The light of the full, bilious moon shone palidly through the broken windows of the warehouse, casting everything into ghoulish contrasts of light and dark. ‘Like me’, Red Knight thought to himself as he ghosted from shadow to shadow. He put a hand to his pants pocket, feeling the reassuring bulge of his magnum underneath his coat. It was a good gun. His father had used it in the war, and Red had used it in wars of his own: on the mean streets of Omaha. It had taken the lives of many men, men who’d done wrong, men who’d hurt people. The cops would want to throw him in jail if they knew about all the beasts he’d put down with that piece, but Red had no regrets. He wasn’t a man who dealt in regrets. And it wasn’t as if he was scared of jail – sure, Nebraska’s penitentiaries might be heaving with all the crooks and lowlifes he’d helped put behind bars; tough, ruthless men who’d just love to get their hands on him in the narrow confines of a prison boiler room, but Red knew more than enough to handle himself. He’d rise to the top of any food-chain – it was just his way, and he’d make no apologies for that – but if he was ruling as king of the big house, he wouldn’t be able to keep his house clean out here. And that was what mattered to him. That was what got him up in the morning.
Despite his will of iron and his take-no-shit attitude, Red found his palms were sweating. As he crossed to the next beam and ducked down in the darkness – darkness like the innermost places of his tormented soul, the places he never let anyone see, except for Julie, before she was taken from him by Jericho and his thugs in that alley five years ago – he eased the powerful silver gun out of his belt and into his firm, calloused grip. The weight felt good in his hand. He was worried it was too good sometimes. He had to admit that, some nights, he thought of the magnum as an extension of his own body, and that scared him. But he didn’t have time for fear. Fears were like regrets, and Red Knight wanted no part of either. This case was one of the toughest he’d ever worked though. The Playing Card Killer had outfoxed him three times in the last two weeks already and if there was one thing Red didn’t like one little bit, it was being outfoxed. But now he had him. The murderer had no idea about the secret tracking device his contact in the FBI had furnished him with; the tracking device that had led him straight to this warehouse somewhere outside Lincoln.
The sound of a movement in the darkness caught his attention and he risked a peek from his hiding place. There it was again! The unmistakable rustle of a man’s clothing! He’d know that sound anywhere and, as he listened intently for it to come again, he replayed it in his head. He figured from the noise it was no more than twenty feet from where he crouched, hardly daring to breathe and, as the whish-whish of fashionable clothing came closer and closer, he narrowed it down. A man, just over six-feet tall, very much like Red himself, with a powerful build, good shoes and perhaps wearing fashionable chinos. It was like looking into a mirror. But a mirror made up of sonic vibrations rather than light. Red relished working in the dark. Sometimes, he worried he was more at home beneath the moon’s steely white gaze than he was in a summer field, or at a friend’s barbecue. Not that he had many friends left after Jericho and his goons had torn the heart and soul out of his quiet, comfortable life.
“Hello, Red,” a voice said to him from the shadows.
Red couldn’t hide his surprise, and he nearly let out an exhalation of stunned amazement. He considered keeping his cards close to his chest, then smiled internally at the way his clever brain managed to use another playing card metaphor. ‘I guess this bozo must be getting to me,’ his internal monologue wryly retorted. But there was no time for non-verbally congratulating his unconscious mind and he stood up, unafraid, keeping his gun close to his side, hoping the moon wouldn’t reflect of its shiny metal surface. “I suppose this is a trap then, huh?” he quipped to the man in the shadows.
“Of course!” his enemy sneered. “Did you think I was so stupid as to lead you to my real hideout? This is just a decoy warehouse!”
“Well it’s a shame you don’t got a decoy killer!” Red lifted his gun and let the moon do its work. He registered the indrawn breath of his foe, and knew he’d got the drop on him now. “Or were you dumb enough to think I’d come unarmed?”
“Oh, I know exactly how dumb you are, Red Knight. After all, I know you very well indeed.”
“Is that so?” Red started to feel a little unsure of himself suddenly, which wasn’t like him at all. Normally he was at home almost anyplace, be it the tough streets of his home city or a slick millionaire’s cocktail party in cosmopolitan uptown Lincoln.
“Oh yes indeed. I thought a master detective and observer of human behaviour like you would be able to recognise my voice.”
Now that he mentioned it, Red did begin to recognise something about the intonation of his mysterious quarry. It was familiar: the cadence, the accent, the stresses on the vowels. Like a song he’d heard a long time ago and only remembered snatches of. Red mostly listened to country, but he wasn’t averse to soft rock or even some smooth R&B if the mood was right and he had a photographic memory for music, but it was certainly what he imagined forgetting a song would be like. Only, it was like a song he’d heard twenty years ago that had gotten older in the intervening decades; older and nastier, and now the gentle croon was replaced by a fierce, murderous growl. Oh yes, he knew it all right, and suddenly it all snapped into place! As the stranger stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight, he said his name – a name he hadn’t had cause to say in almost twenty years. “Martin Blackjack!”
“Yes, Red,” Blackjack smiled as he moved a strong, pale hand up to his silky blonde locks. He was fair and clean-cut where Red’s looks were darker and more rugged, but they were otherwise hauntingly similar, even down to the brilliant green eyes. They might have been brothers, but weren’t. His sleeve pulled back slightly as he moved his hand, revealing the telltale tattoo on his inside wrist – a black club.
“You’re the Playing Card Killer!”
“Of course I am. How could you not have guessed? I left my calling card at every crime scene – the jack of clubs.”
Red shook his head. “I never suspected my own mentor could have been behind such brutal slayings! The idea would have shocked and dismayed me, had I thought of it!”
“But you didn’t, Red. You didn’t think of it. I beat you. Because I know you better than you even know yourself!”
“I’ve changed since you knew me,” Red retorted angrily, his gun almost shaking in his fist, such was the incandescent rage that now flew through his veins. “I used to be soft. But now I’m hard. Hard and dangerous. I’m not scared to kill when I have to, like I used to be when we were in the force together.”
“I’ve heard a lot about your life since I left, Red. I’ve kept tabs on you, which is how I was able to so effortlessly outmanoeuvre you at each and every single turn. I’ve got your number, old buddy.”
“And I’ve got this gun!”
“Is that how you want to do this?” Blackjack shouted, his voice hammering like a needle as he pressed his point home, right into Red’s furious and tormented soul, tearing it apart like a hot knife through butter and casually discarding the scraps like so many fragments of a once-whole tapestry depicting the man that had once been the indefatigable Red Knight. “I thought you were a real man!”
He knew how to get to Red all right! Telling the logical part of his brain to take a damn hike, Red threw away the magnum and lifted his fists into a fighting posture. For many of the criminal elements of Omaha, those fists rising in the moonlight were one of the lasts things they saw before waking up in the slammer with a hangover courtesy of a glass of right hand followed by a stiff chaser of left. “Fine, Blackjack! Let’s do it your way! Since I know you like to use your own hands to do your grisly work, let’s go one on one…mano a mano…”
“You got it,” Blackjack howled triumphantly, lifting up his own hands for a fight.
Carter shut the book with an exasperated sigh. “Ho…lee fuck,” she said. She’d been waiting outside Hammersmith’s apartment for half an hour and, foolishly, she’d decided to pass the time by reading some choice extracts from House of Cards, the novel that allegedly inspired the barn murder. Jones hadn’t been kidding when he said it was shit. Solid gold shit, she was sure, but shit nonetheless. It was painful stuff, but the Beverly Hills pad this guy called home showed that not everyone had taste as discerning as hers. Any murderer using this trash to get his ideas was going to be truly dangerous. She glanced at her watch and decided it was time to grit her teeth and talk to Hammersmith again. She’d called his private number to arrange this meeting late last night when their hunch about other copy-cat murders had come up trumps.
It was early evening, and the sunset was dying over the hills, leaving the sky a smoky purple. She got out of the car and locked it behind her before jogging across the road to the apartment block. She loitered outside for a minute, still unsure whether she wanted to go in or not. The whole thing reeked of a stupid mistake. Not only did she find Calvin Hammersmith repulsive and his books utterly puerile, but it felt like a bad idea to confront a potential witness alone. She was sure he’d never talk openly with her if Jones was there shoving a burger into his mouth or something though and, frankly, she needed him to think he was being charming or he’d never reveal anything. She needed to know his stupid writing inside out if she was going to get any insight into what now appeared to be the work of a serial killer.
“Come in, detective,” Hammersmith said to her as he showed her into his apartment once she’d finally decided on a course of action and he’d buzzed her up. Inside it was everything she’d expected and worse: a slick, modern apartment as furnished by someone who’d read about taste in a magazine and then given a harassed assistant very specific instructions about what he wanted. There was a grand piano over by the panoramic balcony windows that looked out over the twinkling orange lights of LA.
“You play?” she asked, pointing at it.
He flexed his fingers. “Not as well as I used to.”
“Ah.” A nice line from the guy who brought you, ‘a hangover courtesy of a glass of right hand followed by a stiff chaser of left’, she thought.
“Please, have a seat.” He gestured to a huge couch that circled half the section of the open-plan living area clearly delineated for sitting and watching TV in. It could probably hold over a dozen people. She wondered if it ever had.
“Thanks.” She sat down carefully, just perched on the edge. She could fall back into its plush embrace and be almost reclining, but just the idea made her feel faintly ill. Hammersmith, who was dressed in a slightly rumpled shirt with about two buttons too many undone at the collar and khaki slacks sat down on an armchair just across from her. The white coffee table between them was strewn with expensive looking books about art and music.
“I was very pleased when you called me,” he said.
“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t be.”
“Excuse me?” There was a faint smile playing around his lips that she found distinctly unpleasant.
“We’ve done some digging. It turns out the murder I told you about – the barn in Yucca Valley? – well, it isn’t the first one with some worrying similarities to the crimes depicted in your books.”
“You read some of my other books?” he asked.
“What? What does that have to do with anything?”
His face changed suddenly, and his slick exterior melted away, replaced with a grey, hangdog expression. He suddenly looked as old as he probably was, and he leant forward in his seat. The change had been instantaneous, like a light switching off. “Sorry, detective. What you said didn’t quite sink in there. More murders?”
“Yes. All pretty similar. I mean, obviously, since the murders in your books are very…ah…that is to say…”
“I have a formula,” Hammersmith said with a faint smile.
“Yeah. Good word.”
“I am a writer.”
“Uh huh. So anyway, we’ve discovered unsolved murders all across southern California, going back almost a decade that follow the…uh…formula from your novels.”
“Yeah, that’s what we said. More or less. Anyway, it’s clear that this isn’t an isolated case. There’s some creep out there who’s using your work as inspiration for his killing spree.”
“That’s an uncomfortable thought.” Hammersmith lightly rested a hand against his head. “I’m not always proud of where my imagination takes me, detective. In some ways I’m a very dangerous man. The thoughts in here…” He tapped a finger against his head. “You know, if I could broadcast it, I think you’d have to arrest me right now.”
“I use my work as a way to exorcise some of those devils inside me. Writing is very much therapy for me.”
Carter leant forward and gave Hammersmith a searching look. “Do you think you’re someone who needs therapy, Mr Hammersmith?”
“Call me Calvin.”
“Answer my question, please.”
“Is this a police interrogation?”
“Do you want it to be?”
He gave a hollow laugh at that and held his hands out helplessly. “Everyone needs therapy, don’t they? We all have our neuroses.”
“Yeah, but not all of us can afford a shrink.” She looked around at his apartment. “I wouldn’t have said you’d fall into that category though.”
“Life has been kind.”
“So what’s with all the angst?”
“Are you trying to get into my head, Miss Carter?”
“Detective Carter,” she corrected, “which should answer your question. I guess I’m just trying to figure out whether this is the work of an obsessive fan or if there’s someone out there who might have some sort of grudge against you.”
“A grudge? They’re not trying to kill me, are they?”
“Not yet. But if this person is deranged enough to murder someone following instructions in a trashy…uh…in a novel they read, there’s no limit to what they might do. And if they suspect law enforcement is on to them they might up the stakes.” Hammersmith looked a little startled at that. “Which is why this isn’t an interrogation, Mr Hammersmith. As far as anyone keeping tabs on you is concerned, I’m just a lady caller.”
Carter looked around the apartment again, trying to spot any kind of personal effects. There were no family photos, no clearly beloved keepsakes with sentimental value to jar against the design mag decor, nothing in fact to reveal anything about this man except that he was wealthy and tasteless. But she already knew that. “I have a hunch I know the answer to this, Mr Hammersmith, but are you single?”
“That’s a matter of public record, detective.”
“Sorry, I must have missed your last profile in Time. Ever been married?”
“Any ex-lovers with a grudge?”
“I don’t care if you’re gay,” she told him, “but it would help me a whole bunch if you were honest about your life.”
“I am being honest, and I’m not gay.” His smooth demeanour had returned in full force again; a light switched back on.
“So no skeletons in your closet at all?”
“I wouldn’t go that far…”
“Mr Hammersmith, I hope I don’t need to remind you that I’m here as part of a murder investigation. I don’t have time for games. Is there anyone at all from your past who might have some reason to make your life less pleasant?”
Hammersmith held her gaze for a moment. His eyes were cloudy grey and a little red like he had a touch of some allergy. He wasn’t by any means a handsome man, but he was tanned and well-groomed. Slim enough, but going a little paunchy as he reached middle age. He’d have given anything to have stern, piercing stare, she thought, but he didn’t. He was just an idiot who’d lucked into a way to sell snow to Eskimos, not the dashing, dangerous figure he tried to be. Not Red Knight, his cardboard hero. “No one,” he said firmly. “I’ve worked hard to channel whatever darkness is inside me into my books. There’s no jilted lovers. No ripped off investors or family members wanting a piece of me. I was an only child and my mother died a long time ago. I haven’t been back to Nebraska in years, except in my novels, and I have no interest in confronting what I left behind there.”
“What you left behind there?”
“An unhappy childhood. But, like I said, my mother died a long time ago.”
“Yes. You see, there’s nothing. I live a very controlled life. I don’t like to be put on the back foot. All I see here is some sick fuck who gets off on living a perverted fantasy based on my books.”
It was jarring hearing Hammersmith swear – his books pretended towards grittiness, but they were also oddly neutered, except when it came to describing the gruesome murders that were the centrepiece of every story and, so far, the only evidence in any of them that the author had an ounce of talent – but she focused on something she didn’t think he’d meant to say. “Perverted?”
“You said a perverted fantasy.”
He looked at her curiously. “Wouldn’t you call the actions of a serial killer perverted, detective?”
“Depends what you mean by that. I didn’t say anything sexual had happened.”
“Well, the word doesn’t just refer to sexual things, of course…”
Carter thought about it. “Not always. ‘Perverse’ might’ve been better if you didn’t mean that though.” When he looked at her askance she pointed to herself. “English major.”
“Slip of the tongue. You’ve brought me some disturbing news. Besides, I know my work. If this monster is imitating me, I would expect there to have been some sort of sexual aspect to the murders. My novels have been described as ‘filled with the frisson of dark sexuality’, after all.”
“Uh…yeah, okay. Listen,” she stood up and put her hands on her hips as she looked around the room one last time, trying to get inside this strange man’s head, “I’m sure you’re real busy, but as this situation develops, we might want to ask you a few more questions, okay?”
“That’s fine, detective.” Hammersmith didn’t get up.
“Right. I’ve…uh…got your number…” she motioned a phone with her hand.
“You do indeed.”
“And, obviously, if you happen to see anything suspicious, get in touch right away.”
“Should I call you or the LAPD?”
She thought about it. “If you think you’re in danger, call them. Otherwise, us.”
“What if I can’t tell?” he had a twinkle in his eyes she disliked intensely.
“You’re a writer. Guess the ending and work backwards from there.”
“I’ll try to do that, detective.” He wasn’t smiling, at least, not with his lips.
“Right. Well, I’ll show myself out.”
“I hate him. I hate him so, so much.”
Jones laughed. For once, he wasn’t eating anything. Now it was just booze. They were in a bar in Palm Springs. Technically off the clock, but they did some of their best work just sitting around shooting the shit. One good thing about her partner’s generally shitty attitude to his work was that he was exactly as effective off the job as he was on it. And beer tended to get his sluggish brain cells firing. “I’ll go next time.”
“He wouldn’t know what to do with you.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You read his books. He’d have a brain embolism if he met someone who’d actually grown up on the streets.”
“I’m from Pasadena…”
“Yeah, well, compared to him you’re, like, fuckin’…Jay-Z or something…”
“Shut up. Best I could think of.” She picked at the label of her half-empty beer bottle. The room was mostly empty, but they were sitting up at the bar and the staff knew enough to give them a wide berth. “He did say something about childhood trauma though…”
“Yeah. I think he had it pretty rough growing up in Nebraska.”
“Funny he sets all his stories there then.”
“Yeah,” Carter said with a frown. “He also said something about using his work to exorcise his demons though.” She thought back. “No,” she corrected, “devils.”
“What’s the difference?”
“The fuck should I know? That’s just what he said: ‘exorcise his devils’.” She took a swig of her beer. “But other than that, I got nothin’. No ex-wives, no stalkers, no nothing. Just a creepy guy in his flash apartment, trying to get into my pants.”
“How flash we talkin’?”
“Not flash enough.” She finished her beer and slid the empty bottle across the bar. The bartender was already opening another for her.
“Maybe he’s a dead end, Hannah,” Jones said with a heavy sigh. “Let’s wait for forensics.”
She shook her head firmly as she took the fresh beer and Jones signalled for one too. “No, there’s something there. Something he’s keeping quiet. When I suggested he was gay, he got a little weird. Maybe that’s it. Some guy he left behind when he made it big and he can’t let out him who’s just gone crazy and is using this to get back at him or something.”
Jones twisted the cap off his beer. “Pretty fucked up plan if that’s what it is. Some of these murders happened ten years ago. No one connected them until now and, y’know, we still ain’t really sure they are connected. Hammersmith’s books ain’t exactly original. Maybe he read about the first one in the news and just used that to spin his whole book out of? Then repeated the trick, and it’s all just a coincidence.”
“Maybe,” Carter said doubtfully, “I need to look at the cases a bit more closely, try to get a fix on when they happened. The Red Knight books all follow the same dumbshit formula, but there are differences. There’s gotta be a pattern. Like, this guy’s following the books or something.”
“Could be.” Jones took a big swig of beer then put his bottle down. He looked thoughtful suddenly.
“What?” Carter asked. She knew to pay attention to her partner’s hunches.
“Y’know, I’m sure he ain’t gay…”
“How? No one knows anything about his personal life.”
Jones clicked his fingers the way he always did when he was trying to remember something. “No, I remember now. Janice was telling me once…dang…she knew someone who knew someone who dated him or something.”
“Yeah. Some broad in Anaheim I think. Shit. I can get you a name. I think it was a pal of Janice’s cousin or some shit.”
“If it’s someone who might know about his personal life, that could be real helpful, Ray.”
“When did they go out?”
“Shit, must’ve been years ago now. Lemme think…damn. I’ll have to ask Janice.”
“You do that.” Carter shook her head. “That guy. I dunno what it is about him, but there’s something that just gets my hackles up.”
“Y’know…it could be him doing it,” Jones suggested.
“Same thing crossed my mind,” she admitted, “but if you met him…”
“You don’t think he’s capable of it? He writes about it.”
“He also writes about ‘the mean streets of Omaha’ and he’d last maybe three seconds in a real fistfight. He’s about as scary as Barney the Dinosaur.”
“Appearances can be deceptive,” Jones said before draining his bottle. “You know that, Hannah.”
“Yeah. Get me that name, Ray. I need to see where this is all going.”
There was a polite knock at the door and Ellie looked up from where she was painting her toenails on the couch. “That’d better be the babysitter,” she said to herself as she got up and hobbled across the living room. “Sam,” she called down the hall, “get in your pyjamas, honey, the sitter’s here.” She was still looking that way as she opened the door and was then only dimly aware that the figure in the doorway wasn’t the dumpy teenager from the next street she was expecting. She turned slowly to meet the smiling grey eyes of Calvin Hammersmith and almost jumped back in surprise. “Mr Hamm…uh…Calvin!”
He looked her up and down and she instinctively pulled her robe a little closer. “I’m sorry,” he said, “am I early?”
“Uh…yes…but it’s okay. Why don’t you come in?” She was a little unnerved by his unexpected presence, but any feelings of discomfort were quashed pretty thoroughly by the sheer thrill of him being here, in her home. And here she was, wearing nothing but her fluffy bathrobe, toes half-painted, alone and vulnerable while this dark figure stalked into her living room, taking in everything with hungry eyes. Like a lot of fans of his that she’d spoken to, she’d long substituted the description of Red Knight in the books with the smouldering photograph of Hammersmith from the jacket. The eyes might have been different, but he had the same dark, craggy quality, the same set to his jaw, the same consummate ease with any situation. He seemed to dominate the room.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice was smooth as honey, cultured and careful, with just a hint of Midwestern hovering in the background. “My watch is set to Omaha time.” She didn’t think that was true, but she laughed anyway.
“It’s fine.” She gestured down to herself. “I’m just getting ready, as you can see. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable while I finish up?”
“No, I should leave you and come back in a little while. I’ve been very rude.”
“No!” She couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving now. “No, it’s fine! I won’t take a minute.” She glanced at the door. “The sitter should be here by now.”
“I’m sure she’ll be along in a minute.”
He was still standing around awkwardly she realised. “Sorry, sit down. Could I get you a drink?”
“No, you get ready. I’ll just admire your beautiful home.”
“Oh, it’s not much at all, really. My fault for not hiring a better lawyer in the divorce. Uh…not that you want to hear about that…”
“It’s fine, Ellie,” he smiled.
She was blushing. She couldn’t believe she was blushing. Would it be so bad if she just threw her robe off right now and pounced on him?
Yes, it would be bad. “Hi, honey,” she said as Sam walked into the living room, dressed in his jammies. He looked at Hammersmith sceptically. “You remember Mr Hammersmith from the bookstore the other day?”
“That sitter really should be here by now…” She put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and glanced worriedly at the door.
“I can watch him while you get ready,” Hammersmith assured her.
“Of course. I’m good with boys. I used to be one, in fact.”
She laughed, more in relief than anything else. “Okay, I won’t be a second. Be good for Mr Hammersmith, Sam.”
Calvin watched her go. Her bathrobe could stand to be a little longer – he didn’t find that cellulite attractive at all, but he’d just have to try not to think about that later on. The lights would be off anyway and then she’d be anyone he wanted her to be. Once she’d left the room, all his attention was focused on the boy. He was standing there, looking at him with the kind of sardonic expression only a pre-adolescent could get away with. “Hey,” he said, shifting forward on the couch. “Did you say you like magic the other day?” Sam nodded. “Want to see a card trick?” Another nod.
Calvin smiled and produced the deck of cards from his sleeve with the ease of a practiced conjurer. The boy didn’t look impressed yet, but he soon would be. “These are very special cards,” he explained. “Do you know why?” Sam shook his head. “Well,” he flipped one of the face cards over, “they have some special pictures on that help with the magic. Do you see that? Now, you can’t tell your mom about this, understand? This has to be a secret between me and you, Sam.”