*Warning: this chapter depicts a violent assault and crime scene
By Jacqueline Thomas
Ben pulled his unmarked squad car as close to the bank of the Calumet River as he could get without sinking into the mud. A knot formed in the pit of his stomach, he knew just by the location that the Southside strangler had struck again. The press had given the animal, who was depositing the bodies of young women in abandoned industrial areas in the Southside of Chicago, the name after the fourth woman’s body was found.
Everything about the scene screamed of the killer’s handiwork from the deserted industrial location to a place where the killer’s work would be found eventually and disregarded like an old appliance illegally dumped. Large yellow curtains were erected around the body and they had brought in floodlights to help illuminate the scene. This part of the river, where it met Lake Michigan stunk of heavy metal. It was a hotbed of illegal activity, but this far down the river, was mostly deserted except for the barges that sailed in and out of the harbor. He stepped carefully as the noise of his footsteps made a squishing sound in the muck at the bank. Ducking beneath the crime scene tape, he flashed his badge at a rookie put on patrol duty as he made his way to the makeshift yellow tent.
Ten years in and he was still shocked a the depravity of humanity. His feet sunk into the smelly mud as he pulled the curtain back and poked his head around. His partner Marty had beat him to the scene, he spotted Ben.
“It’s him again for sure.”
Marty was crouched down next to the woman who had once been vibrant and full of life, her skin was now pale and colorless, except for the mud and muck from the river bank and the bruises the killer had left on her body. All that was left was battered and brutalized shell of a human being. She had most likely been choked to death after she had been raped and then dumped like a piece of trash. Her body showed all of the hallmarks of the South Side Strangler’s handiwork.
“Does she have the brand?”
Marty handed Ben a pair of gloves as Ben came around to roll the woman to look for the killer’s signature, a brand seared into flesh. Once gloved up, both men turned her body just enough to see her left butt cheek. The sick son of a bitch branded his victims. Ben reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pen light for a little more light. Sure enough, the brand was there. It left a circular mark roughly the size of a shooter marble, from the game of marbles. It had the initials E.H.L. The detectives had searched coast to coast for anyone with a record that matched those initials, with no luck.
“Shit. We have to get this guy.” Ben said with frustration in his voice. “Do we have any idea who she is?”
“Ashley Benson, she is from Skokie. We found her i.d. next to her body. This animal left it like he was showing off his handiwork. We have notified Skokie P.D. Her family reported her missing two days ago.”
“Well let’s get forensics in here, and pray that this asshole was sloppy this time.”
“You pray, but we both know this guy is like a fucking ghost.”
“He’s got to slip up some time and when he does we will nail his ass to the wall.”
“Well let’s hope this is the time.”
Ben pulled his car into his driveway a little after 11 pm. he wanted to get the image of Ashely Benson out of his head. Murders like these were ones that detectives hoped they’d only have to see once or twice in their career. He was on his fifth victim, and as much as he wanted to pretend it didn’t haunt him, it did. He glanced back at Rachel’s house and noticed her lights were still on. He was disappointed that he had once again chickened out and hadn’t asked her out. He started for his back door and then changed his direction towards her house. It was nuts to knock on her door this late, but adrenaline was starting to pump through his veins. He wasn’t going to leave her porch without asking. He crossed the street and climbed the wooden stairs up to her porch. He knocked gently on the door, as a sudden wave of panic washed over him. He had looked killers in the face but was terrified to ask Rachel out. He knew it was crazy to ask a woman out like this, at 11 pm.
He heard footsteps come towards the door as she pulled the sheer curtain back on the glass pane to see who it was. A look of concern crossed her face. She opened the door quietly.
“Ben is everything okay?”
“Yes. I am sorry to bother you so late. Were you sleeping?”
“No, I was just getting ready to head up to bed. What’s up?”
Ben hesitated, normally he was so good with women, but there was something about Rachel that made him feel an idiot.
“Would you go to dinner with me sometime?” He blurted out.
Rachel’s face softened.
“You came to my door at 11 pm to ask me out?”
“Yes, I wanted to earlier but.”
Ben shifted uncomfortably at being called out. Sensing his nervousness, Rachel put him out of his misery quickly.
“Yes, I would like to go to dinner with you sometime.”
A massive smile spread across Ben’s face.
“Great! What does your week look like?”
“The boys are going to my sisters on Thursday and then to their Dad’s this weekend so I am free on any of those nights if that works for you?”
“That’s perfect. Thursday works for me too. Thanks for answering your door. I know it’s late, sorry.”
“Goodnight Ben. I will see you on Thursday.”
Rachel shut the door quietly and Ben heard the deadbolt as he stepped off of the porch. He was glad she was using it.
Before Ben knew it, Thursday came around. He was spending all of his time working the South Side Strangler case. The body that had been pulled from the Calumet Riverbank was clean. No fibers, fingerprints, or semen present, even though the body should’ve continued all of the above. Ben had to talk to another grieving family, it was the part of his job that he hated the most.
Ben and Marty spent most of the day up in Skokie putting together Ashley Benson’s last day. She had gone to work, as a speech pathologist and worked all day. She stopped at the grocery store on the way home and went home and made dinner. She and her fiancé ate and he went out to the bar with some friends.
The lab had pulled her phone records and the last thing she sent at 10:46 pm. Two nights before she disappeared was a text telling her fiancé she was heading to bed and to call if he needed a ride home.
When her fiancé got home that night he slept on the couch. It was only when he woke to get ready the next morning that he noticed Ashley wasn’t home. He thought it was odd she had not made the bed but figured she must have been running late. By lunchtime that day, when he had not heard from her he began to become concerned. It wasn’t like her to not answer his calls or texts. By dinnertime, the whole family knew something wasn’t right. They reported her missing and two days later got the worst news a family could get; their beloved daughter had met a brutal end and would never be coming home again.
Ben and Marty had just finished talking to a few of Ashley’s co-workers, someone had to know something, if anyone was following her, or if Ashley had noticed something out of the ordinary. As the day finished, they were no further along in their investigation, only they now had a hunch that Ashley had been taken from her home instead of grabbed while out on the street. The three other victims had been out late at night coming home when they had been taken by the killer.
The two detectives walked to the car. It was a hot afternoon, muggy like it would storm later. As Ben opened the door he could feel the intense heat generated from the sun in the car escape. He got into the car as the leather seat scalded his back through his shirt. Marty followed suit.
“Shit it’s hot.”
“Yeah, it is, bet it storms later. Look at those clouds.”
“You know, if this asshole did take her from her house, he is getting bolder.”
“Yep bolder and taking bigger risks. He’s getting bolder and cockier, and that is how we will catch him.”
“I want to go back over to her house again. Let’s swing by on our way back.”
Ben looked at his watch, he had dinner with Rachel at seven. If they were quick but through they’d have just enough time. Ben pulled out of the parking lot and drove past the grocery store she had shopped at the night she was taken and then on to her house. Ben pulled the car up to the front of the townhome as Marty got out and started to walk around the building. Ben walked up to the front door and past the tape. The air conditioning was on and the cool relief of dry cold air was refreshing from the muggy heat outside. He walked inside, telling himself this time to not look too hard at the scene, maybe he was trying too hard to find this animal and the clue he needed was right in front of him.
He scanned the living room. The blankets were still on the couch from where the fiancé had slept. Sure the fiancé was no angel, he had spent the night with another woman, the night Ashley went missing but, that didn’t make the man a murder. He had lied about sleeping on the couch. Ben knew that the first time he walked into the house. He had crashed enough times on the couch to know what it looked like if you truly slept there or staged it. Ben understood, the fiancé didn’t want to get caught up in his own lie. Ben continued to scan the living room when he heard a knock coming from the back of the townhouse.
Ben followed the noise into the bedroom and walked up to the window where Marty was standing outside.
“Open it.” Marty said loudly.
The window had already been dusted for prints and had came up clean. He put on gloves anyway, the last thing he wanted was a contaminated crime scene, and the killer to be let go because of tainted evidence. Ben turned the lock at the top of the window and tried to shimmy it up. It was an older wooden window. It did not open easily and creaked as it was opened. Both men looked at each other knowing that the killer had not come in that way, nor had he come in through the front door; video surveillance would’ve caught the culprit. The noise of the window opening would have woken Ashley for sure and she would’ve fled. There was no sign of a struggle in the room. Somehow the killer had gotten into the townhome.
Ben shut the window and locked it back up as Marty came back around and inside the front door, the only door. Marty walked in taking refuge in the air conditioning. Both men walked around the townhouse again.
“Does this unit have an attic?” Ben asked.
Both men started to look for an attic door in the ceiling and sure enough in the upstairs bedroom closet, there was an attic door. Booth stood under the closed door.
“I wonder if all of these units share a common attic?” Ben asked.
“Only one way to find out,” Marty replied.
Still gloved, Ben reached for the gold pull chain as the door opened silently.
“I’ve never heard an attic door open so quietly,” Marty said.
A latter was just out of reach.
“Hey man give me a lift here.”
“Are you serious?”
“You lift me, I’m lighter.”
“Like hell you are, shut up and give me a boost.”
Marty laced his fingers together as Ben stepped a foot into them and hoisted himself up. Marty grunted under Ben’s weight. Ben looked up into the attic. It was shared by several units.
“Bingo! It’s one long attic up here.”
“I thought that was illegal, against fire code.”
Ben grunted and hoisted himself up into the stifling attic it. His eyes adjust to the darkness quickly. He called back down to Marty.
“Hey grab the flash light out of the car.”
Marty tossed the flashlight up through the hole as Ben caught it.
“I grabbed it when I got out of the car.”
Ben click on the flashlight and looked around. It was clear that someone had been up there. It looked like some of the insulation had recently been replaced. He was just about ready to leave when he caught a glimpse of something shiny.
“I might have something up here!”
Ben stepped carefully towards the shiny object. He could not believe his luck, it appeared to be a large pocket knife, open, laying in a cloud of pink insulation.
“Well?” Marty called from the ground.
“Looks like someone dropped a large pocket knife up here.”
“We better call forensics. Someone has definitely been up here recently.”
Ben left the knife where it lay and carefully stepped in his same tracks not to disturb the scene any further as he made his way back to the door. He lowered himself back down into the closet, once again grateful for the cold air in the townhome.
“Let’s get a list from the landlord of anyone who has done work in the building in the past year too. There is new insulation up there.”
“I hope this is the tipping point to finding this maniac.t I am sick of pulling pretty dead girls out of rivers and dumpsters.”
“Yeah me too.”
Marty walked into the hallway and called for the forensic team as Ben carefully walked around the room. Nothing was out of place. The white carpet was pristine. As he turned back towards the hallway he noticed a small spot of pink fluff on the corner of a baseboard. He crouched down to take a closer look. Marty noticed and turned.
“Yeah, that’s what it looks like to me. I bet the bastard came through another uint and got into this one through the attic.”
“Makes sense why we didn’t find an entry point. But when I was outside of her window I noticed some of the branches in the bush below her window looked crushed. I bet he came in this way and took her out the window.”
Ben thought out loud. “Someone would’ve heard that her struggling with an intruder. He would’ve had to shove her out the window first and she most likely would’ve tried to flee. That is unless she was drugged and he carried her out of the window. Maybe set her on the bush and then climbed out.”
“How was the window locked from the inside then?”
“I don’t know. I just find it unreal that no one heard anything. If someone grabbed Pauline, don’t you think someone would hear?”
“Are you kidding, half of the city would hear my wife scream. At that point, I almost feel bad for the intruder waking Pauline.”
Both men chuckled a bit.
“Exactly. She had to have been out quickly so no one heard. Maybe he killed her right away?”
“We have a match for all of the fluids in the bed, I can’t see our guy having that sort of self-control to not rape her here.”
“Unless he knew better, not to leave any physical evidence. He knew it was too risky.”
Both men walked down the stairs and stood in the foyer by the front door as the rain had arrived. It poured torrentially.
“Shit,” Marty said as he ran out of the front door back to the car. He went around the back and opened the trunk and fished out a bright blue tarp and took off for the back of the unit. Ben followed him as they did their best to gently cover the bush behind the bedroom window, hoping to preserve any physical evidence if there was any left at this point.
Soaked from covering the bush both men went inside and waited for the forensic team to arrive. Ben caught them up to speed. They set off for the attic as his phone rang on his belt. He reached down and didn’t recognize the phone number.
“Ben Carter here.”
“Ben, hi, it’s Rachel.”
“Oh shit what time is it?” Ben glanced at his watch it was 7:15. He was supposed to pick Rachel up at seven. “Rachel I am so sorry, I got caught up at work. I am leaving here soon.”
Marty looked over at him knowing that Ben would not be gone before 10:30. He shook his head and gave Ben a sarcastic look.
“Do you want to do this another night? I don’t mind.” Rachel asked.
“No, I really want to go to dinner with you. I am in Skokie still and I will be about another hour. Is nine too late for dinner?”
“No, nine is still okay. Look if we need to reschedule, it’s okay really. I will tell you what if your plans change just give me a call and we will do this another night.”
“I will be there by nine.”
Marty shook his head again, knowing there was no way.
“Okay see you then.”
“Hey, thanks for being so understanding. Bye.”
“Bye Ben, drive carefully, it’s really coming down out there.”