Copyright © 2014 by John Katzenbach
Prologue: The Unwanted Mail
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
The white envelopes, postmarked
The opening lines were delivered without salutation or introduction:
At the top of page one he wrote:
He paused, waved his fingers above his computer keyboard like a magician conjuring up a spell, and then bent forward, continuing.
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.
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
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 ...