As I paced the stage in the small town hall auditorium, it began to dawn on me exactly how lucky I was. Most detectives, even those that spend years studying the craft before entering the field, wait years, sometimes decades before dealing with a case like this. Even then, very few are able to crack it and even fewer solve it with an epiphany out of the blue.
Indeed, this was a once in a lifetime moment for me, or so it seemed, and I was going to take a moment to relish it.
Though the auditorium didn't have much in the way of equipment, I made do with the overhead projector and stack of aluminum easels they had in storage. From there, it only took a steady hand, a good marker and a few over-sized pieces of poster board to create the drawings I needed and a few minutes on my computer to develop the transparencies I wanted.
I knew that I was playing to a tough house. Even Mike and April were very skeptical of my solution. However, a few quick interviews and a return trip to the site more or less proved my case and left Mike feeling so sure of my work that he called a meeting of all of the survivors and families of the victims. I, in turn, asked that David be included on the guest list as I did the local police. I figured they too would be interested in what I had to say.
However, Mike's confidence nor April's support did anything to waylay my nerves. As I frantically went through my impromptu presentation, April set out folding chairs for the guests and checked all of the signs outside. Though refreshments weren't being served, I sure as Hell at least wanted to offer the courtesy of making sure everyone could find the place with ease.
About fifteen minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, the guests began to trickle through the door. Since most of the faces were new to me, I took a moment to introduce myself to each group as they came in. Not only did they seem genuinely relieved to meet me face to face after receiving Mike's call, but it did wonders to take my mind off of my upcoming presentation.
Originally I had expected only six or seven of the families to be represented, but by about ten minutes after I was scheduled to begin, the small auditorium was standing room only and, by my count, all ten of the victims of the turn had someone there and two of the survivors had shown up. Also, to my further surprise, so did the local police, in full uniform, and even David Marx sneaked in as I was preparing to start opening remarks.
Once I was sure everyone was seated, I dashed up to the stage and positioned myself front and center. Almost immediately I realized that, without a podium or even a mic to hide behind, I felt very vulnerable and awkward. However, the tension was far too thick to turn around now and, with only a slight crack in my voice, I began.
“As most of you know by now, my name is Special Detective Tony Altru. I have spent much of the past month investigating the bizarre accidents on Route 81. As you all are aware, ten people have died on that road in the past two years and another three have been seriously injured. It is, officially the deadliest turn in the state and it's apparently become embroiled in some local folklore about a curse on the property. I'm here today to assure you that there's no such thing.”
Some members of the audience began to get uneasy and either started whispering among themselves or idly shifting around in their chairs. Though they were all fairly quiet, in the high ceiling auditorium it sounded more like a dull roar.
“Now, before I begin, I want to apologize to some of you. When I first began this investigation, I tried to tie together the victims. While this is a tried and true method of investigating that usually yields great results, this time it was the wrong approach to take and, in the process, I can tell that I brought up some painful memories for a few of you. For that I am sorry.”
Only Mr. Carney reacted to that statement. Though I couldn't tell if he was still bitter or if my apology had helped at all, it seemed to have had an impact on him and, in the end, that was the best I could hope for.
I walked over to my first easel and unveiled a diagram of the turn. It was a crude drawing, lines for the road, circles for trees and a mass of scribbling to represent the embankment, but it was clear and legible.
“Now,” I continued as I pulled out my laser pointer to use with the diagram, “All of the accidents took place on this turn. In every case the car was traveling northbound, on the road, lost control at the start of this turn and slammed into the embankment without any evidence of braking or trying to swerve away. The question on everyone's mind tonight is 'What did that happen?'”
The crowd was already getting impatient with me, though I'd only been talking for about ten minutes, some of the men were checking their watches and the women were folding arms across their laps. David, for his part, seemed ready to fall asleep and the cops were standing at the back chatting among themselves.
“Now, to understand how it happened, we have to understand what happened and that means looking at what the accidents had in common,” I walked over, flipped on the overhead and threw on my first slide, a bulleted list of similarities, “All of the accidents took place between four and seven in the evening on clear days. All of the victims were driving roughly fifty-five miles an hour and they were all alone. Most were driving light colored cars and none, as far as we know, had music on in their vehicle.”
The crowd erupted, no longer were they whispering politely between themselves, but now they were talking to one another, loud enough where I could easily hear snippets of their frustration as they vainly tried to keep their bitterness quiet.
“If you'll let me finish, I promise this will all be worth your time,” I said motioning for them all to calm down.
One of the family members stood up from his chair, “What does this have to do with how my daughter died?”
“What do you mean?” I asked flatly.
“I mean, music, come on, what does that have to do with anything? If I found out that you dragged me here to feed us a line I'm going to…” his wife reached up and pulled him down before he could finish his sentence.
“Music,” I continued, trying to keep my voice calm, “Probably doesn't mean anything to you. But it would have meant everything to Jeffery Marx.”
Some of the members of the crowd let out a sharp gasp. It was obvious that the name had been elevated to something of bogeyman status in the area and these people, either consciously or unconsciously, were scared of him.
More importantly though, I knew I had their attention.
I walked back up to the overhead projector and swapped out the slide for another bulleted list, this one about Jeffery Marx. “Mr. Marx, by profession, was a hypnotist. After his graduation from college he embarked on a mildly successful private practice using drugs to induce hypnotism. Though he was good at what he did, he was too controversial and was shut down, after which, he was forced into stage hypnotism.
“Unfortunately, drugs don't work well on stage and Marx was never able to use sound successfully. These days you can buy tapes to do it for you, but back then he resorted to bribing his participants, which was what led to his second downfall.”
The crowd was unimpressed, they had heard all of this before. Least impressed was David who was literally twiddling his thumbs to keep himself occupied.
“What isn't known is that, after his father's death and subsequent move to this part of the world, Jeffery resumed his studies. However, rather than taking up his old trick of using drugs again, he delved into something relatively new, hypnotism through light. He pushed forward into the subject, apparently making a lot of progress and even doing a few test trials of it, only to have that come to a halt when he launched his campaign against the new highway.
“Unfortunately, like almost everything else he tried, Jeffery failed at stopping the highway. Though it didn't drastically hurt his farm subsidies like he had predicted, it was still a personal defeat.”
The family members started taking slightly more interest in what I was saying. The new information, as little as it was up to that point, had whet their appetites nicely and I decided to keep the ball rolling.
“But then, he saw something, an opportunity. Here was a man who was a total failure. He was known as a fraud hypnotist, a lunatic and now a failed political figure. He saw a chance to prove his authenticity and he went for it, even though it would mean that many people would get hurt or killed, sadly, including you and your family members.”
The crowd was literally on the edge of their seats. Every time I stopped to take a breath I could hear nothing but the sound of perfect silence coming from them. Even David had started paying attention to my speech.
Unfortunately though, I realized that I had gotten ahead of myself and that I needed to backtrack some to adequately explain what was going on.
“Now, Jeffery knew where the road was going to go, the path had already been cut and some of it even paved. He knew that the speed limit would be fifty five since that's the standard speed limit on these types of highway and, with that simple knowledge, he laid out a plan. For his final act of revenge, he did one simple thing, he erected a tree wasll along the road.”
The room let out a sharp groan, the anti-climax was uncontrollable. Several people stood up to shout at me but all were dragged down by their husbands, wives or children. Finally, after a few moments of murmuring, Mr. Carney stood up and said, “What the Hell does a tree wall have to do with this?” The crowd murmured their approval.
I scratched my head idly and gave him a few seconds to cool off, “If you'll let me finish, I'll tell you.”
With that Mr. Carney sat back down and, slowly, the room began to quiet.
“I spoke with Jeffery's landscaper the other day,” I continued, “Though this company erects tree walls all the time, Mr. Marx's was a first. He didn't want just a simple tree wall to hide the house from the road, he wanted it done his way exactly. He had marked where he wanted each tree planted and even picked out the trees from his lot. The landscaper noticed that the spacing was uneven and tried to sell him on a more straightforward approach that would be cheaper and offer more privacy. Jeffery didn't bite. However, since he exhibited the same kind of totalitarian control over his flower beds, the workers wrote it off as him being an obsessive-compulsive lunatic and merrily took his check.
“However, the truth is that the tree wall was more than a privacy screen, it was a weapon. A weapon that became activated when the sun started to go down.”
I walked over to the second easel and revealed another drawing of the curve. This one had the tree line clearly marked and a series of black streaks running across the road. My audience, for their part, was looking back and forth bewildered, wondering where I was going with this.
“As you can see on this diagram, as the sun sets in the west, it causes the trees to project a series of shadows onto the road. These shadows produce patterns of light areas and dark areas on the road. As as a person drives down the road, flashes of light are reflected off of the hood and, some times, into the person's eyes. Jeffery, for his part, spaced the trees perfectly so that, if you were driving fifty five miles an hour, the trees would simulate a pattern of lights used to relax and subdue someone undergoing hypnosis.”
The crowd finally reacted sharply. There was so much shuffling and murmuring that none of it was coherent. The survivors, were the only ones not moving around, they sat almost completely still as the realization began to sink in.
“Now, this isn't a perfect or even a good set up,” I continued once the crowd died down, “There's a million ways it can go wrong. If you drive too fast or too slow, the pattern is just irritating. If you have distractions around you such as a car stereo or another person in the vehicle, you likely wouldn't pay enough attention to the flashes in order for them to have an effect. Finally, you had to be susceptible to hypnosis. Likely candidates there are people who were tired, older or somehow rendered weak mentally or had their focus dampened. However, driving along route 81 for a few miles is enough to make you zone out no matter who you are.
“But, despite all of the odds against it, it still worked thirteen times in the past two years and, if given long enough, will work again. All it takes is the exact right combination of variables to come together and, as you all know, tragedy strikes.”
The crowd began to rise up again. I phased out for a second and began to watch and listen to their talking. From what I could tell, it was all a mixture of patting me on the back and disbelief of my theory. Though I had done the math and confirmed the pattern, I knew that breaking out my calculator wasn't going to quell their doubt. Instead, I just decided to let them debate it amongst themselves and let time prove me right.
After all, I didn't care if they believed I was a voodoo priest that lifted the curse or a good detective, all I wanted was the killing to stop.
One of the men in the crowd stood up and snapped me out of my daydreaming, “What are we going to do about this?”
“I'm glad you asked,” I responded trying to sound courteous, “I invited the current owner of the land, David Marxam, Jeffery's son, here so that we can get his permission to cut down some of the trees in the tree wall. It wouldn't take much to break the pattern, a few dozen along the mile stretch perhaps, but we still need his permission to do it.”
David seized the moment and stood up, “Um, I just want to say that I'm sorry about this. Listen, I had no idea this was going on, I just, well, I just thought it was a bad curve, that's all. I didn't know what my father had done. I'm sorry, very, very sorry” he said in a solemn, timid tone.
An unintelligible cat call came from the back of the room causing David to hang is head for a second. “Listen,” he continued, “I can't make it up to you guys, I know. But, if it'll do any good, you can cut down all of the trees you want. Take down the whole damn thing for all I care. It's not worth this.”
“Thank you David,” I said calmly, “I'll see to it that crews are there next week. The rest of you, don't hate him for what's happened to you and your relatives. It's not his fault. He didn't know. If you're going to take it out on anyone, make it your local police.”
The comment caught the cops off guard. They broke their conversation suddenly and nearly fell over. I met their gaze for a split second, one of them, though I couldn't tell which, hated me with such ferocity that he was almost foaming at the mouth. The other just threw a cold, icy gaze that looked almost criminal in nature.
“You see,” I said with a smile, “Jeffery Marx based all of his calculations on the speed limit being fifty-five. What he didn't predict was that, due to the dangerous turn, that most of the mile was actually reduced to a forty five mile an hour zone. Of course, you didn't know that and neither did your deceased relatives because the sign was hidden behind an unpruned branch. However, the police did know about it and ignored it because it made collecting speeding tickets that much easier.”
One of the two officers lurched forward as if to rush the stage but was held back by his buddy. Almost the entire crowd turned around to face the two of them, some were shouting obscenities, some were simply asking, almost pleading, for them to say it wasn't true. The men behind the badges said nothing. The one that had just tried to rush me stood there and foamed, locking his gaze on me while completely ignoring the mob forming around him while the other hung his head slightly and let the realization sink in.
Mike came onto the stage. For most of the talk he had entrenched himself in the corner beside me, content on watching from the sidelines. I'd offered to let him explain it but he said, since I was the one that cracked the case, I got to break the news. Truth is, he just didn't want to do it. Whether he didn't think he could explain it or simply didn't understand it, I don't know, but at this moment he realized he could make a major political move and leaped for it.
“My name is Mike Digowski,” He said in his typical politician tone, “I'm with the state Police Commission and I'm going to do everything I can to ensure that there is a full investigation of these two officers and their actions and, if anything is found, they will be disciplined.”
That did nothing to soothe the crowd, I seriously doubt half of them even heard his comments. They continued yelling and the dull roar was become a loud, almost violent mess. By now both of the officers were fully aware of the crowd around them and were starting to looked panicked at the sight of the the angry populace.
Unsure of what to do, the one that had been moping just a few minutes before tapped his buddy on the shoulder and motioned for them to get out. They did so, backing out slowly with a loud, jeering mob not far behind them. When they hit the door of the auditorium, they broke off into a trot.
The audience pursued no further. Rather, the shouting became a dull murmur and then an almost universal exhale. The two cops were gone and they were going to have to deal with their neighbors later. Though I could tell from their faces that the crowd had gotten no peace from their shouting match, I figured that they could now begin to heal, because, if nothing else, they now had the truth.