Frank pulled his silver Toyota Corolla into the van der Linden’s driveway, though he could have been turning into another road for all he knew such was the length and size of the gravelled lane. His car was old but it had been a reliable servant, and it showed the signs of over ten years of use; its rusted wheel arches were dusted with dry mud and the silver paint had faded to a dull grey which was no longer confluent after the multiple touch-ups that had been applied down the years. The bodywork and fenders were riddled with dents, and the rubber seal around the driver-side window was pulling loose, eased out of its housing by the repetitive opening and closing of the glass. The driver’s seat had moulded to fit Frank’s impressive frame such that most other people would merely be cradled in a vast depression should they attempt to sit there, the worn, fraying material embraced Frank though, wrapping gently around the edges of his form and welcoming him warmly into the vehicle every time he entered. The driveway went on for almost a mile, winding up a slight gradient, and was flanked by lush evergreens that obscured any view of the route’s destination. Frank rolled the car slowly over the small stones, which crunched under his tires, questioning if he was in the right place. He wound down his window, the glass squeaking on the loose rubber as it lowered, and leant out to try and catch a glimpse of what was up ahead, the lemony smell of pine leaves surrounded him, and the air seemed thick with the scent like he had dipped his head into a fragrant bath – it was an unseasonably bright day for late November – but he couldn’t see the end of the lane. He pulled his head back inside the car and was about to stop in order to call Stephanie to check his directions when the rows of trees either side of the road opened up and the lane widened, revealing an enormous house hidden way back from the road; a huge colonial mansion loomed over him, four storeys each with six front-facing windows, except the first and second which each had only two flanking the entrance to the house. The first floor windows were far larger than the rest, and must have been six feet high by themselves. The door was a large, heavy wooden rectangle which stood proudly at the top of three stone steps, at the bottom of which were two pristine white pillars reaching up to the third storey where they supported a small balcony encased in ornate black metal fencing and which was accessed by the two central windows on that level. In front of the house was a circular driveway, continuing on from the one he’d just driven across and made up of the same fine gravel, ringing a large fountain; an oversized stone cherub stood on one leg, as if mid-prance, holding a lute in one hand and a water jug over his right shoulder as if tipping water into the receptacle below which itself was an impressive ten feet in diameter. The fountain was not turned on but was an impressive greeting nonetheless, and sitting behind it, lined up like an automotive infantry in front of the house, were four classic Jaguars, two white, one navy blue, and the other, which Frank recognised from the TV shows of his formative years as an E-type, was British racing green. Each one gleamed in the sunlight, polished to a shine and showing no evidence of ever having been driven. The house and driveway sat amongst a vast expanse of grass that was so green and lush that it could have been used in the set of a Hollywood movie. Frank had slowed to a crawl, taken aback by the grandeur of the grounds before him, and his car crept slowly around the fountain on its approach to the house as if embarrassed to be parking next to such an elite line up of vehicular perfection. No sooner than he had put the car in park and applied the handbrake, he was greeted by a man opening his door; he was an elderly gentleman with a stoop who wore a perfectly pressed black suit and matching bowtie. He had a sharp, pencil moustache and, but for the whitening of his slicked-over hair and the complex map of wrinkles adorning the skin on his face, would not have looked out of place as a suave heartthrob in a 1950s movie.
“Good morning sir, my name is Hendrick, Mr and Mrs van der Linden’s live in butler. If you’d like to follow me please.”
The man spoke in a thick Dutch accent and stood to attention, his stoop preventing him from erecting fully, holding the car door open as Frank eased himself out with a groan and dusted himself down, straightening his overcoat as best he could.
“Thank you Hendrick.”
“Not at all sir, this way please.”
Hendrick swung the car door closed and made for the front door to the van der Linden’s mansion; he held his hands behind his back as he walked with surprising speed for someone of apparently vastly advanced years, though his age shone through as he reached the stone steps, taking them one at a time stepping up then retrieving his trailing foot onto the same step before attempting another. He opened the front door with a heave, the hefty wood groaned on its thick metal hinges as it slowly swung open and Hendrick ushered Frank to precede him into the entryway; the inner vestibule was constructed entirely from shining dark teak, the boards in the floor mostly covered by a runner that depicted orange flowers and vines growing around the edge of a deep navy blue centre. The hallway stretched some twenty metres into the depths of the house and the doors it contained, four along the left hand side and one at the end, were all closed, their brass handles polished to a gleam. Running up the wall on the right hand side of the hall was a wide wooden staircase, the centre of which was carpeted in the same design as the floor runner, leading to the second floor; none of which Frank could see past the thick wooden railing at the top of the stairs. Hung on the wall parallel with the staircase were oil portraits of various elderly men and women dressed in fine clothes, all of which also wore an orange sash, framed in thick, decorative brass frames that shined in conjunction with the door handles opposite them.
“May I take your coat, sir”
Hendrick startled Frank, who had again fallen silent in response to the splendour of this home, and who jumped slightly when the butler addressed him. He turned to face the elderly gentleman standing behind him, detecting the remnants of a smug smile fading across his face.
“No thank you, I shouldn’t be long.”
“As you wish, sir. Mr van der Linden has requested that you wait in the drawing room while he finishes a telephone call.”
Hendrick moved to the first door on the left, opening it silently and gesturing for Frank to enter, a signal that he complied with, nodding at the butler as he passed him.
“Make yourself comfortable Mr Ward, would you like some tea? Coffee perhaps?”
“No thank you Hendrick, I’ll just wait here.”
“Very well. Should you require anything, please ring the bell next to the desk.”
Hendrick closed the door, the clasp quietly clicking into its housing, and left Frank alone in the van der Linden’s drawing room; affluence oozed from every fixture, from the ornate marble fireplace next to the door, cinders glowing orange and crackling as a recent fire died out, to the heavy, leather-topped mahogany desk sitting in front of one of the huge first floor windows that Frank had noticed on his approach. The desk was neatly stacked with files, had a green and brass banker’s light on one corner and a captain’s chair tucked geometrically into its knee-space, it looked as though this was where the head of the van der Linden household reviewed his apparently substantial accounts. The desk faced into the room, directly opposite the fireplace, and beyond it the far wall was made up of shelves packed with leather bound books in deep reds and greens. Sitting in the corner between the fireplace and the wall of books was a leather wing back chair, it was green to match the captain’s chair and the leather that adorned the desk, and upon spotting it Frank’s stomach gurgled noisily, twisting and pulsating inside him and feeling like it was trying to burst out of him. He winced, hissing as he sharply drew in a breath through gritted teeth, and grabbed his belly; again he could feel the movement of his innards as they vied for space in his abdomen, and as the movement subsided he felt compelled to approach the chair across the room. He stepped toward it, a sense of anticipation building inside him like a child counting down the days until Christmas, his eyes staring and full of longing as he drew nearer to his target. The smell of the room – a mixture of wood, burning ash and leather – swam around his nostrils, intoxicating him with its warmth, and he began to feel disoriented, his steps becoming clumsier the closer he got. He could hear voices outside the room, a man and a woman arguing loudly, but their words seemed distant and muffled. He realised he was smiling as he reached the chair, the white of his teeth shining from within his beard like a chick peeking out from its nest for the first time, and he slowly reached out a hand towards the oddly inviting leather. Just as his fingertips grazed the hide, the door swung open behind him and an elderly man strode through, slamming it shut before making his way over to the desk.
“I see our man saw that you were comfortable, are you sure you won’t have a drink Mr Ward?”
The man was short but spoke in a commanding tone and had a thick Dutch accent. He wore a crimson coloured silk dressing gown which had a thick black collar and black floral embroidery meandering through the deep red material. The gown was tied at the waist by a black rope but Frank could see that the man’s pyjamas were black, and also silk, glinting in the light from under the robe as the man reached the desk and pulled a glass decanter full of scotch from one of its drawers. He pulled two etched crystal glasses from another drawer and poured a generous amount of alcohol into each of them, setting both glasses down on the desk and pushing one in Frank’s direction, he introduced himself.
“I’m Niels van der Linden, Alice’s father. I believe my wife brought you up to speed over the telephone?”
He spoke matter-of-factly, taking his glass over to the window and peering out into the grounds, the bright sun shining off of his neatly combed silver hair and the silk of his attire seemed to give him an aura as he took a sip of his drink.
“Yes, she mentioned your daughter has gone missing and that your case had been referred to the NYPD.”
“Quite correct Mr Ward, although why we are involving the police I am not sure,”
Niels turned to face Frank, who had slowly made his way to the desk and now sat perched awkwardly on its edge, glass in hand. The Dutchman had piercing blue eyes that fixed Frank with an authoritative stare as he continued,
“This is not the first time Alice has been away and not called us, although I must admit this time is the longest amount of time she’s been gone. She is a girl of liberal morals and often finds her way into the hearts, and bedrooms, of young men.”
Niels’ voice softened as he uttered that last sentence, as if so saddened by it he thought that almost whispering it might make it untrue. He paused, breaking eye contact to take another sip of his scotch, before resuming.
“I am sure that this is what has happened again, perhaps she has become quite taken with this one hence the length of time she has been away, but my wife insisted on contacting the police; Alice didn’t pack any of her things, which is unusual in these instances, and with the recent spate of killings in and around New York City we thought it best to ensure her absence is a harmless one.”
Frank was aware of these murders but was trying to avoid getting too close to the case; the crime scenes had a macabre presentation to them that was far too reminiscent of the Arizona murders for his liking. This killer seemed more organised and capable though; where Aaron Stokes’ victims had been tortured maniacally and tossed aside, these latest targets had been methodically and meticulously executed and their remains painstakingly presented in sickening tableaus. This killer displayed no pattern in the victims he chose or timing of his attacks, and the only consistent feature in his murders were that the bodies had all been found in New York State, and all of them had been associated with animals in some way. His first victim had been a schoolteacher who was last seen by his girlfriend when he dropped her off at her apartment after they had been out for a night at the movies. The next anyone saw of him was when one of his pupils, on their way to school the next morning, noticed his severed head hanging by its hair from the overhead telephone lines like pairs of sneakers in the deprived areas of the city, upon retrieval the head was found to have had its mouth stuffed with lamb’s wool. Stuck to the building from which the phone cable ran, running down the wall, over the sidewalk and across the road like a join-the-dots pattern were the teacher’s individual vertebrae, expertly removed and buffed to a sheen, each one fixed in place with superglue so that they couldn’t be disturbed. The spinal trail ended at the door to a Turkish restaurant across the street and, after extensive forensic scrutiny of the entire location, DNA analysis of the spiced meat rotating on a spit by the window found it to be of human origin. The second crime scene had been less elaborate, but it was where the killer’s media name was first coined; an obese man had been riding the subway when one of his fellow passengers noticed that he was neither moving nor breathing. His shirt was unbuttoned and he had a large, fresh incision down the centre of his body that had been neatly sutured closed. During the crime scene analysis one of the local cops had been assisting with taking swabs from the incision, for DNA analysis, when the wound had dehisced and split open, tearing like a wet piece of paper. The severed head of a bull had tumbled out of the obese man’s abdomen and onto the floor of the train, leaving an eviscerated cavity yawning behind it. The verbal reaction of this local cop was overheard by a journalist who was taking a statement from the homicide lead detective, and the ‘Holy Cow’ Killer was christened. More accurately, he should have been christened the ‘Holy Fucking Cow’ killer but in the interest of a printable moniker, the expletive was removed. Frank didn’t much like this killer’s name, he thought it belittled the danger that this man posed, and preferred to refer to him as HCK instead, a name that had caught on with his pals in NYPD homicide. There had been no witnesses to HCK’s murders, nor to the abduction of his victims or the preparation of his montages, but the usual speculation had begun in the press; he was a huge monster of a man, capable of tearing a person in two and fond of devil worship and sodomy. Frank always enjoyed this side of the press, knowing from experience that most serial killers were quite the opposite, scrawny psychopaths with a penchant for suffering and no moral compass, but when they began comparing HCK to Aaron Stokes, describing his dark all-consuming eyes and gross pallor, Frank withdrew any interest he had in the investigation. He hoped to God that Alice van der Linden had done as her father assumed and run away for a fling with some boy, because he wasn’t sure if his nerves could handle another case like Stokes.
I’m sure there are worse things out there.
His mother’s voice brought him abruptly out of his daydream, the verbalisation so lucid inside his head that it startled him slightly. He felt dread rise in him, like he had been hollowed out and was slowly being filled with cold water, rising up from his feet into his stomach and chest; his mother was long dead and the last time he’d heard her voice was in a church in Arizona at the site of Aaron Stokes’ suicide. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand to attention, and he began to salivate as he felt bile rising in his stomach, saturating his breath with an acidic taste, before he realised that Niels was staring at him, waiting expectantly for a response. Frank shook his head quickly, clearing it of any fearsome intrusion.
“Yes. Of course. It’s always best to be on the safe side. Could I start by seeing Alice’s room please?”
“By all means, Hendrick will show you upstairs.”
Niels returned to the desk and fetched a small bell from the top left drawer. He held it delicately between thumb and forefinger and shook it gently from side to side, the resultant ringing summoned the butler who promptly opened the door to the drawing room as if he’d been waiting there all along, listening. Niels took Frank’s glass from him and laid it on the desk, putting a withered hand delicately on his shoulder as he ushered him towards the exit.
“Alice may be a tad rebellious, but she is my most precious asset Mr Ward. Please, let us know when you find that she is safe.”
“I’ll make some enquiries and let you know as soon as anything crops up, you have my word.”
Frank followed Hendrick up the wooden staircase, his brow furrowed as he watched his own footsteps and chewed his bottom lip, still unsure if this would be a simple solve, or if he was embarking down a path that would reunite him with the ghost of Aaron Stokes.