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Jeffery Deaver


  Jeffery Deaver

  Jeffery Deaver's Short Stories

  Jeffery Deaver


  He'd never revived a cold case in quite this way.

  Detective Quentin Altman rocked back, his chair squealing I with the telltale caw of ageing government furniture, and I eyed the narrow, jittery man sitting across from him. "Go on," the cop said.

  "So I check out this book from the library. Just for the fun of it. I never do that, just read a book for the fun of it. I mean, never. I don't get much time off, you know."

  Altman hadn't known this, but he could certainly have deduced it. Gordon Wallace was the Greenville Tribune's sole crime reporter and must've spent sixty, seventy hours a week banging out copy, to judge by the number of stories appearing under his byline every day.

  "And I'm reading along and-" "What is it you're reading?"

  "A murder mystery. I'll get to that… I'm reading along and I'm irritated," the reporter continued, "because somebody'd circled some passages. In a library book."

  Altman grunted distractedly. He was head of Homicide in a burg with a small-town name but big-city crime statistics. The fifty-something detective was busy and he didn't have much time for reporters with crackpot theories. There were twenty-two folders of current cases on his desk and here Wallace was delivering some elliptical message about defaced books.

  "I don't pay much attention at first, but I go back and reread one of the circled paragraphs. It jogs my memory. Anyway, I checked the morgue-"

  "Morgue?" Altman frowned, rubbing his wiry red hair, which showed not a strand of gray.

  "Our morgue, not yours. In the newspaper office. All the old stories."

  "Got it. How 'bout getting to the point?"

  "I found the articles about the Kimberly Banning murder."

  Altman grew more attentive. Twenty-eight-year-old Kimberly had been strangled to death a year ago. The murder occurred two weeks after a similar killing-of a young female grad student. The two deaths appeared to be the work of the same person, but there were few forensic leads and no motive that anyone could determine. The cases prompted a task-force investigation but eventually the suspects dried up and blew away like maple leaves in October, and soon the case grew cold.

  Tall and gaunt, with tendons and veins rising from his pale skin, Wallace tried to tone down his intimidating physique and face with brown tweed jackets, corduroy slacks, and pastel shirts, an attempt that was, as today, completely unsuccessful. He asked the cop, 'Tfouremember how the whole town was paranoid after the first girl was killed? And how everybody was double-locking their doors and never letting strangers into their houses?"

  Altman nodded.

  "Well, look at this." The reporter pulled latex gloves out of his pocket and put them on.

  "Why the gloves, Wallace?"

  The man ignored the question and dug a book out of his battered briefcase. Altman got a look at the title. Two Deaths in a Small Town. He'd never heard of it.

  "This was published six months before the first killing." He opened the book to a yellow Post-It tab and pushed it forward. "Read those paragraphs." The detective pulled on his CVS drugstore glasses and leaned forward.

  The hunter knew that now that he'd killed once, the town would be more alert than ever. Its soul would beedgier, its collective nerves would be as tense as an animal trap's blue-steel spring. Women would notstroll the streets alone, and those who did would be looking around themselves constantly, alert for any risk. Only a fool would let a stranger into her house and the hunter did not enjoy killing fools.

  So on Tuesday night he waited until nearly bedtime-eleven P.M.-and then slipped onto Maple Street. There, he doused a parked convertible's roof with gasoline and ignited the pungent, amber liquid. A huge whoosh… He hid in the bushes and, hypnotized by the tornado of flames and ebony smoke swirling into the night sky above the dying car, he waited. In ten minutes behemoths of fire trucks roared up the street, their wailing sirens drawing people from their homes to find out what the excitement might be.

  Among those on the sidewalk was a young, demure blonde with a heart-shaped face, Clara Steading. This was the woman the hunter knew he had to possess-possess completely. She was love incarnate, amore herself, she was beauty, she was passion… and she was also completely ignorant of her role as the object of his demented desire. Clara shivered in her bathrobe, standing on the sidewalk along with a clutch of chattering neighbors as they watched the firemen extinguish the blaze and offered words of sympathy to the dismayed owner of the car, who lived a few doors away.

  Finally the onlookers grew bored, or repulsed by the bitter smell of the burnt rubber and plastic, and they returned to their beds or their late-night snacks or their mind-numbing TV. But their vigilance didn't flag; the moment they stepped inside, every one of them locked their doors and windows carefully-to make certain that the strangler would not wreak his carnage in their homes.

  Though in Clara Steading's case, her diligence in securing the deadbolt and chains had a somewhat different effect: locking the hunter inside with her.

  "Jesus," Altman muttered. "That's just what happened in the Banning case, how the perp got inside. He set fire to a car."

  "A convertible," Wallace added. "And then I went back and found another passage that'd been circled. When I'd read it at first I didn't pay any attention. But you know what it said? It was how the killer had stalked the first victim by pretending to work for the city and trimming the plants in a park across from her apartment."

  This was just how the first victim of the Greenville Strangler, the pretty grad student, had been stalked. "So the killer's a copycat," Altman murmured. "He used the novel for research."

  Which meant that there could be evidence in the book that might lead to the perp: fingerprints, ink, handwriting.

  Altman stared at the brooding cover-a drawing of a man's silhouette peering into the window of a house. The detective pulled on his own pair of latex gloves and slipped the book into an evidence envelope. He nodded at the reporter and said a heartfelt, "Thanks. We haven't had a lead on this one in over eight months."

  Walking into the office next to his-that of his assistant, a young crew-cut detective named Josh Randall-he instructed the man to take the book to the county lab for analysis. When he returned, Wallace was still sitting expectantly in the hard chair across from Altman's desk.

  Altman wasn't surprised he hadn't left. "And the quid pro quo?" the detective asked. "For your good deed?"

  "I want an exclusive. What else?"

  "I figured."

  Altman didn't mind this in theory; cold cases were bad for the department's image and solving cold cases was good for a cop's career. Not to mention that there was still a killer out there. He'd never liked Wallace, though, who always seemed a little out of control in a spooky way and was as irritating as most crusaders usually are.

  "Okay, you've got an exclusive," Altman said. "Illkeep you posted." He rose and shook the reporter's hand. Waited for him to leave.

  "Oh, I'm not going anywhere, my friend."

  "This'san official investigation-"

  "And it wouldn't've been one without me. I want to write this one from the inside out. Tell my readers how a homicide investigation works from your point of view."

  Altman argued some more, but in the end he gave in; he felt he had no choice. He said, "Just don't get in my way. If you get in the way, you're out of here."

  "Wouldn't think of it." He frowned an eerie look into his long, toothy face. "I might even be helpful." Maybe it was a joke, but there was nothing humorous about the delivery. He then looked up expectantly at the detective. "So, whadda we do next?"

  "Well, you're going to cool your heels. I'm going to review the case


  "Relax, Wallace. Investigations take time. Sit back, take your jacket off. Enjoy our wonderful coffee."

  Wallace glanced at the closet that served as the police station's canteen. He rolled his eyes and the ominous tone of earlier was replaced with a laugh. "Funny. I didn't know they still made instant."

  The detective winked and ambled down the hall on his aching bones.

  Quentin Altman hadn't run the Greenville Strangler case himself. He'd worked on it some-the whole department had had a piece of the case-but the officer in charge had been Bob Fletcher, a sergeant who'd been on the force for years. Fletcher, who'd never remarried after his wife left him some years before and was childless, had devoted his life to his job after the divorce and seemed to take his inability to solve the strangler case hard; the soft-spoken man had actually given up a senior spot in Homicide and transferred to Robbery. Altman was now glad, for the sergeant's sake, that there was a chance to nail the killer who'd eluded him.

  Altman wandered down to Robbery with the news about the book and to see if Fletcher knew anything about it. The sergeant, though, was out in the field at the moment and so Altman left him a message and then dove into the cluttered and oppressively hot records room. He found the strangler files easily; the folders sported red stripes on the side, a harsh reminder that, while this might've been a cold case, it was still very much open.

  Returning to his office, he sat back, sipping the, yes, disgusting instant coffee, and read the file, trying to ignore Wallace's incessant scribbling on his steno pad, the scratchy noise irritatingly audible across the office. The events of the murders were well documented. The perp had broken into two women's apartments and strangled them. There'd been no rape, sexual molestation, or postmortem mutilation. Neither woman had ever been stalked or threatened by former boyfriends, and though Kimberly had recently purchased some condoms, none of her friends knew that she'd been dating. The other victim, Becky Winthrop, her family said, hadn't dated for over a year.

  Sergeant Fletcher had carried out a by-the-book investigation, but most killings of this sort, without witnesses, motive, or significant trace found at the scene, are not solved without the help of an informant-often a friend or acquaintance of the perp. But, despite extensive press coverage of the investigation and pleas on TV by the mayor and Fletcher, no one had come forward with any information about possible suspects.

  An hour later, just as he closed the useless file, Altman's phone rang. A forensic lab tech at the county police told him that they had been through the book page by page and found three passages underlined and starred with large asterisks. In addition to the two that Wallace had found, there was a passage about how the killer had put plastic bags around his shoes to prevent leaving footprints and to keep trace evidence from sloughing off at the crime scene.

  Altman gave a short laugh. The report that he'd just read contained a note that the crime-scene searchers hadn't been able to figure out why the perp had left no footprints.

  Because the goddamn killer had used a goddamn how-to book, the detective thought bitterly.

  The tech continued: Next to two of the underscored passages were several handwritten notations. One said, "Check this one out. Important." And the other: "Used distraction-brilliant."

  The documents department had blown up images of the handwriting and was prepared to compare these to any samples found elsewhere, though until such samples were found they could do nothing more.

  The techs had also checked for any impression evidence-to see if the killer had written something on, say, a Post-It note on top of one of the pages-but found nothing.

  Aninhydrin analysis revealed a total of nearly two hundred latent fingerprints on the three pages on which the paragraphs had been underlined. Unfortunately, many of them were old and were only fragments. Technicians had located a few that were clear enough to be identified and had run them through the FBI's automatic fingerprint identification system in West Virginia. But all the results had come back negative.

  The cover of the book, wrapped in print-friendly cellophane, yielded close to four hundred prints, but they, too, were mostly smudges and fragments. AFIS had provided no positive IDs for these, either.

  Frustrated, Altman thanked the technician as cordially as he could and hung up.

  "So what was that about?" Wallace asked, looking eagerly at the sheet of paper in front of Altman, which contained both notes on the conversation he'd just had and a series of compulsive doodles.

  He explained to the reporter about the forensic results.

  "So, no leads," Wallace summarized dramatically and jotted a note, the irritated detective wondering why the reporter had actually found it necessary to write this observation down.

  As he gazed at the reporter an idea occurred to Altman and he stood up abruptly. "Let's go."


  "Your crime scene."

  "Mine?" Wallace asked, scrambling to follow the detective as he strode out the door.

  The library near Gordon Wallace's apartment, where he'd checked out the novel, was a small branch in the Three Pines neighborhood of Greenville, so named because legend had it that three trees in a park here had miraculously survived the fire of 1829, which had destroyed the rest of the town. It was a nice place, populated mostly by businessmen, professionals, and educators; the college was nearby (the same school where the first strangler victim had been a student).

  Altman followed Wallace inside and the reporter found the head of the branch and introduced her to the detective. Mrs. McGiver was a trim woman dressed in stylish gray; she looked more like a senior executive with a high-tech company than a librarian.

  The detective explained the connection between the person who'd checked out the book and the murders, shock registering on the woman's face as she realized that the killer was somebody who'd been to her library. Perhaps even someone she knew.

  "I'd like a list of everybody who checked out that book." Altman had considered the possibility that the killer might not have checked it out but had looked through it here, in the library itself. But that meant he'd have to underline the passages in public and risk drawing the attention of librarians or patrons. He concluded that the only safe way for the strangler to do his homework was at home.

  "I'll see what I can find," she said.

  Altman had thought that it might take days to pull together this information, but Mrs. McGiver was back in minutes. Altman felt his gut churning with excitement as he gazed at the sheets of paper in her hand, relishing the sensations of the thrill of the hunt and pleasure at finding a fruitful lead.

  But as he flipped through the sheets, he frowned. Every one of the thirty or so people checking outTwo Deaths had done so recently-within the last six months. They needed the names of those who'd checked it out before the killings a year ago.

  "Actually, I need to see the list before July tenth of last year," he explained.

  "Oh, but we don't have records that far back. Normally we would, but about six months ago our computer was vandalized." "Vandalized?"

  She nodded, frowning. "Somebody poured battery acid or something into the hard drive. Ruined it and destroyed all our records. Backup, too. Somebody from your department handled the case. I don't remember who."

  Wallace said, "I didn't hear about it."

  "They never found who did it. It was very troubling, but more of an inconvenience than anything. Imagine if he'd decided to destroy the books themselves."

  Altman caught Wallace's eye. "Dead end," he muttered angrily. Then he asked the librarian, "How Trout the names of everybody who had a library card then? Were their names in the computer, too?"

  "Prior to six months ago, they're gone, too. I'm sorry."

  Forcing a smile onto his face, he thanked the librarian and walked to the doorway. But he stopped so suddenly that Wallace nearly slammed into his back.

  "What?" the reporter asked.

  Altman ignored him and returned to
the desk, calling as he did, "Mrs. McGiver! Hold up there!" Drawing stares and a couple of harshshhhh's from readers.

  "I need to find out where somebody lives."

  "I'll try, but you're the policeman-don't you have ways of doing that?"

  "In this case, I have a feeling you'd be a better cop than me."

  The author of Two Deaths in a Small Town, Andrew M. Carter, lived in Hampton Station, near Albany, about two hours away from Greenville.

  Mrs. McGiver's copy of Who’s Who in Contemporary Mystery Writing didn't include addresses or phone numbers, but Altman called the felonies division of the Albany police department and they tracked down Carter's address and number.

  Altman's theory was that Carter might've gotten a fan letter from the killer. Since one notation called a passage "brilliant" and the other appeared to be a reminder to do more research on the topic, it was possible that the killer had written to Carter to praise him or to ask for more information. If there was such a letter, the county forensic handwriting expert could easily link the notation with the fan, who- if they were lucky-might have signed his real name and included his address.

  Mentally crossing his fingers, he placed a call to the author. A woman answered. "Hello?"

  "I'm Detective Altman with the Greenville police department," he said. "I'd like to speak to Andrew Carter."

  "I'm his wife," she said. "He's not available." The matter-of-fact tone in her voice suggested that this was her knee-jerk response to all such calls.

  "When will he be available?"

  "This is about the murders, isn't it?"

  "That's right, ma'am."

  "Do you have a suspect?"

  "I can't really go into that. But I would like to talk to your husband."

  A hesitation. "The thing is…" Her voice lowered and Altman suspected that her "unavailable" husband was in a nearby room. "He hasn't been well."

  "I'm sorry," Altman said. "Is it serious?"

  "You bet it's serious," she said angrily. "When Andy heard that the killer might've used his book as a model for the crimes, he got very depressed. He cut himself off from everybody. He stopped writing." She hesitated. "He stopped everything. He just gave up." "Must've been real difficult, Mrs. Carter," Altman said sympathetically.