Lloyd Hansaker thumped his chest and grunted, his heartburn playing up fierce as he drove to where the dirt track looped back around on itself. The end of the road. He parked in the turning circle with all the others, a couple of uniforms, the crime scene truck, and a single media van bristling with satellite dishes and antennae. Waiting for him, the local journo flicked his cigarette into the night and started towards him, shrugging on a jacket while his offsider raised a camera onto his shoulder.
A dented metal rubbish bin kicked shit out of shape and overflowing with refuse banged against the front of his Ford. He turned off the engine and stepped out, emptying the last of the stale coffee down his throat. The moment his foot hit the dirt it began raining. Crushing the cup in his hand he considered the bin then tossed the cup back into the car. Slamming the door, he adjusted the drape of his crumpled jacket and lowered his bullish head.
“Got a statement for us, detective?”
“Your mother loves it in the ass. How’s that for a statement.” The lens was trained on him, behind it the cameraman was grinning.
“Detective, can you tell our viewers if there are any suspects at this point in time?”
“I suspect your wife was born a man but I haven’t confirmed it yet. Looked that way in the shower, though.” The cameraman snorted and followed as the reporter chased the detective along an ill-defined track towards a uniform with a clipboard. She was standing unimpressed in oversized yellow rain gear behind a strip of chequered tape.
“The public have a right to know! Is this the work of a serial killer?”
Lifting the tape, he flipped his ID at the officer. ‘Hansaker, Homicide. Don’t let this man past the barricade,” he said. “Shoot him if necessary. Am I clear?” The officer looked at the reporter uncertainly, then at the detective, then back at the reporter. Her jaw set firm. Arms raised, the reporter backed off, lowering his mic. He made a throat-cutting motion to the cameraman who set off back for the van. The journo whined at the detective’s back. “Aw shit man, I can’t use any of that! Just a ten-second grab, Hansaker! Just for once! Do you always have to be a complete asshole?”
“Not always,” he said, “Just with you.” Hankerer walked maybe a hundred yards to where the scrubby track forked. The main path veered left along a muddy gouge showing recent motorcycle tracks filling with rain. From this point, a line of evenly spaced glow-sticks deviated off the main track to the right, guiding him another half-mile or so into the jumbled dark to a place among the weeds no different to dozens he’d already passed. Why here?” He raised a hand against the spotlights they’d set up. Glacial Park, outside of Richmond. Ass-end of nowhere, Illinois. He’d arrived at the inner perimeter, passed another uniform keeping a log of who came and went, where generators growled to illuminate a large area under lights. He dragged the Senior Forensic Officer from the blinding pool of radiance so that they could both be heard. “Gerta. What we got?”
The older woman in blue textile overalls snapped off a latex glove and rubbed her hand over the greying stubble covering her head. It made a rasping noise and shifted her scalp back a little, tugging her eyebrows into an expression of surprise. “You are vondering if it is zer same? It is zer same. Sree now, ja? So it is official. Serienmörder. She is dead sree days, no more.” Hansaker rose, but inside him the familiar voice shrilled. Don’t look! Just another face to forget. But he had to. Gerta had said serial-murder and in the back of his mind he cursed her long and loud for the shit-storm about to be unleashed. He nodded and started forward, “Better give me the nickel tour then.”
Gerta led him to a miniature traffic cone topped by a yellow glow-stick. The cone had the number one taped to it. Beside it on a patch of scuffed dirt lay a women’s shoe, black in colour, still attached to a bloodless foot that had been neatly severed from the leg at mid-shin. Hansaker frowned. He resisted the urged to pick it up to see if it was real. A surging, fiery discomfort in his belly guided his hand there instead. “Any ideas what he used?” he grunted, “Any obvious tool marks?” Hansaker crouching to examine the point of severance closely. He didn’t touch it.
“Handsaw, maybe—not a knife or axe, ja? He cut, not chop. Sehr gepflegt.”
He’d nodded, had worked with Gerta long enough to know what she meant even when she went native. Hansaker moved to another cone about six feet further along, nd saw that it was numbered two. It stood beside what appeared to be a severed breast. Beyond that, another ten feet away, was cone number three. Beside it lay a splayed left hand that had been removed at the wrist. Hansaker lifted his head to look forward and then back. Yellow glow-sticks everywhere: but not just anywhere.
Gerta read his look and smiled grimly. “Sirty-seven, but zere are more, ja? I have called for zer cadaver dog. Ve do not vant to miss anysing in zer dark.” He stood now, a foot taller than Gerta if it was an inch, but absolutely deferential to her expertise. This was her patch. He pointed at the remaining glow-sticks and only had to point once.
“What direction is that?”
“East-norzeast,” she nodded.
“What’s the relevance of that, do you think?”
Her turn to shrug: “I say it already—he is neat. Sehr gepflegt, ja? Relevance if for you to vork out, detective!”
He grunted. “And you expect to find more body parts why, exactly? You telling me thirty-seven isn’t enough?” The Senior Forensic Officer’s face had turned away, following his pointing finger, but now turned back, sickly yellow in the fluorescence of the glow sticks.
“No head. And ve are missing zer internal organs.”
Well, shit on me.
From there, Hansaker’s day went downhill. The antacids gave him terrible gas, which made the morning briefing with the Chief and the Mayor a trial of almost herculean proportions. As if the pre-dawn call-out wasn’t enough, he now had to advise these limp dicks of all the salient facts ahead of a doorstop press conference. “Let me reassure you,” the Mayor was now extolling in his most reassuring baritone, “Let me reassure the public of our fair city, that this was a tragic but isolated incident. I repeat, an isolated incident. And if anybody thinks otherwise they can come see me, and I will personally set them straight.” The Mayor glared into the basilisk eye of the news cameras assembled outside the police station, many more now than at the scene, daring anyone to contradict.
“Did I say that?” Hansaker watched the performance from the first-storey, turning from the window to the Chief. “When did I say that?”
“Did you not hear the man?” The short, bowlegged Captain was pacing, chewing an unlit cigar. “They’re not related; you copy? The last thing this town needs is a media frenzy.” He stopped and eyed Hansaker coldly. “Why are you still here, anyway? When did I start paying you for insightful commentary?”
Hansaker was almost at the door when the Chief coughed, raising his hand. “Hold up there a second,” he said, “Just so we’re on the same page.” He had returned to his desk, and now was tapping a stubby forefinger into the dented mahogany veneer. “Mayor wants a result on this double-fucking quick. Do you understand? Or you’re back directing traffic, you copy?”
“I doubt the union would see it that way.”
“Union will do as they’re told. But, to make sure you can’t come up with any excuses, there’s one more thing.” Hansaker watched the Chief pick up his phone. Somewhere in the open-plan office outside a mobile buzzed. The ‘Rocky’ theme. The Captain said two words then replaced the handset. Sharp footsteps answered immediately—a woman, suddenly, standing beside Hansaker in the doorway. She didn’t look at him and he didn’t need to look at her.
Well. Shit. On. Me.
“I take it you two already know each other?”
He grunted. The female detective nodded, a polite half-smile.
“That’s great. It gives me a hard-on to see old pals reunited. Detective Branch here wants to run with the big dogs, so you make her welcome, Hansaker–you copy? You’re working this together.”
“I work better alone.”
Hansaker’s comment attracted a sharp head-turn from the woman standing beside him. The Captain leaned forward and jabbed his finger into the desk again before stabbing it toward the door. “Not lately you don’t. And it’s Hansaker not Han Solo, am I right? Now, get out of my goddamn office the both of you, and bring me a goddamn suspect!”
Making eye contact with nobody, Hansaker turned and walked hard with Branch in tow straight to the men’s locker room. Leaving her at the door he crossed to the end of the steamy room, raised the window, and stepped onto the fire escape. Within a matter of minutes, he was in the service lane that ran down the side of the building. Wiping his hands on his pants, he skipped through drizzling rain across the street to Joe’s Diner, a joint avoided by the general public because it was always full of cops. That said, this time of the morning it was mostly empty. He ordered his usual coffee, black with no sugar, and sat in the end booth staring into the cup, the grey street outside waking to traffic. His own eyes reflected back at him, dark as the steaming liquid; on his phone, a constant stream of messages from Gerta, pinging all morning. Ten o’clock now, and they were still measuring and photographing. Fifty or more body parts located, yet still no head. Fire used to brun and blister the fingers tips and palms. Clearly didn’t wnt his victims to be identified. Why would he do that? Why go to the trouble? No sign of animal predation, so the remains hadn’t been out there long enough to be disturbed. Three days, Gerta maintained. Who’s been reported missing in the last three days?
His phone buzzed. He fished it out.
“Detective Hansaker, where are you?”
From the catcalls in the background, he could tell Branch had gone into the men’s locker room. He could hear showers running, and an invitation from someone for Branch to come over and wash his balls.
“Work it out, detective,” he said, and hung up.
All of one second later it rang again. Hansaker answered, ready for an earful of abuse, but instead caught Gerta in full flow—“verdammt! Sie zahlen sind!”
“Gerta, in English please?”
“—zer body parts! Not random, ja? Look at zem! Look!”
His phone vibrated as the photo she’d uploaded arrived. He laid his phone on the tabletop and expanded the image, realigning it until he saw what she was seeing. He took a breath. “I’m at Joe’s on speakerphone, okay?” he said quietly, looking around. “Just confirm. Is that what I think it is? Are we looking at numbers?”
“Numerals mein bekannt!” Gerta was almost shouting, heavy rain audible at her end, really coming down. ““70967463–” she began, and he lost her to the background noise. Hansaker asked for a repeat, scribbling into his notebook, but even before she’d finished he saw in the photo how the killer had left enough shin on one foot to make a seven. How he’d cut the nipple from of a breast to make a zero. A thumb removed from one hand left four. A curled loop of lower intestine, number six. “You zee it?” the woman shouted excitedly.
“Easy Gerta, easy! Speakerphone, remember?” He looked around at the empty seats, rubbed his face, then snatched the phone to his ear. “Yes I see it. Fuck, I see it. But what does it mean?”
“Huh! Co-ordinates, serial number, bank account, secret code? I am no cryptanalyst!” she replied, actually shouting now above the rain. “You vill need zer expert, ja, or you are sehr gefickt. I must go now, schnell—or lose eve’sing in zer mud!”
She hung up.
His coffee was cold but he drank it anyway. Hansaker thought about returning to the office to update the Chief, but the big man wanted good news and this didn’t exactly qualify. Flipping his jacket collar, he jogged across the road and down the ramp to the motor pool. Rounding the corner, he found Branch leaning against the passenger door of his unmarked car, frowning into her mobile. She looked up as he approached, sizing him up, clearly unimpressed. Hansaker had one of those extra corporeal, out-of-body moment, seeing himself though her eyes—big guy, bad suit, needs a drycleaner and a haircut—before relocating with a snap back into his own body. By comparison, Branch looked the part: tailored jacket over long pants and sensible yet stylish heels. Her reddish-brown hair was tied back in a no-nonsense style, although a couple of unruly curls had escaped. Even her freckles and frown-lines were businesslike and unmasked by make-up. What you see is what you get. While there was no chance whatsoever that Branch would be mistaken for a man, there was a certain toughness about her that gave you pause. So Hansaker paused, hands in his pockets. She raised her chin unsmiling.
“This isn’t going to work,” he said, apropos of nothing.
“Unresolved sexual tension.”
She snorted, put away her phone. “Yours or mine?”
She laughed, but not really. “Wow, you’ve expanded your repertoire to comedy, I see.”
Hansaker shrugged. “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know.”
By way of response, Branch rolled her eyes. With a grunt Hansaker fished out the keys and got in the car. She followed, clipped her seatbelt and retrieved her phone. He drove two blocks in silence before hitting the first red light. She hadn’t looked up from the screen. He tried to catch a glimpse of what she was reading but she turned the screen then put it away. Her head pivoted on her neck, green-eye and fierce. “Quicker if you take a left at Palomino.”
Hansaker frowned. “How’s that?”
“Left at Palomino. That way you avoid the road works on McIntyre.”
“How would you know where I’m going?”
She turned her head back to gaze forward again. “I hacked your phone. We’re going to your father’s. You rang ahead to see if he’d be home.”
He almost missed the green. The car behind him honked. He gave the driver the finger then moved off slowly, watching the road peripherally, attention on Branch. “How the hell…?”
She shrugged. “You told me to work it out, so I worked it out.”
“By hacking my phone?”
She turned her head ninety degrees to look out the window at a streetwalker, half in the gutter and half out, the woman’s lips encrusted with cold sores. Branch shrugged. “You should disable your Bluetooth.”
Hansaker waited for more but that was apparently it.
They drove on in silence, along arterial roads to Palomino then into a suburb where people put grilles over their windows and left their junk mail in mouldering piles beside the letterbox. Chain link and barking dogs were the norm. In a cul-de-sac at the end of a steep hill, Hansaker stopped beside a faded weatherboard home. Too steep for lawn, the front yard was a rash of yellowing growth, his mother’s prized roses straggly and unkempt, the whole yard overgrown. Leaving Branch in the car, Hansaker walked past his father’s pickup and found him in the garage bent over a vice, mending flies.
“Gimme a sec,” grunted the old man without lifting his head. His long fingers wrapped a hackle of pheasant’s feather about the shank of a tiny Mustad hook. As the detective watched, the barbules separated and stiffened as if by magic, and in a moment were wired into place, the old man whipping the end and adding the tiniest dab of cement. He grunted, straightened his back with an audible crack and stared over his glasses at his son.
“Woolly Bugger” he said.
“Same to you!”
“Don’t be a smartass. You makin’ coffee?”
“I’d like to Dad, but I can’t. That lady up north in Glacial Park? You hear about her? I’m the lead, and the boss is breathing down my neck. Plus, I got a new partner waiting out front. You’d remember her. It’s Alison Branch?”
His father raised his head sharply, his eyes like chips of Scandinavian sea-ice were rimmed in the coronal redness of an inveterate drinker. “Didn’t she bust your balls already?”
Hansaker shook his head. “It’s not like that. We’re working the case together. Strictly business.”
The old man shrugged then segued abruptly. “We still goin’ to the lake on the weekend?”
“Definitely,” Hansaker lied, suppressing the sparking annoyance. Did I not just tell you I’m balls-deep in a murder with the fucking Mayor on my ass?”
Not much penetrated the old man’s cocoon these days. He’d made himself immune to bad news, lived only for the day, and wouldn’t look back. The detective went inside, detouring upstairs quickly before returning to the car. The house had an air about it, steepening every year, as if everything good it had ever held was behind it now. The memories of family, of laughter, fading out of the woodwork. As he passed through the living areas he saw how much the old man had let the place slip, as if the lounge hadn’t seen a vacuum since his mother left.
That was sixteen years ago. Shit. I’ll have to get him some help, I just can’t keep putting it off.
On auto-pilot, he climbed the stairs to the first floor and walked down the hall to the last room at the end. Opening the door, he stood awhile wondering how he could have survived in a such a tiny space. Still plastered with Yankees flags, he looked up at the poster of Christy Brinkley on the roof. Hansaker sat on the end of the single bed and felt underneath for his trunk. Pulling it out, the latches popped and hinges squeaked when he raised the lid. Inside was a tumble of junk he had never been able to throw away. His collection of Batman comics, an original Rubik’s cube that remained stubbornly unsolved, a snow dome he’d bought in Alaska with a moose standing before a mountain range; his first mitt, his first pay check—framed and pitiful—for eighty-six dollars and fifteen cents. A shoebox filled with photographs. Under the shoebox, tied into a bundle with string, were his amateur electronics magazines. Scattered through the trunk were the components of a ham radio he’d never finished. My old glowbug. Wasn’t Tommy pissed at me about that!
He undid the string, picking the knot apart with his nails. He hadn’t thought about his best friend in years—not until that morning when Gerta had said the words. Secret code. It was as much that as it had been a need to check on his old man that brought him here. He’d wanted to dig up something he’d put aside decades ago.
Thomas Kane. TK. Tommy.
Every variant of the name had marked a phase in the angry young man’s life. Long hair, short hair, no hair. The kid had a beard in high school when most guys shaved, was clean-shaved when most guys wore goatees. Always the opposite, Tommy had tried to stand out, but only ever succeeded for the wrong reasons. Thomas Kane was ordinary in every way except his desire to be extraordinary. He had also been Hansaker’s only real friend through school and after, right up until the day Hansaker was accepted into the Chicago PD, a month shy of his nineteenth birthday. The proudest day of his hitherto aimless life, his best friend’s reaction had been surprising and stone-cold.
“So you’ve gone from being a part of the solution to being part of the problem?”
That was all he’d said, and they had never really spoken again. Six months later, when Hansaker came home on leave from the police recruit academy, he heard from his father that Tommy had skipped town for good. Had been politely asked to leave, apparently. Some problem with a young lady.
Clearing his head with a shake, Hansaker found what he was looking for—an issue of Popular Electronics dated April nineteen sixty-something. The gum from a price tag obscured the date. He opened it, every page taking him back, and right where he remembered it was an article on cryptography featuring the English code-breaker Alan Turing and the Enigma machine used by the Nazis in World War Two. Cryptography had been a new word for him then, a new word for him but not for Tommy, who had shown more interest in the article than he’d ever displayed towards Hansaker’s stash of stolen Playboys. He remembered Tommy bursting into his bedroom waving the issue triumphantly, face lit with excitement at how he’d solved “the problem”.
Hansaker, seventeen years old, had offered his friend a beer from the six-pack on the floor. Tommy declined with a shake of his head, feverish, speaking fast.
“The government can’t spy on us anymore!”
“Why would they want to?” he’d asked, scratching his head and reaching for another. Tommy had pushed his beers out of reach with his foot, forcing Hansaker to sit up and pay attention. “Look, dumbass—they listen, alright? Trust me on this. They listen to us all the time!”
“But why would they bother? We don’t have anything to hide!”
“It doesn’t matter! The Government doesn’t trust the people. Don’t you understand? We’re the enemy! That’s why their listen! That’s we need a secret code!”
They’d not seen eye to eye on that. It became a sticking point, and maybe one of the reasons why he hadn’t finished building the radio. Tommy had insisted they both have independent means of communication, ready for when the government turned on its own citizens and imposed martial law. Out of spite, perhaps just to frustrate Tommy, he’d never finished the glowbug, and nine months later chose a government job over pumping fuel at the gas station and spending his nights listening to Tommy’s ever-widening conspiracy theories. The decision had been an absolute no-brainer for Hansaker, but Tommy saw it as a betrayal not just of principle but also of their friendship.
Back in the present, Hansaker closed the magazine and went to put it back in his trunk. Gotta give it to you Tommy, from experience I’d now say the government has good reason to mistrust some people. But you were way ahead of curve in ’68, I’ll give you that. Not that it did you much good.
Just then, a single piece of yellowed paper slipped from the back of the magazine onto the floor. Picking it up, Hansaker saw it was covered with Tommy’s dense handwriting. Matrixes filled with numbers and letters. His first attempts at creating a thoroughly secret code. Looking now at the convoluted tables, even with Tommy’s dumbed-down explanatory notes scrawled there on the paper, it still made no sense.
We’ll need a cryptanalyst.
Hansaker laid back on his bed with a sigh and looked up at Christy, kneeling in the foaming surf wearing a skimpy animal-print bikini, her long hair all down one side, eyes all come-hither. His head swam. Tommy Kane. He was transported to a cold room in a cold town. Portland, Maine, winter of 1992. A steel trolley rolling out of a back room draped in a blue sheet blotched purple in four or five places. The attendant had folded back the sheet and Tommy was there, right in front of him, as if sleeping peacefully with his head turned to one side to disguise how a police officer’s gun had taken off the side of his face. He had turned to the attendant, who was waiting anxiously with some documents for him to sign.
“You got to say it,” the little man had insisted.
“Who it is. The identification. You got to say his name and how you know him.”
Hansaker had turned his head back to the body on the trolley, the half-turned face, and put on his police officer’s armour. “That is the body of Thomas Kane, born July 1958. The fifth I think, or the sixth,” he spoke formally, stiffly, as if his voice were being recorded on some hidden microphone. “Formerly of 133 East Worth Street in Chicago. No living relatives that I know of. His parents both died at least ten years ago. Cancer got them both. I knew Tommy for twenty years. He was my best friend.”
He little man had nodded, handing him the clipboard and a pen. “Sign here, here, and here.”
Back in the present, Hansaker grunted and sat up, rubbing his eyes. He said ‘bye to his dad on the way out. Branch was leaning against the car, smoking. He didn’t recall her being a smoker and said so.
“I’ve given up,” she replied.
“Yeah? How’s that going for you?”
“Great,” she said, grinding it out beneath her heel. “So where to now?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Nancy Drew?”
She frowned and gave him a reptilian stare, unblinking, like a chameleon contemplating a slow-moving fly. “Crime Labs. You rang from the diner. They’re expecting us.”
“Fuck you, Branch,” he said, getting in and keying the ignition. She slipped in beside him and fastened her seatbelt.
“Not even in your dreams, Han Solo.”