CHASING JANUS MAN
By Walter Giersbach
“I felt like an animal in somebody’s gun sights,” Heather said. “I cried for an hour after I read the letter.”
I picked up the letter that looked like a ransom note. “Show me a girl who rides side saddle and I’ll show you a gay ranchero.” I tried not to smile. The squirrelly note also said there were eyes in both her faces and hands that wrestled with good and evil. That seemed more serious. The card was signed Janus.
I tried to calm my niece best I could. “It doesn’t really threaten you, kiddo. It’s written by a crackpot.”
“You’re the Newark cop, Uncle Mike. Isn’t there a law? I’m not gay — and I’m not the only girl at Epiphany College who’s gotten these letters.”
She mumbled goodbye and stomped out of my apartment to go back to her folks. It was Christmastime. Happy, right?
Rather than waste the afternoon feeling frustrated, I drove over to Epiphany. I expected the dean of students to be pissed, getting pulled away from home to meet me in his office. Instead, he was cordial. Maybe happy to get out of the house.
“I’ve seen six of these letters,” Dean Sheppard told me after I showed him Heather’s note. “I don’t know if there’ve been more. Some students may be too scared to tell their resident advisers.” He went to a file cabinet and came back fanning a collection of cards and letters. Each referenced a girl with two faces and smirked at her sexual identity. All were signed Janus.
“It’s been going on for almost two years,” Dean Sheppard said. “I’ve talked to the New Brunswick police. I’ve talked with parents. I even called the FBI, but they told me to wait in line. Their agents were all chasing terrorists. Can you help?” He was almost begging now.
“Who’s Janus?” I asked.
“A god in Roman mythology. The one with two faces. Also the god of gates and doorways, beginnings and ends. They put his name on the month of January — the first month.” He gave a little heh-heh. “And, the word janitor, who takes care of doors and hallways. I mean to tell you,” Sheppard said, “the kids are scared — and they have a right to be. Earlier this fall a sophomore who received a similar letter went missing. Coincidental — or a mistake hitchhiking back to school.”
* * *
Back in my apartment, I laid out Xeroxes of the dean’s notes next to a tumbler of Scotch. Never heard of this Janus guy, and like I really needed to know this was how January got named. I turned on my desktop computer and began searching to see what popped up. In a few minutes, I got a string of hits. In Golden Eye, Janus was the terrorist organization whose former 00 agent betrays James Bond. In a Twilight Zone episode, Janus is a babe who puts on her dead husband’s glasses to reveal she’s the killer leading a double life. The Batman villain Two-Face used the alias Janus. Huh. Didn’t know that.
There were other eerier glimpses of the dark side. Janus was posting on different blogs. “What does the past tell us about the future?” he asked. “The heart murmurs and Red Rum answers.”
I could answer that one. Red Rum is murder spelled backwards.
This called for hard thinking. Heather was having a panic attack and somewhere there was a missing co-ed. This couldn’t be an official case, but I don’t have any other hobbies and investigation beats playing solitaire.
The year before I’d worked with Frank O’Hearn, a special agent of the FBI’s Newark office. Made me wonder if they had anything. He returned my call Monday afternoon. “We have three Janus notes, Mike. Two were mailed to girls at a community college in Pinellas County, Florida, and one to a kid at a university in Virginia. Postmarked from different cities. No disposition in the cases. Dead end — now, I have to run. I’m off to pick up a prisoner in Tampa.”
“Frank, can you do me a favor? While you’re down there, talk to the student dean at that college, to security, to someone. Do they know anything more about this whack job?”
* * *
Frank got back to me a week later. “One of the girls told campus security she was getting geek e-mails about her sexuality, so it’s not just postcards and letters. The guy’s handle was Mister Sauni. But get this; the college kid found there was hidden text, matching the color of the type to the color of the background. When she highlighted the text the secret messages and a link popped out.”
“Are they treating this as a serious threat?”
“College still believes there’s a student behind this harassment. May be that the targets are gays and lesbians, but they don’t want to get into dark areas. Deep South, you know.”
I made a telephone call back to Dean Sheppard at Epiphany.
“Sauni?” he said. “It doesn’t take a Scrabble player to know the Romans used an I for a J. Sauni is an anagram for Janus. Now, can you track down the culprit?”
“Well, not immediately,” I told him. Civilians always think a case can be wrapped in an hour, like a TV show. “Getting an Internet provider to cough up subscriber identities without a court order is like getting a nun to come across on the first date.”
“I beg your pardon?” he asked.
“No offence. It’s just that American companies value their privacy more than your security.
Next call was to Heather. “Want to keep you up-to-date, kiddo. I’ve been digging out every posting that Janus, Sauni or whatever has made on message centers and chat rooms and blog sites.”
“Are you saying you still don’t know who this is, Uncle Mike?”
“The common element is a reference to a man with two faces and a hang-up with girls who prefers girls.”
“I am not a lesbian,” Heather shouted, and hung up.
More dismal late nights followed, motivated by Heather’s angry calls. “Uncle Mike,” she threatened, “unless you catch this pervy geek a bunch of us at school are going to demonstrate. A candlelight vigil. Angry speeches. And,” she hissed, “letters to powerful people.”
It looked hopeless. My trails led to abandoned web sites, home pages full of cobwebs and ghosts. These were the boarded up houses along the information highway. Behind each new fake name were more pages, riddles, made-up words and aliases.
Somewhere in the night, Janus was also clicking away on a keyboard, secure in the anonymity of cyberspace.
* * *
January finally ended, a time to hope for new beginnings as Janus might say. I dogged him every free moment. I told Heather I was making progress. I lied. The creep was still crawling wraith-like through Internet sites. Frank said his Florida guy reported more notes, and so did Sheppard.
My problem was going it alone. My partner at the 2nd Precinct, Ernesto Vila, gave me a weird look and asked, “How come you’re so down in the mouth?”
We were driving up Springfield Avenue checking out a burglary. “This thing on my mind,” I said. “Guy writes crank notes. Outside possibility is he’s also a killer, and he’s scaring my niece. She got another e-mail yesterday.” I admitted that Janus now was my only hobby — unless I was becoming his.
Pulling over to get coffee, Ernesto looked at the printout of pages I showed him.
“You’re not bad for an old guy,” he said. “But you navigate the Web like my mother searching for compañeras to play online dominos.”
“Schmuck,” I replied, “Bet you can’t name all the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.”
“The guy’s addresses are right here.” He pointed to things I’d overlooked on the chat rooms. “Whyn’t you e-mail him? Tell him you’re watching him. Bet that would frost him.”
Finally, I had a lead — well, a dozen different addresses, but no way of knowing if these — what’d they call them? — avatars and screen names were the same person or different ones. Janus had more than two faces.
And then my FBI friend, Frank, called. A student — head of the LGBT group at the Virginia university — had turned up dead. “Mutilated,” he said. “Sexually.”
* * *
“Detective Mullally, I want to see you for a few minutes.”
That’s all I needed, to have Sharmayne Billings, the department psychologist, run a brain tap. “I’m off duty. How about tomorrow?”
“No. Or I talk to the Captain Broome and make it official.”
Three pictures of the city hung behind her desk. Newark, now under inches of snow, never looked so good in real life.
“I want you to tell me what’s on your mind. Just chat for a while. No charges, but a couple of the officers have said you’re snapping their heads off. You’re changing. Cold and indifferent. You eat alone. What’s happening?”
“A case I’m working on — on my own time. Threatening letters to college girls, including my niece. Disappearance of an Epiphany College student. Two possible homicides.”
“New Brunswick’s not your jurisdiction. Look, I don’t care what you do off duty unless it affects your behavior on the job.” Sharmayne was the department’s den mother, both authoritative and sympathetic. Good cop and bad rolled up in a Masters in psychology.
“Okay. I’ll eat donuts with the squad. I’ll tell them what a great episode of CSI I saw on TV. Alright?”
“Mike, I’m here to help. If I can help you sort anything out — well, I’m paid to listen.”
Silence hung like a wet towel. Finally, I said, “A character calls himself Janus. Uses lots of aliases. Sends letters to college girls. There are anagrams and sick jokes about gays. What kind of person does that? Tell me. You’re a shrink.”
“One possibility is a lonely man. Single. Unconnected to family or the community. That’s just a supposition, but it’s also the profile of troubled people. Can I suggest something? Talk to me so you’re not dealing with it all by your lonesome. And, come see me if you need a friend.”
* * *
Okay, so I had a beer or two with the guys after work — occasionally. But, as spring rolled into summer I stayed on my computer, working the e-mails to Janus with desperation. Then Heather got another e-mail: Janus had her dormitory address.
I got scared.
I tried to come up with messages intriguing enough to get an answer. I wrote to 2face2Btru and asked, “Q. What does one dead girl say to another? A. Start looking behind you, sister.” I wrote to OrganixPlayer, “What does a killer with two faces look like? There are other eyes in the dark now.” I also wrote in plain English, challenging him to answer, not knowing if my letters reached the real Janus, but terrifyingly aware that he was hiding somewhere in his alternative reality.
Frank called again in late February. “State Police found a partial skeleton down in Florida. It’s the Pinellas co-ed — what was left — by the side of the highway they call Alligator Alley.”
We had Miss Florida and Miss Virginia as victims and the FBI was taking notice. I guessed the Jersey hitchhiker would turn up any day now.
That was the night I came home to find Janus had finally answered. Kind of. “You can shave a cat,” he wrote, “but they look the same in the closet.” More messages began dribbling in when I logged on at night — but none made any sense. I was a subscriber to a blog from the loony bin. But of all the garbled notes only one had a second addressee. Next to mine was a StellaGrabitsky591@aol.com. I wondered if there were 590 other Stella Grabitskis that AOL needed to number her.
I pinned Stella down in less than an hour. She lived in Dunellen, a dozen miles from where I sat. Now, what was I going to say? Five months I’d been playing cat-and-mouse with a ghost. I was minutes away from nailing down an identity.
She picked up with a hesitant “Hello.”
“Ms. Grabitsky, I need your help. You and I both got an e-mail today from someone calling himself TwinVisage at an AT&T account. I think TwinVisage is in trouble and needs our help.”
A guarded gasp came over the line. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Tell me about him,” I said in the calmest voice I could pull out from months of frustration.
Her silence was long enough that I wondered if the phone company had crashed. Then, “I’ve only heard of him. He makes a living trouble-shooting computers for people. Clients, I guess you call them.”
“Ms. Grabitsky, I need his name and where he is now.”
“Who are you?” Her voice was quivery, and I pictured a gray-haired old biddy.
“I’m the police.”
“No, you’re not!” she shouted and hung up.
I’d no sooner cradled the phone than it rang.
“Mike, it’s Sheila, your sister. Heather’s not answerin’ her phone.” She sounded like the kid who used to ask me for help when bullies picked on her at school. This time fear poured out of the receiver. “Her roommate said she hasn’t seen her since Thursday.”
* * *
My boss wasn’t thrilled when I called. “Captain, I want authorization to go down to Dunellen and question a woman about the Janus Man I’ve been pursuing.”
“Mike, you got me away from the dinner table for this cockamamie hide-and-seek game you’ve been playing? I want you in my office in the morning!” Broome was pissed, but he hadn’t reassigned me to a beat in the South Ward — yet.
“It’s my niece, Captain. She’s gone missing. Florida and Virginia police found similar victims. Same M.O.s. And I want Sharmayne to go with me.”
“You’re serious? You have an ID on this guy?”
“I want to talk to the woman who knows who he is.”
“Give me a full report — in my office tomorrow morning.”
Sharmayne was a single lady who lived in a neat Cape Cod in the North Ward.
“Mike, aren’t you supposed to have backup?” she asked. “A partner?”
“Ernesto’s off tonight. Kid’s birthday. I just want to talk with an old lady and you may calm her down. You know I’m cold and indifferent.”
She snorted, then whuffed again once we got in my car. “Cops always amaze me,” she said, as much to herself as to me. “Tough as nails. Then they act like a mama in the playground over an abused child or beaten wife.”
“I’m concerned about my niece — a 3.5 GPA student, basketball player, reporter on the school paper…”
“Nothing personal. I’m talking about the broader picture.”
Her face blinked on and off like a beacon as we passed under the streetlights. I figured her for being soft where I was hard, maternal where I was a disciplinarian. We were all two-faced like the Janus Man.
* * *
I’d been right. Stella was an old broad. She invited us into her stuffy bungalow, motivated by my badge and the woman with me. Sharmayne being black may have cancelled out her gender, but old white people respect authority in any color.
“The man you spoke about, Herbert, is my nephew,” she said defiantly.
“Thought you just learned about him,” I probed.
“I was being protective. Herbert was always…different. But talented. He could take things apart and put them back together right as rain when he was a child. He’s highly intelligent, but could never concentrate. Banged his head in the pillow night after night, never looked us in the eye, hard to make him bathe.”
“Was it autism, Ms. Grabitsky?” Sharmayne asked. “Did a doctor ever see him?”
“He grew up in the early ‘60s. We didn’t know about autism and those other things — psychology, attention deficit. He never grew beyond being a 10-year-old.”
“Where can we find Herbert? We need to ask him about the letters.”
“And help him,” Sharmayne added, “if it looks like there’s a problem.”
It took half an hour to wheedle Herbert’s address from this protective auntie.
He was tucked up in Sussex County, an hour away on the back roads. No streetlights there — just woods, small clusters of towns. Place has the reputation of being bear country now. Herbert’s place appeared at the end of a long drive. Lights glowed in two rooms.
I checked to make sure my 9 mm Glock was where it should be in my holster, and knocked. I was ready for bears.
A pumpkin-shaped man slowly opened the door. “Herbert Mark?” I asked. “I’m Detective Mullally and this is Miss Billings. We’re here about the e-mails you’ve been sending, about the letters from Janus Man.”
His blinking eyes bounced from one of us to the other, never meeting ours. He waddled inside, returning with a digital tablet as I stepped over the threshold. The fingers of one hand flew over the keyboard before he showed us the screen.
The document read, “come in. ive been waiting for you to come. you or someone like you.”
“It’s a long road that led me here, Janus,” I said. “Weeks searching through your warped world.” The anger — for all my lost nights and Heather’s anxiety — welled up in me. Hundreds of chat rooms and cobbled-up Web sites, and I found this pathetic object.
“change and transitions arent easy,” he wrote, “moving from one condition to another, the growing up and the cutting down.”
“Can you talk?” Sharmayne asked gently.
His face bobbed up and down meaninglessly, wreathed in a pitiful smile. “i live in a different universe,” he wrote. “my reality and yours only are contiguous at the point where I communicate through my computer.”
“Let me ask you a question from the real world, Herbert,” I said. “Do you know Heather Darnell?”
His gaze wandered over the ceiling.
“Were you in Florida or Virginia last year? Know anybody at Epiphany College in New Brunswick?”
I got a bobble-head response, then he wrote, “im afraid of airplanes, great heights, spiders and snakes, people who talk fast, jell-o, faces with teeth.”
“Can you prove it? You’ve been scaring the shit out of girls in those places. My niece at Epiphany College is missing — the one you just e-mailed with your cryptic crap. I have copies of your letters, and there’s a federal law against using the telephone and postal service to threaten people.”
“Easy, Mike.” Sharmayne put a hand on my arm. “Mr. Mark, we want to help, but you have to cooperate. If you don’t, we’ll call the local authorities to take you in. They’ll lock you up and make you prove you weren’t responsible for murdered students down south and a missing college student here in New Jersey.”
“YOU CANT LOCK ME UP!!!!” He began bouncing up and down and his eyes rolled like pinballs.
“How’d you get Heather’s name?” I demanded. “And more than a dozen girls in two other states?” I was fed up.
He wrote, “i dont know these people. i got name lists from aphrodite. her moving finger is truth. I COMMUNICATE THE TRUTH!!”
“We’re at a dead end, Sharmayne. C’mon while I get my phone in the car and call the locals.”
She smiled a century of wisdom I’d never possess and said, “Go on. I’ll talk to Herbert.
It took five minutes to get the Sussex County sheriff’s office on the line. “Where the hell am I?” I asked. “In the middle of nowhere at a shack owned by Herbert Mark. I need backup now or there’ll be trouble.” As I closed my cell phone, the lights in the house blinked off. The woods closed in.
I slammed the car door and unholstered my gun in one motion as I ran to the house. The locked front door didn’t stop me. I smashed through the splintery wood and plunged into darkness. “Sharmayne? Where are you?”
“Mike.…” I heard her groan. The light switch didn’t work as I groped blindly across the living room. Sharmayne cried out as I tripped over her in the dark.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“He…hit me with something. I think I’m bleeding.”
Her last word resonated as something hard whacked me in the shoulder. I dropped to the floor, turned onto my back and fired a shot at the ceiling. The muzzle flash showed Herbert with a baseball bat high over his head. Instinctively, I rolled away and jumped to my feet.
“Put down the bat or I’ll shoot!” I felt the wind on my ear as Herbert swung, missing my head by inches. At the end of his swing I slammed my fist up under his chin. Not waiting for the pumpkin man to fall, I swiveled and brought the pistol down on his forehead.
Then he dropped.
* * *
Herbert had cut the circuit breakers from the switchbox in the kitchen. With the lights back on I got a pillow under Sharmayne’s head. “Lucky lady, Sharmayne. I think he missed a vital organ. The sheriff’ll be here soon. I’ll call back and get an ambulance.”
“Mike, he got hysterical about being locked up. He didn’t mean to hit me.”
“He’s a killer, Sharmayne, and he’s going down for a long time.”
“Calm down!” Her demand ended with a groan as the pain came back. “Autism is an illness. Herbert is extremely sensitive.”
“Save your sensitivity for church. This is attempted murder.”
The room erupted in a screech as Stella blasted in through the open door. I felt the breeze as she swung a knife like the Grim Reaper making hay.
I was too tired to argue with the biddy. Just pointed to Herbert on the floor. As I stepped forward, she lunged at me with a knife. Her first thrust cut through my shirt and bicep and she pulled back to go straight to my heart. I let her momentum carry her under my arm and cold-cocked her from behind. She fell across Herbert’s unconscious body.
Stella moved fast for a senior citizen. Shows what people can do when they’re motivated. I looked at the curious pose Stella and Herbert had struck. “Just like two faces attached to one body,” I muttered to no one.
* * *
Sharmayne was taken to Newark’s Saint James Hospital. She’d be okay. Her wounds just required a few stitches. The clown would probably be sent to a hospital for observation. The old lady would be charged with murder, attempted murder and — if I had my way — reckless driving on the digital highway.
I was finally having a few brews with the guys in the precinct.
“You telling me Janus Man didn’t do it? It was his aunt?” Ernesto didn’t yet believe that there was real madness in the world — and he was pissed I hadn’t demanded he go up to Sussex County to cover my back.
“His aunt was the psycho. She scoped out the colleges — places she’d been. Kids there had labeled her a lesbian when she was a student and later an adjunct professor. Mocked her in public. They were the Prejudice Mafia. Stella sent student directories to Herbert. Pressured him into writing and e-mailing the girls — and keeping her posted so she could follow his progress. Then she’d pop one of them when she had a chance.
“But your niece, Mike,” Ernesto asked. “Where’s Heather?”
“She’s in a world of shit,” I said. “She took off with a guy and spent a few days in Atlantic City without telling anyone. My sister’s going ballistic.”
Walter Giersbach's crime and mystery stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Gumshoe Review, Mouth Full of Bullets, OG Short Fiction, and Over My Dead Body! — "Chain of Events" (July, 2010), "Babel Tower" (August, 2012), and "Life Settlement, Finally" (April, 2013).
Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers.
Copyright © 2014 Walter Giersbach. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!