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After the apple had been cut in half, the halves had been sewn together with coarse black thread.
Ten bold stitches were uniformly spaced. Each knot had been tied with a surgeon's precision.
The variety of apple, a red delicious, might have significance. Considering that these messages had been delivered in the form of objects and images, never in words, every detail might refine the sender's meaning, as adjectives and punctuation refined prose.
More likely, however, this apple had been selected because it wasn't ripe. Softer flesh would have crumbled even if the needle had been used with care and if each stitch had been gently cinched.
Awaiting further examination, the apple stood on the desk in Ethan Truman's study. The black box in which the apple had been packed also stood on the desk, bristling with shredded black tissue paper. The box had already yielded what clues it contained: none.
Here in the west wing of the mansion, Ethan's ground-floor apartment was comprised of this study, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Tall French windows provided a clear view of nothing real.
The previous occupant would have called the study a living room and would have furnished the space accordingly. Ethan did too little living to devote an entire room to it.
With a digital camera, he had photographed the black box before opening it. He had also taken shots of the red delicious from three angles.
He assumed that the apple had been sliced open in order to allow for the insertion of an object into the core. He was reluctant to snip the stitches and to take a look at what might lie within.
Years as a homicide detective had hardened him in some respects. In other ways, too much experience of extreme violence had made him vulnerable.
He was only thirty-seven, but his police career was over. His instincts remained sharp, however, and his darkest expectations were undiminished.
A sough of wind insisted at the French panes. A soft tapping of blown rain.
The languid storm gave him excuse enough to leave the apple waiting and to step to the nearest window.
Frames, jambs, rails, muntins—every feature of every window in the great house had been crafted in bronze. Exposure to the elements promoted a handsome mottled-green patina on exterior surfaces. Inside, diligent maintenance kept the bronze a dark ruby-brown.
The glass in each pane was beveled at every edge. Even in the humblest of service rooms—the scullery, the ground-floor laundry—beveling had been specified.
Although the residence had been built for a film mogul during the last years of the Great Depression, no evidence of a construction budget could be seen anywhere from the entrance foyer to the farthest corner of the last back hall.
When steel sagged, when clothes grew moth-eaten on haberdashery racks, when cars rusted on showroom floors for want of customers, the film industry nevertheless flourished. In bad times as in good, the only two absolute necessities were food and illusions.
From the tall study windows, the view appeared to be a painting of the kind employed in motion-picture matte shots: an exquisitely rendered dimensional scene that, through the deceiving eye of the camera, could serve convincingly as a landscape on an alien planet or as a place on this world perfected as reality never allowed.
Greener than Eden's fields, acres of lawn rolled away from the house, without one weed or blade of blight. The majestic crowns of immense California live oaks and the drooping boughs of melancholy deodar cedars, each a classic specimen, were silvered and diamonded by the December drizzle.
Through skeins of rain as fine as angel hair, Ethan could see, in the distance, the final curve of the driveway. The gray-green quartzite cobblestones, polished to a sterling standard by the rain, led to the ornamental bronze gate in the estate wall.
During the night, the unwanted visitor had approached the gate on foot. Perhaps suspecting that this barrier had been retrofitted with modern security equipment and that the weight of a climber would trigger an alarm in a monitoring station, he'd slung the package over the high scrolled crest of the gate, onto the driveway.
The box containing the apple had been cushioned by bubble wrap and then sealed in a white plastic bag to protect it further from foul weather. A red gift bow, stapled to the bag, ensured that the contents would not be mistaken for garbage.
Dave Ladman, one of two guards on the graveyard shift, retrieved the delivery at 3:56 a.m. Handling the bag with care, he had carried it to the security office in the groundskeeper's building at the back of the estate.
Dave and his shift partner, Tom Mack, x-rayed the package with a fluoroscope. They were looking for wires and other metal components of an explosive device or a spring-loaded killing machine.
These days, some bombs could be constructed with no metal parts. Consequently, following fluoroscopy, Dave and Tom employed a trace-scent analyzer capable of recognizing thirty-two explosive compounds from as few as three signature molecules per cubic centimeter of air.
When the package proved clean, the guards unwrapped it. Upon discovering the black gift box, they had left a message on Ethan's voice mail and had set the delivery aside for his attention.
At 8:35 this morning, one of the two guards on the early shift, Benny Nguyen, had brought the box to Ethan's apartment in the main house. Benny also arrived with a videocassette containing pertinent segments of tape from perimeter cameras that captured the delivery.
In addition, he offered a traditional Vietnamese clay cooking pot full of his mother's com tay cam, a chicken-and-rice dish of which Ethan was fond.
"Mom's been reading candle drippings again," Benny said. "She lit a candle in your name, read it, says you need to be fortified."
"For what? The most strenuous thing I do these days is get up in the morning."
"She didn't say for what. But not just for Christmas shopping. She had that temple-dragon look when she talked about it."
"The one that makes pit bulls bare their bellies?"
"That one. She said you need to eat well, say prayers without fail each morning and night, and avoid drinking strong spirits."
"One problem. Drinking strong spirits is how I pray."
"I'll just tell Mom you poured your whiskey down the drain, and when I left, you were on your knees thanking God for making chickens so she could cook com tay cam."
"Never knew your mom to take no for an answer," Ethan said.
Benny smiled. "She won't take yes for an answer, either. She doesn't expect an answer at all. Only dutiful obedience."
Now, an hour later, Ethan stood at a window, gazing at the thin rain, like threads of seed pearls, accessorizing the hills of Bel Air.
Watching weather clarified his thinking.
Sometimes only nature felt real, while all human monuments and actions seemed to be the settings and the plots of dreams.
From his uniform days through his plainclothes career, friends on the force had said that he did too much thinking. Some of them were dead.
The apple had come in the sixth black box received in ten days. The contents of the previous five had been disturbing.
Courses in criminal psychology, combined with years of street experience, made Ethan hard to impress in matters regarding the human capacity for evil. Yet these gifts provoked his deep concern.
In recent years, influenced by the operatically flamboyant villains in films, every common gangbanger and every would-be serial killer, starring in his own mind movie, could not simply do his dirty work and move along. Most seemed to be obsessed with developing a dramatic persona, colorful crime-scene signatures, and ingenious taunts either to torment their victims beforehand or, after a murder, to scoff at the claimed competence of law-enforcement agencies.
Their sources of inspiration, however, were all hackneyed. They succeeded only in making fearsome acts of cruelty seem as tiresome as the antics of an unfunny clown.
The sender of the black boxes succeeded where others failed. For one thing, his wordless threats were inventive.
When his intentions were at last known and the threats could be better understood in light of whatever actions he took, they might also prove to be clever. Even fiendishly so.
In addition, he conferred on himself no silly or clumsy name to delight the tabloid press when eventually they became aware of his game. He signed no name at all, which indicated self-assurance and no desperate desire for celebrity.
For another thing, his target was the biggest movie star in the world, perhaps the most guarded man in the nation after the President of the United States. Yet instead of stalking in secret, he revealed his intentions in wordless riddles full of menace, ensuring that his quarry would be made even more difficult to reach than usual.
Having turned the apple over and over in his mind, examining the details of its packaging and presentation, Ethan fetched a pair of cuticle scissors from the bathroom. At last he returned to the desk.
He pulled the chair from the knee space. He sat, pushed aside the empty gift box, and placed the repaired apple at the center of the blotter.
The first five black boxes, each a different size, and their contents had been examined for fingerprints. He had dusted three of the deliveries himself, without success.
Because the black boxes came without a word of explanation, the authorities would not consider them to be death threats. As long as the sender's intention remained open to debate, this failed to be a matter for the police.
Deliveries 4 and 5 had been trusted to an old friend in the print lab of the Scientific Investigation Division of the Los Angeles Police Department, who processed them off the record. They were placed in a glass tank and subjected to a cloud of cyanoacrylate fumes, which readily condensed as a resin on the oils that formed latent prints.
In fluorescent light, no friction-ridge patterns of white resin had been visible. Likewise, in a darkened lab, with a cone-shaded halogen lamp focused at oblique angles, the boxes and their contents continued to appear clean.
Black magnetic powder, applied with a Magna-Brush, had revealed nothing. Even bathed in a methanol solution of rhodamine 6G, scanned in a dark lab with the eerie beam from a water-cooled argon ion laser generator, the objects had revealed no telltale luminous whorls.
The nameless stalker was too careful to leave such evidence.
Nevertheless, Ethan handled this sixth delivery with the care he'd exhibited while examining the five previous items. Surely no prints existed to be spoiled, but he might want to check later.
With the cuticle scissors, he snipped seven stitches, leaving the final three to serve as hinges.
The sender must have treated the apple with lemon juice or with another common culinary preservative to ensure a proper presentation. The meat was mostly white, with only minor browning near the peel.
The core remained. The seed pocket had been scooped clean of pits, however, to provide a setting for the inserted item.
Ethan had expected a worm: earthworm, corn earworm, cutworm, leech, caterpillar, trematode, one type of worm or another.
Instead, nestled in the apple flesh, he found an eye.
For an ugly instant, he thought the eye might be real. Then he saw that it was only a plastic orb with convincing details.
Not an orb, actually, but a hemisphere. The back of the eye proved to be flat, with a button loop.
Somewhere a half-blinded doll still smiled.
When the stalker looked at the doll, perhaps he saw the famous object of his obsession likewise mutilated.
Ethan was nearly as disturbed by this discovery as he might have been if he'd found a real eye in the red delicious.
Under the eye, in the hollowed-out seed pocket, was a tightly folded slip of paper, slightly damp with absorbed juice. When he unfolded it, he saw typing, the first direct message in the six packages:
The eye in the apple? The watchful worm? The worm of original sin? Do words have any purpose other than confusion?
Ethan was confused, all right. Whatever it meant, this threat—the eye in the apple—struck him as particularly vicious. Here the sender had made an angry if enigmatic statement, the symbolism of which must be correctly interpreted, and urgently.