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SIENNA SUNSET #4
Detective Susan Yost didn’t need to check the GPS to know she’d reached the scene. The crowd of curious onlookers clustered beneath a battered neon arrow announcing:
Suds & Spin Laundry
was notice enough.
The laundromat anchored one end of a tired strip mall, the only other occupant being the Wet Spot Beer and Pool Hall at the other end of the asphalt lot. The remaining half block of glass-fronted shops were either festooned with faded ‘For Lease’ signs dangling crookedly in their dust-caked windows or sported weather-beaten particle board coverings bearing the tags from a generation of bored teens. Crude spray painted depictions of the male sex organ and random obscenities were intermixed with a stylized version of a black Madonna and the slashed fonts of MS13 and Latin Kings announcing they were ‘Down wit da one-eight-seven.’
Susan’s tires ground noisily across the broken asphalt as she navigated the her old Ford to a spot beside an ambulance whose weary crew rested at the back of their rig enjoying an end of shift smoke in the crisp May dawn.
“Have you seen Detective Harper?” Susan asked climbing from her cruiser and adjusting her belt-badge and holster.
“Round back.” One of the EMTs said nodding towards the Laundromat. “But ya better put on galoshes.” The women twisted her lips and jetted a lungful of smoke from the corner of her mouth. “It’s a mess back there.”
Before rounding the building to speak with her partner, Susan marched purposefully beneath the crime scene tape and through the Laundromat’s glass doors intent on gaining some insight into her victim’s final hours. Smelling of fresh dryer sheets and a trace of stale urine, the laundromat was laid out much like any other.
The length of the i-shaped room was occupied by a double row of dented and scratched washers running down the room’s center. The side walls were lined with driers above which were stenciled the words: Driers – Four Quarters A Spin.
At the dot of the ‘i’, the room was bare except for a bank of blue plastic chairs bolted to the floor. The only other seats were a set of metal lawn chairs next to a Coke machine at the store’s entrance. Two beer cans sat perched beside these on the window’s four-inch sill catching Susan’s eye. Pulling out a pen, she tapped the first. The high metallic ping told her it was empty. She tapped the second. It gave off a dull clank indicating the can was still half full.
Drifted from point to point, Susan’s eyes flowed through the room taking everything in. A folded magazine on a plastic seat, open as if awaiting its reader. A single laundry basket half full of neatly folded shirts, panties, and a stack of white towels. A shattered tube of lipstick on the floor. A brown leather purse overturned beside the seats, the purse’s contents scattered across the tile. Two pieces of a cell phone. No battery. She stepped closer to an ashtray beside the plastic chairs. Inside lay a crumpled gum wrapper and two blunted cigarette butts. Both were stained with the same red-orange tint as the lipstick on the floor. Susan rounded the bank of dryers, noting only one was loaded with clothes. Satisfied with her inspection, she stepped outside and hurried around back.
The scrunch of gravel beneath Susan’s feet announced her entrance to the rutted alley behind the Suds & Spin. A chunky man in a pink polo and close-cropped hair glanced up before nudging his glasses up his hawkish nose and rising with a groan.
“’bout damn time ya showed up.” He brushed his hands across his thighs and met Susan’s eye. “I was expecting you half an hour ago.”
“Sorry Garrett,” Susan said, her eyes studying the carnage. “I wanted to have a chat with the caller before I came over.”
The murder scene could have been something out of a chintzy horror flick. Alley walls spattered with gore, chunks of black organs and pink flesh littered the ground and weighed the limber branches of low growing weeds like strips of meat drying in the sun.
Garret let out a sigh. “This guy gets more violent with every kill.” He glanced around and shook his head. “It’s hard to imagine what could fuel this kind of rage.”
The torn limbs and bloody viscera were hardly recognizable as human. Susan eyed a length of intestines splayed across the palm of a severed hand, the remaining fingers of the mangled appendage curled about the organ as if intent on holding on. Next to it lay the meaty remains of a thigh; a flap of shredded skin bearing the flayed image of a dragonfly tattoo was still visible beneath the dried and blackened gore. Already flies hummed busily about their feast, tiny black specks creeping across foot or breast or arm before taking wing and filling the air with their buzz. Susan didn’t relish the nightmarish jigsaw left for the forensic folks to unravel.
Tiptoeing gingerly out of the scene, Garrett paused beside Susan before tapping out a cigarette and lighting up.
“I assume you’ve checked the laundromat.” He eyed her over the rim of his glasses, twin streams of smoke seeping from his nostrils like the exhalation of a slumbering dragon. “You’re usually spot on with this ‘last moments of the victim’ stuff. So paint me a picture, Susan. What led these poor schmucks into the alley? What were they doing the final moments of life?”
Susan brushed her bangs behind her ear, eyes roaming the scene. Turning, she glanced back at the building’s solid wall as if capable of peering not only through brick and mortar but time itself, back to the scene which had unfolded within.
“According to Abigail.” Susan turned and met Garrett’s gaze. “She’s the roommate of Ms. Caitlin Vance, our victim number one. According to her, they received a phone call at approximately ten-thirty last night.”
“A call from who?” Garrett asked.
“It’s your sister,” Abigail said pressing the phone against her chest and leaning into the hall. “Caitlin? Did you hear me? It’s your sister.”
Huffing out her frustration, Abigail crossed the cramped living room to Caitlin’s door and cracked it open. As expected, she discovered her friend hunched over a book, headphones cocked on the top of her head, a pink highlighter poised in her hand. Beneath the yellow glow of a reading lamp, Caitlin’s blonde curls were transformed into a circlet of burnished gold.
“Caitlin, you’ve got a call.”
The young woman started, looking up. Dragging the headphones from her ears, the refrains of Mozart’s String Quartet Number twenty-two echoed thinly through the room.
“A call?” Caitlin rose from her seat and took the phone. “Who is it?”
“Your sister,” Abigail said. “Says it’s an emergency.”
Caitlin pressed the receiver to her ear and sighed. Dramatic since the day she was born, her sister could always be counted on to manufacture a crisis. Sometimes it felt like she was the big sister and not the other way around. Now that Ann’s wedding was only a week away, everything had turned into an emergency.
“What’s up, sis?” Caitlin asked. “The caterers cancel on you? The dress come back the wrong size?”
“Cate, I totally screwed up! It’s all my fault.”
By her sister’s tone, Caitlin recognized that she was on the verge of tears.
“Whoa, whoa whoa. Hold on there sis. I’m sure whatever it is, we can figure it out.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes and covered the receiver, mouthing a silent, “Thanks” to Abigail before closing the door and dropping onto her bed.
“It’s the flight to Vegas for the bachelorette party,” Ann said. “I totally spaced when I told you the time.”
Caitlin dragged over her laptop and pulled up her calendar. “I’ve got us leaving the day after tomorrow. Two-fifteen in the afternoon, Southwest flight 605. Is that not right?”
“No, no, it’s not. The tickets are for tomorrow morning at 6:05 at gate 215. Mom said we should get there by five to make sure we make it through security in time to board.”
“Six-oh-five?” Caitlin glanced at the overflowing hamper across the room, the muscles in her jaw tensing angrily. “Ann, how the hell am I gonna get packed in time for a six o’clock flight? I don’t have a thing to wear. Our washer’s broken an’ everything’s dirty.”
“Well, what were you gonna do before?” Her sister asked indignantly. “It’s not my fault you can’t keep your clothes clean.”
“Before you dropped this bombshell,” Caitlin snapped, “I was going by mom’s.”
“You can still go by mom’s,” Ann said. “It’s not too late.”
“Except I don’t have a car. I loaned mine to Gary. His starter died, so he borrowed the Toyota.”
“What time’s he get back?” Ann asked.
“Not til late.” Caitlin stole a glance at the clock. 10:35. “He’s closing at the restaurant, and won’t be back til three. If I waited for him to get home, I’d never have time to get to a laundromat, let alone get everything washed, and still make the flight.” Caitlin pushed to her feet and pulled out her top drawer. Empty. She slammed it shut and yanked open the middle drawer. Beneath a coffee-stained yellow blouse, she found a single white sock and a pair of shorts with a broken zipper. She sighed trying to figure a solution.
There was always the laundromat down the road. Although the prospect of walking through her neighborhood at night wasn’t one she was comfortable with, she was quickly running out of options.
“Cate? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” Her eyes returned to the hamper. “Look. I’ll figure something out and have Gary can drop me off in the morning.”
The relief on the other end was palpable. “Really?” Ann puffed out a sigh of relief. “I guess I was worked up over nothing.”
“See,” Caitlin agreed. “No biggie. Just pour yourself a spritzer and go to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Caitlin hung up before upending her laundry basket on the floor. She’d need clothes for a three-day trip. Two actually, but better safe than sorry. She dug through the pile separating out three pairs of panties. She dropped these into the basket along with a pair of slacks and a tee. Pink blouse or green? Unable to decide, she tossed in both. She’d need hose, but stockings she could pick up at the terminal. A dress for certain, but which one? She sifted through the pile opting for a black three-quarter sleeve that wouldn’t need much ironing. She picked a few more items to make a full load then sifted through her change cup for a fistful of quarters.
“I’m off to the laundromat,” Caitlin bellowed from the kitchen. “You wanna come?”
She relish a trip to and from the laundromat and some company would be nice. Abigail scuffed in from her bedroom wearing flannel PJ’s, her face caked in a sloppy green mask. She looked at Caitlin in surprise.
“Where are you going?” Her eyes fell on the basket of clothes. “Laundry? At this hour?”
“I’m headed to that place at the end of the block. You know, the little strip mall with the big neon arrow out front.”
Abigail’s eyes went wide, her gaze darting to the darkling window. “The Suds and Spin? Now? Caitlin, that place has graffiti all over it. There could be gang people there.”
Although Caitlin voiced her opinion with confidence, that very thought had occurred to her…more than once. “I don’t have much choice. I’ve got to have something to wear for the Vegas trip. The Suds and Spin is my only option.”
“But the neighborhood,” Abigail said. “Aren’t you … scared?”
Caitlin shrugged. “Maybe a little. But I’ll be fine. Besides.” She reached into her basket and pulled out a slim metal can. “I’ve got pepper spray.”
Abigail crossed her arms, her slippered foot tapping nervously on the yellowed linoleum.
“Well, you better take something more powerful than that. The gang bangers and rapists won’t be put off by a little pepper spray.” Her eyes narrowed as she leaned in and whispered, “Besides, the crosstown slasher could still be out there.”
Caitlin laughed. “That nut? The police already caught him. Or haven’t you been watching the news? The guy they nabbed last month confessed to all eight murders.”
“True,” Abigail nodded, “but you never know. The crazy ones rarely work alone.” The sound of a cell phone in her bedroom turned Abigail towards the hall. “Just be careful, okay? Take your phone, and call me when you get there.” She paused at the end of the hall and glanced over her shoulder. “And when you’re ready to come home, call and wake me up. I’ll wait for you on the porch.”
Stuffing keys, phone, and wallet inside her purse, Caitlin slung her huge leather satchel across her shoulder and hefted the basket, a box of detergent balanced on top. With a final glance into the kitchen, she set the basket down and stepped over to the silverware drawer. She selected a sturdy butcher knife and tucked it beneath the detergent. Better safe than sorry.
Passing the park where she’d spent so much time as a girl, Caitlin paused to consider how silly she was being. Sure, summers spent at Gran and Pops had been eons ago, but the neighborhood hadn’t changed that much. Not really. She ducked beneath the branches of a gigantic magnolia, its flower-laden limbs overhanging the sidewalk and filling the air with the lustrous aroma of its great white flowers. A melancholy smile creased Caitlin’s lips at memories of climbing this very tree while Pops grilled at the patio tables in the park. Even now that her grandparents were gone, they supported her. They had willed their home to Caitlin so she could attend the local university. It had been Gran’s last wish. Without their help, she’d have never been able to afford college. Even now it was touch and go.
Approaching the blinking red neon of the Suds and Spin marquis, Caitlin sighed with relief. Halfway home. All that was left was the walk back. In a matter of minutes, the washer was thumping contentedly as she plopped into one of the hard plastic seats and propped the latest copy of Vogue on her knee. She was halfway to calling Ann, just to wake her, when a distant rumble raised her eyes. Low and distant, it swelled. Headlights splashed across the plate glass frontage as a motorcycle’s roar pulsed through the room. Then just as suddenly as it arrived, the noise was gone, leaving Caitlin with the swish-swish-swish of the washer.
A moment later a man stepped through the door a bulky denim bag slung across one shoulder. He was tall and well-muscled but lean as a junkyard dog. Based on his holey blue jeans and a dirty white tee, he was overdue for a wash. Both arms were festooned in a tapestry of ink while his long greasy hair dangled in a ponytail along his back. Surveying the room like a gunslinger stepping into a bar, his eyes came to rest on Caitlin. A smile twisted the corners of his lips. Without a word, he clomped down the row of washers pausing a long while beside Caitlin’s before giving her a confident grin. Then he opened the washer beside hers, and dumped the denim sack’s contents inside. Turning, he marched back outside only to return a moment later with a box of detergent in one hand and an can of beer in the other.
After spilling in soap, he slammed home the quarters, then turned and slurped at his beer his eyes locked on Caitlin. She concentrated on the magazine. She couldn’t focus. The words on the page no more than indecipherable black lines. Where was that pepper spray? The knife? She glanced down at her purse. She couldn’t see the spray but knew it was there. She leaned over to get a better view. There’s the knife, its wooden handle clearly visible beneath a package of tissue. Knowing she had options brought with it a feeling of confidence. She glanced over the top of the page. He was leering still.
“So what brings a hottie like you out on a night like this?”
Caitlin ignored the question. Her eyes dropped to the page. If he rushed her, could she get the knife out in time? Her eyes flicked to the purse then back. Maybe.
“Don’t talk much do ya?” He strolled to the end of washers and took a seat on top followed by another noisy slug of beer. “My what big eyes you have. Anybody ever tell ya you’ve got beautiful baby blues?”
Caitlin glanced up her heart hammering. “Really, I’m not interested,” she said. “I’ve got a boyfriend.”
“That’s no problem. Most ah the girls I bang got boyfriends. It don’t bother them, an’ it don’t bother me.”
Caitlin’s face went hot. “Look, I’m not interested, okay? So just fuck off.” She bent down and lifted the purse setting it in the seat beside her. When she peered up, motorcycle rapist’s eyes were flinty and hard. A vein at the center of his forehead pulsed to the washer’s rhythm. With a grunt, he hopped from the machine and deposited himself on one of the lawn chairs near the front door.
Should she call the police? And say what? A scary man is hitting on me. If you wouldn’t mind could you please send a car to haul him away? She stole a glance to the front. He was watching. Shit, shit, shit.
It was then she stepped inside, Caitlin’s savior. She was a big girl with mocha skin and a loose bundle of black curls piled atop her head. She wore tight red shorts and a light pink tee, a basket of laundry clutched to her breast. The girl’s eyes searched the room, lingering a long while on motorcycle rapist before locking with Caitlin’s.
“Hey, girl,” Caitlin called over the whir of the spin cycle. “I was expecting you forever ago.”
The girl’s brow knit with confusion. Her eyes darted once more to motorcycle rapist then back to Caitlin. To her great relief, the new girl opted for the crazy woman in the corner over motorcycle rapist next to the Coke machine.
Caitlin scurried over to the befuddled girl and took the basket from her arms before leading her down the rows of washers to the seat at the back.
“Sorry to be so weird,” she whispered. “That creepy guy’s got me freaked out.”
The girl peeked over her shoulder. Motorcycle rapist smiled.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s kinda cute.”
Motorcycle rapist was looking at his phone. It was probably porn.
“Maybe a little,” Caitlin agreed, “but there’s a definite creep factor. It clearly outweighs his looks.”
In minutes, the two women were laughing, Caitlin’s fears long gone although she kept a close eye on motorcycle rapist. Tiana, or Ti as she liked to be called, was two years younger than Caitlin. She worked at the hospital downtown and lived alone in an apartment only a half block away. Turns out, that as children, they’d even shared summers together at the pool down the street; before the city ran out of money and was forced to close it down.
As Caitlin removed her clothes from the dryer and began folding, Ti leaned against the washers and pulled a tube of lipstick from her pocket. She dialed out the red-orange stick and dabbed it across her lips.
“I like that color,” Caitlin said. “It looks good on you.” She stacked a towel and reached for a blouse. “What’s it called?”
Ti held up the tube and squinted at the side. “Sienna Sunset #4.” She looked at Caitlin and smiled. It was a broad smile, bright and friendly, but with a smear of lipstick on her front tooth.
“You got some just here.” Caitlin parted her lips and rubbed a finger across her own front tooth.
Ti grinned and mirrored the action rubbing away the smudge. “I do that all the time,” she laughed. Then pulling out two bills, she glanced at the pop machine. “Hey, I’m thirsty. How about you?”
Caitlin’s gaze drifted from the pop machine to motorcycle rapist propped in a chair beside it. She didn’t see him go out, but somehow he was sipping a second beer.
“I am, but I don’t want to go anywhere near that creep. He gives me the willies.”
“Don’t worry,” Ti said. “I grew up around guys like that. They’re more bark than bite.”
Motorcycle rapist’s eyes never left Ti as she fed the bills into the machine. As she bent to retrieve the cans, he leaned closer examining Ti’s rump. When she straightened, he muttered something Caitlin didn’t catch but had Ti whirling to confront him. Then she turned and stomped back to their seats.
“You’re right,” Ti said, “That guy’s a total ass wipe.” She dropped into her chair, fists clinching and unclenching at her side. Then to Caitlin’s great surprise, she sprang back up, her voice a rumbling growl. “I’m gonna say something to that jerk.” Her eyes flashed with rage. “He can’t talk to me like that.”
Before Ti could take a step, Caitlin grabbed her wrist and coaxed her back down.
“Hey, take it easy,” she soothed. “He’s not worth it.”
The anger slowly drained from Ti’s dark eyes. “He really is an ass,” she huffed, pulling the tab on her soda and taking a sip. “Wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t that cross-town slasher.”
Caitlin’s stomach somersaulted at the mention of the name. The slasher’s deadly antics had occupied the news for the last three years. Each time authorities thought he’d moved on or fallen victim to some eventuality, another mutilated body would show up and set the media circus spinning.
When Caitlin glanced over, motorcycle rapist held up a black handled knife turning it in his palm so she could see. She heard the sharp metallic snick of the blade popping out even over the whirr of the driers.
“What’s he gonna do with that?” Ti asked.
As if in answer, he began cleaning his nails, eyes never leaving the women.
“He couldn’t be the cross-town slasher,” Caitlin said. “They arrested him last month. He confessed to everything.”
Ti shook her head. “They turned that guy loose. It was on the news tonight. DNA tests came back negative.” She rose and shoved in another four quarters into her drier before returning to her seat. “Besides that, the reporter said the guy they arrested was out of town for two of the killings. So it couldn’t be him.”
Caitlin stole a glance at motorcycle rapist feeling decidedly less confident despite Ti’s presence.
“Well as long as we’re together, we’ll be fine,” Caitlin said. “The slasher’s a one victim killer. It’s kinda his thing.”
Caitlin didn’t know if that were true, but it made sense. She felt better for saying it.
“They say he eats his victims,” Ti whispered. “Specially the guts. The liver an’ heart are always missin’. She leaned back and smiled, obviously enjoying Caitlin’s unease. “Leastways that’s what I heard.”
“Please.” Caitlin flapped a hand as if to drive away the words. “Let’s not talk about it.”
Motorcycle rapist rose from his seat. He eyed them a long while before strolling over. Halfway across, he flipped the knife closed and opened one of the drier doors. A moment later, he’d stuffed the denim bag with his clean clothes and turned to go. Pausing at the laundromat door, he turned to face them, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Tell ya what ladies.” His deep voice boomed over the growl of the machines. “I’m gonna step into the alley for a doubie. Either of you wanna join me, you’re more’n welcome.”
He turned to go then seemed to think of something and stepped back inside. “Check that,” he said. “The fat chick ain’t invited. Yeah, you cue-tip head,” he waggled a finger at Ti. “But if your hot friend wants ta come…Well, ya know where I’ll be.”
Laughing, he snapped open his lighter and lit up puffing out a great cloud of smoke before disappearing outside. Moments later, the sharp tang of marijuana permeated the room.
Ti froze, her tube of Sienna Sunset poised above her lips. “Wha’d he say?” She bunched a fist and flung the lipstick against the wall. “What the hell’d that sonofabitch say?”
She stomped halfway across the floor, pirouetting like a soldier on patrol before stomping back to the chairs. “I ain’t gonna let that piece of crap talk ta me like that.”
Before Caitlin could stop her, Ti was out the door. Her dim silhouette crossed the dust-caked window and vanishing around the corner. Caitlin picked up her phone poised to dial the police when she heard voices through a padlocked door at the back of the building. Pressing an ear to the cool steel surface, she could make out a woman’s voice raised in anger, a man’s voice threatening and deep. She couldn’t make out what they were saying.
A sudden cry of pain and a thud against the door had her stumbling backwards. Her phone tumbled from her grip. It slammed to the floor with a crystalline kraaack the battery flying one way and disappearing beneath a washer, the back and front separating and skittering across the tile. More cries. A gravely bark. Another deep thud and a high pitched scream of pain.
I’ve got to do something! He’s killing her!
Caitlin’s quaking fingers clutched for her bag. It tumbled from the chair, the contents scattering across the floor. Knife, knife, where was the knife? She spotted it beneath her wallet and snatched it up. The wood grip felt hard and smooth in her hand.
She raced past the washers.
Pushed out the door.
From light to darkness, she was unable to see. The ground grew uneven beneath her. Caitlin reached for balance. The texture of the brick wall was rough beneath her fingers, the scrunch of gravel echoing with each steps.
Heart thundering, she rounded the corner. Motes of brilliance danced in her vision as her eyes adjusted to reveal the scene. Terror cemented her to the earth. At Caitlin’s feet, lay a length of intestines. It lay splayed across the palm of a severed hand, the remaining fingers of the mangled appendage curled about the organ as if intent on holding on. The air stank of feces and blood and the coppery aroma of ripped flesh. Something moved in the darkness.
“I…I got a knife.” Caitlin stuttered. She lifted the blade. For a moment, it quivered beneath the gleam of streetlights before tumbling from her palsied grip. The creature that eased from shadow to shadow was no man. Hairy and squat, its triangular ears stood pricked and alert. It stared at her with gleaming ebony eyes. Lips parted around a shaggy brown muzzle revealing fangs white and wet. On the front teeth, a bright smudge of Sienna Sunset #4.