/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

Alex Cross 3 Jack and Jill

Patterson James


antiquePatterson,JamesAlex Cross 3 - Jack and JillenPatterson,Jamescalibre 0.8.911.7.2011ee26296c-ac84-4164-8f21-b444e00a3c8b1.0

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

PART 1

TOMORROW AGAIN

OH NO, it's tomorrow again.

It seemed as if I had no sooner fallen asleep than I heard banging in the house. It was loud, as disturbing as a car alarm.

Persistent. Trouble too close to home?

“Shit. Dammit,” I whispered into the soft, deep folds of my pillow. “Leave me alone. Let me sleep through the night like a normal person. Go away from here.”

I reached for the lamp and knocked over a couple of books on the table. The Generalk Daughter and My American Journey and Snow Falling on Cedars. The mishap jolted me fully awake.

I grabbed my service revolver from a drawer and hurried downstairs, passing the kids' room on the way. I heard, or thought that I could hear, the sound of their soft breathing inside. I had been reading them Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit the night before. Don't go into Mr. McGregork garden: Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.

I clutched the Glock even more tightly in my right hand. The banging stopped. Then started up again. Downstairs.

I glanced at my wristwatch. It was three-thirty in the morning.

Jesus, mercy The witching hour again. The hour I often woke up without any help from outside forces, from things that go BANG, BANG, BANG in the middle of the night.

I continued down the steep, treacherous stairs. Cautious, suspicious.

Suddenly, it was quiet all around me.

I made no sound myself. My skin felt electrified in the darkness.

This was not the recommended way to start the day, or even the middle of The night. Don't go into Mr. McGregor garden: Your father had an accident....

I continued into the kitchen -- my gun drawn -- where I suddenly saw the source of the banging. The day's first mystery was solved.

My friend and partner was lurking at the back door like some high-octane version of a neighborhood hugger-mugger.

John Sampson was the noisemaker; he was the trouble in my life; the day's first disturbance, anyway. All six foot nine, two hundred forty pounds of him. Two-John as he's sometimes called.

Man Mountain.

“There's been a murder,” he said as I unlocked, unchained, and opened up for him. “This one is a honey, Alex.”

“OH, JESUS, JOHN. You know what time it is? You have any concept of time? Please get the hell away from my house. Go home to your own house. Bang on your own door in the middle of the night.”

I groaned and slowly shook my head back and forth, working nasty sleep-kinks out of my neck and shoulders. I wasn't quite awake yet. Maybe this was all a bad dream that I was having.

Maybe Sampson wasn't on the back porch. Maybe I was still in bed with my pillow-lover. And maybe not.

“It can wait,” I said. “Whatever the hell it is.”

“Oh, but it can't,” he answered, shaking his head. “Believe me, Sugar, it can't.”

I heard a creaking noise behind me in the house. I swung around quickly, still a little spooked and jumpy My little girl was standing there in the kitchen. Jannie was in her electric-blue-butterfly pajamas, in her bare feet, with a frightened look on her face. The latest addition to our family, a beautiful Abyssinian cat named Rosie, trailedJannie by a step or two. Rosie had heard the noise downstairs, too.

“What's the matter?”Jannie asked in a sleepy whisper, rubbing her eyes. “Why are you up so early? It's something bad, isn't it, Daddy?”

“Go back to sleep, sweetheart,” I told Jannie in the softest voice I could manage. “It's nothing,” I had to lie to my little girl.

My work had followed me home again. “We'll go upstairs now, so you can get your beauty sleep.”

I carried her up the stairs, softly nuzzling her cheek on the way, whispering sweet nonsense, dream talk. I tucked her in and checked on my son, Damon. Soon the two of them would be heading off to their respective schools -- Damon at Sojourner Truth, Jannie at Union Street. Rosie the cat continually crisscrossed between my legs as I performed my ministrations.

Then I got dressed, and Sampson and I hurried to the early-morning crime scene in his car. We didn't have far to go.

This one is a honey, Alex.

Just four blocks from our house on Fifth Street.

“I'm awake now, whether I like it or not, and I don't like it. Tell me about it,” I said to Sampson as I watched the glittering red and blue lights of police cars and EMS trucks come into focus up ahead.

Four blocks from our house.

A lot of blue-and-whites were clustered at the end of a tunnel of leafless oak trees and red-brick project buildings. The disturbance appeared to be at my son Damon's school. (Jannie's school is a dozen blocks in the opposite direction.) My body tensed all over. There was a roaring, wintry shitstorm inside my head.

“It's a little girl, Alex,” Sampson said in an unusually soft voice for him. “Six years old. She was last seen at the Sojourner Truth School this afternoon.”

It was Damon's school. We both sighed. Sampson is almost as close to Damon and Jannie as I am. They feel the same way about him.

A lot of people were already gathered outside the Federal-style two-story building that was the Sojourner Truth Elementary School. Half the neighborhood seemed to be up at four in the morning. I saw angry and shocked faces everywhere in the crowd. Some folks were in bathrobes, others wrapped in blankets.

Their frosty breath poured out like car exhaust all over the school yard. The Washington Post had reported that more than five hundred children under the age of fourteen had died in D.C.

during the past year alone. But the people here knew that. They didn't have to read it in the newspaper.

A little six-year-old girl. Murdered at or near Damon school, the Truth School. I couldn't have imagined a worse nightmare to wake up to.

“Sorry about this, Sugar,” Sampson said as we climbed out of his car. “I figured you had to see this, though, to be here yourself.”

MY HEART was hammering and felt as if it were suddenly too big for my chest. My wife, Maria, had been shot down and killed not far from this place. Memories of the neighborhood, memories of a lifetime. I'll always love you, Maria.

I saw a dented and rusting truck from the morgue in the school yard, and it was an unbelievably disturbing sight for me and everybody else. Rap music with a lot of bass was playing from somewhere on the edge of the bright police lights.

Sampson and I pushed and angled our way through the frightened and uneasy crowd. Some wiseass muttered, “What's up, Chief?” and risked finding out. There was yellow crime-scene tape everywhere on the school grounds.

At six three, I'm not as large as Man Mountain, but we are both big men. We make quite the pair when we arrive at a crime scene: Sampson with his huge shaved skull and black leather car Coat; me usually in a gray warm-up jacket from Georgetown. Shoulder holster under the coat. Dressed for the game that I play, a game called sudden death.

“Dr. Cross is here,” I heard a few low rumbles in the crowd.

My name uttered in vain. I tried to ignore the voices as best I could. Block them out of my consciousness. Officially, I was a deputy chief of detectives, but I was mostly working as a street detective these days. It was the way I wanted it for now. The way it had to be. This was definitely an “interesting” time for me. I had seen enough homicide and violence for one lifetime. I was considering going into private practice as a shrink again. I was considering a lot of things.

Sampson lightly touched my shoulder. He sensed this was bad for me. He saw it was maybe too close to the bone. “You okay, Alex?”

“I'm fine,” I lied for the second time that morning.

“Sure you are, Sugar. You're always fine, even when you're not. You're the dragonslayer, right?” Sampson said and shook his head.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young woman wearing a black sweatshirt with Alu. ALWAYS LOVE YOU, in white letters.

Another dead child. Tysheika. People in the neighborhood sometimes wore the dark shirts to funerals of murdered kids. My grandmother, Nana Mama, had quite a collection of them.

Something else caught my eye. A woman standing back from the crowd, under the spectral branches of a withering elm. She didn't seem to quite fit with the rest of the neighborhood group.

She was tall and nice-looking. She wore a belted raincoat over ieans, and flat shoes. Behind her, I could see a blue sedan. A Mercedes.

Shek the one. That's her. She the one for you. The crazy thought just came out of nowhere. Filled my head with sudden, inappropriate joy I made a mental note to find out who she was.

I stopped to talk with a young, intense homicide detective wearing a red Kangol hat with a brown sport jacket and brown nitted tie. I was beginning to take control.

“Bad way to start the day, Alex,” Rakeem Powell said as I came up to him. “Or to end one, in my case.”

I nodded at Rakeem. “Can't imagine a worse way.” I felt sick in the well of my stomach. “What do you know about this so far, Rakeem? Anything juicy for us to go on? I need to hear it all.”

The detective glanced at his small black notepad. He flipped a few pages. "kirtle girl's name is Shanelie reen. Popular girl.

A sweetheart, from what I hear so far. She was in the first grade here at the Truth School. lives two blocks from school in the Northfield Village projects. Parents both work. They let her walk home by herself. Not too goddamn smart, but what can you do, you know? They came home tonight, Shanelie wasn't there.

They reported her missing around eight. That's the parents over there."

I glanced around. They were just a couple of kids themselves.

kooked completely devastated and heartbroken. I knew they would never be the same after this horrifying night. Nobody could be.

“Neither of them suspects?” I had to ask.

Rakeera shook his head and said, "I don't think so, Alex.

Shanelie was their life."

“Please check them, Rakecm. Check both parents. How did she get here in the school yard?” I asked him.

Powell sighed. “That's the first thing we don't know. Where she was killed is the second. Who did it is strike three for the Mod Squad.”

It was obvious from looking at Shanelie that she had been dumped here, probably murdered someplace else. We were right at the beginning of this terrible case. kots of work to do. My case now.

“You know how she was killed?” I asked Rakeera.

The homicide detective frowned. "Take a look for yourself.

Tell me what you think."

I didn't want to look, but I had to. I bent down close to Shanelie. I could smell the little girl's blood: copper, like a lot of pennies had been thrown on the ground. I couldn't help thinking of Damon andJannie, my own kids. I couldn't stop the overwhelming sadness I felt. It ate at me, like acid splashed all over my body I knelt on the cracked and broken concrete to examine the body of the six-year-old girl. Shanelie lay in a fetal position. All she had on was a pair of flowered pink-and-blue underpants. A red bow was impossibly tangled up in her braids, and she had tiny gold earrings in her ears.

The rest of her clothes were missing. The killer had apparently taken the little girl's school clothes with him.

She was such a little beauty, such a sweetheart, I could see. Even after what someone had done to her. I was looking at the how; the manner in which the six-year-old girl had been brutally murdered sometime earlier that night, her whole life silenced in an instant of madness and horror.

I gently turned the girl's body a few inches. Her head lolled to one side, the neck probably broken. She weighed next to nothing.

Just a baby The right side of her little face was partly gone.

Obliterated was a better description. The murderer had struck Shanelie so many times, and so violently, that little on the right side of the face was recognizable.

“How could he do this to such a beautiful little girl?” I muttered under my breath. “Poor Shanelie. Poor baby,” I whispered to no one but myself. A tear formed in my eye. I blinked it away, There was no place for that here.

One of Shanelle's eyes was missing. Her face is like a two-sided, two-faced mask. Two sides to a child? Two faces? What did that mean?

There was another fiend on the loose in Washington.

A child killer this time.

A TALL, THIN MAN in a black raincoat and black floppy rain hat slowly, cautiously approached the door of Senator Daniel Fitzpatrick's apartment a little before six o'clock Tuesday morning.

He examined the outer hallway for signs of a break-in, a struggle of some sort, but didn't find any He was thinking that he didn't want to be outside this apartment or anywhere near it. He wasn't sure what he expected to find inside, but he had the feeling it would be bad. Powerfully, overwhelmingly bad. This was so unreal.

It was so odd for him to be here, a mystery inside a mystery. But here he was.

The man noticed everything about the hallway Sprinkles of fallen plaster on the rug. Eight other doorways in sight. He had once been reasonably good at this routine. Being an investigator was like riding a bicycle, right? Sure it was.

He jimmied open the door to 4J with a square of plastic very much like a credit card, only thinner, slicker to the touch. He guessed that breaking and entering was like riding a bike, too.

You never forgot how.

“I'm inside 4J,” he spoke softly into a compact hand radio.

Sweat had begun to form all over his body. His legs quivered slightly He was disgusted and he was afraid and he was definitely someplace that he shouldn't be. Unrealville, he called it in his mind.

He quickly walked through the foyer and into the small living room with photos of Senator Fitzpatrick on every wall. Still no sign of a break-in or any trouble.

“This could be a very nasty hoax,” he reported into the radio. “I hope that's what it is.” He paused. “Uh-oh. We have a problem.”

Everything had happened in the bedroom, and whoever had done everything had left a terrible mess. It was worse than anything he could have imagined it might be.

“This is real bad. Senator Fitzpatrick is dead. Daniel Fitzpatrick has been murdered. This is not a hoax. The body appears to be fully rigorous. Flesh has a waxy tone. There's a lot of blood. Jesus, there's a lot of blood.”

He bent over the senator's corpse. He could smell cordite, almost taste it on his tongue. Most likely from the gun that killed Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, there was much more to the brutal murder scene. Too much for him to handle. He fought to keep his cool. Riding a bike, right?

“Two shots to the head. Close-in. Execution-style,” he said into the handset. “Entry wounds about an inch apart.”

He sighed heavily Waited a moment, then began again. They didn't need to know everything he was seeing and feeling right now.

“The senator is handcuffed to his bedposts. Look like police cuffs to me. His body is nude and not a pretty sight. Penis and scrotum appear to have been gouged out of the body There's a lot of blood all over the bed, a humongous stain. Big stain on the rug, too, where it soaked through.”

He forced his face even closer to the senator's silver-haired chest. He didn't like it, being this close to a dead man- or any man, for that matter. Fitzpatrick was wearing some kind of religious medal. Probably real silver. He smelled of a woman's perfume. The tall man, the investigator, was almost certain of it. "The D.C. police are going to be guessing jealous lover.

Some kind of crime of high passion,“ he said. ”Wait -- there's something else here. Okay Hold on. I've got to check this out."

He didn't know how he'd missed it at first, but he sure as hell saw the note now. It was right next to the cordless telephone on the bed stand. Impossible to miss, right? But he'd missed it. He picked it up in his gloved hand.

The note was typewritten on thick, expensive bond. He read it quickly Then he read it again, just to be sure... that the note was for real.

Ah Dannyboy, we knew ya all too well One useless, thieving, rich bastard down So many more to go.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To hose down all the slime Most imperiled Was poor Fitzpatrick Right schmuck, wrong place, wrong time.

Truly, He read the note over the hand phone. He took one more look around, then left the senator's apartment as it was: in a state of bedlam and horror and death. When he was safely down on Q Street, he called in the homicide to the Washington police.

He made the call anonymously No one could know that he'd been inside the senator's apartment, or especially, how it came to happen, and who he was. If anybody found out, all hell would really break loose -- as if it hadn't started already Everything was unreal, and it promised to get much worse.

Jack and Jill had promised it.

One useless, thieving, rich bastard down So many more to go.

AT EVERY HUMAN TRAGEDY like this one, there is always someone who points. A man stood outside the crime-scene tape and pointed at the murdered child and also at me. I was remembering Jannie's prophetic words to me earlier that morning: It's something bad, isn't it, Daddy?

Yes, it was. The baddest of the bad. The murder scene at the Sojourner Truth School was heartbreaking to me and, I was sure, to everyone else. The school yard was the saddest, most desolate place in the world.

The chatter of portable police radios violated the air and made it hard to breathe. I could still smell the little girl's blood. It was thick in my nostrils and my throat, but mostly inside my head.

Shanelle Green's parents were weeping nearby, but so were other people from the neighborhood, even complete strangers to the little girl. In most cities, in most civilized countries, a child murdered so young would be a catastrophe, but not in Washington, where hundreds of children die violent deaths every single year.

“I want as large a street canvass as we can manage on this one,” I told Rakeem Powell. “Sampson and I will be part of the canvass ourselves.”

“I hear you. We're on it in a big way. Sleep is overrated, anyway”

“Let's go John. We've got to move on this now,” I finally said to Sampson.

He didn't argue or object. A murder like this is usually solved in the first twenty-four hours, or it isn't solved. We both knew that.

From 6:00 A.M. on, Sampson and I canvassed the neighborhood with the other detectives and patrolmen that cold, miserable morning. We had to do it our way, house by house, street by street, mostly on foot. We needed to be involved in this case, to do something, to solve the heinous murder quickly, About ten in the morning, we heard about another shocking homicide in Washington. Senator Daniel Fitzpatrick had been murdered the night before. It had been a real bad night, hadn't it?

“Not our job,” Sampson said with cold, flat eyes. “Not our problem. Somebody else's.”

I didn't disagree.

No one Sampson or I spoke to that morning had seen anything out of the ordinary around the Sojourner Truth School. We heard the usual complaints about the drug pushers, the zombielike crackheads, the prossies who work on Eighth Street, the growing number of gangbangers.

But nothing out of the usual.

“People loved that little sweetheart Shanelie,” the ageless Hispanic lady who seemed to have run the corner grocery near the school forever told Sampson and me. “She always buy her Gummi Bears. She have such a pretty smile, you know?”

No, I had never seen Shanelle Green smile, but I found that I could almost picture it. I also had a fixed image of the battered right side of the little girl's face. I carried it around like a bizarre wallet photo inside my head.

Uncle Jimmie Kee, a successful and influential KoreanAmerican who owned several neighborhood businesses, was glad to talk with us. Jimmie is a good friend of ours. Occasionally, he comes along with us to a Redskins or Bullets game.

He supplied a name that we already had on our shortlist of suspects.

“What about this bad actor, Chop-It-Off-Chucky?” Uncle Jimmie volunteered as we spoke in the back of Ho-Woo-Jung, his popular restaurant on Eighth Street. I read the sign behind Jimmie: IMMIGRATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY.

“Nobody catch that motherfucker yet. He kill other children before. He the worst man in Washington, D.C. Next to the president,” Jimmie said and chuckled wickedly, “No bodies, though. No proof of it,” Sampson said to Jimmie.

“We don't even know if there really is a Chucky.”

That was true enough. For years there had been rumors about a horrifying child molester who worked the Northfield Village neighborhood, but there was nothing concrete. Nothing had ever been proved.

“Chucky real,” UncleJimmie insisted. His dark eyes narrowed to even thinner slits. “Chucky real as the devil. I see Chop-it-Off-Chucky in my dreams sometimes, Alex. So do the children who live around here.”

“You ever hear anything more specific about Chucky? Where he's been seen? Who saw him?” I asked. “Help us out if you can, Jimmie.”

“Oh, I gladly do that.” He nodded his head and bunched his thick brown lips, his triple chin, his bulging throat. Jimmie habitually wore a chocolate brown suit with a tan fedora that bobbed as he spoke. “You meditating yet, Alex, getting in touch with chi energy?” he asked me.

“I'm thinking about it, thinking about my chi Jimmie. Maybe my chi is running a little low right now. Tell us about Chucky.”

"I know lots bad stories about Chop-It-Off-Chucky. Scare kids all the time. Even the gangbangers scared of him. Young mothers, grandmothers, put up handbills in playgrounds. In my stores, too. Sad stories of missing children. I always permit it, Detectives.

Man who harms children is the worst. You agree, Alex? You see it differently?"

“No. I agree with you. That's why Sampson and I are out here today.”

I knew a lot about the child molester who had been nicknamed Chop-It-Off-Chucky. The unsubstantiated rumor was that he sliced off the genitalia of young kids who lived in the projects. Little boys and girls. No gender preference. Whether or not it was true, it seemed undeniable that someone had molested several children from the Northfield and Southv'ew Terrace projects, not far from here. Other children had simply disappeared.

The police in the area didn't have the resources to create an effective crisis team to find Chucky, if Chucky existed. I had gone to the wall about it several times with the chief of detectives, but nothing had happened. Extra detectives never seemed available for duty in Southeast. The unfairness of the situation put me in a rage, made me as crazy as anything I can think of.

“Sounds like another Mission: Impossible,” Sampson said as we walked up G Street, in the general direction of the Marine barracks. “We're on our own. We're supposed to catch a chimera.”

“Nice image,” I said, and had to smile at Man Mountain, his wild imagination, his mind.

“Thought you'd like it, man of culture and refinement that you are.”

We were sipping steaming herb tea from Jimmie's restaurant.

Patrolling the street. We looked like detectives, with our collars up and all. Big bad detectives. I wanted people to see us out working the neighborhood.

“No real leads, no clues, no support,” I said, agreeing with Sampson's judgment of the current state of affairs. “We take the assignment, anyway?”

“We always do,” he said. His eyes were suddenly hard and dull and almost scary to me. “Watch out, Chucky, watch your back. We're right on your sorry mythical ass.”

“Your chimera ass.”

“Exactly so, Sugar. Exactly so.”

IT WAS REAL GOOD to be working the streets of Southeast with Sampson again. It always is, even on a horror-show murder case that can make my blood boil over. Our last big case had taken place in North Carolina and California, but Sampson had been around only for the beginning and end of it. The two of us have been fast friends since we were nine or ten, and growing up in this same neighborhood. We get closer every year it seems. No, we do get closer.

“What's our primary goal here, Sugar?” Sampson asked as we walked along G Street. He had on the black leather car coat, nasty Wayfarer sunglasses, a slick black bandanna. It worked for him.

“How do we know that we did good today?” he asked.

“We get the word out that we're personally looking for the Truth School killer,” I said. "We show our pretty faces around.

Make the families here feel as safe as we can."

“Yeah, and then we catch Chop-It-Off-Chucky and chop his off,” Sampson said and grinned like the big bad wolf that he can be. “I'm not kidding.”

I didn't doubt it for a minute.

When I finally got home that night, it was past ten. Nana Mama was waiting up for me. She had already put Damon and Jannie to bed. The concerned look on her face told me that she couldn't get to sleep, which is unusual for her. Nana could sleep in the eye of a hurricane. Sometimes, she is the eye of a hurricane.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she said to me. “Bad day for you? I can see that it was.” Sometimes she can be unbelievably sympathetic and kind and sweet, too. I like that she goes both ways equally well, and I can never predict which way is coming at me next.

As we sat together on the living room couch, my eighty-one-year-old grandmother held my hand in both of hers. I told her what I knew so far. She was shaking slightly and that wasn't like her, either. She is not a weak person, not in any way She rarely shows her fear to anyone, even me. Nana Mama does not seem to be losing anything of herself; instead, she is becoming more luminous and concentrated.

“I feel so bad about this killing at the Sojourner Truth School,” Nana said, and her head lowered.

“I know. It's all I've thought about today I'm working every angle I can.”

“You know much about Sojourner Truth, Alex?”

“I know she was a powerful abolitionist, an ex-slave.”

"Sojourner Truth should be talked about when they mention Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alex. She couldn't read, so she memorized most of the Bible for her teaching. She actually helped stop segregation of the transportation system here in Washington. And now we have this abomination at the school named in her honor.

“Catch him, Alex,” Nana suddenly whispered in a low, almost desperate, voice. “Please catch this terrible man. I can't even say the name they call him -- this Chucky. He's real, Alex. He's not a made-up bogeyman.”

I would definitely try my damnedest. I was on the murder case.

I was chasing down the chimera as best I could.

My mind was working overtime already. A child molester? Boys and girls. Now a child killer? Chop-It-Off-Chucky? Was he real, or had he been made up by frightened children ? Was he a chimera ? Had he murdered Shanelle Green ?

I needed to pound the piano on our porch for a little while after Nana went up to bed. I played “Jazz Baby” and “The Man I Love,” but the piano wasn't the ticket that night.

Just before I fell off to sleep, I remembered something. Senator Daniel Fitzpatrick had been murdered in Georgetown. What a day it had been. What a nightmare.

Two of them.

Sam and Sara.

Whoever they really were, the two of them lay on their stomachs on a tasteful, knock-off Persian rug in the small living room of her Washington pied-hid-terre. It was a kind of safe house. A fire blazed and crackled; fragrant apple logs were being crisped. They were playing a board game on the rug, which covered a hatched parquet floor. It was a special game. Unique in every way. The game of life and death, they called it.

“I feel like a damn Washington, D.C., Georgetown University white liberal yuppie,” Sam Harrison said and smiled at the unlikely image created in his mind.

“Hey, I resemble that remark.” Sara Rosen made a pouting face. She was kidding. She and Sam weren't yuppies. Sam certainly wasn't.

And yet a guinea hen was roasting in the kitchen, the aroma sweetening the air. They were playing a parlor game on the living room rug.

The game wasn't anything like Monopoly or Risk, though.

Actually, they were playing a game to choose their next murder target. In turn, they calmly rolled the dice, then moved a marker around a rectangle of photos. The photos were of very famous people.

The board game was important to Jack and Jill. It was a game of chance. It made it impossible for the police or FBI to predict their movements or their motive.

If there was a motive. But of course there was a motive.

Sam rolled the dice again. Then he moved the marker. Sara watched him in the warm, flickering glow of the fire. Her eyes glazed over slightly She was remembering their very first meeting, the initial contact between them. The beginning of every thing that was happening now.

This was how the complex and beautiful and very mysterious game had begun. They had agreed to meet at a coffee shop inside a bookstore in downtown D.C. Sara had arrived first, her heart trapped in her throat. Everything about the meeting was insane, maybe dangerously insane, and insanely irresistible to her. She couldn't pass up this chance, this opportunity, or especially this cause. The cause was everything to her.

At the time of their first meeting, she had no idea what Sam Harrison would look like, and she was surprised and delighted when he sat at her table. He excited her.

She had seen him enter the coffeehouse area, watched him order espresso and a scone. She hadn't imagined that the dreamy-looking man at the counter would turn out to be Harrison, though.

So this was The Soldier. This was her potential partner. He kind of fit in at the bookstore. He would fit in anywhere. He didn't look like a killer, but then again, neither did she. He looks a little like an airline pilot, Sara thought as she sized him up. A successful Washington lawyer? He was over six feet tall, trim and fit.

He had a strong, confident face. And he also had the brightest, clearest blue eyes. He had a sensitive, gentle look about him.

Not at all what she had expected. She liked him immediately She knew that they agreed on the important things in life, that they shared a vision.

“You're looking at me as if I'm supposed to be a bad person, and you're surprised that I'm not,” he'd said as he sat across from her at the cafe “I'm not a bad person, Sara. You can call me Sam, by the way I'm a pretty good guy, actually”

No, Sam was much better than that. He was amazing -- extremely smart, strong, and yet always considerate of her feelings, and committed to their cause. Sara Rosen had fallen in love with him within a week of their meeting. She knew that she shouldn't, but she had; and now here they were. Living this secret life.

Playing the game of life and death as a guinea hen slowly spun on the spit. Sitting before a cozy fire. Thinking about making love -- at least, she was. She thought about being with Sam, with Jack, all the time. She loved it when he was inside her.

“This roll should do it,” Sam said, and he handed her the dice.

“Your turn. Six rolls for each of us. You do the honors, Sara.”

“Here we go, huh?”

“Yes, here we go again.”

Sara Rosen's heart began to thunder. She could feel it thump, thump under her blouse. She had the paralyzing thought that this single roll of the dice was like the murder itself. It was almost as if she were pulling the trigger right now.

Who was going to die next? It was all in her hand, wasn't it? Who would it be?

She squeezed the three dice incredibly tight. Then she shook them and let the dice go, watched them wobble and roll forward and then stop abruptly, as if someone had pulled an invisible string. She quickly added up the number of the roll -- nine.

Sara picked up the marker and counted off nine places, nine photographs.

She stared down at the face of the next target, the next celebrity to die. It was a woman!

It's for the cause, she told herself, but Sara Rosen's heart continued to beat loudly all the same.

The next victim was a very famous woman.

Washington, the whole world, would be shocked and outraged for a second time.

SAMPSON AND I walked into the fog-shrouded heart of Garfield Park, which borders the Anacostia River and the Eisenhower Freeway and isn't far from the Sojourner Truth School. The color of truth is gray, I was thinking as we entered the ground smog.

Always gray. We weren't out for an early-morning run -- we were hurrying to the place where Shanelle Green had actually been murdered, her skull crushed by some fiend.

Several uniforms, a captain, and another detective were already at the homicide scene. A dozen or so casual onlookers were on hand -- looky-loos. Search dogs originally brought in from Georgia had led a search party to the murder site. I could see Sixth Street from the thicket of evergreens where the killer had brutally savaged the little girl. I could almost see the Sojourner Truth School.

“Think he carried the body out of here to the school yard?”

Sampson asked. His tone of voice indicated he didn't believe it. Neither did I. So how did the little girl's body get to the school yard?

A bright red balloon floated a couple of feet above the overgrown bushes where the terrible murder had occurred.

“O marks the spot?” Sampson asked. “That balloon the marker?”

“I don't know... I wonder,” I muttered as I pushed aside the thick evergreen branches and made my way into the hideaway.

The smell of pine was heavy, even in the cold air. Reminded me that the Christmas season was here.

I could feel the presence of the killer inside the tree branches, challenging me. I sensed Shanelle's presence as well, as if she were trying to tell me something. I wanted to be alone in here for a moment or two.

It was a small clearing where the murder had actually taken place. Dried blood was on the ground and had even splashed across some of the branches. He lured her in here. How did he do that? She'd be suspicious, or scared, unless she knew him from the neighborhood. It suddenly struck me. The balloon! It was just a guess, but it seemed right to me. The red balloon could have been the lure, the killer bait for the little girl.

I crouched down and was very still inside the tent of trees.

The killer liked it in here, hiding in the darkness. He doesn't like himself much, though. Prefers the dark. He likes his mind, his thoughts, but not what he looks like. There probably something distinctive about him physically.

I didn't know any of that for sure, but it seemed right; it felt right as I crouched at the murder site.

He was hiding in here, probably because there something about him people might remember. If so, it was a good clue.

I could see Shanelie Green's battered face again. Then an image of my dead wife, Maria, came to me. I could feel the rage climbing from my gut to my throat, blowing and billowing inside me. I thought of Jannie and Damon.

I had one more thought about the child killer: anger usually implies an awareness of self-worth. Strange, but true. The killer was angry because he believed in himself much more than the world did.

Finally, I rose up and pushed my way back out of the hideaway. I'd had enough.

“Haul down that balloon,” I called to a patrolman. “Get that damn balloon out of the tree now. It's evidence.”

THERE WAS SOMETHING distinctive about him physically. I was almost certain of it. It was a place to start.

That afternoon Sampson and I were out on the street again, working near the Northfield Village projects. The Washington newspapers and TV hadn't bothered much about the murder of a little girl in Southeast. Instead, they were filled with stories about the killing of Senator Fitzpatrick by the so-called Jack and Jill stalkers. Shanelle Green didn't seem to matter very much.

Except to Sampson and me. We had seen Shanelle's broken body and met her heartbroken parents. Now we talked to our street sources, but also to our neighbors. We continued to let people see us working, walking the streets.

“I sure do love a good homicide. Love walking the mean streets in the dead cold of winter,” Sampson opined as we went past a local dealer's black-on-blackJeep. It was blaring rap, lots of bass.

“Love the suffering, the stench, the funky sounds.” His face was flat. Beyond angry. Philosophical.

He was wearing a familiar sweatshirt under his open topcoat.

The shirt had his message for the day:

I DON'T GIVE A SHIT

I DON'T TAKE ANY SHIT

I'M NOT IN THE SHIT BUSINESS

Concise. Accurate. Very much John Sampson.

Neither of us had felt much like talking for the past hour or so. It wasn't going all that well. That was The Job, though. It was like this more often than it wasn't.

Man Mountain and I arrived at the Capitol City Market about four in the afternoon. The Cap is a popular gyp joint on Eighth Street. It's just about the dingiest, most depressing bargain-basement store in Washington, D.C.- and that takes some doing.

The featured products are usually written in pink chalk on a gray blue cinder block wall in front. That day the specials were cold beer and soda pop, plantains, pork rinds, Tampax, and Lotto -- your basic complete-and-balanced breakfast.

A young brother with tight wraparound Wayfarer sunglasses, a shaved head, and small goatee caught our immediate attention in front of the minimart. He was standing next to another man who had a chocolate bar hanging from his mouth like a cigar.

The shaved head motioned to me that he wanted to talk to us, but not right there.

“You trust that rowdyass?” Sampson asked as we followed at a safe distance. “Alvin Jackson.”

“I trust everybody.” I winked. No wink came back from Sampson.

“You are badly fucked-up, Sugar,” he said. His eyes were still seriously hooded.

“Just trying to do the right thing.”

“Ah, yeah, you're trying too hard, then.”

“That's why you love me.”

“Yes, it is,” Sampson said and finally grinned. “If lovin' you is wrong, I don't want to be right,” he talk-sang a familiar lyric.

We met Roadrunner Alvin Jackson around the corner.

Sampson and I had occasionally used Alvin as a snitch. He wasn't a bad man, really, but he was living a dangerous life that could suddenly get much, much worse for him. He had been a decent high school track star who used to practice in the streets. Now he was running a little base and selling smoke as well. In many ways, Alvin Jackson was still a man-child. That was important to understand about a lot of these kids, even the most dangerous and powerful-looking ones.

“Thalilshanelle,” Alvin said as if the three words were one, “you still lookin' for information on who ice her and alladat?”

Alvin's car coat was unbuttoned. He was sporting the current fashion look that's called jailin', or baggin'. His red-and-white pinstriped underwear was visible above the waistband. The look is inspired by the fact that a prisoner's belt is taken away in jail, tending to make the trousers droop and the underwear be accentuated. Role models for our neighborhood.

“Yeah. What have you heard about her, Alvin, but no Chipmunks?” Sampson said.

“Man, I'm tryin' to do you a solid,” Alvin Jackson protested in my direction. His shaved head never stopped bobbing. His hoop earring jangled: His long, powerful arms twitched. He kept picking his Nike-sneakered feet up and putting them back down.

“We appreciate it,” I told him. “Smoke?” I offered Alvin a Camel. Joe Cool, right?

He took it. I don't smoke, but I always carry. Alvin had smoked like a chimney when he was a high school road-and-track man.

Things you notice.

"Lil' Shanelie, she live in my auntie's building. Over in Northfield? I think I know 'bout somebody maybe 'sponsible.

You unnerstand what I'm sayin'?"

“So far.” Sampson nodded. He was trying to be nice, actually, A head of lettuce could follow Alvin Jackson's patter.

“You want to show us what yo, I don't want to be right,” he talk-sang a familiar lyric.

We met Roadrunner Alvin Jackson around the corner.

Sampson and I had occasionally used Alvin as a snitch. He wasn't a bad man, really, but he was living a dangerous life that could suddenly get much, much worse for him. He had been a decent high school track star who used to practice in the streets. Now he was running a little base and selling smoke as well. In many ways, Alvin Jackson was still a man-child. That was important to understand about a lot of these kids, even the most dangerous and powerful-looking ones.

“Thalilshanelle,” Alvin said as if the three words were one, “you still lookin' for information on who ice her and alladat?”

Alvin's car coat was unbuttoned. He was sporting the current fashion look that's called jailin', or baggin'. His red-and-white pinstriped underwear was visible above the waistband. The look is inspired by the fact that a prisoner's belt is taken away in jail, tending to make the trousers droop and the underwear be accentuated. Role models for our neighborhood.

“Yeah. What have you heard about her, Alvin, but no Chipmunks?” Sampson said.

“Man, I'm tryin' to do you a solid,” Alvin Jackson protested in my direction. His shaved head never stopped bobbing. His hoop earring jangled: His long, powerful arms twitched. He kept picking his Nike-sneakered feet up and putting them back down.

“We appreciate it,” I told him. “Smoke?” I offered Alvin a Camel. Joe Cool, right?

He took it. I don't smoke, but I always carry. Alvin had smoked like a chimney when he was a high school road-and-track man.

Things you notice.

"Lil' Shanelie, she live in my auntie's building. Over in Northfield? I think I know 'bout somebody maybe 'sponsible.

You unnerstand what I'm sayin'?"

“So far.” Sampson nodded. He was trying to be nice, actually, A head of lettuce could follow Alvin Jackson's patter.

“You want to show us what you got?” I asked him. “Help us out here?”

“I'll show you Chucky myself. Howzat?” He smiled and nodded at me. “But only cuz it's you and Sampson. I tried to tell some a them other detectives, months back. They wouldn't have none of it. Man, they wouldn't listen to jack shit. Didn't have the time of day for my airplay.”

I felt like his father or uncle or older brother. I felt responsible.

I didn't like it so much.

“Well, we're listening,” I told him. “We've got the time for you.”

Sampson and I went with Alvin Jackson to the Northfield Village projects. Northfield is one of the most dangerous crime areas in D.C. Nobody seems to care, though. The 1st District police have given up. You visit Northfield once, it's hard to blame them completely, This didn't seem like a very promising lead to me. But Alvin.Jackson was a man on a mission. I wondered why that was. What was I missing here?

He pointed a long, accusatory finger at one of the yellow-brick buildings. It was in the same shabby state of disrepair as most of the others. An electric-blue metal sign was over the double front doors: BULI)L6 3. The front stairs were cracked and looked as if they'd been hit by lightning or somebody's sledgehammer.

"He lives in there. Ak-ak city. Leastways, he did. Name's Emmanuel Perez. Sometimes he works as a porter at Famous.

You know, Famous Pizza? He goes after the little kids, man. Real freakazoid. He's a nasty fucker. Scary fucker, too. Don't like it none when you call him Manny, He's Ee-man-uel. Insists on it."

“How do you know Emmanuel?” Sampson asked.

Alvin Jackson's eyes suddenly clouded over and looked hard as rocks. He took a few seconds before he spoke. "I knew him.

He was around when I was a little kid. Buggin' back then, too.

Emmanuel always been around, you unnerstand?"

I got it. I understood now. Chop-It-Off-Chucky wasn't a chimera anymore.

There was an asphalt-topped playground across the quad.

Young kids were playing hoops, but not very well. The basket had no net. The rim was bent this way and that. Nobody any good played on these particular courts. Suddenly, something in the playground caught Alvin Jackson's eye.

“That's him over there,” he said in a high-pitched whine.

Fearful. “That's him, man. That's Emmanuel Perez doggin' those kids.”

He had no sooner said the words when perez spotted us. It was as weird as a bad dream. I saw that he had a longish red beard that stuck out stiffly from his chin. It was something distinctive about him physically. Something people would have remembered if he'd been seen in Garfield Park. He leveled Alvin Jackson with a dark, scary look. Then he took off in a dead run.

Emmanuel Perez was a very fast runner. But so were we; at least, we were the last time I checked.

c aplerlO

SAMPSON AND I raced behind Perez, closing a little ground on him. We shot down a littered, twisting concrete alley that ran between the tall, depressing buildings. We could both still move pretty well.

“Stop! Police detectives!” I yelled loudly at the sorry excuse for a man running ahead of us. Bogeyman? Chimera? Innocent restaurant porter?

Perez, the suspected child murderer and child molester, was definitely trying to escape. We didn't know for sure if he was Chop-It-Off-Chucky, but he had some reason to run from Sampson and me, from the police.

Had we finally caught a break on the case? Something sure as hell was happening right now.

I had a very bad thought lodged in the front of my brain. If we're this close to catching him, after two days on the streets, why wasn't he caught before?

I thought I knew the answer, and I didn't like it much. Because nobody cares what happens in these wretched neighborhoods around the projects. Nobody cares.

“We're back!” Sampson suddenly shouted as we sprinted between the cavernous buildings, stirring up street garbage in our wake, rousting pigeons.

“Remains to be seen,” I yelled to him.

Nobody cares!

“Don't doubt it for a minute, Sugar. Think only positive thoughts.”

“Emmanuel is fast, too. That's positively the ruth.”

Nobody cares!

“We're faster, stronger, tougher than Manny ever dreamed of being.”

“Better trash talkers,” I huffed. Just one huff, but a huff all the same.

“That, too, Sugar. Goes without saying.”

We followed Perez/Chop-It-Off out onto Seventh Street, which is lined with four- and five-story row houses, bombed-out stores, a few tank bars.

Perez suddenly turned into a beaten-down Federal-style building near the middle of the block. The windows were mostly boarded with sheet metal, looking like silver teeth in a rotting mouth.

“He seems to know what the hell he's doing,” Sampson yelled.

“Knows where he's going.”

“At least that makes one of us.”

Sampson and I entered the sagging, ramshackle building several strides behind Perez. The strong smell of urine and decay was everywhere. As we climbed the steep, reinforced concrete stairs, I could feel a fire spreading into my chest.

“Had his escape route all figured out!” I huffed. A definite huff.

“He's smart.”

"He's trying to escape from us. That's not too smart. Never happen...

WE GOT YOU, MANNY!" Sampson yelled up the stairs.

His voice echoed like thunder in the narrow quarters. “HEY, MANNY! MANNY, MANNY, MANNY!”

“Stop! Police! Manny Perez, stop!” Sampson shouted at the fleeing suspect. He had his gun out, a nasty 9mm Glock.

We could hear Perez still running above us, his sneakers slapping stairs. He didn't yell back. Nobody else was on the stairs or in any of the stairwells. Nobody cared that there was a police chase going on inside the building.

“You think Perez really did it?” I yelled to Sampson.

“He did something. He's running like his ass is on fire. Spreading right up his spinal cord.”

“Yeah. We lit the fuse.”

We burst out a gray metal door Onto a broad, uneven expanse of tar roof. Overhead the sky was a cool, hard blue. There were shiny surfaces and maximum glare everywhere. There was nothing but bright blue sky above. I had the urge to take off--fly away from all of this. The urge, but not the means.

Where the hell had he gone? He was nowhere in sight. Where was Emmanuel Perez? Where was the Sojourner Truth School killer?

Chimera.

“FUCK YOU, peachfuzz,” Perez suddenly yelled. “You hear me, peachfuzz?”

“Peachfuzz?” Sampson looked at me and made a face.

I saw a quick flash of Chop-it-Off-Chucky He was off to our extreme right. He was sprinting across a connecting rooftop and was already about thirty yards away I saw him grab a quick, worried look back over his shoulder.

His small eyes were hard black beads, evil-looking as they come. He had that weird red beard. Maybe he was a total psycho.

Or maybe he really was just a pizza-store porter? Forget it, I told myself.

Four teenage boys and a girl were up there on the roof doing their sneaky business. Crack, probably I hoped they weren't snorting heroin. They idly watched the wild, wild world go by The real city game was in progress here. Cops and robbers. Child molester-killers. It made no difference to these kids.

Sampson and I covered three more narrow rooftops in a powerful hurry. We were gaining on him a little, but only by a step or two. Sweat was running down my forehead and cheeks, burning my eyes.

“Stop! We'll shoot!” I yelled. "Stop, Emmanuel Perez?

Perez looked back again. He looked straight at me this time and grinned! Then he seemed to disappear over the far side of the brick-walled building.

“Fire escape!” Sampson yelled.

Seconds later, the two of us were rushing headlong down skinny, twisting, rusted metal stairs. Perez flew down the flimsy fire escape ahead of us. He was really moving. This was definitely his event, his home course.

Sampson and I were both too big for the tight-radius maneuvering. He gained a full flight on us, maybe a flight and a half.

Chucky definitely had an escape route figured out, I was thinking.

He'd practiced this. I was almost sure of it. He a smart one. He guilty. Those vicious eyes! Mad-dog eyes. What had Alvin Jackson said -- that Emmanuel Perez had always been around?

We saw him down on E Street. The red beard jutted out as if it were petrified wood. He was already a full block away Lots of rush-hour traffic everywhere. He was getting into a gypsy cab, a dull red-and-orange hack that read, CAPPY'S. WE GO ANYWHERE.

“STOP, YOU FUCKING SQUIRREL!” Sampson screamed at the top of his voice. “GODDAMN YOU, MANNY!”

Perez gave us the finger in the crud-crusted rear window of the cab.

“PEACHFUZZ!” he leaned out and screamed back at us.

SAMPSON AND I scrambled out onto E Street. Sweat was still streaming down my forehead and cheeks, my neck, back, legs.

Sampson ran in front of a Yellow Cab and the driver screeched to a stop. Intelligent of the cabdriver to avoid hitting Man Mountain and totaling his car.

“Metro police! Detective Alex Cross!” my voice boomed as we simultaneously swung open the cab's back doors. “Follow that hack. Go! Go! Go! Dammit.”

“Don't you lose him!” Sampson threatened the driver. “Don't you even think about it.” The poor man was scared to death. He never even looked back. Never said a word. But he didn't lose visual contact with CAPPY'S. WE GO ANYWHERE.

We hit a bad snarl of traffic at Ninth Street where it approaches Pennsylvania Avenue. Cars and trucks were backed up for at least three blocks. Angry horns were honking everywhere. One tractor-trailer had a foghorn like an oceangoing vessel's.

“Maybe we better get out and run him down,” I said to Sampson.

“I was thinking the same thing. Let's go for it.”

It was one of those fifty-fifty calls. Either way, we could lose Chucky right here. My heart was pounding hard in my chest. I could see the crushed-in skull of little Shanelie Green. Emmanuel had always been around! Those mad-dog eyes! I wanted Chop-It-Off-Chucky real bad.

Sampson already had the creaking door on his side of the cab open. I was half a step behind. Maybe less.

Chucky must have felt us breathing fire on the back of his neck. He jumped out of his cab and started to run.

We followed him between the tight rows of barely moving traffic.

Blaring car horns provided chaotic background noise for the foot chase along Ninth Street.

Chop-It-off-Chucky burst forward. He'd gotten his second wind.

Suddenly, he veered right and into a gleaming, glass-and-steel office building. The building looked silver blue.

Madness, pure and simple.

I had my detective's shield already out as we entered the office building several strides behind Chucky. “Spanish guy, red beard. Which way?” I yelled at the dazed and confused-looking security guard standing around in the plush, paneled lobby.

He pointed to the middle car at a metal-on-metal elevator bank. The car had already left the ground floor. I watched the floor indicator: three -- four -- rising fast. Sampson and I jumped into the open door of the car nearest the front entrance.

I hit ROOFTOP with the palm of my hand. That was my best guess.

“Roadrunner said Perez was a porter at Famous Pizza,” I told Sampson. “There was a Famous on the ground floor here.”

“Think Chucky's a creature of habit? Likes roofs? Has his favorites all picked out?”

“I think he had a couple of escape routes figured out, just in case. And, yeah, I think he's a creature of habit.”

“He's most definitely a creature.”

The elevator bell rang, and Sampson and I scrambled out, guns first. We could see the Capitol in the distance. Also the Statue of Freedom. Pretty sight under other circumstances.

Weird, now. Kind of sad.

I couldn't stop thinking about Shanelie Green. I kept seeing her brutalized face. What had he hit her with? How many times?

Why? I wanted to catch this bastard so bad, it hurt. Hurt my body; hurt my head even worse.

We moved away from the building, and I finally spotted Chucky outlined against the skyline. My heart sank.

Chucky did have an escape route in mind. He had thought about this before. Somebody coming to get him. He sure was acting guilty. He had to be our killer.

“Fuck you, peachfuzz!” he screeched, taunting us again.

Then he took off on a long, running start. He had a powerful stride -- a long stride.

“No,” I moaned. “No, no, no.”

I knew what he was going to do.

Perez was going to jump from building to building.

“Stop, you son of a bitch,” Sampson shouted, “or I will shoot!”

But he didn't stop. We watched him take a flying leap.

We ran to the edge of the roof, both of us screaming at the top of our lungs. There was a second office building catty-corner to our roof. The top of that building was a floor below where Sampson and I now stood.

Chop-It-Off-Chucky was airborne between the buildings, the glass-and-steel caverns.

“Jesus!” I gasped as I peered straight down over the side. The gap between the buildings was at least twenty feet wide, maybe more.

“Fall, you bastard. Hit a wall,” Sampson yelled at the flying figure. “Go down, Chucky!”

He done this before. He practiced his escape, I thought as I watched. No wonder he never been caught. How many years on the loose? How many kids molested or murdered?

We had our guns out, but neither of us fired. We had no proof that he was the killer. He had only run from us, had never pointed a weapon. Now, this insane leap from one office building to another.

Chucky looked suspended in motion sixteen floors up. A long, long way down.

Something was wrong.

Chucky was pumping his legs furiously It was as if he were trying to pedal a bike straight across the sky His long arms reached out, muscles hard and taut. His lead leg stretched until it was almost straight out from his body. Nike sneaker-poster stuff.

His frame was stiff, like a runner caught in a prizewinning photograph.

“Jesus Christ,” Sampson whispered at my side. I felt his warm breath on my cheek.

Chucky's arm was outstretched, but his hand barely touched the restraining wall on the roof of the nearby office building, his legs still pumping in midair.

Then Chop-It-Off-Chucky screamed -- bloodcurdling sounds, muffled only by the windows and walls of the two buildings.

He continued to shriek as he fell twenty stories. His arms and legs were flailing, stroking the air at a futile, furious pace.

As I watched, I saw his body suddenly twist in midair.

He looked up at me -- still screaming in a hopeless, plaintive way, screaming with his mouth and his eyes, and that bushy red beard, screaming. Chucky was dying as I watched. The fall seemed to take forever. Four or five seconds that seemed like an eternity My stomach was falling with him. I experienced vertigo. The narrow alley below was a spinning gray band. The buildings, the canyon, seemed so steep and dark and faraway Then I heard Chucky hit the pavement. Splat! It was other-worldly to hear.

I stared at the crumpled body spread-eagled down below. I could feel no joy in it, though. There was nothing even remotely human about it. It was crushed like the side of Shanelle Green's face, Chucky's unearthly screams still echoed inside my brain.

“Flameout,” Sampson said at my side. “Case closed. Score one for the peachfuzz.”

I holstered my semiautomatic. Emmanuel Perez had practiced his escape, but he hadn't practiced enough.

MAJOR FAKEOUT. Faked you out something fierce, didn't I? I faked you all out.

The real Sojourner Truth School killer was alive and well. The killer couldn't have been any better, thank you very much. He had just committed the perfect crime, hadn't he? He had just gotten away with murder.

Yes, he sure as hell had. Scot-free. The crackerjack Washington police had caught and toasted the wrong twisted asshole. Somebody named Emmanuel Perez had paid for his sins, paid with his life, paid in full.

All he had to do now was cool it, he knew. That was what he had to concentrate on. He had already decided to hide out for a while -- inside his mind.

He was cruising the Pentagon City mall in Arlington.

He was getting absolutely rabid as he strolled through The Gap, and then Victoria's Secret. He was obsessing about how to get back at -- anybody and everybody. At tout le monde -- pardon his French, s'il vous plait.

A song, an oldie he'd heard that morning on MTV, was stuck in his head. The lyrics had been bouncing around in his skull like ?ing-Pong balls for the last couple of hours. He could hear the singer, Beck, a hopeless geek from Los Angeles: I'm a loser, baby. So why don't you kill me?

I'm a loser, baby. So why don't you kill me? he repeated the lyric in his head.

I'm a loser, baby. So why don't you kill me?

He loved the way the dumb-ass lyrics worked two ways for him. They were about him, and they were about his potential victims. Everything was an irritating circle, right? Life was beautiful in its screwy simplicity, right?

WRONG! Life was not beautiful. Not at all.

He was watching a little sucker now, a potential victim who looked way too good to pass up. The.Truth School killer loitered inside the Toys “R” Us at the mall Since it was the holiday season, the store was jam-packed with idiots.

The overhead speakers were playing the chain's irritating and moronic theme song: “I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid.” Over and over and over, the kind of mindless repetition that kids loved. The sheer number of insane toys, the spoiled-rotten little kids, the smug-looking mothers and fathers, the whole raw deal made him feel hot, thickheaded, and almost physically sick.

I don't want to grow up, either, he said to himself. I'm a Toys “R” Us kid killer.

He watched his chosen little boy as the kid wandered alone down a wide aisle chock-full of action games. The boy was five or so, a very manageable age.

The anger button inside his head was going off like a powerful alarm. WOM! WOM! WOM! The terrible feeling quickly spread to his chest. WOM! WOM! It was tense and uncomfortable. Both his hands were clenched tight. So was his stomach. The back of his neck. His brain was clutching, too.

Be careful now, he cautioned himself. Don't make any mistakes.

Remember if you do perfect crimes.

THIS WAS GOING TO BE a mite tricky going, though, working in the crowded Toys “R” Us store. What if the boy's parents were close by? WHICH THEY DEFINITELY WERE! What if he were caught? WHICH HE WOULDN'T BE! COULDN'T BE!

That was incredibly important to him. Just watching the attractive, round-faced, sandy-haired boy, he could feel how badly this particular kid would be missed and, even better, mourned.

He needed to imagine the stories that would bombard the television screens and the thrill of watching them, knowing he was responsible for so much pain and suffering and emergency activity.

The little boy was getting itchy in his woolens and starting to panic a little. He had big crocodile tears brimming in his eyes.

There didn't seem to be anybody, any adult, anywhere around him. Poor Little Boy Lost. Poor Little Boy Blue.

The killer began to move in on his prey, slowly and carefully.

He couldn't stop now. His heart was beating like a big tin drum, and he loved the powerful sensation. His legs and arms were a little wobbly. Jell-O city. His vision tunneled; he was dizzy with anticipation, fear, dread, exhilaration.

Do it.

Now!

He bent, picked up the boy, and immediatelyoking mothers and fathers, the whole raw deal made him feel hot, thickheaded, and almost physically sick.

I don't want to grow up, either, he said to himself. I'm a Toys “R” Us kid killer.

He watched his chosen little boy as the kid wandered alone down a wide aisle chock-full of action games. The boy was five or so, a very manageable age.

The anger button inside his head was going off like a powerful alarm. WOM! WOM! WOM! The terrible feeling quickly spread to his chest. WOM! WOM! It was tense and uncomfortable. Both his hands were clenched tight. So was his stomach. The back of his neck. His brain was clutching, too.

Be careful now, he cautioned himself. Don't make any mistakes.

Remember if you do perfect crimes.

THIS WAS GOING TO BE a mite tricky going, though, working in the crowded Toys “R” Us store. What if the boy's parents were close by? WHICH THEY DEFINITELY WERE! What if he were caught? WHICH HE WOULDN'T BE! COULDN'T BE!

That was incredibly important to him. Just watching the attractive, round-faced, sandy-haired boy, he could feel how badly this particular kid would be missed and, even better, mourned.

He needed to imagine the stories that would bombard the television screens and the thrill of watching them, knowing he was responsible for so much pain and suffering and emergency activity.

The little boy was getting itchy in his woolens and starting to panic a little. He had big crocodile tears brimming in his eyes.

There didn't seem to be anybody, any adult, anywhere around him. Poor Little Boy Lost. Poor Little Boy Blue.

The killer began to move in on his prey, slowly and carefully.

He couldn't stop now. His heart was beating like a big tin drum, and he loved the powerful sensation. His legs and arms were a little wobbly. Jell-O city. His vision tunneled; he was dizzy with anticipation, fear, dread, exhilaration.

Do it.

Now!

He bent, picked up the boy, and immediately started smiling and talking the happiest, friendliest barf-babble he could come up with.

“Hi there, I'm Roger the Artful Dodger. I work here at Toys 'R' Us. What kind of fantastical toys do you like best, huh? We've got every' kind of toy in the whole wide world, 'cause we're the world's biggest, coolest toy store. Yahoo! How 'bout that? Let's go find your superpathetic mom and dad!”

The boy actually smiled up at him. Kids could do weird mood changes like that. His beautiful blue eyes sparkled, glistened; something wet and wonderful happened. “I want Mighty Max,” he proclaimed as if he were Richie Rich instead of Little Boy Lost.

"Okay, then come with me. One Mighty Max coming up!

Why? 'Cause you're a Toys 'R' Us kid."

He cradled the boy in his arms and began to hurry up the wide shopping aisle toward the front of the store. Suddenly, he knew he could get away with it, even something this audacious and shocking, with almost a hundred eyewitnesses in the store. Hey, he was the new Pied Piper. Kids loved him.

“We'll get a Vac-Man. Then how about X-men? Or how about a Stretch Armstrong?”

“Mighty Max,” the little boy repeated, stuck on his one track.

“I only want Mighty Max.”

The killer peeked out of aisle three. He was less than thirty feet from the store's front exit. The mall parking lot bordered on Columbia Park, which had been part of his escape package from the start.

He took a couple of fast steps, then stopped dead in his tracks at the front of the store.

Shit! A couple in their late twenties were walking toward him!

The woman looked just like Little Boy Blue.

They had him... dead to rights. They had him nailed! They had him!

He knew what he had to do, so he never panicked for a nanosecond.

Except for the two or three major heart attacks he had on the inside. Well, here goes everything. Time to bet the ranchero.

“Hey, hi there.” He smiled broadly and went into his best stand-up routine ever. “This little guy belong to you? He was lost in the action-figure section. Nobody came for him. I figured I better bring him up to the store manager. Little guy was crying his eyes out. You his mom?”

The mother reached out for her precious bundle of joy, while at the same time throwing her husband a dirty look.

Aha, there was our villain! Pop was obviously the one who had lost the boy in the first place. Pops couldn't get anything right these days, could they! His own pop sure hadn't been able to.

“Thank you, so much,” the mom said. She tossed another incredibly nasty look to pop. “That was very sweet of you,” she told the killer.

He continued to hold his best smile. Man, he was acting his heart out. “Anybody would do the same thing. He's a nice little boy. Well, so long. Bye-bye. He wants a Mighty Max. That's probably what he was searching for.”

“Yes, he does want Mighty Max. Bye. Thanks again,” said the mom.

“Bye-bye,” the little boy mimicked, waving his hand.

“Bye-bye.”

“Hope see ya some other time,” said the Sojourner Truth School killer. “Bye-bye.” You morons! You incredible idiots.

You pathetic simps.

He walked away from the family. Never looked back once.

He was wetting his pants, but he was also beginning to laugh.

He couldn't stop himself from laughing. Here was another thing in his favor -- even if he was caught someday -- they wouldn't believe that he was the Truth School killer. No way in hell.

AH, THIS WAS MUCH BETTER. Life was good again. I opened my eyes and Jannie was there, staring at me from about three feet away. Jannie had Rosie the cat in her arms. Jannie likes to watch me sleep sometimes. I like to watch her sleep, too. Fair is fair.

“Hey there, sweetness and light,” I said to her. “You know the song, ”Someone To Watch Over Me'? You remember that one?"

I hummed a couple of bars for her.

Jannie nodded her head yes. She knew the song. She'd heard me play it on the piano downstairs, on our porch. “You have guests,” she announced.

I sat up in bed. “How long have they been here?”

“They just came. Nana sent me and Rosie up to get you. She's making them coffee. You, too. You have to get up.”

“Is it Sampson and Rakeem Powell?” I asked.

Jannie shook her head. She seemed unusually shy this morning, which isn't really like her. “They're white men.”

I was starting to wake up in a hurry “I see. You happen to catch the names?” Suddenly, I thought I knew the names. I solved the mystery myself-- at least, I thought I had.

Jannie said, “Mr. Pittman and Mr. Clouser.”

“Very good,” I complimented her.

Not good, not good at all, I was thinking about my “guests.” I didn't want to see the chief of detectives, or the police commissioner -- especially not in my house.

Especially not for the reason I imagined that they were here to see me.

Jannie bent and gave me my morning kiss. Then a second kiss.

“Oh, what lies there are in kisses,” I winked and said to her.

“Nope,” she said. “Not my kisses.”

It took me less than five minutes to get as ready as I was going to get for this. Nana was entertaining our visitors in the parlor.

Commissioner Clouser had come to my house twice before. This was a first for the chief of detectives. The Jefe. I assumed that Clouser had forced him to come.

ChiefPittman and Commissioner Clouser were sipping Nana's steaming coffee, smiling at a story she was spinning for them. I wondered what it was she had decided to get off her chest. This was a dangerous time -- for Pittman and Clouser.

“I was just rebuking these gentlemen for allowing Emmanuel Perez to roam our streets for so long,” she told me as I entered the parlor. “They promised not to let that sort of thing happen again. Should I believe them, Alex?”

Both Pittman and Clouser chuckled as they looked at me.

Neither of them realized this was no chuckling matter, and that my grandmother was no one to mess with or, even worse, condescend to in her house.

“No, you shouldn't believe one word they say Are you finished now?” I asked her, returning her sweet, phony smile with one of my own.

“I didn't think I could trust either of them. I wanted to get their promise in writing,” Nana said.

I nodded and smiled, as if she'd just made a joke, which I knew she hadn't. She was dead serious. The Jefe and Commissioner Clouser both laughed heartily They thought Nana Mama was a stitch. She isn't. She's the whole nine yards.

“Can the three of us talk in here?” I asked her. “Or should we go outside for our discussion?”

“I'll go in my kitchen,” Nana evil-eyed me and said. “So nice to meet you, Chief Pittman, Commissioner Clouscr. Don't forget your promise. I won't.”

Once she had left the room, the commissioner poke right up “Well, congratulations are in order, Alex. I understand that you found all kinds of kiddie porn in Manuel Pcrez's apartment.”

“Detective Sampson and I found the pornography,” I said.

Then I was silent. I had decided not to make this easy for them.

Actually, I agreed one hundred percent with the point Nana had been trying to make.

“I'm sure you're wondering what we're doing here, so let me explain,” Chief of Detectives Pittman spoke up. He and I were not close, to put it mildly. Never had been, never would be.

Pittman is a bully and also a closet racist, and those are his better points. He could never seem to see a belt without wanting to hit below it.

“I'd appreciate it,” I said to The Jefe. “I was thinking that maybe you had just been in the neighborhood and you dropped by for my grandmother's coffee. It's worth a trip.”

Pittman didn't come close to breaking a smile. "We received a formal request from the FBI late last night. They've asked that you work on the investigation of Senator Fitzpatrick's murder.

Special Agent Kyle Craig strongly suggested that your background and recent experience might serve the investigation well.

Obviously, it's an important case, Alex."

I let Chief Pittman finish, then I slowly shook my head no.

“I've got a half-dozen open homicides here in Southeast,” I said.

"The case I just worked on should have been solved months ago.

Then another little girl wouldn't have died for no goddamn reason. A homicide detective got reassigned off the killer's trail back then.

Now a little girl is dead. Six years old."

“This is a major case, Alex,” the commissioner said. He had snow-white hair. His face was bright red, which happened when he was angry or disturbed. The two of us went back some. Usually, we went along, got along. Maybe not this time.

"Tell the FBI that I can't be spared for this Jack and Jill mess.

I'll call Kyle and make my peace with him. Kyle will understand.

I'm on several homicide cases in Southeast. People die here, too.

We have our own messes, and even major cases."

“Let me ask you something, Alex,” the police commissioner said. He smiled gently as he spoke. Lots of beautifully capped white teeth. I could have played some sweet Gershwin on them, though maybe some key-slamming Little Richard would have been more satisfying.

“Do you still want to be a cop?” he asked.

That one landed, and it stung. It was a sucker punch, but a pretty good one.

“I want to be a good cop,” I said to him. “I want to do some good if I possibly can. Same as always. Nothing's changed.”

“That's the right answer,” the commissioner said as if I were a child who needed his instruction. "You're on the Jack and Jill investigation. It's been decided in very high places. You have experience with these kinds of murders, with lunatic psychotics.

You are officially off all your other cases. Now, be a very good cop, Alex. The FBI is almost certain Jack and Jill are going to kill again."

So was I, so was I.

And I felt the very same thing about the Sojourner Truth School killer.

I RESISTED the unique charms of the Jack and Jill case for one more day. Half a day, anyway. I tried to clear a few things on my watch in Southeast. I was furious about what had happened with Clouser and Pittman.

Shanelie Green had died because more detectives hadn't been assigned to find Chop-It-Off-Chucky, hadn't given Alvin Jackson the time of day The whole sorry affair was race-related, no way around it, and it made me both angry and sad.

I came home early and spent the evening with Nana and the kids. I wanted to make sure they were okay after the murder at the Sojourner Truth School. At least that horror tale had been solved. But I still wasn't over the child killing. I couldn't get past it for a lot of reasons.

For half an hour or so, I gave Damon andJannie their weekly boxing lesson in the basement. To Damon's credit, he's never complained that the sessions include his sister. He just puts on the gloves.

They're becoming tough little pugs, but more important, they're learning when not to fight. Not many kids mess with them at school, but that's mainly because they're nice kids and know how to get along.

“Watch that footwork, Damon,” I told him. “You're not supposed to be putting out a fire with your feet.”

“You're supposed to be dancing,” Jannie threw a little verbal jab at her brother. “Step, right. Back. Step, step, left.”

“I'll do a dance on you in a minute,” Damon warned her off, and then they both laughed like hell.

A little later, we were upstairs in front of the tube. Jannie was crossing her small arms, squinting her brown eyes, and making a tough-as-nails face at me. It was her official, nonnegotiable bedtime, but she had decided to lodge a protest.

“No, Daddy. Nope, nope, nopeee,” she said. “Your watch is too fast.”

“Yes Jannie. Yep, yep yepeee.” I held my ground, held my own against my chief nemesis. “My watch is too slow.”

“No, siree. No way,” she said.

“Yes, indeedee. No escaping it. You're busted.”

The long arm of the law finally reached out and corralled another repeat offender. I grabbed Jannie off the couch and carried my little girl up to bed at eight-thirty on the dot. Law and order reigns at the Cross house.

“Where we going, Daddy?” she giggled against my neck. “Are we going out for ice cream? I'll have pralines 'n' cream.”

“In your dreams.”

As I tightly held Jannie in my arms, I couldn't help thinking about little Shanelle Green. When I had seen Shanelle in that school yard, I was scared. I'd thought of Jannie. It was a vicious circle that kept playing inside my head.

I lived in fear of the human monsters coming to our house.

One of them had come here a few years back. Gary Soneji. That time no one had been hurt, and we had been very lucky Jannie and I had worked out a prayer that we both liked.

She knelt beside her bed and said the words in a beautiful little whisper.

Jannie said, “God up in heaven, my grandma and my daddy love me. Even Damon loves me. I thank you, God, for making me a nice person, pretty and funny sometimes. I will always try to do the right thing, if I can. This is Jannie Cross saying goodnight.”

“Amen Jannie Cross,” I smiled and said to my girl. I loved her more than life itself. She reminded me of her mother in the best possible way. “I'll see you in the morning. I can't wait.”

Jannie grinned and her eyes widened suddenly. She popped back up in bed. “You can see me some more tonight. Just let me stay up,” she said. “I scream for ice cream.”

“You are funny,” I said and kissed her goodnight. “And pretty and smart.” Man, I love her and Damon so much. I knew that was why the child murder had really gotten under my skin. The madman had struck too close to our house.

Maybe for that reason Damon and I went for a walk a little later that night. I draped my arm over my son's shoulders. It seemed as if every day he got a little bigger, stronger, harder. We were good buddies, and I was glad it had worked out this way so far.

The two of us strolled in the direction of Damon's school. On the way, we passed a Baptist church with angry, dark-red and black graffiti markings: I don't care 'boutJeez, ' causeJeez don't care 'bout me. That was a common sentiment around here, especially among the young and restless.

One of Damon schoolmates had died at the Sojourner Truth School. What a horrible tragedy, and yet he had already seen so much of it. Damon had witnessed a death in the street, one young man shooting another over a parking space, when he was only six years old.

"You ever get afraid to be at the school? Tell me the truth.

Whatever you really feel is okay to say, Damon,“ I gently reminded him. ”I get afraid sometimes, too. Beavis and Butt-head scares me. Ren and Stimpy, too."

Damon smiled, and he shrugged his shoulders. “I'm afraid sometimes, yeah. I was shivering on our first day back. Our school isn't going to close down, is it?”

I smiled on the inside, but kept a straight face. “No, there'll be classes as usual tomorrow. Homework, too.”

“I did it already,” Damon answered defensively. Nana has him a little too sensitive about grades, but that probably isn't so terribly bad. “I get mostly all OKs, just like you.”

“Mostly all Ks,” I laughed. “What kind of sentence is that?”

“Accurate.” He grinned like a young hyena who had just been told a pretty good joke on the Serengeti.

I grabbed Damon in a loose, playful headlock. I gently slid my knuckles over the top of his short haircut. Noogies. He was okay for now. He was strong, and he was a good person. I love him like crazy, and I wanted him to always know that.

Damon wiggled out of the headlock. He danced a fancy Sugar Ray Leonard-style two-step and fired a few quick, testing punches at my stomach. He was showing me what a tough little cub he was. I had no doubt about it.

Right about then I noticed someone leaving the school building.

It was the same woman I'd seen in the early morning of Shanelie Green's murder. The one who had blown me away then.

She was watching Damon and me tussle on the sidewalk. She had stopped walking to watch us.

She was tall and slender, almost six feet. I couldn't see her face very well in the shadows of the school building. I remembered her from the other morning, though. I remembered her self-confidence, a sense of mystery I'd felt about her.

She waved, and Damon waved back. Then she headed down to the same dark blue Mercedes, which was parked up against the wall of the building.

“You know her?” I asked.

“That's the new principal of our school,” Damon informed me.

“That's Mrs. Johnson.”

I nodded. Mrs. Johnson. “She works late. I'm impressed. How do you like Mrs. Johnson?” I asked Damon as I watched her walk to her car. I remembered that Nana had talked about the principal and been very positive about her, calling her “inspirational” and saying she had a sweet disposition.

She was certainly attractive, and seeing her made my heart ache just a little. The truth was, I missed not having someone in my life. I was getting over a complicated friendship I'd had with a woman- Kate McTiernan. I had been working a lot, avoiding the whole issue that fall. I was still avoiding it that night.

Damon didn't hesitate with his answer to my question. “I like her. Everybody likes Mrs. Johnson. She's tough, though. She's even tougher than you are, Daddy,” he said.

She didn't look so tough with her Mercedes sedan, but I had no reason not to believe my son. She was definitely brave to be in the school alone at night. Maybe a little too brave.

“Let's head on home,” I finally said to Damon. “I just remembered this is a school night for you.”

“Let's stay up and watch the Bullets play the Orlando Magic,” he coaxed and grabbed onto my elbow.

“Oh -- sure. No, let's get Jannie up and we'll all pull an all-nighter,” I said and laughed loudly. We both laughed, sharing the jokey moment.

I slept in with the kids that night. I was definitely not over the murder at the Truth School. Sometimes, we'll throw blankets and pillows on the floor and sleep there as if we were homeless. It gives Nana fits, but I believe she thrives on her fits, so we make certain she has one every other week or so.

As I lay there with my eyes open, and both kids sleeping peacefully, I couldn't help thinking about Shanelie Green. It was the last thing I needed to think about. Why had someone brought the body back to the school yard? I wondered. There are always loose ends on cases, but this one made no sense, so it concerned me. It was a piece that didn't fit in a puzzle that was supposed to be finished.

Then I began thinking about Mrs. Johnson for a moment or two. That was a better place to be. She's even tougher than you are, Daddy. What a glowing recommendation from my little man. It was almost a dare. Everybody likes Mrs. Johnson, Damon had said.

I wondered what her first name was. I made a wild guess -- Christine. The name just came to me. Christine. I liked the sound of it in my head.

I finally nodded off to sleep. I slept with the kids in the pile of blankets and pillows on the bedroom floor. No monsters visited us that night. I wouldn't let them.

The dragonslayer was on guard. Tired and sleepy and oversentimental, but ever so watchful.

THIS WAS REALLY NUTS, insane, demented. It was so great The killer wanted to go for it again, right now. Right this minute. He wanted to do the two of them. What a gas that would be. What a large charge. A real shockeroo.

He had watched them from afar --father and son. He thought of his own father, the totally worthless prick. up and watch the Bullets play the Orlando Magic," he coaxed and grabbed onto my elbow.

“Oh -- sure. No, let's get Jannie up and we'll all pull an all-nighter,” I said and laughed loudly. We both laughed, sharing the jokey moment.

I slept in with the kids that night. I was definitely not over the murder at the Truth School. Sometimes, we'll throw blankets and pillows on the floor and sleep there as if we were homeless. It gives Nana fits, but I believe she thrives on her fits, so we make certain she has one every other week or so.

As I lay there with my eyes open, and both kids sleeping peacefully, I couldn't help thinking about Shanelie Green. It was the last thing I needed to think about. Why had someone brought the body back to the school yard? I wondered. There are always loose ends on cases, but this one made no sense, so it concerned me. It was a piece that didn't fit in a puzzle that was supposed to be finished.

Then I began thinking about Mrs. Johnson for a moment or two. That was a better place to be. She's even tougher than you are, Daddy. What a glowing recommendation from my little man. It was almost a dare. Everybody likes Mrs. Johnson, Damon had said.

I wondered what her first name was. I made a wild guess -- Christine. The name just came to me. Christine. I liked the sound of it in my head.

I finally nodded off to sleep. I slept with the kids in the pile of blankets and pillows on the bedroom floor. No monsters visited us that night. I wouldn't let them.

The dragonslayer was on guard. Tired and sleepy and oversentimental, but ever so watchful.

THIS WAS REALLY NUTS, insane, demented. It was so great The killer wanted to go for it again, right now. Right this minute. He wanted to do the two of them. What a gas that would be. What a large charge. A real shockeroo.

He had watched them from afar --father and son. He thought of his own father, the totally worthless prick.

Then he saw the tall, pretty schoolteacher wave and get into her car. Instinctively, he hated her, too. Worthless black bitch.

Phony teacher smile spread all over her face.

POW! POW! POW!

Three perfect headshots.

Three exploding head melons.

That what they all deserved. Summary executions.

A really rude thought was forming in his mind as he watched the scene near the school. He already knew a lot of things about Alex Cross. Cross was his detective, wasn't he? Cross had been assigned to his case, right? So Cross was his meat. A cop, just like his own father had been.

The really interesting thing was that nobody had paid much attention to the first killing. The murder had almost gone unnoticed. The papers in Washington had barely picked it up. Same with TV. Nobody cared about a little black girl in Southeast. Why the hell should they?

All they cared about was Jack and Jill. Rich white people afraid for their lives. Scary! Well, fuck Jack and Jill. He was better than Jack and Jill, and he was going to demonstrate it.

The school principal drove past his hiding place in a cluster of overgrown bushes. He knew who she was, too. Mrs. Johnson of the Truth School. The Whitney Houston of Southeast, right?

Screw her, man.

His eyes slowly drifted back to Alex Cross and his son. He felt anger rising inside him, steam building up. It was as if his secret button had been pushed again. The hair on his neck was standing at attention. He was beginning to see red, feeling spraying mists of red in his brain. Somebodyblood, right? Cross's? His son's? He loved the idea of them dying together. He could see it, man.

He followed Alex Cross and his kid home- in his rage state -- but keeping a safe distance. He was thinking about what he was going to do next.

He was better than Jack and Jill. He'd prove it to Cross and everyone else.

THE FESTIVE charity gala for the Council on Mental Health was being held at the Pension Building on F Street and Fourth on Friday night. The grand ballroom was three stories, with huge marble columns everywhere, and more than a thousand guests noisily seated around a glistening working fountain. The waiters and waitresses wore Santa Claus hats. The band broke into a lively swing version of “Winter Wonderland.” What great fun.

The guest speaker for the evening was none other than the Princess of Wales. Sam Harrison was there as well. Jack was there.

He observed Princess Di closely as she entered the glittering, stately ballroom. Her entourage included a financier rumored to be her next husband, the Brazilian ambassador and his wife, and several celebrities from the chic American fashion world: Ironically, two of the models in the group appeared to suffer from anorexia nervosa m the flip side of bulimia, the nervous disorder that had plagued Diana for the previous dozen years.

Jack moved a few steps closer to Princess Di. He was in-trigned, and had serious questions about the quality of her security arrangement. He watched the Secret Service boys make a discreet sweep, then remain on duty nearby, earphones at the ready A formal toastmaster had been brought all the way from England to properly salute the queen- the council's presidentand host Walter Annenberg. The ambassador spoke briefly, then a lavish, though overcooked and underspiced, din-her followed: baby lamb with sauce Niqoise and haricots verts.

When the princess finally rose to speak during dessert, an orange almond tart with orange sauce and Marsala cream, Jack was less than thirty feet away from her. She wore an expensive gold sheath of taffeta with sequins, but he found her somewhat gawky, at least to his taste. Her large feet made him think of the cartoon character Daisy Duck. Princess Daisy, that was his moniker for Di.

Diana's speech at the gala was very personal, if familiar, to those who had followed her life closely. A troubled childhood and adolescence, a debilitating search for perfection, feelings of self-revulsion and low personal esteem. All this had led to what she spoke of as her “shameful friend,” bulimia.

Jack found the speech strangely off-putting and cloying. He wasn't at all touched by Diana's self-pity, or the near hysteria that seemed to reside just below the surface of her performance --perhaps her entire life.

The audience clearly had a different reaction, even the usually cool-as-ice Secret Service guards seemed to react emotionally to the popular Di. The applause when she had finished speaking was thunderous and seemed heartfelt and sincere.

Then the entire room stood up Jack included, and continued the warm, noisy tribute. He could almost have reached out and touched Di. Here to bulimia, he wanted to call out. Here's to worthwhile causes of all kinds.

It was time for him to move into action again. It was time for number two in the Jack and Jill story. Time for a lot of things to begin.

It was also his turn to be the star tonight- to solo, as it were. He had been watching another well-known personality that evening at the party He had watched her, studied her habits and mannerisms on a few other occasions as well.

Natalie Sheehan was physically striking, much more so than Di, actually The much-admired TV newswoman was blond, about five eight in heels. She wore a simple, classic, black silk dress. She oozed charm, but especially class. First class. Natalie Sheehan had been aptly described as “American royalty, an American princess.”

Jack started to move at a little past nine-thirty Guests were already dancing to an eight-piece band. The breezy chitchat was flowing freely: Marion Gingrich's business dealings, trade problems with China, John Major's problems du jour, planned ski trips to Aspen, Whistler, or Alta.

She had downed three margaritas -- straight up, with salt around the rim. He had watched her. She didn't show it but she had to be feeling something, had to be a little high.

She was an extremely good actor, Jack was thinking as he came up beside her at one of the complimentary bars. She a master of the one-night stand and the one-weekend affair. Jill had researched the hell out of her. I know everything about you, Natalie.

He took two sidelong steps, and suddenly they were face to face. They nearly collided, actually He could smell her perfume.

Flowers and spices. Very nice. He even knew the delightful fragrance's name- ESCADA acre 2. He'd read that it was Natalie's favorite.

“I'm sorry. Excuse me,” he said, feeling his cheeks redden.

“No, no. I wasn't looking where I was going. Clumsy me,” Natalie said and smiled. It was her killer TV close-up smile.

Really something to experience firsthand.

Jack smiled back, and suddenly his eyes communicated recognition.

He knew her. “You never forgot a name, or a face, not in eleven years of broadcasting,” he said to Natalie Sheehan. “That's an accurate quote, I believe.”

Natalie didn't miss a beat. "You're Scott Cookson. We met at the Meridian. It was in early September. You're a lawyer with...

a prestigious D.C. law firm. Of course."

She laughed at her small joke. Nice laugh. Beautiful lips and perfectly capped teeth. The Natalie Sheehan. His target for the evening.

“We did meet at the Meridian?” she said, checking her facts like the good reporter she was. “You are Scott Cookson?”

“We did, and I am. You had another affair to attend after that, at the British embassy.”

“You seem never to forget a face or factoid, either,” she said.

The smile remained fixed. Perfect, glowing, almost effervescent.

The TV star in real life, if this was real life.

Jack shrugged, and acted shy, which wasn't so hard to do with Natalie. “Some faces, some factoids,” he said.

She was classically beautiful, extremely attractive at any rate, he couldn't help thinking. The warm heartland smile was her trademark, and it worked very well for her. He had studied it for hours before tonight. He wasn't completely immune to her charms -- not even under the circumstances.

“Well,” Natalie said to him. "I don't have another party after this one. Actually, I'm cutting back on parties. Believe it or not.

This is a good cause, though."

“I agree. I believe in good causes.”

“Oh, and what's your favorite cause, Scott?”

“Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” he said.

“That's my pet cause.”

He tried to look pleasantly surprised that she would remain talking with him. He could play parlor games as well as anyone -- when he had to, when he wanted to.

“If I might be just a little bold,” he said, “would you consider the two of us cutting back together?” His very natural and unassuming smile undercut the forward-sounding line. It was a come-on just the same. There was no disguising that. Natalie Sheehan's answer was tremendously important, to both of them.

She stared at him, slightly taken aback. He'd completely blown it, he thought. Or maybe she was acting now.

Then Natalie Sheehan laughed. It was a hearty laugh, almost raucous. He was sure that no one in America had ever heard it in her prim and proper role as a network television reporter.

Poor Natalie, Jack thought. Number two.

NATALIE TOOK another margarita for the trip home. “A roadie,” she told him and laughed that deep, wonderful laugh of hers again.

“I learned how to party a little bit at St. Catherine's Academy in Cleveland. Then at Ohio State,” she confided as they walked to the garage under the Pension Building. She was trying to show him that she was different from her television persona. Looser, more fun. He got that much, got the message. He even liked her for it. He was noticing that her usually crisp and exact enunciation was just a little off now. She probably thought it was sexy, and she was right. She was actually very nice, very down-to-earth, which surprised him a little.

They took her' car, as Jill had accurately predicted. Natalie drove the silverblue Dodge Stealth a little too fast. All the while she talked rapid-fire, too, but kept it interesting: GATT, Boris Yeltsin's drinking problems, D.C. real estate, campaign-financing reform. She showed herself to be intelligent, informed, high-spirited, and only slightly neurotic about the ongoing struggle between men and women.

“Where are we going?” he finally thought he should ask. He already knew the answer, of course. The Jefferson Hotel.

Natalie's honey trap in D.C. Her place.

“Oh, to my laboratory,” she said. “Why, are you nervous?”

“No. Well, maybe a little nervous,” he said and laughed. It was the truth.

She brought him upstairs to her private office in the Jefferson Hotel on Sixteenth Street. Two beautiful rooms and a spacious bath overlooked downtown. He knew that she also had a house in Old Town Alexandria. Jill had visited there. Just in case.

Just to be thorough. Measure twice. Measure five times, if necessary.

“This place is my treat for myself. A special spot where I can work right here in the city,” she told him. "Isn't the view breathtaking?

It makes you feel as if you own the whole city It does for me, anyway"

“I see what you mean. I love Washington myself,” Jack said.

For a moment he was lost, peering off into the distance. He did love this city and what it was supposed to represent -- at least, he had once upon a time. He still remembered his very first visit here. He had been a marine private, twenty years old. The Soldier.

He quietly surveyed her workspace. Laptop computer, Canon Bubblejet, two VCRs, gold Emmy, pocket OAG. Fresh-cut flowers in a pink vase beside a black ceramic bowl filled with foreign pocket change.

Natalie Sheehan, this is your life. Kind of impressive; kind of sad; kind of over.

Natalie stopped and looked at him closely, almost as if she were seeing him for the first time. "You're very nice, aren't you?

You strike me as being a very genuine person. The genuine article, as they say, or used to say You're a nice guy, aren't you, Scott Cookson?"

“Not really,” he shrugged. He rolled his sparkling blue eyes and an engaging little half-smile appeared. He was good at this: getting the girl -- if it was necessary. Actually, though, under normal circumstances, he never ran around. He was at heart a one-woman guy

“Nobody's really nice in Washington, right? Not after you've lived here for a while,” he said and continued to smile.

“I suppose that's true. I guess that's basically accurate,” she snorted out a raucous laugh, then laughed again. At herself? He could see that Natalie was disappointed a little in his answer.

She wanted, or maybe she needed, something genuine in her life. Well, so did he; and this was it." The game was exquisite, and it was definitely the genuine article. It was so important. It was history. And it was happening right now in this Jefferson Hotel suite.

This irresistible, dangerous game he was playing, this was his life. It was something with meaning, and he felt fulfilled. No, he felt, for the first time in years.

“Hi there, Scott Cookson. Did we lose you for a see?”

"No, no. I'm right here. I'm a here-and-now kind of person.

Just admiring the wonderful view you have here. Washington in the wee hours."

“It's our view for tonight. Yours and mine.”

Natalie made the first physical move, which was also as he had predicted and was therefore reassuring to him.

She came up close to him, from behind. She placed her long slender arms around his chest, bracelets jangling. It was extremely nice. She was highly desirable, almost overpoweringly so, and she knew it. He felt himself become aroused, become extremely hard down the left side of his trousers. That kind of arousal was like a small itch compared to everything else he was feeling now. Besides, he could use it. Let her feel your excitement.

Let her touch you.

“Are you okay with this?” she asked. She actually was nice, wasn't she? Thoughtful, considerate. It was too bad, really Too late to change the plan, to switch targets. Bad luck, Natalie.

“I'm very okay with this, Natalie.”

“Can I take your tie off, tasteful as it is?” she asked.

“I think that ties should be done away with altogether,” he answered.

“No, ties definitely have a place. First Communions, funerals, coronations.”

Natalie was standing very close to him. She could be so sweetly, gently seductive- and that was sad. He liked her more than he'd thought he would. Once upon a time, she had probably been the simple Midwestern beauty she now half pretended to be. He had felt nothing but revulsion for Daniel Fitzpatrick, but he felt a great deal tonight. Guilt, regret, second thoughts, compassion. The hardest thing was killing up close like this.

“How about white pima cotton shirts? Are you a white-shirt man?” Natalie asked.

“Don't like white shirts at all. White shirts are for funerals and coronations. And charity balls.”

“I agree a thousand percent with that sentiment,” Natalie said as she slowly unbuttoned his white shirt. He let her fingers do the walking. They trailed down to his belt. Teasing. Expert at this. She rubbed her palm across his crotch, then quickly took her hand away.

“How about high heels?” Natalie asked.

“Actually, I like those on the right occasion, and on the right woman,” he said. “But I like going barefoot, too.”

“Nicely put. Give a girl her choice. I like that.”

She kicked off just one black slingback, then laughed at her joke. A choice -- one shoe on, one off.

“Silk dresses?” she whispered against his neck. He was rock-hard now. His breathing was labored. So was Natalie's. He considered making love to her first. Was that fair game? Or was it rape? Natalie had managed to confuse the issue for him.

“I can do without those, depending on the occasion, of course,” he whispered back.

“Mmm. We seem to agree on a lot of things.”

Natalie Sheehan slid out of her dress. Then she was in her blue lacy underwear, one shoe, black stockings. Around her neck was a thin gold chain and cross that looked as if it had come with her all the way from Ohio.

Jack still had his trousers on. But no white shirt, no tie. “Can we go in there?” she whispered, indicating the bedroom. ,'It's really nice in there. Same view, only with a fireplace. The fireplace even works. Something actually works in Washington."

“Okay. Well, let's start a fire then.”

Jack picked her up as if she weighed nothing, as if they were both elegant dancers, which in a way they were. He didn't want to care about her, but he did. He forced the thought out of his mind.

He couldn't think like that, like a schoolboy, a Pollyanna, a normal human being.

“Strong, too. Hmmm,” she sighed, finally kicking off the other shoe.

The picture window in the bedroom was astonishing to behold.

The view was north up Sixteenth Street. The streets and Scott Circle below were like a lovely and expensive necklace, jewelry by Harry Winston or Tiffany. Something Princess Di might wear.

Jack had to remind himself that he was stalking Natalie. Nothing must stop this from happening now. The final decision had been made. The die was cast. Literally.

He forced himself not to be sentimental. Just like that! He could be so cold, and so good at this.

He thought about throwing the high-spirited and beautiful newswoman through the plate glass window of her bedroom. He wondered if she would crash through or just bounce back off the glass.

Instead, he set Natalie down gently on a bed covered with an Amish quilt. He pulled out handcuffs from his jacket pocket.

He let her see them.

Natalie Sheehan frowned, her blue eyes widening in disbelief.

She seemed to deflate, to depress, right before his eyes.

“Is this some kind of sick joke?” She was angry with him, but she was also hurt. She figured he was a freak, and she was right beyond her wildest nightmares.

His voice was very low. “No, this isn't a joke. This is very serious, Natalie. You might say that it's newsworthy.”

There was a sudden and very sharp knock at the door to the demi-apartment. He held up a finger for Natalie to be quiet, very quiet.

Her eyes showed confusion, genuine fear, an uncustomary loss of her cool demeanor.

His eyes were cold. They showed nothing at all.

“That's Jill,” he told Natalie Sheehan. “I'm Jack. I'm sorry. I really am.”

I EASED MY WAY inside the Jefferson Hotel just before eight in the morning. A little Gershwin was rolling through my head, trying to soothe the savage, trying to smooth out the jagged edges.

Suddenly, I was playing the bizarre game, too. Jack and Jill. I was part of it now.

The cool dignity of the hotel was being scrupulously main-rained; at least, it was in the elegant front lobby It was difficult to grasp the reality that a bizarre and unspeakable tragedy had struck here, or that it ever could.

I passed a fancy grillroom and a shop displaying couture fashion. A century-old clock gently chimed the hour; otherwise, the room was hushed. There was no sign, not a hint, that the Jefferson m indeed the entire city of Washington -- was in shock and chaos over a pair of grisly, high-profile murders and threats of still more to come.

I am continually fascinated by facades like the one I encountered at the Jefferson. Maybe that's why I love Washington so much. The hotel lobby reminded me that most things aren't what they appear to be. It was a perfect representation for so much that goes on in D.C. Clever facades fronting even morfrom his jacket pocket.

He let her see them.

Natalie Sheehan frowned, her blue eyes widening in disbelief.

She seemed to deflate, to depress, right before his eyes.

“Is this some kind of sick joke?” She was angry with him, but she was also hurt. She figured he was a freak, and she was right beyond her wildest nightmares.

His voice was very low. “No, this isn't a joke. This is very serious, Natalie. You might say that it's newsworthy.”

There was a sudden and very sharp knock at the door to the demi-apartment. He held up a finger for Natalie to be quiet, very quiet.

Her eyes showed confusion, genuine fear, an uncustomary loss of her cool demeanor.

His eyes were cold. They showed nothing at all.

“That's Jill,” he told Natalie Sheehan. “I'm Jack. I'm sorry. I really am.”

I EASED MY WAY inside the Jefferson Hotel just before eight in the morning. A little Gershwin was rolling through my head, trying to soothe the savage, trying to smooth out the jagged edges.

Suddenly, I was playing the bizarre game, too. Jack and Jill. I was part of it now.

The cool dignity of the hotel was being scrupulously main-rained; at least, it was in the elegant front lobby It was difficult to grasp the reality that a bizarre and unspeakable tragedy had struck here, or that it ever could.

I passed a fancy grillroom and a shop displaying couture fashion. A century-old clock gently chimed the hour; otherwise, the room was hushed. There was no sign, not a hint, that the Jefferson m indeed the entire city of Washington -- was in shock and chaos over a pair of grisly, high-profile murders and threats of still more to come.

I am continually fascinated by facades like the one I encountered at the Jefferson. Maybe that's why I love Washington so much. The hotel lobby reminded me that most things aren't what they appear to be. It was a perfect representation for so much that goes on in D.C. Clever facades fronting even more clever facades.

Jack and Jill had committed their second murder in five days. In this serene and very posh hotel. They had threatened several more murders -- and no one had a clue why, or how to stop the celebrity stalking.

It was escalating.

Clearly, it was.

But why? What did Jack and Jill want? What was their sick game all about?

I had already been on the phone very early that morning, talking to my strange friends in abnormal psych at Quantico. One of the advantages I have is that they all know I have a doctorate in psych from Johns Hopkins and they're willing to talk with me, even to share theories and insights. So far, they were stumped.

Then checked in with a contact of mine at the FBI's evidence analysis labs. The evidence hounds didn't have much of anything to go on, either. They admitted as much to me. Jack and Jill had all of us chasing our tails in double time.

Speaking of which, I had been ordered by the chief of detectives to work up “one of your famous psych profiles” on the homicidal couple, if that's what they really were. I felt the task was futile at this point, but hadn't been given a choice by The Jefe. Working at home on my PC, I ran a wide swath through the available Behavioral Science Unit and Violent Criminal Apprehension Program data. Nothing obvious or very useful popped up, as I suspected it wouldn't. It was too early in the chase, and Jack and Jill were too good.

For now at least the correct steps were (1) gather as much information and data as possible; (2) ask the right questions, and plenty of them; (3) start collecting wild hunches on index cards that I would carry around until the end of the case.

I knew about several stalker cases, and I ran the information down in my head. One inescapable fact was that the Bureau now had a database of more than fifty thousand potential and actual stalkers. That was up from less than a thousand in the 1980s. There didn't seem to be any single stalker profile, but many of them shared traits: first and foremost, obsession with the media; need for recognition; obsession with violence and religion; difficulty forming loving relationships of their own. I thought of Margaret Ry, the obsessed fan who had broken into David Letterman's home in Connecticut numerous times. She had called Letterman “the dominant person in my life.” I watch Letterman sometimes myself, but he's not that good.

Then there was the Monica Seles stabbing in Hamburg, Germany Katarina Witt had nearly suffered the same fate at the hand of a “fan.”

Sylvester Stallone, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Jodie Foster had all been seriously stalked and attacked by people who claimed to adore them.

But who were Jack and Jill? Why had they chosen Washington, D.C., for the murders? Had someone in the government harmed one or both of them in some real or imagined way?

What was the link between Senator Daniel Fitzpatrick and the murdered television newswoman Natalie Sheehan? What could Fitzpatrick and Sheehan possibly have in common? They were liberals -- could that be something? Or were the killings radom, and therefore nearly impossible to chart? Random was a nasty word that was sticking in my head more and more as I thought about the case. Random was a very bad word in homicide circles. Random murders were almost impossible to solve.

Most celebrity stalkers didn't murder their prey- at least, they didn't use extreme violence right away. That bothered the hell out of me about Jack and Jill. How long had they been obsessed with Senator Fitzpatrick and Natalie Sheehan? How had they ultimately chosen their victims? Don't let these be random selections and murders. Anything but that.

I was also intrigued by the fact that there were two of them, working closely together.

I had just come off a dizzying, high-profile case in which two friends, two males, had been kidnapping and murdering women for more than thirteen years. They had been cooperating, but also competing with each other. The psychological principle involved was known as twinning.

So what about Jack and Jill? Were theyfreak-friends? Were they romantically involved? Or was their bond something else? Was it a sexual thing for them? That seemed like a reasonable possibility.

Power dominance? A really kinky parlor game, maybe the ultimate sex fantasy? Were they a husband-and-wife team? Or maybe spree killers like Bonnie and Clyde?

Was this the beginning of a gruesome crime spree? A multiple-murder spree in Washington ?

Would it spread elsewhere? To other large cities where celebrities tend to cluster? New York? Los Angeles? Paris? London?

I stepped off the elevator on the seventh floor of the Jefferson Hotel and looked into a corridor of dazed and confused faces.

Judging from the looks at the crime scene, I was pretty much up to speed.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To kill, to kill, to kill.

“THE GOOD DOCTOR CROSS, the master of disaster. Well, I'll be. Alex -- hey, Alex -- over here!”

I was lost in a bad jumble of thoughts and impressions about the murders when I heard my name. I recognized the voice immediately, and it brought a smile to my lips.

I turned and saw Kyle Craig of the FBI. Another dragonslayer, this one originally from Lexington, Massachusetts. Kyle was not your typical FBI agent. He was a totally straight shooter. He wasn't uptight, and he usually wasn't bureaucratic. Kyle and I had worked together on some very bad cases in the past. He was a specialist in high-profile crimes that were marked by extreme violence or multiple murders. Kyle was an expert in the nasty, scary stuff most Bureau agents didn't want to be involved with on a regular basis. Beyond that, he was a friend.

“They've got all the big guns out on this one,” Kyle said as we shook hands in the foyer. He was tall, still gaunt. Distinctive features and strikingly black hair, coal black hair. He had a long hawk's nose that looked sharp enough to cut.

“Who's here so far, Kyle?” I asked him. He would have everything scoped out by now. He was smart and observant, and his instincts were usually good. Kyle also knew who everybody was and how they fit into the larger picture.

Kyle puckered up. He made a face as if he had just sucked on a particularly sour lemon. "Who the hell isn't here, Alex? Detectives from D.C., your own cornpadres. The Bureau, of course.

DEA, believe it or not. The blue suit is CIA. You can tell by the clipped wings. Your close friend Chief Pittman is in visiting with Ms. Sheehan's lovely corpse. They're in the boudoir as we speak."

“Now that's scary,” I said and smiled thinly. “About as grotesque as you can get.”

Kyle pointed to a closed door, which I assumed was the bedroom.

“I don't think they want to be disturbed. A rumor circulating at Quantico has it that Chief of Detectives Pittman is a necrophiliac,” he said with a deadpan look. “Could that be true?”

“Victimless crimes,” I said.

“How about a little respect for the dead,” Kyle said, peering down his nose at me. “Even in death, I'm certain Ms. Sheehan would find a way to rebuff your chief of detectives.”

I wasn't surprised that The Jefe himself had come to the Jefferson. This was developing into the biggest D.C. homicide case in years. It definitely would be if Jack and Jill struck again soon -- as they had promised.

Reluctantly, I parted company with Kyle and walked toward the closed bedroom door. I opened it slowly, as if it might be booby-trapped.

The one and only Chief George Pittman was in the bedroom with a man in a gray suit. Probably a forensics guy. They both glanced around at me. Pittman was chomping on an unlit Bauza cigar. Pittman frowned and shook his head when he saw who it was. Nothing he could do about it. It was Commissioner Clouser's invitation-order that I be on the case. It was obvious that The Jefe didn't want me here.

He muttered “the late Alex Cross” to the other suit. So much for polite introductions and light banter.

The two of them turned back to the famous corpse on the bed.

Chief Pittman had been abusive for no apparent reason. I didn't let it bother me too much. It was business-pretty-much-as-usual with the rude, bullying prick. What a useless bastard, a real horseass. All he ever did was get in the way.

I breathed in slowly a couple of times. Got into the job, the homicide scene. I walked over to the bed and started my routine: the collection of raw impressions.

A G-string was pulled partly over Natalie Sheehan's head, and the waistband was wrapped around her throat. Panties covered her nose, chin, and mouth. Her wide blue eyes were fixed on the ceiling. She was still wearing black stockings and a blue bra that matched the panties.

Here was evidence of kinkiness again, and yet I didn't quite believe it. Everything was too orderly and arranged. Why would they want us to suspect kinky sex might be involved? Was that something? Were Jack and Jill frustrated lovers? Was Jack impotent?

We needed to know whether anyone had sex with the victim.

It was a particularly disturbing death scene. Natalie Sheehan had been dead for about eight hours, according to Kyle's information.

She was no longer beautiful, though, not even close. Ironically, she had taken her biggest news story with her to the grave.

She knew Jack -- and maybe Jill.

I could remember watching her on TV, and it was almost as if someone I knew personally had been murdered. Maybe that's why there's such fascination with celebrity murder cases. We see people like Natalie Sheehan on almost a daily basis; we come to think that we know them. And we believe they lead such interesting lives. Even their deaths are interesting.

I could already see that there were some obvious and striking similarities to the murder of Senator Fitzpatrick. The element of kinky sadism for one thing. Natalie Sheehan was manacled to the bedposts with handcuffs. She was seminude. She also seemed to have been “executed,” just as the senator had been.

The news celebrity had received one close-range gunshot to the left side of her head, which hung to one side as if her long neck had been broken. Maybe it had been.

Was this the Jack and Jill pattern? Organized, efficient, and cold-blooded as hell. Kinky for some reason known only to them.

Pseudokinky ? Sexual obsession, or a sign of impotence? What was the pattern telling us? What was it communicating?

I was beginning to formulate a psychological personality print for the killers. The method and style of the killings were more important to me than any physical evidence. Always. Both murders had been carefully planned -- methodical, very structured, and leisurely --Jack and Jill were playing a cold-blooded game.

So far, there had been no significant slipups that I knew of. The only physical evidence left at the scenes was intentional -- the notes.

Sexual fantasy was obvious -- both in exhibiting the female on her bed and in the senator's case, male mutilation. Did Jack and Jill have trouble with sex?

My initial impression was that both killers were white, somewhere between the ages of thirty and forty-five- probably closer to the latter, based on the high level of organization in both murders. I suspected well above average intelligence, but also persuasiveness and physical attractiveness. That was particularly telling, and bizarre to me -- since the killers had managed to get inside the celebrities' apartments. It was the best clue we had.

There was much more for me to take in, and I did, madly scribbling away in my notepad. Occasionally, TheJefe looked my way and glared at me. Checking up on me.

I wanted to go at him. He represented so many things that were wrong with the department, the Washington PD. He was such a controlling macho asshole, and not half as bright as he thought he was.

“Anything, Cross?” he finally turned and asked in his usual clipped manner.

“Not so far,” I said.

That wasn't the truth. What definitely occurred to me was that Daniel Fitzpatrick and Natalie Sheehan might both have been “promiscuous,” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Maybe Jack and Jill “disapproved” of them. Both bodies had been left exposed, in compromising and very embarrassing positions. The killers seemed preoccupied with sex -- or at least the sex lives of famous people.

Exposed... or to expose I wondered. Exposed for what reason?

“I'd like to look at the note,” I told Pittman, trying to be civil and professional.

Pittman waved a hand in the direction of an end table on the far side of the bed! His gesture was dismissive and rude. I wouldn't treat the rawest rookie patrolman that way. I had shown more respect to Chop-It-Off-Chucky.

I walked over and read the note for myself. It was another poem.

Five lines.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To right another error.

To make it short Her news report Was filled with her own terror.

I shook my head back and forth a few times, but didn't say anything about the note to Pittman. To hell with him. The rhyme didn't tell me much of anything yet. I hoped it would eventually. Actually, the rhymes were clever, but without emotion. What had made these two killers so clever and cold?

I continued to search the bedroom. I was infamous in homicide circles for spending a lot of time at crime scenes. Sometimes I'd spend a whole day. I planned to do the same thing here. Most of the dead woman's effects seemed to tie in with her career, almost as if she had no other life. Videocassettes, expense sheets from her network, a pilfered stapler with CBS engraved on it. I observed the murder scene, and the dead woman, from several angles. I wondered if the killers had taken anything with them.

I couldn't concentrate the way I wanted to, though. Chief Pittman had gotten on my nerves. I had let him get to me.

Why had both victims been left exposed? What was it that connected them in death- at least in the minds of the murderers?

The killers felt compelled to graphically point out certain things to us. In fact, everything about Fitzpatrick and Sheehan was in public view now. Thanks to Jack and Jill.

This is so bad, I thought and had to reach down deep for a breath.

Worst of all, I was completely hooked on the case. I was definitely hooked.

Then everything took a turn for the worse in the bedroom. A bad and unexpected turn.

I was standing near George Pittman when he spoke again, without looking at me. “You come back after we're finished, Cross. Come back later.”

The Jefe's words hung like stale smoke in the air. I had trouble believing that he'd actually said them. I have always tried to act with some respect toward Pittman. It's been hard, nearly impossible most of the time, but I've done it anyway.

“I'm talking to you, Cross,” Pittman raised his voice a notch.

“You hear what I said? Do you hear me?”

Then the chief of detectives did something he shouldn't have, something so bad, something I couldn't look past. He reached out and pushed me with the heel of his hand. Pushed me hard.

I stumbled back a half-step. Caught my balance. Both my fists slowly rose to my chest.

I didn't stop to think. Maybe some stored-up venom and powerful dislike made me act. That was part of it.

I reached out and grabbed Pittman with both hands. This unspoken thing between us, the pattern of disrespect from him, had been building for a couple of years -- at least that long. Now it flared big-time and ugly. It exploded inside the dead woman's bedroom.

George Pittman and i are about the same age. He's not as tall as I am, but he's probably heavier by thirty pounds. He has the squat, blocklike build and look of a football linebacker from the early sixties. He's bad at his job and he shouldn't have it. He resents the hell out of me because I'm decent at what I do. Fucker!

I grabbed and picked him up, right off the floor. I look fairly strong, but I'm actually a lot stronger. Pittman's eyes widened in disbelief and sudden fear.

I slammed him hard against the bedroom wall. Then banged him into the wall a second time. Nothing lethal or too damaging, but definitely a bell-ringer, an attention-grabber.

Each time his body hit, the staid Jefferson Hotel seemed to shake to its very foundation. TheJefe's body went slack. He didn't fight back. He couldn't believe what I'd just done. To be honest, neither could I.

I loosened my grip on Pittman. I finally let him go, and he wobbled on his feet. I knew I hadn't hurt him much physically, but I had hurt his pride. I had also made a big mistake.

I didn't say a word. Neither did the other gray suit in the room.

I took some solace in the fact that Pittman had pushed first. He had started this, and for no reason. I wondered if the other suit had seen it that way, but I doubted it.

I left the crime-scene bedroom. Pittman never spoke to me.

I wondered also if I had just left the Washington Police Department.

“THIS IS AN ALERT! Something is going down at Crown. Up and at 'em, everybody! We've got trouble at Crown. This is a real alert! This is not a drill! This is for real.”

Half a dozen Secret Service agents took the sudden alert very seriously. They watched Jack through Range master binoculars, three sets of them.

Jack was on the move.

They couldn't believe what they were witnessing. Not one of the agents could believe this very bad scene playing out before them. The alert was definitely for real, though.

“It's Jack, all right. What is he -- crazy?”

“We have full visual contact with Jack. Where the hell is he going? Goddamn him. What's going on?”

The six watchers comprised three highly professional teams.

They were all first-teamers, among the best and brightest of more than two thousand Secret Service agents working around the world. They sat inside dark-colored Ford sedans parked on Fifteenth Street Northwest. This was getting very serious, and very scary, in a hurry.

This is a real alert.

This is not a drill.

"Jack is definitely leaving Crown now. It's twenty-three forty.

At this moment, we have Jack in our crosshairs," one of the agents spoke into the car mike.

“Yeah. Jack can be a real tricky fellow, though. He's proven it before. Keep him right in your sights. Where's the lovely Jill, home base?”

“This is home base,” a female agent's voice came onto the line immediately

“Jill is nice and comfy up on the third floor of Crown. She's reading Barbara Bush on Barbara Bush. She's in her jammies. Not to worry about Jill.”

“We're absolutely sure about that?”

“Home base is sure about Jill. Jill's in bed. Jill is being a good girl, for tonight anyway”

“Good for Jill. How the hell did Jack get out?”

“He used that old tunnel between the basement of Crown and the Treasury Building. That's how he got out!”

This is an alert.

This is not a drill.

Jack is on the move.

"Jack is approaching Pennsylvania Avenue now. He's near the Willard Hotel. He just glanced back over his shoulder. Jack's paranoid, as well he should be. I don't think he saw us. Oh, shit, somebody just flashed their high beams in front of the Willard.

A vehicle is pulling out -- and pulling up alongside Jack! RedJeep!

Jack is getting inside the fucking redJeep."

“Roger. So much for having Jack in our damn crosshairs. We'll follow him pronto. Virginia plates on the Jeep. License number two-three-one HCY. Koons dealer sticker. Start a te -- crazy?”

“We have full visual contact with Jack. Where the hell is he going? Goddamn him. What's going on?”

The six watchers comprised three highly professional teams.

They were all first-teamers, among the best and brightest of more than two thousand Secret Service agents working around the world. They sat inside dark-colored Ford sedans parked on Fifteenth Street Northwest. This was getting very serious, and very scary, in a hurry.

This is a real alert.

This is not a drill.

"Jack is definitely leaving Crown now. It's twenty-three forty.

At this moment, we have Jack in our crosshairs," one of the agents spoke into the car mike.

“Yeah. Jack can be a real tricky fellow, though. He's proven it before. Keep him right in your sights. Where's the lovely Jill, home base?”

“This is home base,” a female agent's voice came onto the line immediately

“Jill is nice and comfy up on the third floor of Crown. She's reading Barbara Bush on Barbara Bush. She's in her jammies. Not to worry about Jill.”

“We're absolutely sure about that?”

“Home base is sure about Jill. Jill's in bed. Jill is being a good girl, for tonight anyway”

“Good for Jill. How the hell did Jack get out?”

“He used that old tunnel between the basement of Crown and the Treasury Building. That's how he got out!”

This is an alert.

This is not a drill.

Jack is on the move.

"Jack is approaching Pennsylvania Avenue now. He's near the Willard Hotel. He just glanced back over his shoulder. Jack's paranoid, as well he should be. I don't think he saw us. Oh, shit, somebody just flashed their high beams in front of the Willard.

A vehicle is pulling out -- and pulling up alongside Jack! RedJeep!

Jack is getting inside the fucking redJeep."

“Roger. So much for having Jack in our damn crosshairs. We'll follow him pronto. Virginia plates on the Jeep. License number two-three-one HCY. Koons dealer sticker. Start a trace on the Jeep, now.”

“We're following the red Jeep. We're on Jack's ass. Full alert for the Jackal. Repeat: full alert for the Jackal. This is not a drill!”

“Do not lose Jack tonight of all nights. Do not lose Jack under any circumstances.”

“Roger. We have Jack in plain sight.”

Three dark sedans took off in hot pursuit of the Jeep. Jack was the Secret Service's code name for President Thomas Byrnes.

Jill was the code name for the First Lady. Crown had been the Service's code word for the White House for nearly twenty years.

Most of the current-duty agents genuinely liked President Byrnes. He was a down-to-earth guy, a very regular person as recent presidents went. Not too much bullshit about him. Occasionally, though, the President took off on an unannounced date with some lady friend, either in D.C. or on the road. The Secret Service referred to this as “the president's disease.” Thomas Byrnes was hardly the first to suffer from this malady. John Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and especially Lyndon Johnson had been the worst offenders. It seemed to be a perk of high office.

The coincidence of the names chosen by the two psychopathic killers in D.C., the so-called celebrity stalkers, wasn't lost on the Secret Service. The Secret Service didn't believe in coincidences. They had already met four times on the matter -- long, difficult meetings in the Emergency Command Center in the West Wing basement of the White House. The name for any would-be assassins of the president was Jackal.

Jackal had been used by the Secret Service for more than thirty years.

The “coincidence” of the names worried the PPD, the Presidential Protection Division, a great deal- especially.when President Byrnes decided to go out on one of his unannounced walks, which for obvious reasons didn't include any of his bodyguards.

There were two Jacks and two Jills.

The Secret Service did not, could not, accept this as a coincidence.

“We've lost the red Jeep around the Tidal Basin. We've lost Jack,” an agent's voice suddenly exploded over the car-radio speakers.

Everything was chaos. Full-alert chaos.

This was not a test.

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

PART 2

DRAGONSLAYER

ON MONDAY NIGHT something.finally broke on Jack and Jill.

It was something potentially big. I hoped it wasn't a hoax.

I'd just gotten home to try and catch a bite of dinner with the kids when the phone rang. It was Kyle Craig. He told me a videotaped message, reportedly from Jack and Jill, had been delivered to the CNN studios. The killers had made a home movie for the world to see. Jack and Jill had also sent cover letters to the Washington Post and the New York Times. They were planning to “explain” themselves that night.

I had to rush out before Nana's roast chicken hit the supper table. Jannie and Damon gave me their not-again looks. They were right to think that way.

I hurried to the Union Station section of Washington, around H and North Capitol. I didn't want to be late for the party that Jack andJillwere throwing. This was another example of the two of them demonstrating their control over us.

I arrived at CNN headquarters just in time for the screening and only moments before the video was to be aired on Larry King Live. Senior agents from the FBI and Secret Service were crowded into a low-key, cozy CNN viewing room. So were various techies, administrators, and lawyers from the news network. Everybody looked incredibly tense and uptight.

The room was completely silent as the filmed message from Jack and Jill began. I was afraid to blink. We all were.

“You believe this shit?” somebody finally muttered.

Jack and Jill had been filming us! That was the first shock of the night. They had actually filmed the police outside Senator Fitzpatrick's apartment building a few days earlier. They had been right there in the crowd of onlookers, the ambulance-chasers.

The film was a jarring, documentary-style collage of black and white, with some color. The opening shots were from several angles outside Senator Fitzpatrick's building. It was like a well-made student film, but a little artsy. Then something even more unexpected and powerful came on the screen.

The murderers had filmed the last moments of Senator Fitzpatrick's life, seconds before his murder, I guessed. There were haunting shots of the senator alive. It got worse from there.

We saw graphic shots of Daniel Fitzpatrick, naked, handcuffed to his bed. We heard his voice. “Please don't do this,” he pleaded with his captors. Then we heard the click of a trigger.

A shot was fired only an inch or two from Fitzpatrick's right ear. Then came a second shot. The senator's head exploded on film. People gasped at the awful image and sound that carried the senator into eternity.

“Oh, Jesus! Jesus!” a woman screamed. Several people looked away from the screen. Others covered their eyes. I stayed with it. I couldn't miss anything. This was all vital information for the case that I was trying to understand. This was more valuable than all the DNA testing, serology, and fingerprinting in the world.

The tone of the film suddenly changed after the footage of Fitzpatrick's vicious murder. Images of ordinary people on the streets of unidentified cities and small towns followed the chilling death sequence. A few of the people on camera waved, some smiled broadly, most seemed indifferent as they were being filmed, presumably by Jack and Jill.

The film continued to weave together black-and-white and color footage, but not in a disorderly fashion. Whoever had stitched it together had a decent skill for editing.

One of them is an artist, or at least has strong artistic tendencies, I thought to myself and made a mental note. What kind of artist would be involved in something like this? I was familiar with several theories about links between creativity and psychopaths.

Bundy, Dahmer, even Manson, could be considered “creative” killers. On the other hand, Richard Wagner, Degas, Jean Genet, and many other artists had exhibited psychopathic behavior in their lives, but they didn't kill anyone.

Then, about sixty-five seconds into the film, a narration began.

We heard two voices: a man's and a woman's. Something dramatic was happening. It caught all of us by surprise.

Jack and Jill had decided to speak to us.

It was almost as if the killers were right there in the studio. The two of them alternated speaking as the film collage continued, but both voices had been electronically filtered, presumably so they couldn't be recognized. I would move on unscrambling the voices as soon as the show was over. But the show sure wasn't over yet.

jacK: For a long time, people like us have sat back and taken the injustices dished out by the elite few in this country. We have been patient and suffering and, for the most part, silent.

What is the cynical saying -- don't just do something, sit there ? We have waited for the American system of checks and balances to take hold and work for us. But the system has not worked for a long, long time. Nothing seems to work anymore. Does anyone seriously dispute that?

JXLL: Unscrupulous people, such as lawyers and businessmen, have learned to take advantage of our innocence and our goodwill and, most of all, our generosity of spirit. Let us repeat that important thought--highly unscrupulous people have learned to take advantage of our innocence, our goodwill, and our wonderful American spirit. Many of them are in our government, or work closely with our so-called leaders.

jacK: Look at the faces before you in this film. These are the disenfranchised. These are the people without any hope, or any belief in our country anymore. These are the victims of the violence that originates in Washington, in New York, in Los Angeles. Do you recognize the disenfranchised? Are you one of the victims? We are. We're just another Jack and Jill in the crowd.

JLL: Look at what our so-called leaders have done to us. Look at the despair and suffering our leaders are responsible for. Look at the sickness of cynicism they've created. The dreams and hopes they have wantonly destroyed. Our leaders are systematically destroying America.

jack Look at the faces.

JILL: Look at the faces.

jac: Look at the faces. Now do you understand why we are coming to get you? Do you see?... Just look at the faces. Look at what you have done. Look at the unspeakable crimes you have committed.

ju.: Jack and Jill have come to The Hill. This is why we're here. Beware to all those who work and live in the capital, and attempt to control the rest of us. You've been playing with all of our lives -- now we're going to play with yours. It's our turn to play. It's Jack and Jill's turn.

The film ended with striking images of masses of homeless people in Lafayette Square, right across from the White House.

Then another poem, another warning rhyme.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill On a grave and somber mission.

You've made them mad The time's so bad To be a politician.

jack These are the times that try men without souls. You know who you are. So do we.

“How long does their little masterpiece run?” One of the television producers wanted an answer to the most practical of questions.

CNN was supposed to be on the air live with the film in less than ten minutes.

“Just over three minutes. Seemed like forever, I know,” a technician with a stopwatch reported. “If you're thinking about editing it down, tell me right now.”

I felt a chill after hearing the rhyme, even though the viewing room was warm. No one had left yet. The CNN people were talking among themselves, discussing the film, as if the rest of us weren't even there. The talk-show host was looking pensive and troubled. Maybe he understood where mass communications was heading, and realized it couldn't be stopped.

“We're live in eight minutes,” a producer announced to his crew. “We need this room, people. We're going to make dupes for all of you.”

“Souvenirs,” someone in the crowd quipped. “I saw Jack and Jill on CNN.”

“They're not serial killers,” I said in a soft mumble, more for myself than anyone else. I wanted to hear what the thought, the hunch, sounded like out loud.

I was in the minority, but my belief was strong. They're not pattern killers, not in the ordinary sense. They were extremely organized and careful, though. They were clever or personable enough to get close to a couple of famous people. They had a hang-up with kinky sex, or maybe they just wanted us to think so. They had some kind of overarching cause.

I could still hear their words, their eerie voices on the tape: “On a grave and somber mission.”

Maybe this wasn't a game to them. It was a war.

IT WAS the worst of times; it was the worst of times. On Wednesday morning, just two days after Shanelie Green's murder, a second murdered child was found in Garfield Park, not far from the Sojourner Truth School. This time the victim was a seven-year-old boy. The crime was similar. The child's face had been crushed, possibly with a metal club or pipe.

I could walk from my house on Fifth Street to the horrifying murder scene. I did just that, but I dragged my feet. It was the fourth of December and children were already thinking of Christmas. This shouldn't have been happening. Not ever, but especially not then.

I felt bad for another reason, besides the murder of another innocent child. Unless someone was copycatting the first murder, and that seemed highly unlikely to me, the killer couldn't have been Emmanuel Perez, couldn't have been Chop-it-Off-Chucky. Sampson and I had made a mistake. We had run down the wrong child molester. We were partly responsible for his death.

The wind swirled and howled across the small park as I entered across from the bodega. It was a miserable morning, terribly cold and darkly overcast. Two ambulances and a half-dozen police cruisers were parked on the grounds inside the rim of the park.

There were at least a hundred people from the neighborhood at the crime scene. It was eerie, ghastly, completely unreal. Police and ambulance sirens screamed in the background, a terrifying dirge for the dead. I shivered miserably, and it wasn't only from the cold.

The horrifying crime scene reminded me of a bad time a few years back when we had found a little boy's body the day before Christmas. The image was everlasting in my mind. The boy's name was Michael Goldberg, but everybody had called him Shrimpie. He was only nine years old. The murderer's name was Gary Soneji, and he had escaped from prison after I caught him.

He had escaped, and he had disappeared off the face of the earth.

I'd come to think of Soneji as my Dr. Moriarty, evil incarnate, if there was such a thing, and I had begun to believe that there was.

I couldn't help thinking and wondering about Soneji. Gary Soneji had a perfect reason to commit murders near my home.

He had vowed to pay me back for his time spent in prison: every day, every hour, every minute. Payback time, Dr. Cross.

As I ducked under the crisscrossing yellow crime-scene tapes, a woman in a white rain poncho yelled out to me, "You're supposed to be a policeman, right? So why the hell won't you do something! Do something about this maniac killing our children!

Oh yeah, and have a happy, goddamn holiday!"

What could I possibly say to the angry woman? That real police work wasn't like N.Y.P D. Blue on television? We had no leads on the two child killings so far. We had no Chop-It-Off-Chucky to blame anymore. There was no getting around a simple fact: Sampson and I had made a mistake. A bad hombre was dead, but probably for the wrong reason.

The news coverage continued to be very limited, but I recognized a few reporters at the tragic scene: Inez Gomez from El Diario and Fern Galperin from CNN. They seemed to cover everything in Washington, occasionally even murders in Southeast.

“Does this have anything to do with the child murder last week, Detective? Did you get the real murderer? Is this a serial killer of little kids?” Inez Gomez shot off a clipped barrage of questions at me. She was very good at her job, smart and tough and fair most of the time.

I said nothing to any of the reporters, not even to Gomez. I didn't even look their way There was an ache at the center of my chest that wouldn't go away Is this a serial killer of little kids? I don't know, Inez. I think it might be. I pray that it isn't. Was Emmanuel Perez innocent? I don't believe so, Inez. I pray that he wasn't.

Could Gary Soneji be the killerof these two children? I hope not.

I pray that isn't the case, Inez.

Lots of prayers this cold, dismal morning.

It was too harsh for early December, too much snow. Somebody on the radio said they've been shoveling so much in D.C., it felt like an election year.

I pushed my way through the crowd to the dead child lying like a broken doll on an expanse of frost-covered grass. The police photographer was taking pictures of the small boy He had a short haircut like Damon's, what Damon called a “baldie.”

Of course, I knew it wasn't Damon, but the effect was incredibly powerful. It was as if I had been punched in the stomach, hard. The sight took all the breath out of my chest and stomach, and left me wheezing. Cruelty isn't softened by tears. I had learned that lesson many times by then.

I knelt down low over the murdered boy He looked as if he were sleeping, but having a terrible nightmare. Someone had closed his eyes, and I wondered if it could have been the killer.

I didn't think so. More likely it was the work of some. Good Samaritan or possibly a good-hearted, but very careless, policeman.

The little boy had on worn, loose gray sweats that had holes in the knees and tattered Nike sneakers. The right side of his face had been virtually destroyed by the killer blow, just like Shanelle's. The face was crushed, but also pocked with jagged holes and tears. Bright red blood was pooled under his head.

The maniac likes to decimate beautiful things. It gave me an idea. Is the killer disfigured in some way himself? Physically?

Emotionally ? Maybe both.

Why does he hate small children so much? Why is he killing them near the Sojourner Truth School?

I opened the little boy's eyes. The child stared up at me. I don't know why I did it. I just needed to look.

“DR. CROSS... Dr. Cross... I know this boy,” said a shaky voice. “He's in our lower school. His name is Vernon Wheatley.”

I looked up and saw Mrs. Johnson, the principal at Damon's school. She held back a sob; she grabbed the sob back hard.

She's even tougher than you are, Daddy. That's what Damon had said to me. Maybe he was right about that. The school principal wouldn't cry, wouldn't allow herself to.

The medical examiner was standing next to Mrs. Johnson.

I knew her, too. She was a white woman, Janine Prestegard.

Looked to be about the same age as Mrs. Johnson. Mid-thirties, give or take a few years. They had been talking, consulting, probably consoling each other.

What was there about the Sojourner Truth School? Why this school? Why Damon school? Shanelle Green and now Vernon Wheatley. What did the principal know, if anything? Did the school principal believe she could help solve these terrifying murders? She had known both victims.

The medical examiner was arranging for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. She looked shaken by the savage attack the child had suffered. The autopsy of a murdered child is as bad as it gets.

Two detectives from the local precinct waited nearby. So did the morgue team. Everything was so quiet, so sad, so horribly bad, at the scene. There is nothing any worse than the murder of a child. Nothing I've seen, anyway. I remember every one that I've been to. Sampson sometimes tells me I'm too sensitive to be a homicide detective. I counter that every detective should be as sensitive and human as possible.

I rose to my full height. At six three I was only a few inches taller than Mrs. Johnson.

“You've been at both murder scenes,” I said to her. “You live around here? You live nearby?”

She shook her head. She looked straight up into my eyes. Her eyes were so intense, so large and round. They held mine and wouldn't let go. "I know a lot of people in the neighborhood.

Someone called me at home. They felt I should know. I grew up near here in the Eastern Market section,“ she volunteered. ”This is the same killer, isn't it?"

I didn't answer her question. “I may need to talk to you about the murders later,” I said. “We might have to talk to some of the children at school again. I won't do that unless we have to, though. They've been through enough. Thank you for your concern. I'm sorry about Vernon Wheatley.”

Mrs. Johnson nodded and kept looking at me with incredibly penetrating eyes. Who exactly are you? they seemed to ask.

You've been at both murder scenes, too.

“How can you do this kind of work?” she suddenly blurted out.

It was an unexpected and startling question. It should have seemed tactless, but somehow it didn't. It happened to be my own personal mantra. How do you do this work, Alex? Why are you the dragonslayer? Who exactly are you? What have you become?

“I don't really know.” I told her the truth.

Why had I admitted the weakness to her? I rarely did that with anyone, not even with Sampson. It had suffered. The autopsy of a murdered child is as bad as it gets.

Two detectives from the local precinct waited nearby. So did the morgue team. Everything was so quiet, so sad, so horribly bad, at the scene. There is nothing any worse than the murder of a child. Nothing I've seen, anyway. I remember every one that I've been to. Sampson sometimes tells me I'm too sensitive to be a homicide detective. I counter that every detective should be as sensitive and human as possible.

I rose to my full height. At six three I was only a few inches taller than Mrs. Johnson.

“You've been at both murder scenes,” I said to her. “You live around here? You live nearby?”

She shook her head. She looked straight up into my eyes. Her eyes were so intense, so large and round. They held mine and wouldn't let go. "I know a lot of people in the neighborhood.

Someone called me at home. They felt I should know. I grew up near here in the Eastern Market section,“ she volunteered. ”This is the same killer, isn't it?"

I didn't answer her question. “I may need to talk to you about the murders later,” I said. “We might have to talk to some of the children at school again. I won't do that unless we have to, though. They've been through enough. Thank you for your concern. I'm sorry about Vernon Wheatley.”

Mrs. Johnson nodded and kept looking at me with incredibly penetrating eyes. Who exactly are you? they seemed to ask.

You've been at both murder scenes, too.

“How can you do this kind of work?” she suddenly blurted out.

It was an unexpected and startling question. It should have seemed tactless, but somehow it didn't. It happened to be my own personal mantra. How do you do this work, Alex? Why are you the dragonslayer? Who exactly are you? What have you become?

“I don't really know.” I told her the truth.

Why had I admitted the weakness to her? I rarely did that with anyone, not even with Sampson. It was something about her eyes. They demanded the truth.

I lowered my eyes and turned away from her. I had to. I went back to my note taking. My head was thick with questions, bad questions, bad thoughts, and worse feelings about the murder.

The two murders. The two cases.

Why does he hate children so much? I kept asking myself. Who could possibly hate these little children so much? He had to have been badly abused himself. Probably a male in his twenties. Not too organized or careful.

I had the thought that we would catch this one -- but would we catch him soon enough?

I WAS WAITING for possible disciplinary action from the department, waiting for the whisper of the ax. It didn't come right away Chief Pittman was holding his sharp knife over my head.

The Jefe was playing with me. Cat and mouse.

Maybe the higher powers wouldn't let him act... on account of Jack and Jill. That was it. It had to be. They felt that they needed me on the celebrity stalkings and murders.

While I waited in limbo, there was plenty of work to do. I passed the hours checking and rechecking the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit data for anything that might possibly connect the two child murders to any others in Washington--or anywhere else, for that matter. Then I repeated almost the same process on Jack and Jill. If you want to understand the killer, look at his work.

Jack and Jill were organized. The child killer was disorganized and sloppy The cases couldn't have been more different.

I continued to feel that I couldn't work two complex homicide cases like these at the same time. I believed it was time for my so-called deal with the department to start working both ways.

I made some phone calls late in the afternoon. I called in a few chips, favors I was owed inside the department. What did I have to lose?

That night four homicide detectives from the 1st District met me in the deserted parking lot behind the Sojourner Truth School. pounds was a genuine badass in the department. All in all, four troublemakers. Four very good cops, though. Probably the best I knew in Washington.

The detectives I'd chosen all lived right in Southeast. They each took the child murders personally and wanted the gruesome case solved quickly -- no matter what their other priority assignments were.

Sampson was the last one to arrive, but he was only a few minutes past the ten o'clock starting time. The secret get-together would definitely have been shut down by the chief of detectives.

I was about to set up an off-duty unit to help find the killer of Shanelle Green and Vernon Wheatley. We weren't vigilantes, but we were close.

“The late John Sampson,” Jerome Thurman quipped and let out a high-pitched laugh when Sampson finally entered the tight circle of homicide detectives. Thurman was close to two hundred seventy pounds, not much of it soft. He and Sampson liked to go at each other, but they were good friends. It had been that way since we all played roundball in the D.C. high school leagues a thousand or so years ago.

"My watch says ten on the dot,,' Sampson said, without peeking at his ancient Bulova.

“Then ten o'clock it is,” contributed Shawn Moore. Moore was a hard-driving, young detective with three kids of his own. His family lived less than a mile from the Truth School, as it's usually called in the neighborhood. One of his boys went there with Damon.

“I'm glad you all could come out to play on this chilly night,” I said after the ribbing and small talk had settled down. I knew that these detectives got along and had respect for one another. I also knew this meeting would never get back to TheJefe through any of them.

"Sorry to get you out here so late. Best we don't be seen together.

Thanks for coming, though. This school yard seemed like the right place for what we have to talk about. I'll make it as short as possible," I said, looking around at all the faces.

“You'd better, Alex,” Jerome warned me. “Freezin' my fat ass off.”

“You've all heard about the Seven-year-old boy found in Garfield Park this morning?” I asked the detectives. “Boy by the name of Vernon Wheatley.”

Heads nodded solemnly around the circle. Bad homicide news always travels quickly.

"Well, I've been thinking about these child murders a lot.

I've run the evidence we have through the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and also the Behavioral Science Unit databanks. Nothing comes up that's a match. I have a preliminary psych profile working. I hope that I'm wrong, but I'm afraid there's a pattern killer working in this neighborhood. This is probably a serial killer of children. I'm almost sure of it."

“How bad a situation are we talking, Alex?” Rakeem Powell leaned in and asked me.

I knew what Rakeem was getting at. He and I had worked on a tough pattern-killer case a few years back. “I think this one is already in heat, Rakeem. The two murders came within days. There was a high level of violence. He seems to be in a rage, or damn close to it. I say he, though it might be a she.”

“Violent for a female,” Sampson said. He cleared his throat.

“Too much... blood... crushed skulls... little kids.” He shook his head no. “Doesn't feel like a woman to me.”

“I tend to agree,” I said, “but you never know these days. Look at Jill.”

“How many detectives assigned to the child murders? ”Jerome Thurman asked through thick lips that were pursed and stuck way out from his face, like those candy lips kids wear and then eat when they tire of having fat lips.

“Two teams.” I told them the bad news. “Only one is full-time, though. That's the reason I wanted us to meet. The chief of detectives is resisting any theory that the same person killed both children. Emmanuel Perez is stilll on the books as the killer of the girl.”

“That dumb motherfuck asshole,” Jerome Thurman growled angrily. “That bastard's as useless as titties on a bull.”

The other detectives cursed and grumbled. I had expected a negative reaction to anything The Jefe said or did. Still, I wasn't into cheap shots. Much as I was tempted.

“How sure are you about this being the same killer, Alex?” Rakeem asked. “You said your profile is preliminary. I know this shit takes time.”

I sniffed in the cold, then went on. “The second child, the little boy, had his face badly smashed in, Rakeem. Only one side of the face, though. It was exactly like the murdered little girl's face. Same side, the right. No significant variation that I could find. The medical examiner corroborates that. The ”unsub" probably feels that he has a good and a bad side. The bad side gets punished--destroyed, is more like it.

“The final thing, and this is just a best guess at this point, I think he's a beginner at this. But devious and clever just the same... a risk taker. He'll make a mistake. I think we can get him soon, if we work together. But it has to be soon. I think we can nail this one!”

Sampson finally spoke up. “You going to talk about what's really going down here, Alex, or you want me to?”

I smiled at what Sampson had said, the cranky way he'd said it. “No, I thought I'd leave the real dirty work to you.”

“As usual,” he said. "Here's what Alex hasn't said so far. Just to get it out on the dance floor. The real reason one team of detectives is assigned to these murders goes something like this.

One, it happened in the area of the projects, and we know all the shit flows downhill in D.C. and eventually ends up here. Two, Jack and Jill is sucking up everybody's time in the department.

Rich white people are being killed. They're scared shitless up on Capitol Hill and such. So of course we drop everything else. Two little black kids don't matter much, not in the greater scheme, not in the big picture."

“Sampson and I have been working on the Truth School murders.”

I picked up his thread, just lowered the volume a touch.

“Strictly off the books. We have to do our own surveillance,” I added, so that everybody knew the deal. “We need some help now. This is a major homicide case. Unfortunately, there are two major cases in Washington at this time.”

“Only one case on my mind,” Rakeem Powell said. “One guess which case it is.”

“You know you've got the Fatman on board.” Jerome Thurman raised his high-pitched voice and punched his stubby club of an arm into the air. “I'm in. I'm on your nonpayroll with all its nonbenefits and risks for forced early retirement. Sounds great.”

“My boy goes to the Sojourner Truth School, Alex,” Shawn Moore said. “I'll make the time for this. Hope I can fit in Jack and Jill.”

We laughed at the jokes. It was our hardass approach to the difficult problems at hand. The five of us were in. We just didn't have any idea what we were in for.

There were definitely two major murder cases in Washington and now there were two task forces to try and solve them. One and a half task forces, anyway.

“Cocktails, anyone?” Jerome Thurman asked in the softest, most cultivated voice. You'd have thought we were at the old Cotton Club in Harlem as he passed around his beat-up Washington Redskins game flask.

We all took a hit; more like two or three.

We were blood brothers.

I WORKED the Jack and Jill case from five in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon. Me and about ten thousand other harried law officers around D.C. I was checking for a possible link between Senator Fitzpatrick and Natalie Sheehan. We even looked at news photos taken of them in the past months.

Maybe somebody interesting would show up in the background of a shot. Or even better, show up twice. I had a detective visiting all of the kinky sex shops around D.C. He called the assignment the ultimate Jack-off.

I met Sampson at the Boston Market restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue at three-thirty It was time for our second job. Our other homicide case, the “back burner” case. This arrangement was definitely much better -- not great, but a significant improvement over the past few days of frustration and utter madness for me.

“I think you might be right on the button about one thing, Alex,” Sampson told me over a lunch of double-glazed meat loaf and mashed potatoes made from scratch. “The Truth School killer is an amateur. He's sloppy Maybe a first-timer at this. He left prints all over the second crime scene, too. The techies got his prints, some hair, threads off his clothing. Based on the prints, the killer is a small man -- or possibly a woman. If this squirrel isn't careful, he or she is going to get their squirrel ass caught.”

“Maybe the killer wants to,” I said between bites of a meat loaf sandwich spiced with decent tomato sauce. “Or maybe the killer just wants us to think he's a first-timer. That could be the act. Someone might play it like that.”

Sampson grinned broadly It was his best killer smile. “Do you have to double- and triple-think everything, Sugar?”

“Of course I do. That's my job description. That's Alex's cross,” I said and offered my own killer smile.

“Oh, ho !” said Man Mountain and grinned again. Man, I loved being with him, loved to make him laugh.

“Anything in from the rest of the team?” I asked him. "Jerome?

Rakeem?"

"They're all working the case, but still no tangible results.

Nothing yet from the go-team."

“We need surveillance at the boy's funeral and at Shanelle's gravesite. The killer might not be able to stay away A lot of them can't.”

Sampson rolled his eyes. "We'll do what we can. Do our best.

Surveillance at a child's gravesite. Shee-it."

At quarter past four, the two of us split. I headed over to the Sojourner Truth School.

The principal's car was sitting in the small, fenced-in parking lot. I remembered that Mrs. Johnson sometimes worked late after classes. That was good for me. I wanted to talk to her about Shanelie Green and Vernon Wheatley What connection was there between the Truth School and the killer? What could it be?

I knew approximately where the principal's office was located in the annexed building, so I walked directly there. It was a very nice school, for just about any area of the city Outside, near the street, a chain-link fence with razor wire ran the perimeter of the school yard, but the inside was festive, very bright, imaginatively decorated.

I read several hand-lettered posters and banners as I walked.

CHILDREN FIRST. GROW WHERE YOU ARE PLANTED. SUCCESS COMES IN CANS, Comball, but nice. Inspiring for the children, and for me as well.

That particular week the hallway display cases were filled with “animal shelters,” which were made by the kids, each one illustrating an animal and its habitat. It struck me that the Sojoumer Truth School was a terrific habitat itself. Under normal circumstances, it was a sweet place for Damon to grow and learn.

Unfortunately, two little babies from this school had been murdered in the last week.

That made me furiously angry, and it also frightened me more than I wanted to admit. When I was growing up, tough as it was supposed to have been in D.C., kids seldom if ever died at our school. Now, for a lot of reasons, it happened all the time in schools. Not only in Washington but in L.A."s schools. New York's. Chicago's. Maybe even Sioux City's.

What the hell was going on from sea to shining sea?

The heavy wooden door to the inner administrative office was open, but the assistant appeared to have left. On her desk was a collection of Caucasian, African-American, and Asian play dolls.

A sign read: Barbara Breckenridge, I can really tap-dance.

I felt like a housebreaker, a neighborhood break-and-enter artist', a bad character of some sort or other. Suddenly, I was concerned about the principal working late by herself in the school.

Anyone could walk in here, just as I had done. The Sojoumer Truth School killer could walk in here some night. It would be so easy This easy.

I turned the corner into the main office and was about to announce my presence when I saw Mrs. Johnson. I thought of my made-up name for her -- Christine.

She was busy at work at an old-fashioned rolltop desk that looked at least a hundred years old. She was lost in the work, actually I watched her for a couple of seconds. She wore gold-wire glasses to do her paperwork. She was humming the “Shoop Shoop” song from Waiting to Exhale. Sounded nice.

There was something enormously right, even touching, about the scene -- the dedicated teacher, the educator, at work. A smile passed across my lips. She's even tougher than you are, Daddy.

I still wondered about that. She didn't look tough at the moment.

She looked serene, happy in her work. She looked at peace, and I envied her that.

I finally felt a little awkward standing in the doorway unannounced.

“Hi there. It's Detective Alex Cross,” I said. "Hello.

Mrs. Johnson?"

She stopped humming and looked up. There was the slightest glint of fear in her eyes. Then she smiled. Her smile was warm and welcoming. Very nice to be on the receiving end of one of her easy smiles.

“Ahh, it is Detective Cross,” she said. “And what brings you to the principal's office?” she said in a put-on voice of authority

“I guess I need some help from the principal. Extra help with my homework.” That was true enough, I suppose. "I need to talk with you a little about Vernon Wheatley, if that's possible.

I also wanted to get your okay to speak with some of the teachers again, to see if any of them heard anything from the kids after Vernon's murder. Somebody might have seen something that would help us, even if they don't think they did. Maybe something the kids heard their parents say"

“Yes, I figured the same thing,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Somebody here at the school could have a clue, something useful, and might not know it.”

I liked everything I saw about Mrs. Johnson, but as soon as I saw it, I pushed it out of my mind. Wrong time, wrong place, and wrong woman. I'd done some questionable things in my life, and I'm no angel, but trying to fool with a married woman wasn't going to be one of them.

“There's not too much new to report, I'm afraid,” she said.

"I've been working a little overtime on your account. I grilled the teachers at lunch today. Interrogated them, actually. I told them that they should tell me if they heard or saw anything suspicious.

They talk to me about most things. We have a pretty close-knit group here."

“Are any of the teachers still here? I could talk to them now if they are. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect the killer might have watched the school at some point,” I said to her. I didn't want to frighten Mrs. Johnson or the other teachers, but I did want them on the alert and cautious. I believed that the killer probably had scouted the school.

She shook her head slowly back and forth. Then she cocked it softly to the left. She seemed to be looking at me in a new way.

“Almost all of them are long gone by four. They like to leave together, if possible. Safety in numbers.”

"That makes a lot of sense to me. It isn't a great neighborhood.

Well, it is and it isn't."

“And being here at five or so, with a lot of unlocked doors, doesn't make any kind of sense,” she said. It was what I had been thinking ever since I arrived at her office door.

I didn't say anything, didn't comment on the unlocked doors.

Mrs. Johnson was certainly free to live her life in whatever way she chose. “Thanks for checking with the teachers for us,” I said to her. “Thanks for the overtime work.”

“No, thank you for coming by,” she said. “I'm sure this must be very hard for you and for Damon. For your whole family It certainly is for all of us at the school.”

She finally took off the wire-rim glasses and slid them into the pocket of her work smock. She looked good with or without glasses.

Intelligent, nice, pretty.

Off-limits, out-of-bounds, off your radar charts, I reminded myself.

I could almost feel a ruler rap across my knuckles.

Faster than I would have thought possible, she slid a snubnose.38 Special out of an open drawer on the right side of the desk.

She didn't point it in my direction, but she easily could have.

Easily.

“I lived in this neighborhood for a lot of years,” she explained.

Then she smiled and put the gun away. “I try to be prepared for whatever might happen,” she said calmly "And shit does happen around here. I knew you were there in the doorway, Detective.

The kids claim I have eyes in the back of my head. Actually, I do."

She laughed again. I did like her laugh. Anyone with a pulse would. Say goodnight, Alex.

I had mixed feelings about civilians owning guns, but I was sure hers was registered and legal. “You learn to use that revolver in the neighborhood?” I asked.

“No, actually, I learned at the Remington Gun Club out in Fairfax. My husband was, is, worried about my coming to work here, too. You men seem to think alike. Sorry, sorry,” she said and smiled again. “I try to catch myself when even I say outrageous sexist things like that. I don't like that. No how, no way Sorry.”

She stood up and flicked off the Mac laptop on her desk. “I'll walk you to the front door,” she said. “Make sure you get out safely, since it's well after four.”

“That's a good idea.” I went along with her little joke. She had me smiling some, anyway That was pretty good, under the circumstances of the past few days. "Are you always this funny?

This loose?"

She work."

“No, thank you for coming by,” she said. “I'm sure this must be very hard for you and for Damon. For your whole family It certainly is for all of us at the school.”

She finally took off the wire-rim glasses and slid them into the pocket of her work smock. She looked good with or without glasses.

Intelligent, nice, pretty.

Off-limits, out-of-bounds, off your radar charts, I reminded myself.

I could almost feel a ruler rap across my knuckles.

Faster than I would have thought possible, she slid a snubnose.38 Special out of an open drawer on the right side of the desk.

She didn't point it in my direction, but she easily could have.

Easily.

“I lived in this neighborhood for a lot of years,” she explained.

Then she smiled and put the gun away. “I try to be prepared for whatever might happen,” she said calmly "And shit does happen around here. I knew you were there in the doorway, Detective.

The kids claim I have eyes in the back of my head. Actually, I do."

She laughed again. I did like her laugh. Anyone with a pulse would. Say goodnight, Alex.

I had mixed feelings about civilians owning guns, but I was sure hers was registered and legal. “You learn to use that revolver in the neighborhood?” I asked.

“No, actually, I learned at the Remington Gun Club out in Fairfax. My husband was, is, worried about my coming to work here, too. You men seem to think alike. Sorry, sorry,” she said and smiled again. “I try to catch myself when even I say outrageous sexist things like that. I don't like that. No how, no way Sorry.”

She stood up and flicked off the Mac laptop on her desk. “I'll walk you to the front door,” she said. “Make sure you get out safely, since it's well after four.”

“That's a good idea.” I went along with her little joke. She had me smiling some, anyway That was pretty good, under the circumstances of the past few days. "Are you always this funny?

This loose?"

She tilted her head again. It was something she did often. Then she nodded confidently. “Always. At least this funny Those were my two vocational choices: comedienne or educator. Obviously, I chose comedienne. More laughs here. Honest laughs. Most days, anyway”

The two of us walked down the deserted halls of the school together. Our footfalls made clapping sounds that echoed loudly The “Shoop Shoop” song played inside my head, the tune she'd been humming in her office. There were lots more questions I wanted to ask her, but I knew I shouldn't be asking some of them.

They had nothing to do with the murder case.

When we got to the school's front door, a husky, middle-aged security guard was there to let me out. He surprised me. I hadn't seen him on my way in.

He had a thick wooden nightstick and a walkie-talkie. It was the look and feel of D.C. schools that I knew all too well.

Guards, metal detectors, steel-mesh screens covering every window.

No wonder the people of the neighborhood hate and fear all established institutions, even their own schools.

“Goodnight, sir,” the school guard said with a most congenial smile. “You be leaving soon, Mrs. Johnson?”

“Pretty soon,” she said. “You can go home if you want to, Lionel. I have my Uzi inside.”

Lionel laughed at her joke. She had very good delivery, good timing. I'll bet she could have done some stand-up work if she'd wanted.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Johnson,” I said. I couldn't help adding, “Please be careful until this case is over.”

She stood just inside the heavy wooden door. She looked so wise, and she was attractive, in my way of viewing the world. “It's 'Christine,'” she said, “and I will be careful. I promise. Thank you for stopping by.”

Christine! Jesus! It was the same name I'd made up for her.

Probably I'd heard it somewhere before, from Damon or Nana, but it seemed so strange. Kind of magical, actually. Would have made James Redfield happy as hell.

I went home that evening thinking about the two child murders, and Jack and Jill, but also about the principal of the Sojourner Truth School. She was wise, funny, and pretty, too. She could take care of herself-- even handle a gun.

Mrs. Johnson.

Christine.

Shoop. Shoop. Shoop. Shoop.

IN THIS DANGEROUS AGE, everybody needs to think, It won't happen to me. Not to me. What are the odds of it actually happening to me?

The motion picture actor Michael Robinson thought it was absurd and more than a little self-absorbed for him to be concerned or afraid of the maniac killers on the loose in Washington.

What did the malicious Jack and Jill threats have to do with him, anyway? The answer, it seemed clear to him, was nothing at all.

Still, he was a trifle skittish and jumpy, so he tried to enjoy the adrenaline rush, to go with the nasty flow of the moment, of the times we live in.

A little before midnight, the Hollywood star finally got up his nerve and called for a date from the VIP escort service. A “snack” before bedtime. He had used the service many times before while visiting D.C. The discreet, toney, very expensive sex-for-hire service had his requirements down pat. M.R. was in its file, compliments of the star's full-service business agent in Los Angeles.

After he made the phone call, the forty-nine-year-old actor tried to read an expensive adventure-romance script he'd commissioned, but then got up and walked to the window of his penthouse suite at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

He knew his fans would find it scandalous that he was paying for a lover, but that was their hang-up, not his.

The truth was, he found it far less complicated, and far easier on the psyche, to pay a thousand or fifteen hundred than to get involved in wooing, and then painfully separating from, lovers while on the road.

Actually, he was in a good mood tonight, feeling very level and grounded, he thought as he stared out on the street. He just needed some company, a little TLC, and some uncomplicated sex. All three of his requirements would be met shortly, he hoped.

In a way, he was still time-warped back in his hometown of Wichita, circa 1963, when he was a high school senior. The fantasies and desires he'd had then were still unresolved and operating full-tilt boogie inside him. There was one difference: he knew what he wanted tonight and he would get it without much trouble, guilt, or the gnashing of teeth.

He glanced around the hotel suite and decided to tidy it up before the escort arrived. The neurotic tidying-up made him smile.

How incredibly bourgeois he still was. You can take the boy out of Kansas, Michael Robinson thought.

He heard two quick raps on the door, and the noise caught him by surprise. The service had said the escort would be there within the hour, which usually meant at least that long, sometimes longer.

“Just a minute,” he called out. “Be right there. One minute.”

Michael Robinson glanced at his watch. The “date” had arrived in about thirty minutes. Well, fine. He was ready for some quick nookie and then a night of blessed sleep. He was having breakfast with the chairman of the Democratic National Committee early the next morning. He'd been asked to do a fund-raiser for the Democrats. The chairman was a starfucker of another variety They all were, really Everybody wanted what he thought he couldn't have, and everybody couldn't have Michael Robinson. Well, almost everybody He peeked through the hotel-door spyhole. Well, well, well.

He definitely liked what he saw in the hallway; even through a fish-eye lens, the escort looked good. He felt a spike of adrenaline kick in. He opened the door and his fifteen-million-dollar-per-picture smile was automatically engaged.

“Hi, I'm Jasper,” the handsome escort said. “It's very nice to meet you, sir.”

Michael Robinson doubted that the escort was “Jasper.” He thought that a name like Jake or Cliff would fit the escort better.

He was a tad older than Robinson had expected, possibly in his mid-thirties, but he was more than acceptable. He was near perfect, actually. Michael Robinson was already hard, and he was lubricated. Armed and dangerous, he called the ready state.

“How are you doing tonight?” The actor put out his hand and lightly touched the other man's arm. He wanted “Jasper” to know that he was down-to-earth, unaffected, and most of all, a warm person. He truly was all of that. USA Today had recently published a list of the “nicest” stars in Hollywood. He was on it, courtesy of his business agent and lawyer, who spoke exceedingly well of him.

Jack unleashed his best smile as he entered Michael Robinson's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous hotel suite. He shut the door behind him. He figured he had about half an hour before the real escort arrived from the service. That would be enough time.

At any rate, Jill was watching the lobby of the Willard, just in case the male prostitute arrived early. She would take care of things downstairs. Jill was excellent with the details, all the loose ends. Jill was excellent, period.

“I'm a real fan,” Jack said to the big Hollywood star. “I've been following your career closely, actually”

Michael Robinson spoke in a near-whisper that would have shocked male and female fans of his action-romance films. “Oh, really, Jasper? That's always so nice for me to hear. It's kind of you to say, anyway”

“I swear to God, it's true.” Sam Harrison continued his act.

“My name is Jack, by the way Jill is down in the lobby Maybe you've heard of us?”

Jack pulled out a Beretta with a silencer and aimed it between the actor's startled deep-blue eyes. He fired. It fit the pattern of Jack and Jill. People in high places. Execution-style murder.

Kinky touches and poem to follow.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To kill, to kill, to kill.

ONE SPECIFIC, and particularly fascinating, detail about the murders was weighing heavily on my mind, troubling the hell out of me. I thought about it as I turned onto crowded Pennsylvania Avenue and double-parked in front of the Willard Hotel -- the latest helter-skelter murder scene.

I thought about the troubling detail as I marched inside and headed up to Michael Robinson's suite.

I thought about it as the smooth-riding elevator whooshed open on the seventh floor, where half a dozen uniforms were standing around, and rolls of crime-scene tape ribboned the hallway like a tangle of distasteful Christmas wrapping.

There wasn't much evidence of passion in the first two killings, I was thinking. Especially the second murder. The murders were so cold-blooded and efficient. The arrangement of the bodies of the victims seemed to have been art-directed. The kinkiness of the scenes seemed too directed and orderly. This is the exact opposite of the Sojourner Truth School murders, which were violent explosions of pent-up anger and pure rage.

I didn't get the full significance yet, and neither did anyone else I spoke to about the murder case. Not inside the D.C. police, and not at the Federal Bureau in Quantico. If, as a detective, I had one basic rule about premeditated murders, it was this: they were almost always based on passion. There usually had to be extreme love. Or hate. Or greed... but these killings seemed to have none of that. It kept bugging me.

Why Michael Robinson ? I wondered as I walked toward the hotel room where he had been murdered. What are these two bizarre psychopaths doing here in Washington? What sick and cruel game are they playing... and why do they crave millions of spectators for their sensational blood sport?

I spotted Kyle Craig once again. The FBI senior agent and I talked for several moments outside the suite. All around us, usually sangfroid D.C. cops appeared in mild shock. A lot of them were probably disappointed Michael Robinson fans.

“The medical examiner figures he's been a famous corpse for about seven hours. So it happened around twelve last night,” Kyle told me, giving me the lay of the land. “Two shots fired to his head, Alex. Close range, just like the others. Take a look at the tattooing for yourself. Whoever did the shooting is a real heartless bastard.”

I agreed with what Kyle was saying.

Heartless.

No passion.

No rage.

“How was Michael Robinson found?”

“Oh, that's another good part, Alex. A new wrinkle. They phoned it in to the Post. Told the newspaper where to pick up the trash this morning.”

“Is that a quote?” I asked Kyle.

“I don't have the exact quote they used, but 'pick up the trash' was definitely part of it,” Kyle said.

I was interested in any irreverence or cynicism Jack and Jill might use in describing the killings. They were obviously into wordplay They were artistes. I also wondered if they might be out there on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching us again. Filming us as we bumbled and stumbled over one another inside the Willard. I wondered if they were preparing a second film, with their usual wide-release distribution method in mind. Surveillance had been posted outside, so if they were there, we had then.

I entered the living room of the suite, and I was relieved to see that Chief of Detectives Pittman was nowhere on the scene. The film actor Michael Robinson was there, however. As they say, he had been born to play the role -- Perhaps his greatest.

His naked body was in a sitting position on the floor, the head against the couch. It seemed as if the actor had been propped up to see anyone entering the room, and maybe that was the killers' idea. His eyes stared out at me. To see, or to be seen? I wondered.

He was not a pretty sight. took note of the lividity The blood had already pooled in the lowermost parts of his body, which now had an ugly purplish red color.

Another celebrity had been exposed. Brought down to earth.

Punished for some real or imagined sin ? What connection was there with Fitzpatrick and Sheehan? Why a senator, a newswoman, and an actor?

Three murders in such a short time. Celebrities are supposed to be safer than the rest of us, more protected at least, and above all this. It got to me, seeing Michael Robinson dead and violated.

There was something visceral and system-shocking about what the killers were doing.

What was the bizarre, complex message from Jack and Jill?

That nobody was safe anymore? I rolled the outrageous thought around in my head. It was a good starting place, a concept to work with.

Nobody is safe?Jack and Jill were telling us they could come for anyone, at any time. They knew how to get inside.

There was another note with the body Another Jack and Jill rhyme. It was on the night table, where the weird and ghoulish killers, or killer, had left it for us to find.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To do some deadly deeds.

They weren't far wrong To judge how long A bleeding liberal bleeds.

One of Michael Robinson's agents was in the room. He'd flown down from New York. He was a good-looking man, with silver-blond hair. He wore a long cashmere coat over an Armani suit. I noticed his eyes were red and swollen. He seemed to have been crying. Two medical examiners were working on the film actor's body I suppose you could call all that attention going out in style.

Only the best for Michael Robinson.

There were some other obvious connections to the Fitzpatrick and Sheehan murders. There was a tawdry, kinky side to all three killings. Each had been an execution. And maybe most important so far, they were all “bleeding liberals,” weren't they? They had all been exposed for what they were.

“Dr. Alex Cross ? Excuse me, you're Dr. Alex Cross, aren't you ?”

I turned to a tall, rangy man who had spoken my name. He was clean-cut and his bearing was almost military. About forty, I guessed. He wore a black raincoat over a dark gray suit. A buttoned-down look. Definitely senior law enforcement of some kind, I figured.

“Yes, I'm Alex Cross,” I said to him.

“I'm Jay Grayer from the Secret Service,” he introduced himself formally There was something about the very erect way that he held himself. Extreme confidence. Or was it moral certitude? A stiff pole up his behind?

“I'm senior agent of the First Family detail.”

“What can I do for you?” I asked Agent Grayer. Alarms were already sounding in my head. I felt I was about to get a much fuller understanding of why I had been put on the Jack and Jill investigation. By whom, and for exactly what reason.

“You're wanted at the White House,” he said. “I'm afraid it's a command performance, Dr. Cross. It's about the Jack and Jill investigation. There's a problem we have to let you know about.”

“I'll bet it's a big problem, too,” I said to Agent Grayer.

“Yes, I'm afraid it is. It's a very big problem, Dr. Cross. We have something we need to share with you.”

I had suspected as much. I'd had a quiet fear way in the back of my mind. Now it was up front.

I was being summoned to the White House.

They wanted the dragonslayer there. Did they understand what that meant?

THE ONLY THING anybody seems to share very readily in Washington these days is trouble.

I could hardly argue with the command from on high, though.

I dutifully accompanied Jay Grayer up the street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ask not what I can do for my country.

The White House was only a short jaunt from the Willard Hotel.

Despite the relative performance of some of the recent occupants, the White House continues to cast its spell over a lot of people, including me. I had been inside only twice, on canned guided tours with my kids, but even they had been larger-than-life and moving. I almost wished Damon and Jannie could be with me.

We were quickly passed through the blue-canopied guardhouse on West Executive Drive. Agent Grayer was allowed to park his car in the garage under the White House. He seemed modestly proud of the perk. He explained that the garage was still considered a primary bomb shelter, but also an escape route in case of an attack.

“Good to know,” I said and smiled. Grayer smiled back. It was forced conviviality, but at least we were both making an effort.

"I'm sure you're curious as to why you've been asked to come.

I would be."

“I don't think I've been invited to tea,” I said stiffly. “But, yes, I'm very curious.”

“The reason is the Soneji and Casanova cases,” Grayer explained to me as we took an elevator one flight up from the garage.

"Your reputation precedes you here. You're aware that the FBI has never captured a single serial killer, for all their expertise?

We want you on the tean:."

“What team is that?” I asked.

“You'll see in a few seconds. This is definitely the A team, though. Be ready for some crazy shit. The Bureau has staked out the hotel room where John Hinckley stayed. Just in case the killers might decide to stay there. Pay homage, or something like that.”

“Not such a terrible idea,” I told Grayer. He looked at me as if I were crazy, too. “Not a particularly good idea, either,” I said. He cracked a grin.

Half a dozen men and two women in business attire were gathered in the West Wing office of the White House chief of staff. I sensed a lot of tension in the room, but everyone was working hard to hide it. I was introduced as the representative of the Washington police. Welcome to the team. Say hello to the dragonslayer.

The others at the table cordially introduced themselves. Two more senior agents from the Secret Service, a woman named Ann Roper and a youngish, good-looking man named Michael Fescoe; the director of intelligence from the FBI, Robert Hatfield; General Aiden Cornwall from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Army; the national security advisor, Michael Kane; the White House chief of staff, Don Hamerman. The other woman turned out to be a senior officer in the CIA. The inspector general.

Her name was Jeanne Sterling. Her presence meant that a foreign power's involvement in Jack and Jill was being considered. There was a twist I hadn't considered before.

It was fast company for a homicide detective from SoutheaSt D.C., even for a deputy chief. But I figured I was pretty fast company, too. I had seen nasty things that none of them had, or would ever want to.

Let the sharing begin.

Glistening sweet rolls, butter in ice, and coffee in silver pots had been put out for our unusual breakfast club. It was obvious that some of the others had worked together before. I had learned a long time ago that if you can't spot the pigeon in a poker game, then you're probably it.

The national security advisor called the gathering to order a minute or so past ten. Don Hamerman was a wiry, blond man in his mid-thirties who appeared to be tightly strung. That definitely fit the White House staff profile in recent years: very young and very uptight. On the move. On the make, get set, go.

“I'm going to use overheads for this presentation, folks. That's the way we do it here in the Big House,” Hamerman said and managed a thin, forced smile. He had an unsettling kinetic energy.

He reminded me of high-flying D.C. public relations types, and even of Michael Robinson's overwrought agent back at the Willard.

I gathered from his remark that White House meetings were usually bureaucratic and somewhat formal, rather than loosy-goosy.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the small joke, anyway.

Actually, the forced cordiality disturbed me. I was still flashing On the death-mask expression of Michael Rob Michael Fescoe; the director of intelligence from the FBI, Robert Hatfield; General Aiden Cornwall from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Army; the national security advisor, Michael Kane; the White House chief of staff, Don Hamerman. The other woman turned out to be a senior officer in the CIA. The inspector general.

Her name was Jeanne Sterling. Her presence meant that a foreign power's involvement in Jack and Jill was being considered. There was a twist I hadn't considered before.

It was fast company for a homicide detective from SoutheaSt D.C., even for a deputy chief. But I figured I was pretty fast company, too. I had seen nasty things that none of them had, or would ever want to.

Let the sharing begin.

Glistening sweet rolls, butter in ice, and coffee in silver pots had been put out for our unusual breakfast club. It was obvious that some of the others had worked together before. I had learned a long time ago that if you can't spot the pigeon in a poker game, then you're probably it.

The national security advisor called the gathering to order a minute or so past ten. Don Hamerman was a wiry, blond man in his mid-thirties who appeared to be tightly strung. That definitely fit the White House staff profile in recent years: very young and very uptight. On the move. On the make, get set, go.

“I'm going to use overheads for this presentation, folks. That's the way we do it here in the Big House,” Hamerman said and managed a thin, forced smile. He had an unsettling kinetic energy.

He reminded me of high-flying D.C. public relations types, and even of Michael Robinson's overwrought agent back at the Willard.

I gathered from his remark that White House meetings were usually bureaucratic and somewhat formal, rather than loosy-goosy.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the small joke, anyway.

Actually, the forced cordiality disturbed me. I was still flashing On the death-mask expression of Michael Robinson. It wasn't an image I liked bringing with me into the White House.

Michael Robinson's naked corpse was probably still in the Willard Hotel with the morgue team, ready to be tagged and bagged.

"I have about an hour's worth of briefing material -- tops.

With full discussion, let's say we're at two hours,“ Hamerman continued. ”That will take us close to noon, but I believe the unfortunate circumstances warrant a tight briefing up front."

What unfortunate circumstances, exactly ? I wanted to interrupt Hamerman, but I kept my cool. It was neither the time nor the place.

Cups of coffee and several cigarette packs were already laid out on the worktable. Everyone was prepared for a tough siege.

I guessed that was the way it was done at the Big House.

Hamerman placed his first overhead on the gently purring machine. The display screen said Jack and Jill Investigation.

Not much to argue about so far.

"As you know, there have been three brutal celebrity murders in Washington in the past week. The latest was the shooting sometime last night of the actor Michael Robinson at the Willard.

The stalkers call themselves Jack and Jill. They leave artsy mash notes at their murder scenes. They like to play games with the media. They seem to relish the spotlight a lot.

"They also seem to know what they're doing. They've successfully committed three high-profile murders and haven't left us squat to work with. They appear to be signature or serial killers, though of a particularly high order. That's debatable, or so I'm led to understand. But it's one theory.

“Here's the first kicker,” Hamerman said and arched his thin, blond eyebrows. “What some of you don't know is that Jack and Jill' is also the Secret Service code name used for President and Mrs. Byrnes. It has been since the President took office. We are not comfortable accepting this fact as mere coincidence.”

The blond woman from the CIA lit a cigarette. I remembered her name. Jeanne Sterling. She blew out a pale gust of smoke.

I heard her mutter “shit.” My sentiments exactly. This was the worst news we'd had so far. Also, I didn't appreciate the fact it had been kept from us until this moment.

"We believe it is a very real possibility that an assassination attempt could be made on either President Byrnes or Mrs. Byrnes.

Or perhaps on both of them," Hamerman said.

The words were absolutely chilling to hear. I glanced around the table and saw the frozen expressions of concern.

"We have taken, or are taking, every precaution that we can think of. The President's exposure outside the White House will be extremely limited for the time being. He's been told everything about the unfortunate situation, and so has Mrs. Byrnes. They're taking it well. They're both very smart, very impressive people.

They will not panic. I can promise you that. I'll do the panicking for both of them.

“Let me talk about some facts we don't have about the so-called stalkers Jack and Jill. Actually, there are several thousand investigators assigned to the case, and we know surprisingly little. Jack and Jill may be heading toward the White House next, and we don't have the foggiest idea why. Or who they might be. Or what the hell is in this for them.”

Don Hamerman peered around the table. He was definitely wired. The other word to describe him, the one that came to my mind anyway, was supercilious.

“Please feel free to correct me on any point I make. Feel free to add any updated information you might have,” he said with a tiny sneer.

Except for a few sighs, no one spoke. No one seemed to know any more than I did. No one had a worthwhile clue so far. That was the scariest thing of all.

The possibility existed that the President and First Lady were the ultimate targets for Jack and Jill... or maybe not even the ultimate targets?

Jack and Jill came to The Hill. What in the name of God for?

To wipe out all the bleeding liberals? To punish sinners? Was the President a sinner in their minds ?

“Jay, do you want to say something now?” Hamerman asked Secret Service Agent Grayer.

Grayer nodded and stood up at the worktable. He leaned against it with his hands. He looked a little pale. “There's a very tough problem here,” he said to us. “The danger is real, believe me. This is as scary as anything I've seen in my time at the White House. You see, I was the first one inside Senator Fitzpatrick's apartment after the killing. I was there, alone, at six o'clock that morning. I called the Metro police... the same is true for Ms. Sheehan and for Michael Robinson. Each time Jack and Jill has called the Secret Service first. They've contacted us right here at the White House. They told us... that they're practicing for the big one.”

ON FRIDAY NIGHT Jack and Jill checked into a high-priced suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, one of the Washington area's best. No one was scheduled to die at the exclusive hotel. Not that they knew of, anyway. Actually, the killers were taking the weekend off-- while everyone else in Washington, the police geniuses especially, stewed in their own juices.

What a fabulous treat the weekend was. What a delicious notion.

The six-hundred-dollar-a-night suite overlooked a corner of Georgetown, and they never left it for a moment. A masseuse came Friday night for a double shiatsu session. Sara had a facial and a manicure on Saturday morning. Room service sent up a personal chef Saturday night, and he prepared their meal in their room. Sam had also provided for four dozen white roses to be delivered when they arrived. It was paradise regained. They felt they deserved it for what they had accomplished so far.

“This is so unbelievably decadent. It's a postmodern, grossly socially incorrect fairy tale,” Sara said at a luxurious high point late on Sunday night. “I love every minute of it.”

“But do you love every inch of it?” Sam asked her. Only he could get away with a touchy line like that -- and he did.

Sara smiled and felt a rush of heat inside her body. She looked at him with warm and inquiring eyes. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

He was deep inside her, thrusting slowly and gently, and she was wondering if he truly loved her. She wished for it with all her being, but she didn't believe it, couldn't believe it. She was, after all, Sara the gimp, Sara the drudge, Sara the drone.

How could he have fallen in love with her? And yet sometimes it seemed that he had. Is this part of the game for him, too? Sara wondered.

Her fingers ran all over his chest, played with individual hairs.

She touched him everywhere: his beautiful face, his throat, stomach, buttocks, his dangling testicles, which seemed as large as a bull's. Sara arched up toward him, wanting to be as close as she possibly could, wanting every inch, yes, wanting everything of him that there was. Even his real name, which he wouldn't tell her.

“We've earned this weekend,” Sam said. "It's also necessary, Sara. Rest and relaxation are a real part of war, an important part.

Jack and Jill is going to get progressively harder from here on.

Everything escalates now."

Sara couldn't help smiling as she stared up at Sam's face. God she loved being with him. Under him, over him, sideways, upside down. She loved his touch -- sometimes strong, sometimes so surprisingly gentle. She loved, yes, every inch of him.

She'd never felt like this before, never thought that she would.

She would have bet anything against its happening. In a way, she had bet everything, hadn't she? For the cause, but also for Sam, for this.

Sam was such a closet romantic, too. It was so unexpected from The Soldier, from any man she had known before. The suite at the Four Seasons was his idea, just because she had mentioned -- mentioned it once -- that it was her favorite hotel in Washington.

“Say,” she said to him now, whispering during their lovemaking, “do you want to know my favorite hotel in the whole wide world?”

He got the joke -- he got all of her humor and twisted ironies.

His large blue eyes sparkled. He grinned. He had brilliantly white teeth, and such a shy, disarming smile. She thought he was much better looking than Michael Robinson had been. Sam was a real-life action hero. The Soldier. In a real war for survival, the most important war of our times. They both believed that to be the truth.

“Please, don't tell me the answer,” he said with a laugh. “Don't you dare tell me your favorite hotel in the world. You know I'll have to take you there somehow if you do. Don't tell me, Sara!”

“The Cipriani in Venice,” Sara blurted out, laughing.

She had never actually been there, but she'd read so much about it. She had read about everything, but experienced so little until recently Sara the hopeless bookworm, Sara the bibliophile, Sara the cipher. Well, no more. Now she lived as almost no one had before. Sara the gimp lives!

“Okay, then. When this is all over -- and this will end -- we'll go to Venice, for a holiday I promise you. The Cipriani it is.”

“And Sunday brunch at the Danieli,” she whispered against his cheek. “Promise?”

“Of course. Where else but the Danieli for brunch? That's a given. As soon as this is finished.”

“It's going to get worse, isn't it?” she said, hugging his powerful body a little tighter.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. But not tonight Jilly. Not tonight, my love.

So let's not ruin this by thinking too much about tomorrow. Don't make a wonderful weekend into a bad Monday"

Sam was right, of course. He was a wise man, too. He started to move again on top of her. He flowed like a fast river current over the top of her. He was such a generous and beautiful lover; he was both teacher and student; he knew how to gve and take in bed. Most important, Sam knew how to bring her out of herself.

God, she had needed that -- forever, it seemed. To get outside of herself. Not to be the gimp anymore. Not ever again. She promised herself that.

Sara pursed her lips tightly. In pleasure? In pain? She wasn't even sure anymore. She shut her eyes, then quickly opened them.

She wanted to look.

He held himself over her, as if he were pausing during a push-up. “So you've never been to the Cipriani, Monkey Face?” he asked. His cheeks weren't even flushed. He effortlessly held himself over her. His body was so beautiful, strong and agile, rock-solid. Sara was in good shape also, but Sam was superb.

He called her “Monkey Face,” from Hitchcock's Suspicion. It wasn't really such a great movie, but it had hit the spot for them, hit their spot. Ever since they'd seen it, she'd been the Joan Fontaine character, Lena. He was Johnny, who had been played by Cary Grant. Johnny had called Lena “Monkey Face.”

At the end of the film, Lena and Johnny had driven off into a sunset on the Riviera, presumably to live happily ever after. The Hitchcock movie was an elegant, witty, mysterious game, just as this was.

Their game. The most exquisite game two people had ever played together.

Will we drive off into the sunset after all this? Sara Rosen wondered. Oh, I think not. I don't suppose that we will. What will happen to us, then? Oh, what will happen to us? What will become of Jack and Jill?

“I've only been to the Cipriani in my dreams,” she confessed to Sam. “Only in dreams. But, yes, I've been there many, many times.”

“Is this all a dream, Monkey Face?” Sam asked. His look was serious for a moment. She couldn't help thinking how precious every moment like this was, and how fleeting. She had secretly yearned for this all of her life, for one truly romantic experience.

“I think it's a dream, yes. It's like a dream anyway Please don't wake me, though, Sam.”

“It's not a dream,” Sam whispered. "I love you. You are the most lovable woman I've ever met. You are, Sara. You're like staying at the Cipriani every day for me. Please believe that, Monkey Face.

Believe in us. I do."

He clasped Sara from behind and pulled her closer. She savored the sweetness of his breath, the smell of his cologne, the smell of him.

He began to move inside her and she felt herself melting into a liquid force. She did love him -- she did, she did, she did. Her hands ran all over him, touching, possessing. There had never been anything like this before in her life, nothing even close.

She slithered up and down on his long, powerful pole, his strength, his exquisite malehess. Sara couldn't stop herself now, and she didn't want to. She was choking with her own passion.

She heard her voice crying out and almost didn't recognize herself. She was joined with him in a simple rhythm that got faster and faster as the two of them came closer to being one --Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill!

THEIR FAIRY TALE ended with a quiet, almost disheartening thud, and Sara felt herself crashing back to earth, tumbling, being rushed along in a powerful tide. Monday morning meant a return to the dreary work world again, to real life.

Sara Rosen had held “normal,” boring jobs around Washington for fourteen years, ever since she'd graduated from Hollins College in Virginia. She had a day job now. A perfect job for their purposes. The dreariest and weariest of jobs.

That morning, she rose early to get ready. She and Sam had separated on Sunday night at the Four Seasons. She missed him, missed his humor, missed his touch, missed everything about him. Every inch.

She had gotten lost in that thought. Inches. Millimeters. The essence of Sam. His tremendous inner strength. She glanced at the luminescent face of the clock on her bed stand. She groaned out loud. Quarter to five. Dammit, she was already late.

Her bathroom had a yoga corner with a custom-made leather mat. No time for that, though her body and mind ached for the discipline and the release.

She took a quick shower and washed her hair with Salon Selectives shampoo. She put on a navy Brooks Brothers suit, low pumps, a leather-strapped Raymond Weil watch. She needed to look sharp, look alert, look freshly scrubbed this morning.

Somehow, she always came out like that anyway. Sara the freshly starched.

She hurried outside, where a grimy yellow cab was already waiting at the curb, wagging a tail of smoke. The wind whooped and howled up and down K Street.

At five-twenty, the yellow cab pulled up in front of her workplace. The Liberty Cab driver smiled and said, “A famous address, my lady. 50, are you somebody famous?”

She paid the driver and collected change from a five-dollar bill.

“Actually, I might be someday,” she said. “You never know.”

“Yeah, maybe I'm somebody, too,” the driver said with a crooked smile. “You never know.”

Sara Rosen climbed out of the cab and felt the early December wind in her face. The pristine building before her looked strangely beautiful and imposing in the early-morning light. It appeared to be shining, actually, glowing from the inside out.

She showed her ID card, and security let her pass inside.

She and the guard even shared a quick laugh about her being a workaholic. And why not? Sara Rosen had worked inside the White House for nine years.

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

PART 3

THE PHOTOJOURNALIST

THE PHOTOJOURNALIST was the last piece in the complex puzzle. He was the final player. He was working in San Francisco on December 8. Actually, the photojournalist was playing the game in San Francisco. Or rather, he was playing around the outer edges of the game.

Kevin Hawkins sat in a scooped-out, gray plastic chair at Gate 31. He contentedly played chess with himself on a PowerBook. He was winning; he was losing. He enjoyed it either way Hawkins loved games, loved chess, and he was close to being one of the better players in the world. It had been that way ever since he'd been a bright, lonely, underachieving boy in Hudson, New York. At quarter to eleven he got up from his seat to go play another kind of game. This was his favorite game in the world.

He was in San Francisco to kill someone.

As he walked through the busy airport, Kevin Hawkins snapped off photograph after photograph -- all in his mind.

The prizewinning photojournalist was outfitted in his usual studied-casual manner: tight black cord jeans with a black T-shirt, tribal bracelets from several trips to Zambia, a diamond stud earring. A Lcica camera was looped around his neck on a leather strap decorated with engravings.

The photojournalist slipped into a crowded bathroom in Corridor C. He observed a ragged line of men slouched at the urinals.

They are like pigs at a through, he thought. Like water buffalo, or oxen, taught to stand on their hind legs.

His eye composed the shot and snapped it off. A beauty of order and sly wit. The Boys at the Bowl.

The urinal scene reminded him of a clever pickpocket he had once seen operate in Bangkok. The thief, a keen student of human nature, would snatch wallets while gents were in midstream at a urinal and were reluctant, or unable, to go after him.

The photojournalist couldn't forget the comical image whenever he entered an airport men's room. He rarely forgot any image, actually. His mind was a well-run archive, a rival to Kodak's vast storehouses of pictures in Rochester.

He peered at his own image, a rather haggard and pasty-white face, in one of the cloudy bathroom mirrors. Unimpressive in every way, he couldn't help but think. His eyes were war-weary, an almost washed-out blue. Gazing at his eyes depressed him -- so much so that he sighed involuntarily.

He saw no other mind pictures to take in the mirror. Never, ever, a picture of himself.

He started to cough and couldn't stop. He finally brought up a thick packet of despicable, yellowish paste. His inner core, he thought. His animus was slowly leaking out.

Kevin Hawkins was only forty-three, but he felt like a hundred.

He had lived too hard, especially the last fourteen years. His life and times had been so very intense, often flamboyant and occasionally absurd. He had been burned, he often imagined, from every conceivable angle. He had played the game of life and death too hard, too well, too often.

He started to cough again and popped a Halls into his mouth.

Kevin Hawkins checked the time on his Seiko Kinetic wristwatch.

He quickly finger-combed his lank, grayish blond hair and then left the public bathroom.

He merged smoothly with the thick corridor traffic rolling past on the killing floor. It was almost time, and he was feeling a nice out-of-body buzz. He hummed an old, absolutely ridiculous song called “Rock the Casbah.” He was pulling a dark Delsey suitcase hinged on one of those cheap roller contraptions that were so popular. The “walking” suitcase made him look like a tourist, like a nobody of the first order.

The red-on-black digital clock over the airport passageway read 11:40. A Northwest Airlines jet from Tokyo had landed just a few minutes earlier. It had come into Gate 41, right on schedule.

Somepeople just know how to fly. Wasn't that Northwest's tag line?

The gods were smiling down on him; Kevin Hawkins felt a grim, humorless smile of his own. The gods loved the game, too.

Life and death. It was their game, actually.

He heard the first strains of a noisy commotion coming from the connecting Corridor B. The photojournalist kept walking ahead, until he was past the point where the two wide corridors connected.

That was when he saw the phalanx of bodyguards and wellwishers He saw no other mind pictures to take in the mirror. Never, ever, a picture of himself.

He started to cough and couldn't stop. He finally brought up a thick packet of despicable, yellowish paste. His inner core, he thought. His animus was slowly leaking out.

Kevin Hawkins was only forty-three, but he felt like a hundred.

He had lived too hard, especially the last fourteen years. His life and times had been so very intense, often flamboyant and occasionally absurd. He had been burned, he often imagined, from every conceivable angle. He had played the game of life and death too hard, too well, too often.

He started to cough again and popped a Halls into his mouth.

Kevin Hawkins checked the time on his Seiko Kinetic wristwatch.

He quickly finger-combed his lank, grayish blond hair and then left the public bathroom.

He merged smoothly with the thick corridor traffic rolling past on the killing floor. It was almost time, and he was feeling a nice out-of-body buzz. He hummed an old, absolutely ridiculous song called “Rock the Casbah.” He was pulling a dark Delsey suitcase hinged on one of those cheap roller contraptions that were so popular. The “walking” suitcase made him look like a tourist, like a nobody of the first order.

The red-on-black digital clock over the airport passageway read 11:40. A Northwest Airlines jet from Tokyo had landed just a few minutes earlier. It had come into Gate 41, right on schedule.

Somepeople just know how to fly. Wasn't that Northwest's tag line?

The gods were smiling down on him; Kevin Hawkins felt a grim, humorless smile of his own. The gods loved the game, too.

Life and death. It was their game, actually.

He heard the first strains of a noisy commotion coming from the connecting Corridor B. The photojournalist kept walking ahead, until he was past the point where the two wide corridors connected.

That was when he saw the phalanx of bodyguards and wellwishers.

He clicked off a shot in his mind. He got a peek at Mr. Tanaka of the Nipray Corporation. He clicked another shot.

His adrenaline was flowing like lava from Kilauea in Hawaii, where he'd once shot for Newsweek. Adrenaline. Nothing like it.

He was addicted to the stuff.

Any second now.

Any second.

Any nanosecond -- which, he knew, is to a second as a second is to about thirty years.

There was no X-marks-the-spot on the terminal floor, but Kevin Hawkins knew this was the place. He had it all visualized, every critical angle was vivid as hell in his mind's eye. All the intersect points were clear to him.

Any second. Life and death.

There might as well have been a big black X painted on the airport floor.

Kevin Hawkins felt like a god.

Here we go. Cameras loaded and at the ready. Lock and load!

Someone going to die here.

WHEN THE SEMIOFFICIAL ENTOURAGE was approximately twelve feet from the busy corridor-crossing, a small bomb detonated.

The explosion sent a cloud of gray-black smoke into Corridor A. Screams pierced the air like whining sirens.

The bomb had been inside a dark blue suitcase left next to the news and magazine kiosk. Kevin Hawkins had placed the innocent-looking suitcase directly in front of a sign that advised travelers to WATCH YOUR LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.

The deafening, booming noise and sudden chaos startled the bodyguards surrounding Mr. Tanaka. It made them erratic, and therefore predictable. Security teams, even the best of them, could be fooled if you forced them to improvise. Travelers and airport personnel were screaming, seeking cover where there was none to be had. Men, women, and children pressed themselves to the floor, faces hard against cold marble.

People haven't seen real panic until they've witnessed it in a large airport, where everyone is already close to the edge of primal fears.

Two of the bodyguards covered the corporate chairman, doing a half-way-decent job, Hawkins saw.

He clicked another mind photo. Stored it in his photo file for future reference.

This was good stuff, valuable as hell. How an excellent security team reacted under stress during an actual attack.

Then the efficient, if uninspired, bodyguards began to hurriedly move their “protected person” out of danger, out of harm's way. They obviously couldn't go forward into the smoky, bombed-out corridor. The security team chose to go back- their only choice, the one Kevin Hawkins knew they would make under duress.

They pulled along Mr. Tanaka as if he were a large, ungainly puppet or doll, which he pretty much was. They almost physically carried the important businessman, holding him under his arms so that both his feet left the floor at times.

Mind photo of that: expensive black tasseled loafers skipping across the marble floor.

The trained bodyguards had one goal: get the “protected person” out of there. The photojournalist let them proceed about thirty feet before he pushed the detonator in the shoulder bag housing his camera gear. It was that easy The best plans were one-button simple. Like a camera. Like a camera suitable for a child.

A second suitcase he had left alongside the corridor near the men's room exploded with double the thunder and lightning of the first, causing more than twice the damage. It was as if an invisible missile had been guided directly into the center of the airport.

The destruction was instantaneous, and it was brutal. Bodies, and even body parts, flew in every imaginable direction. Tanaka didn't survive. Neither did any of the four diligent and highly underpaid bodyguards.

The photojournalist was tightly wedged in amidst the rushing wall of men and women trying to escape toward the airport exits.

His was just another terrified face in the stormy human sea.

And, yes, he could look very terrified. He knew more than any of them what fear looked like. He had photographed uncontrolled fear on so many faces. He often saw those awful looks of terror, those silent screams, in his dreams.

He held back a tight, grim smile as he turned onto Corridor D and headed toward his own plane. He was going to Washington, D.C., that evening and hoped the delays caused by the murder wouldn't be massively long.

The risk had been a necessary one, actually. This had been a rehearsal, the last rehearsal.

Now, on to far more important things. The photojournalist had a very big job in D.C. The code name was easy enough for him to remember.

Jack and Jill.

“THE EIGHTEEN-ACRE ESTATE around the White House includes many diversions: a private movie theater, gym, wine cellar, tennis courts, bowling lanes, rooftop greenhouse, and a golf range on the South Lawn. The house and property are currently assessed at three hundred forty million by the District of Columbia.” I could almost do the spiel myself.

I showed my temporary pass, then carefully drove down into the parking garage under the White House. On the way in I had noticed some renovation to the main building and also extensive groundwork, but overall the White House looked just fine to me.

My head was not so fine. It was uneasy Filled with chaotic thoughts. I had slept only a couple of hours the night before, and that was becoming a pattern. The morning's Washington Post and New York Times lay folded on the car seat beside me.

The Post headline asked Who's NEXT FOR JACK AND JILL? It seemed like a question directed right at me. who's NEXT?

I thought about a possible attempt on the life of President Thomas Byrnes, as I walked from the small parking garage to the elevator. A lot of people were extremely high on the President and his programs. Americans had clamored for change for a long time, and President Byrnes was delivering it in large doses. Of course, what most people want “change” to mean is more money in their pockets, instantly, without any sacrifice on their part.

So who might be angry and crazed enough at the President to want him murdered? I knew that was why I was at the White House. I was here to conduct a homicide investigation. In the White House. A search for a couple of killers who could be planning to murder the President.

I met Don Hamerman in the West Wing Entrance Hall. He was still acting extremely high strung and anxious, but that seemed to be his persona. It also fit the times. The chief of staff and I talked for a few minutes in the hallway He went out of his way to tell me that I had been handpicked for the investigation because of my expertise with high-profile killers, especially psychopaths.

He seemed to know an awful lot about me. As he talked, I imagined that he'd probably gotten the coveted brownnoser award in his senior year at Yale or Harvard, where he had also learned to talk with a whiny, upper-class drawl.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect that morning.

Hamerman said he was going to line up some “interviews” for me. I sensed some of his frustration in trying to organize an investigation like this inside the White House. A murder investigation.

He left me alone inside the Map Room on the ground floor.

I paced around the famous room, absently checking out the' elaborately carved Chippendale furniture, an oil portrait of Ben Franklin, a landscape painting titled Tending Cows and Sheep. I already had a busy day ahead. I had appointments set up at the city morgue and with Benjamin Levitsky, the number two at the FBI's intelligence unit.

I continued to be frustrated about the Truth School child murders.

For the moment, that was Sampson's concern. Sampson's and our part-time posse of detectives'. But I couldn't keep it off my mind.

Suddenly, someone entered the Map Room along with the national security advisor. I was taken by surprise. I was blown away, actually. No words could possibly describe the feeling.

Don Hamerman stiffly announced, “President Byrnes will see you now.”

“GOOD MORNING. Is it Doctor or Detective Cross?” President Thomas Byrnes asked me.

I had a sneaking suspicion that Dr. Cross would serve me much better at the White House. Like Dr. Bunche, Dr. Kissinger, or even Doc Savage. “I guess that I prefer Alex,” I said to him.

The President's face lit up in a broad smile, and it was the same charismatic one I had seen many times on television and on the front pages of newspapers.

“And I prefer Tom,” the President said. He extended his hand and the two of us shook off our surnames. His grip was firm and steady. He held eye contact with me for several seconds.

The President of the United States managed to sound both cordial and appropriately serious at the same time. He was about six feet tall, and he was trim and fit at fifty. His hair was light brown, trimmed with silver-gray He looked a little like a fighter pilot. His eyes were very sensitive and warm. He was already known as our most personable president in many years, and also our most dynamic.

I had read and heard a lot about the man I was meeting for the first time. He had been the successful and much-admired head of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit before he decided to go for an even higher executive office. He had run for the presidency as an Independent, and true to the polls of the past few years, the people had voted for fresh, independent thinking -- or maybe they were just voting against the Republican and Democratic Parties, as some pundits believed. So far, he had shown himself to be a contemporary thinker, but a bit contrarian, a genuine maverick in high office. As an independent mover and shaker, the President had made few friends in Washington, but lots of enemies.

“The director of the FBI highly recommended you,” he said.

"I think Stephen Bowen's a pretty good man. What do you think?

Any opinion of him?"

“I agree with you. The Bureau has changed a lot in the past couple of years under Bowen. We work well with them now. That didn't used to be the case.”

The President nodded. “Is this a real threat, Alex, or are we just taking wise precautions?” he asked me. It was a tough, blunt question. I also thought it was the right question to ask.

“I think the concern of the Secret Service is definitely a wise precaution,” I said. “The coincidence of the names Jack and Jill being the same as your code names with the Secret Service, that's very disturbing. So is the killers' pattern of going after famous people here in Washington.”

“I guess I fit that damn description. Sad but true,” President Byrnes said and frowned. I had read that he was an intensely private man and down-to-earth as well. He seemed that way to me. Midwestern in the best sense. I guess what surprised me the most was the warmth that came from the man.

“As you have admitted yourself, you're 'shaking up the toy box.” You've already disturbed a lot of people."

"Stay tuned, there are a lot more major disturbances to come.

This government badly needs to be reengineered. It was designed for life in the eighteen hundreds. Alex, I'm going to cooperate in any way I can with the police investigation. I don't want anyone else to be hurt, let alone die. I've certainly thought about it, but I'm not ready to die yet. I think Sally and I are decent people. I hope you'll feel that way the more you're around us. We're far from perfect, but we are decent. We're trying to do the right thing."

I was already feeling that way about the President. He had quickly struck a good chord with me. At the same time, I wondered how much of what he'd said I could believe. He was, after all, a politician. The best in the land.

“Every year, several people try to break into the White House, Alex. One man succeeded by tagging onto the end of the marine marching band. Quite a few have tried to ram the front gates with cars. In ninety-four, Frank Eugene Corder flew a single-engine Cessna in here.”

“But so far, nothing like this,” I said.

The President asked the real question on his mind. “What's your bottom line on Jack and Jill?”

“No bottom line yet. Maybe a morning line,” I told him.

"I disagree with the FBI. I don't see them as pattern killers.

They're highly organized, but the pattern seems artificial to me.

I'll bet they're both attractive, white, with well above normal IQ. They have to be articulate and persuasive to get into the places that they did. They want to accomplish something even more spectacular. What they've done so far is only groundwork.

They enjoy the power of manipulating both us and the media.

That's what I have so far. It's what I'm prepared to talk about, anyway."

The President nodded solemnly. “I have a good feeling about you, Alex,” he said. “I'm glad we met for a couple of minutes here. I was told that you have two children,” he said. He reached into his jacket and handed me a presidential tie clasp and a pin especially designed for kids. "Keepsakes are important, I think.

You see, I believe in tradition as well as in change."

President Byrnes shook my hand again, looked me directly in the eye for a moment, and then left the room.

I understood that I had just been welcomed to the team, and the sole purpose of the team was to protect the President's life. I found that I was powerfully motivated to do just that. I looked down at the tie clasp and pin for Damon and Jannie and was strangely moved.

“SO DID YOU get to meet the royal couple yet?” Nana Mama asked when I entered her kitchen about four that afternoon.

She was making something in a big gray stewpot that smelled like the proverbial ambrosia. It was white bean soup, one of my favorites. Rosie the cat was prowling around on the counters, purring contentedly Rosie in the kitchen.

At the same time Nana cooked at the counter, she was doing the crossword puzzle in the Washington Post. A book of her word jumbles was also out in view. So was No Stone Unturned -- The Life and Times of Maggie Kuhn. Complicated woman, my grandmother.

“Did I meet who?” I pretended not to understand her crystal-.

clear and very pointed question to me. I was playing the game that the two of us have had going for many years, and probably will until death do us part somehow, sometime, someway.

“Meet whom, Dr. Cross. The President and Mrs. President, of course. The well-to-do white folks who live in the White House, looking down on the rest of us. Tom and Sally up in Camelot for the nineties.”

I smiled at her usual high-spirited and occasionally bittersweet banter. I looked in the fridgc. “I didn't come home for the third and fourth degree, you know. I'm going to make a sandwich from this brisket. It looks moist and tender. Or are looks deceiving?”

"Of course they are, but this brisket is moist and you could cut it with a soup spoon. Seems as if they work very short hours over at the White House, considering all that they have to do.

Somehow, I suspected as much. But I could never prove it until now. So who did you meet?"

I couldn't resist. I had been going to tell her this much anyway.

“I met and talked with the President this morning.”

“You met Tom?”

Nana pretended to take a punch in the manner of the heavyweight boxer George Foreman. She did a stumbling stutter-step back from the counter. She even cracked a tiny smile. “Well, tell me all about Tom, for heaven's sake. And Sally. Does Sally wear a black pillbox hat inside the White House in the daytime?”

“I think that was Jacqueline Kennedy. Actually, I liked President Byrnes,” I said as I commenced making a thick brisket sandwich on fresh rye with bib lettuce, tomatoes, and a dab of mayonnaise, lots of pepper, a whisk of salt.

“You would. You like everybody unless they kill somebody,” Nana said as she began to slice up some more tomatoes. “Now that you've met Mr. President, you can get back on the Sojourner Truth School case. That's very important to the people in this house. The Gray House. No black people care very much about the President and his problems anymore. Nor should they.”

“Is that a fact, Mrs. Farrakhan?” I said as I bit into my sandwich.

Delicious, as promised. Cut it with a soup spoon, melts in the mouth.

“Should be a fact, if it isn't. It's close to a fact, anyway. I'll admit that it's a sad state of affairs, but it's the sad state we all live in. Don't you agree? You must.”

“You ever hear of mellowing with age?” I asked her. “Your brisket is terrific, by the way.”

“You ever hear of getting better, not getting older? You ever hear of taking care of one's own kind? You ever hear about teeny-tiny, darling black children being murdered in our neighborhood, Alex, and nobody doing enough to make it stop? Of course the brisket is excellent. You see, I am getting better.”

I reached into my trouser pocket and took out the clasp and pin that the President had given me. “The President knew I had two children. He gave me these keepsakes for them.” I handed them over to Nana. She took them, and for once in her life, she was speechless.

“Tell them that these are from Tom and that he's a fine man trying to do the right thing.”

I finished half of my overstuffed sandwich and took the remaining half With me out of the kitchen. If you can't stand the heat and all that. “Thanks for the delicious sandwich, and the advice. In that order.”

“Where are you going now?” Nana called after me. She was winding up again. "We were talking about an important matter.

Genocide against black people right here in Washington, our nation's capital. They don't care what happens in these neighborhoods, Alex. They is them, and them is white, and you're collaborating with the enemy."

“Actually, I'm going out to put in a few hours on the Truth School murder case,” I called back as I continued toward the front door, and blessed escape from the tirade. I couldn't see Nana Mama anymore, but I could hear her voice trailing behind me like a banshee cry, or maybe the caw of a field crow.

“Alex has finally found his senses!” she exclaimed in a loud, shrill voice. “There's hope after all. There's hope. Oh, thank you, Black Lord in Heaven.”

The old goat can still get my goat, and I love her for it. I just don't want to listen to her annoying rap sometimes.

I beeped the car horn of my old Porsche on the way out of the driveway. It's our signal that everything is all right between us. From inside the house, I heard Nana call out: “Beep back at you!”

I WAS BACK on the mean streets of inner Washington, the underside of the capital. I was a homicide detective again. I loved it with a strange passion, but there were times when I hated it with all my heart.

We were doing all that could humanly be done on both cases.

I had set up surveillance on the Truth School during the day and also had day and night surveillance on Shanelie Green's gravesite.

Often psycho killers showed up at victims' graves. They were ghouls, after all.

The circus was definitely in town.

Two of them.

Two completely different kinds of murder pattern. I had never seen anything like it, nothing even close to this chaos.

I didn't need Nana Mama to remind me that I wanted to be out on the street right now. As she had said, Someone is killing our children.

I was certain that the unspeakable monster was going to kill again. In contrast to Jack and Jill, there was rage and passion in his work. There was a raw, scary craziness, the kind I could almost taste. The killer's probable amateur status wasn't reassuring, either.

Think like the killer. Walk in the killer's shoes, I reminded myself.

laborating with the enemy."

“Actually, I'm going out to put in a few hours on the Truth School murder case,” I called back as I continued toward the front door, and blessed escape from the tirade. I couldn't see Nana Mama anymore, but I could hear her voice trailing behind me like a banshee cry, or maybe the caw of a field crow.

“Alex has finally found his senses!” she exclaimed in a loud, shrill voice. “There's hope after all. There's hope. Oh, thank you, Black Lord in Heaven.”

The old goat can still get my goat, and I love her for it. I just don't want to listen to her annoying rap sometimes.

I beeped the car horn of my old Porsche on the way out of the driveway. It's our signal that everything is all right between us. From inside the house, I heard Nana call out: “Beep back at you!”

I WAS BACK on the mean streets of inner Washington, the underside of the capital. I was a homicide detective again. I loved it with a strange passion, but there were times when I hated it with all my heart.

We were doing all that could humanly be done on both cases.

I had set up surveillance on the Truth School during the day and also had day and night surveillance on Shanelie Green's gravesite.

Often psycho killers showed up at victims' graves. They were ghouls, after all.

The circus was definitely in town.

Two of them.

Two completely different kinds of murder pattern. I had never seen anything like it, nothing even close to this chaos.

I didn't need Nana Mama to remind me that I wanted to be out on the street right now. As she had said, Someone is killing our children.

I was certain that the unspeakable monster was going to kill again. In contrast to Jack and Jill, there was rage and passion in his work. There was a raw, scary craziness, the kind I could almost taste. The killer's probable amateur status wasn't reassuring, either.

Think like the killer. Walk in the killer's shoes, I reminded myself.

That's how it all starts, but it's a lot tougher than it sounds. I was gathering as much information and data as I possibly could.

I spent part of the afternoon ambushing several of the local hangarounds who might have picked up something on the murders: convivial street people, swooning pipeheads, young runners for the rock and weed dealers, a few low-level rollers themselves, store owners, snitches, Muslims selling newspapers.

I gave some of them a tough time, but nobody had anything useful for me.

I kept at The Job anyway. That's the way it goes most days. You just keep at it, keep your head down and screwed on straight.

About quarter past five, I found myself talking to a seventeen-year-old homeless youth I knew from working the soup kitchen at St. Anthony's. His name was Loy McCoy, and he was a low-level crack runner now. He had helped me once or twice in the past.

Loy had stopped coming by for free food once he had started moving nickel and dime bags of crack and speed around the neighborhood. It's hard to blame kids like Loy, as much as I would like to some days. Their lives are unbelievably brutal and hopeless.

Then one day someone comes along and offers them fifteen or twenty bucks an hour to do what's going to happen anyway The more powerful emotional hook is that their dope bosses believe in them, and in many cases nobody has believed in any of these lost kids before.

I called Loy over, away from the posse of fools he was hanging with on L Street. They all wore black, machine-knit wool caps pulled low over their eyes and ears. Gold toothcaps, hoop earrings, baggy trousers, the works. His gang was talking about the movie based on the old Flintstones cartoon, or maybe about the actual cartoons. Yabba dabbas was one of the catchphrases used to describe police patrolmen and detectives in the 'hood. Here comes the yabba dabba. Or, he's a yabba dabba doo motherfucker. I had recently read a sad statistic that seventy percent of Americans got nearly one hundred percent of their information from television and the movies.

Loy smirked as he slow-shuffled up to me at the street corner.

He was maybe six one, but about only a hundred and forty pounds. He had on baggy, layered winter clothes, artfully torn, and he was “grittin” me today, trying to stare me down, put me down.

“Yo, you say c'mon over, I got to come?” Loy asked in a defiant tone that I found both irritating and monumentally sad.

“Whyzat? I pay my taxes,” he rapped on. “I aren't holdin'. Ain't none of us holdin'.”

“None of your bullshit attitude works on me,” I told him.

“You better lose it right now.” I knew that his mother was a heroin addict and that he had three little sisters. All of them lived at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital shelter, which was like having the tunnels under Union Station as your home address.

“Say your business, an' I get back to my business,” Loy said, remaining defiant. “My time's money, unnerstand? Axt me what you got to axt.”

“Just one question for you, Loy. Then you can go back to your big money business dealings.”

He kept “grittin” me, which can get you shot in this neighborhood. “Why I have to answer any questions? What's in it for me? What you have to deal?”

I finally smiled at Loy and he cracked a half-smile himself, showing off his shiny gold caps. “You give me something, maybe I'll remember. Then maybe I'll owe you one sometime,” I said.

“Yo,” he came right back at me. “Wanna know a big fat secret, Detective? I don't need your markers. And I don't much care about these murdered kids' homo-cides you lookin' into.” He shrugged as if it were no big deal on the street. I already knew that.

I waited for him to finish his little speech, and also to process my offer. The sad thing was that he was bright. Crazy smart. That was why the crack boss had hired him. Loy was smart enough, and he probably even had a decent work ethic.

“I can't talk to you! Don't have to, neither!” he finally did a little exasperated spin and threw up both his skinny arms. “You think I owe you 'cause once upon a time you fed us Manhandler soup-slop at the po'boy kitchen? Think I owe you? I don't owe you shit!”

Loy started to strut away. Then he looked back at me, as if he had just one more irritating wisecrack to hurl my way. His dark eyes narrowed, caught mine, and held on for a second. Contact.

Liftoff.

“Somebody saw an old man where that little girl got kilt,” Loy blurted out. It'was the biggest news we had so far on the Truth School case. It was the only news, and it was what I had been looking for all these days working the street.

He had no idea how fast I was, or how strong. I reached out and pulled him close to me. I pulled Loy McCoy very close. So close I could smell the sweet peppermint on his breath, the scent of pomade in his hair, the mustiness of his badly wrinkled winter clothes.

I held him to my chest as if he were a son of mine, a prodigal son, a young fool who needed to understand that I wasn't going to allow him to be this way with me. I held him real tight and I wanted to save him somehow. I wanted to save all of them, but I couldn't, and it was one of the big hurts and frustrations of my life.

"I'm not fooling around here, now. Who told you that, Loy?

You talk to me. Don't fuck with me on this. Talk to me, and talk to me now."

His face was inches from mine. My mouth was almost pressed against his cheek. All of his street swagger and the attitude had disappeared. I didn't like being a tough guy with him, but this was important as hell.

My hands are large and scarred, like a boxer's, and I let him see them. “I'm waiting for an answer,” I whispered. “I will take you in. I will ruin your day and night.”

“Don't know who,” he said between wheezing breaths. "Some people in the shelter be sayin' it. I just heard it, you know.

Old homeless dude. Somebody saw'm hangin' in Garfield. White dude in the park."

“A white man? On the southeast side of the park? You sure about that?”

"That's right. What I said. What I heard. Now, let me go.

C'mon, man, let go!"

I let him pull away from me, walk away a few steps.

Loy regained his composure and cool as soon as he realized that I wasn't going to hurt him,. or even take him in for questioning.

“That's the story. You oweme,” he said. “I'm gonna collect, too.”

I don't believe Loy saw the irony in what he was saying.

“I owe you,” I said. “Thanks, Loy.” I hope you don't ever have to collect.

He winked at me. “Be all you can be, all-riii!” he said and laughed and laughed as he walked back to the other crack runners.

AN OLD HOMELESS MAN near the muzzler scene. In Garfield Park. That was something solid to work with, finally. I had paid some dues and gotten a return on investment.

A white man. A white suspect.

That was even more promising. There weren't too many white males hanging out in the Garfield Park area. That was for sure.

I called Sampson and told him what I'd found out. He'd just come on duty for the night shift. I asked John how it was going on his end. He said that it wasn't going, but maybe now it would.

He would let the others in our group know.

At a little past five, I stopped by the Sojourner Truth School again. There were several forces strongly pulling me in the direction of the school. The new information about the homeles white man and the constant feeling that just maybe my nemesis Gary Soneji might be involved. That was part of it. Then there was Christine johnson. Mrs. Johnson.

Once again, nobody was sitting at the desk in the outer office.

The multiracial dolls on the desk looked abandoned. So did some “face doodles” and a couple of Goosebump books. The hea/ wooden door into the main office was shut tight.

I couldn't hear anyone inside, but I knocked anyway I heard a drawer bang shut, then footsteps. The door opened. It wasn't locked.

Christine Johnson had on a cashmere jacket and long wool skirt. Her hair was pulled back and tied with a yellow bow.

She was wearing her glasses. Working barefoot. I thought of a line- from Dorothy Parker, I think- Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.

Seeing her lifted my spirits, brought me up immediately I didn't know exactly why, but it did.

It occurred to me that she worked late at the school a lot. That was her business, but I wondered why she spent so much time here.

“Yes, I'm working late again. You caught me in the act. Red-handed, guilty as charged. A friend of yours dropped by the school this morning,” she said. “A detective John Sampson.”

“He's in charge of the case,” I said.

“He seems very dedicated and concerned. Surprising in a lot of ways. He's reading Camus,” she said.

I wondered how he had worked that into their conversation.

Among other noble pursuits, Sampson is dedicated to meeting interesting and attractive women, like Christine Johnson. It wouldn't bother him that she was married, unless it bothered her.

Sampson can be chivalrous to a fault, but only if it's appreciated.

“Sampson reads a lot, always has since I've known him. My grandmother taught him in school, before I met him, actually He's the original Pagemaster.”

Christine Johnson smiled, showed me all those beautiful teeth of hers. “You're familiar with the movie Pagemaster? I guess you must see them all.”

“I do see them all. Anything the kids 'have to, have to see, Daddy!” We gave Pagemaster a six. But we're not as down on Master Macauley Culkin as some people seem to be."

She continued to smile and seemed to be an extremely nice person. Smart enough to do many things- patient and concerned enough to do this difficult job in the city. I envied her students.

I got right down to the business I had at the school. “The reason I stopped by is that there's a possible ID on the killer -- a start, anyway. I heard about it this afternoon, not too long ago.”

Christine Johnson listened closely to what I had to say. Her brow furrowed deeply Her brown eyes were intense. She was a good listener, which, if I remembered correctly, was unusual for a school principal.

“An older man, a white man, was seen in the vicinity of where Shanelle Green was originally abducted in Garfield Park. He was described as a street person. Possibly a homeless man. Not very big, with a full white beard, wearing a brown or black poncho.”

“Should I tell that to the teachers? What about the children?” she asked as I finished the description.

“I'd like to have someone stop by here tomorrow morning to talk to the teachers again,” I said. “We don't know if this lead is anything, but it could be important. It's the best thing we have so far.”

“An ounce of prevention,” she said, then smiled. Actually, she laughed at herself. “That's what is known, derogatively, as 'teacher talk.” You can catch a dose of it if you hang around here too much. Too many clichs. You sometimes find yourself talking to other adults as if they were five or six years old. It drives my husband crazy."

“Is your husband a teacher, too?” I asked. It just came out. Shit.

She shook her head and seemed amused for some reason.

“No, no. George is a lawyer. He'S a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, actually Fortunately, he's only trying to push the interests of energy businesses. Occidental Petroleum, Pepco Energy Company, the Edison Electric Institute. I can live with that.” She laughed.

“Well, most of the time I can.” Her look was innocent, but not naive. Maybe just a little conspiratorial.

“Well, I wanted to pass on the news about our suspect. Maybe we have a real suspect this time,” I said. “I've got to run.”

“Don't,” Christine Johnson said, and I stopped short, startled a little.

Then she smiled that knowing smile of hers. Quietly dazzling and appealing as could be.

“Absolutely no running in the halls,” she winked at me.

“Gotcha!” Cute.

I laughed and was on my merry way, back to work after a brief moment of sweetness and light. I did like her quite a lot. Who wouldn't? Maybe we could be friends somehow, someway, but probably not.

Nothing was coming out right; nothing was working very well.

An old homeless white man was the best we could do. It wasn't bad police work, but it wasn't enough. Not even close. Two impossible cases. Jesus!

I pulled my car way down the street and watched the Truth School for a couple of hours that night. My son's school. Maybe a homeless white man would come by -- but one didn't.

I left the stakeout about half an hour after Christine Johnson left hers.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK of our magic carpet ride so far? On a scale of one to eleven?” Jack asked Jill, Sam asked Sara. They were floating high over the Maryland countryside.

"It's absolutely beautiful. It's as thrilling as can be. Unbelievable.

The simple joy of flying like a bird."

"Hard to imagine that this is work. But it is, Monkey Face.

This could be important for us, for everything we're doing, for the game."

“I know that, Sam. I'm paying attention.”

“I know you are. Always so diligent.”

The two of them were sitting close together inside the tiny cockpit of a Blanik L-23 sailplane. They had flown the sailplane out of Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland, about an hour from downtown Washington. It was the perfect treat for herl Sara couldn't help thinking. The perfect metaphor. The gimp was flying. Unbelievable. Her entire life was that way now.

Down below, she could see Frederick, with its many examples of German Colonial architecture. She could actually make out several of the cutesy-pie shops on Antique Walk in town. The sky was filled with cumulus, like cotton balls moving lightly over a calm sea. Sara had told Sam that she'd gone up in a sail-plane once, and it was “just about the best thing I've ever done.”

He'd said, “We'll go tomorrow afternoon. I know just the place, Monkey Face. Perfect! I want to fly over Camp David, where the President goes to stay I want to look down on President Byrnes's retreat. I want to drop an imaginary bomb on his ass.”

Sam Harrison already knew a great deal about Camp David, but the view from the air could be useful anyhow. An attack on the presidential retreat was a very real possibility in the future -- especially if the Secret Service continued to keep President Byrnes tightly under wraps, as they had for the past few days.

Everything about Jack and Jill was so much harder now, but he had expected that. It was why they had several plans, not just one. The President of the United States was going to die -- it was just a matter of when and where. The how had already been decided. Soon the when and where would be taken care of as well.

“Isn't this risky, flying so close to Camp David?” Sara asked.

He smiled at the question. He knew that she had been biting her tongue as they floated north from Frederick, inching closer and closer to the presidential outpost, closer and closer to danger, maybe even disaster.

"So far, it's not too risky. Sailplanes and hot-air balloons do it all the time. Catch a distant peek at where the President stays.

He's not here right now, so they're not as paranoid on the ground.

We can't get too close, though. Ever since that plane landed at the White House, this airspace is protected with missiles. I doubt they'd shoot down a sailplane, but who knows?"

They could see the buildings at Fort David below, just a little to the northeast in Catoctin Mountain Park. There were three Army Jeeps left in the open. No one seemed to be out on the well-wooded grounds today, though. Camp David itself looked rather odd: a strange cross between Army barracks and a rustic vacation place. Not too formidable. Nothing they couldn't work with, if need be, if the final plan demanded it.

“Camp David. Named after Eisenhower's grandson,”Jack said.

“Pretty good president, Ike. Generals usually are.”

Jack touched the holstered Beretta on his ankle. The gun was reassuring. But nothing was going to happen to the President right now, or to Jack and Jill. No, the game was about to go off in another direction. That was the beauty of it -- no one could predict where it would go. It was a game, designed as one, played as one.

He felt Sara's hand lightly touch his cheek. “How much longer do we have?” she asked. He suspected that she didn't want the sailplane ride to end.

“They'll never catch us,” he said and smiled.

“No, the ride, silly,” she laughed and patted his arm. “How much longer do we have up here?”

“You're not bored already? We're nowhere near the world's altitude record -- about forty-nine thousand feet, if I recall. Need a hell of a wave lift for that.” Suddenly, he seemed concerned that she might not be having a good time. That was just like Sam.

“No, no,” she laughed and put her arm around his neck. Sara held him tightly “I love it up here, love flying, love being with you. Thank you -- for everything.”

“You're welcome, Monkey Face,” he whispered against her cheek.

Two incredible killers.

Jack and Jill.

Flying over the President's famous retreat at Camp David.

See you soon, Mr. President. There nothing you can do to stop this from happening. Nowhere you can hide from us. Trust us on that.

Haven't we kept all of our promises so far?

ON THE HOUR-LONG DRIVE back to Washington, Sam seemed distracted and distant. Sara cautiously watched him out of the corner of her eye. It was as if he were still up in the sail-plane.

His brow was furrowed, his deep-blue eyes set on the road ahead.

He could get like this sometimes; but then again, so could she.

Sara the worrier. Sara the drudge.

They both understood and mostly accepted the good and the bad points about each other. The game of Jack and Jill was getting much tougher now for both of them. Every move was chancy and fraught with danger. They could be caught before the mission was completed. The hunters were all over the place.

One of the largest manhunts in history was under way. Not only in Washington, D.C., but everywhere around the world.

“I was just thinking about the game and how it's going, an honest evaluation. I was considering- a game inside our game,” Sam finally said. “Something more sophisticated. Completely unexpected by our trackers.”

Sara watched him detaching from his reverie, coming away from it, coming back to her.

“Yes, I could see that you were somewhere other than here on the beltway with me and all of these commuters. That much was pretty obvious.”

Sam grinned. “Sorry. You probably smelled the wood burning, too.” He was incredibly self-effacing -- something else she enjoyed about him. He didn't seem to realize that he was something special; or if he did, he kept it to himself. God, it was so easy when they were together, so hard when they were apart.

Sara wondered how she had survived before she met Sam. The answer was, Basically, she hadn't. She had been alive, but she didn't have a life. Now, she did.

“You're concerned about the progress of the game from here on, the exact sequence,” she said. “It's furrowed your brow. Poor dear Sam. What's your idea?”

He smiled and shook his head. He often told her how perceptive and intelligent she was. Not many men had ever said that to Sara Rosen -- practically none, in fact. Her intelligence scared most men. Even worse, she was verbal. So men usually needed to keep her down, to put her down constantly, to belittle anything she said that they we road ahead.

He could get like this sometimes; but then again, so could she.

Sara the worrier. Sara the drudge.

They both understood and mostly accepted the good and the bad points about each other. The game of Jack and Jill was getting much tougher now for both of them. Every move was chancy and fraught with danger. They could be caught before the mission was completed. The hunters were all over the place.

One of the largest manhunts in history was under way. Not only in Washington, D.C., but everywhere around the world.

“I was just thinking about the game and how it's going, an honest evaluation. I was considering- a game inside our game,” Sam finally said. “Something more sophisticated. Completely unexpected by our trackers.”

Sara watched him detaching from his reverie, coming away from it, coming back to her.

“Yes, I could see that you were somewhere other than here on the beltway with me and all of these commuters. That much was pretty obvious.”

Sam grinned. “Sorry. You probably smelled the wood burning, too.” He was incredibly self-effacing -- something else she enjoyed about him. He didn't seem to realize that he was something special; or if he did, he kept it to himself. God, it was so easy when they were together, so hard when they were apart.

Sara wondered how she had survived before she met Sam. The answer was, Basically, she hadn't. She had been alive, but she didn't have a life. Now, she did.

“You're concerned about the progress of the game from here on, the exact sequence,” she said. “It's furrowed your brow. Poor dear Sam. What's your idea?”

He smiled and shook his head. He often told her how perceptive and intelligent she was. Not many men had ever said that to Sara Rosen -- practically none, in fact. Her intelligence scared most men. Even worse, she was verbal. So men usually needed to keep her down, to put her down constantly, to belittle anything she said that they weren't entirely one hundred percent comfortable with.

Sam wasn't that way. He seemed to understand exactly what she needed. Is that part of the game, too? she wondered. Part of his game?

“There's going to be tremendous heat from the police and FBI coming our way soon,” he said, staring straight ahead at the gray ribbons of roadway. “What's gone before was nothing, Sara, absolutely nothing. The manhunt will increase exponentially from here on. They want to capture us badly. The FBI is assembling the best team possible, and make no mistake, it will be an impressive group. Sooner or later, they'll find something on us. It's inevitable that they will.”

Sara nodded in agreement. Still, he had frightened her. “I know that. i'm ready for it; at least, think I am. You have an idea how to deal with this blistering heat that's coming our way?”

"Yes, I think I do. It's something I've been thinking about for a while, but I believe I've solved it. Let me try this one out on you.

Tell me what you think."

See? He did want her opinions. Always. He was so different from the others.

He looked over at her, made eye contact. "It's so simple, really.

We need perfect alibis. I have an idea how to accomplish that. It involves a slight change in our game plan, but I think it's worth it."

She tried to keep the concern out of her voice. “What kind of change? You don't want to go after the target we already agreed on?”

“I want to change the next target, yes, but I want to change something else as well. I want to get someone else to do the next kill. That way, we'll both have airtight alibis. I think it's a powerful twist. I think it could be the clincher for us. If anyone is onto either of us, this will throw them off completely.”

They were coming down Wisconsin Avenue and into Washington. The city looked like aJ. M. W. Turner painting, Sara decided. Hazy light, caught just right. "I like your thinking a lot.

It's a good plan. Who would you get?" she asked.

“I've already made a contact,” Sam said. “I think I have the perfect person for this little twist. He thinks the way we do, believes in the cause. He happens to be right here in Washington.”

A SECRET SERVICE AGENT named James McLean, one of Jay Grayer's lieutenants, walked me around the White House. More than a million visitors come here every year, but this was the show none of them got. This was the real deal.

Instead of the usual tour of Library, East, Blue, Green, and Red Rooms, I got to see the private family quarters on the second and third floors. I requested a viewing of the President's offices in the West Wing, as well as Vice President Mahoney's in the Executive Office Building.

As the two of us wandered through the impressive Center Hall, with its bright yellow color scheme, I half expected either “Ruffles and Flourishes” or “Hail to the Chief” to suddenly ring out.

Agent McLean was filling me in on details about security at the White House. The grounds were covered by audio and pressure sensors, electronic eyes, and infrared. A SWAT team was on the roof at all times now. Helicopters were less than two and a half minutes away. Somehow, I wasn't comforted by the tight security

“What do you think of all this?” McLean asked as he led me into the Cabinet Room. It was dominated by serious-looking leather chairs, each bearing a brass plaque with the cabinet member's title. A very impressive place to visit.

“What I'm thinking is that every person working here has to be checked out,” I said.

“They've all been checked, Alex.”

"I know that. They haven't been checked by me, though.

We need to check them all over again. I'd like each of them run against an interest in poetry or literature, even college degrees in literature; any kind of filmmaking experience; painting, sculpting, any endeavor requiring creativity. I'd like to know what magazines they subscribe to. Also their charitable contributions."

If McLean had an opinion on all that, he kept it to himself.

“Anything else?” he asked.

We were looking out over the Rose Garden. I could see office buildings off in the distance, so I assumed they could see us. I didn't like that too much.

“Year, I'm afraid so,” I went on. "While we're doing those background checks, we need to look at everyone in the crisis group.

You can start with me."

Agent James McLean stared at me for a long moment.

“You're shitting me, aren't you?” he finally spoke his mind.

I spoke my mind, too. “I shit you not. This is a murder investigation. This is how it's done.”

The dragonslayer had come to the White House.

THE PHOTOJOURNALIST had chosen a conservative dark gray suit and a striped rep's tie for the sold-out performance of Miss Saigon at the Kennedy Center.

He had cut his grayish blond hair short; the ponytail was long gone. He no longer wore a diamond stud earring. It was doubtful whether anyone he knew would have recognized him. Just as it should be, as it had to be from now until the end of the game.

“Seems like old times,” Kevin Hawkins sang softly as he crossed a parking lot facing USA Today headquarters across the river in Rosslyn.

“Keep those big presses running,” he muttered under his breath. “Might have something for you later. Might just have a big, late-breaking story tonight at the Kennedy Center. Quien sabe?”

He was so glad to be back in Washington, where he'd lived at various times in the past. He was happy to be back in the game as well. The game of games, he couldn't help thinking, and believing it in his heart. Code name: Jack and Jill. Intrigue just didn't get any better than this. It couldn't.

There were two essential parts to his psychological buildup as he approached the difficult evening ahead. The first part was to make himself as cautious, as suspicious, as paranoid, as he possibly could. The second part, equally important, was to pump himself up with a full megadose of confidence so that he would succeed.

He could not fail. He would not fail, he told himself. His job was to murder someone -- often a well-known someone, sometimes in public view -- and not get caught.

In public view.

And not get caught.

So far, he had never been caught in the act.

He found it curious, though not particularly disturbing anymore, that he had little or no conscience, no guilt about the killings; and yet he could be perfectly normal in many other areas of his life. His sister, Eileen, for example, called him the “last believer” and the “last patriot.” Her children thought he was the nicest, kindest Uncle Kevin imaginable. His parents back in Hudson adored him. He had plenty of nice, normal, close friends all around the globe. And yet here he was, ready for another cold-blooded kill. Looking forward to it, actually. Craving it.

His adrenaline was pumping, but he felt less than nothing about the intended victim tonight. There were billions of people on the earth, far too many of them. What did one less human mean? Not a whole lot, any goddamn way you looked at it. If you took a logical view of the world.

At the same time, he was extremely cautious as he entered the glittery Kennedy Center, with its gleaming crystal chandeliers and Matisse tapestries. He glanced up at the chandeliers in the Grand Foyer. With their hundreds of different prisms and lamps, they probably weighed a ton apiece.

He was going to murder in public view, under the bright lights, under all these prisms and lamps.

And not get caught!

What an incredible magic trick. How good he was at this.

His seat had been purchased for him, the theater ticket left in a locker at Union Station. The seat was in the back of the orchestra.

It was almost underneath the “President's Box.” Very nice.

Just about perfect. He purposely arrived just as the houselights dimmed.

He was actually surprised when the intermission came. So fast !

The time had really flown. The melodramatic stage play really moved along.

He glanced at his wristwatch: 9:15. The intermission was right on schedule. The houselights came up and Hawkins idly observed that the crowd was highly enthused about the hit musical.

This was good news for him: genuine excitement, ebullience, lots of noisy Small talk filling the air. He slowly rose from his cushy seat. Now for the night real drama, he was thinking.

He entered the Grand Foyer with the huge chandeliers that resembled stalactites. The carpeting was a plush red sea beneath his feet. Up ahead was the proud bronze bust of John Kennedy.

Very fitting and appropriate.

Just so. Just right.

Jack and Jill would be the biggest thing since Kennedy, and that was more than thirty years ago. He was happy to be a part of it. Thrilled, actually. He felt honored.

For tonight performance, the part of Jack will be played by Kevin Hawkins.

Watch closely now, theater fans. This act will be unforgettable.

THE GRAND FOYER of the Kennedy Center was mobbed with uppity Washingtonian assholes. Theater people, Jesus. It was mostly an older crowd -- season subscribers. Tables were set up sellingjunky T-shirts and high-priced programs. A woman with a gaudy red umbrella was guiding a tour of high school kids through the intermission crowd.

There was a very nasty and difficult trick to this killing, Kevin Hawkins knew.

He had to get unbelievably close to the victim, physically close, before he actually committed the murder.

That bothered him a lot, but there was no way around it. He had to get right on top of the target, and he could not fail at this part of the job.

The photojournalist was thinking about it as he successfully blended into the noisily buzzing theater crowd.

He eventually spotted Supreme Court Justice Thomas Henry, Franklin. Franklin was the youngest member of the current Court. He was an African-American. He looked haughty, which fitted his reputation around Washington. He was not a likable man. Not that it mattered.

Snapshot Kevin Hawkins took a mind photo of Thomas Henry Franklin.

On the justice's left arm was a twenty-three-year-old woman.

Snapshot. Snapshot.

Hawkins had done his homework on Charlotte Kinsey, too. He knew her name, of course. He knew that she was a second-year law student at Georgetown. He knew other dark secrets about Charlotte Kinsey and Justice Franklin as well. He had watched the two of them together in bed.

He took another moment to observe Thomas Franklin and the college girl as they talked in the Grand Foyer. They were as animated and bubbly as any of the other couples there. Even more so. What great fun the theater could be!

He took several more mind photos. He would never forget the image of the two of them talking together like that. 5napshot. And that. Snapshot.

They laughed very naturally and spontaneously, and appeared to like each other's company Hawkins found himself frowning.

He had two nieces in Silver Spring. The thought of the young law student with this middle-aged phony irked the hell out of him!

The irony of his harsh judgment brought a sudden smile to his lips. The morality of a stone-cold killer -- how droll! How insane.

How very cool.

He watched the two of them move onto the large terrace off the lobby He followed several paces behind. The Potomac stretched out before them and was black as night. A dinner-cruise boat from Alexandria -- the Dandy -- was floating by The sheer curtains between the lobby and terrace flapped dramatically in the crisp river wind. Kevin Hawkins carefully moved toward the Supreme Court justice and his beautiful date. He took more mind photos of the two of them.

He noted that Justice Franklin's white shirt was a size too small, grabbing at his neck. The yellow silk tie was too loud for his subdued gray suit. Charlotte Kinsey had a quick, sweet smile that was irresistible. She had lovely rounded breasts. Her long black hair swirled in the river breeze.

He physically brushed against the two of them. Begot that close to Charlotte and Thomas. He actually touched the law student's long shiny hair. He could smell her perfume. Opium or Shalimar.

Snapshot.

He was right there. So close. He was practically on top of them, in every sense of the phrase.

His mind's eye continued to snap off photo after photo of the two of them. He would never forget any of this, not a single frame of the intimate murder scene.

He could see, hear, touch, smell; and yet he couldn't feel a thing.

Kevin Hawkins resisted all human impulses now. No pity No guilt. No shame. And no mercy The law student carried a leather bag on her left shoulder. It was slightly open, just a sliver, just enough. Ah, carefree, casual, careless youth.

The photojournalist was good with his hands. Still good. Still steady. Still very quick. Still one of the best.

He slid something into her bag. C'est ca. That was it! Success.

The first of the night.

Neither she nor Justice Franklin noticed the fleeting movement, or him, as he passed by in the crowd. He was the river breeze, the night, the light of the moon.

He felt incredible exhilaration at that special moment. There was nothing in the world like this. The power in taking, stealing, another human life was like nothing else in the full palette of human experiences.

The hard part was over, he knew. The close work. Now the simple act of murder.

To murder in public view.

And not get caught.

His heart suddenly jumped, bucked horribly Something was going wrong. Very wrong. As wrong as could be. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Jesus, Charlotte Kinsey was reaching into her bag.

Snapshot.

She'd found the note he'd left there -- the note from Jack and Jill!

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Snapshot.

She was looking at it curiously, wondering what it was, wondering how it had gotten in her handbag.

She began to unfold the note, and he could feel his temples pounding horribly She had gotten the justice's attention. He glanced down at the note as well.

Nooooo! Jesus, nooo, he wanted to scream.

Kevin Hawkins operated on pure instinct. The purest. No time to second-guess himself now.

He moved forward very quickly and surely His Luger was out, dangling below his waist. The gun was concealed because of the closeness of the crowd, the forest of legs and arms, pleated trousers, fluffed dresses.

He raised and fired the Luger just once. Tricky angle, too. Far from ideal. He saw the sudden blossom of crimson red. The body jolted, then crumbled and fell to the marble floor.

A heartshot! Certainly a miracle, or close to it. God was on his side, no?

Snapshot!

Snapshot!

His heart almost couldn't take it. He wasn't used to this sudden improvising.

He thought about getting caught, after all of these years, and on such an unbelievably important job. He had a vision of total failure. He felt... he felt something.

He dropped the Luger into the jumble of legs, trousers, satin and taffeta gowns, high-heeled slippers, highly polished dark cordovans.

“Was that a gunshot?” a woman shrieked. "Oh, God, Phillip.

Someone been shot."

He backed away from the spectacle as just about everyone else did. The Grand Foyer looked as if it were ablaze.

He was part of them, part of the fearful, bolting crowd. He had nothing to do with the terrifying disturbance, the murder, the loud gunshot.

His face was a convincing mask of shock and disbelief. God, he knew this look so well. He had seen it so many times before in his lifetime.

In another tense few moments, he was outside the Kennedy Center. He was heading toward New Hampshire Avenue at a steady pace. He was one with the crowd.

“Seems Like Old Times” raced through his head, playing much too fast, at double or triple speed. He remembered humming the tune on his walk in. And as the photojournalist knew, the old times were definitely the best.

The old times were coming back now, weren't they?

Jack and Jill had come to The Hill.

The game was so beautiful, so delicate and exquisite.

Now for the greatest shocker of them all.

AGENT JAY GRAYER called me at home from his car phone. I was in the middle of reading approximately two hundred background security checks done on White House personnel by the Secret Service uniformed division. The deputy director was speeding downtown to the Kennedy Center complex, doing ninety on the beltway. I could hear the siren blaring from his car.

“They struck again. Jesus, they made a hit at the Kennedy Center tonight. Right under our noses. It's another real bad acid trip, Alex. Just come.” He definitely sounded out of control.

Just come.

“They hit during intermission of Miss Saigon. I'll meet you there, Alex. I'm seven to ten minutes away”

“Who was it this time?” I asked the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. I almost didn't want to hear the answer. No, not almost.

I didn't want to hear the victim's name.

“That's part of the problem. This whole thing is nuts. It wasn't really anybody, Alex.”

“What do you mean, 'it wasn't really anybody'? That doesn't make sense to me, Jay.”

“It was a law student from Georgetown University A young woman named Charlotte Kinsey. She was only twenty-three years old. They left one of their notes again. It's them for sure.”

“I don't get it. I do not get this,” I muttered over the phone.

“Goddamnit.”

"Neither do I. The girl might have caught a bullet meant for somebody else. She was out with a Supreme Court justice, Alex.

Thomas Henry Franklin. Maybe the bullet was meant for him.

That would fit the celebrity pattern. Maybe they've finally made a mistake."

“I'm on my way,” I told Jay GraTer. “I'll meet you inside the Kennedy Center.”

Maybe they finally made a mistake.

I didn't think so.

IT WASN'TREALLYANYBODY, ALEX. How the hell could that be?

A twenty-three-year-old law student from Georgetown was dead. Christ. It didn't make sense to me, didn't track at all. It changed everything. It seemed to blow the pattern.

I drove from our home to the Kennedy Center in record time.

Jay Grayer wasn't the only one partly out of control. I stuck a flasher on the roof of my car and rode like hell on wheels.

The second half of Miss Saigon had been canceled. The murder had taken place less than an hour before, and there were still hundreds of onlookers at the crime scene.

I heard “Jack and Jill” mumbled several times as I made my way to the Grand Foyer. Fear was a tangible, almost physical, presence in the crowd. A lot of elements of the murder at the Kennedy Center were torturing me when I arrived at the crime scene at quarter past ten. There were some similarities with the other Jack and Jill killings. A rhyming note had been left. The job had been done coldly and professionally. A single shot.

But there were huge differences this time. They seemed to have destroyed their pattern.

Copycat killer? Maybe. But I didn't think so. Yet nothing could, or should, be dismissed. Not by me, and not by anyone else on the case.

The new twists nagged at me as I pushed my way through the curious, horrified, even dumbstruck, crowd on New Hampshire Avenue. The law student hadn't been a national figure. So why had she been killed? Jay Grayer had called her a nobody. Grayer said she wasn't the daughter of anybody famous, either. She had been out to the theater with Supreme Court Justice Thomas Henry Franklin, but that didn't seem to count as a celebrity stalk-and-kill.

Charlotte Kinsey hadhat would fit the celebrity pattern. Maybe they've finally made a mistake."

“I'm on my way,” I told Jay GraTer. “I'll meet you inside the Kennedy Center.”

Maybe they finally made a mistake.

I didn't think so.

IT WASN'TREALLYANYBODY, ALEX. How the hell could that be?

A twenty-three-year-old law student from Georgetown was dead. Christ. It didn't make sense to me, didn't track at all. It changed everything. It seemed to blow the pattern.

I drove from our home to the Kennedy Center in record time.

Jay Grayer wasn't the only one partly out of control. I stuck a flasher on the roof of my car and rode like hell on wheels.

The second half of Miss Saigon had been canceled. The murder had taken place less than an hour before, and there were still hundreds of onlookers at the crime scene.

I heard “Jack and Jill” mumbled several times as I made my way to the Grand Foyer. Fear was a tangible, almost physical, presence in the crowd. A lot of elements of the murder at the Kennedy Center were torturing me when I arrived at the crime scene at quarter past ten. There were some similarities with the other Jack and Jill killings. A rhyming note had been left. The job had been done coldly and professionally. A single shot.

But there were huge differences this time. They seemed to have destroyed their pattern.

Copycat killer? Maybe. But I didn't think so. Yet nothing could, or should, be dismissed. Not by me, and not by anyone else on the case.

The new twists nagged at me as I pushed my way through the curious, horrified, even dumbstruck, crowd on New Hampshire Avenue. The law student hadn't been a national figure. So why had she been killed? Jay Grayer had called her a nobody. Grayer said she wasn't the daughter of anybody famous, either. She had been out to the theater with Supreme Court Justice Thomas Henry Franklin, but that didn't seem to count as a celebrity stalk-and-kill.

Charlotte Kinsey had been a nobody.

The killing just didn't fit the pattern. Jack and Jill had taken a huge risk committing the murder in such a public place. The other killings had been private affairs, safer and more controllable.

Shit, shit, shit. What were they up to now? Was this whole thing changing? Escalating? Why had they varied their pattern? Were the killers moving into another, more random phase?

Had I missed their original point? Had we all missed the real pattern they were creating? Or had they made a mistake at the Kennedy Center?

Maybe they finally made a mistake.

That was our best hope. It would show that they weren't invincible.

Let this be a goddamn mistake! Please let it be their first.

Just the same, whoever it was made a clever escape.

The six-hundred-foot-long lobby had been emptied of all but police officials, the medical examiner's staff, and the morgue crew. I saw Agent Grayer and walked over to him. Jay looked as if he hadn't slept in weeks, as if he might never be able to sleep again.

“Alex, thanks for getting down here so quickly,” the Secret Service agent said. I liked working with him so far. He was smart and usually even-tempered, with absolutely no bullshit about him. He had an old-fashioned dedication to his job, and especially to the President, both the office and the man.

“Anything worthwhile turn up yet?” I asked him. “Besides another corpse. The poem.”

Grayer rolled his eyes toward the glittering chandeliers hanging above us. "Oh yeah. Definitely, Alex. We found out some more about the murdered student. Charlotte Kinsey was just starting her second year at Georgetown Law. She was bright as hell, apparently. Did her undergraduate at New- York University.

However, she only had average grades as a Hoya, so she didn't make law Review:"

“How does a law student fit into the pattern? Unless they were shooting at Justice Franklin and actually missed. I've been trying to make some connection on the way over. Nothing comes to mind. Except that maybe Jack and Jill are playing with us?”

Grayer nodded. "They're definitely playing with us. For one thing, your illicit sex theory is still intact. We know why Charlotte Kinsey didn't excel at Georgetown. She was spending quality time with some very important men here in town. Very pretty girl, as you'll see in a second. Shiny black hair down to her waist.

Great shape. Questionable morals. She'd have made a terrific attorney."

The two of us walked over to the dead woman's body. The law student was lying facing away from us.

Beside the body was a bag she had been carrying. I couldn't see the bullet hole, and Charlotte Kinsey didn't even appear to be hurt. She looked as if she'd just decided to take a nap on the floor of the terrace at the Kennedy Center. Her mouth was open slightly, as if she wanted one last breath of the river air.

“Go ahead, tell me now,” I said to Jay Grayer. I knew that he had something more on the murder. “Who is she?”

“Oh, she's somebody, after alk The girl was President Byrnes's mistress,” he said. “She was seeing the President, too. He skipped out of the White House and saw her the other night. That's why they killed her. Bingo, Alex. Right in our face.”

My chest felt seriously constricted as I bent over the dead woman. Claustrophobia again. She was very pretty. Twenty-three years old. Prime of her life. One shot to the heart had ended that.

I read the note they had left in the law student's handbag.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill Your mistress had no clue, Sir.

She was a pawn But now she's gone And soon we'll get to you, Sir.

The poetry seemed to be getting a little better. Certainly it was bolder. And so were Jack and Jill. God help us all, but especially President Thomas Byrnes.

And soon we'll get to you, Sir.

THE MORNING after the murder, I drove eight miles down to Langley, Virginia. I wanted to spend some time with Jeanne Sterling, the CIKs inspector general and the Agency's representative on the crisis team. Don Hamerman had made it clear to me that the Agency was involved because there was the possibility a foreign power might be behind Jack and Jill. Even if it were a long shot, it had to be checked. Somehow, I suspected there might be more to the involvement than just that. This was my chance to find out.

Supposedly, the Agency had a lead that was worth checking out. Since the Aldrich Ames scandal, and the resulting Intelligence Authorization Act, the CIA had to share information with the rest of us. It was now the law.

I remembered the inspector general very well from our first meeting at the White House. Jeanne Sterling had listened mostly, but when she spoke, she was highly articulate and spotlight-bright.

Don Hamerman told me she had been a professor of law at the University of Virginia years before joining the Agency Now her job was to help clean up the Agency from the inside. It sounded like an impossible task to me, certainly a daunting one.

Hamerman told me she had been put on the crisis team for one reason: she was the Agency's best mind.

Her office was on the seventh floor of the modern gray building that was the hub of CIA headquarters. I checked out the Agency's interior design: lots of extremely narrow halls, green-hued fluorescent lighting everywhere, cipher locks on most of the office doors. Here it was in all its glory: the CIA, the avenging angel of U.S. foreign policy.

Jeanne Sterling met me in the gray-carpeted hallway outside her office. “Dr. Cross, thank you for coming down here. Next time, I promise we'll do it up in Washington. I thought it best if we meet here. I think you'll understand by the time we're finished this morning.”

“Actually, I enjoyed the drive down, needed the escape,” I admitted to her. 'Half an hour by myself. Cassandra Wilson on the tape deck. 'Blue Light 'Til Dawn.“ Not so bad.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean. Trust me, though, this won't be a trip in search of the wild goose. I have something interesting to discuss with you. The Agency was called in on this with good reason, Dr. Cross. You'll see in a moment.”

Jeanne Sterling was certainly far removed from the stereotypical CIA Brahmin of the fifties and sixties. She spoke with a folksy, enthusiastic, mid-Southern accent, but she sat on the Agency's Directorate of Operations. She was considered crucial to the CIAs turnaround; indeed, its very survival.

We entered her large office, which had a commanding view of woods on two sides and a planted courtyard on another. We sat at a low-slung glass table covered with official-looking papers and books. Photographs of her family were up on the walls.

Cute kids, I couldn't help noticing. Nice-looking husband, tall and lean. She herself was tall, blond, but a little heavier than she ought to be. She had a friendly smile with a slight overbite, and just a hint of the farmer's daughter about her.

“Something important has come up,” she said, “but before I get into it, I just heard that the gun used at the Kennedy Center wasn't the same one used for the previous murders. That raises a question or two; at least, in my mind it does. Could the Kennedy Center murder have been a copycat killing?”

“I don't think so,” I said. “Not unless the copycat and Jack or Jill happen to have the same handwriting. No, the latest rhyme was definitely from them. I also think it qualifies as a celebrity stalking.”

“One more question,” Jeanne Sterling said. “This one is completely off the beaten track, Alex. So bear with me. Our analysts have been searching, but we're not aware of any useful psychological study that's looked at professional assassins. I'm talking about studies on the contract killers used by the Army, the DEA, the Agency. Are you aware of anything? Even we don't have a comprehensive study on the subject.”

I had a feeling we were easing into what Jeanne Sterling wanted to discuss. Maybe that was also why the head of in-terual affairs for the Agency was involved with the crisis team.

Contract killers for the Army and CIA. I knew that they existed and that a few lived in the area surrounding Washington. I also knew they were registered somewhere, but not with the D.C. police.

Perhaps for that reason they were sometimes referred to as “ghosts.”

“There's not much written about homicide in any of the psych journals,” I told Jeanne Sterling. 'A few years back, a professor I know at Georgetown ran an interesting search. He found several thousand references to suicide, but less than fifty homicide ref: rences in the journals he sampled. I've read a couple of student papers written at John Jay and Quantico. There isn't very much on assassins. Not that I'm aware of. I guess it's hard to get subjects to interview."

“I could get a subject for you to interview,” Jeanne Sterling said. “I think it might be important to Jack and Jill.”

“Where are you going with this?” I had a lot of questions for her suddenly. Familiar alarms were sounding inside my head.

A soft, pained look drifted across her face. She inhaled very slowly before she spoke again. “We've done extensive psychological testing on our lethal agents, Alex. So has the Army, I've been assured. I've even read some of the test reports myself.”

My stomach continued to tighten. So did my neck and shoulders.

But I was definitely glad I'd taken the time to visit Langley.

"Since I've been in this job, about eleven months, I've had to open a number of dark, eerie closets here at Langley and !se-where.

I did over three hundred in-depth interviews on Aldrich Ames alone. You can imagine the cover-ups that we've had over the years. Well, you.probably can't. I couldn't have myself, and I was working here."

I still wasn't sure where Jeanne Sterling was going with this.

She had my full attention, though.

“We think one of our former contract killers might be out of control. Actually, we're pretty sure of it, Alex. That's why the CIA is on the crisis team. We think one of ours might be Jack.”

JEANNE STERLING and I went for a ride through the surrounding countryside. The CIA inspector general had a new station wagon, a dark blue Volvo that she drove like a race car. Brahms was playing softly on the radio as we headed for Chevy Chase, one of Washington's small, affluent bedroom communities. I was about to meet a “ghost.” A professional killer. One of ours.

Oh brother, oh shit.

“Plot and counterplot, ruse and treachery, true agent, double agent, false agent... didn't Churchill describe your business something like that?”

Jeanne Sterling cracked a wide smile, her large teeth suddenly very prominent. She was a very serious person, but she had a quick sense of humor, too. The inspector general. "We're trying to change from the past, both the perception and the reality.

Either the Agency does that or somebody will pull the plug.

That's why I invited the FBI and the Washington police in on this.

I don't want the usual internal investigation, and then charges of a cover-up," she told me as she engineered her car underneath towering, ancient trees that evoked Richmond or Charlottesville.

“The CIA is no longer a 'cult,' as we've been called by several selfserving congressmen. We're changing everything. Fast. Maybe even too fast.”

“You disapprove?” I asked her.

"Not at all. It has to happen. I just don't like all the theater surrounding it. And I certainly don't appreciate the media coverage.

What an incredible assemblage of jerk-offs."

We had crossed inside the beltway and were entering Chevy Chase now. We were headed for a meeting with a man named Andrew Klauk. Klauk was a former contract killer for the Agency: the so-called killer elite, the “ghosts.”

Jeanne Sterling continued to drive the way she talked, without effort and rapidly. It was the way she seemed to do everything.

A very smart and impressive person. I guess she needed to be.

Internal affairs at the CIA had to be extremely demanding.

“So, what have you heard about us, Alex?” she finally asked me. “What's the scuttlebutt? The intelligence?”

“Don Hamerman says you're a straight arrow, and that's what the Agency needs right now. He believes Aldrich Ames hurt the CIA even more than we read. He also believes Moynihan's 'End of the Cold War' bill was an American tragedy He says they call you Clean Jeanne out here at Langley Your own people do. He's a big fan of yours.”

Jeanne Sterling smiled, but the smile was controlled. She was a woman very much in control of herself: intellectually, emotionally, and even physically She was substantial and sturdy, and her striking amber eyes always seemed to want to dig a little deeper into you. She wasn't satisfied with surface appearances or answers: the mark of a good investigator.

“I'm not really such a goody-goody” She made a pouty face.

"I was a pretty fair caseworker in Budapest my first two years.

Caseworker is our sobriquet for 'spy,' Alex. I was a spy in Europe.

Harmless stuff, information-gathering mostly

"After that I was at the War College. Fort McBain. My father is career Army. Lives with my mother in Arlington. They both voted for Oliver North. I fervently believe in our form of government.

I'm also hooked on making it work better somehow. I think we actually can. I'm convinced of it."

“That sounds pretty good to me,” I told her. It did. All except the Oliver North part.

We were just pulling up to a house that was very close to Connecticut Avenue and the Circle. The place was Colonial revival, three stories, very homey and nice. Beautiful. Attractive moss crawled over the hipped roof and down the north side.

“This is where you live?” I smiled at Jeanne. “But you're not Miss Goody Two-shoes? You're not Clean Jeanne?”

“Right. It's all a clever facade, Alex. Like Disneyland, or Williamsburg, or the White House. To prove it to you, there a trained killer waiting for us inside,” Jeanne Sterling said, and winked.

“There's one in your car, too.” I winked back at her.

THE LATE-DECEMBER AFTERNOON was unusually bright and sunny The temperature was in the high fifties, so Andrew Klauk and I sat in the backyard at Jeanne Sterling's lovely home in Chevy Chase.

A simple, wrought-iron fence surrounded the property. The gate was forest green, recently painted, slightly ajar. A breech in security.

CIA hitmen. Killer elite. Ghosts. They do exist. More than two hundred of them, according to Jeanne Sterling. A freelance list. A weird, scary notion for the 1990s in America. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

And yet here I was with one of them.

It was past three when Andrew Klauk and I began our talk.

A bright yellow school bus stopped by the fence, dropping off kids on the quiet suburban street. A small towheaded boy of ten or eleven came running up the driveway and into the house. I thought that I recognized the boy from the photos at her office.

Jeanne Sterling had a boy and a little girl. Just like me. She brought her casework home, just like me. Scary.

Andrew Klauk was a whale of a man who looked as if he could move very well, anyway. A whale who dreamed of dane-in.

He was probably about forty-five years old. He was calm and extremely self-assured. Piercing brown eyes that grabbed and wouldn't let go. Penetrated deeply. He wore a shapeless gray suit with an open-neck white shirt that was wrinkled and dingy.

Brown Italian leather shoes. Another kind of killer, but a killer all the same, I was thinking.

Jeanne Sterlin had raised a very provocative question for me on our drive: What was the difference between the serial killers I had pursued in the past and the contract killers used by the CIA and Army? Did I think one of these sanctioned killers could actually be Jack of Jack and Jill?

She did. She was certain that it was a possibility that needed to be checked out, and not just by her own people.

I studied Klauk as the two of us talked in a casual, sometimes even lighthearted, manner. It wasn't the first time I'd conversed like that with a man who murdered for a living, with a mass murderer, so to speak. This killer, however, was allowed to go home nights to his family in Falls Church, and lead what he described as a “normal, rather guilt-free life.”

As Andrew Klauk told me at one point: “I've never committed a crime in my life, Dr. Cross. Never got a speeding ticket.” Then he laughed -- a bit inappropriately, I thought. He laughed a little too hard.

“What's so funny?” I asked him. “Did I miss something?”

“You're what, two hundred pounds, six foot four? That about right?”

“Pretty close,” I told him. "Six three. A little under two hundred.

But who's counting?"

“Obviously, I am, Detective. I'm grossly overweight and look out of shape, but I could take you out right here on the patio,” he informed me. It was a disturbing observation on his part, provocatively stated.

Whether or not he could do it, he needed to tell me. That was the way his mind worked. Good to know. He'd succeeded in shaking me up a little just the same, in making me extra cautious.

“You might be surprised,” I said to him, “but I'm not sure if I get the point you're trying to make.”

He laughed again, a tiny, unpleasant nose snort. Scary guy to drink lemonade with. “That's the point. I could and I would, if it was asked of me by our country. That's what you don't get about the Agency, and especially about men and women in my position,” he said.

“Help me to get it,” I said. “I don't mean you should try to kill me here in the Sterlings' backyard, but keep talking.”

His tight smile turned to a wide-open grin. “Not try. Trust me on that one.”

He was a truly scary man. He reminded me a little of a psychopathic killer named Gary Soneji. I had talked to Soneji just like this. Neither of them had much affect in their faces. Just this cold fixed glare that wouldn't go away. Then sudden bursts of laughter.

My skin was crawling. I wanted to get up from the table and leave.

Klauk stared at me for a long moment before he went on. I could hear Jeanne Sterling's kids inside the house. The refrigerator door opening and closing. Ice tinkling against glass. Birds whooping and twittering in background trees. It was a strange, strange scene. Indescribably eerie for me.

“There is one basic proposition in covert action. In subversion, sabotage, being better at it than the other guy. We can do anything we want.” Klauk said it very, very slowly, word by word.

“And we often do. You're a psychologist and a homicide detective, right? What's your objective take on this? What are you hearing from me?”

“No rules,” I said to him. "That's what you're telling me. You live, you work, in a closed world that virtually isn't governed.

You could say that your world is completely antisocial."

He snorted a laugh again. I was a decent student, I guess. “Not a fucking one of them. Once we're commissioned for a job -- there are no rules. Not a one. Think about it.”

I definitely would think about it. I started right then and there.

I considered the idea of Klauk trying to kill me -- if our country asked him to. No rules. A world peopled by ghosts. And even scarier was that I could sense he believed every word he'd said.

After I finished with Klauk, for that afternoon at least, I talked with Jeanne Sterling for a while more. We sat in an idyllic, multiwindowed sunroom that looke said. “I don't mean you should try to kill me here in the Sterlings' backyard, but keep talking.”

His tight smile turned to a wide-open grin. “Not try. Trust me on that one.”

He was a truly scary man. He reminded me a little of a psychopathic killer named Gary Soneji. I had talked to Soneji just like this. Neither of them had much affect in their faces. Just this cold fixed glare that wouldn't go away. Then sudden bursts of laughter.

My skin was crawling. I wanted to get up from the table and leave.

Klauk stared at me for a long moment before he went on. I could hear Jeanne Sterling's kids inside the house. The refrigerator door opening and closing. Ice tinkling against glass. Birds whooping and twittering in background trees. It was a strange, strange scene. Indescribably eerie for me.

“There is one basic proposition in covert action. In subversion, sabotage, being better at it than the other guy. We can do anything we want.” Klauk said it very, very slowly, word by word.

“And we often do. You're a psychologist and a homicide detective, right? What's your objective take on this? What are you hearing from me?”

“No rules,” I said to him. "That's what you're telling me. You live, you work, in a closed world that virtually isn't governed.

You could say that your world is completely antisocial."

He snorted a laugh again. I was a decent student, I guess. “Not a fucking one of them. Once we're commissioned for a job -- there are no rules. Not a one. Think about it.”

I definitely would think about it. I started right then and there.

I considered the idea of Klauk trying to kill me -- if our country asked him to. No rules. A world peopled by ghosts. And even scarier was that I could sense he believed every word he'd said.

After I finished with Klauk, for that afternoon at least, I talked with Jeanne Sterling for a while more. We sat in an idyllic, multiwindowed sunroom that looked out on the idyllic backyard. The subject of conversation continued to be murder. I hadn't come down yet from my talk with the assassin. The ghost.

“What did you think of our Mr. Klauk?” Jeanne asked me.

“Disturbed me. Irritated me. Scared the hell out of me,” I admitted to her. "He's really unpleasant. Not nice. He's a jerk,

“An incredible asshole,” she agreed. Then she didn't say anything for a couple of seconds. “Alex, somebody inside the Agency has killed at least three of our agents. That's one of the skeletons I've dug up so far in my time as inspector. It's an 'unsolved crime.” The killer isn't Klauk, though. Andrew is actually under control.

He isn't dangerous. Somebody else is. To tell you the complete truth, the Directorate of Operations has demanded that we bring in somebody from the outside on this. We definitely think one of our contract killers could be Jack. Who knows, maybe Jill is one of ours, too."

I didn't talk for a moment, just listened to what Jeanne Sterling had to say. Jack and Jill came to The Hill. Could Jack be a trained assassin? What about Jill? And then, why were they killing celebrities in Washington? Why had they threatened President Byrnes?

My mind whirled around in great looping circles. I thought about all the possibilities, the connections, and also the disconnects.

Two renegade contract killers on the loose. It made as much sense as anything else I had heard so far. It explained some things about Jack and Jill for me, especially the absence of passion or rage in the murders. Why were they killing politicians and celebrities, though? Had they been commissioned to do the job? If so, by whom? To what end? What was their cause?

“Let me ask you a burning question, Jeanne. Something else has been bothering me since we got here.”

"Go ahead, Alex. I want to try and answer a]l your questions.

If I can, that is."

“Why did you bring him here to talk? Why take Andrew Klauk right into your own house?”

“It was a safe place for the meeting,” she said without any hesitation.

She sounded so unbelievably certain when she said it. I felt a chill ease up my spine. Then Jeanne Sterling sighed loudly.

She knew what I was getting at, what I was feeling, as I sat inside her home.

“Alex, he knows where I live. Andrew Klauk could come here if he wanted to. Any of them can.”

I nodded and left it at that. I knew the feeling exactly; I lived with it. It was my single greatest fear as an investigator. My worst nightmare.

They know where we live.

They can come to our houses if they want to... anytime they want to.

Nobody was safe anymore.

There are no rules.

There are “ghosts” and human monsters, and they are very real in our lives. Especially in my life.

There was Jack and Jill.

There was the Sojourner Truth School killer.

AT A LITTLE PAST SEVEN the next morning, I sat across from Adele Finaly and unloaded everything that I possibly could on her. I unloaded -- period. Dr. Adele Finaly has been my analyst for a half-dozen years, and I see her on an irregular basis. As needed. Like right now. She's also a good friend.

I was ranting and raving a little bit. This was the place for it, though. "Maybe I want to leave the force. Maybe I don't want to be part of any more vile homicide investigations. Maybe I want to get out of Washington, or at least out of Southeast. Or maybe I want to trot down and see Kate McTiernan in West Virginia.

Take a sabbatical at just about the worst possible time for one."

“Do you really want to do any of those things?” Adele asked when I had finished, or at least had quieted down for a moment.

“Or are you just venting?”

“I don't know, Adele. Probably venting. There's also a woman I met whom i could become interested in. She's married,” I said and smiled. “I'd never do anything with a married woman, so she's perfectly safe for me. She couldn't be safer. I think I'm regressing.”

"You want an opinion on that, Alex? Well, I can't give you one.

You certainly have a lot on your plate, though."

"I'm right smack in the middle of a very bad homicide investigation.

Two of them, actually. I just came off another particularly disturbing one. I think I can sort that part out for myself.

But, you know, it's funny. I suspect that I still want to please my mother and father, and it can't be done. i can't get over the feeling of abandonment. Can't intellectualize it. Sometimes I feel that both my parents died of a kind of terminal sadness, and that my brothers and I were part of their sorrow. I'm afraid that I have it, too. I think that my mother and father were probably as smart as I am, and that they must have suffered because of it." My mother and father had died in North Carolina, at a very young age. My father had killed himself with liquor, and I hadn't really gotten over it. My mom died of lung cancer the year before my father.

Nana Mama had taken me in when I was nine years old.

“You think sadness can be in the genes, Alex? I don't know what to think about that myself. Did you see that New Yorker piece on twins by any chance? There's some evidence for the genes theory. Scary note for our profession.”

“Detective work?” I asked her.

Adele didn't comment on my little joke.

“Sorry,” I said. “Sorry, sorry.”

“You don't have to be sorry. You know how happy it makes me when you get any of your anger out.”

She laughed. We both did. I like talking to her because our sessions can bounce around like that, laughter to tears, serious to absurd, truth to lies, just about anything and everything that's bothering me. Adele Finaly is three years younger than I am, but she's wise beyond her years, and maybe my years as well. Seeing her for a skull session works even better than playing the blues on my front porch.

I talked some more, let my tongue wag, let my mind run free, and it felt pretty good. It's a wonderful thing to have somebody in your life whom you can say absolutely anything to. Not to have that is almost unthinkable to me.

“Here's a connection I've made recently,” I told Adele. “Maria is murdered. I grieve and I grieve, but I never come close to getting over the loss. Just luck I've never gotten past the loss of my mother and father.”

Adele nods. “It's incredibly hard to find a soul mate.” She knows. She's never been able to find one herself, which is sad.

“And it's hard to lose one -- a soul mate. So, of course, now I'm petrified about losing anyone else whom I care deeply for. I shy away from relationships -- because they might end in loss. I don't leave my job with the police -- because that would be a kind of loss, too.”

“But you're thinking about these things a lot now.”

“All the time, Adele. Something's going to happen.”

“Something has. We've run way over our time,” Adele finally said.

“Good,” I said and laughed again. Some people turn on Comedy Central for a good laugh. I go to my shrink.

“Lots of hostility How nice for you. I don't think you're regressing, Alex. I think you're doing beautifully”

“God, I love talking to you,” I told her. “Let's do this in a month or so, when I'm really screwed up again.”

“I can't wait,” Adele said and rubbed her small, thin hands together greedily “In the meantime, as Bart Simpson has said many times, 'Don't have a cow, man.”"

DETECTIVE JOHN SAMPSON couldn't remember working so many brutal, absolutely shitty days in a row. He couldn't remember it ever being so godawful, goddamn bad. He had an overload of really bad homicides and he had the Sojourner Truth School killer case, which didn't seem to be going anywhere.

On the morning after the Kennedy Center killing, Sampson worked the upscale side of Garfield Park, the “west bank.” He was keeping his eyes out for Alex's homeless suspect, who'd been spotted the afternoon of Shanelie Green's murder, though not since, so even that lead was growing cold. Alex had a simple formula for thinking about complex cases like this one. First, you had to answer the question that everybody had: What kind of person would do something like this? What kind of nutcase?

He had decided to visit the Theodore Roosevelt School on his street canvass. The exclusive military academy used Garfield Park for its athletics and some paramilitary maneuvers. There was a slim possibility that a sharp-eyed cadet had seen something.

A white-haired homeless motherfucker, Sampson thought as he climbed the military school's front graystone steps. A sloppy and disorganized thrill killer who left fingerprints and other clues at both crime scenes, and still nobody could nail his candyass to the wall.

Every single clue leads to a dead end.

Why was that? What were we getting all wrong here? What were they messing up on? Not just him. Alex and the rest of the posse, too.

Sampson went looking for the commandant at the school, The Man In Charge. The detective had served four years in the Army, two of them in Vietnam, and the pristine school brought to mind ROTC lieutenants in the war. Most of them had been white. Several had died needlessly, in his opinion -- a couple of them, his friends.

The Theodore Roosevelt School consisted of four extremely well-kept, red-brick buildings with steep, slate-shingle roofs.

Two of the roofs had chimneys spouting soft curls of gray smoke.

Everything about the place shouted “structure,”

“order,” and “dead, white louies” to him.

Imagine something like this school, only in Southeast around the projects, he thought as he continued his solitary walk around the school. The image made him smile. He could almost see five hundred or so homies resplendent in their royal blue dress uniforms, their spit-shined boots, their plumed dress hats. Really something to contemplate. Might even do some good.

“Sir, can I help you?” A scrawny towheaded cadet came up to him as he started down what looked to be an academic hall in one of the buildings.

“You on guard here?” Sampson asked in a soft drawl that was the last vestige of a mother who'd grown up in Alabama.

The toy soldier shook his head. “No, sir. But can I help you anyway?”

“Washington police,” Sampson said. “I need to speak with whoever's in charge. Can You arrange that, soldier?”

“Yes, sir!”

The cadet saluted him, of all people, and Sampson had to fight back the day's first, and maybe only, smile.

MORE THAN THREE HUNDRED scrubbed and steampressed cadets from the middle school and the academy's high school were crammed into Lee Hall at nine o'clock in the morning.

The cadets wore their regular school uniform: loose-fitting gray pants, black shirt and tie, gray waist-jacket.

From his stiff wooden seat in the school auditorium, the Sojourner Truth School killer saw the towering black man entering Lee Hall. He recognized him instantly That sucker was Detective John Sampson. He was Alex Cross's friend and partner.

This was not a good thing. This was very bad, in fact. The killer immediately began to panic, to experience the outer edges of fear.

He wondered if the Metro police were coming for him right now.

Did they know who he was?

He wanted to run -- but there was no way out of here now.

He had to sit this one out, to gut it out.

The killer's initial reaction was to feel shame. He thought he was going to be sick. Throw up or something. He wanted to put his head between his legs. He felt like such a chump to get caught like this.

He was seated about twenty yards from where that stuffed shirt Colonel Wilson and the detective were standing around as if something incredibly fucking important were about to happen.

Every passing cadet saluted the adults, like the robotic morons that they were. A buzz of apprehension began to fill the room.

Was something earth-shattering going to happen? The thought screaming inside the killer's head. Were the police about to arrest him in front of the entire school? Had he been caught?

How could they have traced anything to him, though? It didn't make sense. That thought calmed him somewhat.

A false calm? A false sense of security? he wondered and lowered himself slightly in the stiff wooden seat, wishing that somehow he could disappear.

Then he sat straight up in his seat again. Oh, shit. Here we go!

He watched closely as the homicide detective slowly walked toward the podium with Colonel Wilson. His heartbeat was like the rhythm section in a White Zombie song.

The assembly began with the usual, dumb cadet resolutions, “honesty, integrity in thought and deed,” all that crap. Then Colonel Wilson began to talk about the “cowardly murders of two children in Garfield Park.” Wilson went on: “The Metro police are canvassing the park and surrounding environs. Maybe a cadet at Theodore Roosevelt has unwittingly seen something that might help the police with their investigation. Maybe one of you can help the police in some way.”

So that was why the imposing homicide detective was here. A goddamn fishing expedition. The ongoing frigging investigation of the two murders.

The killer was still holding his breath, though. His eyes were very large and riveted to the stage as Sampson went over to the podium mike. The tall black man really stood out in the room of nothing but uniforms and short haircuts and mostly pink faces.

He was huge. He was also kind of cool-looking in his black leather car coat, gray shirt, black necktie. He towered over the podium, which had seemed just the right height for Colonel Wilson.

“I served in Vietnam, under a couple of lieutenantswho looked about your age,” the detective said into the mike. His voice was calm and very deep. He laughed then, and so did most of the cadets.

He had a lot of presence, a whole world of presence. He definitely seemed like the real deal. The killer thought that Sampson was laughing down at the cadets, but he couldn't be sure.

“The reason I'm here at your school this morning,” the detective went on, “is that we're canvassing Garfield Park and everything that it touches. Two little kids were savagely killed there, both within the past week. The skulls of the children were crushed. The killer is a fiend, in no uncertain terms.”

The killer wanted to give Sampson the finger. The killer isn't a fiend. You're the fiend, mojoman. The killer is a lot cooler than you think.

"As I understand it from Colonel Wilson, many of you go home from school through the park. Others run cross-country, and you also play soccer and lacrosse in the park. I'm going to leave my number at the precinct with the office here at school.

You can contact me at any time, day or night, at the number if you've seen anything that could be helpful to us."

The Sojourner Truth School killer couldn't take his eyes off the towering homicide detective who spoke so very calmly and confidently. He wondered if he could possibly be a match for this one. Not to mention motherhumping Detective Alex Cross, who reminded him of his own real father -- a cop.

He thought that he could be a match for them.

“Does anybody have any questions?” Sampson asked from the stage. “Any questions at all? This is the time for it. This is the place. Speak up, young men.”

The killer wanted to shout from his seat. He had an overwhelming impulse to throw his right arm high in the air and volunteer some real help. He finally sat on his hands, right on his fingers.

I unwittingly saw something in Garfield Park, sir. I might just know who killed those two kids with an eighteen-inch, tape-reinforced baseball bat.

Actually, to be truthful, I killed them, sir. I'm the child killer, you feeble asshole! Catch me if you can.

You're bigger. You're much bigger. But I'm so much smarter than you could ever be.

I'm only thirteen years old. I'm already this good!Just wait until I get a little older. Chew on that, you dumb bastards.

Alex Cross 3 - Jack and Jill

PART 4

A-HUNTING WE WILL GO

I LAY ON THE COUCH with Rosie the cat and a full sack of nightmares.

Rosie was a beautiful, reddish brown Abyssinian. She was wonderfully athletic, independent, feral, and also a great nuzzler.

She reminded me of the much larger cats of Africa in the way she moved. One weekend morning she just showed up at the house, liked it, and stayed.

“You're not going to leave us one day, are you, Rosie? Leave us like you came?” Rosie shook her whole body “What a dopey question,” she was telling me. “No, absolutely not. I'm part of this family now.”

I couldn't sleep. Even Rosie's purring didn't relax me. I was a few aches beyond bone-tired, but my mind was racing badly I was counting murders, not sheep. About ten o'clock I decided to go for a drive to clear my head. Maybe get in touch with my chi energy. Maybe get a sharper insight into one of the murder cases.

I drove with the car windows open. It was minus three degrees outside.

I didn't know exactly where I was going -- and yet unconsciously, I did know. Shrink shrinks shrink.

Both murder cases were running hard and fast inside my head.

They were on dangerous parallel tracks. I kept reviewing and re-reviewing my talk with the CIA contract killer Andrew Klauk. I was trying to connect what he'd said to the Jack and Jill murders.

Could one of the “ghosts” be Jack?

I found myself on New York Avenue, which is also Route 30 and eventually turns into the John Hanson Highway. Christine Johnson lived out this way, on the far side of the beltway in Prince Georges County. I knew where Christine lived. I'd looked it up in the casenotes of the first detective who interviewed her after Shanelle Green's murder.

This is a crazy thing, I thought as I drove in the direction of her town -- Mitchellville.

Earlier that night, I'd talked to Damon about how things were going at school now, and then about the teachers there. I eventually got around to the principal. Damon saw through my act like the little Tasmanian devil that he is sometimes.

“You like her, don't you?” he asked me, and his eyes lit up like twin beacons. "You do, don't you, Daddy? Everybody does.

Even Nana does. She says Mrs. Johnson is your type. You like her, right?"

“There's nothing not to like about Mrs. Johnson,” I said to Damon. “She's married, though. Don't forget that.”

“Don't you forget,” Damon said and laughed like Sampson.

And now here I was driving through the suburban neighborhood relatively late at night. What in hell was I doing? What was I thinking of? Had I been spending so much time around madmen that finally some of it rubbed off? Or was I actually following one of my better instincts?

I spotted Summer Street and made a quick right turn. There was a mild squeal of tires that pierced the perfect quiet of the neighborhood. I had to admit it was beautiful out in subur-bia, even at night. The streets were all lit up. Lots of Christmas lights and expensive holiday props. There were wide curbs for rain runoff. White sidewalks. Colonial-style lampposts on all the street corners.

I wondered if it was hard for Christine Johnson to leave this safe, lovely enclave to come to work in Southeast every day. I wondered what her personal demons were. I wondered why she worked such long hours. And what her husband was like.

Then I saw Christine Johnson's dark blue car in the driveway of a large, brick-faced Colonial home. My heart jumped a little.

Suddenly, everything became very real for me.

I continued up the blacktop street until I was well past her house. Then I pulled oveve who interviewed her after Shanelle Green's murder.

This is a crazy thing, I thought as I drove in the direction of her town -- Mitchellville.

Earlier that night, I'd talked to Damon about how things were going at school now, and then about the teachers there. I eventually got around to the principal. Damon saw through my act like the little Tasmanian devil that he is sometimes.

“You like her, don't you?” he asked me, and his eyes lit up like twin beacons. "You do, don't you, Daddy? Everybody does.

Even Nana does. She says Mrs. Johnson is your type. You like her, right?"

“There's nothing not to like about Mrs. Johnson,” I said to Damon. “She's married, though. Don't forget that.”

“Don't you forget,” Damon said and laughed like Sampson.

And now here I was driving through the suburban neighborhood relatively late at night. What in hell was I doing? What was I thinking of? Had I been spending so much time around madmen that finally some of it rubbed off? Or was I actually following one of my better instincts?

I spotted Summer Street and made a quick right turn. There was a mild squeal of tires that pierced the perfect quiet of the neighborhood. I had to admit it was beautiful out in subur-bia, even at night. The streets were all lit up. Lots of Christmas lights and expensive holiday props. There were wide curbs for rain runoff. White sidewalks. Colonial-style lampposts on all the street corners.

I wondered if it was hard for Christine Johnson to leave this safe, lovely enclave to come to work in Southeast every day. I wondered what her personal demons were. I wondered why she worked such long hours. And what her husband was like.

Then I saw Christine Johnson's dark blue car in the driveway of a large, brick-faced Colonial home. My heart jumped a little.

Suddenly, everything became very real for me.

I continued up the blacktop street until I was well past her house. Then I pulled over against the curb and shut off the headlights. Tried to shut down the roaring inside my head. I stared at the rear of somebody's shiny white Ford Explorer parked out on the street. I stared for a good ninety seconds, about how long the white Explorer would have lasted before it was stolen on the streets of D.C.

I had the conscious thought that maybe this was not such a good idea. Doctor Cross didn't exactly approve of Doctor Cross's actions. This was real close to being inappropriate behavior. Parking in the dark in a posh, suburban neighborhood like this wasn't a real sound concept, either.

A few therapist jokes were running around inside my head.

Learn to dread one day at a time. You're still having a lousy childhood.

If you're really happy, you must be in denial.

“Just go home,” I said out loud in the darkened car. “Just say no.”

I continued to sit in the darkness, though, listening to the occasional theatrical sigh, the loud debate buzzing inside my head.

I could smell pine trees and smoke from someone's chimney through the open car window. My engine was clicking gently as it cooled. I knew a little about the neighborhood: successful lawyers and doctors, urban planners, professors from the University of Maryland, a few retired officers from Andrews Air Force Base.

Very nice and very secure. No need for a dragonslayer out here.

All right then, go see her. Go see both of them, Christine and her husband.

I supposed that I could bluff my way through some trumped up reason why I had to come out to Mitchellville. I had the gift of gab when I needed it.

I started the car again, the old Porsche. I didn't know what I was going to do, which way this was going to lead. I took my foot off the brake, and the automobile crept along on its own. slowly, I crept.

I continued for a full block like that, listening to the crunch of a few leaves under the tires, the occasional pop of a small stone.

Every noise seemed very loud and magnified to me.

I finally stopped in front of the Johnson house. Right in front.

I noticed the bristle&brush, manicured lawn, and well-trimmed yews.

Moment of truth. Moment of decision. Moment of crisis.

I could see lights burning brightly inside the house, tiny fires.

Somebody seemed to be up at the Johnson house. The dark blue Mercedes sedan was sitting peacefully against the closed garage door.

She has a nice car and a beautiful home. Christine Johnson doesn't need any terrible trouble from you. Don't bring your monsters out here. She has a lawyer husband. She's doing real fine for herself.

What did she say her husband's name was -- George? George the lawyer lobbyist. George the rich lawyer lobbyist.

There was only one car in the driveway. Her car. The garage door was closed. I could picture another car in there, maybe a Lexus. Maybe a gas grill for cookouts, too. Power lawn mower, leaf blower, maybe a couple of mountain bikes for weekend fun.

I shut off the engine and got out of my car.

The dragonslayer comes to Mitchellville.

I WAS DEFINITELY CURIOUS about Christine Johnson, and maybe it was a little more complicated than that. You like her, don't you, Daddy? Maybe? Yes, I did like her -- a lot. At any rate, I felt as if I needed to see her, even if it made me feel tremendously awkward and foolish. A good thought struck me as I climbed out of the car: how much more foolish to walk away.

Besides, Christine Johnson was part of the complex homicide case I was working on. There was a logical enough reason for me to want to talk to her. Two students from her school had been murdered so far. Two of her babies. Why that school? Why had a killer come there? So close to my home?

I walked to the front door and was actually glad that all the shimmering houselights were turned on bright. I didn't want her husband, or any of the neighbors in Mitchellville, to spot me approaching the house in a cloak of shadows and darkness.

I rang the bell, heard melodious chimes, and waited like a porch sculpture. A dog barked loudly somewhere inside the house. Then Christine Johnson appeared at the front door.

She had on faded jeans, a wrinkled yellow crewneck sweater, white half-socks, and no shoes. A tortoise shell comb pulled her hair back to one side, and she was wearing her glasses. She looked as if she were working at home. Still working at this late hour.

Peas in a pod, weren't we? Well, not exactly. I was a long way from my pod, actually.

“Detective Cross?” She was surprised; understandably so. I was kind of surprised to be standing there myself.

“Nothing has happened on the case,” I quickly reassured her.

“I just have a few more questions.” That was true. Don't lie to her, Alex. Don't you dare lie to her. Not even once. Not ever.

She smiled then. Her eyes seemed to smile as well. They were very large and very brown, and I had to stop staring at them immediately. “You do work too late, too hard, even under the current circumstances,” she said.

“I couldn't turn this horrible thing off tonight. There are two cases, actually. So here I am. If this is a bad time, I'll stop by at the school tomorrow. That's no problem.”

“No, come on in,” she said. “I know how busy you are. I can imagine. Come in, please. The house is a mess, like our government, all the usual boilerplate copy applies.”

She led me back through an entrance way with a cream marble floor and past the living room with its comfortable-looking sectional sofa and lots of earth colors: sienna, ocher, and burnt umber.

There was no guided tour, though. No more questions about why I was there. A little too much silence suddenly. My chi energy was draining off somewhere.

She took me into the huge kitchen. She went to the refrigerator, a big, double-door jobbie that opened with a loud whoosh.

“Let me see, we've got beer, diet cola, sun tea. I can make coffee or hot tea if you'd like. You do work too hard. That's for sure.”

She sounded a little like a teacher now. Understanding, but gently reminding me that I might have areas of improvement.

“A beer sounds pretty good,” I told her. I glanced around the kitchen, which was easily twice the size of ours at home. There were rows of white custom cabinets. A skylight in the ceiling. A flyer on the fridge promoting a “Walk for the Homeless.” She had a very nice home -- she and George did.

I noted an embroidered cloth on a wall stretcher. Swahili words: Kwenda mzuri. It's a farewell that means “go well.” A gentle hint? Word to the wise?

“I'm glad to hear you'll have a beer,” she said smiling. “That would mean you're at least close to knocking off for the day. It's almost ten-thirty. Did you know that? What time is it on your clock?”

“Is it that late? I'm real sorry,” I said to her. “We can do this tomorrow.”

Christine brought me a Heineken and iced tea for herself.

She sat across from me at an island counter that subdivided the kitchen. The house was far from being the mess she'd warned me about when I came in. It was nicely lived-in. There was a sweet, charming display of drawings from the Truth School on one wall.

A beautiful mud cloth on a stretcher also grabbed my eye.

“So. What's up, doc?” she asked. “What brings you outside the beltway?”

“Honestly? I couldn't sleep. I took a drive. I drove out this way. Then I had the bright idea that maybe we could cover some ground on the case... or maybe I just needed to talk to somebody.”

I finally confessed, and it felt pretty good. Directionally good, anyway.

“Well, that's okay. That's fine. I can relate to that. I couldn't sleep myself,” she said. “I've been wound tight ever since Shanelle's murder. And then poor Vernon Wheatley. I was pruning the plants, with ER on the television for background noise. Pretty pathetic, don't you think?”

“Not really. I don't think it's so strange. ER is good. By the way, you have a beautiful house out here.”

I could see the living room TV set from the kitchen. A mammoth Sony playing the medical drama. A black retriever, a young dog, wandered in from the direction of a narrow hallway with oatmeal-colored carpeted stairs. “That's Meg,” Christine told me.

“She was watching ER, too. Meg loves a good melodrama.” The dog nuzzled me, then licked my hand.

I don't know why I wanted to tell her, but I did.

"I play the piano at night sometimes. There's a sun porch in our house, so the awful racket doesn't bother the kids too much.

Either that or they've learned to sleep right through it,“ I said. ”A little Gershwin, Brahms, Jellyroll Morton at one in the morning never hurt anyone."

Christine Johnson smiled, and seemed at ease with this kind of talk. She was a very self-assured person, very centered. I'd noticed that right from the first night. I had sensed it about her.

“Damon has mentioned your nocturnal piano playing a few times at school. You know, he occasionally brags about you to the teachers. He's a very nice boy, in addition to being a brainiac. We like him tremendously”

“Thank you. I like him a lot myself. He's lucky we have the Sojourner Truth School nearby”

“Yes, I think he is,” Christine agreed. “A lot of D.C. schools are a complete disgrace, and so sad. The Truth is a small miracle for the children who attend.”

“Your miracle?” I asked her.

“No, no, no. A lot of people are responsible, least of all me. My husband's law firm has contributed some guilt money I just help to keep the miracle going. I believe in miracles, though. How long has it been since your wife died, Alex?” she suddenly changed gears. But Christine Johnson made the question conversational and low-key and very natural to ask, even if it wasn't. Still, it took me by surprise. I sensed I didn't have to answer if I didn't want to.

“It's going to be five years soon,” I told her, partly holding my breath as I did. “This March, actually Jannie was still a little baby She was less than a year old. I remember coming in and holding her that night. She had no idea that she was comforting me.”

The two of us were getting comfortable talking at the kitchen counter. We were both opening up quite a lot. Small talk at first. Then bigger talk. Sojourner Truth School killer talk. Maybe something helpful for the investigation. It went on like that until almost midnight.

I finally told her I needed to be heading home. She didn't disagree.

The look in her eyes told me that she understood everything that had gone on here tonight, and all of it was okay with her.

At the front door, Christine surprised me again. She pecked me on the cheek.

“Come back, Alex,” she said, “if you need to talk again. I'll be here tending to my shrubs in my ostentatious house. Kwenda mzuri,” she said.

We left it like that. Go well. A strange tableau at a strange time in our lives. I had no idea whether her lawyer husband was home or not. Was he up in the bedroom sleeping? Was his name really George? Were they still together?

It was another mystery to solve some other day, but not that day.

On the drive home, I pondered whether I should feel bad about the unconventional, surprise visit to Christine Johnson's house. I decided that I shouldn't, that I wouldn't even get embarrassed about it at a later date. She'd made that possible for me. She was incredibly easy to be around. Absolutely incredible.

It was painful in a way When I got home, I played the piano for another hour or so.

Beethoven, then Mozart. Classical felt right to me. I went up and peeked in on Damon andJannie. I gently pecked their cheeks, as Christine Johnson had pecked mine. I finally fell asleep on the downstairs couch. I didn't feel sorry for myself there, but I did feel very alone.

I slept until several shrill rings of the phone woke me, shooting adrenaline through my body like electric current.

It was Jack and Jill again.

TYSONS GALLERIA in Tysons Corner was, along with the neighboring Tysons Comer Mall, one of the largest shopping complexes in the United States, maybe in the world. Sam Harrison had parked in the enormous Galleria lot at a little past 6:00 At least a hundred cars were already there, though Versace and Neiman Marcus, FAO Schwarz and Tiljengrist wouldn't open until ten. Maryland Bagels was open and smells from the popular local bakery filled the air. Jack hadn't come to Tysons Corner for a piping-hot blueberry bagel, though.

From the parking area of the mall, he jogged to Chain Bridge Road in McLean. He wore a blue and white Fila jacket and running shorts and looked as if he belonged in the $400,000-to-$1,500,000-per-house neighborhood. That was one of the important rules in his game: Always appear to belong, to fit in, and soon you will.

With his short blond hair and trim build, he looked as if he might be a commercial pilot with USAir or Delta. Or perhaps just one of the neighborhood's many professionals, a doctor or lawyer- whatever. He definitely seemed to belong. He fit in seamlessly

He had known from the start that he would have to carry out this murder alone. Jill shouldn't be out here in McLean Village.

This was the really bad one for him personally. This one was over the top, even for Jack and Jill, even for the game of games.

The murder this morning would be extrenely dangerous.

This target might know that someone was coming for him.

Number four was going to be a hard one, done the hard way.

He thought about all this as he steadily jogged toward his final destination in the pretty and peaceful Washington suburb.

As he crossed onto Livingston Road, he attempted to clear his mind of everything except the terrible murder that lay ahead of him.

He was Jack once again, the brutal celebrity stalker. He was going to prove it in just a few minutes.

This one was going to be tough, the hardest so far. The man he was about to kill had been one of his best friends.

In the game of life and death, that didn't matter.

He had no best friends. He had no friends at all.

I AM SAM, Sam I am, he was thinking as he ran.

But he wasn't really Sam Harrison.

He didn't have blond hair, or wear trendy jogging suits with logos on the breast pocket, either.

Who in hell am I? What am I becoming? he asked himself as his feet struck the pavement hard.

He knew that the house at 31 Livingston Road was guarded by a sophisticated security system. He would have expected nothing less.

He ran at a quickening pace now. Eventually, he veered off the macadam road and disappeared into underbrush and pine trees.

He kept running through the woods.

He was in good shape and hadn't broken much of a sweat yet.

The cold weather helped. He was alert, fresh, ready for the game to resume, ready to murder again.

He figured that he could get up close, perhaps as near as ten yards from the house without being seen. Then a quick dash to the garage.

For that short period, he would be out in the open. Completely exposed. There was no way around it and, God knows, he had tried to figure out an alternative attack plan.

He was about to attack a house in McLean. How incredible that seemed. This was like a war. A war fought at home. A revolutionary war.

There were two other large Colonial-style houses that he could see from the light woods. No lights on yet; no one seemed to be up anywhere on Livingston Road. So far, his luck was holding okay. His luck, or his skill, or maybe a combination of both.

As far as he could tell, no one was awake at 31 Livingston. He couldn't be sure until he was inside the house itself, and then it would be too late to turn back.

The FBI could be waiting in there or lurking right in these woods. Nothing would surprise him now. Anything could happen, at any time, to either him or Jill.

He decided to walk out from the woods, looking calm, looking casual. As if he belonged. He didn't make much noise as he gently raised the garage door. He quickly ducked under the partially open door and he was inside.

He went straight to the Nutone security box and punched in the code. So much for high security in the suburbs. There was no effective protection, really. Not from people like him.

He entered the main part of the house. His heart pounded like a battering ram inside his chest. There was a sheen of sweat on his neck now. He could picture Aiden's face. He could see Aiden as if he were standing there beside him.

Everything was peaceful and quiet and orderly inside the house. Fridge gently humming. Kids' artwork and a school lunch menu attached to the door with magnets. That made his heart sink. Aidenk kids.

Aiden Junior was nine years old. Charise was six. The wife, Merrill, was thirty-four, fifteen years younger than her husband.

It was her second marriage, his third. They'd seemed very much in love the last time he had seen them together.

Jack moved quickly into the living room. He stopped breathing.

Someone was in the living room!

Jack whirled to the left. He yanked up his pistol and pointed it at the man. Jesus God, it was only a goddamn mirror! He was looking at his own image.

He managed to catch his breath, then continued on his mission, his heart still thundering. He hurried through the living room. It was so familiar, lots of memories seeping into his consciousness. Painful thoughts. He pushed them aside.

He began to climb up plush carpeted stairs, then stopped for a second. For the first time, he had doubts.

There can't be any doubts! Doubt and uncertainty weren't allowed!

Not in this. Not in Jack and Jill.

He remembered the upstairs hallway, knew the house very well. He'd been here before -- as a “friendly.”

The master bedroom was the last door on the right.

There would be weapons in the bedroom. A.357 in the drawer of the night table. An automatic taped under the bed.

He knew. He knew. He knew everything.

If Aiden had already heard him, everything would be over.

The game would end right there. This would be it for Jack and Jill.

Nutcruncher time. Weird thoughts. Too many of them.

He had finally gone to see Pulp Fiction the night before. It hadn't relaxed him, though he'd laughed out loud several times.

Sick story; he was even sicker; America was sickest of all.

Don't think anymore, he warned himself. Just do this. Do it efficiently. Do it now! Do it fast! Get out!

Jack kills American celebrities! Various and sundry bigshots.

That what he does. Be Jack!

But he wasn't really Jack!

He wasn't really Sam Harrison!

Don't think, he commanded himself again as he hurried down the upstairs hallway to the master bedroom.

Be Jack.

Kill.

JACK -- whoever the hell he was -- was three or four steps from the master bedroom when its varnished wood door suddenly opened.

A tall, balding man stepped out into the hall. Very hairy arms and legs. Bare, bony feet; toes splayed. Only half awake. In the middle of a jaw-cracking yawn.

He had on blue plaid boxer shorts, nothing else. A good build, still athletic-looking; just a hint of a spare tire above the boxers' elastic band. Still formidable after all the years of D.C. power lunches.

General Aiden Cornwall!

“You! You son of a bitch!” he whispered as he suddenly saw Jack in the upstairs hallway “I knew it might be you.” Yes, Alden Cornwall knew everything in an instant. He had solved the mystery; a lot of mysteries, actually He understood Jack and Jill.

Where it was going. And why it was going this. Not in Jack and Jill.

He remembered the upstairs hallway, knew the house very well. He'd been here before -- as a “friendly.”

The master bedroom was the last door on the right.

There would be weapons in the bedroom. A.357 in the drawer of the night table. An automatic taped under the bed.

He knew. He knew. He knew everything.

If Aiden had already heard him, everything would be over.

The game would end right there. This would be it for Jack and Jill.

Nutcruncher time. Weird thoughts. Too many of them.

He had finally gone to see Pulp Fiction the night before. It hadn't relaxed him, though he'd laughed out loud several times.

Sick story; he was even sicker; America was sickest of all.

Don't think anymore, he warned himself. Just do this. Do it efficiently. Do it now! Do it fast! Get out!

Jack kills American celebrities! Various and sundry bigshots.

That what he does. Be Jack!

But he wasn't really Jack!

He wasn't really Sam Harrison!

Don't think, he commanded himself again as he hurried down the upstairs hallway to the master bedroom.

Be Jack.

Kill.

JACK -- whoever the hell he was -- was three or four steps from the master bedroom when its varnished wood door suddenly opened.

A tall, balding man stepped out into the hall. Very hairy arms and legs. Bare, bony feet; toes splayed. Only half awake. In the middle of a jaw-cracking yawn.

He had on blue plaid boxer shorts, nothing else. A good build, still athletic-looking; just a hint of a spare tire above the boxers' elastic band. Still formidable after all the years of D.C. power lunches.

General Aiden Cornwall!

“You! You son of a bitch!” he whispered as he suddenly saw Jack in the upstairs hallway “I knew it might be you.” Yes, Alden Cornwall knew everything in an instant. He had solved the mystery; a lot of mysteries, actually He understood Jack and Jill.

Where it was going. And why it was going there: why it had to be this way. Why there could be no turning back.

Jack fired the silenced Beretta twice and the target collapsed.

Jack quickly stepped forward and caught the lifeless body before it could thud loudly against the floor.

He held the body in his arms, lowering it slowly to the carpet.

His friend, whatever that meant now. He stayed down on his knees for a long moment. His heart was exploding.

He hadn't realized how hard this one was going to be until now. Not until this instant.

He looked down into the startled gray blue eyes of the former member of the Joint Chiefs, part of the White House's Jack and Jill emergency task force.

One of the hounds had been taken out. Just like that. Jack and Jill had struck back boldly at the manhunters! They had shown their strength again.

He took a note from his pocket. He left a calling card on Aiden Cornwall's chest.

Jack and Jill came to The Hill To storm your picket fences.

Once safe and sound They easily found The flaw in your Defenses.

A noise in the hall! He looked up. Aiden's boy! “Oh, Jesus God, no,” he whispered out loud. “Oh, God, no.” He felt sick all over. He wanted to run from the house.

The boy had recognized him. How could he not? Young Aiden even knew his children. He knew too much. Dear God, have mercy on me. Please have mercy.

Jack fired the Beretta again.

This was war.

I WAS CALLED to an emergency criss team meeting at the White House at 8:00 A.M. on December 10. I had been causing some trouble over the past few days there. My internal investigation was making waves, ruffling feathers. The big cats on The Hill didn't like being under suspicion -- but all of them were, at least in my book.

Jay Grayer grabbed me the moment I arrived inside the West Wing. Jay's eyes were flat and cold and hard. His grip was strong on my shoulder. “Alex, I need to talk to you for a minute,” he said. “It's important.”

“What's going on now?” I asked the Secret Service agent. He didn't look well. There were dark puffs under both his eyes.

Something else had happened. I could tell.

“Aiden Cornwall was murdered early this morning. It happened at his house out in McLean. It was Jack and Jill. They called us again. Called it in to us like we're mission control.”

He shook his head in sadness and disbelief. “They killed Aiden's nine-year-old son, Alex.”

I found myself rocking back on my heels. The news from Jay Grayer didn't make sense to me; it didn't track with the Jack and Jill style to this point. Goddamn them! They kept changing the rules. They had to be doing it on purpose.