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The Blood Mandelas

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Submitted for Reedsy Contest #72: Write a mystery where the detective realizes at the last moment that they have the wrong suspect.

Wojcik sat across the heavy metal table from Thomas Dyson, staring into his mismatched eyes, one bright blue, the other dark brown. That’s what did it; the genetic profile revealed that the perpetrator had chimerism, two unique DNA profiles. Wojcik remembers the call from Rodney Chiles in the crime lab. It came after almost 9 months of no leads and 8 murders. The killer left his DNA at the crime scene, his own blood, intentionally.

“It’s a long shot, but he could have mismatched eyes or hyperpigmentation of the skin. It’s not much but it’s something,” Chiles had said, trying to hide the hope in his voice.

It was something. Besides male and ‘likely Caucasian,’ it was the only other piece of information that might lead to what the killer looked like.

Wojcik remembers exactly where he saw the killer’s blood. It was in the Andersonville basement apartment, Genevieve Czarny’s place. Her friends called her Jenny, the eighth victim. It was such a cozy, neat apartment, excepting the horrible crime scene. He could still see the gleaming, red enameled tea kettle on the old stove, the way it made a fun-house mirror reflection of the apartment. This time, Ruiz, Wojcik’s partner, had found the blood mandelas. The killer had left these mandelas at the last five crime scenes. In Jenny’s apartment, they were on floor under the small, scrubbed wood dinette table, between the two small chairs that were still neatly tucked in at either end of the table.

“Found them here, Woje, under the table!” Ruiz had called out.

They both squatted down to look at them, their faces covered with surgical masks, hair in nets to prevent them shedding their own DNA. The mandelas were breathtaking in their intricacy. How much time the killer must have spent after the murders, playing with the blood, pulling and twisting it into the precise, repetitive curves and points of a mandela. The crime lab said he was probably using a toothpick to make them. He brought the toothpicks with him, and the murder weapon; the risk he was taking traveling around the city with those items on him; the arrogance it signified.

“That one in the middle looks like a tramp-stamp someone had to talk me out of getting when I was nineteen,” Ruiz joked, pointing her long, blue-gloved finger at the center mandela, the most beautiful of the three. It had dozens of repeating peaks, within each peak, identical stippled dots and semicircles.

That was the one the killer made with his own blood.

“He wants to get caught now,” Wojcik said to the Captain when the crime lab confirmed that the the blood didn’t belong to any of the known victims. “We can smoke him out if we’re smart. He’ll walk right to us.”

“I hope you’re right,” Captain replied, grimacing. “The commissioner is up my ass about this. Lightfoot called me personally. People are getting restless, a serial killer loose for almost a year.”

Wojcik didn’t mention their notoriously abysmal murder solving rate; how a few years before every major paper in the country ran stories about three hundred plus murders going unsolved in a year; families on the South Side telling reporters how detectives wouldn’t even come to crime scenes in their neighborhoods.

Of course, no one had cared when the killer started his spree. Wojcik and Ruiz had to fight with the captain to convince him these were serial killings at all. No one cared about three homeless women going missing. It happens all the time.

“It’s the same exact weapon!” Wojcik remembers yelling in the captain’s tiny office. “The same MO, this is a serial killer!”

But when the fourth victim was killed, everyone cared. The cameras showed up to the crime scene. The Captain himself came, trailed by various deputy commissioners and other white shirts. The fourth victim, Rachel Ellison, was white. She was originally from Iowa, a paralegal at a white shoe law firm in the Loop. Her boss said she was in the middle of applying to law schools. She liked to ride her bike on long tours out into the suburbs and back. She had blonde hair.

Ruiz broke the stillness by pouring water into the flimsy plastic cup sitting in front of Dyson.

“In a couple of hours we’re gonna have the results from the lab and your DNA is gonna match what was at the scene, right? You left it for us on purpose in your little designs.”

Dyson said nothing. He seemed scared. Wojcik wasn’t expecting that, he expected him to be thrilled, eager to finally get credit for his work.

Wojcik tried his hand at getting the suspect to talk, “You’re awfully quiet. You had so much to say on the message boards. You wanted everyone there to know it was you.”

The message boards were how they smoked Dyson out. It was actually McSally’s idea. McSally was a young kid, two years with the detectives, with FBI ambitions. She suggested a friend of hers who did some work in the past for law enforcement, impersonating criminals online. Wojcik remembered meeting the guy in a Starbucks; Jordan West, skinny, pale, couldn’t meet his eyes. But West promised Wojcik that if the perp were active online he would find him. They decided to leak the fact that the killer had chimerism to the press. The papers went to town with it. ‘KILLER CHIMERA’ was plastered on every link to every article. True Crime Reddit subs and chans, (whatever the hell that meant, Wojcik could barely keep track) buzzed with amateur detectives swearing they could find the killer who might have mismatched eyes.

West went on to a particularly gruesome set of message boards and claimed he was the killer. Dyson couldn’t take it, he got careless in his responses, swearing he was the killer and they used the clues he dropped to found him. He lived in a modest house that he’d inherited from a great aunt that was pressed against the southern edge of the Forest Preserve in Orland Park. He worked for the Parks Department. An office off of the kitchen was covered in photos of the victims; printed out articles about the murders, Google images of their houses. They found rope and duct tape in the garage, no murder weapon, but Wojcik was sure they’d eventually find it.

Wojcik needed this to end, soon. The stress was taking its toll on him. He had been having chronic nightmares where he could see, almost feel, the victims, their eyes staring into his, begging him for help. He hated the nightmares so much he would try to stay awake all night, but eventually he’d fall asleep, fully dressed, in his chair, television still on, and they’d start again. There were also the blackouts, though; whole segments of the recent past that he couldn’t recall. It got so bad the Captain told him he had to see a shrink.

“You’re in the middle of experiencing a profound trauma. Your brain is doing what it can to help you survive, flushing out memories it doesn’t want or doesn’t think is important. We can work on a few things to help clear your mind, but unfortunately the best treatment for this is to remove you from this situation for a while, a leave of absence perhaps.”

“Absolutely not,” Wojcik said, sitting bolt upright on the couch. “No, I have to stay on, not an option.”

The shrink shrugged. “I figured you’d say that. Well, I can write you a prescription for some sleeping pills. They should help with the nightmares, but no guarantees. For the record, my professional opinion is that it’s not safe for someone in your job to be blacking out part of the work day.”

The sleeping pills did help. Wojcik at least started sleeping all night again, and he could no longer remember too many specifics of the nightmares, just the victims’ eyes and leaden dread.

“I want a lawyer,” Dyson said finally, sipping on the water Ruiz had poured for him twenty minutes earlier.

“Ok, lawyer it is,” Ruiz replied. She and Wojcik left the room and called down to one of the uniforms to come take the suspect to the pay phones to call a lawyer.

Lieutenant Dhiems met them in the hallway outside of the interrogation room. “You two go home. We’re going to process him down at Cook County. Come back tomorrow morning ready to talk to his lawyer.”

In the parking lot, Ruiz said, “Celebratory drinks? Your place? I’d say the bar but I’m not in the mood to be out and, besides, I’m broke.”

Wojcik hesitated. He wanted to be alone. And he always got the sense that Ruiz was pushing a boundary with him, one he wasn’t willing to cross with his partner. He relented, “Ok. Yeah, come over.”

They sat on the small balcony at his apartment, looking out over Little Italy. He pulled out a cheap bottle of Chianti for the occasion and two glasses he took from his favorite restaurant, Graziadio’s, before it closed. He hoped Ruiz didn’t see him wipe out the dust before he poured the wine.

“So,” she said, resting her feet on the sleek steel gate of the balcony, “where do you think he hid the murder weapon?”

“Oh, I’m not sure, but we’ll find it. Something like that is hard to hide.”

“He could’ve tossed it, though, right? Thrown it into the lake or a landfill.”

“Could be,” Wojcik replied, taking a large gulp of wine that sloshed down the front of his shirt, “but I don’t think he could bear to part with something like that.”

“How... how have your blackouts been?” Ruiz asked, eyeing him tentatively.

Wojcik sighed. “Getting worse. The other day the Captain starts telling me all about this meeting I was in with him and Deputy Commissioner O’Malley on Wednesday. I couldn’t remember any of it. I just bullshitted him, acting like I remembered it just fine.”

Ruiz nodded. “It’ll be good when this is over. You should probably go put some club soda on that shirt. Shit’s gonna stain.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Wojcik replied, stretching out of the deck chair and pulling open the sliding screen door.

He took the shirt off in the bathroom and opened a bottle of club soda from his bar cart, pouring it on to the shirt, watching the blood-red stain dissipate a bit beneath the club soda. When he got out as much as he could, he hung the sopping shirt over his shower curtain; he could always bleach it later if the stain didn’t come out.

He heard Ruiz come back in to the apartment. Her empty glass rang pleasantly as she placed it on the quartz countertop and then he heard the swift swish of more wine being poured into her glass. She was making him nervous; he was afraid she might try to stay. She was already on her third glass of wine, getting into the territory where she probably shouldn’t drive home. In spite of himself, he thought of the curve of her ass in the black jeans she wore every day, and that time she took her filthy, muddy shirt off in front of him and he saw an intricate tattoo on her left rib cage, disappearing up into her black sports bra. He was imagining what Ruiz’ thick curls would feel like in his hands when one of the victims flashed in his mind, her deep, brown eyes crying. Morgan Jenkins, the second victim, one of the forgotten ones. She ran away from home when she was 17 and had been living on and off the streets for 5 years when Dyson killed her. Wojcik could remember her sister screaming when he tracked her down to break the bad news.

He rested his head on the mirror and stared into his own eyes, grey-blue, except for a slice of honey brown in his right iris that had the effect, from certain angles, of making that eye look like a cobra’s. A strange memory tugged at him, he couldn’t quite place it. He gently massaged his shoulder and examined an old birthmark, a cluster of deep brown freckles against his white skin that resembled a Rorschach test. He realized he didn’t have a shirt, he would have to go out in front of Ruiz without it on before he could grab a clean one from his bedroom.

He stepped out into the hall.

“Stop right there,” Ruiz said, quietly but deathly seriously. She was aiming her gun at him.

Wojcik slowly put his hands up, “Ruiz, what’s going on?”

She started to cry so hard she was barely breathing and she gestured to the small island that doubled as a dining table in the kitchen.

Wojcik saw it all lying there, where did she get it? In the middle was the antique iron scythe with the serrated edge, meticulously cleaned of any fiber or blood. A historian at the University of Chicago was brought in to help identify it based on a forensic sketch derived from the shape of the victims’ wounds. The ropes were there, as well as an economy-size box of toothpicks, a pair of tattered old boots with congealed blood on one of the toes.

“Ruiz, I...”

“Don’t you... Don’t!” Ruiz said, sobbing now. “Nine fucking months Wojcik. All those girls... why?”

Wojcik was dizzy, ready to pass out. This was some kind of dream. He’d wake up in his chair in a few minutes with the Cubs game flickering on his TV. Those things don’t belong here, do they?

Chimerism doesn’t always show up externally, but he might have two different colored eyes. And it could also be subtler, a freckle in his iris.

Both of their phones buzzed at the same time. Ruiz switched her Glock into one hand and pulled out her phone. She glanced down at it briefly and started to cry again.

“It’s not Dyson’s DNA, Wojcik. That was Chiles, texting us the results. The blood in the mandela, it’s not his. It’s yours isn’t it, Michael?”

She threw her phone on the island and resumed aiming the gun with both hands, tears streaming down her face.

“I already texted McSally, back up is coming so just hold still, arms up.”

The tears had ruined her eye liner and were making a damp collar around her white blouse.

Even a birthmark, hyperpigmentation of the skin.

Wojcik’s vision started to blacken around the edges, he was really dizzy now, and the last thing he remembers before falling is the chorus of the victims’ screaming in unison, begging for their lives, as he collapsed on his kitchen floor, the lights from the trendy Edison bulbs in his kitchen illuminating his Rorschach birthmark.

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