Book excerpt

Body Language

Thorn Mysteries

James W. Hall

St. Martin's Press

Body Language
ONEAlexandra began shooting at fifty yards. She worked slowly toward the four-story building, taking several wide-angle shots of the whole structure. A stucco apartment building with red tile roof and dark green stairways and landings, here and there a coral rock facade. In that part of Coconut Grove, two bedrooms started at eight hundred a month. Sporty compacts filled the parking lot, owned by the young lawyers and stockbrokers who populated these buildings, twenty-something singles with more expendable income than Alexandra had take-home pay.She got a wide-angle shot of the cars. You never knew when a perp might leave his vehicle behind. Car trouble, panic, even arrogance. A year earlier, after studying hundreds of photos of two different murder scenes, Alexandra had spotted the same car parked at both, a fact that broke the case.It took her four shots to get all the cars near the apartment. The Minolta 700 SI she was using was motor-driven, had an autofocus, auto everything. Nearly impossible to make a mistake.Alexandra Rafferty was an ID tech with the Miami PD, photographic specialist. Not being a sworn police officer meant, among other things, that she wasn'tauthorized to carry a gun. Which was fine by her. She'd had more than enough of guns. Her only weapon was the telescoping baton she carried on her belt. Her counterparts with Metro-Dade, the county ID techs, were sworn officers, and they were paid even more than the detectives. They carried the latest Glocks, ran the crime scene, bossed the homicide guys around. But not the City of Miami PD. Exactly the same job, only Alexandra and her colleagues were considered technicians, bottom of the totem.Night after night, she ghosted through rooms, took her shots, and when she was finished, she moved on to the next scene. Hardly noticed. Which was fine. She had no aspiration to run things. That wasn't her. She had her attitude, her opinion. Had no problem speaking up if one of the homicide guys missed something or asked for her view. But she didn't aspire to run the show or get involved with the daily dick-measuring that went on all around her. She took her rolls of film, sent them to processing, got them back, arranged them, put together her files, and then moved on, and moved on again.Her B.A. was from the local state university, criminal justice, psychology minor, 3.8 average, her only Bs a couple of painting courses she'd attempted. Some of her college friends were horrified at her career choice. But she wouldn't be anywhere else. In a cheap blue shirt and matching trousers, a uniform shabbier than the ones the inmates got, working impossible hours at insultingly low pay. But none of that mattered. She liked her job. It made a difference in the world, a modest one perhaps, but essential. And the job kept her alert, focused, living close to the bone. And she liked using the camera, being a photographer who never had to tell her subjects to hold still, never got a complaint about unflattering angles.Alexandra was twenty-nine and had been doing this work for eight years. It still felt new. Every night, every scene, something different, something human and extreme. From eleven till seven, alert for eight hours. Wired. Just after dawn, she'd take her run on the beach, then go home, still pumped from the night before, and make breakfast for Stan and her father. She'd ride that high most of the morning. Just steal a few hours of sleep in the afternoon while Stan was at work and her dad was doing basket-weaving at Harbor House, four or five hours at the most; then by eleven the next night, she was ready to go again.It was a little before midnight, Wednesday, October the seventh. No traffic on Tigertail Avenue. No human noises. Only the jittery fizz of the sulfurous streetlights. She lowered her camera, stepped over the yellow crime-scene tape, walked forward five paces, raised the Minolta again, and took half a dozen medium-distance flash shots of bloodstains on the asphalt parking lot. Several drops gleamed near the rear bumper of a Corvette with dark windows and a BAD BOY logo. She got a shot of the Vette, its license plate. A wide-angle shot of the other four cars parked beside it. Then she knelt down for a few close-ups of the blood. It was dry now but still gleamed in the yellow streetlights.She got back to her feet and scanned the pavement with her Maglite. She worked between the cars, found more blood near the sidewalk, a bloody footprint. She took one establishing shot of the footprint from five feet out, then placed her ruler down next to the print for accurate perspective and took one shot, then another just to be sure she had something.Eyes neutral. No personality, no throb of self. The flat, disinterested perspective of an android whose assignment was simply to see and document. No Alexandra,no daughter, no wife, no bundle of dreams and wishes and memories. Nothing but the viewfinder, the square frame, the footprints. Step by step, moving closer to the heart of the crime.On the sidewalk in front of the apartment, she popped out the used film, marked it, and threaded a new roll into the Minolta. Kodak Plus 200. From the window of the bottom apartment, a cat watched her. It was a gold tabby with a bell on its collar. As she came near, the cat stood up on the inside windowsill and stretched itself, then slid away into the dark apartment as if it had witnessed its quota of misery for one night.Alexandra took another flash shot at the bottom of the stairway. More speckles of blood and more footprints. She found the bloody outline of a hand on the wood rail and got a medium shot and a five-inch close-up of it. Clear enough to blow up later and use the fluorescent-light enhancement to get a usable print. She took one more shot as she was going up the stairs. The bottom of the bleeder's shoes had deep waffle patterns. The same size-ten Nikes he'd worn on the four previous occasions.The killer had walked down the stairway, dripping blood in front of him, then stepping into the spatters he'd made. His fifth assault in as many months, identical MO as the others. Lots of theories were circulating about why a guy who'd just raped and murdered took such care to leave his bloody prints behind. A taunt, perhaps. A wish to be caught. Or some ritualistic fantasy he was dramatizing. The Miami Herald and one of the TV stations had dubbed him "the Bloody Rapist" and theorized that he was trying to show the incompetence of law enforcement. A former cop perhaps thumbing his nose at his old colleagues. Here're my fingerprints all over the place, my DNA, my shoe prints, and you idiots still can't catch me.But Alex didn't buy the profile. As usual, the mediajocks assumed everyone else wanted what they themselves hungered so deeply for: publicity, high ratings. But this guy didn't strike her that way at all. No headline hound. His whole scenario was too intense, too private for that. To Alex, that blood seemed fiercely primal, like the spoor of some fatally wounded animal, a beast too blinded by its hurt to care about the trail it was leaving.Higher up the wooden railing was another bloody handprint. Alexandra got an establishing shot from five feet away, then two close-in shots. Good clear prints. She moved slowly, warily, eyes roaming in precise concentric circles, five feet out, ten feet, farther. As she'd been trained to look. Second nature now.Down the hallway, Dan Romano was smoking a cigarette, gazing out at the night sky. Heavy guy with white hair swept back. Thirty years on the force. Homicide lieutenant who was running the Bloody Rapist investigation. Dan was due to retire any day now. Getting philosophical these last few months on the job, bugging everyone with big unanswerable questions. Why is the sky blue? Why does the ivy twine?"Place is pretty quiet," she said. "You run everybody off, Dan? Your charisma on the fritz again?"Dan flicked his cigarette out into the night, turned to look at her."ME's getting his pants on; everybody else is rolling. Be here momentarily.""What do we have?"Dan gave her a wan smile."Your guy's been naughty again."Alexandra shook her head."You can drop that crap. It's not funny anymore.""Hey, I'm not the only one to notice. Folks are starting to talk.""He's not mine any more than he's yours or anybody else's, so cut the shit."Alexandra checked the settings on the Minolta."Like right now, Alex. How tightened up you are. Stiff-jointed. That thing happening with your eye."She stared at him."Yeah? And what thing is that?""That twitch, right there in the corner of your left eye. I'm not the only one to notice it. You got a reaction going on, Alex. This guy's hit a nerve.""I was winking at you, Dan. Flirting. You couldn't tell?"He gazed at her for a few seconds and his voice softened."I don't think so, Alex. I think this is getting to you. I think you need to talk about this to somebody with some training."She shook her head, lowered her camera."Come on, Dan. All the shit we wade through every day, I guess I'm entitled to a goddamn eye twitch now and then, don't you think?"He kept staring at her for a moment or two; then he sighed and his eyes drifted off to the horizon. He lit another cigarette, took a hungry pull.She said, "I'm finished shooting out here. You want to show me around inside? Or just do it on my own?"Dan blew out a cloud of smoke and didn't move. His eyes were scanning the dark heavens."Tell me something, Alex. I been meaning to ask you." His voice with that dreamy edge."Oh, brother, here it comes."He drew in another hit and let the smoke drift out with his words."Why do you do this shit? You're a smart, good-lookingwoman. You got skills, a college diploma; you could do anything. What the hell motivates you?"He brought his eyes back from the dark and peered at her."It was either this or a nunnery." She gave him a light smile, but he didn't notice."I'd hate to see you wind up like me. Because you know what I'm starting to think, Alex? I'm starting to think I fucking wasted my life. That's where I am these days. Standing here, on the goddamn threshold of my golden years, I been running these same laps three decades now, and I ask myself what it's all added up to. And the answer keeps coming up the same. Not a hill of shit.""What do you want, Dan? Want me to try to cheer you up?"He looked down at the sprinkle of blood near his feet."It won't work. I'm inconsolable." He cocked his head and smiled. "I pronounce that right? Inconsolable?""Sounded right to me.""I'm working on my vocabulary. One of my new hobbies, getting ready for retirement. Hell, I never needed a fucking vocabulary on this job.""Well," Alex said. "Inconsolable seems like a pretty good place to start."Dan tilted his head back, stared up at the sky, getting that look again.Alexandra stepped into the apartment.The sectional couch was shaped into a U and took up most of the room. It was a green-and-white tropical print. On the glass coffee table was the same bottle of Lucere, a Napa Valley chardonnay that had been at all the other scenes. A high-end grocery store wine, but not rare enough to be helpful.Sprawled on the beige rug in the center of the U was apretty woman in her late twenties with short black hair. She was naked and her slender body had been rearranged. The killer had laid her out flat on her back with her arms hugging her belly as if she'd been kicked in the gut and was fighting for air."Same as number one," Dan said from the door. "Like maybe he's run out of poses and he's starting the cycle again.""Maybe."There was a deep cut at her throat, like the others. She was slender and her eyes were open--dark and disconnected."Landlord found her. A week late on her rent. He knocked, walked in. I'm guessing she's been dead more than twenty-four, less than thirty-six.""Seems about right," Alex said.The other four women had been naked, as well. All the bodies were laid out in different positions, each one portraying another violent drama. The homicide guys had given each a name. Number one, like this one, was known as "Gasper." Number two was found lying on her side bent at the waist with her hands covering her ears as if she were trying to shut out some gruesome noise. "Hear No Evil" the detectives called her. Number three had given the namers the most trouble. Like two, she'd been placed on her left side with her legs forward, but this one's arms had been extended in front of her, one at chest level, one arm stretching out from beneath her head, a flailing motion as if she were trying to fight off a swarm of bees. They called her "The Swatter." And then about a month ago, they'd found the fourth victim badly decomposed in her Little Havana apartment. Her nude body was lying face up with arms and legs spread as if she were floating tranquilly on the quiet surface of a lake. So "Floater" it was.The FBI examined the photos and found no matches with any other signature killings around the country in the last ten years. Their profilers theorized the Bloody Rapist was creating particular scenarios from his past, trying to reconstruct moments of abuse he'd witnessed as a child--probably acts of violence against his mother he was helpless to prevent.But that was far too neat an explanation for Alexandra, too off-the-rack. Just as likely the killer had repositioned the women according to the twisted commandments of some crazed inner voice. But these days everyone wanted a formula, a nifty explanation for guys like this. As if his actions might make a kind of sense, raping women, slashing their throats, repositioning them, then leaving a trail of blood leading away from the scene. Like sure, of course, he must have seen his father beat his mother, then leave her in these exact positions on the living room floor, and he'd walked away bleeding from the scratch marks she'd given him, so now the grown-up boy, that poor, twisted son of a bitch, is compelled to re-enact endlessly those traumatic episodes, laying the dead women out like sacrificial offerings to his past.Alex hated it, the way the forensic-psychology hotshots had taken over, explaining it all, giving every crime a cute Freudian cause and effect. She hated it because the explanations were always more than explanations. Behind each of their clever scenarios was the same suggestion--that there was logic to evil, a reasonable justification for every fucking horror under the sun.The media wasn't onto the weird arrangements yet, because so far, everyone working the case had been stonewalling, keeping the reporters beyond the crime-scene tape. If the killer was indeed hungry for newsprint, it wasn't their job to feed him. And, ofcourse, the second the word got out about those eerie poses, there'd be tabloid crews elbowing their way to the front of the pack, making good police work a hundred times harder.Slowly, she began to work her way around the perimeter of the room, a full 360 degrees. The light was good. Dan had turned everything on, overhead, table lamps, fluorescent kitchen lights. She had to change film again. Marking it, slipping the used film into her waist pouch. Continuing around the edge of the room to get the complete perspective. Then zooming in for the victim. Pretty woman, athletic. That one-inch incision in her throat, a few quarts of her blood spreading into the beige carpet. Alexandra got close-ups of the wound, the stained carpet.Across from the flowery couch was a leather wingback chair, a matching ottoman. Something from a lawyer's study. Two cheap oils on the walls, sad-eyed clowns and a pelican nesting on a piling--tourist shop trash. But behind the couch was a large black-and-white photograph, a misty Everglades glen cluttered with ferns and alligators lurking beneath the still waters. A guy's work she'd admired for years. Clyde Butcher.She'd read about him, how he slogged with his huge camera and a hundred pounds of equipment out into the middle of the soupy Glades. Then he set up his tripod, hefted the camera onto it. Two hours to set up for one shot--all so he could make these huge photographs full of intricate detail. Butcher did magical things with black and white. Made herons and ibises into angels. Put an enchanted sheen on the palm fronds and the saw grass that exposed the sinister grace of that river of grass. Its silence and danger, its holiness.Nothing at all like the stuff she did--just one color shot after another, stark and standard. Keeping herselfout of it. Keeping her mood, her values, her interpretation buried away.She would snap somewhere around three hundred shots of that particular crime scene alone. Probably over a thousand photos before the night was done. And none of them would be art. That was the skill of the job. Keep it dull. Plain and simple and honest and straight. No spin, no subjectivity. Nothing for defense lawyers to argue about. That was what she did five nights a week. She kept herself out of it. Walked through these rooms with the scrupulous dispassion of a Buddhist priest. Not playing with shadows and perspectives, not stalking, like Clyde Butcher did, that perfect moment when sunlight and shadow and the ripples on the water's surface were in perfect alignment.Her job was the opposite of art. Pornographic reality. If she had a gift, it was a talent for watchful emptiness. Standing back, seeing, then getting it all down on her negative--the disinterested purity of fact."You like that?" Dan said from the doorway. "That photograph?""I like it. Sure.""So take it with you. I'll help you get it down."She looked over at him."Who's going to know, Alex?""What're you, cracking up? I'm not taking that thing.""Why not?"Alexandra took another look at the photograph and heaved out a breath."Well, for one thing, it wouldn't fit in my place," she said. "It's too beautiful. I'd have to take down all the other crap I got on my walls. Or else move to a better house."Standing in the doorway, he shook his head, stripped a stick of gum."You know, Rafferty, I'm developing a new theory about this blood thing he does.""I don't like the jokes, okay? Not about this guy. Spare me.""It's not a joke," he said. "What I think is, cutting himself like he does is how the guy gets off. Like a sperm substitute.""He doesn't have any trouble ejaculating," she said. "There's plenty of seminal fluid.""Maybe this is like some kind of bigger, better orgasm. He blows his load, kills the woman, then slashes himself. And there's blood flowing and sperm leaking out, and the goddamn freak is flying off into orbit. All the bells ringing, whistles shrieking, lights going full blast, the guy's soaring out there into interplanetary nothingness."She stared at him."Dan, maybe it is time for you to retire.""Pathology boys are saying it's glass he cuts them with, not a blade.""Glass?""Yeah, figure that out. Some kind of special glass.""Special? How?"The big man shrugged. "I haven't read the report yet. Just glanced at it on the way over here.""Let me get this straight. The guy holds a chunk of glass in his bare hand, and when he cuts their throats, he winds up slicing himself in the process. Like either he's totally stupid or for some reason he enjoys the pain."Romano shrugged again. "Well, I think we can rule out stupid.""Oh boy, the psychobabblers ought to have fun with that."She shot the sprinkling of blood on the beige carpet. Got close-ups of the woman's throat. Just like the fourothers, a gash with a little wrist flick, like the letter C. But that was for the ME to figure out, the pathology guys, the blood-spatter techs. Alexandra was just a photographer--cold, neutral eyes.They'd send the blood and sperm specimens, tissue samples, hair and fiber off to the FBI lab, the FDLE, have them run their blue-ribbon tests. And it would all be futile. This asshole wasn't leaving behind anything he didn't want them to find. They already knew his fingerprints weren't on file in the AFIS database or with the FBI. The DNA was worthless unless they already had the guy in custody.From the autopsies and blood-spatter patterns, they could tell the guy was highly organized, under strict control. The whole event had the feel of a finely tuned script, a lockstep ritual. Same white wine at every scene. Even the same amount of chardonnay left in the bottle each time.No witnesses ever remembered seeing him arrive. No one saw him depart. Apparently, the guy was a charmer of lonely hearts. All the women he'd chosen were loners, vulnerable women, recently divorced or separated. Awkward and unsure, back on the market after some wrenching failure. Easy prey.After two sips of wine, a few hors d'oeuvres, he punched them in the face, slammed them to the floor. He was strong and quick, and once he got started, he was ruthless. Somewhere during the act itself, he reached back for his weapon and plunged it into their throats, stayed mounted until he'd ejaculated, then climbed off their cooling bodies. The ME had come up with that opinion, comparing the temperature of sperm with the temp of the body. Nothing high-tech about it.Then a few minutes postmortem, most likely after he'd dressed and recovered, the killer arranged his victimsinto the pose he'd selected, and a minute or two later, he began to dribble that trail of blood away from the scene.Though the sequence was identical every time, the women were all different. No regularity to body types or hair color or socioeconomic background. Either the killer wasn't that particular or his fantasizing capabilities were so powerful that he could incorporate a lot of different types into his horror show. The only similarity among the women was their ages. They were all in their late twenties.Based on the very limited evidence he was leaving behind, Alex doubted he'd be caught from police work alone. Probably their best hope was that the killings would someday stop gratifying the guy and his passions would grow so pressurized inside the locked chambers of his heart that the walls would rupture and he'd blow wide open and do something out of character, wild, stupid, clumsy. Or better yet, there was the outside chance he would meet a woman who outmatched him, someone who could block that first punch and answer it with a high-caliber counter-punch--someone with a quick draw and a fast trigger, who'd make him spill his blood in earnest.Alex only hoped it happened on her shift, so she could take a roll or two of the asshole's corpse. 
The apartment was crowded with cops by the time she was leaving. Media trucks in the parking lot, halogen lights blazing, helicopters fanning the moonlight. Alexandra Rafferty got in her van and moved on to a quiet neighborhood in the Grove, a home invasion with a husband and a wife pistol-whipped but alive. After that, she did a convenience-store robbery on Biscayne Boulevard, the clerk shot twice in the face for sixty-three dollars and two six-packs of Colt 45. As the sun was comingup, she did a domestic-abuse case in Little Havana. A Latin man in his sixties who'd stabbed his teenage boyfriend twenty-five times in the genitals. The old man had to be sedated before he would let go of the mutilated body of his lover.Copyright © 1998 by James W. Hall. JAMES W. HALL lives in Miami, Florida with his wife.