The Writing on the Wall
Chapter 14 – Shiva’s Messenger
The Writing on the Wall
Allen enjoyed the comfortable heft of his new Ruger in his right hand. With his list of special life insurance clients resting in the palm of his left, he ran the muzzle unhurriedly up the page. The tip of the barrel came to rest at the upper name. The top spot belonged to Randal Woodworth and he deserved to be number one on that roll as he was a real charmer.
His original intent with this special client was confirmed as a sound one when he saw Beth’s book. But even if the circumstances surrounding his main objective had mandated a scrub, Shiva’s Messenger would have made this call before he left town, because Randal had to die.
Reading the name evoked a visual memory of a physique that spoke of a heavyweight boxer now long slothful years past his last ring. His only barber was a razor blade and the head was left to stubble in between trims. A permanent sneer dominated his fleshy face and his brow was furrowed from a perpetual anger.
As a cop on a stake out, Allen had been camped in his car for the last two hours. Now his vigil paid its dividend as he saw Brenda Woodworth with her two young children walking to a community playground. If her actions remained consistent with the few times he’d surreptitiously observed, she would go from the park to her mother’s home. She and the children should be absent for more than long enough.
From his current distance away, Allen couldn’t witness if she showed new bruising but she likely did. Brenda was a nice girl who hitched up with the wrong guy. Perhaps he had started off more pleasant and devolved over time. Now she didn’t have the means or the ability to free herself from her husband nor would he let her go even if she did. He needed her far too much as a punching bag.
Waiting a few more minutes, the salesman recalled the contact and pitch that had brought him to this juncture. A critical portion of life insurance sales involves finding leads and Allen had found a method matching his lifestyle. He would exercise his constitution with long runs that took him through green recreation areas where mothers with their children were aplenty. On spying a prospect, Allen would share her bench for a short breather, engage casual conversation and see what developed from there. On one such occasion, he had met Brenda Woodworth.
He’d paid no mention of the dark purple circle around her eye and similar other discolored blotches but kept the conversation lighthearted instead. Allen felt that a battered woman’s mind would suffer painful thoughts often enough without a stranger’s reminding her, even to offer some sympathy that didn’t help her at all. Brenda had soon warmed enough to inquire after his employment and his unhurried pitch was underway. The doting mother was interested in life insurance and she wanted to have security for her children. The tyrant of the household wouldn’t be so easy to convince. Allen had tried a marketing tactic that wasn’t outlined in his agent’s handbook.
Allen had trailed Randal Woodworth’s car to a tavern and watched the brawny man shuffle in. Entering after, the insurance agent found the man alone at the bar and apparently surrounded by all his close friends. Allen gregariously bought drinks and provided a comradely ear for Woodworth to pour out his various hatreds. They drank bourbon with beer chasers until both were plastered. Randal didn’t notice that after his drinking companion drained a shot glass, he spit the liquor out into the beer bottle. The substantially less inebriated man steered the conversation towards death.
“Buddy,” Allen poured another bourbon into a glass already in a shaky hand. Index and pointer fingers of his both hands were stained a cinnamon brown to attest his ambidexterity as a chain smoker. He could match that with his ability as a two-fisted drinker. “What would you do if your wife keeled over dead?”
“Whoop-de-do,” the mauler was just drunk enough to be moderately affable. “I would party every frigging night.”
“You do that now, as is a man’s right, but who would look after your kids? You’d need a babysitter or someone to ditch the brats with. That’s going to take cash or you’re stuck with them. You might want a replacement to cook, clean and to do the rest for you. To get a really good bitch might cost a lot.”
“What are you saying?” Randal’s dialogue was slurred.
“I’m saying that us guys have to stick together and I’m telling you that if your old lady kicks off with some insurance on her head, then you’ve got all the cash you need and it’s even tax free.”
“I like that idea!” Even through his intoxication, Woodworth could envision his clumsy wife accidentally tripping down the stairs.
“Then you should buy the very basic minimum for her, just to make it pass the deal through agency screening. I can help you do that. Then you get the maximum for yourself. I have to warn you that it can look bad if something happens as soon as you get the policy.” Allen nudged and evilly grinned. “You know what I mean?”
Allen filled out the required forms and even signed it for him, as Randal’s hand was too unsteady. Woodworth was either too drunk or just too ignorant to realize that having the large value policy on himself meant the highest proceeds would go to his wife at his demise and not the other way around.
Back in the present moment, the vigil was over. Allen engaged the transmission and drove slowly down the block until he could see the lawn that had remained un-mowed for long enough to now be better called a crop of fescue seed. A fifteen-year-old Dodge sedan was parked on a cracked driveway so Randal was at home. This client wouldn’t go a block to the corner store for cigarettes on foot.
Allen continued past the aged forty-plus house that had apparently seen it’s last fresh paint as a teenager. He rolled to a stop at the curb beyond the obscuring hedge run feral. The policy representative slid his Ruger back into the holster and took a tan briefcase to hand instead. He strode to the porch door and then walked in without either knocking or sparking together the two bared wire ends that appeared to operate the doorbell.
“What’re you doing here, Mr. Life Insurance?” Randal barked drunkenly from his lazy boy recliner positioned at the television. The footrest of the chair was bent. His awkward wife had fallen on it when he hit her the other day. She paid the price of her fault, but Randal hadn’t yet found the time in his busy schedule to bend the frame back into shape.
Shiva’s Messenger cast his eyes about. The decor was a mixture of her attempts at normality and his domestic violence. Some of the ornaments that he had broken over her, she had patched back together in the same way she tried to mend her ruined life. Shabby pictures hung in haphazard places that were all at about the level of his right or left hooks. Cracked plaster crept out from the edges of the frames and showed where Brenda had tried to conceal places where he missed her and hit the walls instead.
“I’m here to cash in your coverage.” Allen’s voice was a frigid monotone. He drew his Ruger quickly from the shoulder holster and uncorked a .22 caliber hole in Randal’s heart. The abuser gasped and clutched at his chest as blood poured out in pulses like thick red wine from a bottle. The killer had to consciously check his trained desire to fire the second shot, the double tap, for good measure. He wanted this slaying to make a different statement than from the lips of a professional hit man. Instead, he stepped calmly behind the chair and put another round into the back of Randal’s skull. Leaving the spent brass casings would be another piece of solid evidence to link this homicide with other murders that would follow.
He took a pair of surgical gloves and pulled them onto his hands with a snap at the wrist. Fingerprints protected, he replaced the two rounds in his magazine before putting the gun away. With a thick felt black marker, Allen carefully drew a symbol on the wall above the body. The artistry was passable but then he considered his audience. “How many homicide detectives would know something about Hindu mythology?” Probably none. Beside the illustration, he wrote a message in banner style from ceiling to floor: ‘Shiva says’.
Allen took a quick look around. Do I need to do something else? Killings like this need to have some special signatures to bind them together. He looked to his victim. “Do you have any original ideas?” Randal was currently too lifeless to offer any suggestions.
[Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres.]
“Yes, a signature.” Allen smiled at the corpse before mutilating it, by severing Randal Woodworth’s right hand at the wrist.
The killer put the purloined body part and the butcher knife into a plastic bag. He would dispose of those, along with his gloves later. While taking a last survey of his handiwork, he smiled at the pun. “I’ve impressed even myself. This message I’ve sent is really quite clever. Someone might even figure it out—but not in time.”
After dialing 911 with a latex-covered finger, he left the handset on the counter while the connection rang. Brenda and her kids didn’t need to be the ones that found this. He couldn’t restrain the grim smile on his face. This was the first job that he wasn’t being paid to complete, the Widow Woodworth would receive all of the insurance proceeds for herself.
The number two spot on Allen’s choice directory was someone almost as disgusting as Randal. He would die tomorrow in the same manner and two days later the third would meet a similar fate with an identical M. O. The police would have a string of slaughters that fit a definite pattern to contend with. Three was the magic number to earn serial killer status but Allen had a full handful on his special client’s list. It wouldn’t be fair to abused wives number four and five to abandon them in their untenable situations.
“Mrs. Flannigan,” the man from a private research company showed her both his business card and identification. “We noticed that you have a flowerbox hanging on your balcony railing.”
“Yes?” Agnes Flannigan squinted in vain. At over 70, even arms length was much too close for her eyes to focus on print.
“We are conducting scientific measurements of the actual sunshine received during daylight savings time. This height on your building is ideally situated for our monitoring device. If you would allow me to install our instrument package underneath your flowerbox, we would pay you a generous rental for the space. I assure you that it would be almost unobtrusive.”
“How much rental?” Agnes looked hopefully at the nice young man. Extra income would certainly assist her fixed pension.
“What do you think would be a fair monthly charge?” Fixing a price, Allen Powers paid in cash upfront for several months then left to fetch and install the unit. Three days of work in a leased workshop, between calls on spousal abusers, had produced a professional looking instrument container. It would hang under Agnes’ veranda rail virtually out of sight but not quite out of mind.
“You may have heard that we have a bloodthirsty psychopath to deal with.” Chief Weiss stomped into Beth Withers temporary office. The consecutive crimes unceremoniously dumped into his domain were ruining his whole week. “We’re setting up a task force to investigate these murders. I have to scale back my security commitment by at least ten officers.”
“You were only supplying the base minimum as it was.”
“You listen to me, Miss Secret Service,” the police chief’s face seemed to expand and redden as anger pumped blood into it, “I was nice enough to supply what I had to spare, but now that number is less. I couldn’t predict the rampage of a serial killer but my department has to deal with this as a priority. My first duty is to the citizens of this city that pay my salary. I don’t owe Jack Squat to the Feds that only suck the taxes off of it. If the Secret Service or even the president himself doesn’t like the number of officers I’ve lent, then you can damned well bring in more of your own.”
“Chief Weis.” Beth decided cruel punishment was deserved so she put on her sweetest smile. “You sound like you’ve made up your mind. I’m not certain that the president’s Chief of Staff will see things exactly as you do but you can discuss that with him when you see him in person.” Agent Withers ended with the nastiest thing you can possibly say to someone that has just finished a tirade. “Have a nice day.”
“Oh, I wish I could’ve just run off to Vegas with Allen for the week.” She phoned her boss in D.C.
“I’ve looked over the fax you sent from the Akron police.” Bart Jefferson was supportive as always. The supervisor was seemingly immune from the mind-set trickling from above and he treated Beth exactly as he did the other guys. “I don’t see that you have too much to worry about. This Shiva character, as they’re calling him, is into killing wife-beaters. The big guy has many faults but domestic violence isn’t one of them.”
“I haven’t focused on the serial killer as the only potential threat.” Beth wrote a gloomy prediction in her day-timer and idly doodled a design around it. “Just to make the minimums on my checklist that covers all possibilities, I need more personnel.”
“We aren’t going to be able to bring more troops, so you’ll have to trim in the areas of least threat.” The supervisor began firmly but ended consolingly. “Look, this kind of thing happens all the time. Police get testy because we need all of their men and then nothing ever happens.”
“I wish the top cop wasn’t such a prick in my first assignment.”
“It comes with the territory.” Bart had been in the civil service long enough to realize that where the government had bazillions of dollars to waste stupidly—they never had enough allocated to do the full job. “Even if Shiva had a political bent, he’s a close up handgun shooter: the threat would likely be from the stage or on the street. Maybe you could take the police escorts off of our rooftop snipers?”
“I suppose,” her finger twirled the phone cord and she read what she’d written in her book—‘budget constraints’. Beth released a resigned sigh. An ancient Egyptian government had sufficient funds to build the sphinx but not enough to properly affix the nose in place. “What’s your gut feeling?”
“On paper the Midwest area looks safe but I don’t have any intuition. A couple months back, some double-tap pro struck several bars in Canada near Detroit and he might be linkable to other places in Canada. That one only appeared on our scope because he hit 19 men in one morning. Most were armed and a few of them were Russian mob. Even that guy has been inactive for a couple months, though. The only active threat is your Shiva and I’ll bet he’ll just watch the president on TV—unless there is a good ballgame on.”
“I don’t know about baseball but I’m going to be missing a good televised NASCAR event.” Beth made the decision. She signed for the change and that would be her last order of the mission. Pulling the escorts off of the rooftop snipers, she trimmed the rest out of the screening checkpoints. Tomorrow was P-day. Agent Withers was attached to the President Of The United States (POTUS) detail, but when the president came to town, the contingent’s high command with the traveler would be calling all the shots.
Patrolman Jerry Burke was having one of the worst nights of his life. At the station, the Sergeant pulled him off of one of the plumb assignments for the president’s visit. He’d been scheduled to be sitting on top of a building watching a sniper and taking it easy. Now he was relegated back to an ordinary goddamned patrol because the detectives were on the task force.
At only 43 years old, Burke appeared to be over 50. His thinning dark hair was heavily sprayed with grey. He had a thick moustache that rode down over his fleshy chins like a salt and pepper frown painted on a clown. A distended abdomen flopped over the top of his belt from a mainly sedentary lifestyle garnished with far too many beers. Burke wore his sleeves as short as possible to display the barbed wire and flames tattoo that he’d gotten around his arm. He was proud of the size of his biceps and while it was true that his upper arms were large, the bulk was mostly just fat. In several more years, that type of muscle would roll further down the humorous bone to form flabby rolls at his elbows.
In a black funk, Jerry tried to take his pent up frustrations out on his wife. This time he’d probably left marks but he’d been too angry to be careful. He left her in tears and went to a tavern to stew over a couple brews. Jeannie and her suitcase were both gone when he returned. Burke went to the fridge to get another beer to find that she had poured them all down the sink before leaving. He tried to switch on the TV but it was suddenly not working and a look at the back of the set proved that she had destroyed that as well.
“I don’t get any respect or promotions because I never make any important arrests and it’s as simple as that.” Sitting in front of the black screen, Jerry brooded about all of his problems that weren’t even his fault. “The captain was willing to assign me to the paltry escort duty but not to investigate the serial killings.”
Patrolmen like Jerry weren’t positioned to get the important busts that would propel them forwards. Maybe he would be, if he spent more effort doing his job instead of hanging out in a donut shop. Getting that first critical collar was just the luck of the draw, or did it have to be? He had thought that watching a sniper was a big deal but now he realized that there was another way he could gain the respect he deserved.
“Police work isn’t about protecting the public: it’s concerned only with showing the stats of crimes and criminals.” Jerry wasn’t able to find a wrongdoing—so he needed to create one. Burke sat in the dimly lit room staring vacantly at the screen of his broken television set while he deliberated on making his first impressive score.
Secret Service Agent Beth Withers stared up sleeplessly. Occasionally, a stripe of light would arc across the darkened ceiling like a windshield wiper, as stray headlights and reflections from outside caught the crack in her curtain. If Allen weren’t in Vegas, her insomnia might be pleasurable. In her mind, she played out scenarios where there could be problems. Beth was comforted that most of the difficulties would be swiftly addressed by the procedures in place but the biggest variable was now causing her wakefulness.
“Shiva says—what?” The semi-illiterate serial killer couldn’t even complete a sentence! “What is noteworthy about leaving a body without a hand and penning a message on the plaster?” Just thinking about this gave her an ominous spinal shiver before she finally succumbed to a sleep fraught with nightmares.
Beth didn’t know that approximately 2500 years ago a Persian prince watched a disembodied hand scribe the words Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres. The origin of the cliché, ‘the writing on the wall’, had ominously foreboded ancient Babylon’s epic fall.