Establishing that the territory belonged to him and Carson, Michael said, “Yesterday’s hand bandit is this morning’s thief of hearts.”
Frye managed to look greasy and blanched. His face had no color. He kept one hand on his expan-
sive gut as if he had eaten some bad pepper shrimp for breakfast.
He said, “Far as I’m concerned, you take the lead on this one. I’ve lost my taste for the case.”
If Harker, too, had a change of heart, his reasons were not identical to Frye’s. His face was as boiled red as ever, his eyes as challenging.
Running one hand through his sun-bleached hair, Harker said, “Looks to me like whoever has point position on this is walking a high wire. One mistake on a case this high profile, the media will flush your career down the toilet.”
“If that means cooperation instead of competition,” Michael said, “we accept.”
Carson wasn’t as ready as Michael to forgive the toe-tramping they had received from these two, but she said, “Who’s the vic?”
“Night security man,” Harker said.
While Frye remained behind, Harker ducked under the yellow tape and led them to the end of the aisle, around the corner to another long row of stacks.
The end-stack sign declared ABERRANT PSYCHOLOGY. Thirty feet away, the dead man lay on his back on the floor. The victim looked like a hog halfway through a slaughterhouse.
Carson entered the new aisle but did not proceed into the blood spatter, leaving the wet zone unspoiled for CSI.
As she quietly sized the scene and tried to fit her-
self to it, planning the approach strategy, Harker said from behind her, “Looks like he cracked the breastbone neat as a surgeon. Went in there with complete professionalism. The guy travels with tools.”
Moving to Carson’s side, Michael said, “At least we can rule out suicide.”
‘Almost looks like suicide,” Carson murmured thoughtfully Michael said, “Now, let’s remember the fundamentals of this relationship. You are the straight man.”
“There was a struggle,” Harker said. “The books were pulled off the shelves.”
About twenty books were scattered on the floor this side of the dead man. None was open. Some were in stacks of two and three.
“Too neat,” she said. “This looks more like someone was reading them, then set them aside.”
“Maybe Dr. Jekyll was sitting on the floor, researching his own insanity,” Michael conjectured, “when the guard discovered him.”
“Look at the wet zone,” Carson said. “Tightly contained around the body Not much spatter on the books. No signs of struggle.”
“No struggle?” Harker mocked. “Tell that to the guy without a heart.”
“His piece is still in his holster,” Carson said. “He didn’t even draw, let alone get off a shot.”
“Chloroform from behind,” Michael suggested.
Carson didn’t respond at once. During the night,
madness had entered the library, carrying a bag of surgical tools. She could hear the soft footsteps of madness, hear its slow soft breathing.
The stench of the victim’s blood stirred in Carson’s blood a quivering current of fear. Something about this scene, something she could not quite identify, was extraordinary, unprecedented in her experience, and so unnatural as to be almost supernatural. It spoke first to her emotions rather than to her intellect; it teased her to see it, to know it.
Beside her, Michael whispered, “Here comes that old witchy vision.”
Her mouth went dry with fear, her hands suddenly icy She was no stranger to fear. She could be simultaneously afraid but professional, alert and quick. Sometimes fear sharpened her wits, clarified her thinking.
“Looks more,” she said at last, “as if the vic just laid down there and waited to be butchered. Look at his face.”
The eyes were open. The features were relaxed, not contorted by terror, by pain.
“Chloroform,” Michael suggested again.
Carson shook her head. “He was awake. Look at the eyes. The cast of the mouth. He didn’t die unconscious. Look at the hands.”
The security guard’s left hand lay open at his side, palm up, fingers spread. That position suggested sedation before the murder.
The right hand, however, was clenched tight. Chloroformed, he would have relaxed the fist,
She jotted down these observations in her notebook and then said, “So who found the body?”
“A morning-shift librarian,” Harker said. “Nancy Whistler. She’s in the women’s lav. She won’t come out.”
THE women’s rest room smelled of pine-scented disinfectant and White Diamonds perfume. Regular janitorial service was the source of the former, Nancy Whistler of the latter.
A young, pretty woman who put the lie to the stereotypical image of librarians, she wore a clingy summer dress as yellow as daffodils.
She bent to one of the sinks and splashed cold water in her face from a running faucet. She drank from cupped hands, swished the water around her mouth, and spat it out.
“I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” she said.
“No problem,” Carson assured her.
“I’m afraid to leave here. Every time I think I just can’t puke again, I do.”
“I love this job,” Michael told Carson.
“The officers who did a perimeter check tell me there are no signs of forced entry. So you’re sure the front door was locked when you arrived for work?” Carson pressed.
‘Absolutely. Two deadbolts, both engaged.”
“Who else has keys?”
“Ten people. Maybe twelve,” said Nancy Whistler. “I can’t think names right now.”
You could only push a witness so far in the aftermath of her encounter with a bloody corpse. This wasn’t a time to be hard-assed.
Carson said, “E-mail a list of keyholders to me. Soon.”
‘All right, sure. I understand.” The librarian grimaced as if she might hurl again. Instead she said, “God, he was such a toad, but he didn’t deserve that.” Michael’s raised eyebrows drew an explanation from her: “Bobby Allwine. The guard.”
“Define toad,” Michael requested.
“He was always . . . looking at me, saying inappropriate things. He had a way of coming on to me that was … just weird.”
“No. Nothing forceful. Just weird. As if he didn’t get a lot of things, the way to act.” She shook her head. ‘And he went to funeral homes for fun.”
Carson and Michael exchanged a look, and he said, “Well, who doesn’t?”
“Viewings at funeral homes,” Whistler clarified.
“Memorial services. For people he didn’t even know. He went two, three times a week.”
“He said he liked to look at dead people in their caskets. Said it… relaxed him.” She cranked off the water faucet. “Bobby was sort of a geek. But… why would someone cut out his heart?”
Michael shrugged. “Souvenir. Sexual gratification. Dinner.”
Appalled, repelled, Nancy Whistler bolted for a toilet stall.
To Michael, Carson said, “Oh, nice. Real nice.”
peeling paint, crumbling stucco, rusting wrought iron, sagging trumpet vines yellowing in the heat, and a pustulant-looking fungus flourishing in the many cracks in the concrete walkway established a design motif carried out in every aspect of the apartment building.
On the patchy lawn, which looked as if someone had salted it, a sign announced APARTMENT AVAILABLE / ONLY LOSERS NEED APPLY.
Actually, only the first two words were on the sign. The other four didn’t have to be spelled out; Carson inferred them from the condition of the place as she parked at the curb.
In addition to the sign, the front lawn actually contained a flock of seven pink flamingos.
“Bet my ass there’s a couple plastic gnomes somewhere around here,” Michael said.
Someone had painted four of the flamingos other tropical hues—mango green, pineapple yellow—perhaps hoping that a color change would render these lawn ornaments less absurd if not less tacky The new paint had worn off in places; the pink shone through.
Not because of the implication of borderline poverty but because of the weirdness of the place, it was an ideal building for odd ducks and geeks like Bobby Allwine, he of the stolen heart. They would be drawn here, and in the company of their own kind, no one among them would receive particular attention.
A grizzled old man knelt on the front steps, fixing a railing brace.
“Excuse me. You work here?” Michael asked, flashing his ID.
“No more than I have to.” The old man looked Carson up and down appreciatively, but still spoke to Michael. “Who’s she?”
“It’s bring-your-sister-to-work day at the department. Are you the super here?”
“‘Super’ don’t seem to be a word that fits anyone or anything about this dump. I’m just sort of the jack-of-all around here. You come to see Bobby Allwine’s place?”
“News travels fast.”
Putting down his screwdriver, getting to his feet, the jack-of-all said, “Good news does. Follow me.”
Inside, the public stairwell was narrow, dark, peeling, humid, and malodorous.
The old guy didn’t smell so good, either, and as they followed him up to the second floor, Michael said, “I’ll never complain about my apartment again.”
At the door to 2-D, as he fumbled in his pockets for a passkey, the jack-of-all said, “Heard on the news his liver was cut out.”
“It was his heart,” Carson said.
“You didn’t like Bobby Allwine?”
Unlocking the door, he said, “Hardly knew him. But this makes the apartment worth fifty bucks more.” He read their disbelief and assured them, “There’s people that’ll pay extra.”
“Who,” Michael asked, “the Addams family?”
“Just people who like some history about a place.”
Carson pushed inside the apartment, and when the old man would have followed her, Michael eased him aside and said, “We’ll call you when we’re done.”
The blinds were drawn. The room was uncommonly dark for a bright afternoon.
Carson found the switch for the ceiling fixture and said, “Michael, look at this.”
In the living room, the ceiling and walls were painted black. The wood floors, the baseboards, the door and window casings were black, as well. The blinds were black.
The sole piece of furniture was a black vinyl armchair in the center of the room.
Closing the front door behind him, Michael said, “Does Martha Stewart have an emergency design hotline?”
The windows were closed. No air conditioning. The moist heat and the blackness and a tauntingly familiar sweet fragrance made Carson feel slow, stupid.
“What’s that smell?” she asked.
Thick, sweet, pervasive, the aroma was indeed licorice. Though it should have been pleasant, the smell half nauseated Carson.
The black floor had a glossy sheen, unmarred by dust or lint. She wiped a hand along a windowsill, down a door casing, and found no grime.
As it had in the library with Allwine’s corpse, fear found Carson, a creeping disquiet that climbed her spine and pressed a cold kiss to the back of her neck.
In the meticulously clean kitchen, Michael hesitated to open the black door of the refrigerator. “This feels like a Jeffrey Dahmer moment, severed heads among the bottles of pickles and mayonnaise, a heart in a OneZip bag.”
Even the interior of the refrigerator had been spray-painted black, but it held no heads. Just a coffee cake and a quart of milk.
Most of the cupboards were empty, too. A drawer contained three spoons, two forks, two knives. According to his employee file, Allwine had lived here for two years. An inventory of his possessions would give the impression that he’d been prepared to leave on a moment’s notice and to travel light.
The third room was the bedroom. The ceiling, the walls, and the floor were black. Even the bed and sheets: black. A black nightstand, black lamp, and black radio with glowing green numbers.
“What is this place?” Carson wondered.
“Maybe he’s a satanist? Or just an over-the-top metal fan.”
“No music system. No TV”
Michael found the source of the licorice odor. On the unpadded windowseat sat a tray holding several fat black candles, none burning at the moment. Bending down to sniff, he said, “Scented.”
Carson considered the time and effort required to create this unrelieved blackness, and suddenly she thought of Arnie and his Lego castle. Bobby Allwine held a job and interacted with the world, but on some level he was as dysfunctional as her brother.
Arnie was benign, however, whereas judging by the available evidence, Allwine’s psychology must be, at the core, malignant.
“This place is worth an extra hundred bucks a month,” Michael declared.
When Carson switched on the light in the adjacent bathroom, the startling contrast stung her eyes. Paint, floor tile, sink, toilet—everything was a dazzling white, assiduously polished. The pungent smell of ammonia allowed no intrusion of the scent of licorice.
Opposite the vanity mirror, hundreds of single-edged razor blades bristled from the wall. Each had been pressed at the same angle into the sheetrock, leaving half of the blade exposed,-like a wicked silver fang. Row after row after row of clean, sparkling, unused razor blades.
“Seems like,” she said, “the victim was even crazier than his killer.”
IN NEW ORLEANS uptown society, formal dinner parties were a political necessity, and Victor took his responsibilities seriously.
Inside the sprawling Garden District mansion, his housekeepers — Christine and Sandra—and his butler, William, had spent the day preparing for the evening’s event. They cleaned every room, added flowers and candles, swept the covered porches. Gardeners tended to the lawn, trees, flower beds, and shrubs.
These people were all his creations, made at the Hands of Mercy, and were therefore tireless and efficient.
In the formal dining room, the table was set for twelve with Pratesi linens, Buccelatti silverware, Limoges china, historic Paul Storr silver chargers,
and a monumental Storr candelabrum featuring Bacchus and attendants. The sparkle factor was greater—and embodied greater value—than any display case of diamonds at Tiffany’s.
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