Friday's drive home was always the worst. Not just commuters, but the yuppie-weekend Bed-and-Breakfast crowd. She debated stopping for dinner and letting the worst of it pass, but if she did that she figured she'd start on the files and never get home. It was better to brave the storm ...
As the slowly moving caravan made its way over the summit, she noted the plethora of BMW's and Volvos surrounding her. Full of giddy couples of all shapes and sizes on their way to a fun-filled weekend. Shirlee couldn't understand the B&B thing. Staying somewhere on your way to somewhere else she could see. But to drive in miles of traffic and pay two hundred bucks a night just to get laid didn't make sense. You could get laid at home, but then maybe you couldn't ... She started to wonder how many of them had other partners and played a mental game of picking out which pairs looked the most adulterous, adding it to her repertoire of the things one can do to keep a commute interesting.
As Shirlee put down the box of files and opened her front door, she was hit full-force by the din of alternative music and carousing bodies. She was not amused!
Parker came bounding through the crowd and kissed her on the nose. "This is for you, Hart, I hope you love it." He picked up her precious box and shoved it in the coat closet.
"What's for me?"
"The party!" Parker hollered.
Before she had a chance to kill him, he was gone and an anonymous surfer type handed her a beer. "Who the hell are you?" She snapped.
"Bo." The young man replied jovially. "You must be Hart, Parker's Super Fed ..." Before he finished his sentence she'd wandered away, looking for a familiar face and a place to sit down. As she found the patio and a blessedly vacant lounge chair, a shrill but recognizable voice greeted her.
"Shirlee, darling, how are you? You look like shit." Annabell said, weaving toward her.
Annabell never minced words but was a good soul most of the time. Tonight she was obviously on the make. Awash in lavender tie-dyed gauze and handmade jewelry. She looked more like a costume-store dummy than a human being.
"... Feel like it, too." Shirlee replied. "Do you mind telling me what's going on in my house?"
"It's a party."
"And a damn good one, too." Anna walked to the cooler to get another beer. "It's for you, well, kind of anyway ... A surprise."
"It worked." Shirlee frowned. "I'm surprised."
"I'd say so. You know dear, that's why I never go anywhere without some sort of makeup on, you never know ..."
She babbled on, but Shirlee wasn't listening just looking at her or through her. Annabell was a cute little clothes-horse. The sort of woman whose nail polish always matches her lip stick. Shirlee didn't wear nail polish, Shirlee didn't have nails. She lived in blue jeans and wet suits, with one pair of pantyhose in the back of a drawer for weddings and funerals. Shirlee was a good nine inches taller than Anna, and at least a hundred pounds heavier, but she still got boys: The young, energetic type who could keep up with her. This fact had pissed Anna off since college, but Shirlee didn't feel like getting into it tonight. So she let the insult pass and left Annabell talking to herself. She had a more important mission, to find Parker and choke him to death.
Shirlee was momentarily distracted by a strange sound coming from her kitchen. There were four young men tossing back shots and howling like wolves. "What's going on in here?"
"It's tequila, want a shot?"
"Tequila!" Shirlee's eyes lit up, then zeroed in on her liquor cabinet. "Who's tequila?"
"Ours, or rather a friend of ours. He brought it back from New Mexico. It's called Coyote."
"I guess that accounts for the howling. If it was called Moon would you be dropping your drawers?"
They laughed. "Maybe, but trust us, this'll make you howl for a reason." He handed her a shot. "By the by, I'm Keith. That's Kevin, this is Matt, and Bobby's over there by the sink."
"Why's Bobby by the sink?" She asked.
"You'll see ... won't she, A." Matt chimed in.
All together they looked like a Seattle grunge band. Shaggy shoulder-length hair, ventilated jeans and flannel shirts that hung open over T-shirts with phrases like "Rap Sucks!"
What the hell, she might as well play along. It was her party after all. "I'm Shirlee and this is my house you're playing in." She felt the need to sound authoritative, it was addictive.
"Yeah, we know. Park told us all about you." Keith said.
"He's got a bad case, A." Matt smiled. "Hung up something serious. Shirlee and surfing."
"You're stalling, A." Matt continued, "shoot it up."
They chimed glasses and Shirlee tossed back the tequila. The boys were howling, but she couldn't make a sound. Her eyes were watering and her face was turning red. Bobby handed her a glass of water. Now she knew why he was standing at the sink.
"You gotta howl, Shirlee. Come on, howl. It'll make you feel better, A." Matt promised.
She couldn't believe he could speak, but howling did help her catch her breath. "Where the hell did you get this stuff. I've chewed on cooler jalapeño peppers."
"I told you, New Mexico. Friend brought it up. Pretty wild, A." Keith answered.
"... and it's got a hell of a kick!" Shirlee laughed. "Set me up again. If I'm gonna go down, I'm gonna go down in flames!"
By the end of the second round Annabell arrived, having realized that she was talking to herself. She scowled at Shirlee, seeing her once again surrounded by men.
"Well boys, one more for the road." Shirlee held her shot glass up.
"It kicked your ass that fast, A." Matt laughed.
"I wish it had, but it just made me realize how tired I am. Here's to you ..." Shirlee shot it off, let out a howl, and left the boys jockeying for position between Annabell and the sink.
Wandering through the living room, looking for Parker, she noticed that the house was full of boisterous young men. It was a great party, but badly timed. She gave up looking for Parker and started walking up the stairs. She could always kill him in the morning.
Suddenly someone grabbed her from behind. "This is my Super Fed, and you are all present at this party in her honor." Parker was very drunk. "Super Fed, these are my friends: The newly-formed Vancouver B.C. Surfing Association. That's in Canada." Parker burped and went on with his speech. "They were just passing through in search of warmer waters, so I asked them in for a beer ..."
Shirlee put her hand over his mouth and said a few words of her own. "It was an experience meeting all of you, and I'm going to bed. Try to leave the house standing, and I hope you do better than the Jamaican bobsled team. It sounds like you have a lot in common." By the time she'd gotten out her best barb of the night the group had folded back into itself and she was left standing on the stairway losing her grip on Parker.
Waking up the next morning, she could still taste the tequila. Now she knew why they call it Coyote. It wasn't just the howl, by morning it tasted like one had slept in your mouth. She rolled over to pester Parker, but he wasn't there. There was no way he could be surfing. Maybe he was still downstairs. Maybe they were all down stairs. Maybe there was nothing left downstairs. She wondered for a moment if her homeowners insurance covered Canadian surfers. They had to be kidding. Who ever hear of a Canadian surfer ... Shirlee climbed quietly out of bed with one hand on her head and pulled on her sweats. She walked out the door and cautiously looked around the corner and down the stairwell. There was Parker, passed out on the steps, exactly where she'd left him. She stepped over the body and averted her eyes from the living room. She counted down... three... two... one... looked, and screamed as Parker woke up with a start.
"What the hell's the matter with you, Hart?" Parker growled.
"The house! It's clean! The house is clean and I'm going insane!" Shirlee was still screaming.
"Be insane ... I'm going to bed." Parker picked himself up and crawled away.
She walked down the stairs and stood in the middle of the living room, dumb struck. There were no beer bottles, no bodies. What the hell was going on? She went to the kitchen for a Diet Coke and found a note on the table, it was written on a roll of paper towels.
Dear Mrs. & Mr. Shirlee,
Thanks, A. Great Party! We left you a shot of Coyote, least I think we did. Cleaned up pretty good too, the bottles and stuff are in bags in the back. Thank Annabell for us, for... well, you know ...
At that point the note fortunately faded to incoherence. Shirlee was grateful to have been spared the further exploits of Annabell. They left an address in case of a trip to Vancouver, and she wondered who they were expecting? Looking out back, she could see bags with the bottles separated from the cans, and the cans from the paper. They really must have been Canadians. American boys would have taken the furniture, A.
Shirlee fed the cats and started running a vacuum over the living room, but something was missing. Rupert! Where the hell was Rupert? He hated crowds, and the doors were open all night. That was the last thing she needed, the neighbors already considered her a lunatic, and now a wild party followed by a lost iguana. It boggled the mind.
Fortunately, iguanas aren't too bright, and Rupert was very predictable. He loved warm spots and dark closets. He wasn't in hers, or she'd have run into him earlier, and the oven door was closed. Thank God.
Shirlee was riffling through the last closet upstairs when a blood-curdling scream rose from the ground floor. She ran down to the kitchen. It was coming from the pantry.
Shirlee threw open the door and found Annabell, holding on to Keith and staring at Rupert. She broke into hysterical laughter, not sure which of them looked more frightened: Anna or the iguana. She picked up Rupert as he tried to paddle past her and closed the door. She could only imagine; a major hangover, a dim lit room, a man you don't know and a lizard. That could've been enough to put Anna on the wagon for a month!
She sat down at the kitchen table with the iguana on her lap and a Diet Coke in her hand, waiting for the door to open. The last shot of Coyote caught her eye, but there was work to do. She put the bottle on a high shelf and opened the pantry door. Keith was passed out and Annabell looked like she envied him.
"O.K. you two... the party's over. It's past noon, and I have a life. Please be so kind as to go find yours." Shirlee was laughing, she couldn't help it, this was a classic situation.
Annabell grimaced. "Well, you're chipper this morning. You try and wake him up ... I couldn't do it, the lizard couldn't do it. You give it a shot!" Anna gagged on the word lizard.
Shirlee nudged Keith in the rump with her foot as Anna tried to slip past her and out of the pantry, but Shirlee caught her by the collar. "Where do you think you're going?"
"You told me to get a life, I am."
"Oh, No! Not alone, you found him, you have to return him. Stay right here, or I'll lock you in the john with Rupert. He loves to play in the tub." Shirlee started to laugh again. No matter how serious she was trying to sound, she just couldn't help breaking into hysterics.
"You people are disgusting, and your lizard is ..."
"Rupert is not my lizard, but there are days when I like him better than my friends."
Annabell grumbled and sat down at the kitchen table. "The least you could do is offer me some coffee."
"Don't have any, hate the stuff. Sorry, you and Coyote-Boy are going to have to forage somewhere else."
"Coyote? Where?" Keith was beginning to stir.
"Ah, it finely speaks." Shirlee helped him to his feet. "No more Coyote for you my boy, just a one way ticket out the door."
Keith grabbed his head with his hands and shook. "Where is everybody?"
"It's past noon, Keith, they could be halfway to Vancouver by now."
"Nah, we're headed the other way. Anyway, they wouldn't leave me. Would they, A?"
"No, I'm sure they're somewhere in town. Especially if they feel like you look." Shirlee smiled reassuringly and pulled him into the kitchen. "Here you go, Anna, he's all yours."
"What am I supposed to do with him ...?"
"Teach him to weave a basket, help him find his friends. What do I care, just get him out of here ... nothing personal, but ..."
"Yeah, I know, you have a life." Anna grabbed Keith by the arm and they stumbled out into the unfriendly sunshine.
Shirlee opened a fresh Diet Coke and sat down at the kitchen table. At last her house had returned to normal. No more passed out bodies or freaked out lizards. Time for a little peace and quiet, then she could dig into the files. At that moment Parker wandered into the kitchen looking just like Keith.
"How are you feeling?" Shirlee asked.
He stuck out his tongue. It looked green. He looked green.
"That bad, A."
"Oh Jesus, Hart, don't start saying A. Every third word I heard last night was A. What, A? Yeah, A. No way, A ..."
"I like it, A. It's much more civilized than fuck, which seems to be the overused exclamation these day. Fuck'n A."
Parker growled at her. "You have a cruel sense of humor, Hart. cruel." He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. "I'm going down to my darkroom. If I'm not out by Monday, call the coroner."
Shirlee wanted to laugh at him but her memory was too good. Countless New Year's Eve parties ... but that was another story. The iguana was looking up at her. Rupert was right, it was time to go to work.
She moved the living room furniture around to leave a big empty space, and laid out each file in a pattern; photos, bios, crime scene, hotel interviews, etc. Then she plugged in her tape recorder and began a running commentary of consistencies:
All three men were:
mid 40's to late 50's
gray or receding hair
attending a sales convention or conference
All three crime scenes were:
in hotel rooms
one set of missing towels
no finger prints
the two rooms with convenience bars were missing champagne, wine, all liqueurs, and snacks, but still had beer and grain alcohol.
All three crimes were ...
Shirlee leaned back and scratched her head. This was it, this was where it ended. One was strangled, one was bludgeoned, and one was stabbed. She wandered into the kitchen to get another Diet Coke. She knew that a narrow-minded investigator would look at all of this information as coincidence, without a consistent murder style. All three crimes were ... She looked at the bags of beer bottles in the yard ... a chant began to run through her head ... Beer ...Wine ... Beer ... Wine ... Beer ... Wine ... Boy ... Girl ... Boy ... Girl ... Boy ... GIRL!!
"Bingo! ... Time for the Coyote!" She hollered out loud as she tossed back the last shot. "It's a woman. That's the ticket. No doubt about it, and the same one. Has to be, she has one hell of a way of collecting towels."
She went back into the living room and put away the rest of the files, leaving out the three victims' photographs to ponder.
Parker emerged from his darkroom, looking a little worse for wear, but considerably better than he had. "What's going on up here? I heard howling. The party's over, isn't it?" He scratched his head.
"I've got something, Park."
"What, who ...?"
"The killer, Parker, remember? The killer?"
"You found the killer already, awesome, but does that mean I have to give the money back?"
Shirlee shook her head in disgust. "I didn't exactly find the killer, but I do know what I'm looking for."
"Let me get a soda and you can tell me all about it ... slowly, and kind of quiet ..." He retrieved his soda and wandered back into the living room, not noticing the photos. "O.K., I'm ready now. What's up, Hart?"
"It's a woman!"
"Really?" Parker crinkled up his face like he'd just bit into a lemon.
"YES! Look Parker ... look at what's missing and what's left behind. Can't you see it, beer's there, wine's gone, and the towels, she takes a complete set of towels ..."
"That's a great theory, Hart." He sounded sarcastic. "I'm impressed. I really mean it. How you spent days gathering the material and hours pouring over it, to narrow it down to a serious hypothesis ... But ..."
"But what." She interrupted.
He shook his head and smiled. "I could've called this one a lot easier for you."
"How?" Her eyes had narrowed and were piercing through him.
"Weren't most of these guys found bare-ass naked, or close to it?"
"Not really, they were partially undressed, but none of them were naked." Her eyes had softened as if a light was coming on.
"Well, if they weren't fags, that still sort of narrows it down." He smiled.
"Son of a Bitch!" She slammed her fist on the coffee table.
"Don't take it so hard. It's a dick thing. A man just doesn't get drunk and start undressing with a guy he doesn't know, or any guy for that matter."
"Damn it, Parker, I was so proud of myself. I put together this justification for a female killer, and you made me feel like an idiot for not catching it from the newspaper account."
"No Hart, don't feel that way. It's a forest for the trees kind of thing. You get so close it gets hard to focus. Remember, I'm a photographer. I don't eat if I can't focus."
"Anyway, I'll bet you're in good company. Are any of the local cops looking for a woman?"
"I don't think so, at least not that I've heard."
"They probably won't either, at least not until you give them the bright idea." Parker continued. "It's the basic psyche of the male ego, promoted by contemporary culture. Ladies just don't stab people they don't know. You're gonna need every line of that justification to get them to listen to you. Women commit crimes of passion, occasionally profit, but they don't murder perfect strangers for a set of towels."
"Is that what you really think?"
"Hell no! That's what you're gonna be told. Listen Hart, you have a great case, but a hard sell. I've been listening to you all week. None of these guys knew each other, so it has to be random. According to the similarities in the crime scenes, and my idea of common sense ... we agree it's a woman. Convincing the powers that be is the difficult part."
"It gets even harder."
"What do you mean?"
"The murders themselves, Park, they don't match up. Everything else fits. Hard sell or not I could take it in on Monday and have a psych profile run, we'd be on our way. But nothing about the actual killings match and I don't want to leave any room for the bureau to squirm out."
Parker leaned over the coffee table and stared at the photos. "This is a real funky looking triptych. Almost art show quality, but the film's a little too grainy."
"Grainy or not, it's all I have to go on. Those are the victims, one, two , three ... Speller, Leskies and Olovos."
"Is this the order they were done: strangled, bludgeoned and stabbed?"
Parker laughed, "Sounds like a law firm!"
Shirlee started to laugh uncontrollably. "If they were all attorneys I could understand the motive."
"Seriously, Hart, I think I may see some kind of connection."
"... They look similar, I know." She replied
"More than that. They're a pattern, a triptych, an artistic progression. Your lady could be making a statement in escalation." Parker was staring intently at the photos as Shirlee leaned over the couch trying to conceal her excitement.
"Okay ... I think I'm with you. The first guy was hit over the head, the second was strangled and the third was stabbed in the throat. Each one is wearing just a little bit less, the first one is missing a shirt, the second one a shirt and undershirt and the third is only wearing an undershirt and shorts." Shirlee smiled.
"That's what I'm thinking ... escalation. It makes sense, and I'll bet you that hundred bucks your next stiff is just a little more gruesome and a little less dressed."
"She must be planning on taking out a lot of them, because the escalation is subtle." Shirlee added
"If she shoots the fourth you may be O.K., but if she cuts him up worse ... then I'd say you're headed for dismemberment before this thing is over." Parker sounded very pleased with himself.
"I'm not sure how we came up with that, but it's almost brilliant." Shirlee was genuinely surprised.
"I took Behavioral Psych and Art History last semester. If you squish them together you have a kind of psycho artist. Escalating from the primitive to the complex." He sounded smug.
"Parker, I don't know if I should kiss you or slap you."
"What's the matter, don't you think we're right?"
"That's the problem, I'm sure of it, and if you think the idea of a female serial killer is going to be a hard sell, just wait until they get a load of this!"
Shirlee worked late into Saturday night, jotting down notes, taking pictures of pictures. Carefully putting together her precious jigsaw puzzle.