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At the top of page one he wrote:
Chapter One: Selection
He paused, waved his fingers above his computer keyboard like a magician conjuring up a spell, and then bent forward, continuing.
The first — and in many ways foremost — problem is selecting your victim. This is where the thoughtless, the impatient, and the rank amateurs make most of their stupid mistakes.
He hated being forgotten.
It had been nearly fifteen years since he'd published a word or killed anyone, and this self-enforced retirement had become extremely painful to him.
He was a year shy of his sixty-fifth birthday and he did not expect to see many more. The realist within reminded him that despite his excellent overall fitness, true longevity was not in his family gene pool. Virulent cancers had claimed both his parents in their early sixties, and heart disease his maternal grandmother similarly early, so he thought his own time was probably close to up. And although he had not been to a doctor in many years, he could feel mysterious steady aches, small, sudden, sharp, and inexplicable pains, and odd weaknesses throughout his body that heralded the advent of old age and perhaps something far worse growing within him. Many months earlier he had read everything Anthony Burgess frantically wrote in the year of productivity the famous novelist had when he was misdiagnosed — told he had an inoperable and fatal brain tumor, when none really existed. He believed — without any real medical confirmation — that his situation just very well might be the same.
And so he had become determined that in whatever time he had left — whether it was twenty days, twenty weeks, or twenty months — he should do something absolutely significant. He knew he needed to create something deliciously memorable, and something that would resonate long after he'd passed from this earth and gone directly to hell. He fully and somewhat proudly expected to assume a position of honor amongst the damned.
So, on the evening that he put what he considered to be his last and greatest work into motion, he felt a long-absent extraordinary child-on-Christmas-morning excitement and an overwhelming sense of deep heart's release, knowing that not only was he returning to the games that he'd petulantly abandoned, but that what he'd designed for his masterpiece would be talked about for years.
Perfect crimes rarely existed, but there were some. These were usually created less by the genius of the criminals and far more by the consistent incompetence of the authorities, and they were usually defined by the pedestrian question of whether the perpetrator got away with it or not. Accidents of ideal homicide, he believed they should be called, because getting away with murder wasn't really much of a challenge. But crimes of perfection were a different standard, and he truly felt he was launching into one. His invention was designed to satisfy on many different levels.
Pull this off, he told himself, and they will study you in schools. They will argue about you on television. They will make movies about you. A hundred years from now, your name will be as well known as Billy the Kid or Jack the Ripper. Someone might even sing a song about you. Not some soft and melodic folk song. Rock and roll.
More than anything, he despised feeling ordinary.
Lasting fame was something he craved. The smaller tastes he'd had of notoriety over the course of his life had been a fleeting narcotic, momentary highs replaced by crushing returns to routine. After many years of drudgery at the late night copy desk at various midlevel newspapers, correcting careless reporters' grammar mistakes in a never-ending assembly line of news stories, he felt an electric thrill when his first novel was accepted by a reputable publishing house. It had come out adorned with a flurry of modestly good reviews. "A gifted natural," one critic had opined.
After he'd quit his job, his subsequent books had been highlighted with the occasional interview in a literary magazine or the arts sections of local papers. A local television news program had once done a small feature on him when one of his four mystery-thrillers had been optioned for the movies — although nothing had ever come of the screenplay some forgettable West Coast writer had produced.
But sooner than he'd expected, sales waned and even these modest accomplishments had faded when he'd stopped writing. If no one was going to pay attention to what he wrote, why write it? He could no longer find a copy of one of his novels on a bookstore shelf, not even on the tables devoted to publishers' overstocks and remainders. And they'd stopped calling him sophisticated, gifted, or a natural as he'd inexorably grown older.
Even death had lost its luster for him.
Murder had lost its cachet in the news business, he believed. The most ordinary of crimes were hyped by reality television shows, trying to create mystery out of the mundane. Well-known spasms of gunshot violence by psychotic head-case killers trapped in wild-eyed delusions still garnered breathless headlines in the few newspapers that continued to struggle out daily editions. Mass killings in drug wars still bought out the television cameras. Gunning down a passel of coworkers in an office rampage would electrify the radio airwaves and drive commentators on the left and right into wild suppositions and nonsensical conclusions.
But the relentless lone killer was no longer a celebrity. Instant sensationalism had replaced steady, cautious design — which left him feeling utterly useless. More than useless, he thought — impotent.
For years, he had kept a leather-bound scrapbook, filled with clippings from his four murders next to collections of his reviews. Four books. Four killings. But where once he'd reveled in the details of each paragraph, now he could barely stand to examine them. Whatever sense of accomplishment and satisfaction these deaths or the books he'd written had once given him now tasted acid. And so he had bitterly turned away from who he was, because what good was it? If no one took note, what did it mean? Personal satisfaction was nice — but without the accompanying attention of headlines, killing and writing had lost their gleam. He knew he should have been an important writer and a notorious killer.
To keep himself sane and exert some control over his growing bitterness, he had turned his back on the world, because the world had turned its back on him.
That fame had not been delivered to him in larger doses continually gnawed at his insides, twisting his waking hours into frustrating knots, turning his sleep into sweat-stained dreams. He thought he was every bit as good at what he did as any Stephen King or Ted Bundy — but no one seemed to know that. He thought the only real passions left to him were anger, envy, and hatred, which were more or less like having a kind of near-fatal illness — only one that couldn't be treated with a pill or a shot or even surgery. Over the course of the last year, as he'd painstakingly prepared his ultimate scheme, he'd come to realize that it was the only route forward for him. If, in his remaining years, he wanted to belly-laugh at a joke, or to enjoy the taste of a fine wine and a good meal, feel some excitement over watching a sports team win a championship or even vote for a politician with a sense of optimism — then creating a truly memorable murder was of paramount importance. It would give life and meaning to his remaining days. Special, he told himself. It would make him rich — in all the senses of that word.
After fifteen years of self-imposed denial, he had decided to return to doing what he did best — in a way that could not possibly be ignored.
Create. Execute. Escape.
He smiled, and he thought this was the Holy Trinity for all killers. It surprised him a little that it had taken him so many years to realize that he had to add a fourth and unexpected term to that equation: Write about it.
He tapped hard on the computer keys. He imagined that he was the same as a drummer in a rock band, devoted to maintaining rhythm and creating the backbone of the music:
While there is much to be said for and much to admire in the sudden, random murder — where you suddenly happen upon an appropriate victim and instantly indulge — these sorts of killings ultimately lack true satisfaction. They become merely a stepping-stone, leading to more of the same. Desires dictate necessity, and those same desires eventually overcome you, clouding your ability to plan, and may actually lead to detection. They are clumsy, and clumsiness translates into a policeman knocking on your door, gun drawn. The best, most rewarding killing is one that combines intense study with steady dedication and, lastly, desire. Control becomes the drug of choice. Outthink, outmaneuver, out-invent — and the killing inevitably will become outstanding. It will satisfy every dark need.
Anyone can kill someone.
And maybe get lucky and get away with it. Probably not. But there's always a chance of blundering into success.
Anyone maybe can go on, taking what they've learned, and kill another and another and another. And maybe get away with all of these, because they are all truly the same killings, just repeated. Ad infinitum.
But kill three strangers on the same day, within hours, each in their own special way?
And walk away, leaving death and confused policemen behind?
Now that is truly unique.
And the killer who can pull that off will be remembered.
And that was precisely what I had in mind with my three Reds.
The evening he mailed the letters, he stopped at a small kiosk on the 42nd Street causeway leading into Grand Central Terminal and paid cash for a half-stale croissant stuffed with unrecognizable cheese and a plastic cup of bitter, scalding black coffee. He had a dark leather briefcase-satchel hung over his shoulder, and he wore a slate-gray woolen topcoat over his dark navy suit. He'd colored his salt-and-pepper hair a sandy blond, and matched that with dark-rimmed eyeglasses and a fake beard and mustache purchased from a store that specialized in providing disguises to the film and theater industries. A tweed driver's cap was pulled down on his head, further obscuring his appearance. He had done enough, he believed, to fool any facial recognition software — not that he expected any enterprising detective to use any.
The coffee filled his nostrils with warmth and he headed into the cavernous station. Soft yellow light reflected off the green-blue ceiling with its curiously reversed constellations and a steady hum of noise greeted him. The drone of train arrivals and departures was like canned background music. His shoes clicked against the polished surface of the floor, which reminded him of a tap dancer or maybe a marching band moving through precise steps.
It was at the height of the daily rush hour. He walked with practiced speed, chewing on the croissant and idly bumping up against thousands of other commuters — most of whom looked very much like he did. He passed by a pair of bored New York City cops as he angled toward a mail drop just outside the platform entryway for a Metro-North commuter train. For an instant he wanted to spin in their direction and shout out "I'm a killer!" just to see their reactions, but he easily fought off this urge. If they only knew how close they were ... This made him grin, because that irony was part of the whole theater. He made a mental note to reflect on his observations and feelings in prose later that night.
He wore surgeon's latex gloves — it amused him that neither of the cops seemed to have noticed this telltale detail. They probably thought I was just some paranoiac overly worried about germs. He paused at a trash container to dump what remained of the croissant and the coffee. In a movement he'd practiced in his house, he unslung the satchel from his shoulder and seized three envelopes. Clutching these, he let the crush of hurrying-home-from-work people carry him toward the mail drop. Keeping his head down — he suspected there were security cameras hidden in spots he couldn't identify on the lookout for potential terrorists — he swiftly dropped the three envelopes into the narrow slot above a sign that warned people about the dangers of mailing hazardous materials.
This, too, made him want to laugh out loud. The United States Postal Service meant illicit drugs, poisons, or bomb-making liquids. He knew that carefully chosen words were far more threatening.
Sometimes, he told himself, the best jokes are those you alone can hear. The three letters were now in the hands of one of the busiest postal processing systems in the United States — and one of the most reliable. He wanted to howl out loud with anticipation, bay at some distant moon hidden by Grand Central's cavernous roof. His pulse raced with excitement. The din of the trains and people around him slipped away, and he was abruptly enveloped in a warm, delicious silence of his own creation. It was like descending into azure-clear Caribbean waters and floating, watching shafts of light slice through the enveloping blue world.
Like the diver he imagined himself to be, he exhaled slowly, feeling himself rise inexorably toward the surface.
And so it begins.
Then he let himself be swept forward with the rest of the anonymous masses onto a jam-packed commuter train. He did not care where it was going, because wherever it stopped wasn't his real destination.CHAPTER 2
The Three Reds
The day that she became Red One had already been a difficult one for Doctor Karen Jayson.
First thing in the morning she'd had to tell a middle-aged woman that her test results showed she had ovarian cancer; midday she'd received a call from a local emergency room that one of her longtime patients had been severely injured in an auto accident; at the same time she was forced to hospitalize another patient with a crippling kidney stone that couldn't be managed with routine pain medication. Then she had to spend nearly an hour on the phone with an insurance company executive justifying her decision. Patients in her waiting room had backed up, everything from routine physicals to strep throat and flu, which each sufferer had blissfully spread to everyone else waiting in various states of frustration and illness.
And then, late in the afternoon of what she thought was already a relentlessly bad day, she was called to the hospice wing at Shady Grove Retirement Home — a nearby place that was neither in a grove nor particularly shady — to attend the final moments of a man she barely knew. The man was in his early nineties, with not much more than a sunken-chest-and-gaunt-eyes wisp of him left, but he had clung to life with pit-bull tenacity. Karen had seen many people die over the course of her professional life; as an internist with a subspecialty in geriatrics, this was inevitable. But even so, she could never get accustomed to it. Standing at the man's bedside doing nothing other than adjusting the IV Demerol drip, it roiled her emotions. She wished the hospice nurses hadn't called her, had managed the death on their own.
But they had, and she'd responded, and there she was.
The room seemed stark and cold, though the heat was blasting through old-fashioned radiators. It was shadowy and dark, as if death could enter more easily into a dimly lit room. A few machines, a shuttered window, an old metal bedside lamp, some tangled, dingy white sheets, and a faint odor of waste were all that surrounded the old man. There was not even a cheap but colorful painting on any of the flat white walls to fracture the atmosphere in the bleak room. It was not a good place to die.
She thought: Poets be damned, there's nothing even slightly romantic or elegiac about dying, especially in a nursing home that has seen better days.
"He's gone," the attending nurse said.
Karen had heard the same things in the final few seconds: a slow release of breath, like the last bit of air leaking from a balloon, followed by the high-pitched alarm from the heart monitor familiar to anyone who'd ever watched a doctor drama on television. She reached over and turned the machine off after watching the flat, lime-green electronic line for a moment, thinking that the routine of death had none of the cinematic tension people imagined it to have. It was often just a fading away, like banks of lights in a huge auditorium being shut down after a crowd has dispersed, until only darkness is left behind. She sighed, told herself that even this image was too poetic, and let habit overtake her. She placed her fingers against the old man's throat, searching for a pulse in his carotid artery. His skin seemed paper-thin beneath her hand, and she had the odd thought that even the softest, gentlest touch would leave telltale scars on his neck.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "RED 1-2-3"
Copyright © 2014 John Katzenbach.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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