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The Fact of Murder


John Philpin

"You are playing God," Patricia said.

She tied her flower-patterned apron behind her back, turned, and strode to the kitchen where she stirred her vegetarian lasagna sauce with a wood spoon.

He tried to organize his thoughts.

Dr. Herbert Fairbairn, a successful, respected psychologist, had questioned his own motivation when he decided to proceed with his experiment. He did not consider himself any sort of god. Anyway, as far as he could remember his mythology, there was no god of murder.

He had tried to reason with Patricia. She called him Dr. Frankenstein.

"Don’t be silly," he said.

Fairbairn told his fiancée she was too emotional, not rational about his plan at all. "I never should have opened my mouth," he grumbled.

But who could he tell? He had to tell someone, and his professional colleagues were out of the question. He could not trust any of them with something like this. Mort Phinley, Ph.D., would give up his Beamer for a shot at a paper in the journal.

Trish poked her head through the doorway from the kitchen. "I'm gonna call the police."

She disappeared.

Fairbairn pushed himself off the sofa and walked to the doorway. "What happens when the cops get their hands on a man like this?" he asked.

Trish layered noodles in silence.

"They lock him away in a prison," Fairbairn said. "And what good does that do?"

"He stops killing people."

"Another one or ten like him come along. We won't know anything more about what makes someone like this do what he does than we did before. They locked up the Boston Strangler, and he was murdered in prison. That man had volunteered to be studied. They executed Ted Bundy, and he was ready to tell the whole story. All he wanted was a few more months of life."

Trish spun away from the stove and came at Fairbairn, menacing him with the wood spoon. "What if that monster kills again?" she demanded. "You can't be sure, Herbie. You can't take that risk."

But the risk was his to take. The cops had not caught Bill Myerson. There had been four stranglings in town, and they didn't have a clue. It was Fairbairn who had found the killer, and it had not been difficult to do.

All four victims were women between 28 and 35, blonde, living alone, and employed in clerical jobs. While they shared little facial resemblance, their builds were approximately the same—average height, slightly overweight. Each victim had been strangled with an apron or towel in her own kitchen while preparing a meal. The police certainly were aware of all this, but what they had done with the information, and what Fairbairn had done, were entirely different. The psychologist had developed a personality profile of the killer.

Fairbairn explained his theory to Trish. "These guys typically have been exposed to violence, either as victims or observers. They're traumatized by the experiences. As they get older, they generalize all their perceptions of the people in their lives, the roles these people played. The victims are all around thirty. I figure that's how old his mother was when it happened."

"Why not an older sister?" Trish had asked. "And how can you be so sure that anything traumatic happened?"

The psychologist paced the room. "I think that my boy was about ten. His mom was around thirty, and promiscuous. Dad was a drunk, and he beat Mom. He was promiscuous, too, but he was also dependent on his wife, and he hated that. He blamed her for that. The beatings probably occurred with some frequency, usually in the kitchen around mealtime. Statistically, we know that's true for most spousal abuse and homicide. Do you see the irony here? The adulteress was behaving in a nurturing manner — the preparation of the meal — when her husband tapped into that reservoir of rage he carried around with him. Our little boy was in a panic. He was afraid his mother would die, and he feared for his own safety. He was too young to run. He had only one choice: identify with the aggressor. By becoming his father, he didn't have to fear his father."

"I think I understand the theory," Trish said. "But how do you use that to find the killer?"

Fairbairn smiled. "I have found him."

The psychologist had used his profile of the killer to develop a list of assumptions. Each assumption could be translated into a possible event and period of time for that event, and all of the assumptions were verifiable through the use of public records, or confidential records which his position allowed him to access. Multiple visits to the hospital for Mom. Arrests for drunk and disorderly or simple assault for Dad. An eventual divorce. The boy, the couple's only child, remains with his mother. A quiet, compliant youngster who lost interest in school and dropped out, but would have been too timid to leave the area.

Based on his age estimates, Fairbairn examined three five-year blocks of time, and generated a list of more than 200 possible families. Applying his criteria from the profile, he pared the list to three. One of the men lived in a distant city. Another had been paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. Bill Myerson drove the delivery van for a local business supply store that all the victims’ employers patronized.

"The police might well have questioned him," he told Trish. "If they didn't, they should have. Super Stationer is the only bulk supplier in town. They must have three or four hundred accounts. The police don't like coincidences, but that one wouldn't seem like such a big deal."

"You went to see him, didn't you?"

"Of course."

Fairbairn had walked through the evening rain three weeks earlier to a modest apartment building near the center of town. In response to his knock, a handsome, dark-haired young man had opened the door to number 42.

"My name is Herbert Fairbairn. I'm a psychologist here in town. I think you need to talk with me."

It was difficult to read the young man's expression in the dim light of the hallway. But, after a long pause, Bill Myerson opened the door wider and said, "I guess I do need to talk to someone. Come in."

"Have the police been here?" Fairbairn asked, as he walked into the small, neat, studio apartment.

Myerson gestured toward a chair. The psychologist slipped out of his raincoat, which the young man took and placed on a hook by the door.

"They came to see me at work," Myerson said. "It was awkward, a bit embarrassing. But they went away."

The young man sat on the sofa across from Fairbairn and stared at his hands. After several minutes of strained silence, the psychologist offered Myerson the usual opening line: "Well, where would you like to begin?"

"I'd like to know how you found me."

Fairbairn omitted the details of his theory, but did explain the mechanics of his search.

"You haven't gone to the police," Myerson said.

"I want to help you," Fairbairn answered simply.

Now, Fairbairn made his argument to Trish. "There were four stranglings in thirty-eight days. Since I started working with this young man, there have been none. Three weeks, Trish. Not a one. He is making progress, and I'm beginning to have a pretty clear idea of how his mind works."

At first, Myerson had been vague about his role in the killings. "I think I must have done them, but I'm not sure,” he said. “I remember, but I don’t remember.”

Fairbairn forced his patient to focus. “There was something very familiar about that first woman,” Myerson said. “I made a delivery where she worked and just caught a glimpse of her in the front office, but that was all it took. I felt as if I knew her from somewhere, and that she was trying to pretend she didn't know me. It was a strange feeling, then it was gone."

Myerson spoke simply but as directly as he could. Fairbairn was convinced that his subject was as forthright as he could be, and that the young man was not yet ready to deal with the issue of the similarity of the victims to his mother.

"The second woman," Myerson said. "I'd see her a lot when I'd go up to that office. I never felt anything at all about her, until one day I was up there and she was telling another secretary about an argument she'd had with her boyfriend. She said, 'I told him that he needed me more than I needed him.' I felt as if she was saying that to me, or that she had said it to me before. I was angry, and I wanted to say something, but I couldn't. I mean, she wasn’t really talking to me."

Fairbairn knew, of course, that this was Myerson psychologically becoming his father. His mother probably had said something very similar.

"I knew a lot more about the third woman. We even dated a few times, but she made me nervous. She was always coming on to me. Some guys like that, but it bothered me. I felt like I was doing something wrong. So, I broke it off. Then, whenever I went up there with a delivery, she teased me about it."

Classically Oedipal, Fairbairn thought. Myerson's mother would have sought her son's affection, perhaps to the extent of excessive, even inappropriate hugging and fondling, then, in his view, rejected him for "other men." Here was yet another source of rage.

But it was this third woman who facilitated Myerson's breakthrough. "I had been to her apartment before, of course. I don't know why I went there that night. It was as if I was looking for something, but didn't know what. She was surprised to see me. She was cooking dinner, and she had on this apron. She was friendly, invited me in. She even apologized for teasing me at work. She fixed drinks, and then excused herself to go to the kitchen. She knew I hadn't eaten and said she'd fix something for me, too. That made me angry. I told her not to. I called to her in the kitchen, but she didn't answer. So, I went out there."

Myerson was breathing heavily, perspiring. "She was at the stove with her back to me. 'I don't want anything,' I told her again. She smiled, said I must have wanted something to have come there. She walked over to me, took my arms, and put them around her. I had to make her stop that. When I untied her apron, she thought that I was going to undress her. She pushed herself against me. I knew she must have been with other men like that. I had to stop her. She said, 'You want something from me.' It was just like my mother used to say to my father. And to me sometimes, too. My head was pounding. My eyes were watering so bad I couldn't see. Everything was blurred. The whole time I held the apron knotted around her throat, I didn't even try to look at her. When she fell on the floor, my headache went away, and my eyes cleared. I looked at her, and I felt relieved."

“Number four was very much like number three,” Fairbairn had said.

Myerson nodded.

Fairbairn told Trish: "The likelihood that Myerson would repeat his crimes is practically nil."

"That's a probability," she said. "And it's one that has to do with life and death, Herbie. Four people are already dead."

"I can't help them," Fairbairn said. "I'm doing something that will help others."

"What good is it?" she argued. "You can't tell anyone about it. If he is cured, you can't write it up and tell others how to do it."

It was, perhaps, the only question for which Fairbairn had no answer. He had kept copious notes on his un-named "Subject #1," but they were useless.

Myerson's progress continued. Fairbairn considered it remarkable.

During one session, Myerson said, "I understand the similarities in the appearance of the victims. I know that I was seeing each of them as my mother. But why kill them?"

Fairbairn shrugged. "You saw your father handle your mother with aggression. That's what you learned, what you incorporated as part of your own personality."

Myerson was shaking his head. "I don't feel that way anymore. I don't think I ever will."

"I don't think you will, either," Fairbairn agreed.

In time, Trish's protests waned. She stopped referring to Myerson as "the killer," and called him by name. Despite this change, she remained reluctant to meet him.

"Wouldn't that make me an accessory or something?" she asked.

Myerson was also reluctant to meet Trish. "Does she know about me? What must she think?"

For Fairbairn, though, this was a natural meeting. Myerson could spend an evening with a woman who, in many respects, satisfied his former criteria for murder. Trish could see that he was much like other young men, that he was not a monster. Perhaps then she would understand why Fairbairn had taken the risks he had.

The evening exceeded Fairbairn's imaginations of it. Myerson even assisted Trish in the kitchen. Later, Trish was able to tell Myerson that she liked him and was glad that he had come.

Fairbairn decreased the frequency of his sessions with Myerson. The stranglings still merited an occasional news story, but there were expressions of relief around town that the killer obviously had moved on, had died, or possibly had been arrested for some other crime. It was a phenomenon much like the shark in “Jaws” moving on to deeper waters.

Myerson had begun seeing a woman, he said. Fairbairn thought a relationship the best possible therapy.

But Herbert Fairbairn was feeling an emptiness, nearly a depression. He had located and cured a man the press had called a homicidal maniac. Now Myerson was getting on with his life, moving away from the psychologist. These thoughts drifted through Fairbairn's mind as he left his car and approached Trish's apartment building one winter evening. The psychologist froze in his tracks. Bill Myerson was walking rapidly away from the front of Trish's building.

Fairbairn felt sick, as if he couldn't move. Had he been wrong? Had he set up his fiancée to become Myerson's fifth victim? He pulled himself out of his momentary paralysis and raced up the stairs. While he fumbled with his key to her apartment, Trish opened the door.

"Herbie, what's the matter? You look like you just saw a ghost."

Fairbairn did not want to alarm her, nor did he want to expose his self-doubt. "I ran up the stairs. I was just getting some cheap exercise, but I guess I overdid it."

Trish said nothing about having seen Myerson. Fairbairn resolved to confront the young man at their next session.

"Why were you there?" Fairbairn asked his patient. "Were you testing yourself? What was it?"

"I guess we should talk about it," Myerson said. "I'd been intending to. The woman I'm seeing—we've become quite serious. In fact, we're thinking of getting married."

Fairbairn was both shocked and pleased. "So, you wanted to tell Trish?"

"I had already decided on a plan, but I wanted her opinion."

Fairbairn wondered why Trish hadn't mentioned Myerson's visit. He was also impressed with Myerson's calmness and poise, the determination in his voice. The psychologist had done his job well.

"Dr. Fairbairn, there was one fact that you ignored," Myerson said. "The drives that resulted in my killing four women are well under control, thanks to you. But there is still the fact of murder itself. I wasn't going to bring this up today, but I guess we have no choice."

"I'm not following you," Fairbairn said.

"Regardless of the reason," Myerson said, "once you've killed another person, murder always exists as an option. It's both simple and efficient as a solution to any problem."

"What are you talking about?"

Myerson removed a .38 caliber revolver from his jacket pocket and aimed it at Fairbairn's chest. "Trish and I are in love," he said, as he thumbed back the hammer.

John Philpin is co-author (with Patricia Sierra) of "The Prettiest Feathers," a work of fiction called "the ultimate psychological profile of a serial killer."

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