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The Hungry Shoes

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Detective Baxter Scott wonders how he got stuck with the job of investigating the Shoe Murders, serial murders whose only common thread is that the victim is found missing his shoes.

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The Hungry Shoes

Detective Baxter Scott pushed aside the papers on his desk with a grunt of annoyance. There were no real leads in a recent series of serial murders, so the case had been assigned to him. He knew he should consider this a compliment, but this case looked like it might be the one that cost him his reputation as the force’s miracle worker.

Aside from the fact that all the victims were men, there was but one similarity between the cases: in every one of the three unsolved cases, the victim was missing his shoes.

One of the victims was an elderly homeless man. The other was a young college student who was found in formal clothes—what remained of them, anyway. The most recent victim was an as-yet unidentified man in a business suit. The college student was black; the two other victims were white.

Detective Scott puzzled over this fact as he took off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. Apparently somebody forgot to tell the Shoe Murderer that serial killers usually targeted victims with some kind of physical similarities.

Each victim had been beaten to death, but no murder weapon had been found. All had been partially devoured post-mortem, but Forensics had yet to find any identifiable teeth or bite marks on any of the victims.

He was tired and knew he should call it a day. But something about this case kept bugging him and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He leafed through the folder again, taking a photograph from each crime scene. When he arranged the crime scene photographs side-by-side, it was suddenly obvious what it was that had been bothering him. There were footprints around each body, and they were identical to those from the previous murders. But the footprints didn’t go anywhere—there were none leading up to or going away from the scene of the crime. Yet the footprints around the body were quite distinct. “Bax, old boy,” he said out loud. “You’re losing it.” He gave up for the night and went home.

Charlie Johnson counted his money again carefully and stashed it in the inside pocket of his grubby jacket. He looked around to be sure nobody was watching him. It had taken him weeks to accumulate this much money. He needed some new shoes desperately, and if anything happened to this money he would have to make his old ones last somehow until he could save up again. They were his only pair and they weren’t long for this world—he doubted he could coax another two weeks out of them.

SHOES FOR EVERY BUDGET AND OCCASION! Proclaimed a sign in the window. Charlie opened the door and went inside cautiously. “Good afternoon,” said a voice in the darkness. “Anything in particular I can help you with?”

The man was pleasant looking enough. His clean shirt and tie and shiny shoes made Charlie suddenly conscious of his own shabby appearance.

“Um, I just need some shoes,” he said lamely. You dumbass, he thought to himself. What a stupid thing to say. Why else would anyone come in here?

“Certainly, sir. For a special occasion, or just a good everyday pair?”

“For every day. I’m trying to find something really comfortable and, um, affordable.”

“Is something like this what you had in mind?” he asked, motioning Charlie to a display.

Charlie noticed with relief that there were several pairs of shoes here within his budget. He looked over the display for a minute, then picked up a shoe that looked like it might be just the thing. “Yes, could I try these in a size 11?” he asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw another pair that he hadn’t noticed before. The price was right, and they looked so comfortable he just had to try them on. “And maybe some like this?” For just an instant, Charlie thought he saw a flash of something in the man’s eyes. Fear? Pity? C’mon, Charlie, get a grip, he admonished himself. Stop being paranoid.

“Certainly, sir.” The man bowed and disappeared into the stock room and reappeared a few minutes later with a shoebox. “Unfortunately, we only have a size 11 in these,” he said with a smile.

Charlie saw with disappointment that the pair the man was carrying wasn’t the second pair, the ones he really liked. The man was helping Charlie try on the shoes when another customer entered the shop. “You’ll want to walk around in them a bit. I won’t be a minute,” and scurried off to help the other customer. The shoes were really great, Charlie thought, but he couldn’t help but steal a glance at the other ones. He picked them up discreetly and saw that the display pair was just his size.

The man returned. “Well, sir. How did they fit?”

“Oh, they’re just fine,” said Charlie. “Say, I noticed that this shoe on display here is my size. Could I try them on?”

“Certainly, sir.” Charlie thought for just an instant that he saw that look again, but then the man flashed a friendly smile and Charlie thought no more of it. The man crouched down to help him try the second pair on.

Charlie knew immediately that these were just the shoes he’d been looking for. He couldn’t imagine buying any other shoes than these. Why, they were so comfortable it almost seemed as if his feet were tingling! “I think I’ll take these,” he said.

The salesman bowed his head slightly. “Just step over here so I can check you out and box them up for you.”

“You know, these shoes are so comfortable, I think I’ll just wear them home.”

“Certainly, sir.” This time Charlie was certain he saw sadness in the man’s eyes.

Charlie paid for his new shoes and left the shop with a spring in his step. Unusually for him, he ditched his old shoes in the first trash can that he saw; usually he held on to things, just in case they might be useful some day. But not this time. He felt like this must certainly be the last shoes he would ever have to buy.

Charlie was half way down the block before he noticed he was going in the opposite direction from his small rented room. But he thought nothing of it. These shoes were so comfortable, he could walk around town all day!

He was having so much fun, he didn’t even notice when he turned down a dark alley.

Baxter took a sip of coffee from the styrofoam cup and grimaced, as he did every morning. At least it was free. He reminded himself that he passed one of those fancy-schmancy places every morning. If he wanted better coffee, he could go there and pay through the nose.

A new report and the morning newspaper were on his desk. Without much surprise, he read that there had been another Shoe Murder. The victim this time was an unemployed man in his mid-30’s. The newspaper article did not give a name—pending notification of next-of-kin, Baxter assumed. But according to the report, the victim was one Charles Johnson, age 35. Johnson’s landlord had been able to confirm only that the victim had lost his job several months previously but somehow always managed to pay his rent more or less on time. Johnson had last been seen alive approximately 9 hours before the body was found.

The modus operandi was the same: no shoes were found on the victim, but shoe prints around the body were the same as in the previous murders.

Frustrated, Baxter drummed his fingers next to his computer keyboard then typed “Shoes”. A few minutes later, Baxter was on his way to his unmarked police car with a list of shoe shops tucked into his folder.

Baxter stopped at the crime scene. The crime scene tape was still up, but by now most of the evidence would be gone, he knew.

He was greeted by the officer on the scene, Alvin Shelton, whom Baxter had known for many years. “Morning, Shel. Having any better luck with this one?”

“Howya doin’, Bax? Nope. No murder weapon, no witnesses, no nothin’. Just like the last one. Just like the last three.”

“Shoes? Shoe prints?”

Shelton shook his head. “Victim’s shoes missing. Rain last night had already washed away any prints by the time the body was found.”

“Mind if I take a look?” asked Baxter. “The case has been assigned to me.”

“Lucky you,” said the cop. “Make yourself at home.”

Baxter climbed carefully over the crime scene tape and stood for a moment, looking at the scene and trying to picture the crime as it might have happened. It seemed an awfully small space for so much violence. There was barely room to move around. It didn’t look as though the crime scene photographer had missed any useful prints. Baxter consulted his list of shoe shops. Climbing back over the crime scene tape, he decided to walk to the closest one, only a couple of blocks away.

“Hey, Al. I’m gonna leave my car here for a minute.”

Al smiled and waved. Baxter strolled along the sidewalk. Under an awning about a block away, Baxter noticed a faint rusty mark on the sidewalk just under the awning. His detective instincts told him it wasn’t just nothing. He made a note to have the forensics people test it. A few doors down he saw a sign: SHOES FOR EVERY BUDGET AND OCCASION!

Reaching into his pocket for his badge, Detective Scott entered the shoe shop.

“May I help you, um—officer…”

A barely perceptible tremor in the man’s voice was Baxter’s first clue that he was on the right track. “Detective. Detective Baxter Scott. Homicide Division. Just wondered if I might ask you a few questions.”

“Certainly, sir,” he answered, bowing slightly.

“Do you recognize this man?” asked Baxter, showing him a recent photo of the latest victim.

The man coughed nervously. He glanced quickly over his shoulder and suddenly smiled brightly. “Why, yes, Detective. I do believe that a man who looked very much like this was in here just yesterday.”

“Did you notice anything strange about him? Was he nervous?”

“Oh, no sir. He seemed quite ordinary. He was just looking for a good pair of everyday shoes.”

“Was he alone?”

“Yes, Detective. Quite alone.”

The ever-so-slight emphasis on the word “quite” was Baxter’s second clue, but he kept a poker face. “Can you remember what time it was when he came in here?”

“I’m sorry, Detective. All I remember is that it was in the afternoon. We had quite a few customers yesterday, you understand.”

“Of course. Do you recall if the victim, Mr…” Trying to remember the victim’s name, Bax uncharacteristically drew a complete blank. It was his job to remember names and faces. He glanced at his notes discretely. How could he forget a name like Johnson? Suddenly, Bax felt uneasy. He suppressed a strong urge to make a hasty exit. “Do you remember if Mr. Johnson bought any shoes?”

“Why, yes, Detective, he did. It was this very shoe here, in a size 11.” He hesitated for a moment, then pointed to a pair of shoes Bax hadn’t noticed when he first came in. Then the man winced suddenly, almost as if in pain.

“Are you OK?” asked Baxter, alarmed at how pale the man’s face had suddenly become.

He held up his hand. “It’s nothing, sir. Just a little headache. Perhaps you’d like to try them on, sir. I believe they are just your size. The display model is all we have, but they’re very comfortable.”

And the strange thing was, Baxter did want very much to try on the shoes. They were such wonderful shoes. He thought perhaps he should examine the tread to compare it with the crime scene photos, then dismissed this as an extremely silly idea. He shook his head, feeling a bit light-headed. “No thanks. I never shop while on duty, Mr. …?”

“Payne. Roland Payne, at your service, Detective.”

With a twinge of regret, Baxter put the shoes back on the display. Payne was smiling now and his face was no longer as pale. Baxter left the shop with instructions to Payne to call if he remembered anything else, no matter how trivial it might seem. Once outside, Baxter felt better immediately. He breathed in the fresh air. As his head cleared, he tried to put his finger on exactly what it was that just wasn’t right about this man Payne and his shoe shop.

Early the next morning, Detective Scott stopped at the newspaper box on the street corner and slid a coin into the slot, but he had known as soon as he saw the headline what the article was about. He usually waited until he got to his office before he opened his newspaper, but this morning he opened his paper right then and there, his hands trembling slightly. The name Roland Payne jumped right out at him.

Twenty minutes later, he was at the shoe shop. He flashed his badge at the officer on duty and crossed the crime scene tape. They had already taken what was left of Payne away, but any rookie could have seen immediately that this crime fit the pattern. Something else was wrong here—the shop seemed somehow different. He didn’t feel that strange feeling from yesterday, when he’d wanted nothing more than to bolt for the door. Today, it was just a shoe shop, with all the shoes still neatly in place. Except for one blank space on the display carousel. He knew instinctively that it was the wonderful pair of shoes the old man tried to get him to try on yesterday. And he knew instantly that all he had to do to solve this case was to find those shoes.

Baxter waved at the crime scene team and stepped outside. He had a sudden uncharacteristic urge to grab a coffee before heading to the office. And none of that free crap—he wanted some good coffee for a change. There was one of those coffee places just a block or so from here…if he took a shortcut through the alley.

Whistling, Detective Baxter Scott started off toward the coffee shop. He was in such a good mood that he failed to notice a pair of shoes next to a trash can. It was an unusual mistake for someone whose job it was to notice such things. And for Detective Baxter Scott, it would turn out to be his last, fatal mistake.

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