Authors: Michael Marshall
“I know it is. I understand.”
I shook my head, wanting to be somewhere else. “You don’t, I’m afraid, but thank you for your time.”
I got up and headed toward the door. My hand was on the handle when she asked, “You sick?”
I looked back at her, confused and caught unawares. For a moment I thought she was suggesting something in particular.
“What do you mean?”
She raised an eyebrow. “I mean is this about you having discovered you have a medical condition that someone else needs to know about, because they might have it too?”
I looked her in the eyes and considered lying.
“No,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. But there’s something very wrong with him.”
I left her sitting behind her desk, and walked the long corridor back toward the outside world, where I could smoke, and breathe firsthand air, and where my problems were only part of what I was.
Silence. He was AWOL again. Off somewhere in the spirit world with a beer and a grin, freaking out the other ghosts.
It was late afternoon and I had a beer of my own and was sitting at a table outside L’Espresso, a café-bar just on the corner up from the hotel. My feet felt aggrieved and
full of bones. San Francisco is a pleasant enough place but, frankly, it has too many hills.
In the face of the complete bust of the morning, I’d done the only other thing I could think of. Maybe, I thought, just maybe Paul hadn’t even gotten into the system. Perhaps he’d been picked up by someone off the street, taken in by some kindly shopkeeper’s wife. I knew this was a fantasy born of Mrs. Dupree’s tale of baby trains in the Midwest, but I really didn’t see any other avenue open to me and I had to do something to find him. I had drifted for too long. This was my job. No one else’s.
In the absence of any useful visual reference, I tried another approach. I knew my parents weren’t the people to just throw a child to the wolves. It was likely that they would have left the child somewhere they believed not to be openly dangerous, and where there would have been a decent flow of pedestrians. They were on foot. There is a limit to how far you want to walk with two-year-olds. Thus it was likely, or at least possible, that I was looking for a busy area within very easy walking distance of Union Square. Worst case, it would be somewhere that also matched that description, but on a tram line.
So I bought a map, and I walked. And I found nothing, which meant I had nowhere else to go. I had tried, a couple of months back, responding to an email Paul had sent. The message was bounced back to me within the hour, his address unknown, unheard of, impossible to find. His messages were statements to me, not attempts at communication. There was no trail there either.
I finished my beer and walked the few yards back to the hotel. As I headed through the reception area I heard someone call my name. I turned, slowly.
The fresh-faced young guy at the desk was holding up a piece of paper. “There’s a message for you.”
That sounded unlikely. Nobody knew where I was. The few people whose contact I might have welcomed would have called me on the cell phone. I walked over to the desk, feeling as if I had a target on my back.
I took the piece of paper, thanked him, and turned
away. When I opened it I saw the following message:
This lady might be able to help you. If she wants to.
There was a phone number for this unnamed woman, and the name of the person who’d left me the message. Muriel Dupree.
A VISIT TO THE WEB
AND A FAST
shower and then I went back downstairs and hailed a cab from outside the hotel. It took a while to find someone who was prepared to take me as far as I needed to go, which was over the bay and then some, and then, it turned out, a good way more. The one I wound up with was intent on exacting a bonus through my providing an audience for a long series of diatribes. Luckily he was too wrapped up in his own dialectic for me to have to play a speaking role. I grunted and said, “Right,” and watched out of the window as city and then suburbs passed me by.
The phone call I’d made had been to Social Services, hoping to speak to Mrs. Dupree. This had turned out to be as vain a hope as it sounds. I’d have been better off trying to go back in time. I still had no idea who I was going to see, therefore, but the web had told me the number belonged to a Mrs. Campbell, and also where she lived. It’s one of the things I know how to do. Yes, Muriel’s intention had obviously been that I call ahead, get permission to visit, state my business, and generally do the right thing. Guess what: I hadn’t. I didn’t know who this person was, or what Muriel thought she might have to say to me, but my limited experience of such things told me that you get closest to the truth by not giving it advance warning that you’re coming after it. And yes, I do know what I’m talking about. Bobby and I met while working for the CIA.
Eventually the guy in front stopped talking and started glancing at a map. We pulled farther and farther from through routes and eventually hit some straggled blocks of residential streets. The neighborhood was white, semi-run-down, no Realtor’s dream. We went back and forth through it for a little bit before I took hold of the map and guided us
in. We stopped halfway up a street of small wooden houses each on its own very little plot.
I got out and paid. There was no one around.
“If you’re looking to party, you’ve come to the wrong place,” the driver said, and then took off up the street.
I waited until he was out of sight, and then walked fifty yards back the way we’d come, having deliberately told him not quite the right address. Two turnings away was the road I actually wanted, and three minutes along it was the house I had come to visit.
I walked up a short path and two steps onto a porch area. It had been well painted in white, a few years before. It would soon need doing again. I looked for a bell and found none, so rapped on the door instead. I had no real doubt that the woman would be home.
After a few minutes I heard a sound behind the door, and then it was opened. In the shadows beyond was a small figure.
“Mrs. Campbell?” I asked.
She said nothing, but slowly reached to the screen door and pushed it slightly ajar. Through the gap I saw a woman in her seventies, with hair that was still looked after, but a face that was gray and pouched; and also looked in shock. She looked me in the eyes, then up and down, and then in the eyes again.
“My God,” she said eventually, still staring. “So it was true.”
THE PHONE RANG
INA WAS ON HER SO-CALLED
deck. It was “so-called” because “deck” suggests a degree of relaxation and comfort that hers simply didn’t afford. Theoretically she was out there thinking; if the truth be told, she was asleep. Back at the field office you couldn’t hear yourself think for the sound of men storming up and down, barking into phones, being brisk and professional. One of the big things about being a man, she’d noted, was that being good, doing the work, wasn’t enough. It had to be generally acknowledged that here you were, damn well seeing to business. She found her deck much better for head work, better too than the rest of the house. She ought to move, she knew. Especially after things had gone wrong with John, the house felt awkward and tired of her and wanting in almost every regard. It was in the Malibu hills, which was great, but she could only afford to rent it because it was falling apart. The polished concrete of the living room floor was cracked across the middle, wide enough to slip three fingers down. The swimming pool had been melted in a bush fire long before she moved in. One good shake and the deck would end up in the Pacific; two shakes, and the house would follow it down. For some reason, the prospect had never unduly
disquieted her. Some people smoked. Nina, she sat out on her deck.
She had spent the rest of the day on the streets and in offices, on the phones, sifting through noninformation and being briefed on results from a slew of forensic investigations. None had turned up anything useful. The pajamas had been nailed to Wal-Mart, never a happy thing when you’re trying to trace an object’s history. The disk out of the woman’s mouth was still in analysis; a photo of her face was now being shown around town by detectives and patrol division. It could be forever before they got a match. A woman, once attractive, now dead. We got lots of those.
She got back to the house to find a message on the machine. She jabbed the button, thinking it might be Zandt with a more constructive response to her message. Instead it had been her friend Meredith, a girl she’d gone to college with, agreeing that yes, it was time they met up and had dinner and a good long
Nina didn’t remember the matter being discussed, but she supposed it was time. It had been a year at least since her loose, small group of old friends had gotten together. Merry lived in the Valley and had acquired a husband and three young children, apparently effortlessly, as if by winning a weekly competition. She now cared a great deal about things Nina found either trivial or incomprehensible or simply irrelevant, and her hairstyle was becoming more and more irrevocable. Soon it would be impossible to look at the face beneath it and remember the times Nina had sprawled laughing next to her as she threw up in a variety of toilets at vague parties held in various professors’ tiny, book-strewn homes. That girl had gone away somewhere, answering the call of happy hour in some faraway and long-ago bar, and had sent grown-up-mom Meredith Jackson to take her meetings instead. This woman was likely just as baffled by Nina’s current incarnation, which kept looking like a woman without seeming to understand what the job entailed. Nina knew she ought to keep the friendship going, but often wondered why they bothered. Maybe Meredith liked knowing an FBI agent. Maybe Nina liked
to believe she still had some kind of connection to real life, that on the other side of the ring of murderers and desks and men in suits and late nights that surrounded her, there was someone who wanted nothing more from Nina than gossip, affirmation, and a smile.
She hadn’t been able to face making the call, and so went to think instead. She wound up wondering how much difference there had been between Merry, or herself, and the young woman who had been found in the Knights that morning; how much alteration in a life it would take to wind up dead in a motel, impregnated with the cigarette smoke of men who had come to document your final moments, your deaf ears party to much rambling discussion of recent sporting events and at least one observation regarding your tits. John Zandt—who had been a homicide cop in the city before the Delivery Boy had taken his daughter—had long ago observed to her how fast a teenager’s life can go from A to B in Hollywood; then from B to Z; then the flip from Z to a Jane Doe toe tag. They don’t know how fast and easy it’s going to be. It’s not years, it’s months. It can be weeks. It can be virtually overnight. You start the evening somebody’s much-loved and pampered child, nicely lit; you see yourself the next grimy morning stripped of everything you hadn’t yet learned to value about yourself. Everyone thinks they’re the star, but instead is merely cannon fodder waiting in line to have promises broken by friends, lovers, and fate.
She went indoors and fetched a glass of wine. Fifteen minutes later she was asleep. She woke up with a start. When the phone finally made it through to her she lurched out of the chair feeling late: it felt like it had been ringing a long time, at first powerless to haul her out of a dream in which an old man had crept around a dark room after her.
She ricocheted blearily off both the glass door and the kitchen counter on the way in, and was ready to give Zandt a very hard time. But it wasn’t John this time either.
It was Monroe. “You’d better get back over here,” he said immediately. “We’ve found something.”
. Olbrich was a lieutenant in Special Section 1, the robbery homicide division responsible for high-profile and externally liaising murder cases. He was tall and rangy with hair buzz-cut short.
“Nina. How’s tricks?”
“Same old. I haven’t actually spoken to John in a while, but if I had, I’m sure he’d have sent his love.”
“Thanks. I’ll smoke it later.”
In front of Olbrich was a small sheaf of paper and something in a clear plastic bag. Three cops were talking over a second desk in the background. Door-side of Olbrich’s desk perched a thin black guy in shirtsleeves, whom Nina vaguely recognized.
“Nina, this is Vincent,” Olbrich said. Monroe meanwhile handed her a cup of coffee. She took it gratefully. He was good like that.
“I remember,” she said. “Lab rat, right?”
Monroe frowned, but the tech grinned happily. “Vince Walker, technological wunderkind.”
“My favorite kind,” she said, feeling very tired. “So what do you have for us, Vince?”
“This,” Olbrich said, pushing the bag across the desk to her. “And what was on it.”
Cleaned of blood and no longer stuck in someone’s face, the object looked mundanely technical. Two inches by four and a half, a quarter inch thick. One end a row of gold-colored connectors, the other flat. The top side was a metal plate with two stickers that had once been white but were now unevenly stained a pale brown. On the underside, the spidery green tracks of a printed circuit board. A third of the way from the top was a small circle, presumably the point around which the internal disk spun while in use. A label here read “Void warranty if seal broken.” What if it was found in a dead woman’s mouth, Nina wondered: where would you stand then?
“The disk,” she prompted dutifully. The men were evidently building up to something, each trying to claim it as his own.
“Right,” Vince said. “It’s a Toshiba MK4309 drive. Capacity a little over four gigs, cramped by today’s standards, and the serial confirms it was made nearly two years ago.”
“It also enabled us to nail the disk as factory-installed in a machine assembled in Japan and imported into the U.S. in mid 2002,” Monroe interrupted. “We’re running that right now. It may tell us who the woman was, maybe not.”
“People are still on the street with the victim’s photo,” Olbrich added. Nina had met him several times before, back when Zandt had been on Homicide, and he had impressed her as one of the least showy detectives she’d ever met. “We know she didn’t eat much the day she died, but she drank a whole lot. As of two hours ago I’ve got three detectives fanning back out from the Knights and hitting local bars and clubs again. Didn’t get anything the first time, but . . .”
“And still nothing on the killer from the room?”
He shrugged. “No prints, no fibers, nothing on the victim. This guy barely moved the air, by the look of it.”
“So what’s with the disk?”
“It was blank,” Olbrich said, “except for two things.”
“Two things,” the tech repeated, determined not to lose his moment. “The largest is a seven-meg MP3 file, a piece of music.”
“The Agnus Dei from Fauré’s
Monroe said. “Quite a well-known piece, apparently. There are people trying to work out what particular recording it is, and of course we’ll try to track recent CD purchases but I don’t have much hope in that direction. It could have been down-loaded off the internet, for all we know.”
“And?” she said, bored with prompting.
“You asked me earlier where he’d come from,” Monroe said. “Said there might be something he was spiraling out from. It’s looking like you might be right.”
He pushed the sheaf of papers toward her. “Read this.”
“Sleep is lovely. Death is better still. Not to have been born is of course the miracle.”
His mother wouldn’t let his grandmother smoke in the house. So there would be days when the old lady’s temper was not good, and there would be other days when she would insist on being put out on the porch. She would be left there, no matter if it was too cold or if it rained down hard. His mother would not help her in: she would also forbid him from doing so. God help him if he went against her on that or anything else. Grandma stayed outside until her daughter was good and ready to take her back in. She did so none too gently.
On one of these days, an afternoon so cold that icicles hung from the roof, he asked her what it was about this thing that made it worth being out there on the porch when it was warm and comfortable inside.
She looked out ahead for a while, until he was beginning to wonder if she’d heard.
“You know that joke,” she said eventually. “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
He said yes he did. To get to the other side.
“Well, that’s what the cigarettes are like.”
“I don’t get it.”
She thought again, for a moment. “You end up living on the wrong side of the road. Best I can put it. Every night you have to walk across this road, in the dark, to get home. You can’t tell if any cars are coming because it’s windy and that blots out the sound, but that’s more or less okay, because it’s not a very busy road. But the longer you cross back and forth, in the pitch dark, the more likely that sooner or later one of them cars is going to hit you. The cars are called cancer, and they’re big and hard and they drive very fast, and if they get you, you die.”
“But . . . so why keep crossing the road?”
A dry smile. “To get to the other side.” She shrugged. “It’s too late, you see. You made your bed, you got to lie in it. The only thing you can do is try to make sure you don’t end up living on the wrong side of the road.”
She coughed for a while, then lit another cigarette. She took a long pull, held it to look at the glowing tip. “Don’t you ever start up with this crap, you hear?”
“I won’t,” he said.
He did everything he could to take her advice. He was careful with alcohol, never used drugs, and he didn’t let food or exercise or reassurance or pornography or collecting china dolls ever take his hand and pretend it was his friend.
And yet still, on a night only seven years later, he stood with blood on his hands and realized he’d found his own smoking road.
“Christ,” Nina said, eventually.
“He’s killed before,” Monroe said.
“Or he wants us to think he has.”
Monroe smiled tightly. “He’s sure as hell capable of doing it again. Can we agree on that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m with you there.” Her eyes felt dry. “Who’s the quote from?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“You okay, Nina?” This was Olbrich.
She nodded, still staring at the note. “I’m pissed off, that’s all. A ‘Look at me’ note and a requiem, for God’s sake. It’s like a lunatic’s serving suggestion.”
“This talking about himself in the third person,” Olbrich said, “isn’t that strange?”
“Not especially,” Nina said. “It’s been observed in interrogation many times. Ted Bundy, for example. It can be a way of getting them to open up. The theory is that it makes them able to describe crimes from which other parts of their mind wish to dissociate. In Bundy’s case it also enabled him to describe hypotheticals—‘I imagine a killer would do such and such in this situation’—without technically admitting responsibility. Can we get anything from the nature of the text file itself?”
“Afraid not,” Vince said. “The disk’s standard PC format but the file has no OS signature: could have been written on anything from a supercomputer to a Palm V.
Somebody downstairs is trawling through the directory structure but we don’t have a whole lot of optimism on that either. The disk was securely wiped before these files were put on. This is someone who knows about computers.”