Jennifer Milan opened the door to her apartment and smiled. The tall, dark haired man she met at the gym smiled back, holding up a bottle of wine and some flowers.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi back.” She held the door open wider. “Would you like to come in for a moment?”
He nodded and stepped into her living room. She watched him study her things and wondered at her luck. She stared at his tight rear and could not believe he was even the slightest bit interested in her. She knew she lacked the features a hotty like him probably fought off daily, but her personality often prevailed in situations of the opposite sex. Just not with this caliber of men.
“Nice place,” he said, turning to her. “Do you have a vase for these?”
Smiling, she stepped to the small kitchen and opened a cupboard. “You didn’t have to buy me flowers.”
“I like to pamper my dates. You are special.”
She felt her face blush as she filled the vase with water. “Benjamin, you’re embarrassing me.”
“Ben. Call me Ben. And your smile is dazzling when you blush.”
“Keep it up, I could get used to this.”
He removed the paper from the bundle of flowers and she trimmed the stems with scissors before placing them into the vase.
“Do you have an opener for the wine?”
“I thought we were going out to eat?” she teased.
“The best place in town,” he said as she searched in the drawer for the opener. “I thought we could relax a little before heading out, though. Get to know each other. Sometimes restaurants can be so—public.”
She thought that an odd way to put it, but said, “And noisy.”
“Yes.” He came around the counter and reached for the opener. “Here, allow me.”
Their fingers touched briefly and the electricity she felt between them at the gym returned. She was normally a cautious girl, but just a look from this one and the panties were probably coming off. She almost giggled to herself as she thought of how bad she was going to be tonight.
He must have seen something in her face. “What?”
She felt herself blushing again, but tossed her head, casually, and said, “Nothing.”
He smiled at her as he worked the wine open. “Glasses?”
Now, she felt like a school girl. Hold it together Jen. He’s just a guy. Hold it together. She couldn’t help it. She could get lost in those eyes. She opened the cabinet again.
“Do you have a hammer?” he said.
She turned from the cupboard and gave him a strange look. “A hammer?”
“Yes.” He continued to smile that beautiful smile of his and she couldn’t help herself. She smiled back.
“I do,” she said. “But what on earth do you need a hammer for?”
“I’ll show you.” His smiled change to a mischievous grin, and she actually thought he was joking with her.
He nodded, his eyes twinkling. “Just humor me,” he said.
She grabbed two glasses, set them on the counter in front of him and went to her utility closet as he poured the wine. “All right. One hammer coming up.” She rummaged around in her closet until she found the hammer her father had bought her when she moved out. Along with an assortment of tools he gave her, he said no one should be without a hammer. She remembered the vision of his serious face explaining to her what was important about living alone. If only he knew what she was going to be doing later tonight.
“Will this do?” she asked, handing the hammer over to Ben.
He raised the hammer high, and before she could react, brought it down on her head and the world went dark.
Jake Townsend looked into the mind of the killer and cringed. What he saw was both wondrous and appalling, something beyond comprehension, a psychopath having visions of normal everyday life with flashes of blood and violence. The killer tried, but couldn’t hide everything.
Benjamin Tolaver lay in the chair hooked up to ANDEE, the machine Jake developed to see into the human mind. Benjamin had a grin on his face though Jake could tell he was anxious. The man was sweating.
“Mr. Tolaver,” Jake said, “tell us one more time who Jennifer Milan is and what she means to you.”
Benjamin almost giggled. “You people are amazing,” he said. “I don’t know a Jennifer Milan so she means absolutely nothing to me.”
Jake watched ANDEE’s screens as the man answered and was surprised to see an open meadow with wildflowers blowing in the late afternoon breeze representing what he was thinking. Jake almost flinched when a sudden image of Jennifer Milan flashed up on the screen. She was covered in blood. It was only a brief flash, but it was enough for Jake to see.
The district attorney for Duval County, Rebecca Morney, winced ever so slightly, but then shook her head. She sat off to the side away from the others in the lab and took notes on a yellow legal pad. She was a short, overweight woman with a quick mind and deliberate movements. Formidable in the courtroom, she didn’t let anyone push her around. Her brown, shoulder-length hair matched her mood this morning, looking tousled and tangled in spots. Her pale blouse and brown slacks gave her a casual business look and Jake couldn’t ever remember seeing her in a dress. She glanced at him and scowled.
The wildflowers had returned and a puppy pranced through the meadow chasing a butterfly. Jake turned to his wife, who had a look of disgust on her face, and gave her a nod. Maddy sighed, but said nothing. He knew she believed this was all necessary, but didn’t like it. She confessed to him she felt like she was letting a killer into her own home and felt dirty. He understood and knew exactly what she was talking about.
ANDEE continued to display the puppies and flowers as Benjamin’s grin remained plastered on his face. Rebecca leaned forward and asked, “Can he see what we’re seeing?”
“No,” Jake said. “The body mold over him does not project an image. He’s basically staring at the underside of the material and the ceiling. He can’t hear us, either, unless I use the intercom system.”
Rebecca nodded and sat back. She turned and whispered something to the detective next to her but Jake could not hear what was said. The detective stood and approached the console where Jake controlled the system.
“May I?” he asked, indicating the microphone on the console.
“Be my guest,” Jake said. “Press this button to talk.”
The man pulled out some notes and cleared his throat. He pressed the button. “Benjamin?” Jake watched Benjamin Tolaver’s grin falter ever so slightly. “This is Detective Walters.”
“Detective. So nice to hear your voice. When did you get here?”
The vision in Benjamin’s head changed to a pool of black material that resembled tar and then quickly reverted to the flowers and puppies again.
“Just a few minutes ago,” Walters said. “Are you comfortable?”
“Good—good. We’re going to be here a bit.”
Benjamin didn’t answer, but a picture of Walters appeared on the monitors for a moment, a big, red, clown nose adorning his face. Jake almost laughed, but the seriousness of the situation did not warrant it, so he suppressed it. Maddy smiled slightly. Walters displayed no emotion whatsoever.
Walters flipped to a page in his notes and said, “Thursday, January 21. That date mean anything to you?”
“Should it?” Benjamin asked. The screens’ scenes wavered slightly, but remained on the puppy.
“Yes, it should. That’s the day Jennifer Milan died.”
“I’ve told you people before, I don’t know Jennifer Milan and had nothing to do with her death.”
The scene changed on the screen to show Jennifer Milan being struck with a hammer and her scream cut off in mid-vocalization. Benjamin’s face scrunched up, and then the puppy and flowers returned.
Jake knew from experience that the human mind could not conceal its own memories from itself. It tried, whether to protect the psyche, or in this case, lie to itself and others, but all it usually took was the mention of an event that had occurred in the mind’s past and the neurons fired too quickly to completely control the process. For his benefit, Benjamin Tolavar was doing a better job at controlling his thoughts than most, but he could not hide it from ANDEE. She saw everything.
“Where’s the hammer, Benjamin?” Walters asked.
The puppy sat panting in the flowers, then a bloody hammer being held in a hand popped onto the screen and vanished just as quickly.
“Hammers? Dead people? Women I don’t know? What are you getting at detective?” Benjamin asked.
“Desondra Miller,” Walters said, quickly.
Jake saw Benjamin’s face display a quick tic at the corner of his mouth, then it was gone. The screens flashed a brief picture of a young African American woman, her skull grotesquely misshapen and bloody. It lasted only a blink of an eye, then the playful puppy returned.
Maddy turned away, gasping.
Jake had discussed the effectiveness of rapid fire questions with Walters and Rebecca Morney before they began their ‘interrogation,’ explaining how they would probably see immediate results if they could keep the subject off balance. This worked well in normal police interrogations, but was dramatically effective with ANDEE. Walters actually smiled.
“Desondra Miller?” Benjamin asked. “Don’t know her.”
“March 26. The Lighthouse Apartment complex,” Walters spit out next.
The puppy in the meadow actually growled for a moment before being replaced with a scene from the inside of Desondra’s apartment. Desondra lay on the floor of her kitchen, dead, a hammer lying beside her. Flash. Wildflowers returned but the puppy was missing. In its place Walters was chasing the butterfly, then disappeared.
“Charlotte Mansion,” Walters said, before Benjamin had a chance to say anything more about Desondra Miller.
Flash. Charlotte sprawled across a bed with blood splattered everywhere. Flash. Flowers and puppies.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Benjamin said.
“April 23. Laurel Cove Condominiums,” Walters said, his voice rising slightly.
Flash. Charlotte Mansion tied to her bedposts, a hammer descending upon her head, crying. Flash. Puppy lying dead in a field of weeds, then instantly changing to flowers and hundreds of frolicking puppies.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Benjamin repeated.
Walters turned to Rebecca. “He’s our man.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “We need to find the weapon. We have no evidence against him.”
“This son-of-a-bitch killed these girls.”
“I know that,” Rebecca said. “But I can’t prove it. I can only hold him so long without evidence of a crime. He hasn’t confessed, nor has he provided us any useful information to help us find anything, and I repeat anything that will tie him to these murders.”
“How did you find him?” Jake asked.
“Guy in a bar overheard him bragging about beating his old lady with a hammer,” Walters said. “He’s not married. Lots of dates, but no steady girlfriend. He’s a playboy.”
“Bathroom!” Benjamin said again, squirming.
They ignored him.
“I can’t use any information we obtain with this machine,” Rebecca said. “The judge will throw it out.”
Even though the technology was proven, Jake knew the legal system would not accept the results using ANDEE. The lawyers had a field day with the ethical and moral implications of what they were doing. The only success they could claim was to provide information which would assist the investigation along towards traditional methods; finding evidence, weapons, bodies, things of that nature. One day soon, his machine would be admissible, but that day had not yet arrived.
“Sometimes we have success bringing out things they want to suppress by drawing up images of their childhood,” Jake said. “Ask him about his playmates and classmates in elementary school, his brothers and sisters, mother and father, anything that will cause his mind to give up the puppy and flowers charade as it reaches back into its past.”
Walters sighed. “It’s worth a shot.” He pressed the microphone button again and said, “Benjamin, just a few more questions and we’ll get you unhooked.”
“I’m going to piss my pants,” he said.
“You’re a big boy. You can hold it.”
Flash. Walters lying on the ground as urine sprayed on his face. Walters actually scowled. Flash. Back to the single puppy chasing butterflies. Jake knew at this point it was exhausting for Benjamin to keep up this mental game. He would give them what they wanted soon.
“Let’s talk about school, Benjamin,” Walters said.
“School. You know—reading, writing, arithmetic.”
“Just humor me, Benjamin.”
This statement seemed to upset Benjamin more than anything else. Flash. The scene changed to the inside of Jennifer Milan’s apartment with her back turned to him reaching for glasses in her kitchen cupboard. She turned with a funny look on her face and asked him, “A hammer?” Benjamin’s voice could be heard saying, “Just humor me.” She smiled and then, flash. The puppy urinated on the flowers. The scene with Jennifer was the longest sustained memory of the killings they had seen yet.
Walters had a sad smile on his face. “Who were some of your classmates?”
“My friends?” Benjamin asked.
“You’re doing very well, Benjamin,” Walters said. “We just need to learn a little about your background and character, and we’ll have this all cleared up.”
Benjamin frowned, but nodded his head. “All right. Anything so I can go home. You people have kept me long enough. I haven’t done a thing.”
“Right,” Walters said a little impatiently. “Friends?”
The scene on the screens changed to a boy of about eleven or twelve with pudding running down his chin, one front tooth missing as he grinned.
“My best friend from grade school was Tommy Chesner. He was an idiot, but I liked him.”
“Did you like any girls?” Walters asked.
“Sure. Lots. Becky Prince, Laura Flacks…uh…Susan Eliott…I really liked Susan. But she didn’t like me.”
Flash. A pretty girl with pigtails laughed with her friends and pointed while they chanted, “Benny peed his pants! Benny peed his pants!” Flash. The pretty girl, crying with a bloody nose. Flash. Sitting in what looked like the principal’s office with an older, scowling woman who slapped Benjamin in the face. “Now, that’s enough, Mrs. Tolaver. No need for violence,” the principal said. Flash. Benjamin looking at his bruised face in the mirror. It was hard to tell it was him, but Jake could see the eyes. The eleven year old had been beaten severely.
“What about in High school? How was school for you?”
“How was High school for anybody?” Benjamin said. “I hated it.”
“I got beat up a lot, ok?”
Flash. Benjamin trying his best to defend himself against a much bigger boy of about seventeen. A small mob egged them on. Flash. Benjamin in the hospital while a doctor told his mother he had a concussion. Flash. Dogs attacking the older bully, shredding his skin with their teeth. Jake was pretty sure this last scene was Benjamin’s imagination. Flash. Flowers and puppies.
“Yeah. Me and Tommy still hung out. He played football. I ran track. Cross country. I didn’t fill out until later. He got all the girls even though he couldn’t keep a grade above a D. Dumbass.”
“How about your parents? Were they good folks?”
Flash. Large man with large hands held another boy down and whipped him with a belt. The kid wailed in protest but this only made the man beat him harder. It must be Benjamin’s older brother. The man turned to Benjamin and, with a face filled with such rage it looked almost inhuman, snarled, “You stay right there, boy. You’re next!” Flash. A woman Jake now knew to be Benjamin’s mother, spread his butt cheeks and jammed a thermometer in his rectum with such force it snapped off. She had to dig it out while he squirmed and cried. “I told you not to get sick! I got things to do and don’t have time to take care of ya! Hold still, damn you! Look what you made me do.” Flash. He and his brother playing in a tree house and Benjamin accidently kicking loose a board, crying out in horror as his brother fell from the tree landing badly on his leg with a sickening crack. His brother screamed in agony. Flash. The man with large hands tying Benjamin to a chair and burning his skin with a lit cigarette. Flash. Puppies.
“My childhood was fine. My parents, good people. I really have to go!”
“We’re getting nothing,” Walters said to Jake. “His childhood was hell, but he’s not giving us anything we can use.”
“Hit him with one more question about his family, then bring up the hammer and say ‘Humor me’ when you do. You saw his reaction to that statement.”
Walters nodded and turned back to the microphone. “Did you have a sister?” Walters asked.
“Melissa. She died when I was nine.” Flash. Funeral where he and his brother were dressed in suits and his mother cried into a tissue. The man with large hands, scowled.
“She just died.” Flash. His father held a struggling youngster in a white frilly dress under the water in a bathtub. She flailed violently as he shook with rage. “Stupid bitch! Just like your mother! Teach you to back talk me!” He let her up and she gasped for air. She turned to him and spat in his face. He slammed her head against the porcelain and then pushed her face under the water. She did not struggle. “Dad! No!” Benjamin screamed at the man and pulled at his arms, but could do nothing. “Get the hell out of here!” his father yelled and backhanded him into the wall. Flash. Puppies swimming in a pond in the meadow.
Jake nodded at Walters. “Where’s the hammer that killed Jennifer, Benjamin?”
Flash. A bloody hammer was flung through the air into an unknown body of water. There was nothing remarkable about the surroundings. Flash. Back to flowers.
“What? What did you say?” Benjamin asked.
“Your father killed your sister. Where is the hammer Benjamin? Humor me.” Jake tried to stop him.
“My father did no such thing. Why would you say that?”
“He doesn’t know we can read his mind,” Jake said to Walters.
Walters ignored him. “What did your brother do, Benjamin? What did your brother do?”
Flash. His brother held a shovel in his hands as their father lay at his feet in a bloody heap. His brother wept bitter, angry tears as he shouted at the dead man. “Bastard! Bastard! Bastard!” Flash. Benjamin crying and begging his brother, “I won’t tell! I won’t tell!” His brother approached him with a pillow and wept as he said, “It won’t hurt Benny. Just be still…be still.” The pillow covered his face and he struggled with the older boy but couldn’t break free.
Jake watched the screens as young Benjamin Tolaver began to lose consciousness. The muffled sounds of his protestations came through the speaker system as the panic Benjamin was feeling spread to Jake, Maddy, Walters and the DA. Jake expected the scene to break away and take them all back to the puppies and flowers, but it was as if Benjamin Tolaver’s memories had a will of their own. The vision on the screen started to grey out and shrink, like tunnel vision, and Jake had a sudden feeling this was going to a place he did not want it to go. Maddy moved next to him and grabbed his arm.
The scene quickly shrank to a pinpoint of light and then sprang back open with a view from above Benjamin as his brother killed him. A horrible screeching sound blared from the speakers and Walters stood up quickly as the DA flinched and covered her ears.
“Oh no!” Maddy said, as Jake jumped to the controls and hit the abort button. The screeching immediately stopped and the screens went blank. Silence settled over all of them and Walters stared at the blank monitors with an expression Jake could not read.
“What the hell was that?” Rebecca asked, removing her hands from over her ears.
Benjamin shook uncontrollably in the chair inside the chamber and they could hear him gasping as he relived the memory.
“That was a Near Death Experience,” Jake said.
“A what?” Walters asked.
“A Near Death Experience. An NDE,” Maddy said. “He was reliving a time in his life where he actually died and came back.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Rebecca asked.
“Does it look like we’re kidding?” Jake asked.
“Why did you stop it?” Walters asked. “It looked like we were actually getting somewhere.”
“That may be,” Jake said, “but this type of activity I will not allow with this system. It’s too dangerous.”
“We’ve had sessions with subjects of NDE’s and they’re very powerful. The machine is able to see into their experiences and augment the effects of it.”
“Yes,” Jake said. “Things happen and people have even been injured…or worse.”
“Or worse?” Rebecca asked. “What is worse?”
“I can’t say,” Jake said. “That information is classified and I’m prohibited from discussing it further. Just take our word for it. You don’t want to see what happens.”
“Maybe we do.”
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t allow the machine to take us there. It’s too dangerous.”
Rebecca Morney threw up her hands in exasperation. “Then you’re wasting our time,” she said. “What can you allow us to do?”
“You can continue your interrogation as long as it does not invoke the NDE memory or anything associated with it. We do not want him remembering the experience while he is hooked up to ANDEE.”
Benjamin’s whine disrupted the conversation. “I really need to go to the bathroom, people. I’ve told you that like ten times!”
“I knew this was a waste of my time,” Rebecca said. “Get him out of there so we can take him back to jail.”
“We need more,” Walters said.
“We’re not going to get more,” she said. “According to this scientist,” she pointed to Jake as if he were some disease, “he’s our killer. We just can’t prove it.”
“We need more,” Walters repeated.
“Then you do your job and get me more—the old fashioned kind—you know, police work where you actually find evidence.”
Walters scowled but said nothing.
Rebecca Morney collected her things, stood, and turned to leave. “Call me when you have some real evidence,” she said as she showed them her back. The door closed silently behind her.