20040922

Coattail


“If you were going to kill someone, how would you do it?”

“Poison. Definitely poison.”

“Why poison? There are so many ways to go wrong with poison.”

“Like how? You don’t even have to be on the same continent with your victim. There’s a lot to like about poison’s anonymity, speed, and finality.”

“Well, what if it fucks up? What if you get the dosage wrong, or your man is hideously immune? You’ve just put your mortal enemy in a heavily-guarded hospital with a case of paranoiac anorexia and a team of detectives up his ass trying to figure out why. And there you are stuck in Belize chatting up AP stringers and changing your haircut every day to stay one step ahead of Interpol.”

“Belize sounds lovely.”

“What if they don’t drink from your ruby goblet of doom at all, but give it to their kid or something? Not only did you fuck up, but you just killed an innocent.”

“Act of mercy. There aren’t any innocents.”

“Do you really mean that?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I think I am going to kill someone.”

We both put down our respective sections of the newspaper and stared at each other across the breakfast table. I was reading the comics; Sheila had the rest. Jack Sprat and the information age.

“Besides,” I said, “nobody likes poisoners. If you were caught, you wouldn’t stand a chance with a jury. Murder is only acceptable in inverse relation to its degree of cowardice. You’d be better off hacking up cheerleaders in a utility shed somewhere. We all have that impulse, I think.”

“I only take my cues from the best. And you don’t necessarily have to kill anyone to get the most out of poison, Norbert. Think about all of the lead and Prozac in our drinking water.”

She pointed to an article in the municipal section.

“Once upon a time, the government only murdered its dissidents. Now it waits for those who can’t afford water filters – the agitated poor – to simply get thirsty. Then it grinds them into good citizens through chemical domination.”

“Unsubstantiated supervillainy. Much too clever for clods with bureaucratic tendencies.”

“On the contrary. Peasants are pheasants, and the hunters grow weary of the same old game. With poison, you can make already downtrodden subjects even more stupid and docile with their complete oblivious complicity. It isn’t sporting, but it is goddamn satisfying. Nothing beats reveling in the slow descent of your rivals into tedious delirium.”

“Hmmm. I see your point. Not to mention all the fun that can be had with the precipitous dangling of an imaginary antidote.”

“Exactly. Would you rather eliminate your enemy like a stupid Nazi or make him your eternal slave like a wily Brit?”

“I’ll do anything as long as I walk away Scot free.”

“Are you really going to kill someone?”

“I think so. Yes, it certainly seems like I have no choice, now.”

Sheila folded the business and leisure sections neatly into a stack and tossed them briskly into the recycling bin. She swilled the last grainy dregs out of her favorite blue porcelain coffee cup, and then put it into the sink for me to wash later. I liked the icy glint in her eye. She knew I was serious, and I knew she didn’t care. Love? Lust? It worked, whatever it was.

“I am going to kill the man who writes this comic.”

I slid her the funnies. She picked them up with a wanton smirk, one delicate hand on one delicate hip.

“I have been planning on killing him for years. I think you can see why.”

She read the strip I was pointing to, her smile slowly fading.

“Knobbly Hurkle. By Sanderson Savage. Hey Knobbly (says one poorly-drawn bobble-headed youth), where do ya think we go when we die? I don’t know, says Knobbly (who looks to be some sort of retarded mongoose with truly grotesque elbows that must weigh him down like twin cartoon wheelbarrows), but I sure hope they have coupons. My God.”

“So you understand what I have to do.”
“I understand nothing. This Sanderson Savage...do you know him?”

“Not personally, but I know what he looks like. I saw a television special on him last month, and it said he would be moving to our town in order to pursue his career in poetry. Just last Thursday I saw him in the produce section of Randall’s. He was buying pistachio nuts. He wore a bowtie. That was when I knew the weight of coincidence was too heavy to bear, and that I must act or hold cheap a lifetime of conviction and rectitude.”

“Why Knobbly Hurkle? I mean, it’s bad…but so are most newspaper comics. Surely there are worse people in the universe.”

“Maybe. But maybe not. The history of Sanderson Savage and his gangly homunculi is as sordid and disturbing as it is lengthy. Knobbly Hurkle is not the pleasantly unassuming mongoose he appears to be, and his influence on the minds of the naive has been immeasurable in terms of sheer lasting damage.”

“Oh yeah?”

Sometimes I forgot Sheila was a stodgy old continental Kraut. But where else could one find a girl who knew her way around a riding crop and the importance of impeccable posture?

“Knobbly Hurkle was invented in 1972 after Mr. Savage reportedly did a near-lethal dose of LSD, upending an entire vial and spending a summer chained to a wall in a crooked government insane asylum. The character originally began as Savage’s disordered alter-ego, a node of reason on the blistered edge of a broken mind, the only way the fragmented lunatic could communicate with the outside world. Half reckless scamp, and half Satanic id, Knobbly Hurkle raped, pillaged, and jested his way across bland landscapes of alienated American subculture, planting seeds of discontent and slyly subverting every dominant ideology taken for granted by a mindless, anodyne audience. He was hard hitting, he was fresh, and he was funny. A generation of adolescents decided that Knobbly Hurkle would be their mascot, and it wasn’t long before market pressure plastered him across every syndicated daily in America.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Oh, it wasn’t. I grew up reading Knobbly Hurkle and I loved him. We grew our hair out long together, we shaved our hair off together, we pierced our nose and started listening to Depeche Mode together. We even tried cocaine together for a brief period in the eighties. I almost got a Knobbly Hurkle tattoo when I was in France with the Teacher’s Union, and by no means was I his biggest fan.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Ten years ago something strange happened. I woke up one morning and I discovered that Knobbly Hurkle was dead. The lines were the same and the characters were all there -- Sally Strut, Uris the Urthman, Doctor Pow -- but the soul was gone, and the strip had merely become a lifeless shell of its former anarchic genius. I read in horror as Knobbly Hurkle delivered a stiff platitude about how men would never understand women, and therefore how hard it was to find a decent auto mechanic. I thought it was just a fluke at first. That Savage was having a bad day. Maybe he let a friend write a guest strip because he lost a bet or something. But day after day, week after week, the comic continued to degenerate, burning and salting all of the artistic ground it had gained. Finally there was nothing left. The body of Knobbly Hurkle was not only dead – it was rotten. And the leftover maggots were very, very, very, very unfunny.”

“What happened?”

“Savage had made a complete mental recovery, and it turns out that he was a completely mediocre, completely boring, and completely talentless person. But so was an entire generation. No one seemed to notice that Knobbly Hurkle -- whose low-slung elbows once dragged bright lines of illumination through the dirt of the Western World -- had become a marionette for corporate greed, a corpse made to dance for a man with a hollow heart. A proud proponent of all that I loathed and disdained. His dreck was still gospel for my peers, however: once hard to swallow, it was now entropic pap for the toothless masses to gum until they grew sleepy with intellectual malnutrition.”

“Hey, that’s right…I remember Knobbly Hurkle. Didn’t he get banned in Europe for spanking the Queen of England? The cartoon version, anyway.”

“And the very next year he was bought by Disney to do a series of films on teen pregnancy. Sanderson Savage started to do his famous commercials for Uniball for the Pen 15. My friend was murdered -- for money, for status, for laziness, and for ineptitude -- and I must take my revenge. The damage has been done, to society and to art, but I must kill his maker so his spirit may rest. A violent death will be the only thing that will distract posterity from Savage’s last ten years of trite respectable failure.”

“I don’t know how I feel about this. I’ve always wanted to murder somebody – you know that – but I don’t want to waste my cherry on some bullshit cartoonist. I want to be creative like the “Chessboard Murderer.”

“Don’t kid yourself: It will definitely be entertaining. But there’s no need to involve yourself if you aren’t fully committed. Are you with me or not?”

Sheila sighed. She rolled her eyes and bit her lip. She took off all of her jewelry and then put it back on, a uniquely obnoxious habit. She kicked at the recycling bin, knocking it over and spilling newspaper and milk cartons all across the kitchen’s parquet floor. She bent over to scoop them back together, and then stopped in mid-squat. Her lips moved. She was reading something. She turned to me and smiled.

“I’m with you,” she said quietly, “But only because I know for a fact we won’t get caught. The police are trying something new. Ever wanted to know how a remora feels?”


2.

My name is Detective Gerry Lee Miller. The eighth kill by the “Chessboard Murderer” has prompted this live journal, in which I hope to chronicle the actions of the police force towards apprehending this sick and dangerous individual. The press has been particularly uncooperative and confrontational regarding what they call “faceless, menacing silence on the part of the investigative authorities” and I am supposed to simultaneously render them irrelevant and put a personal spin on what has been the single most baffling series of homicides in this detective’s career. The Department gave me an ultimatum, and this is the compromise we came to. I received my BA in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University before I got my masters in Criminal Psychology and decided to serve justice, and they feel my unique and humanistic approach to law enforcement will help clarify and communicate our findings, theories, and warnings to an increasingly panicky public. At this point, we’ll try anything. We are getting NOWHERE.

The facts so far. The “Chessboard Murderer” has been taking victims for fourteen months, covering the entire Southwest region and leaving absolutely no traceable physical evidence. The killer’s calling card is a single chess piece – Staunton – which he leaves on the chest of each victim after shooting them singly through the forehead, crossing their arms, and rouging their cheeks. He has been alternating back and forth between leaving black and white pawns, killing minor government officials and the operating captains of several local organized crime syndicates. Many feel that he will continue the metaphor and move forward to people in more conspicuous positions of power for both the establishment and illicit communities, but it is still unclear whether or not other pieces from the chessboard will be used or what will happen if one side loses its king. Regardless, the security detail for the Governor of seven states has quadrupled, and the Police Union has sworn swift vengeance after the latest death of Patrick Flynn, a beloved 20 year veteran in the vice squad of San Bastinado county.

I didn’t know Sgt. Flynn, but now I have seen him naked with all of his organs weighed and on a platter. What makes the measure of a man? His heart was unusually heavy when he died, but that was only because of arthrosclerosis. The “Chessboard Murderer” has changed everything I knew about police work, and is giving me and my precinct the unholy terrors.

We are all stumped as to the motive and means behind this killing spree. All attempts to find a pattern outside of random assignation of value on an imaginary social chessboard have met with utter failure. The killer seems to choose his victims at random after targeting a profession. A garbage worker, a firefighter, a police officer, and a social worker have so far been tapped as white pawns, and the black pawns have all been countercultural unsavories specializing in the flesh, drug, burglary, and gambling trades. The rampage has had at least one interesting effect: criminals are lying low in the hopes that they will be passed over as viable candidates when their card comes up. Cops and robbers now have a chilling third estate.

The situation is grim, but we are optimistic about our chances of eventually finding the killer and bringing him or her to justice. The FBI has been working with us for over six weeks now, and many leads have yet to be explored. The general public has absolutely nothing to fear, and it seems certain that the serial killer will grow increasingly careless as he becomes more and more successful. To the extent that he loses respect for the law, the law will make up the distance with its eternal, unending vigilance. My Chief told me to put that one in for him. There you go, Chief.

I am also supposed to discuss the personal side of this case, and the toll it is taking on me: the lowly homicide detective. To be honest, I don’t really have time for a personal side. My friends have always respected my choice of career over frivolity, and I have been divorced from my husband for over eleven years. I do have one concern. I have noticed lately that my relationship with my daughter has become mutually distant as I have had to spend many long nights at the station, poring over old chess manuals and manufacturer catalogs, placing dot after dot on the big board and drinking enough coffee to pickle my liver like a Vidalia onion. And she is so busy with school and cheerleading, we never see each other anymore. She gets the house during the day, and I get it at night. I hope to change this soon. Honey, if you are reading this, let’s go out for ice cream this weekend.


3.

My daughter – Renee -- has politely informed me that the purpose of a live journal is to be confessional and not informational.

“Mom,” she says, “If you want to get more hits, you have to tell them dirty secrets. You can’t just tell them things they can find out in the newspaper.”

This is what I get for $30 a month of broadband access. She can barely finish the TV Guide crossword, and she is giving her own mother professional advice. She is probably right, though. Dammit, some days I wish we could just cram them back inside and slowly digest them like they slowly digest us.

Note: This web site does not in any way reflect the opinions of the Windy Valley Police Department.

Here are some juicy factoids you won’t find anywhere else:

? John Wayne Gacy, the Illinois hospital clown who murdered at least thirty-one homeless gay men and kept them under his house, swears to this day that he was hired by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia to be the front line in keeping the AIDS epidemic from reaching the heterosexual population. According to Gacy, the hospital where he volunteered would give him the dossier of a patient who had tested positive for HIV and then offer him a sizeable bounty. “My checks were all signed by the Secretary of the Treasury,” he said in an interview with Katy Couric that has never been aired. “I cashed ‘em all because I needed the booze. I just didn’t feel right about murderin’ all them queers, but you know how it is. I was bein’ patriotic. Then they decided they was done with me, and here I am. But I wasn’t the only one doing it, yunnerstan. There was lots of us. At lest fitty. I ain’t so patriotic no more.” Gacy was executed by lethal injection in 1994.

? Neither Shirley or Marilyn Manson are actually related to sixties svengali and convicted murderer Charles Manson, but Leonard Manson, inventor of the travel toothbrush, is. After a lengthy paternity suit that snaked through three separate district courts, the results of the court-ordered blood test were finally made public in 1997. Charles remains silent on the subject, but reportedly sends his son a box of Twinkies on his birthday. Leonard Manson used to eat them, until he reportedly bit into one that contained human feces.

? The most famous serial killer on record was Vice President William R. King, who served under Franklin Pierce and was notorious for habitually impregnating chambermaids exclusively to kill the illegitimate newborns. While abortion was neither safe nor effective in the mid-19th century, there were certainly methods available. King simply enjoyed smothering infants.

? The “Chessboard Murderer” shoots with his left hand and always places the body of the victim in a separate room, leaving a trail of blood that sometimes leads through an entire house. Specialists say the rouge on the cheeks is indicative of someone who takes his time, and therefore studies his victim in great detail before acting. The only victim not found alone in his own house was 26-year-old Angel Salazar, found slain in the rectory of the Presbyterian church next door.

My head is killing me, and I swear I am getting carpal tunnel syndrome from bending and unbending paper clips to open and close massive file folders. I have spent the entire day investigating the final hours of Patrick Flynn and trying to figure out whether the “Chessboard Murderer” picks his victims one at a time, or whether he decided long ago who he would kill to achieve his murderous dreams. Is my man an architect or an artist? Does he go according to a grand diabolical plan, or is he willing to allow flexibility when the situation gets tricky?

I keep wondering if he has a chess piece for me. Knight? Rook? The ease with which he killed poor Patrick Flynn has made all of us police officers jumpy. He nailed him cold, like he knew us from the inside.

Speaking of nails, I finally asked out Jim Peterson at the hardware store. It has been years since I have been on a date, and I am kind of giddy. I know I should be focusing on the case, and I AM, but Gerry Lee definitely needs time for Gerry Lee if she is going to keep her head straight and solve this thing. And Jim Peterson is such a sweetheart! He’s got those big, flat carpenter’s hands. You know what I’m talking about. The kind that could paddle the little man in the boat all the way to the Falklands and back.

I have to think of some place romantic and cheap for us to go. An escape. More on this later.

Something else to ponder: DNA samples taken from underneath the wedding ring of Patrick Flynn have turned up a partial match, but nothing on record. Whoever it is, he isn’t a registered sex offender. Patrick Flynn was a tough guy -- by all accounts a smart, brawny, and attentive officer -- and anybody that could get the drop on him is not to be taken lightly. Ballistics say the gun is a large caliber revolver, but I keep imagining a little woman with a little derringer taking big men by surprise. Maybe that is burnout talking. If you spend enough time reconstructing crime scenes in your head, you start to see through the killer’s eyes, and you start to feel what they must feel. It’s no good. You have to step back and be creative. OMG, police work can be tough!


4.

Good news! We finally found a dealer in antique Staunton chess pieces who swears he can trace the purchases. “Chessboard” uses pieces from a different set every time, but that means he must either be a collector or has become one very recently. The Chief burst into my office this morning and gave me a big thumbs up and tried to buy me a beer, and I had to tell him thirty times that I don’t drink. WTF? Maybe I ought to start.

Jim Peterson could not keep those big hands to himself! The date was an utter and abysmal failure. We went to Cody Lemon’s Lobster Circus, which ended up being a horrible idea. Even though they are a pretty good deal, there is nothing more depressing than family restaurants when you are on a date.

Under the flickering halogens, Jim looked like a third rate cirrhosis cadaver. I mean, I am desperate, but not THAT desperate. A girl has to have her pride. Plus, he just wasn’t very interesting and kept trying to tell me why all of my opinions were wrong. Look, jackass: I went to college, and I got a master’s degree. That makes you the one that has to work to prove himself intellectually legitimate. And then there were all the foul and embarrassing things going on under the table. Knee squeezing and heavy petting. Oh well. At least there are serial killers to catch.

By the way, if you have any information leading to the arrest or capture of the “Chessboard Murderer,” please call 1–800–555–GOTM and leave a message. The family of Carmine Montopolous, “Chessboard”s seventh victim, has offered a $50,000 reward for anybody whose help breaks the case, and they are definitely good for it. I went to their house to interview Carmine’s dad “Shaky,” and it is SEVEN STORIES TALL! They have this little David statue in their foyer that pees hand sanitizer and whose posterior functions as a pumice stone for corns and calluses. The guy was practically lighting his cigarettes with 100 dollar bills, and wanted to know if you were supposed to tip the investigating detective. The state pays me, but “Shaky” is paying out big time if you, John Q. Publicum, can help us. Plus, there is the standard federal reward. If you know anything, TELL ME! Tell me, tell me, tell me! Thanks. Seeya.



5.

Another murder today. And it is totally a strange one. I don’t know what to think about it yet. Surely you’ve seen it on the news by now. The TV cameras won’t leave me alone, that’s for damn sure.

The victim was quickly identified by his fans as Sanderson Savage, beloved artist and creator of the cartoon “Knobbly Hurkle,” whose gleeful antics are a favorite among druggies and the elderly. The victim had been missing for three days when a group of schoolchildren scheduled to see his studio found him dead in his kitchen. After ringing his doorbell and then finding his door unlocked, they burst in on what must have been a truly nightmarish scene of carnage. One child needed to be hospitalized after slipping on pooled blood in the marble entryway and breaking her arm. Savage had been dragged through every room in the house – spilling his blood on every piece of expensive furniture and ensuring an abysmal estate sale -- before being laid out prone on the kitchen table, his feet resting on two velvet chairs. On his chest was a black pawn. On his cheeks were circles of red rouge. His arms were crossed, and, by all eyewitness accounts, he looked almost beatific.

By the time police arrived, however, the crime scene was in shambles. The body had been moved into an upstairs bedroom by a protective and horrified elementary school art teacher and flipped onto its stomach. We asked as many questions as we could, but this was not going to be the casecracker. There were children’s fingerprints everywhere, and trying to interview the bug-eyed mops was an exercise in psychological devastation. My mother instinct was trying to shield them and console, and my detective instinct was trying to pry out every gruesome detail. I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t think any of those kids are ever going to become cops. Or cartoonists, for that matter.

The odd thing about this murder is that we can’t figure out why in the hell Savage is the latest black pawn. What ties to the underworld does a well-known and well-respected artist have? Unless “Chessboard” is trying to tell us that art itself is a form of degeneracy. It doesn’t really fit with his established worldview, and we have to scrap months of psychological profiling. Sanderson Savage should have been somebody our killer would have respected. Somebody beyond the chessboard.

After we sent the kids home with their parents, we spent the rest of the day bagging and tagging. The Savage house was disgusting, frankly, and not just because of the bits of brain ground into the pink and purple shag. There were pictures all over the place of that ugly little mongoose and his friends, and all sorts of awards, trophies, and ego trinkets from around the world. It was the house of a perpetual traveler with too much time and money. I had to keep a close eye on my beat cops: it was the kind of place they wouldn’t give two shits about stealing silverware or electronics from. It was like the whole place had been hosed down with dollar bills. Even the wall paper looked hand-drawn, and there were mirrors covering at least 60% of the surface area in the master bedroom and bathroom. God knows why. 150 pounds overweight and pitted like a pickle barrel from monstrously disfiguring teenage acne, Savage had a face and body made for print. That prompts the only good lead from this tremendous disappointment and kills my primrose-with-a-handbag hypothesis: “Chessboard” must be a big, strong guy. All of his other victims have been waifish, and he carried Savage just as far as he carried the others to display him properly.

I did an interview with a reporter from Channel 11 earlier this evening, and he gave me a bit of insight into just what exactly the public cares about. He wanted to know if rumors concerning the suspected homosexual pedophilia of Savage were true and connected to his death. I just stared at him. Of course they aren’t true, and the man is dead either way. Don’t you people care about murder anymore?


6.

Holy crap, somebody’s ass is toast. When we finally figure out what happened, somebody won’t have a job tomorrow. Not if I have anything to do about it.

During the nightshift, the evidence room at the station was broken into and the black pawn from the Savage case was taken. We were supposed to ship it to the FBI’s mobile crime lab in the morning, and this was the only possible time it could have been filched. The attendant says he saw nothing, heard nothing, tasted nothing, etc, etc, etc. The cameras show a shadowy figure with a cloak for a split second before they are covered up by a wad of chewing gum. How did he know where they were? More and more I am beginning to think “Chessboard” is a cop. But surely that’s impossible. Surely we could smell it if one of our own turned rotten.

At any rate, this is going to be a major setback for the specialist doing our Staunton analysis. The Savage murder has been a clusterfuck from the first whistle. And to make the whole thing worse, the “Chessboard Murderer” has finally made national news with his latest slaying. The director of the FBI is starting to take some major flack. I wonder if I will be around for much longer or will the whole thing go completely federal? Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit. If I see another Sanderson Savage retrospective on A&E, I am going to puke bullets.


7.

That’s it then. I’m finished. So is this live journal. So is our entire department’s involvement with “Chessboard.” Two more murders. Husband and wife. We have been declared unfit to preside over such a sensitive and difficult case. Fine by me. I need a good, long vacation. Somewhere tropical. I have sent Renee to stay with her grandmother, and I spent all afternoon trying on bathing suits.

Sheila and Norbert Delacroix were the latest two victims, in case you’ve been living on the streets and stealing your television in half-hour electronics store installments. Norbert Delacroix was a high school guidance counselor, and his wife Sheila was a German national and historical specialist on sadism and torture. A match made in heaven, I guess. The guidance counselor got the white pawn, and the writer got the black one. We may never know why. “Chessboard” reused the piece he stole, though. Why he went to all that trouble to find the Savage pawn and bury it savagely inside the chest of Mrs. Delacroix, the first example we’ve seen of our boy losing his homicidal composure, baffles us all. We may never know anything.

I’m done with serial killers, personally. You just can’t pen ‘em, and they just don’t play fair. Ever since “Chessboard” went public, the name Gerry Lee Miller has been synonymous with comical negligence and supreme municipal incompetence. I’m glad to be done with it. Put me on the traffic division, Chief. I still know what yellow, red, and green signify.

To close this sucker out, I’ll post some pictures of my new tan when I get back from my trip. Until then, AFK and goodbye.















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Herbert said...

In the 42nd para... gotta love the line "... it was now pap for the toothless masses to gum until they grew sleepy with intellectual malnutrition."
What an awesome way to describe how something cool turns into something crap because of and after a modicum of financial success, i.e. actually "selling out."

the herbert said...

started out with promise, but you kinda lost me around part 6 of this one.........
not sure why you lost me....
you do write longer pieces, so it's not like you don't have a track record of not truncating stuff. and i feel fairly confident in saying that you truncated this one.
you don't have to catch the chessboard killer, but did you? or did you reveal who he/she was? if you did, i didn't catch it. say i missed it, and maybe ill go back and re read this one.....
but really, i think ive done enough for this story........

ok, on to the next one....

Herbert said...

I could have sworn this is where i left the comment about liking how you illustrated "selling out." How the cartoonist's work had been cool and hip but, because of a modicum of financial success, was now, "... pap for the toothless masses to gum until they grew sleepy with intellectual malnutrition."
anyway, i also liked the descripts of famous serial murderers, and more.... but overall: see my other comments.