Will was trying very hard not to slam his head against his desk.
Deadlines were one thing; he’d struggled meeting deadlines most of his life, from getting to class on time in high school to finishing a paper due promptly at midnight in college –what professor wanted a paper posted by midnight, anyway? What professor decided that at midnight, they’d wake from their recliner in their tenure-paid home and pad over to their HP, gleefully closing the submissions link on the assignment before anyone else could turn it in? Did they grade it immediately after, from 12:01 to 4:00 where they’d finally pass out at their desk, exhausted but proud of their ability to really dig it to the students whose hopes were crushed at exactly 12:02 when they realized with a sinking sensation that they couldn’t turn their paper in?
He told himself tangents were just another way to get out of the task at hand.
Deadlines were one thing. He’d gotten better at deadlines in the ‘adult world’, gotten better at a watch that kept him on track and on time with its beeps, dings, and notifications. Most of his life revolved around the smartwatch that even reminded him when it was the last time he’d eaten or stood up from his uneven, wobbly desk. Time was odd for him, but that small, sturdy little electronic had kept him on time for the past four years. More or less.
No, no, the problem at hand was writer’s block.
“Dear Bev, I’ve heard a lot about the Minnesota Shrike, and it makes me scared to go to class. He’s targeted universities all over this area, from Maryland, Virginia, New York, Maine; when will the FBI catch him? What kind of person would do that to these girls?”
He considered the other questions Beverly had chosen to answer, then compared it to this one. ‘Chats with Bev’ was the long-running advice column at Tattler News, a high-ratings paper that –in his opinion –verged dramatically towards gossip-fodder and tabloids at times rather than news. It was a job, though. Four years out of college and at least he could say he had a job.
This, however; this was not his job.
“It’s not really right for me to do this,” he called out irritably to Beverly across the room. “I’m not ‘Bev’.”
“A bet’s a bet, no matter how drunk we were,” Beverly replied cheerfully. She wasn’t the least bit perturbed by his expression, or by the way his fingers tapped angrily against the keys.
“I have no idea what to say to these people,” he muttered.
“Hey, you’re getting credit for writing the column this week. That’s a little extra money in your pocket, right?”
Right. He rubbed his face, leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette, letting it hang from his lips as he considered the question. It was a little ham-handed sitting below ‘my husband is cheating on me’, but it was a little awkward just above ‘what can I expect when my daughter starts her period?’ It was a serious question, one bred from terror and fear. The Minnesota Shrike had been attacking for months, no word on whether or not he’d be caught anytime soon, what with the way the FBI was trying to keep things under wraps.
That wasn’t his problem, though. His problem was writer’s block, and trying to make a reply that was engaging, informative, and colorful enough that when it hit the third page of Tattler News, neither he nor Beverly would lose their jobs.
He sighed, took a drag of the cigarette, then promptly put it out in the ash tray. It was a nasty habit, one he’d been trying to break for years.
At least he’d had the smoking habit longer than he’d had the writer’s block.
He pulled up articles, news, and reports on the Minnesota Shrike, staring down at them and tapping his fingers over the words. The reply needed something delicate, something carefully constructed rather than the normal garb that told people to stay safe and remain in groups. He wasn’t targeting just people, he was targeting women. He wasn’t just targeting women, he had a type.
That type was now currently terrified.
He poured himself a finger of whiskey, sighed quietly. It was going to be a long night with him and the Minnesota Shrike.
Writing was a comfort when it worked. It was as much a release as it was a barrier, one where Will could spend his days behind the comfort of a computer screen rather than interact with people. He knew how to interact –the application of eye contact was sorely lacking. That made people nervous, as much as being stared at for too long made him nervous. His watch beeped. He needed to drink some water.
He couldn’t, though, not with his boss staring so acutely across the desk at him.
“Beverly told me about you chiming in on her column. I approved it, seeing as how it’d already been done,” he said. A cigarette was tucked behind his ear, the remnants of his own bad habit. Will figured that editor’s offices in the newspaper industries were probably the last safe havens of many things, from comma splices to typos to chain smoking. The air was thick with it, and he inhaled deeply and nodded.
“If it wasn’t right, sir, I understand,” he said, studying the pen holder. Two weeks later and he was going to reap what he’d sowed.
“Right? You know how popular ‘Chats with Bev’ is? It’s page three for a reason; housewives across this god damn town been sending me questions and e-mails for years, wanting advice from some faceless woman with a penchant for telling it like it is. You know what you did when Beverly let you take a whack at it, eh?” Charlie was one half of the writing spectrum whose prose on paper was enough to make knees weak, but his speech left much to be desired. Will figured he spent so much time making his words pretty on paper that there was none left for real human interaction.
Will could personally identify with that.
“Did I ruin ratings?” he asked weakly.
“Ruin them? Hell, kid, I’ve got triple what I’ve ever gotten! Men, women, teenagers, fuckin sororities sending in group messages. It wasn’t your advice on periods because you’re in way over your head with that, fuck, don’t ever try and give advice on that again.” A warning glance was tossed his way. “These people are asking us about killers, Will. You’re making them all sorts of excited about killers.”
“What?” Disbelief colored his tone uncomfortable, his cheeks red.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about this, EllaofGWU. I think it was a sign of my privilege, being a mid-twenties male that I didn’t know that much about the Minnesota Shrike, and for that I’m sorry. There must be a little bit of resentment, I’m sure, walking down campus with brown hair and fair skin, terrified to realize that you are part of a demographic that someone horrendous has targeted.
“I can’t say when the FBI will catch him, but your other question sat with me for a long time: what kind of person would do that to these girls? There is the hope that they’re alive, but after contemplating that question, alone and ignorant in front of my computer, I think I can safely but regretfully surmise that they’re not. This person, after attempting to get to know such a person through the many lines of type and black #321 ink, is not keeping these girls.
“He uses them, you see, to feed a need. He is delicate, meticulous, able to completely disappear with them without leaving a single trace. They are a proxy, a stand-in for the one he holds dear, the one he so desperately yearns to consume. He loves them in his own way because he loves her –his golden ticket. What kind of person would do that, you ask me? Someone that hungers. Someone that can’t remove the intrusive thoughts from their head. He is sick, and he very much has a daughter that looks a lot like you.
“They say don’t talk with strangers, but that’s not the concern, is it? Don’t just avoid men with invasive questions, EllaofGWU. Avoid their daughters that look like you. A girl that looks alone, camping out at campuses to see which one to attend, whose father watches in the background with love and admiration; avoid them. He hunted these women, and if there’s one thing we know about hunters, they tend to enjoy using bait. Whether the bait is aware of this or not, though, we can’t say.”
Charlie’s eyes pricked pins in his un-ironed button-up after he finished reading Will’s answer aloud. Will shifted, busied himself with filling a plastic cup full of water in the corner. It sat full because Charlie never drank it. The sun from the window made it warm, but he’d deal with it.
“It took up a lot of space, so we bumped the period question because your answer was about as tactful as a senior tugging at a freshman’s panties,” he rumbled. “But we printed this one.”
“They liked it?” he asked, glancing up. His teeth worried over the lip of the cup before he took a sip.
“They fucking loved it! They ate it up, begged for more –some lady just down the road stopped me at Hank’s Hotdogs and started pestering me about wanting you to write about Ted Bundy, and I just fuckin stared at her like she was a shark before I realized they loved you talking about killers, kid. They fuckin loved you talking about the crazies.”
“Death sells,” Will muttered.
“Death, sex, intrigue, conspiracies, scandals, and serial killers. Sometimes, serial killers fall into all five before it, and they ate you up. They want you to have your own column, your own space where they can ask you all about these things. I been getting fuckin calls all week, asking if you were gonna collaborate with Bev again.”
“I cover weddings, mostly,” Will defended. It was a weak defense, one without much passion or care. He hastily took another sip of water.
“Your wedding covers have been weak lately. Freddie was suggesting tossing you, but this…” Charlie jabbed a finger down on the latest paper, grinning. “This is golden, kid. I feel like this was a bit of a redemption, something to remind me you can actually write some good shit.”
“Freddie is always suggesting to toss me,” Will grumbled.
“Well, when you’re front page news material, I’ll give you that same ear, how’s that?”
“Until then, I’m getting them to move some of the ads around, bring them down to maybe a 5.5 to make room for your new column. Chats with Bev, meet your male-killing-counterpart, ‘Will Intentions’.”
“Will Intentions,” Will echoed. The name sounded corny, trivial.
“A play off of Ill Intentions, you know? Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.” Charlie waved a hand dismissively, grabbed the half-finished cigarette behind his ear and lit it. A sign the conversation was over. “I’ve got Cassie on Weddings now; you’re writing my crime-hungry column, got it?”
“Got it.” A beat. “Thank you, sir.”
He walked out of the office, found his desk and sat down, stunned. He had his own column. He wasn’t stuck writing cheap wedding announcements anymore.
His watch beeped; a reminder he needed to finish his water.
He downed it, crushed the cup and tossed it in the wastebasket beneath the desk that leaned somewhat too far to the left. Idly, he grabbed two books and propped the leg up to straighten it, blinking small spreads of stars out of his eyes at the thought that he, Will-fucking-Graham, had sat in his corner of Tattler News for four years and had finally gotten out of his stupid, sanguine-sweet wedding announcements all because he’d made a bet with Beverly while drunk about who could eat the most boiled eggs in under a minute.
What in the hell was real life?
“I heard the news,” Beverly said, standing in front of his desk. He straightened in his chair, adjusted the setting Beverly had no doubt changed when she’d sat down to hunt through his drawers for a highlighter, and smiled a little.
“Not my idea, swear to god,” she snickered. “I think Freddie.”
“Freddie,” Will groused, shaking his mouse to wake up the computer. “She was trying to get me fired before this.”
“Your wedding announcements were getting a little lackluster,” Beverly pointed out. She sat on the edge of his desk, hip jutted to keep her balanced. “There are only so many times you can mention baby’s breath.”
“I never want to hear baby’s breath again,” Will warned her.
“Are you excited?” she asked.
“It’s not really setting in yet,” he admitted. He let the words roll around in his head: no more wedding announcements. From now on, Will Intentions.
Whatever the hell Will Intentions meant.
“They’re going to bring by the letters, and I’ll forward you the e-mails. Basically, you choose the five best and answer them. Easy, right? I think that’ll help it set in.”
“Easy,” he echoed with a nod.
Beverly shifted, and he watched the leg of his desk wobble threateningly. He wondered if he’d get a new desk if the column worked out. He also wondered if he’d tank abysmally, and Freddie Lounds would be able to see him get the can after all.
His watch beeped to tell him to eat.
He ate as he went through a stack of letters that would have intimidated a lesser man who’d forgotten his lunch. They were quaint, from compliments of his analysis to questions regarding past killers like Bundy or Dahmer. He wasn’t as interested in those as he was the questions about why the police don’t take missing persons cases as seriously, or what caused a teenager to bring a gun to school. Those were recent. Those were fresh, raw wounds. He set those aside, as well as the compliments –a bit of an ego booster in truth.
There was one that made him pause, though, something written on plain white paper with what looked like a fountain pen. Will was somewhat of a connoisseur of pens –he liked to think most writers had a special type of pen, something they used for their best work on bus rides and random notepads while walking in the park. He touched the long-dried ink, nodded to himself. A fountain pen, and a nicely edged one at that.
Dear Will Graham,
I adored your analysis of the Minnesota Shrike. How quickly you boxed him into a corner and revealed his hand! Surely the ladies on campus will sleep better knowing to avoid anyone that looks remotely like them with a father in tow. That, or perhaps you’ve inspired them all to dye their hair a poignant shade of blonde until the next killer comes along.
I wonder if your clever little mind would be able to catch someone like me, however; would you be interested in playing a game, Mr. Graham? I’ve grown bored as of late, and the city is not much to entertain these days. You can respond in your new column. Congratulations, by the way.
He kept that one because he was curious. Pranks were common, especially when killings were mentioned. He’d once done a paper on the amount of time and money wasted on dealing with false calls during murder investigations, psychos claiming credit for what someone else had done. He read over it once, twice; a third time made him set it by the only photo on his desk, a pack of dogs in an open field. He’d gotten his first crazy, and he hadn’t even done the column yet.
He was intercepted as he was leaving work, the sun falling fast behind the skyscrapers and high-rise buildings of DC. The man wasn’t so much tall as he was broad-shouldered and stout; the trench coat and sunglasses get-up was about as obvious as a black eye, but Will wasn’t going to mention it. He looked him up and down, hitched his backpack up higher, and walked around him.
“Will Graham?” the man asked.
“Something I can help you with?”
“In a hurry?”
“Got a bus to catch,” he replied, still walking. The man kept pace, and Will noted the large black suburban following along.
“I’m Agent Crawford of the FBI, and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”
“I’ve got a bus, Agent Crawford,” said Will. He noted the flash of a shiny badge in the corner of his eye, although he didn’t stop. If he missed his bus, it was a five mile hike home and he wasn’t inclined to that sort of exercise if he could help it. He was a writer, not some god damn athlete.
“We’ll give you a ride,” Crawford assured him.
“My dad always taught me not to talk to strangers, and if they offered to give me a ride I was supposed to run screaming to the nearest adult.”
“We caught the Minnesota Shrike, Mr. Graham.”
That did stop him. Will paused, puzzled, then looked to Crawford. His watch beeped to remind him that he had a bus to catch. He hardly heard the noise.
“I read your reply in Tattler News last week, and it intrigued me. Enough that I looked back through a few things on the case I’d been currently investigating, and we found what was necessary to catch the Minnesota Shrike.” Crawford held the badge in hand, prepared to show it to Will again.
“You caught him?” His throat was dry. His watch didn’t beep to tell him to get water, but he figured he could use a glass of it.
“We caught him,” Crawford affirmed. “Now, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
Will decided that he didn’t mind much at all. His palms were dry, although his heart had begun to jerk about against his ribs rather unsteadily.
They sat down at a small café crammed into the corner of a building two blocks away, and Will stirred his mocha around idly, watching Crawford’s mouth as Crawford watched him. He had a presence about himself, something brutish and capable. Will wondered what his fingers would write out if he’d had the chance to describe him. Lips that turned down, a tarnished gold wedding band; this was not the sort of man with a happy marriage, as of late. He had his work, though. He had the Minnesota Shrike.
“It was just a question,” he explained. “Someone asked a question in the advice column, and I looked through some articles and made a guess.”
“Yeah.” A pause as he took a sip of his drink. “I mean, a good guess, right? My major was criminal psychology and forensics. I kind of knew what I was looking for.”
“But you’re in journalism,” Crawford pointed out.
“Yeah, well…I didn’t get into the FBI. I’d double majored, and the second was journalism.” Will tried to make his shrug as nonchalant as possible. Strict psychological screening procedures and what-not.
“You couldn’t fight crime, so you wrote about crime,” Crawford mused. He stirred sugar into his coffee and finally looked away from studying Will so intently. “How’d you guess he was using his daughter as bait?”
A pause, brief enough to tell Will the answer. “…Yes. When we went into the house, he tried to kill her. She was his –how’d you call it?”
“His golden ticket.”
“His golden ticket,” Jack repeated.
“They’re all from universities. He had to be a visitor, someone going to and from without notice, right? The profile said he was middle-aged, so either he’s working with a company that works with all of those universities –possible but not likely –or he’s got something that makes it not weird for him to be there, staring at students. Girls know to be wary of boys, but if he’s got his daughter asking questions or just trying to make friends, why would the victims be worried?” Will took another sip to try and hide how nervous he was, answering these questions. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he felt mighty guilty, somehow.
“How’d you know they wouldn’t be alive?”
“Why keep taking them if he’s still got the stand-in?” Will asked.
Jack nodded, accepting this. They sipped their coffee in silence, and Will’s watch beeped to tell him he should be home and fixing dinner by now. He downed his drink, stood up. Jack followed suit and offered him a ride in the SUV.
He left him his card, whatever that meant. Will tucked it in his pocket all the same, waved him off at the entrance to the complex. Call if you need anything, he’d said. Maybe he’d call and ask for one of those fountain pens, the kind the high-ranking got after a particularly bristly promotion. Will scuffed his shoe, snorted. He was a writer, not some weird FBI crime fighter.
Granted, he’d once wanted to be, when he thought maybe people could overlook his weird idiosyncrasies and inability to hold conversations very well with random strangers. He’d once thought maybe his quirks at seeing far too much about a person would lend a task force some insight they’d missed. If he could see through the eyes of the guy next door that was cheating on his long-term girlfriend, couldn’t he also see through the eyes of a killer terrorizing a city?
Apparently so, since he’d helped the FBI inadvertently catch a killer.
Psychological screening procedures and what-not, though. Behind the screen of a laptop was where he best shined now, not running around trying to find serial killers to bring them to justice. Truth be told, it wasn’t just the justice part that was enticing, it was the finding, the knowing. Save people from dying, understand the person behind the bloodied knife. There was something oddly cathartic at the thought that the twisted and sometimes horrendous way he looked at things was actually helpful for once –like a chair of antlers, grotesque but useful.
That was that, though. No matter how buzzed his veins were at the idea he’d helped, in his own way, catch the Minnesota Shrike, it was time to get back to the real world. The real world had deadlines. His watch beeped again to tell him he should have eaten by now.
He ate a bowl of oatmeal and considered the letters he’d narrowed it down to. He’d have to look at the killers they referenced, the murders that’d taken place.
I saw the Minnesota Shrike was caught –amazing. Just amazing. Women are being found in the bay here, and I was wondering what your thoughts were on that? They’re not calling it a serial killer because they’re prostitutes, but get real. Pimps don’t just start killing their prostitutes willy-nilly and so easily found. So many, too. Way too many, don’t you think?
At the bottom of the stack, he kept his first crazy fanmail, fingers tracing over the signature. He’d heard vague accounts of the Chesapeake Ripper, although after his realization he’d never be an agent he’d tried to put such thoughts out of his head. They only served to tease him with what he’d never have.
No matter. It was a prank, although a flattering one. It sat at the bottom of the stack to remind him that when given the right opportunity, he actually was a decent writer. Enough to bring a psycho out to play.
The next morning, as he shuffled across creaking wooden floors and made a pot of coffee, he blinked sleep from his eyes and contemplated the beeping on his wrist. Time to get up. Don’t forget coffee. Without coffee, you’re late for work.
It took him far too long to really open his eyes, and as he spooned cold cereal into his mouth, it took approximately half of the bowl and four minutes on his watch to realize his laptop was propped open on the table. He turned it to shut it, confused since he thought he’d powered it down the night before. A yawn, eyes watering and mouth painfully gaping took him aback, and he covered his mouth with the spoon. It took another minute for him to realize what he was seeing, since the coffee was in his stomach but not quite in his bloodstream.
There, propped up on the screen of the laptop, was the fanmail from the ‘Chesapeake Ripper’. As if to tease him, to convince him he hadn’t just left there before he’d gone to bed, a golden sticker had been placed at the top of the sheet, as if to beg him, me, me; pick me.