“Two years ago my fiancée was murdered by Richard Thomas Irving, a serial killer who is right now standing trial for the murder of two other women in Atlantic City. The police believe he is responsible for at least ten rapes and murders on the east coast.”
Silence greeted Gene as he paused and held a breath to fight off the sudden gut-piercing pain that always hit him when he thought about Joanie. Speaking of the murder was difficult, bringing a stabbing pain, as if someone were slicing him from the inside with a straight razor.
“The pain was even harder for me because the police considered me the prime suspect.” The words came out grudgingly. He wanted to flee and hide his head in his pillow. But he had come here to face his pain. Stella had convinced him that it would help, and he had promised her he would try. He was running out of options.
“For two months they hounded me, trying to gather shreds of circumstantial evidence that they could use to frame me and send me to prison.” As his anger toward the police nudged aside his inner agony, the words flowed faster. “They dug into my past, my relationship with my parents, my drinking problems when I was younger, and they even brought up that arson charge when I was a teenager. The charges were dropped. My dad’s lawyer convinced the authorities it was an accident. But the police threw it in my face anyway. But that was the last thing I wanted to think about while I was mourning the death of the woman I loved.”
He took a loud, deep breath to slow the torrent of words and images that poured from his lips and flooded the small room with confused visions. About thirty folding chairs formed a double semicircle around the fragile lectern, where he stood. It was on a three-foot plywood stand, so he towered over his listeners. Initially, it had made him uncomfortable, but he hadn’t spoken this freely in over a year. It was as if whatever dam had been constructed had finally burst. He realized that Stella was right. Coming here was the right thing to do.
“Two investigators from New Jersey eventually noticed some similarities to a pair of unsolved murders in Atlantic City. Working on the assumption that they were the work of the same killer, the police were able to crack the case.” He heaved his shoulders as if he were shrugging off an anvil. “But the police finally believing that I was innocent was no solace. My life had been ruined. My psychiatric practice had dwindled those months after the murder -- no one wanted to be treated by a suspected murderer -- and it never recovered. I sold the house Joanie and I had bought and moved into a one-room apartment where I drank myself to sleep every night. I thought about killing myself.” The pace of his words slowed as his anger was replaced again by the pain and the self-pity. Several nights had ended in drunken brawls. Often, he woke up bloody from fights he couldn’t remember.
He peered over the crowd, focusing on a woman directly in front of him. The harsh fluorescent lights pounded her, making her skin so pasty she seemed an albino. Shaggy white hair framed her drawn bony face. She wore cut-off shorts and frayed plastic sandals. “Then I met Stella,” he said. Her thin eyebrows arched, and she tilted her head, transforming her entire face, shifting the light so that it highlighted her high cheekbones, filled the shadows in her eyes and dusted her sandy hair. Gene took strength from her. “She told me about this group. She convinced me to come to this meeting. At first, I resisted. It wasn’t something that I thought I could do. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now I’m glad I came. Because sitting here, listening to your stories, I realize that I’m not alone. In sharing my grief with you, I hope to find the strength to carry on.” He studied Stella again. “Perhaps I’ve already found it.” He finally removed his hands from the edges of the lectern he had been clutching since he began speaking.
The only noise was the barely audible hum of the lights in the low ceiling. The room was a long, stuffy rectangle, and a wooden door in the back was locked from the inside, trapping in the oppressive heat.
“Thank you for sharing that, Gene,” came a murky voice from the back. He couldn’t see the man, and the voice seemed distorted, as if coming through an old beat-up tape player.
“We usually ask a few questions of first timers, if that’s all right with you.”
He hesitated. “Certainly.”
“You said Irving is now on trial,” a woman to his left said. “Have you attended the trial?”
“I never considered it.”
“Really?” This from a man on the other side. “I was anxious to confront the man who killed my mother.”
“Me, too,” added the woman.
“No.” Gene settled his hands onto the edge of the lectern and tried to focus straight ahead to avoid swinging his head back and forth as questions and comments popped up. “No. I don’t see the point. I just want to forget the pain. Once he was arrested, I stopped following the news. Let the justice system handle him.”
“Justice,” several people mumbled.
“No thoughts of revenge?”
“After my brother was killed, all I wanted to do was get my hands around the neck of the man who did it.”
“No point,” Gene said, shrugging at the man in the back.
“A very important point.” A thin man to the left stood. Gene remembered his story. His sister had been strangled by a serial killer in Buffalo.
“What if you were to meet this man face to face? What would you do?”
Gene took several breaths and looked down at the lectern. “Why do you have such a fixation on revenge?”
He realized the questions sounded a bit too therapy oriented, but it was too late.
“You have no thoughts of revenge?” A question from his right.
“No. It’s a wasted emotion.”
“But you’re angry?”
“Angry at who?”
“At Irving.” He paused. “And at the police.”
“Why not do something about that anger?”
The questions were hitting him from all sides now and he gave up keeping track. He tried to keep his gaze fixed on Stella during the cross-examination.
“Revenge fantasies are pointless. Irving is in the hands of the justice system.”
The thin man produced a small black tablet which he flipped open. “The case against Irving is not a strong one, and his lawyer is well known and very successful. There is always the possibility of a light sentence. Or even an acquittal.”
“Very possible.” He gestured down the row. “Fran’s attacker, who had killed four other women, never spent a day in jail.”
“Really? What happened to him?”
“Well, he’s dead now. But there was no jail time. So don’t kid yourself. It could happen. And suppose you were to meet him, what would you do then?”
He shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to get me to say.”
“And I’m not going to say it.”
“Would you argue with him? Ask him why he did it?”
“What Corey is getting at,” the murky voice said, “in his roundabout way, is, has Irving enraged you to the point of violence? Given the opportunity, would you take the ultimate revenge? Could you kill Richard Irving?”
Those words choked his throat like a noose. He looked down at Stella who leaned forward, intent, the black dots of her eyes wide. Her breathing had quickened.
“I can’t believe you’re asking such a question.”
“I am asking.”
Gene looked down at his whitening knuckles and he forced himself to let go of the lectern. Still looking down he said, “I never really thought about it.”
“Think about it now.”
He looked at Stella.
“Do not overanalyze. Don’t be a psychiatrist. Give me your gut reaction.”
The hot room was crackling with tension as everyone leaned forward. He whispered, “I have always felt myself capable of violence, if provoked.”
“But the ultimate? Given the opportunity, could you kill?”
He stroked his throbbing brow and thought of what had happened in his life, the loss of hopes and dreams, the descent into booze, the ungodly pain. Why were these people doing this? Initially they had been so comforting and understanding; now they seemed so aggressive.
“Why won’t you say it? We all know what is in your heart. Your pain.”
“I think, given the opportunity, I could kill him.”
An audible wave of release washed across the people in the audience. Broad smiles. Murmurs of assent. A single hand clap. Gene’s own excitement -- his mixed feelings of anger and pain were replaced by a sudden thrilling rush of excitement -- shamed him. Was he actually thrilled to admit that he could kill?
“But it’s all irrelevant.” He felt his face flush. “He’s in the hands of the police now.”
“Don’t be ashamed,” the thin man said. “I’m not.”
“We have all come to accept that we are capable of violence,” Fran said. “It was important that you acknowledge it, too.”
“That violent anger should not be pent up. We all feel it. And we all have decided to do something constructive with our anger, channel it to a useful purpose.” The man’s voice grew clearer as if he were walking toward Gene, but still he was unseen.
Another man spoke. “Are you familiar with criminal profiling? You are a psychiatrist, so you must have heard of it.”
Gene was exhausted. His legs were beginning to tremble. “I’ve heard of it.” He hoped the trembling didn’t show up in his voice. He didn’t want them to know how uncomfortable he was.
“The FBI takes the circumstances of a crime, or series of crimes, and develops a behavioral profile of the criminal.”
“Exactly. But we do something a little bit different. Rather than make the profile after the fact, we fit people to the criminal profiles and hope to act before the crimes occur.”
He thought he heard his knees banging together. He leaned on the lectern. “What’s that?”
The man smiled and sat down.
The man with the murky voice was out of the shadows now. He was tall and bulky, with shocking gray hair so greasy it seemed a solid plastic bowl inverted on his head. He wore a coat and a tie that looked tight enough to strangle. “We have studied serial killers and created a profile. Most serial killers are white males in their thirties or forties. There is usually an unhappy childhood. They are usually single, unlucky at love, and have had some traumatic events in their younger adult years. We call them the trigger events, the events that lead to criminal behavior. Almost always they had been in some kind of trouble, sometimes very minor, with the law before advancing to murder.”
“You’re talking gibberish. You can’t possibly predict violent behavior from past experiences. There are too many variables.”
“I must disagree. From what we know of you, I could have predicted your violent behavior.” “What violent behavior?”
“Haven’t you just admitted that you are capable of murder?”
“But that--" He looked from face to face. “You’re twisting my words. Trying to trap me.”
The man shrugged and moved behind one of the empty chairs in the last row. “The evidence is very clear. In every case of serial killings in the United States there are three key factors. Bed wetting as a child. A dangerous fascination with fire. Did you know that Son of Sam was an arsonist?”
Exhausted, Gene didn’t reply.
“Third, cruelty to animals. Serial killers usually liked to torture animals when they were children.”
Gene shook his head. “All that makes for interesting statistical games, but there is no practical value.”
“Again I must disagree. Two out of three of these factors are present in every case of a serial killer in the United States.”
“But you can’t make the assumption that those factors alone lead to murder.”
“Not alone. But we analyze so much other data. Those are just guideposts. We have a national database. The record of any person arrested is filed away. Characteristics are cross-referenced. We generate the names of potential serial killers.”
“We watch them. If someone starts taking further steps down the path of destruction, we act.”
“Sometimes it is something subtle. Getting a loner a secure job to straighten his life out. Or a sudden friendly face to confide in.”
“That would require a massive organization.”
“We are massive. Don’t be fooled by our meager front.” He swept the cramped room with his arms. “Don’t underestimate us. Each case has its own circumstances. Sometimes we must act directly.”
“Termination is an option.”
He felt the room temperature drop thirty degrees at those words. “Are you telling me you’ve killed people you thought were potential serial killers?”
“Yes. Only as a last resort, of course. But sometimes it’s necessary.”
“Why is it so hard for you to accept? You’re a psychiatrist. Isn’t that part of what you do? Search a person’s past for incidents that control his present behavior?”
“Don’t twist my profession. I do nothing like that.”
The man bowed his head.
“I don’t believe a word of any of this.” Gene moved away from the lectern and stepped down from the platform. “I’m getting out of here.” He kept his arms close to his sides as he moved along the front of the semicircle of chairs.
“Haven’t you wondered why we brought you here?”
“Brought me?” He stopped and looked at Stella. Slowly he raised his gaze to the level of the man in the back. “I’m not going to join your crazy group.”
“Join? No, no. You misunderstand. We don’t want you to join.”
“We know what you are capable of. You’ve told us yourself. And we know about the arson. You probably enjoyed torturing animals when you were a child, too, didn’t you?”
“What are you talking about?” Gene’s frustration level rose with his blood pressure.
“This meeting is your warning. Beware, Gene Michael Patterson. Termination is an option.”