Thursday, 4 September 2008
Friday was going to be the night.
He knew Savannah’s schedule, knew her habits, knew exactly when she’d be alone. And on Friday night, she would be. Her superhero Navy SEAL husband had planned to be in town for the weekend, but he’d cancelled.
Instead, he would be waiting for her.
He couldn’t wait to see her face, couldn’t wait until she realized that she was going to die, couldn’t wait until she screamed and sobbed in fear and pain.
And oh, it had been so long since he’d last relieved the nightmarish pressure that built up inside of him, pressing out from within his chest, making it hard to breathe, hard for his very heart to beat.
And yes, he’d learned to control it, pushing it back, far back. Sometimes so far back, he nearly forgot he wasn’t one of them. But he never forgot for long.
Over the past week, the pressure had returned, growing stronger and more powerful – every beat of his pulse seeming to shake him with the knowledge that it was time, it was time, it was finally time…
It was time, and he’d take her tomorrow tonight. And although he loved to linger, this one he’d kill quickly. And while he knew he’d regret and miss the power and pleasure he got from drawing out her pain, he’d still get some relief.
And for that alone, as short term and temporary as it was destined to be, it would be good.
But merely good — not perfect. Perfect was reserved for her.
Still, he’d have that perfection soon, because he knew, without a doubt, that, upon news of Savannah’s gruesome death, she would come.
She would come, and this game he’d been playing for all this time would begin its final quarter, this play its final act.
But until then, until Friday night, he had to be patient and wait.
He had a morning ritual to help him through the day.
He’d say her name aloud – just a whisper, but it would echo in the pristine, sterile bathroom — the S’s gloriously sibilant, the K-sound crisp.
Then he’d go into his bedroom, and pick out a picture of her from his vast collection – some that he’d taken himself, which had been a thrill – and he’d carry it with him, all day, in the breast pocket of his jacket.
It was dangerous for him to do so. Savannah knew Alyssa well, and would ask all sorts of awkward questions if she ever saw it.
He made sure she never saw it – although there had been one particularly close call. He’d had it on the table, but had swept it into the trash before Savannah got too close. He hadn’t been able to rescue it, though, before the janitor took it to the dumpster, and he’d had to print out another.
But such risks were part of the game, and carrying the photo with him gave him the comfort and strength he needed to make it through another long, dull day.
Today’s picture was one of his favorites. It had run in the Manchester newspaper. In it, Alyssa was a mere shadow, a shape, standing with a number of other law enforcement officers – police and FBI – at the place where he’d left one of them. Amanda Timberman. It had taken them six months to find Amanda, and unlike all of the others, he’d hoped that they never would.
But they had, and good had come from bad when this picture was taken.
He’d since found out that Alyssa was an investigator with a personal security firm called Troubleshooters Incorporated. She’d been hired by Amanda’s former fiancé – her job being to find Amanda, long gone missing. And find Amanda, she finally had.
When he’d first seen this picture, he hadn’t known Alyssa from any of the other shadowy person-sized shapes in the photograph. But he knew her well now – he recognized her just from the way she was standing, from the tilt of her head.
She thought she had both the brains and the skill to stalk and capture the serial killer that the media had dubbed “The Dentist.” She’d been after him for years.
But now, the Dentist was stalking her. And unlike her, he always caught his prey.
It had started on the very same day that this picture was taken — this journey he was now undertaking; a journey that would end – soon — with her blood on his hands and her pretty white teeth on a necklace he would wear close to his heart.
Her phone rang, shrill and startling in the darkness.
Jenn fumbled for her glasses, knocking them off her bedside table and onto the floor, peering at her alarm clock through the blur made worse by her grogginess.
As she picked up her glasses, the phone rang again, and she knew it had to be Maria – notorious for her insomnia. She also knew, if she answered it, that she’d be forced to recount last night’s terrible, horrible, no-good date with Scooter Randall – an ordeal which she’d driven all the way out to Long Island to endure.
“Maybe he’s changed since high school,” Maria had said, urging her to accept the dinner invitation.
A clue that he hadn’t changed might’ve been the fact that, after twelve years, he was still calling himself by his high school nickname. But Maria, despite being one of the smartest people Jenn knew when it came to most things, was a complete and total idiot when it came to relationships.
Jenn settled back in her bed, willing the call to voice mail. She knew that if Maria really, really needed her, she’d call back and she wouldn’t stop until Jenn picked up.
But then, crap, her cell phone started ringing, too.
Jenn rolled and grabbed for it, because although Maria could be something of a drama queen, there had been only one other time that she’d made a two-fisted phone call like this: when Jenn’s dad had been rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.
“I’m awake,” Jenn said now. “I’m here, what’s wrong?”
“Ford. Garage or street?” Maria’s voice was tight, clipped.
“The car, Jenn. Did you park the car in the-”
Jenn understood. “Street.” She’d gotten home last night well after the time that Vincent lowered and locked the gate to the parking garage.
A few weeks ago, she and Maria had gotten a great deal from the wizened little man. For a fraction of the price it normally cost to keep a car in New York City, they were able to garage the beat-up Taurus that they bought at the beginning of the campaign and cleverly named “Ford” — the catch being that they didn’t have access to it from midnight to six a.m.
So far, so good – except for the many nights they missed Vincent’s deadline, and had to park it on the street.
“Get dressed and get over here,” Maria ordered. “On second thought, don’t get dressed, just get here. We need a ride to the airport, now.”
“The airport?” Jenn asked, tucking the phone between her shoulder and ear as she pulled on the pants she’d worn on the date from hell. She kicked aside the heels she’d bought for the occasion – she was a fool to think that shoes like that made her look sexy instead of freakishly big and stupid – and stepped into her worn-out flats instead. “What airline has flights leaving at this time of-”
“We need a ride out to Westchester,” Maria interrupted. “Van’s grandmother’s chartered a plane to San Diego, and it leaves from there. Jenn, just get over here, okay? Ken’s been badly wounded. He was shot.”
“What?” Despite her disbelief, Jenn had heard what Maria said. Savannah’s Navy SEAL husband Ken had been shot. But the words didn’t line up with what she knew to be true. “Van told me he’s back from Iraq.”
“He’s not in Iraq,” Maria said, as Jenn grabbed a sweatshirt and went out the door. “He’s in San Diego. He was doing some kind of bodyguard assignment as a favor for a friend.”
“Oh, my God.” Jenn waited all of three seconds for the elevator, then bailed and took the stairs.
Maria continued, lowering her voice. “Jenni, it looks bad. He was hit three times, twice to the chest. He’s in surgery right now, but….” She exhaled, hard. “I’m going to fly to California with Savannah. I’m pretty sure she’s going to find out on the flight that… I don’t want her to get that news alone.”
“Oh, my God,” Jenn said again. “Should I come? I could come, too.”
“It was a tough enough battle,” Maria said, “to talk her into letting me go. She’s already said that she wants you to stay here and hold down the fort.”
Which made sense. They were in the middle of a political campaign, and also, well… Jenn was nothing if not realistic. Because even though both Maria and Savannah jokingly referred to the three of them as “Charlie’s Angels,” they were just being nice when they included her that way.
A more accurate pop-culture TV reference would’ve been for them to sing that song from Sesame Street that went “One of these things is not like the others…” as pictures of Maria, Savannah and Jennilyn flashed on the screen.
The drastic differences were not merely physical.
Maria and Savannah had met at an Ivy League law school, and then renewed their friendship when they both went to work, at a huge salary, for some big, sell-your-soul law firm here in New York City. They both also left, souls miraculously intact, at about the same time – Savannah to move to California to be closer to Ken, and Maria because she got an opportunity to clerk for a high-level judge.
They both came from old money and had trust funds up the wazoo, but they both never, ever flaunted it.
And then, of course, there were the physical differences.
They were both shorter than average and beautiful – Savannah blond and blue-eyed, Maria with her midnight eyes and lustrous, dark brown waves. And they were both slender; size eight or smaller to Jenn’s not-quite-sixteen, yet somehow, freakishly, definitely not-fourteen.
On top of their striking beauty and ability to wear clothes that fit perfectly, they were also both brilliant, always knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. It would have been frustrating to spend so much time with them – if they also both weren’t so ridiculously nice.
So the truth was, although Jenn had been friends with Maria during high school, she’d only attended a state college and was too far in debt from that even to consider grad school, regardless of her near-perfect grades. So she’d gone out and gotten herself a crappy job. And then another crappy job. And then, finally, a slightly better job. And a marginally better one after that.
Last year, she’d been working as an administrative assistant at a rental-car company’s corporate headquarters in New Jersey when Maria and Savannah dropped by. It was a surprise visit, and they took her to lunch – and sketched out their plan to get Maria elected to the office of governor of the state of New York.
Step one was to run for state assembly in 2008 – run and win.
Savannah, they’d told her, was going to be Maria’s campaign manager. And they both wanted Jenn to work for them, to run their office, and when Maria won – they always said when not if – Jenn would continue on, working as Maria’s chief of staff. Well, to start out, she’d be both chief and staff, but they were planning, here, for the long term.
And that long term included a possible run for the White House.
So Jenn had bid farewell to the land of the cubicle and had become the only paid employee in the Maria Bonavita for State Assembly office – everyone else was an intern or a volunteer. Despite that, she was still making buckets less than she had been. Plus she no longer got a huge discount on car rentals – hence the purchase of Ford.
But she was, absolutely, working to change the world – starting with their little corner of New York City – and she loved every second of it.
She’d moved into the very neighborhood they’d be representing in the state house in Albany. It was a diverse district, i.e., parts such as this one were somewhat rough. The streets were spookily empty as she let herself out of her apartment building – it was that rare time of night in the city when the late-goers had finally gone home, and the early risers had yet to emerge.
“I’m two minutes from Ford,” she reported to Maria, cell phone still to her ear as she walked briskly down the sidewalk, “and two minutes from there to your place.”
Last night, after driving out to the Island — to listen to Scooter whine endlessly about how he was still in love with Maria and could Jenn please, please, pretty please, put in a good word for him — she’d driven back and had miraculously found a parking space just around the block from their campaign office. Which was, in turn, just a few blocks from her apartment.
“We’ll be waiting outside for you,” Maria told her now. “I’m going to drive. Van’s got a whole list of things she wants to review with you – the events for the next few days.”
“She doesn’t have to do that,” Jenn said. “I know what’s on the schedule.”
“She wants to.” Maria lowered her voice again. “She needs the distraction.”
“How did this happen?” Jenn asked. She and Maria both lived in fear of Van getting this type of phone call when Ken was off on some secret Navy SEAL mission, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. This wasn’t fair – he was home and safe. Or so they’d believed.
“All I know,” Maria told her, “is that Ken sometimes moonlights for his former commanding officer, Tom something, who runs a personal security firm called Troubleshooters Incorporated. He was helping to guard someone, and… They were attacked. Tom was shot, too, but he’s not as badly injured. He’s in right now for a CAT scan – a bullet creased his skull. That’s really all we’ve heard. He’s supposed to call Savannah when the test is done. Until then…” She sighed. “We wait and… Hang on a sec.”
Jenn heard the muffled sound of voices, then Maria came back on the phone.
“Change in plans,” her friend and boss reported. “We’re not going to Westchester – well, we are, but we’re not driving there. We’re going down toward Wall Street. Van’s uncle knows a guy who owns a building with a heliport. We’re getting picked up there by a chopper that’ll take us to the airport, where we’ll meet the charter flight. If you’re close, you can drive us, if not we can get a cab.”
“I’m at the car,” Jenn reported, unlocking Ford with an electronic whoop and sliding behind the wheel. She put her handbag on the passenger seat, locked the door behind her, fastened her seatbelt, and put the key in the ignition. Dang, it smelled funky in here, as if someone had left a sandwich or a piece of fruit under the seat and it was turning into a distant cousin of gin, with a little middle-school gym locker thrown in. No doubt about it, it was time to hose this puppy down. “I have to hang up.”
“We’ll be waiting down in front,” Maria promised, and cut the connection.
Jenn tossed her cell phone into her bag, put the car into reverse and looked into the rearview mirror.
And screamed at the top of her lungs.
There was a hulking shape of a man in the back seat – his eyes glistening in the dimness. She slammed it back to park and fumbled for the interior lights, for the door lock, for her belt release – getting everything on and open at once.
She flung herself out of the car and into the street, with every darkly pointed comment her mother had ever made about living among all of the muggers and gangbangers and serial killers in New York City replaying loudly in her head. But she wasn’t completely reduced to a terrified eleven-year-old – part of her brain was functioning clearly and calmly, assessing the situation, thank God. And thank her squad of boisterous older brothers who’d taught her self-defense by forcing her to defend herself against their teasing and taunts.
Her phone was in her bag, which was still on the front seat. Her keys were in the ignition. She could run, but she wouldn’t be able to get back into her building or her apartment.
There was a twenty-four-hour convenience store two long and one short block away, but she wasn’t much of a runner. Still, running – while continuing to scream loudly — was probably her best option. But before she took off, as she filled her lungs with air to scream again, she realized that the man, too, was scrambling out of the car. But he was going out the far door, on the sidewalk side — moving not toward her, but away from her.
And then she recognized him in the glow from the street light. He was the ancient-seeming homeless man that she’d seen in the neighborhood over the past few months. She’d spotted him many times, going through the dumpster in the back alley behind the office or napping in the waning sunshine in the little park down the street.
Everything about him was grayish-brown – his clothes, his long, scraggly hair and beard, his hands and face, his teeth.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, slamming the car door and backing away, his hands outstretched, as if he were attempting to calm a wild animal. Or to show he was unarmed, which was good. “So sorry. Saw you park it earlier, figured you wouldn’t be back until mornin’. You done scared me half to death.”
She’d scared him?
“You were trespassing,” she told him, her voice too loud to her own ears, her heart still pounding. She was still not completely convinced that he was harmless and that she was safe, so it was stupid to take such an accusing tone, but her fear was rapidly morphing into heat – into anger and indignation. “This car was locked.”
He shrugged as he shuffled away. “Lock’s not a lock to everyone, missy. Jus’ wanted to be outa the rain. Stormy weather’s comin’.”
It was starting to rain, Jenn realized. It was coming down lightly in a mist that she wouldn’t have noticed unless she was walking more than a few blocks – or sleeping on the street.
He faded into the shadows as Jenn exhaled hard, and – peering into the back of the car first, to make sure he hadn’t left behind a companion – she climbed back in and locked all of the doors.