The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Seven Come Eleven

Once again at the coroner’s office, reporters were swarming the front entrance like flies drawn to a corpse. And the victim was probably again some old derelict whose welfare would never have concerned them if his body hadn’t been flayed into newsworthy hamburger. Maybe the killer thought he was adding value to their lives.

Lloyd parked a block away and took the rear entrance. It was a different guard on duty this time, and not one Lloyd recognized, but the man waved him in just the same. Lloyd didn’t presume he had the power to cloud men’s minds, but he had noticed when he’d started working plainclothes that having a cop attitude got you through more doors than a cop ID did.

He found Roy in his office, drinking from a Dixie cup. Lloyd could smell the whiskey from the doorway. He’d never known Roy to drink, and certainly not before 11 a.m. He tapped lightly on the open door.

“Say, didn’t my dad shoot your dad on Yap?” It was their old greeting, but it did nothing to lift Roy out of his beveraged reverie.

“Actually, Lloyd, I was just thinking about my dad. You know his lungs were never good, and the winters in the camps ruined him. He was a good guy—not like your dad—but I didn’t have time for his sorry old world when I was in college. I was listening to my Little Richard 45s, not him rasping on about his lost melon farm. I was down here in med school when mom died, and just assumed the neighbors would look after pop.

“The next time I saw him after mom’s funeral, he was in the Enloe critical ward. I got a call telling me he’d been found comatose in the bushes at Bidwell Park; that he’d maybe been laying there for days. So much for me being the dutiful No. 1 son. He’d had his shears in one hand and a cluster of Japanese Skimmia flowers in the other one.

“When I saw him, his face was hollowed out, and the sides of his mouth were pulled down like that drama mask, frozen in pain and despair. Since then, I’ve seen that look on dozens of faces here in the morgue, but I still feel like his was meant just for me.”

“And these killings have you thinking about him?”

“How couldn’t it? I bet all these guys had kids somewhere, kids like me. We tell our parents to get lost. This guy finds them. Which is worse?”

“The killer is, by far. Everybody steps away from their parents; it’s in the Bible, even. Then, after a couple of years in the world, you realize you’re as stupid as your dad is, and maybe you go fishing then. You didn’t get that chance because that’s the roll of the dice. This killer thinks he’s the dice.

“And all the things his victims didn’t hear from their kids never gets heard now. I don’t see me and my dad ever getting close, but I’d be mad as fuck if some sadistic bastard killed the chance of that ever happening. It’s not your fault if life’s a bastard, too.”

“You want some whiskey, Lloyd?”

“Let me get some coffee to put it in. It’s hardly past breakfast.”

He got a Styrofoam cupful from the pot on the hot plate on a gurney down the hall. Roy topped it off and Lloyd stirred it with his little finger while Roy asked him, “You talked to your father lately?”

“Not since he told me I was a perverted disgrace to the family. Like I’d been screwing a horse or something. All I’ve got is a healthy interest in women, and that’s an unforgivable flaw to him. Better to be a seething, clamped-down pressure cooker like him.

“You know what I used to worry about when I was working vice? You’ve heard the story from the ’50s where a cop working downtown caught a couple of queers in a dark storefront, and when he turned his flashlight on them, the one on his knees was his old dad, slobbering on a dick? I used to worry about finding my dad like that.”

“Is this your idea of a pep talk, Lloyd?” Roy was starting to come around. “You don’t believe that old story, do you?”

“No more than that other big flashlight one, where a train of cops is banging a hopped-up beatnik chick in a panel truck, then the last one in realizes it’s his daughter.”

“That story’s so old, I think it’s in The Odyssey.”

A stack of 8" by 10" photos lay on Roy’s desk, the top one a mug shot of a ground-up face, with two more of those opaque dice staring up from the sockets.

“This the latest guy?” Lloyd asked.

“Yup.”

“I don’t imagine you checked him for those bone spurs I mentioned?”

“I did, and he didn’t have them. Anything else you want me to look for? Halitosis?”

Lloyd reached for the photos and asked, “May I?”

Roy motioned him to go ahead. Lloyd sifted through the photos, which were mixed mugs of the various victims, along with shots of the bodies as they lay at the crime scenes, and ones from the autopsy table, all labeled on the back. He sorted out the face shots, then flipped those over and sorted them by dates, then took a long look at each again.

“What’s homicide say about the dice?” he asked Roy.

“Just that they’re too common to trace. They’re sold in sets everywhere; they give them away in Vegas; they’re the same ones stuck to souvenir clocks.”

“No one’s noticed anything else about them?”

“Like what?”

“Like that the killer’s keeping score for you. Look.”

Lloyd spread the face shots out in order.

“First guy, no dice. Next guy, it’s a one and a deuce; next is a pair of twos. The next guy, Abraham, it’s a two and a three. This new guy, two threes.”

Roy studied the pictures. “What’s this tell us, aside from that the killer can count?”

“It tells us that he’s looking to get noticed, that it’s not just the killing that’s driving him. He’s not just toying with his victims; he’s toying with the detectives, and with the city at large. He’s telling us he’s not going to stop.”

“What’s he do after he hits 12, then?” Roy said, with a chuckle.

“Let’s hope he never gets that far. I’m wondering now if there isn’t one more body out there already that hasn’t been discovered yet. Did you notice, there’s no snake eyes? We’ve got Mr. No Dice, and then it jumps right to number three.

“I’m guessing that the first guy he killed, he had a reason to kill him, and there was enough hate there to go to town on the body. Maybe he gets so much satisfaction from that he decides he likes killing people, then starts planning them out and leaving a calling card. He’s picking old men, either because they’re easy prey or because he’s got some beef with old men. Or maybe some he’s got a reason to kill some of them and he’s doing the others to obscure that reason, to make it harder to find a pattern.”

”I’ve been wondering about your Abraham. He wasn’t some unknown bum, and he wasn’t white. He doesn’t seem like a fit to me.”

“To me, either. And something else: I talked to him again the night he was killed, and something he’d seen the night before had him spooked. That was the night Mr. Four Eyes here was murdered. Maybe Abraham saw something, and the killer saw him seeing something and targeted him.”

“Then there’s our missing Mr. Snake Eyes. If this killer’s after attention, where’s the body?”

“Maybe our killer travels, and that killing wasn’t local. If you can do it without offending their sensibilities, try getting homicide to check with the FBI for eyeless old male bodies that have turned up in other cities.”

“As long as we’re playing ‘maybe,’ Lloyd, maybe the guy with the empty sockets wasn’t the first, and our killer did his initial murder in another city before moving here, or a long time ago. And maybe he shot JFK. Maybe he’s just leaving these clues to mislead us. I don’t know how we’re supposed to ID him when I can’t even ID most of the bodies he’s left. I wish you were still on the force.”

“And I’m finally starting to be glad that I’m not. If this guy doesn’t get caught, fast, the commanders are going to be stepping on everyone’s nuts until he is.”

Roy was slumped back in his chair, looking like he was already thinking of the autopsies to come. Lloyd couldn’t picture doing what he did, day in, day out. It wasn’t like coroners got the occasional bouquet tossed their way; it was just one feted corpse after another.

“You know what really burns me?” Roy said, sitting up a little. “Did you see where Chick Singer is offering a two hundred dollar reward for his monkey? No one’s posted a penny towards finding out who these poor, dead, sons of somebody are.”

 

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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.
jim@fourstory.org

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