on the faded lime-green Plymouth Duster with the rusty front fender. He’d owned the Duster since high school, had bought it new with money saved from his first job, a bank hit in Williams, Arizona, a job that scored him fifty thousand dollars in small bills in cattle ranch deposits.. A week later, he had walked into the dealership in Phoenix; they were asking thirty-five hundred for the car. Five thousand dollars in twenties bulged in his pocket. He had peeled them off quickly, with confidence, and had driven the car off the showroom floor. That’s money. That’s how transactions should take place in America.
Something wasn't right with the trunk. It shook. Even in the mirror, he could see the car body sway slightly. He stood up from his seat.
"Darling, bring me a Dr. Pepper. I’ll be right back."
All-American watched Greeley leave the restaurant. His ears listened to Alice, but his eyes followed Greeley. Then he darted his view to the car and noticed why Greeley had to go outside. Alice interrupted his observation.
"What’s your name, Mister?"
He held out a hand. Alice shook it briefly, then flitted her ring hand to its newfound home behind her back and out of sight.
"I get off in a half hour, Ricky. I could show you what’s fun in this town. If you want."
Through the mirror, Carver watched Greeley open the trunk, reach in, and remove a tire iron. He stood up straight, scanned the road for any bystanders and brought the tire iron down three times. He threw the tire iron back in the trunk, removed a rag, wiped his hands, closed the trunk and headed back for the diner.
"So, Ricky, what do you say? Want me to show you around town? Or we could just go back to my place."
Carver lifted his coffee and sipped. He flashed his trademark grin at Alice, leaned back so that his muscles tensed against his shirt, giving her a preview of his well-built frame. His shirt lifted as he stretched, revealing a hard line of stomach muscles. He saw Alice’s face grow a deeper red. He smiled wider.
"Are you a dirty girl, Alice?"
A young girl’s giggle escaped her throat. She set the coffee pot on the table, covered her mouth with both hands. Carver saw her nipples pushing through her blouse.
"I’ll see you in a half hour, Alice. Now don’t forget my friend’s Dr. Pepper."
A bell jingled as Greeley walked in. He walked past Alice, whose face was flustered. He sat back down in his former position and watched the mirror again.
"Ricky, I think that there’s a woman in every small town dying to be something she can’t."
"And then we come along, right?"
"Yes, Ricky, and then we come along."
Carver stared out the window at the car. Whatever had shaken the car had stopped now.
"Everything alright out there, Greeley?"
"Yes. Everything is fine."
Carver noticed a spot of something on Greeley’s chin. He handed him a napkin.
"You've got some splatter on your face."
After wiping his face down, Greeley looked at the paper napkin. Red smudges dotted the surface. Ricky sat the newspaper down just as Alice returned with Greeley’s soda pop. The front-page headline faced up.
"Here’s your Dr. Pepper, mister."
She was about to walk away when she looked at the headline.
"Oh that poor girl. Isn't it terrible? Her husband and children must be so worried."
Carver looked at the lead headline: Denver woman still missing; presumed dead. He looked back out to the street where the car was parked.
"Yes, Alice. It’s a damn shame."
Oliver Chadwick was at the end of a three-day bender. He had started drinking Wednesday night--the same night he had come home to find that his girlfriend of ten years had taken every last speck of furniture, every plate from the cupboard, every book from the shelves in the study. She had cleaned him out. In the bathroom, taped to the mirror, were several Polaroid pictures of her in several compromising positions with a man that looked very much like Tom Cruise had looked in Far and Away--cut, fit, handsome. The pictures were time stamped for the night before. No note. Just a giant fuck you in the form of photographed fellatio. She had left the cat; it was an animal Oliver hated because it liked to shit on his pillow when he was at work. Rather than sit at home and be angry, Oliver decided it was better to drink--and gamble.
Three days later, Oliver was sitting at a $500-$1500 poker table at the Commerce Casino near downtown Los Angeles. He was simultaneously sobering up and trying to put his opponent on a poker hand that he could beat. Three days of drinking rum and coke hadn't dulled his luck. He was currently sitting in front of forty-two thousand dollars. The young man across the table had a healthy chip stack of almost eighteen grand, not enough to break Oliver, but enough to make his winnings significantly lighter.
The board read Ad-2s-4s. Oliver curled up the corners of his hand and stared at the 3s-6s. He had an inside straight draw and a back-door flush draw. The pre-flop betting had been what pros call tight-passive, meaning everyone limped in. The blinds were only $5-$10. By the time the pre-flop betting had stopped, eight players were in the pot for a total of $80. Oliver was first to act on the flop. He checked, as did two of the men behind him. When the betting reached the young man with the eighteen grand, he pushed out a thousand dollars. Everyone else folded around to Oliver, who not being quite sober, immediately called. The other two men folded their cards and the dealer pulled the money into the center.
"I'd be careful if I were you old timer."
The young man laughed a little. He reached up and lifted his Dodgers cap off his head briefly and scratched the crown of his scalp.
Oliver didn't respond to the comment. He just started thinking about his opponent's hand possibilities. Everyone limped in pre-flop. I checked, as did the two guys to my left, then this kid decides to buy the eighty dollar pot with a huge over bet. Why would you do that, kid? Did you limp in with 3-5 off-suit and hit a straight? Did you limp in with a big hand like A-A and strike top set? Oliver stopped thinking and observed his opponent. He was leaning in real close to his chip stack, an aggressive body language move that many professional card players would say demonstrated strength. The kid's shoulder kept shaking slightly. Oliver leaned over to his left and saw the kid's foot tapping on the floor, doing what many professionals called the happy dance. This was a tell that often indicated card strength. Oliver put the kid on two aces, for top set. He observed that his opponent seemed very comfortable, yet slightly worried, as if thinking that Oliver might have somehow made a straight on the flop.
"Don't worry kid, I threw caution out the window three days ago."
The turn card came. Another ace. If Oliver's read was right--and he believed that it was--this kid had four aces. Oliver peeked back down at his cards, assuring himself that they had not changed, and tapped the table for a check. To his surprise, the kid checked back. This started another round of meta-cognition. Why check? You bet a grand on your aces. A fourth ace comes and you don't want to get value? If I were some shmuck who believed a flush would hold on the river, I might call a bet.
"You just made a mistake, Kid."
The kid snorted. He gave a dirty stare to Oliver from across the table. Oliver just waited for the dealer, who was in the process of burning and turning. When the River card was exposed, a five of spades settled into the line, giving Oliver the straight flush. Now, if the kid did have four aces, he just lost.
Oliver decided to test his read and see if he could get this kid's entire stack. He shuffled the chips in his right hand for a few seconds before throwing $1350 out onto the felt. The kid leaned back in his chair, raised his arms in a yawning motion. He laughed like a naive schoolgirl, awkwardly, as if having been just kissed for the first time.
"I think you're the one who just made a mistake, old man. Raise."
The kid grabbed four stacks of black $100 chips, totaling eight-thousand dollars, and pushed them onto the felt. Now, he leaned back in his chair, too comfortable, too certain of victory. And it was in this moment that Oliver chose to lecture.
"You know what I do for a living kid?"
"I don't fucking care what you do. Call or fold."
"I observe things, kid. I watch things; I study situations and people. I try to establish patterns of behavior. It's what makes me good at my job. You see, you made me curious with that big overbet on the flop. If today had happened a week ago, I would've called you an asshole and mucked my hand because I know you have three aces. You telegraphed it with bad body language and an overly-developed sense of confidence. I made you for the kind of guy who might try and play tricky, which you did when you hit your quads on the turn. But then you made a mistake."
"Do I have to listen to this guy? Dealer, call time." The dealer called a floor-man over who informed Oliver that he had one minute to decide, but Oliver didn't need that long.
"Your mistake was when you checked the turn. You let me catch up. You gave me the two-percent chance to win, and you gave it to me for free. You didn't even charge me to see the river, and for that I thank you." Oliver motioned his hands forward in a fanning motion and declared to the dealer that he was all-in.
The young man did not instantly call. Something about Oliver's speech had him perplexed. "Can I flip over my cards? I'm not calling yet, just flipping them over."
"I don't care what you do."
The kid turned over his hand and revealed exactly what Oliver thought he had, two aces.
"I shouldn't lose with this."
"No, you shouldn't."
"What could you possibly have? You wouldn't call me with a three-six of spades on the flop. Only an idiot would make that call."
"Or a drunk."
"You're bluffing, old man."
"I'm only forty-five, kid. But do yourself a favor--save your money. You know what I have. You just said so, yourself."
"I think you're bluffing."
"If you think that, then the call is easy."
But the call wasn't easy. The kid agonized over his cards for another minute before acting.
"I can't lay this down. I'm just not that good. I call."
Oliver turned over his hand, fulfilled his young opponent's curiosity, and silently celebrated the additional eighteen thousand he just added to his chip stack, more than enough to refurnish his apartment. Hell, he might even adopt a dog. While he organized his winnings, his cell phone hummed in his pocket. He reached for it and saw that it was work.
"This is Chadwick."
"We need you right away. There's been a body found on the 110 freeway near the Martin Luther King off-ramp."
Oliver silently cursed the dispatcher. He collected his winnings and headed for the valet lobby to order a cab. Shopping would have to wait another day.
The cab driver let Oliver out at the Flower Street and West 37th Street. Police cars cordoned off both sides of West 37th, blocking passage beneath the 110 freeway and cutting off access to the northbound on-ramp. Uniforms milled around the street, directing traffic, taking statements, and steering the curious public away from the body.
Oliver approached the yellow tape and was about to duck beneath it when a hand grabbed the back of his coat.
“You ain't welcome here, Chadwick.”
Oliver turned around to see a small brute of a man. Nick Castle was short, well under six feet tall. His teeth were yellow from coffee and cigarettes. His greasy hair combed back. Nick had thick hair, all one length, but unkempt like the hair on a mongrel. His suit was clean, but rumpled; His leather shoes were shined, but aging; and the fist he had wrapped into the folds of Oliver’s jacket was compact, yet powerful.
“Dispatch called me here, Nick. You mind letting go?”
Castle loosened his grip, let the jacket fall away from his fingers. He exhaled and Oliver caught a strong whiff of whiskey.
“I said you ain’t wanted around here, Chadwick. Let Cagle catch the case.”
“Cagle isn't here. Besides, dispatch called me. The chief said he wants me working this one.” This last part was a fib, but Oliver knew Castle would not challenge the story.
“One of these days, Chadwick, we are going to get you. You won’t see it coming.”
“Perhaps it’s that kind of thinking that almost cost you your badge and your pension?”
Castle swung at Oliver, but missed. He fell to one knee. None of the other police officers stopped to pay any attention.
Oliver stooped down to help Castle back to his feet, but Castle slapped Oliver’s arm away. “I don’t need your help, you dirty fucking snitch.” Castle stood up, slowly. He didn't face Oliver. He just spoke quietly. “There’s more than one way to kill a rat. I’ll fix you if it’s the last thing I do.”
Oliver walked away, his middle finger in the air. He could not concern himself with Castle and his ilk, but at some point, he knew he would have to take steps to make himself more secure.
Ducking under the yellow police tape, Oliver moved toward a darker corner of the crime scene. A solitary officer stood fifteen feet from what appeared to be a nude body.
“Were you the first officer on scene?”
The officer wasn't facing Oliver. When the officer turned, Oliver wasn't sure what surprised him more—that the officer was female or that she looked so young. She seemed startled by Oliver’s presence.
“I’m not a ghost, Officer—“
“Tell me what we've got, Officer Rhein.”
Officer Rhein escorted Oliver to the corpse. She did not approach it completely, but let Oliver continue alone when they were six feet from the body. Oliver did not fail to notice her hesitation.
“Officer Rhein. This body is dead. It won’t jump up and bite you.”
“I know. It’s just—it’s just that I’ve never seen a dead body treated like this before.”
Oliver had seen every crime imaginable performed on a corpse. He was no longer shocked at crime scenes, not like when he first joined the police force twenty years ago. His first case was a child. A young girl had been playing with her dog near the commuter rail tracks when a homeless man shoved her into the path of an oncoming train. When Oliver answered that dispatch call, he had arrived at the train tracks to find just the girl’s body—no head—sitting down cross-legged as if reading a book or watching television. He never did find the head.
Oliver reached into his pocket for a pair of latex gloves. “What exactly did you see when you found the body?” He snapped the left glove onto his wrist and then the right glove.
“I was responding to a call. Someone witnessed—“
“I don’t know, sir. The dispatcher didn't have that information. As I was saying, someone witnessed two men pulling what appeared to be a woman out of the trunk of a car.”
“Did you happen to get the make and model?”
“Dispatch did not have that information, sir.”
“Is this how you found the body?”
“Yes, sir. I didn't touch her except to check for a pulse.”
“You didn't touch it.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I said, you didn’t touch it. Don’t ever refer to the victims we find as him or her. Once you do that, your next tendency will be to start empathizing with the victim. Always refer to a body as it. Trust me, you’ll save yourself from plenty of sleepless nights. It’s the only way to get by in this job.” He paused for a moment. “Well, that and drinking.”
Officer Rhein mumbled, “So the rumors about you are true?”
grabbed Officer Rhein by the elbow and escorted her back to the yellow tape. Under his breath, he said, “You have no right to judge. Unless you’re going to get in there, unless you are going to do the difficult work, unless you are going to engrave it into the deepest parts of your memory—you do all that, then you can judge me all you want.”
Rhein mumbled some half-garbled apology; Oliver saw her face: the shocked look, a look that screamed how dare you. And he knew he was in the wrong. He had manhandled her in front of the other male officers, embarrassing her unnecessarily.
Oliver walked back to the corpse. He removed a small notebook from his pocket to take notes, but before he could start, he had to look, to really see what Officer Rhein had meant about never seeing a body treated in such a way.
He started by observing the head. The face was mangled. The forehead was smashed in like someone had beaten it with a pipe or a bat of some sort. The front teeth were missing and the nose was inverted, tucked uncomfortably around the nasal cavity. Whoever did this had to physically push the nose inward to achieve that effect. Oliver knelt down and turned the head slightly. The left ear had a cut behind it. The cut looked like it had been deep, but when Oliver pushed gently along the cut, he noticed what appeared to be fishing line stitching the ear back to the head.
Oliver worked his way down the body, methodologically checking for scrapes, cuts, defensive wounds—anything that might harbor DNA. Along the left arm, he found another extensive cut along the forearm that was sewn back together with fishing line, and on the left palm, a star-shaped stitch pattern closed a series of cuts that would have exposed the carpal bones had it been open. Oliver worked his way down the legs finding another stitch job along the upper thigh, but this one was different than the others. It was sloppy, as if an unskilled hand had performed it. When he reached the feet, he found no cuts, but the skin around the big toe had been removed, and the hallux was exposed. Oliver lifted the leg to get a better look at the toe. What he saw piqued his curiosity.
What the hell?”
Oliver turned around to see Lieutenant Galvez. He let the leg down gently, standing to take some of the pressure off of his aging knees. Exhaling, he let out a belch of three-day-old whiskey.
“Jesus Christ. You’re drunk.”
Oliver held up his hands. He made excuses. “She left me. She took everything, and I mean everything. All she left me was the cat.” He did not mention the money he won gambling.
“You can’t be drunk at a crime scene, Chadwick. You get caught again, the chief and the mayor will have your badge.”
“Then I guess it’ll have to be our little secret.”
“You’ve got to get help. I can’t keep covering for you.”
Oliver shrugged. “You can lead a horse to water.” Oliver turned his attention back to the body. He stepped close to it, examining it again, trying to ensure he hadn’t missed a clue. Work was his salvation. Work saved his soul.
“You want to fill me in, at least, Chadwick?”
“I’m not sure what to make of this one yet, Lieutenant, except that judging by her remains, I think we have one sadistic son of a bitch to deal with.” Oliver stooped and rolled the body back into its original position.
“I want to show you something,” said Oliver. He directed the Lieutenant’s attention to the cuts with the nylon stitches. The Lieutenant let out a slow whistle.
“Any ideas as to what the killer might be doing?”
“It’s too soon to say. At first, I thought we might be some kind of mutilation fetishist, that maybe some crazy kink game had gone horribly wrong, but the big toe has me confused. I’m just not sure how it fits in to what I’m seeing.” Oliver reached for the left leg. He held up the foot so that Lieutenant Galvez could see it. “Take a look at this, Lieutenant.”
Lieutenant Galvez put on his glasses and peered at the foot for a second. “Why’d the killer take the skin?”
Oliver moved the leg so it was at a slight angle. The light hit the hallux bone to reveal that parts of it had been carved away, and the toe had been whittled into a new shape.
“I think the bigger question, Lieutenant, is why would someone carve the toe into the shape of a key?”