Read an Excerpt
Carlo Druze was a stone killer.
He sauntered down the old, gritty sidewalk with its cracked, uneven paving blocks, under the bare-branched oaks. He was acutely aware of his surroundings. Back around the corner, near his car, the odor of cigar smoke hung in the cold night air; a hundred feet farther along, he’d touched a pool of fragrance, deodorant or cheap perfume. A Mötley Crüe song beat down from a second-story bedroom: plainly audible on the sidewalk, it had to be deafening inside.
Two blocks ahead, to the right, a translucent cream-colored shade came down in a lighted window. He watched the window, but nothing else moved. A vagrant snowflake drifted past, then another.
Druze could kill without feeling, but he wasn’t stupid. He took care: he would not spend his life in prison. So he strolled, hands in his pockets, a man at his leisure. Watching. Feeling. The collar of his ski jacket rose to his ears on the sides, to his nose in the front. A watch cap rode low on his forehead. If he met anyone—a dog-walker, a night jogger—they’d get nothing but eyes.
From the mouth of the alley, he could see the target house and the garage behind it. Nobody in the alley, nothing moving. A few garbage cans, like battered plastic toadstools, waited to be taken inside. Four windows were lit on the ground floor of the target house, two more up above. The garage was dark.
Druze didn’t look around; he was too good an actor. It wasn’t likely that a neighbor was watching, but who could know? An old man, lonely, standing at his window, a linen shawl around his narrow shoulders . . . Druze could see him in his mind’s eye, and was wary: the people here had money, and Druze was a stranger in the dark. An out-of-place furtiveness, like a bad line on the stage, would be noticed. The cops were only a minute away.
With a casual step, then, rather than a sudden move, Druze turned into the darker world of the alley and walked down to the garage. It was connected to the house by a glassed-in breezeway. The door at the end of the breezeway would not be locked; it led straight into the kitchen.
“If she’s not in the kitchen, she’ll be in the recreation room, watching television,” Bekker had said. Bekker had been aglow, his face pulsing with the heat of uncontrolled pleasure. He’d drawn the floor plan on a sheet of notebook paper and traced the hallways with the point of his pencil. The pencil had trembled on the paper, leaving a shaky worm trail in graphite. “Christ, I wish I could be there to see it.”
Druze took the key out of his pocket, pulled it out by its string. He’d tied the string to a belt loop, so there’d be no chance he’d lose the key in the house. He reached out to the doorknob with his gloved left hand, tried it. Locked. The key opened it easily. He shut the door behind him and stood in the dark, listening. A scurrying? A mouse in the loft? The sound of the wind brushing over the shingles. He waited, listening.
Druze was a troll. He had been burned as a child. Some nights, bad nights, the memories ran uncontrollably through his head, and he’d doze, wretchedly, twisting in the blankets, knowing what was coming, afraid. He’d wake in his childhood bed, the fire on him. On his hands, his face, running like liquid, in his nose, his hair, his mother screaming, throwing water and milk, his father flapping his arms, shouting, ineffectual . . .
They hadn’t taken him to the hospital until the next day. His mother had smeared lard on him, hoping not to pay, as Druze howled through the night. But in the morning light, when they’d seen his nose, they took him.
He was four weeks in the county hospital, shrieking with pain as the nurses put him through the baths and the peels, as the doctors did the skin transplants. They’d harvested the skin from his thighs—he remembered the word, all these years later, harvested, it stuck in his mind like a tick—and used it to patch his face.
When they’d finished he looked better, but not good. The features of his face seemed fused together, as though an invisible nylon stocking were pulled over his head. His skin was no better, a patchwork of leather, off-color, pebbled, like a quilted football. His nose had been fixed, as best the doctors could, but it was too short, his nostrils flaring straight out, like black headlights. His lips were stiff and thin, and dried easily. He licked them, unconsciously, his tongue flicking out every few seconds with a lizard’s touch.
The doctors had given him the new face, but his eyes were his own.
His eyes were flat black and opaque, like weathered paint on the eyes of a cigar-store Indian. New acquaintances sometimes thought he was blind, but he was not. His eyes were the mirror of his soul: Druze hadn’t had one since the night of the burning. . . .
The garage was silent. Nobody called out, no telephone rang. Druze tucked the key into his pants pocket and took a black four-inch milled-aluminum penlight out of his jacket. With the light’s narrow beam, he skirted the car and picked his way through the litter of the garage. Bekker had warned him of this: the woman was a gardener. The unused half of the garage was littered with shovels, rakes, hoes, garden trowels, red clay pots, both broken and whole, sacks of fertilizer and partial bales of peat moss. A power cultivator sat next to a lawn mower and a snowblower. The place smelled half of earth and half of gasoline, a pungent, yeasty mixture that pulled him back to his childhood. Druze had grown up on a farm, poor, living in a trailer with a propane tank, closer to the chicken coop than the main house. He knew about kitchen gardens, old, oil-leaking machinery and the stink of manure.
The door between the garage and the breezeway was closed but not locked. The breezeway itself was six feet wide and as cluttered as the garage. “She uses it as a spring greenhouse—watch the tomato flats on the south side, they’ll be all over the place,” Bekker had said. “You’ll need the light, but she won’t be able to see it from either the kitchen or the recreation room. Check the windows on the left. That’s the study, and she could see you from there—but she won’t be in the study. She never is. You’ll be okay.”
Bekker was a meticulous planner, delighted with his own precise work. As he led Druze through the floor plan with his pencil, he’d stopped once to laugh. His laugh was his worst feature, Druze decided. Harsh, scratching, it sounded like the squawk of a crow pursued by owls. . . .
Druze walked easily through the breezeway, stepping precisely toward the lighted window in the door at the end of the passage. He was bulky but not fat. He was, in fact, an athlete: he could juggle, he could dance, he could balance on a rope; he could jump in the air and click his heels and land lightly enough that the audience could hear the click alone, like a spoken word. Midway through, he heard a voice and paused.
A voice, singing. Sweet, naive, like a high-school chorister’s. A woman, the words muffled. He recognized the tune but didn’t know its name. Something from the sixties. A Joan Baez song maybe. The focus was getting tighter. He didn’t doubt that he could do her. Killing Stephanie Bekker would be no more difficult than chopping off a chicken’s head or slitting the throat of a baby pig. Just a shoat, he said to himself. It’s all meat. . . .
Druze had done another murder, years earlier. He’d told Bekker about it, over a beer. It wasn’t a confession, simply a story. And now, so many years later, the killing seemed more like an accident than a murder. Even less than that: like a scene from a half-forgotten drive-in movie, a movie where you couldn’t remember the end. A girl in a New York flophouse. A hooker maybe, a druggie for sure. She gave him some shit. Nobody cared, so he killed her. Almost as an experiment, to see if it would rouse some feeling in him. It hadn’t.
He never knew the hooker’s name, doubted that he could even find the flophouse, if it still existed. At this date, he probably couldn’t figure out what week of the year it had been: the summer, sometime, everything hot and stinking, the smell of spoiled milk and rotting lettuce in sidewalk Dumpsters . . .
“Didn’t bother me,” he had told Bekker, who pressed him. “It wasn’t like . . . Shit, it wasn’t like anything. Shut the bitch up, that’s for sure.”
“Did you hit her? In the face?” Bekker had been intent, the eyes of science. It was, Druze thought, the moment they had become friends. He remembered it with perfect clarity: the bar, the scent of cigarette smoke, four college kids on the other side of the aisle, sitting around a pizza, laughing at inanities . . . Bekker had worn an apricot-colored mohair sweater, a favorite, that framed his face.
“Bounced her off a wall, swinging her,” Druze had said, wanting to impress. Another new feeling. “When she went down, I got on her back, got an arm around her neck, and jerk . . . that was it. Neck just went pop. Sounded like when you bite into a piece of gristle. I put my pants on, walked but the door. . . .”
“No. Not after I was out of the place. Something that simple . . . what’re the cops going to do? You walk away. By the time you’re down the block, they got no chance. And in that fuckin’ place, they probably didn’t even find her for two days, and only then ’cause of the heat. I wasn’t scared, I was more like . . . hurried.”
“That’s something.” Bekker’s approval was like the rush Druze got from applause, but better, tighter, more concentrated. Only for him. He had gotten the impression that Bekker had a confession of his own but held it back. Instead the other man had asked, “You never did it again?”
“No. It’s not like . . . I enjoy it.”
Bekker had sat staring at him for a moment, then had smiled. “Hell of a story, Carlo.”
He hadn’t felt much when he’d killed the girl. He didn’t feel much now, ghosting through the darkened breezeway, closing in. Tension, stage fright, but no distaste for the job.
Another door waited at the end of the passage, wooden, with an inset window at eye level. If the woman was at the table, Bekker said, she would most likely be facing away from him. If she was at the sink, the stove or the refrigerator, she wouldn’t be able to see him at all. The door would open quietly enough, but she would feel the cold air if he hesitated.
What was that song? The woman’s voice floated around him, an intriguing whisper in the night air. Moving slowly, Druze peeked through the window. She wasn’t at the table: nothing there but two wooden chairs. He gripped the doorknob solidly, picked up a foot, wiped the sole of his shoe on the opposite pantleg, then repeated the move with the other foot. If the gym shoe treads had picked up any small stones, they would give him away, rattling on the tile floor. Bekker had suggested that he wipe, and Druze was a man who valued rehearsal.
His hand still on the knob, he twisted. The knob turned silently under his glove, as slowly as the second hand on a clock. The door was on a spring, and would ease itself shut. . . . And she sang: Something, Angelina, ta-dum, Angelina. Good-bye, Angelina? She was a true soprano, her voice like bells. . . .
The door was as quiet as Bekker had promised. Warm air pushed into his face like a feather cushion; the sound of a dishwasher, and Druze was inside and moving, the door closed behind him, his shoes silent on the quarry tile. Straight ahead was the breakfast bar, white-speckled Formica with a single short-stemmed rose in a bud vase at the far end, a cup and saucer in the center and, on the near end, a green glass bottle. A souvenir from a trip to Mexico, Bekker had said. Hand-blown, and heavy as stone, with a sturdy neck.
Druze was moving fast now, to the end of the bar, an avalanche in black, the woman suddenly there to his left, standing at the sink, singing, her back to him. Her black hair was brushed out on her shoulders, a sheer silken blue negligee falling gently over her hips. At the last instant she sensed him coming, maybe felt a rush in the air, a coldness, and she turned.
Something’s wrong: Druze was moving on Bekker’s wife, too late to change course, and he knew that something was wrong. . . .
Man in the house. In the shower. On his way.
Stephanie Bekker felt warm, comfortable, still a little damp from her own shower, a bead of water tickling as it sat on her spine between her shoulder blades. . . . Her nipples were sore, but not unpleasantly. He’d shaven, but not recently enough. . . . She smiled. Silly man, must not have nursed enough as a baby . . .
Stephanie Bekker felt the cool air on her back and turned to smile at her lover. Her lover wasn’t there; Death was. She said, “Who?” and it was all there in her mind, like a fistful of crystals: the plans for the business, the good days at the lakes, the cocker spaniel she had had as a girl, her father’s face lined with pain after his heart attack, her inability to have children . . .
And her home: the kitchen tile, the antique flour bins, the wrought-iron pot stands, the single rose in the bud vase, red as a drop of blood . . .
Something wrong . . .
“Who?” she said, not loud, half turning, her eyes widening, a smile caught on her face. The bottle whipped around, a Louisville Slugger in green glass. Her hand started up. Too late. Too small. Too delicate.
The heavy bottle smashed into her temple with a wet crack, like a rain-soaked newspaper hitting a porch. Her head snapped back and she fell, straight down, as though her bones had vaporized. The back of her head slammed the edge of the counter, pitching her forward, turning her.
Druze was on her, smashing her flat with his weight, his hand on her chest, feeling her nipple in his palm.
Hitting her face and her face and her face . . .
The heavy bottle broke, and he paused, sucking air, his head turned up, his jaws wide, changed his grip and smashed the broken edges down through her eyes. . . .
“Do it too much,” Bekker had urged. He’d been like a jock, talking about a three-four defense or a halfback option, his arm pumping as though he was about to holler “Awright!” . . . “Do it like a junkie would do it. Christ, I wish I could be there. And get the eyes. Be sure you get the eyes.”
“I know how to do it,” Druze had said.
“But you must get the eyes. . . .” Bekker had had a little white dot of drying spittle at the corner of his mouth. That happened when he got excited. “Get the eyes for me. . . .”
There’d been another sound here, and it had stopped. Even as he beat her, even as he pounded the razor-edged bottle down through her eyes, Druze registered the negligee. She wouldn’t be wearing this on a cold, windy night in April, alone in the house. Women were natural actors, with an instinct for the appropriate that went past simple comfort. She wouldn’t be wearing this if she were alone. . . .
He hit her face and heard the thumping on the stairs, and half turned, half stood, startled, hunched like a golem, the bottle in his gloved hand. The man came around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, wrapped in a towel. Taller than average, too heavy but not actually fat. Balding, fair wet hair at his temples, uncombed. Pale skin, rarely touched by sunlight, chest hair gone gray, pink spots on his shoulders from the shower.
There was a frozen instant, then the man blurted “Jesus” and bolted. Druze took a step after him, quickly, off balance. The blood on the kitchen tile was almost invisible, red on red, and he slipped, his feet flying from beneath him. He landed back-down on the woman’s head, her pulped features imprinting themselves on his black jacket. The man, Stephanie Bekker’s lover, was up the stairs. It was an old house and the doors were oak. If he locked himself in a bedroom, Druze would not get through the door in a hurry. The man might already be dialing 911. . . .
Druze dropped the bottle, as planned, and turned and trotted out the door. He was halfway down the length of the breezeway when it slammed behind him, a report like a gunshot, startling him. Door, his mind said, but he was running now, scattering the tomato plants. His hand found the penlight as he cleared the breezeway. With the light, he was through the garage in two more seconds, into the alley, slowing himself. Walk. WALK.
In another ten seconds he was on the sidewalk, thick, hunched, his coat collar up. He got to his car without seeing another soul. A minute after he left Stephanie Bekker, the car was moving....
Keep your head out of it.
Druze did not allow himself to think. Everything was rehearsed, it was all very clean. Follow the script. Stay on schedule. Around the lake, out to France Avenue to Highway 12, back toward the loop to I-94, down 94 to St. Paul.
Then he thought:
He saw my face. And who the fuck was he? So round, so pink, so startled. Druze smacked the steering wheel once in frustration. How could this happen? Bekker so smart . . .
There was no way for Druze to know who the lover was, but Bekker might know. He should have some ideas, at least. Druze glanced at the car clock: 10:40. Ten minutes before the first scheduled call.
He took the next exit, stopped at a Super America store and picked up the plastic baggie of quarters he’d left on the floor of the car: he hadn’t wanted them to clink when he went into Bekker’s house. A public phone hung on an exterior wall, and Druze, his index finger in one ear to block the street noise, dialed another public phone, in San Francisco. A recording asked for quarters and Druze dropped them in. A second later, the phone rang on the West Coast. Bekker was there.
Druze was supposed to say one of two words, “Yes” or “No,” and hang up. Instead he said, “There was a guy there.”
“What?” He’d never heard Bekker surprised, before this night.
“She was fuckin’ some guy,” Druze said. “I came in and did her and the guy came right down the stairs on top of me. He was wearing a towel.”
“What?” More than surprised. He was stunned.
“Wake up, for Christ’s fuckin’ sake. Stop saying ‘What?’ We got a problem.”
“What about . . . the woman?” Recovering now. Mentioning no names.
“She’s a big fuckin’ Yes. But the guy saw me. Just for a second. I was wearing the ski jacket and the hat, but with my face . . . I don’t know how much was showing. . . .”
There was a long moment of silence; then Bekker said, “We can’t talk about it. I’ll call you tonight or tomorrow, depending on what happens. Are you sure about . . . the woman?”
“Yeah, yeah, she’s a Yes.”
“Then we’ve done that much,” Bekker said, with satisfaction. “Let me go think about the other.”
And he was gone.
Driving away from the store, Druze hummed, harshly, the few bars of the song: Ta-dum, Angelina, good-bye, Angelina . . . That wasn’t right, and the goddamned song would be going through his head forever until he got it. Ta-dum, Angelina. Maybe he could call a radio station and they’d play it or something. The melody was driving him nuts.
He put the car on I-94, took it to Highway 280, to I-35W, to I-694, and began driving west, fast, too fast, enjoying the speed, running the loop around the cities. He did it, now and then, to cool out. He liked the wind whistling through a crack in the window, the oldie-goldies on the radio. Ta-dum . . .
The blood-mask dried on the back of his jacket, invisible now. He never knew it was there.
Stephanie Bekker’s lover heard the strange thumping as he toweled himself after his shower. The sound was unnatural, violent, arrhythmic, but it never crossed his mind that Stephanie had been attacked, was dying there on the kitchen floor. She might be moving something, one of her heavy antique chairs maybe, or perhaps she couldn’t get a jar open and was rapping the lid on a kitchen counter—he really didn’t know what he thought.
He wrapped a towel around his waist and went to look. He walked straight into the nightmare: A man with a beast’s face, hovering over Stephanie, the broken bottle in his hand like a dagger, rimed with blood. Stephanie’s face . . . What had he told her, there in bed, an hour before? You’re a beautiful woman, he’d said, awkward at this, touching her lips with his fingertip, so beautiful. . . .
He’d seen her on the floor and he’d turned and run. What else could he do? one part of his mind asked. The lower part, the lizard part that went back to the caves, said: Coward.
He’d run up the stairs, flying with fear, reaching to slam the bedroom door behind him, to lock himself away from the horror, when he heard the troll slam out through the breezeway door. He snatched up the phone, punched numbers, a 9, a 1. But even as he punched the 1, his quick mind was turning. He stopped. Listened. No neighbors, no calls in the night. No sirens. Nothing. Looked at the phone, then finally set it back down. Maybe . . .
He pulled on his pants.
He cracked the door, tense, waiting for attack. Nothing. Down the stairs, moving quietly in his bare feet. Nothing. Wary, moving slowly, into the kitchen. Stephanie sprawled there, on her back, beyond help: her face pulped, her whole head misshapen from the beating. Blood pooled on the tile around her; the killer had stepped in it, and he’d left tracks, one edge of a gym shoe and a heel, back toward the door.
Stephanie Bekker’s lover reached down to touch her neck, to feel for a pulse, but at the last minute, repelled, he pulled his hand back. She was dead. He stood for a moment, swept by a premonition that the cops were on the sidewalk, were coming up the sidewalk, were reaching toward the front door. . . . They would find him here, standing over the body like the innocent man in a Perry Mason television show, point a finger at him, accuse him of murder.
He turned his head toward the front door. Nothing. Not a sound.
He went back up the stairs, his mind working furiously. Stephanie had sworn she’d told nobody about their affair. Her close friends were with the university, in the art world or in the neighborhood: confiding details of an affair in any of those places would set off a tidal wave of gossip. They both knew that and knew it would be ruinous.
He would lose his position in a scandal. Stephanie, for her part, was deathly afraid of her husband: what he would do, she couldn’t begin to predict. The affair had been stupid, but neither had been able to resist it. His marriage was dying, hers was long dead.
He choked, controlled it, choked again. He hadn’t wept since childhood, couldn’t weep now, but spasms of grief, anger and fear squeezed his chest. Control. He started dressing, was buttoning his shirt when his stomach rebelled, and he dashed to the bathroom and vomited. He knelt in front of the toilet for several minutes, dry heaves tearing at his stomach muscles until tears came to his eyes. Finally, the spasms subsiding, he stood up and finished dressing, except for his shoes. He must be quiet, he thought.
He did a careful inventory: billfold, keys, handkerchief, coins. Necktie, jacket. Coat and gloves. He forced himself to sit on the bed and mentally retrace his steps through the house. What had he touched? The front doorknob. The table in the kitchen, the spoon and bowl he’d used to eat her cherry cobbler. The knobs on the bedroom and bathroom doors, the water faucets, the toilet seat . . .
He got a pair of Stephanie’s cotton underpants from her bureau, went down the stairs again, started with the front door and worked methodically through the house. In the kitchen, he didn’t look at the body. He couldn’t look at it, but he was always aware of it at the edge of his vision, a leg, an arm . . . enough to step carefully around the blood.
In the bedroom again, and the bathroom. As he was wiping the shower, he thought about the drain. Body hair. He listened again. Silence. Take the time. The drain was fastened down by a single brass screw. He removed it with a dime, wiped the drain as far as he could reach with toilet paper, then rinsed it with a direct flow of water. The paper he threw into the toilet, and flushed once, twice. Body hair: the bed. He went into the bedroom, another surge of despair shaking his body. He would forget something. . . . He pulled the sheets from the bed, threw them on the floor, found another set and spent five minutes putting them on the bed and rearranging the blankets and the coverlet. He wiped the nightstand and the headboard, stopped, looked around.
He rolled the underpants in the dirty sheets, put on his shoes and went downstairs, carrying the bundle of linen. He scanned the living room, the parlor and the kitchen one last time. His eyes skipped over Stephanie. . . .
There was nothing more to do. He put on his coat and stuffed the bundle of sheets in the belly. He was already heavy, but the sheets made him gross: good. If anybody saw him . . .
He walked out the front door, down the four concrete steps to the street and around the long block to his car. They’d been discreet, and their discretion might now save him. The night was cold, spitting snow, and he met nobody.
He drove down off the hill, around the lake, out to Hennepin Avenue, and spotted a pay telephone. He stopped, pinched a quarter in the underpants and dialed 911. Feeling both furtive and foolish, he put the pants over the mouthpiece of the telephone before he spoke:
“A woman’s been murdered . . .” he told the operator.
He gave Stephanie’s name and address. With the operator pleading with him to stay on the line, he hung up, carefully wiped the receiver and walked back to his car. No. Sneaked back to his car, he thought. Like a rat. They would never believe, he thought. Never. He put his head on the steering wheel. Closed his eyes. Despite himself, his mind was calculating.
The killer had seen him. And the killer hadn’t looked like a junkie or a small-time rip-off artist killing on impulse. He’d looked strong, well fed, purposeful. The killer could be coming after him. . . .
He’d have to give more information to the investigators, he decided, or they’d focus on him, her lover. He’d have to point them at the killer. They’d know that Stephanie had had intercourse, the county pathologists would be able to tell that. . . .
God, had she washed? Of course she had, but how well? Would there be enough semen for a DNA-type?
No help for that. But he could give the police information they’d need to track the killer. Print out a statement, Xerox it through several generations, with different darkness settings, to obscure any peculiarities of the printer . . .
Stephanie’s face came out of nowhere.
At one moment, he was planning. The next, she was there, her eyes closed, her head turned away, asleep. He was seized with the thought that he could go back, find her standing in the doorway, find that it had all been a nightmare. . . .
He began to choke again, his chest heaving.
And Stephanie’s lover thought, as he sat in the car: Bekker? Had he done this? He started the car.
It wasn’t quite human, the thing that pulled itself across the kitchen floor. Not quite human—eyes gone, brain damaged, bleeding—but it was alive and it had a purpose: the telephone. There was no attacker, there was no lover, there was no time. There was only pain, the tile and, somewhere, the telephone.
The thing on the floor pulled itself to the wall where the telephone was, reached, reached . . . and failed. The thing was dying when the paramedics came, when the glass in the window broke and the firemen came through the door.
The thing called Stephanie Bekker heard the words “Jesus Christ,” and then it was gone forever, leaving a single bloody handprint six inches below the Princess phone.