Somehow, the bitter taste in his mouth never goes away, whether it’s his first month on the case or his fifteenth. This time, the girl is Anna Marie Langston, a graduate student at the nearby university. Her skin, like every other victim in this god-awful nightmare, has been flayed open into symmetrical fourths, rib cage and the organs beneath exposed to the cooling air. Detective Wesley Perea takes another too-hot gulp of his coffee and curls his right hand into a fist. Behind him, the natural pandemonium of a crime scene ensues. Another one bites the dust, and the police force is kept in employment for a few more weeks.
But this has gone far past the need for a job. Wesley’s supervisor always warns against getting attached to a case, especially a serial killer’s, but it’s inevitable. He’s spent over a year chasing this man, this psychopath, and every new body is yet another failure. It’s no longer his job to catch the killer: it’s his duty.
A bead of coffee drips from the lid and burns Wesley’s forefinger. Red wells up almost immediately.
The pain brings him back to the moment. His nostrils fill with iron and pine. If nothing else, it’s jarring enough to make him straighten his spine. The line of his shoulders smooths out in a carefully learned projection of confidence. From Wesley’s left comes a series of crunches, the subtle crush of leaves under boot, and his partner, Sergeant Johnny Cirillo, comes into view.
“Far from it, pal.” Johnny’s voice is rough from smoking. He’s a good man, loud and happy, but the stench of death leaves no one untouched. Working in homicide, too, has added a layer of exhaustion that seems foreign on Johnny’s face. His hands are shoved in his coat pockets, collar turned up against the cold, and his shoulders are bunched up near his neck. Wesley grunts but doesn’t say anything else, letting the background noise wash over them. They take in the scene.
Despite the blood and surrounding trees, it looks like something out of an art gallery. Langston’s body lies flat on the ground, her filleted flesh stretched evenly over thin plastic rods. They are a butterfly’s wings sprouting from her heart in every direction, detail etched into the underside of her skin. Next to her head is a painting of her in profile, torso spattered with red like a copycat Jackson Pollock. Back at the station, there’s a cork board, overused and overworked, with copies of every painting to date. Threads of criss-crossing red and blue connect the portraits to the victims.
Wesley has learned to hate each new spool of string.
“Y’know, Wes,” Johnny finally says after sipping his coffee, “it’s the spitting image of her. You have to admit that the kid’s got talent. Shame he’s gotta accompany it with a body.”
“I don’t care how much talent he has, what he does isn’t art. It’s not even close.”
Disgust is on the tip of his tongue, rising to the surface with another bout of fatigue. He brings his cup to his lips and sighs into the rim. A memory – one Wesley has never been able to escape – plays over again as he searches the victim’s face. His mother’s features overlay hers, blonde hair turning dark, skin becoming tan, eyes opening wider and lips growing larger. It’s not her, and he knows this, but one victim of a serial killer is like them all: cold and innocent and dead.
This girl had a family, parents, maybe siblings. She had friends and mentors; she had a life. It’s his least favorite part, informing a victim’s loved ones. Mothers cry, fathers clench their teeth, and brother and sisters and best friends collapse in on themselves. It’s like watching a star explode and getting burned in the backlash. No one gets out unharmed.
No one, that is, except the killer. Who else would put on a false face? Who else would nod, awkward in his own skin, and return to work after the news? Who else would fall short of expressing shock, grief, anger? Someone who knew the victims, who interacts in the environment. Someone like prodigy art student Jason Dougall, the prime suspect since the first body was found.
Johnny can argue all he likes, point out other possible murderers and circumstantial evidence, but Wesley knows. It’s something in the shift of Dougall’s stance, the dart of his eyes; it’s in the way he holds a scalpel as easily as he holds a paintbrush and how his sculptures are always perfect, always symmetrical. No one free of wrongdoing carries that sort of obsession with them and doesn’t show signs. No one so carefully skirts around that compulsion without being consciously aware of its implications.
Dougall is smart, however, and all of Wesley’s convictions would mean nothing in court. The paintings are never signed, never left with an identifying mark. And that has always bothered Wesley – that lack of precision, when everything else is so pristine. It works away at the back of his mind, a slow burn that causes him to take a step closer to the painting. There’s something off about this one.
A technician warns him not to disturb the body, but he’s not paying attention to anything but the paint. Just under the acrylic sweep of Langston’s chin, Wesley can see the irregularity. It’s something new: a number. Ten numbers. Penciled in with a precision that the rest of the splatter pattern lacks.
Wesley rushes to the canvas, stumbling over yellow tape and cracked concrete. He can hear Johnny, who was knocked over in the sudden motion, shout at his back. It doesn’t matter, though, because there are ten numbers. It’s a signature, a sign: a set of three, a set of three, and a lone set of four. It’s a familiar pattern, ingrained into Wesley’s mind after hours of flipping through case files. He could recite the phone number in his sleep, if prompted.
His fingers fumble with the buttons, nails scrabbling for purchase over the screen. It only takes a minute for a name to pop up: Dougall. It’s not just any number; it’s the killer’s. It has to be. It is. Wesley can hear someone’s voice barking orders to the others, and hands make a grab for his shoulder, but his only focus is the phone.
This is it. This is what he’s been waiting for. This is the proof they so desperately need.
He presses “call,” and the line rings once, twice, a third time. Then there’s a click. Someone has picked up. The quiet is unexpected, and it crackles through the connection, complemented by the hush that has fallen behind him. The hand squeezing his arm slides off, returning to its owner’s side. One of the officers whispers about him finally snapping, but his words sound more like an obligation than a crack.
Wesley breathes in. Dougall breathes out. He’s just about to make a statement of some sort – say hello, maybe – but a soft voice cuts through the silence. It’s as though he’s discussing the weather, as though this is nothing but an ordinary call, and Wesley’s blood runs cold.
“You’ve got a pretty sister, detective.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.