A Thing of Shreds and Patches
Demetrius Boggs walked through the doorway into Conference Room A. It was mid-morning. Maria was seated over in the corner, visibly shaken. People are creatures of habit, Boggs thought as he looked at her. She was sitting in the same seat she always did when in this room, just like everybody else. He predicted that when Nguyen and Maloney showed up, they too would sit in their self-assigned seats. He was sure this curious social habit was something everybody learned going through school, as teachers attempted to keep the names straight and mark attendance. And, he conjured further, by the time people are adults, they do it from habit. Even in her shaken state, Maria had fallen back on the subtle forces of cultural upbringing.
“Dr. Contreras. How are you?” Boggs asked sympathetically. He watched Maria raise a glass of water to her lips with two trembling hands. She took a long drink, set the shaking glass down on the table, then rubbed her temples.
“Not well, thank you,” Maria replied. “I didn’t sleep much last night. All I thought about was that either somebody out there is playing some sick joke, or….” her voice trailed off like the sound of a car driving away.
Boggs came up and sat down next to her, his eyes going over every possible clue that Maria’s face and eyes might be conveying. Then, breaking a long silence, Boggs cleared his throat from whatever allergy the drought had inflicted on him.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Boggs began.
“There’s not much to tell,” Maria replied. “Frankie had dropped me off at my office after we went to the Drive N’ Go. I went there to check my mail, both snail mail and my e-mail. When I logged onto my e-mail I came across that message. I read it, and read it again, and again and again. I don’t know how many times I read it, fifty, maybe a hundred. Each time I read it, I deleted it. Turns out he had flooded my mailbox with the same message. It scared the hell out of me, so I printed off a copy and ran out of my office. I was too frightened to go home so I stayed at a motel.
“Is that the copy that you gave to Detective Maloney?” Boggs asked.
“Yes, where is he by the way?” Maria asked, slightly annoyed.
“He went to your office with one of our computer wizards. They were going to try to track the message to the source computer,” Boggs answered.
“Oh,” she replied, her voice softening. “How long will that take?”
“Depends. If they are lucky not too long. They’ve been at it for about three hours by now,” Boggs said, trying to uplift her a little.
“Where is Frankie?” Maria was aware that she was loaded with questions and was probably driving the Captain nuts.
Boggs proceeded with the patience for which he was known.
“Detective Nguyen went to the Dallas Arboretum to check out the leaf samples he recovered. He wanted to be sure of his identification,” he said.
Maria rubbed her hands together. “I was so shook up when I gave the e-mail to Bill that I don’t even remember the sender’s address,” Maria tried to rally with nervous laughter.
“The address was Lucinda@netline.com. It really doesn’t tell us anything about who the sent the message, but it might tell us where it came from. At least it’s a start,” Boggs assured her.
“Dr. Contreras, how do you suppose this person got your e-mail address?”
“It’s printed in Central College’s Guide to Faculty. It’s widely available on campus. All a person would have to do is walk into the Student Services Office and pick one up. They put them on a desk, you don’t even have to ask for one.”
Boggs followed up. “So there’s virtually no chance that anybody would have seen this person, let alone remember them if they had?”
“No,” Maria shook her head slightly as she took a somewhat more composed drink of water. “Captain….” Maria paused for a moment. “Do you think that message came from the killer?”
“I don’t know,” Boggs replied as he shook his head. “It could have come from anybody. There’s nothing in the text that would suggest the author has information only the killer would know. It’s all very general. It mentions the three killings, but that’s public knowledge. The investigation has been mentioned at press conferences and in the newspapers, but we have not released a lot of the evidence. We don’t want any copycats, and we don’t want to tip our hand to the killer. So, right now there’s no telling who sent it, or why, other than the obvious reason of scaring you.”
“Well he sure as hell did that,” Maria said with a slight nod. She rallied a little. “The other thing,” she continued, “he, assuming it’s a he, tells me is that he has
bigotry toward Hispanics. The use of the term bean dip plus his reference to me trying to pass tells me that.”
“Hmmm,” Boggs nodded. “What do you make of the reference to ‘weed whip’, and the name ‘The lawn Man’?”
“Well, aside from the obvious reference to lawn work, I don’t know. I mean if taken on the surface, this person sees himself as a yard worker, manicuring grass and shrubs and removing weeds from the landscape. But if this is the killer, and if, as Frankie said, this person’s actions are imbued with symbolic behavior, then there could be a metaphor at work here.”
“Yes, go on,” Boggs urged.
Maria brushed her long black hair back with both hands and rubbed both hands over her eyes, thinking.
“Well, symbolically the ‘lawn’ could be Oak Cliff, and the ‘weeds’ might refer to people who this person sees as undesirable life, like gang members. By killing them, he is weeding out the undesirable, and he, as the instrument, is the weed whip, a common lawn and garden tool.”
“So, you think this guy sees himself as some kind of crusader?” Boggs asked.
“I think we are dealing with an educated man,” Maria said. “The reference to passing suggests this, even more so than the use of metaphor. I mean, even a teenage garage band can come up with symbolic phrases.”
“I wasn’t sure what he meant by ‘pass’,” Boggs said as he tried to get her mind off the e-mail. Maybe getting her to analyze the message would take some of the edge off her fear.
“I was kind of surprised myself.” Maria replied. “It’s a term often used by social scientists to describe the attempt, by a person of one ethnic group, to pass as a member of another. It’s a way where people adapt to life’s circumstances by adjusting their identity to whichever gives them the most success. In my class I refer to this as negotiated identity.”
Boggs could see Maria’s eyes become more alive, more focused, and how her passion for her work was energizing her. He could now see how she could mesmerize students with her lectures. He listened further.
“For instance, before it was cool or hip to be American Indian, a lot of them, especially those with low blood quanta, the mixed bloods, tried to pass as Anglos by assimilating into the Anglo culture. The idea was that if you looked and acted Anglo, you could be Anglo, free yourself from bigotry and discrimination, and make a better life for yourself. You see this with Hispanics too. But it’s a double edge sword because a person who tries to pass runs the risk of being ostracized by his or her own group. It’s tricky.”
Suddenly Maria raised her eyebrows and looked at Boggs.
“Oh my,” she said as she brushed her long hair back over her head again, this time with only her right hand. “For a minute I thought I was lecturing…sorry.”
“No need to apologize. It was interesting. I’ll bet you’re a dynamite teacher,” Boggs said, gratified that his strategy had worked.
“Thank you,” Maria said smiling, and even blushed a little at the compliment.
Maria and Boggs both looked to the sound in the doorway, and saw Frankie Nguyen walk through. He went directly to his accustomed seat over by the window. Boggs, who had been sitting just to Maria’s left, now re-positioned himself in a seat halfway between her and Frankie.
“Hi Captain, hi doll,” Nguyen said as he sat down.
“Hi Frankie,” Maria said, coaxing a small smile.
“How did it go at the arboretum?” Boggs asked.
“Great,” Frankie said with a smile. “Their Silva culturist, their tree guy, well in this case their tree gal, anyway she confirmed that the leaves do indeed match and they are from a Chinese Pistachio. It is a relatively moderate to fast growing species that is becoming increasingly popular in the area. She examined the branch. It was one inch in diameter. She saw three growth rings in it, which surprised her.”
“Why is that?” Boggs asked.
“Because,” Frankie replied. “She said that even though this species grows pretty fast, the width of tissue between the rings suggests that it had greater than expected growth given the dry conditions over the last few years. In short, this branch came from a tree that was well watered. And, it showed signs of expert pruning.”
“Okay,” Boggs nodded. “It fits with your theory. Even though Oak Cliff has several wealthy neighborhoods, chances are that our killer is not from there, but from some other well off neighborhood. The next move here is to check the nurseries to see who stocks these trees. Probably a lot of them do, but we need to try to narrow this thing down a little if we can. Even so, we can’t assume that people don’t go cross-town to get their lawn and garden accessories.”
“Captain, I have an idea,” Frankie said. “The Silva culturist couldn’t tell me the age of the tree the branch came from beyond its own three year growth. But, if this guy has some dough, he may have bought a good size tree and had it delivered. If so, there might be a record of it.”
“It’s a long shot,” Boggs said as he rubbed his chin. “We don’t know how far back in time to go. But hell, give it a shot, we might get lucky.”
“Will do,” Frankie nodded.
About that time Bill Maloney walked into the room. “Hello, everybody.” Bill gave them a small short wave with his left hand. His right hand held a bottle of water, already half-gone. He walked over and sat down next to Frankie. Boggs grinned.
“Hey, Maria, you okay?” Bill asked. with a soothing tone she had never heard before.
It was a soothing tone she had never heard from him. “Yeah Bill, I’m okay, thanks,” she replied.
Bill turned to Frankie and asked, “How did it go with the leaves?”
“It went great. I’ll fill you in later,” Like Boggs and Maria, Frankie was anxious to hear Bill’s report.
Bill took a long drink of water, and then, glancing first at Boggs and then Maria, he began.
“We traced the e-mail to a computer at the north Oak Cliff branch of the Dallas Public Library. The account was held by a sixteen-year-old girl by the name of Lucinda Childs. According to the librarian we talked to, one Felicia White, the library has several computers, and anybody with a library account can log on to the internet. From there, they can acquire their own free e-mail account. We found Ms. Childs and spoke to her.”
Maria’s eyes were glued to Bill as he continued his report.
“Now, the e-mail that was sent to Maria was sent at 3:45 PM yesterday. Ms. Childs said that she was at that computer roughly between 3:00 PM to 4:30 PM. She said she was at the computer for most of that time, but she left for about 20 minutes. Her boyfriend came to visit her about 3:30. They talked for a few minutes, then went outside to have a cigarette. She came back and went back to her work, an assignment on Internet resources for her social studies class. She said she didn’t notice anything unusual, her screen was the same as when she had left it. She had been sending out e-mails and when she came back she continued e-mailing a few friends. So, apparently, somebody who was watching her used her computer while she was gone. But, neither Ms. Childs nor Ms. White saw anybody at the computer.” Bill looked over at Maria and could see the disappointment in her eyes.
“So,” said Boggs, “this guy was probably at the library, and just waited for somebody to leave their machine. Then, he slipped in, undetected, and sent his message to Dr. Contreras.”
“That’s right,” Bill said. “He slid in there and sent his message, completely undetected.”
Boggs pinched his nose, sat back in his chair, and looked out the window. Then he looked back at Bill.
“In other words, he sent the message knowing, or not caring, that he wouldn’t get a response, because he couldn’t wait around, right?”
“That’s right Captain,” Bill replied. “And he vanished without a trace.”
Maria stiffened, and looked at the three men around her. Looking out the window, she began wringing her hands. The fear had returned.
“So he’s out there somewhere,” she said to no one in particular. “If he has my e-mail address then he knows where my office is, and he probably knows where I live,” she added. Her insides began to panic, event though she tried to show some composure. She began to feel sick to her stomach.
“ I don’t want to lie to you Dr. Contreras,” Boggs said. “He probably does. But,” he paused and looked at Frankie and Bill, who gave him slight nods. “He contacted you once, he will do it again. If you’re willing, wait for him. We can assign men to guard you, at your office and at home. Since you’re not doing any summer teaching this shouldn’t arouse any suspicion. For some reason he has chosen you as a communication conduit. Even though you can’t respond, he seems to need to talk with you. He may even get bolder and try to call you. If you can just keep your composure for a while, he may tell you something that will give him away. I know this is very difficult, but will you stay with us on this? We don’t have much else right now.” Boggs set his piercing blue eyes on her.
Maria looked at him, her large brown eyes locked in on his. She glanced at Frankie, and then at Bill. Her eyes stayed on him until he nodded and smiled at her. Her fear abated somewhat as she took comfort in his smile.
“It’ll be all right,” Bill said. “You’ll be safe.”
Maria looked down at her hands, clasping them together like lost lovers who had just found each other. She bit her lower lip, then her upper lip, took a deep breath and rubbed her temples. She had never been in a position like this before. Not in her neighborhood, and not even in New Guinea. Even when Manuel confronted her at the Drive N’ Go she was not afraid. But now, she was confronted with an unseen force, no name, no location, and no substance. Just a vapor, like humidity it was gripping her, smothering her. It felt like it was all around her, and there was nothing to grab but empty air. Her ears began to ring. It started as a low pitch buzz, then it got louder. The ringing, at first discordant, now coalesced into a voice. Maria closed her eyes, she felt dizzy. The voice was Hector’s. She felt her head spinning as she heard him say, “ Hermana, be a strong Chicana!” The dizziness passed, and the ringing in her ears stopped.
“Okay,” she said as she looked at Bill. She seemed to gather strength from his presence.
Bill’s eyes stayed with hers for a moment, then they darted to Boggs.
“By the way Forensics did blood tests on the fishing lure they found in the lip of Juan Cortez.”
“What did they find?” Boggs asked.
“The treble hook found in Cortez’ lip had his blood on it. But they also found blood on the other treble hook at the head of the lure. It didn’t match Cortez’ blood type. Cortez had Type A blood, but this blood was Type B. Looks like our guy stuck himself while laying out Cortez for us.”
Maria sat there, gently tugging at her right earlobe, and tried to assimilate it all. There had been a lot to take in. There was a psycho out there on a killing spree, and he might be after her. All they knew was that the killer was male, probably lived in an upscale neighborhood outside of Oak Cliff, drove a Chevy van, had racist views toward Hispanics, had Type B blood, was well educated, and had a soft spot for the Chinese Pistachio. It seemed like a lot, but it wasn’t, not in a metropolitan area of hundreds of square miles with a population of several million people.
She looked at Boggs, “What next?”
“For now, we wait,” Boggs replied. “Wait and be prepared. That’s all we can do right now.”