LoveMurder by Saul Black is the second book in the Valerie Hart series. Get an exclusive early peek with the first 9 chapters!
When she’s called to the murder scene, the last thing San Francisco Homicide detective Valerie Hart is expecting is for Katherine Glass to walk back into her life. Six years earlier, revulsion and fascination had gripped the nation in equal measure, as beautiful, intelligent, charming―and utterly evil―Katherine Glass had been convicted on six counts of Murder One. But the freshly mutilated corpse in the ground-floor apartment bears all the hallmarks of Katherine’s victims. And then there’s the note, with its chilling implications. Addressed to Valerie.
To stop the slaughter, Valerie has no choice. She must ask Katherine Glass to help her decipher the killer’s twisted message. But that means re-entering the pitch-black labyrinth that is Katherine’s mind, and this time Valerie isn’t so sure which one of them will survive.
Exquisitely beautiful Katherine Glass was the most hated woman in America, and on a wet Tuesday afternoon in May 2009, San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart sat in the Bryant Street courtroom staring at the back of her infamous blond head. The verdicts had just been delivered, and now, despite Justice Amanda Delgado’s gavel-whacking and repeated calls for order, the place sounded like a cocktail party at its thudding zenith. Six charges of Murder One. Guilty, six for six. The public gallery was in an ecstasy of self-righteous titillation. Faces were greedy and alive. Serves the bitch right. Pure. Fucking. Evil.
“Order,” Justice Delgado drawled, for the fourth time. “Order!” Delgado, a whittled Latina in her early fifties, had a small coltish face long past surprise, but Valerie had watched its jaded composure fracture through the course of the trial. Like the jury, Delgado had seen the videos that convicted Katherine Glass. So, too, obviously, had Valerie. The images were with her now for the rest of her life. The images were with all of them.
Valerie released a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. Her body’s tension remained. No relief. Granted, she’d caught Katherine Glass. Granted, Katherine Glass was being removed from the equation.
But Katherine Glass was, as everyone knew, only half the equation.
The videos had a costar. Katherine’s masked male lover, director, choreographer, soulmate, and partner in extraordinary crime. Despite the months of investigation and everything Katherine had given them, he was still out there. He was still unknown, untouched, and almost certainly undeterred. Six women were dead and he was still—the word sent a neural charge of weakness down Valerie’s abdomen—free.
Meanwhile, white and golden and jewel-eyed Katherine Glass, not free, stood motionless in the dock. Her blond hair was pulled back in its signature tight ponytail. If she was suffering there was no outward sign of it. Not that the verdict could have surprised her, Valerie knew. The trial’s issue had been whether the defendant was—fuck the clinical niceties—completely out of her mind. The quaint moral reflex said she couldn’t, given what she’d done, be considered otherwise. Her actions guaranteed her madness. But this was the twenty-first century. The binary certainties were gone. The world had gotten used to the idea that you could be in all respects rational, sound, intelligent, normal—except for your delight in doing the things Katherine and her lover had done. The world could no longer pretend the words “human” and “monster” referred to two different species. Monstrosity was just another human option, like vegetarianism or Tai Chi.
Naturally, Katherine’s defense had gone through the motions. Psychological disorder and diminished responsibility. No one had bought it. No one was ever going to buy it. The collective will craved raw vengeance. If Katherine had been plain, Valerie thought, she might have had a chance. But looking the way she did, it was a fait accompli. The New York Times had indulged itself with a description of her as “a living koan of corruption and beauty.” A Chronicle editorial with literary ambitions had called her “the grotesque and compelling offspring of Aphrodite and Lucifer.” The National Enquirer, true to its readership, had dubbed her “The Sex-Angel of Death,” while Twitter had, among its countless inanities, supplied: “Katherine Glass makes Helen of Troy look like a fucking bag of chisels.” She might be the most hated woman in America, but the hatred was swimming in desire, and that fact, more than her crimes, meant she had to be destroyed.
Which would, Valerie knew, give Justice Delgado a major headache between now and sentencing. Since 2006, when a district judge had halted executions in California after finding flaws in the lethal injection process, undischarged executions had stacked up like airplanes over a jammed airport. The judicial review of the allegedly improved death-kit was taking forever, and in any case the legal battles between prisoners’ lawyers and the state’s attorney general just kept going. In effect, there was a moratorium on killing death row inmates, and, by unspoken extension, on issuing death sentences. Katherine Glass would be locked up for the rest of her life, but for the baying majority that wouldn’t be enough. Nothing short of death would do.
Valerie got to her feet and headed through the warm crowd to the double oak doors at the rear of the courtroom. The trial had drained her, and the hours of interviews with Katherine Glass had left dirty marks on her that would never fade. What she wanted now was to get out into the damp San Francisco air, light a Marlboro, walk the two blocks to the nearest bar, and order herself a triple vodka and tonic. Followed by at least three more of the same, since she had the day off. But at the exit, an impulse forced her to turn and look back.
Katherine was still on her feet, cuffed and guard-flanked. Valerie thought of the videos, the weeping victims, the calibrated escalation of their suffering, the calculated false endings and postponements, the begging, the manifest subtlety Katherine and her lover brought to what they were doing, the mordant humor they shared—and the strange, screen-captured deflation between them when the moment came at last, and the victim’s life was gone, and there was nothing more they could do for their pleasure. She thought of all the conversations she’d had with Katherine, separated from the woman’s concussive physical beauty by only the width of the table in the interview room, Katherine with the lovely white hands and calm mouth and omniscient green eyes (bitch eyes, as Will had described them) speaking with quiet, articulate precision, as if she were in possession of a wisdom toward which the rest of humanity was lumbering with laughable slowness.
Don’t look at her. Turn and walk away.
But as she hesitated Katherine Glass turned and looked at her—and smiled.
“This is the thing you’ve been dreading,” Nick Blaskovitch called from the locker room showers at the Bay Club. “The great shift in the balance of power. Like all dreaded things it’s probably come as a relief. It’s okay to cry, by the way.”
“Look, I had an off day,” Eugene Trent replied from the bench, where he sat in his white Calvins, drying his toes. Nick had just beaten him at squash for the first time since they’d begun playing, eighteen months ago.
“I’m exhausted from screwing all night,” Eugene said. “Not a problem you have, obviously—which is the real story here, by the way. Today was just you channeling your jealousy and rage. That gave you an edge against a sex-weakened opponent, but you’re deluded if you think it was anything more than a glitch. In fact it was a cruel glimpse of something you’ll never experience again.”
“It was so obviously psychological,” Nick said. “I could feel it in you: you’ve exhausted your repertoire. You know you’re not going to get any better. Whereas I”—he shut off the water and reached for his towel—“am still expanding mine. I am still … ascending.”
“Don’t talk to me about repertoire,” Eugene said. “This girl last night was twenty-seven, and she stuck her finger in her ass. Her ass, mind you, not mine. I’m just saying: these things take their toll.”
Their postmatch ritual was two beers apiece in the club bar. After the depletions of the gladiatorial squash court, two was enough to give Nick a pleasant buzz. More than two and he wouldn’t be able to drive home.
“Seriously,” Eugene said, “these girls today … I don’t know what’s happened. I mean, okay, she’s got thirteen years on me, and what the fuck do I know, et cetera, but it’s like a whole porn generation thing. I don’t like it. I want to be the corrupting influence, you know? I want to talk a girl into putting her finger in her ass. I’m a traditionalist. In fact, when it comes to filth, I’m a romantic.”
This, too, was ritualized, Eugene’s long-suffering satyr to Nick’s settled monogamist. Nick and Valerie had been together (second time around) for just over two years, ever since he’d come back to San Francisco and the department’s computer forensics unit.
“I know you think I want what you’ve got,” Nick said. “But the truth is you have to think that, because you want what I’ve got.”
“Eventually,” Eugene said. “Of course, eventually. But not now. Now I’m in my prime. It’s a sin against masculinity to waste your prime. Be honest: What are you guys down to now? Once a week? Twice a month?”
“Just pick a number that makes you feel better about dying old and alone.”
“What’s so terrible about dying old and alone? I’ll get a dog. I’ll get a maid. I can imagine a quite beautiful relationship with a maid. Like Philip Roth but with tenderness.”
It was an odd friendship between them, Nick thought, formed from the sort of accident you imagined the hyperscheduled twenty-first century no longer had to offer. Nick’s game was racquetball, and his usual opponent was Valerie’s partner, Detective Will Fraser. But five minutes into a game a year and a half ago Will had pulled a calf muscle, and they’d had to retire to the bar. Eugene, whom they recognized as a fellow regular, had been stood up by his squash opponent and, as he had a spare racquet, had asked Nick if he felt like giving it a try. Since then, they’d been playing every two or three weeks. Eugene was one of those nuts who felt he had to balance his Caligulan excesses with a superhuman fitness regimen. The early games had seen Nick struggling to get through without having a nosebleed or throwing up, but his natural talent for racquet sports (and what Eugene referred to as his “devious mongrel style”) had, over time, closed the gap between them. Hence today’s milestone victory. The loser in all this was Will Fraser. The squash had so improved Nick’s racquetball that Will hadn’t won a game in months. Meanwhile Nick was in the best physical shape of his life. Valerie, running her hands over his lean muscles, had joked: “Are you sure this is just the squash? I mean, you’re not working up to telling me you’re gay, right?”
“I assume you’re seeing her again?” Nick said to Eugene. “She sounds perfect for you.”
“That’s what I thought,” Eugene said. “But this morning she was up and dressed while I was still in fucking REM sleep. If I hadn’t heard the door open she’d have been out of there without me knowing. As it was, I’m like, hey, what’s the rush? Come back to bed. I know a great place for breakfast. She looked at me like I was retarded.”
“Maybe she sensed your confusion when she stuck her finger in her ass?”
“Don’t joke about it. I was hurt. I thought there was a real connection. We fell asleep with our arms around each other, for Christ’s sake. I gave her a foot massage.”
Nick smiled. He took these tales of sexual conquest with a pinch of salt, but this time Eugene looked genuinely wounded.
“You know what she said to me?” Eugene said, his shoulders slumped. “She said: ‘You’re sweet.’ Sweet! She didn’t even leave her number. I mean, she could’ve left me a fake number at least. That’s what a civilized person would do.”
“What’s it like, knowing you’ve been a sexual disappointment?”
“It’s not easy. I’m not used to it. After she’d gone, I sat down in the shower. You don’t sit down in the shower unless you’re really upset.”
They walked out to the parking lot together. It was a warm bright day, with a breeze bringing the fresh salt smell of the bay. Nick rarely took the risk of noticing his own happiness but occasionally a flash got through. He felt it now, via the sunlit cars and the rough scent of the ocean and his body’s honest exhaustion and the gentle influence of the beer. These things had power again, now that he had Valerie, now that he had (this was the flash that shocked him with a sort of delighted absurdity) love.
“So what have you guys got planned for the weekend?” Eugene said. “No, wait, let me guess: You’re going to watch TV together. Pair up the odd socks. Bleach the toilet.”
“Actually, we’re going upstate,” Nick said. “Wineries and a great little hotel in Calistoga. Then the beach.”
“What, cops get weekends off now?”
“Once every decade.”
“This is what I’m paying my taxes for? Who’s going to catch all the murderers while your lady’s having her mimosas on the beach?”
“What can I tell you? Lock your windows and doors.”
They made a loose date to play again in a couple of weeks, then headed to their vehicles.
“Hey,” Nick called over his shoulder.
Eugene stopped. “What?”
“Good luck at the STD clinic.”
Eugene opened his mouth for a reply but was distracted by a stunning red-haired girl emerging from a bottle-green Jaguar convertible. Sunlight glowed on her bare legs and shoulders. Eugene looked at Nick: See? All this is still available to me.
Nick, shaking his head, turned and walked away. Wineries and a great little hotel in Calistoga. Then the beach. What he hadn’t added was: Oh yeah, and I’m going to ask Valerie to marry me. Not because he dreaded Eugene’s astonishment (in fact he was looking forward to it, to seeing Eugene’s face caught between outrage and envy; he would break the news next game, just as Eugene released the ball to serve) but because it offended something in him to speak of it to anyone. He hadn’t spoken of it to anyone. He’d simply been walking around for a weird indeterminate time with the vague feeling that he was going to propose, until, a few weeks ago, the vague feeling had stopped being vague and become the central certainty of his life. It had happened, this epiphany, when he’d been on one of his occasional solitary afternoon hikes in Cascade Canyon, where he used to go with his father as a boy. Love (you had to laugh; he laughed, at himself) simplified aesthetics. He’d found himself wanting elemental things: sky, rock, trees, water. He felt archetypal: a Man who had found his Woman. He knew this idiom was ridiculous, but he was helpless. Whether he liked it or not this was a great benign, almost comical truth into which he had been released, like a horse into a field of delicious grass. He supposed it had been this way for prehistoric people, this primal recognition. To him the necessity of Valerie was a fact like the heat of a flame or the sweetness of honey. It was a wonderful thing to have been confronted by something against which there was no argument, however embarrassed he would be to explain it if someone asked. So he’d spent the day walking, and each time he put one foot in front of the other it confirmed him.
You’re going to marry Valerie.
Well, now that you mention it, yes, I believe I am.
Then get a ring, dumbass.
So he had. It had taken a while. A farcical while, in fact. Valerie wore only one ring (not on her wedding finger), which was one of a pair her parents had had made for her and her older sister, Cassie, and presented to each of them when they’d turned eighteen. She wore only this one ring (silver and amethyst), but she had a dozen or more in the jewelry box on her dresser. Hey, how come you never wear any of these? He’d waited until they were both slightly drunk, then got her to try them on, one by one. He took note of the ring that fit her wedding finger and used it to size the Actual Ring a few days later. With which he was going to present her (probably not down on one knee, which would make her think he’d lost his mind, but there was no telling what his life would spring on him at the last minute) this weekend at the Calistoga bed-and-breakfast just before bed. Oddly, he liked the idea of proposing to her while she was standing, naked, brushing her teeth. He wanted to watch her face reacting in the semi-fogged mirror. He liked the thought of her, dark eyes wide and mouth foamy with toothpaste, decoding what he’d just said, letting it sink in, spitting out toothpaste, then saying: yes. He knew she would say yes. They’d never discussed marriage. But there it was: he would ask her and she would say yes. It wasn’t arrogance on his part. It was just pure revealed knowledge.
He started the car, put on his sunglasses, and eased the vehicle out of the lot. He had a couple of hours before Valerie got home, during which he planned to look up possible honeymoon destinations. He didn’t care where they went. He only knew that he wanted to see her lying in a hammock drinking an elaborate cocktail, her hands and ankles gleaming with sunscreen. He had these visions, now. They were the tenets of his strange new religion.
The San Francisco Imperial’s lobby bar was all but empty. Melody sat alone in a booth, over-alive to the place’s details. Windowed afternoon sunlight and a deep-red carpet and a smell of forced cleanliness. A petite blond bargirl in a white shirt and black vest was slicing limes, the bottles behind her like hefty jewels: emerald, ruby, amber, diamond.
It had happened. Melody couldn’t say precisely when, but for the first time in her life she wasn’t alone. For the first time in her life the mystery that separated her from other people, like a thick layer of invisible fat, had dissolved. Her body had received a sly gift. Now she moved through her days rich with purpose.
She checked the time on her phone: 2:38 P.M. She’d barely touched her Diet Coke, and though her mouth was dry, she took only one more sip before getting to her feet and crossing the lounge to the ladies’ room. Adrenaline filled her with the familiar thrilling weakness. Her face was hot and her palms tingled, as if tiny stars were coming out in her skin.
The ladies’ room was spotless, pale marble lit by Christmasy halogens. She went into a cubicle and tried to pee. Barely a trickle, but it helped her feel ready. She always wanted to be ready for him, clean, undistracted, the new, maximal version of herself. Pulling her underwear down excited her. She’d gotten a fresh bikini wax yesterday and now between her legs the skin was nude and sensitive.
Trembling, she washed and dried her hands, then carefully refreshed her makeup. She was a dark-haired woman with a round face and eyes the color of espresso. She had a look of both weight and suppleness. In the last few weeks she’d dropped twenty pounds, but she knew she still didn’t turn heads in the street.
He’d said to her: I knew from the first moment I saw you. It’s in your eyes. I can see these things. I’m never wrong.
She hadn’t liked the last bit. I’m never wrong. That meant there had been—or still were—others.
Melody shut the thought down. There was no end to the thoughts she could shut down. He’d said: You’ve been waiting your whole life for this. And he’d been right, of course. When he looked at her, he saw her. There was only one other person in the world who saw her like that.
She took the elevator, alone, to the eighth floor. The deserted corridor’s spongy gold carpet made her wobble in her high heels. With any other guy she’d have needed a booze-buzz. Not with him. With him her sheer untouched self was a deafening excitement that kept taking her to a point from which she felt sure she would pass out, faint, die. But she didn’t.
She swallowed. Raised her hand. Knocked.
He opened the door, and at the first sight of him all the dials of herself went up, though only moments before she’d felt her excitement couldn’t possibly increase.
He had the curtains closed and the laptop open on the crisply made bed.
“We’ll talk in a little while,” he said. Then he kissed her. Soft heat encased her. It was as if every atom in the room were with them, a pliable intelligence holding them snugly close to each other. She’d never felt a perfect fit before. Now, with him, she recognized it like a memory from a previous life.
She was wet for his hand, her panties sodden. He led her to the bed and they lay down together. For Melody, everything was simultaneously a warm blur and fizzing with distinct detail. Kissing was a sweet, heavy blindness, a soft darkness filling her.
He rolled her onto her side and slid behind her. He pushed her skirt up and eased her underwear down to her shins. When she reached behind herself her hand met his, unzipping his pants. Her breathing quickened.
For a moment he held the tip of his cock against her cunt, making her wait. She wanted what she wanted. Everything she wanted was the one giant certainty that had taken control of her life so that there was no room—no room—for anything else. Sometimes the word “love” flashed in her, like an explosive drug, but she didn’t say it.
“You want to see, don’t you?” he said.
The familiar shock of that word. Yes. Everything between them derived from that word. Yes.
He eased into her, sliding one arm under her to pull her tight against him. With his other arm, he reached over her and turned the laptop to face them.
“We’re going to have it all,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
Her throat was tight. Her cunt throbbed. She was desperate to make it last and desperate to begin.
His hand hovered over the laptop’s keyboard as he moved inside her.
Then he clicked the PLAYbutton, and the footage began to run, and within seconds Melody entered the state she lived for now, when time dropped away and she forgot herself utterly and chaos and peace were the same and the disease of her past melted away and in the annihilating perfection of hunger and bliss she might as well have been God.
Valerie lay naked on her bed, limbs spread like a starfish, waiting for her history (and indeed the universe) to reassemble itself out of the sweet chaos of her most recent orgasm. Her third since waking. The window, with its curtains still closed, was an ingot of soft orange light.
“Holy fuck,” Valerie said quietly.
Nick lay with his face sweat-stuck to her left thigh, his right hand doodling below her navel. He didn’t answer, but after a moment moved his head and very gently kissed her between her legs.
It was the Saturday morning of their precious weekend off, which, since Valerie was Homicide, could be aborted at any moment. They were both in terror of her phone. Her phone was a sleeping ogre, a capricious god, a ticking bomb. The longer they stayed put the more they dared it to ring.
“We should get up,” Valerie said.
“I know,” Nick answered.
Neither of them moved. The plan was Napa Valley wineries in the afternoon, dinner in Calistoga, overnight at a luxury bed-and-breakfast, then Sunday to Gualala, the ocean, the big sky, the soft boom and salt smash of the surf, the quiet drive home at dusk with sun-chastened skin smelling of the beach, the good childhood feeling of spent energy. They grabbed pleasure whenever they could. A consequence of the job. The job of living daily with depravity and death.
“If you keep doing that,” Valerie said to him, “you know what’ll happen.”
“It’ll take longer this time. I’m only human.”
“You’ll get bored.”
He ignored her. She lifted her hips, delighted by her own languor and greed. The ghost of her ancestors’ Catholicism said: this will all have to be paid for, you know. Especially second time around.
Second time around. After three years recovering from the first time around. The first time around had been breakage, betrayal, bloodshed. The first time around, Valerie had almost destroyed him. And herself.
But even walking away from the carnage the wiser parts of themselves had known they would come back. Which they had. With infallible gravity. They were for each other, without discussion. Literally without discussion: they didn’t talk about their relationship. It wasn’t a third entity or surrogate child to be nurtured with narrative. They were cops. There was action and reaction. Analysis was for regular people. They had the requisite dark matter: love. They were their own highest authority. Lawless, ironically. It was one of the things that helped them enforce the law.
They showered, quickly, while the coffee percolated. The Cole Valley apartment was new to them. Home. They were still getting used to calling it that. It had big windows and a narrow balcony and a lot of clean white surfaces. A bowl of tangerines on the breakfast counter looked like a still life waiting to be painted. Valerie’s old place in the Mission echoed with too much of their history (it was where, for example, Nick had one day walked in—as she’d known he would—to find her fucking another guy) and Nick’s own place in Chinatown might as well have been a cardboard box for all he cared. So without much talk they had pooled their resources and made the down payment. That they were going to live together hadn’t been discussed at all. It was simply shared knowledge. For the first few weeks they’d felt like kids occupying a house abandoned by grown-ups. But gradually they’d eased into it, taken the upgraded appliances and zealous hot water for granted, found the signs of domestic life constellating humbly around them. “What do I think?” Will Fraser had said, when they’d invited him and his wife, Marion, over for a housewarming dinner. “I think it looks like cops live here. Cops from Sparta. Jesus. Put up some pictures. Get some crap.” It had no effect. They couldn’t get excited about these things.
“Bring the sex shoes,” Nick said. Valerie was at the dressing table putting on makeup.
“And the black lace demi-bra.”
“You shouldn’t even know what a demi-bra is. I’m not even sure I should. But you … If you’re a guy it’s like knowing what a duvet is.”
“What’s a duvet?”
“A French comforter?”
“Why don’t you get the stuff together instead of sitting on your ass?”
“I’m lying on my back.”
Nick, dressed, was on the bed, ostensibly leafing through yesterday’s Chronicle. In fact, as Valerie knew—as they both knew—he was watching her get ready. The first time she’d noticed him doing this (years ago, during their first time around), she’d said: Haven’t you got anything better to do? And he’d said: Nothing better than this, no. It gave her pleasure. Because she knew he meant it. It was a revelation, his desire for her, because with him, for the first time in her life she knew it was desire for her, specifically. As opposed to the usual blind male desire for “a woman,” or, if push came to shove, just for sex, in the abstract.
“My grandfather told me when I was a kid that swimming in the ocean rinsed your soul,” Valerie said.
“Your grandfather was a dark genius.”
“He was. My friends were terrified of him. He told Sarah Grady he was going to put her in his suitcase when she was asleep and take her with him to Alaska. We were about four years old. He wasn’t even going to Alaska. He’d just been watching a wildlife show about it on TV. He said to Sarah, Oh sure, your mom knows all about it. It’s all arranged. I’ll put some sandwiches and a soda in there with you for when you get hungry. It’s a long journey. Shall I show you the suitcase? It’s a nice big one! She was practically hysterical.”
In the mirror she could see Nick smiling.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”
He didn’t respond for a moment. Then he said: “Yes.”
“Yes, I still want to have a kid with you.”
“How about I knock you up in the four-poster tonight?”
“But you still wear the shoes and the demi-bra.”
He got up from the bed, crossed to stand close behind her, put his arms around her, kissed her neck. For a while, in the beginning of their second time around, she’d resisted full capitulation. A part of her was reserved for assuming the bliss was temporary, an unearned gift, an error the universe would soon correct. If you buy into this, the lone sentry in her heart warned her, you won’t be able to bear losing it. So don’t. Don’t. Don’t!— Too late. She hadn’t even felt herself letting go. It was just that at some point the lone sentry was gone and her heart was given over. Unearned or not, she wanted love, demanded it, took it and wrapped it around herself and let it be her element. If she thought about what it would be like to lose it a second time she came up against a feeling like a wall of raw earth. Burial alive. So she tried not to think about it.
Nick’s hands slid to her hips. The bone cradle. For a second it was as if Valerie felt a flicker of nascent life in there. Which brought the miscarriage back. That, the first time around, had been a consequence of the breakage, the betrayal. That had been the blood. She’d scheduled an abortion but her body had taken matters into its own hands. Was it mine? Nick had asked her, when he’d eventually found out. She hadn’t been able to answer because she hadn’t known. He didn’t say to her now: It’s okay. It’s all right. He didn’t say anything, didn’t need to. This second time around they enjoyed eloquent silence. She leaned back into him. This is so much more than you deserve. She wasn’t sure where these judgments came from, whose voices they were.
“Let’s go,” Nick said.
It still took them another ten minutes. Valerie had to hunt down her bathing suit. Nick packed prosciutto, Manchego, cherry tomatoes, and olives in a cooler.
“I need to stop at my old place on the way,” Valerie said, slotting her sunglasses up onto her forehead. “My neighbor’s holding a package for me.”
“From Bed Bath & Beyond. Don’t laugh. My mom. Who’s so thrilled that I’ve moved in with you she’s forgotten to change the delivery address.”
“Maybe it’s a duvet?”
“It’s towels. Luxury towels, in fact.”
They made it all the way down to Nick’s car before Valerie’s cell phone rang.
She tipped her head back for a second in a reflexive prayer to the random universe, then looked down at the iPhone’s screen: LAURA FLYNN CALLING.
Detective Laura Flynn.
Please, no. Please.
She looked at Nick.
“Throw it out the window,” he said. “I’ll drive over it.”
Valerie hit ACCEPT. “Hey, Laura.”
“Sorry,” Laura said. “No choice.”
“We’re in Noe Valley. Homicide victim is a fifty-four-year-old white female, Elizabeth Lambert, found in her apartment. The ME needs time but the ballpark’s thirty hours. Cause is strangulation. Wounds, but none fatal. Clear signs of sexual assault. We’re looking at rape and mutilation.”
The usual mix of feelings for Valerie. That she was trapped in this, the only gravity that was a match for love’s. That the universe was a place in which, while one woman was enjoying the caresses of her lover another woman was being tortured and raped. That it was her obligation to catch the men who did these things. That it was too much. That the repetition of violence and death was killing her by degrees, like cancer. That she lived for it.
She didn’t say anything. She was waiting (as was Nick, with his head resting against the driver’s window) for the explanation: so far nothing Laura Flynn had said warranted calling her on her day off.
“So here’s the thing,” Laura said, reading Valerie’s silence. “There was a note taped to the victim’s body.”
Valerie felt the weekend draining away as if a sluice had opened. Nick’s deflation, resignation, understanding. He was a cop. He knew the cop situation, the cop contract, the fucking cop deal. A civilian would have gotten out of the car, slammed the door, stormed off.
“The note is addressed to you,” Laura said.
Books. A reading life. Taste. According to her ground-floor apartment Elizabeth Lambert was—had been, rather—a woman who would occasionally spend more than she could afford if it was for something she truly believed to be beautiful. There were lithographs and woodcuts that didn’t look mass-produced. There was a thin Persian rug in pale green and gold. There was a small abstract sculpture in the bay window that appeared to be made from solid lapis lazuli. The apartment, Valerie thought, was everything her and Nick’s apartment wasn’t.
“Sorry,” Laura Flynn said to her when she arrived. “I couldn’t not tell you.”
“I know,” Valerie said, already sweating in her scrubs. “Show me.”
The place’s odor was of clean domesticity but now with a new rotten nucleus exuding, unmistakably, death. They had to negotiate the CSI team, who went about their business with a silent intensity you might mistake for tenderness. Actually it was tenderness, but not for the victim. It was tenderness for the evidence. They were still taking photographs. Ricky Santayana, the medical examiner, was talking quietly on his cell phone in the bathroom doorway. He raised a hand to Valerie and turned away.
“She’s as we found her,” Laura said as they entered the bedroom. “Except the first on the scene removed the gag. He’s over there when you want to talk to him.” Valerie glanced at the young dark-haired uniform standing in the bay window with his hands on his hips, a posture of cocky indifference that did nothing to conceal his horror at having messed with the scene. He was good-looking and not used to being on his back foot. She imagined herself saying: Did you think she was going to tell you who did it if you took the gag out? Dismissed it. Love had done away with any need for small triumphs. Love had made her generous. Love had made her a laughable soft touch.
“Who discovered the body?” Valerie said.
“Cleaning lady.” Laura flipped open her notebook. “Marley Hollander. Who has a key. She’s in the car with Ed right now, trying to get her shit back together. Top floor we’ve got a Gianni Galliano, who’ll be at work according to Marley, though she doesn’t know where he works. Middle apartment’s empty. No sign of forced entry. Back door’s a deadbolt, front door dead bolt and mortise. Can’t rule out a window being left open, but it’s not likely. So either he had the means to get in, or she let him.”
Elizabeth Lambert was on her back on the bed, naked, face turned to the left, arms up behind her head, legs spread wide. The sides of her mouth were bruised, presumably from the gag. One of the CSI team was sealing paper bags around the dead hands and feet. Valerie glimpsed manicured toenails painted the color of chocolate mousse, an awful effect with the skin’s discoloration, as if she’d made herself up for a Halloween party. At least a dozen flesh wounds on her breasts and abdomen. A deeper one around her right nipple, where blood had congealed. It looked like a grotesque jewel. Valerie had an image of him doing that with the knife, slowly, whispering in her ear under her gagged screams: Does that hurt, cunt?
She shut it down. As you shut down all such imaginings, in the beginning. In the beginning you did the procedure, you did the work. In the beginning you dealt with the solid, the material, the evident. It was only later (much later, if you were unlucky) that you had to use your imagination. It was only later that you had to, as her grandfather had described it, dance. Elizabeth’s bare underarms made Valerie remember Nick kissing hers only hours earlier. Shut that down, too, the wretched parallels, the dismal equalizations. It didn’t mean anything. The world was just contingently crammed with opposites. The world wasn’t, when you got down to it, meaningful.
“From the imprints it looks like he used plastic cable ties on the wrists,” Laura continued. “Maybe curtain cord on the ankles, but he took them when he left. According to Ricky all the knife wounds are nonfatal. Clear ligature marks on the neck. It’s a no-brainer strangulation.”
Beyond the body Valerie was absorbing the room’s details. A pair of white Nikes with orange laces under a cane chair. A hair dryer on the oak dresser. A New Yorker on the window seat. A cheval glass. With the exception of the bedclothes twisted on the floor, the place was tidy. So no big struggle. Could’ve coldcocked her then tied her down. Or held the knife to her. The plastic cuffs were designed so you only needed one hand to work them. Or maybe she had struggled but he’d straightened the place up when he was done? Chloroform? Get toxicology. Or maybe she’d let him tie her up? Consensual bondage turned homicide? (It wasn’t that, she thought. Unless she’d lost all her instincts, she knew it wasn’t that.) No forced entry. So he picked or tricked his way in. Or again, was let in. Because she knew him. Please let her have known him. Please shrink the pool of suspects.
Valerie looked again at the body on the bed. Reminded herself that she wasn’t looking at a person. She was looking at a victim. Personhood had been removed and couldn’t be reinstated unless they caught the individual who’d done this. When that happened the dead woman could be Elizabeth Lambert again. Until then she was just the work, the mystery object, the Case.
“Here you go,” Laura said, handing Valerie a clear plastic evidence bag. In it was a slightly creased single sheet of white paper, bearing a few lines of printed text.
FAO: Detective Valerie Hart
Katherine Glass stays in prison, more people die. You know who I am, but I’ve left you Danielle’s ring by way of substantiation. They’ll all get fair warning, as Elizabeth did. (Look carefully, please.) No videos yet, but there will be. This one is just to open the channel. You’ve been waiting for this. More to follow.
That was all. Valerie stood still.
Katherine Glass. Six years. Now.
You know who I am.
Yes. She did. Instantly, at the cellular level.
“Jewelry?” Valerie said.
“One ring, left index,” Laura said, handing Valerie a second evidence bag with the ring in it. “Rose gold with a red stone. A ruby, I think. Who’s Danielle?”
“Danielle Freyer. One of their victims. His and Katherine’s.”
“There are a lot of rings like this, Val.”
“It wasn’t public. Only us and the family knew. She was still wearing it when they filmed her. But we’re going to get a DNA match here anyway. He wants us to know it’s him. Get the lab to rush it, will you? I’ll call Deerholt and tell him to push.”
“Well, at least we know he’s crazy.”
“If he thinks Katherine’s getting out.”
“That’s smoke. He’s not crazy. Katherine said he was the smartest man she ever met. And since she’s the smartest woman I ever met…”
“What about the ‘fair warning’ thing?”
“Shit. Your weekend.”
“Yeah, my weekend.” She pulled out her phone. “Give me a second. Tell these guys not to remove anything just yet.”
She called Nick. “Do something for me, will you?” she said after she’d brought him up to speed.
“Go to the winery. Go to dinner. Check into the B&B. It might be late, but I’ll get there.”
He didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I know how lousy this is,” she said.
“You going to talk to her?”
Ah. Of course. That was what the pause had been: him thinking about Katherine Glass. Or rather, him thinking about what Katherine Glass had meant to her.
“Not until I know more,” Valerie said. Even as she said it she felt sick and thrilled. She wanted to see what the years inside had done to the most hated woman in America. A part of her wanted to see if she’d changed. But immediately she thought that she knew Katherine Glass would not have changed. It was a reflexive certainty, whether she liked it or not. The white skin and green eyes and pale blond hair and that tranquil, knowing mouth. Katherine Glass was a question the universe had asked her. Valerie wasn’t sure, six years later, that she’d ever really answered it.
“Will you go up and wait for me?” Valerie said.
Another pause. She pictured Nick’s face, the dark features, the look of amused patience, the cop intelligence behind it, the knowing the world’s ugly things, the willingness to take them on, without hysteria. She loved him. It still shocked her, that she had this love in her life, this certainty. Katherine had said to her: The Devil has a question for love.…
“Okay,” he said. “But what if the chambermaid wants to have sex with me?”
“Fine. But not in my shoes or demi-bra.”
“You say that, but I look good in them.”
When they hung up Valerie looked at her watch. It was a quarter after noon. She had time.
“How do you want to do this?” Laura asked her.
“With OCD,” Valerie said. “I’ll come back here when these guys are done.” She caught herself. “Sorry. You don’t mind if I lead on this one, right?”
“When it’s literally got your name written all over it?”
“Okay, so get everything you can from the cleaning lady and track down the upstairs neighbor. Do we know where the victim worked?”
“ID card in her purse says Environmental Protection Agency. Press officer.”
“I’ll talk to them. We need her movements for the last forty-eight hours minimum. Cell phone?”
“Get it straight to tech. Let me know as soon as it’s unlocked. Maybe she got her fair warning via voice mail. Let’s get some uniforms down here and we can start door-to-door. Anyone with a view. What’s out there?”
“I’ll take a look. Street cams?”
“Nope. We’re blind on these blocks apart from possibly the coffee shop.”
“Well, let’s get that, at least. When the blues get here I’ll get them to check private residences. Maybe a neighbor’s got one that’ll give us something. Next of kin?”
“Ed’s on that.”
“Will he handle it?”
“Yeah. He’s got Sondra’s parents staying this weekend. He’ll take anything.”
“It’s an ill wind.”
“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means something has to be really fucking bad for it not to benefit someone. In this case, Ed. Thanks to this he gets time off from his in-laws.”
Can’t stop thinking about him. He’s with me like an invisible person. No headaches for four days. He says don’t write it down but I’m scared I’ll lose it even though by the time I’m done I know it like a nursery rhyme. I’ve been waiting my whole life. Like I just now learned to breathe right. He told me stop eating crap and so I bought gourmet coffee and a fish called place. Some salad with that red stuff in it but it’s bitter. There’s nothing else except seeing him. Both of them. He just touches me and it all opens up like the sun coming out from behind a cloud.
The place fish tasted watery.
I’m going to do my exercises now.
Eight hours later Valerie stepped out onto Elizabeth Lambert’s back porch, lowered her protective mask, and breathed deeply through her nose. California dusk, the sky soft silver-blue with a band of faint pink in its lower reaches. The garden smelled of its dry red soil and cooling concrete.
She’d spent the day doing the work, building the picture, beginning the investigation—but with a stronger-than-usual sense that the bulk of it was a waste of time. If the perp was who he claimed to be he’d have the routine angles covered. He’d have the obscure angles covered. He’d have angles covered that wouldn’t even occur to them.
Nonetheless. Laura Flynn had called with the latest on the upstairs neighbor: Gianni Galliano had his last forty-eight hours accounted for. He’d either been verifiably at work (Realtors Corven & Mylett on Market Street) or at his girlfriend’s apartment in Pacific Heights. The girlfriend, a junior in a business law firm, confirmed his alibi, and Laura believed her. According to Galliano, he’d last seen Elizabeth three days ago, when they’d crossed in the downstairs hall. Nothing unusual to report, except that she seemed in a better mood than usual.
The unlocked cell phone said the last call Elizabeth had accepted was from the caller ID “Nancy Treece.” (Dismally, of course, there were three subsequent missed calls from caller ID “Mom.”) Door-to-door revealed Nancy as a neighbor from the next block, who, as far as Valerie could tell, might well have been the last person (killer excepted) to see Elizabeth alive.
Valerie had called her. She was out of the city, up in Deer Park collecting some of her belongings from a second home she co-owned with her estranged husband. She’d come by two days ago to make use of Elizabeth’s scanner. The two women had spent an hour or so together, chatting. They’d finished the better part of a bottle of white wine, then Nancy had left. What was this about? Was Elizabeth okay? I’m sorry to have to tell you, Valerie had said, but the body of a woman we believe to be Elizabeth Lambert has been found in her apartment. As yet we have no official identification, so I must instruct you to keep this confidential until we’ve had confirmation from the next of kin. (In Elizabeth’s passport the original next of kin details had been crossed out—obliterated, in fact: love gone wrong—and replaced with those of “Gillian Rose.” Relationship: “Sister.”) Ed Pérez, Laura’s partner, was on his way out to Sausalito to give Gillian the bad news. Valerie waited out Nancy Treece’s silence, the stammered disbelief, the tears stacking up, the fracture, the second wave of disbelief, the thrill in spite of everything (the amoral thrill that was nothing more than the human response to anything—anything—that said the world was not predictable, that life could still surprise you, that all the information was not, in fact, in), then made an arrangement to meet with her tomorrow. Deer Park was—oh, sweet irony—practically next door to Calistoga; it would rationalize driving up there tonight for a few hours with Nick, even if she’d have to leave him again in the morning.
Elizabeth’s colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency hadn’t—at first—had much to offer. Elizabeth was quiet, well-read, plain, ironic, took a conversational French class on Wednesdays, Pilates on Fridays, went to museums and galleries, had no enemies that they were aware of, and had, until recently, seemed resigned to life as a terminal single since her divorce a few years back. The hot rumor, however, was that a week ago, Elizabeth had spent the night with office heartthrob Luke Russell, a man fourteen years her junior. He’d invited some of them over for his fortieth birthday and Elizabeth had still been there when the last of the guests left. She’d been evasive when the girls quizzed her the next day, but there was a smile on her face as she dodged the questions.
Great. Could Valerie talk to Mr. Russell?
Not in person. He’d been away on vacation at his sister’s place in L.A. since the party. Wasn’t due back until Monday.
Valerie called him. Not surprisingly, he told her he’d been in L.A. since last weekend. Movements for the last two days? Accounted for. He’d been with his sister and her family all day yesterday.
Could they verify that?
Of course. Look, what is this about, Detective?
Motions, motions, motions. She’d spent the day going through the goddamned motions.
You know who I am. You’ve been waiting for this.
Rebecca Beitner, head of the attending CSI, joined Valerie on the back porch. Rebecca had a very thin, very pale face and bulbous blue-gray eyes that always looked short of sleep. Not unreasonably, since she was always short of sleep. Elizabeth’s body had been removed and the team had just finished working through the area it had covered on the bed. The death space.
“Well, it’s an embarrassment of riches,” Rebecca said, lowering her mask. “We’ve got fingerprints all over the scene. I’m guessing there’ll be good stuff from under her nails. If he didn’t use a condom we’ve got that, too. She’s going to be covered in him. If this is your guy, we’ll know.”
“I already know.”
“You going to talk to Glass?”
“I imagine I’ll have to. Oh joy.”
“You know they moved her, right?”
“She’s not at Chowchilla?”
“They’ve put her in the new place. There’s no room at Chowchilla.”
Valerie knew about the facility at Red Ridge built five years ago to cope with the expanding female population on death row, but she didn’t know it now contained Katherine Glass.
“I’ve never been up there,” Valerie said.
“Looks like a modernist bunker,” Rebecca said. “Apparently Katherine reads all day. Literature.”
Reading. Remembering Katherine’s vast and casually accessible frame of reference, Valerie felt her scalp prickle. Katherine wasn’t supposed to be like that, armed with understanding. Katherine wasn’t supposed to have insight, depth, imagination, empathy. There were so many ways Katherine wasn’t supposed to be, given the one significant way she was. But there she’d sat opposite Valerie in the interviews—in defiance of all the rules.
“You all done here?” she asked Rebecca.
“We’re never done, but yeah.”
“Tell the blues I’m going to be here awhile.”
“Val, I know the note said to look carefully, but…”
“It’s not that I don’t think you got everything.”
“It’s not that I don’t love you, but…”
“Shut up. You know I love you.”
Rebecca shrugged: knock yourself out. “Tell me you didn’t have any kind of Saturday night planned, at least?” she said.
Valerie looked at her watch: 8:20 P.M. Even with another hour here she could be in Calistoga by midnight.
“Oh,” Rebecca said. “Poor Blasko.”
“I’ll make it up to him,” Valerie said. “One of these days.”
“If you want to pull an all-nighter here, I can go take care of him for you.”
“I don’t think he’s ready for the whole Jewish—” Valerie stopped. She’d been looking down at the step. Next to Rebecca’s foot was a thin deposit of white powder in the shape of a right angle. It looked as if it had been imprinted by the corner of a box. “Hey,” she said. “What’s that?”
Rebecca pulled a pen flashlight from her apron pocket. Both women got down on their haunches.
“Could be uncut coke or baking soda for all I know,” Rebecca said. “I don’t recommend tasting it.” She pulled out an evidence packet and spatula. Scooped a little of the powder, deposited it, and sealed the bag.
“There’s more,” Valerie said. “Give me the light a second. Here. Look.” A very fine trail of the powder led to the iron gate at the side of the building. As far as the flashlight told them it stopped a few feet beyond.
Look carefully, please.
Was this it? Was this what she was meant to find?
“Tell the lab to call me as soon as they know what it is,” she said.
“Fine. I’ll log this, then we’re heading out. Have a good one. Let me know if you find any more…”—sarcastic wide eyes—“you know … clues.”
The CSI team were done for the day but everyone knew enough to assume the autopsy might prompt a second sweep. Therefore the scene would be held. Officers at the front and rear of the building. All the doorway evidence had been gathered, though Gianni Galliano had agreed to stay at his girlfriend’s until the site was formally released.
All right, Valerie told herself, stepping back inside the kitchen, it’s all yours. Now, what the fuck are we looking for?
If his note were to be believed, some form of advance warning to Elizabeth. There was nothing like that on the unlocked cell phone. The laptop, iPad, and desktop had been removed for analysis, but Valerie couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be something old-school, physical. Another note? A letter?
She went through Elizabeth’s wardrobes and drawers, checked all the pockets and purses. Nothing. She sorted through the mail, opened and stacked on the kitchen counter. Con Edison. AT&T. Chemical. Amex. A filing cabinet in the bedroom revealed Elizabeth as an organized keeper of records, with files labeled and alphabetized. All the usual stuff: medical insurance, DMV, paid bills, bank and credit card statements, lease contract for the apartment. There were old Christmas and birthday cards in a box under her bed. Handwritten letters from her college years. At a glance nothing unusual, but Valerie bagged them anyway, to look through later. Photograph albums. Elizabeth’s life in snapshots, the family Polaroids, teen poses, endless prosaic group shots, barbecues, Thanksgiving dinners, college, graduation. What looked like a stint teaching nursery or kindergarten: a very young Elizabeth in a classroom with children barely up to her knee. Three, as far as Valerie could tell, boyfriends. Eventually the boyfriend, who became the Husband. Our Wedding, a separate album, silver inscribed and bound in olive-green velvet. Ornamental gardens. Elizabeth in a white tiered lace dress arm-linked to a tall, nondescript guy in a morning suit with a moppy head of dark hair and a weak chin. More life. An apartment. Skiing trips. Friends who didn’t look like close friends. Then a drop-off. Ten years ago, Valerie estimated. The impact of digital, yes, but also the loss of will. Half an album in which the Husband—she remembered the crossed-out name in the “next of kin” section of Elizabeth’s passport and her colleagues’ mention of a divorce some years back—didn’t feature at all. As soon as Ed called in the positive ID, they’d have to talk to him, wherever the hell he was.
On one of the bookshelves she found a pretty little pewter letter holder.
Look carefully, please.
An invitation to someone’s art opening. A receipt for cookware. A couple of takeout menus. Ticket stubs from museum and gallery visits. Valerie wondered if looking carefully was just to amuse him. These were the times: he could have hidden cameras filming her right now. He could be gearing up to post her bewilderment on YouTube.
She dismissed it. The tone of his note implied a low tolerance for cartoon villainy or stock genre idiom. He wasn’t fucking with her. Language was transparent that way. If you were being addressed respectfully, as an equal, you could tell.
She had started in the kitchen, gone through the living room and into the bedroom. There was only the bathroom left. CSI had cordoned off the footprints. The barefoot prints of Elizabeth and the grip-tread prints of whatever her killer had been wearing. Valerie had an image of Elizabeth, neck-deep in bath foam, hearing a noise in the bedroom, turning her head, seeing him. A peaceful evening for a civilized woman alone in her apartment blasted in a moment’s horror, scented candles soft-lighting her nightmare. The familiar disgust surfaced. She forced it down. There was no place for disgust. Disgust didn’t catch the men who did this. Only obsessive attention to detail. Only the Machine.
The medicine cabinet had nothing unusual to report. She trailed her gloved fingers along the window frame’s upper rim. Dust. Nothing. The footprints were annoying her. The image of him pacing in here between assaults, glancing back at Elizabeth through the doorway, weighing what to do to her next. There was nothing in the note to suggest he wasn’t working solo now. What was that like for him? A diminishment, surely? A cold space where the warmth of Katherine’s collusion used to be. Maybe he would recruit someone new. Maybe he already had.
She went back out to the porch, removed her mask, and checked her phone. A text from Nick: “Managed to get B&B cancellation with no charge, so come home when you’re done. I’ll give you a massage. xN”
A couple of houses down the block, someone tossed an empty bottle into a recycling barrel.
I’ll give you a massage. One of the worst things about the video footage was seeing the genuine intimacy between Katherine and the Man in the Mask, all the casual touches beyond the sex. You wanted it to be ritualized, robotic, a soulless dependence on fixed permutations. But it wasn’t. There was visible ease and fit and trust. With a slight amoral contortion they were enviable. That, of course, was one of the reasons they’d stirred such profound public hatred. Whatever else was true of them, they were, literally, two against the world. They recognized no authority but their own. Once, when she was laughing particularly hard, Katherine had put her hand on his arm to keep her balance in the high heels. He said: “Easy there, tiger,” and that made her laugh harder, as he’d known it would. Subtract the morality—subtract what they were laughing at—and they were the romantic ideal. An America of dead marriages was outraged, though they thought it was just the murders, the torture, the pure fucking evil.
Recycling. Bottles, cans, cardboard, paper.
Valerie walked to the trash cans at the end of Elizabeth’s yard, removed the plastic bag from the recycling barrel and toted it back to the light of the porch.
A cop gift—one of the accepted Police Magics—was that you knew a thing just a split-second before you knew it.
In among the junk mail and menus, old Chronicles and torn-up envelopes, was a bent postcard bearing, on its front, a reproduced painting of Adam and Eve standing under the tree of forbidden fruit, and on its back, in confident black felt-tip longhand the handwritten message:
You’ll be the first. 072315.
For a moment, the numbers meant nothing. Then she saw. 07.23.15. Twenty-third of July, 2015. The day before yesterday. Almost certainly the day Elizabeth Lambert died.
Valerie looked again. No stamp. No postmark. Could he have delivered it by hand? Would he have taken that kind of risk? Since there was no street CCTV it wouldn’t necessarily help if he had. But someone might have seen him. Seen him and assumed he was dropping junk mail or menus. Disguised? As a mailman? These neighborhoods, people knew their mailmen, or -women. Wouldn’t he have risked running into someone from the building at the door, running into Elizabeth herself, for that matter? Surely?
She went back through the recycling. There were at least twenty empty envelopes, mostly junk or utilities, but three of them (all torn in half) didn’t fall into either category. Two were handwritten, though the handwriting didn’t appear to match the postcard. The third had been addressed using a printer. All were stamped and postmarked, though even with her phone’s flashlight she couldn’t make out the details of where and when. She couldn’t, but tech could. They would know where and when it was mailed—though as soon as she thought that, she knew he would have anticipated it, would have driven to a red herring location to drop it in a box.
Run DNA and prints on all of them. Since he hadn’t been shy of slinging biology around the scene, there was no reason to suppose his correspondence would be any different. She began to think to herself: It’s better than nothing—but stopped. That needn’t be true. If it was designed to point them in the wrong direction it would be worse than nothing.
Fair warning. More to follow.
Valerie dropped the evidence at the station, filed her report, and drove home. The darkness and the city lights were mildly palliative, as were the vague demands of steering the Taurus. Her face was sensitive and overfull, her hands throbbed.
You’ve been waiting for this.
Well? Hadn’t she? Hadn’t she wanted him to ignite the cold trail and give her the chance to finish the job? If that were true, what did it make her?
Years ago, her grandfather, a homicide cop himself, had said to her: Watch out for the Drift, Valerie. There are cases … there are cases that make it seem like it’s not about doing the work. There are cases that wrangle your soul into the equation. That’s the Drift. That’s the undercurrent. Resist it. It won’t help you. Crime is crime. It’s never magic, it’s never cosmic, it’s never uncanny, it never means anything. It’s just people breaking the law. Which means you do the work, that’s all. Ignore your soul. You work homicide, your soul’s no good to you. Homicide, your soul’s a false lead.
Watch out for the Drift. She’d felt it six years ago and she could feel it now. Katherine Glass woke the Drift. To be in the same room with her co-opted you into a terrible unveiling. The covers came off everything and you were exposed to the raw elements of existence. She made you realize how everyone else you dealt with depended for their sanity on delusions, approximations, fantasies, compromises, denial, habits, lies, avoidance, displacement, postponement, an absolute refusal to look at themselves honestly. Katherine—morality aside—was sheer, present, resolved, unmysterious to herself. She was both her own unblinking scrutiny and its stripped object. Everything she’d done demanded you consign her to the scrap heap of dumb psychosis. Everything she’d done asked you to renew your subscription to the doctrine of the banality of evil. And every moment you spent with her made it impossible. You were in the Drift. Your soul was roped in. It mattered, beyond the practical. It meant.
Valerie changed lanes and lit a Marlboro. I’ll give you a massage. She was nervous, suddenly, of her own domestic bliss. She had a fleeting televisual image of herself just now, a dark-haired woman, usefully scarred, live, dangerous, pragmatic, and more or less all right, driving home to love. It was nothing, a quirk of consciousness—and yet for a moment it was as if the universe shifted and revealed all her certainties from a damning new angle, showed the whole apparatus of her life—Nick, home, her family, her job, her self—as something piteously frail.
You going to talk to Glass?
I imagine I’ll have to. Oh joy.
Understatement. Sarcasm. Always. Small utterances that were the tips of icebergs flaring thousands of feet below the surface.
You’ve been waiting for this.
Yes, she had. Six years. Yearning and dreading were not mutually exclusive. Again, the either/or world was gone. It was one of the first things you learned as a cop. Katherine had said: It’s no accident police cars are black and white. America needs its morality simple. How many weeks did you spend on the force before you realized that all police cars, the world over, should be gray?
By the time Valerie was working homicide, academia and investigative journalism had between them done away with the cinematically peddled vision of the serial killer—charismatic genius apex predator who hummed Bartók and quoted Shakespeare—and replaced it with the unritzy truth: that by and large the people who did these things were dull and damaged, bereft of insight and driven by dreary compulsions, imaginatively and emotionally dead, cognitively impaired, and not infrequently impotent without the Viagra of psychotic violence. Even the ones who could string a sentence together had nothing to express beyond their own laughable megalomania. If you didn’t know they’d killed people you could put them behind a mic onstage at the Comedy Store and they’d be brilliant serial-killer parodies. In short, hypothetical stand-up aside, they were boring. More boring still once the psychopathic gene was admitted to the party. Granted, it was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for multiple murder, but still, there had been palpable cultural disappointment when killjoy Science reported that the great monsters might reduce to nothing more thrilling than lousy DNA.
Then, like a last hurrah for dark romance, Katherine Glass and the Man in the Mask.
Over three years they abducted, raped, tortured, and killed six young women, all between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five. They did it because they wanted to and because they could. They were articulate, good-looking, extremely intelligent, organized, calculating—and absolutely without remorse. It was as if the universe had had quite enough of all this uninspiring psychological reductivism, all this FBI profiling, and had decided to remind everyone that it could still go mythic old-school if it wanted to. Think you’re over psychos? Get a load of these guys.
We knew, instantly, Katherine told Valerie, in one of the early interviews. From the moment we met. It was the simplest recognition. It always is. You see each other and you know. It’s that moment of stepping from cold shade into warm sunlight. Every part of you says yes. I know that you know this. I know that you know love. I can see it. Love leaves an imprint in the tiny nebulae of the eyes. Yours have it. It’s part of your beauty.
Children of their times, Katherine and the Man in the Mask had recorded the killings. Not just the killings, but a great deal of what preceded the killings. What preceded the killings were hours—days, in fact—of them doing whatever they wanted to their victims. Valerie had forced herself, courtesy of some bitter imperative to bear witness, to sit through all of it, a gesture of retroactive solidarity with the women who’d died, a futile attempt to stay with them through what they had endured. What they had endured was comprehensively thought-out torture, designed to make the suffering last. Katherine and her lover made the suffering last because their victims’ suffering was what gave Katherine and her lover pleasure. The more suffering, the more pleasure, and the longer the suffering went on the longer their pleasure lasted. The simple equation. The Devil’s math.
The images were in Valerie’s head now, whether she liked it or not. The carefully administered cigarette burns, the broken flesh, the gagged screams, and the pleading. The Man in the Mask working up a sweat, Katherine blowing her blond hair off her forehead. Once you’d seen it there was no memory-wipe available, except the kind that might have come via a complete nervous breakdown. Watching the videos had been an education in the logic of extreme sadism, its brutality and nuance, the strange space it left its aficionados for black humor, a paradigm away from the playacting of consensual S&M, where the “victims” were willing participants, by definition not victims at all. Katherine and her man laughed, quietly and often, with what looked like exquisite, sophisticated delight. They shared a subtle ingenuity, a dedication to maximizing the contrast between their power and their victims’ helplessness. The girls were always made to kiss and worship Katherine in exactly the places on her body she’d just burned or beaten on theirs: hands, feet, breasts, vagina, anus. Always with the promise that if they did that, if they degraded themselves sufficiently, the torture would stop and they would be released. Always, naturally, a lie. The Man in the Mask loved that, their repeated forced veneration, the complete inversion of their most basic value system. You’re an angel, he said to Katherine, caressing her between her legs while Katherine dug her stiletto into a wound on Danielle Freyer’s breast. You’re a sweet, perfect angel. The girl’s scream dulled behind her gag, her head flung from side to side. Nowhere for her to go and nothing for her to do except bear it. Press harder, angel. I don’t think she’s feeling it. Katherine had laughed, cozily, as if this were an indulgence in minor mischief. It went on. It went on, and on, and on. The repetition was integral. They wanted it to go on forever.
But it couldn’t. Without exception, there came a point at which their pleasure turned to frustration, as if no matter what they did it was never sufficient, never wholly matched their imagination. Irritation crept in. Their contempt and desire became toxic, turned to rage. Or despair. They reached a point where nothing but the victim’s death was enough, and though they knew death would end it, they couldn’t draw back.
Valerie had been obliged to see one of the SFPD’s psych counselors, Gayle Werner, a calm woman in her midforties with thick cropped curls of graying hair and pale-green eyes that suggested this was her umpteenth incarnation.
You watched all the footage?
How did it make you feel?
Valerie had felt, at that moment, exhausted. She’d been impatient with the whole counseling process. It required the opposite of her usual verbal economy.
I didn’t feel anything much. It’s my job to stop the people who do that sort of thing. It’s what I signed up for.
Did you feel guilty?
Why would I feel guilty?
A lot of the officers I see feel complicit. As if knowing about—or in your case watching—this kind of behavior makes them somehow a party to it. It’s not an uncommon response.
Valerie hadn’t answered immediately. Then, after a few moments of something building up in her—a combination of annoyance and frustration and claustrophobia—she’d said:
I felt like I was watching people with rage and despair inside them. Not even evil. Just rage and despair.
She left out her other feelings. That seeing what she saw gave her a glimpse of the way the universe really was. That it was a completely indifferent machine. That whatever happened in it was just another thing that happened in it. That there was no cosmic moral order, no God, no meaning. The victims screamed and pleaded for help, and no help came. There was no help, no consolation, no justice. In their faces you could see the transition from hope (for rescue, for reversal) to the complete absence of hope. The complete absence of everything but the desire for death, the only kind of release left to them. Which, since by that point they had come to understand their torturers’ needs, they knew would be a long, long time coming. By that point they had come to understand that their own death was literally the last thing their torturers wanted.
The responses to seeing this kind of behavior are unpredictable and frequently disturbing, Gayle had said. Valerie knew what she was getting at. It pushed her over whatever limit she’d been observing.
Look, I didn’t get off on it. I know it’s contagious. I know it works its way in. The police disease. I know that can happen, but it hasn’t happened to me. I don’t have it. That’s what you’re here to check, so let’s not waste any more of our time.
And Gayle Werner, in the maddening way shrinks had collectively perfected, nodded calmly and made a long note on her yellow legal pad. Valerie had thought that would be the end of it, but Gayle said:
That’s good to know. It’s good that you understand. And I’m sorry if I seem patronizing. If everyone I talked to was as direct as you’re being, my job would be a lot easier.
Interview clearly not over. Valerie regretted the outburst. She remembered a quote from high school Shakespeare: The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Could almost hear Gayle turning the same phrase over in her head.
Just out of curiosity, why do you think you feel so confident in your immunity?
Gayle’s turn to be direct. Valerie thought: Shrinks have to be like cops. Beyond surprise. Beyond shock. Beyond good and evil. It gave her a grudging respect for the woman sitting opposite her. It also made her consider the phrasing: Why do you think you feel so confident? As in, the feeling might be a delusion.
Good genes, she said.
Gayle didn’t react. The nonreaction was her waiting for Valerie to give a proper answer.
Valerie didn’t have a proper answer to give. All she said was:
I guess I’m not made that way.
Gayle had let it go. But the question had stuck in Valerie’s head. Superficially, in the years that followed, she ignored it. Yet she knew some quiet mental apparatus was working away at it, revisiting it, probing it with the tense delicacy of a bomb-disposal expert. And gradually, over time, she had come to a tentative conclusion: She was immune because she had love in her life. The darkest part of herself understood the appeal of cruelty, of doing what Katherine Glass and her lover had done. She’d had the odd guilty fantasy herself, over the years. History testified that there was a dark part to all of us, cells of the human soul that could, given the right circumstances, mutate into a lethal cancer. What stopped that from happening, she came to believe (what stopped the fantasies becoming reality), was nothing more or less than the kind of life you’d lived by the time the right circumstances found you. The antibodies were love and warmth and imagination and humor. You could have cruelty or love. Not both. If you did what Katherine had done, you forfeited your ability to love. And if you had the kind of love she, Valerie, had in her life, the dark cells of the soul couldn’t mutate.
But now, if she imagined offering that theory to Katherine, she pictured Katherine smiling, and the smile being an invitation to Valerie to know better, to see beyond what she needed to be true to what actually was true.
You going to talk to Glass?
I imagine I’ll have to. Oh joy.
It was just after ten when she got home. She hadn’t quite realized, until she closed the apartment door behind her, how deeply the day had exhausted her. The apartment’s smell was still of new paint, clean laundry, and the polished oak parquet. Indian takeout Nick had brought home. He was asleep on the couch. The TV was on, sound low. AMC. Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. Comfort.
She didn’t wake him. Instead she went to the dark-tiled bathroom and turned on the shower. She shed her clothes and stood for a moment naked in front of the mirror. Love had made her friends with her body again, after a long period of numbness to it. Nick’s desire had put her and her body back in quietly delighted cahoots. Katherine had said to her in one of the interviews: Don’t you know exactly the sort of God who would give you a body that was your greatest source of pleasure, but only by dint of the same design that made it your greatest source of pain? Valerie thought of the footage. Danielle Freyer suspended by her cuffed wrists at a height that left her on awkward tiptoe. Naked, gagged, drenched in sweat, bleeding, crying, her face twisted with misery. The Man in the Mask said to her: I know you’re looking for a way out of your body—but there isn’t one. And you have miles to go before you sleep. On her knees in front of him, Katherine had laughed, softly, and taken his cock deep into her mouth.
Valerie turned away from her reflection and stepped into the shower.
* * *
Later, she lay in bed with Nick. She didn’t need to say anything. He didn’t need to ask. The day had left its aura around her. A big part of being Police was not needing to have the exchanges.
They were silent a long time. Valerie thought of a conversation she’d had with her colleague Sadie Hurst not long after Katherine had been arrested. Sadie had said: You know what the first thing every guy in the world asks himself when he sees Katherine’s picture? He asks himself if he’d fuck her. The first question isn’t: How could she have done those things, tortured and killed those people? The first question is whether he’d fuck her, given the chance. This is every guy, Sadie had said. Including the guys we’re working with. And yeah, she’d added, seeing Valerie’s look, including Nick. You don’t believe me? Ask him. Valerie had asked him. Nick had said: That’s the first question a guy asks himself about any woman. Why would Katherine Glass be an exception? They’d been having breakfast in a diner. Big windows and sunlight winking on the silverware. Valerie had conceded, inwardly, that none of this was really news to her. Nick had said, after thinking about it: That’s not what bothers Sadie, anyway. What bothers Sadie is the question of whether knowing what Katherine did—what Katherine is like—makes guys want to fuck her more. Valerie had waited. No, Nick said. Not for me. She’d known he wasn’t lying. It had been their way from the start, not to bother lying to each other.
He was still awake. “Are you afraid?” he asked her.
“A little. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
No jokes or platitudes. She felt him dismiss them. Instead he put his arm around her.
“Okay, everyone seems to be here,” Captain Deerholt said, over the incident room’s murmur. “Has anyone not yet seen last night’s report?”
Everyone had. The atmosphere in the windowless room was a mix of excitement and dread. Ed Pérez, Sadie Hurst, Rayner Mendelsund, Will Fraser, Valerie Hart. With the exception of Laura Flynn, who’d joined Homicide in 2011, they’d all worked the original Katherine cases, under the unpredictable authority of the FBI, once it had become apparent they were dealing with a serial. Three of the Bureau’s agents were here now, though Valerie recognized only Vic McLuhan, who’d been a special agent six years back and was now assistant special agent in charge. His colleagues were both around thirty, Agent Susanna Arden, a dark woman with a look of compact gymnastic flexibility, and Agent Christian Helin, a tall, lean guy with light-blue eyes and a trim blond beard.
The room hushed.
“Agent McLuhan?” Deerholt said.
“Morning, everyone. Déjà vu here for all of us, so I’ll keep it brief. Technically we’re waiting on the DNA results from the Elizabeth Lambert murder, but given the indicators—specifically, the gold-and-ruby ring belonging to Danielle Freyer—we’re working on the assumption that this is in fact the man who partnered Katherine Glass in the serial case six years ago. As you all know, that individual has remained at large, but to our knowledge, and as far as database evidence can support, this is the first time he’s been active in the United States since the arrest of Katherine Glass, thanks to your own Detective Hart here.”
“Fluke,” Ed Pérez said.
“Lucky break,” Will Fraser said.
A little weary laughter. McLuhan allowed it, smiled himself. Valerie made a satirical bow.
“Obviously,” McLuhan continued, “everyone needs to go back through the original files for anything we might have missed, but for now, Valerie, could you just nutshell what we ended up with from Katherine Glass’s testimony?”
Valerie got to her feet and stepped to the front of the room. “As you know,” she said, “Katherine played ball once she believed it would help weight her case in favor of diminished responsibility. She gave us a name—Lucien Chastain, which, assuming she was telling the truth, was the name by which she knew her lover. White male U.S. national, five eleven, fair-haired, blue eyes, thirty-four years old at the time, which would make him forty now. The composite artist rendering is in the files, for what it’s worth, and there are the stills from the videos in which he’s wearing the mask. According to Katherine he was highly intelligent, extremely wealthy, and could hack into any computer like its security was fresh air. His money was old Europe, apparently, though he left the details vague. Anyway, this is all in the files. The bottom line is that Katherine’s ‘Lucien Chastain’ doesn’t exist. We found plenty of candidates, none of them positively ID’d by Katherine and none with a fingerprint or DNA match. The Bureau’s investigation has established that we’re dealing with a professional ghost. Credit card transactions led to six different false identities, and following the cyber trail took us in an elegant circle. Katherine Glass wasn’t lying when she described him as a prodigy. The cyber smarts could have come through the military, possibly even Intelligence, though we know the Bureau pursued that line as far as it’s been possible to go and, so far, nada. In any case, we’ve got to assume the whole bag of tricks with this guy. Disguises, high mobility, resources, and a tech IQ off the chart. It’s more than likely he’s altered his appearance completely since the original killings.”
“Did he communicate with us first time around?” Laura Flynn asked.
“No,” Valerie said. “I don’t doubt he still does what he does because he enjoys it, but this is a new development. He’s savvy enough to know Katherine’s not getting out, so I’m not sure what to make of the alleged agenda.”
“The jury’s still out on serials who communicate with the authorities,” Susanna Arden said. “Statistically, there’s no evidence that such communiqués increase the likelihood of catching the perp, but they massively increase the chances of securing a conviction if the perp is caught.”
“In a lot of cases correspondence looks with hindsight like a killer’s cry for help,” McLuhan said. “Or at least the expression of a desire to be caught and stopped. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but in this case I’d say that’s definitely not where the smart money is.”
“The tone’s all wrong for that,” Valerie said. “We’re dealing with ego, not self-sabotage. Either way—”
“Excuse me, Detective Hart?”
Everyone turned and looked to the door, where a young uniformed officer was standing with a manila envelope in her hands. She was wearing latex gloves.
“This just came in the mail for you. I think you’ll want to see it right away. It’s been handled, obviously, but … I brought more gloves.”
The room went silent. Valerie put on the gloves and examined the envelope. It was addressed to her; as far as she could tell in the same handwriting as the Adam and Eve postcard. On the seal, another handwritten line: You know who.
“I need a … Anyone got a penknife? I don’t want to tear the writing.”
Ed Pérez produced a Swiss Army knife. Valerie worked the blade in and slit the envelope carefully along its edge.
Inside were six letter-size pages, held together with a paper clip. The first contained the following, which Valerie read aloud:
These pages contain the name and address of the next victim. Coded, obviously, in an interdisciplinary way. Hidden. Encrypted. There isn’t enough mystery in the human lot, even for the police, so I hope you’ll take this in the spirit in which it’s intended. Let me not be disingenuous: you won’t find it easy, since it’s personal to me. Crossword and sudoku specialists will be of little use to you. In fact I doubt the entire department’s pooled resources will yield a sufficiently broad frame of reference to see you through. You are very likely going to need outside help. Anyone spring to mind?
The victims won’t be random. Elizabeth wasn’t random. Think laterally. I won’t tell you how long you’ve got, but the clock, to resort to cliché, is ticking. Good luck.
The team had gathered around her. Valerie was aware of their collective body heat and suddenly rich mental focus. The sounds of the rest of the station going about its business seemed far away.
“What does ‘disingenuous’ mean?” Ed Pérez said.
“Insincere,” McLuhan said. “Pretending you know less than you really do.”
Valerie went through the pages one by one. The first showed a printed grid, each square containing a letter of the alphabet, two or three hundred at least. Across the top of the grid a sequence of apparently random numbers. Along the left-hand axis what looked like Greek letters.
The next page was pictures, three color reproductions of old paintings, with their titles printed alongside them: Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man. Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection. Signorelli, The Damned Consigned to Hell.
The third page showed a poem, “Intimations of Immortality,” by William Wordsworth.
“That’s the daffodils guy,” Laura Flynn said. “‘I wandered lonely as a cloud.’”
Three more images on the next page: a still of Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct, just before the famous leg-uncrossing scene; a photo of a pack of “luxury cigarettes,” a brand called Nat Sherman, of which neither Valerie nor anyone else had ever heard; and a black-and-white reproduction of a head-and-shoulders portrait showing a slightly girlish big-eyed eighteenth-century gentleman in a dark jacket and white, large-collared shirt. An antique map of Italy on the next page. The last page contained a second grid, set out as the first, but with different letters of the alphabet in the squares.
“Fucking great,” Will Fraser said.
“Let’s write back and say we know it’s all bullshit,” Sadie Hurst said.
“It probably is,” McLuhan said. “But he knows we can’t afford to make that assumption.”
Precisely, Valerie thought. She imagined him smiling at the prospect of the hours this would eat up. The team was still tense and intrigued around her. She couldn’t help picturing them as a group of treasure hunters poring over the remains of a map. X marks the spot.
“Okay, first things first,” McLuhan said. “Photograph these, then get the originals to Forensics. Everyone take a copy. Can’t possibly not be our guy, but let’s get it confirmed anyway. We’ve got people at the Bureau who can look at this for what he says it is, but frankly I do think it’s fuck-with-the-cops nonsense. The paintings…”
“Katherine did two years of art history at Columbia before she dropped out,” Valerie said. The words felt toxic coming out of her mouth. “She owned a gallery. Art’s her thing. One of her things. Literature, too.” Everyone looked at her as if she’d just said something obscene.
“You’re not suggesting…” Deerholt said.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” Valerie said. “But that’s what the ‘anyone spring to mind?’ line is about. He means Katherine. We’re going to have to find out if he’s been corresponding with her. Her mail’s checked, right?”
“She gets a lot of mail,” Sadie Hurst said. “Mostly guys who want to fuck her, or marry her. Women, too, apparently. But yeah, it’s screened. Standard prison regs.”
“All right,” McLuhan said. “This is one line of investigation, one of many, that’s all. Let’s not let the fireworks beguile us. What we’re dealing with right now is the murder of Elizabeth Lambert, so let’s do the work. We still have gaps in the forty-eight hours prior to her death. I want those filled in, and extended to at least a week. We’re not dealing with an opportunist, so he has to have been watching her. We’re still waiting on the home computer analysis, but that should come through by the end of today. CCTV footage from the coffee shop likewise. Ed and Laura, talk to the family members. Sadie and Rayner, neighborhood and work. Elizabeth didn’t have a steady boyfriend, as far as we know, but I want a list of possible sexual partners, dates, whatever. We need to talk to this guy Elizabeth allegedly slept with, Luke Russell. Agent Arden will be going down to L.A. this morning to question him. Valerie, you and Will are going up to Deer Park to talk to the neighbor, right? Treece?”
“Red Ridge isn’t far from there, so you might as well look into this correspondence thing en route. I know the warden there, so I’ll call ahead.”
A pause. Everyone in the room imagining Valerie and Katherine coming face-to-face, six years on. She didn’t know it for a fact but forced herself to assume they’d all (guiltily) seen the grotesque little Internet fictions the case had spawned. At the time, the tabloid press had made her, Valerie, a sex symbol: “Hartbreaker.” The online effects had been darker: fake porn images of other women’s bodies with hers and Katherine’s faces photoshopped in, sordid narratives of lesbian BDSM, invariably featuring her suffering at Katherine’s hands. The sort of thing Valerie knew she was supposed to rise above in weary superiority. But it had hurt her. No matter how clean you were, the world had the power to make you feel dirty.
“You okay with that?” McLuhan said.
“Absolutely,” Valerie said, though she could sense Will’s eyes on her: Bad idea, Val. Bad idea.
“What about the postcard?” Ed Pérez said. “The fair warning?”
“We can’t release that yet,” McLuhan said. “Technically—but it’s enough of a technicality—we don’t yet have forensic confirmation that this is Katherine’s guy.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, “but there could already be someone out there who’s received one. If they end up dead and it turns out we had—”
“We release it now it’s an open invitation to copycats for the price of a stamp. Let’s get the confirmation.”
Valerie drove. She could never bear being a passenger, whereas Will couldn’t care less. Besides, he teased her, you know I get a kick out of having a white lady chauffeur.
“You talk to Treece,” he said to her. “I’ll deal with Katherine.”
“Nope,” Valerie said.
“Why give yourself the grief?”
“It’s not grief, it’s work.”
“You don’t know when to leave well enough alone.”
“Who are you, my dad? Anyway, how’re your balls doing?”
Will had had a testicular cyst removed a week ago.
“They’re not happy. I’m supposed to be able to have sex, but every time I go near Marion it’s like I can hear a drumroll.”
“You know the longer you leave it the more nervous you’ll get? Marion will have to start looking elsewhere.”
“Thanks. She thinks it’s hilarious, too, needless to say. Says I’m walking like the black John Wayne.”
“I did notice you had a little delicacy in your gait.”
“You’ve all got a castration fantasy. Marion was like that when we had the cat neutered. On the surface it was all, oh, poor Jasper, but you could see she was secretly delighted.”
“You just have to ask her to be gentle with you.”
“It’s fucking bad design. Why your balls have to hang right there between your legs I don’t know. Better off tucked inside the back of your skull or under your rib cage. Somewhere sheltered, for Christ’s sake.”
They fell silent. No levity was enough to dispel the waiting weather system that was Katherine Glass. Valerie was very conscious of the brightness of the morning, the sunlight flaring on the freeway traffic, the pale asphalt, a hard blue sky and the shivering green of the occasional trees. The world that was lost to Katherine. She wondered what incarceration had done to the sprawling intelligence that had to spend itself somehow within the confines of a prison. She had a brief image of Katherine lying on her bunk, staring at the close ceiling, every moment a grain of sand she must count, time the size of a desert.
“McDonald’s in a quarter mile,” Will said. “I didn’t get breakfast.”
“You can’t eat your ball-anxiety away, you know.”
“Yeah, but if I get fat enough Marion will leave me alone.”
The interview with Nancy Treece had been straightforward, and unhelpful. Around six P.M. on Thursday evening Nancy had called over to Elizabeth’s to use her scanner for documents pertaining to Nancy’s divorce. The two women, who’d been friends for three years, ever since Nancy moved into the neighborhood, drank the better part of a bottle of white wine and chatted for an hour or so about Nancy’s settlement, then Nancy left. As far as she knew Elizabeth was planning on spending the evening alone, catching up on her guilty pleasure, House of Cards. And no, Elizabeth had said nothing to her about a sexual encounter with Luke Russell, or anyone else. Elizabeth lived a life of diligent loneliness, apparently. I kept encouraging her to get on, you know, Match.com, Nancy told them. But Elizabeth got badly hurt by the first marriage. Scared her off men for good, it looked like. I can’t believe she’s gone. I just can’t believe it.
The ex-husband lived in Boston now. He, obviously, would have to be talked to. Valerie made the notes, but she shared the same feeling of redundancy she could sense in Will. We do the work, McLuhan had said. Which meant starting at the center and working outward. The standard investigation model was the CSI’s spiral-sweep pattern writ large. But to Valerie it already felt as if the standard model wouldn’t be enough. Hunches and gambles, curveballs and wild cards, intuitions and risks—these were normally the last resort, the desperate resort, in fact, when doing the work had got you nothing but insomnia and a perpetual migraine. But Valerie had been trawling her sixth sense ever since her first sight of the note left with Elizabeth’s body, ever since she’d understood that this was him. She knew what her grandfather would’ve said: Stop it. That’s the Drift. That’s your soul. Ignore it.
“Last chance,” Will said when they pulled up at the Red Ridge Correctional Facility, current home to Katherine Glass. “You can sit here and chain-smoke.”
“Give it a rest. Christ, Rebecca wasn’t kidding about this place.”
“She said it was a modernist bunker.”
The prison looked like the upturned hull of a brutally designed ship. A low-lying structure of dark concrete with tiny barred windows it was obvious did not form part of the cells. An angled wall of black brick surrounded it, festooned with razor wire. It sat in two acres of scrub: woodlands to the east, a soft golden haze of wheat fields to the west.
Valerie called the warden, Donna Clayton. “Come to reception,” she said. “I’ll meet you there.”
Inside, the place smelled of cold surfaces and ammonia. In reception a big-boned Hispanic guard with short black-polished nails sat behind a blocky steel desk. “Have a seat,” she said. “Warden Clayton will be out in a few minutes.”
“This is why I became a cop,” Will said, when they’d sat down.
“To put people in places like this?”
“To reduce my chances of ever ending up in one.”
Warden Donna Clayton was a statuesque black woman with broad shoulders and a nifty boyish haircut. Well-cut taupe pantsuit and a cream silk blouse. Precise but understated makeup. Her aura was crisp confidence and the ability to see through bullshit. Runs a tight ship, Valerie thought. And doesn’t suffer fools. Will’s sexual self livened, slightly, traumatized balls notwithstanding. First question a guy asks himself about any woman, Nick had said. Valerie felt a vague weariness at the thought.
They did the introductions and handshakes. “So,” Donna Clayton said, “are we doing this with screen or without?”
Valerie and Will looked at each other.
“Katherine’s a Grade B prisoner,” Donna said. “Technically that means she gets no visits without a security glass between her and anyone else. We can waive that, obviously, if you prefer, since this is hardly a social call.”
“No screen,” Valerie said, before Will could speak.
“Okay.” Then to the receptionist: “Renee, could you call C block and have them bring Glass down to Visiting? What’ve we got free there?”
Renee hit her keypad. “A-2, A-4, B-1 through 5…”
“A-2’s fine.” She turned back to Valerie and Will. “If you’d like to follow me? McLuhan filled me in on the phone, so you’ll have full cooperation, but I’d appreciate it if you kept me up to date on what goes down today. When you’re done with the interview I’ll have one of our team bring you to my office. We can discuss Katherine’s correspondence there, but I can tell you I’ve looked through it myself and there’s nothing that shouts.”
Three, four, five high-security doors with computer-coded entry and no-nonsense backup locks: the lingering mistrust of even twenty-first-century technology. Through the first set, Valerie and Will signed over their firearms.
“This might sound like a stupid question,” Valerie said, “but does she know we’re coming?”
“No,” Donna said. “I figured you wouldn’t want to give her time to prepare any nonsense.”
“You’re better at this than we are,” Valerie said.
“Hey, you did the hard part catching her. I’m just keeping her.”
Valerie liked the warden. She imagined the work that had gone into getting to where she was now, running a place like this. There was a vibe of not having come from money, a ghost of parental sacrifice for the Bright Black Daughter. Her composure hadn’t come cheap. The easy smile and straight back testified to fierce application. Nor had she reached her limit. She couldn’t be more than late thirties. According to Will, USP wardens could earn ninety thousand dollars annually, and the rate was higher in California. There was, Valerie intuited, a Donna Clayton game plan for the next twenty years. Red Ridge was a stepping stone.
“All right,” Donna said after what seemed to Valerie an interminable series of left and right turns, doors, buzzers, locks, guards, “here we are.”
The room was maybe fifteen by twenty feet, with a smell of stale coffee and raw disinfectant. Magnolia walls bare but for a laminated list of DOs and DON’Ts for visitors. A white Formica table and four orange plastic chairs. Down-lighting set too bright. All the joylessness of a bus station waiting room without the paltry cheer of windows or out-of-date magazines.
“Have a seat,” Donna said, though she remained standing. “She’ll be here in a minute.”
“She give you any trouble?” Will asked.
Donna smiled. “She’s in a single cell for all but two hours daily recreation, so there are limits. All death row inmates are supposed to take their rec in isolation, but the numbers don’t allow it. She’s kept as much away from the population as we can manage. She has charm. She’s polite, and obviously her IQ’s a blast. The staff hate themselves for liking her.”
“Do you like her?” Will asked.
“If I think about what she did, no, of course not. You’d have to be Jesus on E. It’s just that it’s tough to square what she did with the person she appears to be. She’s got language. Control. With the looks, it’s quite a combination. She could’ve become anything she wanted. And it seems like a joke she shares with herself that she didn’t.” She looked at Valerie. “But I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know.”
“You have male guards here,” Valerie said. “She have any contact with them?”
“Not without a female guard present, and then only for movement within the facility. Standing legal opinion for the last ten years has been that male custodial officers shouldn’t be assigned to female housing units, and that’s the line we follow. Pat-downs here are done by female staff only.”
Valerie felt, suddenly, that she was coming out of a daze. All morning the idea of seeing Katherine again had been an intellectual admission, nothing more. Now, without warning, the reality of it rushed her. Her scalp tightened, as if in anticipation of a blow.
The door opened.
A guard entered, a stocky, big-breasted black woman with maroon hair in a tight bun. “Warden,” she said, by way of acknowledgment. A moment later, Katherine Glass was there.
Prison-issue orange. Hands and legs in mobility cuffs and tether chain. The white heart-shaped face Valerie remembered, those green eyes peppered with black. The smiling look that said she knew your soul’s story, negligibly amusing in comparison to her own. Her mouth, sans lipstick, was the color of raw pork. Regulations had stripped the cosmetics and reduced the long blond hair to a jaw-length bob, but it was still pulled back in a short ponytail. There was a very slight fullness to her cheeks, as if a silk-thin layer of fat had been laid beneath her skin. Her whole body had the same supple, dollish quality. Even at thirty-eight the little girl was still there. The clever little girl who kept secrets of which the grown-ups were afraid.
“Well, well, well,” Katherine said, smiling. “Valerie Hart. And Detective Fraser.”
A second guard entered behind Katherine. White, younger than the first, perhaps late twenties, dark hair in a French braid, big brown eyes with too much mascara and a large, full-lipped mouth. Narrow shoulders that made her look broad in the hips.
“I’m going to leave you to it,” Donna said. Then to the first guard: “Warrell, take her straight back afterward. Lomax, you can bring the detectives along to my office when they’re done.”
“Actually, I’m sorry, but we’re going to need to speak with her alone,” Valerie said.
Authority clash. Donna lifted her chin an inch. A quick mental weighing of the protocols, slight irritation—then the visible concession that the cops would get their way sooner or later, if not today then the next time. No point wasting energy on a pissing contest. “The door stays open,” she said. Then to Warrell and Lomax: “Okay, ladies, you can wait outside.”
“It’s appreciated, Warden,” Will said.
“It better be,” Donna sang, over her shoulder.
Katherine sat down opposite Valerie and Will. Rested her cuffed hands on the table. The former vamp nails were short and unpolished now, but the hands were still lovely. Matching veins the color of smoke showed in her pale wrists. For a few rich seconds the three of them sat simply absorbing the frisson. It was as if the room had filled with something nightmarishly festive. Valerie felt sensitive in the bare parts of her skin: face, throat, hands.
“I take it he’s back?” Katherine said.
“He might be,” Valerie said. “We thought maybe you’d heard from him.”
“I wish I had. It would be nice to have a literate pen pal. If I’d sold my panties to everyone who’d dyslexically offered to pay for them I’d be richer than Oprah by now. Who’s he killed?”
She sexualizes every conversation. Valerie hadn’t forgotten. Neither, palpably, had Will. Valerie took one of the ID photographs of Elizabeth from the file and slid it across to Katherine. “Elizabeth Lambert,” she said. “Do you know her?”
“No. Should I?”
The victims won’t be random. Elizabeth wasn’t random. No need for her to know that yet.
“He left a note addressed to me,” Valerie said. “‘Katherine Glass stays in prison, more people die.’”
“Oh God,” Katherine said. “He’s converted to melodrama. Like literature. Is nothing sacred?”
“That’s what the note said,” Valerie said.
“He’s fucking with you,” Katherine said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m flattered. But please don’t expect me to believe his conscience is pricking him after six years. And you can’t possibly think he’s stupid enough to imagine I’m ever getting out of here, under any conditions short of a global zombie apocalypse. In which case I’d probably stay put voluntarily. Lock myself in the starved library and hope to make it through Don Quixote before they broke the door down. If it’s him, he’s fucking with you. If it’s not him, it’s an idiot. Don’t you have a DNA or print match?”
“What do you mean, his conscience can’t be pricking him?” Will said.
Katherine looked at Valerie. As in: You know what I mean. Valerie did. The ease with which she understood Katherine was the worst aspect of dealing with her.
“Will,” Katherine said, “you’ve got to get better at this. What are you reading? Do you read books worth reading?”
“I like pop-up books. Just answer the question.”
Katherine smiled with what looked like genuine warmth. “I mean,” she said, with mock condescension, “that it’s a tad late to come riding in on a white steed of murder after six years, don’t you think? You’re talking about a man who didn’t even tell me his real name, a man who lied to me, comprehensively, for years, a man who left me, if you’ll pardon the cliché, high and dry—and convicted.” She smiled again. “I know you think a monster can’t have her heart broken, but I promise you you’re wrong. Oh, the nights I’ve cried myself to sleep!”
Valerie’s phone rang. The screen said VIC MCLUHAN CALLING.
“Excuse me,” she said, and stepped outside to answer it. Warrell and Lomax were standing with their backs to the wall opposite the door, hands in pockets, both with the worn look of daily exposure to extremity.
“We got a match,” McLuhan said. “It’s him. Prints and DNA from the scene, the postcard, the printed envelope, and the package. We’re going to have to tell the fucking press.”
“Okay. I’ll call you back.”
“You with Glass?”
“She playing ball?”
“At the moment just playing. We just sat down. I have to go.”
Valerie went back into the room. “Well, a tad late or not, it’s your guy,” she said to Katherine.
“I’m amazed. I’m intrigued. Was she raped? Tortured?”
Neither Valerie nor Will answered.
“I’m not asking out of prurience,” Katherine said. Then to Will: “That’s dirty curiosity.”
“Yes,” Valerie said. “Both.”
“And you think it’s just him, alone?”
“No physical evidence to suggest otherwise, but we can’t know for sure yet.”
“It wouldn’t be the same for him without a woman.”
“Maybe they’re not that easy to find,” Will said.
“You’re such a romantic, Will,” Katherine said. “Sugar and spice and all things nice? You think I’m one of a kind?”
“We want you to walk us through his profile again,” Valerie said, taking the mini-recorder from her pocket. “Anything you might have missed.”
For a few moments Katherine didn’t speak. She lowered her eyes, as if for self-consultation. Then looked back up at Valerie. “This would be the part where we have a little movie exchange,” Katherine said. “I say something like: ‘Assuming I might have anything that could be useful to you, what makes you think I’d want to help the people who put me in here?’”
Valerie didn’t answer—and sent a mental imperative to Will to keep his mouth shut. She felt him almost ignore it. But they’d been partners long enough for him to know when to follow her lead.
“Except you’ve already thought of that,” Katherine said. “And moved beyond it.”
Still Valerie and Will remained silent. “Or,” Katherine said, smiling, “am I missing something? Do you have something to offer me? Better books? Decent shampoo? A trip to the beach?”
“We don’t have anything to offer you,” Valerie said. “Apart from diversion. Unless of course you’d take some satisfaction in getting to the man who left you high and dry—and convicted.”
“Diversion?” Katherine said. “Tell me more.”
Valerie rested her hand on the file in front of her. “There are things here that might interest you. Boredom must be a problem.”
“And with need of only a single arrow she hits the mark. What things?”
“Let’s do the profile recap first,” Valerie said. “Again: anything you might have missed.”
“I didn’t miss anything,” Katherine said. “There wasn’t that much to tell. It wasn’t…”—pause for ironic weight—“that kind of relationship.”
“Nonetheless,” Valerie said.
“Are you still with the gorgeous Nick?”
Fuck. This was what Katherine did. This was one of the things she did. During the original interviews six years ago it had become apparent that she knew Valerie and Nick were an item. The information had come to her, though Valerie had never been able to determine how. Her attorney, possibly, had let it slip, though he always denied it. Nick, working Homicide in those days, had been one of the investigators, and had testified at the trial, but that wouldn’t have been enough for Katherine to know there was anything between them. At the time, Katherine had said to her: It’s good between you two, isn’t it? Good enough to make you afraid of how good it is. He even looks a bit like you, the dark features. You could be brother and sister. All the great love affairs have a whiff of incest about them, otherwise why do we feel such recognition? Otherwise why does your beloved become your family, your blood?
“You are still together, I can see it,” Katherine said, leaning back in her seat. “Good for you. Doesn’t look like it’s gone stale, either. You have the quiet radiance. I can feel it. Did you get married?”
Valerie hadn’t forgotten this, the weight of Katherine Glass’s infallible instincts, the way she left you sickeningly visible, brought you up against no options but the truth. In the past Valerie had told herself it was just the effect of beauty and ugliness: the beauty of how Katherine appeared and the ugliness of what she’d done. But no matter how many times she’d rationalized it that way, the experience of being with Katherine hadn’t changed. The woman had the gift of examining you not with hatred or fury, but with an expression of benign and very slight amusement, as if perpetually on the verge of giving in to her desire to smile at you, full of delighted understanding. Valerie had spent hours with her and it had always been the same. No matter what question you asked Katherine Glass, the question she asked you—just by sitting there, just by existing—was always bigger. It was exhausting.
Valerie paused the recorder.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m still with the gorgeous Nick. No, it hasn’t gone stale, but no, we’re not married. This isn’t that movie, either, where the psycho gets under the detective’s skin and leverages her own life against her. There might have been a time when that would have mattered to me, but it doesn’t now. The truth is I don’t care what you know or think you know about me. We’ll talk, and either it’ll prove useful to this investigation or it won’t. Whichever it is, it’ll become apparent pretty quickly, and I don’t intend to waste my time. You make me uneasy. You always have. Congratulations. I find I don’t care much about my own unease these days. Shall we continue?”
Will didn’t actually say What the fuck? but Valerie felt it coming off him. Her words had a curious effect on her. She hadn’t quite known what she was going to say when she opened her mouth, but now she’d said it it was as if some of the tension in her muscles had gone. She almost laughed.
Katherine looked sweetly thrilled. “Holy moly,” she said. “You’ve come a long way in six years. I love it. I’m almost lost for words—which is historic in its own right. I’ve missed talking to you, but obviously the precarious ingenue is no more. I have to recalibrate. All right. Good. And an ingenue is an innocent young woman, Will. As opposed to a French moose.”
“I think we’re already wasting our time,” Will said.
“Turn it back on,” Katherine said, leaning forward. “I’ll tell you everything I can remember. I don’t get many interesting days in here. This is definitely one.”
In the interview that followed, Katherine appeared to play it straight. There wasn’t, as far as Valerie could tell, anything new. Physical description, old money, hyper-intelligent, cultured, well-traveled, tech genius. All as before. Two of the victims—Alicia Hooper and Julia Galvez—had been low-rent prostitutes he’d watched for a few days and picked up on the street. The remaining four—Leonora Ramsey, Hannah Weisz, Kate O’Donovan, and Danielle Freyer—had required full-strength surveillance prep, in which Katherine wasn’t involved. “He never told me how he did it,” she said. “But he knew where and when they were alone and off any kind of CCTV. It’s rather incredible that I was still running the gallery when we started, although, obviously, that didn’t last past the first one. Once we were sure of each other—or rather, once he was sure of me—all that changed. Then I was on call.” Katherine had, as Valerie knew from the original investigation, owned a small but successful gallery in Pacific Heights, inherited from her father when he died of a heart attack two days after her twenty-second birthday. “Lucien Chastain” had cash-financed her hiring a manager to take over most of the work, freeing Katherine to be there only when she wanted to be. In fact, according to Katherine, her lover had given her thousands of dollars over their time together, most of which she laundered through the gallery. “What can I tell you?” she’d asked Valerie, rhetorically. “I’m worth it.”
“Any of this mean anything to you?” Valerie said. She passed Katherine the printed copies of the documents he’d sent, including the cover letter. The paintings, the poem, the photos, the cryptic letter grids. Katherine studied them in silence, carefully, page by page. For the first time in the interview her reflex archness dropped away. It was weirdly appalling, to see her for a moment undisguisedly engaged in something. It removed the barrier of difference, revealed her as a person. She might have been a prospective bride poring over a wedding dress catalog. Valerie could feel Will having the same reaction: Wait—isn’t she a monster?
“Well, I know the paintings, obviously. And the poem,” Katherine said. “Though I can tell you he hasn’t included it because he shares its sentiment.”
“What do you mean?” Valerie said.
“Wordsworth believed in the soul. Before birth, we’re part of God. Then we’re born, and incarnation tears us away from Him. A bit of Him, a bit of this divine perfection, remains in us: our soul. In childhood, the soul has tantalizing memories of its former state of bliss:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
“He didn’t believe any of that nonsense,” Katherine said. “He was an existentialist, for want of a better word.”
Will shifted in his seat: For God’s sake, this is bullshit.
Valerie was still adjusting to the strangeness of Katherine apparently with her guard down. “So why this poem?” she said.
“This is when I miss a cigarette,” Katherine said, with a little cartoon grimace. “Honestly? I don’t know. If you want my guess—and assuming he’s not just messing with you—I’d say the thematic content’s irrelevant. It’s more likely part of the key to the letters in the boxes. Maybe a correspondence of letters with the paintings’ titles … Could be the line numbers, but that seems too easy. He wouldn’t make it that easy. You have to understand: this is a guy who could do the Times crossword in less than two minutes. Patterns tickle him, as they do me, because they suggest meaning in a universe which daily pistol-whips us with its absurdity. Lateral connections, as he says in the note.”
“So ‘anyone spring to mind?’ is you—agreed?”
“Yes, it’s me. Renaissance art is me, anyway. And probably the map of Italy, since I did my junior year abroad in Rome. He knew that. He also smoked Nat Shermans. Got me onto them, too. The portrait is of the Marquis de Sade, of whom even you must have heard, Will. And if you haven’t, it’s where the word ‘sadism’ comes from. As for Sharon Stone…” She smiled. “I have no clue. Except he said she should play me in the movie of my terrible life. I assume the hilarious FBI are marshaling their eggheads for this?”
“God, I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that.”
“He says he’s giving his victims fair warning. At Elizabeth Lambert’s I found this.” Valerie handed Katherine a photocopy, showing the postcard, front and back. Katherine smiled, a melancholy connoisseur among savages.
“This one’s not Italian,” she said. “It’s by Lucas Cranach the Elder. German artist, 1472 to 1553. The image, obviously, is in the Catholic tradition, though Cranach was a Protestant, and in fact a close friend of Martin Luther.”
“And?” Will said, impatience undisguised.
“And we had a seminal conversation about the Fall, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. It was one of his favorite subjects. He thought of it as the first and greatest humanist narrative.”
“What does that mean?” Valerie asked.
“It means Adam and Eve are heroes in spite of their superficial villainy. There are two trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s the second tree that causes the trouble. Genesis 2:17: ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ As soon as we read that we know where the story’s going. More important, we want it to go there. The subtextual question is rhetorical: Who wouldn’t do what our girl Eve did, sooner or later? We’re on her side, because we know that the Fall, whatever the consequences, is a fall into knowledge—and we want to know. We always want to know.”
Valerie could feel how much this was annoying Will. Not because he thought it was a waste of time, but because like everyone else he couldn’t resist the Katherine fascination. When she talked, when she was in full flight, it was impossible not to listen. Throughout the trial Valerie had watched people’s reaction to the woman on the stand: an incremental mesmerism. It wasn’t what she’d done. It was her articulate serenity in spite of what she’d done. Superficially, people were appalled by her actions. Deep down they were curious about what her actions had given her.
Valerie had been no exception. Even now, she realized, she regarded Katherine as a woman who had been out past the known frontiers. Even now she couldn’t shake the feeling that Katherine knew something that she, Valerie, did not. It had always been part of the inequity between them. It was as if Katherine had gone out beyond the darkness to meet God and had returned carrying his inscrutable imprimatur.
God or the Devil.
In one of their interviews, Katherine had said to her: God and the Devil are one and the same. And they live in the same place. Which is where? Valerie had asked. Katherine had smiled and said: You know where, Valerie.
“He had a soft spot for this painting,” Katherine said. “Because Adam and Eve are both holding the fruit, together. It’s the collusion again, you see? Nothing binds us together like shared sin, the conspiracy of disobedience. It’s the sweetest of all allegiances. Look at the end of the Genesis story: God kicks the lovers out of paradise. They’re distraught, initially, but it doesn’t last. They get over their guilt and start a farm and have kids and get on with it. The whole narrative is about God putting his money on fear and shame—and losing the bet. What does anyone think when they get to the end of the fable, apart from: Good. Serves the miserable old bastard right. Read Milton on the lovers’ exit from Eden, the last lines of Paradise Lost:
“Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
“Hand in hand. It’s beautiful. And inevitable.”
“Do you run classes in here?” Will said, as much to shake himself out of his own seduction as anything else.
“You’d be surprised,” Katherine said. “There are some lively minds among these ladies. Do you think Nick fantasized about me, Valerie?”
“We’ve got everything we’re going to get here,” Will said.
“I know you did, Will. Which is sweet. Be careful I don’t creep in tonight, after you’ve turned your wife over.”
Valerie forced herself to sit very still. Will switched the recorder off. Valerie could feel how badly he wanted to hit Katherine. But he sat back in his chair and appraised her. “You’re too skinny,” he said. “And it’s obvious you’re not getting enough vitamin D. Don’t they exercise you in here?”
Katherine smiled languidly. “Good for you, Will,” she said. “I’m sorry. Old habits. Forgive me. It’s the boredom.”
“I’ll be outside,” Will said, getting to his feet.
As soon as he was out the door, Katherine said to Valerie: “You didn’t answer.”
Valerie resisted the desire to look away. Instead, she met Katherine’s eyes. She wasn’t sure why. Something drove her beyond her instincts. “I don’t know if Nick fantasized about you,” she said. “He’s a guy, and you’re a very beautiful woman. That’s the only relevant part of the equation. But it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he had. We’re not responsible for our desires. Only our actions. It’s only the actions that make a difference, in the end. But let me ask you something: Is that the only power you’ve ever had?”
She had astonished herself. The words had come out of her with a curious, gentle inevitability. It was as if she’d just casually brushed a cobweb from her consciousness.
Katherine didn’t answer right away. A faint uncertainty in her face for a moment. She glanced down at her hands. To Valerie’s mind, the first time Katherine had been the one to look away. But the green eyes came back to her.
“You really have grown,” Katherine said. “I’ve missed talking to you.” There was a discernible shift in her voice. The musical playfulness had gone. “And yes, I think perhaps that is the only power I’ve ever had. We don’t ask for our gifts.”
Valerie was thinking of a conversation she’d had six years ago with Nick. It was during the time of the original interviews with Katherine. She’d come home exhausted. Nick had run her a bath and given her a huge glass of wine, then sat on the edge of the tub with a glass of his own. With everyone else I know, Valerie had said to him, I can imagine them lying down to go to sleep at night and thinking about things. What they did that day, their families, the random ordinary crap you sift through while you’re lying there in the dark, drifting off. With Katherine, nothing. It’s impossible. I can’t imagine anything. I can’t imagine her even thinking about the things she’s done. I can’t imagine what it’s like for her to be alone with herself. I can’t really imagine her sleeping.
It was still that way, Valerie thought now. She couldn’t conceive of Katherine’s inner life. If she tried, she got a vision of her lying with her eyes open in the dark, deafened by a continuous internal scream. It was easy to shift what Katherine had done to one side and to be left with the knowledge that you were looking at the embodiment of absolute aloneness. Perhaps that was what evil was, when you got right down to it, an aloneness like no other. Unless you found someone in the darkness—as Katherine had. The Man in the Mask. It must have felt like love.
“Listen to me,” Katherine said. “I can help you.”
Valerie came back to herself. Time had stopped. She felt it flow again, as if a valve had been released.
“I don’t think so,” she said. She was exhausted. This was the way it had always been with Katherine: you spent minutes in her company and it was as if you’d been drained by an ordeal lasting years.
“You must have thought I might be some use to you or you wouldn’t have come,” Katherine said. “I can help with this.” She put her hands flat on the documents in front of her.
For the second time in their meeting it seemed to Valerie that Katherine’s default artfulness dropped away, as if the force field had been lowered. She told herself she couldn’t trust it. She told herself that the only thing about Katherine you could trust was that you couldn’t, under any circumstances, trust her.
“You can’t trust me,” Katherine said. A nauseous telepathy had always flirted between them. “I know you can’t trust me. I’m not asking you to. All I’m asking is that you leave this with me and let me see what sense I can make of it. Talk to Clayton and tell her that I can contact you if I come up with something. I know him. I know what he calls his ‘frame of reference.’ The FBI morons are going to be wasting their time. They’ll run algorithms and code patterns and all the usual shit and they’ll get nothing. Or rather, not nothing, but just enough to keep them going. He knows what he’s doing. This isn’t going to respond to the systematic, I guarantee you. This is going to require the lateral, the tangential, the personal. Again, that’s assuming he’s not fucking with you. Fucking with me, for that matter.”
“But as you point out,” Valerie said, “I can’t trust you. You could feed us misinformation. You have every reason to.”
“Of course,” Katherine said. “Of course I could. There’s nothing I can say to rule that out. Except to remind you of what he did to me. And to ask you to consult your intuition.”
“We understand each other, Valerie. We’ve always understood each other. We haven’t wanted to, but we have. We know the differences between us. Don’t you think?”
Valerie didn’t answer.
Katherine let it go. “All right,” she said. “But you do know one thing is true. This is the most interesting thing that’s happened to me in six years. Can you imagine what being in here is like? For me, I mean?”
“I’m atrophying. It surprises me that I haven’t killed myself.”
“Why haven’t you?”
Katherine smiled, again, genuinely. “Well, they don’t make it easy, for one thing. But the truth is life is stubborn. The will to keep drawing breath. You know, like those stories of little kids they find alone in their houses after weeks, they’ve somehow kept themselves going on ketchup and sugar. It’s astonishing. And weirdly obscene. I always wondered what happened to those kids afterward. Except of course for me that’s where the analogy ends, since there isn’t ever going to be an afterward. Just more ketchup and sugar, on and on, indefinitely. Or until someone in here puts me out of my misery.”
“You seem established.”
“No one’s established in here. Established, I would have killed myself. Danger does you the service of forcing you to act.”
Valerie got to her feet. She’d had enough. The familiar claustrophobia.
“Let me find a way,” Katherine said.
“Of convincing you. Let me see what I can figure out from this stuff. Face it: you’re going to know soon enough if it’s misinformation. In this video game I get one life. If I blow it, it’s over.”
The second guard, Lomax, put her head around the door. “Everything okay?” she said. Valerie wasn’t sure if the question was addressed to her or to Katherine.
“We’re fine,” Katherine said, with a forced evenness, not looking up. Lomax glanced at Valerie, then withdrew.
“I’ll talk to the warden,” Valerie said. “If you come up with something…” She left it unfinished.
“I can’t promise anything,” Katherine said. “But give me a chance. You know this is water in the desert for me.”
Valerie went to the door and called the guards.
“Valerie?” Katherine said.
“There’s something else I want to talk to you about.”
Katherine looked away from her. Looked, if anything, sheepish. “Maybe not this time. It’s something you need to know. I think it’s something you need to know.”
“If it’s about him, I need—”
“It’s not about him. Will you … I mean, if I can make anything of this, will you come and see me again?”
“Let’s see if you can make something of it.”
“Will you ask Clayton if I can get access to a computer?”
“You know that’s not going to happen.”
“Supervised,” Katherine said. “No e-mail. No chat rooms. No porn. Just for cracking this. You can send one of the FBI morons to make sure I’m not looking at anything pernicious or frisky.”
“I’ve been with Clayton for five minutes and I know she’s going to say no.”
“Would you ask her? This is going to take forever with a pencil and paper. Not to mention a brain that’s a shadow of its former luminous self.”
“I’ll take a temperature reading,” Valerie said. “I’m not promising anything, either.”
“It’s been good seeing you. But you know that. I’m sorry about the childish remarks.”
The Nick remarks. Valerie had an image of Nick jerking off. Imagining Katherine, legs spread, smiling. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he had. Wouldn’t it? Her head had room for it. Her heart was another matter.
“It won’t happen again,” Katherine said, getting to her feet. As Warrell ushered her toward the door, she passed close to Valerie. Perhaps only a foot separated them. Valerie found herself noticing that Katherine smelled of hard soap and the prison’s nylon fatigues. When she’d arrested her, she’d smelled of complex perfume and cigarette smoke and cosmetics. Katherine stopped and turned to face her. They didn’t speak, but for a moment Valerie felt again the terrible nakedness. It was as it had always been, as if she had known Katherine in a former life. The space between them livened, as with an electrical charge.
Then Warrell said: “Let’s go, Katherine,” and in a moment the two of them were out the door.
Copyright © 2017 Saul Black.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Saul Black is the author of The Killing Lessons and lives in London.