A guard checked a number against the ID bracelet on the man’s wrist while marking his name off a clipboard as he stood in line.
Another chained the man’s cuffs to his waist and shackled his feet together, so he had to shuffle to board the prison bus behind other stumbling inmates in orange jumpsuits. He heard some snickering among the jailers about something called “diesel therapy.” The term puzzled him, but amid the scuffling and stern faces, he had no time or nerve for questions.
His answer came thousands of miles later via a road trip through highway hell during which he had to constantly remind himself that he was Jack Clemens and he used to be rich.
After the first day, he had learned not to eat the baloney sandwiches offered for lunch. Not only did they taste like shit, but bathroom breaks were stretched hundreds of miles apart and by the time the bus finally stopped for gas, he’d soiled his pants.
“Idiot. Asshole.” The guy in the next seat swore at him, looking as tough as his talk with cornrows, tattoos, and scars.
“Sorry.” Those who knew him on the outside would have been surprised by such a quick apology. Atonement had never come as naturally to him as blaming others. During his court sentencing, Jack had been given a chance to speak, but instead of expressing regret for his crimes—as his attorney had urged—he
insisted that he’d been unfairly persecuted. All that blather did was piss off the judge and land him ten years in the slammer.
Now, seven hours into this excursion, the entire bus reeked.
This wasn’t the deal Inmate 16780-59 had envisioned. After all, he wasn’t a violent felon. Or a repeat offender. Maybe some of the outlaws on the bus deserved transport torture, but not him. Sure, he had tried to game the penal system and that arrogance had cost him his comfy bunk at a country club prison camp in northern Minnesota . . . but what did they expect? He was a white-collar criminal.
Until his crime made headlines, his wealth wasn’t the kind that made Jack Clemens a household name. He didn’t own a professional sports team, or appear in television commercials, or invent a product that changed the world. He simply moved money around various financial accounts, and thus could walk down the streets of Minneapolis without being recognized. With brown hair and blue eyes, medium height and weight, this middle-aged man was average in every way but income.
That night, after six hundred miles crammed in narrow plastic seats with stiffening legs and sore arms, the chained gang left the bus to be housed at another prison overnight. The inmates were given fresh uniforms and a chance to shower. But he was afraid of the showers and cleaned himself with water from the toilet.
He had no idea where he was, where he was going, or when the journey would end. He’d stopped trying to calculate what direction they were headed in, knowing only that he didn’t belong on this bus with these animals. The guards ignored him when he tried explaining that a mistake had been made. He waited for the attorney to fix things, but days turned into nights and the wheels on the bus kept rolling.
From the postmark date, I could tell that the letter had probably been sitting in my newsroom mail slot for a couple days. Unopened.
Most of the correspondence I care about comes by email or text. My paychecks are direct deposit. My bills are electronic. Checking snail mail isn’t a high priority for me—even at work.
The first thing that caught my attention about the manila envelope was the lack of a return address. Sometimes sources send letters to journalists without wanting the contents traced back to them. They get deniability and anonymity: I get a scoop. I reveled in the possibilities for its contents as I carried the letter back to my office and shut the door.
The second thing I noticed was the package’s bumpy texture. It made me suspect Bubble Wrap might be shielding something fragile—something important. Maybe a compact disc or thumb drive with valuable computer files. The prospect of ratings gold made me smile and take care opening the envelope.
The third oddity hit me as I immediately smelled a foul odor when I opened the envelope. Reluctantly, I looked inside.
Someone had mailed me a bunch of teeth.
The blood was dried; the stench fresh. Some of the roots were long and pointed. Some twisted. Others broken and jagged.
I quickly shut the flap but the stink and the sight stayed with me.
I’m Riley Spartz, an investigative reporter for Channel 3 in Minneapolis. Why anyone would send me such a ghoulish package was a mystery within a mystery. More important: Were the teeth animal or human?