This was not the climax he'd expected. Physical shock settled over him. Beads of perspiration formed on his forehead. His arms were heavy and unmoving. No time for terror, only surprise.
The lethal knife, so oddly clutched in fragile fingers, came swiftly down, penetrating his throat and lodging itself in the mattress below. Not unlike the gesture an expert carpenter might use to hammer a nail through a board in a single stroke.
He squirmed a bit, but could not cry out. His death, like the moments before it, passed by him in slow motion.
The central California coastline is home to a unique and independent breed. The rocky shores and scenic vistas are chilly and overcast most of the year. As the sun begins to show her force in May, many locals pack up their belongings, rent their homes to tourists, and migrate north until "the season" is over. They're a moody and artistic people who find that too much light robs them of mystery and magic only found in shadows. By late September the winds pick up, the "summer people" go home and Santa Cruz returns to normal.
Shirlee Hart had watched this ritual from her balcony for ten years. Shirlee was a "commuter." A permanent resident in a transient town. Monday through Friday, she took the long mountain road to San Jose, ignoring all appeals to move "over the hill." She didn't like it "over the hill." She loved the ocean and the clean air. Like the eccentric artists and retired professors with their mystery and magic, she favored the winter.
This Sunday was going to be the beginning of a quiet and lovely season, free from the sounds of screaming teenagers headed for the surf. She sat on her front step, comfortably caught between the warm air of the house and the cool breeze of the sea. She thought back to an equally beautiful Sunday, three years before, when a young surfer's car had broken down blocking her driveway. He was cute in an awkward sort of way, and she'd invited him in for a beer. One beer turned into two, and two turned into three years.
Their relationship was unconventional by normal standards. But convention and the moralistic views of others had never been of much interest to Shirlee. She loved Parker and she supported him. He took classes and pictures and surfed, working in a photo lab part-time, and she paid the mortgage and helped him out when he needed it. At first, her cadre of close friends had frowned on the idea. But as time went on and they began to see how happy she was and how much Parker supported her in ways she had never dreamed of, soon the whispering stopped and he was accepted as part of the family.
He was a very intelligent young man, and much more mature than his 23 years would suggest. She cared deeply for Parker and honestly enjoyed being the "man" of the house. If their relationship continued on its present course she would marry him in a few years. But then how many times had she voiced the same dream, two, or was it three? Sadly, the young men change. They grow up and want someone younger and fresher. But Shirlee was not a quitter, and each time she believed that this one would be different. Parker showed no signs of the wear or restlessness that precipitates the end. She had nothing to fear but history, and it didn't always have to repeat itself.
Shirlee stood up and shook out her hair, shaking the fear away. She paused on the front porch, taking a long cool breath of sea air, and craned her neck to see past the Victorian house on the corner. Barely in sight... the ocean. Glorious and shimmering and peaceful. Reflecting the smallest rays of light on its surface. Beautiful in anger, treacherous in calm. Every mystery to love and loathe in life.
These peaceful Santa Cruz mornings kept Shirlee sane. Sea air and sea views justified weekdays spent in a room with no windows, surrounded by the whir of computers, analyzing FBI data. Shirlee enjoyed her job, in spite of its limits. She was not allowed to catch the bad guy, not permitted in the field. Considered potentially unmanageable, not a team player, too prone to following her own hunches. Those were the official reasons, but Shirlee had it on good authority the real ones had more to do with "does not kiss ass, does not play politics," and her personal favorite, "will not wear pantyhose."
So Shirlee had her ethics and her blue jeans and her place far behind the front line. But her place was an important one and she did it well. Her gift for solving complex puzzles and collating endless bits of information, narrowing down suspect lists and serial trends, had given the glorified field men all the information they needed. For years she'd been telling herself that was satisfaction enough.
She walked into the house as Parker was calling out to her, "Hart ... your muffins are getting cold." She closed the front door and walked into the kitchen.
Parker had set up breakfast on the partially-enclosed back patio. Shirlee enjoyed spending as much time as possible outdoors, and, when the weather argued with her, she made it compromise: she had a space heater. She looked down to see that Parker had placed a half-dead carnation in front of her plate. He rarely said "I love you," but he didn't need to. "Your muffins, my dear, and a Diet Coke. How you can drink that stuff in the morning is beyond me."
She gently touched the flower and smiled. "To each their own poison." She took a long cool drink and opened the paper.
"Anything interesting?" Parker asked.
"Looks like the same old thing ... a general mess ... Here, you want the foreign news?"
"No thanks, too depressing. I'll just sit here and enjoy the absence of tourists."
Shirlee perused the paper and ate quietly, occasionally looking up to see Parker staring off into space. He had a way of leaving even the most crowded room to walk around in his mind. Then he would return just as abruptly. At first this habit had bothered her and she'd frequently asked him what he was thinking about. He always replied that it was nothing. Eventually she gave up, afraid that he may be telling her the truth and he really could sit in an almost endlessly blank stare.
Then she began to look more carefully at his photographs and think of his wandering mental moments. They matched. Not all of them, but many. He was composing pictures in his mind's eye, thinking about nothing and visualizing everything. So in his quiet Zen way, he was telling her the truth. If you can accurately describe the nuances of a picture, why take it?
"Just a minute. This is kind of interesting." She had interrupted his chain of thought and could see him shaking the photograph from his mind.
"What?" Parker asked.
"They found a body at the Lion's Inn in San Jose."
"The Lion's. Isn't that by the airport?"
"Yeah ... he was stabbed to death at a convention."
"In the middle of the convention?" Parker smiled sarcastically.
"No, in his room." Shirlee sneered at him. "A maid found the body in the morning. There aren't very many details ... Don't you think that's kind of strange?" She put the paper down and looked at him for some hint of understanding.
"Not really, as you've said ... it's a strange world. Could have been a bad drug deal, maybe he was rolled. Could be a hundred things."
"Don't you remember when we were in Vegas last month?" She was still staring at him.
"Sure, I remember. You won, I lost, and we had trouble getting seated for dinner. So, what?"
"There was a murder. A conventioneer was found dead in his hotel room. He'd been hit on the head or something. Don't you think that's strange?"
Parker shook his head. "No, not in Las Vegas. Nothing's strange in Vegas. That's probably a daily event."
"Then there was San Diego ...remember San Diego?"
"Yeah, you went diving, I went surfing, and we had a much better time. So what?'
"There was Another Murder!" Shirlee's shout sent a neighbor scurrying around his yard, as if expecting to find a tourist dead in the bushes.
"There was a murder in San Diego, too! A hotel, a convention, a man found dead in his room ..."
"So what." Parker's voice was matter of fact. "I'm sure if you feed that question into your FBI computer you'll find that every weekend someone dies in a hotel room."
She leaned back in her chair and began tossing muffin bits at the gathering seagulls. "Three men in three weeks get killed the same way at the same type of location on the same day of the week ..."
Parker held up his hand. "Stop, sorry but you're wrong. They weren't killed the same way. One was stabbed, one was hit over the head, and we don't know how the other one bought it." He took a deep breath and continued. "They were in cities that are hundreds of miles apart. There is nothing to indicate they were related. You don't have enough information to make a supposition of any kind. Face it, Hart, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't consider this a case." Parker leaned back and folded his arms across his chest.
"It could be something." Shirlee said defiantly as she began to aim her muffin bits with extreme prejudice. "Call it a feeling, but I'm going to dig around the database and see what I can find. I'm willing to bet that there's some connection."
"That's crazy. You've been watching too much TV."
"No, I'm serious. I have one of my hunches. I can't explain it, but it's worth a look."
"And a bet?" Parker smiled impishly.
"Sure, a bet."
"How much? This is to good to pass up."
"A hundred bucks." She confidently held out her hand.
"Seriously? I don't have a hundred bucks."
"Well, if you're so damn sure you'll win, you don't need it ... do you?"
He shook her hand in agreement and started counting off on his fingers. "Wait a minute. We need to get this set up a little better. If only two of them are connected do I lose? Is this all or nothing?"
Shirlee smiled. "All or nothing."
Parker nodded and picked up the classifieds.
"What are you up to?"
"I'm looking for a way to spend that hundred bucks ... Can you promise me something, Hart?"
"Don't say anything about this at the bureau. You have enough trouble as it is. If you bring this up they'll think you're certifiable."
"Parker, they pay me to be just this kind of certifiable." She tore the article out of the paper. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
"Of course, that's why I love you." He smiled, "but I also think you're wrong."
"It wouldn't be the first time, would it?" She laughed.
"No, but it's understandable. You deal with this kind of thing everyday. You're bound to start seeing ghosts in the machine. You want to back off on the bet?"
"That was your only chance." He returned to the classifieds. "What do you think I should get? A snowboard?"
* * *
With the bedroom window open, the distant sound of crashing waves filled the room. Shirlee listened to each poetic murmur. Nature's music that man could neither match nor imitate. It brought her back to the morning, back to the crazy notion that seemed so long ago. She'd nearly forgotten the entire idea, until she was here. Alone with only the music of the sea and her thoughts to haunt her. Her mind was clear and sleep was impossible.
She walked quietly into the bathroom and turned on the light. It stung her eyes. Never look in the mirror at 2 a.m. on a sleepless night. Maybe Parker was right and she was trying to spin some kind of macabre gold from straw. She considered waking him up, writing him a check, and being done with it. Instead she threw water on her face and stared into the mirror. Same face, same Shirlee. Tanned and young-looking for 35. But there was something fresh in her eyes, something that had been missing for so long it had become a myth. A spark.
She splashed another handful of cold water on her face. "This is crazy." She was mumbling to herself, "There is no plot to knock off kinky old salesmen. And so what if there is? It's not my problem ... It's not my hunt."
She patted her face with a towel and looked in the mirror again. "That's what this is all about. The glory of the chase. The true life thriller. I want to put this one together ... my way." She shook her head and turned off the bathroom light, pausing to watch her ghostly shadow appear in the mirror.
Monday morning Parker watched her, silent but amused, while she packed a lunch. The first lunch he'd ever seen her pack. She could feel him following her movements, but she didn't volunteer a word.
"I'm going to be home late tonight, Park, so don't wait up."
He looked at her and raised his eyebrows in a question mark.
"I'm stopping by the library on the way home." She concluded.
"Are you still stuck on your mystery murders?"
"What makes you say that?" Shirlee didn't lie well. It was not a skill she possessed.
"Oh, I don't know." His eyes focused on her bag lunch. "I was hoping you'd have come to your senses. You can just give me the hundred now and I'll go shopping after class." He smiled.
"I almost did last night, then I thought better of it. A bet's a bet."
"Hart, you can't tell me you really feel there's something to this? Think seriously for a minute, you're taking three news paper articles and turning them into the crime of the century."
She picked up the lunch bag and walked to the door. "I don't expect you to understand. I don't understand myself. But you stumbled on the right word; it's not a thought, it's a feeling. A funny feeling I can't get rid of until I know for sure."
"That's not a funny feeling, that's an ego feeling." He replied with no inflection.
"I heard you talking to yourself in the bathroom last night ... about the hunt. You can't cover this up with ocean murmurs, or greater good pronouncements, at least not to me."
"Are we making value judgments here?" She was annoyed with herself.
"No ... I can't blame you. You've put up with a lot of bureaucratic crap for a long time. I just don't want you to get your hopes up."
"Parker, that's the most macabre thing I've ever heard. You think I'm hoping to find a serial killer?"
"Well ... you are, aren't you?"
She walked angrily out the door as Parker called after her. "That wasn't what I meant!"
She turned on the front porch. "Then what did you mean?"
"I'm sure you'll find something. I know you. You'll have no peace until you do. Even if it's a good lead to just one of the murders. And I'm equally sure that they won't let you do a damn thing about it."
Shirlee didn't answer him, she couldn't think of anything to say. She threw the Jeep in gear and raced down the street. Half a dozen neighbors peered out, awakened by the sound of her grinding gears, afraid they'd slept through the quiet winter and the summer teens had returned.
Parker had put her fifteen minutes behind her traffic schedule. Fifteen minutes meant the difference between moving at an easy pace or sitting in a stop-and-go parking lot over the long summit road.
While cranking up classic rock to drown out the sound of screeching brakes, she caught the eye of a man in the convertible next to her. Late fifties, gray receding hair line, driving a Ferrari. Trying to be young. Were the others trying to be young? She thought to herself, catching up on drugs and whores missing from their youth? She watched him weaving in and out of traffic, risking his life for one car length. Chasing fate.
A little rumpled for the longer drive, but basically on time, she walked into the building offering perfunctory "Hello's" to the guards and maintenance workers with whom she always felt more at home. Shirlee ambled through the metal detector with the guilty expression of someone on a secret mission, but no one noticed.
The heavy metal door to the computer room opened with the ease of modern engineering and she was hit in the face with a blast of cold air. The computers stayed cool, and so did she: The only benefit to the dungeon.
Her "IN" box was nearly empty, and she took it as a good omen, but in truth she knew the statistics of the season. The crime rate always dropped in autumn, then rose like a rocket near the holidays. As in all of life, crime too was a matter of timing. She turned on the equipment and, with the skill and care of a classical musician, called up her database.
Morning turned to evening in her room with no windows. She didn't notice, nor did she remember, the last time she stood up. When the night guard came down to check the doors, she was amazed to find it was after seven. With the library still on her agenda, she hurried out the door.
Parker was falling asleep to the drone of Letterman as she walked in the door. "Sorry ... "
He jumped up from the sofa, half dazed. "Christ, Hart! It's almost midnight. I was starting to think you got squashed. I hate it when you drive that road late at night. Was it foggy? I hate it when it gets foggy ..." He was using anger to mask his concern.
"Calm down. I'm not squashed. I'm home. You sound more like a wife everyday ..." Her voice trailed off as she walked up the stairs.
He scrambled up after her. "So did you find anything?"
"I thought you must have, being so late."
"Nothing?" He sounded disappointed.
"Nothing Parker, not a thing." She snapped. "Do you want your hundred bucks now, or can you wait till morning?" Shirlee was tired and angry with herself. "I went to three libraries including the University. I ran through every reasonable idea I could think of, and a half dozen more that were pure nonsense, and I came up with nothing. Zip, zero, nothing.