So. I wanna tell you a story.
A true story.
About a man named Will King, an NYPD detective, like me. King investigated the 1928 disappearance and presumed death of 10-year-old Grace Budd, who left her home to attend a birthday party and never returned.
There wasn’t much to go on. In fact, there was nothing at all. No body. No eyewitnesses. No physical evidence of any kind. Little Grace was just gone. And so no arrest was made for a full two years—until Charles Edward Pope was accused of the murder by his estranged wife. Mrs. Pope claimed her husband had confessed to her, but since there was nothing for a jury but her word, Charles was found not guilty in December, 1930, after 108 days in jail—after which he was a free man. I’m sure he went straight home and had a few words with his wife.
For a time, it seemed like that would be the end of it. But in 1934, four years after the trial and six years after the murder, Grace’s mother received an anonymous letter, purportedly from the killer, which described in bald tone how he had enticed the girl into his room on the pretense of needing help, how he had quickly removed his clothes on her way up the stairs so as not to get her blood on them, how he had strangled her and butchered her body, and how he had eaten it, roasted in the oven, over a period of nine days. The note ended with the “reassurance” that the girl had died a virgin.
But “I could’ve,” he said. “If I’d wanted to.”
Mrs. Budd was illiterate and had to have her eldest son read the letter to her, whereupon she handed it over to the police. Although there was nothing distinguishing about the page, it had been delivered in an envelope that was marred in one corner. Once dampened and viewed under a magnifying glass, the mark revealed an emblem containing the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A., for the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. After interviewing the Association’s employees, Detective King discovered a janitor who admitted to stealing some stationary, although he claimed to have left it in an apartment he had rented on East 52nd. The landlady of the house provided King with the names of all her recent tenants, and there in the middle—much to his surprise—was one he recognized.
Albert Fish was a real grandfatherly type. He had a bit of a shamble to his walk. He was warm and soft-spoken. He was a father of six and visibly delighted in his youngest grandson. He read the Bible and could quote it prodigiously. By all accounts, he was a liked and respected man, and at 68 years old, with a head of gray hair and that sideways gait, he was the picture of harmlessness. Which is why, without a shred of physical evidence to link him to the murder, Fish had been quickly exonerated, despite that he had actually been the last to see Grace Budd alive—when he accompanied her to the birthday party with her mother’s blessing.
The landlady on East 52nd informed Detective King that while Fish had been living there, he’d been receiving money from his son and that he was due one more check, which had just arrived. King decided to wait outside the room until his quarry came to collect the letter, whereupon he intercepted the soft-spoken old man and asked him to come to the station for questioning. Fish agreed, but as soon as Detective King turned, the doting, Bible-reading, gray-haired father of six produced a razor blade and tried to slice King’s neck open. He failed and was subdued and arrested and ultimately brought to trial.
After the arrest, Albert Fish claimed to have committed close to a hundred murders in a number of different states, although he was only ever linked to nine and was only ever convicted of one—that of Grace Budd, for which he received the electric chair. Prior to the trial, he also admitted to experiencing a pair of involuntary ejaculations while he dismembered the body, but since it could never be proved whether he had eaten her or not, the motive was described as sexual and no account of the supposed cannibalism was given to the jury.
What is true beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, is that the kind and elderly Albert Fish, who spent all that time reading the Bible, regularly heard the voice of God commanding him to torture people “with implements of Hell.” What’s true is that he liked to beat himself with a nail-studded board and to stick wool soaked in lighter fluid in his anus and light it on fire. What’s true is that he liked to insert needles in his scrotum. And to leave them there. An X-ray revealed more than two dozen were present at the time of his arrest—so many, in fact, that the electric chair shorted in the middle of his execution and kind old Albert Fish had to wait in excruciating agony, half electrocuted, while they reset the switches and finished the job.
I imagine Detective King was changed by that case. I would’ve been. I bet he was changed by the knowledge that he’d had the killer from the start and had let him go. I bet he never again made the mistake of presuming innocence just because the alternative was inconceivable. I bet he was proud of the fact that he’d finally caught Grace Budd’s killer and had seen him punished. I bet it never made up for all the others who got away.
Why am I telling you this?
Because despite what you see on TV, or hear from the government, that’s hardly ever how it goes. And I don’t just mean about cannibalism and needles in scrotums, but that too. I mean about who gets caught and who gets away. If you believe the official statistics, just under 2/3 of all murders in this country are solved.
If you believe the official statistics.
But there’s some flexibility, you see, in what gets logged as “solved.” And the aggregate numbers hide a big difference between major metropolitan areas, like New York and Chicago, and the rest of the nation. If you live in a big city, a better rule of thumb is about half.
One out of every two murderers is never caught—which means you probably know one, even though it’s inconceivable to contemplate.
The difference isn’t skill or perseverance or even luck, which is all that brought Albert Fish to justice. Lots of guys I know have all three of those, and in spades, too. No, catching the dark half requires more than that. Catching the dark half requires you to contemplate the otherwise inconceivable—that there really was a voice emanating from Albert Fish’s Bible, perverting its word and driving him to kill.
Or that some bodies want to be found.
Take the corpse of one John Doe, or as I called him, John T. Crisp. As with the Grace Budd case, there wasn’t much to go on. The body had been burned at high temperature and sealed in a drum, part of a shipment of radioactive hospital waste—nuclear medicine is a big producer these days—set to be buried for all eternity on a native reservation in the Great White North. On the way, it was spread over a highway in New Brunswick. The truck carrying the shipment was struck by another semi at high speed. Both drivers were killed. And there in the middle of the wreckage was the charred, faceless corpse of Mr. Crisp, resting in a puddle of toxic sludge and covered in KitKats, which had broken from their pallets inside the oncoming semi.
The body was shipped back to New York, its point of origin, where the forensics guys shat bricks. Mr. Crisp’s corpse was amess. His fingers were blackened, so there was no hope of prints, and his DNA didn’t match anything on record. All they could say for sure was that he was a male aged 45 to 60, although they added, based on certain genetic markers, he might have been Hispanic. Since the medical examiner couldn’t say whether the radioactive material had hastened his decay or delayed it, we couldn’t calculate a precise date of death. For all we knew, he’d been in there for months, or even years.
About all we had, in fact, was a reconstructed dental and skeletal profile. My job was to find a match, which meant scavenging the missing persons database for all possible hits on a conservative ten-year window, and getting dental records from legal next of kin—or at least the name of a dentist to pester. I had 17 matches, but that was assuming we were right about his ethnic background. If we weren’t, there were four times as many.
I was leaving a message for family number twelve, on the smaller list, when a package was plopped onto my desk. Plain manila envelope. Sealed with clear shipping tape. Machine-printed label. Unmarked VHS tape inside.
And that’s how everything started.
second chapter of the third mystery in my forthcoming supernatural thriller, FEAST OF SHADOWS
read the first here: https://rickwayneauthor.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/a-simple-exorcism/
art by flibberty jibbeth