The housekeepers and butler awaited their master’s inspection. He entered the dining room, already dressed for dinner, and considered the preparations.
“Sandra, you’ve selected the right china for tonight’s guests.”
His approval drew a smile from her, though it was uneasy “But, William, there are fingerprints on a couple of these glasses.”
At once the butler took the indicated glasses away.
Two centerpieces of cream-colored roses flanked the candelabrum, and Victor said of them, “Christine, too much greenery. Strip some of it out to emphasize the blooms.”
“I didn’t arrange the roses, sir,” she said, and seemed to be dismayed to have to reveal that his wife had taken charge of the roses. “Mrs. Helios preferred to do it herself. She read a book on flower arranging.”
Victor knew that the staff liked Erika and worried that she should do well.
He sighed. “Redo the arrangements anyway, but don’t say anything to my wife.” Wistfully, he removed one of the white roses and slowly turned it between thumb and forefinger. He sniffed it, noting that a few of the petals already showed early signs of wilt. “She’s so … young. She’ll learn.”
AS the HOUR drew near, Victor went to the master bedroom suite to determine what had delayed Erika.
He found her in the dressing room, at her vanity. Her shoulder-length bronze hair was as lustrous as silk. The exquisite form and buttery smoothness of her bare shoulders stirred him.
Unfortunately, she had too much enthusiasm for the effects of makeup.
“Erika, you can’t improve on perfection.”
“I so much want to look nice for you, Victor.”
“Then wash most of that stuff off. Let your natural beauty shine through. I’ve given you everything you need to dazzle.”
“How sweet,” she said, but she seemed uncertain whether she had been complimented or criticized.
“The district attorney’s wife, the university president’s wife—none of them will be painted like pop-music divas.”
Her smile faltered. Victor believed that directness with a subordinate—or a wife—was always preferable to criticism couched to spare feelings.
Standing close behind her, he slid his hands along her bare shoulders, bent close to smell her hair. He pulled that glorious mane aside, kissed the nape of her neck—and felt her shiver.
He fingered her emerald necklace. “Diamonds would be a better choice. Please change it. For me.”
In the vanity mirror, she met his eyes, then lowered her gaze to the array of makeup brushes and bottles before her. She spoke in a whisper: “Your standards for everything are … so high.”
He kissed her neck again and matched her whisper: “That’s why I made you. My wife.”
IN THE CAR, on the way to the Quarter for a grab-it dinner in Jackson Square, Carson and Michael ping-ponged the case.
She said, ‘Allwine wasn’t chloroformed.”
“We don’t have blood results yet.”
“Remember his face. He wasn’t chloroformed. That makes him and the dry cleaner, Chaterie, the exceptions.”
“The other male, Bradford Walden, was chloroformed,” Michael said. “Otherwise, those three make a set.”
“The Surgeon took their internal organs as souvenirs.”
“But from the women he only takes ears, feet, hands. . . . Did Nancy Whistler e-mail you that list of people with library keys?”
“Yeah. But after seeing Allwine’s apartment, I think he opened the door for the killer, the guy didn’t need a key.”
“How do you get to that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling.”
“Let’s do some victimology analysis,” Michael suggested. “First … I’ve given up on the idea the victims are connected to one another somehow. They’re random prey.”
“How did you analyze your way to that?”
“Now and then,” he said, “I have a feeling of my own.”
‘Any significance to which body part he takes from any particular victim?”
“Elizabeth Lavenza, swimming without her hands. Are hands of special importance in her life, her work? Is she a pianist? Maybe an artist? Maybe a massage therapist?”
‘As you know, she was a clerk in a bookstore.”
“Meg Saville, the tourist from Idaho.”
“Took her feet.”
“She wasn’t a ballet dancer. Just a receptionist.”
“He takes a nurse’s ears, a university student’s legs,” Carson said. “If there’s significance, it’s inscrutable.”
“He takes the dry cleaner’s liver, the bartender’s kidney If he’d carved the bartender’s liver, we might build a theory on that.”
“Pathetic,” she said.
“Totally,” he agreed. “The bartender had a Goth lifestyle, and Allwine lived in black. Is that a connection?”
“I didn’t get Goth from his apartment, just crazy.”
She parked illegally in Jackson Square, near a Cajun restaurant favored by cops.
Just as they reached the entrance, Harker exited the place with a large bag of takeout, bringing with him the mouthwatering aroma of blackened catfish, reminding Carson that she’d skipped lunch.
As if not in the least surprised to see them, as if picking up in midconversation, Harker said, “Word is the mayor might push for a task force as early as the weekend. If we’ll be teaming this later, we might as well start swapping thoughts now.”
To Harker, Carson said, “Surely you gotta know your reputation. Everyone in the department pegs you and Frye for glory hogs.”
“Envy,” Harker said dismissively. “We close more cases than anyone.”
“Sometimes by popping the suspect,” Michael said, referring to a recent officer-involved shooting for which Harker had narrowly avoided being brought up on charges.
Harker’s smile was contemptuous. “You want my theory about the library security guard?”
Michael said, “Do I want pancreatic cancer?”
“The black rooms are a death wish,” Harker conjectured.
“Damn,” Carson said.
“He tried to slash his wrists with each of those razor blades in the bathroom wall,” Harker continued. “But he just couldn’t find the courage.”
“You and Frye went to Allwine’s apartment?”
“Yeah. You two,” Harker said, “you’re our babies, and we sometimes feel the need to burp you.”
He pushed between them, walked away, glanced back after a few steps. “When you have a theory, I’ll be happy to listen to it.”
To Carson, Michael said, “I’ve got a short list of hearts I’d like to cut out.”
AFTER VICTOR LEFT the master suite, Erika slipped into a St. John dress that managed to be sensational yet respectable, subtly sexy but classy.
Standing in front of a full-length mirror in her enormous walk-in closet, which was as big as most master bedrooms, she knew that she looked enchanting, that she would leave an indelible impression on every man at the dinner. Nevertheless, she felt inadequate.
She would have tried other dresses if the first guests had not been scheduled to arrive in mere minutes. Victor expected her to be at his side to greet each arrival, and she dared not fail him.
All of her clothes were behind doors or in drawers along three aisles. She owned literally hundreds of outfits.
She hadn’t shopped for any of them. Having created her to his ideal measurements, Victor had purchased everything while she had still been in the tank.
Perhaps he’d bought some of these things for the previous Erika. She didn’t like to think about that.
She hoped that someday she would be allowed to shop for herself. When Victor allowed that, she would know she had at last met his standards and earned his trust.
Briefly, she wondered what it would be like not to care what Victor— or anyone—thought of her. To be herself. Independent.
Those were dangerous thoughts. She must repress them.
At the back of the closet, perhaps two hundred pairs of shoes were stored on canted shelves. Although she knew that time was of the essence, she dithered between Gucci and Kate Spade.
Behind her in the closet, something rustled, something thumped.
She turned to look back at the center aisle but saw only closed cherrywood doors behind which hung some of her seasonal wardrobe, and pale yellow carpet. She peeked into the right-hand aisle, then into the left, but they were also deserted.
Refocusing on her dilemma, she finally resolved it by choosing the Kate Spades. Carrying them in one hand, she hurried out of the closet into her dressing room.
Entering, she thought she saw movement from the corner of her eye, on the floor at the open doorway to the bedroom. When she turned her head, nothing was there.
Curious, she went into the bedroom nevertheless—just in time to see the silk spread flutter behind something that had just slipped under the king-size bed.
They had no house pets, no dog, no cat.
Victor would be furious if it turned out that a rat had gotten into the house. He had zero tolerance for vermin.
Erika had been made to be cautious of danger but to fear nothing in the extreme—although her programmed respect for her maker came close to fear at times.
If a rat had gotten into the house and if now it hid under the bed, she would not hesitate to snare it and dispose of it.
She set aside the Kate Spades and dropped to her knees beside the bed. She had no doubt that her reflexes were quick enough to snatch a scurrying rat.
When she lifted the spread and looked under the bed, her superb vision required no flashlight. But nothing lurked beneath the boxed springs.
She got to her feet and turned, surveying the room. She sensed that something was here, but she didn’t have time to search behind every piece of furniture.
Conscious of time racing rat-fast, she sat on the edge of an armchair, near the fireplace, and pulled on her shoes. They were beautiful, but she would have liked them more if she had bought them herself.
She sat for a moment, listening. Silence. But this was the kind of silence that suggested something might be listening to her as she listened for it.
When she left the master suite for the upstairs hall, she closed the door behind her. It fit tight. Nothing could get under it. If a rat was loose in the bedroom, it couldn’t get downstairs to spoil the dinner party.
She descended the grand staircase, and as she reached the foyer, the doorbell rang. The first guests had arrived.
AS ROY PRIBEAUX dressed in black slacks, a pale-blue silk sport jacket, and a white linen shirt for his date with Candace—those eyes!—an all-news channel on TV did a segment about the Surgeon.
What an absurd name they had given him. He was a romantic. He was an idealist from a family of idealists. He was a purist. He was many things, but he was not a surgeon.
He knew they were talking about him, though he did not closely follow the media response to his harvests. He hadn’t begun his collection of female perfection with the hope that he would become a celebrity. Fame had no appeal for him.
Of course his quest generated public interest for all the wrong reasons. They saw violence, not art. They saw blood, not the work of a dreamer who sought perfection in all things.
He had only contempt for the media and for the audience to which they pandered. Knaves speaking to fools.
Having come from a prominent family of politicians—his father and grandfather had served the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana—he had seen with what ease the public could be manipulated by the clever use of envy and fear. His family had been expert at it.
In the process, the Pribeauxs had greatly enriched themselves. His grandfather and father had done so well in public service that Roy himself had never needed to work and never would.
Like great artists during the Renaissance, he had patrons: generations of taxpayers. His inheritance allowed him to devote his life to the pursuit of ideal beauty When the TV reporter mentioned the most recent two victims, Roy’s attention was suddenly focused by the coupling of an unknown name— Bobby Allwine—with that of Elizabeth Lavenza. He had harvested Elizabeth’s lovely hands before consigning the depressingly imperfect remainder of her to the City Park lagoon.
The heart had been removed from this Allwine person.
Roy had no interest in hearts. He wasn’t about internals. He was about externals. The kind of beauty that moved Roy was skin deep.
Furthermore, this Allwine person was a man. Roy had no interest in the ideal beauty of men—except in the constant refinement and perfection of his own physique.
Now, standing before the TV, he was further surprised to hear that Allwine was the third man whom the Surgeon had murdered. From the others he had taken a kidney and a liver.
These murders were linked to those of the women by the fact that at least one of the male victims had been chloroformed.
Copycat. Misguided imitator. Out there somewhere in New Orleans, an envious fool had been inspired by Roy’s murders without understanding the purpose of them.
For a moment, he was offended. Then he realized that the copycat, inevitably less intelligent than Roy himself, would eventually screw up, and the police would pin all these killings on the guy. The copycat was Roy’s get-out-of-jail-free card.
the projection BOOTH might have seemed too small for two men as large—in different ways—as Jelly Biggs and Deucalion. Nevertheless, it became the space they shared when they preferred not to be alone.
The booth was cozy, perhaps because of Jelly’s collection of paperback books, perhaps because it felt like a high redoubt above the fray of life.
For extended periods of his long existence, Deucalion had found solitude appealing. One of those periods had ended in Tibet.
Now, with the discovery that Victor was not dead, solitude disturbed Deucalion. He wanted companionship.
As former carnies, he and Jelly had a world of experience in common, tales to tell, nostalgic remi-
niscences to share. In but one day they found that they fell into easy conversation, and Deucalion suspected that in time they would become true friends.
Yet they fell into silences, as well, for their situation was similar to that of soldiers in a battlefield trench, in the deceptive calm before the mortar fire began. In this condition, they had profound questions to ponder before they were ready to discuss them.
Jelly did his thinking while reading mystery novels of which he was inexpressibly fond. Much of his life, imprisoned in flesh, he had lived vicariously through the police, the private investigators, and the amateur detectives who populated the pages of his favorite genre.
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