Why hadn’t she listened and obeyed? Then none of this would have happened.
“Help me,” he had begged her. All she had to do was read the lines. Play the role. The audience was watching, waiting.
He looked away. “Say it’s okay. That it wasn’t really that bad. Say itl”
“Come on. It’s the ending that we need to change. Let’s get it over with.”
He looked back down. His tears fell on her breasts and slid down in streaks. She didn’t move.
“Too late. She’s dead,” he heard a soft voice say.
The man stood up slowly, cleared his throat with a cough, straightened his body. Composed himself.
He whispered, tried to convince himself. “It was only a test run. It didn’t really count. Only a rehearsal.”
Barnett walked into the squad room just as the small weekend day shift got underway. He went quickly to his desk and didn’t say hello to anyone. He wasn’t even supposed to be there.
“Hey Barnett, have you done your time?” somebody shouted. A few people laughed.
Barnett ignored them and began picking through his bottom desk drawer. He pushed aside a tissue box, packs of sugar, napkins, a paperback, plastic spoons. “Damn.”
He began digging furiously then stared up for a second. “Oh, yeah.” He picked up a large dictionary, flipped through the pages and stopped at the panda bookmark.
He was about to leave when he saw a stack of fifteen or twenty “While You Were Out” slips. Barnett fanned them quickly to see who had tried to reach him during the week he was away. He wouldn’t return any of the calls until next week, and maybe not even then if things didn’t work out between him and the captain. It was a warm, sunny spring Saturday and Barnett planned to take Penny to the National Zoo to see the pandas. While working the suicide of a Smithsonian employee, he’d browsed through the museum gift shop, bought the panda bookmark, and held it for just such an occasion.
The past week had turned into an unexpected vacation. As far as he was concerned, no crack dealers killed each other over turf. No beasts fired automatic rifles into the cars of rival gangs. No wiseguys dropped concrete blocks from highway overpasses.
Barnett felt a hand on his shoulder. “What’s with you?” said Caggiano. “You don’t believe in returning messages? I left a dozen on your phone machine. Even put notes in your mailbox.”
Caggiano spent most of his days in the back office doing paperwork. These days, with homicides reaching a record in the District of Columbia, he found himself outside more in the last month than in the past five years. He felt a little out of practice.
“I wanted to stake someone out in front of your door, but couldn’t spare the body,” he said.
“I’m on suspension ’til the fifteenth, or don’t you remember?” The hand still gripped his shoulder. Barnett politely shrugged it off. “Just came in to get something.”
Barnett stroked his salt-and-pepper beard, a leftover of his days in Vice. He kept it short and well trimmed in contrast to his head of unruly black hair.
“The suspension was your own fault,” said Caggiano. He looked around to see if anyone was listening. “You can’t go around calling the captain an asshole. Not to his face and not in front of his subordinates.”
“He is an asshole. What do you want from me?”
“He wants to make peace. Wants you to come back a week early. I’m not supposed to tell you, but he’s willing to drop the whole matter.”
“Tell him he’s still an asshole. I bust my butt for this department, and he can’t handle me calling him a name so he freezes me out for two weeks. That’s bullshit, Cag.” He waved his arm wildly. “You know what? I want the time off. I need the time off.”
“It’ll go on your record,” said Caggiano.
Barnett laughed. “That’s a weak shot, even for you,. Cag.”
“Standard procedure answer.” Caggiano stood straighter. “Okay, now I’ve done my bit for the captain. Here’s what’s going on.” He motioned for Barnett to follow him into an interview room. It was white with pegboard walls. A wooden desk stood in the middle, plastic chairs around it. A video camera hung from the ceiling.
“We have a repeater, but didn’t know it until a few days ago. That’s when we tried to contact you.”
Barnett rubbed his palms over his forehead and down to his eyes. “Linkage?”
“Females—battered, strangled, stabbed. The photos are grotesque. What he did to these women …” Caggiano put a file folder labeled “HO-88-0327; Decedent: Faison, Denise B.” on the table. “See for yourself.”
Barnett went through the photos and stopped at one in particular. “Holy—”
“Twenty-two. Female. Bet you can’t even tell it’s a woman.”
Barnett studied the photos, shook his head.
“I got the other jacket in my office, a Marie Reed Brady. Want to see it?”
“We got beaucoup photos,” Caggiano continued. “And our boy left something behind you’re not going to believe. You can see it in some of the pix.
Maybe you didn’t know what it was.”
“The stuff on the floor, sprinkled around. What is it?”
“At first I thought it was background, but he was telling us something. We weren’t listening.”
“What is it?”
“The first victim, Faison, was found in the kitchen. The room was clean, no food or crap around except some Cheerios on the floor. The little damned O’s were all over the place. Blood soaked.”
Barnett sat silent.
“Second killing. Body found in the living room. The TV was on and investigators thought she was having a snack. Cereal was on the floor. Shredded Wheat. No reason for it to be there. Wasn’t found in her stomach.”
Caggiano held up a thick plastic bag which contained a typed piece of paper, and read: “Yes, this is the kind of killer I am. One of the four types as outlined by the FBI in their oh-so-learned monographs. Do you get it yet?'”
Barnett slid his chair back from the table, closed his eyes, and moved his head slowly from side to side. “Who’s seen the letter?”
“Just the captain, me, and Quill.”
“Are the scenes secured?”
“Only the second one. Marie Reed Brady.”
“‘Course not.” , “Anything off the letter?”
“Nothing. Used paper from her house. Says he’s going to kill regularly after he starts up again. Once we’re ‘on track and up to speed,’ as he put it.”
“Did he say when he’ll start?”
Caggiano hesitated. “He said he’s waiting for you.
You’re a person who would understand what he was doing. What’s he mean?”
Barnett didn’t answer.
“Quill’s the one who put it together. I hadn’t even seen the reports until after the second murder. I’m so fucking backed up. By that time, it didn’t matter. The next day we got the letter in the mail. That’s when we knew we had a repeater who was getting impatient with us.”
“A serial killer who actually leaves cereal at the scene,” Barnett said.
“It’s a classic isn’t it?”
“Why are the pandas inside today, Daddy? Don’t they like being outdoors?”
Barnett and his daughter watched the pandas through thick Plexiglas. The smiling black-and-white bears sat on their haunches, stripping bamboo leaves off the stalks with their paws, and shoving the greens into their mouths.
Barnett stared, but his mind was on the two murdered women.
“Well, Daddy?” she said.
“Why aren’t they outside? The pandas,” she said impatiently.
“Oh. Where they come from it’s pretty cold. Their fur is heavy, like your winter coat. So, even though it’s nice weather for us, for them it’s too hot. The cage is air-conditioned.”
The answer satisfied Penny, who continued to watch the female, Ling-Ling. Then she strolled over to watch the male, Hsing-Hsing. The pandas were kept in separate areas connected by a closed doorway.
Hsing-Hsing was sleeping with his huge arms draped across his fat stomach. He didn’t move a muscle, but Penny kept her eyes glued on him for at least five minutes, shuffling from side to side to take in all the views.
Barnett moved with her, listlessly, through the dark, damp exhibit hall.
He thought about the killer. How did he know about him being off duty? Well, that was pretty easy. All he had to do was call the office, and they would say he was out until the fifteenth. That made sense, but…
“Why can’t they play together, Daddy?”
“The pandas, Daddy! Why is the door closed?” She pointed.
“That’s because they don’t want them to have babies except at certain times.” Barnett hoped she wouldn’t ask for a detailed explanation.
“Did they have babies ever?”
“No. I don’t think so.” He knelt, stroked Penny’s blond braid, and hugged her. He looked into her green eyes. “Let’s call Mom and tell her we’re on our way home. How’s that?”
Penny skipped outside and stopped when the sunlight hit her eyes. She turned around and waited for her father to catch up. Barnett put on his sunglasses, gripped her hand. “Got a surprise for you. You’ll see.”
The bar on Connecticut Avenue directly across from the zoo had an official name, Oxford Tavern, but everyone just called it the Zoo Bar. In a city of come-and-go fern bars with names like “J.J. O’ Restaurant” and “Munchies,” this place had been a friendly neighborhood place for years. Bartenders still poured by the eye and snickered when they served wine spritzers and pink drinks.
Still, it was the kind of place parents could take their kids for a hamburger.
Bamett hoisted his daughter onto a stool and sat beside her.
“And what will my favorite niece have today?” said Billy Sloan as he leaned over to peck Penny’s cheek. He wiped the bar top with a wet rag and put down two cardboard coasters.
“Cherry Coke with two cherries please, Uncle Billy.”
“Okay, kiddo. How ya doing, Mike?”
Barnett looked into Billy’s handsome face which showed the same thin nose and light complexion of his sister Carol, Penny’s mother. Billy was twenty-nine and tended bar weekends. During the week, he was a Social Services caseworker. The weekend job helped make ends meet. It also helped him meet women.
“Coming along, Billy,” Barnett answered. He got up, put a five-dollar bill on the bar. Billy waved it away.
“Draw me a beer. I got to call Carol.”
Barnett walked to the rear, reached behind the jukebox and lowered the volume. A young man at a nearby table threw him a dirty look.
Barnett detected a chill in Carol’s voice. She told him Caggiano called.
“Did he say what he wanted?” He tried to sound nonchalant.
“Only that he wondered if you read the material yet. He said he’s glad you’re back at work. What’s this about, Mike? I thought you—”
“They asked me to come back.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that when you came home before?”
At the bar, Penny laughed and slapped Billy on the arm.
“Officially I’ll be on the job, but I won’t be reporting to the office. They’ll say I’m still out. It’s something I worked out with Caggiano.” He paused. “That will give me a week to investigate some cases before—” He cut himself off. “Tell you about it later.”
“What about the captain?”
“For the time being, we’ll avoid each other.”
“I was getting used to having you home for dinner,” she said. “And the lunchtime dates, too.”
Barnett didn’t say anything.
“Where are you now?”
“Visiting Billy. We just came from the pandas, ‘he said. “Penny wanted to know why the door was locked between them.”
“I told her it was because they couldn’t find any condoms big enough and they didn’t want any baby pandas floating around.”
She laughed. “You’re a nut.”
“We had a good time today,” Barnett said. “Tomorrow, I have to work.”
“I have to go over some reports and I want to see Frank on Monday.”
They were both silent.
“We’ll talk about it when you get home.”
“See you in twenty minutes. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Barnett walked away from the phone, stopped, fished a quarter out of his pocket and dialed Caggiano.
A tired voice answered: “Homicide, Lieutenant Caggiano.”
“Cag, Mike. I want to visit the Brady apartment. Is it available?”
“Sealed. I got a key here.”
“Send it over tonight, okay?”
“Okay. What else?”
“What makes you think there’s a what-else?”
“There’s always a what-else with you.”
“Well it just so happens there isn’t,” said Barnett. Actually, there was, but he wouldn’t give Caggiano the satisfaction. He wanted a pager so he wouldn’t be out of touch while he was still officially out. “I’ll be busy all day tomorrow. Call you on Monday.”
Barnett hung up and turned up the volume on the jukebox. The young man who protested before looked up and smiled. Barnett saluted him and walked back to the bar.
“We have to go. Mom’s expecting us.” He glanced at the untouched five and pointed toward the tip snifter.
“Where’s my surprise?” Penny said.
“Come on, Daddy.”
Billy watched as Barnett produced the panda bookmark and danced it along the bar top. Penny’s face lit up.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said, as she hugged him.