THE HALSTON BUTCHER
Published in The Trenchcoat Chronicles by Celestial Echo Press 2021
“What in nine kinds of holy hell do you think you’re doing?” Harold half-stood and shouted at Terra McClintock as she grabbed her old coat from the rack. “You can’t cover this one, sister ... too dangerous. He’s killing gals. I’ll send Manny.”
“I’m goin’ to the library,” she grinned, shimmied into her coat, and pulled the press badge over her head. She stowed her purse in the desk drawer.
He shook his head, biting on the cigar he never smoked. He’d quit smoking three years ago but continued to chew them to pieces just the same. He grinned as he watched her move toward the elevator in that old trench coat. It was her lucky charm and, weather permitting, she always wore it. She was hands down his best investigative reporter out of the rough thirty he kept employed in this city. He shook his head and grabbed his phone. “Jimmy. Catch Terra at the elevator on the bottom floor and go with her.” Harold slammed the receiver home without saying goodbye.
Jimmy was used to that. He slapped the SD card into his camera and ran. He was waiting when Terra stepped off the elevator.
She threw back her head and laughed. “I knew you’d be waiting for me. After six years, you’d think he would have learned his lesson by now,” she chuckled.
“Don’t let him fool ya, Terra. He loves your work, he doesn’t understand you ... but he loves you anyway,” Jimmy said as they reached the white Impala with Halston Herald artfully wrapped around it.
“I’m driving today. I need to get a feel for the neighborhood and the people gathered at the scene,” Terra told him.
Jimmy got in without protest as she slid into the driver’s seat and started the car. “Three murders in five weeks is a big deal in Halston.”
“So ... what have you got?” he asked.
“A prostitute and a female high school student. ... No common ground or connection except for gender and the way they were killed. They didn’t know each other. Race, hair color, different. They had the same color eyes, but I think that is possibly random. It’s the scariest version of a serial killer ... random. ... The trouble is, this guy is not random. Nothing for forensics. Not a hair or fiber, not a partial print, nothing on or in the bodies; still, there must be something. He’s leaving a calling card we haven’t found yet.”
“Have you studied the crime scene photos?”
“Only last week’s. You’re right, Jimmy. I’ll need all three today. Perhaps the calling card is visual. Thanks for letting me bounce ideas off you. We make a good team,” Terra told him.
“So ... Evan will be working the scene. Is that still a problem?”
“No. That’s what my time off was about. He told me I’d have to choose, right there and right then.”
“What’d you do?” Jimmy asked, incredulous.
“I chose my job. He understood then how much it means to me. We worked at it, reached a compromise we can both live with, and from now on we work together.” She grinned at Jimmy as the bright yellow crime scene tape came into view.
“Get the usual,” she told him as she got out, slammed her door, locked the vehicle, and stood for a moment, taking in the visual information. She walked toward the sidewalk in front of the Choice Resale Store where the sidewalk ended in crime scene tape at the mouth of the alley. Jimmy was already strolling toward the gathered crowd, taking pictures.
The store was closed, and a rundown boarding house bordered the other side of the alley. Terra watched the crowd for a moment, feeling the air, the sorrow, and fear of the people. She spoke into her recorder, then tucked the recorder into the breast pocket of her trench coat, saving her impressions for later review. Doug Parker, a bookkeeper at the Herald where she worked, stood on the sidewalk watching the crowd.
“Hey Doug,” she greeted him, her recorder still in her pocket.
“Hey, Terra. Fancy meeting you here,” he said, and half-smiled at the cliché.
“You look terrible,” she quipped.
“It’s the same guy, I guess.” He ignored her comment. “The murderer is the one who called the police to tell them where he left the body.” She noticed his hands were trembling.
“Damn,” she looked down.
“There was a lot of blood.” He pointed at the street gutter where the congealing blood looked almost like tar mixed with gravel and candy wrappers.
“I wonder if it was another woman?” Terra queried.
“I don’t know for sure. I was one of the first here. The body wasn’t covered yet...”
“You saw the body and don’t know the gender?” Terra interrupted him, eyes wide.
He shivered. “You couldn’t tell by ... you just couldn’t tell.”
She swallowed hard as she moved off the sidewalk. “Take care, Doug. I’m going to walk around. You better get some rest.”
Terra left the recorder in her pocket as she walked among the people, listening to their stories.
“I hear it’s only prostitutes. Serves them right,” a shabby middle-aged woman said to a woman standing next to her.
“The first one was a prostitute. The second was a female student from Andover. Not even out of high school yet, butchered like an animal while she was still alive. Do you think that served her right as well, madam?” the second woman asked and then walked away.
The first woman screwed up her face and wiggled her head from side to side at the woman’s back and whispered, “Uppity, bitch.”
Terra continued to walk through the onlookers, listening, being careful not to meet anyone’s eye. “I was the first one here,” a man next to her whispered to another, sniffling. She moved closer to him as she pretended to tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the scene.
“It was awful,” his voice broke.
“Come on, let’s get you home,” his friend said, and guided him away.
Terra moved into the space they had vacated. She watched faces and body language, listening. You could learn a lot from the casual conversation of a crowd like this.
That’s when she saw him. That guy in the orange shirt across the street on the east side of the crime scene, exactly where he had been at the last one. She looked around for Jimmy and waved at him. They met near the end of the tape, where it cut off the sidewalk on the western edge.
“Don’t look, but across the street, there is a guy smoking, wearing an orange shirt. I need a picture. Please don’t be obvious.”
“I think I got him, but I’ll make sure.” They parted, going in separate directions, as Terra caught sight of Evan waving at her.
He met her at the tape. “There’s a closed press conference at one o’clock at City Hall.”
“Press only?” she asked. “Is it the same guy?”
“Yeah. They’ve called in the FBI and they have a couple of profilers working on it. No blatant forensics on this one either. It’s bad. He’s butchering them alive.”
Terra shook her head. “Are you all right?”
“We’ve got to catch this son of a bitch,” he mumbled. “I’m thinking the way he kills them is what they have in common. He’s got a screw loose. looking for a name.”
“Hey, Evan,” someone called from the middle of the suits. He looked at Terra and shrugged.
“I’m going to drive through the neighborhood and then go back to the office. I’ll see you at City Hall,” she told him.
“Be careful and lock your doors.” He looked down. “Let’s have dinner.”
“Great idea, my house. Sevenish?”
“It’s a date,” he said.
“Evannnn!” They called again and he grinned and shrugged.
“No orange shirt, sorry,” Jimmy told her when he got back in the car.
“Did you cover the first scene when I was away?”
“Good. We’ll look at the pictures when we get back. It’s funny that the guy was standing almost in the same place in correlation to the last murder scene and wearing the same shirt or almost the same shirt. It might have been red when I saw him at the second scene, but you know how people come and go. There didn’t seem to be anything special about him until I saw him again today.”
Terra drove slowly through the adjoining neighborhoods. “Look, it’s Orange Shirt, coming out of that store on the right. Don’t let him see you,” she cautioned as she slowed the car.
The man stopped and opened a car door. “Got it,” Jimmy said. They kept moving and Jimmy kept taking pictures.
“I don’t think it’s him,” Terra said. “I don’t get the vibe.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s not observant. He’s like ... he doesn’t have a care in the world.” She laughed as he tripped, taking his shopping cart back. “I’ll be surprised if it’s him.”
“I was hoping it would be him,” Jimmy said. “I think the killer is escalating.”
“Yes. Three weeks after the prostitute, he killed the schoolgirl. Two weeks to the day, the third kill. He’s escalating,” she said.
“Yeah, and the murderer made the call to police this morning. That’s also a sign of escalation.”
“How’d you know that?”
“Doug,” he mumbled. Jimmy continued to snap pictures of the neighborhoods and the people. Sometimes, they got lucky.
As soon as they arrived at the Herald offices, Jimmy copied the crime scene photos from all three scenes onto a sim card for her. “Thanks, I’m going to look at them. I’ll call you if I need anything enhanced.”
Terra marched off to her cubby and searched the photos scene by scene. She jotted questions she would ask at the press conference. Question. Name. Age. Gender. Death by ... “There was so much blood,” she whispered.
Question: Was the blood at today’s crime scene from one victim? She scribbled, then tapped her cheek with her pen.
There was that guy at Scene 1, wearing a yellow shirt. Scene 2 wearing a red shirt, and today in the orange shirt, standing in precisely the same mid-scene location on the east side of the body each time. Evan will at least want to talk to him. “The pic of the car?” she asked herself. “Yes, you can read the license plate.” She printed those four pictures, let them dry, and slid them into an envelope for Evan.
She printed three more pictures, sat back, and stared at three covered bodies; she studied the way the sheet lay across them, how their legs were posed and their surroundings. Each of their heads faced the dead end of the alleyway; then she noticed a wheel rim in every photo. They were different rims, but each sat at the end of the alley, against a fence, and, in the latest case, against the curb. She wondered if the police had gathered them for evidence. She tapped the pen against her full lips. Her desk phone rang. “Hey,” she answered.
“Time to go,” Jimmy said.
“Be right there.” Terra slid the additional photos into the brown envelope for Evan, pulled her trench coat off the chair and wiggled into it, then tucked the brown envelope into her coat pocket. She slipped her recorder and pad into her purse and slung it over her shoulder, trying to hurry. She caught the elevator just before it closed and beat Jimmy to the parking lot.
“Did you find anything?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet. Are we late?”
“Naw, right on time.”
He pulled the car against the curb, and they joined the press inside. At exactly one o’clock, detectives walked out from the direction of the Mayor’s office. Liaison officer, Burt Jennings, stepped up to the microphone. “Quiet, please,” he motioned with his hands. “We will not be taking questions today. This morning, Mr. Antione Tolar was murdered. We believe it is the same perpetrator, and we have called in the FBI to assist with the investigation. Profilers say the killer is white, male, small in stature with a median income. Possibly a store clerk or salesman, and no family. Probably a loner, no pets. The kind of guy you wouldn’t notice. His victims had no connection with each other; they all lived alone and were not reported missing. That’s all we’ve got for now. We will update you as soon as we know more. Thank you.”
“How did he kill them?” someone shouted from the back. The detective ignored the question and kept walking.
Terra hung around after the conference, waiting for Evan. He gave her that “eye.” Their agreement included professional space.
“I’m not asking. I’m offering.” She grinned at him, holding out the brown envelope. “Did you notice the same guy on the east side of the body at each crime scene? Also, did you evaluate the blood to see if it was from just one victim? Last, did you notice the wheel rims at all three scenes?” He looked at her with his mouth open and then cleared his throat.
“OK, that’s all I got,” she said.
He shook his head. “I guess you have pictures here,” he asked, reaching for the envelope.
“Yes, and of the guy’s car.”
“My God, Terra. Be ...”
“Here.” She pushed the envelope at him and tiptoed to kiss him lightly on the lips. “See you tonight.”
A SWAT team descended on Robert Jensen’s home two hours later. He was practicing soccer with his seven-year-old son in the backyard. His wife was at the kitchen table on her laptop. She screamed when the officers broke into the house.
“Why do you have to shout like that?” she shrieked right back at them with a haughty stare, then ignored them completely as she bent to the bassinet beside her. She picked up her infant daughter, who was also screaming by now.
Her husband and son stood wide-eyed in the kitchen, staring at the officers as she scolded them. Robert answered their questions, then showed them his scanners and radios. He was a short-wave radio buff and listened to the police scanners as a hobby. Sometimes he went to the crime scenes. He worked as a data technician. Detectives took him to the station as a person of interest. His alibis were solid, and he was home two hours later. He still had a pissed-off wife to contend with.
Evan arrived at Terra’s apartment at a quarter till. He could smell the aroma of his favorite meal, shrimp scampi, before he knocked on the door.
“Here,” she smiled, handing him a chilled glass of Chardonnay when she let him in.
“Aw,” he kissed her. “You make me remember all the reasons I love you. It’s been a terrible day.”
She kissed him again and said, “Have a seat. It’ll still be a minute for the garlic bread. Did the info I gave you help?” she asked.
“The guy was a dead end, some kind of radio nut who visits crime scenes sometimes. He’s writing a book. We gathered the wheel rims from two of the scenes; the one at the first scene was gone. You were right, we connected them to the murders. Fingerprints of the victim covered both rims. Of course, that’s off the record.”
“Off the record,” she promised. “What about the blood?”
“No results yet, but it looks like only one victim.”
“Wow ... he must have let them bleed out there. I wonder why no one heard anything. I mean, the boarding house was right there ... if the victim was screaming?”
“Off the record?”
“Off the record,” she promised again.
“They were all sedated. Probably during the entire thing. The amount and type of drugs they found in their systems, they probably never even realized they’d been taken.”
“Well, that’s something,” she said. “The garlic bread is ready. Let’s eat in the dining room.”
She carried a dinner plate filled with a fragrant buttery toast to the table. They began with salad. Terra grabbed a piece of hot toast and talked with her mouth full. “What did the killer say when he called this morning?”
Evan stopped, his first bite in mid-air, and put his fork down, leaning forward. “Who told you the killer had called?”
“Nobody knew except me, because ... well, I took the call, my supervisor, the FBI supervisor, and the killer.”
Her eyes were wide. “Jimmy knew too. Doug told him, as well.” A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Jimmy just opened the door and walked in as Terra moved across the living room.
That’s unusual, she thought, until she saw Doug behind him with a gun in his back.
“I’m worried because I didn’t plan this,” Doug told Terra, his voice trembling and confused. “I always plan so carefully. I knew you’d put it together. Slip of the tongue,” he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “If only I hadn’t said anything.” Doug rambled. “I can’t help myself, you know. It just happens. They’re going to call me the ‘Halston Butcher.”
“Wha... what are you talking about, Doug?” Her voice rose as she asked the question.
“That’s why I butcher them.” He smirked. “That’s what I’m talking about... The Halston Butcher... get it?”
“I can help you, Doug,” she ignored his question. “You don’t want to do this,” Terra said quietly, trying to distract him.
“Shut up!” he shouted. “I can’t wait. You’re always snooping! I knew you’d figure it out and ruin everything. Sit down on the couch,” he patted the back of her overstuffed leather sofa. “It won’t hurt. I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Doug told her, trying to smile. He had produced a large syringe filled with amber liquid.
Terra stood where she was. If she moved, Doug would see Evan in the dining room. “No. I won’t sit down and if you fire that gun, the neighbors will hear. You have a flawed plan. They’ll see you leave,” she said. “Ruin everything...”
“Sit,” he growled, interrupting her. Doug swung his arm up and aimed the gun at Terra, his face a pasty mask. “It doesn’t have to be painless...” he almost whispered.
Jimmy saw his chance and when Doug swung the gun up, he turned and hit Doug’s arm, forcing the gun down. They struggled, and as he tried to take the gun, it went off. Terra hit the floor, screaming. Evan shot Doug.
“It happened so fast,” Jimmy said, holding his bleeding shoulder as police stormed the apartment. “For a minute, I thought we shot you, Terra. I was terrified,” he said.
He looked at Evan. “I saw you moving toward us, and I knew he’d shoot her if he saw you.”
“You did good, Jimmy,” Evan said as the ambulance carted him off.
Terra went to the hospital to check on Jimmy after she had given her statement. Evan picked her up when he was finished.
He helped her with her coat and shook his head. “How old is this trench coat, Terra? You’ve had it forever.”
“Yes, I have, and I love it.”
“I’ll buy you a new one.”
“Don’t bother. It won’t be the same. I’ll just wear this one,” she said, grinning.
“My house?” he asked.
“Yes, we can’t go back to mine tonight.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that ... Well, ask ... how would you feel about moving in with me?”
When Terra turned to look at him, he was holding a small white box with matching gold bands inside. She smiled and put her arms around his neck, her lips close to his.
“I think that’s a hell of an idea,” she whispered.