/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

Alex Cross 2 Kiss the Girls

Patterson James


antiquePatterson,JamesAlex Cross 2 - Kiss the GirlsenPatterson,Jamescalibre 0.8.911.7.20113ce0b521-1df2-480a-b95c-31d0ba2cea041.0

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 1.

Washington, D.C.

April 1994 I WAS on the sun porch of our house on Fifth Street when it all began.

It was “pouring down rain” as my little girl Janelle likes to say, and the porch was a fine place to be. My grandmother had once taught me a prayer that I never forgot: “Thank you for everything just the way it is.” It seemed right that day almost.

Stuck up on the porch wall was a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon. It showed the “Butlers of the World” annual banquet. One of the butlers had been murdered. A knife was in his chest right up to the hilt. A detective on the scene said, “God, Collings, I hate to start a Monday with a case like this.” The cartoon was there to remind me there was more to life than my job as a homicide detective in D.C. A two-year-old drawing of Damon's tacked up next to the cartoon was inscribed: “For the best Daddy ever.” That was another reminder.

I played Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith tunes on our aging piano. The blues was having its sneaky-sad way with me lately.

I'd been thinking about Jezzie Flanagan. I could see her beautiful, haunting face sometimes, when I stared off into the distance. I tried not to stare off into the distance too much.

My two kids, Damon and Janelle, were sitting on the trusty, if slightly rickety, piano bench beside me. Janelle had her small arm wrapped across my back as far as it would stretch, which was about one-third of the way.

She had a bag of Gummi Bears in her free hand. As always, she shared with her friends. I was slow-sucking a red Gummi.

She and Damon were whistling along with my piano playing, though for Jannie, whistling is more like spitting to a certain preestablished rhythm. A battered copy of Green Eggs and Ham sat on top of the piano, vibrating to the beat.

Both Jannie and Damon knew I was having some trouble in my life lately, for the past few months, anyway. They were trying to cheer me up. We were playing and whistling the blues, soul, and a little fusion, but we were also laughing and carrying on, as children like us will.

I loved these times with my kids more than I loved all the rest of my life put together, and I had been spending more and more time with them. The Kodak pictures of children always remind me that my babies will be seven and five years old only one time. I didn't plan to miss any of it.

We were interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps running up the wooden stairs of our back porch. Then the doorbell rang: one, two, three tinny rings. Whoever was out there was in a big hurry.

“Ding-dong the witch is dead.” Damon offered his inspirational thought for the moment. He was wearing wraparound shades, his impression of a cool dude. He was a cool little dude, actually.

“No, the witch isn't,” countered Jannie. I'd recently noticed that she had become a staunch defender of her gender.

“It might not be news about the witch,” I said, with just the right timing and delivery. The kids laughed. They get most of my jokes, which is a frightening thought.

Someone began to pound insistently against the door frame, and my name was shouted in a plaintive and alarming way. Goddamnit, leave us be.

We don't need anything plaintive or alarming in our lives right now.

“Dr. Cross, please come! Please! Dr. Cross,” the loud shouts continued. I didn't recognize the woman's voice, but privacy doesn't seem to count when your first name is Doctor.

I held the kids down, my hands fastened onto the tops of their small heads. “I'm Dr. Cross, not you two. Just keep on humming and hold my place. I'll be right back.“ ”I'll be back!” said Damon in his best Terminator voice. I smiled at his joke. He is a second-grade wise guy already.

I hurried to the back door, grabbing my service revolver on the way.

This can be a bad neighborhood even for a cop, which I am. I peered out through the foggy and grimy windowpanes to see who was on our porch steps.

I recognized the young woman. She lived in the Langley projects. Rita Washington was a twenty- three-year-old pipe-head who prowled our streets like a gray ghost. Rita was smart, nice enough, but impressionable and weak. She had taken a very bad turn in her life, lost her looks, and now was probably doomed.

I opened the door and felt a cold, wet gust of wind slap against my face. There was a lot of blood on Rita's hands and wrists and on the front of her green fake-leather car coat “Rita, what in hell happened to you?” I asked. I guessed that she'd been gut-shot or stabbed over some drugs.

“Please, please come with me.” Rita Washington started to cough and sob at the same time. “It little Marcus Daniels,“ she said, and cried even louder. ”He been stabbed! It be real bad! He call your name. He ask for you, Dr. Cross.”

“You stay there kids! I'll be right back!” I shouted over Rita Washington's hysterical cries.

“Nana, please watch the kids!” I yelled even louder. “Nana, I have to go out!” I grabbed my coat and followed Rita Washington into the cold, teeming rain.

I tried not to step on the bright red blood dripping like wet paint all over our porch steps.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 2.

I RAN as fast as I could down Fifth Street. I could feel my heart going whump, whump, whump, and I was sweating profusely in spite of the nasty, steady, cold spring rain. Blood was pounding furiously in my head. Every muscle and tendon in my body was straining, and my stomach clenched real hard.

I held eleven-year-old Marcus Daniels in my arms, clutched tightly against my chest. The little boy was bleeding badly. Rita Washington had found Marcus on the oily, darkened stairway leading to the basement in his building and had taken me to his crumpled body.

1 ran like the wind, crying inside, holding it back as I've been taught to do on The Job and most everywhere else.

People who don't normally stare at much in Southeast were staring at me as I rumbled forward like a ten-axle semi on the loose in the inner city.

I out paced gypsy cabs, shouting at everybody to get out of my way.

passed ghost store after ghost store boarded up with dark, rotting plywood that was scrawled with graffiti.

I ran over broken glass and rubble, Irish Rose bottles, and occasional dismal patches of weeds and loose dirt. This was our neighborhood; our share in The Dream; our capital.

I remembered a saying I'd heard about D. C.: “Stoop down and you'll get stepped on, stand tall and you'll be shot at.”

As I ran, poor Marcus was throwing off blood like a soaking-wet puppy dog shedding water. My neck and arms were on fire, and my muscles continued to strain.

“Hold on, baby,” I said to the little boy. “Hold on, baby,” I prayed.

Halfway there, Marcus cried out in a tiny voice, “Doctor Alex, man.” That was all he said to me. I knew why. I knew a lot about little Marcus.

I raced up the steep, freshly paved asphalt drive of St. Anthony's Hospital, “St. Tony's Spaghetti House” as it's sometimes called in the projects. An EMS ambulance rolled past me, heading toward L Street.

The driver wore a Chicago Bulls cap pulled sideways, its brim pointing strangely in my direction. Loud rap music blared from the van, and it must have been deafening inside. The driver and medic didn't stop, didn't seem to consider stopping. Life in Southeast goes like that sometimes. You can't stop for every murder or mugging that you come across on your daily rounds.

I knew my way to St. Anthony's emergency room. I'd been there too many times. I shouldered open the familiar swinging glass door. It was stenciled EMERGENCY, but the letters were peeling away and there were nail scratches on the glass.

“We're here, Marcus. We're at the hospital,” I whispered to the little boy, but he didn't hear me. He was unconscious now.

“I need some help here! People, I need help with this boy!” I shouted.

The Pizza Hut delivery man would have gotten more attention. A bored-looking security guard glanced my way and gave me his practiced, flat-faced stare. A shabby stretcher clattered loudly down the halls of medicine.

I saw nurses I knew. Annie Bell Waters and Tanya Hey-wood, in particular.

“Bring him right here.” Annie Waters quickly cleared a way once she sized up the situation.

She didn't ask me any questions as she pushed other hospital workers and the walking wounded out of our path.

We sailed past the reception desk, with SIGN IN HERE in English, Spanish, and Korean. I smelled hospital antiseptic on everything.

“Tried to cut his throat with a gravity knife. I think he nicked the carotid artery,” I said as we rushed down a crowded, puke-green corridor that was thick with faded signs: X-RAY, TRAUMA, CASHIER.

We finally located a room about the size of a clothes closet. The young-looking doctor who rushed in told me to leave.

“The boy's eleven years old,” I said. “I'm staying right here. Both his wrists are cut. It's a suicide attempt. Hold on, baby,“ I whispered to Marcus. ”Just hold on, baby.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 3.

CLICK! Casanova popped the trunk latch of his car and peered into the wide, shiny-wet eyes staring out at him. What a pity. What a waste, he thought as he looked down at her.

“Peekaboo,” he said. “I see you.” He had fallen out of love with the twenty-two-year-old college student tied up in the trunk. He was also angry at her. She had disobeyed the rules.

She'd ruined the fantasy du jour.

“You look like absolute hell,” he said. “Relatively speaking, of course.” The young woman was gagged with wet cloths and couldn't answer back, but she glared at him.

Her dark-brown eyes showed fear and pain, but he could still see the stubbornness and spunk there.

He took out his black carrying bag first, then he roughly lifted her one hundred twelve pounds out of the car. He made no effort to be gentle at this point.

“You're welcome,” he said as he put her down. “Forgotten our manners, have we?” Her legs were shaky and she almost fell, but Casanova held her up easily with one hand.

She had on dark green Wake Forest University running shorts, a white tank top, and brand-new Nike cross-training shoes. She was a typical spoiled college brat, he knew, but achingly beautiful. Her slender ankles were bound with a leather thong that stretched about two and a half feet. Her hands were tied behind her back, also with a leather thong.

“You can just walk ahead of me. Go straight unless I tell you otherwise. Now walk,” he ordered. “Move those long, lovely gams. Hut, hut, hut.” They started through the dense woods that got even thicker as they moved slowly along. Thicker and darker. Creepier and creepier. He swung his black bag as if he were a child carrying a lunch box. He loved the dark woods. Always had.

Casanova was tall and athletic, well built, and good-looking. He knew that he could have many women, but not the way he wanted them. Not like this.

“I asked you to listen, didn't I? You wouldn't listen.” He spoke in a soft, detached voice. “I told you the house rules. But you wanted to be a wiseass. So be a wiseass. Reap the rewards.”

As the young woman struggled ahead she became increasingly afraid, close to panic. The woods were even denser now, and the low-hanging branches clawed at her bare arms, leaving long scratches. She knew her captor's name: Casanova. He fancied himself a great lover, and in fact he could maintain an erection longer than any man she had ever known.

He had always seemed rational and in control of himself, but she knew he had to be crazy. He certainly could act sane on occasion, though.

Once you accepted a single premise of his, something he had said to her several times: “Man was born to hunt ... women.”

He had given her the rules of his house. He had clearly warned her to behave. She just hadn't listened. She'd been willful and stupid and had made a huge, tactical mistake.

She tried not to think of what he was going to do to her out here in these bewildering Twilight Zone type woods. It would surely give her a heart attack. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction of seeing her break down and cry.

If only he would un gag her. Her mouth was dry, and she was thirsty beyond belief. Perhaps she could actually talk her way out of this of whatever it was that he had planned.

She stopped walking and turned to face him. It was draw-a-line-in-the-sand time.

"You want to stop here? That's fine with me. I'm not going to let you talk, though. No last words, dear heart. No reprieve from the governor. You blew it big time. If we stop here, you may not like it.

If you want to walk some more, that's fine, too. I just love these woods, don't you?"

She had to talk to him, get through to him somehow. Ask him why. Maybe appeal to his intelligence. She tried to say his name, but only muffled sounds made it through the damp gag.

He was self-assured and even calmer than usual. He walked with a cocky swagger. “I don't understand a word you're saying. Anyway, it wouldn't change a thing even if I did.” He had on one of the weird masks that he always wore. This one was actually called a death mask, he'd told her, and it was used to reconstruct faces, usually at hospitals and morgues.

The skin color of the death mask was almost perfect and the detail was frighteningly realistic. The face he'd chosen was young and handsome, an all-American type. She wondered what he really looked like. Who in hell was he? Why did he wear masks?

She would escape somehow, she told herself. Then she would get him locked up for a thousand years. No death penalty let him suffer.

“If that's your choice, fine,” he said, and he suddenly kicked her feet out from under her.

She fell down hard on her back. “You die right here.” He slid a needle out of the well-worn black medical bag he'd brought with him. He brandished it like a tiny sword. Let her see it.

“This needle is called a Tubex,” he said. “It's preloaded with thiopental sodium, which is a barbiturate. Does barbiturate-sounding things.” He squeezed out a thin squirt of the brown liquid. It looked like iced tea, and it was not something she wanted injected into her veins.

“What does it do? What are you doing to me?” she screamed into the tight gag. “Please take this gag out of my mouth.”

She was covered with sweat, and her breathing was labored. Her whole body felt stiff, anesthetized and numb. Why was he giving her a barbiturate?

“If I do this wrong, you'll die right now,” he told her. “So don't move.” She shook her head affirmatively. She was trying so hard to let him know that she could be good; she could be so very good. Please don't Ml me, she silently pleaded. Don't do this.

He pricked a vein in the crook of her elbow, and she could feel the painful pinch there.

“I don't want to leave any unsightly bruises,” he whispered. “It won't take long. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, you, are, so, beautiful, zero. All finished.”

She was crying now. She couldn't help it. The tears were streaming down her cheeks. He was crazy. She squeezed her eyes shut, couldn't look at him anymore. Please, God, don't let me die like this, she prayed. Not all alone out here.

The drug acted quickly, almost immediately. She felt warm all over, warm and sleepy. She went limp.

He took off her tank top and began to fondle her breasts, like a juggler with several balls.

There was nothing she could do to stop him.

He arranged her legs as if she were his art, his human sculpture, stretching the leather thong as far as it would go. He felt down between her legs. The sudden thrust made her open her eyes, and she stared up at the horrible mask. His eyes stared back at her. They were blank and emotionless, yet strangely penetrating.

He entered her, and she felt a jolt like a very powerful electric shock running through her body. He was very hard, fully aroused already. He was probing inside her as she was dying from the barbiturate. He was watching her die. That's what this was all about.

Her body wriggled, bolted, shook. As weak as she was, she tried to scream. No, please, please, please. Don't do this to me.

Mercifully, blackness came over her.

She didn't know how long she'd been unconscious. Didn't care. She woke up and she was still alive.

She started to cry, and the muffled sounds coming through the gag were agonizing. Tears ran down her cheeks. She realized how much she wanted to live.

She noticed that she'd been moved. Her arms were behind her and tied around a tree. Her legs were crossed and bound, and she was still tightly gagged. He had taken off her clothes. She didn't see her clothes anywhere.

He was still there! “I don't really care if you scream,” he said. “There's absolutely nobody to hear you out here.“ His eyes gleamed out of the lifelike mask. ”I just don't want you to scare away the hungry birds and animals.“ He glanced briefly at her truly beautiful body. ”Too bad you disobeyed me, broke the rules,” he said.

He took off the mask and let her see his face for the first time. He fixed the image of her face in his mind. Then he bent down and kissed her on the lips.

Kiss the girls.

Finally, he walked away.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 4.

LOST OF MY RAGE had been spent on the furious footrace to St. Anthony's with Marcus Daniels cradled in my arms. The adrenaline rush was gone now, but I felt an unnatural weariness.

The emergency-room waiting area was noise and frustrated confusion.

Babies crying, parents wailing out their grief, the PA incessantly paging doctors. A bleeding man kept muttering, “Ho shit, ho shit.” I could still see the beautiful, sad eyes of Marcus Daniels. I could still hear his soft voice.

At a little past six-thirty that night, my partner in crime arrived unexpectedly at the hospital. Something about that struck me as wrong, but I let it pass for now.

John Sampson and I have been best friends since we were both ten years old and running these same streets in D.C. Southeast. Somehow, we survived without having our throats slashed. I drifted into abnormal psychology, and eventually got a doctorate at Johns Hopkins. Sampson went into the army. In some strange and mysterious manner, we both ended up working together on the D.C. police force.

I was sitting on a sheetless gurney parked outside the Trauma Room.

Next to me was the “crash cart” they had used for Marcus. Rubber tourniquets hung like streamers from the black handles of the cart.

“How's the boy?” Sampson asked. He knew about Marcus already.

Somehow, he always knew. The rain was running down his black poncho in little streams, but he didn't seem to care.

I sadly shook my head. I was still feeling wasted. "Don't know yet.

They won't tell me anything. Doctor wanted to know if I was next of kin. They took him to Trauma. He cut himself real bad. So what brings you to happy hour?"

Sampson shrugged his way out of his poncho, and flopped down beside me on the straining gurney. Under the poncho, he had on one of his typical street-detective outfits: silver-and- red Nike sweatsuit, matching high-topped sneakers, thin gold bracelets, signet rings. His street look was intact.

“Where's your gold tooth?” I managed a smile. "You need a gold tooth to complete your fly ensemble. At least a gold star on one tooth.

Maybe some corn braids?"

Sampson snorted out a laugh. “I heard. I came,” he said offhandedly about his appearance at St. Anthony's. “You okay? You look like the last of the big, bad bull elephants.” "Little boy tried to kill himself. Sweet little boy, like Da-mon.

Eleven years old."

“Want me to run over to their crack crib? Shoot the boy's parents?” Sampson asked. His eyes were obsidian-hard.

“We'll do it later,” I said.

I was probably in the mood. The positive news was that the parents of Marcus Daniels lived together; the bad part was that they kept the boy and his four sisters in the crack house they ran near the Langley Terrace projects. The ages of the children ranged from five to twelve, and all the kids worked in the business. They were “runners.” “What are you doing here?” I asked him for the second time. “You didn't just happen to show up here at St. A's. What's up?” Sampson tapped out a cigarette from a pack of Camels. He used only one hand. Very cool. He lit up. Doctors and nurses were everywhere.

I snatched the cigarette away and crushed it under my black Converse sneaker sole, near the hole in the big toe.

“Feel better now?” Sampson eyed me. Then he gave me a broad grin showing his large white teeth. The skit was over. Sampson had worked his magic on me, and it was magic, including the cigarette trick. was feeling better. Skits work. Actually, I felt as if I'd just been hugged by about a half-dozen close relatives and both my kids. Sampson is my best friend for a reason. He can push my buttons better than anybody.

“Here comes the angel of mercy,” he said, pointing down the long, chaotic corridor.

Annie Waters was walking toward us with her hands thrust deeply into the pockets of her hospital coat. She had a tight look on her face, but she always does.

“I'm real sorry, Alex. The boy didn't make it. I think he was nearly gone when you got him here. Probably living on all that hope you carry bottled up inside you.”

Powerful images and visceral sensations of carrying Marcus along Fifth and L streets flashed before me. I imagined the hospital death sheet covering Marcus. It's such a small sheet that they use for children.

“The boy was my patient. He adopted me this spring.” I told the two of them what had me so wild and crazed and suddenly depressed.

“Can I get you something, Alex?” said Annie Waters. She had a concerned look on her face.

I shook my head. I had to talk, had to get this out right now.

"Marcus found out I gave help at St. As, talked to people sometimes.

He started coming by the trailer afternoons. Once I passed his tests, he talked about his life at the crack house. Everybody he knew in his life was a junkie. Junkie came by my house today ... Rita Washington.

Not Marcus's mother, not his father. The boy tried to slit his own throat, slit his wrists.

Just eleven years old."

My eyes were wet. A little boy dies, somebody should cry. The psychologist for an eleven-year- old suicide victim ought to mourn. I thought so, anyway.

Sampson finally stood up and put his long arm gently on my shoulder. He was six feet nine again. “Let's head on home, Alex,” he said. “C'mon, my man. Time to go.” I went in and looked at Marcus for the last time.

I held his lifeless little hand and thought about the talks the two of us had, the ineffable sadness always in his brown eyes. I remembered a wise, beautiful African proverb: “It takes a whole village to raise a good child.”

Finally, Sampson came and took me away from the boy, took me home.

Where it got much worse.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 5.

I DIDN'T like what I saw at home. A lot of cars were crowded helter-skelter around my house.

It's a white shingle A-frame; it looks like anybody's house. Most of the cars appeared familiar; they were cars of friends and family members.

Sampson pulled in behind a dented ten-year-old Toyota that belonged to the wife of my late brother Aaron. Cilia Cross was a good friend. She was tough and smart. I had ended up liking her more than my brother.

What was Cilia doing here?

“What the hell is going on at the house?” I asked Sampson again. I was starting to get a little concerned.

“Invite me in for a cold beer,” he said as he pulled the key from the ignition. “Least you can do.”

Sampson was already up and out of the car. He moves like a slick winter wind when he wants to.

“Let's go inside, Alex.” I had the car door open, but I was still sitting inside. "I live here.

I'll go in when I feel like it." I didn't feel like it suddenly. A sheen of cold sweat was on the back of my neck. Detective paranoia?

Maybe, maybe not.

“Don't be difficult,” Sampson called back over his shoulder, “for once in your life.” A long icy shiver ran through my body. I took a deep breath. The thought of the human monster I had recently helped put away still gave me nightmares. I deeply feared he would escape one day. The mass killer and kidnapper had already been to Fifth Street once.

What in hell was going on inside my house?

Sampson didn't knock on the front door, or ring the bell, which dangled on red-and-blue wires.

He just waltzed inside as if he lived there.

Same as it's always been. Mi casa es su casa. I followed him into my own house.

My boy, Damon, streaked into Sampson's outstretched arms, and John scooped up my son as if he were made of air. Jannie came skating toward me, calling me “Big Daddy” as she ran. She was already in her slipper-sock pajamas, smelling of fresh talcum after her bath. My little lady.

Something was wrong in her big brown eyes. The look on her face froze me.

"What is it, my honey bunch I asked as I nuzzled against Jannie's smooth, warm cheek. The two of us nuzzle a lot. “What's wrong? Tell your Daddy all your troubles and woes.” In the living room I could see three of my aunts, my two sisters-in-law, my one living brother, Charles. My aunts had been crying; their faces were all puffy and red. So had my sister-in-law Cilia, and she isn't one to get weepy without a good reason.

The room had the unnatural, claustrophobic look of a wake. Somebody has died, I thought.

Somebody we all love has died. But everybody I love seemed to be there, present and accounted for.

Nana Mama, my grandmother, was serving coffee, iced tea, and also cold chicken pieces, which no one seemed to be eating. Nana lives on Fifth Street with me and the kids. In her own mind, she's raising the three of us.

Nana had shrunk to around five feet by her eightieth year. She is still the most impressive person I know in our nation's capital, and I know most of them the Reagans, the Bush people, and now the Clintons.

My grandmother was dry-eyed as she did her serving. I have rarely seen her cry, though she is a tremendously warm and caring person. She just doesn't cry anymore. She says she doesn't have that much of life left, and she won't waste it on tears.

I finally walked into the living room and asked the question that was beating against the inside of my head. “It's nice to see everyone Charles, Cilia, Aunt Tia but would someone please tell me what's going on here?”

They all stared at me.

I still had Jannie cradled in my arms. Sampson had Damon tucked like a hairy football under his massive right arm.

Nana spoke for the assembled group. Her almost inaudible words sent the sharpest pain right through me.

“It's Naomi,” she said quietly. “Scootchie is missing, Alex.” Then Nana Mama started to weep for the first time in years.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 6.

CASANOVA screamed, and the loud sound coming from deep inside his throat turned into a raspy howl.

He was crashing through the deep woods, thinking about the girl he had abandoned back there.

The horror of what he had done. Again.

Part of him wanted to go back for the girl save her an act of mercy.

He was experiencing spasms of guilt now, and he began to run faster and faster. His thick neck and chest were covered with perspiration. He felt weak, and his legs were rubbery and undependable.

He was fully conscious of what he had done. He just couldn't stop himself.

Anyway, it was better this way. She had seen his face. It was stupid of him to think she would ever be able to understand him. He had seen the fear and loathing in her eyes.

If only she'd listened when he'd tried to talk to her. After all, he was different from other mass killers he could feel everything he did.

He could feel love ... and suffer loss ... and ... He angrily swept away the death mask. It was all her fault. He would have to change personas now. He needed to stop being Casanova.

He needed to be himself. His pitiful other self.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 7.

IT'S NAOMI. Scootchie is missing, Alex.

We held the most intense Cross family emergency conference in our kitchen, where they've always been held. Nana made more coffee, and also herbal tea for herself. I put the kids to bed first. Then I cracked opened a bottle of Black Jack and poured stiff drinks of whiskey all around.

I learned that my twenty-two-year-old niece had been missing in North Carolina for four days.

The police down there had waited that long to contact our family in Washington. As a policeman, I found that hard to understand. Two days was pretty standard in missing-person cases. Four days made no sense.

Naomi Cross was a law student at Duke University. She'd made Law Review and was near the top of her class. She was the pride of everyone in our family, including myself. We had a nickname for her that went back to when she was three or four years old. Scootchie. She always used to “scootch” up close to everybody when she was little. She loved to “scootch,” and hug, and be hugged. After my brother Aaron died, I helped Cilia to raise her. It wasn't hard she was always sweet and funny, cooperative, and so very smart.

Scootchie was missing. In North Carolina. Four days now.

“I talked to a detective named Ruskin,” Sampson told the group in the kitchen. He was trying not to act like a street cop, but he couldn't help it. He was on the case now. Flat-faced and serious. The Sampson stare.

"Detective Ruskin sounded knowledgeable about Naomi's disappearance.

Seemed like a straight-ahead cop on the phone. Something strange, though. Told me that a law- school friend of Naomi's reported her missing. Her name's Mary Ellen Klouk."

I had met Naomi's friend. She was a future lawyer, from Garden City, Long Island. Naomi had brought Mary Ellen home to Washington a couple of times. We'd gone to hear Handel's Messiah together one Christmas at the Kennedy Center.

Sampson took off his dark glasses, and kept them off, which is rare for him. Naomi was his favorite, and he was as shook up as the rest of us.

She called Sampson “His Grimness,” and “Darth One,” and he loved it when she teased him.

“Why didn't this Detective Ruskin call us before now? Why didn't those university people call me?” my sister-in-law asked. Cilia is forty-one. She has allowed herself to grow to ample proportions. I doubted that she was five feet four, but she had to be close to two hundred pounds. She'd told me that she didn't want to be attractive to men anymore.

“Don't know the answer to that yet,” Sampson told Cilia and the rest of us. “They told Mary Ellen Klouk not to call us.”

“What exactly did Detective Ruskin have to say about the delay?” I asked Sampson.

“Detective said there were extenuating circumstances. He wouldn't elaborate for me, persuasive as I can be.”

“You tell him we could have the conversation in person?” Sampson nodded slowly. "Uh-huh. He said the result would be the same.

I told him I doubted that. He said okay. Man seemed to have no fears.“ ”Black man?" Nana asked. She is a racist, and proud of it. She says she's too old to be socially or politically correct. She doesn't so much dislike white people as distrust them.

“No, but I don't think that's the problem, Nana. Something else is going on.” Sampson looked across the kitchen table at me. “I don't think he could talk.” “FBI?” I asked. It was the obvious guess when things get overly secretive. The FBI understands better than Bell Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times that information is power.

“That could be the problem. Ruskin wouldn't admit it on the phone.” “I better talk to him,” I said. “In person would probably be best, don't you think?” “I think that would be good, Alex.” Cilia spoke up from her end of the table.

“Maybe I'll tag along,” Sampson said, grinning like the predatory wolf that he is.

There were sage nods and at least one hallelujah in the overcrowded kitchen. Cilia came around the table and hugged me tight. My sister-in-law was shaking like a big, spreading tree in a storm.

Sampson and I were going South. We were going to bring back Scootchie.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 8.

I HAD TO TELL DAMON and Jannie about their “Auntie Scootch,” which is what the kids have always called her. My kids sensed something bad had happened. They knew it, just as they somehow know my most secret and vulnerable places. They had refused to go to sleep until I came and talked to them.

“Where's Auntie Scootch at? What happened to her?” Damon demanded as soon as I entered the kids' bedroom. He had heard enough to understand that Naomi was in some kind of terrible trouble.

I have a need always to tell the kids the truth, if it's possible. I'm committed to truth- telling between us. But every once in a while, it is so hard to do.

“We haven't heard from Aunt Naomi in a few days,” I began. “That's why everybody is worried tonight, and why they came over to our house,” I said.

I went on. “Daddy's on the case now. I'm going to do my best to find Aunt Naomi in the next couple of days. You know that your daddy usually solves problems. Am I right?”

Damon nodded to the truth in that, and seemed reassured by what I had told them, but mostly by my serious tone. He came into my arms and gave me a kiss, which he hasn't been doing as much lately. Jannie gave me the softest kiss, too. I held them both in my arms. My sweet babies.

“Daddy's on the case now,” Jannie whispered. That warmed my spirits some. As Billie Holiday put it, “God bless the child who's got his own.” By eleven the kids were sleeping peacefully, and the house was beginning to clear. My elderly aunts had already gone home to their quirky old-lady nests, and Sampson was getting ready to leave.

He usually lets himself in and out, but this time, Nana Mama walked Sampson to the door, which is a rarity. I went with them. Safety in numbers.

“Thank you for going down South with Alex tomorrow,” Nana said to Sampson in confidential tones. I wondered who she thought might be listening, trying to overhear her intimacies. "You see now, John Sampson, you can be civilized and somewhat useful when you want to be.

Didn't I always tell you that?" She pointed a curled, knobby finger at his massive chin.

“Didn't I?” Sampson grinned down at her. He revels in his physical superiority even to a woman who is eighty. “I let Alex go by himself, I'd only have to come later, Nana. Rescue him and Naomi,” he said.

Nana and Sampson cackled like a pair of cartoon crows on an old familiar fencepost. It was good to hear them laugh. Then she somehow managed to wrap her arms around Sampson and me. She stood there like some little qjd lady holding on to her two favorite redwood trees. I could feel her fragile body tremble. Nana Mama hadn't hugged the two of us like that in twenty years. I knew that she loved Naomi as if she were her own child, and she was very afraid for her.

It can't be Naomi. Nothing bad could happen to her, not to Naomi. The words kept drifting through my head. But something had happened to her, and now I would have to start thinking and acting like a policeman. Like a homicide detective. In the South.

“Have faith and pursue the unknown end.” Oliver Wendell Holmes said that. I have faith. I pursue the unknown. That's my job description.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 9.

SEVEN O'CLOCK in the evening was a busy time in late April on the stunningly beautiful campus of Duke University. The physical impressiveness of the students was visible everywhere at the self-proclaimed “Harvard of the South.” The magnolia trees, especially along Chapel Drive, were plentiful and in full bloom. The well-kept and striking orderliness of the grounds made it one of the most visually satisfying campuses in the United States.

Casanova found the fragrant air intoxicating as he strolled between tall gray stone gates and onto the university's West Campus. It was a few minutes past seven. He had come for one reason only to hunt. The entire process was exhilarating and irresistible. Impossible to stop once he had begun. This was foreplay. Lovely in every way.

I'm like a killer shark, with a human brain, and even a heart, Casanova thought, as he walked.

I am a predator without peer, a thinking predator.

He believed that men loved the hunt lived for it, in fact though most wouldn't admit it. A man's eyes never stopped searching for beautiful, sensual women, or for sexy men and boys, for that matter. All the more at a prime location like the Duke campus, or the campuses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or North Carolina State University at Raleigh, or many others he'd visited throughout the Southeast.

Just look at them! The slightly uppity Duke coeds were among the very finest and most “contemporary” American women. Even in dirty cutoffs, or ridiculous holey 501s, or baggy hobo's pants, they were something to see, to watch, occasionally to photograph, to fantasize about endlessly.

Nothing could be finer, Casanova thought, whistling a bar of the beamish old tune about a life of leisure in the Carolinas.

He casually sipped an icy Coca-Cola as he watched the students at play.

He was playing a game of skill himself several complicated games at once, actually. The games had become his life. The fact that he had a “respectable” job, another life, no longer mattered.

He checked each passing woman who even looked like a faint possibility for his collection. He studied shapely young coeds, older women professors, and female visitors in the Duke Blue Devils T-shirts that seemed de rigueur for outsiders.

He licked his lips in anticipation. Here was something splendid up ahead ... A tall, slender, exquisite black woman leaned against a shapely old oak in the Edens Quad. She was reading the Duke Chronicle, which she'd folded into thirds. He loved the smooth shine of her brown skin, her artistically braided hair. But he moved on.

Yes, men are hunters by nature, he was thinking. He was off in his own world again. “Faithful” husbands were oh-so-careful and furtive with their looks. Fresh-eyed boys of eleven and twelve appeared very innocent and playful. Grandfathers pretended to be above the fray, and were just “cute” with their affection. But Casanova knew they were all watching, constantly selecting, obsessed with mastering the hunt from puberty to the grave.

It was a biological necessity, no? He was quite certain of that. Women nowadays were demanding that men accept the fact that their female biological clocks were ticking ... well, with men, it was their biological cocks that were ticking.

Constantly ticking, those cocks.

That was a fact of nature, too. Everywhere he went, at virtually any time of day or night, he could feel the pulsing beat inside. Tick-cock.

Tick-cock.

Tick-cock! Tick-cock! A beautiful honey-blond coed sat cross legged on the grass intersecting his path. She was reading a paperback, Karl Jaspers Philosophy of Existence. The rock group Smashing Pumpkins was contributing mantra like riffs from a portable CD player. Casanova smiled to himself.

Tick-cock! The hunt was relentless for him. He was Priapus for the nineties. The difference between him and so many gutless modern men was that he acted on his natural impulses.

He relentlessly searched out a great beauty and then he took her! What an outrageously simple idea. What a compellingly modern horror story.

He watched two petite Japanese coeds chowing down on greasy North Carolina barbecue from the new Crooks Corner II restaurant in Durham.

They looked so delicious eating their dinner, wolfing their barbecue like small animals. North Carolina BBQ consisted of pork cooked over a fire, seasoned with a vinegar-laced sauce, then finely chopped. You couldn't eat BBQ without slaw and hush puppies.

He smiled at the unlikely scene. Yum.

Still, he moved on. Sights and scenes caught his eye.

Pierced eyebrows. Tattooed ankles. Lalapalooza T-shirts. Lovely flowing breasts, legs, thighs everywhere he looked.

He finally came to a small Gothic-style building near the Duke University Hospital, North Division. This was a special annex where terminally ill cancer patients from all over the South were cared for during their final days. His heart began to pound, and a series of small tremors shook his body.

There she was!

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 10.

THERE WAS the most beautiful woman in the South! Beautiful in all ways. Not only was she physically desirable she was extremely smart.

She might be able to understand him. Maybe she was as special as he was.

He almost said the words out loud, and believed them to be absolutely true. He had done a great deal of homework on his next victim. Blood began to pump and rush into his forehead. He could feel a throbbing all through his body.

Her name was Kate Mctiernan. Katelya Margaret Mctierman, to be as precise as he liked to be.

She was just walking out of the terminal cancer wing, where she had worked to help pay her way through medical school. She was all by her lonesome, as usual. Her last boyfriend had warned her that she was going to “end up a beautiful old maid.” Fat chance of that. Obviously, it was Kate Mctiernan's decision to be alone as much as she was. She could have been with nearly anyone she chose. She was stunningly beautiful, highly intelligent, and compassionate, from what he could tell so far. Kate was a grind, though. She was incredibly dedicated to her medical studies and hospital duties.

Nothing was overdone about her, and he appreciated that. Her long, curly brown hair framed her narrow face nicely. Her eyes were dark blue, and sparkled when she smiled. Her laugh was catchy, irresistible. She had an all-American look, but not banal. She was a hard body but she appeared so soft and feminine.

He'd watched other men hit on her studly students and even the occasional jaunty and ridiculous professor. She didn't hold it against them, and he saw how she deflected them, usually with some kindness, some small generosity.

But there was always that devilish, heartbreaking smile of hers. I'm not available, it said.

You can never have me. Please, don't even think about it. It's not that I'm too good for you, I'm just ... different.

Kate the Dependable, Kate the Nice Person, was right on time tonight.

She always left the cancer annex between a quarter to eight and eight.

She had her routines just as he did.

She was a first-year intern at North Carolina University Hospital in Chapel Hill, but she'd been working in a co-op program at Duke since January. The experimental cancer ward. He knew all about Katelya Mctiernan.

She was going to be thirty-one in a few weeks. She'd had to work three years to pay for her college and medical-school expenses. She had also spent two years with a sick mother in Buck, West Virginia.

She walked at a determined pace along Flowers Drive, toward the multilevel Medical Center parking garage. He had to move quickly to keep up with her, all the while watching her long shapely legs, which were a little too pale for his liking. No time for the sun, Kate?

Afraid of a little melanoma?

She carried thick medical volumes against one hip. Looks and brains.

She planned to practice back in West Virginia, where she was born. Didn't seem to care about making a lot of money.

What for? So she could own ten pairs of black high-topped sneakers?

Kate Mctiernan was wearing her usual university garb: a crisp white med-school jacket, khaki shirt, weathered tan trousers, her faithful black sneakers. It worked for her. Kate the Character. Slightly off-center. Unexpected. Strangely, powerfully alluring.

On Kate Mctiernan, almost anything would have worked, even the most homespun interpretation of cheap chic. He particularly loved Kate Mctiernan's irreverence toward university and hospital life, and especially the holier-than-thou medical school. It showed in the way she dressed; the casual way she carried herself now; everything about her lifestyle. She seldom wore makeup. She seemed very natural, and there was nothing phony or stuck-up about her that he'd noticed yet.

There was even a little of the unexpected klutz in her. Earlier in the week, he had seen her flush the deepest red after she tripped on a guardrail outside Perkins Library and crashed into a bench with her hip. That warmed him tremendously. He could be touched, could feel human warmth. He wanted Kate to love him ... He wanted to love her back.

That was why he was so special, so different. It was what separated him from all the other one-dimensional killers and butchers he had ever heard or read about, and he had read everything on the subject. He could feel everything. He could love. He knew that.

Kate said something amusing to a fortyish-looking professor as she walked past him. Casanova couldn't hear it from where he was watching.

Kate turned for some quick repartee, but kept on walking, leaving the professor with her luminous smile to think about.

He saw a little jiggle action as Kate whirled around after her brief interchange with the prof. Her breasts weren't too large or too small.

Her long brown hair was thick and wavy, shiny in the early evening light, revealing just a touch of red. Perfect in every detail.

He had been watching her for more than four weeks, and he knew she was the one. He could love Dr. Kate Mctiernan more than all the others.

He believed it for a moment. He ached to believe it. He said her name softly Kate ... Dr.

Kate.

Tick-cock.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 11.

SAMPSON AND I took shifts at the wheel on the four-hour haul from Washington, down into North Carolina. While I drove, the Man Mountain slept. He wore a black T-shirt that bluntly said SECURITY. Economy of words.

When Sampson was at the controls of my ancient Porsche, I put on a set of old Koss headphones.

I listened to Big Joe Williams, thought about Scootchie, continued to feel hollowed-out.

I couldn't sleep, hadn't slept more than an hour the night before. I felt like a grief- stricken father whose only daughter was missing.

Something seemed wrong about this case.

We entered the South at noon. I had been born around a hundred miles away, in Winston-Salem. I hadn't been back there since I was ten years old, the year my mother died, and my brothers and I were moved to Washington.

I'd been to Durham before, for Naomi's graduation. She had finished Duke undergraduate summa cum laude, and she received one of the loudest, cheeriest ovations in the history of the ceremony. The Cross family had been there in full force. It was one of the happiest, proudest days for all of us.

Naomi was the only child of my brother Aaron, who died of cirrhosis at thirty-three. Naomi had grown up fast after his death. Her mother had to work a sixty-hour week for years to support them, so Naomi was in charge of the house from around the time she was ten. She was the littlest general.

She was a precocious little girl, and read about Alice's adventures in Through the Looking- Glass when she was only four, A family friend gave her violin lessons, and she played well.

She loved music, and still played whenever she had time. She graduated number one in her class at John Carroll High School in D.C. As busy as she was with her studies, she found time to write graceful prose on what life was like growing up in the projects. She reminded me of a young Alice Walker.

Gifted.

Very special.

Missing for more than four days.

The welcome mat wasn't out for us at Durham's brand-new police headquarters building, not even after Sampson and I showed our badges and IDs from Washington. The desk sergeant wasn't impressed.

He looked something like the TV weatherman Willard Scott. He had a full crewcut, long thick sideburns, and skin the color of fresh ham.

After he found out who we were, it got a little worse. No red carpet, no Southern hospitality, no Southern comfort.

Sampson and I got to sit and cool our heels in the duty room of the Durham Police Department.

It was all shiny glass and polished wood. We received the kind of hostile looks and blank stares usually reserved for drug dealers caught around grade schools.

“Feel like we just landed on Mars,” Sampson said as we waited and watched Durham's finest, watched complainants come and go. “Don't like the feeling I get from the Martians. Don't like their beady little Martian eyes. Don't think I like the new South.”

“You think about it, we'd fit in the same anywhere,” I told Sampson.

“We'd get the same reception, same cold stares, at Nairobi Police Headquarters.” “Maybe.” Sampson nodded behind his dark glasses. “But at least they'd be black Martians. At least they'd know who John Coltrane is.”

Durham detectives Nick Ruskin and Davey Sikes finally came down to see us an hour and a quarter after we arrived.

Ruskin reminded me a little of Michael Douglas in his dark-hero cop roles. He wore a coordinated outfit: green-and-tan tweed jacket, stone washed jeans, yellow pocket T. He was about my height, which would make him six three or so, a little bigger than life. His longish brown hair was slicked back and razor-cut.

Davey Sikes was well built. His head was a solid block that made sharp right angles with his shoulders. He had sleepy, oatmeal-brown eyes; almost no affect that I could discern. Sikes was a sidekick type, definitely not the leader. At least not if first appearances meant anything.

The two detectives shook hands with us, and acted as if all were forgiven, as if they were forgiving us for intruding. I had the feeling that Ruskin especially was used to getting his way inside the Durham PD. He seemed like the local star. The main man around these parts.

Matinee idol at the Durham Triplex.

“Sorry about the wait, Detective Cross, Sampson. It's been busy as a son of a bitch around here,” Nick Ruskin said. He had a light Southern accent. Lots of confidence in himself.

He hadn't mentioned Naomi by name yet. Detective Sikes was silent.

Didn't say a word.

"You two like to take a ride with Davey and me? I'll explain the situation on the way. There's been a homicide. That's what had us all tied up. Police found a woman's body out in Efland.

This is a real bad one."

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 12.

THIS IS A REAL BAD ONE. A woman's body in Efland. What woman?

Sampson and I followed Ruskin and Sikes out to their car, a forest-green Saab Turbo. Ruskin got in the driver's seat. I remembered Sergeant Esterhaus's words in Hill Street Blues: “Let's be careful out there.”

“You know anything at all about the murdered woman?” I asked Nick Ruskin as we headed onto West Chapel Hill Street. He had his siren screaming and he was already driving fast. He drove with a kind of brashness and cockiness.

“I don't know enough,” Ruskin said. “That's our problem, Davey's and mine, with this investigation. We can't get straight-dick information about much of anything. That's probably why we're in such a good mood today. You notice?“ ”Yeah, we noticed,” Sampson said. I didn't look over at him. I could feel the steam rising in the back seat, though. Heat coming off his skin.

Davey Sikes glanced back and frowned at Sampson. I got the feeling they weren't going to become best buddies.

Ruskin continued talking. He seemed to like the spotlight, being on the Big Case. "This entire case is under the control of the FBI now.

The DEA got in the act, too. I wouldn't be surprised if the CIA was part of the ' team.“ They did send some kinky crackerjack down from their fancy outpost in Sanford.”

“What do you mean this entire case?” I asked Ruskin. Warning alarms were sounding in my head.

I thought of Naomi again.

This is a real bad one.

Ruskin turned around quickly and looked at me. He had penetrating blue eyes and they seemed to be sizing me up. “Understand we're not supposed to tell you anything. We're not authorized to bring you out here either.“ ”I hear what you're saying,“ I said. ”I appreciate the help.”

Once again, Davey Sikes turned and looked at us. I felt as if Sampson and I were on the other team, looking over the line of scrimmage, waiting for the ball snap, the crunch of bodies.

“We're on our way to the third murder site,” Ruskin went on. "I don't know who the victim is.

Goes without saying that I hope the victim isn't your niece."

“What's this case all about? Why all the mystery?” Sampson asked. He sat forward in his seat.

“We're all cops here. Talk straight to us.” The Durham homicide detective hesitated before he answered. “A few women, let's say several, have disappeared in a three-county area Durham, Chatham, and Orange, which you're in now. The press has reported a couple of disappearances and two murders so far. Unrelated murders.”

“Don't tell me the media is actually cooperating with an investigation?” I said.

Ruskin half smiled. “Not in your wildest wet dreams. They only know what the FBI's decided to tell them. Nobody's actually withholding information, but nothing's being volunteered, either.”

“You mentioned that several young women have disappeared,” I said. “How many exactly? Tell me about them.”

Ruskin talked out of the side of his mouth. “We believe eight to ten women are missing. All young. Late teens and early twenties. All students in college or high school. Only two bodies have been found, though. The one we're going to see could make three. All the bodies were discovered in the last five weeks. The Feebies think we're in the middle of what could be one of the worst kidnapping and murder sprees ever in the South.”

“How many FBI in town?” Sampson asked. “Squad? Battalion?” “They're here in full force. They have '' that the disappearances extend beyond state lines Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, down into Florida. They think our friendly squirrel abducted a Florida State cheerleader at this year's Orange Bowl. They call him The Beast of the Southeast.” It's as if he's invisible. He's in control of the situation right now. Calls himself Casanova ... believes he's a great lover."

“Did Casanova leave mash notes at the murder scenes?” I asked Ruskin.

"Just at the last one. He seems to be coming out of his shell. He wants to communicate now.

Bond with us. He told us he was Casanova."

“Were any of the victims black women?” I asked Ruskin. One trait of repeat killers was that they tended to choose their victims along racial grounds. All white. All black. All Spanish.

Not too much mixing, as a rule.

"One other missing girl is black. Student from North Carolina Center University. Two bodies we found were white. All the women who've disappeared are extremely attractive. We have a bulletin board up with pictures of the missing girls.

Somebody gave the case a name: “Beauties and the Beast.” It's on the board in big letters.

Right over the pictures. That's another handle we have for the case.“ ”Does Naomi Cross fit his pattern?“ Sampson asked quietly. ”Whatever the crisis team has established so far?"

Nick Ruskin didn't answer right away. I couldn't tell if he was thinking about it, or just trying to be considerate.

“Is Naomi's picture up on the FBI bulletin board? The Beauties and the Beast board?” I asked Ruskin.

“Yes, it is.” Davey Sikes finally spoke. “Her picture is on the big board.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 13.

DON'T LET THIS be Scootchie. Her life is just beginning, I silently prayed as we sped to the homicide scene.

Terrible, unspeakable things happened all the time nowadays, to all kinds of innocent, unsuspecting people. They happened in virtually every big city, and even small towns, in villages of a hundred or less.

But most often these violent, unthinkable crimes seemed to happen in America.

Ruskin downshifted hard as we curled around a steep curve and saw flashing red and blue lights. Cars and EMS vans loomed up ahead, solemnly gathered at the edge of thick pine woods.

A dozen vehicles were parked haphazardly along the side of the two-lane state road. Traffic was sparse out there in the heart of nowhere.

There was no buildup of ambulance-chasers yet. Ruskin pulled in behind the last car in line, a dark blue Lincoln Town Car that might as well have had Federal Bureau written all over it.

A state-of-the-art homicide scene was already in progress. Yellow tape had been strung from pine trees, cordoning off the perimeter. Two EMS ambulances were parked with their blunt noses pointed into a stand of trees.

I was swept into a near out-of-body experience as I floated from the car. My vision tunneled.

It was almost as if I had never visited a crime scene before. I vividly remembered the worst of the Soneji case. A small child found near a muddy river. Horrifying memories mixed with the terrifying present moment.

Don't let this be Scootchie.

Sampson held my arm loosely as we followed detectives Ruskin and Sikes.

We walked for nearly a mile into the dense woods. In the heart of a copse of towering pines, we finally saw the shapes and silhouettes of several men and a few women.

At least half of the group were dressed in dark business suits. It was as if we had come upon some impromptu camping trip for an accounting firm, or a coven of big-city lawyers or bankers.

Everything was eerie, quiet, except for the hollow popping of the technicians' cameras. Close- up photos of the entire area were being taken.

A couple of the crime-scene professionals were already wearing translucent rubber gloves, looking for evidence, taking notes on spiral pads.

I had a creepy, otherworldly premonition that we were going to find Scootchie now. I pushed it, shoved it away, like the unwanted touch of an angel or God. I turned my head sharply to one side as if that would help me avoid whatever was coming up ahead.

“FBI for sure,” Sampson muttered softly. “Out here on the Wilderness Trail.” It was as if we were walking toward a mammoth nest of buzzing hornets. They were standing around, whispering secrets to one another.

I was acutely aware of leaves crumpling under my feet, of the noise of twigs and small branches breaking. I wasn't really a policeman here. I was a civilian.

We finally saw the naked body, at least what was left of it. There was no clothing visible at the murder scene. The woman had been tied to a small sapling with what appeared to be a thick leather bond.

Sampson sighed, “Oh, Jesus, Alex.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 14.

WHO IS THE WOMAN?“ I asked softly as we came up to the unlikely police group, the multi jurisdictional mess,” as Nick Ruskin had described it.

The dead woman was white. It was impossible to tell too much more than that about her at this time. Birds and animals had been feasting on her, and she almost didn't look human anymore.

There were no fixed, staring eyes, just dark sockets like burn marks. She didn't have a face; the skin and tissue had been eaten away.

“Who the hell are these two?” one of the FBI agents, a heavyset blond woman in her early thirties, asked Ruskin. She was as unattractive as she was unpleasant, with puffy red lips and a bulbous, hooked nose. At least she'd spared us the usual FBI happy-camper smile, or the FBI's famous “smiling handshake.” Nick Ruskin was brusque with her. His first endearing moment for me.

"This is Detective Alex Cross, and his partner, Detective John Sampson.

They're down here from D.C. Detective Cross's niece is missing from Duke. She's Naomi Cross.

This is Special Agent in Charge Joyce Kinney." He introduced the agent to us.

Agent Kinney frowned, or maybe it was a scowl. “Well, this is certainly not your niece here,” she said.

“I'd appreciate it if the two of you would return to the cars. Please do that.” She felt the need to go on. “You have no authority on this case, and no right to be here, either.” “As Detective Ruskin just told you, my niece is missing.” I spoke softly, but firmly, to Special Agent Joyce Kinney. “That's all the authority I need. We didn't come down here to admire the leather interior and instrument panel of Detective Ruskin's sports car.”

A thick-chested blond man in his late twenties briskly stepped up beside his boss. “I think y'all heard Special Agent Kinney. I'd appreciate it if you leave now,” he announced. Under different circumstances, his over-the-top response might have been funny. Not today. Not at this massacre scene.

“No way you're going to stop us,” Sampson said to the blond agent in his darkest, grimmest voice. “Not you. Not your Dapper Dan friends here.” “That's fine, Mark.” Agent Kinney turned to the younger man. “We'll deal with this later,” she said. Agent Mark backed off, but not without a major-league scowl, much like the one I'd gotten from his boss. Both Ruskin and Sikes laughed as the agent backed down.

We were allowed to stay with the FBI and the local police contingent at the crime scene.

Beauties and the Beast. I remembered the phrase Ruskin had used in the car. Naomi was up on the Beast board. Had the dead woman been on the board as well?

It had been hot and humid and the body was decomposing rapidly. The woman had been badly attacked by forest animals, and I hoped that she was already dead before they came. Somehow, I didn't think so.

I noted the unusual position of the body. She was lying on her back.

Both her arms appeared to have been dislocated, perhaps as she twisted and struggled to free herself from the leather bonds and the tree behind her. It was as vicious a sight as I had ever seen on the streets of Washington or anywhere else. I felt almost no relief that this wasn't Naomi.

I eventually talked up one of the FBI's forensic people. He knew a friend of mine at the Bureau, Kyle Craig, who worked out of Quantico in Virginia. He told me that Kyle had a summer house in the area.

“This shit heel real savvy, real smooth, if nothing else.” The FBI forensic guy liked to talk.

“He hasn't left pubic hairs, semen, or even traces of perspiration on either of the victims I've examined. I surely doubt if we'll find much here to give us a DNA profile. At least he didn't eat her himself.”

“Does he have sex with the victims?” I asked before the agent went on a tangent about his experiences with cannibalism.

"Yeah, he does. Somebody had repeated sex with them. Lots of vaginal bruises and tears.

Bugger's well equipped, or he uses something large to simulate sex. But he must wear a cellophane body bag when he does it. Or he dusts them somehow. No pubes, no trace of body fluid yet.

The forensic entomologist has already collected his samples. He'll be able to give us the exact time of death."

“This could be Bette Anne Ryerson,” one of the gray-haired FBI agents within earshot said.

"There was a missing-person report on her.

Blond-haired gal, five six, about a hundred and ten pounds. Wearing a gold Seiko when she disappeared. Drop-dead gorgeous, at least she used to be.“ ”Mother of two kids,“ said one of the female agents. ”Graduate English student at North Carolina State. I interviewed her husband, who's a professor. Met her two children. Beautiful little kids. One and three years old. Goddamn this bastard." The agent started to choke up.

I could see the wristwatch, and the ribbon that tied back her hair had come undone and rested on her shoulder. She was no longer beautiful.

What was left of her was bloated and suffused. The odor of decomposition was pungent even out in the open air.

The empty sockets seemed to be staring up into a cresent-shaped opening at the tops of the pine trees, and I wondered what her eyes had looked at last.

I tried to imagine “Casanova” cavorting around in these deep dark woods before we had arrived.

I took a guess that he was in his twenties or thirties, and physically strong. I was afraid for Scootchie, much more than I had been, in fact.

Casanova. The world's greatest lover ... God save us.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 15.

IT WAS well past ten o'clock, and we were still at the grisly, highly disturbing murder scene.

The dazzling amber headlights of official cars and emergency vehicles were used to illuminate a foot worn path into the shadowy woods. It was getting colder outside. The chill night wind was a gritty slap in the face.

The corpse still hadn't been moved.

1 watched the Bureau's technicians dutifully strip search the woods, collecting forensic clues and taking measurements. The immediate area had been cordoned off, but I made a sketch in the dim light, and took my own preliminary notes. I was trying to remember what I could about the original Casanova. Eighteenth-century adventurer, writer, libertine. I had read parts of his memoirs somewhere along the line.

Beyond the obvious, why had the killer chosen the name? Did he believe that he truly loved women? Was this his way of showing it?

We could hear a bird somewhere let out an unearthly scream, and also the sounds of small animals all around us.

Nobody thought of Bambi in these woods. Not under the circumstances of the gruesome murder.

Between ten-thirty and eleven, we heard a loud roar like thunder in the eerie woods. Nervous eyes looked up into the blue-black sky.

“There's a familiar old tune,” Sampson said as he saw the fluttering lights of an incoming helicopter approaching from the northeast.

“Probably mediflight finally coming for the body,” I said.

A dark blue helicopter with gold stripes finally swirled down onto the blacktop highway.

Whoever was piloting the copter in was a real pro.

“Not mediflight,” Sampson said; “more likely be Mick Jagger Big stars travel in copters like that one.”

Joyce Kinney and the regional Bureau director were already headed back to the highway. Sampson and I followed along like uninvited pests.

We received another rude shock right away. Both of us recognized the tall, balding, distinguished-looking man who stepped from the helicopter.

“Now what the hell is he doing down here?” Sampson said. I had the same question, the same uneasy reaction. It was the deputy director of the FBI. The number two man, Ronald Burns.

Burns was a real hummer inside the Bureau, a bigtime cage rattler.

We both knew Burns from our last multi jurisdictional case. He was supposed to be political, a bad guy inside the Bureau, but he had never been that way with me. After he had looked at the body, he asked to speak to me. It was getting stranger and stranger down in Carolina.

Burns wanted to hold our little talk away from the big ears and small minds of his own people.

“Alex, I'm real sorry to hear your niece might have been kidnapped. I hope that isn't the case,“ he said. ”Since you're down here, maybe you can help us out.”

“Can I ask why you're down here?” I said to Burns. Might as well skip right to the sixty-four- thousand-dollar question.

Burns smiled, showing off his capped, very white front teeth. “I do wish you had accepted our offer of that VICAP position.”

I had been offered a job as a liaison between the Bureau and the D.C.

police after the Soneji kidnapping case. Burns was one of the men who interviewed me.

“I like directness more than anything in a senior officer,” Burns continued.

I was still waiting for an answer to my direct question.

“I can't tell you as much as you'd like to hear,” Burns finally said.

“I will tell you that we don't know if your niece was taken by this sick Johnny. He leaves very little physical evidence, Alex. He's careful and he's good at what he does.”

"So I've heard. Leads us into some obvious areas for suspects.

Policemen, army vets, amateurs who study the police. That could be misdirection on his part, though. Maybe he wants us to think that way."

Burns nodded. "I'm here because this has become a high-priority mess.

It's large, Alex. I can't tell you why at this time. It's classified large." Spoken like a true FBI honcho. Mysteries wrapped in more mysteries.

Burns sighed. “I will tell you one thing. We believe that he might be a collector. We think he could be keeping a few of the young women nearby ... a private harem maybe. His very own harem.”

It was a scary, startling idea. It also gave me hope that Naomi might still be alive.

“I want to be in on this,” I told Burns, holding eye contact with him.

“Why don't you tell me everything?” I gave him my terms. “I need to see the whole picture before I start giving out any theories. Why does he reject some of the women? If that's what he's doing.”

“Alex, I can't tell you any more right now. I'm sorry.” Burns shook his head and closed his eyes for a second. I realized that he was exhausted.

“But you wanted to see how I would react to your collector theory?” “I did,” Burns admitted, and finally had to smile.

“A modern-day harem would be possible, I guess. It's a common enough male fantasy,” I told him. “Strangely, it's a prevalent female fantasy, too. Don't rule that out yet.” Burns catalogued what I'd said and left it at that. He asked me to help again, but was unwilling to tell me everything he knew. He finally walked back to be with his own people.

Sampson came up beside me. “What did His Rigidness have to say? What brings him to this unholy forest with us mere mortals?“ ”He said something interesting. Said that Casanova might be a collector, maybe creating his own private harem somewhere near here,“ I told Sampson. ”He said the case is large. His choice of words.”

“Large” meant it was a very bad case, probably worse than it already seemed. I wondered how that could be, and I almost didn't want to know the answer.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 16.

KATE Mctiernan was lost in an odd, but nicely illuminating, thought.

When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, she considered, it's only because of timing.

That was the insight from her latest kata in black-belt class.

Exquisite timing was everything in karate, and also in so many other things. It also helped if you could bench-press almost two hundred pounds, which she could.

Kate dawdled along busy, funky, rambunctious Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The street ran north and south, bordering the picturesque campus of the University of North Carolina. She passed bookstores, pizza shops, Rollerblade rentals, Ben & Jerry's ice cream. The rock group White Zombie was blaring from the ice-cream store. Kate wasn't a dawdler by nature, but the evening was warm and pleasant, so she stopped to window-shop for a change.

The college-town crowd was familiar, friendly, and very comfortable.

She loved her life here, first as a medical student and now as an intern. She never wanted to leave Chapel Hill, never wanted to go back and be a doctor in West Virginia.

But she would go. It was her promise to her mother just before Beadsie Mctiernan died. Kate had given her word, and her word was good. She was old-fashioned about things like that. A small-town mensch.

Kate's hands were thrust into the deep pockets of a slightly wrinkled hospital medical jacket.

She thought that her hands were her bad feature. They were gnarled, and she had no fingernails to speak of.

There were two reasons for that: her job as slave labor at the cancer ward and her avocation as a second-degree black belt, a Nidan. It was the one tension re-leaser she allowed herself; karate class was her R & R. The name pin on the upper left pocket of her jacket said K.

Mctiernan, M.D. She liked the tiny irreverence of wearing that symbol of status and prestige with her baggy pants and the sneakers. She didn't want to seem like a rebel, and she really wasn't, but she needed to keep some small individuality inside the large hospital community.

Kate had just picked up a paperback copy of Cormac Mccarthy's All the Pretty Horses at the Intimate Book Shop. First-year interns weren't supposed to have time to read novels, but she made time. At least she promised to make time tonight.

The late April night was so fine, so perfect in every way, that Kate considered stopping off at Spanky's on the corner of Columbia and Franklin. She might sit at the bar and just read her book.

There was absolutely no way she would let herself meet somebody on a “school night” which meant most nights for her. She usually had Saturdays off, but by then she was too bushed to deal with pre- and post-mating rituals.

It had been that way ever since she and Peter Mcgrath had severed their on-again, off-again relationship. Peter was thirty-eight, a doctor of history and close to brilliant. He was handsome as sin and way too self-absorbed for her taste. The breakup had been messier than she had expected. They weren't even friends now.

It had been four months without Peter now. Pun intended. Not good, but not in the top ten worst things she'd had to deal with. And besides, she knew the breakup was really her fault and not Peter's.

Breaking up with lovers was a problem she had; it was part of her secret past. Secret present?

Secret future?

Kate Mctiernan raised her wristwatch to her face. It was a funky Mickey Mouse model that her sister Carole Anne had given her, and it was a swell little timekeeper. It was also a reminder to herself: Never get a big head because you're a DOCTOR now.

Damn! Her farsightedness was getting worse at almost thirty-one years old! She was an old lady. She'd been the grandam of the University of North Carolina Medical School. It was already nine-thirty past her bedtime.

Kate decided to pass on Spanky's and head back to the hacienda. She'd heat up some fourth- degree chili, and maybe have hot chocolate with about an inch topping of Marshmal-low Fluff.

Curling up in bed with some junk food, Cormac Mccarthy, and maybe REM. didn't sound half bad, actually.

Like many of the students at Chapel Hill as opposed to the wealthier crowd up Tobacco Road at “Dook” Kate had a major cash-flow problem. She lived in a three-room apartment that was the top floor of a frame house, a North Carolina “country” house. All the paint was peeling, and the house looked as if it were molting. It was at the ass-end of Pittsboro Street in Chapel Hill. She had gotten a good deal on the rent.

The first thing she had noticed about the neighborhood were the exquisite trees. They were old and stately hardwoods, not pines. Their long branches reminded her of the arms and fingers of wizened old women. She called her street “Old Ladies Lane.” Where else would the old lady of the medical school live?

Kate arrived home at about a quarter to ten. Nobody was living downstairs in the house that she rented from a widowed lady who lived in Durham.

“I'm home. It's me, Kate,” she called to the family of mice who lived somewhere behind the refrigerator. She couldn't bring herself to exterminate them. “Did you miss me? You guys eat yet?”

She flipped on the overhead kitchen light and listened to the irritating electric buzz that she hated. Her eyes caught the blowup of a quote from one of her med-school teachers: “Medical students have to practice humility.” Well she was definitely practicing humility.

Inside her small bedroom, Kate pulled on a wrinkled black polo shirt that she never ever bothered to iron. Ironing clothes was not a priority these days. It was one reason to have a man around, though someone to clean, maintain, take out the trash, cook, iron. She was fond of a particular old feminist line: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Kate yawned just thinking about the sixteen-hour day that would start for her at five the next morning. Dammit, she loved her life! Loved it! She fell onto the creaking double bed that was covered with plain white sheets. The only flourish was a couple of colored chiffon scarves which hung from the bedpost.

She canceled her order for chili and hot chocolate with Marshmallow Fluff, and she set All the Pretty Horses on top of unread copies of Harper's and The New Yorker. Kate flipped off her lamp and was asleep in five seconds. End of wonderfully illuminating discussion with herself for the night.

Kate Mctiernan had no idea, no suspicion, that she was being watched, that she had been followed ever since she'd walked down crowded, colorful Franklin Street, that she had been chosen.

Dr. Kate was next.

Tick-cock.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 17.

No! KATE THOUGHT. This is my home. She almost said it out loud, but she didn't want to make a sound.

There was someone in her apartment! She was still half asleep, but she was almost sure about the intruding noise that woke her up.

Her pulse was already racing. Her heart floated up into her throat. Jesus God, no.

She stayed very still, huddled near the head of her bed. A few more nervous seconds passed slowly, like centuries. Not a move from her.

Not a breath. Bone-white slants of moonlight played across the windowpanes, creating eerie shadows in her bedroom.

She listened to the house, listened with total concentration to every creak and crack the old building made.

She didn't hear anything unusual now. But she was sure she had. The recent murders and the news stories about the kidnappings in the Research Triangle area made her fearful. Don't be gruesome, she thought. Don't get melodramatic.

She sat up slowly in bed and listened. Maybe a window had blown open.

She had better get out of bed and check the windows and doors.

For the first time in four months, she actually missed Peter Mcgrath.

Peter wouldn't have helped, but she would have felt safer. Even with dear old “Peter-out.” Not that she was totally frightened or vulnerable; she could hold her own with most men. She could fight like hell. Peter used to say that he “pitied” the man who messed with her, and he meant it. He had been a little physically afraid of her. Well, prearranged fighting in karate dojos was one thing. This was the real thing.

Kate slipped silently out of bed. Not a sound. She felt the roughness and coolness of the floorboards under her bare feet. It sent a wake-up call to her brain, and she moved into a fighting stance.

Whap! A gloved hand came down hard over her mouth and nose, and she thought she heard cartilage crack in her nose.

Then a large and very strong male body tackled her. All of his weight was pressing her into the cool, hard floorboards, pinning her down.

Athlete. Her brain was computing every bit of information. She tried to stay clear and focused.

Very powerful. Trained! He was cutting off her air supply. He knew precisely what he was doing. Trained! It wasn't a glove that he was wearing, she realized. It was a cloth.

Thick with dampness. It was suffocating her.

Was he using chloroform? No, it was odorless. Maybe ether? Halothane?

Where would he get anesthetic supplies?

Kate's thinking was getting fuzzy, and she was afraid she was going to black out. She had to get him off of her.

Bracing her legs, she twisted her body hard to the left and threw all of her weight away from her attacker, toward the pale, shadowy bedroom wall. Suddenly, she was out of his grasp, free.

“Bad idea, Kate,” he said in the darkness.

He knew her name!

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 18.

THE STRIKE of a hawk ... timing was everything. Now, timing was survival, Kate understood.

She tried desperately to stay alert, but the powerful drug from the dampened cloth had started to act. Kate managed a three-quarter-speed sidekick, aiming at his groin. She felt something hard. Oh, shit! He was prepared for her. He had on an athlete's cup to protect his mushy genitals. He knew her strengths. Oh, God, no. How did he know so much about her?

“Not nice, Kate,” he whispered. “Definitely not hospitable. I know about your karate. I'm fascinated by you.” Her eyes were wild. Her heart was hammering so loudly she thought he might hear it. He was scaring the living shit out of her. He was strong and fast, and knew about her karate, knew what her next move would be.

“Help me! Somebody, please help!” she shrieked as loudly as she could. Kate was just trying to scare him off with her screams. There was nobody within half a mile of the house on Old Ladies Lane.

Powerful hands like claws grabbed at her and managed to catch her arm just above the wrist. Kate howled as she ripped herself away.

He was more powerful than any of the advanced black belts at her karate school in Chapel Hill. Animal, Kate thought. Savage animal ... very rational and crafty. Professional athlete?

The most important lesson her sensei at the dojo had taught her broke through the numbing fear and chaos of the moment: Avoid all fights.

Whenever possible, run from a fight. There it was the best of hundreds of years of experience in martial arts. Those who never fight, always live to fight another day.

She ran from her bedroom and down the familiar, narrow, twisting hallway. Avoid all fights. Run from a fight, she told herself. Run, run, run.

The apartment seemed darker than usual that night. She realized that he'd closed every curtain and blind. He'd had the presence of mind.

The calmness. The plan of action.

She had to be better than him, better than his plan. A saying of Sun-tzu's hammered through her head: “A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle.” The intruder thought exactly like Sun-tzu and her sensei. Could it be someone from her karate dojo?

Kate managed to reach the living room. She couldn't see a thing. He had closed the curtains in there, too. Her vision and sense of balance were definitely way off. There were two of just about every shape and shifting shadow in the room. Goddamn him! Goddamn him! ... Floating in the soft, drug-induced haze, she thought of the other women who had disappeared in Orange and Durham counties. She'd heard on the news that another body had been found. A young mother of two children.

She had to get out of the house. Maybe the fresh air would help to revive her. She stumbled to the front door.

Something was blocking her way. He had pushed the sofa against the door! Kate was too weak to shoulder it away.

In desperation she screamed out again. “Peter! Come help me! Help me, Peter!” "Oh, shut up, Kate. You don't even see Peter Mcgrath anymore. You think he's a bloody fool. Besides, his house is seven miles away.

Seven point three miles. I checked." His voice was so calm and rational. Just another day at the office of psycho-pathology. And he definitely knew her, knew all about Peter Mcgrath, knew everything.

He was somewhere close behind her in the electrifying darkness. There was no urgency or panic in his voice. This was a day at the beach for him.

Kate moved quickly to her left, away from the voice, away from the human monster inside her house.

Excruciating pain suddenly shot through her body, and she let out a low groan.

She'd clipped her shin on the too-low, too-dumb-for-words glass table her sister Carole Anne had given her. It was Carole's well-meaning effort to class up the place. Ohhh, Christ, goddammit, how she hated that table. There was a shooting, throbbing pain in her left leg.

“Stub your toe, Kate? Why don't you stop trying to run around in the dark?” He laughed and it was such a normal-sounding laugh almost friendly. He was enjoying himself. This was a big game for him. A boy-girl game, in the dark.

“Who are you?” she screamed at him ... Suddenly, she thought: Could it be Peter? Has Peter gone mad?

Kate was close to passing out. The drug he had given her left her little strength to run anymore. He knew about her karate black belt.

He probably knew she spent time in the weight room, too.

She turned and a bright flashlight shone right in her eyes. Blinding light was beaming at her face.

He moved the flashlight away, but she still saw residual circles of light. She started to blink, and could barely make out the silhouette of a tall man. He was more than six feet tall, and had long hair.

She couldn't see his face, just a glimpse of his profile. Something was wrong with his face. Why was that? What was the matter with him?

Then she saw the gun.

“No, don't,” Kate said. “Please ... don't.” “Yes, do,” he whispered to her intimately, almost like a lover.

Then he calmly shot Kate Mctiernan point-blank in the heart.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 19.

EARLY ON SUNDAY MORNING it got even worse on the Casanova case. I had to drive Sampson to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He needed to be back on The Job in Washington that afternoon. Someone had to protect the capital while I was working down here.

The investigation was getting hotter and nastier now that the third woman's body had been found. Not only local police and FBI, but also field-and-game officials had joined in the physical search at the homicide site. Deputy Director Ronald Burns had been here last night.

Why was that?

Sampson gave me a bear hug at the American Airlines security gate. We must have looked like a couple of Washington Redskins linebackers after they won the Super Bowl, or maybe after they didn't even get into the play-offs in 1991.

“I know what Naomi means to you,” he whispered against the side of my skull. “I know some of what you're feeling. You need me again, you call.” We gave each other a quick kiss on the cheek, like Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas used to before their NBA basketball games. That drew a few stares from the peanut gallery milling around the metal detectors.

Sampson and I love each other, and we're not ashamed to show it.

Unusual for tough-as-nails men of action like the two of us.

"Watch out for the Fed Bureau. Watch your back with the local folk.

Watch your front, too. I don't like Ruskin. I really don't like Sikes,“ Sampson continued to give me instructions. ”You'll find Naomi.

I have confidence in you. Always have. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

The Big Man finally walked away, and never once looked back.

I was all alone down South.

Chasing monsters again.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 20.

I WALKED from the Washington Duke Inn to the Duke campus at around one o'clock on Sunday afternoon.

I had just eaten a real North Carolina breakfast: a pot and a half of hot, good coffee, very salty cured ham and runny eggs, biscuits and redeye gravy, grits. I'd heard a country song playing in the dining room, “One Day When You Swing That Skillet, My Face Ain't Gonna Be There.” I was feeling crazy and on edge, so the pretty, half-mile hike to the campus was good therapy. I prescribed it for myself and then listened to the doctor. The crime scene the night before had shaken me.

I vividly remembered a time when Naomi was a little girl, and I'd been her best friend. We used to sing “Incey Wincey Spider” and “Silkworm, Silkworm.” In a way, she'd taught me how to be friends with Jannie and Damon. She had prepared me to be a pretty good father.

At the time, my brother Aaron used to bring Scootchie with him to the Capri Bar on Third Street. My brother was busy drinking himself to death. The Capri was no place for his little girl but, somehow, Naomi handled it. Even as a child, she understood and accepted who and what her father was. When she and Aaron would stop at our house, my brother would usually be high, but not really drunk yet. Naomi would be in charge of her father. He would make the effort to stay sober when she was there. The trouble was, Scootchie couldn't always be around to save him.

At one o'clock on Sunday, I had a meeting scheduled with the dean of women at Duke. I went to the Alien Building, which was just off Chapel Drive. Several administration offices were housed there on the second and third floors.

The dean of women was a tall, well-built man named Browning Lowell.

Naomi had told me a lot about him. She considered him a close adviser and also a friend. That afternoon I met with Dean Lowell in his cozy office that was filled with thick, old books. The office looked out across magnolia- and elm-lined Chapel Drive to the Few Quad. Like everything else about the campus, the setting was visually spectacular.

Gothic buildings everywhere. Oxford University in the South.

“I'm a fan of yours through Naomi,” Dean Lowell said as we shook hands.

He had a powerful grip, which I expected from the physical look of him.

Browning Lowell was well muscled, probably in his mid-thirties, and good-looking. His sparkling blue eyes seemed relentlessly cheerful to me. Once upon a time he'd been a world-class gymnast, I remembered. He had attended Duke as an undergraduate, and was supposed to star for the American team in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

In the early part of that year an unfortunate news story had broken that Browning Lowell was gay, and having an affair with a basketball player of some renown. He had left the American team even before the eventual Olympic boycott. Whether the story was true had never been proved to my knowledge. Lowell had married, though, and he and his wife now lived in Durham.

I found Lowell to be sympathetic and warm. We got down to the sad business of Naomi's disappearance. He had all the right suspicions and appropriate fears about the ongoing police investigation.

“It seems to me that the local papers aren't making simple, logical connections between the murders and the disappearances. I don't understand that. We've alerted all the women here on campus,” he told me. Duke coeds were being asked to sign in and out of dorms, he elaborated. The “buddy system” was encouraged whenever students went out at night.

Before I left his office, he made a phone call to Naomi's dorm house.

He said it would make access a little easier, and he wanted to do everything he possibly could to help.

“I've known Naomi for almost five years,” he told me. He ran his hand back through his longish blond hair. “I can feel a small fraction of what you're going through, and I'm so sorry, Alex. This has devastated a lot of us here.” I thanked Dean Lowell and left his office feeling touched by the man, and somewhat better. I went off to the student dorms. Guess who's coming to high tea?

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 21.

I FELT like Alex in Wonderland.

The main dormitory area at Duke was another idyllic spot. Smaller houses, a few cottages, rather than the usual Gothic buildings. Myers Quad was shaded by tall ancient oaks and spreading magnolias, surrounded by well-kept flower gardens. Glory be to God for dappled things.

A silver BMW convertible was parked in front of the place. The sticker on the Bimmer bumper read: MY DAUGHTER AND MY MONEY GO TO DUKE.

Inside, the living room of the dorm had polished hardwood floors and respectably faded oriental rugs that could pass for the real thing. I took in the sights while I waited for Mary Ellen Klouk. The room was filled with overstuffed “period” chairs, couches, mahogany highboys.

Bench seats were under both front windows.

Mary Ellen Klouk came downstairs a few minutes after my arrival. I had met her half a dozen times before that Sunday afternoon. She was nearly six feet tall, ash blond, and attractive not unlike the women who had mysteriously disappeared. The body that was found half-eaten by birds and animals in the woods around Efland had once been a beautiful blond woman, too.

I wondered if the killer had checked out Mary Ellen Klouk. Why had he chosen Naomi? How did he make his final choices? How many women had been chosen so far?

“Hello, Alex. God, I'm glad you're here.” Mary Ellen took my hand and held it tightly. Seeing her brought on warm, but also painful, memories.

We decided to leave the dorm and stroll out onto the rolling grounds of the West Campus. I had always liked Mary Ellen. She'd been a history and psych major as an undergraduate. I remembered that we'd talked about psychoanalysis one night in D.C. She knew almost as much about psychic trauma as I did.

“Sorry I was away when you arrived in Durham,” she said as we walked east among elegant Gothic-style buildings that were built in the 1920s.

"My brother graduated from high school on Friday. Little Ryan Klouk.

He's over six feet five, actually. Two hundred and twenty pounds if he's an ounce. Lead singer for Scratching Blackboards. I got back this morning, Alex."

“When was the last time you saw Naomi?” I asked Mary Ellen as we crossed onto a pretty street called Wannamaker Drive. It felt all wrong to be talking to Naomi's friend like a homicide detective, but I had to do it.

The question had stung Mary Ellen. She took a deep breath before she answered me. “Six days ago, Alex. We drove down to Chapel Hill together. We were doing work there for Habitat for Humanity.” Habitat for Humanity was a community-service group that rebuilt houses for the poor. Naomi hadn't mentioned that she did volunteer work for them. “Did you see Naomi after that?” I asked.

Mary Ellen shook her head. The gold dancing bells around her neck jangled softly. I suddenly got the feeling that she didn't want to look at me.

“That was the last time, I'm afraid. I was the one who went to the police. I found out they have a twenty-four-hour rule on most disappearances. Naomi was gone almost two and a half days before they put out any all-points bulletins. Do you know why?” she asked.

I shook my head, but didn't want to make a big deal out of it in front of Mary Ellen. I still didn't know exactly why there was such a band of secrecy surrounding the case. I'd put in calls to Detective Nick Ruskin that morning, but he hadn't returned any of them.

“Do you think Naomi's disappearance has anything to do with the other women who have disappeared lately?” Mary Ellen asked. Her blue eyes were pierced with pain.

“There could be a connection. There was no physical evidence at the Sarah Duke Gardens, though. Honestly, there's very little to go on, Mary Ellen.” If Naomi was abducted at a public garden right on the campus, there were no witnesses. She had been seen in the gardens half an hour before she missed a class in Contracts. Casanova was scarily good at what he did. He was like a ghost.

We finished our walk, ending up full circle where we had begun. The dormitory house was set back twenty to thirty yards from a graveled path. It had high white columns, and the large veranda was crowded with shiny white wicker rockers and tables. The antebellum period, one of my favorites.

“Alex, Naomi and I really haven't been as close lately,” Mary Ellen suddenly confided in me. “I'm sorry. I thought you should know that.” Mary Ellen was crying as she leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. Then she ran up the polished whitewashed stairs and disappeared inside.

Another troubling mystery to solve.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 22.

CASANOVA watched Dr. Alex Cross. His quick, sharp mind was whizzing about like a sophisticated computer possibly the fastest computer in the whole Research Triangle.

Look at Cross, he muttered. Visiting Naomi's old friend! There's nothing to be found there, Doctor. You're not even warm yet. You're getting colder, actually.

He followed Alex Cross at a safe distance as he walked across the Duke campus. He had read extensively about Cross. He knew all about the psychologist and detective who'd made his reputation tracking down a kidnapper-killer in Washington. The so-called crime of the century, which was a lot of media hype and horse shit.

So who's better at this game? he wanted to shout out to Dr. Cross. I know who you are. You don't know dogshit about me. You never will.

Cross stopped walking. He took a pad from the back pocket of his trousers and made a note.

What's this, Doctor? Had a thought of some consequence? I rather doubt that. I honestly do.

The FBI, the local police, they've all been trailing me for months. I suppose they make notes, too, but none of them has a clue ... Casanova watched Alex Cross continue to walk along the campus until he finally disappeared from sight. The idea that Cross would actually track and capture him was unthinkable. It simply wasn't going to happen.

He started to laugh, and had to catch himself since the Duke campus was fairly crowded on a Sunday afternoon.

No one has a clue, Dr. Cross. Don't you get it? ... That's the clue!

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 23.

I WAS a street detective again.

I spent most of Monday morning interviewing people who knew Kate Mctiernan. Casanova's latest victim was a first-year intern who'd been abducted from her apartment on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

I was attempting to put together a psych profile of Casanova, but there wasn't enough information. Period. The FBI wasn't helping. Nick Ruskin still hadn't returned my phone calls.

A professor at North Carolina med school told me that Kate Mctiernan was one of the most conscientious students she'd taught in twenty years. Another professor at the school said that her commitment and intelligence were indeed high, but “her temperament is the truly extraordinary thing about Kate.” It was unanimous in that regard. Even competing interns at the hospital agreed that Kate Mctiernan was something else. “She's the least narcissistic woman I've ever met,” one of the woman interns told me. “Kate's totally driven, but she knows it and she can laugh at herself,” said another. “She's a really cool person. This is such a sad, numbing thing for everyone at the hospital.” “She's a brain, who happens to be built like a brick shithouse.” 1 called Peter Mcgrath, a history professor, and he reluctantly agreed to see me. Kate Mctiernan had dated him for almost four months, but their relationship had ended abruptly. Professor Mcgrath was tall, athletic-looking, a bit imperious.

“I could say that I fucked up royally by losing her,” Mcgrath admitted to me. "And I did. But I couldn't have held on to the Katester. She's probably the strongest-willed person, man or woman, that I've ever met.

God, I can't believe this has happened to Kate."

His face was pale, and he was obviously shaken up by her disappearance.

At least he appeared to be.

I ended up eating by myself in a noisy bar in the college town of Chapel Hill. There were hordes of university students, and a busy pool table, but I sat alone with my beers, a greasy, rubbery cheeseburger, and my early thoughts on Casanova.

The long day had drained me. I missed Sampson, my kids, my home in D.C. A comfortable world without any monsters. Scootchie was still missing, though. So were several other young women in the Southeast.

My thoughts kept drifting back to Kate Mctiernan, and what I'd heard about her today.

This is the way cases got solved at least it was the way I had always solved them. Data got collected. Data ran loose in the brain.

Eventually, connections were made.

Casanova doesn't just take physically beautiful women, I suddenly realized in the bar. He takes the most extraordinary women he can find. He's taking only the heartbreakers ... the women that everybody wants but nobody ever seems to get.

He's collecting them somewhere out there.

Why extraordinary women? I wondered.

There was one possible answer. Because he believes he's extraordinary, too.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 24.

ALMOST WENT BACK to see Mary Ellen Klouk again, but I changed my mind and returned to the Washington Duke Inn. A couple of messages were waiting for me.

The first was from a friend in the Washington PD. He was processing information I needed for a meaningful profile on Casanova. I'd brought a laptop with me and I hoped I would be in business soon.

A reporter by the name of Mike Hart had called four times. I recognized his name, and I knew his newspaper a tabloid out of Florida called the National Star. The reporter's nickname was No-Heart Hart. I didn't return No-Heart's calls. I'd been featured on the front page of the Star once, and once was enough for this lifetime.

Detective Nick Ruskin had finally returned one of my calls. He left a short message. Nothing new on our end. Will let you know. I found that hard to believe. I didn't trust Detective Ruskin or his faithful sidekick Davey Sikes.

I drifted off to a restless sleep in a cozy armchair in my room and had the most vivid, nightmarish dreams. A monster right out of an Eduard Munch painting was chasing Naomi. I was powerless to help her; all I could do was watch the macabre scene in horror. Not much need for a trained psychotherapist to interpret that one.

I woke up sensing that someone was in the hotel room with me.

I quietly placed my hand on the butt of my revolver and stayed very still. My heart was pounding. How could someone have gotten into the room?

I stood up slowly, but stayed low in a shooting crouch. I peered around as best I could in the semidarkness.

The chintz window drapes weren't completely drawn, so there was enough light from outside for me to make out shapes. Shadows of tree leaves danced on the hotel room wall. Nothing else seemed to be moving.

I checked the bathroom, Glock pistol first. Then the closets. I began to feel a little silly stalking the hotel room with my gun drawn, but I had definitely heard a noise! I finally spotted a piece of paper under the door, but I waited a few seconds before I flipped on the light. Just to be sure.

A black-and-white photograph was staring up at me. Instant associations and connections jumped to mind. It was a colonial British postcard, probably from the early 1900s. At that time the postcards had been collected by Westerners as pseudo art but mostly as soft pornography. They had been a racy turn-on for male collectors in the early part of the century.

I bent down to get a better look at the old-fashioned photo.

The card showed an odalisque smoking a Turkish cigarette, in a startling acrobatic posture. The woman was dark, young, and beautiful; probably in her mid-teens. She was naked to the waist, and her full breasts hung upside down in the posed photograph.

I flipped the card over with a pencil.

There was a printed caption near where a stamp could be placed: Odalisques with great beauty and high intelligence were carefully trained to be concubines. They learned to dance quite beautifully, to play musical instruments, and to write exquisitely lyrical poetry. They were the most valuable part of the harem, perhaps the emperor's greatest treasure.

The caption was signed in ink with a printed name. Giovanni Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt.

He knew that I was here in Durham. He knew who I was.

Casanova had left a calling card.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 25.

I'M ALIVE.

Kate Mctiernan slowly forced open her eyes inside a dimly lit room ... somewhere.

For a couple of blinks of her eyes, she believed she was in a hotel that she couldn't for the life of her remember checking into. A really weird hotel in an even weirder Jim Jarmusch art movie. It didn't matter, though. At least she wasn't dead.

Suddenly, she remembered being shot point-blank in the chest. She remembered the intruder. Tall ... long hair ... gentle, conversational voice ... sixth-degree animal.

She tried to get up, but thought better of it immediately. “Whoa there,” she said out loud. Her throat was dry, and her voice sounded raspy as it echoed unpleasantly inside her head. Her tongue felt as if it needed a shave.

I'm in hell. In a circle from Dante's Inferno, with a very low number, she thought, and she began to shiver. Everything about the moment was terrifying, but it was so horrible, and so unexpected, she couldn't orient herself to it.

Her joints were stiff and painful; she ached all over. She doubted that she could press a hundred pounds right now. Her head felt huge, bloated like aging fruit, and it hurt, but she could vividly remember the attacker. He was tall, maybe six two, youngish, extremely powerful, articulate. The images were hazy, but she was absolutely certain they were true.

She remembered something else about the monstrous attack in her apartment. He'd used a stun gun, or something like it, to immobilize her. He'd also used chloroform, or maybe it was halothane. That could account for her bruising headache.

The lights had purposely been left on in the room. She noticed they were coming from modern-looking dimmers built into the ceiling. The ceiling was low, possibly under seven feet.

The room looked as if it had recently been built, or remodeled. It was actually decorated tastefully, the way she might have done her own apartment if she had the money and time ... A real brass bed. Antique white dresser with brass handles. A dressing table with a silver brush, comb, mirror. There were colorful scarves tied on the bedposts, just the way she did them at home. That struck her as strange. Very odd.

There were no windows in the room. The only way out appeared to be through a heavy wooden door.

“Nice decor,” Kate muttered softly. “Early psycho. No, it's late psycho.” The door to a small closet was open halfway and she could see inside.

What she saw made her feel physically ill.

He'd brought her clothes to this horrible place, this bizarre prison cell. All of her clothes were here.

Using her remaining strength, Kate Mctiernan forced herself to sit upright in the bed. The effort made her heart race, and the pounding in her chest frightened her. Her arms and legs felt as if heavy weights were tied to them.

She concentrated hard, trying to focus her eyes on the incredible scene. She continued to stare into the closet.

Those weren't actually her clothes, she realized. He'd gone out and bought clothes just like hers! Exactly to her taste and style. The clothes displayed in the closet were brand-new. She could see some of the store tags dangling from the blouses and skirts. The Limited. The Gap in Chapel Hill. Stores she actually shopped in herself.

Her eyes darted to the top of the antique white dresser across the room. Her perfume was there, too. Obsession. Safari. Opium.

He'd bought all of it for her, hadn't he?

Next to the bed was a copy of All the Pretty Horses, the same book she had bought on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill.

He knows everything about me!

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 26.

DR. KATE Mctiernan slept. Awoke. Slept some more. She made a joke of it. Called herself “lazybones.” She never slept in. Not since before med school, anyway.

She was beginning to feel more clearheaded and alert, more in command of herself, except that she had lost track of time. She didn't know if it was morning, noon, or night. Or even which day it was.

The man, whoever the bastard was, had been inside the mysterious, despicable room while she slept. The thought made her physically ill.

There was a note propped on the bedside table, where she was sure to see it.

The note was handwritten. Dear Dr. Kate, it said. Her hands were trembling as she read her own name.

I wanted you to read this, so that you understand me better, and also the rules of the house. This is probably the most important letter you'll ever receive, so read it carefully. And please take it very seriously.

No, I am not crazy or out of control. Actually, I'm quite the opposite. Apply your obviously high intelligence to the concept that I'm relatively sane, and that I know exactly what I want. Most people don't know what they want.

Do you, Kate? We'll talk about that later. It's a subject worthy of much lively and interesting discussion. Do you know what you want? Are you getting it? Why not? For the good of society? Whose society?

Whose life are we living, anyway?

I won't pretend that you are happy to be here, so no false-sounding welcomes. No cellophaned basket of fresh fruit and champagne. As you will soon see, or have already, I've tried to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Which brings up an important point, perhaps the most important point of this first attempt at communication between us.

Your stay will be temporary. You will leave if, Big If you listen to what I tell you ... so listen carefully, Kate.

Are you listening now? Please listen, Kate. Chase away the justifiable anger and the white noise in your head. I am not crazy or out of control.

That's the whole point: I am in control! See the distinction? Of course you do. I know how very bright you are. National merit scholar and all that.

It is important that you know how special you are to me. That's why you are completely safe here. It is also why you'll leave, eventually.

I picked you from thousands and thousands of women at my disposal, so to speak. I know, you're saying “lucky me.” I know how funny and cynical you can be. I even know that laughter has gotten you through difficult times. I'm beginning to know you better than anyone has ever known you. Almost as well as you know yourself, Kate.

Now for the bad parts. And Kate, these next points are as important as any of the good news I've stated above.

These are the house rules, and they are to be strictly observed: 1. The most important rule: You must never try to escape or you will be executed within hours, however painful that would be for both of us.

Believe me, there is precedent for this. There can be no reprieve following an escape attempt.

2. Just for you, Kate, a special rule: You must never try to use your karate skills on me. (I almost brought your gi, your crisp white karate suit, but why encourage you to temptation.) 3. You must never call out for help I'll know if you do and you will be punished with facial and genital disfigurement.

You want to know more you want to know everything at once. But it doesn't work that way. Don't bother trying to figure out where you are. You won't guess, and will only give yourself an unnecessary headache.

That's all for now. I've given you more than enough to think about.

You are totally safe here. I love you more than you can imagine. I can't wait for us to talk, really talk.

Casanova And you are hopelessly out of your mind! Kate Mctiernan thought as she paced the eleven-by-fifteen-foot room. Her claustrophobic prison. Her hell on this earth.

Her body felt as if it were floating, as if warm viscous fluid were flowing over her. She wondered if she'd suffered a head injury during the attack.

She had only one thought: how to escape. She began to analyze her situation in every possible way. She reversed the conventional assumptions, and broke down each to its component parts.

There was a single, double-locked, thick wooden door.

There was no way out other than through that door.

No." That was the conventional assumption. There had to be another way.

She remembered a problem-solution puzzle from some heretofore useless undergrad logics course she had taken. It began with ten matchsticks arranged as Roman numerals in a math equation: The problem was how to correct the equation without touching any of the matches. Without adding new matches. Without taking away any matches.

No easy way out.

No apparent solution.

The problem had been unsolvable to many students, but she had figured it out relatively quickly. A solution was there, where none seemed to be. She solved it by reversing the conventional assumptions. She turned the page upside down.

But she couldn't turn this prison room upside down. Or could she? Kate Mctiernan examined every single floorboard and each two-by-four in the wall. The wood smelled new. Maybe he was a builder, a contractor, or perhaps an architect?

No way out.

No apparent solution.

She couldn't, wouldn't accept that answer.

She thought about seducing him if she could force herself to do it. No.

He was too clever. He would know. Worse than that, she would know.

There had to be a way. She would find it.

Kate stared down at the note on the bedside table.

You must never try to escape or you will be executed within hours.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 27.

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON I visited the Sarah Duke Gardens, the place where Naomi had been abducted six days ago. I needed to go there, to visit the scene, to think about my niece, to grieve in private.

There were more than fifty acres of exquisitely landscaped woodland gardens adjacent to the Duke University Medical Center, literally miles of al lees Casanova couldn't have hoped for a better site for his kidnapping. He had been thorough. Perfect, so far. How was that possible?

I talked to staff members and also to a few students who had been there the day Naomi disappeared. The picturesque gardens were officially open from early morning until dusk. Naomi had last been seen at around four o'clock. Casanova had taken her in broad daylight. I couldn't figure out how he'd done it. Not yet. Neither could the Durham police or the FBI.

I walked around the woods and gardens for almost two hours. I was overwhelmed by the thought that Scootchie had been taken right here.

A spot called the Terraces was particularly beautiful. Visitors could enter through a wisteria-covered pergola. Lovely wooden stairways led down to an irregular-shaped fishpond with a rock garden stacked directly behind. Visually, the Terraces were horizontal bands of rock, accented by stripes of the most beautiful color. Tulips, azaleas, camellias, irises, and peonies were in bloom.

I knew instinctively that this was a place that Scootchie would love.

I knelt near a visually striking patch of bright red and yellow tulips.

I was wearing a gray suit with an open-necked white shirt. The ground was soft and stained my trousers, but it didn't matter. I bowed my head low. Finally, I wept for Scootchie.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 28.

TICK-COCK. Tick-cock.

Kate Mctiernan thought that she'd heard something. She was probably imagining it. You could definitely get a little buggy in here.

There it was again. The slightest creak in the floorboards. The door opened and he walked into the room without saying a word.

There he was! Casanova. He had on another mask. He looked like some kind of dark god slender and athletic. Was that his fantasy image of himself?

Physically, he would be considered a hunk at the university or even as a cadaver in an autopsy room, which was preferable to her.

She noted his clothes: tight, faded blue jeans, black cowboy boots edged with soil, no shirt. He was definitely a hard body proud of his rippling chest. She was trying to remember everything for the time when she escaped.

“I read all your rules,” Kate said, trying to act as calm as possible.

Her body was shivering, though. “They're very thorough, very clear.” “Thank you. No one likes rules, least of all me. But they're necessary sometimes.” The mask hid his face, and it held Kate's attention. She couldn't take her eyes away from it. It reminded her of the elaborate, decorative masks from Venice. It was hand painted ritualistic in its artistic detail, and weirdly beautiful. Was he trying to be seductive? Kate wondered. Was that it?

“Why do you wear the mask?” she said. She kept her voice subservient, curious, but not demanding.

"As I said in my note, one day you'll go free. You'll be released.

It's all in my plan for you. I couldn't bear to see you hurt."

“If I'm good. If I obey.” “Yes. If you're good. I won't be that hard, Kate. I like you so much.” She wanted to hit him, to go after him. Not yet, she warned herself.

Not until you're sure. You'll only get one try at him.

He seemed to read her mind. He was very quick, very bright.

“No karate,” he said, and she sensed that he was smiling behind the mask. “Please remember that, Kate. I've actually seen you perform at your dojo. I've watched you. You're very quick and you're strong. So am I. I'm no stranger to martial arts.” “That wasn't what I was thinking about.” Kate frowned and looked up at the ceiling. She rolled back her eyes. She thought it was pretty fair acting under the pressure circumstances. No threat to Emma Thompson or Holly Hunter, but decent.

“I'm sorry then. I apologize,” he said. “I shouldn't put words in your mouth. I won't do it again. That's a promise.” He seemed almost sane at times, and that terrified her more than anything else so far. It was as if they were having a nice normal chat in a nice normal house, not in his house of horrors.

Kate looked at his hands. The fingers were long, and might even be considered elegant. An architect's? A doctor's hands? An artist's?

Certainly not a workingman's hands.

“Well, what do you have in mind for me?” Kate decided on the direct approach. “Why am I here? Why this room, the clothes? All my things?” His voice remained gentle and calm. He was actually trying to seduce her. "Oh, I guess I want to fall in love, to stay in love for a while.

I want to feel real romance every day that I possibly can. I want to feel something special in my life. I want to experience intimacy with another person. I'm not that different from everyone else. Except that I act instead of daydream."

“Don't you feel anything?” she asked. She feigned concern for him.

She knew that sociopaths couldn't feel emotion, at least that was her understanding.

He shrugged. She sensed that he was smiling again, laughing at her.

“Sometimes I feel a great deal. I think that I'm too sensitive. May I tell you how beautiful you are?” “Under the present circumstances, I wish you wouldn't.” He laughed a nice laugh and shrugged his shoulders again. "Okay.

That's settled then, isn't it? No sweet talk for the two of us. Not for now, anyway. Bear in mind, I can be romantic. I actually prefer it that way."

She wasn't prepared for his sudden movement, his quickness. The stun gun appeared and hit her with a vicious jolt. She recognized the gun's crackling sound, smelled the ozone. Kate fell back hard against the bedroom wall and cracked her head. The impact shook the whole house wherever she was being kept.

“Oh, Jee-sus no,” Kate moaned softly.

He was all over her. Flailing arms and legs, all of his weight pressing down on her. He was going to kill her now. Oh God, she didn't want to die like this, to have her life end in this way. It was so pointless, absurd, sad.

She felt a fierce and explosive rage swelling up in her. With a desperate effort she managed to kick out one leg, but she couldn't move her arms. Her chest was on fire. She could feel him ripping off her blouse, touching her all over. He was aroused. She could feel him rubbing against her.

“No, please no,” she moaned. Her own voice sounded very far away.

He was kneading her breasts with both hands. She could taste blood, and feel its warmth trickle from the corner of her mouth. Kate finally began to cry. She was choking, and she could hardly breathe.

“I tried to be nice,” he said through tightly gritted teeth.

He stopped suddenly. He got up and unzipped his blue jeans and yanked them down around his ankles. He didn't bother to take them off.

Kate stared up at him. His penis was large. Fully erect, and bright with pulsing blood and thick veins. He threw himself down on her and rubbed it against her body, moving it slowly against her breasts, her throat, and then her mouth and eyes.

Kate began to drift in and out of consciousness, in and out of reality.

She tried to hold on to each thought that came to her. She needed to feel some control, even if it was only over her thoughts.

“Keep your eyes open,” he warned her in a deep growl. “Look at me, Kate. Your eyes are so beautiful. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Do you know that? Do you know how desirable you are?” He was in a trance now. It seemed like it to Kate. His powerful body danced, snaked, writhed, as he thrust himself in and out of her. He sat up and he played with her breasts again. He caressed her hair, different parts of her face. His touch became gentle after a while.

That made it even worse for her. She felt such humiliation and horrible shame. She hated him.

"I love you so much, Kate. I love you more than I'm capable of saying.

I've never felt this way before. I promise you I haven't. Never like this."

He wasn't going to kill her, Kate realized. He was going to let her live. He was going to come back again and again, whenever he wanted her. The horror was overwhelming, and Kate finally passed out. She let her spirit fall far away.

She didn't feel it when he gave her the softest kiss goodbye. “I love you, sweet Kate. And I'm truly sorry about this. I do feel ... everything.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 29.

I RECEIVED an urgent phone call from a law student and classmate of Naomi's. She said her name was Florence Campbell and that she had to talk to me as soon as possible. “I really must talk with you, Dr. Cross. It's imperative,” she said.

I met her on the Duke campus near the Bryan University Center. Florence turned out to be a black woman in her early twenties. We walked among the magnolias and well-kept Gothic-style school buildings. Neither of us looked as if we particularly belonged in the setting.

Florence was tall and gawky and somewhat mystifying at first. She had a stiff, high hairstyle that made me think of Nefertiti. Her appearance was decidedly odd, or maybe old-fashioned, and it struck me that people like her might still exist in rural Mississippi or Alabama.

Florence had done her undergraduate work at Mississippi State University, which was about as far away from Duke University as you could get.

“I'm very, very sorry, Dr. Cross,” she said as we sat on a stone-and-wood bench with student memorabilia etched into its rails. “I apologize to you and your family.” “You apologize about what, Florence?” I asked her. I didn't understand what she meant.

“I didn't make the effort to talk to you when you came to campus yesterday. No one had made it clear that Naomi might actually have been kidnapped. The Durham police certainly didn't. They were just rude. They didn't seem to think Naomi was in any real trouble.” “Why do you think that is?” I asked Florence a question that was bouncing around inside my own head.

She stared deeply into my eyes. “Because Naomi's an Afro-American woman. The Durham police, the FBI, they don't care about us as much as they do about the white women.” “Do you believe that?” I asked her.

Florence Campbell rolled her eyes. “It's the truth, so why wouldn't I believe it? Frantz Fanon argued that racist superstructures are permanently embedded in the psychology, economy, and culture of our society. I believe that, too.” Florence was a very serious woman. She had a copy of Albert Murray's The Omni-Americans under her arm. I was beginning to like her style.

It was time to find out what secrets she knew about Naomi.

"Tell me what's going on around here, Florence. Don't edit your thoughts because I'm Naomi's uncle, or because I'm a police detective.

I need somebody to help me out. I am resisting a superstructure down here in Durham.“ Florence smiled. She pulled a tangle of hair away from her face. She was part Immanuel Kant, part Prissy from Gone With the Wind. ”Here's what I know so far, Dr. Cross. This is why some girls in the dorm were upset with Naomi."

She took a sip of the magnolia-fragrant air. “It started with a man named Seth Samuel Taylor. He's a social worker in the projects of Durham. I introduced Naomi to Seth. He's my cousin.” Florence suddenly looked a little uncertain as she talked.

“I don't see a problem so far,” I told her.

“Seth Samuel and Naomi fell in love around December of last year,” she went on. “Naomi was walking around with a starry-night look in her eyes, and that's not like her, as you know. He came to the dorm at first, but then she started staying at Seth's apartment in Durham.” I was a little surprised that Naomi had fallen in love and hadn't mentioned it to Cilia. Why didn't she tell any of us about it? I still didn't understand the problem with the other girls at the dorm.

"I'm pretty sure Naomi wasn't the first coed to fall in love at Duke.

Or to have a man over for tea and crumpets and whatever," I said.

"She wasn't just having a man over for whatever, she was having a black man over for whatever. Seth would show up from the projects in his dusty overalls and dusty work boots and his leather engineering jacket.

Naomi started to wear an old sharecropper's straw hat around campus.

Sometimes, Seth wore a hard hat with “Slave Labor' written on it. He dared to be a little caustic and ironic about the sisters' social activity, and, heaven forbid, their social awareness. He scolded the black housekeepers when they tried to do their jobs.” “What do you think about your cousin Seth?” I asked Florence.

“Seth has a definite chip on his shoulder. He's angry about racial injustice, to the point where it gets in the way of his ideas sometimes. Other than that, he's really great. He's a doer, not afraid to get his hands dirty. If he wasn't my distant cousin ... ,” Florence said with a wink.

I had to smile at Florence's sneaky sense of humor. She was a little Mississippi-gawky but she was a neat lady. I was even starting to like her high hairstyle.

“You and Naomi were fast friends?” I asked her.

"We weren't at first. I think we both felt we were competing for Law Review. Probably only one black woman could make it, you understand.

But as our first year wore on, we got very close. I love Naomi. She's the greatest."

I suddenly wondered if Naomi's disappearance might be connected to her boyfriend, and maybe had nothing to do with the killer loose in North Carolina.

“He's a real good person. Don't go hurting him,” Florence warned me.

“Don't even think about it.” 1 nodded. “I'll only break one of his legs.” “He's strong as an ox,” she came back at me.

“I am an ox,” I told Florence Campbell, imparting a little secret of my own.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 30.

I STARED into the dark eyes of Seth Samuel Taylor. He stared back. I kept on staring. His eyes looked like jet black marbles set in almonds.

Naomi's boyfriend was tall, very muscular, and working-man-hard. He reminded me more of a young lion than an ox. He looked disconsolate, and it was hard for me to question him. I had the premonition that Naomi was gone forever.

Seth Taylor hadn't shaved, and I could tell that he hadn't slept in days. I don't think he had changed his clothes, either. He had on a badly wrinkled blue plaid shirt over a T-shirt, and holey 501s. He still wore his dusty work boots Either he was very upset, or Seth Taylor was a shrewd actor.

I put out my hand, and his handshake was powerful. I felt as if I had put it into a carpenter's vise.

“You look like shit” were Seth Taylor's first words to me. Digital Underground was blaring out the “Humpty Dance” somewhere in the neighborhood. Just like it was D. C." only a little behind the times.

“You do, too.” “Well, fuck y'all,” he said. It was a familiar greeting on the streets, and we both knew it and laughed.

Seth's smile was warm, and somewhat contagious. He had an overconfident air about him, but it wasn't too obnoxious. Nothing I hadn't seen before.

I could see that his broad nose had been broken a few times, but he was still good-looking in a rough-hewn sort of way. His presence dominated a room as Naomi's did. The detective in me wondered about Seth Taylor.

Seth lived in an old working-class area north of downtown Durham. At one time, the neighborhood had been filled with tobacco-factory workers. His apartment was a duplex in an old shingled house that had been converted into two apartments. Posters of Arrested Development and Ice-T were up on the hallway walls. One poster read: Not since slavery has so much ongoing catastrophe been visited on black males.

The living room was filled with his friends and neighborhood folks. Sad Smokey Robinson songs played from a blaster. The friends were there to help in the search for Naomi. Finally, maybe I had some allies in the South.

Everyone at the apartment was anxious to talk to me about Naomi. None of them had any suspicions about Seth Samuel.

I was struck in particular by a woman with wise, sensitive eyes and skin the color of coffee with cream. Keesha Bowie was in her early thirties, a postal worker in Durham. Naomi and Seth had apparently talked her into going back to college to get her degree in psychology.

She and I hit it off right away.

“Naomi is educated, so articulate, but you already know that.” Keesha took me aside and talked seriously to me. "But Naomi never ever uses her abilities or her education to belittle someone else, or make herself seem superior. That struck every one of us when we met her.

She's so down-to-earth, Alex. She doesn't have a phony bone inside her. That this could happen to her is the saddest thing."

I talked with Keesha some more, and I liked her very much. She was smart and pretty, but this wasn't the time for any of that stuff. I looked for Seth and found him off by himself on the second floor. The bedroom window was open, and he was sitting outside on the gently sloping roof. Robert Johnson was singing his haunting blues somewhere in the dark.

“Mind if I come out and join you? This old roof hold us both?” I said from the window.

Seth smiled. “If it doesn't and we both crash through to the front porch, it'll be a good story for everybody. Worth the fall and the broken neck. C'mon out, you got a mind to.” He spoke in a sweet, almost musical, drawl. I could see why Naomi would like him.

I climbed out and sat with Seth Samuel in the darkness settling over Durham. We heard a smaller-town version of the police sirens and excited shouts of the inner city.

“We used to sit out here,” Seth muttered in a low voice. “Naomi and I.” “You okay?” I asked him.

“Nah. Never been any worse in my life. You?” “Never worse.” “After you called,” Seth said, “I was thinking about this visit, about this talk that we'd eventually have. I tried to think the way that you might be thinking. You know, like a police detective. Please, don't have any more thoughts that there's some chance that I could have anything to do with Naomi's disappearance. Don't waste time on that.” I looked over at Seth Samuel. He was hunched over, and his head rested on his chest. Even in the dark I could see that his eyes were shiny-wet. His grief was a palpable thing. I wanted to tell him that we were going to find her and that everything would work out, but I knew no such thing.

We finally held on to each other. We were both missing Naomi in our own way, mourning together, on the dark roof.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 31.

A FRIEND of mine from the FBI finally returned one of my phone calls that night. I was doing some reading when he called: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I was working on Casanova's profile and still not getting very far.

I had originally met Special Agent Kyle Craig during the long, difficult manhunt for the serial kidnapper Gary Soneji. Kyle had always been a straight shooter. He wasn't territorial like most FBI agents, and not too uptight by Bureau standards, either. Sometimes I thought that he didn't belong in the FBI. He was too much of a human being.

“Thanks for finally returning my calls, stranger,” I said over the phone. “Where are you working out of these days?” Kyle surprised me with his answer. “I'm here in Durham, Alex. To be a little more precise, I'm in the lobby of your hotel. C'mon down for a drink or three in the infamous Bull Durham Room. I need to talk to you. I've got a special message for you from J. Edgar himself.” “I'll be right down. I've been wondering what the Hoove's been up to since he faked his own death.” Kyle was seated at a table for two beside a large bay window. The window faced directly onto the putting green of the university golf course. A lanky man who looked like a schoolboy was teaching a Duke coed how to putt in the dark. The jock was standing behind his lady, showing her his best putt-putt moves.

Kyle was watching the lesson of the links with obvious amusement. I watched Kyle with obvious amusement. He turned as if he could sense my presence.

“Man, you have a nose for bad trouble,” he said by way of a greeting.

“I was sorry to hear that your niece is missing. It's good to see you, in spite of the particularly vile and shitty circumstances.” I sat down across from the agent, and we started to talk shop. As always, he was extremely upbeat and positive without sounding naive.

It's a gift he has. Some people feel that Kyle could wind up at the top of the Bureau, and that it would be the best thing that ever happened.

"First, the honorable Ronald Burns appears in Durham. Now you show up.

What gives?" I asked Kyle.

“Tell me what you have so far,” he said. “I'll try to reciprocate as much as I can.” “I'm doing psych profiles on the murdered women,” I told Kyle. “The so-called rejects. In two of the cases, the rejected women had very strong personalities. They probably gave him a lot of trouble. That could be why he killed them, to get rid of them. The exception was Bette Anne Ryerson. She was a mother, in therapy, and she might have had a nervous breakdown.” Kyle massaged his scalp with one hand. He was also shaking his head.

“You've been given no information, no help whatsoever. But zip-a-dee-doo-dah” he smiled at me “you're still a half-step ahead of our people. I haven't heard that theory about the '.” It's pretty good, Alex, especially if he's a control freak."

“He could definitely be a control freak, Kyle. There has to be a damn good reason why he got rid of those three women. Now, I thought you were going to tell me some things I didn't know.” “Maybe, if you pass a few more simple tests, that is. What else have you figured out?” 1 bad-eyed Kyle while I slowly sipped my beer. “You know, I thought you were all right, but you're just another FBI prick.” “I was programmed at Quantico,” Kyle said in a passable computer voice.

“Have you done a psych profile on Casanova?” “I'm working on it.” I told him what he already knew. “As much as I can with virtually no information available.” Kyle beckoned with the cupped fingers of his right hand. He wanted it all, and then maybe he'd share something with me.

“He has to be someone who blends into the community well,” I said. “No one's even come close to catching him. He's probably driven by the same obsessive sexual fantasies that he's had since he was a boy. He could have been the victim of abuse, maybe incest. Maybe he was a Peeping Tom, a rapist, or a date rapist. Now he's a very fancy collector of extremely beautiful women; he seems to choose only the extraordinary ones. He's researching them, Kyle. I'm almost sure of it. He's lonely. Maybe he wants the perfect woman.” Kyle shook his head back and forth. "You are so goddamn crazy, man.

You think like him!"

“Not funny.” I grabbed Kyle's cheek between my thumb and forefinger.

“Now you tell me something I don't know.” Kyle pulled away from my cheek hold "Let me run a deal by you, Alex.

This is a good deal, so don't get cynical on me."

I raised my hand high in the air for the table waitress. “Check! Separate checks, please.”

“No, no. Wait. This is a good deal, Alex. I hate to say, ”Trust me,“ but trust me. Just to prove my truthfulness, I simply can't tell you everything right now. I'll admit that the case is definitely bigger than anything you've seen so far. You're right about Burns. The deputy director wasn't down here by accident.” “I figured Burns wasn't here to see the azaleas.” I felt like yelling at Kyle inside the quiet hotel bar. “Okay, tell me one thing I don't know already.” “I can't tell you any more than I already have.” “Damn you, Kyle. You haven't told me a goddamn thing.” I raised my voice. “What's the deal you have for me?” He put up a hand. He wanted me calm for this. "Listen. As you know, or suspect, this is already a four-star, multi jurisdictional nightmare, and it hasn't really heated up yet. Believe me on that.

Nobody's getting anything done, Alex. Here's what I'd like you to consider."

My eyes rolled back. “I'm glad I'm sitting down for this,” I said.

"This is an excellent offer for a man in your position to consider.

Since you're already outside the multi jurisdictional mess, and therefore immune to it, why don't you keep it that way. Stay on the outside, and work directly with me."

“Work with the Federal Bureau?” I choked on my beer. “Collaborate with the Feebies?” “I can give you access to all the information we get, as soon as we get it. I'll give you everything you need in terms of resources and information and all of our current data.” “And you don't have to share anything I come up with? Not even with the local or state police?” I said.

Kyle had become his intense self again. "Look, Alex, this investigation is large and expensive, but it's getting nowhere.

Officers are falling over one another while women all over the South, including your niece, are disappearing right under our noses."

"I understand the problem, Kyle. Let me think about your solution.

Give me a little space on this one."

Kyle and I talked some more about his offer, and I was able to pin him down on a few specifics. Basically I was sold, though. Working with Kyle would give me access to a first-rate support team, and I'd have clout whenever I needed it. I wouldn't be alone anymore. We ordered burgers and more beers, and continued to talk and put the final touches on my deal with the Devil. For the first time since I'd come South, I was feeling a little hopeful.

“I do have something else to share with you,” I finally told him. “He dropped me a note last night. It was a nice note, thoughtful, welcoming me to the area.” “We know.” Kyle grinned like the grown-up Andy Hardy that he is. “It was a postcard, actually. It showed an odalisque, a love slave from a harem.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 32.

BY THE TIME I got back to my room it was a little late, but I called Nana and the kids, anyway. I always call home when I'm away, twice every day, morning and night. I hadn't missed yet, and didn't plan to start that night.

“Are you listening to Nana and being a good girl for a change?” I asked Jannie when she came on the phone.

“I'm always a good girl!” Jannie squealed with little-girl glee. She loves talking to me. I feel the same way about her. Amazing, we were still madly in love after five years together.

I closed my eyes and visualized my girl. I could just see her puffing out her little chest, making her face look defiant, but smiling pointy crooked teeth at the same time. Once, Naomi had been a sweet little girl like that. I remembered everything about those times. I chased away the thought, the vivid portrait of Scootchie.

“Well, how about your big brother? Damon says he's being especially good, too. He says Nana's called you ' holy terror' today. Is that so?” “Unh-uh, Daddy. That's what Nana called him. Damon's the holy terror in this house. I'm Nana's angel all the time. I'm Nana Mama's good girl angel. You can axt her.” “Uh-huh. That's good to hear,” I told my little spin-doctor. “Did you pull Damon's hair just a tiny bit at Roy Rogers junk-food restaurant today?” “Not junk food, pally-wally! He pulled my hair first. Damon almost pulled my hair out, like I was Baby Clare without her hair now.” Baby Clare had been Jannie's main doll since she was two years old. The doll was “her baby,” absolutely sacred to Jannie. Sacred to all of us.

Once we had left Baby Clare at Williamsburg during a day trip, and we had to drive all the way back. Magically, Clare was waiting for us at the front-gate office, having a nice chat with the security guard.

“I couldn't pull Damon's hair, anyway. He's almost bald, Daddy. Nana got him his summer haircut. Wait'll you see my bald brother. He's a pool ball!” I could hear her laughing. I could see Jannie laughing. In the background, Damon wanted the phone back. He wanted his rebuttal about the state of his haircut.

After I finished with the kids, I talked to Nana.

“How are you holding up, Alex?” She went right to the point, as she always does. She would have made an outstanding detective, or anything else she wanted to be. “Alex, I asked how you're doing?” “I'm doing just fine and dandy. Love my work,” I told her. “How are you, old woman?” “Never mind that. I could watch these children in my sleep. You don't sound good to me. You're not sleeping, and you haven't made a lot of progress, have you?” Man, she was tough when she wanted to be. “It's not going as well as I would have hoped,” I told her. “Something good might have just happened tonight.” “I know,” Nana said, "that's why you're calling up so late.

But you can't share the good news with your grandmother. You're afraid I might call the Washington Post."

We'd had this discussion before on cases I was working on. She always wants inside information, and I can't give it up.

“I love you,” I finally said to her. “That's the best I can do right now.” “And I love you, Alex Cross. That's the best I can do.” She had to have the final word.

After I finished with Nana and the kids, I lay in the dark on the unmade, unwelcoming hotel bed. I didn't want maids or anyone else in the room, but the Do Not Disturb tag hadn't deterred the FBI.

A bottle of beer sat upright on my chest. I slowed my breathing, let the bottle balance there. I've never liked hotel rooms, not even on a vacation.

I started thinking about Naomi again. When she was a little girl like Jannie, she used to ride up on my shoulders, so she could see “far, far away in the Big People's World.” I remembered that Naomi thought Christmas was “Kissmass,” so she would kiss everybody during the holidays.

Finally, I let my mind settle on the monster who had taken Scootchie away from us. The monster was winning so far. He seemed invincible, uncatchable; he didn't make any mistakes, and didn't leave any clues.

He was very sure of himself ... he even left me a cute little postcard for sport. What should that tell me?

He might have read my book about Gary Soneji, I thought. He just might have read my book. Had he taken Naomi to challenge me? Maybe to prove how good he was.

I didn't like that thought very much.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 33.

I'M ALIVE, but I'm in hell! Kate Mctiernan tucked her legs close against her chest and shivered.

She was certain that she'd been drugged. Severe tremors, accompanied by gnawing nausea, swept over her in powerful waves that would not stop no matter what she tried.

She didn't know how long she had been asleep on the cold floor, or what time it was now. Was he watching her? Was there a peephole hidden in the walls? Kate could almost feel his eyes crawling all over her.

She remembered every gruesome and hideous detail of the rape. The feel of it was so vivid. The thought of being touched by him was repulsive, and the most horrifying images snapped at her.

Anger, guilt, violation all fused in her mind. Adrenaline surged powerfully through her body. “Hail Mary, full of grace ... the Lord is with thee.” She thought she had forgotten how to pray. She hoped that God hadn't forgotten her.

Kate's head was spinning. He was definitely trying to break her will, break her resistance. That was his plan, wasn't it?

She had to think, make herself think. Everything in the room was out of focus. The drugs! Kate tried to figure what he might be using.

What drug? Which one? ... Perhaps it was Forane, a strong muscle relaxant that was used prior to anesthesia. It came in a one-hundred-milliliter bottle. It could be sprayed directly into a victim's face, or poured over a cloth and held to someone's face. She tried to remember the drug's aftereflects.

Shivering and nausea. Dry throat. Decrease in intellectual functioning for a day or two. She had those symptoms! All of them! He's a doctor! The thought struck her like a low punch. It made perfect sense to her. Who else would have access to a drug like Forane?

At the dojo in Chapel Hill, a discipline was taught to help students control their emotions. You had to sit in front of a blank dojo wall, and remain sitting no matter how much you wanted, or thought you needed, to move.

Kate's body was drenched with perspiration, but she was determined. She would never let him break her will. She could be unbelievably strong when she needed to be. That was how she'd gotten through medical school on no money and against all odds.

She sat in a lotus position for more than an hour in “her prison room.” She breathed quietly and concentrated on clearing her mind of the pain, the nausea, and the rape. She focused on what she had to do next.

One simple concept.

Escape.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 34.

KATE ROSE SLOWLY to her feet after the hour of meditation. She was still woozy, but she felt a little better, more in control. She decided to search for his peephole. It had to be there, hidden somewhere in the natural wood walls.

The bedroom was exactly twelve by fifteen. She'd measured it several times. In a tiny alcove the size of a closet, there was the equivalent of an outhouse.

Kate carefully looked for even the tiniest slit in the wall, but she saw nothing. The toilet in the alcove seemed to empty directly into the ground. There was no plumbing, at least not in this part of the building. Where am I being kept? Where am I7 Her eyes watered from the acrid odor as she knelt over the black wooden seat and squinted into the dark hole. She had learned to put up with the overpowering smell, and only a single dry heave came this time.

The opening looked as if it dropped about ten or twelve feet. Dropped to what? Kate wondered.

It looked very narrow, and she didn't think she could squeeze through it, not even if she took off all of her clothes. Maybe she could, though. Never say never.

She heard his voice directly behind her. Her heart dropped and she felt faint.

There he was! No shirt again. Rippling muscles everywhere, but especially around his stomach and thighs. He was wearing another mask.

An angry-looking one. Crimson and bone-white swatches against a shiny black background. Was he angry today? Were the masks like mood rings for him?

“Not one of your better ideas, Katie. It's been tried by someone slimmer than you are,” he said in a singsongy voice. “I won't go down there to help you back up. Very shitty way to die. Think it through.” Kate struggled to her feet and began to retch. She did her best to do it convincingly. “I'm sick. I thought I was going to throw up,” she said to Casanova.

“I definitely believe you do feel sick,” he said. “That will pass. But it isn't the real reason you were kneeling over the toilet. Tell the truth, and shame the devil.” “What do you want from me?” Kate asked. He sounded different today ..

. maybe the drugs were distorting her hearing. She studied the mask.

It seemed to turn him into another person. Another kind of creep. Was he a split personality?

“I want to be in love. I want to make love to you again. I want you to get beautiful for me. Maybe one of the lovely dresses from Neiman Marcus. Nylons and high heels.” Kate was terrified and disgusted, but trying not to show it. She had to do something, say something, that would keep him away from her for now.

“I'm not in the mood, honey,” Kate shot back an answer. “I don't feel up to getting dressed.” She couldn't keep the sarcasm completely out of her voice. “I have a headache. What kind of day is it, anyway? I haven't been outside yet.” He laughed. An almost-normal laugh; a nice-enough laugh from behind his nasty mask. “Sunny Carolina blue skies, Kate. Temperature in the high seventies. One of the ten best days of the year.” With one hand, he suddenly yanked her to her feet. He pulled her arm hard as if he were trying to tear it from its socket. Kate yelled as violent pain shot up her arm. It exploded in the soft space, the hollow behind her eyes.

In a fury, in panic, she reached out and pulled down on the mask.

“Stupid! Stupid!” he yelled into her face. “And you're not a stupid woman!” Kate saw the stun gun in his hand and realized she had made a terrible mistake. He leveled it at her chest and shot her.

She tried to keep standing, willed herself to stay up, but her body didn't work anymore, and she slumped to the floor.

He was going crazy now. She stared at him in muted horror as he raised his boot and began to kick out at her. A tooth spun in slow motion, spun over an dover on its trail across the wooden floor.

The revolving tooth fascinated her. It took her a moment to realize that it was her tooth.

She could taste blood, and feel her lips swelling.

There was a hollow ringing in Kate's ears, and she knew she was slipping into unconsciousness. She clung to what she had seen behind the mask.

Casanova knew she had seen a part of his face.

A smooth pink cheek; no beard or mustache visible.

His left eye blue.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 35.

NAOMI CROSS was trembling as she pressed herself hard against the bolted door that sealed off her room. Somewhere in the house of horror a woman was screaming.

The sound was muffled by the walls, by the soundproofing he'd built into the house, but it was still terrifying. Naomi realized that she was biting down on her hand. Hard. She felt sure he was killing someone. It wouldn't be the first time.

The screams stopped.

Naomi pressed harder against the door, straining to hear some sound.

“Oh, no, please,” she whispered, “don't let her be dead.” Naomi listened to the electric silence for a long time. Finally, she moved away from the door. There was nothing she could do for the poor woman. Nothing anyone could do.

Naomi knew she had to be very good right now. If she broke any of his rules, he would beat her. She couldn't let that happen.

He seemed to know everything about her. What clothes she liked to wear, all her underwear sizes, her favorite colors, even the shades she preferred. He knew about Alex, and Seth Samuel, and even about her friend Mary Ellen Klouk. “The tall, pretty blond thing,” he called her. Thing.

Casanova was very kinky; he was into play-acting and fantasy psychodramas. He loved to talk to her about pornographic acts: sex with prepubescent girls and animals; nightmarish sadism; masochism; gynecocracy; enema torture. He talked about everything so casually. At times he would even be poetic, in a sick way. He quoted from Jean Genet, John Rechy, Durrell, de Sade. He was well read, probably well educated.

“You're smart enough to understand me when I talk,” he had told Naomi on one of his visits. “That's why I picked you, sweet darling.” Naomi was startled by the sound of more screaming. She ran to the door and placed her cheek against the cool thick wood. Was it the same woman, or was he hitting someone else? she wondered.

“Somebody please help me!” she heard. The woman was screaming at the top of her voice. She was breaking the house rules.

“Somebody help! I'm being held captive in here. Somebody help ... my name is Kate ... Kate Mctiernan. Somebody help!” Naomi shut her eyes. This was so bad. The woman had to stop. But over an dover again the calls for help were repeated. That meant Casanova wasn't in the house. He must have gone out.

“Somebody please help me. My name is Kate Mctiernan. I'm a doctor from the University of North Carolina hospital.” The screams continued ... ten times, twenty times. Not in panic, Naomi began to realize. In rage! He couldn't be in the house. He wouldn't let her go on this long.

Naomi finally summoned up her courage and shouted as loud as she could.

“Stop it! You must stop calling for help. He'll kill you! Shut up! That's all I'm going to say!”

There was silence ... blessed silence, finally. Naomi thought she could hear the tension all around her. She certainly felt it.

Kate Mctiernan didn't stop for long. “What's your name? How long have you been here? Please, talk to me ... hey, I'm talking to you!” she shouted.

Naomi wouldn't answer her. What was wrong with the woman? Had she lost it after the last beating?

Kate Mctiernan called out again. “Listen, we can help each other. I'm sure we can. Do you know where you're being kept?” The woman was definitely brave ... but she was being foolish, too. Her voice was strong, but it was beginning to sound hoarse. Kate.

“Please talk to me. He isn't here now, or he would have come with his stun gun. You know I'm right! He won't know if you talk to me. Please ... I have to hear your voice again.” "Please. For two minutes. That's all. I promise you. Two minutes.

Please. Just one minute."

Naomi still refused to answer her. He could have come back by now. He might be in the house, listening to them. Even watching them through the walls.

Kate Mctiernan was back on the air. “All right, thirty seconds. Then we'll stop. Okay? I promise I'll stop ... otherwise, I'll keep this up until he does come back ... ” Oh, God, please, stop talking, a voice inside Naomi was screaming. Stop it, right now.

“He'll kill me,” shouted Kate. “But he's going to do that, anyway! I saw part of his face. Where are you from? How long have you been here?” Naomi felt as if she were suffocating. She couldn't breathe, but she stayed at the door and listened to every word the woman had to say. She wanted to talk to her so badly.

“He may have used a drug called Forane. Hospitals use it. He might be a doctor. Please. What do we have to fear except torture and death?” Naomi smiled. Kate Mctiernan had guts, and also a sense of humor. Just hearing another voice was so unbelievably good.

The words tumbled out of Naomi's mouth, almost against her will. “My name is Naomi Cross. I've been here for eight days, I think. He hides behind the walls. He watches all the time. I don't think he ever sleeps. He raped me,” she said in a clear voice. It was the first time she had said the words out loud. He raped me.

Kate answered right back. “He raped me, too, Naomi. I know how you feel, terribly bad ... dirty all over. It's so good to hear your voice, Naomi. I don't feel so alone anymore.” “Me, too, Kate. Now please shut up.” Downstairs in her room, Kate Mctiernan felt so tired now. Tired, but hopeful. She was slumped against one of the walls when she heard the voices around her.

“Maria Jane Capaldi. I think I've been here about a month.” “My name is Kristen Miles. Hello.” “Melissa Stanfield. I'm a student nurse. I've been here nine weeks.” “Christa Akers, North Carolina State. Two months in hell.” There were at least six of them.

Part Two Hide and Seek

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 36.

A TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Los Angeles Times reporter named Beth Lieberman stared at the tiny, blurred green letters on her computer terminal. She watched with tired eyes as one of the biggest stories at the Times in years continued to unfold. This was definitely the most important story of her career, but she almost didn't care anymore.

“This is so crazy and sick ... feet. Jesus Christ,” Beth Lieberman groaned softly under her breath. “Feet.” The sixth “diary” installment sent to her by the Gentleman Caller had arrived at her West Los Angeles apartment early that morning. As had been the case with the previous diary entries, the killer supplied the precise location of a murdered woman's body before starting into his obsessive, pyschopathic message for her.

Beth Lieberman had immediately called the FBI from her home, and then she drove quickly to the offices of the Times on South Spring Street.

By the time she arrived, the Federal Bureau had verified the latest murder.

The Gentleman had left his signature: fresh flowers.

The body of a fourteen-year-old Japanese girl had been found in Pasadena. As was the case with the five other women, Sunny Ozawa had disappeared without a trace two nights ago. It was as if she'd been sucked up into the damp, muggy smog.

To date, Sunny Ozawa was the Gentleman's youngest reported victim. He'd arranged pink and white peonies on her lower torso. Flowers, of course, remind me of a woman's labia, he'd written in one of the diary entries. The isomorphism is obvious, no?

At quarter to seven in the morning, the Times offices were deserted and eerie. Nobody should be up this early except head-bangers who haven't been to bed yet, Lieberman thought. The low hum from the central air conditioning, mingling with the faint roar of traffic outside, was annoying to her.

“Why feet?” the reporter muttered.

She sat before her computer, almost comatose, and wished she had never written an article about mail-order pornography in California. That was how the Gentleman claimed he had “discovered” her; how he had chosen her to be his “liaison with the other citizens of the City of Angels.” He proclaimed that they were on the same “wavelength.” Following endless administrative meetings at the highest levels, the Los Angezes Times had decided to publish the killer's diary entries.

There was no doubt that they had actually been written by the Gentleman Caller.

He knew where the murder victims' bodies were before the police did. He also threatened “special bonus kills” if his diary wasn't published for everyone in Los Angeles to read over breakfast. “I am the latest, and I'm by far the greatest,” the Gentleman had written in one diary entry.

Who could argue with that? Beth wondered. Richard Ramirez? Caryl Chessman? Charles Manson?

Beth Lieberman's job right now was to be his contact. She also got to make the first edit of the Gentleman's words. There was no way the intense, graphic diary entries could run intact. They were filled with obscene pornography and the most brutally violent descriptions of the murders he had committed.

Lieberman could almost hear the madman's voice as she typed the latest entry on her word processor. The Gentleman Caller was speaking to her again, or through her: Let me tell you about Sunny, as much as I know about Sunny, anyway.

Listen to me, dear reader. Be there with me. She had small, delicate, clever feet. That's what I remember best; that's what I will always remember about my beautiful Sunny night.

Beth Lieberman had to shut her eyes. She didn't want to listen to this shit. One thing was certain: the Gentleman Caller had definitely given Beth Lieberman her first break at the Times. Her byline appeared on each of the widely read frontpage features. The murderer had made her a star, too.

Listen to me. Be there with me.

Think about fetishism, and all its amazing possibilities to liberate the psyche. Don't be a snob. Open up your mind. Open your mind right now! Fetishism holds a fascinating array of diverse pleasures that you may be missing out on.

Let us not become too sentimental about “young” Sunny. Sunny Ozawa was into the games of the night. She told me that, in confidence of course. I had picked her up at the Monkey Bar. We'd gone to my place, my hideaway, where we began to experiment, to play the night away.

She asked me if I'd ever done it with a Japanese woman before. I told her that I hadn't, but I'd always wanted to. Sunny told me that I was “quite the gentleman.” I was honored.

This night, it seemed to me that nothing was so libertine as to focus on a woman's feet, to caress them as I made love to Sunny. I'm talking about sun browned feet covered in luxurious nylon and semi pricey high-heeled pumps from Saks. I'm talking about clever little feet.

Very sophisticated communicators.

Listen. To really appreciate the very erotic mime show of a beautiful woman's feet, the woman should be on her back while the man stands.

That's how it was with Sunny and me earlier tonight.

I lifted up her slender legs and watched closely where they joined together in such a way that the vulva puckered from her buttocks. I kissed the top of her stockings repeatedly. I fixated on her well-formed ankle, the lovely lines leading to her shiny black pump.

I concentrated all my attention on that flirtatious pump as our fevered action set her foot into rapid motion. Her little feet were talking to me now. An absolutely manic excitement rose in my chest. It felt as if there were live birds tweeting and twittering in there.

Beth Lieberman stopped typing and closed her eyes again. Fight! She had to stop the images that were flashing out at her. He had murdered the young girl that he was talking about so blithely.

Soon the FBI and the Los Angeles police would come storming into the relatively sedate offices of the Times. They would ask the usual battery of questions. They had no answers yet themselves. No significant leads so far. They said that the Gentleman committed “perfect crimes.” The FBI agents would want to talk for hours about the gruesome details of the murder scene. The feet! The Gentleman had cut off Sunny Ozawa's feet with some kind of razor-sharp knife. Both her feet were missing from the crime scene in Pasadena.

Brutality was his trademark, but that was the only consistent pattern so far. He had mutilated genitalia in the past. He had sodomized one victim, then cauterized her. He had cut open a woman investment banker's chest and removed her heart. Was he experimenting? He was no gentleman once he selected his victim. He was ajekyll and Hyde in the 1990s.

Beth Lieberman finally opened her eyes and saw a tall, slender man standing very close to her in the newsroom. She sighed loudly and she held back a frown.

It was Kyle Craig, the special investigator from the FBI.

Kyle Craig knew something that she desperately needed to know, but he wouldn't tell her what. He knew why the deputy director of the FBI had flown to Los Angeles the previous week. He knew secrets that she needed to know.

“Hello, Ms. Lieberman. What do you have for me?” he asked.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 37.

TICK-COCK, dickory dock.

This was the way he hunted for the women. This was how it really happened, time after time. There was never any danger for him personally. He fit in wherever he chose to hunt. He did his best to avoid any kind of complication or human error. He had a passion for orderliness and, most of all, perfection.

That afternoon, he waited patiently in a crowded arcade of a trendy shopping mall in Raleigh, North Carolina. He watched attractive women enter and leave the local Victoria's Secret across a long marble transverse. Most of the women were well dressed. A copy of Time magazine and also USA Today were folded on the marble bench beside him.

The newspaper headline read: Gentleman Calls for 6th Time in L.A.

He was thinking to himself that the “Gentleman” was zooming out of control in southern California. He was taking gruesome souvenirs, doing two women a week sometimes, playing stupid mind games with the Los Angeles Times, the LAPD, and the FBI. He was going to get caught.

Casanova's blue eyes moved back across the crowded shopping mall. He was a handsome man, as the original Casanova had been. Nature had equipped the eighteenth-century adventurer with beauty, sensuality, and great enthusiasm for women and so it was with him as well.

Now where was the lovely Anna? She had slipped into Victoria's Secret to buy something campy for her boyfriend, no doubt. Anna Miller and Chris Chapin had been in law school together at North Carolina State.

Now Chris was an associate in a law firm. They liked to dress in each other's clothes. Cross-dress to get their kicks. He knew all about them.

He had watched Anna whenever he could for almost two weeks. She was a startling, dark-haired twenty-three-year-old beauty, maybe not another Dr. Kate Mctiernan, but close enough.

He watched Anna finally leave Victoria's Secret and walk almost directly toward him. The click of her high heels made her sound so wonderfully haughty. She knew she was an extraordinary young beauty.

That was the very best thing about her. Her supreme confidence nearly matched his own.

She had such a nicely arrogant, long-legged stride. Perfect slender lines up and down her body. Legs wrapped in dark nylons; heels for her part-time job in Raleigh as a paralegal. Sculptured breasts that he wanted to caress. He could see the subtle lines of her underwear under a clinging tan skirt. Why was she so provocative? Because she could be.

She seemed intelligent, too. Promising, anyway. She had just missed Law Review. Anna was warm, sweet, nice to be around. A keeper. Her lover called her “Anna Banana.” He loved the sweet, stupid intimacy of the nickname.

All he had to do was take her. It was that easy.

Another very attractive woman suddenly broke into his field of vision.

She smiled at him, and he smiled back. He stood up and stretched, then walked toward her. She had store packages and bags piled high in both arms.

“Hi there, beautiful,” he said when he got close. “Can I take some of those? Ease your heavy load, sweet darling'?” “You're such a sweet, handsome thing yourself,” the woman said to him.

“But then you always were. Always the romantic, too.” Casanova kissed his wife on the cheek and helped her with the packages.

She was an elegant-looking woman, self-possessed. She had on jeans, a loose-fitting workshirt, a brown tweed jacket. She wore clothes well.

She was effective in many ways. He had picked her with the greatest care.

As he took some bags, he held the nicest, warmest thought: They couldn't catch me in a thousand years. They wouldn't know where to start to look. They couldn't possibly see past this wonderful, wonderful disguise, this mask of sanity. I am above suspicion.

“I saw you watching the young chip pie Nice legs,” his wife said with a knowing smile and a roll of her eyes. “Just as long as all you do is watch.” “You caught me,” Casanova said to his wife. “But her legs aren't as nice as yours.” He smiled in his easy and charming way. Even as he did so, a name exploded inside his brain. Anna Miller. He had to have her.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 38.

THIS WAS harder than hard.

I slapped on a happy, make-believe smile as I barged through my own front door back home in Washington. A day off from the chase was necessary. More important, I had promised the family a meeting, a report on Naomi's situation. I was also missing my kids and Nana. I felt as if I were home on leave from a war.

The last thing I wanted Nana and the kids to know was how anxious I was about Scootchie.

“No luck yet,” I told Nana as I stooped and kissed her cheek. “We're making a little progress, though.” I stepped away from her before she could cross-examine me.

Standing in the living room, I launched into my best working-father lounge act. I sang “Daddy's Home, Daddy's Home.” Not Shep and the Limelites' version; my own original tune. I scooped up Jannie and Damon in my arms.

“Damon, you got bigger and stronger and you're handsome as a prince of Morocco!” I told my son. “Jannie, you got bigger and stronger and beautiful as a princess!” I told my daughter.

“So did you, Daddy!” The kids squealed the same kind of sweet nonsense right back at me.

I threatened to scoop up my grandmother, too, but Nana Mama made a serious-looking cross with her fingers to ward me off. Our family sign. “You just stay away from me, Alex,” she said. She was smiling, and issuing a baleful stare. She can do that. “Decades of practice,” she likes to say. “Centuries,” I always come back at her.

I gave Nana another big kiss. Then I more or less “palmed” the kids. I held them out the way big men can hold basketballs as if they were nothing but an extension of their arms.

“Have you two been good little rapscallions?” I began my interrogation techniques with my very own repeat offenders. “Clean your rooms, do your chores, eat your brussels sprouts?” “Yes, Daddy!” they shouted in unison. “We been good as gold,” Jannie added as convincing detail.

“You lyin' to me? Brussels sprouts? Broccoli, too? You wouldn't lie so brazenly to your daddy? I called home at ten-thirty the other night, both of you were still up. And you say to me that you've been good. Good as gold!” “Nana let us watch pro hoops!” Damon howled with laughter and undisguised glee. That young con man can get away with anything, which worries me sometimes. He is a natural mimic, but also an ingenious creator of his own original material. At this point, his humor level is about that of the TV hit In Living Color.

I finally reached into my travel satchel for their cache of presents.

“Well, in that case, I've brought y'all something from my trip down South. I say y'all now. I learned it in North Carolina.” “Y'all,” Jannie said back at me. She giggled wildly and did an impromptu dance turn. She was like the cutest puppy kept in the house for an afternoon. Then you come home and she's all over you like sticky flypaper. Just like Naomi was when she was a little girl.

I pulled out Duke University NCAA champion basketball T-shirts for Jannie and Damon. The trick with those two is they have to get the same thing. Same exact design. Same exact color. That will last for another couple of years, and then neither one of them will be caught dead in anything vaguely associated with the other.

“Thank you, y'all,” the kids said one after the other. I could feel their love it was so good to be home. On leave, or otherwise. Safe and sound for a few hours.

I turned to Nana. “You probably thought I forgot all about you,” I said to her.

“You will never forget me, Alex.” Nana Mama squinted her brown eyes hard at me.

“You got that right, old woman.” I grinned.

“I surely do.” She had to have the last word.

I took a beautifully wrapped package from my duffel bag of wonders and surprises. Nana unwrapped it, and she found the most handsome handmade sweater that I had ever seen anywhere. It had been created in Hillsborough, North Carolina, by eighty- and ninety-year-old women who still worked for a living.

For once, Nana Mama had nothing to say. No smart comebacks. I helped her on with the hand-knitted sweater, and she wore it for the rest of the day. She looked proud, happy, and beautiful, and I loved seeing her like that.

“This is the nicest gift,” she finally said with a tiny crack in her voice, “other than you being home, Alex. I know you're supposed to be a tough hombre, but I worried about you down there in North Carolina.” Nana Mama knew enough not to ask too much about Scootchie yet. She also knew exactly what my silence meant.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 39.

IN THE LATE AFTERNOON, thirty or so of my very closest friends and relatives swarmed through the house on Fifth Street. The investigation in North Carolina was the topic of discussion. This was natural even though they knew I would have told them if I had any good news to report. I made up hopeful leads that just weren't there. It was the best I could do for them.

Sampson and I finally got together on the back porch after we'd had a little too much imported beer and rare beefsteaks. Sampson needed to listen; I needed some cop talk with my friend and partner.

I told him everything that had happened so far in North Carolina. He understood the difficulty of the investigation and manhunt. He'd been there with me before, on cases without a single clue.

“At first, they shut me out completely. Wouldn't listen to squat from me. Lately, it's been a little better,” I said to him. “Detectives Ruskin and Sikes dutifully check in and keep me up to date. Ruskin does, anyway. Occasionally, he even tries to be helpful. Kyle Craig is on the case, too. The FBI still won't tell me what they know.” “Any guesses, Alex?” Sampson wanted to know. He was intense as he listened and occasionally made a point.

"Maybe one of the kidnapped women is connected to somebody important.

Maybe the number of victims is a lot higher than they're letting on.

Maybe the killer is connected to somebody with power or influence."

“You don't have to go back down there,” Sampson said after he'd heard all the details. “Sounds like they've got enough '' on the case. Don't start on one of your vendettas, Alex.” “It's already started,” I told him. “I think Casanova's enjoying the fact that he has us stumped with his perfect crimes. I think he likes it that I'm stumped and frustrated, too. There's something else, but I can't figure it out yet. I think he's in heat now.” “Mmm, hmm. Well it sounds to me like you're in heat, too. Back the hell off him, Alex. Don't play Sherlock fuckin' Holmes with this kinky madman.” I didn't say anything. I just shook my head, my very hard head.

“What if you can't get him,” Sampson finally said. “What if you can't solve this case? You have to think about that, Sugar.” That was the one possibility I wouldn't consider.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 40.

WHEN KATE Mctiernan woke up, she knew immediately that something was very wrong, that her impossible situation had gotten even worse.

She didn't know what time it was, what day it was, where she was being held. Her vision was blurred. Her pulse was jumpy. All her vital signs seemed off kilter.

She had gone from extreme feelings of detachment, to depression, to panic, in just the few moments she had been conscious. What had he given her? What drug would produce these symptoms? If she could solve that puzzle, it would prove she was still sane, at least still competent to think things through clearly.

Maybe he'd given her Klonopin, Kate considered.

Ironically, Klonopin was usually prescribed as an anti-anxiety medication. But if he started her at a high-enough dosage, say five to ten milligrams, she would experience approximately the same side effects she was feeling now.

Or maybe he'd used Marinol capsules? They were prescribed for treatment of nausea during chemotherapy. Kate knew Marinol was a real beaut! If he put her on, say two hundred milligrams a day, she'd be bouncing off the walls. Cottonmouth. Disorientation. Periods of manic depression. A dosage of fifteen hundred to two thousand milligrams would be lethal.

He had taken away her escape plan with the powerful drugs. She couldn't fight him like this. Her karate training was useless.

Casanova had seen to that.

“You fucker,” Kate said out loud. She almost never swore. “You motherfucker,” she whispered between clenched teeth.

She didn't want to die. She was only thirty-one years old. She was finally trained to be a doctor, a good one, she hoped. Why me? Don't let this happen. This man, this awful maniac, is going to kill me for no good reason! Shivers as cold as icicles ran up and down her spine. She felt as if she were going to throw up, or maybe even pass out. Orthostatic hypotension, she thought. It was the medical term for fainting when you get up fast from a bed or chair.

She couldn't defend herself against him! He'd wanted her powerless, and he'd apparently succeeded. More than anything else that finally got to her, and she started to cry. That made her even angrier.

I don't want to die.

I don't want to die.

How do I stop it from happening?

How do I stop Casanova?

The house was so very quiet again. She didn't think he was there. She desperately needed to talk to somebody. To the other women prisoners.

She had to work herself up to it again.

He could be hiding in the house. Waiting. Watching her right at this second.

“Hello out there,” she finally called, surprised at the raspiness of her own voice.

"This is Kate Mctiernan. Please listen. He's given me a lot of drugs.

I think he's going to kill me soon. He told me that he was. I'm very afraid ... I don't want to die."

Kate repeated the same message once more, word for word.

She repeated it again.

There was silence; no response from anybody. The other women were afraid, too. They were right to be petrified. Then a voice came floating down from somewhere above her. The voice of an angel.

Kate's heart jumped. She remembered the voice. She listened closely to every word from her brave friend.

“This is Naomi. Maybe we can help each other somehow. Every so often he gets us together, Kate. You're still on probation. He kept each of us in the downstairs room at first. Please don't fight him! We can't talk anymore. It's too dangerous. You're not going to die, Kate.” Another woman called out. “Please be brave, Kate. Be strong for all of us. Just don't be too strong.” Then the women's voices stopped, and it became very quiet again, very lonely, in her room.

The drug, whatever he had pumped into her, was working full blast now.

Kate Mctiernan felt as if she were going mad.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 41.

CASANOVA was going to kill her, wasn't he? It was going to happen soon.

In the terrible silence and loneliness, Kate felt the overwhelming need to pray, to talk to God. God would still hear her in this grotesquely evil place, wouldn't He?

I'm sorry if I only partially believed in You for the last few years before this. I don't know if I'm agnostic, but at least I'm honest. I have a pretty good sense of humor. Even when humor is inappropriate.

I know this isn't “Let's Make a Deal,” but if You can get me out of this one, I'll be eternally grateful.

Sorry about that. I keep saying this can't happen to me, but it's happening. Please help me. This is not one of Your better ideas..

She was praying so hard, concentrating, that she didn't hear him at the door. He was always so quiet, anyway. A phantom. A ghost.

“You don't listen a whit, do you? You just don't learn.”" Casanova said to her.

He held a hospital syringe in one hand. He had on a mauve-colored mask smeared with thick white and blue paint. It was the most gruesome and upsetting mask he'd worn so far. The masks did match his moods, didn't they?

Kate tried to say don't hurt me, but nothing came out. Only a little pff sound escaped from her lips.

He was going to kill her.

She could barely stand, or even sit, but she gave him what she thought was a faint smile.

“Hi ... good to see you.” She got that much out. Had she made any sense? she wondered. She didn't know for sure.

He said something back to her, something important, but she had no idea what it was. The mysterious words echoed inside her brain ... meaningless mumbo jumbo. She tried to listen to what he was saying.

She tried so hard ... “Dr. Kate ... talked to the others ... broke house rules! ”Best girl, the best!... Could have been ... so smart that you're stupid! Kate nodded her head as if she understood what he'd just told her, followed his words and logic perfectly. He obviously knew she had talked to the others. Was he saying that she was so smart that she was stupid? That was true enough. You got that right, pal.

“I wanted ... talk,” she managed. Her tongue felt as if it were enclosed in a woolen mitten. What she had wanted to say was Let's talk. Let's talk this all out. We need to talk.

He wasn't much into talking on this visit, though. He seemed inside of himself. Very distant. The Iceman. Something especially inhuman about him. That hideous mask. Today, his persona was Death.

He was less than ten feet away, armed with the stun gun and a syringe.

Doctor; her brain screamed. He's a doctor, isn't he?

“Don't want to die. Be good,” she managed to say with great effort.

“Get dressed up ... high heels ... ” “Should have thought of that earlier, Dr. Kate, and you shouldn't have broken the rules of my house every chance you got. You were a mistake on my part. I don't usually make mistakes.” She knew that the electric shocks from the gun would immobilize her.

She tried to concentrate on what she could do to save herself.

She was on full automatic pilot now. All learned reflexes. One straight, true kick, she thought. But that seemed impossible right now. She reached deep inside herself, anyway. Total concentration.

All of her years of karate practice channeled into one slender chance to save her life.

One last chance.

She'd been told a thousand times in the dojo to focus on a single target, and then use the enemy's force and energy against him. Total focus. As much as she could right now.

He came toward her and raised the stun gun to his chest. He was moving very purposefully.

Kate rasped out “kee-ai!” or something like that. The best she could manage right then. She kicked out with all of her remaining strength.

She aimed for his kidneys. The blow could incapacitate him. She wanted to kill him.

Kate missed the kick of her life, but something happened. She did connect solidly with bone and flesh.

Not the kidney, not even close to her intended target. The kick had slammed into his hip, or his upper thigh. No matter it had hurt him.

Casanova yelped in pain. He sounded like a dog clipped by a speeding car. She could tell that he was surprised, too. He took a sudden stutter-step backward.

Then Jack and the Goddamn Beanstalk Giant toppled over hard. Kate Mctiernan wanted to scream for joy.

She had hurt him.

Casanova was down.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 42.

I WAS BACK in the South, back on this ugly homicide and kidnapping investigation. Sampson had been right this time it was personal. It was also an impossible case, the kind that can go on for years.

Everything was being done that could be done. There were eleven suspects currently under surveillance in Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh. Among them were assorted deviates, but also university professors, doctors, and even a retired cop in Raleigh. On account of the “perfect” crimes, all area policemen had been checked by the Bureau.

I didn't concern myself with these suspects. I was to look where no one else was looking. That was the deal I had made with Kyle Craig and the FBI. I was the designated hitter.

There were several ongoing cases across the country at that time. I read hundreds of detailed FBI briefs on all of them. A killer of gay men in Austin, Texas. A repeat killer of elderly women in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Michigan. Pattern killers in Chicago, North Palm Beach, Long Island, Oakland, and Berkeley.

I read until my eyes burned and my insides felt even worse.

There was a nasty case that was grabbing national headlines the Gentleman Caller in Los Angeles. I pulled up the killer's “diaries” on Nexus. They had been running in the Los Angeles Times since the beginning of the year.

I began to read the L.A. killer's diaries. I short-circuited as I read the next-to-last diary entry from the Times. It took my breath away. I almost didn't believe what I'd just read on the computer.

I backed the story up on the screen. I reread the entry one more time, very slowly, word for word.

It was a tale about a young woman who was being held “captive” by the Gentleman Caller in California.

The young woman's name: Naomi C. Her occupation: Second-year law student.

Description: Black, very attractive. Twenty-two years old.

Naomi was twenty-two ... a second-year law student ... How could a savage, recreational killer in Los Angeles know anything about Naomi Cross?

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 43.

I IMMEDIATELY CALLED the reporter at the paper whose byline appeared on the diary stories. Her name was Beth Lieberman. She answered her own phone at the Los Angeles Times.

“My name is Alex Cross. I'm a homicide detective involved with the Casanova murders in North Carolina,” I told her. My heart was pounding as I tried to quickly explain my situation.

“I know exactly who you are, Dr. Cross,” Beth Lieberman cut me off.

"You're writing a book about this. So am I. For obvious reasons, I don't think I have anything to say to you. My own book proposal is circulating around New York right now.

“Writing a book? Who told you that? I'm not writing any book.” My voice level was rising in spite of my better instincts. "I'm investigating a spree of kidnappings and murders in North Carolina.

That's what I'm doing."

“The chief of detectives in D.C. says otherwise, Dr. Cross. I called him when I read you were involved with the Casanova case.” The Jefe strikes again, I thought. My old boss in D. C.“ George Pittman, was a complete asshole, who also wasn't a fan of mine. ”I wrote a book about Gary Soneji,“ I said. ”Past tense. I needed to get it out of my system. Trust me, I'm "

“History!” Beth Lieberman hung up on me. Bang! “Son of a bitch,” I muttered into the dead receiver in my hand. I dialed the paper again. This time I got a secretary on the line. “I'm sorry, Ms. Lieberman has left for the day,” she said in a staccato cadence.

I was a little hot. “She must have left in the ten seconds it just took me to get reconnected. Please put Ms. Lieberman back on the phone. I know she's there. Put her on now.” The secretary also hung up on me.

“You're a son of a bitch, too!” I said to the dead phone line. “Dammit all to hell.” I was getting noncooperation in two cities on the same case now. The infuriating part was that I thought I might be onto something. Was there some kind of bizarre connection between Casanova and the killer on the West Coast? How could the Gentleman Caller possibly know about Naomi? Did he know about me as well?

It was just a hunch so far, but much too good to brush aside. I called the editor in chief at the Los Angeles Times. It was easier to get through to the big man than it was to his reporter. The editor's assistant was a male. His phone voice was crisp, efficient, but as pleasant as Sunday brunch at the Ritz-Carlton in D.C.

I told him that I was Dr. Alex Cross, that I'd been involved in the Gary Soneji investigation, and that I had some important information on the Gentleman Caller case. Two-thirds of that was absolutely true.

“I'll tell Mr. Hills,” the assistant informed me, still sounding as if he were pleased as punch to hear from me. I was thinking it would be nifty to have an assistant like that.

It didn't take long for the editor in chief to come on the phone himself. “Alex Cross,” he said, “Dan Hills. I read about you during the Soneji manhunt. Glad to take your call, especially if you have something for us on this messy affair.” As I talked to Dan Hills, I pictured a big man in his late forties.

Tough enough, but California-dapper at the same time. Pin-striped shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. Hand-painted tie. Stanford all the way. He asked me to call him Dan. Okay, I could do that. He seemed like a nice guy. Probably had a Pulitzer or two.

I told him about Naomi, and my involvement with the Casanova case in North Carolina. I also told him about the Naomi entry in the L.A.

diaries.

“I'm sorry about your niece's disappearance,” Dan Hills said. “I can imagine what you're going through.” There was a pause over the line. I was afraid that Dan was about to be either politically or socially correct with me. “Beth Lieberman is a good young reporter,” he went on. “She's tough, but she's professional. This is a big story for her, and for us as well.” “Listen,” I cut off Hills I had to. "Naomi wrote me a letter almost every week that she was in school. I saved those letters, all of them.

I helped to bring her up. We're close. That means a lot to me."

“I hear you. I'll see what I can do. No promises, though.” “No promises, Dan.” Good to his word, Dan Hills called me back at the FBI offices within the hour. “Well, we had a meeting of the minds out here,” he told me.

“I talked to Beth. As you can imagine, this puts both of us in a tough spot.” “I understand what you're telling me,” I said. I was cushioning myself for a soft blow, but I got something else.

“There are mentions of Casanova in the unedited versions of the diaries that the Gentleman sent her. It sounds like the two of them could be talking, even sharing exploits. Almost as if they're friends. It seems like they're communicating for some reason.” Bingo."

The monsters were communicating.

Now I thought I knew what the FBI had been keeping secret, what they were afraid would come out in the open.

There were coast-to-coast serial killers.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 44.

RUN! GO! Just run your butt off! Get the hell out of here now! Kate Mctiernan staggered and weaved out through the heavy wooden door he had left open behind him.

She didn't know how badly Casanova was hurt. Escape was her only thought. Go now! Get away from him while you can.

Her mind was playing tricks on her. Confusing images came and went, without making the proper connections. The drug, whatever it was, was taking its full toll. She was disoriented.

Kate touched her face, and realized her cheeks were wet. Was she crying? She couldn't even tell that for sure.

She was barely able to climb a steep wooden stairway outside her door.

Was it heading to another floor? Had she just come up these stairs?

She couldn't remember. She couldn't remember anything.

She was hopelessly bewildered and confused now. Had she really knocked Casanova down, or was she hallucinating?

Was he coming after her? Was he racing up the stairs behind her right now? Blood was roaring in her ears. She felt dizzy enough to fall down.

Naomi, Melissa Stanfield, Christa Akers. Where were they being held?

Kate was having tremendous difficulty navigating her way through the house. She weaved like a drunken person down the long hallway. What kind of strange structure was she in? It looked like a house. The walls were new, freshly built, but what kind of house was this?

“Naomi!” she called out, but her voice barely made a sound. She couldn't concentrate, couldn't focus for more than a few seconds. Who was Naomi? She couldn't remember exactly.

She stopped and pulled hard on a doorknob. The door wouldn't open for her. Why was the door locked? What on earth was she looking for? What was she doing here? The drugs wouldn't allow her to think in straight lines.

I'm going into shock, trauma, she thought. She felt so cold and numb now. Everything that could gallop was galloping out of control inside her head.

He's coming to kill me. He's coming from behind! Escape! she commanded herself. Find the way out. Focus on that! Bring back help.

She came to another flight of wooden stairs that looked ancient, almost from another era. Dirt was caked on the stairway. Soil. Little rocks and glass fragments. These were really old stairs. Not like the new wood inside.

Kate couldn't keep her balance any longer. She pitched forward suddenly and almost hit her chin on the second stair. She kept crawling, scrabbling, up the stairs. She was on her knees. Climbing stairs. Toward what? An attic? Where would she end up? Would he be there, waiting for her with the paralyzing stun gun and the syringe?

Suddenly she was outside! She was actually out of the house! She had made it somehow.

Kate Mctiernan was half blinded by the streaming bands of sunlight, but the world had never looked so beautiful. She breathed in the sweet smell of the gums of trees: oaks, sycamores, towering Carolina pines, with no limbs except at the very top. Kate looked at the woods and the sky, high, high above, and she cried. Tears washed down her face.

Kate stared up at the tall, tall pines. Scuppernongs reached from treetop to treetop. She'd grown up in woods like these.

Escape; she suddenly thought of Casanova again. Kate tried to run a few steps. She fell again. She did the hands-and-knees waltz. She lurched back to her feet. Run." Get away from here! Kate turned around in a full, sweeping circle. She kept on turning once, twice, three times until she almost fell again.

No, no, no! The voice inside her head was loud, screaming at her. She couldn't believe her eyes, couldn't trust any of her senses.

This was the weirdest, craziest thing yet. It was the scariest daydream. There was no house! There was no house anywhere Kate looked as she whirled and turned in circles under the towering pines.

The house, wherever she had been kept, had completely disappeared.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 45.

RUN! Move your damn legs fast, one after the other. Faster! Faster than that, girl. Run away from him.

She tried to concentrate on finding her way out of the dark, dense forest. The tall Carolina pines were like umbrellas that filtered light onto the hardwoods that grew beneath them. There wasn't enough light for the young saplings, and they stood like upright tree skeletons.

He would be coming after her now. He had to try to catch her, and he'd hill her if he did. She was pretty sure she hadn't hurt him very badly, though God knows she had tried.

Kate settled into a her ky-jerky rhythm of running and stumbling forward. The forest floor was soft and spongy, a carpet of pine straw and leaves. Long spindly briar brambles grew straight up from the ground, reaching for the sunlight. She felt like a bramble herself.

Have to rest ... hide ... let the drugs wear off, Kate mumbled to herself. Then go get help ... logical thing to do. Get the police.

Then she heard him crashing about behind her. He screamed out her name. “Kate! Kate! Stop right now!” His voice echoed loudly through the forest.

His bravado had to mean that nobody was around for miles; nobody to help her in the godforsaken woods. She was on her own out here.

“Kate! I'm going to get you! It's inevitable, so stop running!” She climbed a steep, rocky hill that seemed like Mount Everest in her exhausted state. A black snake was sunning itself on a smooth patch of rock. The snake looked like a fallen tree limb, and Kate almost stooped to pick it up. She thought she could use it as a support. The startled black snake slithered away, and she was afraid she was hallucinating again.

“Kate! Kate! You're doomed! I'm so angry now!” She went down hard in a mesh of honeysuckle and pointy rocks.

Excruciating pain shot through her left leg, but she pushed herself up again. Ignore the blood. Ignore the pain. Keep going.

You have to get away. You have to bring help. Just keep running.

You're smarter, faster, more resourceful than you think you are. You're going to make it! She heard him pounding up the steep hill the mountainside whatever she had just climbed herself. He was very close.

“I'm right here, Kate! Hey, Katie, I'm coming up behind you! Here I am!” Kate finally turned around. Curiosity and terror got the best of her.

He was climbing easily. She could see his white flannel shirt flashing through the almost-black trees below, and his long blond hair.

Casanova! He was still wearing his mask. The stun gun, or some kind of gun, was in his hand.

He was laughing loudly. Why was he laughing now?

Kate stopped running. All hope of getting away suddenly left her. She experienced a jolting moment of shock and disbelief; she cried out in anguish. She was going to die right here, she knew.

Kate whispered, “God's will.” That was all there was now, nothing else.

The top of the steep hill ended abruptly in a canyon. Steep, sheer rock dropped at least a hundred feet. Only a few bare scrub pines grew out of the rock. There was nowhere to hide, and nowhere to run. Kate thought it was such a sad, lonely place to die.

“Poor Katie!” Casanova screamed. “Poor baby!” She turned to see him again. There he was! Forty yards, thirty, then twenty yards away. Casanova watched her as he climbed up the steep hillside. He never took his eyes off her. The painted black mask seemed immobile, fixed on her.

Kate turned away from him, turned her back on the death mask. She peered down at the steep valley of rocks and trees. It must be a hundred feet, maybe more than that, she thought. The dizziness she felt was almost as terrifying as the deadly alternative rushing up behind her.

She heard him scream her name. “Kate, no!” She didn't look behind her again.

Kate Mctiernan jumped.

She tucked in her knees and held on to them. Just your regular swimming-hole cannonball leap, she thought to herself.

There was a stream down below. The silver-blue ribbon of water was coming at her unbelievably fast. The roar was getting louder in her ears.

She had no idea how deep it was, but how deep could a small stream like that be? Two feet? Maybe four feet? Ten feet deep if this was the luckiest few seconds of her life, which she sincerely doubted.

“Kate!” She heard his screams from high above. “You're dead.”"

She saw tiny whitecaps which meant rocks beneath the rippling water.

Oh, dear God, I don't want to die.

Kate hit a wall of freezing cold water hard.

She hit bottom so quickly it was as if there hadn't been any water in the fast-running stream. Kate felt shooting pain, terrible pain, everywhere. She swallowed water. She realized she was going to drown.

She was going to die, anyway. She had no strength left God's will be done.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 46.

DURHAM homicide detective Nick Ruskin called and informed me that they had just found another woman, and that it wasn't Naomi. A thirty-one-year-old intern from Chapel Hill had been fished out of the Wykagil River by two young boys playing hooky for the day and caught by cruel fate instead.

Ruskin's flashy green Saab Turbo picked me up in front of the Washington Duke Inn. He and Davey Sikes were trying to be more cooperative lately. Sikes was taking a day off, his first in a month, according to his detective partner.

Ruskin actually seemed glad to see me. He hopped out of the car in front of the hotel and pumped my hand as if we were friends. As always, Ruskin was dressed for success. Black Armani rip-off sportcoat. Black pocket T-shirt.

Things were picking up a little for me in the new South. I got the feeling that Ruskin knew I had connections with the FBI, and that he wanted to use them, too. Detective Nick Ruskin was definitely a mover and shaker. This was a career-making case for him.

“Our first big break,” Ruskin said to me.

“What do you know about the intern so far?” I asked enroute to the University of North Carolina Hospital.

“She's hanging in there. Apparently, she came down the Wykagil like a slippery fish. They're saying it's a miracle. Not even a major broken bone. But she's in shock, or something worse. She can't talk, or she won't talk. The docs are using words like catatonic and posttraumatic shock. Who knows at this point? At least she's alive.” Ruskin had a lot of enthusiasm, and he could also be charismatic. He definitely wanted to use my connections. Maybe I could use his.

“Nobody knows how she got into the river. Or how she got away from him,” Ruskin told me as we entered the college town of Chapel Hill. The thought of Casanova stalking female students here was terrifying. The town was so pretty and seemed so vulnerable.

“Or whether she actually was with Casanova,” I added a thought. “We don't know that for sure.” “We don't know shit from Shinola, do we?” Nick Ruskin complained as he turned down a side street marked HOSPITAL. “I'll tell you one thing, though, this story is about to go public in a big way. The circus just came to town. See, up ahead.” Ruskin had that right. The scene outside North Carolina University Hospital was already media bedlam. Television and press reporters were camped out in the parking lot, the front lobby, and all over the serene, sloping green lawns of the university.

Photographers snapped my picture, as well as Nick Rus-kin's, when we arrived. Ruskin was still the local star detective. People seemed to like him. I was becoming a minor celebrity, at least a curiosity, in the case. My involvement in the Gary Soneji kidnapping had already been broadcast by the local wags. I was Dr. Detective Cross, an expert on human monsters from up North.

“Tell us what's going on,” a woman reporter called out. “Give us a break, Nick. What's the real story with Kate Mctiernan?” “If we're lucky, maybe she can tell us.” Ruskin smiled at the reporter, but he kept on walking until we were safely inside the hospital.

Ruskin and I were far from first in line, but we were allowed to see the intern later that night. Kyle Craig pulled the necessary strings for me. A determination had been made that Katelya Mctiernan wasn't psychotic, but that she was suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome. It seemed a reasonable diagnosis.

There was absolutely nothing that I could do that night. Anyway, I stayed after Nick Ruskin left, and I read all the medical charts, the nursing notes, and write-ups. I perused the local police reports describing how she had been found by two twelve-year-old boys who had skipped school to fish and smoke cigarettes down by the riverside.

I suspected I knew why Nick Ruskin had called me, too. Ruskin was smart. He understood that Kate Mctiernan's current state might involve me in the case as a psychologist, especially since I had dealt with this kind of post stress trauma before.

Katelya Mctiernan. Survivor But just barely. I stood beside her bed for a full thirty minutes that first night. Her IV was hooked up to a drip monitor. The bed's siderails were up high and tight around her.

There were already flowers in the room. I remembered a sad, powerful Sylvia Plath poem called “Tulips.” It was about Plath's decidedly unsentimental reaction to flowers sent to her hospital room after a suicide attempt.

I tried to recall what Kate Mctiernan had looked like before she got the black eyes. I'd seen photos. A lot of ugly swelling made her face look as if she were wearing goggles or a gas mask. There was more nasty swelling surrounding her jaw.

According to the hospital write-up, she'd lost a tooth, too.

Apparently, it had been knocked out at least two days before she was found in the river. He'd beaten her. Casanova. The self-proclaimed Lover.

I felt bad for the young intern. I wanted to tell her it would be all right somehow.

I rested my hand lightly on hers, and repeated the same sentences over an dover. “You're among friends now, Kate. You're in a hospital in Chapel Hill. You're safe now, Kate.” I didn't know if the badly injured woman could hear me, or even understand me. I just wanted to say something consoling to her before I left for the night.

And as I stood there watching the young woman, the image of Naomi's face flashed before me. I couldn't imagine her dead. Js Naomi all right, Kate Mctiernan? Have you seen Naomi Cross? I wanted to ask, but she couldn't have answered, anyway.

“You're safe now, Kate. Sleep easy, sleep well. You're safe now.” Kate Mctiernan couldn't say a word about what had happened. She had lived through a horrifying nightmare that was worse than anything I could imagine.

She had seen Casanova, and he had left her speechless.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 47.

TICK-COCK.

A young lawyer named Chris Chapin had brought home a bottle of Chardonnay de Beaulieu, and he and his francee, Anna Miller, were drinking the California wine in bed. It was finally the weekend. Life was good again for Chris and Anna.

“Thank God this godawful workweek is over,” sandy-haired twenty-four-year-old Chris exclaimed. He was an associate at a prestigious law office in Raleigh. Not exactly Mitch Mcdeere in The Firm no German-made convertible to sign on but a good start on his lawyering career.

“Unfortunately, I have a paper on contracts due Monday.” Anna grimaced. She was in her third year of law school. “Plus, it's for the sadist Stacklum.” “Not tonight, Anna Banana. Screw Stacklum. Better still, screw me.” “Thank you for bringing home the vino.” Anna finally smiled. Her white teeth were dazzling.

Chris and Anna were good for each other. Everyone said so, all their lawyer pals. They complemented each other, had pretty much the same worldview, and, most of all, were smart enough not to try to change each other. Chris was obsessive about his job. Okay, fine. Anna needed to go antiquing at least twice a month. She spent her own money as if there were no tomorrow. That was okay, too.

“I think this wine needs to breathe a little while longer,” Anna said with an impish grin. “Uhm, while we're waiting.” She slipped down the straps of a white lace demi bra She'd purchased the bra and matching lace strip at Victoria's Secret in the mall.

“Yep. Thank God, it's the weekend,” said Chris Chapin.

The two of them fell into an all-purpose embrace, playfully undressing each other, kissing, caressing, losing themselves in the sexy moment.

In the middle of their lovemaking, Anna Miller had a strange feeling.

She sensed that someone else was in the bedroom. She pulled away from Chris.

Someone was standing at the foot of the bed! He was wearing a grimly painted mask. Red and yellow dragons. Fierce ones. Angry and grotesque figures that appeared to be clawing at one another.

“Who the hell are you? What art you?” Chris said in a frightened voice. He searched for the ball bat they kept under the bed and found the bat handle. “Hey, I asked you a fucking question.” The intruder growled like a wild animal.

“Well here's a fucking answer.” Casanova's right arm came up holding a Luger. He fired once, and a large red hole opened in Chris Chapin's forehead. The young lawyer's naked body slammed back against the bed's headboard. The ball bat in his hand dropped to the floor.

Casanova moved quickly. He whipped out a second gun, and shot Anna in the chest with his stunner.

“I'm sorry about this,” he whispered softly as he carried her from the bed. “I'm so sorry. But I promise, I'll make it up to you.” Anna Miller was Casanova's next great love.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 48.

A DIZZYING MEDICAL MYSTERY began the following morning. Everyone at North Carolina University Hospital was baffled, especially me.

Kate Mctiernan had begun to talk very early that morning. I wasn't there, but apparently Kyle Craig was in her room at daybreak.

Unfortunately, our valuable witness was making no sense to anyone.

The highly intelligent intern raved incoherently throughout most of the morning. She seemed to be psychotic at times, and almost as if she were speaking in tongues. She experienced tremors, convulsions, and signs of abdominal and muscle cramps, according to the hospital write-up reports.

I visited with her late that afternoon. There was still concern that she had suffered brain damage. Most of the time I was in her room, she was quiet and unresponsive. Once, when she tried to speak, only a terrifying scream came out.

The doctor in charge came by the room while I was in there. We had already talked a couple of times that day. Dr. Maria Ruocco wasn't interested in withholding important in formation about her patient from me. She was extremely helpful and nice, in fact. Dr. Ruocco said she wanted to help catch whoever, or whatever, had done this to the young intern.

I suspected that Kate Mctiernan believed she was still being held captive. As I watched her struggle against unseen forces, I sensed that she was a terrific fighter. I found myself rooting for her in the hospital room.

I volunteered to sit with Kate Mctiernan for long stretches. Nobody fought me for hospital-surveillance duty. Maybe she would say something, though. A phrase, or even a single word, might become an important clue in the hunt for Casanova. All we needed was one clue to mobilize everything.

“You're safe now, Kate,” I whispered every so often. She didn't seem to hear me, but I kept it up, anyway.

I got an idea, an irresistible notion, around nine-thirty that night.

The team of doctors assigned to Kate Mctiernan had already left for the day. I needed to tell someone, so I called the FBI and persuaded them to let me call Dr. Maria Ruocco at her home near Raleigh.

“Alex, are you still there at the hospital?” Dr. Ruocco asked when she got on the phone. She seemed more surprised than angry about the nocturnal call to her house. I had already spoken with her at great length during the day. We had both gone to Johns Hopkins and we talked a little about our backgrounds. She was very interested in the Soneji case and had read my book.

“I was sitting here obsessing as usual. I was trying to figure out how he kept his victims subdued.” I began to tell Maria Ruocco my theory, and what I had already done about it. “I figured he might drug them, and maybe he used something sophisticated. I called your lab for the results from Kate Mctiernan's toxic screen. They found Marinol in her urine.” “Marinol?” Dr. Ruocco sounded surprised, just as I had been at first.

“Hmmp. How the hell did he get Marinol to give her? That's a real bolt out of the blue. What a clever idea, though. It's almost brilliant. Marinol is a good choice if he wanted to keep her submissive.” “Wouldn't that account for her psychotic episodes today?” I said.

“Tremors, convulsions, hallucinations the whole package fits if you think about it.” “You could be right, Alex. Marinol! Jesus. The symptoms of Marinol withdrawal could mimic the most severe D. T.s. But how would he know so much about Marinol and how to use it? I don't believe a layman would come up with that.” I had been wondering the same thing. "Maybe he's been in chemotherapy?

He could have been been ill with cancer. Perhaps he had to take Marinol. Maybe he's disfigured in some way."

“Maybe he's a doctor? Or a pharmacist?” Dr. Ruocco offered up another guess. I had thought of those possibilities as well. He could even be a doctor working at University Hospital.

“Listen, our favorite intern might be able to tell us something about him that can help us stop him. Can we do anything to get her through this withdrawal a little faster?” “I'll be there in about twenty minutes. Less than that,” Maria Ruocco said. “Let's see what we can do to help the poor girl out of her bad-dream state. I think we'd both like to talk to Kate Mctiernan.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 49.

HALF AN HOUR LATER, Dr. Maria Ruocco was with me in Dr. Kate Mctiernan's room. I hadn't told the Durham police, or the FBI, what I had discovered. I wanted to talk to the intern first. This could be a break in the case, the biggest so far.

Maria Ruocco examined her important patient for nearly an hour. She was a no-nonsense, but user-friendly, doctor. She was very attractive, ash blond, probably in her late thirties. A little bit of a Southern belle, but pretty terrific, anyway. I wondered if Casanova had ever stalked Dr. Ruocco.

“The poor kid is really going through it,” she said to me. “She had nearly enough Marinol in her system to kill her.” “I wonder if that was the original idea,” I said. “She might have been one of his rejects. Dammit, I want to talk to her.” Kate Mctiernan seemed to be asleep. A restless sleep, but sleep. The instant Dr. Ruocco's hands touched her, though, she moaned. Her bruised face twisted into a stark, fearful mask. It was almost as if we were watching her back in captivity. The terror was palpable, scary.

Dr. Ruocco was extremely gentle, but the soft moans and groans continued. Then Kate Mctiernan finally spoke without opening her eyes.

“Don't touch me! Don't! Don't you dare touch me, you fucker!” she shouted. Her eyes still didn't open. She was squeezing them very tightly, in fact. “Leave me alone, you son of a bitch!” “These young doctors.” Dr. Ruocco made a joke of it. She was a cool head under pressure. “Incredibly disrespectful as a group. And the goddamn language.” Watching Kate Mctiernan now was like seeing someone being physically tortured. I thought of Naomi again. Was she in North Carolina? Or in California somehow? Was the same thing happening to her? I chased the disturbing image out of my head. One problem at a time.

It took another half hour for Dr. Ruocco to treat Kate Mctiernan. She put her on an IV dose of Librium. Then she reconnected the heart monitor Kate was on because of her injuries. When she had finished, the intern drifted off into an even deeper sleep. She wasn't going to tell us any of her secrets tonight.

“I like your work,” I whispered to Dr. Ruocco. “You did good.” Maria Ruocco motioned for me to step outside with her. The hospital corridor was in semidarkness; it was very quiet, and as eerie as hospitals can be at night. I had the recurring thought that Casanova could be a doctor at University Hospital. He might even be inside the hospital now, even at this late hour.

"We've done everything we can do for her right now, Alex. Let the Librium do its job. I count three FBI agents, plus two of Durham's finest, guarding young Dr. Mctiernan from the bogeyman for tonight.

Why don't you go back to your hotel.

Get some sleep yourself. How about a little Valium for you, kind sir?"

I told Maria Ruocco that I preferred to sleep at the hospital. “I don't think Casanova will come after her here, but there's no way to tell. He just might.” Especially if Casanova was a local physician, I was thinking, but I didn't mention that to Maria. "Besides, I feel a connection to Kate in there. I have from the first time I saw her.

Maybe she knew Naomi."

Dr. Maria Ruocco stared up at me. I had at least a foot in height on her. She spoke with a total deadpan look on her face. “You appear sane, you sound sane at times, but you're certifiable,” she said and smiled. Her bright blue eyes twinkled playfully.

“Plus, I'm armed and dangerous,” I said.

“Good night, Dr. Cross,” Maria Ruocco said and she blew me a feathery kiss.

“Good night, Dr. Ruocco. And thank you.” I sailed a kiss back at her as she walked down the corridor.

I slept restlessly on two uncomfortable club chairs pulled together inside Kate Mctiernan's room. I kept my revolver cradled in my lap.

Pleasant dreams, I'm sure.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 50.

WHO ARE YOU? Who the hell are you, mister?"

A loud, high-pitched voice woke me up. It was close by. Almost in my face. I remembered immediately that I was at the University of North Carolina Hospital. I remembered exactly where I was in the hospital. I was with Kate Mctiernan, our prize witness.

“I'm a policeman,” I said in a soft and hopefully reassuring voice to the traumatized intern. “My name is Alex Cross. You're in North Carolina University Hospital. Everything is okay now.” At first, Kate Mctiernan looked as if she might cry, then she seemed to take hold of herself. Watching her grab control like that helped me understand how she had survived both Casanova and the river. This was a very strong-willed woman I had been watching over.

“I'm in the hospital?” Her words were slightly slurred, but at least she was coherent.

“Yes, that's right,” I said holding up one hand, palm facing out.

“You're safe now. Let me run and get a doctor. Please, I'll be right back.” The slight slurring continued, but Dr. Mctiernan was focused, scarily so.

“Hold on a minute. I am a doctor. Let me get my bearings before we invite company in to visit. Just let me collect my thoughts. You're a policeman?” I nodded. I wanted to make this as easy for her as I possibly could. I wanted to hug her, hold her hand, do something supportive and yet not threatening, after what she'd been through the past few days. I also wanted to ask her about a hundred important questions.

Kate Mctiernan looked away from me. “I think he drugged me. Or maybe all that was a dream?” “No, it wasn't a dream. He used a powerful drug called Marinol.” I told her what we knew so far. I was being so careful not to push Kate the wrong way.

“I must have been really tripping.” She tried to whistle, and made a funny sound. I could see where she was missing a tooth. Her mouth was probably dry; her lips were swollen, especially the upper lip.

Odd as it seemed, I found myself smiling. “You were probably on the planet Weirdness for a while. It's nice to have you back.” “It's really nice to be back,” she said in a whisper. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Sorry,” she said. “I tried so hard not to cry in that horrible place. I didn't want him to see any weakness he could exploit. I want to cry now. I think I will.” “Oh, please, you just cry your eyes out,” I whispered, too. I could barely talk or keep back tears myself. My chest felt tight. I went over to the hospital bed, and I lightly held Kate's hand as she wept.

“You don't sound like you're from the South,” Kate Mctierman finally spoke again. She was grabbing control of herself. It amazed me she could do that.

“I'm from Washington, D. C.” actually. My niece disappeared from Duke Law School ten days ago. That's why I'm down here in North Carolina.

I'm a detective."

She seemed to see me for the first time. She also appeared to be remembering something important. “There were other women at the house where I was kept prisoner. We weren't supposed to talk. All communication was strictly forbidden by Casanova, but I broke the rules. I talked to a woman named Naomi ” I stopped her, cut her off there. “My niece's name is Naomi Cross,” I said. “She's alive? She's all right?” My heart felt as if it were going to implode. “Tell me what you remember, Kate. Please.” Kate Mctiernan grew more intense. "I talked to a Naomi. I don't remember a last name. I also talked to a Kristen. The drugs. Oh, God, was it your niece? ... Everything is so hazy and dark right now.

I'm sorry ... " Kate's voice trailed off as if someone had let the air out of her.

I gently squeezed her hand. “No, no. You just gave me more hope than I've had since I came down here.” Kate Mctiernan's eyes were fixed and solemn, staring into mine. She seemed to be looking back at something horrifying that she wanted to forget. “I don't remember a lot of it right now. I think Marinol has that side effect ... I remember that he was going to give me another injection. I kicked him, hurt him enough to get away. At least I think that's what happened ... ”There were thick, thick woods. Carolina pines, hanging moss everywhere ... I remember, I swear to God ... the house ... wherever we were being kept, it disappeared. The house where we were being held captive just disappeared on me."

Kate Mctiernan slowly shook her head of long brown hair back and forth.

Her eyes were wide with astonishment. She seemed amazed at her own story. “That's what I remember. How could that be? How could a house disappear?” I could tell that she was reliving her very recent, terrifying past. I was right there with her. I was the first one to hear the story of her escape, the only one so far to hear our witness speak.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 51.

CASANOVA was still disturbed and highly agitated about the loss of Dr. Kate Mctiernan. He was restless and had been wide-awake for hours. He rolled over an dover in bed. This was no good. This was dangerous. He had made his first mistake.

Then someone whispered in the darkness.

“Are you all right? Are you okay?” The woman's voice startled him at first. He had been Casanova. Now he seamlessly switched over to his other persona: the good husband.

He reached out and gently rubbed his wife's bare shoulder. "I'm okay.

No problem. Just a little trouble sleeping tonight."

“I noticed. How could I not? The human Mexican jumping bean strikes again.” There was a smile in her sleepy voice. She was a good person, and she loved him.

“Sorry,” Casanova whispered, and kissed his wife's shoulder. He stroked her hair as he thought about Kate Mctiernan. Kate had much longer brown hair.

He kept stroking his wife's hair, but he drifted back into his own tortured thoughts again. He really didn't have anyone to talk to, did he? Not anymore. Not around here in North Carolina certainly, not even in the highfalutin Research Triangle belt.

He finally climbed out of bed and trudged downstairs. He shuffled into his den and quietly shut and locked the door.

He looked at his wristwatch. It was 3:00 A.M. That would make it twelve out in Los Angeles. He made the call.

Actually, Casanova did have someone to talk to. One person in the world.

“It's me,” he said, when he heard the familiar voice on the line. “I'm feeling a little crazy tonight. I thought of you, of course.” “Are you implying that I lead a wanton and half-mad life?” the Gentleman Caller asked with a chuckle.

“That goes without saying.” Casanova was feeling better already. There was someone he could talk to and share secrets with. “I took another one yesterday. Let me tell you about Anna Miller. She's exquisite, my friend.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 52.

CASANOVA had struck again.

Another student, a bright beautiful woman named Anna Miller, had been abducted from a garden apartment she shared with her lawyer-boyfriend near the State University of North Carolina in Raleigh. The boyfriend had been murdered in their bed, which was a new twist for Casanova. He left no note, and no other clues at the crime scene. After a mistake, he was showing us he was letter-perfect again.

I spent several hours with Kate Mctiernan at the University of North Carolina hospital. We got along well; I felt that we were becoming friends. She wanted to help me with the psychological profile on Casanova. She was telling me everything that she knew about Casanova and his women captives.

As far as she could tell, there had been six women held as hostages, including herself. It was possible that there were more than six.

Casanova was extremely well organized, according to Kate. He was capable of planning weeks and weeks ahead, of studying his prey in amazing detail.

He seemed to have “built” the house of horrors by himself. He had installed plumbing, a special sound system, and air conditioning, apparently for the comfort of his women captives. Kate had only seen the house in a drugged state, though, and she couldn't describe it very well.

Casanova could be a control freak who was violently jealous and extremely possessive. He was sexually active and capable of several erections in a night. He was obsessed with sex and the male sexual urge.

He could be thoughtful in his way. He could also be “romantic,” his own word. He loved to cuddle and kiss and talk to the women for hours.

He said that he loved them.

In midweek, the FBI and the Durham police finally agreed on a secure place in the hospital for Kate Mctiernan to meet with the press for the first time. The news conference was held in a wide entrance corridor on her floor.

The all-white hallway was jam-packed to the glowing red exit signs with reporters clutching their notepads, and TV people with minicams hoisted on their shoulders. Policemen with automatic weapons were also present. Just in case. Homicide detectives Nick Ruskin and Davey Sikes stayed close to Kate during the course of the TV taping.

Kate Mctiernan was well on her way to becoming a national figure. Now the general public would get to actually meet the woman who had escaped from the house of horrors. I felt sure that Casanova would be watching, too. I hoped he wasn't right there in the hospital with us.

A male nurse, who was clearly a bodybuilder, pushed Kate into the noisy, crowded hallway. The hospital wanted her in a wheelchair. She had on baggy UNC sweatpants and a simple white cotton T-shirt. Her long brown hair was full and shiny. The bruising and swelling around her face was down a lot. “I almost look like my old self,” she had told me.

“But I don't feel like my old self, Alex. Not inside.” When the nurse wheeled the bulky chair almost up to a stand of microphones, Kate surprised everyone. She slowly stood up and walked the rest of the way.

“Hello, I'm Kate Mctiernan. Obviously,” she said to the assembled reporters who now pushed in even closer to the prime witness. “I have a very brief statement to make, then I'll get out of everybody's hair.” Her voice was strong and vibrant. She was very much in control of herself, or so it seemed to all of us watching and listening.

Her light touch and subtle humor drew smiles and laughter from the crowd. One or two of the reporters tried to ask questions, but the noise level had risen and it was hard to hear them. Cameras flashed and buzzed up and down the packed hospital corridor.

Kate stopped speaking, and it became relatively quiet again. At first everyone thought the press conference was too much for her to handle. A nearby doctor stepped forward, but she waved him away.

“I'm fine. I'm really okay, thanks. If I'm woozy or anything, I'll sit right down in the chair like a model patient. I promise you I will. No false bravado from me.” She was definitely in control of this moment. She was older than most medical students or interns, and in fact she looked like a doctor.

She peered around the room she was curious, it seemed. Maybe a little amazed. Finally, she apologized for the momentary lapse. “I was just gathering my thoughts ... What I would like to do is tell you what I can about what happened to me and I will tell you everything I can but that will be it for today. I won't answer any questions from the press. I'd like you all to respect that. Is that a fair deal?” She was poised and impressive in front of the TV cameras. Kate Mctiernan was surprisingly relaxed under the circum stances, as if she could have done this for a living. I'd found her to be very self-assured and confident whenever she needed to be. At other times, she could be as vulnerable and afraid as the rest of us.

"First, I would like to say something to all the families and friends who have someone missing. Please, don't give up hope. The man known as Casanova strikes only if his explicit commands are disobeyed. I broke his rules, and I was badly beaten. But I did manage to escape.

There are other women where I was kept captive. My thoughts are with them in ways you can't imagine. I believe in my heart that they are still alive and safe."

The reporters pressed in closer and closer to Kate Mctierman. Even in her battered condition she was magnetic, her strength shone through.

The TV cameras liked her. So would the public, I knew.

For the next few moments, she did everything she could possibly do to allay the fears of the families of the missing women. She stressed again that she had been hurt only because she broke the house rules set down by Casanova. I thought that maybe she was sending a message to him, too. Blame me, not the other women.

As I watched Kate speak, I asked myself some questions: Does he take only extraordinary women? Not just beauties, but women who are special in every way? What did that mean? What was Casanova really up to?

What game was he playing?

My suspicion was that the killer was obsessed with physical beauty, but that he couldn't bear to be around women who weren't as smart as he was. I sensed that he craved intimacy also.

Finally, Kate stopped speaking. Tears were shining in her eyes, like perfect glass drops. “I'm through now,” she said in a soft voice.

“Thank you for taking this message out to the families of the missing women. I hope that it helped a little bit. Please, no more questions for now. I still can't remember everything that happened to me. I've told you what I can.” At first there was an unnatural silence. There wasn't a single question. She had been clear about that. Then the reporters and the hospital personnel began to clap. They knew, just as Casanova knew, that Kate Mctiernan was an extraordinary woman.

I had one fear. Was Casanova there clapping, too?

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 53.

AT 4:00 A. M." Casanova packed a spanking-new, green-and-gray Lands' End knapsack with necessary food and supplies. He headed out to his hideaway for a morning of long-awaited pleasures. He actually had a favorite catch phrase for his forbidden games: Kiss the girls.

He fantasized about Anna Miller, his newest captive, on the car drive there, and then as he hiked through thick woods. He visualized over and over what he was going to do to Anna today. He remembered something, a quite wonderful and appropriate line, out of E Scott Fitzgerald: The kiss originated when the first male reptile licked the first female, implying in a complimentary way that she was as succulent as the small reptile he had for dinner the night before. It was all biological, wasn't it? Tick-cock.

When he finally arrived at the hideaway, he turned on the Stones full volume. The incomparable Beggar's Banquet album. He needed to hear loud, antisocial rock music today. Mick Jagger was fifty, right? He was only thirty-six himself. This was His moment.

He posed naked in front of a floor-length mirror and admired his slender, well-muscled physique. He combed out his hair. Then he slipped into a shimmery hand-painted silk robe that he'd bought once upon a time in Bangkok. He left it open to expose himself.

He selected a different costume mask, a beautiful one from Venice, originally purchased for just such a special occasion. A moment of mystery and love. At last he was ready to see Anna Miller.

Anna was so haughty. Absolutely untouchable. Exquisite physically. He needed to break her quickly.

Nothing could match this physical and emotional feeling: adrenaline pumping, heart beating loudly, total exhilaration in every part of his body. He brought warm milk in a glass pitcher. Also a small wicker basket with a special surprise for Anna.

In truth, it was something he'd been planning for Dr. Kate. He'd wanted to share this moment with her.

He had put on the loud rock '' roll so that Anna would know it was time to get ready. It was a signal. He was certainly ready for her.

Pitcher full of warm milk. Long rubber tubing with a nozzle. Cuddly present in the wicker basket. Let the games begin.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 54.

CASANOVA couldn't take his eyes off Anna Miller. The air around him seemed to roar. Everything was charged with high expectations. He was feeling more than a little out of control. Not like himself. More like the Gentleman Caller.

He looked down on his art his creation. He held a thought: Anna has never looked like this for anyone else.

Anna Miller lay on the bare wooden floor of the downstairs bedroom. She was naked, except for her jewelry, which he wanted her to wear. Her arms were bound with leather behind her back. A comfortable pillow was propped underneath her buttocks.

Anna's perfect legs hung from a rope tied to a ceiling beam. This was how he wanted her; this was exactly the way he'd imagined her so many times.

You can do anything that you want to do, he thought.

And so, he did.

Most of the warm milk was already inside her. He'd used the rubber hose and nozzle to do that.

She reminded him a little of Annette Bening, he was thinking, except that she was his now. She wasn't a flickering image on some Cineplex movie screen. She would help him get over Kate Mctiernan, and the sooner the better.

Anna wasn't so haughty anymore; she wasn't supremely untouchable, either. He was always curious about how much it took to break someone's will. Not so much, usually. Not in this age of cowards and spoiled brats.

“Please take it away. Don't do this to me. I've been good, haven't I?” Anna pleaded convincingly. She had such a beautiful and interesting face in happiness and especially in sorrow.

Her cheeks rose sharply whenever she spoke. He memorized the look, everything he could about this special moment. Details to dream about later on. Like the exact tilting angle of her derriere.

“It can't harm you, Anna,” he told her truthfully. “Its mouth is sewn shut. I sewed it myself. The snake is harmless. I would never hurt you.” “You're sick and vile,” Anna suddenly snapped at him. “You're a sadist!” He merely nodded. He had wanted to see the real Anna, and there she was: another snapping dragon.

Casanova watched the milk as it slowly dripped from her anus. So did the small black snake. The sweet fragrance of the milk drew it forward across the wooden two-by-fours of the bedroom floor. It was quite magnificent to observe. This truly was an image for beauty and the beast.

The cautiously alert black snake paused, then suddenly jutted its head forward. The head smoothly slid inside Anna Miller. The black snake cleverly gathered itself in folds and slid farther inside.

Casanova closely watched Anna's beautiful eyes widen. How many other men had ever seen this, or felt anything like what he was experiencing now? How many of those men were still alive?

He had first heard of this sexual practice for enlarging the anus on his trips to Thailand and Cambodia. Now he'd performed the ceremony himself. It made him feel so much better about the loss of Kate, about other losses.

That was the exquisite and surprising beauty of the games he chose to play at his hideaway. He loved them. He couldn't possibly stop himself.

And neither could anyone else. Not the police, not the FBI, and not Dr. Alex Cross.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 55.

KATE still couldn't remember much from the actual day of her escape from hell. She agreed to be hypnotized, at least to let me try, though she thought her natural defenses might be too strong. We decided to do it late at night in the hospital, when she was already tired and might be more susceptible.

Hypnotism can be a relatively simple process. First, I asked Kate to close her eyes, then to breathe slowly and evenly. Maybe I would finally meet Casanova tonight. Maybe through Kate's eyes I'd see how he worked.

“In with the good air, out with the bad,” Kate said, keeping her good humor most of the time. “Something like that. Right, Dr. Cross?” “Clear your mind as much as you can, Kate,” I said.

“I don't know about the wisdom of that.” She smiled. “There's an awful lot bumping around in there right now. Rather like an old, old attic filled with unopened dressers and portmanteaus.” Her voice was beginning to sound a little sleepy. That was a hopeful sign.

“Now just count back slowly from a hundred. Begin whenever you feel like it,” I told her.

She went under easily. That probably meant that she trusted me somewhat. With the trust came responsibility on my part.

Kate was vulnerable now. I didn't want to hurt her under any circumstances. For the first few minutes, we talked as we often did when she was fully conscious and awake. We had enjoyed talking to each other from the start.

“Can you remember being kept in the house with Casanova?” I finally asked her a leading question.

“Yes, I remember quite a lot now. I remember the night he came into my apartment. I can see him carrying me through some kind of woods, to wherever I was kept. He carried me like my weight was nothing.” “Tell me about the woods you went through, Kate.” This was our first dramatic moment. She was actually with Casanova again. In his power.

A captive. I suddenly realized how quiet the hospital was all around us.

"It was too dark, really. The woods were very thick, very creepy. He had a flashlight with him, kept it on a string or rope around his neck ... He's unbelievably strong. I thought of him as an animal, physically. He compared himself to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights.

He has a very romantic view of himself and what he's doing. That night ... he whispered to me as if we were already lovers. He told me he loved me. He sounded ... sincere."

“What else do you remember about him, Kate? Anything you recall is helpful. Take your time.” She turned her head, as if she were looking at someone off to my right.

“He always wore a different mask. He wore a reconstructive mask one time. That was the scariest one. They're called ' masks' because hospitals and morgues sometimes use them to help identify accident victims who are unrecognizable.” “That's interesting about the death masks. Please go on, Kate. You're being incredibly helpful.” “I know that they can make them right from a human skull, pretty much any skull. They'll take a photo of it ... cover the photo with tracing paper ... draw the features. Then they build an actual mask from the drawing. There was a death mask in the movie Gorky Park. They aren't usually meant to be worn. I wondered how he'd gotten it.” Okay, Kate, I was thinking to myself, now keep going about Casanova.

“What happened on the day that you escaped?” I asked her, leading her just a little.

For the first time, she seemed uncomfortable with a question. Her eyes opened for a split second, as if she were in a light sleep and I had woken her, jarred her. Her eyes shut again. Her right foot was tapping very rapidly.

“I don't remember very much about that day, Alex. I think I was drugged out of my mind, off the planet.” "That's okay. Anything you remember is very good for me to know.

You're doing beautifully. You told me once that you kicked him. Did you kick Casanova?"

“I kicked him. About three-quarters speed. He yelled out in pain, and he went down.” There was another long pause. Suddenly, Kate started to cry. Tears welled up in her eyes, and then she was sobbing very, very hard.

Her face was wet with perspiration as well. I felt that I should bring her out of the hypnosis. I didn't understand what had just happened, and it scared me a little.

I tried to keep my own voice very calm. "What's the matter, Kate?

What's wrong? Are you okay?"

“I left those other women there. I couldn't find them at first. Then I was so unbelievably confused. I left the others.” Her eyes opened and they were filled with fear, but also tears. She had brought herself out. She was strong like that.

“What made me so afraid?” she asked me. “What just happened?” “I don't know for sure,” I told Kate. We would talk about it later, but not right now.

She averted her eyes from mine. It wasn't like her. “Can I be alone?” she whispered then. “Can I just be alone now? Thank you.” I left the hospital room feeling almost as if I had betrayed Kate. But I didn't know if there was anything that I could have done differently.

This was a multiple-homicide investigation. Nothing was working so far. How could that be?

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 56.

KATE WAS RELEASED from University Hospital later that week. She had asked if we could talk for a while each day. I readily agreed.

“This isn't therapy in any way, shape, or form,” she told me. She just wanted to vent with somebody about some difficult subjects. Partly because of Naomi, we had formed a quick, strong bond.

There was no further information, no more clues about Casanova's link with the Gentleman Caller in Los Angeles. Beth Lieberman, the reporter at the Los Angeles Times, refused to talk to me. She was peddling her hot literary property in New York.

I wanted to fly out to L.A. to see Lieberman, but Kyle Craig asked me not to. He assured me that I knew everything the Times reporter had on the case. I needed to trust someone; I trusted Kyle.

On a Monday afternoon, Kate and I went for a walk in the woods surrounding the Wykagil River, where she'd been found by the two boys.

It was still unspoken, but we seemed to be in this thing together now.

Certainly no one knew more about Casanova than she did. If she could remember anything more it would be so useful. The smallest detail could be a clue that might open up everything.

Kate became quiet and unusually subdued as we entered the dark, brooding woods east of the Wykagil River. The human monster could be lurking out here, maybe prowling in the woods right now. Maybe he was watching us.

“I used to love walking in woods like these. Blackberry brambles and sweet sassafras. Cardinals and blue jays feeding everywhere. It reminds me of when I was growing up,” Kate told me as we walked. “My sisters and I used to go swimming every single day in a stream like this one. We swam nekkid, which was forbidden by my father. Anything my father strictly forbade, we tried to do.” “All that swimming experience came in handy,” I said. “Maybe it helped get you safely down the Wykagil.” Kate shook her head. “No, that was just pure stubbornness. I vowed I wasn't going to die that day. Couldn't give him the satisfaction.” I was keeping my own discomfort about being in the woods to myself.

Some of my uneasiness had to do with the unfortunate history of these woods and the surrounding farmlands. Tobacco farms had been spotted all through here once upon a time. Slave farms. The blood and bones of my ancestors. The extraordinary kidnapping and subjugation of more than four million Africans who were originally brought to America. They had been abducted. Against their will.

“I don't remember any of this terrain, Alex,” Kate said. I had strapped on a shoulder holster before we left the car. Kate winced and shook her head at the sight of the gun. But she didn't protest beyond the baleful look. She sensed that I was the dragon slayer She knew there was a real dragon out here. She'd met him.

“I remember I ran away, escaped into woods just like these. Tall Carolina pines. Not much light getting through, eerie as a bat cave. I remember clearly when the house disappeared on me. I can't remember too much else. I'm blocking it. I don't even know how I got into the river.” We were about two miles from where we'd left the car. Now we hiked north, staying close to the river Kate had floated down on her miraculous, “stubborn” escape. Every tree and bush reached out relentlessly toward the diminishing sunlight.

“This reminds me of the Bacchae,” Kate said. Her upper lip curled in an ironic smile. “The triumph of dark, chaotic barbarism over civilized human reason.” It felt as if we were moving against a high, relentless tide of vegetation.

I knew she was trying to talk about Casanova and the terrifying house where he kept the other women. She was trying to understand him better. We both were.

“He's refusing to be civilized, or repressed,” I said. “He does whatever he wants. He's the ultimate pleasure seeker, I suppose. A hedonist for the times.” “I wish you could hear him talk. He's very bright, Alex.” “So are we,” I reminded her. “He'll make a mistake, I promise.” I was getting to know Kate very well by now. She was getting to know me. We had talked about my wife, Maria, who was killed in a senseless drive-by shooting in Washington, D.C. I told her about my kids, Jannie and Damon. She was a good listener; she had excellent bedside-manner potential. Dr. Kate was going to be a special kind of doctor.

By three that afternoon, we must have walked four or five miles. I felt grungy and a little achy. Kate didn't complain, but she must have been hurting. Thank God the karate kept her in great shape. We hadn't found any sign of where she had run during her escape. None of the landmarks we passed looked familiar to her. There was no disappearing house. No Casanova. No outstanding clues in the deep, dark woods.

Nothing to go on.

“How the hell did he get so good at this?” I muttered as we tramped back to the car.

“Practice,” Kate said with a grimace. “Practice, practice, practice.”

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 57.

THE TWO OF US stopped to eat at Spanky on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. We were bushed, famished, and most of all thirsty. Everybody knew Kate at the popular bar and restaurant, and they made a nice fuss over her when we walked in. A muscular, blond-haired bartender named Hack started a big round of applause.

A waitress and friend of Kate's gave us a table of honor at a front window on Franklin Street. The woman was a doctoral candidate in philosophy, Kate told me. Verda, the waitress-philosopher of Chapel Hill.

“How do you like being a celebrity?” I kidded Kate once we were seated.

“Hate it. Hate it,” she said with her teeth clenched tightly. “Listen, Alex, can we get blot to drunk tonight?” Kate suddenly asked. “I'd like a tequila, a mug of beer, and some brandy,” she told Verda. The waitress-philosopher grimaced and wrinkled her nose at the order.

“I'll have the same,” I said. “When in college ville ”This definitely isn't therapy," Kate said to me as soon as Verda departed. “We're just going to bullshit some tonight.” “That sounds like therapy,” I said to her.

“If it is, then we're both on the couch.” We talked about a lot of unrelated things for the first hour or so: cars, rural versus big-city hospitals, the UNC-Duke rivalry, Southern gothic literature, slavery, child rearing doctors' salaries and the health-care crisis, rock '' roll lyrics versus blues lyrics, a book we'd both enjoyed called The English Patient. We had been able to talk to each other right from the beginning. Almost from that first moment at University Hospital, there had been some kind of bright sparks between us.

After the first blitzkrieg round of drinks, we settled into slow-sipping beer in my case, the house wine in Kate's. We got a little buzzed, but nothing too disastrous. Kate was right about one thing. We definitely needed some kind of release from the stress of the Casanova case.

Around our third hour in the bar, Kate told a true story about herself that was almost as shocking to me as her abduction. Her brown eyes were wide as she spun her tale. Her eyes sparkled in the bar's low light. “Let me tell you this one time now. Southerners love to tell a story, Alex. We're the last safe-keepers of America's sacred oral history.” “Tell me the story, Kate. I love to listen to stories. So much so that I made it my job.” Kate put her hand on top of mine. She took a deep breath. Her voice got soft, very quiet. “Once upon a time, there was the Mctiernan family of Birch. This was a happy group of campers, Alex. Tight-knit, especially the girls: Susanne, Marjorie, Kristin, Carole Anne, and Kate. Kristin and I were the youngest goils twins. Then there was Mary, our mother, and Martin, our father. I'm not going to say too much about Martin. My mother made him leave when I was four. He was very domineering and could be as mean as a stepped-on copperhead sometimes. To hell with him. I'm way past my father by now.” Kate went on for a bit, but then she stopped and looked deeply into my eyes. “Did anybody ever tell you what a terrific, terrific listener you are? You make it seem like you're interested in everything I have to say. That makes me want to talk to you. I have never told this whole story to anyone, Alex.” “Well, I am interested in what you have to say. It makes me feel good that you're sharing this with me, that you trust me enough.” “I trust you. It's not a very happy story, so I must trust you a lot.” “I have that sense,” I told Kate. It struck me again how very beautiful her face was. Her eyes were very large and lovely. Her lips weren't too full, or too thin. I kept being reminded why Casanova had chosen her.

“My sisters, my mother, they were so great when I was growing up. I was their little slave, and I was their pet. There wasn't much money coming into the house, so there was always too much to do. We canned our own veggies, jelly, and fruit. We took in washing and ironing. Did our own carpentry, plumbing, auto repair. We were lucky: we liked one another. We were always laughing and singing the latest hit song off the radio. We read a lot, and we'd talk about everything from abortion rights to recipes. A sense of humor was mandatory in our house. ”Don't be so serious' was the famous line there."

Finally, Kate told me what had happened to the Mctiernan family. Her story; her secret came out in an agitated burst that darkened her face.

"Marjorie got sick first. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Margie died when she was twenty-six. She already had three kids. Then, in order, Susanne, my twin Kristin, and my mother died. All of breast or ovarian cancer. That left Carole Anne, me, and my father. Carole Anne and I joke that we inherited my father's snarly mean streak, so we're destined to die of nasty heart attacks."

Kate suddenly swung her head down and to one side. Then she looked back up at me. "I was going to say, I don't know why I told you that.

But I do know. I like you. I want to be your friend. I want you to be my friend. Is that possible?"

I started to say something about how I felt, but Kate stopped me. She put the tips of her fingers on my lips. “Don't be sentimental right now. Don't ask me any more about my sisters right now. Tell me something you don't ever tell other people. Tell me quick now, before you change your mind. Tell me one of your big secrets, Alex.” I didn't think about what I was going to say. I just let it come out.

It seemed fair after what Kate had told me. Besides, I wanted to share something with her; I wanted to confide in Kate, at least see if I could.

“I've been screwed-up ever since my wife, Maria, died,” I told Kate Mctiernan, one of my secrets, one of the things I keep bottled inside.

“I put on clothes every morning, and a sociable face, and my six-gun some days ... but I feel hollow most of the time. I got into a relationship after Maria, and it didn't work out. It failed in a spectacular fashion. Now I'm not ready to be with anyone again. I don't know if I ever will be.” Kate peered into my eyes. “Oh, Alex, you're wrong. You are so ready,” she told me without any doubt in her eyes or her voice.

Sparks.

Friends.

“I'd like us to be friends, too,” I finally told her. It was something I rarely said, and never this quickly.

As I stared across the table at Kate, stared over the glowing wick of a dwindling candle, I was reminded of Casanova again. If nothing else, he was a very good judge of a woman's beauty and character. He was just about perfect.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 58.

THE HAREM cautiously shuffled toward a large living area at the end of a winding hallway inside the mysterious, loathsome house. The place had two floors. On the lower one, there was only a single room.

Upstairs, there were as many as ten.

Naomi Cross walked cautiously among the women. They had been told to go to the common room. Since she had been there, the number of captives had ranged from six to eight. Sometimes a girl left, or disappeared, but there always seemed to be a new one to take her place.

Casanova was waiting for them in the living room. He had on another of his masks. This one was hand painted with white and bright green streaks. Festive. A party face. He wore a gold silk robe and was naked underneath it.

The room was large and tastefully furnished. The floor was covered with an oriental rug. The walls were off-white and freshly painted.

“Come in, come in ladies. Don't be shy. Don't be bashful,” he said from the back of the room. He had a stun gun and a pistol and struck a dashing pose.

Naomi imagined that he was smiling behind the mask. More than anything she wanted to see his face, just once, and then obliterate it forever, shatter it into tiny pieces, grind the pieces into nothing.

Naomi felt her heart skip as she entered the large, attractive sitting room. Her violin was on a table near Casanova. He had taken her violin and brought it to this awful place.

Casanova was waltzing around the low-ceilinged room like the host at a sophisticated costume party. He knew how to be classy, even gallant.

He carried himself with confidence.

He lit a woman's cigarette with a gold lighter. He stopped to talk with each of his girls. He touched a bare shoulder, a cheek, caressed someone's long blond hair.

The women all looked stunning. They wore their own beautiful clothes, and had carefully applied makeup. The scents of their perfumes filled the room. If only they could rush him all at once, Naomi thought to herself. There had to be a way to take Casanova down.

“As some of you may have already guessed,” he raised his voice, “we have a nice surprise for tonight's festivities. A little night music.” He pointed to Naomi, and beckoned her to come forward. He was always careful when he brought them together like this. He had his gun in hand, holding it casually.

“Please play something for us,” he said to Naomi. “Anything that you'd like. Naomi plays the violin, and very beautifully I might add. Don't be shy, dear.” Naomi couldn't take her eyes off Casanova. His robe was open so that they could see his nakedness. Sometimes he had one of them play an instrument, or sing, or read poetry, or just talk about their lives before hell. Tonight it was Naomi's turn.

Naomi knew that she had no choice. She was determined to be brave, to look confident.

She picked up the violin, her precious instrument, and so many painful memories swept over her. Brave ... confident ... , she repeated inside her head. She'd been doing that since she was a young girl.

As a young black woman she had learned the art of acting poised. She needed all the poise she could muster now.

“I'm going to try to play Bach's sonata number one,” she quietly announced. “This is the adagio, the first movement. It's very beautiful. I hope I can do it justice.” Naomi shut her eyes as she brought the violin up to her shoulder. She opened her eyes again as she placed her chin on the rest and slowly began to tune the instrument.

Brave ... confident, she reminded herself.

Then she began to play. It was far from perfect, but it did come from her heart. Naomi's style had always been personal. She concentrated more on making music than on her technique. She wanted to cry, but she held back the tears, held everything inside. Her feelings came out only in the music, the beautiful Bach sonata.

“Brava! Brava!” Casanova shouted as she finished.

The women clapped. That was permitted by Casanova. Naomi stared out at their beautiful faces. She could feel their shared pain. She wished that she could talk to them. But when he brought them together, it was only to show off his power, his absolute control over them.

Casanova's hand moved and lightly touched Naomi's arm. It was hot, and she felt as if she'd been burned.

“You'll stay with me tonight,” he said in the softest voice. “That was so beautiful, Naomi. You are so beautiful, the most beautiful one here. Do you know that, sweetheart? Of course you do.” Brave, strong, confident, Naomi told herself. She was a Cross. She wouldn't let him see her fear. She would find a way to beat him.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 59.

KATE AND I were working at her apartment in Chapel Hill. We'd been talking about the disappearing house again, still trying to figure out that mind-bending mystery. At a little past eight the front doorbell rang, Kate went to see who it was.

I could see her talking to someone, but I couldn't tell who. My hand went for my revolver, touched the handle. She let the visitor come inside.

It was Kyle Craig. I was immediately struck by the drawn and somber look on his face. Something must have happened.

“Kyle says he has something you're going to want to see,” Kate said as she led the FBI man into the living room.

“I tracked you down, Alex. It wasn't too hard,” Kyle said. He sat on the sofa arm next to me. He looked as if he needed to sit down.

“I told the hotel desk and the operator where I'd be until nine or so.” "Like I said, it wasn't hard. Check out the look on Alex's face, Kate.

Now you see why he's still a detective. He's hooked on The Job, wants to solve all the great puzzles, even the not-so-great ones."

I smiled, and shook my head. Kyle was partly right. “I love my work, mostly because I get to spend time with sophisticated and high-minded individuals like yourself. What's happened, Kyle? Tell me right now.” “The Gentleman made a personal call on Beth Lieberman. She's dead. He cut off her fingers, Alex. After he killed her, he torched her studio apartment in West Los Angeles. He set half her building on fire.” Beth Lieberman hadn't exactly endeared herself to me, but I was shocked and saddened to hear about her murder. I'd taken Kyle's word that she had nothing worth traveling to Los Angeles for. “Maybe he knew there was something in her apartment that needed to be torched. Maybe she actually had something important.” Kyle glanced over at Kate again. “You see how good he is? He's a machine. She did have something incriminating,” he said to both of us.

“Only she had it on her computer at the Times. So now we have it.” Kyle handed me a long, curling fax. He pointed to some copy at the very bottom of the sheet. The fax was from the FBI's office in Los Angeles.

I glanced down the page and read the entry that was underscored.

Possible Casanova!!! it said. Very possible suspect.

Dr. Wihiam Rudolph. First-class creep.

Home: the Beverly Comstock. Work: Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Los Angeles.

“We've finally got our break. We've got a first-class lead, anyway,” Kyle said. “The Gentleman could be this doctor. This creep, as she calls him.” Kate looked at me, then at Kyle. She had told both of us that Casanova might be a doctor.

“Anything else in Lieberman's notes?” I asked Kyle.

“Not that we've been able to find so far,” Kyle said. “Unfortunately, we can't ask Ms. Lieberman about Dr. William Rudolph, or why she made the note in her computer. Let me tell you two new theories that are making the rounds with our profilers out on the West Coast,” Kyle went on. “Are you ready for a little outrageous mind trip, my friend? Some profiler speculation?” “I'm ready. Let's hear the latest and greatest theories from FBI West.” "The first theory is that he's sending the diary entries to himself.

That he's Casanova and the Gentleman Caller. He could be both killers, Alex. They each specialize in '' crimes. There are other similarities, too. Maybe he's a split personality. FBI West, as you call it, would like Dr. Mctiernan to fly out to Los Angeles right away. They'd like to talk to her."

I didn't like the first West Coast theory too much myself, but I couldn't completely discount it. “What's the other theory from the wild, wild West?” I asked Kyle.

“The other theory,” he said, “is that there are two men. But that they aren't just communicating, they're competing. This could be a scary competition, Alex. This could all be a scary game they've invented.” Part Three The Gentleman Caller

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 60.

HE HAD BEEN a Southern gentleman. A gentleman scholar.

Now he was the very finest gentleman in Los Angeles. Always a gentleman, though. A hearts-and-flowers kind of guy.

An orangish-red sun had begun its long, slow shimmy and slide toward the Pacific Ocean. Dr. William Rudolph thought it looked visually stunning as he strolled at a leisurely pace along Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

The Gentleman Caller was “shopping” that afternoon, absorbing all the sights and sounds, the hectic flash-and-cash of his surroundings.

The street scene reminded him of something one of the hard-boiled detective writers, maybe Raymond Chandler, had written: “California, the department store.” The description still worked pretty damn well.

Most of the attractive women he observed were in their early and mid-twenties. They had just come from the stultifying workaday world of the ad agencies, money managers, and law firms in the entertainment district around Century Boulevard.

Several of them wore high heels, platforms, clinging spandex miniskirts, here and there a form-fitting Rollo suit.

He listened to the casually sexy rustle of crushed silk, the martial CLICK-CLICK of designer shoes, the sultry scujfjf of cowboy boots that cost more than Wyatt Earp had earned in a lifetime.

He was getting hot and a little frenzied. Nicely frenzied. Life in California was good. It was the department store of his dreams.

This was the best part: the foreplay before he made his final selection. The Los Angeles police were still stumped and baffled by him. Maybe one day they would figure it all out, but probably not. He was simply too good at this. He was Jekyll and Hyde for this age.

As he strolled between La Brea and Fairfax, he breathed in the scents of musk and heavy floral perfumes, of chamomile-and lemon-scented hair.

The leather handbags and skirts also had a distinct scent.

It was all a big tease, but he adored it. It was so ironic that these lovely California foxes were teasing and provoking him of all people.

He was the small, adorable, fluffy-haired boy loose in the candy store, wasn't he? Now which forbidden sweets should he choose this afternoon?

That little twit in red heels, no stockings? That poor man's Juliette Binoche? The provocateuse in the French-vanilla-and-black harlequin-print suit?

Several of the women actually gave Dr. Will Rudolph approving glances as they wandered in and out of their favorite shops. Exit I, Leathers and Treasures, La Luz de Jesus.

He was strikingly handsome, even by strict Hollywood standards. He resembled the singer Bono from the Irish rock group U2. Actually, he looked the way Bono would if he had chosen to become a successful doctor in Dublin or Cork, or right here in Los Angeles.

And that was one of the Gentleman's most private secrets: The women almost always chose him.

Will Rudolph wandered into Nativity, which was one of the currently hot A-rated shops on Melrose. Nativity was the place to buy a designer bus tier a mink-lined leather jacket, an “antique” Hamilton wristwatch.

As he watched the supple young bodies in the busy store, he was thinking of Hollywood's A parties, its A restaurants, even its A stores. The city was completely hung up on its own pecking order.

He understood status perfectly! Yes, he did. Dr. Will Rudolph was the most powerful man in Los Angeles.

He reveled in the secure feeling it gave him, the reassuring front-page news stories that told him he truly existed, that he wasn't a twisted figment of his own imagination. The Gentleman was in control of an entire city, and an influential city at that.

He strolled near an irresistible blond woman all decked-out in twenty something finery.

She was idly looking at Incan jewelry, seemingly bored with the whole deal: her life. She was by far the most striking woman inside Nativity, but that wasn't what attracted him to her.

She was absolutely untouchable. She sent off a clear signal, even in a pricey store filled mostly with other attractive twenty something females. I'm untouchable. Don't even think about it. You're unworthy, no matter who you are.

He felt thunder roar through his chest. He wanted to scream out inside the loud, crowded boutique: I can have you. I can! You have no idea but I'm the Gentleman Caller.

The blond woman had a full and arrogant mouth. She understood that no lipstick or eyeshadow was necessary for her. She was slender and narrow-wasted. Elegant in her own southern California way. She wore a faded cotton vest, wrap skirt, and color blocked moccasins. Her tan was even and perfect, healthy-looking.

She finally glanced his way. A glancing blow, Dr. Will Rudolph thought.

Lord, what eyes. He wanted them all to himself. He wanted to roll them through his fingers, carry them around for a good-luck charm.

What she saw was a tall and slender, interesting-looking man in his early thirties. He had broad shoulders, and a build like an athlete, or even a dancer. His sun-lightened brown curls were tied back in a ponytail. He had Irish-boy blue eyes. Will Rudolph also wore a slightly wrinkled white medical jacket over his very traditional Oxford blue shirt and hospital-approved striped rep's tie. He had on expensive Dr. Martens boots indestructible footwear. He seemed so sure of himself.

She spoke first. She chose him, didn't she? Her blue eyes were calm and deep, untroubled, very sexy in their confidence. She played with one of her gold-plated earrings. “Was it something I didn't say?” He started to laugh, genuinely delighted that she had an adult sense of humor about the dating charade. This was going to be a fun night, he thought. He knew it.

“I'm sorry. I usually don't stare. At least I never get caught blatantly doing it,” he said. He couldn't stop laughing for a moment.

He had an easy laugh, a pleasant laugh. It was a modern tool of the trade, especially in Hollywood, New York, Paris: his favorite haunts.

“At least you're honest about it,” she said. She was laughing now, too, and a gold-link necklace jangled against her chest. He ached to reach out and rip it off, to run his tongue over her breasts.

She was doomed now, if that was his desire, his wish, his slightest whim. Should he go on? Perhaps look a little further?

The blood in his head was roaring, swirling with tremendous force. He had to decide. He looked into the untroubled blue eyes of the blond woman again, and saw the answer.

“I don't know about you,” he said, trying to sound calm, “but I think I've found what I like very much in here.” “Yes, I think I may have found what I need, too,” she said after a pause. Then she laughed. “Where are you from? You're not from around here, are you?” “Originally from North Carolina.” He held the bell-jangling door open for her, and they left the antique-clothing store together. “I've worked on losing my accent.” “You've succeeded,” she said.

She was wonderfully impressed with herself, not the least bit self-conscious. She had an aura of self-confidence and competency which he would absolutely shatter. Oh, God, he wanted this one so badly.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 61.

HERE WE GO, action fans. He's leaving Nativity with the blond girl.

They're out on Melrose Avenue."

We were using binoculars to watch the incredible encounter through Nativity's decorative front window. The FBI also had directional microphones on Dr. Will Rudolph, as well as on the blond woman in the trendy shop.

It was an FBI-only stakeout. They hadn't even clued in the LAPD. Nada.

It was pretty typical Bureau tactics, only I was on their side this time, compliments of Kyle Craig. The FBI had wanted to talk to Kate in Los Angeles. Kyle arranged for me to come after I beat on him about the deal we'd made, and how this could be the most important break we'd had on the Casanova investigation.

It was just past five-thirty; noisy, chaotic rush hour on a California-gorgeous, sunny day. Temperature in the mid-seventies.

Heartbeats rising toward at least a thousand inside our car.

We were finally closing in on one of the monsters, at least we hoped so. Dr. Will Rudolph struck me as a modern-day vampire. He had spent the afternoon casually roaming among the stylish shops: Ecru, Grau, Mark Fox. Even the girls idling in front of Johnny Rocket's fifties-style burger stand were potential targets of his. He was definitely a hunter today. He was girl-watching. Was he the Gentleman Caller, though?

I was working closely with two senior FBI agents in an anonymous-looking minivan parked on a side street off Mel-rose Avenue.

Our radio was hooked to the state-of-the-art directional mikes that were in two of the other five cars trailing the man believed to be the Gentleman. It was almost showtime.

“I think I may have found what I need, too,” we heard the blond woman say. She reminded me of the beautiful students Casanova had abducted in the South. Could he be one and the same monster? A coast-to-coast killer? Maybe a split personality?

FBI experts here on the West Coast believed they had the answer. In their view, the same creep did the so-called “perfect crimes” on both coasts. A victim had never been kidnapped or killed on the same day.

Unfortunately, there were at least a dozen theories about the Gentleman Caller and Casanova that I was aware of. I still wasn't convinced by any of them.

“How long have you been in Hollywood?” we heard the blond woman ask Rudolph. Her voice sounded alluring and sexy. She was obviously flirting with him.

“Long enough to meet you.” He was soft-spoken and courteous so far.

His right hand rested lightly under her left elbow. The Gentleman?

He didn't look like a killer, but he did resemble the Casanova that Kate Mctiernan had described. He was a hunk physically, clearly attractive to women, and he was a doctor. His eyes were blue the color Kate had seen behind Casanova's mask.

“Cockfucker looks like he could have any girl he wanted,” one of the FBI agents turned to me and said.

“Not to do what he wants to do to them,” I said.

“You got a point there.” The agent, John Asaro, was Mexican-American. He was balding, but with a compensating bushy mustache. He was probably in his late forties.

The other agent was Raymond Cos-grove. Both of them were good men, high-level Bureau professionals. Kyle Craig was taking care of me so far.

I couldn't take my eyes off Rudolph and the blond woman. She was pointing toward a shiny black Mercedes convertible with its tan top down. More expensive shops stood out in the background: I.a. Eyeworks, Gallay Melrose. Another garish store sign, eight-foot-high cowboy boots, framed her windblown hair.

We listened as they talked on the crowded street. The directional mikes picked up everything. No one in the surveillance car was making a sound.

“That's my car over there, sport. The red-haired lady in the passenger seat she's my sweetie. Did you really think you could pick me up just like that?” The blond woman snapped her fingers and the colorful bracelets on her arm rattled in Rudolph's face. “Kiss off, Dr. Kildare.” John Asaro groaned out loud. “Christ, she shot him down! She set him up. Isn't that beautiful! Only in L. A.” Raymond Cosgrove pounded the dash with the thick heel of his hand. “Son of a bitch! She's walking away. Go back to him, sweetheart! Tell him you were only kidding!” We'd had him, or were very close to it. It made me physically sick to think that he was getting away. We had to catch him at something, or an arrest wouldn't hold up.

The blond woman crossed Melrose and slid into the sleek black Mercedes.

Her friend had short red hair, and her silver bangle earrings caught the late-day sunlight. The woman leaned in and gave her sweetie a kiss.

As Dr. Will Rudolph watched them, he didn't appear at all upset. He stood on the sidewalk with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his white jacket, looking cool and relaxed. Neutral. As if nothing had happened. Were we seeing the Gentleman Caller's mask?

The two lovers in the convertible waved as the Mercedes roared past, and he gave them a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, a cool nod of his head.

We could hear him hiss through the directional mikes. "Ciao, ladies.

I'd like to cut you both into pieces and feed you to the gulls at Venice Beach. And I do have your license plate number, you silly twats."

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 62.

WE TRAILED Dr. Will Rudolph to his luxury penthouse apartment at the Beverly Comstock. The FBI knew where he lived. They hadn't shared that information with the LAPD, either. The tension and disappointment were heavy inside our car. The FBI was playing a dangerous game of freeze-out with the Los Angeles police.

I finally left the stakeout at around eleven o'clock. Rudolph had been inside for more than four hours. A loud, unidentifiable buzzing noise in my head wouldn't go away. I was still moving on Eastern time. It was 2:00 A.M. for me, and I needed to get some sleep soon.

The FBI agents promised to call right away if anything broke, or if Dr. Rudolph went out hunting again that night. It had to have been a bad scene for him on Melrose, and I thought that he might go after someone else soon.

If he was actually the Gentleman Caller.

I was driven to the Holiday Inn at Sunset and Sepulveda. Kate Mctiernan was staying there, too. The FBI had flown her to California because Kate knew more about Casanova than anyone they had assigned to the case. She had been kidnapped by the creep and had lived to tell about it. Kate might be able to identify the killer if he and Casanova were the same person. She had spent most of the day being interviewed at the FBI offices in downtown Los Angeles.

Her room was several doors down from mine at the hotel. I only had to knock once before she opened a white door with a black 26 on the knocker.

“I couldn't sleep. I was up waiting,” she said. “What happened? Tell me everything.” I guess I wasn't in a great mood after the failed bust. “Unfortunately, nothing happened,” I told her the bottom line.

Kate nodded, waiting for more. She had on a light blue tank top, khaki shorts, and yellow flip-flops. She was wide awake and revved up. I was glad to see her, even at half-past two on a shitty morning.

I finally came in and we talked about the FBI stakeout on Melrose Avenue. I told Kate how close we might have come to getting Dr. Will Rudolph. I remembered everything he'd said, every gesture. “He sounded like a gentleman. He acted like a gentleman, too ... right up until the blond woman made him angry.” “What does he look like?” Kate asked. She was eager to help. I couldn't blame her. The FBI had flown her to Los Angeles, then stuck her in a hotel room for most of the day and night.

“I know how you feel, Kate. I've talked to the FBI, and you're going to ride with me tomorrow. You're going to see him, probably in the morning. I don't want to set up any bias in your mind. Is that okay?” Kate nodded, but I could tell her feelings were hurt. She definitely wasn't happy about her level of involvement so far.

“I'm sorry. I don't want to act like a tough detective, a controlling bastard,” I finally said. “Let's not fight about it.” “Well, you were distant. Anyway, you're forgiven. I guess we better get some sleep. Tomorrow's another day. Big day maybe?” “Yeah, tomorrow could be a big day. I really am sorry, Kate.” “I know you are.” She finally smiled. “You really are forgiven. Sweet dreams. Tomorrow we nail Beavis. Then we get Butt-Head.” I finally went off to my room. I hit the bed and thought about Kyle Craig for a while. He'd been able to sell my unorthodox style to his confreres for one reason: it had worked before. I already had one monster's scalp on my belt. I hadn't played according to the rules to get it. Kyle understood and respected results. In general, so did the Bureau. They were certainly playing according to their own rules here in Los Angeles.

My last semiconscious thought was of Kate in those khaki shorts. Take your breath away. I had a passing thought that she might come down the hall and knock, knock, knock on my door. We were in Hollywood, after all. Wasn't that the way it happened in the movies?

But Kate didn't come knocking on my hotel door. So much for Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo fantasies.

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 63.

THIS WAS GOING TO BE a big day in Tinseltown. The manhunt of manhunts was playing in Beverly Hills. Just like the day they finally caught the killer-strangler Richard Ramirez out here.

Today we get Beavis.

It was a few minutes past eight in the morning. Kate and I were sitting in an arctic-blue Taurus parked half a block from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. There was an electrical sound in the air, as if the city were being run on a single, huge generator. A play on an old line ran through my head: Hell is a city much like Los Angeles.

I was nervous and tense; my body felt numb, and my stomach was queasy.

The burnout factor. Not enough sleep. Too much stress for too long a stretch. Chasing monsters from sea to shining sea.

“That's Dr. Will Rudolph climbing out of the BMW,” I said to Kate. I was so wound up, I felt as if strong hands were squeezing me.

“Good-looking,” Kate muttered. “Real sure of himself, too. The way he moves. Doctor Rudolph.” Kate didn't say another word as she intently watched Rudolph. Was he the Gentleman Caller? Was he also Casanova? Or were we being set up for some sick, psychopathic reason that I didn't understand yet?

The morning's `=,54' temperature hovered in the low sixties. The air had a crisp snap, like fall in the Northeast. Kate had on an old college sweatsuit, high-topped running shoes, dimestore sunglasses. Her long brown hair was bunched back in a pony-tail. Sensible stakeout attire and grooming.

“Alex, the FBI's all around him now?” she asked me without looking away from the binoculars. “They're here right now? That scum can't possibly get away?” I nodded. “If he does anything, anything that shows us he's the Gentleman, they'll grab him. They want this arrest for themselves.” But the FBI was also giving me whatever rope I needed. Kyle Craig had kept his promise. So far, anyway.

Kate and I watched as Dr. Will Rudolph slid out of the BMW coupe, which he'd just parked in a private lot on the west side of the hospital. He wore a European-style charcoal-gray suit. It was cut well and looked expensive. It probably cost as much as my house in D.C. His brown hair was held back in a fashionable ponytail. He had on dark glasses with round tortoiseshell frames.

A doctor in an exclusive Beverly Hills hospital. Smug as hell. The goddamn Gentleman Caller who was setting this city on fire?

I ached to run across the parking lot and hit him, take him down right now. I ground my teeth until my jaw was stiff. Kate wouldn't take her eyes away from Dr. Will Rudolph. Was he Casanova, too? Were they one and the same monster? Was that it?

We both watched Rudolph as he crossed the hospital lot. His stride was long and quick and buoyant. Nothing bothering him today. Finally, he disappeared inside a gray metal side door of the hospital.

“A doctor,” Kate said and shook her head back and forth. “This is so weird, Alex. I'm shaking on the inside.” The static on the car radio startled us, but we could hear agent John Asaro's deep, raspy voice.

“Alex, did you guys see him? Get a good look? What does Ms. Mctiernan think? What's the verdict on our Dr. Squirrel?” I looked across the front seat at Kate. She looked all of her thirty-one years right now. Not quite so confident and assured, a little gray around the gills. The prime witness. She understood the deadly seriousness of the moment perfectly.

“I don't think he's Casanova,” Kate finally said. She shook her head.

“He's not the same physical type. He's thinner ... carries himself differently. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I don't think it's him, goddammit.” She sounded a little disappointed.

Kate continued to shake her head. “I'm almost sure he isn't Casanova, Alex. There must be two of them. Two Mr. Squirrels.” Her brown eyes were intense, as she looked at me.

So there were two of them. Were they competing? What the hell was their coast-to-coast game all about?

Alex Cross 2 - Kiss the Girls

CHAPTER 64.

SMALL TALK, surveillance talk; it was familiar territory for me.

Sampson and I had a saying about surveillance back in D. C.: They do the crime; we do the time.

“How much could he make with a successful Beverly Hills medical practice? Ballpark number, Kate,” I asked my partner. We were still watching the doctors' private parking lot of Cedars-Sinai. There was nothing to do but eyeball Rudolph's spiffy new BMW and wait, and talk like old friends on a front stoop in D.C.

“He probably charges about a hundred and fifty to two a visit. He could gross five or six hundred thousand a year. Then there are surgery fees, Alex. That's if he has a conscience about the prices he charges, and we know he doesn't have a conscience.” I shook my head in disbelief as I rubbed my palm over my chin. “I have to get back into private practice. Baby needs new shoes.” Kate smiled. “You miss them, don't you, Alex? You talk about your kids a lot. Damon and Jannie. Poolball-head and Velcro.” I smiled back. Kate knew my nicknames for the kids by now. “Yeah, I do. They're my babies, my little pals.” Kate laughed some more. I liked to make her laugh. I thought of the bittersweet stories she'd told me about her sisters, especially her twin, Kristin. Laughter is good medicine.

The black BMW coupe just sat there, shining brightly and expensively in the California sunlight. Surveillance sucks, I thought, no matter where you have to do it. Even in sunny L.A.

Kyle Craig had gotten me a lot of rope here in Los Angeles. Certainly much more than I'd had in the South. He'd gotten rope for Kate, too.

There was something in it for him, though. The old quid pro quo. Kyle wanted me to interview the Gentleman Caller once he was caught, and he expected me to report everything to him. I suspected that Kyle himself hoped to bag Casanova.

“Do you really think the two of them are competing?” Kate asked me after a while.

“It makes psychological sense out of some things for me,” I told her.

“They might feel a need to ' up' each other. The Gentleman's diaries could be his way of saying: See, I'm better than you. I'm more famous. Anyway, I haven't decided yet. Sharing their exploits is probably more for thrill purposes than intimacy, though. They both like to get turned on.” Kate stared into my eyes. “Alex, doesn't it make you feel creepy as hell trying to figure this out?” I smiled. “That's why I want to catch Butt-Head and Beavis. So the creepiness will finally stop.” Kate and I waited at the hospital until Rudolph finally reappeared. It was nearly two in the afternoon. He drove straight to his office on North Bedford, west of Rodeo Drive. Rudolph saw patients there. Mostly women patients. Dr. Rudolph was a plastic surgeon. As such, he could create and sculpt. Women depended on him. And ... his patients all chose him.

We followed Rudolph home at around seven. Five or six hundred thousand a year, I was thinking. It was more than I could make in a decade. Was it the money he needed to be the Gentleman Caller? Was Casanova wealthy, too? Was he a doctor also? Was that how they committed their perfect crimes?

These questions were rolling around in my head.

I fingered an index card in my trouser pocket. I had begun to keep a “short list” on both Casanova and the Gentleman. I would add or subtract what I considered key attributes to the profile. I carried the card with me at all times.