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Serial Blogging: “Copycat” – Part 3

This week in Serial Blogging – part three of Jeffery Deaver‘s “Copycat,” which was first published in A New Omnibus of Crime. Read from the beginning of the story by clicking here!


   Andy Clark did indeed make the journey to Greenville.
   He turned out not to resemble either a sinister artist or a glitzy celebrity but rather any one of the hundreds of white, middle-aged men who populated this region of the Northeast. Thick, graying hair, neatly trimmed. A slight paunch (much slighter than Altman’s own, thanks to the cop’s fondness for his wife’s casseroles). His outfit wasn’t an arm-patch sports jacket or any other authorial garb, but an L. L. Bean windbreaker, Polo shirt, and corduroy slacks.
   It had been two days since Altman had spoken to Carter. The man now stood uneasily in the cop’s office, taking the coffee that the young detective Josh Randall offered and nodding greetings to the cops and to Gordon Wallace. Carter slipped off his windbreaker, tossing it on an unoccupied chair. The author’s only moment of ill ease in this meeting was when he glanced on Altman’s desk and blinked as he saw the case file that was headed, Banning, Kimberly-Homicide #13-04. A brief look of dismay filled his face. Quentin Altman was grateful that he’d had the foresight to slip the crime scene photos of the victim’s body to the bottom of the folder.
   They made small talk for a minute or two and then Altman nodded at a large white envelope in the author’s hand. "You find some letters you think might be helpful?"
   "Helpful?" Carter asked, rubbing his red eyes. "I don’t know. You’ll have to decide that." He handed the envelope to the detective.
   Altman opened it envelope and, donning latex gloves, pulled out what must’ve been about two hundred or so sheets.
   The detective led the men into the department conference room and spread the letters out on the table. Randall joined them.
   Some of them were typed or printed out from a computer-but these were signed, offering a small sample of the correspondent’s handwriting. Some were written in cursive, some in block letters. They were on many different types and sizes of paper and colors of ink or pencil. Crayons too.
   For an hour the men, each wearing rubber gloves, pored over the letters. Altman could understand the author’s dismay. Many of them were truly vicious. Finally he divided them into several piles. First, the email, none of which seemed to have been written by potential killers. Second were the handwritten letters that seemed like the typical innocent opinions of readers. None of these asked for details about how he’d researched the novel or seemed in any way incriminating, though some were angry and some were disturbingly personal ("Come and see us in Sioux City if your in town and the wife and me will treat you to our special full body massage outside on the deck behind our trailer.")
   "Ick," said young officer Randall.
   The final pile, Altman explained, "included letters that were reasonable and calm and cautious. . . . Just like the Strangler. See, he’s an organized offender. He’s not going to give anything away by ranting. If he has any questions he’s going to ask them politely and carefully-he’ll want some detail but not too much; that’d arouse suspicion." Altman gathered up this stack-about ten letters-placed them in an evidence envelope and handed them to the young detective. "Over to the county lab, stat."
   A man stuck his head in the door-Detective Bob Fletcher. The even-keeled sergeant introduced himself to Carter. "We never met but I spoke to you on the phone about the case," the cop said.
   "I remember." They shook hands.
   Fletcher nodded at Altman, smiling ruefully. "He’s a better cop than me. I never thought that the killer might’ve tried to write you."
   The sergeant, it turned out, had contacted Carter not about fan mail but to ask if the author’d based the story on any previous true crimes, thinking there might be a connection between them and the Strangler murders. It had been a good idea but Carter had explained that the plot for Two Deaths was a product of his imagination.
   The sergeant’s eyes took in the stacks of letters. "Any luck?" he asked.
   "We’ll have to see what the lab finds." Altman then nodded toward the author. "But I have to say that Mr. Carter here’s been a huge help. We’d be stymied for sure, it wasn’t for him."
   Appraising Carter carefully, Fletcher said, "I have to admit I never got a chance to read your book but I always wanted to meet you. An honest-to-God famous author. Don’t think I’ve ever shook one’s hand before."
   Carter gave an embarrassed laugh. "Not very famous to look at my sales figures."
   "Well, all I know is my girlfriend read your book and she said it was the best thriller she’d read in years."
   Carter said, "I appreciate that. Is she around town? I could autograph her copy."
   "Oh," Fletcher said hesitantly, "well, we’re not going out any more. She left the area. But thanks for the offer." He headed back to Robbery.
   There was now nothing to do but wait for the lab results to come back so Wallace suggested coffee at Starbucks. The men wandered down the street, ordered, and sat sipping the drinks, as Wallace pumped Carter for information about breaking into fiction writing, and Altman simply enjoyed the feel of the hot sun on his face.
   The men’s recess ended abruptly, though, fifteen minutes later when Altman’s cell phone rang.
   "Detective," came the enthusiastic voice of his youthful assistant, Josh Randall, "we’ve got a match! The handwriting in one of Mr. Carter’s fan letters matches the notes in the margins of the book. The ink’s the same too."
   The detective said, "Please tell me there’s a name and address on the letter."
   "You bet there is. Howard Desmond’s his name. And his place is over in Warwick." A small town twenty minutes from the sites of both of the Greenville Strangler’s attacks.
   The detective told his assistant to pull together as much information on Desmond as he could. He snapped the phone shut and, grinning, announced. "We’ve found him. We’ve got our copycat."


   But, as it turned out, they didn’t have him at all.
   At least not the flesh-and-blood suspect.
   Single, 42-year-old Howard Desmond, a veterinary technician, had skipped town six months before, leaving in a huge hurry. One day he’d called his landlord and announced that he was moving. He’d left virtually overnight, abandoning everything in the apartment but his valuables. There was no forwarding address. Altman had hoped to go through whatever he’d left behind but the landlord explained that he’d sold everything to make up for the lost rent. What didn’t sell he’d thrown out. The detective called the state public records departments to see if they had any information about him.
   Altman spoke to the vet in whose clinic Desmond had worked and the doctor’s report was similar to the landlord’s. In April Desmond had called and quit his job, effective immediately, saying only that he was moving to Oregon to take care of his elderly grandmother. He’d never called back with a forwarding address for his last check, as he said he would.
   The vet described Desmond as quiet and affectionate to the animals in his care but with little patience for people.
   Altman contacted the authorities in Oregon and found no record of any Howard Desmonds in the DMV files or on the property or income tax rolls. A bit more digging revealed that all of Desmond’s grandparents-his parents too-had died years before; the story about the move to Oregon was apparently a complete lie.
   The few relatives the detective could track down confirmed that he’d just disappeared and they didn’t know where he might be. They echoed his boss’s assessment, describing the man as intelligent but a recluse, one who-significantly-loved to read and often lost himself in novels, appropriately for a killer who took his homicidal inspiration from a book.
   "What’d his letter to Andy say?" Wallace asked.
   With an okaying nod from Altman, Randall handed it to the reporter, who then summarized out loud. "He asks how Mr. Carter did the research for his book. What were the sources he used? How did he learn about the most efficient way a murderer would kill someone? And he’s curious about the mental makeup of a killer. Why did some people find it easy to kill while others couldn’t possibly hurt anyone?"
   Altman shook his head. "No clue as to where he might’ve gone. We’ll get his name into NCIC and VICAP but, hell, he could be anywhere. South America, Europe, Singapore. . . ."
   Since Bob Fletcher’s Robbery Division would’ve handled the vandalism at the Greenville library’s Three Pines Branch, which they now knew Desmond was responsible for, Altman sent Randall to ask the sergeant if he’d found any leads as part of the investigation that would be helpful.
   The other men found themselves staring at Desmond’s fan letter as if it were a corpse at a wake, silence surrounding them.
   Altman’s phone rang and he took the call. It was the county clerk, who explained that Desmond owned a small vacation home about sixty miles from Greenville, on the shores of Lake Muskegon, tucked into the backwater, piney wilderness.
   "You think he’s hiding out there?" Wallace asked.
   "I say we go find out. Even if he’s hightailed it out of the state, though, there could be some leads there as to where he did go. Maybe airline receipts or something, notes, phone message on an answering machine."
   Wallace grabbed his jacket and his reporter’s notebook. "Let’s go."
   "No, no, no," Quentin Altman said firmly. "You get an exclusive. You don’t get to go into the line of fire."
   "Nice of you to think of me," Wallace said sourly.
   "Basically I just don’t want to get sued by your newspaper if Desmond decides to use you for target practice."
   The reporter gave a scowl and dropped down into an officer chair.
   Josh Randall returned to report that Sergeant Bob Fletcher had no helpful information in the library vandalism case.
   But Altman said, "Doesn’t matter. We’ve got a better lead. Suit up, Josh."
   "Where’re we going?"
   "For a ride in the country. What else on a nice fall day like this?"

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