Just One Look

Chapter 2


Most people check out the online personals to find a date. Eric Wu found victims.
He had seven different accounts using seven different made-up personas-some male and some female. He tried to stay in e-mail contact with an average of six "potential dates" per account. Three of the accounts were on standard any-age straight personals. Two were for singles over the age of fifty. One was for gay men. The final site hooked up lesbians looking for serious commitment.
At any one time Wu would be conducting online flirtations with as many as forty or even fifty of the forlorn. He would slowly get to know them. Most were cautious, but that was okay. Eric Wu was a patient man. Eventually they would give him enough tidbits to find out if he should pursue the relationship or cut them loose.
He only dealt with women at first. The theory was that they would be the easiest victims. But Eric Wu, who received no sexual gratification from his work, realized that he was leaving untapped an entire market that would be less likely to worry about online safety. A man does not, for example, fear rape. He does not fear stalkers. A man is less cautious, and that makes him more vulnerable.
Wu was seeking singles with few ties. If they had children, they were no good to him. If they had family living close by, they were no good to him. If they had roommates, important jobs, too many close friends, well, ditto. Wu wanted them lonely, yes, but also secluded and shut off from the many ties and bonds that connect the rest of us to something greater than the individual. Right now, he also required one with geographical proximity to the Lawson household.
He found such a victim in Freddy Sykes.
Freddy Sykes worked for a storefront tax-filing company in Waldwick, New Jersey. He was forty-eight years old. His parents were both deceased. He had no siblings. According to his online flirtations at, Freddy had taken care of his mother and never had the time for a relationship. When she passed away two years ago, Freddy inherited the house in Ho-Ho-Kus, a scant three miles from the Lawson residence. His online photograph, a headshot, hinted that Freddy was probably on the plump side. His hair was shoe-polish black, thin, styled in a classic comb-over. His smile seemed forced, unnatural, as if he were wincing before a blow.
Freddy had spent the past three weeks flirting online with one Al Singer, a fifty-six-year-old retired Exxon executive who'd been married twenty-two years before admitting that he was interested in "experimenting." The Al Singer persona still loved his wife, but she didn't understand his need to be with both men and women. Al was interested in European travel, fine dining, and watching sports on TV. For his Singer persona, Wu used a photograph he'd grabbed off a YMCA online catalogue. His Al Singer looked athletic but not too handsome. Someone too attractive might raise Freddy's suspicion. Wu wanted him to buy the fantasy. That was the key thing.
Freddy Sykes's neighbors were mostly young families who paid him no attention. His house looked like every other on the block. Wu watched now as Sykes's garage door opened electronically. The garage was attached. You could enter and exit your car without being seen. That was excellent.
Wu waited ten minutes and then rang his doorbell.
"Who is it?"
"Delivery for Mr. Sykes."
"From whom?"
Freddy Sykes had not opened the door. That was strange. Men usually did. Again that was part of their vulnerability, part of the reason that they were easier prey than their female counterparts. Overconfidence. Wu spotted the peephole. Sykes would no doubt be peering at the twenty-six-year-old Korean man with baggy pants and a squat, compact build. He might notice Wu's earring and bemoan how today's youth mutilated their bodies. Or maybe the build and earring would turn Sykes on. Who knew?
"From Topfit Chocolate," Wu said.
"No, I mean, who sent them?"
Wu pretended to read the note again. "A Mr. Singer."
That did it. The deadbolt slid open. Wu glanced about him. No one. Freddy Sykes opened the door with a smile. Wu did not hesitate. His fingers formed a spear and then darted for Sykes's throat like a bird going for food. Freddy went down. Wu moved with a speed that defied his bulk. He slid inside and closed the door behind him.
Freddy Sykes lay on his back, his hands wrapped around his own neck. He was trying to scream, but all he could make were small squawking noises. Wu bent down and flipped him onto his stomach. Freddy struggled. Wu pulled up his victim's shirt. Freddy kicked at him. Wu's expert fingers traced up his spine until he found the right spot between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. Freddy kicked some more. Using his index finger and thumb like bayonets, Wu dug into the bone, nearly breaking skin.
Freddy stiffened.
Wu applied a bit more pressure, forcing the facet joints to sublux. Still burrowing deeper between the two vertebrae, he took hold and plucked. Something in Freddy's spine snapped like a guitar string.
The kicking stopped.
All movement stopped.
But Freddy Sykes was alive. That was good. That was what Wu wanted. He used to kill them right away, but now he knew better. Alive, Freddy could call his boss and tell him that he was taking time off. Alive, he could offer up his PIN if Wu wanted money from the ATM. Alive, he could answer messages in case someone did indeed call.
And alive, Wu would not have to worry about the smell.
Wu jammed a gag in Freddy's mouth and left him naked in the bathtub. The pressure on the spine had made the facet joints jump out of position. This dislocation of the vertebrae would contuse rather than completely sever the spinal column. Wu tested the results of his handiwork. Freddy could not move his legs at all. His deltoids might work, but the hands and lower arms would not function. Most important, he could still breathe on his own.
For all practical purposes, Freddy Sykes was paralyzed.
Keeping Sykes in the tub would make it easier to rinse off any mess. Freddy's eyes were open a little too widely. Wu had seen this look before: somewhere past terror but not yet death, a hollowness that fell in that awful cusp between the two.
There was obviously no need to tie Freddy up.
Wu sat in the dark and waited for night to fall. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift back. There were prisons in Rangoon where they studied spinal fractures during hangings. They learned where to place the knot, where to apply force, what effects different placement would have. In North Korea, in the political prison Wu had called home from the age of thirteen to eighteen, they had taken the experiments one step further. Enemies of the state were killed creatively. Wu had done many with his bare hands. He had hardened his hands by punching boulders. He had studied the anatomy of the human body in a way most medical students would envy. He had practiced on human beings, perfecting his techniques.
The exact spot between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. That was key. Any higher and you could paralyze them completely. That would lead to death fairly quickly. Forget their arms and legs-their internal organs would stop working. Any lower and you would only get the legs. The arms would still work. If the pressure applied was too great, you'd snap the entire spinal column. It was all about precision. Having the right touch. Practice.
Wu turned on Freddy's computer. He wanted to keep up with the other singles on his list because he never knew when he would need a new place to live. When he was finished, Wu allowed himself to sleep. Three hours later he awoke and looked in on Freddy. His eyes were glassier now, staring straight up, blinking without focus.
When his contact called Wu's cell phone, it was nearly 10 P.M.
"Are you settled in?" the contact asked.
"We have a situation."
Wu waited.
"We need to move things up a bit. Is that a problem?"
"He needs to be taken now."
"You have a place?"
Wu listened, memorizing the location.
"Any questions?"
"No," Wu said.
Wu waited.
"Thanks, man."
Wu hung up. He found the car keys and took off in Freddy's Honda.