Chosen Prey Chapter 1
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 him-she 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 good-that'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.
From Chosen Prey by John Sanford. (c) May 2001, G. P. Putnam's Sons, used by permission.