Double Edge

Overview

In novels such as Extreme Instinct and Darkest Instinct, Robert W. Walker has probed the deepest recesses of the criminal mind, bringing us face-to-face with killers as brilliant as they are vicious.

Now Walker returns to the gritty streets of Houston he first explored in Cutting Edge, where Detective Lucas Stonecoat and police psychiatrist Meredyth Sanger face a new predator: the Snatcher. He preys on young teens -- outcasts of society like himself. Outcasts whose sole reason ...

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Overview

In novels such as Extreme Instinct and Darkest Instinct, Robert W. Walker has probed the deepest recesses of the criminal mind, bringing us face-to-face with killers as brilliant as they are vicious.

Now Walker returns to the gritty streets of Houston he first explored in Cutting Edge, where Detective Lucas Stonecoat and police psychiatrist Meredyth Sanger face a new predator: the Snatcher. He preys on young teens -- outcasts of society like himself. Outcasts whose sole reason for existence is satisfying a psychopath's horrifying needs...

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hazy characterization and cryptic allusions to an earlier adventure (Cutting Edge) eventually build up to a taut game of psychic cat-and-mouse in Walker's latest. "The Snatcher" takes impoverished black boys from the streets of Houston and tortures them, though his attention span usually lasts about a week before he mercifully kills his victims. Lucas Stonecoat, a city detective assigned to unsolved cases, is currently investigating a hooker's death at the behest of her son, who claims to be a contract killer. He is assisted by psychic detective Kim Desinor (on loan from the FBI), who can enter a victim's mind, feel his or her torture, even develop sympathetic wounds--all to help unearth clues about the killer's identity. The book starts slowly and then explodes as Lucas, a driven man with chemical demons, struggles to keep a firm grasp on reality. Once Walker gets Lucas and Kim in tandem the chase is spellbinding. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780515123845
  • Publisher: Jove
  • Publication date: 11/1/1998
  • Series: Lucas Stonecoat and Meredyth Sanger Series, #2
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 359
  • Product dimensions: 4.26 (w) x 6.72 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Coyote track


Day Two: Houston Police
Precinct #31, November 13, 1998


Detective Lucas Stonecoat gave silent thanks to the computer whiz kid who had accessed—lifted—the computer-generated copy of the M.E.'s combined protocol on the Snatcher's victims. The information included a report on the latest murdered boy preceding Lamar Coleson's disappearance, a boy named Theodore Melvin Ainsworth who might as well be Lamar's brother, they were so alike in appearance. The material—enclosed in an unmarked brown clasp envelope, prepared by Dr. Leonard Chang and his civilian support personnel, Randy 0glesby—burned in Lucas's hand.

    He sought a private place to rip it open, to immediately and carefully examine it.

    The clock over Stonecoat's cluttered desk read 8:55 a.m., and he'd long since become frustrated at having waited this long—twenty-four hours—to get his hands on the M.E.'s findings. Medical Examiner Chang, while eccentric, had earned a reputation as the most thorough criminal forensics man in Houston—in fact, in all of Texas. But finding a private place in a police precinct, even here in the usually silent Cold Room, this morning proved harder than locating an out-of-season cactus blossom in the desert.

    Several detectives involved in ongoing cases had come down to Lucas's basement dungeon of unsolved murder, aptly named the Cold Fries Room, where every dead-letter murder case in the city eventually resided. Each of this morning's visiting detectivesfrom various precincts had come seeking enlightenment: historical data on cases that'd gone unresolved that might be relevant to the ongoing cases each worked. Since Lucas's success a couple of summers ago in the reopening of cases that he and Dr. Meredyth Sanger had successfully tied to the 1996 Mootry murder, netting an international ring of killers using Interact cyberspace as their killing ground, every cop in the city looked to be the next Lucas Stonecoat.

    Lucas took it all in stride, but sometimes he became disgusted by the lengths to which some of his white colleagues were willing to go in an attempt to outperform the Native American detective.

    Adding to his annoyance, Lucas knew he'd be missed upstairs in Dr. Meredyth Sanger's police group psychotherapy session, which began at eight-thirty sharp. Meredyth ran sessions for cops who'd discharged their weapons with resultant death or deaths of criminals, and sometimes citizens who got in the way.

    Lucas had come to work early, located Randy, Dr. Sanger's male secretary, snatched the secreted report from him and gotten clear of Dr. Sanger's arena. He had no intention of swimming another lap in her pool of psychobabble. He'd dodged last week's session, and he would dodge today's, but he couldn't successfully dodge it and remain here beside his phone where she could easily harangue him, so he desperately sought an escape route, his eyes assessing the situation, his mind calculating just how much he'd be missed if he stepped out long enough to read over Chang's reports.

    The roof, perhaps? he suggested to himself, going for the seldom used service elevator.

    On the roof, the U.S. flag snapped and fluttered in a bitter October wind high overhead. Lucas watched the Stars and Stripes, the Texas state flag and the city of Houston flag alternating between full, flat-out and a limp, intertwining death in the changing air currents. Metal pulleys clanged a dull rhythm against the three towering flagpoles, a perfect, hollow base; meanwhile, loose ropes danced as if some giant but invisible fingers played them. The ropes might've held invisible soldiers that rappelled down them. The wind also yanked and ripped at the soft blue shirt Lucas wore, first flattening it against him and then billowing it from his body, as if it were a sail on a boat at sea in a storm.

    The several pages of the report were also being torn at, the wind threatening to steal them entirely. He located a walled alcove where some chilly pigeons reluctantly made room for him after a bit of squabbling and cooing.

    He squatted and read the report as flecks of snow floated over him, so many fairy lights in the morning grayness. Overhead, white-bellied, roiling, somber clouds with bloated gray eyes watched over him. The same bloated gray eyes wept a silver-hued sleet that now pelted Lucas, dampening the pages of the report.

    The report revealed some startling truths about the Snatcher, the killer of young black boys here in Houston. Still, many of what appeared to be revelations to Lucas seemed lost on Captain Gordon J. Lincoln. Lincoln had his hands full as the new replacement for Captain Phillip Lawrence, who, after judicial review by departmental brass, had found himself looking at early retirement, due in large part to his having misread all the salient clues in the case that had continued to make front page news all summer long, the Helsinger affair. It had been a case that had very nearly cost Meredyth Sanger, Randy Oglesby and Lucas Stonecoat their lives.

    A particularly aggressive pigeon pecked at Lucas's foot, its persistence a clear enough sign for any Native American: The bird meant to urge the Cherokee detective along in his secret investigation.

    "Yeah, I know," Lucas said, finally acknowledging the pigeon's help. "When I get back down to the Cold Room, I'll start a profile of the killer, and if you peck me one more fucking time, I'll test out my new microwave oven on you, bird."

    He now closed the file Randy had created for him and stepped near the edge of the building, looking down at the sheer drop-off. The building sat squat and ugly amid the myriad of Texas-oil-rich skyscrapers all around the precinct house. Only four stories high, it had once been a city school named Wells High School. Randy Oglesby joked it must've been named after the weird science fiction writer and futurist, H. G. Wells. Maybe Randy had been right, but Lucas doubted it.

    Randy was right about one thing, Lucas decided as he looked down at the dim recesses of a growing urban jungle, Houston, Texas, although a sprawling metropolis with an ever increasing population, remained a small town in many respects, living up to the state's single-word motto, "Friendship," and when a small town hurt, everyone hurt, or at least almost everyone.

    For the past several months, Houston prayed for relief, but not all Houstonites prayed for the same relief. Some prayed for an end to the Houston Oilers' inglorious losing streak, while others prayed for an end to the bitter walkout at the Exxon refinery. Still others prayed for an end to the cold snap that had gripped the entire state with its biting winter wind that peeled paint from lampposts and skin from people unused to a thing called windchill factor. Agripeople prayed for an end to the months' long draught, while still others prayed for an end to the dull gray skies. But most Houstonites prayed to see an end to the horror of a string of disappearances that had yielded up a succession of small brutalized bodies from among the city's black population. Lamar Coleson appeared to be yet another victim—another spindly black youth lost to the ghetto stalker, a madman who roamed freely among Houston's seamier, darker streets, whom newshounds had dubbed the Snatcher.

    The first six young teens to disappear had lived in the Bellaire District off Bypass Interstate 610, or had come from the Jacinto City area at the intersection of 610 and Interstate 90, areas where blacks and Latinos lived in a constant state of mild to seething unrest. Whoever the killer, he proved quite mobile, since these neighborhoods were parted by Houston's sprawling downtown business district. The geography of the crimes supported the official belief that the killer used the highways as a quick exit from locations where he abducted the children he meant to torture to death.

    Lucas, however, remained unconvinced of this official truth. In fact, there proved a number of "detailed facts" regarding the Snatcher case about which Lucas wasn't so sure.

    But the Snatcher's satanic nature and the results the bastard got proved true enough, and torture was the operative word. The killer was what FBI insiders called a lust-murderer, as his crimes were of an aberrant sexual nature. He got off on seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling the suffering of these young boys. His consolation, his gratification, his ease and relief came by way of wounding, abusing and tormenting children. He got off on the torture, on the beating, the cutting, the crying and the bleeding. And so torture he did, for from pain, anguish and agony, he achieved his only sexual release, his only sexual satisfaction.

    From the city medical examiner's reports that Lucas studied, he learned the savage and ugly extent of the details. The youths were ferociously trussed up, not dangled by their wrists or ankles, which would cause bone fractures and separations at the sockets and joints from the force of gravity. No, the victims were tied in a "basket weave" fashion, the rope burns on rumps, backs, shoulders telling the story of a netlike cradle in which the boys had been trapped and made instantly helpless, unable to defend against the brutality. The reports spoke of skin burns of various kinds in hundreds of god-awful places on the body, burns created by untold instruments, from cigar burns to electrical and chemical burns, as if the bastard killer wished to conduct experiments on his victims, to see what sort of burns different household chemicals might raise.

    Bruises and welts attested to repeated beatings and torture until merciful death ensued. The report spoke of undisguised, unremitting evil in its most pure form, that of the sociopath who ironically, while unable to feel anything of the pain inflicted on another living being, unable to experience normal empathy, did feel a bizarre and twisted sexual high at the price of another's deepest agony and suffering.

    Lucas imagined how the young victims agonized within the weblike trap, within a dangling net, unable to escape their captor, naked and bruised, burned and tortured, so that even sleep must hurt or frighten, given the rope burns and the sheer number of welts.

    Downstairs, in the ready room for the precinct's task force on the Snatcher cases, the walls had been hung with the faces of the dead black children of Houston. Lucas's request to be a part of the task force had been denied by the new captain, Gordon Lincoln, who wanted Lucas's full attention on upcoming changes in Cold Room procedures. Despite this, Lucas had gotten the reports, which put the deaths at or about seven days after each disappearance. They showed that these young men, who might've survived their torture, would easily have starved to death nonetheless. Their stomachs were bloated and empty, lips parched, throats arid, bodies dehydrated.

    Shaking his head over the mental images, Lucas made his way back inside, one of the pigeons attempting to follow. The wind rushing through the opened roof door clawed at Lucas and the pigeon, trying to snatch them both back, but succeeded only in gaining the pigeon. The knowledge Lucas had gleaned from Leonard Chang's coldly worded report also clawed at Lucas. He instinctively reached for some solid object to touch, a wall, a handrail, as he located the ancient stairs to the service elevator a half floor down. There he sleepwalked into the empty elevator car and pressed for the basement and the Cold Room.

    The seventh in a string of child disappearances, Lamar Coleson's recent abduction infuriated, angered and frustrated everyone in the city, and the most frustrated guys in Houston at the moment were the local FBI's SAC and ASAC—special agent in charge and his assistant. Daily and nightly appeals on radio, TV and in print media, appeals by the city commissioner, the mayor, the FBI and the sad-faced single mother, including a spot on America's Most Wanted, had as much effect as cursing Satan, Lucas felt. The appeals pleaded for Lamar's safe return to his mother. The abductor, molester, brutalizer, killer's response: stone-cold heartless silence. A special airing of Unsolved Mysteries pleaded with the public to come forward with any shred of information that might lead authorities to Lamar. Everyone in officialdom knew that Lamar's time was running out with each passing hour, that from the moment of his disappearance, if he were indeed one of the Snatcher's victims, his remaining seven days of life began trickling through the killer's distorted hourglass. Everyone knew that if Lamar's abductor could not be found, the boy's life was forfeit. The facts stood stark and brutal; little hope survived among the police community.

    Lucas hated to agree with the negative thinking, but young Lamar Coleson's disappearance almost assured tragedy for the boy and his mother, since Lamar so thoroughly fit the victim profile drawn up by authorities. Earlier victims of the crazed killer, all spindly youths, all black, all living at the poverty level, all had eventually been found mutilated.

    Whoever the killer, he moved in and out of the Houston ghettos like a pale shadow—a ghost familiar with its haunts. All of the victims, like Lamar, had been young boys struggling with scarcity, street violence, gangs, delinquency, adolescence and their own identifies, as anyone at this age and in this place must.

    "Proving one thing," Lucas told himself in the empty elevator car. "The killer is one of us—all too human, and most likely a black man. ... "

    Many in Houston had armed themselves, and everyone with a child below the age of seventeen feared for his child's life. Fewer and fewer people walked the streets after dark, but this had not deterred the Snatcher, whose last three victims had been taken in broad daylight or at dusk.

    Missing and presumed to be held against his will, callow Lamar Coleson would mm fifteen in two weeks. If he were a victim of the Snatcher, he'd not likely see that birthday.

    Local FBI, the HPD Missing Persons personnel, augmented by Violent Crimes and Homicide detectives, continued to scour the Texas tarmac for clues, seeking out anyone who might know Lamar or anyone who saw him in the hours before his disappearance. The headlines shouted in bold typeface the glaring and growing tragedy: news accounts bloated full with the Snatcher and his trail of death, a brief history of the young lives he'd snuffed out, a sidebar stating how helpless the Houston PD appeared in the face of such grotesque lust-torture murders and "experts" moaning how the FBI ought to have been called in weeks earlier.

    The reality, known in police circles, played differently. In fact, the FBI had taken over orchestrating the case a month before, after the third disappearance. Truth be known, the venerable FBI had resorted to psychic detection, or so the word in police circles buzzed.

    The intimation that the HPD hadn't cared about disappearing black boys in the ghettos angered everyone from the commissioner down to the beat cop, as did the intimation that the FBI had only recently been invited in, and that finally the HPD was abuzz with activity, every precinct set up as a command post, every precinct having a ready room as part of the citywide task force combining with FBI personnel to end the satanic career of the Snatcher. And all this activity, according to news reports, was thanks to FBI involvement. ... So much bullshit, Lucas thought.

    The elevator doors creaked open and deposited him in the dungeonlike, stone-walled hallwayt outside the Cold Room in the bowels of the ancient precinct building. He opened the door on a room filled with crates, boxes, files and murder books, all information relevant to what most any thinking person would call irrelevance—the stone-cold, dead fries of cases gone unsolved over the years. He stepped through the creaky door, the squeal of the thing reminding him of the oil-needy Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and he found himself once again staring into the hole where the HPD kept its shame, its remorse, its guilt—all the room's graying manila folders so much fodder for mites and worms; still each murder book proved rich with story.

    Once again the place prompted the question, "What good does it do to unearth ancient cases of incest, murder, suicide and death when today's headlines will do?" Lucas pondered the question even as his eye fell upon the headlines of the newspaper he'd left on his desk here. He now laid aside the M.E.'s protocol on Theodore Melvin Ainsworth for the Houston Star-Dispatch.

    He looked over the front-page headlines for any glimpse of good or breaking news in the Snatcher story, but saw nothing new. He tossed aside the paper and glanced around the room at the hefty black, blue, red and manila binders—each a case book, a murder book, some requiring boxes—all the unsolved cases shivering on their shaky metal stacks, each calling out in a soft surreal whine, "Taaake me up ... tooouch me ... reeead me ..."

    Each ancient case stood in disrepair, so to speak, like old houses in need of too much TLC, each just another moldy Cold File.

    "Maybe you ought to stir the pot," his grandfather's advice came back to his ear like a resounding bell, "or steer clear of it altogether. . . ." In other words, Lucas knew he should simply stay out of the Coleson case and be content that Houston PD had given him a second chance, allowing him to start fresh. Still, the real action continued in the squad room upstairs, all this activity going on just overhead, and he held no part in it.

    "Big favor they did for me," he'd complained to his grandfather when last he'd seen the old man at the Coushatta Indian Reservation in Huntsville. "Placing me, an Indian, in charge of their goddamned mistakes in that g'damn Cold Room. Bastards!"

    Cranking up the heat in the Cold Room had little effect. The place was a dank cave, the walls wet with condensation. In this dragonless dungeon below Houston Police Precinct #31, Lucas had few visitors, but he daily heard many transcendent voices, saw many spectral faces, heard disturbing haunting interior noises, not the snake or mouse or spider or cockroach, not that distant trainlike rumble from somewhere beyond the basement window, not the sirens nor the semis of the nearby Interstate, not millions of volts of electrical current, not the pulse of the city, but the soft banshee cries of the long-ago dead who would not be denied.

    Maybe the bastards who placed him here in this forced confinement with the dead, maybe ... just maybe ... on some subconscious, metaphysical level, maybe they knew that the ghosts of this place would speak only to a disgruntled, broken spirit like Stonecoat. Then again, maybe the bastards in brass simply knew enough to keep a Mad Hatter like Lucas Stonecoat off the street.


Dr. Meredyth Sanger stuck her head out from the conference room, looked angrily about and asked her secretary, Randy Oglesby, "Where the hell's Detective Stonecoat?"

    Randy looked over his shoulder, showing annoyance from behind a ridiculously large pair of black, reflective dark glasses that Meredyth could have used as a mirror. Randy had taken to wearing the glasses after a spat between them in which Meredyth had insisted he keep the lights in the office turned on. He maintained that the hours he put in at the computer screen required a semidarkened environment, that the glare of fluorescent lights killed eyesight, but Meredyth had surmised that Randy's newly acquired interest in the dark side of the Internet had actually prompted his recent strange behavior.

    Randy fit the profile of a computer nerd, but he'd been making real headway, coming out, as it were, up until the recent breakup with his Asian girlfriend, occuring as it had just after he'd proposed marriage to her.

    "Stonecoat, Stonecoat ..." Randy meanly teased. "You mean he's not inside with the others? You mean he's a no-show again? Maybe you ought to report him to his new boss." Randy returned to what stared back at him from his computer screen, clicking wildly for a screen saver to replace it.

    Meredyth, seeing that he meant to hide what he had on the screen, stepped out and stood beside him now. But all there was to see were the little fish being eaten by the big fish on the screen saver. A low rumble of talk from the assembled police personnel in the conference room behind her spilled out into the outer office until the door closed, dulling the talk to a soft oceanlike roar.

    "You're certain you don't know where he is?" she asked.

    "I called down to the Cold Room, like you asked. No answer."

    "What're you hiding behind that screen saver?" she asked.

    "Nothing."

    Again Dr. Sanger thought how foolish Randy looked wearing the large, dark glasses—they made him look like a giant bug hunched over the computer screen. But Randy, acting like some teenager—although he was in his early twenties—claimed to enjoy his new look. She guessed that he rather appreciated the looks he received from others, and the overall effect he'd had on her, her reaction. To add to his new look, he'd gone out and purchased an entire line of Gant shirts and Guess jeans, which on him, she thought, looked not bad.

    "Just what is it you're working on, Randy?" she asked, coming nearer.

    Frowning, he brought back the Web site he'd been browsing, the fish disappearing in a nanosecond. Meredyth bit her lip, not knowing what to say to Randy, who had been using office time once again to cruise the strange site materializing before her eyes as he slowly scrolled down.

    Meredyth could hardly believe just how dark cyberspace had become. She'd heard of child porn on the Net, of lewd and lascivious E-mail, but this—this was all new to her: electronic graveyards, casket shopping, headstone art, virtual scatological rites, burials, cremations, forays into virtual necrophilia—sex with the dead, even sex with one's favorite dead idol, say James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. Meredyth fleetingly thought she'd pick Jim Morrison to take to bed, then immediately scolded herself. But it came out as a scold for Randy. "Don't you have enough to do around here? You know they're cracking down on how our systems are being utilized, Randy. You want to get us both into trouble?"

    "But I should think you, being a crime psychiatrist, that this stuff, you'd want to know about it, try to understand why it's so ... so popular," he challenged. "I mean, it's ... out there."

    She saw now that a how-to on cannibalism was available to the casual browser, as was a how-to on dissecting a murder victim's body, to "virtually" do away with the evidence and all identifying marks, including teeth, and she began to see what Randy's last remark meant.

    "Ouch," groaned Randy, reacting to the removing of the murder victim's teeth. "That's gotta mean applying some damned judicious force on the pliers."

    Meredyth found herself mesmerized. "Plucking teeth from dead people ..."

    "Virtually dead people, Doctor."

    "Your idea of fun?" Even as she said it, Meredyth realized that she, too, had been drawn into this morbidly fascinating world on Randy's screen. Still, she chastised Randy further, asking, "What does your ex-girlfriend think of your fascination with virtual corpses, Randy?"

    "It's just a hobby."

    "Rando—" She'd begun calling him Rando after Lucas Stonecoat had done so, since their encounter together with Lucas in which they'd faced down a band of computer Net killers a couple of summers ago. "Rando, it's hobbies and interests like ... like pet iguanas and tarantulas that chase most girls out the door."

    As if reading her thoughts, Randy replied, "I'm hardly alone in my interest, Doctor. Many cyberspace death-related destinations end in on-line obituaries, dead-pet memorials, tips on burials at sea, recycled rumors of reported deaths of famous people and a celebrity `dead pool' for the genuinely gruesome gambler."

    "You don't mean ... You mean they take odds on—"

    "The most overweight Hollywood stars, the most addicted sports stars, the most feeble and ready-for-the-grave politicians, you name it."

    "This gets stranger by the moment."

    "Hey, I'm not actively participating in any of it. Just browsing, curious, you know, like—"

    "Like me," she thought aloud.

    On screen, Meredyth Sanger, police and forensic psychiatrist, saw the first full-service mortuary in cyberspace, the Carlos A. Howard Funeral Home, advertising the $1,192 Onyx Regal Velvet Coffin, equipped with adjustable bedsprings, mattress and a time capsule. Morose people from all over the nation wrote in to the billboard for the Virtual Memorial Gardens to immortalize a loved one by placing a eulogy on the Net. The Cemetery Gate placed obits on-line for a twenty-five-dollar fee, and with hundreds of takers a day, curator Bruce Armstrong offered a free list of resources on how to grieve, including E-mail support groups.

     "All services available twenty-four/seven," Randy said to Meredyth's reflection on his screen.

    A groan escaped Meredyth.

    "A widow or widower waking up at three a.m. on a Sunday morning can't go to a bereavement group in any other fashion than by logging on," Randy defended.

    As Randy scrolled the menu, Meredyth saw that the on-line death trend opened the user up to the world's most famous and inaccessible cemeteries, such as Paris's Cimetiere du Pere Lechaise—coincidentally the final whereabouts of Jim Morrison. She wondered if he'd found there in French soil a kind of peace alongside Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust. Other such cyber sites opened up the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., various Boston, Chicago, New York and New Orleans graveyards, not to mention Egypt's tombs, and guides to worldwide disease and draught and famine and war cemeteries throughout history and the present.

    "Cool," Randy muttered to his screen. "On some E-mail traffic, I've found messages to the deceased out there in cyberspace, while other messages go to survivors; some caring souls go to the trouble to forward electronic roses and other virtual flowers."

    "Every girl's dream," Meredyth muttered.

    "For E-mail enthusiasts with more macabre leanings, there's an even darker side of the Web."

    "Such as?"

    Randy stroked a key and highlighted a menu choice reading mortuary on-line. "It's a Web site that offers gruesome autopsy photos, usually of the rich and famous or infamous from Judy Garland to Charlie Chaplin, Bonnie and Clyde, Mussolini and his mistress, the former Mrs. O. J. Simpson and Ronald Goldman, murdered children such as Susan Smith's kids, purported alien bodies, you name it."

    "Ugh!" Meredyth replied, pointing at the screen with her pen and saying, "There's a cyber location depicting photos of a museum exhibit of exhumed corpses? Ugh," she repeated when Randy brought up the "holdings" of the Museo de las Momias. "God, next thing they'll have a Web Site for that Summun Mummification Center I've read about."

    "Yeah, in which ex-Mormon church elder Corky Ra describes his bizarre encounters with alien beings—"

    "And promotes a service that mummifies dead pets—"

    "And humans alike."

    "In repose or in action." countered Meredyth.

    Randy now brought up the Cannibalism Page—graphic and disturbing instructions for the preparation of humans for consumption. The Shroud of Turin Home Page offered one of the few religiously oriented entries in the computer death field. Another was the Jewish Burial Society's guide to Jewish funeral customs.

    "What's that one?" she asked. "The Natural Death Centre."

    "Provides a do-it-yourself funeral guide with primers on biodegradable body bags, burials at sea, backyard interments, that sort of thing."

    "Backyard burials?"

    "It's legal in some states, like Florida, with a permit."

    "That'll bring the value of the old homestead down, won't it?"

    "By twenty or thirty percent," mused Randy just before logging off the death field.

    "I find it all quite ... interesting from a purely professional stance, Randy, but I'm disturbed to find you surfing through this stuff on company time. You know about the department's crackdown on how we're spending our time and on what."

    "But you need to know what the popular mind is up to every day, Doctor, in your line of work," he countered.

    "Perhaps," she grudgingly half agreed. "But what about the transcription of yesterday's session with the ranking officers?"

    "On your desk, Doctor." Randy knew Dr. Sanger would be far more upset about the time he'd put in on Detective Lucas Stonecoat's requests than about the cyber-death webs.

    "What about the details of the Forester shooting? The Robinette case? You know I've got to be in court to testi—"

    "On your desk."

    "And the Snatcher stuff?."

    "On your desk. I'd say, Doctor, that you're a lot further behind than I am at this point." He gave her a wide, devilish grin that reached the bottom of each lens of his dark glasses.

    He could be so efficient as to be infuriating, she thought, and she realized that Randy's efficiency kept getting better, despite his sunglasses, his new hairstyle and his Net surfing. "All right. I've got to get back inside. Try to locate Lucas ... Detective Stonecoat for me."

    "Yes, ma'am, Doctor."

    "I'll be in my session, then in my office by ten," she said. He took the cue to mean coffee, black, awaiting her at her desk at ten.


His morning duties for Dr. Sanger complete, Randy Oglesby returned to his computer, where he now entered data in his most businesslike manner, his bare feet hidden beneath the desk. His current search through all police inquiries related to the Snatcher case for Detective Lucas Stonecoat had not yet been exhausted, but he'd had to be careful so as not to arouse any suspicions from either Dr. Sanger or those in charge of the investigation. It could cost him dearly.

    He'd already given Lucas a good deal of information, but there might yet be something mined from the Net on the detective's behalf. He liked and admired Stonecoat, although he wished that Lucas would lighten up. For a pencil-thin guy, Lucas was heavy.

    While Randy's fingers worked over the keyboard and police files filled his screen, the depths of the dark side of the Net continued to wash over his mind. He was convinced that he could write a successful, perhaps bestselling book on the subject. He was well aware that for many people, this dark side represented a profound need, and that many hundreds of thousands of people were addicted to the bleak and macabre side of the Internet.

    Either it was addiction or acceptance ... acceptance of the dualism of human nature and reality, a reality of evil residing in all mankind. Part of the reality of evil must be the horrid, morbid fascination that evil evoked in the human heart. His book, Randy had concluded, would be a meaty study of the satanic in the computer and the physiology of evil, a phrase he had gleaned from Dr. Meredyth Sanger's press remarks on the serial killers of the Helsinger's Pit affair. However, his book would not condemn wholesale the Net's dark side. That would be a book written by a narrow-minded, fearful, idiotic, electronic prude bigot. Some computer users found a profound sense of release and relief in having the luxury of both an intimate and public forum for voicing their deepest emotions and/or darkest thoughts. Many a thank-you card to the curators and morticians who provided these death and dying services attested to this. Dr. Sanger, once she had time to review all the material on the subject, must agree. Perhaps she'd consent to doing an introduction to Randy's book—legitimize it, so to speak.

    Randy Oglesby held ambitions and aspirations far greater than most, and while a genius with computers, he believed life held more in store for him. His near death at the hands of E-mail assassins only two summers ago had spurred him on to meet the challenge of his deepest desires. But he was nobody's fool, not even his own. He'd keep his day job. He wished to skip over the starving artist/writer gig. Besides, he'd been highly instrumental in cracking the Helsinger's Pit murder-by-computer case, not that anyone had given him any citations or kudos for nearly getting himself killed. Still, he could confidently cite this fact, along with his having helped Detective Lucas Stonecoat and Dr. Meredyth Sanger in unmasking and zeroing in on the largest single evil ever to infiltrate cyberspace.

    Now Lucas had again called on Randy and the computer to combat evil. It could be a whole chapter, no, an entire section, of his proposed book. The struggle to use machines for good or evil—the ancient, cosmic battle now being waged in cyberspace as well as inside the human cranium, all due to God's having given man free will, the will to do good and prosper or the will to do evil and wither the planet and the souls of humanity.

    Randy knew that he had had as many daydreams and Walter Mitty schemes as most of the population of the precinct put together, but this idea, this one, felt doable. Randy had recently begun helping Lucas on the Snatcher affair out of a sense of duty, out of some warped notion that he and Stonecoat remained steadfast friends, blood brothers, in a manner of speaking, despite the Grand Canyon of differences lying between them. It had only been recently that he'd become convinced that The Evil Computers Do—Satan in Cyberspace— tentative title—written by Randall Oglesby, aka Mr. Squeegee, must be published so he could appear on Oprah Winfrey's show to discuss how the Antichrist got into the computer in the first place—who welcomed it in?

Forget it, Randy told himself. Surely someone else already has such a book in the works. Surely it's beyond my abilities. Surely I'll never finish chapter one.

    Besides, Stonecoat probably never entertained the notion that he and Randy were figurative blood brothers, no way. Stonecoat courted no friends. He was as good as his name, that invisible armor all around him at all times. The goddamned Cold Room was the perfect place for the Indian bastard. Blood brothers ... what a load of crap, no matter that the Indian himself had once jokingly said it.

    Randy's anger rose incrementally with the minutes as they ticked away. Angry with himself as much as with Stonecoat, Randy felt used, abused, put-upon. He might as well be a computer, a piece of freaking furniture for ail Stonecoat knew, yet Lucas continually came with his hand out for information on this and that, and this morning anything on the Snatcher case, "With particular emphasis on the Lamar Coleson disappearance." And what had Randy done but honored the great and powerful Stonecoat with insipid compliance—and now Lucas Stonecoat had Randy lying and covering for him!

    Randy worried about how much Dr. Sanger knew, and if her trust in him might be irreparably eroded. Talk about nobody's fool! She had an uncanny ability to read a lie. And while Randy felt awful about lying to her, he'd had to—for the sake of a pseudo-brotherhood and a chance for a new chapter in his projected bestseller.

    To further complicate matters, a recent HPD gestapo rule about evidence-gathering on-line meant that big brother watched every byte, and while Randy had no problem accessing information, he'd done so on Lucas's behalf by logging on as Dr. Meredyth Sanger, using the password that Randy had created for her.

    Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, given the high visibility of the Snatcher case, Dr. Sanger had now requested all information on the case herself, and making a duplicate copy for her from Detective Stonecoat's material had been only a minor inconvenience. More worrisome: the fact that both Dr. Sanger and Stonecoat had each expressly told him not to tell the other of their interest in the Snatcher case.

    Amazingly enough, like a tightrope walker, Randy had been able to do both: provide each with what he or she needed without violating either trust—so far. But this was no small feat, the juggling act becoming more complicated hour by hour, an undeniable web of deceit.

    Why couldn't the two of them, shrink and cop, play together in the same sandbox? Why all the freaking cloak-and-dagger?

    Randy had noticed that the lady shrink and the Texas Cherokee cop had distanced themselves from one another since their work on Helsinger's Pit. Perhaps it had something to do with Lucas's having been decorated for bravery in the affair, and for having brought down the Helsinger's Pit computer conspiracy "single-handedly," as the papers and the toastmasters had put it. Certainly Meredyth, like Randy himself, deserved more credit for the downfall of the villains than either of them had received, and perhaps this fact bothered her, as it did Randy. More likely, Randy thought, the flickering and flaring emotions Stonecoat and Sanger displayed toward each other simply frightened the other one off.

    Just beyond the conference room door, the sound of men and women who'd fired their weapons in the line of duty rumbled and ebbed and flowed.

    To Randy the muffled sounds coming from the session had a soothing effect, despite the fact he knew the level of energy and emotion in the room next door must be intensely high. Once he'd heard Lucas Stonecoat shouting at Dr. Sanger, and he'd clearly made out the words, "Bullshit! It was kill or be killed!" In another instance, he had heard Stonecoat shout, "I'd do the same with a rabid animal!"

    Sanger, speaking on the subject of Timothy McVeigh and whether or not he deserved the electric chair, had yelled back, "Evil is more to be pitied than hated, Lucas!"

    From there, the two of them had gotten nowhere, Randy had surmised when Lucas stormed out over Meredyth's protest. His parting shot: "I'm cured!"

    "You're afraid of looking too deeply at yourself, Lucas. It's fear that drives you!" she'd countered, but he was gone, with no plans for returning.

    The conference room door opened now, Dr. Sanger breaking up the session early, saying a good-bye to each of the six officers and two detectives who'd recently been ordered into psychiatric counseling. When they had all filed out, Dr. Sanger asked Randy, "No news from Lucas?"

    "Sorry, none."

    "I'll be in my office, catching up on this Snatcher business—and thanks, Randy, for getting all the data on the case for me."

    "No problem. Coffee's coming up."

    "Yeah, that'd be nice, and again, thanks."

    "Don't mention it."

    Randy, once more alone with his thoughts and his computer screen, pushed the print button, the printer blipping into action. I'll run Dr. Sanger a copy of what new stuff I've pulled up on the screen for Lucas Stonecoat. I'll give it to her first. Maybe that'll count for something, If I can later say that I merely made copies for Lucas, but that she got first dibs. ... But he doubted it would help when she learned the truth, and learning was what a psychotherapist did.

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