Ed Gorman (1941-2016)
Ed Gorman was an award-winning American author best known for his crime and mystery fiction. He wrote The Poker Club which was made into a film of the same name directed by Tim McCann.
He had written under many pseudonyms including "E. J. Gorman" and "Daniel Ransom." He won a Spur Award for Best Short Fiction for his short story "The Face" in 1992. His fiction collection Cages was nominated for the 1995 Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection. His collection The Dark Fantastic was nominated for the same award in 2001.
He contributed to many magazines and other publications including Xero, Black Lizard, Cemetery Dance, the anthology Tales of Zorro, and many more.
Eleven years, two months, and five days later, we caught him. In an apartment house on the west edge of Des Moines. The man who had raped and murdered my daughter.
Inside the rental Pontiac, Slocum said, "I can fix it so we have to kill him." The dramatic effect of his words was lost somewhat when he waggled a bag of Dunkin' Donuts at me.
I shook my head, "No."
"No to the donuts. Or no to killing him?"
"You're the boss."
I suppose I should tell you about Slocum. At least two hundred pounds overweight, given to western clothes too large for even his bulk (trying to hide that slope of belly, I suppose), Slocum is thirty-nine, wears a beard the angriest of Old Testament prophets would have envied, and carries at all times in his shoulder holster a Colt King Cobra, one of the most repellent-looking weapons I've ever seen. I don't suppose someone like meformer economics professor at the state university and antigun activist of the first formever quite gets used to the look and feel and smell of such weapons. Never quite.
I had been riding shotgun in an endless caravan of rented cars, charter airplanes, Greyhound buses, Amtrak passenger cars, and even a few motorboats for the past seven months, ever since that day in Chicago when I turned my life over to Slocum the way others turned their lives over to Jesus or Republicanism.
I entered his office, put twenty-five thousand dollars in cash on his desk, and said, "Everybody tells me you're the best. I hope that's true, Mr. Slocum."
He grinned at me with teeth that Red Man had turned the color of peach wine. "Fortunately for you, it is true. Now what is it you'd like me to do?" He turned down the Hank Williams Jr. tape he'd been listening to and waved to me, with a massive beefy hand bearing two faded blue tattoos, to start talking.
I had worked with innumerable police departments, innumerable private investigators, two soldiers of fortune, and a psychic over the past eleven years in an effort to find the man who killed my daughter.
That cold, bright January day seven months ago, and as something of a last resort, I had turned to a man whose occupation sounded far too romantic to be any good to me: Slocum was a bounty hunter.
"Maybe you should wait here."
"Why?" I said.
"You know why."
"Because I don't like guns? Because I don't want to arrange it so we have to kill him?"
"It could be dangerous."
"You really think I care about that?"
He studied my face. "No, I guess you don't."
"I just want to see him when he gets caught. I just want to see his expression when he realizes he's going to go to prison for the rest of his life."
He grinned at me with his stained teeth. "I'd rather see him when he's been gut-shot. Still afraid to die but at the same time wanting to. You know? I gut-shot a gook in Nam once and watched him the whole time. It took him an hour. It was one long hour, believe me."
Staring at the three-story apartment house, I sighed. "Eleven years."
"I'm sorry for all you've gone through."
"I know you are, Slocum. That's one of the things a good liberal like me can't figure out about a man like you."
"How you can enjoy killing people and still feel so much compassion for the human race in general."
He shrugged. "I'm not killing humanity in general, Robert. I'm killing animals." He took out the Cobra, grim gray metal almost glowing in the late June sunlight, checked it, and put it back. His eyes scanned the upper part of the red brick apartment house. Many of the screens were torn and a few shattered windows had been taped up. The lawn needed mowing and a tiny black baby walked around wearing a filthy too-small t-shirt and nothing else. Twenty years ago this had probably been a very nice middle-class place. Now it had the feel of an inner-city housing project.
"One thing," he said, as I started to open the door. He put a meaty hand on my shoulder for emphasis.
"When this is all overhowever it turns outyou're going to feel let down."
"You maybe; not me. All I've wanted for the past eleven years was finding Dexter. Now we have found him. Now I can start my life again."
"That's the thing," he said. "That's what you don't understand."
"What don't I understand?"
"This has changed you, Robert. You start hunting peopleeven when you've got a personal stake in itand it changes you."
I laughed. "Right. I think this afternoon I'll go down to my friendly neighborhood recruiting office and sign up for Green Beret school."
Occasionally, he got irritated with me. Now seemed to be one of those times. "I'm just some big dumb redneck, right, Robert? What would I know about the subtleties of human psychology, right?"
"Look, Slocum, I'm sorry if"
He patted his Cobra. "Let's go."
They found her in a grave that was really more of a wide hole up in High Ridge forest where the scrub pines run heavy down to the river. My daughter Debbie. The coroner estimated she had been there at least thirty days. At the time of her death she'd been seventeen.
This is the way the official version ran: Debbie, leaving her job at the Baskin-Robbins, was dragged into a car, taken into the forest, raped, and killed. Only when I pressed him on the subject did the coroner tell me the extent to which she had been mutilated, the mutilation coming, so far as could be determined, after she had died. At the funeral the coffin was closed.
At the time I had a wifesmall, tanned, intelligent in a hard sensible way I often envied, quick to laugh, equally quick to cryand a son. Jeff was twelve the year his sister died. He was seventeen when he died five years later.
When you're sitting home watching the sullen parade of faceless murders flicker and die on your screenthe weeping mother of the victim, the carefully spoken detective in charge, the sexless doll-like face of the reporter signing off on the storyyou don't take into account the impact that the violent death of a loved one has on a family. I do; after Debbie's death, I made a study of the subject. Like so many things I've studied in my life, I ended up with facts that neither enlightened nor comforted. They were just facts.
My family's loss was measured in two waysmy wife's depression (she came from a family that suffered mental illness the way some families suffered freckles) and my son's wildness.
Not that I was aware of either of these problems as they began to play out. When it became apparent to me that the local police were never going to solve the murdertheir entire investigation centered on an elusive 1986 red ChevroletI virtually left home. Using a generous inheritance left to me by an uncle, I beganin tandem with the private eyes and soldiers of fortune and psychics I've already mentionedto pursue my daughter's killer. I have no doubt that my pursuit was obsessive, and clinically so. Nights I would lie on the strange, cold, lonely bed of a strange, cold, lonely motel room thinking of tomorrow, always tomorrow, and how we were only hours away from a man we now knew to be one William K. Dexter, age thirty-seven, twice incarcerated for violent crimes, unduly attached to a very aged mother, perhaps guilty of two similar killings in two other Midwestern states. I thought of nothing elseso much so that sometimes, lying there in the motel room, I wanted to take a butcher knife and cut into my brain until I found the place where memory dweltand cut it away. William K. Dexter was my only thought.
During this time, me gone, my wife began a series of affairs (I learned all this later) that only served to increase the senseless rage she felt (she seemed to resent the men because they could not give her peace)she still woke up screaming Debbie's name. Her drinking increased also and she began shopping around for new shrinks the way you might shop around for a new car. A few times during her last two months we made love when I came home on the weekend from pursuing Dexter in one fashion or anotherbut afterward it was always the same. "You weren't a good father to her, Robert." "I know." "And I wasn't a good mother. We're such goddamned selfish people." And then the sobbing, sobbing to the point of passing out (always drunk of course) in a little-girl pile in the bathroom or the center of the hardwood bedroom floor.
Jeff found her. Just home from school, calling her name, not really expecting her to be there, he went upstairs to the TV room for the afternoon ritual of a dance show and there he found her. The last images of a soap opera flickering on the screen. A drink of bourbon in the Smurf glass she always found so inexplicably amusing. A cigarette guttering out in the ashtray. Dressed in one of Jeff's T-shirts with the rock-and-roll slogan on its front and a pair of designer jeans that pointed up the teenage sleekness of her body. Dead. Heart attack.
On the day of her funeral, up in the TV room where she'd died, I was having drinks of my own, wishing I had some facts to tell me what I should be feeling now...when Jeff came in and sat down next to me and put his arm around my neck the way he used to when he was three or four. "You can't cry, can you, Dad?" All I could do was sigh. He'd been watching me. "You should cry, Dad. You really should. You didn't even cry when Debbie was killed. Mom told me." He said all this in the young man's voice I still couldn't quite get used tothe voice he used so successfully with ninth-grade girls on the phone. He wasn't quite a man yet but he wasn't a kid, either. In a moment of panic I felt he was an imposter, that this was a joke; where was my little boy? "That's all I do, Dad. Is cry, I mean. I think it helps me. I really do."
So I'd tried, first there with Jeff in the TV room, later alone in my bedroom. But there were just dry choking sounds and no tears at all. At all. I would think of Debbie, her sweet soft radiance; and of my wife, the years when it had been good for us, her so tender and kind in the shadows of our hours together; and I wanted to cry for the loss I felt. But all I could see was the face of William K. Dexter. In some way, he had become more important to me even than the two people he'd taken from me.
Jeff died three years later, wrapped around a light pole on the edge of a country park, drugs and vodka found in the front seat of the car I'd bought him six months earlier.
Left alone at the wake, kneeling before his waxen corpse, an Our Father faint on my lips, I'd felt certain I could cry. It would be a tribute to Jeff; one he'd understand; some part of the process by which he'd forgive me for being gone so much, for pursuing William K. Dexter while Jeff was discovering drugs and alcohol and girls too young to know about nurturing. I put out my hand and touched his cheek, his cold waxen cheek, and I felt something die in me. It was the opposite of crying, of bursting forth with poisons that needed to be purged. Something was dead in me and would never be reborn.
It was not too long after this that I met Frank Slocum and it was not long after Slocum took the case that we began to close inexorably in on William K. Dexter.
And soon enough we were here, at the apartment house just outside Des Moines.
Eleven years, two months, and five days later.
The name on the hallway mailbox said Severn, George Severn. We knew better, of course.
Up carpeted stairs threadbare and stained, down a hallway thick with dusty sunlight, to a door marked 4-A.
"Behind me," Slocum whispered, waving me to the wall.
For a moment, the only noises belonged to the apartment building; the thrum of electricity snaking through the walls; the creak of roof in summer wind; a toilet exploding somewhere on the floor below us.
Slocum put a hefty finger to his thick mouth, stabbing through a thistle of beard to do so. Sssh.
Slocum stood back from the door himself. His Cobra was in his hand, ready. He reached around the long way and set big knuckles against the cheap faded pine of the door.
On the other side of the door, I heard chair legs scrape against tile.
Somebody in there.
William K. Dexter.
Chair legs scraped again; footsteps. They did not come all the way to the door, however, rather stopped at what I imagined was probably the center of the living room.
Slocum put his finger to his lips again. Reached around once more and knocked.
"I said 'Yeah'. Who the hell is it?"
He was curious about who was in the hall, this George Severn was, but not curious enough to open the door and find out.
One more knock. Quick rap really; nothing more.
Inside, you could sense Severn's aggravation.
"Goddammit," he said and took a few loud steps toward the door but then stopped.
Creak of floor; flutter of robin wings as bird settled on hallway window; creak of floor again from inside the apartment.
Slocum held up a halting hand. Then he pantomimed Don't Move with his lips. He waited for my reaction. I nodded.
He looked funny, a man as big as he was, doing a very broad, cartoon version of a man walking away. Huge noisy steps so that it sounded as if he were very quickly retreating. But he did all this in place. He did it for thirty seconds and then he eased himself flat back against the wall. He took his Cobra and put it man-high on the edge of the door frame.
Severn didn't come out in thirty seconds but he did come out in about a minute.
For eleven years I'd wondered what he'd look like. Photos deceive. I always pictured him as formidable. He would have to be, I'd reasoned; the savage way he'd mutilated her... He was a skinny fortyish man in a stained white T-shirt and Levis that looked a little too big. He wore the wide sideburns of a hillbilly trucker and the scowl of a mean drunk. He stank of sleep and whiskey. He carried a butcher knife that appeared to be new. It still had the lime-green price sticker on the black handle.
When he came out of his apartment, he made the mistake of looking straight ahead.
Slocum did two things at the same time: slammed the Cobra's nose hard against Severn's temple and yanked a handful of hair so hard, Severn's knees buckled. "You're dead, man, in case you haven't figured it out already," Slocum said. He seemed enraged; he was a little frightening to watch.
He grabbed some more hair and then he pushed Severn all the way back into his apartment.
Slocum got him on a straight-backed chair, hit him so hard in the mouth that you could hear teeth go, and then handcuffed him, still in the chair, to the aged Formica dining-room table.
Slocum then cocked his foot back and kicked Severn clean and hard in the ribs. Almost immediately, Severn's mouth started boiling with red mucus that didn't seem quite thick enough to be blood.
Slocum next went over to Severn and ripped his T-shirt away from his shoulder. Without a word, Slocum motioned me over.
With his Cobra, Slocum pointed to a faded tattoo on Severn's right shoulder. It read: Mindy with a rose next to it. Not many men had such a tattoo on their right shoulder. It was identical to the one listed in all of Severn's police records.
Slocum slapped him with stunning ferocity directly across the mouth, so hard that both Severn and his chair were lifted from the floor.
For the first time, I moved. Not to hit Severn myself but to put a halting hand on Slocum's arm. "That's enough."
"We've got the right guy!" It was easy to see he was crazed in some profound animal way I'd never seen in anybody before.
"I know we do."
"The guy who killed your daughter!"
"I know," I said, "but"
I sighed. "But I don't want to be like him and if we sat here and beat him, that's exactly what we'd be. Animalsjust like him."
Slocum's expression was a mixture of contempt and disbelief. I could see whatever respect he'd had for meor perhaps it had been nothing more than mere pitywas gone now. He looked at me the same way I looked at himas some alien species.
"Please, Slocum," I said.
He got one more in, a good solid right hand to the left side of Severn's head. Severn's eyes rolled and he went out. From the smell, you could tell he'd wet his pants.
I kept calling him Severn. But of course he wasn't Severn. He was William K. Dexter.
Slocum went over to the ancient Kelvinator, took out a can of Hamms and opened it with a great deal of violence, and then slammed the refrigerator door.
"You think he's all right?" I said.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It means did you kill him?"
"Kill him?" He laughed. The contempt was back in his voice. "Kill him? No, but I should have. I keep thinking of your daughter, man. All the things you've told me about her. Not a perfect kidno kid isbut a real gentle little girl. A girl you supposedly loved. Your frigging daughter, man." He sloshed his beer in the general direction of Dexter. "I should get out my hunting knife and cut his balls off. That's what I should do. And that's just for openers. Just for openers."
He started pacing around, then, Slocum did, and I could gauge his rage. I suppose at that moment he wanted to kill us bothDexter for being an animal, me for being a weaklingneither of us the type of person Slocum wanted in his universe.
The apartment was small and crammed with threadbare and wobbly furniture. Everything had been burned with cigarettes and disfigured with beer-can rings. The sour smell of bad cooking lay on the air; sunlight poured through filthy windows; and even from here you could smell the rancid odors of the bathroom. On the bureau lay two photographs, one of a plump woman in a shabby housedress standing with her arm around Dexter, obviously his mother; and a much younger Dexter squinting into the sun outside a gray metal barracks where he had served briefly as an army private before being pushed out on a mental.
Peeking into the bedroom, I found the centerfolds he'd pinned up. They weren't the centerfolds of the quality men's magazines where the women were beautiful to begin with and made even more so with careful lighting and gauzy effects; no, these were the women of the street, hard-eyed, flabby-bodied, some even tattooed like Dexter himself. They covered the walls on either side of his sad little cot where he slept in a room littered with empty beer cans and hard-crusted pizza boxes. Many of the centerfolds he'd defaced, drawing penises in black ballpoint aimed at their vaginas or their mouths, or putting huge blood-dripping knives into their breasts or eyes or even their vaginas. All I could think of was Debbie and what he'd done to her that long ago night...
A terrible, oppressive nausea filled me as I backed out of the bedroom and groped for the couch so I could sit down.
"What's the matter?" Slocum said.
"Shut the fuck up!"
I sank to the couchthe sunlight through the greasy window making me ever warmerand cupped my hands in my face and swallowed again and again until I felt the vomit in my throat and esophagus and stomach recede.
I was shaking, chilled now with sweat.
"Can you wake him up?"
"Can you wake him up?"
"Sure," Slocum said, "Why?"
"Because I want to talk to him."
Slocum gulped the last of his beer, tossed the can into a garbage sack overflowing with coffee grounds and tomato rinds, and then went over to the sink. He took down a big glass with the Flintstones on it and filled it with water, then took the glass over to where he had Dexter handcuffed. With a certain degree of obvious pleasure, he threw the water across Dexter's head. He threw the glassas if it were now contaminatedinto the corner where it shattered into three large jagged pieces.
He grabbed Dexter by the hair and jerked his head back.
Groaning, Dexter came awake.
"Now what?" Slocum said, turning to me.
"Now I want to talk to him."
"Talk to him," Slocum said. "Right."
He pointed a large hand at Dexter as if he were a master of ceremonies introducing the next act.
It wasn't easy, getting up off that couch and going over to him. In a curious way, I was terrified of him. If I pushed him hard enough, he would tell me the exact truth about the night. The truth in detail. What she had looked like and sounded likeher screams as he raped her; her screams as she diedand then I would have my facts...but facts so horrible I would not be able to live with them. How many timesdespite myselfI had tried to recreate that night. But there would be no solace in this particular truth; no solace at all.
I stood over him. "Have you figured out who I am yet?"
He stared up at me. He started crying. "Hey, man, I never did nothing to you."
"You raped and killed a girl named Debbie eleven years ago."
"I don't know what you're talking about, man. Honest. You got the wrong guy."
I knew by the way I studied his faceevery piece of beard stubble, the green matter collected in the corners of his eyes, the dandruff flaked off at the front of his receding hairlinethat I was trying to learn something about him, something that would grant me peace after all these years.
A madman, this Dexter, and so not quite responsible for what he'd done and perhaps even deserving of pity in my good liberal soul.
But he didn't seem insane, at least not insane enough to move me in any way. He was just a cheap trapped frightened animal.
"Really, man; really I don't know what the hell you're talking about."
"I've been tracking you for eleven years now"
"Jesus, man; listen"
"You're going to hate prison, Dexter. Or maybe they'll even execute you. Did you ever read anything about the injections they give? They make it sound so humane but it's the waiting, Dexter. It's the waiting"
"Please," he said, "please," and he writhed against his handcuffs, scraping the table across the floor in the process.
"Eleven years, Dexter," I said.
I could hear my voice, what was happening to itall my feelings about Dexter were merging into my memories of those defaced centerfolds in his bedroomand Slocum must have known it too, with his animal wisdom, known at just what moment I would be right for it
because just then and just so
the Cobra came into my hands and I
shot Dexter once in the face and once in the
chest and I
Slocum explained to methough I really wasn't listeningthat they were called by various names (toss guns or throw away guns) but they were carried by police officers in case they wanted to show that the person they'd just killed had been armed.
From a holster strapped to his ankle, Slocum took a .38, wiped it clean of prints, and set it next to Dexter's hand.
Below and to the side of us the apartment house was a frenzy of shouts and criesfear and panicand already in the distance sirens exploded red on the soft blue air of the summer day.
That evening I cried.
I sat in a good room in a good hotel with the air-conditioning going strong, a fine dinner and many fine drinks in my belly, and I cried.
Whatever had kept me from crying for my daughter and then my wife and then my son was gone now and so I could love and mourn them in a way I'd never been able to. I thought of each of themtheir particular ways of laughing, their particular sets of pleasures and dreams, their particular fears and apprehensionsand it was as if they joined me there in that chill antiseptic hotel room, Debbie in her blue sweater and jeans, my wife in her white linen sheath, Jeff in his Kiss T-shirt and chinoscame around in the way the medieval church taught that angels gathered around the bed of a dying person...only I wasn't dying.
My family was there to tell me that I was to live again. To seek some sort of peace and normalcy after the forced march of these past eleven years.
"I love you so much," I said aloud to each of them, and wept all the more; "I love you so much."
And then I slept.
"I talked to the district attorney," Slocum said in the coffee shop the following morning. "He says it's very unlikely there will be any charges."
"He really thought Dexter was armed?"
"Wouldn't you? A piece of trash like Dexter?"
I stared at him. "You know something terrible?"
"I don't feel guilty."
He let go with one of those cigarette-raspy laughs of his. "Good."
Then it was his turn to stare at me, there in the hubbub of clattering dishes and good sweet coffee smells and bacon sizzling on the grill. "So what now?"
"See if I can get my job back."
"At the university?"
He kept staring. "You don't feel any guilt do you?"
"No. I mean, I know I should. Whatever else, he was a human being. But"
He smiled his hard Old Testament smile. "Now don't you go giving me any of those mousy little liberal 'buts,' all right?"
"You just go back and live your life and make it a good one."
"I owe you one hell of a lot, Slocum."
He put forth a slab of hand and a genuine look of affection in his eyes. "Just make it a good one," he said. "Promise?"
"And no guilt?"
He grinned. "I knew I could make a man out of you."
Her name was Anne Stevens and she was to dominate my first year back at the university. Having met at the faculty picnichot August giving way to the fierce melancholy of Indian summerwe began what we both hoped (her divorced; me not quite human yet) would be a pleasant but slow-moving relationship. We were careful to not introduce real passion, for instance, until we both felt certain we could handle it, about the time the first of the Christmas decorations blew in the gray wind of Harcourt Square.
School itself took some adjusting. First, there was the fact that the students seemed less bright and inquisitive, more conservative than the students I remembered. Second, the faculty had some doubts about me; given my experiences over the past eleven years, they wondered how I would fit into a setting whose goals were at best abstract. I wondered, too...
After the first time we made loveAnne's place, unplanned, satisfying if slightly embarrassingI went home and stared at the photograph of my wife I keep on my bureau. In whispers, I apologized for what I'd done. If I'd been a better husband I would have no guilt now. But I had not, alas, been a better husband at all...
In the spring, a magazine took a piece on inflation I wrote and the academic dean made a considerable fuss over this fact. Also in the spring Anne and I told each other that we loved each other in a variety of ways, emotionally, sexually, spiritually. We set June 23 as our wedding day.
It was on May 5 that I saw the item in the state newspaper. For the following three weeks I did my best to forget it, troubling as it was. Anne began to notice a difference in my behavior, and to talk about it. I just kept thinking of the newspaper item and of something Slocum had said that day when I killed Dexter.
In the middle of a May nightthe breeze sweet with the newly blooming worldI typed out a six-page letter to Anne, packed two bags, stopped by a 7-11 and filled the Volvo and dropped Anne's letter in a mailbox, and then set out on the Interstate.
Two mornings later, I walked up a dusty flight of stairs inside an apartment house. A Hank Williams, Jr. record filled the air.
To be heard above the music, I had to pound.
I half-expected what would happen, that when the door finally opened a gun would be shoved in my face. It was.
I didn't say anything. I just handed him the news clipping. He waved me inhe lived in a place not dissimilar from the one Dexter had lived inread the clipping as he opened an 8:48 A.M. beer.
Finished reading it, he let it glide to the coffee table that was covered with gun magazines.
"So I want to help him. I don't want him to go through what I did."
"You know him or something?"
"Just some guy whose daughter was raped and killed and the suspect hasn't been apprehended."
"And you want what?"
"I've got money and I've got time. I quit my job."
"But what do you want?"
"I want us to go after him. Remember how you said that I'd changed and that I didn't even know it?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"Well, you were right. I have changed."
He stood up and stated laughing, his considerable belly shaking beneath his Valvoline T-shirt. "Well, I'll be goddamned, Robert. I'll be goddamned. I did make a man out of you, after all. So how about having a beer with me?"
At firstit not being nine A.M. yetI hesitated. But then I nodded my head and said, "Yeah, Slocum. That sounds good. That really sounds good."
Copyright © 2011 Ed Gorman.