Even the Wicked Page 3

By the time I was off the phone there were two different fighters in the ring, a pair of sluggish heavyweights. I asked how the other bout had turned out.

"Went the distance," TJ said. "Check it out-for a minute or two I thought I knew how to speak Spanish."

"How's that?"

"The ring announcer. He's talkin' away, and I'm understandin' every word, and I'm thinkin' it's a miracle and next time you gonna see me's on 'Un-solved Mysteries.' "

"The fight's being held in Mississippi," I said. "The ring announcer was speaking English."

"Yeah, well, I knows that. It slipped my mind is all, hearing all that Spanish from the announcers. And then when I did hear the English, I just thought it was Spanish and I was understandin' it." He shrugged. "Young dude got the decision."

"It figured."

"These two don't look to be in a hurry. They just takin' their time."

"They'll have to do it without me," I said. "I have to go out for a while."

"Some kind of business?"

"Some kind."

"Want me to tag along, maybe watch your back?"

"Not tonight."

He shrugged. "You be thinkin' 'bout that computer, though."

"I'll give it some thought."

"Ain't got much time, if we's gonna join the twentieth century."

"I'd hate to miss it."

"That' how they gonna catch Will, you know. Computers."

"Is that a fact?"

"Put all the letters the fool writes into the computer, press the right keys, an' it'll analyze the words he uses and tell you the sucker's a forty-two-year-old white male of Scandinavian ancestry. He be missin' two toes on the right foot, an' he a big Jets and Rangers fan, an' when he a child his mama whupped him for wettin' the bed."

"And they'll get all this from the computer."

"All that an' more," he said, grinning. "How you think they gonna get him?"

"Forensics," I said. "Lab work at the crime scenes and on the letters he writes. I'm sure they'll use computers to process the data. They use them for everything these days."

"Everybody does. Everybody but us."

"And they'll follow up a ton of leads," I said, "and knock on a lot of doors and ask a lot of questions, most of them pointless. And eventually he'll make a mistake, or they'll get lucky, or both. And they'll land on him."

"I guess."

"The only thing is," I said, "I hope they don't let it go too long. I'd like to see them hurry up and get this guy."


One newspaper column started the whole thing. It was Marty McGraw's, of course, and it ran in the Daily News on a Thursday in early June. McGraw's column, "Since You Asked," appeared in that newspaper every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. It had been a fixture in New York tabloid journalism for ten years or more, always with the same title, though not always on the same days, or even with the same paper. McGraw had jumped ship a few times over the years, moving from the News to the Post and back again, with an intermediate stop at Newsday.

"An Open Letter to Richard Vollmer" was what McGraw called this particular column, and that's what it was. Vollmer was an Albany native in his early forties with a long sheet of arrests for minor sex offenses. Then a few years back he'd been sent away for child molestation. He did well in therapy and his counselor wrote a favorable report for his parole board, and Vollmer returned to society, sworn to behave himself and devote his life to helping others.

He'd been corresponding with a woman on the outside. She'd answered a personal ad of his. I don't know what kind of woman thinks it's a good idea to exchange letters with a convict, but God seems to have made a lot of them. Elaine says they combine low self-esteem with a messiah complex; also, she says, it's a way for them to feel sexy without ever having to put out, because the guy's locked away where he can't get at them.

Frances Neagley's pen pal did get out, however, and there was nothing in Albany he wanted to get back to, so he came to New York and looked her up. Franny was a thirtyish nurse's aide who'd been living alone on Haven Avenue in Washington Heights since her mother died. She walked to work at Columbia Presbyterian, volunteered her services at church and block-association fund-raisers, fed and fussed over three cats, and wrote love letters to upstanding citizens like Richie Vollmer.

She abandoned her correspondence when Vollmer moved in with her. He insisted on being the only felon in her life. Before long she didn't have much time for the church or the block association. She still took good care of the cats. Richie liked the cats, and all three of them were crazy about him. Franny said as much to a co-worker who'd been alarmed at her friendship with an ex-prisoner. "You know cats," she crowed, "and what a good judge of character they are. And they absolutely love him."

So did Franny, who was about as good a judge of character as her cats. Remarkably enough, jail-house therapy hadn't changed her man's sexual orientation, and he went right back to the seduction of the innocent. He started by luring teenage boys to the Haven Avenue apartment with the promise of sex with Franny, showing them nude Polaroids of her as an enticement. (There was a slump to her shoulders and a bovine cast to her features, but otherwise she was a not-unattractive woman, with large breasts and generous hips.)

She gave the boys what Richie had promised them, whether grudgingly or enthusiastically. Some of her guests were very likely enthusiastic themselves when Richie joined the party and sodomized them. Others were not, but what recourse did they have? Richie was a hulking, powerful man, physically capable of taking what he wanted, and afterward the boys were compromised by having been eager participants in the first stage of the proceedings.

Things escalated. Franny emptied her savings account and bought a van. The neighbors grew used to the sight of Richie washing and polishing it on the street in front of the apartment house, clearly proud of his new toy. They didn't see how he'd tricked it out on the inside, with a mattress on the floor and restraints attached to the side panels. They would drive around town, and when they got to a likely spot, Franny would drive while Richie lurked in the back. Then Franny would find a child and persuade him (or her, it didn't matter) to get into the van.

They would let the kids go when they were finished. Until one day there was a little girl who wouldn't stop crying. Richie found a way to stop her, and they left the body in a thickly wooded section of Inwood Hill Park.

"That was the best ever," he told her. "That rounds it out, it's like dessert after a meal. We should have been finishing them off all along."

"Well, from now on," she said.

"The look in her eyes right at the end," he said. "Jesus."

"Poor little kid."

"Yeah, poor little kid. You know what I wish? I wish she was alive so we could do her all over again."

Enough. They were animals-a label we affix, curiously enough, to those members of our own species who behave in a manner unimaginable in any of the lower animals. They found a second victim, a boy this time, and dumped his corpse within a half mile of the first one, and they were caught.

There was no question of their guilt, and the case should have been solid, but piece by piece it fell apart. There was a ton of evidence the jury didn't get to see, testimony they couldn't hear, because the judge threw it out for one reason or another. That might not have mattered because Franny was set to confess and testify against Richie-they weren't married, there was no cloak of privilege to preclude her doing so.

When she killed herself, that ended that.

The case against Richie did go to the jury, but there wasn't much to it and his lawyer, Adrian Whitfield, was good enough to punch holes in it big enough for him to walk through. The judge's charge was the nearest thing to an order of dismissal, and the jury took a scant hour and a half to come back with an acquittal.

"It was awful," one juror told a reporter, "because we were all dead certain he did it, but the prosecution didn't prove it. We had to find him not guilty, but there should have been a way to lock him up anyway. How can someone like that be released back into society?"

That's what Marty McGraw wanted to know. "You may not be guilty in the eyes of the law," he thundered, "but you're as guilty as sin in my eyes, and the eyes of everybody I know, outside of twelve men and women forced by the system to be as blind as Justice herself…

"There are too many like you," he went on, "falling through the cracks of the system and making the world a bad place to live. And I've got to tell you, I wish to God there were a way to get rid of you. Lynch law was a hell of a way to run things, and only a fool would want to go back to vigilante times. But you're a powerful argument for it. We can't touch you, and we've got to let you live among us like an ineradicable virus. You're not going to change. You're not going to get help, and guys like you are beyond help anyway. You nod and shuffle and con therapists and counselors and parole boards, and you slither out onto the streets of our cities and go back to preying on our kids.

"I'd kill you myself, but it's not my style and I haven't got the guts. Maybe you'll step off the pavement and get hit by a bus. If you do, I'll gladly kick in for the bus driver's defense fund, if they're crazy enough to charge him with anything. They ought to give him a medal-and I'd kick in for that, too, with pleasure.

"Or maybe, for once in your awful life, you'll be a man and do the right thing. You could pick up a cue from Franny and put yourself out of everybody's misery. I don't suppose you've got the guts, either, but maybe you'll summon up the courage, or maybe somebody'll give you a hand. Because no matter what the nuns at St. Ignatius taught me, I can't help it: I'd give a lot to see you with a rope around your neck, hanging from a tree limb, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind."

* * *

It was classic McGraw, and very much the sort of thing that kept the tabloids hiring him away from one another at ever-higher salaries. His column was, as somebody had said, one of the things that made New York New York.

He'd tried his hand at other tasks over the years, and not without some success. He had published several books of nonfiction over the years, and while none had been a big seller they'd all been respectfully received. A couple of years back he'd hosted a talk program on a local cable channel, giving it up after a six-month run and a series of arguments with the station management. A while before that he'd written a play and actually had it produced on Broadway.

But it was with his column that he made his mark on the city. He had a way of articulating the anger and impatience of his readers, putting better words to it than they would have chosen yet sacrificing nothing in the way of plain-spoken blue-collar fury. I remember reading the column he wrote about Richie Vollmer, and I remember more or less agreeing with it. I didn't much care for frontier justice, but there were times it seemed better than no justice at all. I'd hate to see a lynch mob marching down the street, but if they stopped in front of Richie Vollmer's house I wouldn't have run out there and tried to talk them out of it.

Not that I gave a lot of thought to the column. Like everybody else, I nodded from time to time in agreement, frowned now and then at this oversimplification or that infelicitous turn of phrase, thought to myself that it would not be a bad thing at all if Richie was found dangling from a limb or a lamppost. And, like everybody else, I turned the page. Almost everybody else.

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