Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland

Morning Edition resumes its Crime in the City series.

Chelsea Cain i i

Chelsea Cain stands outside Portland's Arlington Club, a members-only hangout featured in her forthcoming novel, Sweetheart. Ketzel Levine/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine/NPR
Chelsea Cain

Chelsea Cain stands outside Portland's Arlington Club, a members-only hangout featured in her forthcoming novel, Sweetheart.

Ketzel Levine/NPR

This much I know: Crime writer Chelsea Cain likes being noticed, even on this empty beach along the Columbia River. The silk scarf, loose around her neck, trails her like Dior perfume (Poison, of course). Her dark glasses and Chanel "Vamp" lipstick are startling as the wind whips her unnaturally-honeyed hair.

"I started walking here with my mom," she tells me. "I actually came to Portland [Oregon] when my mom was dying of cancer. That's how I moved here. So right away, I had a mixed relationship with the city".

"Mixed" is one way to spin Cain's relationship with this idyllic beach.

"I often keep my eyes open for bodies," she tells me with a fat smile. "I do. Ever since I was a kid. I think I read too many Nancy Drew books ... And the converse of that is to think, well, 'Where is a good place to dump a body?'"

She points to a mound of sand just a few yards away from us. I know where this is heading. I've read Cain's book, Heartsick:

She had been strangled and then soaked in bleach, like the others. She lay five feet from the water's edge, on her back, head to the side, one plump arm tucked behind her torso, skin and hair coated with sand ...

Why has Chelsea Cain conjured a corpse on Portland's pastoral Sauvie Island, 10 miles west and a twilight zone away from urban woe?

"People come to Portland," Cain explains, "many of them for the quality of life. They love the physical space here. And yet every year, people climbing the mountain get killed by avalanches."

Cain goes on to list a few more heinous ways to die in the wild, adding, "So there's a really interesting tension in the fact that there's this incredibly beautiful environment all around us that picks people off, one by one."

It's a little unnerving being alone with Chelsea Cain with no one else in sight, so I'm relieved when we leave the beach and head back to the leafy boulevards of downtown Portland. We sneak into the dining room of the Arlington Club, a downtown members-only club for Portland's movers and shakers. The club is said to figure largely in Cain's sequel, Sweetheart, due out this fall.

"The detective, at one point, and the journalist come and stay here," Cain says. "There's a serial killer on the loose, and they're in danger, so they put them in the Arlington for safekeeping".

Thinking we'd better walk out before getting thrown out for trespassing, I make my apologies and we head to Forest Park, Portland's densely wooded refuge, which factors significantly — and darkly — into Cain's forthcoming novel:

Forest Park was pretty in the summer. Portland's ash sky was barely visible behind a canopy of aspens, hemlock, cedars, and maples that filtered the light to a shimmering pale green ... The creek hummed and churned, birds chirped. It was all very lovely, very Walden, except for the corpse.

We meet Cain's friend, writer Suzy Vitelli, a woman who — it's clear — shares Cain's vision of the darkness lurking just below the surface of this polite city.

"The books that are set in Portland aren't generally in this genre," says Vitelli. "And so it's sort of breaking new ground. And I think it's helping to broaden people's idea of what's here ... I'm sure there are bodies just waiting to be dug up."

"There are at least five bodies in the park right now," agrees Cain.

Oh please, I'm thinking to myself. Bodies? What's with these two?

But Chelsea Cain won't relent. She dares me to come back to the park with her alone, tonight, with one condition: She will hold the flashlight.

Excerpt: 'Heartsick'

'Heartsick'

Chapter 1

Archie doesn't know for sure that it's her until that moment. There is a dull bloom of warmth in his spine, his vision blurs, and then he knows that Gretchen Lowell is the killer. He realizes that he has been drugged, but it is too late. He fumbles for his gun, but he is ham fisted and can only lift it awkwardly from his belt clip and hold it out as if it were a gift to her. She takes it and smiles, kissing him gently on the forehead. Then she reaches into his coat and takes the cell phone, turning it off and slipping it into her purse. He is almost paralyzed now, slumped in the leather chair in her home office. But his mind is a prison of clarity. She kneels down next to him, the way one might a child, and puts her lips so close to his that they are almost kissing. His pulse throbs in his throat. He can't swallow. She smells like lilacs.

"It's time to go, darling," she whispers. She stands then, and he is lifted from behind, elbows under his armpits. A man in front of him, red-faced and heavy, takes his legs, and he is carried into the garage and laid in the back of the green Voyager — the vehicle Archie and his task force have spent months looking for — and she crawls in on top of him. He realizes then that there is someone else in the van, that she wasn't the one behind him, but he doesn't have time to process this because she is straddling his torso, a knee pressing on either side of his waist. He cannot move his eyes anymore, so she narrates for his benefit.

"I'm rolling up your right sleeve. I'm tying off a vein." Then she holds up a hypodermic in his sight line. Medical training, he thinks. Eighteen percent of female serial killers are nurses. He is staring at the ceiling of the van. Grey metal. Stay awake, he thinks. Remember everything; every detail, it will be important. He thinks, if I live.

"I'm going to let you rest for a little while." She smiles and puts her flat, pretty face in front of his so he can see her, her blonde hair brushing his cheek, though he cannot feel it. "We'll have plenty of time for fun later."

He cannot respond, cannot even blink now. His breath comes in long, shallow rasps. He cannot see her push the needle in his arm, but he assumes she has, because then there is only darkness.

He wakes up on his back. He is still groggy and it takes him a moment to realize that the red-faced man is standing over him. In this moment, the very first moment of Archie's awareness, the man's head explodes. Archie jerks as the man's blood and brain matter blow forward, splattering Archie's face and chest, a vomit of warm, clotted fluid. He tries to move, but his hands and feet are bound to a table. He feels a piece of something hot slide down his face and slop onto the floor, and pulls hard against the bindings until his skin breaks, but he cannot budge them. He gags but his mouth is taped shut, forcing the bile back into his throat making him gag again. His eyes burn. Then he sees her, standing behind where the man's body has fallen, holding the gun she has just used to execute him.

"I wanted you to understand right away how committed I am to you," she says. "That you are the only one." And then she turns and walks away.

He is left then to contemplate what has just happened. He swallows hard, willing himself to remain calm, to look around. He is alone. The man is dead on the floor. Gretchen is gone. The driver of the van is gone. Archie's blood is pulsing so violently that it is the only sensation. Time passes. At first, he thinks he is in an operating room. It is a large space, walled with white ceramic subway tiles and well lit by florescent lights. He turns his head from side to side and sees several trays of instruments, medical looking machinery, a drain on the cement floor. He strains again at his binds and realizes that he is strapped to a gurney. Tubes are coming in and out of him: a catheter, an IV. There are no windows in the room and a faint earthy smell skirts the edge of his consciousness. Mildew. A basement.

He starts to think like a cop now. The others had been tortured for a couple of days before she dumped the bodies. That meant that he had time. Two days. Maybe three. They could find him in that amount of time. He had told Henry where he was going, that he had a psych consult about the newest body. He had wanted to see her, to get her advice. He was not prepared for this. But they would connect it. Henry would connect it. It would be the last place to which he could be traced. He had made a call to his wife on the way. That would be the last point of contact. How much time had passed since he had been taken?

She is there again. On the other side of the table from where the body still lies, thick, dark blood seeping onto the gray floor. He remembers when she had first introduced herself — the psychiatrist who had given up her practice to write a book. She had read about the task force and had called him to see if she could help. It had been hell on all of them. She offered to come in. Not counseling, she had said. Just talk. They had been working on the case for almost ten years. Twenty-three bodies in three states. It had taken a toll. She invited those who were interested to come to a group session. Just talk. He had been surprised at how many of the detectives had shown. It might have had something to do with the fact that she was beautiful. The funny thing was, it had helped. She was very good.

She pulls the white sheet covering him down so that his chest is exposed, and he realizes that he's naked. There is no self-consciousness attached to it. It is merely a fact. She places a hand flat on his breastbone. He knows what this means. He has memorized the crime photos, the abrasions and burns on the torsos. It is part of the profile, one of her signatures.

"Do you know what comes next?" she asks, knowing that he does.

He needs to talk to her. To stall. He makes a garbled noise through the duct tape and motions with his head for her to take it off. She touches her finger to his lips and shakes her head. "Not just yet," she says softly.

She asks it again. A little more harshly. "Do you know what comes next?"

He nods.

She smiles, satisfied. "That's why I prepared something special for you, darling." She has an instrument tray beside her and she turns and withdraws something from it. A hammer and nail. Interesting, he thinks, amazed at his ability to detach from himself, to remain clinical. So far the victims had been seemingly random, male, female, young, old, but the torso damage, though it had evolved, had been notably consistent. She had never used nails before.

She seems pleased. "I thought you'd appreciate some variety." She lets her fingertips dance up his rib cage until she finds the rib she is looking for and then she places the point of the nail against his skin and comes down hard with the hammer. He feels the explosion of his rib breaking and gags again. His chest burns with pain. He fights to breathe. His eyes water. She wipes a tear from his flushed cheek and caresses his hair, and then she finds another rib and repeats the process. And another. When she is done, she has broken six of his ribs. The nail is wet with blood. She lets it drop with an innocuous clink back on the instrument tray. He can't shift his body even a millimeter without a searing pain like none he has ever felt. His nasal passages have clogged with mucus, he can't breathe through his mouth, he has to brace himself for agony with every lung expansion, and still he can't make himself breathe shallowly, can't slow the panicked, heavy pants that sound like sobs. Maybe two days was optimistic, he thinks. Maybe he would just die now.

Chapter 2

The scar on his chest was pale and raised, the fibrous tissue no wider than a piece of yarn. It began a few inches below his left nipple, carved a naked path through his dark chest hair, arced, and then arced again back down to its original point. It was shaped like a heart.

Archie was always aware of it, the raised skin against the cloth of his shirt. He had a lot of scars, but this one was the only one that still seemed to hurt. A phantom pain, Archie knew. A broken rib that had never quite healed right, aching underneath. A scar wouldn't hurt. Not after all this time.

The phone rang. Archie turned slowly to look at it, knowing what it meant. Another victim.

He only got calls from two people: his ex-wife and his ex-partner. He'd already talked to Debbie that day. So that left Henry. He glanced at the caller ID on his cell phone and confirmed his suspicions. It was a department prefix.

He picked up the phone. "Yeah," he said. He was sitting in his apartment living room in the dark. He hadn't planned it that way. He had just sat down a few hours before and the sun had set and he hadn't bothered to turn on the light. Plus, the dingy apartment, with its sparse furnishings and stained carpet, looked slightly less sad cloaked in blackness.

Henry's gruff voice filled the phone line. "He took another girl," he said. And there you had it.

The digital clock that sat on the empty bookcase blinked insistently the dim room. It was an hour and thirty-five minutes off, but Archie had never bothered to reset it. He just did the math to calculate the time. "So they want to reconvene the task force," Archie said. He had already told Henry that he would go back, if they agreed to his terms. He touched the files that Henry had given him weeks before. They were on his lap, the crime scene photographs of the dead girls tucked neatly inside.

"It's been two years. I told them that you had recovered. That you were ready to go back to working full time."

Archie smiled in the dark. "So you lied."

"Power of positive thinking. You caught Gretchen Lowell, and she scared the crap out of everybody. This new guy? He's killed three girls already. And he's taken another one."

"Gretchen caught me." A rectangular brass pillbox sat on the coffee table next to a glass of water. Archie didn't bother with coasters. The scratched-up oak coffee table had come with the apartment. Everything in Archie's apartment was scarred.

"And you survived." There was a pause. "Remember?"

With a delicate flick of his thumb, Archie opened the pillbox and took out three white oval pills and tucked them in his mouth. "My old job?" He took a drink of water, relaxing as he felt the pills travel down his throat. Even the glass had been there when he moved in.

"Task force supervisor."

There was one more requirement. The most important one. "And the reporter?"

"I don't like this," Henry said.

Archie waited. There was too much in motion. Henry wouldn't back down now. Besides, Archie knew that Henry would do almost anything for him.

"She's perfect," Henry said, relenting. "I saw her picture. You'll like her. She's got pink hair."

Archie looked down at the files on his lap. He could do this. All he had to do was to keep it together long enough for his plan to work. He opened the top file. His eyes had adjusted to the dark and he could make out the vague image of a ghostly body in the mud. The killer's first victim. Archie's mind filled in the color: the strawberry ligature marks on her neck, the blushed, blistered skin. "How old is the girl?"

"Fifteen. Disappeared on her way home from school. Along with her bike." Henry paused. Archie could hear his frustration in his silence. "We've got nothing."

"Amber alert?" Archie asked.

"Issued a half hour ago," Henry said.

"Canvas the neighborhood. Dogs, everything. Send uniforms door-to-door. See if anyone saw anything along the route she would have taken."

"Technically, you're not on the job until morning."

"Do it anyway," Archie said.

Henry hesitated. "You're up for this, right?"

"How long has she been missing?" Archie asked.

"Since six-fifteen."

She's dead, Archie thought. "Pick me up in a half hour," he said.

"An hour," Henry said, after a pause. "Drink some coffee. I'll send a car."

Archie sat there in the dark for a few minutes after he hung up. It was quiet. No TV blaring from the upstairs apartment, no footsteps overhead; just the pulse of traffic going by in the rain, a steady blast of forced air, and the rattled hum of the dying refrigerator motor. He looked at the clock and did the math. It was just after 9:00 p.m. The girl had been gone for almost three hours. He was warm and woozy from the pills. You could do a lot of damage to someone in three hours. He reached up and slowly unbuttoned the top few buttons of his shirt and inserted his right hand under the fabric, placing it over his ribs, running his fingers over the thick scars that webbed his skin, until he found the heart that Gretchen Lowell had carved on him.

He had spent ten years working on the Beauty Killer Task Force, tracking the Northwest's most prolific serial killer. A quarter of his life spent standing over corpses at crime scenes, paging through autopsy reports, sifting through clues; all that work, and Gretchen had tricked him into walking right into a trap. Now Gretchen was in prison. And Archie was free.

Funny. Sometimes it still felt like the other way around.

Books Featured In This Story

Heartsick
Heartsick

by Chelsea Cain

Paperback, 337 pages | purchase

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Title
Heartsick
Author
Chelsea Cain

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Sweetheart
Sweetheart

by Chelsea Cain

Hardcover, 328 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Sweetheart
Author
Chelsea Cain

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

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