The top half of Councilman Jones’ body hung by a steel cable looped around his neck and tied off to an old oak tree on one end. It was still dripping blood, bones and veins and torn bits of intestines dangling down where the legs should start. The cable was stretched through the air, over to an ash tree ten yards away from where the other half of the body was hanging by the legs.
I have seen some gruesome shit before, but that right there took the cake.
Davis, my partner, came out of the Jones house, still looking pale from when he got sick before. “Wha’d she say?” I asked.
“Said they were inside eating dinner, and they started hearing this phone ringing. Coming from outside. Thought they had a guest, you know, someone walking up to the door, getting a call. So they waited for a knock, but it didn’t come. Just more ringing. So Johnny goes and peeks out the door, but nobody’s there, and the ringing doesn’t stop.”
I shone my flashlight around the base of the oak tree and spotted the cell phone, covered in blood. There was a Glock right there next to it. “He thought they had an intruder and got his gun,” I said.
“That’s right, LT, that’s just what happened. Got his gun, and shouted out the door. The ringing just kept going on and on. Betty said she was scared shitless and begged him not to go out, but he charged right out anyway. She watched him from the window.” Davis turned and pointed. “That one right there. Saw him look around, and then he bent down and picked that phone up off the ground. He looked around again then answered it.”
I looked at Davis. He didn’t look good. “Go on,” I said.
“Well, that’s when it happened. He just sort of tore apart and then was up in those trees.” Davis looked up at the top half of the body again. He really shouldn’t have done that. I waited for him to finish being sick.
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “That’s all she saw? She didn’t see anybody else?”
“Nope,” said Davis, wiping off his chin.
I searched the area with my flashlight, shining it over the blood-stained grass, and then up the ash tree. There was something sticking out of the side of the tree, with a length of slackened cable hanging down out of it.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
Davis squinted and opened his mouth to respond.
That’s when the call came over the radio about the second body.
* * * * * *
It was the strangest case anybody at the station had ever heard of, let alone seen first hand. 10 bodies in 20 trees, all of the murders occurring within an hour of each other. Each one happened the same way. The phone call, the victim answering it, then the body being torn apart and hung up between two trees an instant later.
The only thing we had were the cell phones and the ten strange devices that had been sticking out of the trees. The cell phones were all burners (as was the number that had called them all) and were dead ends. The device, as it turned out after consulting several experts, appeared to be a hydraulic tensioner of some clever (and unpatented) design. As best we could determine, the tensioner had been somehow used to pull the steel cable very taut very quickly, though nobody could figure out how to activate it.
I suggested that the tensioner might have been activated remotely. Initially, my official theory had been that the phone call was merely a tactic to lure the victim outside. When I asked the experts if it was possible that the phone had somehow triggered the device, they agreed it was possible.
Judging by the blood and bits of tissue embedded in the wires of the cable at a certain location, it was determined that the cable itself had been somehow used to sever the victim’s body.
All of the murdered men were prominent members of the community, in good standing. Businessmen, politicians… a pastor. We still didn’t have any suspects, after running all the forensics, and thoroughly interviewing everybody who even remotely knew the victims (which ended up being most of the town.)
For a long time, the interviews had led nowhere. But as I dug deeper, asking more probing questions, a suspicion started growing in me. My witnesses weren’t telling me the full story. I had no doubt that they were telling the full truth about what they saw on the night of the murders, but they were holding something back.
It was when I was trying to draw a connection between the victims. Sure, the spouses would say, again and again, they all knew each other. Everybody in this town knows everybody else. Some of them played poker together once a month, some of them played golf together occasionally, etc. But there was no overarching connection they could think of, and certainly nothing that would make somebody want to kill them.
But there was an overarching connection, I knew for a fact. And the more I talked to the first-hand witnesses, as well as many of the people around town, it became clear to me that everyone else knew what it was too.
* * * * * *
“I think I gotta get out of this place,” I said over the phone to my brother. He had been in the middle of preparing a lecture for his advanced engineering class at a prominent university, and I felt bad for interrupting him, but I needed somebody to talk to.
“I’ve been telling you that for years,” said my brother.
“I thought this would end it,” I said. I dug into the cardboard box that I’d found in the basement of the church where they held their meetings.
My brother sighed. “You know better than that. You know the problem’s deeper than 10 men. That’s just the tumor bubbling up out of the skin. You can cut that away, but the cancer’s still there.”
I pulled a white hood out of the box, held it up in disgust, and threw it into the fireplace. “Yeah, I guess I always knew that. Still felt good, though.”
“Yes,” said my brother. “For grandaddy.”
“For grandaddy,” I said. I hadn’t even been born when they lynched him, but it was an injustice that burned in my heart every day of my life since I had found out about it.
“So you’re going to move? You don’t think that would look suspicious?”
I laughed. “Brother, after your magic show, these yokels will be scratching their heads for a thousand years and still not have the first clue about how it happened or who did it. You know, maybe if I’d gotten more of mom’s skin tone instead of dad’s, I’d be more worried.”
“Just promise you’ll be careful.”
“Sure,” I said.
* * * * * *
And I was careful. I was as careful as I was when I practiced on those mannequins for five patient years. As careful as I was when I drove three states over to purchase them. As careful as I was when I measured out the length of steel to the exact millimeter that my brother had specified. The loops made in the exact locations, the tensioning device set to the exact PSI. The phone set in the exact center of the center loop.
I had begun to think that it wasn’t possible, until that day I finally got it right. I tied one end of the cable to one tree and brought down the slack. One small loop for the legs, another one to catch the neck, and the big one in the middle, tucked through the slip knot. Then I fed the other end of the slack cable through the hole I’d drilled in the other tree, and finally through the hole in the tensioner.
I called one burner from another and then answered it, well out of the path of the cable. I heard the soft click of the tensioner, now activated by the tone coming from the phone. And then… whoosh. It happened too fast to see, but I knew what was happening.
First, the loop on the left pulled back around the legs, beginning to lift the mannequin into the air. The big loop slid through the slip knot and tightened as the body fell into it. The loop closed around the body with such force that the sharp wires sliced it neatly in two. Then the other small loop caught the neck of the now separated top half of the body. After the wire pulled fully taut, one half of the mannequin hung suspended in the air near one tree, and the other half hung near the other.
That first success had come after three years of failure. I spent the next two years perfecting the process, until I was able to get it right ten times out of ten, adjusting each time for different distances between the trees and for different size bodies.
I was careful, alright.
* * * * * *
I was carrying the last of the boxes from my desk to my car when Davis caught up to me in the parking lot. He was out of breath.
“LT,” he said, gasping. “I guess this is it. Can’t convince you to stay?”
“Nope,” I said. “New job starts Monday. Gotta hit the road.”
“Oh… well, I just want you to know, it’s been an honor serving under you. I’ve learned so much.”
I smiled. “You’re a good detective, Davis. Someday, you’ll run this place.”
“I hope I do,” said Davis, laughing. “I’ll straighten this town right out.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Yeah. This place is a little… behind the times if you know what I mean.” And then Davis called me by my mother’s maiden name.
I set the box on the hood of my car, my heart pounding. “You know.”
“Did a little digging,” said Davis. “You were careful. Amazingly, mind-blowingly careful, but not quite careful enough.”
“Do you have any evidence?” I asked, sweat chilling my forehead in the cool winter air.
“Plenty,” said Davis. “Enough to kindle a good fire, anyway.” He winked at me.
“You’re… not going to tell anyone?”
“Nah,” said Davis. “Can’t say I approve, but can’t say those guys weren’t evil assholes, either. I just gotta know, though. How the hell did you do it, exactly?”
“A lot of practice,” I said.
“All those mannequins, huh?”
“That’s right,” I said, stuffing that last box into the trunk.
“Well, stay in touch now. I ever catch a tough one, I might give you a call, huh?”
“You don’t need me,” I said. “But yeah, we’ll keep in touch, Davis. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it.”
We shook hands, and then I got in my car and drove off.
Check out Nathaniel Lewis’ dark horror comedy, The Electric Boner, now available on Amazon.com.
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