I’m at the dog park with Buster, my joint custody pooch. Sitting on a park bench and drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup, I’m shooting the breeze with Mike, a retiree and fellow dog owner, enjoying a glorious spring afternoon. Overhead the sun burns with regal splendor as a gentle wind pushes last week’s ferocious rainstorms out of my memory. In the distance I can hear the laughter of young children playing. Buster’s going mano a mano with a Chihuahua. The air smells soft and clean. Its a beautiful day.
“So,” Mike says. “The guy cut her head clean off.”
“What a sick fuck,” I mutter, peering into my coffee cup. Its almost gone.
“He worked for a company that installed water meters,” Mike continues. “The city contracted with this company to replace water meters in apartment buildings. So this guy was able to watch, plan, and have access to all his victims.”
“How many did he kill?”
Mike looks into the air and thinks about that for a moment. “In my city? Four or five.”
“That we know of,” Mike adds quickly. “God knows how many people he killed in other cities. His company installed meters all over the country.”
“But you caught him.”
“Kinda,” Mike says. “Its a funny story.”
It’s not often you talk to a cop that helped catch a serial killer. I ask Mike to tell me his story.
“I’m the supervising sergeant,” Mike says, launching into his tale. “We get a call that a woman’s screaming in an apartment. I send over a radio car. The officers knock on the door. It’s locked. No answer. They figure its a false alarm and take off.”
“Ten minutes later I get another call,” Mike says. “Now witnesses are hearing more screams coming out of the apartment. I send the officers back. This time the doors unlocked. They go inside and find a young woman tied to a chair with her throat cut.”
Two women sitting nearby, the kind who dress their little dogs in sweaters, give Mike a strange look.
“Did the woman survive?” I ask, ignoring the ladies’ stares.
“She did,” Mike says. “But I don’t know if she survived mentally.”
“I can’t imagine how you come back from that.”
“Me neither,” Mike says. “So here’s the rest of the story. The funny part.”
“Lay it on me.”
“So I’m at the crime scene and were loading the girl on an ambulance. We know we’ve got a serial killer on the loose because we’ve had four or five young pretty Hispanic women get their throats cut in their apartments in as many months. Two cops, a block away from the crime scene, spot a man covered in blood and carrying a knife.”
“It was the killer?”
“It was indeed,” Mike says. “The cops stop him and ask what happened. They thought he was just high on drugs and let him go.”
“They let him go!” I blurt. “A man covered in blood and carrying a knife and they let him go?”
“And with no cuts on him either,” Mike says, shaking his head in disgust. “That’s police work 101. You see a guy covered in blood with no wounds on him – then he’s been up to no good. He can’t claim he cut himself or something.”
“Why’d they let him go?”
“Cause they were lazy fucking cops,” Mike says. “Cops are like anybody else. Some are good, some are bad, and some are just lazy. These guys didn’t want to deal with the paperwork.”
“So what happened?”
“Well these brainiacs come to help secure the crime scene. When they get there they realize their mistake and tell me.”
“What did you do?”
“I told them if they didn’t catch that bastard in ten minutes they’d be crossing guards for their rest of their lives. Long story short? They caught him.”
“Nothing like a little motivation.”
“If that guy got away, God knows how many more people he would’ve killed,” Mike says. “I think living with that possibility scared them more than anything else.”
“The funny part?” Mike says. “The cops become heroes. Got medals. We kept the fuck up quiet.”
“Did you get a medal?”
I chuckle to myself and drain the last of my coffee. “That is funny.”
“That’s police work.”
Buster scampers up to me and nuzzles against my leg. I reach down and scratch his ears.
“How long you been retired Mike?” I ask.
“Almost fifteen years.”
“I bet you don’t miss it.”
“Not at all,” Mike says. “I did it for thirty years. I paid my dues.”
Mike’s a big old Irish looking guy. Red faced, beer gutted, wearing black socks with white sneakers, it’s hard to believe he walked one of the toughest urban beats in the country.
“Man,” Mike says, releasing a deep breath. “That whole business was thirty years ago. You watch the news today and you’d think this kinda shits a recent invention but it ain’t. I remember hearing about wacko killers from my uncle, and he was a cop in the 1930s.”
“It’s always been going on.”
“People just go nuts,” Mike says. “They say you can predict it but I say thats bullshit. Look at that loony in Kansas. He was a deacon in his church and he tortured and killed 8 people. No one suspected him.”
“Scary,” I say, watching the dogs chasing each other — some snarling, some biting, others rolling over and playing dead. “Evil can appear out of nowhere.”
“You got that right kid,” Mike says. “That’s why I still carry a piece.”
“You packing now?”
“Indeed I am,” he replies grinning. I see something quickly flash in Mike’s eyes; a something that tells me, despite his age, that he’s still a formidable man. For an instant I remember what it felt like to be a little boy, curled up in bed, knowing my father was awake and protecting me from harm. That’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time.
“I’ve carried one since I was twenty five,” Mike adds softly. “Old habits die hard.”
Buster’s ears perk up. The Chihuahua comes back for more. The Chihuahua belongs to Mike. The Chihuahua has cancer and Mikes fostering him until he dies or gets better. He talks to the dog like it’s a baby. Mike’s a hard man who’s seen hard things and carries a gun. Mike’s a gentle man with a little dog. Somehow that makes sense to me.
The soft and clean breeze blows across my face. I’m reminded of a line from Chandler. “If I wasn’t hard, I wouldn’t be alive. If I couldn’t ever be gentle, I wouldn’t deserve to be alive.”