She's Killed again!
August 12 – 3:04 PM
~~ I stepped over a broken glass jar that had been filled with dry macaroni in its hey-day. I was careful not to crush any of the spilled pasta, knowing that one crunch under my boot would mean the end of me.
I moved stealthily through the living room. The rain outside had stopped, and all I could hear as my eyes darted about the small cabin was the drip, drip of rain water off the gutters outside. I looked at my gun, held out in front of me and moving with practiced sweeps over the room – I noticed my hands were shaking. I knew she was near. I could feel her.
Sun blasted in through the windows, charming afternoon light trying to brighten the apocalyptic feeling in the cabin. I wanted to call for back up, but I knew one movement toward the cell phone in my pocket would allow her to plug me with bullets.
But would she? Was she capable of it, after everything that had happened this week, and everything before that? Was I even capable of stopping her?
Phoebe was right. I shouldn't have taken this case. It was a stupid, masochistic mistake. I should have left things as they were between us: a cold spot in the past, a hot flicker in restless dreams that kept the fire of my fiancée's jealousy fueled.
Oh, man, I thought, rounding the corner toward the foyer, both my arms mimicking the shake of my unsteady hands. Rachel. So much for the engagement – I would be surprised if she even returned my Foo Fighters CDs, now. But who I was trying to kid by proposing to Rachel? The poor girl had gotten mixed up in my crusade to forget the woman who was stalking me through this cabin now. You might have thought a slew of murders and a trail of evasive maneuvers that almost seemed planned to drive me mad would have turned me off to this woman. But, oh, young love was like a T-Rex with a screaming tourist's leg in its mouth. Letting go, it seemed, was not a possibility.
I heard the tiniest pinch of movement in the kitchen. My breath caught, my heart tremored. Only the small foyer was between us now.
Suddenly, music came on in the kitchen. My finger jumped on the trigger, and I sent a bullet into the front door, giving away my position. I whispered some inaudible curses and walked faster toward the kitchen – there was no point in sneaking up on her, now.
Calm down, Arnold, I told myself. Don't let her play these games with you. Stevie Wonder was crooning on the radio as I approached the kitchen's doorway. The sun fell carelessly on a small table near the bay window in the corner, the door of the toaster over was lying open. Silence, besides the music. I knew I had to get that radio off. She was using it as a cover. I put my back to the side of the door frame so I could see both sides of me. I was getting clumsy. But I just had this feeling that she wanted a fair fight. She wouldn't sneak up on me: she would want to look me in the eye.
Stevie Wonder's song had ended by the time I was through the doorway. The kitchen appeared secure, but I had the feeling she was watching me. Hadn't I had that feeling all of my life, though?
An old country song was playing loudly now – I could see the little radio, sitting near the back of the counter, beside a stack of cook books. I couldn't help thinking that the old crooner's lazy drawl and humble lyrics were an almost hilarious irony.
I heard a footstep behind me, but it was no mistake on her part. She wanted me to hear it. I turned.
And there she stood. I hadn't gotten a good look at her face in years. All I had while working on the case were grainy surveillance tape stills and unflattering mug shots.
My gun still raised, I was even more shaken by her calm demeanor. She stood, parroting my own defensive stance, in the doorway of the living room. Only five feet of foyer was between us. I tried to find my voice. She looked slightly beautiful in the light from the windows that flanked the front door. Her hair was much shorter than I'd ever seen in. It was tousled, careless and thick, hanging just below her ears. She stood with the posture of a statue, unmoving, with a cruel smile that was only a poker face. She was wearing a short, brown leather dress and matching cowboy boots. She's dressed to be caught, I realized, almost disappointed in her readiness to give up. But she would go out with a bang, I knew that much. And I was the loudest balloon to pop.
I felt beads of sweat roll down the back of the neck as I waited for her to speak. When she remained silent, I spoke up, mustering the only confidence I had left in the face of a case, a murderer, a woman, who had knocked the wind out of me professionally and personally:
" Drop the gun, Helga."
Her smile widened. I watched her study me for signs: would I do it? Or would I drop to my knees and admit that she had bested me, crying at her feet? I wasn't sure myself. But as we stood apart, pointing our guns at each other and all the while threatening each other with something much more deadly, the past week, and all that had led up to it, played through my mind like so much life flashing before my eyes …
Part One: Crime Scenes
Dusty Krikket was the first to go. Helga left school to ride off into the sunset with him when she was sixteen. He was an older man – an Air Force dropout who had breezed through town the summer before our junior year in high school. Helga was eager to get away from her parents and the pressure of living under the weight of her sister's trophy life. Dusty was deemed a good enough distraction. He was little more than a ride out of town, and when she tired of him, she returned to Hillwood.
I remember sitting on the lawn of the high school almost every night during our senior year. Sid and Rhonda would smoke cigarettes and talk about the merits and ultimate over-rated-ness of Frank Lloyd Wright, Gerald and Phoebe would casually molest each other and giggle, and I would sit with Curly and Stinky, usually in the middle of an argument about the integrity of some professional wrestler. I would think of Helga and her obsession with the flashy, dramatized fights that they still discussed. I would wonder if I was the only one who missed her.
Then one night, she was there. We got to the grassy knoll around midnight, all tired but excited about the nearing end of our high school days. Helga was sitting there in our usual spot, smoking one of her infamous Lucky Stripes and eyeing us with an amused grin.
At first, none of us recognized her. She was a far cry from the awkward mule she'd been as a child – but then, that change had come in junior high, when she'd filled out, taken down her pigtails and indulged in monthly eyebrow waxes. Now, though she looked basically the same as she did when she'd left the year before – same heavy eye makeup, same snide expression, same circa-1960's low-cut blouses and textured skirts, there was something different about her 'aura', as Sheena would say.
" What's up, losers?" she'd greeted us warmly, as always, " I see nothing has changed. Psh, God, you're all so predictable. I knew exactly how to find you."
" Helga," I was the first one to speak, " Where have you been?" She let her head loll back on her shoulders as she laughed heartily at my question, her now long, sun-blotched hair falling back and shaking with her laughter.
" Funny you should ask," she said, her head snapping back up, her eyes meeting mine like heat-seeking ice picks, " I've been to hell and back. I guess every town you move through is hell in its own way. But this one," she paused, taking a long drag, and then letting the smoke pour out of her nose like a fire-breathing dragon, " This one is delicious," she said with a grin. " Why don't you sit down?"
I should have run. But instead I sat; I breathed in her perfume: cigarette smoke, and stale sex, and inky secrets that lay out on dusty desert roads far from the city. Every time her pale, blue eyes moved over me, watching me from underneath that smoky makeup, I felt afraid and desperate, like a fisherman reeling in a giant marlin: oh, the danger, but the prize …
So I let Helga Patacki seduce me that summer. She rarely spoke of her former lover, Dusty. She had told me in the beginning that they'd spilt on bad terms, and I understood from then on that any information gleaned about him would be served up curtly and reluctantly. But one afternoon, a few weeks before I left for college, I asked her and she answered.
She was climbing out of my bed: it had been a sleepy summer day, and we'd spent most of it lounging beneath the thin sheets of my bed between thrusts, wishing my sky lights away for the extra sunlight they provided. It was the kind of day you wanted to hide from under thick shadows. I remember it well.
Helga walked across my room, naked and unashamed. She sat at my small dresser mirror and picked up the flimsy black comb I used to try and tame my wild blond hair in the mornings before school. She pulled it through her long hair slowly, watching my reflection in the mirror as she combed. I wondered where and how she had grown so … sure of herself. She seemed like such an adult compared to me and to the rest of the old gang.
Had it happened in an instant? Was she sitting at a dive somewhere in Arizona, quietly watching Dusty pick a fight with the owner, waiting to get thrown out of another dumpy motel, drinking coffee and averting her eyes to the window, bored with the whole thing? Did it happen then, this maturity, this distance from the hope and stupid naivete of childhood? When and how would it happen to me? I didn't want to go to college still wet behind the ears. I wanted some of Helga's new worldliness to rub off on me.
" So whatever happened to old Dusty, anyway?" I asked her, letting my head fall backwards over the edge of my bed. I watched her upside down like that: she placed the comb down on my dressing table and folded her hands in her lap. " Is he mopping the floor at McDonald's now, or what?"
Helga looked up from her lap and met my eyes again in the mirror. She half-smiled and touched her bottom lip.
" I killed him," she said, point blank. She gave a tiny, girlish shrug, " He got on my nerves."
I had always thought she was kidding. With Helga, there was no seriousness, only sarcasm. But now …
Now when Phoebe tells me that the first murder was Darcy Kompost, I have my doubts.
August 5, 9:53 AM
We're standing in my office, the gray light of an early morning in the city sneaking in through the dark blinds that I've got pulled over the two small windows. Phoebe is giving me That Look: the one that means she thinks she's about to tell me something that I can't handle. I raise my eyebrows at her: a challenge. Hit me with your worst.
" They've given us an assignment," she says in her usual chirpy monotone,
" But we have to reject it."
" Why?" I ask, frowning, " Curt was briefing me about it this morning in the elevator – it sounds high profile. Good for our careers, eh?"
Phoebe looked confused. She straightened her no-nonsense blazer and tossed her short, black hair. She had grown up to be a beautiful woman, but she hid beneath seriousness and over-sized gray suits. Though she would never admit it, she had never recovered from her breakup with Gerald.
" How much did he tell you, exactly?" she asked, clutching a thick manila folder to her chest.
I shrugged, " He said that some housewife had snapped and offed her dead-beat husband," I repeated what I'd learned from Curt, " And that now they've linked two other murders to her." Phoebe nodded slowly.
" Arnold," she said, " You know how uncomfortable I am when it comes to weird coincidences." I rolled my eyes. Phoebe has some bizarre original spirituality that warns her against phenomenon that are seemingly coincidences. When she and I found out that we went to the same Law School in Pennsylvania, she avoided me for a month, thinking that I was a bad omen. For someone so unabashedly logical about most things, she surprises me with her superstitions. But, she eventually gave up on the idea of the two of us staying apart: we became good friends, followed nearly the same path in school and ended up working for the same division of the government: the FBI. Phoebe specializes in forensics, while I'm the resident authority on criminal psychology.
" What do you mean, weird coincidences?" I ask, standing. Phoebe holds out her hands.
" No, no," she says, " Sit down."
" Because I have to tell you something somewhat shocking," she answered. When I noticed that her face was paler than usual, I took a seat.
" It's Helga," she finally spat out, her usually placid composure crumbling,
" Helga G. Patacki was Darcy Kompost's wife!"
I blinked, and wrung my hands. I remembered Helga too well for this. Don't even think of it, Arnold, I told myself quickly when my interest for this case piqued even more. Not when you can still smell her hair on your clothes sometimes.
" D-Darcy Kompost was the man who was murdered?" I stuttered, and Phoebe nodded and collected herself, straightening her blazer again.
" Beaten to death with a baseball bat, at that," she said, becoming cool and professional again. This is what the FBI teaches us: be detached, be a robot if you have to. Whatever it takes to witness brutality and see only a job to be done, details to be sorted and fingers to be pointed. Phoebe tossed the manila folder on my desk.
" There are pictures, even," she said. I reached for the folder, wondering if they had any pictures of Helga, wondering what she looked like now, how time had changed her. I hadn't seen her in over two years, not since the run through the corn field, the shag on the washing machine, the stillness in the pantry while we waited in the dark for Darcy to leave the kitchen with his beer.
" Oh, what am I doing," Phoebe said as my hand touched the folder. She grabbed it and yanked it away, " Arnold, we can't. And you can't, especially – not only would you lose your job if they found out you … knew the perpetrator personally, but they might go so far as to accuse you of being an accomplice."
" What?!" I shouted, prompting Phoebe to nervously shut the door to my office, " That's insane!"
" I know it is, but how insane would it sound to the D.A.'s office – the two of you had an affair, and then she knocks off her husband, and now you're 'handling' her case?" I scowled her.
" Come on, Phoebe," I said, " It wouldn't be like that at all. And – you knew Helga! Don't you think she had some kind of reason, if she's really done this?"
" Perhaps," she admitted, " But that's not up to us to speculate." I jump out of my chair and grab her shoulders.
" But Phoebe!" I plead, " If we don't take this case, they'll give it to one of those misogynic sons of bitches, and she won't have a chance to explain herself."
Phoebe faltered a little bit, but stood her ground: " Does she even deserve to explain herself?" she asked, " I mean, she's murdered three people, Arnold! At least two in cold blood."
" Who are these others she's killed?" I asked, " And how do we even know its her that's killed them? What's the connection?"
Phoebe snapped her eyes shut in frustration, " No, no, no!" she shouted in her tiny voice, " I will not divulge the details of a case we're not working on. There is no way we're taking on this case, Arnold, absolutely no way in hell!"
" I cannot believe we're taking on this case," Phoebe moaned, finishing the last of her black bean chicken. We were at my apartment, eating Chinese food and going over the crime scene photos and forensics reports from Helga's three alleged killings. My finance, Rachel, was keeping a safe distance, watching a basketball game in the den while she finished her plain white rice.
She never hesitated to tell Phoebe and I how disgusting we were, eating while pouring over detailed pictures of cracked skulls and spilled guts. But it was nothing to us – we were indifferent to the humanity of the crimes, we were only looking at clumps of dead cells: at spilled red blood cells, torn skin cells – its all just biology to us.
" Relax, Phoebe," I said for the billionth time that night, " Just eat your chicken and relax. Do we have a motive on all, or any, of these?"
" Well," she said, holding up a picture of Darcy's corpse, " The husband was an abusive slob, and he was cheating on her, though I doubt she cared, since she was che –" I held up a finger before she could continue, nodding my head toward Rachel, who was still paying rapt attention to the basketball game. I hadn't been dating her during my years of affairs with Helga, but Rachel was the kind of straight-up person who still wouldn't look too kindly on the fact that I had slept with a married woman, or even the fact that I was taking on a risky case that could cost me my job only months before our elaborate wedding.
" Yes, well, you know what I mean," Phoebe muttered. " Moving on," she said, raising an eyebrow and picking up a picture of the second victim, Peter Biggs, the owner of a Louisiana K-Mart, " Biggs was killed in a bar near Dayton, Ohio. My guess is that he was just giving her a hard time, or that she was planning to rob him but things went awry. She's got to be low on cash."
" All the way out in Ohio?" I asked, scratching my head and imagining Helga killing this man as I looked at his photo. He was overweight, and balding. " How do we know this was Helga's doing?"
" Witnesses described the killer as a woman with shoulder-length blond hair. They said she was 'a real fox'," she tosses a witness's statement at me, " And seemed pissed off and unfriendly. That's our Helga." I shrugged.
" That could be any woman," I dismissed.
" Arnold," Phoebe warned, keeping her voice low, " You're doing it already."
" Defending her!" she snapped, " Well, you won't be able to argue her innocence in this next murder," she said, grabbing a new stack of photos from the folder and tossing them at me, " Take a look at those," she said, " And those are just stills. The security camera got the whole thing on tape."
I picked up the photos and my heart raced: Helga, wielding a gun, committing the crime, leaving a young-ish looking man with a hole in his chest. In the last photos, she bent down, retrieved something from his pocket – ah, a wallet – and then coolly walked out.
" So why haven't they caught her?" I ask, throwing the pictures down,
" Where is she?" Phoebe shrugged.
" No one knows, until she strikes again," she said, " She's even got some of these career cat bugler's records beat when it comes to evading the police."
I lean back in my chair, stretch, and rub my eyes. The Helga in the picture looked different, but her confidence was the same. She was more slender than I remembered, and obviously more ruthless. But the way she'd coolly fired, then retrieved the wallet, then exited like a starlet leaving the stage after accepting her Oscar – that was the Helga I recalled not from youth, but from adolescence and beyond.
" So where do we start?" I ask, " You want to go to Jersey and poke around that neighborhood? Psh – good luck. If you think you're going to get a word out of those po-dunk idiots, you've got another thing coming."
" I don't know," Phoebe said, gathering up the papers and pictures and replacing them in the folder, " Why don't you try and get a profile together – God, I guess you do have a professional advantage there, having grown up with her. I'm going to go home and put cucumbers on my eyes."
" Alright," I said, standing and cleaning up our take-out dinner, " I'll call you in the morning." Phoebe nodded, and scurried out of the apartment, grabbing her purse from the hat rack as she went. Rachel wandered into the kitchen after she left.
" Is the evidence gone?" she asked. I didn't know why she wanted to marry a violent crime investigator if she couldn't handle a glimpse of a bloody corpse on the dining room table. I chuckled to myself. What a life I have, I thought, pulling a beer out of the fridge.
" Yeah," I said, " I'm beat, and I've still got a profile to work out." Rachel pouted a little bit, walking over to me and unbuttoning my white work shirt.
" But I haven't seen you all day," she whined, smiling at me sheepishly and running her hands over my chest. I froze as I realized that suddenly her every touch made me think of Helga. Before Rachel, Helga had been my only long-term lover. There were other women along the way, but Helga was the only one I'd known inside an out. But apparently not. I never knew she had this killing spree in her.
Rachel was a good kid. She was five years younger than me, so sometimes it was hard for me to take her seriously. She was pretty, and smart enough – she worked for a production studio in Manhattan. Her parents were normal, she didn't have any genetic diseases or hang ups about my work-filled life, so she was good enough for me. Better than good – I loved her. She made great lasagna. I didn't really know what a mother was like, intimately, but I imagined she'd be a great one.
" Hey, alright," I said, pushing her off gently, " I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I'm tired and I've got a lot of work to do." Rachel looked dejected. She leaned back against the refrigerator.
" Fine," she said, tossing her long, light brown hair over her shoulder, " Travis is just down the hall, anyway," she teased. I hated the way she did this, even as a joke. Travis was a younger guy – a guy her age, actually, who had a crush on her. He lived in 5B, and he was a pain in my ass. He played in some loser band called The Undulating Mummies, and he had great hair, the bastard.
" Look, I'm sorry," I said, not laughing at her Travis joke, " But this case has really just … gotten to me, okay? You knew it was bound to happen sometime – it's a pitfall of the job."
" Hmm," she said, pursing her lips, " That's actually a good sign. It freaks me out that you're not usually disturbed by your work. So what's the case? Was it a child murder or something?"
I didn't answer her. I put my empty beer bottle on the counter and disappeared back into the bedroom, prepared to spend the rest of the night pounding out Helga's profile on my lap top. To open the closet and let the skeletons there dance through the room, hoping that Rachel wouldn't notice.
I'm not usually a light sleeper, but something about the too-quiet apartment woke me that night. I looked across the queen-sized bed to find Rachel sleeping soundly; I put a hand on her side and felt her steady breathing, the rise and fall of life against her ribcage. So Rachel was safe. But I had a bad feeling.
Chills crept down my spine and goosebumps raised on my arms and neck. Was someone in the room? Usually I had a good sense about these things – about tracking people, feeling their presence – but my head was spinning. It was the late hour – and the knowledge that my murderous ex-lover was at large.
But her last murder – the one caught on video tape – was committed in a Kentucky convenience store. There was no way she'd be here, in the city …
I kicked off the covers and climbed out of bed, pulling my gun from my belt, which was lying across a chair near the balcony doors. It wasn't loaded, but just holding it made me feel a bit more secure – it might scare off an intruder.
Walking out into the den and the attached kitchen, all seemed normal. But then I saw it – a tiny light flickering on the counter top. A fire??
I rushed over to find that it was only a lit candle. Deciding Rachel had probably lit it for some reason – she had gone to bed after I had – I dismissed my feelings of insecurity, figuring it was probably just emotional crap stirred up by this case involving Helga. I turned and let my eyes sweep the rest of the small apartment. Find nothing, I turned, satisfied.
But before I could get out of the kitchen, something near the base of the candle caught my eye. I felt shudders move through my skin as I turned back to examine the object. It was a lock of hair, tied with a small blue ribbon. I picked it up, and looked at it more closely. Was it … Rachel's hair? A panicky feeling rose in my chest, and I flipped on the kitchen light.
It was my fiancée's hair. The light brown with a hint of reddish auburn. I brought it to my nose with a shaking hand and smelled it – yes, that was her pearberry shampoo.
Madly, I stormed back into the bedroom and threw the lights on. Rachel gasped when she heard my angry footsteps, and sat up abruptly.
" Did you do this?" I screamed, not mad at her, just infuriated, and terrified. This was downtown New York. There were three bolts on our door, and an elaborate security system in the lobby of the building.
" What, what?" she shouted, terrified, barely able to get her voice and still half-asleep.
" This, and that candle!" I said, shoving the lock of hair in her face, " Did you tie this hair up like this?"
" What, Arnold?" she cried, sobbing now, " What are you talking about? No! What's happening?" I grabbed her shoulders and held her still, searching her silky locks. Then I found it – a freshly cut, missing section. A small lock had been carefully snipped away.
" Fuck!" I screamed so loud that the window panes shook. I threw the lock of hair down and grabbed the phone.
" What's going on?" Rachel cried hysterically, shaken, " Who are you calling?"
" Phoebe, and then the police," I said, rubbing my temples fiercely, " I'm sorry I scared you, but it was – this is serious. She's been here."
" Who?" my fiancée cried.
" Helga," I answered without question, " Helga G. Patacki."
To Be Continued, obviously …
A/N: This is actually a dark comedy, though the first chapter here was mainly dark for set up.