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From deep in sleep I hear something fall. Something big. It shakes me and I open my eyes to complete darkness. I smell fresh-cut lumber and newly turned earth. Above my face and as far as I can reach, my fingertips touch wood. I'm in a coffin.
An important part of me knows that I am still asleep and that this is a dream. Still, a dark flower of panic blooms inside my chest and I will myself, against my own panicky animal instinct, to breathe slowly and deeply, letting the focus calm me so that I can think of what to do.
There is air enough, brought in by a steel pipe cool to the touch. I don't see it, but I know it is there. I also know the pipe is threaded on both ends. And as my fingers trace the grooves, I know that the killer will soon come and cap this pipe and I will suffocate, slowly. What is worse, I also know that in the final minutes I will try to claw my way out, no longer able to control my instinct. When I am reduced to an animal, blind to everything but bright fear, that moment is when he wins and achieves release.
We don't know for certain, we have no hard evidence, but we believe this end moment is what gets him off. In all the children we've found, not one has been sexually assaulted or even struck. There are no signs of the control fantasies most predators exhibit except, of course, for the imprisonment itself. But there are those final moments when his victim is stripped of humanity and begs for his life. I say his life because all of the victims, fourteen that we know of, have been boys. They have all been blond. They have all been taken from their homes and buried alive.
I think of the boys and repeat their names in a murderer's rosary. Saying them gives the victims some dignity, I think, and blunts his power over the lives they had before he took them. In the exercise of memory, it also blunts his hold over me as I lie here in this black box. I go over the details of each case, one by one, reciting their mysteries and praying for an insight that has escaped me before. Each time, the boys were taken from their bedroom. There is no sign of struggle. A personal object is taken. It's never anything of any value except to the victim. A toy, perhaps a photo. It's the single most important detail we've kept from the press. First, because it helps us eliminate the false confessors, and second, we want our killer to hang on to his souvenirs so that when we catch him, he will convict himself with his own sad collection.
No parent had ever heard the scrape of a window or the slide of a dead bolt. No mother had heard her child cry out. No father had heard the floorboards creak under the weight of an intruder. In the morning, all that was found was the killer's calling card.
It was a literal card, a playing card made by Signet Games, makers of dozens of children's games as well as traditional bridge and pinochle decks. But the killer's card was not from a traditional deck. These decks had had a small run and their distribution was limited to Vietnam. The owner, himself a WWII veteran of the OSS, had made them specially for a unit of assassins. There were fifty-two cards in each deck, all with the same design -- a single black diamond. When a Vietcong tax collector or political officer was terminated, his killer left one of these black diamonds on the corpse to "spook the gooks."
This was my first unsolved case as a profiler, when the science was still considered voodoo by most of law enforcement. I didn't have the political muscle to break open hidebound bureaucracies. It took nearly a year for the CIA to declassify the personnel list and another eight months for the Bureau to track down all of the squad's surviving members. Most of them had settled down and started families and were angry when we brought out their dark past into the sunlight and laid it on their swept suburban doorsteps.
Others lived on the fringes, a big part of them still in Vietnam. Some of them were downright scary, alone in the woods, hiding from everyone but themselves. All of them had secrets, to be sure, but every one of them was eventually cleared of being the killer.
Over the time it took us to locate and interrogate all of these veterans, six more boys were taken from their beds, buried in plywood boxes, and kept alive for days, after which the killer would cap the air pipe and listen as the boys cried out. We believe he masturbated as they died. It is a detail that sickens me still, even after interviewing some of the most twisted killers on earth. The press had dubbed him, without much imagination, the Black Diamond Killer.
For these reasons -- the abductions, the card, the cruel deaths, and that final act, I pushed myself to find him. The case filled my nights, even though I was working dozens of different cases at the time, interviewing murderers for my first textbook, appearing on television shows at the request of the director, and acting as technical consultant to several motion pictures. It was this last, this continual lunching with stars, that led my rivals in the Bureau to dub me, again without much imagination, Hollywood Donovan.
I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I had come down with a case of viral meningitis that I wrote off as a cold, and I flew out to Oregon, site of the abductions, to assist the local police. It was there that I collapsed and nearly died.
Then, as suddenly as they began, the abductions stopped. We don't know why. We suspect the killer died or was arrested for another crime. And now, eighteen years after the last boy, Billy Jimeson, was found, I was dreaming inside a box, my fingertips running over rough plywood, searching for answers.
From far away I heard a phone ring. I tried to holler but the sound that came out of my mouth was an unformed animal grunt. The ringing got louder. I heard the cap thread onto the pipe. I heard it being twisted until it snugged. My flow of air stopped.
The ringing was here, inside the box.
My lungs pulled in what could be my final breath.
Slowly, the darkness fell away and I came up, slick with sweat, twisted in sheets. Katie's side of the bed was cool. I was alone. I fumbled the phone to my ear. "Donovan."
"It's Andrews, Mr. Donovan, from Special Agent Burke's office."
"Yeah, right. I remember."
"I'm outside your door, Mr. Donovan. I've been knocking and ringing your bell."
"What? You're at the door?"
"On my cell phone, yes."
"Okay, okay, I'll be right there."
I threw my feet to the floor and stumbled to the front door, wrapped in a sheet. In the hall was a young man holding his ID so I could see it. I recognized Vince Andrews, a conscientious hard-charger known in the Bureau as a blue-flamer for the fire that shoots out of his ass.
I know the type because I was a blue-flamer once, too. But that was a long time ago. The Bureau, like all institutions, will throw cold water on a flamer faster than a fireman. Most agents with initiative will either get out or give up and join the ranks of gray plodders. Occasionally, someone like Andrews will sneak through and shine like a battlefield flare in the night, making enemies just by his brilliance.
"Come in." Normally, Andrews was buttoned up, a recruiting poster of a guy. This morning he looked as if he'd run through a hurricane. His tie was twisted, his hair blown about.
As Andrews came in and took in the details of my living room -- the book on the table, the half-filled glass from the night before -- my phone rang again. "Damn, I'm popular this morning."
I held up an index finger. "Let me get this."
"One minute." I answered the phone. "Donovan."
"Jake, have you heard?"
"Katie, where the hell are you?"
"I was at the gym."
There's something wrong with Katie's voice, but I'm not awake enough to figure out what it is.
"You usually wait for me."
"Sorry, Jake, I woke up early. Have you seen the news?"
Andrews interrupted, "Special Agent Burke wants to see you right away."
"Hold on a minute, Katie." I put my hand over the receiver, the full darkness of bad news settling over me. "What's wrong, Andrews?"
"Special Agent Burke wants to see you right away. The whole building is a madhouse."
This was bad. I knew Neil Burke, special agent in charge of the Washington office, and he wasn't someone who would let it turn into anything close to a "madhouse." A recipient of the Navy Cross for valor in Vietnam, Neil faced each and every crisis with calm determination. Katie had once said that if Neil was on fire, he'd politely ask for a glass of water. Neil set the tone for the entire Bureau, and even when the press was howling at the door and heads were rolling down the aisles of Congress, Neil was relaxed, even icy.
"Katie, Andrews from Neil's office is here. I've got to go."
"Okay, Jake. I've got my cell phone if you need me."
"Right, good, see you later."
I wipe the sleep from my face and say, "Okay, Andrews. Do I have time for a shower?"
Andrews shook his head. "I don't think so, sir."
"Damn." I rubbed my beard. "A quick shave?"
"The director asked for you personally."
That sealed it. Whatever had happened was big. Orlando Ravan, a stickler for chain of command, rarely asked to see me, preferring instead to send assignments through Neil. "What's going on, Andrews?"
"You haven't seen the news?"
I glanced at the bedside clock. "I don't usually watch TV at six in the morning."
Andrews went to the window and pulled back the curtains. From my balcony I have a terrific view across the Potomac. I can see the Jefferson Memorial, the top of the Lincoln Memorial through the trees, and the Washington Monument standing tall in the center of the Mall.
This morning, the lights of police cars, fire trucks, EMS vans, and Park Service patrols bounced off the Monument's sides and filled the cherry trees with cheap lightning. Beyond that, a column of black smoke rose in the air and spread flat over the city, adding a pall to an already overcast day.
"There, sir, the smoke," Andrews said.
I went to the window. "What is it?"
"A plane went down, sir."
"Oh, no. Do we know if it's an accident?"
"No, sir. Right now, nobody knows much of anything. But we think the First Lady may have been on board."
Copyright © 2002 by Mindhunters, Inc.
Posted August 11, 2012
Posted July 28, 2009
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