At the railroad crossing, I turn off the road and follow the tracks until the trees on either side are dense. It’s three in the morning, and there aren’t many cars around, but I want to be sure. I park across the tracks and turn off the engine. I wait.
This guy, we don’t know what to call him. He’s not a murderer or a rapist or a thief, but when he’s done with you, you’ll wish he was one of those. It would have been easier if he had just killed you, because the life you’re left with is not a life you want to live.
Pretend you’re a single mother with a son and daughter. As you’re sitting down to dinner, a man breaks into your home. He points a gun at your children, and he says you have twenty seconds to choose which one dies. Choose or he’ll kill all of you. As he counts down the seconds, the gun swings back and forth between them, like some horrid metronome. Your children are crying and screaming. Your mind is racing. You don’t know what to do. You offer him money, jewelry, anything, but he doesn’t stop counting, and you realize that this is for real. One minute you’re making macaroni and cheese, and the next minute you’re faced with this terrible dilemma.
Ten seconds left, and you start doing the math. You love both your kids, but if you don’t choose, they’ll both die, and fifty percent is always better than zero. Now five seconds left, and you’re trying to decide which one you like more. Which one listens to you? Which one does better at school? Which one has a future ahead of them? You’re too frantic to realize how morbid this is.
Now one second left, and you blurt out your son’s name. The gun moves to him, and you brace yourself for the bang, but nothing happens. The man lowers the gun and walks calmly out of your home, out of your life. And your son, who’s too young to even know long division, he gives you the most heartbreaking look, and you know it will be the last look he ever gives you.
If this is you, then consider yourself lucky. You’re one of his first victims. You got off easy.
We’ve been chasing this guy for months, but we haven’t gotten any closer to catching him. He’s careful not to leave behind fingerprints or DNA. He dresses in plain black clothes and wears a one-hole ski mask with sunglasses. He disguises his voice with different accents: British, Jamaican, Russian, Japanese. One victim swore that he was Al Pacino. We don’t know his race, his approximate age, what kind of car he drives, or how he finds his victims. He could be anyone—you, me, your next-door neighbor. There’s no pattern to his attacks. He may strike twice in one week or once in two months. All we know is his height and his gender, and even those things are questionable. Some around the office have dubbed him Bugs Bunny for his elusiveness or the Chameleon for his gift of impersonation. I don’t have a name for him. He doesn’t deserve one.
Now pretend you’re a loving husband and father. You have a beautiful wife and a twelve-year-old daughter who thinks the world of you. Your life is perfect. And then one evening, while the three of you are on the couch watching the tube, a man kicks open your back door and places the barrel of a gun to your wife’s head. She screams. Your daughter screams. You scream.
“Please, take whatever you want,” you say. “Just don’t hurt my family.”
“What I want,” he says, “is for you to have sex with your daughter. Do it or you all die, starting with your wife.”
He can’t be serious, you think.
But he’s serious.
And like the woman with her two kids, you just stand there helpless. You look to your wife for an answer, but all she can do is stare at you and cry.
Finally, your daughter, your brave, wonderful daughter, she takes your hand and says, “It’s okay, Daddy. It’s okay.”
You shake your head. “No,” you whisper. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay,” she repeats. “We have to. For Mom. For ourselves.”
She starts unbuckling your belt, and you keep saying no and shaking your head, but you can’t stop her. Because if you do, she dies, and your wife dies, and you die. And you were raised to believe that death is the worst thing in the world.
The rest is a blur. Somehow you take off your pants. Somehow—oh God—somehow you get it hard. Somehow you get inside her. You close your eyes, and you force yourself to forget where you are, who you are, what you’re doing, and whom you’re doing it to. For the sake of love, you forget. This woman who used to be your wife, she tries to look away, but the gunman forces her to watch. This brave girl who used to be your daughter, she doesn’t cry or make a sound, but you know she must be hurting. You can feel her tearing. You can feel her blood. But you don’t care, because you’ve forgotten everything.
And then you finish, and it all comes rushing back to you. This is your home, you’re a father, and the person you’re raping is your daughter. You collapse in a sea of tears. Your little girl hugs you tight around the neck and strokes the back of your head. You tell her you’re sorry, you’re so sorry. When you regain enough of your strength to look up, you see your wife has her face buried in her hands, and the man who just made you do this unspeakable thing is gone.
When I met the family at the hospital, the father and mother were sobbing. They weren’t holding hands or sitting next to each other. I doubt they will ever touch each other ever again. I asked them the questions I didn’t want to ask, and they gave me the answers they didn’t want to give, and I wrote it all down in my notepad in my neat handwriting. With their constant crying, it took me an hour to piece together the whole story, but I was patient. I’d already heard the story several times anyway. By then, it was just filling in the blanks.
Meanwhile, the girl was lying in the hospital bed, gazing into empty space, not speaking. She was in shock. This straight-A student, who’s too young to even date, she will never feel completely normal ever again. She will be too traumatized to ever know the love of a man. She did a very courageous thing, but to what end? No amount of therapy will fix this broken family.
When I came home, I tried eating, but I wasn’t hungry. I tried watching TV, but I was too distracted to follow the storylines. I kept thinking about the boy whose mother had chosen him to die. About the girl who had given herself to her father. About the half dozen others who may never experience happiness ever again. I kept thinking that every day this man walked free, I was failing them.
I drowned out my thoughts with Jack Daniels and fell asleep on the living room couch. I had a vivid dream where I was the masked impressionist. I stood with a gun pressed against the back of a woman’s head. In front of us, a man was raping a young girl. I recognized them as the family from the hospital. I tried to stop myself, I tried to put down the gun, but I was paralyzed. As I was forced to watch this horrendous sight, I came to realize that none of it really bothered me. I should have been disgusted, but I wasn’t. For some reason, it all made perfect sense. Me with the gun against the back of the mother’s head, the father raping the daughter—it was all part of the natural order of things. For once, I felt what my enemy felt, and it was sickening in its nonchalance.
When the father finished, I walked toward the back door, and with the absurd logic that comes with dreams, I was elated to think that I would finally find out where this maniac lived. But as I walked through the doorway, we separated like an amoeba splitting in two. There was an invisible strainer surrounding the house where evil could pass through, but everything else had to stay behind, trapped inside the false comfort of home and family.
I stood helpless in the doorway and watched him vanish into the darkness. When I turned around, the girl was standing before me, half-naked with blood running down her thighs. She reached out with a shiny red hand and touched my cheek. The wetness and the stench made me cringe.
“It’s okay,” she said. “We had to do it. For Mom. For our—”
I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing. The time on my VCR said it was past two. I fumbled in the dark and picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” I said.
It was a girl’s voice. The girl from the hospital. The girl from my dream.
“Will you catch him?” she asked.
A pause, and then: “Yes.”
“Promise me you’ll catch him.”
She hung up.
For a few seconds, I listened to the dial tone while gazing at the orange light coming through my window from the street below. The call seemed so surreal, especially after the dream I just had, that I wondered if it actually happened or if I had just imagined it. I looked at the clock again and decided I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again, and didn’t much want to. Instead, I left my apartment, got in my car, and drove. I didn’t know where I was going at first, but gradually it came to me.
During my third year as detective, there was a serial killer on the loose. We called him the Surgeon. On the first day, he would cut off your fingers up to the first knuckle. On the second day, he would cut off your fingers up to the second knuckle. On the third day, he would cut off the rest. The next day, he would cut off your hands, the day after that, your toes, and it went on like that, one joint at a time, one day at a time, until you were nothing but a head and torso. And, as if that weren’t enough, he cut of your eyelids, propped you up, and put a mirror in front of you, so you could watch your mutilated body slowly die.
I’ll never forget the smell when we found them. The smell of piss and shit and rotting flesh. I’ll never forget the sound of a thousand flies buzzing, or how the victims looked like moldy mannequins that had been dismantled. But what bothered me most was how the killer had arranged the excised body parts on the floor. The fingers were neatly configured in a row, then the hands, and so on. It almost looked like how a meticulous packer might arrange his clothes on the bed before putting them in a suitcase. This combination of lunacy and precision frustrated me. How could someone so loose in their morals be so organized in everything else?
The only victim that survived killed herself in the hospital by flipping over on her stomach and suffocating herself. When I heard what had happened, I drove over to the train tracks. I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought if I saw one more dead body, I would lose my mind and never find it again. I waited and waited, and as the train came bearing down upon me, I asked myself if I had the balls to keep going, not just as a police detective, but as a human being. Even if I quit the force and decided to flip burgers for the rest of my life, I still would have had those awful smells and sounds and images hanging over me, haunting me. This was an all-or-nothing deal. Was it worth going on? Was it worth living with all these memories and many more to come? I decided it was.
In the end, we caught the Surgeon. As meticulous as he was, he made mistakes. For one thing, he did not conceal his face, and the surviving victim had given a detailed description before committing suicide. It didn’t take long to match the description with a doctor who lived in the next county. His patients and the people who knew him said that he was a very nice man, and when I spoke to him, he seemed well-spoken and educated. Like many serial killers, he was normal in every aspect except the one that made him abnormal. When I asked him why he did it, I expected a deranged, antisocial response about how the world was filled with scum. Instead, he merely shrugged and said, “Because I could.” I suppose that’s the philosophy of most criminals. They think, not out of reason or necessity, but out of ability.
I left those train tracks feeling like Batman, resolved to do everything in my power to bring evildoers to justice. And now, twenty years later, I’ve come back to the same spot to ask the same question: Do I have the balls to go on? Now I’m not so sure. Forensic science and criminology have come a long way since the Surgeon, but crime has advanced along with it. The Surgeon tortured his victims in the most gruesome ways imaginable, but this no-name impressionist who tears families apart, his torture is everlasting. He’ll take your perfect life and destroy it with a few sentences. He’ll take the love you have for your family and use it against you. And in that respect, he is worse than the Surgeon, worse than any criminal I have ever come across.
This isn’t a movie where the villain taunts the police with codes and riddles. The tacks on the map aren’t going to form an arrow. There isn’t going to be a car chase or a shootout on a rooftop. In real life, there are no tidy conclusions.
We’re never going to catch this guy in this lifetime. I can feel it in my gut. He’s just too damn smart for us. One day, he’ll suddenly stop, and we’ll never hear of him again. He’ll go back to living a normal life as an accountant or a plumber, and he’ll die an old man without anybody ever knowing what he did. And if that’s the case, why keep playing a game I know I’ll never win? Maybe it’s better to admit defeat. Maybe it’s better that I go to Hell ahead of him, so I can greet him when he arrives.
The ground begins to rumble. I can hear the chug-chug-chug of the train as it approaches. Blinding white light fills the car. The engineer blows his whistle. I put my hand on the key, still in the ignition. All I have to do is turn it and step on the gas. But soon…soon it will be too late. Every second that goes by is another second closer to that point of no return. I wait and wait, wondering if I’ll be smart enough to know what is necessary, brave enough to carry it out.
Will you catch him? Promise me you’ll catch him.
Yeah, I’ll catch him. Sooner or later, I’ll catch him. I promise.