We were worried sick about our boys.
That summer in the City of Brotherly Love, straight white college boys were being targeted, not by fraternity hazing or ticket scalping or probiotic scams, but by a female perp with a twisted agenda. Most of the victims were upperclassmen–legacy students at Penn or Bryn Mawr or Villanova who had simple dreams–to make the rowing team, to pledge Sigma Tau, to meet a nice girl and take her to a cotillion or soda shop. These boys were the cream of the crop; not virgins exactly, but not not virgins either. Perhaps that’s what drew her; maybe she liked that they came from good families, or maybe it was pure animal attraction.
We wondered: Did the attacker like the way they looked? Like the way they rough-housed at soccer practice on the fields of Penn stadium? How their quads tightened when they bent over to pull up their athletic socks? How their puckered lips looked when they spit? Did she think about the way the smelled, like fresh sweat and Tommy Hilfiger cologne?
We could only imagine.
It was our job—no, our duty as Philly’s finest special victims’ unit to solve these outrageous crimes before another white college boy was hurt. Nothing like this had ever happened. We’d seen crimes before, of course—break ins, robberies, stolen baby carriages, run-away buses, horses gone wild, an explosion of the feral cat population, Ponzi schemes, adultery, small animal sacrifices, but nothing, nothing like this. We’d heard of guys having their asses grabbed, yes, we’d caught our fill of dumb jock jokes, we’d written down complaints of wolf whistles, cat calls, chicken clucks, and other general harassment, but nothing that crossed the line into physical contact.
It worked like this: the victim would be out drinking at a local bar in South or West Philly; places where the white straight youth typically gathered to watch football or soccer games on big screen TVs and funnel beer: Chickie and Pete’s, Fado’s Irish Pub, Buffalo Billiards. A kid would stumble to the back alleyway to pee. That’s when she would strike. The victim would feel a cold hand clasp his balls, a voice hiss in his ear. She pinned them there, using a warming lotion while touching them to completion on the bricks they had been emptying their bladders against moments before.
We tried not to judge the fact that victims were hanging out at dive bars, drinking with their buddies, wearing stretched white T-shirts that showed off their triceps and biceps, skinny jeans from Urban Outfitters that tapered just so along the ankles, sneakers with a thick sole that gave a lift to their posteriors.
You focus on their behavior and appearance, and you forget that nobody goes for a pitcher of Bud and two-for-one curly fries imagining he’ll end up confused in an alleyway, his limp dick hanging out of his jeans, asking the one question every rape victim asks, “Was it my fault?”
When you take that question apart, you find one more: could I have prevented this? The answer is an emphatic no, and also a quiet yes. Yes, maybe the boys could have.
More victims came forward. We talked to the boys in soft voices, offered them energy drinks and Butterfingers from the vending machine. We asked them if they wanted to speak to our male detective, Randy Washington. They were embarrassed, of course, because their bodies had betrayed them. None of them could give us specific details. In recounting the incidents, their tongues turned clumsy, unwieldy, as if someone had fed them peanut butter.
Do you remember what kind of lotion she used? Some said it smelled like peppermint, other said lavender. One said sandalwood with a hint of cinnamon. Did you see her? Any distinguishing marks? A very few had caught a glimpse of her face, but none described her in the same way. One said she looked like a young Jodie Foster “before that one movie about the serial killer” and another one said she looked like the curly-haired lady in that film where the two women fly off the cliff at the end. The movie their mom liked.
We asked them instead to write down what happened. Could they do that? Yes, they could write down some of the details, but when they put pen in hand, all they could draw were stick figures of people illustrating what had been done to them in these primitive, cave painting ways.
Only one consistent detail: her hands. We brought in a sketch artist. Unfortunately, the perp had all of her fingers and no distinguishing tattoos or jewelry. Her nails were clipped neatly. No polish. One of the victims insisted she had that thing his mom got—what was it? That thing where they paint only the tips?
“A French manicure?” Barbara suggested. She was our oldest detective, a squat woman whose throaty voice betrayed a lifetime of Virginia Slims and hard gin. Over ice. With a slice of lemon. We knew each other so well by then.
“Yes, a French manicure.” The sketch artist quickly put together a composite. We all agreed it wasn’t much to go on, but it was all that we had.
Then, things turned darker. Rugby, a twenty-year old male legacy student majoring in global supply chain management, was found wandering around the Farmer’s Market, barefoot, his GAP T-shirt torn at the collar. His eyes were wet pools of tears. Blue, like the ocean. Rugby was the first to report that she’d threatened to cut him, “down there. Near my junk,” he said, a catch in his throat. It was only by a stroke of luck that a busboy from the bar happened to step out into the alleyway and she bolted.
This suggested that simply humiliating the boys was no longer enough. She wanted blood.
When Rugby came to the station, Amber, our lead detective, approached him as one would a skittish stray. Amber had eyes of blue steel and a body to match. But she knew how to handle the boys. “Rugby, it’s okay. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you.” She poured him a glass of Gatorade, tried not to notice the delicate bob of his Adam’s apple as he gulped it down. “Would you rather talk to a man?”
He shook his head, eyes cast down, long eyelashes nearly touching his cheeks. “She, she, followed me outside of Misconduct Tavern, and she…I…She…I…She…At first, I thought she needed help looking for her kitten or, I don’t know, but then I– ” He burst into big, heaving gasps.
Lieutenant Randy Washington, a well-muscled blond who kept his demeanor tight, and his pants tighter, stepped up to the boy. “Listen, I have a rule I go by, and it’s something my dad taught me. No matter what the problem is, there’s no reason a woman should be asking a man for help. She should ask another woman. You got that?”
The kid nodded, blinking back tears. He told his story.
He’d gone out to take a piss, but tried to stop when she appeared. She was quick, pushed him forward, one hand pressing a knife to his throat, the other clutching his balls. “You move, I cut.” Rugby rested his head on the interrogation table where one of our perps had used an earring back to scrawl “Johnny’s a Slut” in tiny letters.
“It’s not your fault, Rugby. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Amber said.
We refrained from adding, Except for pissing in a public space which is technically a Class-A misdemeanor. Hadn’t he been through enough?
We gathered outside of the interrogation room. We had a lot of questions. “You buying this story?” Amber asked, turning in a circle. “Why did he run from the scene? You think he’s doing this for attention? Anyone run a toxicology?”
We all agreed there was a high percentage that he was lying, because—well, we couldn’t think of why he’d do that. For attention, maybe?
“Rape kit first,” Barbara said, blowing her nose into a handkerchief with a loud honk.
Amber and Barb went by Rugby’s house to speak to his parents. They pegged the father right away for a martyr. His eyes were puffy and red from crying, and he was wringing his hands like an old fisherman. He insisted that his boy hadn’t even been at Tattooed Mom’s. No way his son was out at a bar. He was underage. He’d never do that. He was a good boy.
The dads. They always saw their kids through rose-colored glasses.
Barbara pulled the mom aside when she got home from work, exhausted, smelling vaguely of gin. “You mind if we have a look at his room?”
“Be my guest,” the mother said with a sweeping gesture, knocking over a vase of peonies.
Barb and Amber followed the mother into the boy’s bedroom. It was all done up in navy and white stripes with a sailboat trim. Trophies for swimming, baseball, lacrosse, water polo, but strangely, no awards for rugby. A collage of photos of him and his college buddies tucked into the edges of the mirror. Pictures of a dog wearing a jaunty blue bandana. Chew toys. “Tell us about your son,” Amber said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Tell us what his dad won’t say.”
The mother squinted at us, evaluating. Then, she sighed, running a hand through her dark, silver-threaded hair. “He was a bit of a showboat,” she acknowledged. “He was also girl crazy. And he pledged Phi Beta Kappa, even though his dad was Kappa Kappa Kuppa. We asked him to stick to hipster bars, stay with his friends, but he said he liked the vibe at Misconduct.”
A slobbering, giant-headed retriever bounded into the room, nuzzling at their crotches. He had a wide feathery tail and a dangling scrotum that looked as heavy as cue balls.
“Down, Buddy!” When the mother wasn’t looking, Barb gave Buddy a swift kick in the nuts.
Once the story broke in The Inquirer, we had no choice but to manage the fall-out through a press conference and a series of community education initiatives. They gave her a catchy nickname: Jerk Off Jane. Our graphic designer created a poster that read “Pee Safe. Stay safe” and included a sketch drawing of her hand. We posted the flier on cork boards next to band announcements in bars, in gym locker rooms, over missing cat photos on telephone poles. It was slow getting the word out. Which was fine by us. It’s not like we wanted the whole city to know that we were dealing with a serial rapist and all we had to go on was a couple of discarded scrunchies and one too many college boys who would never be the same. Probably. Privately, we thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. But still.
When we couldn’t find a lead immediately, we went to the college campuses to educate the boys on how to avoid the assaults. We had a PowerPoint outlining the locations of the attacks, and tips for not tempting the perp. Pee with a buddy, watch out for one another, don’t wear soccer shorts that have easy access—it sends a message, right or wrong. We gave the boys whistles to wear around their necks like collars.
A crew-cut dad with a giant moustache argued that his kid should be allowed to wear whatever he wanted, that sporting gym shorts doesn’t mean he wants to be forcibly given a hand job. “I mean, look at him!” We looked at him and at the other boys. They pulled their T-shirts down over their bellies, faces burning, wiggled in their seats, tugging at their low-slung jeans.
We bit our tongues. We didn’t point out that in the tighter versions of their shorts, you could see the outline of their dicks, the mushroom shaped head, or the cloudy clot of their balls.
We took the Penn football cheerleaders aside before practice, all of them women except for Jeremy in his tight stretchy pants and glowing white wrist bands. We sent him to fill the water bottles. “You got brothers?” Amber asked.
“Yeah,” a high voice yelled from the back. “She’s got a brother and he is smoking hot.” A sports bra sailed through the air, hitting Barbara squarely in the face.
They’d understand all too clearly when some guy they met at a sorority party cried rape and their whole life was destroyed because a needy bro thought they were more than just hook up buddies. We’d seen it happen. Well, actually, we’d never seen it happen, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a possibility. A rep for rape could keep you from so many things—a job as a law enforcement officer, for instance, or a judge, maybe. Possibly even president of the United States.
With no solid leads, we decided to set up a sting operation. Brandon, this kid from the IT department, was young and tough, grew up on the hard streets of North Philly, yet somehow looked as though he’d been raised in the best private schools in up-state New York. She’s tricky, we warned. Be careful.
Barbara gave him a condom, for no reason at all that we could decipher.
“I got you,” he said, trying for an awkward high five. We looked the other way, certain now that we’d made a mistake.
The plan was simple. We’d send Brandon to Tattooed Mom’s, where the attacks had happened half a dozen times before. We dressed him in khaki Dockers and a polo shirt. We gave him a pair of mirrored sunglasses to wear backwards on his head, enough hair gel to tame his wild locks into crunchy looking Styrofoam waves.
You’re good to go, we said, punching him on the shoulder, pinching his cheeks, grabbing his ass in quick handfuls. He was scrumptious really. Enough vulnerability in his mouth to be alluring along with the heady smell of clover shower gel. We found ourselves leaning in and then, no, shaking it off.
We were not like her.
Brandon sat for three hours in the dark bar, drinking lager after lager, going outside to piss half a dozen times. She never showed.
We ended up listening to an increasingly more intoxicated Brandon sing every possible Billy Joel song on the karaoke machine. When he started “Angry Young Man,” for the third time, we called it a night.
Brandon was devastated. “Is it me? Am I not handsome enough? Too skinny?” He gave us a pained look. “Am I not attractive enough to rape?”
“Naw,” Amber said, glancing away. “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
She bought him one last beer and a shot of JB. He took it well and didn’t even say no when she insisted on driving him home. She watched him walk up the stairs to his row house, his shoulders down, the glasses still on the back of his head, looking back at her as if pleading. She did not sit idling in the car wondering what he would do if we knocked on the door, if he would answer in his bathrobe, hair wet now, free of gel.
Like the rest of us, she’d been down that road. It only led to heartache and broken promises. Finding the perp, that’s where our attention needed to be.
Some of us had sons, yes, and daughters. Who should we worry about more? Our sons were careless, prone to car chases down one-way streets and skinned knees from skateboarding feats at Rittenhouse Park. We bought them kneepads and shin guards; darling jock straps shaped vaguely like speculums.
But how well did we really know our daughters? Our daughters were taught to respect boundaries, to open doors for old men, to leave a twenty percent tip or more, even when the service was subpar. Buy who’s to say they weren’t tempted in dark cars behind bowling alleys with their high school crushes, the moon hidden behind fast-moving clouds? What might they do in the dark, enticed by the flash of checkered boxer shorts above denim or the scent of sea breeze aftershave mixed with lacrosse-induced sweat?
We heard of copycat jerk off assaults in D.C., Baltimore, Boston. Taylor Swift released a song called “You Knew I Was Trouble” that went straight to number one on the country and pop charts. We saw the beginnings of pornography fetishizing the white male as liking forced hand play, even as their anguished faces told another story. Barb caught her niece arranging naked Ken dolls in provocative positions. Our boys were running scared, considering community college only, refusing to pledge Kappa Alpha for fear of being roped into a night of binge drinking that ended in salty tears and misgivings.
And then, a break.
Rugby showed up at Amber’s apartment, wearing a tight white t-shirt and soft gray jogging pants. The porch light shined behind his head, making his dark hair glow like a halo. “What are you doing here?” she asked, taking off her reading glasses. Even though she was older and had a helmet of salt and pepper gray hair, most young men considered her irresistible.
“I needed to see you.” It was raining and he shivered, biting his lip. Goosebumps raised on his sculpted biceps.
She let him in, poured him a pina colada wine cooler, and threw him a towel. “Don’t drip water on my nice floor.” She offered him a sweatshirt. He shook his head. He took a sip of the wine cooler, shuddered and gasped. “What’s going on?” she said, fighting the urge to push his wispy forelock off his damp brow.
“I think I know something,” he said.
She suggested he calm down, take a moment, do some deep knee bends or squats.
“I know you’re smarter than me,” he shrugged, wiped his nose on his sleeve. He looked like a little boy.
She told us later that she wanted to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, just to watch his mouth open wider, so she could get a look at his tongue. “What is it, Rugby?”
“Well, it’s that we all have Labs.”
She remembered now, all of the dog hair on the victims’ popped collars. “Go on.”
“I didn’t know all of the guys who were attacked, but I recognized some of them from the dog park, not friends of mine, but I’d see them every other weekend or whatever, or picking up after their dogs on South Street. Then it hit me, we all own the same kind of dog.”
“What does that matter?” She tried not to stare at the Cupid pout of his mouth, the way he shook his hair to clear it of rain like a boy in a shampoo commercial.
“Our vet. I think we all go to the same goddamn vet!” He started to cry. He grabbed a plastic banana from her centerpiece and threw it against the wall. “I can’t live like this anymore.”
She slapped him. Hard. His hand flew to his cheek, eyes stunned blue orbs. She apologized. She hadn’t mean it, but Mother of God, he needed to quit being so hysterical
She told us later that she gave comfort the only way she knew how. With her hands. Hands that were meant to chop down trees, to untie knots in hoodies, to twist the neck of a chicken for Sunday dinner. She took him to her bedroom and laid him gently on the covers. In the dark, she moved with care, touching only when and where he allowed her to.
She got a far-away look in her eye when she described the way he startled when she touched him, as if burned. How she found deep valleys of scratches on his thighs likely self-inflicted by the sharp blade of a scissors. How he whispered that he wished he had the courage to cut deeper. These details—what did they matter? Eventually, he offered himself up to her. Our boy. This boy. Him.
We tracked her down easily after that. Her name was Kimberley Cotton, and she ran a veterinary clinic called The Standard-Standard Vet Clinic. We brought her to the station. While she was in our custody, we searched her clinic. Her records confirmed she had our victims as clients. Brad, Chad, Tad, Dave, Chad, Brett, Alex, Christopher, Brock, Chad, Blaine, Blane, TJ, JT, and yes, Rugby.
She wore a faint slash of dark lipstick. She had a foxy look—pointy nose, hair pulled back into a pink scrunchie.
For the line-up, we had six women, including our main suspect, hold out their hands. Next, one by one, they stepped forward, reading the words off the index cards we’d given them. “Oh, yes, you’re such a good, strong boy. Yes, good boy. Good, good boy.” When the suspect read her card, she did it in a monotone, hardly any enthusiasm. Rugby shot up out of his chair. “Number three,” he said. “That’s her. She’s the one.”
We returned to Kimberly, and let her know she’d been identified. We got down to business. Tell us about the boys.
“What about them?”
“All of them owned Labrador Retrievers,” Barb said, a note of impatience in her gravelly voice.
The vet snorted. “It’s a lack of imagination. They feel like they’re supposed to get these big dumb dogs to match the big dumb dogs their dads grew up with. And then they don’t have the time to walk them or give them the care they need and so the dogs get rowdy from neglect. I love dogs. I don’t love the boys who own them.”
Amber slammed her fist on the table. “But why? Why did you do it? What turned you into this creature?”
“You want me to say that my daddy left me when I was a baby and my mother’s parade of boyfriends molested me in the swimming pool? You want me to confess that I was unpopular in high school, humiliated and teased by beautiful male track stars? None of that is true. I grew up in the burbs of Boston. My parents loved me, and they are still married. I was a cheerleader in high school and also took jujitsu. No man every touched me unless I wanted him to.” She smiled then. She had a gorgeous smile, and a dimple tucked into her cheek like a stitch. She leaned back in her chair. “You want to know the truth? I did it because I could.” She narrowed her eyes, gestured for Amber to come closer. “I felt like they belonged to me, you know what I mean?”
We had our confession. We were all a little tired, dazed. Even Kimberly seemed exhausted. “Look,” she said. “You mind if I use the bathroom? It’s been a long day and I stopped at Starbucks twice.”
Sure, yeah, we’re not animals here.
We let Brandon take her back to the lady’s room, told him to watch the door.
How she managed to escape through the tiny square window was not anything we could explain. Nor could we figure out who had forgotten to put bars on the bathroom window of a police station, for God’s sake.
She left us one final message, scrawled in lipstick across the bathroom mirror. We saw it the moment we walked in, “Grab ’em by the balls.” It seemed like foreshadowing, the red words an ominous precursor to darker times to come.
Amber raged when she learned of the escape. “You left her alone?” She threw her mug of chamomile tea across the room.
Lieutenant Washington rushed to swab away the growing stain that spread like blood on the carpet.
We were silent, finally, even Barbara. We had nothing more to say.
She’s still out there. She’s moved on to another town, maybe the Windy City, a place where Midwestern ranch kids from Wisconsin go to chase their dreams of love and fortune at the Stock Exchange. On the streets, the boys are more gullible, and also more irresistible with their sunburnt, open faces and trusting demeanor, smelling like fresh hay and dime store aftershave.
She’s coming for them. For the ones we failed to protect. For the innocent victims. Our boys.