Read an Excerpt
James Qatar dropped his feet over the edge of the bed and rubbed the back of his neck, a momentary veil of depression falling upon him. He was sitting naked on the rumpled sheets, the smell of sex lingering like a rude perfume. He could hear Ellen Barstad in the kitchen. She’d turned on the radio she kept by the sink, and “Cinnamon Girl” bubbled through the small rooms. Dishes tinkled against cups, fingernail scratches through the melody of the song.
“Cinnamon Girl” wasn’t right for this day, for this time, for what was about to happen. If he were to have music, he thought, maybe Shostakovich, a few measures from the Lyric Waltz in Jazz Suite Number 2. Something sweet, yet pensive, with a taste of tragedy; Qatar was an intellectual, and he knew his music.
He stood up, wobbled into the bathroom, flushed the Trojan in the toilet, washed perfunctorily, and studied himself in the mirror above the sink. Great eyes, he thought, suitably deep-set for a man of intellect. A good nose, trim, not fleshy. His pointed chin made his face into an oval, a reflection of sensitivity. He was admiring the image when his eyes drifted to the side of his nose: a whole series of small dark hairs were emerging from the line where his nose met his cheek. He hated that.
He found a set of tweezers in the medicine cabinet and carefully tweezed them away, then took a couple of hairs from the bridge of his nose, between his eyebrows. Checked his ears. His ears were okay. The tweezers were pretty good, he thought: you didn’t find tweezers like this every day. He’d take them with himshe wouldn’t miss them.
Now. Where was he?
Ah. Barstad. He had to stay focused. He went back to the bedroom, put the tweezers in a jacket pocket, dressed, put on his shoes, then returned to the bathroom to check his hair. Just a touch with the comb. When he was satisfied, he rolled out twenty feet of toilet paper and wiped everything he might have touched in the bedroom and bathroom. The police would be coming around sooner or later.
He hummed as he worked, nothing intricate: Bach, maybe. When he’d finished cleaning up, he threw the toilet paper into the toilet, pressed the handle with his knuckles, and watched it flush.
Ellen Barstad heard the toilet flush a second time and wondered what was keeping him. All this toilet flushing was less than romantic; she needed some romance. Romance, she thought, and a little decent sex. James Qatar had been a severe disappointment, as had been all of the few lovers in her life. All eager to get aboard and pound away; none much concerned with her, though they said they were.
“That was really great, Ellen, you’re great––pass me that beer, will ya? Ya got great tits, did I tell you that . . .? ”
Her love life to this point––three men, six years––had been a pale reflection of the ecstasies described in her books. So far, she felt more like a sausage-making machine than the lover in the Song of Solomon: “Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies. Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, I will go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense. All beautiful you are, my darling, there is no flaw in you.”
Where was that? Huh? Where was it? That’s what she wanted. Somebody to climb her mountain of myrrh.
James Qatar might not look like much, she thought, but there was a sensual quality in his eyes, and a hovering cruelty that she found intriguing. She’d never been pushy, had never pushed anything in her life. But as she stood with her hands in the dishwater, she decided to push this. If she didn’t, what was the point?
Time was passing––with her youth.
Barstad was a fabric artist who did some weaving, but mostly made quilts. She couldn’t make a living at it yet, but her quilting income was increasing month by month, and in another year or two she might be able to quit her day job.
She lived illegally in a storefront in a Minneapolis warehouse district. The front of the space was an open bay, full of quilting frames and material bins. The back she’d built herself, with salvaged drywall and two-by-fours: She’d enclosed the toilet and divided the rest of the space into bedroom, sitting area, and kitchen. The kitchen amounted to a tabletop electric stove and a fifties refrigerator, with a bunch of old doors mounted on sawhorses as countertops. And it was all just fine for an artist in her twenties, with bigger things ahead. . .
Like great sex, she thought––if he’d ever get out of the bathroom.
The rope was in his jacket, balled up. Qatar took it out and pulled his hand down the length of it, as though to strip away its history. Eighteen inches long, it had begun life as the starter rope on a Mercury outboard motor––one end still had the rubber pull-handle. The rope had been with him, he thought, for almost half his life. When he’d eliminated the tangles, he coiled it neatly around the fingers of his left hand, slipped the coil off his fingers, and pushed it carefully into his hip pocket. Old friend.
Barstad had been a brutal disappointment. She’d been nothing like her images had suggested she’d be. She’d been absolutely white-bread, nothing but spread-your-legs-and-close-your-eyes. He couldn’t continue with a woman like that.
The postcoital depression began leaking away, to be replaced by the half-forgotten killing mood––a fitful state, combining a blue, close-focused excitement with a scratchy, unpleasant fear. He picked up his jacket and carried it into the living room, a space just big enough for a couch and coffee table, hung it neatly on the back of a wooden rocking chair, and walked to the corner of the makeshift kitchen.
The kitchen smelled a little of chicken soup, a little of seasoned salt, a little of cut celery, all pulled together by the hum of the refrigerator and the sound of the radio. Barstad was there, with both hands in dishwater. She was absently mouthing the words to a soft-rock tune that Qatar didn’t recognize, and moving her body with it in that self-conscious, upper-Midwest way.
Barstad had honey-blond hair and blue eyes under pale, almost white eyebrows. She dressed down, in Minnesota fashion, in earth-colored shifts, turtlenecks, dark tights, and clunky shoes. The church-mouse clothes did not completely conceal an excellent body, created by her Scandinavian genes and toned by compulsive bicycle-riding. All wasted on her, Qatar thought. He stepped into the kitchen, and she saw him and smiled shyly. “How are you?” she asked.
“Wonderful,” he said, twinkling at her, the rope pressing in his hip pocket. She’d known the sex hadn’t been that goodthat’s why she’d fled to her dishes. He bent forward, his hands at her waist, and kissed her on the neck. She smelled like yellow Dial soap. “Absolutely the best.”
“I hope it will get better,” she said, blushing. She had a sponge in her hand. “I know it wasn’t everything you expected. . . .”
“You are such a pretty woman,” he said. He touched the side of her neck, cooing at her. “Such a pretty woman.”
He pushed his hips against her, and she moved her butt back against him. “And you are such a liar,” she said. She was not good at small talk. “But keep it up.”
“Mmmm.” The rope was in his hand.
His fingers fit over the T of the handle; he would loop it over her chin, he thought, so that it wouldn’t get hung up by the turtleneck. He would have to pull her over, he thought; get a foot wedged behind hers and jerk hard, backward and down, then hang her over the floor, so that her own weight would strangle her. Had to watch for fingernails, and to control the attitude of her body with his knees. Fingernails were like knives. He turned one foot to block her heels, so that she would trip over it when she went down.
Careful here, he thought. No mistakes now.
“I know that wasn’t too great,” she said, not looking back at him. A pink flush crawled up her neck, but she continued, doggedly, “I haven’t had that much experience, and the men . . . weren’t very . . . good.” She was struggling with the words. This was hard. “You could show me a lot about sex. I’d like to know. I really would. I’d like to know everything. If we could find a way to talk about it without being too, you know, embarrassed about it.”
She derailed him.
He’d been one second from taking her, and her words barely penetrated the killing fog. But they got through.
She wanted what? To learn about sex, a lot about sex? The idea was an erotic slap in the face, like something from a bad pornographic film, where the housewife asks the plumber to show her how to . . .
He stood frozen for a moment, then she half-turned and gave him the shy, sexy smile that had attracted him in the first place. Qatar pushed against her again and fumbled the rope back into his hip pocket.
“I think we could work something out,” he said, his voice thick. And he thought, silently amused: Talk dirty––save your life.
James Qatar was an art history professor and a writer, a womanizer and genial pervert and pipe smoker, a thief and a laughing man and a killer. He thought of himself as sensitive and engaged, and tried to live up to that image. He kissed Barstad once more on the back of the neck, cupped one of her breasts for a moment, then said, “I’ve got to go. Maybe we could get together Wednesday.”
“Do you, uh . . .” She was blushing again. “Do you have any sexy movies?”
“Movies?” He heard her, but he was astonished.
“You know, sexy movies,” she said, turning into him. “Maybe if we had a sexy movie, we could, you know . . . talk about what works and what doesn’t.”
“You could be really good at this,” he said.
“I’ll try,” she said. She was flaming pink, but she was determined.
Qatar left the apartment with a vague feeling of regret. Barstad had mentioned that she had to go to the bank later in the day. She’d gotten enrollment fees for a quilting class, and had two hundred dollars in checks she’d wanted to deposit––and she had almost four hundred dollars in cash, which she would not deposit, to avoid the taxes.
The money could have been his; and she had some nice jewelry, gifts from her parents, worth maybe another thousand. There was some miscellaneous stuff, as well: cameras, some of her drawing equipment, an IBM laptop, and a Palm III that, together, could have pulled in a couple of hundred more.
He could have used the cash. The new light topcoats for the coming season were hip-length, and he’d seen the perfect example at Neiman Marcus: six hundred fifty dollars, on sale, with a wool lining. A pair of cashmere sweaters, two pairs of slacks, and the right shoes would cost another two thousand. He’d been only seconds away from it. . . .
Was sex better than cashmere? He wasn’t sure. It was quite possible, he mused, that no matter what Barstad was willing to do in bed, she would never be as good as Armani.
James Qatar was five feet, eleven ten inches tall, slender and balding, with a thin blond beard that he kept closely cropped. He liked the three-days-without-shaving look, the open-collar, striped-shirt, busy-intellectual image. He was fair-skinned, with smile lines at the corners of his mouth, and just a hint of crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes. He had delicate hands with long fingers. He worked out daily on a rowing machine, and in the summer on blades; he would not ever have thought of himself as a brave man, but he did have a style of courage built on willpower. He never failed to do what he wanted to do, or needed to.
The smile lines on his face came from laughing: he wasn’t jolly, exactly, but he’d perfected a long, rolling laugh. He laughed at jokes, at wit, at cynicism, at travail, at cruelty, at life, at death. Years before he’d cornered a coed in his office once, thinking that she might come across, thinking that he might kill her if she did, but she hadn’t. She’d said, instead, “All that laughing doesn’t fool me, Jimbo. You’ve got mean little eyes like a pig. I can see the meanness.”
On her way out, she’d turned––posing her coed tits perfectly in profile––and said, “I won’t be coming back to class, but I better get an A for the semester. If you read my meaning.” He’d let out his rolling laugh, a little regretfully, peered at her with his mean eyes, and said, “I didn’t like you until now. Now I like you.”
He’d delivered the A, and considered it earned.
Qatar was an art historian and associate professor at St. Patrick’s University, author of Not a Pipe: The Surfaces of Midwestern Painting 1966–1990, which had been favorably reviewed in Chicken Little, the authorative quarterly of late-postmodern arts; and also Planes on Plains: Native Cubists of the Red River Valley 1915–1930, which the reviewer for the Fargo Forum had called “seminal.” He’d begun college as a studio artist, but switched to art history after a cold-eyed appraisal of his talents––good, but not great––and an equally cold appraisal of an average artist’s earning potential.
He’d done well with his true interests: blond women, art history, wine, murder, and his home, which he’d decorated with Arts and Crafts furniture. Even, since the arrival of digital photography, with art itself.
Art of a sort.
The school provided computers, Internet connections, video projectors, slide scanners, all the tools required by an art historian. He found that he could scan a photo into his computer and process it through Photoshop, eliminating much of the confusing complexity. He could then project it onto a piece of drawing paper and draw over the photo.
This was not considered entirely proper in the art community, so he kept his experiments secret. He imagined himself someday popping an entire oeuvre of sensational drawings on a stunned New York art world.
It had been just that innocent in the beginning. A dream. His historian’s eye told him that the first drawings were mediocre; but as he became more expert with the various tools in Photoshop, and with the pen itself, the drawings became cleaner and sharper. They actually became good. Still not good enough to provide a living, but good enough to engage his other enthusiasms. . . .
He could download a nude from one of the endless Internet porno sites, process it, print it, project it, and produce a fantasy that appealed both to his sense of aesthetics and to his need to possess.
The next step was inevitable. After a few weeks of working with appropriated photos, he found that he could lift the face from one photo and fit it to another. He acquired an inconspicuous Fuji digital camera and began taking surreptitious pictures of women around campus.
Women he wanted. He would scan the woman’s face into the computer, use Photoshop to match it, and graft it to an appropriate body from a porno site. The drawing was necessary to eliminate the inevitable and incongruous background effects and the differences of photo resolutions; the drawings produced a whole.
Produced an object of desire.
Qatar desired women. Blond women, of a particular shape and size. He would fix on a woman and build imaginary stories around her. Some of the women he knew well, others not at all. He’d once had an intensely sexual relationship with a woman he’d seen only once, for a few seconds, getting into a car in the parking lot of a bagel shop, a flash of long legs and nylons, the hint of a garter belt. He’d dreamed of her for weeks.
The new computer-drawing process was even better, and allowed him to indulge in anything. Anything. He could have any woman he wanted, and any way. The discovery excited him almost as much as killing. Then, almost as a by-product, he’d discovered the power of his Art as a weapon.
His first use of it had been almost thoughtless, a sociology professor from the University of Minnesota who had, years before, rejected his interest. He’d snapped her one day as she walked across the pedestrian bridge toward the student union, unaware of his presence. Theirs had not been a planned encounter, but purely accidental.
After processing the photo, and a dozen trial sketches, he’d produced a brilliant likeness of her face, attached to a grossly gynecological shot from the Internet. The drawing had the weird, sprawling foreshortening that he’d never gotten right in his studio classes.
He mailed the drawing to her.
As he prepared to do it, it occurred to him that he might be––probably was––committing a crime of some kind. Qatar was not unfamiliar with crime, and the care that comes with the dedicated commission of capital offenses. He redid the drawing and used a new unhandled envelope, to eliminate any fingerprints.
After mailing it, he did nothing more. His imagination supplied multiple versions of her reaction, and that was enough.
Well. Not quite enough. In the past three years, he’d repeated the drawing attacks seventeen times. The thrill was not the same as the killing––lacked the specificity and intensity––but it was deeply pleasurable. He would sit in his old-fashioned wooden rocker, eyes closed, thinking of his women as they opened the letters. . . . And thinking of those others as they fought the rope.
He’d met Barstad because of the drawings. He’d seen her at work in a bookstore; had attracted her attention when he purchased a book on digital printing. They’d talked for a few minutes at the cash register, and again, a few nights later, as he browsed the art books. She was a fabric artist herself, she said, and used a computer to create quilt patterns. The play of light, she said, that’s the thing. I want my quilts to look like they have window light on them, even in a room without windows. The art talk led to coffee, to a suggestion that she might pose for him.
Oh, no, she’d said, I wouldn’t pose nude. That wouldn’t be necessary, he said. He was an art professor, he just wanted some facial studies that he could print digitally. She agreed, and had, eventually, even taken off a few of her clothes: her back turned to him, sitting on a stool, her glorious back tapering down to a sheet crinkled beneath her little round butt. The studies had been all right, but it was at home, with the computer, that he’d done the real drawings.
He had drawn her, wined her, dined her, and finally, on this bleak winter afternoon, fucked her and nearly killed her because she had not lived up to her images he had created from her photographs. . . .
The day after the assignation with Barstad, the low stacked-heels of Charlotte Neumann, an ordained Episcopalian priest, author of New Art Modalities: Woman/Sin, Sin/Woman, S/in/ister, which, the week before, had broken through the top-10,000 barrier of the Barnes & Noble on-line bestseller list, and who was, not incidentally, the department chairperson, echoed down the hallway and stopped at his door. A tall ever-angry woman with a prominent nose and a single, dark, four-inch-long eyebrow, Neumann walked in without knocking and said, “I need your student budget line. This afternoon.”
“I thought we had until next Wednesday?” He posed with a cup of coffee held delicately in both hands, his eyebrows arched. He’d left the steel-blue Hermès silk scarf looped around his neck when he’d taken off his coat, and with the books behind him, the china cup, and the scarf framing his face, he must’ve been a striking portrait, he thought. But it was wasted on Neumann, he thought; she was a natural Puritan.
“I’ve decided that we could avoid the confusion of last year by having them in my office a week early, which will give me time to eliminate any error,” she said, leaving no doubt that she used the term “error” as might a papal inquisitor: “Last year” Qatar had been two weeks late with the budget.
“Well, that’s simply impossible,” Qatar said. “If you’d given me any notice at all . . .”
“You apparently didn’t read last week’s departmental bulletin,” she snarled. There was a light in her eye. She’d caught him out, she thought, and he’d soon get a corrective memo with a copy for his personnel file.
“Nobody read last week’s departmental bulletin, Charlotte,” Qatar snarled back. He’d been widely published and was permitted a snarl. “Nobody ever reads the departmental bulletin because the departmental bulletin, is, in the words of the sainted Sartre, shit. Besides, I was on periodic retreat on Thursday and Friday, as you should have known if you’d read the memo I sent you. I never got the bulletin.”
“I’m sure it was placed in your mailbox.”
“Elene couldn’t find her own butt, much less my mailbox. She can’t even deliver my paycheck,” Qatar said. Elene was the departmental secretary.
“All right,” Neuman said. “Then by tomorrow. By noon.” She took one step backward, into the hallway, and slammed the door.
The impact ejected Qatar from his office chair, sloshing coffee out of his cup, across his fingers, and onto the old carpet. He took a turn around the office, blinded by a red rage that left him shaking. He’d chosen the life of a teacher because it was a high calling, much higher than commerce. If he’d gone for commerce, he’d undoubtedly be rich now; but then, he’d be a merchant, with dirty hands. But sometimes, like this, the idea of possessing an executive power––the power to destroy the Charlotte Neumanns of the world––was very attractive.
He paced the office for five minutes, imagining scenarios of her destruction, muttering through them, reciting the lines. The visions were so clear that he could walk through them.
When the rage subsided, he felt cleaner. Purified. He poured another cup of coffee and picked it up with a steady hand. Took a sip, and sighed.
He would have taken pleasure in throttling the life out of Charlotte Neumann, though not because she appealed to his particular brand of insanity. He thought he might enjoy it the way anyone would whose nominal supervisor enjoyed small tyrannies as Neumann did.
So he would get angry, he would fantasize, but he would do nothing but snipe and backbite, like any other associate professor.
She did not engage him––did not light his fire.
The next day, passing through Saks, he found that the cashmere sweaters had gone on sale. There wasn’t much cold weather left, but the cashmere would wear forever. These particular sweaters, with the slightly rolled neckline, would perfectly frame his face, and the tailored shoulders would give him a nice wedgy stature. He tried the sweater on, and it was perfect. A good pair of jeans would show off his butt––he could have the legs tailored for nine dollars a pair at a sewing place in the Skyway. A champagne suede coat and cowboy boots would complete the set . . . but it was all too expensive.
He put the sweater back and left the store, thinking of Barstad. She did engage his insanity: He could think of Barstad and the rope and find himself instantly and almost painfully erect. Blondes looked so much more naked than darker women; so much more vulnerable.
The next day was Wednesday: Perhaps he could buy them after all.
He would take the rope.
But on Tuesday evening, still thinking about Barstad and the rope, feeling the hunger growing, he was derailed again. He arrived home early and got a carton of milk from the refrigerator and a box of Froot Loops from the cupboard, and sat at the table to eat. The Star-Tribune was still on the table from the morning; he’d barely glanced at it before he left. Now he sat down, poured milk on the Froot Loops, and folded the paper open at random. His eye fell straight down the page to a small article at the bottom: The two-deck headline said “Woman Strangled/Police Seek Help.”
The body of an unidentified woman was found Sunday in the Minnesota state forest north of Cannon Falls by a local man who was scouting for wild turkey sign. A preliminary investigation suggested that the woman had been dead for a year or more, said Goodhue County medical examiner Carl Boone.
“Shit.” He stood up, threw the paper at the kitchen sink. Stormed into the living room, hands clenched. “Shit, shit.”
Dropped onto a chair, put his hands on his head, and wept. He wept for a full minute, drawing in long gasping breaths, the tears rolling down his cheeks. Any serious art historian, he felt, would have done the same. It was called sensitivity.
After the minute, he was finished. He washed his face in cold water, patted it dry with paper towels. Looked in the mirror and thought: Barstad. He couldn’t touch her for the time being. If another blonde disappeared, the police would go crazy. He would have to wait. No sweaters. No new clothes. But maybe, he thought, the woman would come through with some actual sex. That would be different.
But he could still feel her special allure, her blondness. He could feel it in his hands, and in the vein that pulsed in his throat. He wanted her badly. And he would have her, he thought.
Sooner or later.