Red 1-2-3

John Katzenbach

Red 1-2-3

Copyright © 2014 by John Katzenbach

For the English Department faculty, Bard College, 1968-72

Prologue: The Unwanted Mail

Red One was standing by helplessly watching a man die when her letter was delivered to her isolated house in a rural part of the county.

Red Two was dizzy with drugs, alcohol, and despair when her letter was dropped through the mail slot in the front door to her split-level suburban home.

Red Three was staring at a failure, thinking that more and far worse failures were awaiting her, when her letter arrived in a mail depository just down the stairs from her dormitory room.

The three women ranged in age: Seventeen. Thirty-three. Fifty-one. They did not know one another, but they lived within a few miles of each other. One was an internist. One was a public middle school teacher. One was a prep school student. They had little in common, save for one obvious detail: They were all redheads. The doctor’s straight auburn hair was beginning to show gray around the edges, and she wore it pulled back sharply in a severe style. She never let it flow freely when she was at her medical practice. The teacher was luxuriously curly-haired, and her bright red locks fell in wild electric currents from her head to her shoulders, disheveled by the unlucky hand that fate had delivered her. The prep school student’s hair was slightly lighter, a seductive strawberry color that would have been worth singing about, but it framed a face that seemed to pale a little bit more each day, and blanched skin that seemed lined with care.

What linked them together much more than their striking red hair, however, was the fact that each, in her own way, was vulnerable.

The white envelopes, postmarked New York City, were common security-tinted envelopes available with self-sealing flaps that could be purchased in any office supply store, grocery store, or pharmacy. The message within was printed on plain white 20-lb. weight common notepaper by the same computer. None of the three had any of the forensic skills necessary to tell there were no fingerprints on the letters, nor was there any telltale DNA substance-saliva, a stray hair, skin follicles-that might give a sophisticated detective with access to a truly modern laboratory some idea who mailed the letters had the letter writer been in some national criminal database. The letter writer was not. In a world of instant messaging, e-mail, texting, and cell phones, each letter was as old-fashioned as smoke signals, a carrier pigeon, or Morse code.

The opening lines were delivered without salutation or introduction:

“One bright, fine day Little Red Riding Hood decided to take a basket of delicious goodies to her beloved grandmother, who lived on the far side of the deep, dark woods…”

You undoubtedly first heard the story years ago when you were small children. But you were probably told the sanitized version: The grandmother hides in her closet and Little Red Riding Hood is saved from becoming the Big Bad Wolf’s next meal by the brave woodsman with his sharp axe. In that retelling, everything ends happily ever after. In the original, there is a far different and much darker outcome. It would be wise for you to keep that in mind over the next few weeks.

You do not know me, but I know you.

There are three of you. I have decided to call you:

Red One.

Red Two.

Red Three.

I know each of you is lost in the woods.

And just like the little girl in the fairy tale, you have been selected to die.


At the top of page one he wrote:

Chapter One: Selection

He paused, waved his fingers above his computer keyboard like a magician conjuring up a spell, and then bent forward, continuing.

The first-and in many ways foremost-problem is selecting your victim. This is where the thoughtless, the impatient, and the rank amateurs make most of their stupid mistakes.

He hated being forgotten.

It had been nearly fifteen years since he’d published a word or killed anyone, and this self-enforced retirement had become extremely painful to him.

He was a year shy of his sixty-fifth birthday and he did not expect to see many more. The realist within reminded him that despite his excellent overall fitness, true longevity was not in his family gene pool. Virulent cancers had claimed both his parents in their early sixties, and heart disease his maternal grandmother similarly early, so he thought his own time was probably close to up. And although he had not been to a doctor in many years, he could feel mysterious steady aches, small, sudden, sharp, and inexplicable pains, and odd weaknesses throughout his body that heralded the advent of old age and perhaps something far worse growing within him. Many months earlier he had read everything Anthony Burgess frantically wrote in the year of productivity the famous novelist had when he was misdiagnosed-told he had an inoperable and fatal brain tumor, when none really existed. He believed-without any real medical confirmation-that his situation just very well might be the same.

And so he had become determined that in whatever time he had left-whether it was twenty days, twenty weeks, or twenty months-he should do something absolutely significant. He knew he needed to create something deliciously memorable, and something that would resonate long after he’d passed from this earth and gone directly to hell. He fully and somewhat proudly expected to assume a position of honor amongst the damned.

So, on the evening that he put what he considered to be his last and greatest work into motion, he felt a long-absent extraordinary child-on-Christmas-morning excitement and an overwhelming sense of deep heart’s release, knowing that not only was he returning to the games that he’d petulantly abandoned, but that what he’d designed for his masterpiece would be talked about for years.

Perfect crimes rarely existed, but there were some. These were usually created less by the genius of the criminals and far more by the consistent incompetence of the authorities, and they were usually defined by the pedestrian question of whether the perpetrator got away with it or not. Accidents of ideal homicide, he believed they should be called, because getting away with murder wasn’t really much of a challenge. But crimes of perfection were a different standard, and he truly felt he was launching into one. His invention was designed to satisfy on many different levels.

Pull this off, he told himself, and they will study you in schools. They will argue about you on television. They will make movies about you. A hundred years from now, your name will be as well known as Billy the Kid or Jack the Ripper. Someone might even sing a song about you. Not some soft and melodic folk song. Rock and roll.

More than anything, he despised feeling ordinary.

Lasting fame was something he craved. The smaller tastes he’d had of notoriety over the course of his life had been a fleeting narcotic, momentary highs replaced by crushing returns to routine. After many years of drudgery at the late night copy desk at various mid-level newspapers, correcting careless reporters’ grammar mistakes in a never-ending assembly line of news stories, he felt an electric thrill when his first novel was accepted by a reputable publishing house. It had come out adorned with a flurry of modestly good reviews. “A gifted natural,” one critic had opined.

After he’d quit his job, his subsequent books had been highlighted with the occasional interview in a literary magazine or the arts sections of local papers. A local television news program had once done a small feature on him when one of his four mystery-thrillers had been optioned for the movies-although nothing had ever come of the screenplay some forgettable West Coast writer had produced.

But sooner than he’d expected, sales waned and even these modest accomplishments had faded when he’d stopped writing. If no one was going to pay attention to what he wrote, why write it? He could no longer find a copy of one of his novels on a bookstore shelf, not even on the tables devoted to publishers’ overstocks and remainders. And they’d stopped calling him sophisticated, gifted, or a natural as he’d inexorably grown older.

Even death had lost its luster for him.

Murder had lost its cachet in the news business, he believed. The most ordinary of crimes were hyped by reality television shows, trying to create mystery out of the mundane. Well-known spasms of gunshot violence by psychotic head-case killers trapped in wild-eyed delusions still garnered breathless headlines in the few newspapers that continued to struggle out daily editions. Mass killings in drug wars still bought out the television cameras. Gunning down a passel of coworkers i ...

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