Red Muse (Part V)

It was late afternoon by the time Carter got back to the station and, when she walked into the office, everything seemed to be in even more disarray than usual. She looked around, bewildered, until Jones lumbered into view and took her to one side. “You okay?” he asked.

“I had a flat tyre. What the fuck is going on?”

“We’ve been waiting for you – Colburn’ll fill you in.”

Everyone piled into the conference room like before. Colburn was at the front, standing next to a board that had been set up and was filled with photos and reports cut from newspapers, all linked with string into a kind of chaotic, impromptu mix between a map and a timeline. She clapped her hands for silence, and Carter, who for once had found herself jostled to the front, took the opportunity to look at the material on the board. Hammersmith’s photo was prominent in the centre of it all. It was a mugshot, obviously a few years old. The rest were pictures from crime scenes – all worryingly familiar in their details – newspaper stories about other crimes and, here and there, photos of young boys. “What is all this?”

“Your harvest,” Jones said.

“All right everyone, settle down,” Colburn said. “Now that Detective Carter is back, we can bring all these pieces together and move forward. You’ve all been sidelined to deal with this in one way or another today and now we’re starting to get a feel for the big picture. Ray…” She pointed at Jones. “You first.”

“All right,” he grunted. “So I’ve been putting the dates of the murders together and comparing it to the publication dates of the Red Knight novels. And it looks like, pretty much like clockwork,” and here he grinned slightly at Colburn, “each one took place between six months and a year before the release of one of the books. And the murders almost always correspond in most of their overarching details to whatever murder starts the action in the corresponding book.”

“What?” Carter demanded, turning to her partner.

“It’s true,” he said.

“When did we figure that out?”

“This morning,” Colburn explained, “while you were gone. It’s not a very difficult pattern to spot, it’s just that no one looked at it before. Gordon, what did you get from Nebraska?”

From near the back Detective Gordon waved a sheaf of paper in the air. “Hot off the fax,” she said. “A very similar series of murders going back about twenty years all over the southern part of Nebraska. Same MO: middle-aged women living alone, murdered ritualistically in farm buildings. And they ended abruptly almost exactly ten years ago.”

Carter stared at Gordon and then turned back to Colburn. “That’s when Hammersmith moved to California, at least according to the woman I spoke to today.”

“That’s another puzzle piece in place then,” the lieutenant nodded.

“Do the murders still match the dates of the books?” Carter asked.

Gordon was flicking through the pages. “Uh…not sure. But there’s, like, nearly thirty unsolved murders here. Did he do that many books?”

“If he did, they weren’t published,” Jones said.

Carter snapped her fingers. “Helen said he’d had a bit of success in Nebraska, but nothing major.”

“I guess it took him a while to find his muse,” Jones snorted.

“It’s a long list,” Gordon went on, “first name is a…uh…Nora Gribble? Fifty-year-old divorcee. Raped and killed in her own barn.”

“Jesus,” Beauchamp said, shaking his head.

“What about the boys?” Carter asked, pointing at the board. “You got my voicemail then?” she said to Jones.

“Detective Allen was looking into that…”

Allen stepped forward. He was a grizzled veteran of the force who went back a long way with Jones. “I checked with Family Justice. Hammersmith has a record.” He nodded to the mugshot. “Nothing that ever stuck, just some accusations. He got hauled in for questioning a few times, but that was years ago, before he got rich and famous.”

“Or careful,” Jones added darkly.

“Always the same story: a boy, aged between eight and thirteen. No real details in the record. Never any hard evidence. And back then he was still using his real name.”

“His what?” Carter asked.

“That was something else we turned up,” Colburn said, “he’d been using Hammersmith as a pen name since he got published, but didn’t legally change it until seven years ago. Before that he was Calvin Gribble.”

Carter whirled around to face Gordon. “Gribble? Like Nora Gribble?”

Gordon stared down at the papers in her hand. “Oh fuck…”

“Right,” Colburn said, again raising her voice over the hubbub. “I hope I don’t have to spell this out for anyone.” She jabbed her finger at Hammersmith’s mugshot. “This is our number one suspect not only for the Yucca Valley Barn Murder, but for everything else we’ve been looking at, and we’re going to look into this child abuse thing too. I’m guessing it’s all linked somehow. Jones and Beauchamp called on Hammersmith earlier, but he was out.”

“Yeah,” Carter said, “out stalking me.” Everyone looked at her and she suddenly grew defensive. “When my car broke down he just kinda…showed up…”

“You serious?” Jones asked.

“Yeah.”

“How the hell’d he know where you were? He didn’t leave his apartment till after ten this morning according to a neighbour.”

“Don’t ask me. But he seemed to be in a good mood. He said he’d just gotten over some writers’ block or some shit.”

Jones levelled a finger at the board. “If he uses these murders for inspiration in his books, and he just got a big kick of creativity, some broad’s gonna be in trouble…”

“Okay, the number one priority for this entire department is tracking this asshole down,” Colburn said, “get on to the LAPD. We’ve gotta pool some resources here. Move, everyone!”

Carter stumbled out of the conference room in a kind of daze. She slumped down at her desk, heedless of everyone rushing this way and that around her. Her desk was covered in Red Knight novels and she swept them onto the floor in disgust and put a hand to her head.

“How you feeling?”

She looked up to see Lieutenant Colburn hovering over her with a concerned look on her face. “I’m fine.” She straightened in her chair. “Just want to see that dipshit pay.”

“I feel like this is getting a little personal for you now.”

“I never even heard of Calvin Hammersmith before last week,” Carter said with a dry laugh, “now I can’t seem to get away from him.”

“Wanna take a walk?”

“Sure.”

They went outside, into the station’s parking lot. It was still warm, but the shadows were long now and they wandered into the shade of a couple of palm fronds that overhung one corner of the lot. Colburn took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Carter. “No thanks, I quit,” she said.

“Suit yourself.” Colburn lit one and they stood awkwardly together for about half a minute before the lieutenant breathed out a cloud of smoke and turned to her. “You did good today.”

“I did?”

“Yeah. We wouldn’t have found the thing with the boys if you hadn’t insisted on following that lead with the woman in Anaheim.”

“Jones was the one who knew her. And it was Jones who saw the link with the Red Knight novels too. If this turns into a win, it’s his, not mine.”

“Jones couldn’t find his own ass in the shower. Unless it had a cheeseburger stuck to it he could smell.”

Carter laughed then shook her head. “That’s not fair.”

“I’m only kidding. Jones is a good cop, but there’s a reason he’s never got further than detective. He has good instincts, but he’s lazy. You were the one doing the work here.”

“Thanks. I appreciate you saying that, ma’am.”

Colburn took another drag. “What else did you find out in Anaheim?”

“Just that Hammersmith is a complete scumbag. He had a thing with this Helen woman, but it looks like he was only with her to get to her kid.”

Colburn’s lips twisted as she looked into the distance. “I just can’t square it…”

“You mean why he rapes and kills middle-aged women if he’s interested in molesting boys?”

“Exactly.”

“I can’t figure it out either, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Hammersmith from spending as much time as I have with him in the last few days it’s that he’s not exactly a normal guy. His personality changes like that,” she snapped her fingers again. “Like a light bulb switching. And he’s arrogant as hell. I’ve never met anyone who made me feel so cheap.”

Colburn’s eyes radiated concern. “What did he say?”

“Oh,” she waved a hand, “gross stuff. Guy stuff. You know.”

“Well…not really. Look, if there’s a conflict of interest here…”

“No! Jeez. I want him behind bars worse than anyone.”

“That’s what I meant.”

“Hey, you said this was gonna be my win, didn’t you?” Carter smiled.

Colburn returned the smile then laughed loudly. “We’ll get him. It’s only a matter of time now.”

“Yeah. I just hope we do it before…”

“Excuse me?” A man stepped from between the two cars next to them. He looked ordinary enough, in a shirt and slacks with blonde hair and shades, but there was something eager and jittery in his mannerisms. “Any chance I could have a word?”

Colburn pointed towards the entrance to the station. “If you need to speak to anyone, the reception is through there. We’re on a break.”

He pulled a Dictaphone from his pocket. “I just wondered if I could get a quote regarding…”

“Nu uh,” Colburn said, stepping defensively in front of Carter and holding up a hand to stop the reporter. She still had a cigarette in her fingers and a wisp of smoke curled up between the two of them. “No comment. Always no comment. The press will get what we decide to give them.”

“Is it true your department is investigating the author Calvin Hammersmith in relation to the Yucca Valley Barn Murder?”

“No comment. C’mon, Hannah.” Colburn tugged at her arm and started walking to the door.

“Oh, you’re Detective Carter, are you?”

Carter missed a step and turned to the reporter. “What?”

“You were seen having coffee with Hammersmith the other day. Was that part of the investigation or something personal?”

“No comment,” Colburn repeated. She had a firm grip on Carter’s arm now.

“And what about your visit to his apartment earlier this week?”

“How did…”

“You were also seen talking to him at the roadside this afternoon. Business or pleasure, Detective Carter?”

“Jesus…don’t you assholes ever…”

“Detective,” Colburn said, her voice sounding dangerously low. “We have no comment on any of these matters,” she said to the reporter. “You’ll get a statement from our department when you get one. Do I make myself clear?”

Carter let herself be led away, feeling even more shell-shocked than she had in the station. “What the hell?”

“We need to get you some media training, girl,” Colburn said to her. She still hadn’t relinquished her tight grip on her arm.

“Detective Carter,” the reporter called after them, “what about the woman Hammersmith had dinner with the other night? Does that have any bearing on this murder investigation or on your relationship with him?”

Carter and Colburn both stopped in mid-step this time and exchanged a glance. Carter turned around again, more slowly. “What woman?”

The reporter was grinning, probably thinking he’d hit a nerve, but he paled when he saw their expressions and looked desperately from one to the other. “Uh…”

*

The tyres of Hammersmith’s car crunched on the rough surface of the track that led up the side of the hill. At the top he could make out the imposing square shape of a barn. From this vantage it looked solid enough, with the sun slowly dropping in the sky turning it into a featureless silhouette, but he knew from his research that it was actually nearly falling apart. He crested the top of the hill and parked up by the side of the track. He got out and stretched luxuriantly before turning to look out across the landscape that stretched out below. He wasn’t far from Yucca Valley now, but this was a different farm. For one thing it was well and truly abandoned. The house and other buildings were further down the hill and in even worse shape but this barn had somehow survived years of abandonment largely intact. He breathed in the warm Southern California air as he leant on the roof of his sedan and watched mosquitoes buzz in the early evening air. Then, satisfied that soon all would be well with the world, he walked over to the barn. The doors were nearly hanging off their hinges and one was stuck fast into the dry earth due to years or decades of subsidence. He heaved the other one open wide enough to get inside and ducked into the darkness within.

Some faint light streamed through the holes in the roof, but it was mostly shadows at this time of day. He waved cobwebs away and wrinkled his nose at the smell. Abandoned barns never smelled good, but he hated the smell of any farm building. It reminded him of childhood. And he loathed nothing more in this world than his childhood. He let his eyes adjust for a few minutes and looked around to see if there was a light switch. No. This barn didn’t have electricity. That wouldn’t a problem. He scouted around for a little while, moving piles of rotten straw until he found a couple of old chairs stacked in one corner and a half-rotted cabinet. Inside was exactly what he was looking for: an oil lamp. It was dusty and covered in cobwebs but there was also a closed can of paraffin next to it. The metal was badly corroded, but when he shook it he could tell there was still some fluid inside. “Perfect,” he said to himself.

Hammersmith held the lamp up by its handle and imagined the light it would cast when it was completely dark in here. There was a beam that ran almost the length of the barn, just low enough for him to reach, and there were a few hooks where farm implements would once have hung. He suspended the lamp from one so it was in the middle of the room. Then he picked up one of the chairs and positioned it directly underneath. “Perfect,” he breathed again. Then he went looking for some rope. He didn’t like having to buy it himself, especially since time was so critical now. As he prowled around the barn, picturing how things would go in his head, he glanced through the gap in the door. The sun was casting an orange light across the entire hilltop and his car gleamed. “Soon,” he said, “very soon.”

*

They sped along the interstate again, weaving heedlessly between cars which blared their horns loudly at them. “This is fuckin’ ridiculous,” Jones said. He was behind the wheel and hadn’t stopped complaining since they’d left. “I feel like I’ve spent the whole week driving to and from fuckin’ LA. I hate this city!”

“I know,” Carter agreed, “but what are you gonna do?”

“Get the LAPD to deal with it! It’s in their fuckin’ jurisdiction!”

“You really want some city detective to get all the credit for catching the bad guy in our case?” That wasn’t the real reason of course: the truth was that the LA Homicide department was too under-resourced to go chasing after a small-town PD’s hunch that a rich author might be a serial killer and/or a child molester. Their captain had made some promises to look over the stuff they’d sent over, but they’d need time to put their own case together before making an arrest. So it fell to them, and that meant another trip back to LA.

“So what’s the deal with this chick?” Jones asked as they climbed over a low rise and the twinkling lights of Los Angeles suddenly appeared in front of them. The smog turned the red of the setting sun into a smear that covered half the sky. The sea was lost somewhere in the haze.

“An Ellie Purcell. Forty-one-years-old, part-time secretary. Lives in Rose Hills. Recently divorced with a young son, an only child.”

“That fits the pattern.”

“Sure does. They shared a coffee minutes after I left him in Hollywood the other day and went out on a date two nights later.”

“How do you rate her chances?”

Carter puffed out her cheeks. “Judging by the shit he said to me this afternoon…I’d hit the gas.”

“All right.”

Ellie lived in a nice apartment block. As Carter peered out of the passenger side window into the fading evening, she thought it was odd that all the homes she’d visited lately were nicer than hers. She was supposed to spend her time around lowlifes, not independently wealthy divorcees and millionaire writers. They got out of the car and looked around. “No sign of Hammersmith’s car,” Carter observed.

“Think that’s a good thing?”

“I have no idea.” She looked up at the apartment block and pointed. “I think that’s her window there.”

“No light. She could be out.”

“Yeah, ’cause that’s how these things always go.” Carter took out her gun. “Let’s get this over with.” Jones had his gun in his hand too and he gave her a quick nod before they jogged across the road. Her partner was surprisingly nimble at times like this. There wasn’t an exterior door to the complex, just a set of concrete steps leading up to an open landing that ran the length of each floor. It was a nice enough area that they didn’t need too much security, apparently. They got to the right door and Jones positioned himself against the wall to one side. “What’s the plan if he’s in there?” she asked him.

“Cuff him and read him his rights,” he replied, looking at her like she was crazy.

She paused. “We’re sure about this, right?”

“What?”

“I dunno…I’m scared I’m just going on my instincts here. He’s a creep, sure…”

“You’re a cop, Hannah,” Jones hissed, “your instincts are a better weapon than the one you got in your hand right now. This is the fucker. Bring him in.”

She nodded, squared her shoulders and rapped on the door. They both held their breaths, waiting for a response. When nothing happened, Carter knocked again. She counted to ten slowly under her breath then glanced at Jones. “Well?”

“We gotta get in there, Hannah,” he said simply.

“I know.” She took a step back, exhaled slowly, emptying her lungs, then adjusted her weight ready to throw herself against the door, began to lunge forward, and then the door opened.

Carter lurched forward awkwardly as she stopped herself from stumbling right into the arms of the astonished looking woman standing in the doorway. She was wearing a bathrobe and her face was covered in a slimy green mask. She stared wildly at the two people now gawping at her. “Can I help you?” she squeaked.

Carter took a step backwards and leant against the stuccoed wall on the opposite side of the landing. “Jesus Christ.” She caught her breath. “Mrs Purcell, is it?”

“Yes…”

Jones smiled at her. “Could we come in, ma’am? We need to ask you a few questions.”

“Who…”

He took out his badge. “Police.”

“Are you alone?” Carter asked.

“Yes…I mean, apart from my son.”

“Good.”

A few minutes later they were all ensconced in Ellie Purcell’s comfortable living room. It was small but tastefully decorated. She’d washed the facemask off and was now dressed more appropriately in sweatpants and a t-shirt. She sat primly on an armchair while Jones lounged on the sofa and Carter remained standing, her arms folded. There was no sign of her son, but every now and then Ellie’s eyes flicked to the door to the hallway. “Is it correct that you’ve been seeing the writer Calvin Hammersmith recently?”

Ellie looked at her uncomprehendingly. “Seeing? You mean…”

“Dating. Fucking. Whatever.”

She squeaked again. “I…yes…”

“Sorry,” Jones said, “it’s been a strange couple days. You’re in a relationship with Mr Hammersmith?”

“I suppose so. We’ve only been on one date and…well…yes, one date. That’s all.”

“Right,” Carter continued. “When did you last see him?”

“This afternoon, as it happens.”

“Really?” Carter couldn’t keep the surprise out of her voice. Hammersmith had certainly travelled a lot today. “What happened?”

“He…well…” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “What is this all about?”

Jones glanced up at Carter and shrugged at her look. “We’re from Homicide, ma’am,” Carter said, “and we need to question Mr Hammersmith about an investigation.”

“Oh my God…”

“It would help us a lot if you could tell us everything that happened between you and him today,” Jones said with a reassuring smile.

“He…well…he came over out of the blue. It was all a bit strange. And he said he’d had a breakthrough with his latest book. It was all quite exciting. And we had some coffee and…well…one thing led to another, as they say.”

Carter felt that shudder again, the same one she’d experienced by the road earlier, presumably just before Hammersmith had driven here and…done that. “You slept with him?” she asked.

“Yes.” Ellie looked embarrassed.

“We don’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” Jones said apologetically, “but this is a pretty serious situation. What happened after that?”

“He…uh…well, he sort of…hung around…”

“Hung around?” Carter frowned. “When did he leave?”

“Only a few hours ago.”

Jones seemed to be piecing the timeline together in his head. “So he comes here early afternoon. About two pm say to give him time to get back from Anaheim. You guys…uh…make love…then he leaves an hour or two after that?”

“More like three hours,” she said in a flat tone.

Carter tilted her head. “That doesn’t give you much time to…oh…”

“Yes,” Ellie said demurely. “Not exactly all I’d hoped for,” she added in a quieter voice, almost to herself.

Carter knew Jones well enough to tell when he was trying to suppress a grin, but she couldn’t find it in herself to see the funny side right now. “Did anything happen while he ‘hung around’?” she pressed.

“Well, Sam came home from school. It was the Johnsons’ turn to pick him up today. I tried to politely suggest that Calvin should leave, but he didn’t seem to take the hint. I…I didn’t really feel like I could throw him out. He kind of outstayed his welcome.”

Carter’s mouth felt dry. She was starting to think she understood Hammersmith and she didn’t like where this was going. “What happened then? Did he talk to Sam?”

“Yes,” Ellie said, and there was something odd in her voice.

“What happened, Mrs Purcell?” Carter asked, stepping forward slightly. Jones kept silent, letting her follow this to its conclusion.

“I was only out of the room for a few minutes. I had to make Sam’s dinner you see and he…he just wouldn’t leave. He was playing with those cards he has all the time. He kept asking Sam if he wanted to see a magic trick. All he wanted to do was watch TV. That’s why I wanted him to leave not because of…because of the sex or anything…but because, well, things are already difficult with Sam because of the divorce and everything and…anyway, I was in the kitchen for maybe five or ten minutes and, when I came back…”

“What, Ellie? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” she said weakly. “But Sam was upset. Calvin looked kind of…flustered. He suddenly couldn’t wait to get out the door. I…I don’t know,” she said again.

“Is your son okay?” Jones asked.

“He wouldn’t say anything. I put him to bed. He had this. I think Calvin gave it to him.” She reached across to the end table by her chair and passed it over to Jones. He looked at it with a frown. It was a playing card. He raised his eyebrows and gave it to Carter. It was a face card – the jack of clubs – but instead of the usual stylised knave, there was a picture of a naked woman. It was an old photo, like a cheap 70s European centrefold, complete with a mass of dark pubic hair.

“Jack of clubs,” Jones said to her significantly.

“Jesus Christ…what the hell is going on here?” She pocketed the card. It was evidence.

“Is Sam in any danger?” Ellie asked them. There was a look of confused helplessness in her eyes.

“Yes,” Carter answered simply, “you both are. But we’re going to get you the protection you need.”

*

It had been a long night. Carter had never felt more relieved to be home. She pulled into the driveway of her house in the San Bernardino suburb she called home and rested her head against the wheel. The evening had been a blur of witness statements, family lawyers, social workers and endless, endless paperwork. It looked like Hammersmith hadn’t had the opportunity to do anything too horrific to little Sam Purcell. Why he’d tried to make his move while his mother was in the next room was a total mystery, but that’s what had happened, and now the entire LAPD was perfectly happy to start combing the city for the creepy bastard. There was no way it would stay out of the papers this time. And, more importantly, Sam and Ellie were now both in protective custody. They were going to be safe. It was all just a matter of time before they tracked down Hammersmith and he was brought to justice.

So why, she pondered to herself, did she still feel so tense? The night air was warm, but there was something eerily still and close about it and, despite the warmth, she shuddered to herself again. She leant back against the headrest and closed her eyes. Ellie Purcell. An ordinary woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why hadn’t he struck already? From the way he’d talked to her and the timing of the other murders, the killing seemed to be linked to his creative process, and the same with the molestation. If he was having some sort of burst of energy right now, why wait?

She got out of the car, grabbed her handbag and tried to think it through, tried to clear the muzz from her head as she walked to her back door. Something wasn’t adding up. She hadn’t had chance to digest all the facts from the hasty briefing at the station. He murdered when he was writing each of his novels, but when did the thing with the little boys come into it? She stood at the door, idly playing with her keys as she thought about it. What was it Helen had told her earlier? She’d described the same kind of creative surge in Hammersmith when they’d been together. He’d been quite the live wire, apparently, and he’d worked slowly on her son, Donny, like most abusers. He’d groomed him, gained his trust, installed himself as a father figure, and then he’d finally committed the act that had ended his sham relationship with Helen.

Helen. Helen Marshall, a woman he’d dated ten years ago. She’d had a pre-pubescent son, and that’s why he’d pursued it, clearly. He wasn’t interested in her. The sex had been terrible. He didn’t really like women. She blinked. The pattern was always the same. The women were just a way to get to the kids. They were middle-aged and single, like the murder victims, but that was just because those were the kind of women who had sons the right age, and they also made up most of his fanbase so he had easy access to them. Helen and Ellie were both women he only pretended to be interested in. Ellie had implied the sex had been disappointing. He wasn’t into her at all: he was into her son. The same as Helen.

Helen. Helen was still alive. Ten years on, she was still alive. He didn’t kill the mothers. He killed other women, random women. They fit his formula, but they had nothing to do with the boys. Ellie wasn’t the one who was in danger.

Carter lifted her keys from where they’d been hovering by the keyhole for the last three minutes. They were chasing the wrong lead. She had to get back to the station. She took a step backwards and then felt a soft, warm breeze on the back of her neck that made the hairs stand up on end. Just the wind. Except there wasn’t any wind tonight.

She whirled, but there was already a hand around her throat, pushing her back against the door, choking the life from her. Her gun was safely buttoned in the holster at her hip; she pawed for it helplessly, trying to fight through the rising panic.

“Hello again, Hannah,” Hammersmith said as his grinning face loomed out of the shadows. A damp rag smothered her face and everything went dark.

*

The first thing she became aware of was a murky, yellow light suffusing the world. It seemed to be moving to and fro, like its source was swaying backwards and forwards, or maybe that was just the spinning in her head. Next came the unpleasant smells. A deep, ancient rot, like straw that had begun to mulch down into compost, then mouldering wood and dust. And, permeating everything, an unpleasant miasma of burning oil. She blinked in the bleary, smoky air and tried to get her bearings. Her head was pounding. She looked at the floor. Dirt and filthy straw covered the ground and, crawling in amongst it were dozens of insects and other creepy-crawlies, obviously drawn by the light. A cockroach scuttled over her shoe and she reared back instinctively, suddenly snapping into terrified alertness. She stared around her. She was in a huge space and the only part of it she could see was her immediate surroundings, lit as they were by a flickering oil lamp hanging almost directly over her head. The rest of the room was lost in shadow, but she could just make out the impression of beams, fragmented clapboard walls, an old cartwheel leaning in a corner. She was in a barn. Of course. She looked down. She was tied to a chair with her arms bound tightly behind her and each foot attached to one of the chair’s legs. She licked her lips nervously.

“Good evening,” a voice said from the darkness.

She tried to get a fix on where it came from, but her head was still woolly from what she assumed was chloroform. “Hammersmith?” she croaked.

“Now now, Hannah,” he said, stepping into view from behind her. He kept out of the watery circle of light so she could just make him out as a darker shadow circling her slowly. “Don’t you think we’ve moved past that kind of formality now? You should call me Calvin.”

Her instinct was to snap something back, to refuse to be cowed by this kind of treatment, but she knew that wouldn’t get her out of this. She had to stall. She had to keep him talking until she could think through the headache and figure a way out of this, or until someone came looking for her. “Fine. Calvin.”

“Better.” He stopped in front of her. She thought he was dressed the same as before. He started to remove his jacket and she cringed inwardly. She couldn’t allow herself to think about what he might have planned. She had to keep calm. She had to be able to think.

“Do you have water, Calvin?” she asked.

“Of course.” He disappeared back into the shadows and then came back with a bottle in his hand. He had to walk into the light now, and she got a good look at him. He was as paunchy and unattractive as always, but now there was an unpleasant sheen of sweat across his brow and a hungry look in his eyes. He stood before her so his crotch was hovering at head height and she could see the bulge forming in his pants. Her heart was thudding in her chest, but she forced herself to breathe calmly. Stall. That was the key. He crouched down next to her and unscrewed the cap from the bottle. “Despite what you might think about me, Hannah,” he said as he held the bottle to her lips and tipped it up slightly so she could drink, “I’m not a monster.” When he’d judged she’d had enough, he removed the bottle and walked back to the edge of the light.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Hm.” He put the water on the floor and then dragged another chair into the light in front of her. He hung his jacket on the back and then sat down in front of her, folding his hands before him as he leant forward. “So. Here we are.”

“Yes.”

He laughed shortly. “I thought you’d be more of a fighter than this.”

“It’s been a long day,” she said honestly.

“You can do better than that.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I just want you to be yourself, Hannah. I want you to fight me.”

“Why? Is that part of it?”

“‘It’?” He looked surprised. “What do you mean by that? Part of what?”

“Your process. Your formula.”

“Ah.” He leant back in the chair now and put his hands behind his head, but he didn’t take his eyes off her. “My formula. Yes. Well, you know, it’s funny, because for the first time in my life I find myself deviating from it.”

“I noticed.”

“Did you now?”

She nodded. Keep him talking. That was her only objective. He wasn’t going to get mad – he thought he was in control. Not being in charge of a situation was what he hated. “Yeah. You went too fast.”

“You think so?”

“You only met that Ellie woman a few days ago. Normally it takes you months to make your move.”

There was a flash of anger in his eyes and she wondered if she’d gone too far. “How would you know about that?”

Did she dare push him? He’d all but signed his confession by kidnapping her in the first place, but part of her did want the satisfaction of hearing him say aloud what he was. “I spoke with an old girlfriend of yours. She said you didn’t molest her son for six months. Why was Sam different?”

He hurled himself off his chair and had a hand wrapped around her throat again before she could blink. He pushed her chair backwards so she teetered precariously on the two back legs and squeezed hard. His face came close to hers, livid and red, his eyes bulging. “Do you know what a violation it is to go inside someone like that, Hannah? Do you know how much it hurts me to be laid bare in that way?” He pressed on her windpipe harder and she started to see spots dance in front of her vision before he released her. She crashed to the ground painfully, jarring her head on the hard-packed dirt of the floor as she toppled sideways. There was a creak as the old wood of the chair she was tied to gave way somewhere, but she didn’t think he heard it. A shoe pressed against the side of her face, grinding her into the dirty straw. A millipede crawled past, just inches from her nose. “You had no right to go snooping into my private life,” Hammersmith snarled.

“I’m sorry,” she rasped.

“Of course you are,” he said, his tone instantly softening. “Forgive me.” He got his hands underneath her and she found herself trembling in revulsion at his touch again as he righted her chair. She slumped down in her bonds as he stepped away. He went back to circling her again. “There are parts of ourselves we all dislike, Hannah. Parts of us we’re not proud of. Do you think I like harbouring this beast?” He’d stopped in front of her, and he put his hands to his chest, imploring her, seeking her validation.

“Beast?” was all she could think to ask through the dull pain throbbing through her whole body now.

“Yes. I don’t want it, you know. I don’t want them. Not really. But it takes me. I try to stave it off, but in the end they push me too far and I have to give in to it.”

“Right…”

“And then…” He closed his eyes like he was in ecstasy and his voice, when he next spoke, was dripping with lust. “The cleansing. I should be thankful for the beast. The beast makes me strong. When the beast is in me…there is no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no fear. It gives me the strength to pursue my muse. To create my art.”

“Your…your books?”

“Yes! Yes, my ‘books’, as you call them like it’s a dirty word. I take something ugly and turn it into something beautiful. Is that not art?”

“Maybe…”

He smiled at her, a hideous, near-feral grin. “We all have many facets. Darkness and light. Black and…red.”

“And which am I speaking to now?”

He threw his head back and roared with laughter. “You think it’s that simple?” he asked her when he’d recovered from the apparently hilarity of her question. “You think there’s a Red Knight and a Martin Blackjack inside me, warring for possession of my psyche?”

“Well…what it is then?”

“I am both, and neither. They’re sides of me, yes, but they are only small parts of this whole. I have been able to channel my power into my writing and so been served by my many muses.”

“The women you killed?”

He nodded hungrily. “Yes. My muses. The inspirations for my centrepieces.”

“Victims,” Carter said. “Victims you raped, mutilated and killed.”

“And turned into the stars of million-selling books.”

“Is that how you see it?”

Hammersmith advanced on her. “What other way is there to see it?” He squatted down next to her again and brushed the back of his hand against her face. She shied away, unable to suppress a grimace. “These women, they’re lonely. Old, used up. They have nothing. What life is left for them? I take their ugliness and I turn it into something wonderful. I make them into the beautiful cores of stories that bring joy to millions. How can that be considered a crime?”

“What about their families?”

“Their families, if they have them, have forgotten all about them. I always make sure of that. My muses are always alone in the world. But for one night…they know glory.”

“And suffering.”

“It’s all part of the formula.” He shuffled closer to her and moved his hand to the back of her neck. He gently pushed her hair aside and began to run his fingers softly over her skin. She tried to pull away, but didn’t have the strength to escape him. The chair creaked again.

“You’re sick,” she whispered, “you make your fans identify with your victims.”

“That’s the secret of good writing, Hannah. Working your way into the heads of your readers.” He put his other hand on her thigh. “But, as I said, my formula changed this time. I came up with a new character.”

Carter’s eyes followed his hand as it moved up her thigh. She couldn’t move her leg enough to dislodge it. If she was going to come up with a plan, she had to do it soon. “You based her on me.”

“Hm…yes. Ayesha Domino. A most fascinating character. Very different from the others. She’s a fighter. Beautiful. Exotic. As I said, I was worried my fans wouldn’t be able to identify with her because she was so different from themselves, but then after talking to you earlier today I had a breakthrough.”

“A…a breakthrough?”

“Yes,” he purred, moving his mouth very close to her ear. “I realised that there was only so far I could push the formula before it broke. I enjoyed – and will continue to enjoy – writing about Domino, but it would never do to keep her around. Like all the rest, she has to die. And so, my final twist, that she was working for Blackjack all along, seals her fate. He murders her when she and Red become involved and he believes he can no longer trust her. Poor girl. She wants to be the hero but, in the end, she’s just another victim…” His tongue flicked against her ear and Carter jerked her head away with a scream. At that moment, the chair’s rotten frame gave way and it fell to pieces as she tumbled to the ground, suddenly liberated from her bonds.

Hammersmith was laughing. “You’re going to spoil it,” he chided. She heard the sound of a knife being unsheathed and risked a glance over her shoulder from where she sprawled on the rotten straw, seeing Hammersmith looming over her with a long hunting knife in one hand. He grabbed her by her hair and lifted her to her feet. It wasn’t easy – he had an exaggerated idea of his own physical prowess, and she could hear the breath rasp in his chest. He pressed the cold blade of the knife to her throat. “I thought you might yield to me, like Domino. She loved Red in the end. That’s why she died. It’s all very romantic.”

She bit his hand as hard as she could and he threw her down with a yell of pain. This time Carter landed on her hands and knees and scrambled up into a crouch, shaking off the ropes and turning to face him. She wiped blood from her mouth. “It’s not romantic. It’s a fuckin’ cliché, you hack.”

The cold fury was back in Hammersmith’s eyes as he cradled his wounded hand. “You think you’re the first cunt to fight back?” he spat.

“No,” she said, straightening with a wince, “but I bet I’m the first one who had self-defence training.”

“Big talk.” He charged towards her but, groggy though she was, she was able to ball her fists and plant them in his stomach before he could swing the knife. She brought the palm of her hand up fast into his jaw and he staggered backwards. Through his own pain he made a wild slash that caught her on the arm, but she grabbed his wrist and twisted the knife free. It clattered to the floor. “Bitch!” he howled.

Naturally, he’d taken her gun, but she still had her cuffs in her belt and she took them out with one quick movement and snapped one end to his wrist. Then she hauled him to the nearest beam where an iron ring stuck out of the rotten wood and shackled him to it. He flailed out at her, but she stumbled out of his reach and collapsed down to the floor against another beam. They were both just on the edge of the wavering circle of yellow light from the lamp. She got her breath back and then checked her arm. The cut wasn’t deep, but it was ragged and ugly where the serrated blade had carved at her flesh. Hammersmith sank down to his knees. His arm was held awkwardly above his head, chained as he was to a ring five-feet off the ground. “What now?” he said.

“Now…now I’m not sure…” She leant her head back and closed her eyes. She just wanted to sleep, but now wasn’t the time. “You killed your mother,” she said when she opened her eyes again and looked at him.

“Yes. So what?”

“What did she do to you?”

“She was a monster. She said the devil was inside me.”

“She was right.”

“She told me I was a pervert.”

“Also right.”

“I was an ordinary boy. She made me into this. She taught me to hate myself. Do you know what it’s like growing up in that kind of environment?”

Carter laughed hollowly. “Jesus…try growing up black sometime, fucker. Try dealing with the shit you people throw at us every day. Lots of us had shitty childhoods, Hammersmith, but we don’t end up doing this kind of thing. Is this what the thing with the little boys is all about? She made you scared of girls?”

“Something like that…”

“Uh huh. So you got all fucked up sexually because of that and then you ended up getting your own back on her and found your liked it, I guess. So you repeated the formula. You found another little boy to twist up like you were with your creepy cards, your ‘magic tricks’ and, to get over it, you found a nice old lady to rape and kill. Is that about the size of it?”

“You think you know me so well.”

“I can read you like a book,” she snarled.

“Very funny.”

“No, it isn’t.” She pushed herself to her feet. “It’s monstrous. You are a devil, Hammersmith. Or should I call you Gribble?”

“That was her name. It’s not mine.” He stared up at her balefully as she walked towards him.

“You raped, tortured and murdered dozens of innocent women, and you used it to inspire your shitty books. What did you call them? Your muses? You used your charm and your money to evade capture for twenty years but this time…this time you went too far. You changed the formula. Look where it got you.”

Hammersmith tugged at the cuffs. “You think this means anything?”

Carter raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t it?”

“I’m Calvin Hammersmith. I’m a fucking millionaire. I can hire the best lawyer in the country. I’m a celebrity. And I have millions of devoted fans. They’ll campaign. There’ll be a blog – ‘Free Calvin Hammersmith dot com’. And you’ll have no evidence. I’ve been too careful. In the end, all you’ll have is a couple of distraught boys and mothers who’ll be paid off or bullied into withdrawing their testimonies and the word of one young, bullish cop. A cop with no history of good character. A cop who was seen out with the man she’s accusing days before the alleged incident occurred. My lawyer will cast you as a spurned lover. We’ll tell a new story: the woman obsessed with Calvin Hammersmith. The woman who manufactured a fantasy in which she became one of his victims. One crazy, uppity black woman against a handsome, educated white intellectual. Whom do you think the jury will believe? I’ll be found not guilty, my book sales will increase tenfold and then I’ll ruin you, Carter. We’ll sue you for damages and take the little that you have and then, when I’m done and you’re destitute and disowned by everyone who once loved you, you’ll wish I’d raped and killed you in this barn.”

Carter looked down at him, a snarling, spitting beast, chained to the wall. “I don’t think so,” she said. She walked back to the middle of the barn where the oil lamp was hanging and reached up to take it down from its peg.

“What are you doing?” Hammersmith demanded. She didn’t answer, she just put the lamp down next to the beam she’d been sitting against, just a few yards across from him, next to a pile of dry, rotting straw and then gently tipped it over with her foot. The oil spilled into the kindling and the flames leapt up straight away. Bugs scuttled from underneath, fleeing the fire. Hammersmith’s eyes were wide as he stared at the dancing orange glow. “You can’t do this…” he said in a panicked voice.

“Why not?” she asked.

“You…you’re a cop…you have a code…you have to arrest me…you have to bring me to justice…”

“Do I? Why?”

“You…it isn’t supposed to work like this…”

“Not everyone has a formula, Hammersmith,” she told him. “Sometimes, humans can surprise you.” The flames were licking up the wooden pillar now, blazing merrily away in the straw. The acrid smoke was starting to billow up into the rafters of the huge barn.

“You can’t leave me here to burn!” he screamed at her. “It doesn’t end this way! I’m not going to the fire!”

“Yes you are,” Carter said. She crossed to the chair he’d been using and picked up his jacket. She was relieved to hear the jangling of his car keys in the breast pocket.

“No!” he bellowed. “I won’t let her be right! That bitch can’t win!”

Carter had no idea what that meant, but she was in no mood to keep on quizzing him. The fire was spreading quickly and the smoke was getting thick. Hammersmith was bent low to the ground, tugging desperately on his cuffs. The knife had landed on the ground just out of his reach and he was stretching for it with his free hand. The fire was close now but, more importantly, it was working its way up the beams and walls now and the barn was beginning to collapse. Carter grabbed his jacket and fled through the narrow opening between the doors.

*

She sat in Colburn’s office. Her arm was still bandaged up and she had any number of cuts, bruises and other injuries. She wouldn’t be back on duty for at least two weeks, according to the doctors who’d assessed her physical injuries. The psychologist said she needed more than that.

Colburn had two files on her desk. One was Carter’s official report; the other came from the coroner’s office. Colburn tapped the one on her right – Carter’s. “It sounds like you were lucky to get out of that barn alive.”

“It was a close thing,” she replied in as neutral a tone as she could manage.

Colburn flicked open the folder and perused the report. It was just for show: she obviously already knew it back to front. “‘A struggle ensued’,” she read, “‘and the oil lamp was kicked over in the commotion’. Sounds unfortunate.”

“It was. For him.”

“And for you. He was the chief suspect in your case.”

“I wasn’t really thinking about that at the time, ma’am.”

“What were you thinking about, detective?”

Carter set her jaw and concentrated on staring blankly into space. “I was thinking my head hurt from the chloroform he used to knock me out and my arm hurt from the knife wound and…and I was thinking I didn’t want to get raped. Is that enough?”

“It is for me,” Colburn said. She moved her hand to the coroner’s report. “Fires are messy things. They often leave confusing evidence behind. They managed to identify Hammersmith from his dental records. The case is closed. We’ve gone public about our enquiry. Oh, some fans are still sticking to their guns and are saying it’s all a giant frame job but, for the most part, America’s love affair with the late Calvin Hammersmith is over. Remaining stock of his novels is being pulped. The entire literary world is tripping over themselves to say they knew he was a psychopath all along. He’ll go down in history as the monster he was.”

“What does this have to do with that report, ma’am?”

“Monsters don’t die handcuffed to the wall. We’re supposed to see justice done. Was it justice that night in the barn, or revenge, detective?”

“It was self-defence. And prevention. He’d never have answered for his crimes.”

“No, I suppose he wouldn’t.” She sighed and picked up the coroner’s report. “I have enough influence to make this go away for now, Hannah. But I can’t guarantee someone won’t pick at this thread one day. If you slip up, if someone is gunning for you, they might dig this up.”

“And I’ll tell them what I told you. That I did what I did to stop a monster from hurting any more little boys and killing any more women. He blighted dozens of lives and ended dozens more. I won’t weep for someone like that.”

“Even so…”

“Then I won’t slip up, ma’am. I’ll be the best fuckin’ cop in history. I’ll be squeaky clean.”

Colburn looked thoughtful. “Not too squeaky clean,” she said after a moment, “we do have a job to do around here. Sometimes hands get dirty.”

“I think I’ve gotten them dirty enough for one lifetime.”

“Perhaps you have.” She smiled slightly. “You’ve got the month off. Go and see a therapist, Hannah. You’ve got a lot to work through.”

“I’d rather be back at work. I’d rather use this to…”

“No,” Colburn said firmly, “don’t use it. Rise above it. Be better. Don’t be like him. Don’t let your past take you to a place you can’t come back from.”

Carter met the other woman’s eyes. “One thing I learned from all this,” she said carefully, “is that life doesn’t divide so neatly into black and white…or even black and red. We’re not playing pieces in a game, doomed to act out certain roles, only moving in a certain way across the board. There isn’t a formula. We can be whoever we want to be.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that.”

“Thanks, lieutenant.”

“Call me, Gloria. I’ll see you back here in a month.”

Carter nodded and walked slowly out of the office.

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This entry was posted in Contemporary, Crime, Novella, Red Muse, Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

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