Greetings, Revered Audience. Welcome.
Welcome to our show.
We have a number of thrills in store for you over the next two days as our illusionists, our magicians, our sleight-of-hand artists weave their spells to delight and captivate you.
Our first routine is from the repertoire of a performer everyone's heard of: Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist in America, if not the world, a man who performed before crowned heads of state and U.S. presidents. Some of his escapes are so difficult no one has dared attempt them, all these years after his untimely death.
Today we'll re-create an escape in which he risked suffocation in a routine known as the Lazy Hangman.
In this trick, our performer lies prone on the belly, hands bound behind the back with classic Darby handcuffs. The ankles are tied together and another length of rope is wound around the neck, like a noose, and tied to the ankles. The tendency of the legs to straighten pulls the noose taut and begins the terrible process of suffocation.
Why is it called the "Lazy" Hangman? Because the condemned executes himself.
In many of Mr. Houdini's more dangerous routines, assistants were present with knives and keys to release him in the event that he was unable to escape. Often a doctor was on hand.
Today, there'll be none of these precautions. If there's no escape within four minutes, the performer will die.
We begin in a moment...but first a word of advice:
Never forget that by entering our show you're abandoning reality.
What you're absolutely convinced you see might not exist at all. What you know has to be an illusion may turn out to be God's harsh truth.
Your companion at our show might turn out to be a total stranger. A man or woman in the audience you don't recognize may know you far too well.
What seems safe may be deadly. And the dangers you guard against may be nothing more than distractions to lure you to greater danger.
In our show what can you believe? Whom can you trust?
Well, Revered Audience, the answer is that you should believe nothing.
And you should trust no one. No one at all.
Now, the curtain rises, the lights dim, the music fades, leaving only the sublime sound of hearts beating in anticipation.
And our show begins....
The building looked as if it'd seen its share of ghosts.
Gothic, sooty, dark. Sandwiched between two high-rises on the Upper West Side, capped with a widow's walk and many shuttered windows. The building dated from the Victorian era and had been a boarding school at one point and later a sanatorium, where the criminally insane lived out their frazzled lives.
The Manhattan School of Music and Performing Arts could have been home to dozens of spirits.
But none so immediate as the one who might be hovering here now, above the warm body of the young woman lying, stomach down, in the dim lobby outside a small recital hall. Her eyes were still and wide but not yet glassy, the blood on her cheek was not yet brown.
Her face was dark as plum from the constriction of the taut rope connecting her neck to her ankles.
Scattered around her were a flute case, sheet music and a spilled grande cup from Starbucks, the coffee staining her jeans and green Izod shirt and leaving a comma of dark liquid on the marble floor.
Also present was the man who'd killed her, bending down and examining her carefully. He was taking his time and felt no urge to rush. Today was Saturday, the hour early. There were no classes in the school on the weekends, he'd learned. Students did use the practice rooms but they were in a different wing of the building. He leaned closer to the woman, squinting, wondering if he could see some essence, some spirit rising from her body. He didn't.
He straightened up, considering what else he might do to the still form in front of him.
"You're sure it was screaming?"
"Yeah....No," the security guard said. "Maybe not screaming, you know. Shouting. Upset. For just a second or two. Then it stopped."
Officer Diane Franciscovich, a portable working out of the Twentieth Precinct, continued, "Anybody else hear anything?"
The heavy guard, breathing hard, glanced at the tall, brunette policewoman, shook his head and flexed and opened his huge hands. He wiped his dark palms on his blue slacks.
"Call for backup?" asked Nancy Ausonio, another young patrol officer, shorter than her partner, blonde.
Franciscovich didn't think so, though she wasn't sure. Portables walking the beat in this part of the Upper West Side dealt mostly with traffic accidents, shoplifting and car theft (as well as holding the hands of distraught muggees). This was a first for them -- the two women officers, on their Saturday morning watch, had been spotted on the sidewalk and motioned urgently inside by the guard to help check out the screaming. Well, upset shouting.
"Let's hold off," the calm Franciscovich said. "See what's going on."
The guard said, "Sounded like it was comin' from 'round here somewhere. Dunno."
"Spooky place," Ausonio offered, oddly uneasy; she was the partner most likely to leap into the middle of a dispute, even if it involved combatants twice her size.
"The sounds, you know. Hard to tell. You know what I'm sayin'? Where they're coming from."
Franciscovich was focusing on what her partner had said. Damnspooky place, she added silently.
Seeming miles of dim corridors later, finding nothing out of the ordinary, the security guard paused.
Franciscovich nodded to a doorway in front of them. "What's through here?"
"Be no reason for students t'be there. It's only -- "
Franciscovich pushed the door open.
Inside was a small lobby that led to a door labeled Recital Hall A. And near that door was the body of a young woman, trussed up, rope around her neck, hands in cuffs. Eyes open in death. A brown-haired, bearded man in his early fifties crouched over her. He looked up, surprised at their entry.
"No!" Ausonio cried.
"Oh, Christ," the guard gasped.
The officers drew their weapons and Franciscovich sighted down on the man with what she thought was a surprisingly steady hand. "You, don't move! Stand up slow, move away from her and put your hands in the air." Her voice was much less firm than the fingers gripping the Glock pistol.
The man did as he was told.
"Lie face down on floor. Keep your hands in sight!"
Ausonio started forward to the girl.
It was then Franciscovich noticed that the man's right hand, over his head, was closed in a fist.
"Open your -- "
She went blind as a flash of searing light filled the room. It seemed to come directly from the suspect's hand and hovered for a moment before going out. Ausonio froze and Franciscovich went into a crouch, scrabbling backward and squinting, swinging the gun back and forth. Panicked, she knew the killer had kept his eyes shut when the flash went off and would be aiming his own weapon at them or charging forward with a knife.
"Where, where, where?" she shouted.
Then she saw -- vaguely thanks to her frizzled vision and the dissipating smoke -- the killer running into the recital hall. He slammed the door shut. There was a thud inside as he moved a chair or table against the door.
Ausonio dropped to her knees in front of the girl. With a Swiss army knife she cut the rope off her neck, rolled her over and, using a disposable mouthpiece, started CPR.
"Any other exits?" Franciscovich shouted to the guard.
"Only one -- in the back, around the corner. To the right."
"Hey," she called to Ausonio as she started sprinting. "Watch this door!"
"Got it," the blonde officer called and blew another breath into the victim's pale lips.
More thuds from inside as the killer beefed up his barricade; Franciscovich sprinted around the corner, toward the door the guard had told them about, calling for backup on her Motorola. As she looked ahead she saw someone standing at the end of the corridor. Franciscovich stopped fast, drew a target on the man's chest and shone the brilliant beam from her halogen flashlight on him.
"Lord," croaked the elderly janitor, dropping the broom he held.
Franciscovich thanked God she'd kept her finger outside the trigger guard of the Glock. "You see somebody come out of that door?"
"What's going on?"
"You see anybody?" Franciscovich shouted.
"How long you been here?"
"I don't know. Ten minutes, I'd guess."
There was another thud of furniture from inside as the killer continued to blockade the door. Franciscovich sent the janitor into the main corridor with the security guard then eased up to the side door. Gun held high, eye level, she tested the knob gently. It was unlocked. She stepped to the side so she wouldn't be in the line of fire if the perp shot through the wood. A trick she remembered from NYPD Blue, though an instructor might've mentioned it at the Academy too.
Another thump from inside.
"Nancy, you there?" Franciscovich whispered into her handy-talkie.
Ausonio's voice, shaky, said, "She's dead, Diane. I tried. But she's dead."
"He didn't get out this way. He's still inside. I can hear him." Silence.
"I tried, Diane. I tried."
"Forget it. Come on. You on this? You on it?"
"Yeah, I'm cool. Really." The officer's voice hardened. "Let's go get him."
"No," Franciscovich said, "we'll keep him contained till ESU gets here. That's all we've got to do. Sit tight. Stay clear of the door. And sit tight."
Which is when she heard the man shout from inside, "I've got a hostage. I've got a girl in here. Try to get in and I'll kill her!"
"You, inside!" Franciscovich shouted. "Nobody's going to do anything. Don't worry. Just don't hurt anybody else." Was this procedure? she wondered. Neither prime-time television nor her Academy training was any help here. She heard Ausonio call Central and report that the situation was now a barricade and hostage-taking.
Franciscovich called to the killer, "Just take it easy! You can -- "
A huge gunshot from inside. Franciscovich jumped like a fish. "What happened? Was that you?" she shouted into her radio.
"No," her partner replied, "I thought it was you."
"No. It was him. You okay?"
"Yeah. He said he's got a hostage. You think he shot her?"
"I don't know. How do I know?" Franciscovich, thinking: Where thehell is the backup?
"Diane," Ausonio whispered after a moment. "We've gotta go in. Maybe she's hurt. Maybe she's wounded." Then, shouting: "You, inside!" No answer. "You!"
"Maybe he killed himself," Franciscovich offered.
Or maybe he fired the shot to make us think he'd killed himself and he's waiting inside, drawing a target gut high on the doorway.
Then that terrible image returned to her: the seedy door to the recital lobby opening, casting the pale light on the victim, her face blue and cold as winter dusk. Stopping people from doing things like this was why she'd become a cop in the first place.
"We have to go in, Diane," Ausonio whispered.
"That's what I'm thinking. Okay. We'll go in." Speaking a bit manically as she thought of both her family and how to curl her left hand over her right when firing an automatic pistol in a combat shooting situation. "Tell the guard we'll need lights inside the hall."
A moment later Ausonio said, "The switch is out here. He'll turn 'em on when I say so." A deep breath that Franciscovich heard through the microphone. Then Ausonio said, "Ready. On three. You count it."
"Okay. One...Wait. I'll be coming in from your two o'clock. Don't shoot me."
"Okay. Two o'clock. I'll be -- "
"You'll be on my left."
"One." Franciscovich gripped the knob with her left hand. "Two."
This time her finger slipped inside the guard of her weapon, gently caressing the second trigger -- the safety on Glock pistols.
"Three!" Franciscovich shouted so loud that she was sure her partner heard the call without the radio. She shoved through the doorway into the large rectangular room just as the glaring lights came on.
"Freeze!" she screamed -- to an empty room.
Crouching, skin humming with the tension, she swung her weapon from side to side as she scanned every inch of the space.
No sign of the killer, no sign of a hostage.
A glance to her left, the other doorway, where Nancy Ausonio stood, doing the same frantic scan of the room. "Where?" the woman whispered.
Franciscovich shook her head. She noticed about fifty wooden folding chairs arranged in neat rows. Four or five of them were lying on their backs or sides. But they didn't seem to be a barricade; they were randomly kicked over. To her right was a low stage. On it sat an amplifier and two speakers. A battered grand piano.
The young officers could see virtually everything in the room.
Except the perp.
"What happened, Nancy? Tell me what happened."
Ausonio didn't answer; like her partner she was looking around frantically, three-sixty, checking out every shadow, every piece of furniture, even though it was clear the man wasn't here.
The room was essentially a sealed cube. No windows. The air-conditioning and heating vents were only six inches across. A wooden ceiling, not acoustic tile. No trapdoors that she could see. No doors other than the main one Ausonio had used and the fire door that Franciscovich had entered through.
Where? Franciscovich mouthed.
Her partner mouthed something back. The policewoman couldn't decipher it but the message could be read in her face: I don't have a clue.
"Yo," a loud voice called from the doorway. They spun toward it, drawing targets on the empty lobby. "Ambulance and some other officers just got here." It was the security guard, hiding out of sight.
Heart slamming from the fright, Franciscovich called him inside.
He asked, "Is it, uhm...I mean, you get him?"
"He's not here," Ausonio said in a shaky voice.
"What?" The man peeked cautiously into the hall.
Franciscovich heard the voices of the officers and EMS techs arriving. The jangle of equipment. Still, the women couldn't bring themselves to join their fellow cops just yet. They stood transfixed in the middle of the recital space, both uneasy and bewildered, trying vainly to figure out how the killer had escaped from a room from which there was no escape.
"He's listening to music."
"I'm not listening to music. The music happens to be on. That's all."
"Music, huh?" Lon Sellitto muttered as he walked into Lincoln Rhyme's bedroom. "That's a coincidence."
"He's developed a taste for jazz," Thom explained to the paunchy detective.
"Surprised me, I have to tell you."
"As I said," Lincoln Rhyme continued petulantly, "I'm working and the music happens to be playing in the background. What do you mean, coincidence?" Nodding at the flat-screen monitor in front of Rhyme's Flexicair bed, the slim, young aide, dressed in a white shirt, tan slacks and solid purple tie, said, "No, he's not working. Unless staring at the same page for an hour is work. He wouldn't let me get away with work like that."
"Command, turn page." The computer recognized Rhyme's voice and obeyed his order, slapping a new page of Forensic Science Review onto the monitor. He asked Thom acerbically, "Say, you want to quiz me on what I've been staring at? The composition of the top five exotic toxins found in recent terrorist laboratories in Europe? And how 'bout we put some money on the answers?"
"No, we have other things to do," the aide replied, referring to the various bodily functions that caregivers must attend to several times a day when their patients are quadriplegics like Lincoln Rhyme.
"We'll get to that in a few minutes," the criminalist said, enjoying a particularly energetic trumpet riff.
"We'll get to that now. If you'll excuse us for a moment, Lon."
"Yeah, sure." Large, rumpled Sellitto stepped into the corridor outside the second-floor bedroom of Rhyme's Central Park West town house. He closed the door. As Thom expertly performed his duties Lincoln Rhyme listened to the music and wondered: Coincidence? Five minutes later Thom let Sellitto back into the bedroom. "Coffee?"
"Yeah. Could use some. Too fucking early to work on a Saturday." The aide left.
"So, how do I look, Linc?" asked the pirouetting middle-aged detective, whose gray suit was typical of his wardrobe—made apparently from permanently wrinkled cloth.
"A fashion show?" Rhyme asked.
Coincidence? Then his mind slipped back to the CD. How the hell does somebody play the trumpet so smoothly? How can you get that kind of sound from a metal instrument? The detective continued: "I lost sixteen pounds. Rachel has me on a diet. Fat's the problem. You cut out fat, you'd be amazed how much weight you can lose."
"Fat, yes. I think we knew that, Lon. So . . . ?" Meaning, get to the point.
"Gotta bizarre case. Found a body a half hour ago at a music school up the street from here. I'm case officer and we could use some help."
Music school. And I'm listening to music. That's a piss-poor coincidence. Sellitto ran through some of the facts: student killed, the perp was nearly collared but he got away through some kind of trapdoor that nobody could find. Music was mathematical. That much Rhyme, a scientist, could understand. It was logical, it was perfectly structured. It was also, he reflected, infinite. An unlimited number of tunes could be written. You could never be bored writing music. He wondered how one went about it. Rhyme believed he had no creativity. He'd taken piano lessons when he was eleven or twelve but, even though he'd developed an enduring crush on Miss Osborne, the lessons themselves were a write-off. His fondest memories of the instrument were taking stroboscopic pictures of the resonating strings for a sciencefair project.
"You with me, Linc?"
"A case, you were saying. Bizarre." Sellitto gave more of the details, slowly corralling Rhyme's attention.
"There's got to be some way outta the hall. But nobody from the school or our team can find it."
"How's the scene?"
"Still pretty virgin. Can we get Amelia to run it?" Rhyme glanced at the clock. "She's tied up for another twenty minutes or so."
"That's not a problem," Sellitto said, patting his stomach as if he were searching for the lost weight. "I'll page her."
"Let's not distract her just yet."
"Why, what's she doing?"
"Oh, something dangerous," Rhyme said, concentrating once more on the silken voice of the trumpet. "What else?" She smelled the wet brick of the tenement wall against her face. Her palms sweated and, beneath the fiery red hair shoved up under her dusty issue hat, her scalp itched fiercely. Still, she remained completely motionless as a uniformed officer slipped up close beside her and planted his face against the brick too.
"Okay, here's the situation," the man said, nodding toward their right. He explained that just around the corner of the tenement was a vacant lot, in the middle of which was a getaway car that'd crashed a few minutes ago after a high-speed pursuit.
"Drivable?" Amelia Sachs asked.
"No. Hit a Dumpster and's out of commission. Three perps. They bailed but we got one in custody. One's in the car with some kind of Jesus-long hunting rifle. He wounded a patrolman."
"No. Out of the perimeter. One building west of here." She asked, "The third perp?" The officer sighed. "Hell, he made it to the first floor of this building here." Nodding toward the tenement they were hugging. "It's a barricade. He's got a hostage. Pregnant woman." Sachs digested the flood of information as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, to ease the pain of the arthritis in her joints. Damn, that hurt. She noticed her companion's name on his chest. "The hostagetaker's weapon, Wilkins?"
"Handgun. Unknown type."
"Where's our side?" The young man pointed out two officers behind a wall at the back of the lot. "Then two more in front of the building, containing the H-T."
"Anybody call ESU?"
"I don't know. I lost my handy-talkie when we started taking fire."
"You in armor?"
"Negative. I was doing traffic stops. . . . What the hell're we going to do?" She clicked her Motorola to a particular frequency and said, "Crime Scene Five Eight Eight Five to Supervisor." A moment later: "This is Captain Seven Four. Go ahead."
"Ten-thirteen at a lot east of six-oh-five Delancey. Officer down. Need backup, EMS bus and ESU immediately. Two subjects, both armed. One with hostage; we'll need a negotiator."
"Roger, Five Eight Eight Five. Helicopter for observation?"
"Negative, Seven Four. One suspect has a high-powered rifle. And they're willing to target blues."
"We'll get backup there as soon as we can. But the Secret Service's closed up half of downtown 'cause the vice president's coming in from JFK. There'll be a delay. Handle the situation at your discretion. Out."
"Roger. Out." Vice president, she thought. Just lost my vote. Wilkins shook his head. "But we can't get a negotiator near the apartment. Not with the shooter still in the car."
"I'm working on that," Sachs replied. She edged to the corner of the tenement again and glanced at the car, a cheap low-rider with its nose against a Dumpster, doors open, revealing a thin man holding a rifle.
I'm working on that. . . . She shouted, "You in the car, you're surrounded. We're going to open fire if you don't drop your weapon. Do it now!" He crouched and aimed in her direction. She ducked for cover. On her Motorola she called the two officers in the back of the lot. "Are there hostages in the car?"
"Positive" was the officer's reply. "We got a good look before he started shooting."
"Okay. You got a shot?"
"Probably through the door."
"No, don't shoot blind. Go for position. But only if you've got cover all the way."
"Roger." She saw the men move to a flanking position. A moment later one of the officers said, "I've got a shot to kill. Should I take it?"
"Stand by." Then she shouted, "You in the car. With the rifle. You have ten seconds or we'll open fire. Drop your weapon. You understand?" She repeated this in Spanish.
"Fuck you." Which she took to be affirmative.
"Ten seconds," she shouted. "We're counting." To the two officers she radioed, "Give him twenty. Then you're greenlighted." At close to the ten-second mark, the man dropped the rifle and stood up, hands in the air. "No shoot, no shoot!"
"Keep those hands straight up in the air. Walk toward the corner of the building here. If you lower your hands you will be shot." When he got to the corner Wilkins cuffed and searched him. Sachs remained crouched down. She said to the suspect, "The guy inside. Your buddy. Who is he?"
"I don't gotta tell you—"
"Yeah, you do gotta. Because if we take him out, which we aregoing to do, you'll go down for felony murder. Now, is that man in there worth forty- five years in Ossining?" The man sighed.
"Come on," she snapped. "Name, address, family, what he likes for dinner, what's his mother's first name, he have relatives in the system—you can think of all kinds of real helpful stuff about him, I'll bet." He sighed and started to talk; Sachs scribbled down the details. Her Motorola crackled. The hostage negotiator and the ESU team had just showed up in front of the building. She handed her notes to Wilkins.
"Get those to the negotiator." She read the rifleman his rights, thinking, Had she handled the situation the best way she could? Had she endangered lives unnecessarily? Should she have checked on the wounded officer herself? Five minutes later, the supervising captain walked around the corner of the building. He smiled. "The H-T released the woman. No injuries. We've got three collared. The wounded officer'll be okay. Just a scratch." A policewoman with short blond hair poking out from under her regulation hat joined them. "Hey, check it out. We got a bonus." She held up a large Baggie full of white powder and another containing pipes and other drug paraphernalia. As the captain looked it over, nodding with approval, Sachs asked, "That was in their car?"
"Naw. I found it in a Ford across the street. I was interviewing the owner as a witness and he started sweating and looking all nervous so I searched his car."
"Where was it parked?" Sachs asked.
"In his garage."
"Did you call in a warrant?"
"No. Like I say, he was acting nervous and I could see a corner of the bag from the sidewalk. That's probable cause."
"Nope." Sachs was shaking her head. "It's an illegal search."
"Illegal? We pulled this guy over last week for speeding and saw a kilo of pot in the back. We busted him okay."
"It's different on the street. There's a lesser expectation of privacy in a mobile vehicle on public roads. All you need for an arrest then is probable cause. When a car's on private property, even if you see drugs, you need a warrant."
"That's crazy," the policewoman said defensively. "He's got ten ounces of pure coke here. He's a balls-forward dealer. Narcotics spends months trying to collar somebody like this." The captain said to Sachs, "You sure about this, Officer?"
"Recommendation?" Sachs said, "Confiscate the stuff, put the fear of God into the perp and give his tag number and stats to Narcotics." Then she glanced at the policewoman.
"And you better take a refresher course in search and seizure." The woman officer started to argue but Sachs wasn't paying attention. She was surveying the vacant lot, where the perps' car rested against the Dumpster. She squinted at the vehicle.
"Officer—" the captain began. She ignored him and said to Wilkins, "You said three perps?"
"How do you know?"
"That was the report from the jewelry store they hit." She stepped into the rubble-filled lot, pulling out her Glock. "Look at the getaway car," she snapped.
"Jesus," Wilkins said. All the doors were open. Four men had bailed. Dropping into a crouch, she scanned the lot and aimed her gun toward the only possible hiding place nearby: a short cul-de-sac behind the Dumpster.
"Weapon!" she cried, almost before she saw the motion. Everyone around her turned as the large, T-shirted man with a shotgun jogged out of the lot, making a run for the street. Sachs's Glock was centered on his chest as he broke cover. "Drop the weapon!" she ordered. He hesitated a moment then grinned and began to swing it toward the officers. She pushed her Glock forward. And in a cheerful voice, she said, "Bang, bang. . . . You're dead." The shotgunner stopped and laughed. He shook his head in admiration.
"Damn good. I thought I was home free." The stubby gun over his shoulder, he strolled to the cluster of fellow cops beside the tenement. The other
"suspect," the man who'd been in the car, turned his back so that the cuffs could be removed. Wilkins released him. The "hostage," played by a very unpregnant Latina officer Sachs had known for years, joined them too. She clapped Sachs on the back. "Nice work, Amelia, saving my ass."
Sachs kept a solemn face, though she was pleased. She felt like a student who'd just aced an important exam. Which was, in effect, exactly what had happened.
Amelia Sachs was pursuing a new goal. Her father, Herman, had been a portable, a beat cop in the Patrol Services Division, all his life. Sachs now had the same rank and might've been content to remain there for another few years before moving up in the department but after the September 11 attacks she'd decided she wanted to do more for her city. So she'd submitted the paperwork to be promoted to detective sergeant.
No group of law enforcers has fought crime like NYPD detectives. Their tradition went back to tough, brilliant Inspector Thomas Byrnes, named to head up the fledgling Detective Bureau in the 1880s. Byrnes's arsenal included threats, head-knocking and subtle deductions—he once broke a major theft ring by tracing a tiny fiber found at a crime scene. Under Byrnes's flamboyant guidance the detectives in the bureau became known as the Immortals and they dramatically reduced the level of crime in a city as freewheeling back then as the Wild West.
Officer Herman Sachs was a collector of police department memorabilia, and not long before he died he gave his daughter one of his favorite artifacts: a battered notebook actually used by Byrnes to jot notes about investigations.
When Sachs was young—and her mother wasn't around—her father would read aloud the more legible passages and the two of them would make up stories around them.
October 12, 1883. The other leg has been found! Slaggardy's coal bin, Five Pts. Expect Cotton Williams's confession forthwith.
Given its prestigious status (and lucrative pay for law enforcement), it was ironic that women found more opportunities in the Detective Bureau than in any other division of the NYPD. If Thomas Byrnes was the male detective icon, Mary Shanley was the female—and one of Sachs's personal heroines. Busting crime throughout the 1930s, Shanley was a boisterous, uncompromising cop, who once said, "You have the gun to use, and you may as well use it." Which she did with some frequency. After years of combating crime in Midtown she retired as a detective first-grade.
Sachs, however, wanted to be more than a detective, which is just a job specialty; she wanted rank too. In the NYPD, as in most police forces, one becomes a detective on the basis of merit and experience. To become a sergeant, though, the applicant goes through an arduous triathlon of exams: written, oral and—what Sachs had just endured—an assessment exercise, a simulation to test practical skills at personnel management, community sensitivities and judgment under fire.
The captain, a soft-spoken veteran who resembled Laurence Fishburne, was the primary assessor for the exercise and had been taking notes on her performance.
"Okay, Officer," he said, "we'll write up our results and they'll be attached to your review. But let me just say a word unofficially." Consulting his notebook. "Your threat assessment regarding civilians and officers was perfect. Calls for backup were timely and appropriate. Your deployment of personnel negated any chance the perpetrators would escape from the containment situation and yet minimized exposure. You called the illegal drug search right. And getting the personal information from the one suspect for the hostage negotiator was a nice touch. We didn't think about making that part of the exercise. But we will now. Then, at the end, well, frankly, we never thought you'd determine there was another perp in hiding. We had it planned that he'd shoot Officer Wilkins here and then we'd see how you'd handle an officer-down situation and organize a fleeing felon apprehension." The officialese vanished and he smiled. "But you nailed the bastard."
Then he asked, "You've done the written and orals, right?"
"Yessir. Should have the results any day now."
"My group'll complete our assessment evaluation and send that to the board with our recommendations. You can stand down now."
"Yessir." The cop who'd played the last bad guy—the one with the shotgun— wandered up to her. He was a good-looking Italian, half a generation out of the Brooklyn docks, she judged, and had a boxer's muscles. A dirty stubble of beard covered his cheeks and chin. He wore a big-bore chrome automatic high on his trim hip and his cocky smile brought her close to suggesting he might want to use the gun's reflection as a mirror to shave.
"I gotta tell ya—I've done a dozen assessments and that was the best I ever seen, babe." She laughed in surprise at the word. There were certainly cavemen left in the department—from Patrol Services to corner offices at Police Plaza— but they tended to be more condescending than openly sexist. Sachs hadn't heard a "babe" or "honey" from a male cop in at least a year.
"Let's stick with ‘Officer,' you don't mind."
"No, no, no," he said, laughing. "You can chill now. The AE's over."
"When I said ‘babe,' it's not like it's a part of the assessment. You don't have to, you know, deal with it official or anything. I'm just saying it 'cause I was impressed. And 'cause you're . . . you know." He smiled into her eyes, his charm as shiny as his pistol. "I don't do compliments much. Coming from me, that's something." 'Cause you're you know. "Hey, you're not pissed or anything, are you?" he asked.
"Not pissed at all. But it's still ‘Officer.' That's what you call me and what I'll call you."At least to your face.
"Hey, I didn't mean any offense or anything. You're a pretty girl. And I'm a guy. You know what that's like. . . . So."
"So," she replied and started away. He stepped in front of her, frowning. "Hey, hold on. This isn't going too good. Look, let me buy you a coffee. You'll like me when you get to know me."
"Don't bet on it," one of his buddies called, laughing. The Babe Man good-naturedly gave him the finger then turned back to Sachs. Which is when her pager beeped and she looked down to see Lincoln Rhyme's number on the screen. The word "URGENT" appeared after it.
"Gotta go," she said.
"So no time for that coffee?" he asked, a fake pout on his handsome face.
"Well, how 'bout a phone number?" She made a pistol with her index finger and thumb and aimed it at him.
"Bang, bang," she said. And trotted toward her yellow Camaro. This is a school? Wheeling a large black crime-scene suitcase behind her, Amelia Sachs walked through the dim corridor. She smelled mold and old wood. Dusty webs had coagulated near the high ceiling and scales of green paint curled from the walls. How could anybody study music here? It was a setting for one of the Anne Rice novels that Sachs's mother read.
"Spooky," one of the responding officers had muttered, only half jokingly. That said it all. A half-dozen cops—four patrol officers and two in soft clothes—stood near a double doorway at the end of the hall. Disheveled Lon Sellitto, head down and hand clutching one of his notepads, was talking to a guard. Like the walls and floors the guard's outfit was dusty and stained. Through the open doorway she glimpsed another dim space, in the middle of which was a light-colored form. The victim. To the CS tech walking beside her she said, "We'll need lights. A couple of sets." The young man nodded and headed back to the RRV—the crime scene rapid response vehicle, a station wagon filled with forensic collection equipment. It sat outside, half on the sidewalk, where he'd parked it after the drive here (probably at a more leisurely pace than Sachs in her 1969 Camaro SS, which had averaged 70 mph en route to the school from the assessment exercise).
Sachs studied the young blonde woman, lying on her back ten feet away, belly arched up because her bound hands were underneath her. Even in the dimness of the school lobby Sachs's quick eyes noted the deep ligature marks on her neck and the blood on her lips and chin—probably from biting her tongue, a common occurrence in strangulations.
Automatically she also observed: emerald-colored studs for earrings, shabby running shoes. No apparent robbery, sexual molestation or mutilation.
No wedding ring.
"Who was first officer?"
A tall woman with short brunette hair, her name tag reading d. franciscovich, said, "We were." A nod toward her blonde partner. n. ausonio.
Their eyes were troubled and Franciscovich played a brief rhythm on her holster with thumb and fingers. Ausonio kept glancing at the body. Sachs guessed this was their first homicide.
The two patrol officers give their account of what had happened. Finding the perp, a flash of light, his disappearing, a barricade. Then he was gone.
"You said he claimed to have a hostage?"
"That's what he said," Ausonio offered. "But everybody in the school's accounted for. We're sure he was bluffing."
"Svetlana Rasnikov," Ausonio said. "Twenty-four. Student."
Sellitto turned away from the security guard. He said to Sachs, "Bedding and Saul're interviewing everybody in the building here this morning."
She nodded toward the scene. "Who's been inside?"
Sellitto said, "The first officers." Nodding toward the women. "Then two medics and two ESU. They backed out as soon as they cleared it. Scene's still pretty clean."
"The guard was inside too," Ausonio said. "But only for a minute. We got him out as soon as we could."
"Good," Sachs said. "Witnesses?"
Ausonio said, "There was a janitor outside the room when we got here."
"He didn't see anything," Franciscovich added.
Sachs said, "I still need to see the soles of his shoes for comparison. Could one of you find him for me?"
"Sure." Ausonio wandered off.
From one of the black suitcases Sachs extracted a zippered clear plastic case. She opened it and pulled out a white Tyvek jumpsuit. Donning it, she pulled the hood over her head. Then gloves. The outfit was standard issue now for all forensics techs at the NYPD; it prevented substances—trace, hair, epithelial skin cells and foreign matter—from sloughing off her body and contaminating the scene. The suit had booties but she still did what Rhyme always insisted on—put rubber bands on her feet to distinguish her prints from the victim's and the perp's.
Mounting the earphones on her head and adjusting the stalk mike, she hooked up her Motorola. She called in a landline patch and a moment later a complex arrangement of communications systems brought the low voice of Lincoln Rhyme into her ear.
"Sachs, you there?"
"Yep. It was just like you said—they had him cornered and he disappeared."
He chuckled. "And now they want us to find him. Do we have to clean up for everybody's mistakes? Hold on a minute. Command, volume lower . . . lower." Music in the background diminished.
The tech who'd accompanied Sachs down the gloomy corridor returned with tall lamps on tripods. She set them up in the lobby and clicked the switch.
There's a lot of debate about the proper way to process a scene. Generally investigators agree that less is more, though most departments still use teams of CS searchers. Before his accident Lincoln Rhyme, however, had run most scenes alone and he insisted that Amelia Sachs do the same. With other searchers around, you tend to be distracted and are often less vigilant because you feel—even if only subconsciously—that your partner will find what you miss.
But there was another reason for solitary searching. Rhyme recognized that there's a macabre intimacy about criminal violation. A crime scene searcher working alone is better able to forge a mental relationship with the victim and the perpetrator, gather better insights into what is the relevant evidence and where it might be found.
It was into this difficult state of mind that Amelia Sachs now slipped as she gazed at the body of the young woman, lying on the floor, next to a fiberboard table.
Near the body were a spilled cup of coffee, sheet music, a music case and a piece of the woman's silver flute, which she'd apparently been in the act of assembling when the killer flipped the rope around her neck. In her death grip she clutched another cylinder of the instrument. Had she intended to use it as a weapon?
Or did the desperate young woman just want to feel something familiar and comforting in her fingers as she died?
"I'm at the body, Rhyme," she said as she snapped digital pictures of the corpse.
"She's on her back—but the respondings found her on her abdomen.
They turned her over to give her CPR. Injuries consistent with strangulation."
Sachs now delicately rolled the woman back onto her belly. "Hands're in some kind of old-fashioned cuffs. I don't recognize them. Her watch is broken. Stopped at exactly eight a.m. Doesn't look accidental." She closed her gloved hand around the woman's narrow wrist. It was shattered. "Yep, Rhyme, he stomped on it. And it's nice. A Seiko. Why break it? Why not steal it?"
"Good question, Sachs. . . . Might be a clue, might be nothing."
Which was as good a slogan for forensic science as any, she reflected.
"One of the respondings cut the rope around her neck. She missed the knot." Officers should never cut through the knot to remove a cord from a strangulation victim; it can reveal a great deal of information about the person who tied it.
Sachs then used a tape roller to collect trace evidence—recent forensic thinking was that a portable vacuum cleaner, which resembled a Dustbuster, picked up too much trace. Most CS teams were switching to rollers similar to dog-hair removers. She bagged the trace and used a vic kit to take hair combings and nail scraping samples from the woman's body.
Sachs said, "I'm going to walk the grid."
The phrase—of Lincoln Rhyme's own creation—came from his preference for searching a crime scene. The grid pattern is the most comprehensive method: back and forth in one direction, then turning perpendicular and covering the same ground again, always remembering to examine the ceiling and walls as well as the ground or floor.
She began the search now, looking for discarded or dropped objects, rolling for trace, taking electrostatic prints of shoeprints and digital photos.
The photo team would make a comprehensive still and video record of the scene but getting those images took time and Rhyme always insisted on having some photographic record available instantly.
"Officer?" Sellitto called.
She glanced back.
"Just wondering. . . . Since we don't know where this asshole got to, you want some backup in there?"
"Nope," she said, silently thanking him for reminding her that there was a missing murderer last seen nearby. Another of Lincoln Rhyme's crime scene aphorisms: search well but watch your back. She tapped the butt of her Glock to remind herself exactly where it was in case she needed to draw fast—the holster rode slightly higher when she wore the Tyvek jumpsuit—and continued the search.
"Okay, got something," she told Rhyme a moment later. "In the lobby. About ten feet away from the victim. Piece of black cloth. Silk. I mean, it appears to be silk. It's on top of a part of the vic's flute so it has to be his or hers."
"Interesting," Rhyme mused. "Wonder what that's about."
The lobby yielded nothing else and she entered the performance space itself, her hand continuing to stray to the butt of her Glock. She relaxed momentarily, seeing that there was in fact absolutely no hiding place where a perp could be, no secret doorways or exits. But as she started on the grid here she felt a growing sense of discomfort.
Spooky . . .
"Rhyme, this is strange. . . ."
"I can't hear you, Sachs."
She realized that in her uneasiness she'd been whispering.
"There's burned string tied around the chairs that're lying on the ground. Fuses too, it looks like. I smell nitrate and sulfur residue. The reportings said he fired a round. But it's not the smell of smokeless powder.
It's something else. Ah, okay. . . . It's a little gray firecracker. Maybe that was the gunshot they heard. . . . Hold on. There's something else—under a chair. It's a small green circuit board with a speaker attached to it."
"‘Small'?" Rhyme asked caustically. "A foot is small compared with an acre. An acre's small compared with a hundred acres, Sachs."
"Sorry. Measures about two inches by five."
"That'd be big compared with a dime, now, wouldn't it?"
Got the message, thank you very much, she replied silently.
She bagged everything, then left by the second door—the fire door—and electrostaticked and photographed the footprints she found there. Finally, she took control samples to compare against the trace found on the victim and where the unsub had walked. "Got everything, Rhyme. I'll be back in a half hour."
"And the trapdoors, the secret passages everybody's talking about?"
"I can't find any."
"All right, come on home, Sachs."
She returned to the lobby and let Photo and Latents take over the scene.
She found Franciscovich and Ausonio by the doorway. "You find the janitor?"
she asked. "I need to look at his shoes."
Ausonio shook her head. "He told the guard he had to take his wife to work. I left a message with maintenance for him to call."
Her partner said solemnly, "Hey, Officer, we were talking, Nancy and me? And we don't want this scumbag to get away. If there's anything more we can do, you know, to follow up, let us know."
Sachs understood exactly how they felt. "I'll see what I can do," she told them.
Sellitto's radio crackled and he took the call. Listened for a moment. "It's the Hardy Boys. They've finished interviewing the wits and're in the main lobby."
Sachs, Sellitto and the two patrolwomen returned to the front of the school. There they joined Bedding and Saul, one of them tall, one short, one with freckles, one with a clear complexion. These were detectives from the Big Building who specialized in canvassing—post-crime interviewing of witnesses.
"We talked to the seven people here this morning."
"Plus the guard."
Also called the Twins, despite very different appearances, the duo were skilled at double-teaming perps and witnesses alike. It got too confusing if you tried to tell them apart. Lump them together and consider them one person, they were a lot easier to understand.
"The information was not the most illuminating."
"For one thing everybody was freaked out."
"The location's not helping." A nod toward a wad of cobwebs hanging from the dark, water-stained ceiling.
"Nobody knew the victim very well. When she got here this morning she walked to the recital room with a friend. She—"
"—didn't see anybody inside. They stood in the lobby for five, ten minutes, talking. The friend left around eight."
"So," said Rhyme, who'd overheard on the radio, "he was inside the lobby waiting for her."
"The victim," the shorter of the two sandy-haired detectives said, "had come over here from Georgia—"
"That's the Russia Georgia, not the peachtree Georgia."
"—about two months ago. She was kind of a loner."
"The consulate's contacting her family."
"All the other students were in different practice rooms today and none of them heard anything or saw anybody they didn't know."
"Why wasn't Svetlana in a practice room?" Sachs asked.
"Her friend said Svetlana liked the acoustics better in the hall."
"Husband, boyfriend, girlfriend?" Sachs asked, thinking of rule number one in homicide investigations: the doer usually knows the doee.
"None that the other students knew."
"How'd he get into the building?" Rhyme asked and Sachs relayed the question.
The guard said, "Only door's open is the front one. We got fire doors, course. But you can't open them from the outside."
"And he'd have to walk past you, right?"
"And sign in. And get his picture took by the camera."
Sachs glanced up. "There's a security camera, Rhyme, but it looks like the lens hasn't been cleaned in months."
They gathered behind the desk. The guard punched buttons and played the tape. Bedding and Saul had vetted seven of the people. But they agreed that one person—a brown-haired, bearded older man in jeans and bulky jacket—hadn't been among those they'd talked to.
"That's him," Franciscovich said. "That's the killer." Nancy Ausonio nodded.
On the fuzzy tape he was signing the register book then walking inside. The guard glanced at the book, but not at the man's face, as he signed it.
"Did you get a look at him?" Sachs asked.
"Didn't pay no attention," he said defensively. "If they sign I let them in.
That's all I gotta do. That's my job. I'm here mostly to keep folk from walking out with our stuff."
"We've got his signature at least, Rhyme. And a name. They'll be fake but at least it's a handwriting sample. Which line did he sign on?" Sachs asked, picking up the sign-in book with latex-clad fingers.
They ran the tape, fast-forward, from the beginning. The killer was the fourth person to sign the book. But in the fourth slot was a woman's name.
Rhyme called, "Count all the people who signed."
Sachs told the guard to do so and they watched nine people fill in their names—eight students, including the victim, and her killer.
"Nine people sign, Rhyme. But there are only eight names on the list."
"How'd that happen?" Sellitto asked.
Rhyme: "Ask the guard if he's sure the perp signed. Maybe he faked it."
She put the question to the placid man.
"Yeah, he did. I saw it. I don't always look at their faces but I make sure they sign."
That's all I gotta do. That's my job.
Sachs shook her head and dug into the cuticle of her thumb with another nail.
"Well, bring me the sign-in book with everything else and we'll have a look at it here," Rhyme said.
In the corner of the room a young Asian woman stood hugging herself and looking out the uneven leaded glass. She turned and looked at Sachs. "I heard you talking. You said, I mean, it sounded like you didn't know if he got out of the building after he . . . afterward. You think he's still here?"
"No, I don't," Sachs said. "I just meant we're not sure how he escaped."
"But if you don't know that, then it means he could still be hiding here, somewhere. Waiting for somebody else. And you don't have any idea where he is."
Sachs gave her a reassuring smile. "We'll have plenty of officers around until we get to the bottom of what happened. You don't have to worry."
Though she was thinking: The girl was absolutely right. Yes, he could be here, waiting for somebody else.
And, no, we don't have a clue who or where he is.
And now, Revered Audience, we'll take a short intermission. Enjoy the memory of the Lazy Hangman . . . and relish the anticipation of what's coming up soon.
Our next act will begin shortly. . . .
The man walked along Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When he reached one street corner he stopped, as if he'd forgotten something, and stepped into the shadow of a building. He pulled his cell phone off his belt and lifted it to his ear. As he spoke, smiling from time to time, the way people do on mobiles, he gazed around him casually, also a common practice for cell-phone users.
He was not, however, actually making a call. He was looking for any sign that he'd been followed from the music school.
Malerick's present appearance was very different from his incarnation when he'd escaped from the school earlier that morning. He was now blond and beardless and wearing a jogging outfit with a high-necked athletic shirt. Had passersby been looking they might have noticed a few oddities in his physique: leathery scar tissue peeked over the top of his collar and along his neck, and two fingers—little and ring—of his left hand were fused together. But no one was looking. Because his gestures and expressions were natural, and—as all illusionists know—acting naturally makes you invisible. Finally content that he hadn't been followed, he resumed his casual gait, turning the corner down a cross street, and continued along the tree-lined sidewalk to his apartment. Around him were only a few joggers and two or three locals returning home with the Times and Zabar's bags, looking forward to coffee, a leisurely hour with the newspaper and perhaps some unhurried weekend morning sex.
Malerick walked up the stairs to the apartment he'd rented here a few months ago, a dark, quiet building very different from his house and workshop in the desert outside Las Vegas. He made his way to the apartment in the back.
As I was saying, our next act will begin shortly.
For now, Revered Audience, gossip about the illusion you've just seen, enjoy some conversation with those around you, try to guess what's next on the bill.
Our second routine will involve very different skills to test our performer but will be, I assure you, every bit as compelling as the Lazy Hangman.
These words and dozens more looped automatically through Malerick's mind. Revered Audience. . . . He spoke to this imaginary assembly constantly. (He sometimes heard their applause and shouts of laughter and, occasionally, gasps of horror.) A white noise of words, in that broad theatrical intonation a greasepainted ringmaster or a Victorian illusionist would use. Patter, it was called—a monologue directed to the audience to give them information they need to know to make a trick work, to build rapport with the audience. And to disarm and distract them too.
After the fire, Malerick cut off most contact with fellow human beings, and his imagined Revered Audience slowly replaced them, becoming his constant companions. The patter soon began to fill his waking thoughts and dreams and threatened, he sometimes felt, to drive him completely insane. At the same time, though, it gave him intense comfort, knowing that he hadn't been left completely alone in life after the tragedy three years ago. His revered audience was always with him.
The apartment smelled of cheap varnish and a curious meaty aroma rising from the wallpaper and floors. The place had come lightly furnished: inexpensive couches and armchairs, a functional dining room table, currently set for one. The bedrooms, on the other hand, were packed—filled with the tools of the illusionist's trade: props, rigs, ropes, costumes, latex molding equipment, wigs, bolts of cloth, a sewing machine, paints, squibs, makeup, circuit boards, wires, batteries, flash paper and cotton, spools of fuse, woodworking tools . . . a hundred other items.
He made herbal tea and sat at the dining room table, sipping the weak beverage and eating fruit and a low-fat granola bar. Illusion is a physical art and one's act is only as good as one's body. Eating healthy food and working out were vital to success.
He was pleased with this morning's act. He'd killed the first performer easily—recalling with shivery pleasure how she'd stiffened with shock when he'd appeared behind her and slipped the rope around her neck. Never a clue he'd been waiting in the corner, under the black silk, for a half hour.
The surprise entrance by the police—well, that'd shaken him. But like all good illusionists Malerick had prepared an out, which he'd executed perfectly. He finished his breakfast and took the cup into the kitchen, washed it carefully and set it in a rack to dry. He was meticulous in all his ways; his mentor, a fierce, obsessive, humorless illusionist, had beaten discipline into him. The man now went into the larger of the bedrooms and put on the videotape he'd made of the site of the next performance. He'd seen this tape a dozen times and, though he virtually had it memorized, he was now going to study it again. (His mentor had also beaten into him—literally sometimes—the importance of the 100:1 rule. You rehearse one hundred minutes for every one minute onstage.)
As he watched the tape he pulled a velvet-covered performing table toward him. Not watching his hands, Malerick practiced some simple card maneuvers: the False Dovetail Shuffle, the Three-Pile False Cut then some trickier ones: the Reverse Sliparound, the Glide and the Deal-Off Force. He ran through some actual tricks, complicated ones, like Stanley Palm's Ghost Cards, Maldo's famous Six-Card Mystery and several others by the famous card master and actor Ricky Jay, others by Cardini.
Malerick also did some of the card tricks that had been in Harry Houdini's early repertoire. Most people think of Houdini as an escapist but the performer had actually been a well-rounded magician, who performed illusion —large-scale stage tricks like vanishing assistants and elephants—as well as parlor magic. Houdini had been an important influence in his life. When he first started performing, in his teens, Malerick used as a performing name "Young Houdini." The "erick" portion of his present name was both a remnant of his former life—his life before the fire—and an homage to Houdini himself, who'd been born Ehrich Weisz. As for the prefix "Mal" a magician might suspect that it was taken from another world-famous performer, Max Breit, who performed under the name Malini. But in fact, Malerick had picked the three letters because they came from the Latin root for "evil," which reflected the dark nature of his brand of illusion.
He now studied the tape, measuring angles, noting windows and the location of possible witnesses, blocking out his positions as all good performers do. And as he watched, the cards in his fingers riffled together in lightning-fast shuffles that hissed like snakes. The kings and jacks and queens and jokers and all the rest of the cards slithered onto the black velvet and then seemed to defy gravity as they leaped back into his strong hands, where they vanished from sight. Watching this impromptu performance, an audience would shake their heads, half-convinced that reality had given way to delusion, that a human being couldn't possibly do what they were observing.
But the truth was the opposite: the card tricks Malerick was now performing absently on the plush black cloth were not miraculous at all; they were merely carefully rehearsed exercises in dexterity and perception, governed by mundane rules of physics.
Oh, yes, Revered Audience, what you've seen and what you're about to see are very real.
As real as fire burning flesh.
As real as a rope knotted around a young girl's white neck.
As real as the circuit of the clock hands moving slowly toward the horror that our next performer is about to experience.
The young woman sat down beside the bed where her mother lay. Out the window in the manicured courtyard she saw a tall oak tree on the trunk of which grew a tentacle of ivy in a shape that she'd had interpreted a number of ways over the past months. Today the anemic vine wasn't a dragon or a flock of birds or a soldier. It was simply a city plant struggling to survive.
"So. How you feeling, Mum?" Kara asked.
The appellation grew out of one of the family's many vacations—this one to England. Kara had given them all nicknames: "His Kingness" and the "Queenly Mum" for her parents. She herself had been the "Royal Kid."
"Just fine, darling. And how's life treating you?"
"Better than some, not as good as others. Hey, you like?" Kara held up her hand to show off her short, evenly filed fingernails, which were black as a grand piano's finish.
"Lovely, darling. I was getting a bit tired of the pink. You see it everywhere nowadays. Awfully conventional."
Kara stood and adjusted the down pillow under her mother's head. Then sat again and sipped from the large Starbucks container; coffee was her sole drug but the addiction was intense, not to mention expensive, and this was her third cup of the morning.
Her hair was cut in a boyish style, currently colored auburn-purple, having been pretty much every color of the spectrum at some point in her years in New York City. Pixieish, some people said of the cut, a description she hated; Kara herself described the do simply as "convenient." She could be out her door minutes after stepping from the shower—a true benefit for someone who tended not to get to bed before 3:00 a.m. and who was definitely not a morning person.
Today she wore black stretch pants and, though she was not much over five feet, flat shoes. Her dark purple top was sleeveless and revealed taut, cut muscles. Kara had attended a college where art and politics took precedence over the cult of the physique but after graduating from Sarah Lawrence she'd joined Gold's Gym and was now a regular weight-pumper and treadmill runner. One would expect an eight-year resident of bohemian Greenwich Village, hovering somewhere in her late twenties, to dabble in body art or to sport at least a latent ring or stud but Kara's very white skin was tattoofree and unpierced.
"Now, check this out, Mum. I've got a show tomorrow. One of Mr. Balzac's little things. You know."
"But this time it's different. This time he's letting me go on solo. I'm warm-up and main bill rolled into one."
"True as toast."
Outside the doorway Mr. Geldter shuffled past. "Hello, there."
Kara nodded at him. She recalled that when her mother had first come to Stuyvesant Manor, one of the city's best aging facilities, the woman and the widower had caused quite a stir.
"They think we're shacking up," she'd told her daughter in a whisper.
"Are you?" Kara had asked, thinking it was about time her mother struck up a relationship with a man after five years of widowhood.
"Of course not!" her mother had hissed, truly angry. "What a thing to suggest." (The incident defined the woman perfectly: a hint of the bawdy was fine but there was a very clear line—established arbitrarily—past which you would become The Enemy, even if you were her flesh and blood.)
Kara continued, rocking forward excitedly and telling her mother in an animated way about what she planned for tomorrow. As she spoke she studied her mother closely, the skin oddly smooth for a woman in her midseventies and as healthy pink as a crying baby's, hair mostly gray but with plenty of defiant wiry black strands scattered throughout. The staff beautician had done it up in a stylish bun. "Anyway, Mum, some friends'll be there and it'd be great if you could come too."
Kara, now sitting on the very edge of the armchair, realized suddenly that her fists were clenched, her body a knot of tension. Her breath was coming in shallow sibilant gasps.
I'll try. . . .
Kara closed her eyes, filling with slivers of tears. Goddamnit!
I'll try. . . .
No, no, no, that's all wrong, she thought angrily. Her mother wouldn't say, "I'll try." That wasn't her sort of dialogue. It might be: "I'll be there, hons. In the first row." Or she'd say frostily, "Well, I can't tomorrow. You should've let me know earlier."
Whatever else about her mother, there was nothing I'll-try about her. Balls-out for you, or hell-to-pay against.
Except now—when the woman was hardly a human being at all. At most a child, sleeping with her eyes open.
The conversation Kara had just had with the woman had occurred only in the girl's hopeful imagination. Well, Kara's portion had been real. But her mother's, from the Just fine, darling. And how's life treating you? to the glitch of I'll try, had been ginned up by Kara herself.
No, her mother hadn't said a single word today. Or during yesterday's visit. Or the one before. She'd lain beside the ivy window in some kind of waking coma. Some days she was like that. On others, the woman might be fully awake but babbling scary nonsense that only attested to the success of the invisible army moving relentlessly through her brain, torching memory and reason.
But there was a more pernicious part of the tragedy. Once in a rare while, there'd be a fragile moment of clarity, which, brief though it was, perfectly negated her despair. Just when Kara had come to accept the worst—that the mother she knew was gone forever—the women would return, just like in the days before the cerebral hemorrhage. And Kara's defenses vanished, the same way an abused woman forgives her slugging husband at the slightest hint of contrition. At moments like that she'd convince herself that her mother was improving.
The doctors said that there was virtually no hope for this, of course. Still, the doctors hadn't been at her mother's bedside when, several months ago, the woman woke up and turned suddenly to Kara. "Hi there, hons. I ate those cookies you brought me yesterday. You put in extra pecans the way I like them. And heck with the calories." A girlish smile. "Oh, I'm glad you're here. I wanted to tell you what Mrs. Brandon did last night. With the remote control."
Kara had blinked, stunned. Because, damn, she had brought her mother pecan sandies the day before and had stocked them with extra nuts. And, yes, crazy Mrs. Brandon from the fifth floor hadcopped a remote and bounced the signal off the windows next door into the nursing home's lounge, confounding the residents for a half hour by changing channels and volume like a poltergeist.
There! Who needed better evidence than this that her vibrant mother, her real mother remained within the injured shell of a body and could someday escape.
But the next day Kara had found the woman staring at her daughter suspiciously, asking why she was there and what she wanted. If this was about the electric bill for twenty-two dollars and fifteen cents she'd paid it and had the canceled check for proof. Since the pecan-sandy/remote-control performance there'd been no encores.
Kara now touched her mother's arm, warm, wrinkle-free, baby pink. Sensing what she always did here on her daily visits: the numbing trilogy of wishing that the woman would mercifully die, wishing that she'd come back to her vibrant life—and wishing that Kara herself could escape from the terrible burden of wanting both of those irreconcilable choices.
A glance at her watch. Late for work, as always. Mr. Balzac wouldnot be happy. Saturday was their busiest day. She drained the coffee cup, pitched it out and walked into the hallway.
A large black woman in a white uniform lifted a hand in greeting. "Kara! How long you been here?" A broad smile in a broad face.
"I would've come by and visited," Jaynene said. "She still awake?"
"No. She was out when I got here."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Was she talking before?" Kara asked.
"Yep. Just little things. Couldn't tell if she was with us or not. Seemed like it. . . . This is some gorgeous day, hm? Sephie and me, we're gonna take her walking in the courtyard later if she's awake. She likes it. She always does better after that."
"I've gotta get to work," Kara told the nurse. "Hey, I'm doing a show tomorrow. At the store. Remember where it is?"
"Sure do. What time?"
"Four. Come on by."
"I'm off early tomorrow. I'll be there. We'll drink some more of those peach margaritas after. Like last time."
"That'll work," Kara replied. "Hey, bring Pete."
The woman scowled. "Girl, nothing personal, but th'only way that man'll see you on Sunday is if you're playing the halftime show for the Knicks or the Lakers an' it's on network TV."
Kara said, "From your mouth to God's ear."
Excerpted from THE VANISHED MAN © Copyright 20043 by Jeffery Deaver. Reprinted with permission by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
The Vanished Man