James Qatar dropped his feet over the edge of the bed and
rubbed the back of his neck, a momentary veil of depression falling
upon him. He was sitting naked on the rumpled sheets, the smell of
sex lingering like a rude perfume. He could hear Ellen Barstad in
the kitchen. She’d turned on the radio she kept by the sink,
and "Cinnamon Girl" bubbled through the small rooms. Dishes tinkled
against cups, fingernail scratches through the melody of the
"Cinnamon Girl" wasn’t right for this day, for this time, for
what was about to happen. If he were to have music, he thought,
maybe Shostakovich, a few measures from the Lyric Waltz in Jazz
Suite Number 2. Something sweet, yet pensive, with a taste of
tragedy; Qatar was an intellectual, and he knew his music.
He stood up, wobbled into the bathroom, flushed the Trojan in the
toilet, washed perfunctorily, and studied himself in the mirror
above the sink. Great eyes, he thought, suitably deep-set for a man
of intellect. A good nose, trim, not fleshy. His pointed chin made
his face into an oval, a reflection of sensitivity. He was admiring
the image when his eyes drifted to the side of his nose: a whole
series of small dark hairs were emerging from the line where his
nose met his cheek. He hated that.
He found a set of tweezers in the medicine cabinet and carefully
tweezed them away, then took a couple of hairs from the bridge of
his nose, between his eyebrows. Checked his ears. His ears were
okay. The tweezers were pretty good, he thought: you didn’t
find tweezers like this every day. He’d take them with
him-she wouldn’t miss them.
Now. Where was he?
Ah. Barstad. He had to stay focused. He went back to the bedroom,
put the tweezers in a jacket pocket, dressed, put on his shoes,
then returned to the bathroom to check his hair. Just a touch with
the comb. When he was satisfied, he rolled out twenty feet of
toilet paper and wiped everything he might have touched in the
bedroom and bathroom. The police would be coming around sooner or
He hummed as he worked, nothing intricate: Bach, maybe. When
he’d finished cleaning up, he threw the toilet paper into the
toilet, pressed the handle with his knuckles, and watched it
Ellen Barstad heard the toilet flush a second time and wondered
what was keeping him. All this toilet flushing was less than
romantic; she needed some romance. Romance, she thought, and a
little decent sex. James Qatar had been a severe disappointment, as
had been all of the few lovers in her life. All eager to get aboard
and pound away; none much concerned with her, though they said they
“That was really great, Ellen,
you’re great-pass me that beer,
will ya? Ya got great tits, did I tell you that . . . ?”
Her love life to this point-three men, six years-had been a pale
reflection of the ecstasies described in her books. So far, she
felt more like a sausage-making machine than the lover in the Song
of Solomon: Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a
gazelle that browse among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the
shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of
incense. All beautiful you are, my darling, there is no flaw in
Where was that? Huh? Where was it? That’s what she wanted. Somebody to climb her
mountain of myrrh.
James Qatar might not look like much, she thought, but there was a
sensual quality in his eyes, and a hovering cruelty that she found
intriguing. She’d never been pushy, had never pushed anything
in her life. But as she stood with her hands in the dishwater, she
decided to push this. If she didn’t, what was the
Time was passing-with her youth.
Barstad was a fabric artist who did some weaving, but mostly made
quilts. She couldn’t make a living at it yet, but her
quilting income was increasing month by month, and in another year
or two she might be able to quit her day job.
She lived illegally in a storefront in a Minneapolis warehouse
district. The front of the space was an open bay, full of quilting
frames and material bins. The back she’d built herself, with
salvaged drywall and two-by-fours: She’d enclosed the toilet
and divided the rest of the space into bedroom, sitting area, and
kitchen. The kitchen amounted to a tabletop electric stove and a
fifties refrigerator, with a bunch of old doors mounted on
sawhorses as countertops. And it was all just fine for an artist in
her twenties, with bigger things ahead. . . .
Like great sex, she thought-if he’d ever get out of the
The rope was in his jacket, balled up. Qatar took it out and pulled
his hand down the length of it, as though to strip away its
history. Eighteen inches long, it had begun life as the starter
rope on a Mercury outboard motor-one end still had the rubber
pull-handle. The rope had been with him, he thought, for almost
half his life. When he’d eliminated the tangles, he coiled it
neatly around the fingers of his left hand, slipped the coil off
his fingers, and pushed it carefully into his hip pocket. Old
Barstad had been a brutal disappointment. She’d been nothing
like her images had suggested she’d be. She’d been
absolutely white-bread, nothing but
spread-your-legs-and-close-your-eyes. He couldn’t continue
with a woman like that.
The postcoital depression began leaking away, to be replaced by the
half-forgotten killing mood-a fitful state, combining a blue,
close-focused excitement with a scratchy, unpleasant fear. He
picked up his jacket and carried it into the living room, a space
just big enough for a couch and coffee table, hung it neatly on the
back of a wooden rocking chair, and walked to the corner of the
The kitchen smelled a little of chicken soup, a little of seasoned
salt, a little of cut celery, all pulled together by the hum of the
refrigerator and the sound of the radio. Barstad was there, with
both hands in dishwater. She was absently mouthing the words to a
soft-rock tune that Qatar didn’t recognize, and moving her
body with it in that self-conscious, upper-Midwest way.
Barstad had honey-blond hair and blue eyes under pale, almost white
eyebrows. She dressed down, in Minnesota fashion, in earth-colored
shifts, turtlenecks, dark tights, and clunky shoes. The
church-mouse clothes did not completely conceal an excellent body,
created by her Scandinavian genes and toned by compulsive
bicycle-riding. All wasted on her, Qatar thought. He stepped into
the kitchen, and she saw him and smiled shyly. "How are you?" she
"Wonderful," he said, twinkling at her, the rope pressing in his
hip pocket. She’d known the sex hadn’t been that
good-that’s why she’d fled to her dishes. He bent
forward, his hands at her waist, and kissed her on the neck. She
smelled like yellow Dial soap. "Absolutely the best."
"I hope it will get better," she said, blushing. She had a sponge
in her hand. "I know it wasn’t everything you expected. . .
"You are such a pretty woman," he said. He touched the side of her
neck, cooing at her. "Such a pretty woman."
He pushed his hips against her, and she moved her butt back against
him. "And you are such a liar," she said. She was not good at small
talk. "But keep it up."
"Mmmm." The rope was in his hand.
His fingers fit over the T of the handle; he would loop it over her
chin, he thought, so that it wouldn’t get hung up by the
turtleneck. He would have to pull her over, he thought; get a foot
wedged behind hers and jerk hard, backward and down, then hang her
over the floor, so that her own weight would strangle her. Had to
watch for fingernails, and to control the attitude of her body with
his knees. Fingernails were like knives. He turned one foot to
block her heels, so that she would trip over it when she went
Careful here, he thought. No mistakes now.
"I know that wasn’t too great," she said, not looking back at
him. A pink flush crawled up her neck, but she continued, doggedly,
"I haven’t had that much experience, and the men . . .
weren’t very . . . good." She was struggling with the words.
This was hard. "You could show me a lot about sex. I’d like
to know. I really would. I’d like to know everything. If we
could find a way to talk about it without being too, you know,
embarrassed about it."
She derailed him.
He’d been one second from taking her, and her words barely
penetrated the killing fog. But they got through.
She wanted what? To learn about sex, a lot about sex? The idea was
an erotic slap in the face, like something from a bad pornographic
film, where the housewife asks the plumber to show her how to . .
He stood frozen for a moment, then she half-turned and gave him the
shy, sexy smile that had attracted him in the first place. Qatar
pushed against her again and fumbled the rope back into his hip
"I think we could work something out," he said, his voice thick.
And he thought, silently amused: Talk dirty-save your life.
James Qatar was an art history professor and a writer, a womanizer
and genial pervert and pipe smoker, a thief and a laughing man and
a killer. He thought of himself as sensitive and engaged, and tried
to live up to that image. He kissed Barstad once more on the back
of the neck, cupped one of her breasts for a moment, then said,
"I’ve got to go. Maybe we could get together
"Do you, uh . . ." She was blushing again. "Do you have any sexy
"Movies?" He heard her, but he was astonished.
"You know, sexy movies," she said, turning into him. "Maybe if we
had a sexy movie, we could, you know . . . talk about what works
and what doesn’t."
"You could be really good at this," he said.
"I’ll try," she said. She was flaming pink, but she was
Qatar left the apartment with a vague feeling of regret. Barstad
had mentioned that she had to go to the bank later in the day.
She’d gotten enrollment fees for a quilting class, and had
two hundred dollars in checks she’d wanted to deposit-and she
had almost four hundred dollars in cash, which she would not
deposit, to avoid the taxes.
The money could have been his; and she had some nice jewelry, gifts
from her parents, worth maybe another thousand. There was some
miscellaneous stuff, as well: cameras, some of her drawing
equipment, an IBM laptop, and a Palm III that, together, could have
pulled in a couple of hundred more.
He could have used the cash. The new light topcoats for the coming
season were hip-length, and he’d seen the perfect example at
Neiman Marcus: six hundred fifty dollars, on sale, with a wool
lining. A pair of cashmere sweaters, two pairs of slacks, and the
right shoes would cost another two thousand. He’d been only
seconds away from it. . . .
Was sex better than cashmere? He wasn’t sure. It was quite
possible, he mused, that no matter what Barstad was willing to do
in bed, she would never be as good as Armani.
James Qatar was five feet, eleven ten inches tall, slender and
balding, with a thin blond beard that he kept closely cropped. He
liked the three-days-without-shaving look, the open-collar,
striped-shirt, busy-intellectual image. He was fair-skinned, with
smile lines at the corners of his mouth, and just a hint of
crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes. He had delicate hands
with long fingers. He worked out daily on a rowing machine, and in
the summer on blades; he would not ever have thought of himself as
a brave man, but he did have a style of courage built on willpower.
He never failed to do what he wanted to do, or needed to.
The smile lines on his face came from laughing: he wasn’t
jolly, exactly, but he’d perfected a long, rolling laugh. He
laughed at jokes, at wit, at cynicism, at travail, at cruelty, at
life, at death. Years before he’d cornered a coed in his
office once, thinking that she might come across, thinking that he
might kill her if she did, but she hadn’t. She’d said,
instead, "All that laughing doesn’t fool me, Jimbo.
You’ve got mean little eyes like a pig. I can see the
On her way out, she’d turned-posing her coed tits perfectly
in profile-and said, "I won’t be coming back to class, but I
better get an A for the semester. If you read my meaning."
He’d let out his rolling laugh, a little regretfully, peered
at her with his mean eyes, and said, "I didn’t like you until
now. Now I like you."
He’d delivered the A, and considered it earned.
Qatar was an art historian and associate professor at St.
Patrick’s University, author of Not a Pipe: The Surfaces of
Midwestern Painting 1966-1990, which had been favorably reviewed in
Chicken Little, the authorative quarterly of late-postmodern arts;
and also Planes on Plains: Native Cubists of the Red River Valley
1915-1930, which the reviewer for the Fargo Forum had called
"seminal." He’d begun college as a studio artist, but
switched to art history after a cold-eyed appraisal of his
talents-good, but not great-and an equally cold appraisal of an
average artist’s earning potential.
He’d done well with his true interests: blond women, art
history, wine, murder, and his home, which he’d decorated
with Arts and Crafts furniture. Even, since the arrival of digital
photography, with art itself.
Art of a sort.
The school provided computers, Internet connections, video
projectors, slide scanners, all the tools required by an art
historian. He found that he could scan a photo into his computer
and process it through Photoshop, eliminating much of the confusing
complexity. He could then project it onto a piece of drawing paper
and draw over the photo.
This was not considered entirely proper in the art community, so he
kept his experiments secret. He imagined himself someday popping an
entire oeuvre of sensational drawings on a stunned New York art
It had been just that innocent in the beginning. A dream. His
historian’s eye told him that the first drawings were
mediocre; but as he became more expert with the various tools in
Photoshop, and with the pen itself, the drawings became cleaner and
sharper. They actually became good. Still not good enough to
provide a living, but good enough to engage his other enthusiasms.
. . .
He could download a nude from one of the endless Internet porno
sites, process it, print it, project it, and produce a fantasy that
appealed both to his sense of aesthetics and to his need to
The next step was inevitable. After a few weeks of working with
appropriated photos, he found that he could lift the face from one
photo and fit it to another. He acquired an inconspicuous Fuji
digital camera and began taking surreptitious pictures of women
Women he wanted. He would scan the woman’s face into the
computer, use Photoshop to match it, and graft it to an appropriate
body from a porno site. The drawing was necessary to eliminate the
inevitable and incongruous background effects and the differences
of photo resolutions; the drawings produced a whole.
Produced an object of desire.
Qatar desired women. Blond women, of a particular shape and size.
He would fix on a woman and build imaginary stories around her.
Some of the woman he knew well, others not at all. He’d once
had an intensely sexual relationship with a woman he’d seen
only once, for a few seconds, getting into a car in the parking lot
of a bagel shop, a flash of long legs and nylons, the hint of a
garter belt. He’d dreamed of her for weeks.
The new computer-drawing process was even better, and allowed him
to indulge in anything. Anything. He could have any woman he
wanted, and any way. The discovery excited him almost as much as
killing. Then, almost as a by-product, he’d discovered the
power of his Art as a weapon.
His first use of it had been almost thoughtless, a sociology
professor from the University of Minnesota who had, years before,
rejected his interest. He’d snapped her one day as she walked
across the pedestrian bridge toward the student union, unaware of
his presence. Theirs had not been a planned encounter, but purely
After processing the photo, and a dozen trial sketches, he’d
produced a brilliant likeness of her face, attached to a grossly
gynecological shot from the Internet. The drawing had the weird,
sprawling foreshortening that he’d never gotten right in his
He mailed the drawing to her.
As he prepared to do it, it occurred to him that he might
be-probably was-committing a crime of some kind. Qatar was not
unfamiliar with crime, and the care that comes with the dedicated
commission of capital offenses. He redid the drawing and used a new
unhandled envelope, to eliminate any fingerprints.
After mailing it, he did nothing more. His imagination supplied
multiple versions of her reaction, and that was enough.
Well. Not quite enough. In the past three years, he’d
repeated the drawing attacks seventeen times. The thrill was not
the same as the killing-lacked the specificity and intensity-but it
was deeply pleasurable. He would sit in his old-fashioned wooden
rocker, eyes closed, thinking of his women as they opened the
letters. . . . And thinking of those others as they fought the
He’d met Barstad because of the drawings. He’d seen her
at work in a bookstore; had attracted her attention when he
purchased a book on digital printing. They’d talked for a few
minutes at the cash register, and again, a few nights later, as he
browsed the art books. She was a fabric artist herself, she said,
and used a computer to create quilt patterns. The play of light,
she said, that’s the thing. I want my quilts to look like
they have window light on them, even in a room without windows. The
art talk led to coffee, to a suggestion that she might pose for
Oh, no, she’d said, I wouldn’t pose nude. That
wouldn’t be necessary, he said. He was an art professor, he
just wanted some facial studies that he could print digitally. She
agreed, and had, eventually, even taken off a few of her clothes:
her back turned to him, sitting on a stool, her glorious back
tapering down to a sheet crinkled beneath her little round butt.
The studies had been all right, but it was at home, with the
computer, that he’d done the real drawings.
He had drawn her, wined her, dined her, and finally, on this bleak
winter afternoon, fucked her and nearly killed her because she had
not lived up to her images he had created from her photographs. . .
The day after the assignation with Barstad, the low stacked-heels
of Charlotte Neumann, an ordained Episcopalian priest, author of
New Art Modalities: Woman/Sin, Sin/Woman, S/in/ister, which, the
week before, had broken through the top-10,000 barrier of the
Barnes & Noble on-line bestseller list, and who was, not
incidentally, the department chairperson, echoed down the hallway
and stopped at his door. A tall ever-angry woman with a prominent
nose and a single, dark, four-inch-long eyebrow, Neumann walked in
without knocking and said, "I need your student budget line. This
"I thought we had until next Wednesday?" He posed with a cup of
coffee held delicately in both hands, his eyebrows arched.
He’d left the steel-blue Hermes silk scarf looped around his
neck when he’d taken off his coat, and with the books behind
him, the china cup, and the scarf framing his face, he
must’ve been a striking portrait, he thought. But it was
wasted on Neumann, he thought; she was a natural Puritan.
"I’ve decided that we could avoid the confusion of last year
by having them in my office a week early, which will give me time
to eliminate any error," she said, leaving no doubt that she used
the term "error" as might a papal inquisitor: "Last year" Qatar had
been two weeks late with the budget.
"Well, that’s simply impossible," Qatar said. "If you’d
given me any notice at all . . .”
"You apparently didn’t read last week’s
departmental bulletin," she snarled. There was a light in her eye.
She’d caught him out, she thought, and he’d soon get a
corrective memo with a copy for his personnel file.
“Nobody read last week’s
departmental bulletin, Charlotte," Qatar snarled back. He’d
been widely published and was permitted a snarl. "Nobody ever reads
the departmental bulletin because the departmental bulletin, is, in
the words of the sainted Sartre, shit. Besides, I was on periodic
retreat on Thursday and Friday, as you should have known if
you’d read the memo I sent you. I never got the
"I’m sure it was placed in your mailbox."
"Elene couldn’t find her own butt, much less my mailbox. She
can’t even deliver my paycheck," Qatar said. Elene was the
"All right," Neuman said. "Then by tomorrow. By noon." She took one
step backward, into the hallway, and slammed the door.
The impact ejected Qatar from his office chair, sloshing coffee out
of his cup, across his fingers, and onto the old carpet. He took a
turn around the office, blinded by a red rage that left him
shaking. He’d chosen the life of a teacher because it was a
high calling, much higher than commerce. If he’d gone for
commerce, he’d undoubtedly be rich now; but then, he’d
be a merchant, with dirty hands. But sometimes, like this, the idea
of possessing an executive power-the power to destroy the Charlotte
Neumanns of the world-was very attractive.
He paced the office for five minutes, imaging scenarios of her
destruction, muttering through them, reciting the lines. The
visions were so clear that he could walk through them.
When the rage subsided, he felt cleaner. Purified. He poured
another cup of coffee and picked it up with a steady hand. Took a
sip, and sighed.
He would have taken pleasure in throttling the life out of
Charlotte Neumann, though not because she appealed to his
particular brand of insanity. He thought he might enjoy it the way
anyone would whose nominal supervisor enjoyed small tyrannies as
So he would get angry, he would fantasize, but he would do nothing
but snipe and backbite, like any other associate professor.
She did not engage him-did not light his fire.
The next day, passing through Saks, he found that the cashmere
sweaters had gone on sale. There wasn’t much cold weather
left, but the cashmere would wear forever. These particular
sweaters, with the slightly rolled neckline, would perfectly frame
his face, and the tailored shoulders would give him a nice wedgy
stature. He tried the sweater on, and it was perfect. A good pair
of jeans would show off his butt-he could have the legs tailored
for nine dollars a pair at a sewing place in the skyway. A
champagne suede coat and cowboy boots would complete the set . . .
but it was all too expensive.
He put the sweater back and left the store, thinking of Barstad.
She did engage his insanity: He could think of Barstad and the rope
and find himself instantly and almost painfully erect. Blondes
looked so much more naked than darker women; so much more
The next day was Wednesday: Perhaps he could buy them after
He would take the rope.
But on Tuesday evening, still thinking about Barstad and the rope,
feeling the hunger growing, he was derailed again. He arrived home
early and got a carton of milk from the refrigerator and a box of
Froot Loops from the cupboard, and sat at the table to eat. The
Star-Tribune was still on the table from the morning; he’d
barely glanced at it before he left. Now he sat down, poured milk
on the Froot Loops, and folded the paper open at random. His eye
fell straight down the page to a small article at the bottom: The
two-deck headline said "Woman Strangled/Police Seek Help."
The body of an unidentified woman was found Sunday in the Minnesota
state forest north of Cannon Falls by a local man who was scouting
for wild turkey sign. A preliminary investigation suggested that
the woman had been dead for a year or more, said Goodhue County
medical examiner Carl Boone.
"Shit." He stood up, threw the paper at the kitchen sink. Stormed
into the living room, hands clenched. "Shit, shit."
Dropped onto a chair, put his hands on his head, and wept. He wept
for a full minute, drawing in long gasping breaths, the tears
rolling down his cheeks. Any serious art historian, he felt, would
have done the same. It was called sensitivity.
After the minute, he was finished. He washed his face in cold
water, patted it dry with paper towels. Looked in the mirror and
thought: Barstad. He couldn’t touch her for the time being.
If another blonde disappeared, the police would go crazy. He would
have to wait. No sweaters. No new clothes. But maybe, he thought,
the woman would come through with some actual sex. That would be
But he could still feel her special allure, her blondness. He could
feel it in his hands, and in the vein that pulsed in his throat. He
wanted her badly. And he would have her, he thought.
Sooner or later.
Excerpted from CHOSEN PREY © Copyright 2001 by John
Sandford. Reprinted with permission form Putnam, an imprint of
Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved.