That night, he was Ed. The last time, he had been Dean, and before that, Earle. He maintained a list in his mind, and he was marking names off of that list. Working his way toward the top.
Being Ed was a big deal.
He looked down at his guest’s feet, studying the painted color of her toenails. A smooth, luxuriant bronze, applied perfectly. He would remember that shade when he was no longer Ed. He squeezed her bare calf, feeling its shape and musculature. Long, lean, firm, and tight, the way only a young woman’s can be. Her head bobbed at the touch of his hand. The chemical locomotive slowed its pace through her system. Soon, the conductor would blow his whistle, and the engine would brake, and then the doors of her mind would slide open in a cloud of benzodiazepineopiate steam, delivering her into his waiting arms.
“In terms of numbers, America is pretty low on the list,” he said. “People always forget to include the other countries. Believe it or not, Colombia has the top three spots. In terms of provable numbers, we only have one in the top ten, and he just barely squeaked in. Gary Ridgway,” the man calling himself Ed said. “You’ve heard of him? Green River?”
When she did not answer, he leaned back against the cool basement wall, setting his hands down on the damp cement. The water heater was leaking again. He was going to have to fix it himself, obviously. His guest would stay there for a few days, at the least, and he imagined he’d need hot water at some point. There was always something.
“Top three, are you ready? Luis Garavito, Pedro López, Daniel Camargo Barbosa,” he said, counting the names off with his fingers. “Crazy numbers. Big, impossible numbers. Luis got a hundred and thirty-eight, and he had a fantastic nickname, too. La Bestia. The Beast. Pedro got one hundred ten. They called him the Monster of the Andes. In all fairness, López might have done a lot more than just those hundred and ten. When they caught him, he said he’d done as many as three hundred. Can you believe that? Three hundred. Most of them kids. And just to give you an idea what a different world it is down there, he got released from prison. See, that’s why you can’t really rely on the numbers anybody puts up in Colombia. If you can do three hundred kids and still get out of jail, well, that’s not really trying, now, is it?”
The woman muttered something inaudible.
He turned toward her. “What was that?”
The red rubber ball strapped between her teeth prevented her from speaking clearly, and she grunted against the weight of the chains binding her wrists and ankles.
Typical, he thought. They never contribute anything.
He hadn’t expected her to, really. “So, anyway. Barbosa was another one. High numbers on paper, but in reality? He had twelve years to work, from ’74 to ’86, and the most they’ll credit him for is one fifty. Even then, that’s only twelve a year. Twelve! If you can’t strangle more than twelve little girls a year, with nobody stopping you, I don’t see why you even bother. You ask me, that’s just lazy,” he said, shaking his head.
“Most people here have only heard of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Their numbers are pretty low, comparatively, but they’re definitely the most famous. Gacy, because he dressed up like a clown, and most people agree that’s pretty terrifying. Bundy was famous because he was so good looking and well spoken. People just couldn’t believe he was doing what he was doing. I guess there’s a lesson to be learned in that somewhere. Say what you want about his lack of production, but in terms of style and originality? You have to give credit where it is due. Now, sure, Green River did bigger numbers than either Bundy or Gacy, but he also came along after they did, and it’s always easier to build on what’s come before. You know what they say the mark of greatness is?”
When she didn’t answer, he told her. “When everything before you is obsolete, and everything after bears your mark.”
He sifted through her purse and found her driver’s license, glanced at it, flicked it away, and removed her cell phone. The screen was locked, but he was able to scroll down through the multiple missed calls and text messages she’d been receiving all evening. They were mainly from her mother asking where she was and why she wasn’t responding. He grabbed her hand and stretched out her index finger as she squirmed. He forced her finger against the bottom of her phone, holding it there until it unlocked.
She slumped forward when he released her, whimpering mutely. He ignored her, focused instead on finding her phone’s airplane mode, to prevent anyone tracking its location. It was an unnecessary measure, he knew. There were homes in his area that did not even have indoor plumbing. The nearest cell tower was twenty miles away.
“Well, I guess we should get started,” he said as he placed the phone on his workbench. “There’s a lot to do.” He picked up his mask and fit it down over his face, adjusting its large eyes and droopy mouth so that he could see and still be heard. The microphones placed around the basement were of the highest quality he could afford, but the acoustics were tricky because of the cement walls. He reminded himself to speak clearly and keep his voice raised. He would want to hear every word when he watched the video later.
A vast array of tools lay assembled on the workbench, and he waved his hands over them like a magician about to perform a mystical deed. He hovered over the handle of a long machete, then picked up a small ball-peen hammer. Its wooden handle was warm in his palm. He looked down at the woman, squirming on the floor like some kind of crab, and he decided the hammer would be best to start with.
She trembled as he came forward in his mask, trying to scream but gagging on the rubber ball strapped between her teeth. He looked down at the dark stream traveling from between her legs across the basement floor toward him, and stepped out of the way, hearing its soft trickle inside the industrial drain he’d installed four years prior.
“You know, I’m starting to worry that I gave you the wrong impression. I apologize if that’s the case.” He reached forward and unbuckled her ball gag, smiling when her eyes rose up to meet his.
She spat the ball out and worked her jaw, trying to stretch out the ache in the sides of her face. She blinked, unsure of what she was seeing. In the foggy chemical haze, she thought his face might be melting. “You’re not going to kill me?” she panted. Hope blossomed inside her eyes, spreading like a rash across her entire face. “This was just some kind of joke, right? Did someone put you up to this?”
“Well, actually, I mean that I gave you the wrong impression that I just care about numbers. It’s not about that. It’s about impact. Do you remember what I told you my name was?”
“You’re Ed,” she said quickly, desperate to invoke his name. To let him know she’d been paying attention. This was all just a sick game, she told herself. There was a way to play it. She just needed to figure out how. “You’re Ed, and I’m Denise. My name is Denise Lawson, Ed.” She repeated her name, needing him to know it, needing him to see her as a real person, not a plaything. Force him to see you, she told herself. Buy time to think. Keep him talking. “Can you say it?”
His head tilted sideways as he listened to her.
“My name is Denise. My parents are going to know I didn’t come home, Ed. Do you know why I sat down with you at the bar tonight? Because you have kind eyes. I know you’re not going to hurt me, okay? I believe you won’t do that.” She rattled the chains holding her to the wall and said, “Can you please undo these? I promise, it’s okay. Things just got out of hand, right? I should have been more clear that this wasn’t what I was into. I know you’re a good person, Ed. I know you won’t hurt me. Right?”
He studied her, never wanting to forget any of it. The cameras and microphones would record everything, but only he could see the colors in her face change. The pure waters of hope in her eyes clouded over and darkened for him alone. She was still unsure. Her voice quickened, a long stream of words spilling out of her all at once.
“Listen to me, Ed,” Denise continued. “People know where I am. I told everyone where I was going, and they are probably coming here right now, because I said I would call. If you just let me go, I will never say a word. I promise. I swear on my life. Ed? Please.”
His voice was gentle when he said, “Do you know why I picked Ed? Ed Gein only had two, or at least two that we know of, but it was what he did with them that we remember. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. Impact. True greatness. Do you know Ed Gein?”
“No!” she said, trying not to lose it. “Take these chains off of me. Right now and let me go home! Okay, Ed? Right now. I need you to listen to me. This isn’t funny anymore. I need to go home.”
He stroked her cheek with the tips of his fingers. “Ed Gein was an artist. That’s why we remember him. He inspired us with his beauty. Now you’re going to help me make something beautiful too.”