Dear Ms. Dalton,
It is my understanding from all the hype I've heard and read recently in the local media that you are some kind of crime-solving savant who can literally sniff out clues. I find this claim both intriguing and highly suspect, and frankly I don't believe your abilityâwhatever it isâcan beat out a brilliant mind. Therefore, I would like to put you to a series of tests. If you pass the first test you will move on to the next phase, and so on.
Fail it and I will leave a body for you somewhere here in the city. It won't be a random death. It will be someone you know, someone who is close to you, someone who is a significant part of your life. Should this occur, perhaps you will be able to interpret the clues I will provide and figure out who I am. I rather doubt you can do these things, but I do value a good challenge and I'm eager to see what you can accomplish.
I do have a few rules. You must figure things out using your wits and your “special ability” without any help from the police. That means your friendâor is he a boyfriend?âDetective Albright cannot be involved in any way. If I get wind of his involvement, there will be dire consequences. I do hope you understand how strict I will be if you opt to cheat because the lives of many people will depend on your willingness to play by my rules.
Each phase of this test will be timed. If you do not achieve the goals I lay out for you within the time parameters I have set, I will kill someone else and the game will go on. I do hope that the added stress of knowing your failure will cost someone their life won't interfere with your supposed abilities. But if it does, so be it. Let us begin.
The letter you now hold in your hand is your first clue. There is something very unique about this letter and if you can figure out what that is, it will lead you to the second clue. You must achieve this by nine
on December twelfth or experience the consequences.
I doubt you will succeed. In fact, I'm counting on your failure. And lest you think this is a prank, I have left something for you to prove there are no “happy days” ahead if you fail to take me seriously. I will be watching you.
An intrigued fan
I read the letter three times in a row, slower each time, unwilling to believe what I was seeing. Then I picked up the envelope, convinced there had been a mix-up and I wasn't the intended recipient. But there was no mix-up. It was addressed to Mackenzie Dalton and the address of my bar appeared below the name. There was no return addressâhardly surprising given the contents and nature of the letterâbut there was a Milwaukee postage meter stamp.
With shaking hands I set both the letter and the envelope down on my desk, realizing too late that I had contaminated both by touching them. I studied the letter some more, this time focusing on the structure and design as opposed to the words. The handwritten letters were done in a simple calligraphic style with varying widths in the strokes, suggesting the use of a fountain pen. The paper was basic and white, the kind sold in hundreds of stores for use in copiers, printers, and the like. The envelope was equally as generic. In fact, I had identical ones in my own desk: business-sized, plain white, with an adhesive strip on the flap covered by a removable piece of paper. This eliminated the need to lick an envelope, and based on what I had learned watching the occasional crime show, it also eliminated a potential source for DNA.
I read the letter again, stopping when I reached the imposed deadline. I glanced at my watch, saw that it was just past four in the afternoon, and cursed under my breath. Since it was Friday the eleventh of December, I had less than thirty hours to figure things out. Another look at the meter stamp told me that the letter had been posted three days ago, meaning it had likely been sitting on my desk for two. I might have had more time if I hadn't procrastinated on opening my mail, but I'd received way more than the usual amount of late. That's because I was getting a lot of personal letters and cards mixed in among the bills and sale flyers that made up my usual deliveries.
The sudden spate of personal mail was from people who had heard about me in the news over the past few weeks when my involvement with the local police during a recent high-profile kidnapping and murder case had become known. While many of the letters were supportive, some had been skeptical, and a few had been downright mean. As a result, I'd stopped opening them after the first couple of weeks and began tossing them into a pile instead. Today was the day I'd decided to tackle them, though for one brief moment I considered simply throwing all of them away unopened. Fortunately, or unfortunatelyâI wasn't sure yetâI hadn't done that.
I ran my hands through my hair and then immediately regretted doing so as one long fiery-red strand fell onto the offending letter.
Way to go, Mack. Like you haven't contaminated this thing enough already.
I leaned back in my chair, distancing myselfâat least physicallyâfrom the letter, and indulging in a moment of self-pity. Why this? Why now? Wasn't my life stressful enough already? I wished I could climb into a time machine and go back a year, knowing what I knew now. Maybe then I could fix things, prevent things, change the future. Maybe my father would still be alive, and his girlfriend, Ginny, would still be alive, and the man I considered both a blessing and a curse wouldn't have entered my life yet. Then again, maybe he wouldn't have entered it at all. Would that have been a good thing?
The man is Duncan Albright, a homicide detective here in Milwaukee. He entered my life around two months ago when I found Ginny's body in the alley behind the bar I own, the bar my father bought back before I was born. My father named it after himselfâMack's Barâand then gave me the name Mackenzie so I could carry on the legacy. Some might have been annoyed by such presumptuousness, but I was always content with the assumption that I would carry on both the name and the business. This was made easier by the fact that I literally grew up in the bar; my father and I lived in an apartment above it. But the legacy became a little harder to bear when the bar became mine alone last January after my father was murdered in that same back alley where I found Ginny.
Duncan wasn't involved with the investigation into my father's murder because he didn't live or work in Milwaukee then. When I met him he was relatively new in town, having arrived only months before Ginny's murder, a fact that came into play while he was investigating the crime. Because he was not well-known in town, he decided to do a little undercover work by pretending to be an employee in my bar. I wasn't very keen on the idea at first, but Duncan's threats to shut me down if I didn't cooperate helped me decide to go along. Still, I didn't like it for several reasons. For one, he was convinced the killer was one of my employees or customers, and to me that idea was unfathomable. My employees and some of my long-term customers were like family to me. The idea that one of them might be a cold-blooded killer was an idea I could hardly bear to consider.
Another reason I wasn't too keen on having a homicide detective watching my every move was because of my disorder. I'm a synesthete, which sounds worse than it is . . . at least most of the time. Synesthesia is a neurological disorder in which the senses are cross-wired. I don't experience the world around me the way most people do. Every sense I experience is multifaceted and complex. For instance, I may taste or see things that I hear, or I may experience a smell or tactile sensation when I look at certain things or people. Both smells and tastes are typically accompanied by sounds or some sort of physical sensation. In addition to this cross-wiring, my senses are also highly acute and I'm able to smell things others can't, or hear things others can't, presumably because of my synesthesia.
I'm not alone in having this condition. There are a number of people in the general population who have it, though there are varying degrees of the disorder. People with artistic inclinations seem to have a higher incidence of synesthesia than other groups of people, and there are theories that the synesthesia plays a role in artistic ability. For instance, there are musicians who not only hear music but see it in their minds as colors, shapes, or some combination of these. The “rightness” of the colors and shapes helps the musician sense when the music is right. I have a similar experience with numbers and letters. They all appear to me with colors attached, and the rightness of those colors makes me very good at both math and spelling. Defining the “rightness,” however, is something I'm not good at. It's an intuitive thing, something I know but can't seem to explain to other people.
I've spent most of my life trying to hide my synesthesia. There was a time when members of the medical profession thought my sensory experiences were manifestations of a severe psychological disorder, and I started getting slapped with labels like schizophrenia. When I was a child, my classmates and friends would often tease me, calling me weird or crazy whenever I said things like
this music appears too green
this apple tastes like a blaring trumpet
. It didn't take me long to realize I was different, and when you're a kid, different is the kiss of death. So I learned to keep my experiences to myself.
For many years I was perfectly content to maintain my secret, sharing it only with my father. Over time I told a few close friends about it, but for the most part no one knew. Then Duncan Albright came into my life and everything changed. I was forced to tell him about my synesthesia and try to explain how it worked because my experiences were a key element in solving Ginny's murder. And since I was a suspect, solving Ginny's murder became my main focus. In some ways my synesthesia made things more difficult, but for the most part it not only aided the investigation, it helped to solve it.
I was impressed by the fact that Duncan didn't have the same skeptical attitude many people have when they first hear me describe my synesthesia. Not that he bought into it right away, but he didn't dismiss it immediately either. Nor did he declare me crazy. And by the time we solved the case, he was beginning to think my synesthesia might be of some use to him in his job. He spent several weeks testing me, setting up scenarios and asking me to identify a certain smell from something he would briefly bring into a room and then remove, or having me enter a room and tell him if something had recently been moved or changed. I'd been playing such parlor tricks with my father most of my life, so I passed this part of Duncan's test with flying colors. And I mean this literally. The happiness I felt whenever Duncan praised my efforts made me see swirling, floating bands of color.
Parlor tricks don't solve crimes, however, so some of the customers in my bar decided to help me develop my deductive reasoning. They did this by forming a crime-solving group dubbed the Capone Club that discussed and analyzed both real and made-up riddles and crimes. The group has proven to be quite popular and it, combined with some of the publicity surrounding Ginny's murder, attracted a lot of new clientele to my bar. I thought the increased business might be transitoryâthe latest gimmick for people's entertainment until something more interesting came alongâbut so far both my business and the Capone Club have grown.
Following Ginny's murder, the secret of my synesthesia became known by more and more people, and for a while I was okay with that. For the first time in my life, it didn't feel like something I had to hide or be embarrassed about. Many people found it fascinating, and Duncan's interest in using it to help him solve real crimes made me feel like it was a valuable trait, something that could be used for good. After several weeks of Duncan's test scenarios, I was given the chance to prove my mettle with some real crimes. Unfortunately, the last one I helped him with became a top news item. It was the headline story for days, and through some incidental events and careless slips of the tongue, my participation in helping to solve the crime became public knowledge.
This did not sit well with Duncan's bosses, particularly after the press and the newscasters claimed the local police were using voodoo, fortune-tellers, witchcraft, and hocus-pocus to help them solve their cases. In addition to the embarrassing public relations nightmare, Duncan was chastised for putting a civilianânamely meâin harm's way. He was placed on suspension for two weeks while the powers decided his fate, and then their two-week decision stretched into three. I'd begun to fear Duncan would lose his job, but this past Monday he was finally allowed to return to work. Because of his suspension, Duncan had deemed it wise for us to keep our distance until the furor died down, so I haven't seen him for several weeks, though we've spoken on the phone a handful of times. It's been hard for me because Duncan and I were starting to explore a more intimate relationship when all this happened, and the sudden separation left me with some emotional baggage. It was also hard for me because the local reporters were determined to get a story highlighting the strange barkeep with the weird ability, and for the past two weeks they have stalked me relentlessly. Some of them have been professional enough to be up-front about the reason they were hounding me, but others have come into the bar pretending to be customers, hoping to pry a story loose from me, or from some of my employees, close friends, and patrons. Fortunately, those folks in the know are devoted and reliable, and as far as I know no one has discussed me, my synesthesia, or my involvement with the police with anyone. I thought the press would quickly lose interest, and that their inability to get anything out of anyone in the bar would deter them from writing their stories, but that wasn't the case. What they didn't know they made up, sensationalizing and speculating along the way. They turned me into a Milwaukee freak show.