The man's first look at the newspaper item was a casual one, followed immediately by a more deliberate perusal. But it was the photograph accompanying the story that had him transfixed.
Caroline Hunter had preoccupied his thoughts in recent weeks, but this was his first opportunity to reflect on her appearance. To his surprise, she reminded him of a girl he had worked hard not to think about for a very long time. So proud. So uppity. Caroline Hunter had the look of a woman convinced of her own intelligence, a woman who assumed she could do whatever she wanted--get whatever she wanted--without any repercussions.
The man wondered if Caroline Hunter had any regrets as those two bullets tore through her body. Maybe for some women it took dying in the street like a dog to reflect upon one's decisions and the effects they have on others. He felt his muscles tense, crumpling the pages of newsprint in his hands.
Then he placed the paper neatly onto the breakfast table, took another sip of tea, and looked down at the muted traffic in the street below the window. He smiled. Fate was presenting him an even more promising opportunity than he had understood when he first spotted the article. Details remained to be worked out, but he was certain of one thing: Caroline Hunter was only the beginning. There would be more stories, just like this one, about women just like her.
Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Amy Davis finished a second glass of red wine, pondering which excuse she should exploit to call it a night. She should have known better than to agree to a first date that started at eleven o'clock. Even by New York City standards, such a late invitation was an unequivocal sign that the guy wanted to avoid the cost of dinner but leave open the possibility of a spontaneous one-nighter.
But then the guy--he claimed his name was Brad--had suggested meeting at Angel's Share, not one of the usual meat markets. Amy still thought of the cozy lounge as her secret oasis, tucked so discreetly inside a second-floor dive Japanese restaurant on Stuyvesant Street. She decided to take Brad's awareness of the place as a sign. Then she looked out her apartment window and saw the snow, the first of the season. To Amy, the first flakes of winter were magical, almost spiritual. Watching them fall to the quiet square of grass beneath the oversized bay windows at Angel's Share would be fantastic, much more satisfying than observing them from the fire escape of her fifth-floor Avenue C walk-up.
And so Amy had taken a risk. None of the previous risks had panned out, but that didn't mean that Brad wouldn't. Besides, all she had to lose was another night at home with Chowhound the persian cat, falling asleep to the muted glow of her television. Three weeks earlier, she had committed herself to this process, and nights like this were the price she would have to pay if she were ever going to find The One.
She knew the date was a mistake precisely one second after she heard the voice behind her at the bar's entrance. "Are you Amy?" It was a nice voice. Deep, but not brusque. Friendly, but calm. For exactly one second, she was optimistic. For that one second, she believed that Brad with the good voice, who was familiar with Angel's Share, whose first date with her fell with the first snow, might just make a good companion for the evening, if not more.
Then the second passed, and she turned to meet the man who went with the voice. The truth was, Amy did not care about looks. People said that all the time, but Amy actually meant it. Her ex-boyfriend--perhaps he had never become a boyfriend, but the man she'd most recently dated--had been handsome as hell, but by the time they were through, she found him repulsive. This time, she was putting looks aside to focus on the qualities that counted.
Brad's face was not unattractive, but neither was it familiar--a surprise to Amy since they had exchanged multiple pictures over the last week. Internet daters posted photographs, so, even though Amy did not particularly care, she looked. It was nice, after all, to have a visual image to go with the instant messages and e-mails. This face in front of her, however, did not match the image she'd carried.
As Brad squeezed through a small group of people to ask the host for a table, she mentally shuffled through the pictures he'd sent and realized that in most, his face had been obscured--sunglasses on both the fishing boat and the ski slopes, a hat on the golf course, a darkened dinner table at some black tie event. One head shot had been pretty clear, but even a toad could eke out one good picture. In retrospect, she realized she had used that one good picture to fill in the blanks on the rest.
Once they were seated, Amy tried to put her finger on precisely what was different. The face was puffier. Older, too. In fact, Brad looked much older than the thirty-eight years he claimed in his profile. Sure, she might have shaved off a couple of years herself, but she was talking much older in his case. She realized there was no point in getting bogged down in the differences. He looked completely different than she had envisioned, and that was that.
By the end of the first glass of wine, she knew it wasn't just Brad's face that didn't match up to his online counterpart. According to Brad's profile, he was a gourmand and a red wine junkie. She allowed him to order first, afraid she might embarrass herself with a passé selection. After he requested a cheap Merlot mass-produced in California, she proceeded to ask for a Barbera d'Asti. If Brad was going to lie, then she was going to rack up Piedmont prices on his tab.
He talked about work while he drank, pausing only to take big gulps from his glass. Commercial litigation. A motion for summary judgment. Something about jurisdiction and somebody who lacked it. An appeal. His monologue would have been boring at eleven thirty in the morning, but Amy found it sleep-inducing at this late hour.
She tried shifting the conversation, resorting to all of the subjects he'd gone on about in his e-mails--independent films, running, his photography hobby. Each topic was a bust, sparking nothing other than a brief expression of surprise on Brad's unfamiliar face. Reaching for her coat, Amy did not see Brad order the second round until it was too late.
Nearly an hour into the date, Brad finally took a break from his running legal commentary. "I'm sorry. I've been working so hard it's tricky to turn it off sometimes. I should ask you about yourself."
The brief glimmer of hope Amy allowed herself was dashed when he proceeded to make good on his perceived obligation. "So which publishing house do you work for?" he asked.
"You're an editor, right? Which house?" Her confusion must have been apparent. "Oh, right. No, you're a . . . a fund-raiser. For the Museum of Modern Art, right? So how's that going for you?"
It was going, she thought, much better than this date. The jerk had actually mixed her up with some other stupid woman he was duping online. The wine was good, and the view of the snow was wondrous, but nothing was worth this humiliation.
She selected her excuse and went with it. "I know I said I was up for a late night, but I took a painkiller earlier for this problem I'm having with my rotator cuff." She rubbed her right shoulder for effect. "With the wine on top of it, I'm feeling a little loopy."
"Let me walk you home," Brad suggested brightly, clearly spotting an opportunity in her feigned high.
"No, really, I'm fine. I'm just around the corner," she lied. She might be an idiot for signing on to this endeavor, but she knew better than to tell any of them where she lived.
Amy didn't bother waiting once he signaled for the check. She yawned conspicuously and began to maneuver out of the booth as she pulled on her coat. Before Brad could rise for the awkward good-night peck, she shook his hand abruptly and thanked him for the wine he had yet to pay for.
Then, after a quick scramble down the narrow staircase, through the exit of the Japanese restaurant, she was out of there. She was alone, free of that lame excuse for a date. It struck her then that two or three times a week, for the last three weeks, she had reached the end of the evening with this same feeling. She had made a ridiculous pact with herself to "get out there," to finally meet a man she could see for more than a month, to finally meet a man she could trust and even love. But, at the end of a night like this, she was always happier once she was able to get out of there. After an hour with Brad, the idea of watching snow from her fire escape didn't sound half bad.
Amy walked through the East Village, smoking a Marlboro Light, with a new appreciation of her solitude. She was a thirty-one-year-old woman living in Manhattan. She had a painless enough job in a kick-ass museum. She got to see mind-blowing art every day. She had fifty-one different delivery menus in her kitchen drawer and really good hair. She had a big fat persian cat named Chowhound. Tomorrow she would treat herself to some street shopping, where only in this city could twenty bucks buy you a seemingly authentic designer handbag. There were worse things in life than being on her own.
The snow was starting to stick by the time she reached the alphabet blocks on the Lower East Side. Amy's father still didn't approve of her choice of neighborhoods, but her parents had been overprotective ever since that problem back home. She kept telling him that times had changed since he formed his impressions of the city. Every location in Manhattan was safe now, and the Lower East Side was all she could afford.
She had her key ring in her hand and was already unzipping her coat when she heard the noise from the alley. Mew.
"Chowhound?" she called out, peering into the dark void between two buildings. She looked up at her fifth-floor window above, left open during the last cigarette before she walked out for the night.
Shit. I've got to quit smoking. She always made sure to lock the other window, the one by the fire escape. And it would take Jackie Chan to leap from the fire escape to her smoking window. But she forgot that big fat Chowhound was 50 percent fur and had the uncanny ability to squeeze himself through tiny spaces if he knew freedom awaited him on the other side. And Chowhound, in spite of his plumpness, was freakishly aerodynamic. When it came to a pounce to the fire escape, Jackie Chan had nothing on him.
"Come here, Chowhound. Come here, baby." Amy could see she was going to have to tear him away from whatever disgusting thing he was eating next to the Dumpster. She looked up and down her street. There was no one within a block. She'd be quick.
As she reached down to grab the cat, the man pinned her from behind. She felt arms around her waist, then latex hands around her neck. She felt the frame of his body pressing against her and she knew it was happening. It was real. The moment Amy had always feared--that every woman, at some level, always fears--was happening.
Amy was strong. She fought back. She was not going to make it easy for this son of a bitch. She kicked and twisted, punched and clawed.
But everything she managed to grab--sleeves, coat, collar, gloves--only protected her attacker. Her range of motion was limited by her winter parka. The ground was growing slick now. She could not find the leverage she needed.
Please, God, no. He was no longer just squeezing her neck with those latex-covered fingers. He was crushing her throat. Her tongue was swelling. When he had forced the full weight of her body to the concrete, he placed his head next to hers and gazed into her face.
I know you.
Amy heard the words in her mind, but could not speak them. She knew she had enjoyed the last breath of air she would ever take. As she finally succumbed, she tasted blood, bile, and Barbera d'Asti. It was the taste of death.
With a gloved hand, her killer placed a single piece of paper in Amy's coat pocket, satisfied with the puzzled and panicked look that had crossed her face in those final seconds. It was a look of recognition. It was a look of profound regret. It had been precisely as he had wanted it. He wondered if the others would flow so smoothly. How many more until they notice?
Copyright © 2007 by Alafair Burke. All rights reserved.