by Gary R. Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Jim Thompson threw his pen on the desk, took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “This guy’s gonna drive me completely nuts.”
His partner, Joanne Wentworth, stood and walked to the coffee pot. “You ready for another cup?”
“Any more of that sledge and I’m gonna float away. That or eat up my intestines.”
She poured a cup for herself. “I think I’m becoming immune to it, somehow.”
“What are we missing here?” Jim asked.
Joanne let out a “huh.” “If I knew that, maybe we could catch this guy.”
The ‘guy’ popped up six weeks ago and so far killed four people–each one on a Saturday night. The first killing occurred on the first Saturday in September. There was one the next week, but nothing the following two weeks, now, two more weeks in a row. Local newspapers dubbed him the Saturday Night Dead Killer or SNDK. All the victims shared three things–the gun used to kill them–a .22, probably with a silencer since no one close heard shots. They were all men, shot in the back of the head and ballistics showed the same gun used on each person.
Thompson and Wentworth, both homicide detectives for the St. Louis Police Department, couldn’t find any connection between the men or the locations of the shootings. Everything appeared to be random–and random meant difficult to solve.
Jim stood, tucked in the back of his shirt, and started pacing. “The real piss-off is he’s screwing up my season tickets. I finally get season tickets to the Pumas and I’ve been up every Saturday night trying to run this guy down. Don’t get much sleep before the games.”
“Their games have been exciting enough I wouldn’t think it would be hard to stay awake. They’re six and 0 right now, aren’t they?”
“That new running back is somethin’ else, isn’t he?”
“Bentley? You bet. They’ve got to be grooming him to take over for Mansion. Bentley’s on track to break the all time rookie rushing record. Granted, Mansion’s younger than I am, but getting too old to play pro-football.”
“Glad they don’t force detectives out,” Joanne said.
Jim smirked at her. “They do, but the age is sixty-five.”
“They keep throwin’ cases like this at us my retirement age may come much quicker.”
“Know that feeling.” Jim looked at the portable bulletin board set up on one side of their office.
What little information they knew was thumb-tacked there. He crossed his arms and put one hand up to his chin. “The damn times aren’t even close–anytime from nine at night until midnight.”
“If it was after midnight, it would be Sunday. Maybe that has something to do with his pattern.”
“What the hell sets him off on Saturday night?”
“Maybe it’s the poor television programming.”
Jim sneered at her. “Thanks.”
The following Saturday, both detectives spent the evening at home, waiting for the call. None came. The following Monday, they discussed SNDK as they were heading to investigate a body found floating in the river. “Maybe this guy runs in two week cycles,” Joanne said. “Two on and two off.”
“Can’t say that I’ve ever heard of that pattern, but with these people, who knows?”
“Maybe he’s a traveling salesman or something, who travels to this part of the state for a couple of weeks and then goes somewhere else.”
“You know, I never thought of that. Soon as we get back to the office, I’m gonna put out a nation-wide on the ballistics’ test. See if anyone else has had problems with the same gun.”
Because there were no marks or wounds on the floater, the body in the river was ruled a suicide by the corner, who said he could tell them more after the autopsy. The dead man did have a driver’s license in his wallet, so Jim and Joanne went to notify the next of kin.
Once they were back at the station, Jim put out an all-points bulletin on the ballistics they had on the gun used by the SNDK. When they returned from lunch, they had their first answer. Police in Chicago had a man killed with the gun at ten o’clock on a Saturday night. That murder occurred on the third weekend in September. The next answer was from Denver. Their guy was killed last Saturday around nine-thirty. Dallas Police reported they had a victim killed on the last weekend in September. They put the time of death at eleven on Saturday night.
Jim wrote all the information on note cards and tacked them to the bulletin board. “So we have two in St. Louis, then one in Chicago, one in Dallas, then two more in St. Louis, and then the last one in Denver. This guy is probably flying around. I know it’s a long shot, but let’s start with the airport and passenger lists. See if anyone shows up more than once flying to these cities.”
“You have any idea how long that’s going to take?” Joanne asked.
“Got a better idea?”
She thought for a few seconds and then sighed. “Guess not!”
The process didn’t take as long as Joanne thought it might. All the passenger lists were scanned into a computer, and it was told to find duplicate names. One name showed up, but only flying to Denver and Dallas. “If he’s smart, he probably used a different name to fly to Chicago,” Jim said.
“Can’t we just call the airlines to see when he returned to St. Louis?”
“I think that’s the way to start.”
In both cases, the man had flown out on a Monday and back into St. Louis on Friday.
Joanne checked on private flying services next. They had flown a couple of flights, but not to the same people and not during the time period needed. “Well, back to ye ole square one!
Guess we’ll see what happens this Saturday.”
The call came in at ten-thirty the following Saturday. The victim was found in a parking lot off Grand Avenue. Like all the other vics, he had not been robbed; his wallet and jewelry were still on his body. “Well, so much for the every two weeks theory,” Jim said, adding the new victim to the bulletin board. Both detectives sat staring at the list of names, times, and places.
Several minutes passed before Joanne spoke. “Guess this is gonna mess up your football game tomorrow, isn’t it?”
“Won’t help it.”
The following weekend, nothing was reported in St. Louis. Monday morning Thompson and Wentworth checked all correspondence that had come in over the weekend. Nothing was there. “Think he’s done?” Joanne asked.
“We could hope so, but that’s sure gonna leave us further in the dark. Granted, I don’t want anyone else killed, but he’s left us nothing to work with. Sometime he’ll make a mistake.”
“I was out of town all day Sunday,” Joanne said. “How did the Pumas do?”
“Play tonight. They’re on Monday Night Football. I can go home tonight, kick back, and enjoy the game on the tube.”
Tuesday morning, a report came in from the Pittsburg City Police. There was a note attached to the fax. “Sorry, but some of our equipment was down, so it took a while. We had a victim killed with the same weapon, but not the same time frame. This guy was killed on Sunday night.”
“Oh, great!” Jim said. “Now he’s changed his methods.”
“Where did the Pumas play last night?”
Joanne jumped and grabbed the cup Jim used as a pencil holder on his desk. It had the Pumas’ schedule printed on the front. “Look at this! First two games were at home. Third game in Chicago, fourth, Dallas, then two more at home. Then Denver, now Monday night in Pittsburg. The murders are following the towns the Pumas play in!”
Jim took the cup from her and flopped in his chair. “Well, I’ll be damned!”
Oscar Preston was the head coach of the Pumas. He finally agreed to meet with them after Jim threatened him with search warrants for all facilities associated with the team. A guard led them into the coach’s office at the Pumas’ practice field just outside St. Louis. “This isn’t the best time for me,” Preston said. “We’re trying to get ready for Tampa next week.” He checked his watch. “Got a practice in a couple of hours.”
“I doubt it was a good time for all the people who were shot, too,” Joanne said.
“What are you talkin’ about?” the coach said.
Jim explained why they were there. “You think someone on my team has something to do with these murders?”
“It’s possible,” Joanne said. “Can we go into your locker room?”
“Got a warrant?”
“No, but we can close it down until we get one.”
The coach picked up his phone and punched a button. “Frank, get in here!” Frank let out a big breath of air when he found out the coach wanted him to show the detectives to the locker room. “Thought my ass was in a sling again,” he told them.
“So what’s your job here?” Joanne asked.
“Head equipment manager. I’ll let one of my men show you around.” He introduced them to Jackie Bentley. “They want to look around the place.”
“You related to Newt Bentley?” Jim asked him.
Jackie showed a hundred and fifty watt smile. “Sure am. First cousin. In fact, he got me this here job. Tain’t much right now, but Newt told me if I stick around and don’t mess up anything, I can move up the ladder. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. You look like you’re pretty proud of him,” Jim said.
“Oh, everyone in our family is! He’s somethin’ else, isn’t he?”
Joanne was standing in the middle of the room looking at all the lockers. “Why are some of these shoes on the top shelf and some are on the floor?”
“Oh, that’s the way the players want them. These guys are more superstitious than anyone I ever met. You should see them on game day. Some of them always put their right shoe on first. Some of them then put on the left and then go back and tie the right. Then they tie the left. They never want to change anything. Afraid it will bring them bad luck.”
“I have to say I’m pretty overwhelmed by all of this,” Jim said.
“It’s pretty cool, ain’t it?” Jackie said.
“Ok, Jim, come on we’ve only got an hour or so before the players start showing up.”
“I’m gonna stay here with you,” Jackie said. “If you move something in the wrong place, I’m gonna be in deep shit.” Their search yielded nothing. Jackie went behind them putting everything back exactly right.
As they were leaving, J.J. Jones, a wide receiver for the Pumas, was coming in. Even though Jones was one of the so-called “bad boys” of the team, Jim had to stop and talk to him and get his autograph. Joanne stood by, shaking her head. “Boys and their toys,” she said as they left the building.
Back at the station, Jim called Tampa police and talked to Detective Kelly. He told him everything about the case and what he was asking the Tampa Police Department to do.
The report from Tampa on the following Tuesday was not what Jim and Joanne wanted to hear. Kelly and several of his men had been at the hotel housing the Pumas for the first bed check. The only player missing was J.J. Jones. They stayed at the hotel until he came in, about one in the morning. Since there had been another murder by SNDK that night in Tampa, they checked out his alibi thoroughly. He had been to a party with several dozen other people, mainly women.
The festivities were on the opposite side of town from where the murder was committed. And one other minor problem–J.J. had not made the trip to Chicago. He was out with a bruised thigh.
Jim sat at his desk tapping a pencil against his forehead. Joanne was leaned back in her chair studying the ceiling.
“Why is it when we think we might have someone, the person is not connected to Chicago? Remember that businessman? He didn’t go to Chicago either,” Jim said.
“What if it’s a fan?” Joanne asked. “Someone who goes to all of their games.”
“That should have shown up on the passenger lists from the airlines.”
“Oh, yeah. Right.”
Washington was coming into town the following week. Since many of the St. Louis players lived in the area, there was no way to pull a bed check. Jim and Joanne agreed to stay at the station on Saturday evening so they could get a call as soon as possible if one came in. Neither of them wanted to bet one wouldn’t.
The call came in about ten-thirty–a man found in an alley with a gun shot wound to the back of the head. Jim and Joanne arrived at the scene within ten minutes of the call. The same scenario played out. One shot to the back of the head, no valuables appeared to have been taken, and the victim was a man.
The closest place open was a bar, so they started in there. They had a digital picture of the man’s face loaded into a camera. They showed it to the bartender.
“Don’t think he was in here tonight or any other night that I can remember.”
“Anyone else in here who might have seemed different or strange in any way?”
“Hey, man. A lot of the folks who come in here are rather strange in my book. Most of them though are just
neighborhood people who drop by for a good time.”
“Well, thanks,” Jim said as they turned to leave.
“There was one kind of weird thing tonight, though,” the bartender called after them.”
“Yeah, there was some kid in here claimed he was related to one of the Pumas’ players. Made a big deal out of it. I think he was hustling people to buy him beer. Didn’t work, though.”
“How long ago did he leave?”
“Maybe an hour, hour and a half. Somethin’ like that.”
In an interrogation room, Jackie Bentley squirmed in the chair. He picked at his fingernails. His eyes darted back and forth. His breathing was heavy and labored.
“Jackie, this is Dr. Ralston. He’s going to sit in with us, ok?”
“Yeah, fine with me.” His eyes stopped darting and went into a fixed stare. They glazed over almost immediately.
“Want to tell us why you killed all those men, Jackie?”
“And why was that?” Dr. Ralston asked.
“Got into an argument with a guy before Newt’s first game. He pulled a gun on me, but I got it away from him and shot him. After I saw how superstitious the rest of the team was, I knew I had to kill someone the night before each game so Newt’s luck wouldn’t change.”
He smiled at everyone in the room. “Newt’s gonna be a really big star someday, and he’s gonna take me with him. Couldn’t take a chance on him not doin’ no good.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section. What for another Valentine’s Day mystery this week.