The Case of the Rose Petal Killer
When the phone rang I knew it would be Captain Moran. All three local network TV stations had been playing the same lead story since eleven last night. The news anchors in their matching white shirts and blue blazers punched up the same words...Gruesome Stabbing, Blood Everywhere, Rose Petal Killer Strikes Again.
All of San Francisco had remained on edge since the first murder occurred two months ago, a professional woman, brunette, 26 years of age, found in front of her apartment, still in her silver Acura, keys in hand, driver's seat laid back, fully dressed in a pants suit, stabbed multiple times in the heart, with red rose petals sprinkled liberally over her face and body.
When the second murder happened with the same basic m.o., the media jumped on it and branded the perp as the Rose Petal Killer. This time a young blonde woman was found in Golden Gate Park, several miles from the first crime scene, dressed in jogging bra and shorts, covered in yellow roses, and laid out on a public bench for all to see like a KO'd prizefighter.
Neither woman had been sexually assaulted or touched in any way, except, of course, for the multiple piercings of the heart with a four-inch blade. No evidence had been recovered by the squint squad from either scene after a thorough examination of the bodies and immediate area for fingerprints, clothing fibers, skin fragments under the fingernails, or any other DNA droppings from the killer. Assuming the same guy murdered both women, I suspected the victims must have both known him because we found no signs of a struggle.
I answered the phone. "Captain."
"Dirk, how did you know it was me? You're too cheap to pay for caller I.D."
"I watch the news. Are you still at the scene?"
"Yeah. So drag your ass over here, detective, and solve this thing."
"You want to tell me the address?"
"845 Mason Street."
"Nob Hill…the high rent district."
"Right across from the Mark Hopkins Hotel."
"On my way."
I walked down the three flights of steps from my modest apartment to the street and after stopping for my first cup of java at Trader Joe's, headed toward the bus stop on Dolores Ave. I don't own a car because they are expensive and I hate driving, especially on hills, which is the whole damn city. Inconvenient, sure, but I don't care and if I ever need to leave the metro area, I can always request an unmarked car at the station or catch a ride with a black & white. I thought about calling for a lift today but figured, hey, it's a body; Mrs. O'Connell wasn't going anywhere soon.
* * *
I checked out the light green townhome in front of me…three stories high, a six-by-five foot picture window at the top and bottom levels both with yellow frames; in the center, a large Pennsylvania Dutch Hex circle to ward off evil spirits; the middle unit of a string of houses connected like colorful paper dolls to the corner.
The structure sat in perpetual shadows, dwarfed by the 400 room, hundred-year-old Mark Hopkins Hotel, like living on the dark side of the moon, permanently stealing the owner’s view of the city and the bay. Hard to believe a place like this with no yard, no garage, and no parking could set you back three to four million bucks.
Cops had the place taped off, but I ducked under and asked a uniformed patrolman for Captain Moran. He told me to check the third-floor master bedroom. Great. More stairs to climb. No chance this old home has an elevator. I make the ascent and reach the crime scene where the coroner and the squints were doing their thing, taking photos, swabbing for DNA and dusting for prints. There on the blood-stained sheet, naked, spread eagle and covered in white roses was victim number three, Mrs. Shirley O'Connell, early thirties, not bad looking and pardon the crude expression, built like a brick shithouse.
The Captain spotted me. "Where in the hell have you been, Dirk?"
"I took the scenic route."
"When are you going to buy a car?"
"When are you going to give me a raise?"
"I could assign you an unmarked vehicle permanently."
"No place to park. Is there a Mr. O'Connell?"
"He's sitting in the parlor across the hall being watched by one of our guys. He's the one who found her."
"You talk to him yet?"
"Saved the husband for you. He seems pretty shook up."
"Any kids around?"
"Nope, the second marriage for both."
I went to look for Mr. Randy O'Connell and found him sitting on a French-style sofa, the kind with the curved arms; all bent over, elbows on his knees, holding his head with both hands, staring at the Turkish carpet at his feet. The victim's husband looked up when I entered the room. He had been crying and appeared pale.
"I’m Detective Dirk Randolph. How are you doing, Mr. O'Connell?"
"My wife is dead."
"Sorry for your loss. Mind if I ask you a few questions?"
"Who would do something like this? Did you see her?"
I nodded. "How long have you been married, Randy?"
The middle-aged man with dark curly hair wiped his eyes with the back of his shirt, a custom job that matched the Armani suit coat lying beside him on the sofa. "About two years now. She worked with me at my company, Wright Brothers Air Freight."
"The one by the airport?"
"Was this a happy marriage?"
"I loved Shirley," he protested. "We dated almost two years before I proposed."
"Were you still married to your first wife at the time?"
"What does that have to do with it?"
"Women get jealous."
"Ann? Do this? Not a chance. She was getting hers on the side too...with some hippy musician she met at Pier 39. They were both happy to take half my money and go live on a beach somewhere. Besides, look at all those roses. This had to be that serial killer."
"Coroner estimates the death at three A.M.; where you were at that time of night?"
"I was at the airport. We had an important overnight shipment and I wanted to supervise the loading personally. My manager, David Burns, can verify it."
"Anyone in your wife's life she didn't get along with...a co-worker, neighbor, or friend?"
"Shirley retired after we got married, so I didn't see her much during the day, except for a few lunches when I could get away. I'm not sure what she did, although she did mention taking some type of exercise class...yoga, Zumba, no wait, I remember, it was kickboxing. She said she could work out her frustrations, build up her confidence, and lose weight at the same time. Shirley always worried about her looks, no matter how many times I told her she was beautiful."
"By any chance did your wife have an office in the house?"
He nodded. "Down on the second floor." When he started to weep again, I made my escape. Something about an overly emotional man makes me feel uncomfortable.
I found an Apple laptop sitting on Mrs. O'Connell’s office desk and flipped up the lid...password-protected, of course...so I called the lab guys to take the unit, crack the code, and get me a copy of the victim's schedule for the last six months. Rifling through the desk drawer, a Just for Kicks business card caught my attention; possibly the workout place the husband had mentioned. After bringing the Captain up to date, I left to check out the possible new lead.
* * *
The owner turned out to be Rosa Rodriguez, an ex-Marine who ran Just for Kicks with her wife Joyce, the receptionist and bookkeeper. Rosa taught all the classes and invited me to observe as she led a group of six women of all shapes and sizes through their paces, taking turns kicking the crap out of a punching bag that looked a little like Captain America.
Feeling a little intimidated, I still managed to question each student about Shirley and got the same profile from each...nice lady, friendly, they all liked to hang out together, do lunch, exchange gifts for birthdays and so forth. I asked Joyce for a list of all their members and while waiting, noticed sitting on the counter a stack of postcards with a big red heart on the front promising to find prospective clients true love. The Internet address read pinkcupid.com. I stuck one in my jacket pocket.
* * *
Back at the station, I pulled up the website and read the pitch, a dating app exclusively for women. Brandy, another detective, caught me checking out the sample photos and profiles. "Hey, Dirk, forget it, you're barking up the wrong tree. These ladies prefer mates on my side of the road."
"Good, then you can help me out. They won't give out any real names or contact information unless you join. I want you to sign up and see if you can find a listing for our victim, Shirley O'Connell."
After reimbursing Brandy the $25 to join, I went downstairs to check with the tech guy to find out how he was doing. He had gained access to the victim's computer and handed me a printout of her appointment calendar. One set of entries stood out; a series of three lunches with the same woman, Jane Hanson, including a rendezvous the day before the murder at Top of the Mark, a restaurant near the crime scene.
I returned to the squad room and found Brandy talking on her cell phone. "Yes, I'd love to...your apartment...this afternoon...sure."
I said to Brandy, "Who was that?"
"Jane Hanson. She pinged almost immediately after I set up my profile and wants to meet. Here's the interesting part, she shows up as a match on Shirley's profile, as well as a love link to Debbie Barton and Sally Lindsey."
"Our other two victims; you have an address?"
I said, "Let's roll."
* * *
We knocked on the door of apartment 17D in the Mission District.
"Who is it?" A smoky woman's voice rang out.
"It's me, Brandy."
Jane, a wiry, model-tall, comely lady, mid-thirties, barefoot, and dressed in a see-through white blouse and dark slacks, cautiously opened the door. "A girl can't be too careful these days."
Seeing me she tried to slam the door shut, but I stuck my shoe in the opening and held tight to the edge with both hands. Not easy. This was a strong, motivated lady. When she stopped struggling, I flashed my badge. "Detectives Randolph and Peron. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
We were reluctantly invited into the living room, nicely furnished, with a painting of a formal English garden hanging over the mantle, a potted plant in the corner, matched set of easy chairs, and an antique mahogany table. As we sat down on the couch together, Jane's disappointed, hurt eyes flicked back and forth between Brandy and me.
Jane spoke coolly to Brandy, "You lied to me. I get very disappointed when someone lies to me."
Brandy replied, "Did Mrs. O'Connell lie to you; make promises she couldn’t keep?"
"I’ve no idea who that is."
"Funny," I joined the mix. "You had dinner with her the day before she was murdered."
Jane tossed it off. "Oh, you mean Shirley. She never gave me her last name; a casual hook up." She looked right at me. "We had sex...a lot of sex." She drew out the “s” sound like a snake hissing.
"Congratulations. Did you know she was married?"
Jane smiled. "It never came up."
Brandy asked, "Where were you Tuesday night around 3 A.M.?"
"I was in bed...uncharacteristically alone."
"Are you familiar with Debbie Barton or Sally Lindsey?
"Maybe…so many women, so little time."
I said, "It shows on your Pink Cupid profile that you hooked up with all three of these women and that you took classes together at Just for Kicks.”
Jane shrugged. "I'm very popular with the ladies."
I looked at her smug face and for the first time since arriving became aware that the entire apartment was filled with flowers...roses to be specific...all different colors...the painting, the curtains, throw pillows, and the pièces de résistance, a giant vase filled with at least three dozen, cut, long-stemmed mixed American Beauties.
Our suspect turned to see what I was staring at so intently and then settled back in her chair, waiting for the accusation to fall, prepared to deny everything.
I felt like Perry Mason solving the case at the last minute because based on the evidence gathered so far and that large bouquet, I would bet my badge that we had found our jealous lady psychopath…the Rose Petal Killer.
* * *
As a novel writer (Drafted, Identity Check, Case of the Killer Sasquatch), I spend up to two years writing, revising and proofing a book. I love short stories because the creative payoff is quicker and you can experiment with different writing styles outside your wheelhouse. The gritty Mickey Spillane novels and the film noir movies from the 1940s with the tough as nails detective character was my inspiration for the Rose Petal Killer. As Bogart might say, “Here’s looking at you, kid. Hope you enjoy this tale of love and murder.”