Authors: Douglas E. Richards
To my parents, Ron and Sandy,
and my sister, Pam,
for their undying love, support, and encouragement
Special thanks to Mike Koenigs, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, for sharing with me what it’s like to enter a prison and enclose oneself in a confined space with a ruthless killer, all in the name of science.
You’re a braver man than I.
ERIN PALMER SHOVED
the tip of a huge slice of pizza into her mouth and ripped off a piece hungrily. “Mmmm,” she said. She was starving.
She was already on her second bite while her parents and little sister, Anna, were still reaching toward the gargantuan pie in the center of the table to pick up their first slices.
Erin,” said her father, in an exaggerated tone. “You’ve got hands like a magician.” He turned to Erin’s mom. “Did you see that, Cheryl? She was so fast, it almost seemed like there was a piece already missing when the waiter put it on the table.”
Her father was teasing her, but Erin knew he wasn’t really troubled by her bad manners. He had already apologized for getting such a late start on dinner. It was a little after seven thirty and they usually ate at six. Anna had eaten a big snack after school, but Erin had been at soccer practice at the time with other sixth graders from around the area, and hadn’t eaten in what seemed like forever.
“We do have talented children,” noted her mother in amusement.
“Are you sure you don’t want to try tennis, Erin?” asked her dad. “I mean, you’re amazing on a soccer field. But anyone with hands that quick should find a sport where you can actually, you know …
use your hands
Erin groaned. Her parents wouldn’t miss one of her games for the world, but she knew her dad wasn’t a fan of soccer, even though he claimed otherwise. “I thought soccer was your favorite sport,” she challenged playfully.
“It is,” replied her dad with an impish grin. “I mean, if I had the choice between winning a million-dollar lottery or watching a soccer game—well, that would be a very tough call.”
“You should take the lottery, Daddy,” suggested Anna sagely.
thought Erin. There were just certain things they didn’t get. While Erin was almost twelve, her little sister was only eight and a half. “He was just kidding, Anna,” she said. “It really wouldn’t be a hard choice.” Erin turned to her father. “Be honest, Dad, if I wasn’t playing, would you
“Well … maybe a few games every four years during the Olympics,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
” said Erin triumphantly. “I knew it wasn’t really your favorite sport.”
sport that you or Anna play is my favorite sport,” her dad replied earnestly, and her mom nodded in agreement. Looking into their adoring eyes, Erin knew they both absolutely meant it, which made her feel warm inside. They had a way of doing that. Her parents were funny and smart and kind, and they loved her and Anna with a passion that showed every instant of every day.
The Palmer family continued chipping away at the massive pizza, although at an ever-diminishing rate as their hunger began to ebb. When they had finished, and were waiting for the bill, Ted Palmer announced that he needed to stop by his office for just a few minutes on their way home.
“How come?” said Anna.
“I have to check up on Mrs. Sinclair’s puppy. A black Lab. I spayed her late this afternoon and Mrs. Sinclair asked me to keep her ’til morning.”
“What’s her name?” asked Anna.
“I told you,” replied her father with a straight face. “Mrs. Sinclair.”
” squealed Anna. “Come
. You know I meant the dog.”
Anna took a second to digest this. “The dog’s name is
Her father nodded. “Really. I swear it. I might have gone with something else. But then again, she’s not my dog.”
“Is she cute?” asked Anna.
Ted Palmer rolled his eyes. “Are you
? Have you ever seen a black Lab puppy that wasn’t absolutely
? They don’t make them any other way.” He paused. “The truth is that dogs actually
to be cute. To be irresistibly adorable and appealing to humans; the species at the top of the food chain.”
As a veterinarian, he had explained the theory of evolution many times to his daughters. Erin totally got it, but she wasn’t sure Anna did. At least not completely.
“Interesting,” said Erin’s mom. “Never thought about it, but I guess the first species that evolved to become man’s best friend got a pretty good deal.”
deal,” said Ted Palmer. “There are almost eighty million dogs in this country. And most of them are treated like royalty. Meanwhile, wolves, which are superior to dogs in every survival characteristic there is—with the exception of their appeal to humanity—are an endangered species.”
“What about cats?” asked Anna.
“Good point. Cats have a different friendship with humans than dogs, but they haven’t done too badly either.”
“I think I might want to be a vet someday,” said Erin out of the blue.
A slow smile came over her father’s affable face.
“Yeah, me too,” chimed in her little sister.
“Sure,” said her mom wryly. “No kid ever dreams of being a patent attorney.”
“Not true, Mom,” said Erin quickly. “Um … that was my second choice.”
“Sure it was,” said Cheryl Palmer with a grin.
“Girls, you’re both very young,” said their dad. “If you decide to become vets, that would be great. But a lot can happen between now and then—so you should keep your minds open to other things.”
“Like becoming a patent attorney?” said Erin.
“Now let’s not get
” said her father, fighting to keep a straight face.
Her mother threw a balled-up napkin at him while both girls giggled.
Minutes later they had left the restaurant and were heading toward Ted Palmer’s office, sure they would never need to eat again. Night had fallen and the sky over the serene town of Medford, Oregon, was spectacular, as usual. There was no industry for many miles around, and although the Oregon rains came all too often, when the sky was clear the star field and moon were dazzling.
The Palmer Pet Clinic was located in a secluded wooded area about a quarter of a mile from any other sign of civilization along a narrow, semi-paved road. Douglas fir trees and ponderosa pines surrounded the clinic and towered above it. It was a serene, tranquil setting that Ted Palmer thought pets and their owners alike would appreciate. He had decorated the inside with posters of puppies and kittens in humorous poses and had painted each room either a light blue or mint green.
They pulled around back, and as soon as her dad unlocked the door, Erin and her sister raced ahead to where they knew the black Lab would be—past two exam rooms, through an inner door, and inside a large room that was a combination pharmacy and recovery area.
The cage of interest was on top of a long table in the middle of the room. Anna reached the crate the dog was in first.
She let out a bloodcurdling scream. A scream unlike anything Erin had ever heard come from her sister. A primal scream as loud and shrill as only a girl of eight could produce.
The puppy had been butchered
Erin saw the dog only seconds after her sister and thought her heart would explode. She fought to take a breath and comprehend what she was seeing. She couldn’t bear looking at the poor animal, but she couldn’t look away.
. As though she were paralyzed. The animal had been crippled and both of its floppy black ears had been sliced off. Its downy-soft black fur was matted with dried blood over the entire surface area of its small, broken body.
Erin seemed unable to turn her head, but threw her eyes out of focus so they wouldn’t continue to take further inventory of the damage to the poor dog. She bent over and vomited onto the floor just as her parents came charging through the door in utter panic, able to tell the difference between a scream of absolute horror and a more run-of-the-mill variety their youngest daughter might issue.
Erin’s father took one glance at the black Lab’s remains and gently but hurriedly pulled both of his daughters away from the crate, ushering them into their mother’s arms, one on each side. Erin turned and emptied the remaining contents of her stomach onto the floor and then pressed into her mother’s side once more.
Ted Palmer spun around the room, searching for something—anything—he could use as a weapon in case whoever did this was still on the premises.
It was too late. Alerted to their presence by Anna’s screams, a man was standing calmly near the opposite door to the room, waving a gun with its barrel extended to an unnatural length. Even though Erin was still a few months away from her twelfth birthday, she had seen enough action shows on television to recognize the long attachment as a silencer immediately.
The man approached and the entire family retreated as he did so, their backs against a table along one wall. Above their heads a strip of wallpaper, three feet wide, ran along the border between wall and ceiling, depicting the repeated image of a Dalmatian puppy playing with a ball.
The intruder tilted his head as if annoyed. “My luck has really been bad this week,” he said as though looking for sympathy. It was as if the bad luck he was speaking about involved something mundane, like a paper jam while he was printing, rather than being interrupted after mutilating a helpless animal.
“Take anything you want,” said Ted Palmer. “Just leave us alone.”
The man smiled serenely, but did not reply.
“If you tell us what you’re doing here,” said Cheryl Palmer, “maybe we can help you.”
“The cops have been after me,” the intruder explained, as though trying to be cooperative. “I don’t think they really
me,” he added, as if he couldn’t figure out how this could be. “But that isn’t uncommon, I guess. Anyway, I’m trying to keep a low profile. The cops almost had me a few miles from here, but I gave them a head fake and came this direction on foot. I assume this is your pet clinic,” he said, looking at Ted Palmer. “When I stumbled across it, I knew it was perfect. You’re kind of out of the way, and you’ve been closed for several hours. I thought this would be a great place to stay out of sight for the night.” He shook his head as though reprimanding a child. “And now you’ve ruined that.”
Erin found it almost impossible to breathe, as if her throat had constricted entirely closed. She pressed even more tightly into the crook of her mother’s arm and watched her father’s face. She could tell his mind was racing furiously. “Sorry about that,” he said calmly. “I’ve got some bigger crates in another room. You can padlock us inside until you’re ready to leave. We won’t cause any trouble. You can stay the night like you planned.”
“No,” he said sadly. “I appreciate the offer. But I’m afraid that won’t do at all.”
In that tiny instant something inside Erin felt a dread beyond dread. It was an instant frozen in time that presaged a horror beyond comprehension. The intruder was clean-cut and looked normal in every way, but his eyes were totally … dead. Lifeless. As if they weren’t connected anywhere. There was no feeling. No emotion. No
He moved his arm just slightly and fired at Erin’s mom in one smooth motion, and her entire face seemed to explode. Ted Palmer screamed and lunged at the man, but a slug exploded through the center of his body, just above his stomach, and blood spouted from him like water from an opened fire hydrant. His momentum carried him three more steps before he crashed into a glass bank of pharmaceutical cabinets, filled with a variety of bottles and other medical equipment. Several pieces of glass drove into his face, neck, and arms, releasing additional streams of bright red blood to add to the gore and exposed intestines.