Kate and her partner, Al Hawkin, are called to a scene of carefully executed murder: the victim is a muscular man, handcuffed and strangled, a stun gun's faint burn on his chest and candy in his pocket. The likeliest person to want him dead, his often-abused wife, is meek and frail--and has an airtight alibi. Kate and Al are stumped, until a second body turns up--also zapped, cuffed, and strangled...and carrying a candy bar. This victim: a convicted rapist. As newspaper headlines speculate about vendetta killings, a third death draws Kate and Al into a network of pitiless destruction that reaches far beyond San Francisco, a modern-style hit list with shudderingly primal roots.
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It is a place of skulls, a deathly place
Where we confront our violence and feel,
Before that broken and self-ravaged face,
The murderers we are, brought here to kneel.
Kate Martinelli sat in her uncomfortable metal folding chair and watched the world come to an end.
It ended quite nicely, in fact, considering the resources at hand and the skill of the participants, with an eye-searing flash and a startling crack, a swirl of colors, then abrupt darkness.
The lights went up again, parents and friends rose to applaud wildly, and twenty-three brightly costumed and painted children gathered on the stage to receive their praise.
The reason for Kate's presence stood third from the end, a mop-headed child with skin the color of milky coffee, a smile that lacked a pair of front teeth, and black eyes that glittered with excitement and pride.
Kate leaned over to speak into the ear of the woman at her side. "Your goddaughter makes a fine monkey."
Lee Cooper laughed. "Mina's been driving Roz and Maj nuts practicing her part--she wore one tail out completely and broke a leg off the sofa jumping onto it. Last week she decided she wasn't going to eat anything but bananas, until Roz got a book that listed what monkeys actually eat."
"I hope she didn't then go around picking bugs out of tree trunks."
"I think Roz read selectively."
"Never trust a minister. Do you know--" Kate stopped, her face changing. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a vibrating pager, looked up at Lee, and shrugged in apology before digging the cell phone out of her pocket and beginning to push her way toward the exit and relative quiet. She was back in a couple of minutes, slipping the phone away as she walked up to the man who had been sitting on her other side during the performance and who was now standing at Lee's elbow, watchful and ready to offer a supporting hand in the crowd. Lee's caregiver spoke before Kate could open her mouth.
"What a pity, you're going to miss the fruit punch and cookies."
She rolled her eyes and said low into Jon's ear, "Why it couldn't have come an hour ago . . ."
"Poor dear," he said, sounding not in the least sympathetic. "'A policeman's lot is not a happy one.'"
"If I find you a ride, would you take her home?"
"Happy to. I'll be going out later, though."
"She'll be fine." Now for the difficult part. "Lee," Kate began. "Sweetheart?" but groveling did not prove necessary.
"You're off, then?"
"Liar," said Lee cheerfully. "But you've been a very brave honorary godmother, so now you can go and play with your friends. That was Al, I assume?"
Kate and her partner, Al Hawkin, were on call tonight, and in a city the size of San Francisco, a homicide was no rare thing. She nodded, hesitated, and kissed Lee briefly on the cheek. Lee looked more pleased than surprised, which Kate took as a sign that she was doing something right, and Kate in turn felt gratified beyond the scope of her lover's reaction--their relationship had been more than a little touchy in recent months, and small signs loomed large. She stepped away carefully, looking down to be sure she didn't knock into Lee's cuffed crutches, and walked around the arranged folding chairs to congratulate Mina's adoptive parents. They were surrounded by others bent on the same purpose--or rather, Roz was surrounded by a circle of admirers, this tall, brown-haired, slightly freckled woman who was glowing and laughing and giving off warmth like (as one article in the Sunday Chronicle had put it) a fireplace of the soul.
When she had read that phrase, Kate had wondered to herself if the reporter really meant that Roz was hot. She was, in fact, one of the most unconsciously sexy women Kate knew.
Kate hadn't seen Roz in a couple of weeks, but she knew just looking at her, the way she gestured and leaned toward her audience, the way her laugh came and her eyes flashed, that Roz was involved in some passionate quest or other: She seemed to have grown a couple of inches and lost ten years, a look Kate had seen her wear often enough. Or it could have been from the fulsome praise being heaped on her by the other parents--all of whom, it seemed, had seen a television program Roz had been on the night before and were eager to tell her how great it had been, how great she had been. Roz threw one arm around the school principal and laughed with honest self-deprecation, and while Kate waited to get a word in, she studied the side of that animated face with the slightly uncomfortable affection a person invariably feels toward someone in whose debt she is and always will be, an ever-so-slightly servile discomfort that in Kate's case was magnified by the knowledge that her own lover had once slept with this woman. She liked Roz (how could she not?) and respected her enormously, but she could never be completely comfortable with her.
Roz's partner, Maj Freiling, stood slightly to one side, taking all this in while she spoke with a woman Kate vaguely remembered having met at one of their parties. Maj was short, black-haired, and--incongruously--Swedish; her name therefore was pronounced "my," forming the source of endless puns from Roz. Most people who knew Roz assumed that her quiet partner was a nonentity whose job was to keep house, to produce brilliant meals at the drop of Roz's hat, and to laugh politely at Roz's jokes. Most people were wrong. Just because Maj spoke little did not mean she had nothing to say. She was the holder of several degrees in an area of brain research so arcane only half a dozen people in San Francisco had ever heard of it, and they in turn were not of the sort to be found in Roz's company of politicians and reformers. It seemed to Kate a case of complete incompatibility leading to a rock-solid marriage, just one more thing she didn't understand about Roz Hall.
Kate looked from one woman to the other, and gave up on the attempt to reach Roz. Maj smiled at Kate in complicity as Kate approached. Kate found herself grinning in return as she reached out to squeeze Maj's arm.
"Thanks for inviting me," she said. "I was going to come to the party afterward, but I got a call, and I have to go. Sorry. Be sure to tell Mina she was the best monkey I've ever seen."