The Freed Man

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After Mitch had the conversation with Laura Houang's parents that he'd been dreading, where he had to ask distraught parents everything they could remember about their poor dead daughter's last few days, and, inevitably, spent some time with the media circus, there were four new detectives assigned to the case. Once they got up to speed on the case file, they were all pretty damned disgusted with it. Jackson did the right thing and took the lead with the new investigators; Mitch answered questions as best he could, but mostly kept his head down and kept working.

The knife they found with Laura Houang's body had been used in her flaying, apparently by her own hand - but it hadn't been the only knife. The medical examiner had found patterns in the lacerations that allowed him to identify the knives that had been used on different parts of the body. And there were three different knives. There were no clues about who had used the other two, but the medical examiner said that all three had been used with extraordinary skill. Laura had been flayed with great care, removing the skin while leaving almost all her blood vessels intact so that she wouldn't bleed to death immediately.

Laura had rented the panel truck herself that morning, with a fake ID that had come off a laser-printer somewhere and her mom's credit card. Evidently she'd managed to pass as a twenty-one year old.

Mitch put in a request for authorization to work with a psychic on the case, and he could hear Purdy's teeth grinding as she approved it. That was just about as far as this whole newage thing could be pushed, and he figured there was probably going to be fallout. But there weren't any other plausible leads, and he really didn't care anymore.

But in between listening to Purdy grinding her teeth and getting the new detectives up to speed on the case, he was really glad to hear from the police commission's licensing division.

***

In October 2013, they let Wolf Scudder out of prison. He stood outside the gate, quietly listening, as the steel grillwork door ground shut behind him one last time.

Except this time he was facing the other direction.

His first and greatest hope had come to pass. And, oddly, he felt nothing. He looked up, and his gray eyes scanned the horizons he'd been denied for so long. He could have had his dad meet him at the prison, but he took them up on their offer of a ride to the bus stop instead. It was only a few blocks to the bus stop. He'd lived within three miles of the place for almost three years, and he'd never known it was there.

Reasonable doubt. They hadn't caught the killer, but Wolf had talked to his lawyer, and the lawyer had talked to the cops, and Wolf didn't know all the details, but a new appeal had been made, with new evidence, and this time there was reasonable doubt. Wolf was a free man, but there was something he didn't particularly like about that. They weren't sure he was guilty anymore, but they didn't sound sure he was innocent, either.

He'd been called to give his testimony again, in prison, speaking to a tape recorder while his lawyer and some other lawyer watched him. He guessed Flanagan had testified again too. But none of it was real to him until two weeks later when they'd come to get him out of his cell. They'd taken him to the courtroom, in his orange prison jump-suit, there to see the first woman he'd seen in two and a half years. She was wearing a black robe and sitting on a judge's bench and telling him that his convictions had been overturned. And he'd felt nothing.

They'd brought him back for his exit processing, and made him wait around for an hour while they did paperwork. Someone brought his personal effects in his little box from his cell. They'd outfitted him with two changes of clothes and a duffel bag to put them in and a little money for a bus ticket or something, and then they'd kicked him out. It wasn't the kind of place where you said long goodbyes.

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