/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

Alex Cross 11 Mary Mary

Patterson James


antiquePatterson,JamesAlex Cross 11 - Mary, MaryenPatterson,Jamescalibre 0.8.911.7.201118532aa2-2fd6-4329-b8ca-e1a7302e88931.0

Mary, Mary

Mary, Mary

Mary, Mary

Mary, Mary

Part One

THE “MARY SMITH” MURDERS

Mary, Mary

Chapter 3

To: agriner@latimes.com From: Mary Smith Arnold Griner squeezed his small, squinty eyes shut, put his hands over his practically hairless skull, and scrubbed his scalp hard. Oh, God save me, not another one, he was thinking. Life is to short for this shit. I can't take it. I really can't take this Mary Smith deal.

The L.A. Times newsroom buzzed around him as if it were any other morning: phones jangling; people coming and going like indoor race walkers; someone nearby pontificating about the new fall TV lineup - as if anybody cared about the TV lineup these days.

How could Griner feel so vulnerable sitting at his own desk, in his cubicle office, in the middle of all this? But he did.

The Xanax he'd been popping since the first Mary Smith e-mail a week ago did absolutely nothing to hold back the spike of panic that shot through him like the needle used in a spinal tap.

Panic - but also morbid curiosity.

Maybe he was “just” an entertainment columnist, but Arnold Griner knew a huge news story when he saw one. A blockbuster that would dominate the front page for weeks. Some one rich and famous had just been murdered in L.A. he didn't even have to read the e-mail to know that much. “Mary Smith” had already proved herself to be one sick lady and true to her word.

The questions attacking his brain were who had been killed this time? And what the hell was he, Griner, doing in the middle of this awful mess?

Why me of all people? There has to be a good reason, and if I knew it, then I'd really be freaking, wouldn't I?

As he dialed 911 with a badly shaking hand, he clicked open Mary Smith's message with the other. Please, God, no one I know. No one I like.

He began to read, even though everything inside told him not to. He really couldn't help himself. Oh, God! Antonia Schifman! Oh, poor Antonia. Oh no, why her?

Anonia was one of the good people, and there weren't too many of those.

To: Antonia Schifman: I guess you could call this anti-fan mail, although I used to be a fan.

Anyhow, 4:30 in the morning is awfully early for a brilliant, three-time academy award winner and mother of four to leave the house and her children, don't you think? I suppose it's the price we pay for being who we are. Or at least it's one of them.

I was there this morning to show you another downside of fame and fortune in Beverly Hills.

It was pitch-black dark when the driver came to take you to “the set.” There's a sacrifice you make that your fans don't begin to appreciate.

I walked right in the front gates behind the car and followed him up the driveway.

Suddenly, I had the feeling that your driver had to die if I wanted to get to you, but still, there wasn't any pleasure in killing him. I was too nervous for that, shaking like a sapling in a fierce storm.

The gun was actually trembling in my hand when I knocked on his window. I kept it hidden behind my back and told him you'd be down in a few minutes.

“No problem,” he said. And you know what? He barely even looked at me. Why should he? You are the star of stars, fifteen million a picture I've read. I was just the maid as far as he was concerned.

It felt like I was playing a bit part in one of your movies, but trust me, I was planning to steal this scene.

I knew I had to do something pretty dramatic soon. He was going to wonder why I was still standing there. I didn't know if I'd be too scared to do it if he actually looked at me. But then he did - and everything just happened.

I shoved the gun into his face and pulled the trigger. Such a tiny action, almost a reflex. A second later, he was dead, just blown away. I could do pretty much whatever I wanted to now.

So I walked around to the passenger side, climbed inside the car, and waited for you. Nice, nice car. So plush and comfortable, with leather, soft lighting, a bar and small refrigerator stocked with all your favorites. Twix bars, Antonia? Shame, shame.

In a way, it was too bad you came out of the house so soon. I liked being in your limo. The quiet time, the luxury. In those few minutes, I could see why you would want to be who you are. Or at least, who you were.

My heart is beating faster just writing this, remembering the moment.

You stood outside the car for a second before you opened the door for yourself.

Dressed down, without makeup, yet still breathtaking. You couldn't see me or the dead driver through the one-way glass. But I could see you. That's how it's been all week, Antonia. I've been right there and you've never noticed me.

What an incredible moment this was for me! Me, inside your car. You, outside, in a tweed jacket that made you look very Irish and down-to-earth.

When you got in, I immediately locked the doors and put down the partition. You got this amazing look on your face the second you saw me. I'd seen that same look before - in your movies, when you pretended to be afraid.

What you probably didn't realize was that I was just a scared as you. My whole body was quivering. My teeth were hitting together. That's why I shot you before either of us could say anything.

The moment went by way too fast, but I had planned on that. That's what the knife was for. I just hope it isn't your children who find you. But I wouldn't want them to see that way. All they need to know is that Mommy is gone, and she's not coming back.

Those poor children-Andi, Tia, Petra, Elizabeth.

They're the ones I feel so sorry for. Poor, poor babies without their mommy.

Could anything be sadder?

I know something that is - but that's my secret, and no one will ever know.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 4

MARY SMITH'S ALARM CLOCK went off at 5:30 AM, but She was already wake.

Wide awake, thinking about, of all things, how to make a porcupine costume for her daughter Ashley's school play. What would she possibly use for porcupine needles?

And it had been quite a late night, but she never seemed to be able to shut off the mental ticker tape that was her “to do, ”list.

They needed to more peanut butter, Kid's Crest, Zyrtec syrup, and one of those little bulbs for the bathroom nightlight. Brendan had soccer practice at three, which started at the same time as - and 15 miles away from - Ashley's tap class. Figure that one out. Adams sniffles could have gone either way in the night, and Mary could not afford another sick day. Speaking of which, she needed to put in for some second shifts at her job.

And this was the quiet part of the day. It wasn't long before she was at the stove, calling out orders and fielding the usual spate of morning-time needs.

“Brendan, help your sister tie her shoes, please. Brendan, I'm talking to you. ”

“Mommy, my socks feel weird.”

“Can I take Cleo to school? Can I please? Please, Mommy? Oh, please?”

“Yes, but you'll have to get her out of the dryer. Brendan, what did I ask you to do?”

Mary expertly flipped a portion of perfectly fluffed scrambled eggs onto each of their plates just as the bread in the four-slice toaster popped up.

“Breakfast!”

While the two older ones dug in, she took Adam to his room and dressed him in his red overalls and a sailor shirt. She cooed to him as she carried him back out to his high chair.

“Who's the handsomest sailor in town? Who's my little man?” she asked, and tickled him under his chinny-chin-chin.

“I'm your little man,” Brendan said with a smile. “I am, Mommy!”

“You're my big little man,” Mary returned, chucking him lightly under the chin.

She squeezed his shoulders. “And getting bigger every day.”

“That's 'cause I clean my plate,” he said, chasing the last bit of egg onto a fork with the flat of his thumb.

“You're a good cook, Mommy,” Ashley said.

“Thank you, sweetheart. Now come on, let's go. B.B.W.W.”

While she cleared the dishes, Brendan and Ashley marched back down the hallway in a singsong chant. "Brush, brush, wash, wash. Teeth and hair, hands and face.

Brush, brush, wash, wash..."

While the older two washed up, she put the dishes into the sink for later; gave Adam's face a quick once-over with a wet paper towel; took the kids' lunches, packed the night before, out of the fridge; and dropped each one into the appropriate knapsack.

“I'm going to put Adam into his car seat,” she called out. “Last one outside is a googly worm.”

Mary hated the rotten-egg thing, but she knew the value of a little innocent competition for keeping the kids in gear. She could hear them squealing in their rooms, half laughing, half scared they'd be the last one out the door and into her old jalopy.

Gawd, who said jalopy anymore? Only Mary, Mary. And who said Gawd?

As she strapped Adam in, she tried to remember what it was that had kept her up so late the night before. The days - and now the nights as well - seemed to blur all together in a jumble of cooking, cleaning, driving, list-making, nose-wiping, and more driving. L.A. definitely had its major-league disadvantages. It seemed as if they spent half their lives in the car, stalled in traffic.

She should really get something more fuel efficient than the big old suburban she had brought west.

She looked at her watch. Somehow, ten minutes had gone by. Ten precious minutes. How did that always happen? How did she seem to lose time?

She ran back to the front door and ushered Brendan and Ashley outside. “What is taking you two so long? We're going to be late again. Jeezum crow, just look at the time,” said Mary smith.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 5

HERE WE WERE, smack in the middle of an age of angry and cynical myth-busting, and suddenly I was being called “America's Sherlock Holmes” in one of the country's more influential, or at least best-read, magazines. What a complete crock that was, and it was still bugging me that morning. An investigative journalist named James Truscott had decided to follow me around and report on the murder cases I was working on. I'd fooled him, though. I'd gone on vacation with the family.

“I'm going to Disneyland!” I told Truscott and laughed the last time I'd seen him in D.C. the writer had only smirked in response.

For anyone else, maybe a vacation was an ordinary thing. Happened all the time, twice a year sometimes. For the cross family, it was a major event, a new beginning.

Appropriately, “A Whole New World” was playing in the hotel lobby as we passed through.

“Come on, you pokes!” Jannie urged us as she ran ahead. Damon, newly minted teenager, was somewhat more reserved. He stuck close and held the door for nana as we passed from air-conditioned comfort out into bright southern California sunshine.

Actually, it was a full-out attack on the senses from the moment we left the hotel.

Scents of cinnamon, fried dough, and some kind of zingy Mexican food reached our noses all at the same time. I could also hear the distant roar of a freight train, or so it seemed, along with screams of terror -the good kind, the “don't stop” kind. I'd heard enough of the other kind to appreciate the difference.

Against all odds, I had put in for vacation, been approved, and actually gotten out of town before FBI Director Burns or his people came up with a half-dozen reasons why I couldn't go away at this time. The kids' first choice had been Disneyworld and Epcot Village in Florida. For my own reasons, and also since it was hurricane season down South, I steered us to Disneyland and their newest park, Disney's California Adventure.

“California, indeed.” Nana Mama shaded her eyes from the sun glare. “I haven't seen a naturally occurring thing since we arrived here, Alex. Have you?”

She pursed her lips and pulled down the corners of her mouth, but then she couldn't help laughing, putting herself in stitches. That's Nana. She almost never laughs at other people - she laughs with them.

"You can't fool me, old woman. You just love to see us all together. Anywhere anyhow, anytime.

We could be in Siberia for all you'd care."

She brightened. “Now, Siberia. That's somewhere I would like to see. A trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Sayany Mountains, Lake Baikal. You know, it wouldn't kill American children to take a vacation once in a while where they actually learned something about another culture.”

I rolled my eyes in Damon and Jannie's direction. "Once a teacher . .

“Always a teacher,” Jannie said.

“Always a tee-cha,” repeated Little Alex. He was three years old, and our own little myna bird. We got to see him too infrequently, and I was partially amazed by everything he did. His mother had taken him back to Seattle more than a year ago. The painful custody struggles between Christine and me were still dragging on.

Nana's voice cut through my thoughts. “Where do we go fir -”

“Soarin' Over California!” Jannie had it out before Nana was even finished asking the question.

Damon chimed in. “Okay, but then we're hitting California Screamin'.”

Jannie stuck her tongue out convivially at her brother, and he gently hip-checked her in return. It was like Christmas morning for these two - even the disagreements were mostly in fun.

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And then we'll hit It's Tough to Be a Bug! for your little brother.”

I scooped up Alex Junior in my arms and held him close, kissed both of his cheeks. He looked back at me with his peaceable little smile.

Life was good again.

Mary, Mary

chapter 6

THAT WAS WHEN I SAW James Truscott approaching, all six foot five of him, with waves of red hair hanging down over the shoulders of a black leather jacket.

Somehow, some way, Truscott had gotten his editors in New York to agree to do a continuing series on me, based on my track record for getting involved with high-profile murder cases on a fairly regular basis. Maybe it was because the last one, involving th Russian Mafiya, had been the worst case of my career and also very high-profile. I had taken the liberty of doing some research on Truscott. He was only thirty, educated at Boston University His specialty was true crime, and he'd published two nonfiction books on the mafia. A phrase I'd heard about him stuck in my head: He plays dirty “Alex,” he said, smiling and extending his hand as if we were old friends meeting by chance. Reluctantly, I shook hands with Truscott. It wasn't that I disliked him, or objected to his right to write whatever stories he wanted to, but he had already intruded into my life in ways that I felt were inappropriate - like writing daily c-mails and arriving at crime scenes, and even at our house in D.C. Now, here he was, showing up on our family vacation.

“Mr. Truscott,” I said in a quiet voice, “you know I've declined to cooperate with these articles.”

“No problem.” He grinned. “I'm cool with that.”

“I'm not,” I said. “I'm officially off the clock. This is family time. Can you give us some space? We're at Disneyland.”

Truscott nodded as though he understood completely, but then he said, “Your vacation will be interesting to our readers. The calm-before-the-storm kind of thing. This is great! Disneyland is perfect. You have to understand that, right?”

“I don't!” Nana said, and stepped toward Truscott. “Your right to stick out your arm ends at the other person's nose. You ever hear that wise bit of advice, young man? Well, you should have. You know, you have some kind of nerve being here.”

Just then, though, I caught something even more disturbing out of the corner of my eye - a movement that didn't fit the circumstances: a woman in black, slowly circling to our left.

She had a digital camera and was already taking pictures of us - of my family Of Nana confronting Truscott.

I shielded the kids as best I could, and then I really lit into James Truscott. “Don'tyou dare photograph my kids!” I said.

“Now you an your girlfriend get out of here. Please, go.”

Truscott raised his hands over his head, smiled cockily, and then backed away "I have rights, just like you, Dr. Cross. And she's not my fucking girlfriend. She's a colleague.

This is all business. It's a story."

“Right,” I said. “Well, just get out of here. This little boy is three years old. I don't want my family's story in a magazine. Not now, not ever.”

C ha pte r 7 WE ALL TRIED TO FORGET about James Truscott and his photographer for a while after that. Did pretty good, too.

After umpteen different rides, a live show starring Mickey Mouse, two snacks, and countless carnival games, I dared to suggest that we head back to the hotel.

“For the pool?” Damon asked, grinning. We had glimpsed the five-thousand-square-foot Never Land Pool on our way to breakfast early that morning.

When I got to the front desk, there was a message waiting, one that I was expecting. Inspector Jamilla Hughes of the San Francisco Police Department was in town and needed a meeting with me. ASAJ? if not soonei said the note. That means move it, buster.

I gave my smiling regrets to the pooi sharks and took my leave of them After all, I was on vacation, too.

“Go get 'em, Daddy,” Jannie ribbed me. “It's Jamilla, right?” Damon gave a thumbs-up and a smile from behind the fogged lens of a snorkel mask.

I crossed the grounds from the Disneyland Hotel to the Grand Californian, where I had booked another room. This place was an entirely American Arts and Crafts affair, much more sedate than our own hotel.

I passed through stained-glass doors into a soaring lobby Redwood beams rose six floors overhead, and Tiffany lamps dotted the lower level, which centered on an enormous fieldstone fireplace.

I barely noticed any of it, though. I was already thinking about Inspector Hughes up in room 456.

Amazing - I was on vacation.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 8

JAMILLA GREETED ME at the door, lips first, a delicious kiss that warmed me from head to toe. I didn't get to see much of her wraparound baby-blue blouse and black pencil skirt until we pulled apart. Black sling-back heels put her at just about the right height for me. She sure didn't look like a homicide cop today “I just got in,” she said.

“Just in time,” I murmured, reaching for her again. Jamilla's kisses were always like coming home. I started to wonder where all this was going, but then I stopped myself.

Just let it be, Alex.

“Thanks for the flowers,” she whispered against my ear. “All of the flowers. They're absolutely beautiful. I know, I know, not as beautiful as me.”

I laughed Out loud. “That's true.”

I could see over her shoulder that the hotel's concierge, Harold Larsen, had done a good job for me. Rose petals were scattered in a swath of red, peach, and white. I knew there were a dozen long-stems on the bedside table, a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in the minifridge, and a couple of carefully chosen CDs in the stereo - best of Al Green, Luther Ingram, Tuck and Patti's Tears of Joy, some early Alberta Hunter.

“I guess you really did miss me,” Jamilla said.

Suddenly the two of us were like one body, my mouth exploring hers, my hands holding her up from the rear. She already had my shirt half unbuttoned, and then I was reaching down her side for the zipper on her skirt. We kissed again, and her mouth was so fresh and sweet, like it always was.

“'If lovin' you is wrong, I don't want to be right,'” I sang in a half-whisper.

“Loving me isn't wrong.” Jamilla smiled.

I danced her backward toward the bedroom.

“How do you do this in heels?” I asked along the way “You're right,” she said, and kicked off her shoes even as her skirt slid to the Hoot “We should light these candles,” I said. “You want me to light them?”

“Shhh, Alex. It's already warm enough in here.”

“Yeah, it is.”

There wasn't a whole lot of talking for a while after that. Jamilla and I always seemed to know what the other was thinking anyway - no conversation required at certain times.

And I had missed her, even more than I thought I would.

We pressed hard against each other, chest to chest, breathing in a nice rhythm. I rose and hardened against her leg, and I could feel moistness on my thigh. Then I reached up and held Jam's lovely face in both of my hands.

I felt as though she could hear my thoughts. She smiled, drinking in what I hadn't even said. “Is that so?” she finally whispered, then winked. We had shared the mind-reading joke before.

We kissed some more, and Jamilla breathed deeply as I slowly worked my lips over her neck, her breasts, and her stomach. Everywhere I stopped, I wanted to stay, but just as badly, I couldn't wait to move on. She wrapped her arms around my back and rolled us both over on the bed.

“How can you be so hard and so soft?” I asked.

“It's a woman thing. Just enjoy it. But I could say the same about you. Hard and soft?”

A moment later, I was inside Jamilla. She sat bolt upright, her head thrown back, her lower lip clenched tightly between her teeth. Sunlight reached through the bedroom window and slowly crossed her face. Absolutely gorgeous, all of it.

We climaxed together - one of those ideals that everyone says is just an ideal, but it's not, not always, anyway She lay lightly down on top of me, the air slowly escaping from her lungs, our bodies melding as they always did.

“You're going to be too tired for the rides tomorrow,” she finally said and smiled.

“Speaking of rides ...,” I said.

She started to laugh. “Promises, promises.”

“But I always keep mine.”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 9

I DON'T REMEMBER when Jamilla and I eventually drifted off to sleep that afternoon, but I was woken up by my pager. My brand-new pager. The one I got especially for this trip so only a few people would have the number -John Sampson, Director Burns's assistant, Tony Woods, that's about it. Two people too many? So what now?

I groaned. “Sorry sorry Jam. I didn't expect this. I don't have to answer it.” The last part I said halfheartedly. We both knew better.

Jamilla shook her head. "I'll tell you a little secret: I've got mine here in the nightstand.

Go ahead, Alex, answer the call." Yeah, answer the call.

Sure enough, it was the director's office reaching out from D.C. I picked up the bedside phone and dialed the number while lying there flat on my back. I finally looked at my watch - 4:00 P.M. The day had flown, which was a good thing, sort of. Until now, anyway “Ron Burns,” I mouthed to Jamilla while I was on hold. “This can't be good.” This has to be bad.

She nodded. A call from the top of the pyramid had to mean some kind of serious business that couldn't wait. Whatever it was, I didn't want to hear about it right now Ron Burns himself came on the line. This was getting worse by the second. “Alex? Is that you?”

“Yes, sir.” I sighed. Just Jamilla, and me, and you. “I appreciate your taking this call. I'm sorry to be bothering you. I know it's been a while since your last real vacation.”

He didn't know the half of it, but I kept quiet and listened to what the director had to say “Alex, there's kind of a sticky case in L.A. I probably would have wanted to send you out on this one anyway The fact that you're in California is a lucky coincidence. Lucky of course, being a relative concept.”

I shook my head back and forth. This was sounding really bad.

“What's the case? This lucky coincidence that I'm out here?”

“You ever heard of Antonia Schifman?”

That got my attention a little. “The actress? Sure.”

“She was murdered this morning, along with her limo driver. It happened outside her home. Her family was inside sleeping.”

“The rest Of the family - they're okay?” I asked. “No one else was hurt, Alex. Just the actress and her driver.”

I was a little confused. “Why is the Bureau on this? LAPD request a consult?”

“Not exactly” Burns paused. “If you wouldn't mind keeping this between the two of us, Antonia Schifman was friends with the president. And a close friend of his wife. The president has asked for our help on the murder investigation.”

“Oh.” I saw that Ron Burns wasn't quite as immune to Washington pressure as I had thought. Even so, he was the best thing that had happened to the FBI in a long time. And he'd already done me more than one favor in my short tenure. Of course, I had done him a few good turns, too.

“Alex, just do a quick in-and-out on this one. I'd really appreciate it. We'll have you back with your family for dinner. A late dinner, anyway Just check out the murder scene for me. I want to hear your take on what happened. I took the liberty - they're waiting for you to get there.”

I finished the call and cast a look at Jamilla. “Well, the good news is, I don't have to fly anywhere. It's something in L.A. The actress Antonia Schifman was murdered today”

She pushed up next to me in bed. “Oh, that's terrible, Alex. I liked her movies. She always seemed nice. That's really a shame. Well, at least I'll get to dish with Nana and the kids while you're out of earshot.”

“I'll meet you all back here for dinner. Might be a little late.”

“My flight's not until eleven, Alex. But I have to be on the late flight out.” I kissed her, just a little sheepishly, ashamed that I'd given in to Burns. But what choice did I have?

“Go make California safe - safer,” she said. “I'll keep an eye on Mickey and Donald to make sure they don't go postal.”

What a thought.

Mary, Mary

chapter 1 0

THE STORYTELLER DROVE right by the Schifman murdei scene, right by the crime scene. He knew he shouldn't hav come out here again, but he couldn't help himself. In a way he thought this might even be a good idea. So he stopped hi car and got out to look around.

What an incredible rush it turned out to be. He knew th house, knew the ritzy neighborhood in Beverly Hills reall) well - Miller Place. Suddenly, he almost couldn't catch hi breath, and he loved the feeling of danger, of “anything car happen now!” And it defInitely could. He was the Storyteller after all.

The press was everywhere, along with the LAPD, 0 course, and even some police brass, and he'd had to parl about a quarter of a mile away That was fine with him - safer, smarter. A minute or so later, he joined in with fans amother lookyloos making the pilgrimage to the shrine where poor Antonia had checked out of the rat race this morning.

“I can't believe she's dead,” a young couple was saying as they walked arm in arm, heads bowed as if they'd lost a real loved one. What was with some people? Could anybody be this nuts?

I can believe she's dead, he wanted to tell them. First, I put one in her head; then I hacked her face until her own mother wouldn't recognize her Believe it or not, there's even a method to my madness. There is a grand plan, and it's a beauty.

But he didn't speak to the creepy bereaved, just made his way to the pearly gates of the Schifman house. He stood there respectfully with the others - probably a couple of hundred mourners. The Beverly Hills sideshow was just getting started, just getting warmed-up.

Man, this was some huge story and guess what? Not one of these reporters had the real story Not about Antonia - and not about her murder.

Only he did - he was the only person in L.A. who knew what had happened, where it was going, and it felt pretty good to be in the know “Hey, howya doin'?” he heard. The Storyteller froze, then turned slowly to see who was talking to him.

He recognized the guy's face but not exactly who the hell it was. Where do I know this jerk from?

“Jeez, I was just passin' by Heard what had happened on the radio. So I stopped to pay my respects, or whatever this is. What a shame, some tragedy, huh? This crazy world out here, you just never kno” said the Storyteller, realizing he was babbling a little bit. The other guy said, "No, you never do. Who the hell would want to kill Antonia Schifman?

What kind of maniac? What kind of complete lunatic?"

“Out here in L.A.,” said the Storyteller, “it could be anybody, right?”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 11

FIFTEEN MINUTES AFTER the call from D.C., a black Grand Marquis was waiting for me outside the Disneyland Hotel. I shook my head in disappointment, but also in anger - this sucked in a way that broke new territory The FBI agent standing next to the car wore a pair of neatly pressed khakis and a pale- blue polo shirt. He looked ready for a round of golf at the Los Angeles Country Club. His handshake was vigorous, and a little too eager.

“Special Agent Karl Page. I'm really glad to meet you, Dr. Cross. I've read your book,”

he said. “Couple of times.”

He couldn't have been long out of the Academy at Quantico from the look of him. The California tan and nearly white blond flattop suggested that he was a local boy Probably in his midtwenties. An eager beaver for sure.

“Thank you,” I said. “Exactly where are we headed, Agent Page?” Page shut his mouth abruptly and nodded his head. Maybe he was embarrassed that he hadn't thought to answer my question before I asked it. Then he started up again. “Yes, of course. We're headed to Beverly Hills, Dr. Cross. The scene of the homicide, where the victim lived.”

“Antonia Schifman,” I said with a sigh of regret.

“That's right. Oh, uh, have you already been briefed?”

“Actually, no. Not very well, anyway How about you tell me what you know on the way over to the house? I want to hear everything.”

He turned toward the car as if to open the door for me, thought better of it, and got in on the driver's side. I climbed in the back, and once we were on our way, Page loosened up a little as he told me about the case.

“They're coding this one 'Mary Smith.' That's because there was an e-mail from a so- called Mary Smith, sent to an entertainment editor at the L.A. Times last week, taking responsibility fot the first homicide.”

I think my eyes might have crossed. “Wait. This case has been coded already?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So this isn't an isolated incident?” I could hear the tension in my own voice. Had Burns withheld that information from me, or hadn't he known himself?

“No. This is at least the second murder, Dr. Cross. Too early to classify it as anything, but there's an indication of solo activity, an organized approach, possibly psychosis. And maybe some level of ritual by the same person at each of the two murder sites. We also believe the killer is a woman, which makes this very unusual.” So Page did know a thing or two. Meanwhile, I couldn't help feeling duped by Burns. Why couldn't he have just told me the truth? We were scarcely off of the Disneyland property, and already this murder case was a whole lot more complicated than he'd made it seem.

“Son of a bitch,” I said between gritted teeth. I was getting tired of being played, and maybe tired of the Bureau, too. But maybe I was just in a bad mood because I'd been pulled away from my vacation.

Page stiffened. “Is there a problem?”

It would have been easy to blow off a little steam with him, but I wasn't ready to start bonding with Agent Page yet.

The whole idea was to float through this case as unattached as possible.

“No big problem. Nothing to do with you, anyway. Let's get over to the murder scene. I'm only supposed to take a quick look.”

“Yes, sir.”

I caught Page's blue eyes in the rearview mirror. “You don't have to call me sir. I'm not your dad,” I said. Then I grinned, just in case he couldn't tell it was a joke.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 1 2

___________________ HERE WE GO AGAIN The president has asked for our help. . . I want to hear your take on what happened. My take? That was a laugh. My take was that I was being used and I didn't like it. Also, I hated it when I whined like this.

We took the Santa Ana Freeway into downtown Los An- geles and then the Hollywood Freeway back out again. Agent Page drove with a kind of automatic aggressiveness, passing cars closely and frequently One cell-phone-using business man took his other hand off the wheel long enough to give us the finger.

Page seemed oblivious to all of this as he sped north ward and told me what else he knew about the grisly double murder.

Both Antonia Schifman and her driver, Bruno Capaletti, had been shot somewhere between 4:00 and 5:30 in the morning. A gardener had discovered the bodies around 7:15.

Schifman's beautiful face had also been slashed with a sharp blade of some kind.

Apparently no money or other valuables had been taken. Bruno Capaletti was found with almost two hundred dollars in his pocket, and Schifman's handbag was still in the limo next to her body. It held credit cards, diamond earrings, and more cash.

“Any prior connection between the two of them?” I asked. “Schifman and the limo driver? What do we know about the two of them?”

“The only other movie of hers Capaletti worked on was Banner Season, but he drove for Jeff Bridges on that one. We're still checking the driver out, though. You ever see Banner Season?”

“No, I didn't. How hot is the crime scene? Our people, LAPD, the media? Anything else I should know before we arrive?”

“I haven't actually been there yet,” Page admitted. "But it's probably going to be off the charts. I mean, it's Antonia Schifman, you know? She was a really good actress.

Supposed to be a nice lady."

“Yes, she was. It's a shame.”

“She had kids, too. Four little girls: Andi, Elizabeth, Tia, and Petra,” said Page, who clearly liked to show off.

Minutes later, we were off the highway and driving west on Sunset. I watched as the cityscape changed from the cliché-defying urban grittiness of downtown Hollywood to the lush green - and cliché - residential avenues of Beverly Hills. Rows of palm trees looked at us from above, as if down their noses. We turned off Sunset and drove up Miller Place, a winding canyon drive, with stunning views of the city behind us. Finally, Page parked on a side street.

Television and radio vans were everywhere. Their satellite towers extended into the air like huge sculptures. As we got closer, I spotted CNN, KTLA, KYSR Star 98.7, Entertainment Tonight. Some of the reporters stood facing cameras with their backs to the estate, presumably reporting live on the L.A. and network shows. What a circus. So why do I have to be here, too? I'm supposed to be at Disneyland, a kinder, gentler circus.

None of the media people recognized me, a refreshing change from D.C. Agent Page and I politely made our way through the crowd to where two uniformed police officers stood guard. They looked carefully at our creds.

“This is Dr. Alex Cross,” said Page.

“So?” said the uniform.

I didn't say a word. “So?” seemed like an appropriate response to me.

The uniform finally let us pass, but not before I noticed something that made me a little sick to my stomach. James Truscott, with his cascading red hair, was standing there in the crowd of reporters. So was his cameraperson - the same woman, dressed all in black.

Truscott saw me, too, and nodded my way A smile may have even crossed his lips.

He was taking notes.

She was taking photographs - of me.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 13

I WAS CURSING SOFTLY as Page and I followed a long, circular white-pebbled driveway up to the main house. Mansion was definitely a better word for this place, a two-story, Spanish-style construction. Dense foliage on all sides blocked my view past the facade, but the main house had to be at least twenty thousand square feet, probably even more. Who needed this much space to live? Our house in D.C. was under three thousand, and that was plenty of room for us.

A series of balconies rimmed the second fooL Some of them looked down onto the driveway where a black limo was cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape.

This was where Antonia Schifman and Bruno Capaletti had died.

The area around the limo was blocked off in a wide circle, with only one way in and out.

Two more LAPD officers took names as people came and went. Techs in white bunny suits were going over the car with a handheld USB microscope and evidence vacuums. A few others were snapping Polaroids as well as regular photographs.

Another whole squad was already fanned out, taking exemplars from the surrounding area. It was all fairly impressive, as well as depressing. The best forensic police department in the world is supposed to be Tokyo's. Domestically, though, Los Angeles and New York were the only departments that could rival the FBI's resources.

“We're in luck, I guess,” Page said. “Looks like the ME's just finishing up.” He pointed toward the medical examiner, a heavyset, gray-haired woman standing next to the limo and speaking into a handheld recorder.

That meant the bodies hadn't been removed. I was surprised, but it was good news for me. The less disturbed the crime scene, the more information I could get for Burns. And the president. And his wife. I supposed that was why the bodies hadn't been moved: The dead were waiting on me.

I turned back to Page. "Tell whoever's in charge from the LAPD not to move anything yet. I want to get a clean look.

“And try to clear some of these people out of here. Necessary personnel only Fibers, printing, but that's it. Everyone else is on break.”

For the first time that morning, Page paused before he responded. This was an all- business side of me he hadn't seen. Not that I'm big on throwing my weight around, but fight now I had to use it. There was no way I could do a proper job in the middle of all this chaos and confusion. “Oh, and one other thing you should tell whoever's in charge,” I said.

Page turned back. “Yeah?”

“Tell them as long as I'm here, I'm in charge.”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 1 4

I COULD STILL HEAR Director Burns's voice in my head. I want to hear your take on what happened. . . . We'll have you back with your family for dinner.

But would I want to eat after this?

With two dead bodies still inside, the limousine was absolutely fetid. One of the best tricks I'd learned was to gut it out for about three minutes, until the olfactory nerves were numb. Then I would be fine. I just had to get through those three minutes that told me I was back in the homicide business.

I focused, and took in the grisly details one by one.

First came a shocker that I wasn't ready for, even though I partly knew it was coming.

Antonia Schifman's face was almost completely unrecognizable. A portion of the left side was gone altogether where she had been shot, probably at close range. What flesh remained - mostly the right eye, cheek, and her mouth - had been slashed several times. The killer, Mary Smith, had been in a frenzy - but only against Antonia Schifman, not the driver, or so it seemed.

The actress's clothing appeared to be intact. No indication of any kind of sexual assault.

And no sign of blood froth from the nostrils or mouth, which meant she'd died and stopped breathing almost immediately Who would make this kind of violent attack? Why Antonia Schifman? She'd seemed like a nice person, got good press. And everybody liked her, according to, well, everybody. So what could explain this massacre? This desecration at her home?

Agent Page appeared and leaned in over my shoulder. “What do you think the cutting is about? Some kind of reference to plastic surgery maybe?”

The young agent had shaken off every subtle and not-so- subtle clue I had dropped that I needed to be alone right now, but I didn't have the heart to dress him down.

“I don't think so,” I said. “But I don't want to speculate yet. We'll know more once she's checked in and cleaned up.” Now, please let me work, Page.

A dull-brown wash of dried blood covered the actress's ruined face. What a terrible waste. And what exactly was I supposed to relay to the president about what I'd seen here, about what had happened to his friend?

The driver, Bruno Capaletti, was still propped up at the steering wheel. A single bullet had entered his left temple before it destroyed most of his head. The blood on the empty seat next to him was smeared, possibly by his own body but more likely by the killer, who had apparently shot Antonia Schifman from the front seat. A small amount of cocaine had been found in the driver's jacket pocket. Did it mean anything? Probably not, but I couldn't rule out anything yet.

I finally stepped out and away from the limousine and took a breath of fresh air. “There's a strange disconnect going on here,” I said, more to myself than to anyone else.

“Neat and sloppy?” Page asked. “Controlled, yet out of control.”

I looked at him, and my mouth twisted into something resembling a smile. The insight surprised me a little. “Yes. Exactly” The bodies had been arranged, just so, inside the car.

But the shooting and, in particular, the cuts on Schifman's face had an angry haphazard quality to them.

There was a calling card, too. A row of children's stickers was affixed to the car door: glittery, bright-colored pictures of unicorns and rainbows. The same kind had apparently been left at the scene of the previous week's murder.

Each of the stickers was marked with a capital letter, two with an A, one with a B. What was that all about?

Page had already briefed me on the companion case to this one. Another woman in the movie business, Patsy Bennett, a successful production head, had been shot dead in a movie theater in Westwood six days prior. There were no witnesses. Bennett was the only victim that day, and there had been no knife work. But the stickers at that scene had also been marked with capital A's and a B.

Whoever was doing this certainly wanted to take credit for the murders. The murders weren't improvisatory but the killer's methods were dynamic.And evolving, of course.

“What are you thinking?” Page asked. “Do you mind if I ask? Or am I getting in the way?”

Before I could tell him, another agent interrupted the two of us. If it was possible, she was tanner and maybe even blonder than Agent Page. 1 wondered if maybe they'd been put together at the same factory “We've got another e-mail at the L.A. Times,” she said.

“Same editor, Arnold Griner, and the same Mary Smith.”

“Has the paper reported on the e-mails yet?” I asked. Both agents shook their head. “Good. Let's try to keep it that way And keep a cap on these kids' stickers, too. If we can. And the A's and B's.”

I checked my watch. Already 5:30. I needed at least another hour at the Schifman property; then I wanted to speak with Arnold Griner at the Times. And I would definitely have to meet with the LAPD before the day was ovet James Truscott was probably still prowling around outside, too.

At home in D.C., I missed meals as often as not. Nana and the kids were used to it, andJamilla would probably understand, but none of that was an excuse. This had been as good a time as any to break one of my very worst habits in life: missing dinner with my family But it wasn't going to happen, was it? I called Nana at the hotel first, and then I called Jamilla. Then I thought about the poor Schifman and Bennett families, and I went back to work.

Mary, Mary

Part Two

I LOVE L A

Mary, Mary

Chapter 15

“WHY ME, OF ALL PEOPLE? Why do you think she's writing these awful missives to me? It doesn't make any sense. Does it? Have you found out anything that makes some sense of this? The mothers being slaughtered? Hollywood's about to go totally insane over these murders, trust me. Mary's dirty little secret will get out.”

Arnold Griner had already asked me the same questions a couple of times during the interview Our meeting was taking place in an L-shaped glass fishbowl of an office at the heart of the L.A. Times newsroom. The rest of the floor was a wide expanse of desks and cubicles.

From time to time, someone would pop his or her head over a cubicle wall, steal a quick glance our way, and duck back down. Prairie-dogging, Griner called it, chuckling to himself.

He sat on a brown leather couch, clutching and unclutching the knees of his wrinkled gray Dockers. Occasionally, he scribbled something on a legal pad on his lap.

The conversation so far had focused on Griner's background: Yale, followed by an internship at Variety, where he proofed copy and ran coffee for entertainment reporters.

He had earned a staff position quickly, and famously, when he managed to interview Tom Cruise on the record at an industry party. Two years ago, the L.A. Times had wooed him away with an offer for his own column, “Behind the Screens.” His reputation in the business, he told me, was for “insider” Hollywood stories and “edgy” reviews. He obviously had a very high opinion of himself.

I hadn't found any further links, between Griner and either of the murders outside of the movie-industry connection. Still, 1 wasn't prepared to believe that he'd been randomly selected to receive Mary Smith's c-mails.

Griner didn't seem inclined to believe it either. His focus was all over the place, though, and he'd been peppering me with questions since we started.

I finally sat down close to him. “Mr. Griner - will you relax? Please.”

“Pretty easy for you to say,” he shot back, and then almost immediately said, "Sorry.

Sorry“ He put two fingers to his forehead and rubbed between his eyes. ”I'm high-strung to begin with. Ever since I was a kid growing up in Greenwich."

I'd seen this kind of reaction - a mix of paranoia and anger that comes from getting blindsided the way Arnold Griner had been. When I spoke again, I kept my voice just low enough that he'd have to concentrate to hear me.

“I know you've already gone over this, but can you think of any reason you might be receiving these messages? Let's start with any prior contact you've had with Patsy Bennett, Antonia Schifman, or even the limo driver, Bruno Capalettl”

He shrugged, rolled his eyes, tried desperately to catch his breath. "We might have been at some of the same partie5 at least the two women. I've certainly reviewed their movies.

The last was one of Antonia's, Canterbury Road, which I hated, I'm sorry to say but I loved her in it and said so in the piece.

“Do you think that could be the connection? Maybe the killer reads my stuff. I mean, she must, right? This is 50 incredibly bizarre. How could I possibly fit into an insane murder scheme?”

Before I could say anything at all, he threw out another of his rapid-fire questions.

"Do you think Antonia's driver was incidental? In the e-mail it seems like he was just . . .

in the way."

Griner was obviously hungry for information, both personally and professionally He was a reporter, after all, and already reasonably powerful in Hollywood circles. So I gave him my stock reporter's response.

“Ifs too early to say What about Patsy Bennett?” I asked. “Do you remember the last time you wrote about one of her films? Something she produced? She still produced films occasionally, right?”

Griner nodded; then he sighed loudly almost eatricahiy “Do you think I should discontinue my column for now? I should, shouldn't I? Maybe I better.”

The interview was like a Ping-Pong match against a kid with ADD. I eventually managed to get through all my questions, but it took almost twice as long as I thought it would when I had arrived at the Times. Griner constantly needed reassurance, and I tried to give it to him without being completely dishonest. He was in danger, after all.

“One last thing,” Griner said just before I left him. “Do you think I should write a book about this? Is that a little sick?”

I didn't bother to answer either question. He went to Yale - he should be able to figure it out.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 1 6

AFTER THE INTERVIEW I slouched out to Arnold Griner's desk to touch base with Paul Lebleau, the LAPD tech in charge of tracing Mary Smith's e-mails.

He tapped away on the keyboard of Griner's computer while he spoke to me in a rapid-fire patter. "Two e-mails came through two different proxy servers. First one originated from a cybercafe in Santa Monica. That means Mary Smith could be one of a few hundred people. She's got two different addresses. So far.

Both just generic Hotmail accounts, which tells us nothing really, except we do know that she signed up for the first one from the library at USC. Day before the first message."

I had to concentrate just to follow Lebleau. Did everybody out here have ADD? “What about the second e-mail?” I asked him.

“Transmission didn't originate in the same place as the first one. That much I can tell you.”

“Did it come from the L.A. area? Can you tell me that?”

“Don't know yet.”

“When will you know?”

“Probably end of the day, not that it's going to be much help.” He leaned forward and squinted at several lines of code on the screen. “Mary Smith knows what she's doing.”

There it was again - she. I understood why everyone was using the pronoun. I was doing it, too - but only for the sake of convenience.

That didn't mean I was convinced the killer was a woman, though. Not yet, anyway. The letters to Griner could repre sent some kind of persona. But whose?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 1 7

___________________ HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR VACATION sofai Alex? Having a lot of fun?

I took copies of both bizarre e-mails and headed out for a meeting with the LAPD. The detective bureau on North Los Angeles Street was only a quarter mile from the Times offices - a Los Angeles miracle, given the cliché that it takes forty-five minutes to get anywhere in the city.

Oh, the vacation's great. I'm seeing all the sights. The kids are loving it, too. Nana is over the moon.

I walked slowly, rereading the two e-mails on my way to LAPD. Even if the writing was persona-based, it had come from the mind of the killet I started with the first one, which described the last mo ments of Patsy Bennett's life. It was definitely chilling, this diary of a psychopath.

To: agriner(c)latimes .com From: Mary Smith To: Patrice Bennett: I am the one who killed you.

Isn't that some sentence? I think so. Here's another one that I like quite a lot.

Somebody, a total stranger, will find your body in the balcony at the Westwood Village Theater. You, Patrice Bennett.

Because that's where you died today, watching your last movie, and not a very good one at that. The Village? What were you thinking? What could have brought you to the theater on this day, the day of your death, to see The Village?

You should have been home, Patsy. With your darling little children. That's where a good mom belongs. Don't you think so? Even if you spend much of your home time reading scripts and on the phone playing studio politics.

It took me a long time to get so close to you. You are a Big Somebody at your Studio, and I am just one of the nobodies who watches movies on video and Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. I couldn't even get inside the big arched entrance at your Studio. No sirree.

All I could do was watch your dark-blue Aston Martin going in and out, day after day.

But I'm a really patient person. I've learned how to wait for what I want.

Speaking of waiting, that incredible house of yours is hard to see from the street. I did spot your lovely children-a couple of times, actually And I know with some time I could have found a way into the house. But then today, you changed everything.

You went to a movie, in the middle of the afternoon, just like you say you do in some of your interviews. Maybe you missed the smell of popcorn. Do you ever take your little girls to the movies, Patsy? You should have, you know. As they say, it all goes by in a blink.

It didn't make sense to me at first. You're such a busy little Big Shot. But then I figured it out. Movies are what you do. You must see them all the time, but you also have a family waiting for you every night. You're supposed to be home for dinner with little Lynne and Laurie. How old are they now? Twelve and thirteen? They want you there, and you want to be there. That's good, I suppose. Except that tonight, dinner is going to come and go without you. Kind of sad when you think about it, which is what I'm doing right now.

Anyway, you sat in the balcony in the ninth row. i sat in the twelfth. I waited, and watched the back of your head, your brunette-from-abottle hair. That's where the bullet was going to go. Or so I fantasized. Isn't that what one is supposed to do at the movies?

Escape? Get away from it all? Except that most movies are so dismal these days- dismally dumb or dismally dreary.

I didn't actually pull out my gun until after the film started. I didn't like how scared I felt.

That was how scared you were supposed to be, Big Shot. But you didn't know what was happening, not even that I was there. You were out of the loop.

I sat like that, holding the gun in my lap, pointing it at you for the longest time. Then I decided I wanted to be closer-right on top of you.

I needed to look in your eyes after you knew you'd been shot, knew that you would never see Lynne and Laurie again, never see another movie either, never green-light one, never again be a Big Shot.

But then seeing you wide-eyed and dead was a surprise. A shock to my nervous system, actually. What happened to that famed aristocratic bearing of yours? That's why I had to leave the theater so quickly, and why I had to leave you undone.

Not that you really care anymore. How's the weather where you are now, Patsy? Hot, I hope. Hot as Hades-isn't that an expression?

Do you miss your children terribly? Have some regrets? I'll bet you do. I would if I were you. But I'm no Big Shot, just one of the little people.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 1 8

NINE O'CLOCK, and all was not well, to put it mildly. LAPD detective Jeanne Galletta's handshake was surprisingly soft. She looked as though she could give out bone-crushers if she wanted to. Her orange short-sleeved turtleneck showed off her biceps. She was slim, though, with a strikingly angular face and the kind of piercing brown eyes that could make you stare.

I caught myself midstare, and glanced away “Agent Cross. Have I kept you waiting?” she asked. “Not very long,” I told her. I'd been in Galletta's position before. When you're a lead investigator on a high-profile case, everyone wants a piece of your time. Besides, my day was almost over. Detective Galletta would probably be up all night. This case warranted it.

The mess had landed in her lap about twelve hours ago. It had originated at the West Bureau, in Hollywood, but serial cases were automatically transferred downtown, to the Special Homicide Unit. Technically, “Mary Smith” couldn't be classified as a serial killer until there were at least four attributed murders, but LAPD had decided to err on the side of caution. I agreed with the decision, not that anyone had asked me for an opinion.

The media coverage on this one, and the subsequent pressure on the department, was already intense. It could go from intense to insane soon, if the c-mails to the Times got out.

Detective Galletta led me upstairs to a small conference room turned crisis room. It acted as a makeshift clearinghouse for all information related to the murders.

One entire wall was already covered with police reports, a map of the city, sketches of the two crime scenes, and dozens of photographs of the dead.

A wastebasket in the corner overflowed with empty cups and greasy restaurant takeout bags. Wendy's seemed to be winning the battle of the burgers at this precinct.

Two detectives in shirtsleeves sat at a large wooden table, both of them bent over separate piles of paperwork. Familiar, depressing.

“We need this space,” Galletta said to the detectives. There was nothing overly aggressive about it. She had the kind of unassuming confidence that made bullying unnecessary The two men cleared out without a word.

“Where do you want to start?” I asked her.

Galletta jumped right in. “What do you make of the sticker thing?” She pointed to an 81/2 x 11 black-and-white photo of the back of a movie seat. It had the same brand of kiddie stickers on it as the ones left on Antonia Schifman's limo. Each sticker was marked either A or B.

One of the stickers showed a wide-eyed pony, and the other two a teddy bear on a swing.

What was with the killer and children? And mothers?

“It feels awfully heavy-handed to me,” I told her. "Just like everything else so far. The overwrought c-mails. The shootings at close range. The knife work. Hell, the celebrities.

Whoever's doing this wants to go big. Very high-profile."

"Yeah, definitely But what about the kiddie stickers themselves? I mean, why stickers?

Why that kind? What's with the A's and B's? Must mean something."

“She's mentioned the victim's kids both times. In the e-mails. Kids are a part of this puzzle, a piece. To be honest, I've never come across anything even remotely like it.”

Galletta bit her lip and looked at the floor. I waited to see what she would say next.

“We've got two threads here. It's all film industry, Hollywood, at least so far. But there's the mother thing. The kids. Never mentions the husbands in either e-mail.” She spoke slowly, mulling it over, the way I often did. “She's either a mother herself or has a thing for mothers. Mommies.”

“You're assuming Mary Smith is a woman?” I asked.

Mary, Mary

Chapter '1 9

DETECTIVE GALLETTA ROCKED back on the heels of her Nikes, and then she looked at me quizzically “You don't know about the hair? Who's been briefing you, anyway?”

I felt a pang of frustration about my own time being wasted again. I sighed, then asked Galletta, “What hair?”

She went on to tell me LAPD had found a human hair under one of the stickers at the movie theater in Westwood. Testing indicated it was Caucasian female, and it was not Patrice Bennett's. The fact that it was trapped on a smooth, vertical surface under the sticker gave it some pretty good weight as evidence, though certainly not ironclad.

I juggled this new information with what I already knew as I gave Galletta my own take on Mary Smith. It included my gut feeling that we shouldn't rule out either sex just yet.

“But you should take everything I tell you with a grain of salt. I'm not an all-science kind of guy“ She smirked, though the effect was pleasant enough. ”I'll take that into account, Agent Cross. Now what else?”

“Do you have a media plan?”

I wanted to emphasize it as her plan, completely her show, which it was, of course. This was going to be my first and last day on the Mary Smith case. If I played it right, I wouldn't even have to say that out loud. I would just walk away “Here's my media plan.”

Jeanne Galletta reached up and flipped on a wall- mounted television. She punched through several channels, stopping wherever there was coverage of the two murders.

“The shocking double murder of actress Antonia Schifman and her driver.. .”

"We're taking you live now to Beverly Hills . .

"Patrice Bennett's former assistant on the line .

Many of them were national broadcasts, everything from CNN to F! Entertainment Television.

Galletta pushed a button that muted the sound.

“This is the kind of crap that some reporters live for. I've got a twenty-four-hour detail on both crime scenes just to keep these assholes away, plus the damn paparazzi. It's totally out of control, and it's going to get much worse. You've been through it. You have any suggestions?”

Did I eva We had all learned a few painful lessons about the double-edged sword of media coverage with the D.C. sniper case a few years back.

"Here's my take on it - for what it's worth, and I hope it's something. Don't try to control the coverage, because you never will,“ I told her. ”The only thing you can control is what crime-scene information gets out there. Put a gag order on everyone connected to the case. No interviews without specific permission from the department. And this might sound a little crazy, but get a couple of people onto a phone detail. Call every retired officer you can find. Tell them not to make any comments to the press, nothing at all.

Retired cops can be one of your biggest problems. Some of them just love making up theories for the camera."

She gave me another sly smile. “Not that you have an opinion about all this or anything.”

I shrugged. “Believe me, most of it was learned the hard way”

While I spoke, Detective Galletta paced slowly in front of the big wall board. Absorbing the evidence. That's the way to do it. Let the details gather in the corners of your mind, where they'll be when you need them. I could already tell that she had good instincts.

Healthy cynicism for sure, but she was also a listener. It was easy to see how she'd come into her position so young. No could she survive this?

I said, “Just one more thought. Mary Smith is probably going to be watching what you do. My suggestion is, don't disparage her or her work publicly, at least not yet. She's already playing it as a media game. Right?”

“Yeah, that's true. I think so.”

Detective Galletta stopped and looked up at the silent TV images. “She's probably eating this all up with a spoon.”

My thought, too. And this monster needed to be fed very very carefully.

This lady monster?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 20

IT WAS JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT when I finally got back to the hotel at Disney and received some more bad news. It wasn't just that Jamilla had flown back to San Francisco. I already knew that much and figured I was in the doghouse again with Jam.

When I entered the hotel room, I saw that Nana Mama was fast asleep on the sofa. A cluster of pale-blue crocheting was still wrapped around her fingers. She slept peacefully, like a child.

I didn't want to disturb the poor girl, but she came awake on her own. It had always been that way with Nana. When I was little, all I had to do was stand next to her bed if I was sick or had a nightmare. She always said that she watched over me, even while she was sleeping. Had she been watching over me tonight? I stared at the old woman for a quiet moment. I don't know how most people feel about their grandparents, but I loved her so much it hurt sometimes. Nana raised me from the age of nine. I finally leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.

“Did you get my voice mail?” I asked.

Nana glanced absently at the hotel phone, with its flashing red message light.

“I guess not,” I said with a shrug.

She put a hand on my forearm. “Oh, Alex. Christine was here at the hotel. She came, and she took Little Alex back to Seattle. He's gone.”

My brain had a quick does-not-compute moment. Christine wasn't due to pick Alex up for another two days. She currently had custody of our son, but the trip to Disneyland had been talked out and agreed to. She even said it was a good idea.

I sat down hard on the edge of the couch. “I don't understand. What do you mean, she took Alex home? What's going on? Tell me everything.”

Nana shoved her crocheting into a tapestry bag at her side. "I was so mad, I could've spit.

She didn't seem like herself at all. She was shouting, Alex. She shouted at me, even at Janelle."

“What was she doing here, anyway? She wasn't supposed to ”She came down early That's the worst part. Alex, I think she was coming to spend some quality time with you and Little Alex. With all of us. And then when she found out you were working, she completely changed. Turned into an angry hornet just like that. There was nothing I could say to her I never saw anyone so angry so changed."

It was all coming too fast, and I struggled with a barrage of feelings. Most of all, I realized, I hadn't even gotten to say good-bye to my son, and now he was gone again.

“What about Alex? How was he?”

“He was confused, and seemed sad, the poor little boy He asked for you when his mother took him away He said you promised him this would be a vacation. He'd so looked forward to it. We all did. You know that, Alex.”

My heart clenched, and I saw Alex's face in my mind. It felt as though he was getting farther and farther from me, as if a piece of my life was slipping away “How were Jannie and Damon about it?” I asked then. Nana sighed heavily “They were brave soldiers, but Jannie cried herself to sleep tonight. I think Damon did, too. He hides it better. Poor things, they just moped around most of the night.”

We sat together on the sofa for a long, silent moment. I didn't know what to say “I'm sorry I wasn't here today,” I finally told Nana. “I know that doesn't mean much.”

She took my chin in her hand and stared into my eyes. Here it comes. Batten down the hatches.

“You're a good man, Alex. And you're a good father. Don't you forget that, especially now You just. . . you have a very difficult job.”

A few minutes later, I slipped into the room where jannie and Damon were sleeping. The way they lay on the covers, they looked like little kids again. I liked the visual effect, and I stood there, just watching them. Nothing ever healed me the way these two did. My babies, no matter how old you are.

Jannie slept at the edge of her bed with the comforter in a wad off to the side. I went over and covered her up.

“Dad?” Damon's whisper from behind caught me off guard. “That you?”

“What's up, Day?” I sat down on the edge of his bed and rubbed his back. I'd been doing it since he was an infant, and wouldn't stop until he made me.

“You have to work tomorrow?” he asked. "Is it tomorrow already?

There was no malice in his voice. He was too good a per son for that. If I was a pretty good father, Damon was a great son.

“No,” I told him. “Not tomorrow. We're on vacation, re- member?”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 2 1

FOR THE SECOND day in a row, I got a disturbing wake-up call.

This one was from Fred Van Allsburg, the assistant direc tor in charge of the FBI'S Los Angeles office. I had seen the name on organizational charts, but we'd never actually met or even spoken. Still, he treated me with a kind of instant familiarity over the phone.

“Alex! How are you enjoying the vacation?” he asked within seconds of saying hello.

Did everyone know my business? “Fine, thanks,” I answered. “What can I do for you?”

“Listen, thanks very much for making yourself available on Mary Smith yesterday. We've got a good jump on this case, and what feels like a relatively functional relationship with LAPD. ”Listen, I'll cut right to the chase. We'd like you to represent us for the rest of the investigation out here. It's big, and it's important to us. And, obviously, to the director.

This case is going to be huge, unfortunately"

I thought of a line from The Godfather Part III - “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Not this time, though. I hadn't slept much, but I did wake with a clear sense of what this day was going to be about - and it had absolutely nothing to do with Mary Smith, or any other heinous murder investigation.

“I'm going to have to give my regrets on this one. I've got family commitments that I cannot turn my back on.”

“Yes, I understand,” he said, too quickly to have meant it. “But maybe we could pry you away for just a while. A few hours in the day”

“I'm sorry you can't. Not right now”

Van Allsburg sighed heavily on the other end of the line. When he spoke again, his tone was more measured. I don't know if I was reading him right, but I got a hint of condescension, too. “Do you know what we're dealing with here? Alex, have you seen the news this morning?”

“I'm trying to stay away from the news for a few days. Remember, I'm on vacation. I need a vacation. I just came off the Wolf.”

“Alex, listen, we both know this isn't over. People are dying here. Important people.”

Important people? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Also, I'm not sure if he was conscious of it, but he seemed to start every other sentence with my name. I sort of understood the position he was in, the pressure, but I was going to hold firm this time.

“I'm sorry” I told him. “The answer is no.”

“Alex, I'd prefer to keep this between you and me. There's no reason to go up to Ron Burns, is there?”

“No, there isn't,” I told Van Allsburg.

“Good-,” he started in, but I cut him off.

“Because I'm turning off my pager right now.”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 22

I'LL ADMIT, when I hung up the phone, my pulse was racing a little, but I felt relieved as well. I thought that Ron Burns would probably back me up on this, but you know what? I didn't even care.

An hour later I was dressed and ready to go be a tourist. “Who wants to have breakfast with Goofy?” I called out.

The hotel offered “character breakfasts,” and it seemed like a good way to channel our energies right back into vacation mode. A little corny for sure, but sometimes corny is good, real good, keeps everything in perspective.

Jannie and Damon came into the suite's living room, both of them looking a little wary I held out two fists, fingers up.

“Each of you pick a hand,” I said.

“Daddy, we're not babies anymore,” Jannie said. “I'm eleven. Have you noticed?” I put on a shocked expression. “You're not?” It brought out the kind of laughter I was looking for.

“This is serious business,” I told them. “I'm not kidding. Now, pick a hand. Please.”

“VThat is it?” Damon asked.

But I kept mute.

Jannie finally tapped my left hand, and then Damon shrugged and pointed to the right.

“Good choice.” I turned it over and unclenched my fingers. Both kids leaned in for a closer look.

“Your pager?” Damon asked.

“I just turned it off. Now Nana and I are going to wait out in the hail, and I want you two to hide it somewhere. Hide it good. I don't want to see that thing again, not until we're backinD.C.”

Both Jannie and Damon began to whistle and cheer. Even Nana let out a whoop. We were finally on vacation.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 23

MAYBE THERE WAS a silver lining in all of this misery and desolation. Not likely, but maybe. Arnold Griner knew he had exclusive rights to his own story when this terrible mess was all over. And you know what else? He wouldn't settle for just a TV movie. He was going to try to serialize the whole thing in his column, and then sell it as a prestige project at one of the studios. Hollywood Under Siege? The War Against the Stars? Bad titles. That was the concept, anyway He shook his head and refocused on the San Diego Freeway The Xanax he'd taken was making him a little loopy He'd kept the caffeine going, too, just to maintain some kind of balance through the day Actually the morning commute was the hardest time of his day It was a daily transition from not worrying as much to worrying a lot and feeling sick to his stomach. The closer he got to his office, his desk, his computer, the more anxious he felt.

If he knew for certain that another creepy e-mail was coming, it would almost be easier.

It was the not-knowing part that made it hell.

Would Mary be back? Would it happen today? But, most important why was she writing to him?

All too soon, he arrived at Times Mirror Square. Griner worked in the older part of the complex, a 1930s-era building that he had a certain affection for, under normal circumstances, anyway The main doors were large bronze affairs, flanked with imposing twin eagle sculptures.

He walked right by them this morning, around to the back entrance, and took the stairs to the third floor. One couldn't be too careful, could one?

A reporter named jennie Bloom fell into step with him the second he hit the newsroom floor. Among all the staff who had shown a sudden interest in his well-being, she was by far the most obvious about it. Or was that odious?

“Hey, Arnold, how's it going? You doing okay man? What are you covering today?”

Griner didn't miss a beat. “Jen, if that's your idea of a pickup line, you must be the most unlaid woman in L.A.”

Jennie Bloom merely grinned and kept on coming on. “Spoken like someone with experience in matters of the heart. All right then, let's skip the foreplay You get any more e-mails? You need help on this, right? I'm here for you. You need a woman's point of view.”

“Seriously, I just need some space. Okay? I'll let you know if I get anything else.” He turned abruptly and walked away from her.

“No you won't,” she called after him.

“No I won't,” he said, and kept walking.

In some ways, even the annoying distractions were a relief. As soon as he turned away from Bloom, his mind went back into the disturbing loop it had been on before.

Why me? Why did Crazy Maty pick me out? Why not Jennie Bloom?

Would it happen again today? Another high-profile murder?

And then it did.

Chapter_24 A CALM, MEASURED FEMALE voice said, “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

“This is Arnold Griner at the Los Angeles Times. I'm supposed to call a Detective Jeanne Galletta, but I don't . . I can't find her number on my desk. I'm sorry I'm a little rattled right now. I can't even find my Rolodex.”

“Sir, is this an emergency call? Do you need assistance?”

“Yes, it's definitely an emergency Someone may have been murdered. I don't know how long ago this happened, or even if it did for sure. Has anyone called about someone named Marti Lowenstein-Bell?”

“Sir, I can't give out that kind of information.”

“It doesn't matter. Just send someone to the LowensteinBell residence. I think she's been killed. I'm almost sure of it.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I just am. Okay? I'm almost positive there's been a murder.”

“What is the address?”

“The address? Oh, Jesus, I don't know the address. The body is supposed to be in the swimming pooi.”

“Are you at the residence now?”

“No. No. Listen, this is a ... I don't know how to make this clear to you. It's the Mary Smith murder case. The Hollywood celebrity killings. Do you know what I'm talking about?”

“All right, sir, I think I understand. What was the name again?”

“Lowenstein-Bell. Marti. I know her husband's name is Michael Bell. You might find it under that. I don't know for certain if she's dead. I just got this awful message. I'm a reporter at the L.A. Times. My name is Arnold Grinet Detective Galletta knows who I am.”

“Sir, I have the information now. I'm going to put you on hold for just a minute.”

"No, don't -

Mary, Mary

Chapter 25

LAPD DISPATCH PUT OUT A CALL at 8:42 A.M., sending officers, backup, and emergency medical personnel to the Lowenstein-Bell address in Bel Air.

Two separate 911 calls on the same incident had come within a few minutes of each other. The first one was from the Los Angeles Times. The second came from the Lowenstein-Bell residence itself.

OfficersJeff Campbell and Patrick Beneke were first at the scene. Campbell suspected before they arrived that this was another celebrity murder. The address alone was unusual for this kind of call, but dispatch had mentioned a single adult female victim. And possible knife wounds. The couple who owned the house were both Hollywood types. It added up to trouble no matter what.

A short, dark-haired woman in a gray-and-white maid's uniform was waiting in the driveway She was wringing some kind of towel. As the patrolmen got closer, they could see that the woman was sobbing, and walking in circles.

“Great,” Beneke said. “Just what we need, some Carmelita who doesn't even speak English, bawling her eyes out and acting nitty loco.”

Campbell responded the way he always did to the younger officer's tiresome, racist cynicism. “Shut the hell up, Beneke. I don't want to hear it. She's terrified.”

As soon as they were out of the car, the maid went hysterical. “Aqui, aqui, aqull” she screeched, motioning them toward the front door. “Aqui! Aquif”

The residence was an ultramodern stone-and-glass structure high in the Santa Monica Mountains. As he approached, Officer Campbell could see straight through the green- glass entryway to the back patio and the sweeping coastal view beyond.

What was that on the front-d oor glass? It looked totally out of place. A label or a sticker of some kind. A kiddie decal? With a large A on it.

He had to practically pry the maid's grip from his forearm. "Ma'am, just please be calm.

Uno momento, por favor Corno te llamas?"

The woman may or may not have heard him. Her Spanish came much too quickly for him to understand. She pointed toward the house several more times.

“Let's just get in there,” Beneke insisted. “We're wasting time with her. She's living the vida coca.”

Two more cruisers and an ambulance pulled up. One of the paramedics spoke quickly, and more efficiently, with the maid.

“In the pool in the back,” he reported. “No one else is here - as far as she knows.”

“She don't know shit,” said Beneke.

“We'll go around,” Campbell said. He and Beneke took the north side of the house, their weapons drawn. The other teams went to the south, straight through a set of hedges.

Campbell felt the old rush of adrenaline as they worked their way through a dense cluster of hydrangea. Homicide calls used to be almost exhilarating. Now they just made him feel light-headed and weak in the legs.

He squinted through the thick brush as best he could. From what he knew of the Hollywood murders, there was no way the killer would still be around.

“You see anything?” he whispered to his partner, who was twenty-nine, a California cowboy, and a total asshole most of the time.

“Yeah, a bunch of flowers,” Beneke answered. “We were the first ones here. Why'd you let them go ahead of us like that?”

Campbell stifled his first response. “Just keep your eyes open,” he said. “The killer could still be here.”

“That's my hope, podjo.”

They emerged onto a sweeping black-slate patio in the back. It was dominated by an enormous dark-bottomed infinity pool. The water seemed to flow right up to and over the edge of the terrace.

“There she is.” Campbell groaned.

A woman's stark-white body floated facedown, arms perpendicular to the torso. She wore a lime-green one-piece. Her long blond hair was splayed gently over the surface of the water.

One of the paramedics jumped into the pooi and with some difficulty turned her over. He put a finger to her throat, but it was already obvious to Campbell there would be no pulse.

“Holy shit!” Campbell grimaced and looked away, then back again. He held his breath to keep everything down. Who the hell could do something like this? The poor woman was practically erased from the neck up. Her face was a tangle of cut flesh. The pool's water was tinted bright pink all around the body Beneke walked over to get a closer look. “Same killer. I'll bet you anything. Same crazy killer did this.” He leaned over to help pull the woman out.

“Wait,” Campbell barked. He pointed to the paramedic who was still in the water. "You.

Get out of the pool. Get out of the pool right now."

Stone-faced, they all looked at Campbell, but they knew he was right. Even Beneke didn't say a word. There was no sense putting any more of their stamp on the murder scene until an investigative team got there. They would have to leave the victim where she was.

“Hey! Hey, guys!”

Campbell looked up to see another officer, Jerry Tounley, calling down from an open window upstairs. “Office is completely trashed up here. There's broken pictures, stuff everywhere, glass. And get this - the computer's still on and open to a mail program! Looks like someone was sending an e-mail before they left.”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 26

To: agriner@latimes .com From; Mary Smith To: Marti Lowenstein-Bell: I watched you having dinner last night. You and your fine family of five. Very cozy and nice. “Mother Knows Best.” With those immaculately clean glass walls of yours, it couldn't have been easier to watch. I enjoyed seeing you with your kids at your last supper.

I could actually see the delicious-looking food on your plates, prepared by your cook and nanny, of course. You were having a swell time, and that's fine with me. I wanted you to enjoy yourself on your last night. I especially wanted your kids to have a lasting memory.

Now I have a memory of them, too.

I'll never forget their sweet faces. Never, ever forget your kids, Marti. Trust me on it.

What a beautiful, beautiful house you have, Marti, as befits such an important writer and film director. Is that the right order, by the way? I think so.

I didn't come inside until later, when you were putting the girls to bed. You left the patio doors open again, and this time I used them.

I couldn't resist. I wanted to see things just the way you see them, from the inside looking out.

But I still don't understand why all you rich people feel so safe in your houses. Those big castles can't protect you if you aren't paying close attention. And you weren't. You weren't paying attention at all. Too busy being a mom- or too busy being a star?

I listened to you upstairs, doing bedtime with the girls. It was kind of touching, and I mean that. You probably thought you would be the last one to tuck them in, but you weren't.

Later, when everyone was asleep, I watched each of those girls in her bed, breathing so peacefully. They were like little angels with no cares in the world.

I didn't have to tell them they had nothing to worry about, because they already knew. It was just the opposite for you. I decided to wait until the morning, so that I could be with you alone, Madam Director.

I'm really glad I waited, too. Your husband, Michael, took the girls to school today. His turn, I guess. That was lucky for everyone, but especially for him. He got to live, and you didn't have to watch him die. And I got you the way I wanted, just the way I had imagined it for such a long time.

Here's what happened next, Marti.

Your last morning started like any other. You did your precious Pilates and then went for laps in the pool. Fifty laps, just like always. It must be nice to have such a big swimming pool. Heated, too. I stood and watched you gliding back and forth in the sparkling blue water. Even there, so close, it took you forever to see me.

When you finally looked up, you must have been good and tired. Too tired to scream I suppose. All you did was turn away, but it didn't stop me from shooting you. Or then cutting your pretty face to ribbons and shreds.

Tell you what, Marti, that was the best part of all. I'm starting to really like defacement.

Now, let me ask one final question-do you know why you had to die? Do you know what you did to deserve this? Do you know, Marti, do you know?

Somehow, I doubt it.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 27

BUT THAT WASN'T EXACTLY the way it happened, the Storyteller knew.

Of course, he wasn't going to tell the L.A. Times and the police everything, only what he needed them to know, only what was in the story he wanted them to help authenticate.

It was such a good story, a helluva story if he didn't say so himself. Mary Smith! Jesus. A classic horror tale if ever there was one.

Speaking of stories, he'd heard a good one the other day - the “psychopath's test.” It was supposed to tell you if you had the mind of a psycho. If you got it right, you did. The story went like this. At her mother's funeral, a woman met this guy and fell instantly in love. But she never got his name, number, or anything about him. A few days later, the woman killed her sister. Now . . . the test! Why did she kill the sister? If you answer correctly, then you think like a psychopath.

The Storyteller did, of course. He figured it out immediately This woman killed her sister . . . because she was hoping the guy she liked would appear at the funeral.

Anyway, after he killed Marti Lowenstein-Bell, he was high as a kite, but he knew he had to stay in control, more or less anyway He had to keep up appearances.

So he hustled on back to work.

He roamed the halls of the office building in Pasadena and talked to half a dozen coworkers about things that bored the living shit out of him, especially today He wanted to tell every one of them what had just happened - about his secret life, about how none of them got him at all, about how smart and clever he was, and about what an incredible planner, schemer, and killer he was.

Jesus, how they loved to toss that word around - so and so was a killer this one had a killer smile, a killer act, but it was all such incredible bullshit.

All of these people were wimps. They didn't know what real killing was all about. But he sure did.

And he knew something else - he liked it a lot, even more than he thought he would.

And he was good at it.

He had this sudden urge to pull his gun at the office and start shooting everything that moved, squeaked, or Squealed.

But hell, that was just a fantasy, a little harmless daydreaming. It would never measure up to the real story his Story, Mary's story, which was so much better.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 28

“ALEX, YOUR OFFICE AT THE FBI called so many times, I had to stop answering the phone. Good Lord, what is wrong with those people?” My great aunt Tia was holding forth at the kitchen table at home, admiring the colorful scarf we had brought her as thanks for house-sitting while we were in California. Nana sat next to Tia, sorting through a thick stack of mail.

Our cat, Rosie, was in the kitchen, and looked a bit heavier if I wasn't mistaken. She rubbed hard up against my legs, as if to say, I'm mad you left, but I'm glad you're back.

Tia sure is a fine cook.

I was glad to be back, too. I think we all were. Christine's taking Alex away to Seattle had more or less ended our vacation, at least the joy in it. My one conversation with her had been tense and also sad. She and I were both so controlled, so intent on not losing our temper, that we ended up with almost nothing to say But Christine worried me - the ups and downs, the inconsistencies 1 saw all the time these days. I wondered what she was like with Little Alex when I wasn't around the two of them. Alex never complained, but kids usually won't.

Now I was back in my kitchen in D.C., feeling almost as if I hadn't had any time off at all. Today was Thursday I had until Monday morning to not think about work - a resolution that lasted a whole five minutes.

Almost by habit, I wandered up to my office in the attic. I threw my fat pile of mail on the desk and, without thinking about it, pressed Play on the answering machine.

Big mistake. Nearly fatal.

Nine new messages were waiting for me.

The first was from Tony Woods at the Bureau.

“Hello, Alex. I've tried paging you a few more times but haven't had any luck. Please call me at Director Burns's office as soon as you can. And please apologize to your house sitter for me. I suspect she thinks I'm stalking you. Possibly because I am. Call me.”

I smiled thinly at Tony's dry humor and delivery as a second message from him began.

“Alex, Tony Woods again. Please call in as soon as you can There's been another incident with the murder case in California. Things are most definitely running out of control there. There's a lot of hysteria in L.A. The L.A. Times has finally broken the story about Mary Smith's e-mails. Call me. It's important, Alex.”

Tony knew enough not to leave too many specific details on my home phone. He may also have been hoping to hook my curiosity with his vagueness.

He did.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 29

I WAS FAIRLY CERTAIN the latest victim would have to be another Hollywood mother, but I couldn't help wondering if Mary Smith's methods had continued to evolve.

And how about the e-mails to the Times? The TV news and the Web would only give me half the story, at best.

If I wanted to know more, I would have to call in.

No, I reminded myself. No work until Monday No murder cases. No Mary Smith.

The machine beeped again, and Ron Burns came on. He was brief and to the point, as he almost always is.

“Alex, I've been in touch with Fred Van Allsburg in L.A. Don't worry about him, but I do need to ask you a few questions. It's important. And welcome back to Washington, welcome home.”

And then another call from Ron Burns, his voice still carefully modulated. “Alex, we've got a phone conference next week, and I don't want you coming in cold. Call me at home over the weekend if you have to. I'd also like you to speak with Detective Galletta in L.A. She knows something you need to hear. If you don't have her phone numbers, Tony can get them for you.”

The implication was clear already Ron Burns wasn't asking me to stay on this case. He was telling me. God, 1 was tired of this - the murders, the horrific cases, one after another. According to estimates at the Bureau, there were more than three hundred pattern killers currently operating in the United States. Hell, was I supposed to catch all of them?

I clicked Pause on the machine to take a second and decide how I felt about what was going on here. My thoughts went straight back to Mary Smith. I had let her into my head again. She'd caught my interest, my curiosity probably my ego. A female serial killer - could it be? Killing other women? Mothers?

But why? Would a woman do that? I didn't think so. I just couldn't imagine it happening, which didn't mean that it hadn't.

I also wondered if there had been another e-mail to Arnold Griner. What part did Griner, or the L.A. Times, play in all this? Did Mary Smith already have the next victim in her sights? What was her motivation?

That was the line of thought that finally got to me. Some unsuspecting woman, a mother, was going to lose her life in L.A. soon. A husband, and probably children, would be left behind. It hit too close to home for me, and I think Burns knew that when he called. Of course he did. several years before, my own wife, Maria, had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Maria had died in my arms. No one was ever convicted, or even arrested. My biggest case, and I'd failed on it. It was all so unspeakably senseless. And now this terrible case in L.A. I didn't need my PhD in psych to know that Mary Smith was pushing all my buttons, both personally and professionally Maybe I would just check in, I thought. Besides, Burns was right - I didn't want to show up behind the ball on Monday morning.

Damn it, Alex, you're weakening.

When I picked up the phone, though, I was surprised to hear Damon's voice already on the line.

“Yeah, I missed you, too. 1 was thinking about you. I swear I was, all the time.”

Then an adolescent girl's laughter. "Did you bring me anything from California, Day?

Mouse ears? Somethin', somethin'?"

I forced myself to hang up, quietly Yeah, I missed you, too? Who was this girl? And since when was Day keeping secrets? I had fooled myself into thinking that if a girlfriend came along, he'd want to tell me about it. That suddenly seemed like a silly delusion on my part. I'd been thirteen before, too.

What was I thinking?

One teenage moment down. About two million to go. I'd give him five minutes and then tell him it was time to hang up. Meanwhile, I went back to the answering machine - where another message was waiting.

A real mindblower.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 30

"ALEX, IT'S BEN ABAJIAN calling on Thursday, one-thirty my time in Seattle. Listen, I have bad news I'm afraid.

“It seems that Christine's attorney has filed a motion to move up the final custody hearing date out here. I'm not sure I'll be able to block it, or even that we should. There's more, but I'd rather not go into it until we speak. Please give me a call as soon as possible.”

My heart picked up its pace. Ben Abajian was my lawyer in Seattle. I had hired him soon after Christine brought Little Alex to live there. We'd talked a couple dozen times since then - on my dime, of course.

He was an excellent attorney, a good guy, too, but his message was a bad sign. My guess was that Christine had taken her own interpretation of what had happened in California and run with it, straight to her counsel. With the time difference out west, I was able to catch Ben Abajian still in the office. He tried to emphasize the positive for me, but his tone was all bad.

“Alex, this is only temporary, but they've also filed an ex parte motion asking for sole physical custody of Alex Junior until the final hearing is over. The judge went for it. I'm sorry to have to tell you that.”

I squeezed the phone tight in my hand. It was hard to respond, or even take in what Ben was telling me. Christine had never gotten this aggressive before. Now she seemed to be trying to keep me from even seeing Little Alex. In fact, she'd just succeeded, at least temporarily.

“Alex, are you there?”

“Yeah, Ben, I'm here. Sorry Just give me a second.”

I put dowTi the phone and took a deep breath. It would do me no good to spiral down right now. Or to blow up over the phone. None of this was Ben's fault.

I put the phone back to my ear. “What was the basis for the claim?” Tasked. Not that I didn't already know, or at least suspect.

“Concern for Alex's safety The motion cited the dangerous police work you were doing while you were in California with him. The fact that you supposedly abused your privileges while he was in your care at Disneyland.”

“Ben, that's bullshit. It's a complete rearrangement of the facts. I consulted on a case with LAPD.”

“I'm assuming as much,” he told me. “Anne Billingsley's her attorney It's not beyond her to do a little grandstanding, even at this phase. Don't let it get to you, okay?” Ben went on, “Besides, there's some good news here, believe it or not. An earlier trial date means they have less time for Christine to establish a status quo under the new arrangement. The judge isn't supposed to take these temporary orders into account, but it's like unringing a bell. So the sooner the better, really. We were actually lucky to get on the calendar this early.”

“Great,” I said. “Lucky us.”

Ben told me to write an account of exactly what happened in California. I had been keeping a diary on his advice ever since I'd hired him. It included time spent with Alex, things I noticed about his development, family photos, and, maybe most important, any concerns I had about Christine. The fact that she had whisked our son away from me two days early certainly qualified. Those ups and downs of hers were a concern, deeply troubling. Was this latest development one of them?

“There's one other thing,” Ben told me. “You might not like it a whole lot.”

“Listen, you find something for me to like about all this and I'll double your fee.”

“Well, one of your strongest arguments is going to be Alex's relationship to his siblings.”

“Jannie and Damon aren't going on the witness stand,” I said flatly. “That's a no, Ben; I won't allow it.”

How many times had I seen capable adult witnesses eviscerated in a courtroom? Too many to even consider putting my kids up there.

“No, no, no,” Ben assured me. “Definitely not. But it would have a positive impact if they could be present for the searing. You want Alex back, don't you? That's our goal, right? If I'm wrong about that, then I don't want to spend time on your case.”

I looked around my office, as if for some kind of magic answeL “I'm going to have to think about it,“ 1 finally said. ”I'll get back to you.”

“Remember the big picture, Alex. This isn't going to be pleasant, far from it, but it will be worth it in the long run. We can win this thing. We will win.”

He was so calm and collected. Not that I expected him to get emotional - I just wasn't in the mood for a rational conversation with my attorney.

“Can we talk first thing tomorrow?” I asked.

“Sure. But listen, you can't give up hope. When we get in front of a judge, you need to know in your heart that you're the best parent for your son. That doesn't mean we have to trash Christine Johnson, but you can't come in looking, seeming, or even feeling defeated. Okay?”

“I'm not defeated. Not even close to it. I can't lose my son, Ben. I won't lose Alex.”

“I'll do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen. I'll talk to you tomorrow. Call me at work or at home. You have my cell?”

“I have it.”

I don't know if I said good-bye to Ben or even hung up before I threw the phone across the room.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 31

“WHAT'S GOING ON UP THERE?” Nana called from below "Alex? Are you okay?

What happened?"

I looked at the smashed phone on the floor and felt unhinged. “It's all right,” I called back. “I just dropped something. Everything's fine.”

Even the little lie didn't sit well with me, but I couldn't face anyone right now Not even Nana Mama. I pushed back from my desk and put my head down between my knees.

Goddamn Christine. What was wrong with her? It just wasn't right, and she had to know that.

She couldn't have chosen a worse way of going about this, eithet She was the one who decided to leave, who said she was unfit to be Alex's mom. She told me that. She used the word - unfit. And she was the one who kept changing her mind. Nothing had ever changed for me. I wanted Alex from the moment I set eyes on him, and I wanted him even more now I could see his face, his shy little smile, a cute wink he'd developed lately I could hear his voice inside my head. I wanted to give him a big hug that wouldn't stop.

It felt so unfair, so completely wrongheaded. All I had in me was anger and even a little hatred for Christine, which only made me feel worse. I'd give her a fight if that's what she wanted, but it was insane that she did.

Breathe, I told myself.

I was supposed to be good at staying calm in a bad situation. But I couldn't help feeling that I was being punished for doing my job, for being a cop.

I don't know how long I sat up there, but when I finally left the attic, the house was dark and still. Jannie and Damon were asleep in their rooms. I went in and kissed them good night anyway I took Jannie's mouse ears off and put them on the bedside table.

Then I went out to the back porch. I flipped the lid on the piano and sat down to play Therapy for one.

Usually, the music took hold of me, helped me work through or forget whatever was bothering me.

Tonight, the blues just came out angry and all wrong. I switched to Brahms, something more soothing, but it didn't help in the least. My pianissimo sounded forte, and my arpeggios were like boots clomping up and down stairs.

I finally stopped midphrase, hands over the keys.

In the silence, I heard the sharp intake of my own breath, an involuntary gulp of ai What if I lose Little Alex?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 32

NOTHING COULD BE WORSE than this, nothing I could imagine.

A few days later, we all flew out to Seattle for Alex's custody hearing. The whole Cross family went west again. No vacation this time, though, not even a short one.

The morning after we arrived, Jannie, Damon, and Nana sat quietly behind me on the courtroom benches as we waited for things to get started. Our conversation had dropped off to a tense silence, but having them there meant even more than I would have thought.

I straightened the papers in front of me for about the tenth time. I'm sure I looked fine to everyone, but I was a wreck inside, all hollowed out.

Ben Abajian and I were seated at the respondent's table on the left side of the room. It was a warmly appointed but impersonal space, with honey-colored wood veneer on the walls and standard-issue contemporary furniture.

There were no windows, not that it mattered. Seattle was showing off its dark, rainy side that morning.

When Christine came in, she looked very fresh and put together. I'm not sure what I expected, maybe some outward indication that this was as hard for her as it was for me.

Her hair looked longer, pulled back in a French braid. Her navy suit and gray high- collared silk blouse were more conservative than I was used to with her - and more imposing. She looked as if she could be another lawyer in the room. It was perfect.

Our eyes met briefly. She nodded my way, without showing any emotion. For a second, I flashed onto a memory of her looking at me across the table at Kinkead's, our old favorite dinner spot in D.C. It was hard to believe these were the same eyes meeting mine in this courtroom, or that she was the same person.

She said a brief hello to Jannie, Damon, and Nana. The kids were reserved and polite, which I appreciated.

Nana was the only one to be somewhat hostile. She stared at Christine all the way to the petitioner's table.

“So disappointing,” she muttered. “Oh, Christine, Christine, who are you? You know better than this. You know better than to cause harm to a child.”

Then Christine turned back and looked at Nana, and she seemed afraid, something I'd never seen in her before.

What was she afraid of?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 33

MS. BWLINGSLEY SAT on Christine's left, and Ben was on my right, blocking our view of each other. That was probably a good thing. I didn't want to see her right now I couldn't remember ever being so mad at anyone before, especially not someone I had cared for. What are you doing, Christine? Who are you?

My mind whirred as the hearing began and Anne Billingsley went into her slickly rehearsed opening statement.

It wasn't until I heard the phrase “born in captivity” that my focus really snapped into place. She was talking about the circumstances of Little Alex's birth, after Christine had been kidnapped while we were on vacation in Jamaica, the beginning of the end for us.

I began to see that Billingsley was every bit the viper Ben had made her out to be. Her wrinkled face and cropped silver hair belied a certain lawyerly showmanship. She hit all her key words hard and with perfect enunciation.

“Your Honor, we will discuss the many dangers encountered by Ms. Johnson's son and also by Ms. Johnson herself, during a brief, tumultuous relationship with Mr. Cross, who has a long history of involvement with the most extreme homicide cases. And a long history of putting those around him injeopardy”

It went on and on from there, one loaded statement after another.

I glanced briefly in Christine's direction, but she just stared straight ahead. Was this really what she wanted? How she wanted it to go? I couldn't interpret her flat expression, no matter how I tried.

When Ms. Billingsley was through assassinating my character, she stopped her manic pacing and sat down.

Ben stood up immediately, but he stayed right next to me throughout his opening speech.

"Your Honor, I needn't take up a lot of the court's time at this point. You've seen the trial brief, and you know the key factors in this case. You already know that the first seeds of this arbitration were planted on the day that Ms. Johnson abandoned her newborn son.

"You also know that Doctor Cross provided Alex Junior with the kind of loving home any child would want during the first year and a half of his life. And you know that the longest bond, as they call it, the one we share with our siblings, exists for Little Alex at home in Washington, D.C., with the only family he knew up until last year.

"Finally, we all know that structure and opportunity for success are key issues in determining what is best for a child in the unfortunate circumstance of separated parents.

I will say right now, and I believe you will agree, that a home with a father, great- grandmother, brother, sister, and numerous cousins and aunts nearby would provide a more thoroughly supportive experience for a child than to be raised by a mother who lives three thousand miles from what little family she does have, and who thus far has changed her mind twice about her own commitment to the child in question.

“Having said that much, I am not here to malign Ms. Johnson. She is, by all accounts, a perfectly decent parent when she chooses to be one. What I am here to do is illuminate the common-sense conclusion that my client's son, and any child, is better off with a parent whose commitment has never wavered, and shows no sign of doing so in the future.”

In our pretrial meetings, Ben and I had agreed to keep everything civil, if we could. I knew ahead of time what he was going to say, but here in the courtroom, and in front of Christine, it sounded different to my ears. It now seemed depressingly combative, not unlike what Anne Billingsley had just done to me in her opening.

I felt a little guilty No matter what kind of mud Christine's lawyer wanted to fling, at the end of the day I was still responsible for my own actions, and even my lawyer's. That was something Nana had hardwired into me a long time ago.

One thing hadn't changed, though. My resolve was still strong; I was here to bring my youngest son back home to Washington. But listening to Ben Abajian's statement, I had the feeling that this case would have no winners. It was only a matter of who lost less.

Hopefully, it wouldn't be Little Alex who lost.

a,apter34 “MS. JOHNSON, can you please tell us in your own words why you are here today?”

I wondered if anyone else could see how nervous Christine was on the stand. She grasped the fingers of one hand with the other, stopping all but the tiniest bit of shaking. I couldn't help grimacing, and my stomach was tightening up. I hated to see her like this, even now, under the circumstances that she had created for herself.

'When Christine answered Anne Billingsley's questions, her voice was steady, though, and she seemed perfectly at ease.

“It's time for my son to have a permanent arrangement and stability in his homelife. I want to ensure him the kind of consistency I know he should have. And most of all, I want him to be safe.”

Billingsley stayed in her chair, feigning - or maybe feeling - supreme confidence.

"Could you please tell us about the events leading up to your separation from Mr.

Cross?"

Christine looked down and took a moment to gather herself. I couldn't imagine that she was acting right now Her integrity had been one of the reasons I fell in love with her, in that previous lifetime of ours.

“Just after I became pregnant, I was kidnapped and held hostage for ten months,” she said, looking up again. “The people who kidnapped me were out to hurt Alex. When that terrible time was all over, I found it impossible to return to a normal life with him. I wanted to, but I just couldn't.”

“And just for the record, by Alex you mean ML Cross?”

Not Agent or Doctor Cross, but Mister Cross. Any little dig the lawyer could get in.

Even Christine winced, but then she said, “That's right.”

“Thank you, Christine. No I want to go back just a little bit. Your son was born in Jamaica, while you were being held hostage. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Was he born in a hospital inJamaica, or under any medical supervision?”

“No. It was in a small shack in the woods, the jungle. They brought a midwife of some kind, but she didn't speak English, at least not to me, and there was no prenatal care at all. I was extremely thankful that Alex Junior was born healthy, and stayed that way Essentially, we lived in a prison cell for those months.”

Ms. Billingsley got up, crossed the room, and handed Christine a tissue. “Ms. Johnson, was this abduction the first time that your involvement with Mr. Cross brought violence into your life?”

"Objection' Ben was on his feet right away “I'll rephrase, Your Honor.” Billingsley turned her solicitous smile back to Christine.

"Were there any other violent incidents, prior to or after your sons birth, related to Mr.

Cross's line of work that directly affected you?"

“There were several,” Christine said without hesitation.

"The first time was just after we met. My husband at the time was shot and killed by someone Alex was looking for in another terrible homicide case. And then later, after our son was born, and when he was living in Washington with his father, I know that at least once Alex Junior was taken out of the house in the middle of the night, for safety's sake.

Actually, all of the Cross children were taken out of the house. A serial killer was coming after Alex."

Billingsley stood at the petitioner's table, waiting. Finally, she pulled a stack of photographs from a manila folder.

“Your Honor, I would like to submit these as evidence. They clearly show Mister Cross's home on the night of one such emergency evacuation. You will see my client's son here being carried out by a non-family member in the midst of the confusion that was apparently taking place.”

I wanted to yell out my own objection to this so-called evidence. I knew for a fact that it was John Sampson and not some nameless police officer who carried Little Alex out that night, the night Christine had a photographer - a private investigator! Outside my house.

No one had been in danger because we had acted judiciously and quickly but the photos were allowed to speak for themselves, at least for the time being. It got worse from there.

Anne Billingsley walked Christine through a series of misleading events related to my job, virtually putting words in her mouth. The charade concluded with the trip to Disneyland, which the lawyer dressed up as some horrible minefield of dangers for Little Alex, whom I “abandoned” to go searching through Southern California for a psychopath who could terrorize my family again.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 35

THEN IT WAS MY TURN.

The time Ben spent interviewing me on the witness stand was the hardest and trickiest ordeal I'd ever faced, with the most at stake. He had coached me not to address the judge directly, but it was hard not to. My little boy's future was in her hands, wasn't it?

Judge June Mayfield. She looked to be about sixty, with a stiff beauty-shop kind of hairdo that was more middle- America 1950s than new-millennium Seattle. Even her name sounded old fashioned to me. As I sat in the witness chair, 1 wondered if Judge Mayfield had children. Was she divorced? Had she been through anything like this herself?

“I'm not here to say negative things about anyone,” I said slowly Ben had just asked me if I had any concerns about Christine as a parent. “I just want to talk about what's best for Alex. Nothing else matters.” His nod and the pursing of his lips told me that was the right answer - or was the look merely for the judge's benefit?

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “So could you just please explain to the court how Alex Junior came to live with you for the first year and a half of his life?”

Sitting there on the stand, I had a direct sight line with Christine. That was good, I thought. I didn't want to say anything here that I wasn't willing to say to her face.

I explained as straightforwardly as I could that Christine hadn't felt prepared to be with me or raise a child after what had happened in Jamaica. I didn't need to dress it up. She had chosen not to stick around, period. She'd told me that she was “unfit” to bring up Alex. Christine had used that word, and I would never forget it. How could I?

“And how long would you say it was between Ms. Johnson's abandonment -”

“Objection, Your Honor. He's putting words into his client's mouth.”

“Overruled,” said Judge Mayfield.

I tried not to invest too much in her response, but it felt good to hear the overrule anyway Ben went on with his questions. “How long would you say it was between that abandonment and the next time Ms. Johnson actually laid eyes on her son?”

I didn't have to think about it. “Seven months,” I said. “It was seven months.”

“Yes, seven months without seeing her son. How did you feel about that?” “I guess I was surprised to hear from Christine more than anything else. I had begun to think that she wasn't coming back. So had Little Alex.” That was the truth, but it was hard to say out loud in the courtroom. “Our whole family was surprised, by both her absence and then her sudden return.”

“And when was the next time you heard from her?”

“When she said she wanted Little Alex to come live in Seattle. By that time, she had already hired a lawyer in D.C.”

“How much time had passed this time?” Ben asked.

“Another six months had gone by.”

“That's it? She abandons her son, sees him seven months later, goes away again, and comes back wanting to be a mother? Is that how it happened?”

I sighed. “Something like that.”

“Dr. Cross, can you tell us now, from the heart, why you are asking for custody of your son?”

The words just poured out.

“I love him tremendously; I adore Little Alex. I want him to grow up with his brother and sister, and his grandmother, who raised me from the time I was nine. I think Jannie and Damon are my track record. I've shown that whatever faults I have, I'm more than capable of raising happy and, if I may say so, pretty amazing kids.”

I looked over at Jannie, Damon, and Nana. They smiled my way, but then Jannie started to cry I had to look back at Ben, or I thought I might lose it, too.

I noticed that even Judge Mayfield had looked over at the kids, and that she seemed concerned. “I love my children more than anything in the world,” I said. “But our family isn't complete without Little Alex, or Ali, as he likes to be called. He's part of us. We all love him dearly We couldn't leave him for six months, or six minutes.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nana nodding, and she looked infinitely wiser than Judge Mayfield in her high chair and black robes, especially when it came to raising kids.

“Please go on, Alex,” Ben said quietly “You're doing very well. Go on.”

“If I had my wish, Christine never would have left Washington. Ali deserves to have us both around. But if he can't have that, then he should be with as much of his family as possible. I don't think he's bad off here in Seattle, but this is supposed to be about what's best for him. And as I said, I don't know what this is worth, but I love him so much. He's my buddy He has my heart.” And then I did tear up, and definitely not for effect or the benefit of the judge.

Testimony continued through the afternoon and for much of the next morning, and it was brutal at times. After closing arguments from the lawyers, we waited out in the courthouse hallway while Judge Mayfield considered her next move.

“You were great, Daddy” Jannie held my forearm and nuzzled my shoulder with her head. “You are great. We're going to get Alex back. I can feel it.”

I put my free arm around her shoulder. “I'm sorry for this. But I'm glad you guys are here.”

Just then, a court clerk came out to call us back inside. His blank face showed nothing, of course. Ben spoke quietly to me on the way in. “This will just be a formality She's probably going to take it under consideration, and we'll hear back anywhere from two to six weeks. I'll motion for a revised temporary visitation agreement in the meantime. I'm sure that won't be a problem. You were great on the stand, Alex. No worries there. You can just relax for now”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 36

AS SOON AS WE WERE gathered back in the courtroom, Judge Mayfield came in and sat at the bench. She fiddled with her skirt, and then didn't waste any time.

“I've considered all the testimony and the evidence put before me, and I've reached my decision. Based on everything I've heard, it all seems very clear.”

Ben looked reflexively at me, but I wasn't sure what the look meant. “Ben?” I whispered.

“Court rules for the petitioner. Residential parentage will remain with Ms. Johnson, upon whose counsel I will lay the burden of facilitating a mutually agreed-upon visitation schedule. I'm going to require mediation for any disputes regarding this agreement before I'll consent to seeing you back here in this courtroom.”

The judge took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, as if ruining a life was a tiresome part of her day she then continued, “Given the geographic disparity, I am, however, encouraging creative solutions, and I am ruling that Dr. Cross will be entitled to the equivalent of at least forty-five days visitation per year. That's all.”

And just like that, she rose and left the room.

Ben put a hand on my shoulder. “Alex, I don't know what to say I'm stunned. I haven't seen a ruling from the bench in five years. I'm so sorry”

I barely heard him, and I was hardly conscious of my family swarming around me. I looked up to see Christine and Anne Billingsley squeezing past to leave.

“What happened to you?” I asked, the words just coming. It was as if every muscle of control I had been exercising for the past couple of days gave out at once. “Is this what you wanted? To punish me? To punish my family? Why, Christine?”

Then Nana Mama spoke. “You're cruel, and you're selfish, Christine. I feel sorry for you.”

Christine turned from us and started to walk away very quickly, without saying a word.

When she reached the courtroom doors, her shoulders hunched forward. Suddenly, she put a hand to her mouth. I couldn't tell for sure, but I thought that she began to sob. Ms.

Billingsley took her by the arm and ushered her out into the hallway I didn't understand. Christine had just won, but she was weeping as if she had lost. Had she? Was that it? What had just happened inside her head?

A moment later I entered the hallway in a daze. Nana was holding one of my hands, Jannie the other. Christine was already gone, but someone else I didn't want to see was waiting there. James Truscott had somehow gotten inside the courthouse. And his photographer, too. What the hell was with him? Coming here. Now. What kind of story was he writing?

“Tough day in court, Dr. Cross,” he called up the corridor. “Care to comment on the ruling?”

I pushed past him with my family, but the photographer snapped off several invasive pictures, including single shots of Damon and Jannie.

“Don't print a single picture of my family” I turned to Truscott.

“Or what?” he asked, standing defiantly with his hands on his hips.

“Do not put my family's pictures in your magazine. Do not.”

Then I yanked away the photographer's camera and took it with me.

Chapter_37 LATE THAT SAME DAY, the Storyteller was driving north on the 405, the San Diego Freeway, which was moving okay at about forty or so, and he was working over his “hate list” in his mind. Who did he want to do next, or if not next, before this thing wound down and he had to stop killing or be caught?

Stop! Just as suddenly as it had begun. The end. Finished. Story over He made a scribbly note in a small pad he always carried in the front-door pocket. It was difficult to write as he drove, and his car edged a little out of its lane.

Suddenly some moke to the right sat on his horn, and Stayed on it for several seconds.

He glanced over at a black Lexus convertible, and there Was this total moron screaming at him - “Fuck you, asshole, hick you, fuck you” - and giving him the finger. The Storyteller couldn't help himself - he just laughed at the red-faced idiot in the other car.

The jerk was so out of it. If he only knew who he was going postal at. This was hilarious] He even leaned over toward the window on the passenger side. And his laughter apparently made the nutcase even angrier. “You think it's funny, asshole? You think it's funny?” the guy screamed.

So the Storyteller just kept laughing, ignoring the irate bastard as if he didn't exist and wasn't worth coyote piss if he did. But this guy did exist, and actually, he'd gotten under the Storyteller's skin, which really wasn't advisable, was it?

Eventually, he drifted behind the Lexus, as if chastened and remorseful, and then he followed. The moke's black convertible got off two exits later. So did he.

And this wasn't in the story. He was improvising now He continued to trail the convertible's taillights up into the Hollywood Hills, onto a side road, and then up another steep hill.

He wondered if the driver of the Lexus had spotted him by now Just to be sure he did, he started honking and didn't stop for the next half mile or so. Figured the other guy might be getting a little spooked by now He sure would if it were him, especially if he knew who he had hassled down on the freeway Then he pulled out and started to pass the convertible. This was the coolest goddamn scene yet - he had all the windows open in his car, wind whipping through. The driver of the Lexus stared over at him, and he wasn't cursing or flipping him the bird anymore. Now who was showing a little remorse? A little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. The Storyteller's right hand came up, aimed, and he fired four times into the other driver's face, and then he watched the convertible veer into the rocky wall on the side of the road, carom off, swerve back onto the road, then hit the rocks again.

Then nothing - the annoying bastard was dead, wasn't he? Deserved it, too, the asshole.

The shame of it, the pity, was that sooner or later this killing had to stop. At least that was the grand plan, that was the story.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 38

DETECTIVE JEANNE GALLETTA floored her two-year-old Thunderbird. She had driven faster than this before but never on L.A. city streets. The storefronts on Van Nuys blurred past while her siren droned a steady rhythm overhead.

Two black-and-whites were parked in front of the café when she got there. An unruly crowd had already begun to clot the sidewalk across the street. She was sure that TV cameras wouldn't be far behind, and news helicopters, too.

“What's the situation?” she barked at the first officer she sa who was halfheartedly doing crowd control.

“All contained,” he said. “We did a silent approach, front and back. There's a few of our guys up on tile roof, too, You've got about two-dozen customers and staff inside. If she was here when we pulled up, then she's still in there.”

That was a big if, but it was something to go on, Galletta thoU&" to herself. Mary Smith might still be inside. This thing could end right here. Please, dear God.

“All right, two more units inside as soon as you can get them here, two more on crowd control, and keep that guard front, back, and top.”

“Ma'am, this isn't my crew “I don't care whose crew it is. Just get it stopped and stared into the officer's eyes. ”Am you follow?”

“Perfectly, ma'am.”

Galletta headed inside. The café was one big rectangle, with a coffee bar in front and rows of computer carrels in the back. Each electronic terminal was its own little booth, with shoulder-high privacy walls.

Everyone in the place had been corralled at the mismatched tables, chairs, and couches.

Galletta quickly surveyed their faces.

Students, Yuppies, senior citizens, and a few Venice Beach hippie-freak types. An officer reported to her that they had all been searched and no weapons were found. Not that it meant anything. For now, they were all suspects by default.

The manager was a very nervous young guy in horn-rims who didn't look old enough to drink, and who had the worst case of acne Galletta had seen since her high school days in the Valley A mini CD-ROM pinned to his chest said BRETT in red Magic Marker. He showed Galletta to one of the computer carrels near the back.

“This is where we found it,” he said.

“Is there an exit that way?” Galletta asked, pointing down a narrow hallway to her left.

done.“ She I clear? Do The manager nodded. ”The police are already back there. They sealed it off."

“And do you keep some record of who uses the machines? ”

He pointed to a credit-card swiping device. “They had to use that. I don't really know how to get the info out, but I can find out for you.”

“We'll take care of it,” Galletta told him. “Here's what I want you to do, though. Keep everyone in here as comfortable as you can. To be honest, it's going to be a while. And if anyone wants anything, make it a decaf.”

She gave him a wink and a grin that she didn't feel, but it seemed to calm the poor guy down some.

“And ask Officer Hatfield over there to come see me.” She had met Officer Bobby Hatfield briefly once before, and she always remembered his name because it was the same as one of the Righteous Brothers.

She sat at the computer and pulled on a pair of latex gloves. “What do you know so far?”

she asked when Hatfield came over.

“Same kind of message, written to the same guy at the Times. Arnold Griner. It's possible someone got hold of those other e-mails, but this feels like her to me. You've heard of Carmen D'Abruzzi, right?”

“The chef? Of course. She's got her own show. I watch it occasionally; I just don't cook.”

Trattoria D'Abruzzi was a flavor-of-the-month restaurant in Hollywood, an A-list dinner and after-hours place. More important, Galletta knew, Carmen D'Abruzzi had a very popular syndicated show in which she cooked for her beautiful husband and her two perfect children. Everything was a little too perfect for Galletta's taste, but she did watch the show sometimes.

Galletta shook her head. “Goddammit. D'Abruzzi's just this killer's type. Have you found her yet?”

“That's the kicker,” Hatfield told her. “She's fine, no problem. A little freaked out maybe, but okay Same with her family We've got a unit at her house already Check it out - whoever wrote that e-mail never sent it or even finished it.”

Jeanne Galletta's head bobbed again. “What the hell? She didn't send it?”

"Maybe she got spooked for whatever reason, wasn't thinking clearly, and just left.

Maybe she didn't like the coffee here. I sure don't."

Galletta stood up and looked over the assembled customers and staff again. “Or maybe she's still here.”

“You really think so?”

"Actually, no fucking way She's not dumb. Still, I want to talk to every one of these dinks. This place is a closed box until further notice. Do some initial screening, but no one leaves without going through me personally Understand?

No one. Not for any reason. Not even if they have a note from their mom."

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Hatfield answered. “I got it.” As Hatfield walked away, Jeanne Galletta heard him mutter something like “calm down” under his breath. Typical. Male cops tended to respond one way to a man's orders and another to a woman's. She shrugged it off and turned her attention to the half-finished e-mail on the screen.

Half-finished? What the hell was that all about?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 39

To: agriner@latimes.com From: Mary Smith To: Carmen D'bruzzi: You worked at your restaurant until three in the morning last night, didn't you? Busy, busy girl! Then you walked two long blocks by yourself to your car. That's what you thought, isn't it? That you were all alone?

But you weren't, Carmen. I was right there on the sidewalk with you. I didn't even try to be careful. You made it easy for me. Not too bright. So into yourself. Me, me, me, me.

Maybe you don't watch the news. Or maybe you just ignore it. Maybe you don't care that someone is out there looking for people just like you. It was almost like you wanted me to kil1 you. Which is good, I guess. Because that's what I wanted, too.

Watching you, trying to be you, I had to wonder if you ever told your two darling children to look both ways when they cross the street. You sure didn't set a good example for thony and Martina last night. You never looked around, not once.

Which is too bad for all of you, the whole damn pretty-as-a-picture family as seen on your cooking show.

There's no telling when your children might end up alone on the curb without you, is there? Now they'll have to learn that important safety lesson from someone else.

After you got

Mary, Mary

Chapter 40

IT ENDED JUST LIKE THAT - in midsentence.

Even if it hadn't, this was a whole new wrinkle in the case. Carmen D'Abruzzi wasn't dead, and they had the death- threat note. That was something positive, right?

Jeanne Galletta squeezed her eyes shut, trying to process the new information quickly and correctly Maybe Mary Smith drafted her messages ahead of time and then finalized them posthomicide.

But why leave this one here? Would she do it on purpose? Was this even her at all?

Might not be.

Jesus Christ, the questions never ended on this one. So where the hell were the answers?

How about just one answer for starters?

She thought about Alex Cross - something he'd said in that book of his. “Keep asking until you find the keystone, the one question at the heart of it all. Then you can start working your way back out again. That's when you start finding answers.”

The one question. The keystone. What the hell was it?

Well, six hours later it was still a mystery for Galletta. Just after dark, she finally let the last of the morning's customers go home. Five people had given five different eyewitness accounts about who was sitting at the computer in question; the rest of them had no clue.

No one Detective Galletta spoke to struck her as remotely suspicious, but all twenty-six would require follow-up. The paperwork alone was more than she wanted to think about, now or ever.

To no one's surprise, Mary Smith's credit card turned out to be hot. It belonged to an eighty-year-old woman in Sherman Oaks who didn't even realize it was gone, a Mrs.

Debbie Green. Nothing else had been charged on the card; there was no paper trail, no anything. She's careful, and she's organized - for such an obvious nutcase.

Galletta asked Brett the manager for a full-strength espresso. From here, it was back to the office, where she would sort through the day's events while they were fresh in her memonj Her neighbor said he'd let the dog out. The Chinese place along the way to her office said twenty minutes for pickup. Life was good, no? No! She wondered if she'd be home before midnight and, even then, if she'd be able to sleep.

Probably not - on both counts.

So what was the one question she needed to ask? Where Was that keystone?

Or was Alex Cross just full of shit?

Mary, Mary

Chapter 41

“SHE NEVER KNEW what she wanted, Sugar, and maybe she still doesn't. I liked Christine, but she was never the same after what happened in Jamaica. She has to move on, and so do you.”

Sampson and I were holed up at Zinny's, a favorite neighborhood dive. B.B. King's “I Done Got Wise” was wailing on the jukebox. Nothing but the blues would do tonight, not for me anyway What the place lacked in cheeriness, it made up for in Raphael, a bartender who knew us by name and had a heavy pour. I contemplated the Scotch in front of me. I was trying to recall if it was my third or fourth. Man, I was feeling tired. I remembered a line from one of the Indiana Jones movies: “It's not the years, honey It's the mileage.”

“Christine's not the point, though, is she, John?” I looked sideways at Sampson. “The point is Little Alex. Ali. That's how he calls himself. He's already his own person.”

He patted me on the top of my head. “The point is right here on your skull, Sugar. Now you listen to me.”

He waited until I sat up and gave him my full attention. Then his gaze slowly drifted up to the ceiling. He shut his eyes and grimaced. “Shit. I forgot what I was going to say Too bad, too. I was going to make you feel a whole lot better.”

I laughed in spite of myself. Sampson always knew when to go light with me. It had been like that since we were ten years old and growing up in D.C. together.

“Well, next best thing then,” he said. He motioned to Raphael for two more.

“You never know what's going to happen,” I said, partly to myself. “When you're in love. There's no guarantee.”

“Truth,” Sampson said. "If you'd told me I'd have a kid, ever, I would have laughed.

Now here I am with a threemonth-old. It's crazy And at the same time, it could all change again, just like that." He snapped his fingers hard, the sound popping in my ears.

Sampson has the biggest hands of anyone I know. I'm six-three, not exactly chiseled, but not too shabby, and he makes me look slight.

“Billie and I are good together, no question about it,” he went on, rambling but making sense in his way “That doesn't mean it can't all go crazy someday For all I know, ten years from now, she'll be throwing my clothes out on the lawn. You never know Nah - my girl wouldn't do that to me. Not my Billie,” Sampson said, and we both laughed.

We sat and drank in silence for a few minutes. Even without conversation, the mood darkened. “When are you going to see Little Alex again?” he asked, his voice softer.

“All. I like that.”

“Next week, John. I'll be out in Seattle. We've got to finalize the visitation agreement.”

I hated that word. Visitation. That's what I had with my own son? Every time I talked about it out loud, I wanted to punch something. A lamp, a window, glass.

“How the hell am I going to do this?” I asked Sampson. “Seriously How can I face Christine - face Alex - and act like everything okay? Every time I see him now, my heart's going to be aching. Even if I can pull it off and seem okay, that's no way to be with your kids.”

“He's going to be fine,” Sampson said insistently “Alex, no way you're going to raise messed-up kids. Besides, look at us. You feel like you turned out okay? You feel like I turned out okay?”

I smiled at him. “You got a better example to use?”

Sampson ignored the joke. "You and I didn't exactly have every advantage, and we're just fine. Last I checked, you don't shoot up, you don't disappear, and you don't lay a finger on your kids. I dealt with all that, and I ended up the second- finest cop on the D.C.

force.“ He stopped and smacked his head. ”Oh, wait. You're a lame-ass federal desk- humper now I guess that makes me D.C's finest."

Suddenly I felt overwhelmed by how much I missed Little Alex, but also byJohn's friendship. “Thanks for being here,” I said.

He put an arm around my shoulders and jostled me hard. “Where else am I gonna be?”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 42

I WOKE UP SUDDENLY to a slightly bemused flight attendant staring down at me. I remembered that it was the next morning and I was on a United jet back to L.A. Her curious expression indicated she had just asked a question.

“I'm sorry?” I said.

“Could you please put up your tray table? Put your seat forward. We'll be landing in Los Angeles in just a few minutes.”

Before I had drifted off, I'd been thinking about James Truscott and how he'd suddenly appeared in my life. Coincidence? I tended not to believe in it. So I'd called a researcher and friend at Quantico, and asked her to get me some more information on Truscott.

Monnie Donnelley had promised that soon I'd know more about Truscott than even I wanted to know. I gathered up my papers. It wasn't a good idea to leave them out like that, and not like me; it was also unlike me to sleep on flights. Everything was a little upside down these days. Just a little, right?

My Mary Smith file had grown considerably thicker in just a few days. The recent false alarm was a conundrum. I wasn't even sure that Mary Smith was behind that one.

Looking at the murder reports, I had a picture of someone who was growing more confident in her work, and definitely more aggressive. She was moving in on her targets - literally The first site, the Patrice Bennett murder, was a public space. The next time was outside of Antonia Schifman's home. Now, all indications were that Mary Smith had spent part of the night inside Marti Lowenstein-Bell's house before eventually killing her in the pool.

Anyway, here I was back in LA. again, getting off a plane, renting a car - even though I probably could have asked Agent Page to pick me up.

Looks-wise, the L.A. Bureau field office put D.C. headquarters to shame. Instead of the claustrophobic maze I was used to back East, this was nine stories of open floor plan, polished glass, and lots of natural light. From the cubicle they had assigned me on the fifteenth floor, I had a great view of the Getty Museum and beyond. At most field offices, I'd be lucky to get a chair and a desk.

Agent Page started hovering about ten minutes after I got there. I knew that Page was a sharp enough guy very ambitious, and with some seasoning, he was going to make a good agent. But I just didn't need somebody looking over my shoulder right now. It was bad enough to have Director Burns on me, not to mention the writer, JamesTruscott. My Boswell, right? Or was he something else?

Page asked if there was anything at all that I needed. I held up my file.

“This thing is at least twenty-four-hours cold. I want to know everything Detective Galletta has over at LAPD. I want to know more than Galletta has. Do you think you could -”

“On it,” he said, and was gone.

It wasn't a bogus assignment I'd given him, though. I really did need to get current, and if that meant Page would be out of my hair for a while, all the better.

I pulled out a blank sheet of paper and scribbled a few questions I'd been pondering on the ride in from LAX.

M. Lowenstein-Bell - how did someone get inside the house?

Does this killer have some kind of hit list? An established order? Are there other less- obvious connections between the victims? Don't there have to be?

The most common formula in my profession is this: How plus why equals who. If I wanted to know Mary Smith, I had to consider the similarities and differences - the combination of the two - from site to site on every one of the murders. That meant a stop at the Lowenstein-Bell residence.

I wrote, E-mailer? I Perp?

I kept coming back to that point. How much intersection was there between the killer's personality and the persona in the c-mails? How honest, for lack of a better word, was Mary Smith's writing? And how much of it, if any was misdirection?

Until I could figure that out, it was like chasing two suspects. If I was lucky, my next appointment would shed some light on the c-mails. I wrote another note to myself. Tool sets?

Most pattern killers had two sets of tools, as did Mary Smith.

First were the tools of the actual murder. The gun was a sure thing here. We knew she used the same one each time. We weren't as sure about the knife.

And a car had to be considered. Any other way of getting in and out seemed unfeasible.

Then there were the “tools” that helped her satisfy her psychoemotional needs.

The children's stickers marked A or B, and the e-mails themselves. Usually, these were more important to the killer than the actual weapons. They were her way of saying “I was here“ or ”This is me.”

Or, possibly, and this was the troubling part, “This is who I want you to think I am.”

In any case, it was a kind of taunting - something that could be taken as “Come and get me. If you can.”

I scribbled that last thought down, too.

Come and get me? If you can?

Then I wrote down something that kept sticking in my craw - Truscott. Appeared six weeks ago. Who is James Tinscott? V/hat is his deal?

Suddenly I looked at my watch. It was time to leave the office if I didn't want to be late for my first appointment. Requisitioning a Bureau vehicle would have meant one more person looking over my shoulder, and that's exactly why I'd rented a car at the airport.

I left without telling anyone where I was headed. If I was going to be acting like a homicide detective again, I was going to do it right.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 43

THIS WAS REAL police work at least, and I threw myself into it with renewed energy and enthusiasm, Actually, I was pumped up. Professor Deborah Papadakis had my full attention as she beckoned me into her book-lined office, number twenty-two, in the Rolfe Building at UCLA. She took a neatly piled stack of manuscripts from the only available chair and set them on the floor.

“I can see you're busy, Professor. God, are you ever busy Thank you for agreeing to meet,” I said.

“Happy to help if I can.” She motioned for me to sit. “I haven't seen Los Angeles so preoccupied since, I don't know, maybe since Rodney King. It's kind of sad.”

Then she raised a hand and quickly added, “Although that's not the same, is it? Anyway, this is a bit unusual for me. I'm more of a short-story and personal-essay kind of person. I don't read true crime, or even mysteries for that matter. Well, 1 do read Walter Mosley, but he's a closet sociologist.”

“Whatever you can do,” I said, and handed her copies of Mary Smith's e-mails. “At the risk of repeating myself, we would appreciate your complete confidence on this.” That was for my own sake as well as the investigation's. I hadn't gotten official permission to share the e-mails with her or anyone else.

Professor Papadakis poured me a cup of coffee from an old percolator, and I waited while she read, then reread, the e-mails.

Her office seemed to be a bit of prime real estate at the university It looked out to a courtyard and sculpture garden, where students wrote and soaked up the perfect Southern California weathet Most offices in the building faced out to the street. Ms. Papadakis, with her antique pine desk and 0. Henry Award on the wall, gave the impression of someone who had long since paid her dues.

Except for the occasional “hm,” she was unresponsive while she read. Finally, she looked up and stared my way A bit of the color was gone from her face.

“Well,” she said with a deep breath, “first impressions are important, so I'll start there.”

picked up a red pencil, and I stood up and came around to look over her shoulder.

“See here? And here? The openings are active. Things like 'I am the one who killed you' and 'I watched you having din- ner last night.' They're attention-grabbing, or at least they're meant to be.“ ”Do you draw any specific conclusion from that?” I had some of my own, but I was here for her perspective.

She bobbed her head side to side. “It's engaging, but also less spontaneous. More crafted. This person is choosing her words carefully It's certainly not stream of consciousness.”

“May I ask what else you see in the writing? This is very helpful, Professor Papadakis.”

“Well, there's a sense of... detachment, let's say, from the character's own violence.”

She looked up at me, as if for approval. I couldn't imagine she was usually this tentative. Her air was otherwise so earthy and grounded. “Except, maybe, when she talks about the children.”

“Please, go on,” I said. "I'm interested in the children.

What do you see, Professor?"

"When she describes what she's done, it's very declarative.

Lots of simple sentences, almost staccato sometimes. It could just be a style choice, but it might also be a kind of avoid- ance. I see it all the time when writers are afraid of their material. If this were a student, I would tell her to pull at those threads a bit more, let them unravel." The professor shrugged. “Of course, I'm not a psychiatrist.”

“Everything but, from the sound of it,” I told her. “I'm re She ally impressed. You've added some clarity”

She dismissed the compliment with a wave of her hand.

“Anything else I can do? Anything at all? Actually, this is fascinating. Morbid curiosity, I suppose.”

I watched her face as she weighed her thoughts, then opted not to continue. “What is it?” I asked. “Please, just brainstorm. Don't worry about it. No wrong answers.”

She set down her red pencil. “Well, the question here is whether you're reading a person or a character. In other words, is the detachment that I see coming from the writer's subconscious, or is it just as crafted as the sentences themselves? It's hard to know for sure. That's the big puzzle here, isn't it?”

It was exactly the question I had asked myself several times. The professor wasn't answering it for me, but she was certainly confirming that it was worth asking in the first place.

Suddenly she laughed nervously. “I certainly hope you aren't giving my assessment any critical role in your investigation. I would hate to misguide you. This is too important.”

“Don't worry about that,” I said. “This is just one of many factors we're taking into account. It's an incredible puzzle, though. Psychological, analytical, literary.”

“You must hate having to run all over the place for these tiny crumbs of information. I know I would.”

“Actually, this kind of interview is the easy part of the job,” I told her honestly It was my next appointment that was going to be bad.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 44

ARMED SECURITY STOPPED ME at the gate to the Lowenstein-Bell property in the Bel Air section of Beverly Hills. Two more private guards in the upper part of the driveway rechecked my ID. Finally I was permitted to approach the house, which was on a winding road not far from the Bel Air Hotel, which I'd visited once, and found to be one of the most serene and beautiful spots I'd ever seen.

When I rang, Michael Bell himself answered. The house was more glass than anything, and I saw him coming well before he reached me. His slow shuffle spoke volumes.

It's always a balancing act with family members left behind by a murder. The time you need the most information is the time they least want to talk about what has happened.

I've never found a method that feels very good to me, or Probably to the person I was there to interview Mr. Bell didn't look particularly Beverly Hills with his bushy blond beard, jeans, sandals, and faded plaid shirt. I could almost see him as a lumberjack, or an ex-member of Nirvana or Pearl Jam, if not for the ultramodern setting. I knew from the file that he and his wife had built their house just a few years ago.

Michael Bell's manner and voice had the dulled quality of someone in the early stages of grief, but he politely welcomed me inside. “Can I offer you anything?” he asked. “I know we have iced tea. Some sun tea, Agent Cross?”

“Nothing, thanks,” I said.

A middle-aged housekeeper / nanny stood nearby, waiting to help if she could. I imagined this was Lupe San Remo, who had found the body in the swimming pool.

“Nada, Lupe, gracias,” Mr. Bell told her. “Quisiéramos cenar a las siete, por favor.”

I followed him past an open gallery where three blond pixies were clustered onto one oversized armchair. Cassie, Anna, and Zoey, ages five, seven, and eight, according to the file. An image from Finding Nemo was frozen in pause on the huge plasma television.

I had interrupted, and I felt bad about that, too. I wondered if “Mary Smith” really had feelings for the victims' children. And if she did - why? What could possibly be this crazy person's motive? Why kill the mother of these small children?

“Girls, I'll be in the living room for a few minutes. You can go ahead without me.” He pushed a button on a remote control and turned up the volume as the movie started again.

I recognized Ellen DeGeneres's voice on the sound track, probably because I'd seen Nemo a dozen times with Jannie. She loved Dorry to death.

“We can talk in here,” Mr. Bell said as we entered a vaulted living room. Three stories of glass wall looked out to a stunning coastal view and, closer in, the swimming pooi where his wife, Marti, had been found. Michael Bell sat with his back to the pool on a cream- colored velvet couch.

“I used to love that view;” he said in a quiet voice. “Marti did, too.”

“Would you prefer to meet somewhere else?” I asked him straightaway “Thank you,” he said. “It's all right. I'm trying around as normally as possible. For the girls. For sanity It's fine. You have some questions?”

“I know you're being questioned by the LAPD. I know they've cleared you, so I'll try to keep this as short as I possibly carl.”

“I appreciate it. Whatever it takes,” he said. “Please. Go ahead. I want to help find the person who did this. I need to feel like I'm helping, doing something.”

I sat on a matching couch. A huge block of polished marble was the table between us.

“I'm sor but I have to start with the obvious. Did your wife have any enemies that you're aware of? Anyone who's crossed your mind since this to move my own happened?”

He ran his hands over his beard, then back and forth across his eyes. “Believe me, I've thought about that. It's part of what's so ironic. Marti's one of the most popular people in town. Everyone loved her, which is so rare out here. You can check” He stopped, and his face contorted. He was very close to losing it, and I believed that I could see his thought. Everyone loved her Past tense.

His shoulders drooped. He wiped his eyes with a closed fist. “I'm sorry. I keep thinking that what's happened has sunk in, but it really hasn't.”

“Take your time,” I told him.

I wanted to say more; I wanted to tell him that I knew what this felt like. Not just to lose a wife, but to lose her in this way A while back, I'd been pretty much where he was right now. If his experience was anything like mine with Maria, there was no comfort to be had anywhere, much less from a stranger, a policeman. Anything personal I could tell him at this point would only be for my own sake, though, so I didn't talk about Maria and how she was murdered.

“Dad?”

Zoey, the oldest daughter, stood in the high arch between the living room and hallway She looked frightened, tiny, and very alone in the doorway “It's okay, hon,” he said. “I'm okay Come here for a sec.” He opened his arms, and she went to him, taking the long way around the couch to avoid walking next to me.

She fell into his hug, and then both of them began to cry. I wondered if she had seen her father cry before. “It's okay,” he said again, smoothing her hair. “It's okay, Zoey I love you so much. You're such a good girl.”

“I love you, Daddy,” Zoey whispered.

“We'll do this later,” I said softly “Another time. I've got your statement on file. I don't need much more anyway”

He looked at me appreciatively, the side of his face ed against Zoey's head. She had softened her posture and curled to meet the shape of his hug. I could tell that ere close, and I thought ofJannie.

lease let me know if there's anything I can do,“ he said. want to help.”

could just take a quick walk through the house, it h useful for me," I said.

lirce rnect to go, but then stopped and spoke again, only be- couldn't help myself. “You're doing exactly the right told him. ”Your children will get you through this.

hm close."

They're all I have now Thank you. You're very Lit at that, and if I had to guess, I'd say he knew it ust a cop's advice I was offering. It was a father's, and 'and's. Suddenly I didn't want to be at this house any th2n I had to be.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 45

AS A DETECTIVE, I would have liked to have spent hours in the Lowenstein-Bell house, to soak up all the details. Under the circumstances, 1 gave myself fifteen to twenty minutes.

I started by the pretty pool and stood at the deep end, staring down at the royal-blue racing lines painted on the bottom. Estimates were that Mary Smith had shot Marti Lowenstein-Bell from this position, a single bullet to the top of the head. Then she'd pulled the body over to her with a long-handled pooi net.

The killer calmly stood right here and did the knife work without ever taking the body out of the water. The cuts on the victim's face had been sloppy and quick, dozens of overlapping slashes. As though she were erasing her It was evocative of what people sometimes do to photographs, the way they symbolically get rid of someone by Xing out the face. And in fact, Mary Smith had also destroyed several family photos in the office upstairs in the house.

I looked up to where I imagined the office would be, based on file diagrams.

The logical path from here to there went through the living room, then up the limestone staircase in the main entry hall.

The killer had visited the home before the day of the murder How exactly had that occurred? At what time? And-why? How was Mary Smith evolving?

When I passed through the house again, Michael Bell was sitting with his three small daughters, all of them blankly watching their movie. They didn't even look up as I went by, and I didn't want to interrupt them again if I could help it. For some reason, I remembered hugging Jannie and Day right after what happened with Little Alex in Seattle.

The upstairs hallway was a suspended bridge of wood and glass that bisected the house. I followed Mary Smith's likely path up there, then down to an enclosed wing where Marti's office was easy enough to find.

It was the only room with a closed door.

Inside, the office wall had conspicuous blank spots where I imagined family photos had hung. Everything else looked to be intact.

The killer is getting bravei taking more risks, but the obsesSion with families remains strong. The killer's focus is powerful.

My attention went to a high-backed leather chair in front of a twefltyoneinch vertical monitor. This was the victim's Workspace and, presumably, the place where Mary Smith sat to send the e-mail to Arnold Griner at the L.A. Times. The office also had a view of the terrace and pooi below. Mary Smith could have watched Marti's body floating facedown while she typed away Did it repulse her? Put her into a rage? Or was she feeling gross satisfaction as she sat here looking down on her victim?

Something clicked for me. The destroyed photos here. The recent close call at the coffee house. Something Professor Papadakis had said about “avoidance.” Something else I had been thinking about that morning. Marry Smith didn't like what she was seeing at the murder sites, did she?

The longer this went on, the more it reflected some powerful image from the past that disturbed her Some part of herself she didn't want to see was becoming clearer. Her response was to devolve. I hated to think about it, but she was probably losing control.

Then I corrected myself - the killer was losing control.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 46

I LAY FLAT ON MY BACK on the hotel bed that night, my head spinning in different directions, none of them worth a damn as far as I was concerned.

Mary Smith. Her pathology Inconsistencies. Possible motivation for the murders.

Nothing there so fat Jamilla. Don't go there either. You're not even close to solving that.

My family back in D.C. Was I ever messing that up.

Christine and AlexJunior. Saddest of all.

I was aware that no part of my life was getting the attention it deserved lately Everything was starting to feel like an effort. I had helped other people deal with this kind of depression, just never myself, and it seemed to me that flobody's very good at self- analysis.

True to her word, Monnie Donnelley had already delivered some material on James Truscott. Very simply, he checked out. He was ambitious, could be considered ruthless at times, but he was a respected member of the Fourth Estate. He didn't appear to have any connection to the Mary Smith murders.

I looked at my watch, muttered a curse, then dialed home, hoping to catch Jannie and Damon before they went off to bed.

“Hello, Cross residence. Jannie Cross speaking.”

I found myself smiling. “Is this the hugs-and-kisses store? I'd like to place an order, please.”

“Hi, Daddy I knew you'd call.”

“Am I that predictable? Never mind. You two getting ready for bed, I hope? Ask Damon to get on the other line.”

“I'm already on. I figured it was you, Dad. You are kind of predictable. That's a good thing.”

I caught up with the kids briefly Damon tried to wheedle me into letting him buy a CD with a parental advisory label. No sale there, and still no word from him on the mystery girlfriend. ,Jannie was gearing up for her first science fair and wanted to know if I could hook her friends up to a polygraph. “Sure thing. Right after we hook up you and Damon.”

Then Jannie told me something that bothered me a lot. “That writer was here again. Nana chased him off. She gave him a good tongue-lashing, called him a 'disgrace to his profession.' After I finished with the kids, I talked to Nana, and then I ordered room service, Finally I called Jamilla in San Francisco. I was making the calls in reverse stress order, I knew, leaving the hard ones for last. Of course, there was also the issue of time zones to consider. ”This whole Mary Smith thing has gone national in hurry“ Jamilla said. ”Word up here is the LAPD isn't even close to catching her."

“Let talk about something besides work,” I said. “That okay with you?”

“Actually I have to leave, Alex. I'm meeting a friend just a friend,” she added a little too quickly “Don't worry about it.” But that sounded to me like code for worry about it.

“Sure, go,” I said.

“Talk to you tomorrow?” she asked. “Sorry I have to run. Tomorrow, Alex?”

I promised, and then hung up. Just a friend, I thought. Well, two calls down, one to go.

The really hard one. I picked up the phone again and punched in numbers I knew by heart.

“Hello?”

me. Alex."

Christine paused - another undecipherable response. “Hi,” she finally said.

“Could I talk to Alex?”

“Of course. Hang on, I'll get him. He just finished his dinner. He's in the playroom.”

I heard a rustling and then Christine's muted voice. “It Daddy” The word gave me a strange pang - warm and gretf at the same time.

“Hi, Daddy” A whole lot of mixed feelings intensified at the excited sound of his voice, but mostly, I just missed him like crazy I could see his small face, his smile.

“Hey pup. What's new?”

Like any three-year_old, Little Alex wasn't quite up to speed on the whole phone thing. It was a quick conversation, unfortunately After a particularly long pause, I heard Christine again in the background.

“Say bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye.”

“See you soon,” I told him. “I love you, buddy”

“Love you, Daddy”

Then Little Alex hung up the phone on me. With a dismissive click, I was back in my room, alone with the Mary Smith case, missing all the people I loved more than life itself.

That was the exact thought in my head - but what did it mean?

Mary, Mary

Part Three

JUGGLING ACTS

Mary, Mary

Chapter 47

MARY SMITH SAT on a park bench while her darling little Ashley monkeyed her way around the playground. Good deal. The exercise was just enough to tire her out before Mary had to pick up Brendan and Adam from their playdates; hopefully it was enough time to let Mary's brain cool down from another impossible day She looked at the brand-new diary on her lap, admired its nice heavy paper and the beautiful linen cover.

Journals were the one big splurge in her life. She tried to write a little every day Maybe later, the kids would read these pages and know who she really was, besides Cook, Maid, and Chauffeut Meanwhile, even the journal had conspired against her. Without thinking, she had written tomatoes, baby carrots, cereal, juice, diapers on the first page. Shoot! That just wouldn't do. She carefully tore it out. Maybe it was silly, but she thought this book as a sacred place, not somewhere you wanted to put a shopping list.

She suddenly realized Ashley was gone! Oh my God, where is she?

She was right there a second ago, and now she was gone.

Had it been just a second? She tensed. Maybe it hadn't. Maybe it was longer than a few seconds.

“Ashley? Sweetie?”

Her eyes quickly scanned the small, crowded playground. Several blonde mop tops on swings or running around, but no Ashley The whole place was enclosed with a wrought- iron fence. How far could she have gotten? She headed toward the gate.

“Excuse me, have you seen a little girl? Blond hair, jeans, a red T-shirt?”

No one had, though.

Oh, dear God, not this. No. No.

Just then Mary spotted her. Her heart nearly burst. Ashley was tucked behind a tree near the corner of the playground. She coughed out a little laugh, embarrassed with herself for getting this nervous so quickly God, what is wrong with me?

She walked over to her. “What are you doing over here, sweetness?”

“Playing hide and seek,” she said. “Just playing, Mommy”

“With who, for gosh sake?” She fought to keep her tone in check. People were starting to stare.

“With you.” She smiled so sweetly Mary could barely stand it. She bent low and whispered against her soft cheek. “Ashley , you cannot run off like that. Do you understand? If you can't see me, then I can't see you. Okay?”

“Okay”

“Good, now why don't you go and try the jungle gym?” Mary settled down on another bench away from the gathering storm of disapproving stares. A young mother reading the L.A. Times smiled over at her. “Hello.”

“You must not be from around here,” Mary said, giving her a quick once-over.

The woman's voice was slightly defensive. “Why do you say that?”

“First of all, no one around here is that friendly” Mary answered, then smiled. “Second of all, it takes an outsider to know one. I'm a Vermonter, myself.”

The other woman looked relieved. “Baltimore,” she said with a hand to her chest. “I heard everyone was friendly out here in California. They stop their cars and let you cross the street, right? You don't see that in Baltimore.”

“Well, that's true.”

“Of course, you don't see this, either.” She held up the front page of the Times.

HOLLYWOOD MURDER INVESTIGATION CONTINUES “Have you heard about this?” the woman asked. “I guess you must have.”

“It's hard to miss these days.” “It just makes me so sad. I know I should be afraid, too, but really, I'm just so sorry for those families.”

Mary nodded solemnly “I know So am I, so am I. Isn't it awful? Those poor, poor children. It just makes you want to cry your eyes out.”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 48

ACCORDING TO THE STATISTICS I was reading at my desk, something like 89 percent of known female serial killers used poison, suffocation, or lethal injection on their victims. Less than 10 percent of various killers employed a gun as their weapon of choice, and none I had found on record used a knife.

Is Mary Smith the exception that proves the rule?

I didn't think so. But I seemed to be all alone on that.

I scanned the deskful of clippings, photos, and articles spread out in front of me like pieces from several different jigsaw puzzles.

Aileen Wuornos was a shooter. In 1989 and '90, she killed at least seven men in Florida. When she was arrested, the media dubbed her America's first female serial killer. She Was probably the most famous, but nowhere near the first. Almost half of those on record were black widows - husband- killers - or else motivated by revenge. Most had some relationship with their victims.

Bobbie Sue Terrell, a nurse, injected twelve patients with lethal doses of insulin.

Dorothea Montalvo Puente poisoned nine boarders in her home so she could get their Social Security checks.

A secretary at the field office, Maureen, poked her head in.

“You want anything from In-n-Out Burger?”

I looked up and realized it was dark already, and that, actually, I was starving.

“If they have a grilled chicken sandwich, that'd be good. And an orange juice, thanks.”

She laughed merrily “You want a hamburger or a cheeseburger?”

Since my sleep and personal life were something of a mess, I was trying to keep the junk food intake in check. I hadn't worked out in days. The last thing I needed was to get sick out here. I told Maureen never mind, I'd get something eventually A minute later, Agent Page was hovering at my desk. “How's it going?” he asked.

“Anything yet?”

I spread my arms to indicate the breadth of information on the desk. “She doesn't fit in.”

“Which was probably true for about half the female serial killers in history at the time of their activity,” said Page. The young agent was impressing me more and more.

“So what about our good friends at LAPD? Anything new from them?” “Sure is,” he said. “Ballistics came back on that gun of hers. Hear this - it's a golden oldie. A Walther PPK, same one every time. There's a full briefing tomorrow if you want to be there. If not, I'll cover.”

That was surprising news, and very odd - the age of the murder weapon.

“How old is the gun? Do they know?”

“At least twenty years, which deepens the mystery some, huh? Could be hard to trace.”

“You think that's her reason? Traceability?” I asked, mostly just thinking out loud. Page quickly ticked off a handful of possibilities.

“She's not a professional, right? Maybe it's a weapon she's had for a long time. Or maybe she's been killing a lot longer than we think. Maybe she found it. Maybe it was her father's.”

All solid guesses from a rapid-fire mind. “How old are you?” I asked, suddenly curious.

He gave me a sideways glance. “Uh, I don't think you're supposed to ask that.”

“Relax,” I said. “It's not a job interview I'm just wondering. You're a lot quicker than some of the folks I see coming out of Quantico lately”

“I'm twenty-six,” he said, grinning widely “You're pretty good, Page. Need to work on that game face, though.”

He didn't alter his expression. “I've got game; I just don't need it here in the field office.”

Then, affecting pitchperfect surfer-speak, he said, “Yeah, dude, I know what you're thinking about me, but now that my surfing scholar- ship fell through, I'm like, totally dedicated to being here.”

It felt good to laugh, even if it was mostly at myself.

“Actually,” I said, “I can't imagine you getting up on a surfboard, Page.”

“Imagine it, dude,” Page said.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 49

AROUND 5:00 THE NEXT DAY, the briefing room at LAPD was packed to overflowing, a suitcase with way too much crap inside. I leaned up against a wall near the front, waiting for Detective Jeanne Galletta to get the madness going.

She came in walking briskly alongside Fred Van Allsburg, from my office; L.A's chief of police, Alan Shrewsbury; and a third man, whom I didn't recognize. Jeanne was definitely the looker in the group, and the only one under fifty “Who's that?” I asked the officer standing next to me.

“Blue suit. Lighter blue suit.”

“Michael Corbin.”

“Who?”

“The deputy mayor. He is a suit. Useless as tits on a bull.”

I was kind of glad to have been left out of the speechifying at the meeting - but a little wary as well. Politics were a given on this kind of high-profile homicide case. I just hoped they weren't about to start playing a larger-than-usual role here in Los Angeles.

Galletta gave me a little nod hello before she started. “All right, people, let's go.”

Everyone quieted down immediately The deputy mayor shook Van Allsburg's hand and then slipped out a side door. Huh? What was that all about? It wasn't a guest appearance, more like a ghost appearance.

“Let's get the nuts and bolts out of the way first,” Detective Galletta said.

She quickly ran over all the common elements of the case - the Walther PPK, the children's stickers marked with two A's and a B, the so-called Perfect Mother victims, which was the angle the press was running with, of course. One nasty out-of-town paper had called the case “The Stepford Wife Murders.” Galletta reminded us that the exact wording in the e-mails Mary had sent to the L.A. Times was classified information.

A few questions flew Does the LAPD or Bureau know of or suspect any connection between Mary Smith and other homicides in the area? No.

How do we know it was a single assailant? We don't for sure, but all signs indicate as much.

How do we know the killer is a woman? A woman's haii presumably the offender's, was found under a sticker at the movie theater in Westwood.

“This might be a good time to ask Agent Cross to give us an overview of whatever profile the FBI has going. Dt Cross has come here from Washington, where he solved cases involving serial killers like Gary Soneji and Kyle Craig.” thing like a hundred pairs of eyes shifted to look at come to the briefing as an observer, I thought, but as going to be put on center stage. No sense wasting 'the opportunity, or worse, everybody's time.

well, Let me start by saying that I'm not yet absolutely convinced Mary Smith is a woman," I said.

That ought to wake them up in the back rows.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 50

IT DID, TOO. A ripple went through the room. At least I'd gotten everybody's attention.

“I'm not saying it's definitely a male offender, but we haven't ruled that out as a possibility I don't believe you should. Either way, though,” I said, raising my voice over the low rumble, "there are a few things I can say about this case.

“I'll use she as a default for now. She's likely white, and in her midthirties to forties. She drives her own car, something that wouldn't get too much notice in the upscale neighborhoods where the murders happened. She's most likely educated, and most likely employed, nonprofessional. Maybe some kind of service position for which she may very well be overqualified.”

I went on for a bit, then fielded some questions from the assembled team. When I was finished, Jeanne Galletta gave the floor over to ballistics for a gun report; then she wrapped up the meeting.

“Last thing,” she said. “Kileen, sit down, please. Thank you, Gerry. We're not done. I'll tell you when we're done.” She waited for quiet, and she got it.

“I don't need to tell you about the kind of ridiculous press coverage this is getting. I want evetyone thinking and acting as though there's a camera on you at all times, because there probably is. Absolutely no shortcuts out there, people. I'm serious as lung cancer on that last point. SOP should be a nonissue.”

I noticed Galletta's eyes shift toward Van Allsburg while she spoke. Procedure had probably been the topic of their closed-door meeting with the deputy mayor. It occurred to me that this was an election year. The mayor needed a clean result on this one, and a fast one. I doubted it was going to happen that way “Okay, that's it for now,” Galletta said, and the room came alive. She caught my eye and nodded her head toward the conference room in the back.

I had to push through the crowd to get there, wondering what she wanted to talk about.

“How's it going?” I asked as she closed the door behind us.

“What the hell was that?” she snapped.

I blinked. “What the hell was what?”

“Contradicting me, talking about Mary Smith as a man, confusing the issue at this time. I need these people focused, and you need to keep me informed before you start reviving dead issues out of the blue like that.”

“Dead issues? Out of the blue? We talked about this. I told you my feeling.” “Yeah, and we put it away”

"No. We didn't put it away You did. Jeanne, I know you're under pressure “Goddam right I am. This is Los Angeles, not D.C. You have no idea.”

“I do have some idea. In the future, if you want me to present at a briefing, and avoid any surprises, you should check in with me ahead of time. And try to remember what you said up there, about how I caught Gary Soneji and Kyle Craig.”

I tried to stay calm and even supportive with my tone, but I also wasn't going to cave because of anyone's bullying.

Jeanne gritted her teeth and stared at the floor for a second. “All right. Okay Sorry”

“And for the record, I'm not saying you need to check in with me. This is your case, but with something so big and unwieldy, there's only so much control you can have.”

“I know, I know” She breathed a big sigh, not one of relief, more like a cleansing breath.

Thenjeanne smiled. "You know what, how about I make it up to you? You like sushi?

You have to eat, right? And I promise we won't talk about work."

“Thanks,” I said. “But I'm not done for the day Unfortunately I need to head back to the office from here. Jeanne, I don't think this killer is a woman. So, who is it? Some other time for a bite, okay?”

“Some other time,” Jeanne Galletta said; then she walked away hastily the same way she'd entered the conference room earlier.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 51

FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL HOURS I stayed focused, one of those very productive work states I wish I could put myself in every time I sat down at a desk.

I ran several theories through the VICAP system, looking for any kind of match to the rash of murders in L.A. Anything even remotely close.

Something finally came up that caught my attention. A triple murder more than six months earlier.

It had happened in New York City though, not L.A. But the murders took place in a movie theater, the Sutton on East 57th Street, and the details were intriguing at first blush.

For one thing the murders remained unsolved. There'd been nothing even close to a solution by the NYPD. Just like the murders in Los Angeles.

There was no apparent motive for the New York killings either. That last bit was important. Maybe this series of pattern killings began a lot earlier than anyone had thought up to now And maybe the killer was from New York originally I pulled up the NYPD detective notes on the case and read them through. A patron inside the movie theater, as well as two Sutton employees, had been killed that afternoon. The detective's working theory was that the theater workers had walked in on the killer just after he killed a man named Jacob Reiser, from Brooklyn. Reiser had been a film student at NYU, twenty years old.

But then something else caught my eye - the murder weapon listed in the report. Based on the bullets removed from the bodies, a Walther PPK had been used.

The gun used in the L.A. murders had also been a Walther PPK, though apparently an older model.

But there was something else that grabbed me: The murders in New York had happened in the men's room.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 52

GREAT NEWS - I was accruing enough hotel points for a lifetime of free rooms. The problem was that I never wanted to see another hotel for as long as I lived. West Los Angeles didn't offer much in the way of distractions, either. I lay on the bed flipping through my notes again, a half-eaten chicken sandwich and a warm soda next to me.

When the phone rang, I gratefully picked up. It was Nana Mama.

“I was just thinking about pork chops and spoon bread,” I told her. “And here you are.”

“Why are you always buttering me up, Alex?” she asked. “Trying anyway You going to tell me you're not coming home next weekend?”

“Not exactly”

“Alex -”“I'm coming home. And believe me, there's nothing more I want than to leave this case far behind. But I'm also going to be back and forth some.”

“Alex, I want you to think long and hard about how much time you really need to be out there in California. Turns out, this new job is worse than your last one.”

Apparently, my post-custody trial grace period was over. Nana was back to her old self, laying it on with a trowel. Not that she was entirely wrong.

“How are the kids?” I finally asked. “Can I talk to them?” And give my ears a rest from you, old woman.

“They're fine and dandy, Daddy. Just for the record, so am 1.”

“Did something happen?” I asked.

"No. Just a dizzy spell. It's nothing at all. I saw Kayla Coles today Everything's fine. Dr.

Coles checked me out. I'm good for another ten thousand miles."

“If I know you, and I do know you, that means a big dizzy spell. Did you pass out again?”

“No, I did not pass out,” she said, as if it was the most ridiculous idea she'd ever heard in her life. “I'm just an old woman, Alex. I've told you that before. Though, God knows, I don't look or act my age.”

When I asked Nana to give me Kayla Coles's phone number, though, she outright refused. I had to wait for Damon to get on the line and Nana to get off; then I told him to go up to my desk and get me Kayla's number from my Rolodex.

“How's she seem to you?” I asked him. “You need to take care of her, Day.” “She seems pretty good, Dad. She wouldn't tell us what happened. But she went out grocery shopping and made dinner tonight. I can't tell if there's anything wrong or not. You know Nana, how she is. She's vacuuming now.”

“She's just showing off. Go vacuum for her. Go ahead now. Help your grandmother.”

“I don't know how to vacuum.”

“Then this is a good time to learn.”

I finished up with the kids and then called Kayla Coles, but I got her answering service. I tried Sampson next and asked if he could swing by the house and check on Nana, who had partly brought him up, too.

“No problem,” he told me. “I'll show up hungry tomorrow for breakfast, how's that?”

“Sounds like a win-win to me. Also, a very believable excuse for a visit.”

“She'll see right through it.”

“Of course she will. Although you're a very believable hungry person.”

“How're you doing?” he asked then. “You sound like you're at about fifty percent.”

"I'm okay More like seventy-five. There's just a hell of a lot going on out here. Big, messy case, John. Way too much publicity I keep seeing that asshole writer Truscott, too.

Though I hear he's back East again now"

“You want some backup? I could boogie out to L.A. I've got some vacation days.”

“Yeah, just what I need, to piss off your wife. Thanks, though. I'll keep it in mind - if we ever get close to this Mary Smith.” A lot of my best work was with Sampson. Being with him was one of the things I missed most about the police department. I wasn't through with him yet, though. I had one more idea where he was concerned. When the time was right, I'd spring it.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 53

I SPENT THE NEXT Day at the FBI field office, worked from seven until seven, but maybe there was a light at the end of this particular long, dark, and creepy tunnel. Jamilla was coming to L.A., and I'd looked forward to her visit all day.

Jam insisted I not bother picking her up at the airport, and we made plans to meet at Bliss on La Cienega. When I got to the restaurant, she was standing at the bar with an overnight bag at her feet. She had on jeans, a black turtleneck, and black boots with pointy toes and steel tips. I slipped up behind her and kissed her neck. Hard to resist.

“Hey, you,” I said. “You smell good. You look even better.” Which Jamilla definitely did.

She twisted around to face me. “Hi, Alex. You made it.”

“Was there ever a doubt?”

“Well, um, yeah,” she said. “Remember the last time I was in L.A.?” We were both hungry, so we got a table and ordered appetizers immediately - a dozen clams on the shell and an heirloom-tomato salad to share. Jamilla eats like an athlete at a training table, and I kind of like that.

“What's new on the murder case?” she asked after we'd polished off the tomatoes and clams. “Is it true she's been sending e-mails since the fIrst murder?”

I blinked at her in surprise. The L.A. Times had been purposely vague about when the e- mails had begun. “Where'd you hear that? What did you hear?”

“Word gets around, Alex. One of those BJevel security things the public doesn't necessarily know about, but everyone else does. It got up to San Francisco.”

“What else have you heard? B-level stuff,” I said.

“1 hear this lead detective Jeanne Galletta's a hot ticket. Work-wise, I mean.”

“She's no Jamilla Hughes, but yeah, she's pretty good at her job.”

Jamilla shrugged off the compliment. She had my number all right. She looked pretty in the candlelight, to my eyes anyway Now this was a good idea: dinner with Jam at a fine restaurant, my cell phone turned off.

We chose a bottle of Pinot Noir from Oregon, a favorite of hers, and I lifted my glass once it was poured. “Things have been complicated lately, Jam. I appreciate your being there for me. And here for me, too.”

Jamilla took a sip of wine; then she put a hand on my wrist. “Alex, there's something I need to say. It's kind of important. Just listen. Okay?”

I stared across the table into her eyes and didn't know if I liked what I saw My stomach was starting to drop. “Sure,” I said.

“Let me ask you this,” she said, her eyes drifting away from mine. “In your mind, how exclusive are we?”

Ouch. There it was.

“Well, I haven't been with anyone since we've been seeing each other,” I said. “That's just me, though, Jamilla. You meet someone? I guess you have.”

She let out a breath, then nodded. That's the way she was, straight up and truthful. I appreciated it. Mostly “Are you seeing him?” I asked. My body was starting to tense all over. In the beginning of our relationship, I had expected something like this, but not now. Maybe I'd just gotten complacent. Or too trusting. That was a recurring problem I had.

Jamilla winced a little, thinking about her answer. “I guess that I am, Alex.”

“How'd you meet him?” I asked, then stopped myself. “Wait, Jam. You don't have to answer that.”

She seemed to want to though. “Johnny's a lawyer. Prosecution, of course. I met him on one of my cases. Alex, I've only seen him twice. Socially, that is.”

I stopped myself from asking more questions, even though I wanted to. I didn't have a right, did I? If anything, I'd brought this on myself. Why had I done it, though? Why Wasn't I able to commit? Because of what happened to Maria? Or Christine? Or maybe to my own parents, who had broken up in their twenties and never even seen each other again?

Jamilla leaned across the table and spoke softly, keeping this confidential, just between us. “I'm sorry. I can tell I've hurt you, and I didn't want that. We can finish dinner and talk about this if you want. Or you can go. Or I can go. Whatever you want, Alex.”

When I didn't answer right away, she asked, “Are you mad at me?”

“No,” I answered a little too fast. “I'm surprised, I guess. Maybe disappointed, too. I'm not quite sure what I am. Just to get it straight - are you telling me you want to see other people, or was it your intention to break things off tonight?”

Jamilla took another sip of her wine. “I wanted to ask you how you felt about it.”

“Right now? Honestly, Jam? I don't think I can continue like we've been. I'm not even sure of my reasons. I've always been pretty much - one person at a time. You know me.”

“We never made any promises to each other,” she said. “I'm just trying to be honest.”

“I know you are. I appreciate it, I really do. Listen, Jamilla, I think I need to go.” I kissed her on the cheek, and then I left. I wanted to be honest, too. WithJamilla and with myself.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 54

I LEFT IT ALL BEHIND, everything, and flew up to Seattle for the weekend.

As I drove from the airport toward the Wallingford neighborhood where Christine and Alex lived, I grappled with the idea of seeing her now What other choice did I have?

I brought no presents, no bribes, just as she had done when Alex lived with me in Washington. Christine was letting me see Alex, and there was no way I could resist. I wanted to be with him for a while - I needed it.

The house was on Sunnyside Avenue North, and I knew the way by now. Christine and Ali were sitting on the porch steps when I got there. He ran down the walk to meet me like a little tornado, and I scooped him up. There was always a fear of finding a different boy than the one I last saw All that dissolved the second I had him in my arms.

“Man, you're getting heavy; you're getting so big. ALL” “I gotta new book,” he told me, grinning. “A hungry caterpillar that eats anything. It pops up. Then it eats you I”

“You can bring your book with you today. We'll read.” I gave him another squeeze and saw Christine watching from a distance, arms folded. Finally, she smiled and raised one hand in a wave.

“Want some coffee?” she called. “Need some before you two take off?”

I squinted at her, a silent question in the still, fragrant air.

“It's okay with me,” she said. “C'mon. I won't bite.” Her tone was bright, probably for my sake as well as Ali's.

“Come on, Daddy” He climbed out of my arms, took my hand. “I'll show you the way”

So I followed them inside. Was this a good idea? I'd never actually been inside before.

The house was tastefully cluttered. Several Arts and Crafts-style built-ins overflowed with books and some of Christine's art collection. It was more informal and comfortable- looking than her home outside D.C. had been.

I was struck by how naturally both of them moved through this space that was so foreign to me. I don't belong here.

The kitchen was open, very bright, and smelled of rosemary. A small herb garden thrived on the windowsill.

Christine set Alex up with a sippy cup of chocolate milk and then put two mugs of steaming coffee on the table between us.

“Seattle's drug of choice,” she said. “I drink way too much of it. I should switch to decaf in the afternoons or something. Maybe in the mornings,“ she added with a laugh. ”It's good. The coffee. Your house looks great, too.”

The chitchattiness was striking in its banality and almost as uncomfortable as a real conversation might have been right now. I vowed not to ask Christine about the weather, but this was weird for both of us.

Little Alex slipped off his chair and came back with his new book. He climbed onto my lap.

“Read. Okay? Careful, it pops up and eats you!”

It made for a good distraction and also put the focus on him, where it was supposed to be.

I opened the cover and began.

“'In the light of the moon a little egg lay on a leaf.'”

Alex put his head against my chest, and as I felt my voice reverberate into him, my heart melted a little. Christine watched while I read. She smiled, clutching her mug with both hands. What might have been.

A couple of minutes later, Alex had to go to the bathroom, and he asked me to go with him. “Please, Daddy”

Christine came over and whispered near my ear. “He's having trouble hitting the toilet bowl with his pee. He's a little embarrassed about it.”

“Oh,” I said. “Fruit Loops. You have any?”

Fortunately Christine had a box, and I took it into the bathroom with Alex.

I threw a couple into the bowl. “Here's a cool game,” I said. “You have to put your pee right in the middle of a Fruit He tried, and he did pretty good - hit the bowl anyway I told Christine the trick when we came out, and she smiled and shook her head. ”Fruit Loops. It's a guy thing, right?"

Mary, Mary

Chapter 55

THE REST OF MY DAY in Seattle was less stressful and a lot more fun. I took Little Alex to the aquarium, and it was easy, and gratifying, to throw myself into the time I had with him. He stared wide-eyed at the tropical fish and made a mess of his chicken fingers and ketchup at lunch afterward. For all I cared, we could have spent the day in a bus terminal waiting room.

I loved watching him be himself, and also grow up. Every year it got better. AU. Like the great one.

My mind didn't get too weighed down again until we were back at the house that night.

Christine and I talked for a while on the front porch. I didn't want to go inside, but I didn't want to leave yet. And if I wasn't imagining it, her eyes were a little red. Ever since I'd known her, she'd had mood swings, but they seemed to be getting worse. “I guess it's my turn to ask if you're all right,“ I said. ”Are you okay?”

“I'm fine, Alex. Just the usual. Trust me, you don't want to hear about my stuff.”

“Well, if you mean romance, then you're right. But otherwise, go ahead.”

She laughed. “Romance? No, I'm just a little overextended these days. I do it to myself, always have. I'm working way too hard.”

I knew she was the new head at a private school nearby Other than that, I really didn't have a clue what Christine's life looked like anymore - much less why she had been crying before I got back to the house with Alex.

“Besides,” she said, “we agreed last time I would ask about you. How are you doing? I know it's hard, and I'm sorry for that, for everything that's happened.”

I told her in the briefest possible terms about the Mary Smith case, Nana's recent dizzy spell, and that Jannie and Damon were doing fine. I leftJamilla out of the conversation, and she didn't ask.

“I've been reading about that terrible murder case in the paper,” Christine said. “I hope you're being careful. It surprises me that a woman could be a killer.”

“I'm always careful,” I told her. There was all kinds of Irony going on here. Obviously, my job stood for a lot between Christine and me, and none of it was good.

“This is all so strange, isn't it?” she said suddenly “Was it harder than you expected, being here today?”

I told her that seeing Alex was worth whatever it took, but that honestly, seeing her was hard, too. “We've certainly had easier times than this, haven't we?” she asked.

“Yes, just not as parents.”

She looked at me, and her dark eyes were so intelligent, as they always had been. “That's so sad, Alex, when you put i that way.”

I shrugged, with nothing to say.

She put a tentative hand on my forearm. “I'm sorry; Alex. Really. I hope I'm not being insensitive. I don't know what you're feeling, but I do think I understand the position you're in. I just -“ She mustered up her next thought. ”1 just wonder sometimes what kind of parents we would have made. Together, I mean.”

That was it. “Christine, you either are being insensitive or you're trying to tell me something.”

She sighed deeply. "I'm doing this all wrong. As usual. I wasn't going to say anything today, but now I have. So, okay, here it is. I want Alex to have a two-parent life. I want him to know you, and believe it or not, I want you to know him. For everyone's sake.

Even mine."

I took a step back, and her hand fell limply away “I don't know what to say to that, Christine. I think it's obvious that I wanted the same thing. You're the one who decided to move out here to Seattle.”

“I know,” she said. “That what I really wanted to speak with you about. I'm thinking of moving back to Virginia. Tin almost sure that's what I'm going to do.”

My mind, finally, was completely blown.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 56

VANCOUVER WAS ONE of the Storyteller's favorite cities - along with London, Berlin, and Copenhagen. He flew up there on Alaska Air and arrived just in time to wait on a long line with about five hundred “visitors” from Korea and China. Vancouver was crawling with Chinese and Koreans, but that was about the only thing he didn't like about the beautiful Canadian seaport, and it seemed a minor complaint.

He had some movie business in town that took up most of the day and also put him in a dark mood. By five or so that night the was in a wretched state of mind, and he needed to get the bottled-up anger out somehow.

Know what I need? To tell somebody what's going on, to share.

Maybe not tell everything, but some of it - at least an idea of how incredible this whole thing was, this totally strange period of his life, this wilding, as he'd come to call it, this story.

There was this foxy red-haired producer he knew who was in Vancouver to shoot a TV movie. Maybe he should connect with her Tracey Willett had her own wilding period in Hollywood, starting when she was eighteen and COntiuu ing into her late twenties. She'd had a kid since and had apparently cooled her jets some.

But she kept in touch with him, and that had to mean something. He'd always been able to talk to Tracey, and about almost anything.

So he called her, and sure enough, she said she'd love to have dinner and drinks with him. About an hour later, Tracey called back from the movie set, The movie shoot was running late. Not her fault, he knew. Probably some hack director's fault. Some disorganized, arrogant, glorified art director two or three years out of film school.

So he didn't get to see Tracey until past eleven, when she came over to his room at the Marriott. She gave him a big hug and a sloppy kiss, and she looked pretty good for having worked all day “I missed you, sweetcakes. I missed you so much. Where have you been? You look great by the way So thin, good thin, though. The lean-and-hungry look, right? It suits you.”

He didn't know whether Tracey was still into blow, or booze, or whatever, so he had a little of everything on hand, and that's what they did - just about everything. He knew right away she wanted to fool around, because she told him she was horny for one of the stunt men on the movie and because of the way she sat on the couch, legs set apart, looking him up and down with those bedroom eyes of hers, hungry eyes just as he remembered. Finally, Tracey pulled up her top and said, “Well?”

So he took her to bed, where she complimented his new lean body again. Tracey did a little more coke; then she took off her blouse to let him admire her tits some more. He remembered the drill with Tracey - you had to talk about how sexy she was and touch her everywhere for about twenty minutes, then at least thirty minutes of very energetic humping because Tracey couldn't have an orgasm to save her life, and was always getting so close, but never quite there, so keep going, harder; faster; harder; faster; oh baby, baby, baby. And when he came inside her, she seemed to like it, and she held him close as if they were a couple again, even though they had never really been a couple.

Once the sexual preliminaries were out of the way it was his turn to really get off. They were out on his terrace overlooking the city and Tracey had her head on his shoulder.

Very romantic and cute, in a pathetic sort of way, like going on a date with Meg Ryan, or Daryl Hannah maybe.

“I want to tell you a little about what I've been up to,” he finally said. Until then, everything had been about her.

"I want to hear all about it, sweetie. Only I can't leave the kid too late back at my hotel.

The nanny threatens to quit."

Now that he remembered, Tracey was kind of a selfish bitch most of the time.

“Does anybody know about the two of us tonight?” he asked.

“No. Duh. So what are you up to? Something big, of course. You're due.” “Yeah, it's kind of a mystery thing. It's big, all right. Really different though. Nothing anything like it before. I'm writing the story myself. The story of stories.”

“Wow, that's great. You're writing it yourself, huh?”

“Yeah. You know those murders in L.A.? Mary Smith?”

She knew a little but not everything, since she'd been up in Vancouver for four weeks, so he quickly filled her in.

“You bought the rights? Wow! That's great. And what, you want me to produce?”

He shook his head in disbelief.

“From who, Tracey? Who would I buy the rights from?”

“Oh, right. Well, so what's the deal then?”

“So I can talk to you? Really talk?”

“Of course you can talk to me. Tell me your big idea, your story. I love thrillers.”

This is it. Go or no-go? What is it going to be?

“I planned those murders, Tracey. I'm Mary.” Wow. It was out. Just like that. I'm Mary.

Holy shit! She looked at him real funny, funny peculiar, and suddenly he knew this had been a very bad idea, and old Tracey wasn't the crazy one - he was. He'd just blown his whole deal.

And for what? To let off a little steam with an old girlfriend? To vent? Confess?

She was staring at him as if he had two heads, at least that many “Come again? What are you saying?”

He laughed, faked it the best he could, anyway.

“ifs a joke, Trace. We're high; I made ajoke. Hey, let me give you a ride home. You've got the kid at your hotel, the nanny and whatever. I hear you. And you're a good mommy right?”

Mary, Mary

Chapter 57

THEY DIDN'T TALK MUCH in the car, so he knew how big a mistake he'd made, and now he wondered if he'd made other mistakes along the way Maybe important ones that would.get him caught. Like way back in New York City The movie-theater shootings.

He finally spoke. “I've been under a lot of stress lately, you know”

She muttered, “Sure. I hear you.”

Man, she was making him paranoid, and a little nuts, actually They'd been friends for a long time, though. “So how old is the kid now?”

“Uhmmm, four and a half. He's great. Stefan.”

She was really scaring him. Now what? What the hell should he do? This wasn't a “Mary. Smith” scene. Tracey Wasn't even in his story This was bad news.

Suddenly he pulled his rented Volvo over to the side of the road. Now what?

“What's the matter?” she asked. “What?”

“You'd better get out right here, Trace. I'm not kidding you. Get out! Walk the rest of the way!”

“Walk? Are you crazy. What are you talking about?”

“Get out of the car! Right now Get out before I throw you out!”

That got her moving. She threw open the passenger's door and stumbled outside, cursing him like a truck driver. It was cold out there, and she had both arms wrapped around her.

Then she started to cry “You're crazy. You know that? I thought we were friends.”

She started to run away on the dark residential side street somewhere between the Marriott and her hotel.

The Storyteller got out of the car and found himself following close behind. “Tracey, wait! Hey. Tracey”

He caught up to her easily "Hey, hey I'm sorry for scaring you, baby I'm really sorry.

Hey you okay?" And then he shot her in the throat, and once she was down on the sidewalk, he shot her again in the head.

And this time it wasn't good, didn't feel good at all.

This time it felt kind of bad, scared the hell out of him.

Because the story was taking over, the story was writing itself, and the story didn't seem to care who got hurt.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 58

AS I FLEW FROM SEATTLE back to Los Angeles the nest day, it struck me again how darkly appropriate the Mary Smith case was as a backdrop to my entire life. I was also starting to feel like some kind of record-setter for complicated or failed relationships. The only closure I had reached with Christine was that we would speak more soon. It excited me to think about having little alex - ali - closer by, but I wasn't about to get attached to the idea. Christine had proved herself too changeable in the past for me to trust that anything she said might happen for sure.

As it turned out, I got sucked back into the murder case even before I made it through the terminal at LAX.

A television news report caught my ear, and I stopped to watch the next development unfold.

I couldn't look away as a talking head reported, “At a press conference this morning, lead detective on the Hollywood Stalker case, Jeanne Galletta, denied the existence of any so-called kill list.”

Hollywood Stalker was a media moniker that had emerged lately for Mary Smith. As for a “kill list,” I had no idea what the TV reporter was talking about.

"LAPD is urging area residents to remain calm and go about their business. Many people, however, aren't buying it.

“One citizens' group appeared at the local precinct, demanding to see the 'kill list,' which police claim doesn't even exist. Either way, and whoever you choose to believe, one thing is clear: The Stalker has this community” - she inserted a reporterly pause - “very much on edge. Lorraine Solie, reporting live from Beverly Hills.”

Kill list? What the hell was this? Had the LAPD found out something and then not shared it with us? It wouldn't be the only time.

The first person I was able to reach at the FBI field office was David Fujishiro, another special agent assigned to the murder case.

“ICs way, way out in left field,” he told me. “There's this supposed list with twenty-one names, starting with Patrice Bennett, Antonia Schifman, and Marti Lowenstein-Bell. The idea is that it's Mary Smith's agenda.”

“And everyone in L.A. wants to know if they're on it?” I asked. “One of the twenty- one?”

"Right. And it gets even better than that. The rumor is that anyone on the list can buy their way off by sending a hundred thousand dollars to a post office box in Orange County that doesn't seem to exist. We've checked it all out, not that anyone believes us.

People are actually threatening legal action against the LAPD.“ Rut th.eres no truth to the rumor, David? You're sure?”

“but there's no truth to the rumor, David? You're sure?”

“Not that we know of. But hey, what the hell do we know? We're only the FBI.”

“This case is getting its own social life,” I said. “Has anybody spoken to Detective Galletta about the list?”

“I don't know, but -- what?” there was a pause on the line. “Hang on, alex.”

“David? What's happening?”

I could hear voices in the background, but nothing distinct. Agent fujishiro came back on and told me to wait another second. “Something's up,” he added.

“Wait!” I yelled, but it was no good. He was gone again.

More voices came, then a general rumbling, rising in pitch. What the hell was happening?

Then I heard fujishiro saying “Yeah, I've got him right here on the phone.”

“alex? Fred van Allsburg needs to talk to you right now. Hold the line.”

I was never glad to hear from van Allsburg, but his voice had a no-bullshit tension to it.

“What's going on?” I said.

“That;'s what we're trying to figure out right now. All we know at the moment is that Arnold griner at the times just got another e-mail. Can you get over to the la times office right away?”

“Not if there's a new murder scene, I can't . I need to see it now.” "I'm not going to negotiate this, Alex. We'll get word to you as soon as we know what's what. Meanwhile I couldn't help myself - I cut him off. “Sir? Hello? Can you hear me?”

I hung up in the middle of Van Allsburg shouting that he could hear me fine.

Then I called Agent Page and told him to put me on hold until we knew if Mary Smith had a new victim.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 59

SUZIE CARTOULIS WASN'T PAYING much attention to the real world as she backed out of the driveway that morning. Her thoughts were on an unfinished pool cabana in the backyard of the house in Pacific Palisades, and the blankety-blank contractor who wasn't returning any of her phone calls, who never returned her calls, only her husband's. Two more days like this and she was going to fire the guy's ass. Right after she set it on fire.

Another car, idling just past a neighbor's cedar hedge, came into sight at the last second.

Suzie braked hard to avoid hitting the jerk who was parked there. Her heart thudded. That certainly would have been an auspicious way to start her day, a fender bender ten feet from her driveway.

She gave a quick wave into the rearview mirror.

“Sorry!” My bad. Then she put her silver Mercedes wagon in drive and started down the cul-de-sac toward Sunset. The other car pulled out as well and began to follow, but Suzie Cartoulis didn't notice.

Her focus had shifted to the nine-year-old boy in the backseat. “Are you all right, Zach? I didn't mean to stop so suddenly like that.”

“I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.”

“All right. Just checking, sweetie. How about a little music? What do you want to hear?”

She tried not to be overbearing, but it was hard sometimes. Zachary was such a sensitive boy, and he didn't react well to being ignored, either. Maybe if he had a little brother or sister, but that wasn't going to happen any time soon. Not now that Suzie had become the ten-o'clock anchor. She had finally gotten into the inner sanctum of recognizable faces in L.A. - no small feat for a former weathergirl from Tucson, thank you very much - and she wasn't going to let another pregnancy slow her down right now. Especially since New York was apparently very interested in her as well.

As if on cue, the phone rang.

Caller ID showed her husband's cell number, and she juggled the headset up to her ear.

“Hi. Where are you, honey?” She spoke through a frown she was glad Gio wasn't there to see.

“Miami. I think we're wrapping up. I have to shoot up to Palm Beach in a minute. Of course, there's another hurricane on the horizon, so I want to vamoose out of here. We just need a few signatures, but it looks like the contract's a go.”

“Great,” she said with hollow enthusiasm. She was supposed to know what project he was talking about, but they all blended together. Something about a shopping mall in southern Florida. Was that right? Was Vero Beach in south Florida? The Treasure Coast?

This was their game; he spoke about his work as if she cared, and she pretended to.

“So I should be home tonight instead of Monday, which would be nice. Maybe play a little golf this week? Wiatt 11- nally invited me to Riviera.”

“Mm-hm.”

“How's the little dude?”

“He's right here. Hang on.”

Suzie surrendered the phone to the backseat. “It's Daddy Be nice.”

She was already rearranging today's schedule in her head. Get someone else to cover the mayor's press conference on the ongoing murders. Have the housekeeper pick up Zach after tennis practice. Call Brian, see if he can get away; then call the Ramada and ask for an early check-in. Get laid properly once more before her all-business-all-of-the-time husband got back to town.

Make it an afternoon to remember.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 60

To: agriner@latimes.com From: Mary Smith To: Suzie Cartoulis: People in Los Angeles watch you on television every day, reporting the news, acting like you really know what's going on. That's what you do so well. Acting, pretending, faking it with flair. But today will be a little different, Suze. Today you will be the news.

They'll say that Suzie Cartoulis and her handsome, former-beach-volleyball-champ lover were found slain in a hotel room. That's how you people talk, isn't it? Slain? But no matter what they say on the news, no one will ever know just how you looked at me when I killed you. The incredible fear, the confusion, and what I took to be respect.

It was different this morning outside your fancy house in pacific palisades. You almost bumped into me with your highly polished silver merc wagon, and you looked right through me. You did, suze. Trust me on that. I remember these kinds of things.

Then, just like the others, you went on with your day like I wasn't even there. I had a feeling today might be the last one for you. Then I was sure of it.

First I watched you say good-bye to your darling little boy for the last time. He probably can't appreciate everything you do for him - all the sacrifices - but he'll think about it later, when someone else has to take him to school or to practice the next time he goes.

You're right about one thing though, should have made more time in your life for Zachary, Coulda Shoulda.

Then I followed you to the hotel in west Hollywood. At first I didn't know why you went there, but I figured out pretty quickly that you weren't going to die alone. That delicious- looking blond man you met - you two were perfect for each other. Central casting all the way. I could tell just by looking that he's the kind of somebody you are. Am I right? He went to the Olympics, after all. He's an exec at your network. Another fast-tracker. And now you have another thing in common. You're both dead somebodies. Killed by a nobody you couldn't even see when you looked right at her.

I gave you two some quality time before I came up there for you. Enough time to feel safe in your little cocoon of deceit. Maybe even enough to do what you had in mind for your sneaky little rendezvous. Then, when I came in, I saw him first. That was a bit of good luck. Know why? I wanted you to see him die. It put the fear of God on your face before I shot you- and then I got to cut that fear away, one piece at a time, until you weren't afraid anymore.

You weren't anything anymore.

You were nothing, Suzie Cartoulis.

Just like me.

Mary, Mary

Chapter 61

I WAS STILL ON THE ROAD when word came about Mary smith's latest - a triple homicide this time, the killer's deadliest strike to date, at least as far as we knew for certain. I was still chasing down leads on the triple homicide in New York, but progress was slow, and suddenly I was off to another crime scene.

Susan Cartoulis, a prizewinning newscaster, had been found dead, along with her lover, in a room at the Ramada Plaza Suites in West Hollywood.

The dead man was Brian Conver, a sports producer at the same network where ms.

Cartoulis worked. A second woman, Mariah Alexander, a college student who attended southern cal, had also been liked. What was that all about?

I asked agent page to read Mary smith's latest e-mail message over the phone while I drove. The text made clear that the newswoman had been the primary target. Mr. Conver was never mentioned by name, and there was no reference whatsoever to any Mariah Alexander.

“What do we know about Susan Cartoulis?” I asked Page.

“Does she fit the MO?”

“Basically, yeah. She fits right into the puzzle. Married with one son, good-looking woman, high profile in the city She was a ten-o'clock anchor for a local affiliate. Also the honorary chair of the Cedars-Sinai pediatric burn unit capital campaign. Nine-year-old son. Another perfect mom.”

“With a boyfriend on the side.”

“Well, I guess nobody's perfect. Is that what Mary's trying to tell us?”

“Maybe,” I said.

The press was going to eat up this one, as if they weren't already overfed. It made me feel even sorrier for Susan Cartoulis's husband and her young son. Her murder and infidelity would be trotted out for the public in great detail.

“Do you think that has anything to do with it?” Page asked. "Perfect mothers who aren't so perfect after all?

Hypocrisy on the home front? Something as simple as that?"

“If that's Mary Smith's point, she's being pretty murky about it. Especially for someone who's so deliberate in getting her message out there in her e-mails. Plus, as far as we know, most of the murdered women actually live up to their reputations.”

“As far as we know,” said Page. “Stay tuned on that one, yeah?”

“All right, why don't you do a little digging around about the others. See if you can find any dirty little secrets we flu s rw I he