Patience is a virtue.
Without patience, I never would have made it through med school. Without patience, I wouldn’t have survived the long and difficult years as the coroner’s deputy. Without patience, I couldn’t sit here night after night, waiting for the man that ruined my life to show his face just one more time.
It’s just after midnight and I’m parked less than two blocks from our old apartment. It’s a moonless night, but the darkness is cut by the lights of a twenty-four-hour dry cleaners and a dingy corner bar. Far from illuminating the street, the light casts shadows across men’s faces and darkens the alleys where they lurk. A group of black teenagers argue on one corner while an old, white, homeless man picks through trash in a dumpster. I haven’t seen the bald man with a cross tattooed on his neck. Not yet.
It was over a year ago, 413 days to be precise. A long time to plan, to let old wounds fester. I’ve talked to the local streetwalkers, drug dealers and shop owners. They may have seen the man I’m looking for, might even know his habits. They may be the ones who saw what happened that night and stood by idly, ignoring her screams and letting her sudden silence go unreported. For the moment, they are not my concern. I have been patient.
A clean set of prints and a DNA sample from the rape kit was enough to ID the suspect. The man, known on the streets as Smilin’ Jack, apparently earned his moniker from his good looks and reputation as a ladies man. I sat back and waited patiently while the proper authorities took him through the long months of due process; all the while my insides were boiling. The evidence was more than enough for a trial, but not enough for a conviction. The prosecution highlighted a lab error that rendered the evidence inadmissible. A thief, rapist and murderer let go on a technicality. I watched him walk out the door. How patient I’ve been.
It’s after one in the morning. Smilin’ Jack steps off a city bus and his bald head gleams in the streetlight. Its glow contrasts the black cross inked into the corded muscles of his neck. My patience has paid off.
I watch as he walks by my car, close enough that I could reach out and touch him. But not here; not yet.
Smilin’ Jack continues down the street, heading for familiar ground. I check my bag of supplies and get out of the car to follow him. I know where he’s going. I’ve been there every day for more than a year. I know it better than he does now.
He turns into an alley that serves as a shortcut behind our old apartment complex. She used to use it on her way home from work. Smilin’ Jack used it as his hunting grounds. Tonight the hunter has become the hunted.
He’s built like a boxer in his prime; a chloroform-soaked rag more than levels the playing field. Though he’s a burden to drag into the ground level apartment, my 413 days of pent up rage and frustration give me plenty of strength. I’m glad I kept our old apartment after all this time. It will give me peace and quiet while I repay Smilin’ Jack in kind.
His body stirs and he opens his eyes groggily, owing to the chloroform. Smilin’ Jack wakes to find that his hands and arms are bound. He lies naked on his back, limbs outstretched, pulling his body into a taut x-shape. Plastic zip ties are cinched far too tightly around his wrists and ankles to allow blood to flow freely. His hands and feet are ghostly shades of flesh, giving him the appearance of wearing pale pink gloves and socks. Smilin’ Jack tries to cry out and finds that he cannot make a sound.
“That won’t do you any good,” I tell him, holding a bloody scalpel high for him to see. “I’ve nicked your vocal cords. A little trick I learned from a veterinarian friend of mine.”
Smilin’ Jack bucks at his restraints but they are as unforgiving as my blade. I hold up a bloody swatch of skin with a black cross inked into it.
“I also took your tattoo, I hope you don’t mind,” I say, dropping the piece of flesh into a ziplock bag. “People like you don’t deserve to bear the cross.”
He flaps his mouth open and closed, trying to shout every expletive he knows at me, but no sound comes out. His face reddens from the strain and blood leaks through a rectangular hole in his neck. I return to my work.
“Do you know the Code of Hammurabi?” I ask him. His eyes scream with the rage that his severed voice can’t muster. “I bet you do. ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth?’ Heard of that?”
I set about probing the skin around his ankles with my scalpel. It’s pale and bloodless. It cuts away like dead skin over a blister. Beneath the translucent layer of flesh lies a network of veins and arteries, ligaments and tendons, muscle and fat. I cut it all away. Smilin’ Jack screams in silent agony.
“A good rule to follow, Hammurabi’s Code, but a bit archaic for my tastes. I feel that a punishment should be worse than the crime.”
I sever the final connections, sliding the fleshy parts of his foot off the bone like a grotesque slipper. I move on to the other foot and repeat the process, collecting the parts in a specimen bag. Smilin’ Jack writhes in pain, his frayed nerve endings scream in protest. His feet are stripped down to greasy bone, clacking up and down without any control. The sight puts a terrible laughter in my heart.
“Well, now you won’t be sneaking up on anyone again. But you can still do damage with your hands,” I tell him. “Those awful hands of yours will simply have to go.”
Smilin’ Jack thrashes about more than ever, but my restraints hold. His forearms flex and twitch, trying to get his unresponsive hands to assist in the fight. They’re as useless as his flayed feet. I perform the same surgery on his hands, taking care to sever each individual tendon, delighting as they spring apart once relieved from their life of tension.
“These hands have done terrible things, Mr. Jack.” I say, moving onto his remaining one. “And these hands of yours were what got you caught to begin with, leaving little prints everywhere.” I drop the second fleshy glove into the collection bag. “Well, you won’t have to worry about that any more. But you had another filthy habit that got you in trouble, didn’t you, Mr. Jack?”
I position my blade above his midsection and let the scalpel drop onto his manhood. If Smilin’ Jack thought he was in pain before, then this was torture derived from Hell itself.
“You see, I didn’t want to numb this area,” I say as I begin cutting. I don’t take the care to make precise cuts here. I want the man to bleed and I want him to feel every slice. “Do you even remember her name? Or were you too busy going through her possessions after you raped and murdered her that you couldn’t stop to learn her fucking name?”
The months of frustration begin to boil over now. Strips of flesh still connect his manhood to his abdomen, but I yank the whole sorry mess free and stuff it into my collection bag. Smilin’ Jack’s eyes roll up into his head. I slap his face to bring him back around.
“Almost done, Jacko. Just one thing left. That handsome face of yours.”
I make an incision along his hairline, tracing down one side of his jaw and up the other. His eyes dart frantically from side to side as I cut the fat and muscle away from his cheeks and forehead.
“You know how I found out about her, about what you had done to her? She ended up on my autopsy table, plain as the way you left her,” I say, puncturing his face with intentional slips of the scalpel. It starts to come away like a gory Halloween mask. “A man should never have to see his wife like that. It does things to the mind. Crazy things, Jack.”
I lift his face off and hold it up to the lamp to admire it. Specks of light filter in through the slits made by my scalpel. All in all, it’s a handsome face with a peculiar smile still frozen into it. Smilin’ Jack, however, is in worse shape: useless bony hands and feet, a greasy grinning skull and his manhood oozing lifeblood. I sever the bonds holding him up and he crashes to the floor.
“You’ll die soon, Jack. That’s for sure,” I tell him as I move toward the door. “But not soon enough. You’ll try to get out of here first. Hell, maybe you’ll even succeed. But sooner or later, you’ll end up on my table. I wanted to be sure I’ll recognize you when you do.”
I open the door and hold Jack’s face up in front of mine for his lidless eyes to see one last time. He crawls awkwardly toward me on knees and elbows, grinning his lipless smile. Before I lock him in our old apartment, I leave him with a few last words.
“Her name was Patience, Jack. If you can bring her back, then come and see me some time,” I say, holding his bloody face aloft. “Maybe I’ll give you your smile back.”