The eight cardboard packages arrived at each residence on the first Thursday in December. Since six of the residences were in North Florida and two were in South Georgia, the local authorities were required to call in the FBI.
Tom had the flu, so Esme flew alone into Tallahassee. She reviewed the case file on the plane, mindfully using her elbow to block the nosy teenager in the neighboring seat from peeking at some of the more explicit photographs. When the boy was halfway through his turkey sandwich, she lowered her elbow and let him get an eyeful.
He spent the rest of the flight in the john.
What the photographs depicted - and what Esme saw first-hand once she arrived at the Tallahassee field office - were the contents of the packages. More specifically, each cardboard package contained, floating in a puddle of blood, a flaccid penis and hairy scrotum. Three of the penises were circumcised. One was black.
The m.e. indicated the circumference of the wound areas. The edges of these skin flaps displayed hundreds of tiny teeth marks, but in several rows, which indicated that a serrated blade was used, and that it took more than one chop to get the deed done.
Before meeting up with the Tallahassee Special Agent in Charge, Esme put in a call to her daughter Sophie and they spent ten minutes discussing holiday cards, the incredible amount of snow on the ground, and how their Christmas tree was beginning to smell funny. Esme phone-clicked a photograph of a palm tree, sent it to Sophie, blew her kisses from a thousand miles away, and, after hanging up, took a few quiet minutes before returning indoors.
The eight men to which the genitalia belonged had all been reported missing over the course of eight weeks by each of their eight wives, all of whom had been the addressees on the packages. Esme went over the police interviews with each of the wives. Did any of them have shaky marriages? Yes. Aren't all marriages shaky at one time or another? Yes. Two of them lived in trailers, but not in the same trailer park. One of them lived in an upper-middle-class prefab just outside Tallahassee.
So what was the connection?
The return address on each of the packages had led the police to a clapboard motel on the GA/FL border. The motel had, of course, had eight rooms, all lined up in a row beside a squat building which doubled as the main office and a souvenir shop for decades-old red-and-white decals from Florida State University. Predictably, each of the eight rooms contained a hurricane of dried blood and the nose-awful remains of a castrated corpse.
The cause of death was desanguination: massive blood loss. It had been neither painless nor slow.
The final piece of forensic evidence in the reports which Esme found intriguing was the trace appearance of short black hairs in six of the eight motel rooms. These hairs did not belong to any of the victims but did, after analysis under light microscopy, almost definitely belong to an unidentified Caucasian male.
Esme, ensconced in a box-like cubicle the Tallahassee folks had given her, leaned back in her wooden chair, popped in her ear buds, cranked up the Kinks song "Father Christmas" on her iPod, and got to work.