The man lurked in the shadows of a building, the brim of an Alpine hat pulled low over his eyes. The upturned collar of a ski parka shielded his ears from the wind-driven snow. The night was bone-chilling cold and he yearned for the warmth of his apartment, one of the current bestsellers and a snifter of his favorite cognac. But all that would come soon enough. Right now, he had an important mission to accomplish. A very important mission.
The man loved New York City. He loved its restaurants, its Broadway shows, its museums and its ethnic diversity. But, most of all, he loved the Big Apple because it was the best killing ground in the whole world. He could choose a victim at random, strike when the time was right, and, within seconds, be lost down any number of side streets and back alleys. Ah yes! Los Angeles and Chicago had been good to him, but New York was the ultimate.
This afternoon, the little voice had come to him earlier than was usual; even before he had shut down his computer at the stock exchange. Earlier and more urgent. He had tried to shake it out of his head, but he knew that he had no other choice but to do its bidding. "Kill!" it had commanded. "Go forth and kill another bitch!"
The man counted his victims in his brain and came up with eight. No, no. That was wrong. There were nine in all, he was certain of that. On the third try, he finally remembered number nine. Alma Rodriguez! How in the world could he have ever forgotten her? Big, chocolate brown eyes, with those fabulously long lashes. Tresses of raven-colored hair that had gleamed in the street light. And so innocent that it was laughable. Even when he had driven his knife into her, she had looked up at him as though he was doing it for her own good. Ah yes! Dear, sweet Alma He had tacked the front page of the New York Post to the wall at the foot of his bed, so he could dwell on her beautiful innocence before falling to sleep, and, again, upon awakening in the morning.
It was time that he moved on before he attracted any unwanted attention. After all, what kind of idiot would be idling about during the worst storm of the winter? Choosing a southerly direction to keep the wind at his back, he remained in the shadows, the fast-mounting snow crunching beneath his boots. Why had the voice ordered him out during such foul weather? Perhaps it was testing his resolve as it had during that earthquake in San Francisco. But he had come through with flying colors then and he would once again. He had covered only a block when he saw the woman coming in his direction.
He couldn't be absolutely certain, but probably a young woman by the way she moved. Her knee-length coat and the scarf she had fastened about her head were sopping wet. But what really attracted his attention was the fact that she was hobbling through the snow on a pair of high heels. Obviously she had gotten out of work late and was unprepared for the intensity of the storm. With her head bent low to ward off the driving snow, she didn't see him approaching. Perfecto! Fingering the pearl-handled switchblade in his pocket, he looked for a place to drag her out of sight. But, suddenly, with no more than thirty yards separating them, she turned down a narrow side street. The little voice grew frantic. "Hurry, you idiot! Don't let her get away! The time is perfect, without a soul in sight! Quick, quick, hurry!"
He quickened his pace, nearly running, his gloved fingers tight on the knife in his pocket. Up ahead, the woman stopped and leaned against a stoop, snatching off a shoe to empty out a clod of snow. The man's heart began to race as he closed the distance between them. Then, suddenly, a door swung open, casting a wedge of light onto the stoop.
"Karen? Is that you?"
"Yes, Mom. Better late than never."
"You poor dear. This storm was completely unexpected. Those damn forecasters should be fired." A head appeared. "And just look at you, soaked to the bone. Hurry, get in here, before you catch your death."
Cursing his luck, the man passed by without paying them the least bit of attention. He couldn't help a wry chuckle. Oh yes, dear Momma. She very nearly had caught her death.
The storm picked up in intensity, whipping hard snow against the man's face like tiny daggers. Even with a parka and heavy sweater, he was chilled clear to the bone. If he didn't make a move soon, he would call it a wash and head home. The throbbing headache would come, the little voice chiding his failure, but he would just have to deal with it. Getting his bearings the best he could, he made a number of rights and lefts, nearly jogging, heading for a small, out-of-the-way park that he knew about. It was a gathering place for transients and runaways, and, perhaps, even on such a horrible night as this, there might be one or two in attendance. A long-shot, to say the least, but he had little other choice.
The wind whistled and howled down the side street, clicking snow off window panes. The few cars parked along the curb were completely buried, reminding him of sheet-draped furniture in some long abandoned house. As he sidestepped a lump of white, which he perceived to be a fire hydrant, he collided with someone who had appeared out of nowhere.
"Excuse me, sorry." His heart skipped a beat as he looked into a broad, ruddy face, a silver badge affixed to the upturned front of a winter hat. "Uh I couldn't see you in all this mess."
"That's okay, buddy. It was me that bumped into you."
The cock of an ice-crusted brow. "Hell of a night to be out and about."
"Just got out of work, officer. Only two more blocks and I'm home."
"You be careful now." A shiver and sniffle. "This night is not fit for man nor beast."
Nodding, the man hurried on his way, taking a parting glance over his shoulder. A night not fit for man nor beast. Now which was he? A little bit of both, he thought, with a chuckle. Ah, yes, indeed! A little bit of both! He hung a left onto another snow-strangled street. If he remembered correctly, the park couldn't be much more than a block away.
The police had invented many imaginative names for serial killers: The Boston strangler, The Night Stalker, The Green River Killer. Some of the more ambitious serials had conceived their own names, like "Son of Sam" and "Zodiac."
Feeling a bit left out, the man cursed, kicking up a flurry of snow with his boot.
So far, all he had been called in the papers was "the killer" and "the psycho" and "the madman." All that would have to change and pretty damn quickly! He would have to think up some cute, yet diabolical moniker for himself. And, then, perhaps, he would send a folksy letter to some editor, with his name scrawled in red ink. Yes, yes, that would be perfect! But, despite everything, there had been one bit of good news: an FBI profiler had referred to him as being "a loner of above average intelligence." Right on! But "genius" would have been much closer to the mark.
Ten minutes later, he spotted his objective in the distance, barely visible through the swirling snow.
Wait! Wait a second! Perhaps he could call himself "The Iceman" or or "The Snow Stalker." No, neither would work. His first two victims had been in the spring, then three in the summer and two in the autumn. Hmm. How about "The Killer for all Seasons?" Nope, no go. It sounded like the title of some damn novel.
The park appeared to be empty, but as he drew closer, he thought he spotted someone huddled on one of the benches. He walked straight on in, bowing his head against the snow, but keeping his eyes fixed to see who it might be. Yes, yes, it was a woman! A woman wearing one of those frumpy velour hats with a fake rose attached, her red hair spiraling out like the coils of some broken box spring. A soiled fatigue jacket, an ankle-length, floral-print dress and a pair of combat boots completed the weird ensemble. At her feet, were a tattered knapsack and a Raggedy Ann doll with hair as red as her own.
The man feigned surprise, walking past and doing a double take. "Well, hello there. What are you doing sitting here in such terrible weather as this?"
'You know, miss; you can be an ice sculpture in the next hour."
Another shrug. "So? What's it to you?"
"I didn't mean to intrude or anything, but you just took me by surprise, sitting here during the worst storm of the winter."
"Aaahhh! It's nothing but a dusting."
"Look. What about if you come home with me and I'll give you a nice warm place to spend the night. A home-cooked meal and a hot shower. Maybe some quality TV time. How's that? What do you say?"
Hazel eyes flared. "Now why would you want to do something like that? You need a bed partner for the night? Huh? That's it, isn't it?"
The man noticed that she was sort of cute, especially when she got her hackles up. A little pug nose, spattered with freckles. Pert lips. Milk-white skin. Her body was completely hidden, but he imagined it to be firm and supple. If the Post was able to come up with a picture, he would definitely mount it on his wall, right next to Alma Rodriguez.
"A bed partner? Heavens no! That thought had never even crossed my mind."
"I just bet."
"I'm a Good Samaritan, pure and simple. I feel that it's my calling to help those less fortunate than myself."
The woman bristled. "Less fortunate, huh? Is that what you think?"
The man thought of slashing her throat right then and there, but held himself back. He thought that he saw someone shoveling snow, midway up the block, across from the park. He couldn't be certain, but there was no sense taking the risk.
"Look! Quit nitpicking over words and come home with me before we both freeze to death. If you feel uncomfortable when you get there, you're free to leave at any time."
"Well, I dunno." The woman bit her lip and stared down at the gloved hands folded in her lap. "Okay. I guess it'll be all right. I hope you have some chocolate chip cookies at home."
"You know; I just might be able to accommodate you."
"Great. Lead the way, Samaritan."
The woman snatched up her knapsack and Raggedy Ann and fell in behind him. They walked two blocks, pellets of snow slashing at their faces, before the man halted at an alleyway, motioning for her to follow.
She peered into the darkness, furrowing her brows. "Why you going down there?"
"It's a short cut. Trust me.' The man grabbed hold of her arm, surprised at how spindly it felt. "I use this route all the time. It'll bring us out only a few feet from my door."
"For crying-out-loud; If you don't trust me, to hell with the whole thing. Go back to your bench and freeze to death."
'Okay, okay, don't have a coronary. You first, I'll follow."
The man didn't know where the alley led, but it really made no difference. It was just what Doctor Death had ordered; dark, secluded, not a soul around. He moved cautiously ahead, trying to look as though he was familiar with the place, hearing the deep breathing of the woman as she followed behind. Sounded like asthma. His own breathing was becoming more rapid, as it always did when the moment was close at hand. Very soon now. Only a few more steps. He felt for the knife in his pocket.
The man froze in his tracks. What? What had she shouted? It sounded like like He was in the process of turning around when he felt the woman jump onto his back. What the hell? Before he was able to utter a word, something hard and sharp and very cold was quickly drawn across his throat. He tried to cry out, but there was only a gurgle. Taking a few faltering steps, with the woman still riding piggyback, he tottered for a moment and fell to his knees. It didn't seem possible, but the alley was getting even darker.
Once the crime crew was done, Detective Antonelli knelt down beside the body and took out a pen from his pocket, carefully separating the corpse's blood-saturated collar. The neck wound was deep, cleanly severing the esophagus and stretching from ear-to-ear. A chill, not attributed to the weather, shot down the length of his spine.
"Quite a piece of work, huh, Lou?"
His partner leaned in closer, releasing a gust of frosty breath. "Nasty. Real nasty."
"And the crime boys found nothing in his pockets?"
"Nada. The killer must have taken everything."
Antonelli traced his pen along the shredded shirt, squinting. "What do we have here?" He stared down at the letters P.J. that had been crudely carved into John Doe's chest. "Oh boy! Recognize the handiwork, Lou?"
"No mistaking it. Good old Polly Jorgensen has struck again."
Antonelli thought about the woman who had escaped an upstate asylum some four months earlier. "Crazy Polly. This is what for her number ten?"
'Yup. Ten even."
"Where in the shit could she be hiding out?"
"Probably in plain sight."
Despite the circumstances, Antonelli couldn't help a small laugh. "That's one woman I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.'
"No way," agreed Lou. "She hates men. Hates 'em with a passion."