The Story He Told

He didn’t look like a killer. Not that there really is a killer look. It’s more that having met so many—interviewed so many—you start to get a feeling. There are the self-justifying ‘she deserved it’ killers; the fatalistic ‘that’s the way things go’ killers; the spurned lover killers ‘I loved her so much no one else could have her’; and the sociopathic, narcissistic killers without conscience.

The last group is great fodder for detective television. They are mean, smart, successful, criminal masterminds OR they are brutish killing machines. Either way, they do not see the women they kill as human—more like toys that can be broken and tossed into the trash or pets that can be put down when the family moves. My book about them was a bestseller, because of the public fascination.

But most of the men who kill women are petty assholes. When I started my research, I was astonished at the pathetic creatures—safely imprisoned—and how they made the leap from ordinary Joe to murderer. Now, I see that most of the men who kill are sad, lonely, and most of all not very bright. Phillip was, if not a brilliant conversationalist, at least able to hold his own at a cocktail party (not that he’d ever attend one again) and to charm more than a few women over the course of his pre-arrest life.

His former wife, a studious bookkeeper, reported that he left her—and not the other way around. “He told me I was growing old and dull. That I wasn’t exciting anymore—I was never ‘exciting’ but he had dreams, fantasies of what I was, of what we were when we met, about how having kids would be a lark—you know, all family vacations to Disneyland and camping trips. Real life wasn’t happily ever after. Our son has severe asthma and he’s dyslexic like his dad. Our daughter tells me that all the attention we showed her brother made her act out when she was a teenager. She said she felt like an afterthought. Good God, what was I supposed to do? My husband was checking out, really just disappearing into himself. I was running my son to the emergency room in the middle of the night…

“When he said he wanted to be single and start his life over again, I said… ‘Go ahead honey and reboot. You’re not going to magically become someone else.’ Its ironic, considering what he did, he really did become someone else. Yes, a killer…. But someone infinitely more interesting than the man I was married to for fifteen years.”

Phillip sat on the other side of the table, wearing a prison jump suit, his right hand cuffed to the table and his feet manacled beneath it. A uniformed guard stood in the corner of the room, looking bored. I was far from the first reporter to interview Philip after his conviction, but I wasn’t just anyone…. I was his victim’s sister. The warden was concerned.

“You look too much like her. It might excite him. The doc put him on anxiety meds for a while, but the side effects were too much for him. He’s not; he’s not like the rest of them. It’s like he’s fragile. You could put him over the edge.”

I shrugged my shoulders. I had the permission from above the warden’s head. He wasn’t going to stop me from seeing Linda’s killer.

“I’ll wear my hair up and dress down. We were fraternal twins—not clones.”

Linda had the glamour, charm and sharp instincts that on-air reporting required. She went straight from her BA in journalism to local TV. I studied cultural anthropology and then got a Masters in psychology, before I started writing for news magazines. Different sisters, different routes, but both led to careers in media.

Linda, with her on-air persona, blew her curly hair straight each morning, kept it long and dappled with highlights. Mine remains stubbornly curly and the only streaks in the dark blonde color are from my last vacation at the beach. Still, there is a strong resemblance, so I put my hair up in a clip and wore glasses to hide my green eyes—so much like hers.

“Wow! You look like her but not her,” Philip said, starting to rise in his chair only to be stymied by the handcuff. “She told me she had a twin.”

“Fraternal,” I replied. “I’m Lisa. I’m not Linda, so don’t get bent out of shape.”

“I know the warden is worried.”

“Should he be?”

“No. No it’s just the resemblance is a…” He paused. “I didn’t kill her. I want you to know that. You write those books about men who kill women. You know about this. I’m not one of them. I’m not a killer and…” He paused again. “It’s still my fault that she’s dead, but I didn’t do it.”

“I’m here to listen to your story. But don’t get the idea that I’m your advocate. I don’t lobby for reopening cases. I’m not a lawyer or…”

“I know. I read your books. I read all about you. All I do is read. There’s nothing else to do here. My daughter won’t visit me. She wants to change her last name, take her mother’s maiden name or….”

“So tell me what happened.”

I put my phone down on the table and switched on the recording app.

“From the beginning, please.”

He described spotting my sister at the bar in SoHo.

“I knew she was out of my league, but what’s the harm in trying? Right? She was there with another woman. I guessed it was a friend from work.”

“Her producer at the TV station.”

“Yes, that’s the one. She left and Linda was just sitting there finishing her drink. It was a Cosmo, but made with rum not vodka. She looked so pretty—the red drink, the blonde hair, those green eyes…”

He looked up at me, studying me and I was glad I’d opted for glasses with a tinted lens. It dulled the color of my eyes to a muted grayish green.

“We started to chat about local news, about neighborhood stuff. About the ‘crime guy’ and how she wanted to get to the bottom of it. She said she thought it was a group of people…”

The ‘crime guy’ was the rage in New York that summer. He, or they, were leaving elaborate markers in spots connected to famous unsolved crimes—and some with dubious solutions like Etan Patz from 197X and the body of still unidentified young woman found in the stairwell of a walk-up in the East Village. The latter was blamed on a local teenager. He was convicted on the basis of flimsy evidence that was overturned ten years later when DNA testing eliminated him from the suspect pool. The wrongful conviction cost the prosecutors dearly—with a record settlement and demotions in the DA’s office.

These were crimes that haunted the city, crimes that were the subject of speculation, but without satisfying resolutions. The ‘crime guy’ with his spiffy black and white logo, marked buildings with signs reminding everyone that the post-Guiliani, post-Bloomberg New York carried scars left by serious acts of violence.

“You see,” Philip took a deep breath before continuing. “I knew it wasn’t a group. I knew the guy. He lived in my building. I’d seen him—in his dark hoodie, carrying an oversized duffle bag. He was, he was weird and a little scary, but…”

“But you followed him?”

“Yeah, I…” Phillip paused. “You see, I was trying to shake things up, trying to be a more interesting, more daring, more…”

“On the stand, you said that you were trying to be a macho guy, to have an adventure.”

“Those were my lawyer’s words. She thought that just saying I wanted to have a more interesting life, to do things that…. Well, none of it matters anyway. No one believed me. They believed the story I told your sister.”

“It was a better story, a more credible story…”

“Really? Was it really more credible? I had no motive for leaving those markers. No one, no one I’d ever known was the victim of a violent crime. My aunt’s car was stolen, but that was in California and… Why did she believe me? Why did she?”

I knew why Linda believed him. It was great story. The little guy—the unknown quiet everyman—taking a stance against the anonymity of the city, calling attention to crimes that have been lost into the background of New York City, losing significance the way the traffic sounds morph into the white noise so many of us sleep through.

“Go back a bit, would you.” I asked him. “Tell me about your neighbor, about how you came to see what he was doing, that he was the ‘crime guy’ in the news.”

“Well, at first I just thought there was this particular weirdo living across the hall from me on the top floor. But honestly, the entire building was weird. You know, East Village weird—artists, students, a family from Mexico, a professor from Turkey, a guy who liked to sit on the stoop on summer nights who said he was a ‘conceptual artist’ whatever that means. The guy, the one across the hall from me was just a little bit weirder. There was something about him. I couldn’t nail it down. But what did I know? I went from my parent’s home to a college dorm and from the dorm to the suburbs with my wife, my ex-wife…. I’d never lived alone. Never lived in the City….

“Then one day I ran into him on the street. I was carrying a bag of laundry to the place on the corner and so was he. It’s a fluff & fold, doing laundry-by-the-pound. We started to talk. Kind of impossible not to talk, we were going to the same place, from the same place. His laundry was black. He had black hoodies, black jeans, black socks, black T-shirts—not really all that weird in the East Village. Still, I found it interesting.

“The next day we ran into one another at the take-out counter of a Chinese restaurant. Both of us were reading the menus, trying to decide between the two special menus of the night—General Tso’s Chicken and Mu Shu Pork. He suggested that we sit down in the restaurant, order both and share both. ‘Why the hell not?’ I was thinking that maybe I’d make a real friend. All I’d done since I left my wife was go on lousy Internet dates and go to work. Work/date/work/date….

“Our conversation was the longest and easiest talk I’d had with anyone in months.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Current events: crime in the city, if we could handle another hurricane like Super Storm Sandy, who should run for mayor, why the MET Museum has a ‘suggested’ admission price and MoMA has a ticket price, that kind of thing. None of it was really personal. We talked about Internet dating, but only funny stories about picking places for dates. It was all about living in the city. I asked him which bagel place was the best and why people were lining up outside this little storefront shop with an eccentric ice cream menu.”

“You liked him?”

Philip nodded.

“He told me his name was Michael Hammer. I laughed and said it was like the Mickey Spillane character. He shrugged his shoulders, but kind of smiled, too. Said his folks were detective fiction fans—that his dad’s family name was Hammerschmidt, but he shortened it to Hammer, just because…. I thought we were becoming friends.”

“Did you tell him about yourself?”

“A little. But, but not really. I think I liked not telling him the boring, old truth about myself. I didn’t want my new friend, the first new friend I’d made since college, to think I was dull. I told him I had this boring job and that I’d just left my wife…”

“You didn’t tell him about your kids?”

Phillip shook his head.

“I told him I was writing a novel. That my wife and I broke up because I wanted time to myself, time to write, time to…. It was a stupid lie. But he was lying too. Lying about his name. About working as a paralegal for a criminal law firm. Everything that was even a little bit personal was a lie. The only truth was about being the crime guy, but he didn’t tell me that until later.”

“How much later?”

“That first dinner was in the spring, in early June. No it was the Thursday of the Memorial Day weekend, so that makes it May. We both noticed how many people were already leaving the city for the holiday. He made some crack about all the rich folks running off to beaches.”

Phillip swallowed.

“Did that bother you? What he said about rich people?”

“When I was married, we went to the Jersey Shore most summers. My wife, my ex-wife, her family had a couple of houses. It’s not the Hamptons or anything like that, not all fancy and expensive. Just a nice place to take the kids! The beach during the day a couple of beers at night and…”

“But you didn’t tell him that you were once one of those people going to the beach?”

“No, I didn’t want him to think…. It didn’t fit with what I’d already told him. Lying isn’t easy, you know. You have to keep track of things.”

“But you started lying all the time?”

“After that!” Philip’s nod was emphatic. “After that, when I started going out for a beer with him. I was this interesting guy, writing a novel and working at a stupid dead-end job. He was this weird guy with a cool name and then…”

“He told you he was the crime guy in the news?”

“Yes. He told me in July. It was around Bastille Day. A day before or a day after, I can’t remember which, but we were at this bar and they were had a special cocktail called ‘Storming the Bastille’ and Mike drank a couple, followed by some beer and that’s when he told me it was him.”

“Did you believe him?”

“No not at first. I thought he was joking with me. Then one night I came home from one of those really awful dates and saw him slipping out of the building wearing one of his black hoodies and carrying a big, black, backpack. I sort of followed him, trying to keep to the shadows, like in a movie…”

“And you saw him?”

Phillip nodded.

“Which marker was it?”

“It was the Gay bashing. The kiss good night story…”

“That was ten years ago….”

“Twelve. These two guys are on a date. One says he has to work in the morning they make a plan to see one another again. Kiss good night under a street lamp. And the guy who has to work walks to the subway. The other one decides to walk to a bar down the street, but then… You know the story. Everyone remembers that one.”

“Yes. He was beaten, badly beaten. Brain injury wiped out the memory. The police arrested the other man…”

“But then the realized it wasn’t him. Perfect for the crime guy—bad arrest, confusion, incompetence, never solved… I stood there long enough to watch him put up his marker and then I slipped away and got home long before him.”

“Did he see you?”

“I didn’t think so, but later he told me he did… He told me about his mission to remind the city of its sordid past. It was kind of cool. He was like that conceptual artist, creating a sensation and not signing it, just letting his work speak for itself.”

“Did he say it was art?”

“No, but I did. He liked that. He said it was both a political mission and art.”

“And then you met my sister.”

“Yes.” Phillip hung his head down.

“You told her you were the ‘crime guy’ that it was your political mission, that it was your conceptual artwork…”

“That’s what I said. And she believed me.”

“Why did you tell her that story? Why if it wasn’t you?”

“I wanted her to like me.”

“So you lied and said you were a, a…” I searched for the right word.

“An intriguing, fascinating, original individual…. That’s what she called me. She said that on TV. She said she’d discovered the identity of the ‘crime guy’ and that he was not a vandal—not in the sense of harming property for a thrill. She said I was a conceptual artist with a humanitarian political agenda, an everyman in the best sense of the word, that I was Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ combined with Denis the Menace, that I was shaking up the New York criminal justice system the way Snowden shook up the government and the CIA…”

“I remember that show. She said she was going to try to get you on camera, to do an interview.”

“I never said I’d do that. I never said I would go that far…”

“You weren’t going to go public?”

“No I would never…. I would never have claimed …”

Tears welled in Phillip’s eyes.

“You just wanted to impress a pretty woman?”

He nodded.

The next day, my sister didn’t show up at the TV studio. They found her body in the basement of an abandoned building that was about to be demolished. It was a few blocks east of Phillip’s walk-up apartment. There was a screed from the ‘crime guy’ and DNA evidence connecting Phillip to the murder.

“He killed her and he put me in here. He got my DNA from my garbage. He planted it. He framed me. He destroyed me when he killed her…”

“But she had already promised her audience an interview with the ‘crime guy.’ She had shared her notes with her producer and secretly recorded a phone call with you. She was sure you’d agree to the interview if they disguised your voice and face and…”

“It was just a story. I just wanted to impress her.”

Philip started to cry.

I left. There’s nothing more to the story. Do I believe him? Yes, I do. The real ‘crime guy’ is out there and now he’s a criminal—a killer—and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be caught. No one is looking for Mike Hammer, in his black hoodie, with his mission to show New Yorker’s the city’s dark history.

As for Philip, he’s just a pathetic wreck of a man. He’s sad and stupid in an ordinary way. All he wanted to do was tell a good story to a pretty girl.