The deputy chief remained on the sidewalk, hands on his hips, and surveyed. Eleven cops working the scene—it would be so easy to contaminate evidence. The last thing any of them needed at this hour, for these fallen soldiers, was an example of negligence (or worse, incompetence) the shooter’s defense attorney could attack in court. And Perry Roman had no doubt they would catch the shooter. The morning shift came on in two hours. By 9:00 a.m. every street corner in southwest Atlanta would have a shield working the case. Two of their own were dead. Roman made a note to himself to warn his men, when they found the shooter, not to mortally wound the motherfucker. This was going to be a clean, by-the-book operation. The dead deserved nothing less (even if Harper was a lazy prick).
Perry fixed his gaze on the two homicide detectives. Not his most perceptive team, but they’d suffice, at least for two hours. Some administrators, he knew, would see this tragedy as a chance to piggybank to a promotion. Perry Roman just wanted to get the job done. Perry Roman was a churchgoing man, went every Sunday with his wife and three kids. If the good Lord saw fit to reward him with a promotion, so be it. In the meantime, he’d just be the best man he could be.
He felt the rising sun tickle the back of his head. The milky oval on the pavement was fading away like a dream. Perry stared past the violence to the unkempt park on the north side of the street, and to the elementary school on the other side of the park.
The sniper, on the roof of the elementary school, stared past the violence to Perry Roman. The dawn provided adequate illumination for all sorts of misbehavior. He tracked his rifle to the two gesticulating detectives; to the old cop with the yellow tape and his young female sidekick, the one who kept looking at the dog. He adjusted his scope for the day’s new brightness and fingered his gentle trigger. Yep. All sorts of misbehavior.
Fourteen dead in Atlanta, GA.
E sme clicked away from the New York Times and typed in the URL for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The story took up most of the front page. She read every article.
Fourteen dead. Fifteen, if you counted the dog.
The names began to become familiar. Perry Roman, the deputy chief. Appleby and Harper. Andre Banks, the bystander who first found the vagrant on the street, called it in at 3:18 a.m. Good man. Some would’ve just minded their own business. Had Andre Banks minded his own business, though, today’s newspaper headlines would have been very different.
The articles didn’t give the vagrant’s name. Police probably were still working on an ID. Hoping beyond hope that someone in the local soup kitchens would recognize his absence. Hoping the man had a criminal record so his fingerprints would match those on file. Esme knew the drill. Oh, yes, she knew it.
She surfed to the home page for the Associated Press and read their version. Then Reuters. Then USA Today.
The vagrant had been the bait; this much was certain. He had been placed there in a bright ridiculous outfit in a well-lit, controlled area specifically to attract prey. The DOT roadblocks were fake; the killer had put those up to control his trap, keep out automobile traffic. Half of this Esme read in the reports; the other half she easily deduced. Surely the task force assigned to the case had made the same deductions. Her hand drifted to her landline. She still knew people at the Bureau. One simple call wouldn’t hurt….
No. No. She was not going to turn into one of them, one of those retirement ghosts with so much free time they come back to haunt their ex-workplace and harass their former colleagues. Unlike most retirement ghosts, Esme was not in her late sixties but her late thirties, but still. No.
She put down the phone and went into the kitchen to make a sandwich. She slipped two slices of whole wheat bread into the toaster and set it to dark. While the bread crisped, she sliced up a tomato and a cucumber, broke off some leaves of iceberg lettuce, and took out a jar of low-fat mayonnaise. The jar was almost empty. She made a mental note to stop at the grocery store on the way back from picking up Sophie from Oyster Bay Elementary.
Esme Stuart, this is your life.
She deliberately kept away from her computer for the next hour and instead spent the time with an Elvis Costello biography. She put on her disc of My Aim is True for verisimilitude. No, not her disc. This one was Rafe’s. Hers was in a used CD store in D.C. When Esme and Rafe moved in together, their musical collections were so identical that they’d had to get rid of the many duplicates. Her mind wandered away from the biography. Had someone bought her old CD? What was that person like? Was it an impulse buy or had they been searching desperately for the album? Had they heard about what had happened in Atlanta?
Which brought her mind back to that.
She shut her biography and shuffled off to the bathroom. “Alison…” begged Elvis, “I know this world is killing you…” She clicked on the light and eyeballed her reflection. What was wrong with her? It’s not like this was the first murder she’d read about since she quit seven years ago. Was it the body count? Was it the fact the victims were law enforcement? She rolled her eyes. Talk about a wicked subconscious. Read about a sniper attack and put on an album called My Aim is True.
She tucked a strand of chestnut-colored hair behind an ear. Her ears were not small and dainty. When she was younger, when she was Sophie’s age, she insisted her hair remain long. But her ears always found a way to poke through. By the time she reached her twenties, she just gave up and cut her hair to her shoulders. It added years to her life, but when she was in her twenties and starting out at the Bureau, looking older was an asset. She believed it meant she’d be taken more seriously.
Christ, she had been so naive.
Esme washed her hands, padded back into the living room, and on principle switched the CD to something less substantial. Bananarama’s Greatest Hits? Perfect. She pushed Play, stared a moment too long at her computer (what new developments had occurred in the case?), and fell back onto the couch. Her hand absently reached for one of the Sudoku books strewn across the glass table. Esme opened it to her bookmark—a cheap black pen—and pondered a puzzle tantalizingly labeled Crazy Hard.
The clutter on the glass table provided Esme with her only comfortable chaos in the whole room. Rafe made sure the rest of their two-story Colonial was organized and spotless. He wasn’t a neat freak per se; he had guests over all the time from the university and, like Esme had at the Bureau with her short hair, wanted to give a positive impression. Esme didn’t mind keeping house (she recognized the value of appearances) as long as she had a nook in each room to herself. Anyway, Sudoku books were easily straightened.
The Bananarama CD ended. It took her five more minutes to complete her puzzle, then she put on her olive green parka and got ready to pick her daughter up. She reminded herself again about the mayonnaise, slipped her mittens on, and entered the cold, cold garage. Outside the windchill had to be below zero Fahrenheit, and last night’s frozen rain had doubtless left patches of black ice on every side street. Welcome to the north shore of Long Island, December to March.
Esme clicked on her Prius’s satellite radio. She loved to be surrounded by music. Music, language—anything creative, really. It charged her up like ephemeral photosynthesis. Without music, without the spoken word, she might as well remain in bed. Tom Piper once suggested she suffered from depression. But she’d just told him she was quitting the Bureau, so perhaps context had influenced his expert analysis.
Tom. Lanky-limbed Tom and his ’78 chrome Harley. Surely he was being kept in the loop about the sniper. Surely they had him (and his Harley) down in Atlanta right now. Walking the scene, sketching out what made this particular madman tick, deciphering his message. And this series of murders in particular…
Bait, trap, fourteen homicides. Patience. This madman wouldn’t want his intent to be misinterpreted.
Had he left a note?
Esme and Tom still traded