A Dark Journey Into A Killer's 'Personal Effects'

'Personal Effects' illustration

hide captionPersonal Effects, a new "multiplatform transmedia experience" by authors J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman, mixes text with illustrations, such as this drawing of psychotic blind serial killer Martin Grace.

Have you ever wished you could e-mail or telephone a character from a book you're reading? A new "multiplatform transmedia experience" by authors J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman offers readers the opportunity to do just that.

Hutchings and Weisman's new interactive novel, Personal Effects: Dark Art, follows art therapist Zach Taylor as he struggles to evaluate a blind psychic serial killer. The novel unfolds in traditional chapter form, as well as via a series of "personal effects" that belong to the characters — including business cards, photos and legal documents, which are included in a pouch attached to the book's cover.

"The intent of this is to make the reader more than just a passive ingester of the entertainment, but to become an active participant in the story," Hutchins tells NPR's David Greene. "The idea was to fundamentally blur those lines between fiction and reality."

Personal Effects: Dark Art
By J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman
Hardcover, 320 pages
St. Martin's Griffin
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

Further blurring those lines? Additional phone numbers and Web sites — including a blog created by the main character's girlfriend — that allow readers to gather more clues about the story.

Hutchins is credited with writing the novel, while Weisman was responsible for assembling all the extra content.

Weisman likens the experience of exploring the book and its additional offerings to finding a stranger's wallet on the street: "You want to return it to the person who lost it, but you feel kind of dirty just looking through it, because there's nothing more voyeuristic than looking through someone's pockets or their wallet," he explains.

Martin Grace's New York state ID card i i

hide captionA pouch on the cover includes additional documents, including a copy of Grace's New York state identification card.

Martin Grace's New York state ID card

A pouch on the cover includes additional documents, including a copy of Grace's New York state identification card.

"All of the sudden these characters aren't remote. These characters are much more real now because they are in your world. You're holding the contents of their wallet in your hand. You can call them on the phone; you can e-mail them and get responses," says Weisman. "It makes the story much more immediate."

Because the protagonist is an art therapist, he's not as interested in solving crime as he is in helping his patient. The sleuthing, says Hutchins, is left up to the readers, who are encouraged to gather clues from the book's additional sources.

"The reading of the book is a vicarious experience. And then there's a subtle transition into a first person-experience, where you're now going to take on the detective role yourself and solve things that Zachary Taylor didn't solve," he says.

Excerpt: 'Personal Effects: Dark Art'

'Personal Effects: Dark Art' i i
'Personal Effects: Dark Art'

Chapter 1

If by some miracle I survive my twenties, I am certain I'll look back on today and think, This was the day I began to lose my mind.

Today was the day I coasted into work, still high from last week's breakthrough, my grin beating back the gloom of these crumbling halls ... and was unceremoniously shoved into a living horror show, a knife-sharp shadowdance called The Life of Martin Grace. That moment, there — me striding through Brinkvale, punching in on the Depression-era time clock, greeting my coworkers — was when my perception of terra firma reality shifted. Just a nudge. But enough.

Personal Effects: Dark Art
By J.C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman
Hardcover, 320 pages
St. Martin's Griffin
List Price: $24.95

I am stone-cold certain that Lina Velasquez was a meth-addicted hummingbird in a past life. The woman is pulled tauter than piano wire. She's all cat's-eye glasses and waving arms, a nitro-fueled perpetual motion machine. Her voice is a nasal blur in the background on any typical day. I don't know why sleepy Brinkvale needs an administrative assistant who's so damned kinetic, but I suppose everyone has a place ... and Lina was currently putting me in mine.

"Taylor!"

She was at her desk, behind the scratched, shatterproof window of the Administrator's Office, perched on the edge of her antique swivel chair, phone receiver pinched between shoulder and cheek. She was typing on her computer keyboard with one hand. I blinked and stopped, peering in at her.

Already exasperated, she rapped on the window with her free palm. The rings on her fingers clack-clack-clacked, insistent.

I cringed. Total principal's office flashback.

"In here, now," Lina said. "Dr. Peterson. Urgent."

I have never been an "urgent" kind of guy, but I'm getting better at handling moments like this. Late last week proved that. Still, before landing this gig, the word wasn't in the Zach Taylor vocabulary.

"Uh, what's up?" I asked. I glanced past Lina to the doorway of Peterson's dimly lit office. The old psychiatrist was at his desk, hunched over the scattered contents of an open manila folder. They glowed under an ancient gooseneck lamp. The septuagenarian's desk was cluttered with towers of precariously stacked papers. My mind captured the moment in charcoal-sketch caricature: Doc Peterson, staring up at his own paperwork Tower of Pisa, cartoon hearts swirling around his bald head. I filed away the image, and tried not to grin.

"What?" I realized Lina had been talking. She pooched her lips and twitched them to the right. This was Lina's nonverbal Venezuelan shorthand: Make your eyes follow my lips, make your feet follow your eyes.

I walked past her into the dark room, uneasy of its dimness. It smelled of old books and stale coffee. The fat metal blinds were drawn shut. Peterson glanced up from the contents of the folder. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk and offered me a smile framing yellowed dentures. I didn't know if the man took pleasure in the act of smiling, but it didn't appear that way. The desk lamp's light glimmered in his saucer-sized spectacles.

My path rarely crossed with Peterson's. Three months ago, he'd interviewed me for an hour, then abruptly offered me the job of staff art therapist.

"Brinkvale provides a more, ah ... positive ... environment than you might imagine from the stories," he'd said as I left his office that day. Since our little chat, I hadn't spent more than five minutes with the guy. We've done the smile-and-nod bit in the halls ever since. To hear the saltier veterans of the hospital talk, that's a good thing. They often suggest that the years here have put fractures of the larger-than-hairline variety in Peterson's sanity. He's known colloquially as the Madman in the Attic — "the attic" being the first floor of this building.

They don't call us Brinkvale employees Morlocks for nothing.

The old man's owl eyes blinked at me, that wide grin still stretching his jowls. I smiled back and sat on the edge of the black vinyl chair, a blocky thing that was at least a decade my senior.

"Hi, Dr. Peterson."

I shifted position in an attempt to see Peterson's face over the preposterous stacks of papers. I tried not to picture cartoon hearts over his head.

"It's a pleasure to have you in again, Zachary," he said. Peterson's voice had the distinctive lilt of the overeducated; each word clearly enunciated, starched and pressed. He nodded at a comparatively small pile of papers beside the folder.

"I read your report," he said. "I'm proud of you."

"From Friday?" I asked. "Spindle?"

Peterson gave a dry chuckle, and shook his head.

"Spindler. Gertrude Spindler. That is the patient's name, Zachary."

Maybe that was her name now. And maybe it had been her name for the first fifteen years of her life. But Gertie Spindler was "Spindle" for the dark era in between. She was calling herself Spindle when I met her a month ago and, in my mind, that's who she'll always be. Her lifelong obsession with strings, thread, fabric and patterns would have been merely eccentric had it not been for the secrets she'd been hiding with them. Hiding in them.

When you can see where the literal bodies are buried by matching swatches that were sewn into two quilts at either end of a decade, you've found a person so far gone, she can call herself anything she likes.

But not completely gone. Not last week, at least.

"Spindler," I agreed, nodding nervously. "Thanks. She'd been telling her story for years. I guess she just needed the right person to listen."

Peterson's smile spread. That yellow half moon was so unnatural on his doughy face, it seemed predatory. This is what a grocery store lobster must see, I thought, right before it's yanked from the tank. I shifted in my chair. The vinyl creaked.

"You have a lot of empathy for your patients," he said, tapping the file. "You tend to become unusually invested in their lives, and their therapy."

I flushed. Oh, hell. I knew this moment. I hated this moment. I've lived this moment a dozen dozen times in the past decade, in jobs, relationships, art projects, pet projects. This is how I'm wired. I fall in love with things, projects, people, even if just a little bit. I have to, in order to help them. To do anything less would be ... well ... I wouldn't know how.

"You know, about that, Dr. Peterson —"

The old man cut me off with a wave of his hand. His lips slid into a more natural, dour expression.

"Zachary, we have all been where you are. I could say that passion ebbs with age and experience, but I doubt you would listen, so I won't waste your time."

I frowned, off-balance. Was I being criticized or not? Peterson glanced down at the folder before him. From my vantage, I spotted a Brinkvale admittance form, with more attachments than most. A CD-ROM was in there, too. Peterson closed the folder. He pressed two fingers against its surface and pushed it a few inches forward.

"You are here because you are precisely what I need: bright and gifted at what you do," he said. "Your methods of connecting with patients are quite unconventional, but your success rate has been notable."

"I work from my gut," I said. "I don't know what's so unconventional about that."

Peterson tapped the stack of papers again. "Your first month here, you used a cassette 'mixtape' provided by Leon Mack's daughter to usher him out of a nigh-catatonic mute state. Last month, it was a rabbit's foot keychain that facilitated closure for Evan Unwin in the death of his infant son. Yesterday, it was needle and thread."

My frown slid further southward. "Dr. Peterson, art therapy provides opportunities for insight for both the patient and the therapist, and —"

"Of course," he interrupted. "But even more important is your willingness to embrace your patients as people. That's what I need right now." He tapped the folder. "This case is yours, and it takes priority."

I reached for the file. His hand did not move.

"You'll be expected to follow up with your other patients, of course; we are spread far too thin to give you a reprieve. But I imagine you knew that."

The understatement of the millennium. I nodded.

"I also imagine you wouldn't want to forsake those other patients," he said. "We're all committed to quality care here at The Brink."

His lips tugged upward into another smile, this one conspiratorial.

The chief administrator had just committed the ultimate in-house faux pas. New employees learn two things their first day in this hole: where the toilets are, and that you never, ever call this place anything but Brinkvale Psychiatric in the presence of management.

He picked up the folder with a trembling hand and held it out to me. It bobbed in his hand, a boat floating over the sea of paperwork.

"Martin Grace. His transfer came down from County last night. He's due in city court in less than a week. It is a murder trial, and Grace is the gentleman with whom the district attorney's office has its grudge. He's also the prime suspect in eleven other deaths. You will engage the patient, and deduce in the days ahead if he is psychologically fit for trial. Consider it a bonus if he confesses that he consciously, willfully killed Tanya Gold and those other people and deserves imprisonment ... or another method of justice. This time next week, I expect to read your conclusions."

I felt my lips moving, heard my voice before I knew what I was saying.

"What if he's innocent?" I asked.

Peterson's forehead crinkled as his gray eyebrows rose above his glasses. He glanced around in the dimness, at the walls. His smile didn't falter.

"Zachary. He wouldn't be here if he was innocent."

I felt a bit sick as I accepted the folder. The thing felt cold in my hand.

Peterson's expression suddenly brightened, and his voice became dismissive, perfunctory.

"I suggest you take the morning to review the file," he said. "Conduct short sessions with your other patients after lunch. Then introduce yourself to Mister Grace. Leave the paint brushes and pencils in your office, if you please."

"Why?"

"Because Martin Grace is blind."

Chapter Two

I don't remember much after leaving Peterson's office. I hope I appeared nonchalant as I performed my morning ritual: waving to nurses and orderlies, stopping at the break room to pour bitter, nearly burned coffee into my extra-large ceramic mug, working my way past doctors' and record keepers' offices to The Brink's sole, ancient elevator.

This didn't feel right. I hadn't yet read any of Martin Grace's admittance papers, but I didn't need to know his story to know I wasn't the guy who should be talking to him. The people I work with at The Brink aren't heading to trial. They're never players in an unfolding criminal case. My people— my patients, as Peterson would say — have either been convicted and need solace and treatment, or they're here because they're ill and have nowhere else to go. If you're at The Brink, you're at the end of the line. Only dead — enders need apply.

Make no mistake: I'm good at what I do, which is convince crazy people to express themselves with art. The pay is for shit, and this place is rock-bottom, but I'm making a small difference in this world, one misunderstood person at a time, and I find some peace in that. I try to save people through art, because art saved me. Giddy-giddy, as Anti-Zach would say.

So while flattered by Peterson's assignment on a certain level, I was also confused. Why would Peterson ask me, the proverbial new guy, to take this case? Enthusiasm, I got. Real-world life-and-death experience, not so much. And what in the hell was Grace doing here, in the ass-end of New York City's public mental health system, anyway? Multiple homicides perpetrated by a blind man — and they pick me? I felt like Bogey in Casablanca: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world ... "

Looking up, I realized I'd made my way to the elevator. I jabbed the metal "down" button and waited for the wheezing, hydraulic box to lurch to the surface.

I jerked sideways at the clap of a hand on my shoulder, nearly spilling my coffee. I turned around and faced a chest wider than a tree trunk. A name tag, yellowed and scuffed from abuse, met me at eye level. EMILIO.

I'm five-ten and change, but being in Emilio Wallace's presence makes me feel like a member of the Lollipop Guild. I stared up at his square jaw. In a former life, Emilio had been a semi-famous pro wrestler on the Southwest circuit. If the comic book hero Superman were real, he'd use Emilio as his sans spit curl stunt man. That resemblance allowed him to play ironic villainous heavies during his wrestling career, like George "Super" Badman, Samson "Man of Steal" Kent, and my personal favorite: Maximillian von Nietzche, the Ubermensch.

These days, Emilio is a Brinkvale security guard, known for pulling as many hours of overtime as the law will allow in order to fund a very personal artistic work-in-progress. Emilio grinned down at me, displaying where most of his paychecks went: a mouthful of ruler-straight, toothpaste-commercial-white teeth ... and a rogue gap here and there, the result of one folding chair to the face too many at the end of his former career.

Another unfortunate side effect of his days in the entertainment biz: mentally, the man's a half-bubble off plumb. He's got a thing for conspiracy theories and alien abduction stories. Hell, he believes vampires and werewolves are real.

Of course, maybe he's always been that way. Par for the course, here at The Brink. We work with what the Lord provides.

"Yo, Z," Emilio said. His voice was deep and low, an idling semi truck engine. "Just another manic Monday, yeah?"

"Right on, yeah," I replied. "You got any big plans tonight? Xbox with the boys?"

Emilio shook his head. "I see 'em next week. Got the new Madden. It's gonna be killer."

I nodded at this. I hadn't played a video game since college. My girlfriend Rachael was the gamer in my home. She played enough for the both of us — and probably the rest of the East Village, too.

"Clocking in some serious OT this week," Emilio continued. "New rooster in the coop. Blind dude. Spooky as hell."

My stomach tensed at this. The whine of the elevator was growing louder; it was almost topside.

"Spooky?" I said.

Emilio's blue eyes widened. "As hell," he affirmed. "Rolled in last night. I was there, took him to his digs in Max. He was mumbling to himself, those chains on his ankle cuffs scraping on the floor. Dude was like that Scrooge ghost, Bob Marley."

Jacob Marley, I thought, but I didn't correct him.

The elevator doors groaned open. Emilio and I waited for Malcolm Sashington, Brinkvale's omnipresent janitor, to roll out his mop bucket before we entered. Malcolm tipped us a salute as the doors began to close. I returned the gesture.

Emilio smacked the button for my level, 3, and then another for himself. Level 5. Maximum security.

The elevator began to slide downward, into The Brink.

"The guy is a panther," he was saying. "All coiled up. Didn't say anything to me until I got him in his room. Asked me if there was a camera watching him. Asked me if there was a chair. Asked me if the lights were on."

Yes on all counts, I knew.

"So he's blind, right?" Emilio said, grinning again. "He shouldn't care if the lights are on or off. But he tells me to turn 'em off when I leave and lock up. I'm like, 'Saving taxpayers' money?' He says no. Says the buzzing of the lights bothers him."

"Weird," I said, and meant it. The sound of fluorescent lights annoys me, too. Their constant hmmm reminds me of flies in a jar, and puts me on edge. But patient dorms don't have fluorescent lights. In fact, I couldn't think of any room in the place with fluorescent lights. When it comes to state funding, The Brink is as popular as the drunk uncle at the family reunion.

This meant Grace thought he could hear the hum of the incandescent bulbs.

"Yep, that's what I said, weird," Emilio agreed. "Dude asked me a bit about my family, the boys, then told me to scram. He switched on and off, just like those lights. Tough cookie." He gave me another nudge. "Pity the fool who's gotta crack that nut, huh?"

I took a sip of my coffee. I didn't know what to say.

The elevator shuddered, slowed and its doors squeaked open. Level 3: therapists' offices, quarters for higher-functioning patients, housewares, electronics ...

"Take it easy," I said, stepping out. Emilio gave me a thumbs-up. I took another sip from my mug and walked to my office. Martin Grace's folder felt heavier, and colder, in my hand.

***

Brinkvale Psychiatric had a cursed existence before it ever existed. In 1828, the rapidly expanding city of New York was hungry for brownstone. Geologists were consulted, surveys taken, contractors hired. The following year, hundreds of laborers came to Central Islip on Long Island, about forty miles west of the city, breaking their backs for pennies to dig up blocks of brownstone destined for the city. The Brinkvale quarry — named after the idyllic apple farm snatched from its owner under the wily law of "eminent domain" — wasn't so much born as it was carved.

Nine years later, the Brinkvale quarry had closed, its resources depleted. Thanks to corrupt contractors and politicians skimming generous hunks of the quarry's budget off the top, New York's "Great Hole" had become a very unsafe place. In under a decade, more than ninety men had died digging that hole in the world. Worse, ten more died in "unrelated accidents" after organizing a committee to share their grievances with the city. Gallons of blood were splashed on those stones, literally and otherwise. The Brinkvale tragedies were partly responsible for the nation's labor reform acts of the 1840s.

For the next thirty years, the quarry lay quiet, a black dragon with its maw wide open, occasionally claiming the life of a curious child or soused thrill-seeker. But in 1875, the hole caught the interest of overwhelmed alienists desperate for a quiet locale, out of the public eye, in which to house the city's growing population of criminal lunatics. These were patients either too crazy for prison or too dangerous for the city's modest sanitariums. In the end, even cannibals, serial rapists, necrophiles, blood drinkers, ultra-violent schizoids and charismatic occult leaders need a place to sleep.

Brinkvale Psychiatric was not built over the quarry, but in it. Nine stories of howling, brain-boiling madness, stacked two hundred feet into the bedrock. The hospital was so large, so secluded, so wonderfully forgettable, it soon housed more than the howl-at-the-moon types. Brinkvale became an Ellis Island of the damned, an oubliette not just for the dangerous and deranged, but also the misunderstood and unwanted. Homosexuals. Troublemaking non-Christians. Ideologues. Opponents of the status quo. Bring me your angry, your rebellious, your nonconformist masses yearning to speak freely... and bury the wretches in a place where no one can hear them scream ...

You won't find windows beneath the topside "attic" level, here at The Brink. There are only cracked walls, wildly uneven floors and a great many cramped, lightless places. The Brink has no sympathy for claustrophobes or nyctophobes, people who are afraid of the dark. People like me.

This is the place where I'd planted my flag to help people. This was where I'd been appointed to get answers from a blind killer.

And the room I finally entered — my fantastically disorganized office, more than sixty feet underground — was where I finally opened the manila folder in my hand, and suddenly realized how desperately I wanted to see the sun.

My office is my refuge, the one place in Brinkvale where I can let my personality shine. One wall, covered in wall-to-ceiling corkboard, is the Me Wall, dedicated to people and things I love: many photos of my tattooed goddess, Rachael; pics of my slang-slinging, living spring of a brother Lucas and my father, Will; a faded, folded photo of my mother, Claire; a painting from my police lab-tech pal Ida "Eye" Jean-Phillipe (who had lent a more-than-helpful hand in achieving Spindle's breakthrough last week); a cover of the '80s Creepshow movieadaptation comic (signed by both Stephen King and — an artist who I think walks on water — Bernie Wrightson); a half-dozen Salvador Dali postcards; some sci-fi memorabilia; and my own artwork. Charcoal sketches on cream-colored Stonehenge drawing paper, mostly.

Another wall — similarly swathed in corkboard — features my patients' art. Far less cheerful fare. Manic splotches of lush watercolors, pastel scribbles, wordless agony made visible. I use this gallery to showcase their progress, and to gain perspective on what I'm doing here. Strangers might see violent lost causes on this wall. I see glimmers, tiny penlights, of hope. If my patients trust me enough to craft these images, they might trust me enough, someday, to share their stories and secrets.

The rest of the wall space is dedicated to overflowing filing cabinets, bookshelves and sacks of art supplies. Clean freaks wince when they bear witness to my unique "organizational system," but even the fussiest anal retentives admit that the place projects an optimistic, cheerful vibe. That's a good thing, because it's a reflection of me.

But there was no solace for me here, not now. Martin Grace was whispering his past to me, whispering from papers and photos spread out on my desk. I sipped my coffee in silence, slipping further and further into the man's world.

According to his vitals, Grace was fifty-six years old, white, nearly as tall as Emilio, but slender. Single, lived alone, no children. An arrest mug shot revealed a pale, lean, curiously blank face. His green eyes stared impassively into the camera lens. I found this odd; aside from an acquaintance in middle school, I'd never personally known a blind person. But I vividly remembered that kid's eyes all those years ago, remembered the cloudy discoloration. And sometimes the eyes jitter; nystagmus, it's called. The kid back in school had a severe, stomach-churning nystagmus.

But Grace's eyes had none of this visible damage, no milky cloudlike appearance. Just a clear pine green. I kept reading, plucking a Berol pencil from the jumble on my desk.

Since his incarceration six months ago, Grace had been uncooperative with cops, lawyers and headshrinkers alike. The personal details in the admittance papers came by proxy, from police interviews with neighbors and colleagues. Martin Grace had lived in Brooklyn for two years, after living in Queens for three. He was a transplant from Buffalo. Before Buffalo, he'd spent a year in Albany ... and before that, one in Conquest, a town not too far from Syracuse. Before that, some time in Rochester, right across Lake Ontario from Canada. And before that, and before that, and before that ... the dude got around.

His most recent job was in the city, as an audio engineer. According to his coworkers at The Jam Factory, a music studio housed in a renovated jellies cannery, Grace was a quiet, talented technician with an uncanny ear for production and editing. He'd apparently memorized the studio's vast engineering consoles with dead-certain precision, manipulating hundreds of knobs and dials by touch alone. He also did some studio work as a keyboardist, the reports said. One employee called Grace "the forbidden love child of Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Milsap."

I actually chuckled at that.

Grace had worked at The Jam Factory for the same three years that he'd lived in Brooklyn. He was tremendously gifted, but remained aloof toward his coworkers. He was described as "cool" and "distant" and "off in his own world."

I flipped forward to the psychologists' verdict.

This is where the shit got weird.

Martin Grace had been blind for only two years. Stranger still, he wasn't physically blind at all. His diagnosis was "conversion disorder," something the rest of the world calls psychosomatic blindness. The man's eyes were perfectly healthy, according to an ophthalmologist hired by the city. Grace himself ... or rather, Grace's mind ... had simply turned his eyes off. I wasn't an expert in conversion disorders, but I knew that they could represent unresolved psychological conflicts, or a broken mind's way of willfully ignoring conflicts.

I pulled over my satchel and unzipped its main pouch. Out came my well — worn Moleskine sketchpad. I flipped to a fresh page and wrote.

PSYCHOSOMATIC = PAST CONFLICT? KEY?

I gazed at the words, rolling the Berol with my fingertips.

RESOLVING CONFLICT = SIGHT. HE NEEDS TO SEE TO TELL HIS STORY.

I flipped the pencil in my hand, the rubber eraser now facing the desk. I tapped out a beat on the metal as I continued to read. I made it a half-sentence before I realized what I was drumming: "Love Is Blindness" from U2's Achtung Baby.

Love is blindness, I don't want to see ... Won't you wrap the night around me?

Odd. I'd always preferred the cover version by The Devlins.

I kept tapping out the rhythm, kept reading. Martin Grace was a suspect in a dozen deaths, dating back at least ten years. More than half had been horrific homicides; the others, previously ruled as suicides or accidental deaths. But a pattern began to emerge. That's what happens to serial killers; at least that's what the movies say. They get lazy. They fall prey to routine, just like the rest of us.

The victims had a common connection: Martin Grace. One of the vics had been a lover, but the rest had been Grace's colleagues and friends, along with some strangers. According to these papers, Grace was practically a traveling salesman of death, bebopping from one city to the next in New York state, leaving a body (or sometimes two) in the rearview mirror.

He'd been running, that much was clear. But from what? Himself?

I scratched this into my notebook, then resumed drumming.

There was another twist: Grace seemed to have airtight alibis. Dinners with friends, drinks with the boss ... hell, even manning the cotton candy stand at a church fish fry. It didn't make any sense. Why did the cops have a hard-on for this guy? Did Grace simply have bad luck picking friends? Was he moving from city to city to start anew, get past the grief?

I flipped the page.

No.

The hairs on my arms spiked as icy gooseflesh rippled across my skin. Martin Grace had seen things, the report said. Seen things before they'd happened. Visions of death. According to recent interviews, at least a third of the victims' families said that Grace had told the victims that they were going to die before they actually did. And he didn't just tell them they were going to die. He told them how they were going to die.

And he was right.

Martin Grace would soon stand trial for the rape and murder of vocalist Tanya Gold, once a rising star in New York's hip-hop scene. According to the police report, Tanya Gold met Grace once — and only once — at Screamin' Soundz Studioz, a production house where Grace worked five years ago. There, Tanya recorded her contribution to a guest appearance on another artist's record. After the session, a panicked Grace pulled the woman aside, warned her that she was in danger ... that she would soon be "raped and ripped to shreds."

Understandably, the singer reported this to the police as a threat on her life. Motivated by pressure from Tanya Gold's headline-making manager (and whatever incentive he may have provided), New York's finest issued a restraining order and monitored both Gold's and Grace's residence that evening. Martin Grace went to bed at around 10:30. Tanya Gold turned in a few hours later.

Per their orders, cops attempted to contact Gold the next morning. When she didn't answer her apartment door, officers entered and found a sight in the living room so freakish, one of the cops later reported that he thought it was "a reality show gag."

It wasn't.

Tanya Gold — a twenty-one-year-old who was as business-savvy and beautiful as she was talented — had been torn literally limb from limb. Ropes had been tied to her wrists and ankles. Those ropes had been looped through metal hoops in the living room's four corners ... hoops presumably bolted to the walls the night before. Either man or machine — Forensics was as baffled as the reporting cops — had pulled these ropes tauter and tauter, until Tanya Gold's body was ripped apart. Coroner reports confirmed that Tanya Gold had been raped.

Blood spatter analysis and the position of Tanya's torso (which had remained connected to her left leg, sweet Jesus) implied the rape likely occurred after the rending. Martin Grace was arrested in his apartment that morning as he was dressing for work. He was questioned, mercilessly. There was no evidence that he'd left the apartment the night before, and — aside from his warning to the singer — no evidence linked him to Tanya Gold's murder.

From what I could surmise from other reports, it was Grace's town-hopping trail of terror that empowered the district attorney's office to prosecute the Tanya Gold case five years after the fact. The "visions" of death Grace experienced were numerous — and, according to the prosecution, damning.

He didn't just inform twenty-four-year-old musician Rosemary Chapel of Rochester that she'd hang herself. He told her which belt she'd use — her favorite, silver-studded black leather. Three hours later, those metal studs tore Rosemary's throat open as her legs kicked and twitched in space, suspended in her parents' garage.

Conquest resident Jerome Stringer was warned he'd lose not just a finger but a hand on his woodshop saw, and would pass out from the shock before he could call an ambulance. It happened three days later. Robbery gone wrong. Car accident. A horrifying (and preposterous, were it not true) homicide involving javelins. Martin Grace had precognitively seen them all, the families said. And in Grace's last interview with a psychologist at Rockland a month ago, the man finally corroborated this.

"Patient states he has a lifelong 'preternatural disposition' for clairvoyance, which recently transformed into precognitive 'visions' of victims' deaths," wrote the last doctor to work with Grace. "Likely suffers from delusions of reference/schizotypal personality disorder. Paradoxically, patient insists he did not kill these people, but is nonetheless personally responsible for their deaths. He calls himself an unwitting psychic sniper, 'the crosshairs for Death. For the dark.' "

My mouth went dry. I took a quick pull from my mug and read on, not blinking.

"Patient believes he is an earthbound 'catalyst' for human suffering and death," the doctor wrote. "His interaction with others incurs the interest and wrath of an otherworldy, monstrous entity he calls several names: 'The Inkstain,' 'Chernobog' ... and, most commonly, 'The Dark Man.' "

I shuddered at this, and at something vague and wicked and smiling very far away in my mind — and at the lyric I'd been absently tapping on the desk as I'd read.

A little death without mourning, no call and no warning. Baby, a dangerous idea. That almost makes sense ...

A dark man.

I placed the pencil on the desk. I read another page.

The murders had ended two years ago. The same year Grace went blind.

Excerpt of Personal Effects: Dark Art posted with permission from J.C. Hutchins.

Books Featured In This Story

Personal Effects
Personal Effects

Dark Art

by J. C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

Hardcover, 320 pages | purchase

close

Purchase Featured Books

  • Personal Effects
  • Dark Art
  • J. C. Hutchins and Jordan Weisman

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: