“You want some water, Mr. Mason? Sorry we can’t offer something stronger.”
Fred blinked at the dull green walls of the police station as if waking from a dream. “Water would be nice, yes. Thank you.”
The young policeman stepped out of the smoky room, leaving Fred with the two detectives. “Sorry we have to make you go over this, Mason,” said Detective Erley. “If we’re going to catch the guy who killed your wife and son we need to know everything we can.”
“Yes, of course,” said Fred. “Thank you.” The young officer returned with a paper cup full of water and left again. For a second, when Fred looked at the cup, it was full of blood, like the silver basin. Wedding present from Gloria’s parents back in ‘54. She polished it twice a year. Fred pulled a wilted handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his clammy forehead. Fred was a family man with a steady job and a house in the suburbs. Things like this didn’t happen to guys like him. “What do you need to know?” he asked the police officers. “Have you found Lamkin?”
“Lamkin,” said Erley. “That’s the handyman?”
“I don’t think he has stable employment,” said Fred, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “He does odd jobs around the neighborhood. Home repairs, yard work, mechanics. He chops a lot of wood. I told Gloria to beware of him. The man’s an animal.”
“We’re looking for him,” said Erley. “We’re also looking for your son’s nanny. She lived with you, right? She ought to have been there that night.”
“Yes,” said Fred. “Pretty young girl. Judy. English student. I hope she’s okay.” He mopped his head again.
“Tell us exactly how you discovered the bodies if you don’t mind,” the taller detective said. Child was his name. “What was the first thing out of the ordinary you noticed?”
“I suppose it was the smell,” Fred said, thinking back. “It was late when I got home and the porch light was off. I opened the front door. I reached for the light switch…” He trailed off, seeing it again in his mind. He swallowed. “A wet, metallic smell. A blood smell. A death smell. There’s nothing else like it.”
Erley and Child glanced at each other.
“The floor was streaked with it,” Fred said, without emotion. “And blood was splashed on the walls. It was an awful mess. The whole entry hall.” He gazed at the detectives like a student waiting for his teachers to tell him if he got the right answer.
“We know it’s tough, Mr. Mason,” said Erley. “Hell, most guys would be in a straight-jacket going through what you’ve been through. You’re doing just fine. Do you remember what you did next? After you saw the blood in the hall?”
“I went into the kitchen,” Fred said, encouraged. “That was full of blood too. And the parlor where the TV is. That’s where I found Gloria and…my son.”
The detectives looked down at the table in a show of respect for the child in the bowl of blood, respect for a father’s grief. They were good men, these detectives, Fred thought. Good men. Real Men who could do what had to be done.
“You’d left the house the previous afternoon?” Detective Child said, looking at his notes even though Fred was sure he knew all the salient points. The man was good at his job.
“For Kansas City, yes,” said Fred. “It’s an annual convention. I’m in fencing. Not sword-fighting. Security.” He smiled weakly. “Sorry,” he said. “The joke comes automatically after all these years.”
“Understood,” said Erley.
Fred stared into his empty Dixie cup. Usually it was Chad Buckman who went to the convention in Kansas City. Fred remembered the day after his return last year. He’d come in early to finish some paperwork. He was soon interrupted by the “Buck Man” himself passing out nudie shot glasses to all the guys in accounting. “Think fast, Freddy Boy!” Chad said, pitching him a fast ball.
Fred failed to catch the package. It landed at the feet of Janice, Mr. Hellerman’s secretary. She bent down to get it—dipped down was more accurate. The tight Marilyn Monroe dresses she wore didn’t allow for bending, and dropped it on Fred’s desk with a smirk. “Butterfingers,” she said, and rubbed his bald head for luck.
Fred’s cheeks got hot just thinking about it. It was just no way for a lady to behave. If she wasn’t careful, Janice would come to a bad end at the hands of a man like Lamkin.
“Have you been to the fencing convention before?” asked Detective Child.
“Usually the company sends one of our, ah, flashier representatives,” said Fred.
“A lot of schmoozing goes on at those things,” Erley explained to his partner.
“I suppose,” said Fred. “Makes no sense to me. Paying men to get drunk, go dancing and cheat on their wives.”
“That shocks you?” said Erley.
“It doesn’t shock me,” said Fred, settling into his chair. “I’ve seen a bit of the world. A lot of it, actually, when I was in the service. Korea.”
“See any action?” asked Erley.
“Some,” said Fred.
Outside Pusan Fred’s division was ambushed by Chinese. Fred shot three himself. The moment of their deaths were brightly preserved in his memory. War was confusing, life was frustrating. Killing made everything clear.
“I fought in World War II,” said Erley. “Made a man out of me.”
“It did me as well,” said Fred. He had recognized Erley as a Real Man when he saw him. He and the two detectives were three of a kind. They understood each other. Gloria had never understood about the war. Fred had tried to describe it to her when they were dating.
“It was life or death, Gloria. It was kill or be killed. All the bullets and the shrapnel, the noise and the smoke—none of it mattered. I was a man for the first time in my life. I was a man doing what I had to do.”
Gloria had wrinkled her nose and poked at the ice in her cocktail with the little pink umbrella. “I’m just glad you’re home now, Freddy,” she said. “You can put all that behind you and we can start a whole new life.”
A woman could never understand what it meant to be a man.
“So a lot of guys play around at those conventions. But I’m guessing you don’t,” said Erley. “What about your wife?”
Fred rose up out of his chair. “What did you say?”
“Calm down there, Fred,” said Detective Child. “You know we have to ask. Your wife got killed in your home. No signs of forced entry. Was there anybody who might have come to see her while you were gone? Somebody who might have wanted to kill her?”
“I told you,” said Fred. He was sweating again. “I told you, it was Lamkin. I warned her about him. Be sure the doors are bolted well. I said it a hundred times. I said it right before I left.”
They were in the kitchen, he remembered. Fred was at the table, his briefcase on the chair beside him, drinking coffee. Gloria was lifting the baby from his high chair. The baby was squalling. Judy leaned against the counter. Hers were the only eyes focused on Fred. Unlike Gloria since the baby was born, Judy dressed for breakfast, did her hair, and wore lipstick. Deep red lipstick that was not at all right for a nanny. Neither was the way Judy looked at Fred.
“You had reason to suspect this Lamkin would hurt your family?” Detective Child asked.
“I’d seen him looking at my wife when he was in the neighborhood. It was an ugly, brutal look,” said Fred. His eyes dropped back to his Dixie cup. “And he said things. To me.”
“To you?” said Erley. He leaned forward in his chair, sliding closer to Fred across the table. “You two spoke?”
“Sometimes. If I passed him on the street. He made remarks. They were inappropriate.”
The detectives glanced at each other again. Fred knew they were imagining what Lamkin might have said. But he would not tell them about all the mornings when the greasy handyman fell in step beside him on his way to the train station, hissing in his ear: “What kind of life is this for a man, Fred?” he would say. Fred tried to walk faster, but Lamkin could not be outpaced. “You’re a patsy! You’re a punk! Look at you in your grey flannel suit, another office drone. They don’t respect you at work. They don’t respect you at home. You never wanted that house or that baby. Your wife wanted them and you were the sucker she trapped into giving it to her.”
“Gloria is a wonderful woman,” Fred told him.
Lamkin laughed. “If it were me in that house, I’d go after that nanny. A girl like that needs a real man. I’d slit both their throats—the wife and the brat—and Judy would help me. Oh, yes she would. You think she loves that kid? She just needs the money. Judy belongs to me. She would do anything I told her to do,” he said. He leaned close to Fred and whispered in his ear. “Anything.”
The interrogation room door opened and the young policeman poked his head in. “Detectives? The lieutenant’s got something for you to see.”
“Give us a minute,” said Erley. “Have another glass of water, Mason.”
The detectives shut the door behind them, leaving Fred alone at the table. It was still hard to believe that Gloria and the baby were dead. And Judy had helped Lamkin do it. He couldn’t blame her completely. For all his brutality, his cruelty and violence, Lamkin was a Real Man. Women were always drawn to men like that, being weak themselves. Eventually, of course, Lamkin would kill her too. She’d want a marriage or children herself one day, no matter what she said now. She would never understand that a man was never more of a man than when he was killing. Child and Erley understood. They listened to Fred, unlike his supervisors at work or his wife at home.
The detectives were back. Fred could see there had been developments. “Judy Millsap was found down by the river,” said Child. “She was burned alive in her car.”
“Oh my,” said Fred. “I told you Lamkin was dangerous. Have you found him yet?”
“Yeah, funny thing, Fred,” said Erley. “We’ve been talking to your neighbors and none of them remembers this handyman around. None of them hired him to do yard work or home repairs and the only person they remember chopping a lot of wood was you.”
Fred’s mouth twitched into something like a smile. “I do work around the house,” he said. “I chop wood, wash the car. I provide for my family. Bring home the bacon, as they say.”
“Do you?” said Child. “Because according to your boss you got fired a month ago for unprofessional conduct towards another employee, a woman named Janice Wicowsky. Said you threw her up against a filing cabinet.”
“The company never sent you to Kansas City, no matter what you and the nanny told your wife,” said Erley. “You were right here all the time. There was no Lamkin in your house that night for your wife to be afraid of. There was only you.”
Frederick Malkin Mason was sentenced to hang until death for his crimes. The execution took place at midnight on November 18, 1959. Detectives Erley and Child were not in attendance. They had other cases to solve.