Book: A Dish Served Cold
A Dish Served Cold
"We have reason to believe there's a man who wants to cause you some harm, sir." Standing on the hot sidewalk in front of his office building, compact, muscular Stephen York rocked back and forth on his Bally shoes.
Cause you some harm.
The hell's that supposed to mean?
York set down his gym bag. The fifty-one-year-old investment banker looked from the Scottsdale Police Department senior detective who'd delivered this news to the man's younger partner. The cops were easy to tell apart. Older, blond Bill Lampert was pale as milk, as if he'd come to Scottsdale via Minnesota – a migration that happened pretty frequently, York had learned. The other cop, Juan Alvarado, undoubtedly had roots in the vicinity.
"Who?" York asked.
"His name's Raymond Trotter."
York thought about it, then shook his head. "Never heard of him." He peered at the picture the cop held out. From DMV, it seemed. "Doesn't look familiar. Who is he?"
"Lives here in town. Runs a landscaping company."
"Wait, I know the place. Out off the interstate?" York thought Carole had shopped there.
"Yeah, the big one." Lampert wiped his forehead.
"He's got a problem with me? What sort?" York pulled his Armani shades on. The three p.m. sun in Arizona was like a blowtorch.
"We don't know."
"Well, what do you know?"
Alvarado explained. "We arrested a day laborer for drugs. An illegal. Hector Diaz. He wanted to cut a deal on the charge and he told us he had some information about a possible crime. Seems he's worked for this Trotter off and on. A few days ago Trotter comes to him and offers him a thousand dollars to stop by your house and see if you needed yard work done. While he was there he was supposed to check out your alarm system."
What was all this about? Despite the temperature hovering at 105 degrees York felt a chill run through him. "Alarms? Why?"
"All Trotter told Diaz was he was interested in payback for something you did."
"Payback?" York shook his head in frustration. "Jesus, you come and tell me this crap, somebody's going to quote cause me some harm – and you don't have any idea what it's about?"
"No, sir. We were hoping you could tell us."
"Well, I can't."
"Okay, we'll check this Trotter out. But we'd recommend you keep an eye out for anything odd."
"Why don't you arrest him?"
"He hasn't committed a crime," Lampert said. "I'm afraid that without evidence of an overt act, there's nothing we can do."
Cause some harm.…
Evidence of an overt act…
Maybe if they stopped talking like sociology professors they'd do some real goddamn police work. York came close to telling them this but he guessed the disgusted look on his face was message enough.
Trying to put the encounter with the cops out of his thoughts, York drove to the gym. Man, he needed some muscle time. He'd just come through a grind of a negotiation with two men who owned a small manufacturing company he was trying to buy. The old guys'd been a lot wilier than he'd expected. They'd made some savvy demands that were going to cost York big money. He'd looked them over, real condescending, and stormed out of their lawyer's office. Let 'em stew for a day or two before. He'd probably concede but he wasn't going to let them think they'd bullied him.
He parked in the health club lot. Climbed out of the car and walked through the fierce sun to the front door.
"Hi, Mr. York. You're early today."
A nod to the daytime desk manager, Gavin.
"Yeah, snuck out when nobody was looking."
York changed clothes and headed for the aerobics room, empty at the moment. He flopped down on the mats to stretch. After ten minutes of limbering up, he headed off to the machines, pushing hard, doing his regular circuit of twenty reps on each before moving on, ending up with crunches; his job as one of the three partners in a major Scottsdale venture capital firm had him doing a lot of entertaining and spending serious time at his desk; his belly had been testing the waistband of his slacks lately.
He didn't like flabby. Neither did women, whatever they told you. A platinum Amex card lets you get away with a lot but when it's bedtime the dolls love solid abs. After the crunches he hopped on the treadmill for his run.
Mile one, mile two, three…
Trying to push the difficult business deal out of his head – goddamn it, what was with those decrepit farts? How could they be so sharp? They oughta be in an old folks' home.
And who was this Raymond Trotter?
He scanned his memory again but could come up with no hits on the name.
He fell into the rhythm of his pounding feet. At seven miles he slowed to a walk, cooled off and shut the treadmill down. York pulled a towel over his neck and, ignoring a flirtatious glance from a woman who was pretty but a few years past being worth the risk, returned to the locker room. There he stripped and grabbed a clean towel then headed for the sauna.
York liked this part of the club because it was out of the way and very few members came here at this time of day. Now it was completely deserted. York wandered down the tile corridor. He heard a noise from around the corner. A click, then what sounded like footsteps, though he couldn't tell for sure. Was somebody here? He got to the junction and looked. No, the hallway was empty. But he paused. Something was different. What? He realized the place was unusually dark. He glanced up at the light fixtures. Several bulbs were missing. Four thousand bucks a year for membership and they couldn't replace the bulbs? Man, he'd give Gavin some crap for that. The murkiness, along with a faint, snaky hiss from the ventilation, made the place eerie.
He continued to the door of the redwood sauna, hanging his towel on a hook and turning the temperature selector to high. He'd just started inside when a sharp pain shot through into his foot.
"Hell!' he shouted and danced back, lifting his sole to see what had stabbed him. A wooden splinter was sticking out of the ball of his foot. He pulled it out and pressed his hand against the tiny, bleeding wound. He squinted at the floor where he'd stepped and noted several other splinters.
Oh, Gavin was going to get an earful today. But York 's anger faded as he glanced down and found what he supposed was the source of the splinters: two slim wooden shims, hand carved, it looked like, lying on the floor near the doorway. They were like door stops, except that the only door here – to the sauna – was at the top of a two-step stairway. The door couldn't be wedged open.
But the shims could be used to wedge the door closed if somebody pounded them into the jamb when the door was shut. They'd fit perfectly. But it'd be crazy to do that. Somebody trapped inside would have no way of turning down the temperature or calling for help; there were no controls inside the unit. And heat in a sauna could kill; York and his wife had just seen a local TV story about a Phoenix woman who'd died in her sauna after she'd fainted.
Holding the shims, staring down at them, a sudden click from nearby made him jump. York turned and saw a shadow against the wall, like that of a person pausing. Then it vanished.
"Hello?" York called.
York walked into the hallway. He could see nobody. Then he glanced at the emergency exit door, which didn't seem to be closed all the way. He looked out. The alley was empty. Turning back, he noticed something on the edge of the door. Somebody had taped the latch down so he could get inside without being seen from anyone in the lobby.
Cause you some harm…
Five minutes later, showerless, York was hurrying out of the club, not bothering to give Gavin the lecture he deserved. The businessman was carrying the shims and bit of duct tape, wrapped in paper towels. He was careful. Like everybody who watched TV nowadays he knew all about the art of preserving fingerprints.
"They're in here."
Stephen York handed the paper towel to pale-skinned Detective Bill Lampert. "I didn't touch them – I used tissues."
"At your health club, you said?" asked the detective, looking over the shims and the tape.
"That's right." York couldn't resist adding the name of the exclusive place.
Lampert didn't seem impressed. He stepped to the doorway and handed the evidence to Alvarado. "Prints, toolmarks, stat." The young officer vanished.
Turning back to York. "But nobody actually tried to detain you in the sauna?"
Detain? York asked himself wryly. You mean: Lock me inside to roast me to death.
"No." He pulled out a cigar. "You mind?"
"There's no smoking in the building," Lampert replied.
"Maybe not technically, but…"
"There's no smoking in the building."
York put the stogie away. "The way I read it, Trotter found out my routine. He got into the club and taped the back door open so he could get in without anybody seeing him from the lobby."
"How'd he do that? He a member?"
"I don't know."
Lampert held up a finger. He called the club and had a brief conversation. "No record of him as a member or a guest in the last month."
"Then he had a fake ID or something to try a guest membership."
"Fake ID? That's a little… complicated, isn't it?"
"Well, somehow, the asshole got inside. He was going to seal me inside but I think I surprised him and he ditched the shims and took off."
Alvarado walked into his boss's office. "No prints. Toolmarks aren't distinctive but if we find a plane or chisel we might make a match."
York laughed. "No prints? That's proof of something right there, isn't it?"
Lampert ignored him. He lifted a sheet of paper from his desk and looked it over. "Well, we've looked into this Trotter fellow. Seems like any normal guy. No police record except for a few traffic tickets. But there is something. I talked to the Veterans' Administration in Phoenix. Turns out they have a file on him. He was in Kuwait, the first Gulf War. His unit got hit hard. Half his men were killed and he was badly wounded. After he got discharged he moved here, spent a year in counseling. The file has his shrink's notes in it. That's all privileged – doctor-patient – and we're not supposed to see it, but I've got a buddy in the VA and he gave me the gist. Apparently after Trotter got out of the service he ended up hanging with a bad crowd here and in Albuquerque. Did some strong-arm stuff. For hire. That was a while ago, and he was never arrested but still…"
"Christ… So maybe somebody hired him?"
"Who've you pissed off bad enough they'd go to this kind of trouble to get even?"
"I don't know. I'd have to think about it."
Alvarado said, "You know that expression, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold?'"
"Yeah, I think I heard of that."
"Might be somebody from your distant past. Think way back."
A dish served cold…
"Okay. But what're we going to do in the meantime?" York asked, wiping his sweating palms on his pants.
"Let's go have a talk with him. See what he has to say." The detective picked up the phone and placed a call.
"Mr. Trotter please… I see. Could you tell me when?… Thanks. No message." He hung up. "He just left for Tucson. He'll be back tomorrow morning."
"Aren't you going to stop him?"
"Maybe he's trying to escape, go to Mexico.”
Lampert shrugged and opened a file from another case. "Then I guess you're off the hook."
Pulling up to their five-million-dollar mini-mansion on the edge of the desert, York climbed out of his Mercedes, locked the doors and looked around to make sure he hadn't been followed. No sign of anyone. Still, when he walked inside he double-locked the door behind him.
"Hey, honey." Carole joined him in the entryway, wearing her workout Spandex. His third wife was frosted blonde and beautiful. ("You guys give good visuals," an associate once said.) They'd been together three years. A former secretary turned personal trainer, Carole had just the right mix of what York called being-on-the-ball and not-getting-it. Meaning she could carry on a conversation and not be embarrassing but she kept quiet when she knew she was supposed to – and didn't ask too many questions about where he'd been when he came home late or went on last-minute business trips.
She glanced at the door. "What's with that?" They never used the deadbolt.
He had to be careful. Carole needed things explained to her in simple terms and if she didn't understand what he told her, she'd freak. And her brand of hysteria could get ugly. He'd found that out about stupid people, how they lost it when confronted with something they didn't understand.
So he lied. "Somebody up the street got broken into yesterday."
"I didn't hear about it."
"Well, they did."
"I don't remember."
A faint giggle – a habit of hers he found either irritating or sexy, depending on his mood.
"You don't know who? That's weird." Today's was an irritating giggle.
"Somebody told me. I forgot. I got a lot on my mind."
"Can we go to the club for dinner?"
"I'm wasted, baby. I'll barbecue tonight. How's that?"
He could tell she was disappointed but York knew how to bail out sinking ships; he mixed cocktails fast – doubles – and steered her to the pool, where he put on a Yanni CD. In twenty minutes the liquor and music had dulled her disappointment and she was babbling on about wanting to go visit her family in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks, would he mind baching it?
"Whatever." He gave it a minute and then, sounding casual, said, "I'm thinking of getting some plants for the office."
"You want me to help?"
"No, Marge is handling it. You ever buy anything from that landscaper out by the highway? Trotter's?"
"I don't know. I think so. A while ago."
"They ever deliver anything here?"
"No, I just bought some houseplants and brought ' em home. Why?"
"Wondering if they have good service."
"Now you're into decorating. That's wild." Another giggle.
He grunted and headed into the kitchen, pulled open the fridge.
Smoking a Macanudo and drinking his vodka and tonic, York grilled some steaks and made a salad and they ate in silence. After she'd cleared the dishes, they moved into the den and watched some TV. Carole got cuddly. Normally this meant it was time for the hot tub, or bed – or sometimes the floor – but tonight he said, "You head on upstairs, doll. I've got a few numbers to look over."
"Aw." Another pout.
"I'll be up soon."
"Oh, okay." She sighed, picked up a book and climbed the stairs.
When he heard the door click shut he walked into his study, shut the lights out and peered out at the dark sweep of moonlit desert behind the house. Shadows, rocks, cacti, stars… This was a vista he loved. It changed constantly. He remained here for five minutes, then, pouring a tall scotch, he kicked his shoes off and stretched out on the couch.
A sip of smoky liquor. Another.
And Stephen York began a trip through his past, looking for some reason that Trotter, or anyone, wanted him dead.
Because he had ditsy Carole on his mind, he thought first of the women who'd been in his life. He considered his ex-wives. York had been the one who'd ended each of the marriages. The first wife, Vicky, had gone off the deep end when he'd told her he was leaving. The little mouse had cried and begged him to stay even though she knew about the affair he'd been having with his secretary. But he was adamant about the divorce and soon he cut off all contact with her, except for financial matters involving their son, Randy.
But would she actually hire a killer to get even with him?
No way, he decided: Vicky's reaction to the breakup was to play victim, not vengeful ex. Besides, York had done right by her. He'd paid alimony and child support promptly and, a few years later, hadn't contested the custody order that took away his rights to see their son.
York and his second wife were together only two years. She'd proved too brittle for him, too liberal, too NPR. That breakup was Holyfield-Tyson, pure combat. Susan, a high-powered commercial real estate lawyer, walked away with a lot of money, more than enough to salve her injured pride (York left her for a woman sixteen years younger and twenty pounds slimmer). She also took her career too seriously to risk it by doing anything illegal to him. She had remarried – a military consultant and former army colonel she'd met negotiating a contract with the government for her client – and York was sure he'd fallen off her radar screen.
Ex-girlfriends? The usual suspects… But, brother, where to start? Almost too many to count. He'd broken up badly with some of them, used some, lied. Of course, York himself had been used and lied to by women. On the whole it evened out, he figured. That was how the game worked; nobody sane would hire a hitman to kill a lover just because he'd dumped you.
Who else could it be?
Most likely, he decided, it was somebody he'd had business dealings with.
But there were a lot of fish in that sea too. Dozens came to mind. When he'd been a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, he'd reported one of his fellow detail men for cheating on his expense account (York turned him in not out of company loyalty but to pillage the guy's territory). The man was fired and vowed to get even.
He'd also been involved in the acquisition of dozens of companies over the last ten years; hundreds of employees had been fired as a result. He recalled one of these in particular – a salesman who'd come to him in tears, after he'd been let go, begging for a second chance. York, though, stuck to his decision – mostly because he didn't like the man's whining. A week later the salesman killed himself; his note said he'd failed as a man because he could no longer take care of his wife and children. York could hardly be responsible for crazy behavior like that. But his survivors might not feel that way. Maybe Trotter was this man's brother or best friend, or been hired by them.
He recalled another incident: the time he'd had a private eye check out a rival venture capitalist and found he was gay. The client that they were both wooing was a homophobe. During dinner one night York subtly dropped the skinny on the rival, and the next day York 's outfit got the assignment. Had he found out and hired Trotter?
Any other sins?
Oh, you bet, York thought in disgust, reaching into the dim past.
A dish served cold…
Recalling an incident in college, a prank gone wrong – a frat hazing that resulting in a pledge getting drunk and stabbing a cop. The kid was expelled, then disappeared not longer after. York couldn't remember his name. It could've been Trotter.
A dozen other incidents flooded into his thoughts, two dozen, three – people ignored and insulted, lies told, associates cheated… His memory spit out not only the serious offenses, but the petty ones too: rudeness to clerks, gouging an elderly woman who'd sold him her car, laughing when a man's toupee flew off in a heavy wind…
Reliving them all. It was exhausting.
Another hit of scotch… then another.
And the next thing he knew the sun was streaming through the window. He squinted in pain from the hangover and groggily focused on his watch. Oh, damn, it was nine… Why hadn't Carole wakened him? She knew he had two deals this morning. Sometimes that woman just didn't have a goddamn clue.
York staggered into the kitchen, and Carole looked up from the phone. She smiled.
"You let me sleep."
She told her friend she'd call back and hung up. "I figured you were tired. And you looked just too cute, all cuddled up."
Cute. Jesus Lord… York winced in pain. His neck was frozen from sleeping in an awkward position "I don't have time for breakfast," he grumbled.
"My mother always said breakfast is -"
"- the most important meal of the day. So you've told me. Like, a hundred times."
She went silent. Then rose and walked into the living room with her coffee and phone.
"Baby, I didn't mean…”
York sighed. Like walking on eggshells sometimes… He retreated to the bedroom. He was fishing for aspirin in the medicine cabinet when the phone rang.
"For you" was his wife's cool announcement.
It was Detective Bill Lampert. "Trotter's back in town. Let's go say hi. We'll pick you up in twenty minutes."
"Yes, can I help you?"
Standing in front of Trotter Landscaping and Nursery, a rambling complex of low buildings, greenhouses and potting sheds, Bill Lampert and Juan Alvarado looked over the middle-aged man. Lampert noted that he was in very good shape: slim, with broad shoulders. His brown hair, flecked with gray, was cut short. His square-jawed face shaved perfectly, blue jogging outfit immaculate. Confident eyes. The detective wondered if they revealed surprise as he glanced at their shields and maybe a bit more surprise at the sight of Stephen York, standing behind them. Trotter set down the large flowering plant he was holding.
"Sir, we understand you were seeking some personal information about Mr. York here."
Good delivery, Lampert reflected. He nodded behind him. "The gentleman there."
Trotter frowned. "You're mistaken, I'm afraid. I don't know him."
"Do you know a man named Hector Diaz? Mexican, thirty-five, stocky. He used to work day labor for you."
"I've hired hundreds of day people. I don't know half their names. Is this an Immigration issue? My people are supposed to check documentation."
"No, sir, it's not. This Diaz claimed you asked him about Mr. York's security."
"What?" Then Trotter squinted knowingly. "How'd this all come up. By any chance, was Diaz arrested for something?"
"So he made up something about a former employer to get a shorter sentence. Doesn't that happen?"
Lampert and his partner shared a look. Whatever else, this Trotter wasn't stupid.
"Well, I didn't do what Diaz said I did." The piercing eyes turned to York. Alvarado took over. "Were you in the Scottsdale Health and Racquet Club yesterday?"
"The… oh, the fancy one? No, that's not how I spend my money. Besides, I was in Tucson."
"Before you left for Tucson."
"No. I have no idea what you're getting at but I don't know this York. I don't have any interest in his alarm systems."
Lampert felt Alvarado touch his shoulder. The young detective was pointing at a pile of wooden boards, about the same width and thickness of the shims.
"You mind if we take a couple of those with us?"
"You go right ahead… soon as you show me a search warrant."
"We'd appreciate your cooperation."
"I'd appreciate a warrant."
"Are you worried about what we might find?" Alvarado chimed in.
"I'm not at all worried. It's just that we've got this thing in America called the Constitution." He grinned. "What makes our country great. I play by the rules. I guess you should, too."
York sighed loudly. Trotter looked him over coolly.
Alvarado said, "If you have nothing to hide then there'll be no problem."
"If you have probable cause there'll be no problem getting a search warrant."
"So you're telling us you have no intent to endanger Mr. York in any way."
Trotter laughed. "That's ridiculous." Then his face grew icy. "This is pretty serious, what you're suggesting. You start spreading rumors like this, it could get embarrassing. For me… and for you. I hope you realize that."
"Assault and breaking and entering are very serious crimes," Alvarado said.
Trotter picked up the plant. It was impressive. A cactus, dangerous looking. "If there's nothing else…"
"No, there's nothing else. Thanks for your time." Lampert nodded to his partner and he and York started back to the cars.
When they were in the parking lot Lampert said, "He's up to something."
York nodded. "I know what you mean – that look he gave me. It was like he was saying, I'm going to get you. I swear."
"Look? That's not what I'm talking about. Didn't you hear him? He said he wasn't interested in your 'alarms.' I never told him that's what Diaz said. I only mentioned 'security.' That could mean anything. Makes me believe Diaz was telling the truth."
York was impressed. "I never noticed it. Good catch. So what do we do now?"
"You have that list I wanted? Of anybody might have a grudge against you?" He handed over a sheet of paper. "Anything else I should do?"
Looking at the list, Lampert said, "One thing. You might want to think about a bodyguard."
Stan Eberhart looked a bit like Lampert – solid, sculpted hair, humorless, focused as a terrier – only with a tan. The big man stood in the doorway of York 's home. The businessman ushered him in.
"Morning, sir," He spoke with a faint drawl and was the epitome of calm. Eberhart was the head of security for York 's company – York -McMillan-Winston Investments. After his meeting with the cops and Trotter, York had called the man into his office and told him the situation. Eberhart agreed to "put together a comprehensive SP that'll take in all contingencies for the situation." Sounding just like the Scottsdale cops (not too surprising; Eberhart had been a detective in Phoenix).
An SP, it turned out, was a security plan, and York figured it would be a good one.
Eberhart was a heavy-hitter in corporate security. In addition to working homicide in Phoenix he'd been a federal drug agent and a private eye. He was a black- or red- or some other kick-ass-belt karate expert and flew helicopters and owned a hundred guns. Security people, York learned, did all that Outdoor Life Network crap. Tough guys. York didn't get it. If making money, golf, martinis and women weren't involved, what was the point?
Alone now in the house – Carole was at her tennis lesson – the men waked into the large sunroom, which the security man studied with a face that suggested he wasn't happy.
Why? Did he think it was too exposed because of the glass? He's worried about goddamn snipers? York laughed to himself.
Eberhart suggested they go into the kitchen, away from the glass windows.
York shrugged and played along. They sat at the kitchen island. The man unbuttoned his jacket – he always wore a suit and tie, whatever the temperature. "First off, let me tell you what I've found out about Trotter. He was born in New Hampshire, majored in engineering in Boston.
He got married and went into the army. After he was discharged he came back here. Whatever happened after that – the stuff in the VA file – he seemed to turn his life around. Started the landscaping company. Then his wife died."
"Died? Maybe that's the thing – he blames me for it. What happened?"
Eberhart was shaking his head. "She had cancer. And you, your company and your clients don’t have any connection with the doctors that treated her or the hospital."
"You checked that?"
"An SP is only as good as the intelligence behind it," the man recited. "Now about his family: He's got three kids. Philip, Celeste and Cindy, ages fourteen, seventeen and eighteen. All in local public schools. Good kids, no trouble with the law." He showed candid pictures that looked like they were from school yearbooks: a skinny, good-looking boy and two daughters: one round and pretty, the other lean and athletic.
"You ever hit on the girls?"
"God no." York was offended. He had some standards.
Eberhart didn't ask if his boss had ever made a move on the son. If he had, York would've fired him on the spot.
"Trotter was single for a while then last year he remarried, Nancy Stockard – real estate broker, thirty-nine. She got divorced about five years ago, has a ten-year-old son." Another picture emerged. "You recognize her?"
York looked at the picture. Now, she was somebody he could definitely go for. Pretty in a girl-next-door way. Great for a one-night stand. Or two.
But, he reflected, no such luck. He would've remembered.
Eberhart continued, "Now, Trotter seems like a good guy, loves his kids, drives 'em to soccer and swimming and their after-school jobs. Model parent, model husband, and good businessman. Made a ton of money last year. Pays his taxes, even goes to church sometimes. Now, let me show you what we've come up with for the SP."
The plan provided for two teams of security specialists, one to conduct surveillance on Trotter and the other to serve as bodyguards. It would be expensive; rent-a-cops don't come cheap.
"But frankly I don't think this'll go on for too long, sir," Eberhart said. He explained that all seven people he had in mind for the security detail were former cops and knew how to run crime scenes and interview witnesses. "With all of us on it, we'll build a solid case, enough to put him away for a long time. We'll have more people and resources on this than Scottsdale Homicide."
And, Christ, the fee'll probably be the same as their annual budget.
York gave the man his and Carole's general daily routine, the stores they shopped at, restaurants and bars they went to regularly. He added that he wanted the guards to keep their distance; he still hadn't shared the story with Carole.
"She doesn't know?"
"Nope. Probably wouldn't take it too well. You know women."
Eberhart didn't seem to know what his boss meant exactly. But he said, "We'll do the best we can, sir."
York saw the security man to the door, thanked him. The man pointed out the first team, in a tan Ford, parked two doors down. York hadn't even noticed them when he'd answered the door. Which meant they knew what they were doing.
As the security specialist drove off, York 's eyes again looked into the back yard, at the desert horizon. Recalling that he'd laughed about snipers earlier.
Now, the thought wasn't funny. York returned inside and pulled closed the drapes on every window that opened onto the beautiful desert vista.
As the days went by there were no further incidents and York began to relax. The guard details watching York and Carole remained largely invisible, and his wife had no clue that she was being guarded when she went on her vital daily missions – to the nail salon, the hairdresser, the club and the mall.
The surveillance team kept a close watch on Trotter, who seemed oblivious to the tail. He went about his life. A few times the man fell off the surveillance radar but only for short periods and it didn't seem that he'd been trying to lose the security people. When he disappeared the teams on York and Carole stepped up protection and there were no incidents.
Meanwhile, Lampert and Alvarado continued to look into the list of people with grudges from York 's past. Some seemed likely, some improbable, but in any event none of the leads panned out.
York decided to get away for a long weekend in Santa Fe for golf and shopping. York chose to leave the bodyguards behind, because they'd be too hard to hide from Carole. Eberhart thought this was okay; they'd keep a close eye on Trotter and if he left Scottsdale a team would fly to Santa Fe to cover York immediately.
The couple hit the road early. The security man told York to take a complicated route out of town, then pause at a particular vista east of the city, where he could make certain they weren't being followed, which he did. No one was following.
Once away from the city York pointed the car into the dawn sun and eased back in the Mercedes's leather seat, as the slipstream poured into the convertible and tousled their hair.
"Put on some music, doll," he called to Carole.
"Sure thing. What?"
"Something loud," he shouted.
A moment later Led Zeppelin chugged from the speakers. York punched off the cruise control and pushed the accelerator to the floor.
Sitting in his white surveillance van, near Ray Trotter's pink adobe house, Stan Eberhart heard his phone chirp. "Yeah?"
Julio, one of the rent-a-cops, said, "Stan, got a problem."
"Has he left yet?"
" York? Yeah, an hour ago."
"What's the matter?"
"I'm at a NAPA dealer near the landscaping company."
Eberhart had sent people to stores near Trotter's house and business. Armed with pictures, they were querying clerks about purchases the man might've made recently. The security people were no longer in the law enforcement profession, of course, but Eberhart had learned that twenty-dollar bills open as many doors as police shields do. Probably more.
"Two days ago this guy who looked like Trotter ordered a copy of a technical manual for Mercedes sports cars. It came in yesterday and he picked it up. The same time, he bought a set of metric wrenches and battery acid. Stan, the book was about brakes. And that was just around the time we lost Trotter for a couple of hours. "
"He could've gotten to York 's Mercedes, you think?"
"Not likely but possible. I think we have to assume he did."
"I'll get back to you." Eberhart hung up and immediately called York.
A distracted voice answered. "Hi."
"Mr. York, it's -"
"I'm not available at the moment. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
Eberhart hit disconnect and tried again. Each of the five times he called, the only response was the preoccupied voice on the voicemail.
York was nudging the Mercedes up to a hundred.
"Doesn't this rock?" he called, laughing. "Whoa!"
"Like, what?" Carole shouted back. The roar of the slipstream and Robert Plant's soaring voice had drowned out his voice.
But she didn't answer. She was frowning, looking ahead. "There's, like, a turn up there." She added something else he couldn't hear.
"Uhm, maybe you better slow down."
"This baby curves on a dime. I'm fine."
"Honey, please! Slow down!"
"I know how to drive."
They were on a straight-away, which was about to drop down a steep hill. At the bottom the road curved sharply and fed onto a bridge above a deep arroyo.
"Slow down! Honey, please! Look at the turn!"
Christ, sometimes it just wasn't worth the battle. "Okay." He lifted his foot off the gas.
And then it happened.
He had no clue exactly what was going on. A huge swirl of sand, spinning around and around, as if the car were caught in the middle of a tornado. They lost sight of the sky. Carole, screaming, grabbed the dash. York, gripping the wheel with cramping hands, tried desperately to find the road. All he could see was sand, whipping into his face, stinging.
"We're going to die, we're going to die!" Carole was wailing.
Then from somewhere above them, a tinny voice crackled, " York, stop your car immediately. Stop your car!"
He looked up to see the police helicopter thirty feet over his head, its rotors' downdraft the source of the sandstorm.
"Who's that?" Carole screamed. "Who's that?"
The voice continued, "Your brakes are going to fail! Don't start down that hill!"
"Son of a bitch," he cried. "He tampered with the brakes."
"Who, Stephen? What's going on?"
The helicopter sped forward toward the bridge and landed – presumably so the rescue workers could try to save them if the car crashed or plummeted over the cliff.
Save them, or collect the bodies.
He was doing ninety as they started over the crest of the hill. The nose of the Mercedes dropped and they began to accelerate.
He pressed the brake pedal. The calipers seemed to grip.
But if he got any farther and the brakes failed he'd have nowhere to go but into rock or over the cliff; there was no way they could make the turn doing more than thirty-five. At least here there was sand just past the shoulder.
Stephen York gripped the wheel firmly and took a deep breath.
"Whatta you mean -?" He swerved off the road.
Suitcases and soda and beer flew from the back seat, Carole screamed and York fought with all his strength to keep the car on course, but it was useless. The tires skewed, out of control, through the sand. He just missed a large boulder and plowed into the desert.
Rocks and gravel spattered the body, spidering the windshield and peppering the fender and hood like gunshots. Tumbleweeds and sagebrush pelted their faces. The car bounced and shook and pitched. Twice it nearly flipped over.
They were slowing but they were still speeding at forty miles an hour straight for a large boulder. Now, though, the sand was so deep that he couldn't steer at all.
"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” Carole was sobbing, lowering her head to her hands.
York jammed his foot onto the brake pedal with his left foot, shoved the shifter into reverse and then floored the accelerator with his right. The engine screamed, sand cascaded into the air above them.
The car came to a stop five feet from the face of the rock.
York sat forward, head against the wheel, his heart pounding, drenched in sweat. He was furious. Why hadn't they called him? What was with the Blackhawk Down routine?
Then he noticed his phone. The screen read, 7 missed calls 5 messages marked urgent.
He hadn't heard the ring. The wind and the engine… and the goddamn music.
Sobbing and pawing at the sand that covered her white pant suit, Carole snapped at him,
"What is going on? I want to know. Now."
And, as Eberhart and Lampert walked toward them from the chopper, he told her the whole story.
No weekend vacation, Carole announced.
"You, like, might've mentioned it up front."
Showing some backbone for a change.
"I didn't want to worry you."
"You mean you didn't want me to ask what you did to somebody to make them want to get even with you."
"Take me home. Now."
They'd returned to Scottsdale in silence, driving in a rental car; the Mercedes had been towed away by the police to look for evidence of tampering and repairs. An hour after walking through their front door Carole left again, suitcase in hand, headed to Los Angeles early for the family visit.
York was secretly relieved she was going. He couldn't deal both with Trotter and his wife's crazy moods. He returned inside, checked the lock on every door and window and spent the night with a bottle of Johnny Walker and HBO.
Two days later, around five p.m., York was working out in the gym he'd set up in a bedroom – he was avoiding the health club and its deadly sauna. He heard the doorbell. Picking up the pistol he now kept in the entryway, he peered out. It was Eberhart. Three locks and a deadbolt later, he gestured the security man in.
"Got something you should know about. I had two teams on Trotter yesterday. He went to a multiplex for a matinee at noon."
"There's a rule: anybody under surveillance goes to a movie by himself… that's suspicious. So the teams compared notes. Seems that fifteen minutes after he goes in, this guy in overalls comes out with a couple of trash bags. Then about an hour later, little over, a delivery man in a uniform shows up at the theater, carrying a big box. But my man talked to the manager. The workers there don't usually take the first trash out to the Dumpster until five or six at night. And there weren't any deliveries scheduled that day."
York grimaced. "So, he dodged you for an hour. He could get anywhere in that time."
"He didn't take his car. We had it covered. And we checked cab companies. Nobody called for one in that area."
"So he walked someplace?"
"Yep. And we're pretty sure where. Southern States Chemical is ten minutes by foot from the multiplex. And you know what's interesting?" He looked at his notes. "They make acrylonitrile, methyl methacrylate and adiponitrile."
"What the hell're those?"
"Industrial chemicals. By themselves they're not any big deal. But what is important is that they're used to make hydrogen cyanide."
"Jesus. Like the poison?"
"Like the poison. And one of my guys looked over Southern States. There's no security. Cans of the chemicals were sitting right out in the open by the loading dock. Trotter could've walked up, taken enough to make a batch of poison that'd kill a dozen people and nobody would've seen him. And guess who did the company's landscaping?"
"So he'd know about the chemicals and where they were kept."
"Could anybody make it? The cyanide?"
"Apparently it's not that hard. And with Trotter in the landscaping business, you'd have to figure he knows chemicals and fertilizers. And remember: he was in the army too, first Gulf War. A lot of those boys got experience with chemical weapons."
The businessman slammed his hand down on the counter. "Goddamnit. So he's got this poison and I'll never know if he's slipped it into what I'm eating. Jesus."
"Well, that's not exactly true," Eberhart said reasonably. "Your house is secure. If you buy packaged food and keep an eye on things at restaurants you can control the risk."
Control the risk…
Disgusted, York returned to the hallway, snagged the FedEx envelope containing a delivery of his cigars, which had arrived that morning and ripped it open. He stalked into the kitchen, unwrapping the cigars. "I can't even go outside to buy my own smokes. I'm a prisoner. That's what I am." York rummaged in a drawer for a cigar cutter, found one and nipped the end off the Macanudo. He chomped down angrily on the cigar, clicked the flame of a lighter and lifted it to his mouth.
Just at that moment a voice yelled, "No!"
Startled, York reached for his gun. But before he could reach it, he was tackled from behind and tumbled hard to the floor, the breath knocked from his lungs.
Gasping, in agony, he scrabbled back in panic. He stared around him – and saw no threat. He then shouted at the security man, "What're you doing?"
Breathing heavily, Eberhart rose and pulled his boss to his feet. "Sorry… I had to stop you… The cigar."
"Cigar. Don't touch it."
The security man grabbed several Baggies. In one he put the cigars. In the other the FedEx envelope. "When I was asking you about stores you go to – for the security plan – you told me you get your cigars in Phoenix, right?"
"Right. So what?"
Eberhart held up the FedEx label. "These were sent from a Postal Plus store in the Sonora Hills strip mall."
York thought. "That's near -"
"Three minutes from Trotter's company. He could've called the store and found out when you ordered some. Then bought some himself and doctored 'em. I'll get a field test kit and see."
"Don't I need… I mean, don't I need to eat cyanide for it to kill me?"
"Uh-uh." The security expert sniffed the bag carefully. "Cyanide smells like almonds." He shook his head. "Can't tell. Maybe the tobacco's covering up the scent."
"Almonds," York whispered. "Almonds…” He smelled his fingers and began washing his hands frantically.
There was a long silence.
Rubbing his skin with paper towels, York glanced at Eberhart, who was lost in thought.
"What?" the businessman snapped.
"I think it's time for a change of plans."
The next day Stephen York parked his leased Mercedes in the hot, dusty lot of the Scottsdale Police Department. He looked around uneasily for Trotter's car – a dark-blue Lexus sedan, they'd learned. He didn't see it.
York climbed out, carrying plastic bags containing the FedEx envelope, cigars and food from his kitchen. He carried them into the PD's building, chill from an overeager air conditioner.
In a ground floor conference room he found four men: the buddy team of Lampert and Alvarado, as well as Stan Eberhart and a man who was dressed in exactly the same clothes that York wore and who was his same build. The man introduced himself as Peter Billings, an undercover cop.
"Long as I’m playing the part of you for a little while, Mr. York, was wonderin', s'okay to use your pool and hot tub?"
"Joking there," Billings said.
"Ah," York muttered humorlessly and turned to Lampert. "Here they are."
The detective took the bags and tossed them absently on an empty chair. None of the cigars or food contained poison, according to a test Eberhart conducted at York 's. But bringing them here – presumably under the eye of vengeful Mr. Trotter – was an important part of their plan. They needed to make Trotter believe for the next hour or so that they were convinced he was going to poison York.
After the tests turned out negative Eberhart had concluded that Trotter was faking the whole cyanide thing; he only wanted the police to think he intended to poison York. Why? A diversion, of course. If the police were confident they knew the intended method of attack, they'd prepare for that and not the real one.
But what was the real one? How was Trotter actually going to come at York?
Eberhart had taken an extreme step to find out: breaking into Trotter's house. While the landscaper, his wife and their children were out Eberhart had disabled the alarm and surveillance cameras then examined the man's office carefully. Hidden in the desk were books on sabotage and surveillance. Two pages were marked with Post-its, marking chapters on turning propane tanks into bombs and on making remote detonators. He found another clue, as well: a note that read "Rodriguez Garden Supplies."
Which was where Stephen York went every Saturday afternoon to exchange his barbecue grill's propane tanks. Eberhart believed that Trotter's plan was to keep the police focused on a poison attack, when he was in fact going to arrange an "accidental" explosion after York picked up his new propane tank. The security man, though, couldn't go to the police with this information – he'd be admitting he'd committed trespass – so he told Bill Lampert only that he'd heard from some sources that Trotter was asking about propane tanks and where York shopped. There was no evidence for a search warrant but the detective reluctantly agreed to Eberhart's plan to catch Trotter in the act.
First, they'd make it seem that they believed the cyanide threat. Since Trotter probably knew York went to the propane store every Saturday around lunchtime, the businessman would take the cigars and food to the police, apparently for testing, which would occupy them for several hours. Trotter would be following. York would then leave and run some errands, among them picking up a new propane canister. Only it wouldn't be Stephen York in the car, but Detective Peter Billings, the look-alike. Billings would collect a new propane tank from Rodriguez's – though it would be empty, for safety's sake – and then stash it in his car. He'd then return to the store to browse and Lampert and his teams would wait for Trotter to make his move.
"So where's our boy?" Lampert asked his partner.
Alvarado explained that Trotter had left his house about the same time as York and headed in the same direction. They'd lost him in traffic for a time but then picked him up at a Whole Foods grocery store lot within walking distance of Rodriguez's. One officer saw him inside.
Lampert called the other players in the set-up. "It's going down," he announced.
Doing his impersonation of York, Billings walked outside, got into the car and headed into traffic. Eberhart and York climbed into one of the chase cars and eased after him, though well behind so they wouldn't get spotted by Trotter if he was, in fact, trailing Billings.
Twenty minutes later the undercover cop pulled up in front of Rodriguez's Garden Supplies, and Eberhart, York beside him, parked in a mini-mall lot a block away. Lampert and the teams moved into position nearby. "Okay," Billings radioed through his hidden mike, "I'm getting the tank, going inside."
York and Eberhart leaned forward to watch what was happening. York could just make out his Mercedes up the street.
Lampert called over the radio, "Any sign of Trotter?"
"Hasn't come out of Whole Foods yet," sounded through the speaker of the walkie talkie dashboard.
Billings came on a moment later. "All units. I've loaded the fake tank in the car. The backseat. I'm going back inside."
Fifteen minutes later York heard a cop's voice urgently saying, “Have something… Guy in a hat and sunglasses, could be Trotter approaching the Mercedes from the east. He's got a shopping bag in one hand and something in the other. Looks like a small computer. Might be a detonator. Or the device itself."
The security specialist nodded at Stephen York, sitting beside him, and said, "Here we go."
"Got him on visual," another cop said.
The surveillance officer continued. "He's looking around… hold on… okay, the suspect just walked by York 's car. Couldn't see for sure, but he paused. Think he might've dropped something underneath it. Now he's crossing the street… he's going into Miguel's."
Lampert radioed, “That'll be where he'll detonate the device from… all right, people, let's seal off the street and get an undercover inside Miguel's to monitor him." Eberhart lifted an eyebrow to York and smiled. "This is it."
"Hope so," was the uneasy response.
Now officers were moving in slowly, sticking close to the buildings on either side of Miguel's Bar and Grill, where Trotter'd be waiting for "York" to return to the car, detonate the device and burn him to death.
A new voice came on the radio. "I'm inside Miguel's," came a whisper from the second undercover cop. "I see the subject by the window on a stool, looking out. No weapons in sight. He's opened up what he was carrying before – a small computer or something, antenna on it. He just typed something. Assume that the device is armed."
Lampert radioed, "Roger. We're in position, three behind Miguel's, two in front. The street's been barricaded and Rodriguez's is clear; we got everybody out the back door. We're ready for the takedown."
In Eberhart's car, the security man kept up an irritating drumming with his fingertips on the steering wheel.
York tried to tune it out, wondering, Would Trotter resist? Maybe he'd panic and -
He jumped as Eberhart's hand gripped his arm hard. The security man was looking in the rear-view mirror. He was frowning. "What's that?"
York turned. On the trunk was a small shopping bag. While they'd been staring at York 's Mercedes, somebody had put it there.
"This is Eberhart. All units, standby." Lampert asked, "What's up, Stan?"
Eberhart said breathlessly, "He made us! He didn't plant anything at the Mercedes. Or if he did there's another device on our car. It's in a Whole Foods bag, a little one. We're getting out!"
"Negative, negative," another voice called over the radio. "This is Grimes with the bomb unit. It could have a pressure or rocker switch. Any movement could set it off. Stay put, we'll get an officer there."
Eberhart muttered, "It's a double feint. He leads us off with the poison and then a fake bomb at the Mercedes. He's been watching us all along and he's planning to get us here… Jesus."
Lampert called, "All units, we're going into Miguel's. Don't let him hit the detonator."
Eberhart covered his face with his jacket.
Stephen York had his doubts that that would provide much protection from an exploding gas tank. But he did exactly the same.
"Ready?" Lampert whispered to Alvarado and the others on the take down team, huddled at the back door of Miguel's. Nods all around.
"Let's do it."
They crashed through the door fast, pistols and machine guns up, while other officers charged through the front. As soon as he stepped into the bar, Lampert sighted on Trotter's head, ready to nail him if he made any move toward the detonator.
But the suspect merely turned, alarmed and frowning in curiosity like the other patrons, at the sound of the officers.
"Hands up! You, Trotter, freeze, freeze!"
The landscaper stumbled back off the stool, eyes wide in shock. He lifted his hands.
An officer from the bomb squad stepped between Trotter and the detonator and looked it over carefully, as the tac cops threw the man to the floor and cuffed him.
"I didn't do anything! What this all about?"
The detective called into his microphone, "We've got him. Bomb Units One and Two, proceed with the render safe operation."
In the car, complete silence. Eberhart and York struggled to remain motionless but York felt as if his pounding heart was going to jiggle the bomb enough so that it would detonate.
They'd learned that Trotter was in custody and couldn't push the detonator button. But that didn't mean that the device wasn't set with a hair trigger. Eberhart had spent the last five minutes lecturing York on how sensitive some bomb detonators could be – until York had told him to shut the hell up.
Wrapped in his jacket, the businessman peeked out and, in the side-view mirror, watched the policeman in a green bomb suit approach the car slowly. Through the radio's tinny speaker they heard, "Eberhart, York, stay completely still."
"Sure," Eberhart said in a throaty whisper, his lips barely moving.
York could see the policeman step closer and peer into the shopping bag. He took out a flashlight and pointed it downward, examining the contents. With a wooden probe, like a chopstick, he carefully searched the bag.
Through the speaker they heard what sounded like a gasp. York cringed.
But it wasn't.
The sound was a laugh. Followed by: "Trash."
The officer pulled his hood off and walked to the front of the car. With a shaking hand, York rolled the window down.
"Trash," the man repeated. "Somebody's lunch. They had sushi, Pringles and a Yoo-hoo. That chocolate stuff. Not a meal I myself would've picked."
"Trash?" Lampert's voice snapped through the speaker.
"That is affirmative."
The first bomb unit called in; a search of the area beneath York 's Mercedes revealed nothing but a crumpled soda cup, which Trotter might or might not've thrown there.
York wiped his face and climbed out of the car, leaned against it to steady himself.
"Goddamn it, he's been yanking our chain. Let's go talk to that son of a bitch."
Lampert looked up to see Eberhart and York angrily walking into Miguel's. The patrons had resumed eating and drinking and were clearly enjoying this real-life Law and Order show.
He turned back to the uniformed officer who'd just searched Trotter. "Wallet, keys, money. Nothing else."
Another detective from the bomb squad had carefully examined the "detonator" and reported that they'd been wrong; it was only a small laptop computer. As York was mulling this over, a plain-clothed cop appeared at the door and said, "We searched Trotter's car. No explosives."
"Explosives?" Trotter asked, frowning deeply.
"Don't get cute," Lampert snapped.
"But there was an empty propane tank," the cop added. "From Rodriguez's."
Trotter added, "I needed a refill. That's where I always go. I was going there after lunch." He nodded at the bar menu. "You ever try the tamales here? The best in town."
York muttered, "You played us like a fish, goddamnit. Making us think your trash was a bomb."
Another cold smile crossed the landscaper's face. "Why exactly did you think I'd have a bomb?"
Silence for a moment. Then Lampert turned toward Eberhart, who avoided everyone's eyes.
Trotter's nodded at the computer. "Hit the play button."
"What?" Lampert asked.
"The play button."
Lampert paused as he looked over the computer.
"It's not a bomb. And even if it was, would I blow myself up too?" The detective hit the button.
"Oh, Christ," muttered Eberhart as a video came on the small screen.
It showed the security man prowling through an office.
"Stan? Is that you?" Lampert asked.
"Yep, it's him." Trotter said. "He's in my office at home."
"You told us one of your sources said Trotter was asking about where York shopped and about propane tanks."
The security man said nothing.
Trotter offered, "I was going to stop by the police station after lunch and drop off the CD. But since you're here… it's all yours."
The officers watched Eberhart ransacking Trotter's desk.
"So what'd that be?" the landscaper asked. "Breaking and entering, trespass too. And – if you were going to ask – yeah, I want to press charges. What do you guys say? To the fullest extent of the law."
"But I…” the security man stammered.
"You what?" Trotter filled in. "You shut the power off? And the backup too? But I've been a little paranoid lately, thanks to Mr. York. So I have two battery backups."
"You broke into his house?" Stephen York asked Eberhart, looking shocked. "You never told me that."
"You goddamn Judas!" Eberhart exploded. "You knew exactly what I was doing. You agreed to it! You wanted me to!"
"I swear," York said, "this is the first I've heard about it."
Lampert shook his head. "Stan, why'd you do it? I could've overlooked some things, but a B and E? Stupid."
"I know, I know," he said, looking down. "But we were so desperate to get this guy. He's dangerous. He's got books on sabotage and surveillance… please, Bill, can you cut me some slack?"
"Sorry, Stan." A nod to a uniformed officer, who cuffed him. "Take him to booking."
Trotter called after him, "If you're interested, those books about bombs and things? I got them for research. I'm trying my hand at a murder mystery. Everybody seems to be doing it nowadays. I've got a couple of chapters on that computer. Why don't you check it out, if you don't believe me."
"You're lying!" Then York turned to Lampert. "You know why he did this, don't you? It's all part of his plan."
"Mr. York, just -"
"No, no, think about it. He sets up a sting to get rid of my security man and leave me unprotected. And then he does all this, with the fake bomb, to find out about your procedures – the bomb squad, how many officers you have, who your undercover cops are."
"Did you leave a Whole Foods bag on the trunk of Mr. Eberhart's car?" Alvarado asked. Trotter replied, "No. If you think I did why don't you check for fingerprints."
York pointed at Trotter's pocket. "Gloves, look! There won't be any prints. Why's he wearing gloves in this heat?"
"I'm a landscaper. I usually wear gloves when I work. Most of us do… have to say, I'm getting pretty tired of this whole thing. Because of what some day-laborer said, you got it into your head that I'm a killer or something. Well, I'm sick of my house being broken into, sick of being watched all the time. I think it's time to call my lawyer. "
York stepped forward angrily. "You're lying! Tell me why you're doing this! Tell me, goddamn it! I've looked at everything I've ever done bad in my whole life. I mean everything. The homeless guy I told to get a job when he asked me for a quarter, the clerk I called a stupid pig 'cause she gave me the wrong order, the valet I didn't tip because he couldn't speak English… every little goddamn thing! I've been going over my life with a microscope. I don't know what I did to you. Tell me! Tell me!" His face was red and his veins jutted out. His fists were clenched at his sides.
"I don't know what you're talking about." Trotter lifted his hands, the cuffs jingling.
The detective made a decision. "Take 'em off." A patrol officer unhooked the bracelets. Sweating, York said to Lampert, "No! This's all part of his plot!"
"I'm inclined to believe him. I think Diaz was making the whole thing up."
"But the sauna -" York began.
"Think about it, though. Nothing happened. And there was nothing wrong with the brakes on your Mercedes. We just got the report."
York snapped, "But the repair guide. He bought one!"
"Brakes?" Trotter asked.
York said, "You bought a book on Mercedes brakes. Don't deny it."
"Why would I deny it? Call DMV. I bought an old Mercedes sedan a week ago. It needs new brakes and I'm going to do the work myself. Sorry, York, but I think you need professional help."
"No, he just bought the car as a cover," York raged. "Look at him! Look at his eyes! He's just waiting for a chance to kill me."
"Bought a car as cover?" Alvarado asked, eying his boss.
Lampert sighed. "Mr. York, if you're so sure you're in danger, then I'd suggest you hire another babysitter. I frankly don't have time for any more of these games." He turned to the team.
"Come on, people, let's pack up. We've got some real cases to get back to."
The detective noticed the bartender hovering nearby, holding Trotter's tamales. He nodded and the man walked forward and served the landscaper, who sat back down, unfolded a napkin and smoothed it on his lap.
"Good, huh?" he asked Trotter.
Lampert nodded. "Sorry about this."
Trotter shrugged. Suddenly his mood seemed to change. Smiling, he turned to York, who was heading out the front door, and called, "Hey."
The businessman stopped and stared back.
"Good luck to you," Trotter said. And started on his lunch.
At ten that night Ray Trotter made the rounds of his house, saying goodnight to his children and stepson, as he always did. ("A serial goodnighter" was how his younger daughter laughingly described him.)
Then he showered and climbed into bed, waiting for Nancy, who was finishing the dishes. A moment later the lights in the kitchen went out and she passed the doorway. His wife smiled at him and continued into the bathroom.
A moment later he heard the shower. He enjoyed the hiss of falling water. A desert-dweller now, yes, but Ray still had a fondness for the sounds of the damp Northeast.
Lying back against a half-dozen thick pillows, he reflected on the day's events, particularly the incident at Miguel's.
Stephen York, face red, eyes frightened. He was out of control. He was as crazed as a lunatic.
Of course, he also happened to be one hundred percent right. Ray Trotter had in fact done everything that York accused him of – from approaching Diaz about the alarms to planting the trash on the trunk of Eberhart's car.
Sure, he'd done it all.
But he'd never had any intention of hurting one hair on York 's coiffed, Rogained head.
He'd asked Diaz about York 's security system but the next day had anonymously turned the worker in for drugs (Ray had seen him selling pot to other employees at the landscaping company), in the hopes that he'd spill the information about Ray to the cops. He'd bought the books on sabotage, as well as the one about Mercedes brakes, but would never think about making a bomb or tampering with the businessman's car. The shims at the sauna room he was never going to use. And the chemicals from Southern States he'd never planned to use to make cyanide. He'd sent an order of cigars – nice ones, by the way, and completely poison free. Even the psychologist's reports in the Veterans Administration file were Ray's creation. He'd gone to the VA's office, requested his own file and, pretending to review it, had slipped in several sheets of notes, apparently taken by a counselor during therapy sessions from years ago, documenting his "troubled years" after the service. The report was all a fiction.
Oh, yes, his heart ached for revenge against Stephen A. York. But the payback wasn't exacting physical revenge; it was simply in making the man believe that Trotter was going to kill him – and guaranteeing that York spent a long, long time wallowing in paranoia and misery, waiting for the other shoe to drop: for York's car to explode, his gas line to start leaking, a gunshot to shatter his bedroom window.
Was that just a stomach cramp – or the first symptom of arsenic poisoning? And the offense that had turned Ray into an angel of vengeance?
I don't know what I did to you. Tell me, tell me, tell me…
To Ray's astonishment and amusement, York himself had actually mentioned the very transgression that afternoon at Miguel's, Ray thought back to it now, an autumn day two years ago. His daughter Celeste had returned home from her after-school job, a troubled look on her face.
"What's the matter?" he'd asked.
The sixteen-year-old hadn't answered but had walked immediately to her room, closed the door. These were the days not long after her mother had passed away; occasional moodiness wasn't unusual. But he'd persisted in drawing her out and that night he'd learned the reason she was upset: an incident during her shift at McDonalds.
Celeste confessed that she'd accidentally mixed up two orders and given a man a chicken sandwich when he'd asked for a Big Mac. He'd left, not realizing the mistake, then returned five minutes later, walked up to the counter. He looked over the heavy-set girl and snapped, "So you're not only a fat pig, you're stupid too. I want to see the manager. Now!"
Celeste had tried to be stoic about the incident but as she related it to her father a single tear ran down her cheek. Ray was heartbroken at the sight. The next day he'd learned the identity of the customer from the manager and filed away the name Stephen York.
A single tear…
For some people, perhaps, not even worth a second thought. But because it was his daughter's tear, Ray Trotter decided it was payback time.
He now heard the water stop running, then detected a fragrant smell of perfume wafting from the bathroom. Nancy came to bed, laying her head on his chest.
"You seem happy tonight," she said.
"When I walked past before and saw you staring at the ceiling you looked… what's the word? Content."
He thought about the word. "That describes it." Ray shut the light out, and putting his arm around his wife, pulled her closer to him.
"I'm glad you're in my life," she whispered.
"Me too," he replied.
Stretching out, Ray considered his next steps. He'd probably give York a month or two of peace. Then, just when the businessman was feeling comfortable, he'd start up again.
What would he do? Maybe an empty medicine vial next to York 's car, along with a bit of harmless Botox on the door handle. That had some appeal to it. He'd have to check if a trace of the cosmetic gave a positive reading for botulism bacteria.
Now that he'd convinced the police that he was innocent and York was paranoid, the businessman could cry wolf as often as he liked and the cops would tune him out completely. The playing field was wide open…
Maybe he could enlist York 's wife. She'd be a willing ally, he believed. In his surveillance Ray had seen how badly the man treated her. He'd overheard York lose his temper at her once when she kept pressuring him to let her apply to a local college to finish her degree. He'd yelled as if she were a teenager. Carole was currently out of town – probably with that English professor she'd met at Arizona State when she was sneaking classes instead of taking tennis lessons. The man had transferred to UCLA but she was still seeing him; they'd meet in LA or Palm Springs. Ray had also followed her to a lawyer's office several times in Scottsdale and assumed she was getting ready to divorce York.
Maybe after it was final she'd be willing to give him some inside information that he could use.
Another idea occurred to him. He could send York an anonymous letter, possibly with a cryptic message on it. The words wouldn't be important. The point would be the smell; he'd sprinkle the paper with almond extract – which gave off the telltale aroma of cyanide. After all, nobody knew that he hadn't made a batch of poison.
Oh, the possibilities were endless…
He rolled onto his side, whispered to his wife that he loved her and in sixty seconds was sound asleep.
He'd never revived a cold case in quite this way.
Detective Quentin Altman rocked back, his chair squealing with the telltale caw of ageing government furniture, and eyed the narrow, jittery man sitting across from him. "Go on," the cop said.
"So I check out this book from the library. Just for the fun of it. I never do that, just read a book for the fun of it. I mean, never. I don't get much time off, you know."
Altman hadn't known this, but he could certainly have deduced it. Gordon Wallace was the Greenville Tribune's sole crime reporter and must've spent sixty, seventy hours a week banging out copy, to judge by the number of stories appearing under his byline every day.
"And I'm reading along and -"
"What is it you're reading?"
"A murder mystery. I'll get to that… I'm reading along and I'm irritated," the reporter continued, "because somebody'd circled some passages. In a library book."
Altman grunted distractedly. He was head of Homicide in a burg with a small-town name but big-city crime statistics. The fifty-something detective was busy and he didn't have much time for reporters with crackpot theories. There were twenty-two folders of current cases on his desk and here Wallace was delivering some elliptical message about defaced books.
"I don't pay much attention at first, but I go back and reread one of the circled paragraphs. It jogs my memory. Anyway, I checked the morgue -"
"Morgue?" Altman frowned, rubbing his wiry red hair, which showed not a strand of gray.
"Our morgue, not yours. In the newspaper office. All the old stories."
"Got it. How 'bout getting to the point?"
"I found the articles about the Kimberly Banning murder."
Altman grew more attentive. Twenty-eight-year-old Kimberly had been strangled to death a year ago. The murder occurred two weeks after a similar killing-of a young female grad student. The two deaths appeared to be the work of the same person, but there were few forensic leads and no motive that anyone could determine. The cases prompted a task-force investigation but eventually the suspects dried up and blew away like maple leaves in October, and soon the case grew cold.
Tall and gaunt, with tendons and veins rising from his pale skin, Wallace tried to tone down his intimidating physique and face with brown tweed jackets, corduroy slacks, and pastel shirts, an attempt that was, as today, completely unsuccessful. He asked the cop, "You remember how the whole town was paranoid after the first girl was killed? And how everybody was double-locking their doors and never letting strangers into their houses?"
"Well, look at this." The reporter pulled latex gloves out of his pocket and put them on.
"Why the gloves, Wallace?"
The man ignored the question and dug a book out of his battered briefcase. Altman got a look at the title. Two Deaths in a Small Town. He'd never heard of it.
"This was published six months before the first killing." He opened the book to a yellow Post-It tab and pushed it forward. "Read those paragraphs." The detective pulled on his CVS drugstore glasses and leaned forward.
The hunter knew that now that he'd killed once, the town would be more alert than ever. Its soul would be edgier, its collective nerves would be as tense as an animal trap's blue-steel spring. Women would not stroll the streets alone, and those who did would be looking around themselves constantly, alert for any risk. Only a fool would let a stranger into her house and the hunter did not enjoy killing fools.
So on Tuesday night he waited until nearly bedtime – eleven P.M. – and then slipped onto Maple Street. There, he doused a parked convertible's roof with gasoline and ignited the pungent, amber liquid. A huge whoosh… He hid in the bushes and, hypnotized by the tornado of flames and ebony smoke swirling into the night sky above the dying car, he waited. In ten minutes behemoths of fire trucks roared up the street, their wailing sirens drawing people from their homes to find out what the excitement might be.
Among those on the sidewalk was a young, demure blonde with a heart-shaped face, Clara Steading. This was the woman the hunter knew he had to possess – possess completely. She was love incarnate, amore herself, she was beauty, she was passion… and she was also completely ignorant of her role as the object of his demented desire. Clara shivered in her bathrobe, standing on the sidewalk along with a clutch of chattering neighbors as they watched the firemen extinguish the blaze and offered words of sympathy to the dismayed owner of the car, who lived a few doors away.
Finally the onlookers grew bored, or repulsed by the bitter smell of the burnt rubber and plastic, and they returned to their beds or their late-night snacks or their mind-numbing TV. But their vigilance didn't flag; the moment they stepped inside, every one of them locked their doors and windows carefully – to make certain that the strangler would not wreak his carnage in their homes.
Though in Clara Steading's case, her diligence in securing the deadbolt and chains had a somewhat different effect: locking the hunter inside with her.
"Jesus," Altman muttered. "That's just what happened in the Banning case, how the perp got inside. He set fire to a car."
"A convertible," Wallace added. "And then I went back and found another passage that'd been circled. When I'd read it at first I didn't pay any attention. But you know what it said? It was how the killer had stalked the first victim by pretending to work for the city and trimming the plants in a park across from her apartment."
This was just how the first victim of the Greenville Strangler, the pretty grad student, had been stalked. "So the killer's a copycat," Altman murmured. "He used the novel for research."
Which meant that there could be evidence in the book that might lead to the perp: fingerprints, ink, handwriting.
Altman stared at the brooding cover – a drawing of a man's silhouette peering into the window of a house. The detective pulled on his own pair of latex gloves and slipped the book into an evidence envelope. He nodded at the reporter and said a heartfelt, "Thanks. We haven't had a lead on this one in over eight months."
Walking into the office next to his – that of his assistant, a young crew-cut detective named Josh Randall – he instructed the man to take the book to the county lab for analysis. When he returned, Wallace was still sitting expectantly in the hard chair across from Altman's desk.
Altman wasn't surprised he hadn't left. "And the quid pro quo?" the detective asked. "For your good deed?"
"I want an exclusive. What else?"
Altman didn't mind this in theory; cold cases were bad for the department's image and solving cold cases was good for a cop's career. Not to mention that there was still a killer out there. He'd never liked Wallace, though, who always seemed a little out of control in a spooky way and was as irritating as most crusaders usually are.
"Okay, you've got an exclusive," Altman said. "I'll keep you posted." He rose and shook the reporter's hand. Waited for him to leave.
"Oh, I'm not going anywhere, my friend."
"This's an official investigation -"
"And it wouldn't've been one without me. I want to write this one from the inside out. Tell my readers how a homicide investigation works from your point of view."
Altman argued some more, but in the end he gave in; he felt he had no choice. He said, "Just don't get in my way. If you get in the way, you're out of here."
"Wouldn't think of it." He frowned an eerie look into his long, toothy face. "I might even be helpful." Maybe it was a joke, but there was nothing humorous about the delivery. He then looked up expectantly at the detective. "So, whadda we do next?"
"Well, you're going to cool your heels. I'm going to review the case file."
"Relax, Wallace. Investigations take time. Sit back, take your jacket off. Enjoy our wonderful coffee."
Wallace glanced at the closet that served as the police station's canteen. He rolled his eyes and the ominous tone of earlier was replaced with a laugh. "Funny. I didn't know they still made instant."
The detective winked and ambled down the hall on his aching bones.
Quentin Altman hadn't run the Greenville Strangler case himself. He'd worked on it some – the whole department had had a piece of the case – but the officer in charge had been Bob Fletcher, a sergeant who'd been on the force for years. Fletcher, who'd never remarried after his wife left him some years before and was childless, had devoted his life to his job after the divorce and seemed to take his inability to solve the strangler case hard; the soft-spoken man had actually given up a senior spot in Homicide and transferred to Robbery. Altman was now glad, for the sergeant's sake, that there was a chance to nail the killer who'd eluded him.
Altman wandered down to Robbery with the news about the book and to see if Fletcher knew anything about it. The sergeant, though, was out in the field at the moment and so Altman left him a message and then dove into the cluttered and oppressively hot records room. He found the strangler files easily; the folders sported red stripes on the side, a harsh reminder that, while this might've been a cold case, it was still very much open.
Returning to his office, he sat back, sipping the, yes, disgusting instant coffee, and read the file, trying to ignore Wallace's incessant scribbling on his steno pad, the scratchy noise irritatingly audible across the office. The events of the murders were well documented. The perp had broken into two women's apartments and strangled them. There'd been no rape, sexual molestation, or postmortem mutilation. Neither woman had ever been stalked or threatened by former boyfriends, and though Kimberly had recently purchased some condoms, none of her friends knew that she'd been dating. The other victim, Becky Winthrop, her family said, hadn't dated for over a year.
Sergeant Fletcher had carried out a by-the-book investigation, but most killings of this sort, without witnesses, motive, or significant trace found at the scene, are not solved without the help of an informant – often a friend or acquaintance of the perp. But, despite extensive press coverage of the investigation and pleas on TV by the mayor and Fletcher, no one had come forward with any information about possible suspects.
An hour later, just as he closed the useless file, Altman's phone rang. A forensic lab tech at the county police told him that they had been through the book page by page and found three passages underlined and starred with large asterisks. In addition to the two that Wallace had found, there was a passage about how the killer had put plastic bags around his shoes to prevent leaving footprints and to keep trace evidence from sloughing off at the crime scene.
Altman gave a short laugh. The report that he'd just read contained a note that the crime-scene searchers hadn't been able to figure out why the perp had left no footprints.
Because the goddamn killer had used a goddamn how-to book, the detective thought bitterly.
The tech continued: Next to two of the underscored passages were several handwritten notations. One said, "Check this one out. Important." And the other: "Used distraction – brilliant."
The documents department had blown up images of the handwriting and was prepared to compare these to any samples found elsewhere, though until such samples were found they could do nothing more.
The techs had also checked for any impression evidence – to see if the killer had written something on, say, a Post-It note on top of one of the pages – but found nothing.
A ninhydrin analysis revealed a total of nearly two hundred latent fingerprints on the three pages on which the paragraphs had been underlined. Unfortunately, many of them were old and were only fragments. Technicians had located a few that were clear enough to be identified and had run them through the FBI's automatic fingerprint identification system in West Virginia. But all the results had come back negative.
The cover of the book, wrapped in print-friendly cellophane, yielded close to four hundred prints, but they, too, were mostly smudges and fragments. AFIS had provided no positive IDs for these, either.
Frustrated, Altman thanked the technician as cordially as he could and hung up.
"So what was that about?" Wallace asked, looking eagerly at the sheet of paper in front of Altman, which contained both notes on the conversation he'd just had and a series of compulsive doodles.
He explained to the reporter about the forensic results.
"So, no leads," Wallace summarized dramatically and jotted a note, the irritated detective wondering why the reporter had actually found it necessary to write this observation down.
As he gazed at the reporter an idea occurred to Altman and he stood up abruptly. "Let's go."
"Your crime scene."
"Mine?" Wallace asked, scrambling to follow the detective as he strode out the door.
The library near Gordon Wallace's apartment, where he'd checked out the novel, was a small branch in the Three Pines neighborhood of Greenville, so named because legend had it that three trees in a park here had miraculously survived the fire of 1829, which had destroyed the rest of the town. It was a nice place, populated mostly by businessmen, professionals, and educators; the college was nearby (the same school where the first strangler victim had been a student).
Altman followed Wallace inside and the reporter found the head of the branch and introduced her to the detective. Mrs. McGiver was a trim woman dressed in stylish gray; she looked more like a senior executive with a high-tech company than a librarian.
The detective explained the connection between the person who'd checked out the book and the murders, shock registering on the woman's face as she realized that the killer was somebody who'd been to her library. Perhaps even someone she knew.
"I'd like a list of everybody who checked out that book." Altman had considered the possibility that the killer might not have checked it out but had looked through it here, in the library itself. But that meant he'd have to underline the passages in public and risk drawing the attention of librarians or patrons. He concluded that the only safe way for the strangler to do his homework was at home.
"I'll see what I can find," she said.
Altman had thought that it might take days to pull together this information, but Mrs. McGiver was back in minutes. Altman felt his gut churning with excitement as he gazed at the sheets of paper in her hand, relishing the sensations of the thrill of the hunt and pleasure at finding a fruitful lead.
But as he flipped through the sheets, he frowned. Every one of the thirty or so people checking out Two Deaths had done so recently – within the last six months. They needed the names of those who'd checked it out before the killings a year ago.
"Actually, I need to see the list before July tenth of last year," he explained.
"Oh, but we don't have records that far back. Normally we would, but about six months ago our computer was vandalized."
She nodded, frowning. "Somebody poured battery acid or something into the hard drive. Ruined it and destroyed all our records. Backup, too. Somebody from your department handled the case. I don't remember who."
Wallace said, "I didn't hear about it."
"They never found who did it. It was very troubling, but more of an inconvenience than anything. Imagine if he'd decided to destroy the books themselves."
Altman caught Wallace's eye. "Dead end," he muttered angrily. Then he asked the librarian, "How 'bout the names of everybody who had a library card then? Were their names in the computer, too?"
"Prior to six months ago, they're gone, too. I'm sorry."
Forcing a smile onto his face, he thanked the librarian and walked to the doorway. But he stopped so suddenly that Wallace nearly slammed into his back.
"What?" the reporter asked.
Altman ignored him and returned to the desk, calling as he did, "Mrs. McGiver! Hold up there!" Drawing stares and a couple of harsh shhhh's from readers.
"I need to find out where somebody lives."
"I'll try, but you're the policeman – don't you have ways of doing that?"
"In this case, I have a feeling you'd be a better cop than me."
The author of Two Deaths in a Small Town, Andrew M. Carter, lived in Hampton Station, near Albany, about two hours away from Greenville.
Mrs. McGiver's copy of Who's Who in Contemporary Mystery Writing didn't include addresses or phone numbers, but Altman called the felonies division of the Albany police department and they tracked down Carter's address and number.
Altman's theory was that Carter might've gotten a fan letter from the killer. Since one notation called a passage "brilliant" and the other appeared to be a reminder to do more research on the topic, it was possible that the killer had written to Carter to praise him or to ask for more information. If there was such a letter, the county forensic handwriting expert could easily link the notation with the fan, who – if they were lucky – might have signed his real name and included his address.
Mentally crossing his fingers, he placed a call to the author. A woman answered. "Hello?"
"I'm Detective Altman with the Greenville police department," he said. "I'd like to speak to Andrew Carter."
"I'm his wife," she said. "He's not available." The matter-of-fact tone in her voice suggested that this was her knee-jerk response to all such calls.
"When will he be available?"
"This is about the murders, isn't it?"
"That's right, ma'am."
"Do you have a suspect?"
"I can't really go into that. But I would like to talk to your husband."
A hesitation. "The thing is…" Her voice lowered and Altman suspected that her "unavailable" husband was in a nearby room. "He hasn't been well."
"I'm sorry," Altman said. "Is it serious?"
"You bet it's serious," she said angrily. "When Andy heard that the killer might've used his book as a model for the crimes, he got very depressed. He cut himself off from everybody. He stopped writing." She hesitated. "He stopped everything. He just gave up."
"Must've been real difficult, Mrs. Carter," Altman said sympathetically.
"I told him it was just a coincidence – those women getting killed like he wrote in the book. Just a weird coincidence. But the reporters and, well, everybody, friends, neighbors… they kept yammering on and on about how Andy was to blame."
Altman supposed she wasn't going to like the fact that he'd found proof that her husband's book had indeed been the model for the killings.
She continued, "He's been getting better lately. Anything about the case could set him back."
"I do understand that, ma'am, but you have to see my situation. We've got a possibility of catching the killer and your husband could be real helpful…"
The sound on the other end of the line grew muffled and Altman could hear her talking to someone else.
Altman wasn't surprised when she said, "My husband just got back. I'll put him on."
"Hello?" came a soft, uneasy voice. "This's Andy Carter."
Altman identified himself.
"Are you the policeman I talked to last year?"
"Me? No. That might've been the case detective. Sergeant Bob Fletcher."
"Right. That was the name."
So Fletcher had talked to the author last year. There was no reference in the case file to it and he supposed that Carter hadn't provided any helpful information. Maybe now, after this much time had passed, he'd be more cooperative. Though Altman soon found that wasn't the case. He reiterated to Carter what he'd told his wife and the man said immediately, "I can't help you. And frankly, I don't want to… This's been the worst year of my life."
"I appreciate that, sir. But that killer's still free. And -"
"But I don't know anything. I mean, what could I possibly tell you that -"
"We have a sample of the killer's handwriting – we found some of his notes in a copy of your book. And we'd like to compare it to any letters from fans you might've received."
There was a long pause. Finally the author whispered, "So he did use my book as a model."
"I'm afraid he did, Mr. Carter."
Altman heard nothing for a moment, then a cryptic noise – maybe a sigh. Or maybe the man was crying softly.
"Sir, are you all right?"
The author cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I can't help you. I just… it'd be too much for me."
Altman often told young officers under him that a detective's most important trait is persistence. He said in an even voice, "You're the only one who can help us trace the book back to him. He destroyed the library computer so we don't have the names of who checked your book out. There's no match on the fingerprints, either… I want to catch this man real bad. And I suspect you do, too, Mr. Carter. Don't you, now?"
There was no response. Finally the faint voice continued, "Do you know that strangers sent me clippings about the killings? Perfect strangers. Hundreds of them. They blamed me. They called my book a 'blueprint for murder.' I had to go into the hospital for a month afterwards, I was so depressed… I caused those murders! Don't you understand that?"
Altman looked up at Wallace and shook his head.
The reporter gestured for the phone. Altman figured, why not?
"Mr. Carter, there's a person here I'm going to put on the line. I'd like him to have a word with you."
He handed the receiver over and sat back, listening to the onesided conversation.
"Hello, Mr. Carter." The reporter's gaunt frame hunched over the phone and he gripped the receiver in astonishingly long, strong fingers. "You don't know me. My name is Gordon Wallace. I'm a fan of your book – I loved it. I'm the one who found the circled passages… No, I'm not with them; I'm a reporter for the Tribune here in Greenville… I got that. I understand that. My colleagues step over a lot of lines. But I don't operate that way. And I know you're reluctant to get involved here. I'm sure you've been through a tough time.
"But I just want to say one thing: I'm no great novelist like you – I'm just a hack journalist – but I am a writer and if I have any important belief in my life it's in the freedom to write whatever moves us. Now… No, please, Mr. Carter, let me finish. I heard that you basically stopped writing after the murders… Well, you and your talent were as much a victim of those crimes as those women were. You exercised your God-given right to express yourself and a terrible accident happened. That's how I'd look at this madman: an act of God. A couple of people got killed and you were injured because of that. You can't do anything about those women. But you can help yourself and your family to move on. And there's something else to consider: You're in a position to make sure nobody else ever gets hurt by this guy again."
Altman lifted an impressed eyebrow at the moving sales pitch. Wallace fell silent and, glancing at the detective, shrugged. He held the receiver to his ear for a moment, listening. Finally he nodded and glanced at Altman. "He wants to talk to you." Altman took the phone. "Yessir?"
"What exactly would you want me to do?" came the tentative voice through the phone.
"All I need is for you to look through your fan mail. See if you can find anything suspicious. Any fans who might've written something about these passages in the book." He told Carter which ones had been circled and then added, "And look for any letters from people who asked about how you researched the murders. Particularly from people within, say, a hundred miles or so of Greenville."
Carter protested, "I've got thousands of letters. It'd take a couple of days to go through them all."
"That's fine. We'll follow up on other leads as best we can… But I have one more request, sir."
"Can we get those letters in person?"
"You want me to come to Greenville?"
"Yessir, I do." Silence.
The detective persisted. "Depending on what we find, it could be real helpful to have you here. The city'll pay for the mileage and a room if you stay overnight."
"Sir," Carter said slowly, "there's not enough money in the universe to get me to come to Greenville." Altman took a breath to set out his argument, though before he could speak the man continued, "but I'll come anyway."
Altman started to tell the author how much he appreciated the help, but after a moment he realized that the man had hung up and he was listening to dead air.
Andy Clark turned out not to resemble either a sinister artist or a glitzy celebrity but rather any one of the hundreds of white, middle-aged businessmen that populated this region of the Northeast. Thick, graying hair, neatly trimmed. A slight paunch (much slighter than Altman's own, thanks to the cop's fondness for his wife's casseroles). His outfit wasn't an arm-patch sports jacket or any other authorial garb, but an L.L. Bean windbreaker, polo shirt, and corduroy slacks.
It had been two days since Altman had spoken to Carter. The man now stood uneasily in the detective's office, taking the coffee that Josh Randall offered and nodding greetings to the cops and to Gordon Wallace. He slipped off his windbreaker, tossing it on an unoccupied chair. The man's only moment of consternation in this initial meeting was when he glanced at the top of Altman's desk and blinked as he saw the case file that was headed, Banning, Kimberly – Homicide #13- 01. A brief look of dismay filled his face. Altman was grateful that he'd had the foresight to slip the crime-scene photos of the victim's body to the bottom of the folder.
They made small talk for a minute or two and then Altman nodded at a large white envelope in the author's hand. "You find something helpful?"
"Helpful?" Carter asked, rubbing his red eyes. "I don't know. You'll have to decide that." He handed the envelope to the detective. "Oh, I wore gloves when I handled them. Not fancy ones like yours. Playtex. My wife's from the kitchen."
"Good thinking." Altman opened the envelope and, donning his own gloves, pulled out what must've been about fifty or so sheets.
"I looked through the e-mails from fans, too," Carter said. "But I didn't find anything that seemed suspicious."
E-mails wouldn't help them anyway; Altman was after a handwriting comparison.
"The ones on top," Carter continued, nodding at the correspondence, "seemed to be from the most… how do I put it?… the most intense fans."
The detective led the men into the department conference room and spread the letters out on the table. Randall joined them.
Some of them were typed or printed out from a computer, some were written in cursive, some in block letters. They were on many different types and sizes of paper and in many colors of ink or pencil. Crayons, too.
For half an hour they looked over the letters. Altman finally divided them into two piles. One, he explained, was of letters from fans who were, as Carter had said, "intense." These notes were eerie, nonsensical, angry, or disturbingly personal ("Come to see us in Sioux City if your in town and the wife and me will treat you to our special full body massage out side on the deck behind our trailer.")
"Ick," said Josh Randall.
Yep, definitely icky, Altman thought, but he set that pile aside and explained that they were the discards. "Those're your typical wackos and I don't think they're half dangerous. It's the other ones I'm worried about." He nodded at the second pile. "They're reasonable and calm and cautious… just like the strangler. See, he's an organized offender. Calculating and smart. He's not going to give anything away by ranting. If he has any questions, he's going to ask them politely and carefully – he'll want some detail but not too much; that'd arouse suspicion."
Altman gathered up this stack – about ten letters – placed them in an evidence envelope, and handed them to the young detective. "Over to the county lab, stat."
A man stuck his head in the door. Bob Fletcher. The even-keeled sergeant introduced himself to Carter. "We never met, but I spoke to you on the phone last year about the case."
"I remember." They shook hands.
Fletcher nodded at Altman, smiling ruefully. "He's a better cop than me. I never thought that the killer might've tried to write you."
The sergeant, it turned out, had contacted Carter not about fan mail but to ask if the author had based the story on any previous true crimes, thinking there might be a connection between them and the strangler murders. It had been a good thought, but Carter had explained that the plot for Two Deaths was a product of his imagination.
The sergeant's eyes took in the stack of letters. "Any luck?" he asked.
"We'll have to see what the lab finds." Altman then nodded toward the author. "But I have to say that Mr. Carter here's been a huge help. We'd be stymied for sure, it wasn't for him."
Appraising Carter carefully, Fletcher said, "I have to admit I never got a chance to read your book, but I always wanted to meet you. An honest-to-God famous author. Don't think I've ever shook one's hand before."
Carter gave an embarrassed laugh. "Not very famous, to look at my sales figures."
"Well, all I know is my girlfriend read your book and she said it was the best thriller she'd read in years."
Carter said, "I appreciate that. Is she around town? I could autograph her copy."
"Oh," Fletcher said. "Well, we're not going out anymore. She left the area. But thanks for the offer." He headed back to Robbery.
There was now nothing to do but wait for the lab results to come back, so Wallace suggested coffee at Starbucks. The men wandered down the street, ordered, and sat sipping the drinks as Wallace pumped Carter for information about breaking into fiction writing, and Altman simply enjoyed the feel of the hot sun on his face.
The men's recess ended abruptly, though, fifteen minutes later when Altman's phone rang.
"Detective," came the enthusiastic voice of his youthful assistant, "we've got a match! The handwriting in one of Mr. Carter's fan letters matches the notes in the book. The ink's the same, too; there were markers in it."
The detective said, "Please tell me there's a name and address on the letter."
"You bet there is. Howard Desmond's his name. And his place is over in Warwick." A small town fifteen minutes from the sites of both of the Greenville Strangler's attacks.
The detective told his assistant to pull together as much information on Desmond as he could. He snapped the phone shut and, grinning, announced, "We've found him. We've got our copycat."
But, as it turned out, they didn't have him at all.
Single, forty-two-year-old Howard Desmond, a veterinary technician, had skipped town six months before, leaving in a huge hurry. One day in April he'd called his landlord and announced that he was moving. He'd left virtually overnight, abandoning everything in the apartment but his valuables. There was no forwarding address. Altman had hoped to go through whatever he'd left behind, but the landlord explained that he'd sold everything to make up for the lost rent. What didn't sell, he'd thrown out.
Altman spoke to the vet in whose clinic Desmond had worked, and the doctor's report was similar to the landlord's. In April, Desmond had called and quit his job, effective immediately, saying only that he was moving to Oregon to take care of his elderly grandmother. He never called back with a forwarding address for his last check, as he said he would.
The vet described Desmond as quiet, and affectionate to the animals in his care, but with little patience for people.
Altman contacted the authorities in Oregon and found no record of any Howard Desmond in the DMV files or on the property or income-tax rolls. A bit more digging revealed that all of Desmond's grandparents – his parents, too – had died years before; the story about the move to Oregon was apparently a complete lie.
The few relatives the detective could track down confirmed that he'd just disappeared, and they didn't know where he might be. They echoed his boss's assessment, describing the man as intelligent but a recluse, one who – significantly – loved to read and often lost himself in novels, appropriately for a killer who took his homicidal inspiration from a book.
"What'd his letter to Andy say?" Wallace asked.
With an okaying nod from Altman, Randall handed it to the reporter, who then summarized out loud. "He asks how Mr. Carter did the research for his book. What were the sources he used? How did he learn about the most efficient way a murderer would kill someone? And he's curious about the mental makeup of a killer. Why did some people find it easy to kill while others couldn't possibly hurt anyone?"
Altman shook his head. "No clue as to where he might've gone. We'll get his name into NCIC and ViCAP but, hell, he could be anywhere. South America, Europe, Singapore…"
Since Bob Fletcher's Robbery division would've handled the vandalism at the Greenville library's Three Pines branch, which they now knew Desmond was responsible for, Altman sent Randall to ask the sergeant if he'd found any leads that would be helpful.
The other men found themselves staring at Desmond's fan letter as if it were a corpse at a wake, silence surrounding them, trying to guess where the killer might've gone.
Altman glanced up and noticed that Andy Carter was frowning as he gazed at a large map of Greenville County up on the wall. The author nodded to himself slowly and then said, "Had a thought"
"Desmond rented his place, right?"
"Well, he had a decent job, he wasn't a youngster, and he was single. He had to've had some money. Why would he rent? Houses aren't that expensive in Greenville."
Altman shrugged. "I don't know. What do you make of that?"
"My wife and I used to go up to the Adirondacks in the summer. We looked into buying a place awhile ago but we couldn't afford to own two houses. So we ended up renting."
The detective nodded. "So you're thinking that one reason a man would rent his main residence was if he owned a house somewhere else. A summer house or something."
"Just a thought."
"But you checked the county registrar; he didn't own any property," Wallace pointed out to Altman.
"But we didn't check other counties," the detective replied. "A vacation place might not be nearby." He grabbed his phone.
And in less than five minutes they had their answer.
Howard Desmond did indeed own a house elsewhere – on the shore of Lake Muskegon, sixty miles from Greenville, tucked away into the backwater, piney wilderness.
"Good thought," the detective said to Carter. "Thanks."
"You think he's hiding out there?" Wallace asked.
"Doubt it," Altman said. "He's not stupid. I were him, I'd vanish for a couple of years, till everybody'd forgotten about the case and I thought it was safe to come back to the area. But there could be some leads there to where he did go. Maybe airline receipts or something."
Josh Randall returned to report that Sergeant Bob Fletcher had no helpful information in the library vandalism case.
But Altman said, "Doesn't matter. We've got a better lead. Suit up, Josh."
"What're we doing?"
"We're going for a ride in the country. What else on a nice fall day like this?"
Lake Muskegon is a large but shallow body of water bordered by willow, tall grass, and ugly pine. Altman didn't know the place well. He'd brought his family here for a couple of picnics over the years, and he and Bob Fletcher had come to the lake once on a halfhearted fishing expedition, of which Altman had only vague memories: gray, drizzly weather and a nearly empty creel at the end of the day.
As he and Randall drove north through the increasingly deserted landscape he briefed the young man. "Now, I'm ninety-nine percent sure Desmond's not here. But what we're going to do first is clear the house – I mean closet by closet – and then I want you stationed in the front to keep an eye out while I look for evidence. Okay?"
They passed Desmond's overgrown driveway and pulled off the road, then eased into a stand of thick forsythia.
Together, the men cautiously made their way down the weedy drive toward the "vacation house," a dignified term for the tiny, shabby cottage sitting in a three-foot-high sea of grass and brush. A path had been beaten through the foliage – somebody had been here recently – but it might not have been Desmond; Altman had been a teenager once himself and knew that nothing attracts adolescent attention like a deserted house.
They drew their weapons and Altman pounded on the door, calling, "Police. Open up."
He hesitated a moment, adjusted the grip on his gun, and kicked the door in.
Filled with cheap, dust-covered furniture, buzzing with stuporous fall flies, the place appeared completely deserted. They checked the four small rooms carefully and found no sign of Desmond. Outside, they glanced in the window of the garage and saw that it was empty. Then Altman sent Randall to the front of the driveway to hide in the bushes and report anybody's approach.
He then returned to the house and began to search, wondering just how hot the cold case was about to become.
Two hundred yards before the driveway that led to Howard Desmond's cottage, a battered, ten-year-old Toyota pulled onto the shoulder of Route 207 and then into the woods, out of sight of any drivers along the road.
A man got out and, satisfied that his car was well hidden, squinted into the forest, getting his bearings. He noticed the line of the brown lake to his left and figured the vacation house was in the ten-o'clock position ahead of him. Through dense underbrush like this, it would take him about fifteen minutes to get to the place, he estimated.
That'd make the time pretty tight. He'd have to move as quickly as he could and still keep the noise to a minimum.
The man started forward, but then stopped suddenly and patted his pocket. He'd been in such a hurry to get to the house he couldn't remember if he'd taken what he wanted from the glove compartment. But yes, he had it with him.
Hunched over and picking his way carefully to avoid stepping on noisy branches, Gordon Wallace continued on toward the cabin where, he hoped, Detective Altman was lost in police work and would be utterly oblivious to his furtive approach.
The search of the house revealed virtually nothing that would indicate that Desmond had been here recently – or where the man might now be. Altman found some bills and canceled checks, but the address on them was Desmond's apartment in Warwick.
He decided to check the garage, thinking he might come across something helpful that the killer had tossed out of the car and forgotten about – directions or a map, maybe.
He found something far more interesting in the decrepit building, though. Howard Desmond himself.
That is to say, his corpse.
The moment Altman opened the old-fashioned double doors of the garage he detected the smell of decaying flesh. He knew where it had to be coming from: a large coal bin in the back. Steeling himself, he flipped up the lid.
Inside were the mostly skeletal remains of a man about six feet tall, lying on his back, fully clothed. He'd been dead about six months – just around the time Desmond disappeared, Altman recalled.
DNA would tell for certain if this was the killer, but Altman discovered the man's wallet in his hip pocket and, sure enough, the driver's license inside was Desmond's. There wasn't enough face left to be sure, but the thatch of hair on the corpse's skull and the man's height were the same as indicated on the license.
He looked briefly through the bin again and found nothing else that would identify the body or who'd killed him, though he did find the apparent murder weapon – a stained, old-fashioned military bayonet. Lifting it out with a Kleenex, he set the weapon on a workbench.
So what the hell was going on?
Somebody had murdered the strangler. Who? And why?
But then Altman did one of the things he did best – let his mind run free. Too many detectives get an idea into their heads and can't see past their initial conclusions. Altman, though, always fought against this tendency and he now asked himself: But what if Desmond wasn't the strangler?
They knew for certain that he was the one who'd underlined the passages in the library's copy of Two Deaths in a Small Town. But what if he'd done so after the killings? The letter Desmond had written to Carter was undated. Maybe – like Gordon Wallace – he'd read the book after the murders and been struck by the similarity. He'd started to investigate the crime himself and the strangler had found out and murdered him.
But then who was the killer?
Like Gordon Wallace…
Altman felt another little tap in his far-ranging mind, as fragments of facts lined up for him to consider – facts that all had to do with the reporter. For instance, Wallace was physically imposing, abrasive, temperamental. At times he could be threatening, scary. He was obsessed with crime, and he knew police and forensic procedures better than most cops, which also meant that he knew how to anticipate investigators' moves. (He'd sure blustered his way right into the middle of the reopened case just the other day, Altman reflected.) Wallace owned a Motorola police scanner and would've been able to listen in on calls about the victims. His apartment was a few blocks from the college where the first victim was killed.
The detective considered: Let's say that Desmond had read the passages, become suspicious, and circled them, then made a few phone calls to find out more about the case. He might've called Wallace, who, as the Tribune's crime reporter, would be a logical source for more information.
Desmond had met with the reporter, who'd then killed him and hid the body here.
Why would he have brought the book to the police's attention, then? And why would he have killed the two women in the first place? What was his motive?
But Altman refused to dismiss the notion of Wallace's involvement so quickly. He bent down into the shabby, impromptu crypt again to search it more carefully, trying to unearth answers to those difficult questions.
Gordon Wallace caught a glimpse of Altman in the garage.
The reporter had crept up to a spot only thirty feet away and was hiding behind a bush. The detective wasn't paying any attention to who might be outside, apparently relying on Josh Randall to alert him to intruders. The young detective was at the head of the driveway, a good two hundred feet away, his back to the garage.
Breathing heavily in the heat, the reporter started through the grass in a crouch. He stopped beside the building and glanced quickly into the side window, noting that Altman was standing over a coal bin in the rear of the garage, squinting at something in his hand.
Perfect, Wallace thought, and, reaching into his pocket, eased to the open doorway, where his aim would be completely unobstructed.
The detective had found some papers in Desmond's pocket and was staring at one in particular, a business card, trying to figure it out, when he heard the snap of a twig behind him and, alarmed, turned.
A silhouette of a figure was standing in the doorway. He seemed to be holding his hands at chest level.
Blinded by the glare, Altman gasped, "Who're -?"
A huge flash filled the room.
The detective stumbled backward, groping for his pistol.
"Damn," came a voice he recognized.
Altman squinted against the backlighting. "Wallace! You goddamn son of a bitch. What the hell're you doing here?"
The reporter scowled and held up the camera in his hand, looking just as unhappy as Altman. "I was trying to get a candid of you on the job, but you turned around. You ruined it."
"I ruined it? You've got no business being here. I told you not to get in the way. You can't -"
"I'm not in the way," the man snapped. "I'm nowhere near you. How can I be in the way?"
"This's a crime scene."
"Well, that's why I want the pictures," he said petulantly. Then he frowned. "What's that smell?" The camera sagged and the reporter started to breathe in shallow gasps. He looked queasy.
"It's Desmond. Somebody murdered him. He's in the coal bin."
"Murdered him? So he's not the killer?"
Altman lifted his radio and barked to Randall, "We've got visitors back here."
"We're in the garage."
The young officer showed up a moment later, trotting fast. A disdainful look at Wallace. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"How'd you let him get past?" Altman snapped.
"Not his fault," the reporter said, shivering at the smell. "I parked up the road. How 'bout we get some fresh air?"
Angry, Altman took perverse pleasure in the reporter's discomfort. "I oughta throw you in jail."
Wallace held his breath and started for the coal bin, raising the camera.
"Don't even think about it," Altman growled, and pulled the reporter away.
"Who did it?" Randall asked, nodding at the body.
Altman didn't share that for a moment he'd actually suspected Wallace himself. Just before the photo-op incident he'd found a stunning clue as to who Desmond's – and the two women's – killer actually was. He held up a business card. "I found this on the body."
On the card was written, "Detective Sergeant Robert Fletcher, Greenville Police Department."
"Bob?" Randall whispered in shock.
"I don't want to believe it," Altman muttered slowly, "but back at the office he didn't let on he even knew about Desmond, let alone that they'd met at some point."
"True, he didn't say a word."
"And," he continued, nodding at the bayonet, "doesn't that look like one of his?"
"Does, yeah," Randall said.
Bob Fletcher collected World War II memorabilia and weapons. The wicked-looking blade was similar to several in his collection.
Altman's heart pounded furiously at the betrayal. He now understood what had happened. Fletcher bobbled the case intentionally – because he was the killer – probably destroying any evidence that led to him. A loner, a history of short, difficult relationships, obsessed with the military and hunting… He'd lied to them about not reading Two Deaths and had used it as a model to kill those women. Then – after the killings – Desmond happened to read the book, too, underlined the passages, and, being a good citizen, contacted case officer Fletcher, who was none other than the killer himself. The sergeant murdered him, dumped the body here, and then destroyed the library's computer and never made any effort to pursue the vandalism investigation.
Altman then had another thought. He turned suddenly to the reporter. "Where was Fletcher when you left the office? Did you see him at the station?" The detective's hand strayed to his pistol as he looked around the tall grass, wondering if the sergeant now intended to kill them as well.
"He was in the conference room with Andy Carter."
No! Altman realized that they weren't the only ones at risk; the author was a witness, too – and a potential victim of Fletcher's. Altman grabbed his cell phone and called the central dispatcher. He asked for Carter.
"He's not here, sir," the woman said.
"It was getting late so he decided to get a hotel room for the night."
"Which one's he staying at?"
"I think it's the Sutton Inn."
"You have the number?"
"I do, sure. But he's not there right now."
"Where is he?"
"He went out to dinner. I don't know where, but if you need to get in touch with him you can call Bob Fletcher's phone. They were going together."
Twenty minutes from town, driving at ninety.
Altman tried again to call Fletcher but the sergeant wasn't answering. There wasn't much Altman could do except try to reason with the sergeant, have him give himself up, plead with him not to kill Carter, too. He prayed that the cop hadn't already done so.
Another try. Still no answer.
He skidded the squad car through the intersection at Route 202, nearly sideswiping one of the ubiquitous dairy tankers in these parts.
"Okay, that was exciting," Randall whispered, removing his sweaty palm from the dashboard as the truck's horn brayed in angry protest behind them.
Altman was about to call Fletcher's phone again when a voice clattered over the car's radio. "All units. Reports of shots fired on Route One-twenty-eight just west of Ralph's Grocery. Repeat, shots fired. All units respond."
"You think that's them?"
"We're three minutes away. We're about to find out." Altman pushed the accelerator to the floor and they broke into three-digit speed.
After a brief, harrowing ride, the squad car crested a hill. Randall called breathlessly, "Look!"
Altman could see Bob Fletcher's police interceptor half on, half off the road. He skidded to a stop nearby and the two officers jumped out. Wallace's car – which had been hitching an illegal ride on their light bar and siren – braked to a stop fifty feet behind them and the reporter, too, jumped out, ignoring the detective's shout to stay down.
Altman felt Randall grip his arm. The young officer was pointing at the shoulder about fifty feet away. In the dim light, they could just make out the form of Andrew Carter lying facedown in the dust.
Oh no! They weren't in time; the sergeant had added the author to the list of his victims.
"Look out for Fletcher," he whispered to a spooked Josh Randall. "He's around here someplace and we know he's armed."
Altman ran toward the author's body. As he did, he happened to glance to his left and gasped. There was Bob Fletcher on the ground, holding a shotgun.
He shouted to Randall, "Look out!" and dropped flat. But as he swung the gun toward Fletcher he noted that the sergeant wasn't moving. The detective hit the man with his flashlight beam. Fletcher's eyes were glazed over and there were two bullet holes in his chest.
Wallace was crouching over Carter. The reporter called, "He's alive!"
The detective rose, pulled the scattergun out of Fletcher's lifeless hands, and trotted over to the author. The man's face was bloody and streaked with dirt, his clothes torn. Lying on the ground nearby was a black revolver, the sort that Fletcher had carried.
"Are you shot?"
Carter winced and blinked.
"Andy? Are you shot?"
In response, the author shook his head. "No. But I think I broke my arm. I can't feel anything in my fingers."
"There's an ambulance on its way. Just stay where you are. Don't try to get up."
"My leg… man, it hurts."
"Just stay still, Andy. Don't move Tell me what happened."
Gasping, Carter said, "Fletcher said let's go to dinner. We took his car. He said if I didn't mind he had to make a stop on the way to the restaurant and he turned down this road. Then he was talking and he said it was funny, this road reminded him of that scene in my book where the hunter's waiting for one of the victims."
"Right," Carter continued. "He said he hadn't read it. He lied to us. That meant he had to be the strangler. And he was taking me someplace to kill me." Carter coughed and laid his head back on the ground. A moment later he continued, "When he slowed down to turn into that side road I grabbed his pistol and jumped out of the car. I thought I could run into the forest and hide. But I hurt myself landing and couldn't get up. Fletcher stopped and got the shotgun out of the trunk. He came after me and I fired a couple of times and then passed out". He looked at the body up the road. He whispered, "I didn't want to kill him. I didn't have any choice."
Over a crest in the road Altman could see flashing lights and hear sirens, growing steadily louder. As Randall ran toward them, gesturing wildly, Altman collected the weapons. He glanced at Bob Fletcher's body. Murdering Howard Desmond and trying to murder Andy Carter – well, those had been to cover up his original crimes. But what had been the sergeant's motive for killing the two women in Greenville last year? Maybe the anger at being left by his wife had boiled over. Maybe he'd had a secret affair with one of the victims, which had turned sour, and he'd decided to stage her death as a random act of violence.
And maybe, Altman reflected, unlike in a mystery novel, they'd never know what had driven the man to step over the edge into the dark world of the killers he'd once hunted.
The doctors kept Andrew Carter in the hospital overnight, though it seemed that the flying leap from the car – as dramatic and frightening as it probably seemed to him – hadn't caused any serious damage.
The next morning he checked out of Greenville Memorial and stopped by the police department to say goodbye to Altman and Randall and to sign a formal statement about the events of the previous night.
"Got the latest from Forensics," Altman said, and explained that Fletcher's prints were all over the bayonet and that a search of the sergeant's house revealed several items – stockings and lingerie – that had been taken from the homes of the victims, leaving no doubt that Fletcher was the Greenville Strangler. Most people in town, certainly everyone in the police department, were shocked at this news. But Quentin Altman had to admit that one of the things he'd learned in his twenty-plus years of being a cop was that you never really knew what was in anybody's heart but your own.
He chatted with the author for a few moments but their conversation quickly became merely the superficial exchange between two men whose sole reason for contact no longer existed, and Carter finally looked at his watch, saying that he'd better be going. Altman walked him outside.
They were leaving the police station when Gordon Wallace loped up to them. "Hot off the presses." He handed a copy of the Tribune to Carter. On the front page was Wallace's story about the solving of the Greenville Strangler case. "Keep that," Wallace said. "A souvenir."
Thanking him, Carter folded the paper up, slipped it under his arm, and walked to his car.
Altman observed that the author seemed in somewhat better spirits than when he'd arrived. The melancholy remained in his eyes, but the detective sensed that he'd found a bit of inner peace by coming to Greenville, to the site of the terrible killings that he felt responsible for. And perhaps making this difficult trip and risking his own life to help bring the killer to justice would ultimately prove to be a godsend; unlike many people touched by tragedy, Carter had had the rare chance to revisit the past and personally confront the demons of guilt that threatened to destroy his life.
Just before the man climbed into his Toyota, Altman called out, "Oh, one thing, Andy – how's that book of yours end? Do the police ever find the hunter?"
Carter caught himself as he was about to answer. He gave a grin. "You know, Detective, if you want to find that out, I'm afraid you're just going to have to buy yourself a copy." He dropped into the front seat, fired the car up, and pulled into the street, offering a brief wave goodbye.
At two a.m. the next morning Andrew Carter slipped out of bed, where he'd lain wide-awake for the past three hours.
He glanced at the quiescent form of his sleeping wife and went to his closet, where he found and pulled on an old pair of faded jeans, sneakers, and a Boston University sweatshirt – his good-luck writing clothes, which he hadn't donned in well over a year.
He walked down the hall to his office and went inside, turning on the light. Sitting at his desk, he clicked on his computer and stared at the screen for a long moment.
Then suddenly he began to write. His keyboarding was clumsy at first, his fingers jabbing two keys at once or missing the intended one altogether. Still, as the hours passed, his skill as a typist returned and soon the words were pouring from his mind onto the screen flawlessly and fast.
By the time the sky began to glow with pink-gray light and a bird's cell-phone trill sounded from the crisp holly bush outside his window, he'd finished the story completely – thirty-nine double-spaced pages.
He moved the cursor to the top of the document, thought about an appropriate title, and typed: Copycat.
Then Andy Carter sat back in his comfortable chair and carefully read his work from start to finish.
The story opened with a reporter finding a suspense novel that contained several underlined passages, which were strikingly similar to two real-life murders that had occurred a year earlier. The reporter takes the book to a detective, who concludes that the man who circled the paragraphs is the perpetrator, a copycat inspired by the novel to kill.
Reviving the case, the detective enlists the aid of the novel's author, who reluctantly agrees to help and brings the police some fan letters, one of which leads to the suspected killer.
But when the police track the suspect to his summer home, they find that he's been murdered. He wasn't the killer at all, and had presumably circled the passages only because he, too, like the reporter, was struck by the similarity between the novel and the real-life crimes.
Then the detective gets a big shock: on the fan's body he finds clues that prove that a sergeant on the town police force is the real killer. The author, who happens to be with this very officer at that moment, manages to wrestle the sergeant's gun away and shoot him in self-defense.
Or so it seems…
But Andy Carter hadn't ended the story there. He added yet another twist. Readers learn at the very end that the sergeant was innocent. The real Strangler had set him up as a fall guy.
And who was the strangler?
None other than the author himself.
Racked by writer's block after his first novel was published, unable to follow it up with another, the man had descended into madness. Desperate and demented, he came to believe that he might jump-start his writing by actually reenacting scenes from his novel, so he stalked and strangled two women, just as his fictional villain had done.
The murders hadn't revived his ability to write, however, and he slumped further into depression. And then, even more troubling, he heard from the fan who'd grown suspicious about the similarities between certain passages in the novel and the real crimes. The author had no choice: He met with the fan and killed him, too, hiding the body in the man's lakeside summer cottage. He covered up the disappearance by pretending to be the fan and phoning the man's boss and landlord to say that he was leaving town unexpectedly.
The author now believed he was safe. But his contentment didn't last. Enter the reporter who'd found the underlined passages, and the investigation started anew. When he was asked to help the police, the author knew he had to give them a scapegoat. So he agreed to meet with the police, but in fact he'd arrived in town a day early. He broke into the police sergeant's house, planted some incriminating evidence from the first murders, and stole one of the cop's bayonets and his business card. These he planted on the body of the fan at the lake house. The next day he showed up at the police station with the fan letter that led ultimately to the cottage, where the detective found the leads to the sergeant. Meanwhile, the author, alone with the unsuspecting cop, grabbed his gun and shot him, later claiming self-defense.
In the final scene, the author returned home to try to resume his writing, having literally gotten away with murder.
Carter now finished reading the story, his heart thumping hard with pride and excitement. True, it needed polishing, but considering that he hadn't written a word for more than a year, it was a glorious accomplishment. He was a writer once again.
The only problem was that he couldn't publish the story. He couldn't show it to a living soul, not even his wife. For the simple reason that it wasn't fiction; every word was true. Andy Carter himself was the homicidal author.
Still, he thought, as he erased the entire story from his computer, publishing it didn't matter one bit. The important thing was that by writing it he'd managed to kill his writer's block as ruthlessly and efficiently as he'd murdered Bob Fletcher and Howard Desmond and the two women in Greenville. And he knew, too, how to make sure that the block never rose from the dead. From now on he'd give up fiction and pursue what he'd realized he was destined to write: true crime.
What a perfect solution this was! He'd never want for ideas again; TV news, magazines, and the papers would provide dozens of story leads he could choose from.
And, he reflected, walking downstairs to make a pot of coffee, if it turned out that there were no crimes that particularly interested him… well, Andy Carter knew that he was fully capable of taking matters into his own hands and whipping up a bit of inspiration all by himself.
Indian summer in a small Midwestern suburb, a hot, hot day in early September.
His heavy book bag slung over his shoulder, Jim Martin – slim, sandy-haired, freckled – trudged along the pitted sidewalk at 7:30 this morning, on his way to Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
He walked slowly, enjoying the heat, enjoying the spongy feel of his new running shoes, enjoying the familiar sights along the route.
Filled with excitement, filled with anticipation, filled with curiosity.
This was, after all, the first day of school.
At the bottom of the hill, exactly a mile from his house, he turned the corner and saw the school in front of him.
It wasn't really a very nice building. Single story, squat, yellowish stone. Nothing stood out except the tall flagpole that would ring like a clock chime when the rope slapped it on windy days. Today, in the still air, the pole was silent.
Taking a shortcut through a hedge, Jim walked over the football field, dew leaping from the toes of his shoes, grasshoppers jumping out of his path.
He glanced to his right and noticed a shaded spot on the field near the home team bleachers and a memory suddenly came back to him – a spring day on that very spot. He and Sam Gordon facing each other, fists balled up, ready to slug it out. Sam was an 8th grader, a big kid – he'd been held back a year. He dressed in dark clothes that smelled of cigarettes and motor oil and he wore his anger the way some women wear too much costume jewelry. For no particular reason he'd taken an instant disliking to quiet Jim, who was a year younger and fifty pounds lighter. Sam had mercilessly tormented him all year until finally Jim had had enough and agreed to Sam's taunt to fight it out after school.
The boys circled, Jim terrified but defiant. Sam threw the first punch. Jim blocked it but then the bully's left fist appeared from nowhere and clocked Jim in the cheek. He went down on his knees and Sam leapt on him, flailing away, Jim's thin arms helpless to protect him from the stunning blows. The big boy then stood and was about to deliver a vicious kick to Jim's ribs when a man's voice cut through the April air.
"Boys! That's enough."
Coach LaBell stepped forward, pulled Sam away and ordered him to the principal's office. Sneering, the boy stalked away.
The coach then helped Jim up and surveyed the damage to his face. The man said, "First the nurse, but I'm afraid you're going to the principal too, Jim."
The grizzled, crewcut man handed Jim a Kleenex for the blood, and the tears, waited a moment and then he said, "I want to tell you something, young man."
"Yessir?" Jim asked.
"You want to know what I think the biggest difference is between being a child and being an adult?"
"Knowing the difference between the times you have to fight and the times you should walk away. You know what I'm saying?"
"Good. Now go see the nurse. Get that cut cleaned up."
As Jim walked sullenly toward the door, Coach LaBell called, "Oh, Jim?"
The boy turned. "Yessir?"
"About those times you do have to fight?" The man pointed a stubby finger at Jim. "You better learn to watch out for left hooks. Or you're gonna lose some teeth."
"I'll do that, coach."
Now, this hot, hot first day of school, trudging through the dewy grass, Jim shifted his heavy book bag to the other shoulder, and he thought about how the coach's words had really made a difference in the way he looked at life.
Closer to the school now, walking past the buses, yellow as pollen, watching the students and teachers, the impatient parents in the car pool lane. Jim waved hello to a few of the kids but he was still lost in his thoughts. He was glancing at a nearby classroom, Mr. Carter's math class.
Oh, Jim hated math. He did all the homework; he'd spend hours studying for tests, but he could never do better than a C plus, at best. He now thought of one of Mr. Carter's classes, early in the semester. The teacher had passed out a graded test – Jim'd gotten a C minus. After all that work, he was so frustrated, so discouraged. The teacher must've seen the look in his eyes and called him up after class.
"Having some trouble, I see, Jim."
"I just don't get it," the boy said. "I mean, I try. I do the work. But it's like it's overwhelming. I freeze up and, you know, I panic."
Soft-spoken Mr. Carter pulled a slip of paper out of his desk and wrote down several names. He said, "These're math tutors, Jim. I want you and your parents to call one of them. I think they'll be a big help."
"Okay," Jim said uncertainly. Then he took a deep breath and confessed, "The thing is, Mr. Carter, I just, I mean, I just don't like math. I'm never going to like it. I know that."
The teacher smiled at this. "Don't like math?…" He nodded. "Well, Jim, you have to understand something. Your goal here isn't to learn to like math. I don't want to teach you that. I don't even care about that."
"No, no, no… I want to teach you to love learning about math, that's all." He repeated it. "I want you to love learning whatever it is you study."
And Jim nodded, digesting this. He took the note home and he and his parents got a tutor and his grades improved a bit, not much. But he started to get some B minuses. The important thing for Jim, though, wasn't the grade but what his teacher had told him. And he thought now, as he walked through the doorway to Thomas Jefferson Middle on this first day of school, about how the math teacher's words, like Coach LaBell's, had made a real difference in the way he thought about things.
Walking through the cool halls now, Jim smelled fresh paint and girls' perfume and those weird biology lab smells. He got a drink at the fountain and headed for home room.
As he did he passed another classroom and another memory hit him. Ah, Mrs. Peabody's English class. She was a stern, older woman the kids called psychic because she magically knew which students had read the real assignment and which had read the Cliff notes.
Jim thought about the time Mrs. Peabody had given the class a writing assignment. "Write about summer vacation," she said. "Be as creative as you can. But," the stern woman added, as she always did, "make sure you use proper spelling and grammar."
Well, that night Jim sat at his desk at home and stared unhappily at a blank sheet of paper. He didn't want to write a stupid essay about his summer vacation. For one thing it'd been a dog. A water park, two weeks of camp, his paper route. Boring… He'd actually been happy to get back to school.
So he gave up on the assignment and wrote what he wanted to. Not an essay at all but a short story. Science fiction. It was about a distant planet that didn't have summer – it was spring all the time. And it didn't have vacations either. The aliens on the planet worked 24 four hours a day.
The next morning he handed in the story but that night he lay awake until three a.m., thinking, Why did I do that? I totally ignored the assignment. What the heck was I thinking of? And here English was his favorite class. Maybe it'd take Mrs. Peabody a few days to grade the essays. He'd beg her for a chance to write another one, the sort she wanted.
But when he got to class the next morning it turned out that Mrs. Peabody had read and graded the essays.
And when he saw the way she glanced at him with a strange look in her stern, psychic eyes, he wished he'd stayed home sick.
The teacher said, "I'm going to pass back your summer vacation essays in a minute, but I want to say something first. When you write, when you put your words out for other people to read, you have to learn to take criticism. You have to remember that a critic's words aren't attacking you as human beings; they're only an opinion about something you've created, no matter how harsh the opinion seems… And in this case I'm afraid I've got some rather harsh words to say."
I'm in trouble, Jim thought, blushing already, betrayed by his freckles. Staring at the floor.
Mrs. Peabody continued, "Almost everyone in class wrote an essay about his or her summer vacation… Almost everyone."
This's bad, Jim thought. I'm getting an F, I know it.
"But," the teacher said, "one student decided he didn't feel like doing that."
Jim glanced up long enough to see her eyes focused on him.
This's worse than an F… I'm in note-to-the-parents territory now.
Then Mrs. Peabody looked away from Jim and studied the rest of the class. "All of your essays read as if they were written in your sleep. It's clear to me that you didn't take the assignment seriously and none of you spent more than ten minutes on it. Just one of you had the courage to be as imaginative as I asked you to be. Jim Martin is only one who got an A on the assignment. Now I'm going to ask him to come up here and read his story to you as an example of thinking independently and being creative." Then, being Mrs. Peabody, she added sternly, "though he should've a little more attention to proper spelling and grammar."
Hands trembling, Jim walked to the front of the classroom in triumph, as if he were climbing to the summit of Mount Everest or were the first person to step onto the surface of Mars.
What a small thing really, he now reflected as he dodged through the crowded hallway, just a single assignment. But what a difference that moment had made to him.
Strolling into his home room now, Jim unslung his book bag and sat down as the last of the students filed in. He could see that some of them too were filled with excitement, some with anticipation. Some with curiosity.
And some were nervous. Just like him, on this hot, hot Indian Summer morning in September.
Then the bell rang, a jarring noise, and eventually silence filled the room, silence broken only by the shuffle of papers, the click of pens, the snapping clasps of purses. The students looked toward the teacher's desk.
Jim took a deep breath, paused and he stood. He turned around and picked up a marker. He wrote on the white board, "Mr. Jim Martin, Home Room and Eighth-grade English." And he added his office hours beneath his name.
He turned back and said, "Good morning, class." And with a smile he looked over his students on this, the first day of school… and his very first day as a teacher. How strange it was, he thought, to be starting his career here at Thomas Jefferson, the same school where he himself had been a student so many years ago and where he'd learned so much.
Like knowing when to fight and when to walk away – but always looking out for left hooks.
And loving learning for itself, whatever the subject you're studying, even if you only get a C plus.
And always having the courage to think for yourself and to be creative – but making sure you use proper spelling and grammar.
Then he pulled his lesson plan and class roster out of his book bag and as he called the name of each of his students he thought again briefly about Coach LaBell and Mr. Carter and Mrs. Peabody and the teachers here and in the other schools Jim had attended throughout his life and he knew that, like them, he too was going to make a difference.
JEFFERY DEAVER is the author of nine suspense novels. He’s twice been nominated for Edgar Awards and is the recipient of the Ellery Queen Readers’ Award for best short story of 1995. His most recent thriller from Viking/Signet, A Maiden’s Grave, was an HBO feature presentation. The Bone Collector is soon to be a film from Universal Pictures.