Chicago, August 9, 1979
The noose tightened around his neck, and the oxygen deprivation spun his head into a splendid mix of euphoria and panic. He allowed the nylon to take the full weight of his body as he eased off the stool. Those who did not understand “The Rush” would consider his pulley system barbaric, and no one but him fully knew its power. The Rush was a sensation more formidable than any narcotic. There was no other vector of life that could provide an equal experience. Quite simply, it was all he lived for.
As he lowered himself off the stool, the rope to which the nylon noose was tethered creaked with the strain of his body as it slithered through the grooved rim of the pulley while he sunk toward the floor. The rope curved over the winch, ran down to a second pulley, then back up and around the third and final crank to form an M.
Attached to the other end of the rope was another strap of soft nylon, which was wrapped around his victim’s neck. Every time he lowered himself from the safety of the stool, the nylon around his neck took her weight as she levitated like magic off the ground six feet in front of him.
Her panic was finally gone. There was no more kicking or flailing. When she rose now, it was dreamlike. The Rush saturated his soul, and the image of her floating in midair enraptured his mind. He took her weight as long as he could bear, bringing himself to the brink of unconsciousness and to the edge of ecstasy. He closed his eyes briefly. So tempting was the lure to continue toward the high, but he knew the dangers of allowing himself to wander too far down that lurid path. To travel too long on its trail would prevent return. Still, he couldn’t resist.
With the nylon tight against his throat, he focused his half-closed eyes on his victim hovering across from him. The noose tightened its grip, pinched his carotid, and formed spots in his vision. He let go momentarily, closing his eyes and giving in to the darkness. Just for a bit. Just for a second more.
Chicago, August 9, 1979
When he came back to the present, he gasped for air, but none would come. In a panic, he searched with his foot for the edge of the stool until his toes found the flat wooden surface. He stepped onto it and relieved the pressure from his neck, taking huge swallows of air as his victim sunk to the floor in front of him. Her legs no longer supported her when she reached the concrete. Instead, she crumpled in a heap, the weight of her body pulling his end of the rope until the thick safety knot lodged on his side of the pulley, keeping the noose slack around his neck.
He pulled the soft nylon over his head and allowed time for the redness to leave his skin. He knew he’d gone too far tonight. Despite the protective foam collar he wore, he’d have to find a way to hide the deep purple bruising on his neck. He needed to be more careful now than he’d ever been before. The public had started to catch on. Newspaper articles began to crop up. The authorities had put out warnings, and fear was rising above the warmth of summer. With the public’s heightened awareness, he had begun to stalk more carefully, plan more deliberately, and cover his tracks more thoroughly. The bodies he could hide, he had found the perfect location. The Rush was more difficult to contain, and he worried that the veil covering his secret life would be pulled away by his own inability to conceal the elation he carried in the days after his sessions. He would be smart to shut things down. Lie low and wait for the panic to calm. But The Rush was too much to ignore. His existence depended on it.
Sitting on the stool, he turned his back to his victim. He took a moment to bring his emotions under control. When he was ready, he turned to the body to begin the clean up and preparation for transport the next day. When he was finished, he locked the place up and climbed into his vehicle. The ride home did little to tame the residual effects of The Rush. When he pulled to the front curb, he saw the lights of the house extinguished. It was a good thing tonight. His body was still trembling, and he could not have managed normal conversation. Inside, he dropped his clothes in the washing machine, took a quick shower, and climbed into bed.
She stirred as he pulled the covers over himself.
“What time is it?” she asked with her eyes closed, head sunk into the pillow.
“Late.” He kissed her cheek. “Go back to sleep.”
She slid her leg over his body and draped her arm across his chest. He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. It usually took hours for him to settle down after he returned. He closed his eyes and tried to control the adrenaline that coursed through his veins. His mind replayed the past few hours. He was never able to remember it all, not clearly and not so soon after. In the weeks ahead, the details would come back to him. But tonight, behind closed lids, his eyes fluttered in wild saccades as the memory center in his mind offered brief sparks of the evening. His victim’s face. The terror in her eyes. The nylon noose at a sharp angle around her neck.
The images and sounds swirled through his mind in a fast flurry, and as he further played out the fantasy, the sheets stirred next to him as she woke. She curled farther into his side. With The Rush pounding in his veins, the flushing of endorphins through the dilated blood vessels audible in his ears, he allowed her to kiss his neck, then his shoulder. He permitted her hand to sink to the waist of his boxer shorts. The Rush overtook him, and he rolled on top of her. He kept his eyes closed as she let out soft moans, which he blocked from his mind.
He thought of his workspace. Of the darkness. Of the way he could lay himself bare when he was in that place. He took on an easy rhythm and focused on the woman he had brought there earlier in the night. The woman who had levitated like a ghost in front of him.
THE SWEET SCENT OF ROSES
The woman reached into the garden, pinched the clippers to the base of the rose, and severed its stem. She repeated the process until she had six long-stemmed red roses in her hand. She climbed the stairs to her back porch, placed the roses on the table, and sat down in the rocking chair. Staring out over the field, she watched the young girl approach, climb the stairs, and walk up to her.
Her voice was high-pitched and innocent, the way all children’s voices should be.
“Why do you always take roses from the garden?” the young girl asked.
“Because they’re beautiful. And if they’re left on the vine, they’ll eventually wither and go to waste. If I prune them, I can put them to better use.”
“Do you want me to tie them?” the girl asked.
She was ten years old and the sweetest thing to ever come into the woman’s life. From her apron, the woman removed a twist tie, handed it to the girl, and watched as she carefully picked up the roses. Avoiding the thorns, the girl wrapped the tie around the stems, twisting until it bound the bouquet in a tight bundle.
“What do you do with the flowers?” the girl asked.
The woman took the perfect bundle from her. “Go inside and clean up for dinner.”
“I see you pick them every day, and I tie them for you. But I never see the flowers again.”
The woman smiled. “We’ve got work to do after dinner. I’ll let you do the painting tonight, if you think your hand is steady enough.
”The woman hoped the bait was enough to veer the conversation.
The girl smiled. “You’ll let me paint all by myself?”
“Yes. It’s time you learn.”
“I’ll do a good job, I promise,” she said before running into the house.
The woman waited just a moment, until she heard dishes clinking inside as the girl set the dinner table. Then she stood from the rocker, carefully arranged the newly bundled roses, and walked down the porch steps and out across the field behind the house. The sun was setting and the shadows of birch trees cut across her path.
As she walked, she lifted the flowers to her nose and inhaled the sweet scent of roses.
Chicago, September 30, 2019
The chest pains had started the year before.
There was never a question about their source. They were stress-induced, and the doctors promised they would never kill him. Tonight’s episode was particularly distressing, though, waking him from sleep with a cool chill of night sweats. He tried to suck for air, but it was like breathing through a cocktail straw. The harder he worked to inhale, the more distraught he became. He sat up in bed and fought the fear of suffocation. History told him the episode would pass. He reached for the bottle of aspirin he kept in the nightstand drawer and placed one, along with a nitroglycerine tablet, under his tongue. After ten minutes, the muscles of his chest relaxed and his lungs were able to expand.
It was no coincidence that this most recent bout of angina coincided with the arrival of the parole board letter, which sat on his nightstand. He had spent time reading the letter before he fell to sleep. Accompanying the letter was the judge’s summons for a meeting. He grabbed the document now as he climbed from bed, his sweat-soaked shirt cold against his skin as he walked down the stairs and headed to his office. He twisted the combination lock on the safe under his desk and pulled open the door. Inside was a stack of old parole board letters, to which he added the latest.
The first parole hearing correspondence had arrived a decade before. Twice a year, the board met with his client, denying him his freedom and explaining their decision in a properly worded essay that would stand up against appeals and protests. But last year, a different document arrived. It was a lengthy review by the board chairperson, who described in rich detail how impressed the board was with his client’s progress over the years, and how his client was the very definition of “rehabilitation.” It was after reading the final sentence of that letter, which indicated the parole board’s enthusiasm for their next review and the suggestion that great opportunities lay ahead for his client, when the chest pains had begun.
This latest correspondence marked the arrival of a slow-moving train that carried as its freight pain and misery, secrets and lies. That proverbial train had always been just a speck on the horizon, never making progress. But now it was a full barreling freighter growing larger by the day, impossible to stop, despite his many efforts. Sitting behind his desk, he stared at the middle shelf of the safe. A file folder was stuffed fat with pages from his investigation. An exploration that, during times of sorrow and angst like tonight, he wished he’d never embarked upon. The ramifications of his findings, however, were so profound and life-altering that he knew he would be empty had he not. And the idea that his own lies and deceptions might soon crawl from the shadows under which they had rested for years was enough to cause his heart to, literally, ache.
He wiped the layer of perspiration from his forehead and worked hard to fill his lungs with breath. His biggest fear was that his client would soon be free to continue the search. The investigation, which had been declared fruitless, would enjoy a resurgence once his client walked from prison. This, he knew, could not happen. Everything in his power must be done to prevent it. Alone in his study, he felt a new chill come upon his body as his saturated shirt pressed to his shoulders. He closed the safe and spun the dial. The chest pains returned, his lungs tightened, and he leaned back in his chair to fight again the panic of suffocation. It would pass. It always did.