01 Feb I’m a Criminal Profiler
The silence in the car was stifling; a tight, constricting rope of a marriage in shambles. As we drove to my late uncle’s cabin with a trunk full of food, it was hard to believe that mere weeks ago things between Camilla and me had been fine. Only one thing seemed certain now, and that was the fact that this damn lockdown was the worst thing to happen to our relationship in over nine years of marriage.
We had spent three weeks quarantined together in our apartment. I stared at walls while dealing with the sort of paperwork I usually handed off to subordinates, and Camilla tried to paint with me inadvertently hovering. The confinement was driving us insane, causing us to lash out at each other in ways we’d never done before. When I could no longer stand all the insults and eye-rolls aimed at my general direction, I suggested a change of scenery.
What better cure for cabin fever than a stay at an actual cabin out in the woods? The ultimate social distancing. Nature would give us some space from each other, as well as the freedom to roam and stay active.
“Can you look at the fucking road, Paul?” my wife waved an arm over the dashboard, “Feels like you’ve caught every pothole on the way over here.”
“Sorry dear,” I said, mentally counting the crimes of passion that had crossed my desk over the years. 9/10 times the victim knew the perpetrator. 8/10 an ex, a boyfriend, or a husband had lost control of their rage. It didn’t take as much as you’d think, did she know that?
No, they never did.
My job as a criminal profiler took up 80% of my life. With never-ending business trips, overtime, and lecturing gigs, I was almost never home. It hadn’t been a problem in the past, because we chose not to have kids, and Camilla had her paintings and art shows to keep her busy. We enjoyed the odd evenings and weekends we got to spend together, but our careers always came first. Initially, this common ground had made us a true power couple.
“This was a fucking stupid idea,” Camilla threw herself against the seat, folding her arms and pouting at the road in front of us. She always looked like a little girl when she did this; a prissy doll with light wavy hair and large blue eyes. Her temper tantrums were one of the many things that had been endearing at first but now drove me up the wall. That and the swearing. I had enough of it at my job, I didn’t need to hear fuck-this and fucking-that every other word at home.
The GPS had cut out a good twenty minutes back, but luckily Camilla hadn’t noticed. I was hoping we were heading down the right dirt road. I’d been up to my uncle’s place every summer as a kid, and I thought I knew the way well. Everything seemed familiar enough, even the heavy fog from the nearby lake that gave the woods that signature dark, ominous vibe.
“Paul, what the fuck is that!?” Camilla bolted upright, staring out her side window. “Shit, lock the doors. Lock the fucking doors and don’t slow down!” she cried.
“What is it?” I demanded, driving steady and jerking my head to the right to see what she was shouting about. We were driving through a particularly sandy patch of road, and the wheels on the pickup struggled with some of the dirt piles and pits.
A man stumbled out in front of the car, throwing two hands onto the hood. I hit the breaks, even though we were hardly moving at that point, and stared at the stranger. The man looked a mess, covered in filth, grime, and what looked like blood. His clothes were torn as though he’d just been mauled by a bear. There was true terror in those red-brimmed, bruised eyes as he began beating his hands on the hood of our pickup. A low, guttural moan filled the car as the man opened his mouth. It sounded more like a large machine grinding gears than a human voice.
“Jesus,” I gasped, watching streaks of blood streaming down the man’s chin as he continued wailing. His mouth was a gaping hole filled with mucus and blood, but no tongue.
“Fucking drive!” my wife screamed, grabbing at the wheel as I batted her away.
“Can you stop?” I shouted back, “I am not about to drive over this guy!”
I needn’t have worried, since the wounded stranger was already on the move, leaving a puddle of blood on the hood. He stumbled past my side window, twisting his neck to look back at the other side of the road. His wails grew louder as he lunged himself with each step, hurrying to get away. I wanted to call out to the man, tell him to stay so that we could call him an ambulance, but Camilla was completely out of control in the seat beside me, screaming at me to drive, trying to push my leg down on the gas pedal.
So I pedaled it, and after a couple of false starts, we sped the rest of the way to the cabin. I had no time to think about directions as adrenaline coursed through my body and muscle memory took over.
We arrived half an hour earlier than expected.
I ushered a distraught Camilla inside and brought in our bags before heading out back to the one spot of land that always got at least three bars of cell reception. I called 911 and told the dispatcher about the man we had seen, the approximate location of the sighting, as well as the coordinates of my uncle’s cabin. The operator let me know that a local officer might stop by later in the evening to question us.
I took my time walking the perimeter before returning to the cabin. The initial shock and fear had worn off and a professional curiosity had started to blossom. I ran back through the scene in my mind, combing over all the details my visual receptors had passively documented. There is a lot our brains process on a subconscious level that we don’t know about, and it takes a considerable amount of effort to piece it all together after a traumatic event.
What was the victim wearing? It was hard to see under all the dirt, but the clothes had seemed ordinary enough. Loose-fitting pants and a jacket. Dark colors.
What was the extent of the man’s injuries? Again, hard to say. He was definitely stumbling a lot when on the move, but that could have been caused by exhaustion, not a limp. The only visible wound was the bloody mouth with the missing tongue.
Why hadn’t I helped him?
It was all too easy to blame my wife’s reaction, but the truth was that I had panicked too. I was meticulous in my analytical work but had minimal field training. That injured man was out in the middle of nowhere with night approaching, and it would be entirely my fault if anything happened to him before emergency services found him.
I heard the cabin door open and close as I walked around to the front to see Camilla standing on the old wooden porch, staring at the pink sky as though searching for answers in the crinkled sunset.
“Did you get through on the phone?” she asked, her voice raspy and tired.
“Yes, they might send someone over to talk to us about what we saw,” I walked up to her, attempting an embrace, but she shrank away from me, her tired eyes narrowing.
“We shouldn’t have fucking come here,” her lips trembled as her voice grew accusatory, “We’re out in the middle of nowhere. Fuck, Paul. We are how far from the place we saw that man? Maybe 20 – 30 miles? How screwed are we if whoever did that to him comes for us too?”
“Camilla, you need to calm down,” I said, already knowing it was the wrong thing to say before the words were out of my mouth.
“No, we need to get the fuck out of here!” she snarled, and we both winced at the malice in her voice.
This wasn’t us. How did we become the stereotypical bickering couple we swore we’d never be?
“All right,” I snapped back, “Do you want to get in the car and drive through that same jacked-up road, only in the dark? We can go right now if that’s what you want.”
Camilla hesitated, hugging her body defensively before giving me a resigned shake of the head.
“Most likely, the man that we saw was involved in some freak accident. Less likely, but also possible, he had an unfortunate encounter with a wild animal. Least likely of all, he was running from another human being. I didn’t see any ligature marks on his wrists, and it’s pretty damn near impossible to mutilate a live victim without restraints. If you really can’t get over this, we can head home around midday tomorrow. That’s when the fog settles. But I swear, Camilla, if we’re going back to the city, one of us needs to check into a hotel room or something, because I cannot spend another day fighting like this.”
I was hyperventilating by the end of my speech, but it felt good to finally bring up the topic of separation, however temporary. Camilla opened her mouth in stunned silence, with pure hurt written on her face. I’d never spoken to her so harshly before.
“Hi there folks,” a deep voice interrupted us. I turned to see a tall, uniformed police officer strolling down the road to the cabin. The man looked to be in his early forties, with gray flakes speckling his trimmed beard and dark sideburns poking out from his police cap. He wore aviators, even though it was nearly dark, and had not been sunny earlier in the day. There was a polite, duty-like smile plastered on his face; the type you might expect from a cashier informing you that your credit card had just been declined.
My right hand instinctively went to my side, grazing the concealed semi-automatic through my jacket.
“Hello officer,” I replied, “My name is Paul Fever, and this is my wife, Camilla. We weren’t expecting you this soon.”
“I’m sure you weren’t,” the man replied in a manner so artificially cheerful that I shuddered, “My name is officer Harry Bullock, and I’m here to take your statement about the man you saw on the road today.”
“Sure thing, officer,” Camilla piped up, extending an arm to the cabin door, “Perhaps you’d like to come in to discuss things further?”
Officer Bullock’s false smile widened, exposing a thin line of yellowed, crooked teeth. He raised a hand up to his sunglasses and slid them down his nose, revealing two expressionless, black eyes that ran down my wife’s body.
“Why thank you, mam,” he said, taking a step forward toward the cabin.
“Wait, stop,” I cut him off, “Could we please see your badge and ID, officer? I don’t mean to be rude, but an officer showing up to a secluded cabin on foot is a little odd. I know for a fact the nearest police station is about 30 miles up north. I went up there to consult on a case not too long ago.”
The man claiming to be an officer took a step back, readjusting his aviators and losing the false smile, “I parked my patrol car further up the road because I didn’t want to get stuck in the sand,” he said, turning to walk back, “If you follow me, Mr. Fever, I can show you all my credentials.”
“No, I think we’ll wait here for you to go fetch them,” I called after the man, who was already halfway up the path, “You just knock on the door when you get back, officer.”
Turning to Camilla, I quietly said, “Let’s get back inside the cabin and check the locks on the windows and doors. I don’t think that man was a cop.”
My wife’s eyes grew wide with fear, as she looked from me to the retreating figure, then back at me again, “Fuck, Paul, what are we going to do?”
“Don’t panic,” I said, guiding her inside and securing the deadbolt behind us, “Old Jonny Fever built this place to be safe against just about any threat you could imagine. We’ll ride out the night and head back as soon as the fog clears tomorrow. There’s too much odd stuff going on.”
Camilla nodded, and I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she looked just then. The years had not taken away much. Her skin was still clear and smooth, her blue eyes playful and bright. Wavy strands of hair partially covered the side of her face, and I instinctively moved to tuck them back behind her ear. She didn’t pull away this time, allowing me to take her into my arms and hold her for several minutes.
“Do you think that man will come back?” she mumbled into my shoulder.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “I don’t think so.”
Not in disguise, anyway, I thought to myself, not wanting to scare her.
We set about unpacking the food, clothes, and other stuff we’d brought with us. There was a lot of it since we had intended to stay until the lockdown was called off. We were both very quiet during this time, probably straining our ears to hear any knocks on the door. Part of me hoped I’d been wrong about officer Bullock, but after he’d not come back for over an hour, I was forced to accept that my suspicions were right.
Something very strange was going on.
I stared out the small kitchen window after finishing up the dinner dishes, my mind heavy with the implications of that day.
“Paul, are you finished with those?” Camilla stood in the doorway, wearing a negligee. Or, the negligee, I should say. The light beige one that had practically hard-wired my body to respond in anticipation.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Why don’t you come to bed?” she said, her voice a soft croon of tones so tender and seductive that I unwillingly felt my urgent fears slipping away.
They came back when we had finished making love and Camilla dozed off in my arms. It was a good feeling, knowing the cover of my body was making her feel safe enough to relax. Having spent most of my adult life diving into the minds of the country’s most sadistic killers, however, I knew just how flimsy of a shield limbs could be. I wanted to protect her, us, but the weight of our predicament lay heavy on my shoulders. We were miles away from help with only aged wooden walls between us and whatever was going on in the woods outside.
I still had my Glock 19 semi-automatic, but that wasn’t all that reassuring. Truth be told, I didn’t feel all that confident in combat. I’d done all the training, sure, but everyone knew us behavioral science guys were hired for brain-work, not muscle.
I tried to stay awake, but it was difficult. My muscles were already relaxed and the smell of Camilla’s hair had me drifting in and out of sleep. That’s when the dreams started, a hazy mix of the day’s events, but amplified. The man on the road was there again, only this time with a long, black tongue and no eyes or fingers. He tapped all ten bloody finger stumps on the hood of our car, grinning. I expected dream-Camilla to scream in the seat beside me, but when I turned to look, my wife was missing her head. Officer Bullock was in one of the dreams too, standing just outside the second-story bedroom window, tapping on the glass and smiling at my sleeping wife.
I awoke at dawn, covered in a cold, sticky sweat that made me desperately crave a shower. Camilla slept soundly at my side, unphased by the drenched bedsheets. Slipping out of bed, I quickly rinsed off in the bathroom and dressed before heading downstairs to the kitchen. I really needed some comfort food after my night of feverish dreams. I lit up the gas stove and popped on the coffee pot before scavenging for sandwich supplies.
A wave of nausea hit me as soon as I opened the fridge.
There it was, right in the middle of the top shelf, tastefully staged in front of the ham, cheese, and pickle jar. A freshly severed human tongue on a tea saucer.
Suppressing a dry heave, I grabbed a napkin and carefully moved the saucer to one of the bottom shelves, obscuring it behind a stack of butter sticks. I knew I shouldn’t be tampering with evidence, but I didn’t want Camilla seeing the gruesome scene and freaking out. As soon as I’d hidden the nasty thing, I turned off the stove and went out back to call for help.
There was no time to bother with 911. I still had the number of the chief of police for the nearest department and called him directly.
“Who’s this?” chief Crawford’s groggy voice barked into my ear.
“Sorry to bother you, Earl, but this is an emergency. It’s Paul Fever, we worked together on that machete-killer case a couple of years back.”
“Uh,” I heard some shuffling, then more coherently, “Yes, of course agent Fever. What can I do to help the FBI?”
“Did you happen to work late last night and get the report about the man with the missing tongue?” I asked.
“You mean the call from the other day? I was just leaving when I heard one of the officers on duty calling in to say it was a false report.”
“False report?” I asked, bewildered, “What do you mean by that?”
“Well the caller gave very vague directions to the spot the supposed victim was seen,” chief Crawford replied, attempting to muffle a yawn.
“So why didn’t anyone go out to interview the witness?” I demanded, angered by the evident incompetency of the local police. There would be a big fuss once they realized they had screwed over an agent.
“Hey now,” Crawford’s voice was defensive, “My guys went out to the specific coordinates the witness left with the dispatcher. They found the cabin, but it was abandoned, boarded up shut. They tried to call the guy back, but his phone was disconnected.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Earl?” I had begun pacing the perimeter again, staring into the depths of the forest as I tried to wrap my mind around the chief’s blatant lies, “I’m the one who called in the report, and I’m currently at the cabin with my wife. Some guy claiming to be an officer showed up yesterday, but he didn’t have a badge and left. This morning I woke up to find a goddamn human tongue in my fridge, and you’re telling me your people really came up here to check things out?”
There was no reply on the other end, only static. I pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at the screen to see that it had begun flickering. I shook the phone in exasperation, not really thinking it would help, but desperately hoping it might. After a few more flickers, the screen went black. I cursed the stupid device and headed back to the cabin, trying to wrap my mind around what I had just heard.
Something made me slow my stride. It was the feeling of being watched, that familiar tickle at the back of my neck that, given my current predicament, made all the hairs on my body stand on end. I jerked my head left and right, straining to see into the thick, dark forest beyond my uncle’s old vegetable beds.
No, nothing there as far as the eye could see.
The feeling wouldn’t give though, so I turned back to look at the house and felt my lungs and heart simultaneously freeze in my chest. Someone was watching me from the upstairs bedroom where I’d left my beautiful wife asleep by herself.
Officer Harry Bullock looked down at me, just as I’d seen him in my dreams, only on the other side of the window.
For once, his smile was genuine as he lifted his right arm and waved to me.