Even before it all went bad she had the feeling it was going to be
a rotten day. She blamed it on the headache, the one she'd woken up
with. But even later, as the headache eased, the feeling, almost a
sense of foreboding, remained. Still, she'd made it through the
day. Maybe, she thought, the night would be better.
She was wrong.
"How about something to drink, maybe some coffee?" He smiles.
"I should be getting home."
He looks at his watch. "It's only eight-thirty. Come on. I'll buy
you a cup of the best cappuccino in town."
Maybe she says yes because the headache is finally gone, or because
the day has turned out much better than she expected, or because
she doesn't feel like being alone, not right now.
"Let's walk a bit."
The night air is cool, a little damp. She shivers in her thin
"Cold?" He puts his arm around her shoulders. She's not sure she
wants him to, turns the thought over in her mind, sighs
She smiles weakly. "Nothing you'd understand."
Her comment annoys him. Why wouldn't I understand? He drops
his arm from her shoulders -- she wonders, why? -- and they
continue along another block, lined with restaurants and midsize
brownstones, in silence, until she says, "Maybe it's simpler if I
just catch a cab home."
He takes her arm, gently stops her. "Come on. It's just
"I think I should go."
"Okay. But I'll see you home."
"Don't be ridiculous. I can get home by myself."
"No. I insist. We'll take a cab, grab a cappuccino in your
neighborhood. How's that?"
She sighs, doesn't have the energy to argue.
In the cab, neither speaks; be looks out the window, she stares at
The Starbucks on her corner is locked; the kid inside, mopping up,
waves them off through the glass.
"Damn. I really wanted some coffee." He looks at her, sad, like a
little boy, then offers up his best smile.
"Oh, okay. You win." She smiles, too. "I'll make us some."
At the front door to her building she fumbles with her keys, gets
one in the lock, but the door eases open before she even turns the
"Everything's falling apart around here. They're doing
construction, keep breaking everything. I'd complain to the super,
but he's worthless."
On the second floor they have to step around stacks of wood and
I think they're making two apartments into one. Hoping for a big
rent, I guess. It's been going on for weeks, driving me crazy with
On the third floor, she unlocks a dead bolt, then a police
He walks past her into the apartment, immediately removes his coat,
drops it on a chair, is making himself way too comfortable, she
thinks. He sits down on her sofa -- a layer of thick foam covered
with a bold cotton print with pillows she'd bought on Fourteenth
Street, one with a stenciled portrait of Elvis, the other of
Marilyn. He runs his finger over Marilyn's garish red mouth, back
and forth, back and forth.
She realizes she still has her coat on, removes it, hangs it on a
hook behind the front door, turns the dead bolt then slides the
police lock into place. "Habit. You know." She smiles, nervously,
turns into the kitchenette, a rectangular alcove attached to the
living room, no bigger than a closet. She pulls a chain, and a
light bulb illuminates the half-sized refrigerator, two-burner
stove, tiny sink, a shelf with a toaster oven and a drip coffee
machine. She removes the top half of the coffeemaker, takes out a
soggy brown filter, tosses it into a small plastic trash can.
"Can I help?"
"It's way too small in here. I'm okay.
She can feel him watching her in the tiny kitchen as she gets the
coffee going; becomes self-conscious about the way she moves, the
swaying of her hair. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after
When she comes back into the living room, she chooses the
hard-backed chair at her computer table across from the couch.
"Coffee'll be ready in a minute." He looks up at her, smiles, says
nothing. She plays with a loose thread at the cuff of her blouse,
tries to think of a way to fill the silence. "How about some
music?" She stands up, takes the few necessary steps to the
CDplayer in the corner on the floor. "My one luxury."
He crosses the room, kneels beside her, plucks a disc from the neat
stack. "Play this."
"Billie Holiday," she says, taking the CD from his hand. "She kills
Kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me...The
words echo in his brain.
A clarinet pipes out through two small speakers, followed by
Billie's inimitable, soulful whine. The first lines of "God Bless
the Child" fill the room with an unspeakable sadness.
He watches her kneeling beside him, humming along, head tilted,
hair spilling over the side of her face. He's been watching her all
night, thinking about this, planning. But now he's not sure. Start
it all again? It's been so long. He's been so good. But when he
reaches out and touches her hair, he knows it is already too
She jerks her head back, immediately stands up.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he says, careful to keep his
voice calm as he watches her, enjoying the way she moves, like a
cat, jumpy, skittish. But when he sees her standing above him,
looking down at him as though he were some kind of inferior being,
there is no longer anything remotely kittenish about her. A flash
of anger spreads through his body, and he's ready.
"I'll get the coffee." She turns away, but he grabs hold of her
arm. "Hey," she says. "Cut it out."
He lets go, puts his hands up in a sign of truce, tries the smile
on her again.
She folds her arms across her chest. "I think you should go."
But he settles back onto her couch, locks his hands behind his
head, a grin on his lips. "Let's not make this into a big deal,
"Some things are. But I don't want to discuss it right now and ...
I doubt you'd understand."
"No? Why is that? Ohhh...wait, I think I'm getting it."
"Just go." She holds her defiant pose.
"I know," he says. "I'm the bad guy, right, and you're the
innocent, put-upon woman. Oh, sure. Real innocent." He stands.
"Well, let me tell you something..."
"Hey. Relax," she says, trying to regain control of the situation.
"Cool?" He repeats the word as if it had no meaning for him.
"Just a minute!" he shouts.
"What?" she asks, but can see he is not really speaking to her, his
eyelids fluttering as though he were going into some kind of
He takes a step forward, hands clenched.
She drops her stance, makes a dash for the door. She's scrambling
with the police lock when he lunges. She tries to scream, but he's
got his hand pressed -- hard -- across her mouth.
Then he is all over her, pulling at her arms, shouting, mumbling,
his voice harsh, unrecognizable. He stretches her arms above her
head. She is surprised at his strength, but manages to wrench a
hand free, smacks him in the mouth. A thin line of blood trickles
over his lip. He doesn't seem to notice, knocks her to the floor,
pins both her arms under his knees, all his weight holding them
down, freeing up his arms to tear at her blouse, to grope at her
breasts. She tries to kick but can't connect, her legs just thrash
in the air.
Then he grabs her chin, leans down, presses his mouth against hers.
She tastes his blood. She wrenches her head back, spits in his
face, hears herself scream: "I'll kill you!"
He hits her hard in the face, then moves off her, stands beside the
couch looking down. "How shall we do this?" he asks. "Nice or ...
not so nice?"
She is seeing double, unable to right herself, feeling close to
Then he is on top of her again, rubbing himself against her,
cursing. She bites into the Marilyn pillow, concentrates on Billie
But now his movements have become frantic, his cursing louder, and
she is aware of the fact that there has been no penetration, and
feels a sense of relief.
He rolls off her, says, "You just didn't get me hot," and pulls his
pants up. It was a mistake.
Of course it's a mistake. Stick to the plan.She pushes her
"The new woman...so tough he says, fumbling for words, anything to
soothe his damaged ego. "So tough she can't satisfy a man."
She tries to think straight, just wants him out. "Yes," she says.
"You're right, I -- I'm sorry. It wasn't you, I -- "
He grabs her face, turns her toward him. "What? What did you
say?" She tries to push his hand off, but can't. "You patronizing
me? Me! You fucking little slut!" He lets go of her face and
then the slap comes so fast that for a moment she is stunned, then
"Get out! Get the fuck outta here!" She lunges for the
phone. But he's too fast for her. He wrenches it off the end table.
The cord jumps in the air as it's torn from the socket. Then he's
got her by the hair and around the waist, practically dragging her
into the kitchen; the scorching glass of the coffeemaker is
scalding her naked back. He slams her against the wall. The
coffeemaker falls; boiling coffee splashes against her ankles. She
tries to scratch his face, misses, and he punches her hard.
An image of herself as a young girl in a white confirmation dress
floods her mind; and then the white turns gray, and then everything
He hardly remembers his hand finding the knife in the shallow sink,
but the girl is quiet now. She's on the floor, one leg twisted
under her, one straight out in front, and there is blood everywhere
-- splattered on the stove, cabinets, floor. He can't even remember
the color of her blouse, it's all stained a deep, gorgeous red.
Pinkish saliva bubbles from the corners of her mouth. Her eyes are
wide open, staring at him in surprise. He returns her vacant
How long has it been? Has anyone heard them? He listens for sirens,
televisions, radios, signs of life from other apartments, but hears
nothing. He feels lucky. Yes, I've always been lucky.
He rasps, "What a mess," his throat gone dry. He finds a pair of
Playtex gloves beside the sink, squeezes his bloodied hands into
them, washes the knife thoroughly and drops it into a drawer; then
removes his shoes so he won't track bloody footprints, and places
them on the shelf beside the toaster oven. He tears a few paper
towels off a roll, balls them up, squirts them with liquid
detergent, and works his way around the apartment cleaning off
everything he can remember touching. He even takes the Billie
Holiday disc off the player, puts it back in its sleeve, slips it
into the middle of a stack of CDs.
He checks the couch for anything he might have dropped, anything
torn off, buttons, even hairs. He sees a few hairs which he thinks
are the girl's but just to be safe he takes the Dustbuster from the
wall in the kitchenette and goes over the couch several times, then
towels it off, replaces it.
Unconsciously, he touches his lip, feels the soreness, remembers
Back in the kitchenette, he takes a sponge from the sink, squirts
it with more detergent, washes blood off the dead girl's lips, then
shoves the sponge in and out of her mouth.
He lifts her lifeless hand. Nail polish? No, blood. Mine
or hers? But here the sponge refuses to do the job, traces of
red cling stubbornly beneath her nails. He jams the sponge into his
pant pocket, right on top of the damp wad of paper toweling -- the
moisture oozes through the fabric and onto his thigh. Then he
removes a small leather-bound manicure set from his inner pocket --
one he always carries with him -- and sets to work with his fine
metal tools. Ten minutes later the girl's nails are not only
spotless, but finely shaped. He takes a momentto admire his
handiwork. Then, using his cuticle scissors, he carefully snips a
lock of the girl's hair and presses it into his shirt pocket, just
above his heart.
He moves in closer, touches her cheek. His gloved finger comes away
bright scarlet. That's it!
Now, starting at the temple, his cherry fingertip creeps down her
cheek, slowly, precisely, stopping once for a quick dip into the
pool of blood on the girl's chest, then continuing just beside her
ear, looping a bit before coming to rest at the sharp edge of the
dead girl's jaw.
Now he needs something useful.
In the tiny bedroom, he takes a moment to consider a painting above
the bed. Too big. Perhaps the large black crucifix on a heavy
silver chain? He slides it from one gloved hand to another like a
child's Slinky toy, before dropping it back into the dresser
But it's the small plastic photo album, which, after a glimpse at
its contents, he decides is just the thing.
Back at the door he undoes the police lock and dead bolt, puts on
his shoes, then his long raincoat.
In the hall, just outside the apartment, he hesitates. On the first
floor, the drone of television dialogue, "Laura, honey, I'm home
and canned laughter. He moves stealthily down the hall and out the
front door. It closes behind him with a dull thud.
On the street, with gloved hands thrust deep in his pockets, he
concentrates on walking at a casual pace, keeping his head down.
Six or seven blocks from the dead girl's apartment he manages to
work one of the gloves off his hand while it's still in his pocket;
once it's free, he hails a cab.
He tells the driver where he's going, surprised at the calm of his
Did it really happen? Was it some kind of hallucination?
He's never quite sure. Maybe it was all a dream. But then he feels
the wetness against his thigh, and the plastic glove still on one
hand -- and they're real enough.
The muscles in his neck and jaw clench; for a moment his entire
Is this what he wanted? He can hardly remember.
Too late now. It's done. Finished.
He catches his reflection in the taxicab's streaky window.
No, he thinks, it's just the beginning.
Excerpted from DEATH ARTIST © Copyright 2002 by Jonathan
Santlofer. Reprinted with permission by HarperTorch, an imprint of
HarperCollins. All rights reserved.