“Who else is in the room with you, Sheriff?” the killer asked from the other end of the line. “I’m curious to know.”
“Think you can throw me a bone first?” Lee asked. “I gotta make sure you’re the real guy and not just some punk kid making crank calls.”
The killer gave him more than enough.
“All the victims,” he said, “were killed with single shots to the head with a .22 caliber pistol. I entered their residences by using a tactical glass cutter on the kitchen doors. All of the bodies were then arranged in the style of the nativity scene. Anything else?”
Looks were exchanged around the room. Eddie rushed to the office door, opened it, poked his head out, and whistled at a high-pitch that caught the attention of the four other deputies in the station.
“Tape recorder,” he whispered. “Quick!”
It took a second for them to rally, but one of the deputies dashed towards a desk, opened a drawer, and located a Mitsubishi portable recorder the size of an airplane paperback and rushed it over to Eddie.
“Flip the tape,” the deputy said. “There’s stuff on the A side I don’t want to lose.”
Eddie looked at the label on the A side and saw “Glam Metal mix” written in pen.
He gave the deputy a look.
Eddie flipped the tape, rushed back into Lee’s office, and pressed record.
“Sheriff Hudson?” the killer called out from the speaker. “Are you still there?”
Eddie carefully placed the recorder down by the desk phone and stepped away.
“Yeah," Lee said as he, Eddie, and Baird stood in a half-circle around the telephone. “I’m still here.”
“Good,” the killer said. “You don’t have a lot of time, so I suggest you make every second of your search count. Not that it will make a difference.”
A noise emitted faintly in the background on the killer’s end.
A kind of static crackle.
Eddie noted it and crossed his arms.
“You’re pretty damn confident there, ace,” he said to the killer.
Baird glared at Eddie, snapped his fingers, and pointed.
Eddie waved him off.
“Who is that?” the killer asked.
“Special Agent Eddie Flint,” Eddie replied.
“Ah. I see the feds are now involved. I’m flattered.”
Baird took a step forward and leaned in towards the phone.
“This is Special Agent Patrick Baird.”
“Special Agent Baird, you say?”
“Yes. I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Eddie leaned in.
“I think he knows, man," he whispered.
Baird held his hand up in a "stop" motion.
“Who am I speaking with?” he asked the killer.
“The man responsible for the recent strings of deaths in Somerset. I thought I made that obvious.”
“Don’t suppose we can get a name?” Eddie inquired.
“No. I’m afraid not. But I do want to make this whole process for you as interactive as possible though. It's a lot more fun when the authorities are involved. Especially today, on the Eve of Christ’s birth. For behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”
Eddie shook his head.
The guy had dropped his accent twice.
“Okay,” he sighed. “You can cut the televangelist rhetoric, bubbaloo. Tell us what you want.”
Baird grabbed Flint’s arm and leaned into his ear.
“What are you doing?” he hissed.
“Calling him out,” Eddie said as he shook off Baird’s grip. “He’s taking us for a ride.”
“Is that Agent Flint speaking?”
“No, it was Ronnie Reagan,” Eddie said. “He wants to know what your endgame is so he can get back to pretending he’s a cowboy.”
“You’re being quite cavalier with this situation. Lives are at stake, you know.”
"Then quit wasting time misquoting bible verses and tell us what you want.”
The killer drew a deep breath.
“I want to paint a masterpiece,” he continued. “I want to do something that will shed light on how shallow and commercial this holiday has become.”
“That’s interesting,” Baird said, his tone and demeanor impersonating that “by-the-book” hostage negotiation poise he adopted from seminars. “You consider yourself an artist, I’m assuming.”
“Of sorts. I like to think of myself as the savior of mankind. Only through my demonstrations will you be able to fully understand the salvation I intend to bring to this world.”
Eddie started laughing like a drunken guy who was two drinks over his cut-off.
“Is there something humorous in what I just said?” the killer asked.
Eddie grabbed Lee’s chair, pulled it towards the phone, and popped a squat in front of the speaker.
“What’s your favorite bible verse?”
A pause on the killer’s end.
“2nd Timothy, Chapter 3, verse 13.”
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, you big tease you.”
“I’ve had enough of you trying to derail the conversation, Agent Flint.”
“And I don’t appreciate someone trying to jerk me off over the phone, shithead.”
Baird snapped and pointed, his expression tense as he thought of ways to end Eddie’s career.
“I think,” the killer said. “The time has come to end our little chat. I only called to inform you that four more will die by tomorrow night – two shepherds, Joseph, and the Virgin. When I’m finished with my tableau, you will fully understand the meaning of my life’s work.”
“We’re finished here, Agent Baird. Just remember that the clues are in the targets. Good luck.”
The line went dead. Nothing but dial tone filled the office.
Eddie reached forward, stopped the tape recorder, and hung up the phone.
“I just want to say, Baird,” he began, “that finger-snapping crap of yours needs to stop.”
“What the hell is the matter with you, Flint?” Baird yelled, all heads in the bullpen now turned towards Lee’s office. “We’ve got the suspect right there on the phone, and you blew him off like he was a telemarketer.”
Eddie stood up and walked towards Baird.
“This guy is playing us,” he said. “Can’t you see that?”
“All I see is a federal agent throwing white gasoline on a fire. We've got a psycho on the loose, and you're treating the situation like it’s some kind of game. We’re experiencing what could be the start of the next BTK killer, and your approach is to berate the suspect the second we get him on the line.”
“Oh, lighten up,” Eddie said. “That fucker’s narrative was all over the place. He was inconsistent with everything he said. Didn’t you hear him drop his shitty little southern accent twice?”
"He told us specifics of the crime."
"I'm not saying he didn't do it."
"Then what are you saying?”
“Look, anyone with enough time on the job can spot the con artists. This guy isn’t a serial killer. He isn’t some nutcase trying to act out some elaborate fantasy. He’s trying to distract us. He’s fucking with us.”
Baird crossed his arms, smiled, and turned away.
“Is that so, Agent Flint?”
"You're damn right it is," Eddie said as he popped open the top of the tape recorder. "He's got something he's trying to pull off, but 'painting a masterpiece' isn't the endgame."
Baird turned back.
“Then what his goal, huh? What’s he after? What’s he distracting us from?”
Eddie went quiet as he put his hands in the pockets of his cardigan.
He wasn’t sure.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” he said with a diffident tone, turning away from Baird’s incoming retort.
“Excellent investigative skills, Flint,” Baird said. “Beautiful. You know, I’m sure that your section chief is going to be thrilled to hear about how you’ve composed yourself once I get him on the line here in a minute.”
Eddie shook his head.
“You’re completely distracted by this being the case that skyrockets your reputation that you can’t look at it any other way, can you?”
“I think we’ve all had enough of your speculations for one day, Eddie.”
Baird turned to Lee.
“Isn’t that right, Sheriff?”
“I agree with Agent Flint,” Lee said, head bowed.
Baird looked at Lee with a chagrined and puzzled look on his face.
“You can’t be serious…”
Lee shrugged. “Flint’s right. Bullshit artists are easy to spot. I don’t know why or how, but whoever just called is trying to rile us up. He wants our attention, and now he has it.”
A pause from Baird.
“And I can only assume you don’t have an idea as to why that is?” he asked.
Lee said nothing.
At that moment the front door to the station opened, and four agents dressed similar to Baird – two men, two women – hastily walked inside and began looking around for the person in charge.
“Unbelievable,” Baird said as he straightened his tie and snagged the tape recorder off the desk. “The level of incompetence with you is a given, Flint. But Sheriff…”
Baird held up his hand.
He didn’t want to waste the oxygen.
“Think about it,” Lee said. “None of this lines up. The guy’s whole performance over the phone felt forced.”
“Like watching my brother’s niece in her school play,” Eddie added. “I love her and everything, but…”
“That’s it,” Baird said. “As of right now the both of you are moving to the back rows. I’m not wasting any time or resources on hunches.”
He said the word like it had a bad taste.
He snapped his fingers and pointed at Eddie.
“Go back to the airport. Get on that jet. Get the hell out of here. Otherwise, I'll call up the ladder and have you collecting shell casings and the range in Quantico while you wait for your letter of termination.”
He snapped again and pointed to Lee.
“And you. I want you patrolling the streets with the rest of your people. Check in with me every fifteen minutes so I can determine where I need you and how I need you.”
Baird turned towards the office door, threw it open, and prepared to step out.
Lee stood up.
“You know,” he said, “Flint was right.”
Baird turned back.
Lee snapped his fingers and pointed.
“You are an asshole.”
Eddie was all smiles as Baird clenched his jaw and moved to greet the incoming agents, his face nearly red, though his spray tan wouldn't have let it show.
“What is that finger-snapping bull shit all about?” Lee asked Eddie.
Eddie moved to the office door and closed it.
“The bully that beat his ass senseless in grade school probably did the same thing,” he said.
Lee reached towards the pack of cigarettes on his desk.
“Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith,” he said. “They're as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.”
“2nd Timothy, Chapter 3, verse 13.”
“Clever,” Lee said as he lit his cigarette.
Eddie nodded at the phone on Lee’s desk.
“Unlike our boy. He was pulling quotes from several different versions of the bible. Not a consistent one among them.”
“Whoever was on the phone,” Lee said as he lit his cigarette, “he’s sloppy.”
Eddie watched as Baird went about schmoozing the Chicago agents and updating them on the situation.
“Tell me about it.”
Lee tapped his ash into the coffee cup.
“What’s your next move? Your buddy out there just ordered you out of here.”
“Why, you looking to grab some lunch?”
“Personally I don’t care what you do.”
Eddie took a beat.
“I want to find this guy,” he said. “He’s going to kill other people. That’s a guarantee. I just don’t think it’s for the reasons he’s making it out to be. I don’t care what Baird says.”
“Sounds like you don’t care what anyone says,” Lee said as he took a drag of his cigarette and made eye contact with Eddie.
Eddie took a moment and inched a little closer towards Lee’s desk.
“You’ve got a problem here, Sheriff. I think you’re better equipped and adept than most of the people that just showed up to do with it. I know one of them. His name is Ron Collins. He's a fucking idiot."
“What’s your point?”
“Dollars to donuts, I think you could get more done than the FBI. Without Baird, that is.”
“You’re saying I’ve got a better shot with you.”
“I’m saying you might. Look, I may be a bit unorthodox. Blunt. Whatever. But I’m a team player. I don’t want credit. I just want to contribute.”
Lee thought about it.
Eddie sold him further.
“You want to take point and figure out what’s really going on around here – I’ve got your back. Whatever’s going to happen, it’s going to happen soon, and I think we might be able to figure out what stinks a lot quicker than my cohorts that just showed up. We just need to be prepared to get a little flack from Sergeant Snazzy Shoes out there if we do go at it alone.”
Lee blew smoke out of his nose and tossed his butt in the cup.
He thought about it.
After a few seconds, Lee gave him the subtlest of nods.
“Too bad we can’t listen to that tape one more time. See if we pick up something.”
Eddie reached into the pocket of his cardigan, pulled out the stolen cassette tape, and held it up.
“You into Glam Metal?”
Lee popped the tape into the cassette player of his cruiser parked just behind the station, the windows frosted and the heat blasting from the vents as he leaned in with Eddie and listened.
“You don’t have a lot of time,” the slightly diluted and muffled voice of the killer said over the car speakers, “so I suggest you make every second of your search count. Not that it will make a difference.”
Eddie heard it again in the background of the audio.
“Rewind it,” he said to Lee.
Lee pressed the button, and the tape wound back to the beginning.
He hit play.
“You don’t have a lot of time, so I suggest you make every second of your search count. Not that it will make a difference.”
The same crackling. A little more distinct.
Eddie pressed stop.
“You hear that?”
He rewound the tape and started it again, the two of them listening in for the crackling as he turned the volume all the way up.
Lee’s eyes lit up the second time around.
He pointed to the tape.
"That sounds like static from a Prick 25. Maybe a 77.”
“Either way,” Eddie said, “that’s a military radio, my friend.”
They both recognized the sound more than well. Many men they knew – and had known – carried them around on pack boards around the jungles of Vietnam, radioing to fellow soldiers at a distance who relayed updates of the war to the bureaucratic pricks running it from Washington.
Eddie leaned back in his seat and thought out loud.
“Between the radio, the glass cutter, and how the murders were executed, I think it's safe to say our boy served."
“What’s he doing with a radio pack?” Lee asked. “Who’s he talking to?”
"Can't be someone very far out. Even with a long-range antenna, those packs can only get as far as, what, seventeen-eighteen miles? There’s better equipment he could be using.”
“Maybe he’s chatting with someone local.”
“Someone he’s coordinating with.”
The lawmen thought about it.
More than one killer.
Eddie drummed his fingers on the door’s armrest.
“How many vets do you got in Somerset? Guys who might have a radio pack on them?”
“Aside from myself,” Lee said, “there are three. There were five, but two of them ran a truck off the road awhile back after a bender. I can't say if any of them have a radio pack."
“You know where the living ones are at?”
Lee put the car into reverse.
“Yeah. A place called Horton’s. They have a running bet to see who can drink themselves to death first.”
“Sounds peachy. I could go for a beer.”
“It’s barely 8:30.”
“Well,” Eddie said as Lee backed up the cruiser, “you know what they say.”
“‘It’s five-o-clock somewhere’?”
“No. I was going to say there’s never a bad time for beer.”
Lee shook his head.
“Mine was better.”
Eddie nodded. Dispirited.
Lee put the car into drive, took a left out of the lot, and pulled onto South Hawthorne. Several citizens were hunched up on the corner. The same ones that Lee had dismissed several minutes earlier.
“Your buddy Baird is going to have the shits when we find out we took that tape," Lee said.
He hung a right and drove past the station. Eddie could make out Baird scrambling towards Lee’s office in a hot hurry with the tape recorder in his hand.
“Fuck him,” he said.
Silence took hold in the car for a couple of blocks. Eddie spent the time drumming a beat with his palms on his thighs.
“You married?” he asked Lee after a few seconds.
Lee shook his head as he took a left down a residential neighborhood, every house practically the same save for the distinctive holiday decorations applied by the owners.
“No small talk,” he said. “Just stay focused, alright?”
Eddie rolled his eyes.
“Oh, come on. Loosen up.”
“Give it a rest, Flint.”
“Seriously,” Eddie said as he switched on the car radio. “You’re too uptight. I can tell. No chitchat. No booze before noon.”
“I’m staying vigilant.”
“You’re being boring, man.”
“Look, I’ve got more flavor in my little finger than you have in your entire wardrobe there, Flint.”
“You are a saucy plate of surliness, aren’t you?”
"Just shut up. Alright?”
Eddie turned the dial on the radio and landed on a track the local radio station was playing.
I Keep Forgetting.
Eddie slowly turned up the volume.
“Don’t,” Lee said.
Eddie started dipping left-to-right to the rhythm of the music.
“Come on, Lee. There’s no off time with this line of work. Just little moments of reprieve. Take ‘em where you can get ‘em.”
“Turn the fuckin’ radio off.”
Eddie started miming the guitar in the background with an air guitar.
"Michael McDonald is a funky looking white boy, but he does know how to belt a tune, man.”
Lee flared his nostrils and shut off the radio.
About ten seconds of nothing passed.
Eddie looked out the window.
After a beat he started whistling the chorus of I Keep Forgetting.
Lee threatened to shoot him if he didn’t stop.