Authors: Jennifer McMahon
THE ONE I LEFT BEHIND
In memory of my mother, Dorothy Elizabeth McMahon—my co-conspirator, my teller of tales, my blue-eyed newt.
I know we’ll meet again; you’ll be waiting one day, with a bottle of gin and a smile. We’ll climb into your old Vega, crank the radio as loud as it can go, and ride right on out into the stars.
It began with the hands. Right hands, severed neatly at the wrist. They arrived on the granite steps of the police station in empty red and white milk cartons stapled closed at the top, photos of missing children on the back—the whole package wrapped in brown butcher’s paper, tied neatly with thin string like a box of pastry.
The medical examiner told the police to look for a surgeon or a butcher, someone who knew bone and tendon. It was almost as if he admired the killer’s technique, like there was something beautiful about the cleanliness of the cuts, so perfect it was hard to imagine the hands had ever been attached to anything; objects all their own.
The killer kept the women alive for exactly four days after the removal of the hands. He took good care of them, cauterized and dressed their wounds, shot them full of morphine for pain, tended to them like precious orchids.
On the fifth morning, he strangled them, then left their bodies displayed in public places: the town green, a park, the front lawn of the library. Each woman was naked except for her bandages—brilliantly white, lovingly taped like perfect little cocoons at the ends of their arms.
HE FIRST THING SHE
does when she wakes up is check her hands. She doesn’t know how long she’s been out. Hours? Days? She’s on her back, blindfolded, arms up above her head like a diver, bound to a metal pipe. Her hands are duct taped together at the wrist—but they’re both still there.
Thank you, thank you, thank Jesus, sweet, sweet Mother Mary
, both her hands are there. She wiggles her fingers and remembers a song her mother used to sing:
Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am, Here I am,
How are you today, sir,
Very well, I thank you,
Run away, Run away.
Her ankles are bound together tightly—more duct tape; her feet are full of pins and needles.
She hears Neptune breathing and it sounds almost mechanical, the rasping rhythm of it: in, out, in, out. Chug, chug, puff, puff.
I think I can, I think I can
Neptune takes off the blindfold, and the light hurts her eyes. All she sees is a dark silhouette above her and it’s not Neptune’s face she sees inside it, but all faces: her mother’s, her father’s, Luke the baker from the donut shop, her high school boyfriend who never touched her, but liked to jerk off while she watched. She sees the stained glass face of Jesus, the eyes of the woman with no legs who used to beg for money outside of Denny’s during the breakfast rush. All these faces are spinning like a top on Neptune’s head and she has to close her eyes because if she looks too long, she’ll get dizzy and throw up.
Neptune smiles down at her, teeth bright as a crescent moon.
She tries to turn her head, but her neck aches from their struggle earlier, and she can only move a fraction of an inch before the pain brings her to a screeching halt. They seem to be in some sort of warehouse. Cold cement floor. Curved metal walls laced with electrical conduit. Boxes everywhere. Old machinery. The place smells like a country fair—rotten fruit, grease, burned sugar, hay.
“It didn’t need to be this way,” Neptune says, head shaking, clicking tongue against teeth, scolding.
Neptune walks around her in a circle, whistling. It’s almost a dance, with a little spring in each step, a little skip. Neptune’s shoes are cheap imitation leather, scratched to shit, the tread worn smooth helping them glide across the floor. All at once, Neptune freezes, eyeing her a moment longer, then quits whistling, turns, and walks away. Footsteps echo on the cement floor. The door closes with a heavy wooden thud. A bolt slides closed, a lock is snapped.
Gone. For now.
The tools are all laid out on a tray nearby: clamps, rubber tourniquet, scalpel, small saw, propane torch, metal trowel, rolls of gauze, thick surgical pads, heavy white tape. Neptune’s left these things where she can see them. It’s all part of the game.
Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch.
, she tells herself.
Don’t panic. Think.
Tomorrow morning, another hand will show up inside a milk carton on the steps of the police station. Only this time, it will be her hand. She looks at the saw, swallows hard, and closes her eyes.
Think, damn it.
She struggles with the tape around her wrists, but it’s no good.
She opens her eyes and they go back to the tools, the bandages, the saw with its row of tiny silver teeth.
She hears a moan to her left. Slowly, like an arthritic old woman, she turns her head so that her left cheek rests on the cool, damp floor.
“You!” she says, surprised but relieved.
The woman is taped to a cast iron pipe on the opposite side of the warehouse. “I can get us out of this,” she promises. The woman lifts her head, opens her swollen eyes.
The woman laughs, her split lip opening up, covering her chin with blood. “We’re both dead, Dufrane,” she says, her voice small and crackling, a fire that can’t get started.
The year was 1985. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was pumping out of every boom box. Kids were lined up to see Michael J. Fox in
Back to the Future
. And in the sleepy little suburb of Brighton Falls, Connecticut, Neptune was killing women.
Brighton Falls, northwest of Hartford and just south of the airport, was a farming community that had quickly given way to suburbia. The men who worked in the insurance high-rises in Hartford moved their families to places like Brighton Falls, safe little bedroom communities with good schools, no crime, and fresh air.
Along Main Street were the most prominent shops: Luke’s Donuts, Wright’s Pharmacy, Ferraro’s Family Market, Parson’s Hardware, and The Duchess Bar and Grill. Tucked behind these shops, on the cross streets, were the gray granite police and fire station, a doll shop, Joanne’s House of Nuts, a cheese shop, two bookstores (one that specialized in used romances), three churches, Talbots, the Carriage Shop Fine Furnishings, Carvel Ice Cream, Barston’s Dry Cleaning, and The End of the Leash pet shop.
Most of Brighton Falls itself was idyllic, but after you crossed the river, left the waterfall and old mills turned into condos behind, as you drove north on Airport Road, past the tented tobacco fields and leaning barns, the road turned from two lanes into four. Here were the strip malls, boarded-up factories, vacant lots, fast-food restaurants, motels where you could pay by the week or the hour, X-rated movie houses, used car dealers, and bars. This was what the insurance executives considered no-man’s-land, an area they carefully avoided on weekend outings in the station wagon. Here, the noise and chaos of the large airport had spilled over and was reaching dangerously toward suburbia.
Other than the occasional drunk and disorderly arrest at one of the bars on Airport Road, the biggest crime the police had to deal with in recent years had been the time the mayor’s son drank too much at graduation, ran a red light, and led the police on an across-town chase that ended when he drove his Mercedes into the country club swimming pool. There hadn’t been a murder since 1946, and that had been a clear-cut case of a man shooting his brother after catching him in bed with his wife.
There was nothing clear-cut about the Neptune killings.
His victims appeared to have nothing in common: an accountant with two kids; a waitress who worked the swing shift at the Silver Spoon Diner; a film student from Wesleyan University; an ex-model turned barfly. The police were dumbfounded.