Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQAugust 3, 2021
Journal Entry #441
DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOMENT YOU REALIZED YOU WERE GOING TO DIE? I was five years old, lying in my princess bed with its canopy and pink dust ruffles. My mother had sent me there after I put her expensive brassiere on Louie, our beagle. I might’ve gotten away with it, but I also used the Polaroid camera to take a picture of him and showed it to our mailman. “You think I’m the butt of all your jokes,” Mama hollered at me. “You’ll be sorry one day when I’m gone.”
I already knew about dead people since Mama’s mother died of a heart attack when I was three. I understood she’d been on earth walking around like the rest of us, and then poof, she died and wasn’t coming back. I hadn’t considered it would happen to Mama and Daddy—or that if it happened to them, it would happen one day to me, too. I remember holding out my fleshy little hand and staring at it until my vision blurred. I was going to die. Worms would eat me. I imagined my skin melting away until I thought I could see my skeleton poking out underneath. I screamed so loud that Mama came running, and after that, I slept in her and Daddy’s bed for a week.
The truth is, I still look at my hand when I lie in bed at night and contemplate my death. I think the rest of us Grave Diggers have similarly morbid fascinations, whether they’d admit to it or not. We take on dead cases, gone cold so long that most others have forgotten about them or given up. We tell ourselves that we’re chasing other people’s deaths. We solve a case, and we feel like we got a win over the ultimate Man in Black. Maybe, though, we wonder who will be there to remember us when our time comes.
* * * * *
I’m writing this in front of a wall full of dead women. They were different in life— unique hairstyles, varying skin colors, different kinds of jobs—but they all look the same now. They are dead on the floor of their own homes, tied up like Christmas chickens. The intricate interlacing of the rope and knots reminds me of shibari or kinbaku, the Japanese ritual binding that can be a form of torture or erotic pleasure, depending on how you employ it. The man who bound these seven women surely meant to torture them. The police reports on their deaths emphasize that he suffocated them slowly, loosening the ties periodically to revive them before choking the life out of them completely.
Their eyes are all closed in the crime scene photographs. I presume that’s how they were found. I believe they shut their lids against the horror of what was happening to them, and also to deny him the pleasure of watching the light go out from their eyes. I’ve read up enough on his kind by now to know that they seek out that moment of transition. A beating heart and racing pulse, the shuddering breath that dies in the chest—these guys get off on that moment. So, I understand why the women closed their eyes while he stood over them, tightening the ropes. But when I look at their pictures, I wish I could see what they saw. They are the only ones who know his true face.
He’s older now, like the rest of us. He went underground twenty-one years ago after Victim Number Seven, which likely makes him anywhere between forty and sixty-five years of age. Many experts say he must be dead, but not me. I’ve been walking the streets he walked, looking in the same windows. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of his reflection in the glass, at least what I imagine he must look like. I bet he’s got the same wall of photographs that I have, but his are kept private where no one else can see. His newspaper clippings must be yellowed and fragile, so old that they look like ancient history. He surely believes he got away with it. But I’ve checked the weather reports for all seven murders, and now I know where to find him.
I’ve been working on this case for months, writing up all my notes, recording conversations, visiting the crime scenes. Last week, I went on TV and practically dared him to come after me. I lay awake all night afterward, thinking every creak on the stairs could be him. Those other women never saw him coming. When the storm rolled in off the lake and cut our power for five hours, I took a kitchen knife and hid in my bathtub with it. But it was then I realized how to get him, and so I can’t chicken out now.
People are going to think I’m doing this for the glory or the credit, and I’ll admit a nice, fat book deal would be sweet, but mostly, I’m thinking about that moment when he gets the cuffs slapped on him and dragged out in front of everyone. I want him to see it was me who found him. Me, an ordinary woman living in Belmont Cragin, working at a grocery store. Just the kind of woman he killed and presumed he’d get away with it forever. Because right now, he’s a faceless spook, a ghost story, and the women he killed get known only by the way he murdered them. You can google them to see it’s true. No one remembers that Shauna Atkins played Maria her senior year in West Side Story, or that Lauren Gardner wanted to be a foster mom. They are permanent victims now, the way he made them. So, I’m chasing him because they can’t. Because maybe when he gets his life taken away, they can get a little bit of theirs back.
I get shivers when I think about it. Literal goosebumps on my arms. He’s going to feel so small, so helpless and powerless. I imagine his perp walk in front of the cameras and I can almost see his fa—
DETECTIVE ANNALISA VEGA HAD SWORN OFF DATING WHEN THE THIRD GUY IN A ROW ENDED THE EVENING BY ASKING TO SEE HER HANDCUFFS. Or maybe her stomach had turned during the last homicide she’d worked, in which the ex-husband blew out a glass door with a double-barreled shotgun, hunted down his terrified wife, and executed her as she cowered next to the bed they’d once slept in together. Hard to make upbeat chitchat over apps and cosmos after viewing the remains of a relationship like that.
This guy is different, Sassy had assured her when she’d arranged the setup. I know him from church, which he attends with his mother. But don’t worry—he doesn’t live with her. Lured out from her reclusive lair by this ringing endorsement, Annalisa now regarded her date across the narrow two-person table and tried again to sell herself on his numerous good points. Todd Weatherby, tax attorney, had a full head of dark hair, nice teeth, no food on his tie, and he’d selected a lovely Wicker Park restaurant for their first date. Italian, with cloth napkins and a real candle flickering on the table. Her mother would be over the moon for him.
Annalisa wasn’t sure if this last point was for or against Todd Weatherby. Her mother, who had been positively apoplectic when Annalisa had up and married a cop at the tender age of twenty-one, now reminded her constantly that “the clock is ticking” since she had turned thirty.
“Annalisa is a pretty name,” Todd said gamely. “Is it Spanish?”
“Portuguese.” Her great-grandfather’s grandfather had emigrated to New Bedford in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s when the city boomed thanks to a thriving whaling industry. Family lore said Great Grandpapa Vega had once worked alongside Herman Melville, but Annalisa suspected this was just a fish story. Whatever the case, her own great-grandfather had jumped ship and moved west to Chicago to cash in on the surge of construction after the Great Fire. The Vegas hadn’t budged in the hundred years since, living and dying within the city limits like the place had a wall around its borders.
“Todd is a nice name,” she offered. “Is it, um . . . English?”
“Maybe? I’m named after my uncle. He runs a button-manufacturing plant in New Jersey. Did you know buttons date back to almost 3000 BC? Their earliest known use was in Indonesia, back when they were made from shells. But later . . .”
She repressed a yawn and drifted away inside her head. Maybe next time she could ask Sassy to recommend a good movie or a talented masseuse. I should just accept my destiny and adopt a cat, she thought. Or maybe two. They could keep each other company while she was at work. Todd was still talking, and she forced herself to focus on his words. He had his wine glass in the air as if to make a toast. Obligingly, she lifted hers as well. “To us,” he said. “We are fated to be together always.”
“Uh . . . what?” She held her glass back.
“Us,” he repeated, looking chagrined as he motioned between them. “You know—death and taxes. We’re inescapable!” He grinned at his own joke about their respective careers, and her smile became frozen in place. “Get it?” he prodded.
“Oh, I got it.”
He cleared his throat. “Are you interested in the dessert menu?”
Decision time. Ticktock. He looked at her with hopeful eyes. She knew she could do a lot worse, but she didn’t want a lackluster relationship just to say she had one. She wanted her parents’ marriage, soul mates for forty-four years and counting. George and Maria still held hands under the dinner table. Meanwhile, Annalisa went on these going- nowhere dates, making talk so small she needed a microscope to parse it. Her ideal dessert at this point was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, alone, curled up on her couch with a Netflix backlog. “I— ” In her purse, her work phone started to chirp, and she pulled it out for a look. Dispatch had sent a text asking her to call in, Code 10- 54. A body. “Oh,” she said with what she hoped sounded like regret, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. It’s work.”
“Work? Even at this hour?”
She was already gathering her things. “Homicide doesn’t punch a time card,” she declared, maybe too cheerfully.
Todd deflated in his chair, unable to argue with this truism. “Death,” he said glumly, taking up his glass again. “It’s inescapable.”
* * * * *
Annalisa phoned in from her nondescript gray Civic, ready to point it wherever the dispatch captain directed her. He gave her an address in Belmont Cragin, which would be a relatively straight shot west, only about five and a half miles, but with city traffic it would take her close to half an hour. “Okay, I’m rolling,” she said as she started the engine.
“Be advised it’s Code 3.”
“Code 3?” She never had to run the lights and sirens since making detective. The victims were always dead and getting colder by the time she arrived. Ten minutes either way didn’t make a difference.
“Patrol is wigged. I guess it’s a bad one.”
She flipped on her light and mentally adjusted the drive time down to fifteen minutes. The trip down North Ave was pure Chicago—a wide boulevard flanked by a crowded mix of residential and commercial buildings. They passed in a blur tonight as she wove in and around slower traffic. What the hell could have the responding units so spooked they asked for a Code 3? Even your average beat cop had seen an eyeful after one year on the job.
She reached Belmont Cragin and slowed her pace as she cut over into the residential territory. Originally founded in the 1800s by a single saloon, the neighborhood principally housed the men and women who worked at the myriad businesses built up in Belmont Central. Violent crime was relatively unusual. Annalisa didn’t get many calls here, period, let alone anything that required a Code 3. She knew she’d hit the right street when she saw the swirling lights of four separate black-and-white units. Curious neighboring residents had turned on their lights and emerged from their homes, flocking in the street such that Annalisa had to slow down and nudge her car through the crowd. “It’s the friggin’ event of the season here,” she muttered as she gave up finding a parking space and abandoned her vehicle next to an older Chevy Lumina with three parking tickets on the windshield.
She frowned when she saw two uniformed officers come out of the front door, talking animatedly to one another as they jogged down the steps. A third guy headed inside as they came out—high traffic at what should be a protected scene. Aware she was arriving in a pencil skirt, a tight, arterial blood-red top, and stacked heels, Annalisa paused to shrug into a Chicago PD windbreaker despite the mild May temperature outside. She took a pair of gloves and booties from the boxes on her passenger seat and went to find the responding officer who’d called it in. He stood at the edge of the walkway near the neatly trimmed bushes, looking just as green. She noted a fine sheen of perspiration on his upper lip.
“You’re the RO?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Marc Reyes. I responded to a call asking for a welfare check at this address. The female resident—a woman by the name of Grace Harper—had not been reachable for several days and missed her most recent shift at work. I arrived at twenty twenty-five and found the front door locked. I went around to the back and saw the door to the kitchen had a panel smashed out of the window. I was able to reach in to open the door and immediately I smelled a strong odor of decomp inside the house. I followed the scent upstairs and found the female victim nonresponsive on her bedroom floor.” He checked her reaction. “Obviously deceased. That’s when I called it in.”
“And then who else did you call?” she asked as she snapped on the gloves.
She nodded toward the house. “You could be selling tickets out here, Reyes. There’s unis crawling all over the scene, and as a result, the gawkers are lined up like we’re putting on a World Series parade.”
He had the grace to look embarrassed. “The DB, she’s . . . well, a wild one. Freaky. I’ve never seen anything like it before. That’s some real sick shit in there—if you’ll pardon my language. I guess I got kinda shook up about it, being out here alone with her. I called my buddy Dickerson, and then he called his boys. . . .” He trailed off, apparently aware how weak the excuses sounded. “They know not to touch anything.”
She could already see they weren’t wearing protective booties. God only knew what they’d trailed in and out of the house. “I don’t care if they have an edict from the pope. They’re getting the hell out of my crime scene. No one except the ME goes in or out from now on, you hear me?”
His gaze slid over her shoulder. “Even him?”
“Hey, Vega, wait up,” called a familiar male voice. She closed her eyes in resignation but did not turn around. The grape vine had told her that her ex-husband was back in town, back on the job, and now literally on her back as he braced himself on her shoulder to slip a bootie over his shoe.
“Carelli.” Making Nick Carelli’s acquaintance again over a dead body seemed like a fitting metaphor. Her commander, Zimmer, had asked her when Nick transferred back from Florida if Annalisa would have a problem working with him. Annalisa was the greenest detective on the squad, the newbie. Nick had almost ten years under his belt. She knew if she blinked which one of them Zimmer would choose to keep. The split was amicable, she had said to Zimmer. It’s ancient history. This last part was true enough. She and Nick had married when she was twenty-one and divorced before she turned twenty-three in a union that was, in hindsight, dead on arrival.
Her ex-husband leaned heavily on her shoulder as he slipped a bootie over the second expensive leather shoe. He still had a full head of dark hair, she noted with clinical detachment, and that same damn twinkle in his eye.
“Dispatch called you, too?” she asked him.
“I was already in the neighborhood.”
“Sure. There’s a high school down that way, and it is prom season. I suppose her parents wanted her home by curfew, hmm?”
He flashed a smile, genuinely amused as they started up the walkway. “Hey, what happened? The last I heard, you wanted to be a lawyer.”
The legal bills on top of regular bills meant it had taken her seven years to complete a typical four-year college degree, and by the time she’d finished, the last place she’d wanted to go was law school. She spent two years temping in offices, bored out of her mind. A recruitment poster on the L one day showed a pair of proud uniformed cops, one male, one female. It read: Protection. Honor. Compassion. These are our family values. Annalisa cared about keeping the city safe, but it was the word family that got her to call the number on the poster.
“Yeah?” she said to Nick. “The last I heard, you’d moved back to Florida.” Her brothers liked to think they’d chased him out of town, his tail between his legs.
“What can I say? I missed the hot dogs.”
“You couldn’t have found work in another district?”
“Maybe I missed you, too.”
She rolled her eyes. “You didn’t miss me much when we were married, Carelli. It’s a little late to start now.”
He held open the gate for her and eyed her cleavage as she walked past. “I see I wasn’t the only one out on the town this evening.”
She yanked her windbreaker closed. “Let’s try to focus on work right now, shall we?”
“You’re the one who brought up dating.” He extended a gallant arm toward the front steps. “After you.”
She climbed ahead of him and stopped on the small front porch to survey the scene while Nick poked his head inside. “Party’s over, fellas,” he hollered. “Everyone out. Now.” Three more uniformed officers, two male and one female, trailed out like naughty schoolchildren. Annalisa noted the stoop was well-kept, free of the dirt, sand, and salt that tended to accumulate over a Chicago winter. Grace Harper’s place had flower boxes filled with pansies and a decorative star affixed to the siding. Annalisa touched it with one gloved finger before following Nick inside the house.
She coughed when the smell hit her.
“Yeah, she’s a ripe one,” said Nick, making a disgusted face from his place by the windows in the front room. He inspected them for signs of tampering.
Annalisa looked around at the sparse but tasteful decor—warm beige walls, a couple of framed prints that you could find at any big-box store. The fireplace contained an iron candelabra with large white candles in it that appeared to have never been lit. The overstuffed pillows on the sofa were plump and precisely placed, no dents. Annalisa ran a finger along the top of the mantel and her glove came away clean.
“The body must be upstairs,” Nick said, heading for the staircase.
She nodded, not keen to follow him. The woman who had kept a house this pristine would be humiliated to find herself decaying on the floor, her fluids leaking everywhere. Annalisa went to the back of the house, to the kitchen, where she found the broken window pane that Reyes had mentioned. Glass shards lay all over the floor but the room was otherwise undisturbed. No dishes in the sink. No photos on the fridge. Annalisa sometimes used an imagined crime scene as motivation to tidy her own apartment. Anyone investigating your murder would think your place had been ransacked for heroin, she’d tell herself as she forced herself to put away the pile of laundry on her bed and pick up the landslide of junk mail from her kitchen floor. Looking around now, she realized it hardly mattered. Dead was dead, no matter how clean your house was. She was careful to hug the walls in case the forensics team could find footprints on Grace Harper’s otherwise squeaky-clean floor. Resigned for what lay ahead, Annalisa went to the stairs.
Nick appeared like a prowler from the shadowed hallway at the top of the staircase. “Jesus.” She grabbed her chest and stepped backward. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“You’ve got to see this,” he replied, a fevered glint in his eye. She followed him down the narrow hall to the bedroom, their feet creaking the warped wooden floor. For once, she was happy to have him take the lead. The bedroom door was old like the rest of the house, continually falling closed, and Nick pushed it open with the flat of his hand.
Annalisa halted the instant she saw the body. The female victim, presumably Grace Harper, was an average-sized Caucasian female with a tangle of dark hair. She lay nude and facedown, her hands bound behind her back and yoked to her feet and neck in a complicated series of slip knots. Her pale flesh was discolored around the neck, and the ligature around her throat suggested this was the cause of death. Annalisa breathed through her mouth and tried to ignore the creeping dread winding its way up her spine like a summer vine.
“It gets weirder,” Nick told her grimly.
She nodded to show she’d heard him, but she was unable to stop staring at the body. He had to tug her elbow to get her to move. They walked next door to another room, this one set up as an office. She could see a desk and chair. Nick walked into the room and turned so he faced the wall abutted by the desk, so Annalisa mirrored his posture. “Oh, my God,” she breathed when she saw the wall of photos. Dead women, all of them strangled by ropes. The one in the center could have been taken from the room next door. It showed a dark-haired woman facedown, her hands and feet bound together. The only difference was the red scarf around her neck. Annalisa gulped in air and stared wide-eyed at the picture, come to life right out of her dreams. Twenty years dissolved around her. She felt dizzy, sick.
“It’s like a murder shrine,” Nick breathed in fasciation. “And someone went to a lot of trouble to stage a rerun. Look at that one—it’s the same number of knots, same position of the body.”
“He’s back.” Annalisa swallowed twice in quick succession to bring back her voice. “We’re going to have to tell her son.”
“Her son? I thought the vic lived here alone.”
She reached out and stroked the picture of the other dead woman. It took all her power not to rip the photo down and hold it to her chest. “Not Grace Harper’s son. Hers.”
About Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen:
The Lovelorn Killer murdered seven women, ritually binding them and leaving them for dead before penning them gruesome love letters in the local papers. Then he disappeared, and after twenty years with no trace of him, many believe that he’s gone for good.
Not Grace Harper. A grocery store manager by day, at night Grace uses her snooping skills as part of an amateur sleuth group. She believes the Lovelorn Killer is still living in the same neighborhoods that he hunted in, and if she can figure out how he selected his victims, she will have the key to his identity.
Detective Annalisa Vega lost someone she loved to the killer. Now she’s at a murder scene with the worst kind of déjà vu: Grace Harper lies bound and dead on the floor, surrounded by clues to the biggest murder case that Chicago homicide never solved. Annalisa has the chance to make it right and to heal her family, but first, she has to figure out what Grace knew—how to see a killer who may be standing right in front of you. This means tracing his steps back to her childhood, peering into dark corners she hadn’t acknowledged before, and learning that despite everything the killer took, she has still so much more to lose.