“How miserably hypocritical, you might say, but no sooner am I offered a chance to flee Hell than I yearn to stay. Few families hold their relations as closely as do prisons. Few marriages sustain the high level of passion that exists between criminals and those who seek to bring them to justice. It’s no wonder the Zodiac Killer flirted so relentlessly with the police. Or that Jack the Ripper courted and baited detectives with his – or her – coy letters. We all wish to be pursued. We all long to be desired.
The strangest stories, I’m afraid, ultimately ring true. Have you heard of this one? The government struck a bargain with a cannibal, and they use him to dispose of bodies after executions. The supermax prisoners use it to scare each other up in Gainesville. Better watch your step or a man from the government will come and eat you. It doesn’t make much sense, but conspiracy theories never do.
The man who told me this story tried to walk it back, of course. It’s probably bullshit, he laughed. Definitely bullshit, I clarified, and then I took a big bite of out of his face.” – Jeffrey James Roberts, 2012
Fort Myers, Florida.
A wooden plank, white house sits adjacent to a large empty lot. Cars are parked in the driveway, filling it, and more are parked in the grass of the lot. Christmas always had a way of bringing the family together, in all the ways that mattered, no matter the distance both physically and emotionally throughout the rest of the year.
Inside, the old carpet, installed no doubt sometime in the late 80s, smelled musty, but the scent was capably covered by the Yankee Candle on the mantle. Hailey Ann Roberts worked feverishly in the kitchen as family members milled around here, in and out of the kitchen, into the den, into the family room, conversations flitting from one to the next.
A door in the kitchen behind her opened, and a brief glimpse of a darkened stairway down to the basement could be seen, were anyone looking, and her husband Jeffrey stepped through. He smiled, a very young man of 19 or 20, a young husband, father, not uncommon in this neck of the woods. It was just a matter of doing the best with what you were given, really. Better to do all of this together than alone.
“The food smells delicious.”
He smiles widely as she looks up to catch his eyes, a dark and empty smile, practiced and successfully deceptive, and she smiles back.
“Thanks”, she said. “Are you almost done with your work? It would be nice if you could spend some time with the family.”
He shook his head. “Unfortunately I’m at a very critical point right now. I only came up to make sure you won’t need anything from me for a bit. I’m about to head right back down.”
She sighed, too much worry in her expression for her age, too much stress, and far too many cares. It’s common, but that doesn’t make it natural.
“Okay, well, how long will you be, darling?”
He frowned, irritation pulling at the corners of his eyes. “I really don’t know, dumpling. I’ll be back up when I’m done, like always.”
She nodded, resigned, and watched as he turned and went back through the door, disappearing into the darkness. She heard the familiar clicking of the door locks, installed on the inside. All four of them.
Picking up the tray of appetizers in front of her, she walked past several teenage boys standing and laughing near the breakfast table. She gave a weak smile, and turned into the living room, where a long table had been set up. Retrieving an empty tray with one hand, she replaced it with the new tray, then slid the old tray, an identical set, under the new. Turning away, she decided it was time for a brief reprieve, so she took a spot on the long brown couch facing the television, where some national news program was on. To her side, a second couch was set perpendicularly to the first, and three people sat upon it, speaking if their faces were any indication, about something quite serious.
Absent-mindedly, she looked at the tree and the presents underneath, tinsel hanging from branches and lights twinkling. She smiled, then turned her attention to the TV.
Hailey read the tagline on the newsfeed detailing some kind of murder investigation.
“The victim was strangled in her bedroom with friends just outside her door. There appears to be evidence of indignity to the body and may be the work of a serial killer. Police are considering a link to previous cases where the death has been made to look accidental or natural. This is the first case where….”
Hailey tried to pay closer attention, but the news switched to some other story. Hailey quickly moved over to the television and started switching channels to find more on the story she just heard. There is nothing. What is going on? She wonders. The room resumes its chit-chat, loud whispers, and long faces.
Down in the basement, a small row of lights hung from individual chains overhead, swaying gently in the air of the central heating, and in a well-worn EZ chair, Jeffrey James Roberts sat staring at the wall in front of him. His thoughts went over every memorial, each picture, the families and children left behind. At this point, it was a daily routine. Some people counted sheep. Jeffrey James Roberts counted his victims. One by one.
His mother once told him he was sick. This caused her to turn a blind eye to his proclivities, hiding just underneath the surface as he walked around like a normal person. She said the sickness made him do it. She made it seem logical. As if he was lying in a hospital bed with cancer rather than rotting in a basement fantasizing about murder.
He was distracted by a brief surge of adrenaline as he remembered the girl’s blood-soaked body. Flesh separated and puckered, he had left her in such a manner that her sacrifice would be remembered.
The recollection aroused him. Death and sensuality combined to create a unique vision of purity and abhorrence. Though he had experienced doubts since the beginning, he knew the mission he had been tasked with was necessary. It had given him a purity of purpose. These people needed to be punished, all in the name of truth. And yet he felt guilt. Not enough to consume him, but enough to have it niggling away in the back of his mind like a parasite infecting his very soul.
He heard children playing upstairs and stared at the items on the wall, remembrances, mementos, pinned to cork. It was a soulless gaze, burning with a wild hatred that shouldn’t be there in anyone who could call themselves a parent.
She had been young – so innocent. There’s a stream that trickles through all of us. It’s always there. It’s evil and we know this, so we force it to mix with the larger river inside us. We let it be consumed by the greater flow of good. But when the good in the river runs dry and there isn’t enough of it to dilute the stream, then the stream flows faster and harder, uncontrolled, and it finally floods one life, then another, then another. And it’s always the innocent who are easiest to pull down. It’s always the innocent who are standing there on the banks and looking in, curious and trusting and sometimes, maybe, even a little brave.
On the table next to him, a record began to play on a vintage record player, though he couldn’t remember starting it. Classical music started and played, and he leaned his head back in his chair, smiling, and his head swayed.
“At 19 years of age, Jeffrey James Roberts was a big man trapped in a little man’s body. He thought of himself to be a neurosurgeon and Warren Beatty look-a-like all rolled into one – the surgeon and the stud.” – Dr. William Liebowitz, Psychological Analysis of the killer Jeffrey James Roberts, 2014
The familiar interior of the prison cell, well, familiar, yet changed somehow, reinforced more than usual, once again held Jeffrey James Roberts, as he sat with his back to the concrete wall at the rear, the worn audio cassette recorder at his side. He reached into his case of cassettes and pulled a fresh one from inside, then pressed it into the recorder, and pressed “RECORD”.
“I’ll try something a little different this time.
I’ve been left to my own thoughts again for the last two weeks, you see. It seems I may have misbehaved slightly, although surely these things must be coming as less and less of a surprise each time they occur.
Darin Zion was one thing, but what of Eli Dresden? Where is the dear girl? Such a shame, the poor thing there, on her stomach, helpless in my arms. The bite was nothing, just a means to an end, and one more trophy for my wall. But let’s not make it more serious than it needs to be.
I once opened a man up after burning him alive. His charred skin was peeled back, and his ribs were removed. He was pink inside, like steak that had been burned on high heat but remained raw in the middle. His face was spattered with tiny bits of his own flesh and blood like someone had combined shrimp and tomato soup and then forgot to put the lid on the blender.
That was serious. Serious work, that. And necessary.
Every piece is a building block over the top of the previous piece, and when things are asked of me, I make sure I do them correctly, that I do them well. Can’t give away everything at once, can I? Tut tut. No.
Murderers don’t get forgiven just because we promise to be good from now on. We have to earn our way back. One hundred is the price. One hundred lives for each we took. That seems fair. That’s how we get whole again and that’s our work, from now until as long as it takes.
It is my restraint that has given me hope, you see. That’s what these things have been, with Darin, with Eli. Restraint. They still walk the Earth alive and are not in the bottom of a pit rotting and being fed upon by worms and maggots. It’s my penance, given to me by a benefactor, and I will take full advantage of it.
I know as little about you, my dear opponent, as I have known about any of them. As is always the case, your story does not concern me. You are a target, unwittingly, and you know not why.
Envy, they call you. Or Doozer. How nice. I can’t decide which is worse.
And just what are you envious of, after all? A normal life, I suppose. Yes, most normal people struggle mightily to attain the best in life, climbing the mountain to nothing, building their little house on a hill. Or are you envious of something a little more base than that, something less complex?
You simply want to win.
Is that it?
If so, how disappointing.
We share a mortal sin, but it is not wrath or envy. It is our lack of empathy. Like water, life is precious, but most people, through their lack of empathy, prefer to waste it. You cannot empathize with those around you, so you covet instead. You covet what you see every day, and you waste away inside an aging shell while much better and younger men fly past you like a race car racing a bicycle.
For ten years I have rotted inside this cell, and for all those years I knew, understood, that my fate had been sealed. The people flew past me too, them continuing the race, me in here dying. But this, this opportunity I’ve been given…. I’ve had false hope flashed in front of my eyes before. Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.
Yet still, this one begins to feel different.
I share this with you and with the world because my thoughts are fleeting, and they need to be spoken aloud before they fade away into the abyss. Perhaps I’ve been preparing for this for all these years. Opportunity does not waste time with those who are unprepared.
You’ll just have to be satisfied with your place in all of this. I’m sorry. It’s what he wants. I’m content to be a loyal soldier while the role suits me. A means to an end, you know.
Envy, after all, comes from wanting something that isn’t yours. The things you seek, they were never meant for you. It was never your place in this world. I understand. Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck. Redemption is my place in this, and I will have it. Years from now, when I’m successful and happy, and you’re still in your cell, I hope I’m not too mature to gloat.”
“Envy is for people who don’t have the self-esteem to be jealous.” – Bauvard