The murder seemed to unfold out of step with time.
It was past midnight. The air was cool, brisk. November was giving
way to December, and a storm was riding into Seattle. Rain clouds
had been gathering, looming low in the sky all day long. Fog lay
over the waterfront like a heavy blanket, slowly stealing into the
city on the back of a menacing, salt-laced breeze. Without a moon,
it was a particularly dark night.
A half step behind his older brother, struggling to keep pace,
Nick’s face reflected his distress. Feeling ill, he had left
the raucous, fumy bar in front of Sam, crashing through the doors
into the night like he was trying to escape. A few blocks on, his
face was sweaty, and he felt flushed, out of breath. His ears were
still ringing with music from the jazz club. Oblivious to
Nick’s discomfort, Sam led the way to the car in silence, his
back straight, his footsteps drumming a deliberate, rhythmic
The shadows were so dense that Nick and Sam could barely see the
edge of the deserted parking lot. Nick had the vague sense that
they were being watched. Neither he nor Sam, though, had any idea
that, just thirty feet away from them, crouching hidden beside a
rusted dumpster, a man dressed in rags was spying on them. Waiting.
Hypnotized by the echoing cadence of their footsteps.
The lights at the ferry landing flickered in the fuzzy darkness,
receding behind them as the two brothers crossed Alaskan Way into
the lot where they had left Sam’s new BMW a few hours
earlier. In front of them, across the lot, a public staircase
leading steeply up toward Pike Place Market disappeared into a
blackness as solid as a charcoal wall. Several clubs had let out,
and the stillness of the night was broken by distant shouts. Two
streets down, five or six drunken college students were squeezing
into a car, loudly debating whether to head back to campus or look
for an after-hours venue. The tendrils of a girl’s
high-pitched laughter cascaded shrilly through the night,
encircling the brothers like the hair of a siren, punctuated by the
metallic slam of a door. Nick hardly heard the sounds.
His hands in his pockets, hunching against the cold, his fingers
had found a wad of bills in his pocket. Nick eyed his more
successful brother. He had $357 in his checking account. If Sam
hadn’t slipped the $600 in twenties into his jacket, he
wouldn’t have had enough to make rent. Nick wanted to be
grateful. Without Sam, he would have been homeless. About a decade
before, after their parents died, he had suffered a breakdown and
lost control. Sam had taken him in and helped him through school.
Nick gripped the roll of bills, weighing it, then let it go. The
paper felt grimy, dirty. He needed the money. He wished he could
find his voice to acknowledge the gift. Resentment was welling up
inside him so strongly, though, that Nick could barely restrain
himself from hurling the bundle of cash at the back of his
brother’s head. Like a rock. Like a jagged, heavy chunk of
Nick felt his teeth clench. Sam was striding gracefully next to him
as though he hadn’t been at all affected by the vodka. His
posture was rigidly upright. Nick had never really put it into
words before, not until this very second. Sam was the more
powerful of the two. He had grown up, whereas Nick somehow
still felt like an ineffectual kid. Nick’s body stiffened.
Struggling to catch his breath, he had to fight the sensation that
Sam had gripped him around the neck and was squeezing his thumbs
into his windpipe. The asphalt danced a bit beneath his feet.
A few steps further, the small blur of movement in front of them
that presaged the attack barely caught Nick’s attention. The
darkness seemed to change shape in front of them, that was all. Sam
didn’t see it. Glancing upward, trying to pull himself from
his thoughts, Nick looked instinctively for the closest source of
light. On the edge of the dark, empty lot, an industrial streetlamp
was burning overhead, its dim bulb suffocating in a swirling pool
When the shadows shifted again, Nick reached to touch his older
brother lightly on the arm, stopping himself in mid-step. His heart
leapt. Someone was out there, no more than twenty feet in front
of them. The wind picked up off Elliott Bay, slicing through
Nick’s thin jacket, blowing the tail of his shirt in front of
him like a mast pennant.
Sam opened his mouth to ask Nick why he had stopped. He had time
only to face his brother before a blurred, ferocious shape emerged
from the darkness, rushing at them with a violence that stunned
both the brothers, rooting them to the ground. Nick couldn’t
comprehend the speed with which they were being attacked. The
whirling shape was already on top of them before it resolved itself
crisply into the form of a tall, crazed man dressed in rags.
Sam was a half step in front of Nick, in the man’s path. He
didn’t move. The wind was lifting his hair, but he stood as
still as a statue, frozen with confusion. Nick didn’t have
time to try to warn him. The man was charging them, one hand
reaching toward Sam’s shoulder, the other raised in the air
above his head, brandishing a long, sinister knife. Nick
didn’t hesitate. He leapt in front of his brother, reaching
for the man’s wrist. As he met the larger, stronger man, it
felt as if the man was going to trample him.
Nick was aware of how greasy the man’s sleeve was. The rancid
smell of the man’s clothing filled his nose. His unshaven
chin dug sharply into his cheek. When Nick reached for his other
wrist, trying to stop him, the man’s fingers sunk like nails
into his ribs. Why wasn’t Sam helping? The man was grunting,
trying to regain his footing, wrestling himself free. This was no
scuffle. He was going to kill them. Nick clung to his wrist.
“Sam, help,” he heard himself mutter. “Sam,
please.” Louder. “Sam!”
He was drowning. The man was taller than he was. His arms were
longer. His wrists felt wide and powerful as two-by-fours. When the
man finally found his balance, he pushed Nick off him and threw him
to the ground. The asphalt spun toward his face with the intensity
of a cyclone. Nick had the impression that he was landing on the
gravelly pavement face first, without breaking his fall.
Nick was only vaguely conscious of the violence that followed. The
knife described a gleaming arc through the mist. He heard the sharp
slice of its blade sinking into flesh. But the night had otherwise
gone silent. Sam shuddered then crumpled to the ground without a
sound. Nick couldn’t breathe. He was screaming without words.
Why, Sam, why? Why didn’t you protect
Nick gathered himself. His arms and his legs shook. Had he been
stabbed, too? No, he wasn’t bleeding. His forehead had hit
the pavement, and his ribs were stitched with pain, but he was all
right. He would be next, though. The man had dispensed with Sam,
and he was turning upon him.
Nick slid backward on the pavement, cowering, trying to escape. The
man was approaching him, raising the knife into the air.
“You and I are brothers.”
The man’s savage voice sent ice through Nick’s veins.
He wanted to ask him what he meant, but he couldn’t. How
are you and I brothers? Sam is my brother. Had he only
imagined the man’s words?
Nick became aware of a sudden blur of movement in the darkness just
beyond the man. His heart leapt when Sam rose up improbably from
the ground, pulling himself heroically to his feet behind the
crazed attacker. He closed upon the man like a shadow. He was going
to jump him.
The last image that registered with Nick was the man’s face.
His skin was pocked and sallow. His nose seemed to droop over his
upper lip, and it was freckled with large black pores and snaked
with veins. His eyes were watery blue and bloodshot, open too
Then the night went black.
When Nick opened his eyes, the blackness
blanketing him didn’t make sense. His legs and feet were icy
cold, and he could taste the warm, slippery, briny flavor of blood
in his mouth. For a split second he imagined he was lying frozen in
snow. He didn’t understand the sound of the fog horn behind
him or the harsh feeling of gravel against his cheek. He had opened
his eyes squinting, somehow expecting the glare of daylight.
Things pieced themselves back together gradually. He was in
Seattle. He had been sitting in a jazz club for a couple of hours.
His ears were still buzzing from the music. It had been loud, and
he and Sam had had to shout to each other just to be heard.
Nick pushed his hands against the ground, raising himself up. He
had been lying face down, his cheek pressed against something
sharp. His legs had been wide apart, almost as if he had been
sleeping, looking for a comfortable position in his slumber.
Where was he? He twisted onto his side, expecting to find
himself in the parking lot. Where were the voices and laughter of
the college students?
The air was as heavy as gauze. He recognized the splash of water
slapping against a pier and then the screech of a seagull. His body
ached all over. Sharp pains shot through his ribs every time he
tried to move, winding him. His cheek was throbbing. He raised his
fingers to his face, understanding that he had been badly cut. A
large lump had formed over his left eye.
“Sam,” he said, louder.
The gigantic shadow next to him resolved itself into the hull of a
ship, rising out of the fog beside a pier fifty yards away, across
a stretch of black water.
Abruptly, his ears rang with the sound of the man panting, running
toward Sam and him out of the shadows. The man’s lurid face
was in front of him. Nick could see his rough skin, his cracked
lips. His watery blue eyes were open wide with panic, almost as if
he were the more terrified, as if he were the one being attacked,
not the two brothers. The man’s hands were wrapped in
tattered and dirty, oily rags. The knife glinted in the weak light
of the streetlamp overhead. The man was going to stab Sam. He was
breathing raspingly. His clothes were rustling. The sound became
impossibly loud. Falling to the ground, Nick squeezed his eyes shut
and raised his hands, preparing himself to be struck.
“Sam!” His voice seemed to echo in the darkness, and
then the vision faded away.
The sound of a train rolling slowly over rusty rails caused Nick to
open his eyes. His surroundings began to make sense to him. Where
he had expected to see the flat pavement of the parking lot, he
found grass on sandy soil, carefully planted bushes and trees. The
huge aluminum hulls of a few aircraft were rolling eerily through
the night, being ferried by train to one of the Boeing plants. He
was in Elliott Bay Park. That’s where he was. More than half
a mile from the lot where he and his brother had been attacked. He
had been lying unconscious on the running path, in the small strip
of green planted between the railway tracks and the dock where
cargo ships moored to take on loads of gravel.
Fighting the pain that gripped his body, Nick raised himself to his
knees, then stood all the way up. His face was bloodied and
bruised. He was certain that a number of his ribs had been broken.
The soles of his feet felt raw and cut, and he realized that his
feet were bare. Where were his shoes? He straightened his jacket on
his shoulders and looked around.
It was so dark, the fog so heavy, that he could barely see. He
glanced at the black shadow of the ship moored on the pier, then
began walking back toward the parking lot on Alaskan Way, becoming
ever more anxious. A few steps on, he began to trot, then to
The swirling red lights of a police cruiser
were visible from a distance, silky in the brackish mist being
swept into Seattle by the approaching storm. Nick slowed down. The
way the lights were shifting and dancing in the dark air, he
understood that more than one cruiser had answered the call. The
police had gathered in force, treating the parking lot like a crime
scene. Something terrible had happened to Sam. He listened, trying
to make sense of the voices squawking over police radios and the
scratch of footsteps in the gravel. Confusion overwhelmed him. He
wished he could recall what had happened.
Nick slid backward on the pavement as the man approached. The
grit of the asphalt was sharp on his fingers. When his brother rose
up behind the man, Nick’s hopes rose with him in his chest.
Sam wasn’t going to let this happen. He would grab the man,
wrestle the knife from his hand. When Sam took a step forward,
though, he stumbled uncertainly on his feet, unable to find his
balance. The man had stabbed him. The knife had already done its
damage. The man turned around to face him.
“Look out, Sam!”
Sam seemed barely conscious. The man took his time. He gripped
the knife, weighing it deliberately, tightening his filthy fingers
around its handle. Bending his knees, he swiveled his hips and
shoved it into Sam’s stomach. Blood splattered Nick’s
face. Sam lurched forward, momentarily suspended on his toes above
the man’s powerful upward thrust. His face was a study not in
terror but surprise. He wasn’t afraid. He was stunned. He
hardly seemed to react. Then he fell away from the knife. The sharp
steel blade scintillated evilly in the dark night.
Nick scrambled to his knees, fighting to reach his
Three squad cars were parked askew, the closest one with its doors
wide open, as though it had screeched to a stop and the police
officers had jumped out. An ambulance waited nearby. Several orange
cones had been planted on the ground, yellow tape pulled around
them. Despite the late hour, a few people had collected at the edge
of the scene, gawking at the policemen. Nick hurried forward as he
saw three men dressed in white picking up a large black body bag,
heaving it onto a waiting stretcher. He stepped over the yellow
police tape and fought through the gathering of policemen, unable
to reconcile their relaxed attitude with the image of his
brother’s body in a zipped bag.
“Let me through!”
Someone seized him from behind. Nick tried to wrestle himself free,
but the man holding him was strong. His fingers dug into
Nick’s biceps. Nick took in the faces of the policemen
surrounding him. One of them was smiling. Another was speaking
about the Seattle Seahawks, a football game. Light glinted
off the brass badge pinned to an officer’s uniform. The blur
in front of him resolved itself into a face.
“Whoa there,” the policeman said. “What’s
the rush, buddy?”
Several other policemen turned to look, their faces impassive. The
plainclothes policeman in front of Nick – a tall, young man
with a slightly pudgy face, dressed in a rumpled jacket and tie
– alone appeared concerned. He held Nick by the shoulders,
cataloging the cuts and bruises on his face.
“My name is Detective Adam Stolie,” he said. “Hey
– don’t I know you?”
Nick shook his head. His throat was thick, and he couldn’t
seem to find his voice.
“Slow down there,” the detective said.
“You’re Nick Wilder, aren’t you? The photographer
from the Telegraph. You’re so beaten up, I almost
didn’t recognize you.” The detective glanced behind him
at one of the other policemen. “Hey, Johnnie,” he said.
“You want to come over here, give me a hand?”
A patrolman, shorter and thinner, broke free from the group of
incongruously chatty policemen. Detective Stolie was studying Nick.
“You want to tell me what you’re doing
Nick looked over at the long black bag on the stretcher. The
orderlies were strapping it down with wide blue polyester straps,
latching them closed with steel buckles. His eyes filled with
“That’s my brother,” he heard himself say.
He twisted to one side, trying to free himself. Stolie released his
grip and let him go, and Nick fell to his knees next to the
stretcher. The orderlies stopped what they were doing and took a
small step backward.
“Open it up,” Stolie said. Hesitating, one of the
orderlies reached across Nick and unzipped the top of the
Sam’s eyes were open, unseeing. Nick couldn’t make
sense of his brother’s face. It had been badly slashed. His
cheek was hanging in a flap off the bone. His mouth was a bloody
pulp, nearly unrecognizable. His teeth had been kicked into his
throat. His hair was plastered to his forehead with a dark black,
bloody scab. A gelatinous goop was oozing from his ears.
Nick hardly noticed. He was staring into Sam’s open, lifeless
eyes, crying uncontrollably. “What the hell are you
doing?” Nick heard the wild shout. He didn’t
understand, though, that the voice belonged to him.
“Why’d you put him in this bag?” His hands were
ripping at the heavy black polyester, trying to pull his brother
out from the body bag. “Can’t you see? You’re
going to suffocate him.” He turned on the orderlies, then,
holding his bloody hands up toward the officers in supplication,
found Detective Stolie with his eyes. “He can’t
breathe. Damn it, help me!” His voice rose into a scream.
“You’re going to kill him. Please, help me get him out
One month earlier, at the beginning of November, Nick had been
woken up just before dawn by the buzzing of his cell phone. Despite
how wintry it was outside, the building’s heat was set too
high, and Nick’s cramped studio was hot and stuffy. He woke
up disoriented, not certain what was happening. When the phone
buzzed again, the dim light from its LCD screen gave shape to the
dark room. Nick shielded his eyes and, raising himself onto an
elbow, picked up the phone, becoming vaguely aware at the same time
of the staccato rattle of the wind against the thin window panes.
Recognizing the number, he settled back into bed and closed his
eyes, then at last brought the phone to his ear.
“My man, Nicholas.” The policeman sounded wide
awake. No doubt he had been at the station through the night.
“Sorry to wake you.”
Nick ignored the apology. He was used to these calls.
“I thought you’d want to know. I’m just about
to dispatch a couple of units out to Kent. You know the Peck
“There’s a body there. They say it’s a pretty
bad sight. Something to see.”
Nick was pushing himself up onto the side of his bed. “Has
it gone out on the radio yet?”
“You know I always call you first, my man.”
“What time is it?”
The police dispatcher didn’t answer. He was laughing
without mirth as he hung up the phone.
The sky was beginning to lighten into a white blanket of mist
twenty-five minutes later as Nick’s old white Toyota
sputtered and choked to a stop near the Peck Bridge, on the
outskirts of Seattle. The engine died when Nick stepped on the
brake. Rather than try to restart it, he let the car roll silently
to the shoulder of the two-lane road, then yanked on the emergency
Outside, it was crisp and cold. There weren’t any
buildings along this stretch of the road. The landscape was barren
and gray. The trees that lined the bank of the river had lost their
leaves, and their branches looked naked and sharp. Nick walked the
rest of the way to the flat, nondescript bridge. Down beneath him
by the river, a team of policemen were sealing off the area,
running police tape from stakes they had planted in the wet soil.
Even though their light was no longer necessary, a few of them were
still carrying flashlights, the lamps burning yellow holes into the
thin fog. As Nick watched them, a white Channel 11 news van pulled
to a stop on the bridge. The passenger window rolled down, and a
heavily made-up woman leaned her head out, holding her coiffed hair
carefully in place. “Sometimes I think you must drive in with
the cops,” she said to Nick.
Nick glanced back at her over his shoulder. On camera, the
makeup made the woman look older. In person, Nick thought, she
looked like a young woman with too much cream on her face. He
noticed a smear of rouge in one of her eyebrows. He didn’t
bother saying hello. “I don’t have the equipment to
carry around that you do, Sheila.”
“So what’s it like down there? They letting the
Nick was noticing the hostile way the driver of the van was
eyeing him. “I just got here. I don’t know.”
“Well, we’ll see you down there, Nick.” The
window closed, and the TV van pulled forward, searching for a place
to park and set up. Nick felt the woman’s eyes on his back as
he crossed the street.
Looking for a path down to the riverbank, he walked to the edge
of the bridge, then took a step into the thick brush. The soil was
muddy, and his feet sank with every step. He felt the mud seep into
his shoes, then through his socks. These were his newest running
shoes, his orange and black Nikes. He would have to clean them when
he got back home.
The highest-ranking cop on scene was a beat officer Nick
hadn’t met before. They were still waiting for the homicide
detectives to arrive from headquarters downtown. “What do you
have?” Nick asked the cop.
The officer pointed toward the body. Nick could smell the coffee
the man had been drinking a few minutes before. “As far as we
can tell, she was murdered somewhere else. Her body’s cold.
The killer must have brought her out here to dump the
“Who was she?”
The cop sized him up. “You’re with the Telegraph,
Nick showed him his press card.
The cop read it and, satisfied, handed it back. “A hooker
--- a streetwalker from downtown. First and Second
“Who found her?”
The cop shrugged. “A couple of kids on their way to pick
up papers. You know, for their paper route.”
“They still around?”
“We got ’em in a van up on the street.”
“Can I ask them a few questions?”
Again, the cop shrugged. “It’s a free
“You got a name for her yet?”
“Claire Scott, we think. She was reported missing a few
days ago. Someone’s on their way out to ID her
“You mind if I take a look?”
“Be careful not to trample anything until Homicide gets
here,” the cop said. “But one or two pictures
won’t hurt, I guess.”
“Just tell Benson I sent you over.”
Nick was aware of the tracks his footsteps left in the muddy
ground as he walked toward the body. No one stopped him as he
approached. Maybe because the victim was a prostitute, Nick
thought. No one cared. Aware of the damage he was causing to the
crime scene, though, Nick himself stopped about fifteen feet from
the body. When he could smell it. He stared at the pattern of ugly
blue and purple bite marks the killer had left in the whore’s
yellowing skin. He raised his camera to his eye, using his
telephoto lens to bring the naked corpse closer to him. The
apparatus made a satisfying click as he noticed the blood matting
the tuft of hairs at the woman’s vagina. Nick found himself
blinking as he took the camera away from his face, swallowing to
keep himself from becoming sick. The killer had entered the woman
with a blade.
Turning away, trying to forget the small cloud of flies buzzing
above the rotting flesh, laying their larvae in the
prostitute’s wounds, he caught sight of another set of tracks
in the muddy soil. He let his eyes follow them until they
disappeared into the tall grass and nettles feeding off the river.
Noticing something unusual about the footsteps, he looked back at
the tracks he himself had left, deliberately comparing them. He
raised his camera again and snapped a few pictures of the muddy
footprints. Then he backtracked, retracing his steps away from the
The cop who had let him pass was busy turning Sheila back from
the crime scene. Nick waited for him to explain that her crew would
compromise the evidence. But you let him through, Sheila said,
pointing toward Nick. The officer’s face remained impassive.
Maybe I shouldn’t have, he said. Up at the bridge, a convoy
of five or six cruisers was pulling to a stop, lights flashing,
splashing the river valley with waves of electric color.
That’s Homicide now, the cop said to the TV crew. You talk to
them. As of now, the crime scene’s sealed, and I’m
going to have to ask you to step back. Come on now, you, too, he
said to Nick. Step back up to the road.
“Let me ask you something,” Nick said as he
approached the officer again.
The officer didn’t respond directly. “Just keep
“You take a look at the set of footsteps leading up to the
“Yeah, sure,” the officer said, irritated.
“You notice anything odd about them?”
“Go take a look at them again,” Nick said.
“You’ll see. Whoever left them wasn’t wearing
“How do you know?”
“Go take a look at them again,” Nick repeated.
He passed Detective Adam Stolie without saying hello. The
detective had his hands full. He glanced at Nick without noticing
him. A teenage boy was walking in front of him, threatening to
break away from the group of policemen and to run down the
embankment toward the body half hidden in the grass. Stolie grabbed
him by the shoulder to restrain him.
“Yo, Daniel,” the detective said. “Slow it
down, would you? We don’t even know it’s your mom yet,
Nick stopped at the edge of the bridge. He propped his camera on
the low concrete barrier to steady it, then zoomed in on the body.
Ten minutes later, he was able to snap a few good pictures of the
boy identifying his mother, his face drawn, destroyed.
It began to rain as Nick left the crime scene. Sheila was
helping the Channel 11 crew stow the camera equipment into the back
of the van. As he walked past in the direction of his car, he
smiled at her, but he didn’t slow down.
“You know,” she said, finding her voice, “I
saw you the other day. At the press conference at City
Nick was already past her. He recognized that she was just
trying to keep him there, but he stopped anyway. “Did
you?” He had no recollection of her being there.
“Yeah. I was --- well, I was going to ask you if you
wanted to get lunch sometime --- or whatever.”
Nick realized that he had never really looked at her. Her makeup
was so thick that it was beginning to crack like the floor of a
desert. Instead, though, Nick became aware of the blush of her skin
underneath. “Sure,” he said. “That would be nice.
Hey --- I’d better get going now --- I’ve got to get
these pictures uploaded if I want them to hit the afternoon
“Yeah. Sure.” Sheila smiled beneath her oily
Walking on, Nick flinched a little, trying to erase the image of
Sheila’s awkward approach from his mind.
Back at his car, he looked up at the sky as he kicked off some
of the mud caked to the soles of his shoes. In the last week, the
weather had turned. It had gone from late summer to autumn. The
rains would get heavier soon, the nights would get longer and
colder. Without the sun, the chill would never fully leave the
The sight of the mutilated corpse had shaken him. Unlocking his
car, Nick decided to stop at the Starbucks he frequented near his
apartment for a coffee before heading in to the paper. He wanted
time to settle himself, and he could just as easily upload his
photographs onto his laptop and send them into the office from
there, using the café’s wireless link. He twisted the
key in the ignition and flicked on the windshield wipers,
unconsciously squeezing his arms against his ribs, tightening his
fingers around the plastic steering wheel as he pulled away from
Lost in his thoughts, haunted by the vision of the corpse lying
butchered in the wet grass, Nick had no way of knowing that just a
few minutes later Sara Garland would fall into his life,
unexpectedly, with the certain grace of a diver swooping without a
splash into a deep pool of water.
Beyond the plate-glass windows of the Starbucks, the sky was so
low and gray that street lamps were still burning at ten in the
morning. A fierce wind was blowing, whipping brown and yellow
leaves down the broad street, tossing heavy drops of freezing rain
in handfuls against the thick window panes. The café was
packed with students from the University of Washington. The line
stretched nearly to the door. Nick had been lucky to snag the table
in front of the gas-burning fireplace. Unsteady still, he was
staring at the screen of his small computer, oblivious to the
voices rising and falling around him.
When a green-eyed girl with Nordic blond hair stood in front of
his table and spoke to him, Nick hardly noticed her. She was only
one more of the rumpled, tired-looking students milling around the
room, waiting for an empty table. The blond-haired girl put her
slender ivory hand down next to his laptop and leaned closer to
“Is anyone sitting here?” she repeated.
His interest piqued by the smooth texture of her skin and her
long, delicate fingers, Nick looked up at her. The first thought
that crossed his mind was that he had never seen a more beautiful
woman. The tall, svelte girl smiled at him, and Nick found himself
smiling back at her, stunned by the radiance of her eyes.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No
“May I?” She rested a hand on the back of the chair
opposite Nick, but politely waited for him to respond.
“It’s a good place to sit,” she said, slipping
into the chair. “Right in front of the fire.”
As Nick pulled his laptop back to clear a space for her on the
table, he realized that she wasn’t carrying a coffee.
“I just came inside to get out of the rain,” she
said, reading his gaze. “I left my house this morning without
my coat. It’s cold out there.”
Drops of water glistened in the girl’s hair like tiny
diamonds. She was wearing a thin white blouse, and her shoulders
were wet with rain. Nick’s eyes were drawn despite himself to
the lace straps of her bra, visible through the sheer material.
“When I saw this place by the fire, I thought I’d
grab it.” She glanced out the slick window at the dark,
windblown street. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Nick shook his head.
“Will you hold this chair for me, then?” She twisted
around in her seat and checked the line in front of the counter,
just as one of the servers raised his voice and announced, Keith,
your non-fat cap’ is ready. Keith. “I think I’ll
get a cup of coffee.”
Nick was unable to take his eyes off her as she walked to the
counter. A number of other heads turned as well as she walked past.
She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman. Assured and elegant,
flawless. Nick wondered who she was and what she did. He imagined
that she was at least twenty-five --- too old to be an
undergraduate at the university. She had distracted him from his
computer, and he was still watching her a few minutes later when
the server behind the counter called her name: Sara. Your tall
low-fat latte is ready. She smiled at him on the way back to the
table, and Nick felt his face flush. Once again, he was aware of
the people watching her as she walked. She moved gracefully, and
she seemed nearly to be glowing in her white blouse and tight
“So your name’s Sara,” he said as she sat back
down across from him.
She was holding her coffee up to her lips, blowing on it.
“Good job, Detective. Sara Garland,” she said.
“And you’re Nick, I take it?”
Nick felt his eyebrows rise in surprise.
“It’s on your cup,” Sara said, smiling
lightly. Nick followed her eyes down to the cup of coffee on the
table between them, where indeed the server had scrawled his name
with a thick black marker.
“Yeah. Nick Wilder.”
“I hope I’m not interrupting you. It looks like
you’re pretty busy.”
Nick glanced at his laptop. The screen had long since gone
black. “No. I’m glad for the break.”
She looked at him critically, trying to gauge his age as he had
judged hers. “You’re not a student. A graduate student,
maybe. Or a teacher?”
“I’m a reporter,” Nick said. “With the
“That sounds glamorous.”
Nick shrugged. “Not really. It’s a lot of hours, and
it doesn’t pay much. The truth is you’ve got to be a
little insane to work a job like this.”
“What are you working on now? Are you writing an
Nick shook his head. Sara’s question had brought the image
of Claire Scott’s corpse back into his mind. The contrast
with the woman sitting in front of him was unsettling. He closed
his eyes and brought his hands to his face, running his fingers
through his hair, becoming aware at the same time how disheveled he
was. He had left his apartment a few hours before without showering
“Are you all right?”
Nick noted the concern in Sara’s eyes. “Is it that
“You look upset, that’s all.”
“I have to admit,” Nick said, “I am a bit.
I’m sorry. I’ve been with the paper for a couple of
years now. I should be used to it.” He was surprised by his
own candor. “I’ve been working as a photographer. I see
things sometimes. It still gets to me.”
Sara was peering at him.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I
shouldn’t have said anything.”
Sara dismissed his apology. “No --- don’t be
sorry.” She hesitated. “It was a body. A murder.
“Yes.” Nick was taken aback. “How did you
“I have a confession to make, too.”
“I didn’t sit down here because of the fire. I was
standing behind you for about two minutes before I approached the
table. You were pretty absorbed in your computer.”
“You saw the pictures.”
Sara nodded. “I have to tell you,” she said, smiling
wryly. “I was pretty relieved just now when you told me you
were a reporter.”
Nick took a fresh look at the beautiful woman in front of him,
intrigued that she would sit down with him after seeing the images
on the screen of his laptop.
“You took those pictures today?”
Nick lowered his eyes.
“So you were there. Standing right there, I mean. Almost
on top of her.”
“Yes.” Close enough to smell her.
“No wonder you’re freaked out.”
From the corner of his eye, Nick noticed Sara’s gaze
traveling down his legs, taking in the mud drying on his shoes.
“It scares me” --- Sara said, shivering slightly ---
“and I wasn’t even there. To see a body like that, it
must be pretty frightening --- no matter how many times
you’ve been around crimes like that before.”
“It is,” Nick admitted.
“I didn’t really get a good look at the pictures.
But I could see how violent the crime was. The guy who did it must
have been crazy.”
“That’s not what scares me.”
Sara was silent, waiting for Nick to meet her stare, waiting for
him to continue.
“It scares me more how sane he was.”
Again, Sara shivered. “What do you mean?”
Nick regretted that he had let them dwell so long on
“Tell me,” Sara said, prodding him.
“How the same person can be one thing at night,”
Nick said at last, “and then something else during the
Nick read Sara’s confusion.
“The guy stabbed this woman so many times --- so brutally
--- she was nearly unrecognizable,” he explained. “This
same guy, though, takes the time to gather her up and sneak her out
to the bank of this river to dispose of the body. That’s what
scares me. That the same person can somehow reconcile the two
“Because you think maybe we’re all capable of doing
the same thing.” Sara’s eyes hadn’t left his
face. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it?”
“To some degree --- yeah, maybe.”
“Sane during the day. Killers at night.”
Once again, Nick looked down at the table.
“You think you’re capable of it?”
Nick turned Sara’s words over in his mind. He found
himself wondering whether she was asking him a question. The truth
is you’ve got to be a little insane to work a job like this.
His own voice seemed to resonate in his head, and he felt his face
“It still sounds pretty amazing,” Sara said into the
awkward silence. “Your job, I mean.”
“And what about you?” Nick asked her, determined to
change the subject. “What do you do? You’re not a
student either, are you?”
A slight darkness clouded Sara’s expression. There was
something overwhelmingly light about Sara, he realized in contrast.
Her hair was silvery blond. Her eyes were translucently green. Her
teeth were dazzlingly white. Her skin was ivory. Still, as radiant
as she was, there was something mysterious about this woman in
front of him, too, something elusive he couldn’t define.
“No,” she said, “I’m not a student, either.
Is it so obvious that I’m too old?”
Loosening up a little, Nick looked up and down her body, from
the top of her head to her toes. After all, she had invited him to.
“Not exactly,” he said. “It’s not that you
look too old to be a student. You seem too focused.”
“That’s the last thing I am.” Sara’s
laugh was genuine, and Nick felt himself relax even more.
“Just say it, I look too old to be a student.”
He refused the bait and pushed the compliment another way.
“Too polished anyway.”
“I’m an actress,” Sara said. “Well, off
and on, anyway. Off right now. That’s why I’m back here
“You’re from Seattle originally?”
“My parents live in Bellevue.”
“You’re staying with them?”
Sara shrugged. “For a while. Maybe I’ll get my own
place one of these days. Or maybe I’ll just head back down to
“You’ve got something to head down there for? A
project, I mean --- a movie?”
Sara shook her head. “I’ve been lucky enough, I
guess. But I haven’t pursued it as much as I should.
I’m thinking maybe I’ll do something else entirely. Get
into business, I don’t know.”
Nick’s cell phone vibrated, and he glanced down at its
screen. Recognizing Laura Daly’s personal line from the
Telegraph building, he remembered the staff meeting this morning,
the first one for the month of October, when assignments would be
handed out by the editors. The senior editor would no doubt be
wondering where he was. “Excuse me,” Nick said.
“I’ve got to take this.” He pressed a button on
his phone and raised it to his ear. “Laura?”
“Were you planning to grace us with your presence,
“I know. I’m sorry.” Nick threw a quick,
embarrassed smile at Sara.
“Don’t sweat it. We’ll talk when you come in.
Listen, you somewhere close? There’s something I’d like
you to do now. A couple of blocks from here. It can’t wait.
You got a pen?”
Nick cradled the phone against his shoulder and searched through
his bag for pen and paper. After scrawling down an address, he
snapped the phone shut and looked apologetically at Sara.
“I’ve got to go.”
“Oh, really? That’s too bad.” When Sara
glanced down at her watch, Nick noticed a gold and platinum Rolex
loose on her wrist, its face set with diamonds. Not exactly the
watch of a struggling actress.
“I wish I didn’t have to. It’s work.” He
closed the lid of his laptop and gathered his belongings from the
table, scooping them into the soft leather shoulder bag he carried
as he pushed his chair back from the table.
“Well, I enjoyed meeting you, Nick.”
“It was good to meet you, too,” Nick said, in a
“You’re not forgetting something?”
Nick stopped to make certain he had grabbed all his things from
the tabletop, then looked up at Sara, meeting her friendly gaze. He
wasn’t certain what she was referring to, and his expression
reflected his puzzlement.
“I thought maybe you were going to ask me out.”
Sara’s tone was playful, but she dropped her eyes,
Nick ran his fingers across his unshaven cheeks as he tried to
assess her sincerity. He hadn’t been expecting the
“I have a weakness for shy guys,” Sara said, as if
she were answering an unspoken question.
“I thought the pictures might have frightened you
Sara laughed sweetly. “The pictures are why I’m
Nick measured her for a few more seconds, once again intrigued
by this woman. There was more to her than her pretty face, he
thought. Her appearance camouflaged it at first, but then, as much
as her beauty validated her, the juxtaposition served too to
heighten the observation. She was dangerous. At last, Nick relaxed
into a smile. “I suppose I could ask you out for a coffee.
But we’ve done that already, haven’t we?”
Sara met his eyes. “It’ll have to be something more,
Repeating the innocent words in his mind, Nick felt a sudden
thrill pass through him, taking his breath away. “That sounds
“Give him an inch and he takes a yard. I meant
“You sound tentative. You don’t want me to see who
you are after dark?”
“Now you’re just mocking me. I’m shy,
that’s all. You said it yourself. That’s what makes me
“You go to work now,” Sara said. “Here’s
my number.” She reached across the table and took
Nick’s phone from him, tapping a few numbers onto the display
and then saving the number under her name. “Give me a call.
I’m free tonight, if that’s not too soon.”
“No,” Nick said, wondering how he would be able to
wait that long. “It’s not too soon. I’m free
Sara watched him as Nick found his way through the crowded
coffee shop to the exit. It was an unguarded moment for her, and
her face reflected what she felt inside. Had he turned back around,
her wistful expression would have confused him. Standing behind him
as she had worked up her nerve to approach him, looking over his
shoulder at the photographs this self-possessed man had taken that
morning at the crime scene, Sara hadn’t expected to like him.
Not like this. Not this much.
Excerpted from MANIA © Copyright 2011 by Craig Larsen.
Reprinted with permission by Pinnacle. All rights reserved.