Death Makes a Comeback

by


VIOLENT DEATH WAS no novelty to Sgt. James Peyton. He had seen far worse than a brunette with a bruise on her forehead and a slit throat.

He felt as if he had just touched a live wire.

He wide-eyed the older detective. "Dad--"

Lt. Lawrence Peyton raised a cautionary hand.

"Please, Jimmy." His voice dropped. "I wish I'd never told you about him."

"But the MO--"

"Sh. The husband hears you, spreads the rumor he's back.... " He glanced at the bedroom door as if he expected something to enter and devour them.

Lucy Welch's long hair spread out like a nun's veil on the gray carpet beneath her. Her brown eyes stared up at Jimmy.

She wore a red tube top and tight, black designer jeans. How perfectly, colorwise, her top and lipstick coordinated with her throat.

Jimmy hoped his necrophilic fantasies weren't too obvious. He must mention that to Dr. Larsen tomorrow.

Jimmy Peyton was a fat little boy in a blond, blue-eyed hunk disguise. He had fooled many women, since he always took off before the disguise slipped.

Lieutenant Peyton surveyed the huge, decadently ornate bedroom. He was a great, bloated version of his son with a cloud-gray crew cut. "Judging by that crap on the dressing table, she liked spending money."

"Or knew how to get some guy to spend it for her."

Lieutenant Peyton winked approvingly, which gave Jimmy a glow, then turned his attention to the bed. "Black silk sheets. Now, what does that tell you?"

"I don't think you should jump to conclusions, Dad."

"You want to get to my rank, you'd better."

The glow faded.

* * *

The Welch living room was expensively furnished, spotlessly clean, and coldly neat. Jimmy couldn't wait to leave it.

George Welch had a thin, vinegary face and rust-colored hair, parted down the middle.

"I understand," said Lieutenant Peyton, "you were divorced?"

"Separated," said Welch as if he were about to have the lieutenant beheaded. "We were happily married; but we were having difficulties, so we decided to spend some time apart."

"I see. So what happened tonight?"

"We were supposed to go to dinner and that play at the Birmingham Theater. I came by to get her; and I found her like that."

Jimmy noted Welch's granite formality. Indifference to his wife's death? Shock? Or something else?

"Did you," asked Lieutenant Peyton, "notice anything unusual as you pulled up?"

Welch hesitated. "No."

"Sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Okay. Now, did your wife have any enemies?"

"Yes." Like he was a cat and the question was a nice, juicy mouse. "She recently became friendly--just friendly--with a man named Eric Dimke. According to Lucy, he was used to getting his way with women; and when she turned him down, he didn't take it well."

"What did he do?"

"She wouldn't tell me. But I got the impression she was scared of him."

"You know where this guy lives?"

He gave them an address in Flat Rock.

"Think he's telling the truth?" asked Jimmy back in the car.

"Not completely. Maybe not at all. Not about that trial separation; that's for sure. Once she got her hands on his money and that house, that little bitch was through with him.

"And all you need to jump to conclusions about that is eyes."

The address was in a sparsely populated area.

They turned into a driveway, the headlights revealing a bedraggled Oldsmobile parked so close to the road they almost rear-ended it.

They crossed what felt to Jimmy's ankles like a balding, unmowed lawn.

Lieutenant Peyton sidestepped something. "Look out for this junk." A lone streetlamp and the light from the house dimly illuminating scattered auto innards.

"I don't believe it," said Jimmy.

"Believe what?"

"That a woman as well off as her would take up with anyone who lived here."

"Now who's jumping to conclusions?"

* * *

The big, black leather reclining chair was the only piece of furniture in that room that did not need reupholstering, distinctive in a room whose walls bore cheap prints of flowers, gleaming on an unshampooed rug; and as anyone who had known him ten minutes might have expected, Eric Dimke occupied it.

He was a great bronzed ape with a creamy white Elvis pompadour. As he leaned back, his unbuttoned shirt spread open, displaying his pectorals.

Only Jimmy seemed to notice the woman. She viewed the proceedings as she had greeted the Peytons at the door: with dumb animal indifference through which muted anger only occasionally flickered. Blotches marred otherwise satisfactory features.

Lieutenant Peyton repeated Welch's accusations.

"He's full of it."

"Did you know Mrs. Welch?" asked the lieutenant.

"Sure I knew her. Lotsa guys knew her. She was hangin' around the Flat Top Bar--I dunno, five, six weeks before I got talkie' to her."

"What would a woman from Indian Village be doing in a bar around here?"

Dimke shrugged. "I wouldn't go to no bars in Detroit after dark. I got the idea she went to bars all over the place. I mean, she was lookin' for action. Or maybe she just didn't want to go to no bars around where she lived 'cause she thought her old man might catch her."

"She was afraid of him?"

"I think she was. I got the idea he was this wimp she'd just married for his money; and I asked her why she didn't leave him; and she said, 'That's something I'd rather not go into'; and she got this funny look in her eyes. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah. You got to know Mrs. Welch quite well, didn't you?"

Dimke's face went cold. "Like what do you mean?"

"Well, she told you about her marriage. She told you about other bars she went to. Welch knew your name and address, which kind of suggests she did too. I mean, you can't blame us for--uh- jumping to conclusions."

Jimmy flinched.

Another shrug. "So I let her talk to me. So I let her think I was comin' on to her." He and Lieutenant Peyton studied each other. "So maybe I was. Hey, I been married--what?--twelve years? I used to be real big with the ladies. So I let some fine-lookin' chick make some moves on me, show me I still got it. Even the most happily married man's gotta do that or he gets stale. Right, hoe?"

"I guess so."

They were precinct bound.

"What do you think of his story?" asked Jimmy.

"Story's fine. But did you notice Mrs. Dimke's wrists?" Jimmy vaguely recalled bruises.

"And the way she acted?"

"She acted bored."

"She acted scared. She was scared to let us see how scared she was, so she held herself in. There's plenty she could tell us, but she knows what he'll do to her if she does."

"So it's between Welch and Dimke?"

"One thing's sure: it wasn't him."

"Him?"

Lieutenant Peyton grinned. "You know."

The lieutenant flipped on his office light. "The bloodstains show she was killed in the bedroom. And there was no sign of a struggle, so it was evidently someone she trusted." He started going through the mail on his desk. "I mean, can you see anyone letting him get that close--and in her bedroom yet?"

He glanced at one of the envelopes, started moving it to the bottom, then glanced at it again.

His face went blank.

"What's wrong, Dad?"

The old man struggled to smile. "Now, you got me doing it. Where's the letter opener?" He went through his top drawer, then the second drawers on each side, then the next, growing more frantic with each drawer. "Where the hell is the damn letter opener?"

"Dad." He grabbed the envelope and ripped off an edge.

Lieutenant Peyton snatched it back, clawed out the paper inside, shook it open, and read it.

He offered it to his son with a trembling hand, looking as if he were going to vomit.

The hand-printed words flew up like fists: "Lucy Welch was my return performance. Mephistopheles."

Jimmy foggily heard his father: "First good hunch you had since you got promoted out of uniform; and it had to be about him."

The bar was on the first level of the Renaissance Center. It was a slow night. The bartender and all but two of the patrons were engrossed in a televised Tigers game.

The Peytons sat, hunched over drinks, in the dim red glow, remembering seven years ago. . . .

Lieutenant Peyton recalled a young blonde, nude on a morgue slab. Her face was like the wholesome farm girls on the cover of his folks' American Magazines, except for the lump on her head and the gash across her throat.

An officer read from a notebook: "Her name was Helen Dunn. Twenty-three years old. She was a barmaid." He named a bar near Wayne State University. "Her boss was emptying out some trash, right after opening up, when he found her body behind some cans."

"Had there been any trouble recently?"

"Nothing in particular; but you know how barmaids are."

"Yeah." He replaced the sheet, wondering how to say what he had to say without revealing too much. He decided it was impossible. "I want this to have top priority. I want to know who works there, who drinks there--everything."

"Something special about this, sir?"

"Maybe I just don't like to see twenty-three-year-old girls die."

He was not fooling the officer. He did not care.

The "something special" was a printed note now in his desk drawer: "Helen Dunn begins her beauty sleep tonight. It's going to be a long one. Mephistopheles. . . ."

Anyone can write a note, blame a personal killing on a fictional psychopath. The police investigated the murder with more than usual diligence, but spread no alarms.

Peyton dismissed the note as a blind a week and a half later, but spent the next two months going through his mail on the brink of cardiac arrest.

He had just stopped fearing postal deliveries when the second note arrived: "I'm afraid Tracy Huggins won't have much time for studying from now on. But that doesn't matter. She's never going to graduate. Mephistopheles."

He shut off his feelings and scoured the day's reports, then called every Huggins in the phone book.

He went home with no idea who Tracy Huggins was. . . .

The next morning, during coffee, someone tapped him on the shoulder.

It was another detective. "Weren't you the one who was looking for Tracy Huggins?"

"Yes."

"Her folks just reported her missing. She hasn't been seen since leaving a late class at Wayne two nights ago."

Six days later, a deputy sheriff on horseback found her behind some bushes in Hines Park. . . .

Wayne State was on its guard. Patrols, curfews, inspection of credentials, hot lines to a special task force--there was no way this character could strike again.

As long as he confined himself to WSU.

One April night, Debra Meredith, twenty-tour, divorced, went to a singles bar in Farmington. She left, according to witnesses, about twelve-fifteen.

She was found the next morning in the driver's seat of her car in an Oak Park shopping center. This time, the note was on her lap: "Debra Meredith was looking for action. She found it. Mephistopheles."

The investigation was soon statewide; but there were few leads, all false, by that early morning in June when a priest at the University of Windsor found Julie McKinnon, of Toronto, in some bushes.

The Windsor police received a note the next day: "Julie McKinnon felt so safe on this side of the water. Now she feels so sorry. Mephistopheles. . . ."

That was the end of it.

Until now.

* * *

The whitewashed walls of Dr. Whitney Larsen's office were decorated with framed degrees, including a Ph.D.; professional-looking photographs, taken by the doctor himself, of breathtaking landscapes ("I won't shoot anything warmblooded, even with a camera"); and numerous paintings, portraits and abstracts and everything in between, of dogs ("I like dogs. My dogs have lasted longer, and pleased me more, than all my marriages").

Dr. Larsen's build resulted from another hobby: fine food. He was not fat yet; but it was a distinct possibility. He was a tall man with black, curly, thinning hair. His hazel eyes studied Jimmy Peyton, who haltingly detailed his fantasies about Lucy Welch.

The doctor realized he was expected to say something profound. "Was she good-looking--uh, as corpses go, that is?"

"Mrs. Welch had been an attractive woman in her lifetime."

Larsen chuckled. "Could it be, if you'd jumped her bones, that really would've shown Daddy?"

"I don't know."

Conversation stopped. Jimmy studied the plaques and pictures while Dr. Larsen studied him.

"Jimmy," said the doctor finally, "I get the feeling you're not all here with me. Like there's something really bugging you; and all this stuff about having the hots for a corpse is just your way of sidestepping it."

He did not prod. He had learned the reluctant revelations were often the most significant, and that no patient was obliged to make them.

"When we got back to headquarters, there was this envelope on my father's desk. . . ."

"So now," said Dr. Larsen, "he's back; and you're going to deliver him to daddy as a Father's Day present--" he glanced at his 1984 calendar--"two months late."

"Not exactly."

"Then, what exactly?'

Jimmy laid a folded piece of paper on the desk. "This is the note."

Dr. Larsen's face soured. "Anyone ever tell you you watch too much television?" He read the note, his expression grim, then became haughty. "Ziss fellow iss obviously overzexed; but zen, aren't ve all? Ven he vas a kinder, hiss mama locked him in ze closet ven she caught him veering her undervear--hoo-ha!--undt ven he vas in dere, he seen papa t'rough da keyhole makin' nice-nice mit a floozie." Jimmy's expression was granite. "Seriously, if you don't already know as much as I could tell you about this guy--maybe, if you don't know even more--I'd be worried about your future as a cop."

"Think he wants to get caught?"

"Hell, no. Anymore than you want to break your neck when you go on one of those super coasters at Cedar Point. I mean, besides hating women--which, I hope to God, you've already figured out--he likes excitement."

"But why did he stop for seven years, then go back to it?"

"One sure way to find out."

"What?"

"Have him make an appointment with me."

Judy Franklin was Lucy Welch's sister. Lieutenant Peyton could see a resemblance muddied by drink and fat. Her brown, boy-length hair was flecked with gray. Her face was cosmetically embalmed.

She had a Georgia accent. "That wimp she married didn't kill her, that boyfriend did."

"We have them under observation, ma'am."

"You should have their rear ends in jail."

"Why?" Her body tightened with rage. "I mean, what makes you suspect them?"

He took his notebook from a drawer, placed it open on the desk, and poised a pen over it.

She relaxed a little. "I only met Welch once, back in 1977, when Lucy brought him home for a Fourth of July picnic. They weren't married yet, think she just met him. Didn't like him then. Every time I turned around, he was hangin' around her; or he wasn't far away, watchin' her.

"And the way he watched her. I been in enough bars to know when a man watches you that way, you don't want no part of him.

"Couldn't understand what she seen in him till I found out he had money." Some of his feeling about that must have shown in his face. "Well, you didn't have to live on what was left of your daddy's paycheck from his ladies and his drinking."

"So you met him only once; and you're basing a murder accusation on that?"

"That and the letters she sent me. He was just like I thought he was--jealous and clingy and all-around weird."

"Do you have any of these letters?"

"Not now I don't. I threw 'em out a long time ago."

Aren't you the sentimental bitch? "So all you have against Welch is hearsay? What about Dimke?"

She tensed again. "I suppose you'd say that was hearsay too, specially since she never said nothin' right out. But a sister knows. You just go out there--he lives out in Flat Rock--and take a look at that wife of his. He coulda done that to her, he coulda done this to Lucy."

"Good point." He thought it best not to mention having already done so and coming to the same conclusion, or seeking someone much deadlier than Welch or Dimke.

Or that he was now drawing an unflattering caricature of the mayor of Detroit.

Lieutenant Peyton was obviously uneasy the next few days. He finally told Jimmy why over lunch. "Remember the last time I was after this guy; and I came in one night, real nervous, and glanced over my shoulder like I thought someone was following me; and you and your mother wanted to know why?"

Jimmy searched his memory, then shook his head. "But now that you mention it, was someone following you?"

"Maybe. I don't know. That was after Tracy Huggins disappeared. Her folks came to headquarters, raised hell. Said I should've told the papers about that first note. Then, they would've known. Then, they could've done something. Stuff like that.

"Heard they hung around the rest of the day, still pretty steamed up. Made me kind of paranoid."

"What did they do when her body was found?"

"I got a phone call the next day. They just said, 'Satisfied?' then hung up. I could tell it was Huggins."

"Dad?"

"Yes?"

"Did she bring it all back?" The old man's brows twitched. "I've seen her in the halls."

He was referring to Judy Franklin.

Jimmy brought Dr. Larsen up to date. From Judy Franklin's mouth to the doctor's ear, the story was naturally mangled. But one point survived. And finally someone saw its significance.

"She won't leave us alone," said Jimmy. "She won't let us do our job."

"Well," said Dr. Larsen, "she gave you information that, on the face of it, was worth checking out; and as far as she can see, you didn't; and you won't explain why."

"The commissioner wants to keep a lid on it. He thinks this guy might be a copycat. Says he never heard of a psychopath starting up again, years later, in the same area."

"Tell the commissioner for me that, if psychos obeyed rules, they wouldn't be psychos. Unless he had reasons he didn't want to talk about."

"What do you mean?"

"Nothing. The point is you don't seem to be satisfied with knowing you're doing the best you can. The victim's sister's got to see it. I mean, if you desperately need to have everybody approve of you, how the hell are you ever going to arrest anybody?" He glanced at his watch. "Which might be a good thing to think about until next week."

Jimmy counted out Dr. Larsen's fee. "I guess Mephistopheles has become kind of our obsession."

"Then, my bet's on him."

"Why?"

"Obsessed people can't think straight. Try some relaxation when you get to your desk in the morning."

Jimmy hesitated as he laid a five-dollar bill on the pile. "I noticed you became thoughtful when I told you what she said, like something'd occurred to you."

"You'll never give up trying to turn me into a consultant."

"Did something occur to you?"

"Okay. If I tell you, will you remember it was your idea?"

"Sure. "

"And this is the last time you ask me for advice?"

"Agreed. "

"Then here it is. . . ."

Jimmy went looking for a certain book of photographs, which he found after two difficult days.

That night, he took the book to a certain bar. Helen Dunn's boss scanned the page in which Jimmy was interested and, without prompting, singled out the right man. "This guy. I know I seen him hangin' around here, botherin' Helen, not long before it happened." He scanned the rest of the page. "I recognize some of these other people too; but if you're lookin' for someone who was botherin' her--this guy."

The rest were dead ends.

The Hugginses slammed the door at the mention of his name.

The owner of the singles bar stared at him. "Seven years ago! I can't even remember who the hell was here last night."

Julie McKinnon's acquaintances were far away by now.

He was wasting time.

Time enough for Patti Bukowski to leave her East Detroit home and her husband of three years, Gil, because things were getting too crazy. Time enough for her to move to a downtown Detroit apartment building to experience being answerable to no one.

She spent the first evening in Hart Plaza on the great, terraced stone structure that overlooked the darkness of the Detroit River.

She was too absorbed in the solitude and the glow of the Windsor skyline at sunset to notice him until he sat beside her.

Patti gave up two and a half weeks later, only partly because she missed Gil.

She was afraid of a man who had seemed so nice at Hart Plaza.

Gil had suggested she wait until tomorrow; but what could be the harm of going home tonight?

"Patti."

She turned, feeling as if she had just stepped off a thousand-foot cliff. "Oh. Hi."

"Where are you going?"

"I don't think that's any of your business."

"You're going back to him, aren't you?"

She looked for her car key. If she ignored him, he would most likely get the hint.

She did not see him reach into his pocket, take out a small chain, welded to a sinker and two slugs, and raise it over his head.

"Patti," he cooed.

"What!"

"Hold it right there." A figure emerged from the shadows, waving a gun at the man. "Up against the car and spread the feet."

Jimmy Peyton showed her his credentials, read the suspect his rights, and patted him down. He found a switchblade knife, on which flecks of blood were later discovered, and an envelope addressed to Lieutenant Peyton. (It contained a hand-printed note: "Gil Bukowski's waiting for his wife to come home. He'll have a long wait. Mephistopheles.")

"I know this guy," said Patti.

"So do we. George Welch."

"I decided," said Jimmy at his next session with Dr. Larsen, "I'd gotten as far as I could with Welch's yearbook; and if he was really killing them 'cause they rejected him, like you said, I'd better just shadow him till he made his next move." He shook his head. "Dad must've asked seven years ago about guys they were having trouble with."

"Pretty girls don't comment on every guy who gets too persistent; there's just too many of them. And I doubt Welch's victims realized how sick he was."

"But how did you know it was him?"

Dr. Larsen's face soured. "I didn't know diddly. I just made some good guesses.

"Like he lied about what he was doing at the scene of the crime, which I hear you cops have a way of considering suspicious. I mean, we're supposed to believe she was dressed the way you say she was because she expected the kind of guy you say Welch was? Come now.

"And it would answer your father's question--you know, why would Lucy Welch let Mephistopheles walk right up to her in her own bedroom?--if until recently it'd been his bedroom too.

"But the closest I came to a brilliant deduction like William Powell and Warner Oland and Basil Rathbone in all those old movies was: seven years ago in June, the Mephistopheles murders mysteriously stopped. One month later, Welch turns up at a Fourth of July party, engaged to Lucy. And no sooner does Lucy dump Welch than Mephistopheles comes out of retirement and makes her his next victim. I mean, I wouldn't hang anybody on that; but it does bear checking out.

"Now that I've answered your question, I've got one."

"Okay."

"Why were you so hung up on this guy?" Jimmy was still trying to formulate an answer when the doctor added, "In other words, how much of you do you see in him?"

He had a way of returning abruptly to the point.


9.5

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