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Not many first-timers can convincingly plumb the mind of a serial killer, and Kennett isn't one of the few who can. Telemovie thrills may leave some readers sleepless, but not Thomas Harris.
Dog stood at the stove, stirring the contents of an omelet pan. As he reached for the garlic salt on the counter, he savored a familiar aroma he hadn't enjoyed in years.
Too long, a voice groused in his mind. He thought it was Pa but he wasn't sure.
To the rest of the world, the schmucks, he had a real name. It was even a dignified name. But inside he was plain old Dog, as Ma and Pa had called him when they were mad, which was most of the time. He could practically hear Ma's shrill voice as he dutifully stirred, wearing boxer shorts and nothing else, in the kitchen of his suburban home.
The kitchen was small, with appliances, counter tops, and sink crowding a narrow aisle. It reminded Dog of the kitchen of a train where he had once worked, washing and chopping vegetables for the passengers, most of them elderly, who still traveled by train. He paused for a moment, remembering how their false teeth clicked as they ate, usually one per table, in the dining car. Most people wouldn't have noticed the tiny clicking noises above the steady rhythm of metal wheels on tracks, but he had always been fascinated with the mechanics of eating. Dog's memories and thought paths were sensory oriented. For a while his thoughts looped in remembered images, smells, tastes, sounds, and the feeling of an October night's air on his skin, the hair rising on his naked arms, legs, chest, and back.
It was a smell that brought him back to his own kitchen—a burning, acrid smell. He had neglected to stir while one memory triggered another, and the pan was smoking. Grumbling in disgust, he scraped the blackened sludge-like remains from the pan into the heavy-duty garbage disposal he had installed just last week. He turned on a fan, which seemed to circulate the smoke and smell without dissipating it. The kitchen windows were old and nearly painted shut. Usually, it was a struggle to raise them a few inches. He yanked hard at the window nearest him and it yielded to his annoyance, banging into the top of the frame hard enough to rattle the glass. The fan began to push the odor out.
He carefully washed the pan and, while the oil was heating again, sliced another portion of the soft, glistening mound on the cutting board.
Although he was a good cook, he hardly ever used the kitchen, preferring to eat almost all of his meals out. In fact, he had needed a special shopping trip to buy the omelet pan, a spatula, cooking oil, garlic salt, and paper plates. At least he had the same old mismatched stainless forks and spoons he'd had for years.
He glanced into the dining room, where a new electronic keyboard rested on the corner of the table. He was planning to try it out after dinner, because by then he would be able to play it masterfully. It wasn't quite the grand piano that his guest was used to, but it would have to do. There were, after all, practical considerations involved. His dining room, or for that matter any of the rooms of his small home, just couldn't accommodate a grand piano.
Guest, said a female voice in his head. Arleen, probably. Is that what you're calling them these days?
He tipped the omelet pan and the contents tumbled onto a paper plate. He had always enjoyed music, ever since he listened to Ma's favorite radio station as a grubby toddler wearing a perpetual smear of syrup or chocolate or whatever on his face and a diaper that must have weighed a ton. Of course, classical piano was a far cry from the twangy country and western of his youth, but music was music, wasn't it?
There was, in his complex personality, a strong fragment which fought against chaos, which tidied up the disorderly situations Dog created. That was Pauley Mac, another childhood nickname. As he went into the dining room, Pauley Mac clucked at the mess Dog had left to clean up later in the kitchen.
The severed head of the pianist perched on his counter top, thoughtfully placed on a drain board angled into the side of the sink with the garbage disposal. The skull was neatly cracked open, vulnerable and horrible under the track lights, and the brain cavity was empty. At least the hammer and chisel he had used to open the skull had already been washed and put away.
When Dog finished eating, he switched on the keyboard and tentatively, then confidently, began stroking the black and white bars. His left arm was inexpertly bandaged with gauze, as telling as a virgin's stain on the bed sheets. The scratches hurt like hell, but he blocked out the pain. This was a time for the finer things, things of culture and class. Beautiful music played in his mind, and he was immensely satisfied with his guest's—now his own—talents.
A pounding on the door finally broke Dog's reverie. He opened the door, catching his neighbor Bill Weston with his arm raised to strike the door again.
"Oh, there you are. The wife and I were wondering if you could be so kind as to turn down that TV a notch. You see, Helen's not feeling well, and she's been trying to close her eyes and catch some Z's all afternoon."
He wondered whether Bill's line of sight allowed him to see into the kitchen. Hoping he had remembered to wash his hands and arms, and very aware of the leaky bandage on his left arm, he shifted slightly, although he wasn't tall enough to block Bill's view.
"Sure, Bill, I'd be happy to. You should have said something sooner. If it happens again, don't bother coming over—just pick up the phone. I'm in the book."
"Well, thanks much. I don't want to complain, you know, but the wife ... Say, with all that squawking we figured you were watching a horror movie. Which movie are you watching, anyway? I sure do like those slasher movies, but the wife, she prefers that supernatural stuff."
"Oh, it's just one of those old Bible stories. You know, lots of hell and damnation." With that, he managed to get the door closed.
The pianist made his first contribution to the internal chorus: Squawking, indeed!
Pauley Mac went back into the kitchen and shoved the window closed. It had been touch and go there for a minute. Dog did not like being interrupted. His animal ferocity could not cope with polite conversation, and fantasy images of tearing out Bill's throat reverberated in their shared mind.
As long as I'm already in the kitchen, Pauley Mac thought, I might as well get started on the cleaning.CHAPTER 2
The rolling prairie, windmills, and bobbing oil drills had given way to cornfields and pastures as Penelope Jennifer Gray's old VW Rabbit convertible labored along I-70 west of Kansas City. Multi-headed sunflowers stood in the median of the highway, all facing the same direction, like inquisitive children clustered around a teacher. Hay, the summer's first cutting and nearly three weeks early, lay plumped in rows in the pastures, drying in the sun and waiting to be baled. The smells of clover and grass were everywhere, in the air she drew in deeply and in the tousled hair of the boy sitting next to her. The unseasonably hot afternoon sun had long since vaporized the sun block slathered on that morning, and the fried chicken she had eaten for lunch bobbed uneasily on a layer of grease somewhere in her midsection.
"When are we going to stop? You said an hour ago that we were going to put the top up. It's really, really hot!" Her twelve-year-old son, Thomas, had that slight whine in his voice which told her that self-destruction was imminent.
"OK, we'll take the next exit that has gas and eats. Geez, you're not going to melt!"
"Yeah, Mom, it's you I'm worried about. Witches melt, remember?"
Penny, whose few friends (even fewer since the divorce) called her PJ, smiled. She welcomed his attempt at humor, given the stiffness of their relationship recently. In fact, it was about the nicest thing he had said to her in some time. If Thomas was able to crack a joke under these circumstances, all was not lost. Providing, of course, that it was a joke.
She was on her way from Denver to St. Louis to start a job as a psychologist with the St. Louis Police Department's new unit, the Computerized Homicide Investigations Project, or CHIP. She knew that it was risky. There was a chance that the pilot project involving computerized simulations of crime scenes wouldn't prove itself out. Then she'd be a freshly-divorced parent without work in a new town. But she needed to get out of Denver, because Steven was there. Her ex-husband Steven married that girl half PJ's age the day after the divorce was final. PJ persisted in thinking of her as "that girl." Illogically, she felt that she would be continually running into Steven and that girl at the grocery store or restaurants, and she just couldn't stay in Denver. Moving was a good solution for her, but there was a complication. Thomas didn't want to move, didn't want to have his life disrupted, didn't want his parents divorced, didn't—period. Her relationship with him needed serious mending, as did both of their hearts.
So now she was fleeing from her lucrative position in marketing research, where she had used her unique combination of skills in psychology and computer science to help companies fine-tune new products even before the first customer plunked down the cash. She had piled a few belongings and her reluctant son into the Rabbit she'd owned forever and driven into the sunrise. It was Thursday afternoon, and she was looking forward to spending a long weekend in the comfortable mayhem of her sister's home in Kansas City before reporting in for work Monday morning in St. Louis.
At the next exit there was a convenience store that sold gas. While she scrubbed at the bug-splattered windshield and struggled with the convertible top, Thomas went inside to graze the snack aisle. He came out of the store with his hands full of sodas, chips, and cookies, and no change from the five dollars she had given him.
When it was her turn, she visited the bathroom first. Even though it was only May, the Kansas sunshine already seemed merciless, and sweat filmed her body. She splashed cold water on her face, letting some of it trickle down into her neckline and run between her breasts, feeling the cool tracks on her skin. She felt about blindly for the towel dispenser, which was empty. Sighing, she dried her face on the front of her T-shirt. In the store, she spotted some packages of cupcakes. She and Thomas shared the same birthday, and today was the big day: her fortieth and his twelfth. She decided that an impromptu party was just the thing to cheer them both up. Searching the shelves, she came up with a dusty box of birthday candles. On the counter next to the cash register was a bowl of match-books printed with the name of the store. PJ scooped one into the pocket of her shorts, hating to be perceived as a smoker but positive she didn't have any matches in the car.
When she paid, she found it disconcerting that the clerk's eyes didn't meet hers. Instead, his gaze seemed to roam sideways at about the level of her chest. On the way out, she looked down, certain that she must have some stain or food crumbs or worse on her front. She saw that her T-shirt had two wet spots, roughly hand-shaped, directly over her breasts. The soft bra she was wearing revealed her nipples, which had hardened from the cold water. She laughed out loud, but was pleased with the clerk's lustful attention. With her hair sprinkled with gray and twenty extra pounds rounding her figure, PJ didn't get too many surreptitious glances from twenty-one-year-old men. At least, she thought, I still have one feature a man can stare at.
She pulled the T-shirt away from her body so it didn't cling and climbed into the Rabbit.
"Close your eyes, son of mine. I have a surprise for you."
"Aw, Mom ..."
"Just humor an old woman, please."
When his eyes were tightly closed, PJ removed the cupcakes from her bag and fumbled with the cellophane wrapper. The crinkling noise aroused her son's curiosity, and she saw his eyes open into slits. She marveled at the perfection of his black eyelashes, remembering her first glimpse of them as her newborn son nuzzled her breast in the birthing room.
"Aw, Mom ..."
"You know, you really should work on developing your vocabulary. You're not going to get far in the business world with a two-word repertoire." Her words brought a reluctant smile. She fit the candles, balancing the cupcakes on her knee.
"OK, open up. Happy birthday to us!"
Mother and son blew out the candles, and each ate a cupcake in trademark fashion: she pulled the chocolate icing off the top in a single sheet and savored it, then popped the entire bare cupcake into her mouth; he broke his in half and licked out the cream before eating the rest in deliberately small bites to make it last as long as possible.
It was a good thing they had that moment to remember, because the rest of the day went downhill from there. The heat and rushing wind set their nerves on edge. Long periods with no conversation gave them plenty of time to think about what had happened and what was happening. The breakup and divorce were fresh in both of their minds, and neither had the emotional distance needed to put their new lives in perspective. PJ thought that Thomas genuinely missed his father, and she, grudgingly, angrily, missed Steven too.
Detective Leo Schultz didn't have a private office. It irked him that after thirty-two years with the St. Louis Police Department, he didn't have sixty square feet to call his own, with a door he could close when he needed to make a private phone call or just felt like scratching his butt or his balls, depending on what kind of day it had been. His desk was in a room with two other detectives and his immediate supervisor, Sergeant Leroy Twiller, all of them younger than he was. At age fifty-four, Schultz was the fossil of Homicide.
Hobbs over there probably hadn't even been born when I joined the Department, he snapped to himself.
Stuck at his current rank for many years and likely to remain there, he used to joke with his fellow officers about having reached his level of incompetence. There were no more jokes, at least not to his face. His most recent partner, a mere youth of thirty-five, was promoted three years ago. Since that time, his field assignments dried up, leaving him shuffling papers.
What had particularly irritated him was that a newly hired detective from Alabama had been using his desk yesterday while Schultz had a day off. The slob had spilled coffee on his desk pad and left Schultz's phone receiver smelling of some wimpy after-shave. Schultz had wiped the phone with a wad of dampened toilet paper, but the smell lingered, fueling his anger every time he lifted the receiver.
His phone rang, and Schultz picked it up with two fingers and held it a couple of inches from his ear.
"Howard here. You had dinner yet? I got some sandwiches, good stuff. Come over to the office, we need to talk."
Schultz rarely got invited to Lieutenant Howard Wall's office, and when he did, it was to be chewed out about something. The lieutenant was Sergeant Twiller's boss, and Schultz generally didn't interact with him. But Wall sounded OK on the phone, almost congenial. Schultz figured that little piece Wall had on the side must be putting out regularly, since he was certain the lieutenant's home life didn't account for the good mood.
"Sit down, Schultz. Have a sandwich, ham or corned beef, your choice. Chips, too, those barbecued ones. Your favorite, right?"
This was not his usual interaction with Wall. Lowering himself into a chair, he reached out for the corned beef, unwrapped it, and dumped a pile of chips on the spread-out wrapper.
Wall handed him a paper cup with a straw jauntily sticking out. For a minute or so, both men occupied themselves with the first bites of their sandwiches and a handful of chips, munching and swallowing almost in synch. Then Schultz sipped from the paper cup.
"Christ, Howard, when did you start drinking this diet crap?"
"Since my wife said my ass was getting so wide that my buttocks were total strangers to each other."
Schultz laughed and tossed another handful of chips into his mouth. He hated diet soda, but he took a big swallow. It seemed the expedient thing to do.
Excerpted from Gray Matter by Shirley Kennett. Copyright © 1996 Shirley Kennett. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 27, 2012
Posted April 4, 2014
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