Read an Excerpt
Even before it all went bad she had the feeling it
was going to be a rotten day. She blamed it on the headache, the one
she'd woken up with. But even later, as the headache eased, the
feeling, almost a sense of foreboding, remained. Still, she'd made
it through the day. Maybe, she thought, the night would be
She was wrong.
"How about something to drink, maybe some coffee?"
"I should be getting home."
He looks at his watch. "It's only eight-thirty.
Come on. I'll buy you a cup of the best cappuccino in town."
Maybe she says yes because the headache is finally
gone, or because the day has turned out much better than she
expected, or because she doesn't feel like being alone, not right
"Let's walk a bit."
The night air is cool, a little damp. She shivers
in her thin cotton jacket.
"Cold?" He puts his arm around her shoulders. She's
not sure she wants him to, turns the thought over in her mind, sighs
She smiles weakly. "Nothing you'd understand."
Her comment annoys him. Why wouldn't I
understand? He drops his arm from her shoulders -- she
wonders, why? -- and they continue along another block, lined with
restaurants and midsize brownstones, in silence, until she says,
"Maybe it's simpler if I just catch a cab home."
He takes her arm, gently stops her. "Come on. It's
"I think I should go."
"Okay. But I'll see you home."
"Don't be ridiculous. I can get home by
"No. I insist. We'll take a cab, grab a cappuccino
in your neighborhood. How's that?"
She sighs, doesn't have the energy to argue.
In the cab, neither speaks; be looks out the
window, she stares at her hands.
The Starbucks on her corner is locked; the kid
inside, mopping up, waves them off through the glass.
"Damn. I really wanted some coffee." He looks at
her, sad, like a little boy, then offers up his best smile.
"Oh, okay. You win." She smiles, too. "I'll make us
At the front door to her building she fumbles with
her keys, gets one in the lock, but the door eases open before she
even turns the key.
"Everything's falling apart around here. They're
doing construction, keep breaking everything. I'd complain to the
super, but he's worthless."
On the second floor they have to step around stacks
of wood and electrical supplies.
I think they're making two apartments into one.
Hoping for a big rent, I guess. It's been going on for weeks,
driving me crazy with the noise."
On the third floor, she unlocks a dead bolt, then a
He walks past her into the apartment, immediately
removes his coat, drops it on a chair, is making himself way too
comfortable, she thinks. He sits down on her sofa -- a layer of
thick foam covered with a bold cotton print with pillows she'd
bought on Fourteenth Street, one with a stenciled portrait of Elvis,
the other of Marilyn. He runs his finger over Marilyn's garish red
mouth, back and forth, back and forth.
She realizes she still has her coat on, removes it,
hangs it on a hook behind the front door, turns the dead bolt then
slides the police lock into place. "Habit. You know." She smiles,
nervously, turns into the kitchenette, a rectangular alcove attached
to the living room, no bigger than a closet. She pulls a chain, and
a light bulb illuminates the half-sized refrigerator, two-burner
stove, tiny sink, a shelf with a toaster oven and a drip coffee
machine. She removes the top half of the coffeemaker, takes out a
soggy brown filter, tosses it into a small plastic trash can.
"Can I help?"
"It's way too small in here. I'm okay.
She can feel him watching her in the tiny kitchen
as she gets the coffee going; becomes self-conscious about the way
she moves, the swaying of her hair. Maybe this wasn't such a good
idea after all.
When she comes back into the living room, she
chooses the hard-backed chair at her computer table across from the
couch. "Coffee'll be ready in a minute." He looks up at her, smiles,
says nothing. She plays with a loose thread at the cuff of her
blouse, tries to think of a way to fill the silence. "How about some
music?" She stands up, takes the few necessary steps to the CDplayer
in the corner on the floor. "My one luxury."
He crosses the room, kneels beside her, plucks a
disc from the neat stack. "Play this."
"Billie Holiday," she says, taking the CD from his
hand. "She kills me."
Kills me kills me kills me kills me kills me
kills me...The words echo in his brain.
A clarinet pipes out through two small speakers,
followed by Billie's inimitable, soulful whine. The first lines of
"God Bless the Child" fill the room with an unspeakable sadness.
He watches her kneeling beside him, humming along,
head tilted, hair spilling over the side of her face. He's been
watching her all night, thinking about this, planning. But now he's
not sure. Start it all again? It's been so long. He's been so good.
But when he reaches out and touches her hair, he knows it is already
She jerks her head back, immediately stands up.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," he says,
careful to keep his voice calm as he watches her, enjoying the way
she moves, like a cat, jumpy, skittish. But when he sees her
standing above him, looking down at him as though he were some kind
of inferior being, there is no longer anything remotely kittenish
about her. A flash of anger spreads through his body, and he's
"I'll get the coffee." She turns away, but he grabs
hold of her arm. "Hey," she says. "Cut it out."
He lets go, puts his hands up in a sign of truce,
tries the smile on her again.
She folds her arms across her chest. "I think you
But he settles back onto her couch, locks his hands
behind his head, a grin on his lips. "Let's not make this into a big
"Some things are. But I don't want to discuss it
right now and ... I doubt you'd understand."
"No? Why is that? Ohhh...wait, I think I'm getting
"Just go." She holds her defiant pose.
"I know," he says. "I'm the bad guy, right, and
you're the innocent, put-upon woman. Oh, sure. Real innocent." He
stands. "Well, let me tell you something..."
"Hey. Relax," she says, trying to regain control of
the situation. "It's cool."
"Cool?" He repeats the word as if it had no meaning
Do it!"Just a minute!" he shouts.
"What?" she asks, but can see he is not really
speaking to her, his eyelids fluttering as though he were going into
some kind of trance.
He takes a step forward, hands clenched.
She drops her stance, makes a dash for the door.
She's scrambling with the police lock when he lunges. She tries to
scream, but he's got his hand pressed -- hard -- across her
Then he is all over her, pulling at her arms,
shouting, mumbling, his voice harsh, unrecognizable. He stretches
her arms above her head. She is surprised at his strength, but
manages to wrench a hand free, smacks him in the mouth. A thin line
of blood trickles over his lip. He doesn't seem to notice, knocks
her to the floor, pins both her arms under his knees, all his weight
holding them down, freeing up his arms to tear at her blouse, to
grope at her breasts. She tries to kick but can't connect, her legs
just thrash in the air.
Then he grabs her chin, leans down, presses his
mouth against hers. She tastes his blood. She wrenches her head
back, spits in his face, hears herself scream: "I'll kill
He hits her hard in the face, then moves off her,
stands beside the couch looking down. "How shall we do this?" he
asks. "Nice or ... not so nice?"
She is seeing double, unable to right herself,
feeling close to being sick.
Then he is on top of her again, rubbing himself
against her, cursing. She bites into the Marilyn pillow,
concentrates on Billie Holiday.
But now his movements have become frantic, his
cursing louder, and she is aware of the fact that there has been no
penetration, and feels a sense of relief.
He rolls off her, says, "You just didn't get me
hot," and pulls his pants up. It was a mistake.
Of course it's a mistake. Stick to the
plan.She pushes her skirt down.
"The new woman...so tough he says, fumbling for
words, anything to soothe his damaged ego. "So tough she can't
satisfy a man."
She tries to think straight, just wants him out.
"Yes," she says. "You're right, I -- I'm sorry. It wasn't you, I --
He grabs her face, turns her toward him.
"What? What did you say?" She tries to push his hand off, but
can't. "You patronizing me? Me! You fucking little slut!" He
lets go of her face and then the slap comes so fast that for a
moment she is stunned, then she screams.
"Get out! Get the fuck outta here!" She
lunges for the phone. But he's too fast for her. He wrenches it off
the end table. The cord jumps in the air as it's torn from the
socket. Then he's got her by the hair and around the waist,
practically dragging her into the kitchen; the scorching glass of
the coffeemaker is scalding her naked back. He slams her against the
wall. The coffeemaker falls; boiling coffee splashes against her
ankles. She tries to scratch his face, misses, and he punches her
An image of herself as a young girl in a white
confirmation dress floods her mind; and then the white turns gray,
and then everything is black.
He hardly remembers his hand finding the knife in
the shallow sink, but the girl is quiet now. She's on the floor, one
leg twisted under her, one straight out in front, and there is blood
everywhere -- splattered on the stove, cabinets, floor. He can't
even remember the color of her blouse, it's all stained a deep,
gorgeous red. Pinkish saliva bubbles from the corners of her mouth.
Her eyes are wide open, staring at him in surprise. He returns her
How long has it been? Has anyone heard them? He
listens for sirens, televisions, radios, signs of life from other
apartments, but hears nothing. He feels lucky. Yes, I've always
He rasps, "What a mess," his throat gone dry. He
finds a pair of Playtex gloves beside the sink, squeezes his
bloodied hands into them, washes the knife thoroughly and drops it
into a drawer; then removes his shoes so he won't track bloody
footprints, and places them on the shelf beside the toaster oven. He
tears a few paper towels off a roll, balls them up, squirts them
with liquid detergent, and works his way around the apartment
cleaning off everything he can remember touching. He even takes the
Billie Holiday disc off the player, puts it back in its sleeve,
slips it into the middle of a stack of CDs.
He checks the couch for anything he might have
dropped, anything torn off, buttons, even hairs. He sees a few hairs
which he thinks are the girl's but just to be safe he takes the
Dustbuster from the wall in the kitchenette and goes over the couch
several times, then towels it off, replaces it.
Unconsciously, he touches his lip, feels the
soreness, remembers the kiss.
Back in the kitchenette, he takes a sponge from the
sink, squirts it with more detergent, washes blood off the dead
girl's lips, then shoves the sponge in and out of her mouth.
He lifts her lifeless hand. Nail polish? No,
blood. Mine or hers? But here the sponge refuses to do the
job, traces of red cling stubbornly beneath her nails. He jams the
sponge into his pant pocket, right on top of the damp wad of paper
toweling -- the moisture oozes through the fabric and onto his
thigh. Then he removes a small leather-bound manicure set from his
inner pocket -- one he always carries with him -- and sets to work
with his fine metal tools. Ten minutes later the girl's nails are
not only spotless, but finely shaped. He takes a momentto admire his
handiwork. Then, using his cuticle scissors, he carefully snips a
lock of the girl's hair and presses it into his shirt pocket, just
above his heart.
He moves in closer, touches her cheek. His gloved
finger comes away bright scarlet. That's it!
Now, starting at the temple, his cherry fingertip
creeps down her cheek, slowly, precisely, stopping once for a quick
dip into the pool of blood on the girl's chest, then continuing just
beside her ear, looping a bit before coming to rest at the sharp
edge of the dead girl's jaw.
Now he needs something useful.
In the tiny bedroom, he takes a moment to consider
a painting above the bed. Too big. Perhaps the large black crucifix
on a heavy silver chain? He slides it from one gloved hand to
another like a child's Slinky toy, before dropping it back into the
But it's the small plastic photo album, which,
after a glimpse at its contents, he decides is just the thing.
Back at the door he undoes the police lock and dead
bolt, puts on his shoes, then his long raincoat.
In the hall, just outside the apartment, he
hesitates. On the first floor, the drone of television dialogue,
"Laura, honey, I'm home and canned laughter. He moves stealthily
down the hall and out the front door. It closes behind him with a
On the street, with gloved hands thrust deep in his
pockets, he concentrates on walking at a casual pace, keeping his
head down. Six or seven blocks from the dead girl's apartment he
manages to work one of the gloves off his hand while it's still in
his pocket; once it's free, he hails a cab.
He tells the driver where he's going, surprised at
the calm of his voice.
Did it really happen? Was it some kind of
hallucination? He's never quite sure. Maybe it was all a dream.
But then he feels the wetness against his thigh, and the plastic
glove still on one hand -- and they're real enough.
The muscles in his neck and jaw clench; for a
moment his entire body shudders.
Is this what he wanted? He can hardly remember.
Too late now. It's done. Finished.
He catches his reflection in the taxicab's streaky
No, he thinks, it's just the beginning.