It was a nice two-story suburban home with a well-manicured lawn and a brand-new luxury Mercedes in the driveway. The kid had been eying it for a while and had finally decided to make his move. Whoever lived there, he figured, could stand to lose a dime.
A man answered the door after a bit of a long wait. He was dressed in a dark bowling shirt, gray slacks, and had on neon-green elbow-length rubber cleaning gloves. Clean-shaven, mid-thirties, with cropped blond hair and a face that was almost impossible to remember even if you stared at it for an hour.
“You’re not Billy,” he said.
“No sir. My name is Josh Munson, and I’m out here on this beautiful day going door-to-door to see if I could interest you in a brand-new set of state-of-the-art premium steak knives.”
The man stared at Munson blankly.
“I’d be happy to give you a demonstration if you have a minute.”
The man looked as if he were on the verge of slamming the door in his face, but something shifted in his expression and he warmed up. “Why don’t you come in and have something to drink?” he said. “It’s hot and I bet you’re thirsty.” Then, after a beat: “But I’m probably not going to buy whatever you’re selling.”
“I’ll take a ‘probably not’ over a ‘no’ any day,” said Munson, smiling. “And I’d love a glass of water if you could spare one.”
They went inside, which smelled strongly of bleach and Pinsol, and went to the kitchen where he took off his rubber gloves. The house was clean and plain-looking but full of expensive furniture, electronics, and china—as if everything was out of a photo from Better Homes and Gardens and placed accordingly. The only thing that wasn’t camera-ready was a black garbage bag seated next to the fridge, knotted rather loosely at the top.
“Just doing some cleaning since the wife and kids are gone,” said the man, placing his hands under the hot water of the sink and soaping them. Then he went through several cupboards before finding a water glass and filling it. “She’s always moving stuff around. I can’t keep track,” he said, laughing, and handing Munson the glass of water.
“Thanks a lot. I didn’t get your name, Mister—”
“Just call me Howard,” he said, drying his hands and shaking Munson’s. “So you really are just knocking on doors and seeing who bites?”
“I like it. Okay,” he said, getting comfortable, “let’s see what you’ve got.”
Munson pulled out the steak knives, then he went through the pitch that he’d memorized in the bathroom mirror of his motel room the day before—tempered steel, a lifetime warranty, cuts like butter, a heck of a deal. Howard watched him somewhat bemused, arms folded to the front with half a smile.
He ended his spiel with the demonstration, taking out one of the knives he was trying to sell and a small length of rope. Then he asked Howard if he had a comparable steak knife of his own. Howard looked around.
“Will this work?” he said, pulling out a butcher knife from the sink by the blade and handing it to Munson.
Munson took it by the handle, examined it, and put it on the table. “It needs to be serrated,” he said. “Has to saw through.”
“Right. Let’s see,” said Munson, pulling at a few drawers. “I don’t know where she put the steak knives. I don’t even remember if we have any. Let’s just see how good yours is since I don’t feel like tearing the kitchen apart.”
“That’s fine,” said Munson, handing Howard his steak knife and holding the length of the rope taut. “See if you can cut through my rope.” Howard held the knife rather awkwardly in his slightly shaking hand, chuckled, and sawed through the rope without a problem.
“Wow, that’s a hell of a knife,” said Howard. He gave Munson a toothy smile that gave him the creeps. Being a good salesman, he smiled back politely.
“What do you say?” said Munson. “They’re usually three-hundred for a four-piece set, but I can do two-hundred if you have cash.”
“Does one-fifty sound a little better?”
“As I said, I’m not looking to buy anything. Do you need to use the bathroom or anything before you leave?”
Munson went down the hall to the bathroom, taking stock of all the nice expensive things in the house, noting that the bedrooms were probably upstairs and that there was a basement. He looked in the medicine cabinet but couldn’t find anything to take him up or bring him down. Then he threw some water on his face and neck to try and cool off before setting back out.
“Oh,” said Howard as they headed to the door. “Would you mind dropping this off at the next garbage bin you see? Mine’s full right now.” He picked up the garbage bag next to the fridge. “I’d appreciate it, bud.”
Munson was a little upset about losing the opportunity for some fast cash but just nodded a tad dejectedly, took the black garbage bag—which was a little heavy—and sauntered back to his car with a quiet “have a good one.” He threw the garbage bag in the back seat, thinking he’d find a dumpster somewhere in a block or two, and drove off. It didn’t take long for him to forget it was even back there.
When Munson came by the neighborhood later in the evening, he was happy to see that the Mercedes was gone. And of course, there was no security system to speak of. It was the only house on the block without one, which was the reason Munson had picked it out of all the others.
The window in the bathroom was unlocked—he’d made sure to leave it that way. It was just big enough for him to fit through, something he had also taken into consideration when casing the place. He hopped on the trash bin, which had been heavy and awkward to push in place below the window, and pulled himself through as quickly and quietly as he could.
It was dark, and his eyes needed a moment to adjust. He sat and listened for a few minutes, just to be sure there was no movement in the house. When it was clear that he was the only living thing inside, he went to the front door to unlock it.
But it was already unlocked.
Munson smiled to himself. Either they had forgotten to lock their front door or they were just incredibly naive and stuck in the care-free habits of a bygone era. In any case, he was going to make the evening profitable, although the wasted effort on window acrobatics annoyed him.
A simple B&E job—five minutes in and out. Objective: get all of the valuables you can into the black garbage bag, which he took from his back pocket and unfolded, and get out the door.
He had it done in four minutes and twenty-one seconds, which he had timed, and he felt damn proud of it. He’d managed to ransack all of the best items from everywhere except the basement, which he hadn’t had time to go down into. Maybe some other time.
He went back to the car and put the loot into the trunk of his stolen Honda. The take included a Blu-Ray player, two Chromebooks, an X-Box, and some expensive women’s jewelry from the master bedroom. It would only take twenty minutes to get from the suburbs to downtown, and another ten to find his fence and pocket the money.
The steak knife set was just something he’d come by in a discount shop—he’d swapped the hundred-dollar price tag with a ten-dollar, with the idea brewing for a bigger scam. The cashier knew he’d swapped tags, Munson could tell, but she wasn’t getting paid enough to care. The fact that the steak-knife-salesman gag worked only bolstered Munson’s already elephantine ego, and he prided his ability to come off as a hard-working stand-up citizen and to get people to trust him enough to let him into their homes.
A few blocks up the smell hit him. It was pungent enough to make him want to throw up. He’d noticed it earlier and had thought it was coming from something foul outside, or maybe some curdled cream from a spilled coffee, but now he knew its source—the black garbage bag he’d taken from Howard and forgotten about in the back seat. It had been cooking in his car, in the hundred-degree heat all day, and was like a punch to the nose.
The garbage bag was heavier than he remembered it being. He drove full-speed intending to throw it out the window—to be rid of the smell ASAP. As he pulled it up to the front, the plastic knot came undone and something fell onto his lap, causing him to panic. He didn’t notice that the traffic signal in front of him had turned from green to red, and went right through it.
An SUV in the right lane plowed into the passenger-side fender, sending shards of glass flying. Munson’s airbag shot out, as the car spun around counter-clockwise, knocking his cocked head violently into his seat. The lights and sirens followed at a prompt pace, as is common for the suburbs.
The two detectives—the only occupants of the third-floor hospital waiting room in the middle of the night—waited to see their as-of-yet unidentified suspect. The T.V. in the corner was muted with an air-fryer infomercial. The press hadn’t gotten their hands on what would be a top story.
Jenkins, younger and fresh-faced in jeans and a tailored blazer, sat in an uncomfortable hospital chair. His partner, Fitz, older and weathered from twenty years on the job, stood with his hands in the pockets of his cheap polyester slacks. His mustache was silvering and he was beginning to show his mileage, his younger athletic physique rounding into an older man’s.
“Do you think it’s him?” said Jenkins as he choked down a sip of acrid vending machine coffee from a styrofoam cup.
“Yeah, I think it’s him. I’d like to think that finding a guy with a garbage bag full of victims’ remains means it’s him.”
“But he doesn’t fit the profile. The guy we’re looking for never robs his victims.”
“The profile. Shit, Jenkins. He probably just needed some quick cash to fund his bloodlust. Maybe he was hungry and tired of eating Hot Pockets in his mom’s basement.”
Jenkins shook his head. The third floor was quiet. Just the antiseptic dull hum that hospital waiting rooms tend to have.
“I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to,” said Fitz. “It is what it is. I just hope that Quantico gets back to us so we can figure out who the hell he is.”
After a little over an hour, a doctor came out and greeted the detectives. He was dressed in a white lab coat, smocks, and wore thick glasses. His head was bald with long gray tufts at the edges, and his teeth were stained yellow.
“Nice to meet you, detectives,” he said, “I’m doctor William Keller.” The two detectives gave their names rather numbly, without pleasantries or any attempts at handshaking. “If you’d like to take a look at the patient—uh, your suspect, I suppose he is—you can come back with me.”
They filed into a cramped hospital room that could barely fit the three of them. The kid was bandaged up, his head in a neck-brace, and his leg was in a cast and suspended above the bed at thirty degrees. The pulse of the hospital machinery made Fitz think of a fast food kitchen at breakfast time.
“Will he wake up?” said Jenkins.
“Doubtful,” said the doctor. “Even after the sedative wears off from the surgery. There’s severe head trauma along with fractured cervical vertebrae and a broken tibia, not to mention a fair amount of internal bleeding. I don’t suspect he’ll live long. Even if he does, he’ll likely be in a state of severe mental impairment.”
“He’ll be a vegetable,” said Fitz, not a question, “and taxpayers will have to pay for it, to keep this, this thing alive.”
Jenkins looked at the kid. He didn’t look like a serial killer. He looked like a camp counselor, or at worst, a call-center employee just out of college.
“I don’t make the rules,” said the doctor.
“Yeah, sure,” said Fitz. “But the man upstairs who does, he will have something to say about this, I can assure you.” he leaned over the comatose body and whispered: “I hope you rot in hell for what you did to those people, you piece of human garbage.” Then: “I wish I could pull the plug, doc, if I wasn’t so sure you’d go and tell on me.”
Jenkins’ cell went off and they stepped out of the room, the doctor looking over his patient the way a gardener does a bed of weeds.
“We got something,” said Jenkins in the hall, stuffing his phone back into his pocket after the quick back-and-forth that Fitz only heard half of. “Misner has a file for us, but wouldn’t tell me much over the phone. He wants us to go and meet him at the precinct.”
“Alright, let’s go,” said Fitz.
It took twenty-three minutes to get down there, which was twice as long as it would usually take, but Fitz insisted that they go through a drive-thru for breakfast sandwiches and coffee. Jenkins made a comment about the adverse health effects from the continual consumption of fast food, to which his partner said, “What are you, my wife?” Jenkins could think of many responses, each more biting than the last, but instead chose to focus on his driving.
Misner was in the basement of the station, and its sole occupant. He was clean-cut and about the same age as Jenkins, but had an awkward and nervous disposition that made him hard to be around for an extended period of time. This was why the chief had stationed him below the ground floor, out of plain sight.
“The guy you’ve got at the hospital is Chris Higgins,” he said, handing Jenkins a stack of papers. “Did some time in Upstate New York and Virginia. Mostly B&E, some small possession with intent charges, and a juvenile record a few pages long. It’s all there.”
“Anything violent?” said Jenkins.
Misner shook his head. Fitz looked at Jenkins. Jenkins looked down at the papers and said, “It’s not our guy.”
“The hell it isn’t,” said Fitz, his voice rising. “The hell it isn’t our guy, Jenkins. Even if it isn’t our guy, we’re making this our guy.” His face was flushed red. “Jenkins, look at me. This guy had pieces—pieces—of the victims, in his car, with their stuff. Lord knows his prints are in that house, on that knife. For all intents and purposes, for the press, for the families at home trying to sleep at night, this, this is our guy.”
Jenkins and Misner looked at Fitz. They let him catch his breath, and looked at each other. The room felt all the quieter without the yelling.
Jenkins finally said, after some long minutes: “But what if this isn’t our guy? What if ours is still out there, and he does it again?”
“He won’t,” said Fitz. “Not unless he wants caught, he won’t.”
They quietly wheeled Higgins into the operating room with the instruments and bright overhead lights. The doctor and his assistant were gloved up and masked. The doctor cleared his throat and stretched his arms like an athlete before a game.
“You did really well. Really very good, and I’m pleased with you,” he said to his assistant. “I think you have potential. You’re teachable. Not everyone is like that. Teachable.”
“Thanks, Billy, that means a lot coming from someone I respect so much.”
“But just remember, I took you out of that ward, and I could just as soon put you back in. I need live specimens from here on out, like this one. This one has served a real and true purpose for us tonight. But hacked-up bodies do me little good. You need to remember some of what I’ve taught you and exercise some self-control.”
Howard felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The doctor had a way of making him feel shame. No one—not even his own father or mother—could make him feel such heavy self-disappointment.
“I’m sorry Billy, I—”
“It’s okay, Howard. I understand that learning new habits takes time. I believe in you, that you can do it. Just remember, everything you do is a choice.” They looked down at the kid, his young incapacitated body under the white lights, the machinery whirring. “If we work together, it can be beautiful, Howard. Don’t you want it to be beautiful?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Good. You can start by handing me that scalpel.”