There are places in autumn Michigan where trees interlock over lonely country roads in impenetrable ceilings of rust. The great white cargo van moved deliberately through one such feuille morte tunnel, like a shark prowling through red tide, creeping over winter-cracked asphalt.
The two men in the front of the van were known collectively by the media as the Red Mattress Killer. They were monsters in human skin; torturers and killers of women.
The driver was called Bud by some, though his real name was Donald James Jaffe. He was the slower one of the pair, with one drooping eye and facial hair like a clogged drain in a communal shower. His low IQ was not offset by physical strength. In prison he was the punk, the bitch, the target. That was around other men. Around women – or more to the point, lone, terrified women held captive in his windowless cargo van – he was strong, brutal, and entirely without mercy.
His general witlessness and savagery were the qualities that made him a valued partner in crime to the second half of the Red Mattress Killer team: Dean Alan Cake. Cake was the brains of the partnership. Physically he was even smaller than Jaffe, with murine nose and overbite that, along with the wisps of whiskers around this protruding upper lip, made him look unpleasantly like a rat.
Cake and Jaffe had met just over a year earlier at Ironwood State Prison in California. Jaffe was in for attempted rape, Cake for breaking a whiskey bottle over his girlfriend’s head during a domestic dispute. They didn’t share a cell, but their bonding in the prison common areas was natural and effortless. Jaffe’s hatred for all things female was a deep geyser ready to spurt at the slightest provocation. Cake’s hate was more recent, but all the more dangerous for the control he held over his urges. While Jaffe was all wet emotion, when Cake cut and raped a girl he was icy cold.
Hunting women and desecrating them in a large van was Cake’s idea. In truth, he stole the notion from an earlier pair of degenerates who had done the same thing in California in the late seventies. His innovation was using the mattresses. The pair found them on curbs and in back alleys. Already stained and filthy and sometimes infested with bedbugs, the mattresses only grew viler after Jaffe and Cake hauled them into the van and used them as butcher blocks to carve up females.
After a number of victims, usually five but sometimes more, when the smell became overpowering, the pair would pull into a nighttime suburb, each time in a different state, shove the sopping mattress out the rear doors onto a politely manicured lawn, and speed away.
As soon as they found their next mattress and hauled it into their rolling slaughterhouse, the hunt began anew.
It was pure theater. They never killed unless a mattress was loaded in the van. Having an attention-catching signature was key. There was no sense in killing all these women and not getting any credit for it.
It only took the discovery of two discarded mattresses by horrified suburbanites before the media’s bloodlust was fully aroused, before they anointed the pair as The Red Mattress Killer under the assumption that a lone serial killer was at work. Within a few short days The Red Mattress Killer was all over every traditional and social media platform, and a sick cult following was forming.
The Red Mattress Killer was exactly what the public needed. It was no longer sufficient to merely invade a woman’s home and carve her up in her bedroom, or snatch a pre-teen off the street and leave her in pieces on the side of the road. All that had been done and done again, and only specialists and dedicated fans paid attention.
But the mattresses were something new. Grisly enough to capture the public’s imagination and get them engaged again. They were a great bloody meat hook upon which to hang endless, lurid coverage.
When discovered, each new mattress inspired a level of horror that was hard to come by in modern times. They were often still plump with uncoagulated blood and stank of urine, vomit, and a rancid brew of decaying pheromones. It was obvious to all observers that some nightmarish butchery had occurred atop of them; but what, and inflicted on whom? Prostitutes? Most likely. Or perhaps someone worthwhile. White girls. No bodies had been found yet, only the mattress canvasses.
Exactly how badly were these victims raped, for they were surely raped, the public wanted to know, and for how long? What kind of torture did they endure? Exactly what kind? Were they mutilated? What was cut off, and in what order?
The mattresses posed a fascinating riddle. The media and the public could not wait for the answer to be posted online and analyzed by true crime writers and misogynistic hipsters.
Jaffe and Cake were aware of all this excitement, of course. Jaffe lapped it up like a cat with a fresh bowl of cream, collecting newspaper clippings in a scrapbook that he kept under the driver seat. For Cake, the mattress scheme ultimately had only one purpose: betrayal.
Before dumping a mattress, Cake would douse it with quarts of whatever chemical chaff he and Jaffe could find or steal: cleaning supplies, bleach, even drain cleaner. The idea was to break down the blood and semen, damage the DNA, and confuse the crime lab tests. That’s what Cake told Jaffe anyway, and Jaffe was dim enough to believe that this ritual was enough to cover their tracks.
Cake knew that all this silliness would barely slow down any modern crime lab. That’s why he never used the mattress himself.
After parking the van in some desolate spot where they could play without interruption, Cake always let Jaffe go first. Afterwards, Jaffe had a habit of leaving the van to walk off his rage and lust. Once he was sure he was alone, Cake would drag the quivering remains off the mattress and out of the van and do his business outside, in the bushes or the weeds, whatever was nearby. From there it was a simple matter to bury the trash in a shallow grave or kick it into a ravine.
When collecting a new mattress from an alley, Cake always wore gloves, and otherwise he was careful not to touch the disgusting thing. The result of this discipline was that Jaffe’s DNA, and not Cake’s, ended up on and in the mattresses. When the hammer finally fell, it would fall on Jaffe, and Jaffe alone.
Cake knew that it would take the authorities time to identify Jaffe. The mattresses were a stew of toxic chemicals and compromised biological signatures. Jaffe’s DNA was there, and their victims’, and the previous owners’. Any vagrants who used the mattress in the alley for a quick nap left their cells behind. So did the rats and the cockroaches. It was a brilliant smokescreen.
Eventually, of course, some lab rat would collect a valid sample from Jaffe’s dried leavings, and that sample would eventually call up Jaffe’s records in a criminal database, and the hunt would be on. Eventually.
As he sat in the passenger seat of the van, a loose spring biting annoyingly into his buttocks, listening to his partner humming along to the Doobie Brothers and tapping the steering wheel out of time with the beat, Cake wondered if he shouldn’t cut himself loose from Jaffe sooner rather than later.
Truth be told, he was growing bored. Oh, it had all been exciting at first: the snatching of those first victims, their begging and the screaming. Jaffe’s clippers. It was magic, but exhausting. They had to stop for a bit, it was all too much. But then they had their second wind, and the violence escalated, and he and Jaffe really outdid themselves with each new victim, horrors mounting on horrors until their nights became jagged blurs of blood and cavities.
But having reached those heights, now what? What new experiences could the game offer? The last time he had performed such atrocities upon their victim as to make even the devil weep; where could they go from there?
Nowhere but this damned empty, backwoods Michigan road apparently, with no escape from the whistling of every breath through Jaffe’s hairy nostrils.
Cake’s rat face scowled. There was nothing out here. Where were they, even? He hadn’t seen so much as a mailbox for half an hour.
It was because of his own paranoia that they had moved their trolling further and further out into the depths of nowhere. It would take just one cop, just one, to pull them over on suspicion of being a rolling meth lab, and the game would be up. And what then? Would he fight? He wasn’t a fighter. At least he wouldn’t be ill-used in general population like last time; once the authorities put together the pieces and the true magnitude of his crimes became known, he would never see the outside of solitary. Until his execution.
Despondent, Cake slouched in his seat, mesmerized by the road and the weedy gaps along either side, and the endless, endless trees.
He sat forward to peer through the windshield’s network of cracks. It was… yes, he was right, a figure, somebody. Man or woman he couldn’t tell, but it was alone, walking along the shoulder, that much he could see.
Jaffe was beating out a rhythm on the steering wheel to the Doobie Brothers song. “Yeah Cake.”
Cake slapped the other’s arm with the back of his left hand, then pointed down the road.
Jaffe peered forward and saw. “Hey. You think that’s—”
Cake stared. “It’s a woman.”
“Yeah. Yeah. Woman.”
“Well, alright. ‘Bout fucking time.”
“The usual routine. Right? Pull up but not alongside. I’ll wave her over.”
“Nice and slow now.” He felt in his jacket pocket for the cinch-ties he kept there.
Jaffe pulled the van over to the shoulder, slowed to a crawl, and then made a complete stop, the tires crunching gravel.
Now do your bit, bitch, Cake thought. And just on cue, the woman began trotting toward the van. In trouble. Looking for help. Well, she wouldn’t find an end to trouble here.
Cake slowly rolled his window down as the woman came up alongside the van. He leaned out just slightly, his right arm resting in the window casually, and flashed his friendliest smile. “Hey, little lady. You OK? Need help?”
The woman’s smile practically chased away the night air with sunshine. “Oh, thank good… ness…” Her warmth faded as she got a good look at Cake.
He fixed his grin, kept his arm relaxed in the window. Don’t let her see muscles tensing like a coiled spring.
Her eyes flicked beyond Cake to Jaffe. Then she looked at the van.
She bolted like a rabbit.
It was so sudden that it took Cake half a heartbeat to register her flight.
But a heartbeat wasn’t going to get her far. Pounding the flat of his palm on the outside door, he yelled for Jaffe to floor it. Jaffe was way ahead of him. His foot crushed the accelerator and the van lurched forward in pursuit.
“Get alongside that bitch Jaffe!” He put his hand on the door handle. The prey was running like a gazelle, looking for a break in the tree line. He knew once she veered right he’d never see her again. But she’d seen his face, and Jaffe’s. She couldn’t be allowed to escape.
“I’m on her Cake, get that bitch!”
As fast as she was, she couldn’t outrun the van. Cake opened the door alongside her and leapt out like a cannon ball, tackling her into the dirt.