He stared hard at himself - and saw a rather convincing-looking black man, especially if the light wasn't too strong. Not bad, not bad at all. It was a good disguise for a night on the town, especially if the town was Washington.
So let the games begin. The Four Horsemen.
At ten twenty-five, he went down to the garage again. He carefully circled around the Jaguar and walked to the purple-and-blue taxi cab. He had already begun to lose himself in delicious fantasy.
Shafer reached into his pants pocket and pulled out three unusual-looking dice. They were twenty-sided, the kind used in most fantasy games, or RPGs. They had numerals on them rather than dots.
He held the dice in his left hand, rolling them over and over.
There were explicit rules to The Four Horsemen; every-thing was supposed to depend on the dice roll. The idea was to come up with an outrageous fantasy, a mind-blower. The four, players around the world were competing. There had never been a game like this - nothing even came close.
Shafer had already prepared an adventure for himself, but there were alternatives for every event. Much depended on the dice.
That was the main point - anything could happen.
He got into the taxi, started it up. Good Lord, was he ready for this!
Chapter Six He had a gorgeous plan mapped out. He would pick up only those few passengers -'fares'- who caught his eye, fired up his imagination to the limit. He wasn't in a hurry. He had all night; he had all weekend. He was on a busman's holiday.
His route had been laid out beforehand. First, he drove to the fashionable Adams-Morgan neighborhood. He watched the busy sidewalks, which seemed one long syncopated rhythm of movement. Bar-grazers slouching toward hipness. It seemed that every other restaurant in Adams-Morgan called itself a cafe. Driving slowly and checking the glittery sights, he passed Cafe Picasso, Cafe Lautrec, La Fourchette Cafe, Bukom Cafe, Cafe Dalbol, Montego Cafe, Sheba Cafe.
Around eleven thirty, on Columbia Road, he slowed the taxi cab. His heart began to thump. Something very good was shaping up ahead.
A handsome-looking couple was leaving the popular Chief Ike's Mambo Room. A man and a woman, Hispanic, probably in their late twenties. Sensual beyond belief.
He rolled the dice across the front seat: six, five, four - a total of fifteen. A high count.
Danger! That made sense. A couple was always tricky and risky.
Shafer waited for them to cross the pavement, moving away from the restaurant canopy. They came right toward him. How accommodating. He touched the handle of the magnum that he kept under the front seat. He was ready for anything.
As they started to climb into the taxi, he changed his mind. He could do that!
Shafer saw that neither of them was as attractive as he'd thought. The man's cheeks and forehead were slightly mottled; the pomade in his black hair was too thick and greasy. The woman was a few pounds heavier than he liked, plumper than she'd looked from a distance in the flattering streetlights.
'Off duty,' he said, and sped away. Both of them gave him the finger.
Shafer laughed out loud. 'You're in luck tonight! Fools! Luckiest night of your lives and you don't even know it.'
The incomparable thrill of the fantasy had completely taken hold of him. He'd had total power over the couple. He had control of life and death.
'Death be proud,' he whispered.
He stopped for more coffee at a Starbucks on Rhode Island Avenue. Nothing like it. He purchased three black coffees and heaped six sugars in each.
An hour later, he was in Southeast. He hadn't stopped for another fare. The streets were crowded to the max with pedestrians. There weren't enough taxis, not even gypsies in this part of Washington.
He regretted having let the Hispanic couple get away. He'd begun to romanticize them in his mind, to visualize them as they'd looked in the streetlight. Remembrance of things past, right? He thought of Proust's monumental opening line: For a long time I used to go to bed early.' And so had Shafer - until he discovered the game of games.
Then he saw her - a perfect brown goddess standing right there before him, as if someone had just given him a wonderful present. She was walking by herself, about a block from E Street, moving fast, purposefully. He was instantly high again.
He loved the way she moved, the swivel of her long legs, the exactness of her carriage.
As he came up behind her, she began looking around, checking the street. Looking for a taxi? Could it be? Did she want him?
She had on a light cream suit, a purple silk shirt, high heels. She looked too classy and adult to be going to a club. She appeared to be in control of herself.
He quickly rolled the twenty-sided dice again and held his breath. Counted the numerals. His heart leaped. This was what the Horsemen was all about.
She was waving her hand at him, signaling. 'Taxi!' she called. Taxi! Are you free?'
He guided the taxi over to the curb and she took three quick, delicate steps toward him. She was wearing shimmery, silken high heels that were just delightful. She was much prettier up close. She was a nine and a half out of ten.
Then he saw that she was carrying flowers, and wondered why. Something special tonight? Well, that was certainly true. The flowers were for her own funeral.
'Oh, thank you so much for stopping.' She spoke breathlessly as she settled into the taxi. He could tell that she was letting herself relax and feel safe. Her voice was soothing, sweet, down-to-earth, and real.
'At your service.' Shafer turned and smiled at her. 'By the way, I'm Death. You're my fantasy for this weekend.'
Chapter Seven Monday mornings I usually work the soup kitchen at St Anthony's in Southeast, where I've been a volunteer for the past half-dozen years. I do the seven-to-nine shift, three days a week.
That morning I felt restless and uneasy. I was still getting over the Mr. Smith case, which had taken me all over the East Coast and to Europe. Maybe I needed a real vacation, a holiday far away from Washington.
I watched the usual lineup of men, women, and children who have no money for food. It was about five deep and went up Twelfth Street to the second corner. It seemed such a pity, so unfair that so many folks still go hungry in Washington, or are fed only once a day.
I had started helping out at the kitchen years before on account of my wife, Maria. She was doing casework as a social worker at St Anthony's when we first met. Maria was the uncrowned princess of St Anthony's; everybody loved her, and she loved me. She was shot, murdered, in a drive-by incident, not far from the soup kitchen. We'd been married four years and had two small children. The case has never been solved, and that still tortures me. Maybe that's what drives me to solve every case that I can, no matter how bad the odds.
At St Anthony's soup kitchen, I help make sure nobody gets too riled up, or causes undue trouble during meals. I'm six-three, around two hundred and five pounds, and built for peacekeeping, if and when it's necessary. I can usually ward off trouble with a few quiet words and non-threatening gestures. Most of these people are here to eat though, not fight or cause trouble.
I also dish out peanut butter and jelly to anyone who wants seconds, or even thirds of the stuff. Jimmy Moore, the Irish-American who runs the soup kitchen with much love and just the right amount of discipline, has always believed in the healing power of PB and J. Some of the regulars at the kitchen call me 'Peanut Butter Man'. They've been doing it for years.
'You don't look so good today,' said a short, ample woman who's been coming to the kitchen for the past year or two. I know her name is Laura, that she was born in Detroit, and has two grown sons. She used to work as a housekeeper on M Street in Georgetown, but the family felt she'd gotten too old for the job, and let her go with a couple weeks'severance and warm words of appreciation.
You deserve better. You deserve me,' Laura said, and laughed mischievously. 'What do you say?'
'Laura, you're too kind with your compliments.' I said, dishing up her usual dish. 'Anyway, you've met Christine. You know I'm already spoken for.'
Laura giggled, and hugged herself with both arms. She had a fine, healthy laugh, even under the circumstances. 'A young girl has to dream, you know. Nice to see you, as always.'
'Same to you, Laura. As always, nice to see you. Enjoy the meal.'
'Oh, I do. You can see I do.'
As I said my cheery hellos and dished out heaped portions of peanut butter, I allowed myself to think about Christine. Laura was probably right, maybe I didn't look so good today; I probably hadn't looked too terrific for a few days.
I still remembered a night about two weeks back. I had just finished the multiple-homicide case in Boston. Christine and I stood on the porch in front of her house out in Mitchellville. I was trying to live my life differently, but it's hard to change. I had a saying I really liked: Heart leads head.
I could smell the flowers in the night air, roses and impatiens growing in profusion. I could also smell Gardenia Passion, a favorite perfume that Christine was wearing that night.
She and I had known each other for a year and a half. We'd met during a murder investigation that had ended with the death of her husband. Eventually, we began to go out. I was thinking that it had all been leading to this moment on the porch. At least it had been in my mind.
I had never seen Christine when she didn't look good to me, and make me feel light-headed. She's tall, almost five-ten, and that's nice. She has a smile that could probably light up half the country. That night, she was wearing tight faded jeans and a white T-shirt knotted around her waist. Her feet were bare and her nails were dabbed with red. Her beautiful brown eyes were shining.
I reached out and took her into my arms and suddenly everything seemed right with the world. I forgot all about the terrible case I'd just finished; I forgot about a particularly vicious killer known as Mr. Smith.
I cupped her sweet, kind face gently in my hands. I like to think that nothing scares me anymore, and many things don't, but I guess the more good things you have in your life, the easier it is to experience fear. Christine felt so precious to me - so maybe I was scared.
Heart leads head.
It isn't the way most men act, but I was learning.
'I love you more than I've ever loved anything in my life, Christine. You help me see and feel things in new ways. I love your smile, your way with people - especially kids - your kindness. I love to hold you like this. I love you more than I can say if I stood here and talked for the rest of the night. I love you so much. Will you marry me, Christine?'
She didn't answer right away. I felt her pull back, just a little, and my heart caught. I looked into her eyes, and what I saw was pain and uncertainty. It nearly broke my heart.
'Oh, Alex, Alex.' she whispered, and looked as if she might cry. 'I can't give you an answer. You just came back from Boston. You were on another horrible, horrible murder case. I can't take that. Your life was in danger again. That terrible madman was in your house. He threatened your family. You can't deny any of that.'
I couldn't. It had been a terrifying experience, and I had nearly died. 'I won't deny anything you said. But I do love you. I can't deny that either. I'll quit the police force if that's what it takes.'
'No.' A softness came into her eyes. She shook her head back and forth. 'That would be all wrong. For both of us.'
We held each other on the porch and I knew we were in trouble. I didn't know how to resolve it. I had no idea. Maybe if I left the force, became a full-time therapist again, led a more normal life for Christine and the kids. But could I do that? Could I really quit?
'Ask me again.' she whispered. 'Ask me again, sometime.'
Chapter Eight Christine and I had dated since that night, and it had been the way it always is between us. It just felt right, easy, comfortable, and romantic. Still, I wondered if our problem could be fixed. Could she be happy with a homicide detective? Could I stop being one? I didn't know.
I was brought out of my reverie about Christine by the high-pitched, stuttering wail of a siren out on Twelfth Street, just turning off E. I winced when I saw Sampson's black Nissan pull up in front of St Anthony's.
He turned off the siren on his rooftop, but then beeped the car horn, sat on it. I knew he was here for me, probably to take me somewhere that I didn't want to go. The horn continued to blare.
'It's your friend John Sampson,' Jimmy Moore called out. 'You hear him, Alex?'
'I know who it is,' I called back to Jimmy. I'm hoping that he goes away.'
'Sure doesn't sound like it.'
I finally walked outside, crossing through the soup-kitchen line and receiving a few jokey jeers. People I had known for a long time accused me of working half a day, or said that if I didn't like the job, could they have it?
'What's up?' I called to Sampson, before I got all the way out to his black sportscar.
Sampson's side window came sliding down. I leaned inside the car. 'You forget? It's my day off,' I reminded him.
'It's Nina Childs,' Sampson said in a low, soft voice he used only when he was angry or very serious. He tried to deaden his facial muscles, to look tough, not emotional, but it wasn't working real well. 'Nina's dead, Alex.'
I shivered involuntarily. I opened the car door and got in. I didn't even go back to the kitchen to tell Jimmy Moore I was leaving. Sampson jerked the car away from the curbside fast. The siren came on again, but now I almost welcomed the mournful wail. It numbed me.
'What do you know so far?' I asked as we rushed along the intensely bleak streets of Southeast, then crossed the slate-gray Anacostia River.
'She was dumped in a row house, Eighteenth and Garnesville. Jerome Thurman is out there with her. Says she's probably been there since the weekend. Some needlepusher found the body. No clothes or ID, Alex,' Sampson said.
I looked over at him. 'So how did they know it was Nina?'
'Uniform guy on the scene recognized her. Knew her from the hospital. Everybody knew Nina.'
I shut my eyes, but I saw Nina Childs' face and I opened them again. She had been the eleven-to-seven charge nurse in the ER unit at St Anthony's Hospital, where once I ran like a tornado with a dying little boy in my arms. Sampson and I had worked with Nina more times than I could remember. Sampson had also dated Nina for over a year, but then they broke it off. She married a neighborhood man who worked for the city. They had two kids, two little babies, and Nina had seemed so happy the last time I saw her.
I couldn't believe she was lying dead in a tenement on the wrong side of the Anacostia. She had been abandoned, like one of the Jane Does.
Chapter Nine Nina Quids' body had been found in a battered row house in one of the city's most impoverished, destroyed, and dismaying neighborhoods. There was only one patrol car on the scene, and a single rusted and dented EMS van. Homicides in Southeast don't attract much attention. A dog was barking somewhere and it was the only sound on the desolate street.
Sampson and I had to walk past an open-air drug mart on the corner of Eighteenth Street. Mostly young males, but a few children and two women were gathered there defiantly. The drug marts are everywhere in this part of Southeast. The neighborhood youth activity is the crack trade.
'Daily body pick-up, Officers?' said one of the young men, who was wearing black trousers with black suspenders, no shirt, socks, or shoes. He had a prison-yard physique and tattoos everywhere.
'Come to take out the trash?' An older man cackled from behind an unruly patch of salt-and-pepper beard. 'Take that muhfuckin' barkin'-all-night dog while you here. Make yourselves useful' he added.
Sampson and I ignored them and continued walking across Eighteenth, then into the boarded-up three-storied row house straight ahead. A black-and-white boxer leaned out of a third-floor window, like a lifetime resident, and wouldn't stop barking. Otherwise the building appeared deserted.
The front door had been jimmied a hundred times, so it just swung open for us. The building smelled of fire, garbage, water damage. There was a gaping hole in the ceiling from a burst steam pipe. It was so wrong for Nina to have ended up in this sad, abominable place.
For over a year I had been unofficially investigating unsolved murders in Southeast, many of them Jane Does. My count was well over a hundred, but no one else in the department was willing to agree to the number, or anything close to it. Several of the murdered women were drug abusers or prostitutes. But not Nina.
We carefully descended a circular stairwell that had a shaky, well-worn wooden railing that neither of us would touch. I could see flashlights shining up ahead and I already had my Maglite turned on.
Nina was deep in the basement of the abandoned building. At least somebody had bothered to tape off the perimeter, frozen the crime scene.
I saw Nina's body - and I had to look away.
It wasn't just that she was dead, it was how she'd been killed. I tried to put my mind and eyes somewhere else until I regained some composure.
Jerome Thurman was there with the EMS team. So was a single patrol officer, probably the one who had identified Nina. No ME was present. It wasn't unusual for a medical examiner not to show up for homicides in Southeast.
There were dead flowers on the floor near the body. I focused on the flowers, still not able to look at Nina again. They didn't fit with the other Jane Does, but the killer didn't have a strict pattern. That was one of the problems I was having. It might mean that his fantasy was still evolving - and that he hadn't finished making up his gruesome story yet.
I noted shreds of foil and cellophane wrappers lying everywhere on the floor. Rats are attracted to shiny things and often bring them back to their nests. Thick cobwebs weaved from one end of the basement to the other.
I had to look at Nina again. I needed to look closely.
I'm Detective Alex Cross. Let me take a look at her, please,' I finally said to the EMS team, a man and a woman in their twenties. 'I'll just be a couple of minutes, then I'll get out of your way.'
'The other detectives already released the body' the male EMS worker said. He was rail-thin, with long dirty-blond hair. He didn't bother to look up at me. 'Let us finish our job and get the hell out of this cesspool. Whole area is highly infectious, smells like shit.'
'Just back away,' Sampson barked. 'Get up, before I pull your skinny ass up.'
The EMS techie cursed, but he stood and backed away from Nina's body. I moved in close, tried to concentrate and be professional, tried to remember specific details I had gathered about the previous Jane Does in Southeast. I was looking for some connection. I wondered if a single predator could possibly be killing so many people. If that were true, then this would be one of the most savage killing sprees ever.
I took a deep breath and then I knelt over Nina. The rats had been at her, I could see. The killer had done much worse damage.
It looked to me as if Nina had been beaten to death, with punches, and possibly kicks. She might have been struck a hundred times or more. I had rarely seen anyone given this much punishment. Why did it have to happen? She was only thirty-one years old, mother of two, kind, talented, dedicated to her work at St Anthony's.
There was a sudden noise, like a rifleshot, in the building. It reverberated right through the basement walls. The EMS workers jumped.
The rest of us laughed nervously. I knew exactly what the sound was.
'Just rattraps' I said to the EMS team. 'Get used to it.'
Chapter Ten I was at the homicide scene for a little over two hours, much longer than I wanted to be there, and I hated every second. I couldn't fix a set pattern for the Jane Doe killings, and Nina Quids' murder didn't help. Why had he struck her so many times and so savagely? What were the flowers doing there? Could this be the work of the same killer?
The way I usually operate at a crime scene, the homicide investigation takes on an almost aerial view. Everything emanates from the body.
Sampson and I walked the entire crime scene - from the basement to each floor and on up to the roof. Then we walked the neighborhood. Nobody had seen anything unusual, which didn't surprise either of us.
Now came the really bad part. Sampson and I drove from the woeful tenement to Nina's apartment in the Brookland section of Washington, east of Catholic University. I knew I was being sucked in again, but there was nothing I could do about it.
It was a sweltering-hot day and the sun hammered Washington without mercy. We were both silent and withdrawn during the ride. What we had to do was the worst thing about our job, telling a family about the death of a loved one. I didn't know how I could do it this time.
Nina lived in a well-kept brown-brick building on Monroe Street. Miniature yellow roses were blooming out front in bright-green window-boxes. It didn't look as if anything bad should happen to someone who lived here. Everything about the place was so bright and hopeful, just as Nina had been.
I was becoming more and more disturbed and upset about the brutal and obscene murder, and the fact that it probably wouldn't get a decent investigation from the department, at least not officially. Nana Mama would chalk it up to her conspiracy theories about the white overlords and their 'criminal disinterest' in the people of Southeast. She had often told me that she felt morally superior to white people, that she would never, ever treat them the way they treated the black people of Washington.
'Nina's sister, Marie, takes care of the kids' Sampson said as we rode down Monroe. 'She's a nice girl. Had a drug problem one time, beat it. Nina helped her. The whole family is close-knit. A lot like yours. This is going to be real bad, Alex.'
I turned to him. Not surprisingly, he was taking Nina's death even harder than I was. It's unusual for him to show his emotions though. 'I can do it, John. You stay here in the car. I'll go up and talk to the family.'
Sampson shook his head and sighed loudly. 'Doesn't work that way, sugar.'
He snugged the Nissan up to the curb and we both climbed out. He didn't stop me from coming along to the apartment, so I knew he wanted me there with him. He was right. This was going to be bad.
The Child's apartment took up the first and second floors. The front door was slightly ornate, aluminum. Nina's husband was already at the door. He had on the proletariat uniform of the DC Housing Authority where he worked: mud-stained work boots, blue trousers, a shirt marked DCHA. One of the babies snuggled in his arms, a beautiful girl who looked at me and smiled and cooed.
'Could we come inside for a moment?' Sampson asked.
'It's Nina' the husband said, and started to break down right there in the doorway.
'I'm sorry, William.' I spoke softly. 'You're right. She's dead. She's been killed. She was found this morning.'
William Childs started to sob loudly. He was a powerful-looking working man, but that didn't matter. He held his bewildered little girl to his chest and tried to control the crying, but he couldn't.
'Oh God, no. Oh, Nina, Nina baby. How could somebody kill her? How could anybody do that? Oh, Nina, Nina, Nina.'
A young, pretty woman came up behind him. She had to be Nina's sister, Marie. She took the baby from her sister's husband, and the little girl began to scream, as if she knew what had happened. I had seen so many families, so many good people, who had lost loved ones on these merciless streets. I knew it would never completely stop, but I felt it ought to get better, and it never did.