#11 managed to pull the knife from her chest just as I was unlocking the door.
I knew where to find her – the sort of place where he had left all of his victims: in the basement of an abandoned house, inside a closet or coal bin or trunk, a bomb shelter once, another time in a hastily-dug grave – and until now always I had been too late, by weeks or months, by years, finding bones, maggots, rags of clothes torn from bodies in rage? passion? something.
This time, for the first time, I almost made it in time.
She had been missing a week, but we knew now he always kept them alive at least that long, sometimes longer, sometimes months. She’d been an angry kid, like all the others had been, like I had been once, willful, rebellious, with a kind of fuck-you smirk aimed at anyone over twenty-five. He had taken her from the street, casually, and no one she was with remembered what he looked like or what he said, they had all been too stoned to notice or care. He had lured her with the promise of adventure, or easy drugs, or easier money. He was young, we assumed, and handsome, else why would she trust him? Or a cop, of course, but there are so few of us now, thousands only in a dead-broke city limping away from financial Armageddon, so few of us that we can check our brothers out and no, he most likely isn’t a cop. Whoever he is, he took her, drugged her, held her captive until he grew bored or guilty and then he stabbed her, leaving her to die quickly or slowly, it didn’t really matter to him so long as she did die.
But this time he made two mistakes.
He slipped the knife between her ribs at a slightly different angle, missing the heart by millimeters. She lay for thirty-six hours, harboring strength, maybe praying, slowly bleeding, slipping in and out of consciousness, waiting.
And he sent me the key and riddle, assuming the bankrupt P.O. would take its usual week-to-ten-days to get a letter across the city. But today, miraculously, it reached my desk in less than twenty-four hours. The key was old, mid-20th century, the riddle more obvious than the others.
“Dear Ben,” it began. “‘What did Della wear?’ Perry asked. ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s nemesis’ tomb?’ Tragg replied.”
Old stuff. Obscure song. Stupid joke. Forgotten writer. Except I remembered Erle Stanley Gardner lying around my grandfather’s house, dusty and no longer read, before the house was sold. And my mother had a penchant for obscure songs and stupid jokes.
She wore a brand New Jersey. Tragg was a street in Fort Lee.
So I raced across the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey, where I found an abandoned house on Tragg Street. I didn’t bother calling for backup because there really wasn’t any any more, the force was so depleted, I simply broke into the house and pounded down the stairs to the basement.
She must have heard me coming. Maybe my arrival brought her back to consciousness, reawakened that primal fear, thinking it was him returning, and so she seized the handle of the blade and pulled just as I unlocked the cupboard door.
She stabbed me twice before we both lost consciousness.