Chapter Twelve – The Abyss
Because of back roads she was twenty minutes late at Pero Loco, but it gave her time to anchor herself; to mentally prepare. Music pushed her, encouraged her on; as she pulled into the parking lot the poets were admonishing,“ Life is just a fantasy…can you live this fantasy life?”
She saw a stucco and tile covered structure; originally shack-like but with many additions, seemingly now a busy, popular spot. Not just a few tables. So Ned, too, bent truth when it suited him. At the crest of her powers she blew slow- motion through the front door, deliberately slowing down the too-fast world.
Wafts of human and culinary perfume interspersed with salsa music gushed around her. A maitre d’ appeared to take her elbow,
“You must be Detective McKick’s lady,” and seated her at a small, private table by an artificial waterfall.
He was not there. Her great moment – flying as in her fantasy – sputtered out. She was so disappointed she almost cried.
Then she saw him through the ornamental grillwork imprisoning the bar – he pushed out as though released from jail.
His face shone with sweat, the heavy work of knocking back a few quick ones. He wore a black polo shirt and khaki pants; no tie. He was the victim of a recent, brutal haircut. What boot camp had he returned from? All his curl was gone and he was all gray now. Oddly, it left his face more vulnerable.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” he said. “In fact, I was certain you wouldn’t come. I’m afraid I drank too much.” His voice was so low she had to lean forward.
“Why’d you think I wouldn’t come?” She was touched by the depth of his disturbance.
“Because life is not so generous.”
The wine waiter appeared, wearing his silver cup and a ridiculous sombrero and flourishing a bottle of champagne. “On the house,” he said.
“God no,” she said. A gag reaction. “No champagne.”
He looked concerned. “Would you care for anything to drink?”
“White wine. Please. And sparkling water.”
He spoke to the waiter in Spanish.
“I guess they know you here.” She said. To be saying something.
“It’s my favorite place,” he told her. “Even if it is a knock-down-drag-out
battle every time just to get them to let me pay.”
“But you win?”
His face lit up with the opportunity to brag. “I win all my fights.”
She laughed and laughed. She almost couldn’t stop laughing. He tried to follow her humor with an echoing smile of his own.
“What’d’ I say?”
“It’s just that I feel so…suddenly light. Like a kid. Nothing ahead, and nothing behind.” They both knew that wasn’t true. Was it really too late?
He said, “I feel like the guy in front of the three doors.”
“What guy? What doors?” He had a storyteller’s voice. He delighted her. “Some poor bastard making a forced choice. Behind one of the doors is a
princess. Behind the other is a tiger.”
He had the gift; she could almost hear the “once upon a time”. She shivered
with pleasure; it was almost too perfect. She leaned closer on her elbows. “What’s behind the third door?”
“The abyss, I guess,” he said. “You definitely don’t want to open that one.
Because while you’re looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.”
The waiter brought her a whole bottle of white wine; uncorked it, poured, set
it in the ice bucket with a bottle of sparkling water. Gave Ned a non-alcoholic beer. The waiter looked at Persey expectantly. He obviously wasn’t going to leave until she tasted it. She took a sip. It was so cold it almost lacked a flavor. Maybe, like so many things, the flavor hit you later.
“Wonderful,” she said, then “But I warn you, I’m not going to drink this whole thing by myself.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “It’ll be just whatever you like and no more. I took the liberty of ordering for you. Best thing on the menu — lazy man’s lobster – a sort of Spanish bouillabaisse full of meat. No shells to slow you down.”
“Sounds wonderful.” He was an eater. She could never hope to match him, but she should make an effort to eat something. One could hardly exist on alcohol alone. If only she didn’t ache so much inside. She would distract herself by studying this man.
Ned McKick. She had so many questions about him. Here he was, sitting across from her, a whole person, an undiscovered country—someone she knew almost nothing about. Would he answer questions honestly? Or would he use that awful jargon? She felt at a disadvantage, because, as a detective, probably he thought he knew everything about her. More than she knew herself? In particular she wondered how old he was. There must be a subtle way of finding out.
“So when did you graduate high school?” she inquired innocently. His smile flashed a hidden dimple. Just for a moment, then it was gone. She thought she was probably among a very few people on the planet who had ever been privileged to see this dimple.
“I’m forty-five,” he told her. “All grown up. Unfortunately.”
His indulgence emboldened her. She reached across the table and touched the scar on his neck.
“How’d you get that?”
“Car accident. I usually tell people it’s a dueling scar, but you can have the truth.”
“The truth is always more interesting,” she said.
“This time, anyway, it is. I went through the windshield, no seat belt, no airbags, nothing. Bled out half my blood. Officially dead for several minutes.”
The magic was increasing. She had been so fearful of becoming a ghost but it turned out he was the revenant.
“See any white light? Dead relatives? Any of that stuff?”
“No. But I saw the underworld.”
Her interest was galvanized. “What’s it like?”
“It’s full of disappointed people blaming everyone else for their unhappiness.
I decided not to be one of those.”
A platter of appetizers arrived. She tried hard to gnaw on a quesadilla. Gave
“How is it?” His sympathy surged forward like the tide, following her
emotions in and out.
“It’s all right. Eating’s not my thing.” Just drink. Unfortunately.
“I guess not,” he said understandingly. “You don’t seem…tethered to the planet like the rest of us.”
She relaxed. That was exactly what she wanted him to think. Sometimes the magic worked and she could soar. She returned to his tale.
“Sounds like you were trying to kill yourself.”
“I was,” he answered simply. “Well, I was drunk at the time, and so my decision making was somewhat flawed. But I was trying, all right.”
He cocked his head to one side, as if considering how much to tell her. “There comes a point in a cop’s life when he realizes he’s just a garbage man.
You think being a detective is such a step up. But the garbage just keeps coming. In fact, as soon as you get good at Garbage 101, they introduce you to Garbage 202. A whole new world of advanced garbage. I guess that’s why I wanted to be a profiler. More intellectual. But we have no need for a full-time profiler. They regard it as something exotic but useless, like thermal imaging.”
She knew enough about storytelling to keep quiet. It’s the best way to encourage the storyteller to continue with the story.
“Two failed marriages,” he said. “For no good reason. Then a failed relationship – a fellow cop and I tried living together. That was worse than marriage, if you can imagine such a thing. We fought like howler monkeys. Who was going to put the dishes away. Leaving the toilet seat up. That stuff. Just awful.”
“So you saw the underworld and it changed you,” she said. “How?”
“I made myself change,” he shrugged. “It’s a long process. Have you heard that quote, be the change you want to see in the world? Well, turns out that’s required, not elective. I used to have nightmares about the accident. I still don’t sleep too well. I’d dream I was in the back of the speeding car and there was no one at the wheel and I couldn’t seem to get into the front to seize the controls.”
This was just what the Bird Lady was so good at. She would have taught him.
“So what happened?”
“I learned how to seize the controls.”
Excitement exhaled around her. He was a story-teller and a dream-manager. They had so much in common. “How?”
“I uncovered the secret.” He smiled at her, his wonderful creaky smile. He leaned forward and hissed, “It’s not about me.”
Not what she expected. Becoming one with the universe she understood. Becoming something other people needed, she had tried. There must be more. He explained.
“I’m just the universe’s tool,” he told her. ” I can wreck myself, get all rusty and clogged and fall over useless, or I can learn what I’m supposed to be about.”
“And what are you supposed to be about?”
“Hey,” he said. “I thought you knew. I’m an agent of justice.”
Her warmth began to cool. He had been so real, so emotional for a second. But he never wandered far from his job, now did he? Wouldn’t that be humorous if this was all a clever ploy, his patented method of breaking down a witness?
“You believe in justice?” She could hear the cynicism in her own voice. How could he speak of justice in a universe of abused children, murder victims, roadkill, a species driving itself extinct? God, she sounded like her own father.
“I think the search for justice is what makes us fully human. We can’t help ourselves; under the worst conditions people don’t give up the concept. We may not agree on what it is but we can’t stop looking for it.” He sounded honest, like he cared what she thought. Why?
“I guess it’s like pornography,” he continued, “We think we’ll know it when we see it.”
“But it never arrives,” she argued.
“Maybe it does. Maybe it does arrive.” His face was youthful when he said that. He said it like a promise, not a threat. She didn’t know how to best respond.
“People can’t be made whole,” she said, and he said,
“Then isn’t justice impossible?” she demanded. After all, she couldn’t rape
Jarod. “Aren’t you really talking about revenge?”
“God, I hope not,” he said. “But killers usually take something they don’t have themselves, so an “eye for an eye” is what’s impossible.”
“Maybe they took it to bring you to their level,” she said thoughtfully. “Bingo. Obviously we can’t dip a hand in the same river twice. We have to all move on. Forget the word justice, if it bothers you. Call it balance. Call it the prevention of future injustice. We can’t let the killers live in a consequence-less world.”
The bouillabaisse arrived, so she covered over the moment shaking out her napkin. She should really force down some food and not just sit here getting loaded, but what was she going to do about her gag reflex? Eating was just too much like sex. That was the problem.
Stew was something she never ordered. She didn’t like her food undistinguishable, nourishment that could be anything, the acceptable and unacceptable jumbled together. You might end up with something you regretted. She tried sorting the objects into shapes and sizes, picking out the bird-like forms. She located a recognizable piece of lobster and put it in her mouth. It gushed sweetness.
“Enough about me,” he told her. “Tell me all about you.”
Was the garbage man asking for her garbage? If he was, then she had come to the right place. But it felt so good to soar past sorry detail and bask aloft in the inexpressible. She wished she could tell him a story worthy of his own, but feared she lacked the storytelling gift. Perhaps she could repeat a story she had heard.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “A girl married her high school sweetheart.” “Gee,” he said. “I did that. There’s a lot of that going around. Continue.” She was heartened by this other similarity between them. “But first she married her college boyfriend.”
“I detect regression,” he said. “Thank God it’s never too late to have a happy
She laughed. “Turns out it wasn’t the right way to do things.”
“What made her marry the first guy?” “She was afraid.”
“Of what?” Damnable question.
The flickering candle guttered low in its glass chimney; the waterfall trickled over artificial rocks.
“I guess she was afraid that women like her are never free,” she whispered. Would he recognize the quote? He didn’t act as though he did.
“Maybe she feared happiness,” said Ned. “I know that’s what I thought. I thought only unhappy people are really alive. Like happiness is a form of brainwashing that destroys the personality. Every time it seemed like I might be getting there I managed to wreck the situation.”
She liked this change of subject. “Tell me about the time you were happiest.”
He answered gracefully enough. “I will if you will. We could share our happiest and saddest moments. The kids and I do that.”
Quid pro quo. He was not above it. She said nothing, so he went on,
“It was when my first child was born. There were complications. The baby was late. The experts disagreed about what to do. I was frantic with worry. I wanted to take my gun into the delivery room so they’d see I couldn’t be messed with. Then suddenly my son came out, riding on a rainbow gusher, and he was so beautiful and so perfect, and you know what I thought?”
“No, what?” She was mesmerized.
“I thought, “Jesus, now I’m chained to this woman for life.”
She laughed and laughed. He really had the gift of humor.
“A transcendental moment,” she commented.
“So when have you been happiest?”
There wasn’t only one time, but many, merging into one. Happiness was her
natural state. She and Digger, wandering the hills, coming home exhausted. She tried returning to first principles.
“It started when I met the Bird Lady. I was five years old. My parents used to fight, so I liked to stay outside. She had a local reputation for bringing dead animals back to life, so I took her a dead bird that found in the road. She put it in a shoebox lined with cotton and invited me into her garden. We drank ginger tea when suddenly the bird fluttered up and flew away. I thought I’d seen a miracle.”
He seemed unwilling to concede the possibility. “Pretty easy to fool a five year old.”
“She wasn’t like that. She was a wise woman. She gave me my first opal and told my future. ”
He frowned. If she didn’t believe in justice he didn’t believe in magic. “Was she some kind of gypsy?”
“That’s exactly what she was. She was a holocaust survivor. She had been
through everything. She taught me… so much. She couldn’t save every creature. Sometimes we had to bury them and we cried together. She had a ceremony called “The Washing Away of Wrongs.”
His face cleared. “You know, that’s a book. A Chinese book. It’s the oldest book ever written on the subject of crime. And justice,” he added pointedly.
“She had a lot of old books,” said Persey. “May I ask another question?” He pulled back. “I know what you’re going to say,” he said.
Omigod, she thought. A storyteller, and a revenant, and now he’s psychic. “What was I going to say?”
“You were going to ask me if I’ve ever killed anybody. People – women — always ask me that.”
She was disgusted and annoyed. Of course he had killed people; he was a cop. Jarod was proud of his “justified kills”. He saved the brass and mounted them on wooden plaques. Trophy-hunting. It was all about keeping score.
“That isn’t what I was going to ask at all. I wanted to know, when you catch killer, do you ask him what it felt like?”
He considered the question. His face relaxed still more. She could see she was past another gate.
“Never. We want to keep these guys talking, and the question sounds judgmental. Above all, we don’t want him realizing we look at him as some kind of mutant. We pretend that we absolutely understand what he did, that it’s totally human, that anybody could have done it.”
“So you lie?”
“These guys are outside the truth.”
So the agent of justice decided who lay outside the truth.
“I bet you’re a good interrogator.” She was certain of it. He had the voice. He said dryly, “You’re not bad yourself.”
She asked the question she had been leading up to. “Does it help to catch a
killer, if you’re one yourself?”
He looked shocked to his core. His face flooded with heat.
“I have nothing in common with these guys. They really are mutants.”
She drank a glass of wine to cover her satisfaction at “getting” to him. I’m still alive, she thought. I’m not a ghost. Turnabout is fair play.
He seemed to be working at calming himself.
“So your saddest moment? I think you promised.”
She hadn’t. She had forgotten they must inevitably get to this. For a moment,
the impulse was strong to tell him. If she “got it off her chest” so to speak, wouldn’t she be giving it away? Away was the operative word. Tell him how they tore at her carcass like wolves at a kill in the snow. Let him deal with it.
Doubtless that’s what those confessing mutants were trying to do; transfer to him their inner horror. She could even imagine his response; he would probably be sensitive, tender. He would treat her like a victim. Then he would ask Jarod for the pornographic version. And God only knows what Roy would say, maundering on about babies.
It was clearly impossible. She couldn’t tell him. Not just because “justice” and his “pursuit of truth”, but because he would never look at her the same way again. The princess would be lost forever, replaced by a drunken housewife who made bad choices. No, she would never tell him now, no matter how much she yearned to.
As the Bird Lady so carefully explained; the smashed ones are never raised. Accept it when the past was gone forever. The river has flooded on.
It was flooding her eyes right now. With tears, dammit. What was it about this guy? If she started crying now, she might never stop.
He reached out a hand as if to comfort her, as if he already knew everything. His thumb smoothed the knot between her brows.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “I understand. It’s going to be OK.”
No one but the Bird Lady, planting the “third eye”, had ever touched her there before, she thought in wonder. If her father had been a believer it would have been ornamented by sacred oil in her baptism, but he was not. No masseuse, hairstylist, not even Roy, certainly not her parents, had touched it after the Bird Lady sealed it with her gift. She called it “the secret eye”; the “the wisdom star of infinite perception”.
Perhaps it still wasn’t too late to believe in something. She wanted to believe Ned had imprinted her with his hallmark; call it the “thumbprint of justice”. Wouldn’t the demons recognize it and be afraid?
“You have something for me,” he said. “I take it you spoke to Roy about Bruce?”
She could have smacked him. Just when she was feeling all gooey and tender he was back in the interrogation chamber. Well, she could play it that way, too.
“Roy says Bruce’s dead. In fact, he says he killed him. But that’s not why I called you.”
His poker face was firmly in place; sacred eye sealed shut. “Did you believe him?”
Should she rat Roy out to this man for the price of a dinner? Briskly she shook her head.
“That’s just the way he talks when he wants to put me off. This weekend we’re going to his mother’s. I think I know how to get the truth from her. No, what I found out is better. I found out where Bruce takes them.”
The deadpan melted. Score! She had hit him again. She could do it any time she chose. He shook his head, then his shoulders, then his whole body, like a bear beset with bees.
“How the hell did that happen?”
He didn’t sound exactly pleased. You would think he was thrilled she was doing all his work for him. Part of her couldn’t resist bragging.
“Logic. Roy would never help Bruce. He hates him too much. He’d want him somewhere far away. Well, Roy has a storage unit out at Lake Warner, but he never actually goes there. So I went out to take a look.”
She took out the barrette and laid it next to his plate.
He stared at it as if he thought it might jump up and bite him.
She prodded, “Recognize it?”
“I recognize it,” he said slowly, as if marshaling wandering thoughts, “I’ve
seen the body. I’ve memorized those pictures. I’m surprised you recognize it.” “You told me, remember?” He’d forced her to look. Even when she didn’t
want to know. He couldn’t back out now.
He covered his head with his hands as if to compress his swollen brain.
“You just can’t break the chain of evidence like that,” he moaned. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
“There was a padlock but I figured out the combination.”
She didn’t tell him the punchline, that it was her own wedding anniversary.
That joke would only seem funny to Bruce the Rapist.
“But I didn’t go in if that’s what you’re worried about because it stank in
there. At the very front I saw a little red suitcase full of stuff. This was in there, but I put the suitcase back.”
“Anyone see you?”
“Not a soul. They don’t even have security cameras.”
“That’s why drug dealers love that place. We’ve busted enough of them. I
suppose you got your fingerprints all over the suitcase?”
“Well, not all over,” she said guiltily. She tried to remember. Had she
thought to wipe it down?
“I put the case right back. It’s full of stuff,” she emphasized. “Lots of stuff I
didn’t touch. Clothing. Jewelry. There’s even a blonde party wig.”
He flipped over the barrette. “Well, this piece unfortunately is useless.” “Why couldn’t you say you found it? Like you did before?”
“I’d need to get a search warrant.”
He was looking at her with the oddest expression on his face. She shivered under his gaze. Was he pitying her? Pitying the Princess?
No one had ever made her as angry as this man. He was just impossible. Dinner was over; she would no longer even pretend to eat. She rose to her full height and to hell with the people who turned to stare.
”I understood you asked for my assistance,” she spat out the words.
He stood up too and took her by the arm.
“I’ll get a search warrant,” he promised. “You can be my C.I. Confidential
Woop-de-do. She was not soothed. She turned away. Waiters rushed
forward with bottles, bags, Styrofoam clamshells. Ned sprinkled cash; cash was rejected; so he delayed to sprinkle again.
In the parking lot she was buttoning up her jacket when he caught up with her. It was cold outside. You would think there had never been a summer.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. Well, finally! “I know I asked for your help.” She owed him at least a warning.
“Don’t let Jarod Gunver find out what you’re doing. Jarod knows all about
the storage unit. You can’t trust him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was helping Bruce.”
He held her elbows, both of them. Handles. People hurrying past gave superstitious sidelong glances to the couple whose date had not gone well.
“How could that be?” He argued with her. His Third Eye was closed for good. “Don’t you see he’d help Bruce if Bruce would murder Stormee?”
His jaw dropped. He opened her car door and hustled her inside, climbing himself into the driver’s seat. She glared at him. She didn’t sit in the passenger seat of her own car!
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said, pulling at his face as if taking off a mask, “But Gunver’s not under suspicion in his wife’s death. It’s not just the alibi. We got fresh DNA from the condom. If this was a hit, what kind of idiot leaves DNA at the scene?”
“The kind of idiot that’s been worked over by Stormee. You don’t know what she was like. Making men crazy was her stock-in-trade. How do you know it isn’t a red herring, like in the TV shows? The guy brought someone else’s condom and dumped it there.”
He shook his head. “It has her epithelials. It was used with her. Recently.”
It was still possible, she thought mutinously. Stormee lived in a constant miasma of other people’s DNA. But what she said was,
“You obviously don’t know Jarod. He prides himself on getting around things.”
“Do you have any actual evidence?”
He’d sneered at her evidence!
“Get out of my car,” she said coldly. “I want to go home.” But did she?”
He didn’t move. “I don’t think we’ve finished this discussion,” he said. “I think we should take it to my place.”
She eyed him speculatively. What did a guy like him weigh? Roy – with all his height – was only 160 and she still couldn’t budge him. This guy was stockier – not so stocky as Jarod of course – yuck. She didn’t want to think about Jarod’s body. They were steaming up the windows. Ned started up the engine nervously and switched on the defrost. Was she being kidnapped?
“You’re so interested in profiles,” she said angrily. “Jarod’s more the serial killer type. He’s a slimeball. I wouldn’t put it past him to fake Bruce’s fingerprint.”
“Then why would Bruce help him?”
He was deliberately trying to trip her up.
“You should look at Jarod is all I’m saying,” she told him. She could hear the
tears in her own voice, just a minor hint of an approaching storm. What was it with this man?
“Let’s talk it out,” he insisted. “Come home with me. I think you know something you’re not telling.”
It’s true that she was dying to see his place. You can’t picture a person who’s away from you unless you know their natural habitat.
“Where’s your car?” she asked him.
“I walked. I’m right around the corner.”
She consented to being driven. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go at all! He was supposed to fall under her spell, to do anything she wanted. Instead she felt managed. Still, he wanted her to see his lair. That must mean something.
“But Roy can’t be involved, right?” he asked her. “You don’t mention him.” “No,” she said shortly. “Roy can’t be involved.”
“And why is that?” he asked her, eyes on the road, hands on the wheel.
He was the behavior expert! The criminal profiler! He should know why! “Because Roy has the perfect life.” As she said it, she realized she didn’t believe
it. She hoped he couldn’t hear the sob at the edge of her voice, not over the engine. Would someone with the perfect life try to get his friend to impregnate his wife? But last night was just a horrible misjudgement, she argued with herself. All of us were drunk and some of us were high.
Jarod was the problem. Roy was just trying to propitiate his mother – as he always had, doing, however complainingly, what she directed — but this time Persey was the sacrificial offering.
She stole a glance at Ned, seemingly absorbed in his thoughts, as if he’d forgotten the way to his own house. Maybe he hoped Roy was involved because that would make her free. A thrill ran through her. She felt flattered, excited, ridiculously relieved. He was giving her another chance. There was so much more that she wanted to ask him if only she could find the words.
He finally pulled into the driveway of a bungalow.
“I thought you said it was right around the corner.”
He delivered up his deeply dimpled smile. “Some corners are elliptical.” Was she a captive now, like in her fantasies? She looked around. It was a neighborhood packed with tiny houses. These people had more car than house, at a minimum, it seemed, four or five cars per residence. Maybe they collected them. Otherwise, how did all these people sleep? Six across, like puppies?
She felt claustrophobic just thinking about it; she and Roy needed seven rooms apiece. But it was still early evening, and there was a lot of music and activity. Parties, barbecues, family get-togethers. She tried feeling comforted that people were so close by, but wondered how anyone could live this way. Everyone would be in everyone’s business. Inevitably. Neighbors always snooped, people were inquisitive and jealous. Roy kept neighbors at a distance.
Ned’s house was no bigger than her garage. Seriously. Wall-to-wall jalousie windows made it a security nightmare – only if you had anything to protect. The front door led directly into a messy living room with red painted walls and a red and black shag rug. She covered her mouth in a barely concealed gag.
“My attempt at decorating,” Ned said, “Bachelor experimentation. I had this rug, see, and I thought — Unfortunately it makes the place look like the inside of a stomach.”
“Or a heart,” She suggested gamely.
He laughed out loud, took her jacket and hung it on a cast iron Victorian hat rack. He kicked away a litter of kid and dog toys.
“So where’s your dog?” Digger loved other dogs, just so long as Persey didn’t love them too.
“He’s a package deal with the kids. When they come over, he comes over.” Hadn’t he said it was something huge, like a St. Bernard? Naturally. The smaller the house, the more miniscule the car, the bigger the dog. She could just imagine them all driving around together, heads poking out. Cozy.
In the living room was crowded the standard male version of a three-piece set; sofa, recliner and big chair, all upholstered in the kind of black corduroy velvet that attracts pet hair. Big screen TV. Newspapers and magazines strewn everywhere. She flipped a few with her foot.
“About as different from your place as it could be, huh?” he asked her. “I know you’re slumming. Hope it’s not too much of a shock.”
“I’m so glad we shock each other,” she said.
He laughed out loud. That relaxed look returned. Surely now they were out of the interrogation chamber. He couldn’t pull that stunt in his own house.
The magazines were The Nation, The Economist, The New Yorker, Maxim. “You’ve got up to the minute tastes,” she told him. “Is it a profiler thing?”
“It’s most definitely a profiling thing,“ he said.
“Profiling is as much about the zeitgeist as about statistical probabilities. What people do normally poses the question, what’s normal? I’d go further; if there’s any such thing as a group consciousness, then serial killers and rapists — the successful ones — are especially tuned in.”
What a strange concept. He was so interesting sometimes. This was the man she remembered from the party. She forgave him for before.
“The very brains of killers look different.” “Like, brain damage?”
“Damage or specialization; what’s the difference? Musicians’ brains look different, so do surgeons and racecar drivers. Model prisoners are adept at blending in. They take a life of secrecy for granted. They think we’d be just like them, if we only had the nerve. Looks like “normalcy” is evolutional. That means being human is a work in progress. So there’s hope for all of us.”
Was he all about hope, then, as well as justice? She tried not to laugh too cynically .
“People are scared of evolution because they think it steals from God,” she murmured, looking for a place to sit. There wasn’t one, not unless she moved something.
“But we’ve got DNA. Most cops think DNA is proof of the existence of God. The kitchen is this way.”
DNA? She remembered his remark about the condom. He hadn’t been supposed to tell her. Of course everything he wasn’t supposed to tell her was everything that she especially wanted to know.
“You said you found DNA in the condom at Stormee’s murder? So who is he? Is he in the system?”
“We can hope.” He pushed her down the hall. “We don’t know yet.” “When do you find out?”
“Fingerprints we can do with a software program, but DNA we send to an
out of state lab. We put a rush on it but it could take as long as two weeks. At least our guy is special. The ME told me it’s the first case he’s seen of completely tailless sperm.”
She was thankful to trip over a pair of skates so she could disguise her reaction.
Was she sorry to find out it had been Bruce, all along? She had it on the best authority that identical twins share identical DNA, and it couldn’t have been Roy. Roy wouldn’t touch Stormee with a forty-foot pole; much less shoot her to death and then drink champagne with his wife. With his wife and her friend. Persey’s husband couldn’t do it. So savage Bruce was on the loose, after all.
The kitchen was an afterthought, a glass caboose pushing out into the back yard. She had tried to picture Ned wandering around his house relaxed in briefs, but in this room you’d be exposing yourself.
In fact, at this very moment she was shivering under the impudent stare of the night’s eyes. Who was out there? Could it be the abyss, looking back at her? She would never get rid of Bruce now.
“Untouched by the decorator’s hand,” Ned said, as blissfully unaware of subtext as was Digger, “The theory is, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
It was indeed a shabby evocation of yesteryear; the kind of house Persey thought she’d left behind the year she went to California. The stove was pushbutton; there was plenty of butter-yellow tile and appliances of “harvest gold.” An island bar with leather-seated stools split the room.
“This is where people eat in this house,” he said, “Being as I’m sleeping in the dining room. When I sleep. Which is almost never.”
”There’s an upstairs?”
“Yes, two little bedrooms, separated by a bathroom. Nice and cozy. I took the place because it has big rooms for such a small house. And a great yard with a brook at the back. Oh, and they were giving it away. That’s always important.”
He poured water into a Braun coffeemaker.
“Tell me, has Roy ever been fingerprinted to your knowledge? I can’t find
The barstool was high; she took off her boots rather than entwine the heels in swivels. “Don’t they do that in the army? ”
“True. They would have a record.”
She glanced around, trying not to be too obvious about it. The walls were ornamented with childish artistic effusions. On an unfinished wood desk stood a computer, printer and fax machine. That’s where he spent all his time, right under the eyes of the abyss; little reading glasses perched upon his nose. Profiling, presumably. While the abyss was profiling him.
He slapped together a pair of mismatched mugs.
She actually didn’t want coffee. She wanted another drink.
“A little milk.” Always cut the drug; that was the secret she had forgotten last
night, thinking herself so safe. As he gave her a mug of white coffee, he followed her gaze to the desk. From the fax machine he picked up a poor-quality copy of a “Missing” poster.
Last seen day before Thanksgiving, 1994.
“Show me,” she demanded and he obeyed.
MeiMei Ha of the long black hair and perfect teeth was fourteen when she disappeared. She had a mature-looking face, but only stood five feet tall. “Last seen wearing Barbie sleepwear with leopard stirrup pants. Jewelry, silver colored ring with yellow stone, and picture keychain with fabric cord—“
I held her clothing in my hand, thought Persey.
“Which one is this?” But she already knew.
“The skeletonized body that we found. You targeted. I uncovered.”
They were a team. “She was a runaway from Pine Haven. Stole the other kid’s stuff and took off. Her parents were recent immigrants,” Ned explained. “Apparently there’s a culture shock that actually induces schizophrenia. Family split up.”
She saw the little girl hitchhiking, waving with Barbie suitcase. Did she wear the blonde wig, in order to fit in? To adapt, like a model prisoner?
“You think Bruce did this one before they put him away?”
“Killers have to start somewhere.”
She stood up. He was far away, across the counter from her. She’d had some
kind of impulse to take hold of him, to cross the space between them, but without her boots she was so much shorter that she lost her nerve.
Instead she fled down the hall. There must be somewhere else they could go. At least the living room had curtains. Passing his bedroom she turned on the light and wished she hadn’t.
No room in there for anything but a king-sized bed with rumpled sheets that must smell of him. He’d papered the walls with crime-scene photos.
“No wonder you don’t sleep,” she said, turning off the light.
He followed her as she’d hoped he would, holding his mug and wearing a quizzical expression. Apparently the evening wasn’t going according to his plan. Thank God for that. There was no plan, anymore.
“I do some of my best thinking when I’m not thinking,” he said.
Maybe that’s true of all of us, she thought.
She stood in the living room, still pursued by the smell of those sheets. Who
else could they smell of? Who could have sex under crime scene photos? Couldn’t imagine it, herself, but her own bed already was too full. Who was she to despise people for sleeping in a knot like puppies? She didn’t know who or even what she would find in her bed when she went home tonight. She was finished with beds. Out of the corner of her eye she checked the curtains to make sure they met exactly in the center. She had made her decision.
“Do you want to see the upstairs?”
Was he teasing? Did he think she was like him? He had snooped aplenty, over at her house. She herself didn’t have the stomach for it.
She turned to face him. “I bet you look in people’s medicine cabinets when they invite you over.”
“Usually.” He laughed. “You can tell a lot about people from their medicine cabinets.”
“Do you think Stormee knew what was happening?” He made the switch of subject matter easily.
“She was liquored up to the point of unconsciousness.”
So that’s where I went wrong, thought Persey. I wasn’t liquored up enough. I
should have been unconscious.
He came towards her, his face sympathetic. He was so much taller suddenly
looming over her like the bear man in her fantasy. She could tell that he wanted to touch her.
“Why did he turn down the airconditioning?”
She was talking like a drunk. She knew she was. She could feel the muzziness hitting her. She needed this coffee, if only she could figure out a way to open her throat.
“To preserve the body. Mess with time of death.” he hazarded. “Or cathartically erase the crime.”
“Maybe he wanted to come back later,” suggested Persey. “When he was more himself.”
They were touching now. He was warm. So warm. And she was shivering. “It’s possible,” he agreed. “The shoes were added after death.”
Persey asked, “Do you know what men do if they want a girl to take off her clothes?”
He stared at her, stupefied. Like the man before three doors.
“Gee, I don’t.”
She put her coffee down, smiling. It was fun knowing things he didn’t.
“They turn up the heat.”
She took away his mug away, too, and put it down with hers.
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“Maybe he wanted her to put her clothes back on,” said Persey.
She launched herself at him, pulling down his collar and kissing his neck. So
solidly was he planted that she had to risk a full body tackle. Nothing less would take him down. Now she was on top of him on the red-black shag rug.
His breath came in astonished little grunts.
“We’re not supposed to have sex with informants,” he gasped.
She laughed at him. “Then I’m the mysterious lady behind door number
He kissed back with longing, baptizing the special mark between her brows
belonging now to him alone. He kissed the square at the tip of her nose her father declared as the one flaw in her beauty. He kissed like a man who knew how to take his time, but Persey had no time. Could his nakedness match her fantasy?
He helped disrobing, even competing with her until they tumbled in discarded laundry. She let him strip her of everything but her opals. She needed their special magic tonight.
The time for words had passed; now she could show him what had been done to her. As in a healing ceremony she wound her own life backward, back to the place where it all went wrong.
His body was beautiful but different, she was gratified to see. These were fresh fields to cover. He had a lot of scars. She had expected heavy muscle but not that his chest hair would be gray. In the sides of his thighs were deep dents she could put a fist in. Were his knees so scarred from surgery or prayer?
She must be a slow learner; everyone before her knew the ecstasy of aggression that she uncovered now. Her emotions became physical as the pressure was released and the rage bubbled out. She was determined to leave her mark. At last she understood poor Roy; he must have longed for a dominant partner.
Trading identities was key; it bound your partner to you forever. She fled through men; she “had” them. Now she floated above him like the conqueror in her own dream. She rode him till she tamed herself; until she freed herself. She had proved her freedom now. His breath came in slow, shocked gasps.
He said, “Jesus. I got the princess and the tiger.”
When she woke up, it was eleven o’clock. Roy’s wife was lying on the shag rug floor of a cop’s junk lumber house in a jumble of clothes, wearing nothing but a belly chain. The opals had done their work and lent their flame. She was playing with fire now. She managed to dress without awaking him. He who never slept was lost, gone in a sleep of utter exhaustion. She accepted it as her tribute.
This princess needed to get lointaine, stat. She dodged the night’s eyes to the safety of her car. When she started the engine, her favorite oldies station blasted Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” Appropriate, she thought. She needed to stop by Bish’s house and get herself an alibi.